The Stranger

It had snowed all day, but as evening arrived, so did the calm. The streets were being plowed, the sidewalks cleared and the steps sanded. As evening turned to nightfall, I called to Tyler, my Cocker Spaniel, and grabbed his leash. “C’mon boy!” I summoned. “Let’s go outside.” Tyler needs no second call for a romp out of doors. He jumps and paws at the door before I can reach it, and once it is opened he bolts like lightning for the backyard. He loves the snow and his glee is evident as he leads the way, towing me behind. It isn’t ever very clear as to who is walking who… This night was no different - until suddenly he stopped in his tracks.

A low rumble of a growl came from my usually happy pup. He took a step back, still growling. “What is it, Tyler?” I asked as if expecting an answer. Through the deepening darkness he had sensed something. But, what was it?

We live on the edge of the forest and deer are plentiful. At night we often hear coyotes howling at the moon. Had one of these creatures ventured too close to my home? I strained my eyes and stared into the gloaming. There was definitely a lone figure that I  could barely make out, right near the back fence! I stared, Tyler stared, but no one was moving - not dog, not man, not the intruder.

“Who’s there?” I called out. No answer came. The standoff continued.

A minute passed and then another. Tyler growled in earnest and I must admit I was feeling sketchy. Why didn’t the stranger move or make a sound? Something? The more I stared, the creepier things got. I began to edge backward, not wanting to turn my back to the scene. Still no movement from the lone figure near the fence. Was he taunting us? I took a few more backward steps and then, (yes, I admit it) I broke into a dead run for the porch, a bit more spooked than I would like to own up to. Calling to my wife, I exclaimed, “There’s someone out there in the yard! He’s just well… standing there!”

With a wry grin, Amanda looked back at me, hovering behind her. “That would be the snowman I made with the kids this afternoon,” she informed me. “I don’t expect it to move much.”

Often, the things that frighten us are really harmless. Our imaginations carry us to heights beyond reason. We play out scenarios and confrontations in our heads that we suppose might happen - but they are not reality. We avoid someone in the grocery store or ignore a phone call from a certain person on our caller ID. We leave the mail from the bill collector unopened on our  desk. We run away from perceptions of trouble when, with a little courage, we could replace that perception with reality. Perhaps you have been running from a “snowman” for quite some time now. It’s worth a closer look. Imagine that.

The Scriptures say that if we resist the devil - he will flee. We don’t have to be the ones running from trouble. Stand and hold your ground. Trouble has a way of melting away when we do.


Red Sox Musings

I am celebrating this morning for I am a New Englander, thus I am a Red Sox fan. They have finished their record breaking season by steamrolling through the playoffs on their way to a world championship. They cruised through the Division Series and in doing so, neutralized the New York Yankees. Then they hung Houston out to dry to win the American League pennant. Now, they have dispatched the Dodgers of LA to win the World Series, and I am a happy camper.

I really like this team. Here’s why. Humility. Thinking of others first. This unselfish attitude was made evident right from the get-go in Spring training when relief pitcher Craig Kimbrell had to leave the team for an extended period to be with his family as his baby daughter went through open heart surgery. Upon his return, the entire team held hands in a circle and prayed together - not for a great season or personal accomplishments - but instead the team gathered as one to plead with heaven for the life of  a little girl.

Then there was the Mookie factor… after Game 2 of the World Series, he brought trays of hot meals to downtown Boston and shared a banquet with the homeless  people of the city… no media were called, no press release issued. Just a humble act of kindness recorded, not in the annals of baseball history or statistics, but written down in another Book for certain.

When manager Alex Cora held the championship trophy above his head after winning it all on Sunday night, he publicly requested that Sox ownership allow him to take the symbol of victory  to his rugged and rural roots back home in storm ravaged Puerto Rico.


I could go on, but after I watched the whining Dodgers, styling for the crowd on routine fly balls and then, not hustling on the basepaths when the hearts of so many of their fans were on the line, I knew in my heart - the best team had won. And won many other hearts in the process.


Falling

It was as impromptu as anything can be. On a lovely afternoon, with the late-October sky a fiery glow of orange, sharing it’s reflected radiance in splashes of light over the fallen leaves on our lawn, I was standing, sentry style at the door, a young son posted on my left and my right. We were waiting for “Mommy’s car” to pull in the driveway. Her “home from work” evening arrival was greatly anticipated by the three of us. It has always been met with much clamor and fanfare. This day was no different. Upon first sighting, we scrambled out to the driveway and practically pulled her from the driver’s seat.

Often, during these homecoming moments, Amanda will be finishing up a phone call or catching the last few minutes of a podcast. Our stumblebum approach to her driver side door is met, on those days with a finger pressed to her lips; giving us the clue to be quiet while she wraps up her business for the day. “SShhh,” she says as she catches my eye to drive the message home.

That’s not how it went on this day however. My wife took one look at us coming for the automobile and with a squeal that sounded a lot like “Catch me if you can!” she exited the car and dashed out into the yard.... a husband and two small boys close behind. We ran through the piles of leaves and across the green grass, giggling and gasping until Dad (that’s me) collapsed in a heap, from not-so feigned exhaustion. One by one, the other Deckers landed on top of me, causing an escape of a guffaw with every pounce upon my belly. I was laughing too hard to summon the strength to un-pile the squirming youngsters and their mom who laid across the entire moving mound of her boys hollering things like “Get the Dad! Get him good! Pig pile on dear old Dad!” It was hysterical.

But then came the moment that made it a memory. I was staring straight up into the evening sky under a pile of a loving family, when two year old Rory put his chubby face directly into my scope of vision. “OK, Da-da?” he asked. With the golden sky framing his beautiful face, a goofy smile lighting his lips the question may as well come from an angel.

He sends his angels to attend to our care; so says Psalm 91. He cares about you… Perhaps you are under a not-so-pleasant pile right now. Your laughter may be a cover up for some hidden pain. God always has someone in the Family who will check to make sure you’re okay. It may be a small angelic face of a two year old. Or, it may be an angel. One never knows for sure.


Daddy... watch!

Many times during my day, my ears pick up a precious sound. The sound is that of my young children, busy accomplishing their feats of climbing, or swinging, or jumping, or dancing… whatever amazing thing they are presently involved in - it just doesn’t seem complete until they have my full attention. Thus, the sound in my ears is always, “Daddy, watch!” At the playground, I am routinely summoned by the sound, “Daddy, watch!” When a new ballet step is added to the dance in the living room, “Daddy, watch!” If a plastic baseball is going to be socked off the Tee, “Daddy, watch!”


“Daddy, watch” is something I live for. Those two words mean that I am the approval that my children seek. I am the one they want to please. I am the person who charts their progress in life. I am the covering that they live under, and the star for which they reach. I am Daddy and I am watching. That is all that matters.

I know there will come a day when the call to watch, will be not be for my ears. There will be a boyfriend who attends the dance recital and young ladies in the stands at baseball games. These will be the individuals whose attention is sought. My observing will be a cumbersome weight. My children will of course, appreciate my interest, but long gone will be the days of “Daddy, watch!” My admiration for their exploits will not fade - but my opportunity to be the one whose attention is so crucial will have passed by.


Yet, my job is far greater than just watching. It is also pointing, beyond my watch care to the Father whose attention I seek. He leans over heaven’s balcony and hears my voice as I breathe “Daddy, watch!” His pleasure is the covering I search for. So, I pray and point, and plead for the Soul Chaser to watch me as in turn, I watch these precious little children. Daddy, watch us all.


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Consistent

Consistency is what we are after. We long for stability and we are resistant to change. That is our lot as humans. We operate according to our feelings, and Lord knows they change from day to day - even minute to minute. We attempt to regulate our environment, hopefully causing consistency to occur around us if not within us. Our faucet says ’hot’ and our water is hot. Our air conditioner is set to cool and the air matches nicely. We set our motor vehicles to the current limit  and they purr along the highway with the speedometer steady. If inconsistency occurs in our mechanical world - we head for the repair shop. Meanwhile our emotions run all over the chart - sometimes in actual response to how our environmental controls (like air conditioners) are operating.

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No, we aren’t very steady as people. I love the old story of the husband and wife who were out for a Sunday drive. Pulling up to a stop sign, they noticed a young couple in front of them, in a shiny red convertible. The young lady was sitting as close to the driver as possible and he had his free right arm around her shoulders. “Remember when we used to sit like that?” said the elderly woman to her husband. After a few moments of silence, he turned to her and said, “I haven’t moved.”

My Bible tells me that God is consistent. He is the same today as He was yesterday. And, He will remain that way forever. No fluctuations. No repairs ever required. But if you have drifted away over time, you will find something new about Him as you “skooch” closer. His mercies are new every morning. Consistently.


"If"

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I figured something out… and it’s going to serve me well. Its how to shut the devil up with just two words… Two little words that will send him packing. This all got started when I heard a sermon the other day and the preacher was telling the account from Matthew’s gospel of Jesus being tempted by the devil. Old Slewfoot is not very creative. He doesn’t have to be. He has a system that works pretty well. Its called ‘doubt’ and it is the polar opposite of faith. He uses the same tactic every time. Ever since Eden… Doubt challenges God. Faith pleases Him.


When Satan tempted the Lord in the wilderness, he used doubt as his weapon. You can readily see him, leading with a left jab and saying “If…” That’ll get your attention, every time. Like a punch in the nose! “If you are truly God’s Son…” It sounds much like; “If God is so good, why is there evil in the world?” “If God loved me I wouldn’t be in this financial mess.” “If God cared, He would answer my prayer.” IF… IF… IF. Get the doubt ball rolling.


Jesus was tired, hungry and thirsty. Forty days of fasting will do that to you. The enemy came when Jesus was most vulnerable. He does know his stuff. He’ll come sniffing around your door when you are at a weak spot too.

Remember the Old Testament tale of the three Hebrew lads who were thrown into the king’s furnace? Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were tempted to go along with the crowd and bow to an idol. After all, their God had allowed an enemy nation to conquer their own, and to lead them into slavery in a foreign land. Room there for some doubt, I’d say. But if there is room for doubt, then there is also room for faith. And faith is expressed in those two words that will send the enemy into a tailspin. “Even if.” Just two words. “Even if my mortgage is due, I will trust God.” “Even if the doctor’s report is bad, I will praise Him.” “Even if I am lonely, I will call on HIm.” The devil says “If,” but we answer “even if.” Bingo. We win. Fear knocked but Faith answered the door.


The Whole Cake


We are watching our weight here at the Decker home… albeit in different fashion. Amanda watches hers go down. I watch mine going up. Our Cocker Spaniel, Tyler, apparently is unconcerned with the whole process of counting calories. I’ll explain.

Our daughter, Prudence just turned ten years old. She celebrated twice with a party on Saturday at home and a second surprise celebration after church on Sunday. Two parties. Two cakes. Too many calories for the dieting Decker family. We tackled the cakes with sincere effort, but in the end, there proved to be too much buttercream for us to digest. Into the trash went cake number two…

Enter Tyler. He apparently prowled around the kitchen some time in the middle of the night. While we slept, he looked for a snack. With one push, the trash can went over and its spilled contents revealed the second cake… or the remaining two thirds that went into the garbage. Paydirt for a dog. Tyler celebrated Prudence’s party in belated fashion - a solitary canine tribute to the birthday girl. He ate the evidence completely. The entire cake. Not a crumb remained. And in the morning?

My normally prancing, dancing dog just laid on the couch, logy and no doubt nursing a tummy ache. “Was it worth it?” I asked. His eyes seemed repentant but his thumping tail showed little remorse. He had enjoyed that cake and he was living off the memories in the morning.

He and I are going for a walk later to work off some calories. It’ll do us both some good. We like cake, we do… and we can’t hide that evidence. It comes off slowly… but oh! How quickly it goes on. Two cakes, too many calories, one night and one dog later - nothing but exercise to show for it.


Perpetual Morning

Mornings are wonderful at my home these days… To begin, my Parkinson’s symptoms are minimal when I first awaken. I am nearly “normal,” as I amble about the kitchen or play with the boys. My doctor tells me that sleep is like medicine for Parkinson’s and that while you sleep, your brain “resets.” Whatever the reason, I feel much better in the morning than at any time during the day. I can almost forget… almost.

My children are at various states in their lives, and morning tells the story of where they are each stationed in their journey.. Some head out for school, some for work. The older ones have their own vehicles while the younger ones need a ride. Some are still so young that they just stay at home. Grabbing backpacks or lunch boxes along with a fresh cup of coffee for the road - it all has a rhythm and I know the song well. Add some fried eggs and a bowl or two of Rice Krispies and the music is in full swing. Plans for the day, recollections from yesterday - snatches of conversations will produce a laugh or perhaps a groan, mixed in with pleas for juice or more cereal from the toddlers.

My wife usually starts the morning with her Bible open in her favorite seat on the sectional. She often reads me a verse or two from her devotional discoveries as I keep the toast coming. From her place on the couch she watches her family scurry and hurry, smiling as she takes be it all in. “We are so blessed,” she will often say. Indeed we are.

We are told that in heaven there is no night.  That must mean it’s always morning there - and that is okay with me. Mornings have a rhythm. They are a new start. Another chance to dance the dance that will carry you through the day. We are so blessed, indeed for God has given us the Day. In His book, He calls us “Children of the Day,” and I well know what that means. We may need a ride or another bowl of Cheerios (because children need those kinds of things in the morning.) It also means that Night is over, and with it has gone the missteps and mistakes of yesterday. Light has come to stay. Sing it!


Buttons

As many of you know, I struggle with Parkinson’s Disease. I believe one of the reasons why I love to write is that the blank page is a Parkinson’s free zone. Aside from the fact that my fingers do not fly over the keyboard I am free of symptoms while I sit at my laptop. As I think about it, I never had “flying fingers” when it came to the old QWERTY board anyway, so I really haven’t lost anything in the typing department.


As for the rest of life and the business of living, I move pretty slowly. In my mind, I am moving at normal speed but when I see the concern on other faces, I know I am affected beyond what my self perception tells me. For that reason, I measure successes in little steps. Victories are small in scope.

And, so, today while I was buttoning True’s sweater, he eventually figured ol’ dad needed a bit of assistance, so he started pushing my hands together - thinking a bit more force would help. Well, it didn’t… and soon we were both laughing at the challenge four buttons were giving us. One of us a “button novice” at three years old; the other an old “fumble fingers” due to disease. When we finally got the task accomplished, with some curious looks from two year old Rory, True stepped back and examined his outfit. “Good job, Dad!” he said sincerely. “I didn’t know you were good at this.”

It's hard to imagine that a quarter hour to get four buttons done qualifies as being “good at this.” But I don’t think my son was referencing the clothing closures. I may be frightfully slow and clumsy - but I can still be “dad” and spend some quality time with my child. I pray that I am always “good” at that. That would qualify as a bit bigger victory and perhaps some giant steps.


Busride

...For the LORD is watching over your journey.  Judges 18:6

 I am not one for conferences. I avoid them like the plague. I don’t like to network. And, I think I know why. It hearkens back to a winter bus ride that I took as a teenager to a large gathering of Christian young adults in the Mid-West. The purpose of the youth conference was to motivate and inspire hundreds of young people to go forth and evangelize the globe. I’m not certain that the experience inspired me much, but it did motivate me to stay clear of conferences from that point on. Here’s how it all unfolded… 

On the chilly  morning of our departure, my parents drove me to a big parking lot at the University of Rhode Island where we were to board a bus for our long journey. I saw many busses in the lot, big streamlined coaches designed for passenger comfort over long distances. “This won’t be so bad,” I considered. A small group of us were stamping our feet against the cold February air, awaiting the arrival of our transport. When it finally pulled up,we registered something between shock and woe… it was a yellow school bus with a noisy engine, blue-ish exhaust pouring out of it’s rattling tailpipe, and not much to offer in the way of creature comforts, such as heat. Throwing my gear into the front bench seat, I meandered toward the rear of the rickety school bus. Our driver told us to get comfortable. We were going to be together for four hundred and fifty miles so we had better “settle in,” he advised. I was a gangly teenager and my frame did not settle in well. I put my knees up against the seat in front of me and slouched down as low as I could. Pulling my hat low over my eyes, I wondered if it was possible to sleep for an entire twelve hour journey. I soon learned that sleeping would be next to impossible. Every bump in the road bounced and jostled us, mercilessly banging my sore knees against the metal rear side of the seat in front of me. 

We got lost toward evening somewhere in Pennsylvania. These were the days before cell phones. GPS was relegated to sci-fi films. Our driver had a big red road atlas which he consulted often.  He would routinely pull over onto the roadside and flip through the pages, giving a low whistle, then, placing his hand on his forehead he would moan, “Aye yae yae!” We didn’t have to guess that we were off course. Night was falling and a snowstorm was right behind it. As dusk turned to dark, we could only see the white snowflakes in rapid descent, illuminated by the bus’s headlights. Soon we could only see a wall of white as the road we were currently lost on was now covered with a blanket of powdery snow. Our driver slowed to about twenty miles per hour and aimed for the center of the quickly disappearing roadway. It had been a long time since we last saw a sign of civilization.  

The frosty bus plodded along until it could take no more of winter. With a cough and a bang, it rolled to a stop. “Are we there?” called out one wisecracker. “Aye yae yae…” said our driver. We were somewhere near the Pennsylvania/Ohio border, but just where we were was anybody’s guess. From the sound of it, it didn’t seem likely that our old yellow school bus was going to take us any further. The snow was falling at a furious pace. Our tires were already half buried in drifts. “I’ve gotta go find some help,” said our driver. “In the middle of nowhere?” questioned the twenty five or so youths on board the stricken bus. “There must be a gas station or something nearby,” he replied. As he went out the door, we heard him whistle “Aye yae yae…” In a matter of seconds he was invisible, lost in the falling snow as he and his flashlight trudged away from the bus, onward to “who knows where.” As the wind came up, we teens huddled together in the back of the broken down bus, now with no driver, no lights, no heat and no guarantee of anything anytime soon.  My watch said it was nearly ten o’clock. It read nearly two in the morning when I was awakened by a shout, “Hallooo bus!” I peered out the ice covered windows and there I beheld a wonder.  

Our rescue had come in the form of a huge, flat, logging sleigh, pulled through the snow by two large horses. The storm had passed and a bright moon shone silver over the icy landscape. Our bus driver sat atop the sleigh bench, looking for all the world like he was running for governor. Sitting next to him and holding the reigns was the farmer who had graciously agreed to get out of his warm bed in order to rescue us. We learned later that the bus driver had hiked more than two miles in the deep drifts before seeing a light. He headed for it, across fields and forest and upon reaching the farmhouse, he pounded on the front door, waking the old couple who lived there. Through frozen lips he managed to convey the urgency of his broken down bus carrying two dozen teenagers stranded in the snow. Out to the barn went the kindly farmer while his wife got busy in the kitchen. As our driver thawed for a moment by the wood stove, the farmer hitched up his team and pulled the sleigh out of the big barn. Together they headed east through the falling snow and about an hour later, they had us spotted. Grabbing our gear, we gratefully climbed aboard the huge wooden sleigh. We sat silently as we skimmed through the snow to the farmhouse. There we were treated to hot cocoa and blueberry muffins, fresh out of the oven. The farmer’s wife clucked about, passing out quilts and pillows and finding sleeping room on the floor or in an overstuffed chair. I grabbed a blanket and headed for the staircase where a window with a wide sill offered a cozy perch. There I spent the rest of the night, happy to be warm and dry.  

The next morning, our yellow bus was towed to a farm where the resident farmer was an ace mechanic and by noontime we were back on the freshly plowed road, headed again for the youth conference. We had our stomachs full of a real farmhouse breakfast, and enough cheese and bread provisions to last a week thanks to the farmer’s good wife. “Go with God,” she had chirped as we waved goodbye. “Better late than never,” the driver said as we disembarked at the conference site later that same evening... 

In the perspective of passing years, the arduous trip was made memorable due to the warm hospitality of an old farmer and his wife. They simply shared what they had with those in need. Kindness, caring, hospitality… At the end of the day, that is the best way to evangelize the globe. I learned that along the way - not at the conference. Most of what we hope for in the end comes, unexpectedly, along the way.

Bell

A thousand years pass before your eyes, like yesterday that quickly faded away...”Psalm 90:4

The church building which I called home in my youth, was an ancient edifice in the town of Acushnet, Massachusetts. A typical white New England wooden frame with a steeple and bell, it had stood through the dark years of America’s Civil War, and survived the hurricanes of 1938 and 1960. What it couldn’t outlast was time.

I was a “walker” in my elementary school years… my old school house was just a quarter of a mile from my home and the hike there took me right past the old church. I would always pass by at a slow pace, gazing at the tall windows framed with black shutters. The huge double door at the top of the front steps was never locked and so, on occasion, on the walk home after school, I would push it open and spend a moment of solitude in one of the pews. The plaster walls seemed to speak to me in those afternoon times of quiet musings. I had a telling sense of years gone by, of people who were no longer with us. I felt a part of something larger… a member of an historical line of true believers.

On the back wall of the old church hung an ancient print of a painting featuring Jesus as a youth. For some reason I always thought the painting was an image of the Old Testament prophet Samuel, whose name the Lord called one night in the temple. I guess the Old Testament served as the framework for my thoughts, for I was sitting in the oldest place that I knew. Everything was old. Even God seemed old as I sat there in the silence, half expecting to hear my own name called, just as the boy Samuel had. To me, the church seemed as timeless as the 39 books of the Old Testament. And,not unlike the sacred Scriptures, it would always remain. It would survive. It seemed eternal.

The steeple was the first to go. The enormous bell in the belfry was more weight than the old timbers could stand, and after a particularly strong Nor’easter one winter we looked atop the old structure, only to find it listing precariously to one side. A steeplejack was summoned and after carefully looking over the damage it was determined that the tall spire should indeed, come down. Thus, the bell was taken down and placed on a patch of grass behind the old parsonage. There it sat like a silent sentry, summoning no one. Until 1976…

The nation’s Bicentennial year, celebrating our independence from British rule, arrived with much fanfare. Red, white and blue bunting hung from doorways and windows everywhere. Parades and fireworks displays were plentiful, and my hometown was no exception. A parade was planned for the 4th of July and our congregation saw an opportunity for Outreach, and perhaps a bit of fun. A flatbed truck was rented for the occasion and church folks covered it with historical tableaus depicting memorable milestones from our nation’s infancy. At the center, the old bell was secured on a wooden platform, and one of our youth dressed up like Paul Revere and rang the old bell along the parade route as if the British were indeed, coming again. The old bell certainly had its finest hour that day. I can still close my eyes and see the scene. I can hear the tolling bell.

The old church came down with a wrecking ball a few years after the loss of her steeple. I could not watch the demolition… it seemed as if life itself was crumbling. I felt a sadness I couldn’t explain. Perhaps one reason for my excessive sorrow could be uncovered in those times sitting in silent fellowship with the imagined memories of years gone by. It was as if my own life’s old testament was coming down in a heap. Memories were now to be replaced with prophecies. The new had begun, with all its uncertainties and mysteries. Going back was no option. The future was upon me.

A new facility now houses the congregants of my old home church. Its modern look appeals to a new generation. On the side lawn there sits the old bell… a monument now. It no longer rings. But, in my mind I can still hear it peal as it did one fall night in 1960 when the winds of Hurricane Donna sent it swaying. And, I can hear it aboard the Bicentennial float of 1976, ringing as if it were the very Liberty Bell itself. As for me, if I can find a place of quiet, I still wait in wonder for the Lord to call my name…  

"O.G."

His name is Richard, but I will always call him “O.G.” In fact, more often than not, he will refer to himself as the Old Gangster. But, you have to say it like he does, “Ol’ Gangstah” in order to get it just right. The Ol’ Gangstah… “O.G”. for short. He picked up the name in prison, yet he was one of the most unlikely inmates you would ever want to meet.

You see, Richard, er… O.G. was a sedate real estate salesman. A member of my congregation, we suspected he had a wild story or two from his youth, but as an older, mature gentleman, he seemed far removed from any sort of trouble. He was dependable and caring, a true man of God.

One night, while driving home from church, he was pulled over by a local policeman. “You have a tail light out,” said the officer. “Better get that fixed in the morning.” Richard agreed and waited patiently while the officer sat behind him in the cruiser. “He is taking a long time…” thought my friend. “I wonder what’s up?” When the officer returned he wore a stern face and ordered Richard to get out of his car. “I’m afraid I am going to have to arrest you,” he said. “For my tail light?” asked Richard in shock. “There’s a warrant out for you - has been for a long time, apparently,” reported the officer. “You can see a judge in the morning.”

He spent the rest of that night in the local jail, waiting for the morning to bring answers.He racked his brain, trying to make sense of the circumstance, but he just could not recall any reason for which he should be imprisoned. The next day, in court, the judge showed little sympathy. A bad check some two decades before, had been on his record as an offense that he had somehow dismissed from memory. “Sixty days in prison,” he heard the court officer say. In disbelief, O.G. was handcuffed and led to a holding cell where he awaited transport to the county jail. There he was processed in and taken to the block that was to be his home for the next two months. His orange jump suit hung off his skinny frame like it was made for someone twice his size. He carried the sheet and a pillow that were handed to him somewhere in the check-in. As the door swung open on its heavy hinges he stared at a cell block full of inmates who were all looking back at him. Adopting his toughest pose, he said “Hi fellas,” and casually tossed his gear up on an empty bunk, like he had done this one hundred times before.

“Look at the Ol’ Gangstah,” breathed one inmate, glancing up from his poker game… Everyone chuckled and then returned their attention to the cards. O.G. climbed up to his bunk and pretended to nap while hiding his tears in the pillow. “How could you allow this to happen?” he asked God. “It isn’t fair at all.” O.G. was caught off guard by the answer. “I am here with you,” he felt the Lord say. “You are needed here.” O.G. argued a bit, wondering why he was the one that God needed in such a place. A few weeks later he got the answer.

One particular inmate had been incarcerated for many months. He had served his time, but he was genuinely nervous about being released the next day. His greatest fear was that his children would be like strangers now. Would he fit into their lives? “O.G.?” His whisper came through the gathering morning light. “I seen you pray, man. Will you pray for me?” The inmate’s voice carried across the block from where his bed lay. “I’m scared to go home.” O.G. climbed down from his bunk and sat on the edge of his cell mate’s bed. When he finished his prayer, the Old Gangstah was shocked to hear a chorus of ‘amens’ carry back to his ears. “O.G. I need some of that,” said one particularly tough inmate. “I do too,” said another. “Me too!” said a third. O.G. spent the morning praying bunk to bunk, man to man. When he finally collapsed back in his own bed, he wore a smile a mile wide.

Sixty days. O.G. went to the mission field for two months. There, he picked up a nickname  and a new confidence in God. Why? He was dependable and caring…. A true man of God.

Nostalgia is not New

 

Nostalgia… If you live in that cerebral district, you are likely unhappy with the circumstances of the here and now. Some spend their time living on memories, forced backward by today’s pain or just a simple dissatisfaction with the present day’s unfoldings. Or, perhaps it is the future they fear. For example, classic rock was just, well, rock until an aging generation began missing screaming guitar solos. Lost in a modern sea of computerized techno-beats, they longed for arena filling anthems, and so made a safe place on the radio dial where they could always return. And, there they dwell. No thank you. The future does come spilling into the present like a mad rush of water - sweeping away all in its path. But, it  is not to be feared, nor avoided. Consider the source! It is poured out of heaven itself from the wells and springs where love abides and time does not. There is no going back. We know this full well. Since retreat is not an option, should we not cease listening to the drum cadences of yesteryear and turn our eyes to the front?

It’s a longstanding issue.  Nostalgia did not ride in on hair mousse and mullets. The ancient wanderers of Israel longed to return back home from the desert , even though they were looking back to the slave chains of Pharaoh. What it boils down to is trust. The Jewish population was carrying a promise from on high that spoke of a future land, flowing with milk and honey. These delicacies were not available in the wilderness, but rather than looking ahead in faith, they found it simpler to look backward toward the spice and bite of Egyptian garlic and onions. These ingredients make good pizza toppings but are poor substitutes for sweet milk and honey.

Years ago, I was conducting a Teen 12-Step meeting in the church where I pastor. Noting the sudden passing of a friend, the youths were talking seriously about life and it’s brevity. “If I ever die…” one young man began to muse. I stopped him mid-sentence and replaced his spoken “if” with a “when”. It will happen. The life to death ratio stands at one to one. You cannot tune this reality out. You can’t survive on the memory of yesterday’s lunch. We must push on in faith. If we listen, we will hear Love calling us forward over the crashing drums and whispered complaints of our past.

Love never fails. It never changes. It is the One thing that will carry you from decade to decade and into eternity, for it is the very stuff that matters. When God chose to reveal Himself to us - He chose love as the method. The coming future is a love story. But, you must accept love on its own terms. Negotiations are meaningless. Love has made a way but it is narrow. Only a few find it. The rest of earth’s populace is left to spin the dial in hopes they will find something familiar to lean on. They will sing along in classic fashion until the final song is played - and that last hymn will begin with a resounding “Hallelujah!” It will pour forth in a welcome wave of newness, sweeping away all past and present. The future is coming. But fear not. It is a love song that the angels sing. Alpha to Omega... beginning to end.

Tiger Fan

My father was a Detroit Tigers fan. His allegiance to the major league ball club from the Motor City was unflappable. Some of my earliest life memories are of warm summer nights, with the windows open throughout the house; the sounds from the old Philco radio floating into my bedroom from the kitchen. There, my father would sit in the wooden rocking chair, creaking back and forth while he endured the AM radio signal that came from Tiger Stadium.

WXYT in Detroit would broadcast the sounds of the ballgame, described by the legendary sportscaster Ernie Harwell, over hill and dale, bouncing off the atmospheric cloud cover and skipping across the Great Lakes to my house in Acushnet, Massachusetts and there, to my dad’s awaiting ears. It was never a clear signal by the time it reached our home. The whoop and hum of frequency interference rose and fell like the luck of the Detroit nine. A distant thunderstorm somewhere over Pennsylvania or New York would cause static to drown out the action as the electronic crackle of lightning burst across the AM dial. If the inning was late and the game was close, the rocking chair would stop it’s creaking. All would be silent, with just the close-by crickets producing their own natural sounds of static; all I could hear beyond the drone of the distant broadcast play by play. However, there were some nights, when the conditions were just right, the call of the ballgame came through crystal clear, without any interference at all. Those were fine nights, indeed. Nights to live for.

Tucked in my bed, in the converted pantry, which became my room, I could listen in and imagine the game being played so far away in Michigan or perhaps, at the home city of one of the Tiger’s American League rivals. The sound of the static and buzz that battled old Ernie’s call of the game drifted to my ears like so much crowd noise. The creak and groan of my dad’s rocker kept pace with the game while singing me into sleep with it’s wooden lullabye.

My dad became a Tiger fan in odd fashion. He wasn’t from Detroit, not even close. He hailed from upstate New York where baseball was defined in Yankee terms… Lou Gherig, Babe Ruth and the boys were kings in my father’s home town. But, at my dad’s address, baseball was low on the list of ideals to consider. Thus, when a highschool classmate asked him which team would win the World Series that summer, he had no ready answer. “There must be a team called the Tigers,” he thought on the fly. That became his answer in 1938 and it remained his answer for the rest of his life. Interestingly, the Detroit Tigers went on to win the World Series that year. My father was hooked and the lifetime of allegiance had begun. It lasted through the many summers of wins and losses. Dad’s heroes were the ball players. Names like Bill Freehan, Norm Cash, Al Kaline and Dick McAuliffe frequented his conversation during my growing up years. In later times, I would bring up those old timers and get my dad going on the reminiscing pathway as he looked back through the years. He passed away, many decades later with a Detroit Tiger cap firmly on his head.

My dad listened to yet another frequency all those Tiger years. The sound came from Far Away… Over the landscape it travelled, skipping through the atmosphere of earth’s interference, news from a distant - yet drawing closer - land. The inning grew late and the score was close. The creaks and groans of earth would grow still one last time - this time for good. Yet, if I listen closely I can still match the rise and fall of that far signal in my own bed at night, as the static lessens and one Voice becomes crystal clear. The crowd is cheering. It must be a win. I think I will wear dad’s old Tiger cap in the morning. He left it behind for me.

Sunrise Song

It happened one Easter morning, many years ago. I sang in church. Yes, me… Those who know me know full well that I cannot carry a tune in a bucket. Oh, as a young boy my mom signed me up for our church’s youth choir. We looked the part in our white robes, but as I recall, we didn’t achieve much in the way of sound. I contributed my high pitched whine out of my nine year old throat, and sitting next to Robert Bernache (perhaps the only young man in the ensemble with a worse singing voice than mine) we sounded pretty awful. We didn’t actually sing much on Sundays. Oh, we practiced every week, for a grueling ninety minutes on Wednesdays after school. However we didn’t make it to the platform very often. We were strictly minor league talent.

So, how was it, some ten years later I found myself singing in grand fashion at the crack of dawn at our Easter Sunrise Service? In a word… group effort. (okay, that's two words) It started as a concept in my cousin Barry’s brain. Barry was a couple of years older than me. He had a great love of music, mostly of the country variety. He was a fairly new fixture around the Long Plain Baptist Church, but he fit in well with the young people there. Soon he had us all aware of the weekly Country Countdown, and we became well versed in names like Charlie Pride and Tanya Tucker. I preferred the Beatles, but Barry had a car and with it came control of his am/fm radio in the dash. Well, he landed on a version of “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” that was perfect for a male quartet. He assembled four of us, amazingly myself included, and started teaching us the parts. My contribution was to be a one note backup vocal of bah bah bahs and I found I could handle that much. By the time Spring rolled around, Barry, Joel, George and I were sounding pretty good.

My dad, the pastor, caught wind of our song and requested to hear it. So, one April evening before youth group, we piled into my dad’s office and with Barry keeping time with a foot stomp we managed to harmonize our way through two stanzas of the old Gospel number. My dad was thrilled. Alright… shocked is more like it. “You boys are going to sing that at the sunrise service!” he exclaimed. We had made the big leagues.

I admit it wasn’t a traditional Easter song, but we killed it. Slayed it. We had the sunrise crowd on their feet. I bah-bahed my heart out and when we reached the final note, Barry reached back and soared an octave higher than he ever had. We boys looked at each other in surprise as we held our own, last triumphant notes, but Barry was looking only skyward, lost in the musical moment. It was Barry’s song and he had brought it on home in fine fashion. 

Less than a month later we lost Barry to a tragic automobile crash. We were all devastated. But we understood that Jesus had taken Barry home in his own fashion. The day he was killed, Barry told his family he was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the latest offering from his “album of the month” record club. It did arrive at the house on that day when he did not. It was a collection of country artists sharing songs of future glory. It was called “Home in Heaven.” Barry really did know how to finish on a high note. 

When Mark Spoke...

I usually can come up with words because, well… I am a writer and a minister. However as I sit down to write about my friend, Mark - I am nearly at a loss for words.

Mark left this world for heaven in April of 2017. Just as winter was releasing it’s harsh hold on New England, so too Mark found his release from a body crippled with palsy. He lived fifty one years in his prison of flesh. He could not walk, nor speak. He had limited use of one arm, just enough to guide his electronic wheelchair. But, oh! The life he lived…

Mark was apparently a normal baby upon birth. Within a short while however, it was clear that his life would be nothing like normal. As he aged, his limbs atrophied and grew twisted. His verbal communication was a series of grunts and groans, mixed with a ready resemblance of a laugh. He endured feeding tubes and catheters with an acceptance born of a patient spirit. People often unknowingly insulted his intelligence by speaking loudly and slowly but Mark graciously overlooked the misunderstanding and smiled his crooked smile at everyone he encountered.

He was a beloved member of LifeHouse Church. Over the years that he attended, he helped build our congregation. Every new case worker or caretaker that he employed was scheduled to work on Sunday mornings so they would have to attend church with him. Most of them joined the fellowship.

The church softball team knew him as their assistant coach. During the summer nights when we would play ball, I would frequently check in with Mark on the sidelines to see the strategy he had for the game that I was missing. He would often painstakingly spell out, letter by letter, a detailed plan of how we could accomplish the win.

He was our self proclaimed worship leader. He zoomed around the auditorium in his electric wheelchair, (often at high speeds), pumping his left arm and fist as a gesture of enthusiasm and praise. Periodically I would hold his feeble arm in the air as high as he could extend it. These were the times when I knew he wanted to lift his hands in worship.

If you were new to the church, Mark sought you out and would roll up right in front of your seat and start swinging away, Sometimes in his exuberance he would roll over feet and pocketbooks. No one ever minded. What he provided was not embarrassment or concern but a genuine inspiration and an invitation to praise. No matter what kind of a week you had, you knew Mark faced a tougher struggle. If he was able to praise God despite his hardships, well then, what excuse did we have to hold back?

On what was to be his last Sunday with us, he did something he had never done before. He pulled up beside my seat during worship and pointed to the microphone on my chair. It was clear that he wanted me to hold it for him. ‘You want to speak to the congregation?” I asked. He nodded in a determined fashion.

He had never asked to use the mic before but I knew this was to be a God moment, so I announced that Mark had something to share. He began with his familiar groans and as he spoke them, an awe fell over us. He went on for a short while, clearly working hard to express himself, and then ended with three long sighs that came from the depths of his soul. Silence followed. Tears flowed. Mark was telling us goodbye.


Not two weeks later I held his hand as he left us to be with Jesus. He took his last breath on earth in perfect peace. He drew in heaven’s celestial air with his very next breath. I am certain that the feeble arm I used to hold high is strong now. His body is well. And, yet I really don’t believe his voice has changed much...for it was already perfectly understood.

Awake

A household awakens a little at a time, much the same as it settled down the night before. The little ones are first to greet the new day. In the wee hours of morning, the baby stirs in his cradle and begins the cooing and gurgling which will soon become a full cry for mother’s milk. The patter of small feet will tumble down the hallway above, signalling the soon arrival of a two year old in the parent’s big bed. Mom and dad are now “awake.” We are not yet “up,” however, but that is coming. 

“I want cereal,” means up and at ‘em, dad.  The night is over. Let the day begin. Breathing a prayer of gratitude for the soon to be sunrise, you make your way to the kitchen. “Cereal coming right up,” you tell your small son. Pouring a bowl full of kid’s breakfast cereal can cause something to trigger within a parent. The colors, the crunch, and the sugary coating entice you, so you grab a second bowl and fill it for yourself. The two of you sit content in the pre-dawn gloaming and munch. One must admit, you make quite a pair… father and son, staring at the back of the cereal box, mouths full of fun shapes of flavor. When finished , the bowls go to the sink for rinsing because there is no adhesive in the world that can match the stickiness of dried cereal in a non-rinsed bowl. It is easier to scrape barnacles off a boat in dry dock than to mess with hardened cereal on a ceramic bowl.

Finding the Binky is next on the list of early pursuits. Your job is to track down one of the dozen or so pacifiers that you have purchased in the last six months. The intent of your search is to keep Junior quiet so that his mother and his siblings can sleep for ten more minutes. I am quite certain that the Almighty has a angel order in charge of handling all requests for lost binkies. There are surely thousands of them daily… Stepping on a lost binky means you have found one. Grateful, you pop it in your child’s mouth - remembering too late that it should be washed. So you quickly pop the pacifier in your own mouth and then re-insert the plastic peacemaker into your waiting child’s mouth. This is considered proper parenting.

By this time, those who were merely “awake,”  are now also “up.” A cry goes up for coffee, and the resounding echo is heard throughout the house. Teenagers emerge from under piles of blankets - their first words uttered go something like, “black with two sugars.”  For a split second, you are taken aback, for what seemed to be a pile of laundry now moves and speaks. This is how teenagers spend the night. They curl up on the couch to watch a movie, usually falling asleep before the final credits and then, ‘coming to’ in the morning, in desperate need of caffeine. Having received the coffee mandate you grab a twenty dollar bill off the kitchen counter,(That was for the babysitter!) and head for the coffee shop. Not just any shop will do. You must journey to the trendy cafe which features the latte of choice. Not just any latte will do. You drive on with purpose, passing lesser coffee shops and wondering just what makes a latte a latte. How did you manage these fifty plus years without the latte? You have settled for coffee all this time. You have even tasted the dreaded ‘instant’ coffee which comes in crystal form and brews in your cup. You must be a coffee survivor. Thus, you are the hearty veteran on the caffeine quest for your family this morning. They must not be made to suffer as you have in the past. Lattes it will be!

Once you arrive, you immediately realize that there are many others are in search of liquid caffeine. You wait your turn while standing in a line of stylish folks which passes directly in front of the counter featuring scrumptious looking chocolate items which you now MUST HAVE. You DESERVE such a treat. You are the one who made the early morning journey to latte-land, so you should be rewarded.  Besides, you will have eaten it before you arrive back at home, and none will be the wiser.

You return from your travels with a cardboard carrier filled with barely balanced cups of latte. Returning from a snowy hunt with a dead moose in tow could not be more difficult. You stand on your porch kicking at the door (the foot being the only free appendage with which to knock) however everyone is now showering or getting dressed and so you balance the precious liquid on the porch railing while you quickly open the door. You then enter the kitchen with a hoped-for hero’s welcome, much like your Viking ancestors would have known upon returning from conquests and such.

Alas, you are by-passed by the cafe crowd of wife and children who are soon busy passing out  the booty. As for you, you sit down in your favorite chair, listening to the coffee talk and considering yourself the luckiest man on earth. You are awake and up on this gift of a new day. You have saved your chocolate bakery item in your pocket for later. For now, life is sweet enough.

Reflecting Light

The two great lights that rule the sky were fashioned by the Creator to impart a lesson. The sun rules the day with its golden glow illuminating all. The moon stands guard over the night hours, reflecting the sun and bringing light to the black sky. We are to understand that God is light, there is no darkness in Him at all. We however are surrounded by present darkness as this tired old earth greedily swallows up the light. If you want proof of this, simply turn on the evening news and see how many positive stories make the headlines. While He was with us here, Jesus told us that He is the Light of the World. He is the Source. Later He added a little nugget telling us that WE are the Light of the World; like the moon in the dark sky, reflectors of the Source.

It stands to reason, that the more light we reflect, the brighter the night around us. You can often see the reflection of the light of Jesus in a believer’s face. You can recognize a family resemblance. In contrast, you can notice darkness in a person’s countenance too. But, remember - there is no darkness in Father God at all. Not one bit. Different family altogether.

There is a choice we all must make. Light or darkness. God who is light, or self (which means a long walk on a dark road.) If self is your choice, then the original Selfish One moves in and teases you into believing that Love is a myth. He’ll try to convince you that right and wrong are the same… and that in the end, you are worthless. He is a dark entity, with a good pitch - having been cast out of heaven to the earth, where he now roams looking for an easy mark. His homeless condition is a consequence of his own choice of loyalty to self. He speaks the native language of a fallen planet. Satan brings darkness to the world. He is the opposite of the Light. He is the Prince of Darkness.

His language is lies, the dialect of darkness. He is fully aware that there is a Home to be found… he understands that there is a solid rock to rest upon. But, he is a wanderer, a homeless vagabond who pretends to be royalty. Those who believe his claim of inheritance wander themselves - away from Love.

I once was a wanderer too, looking and hoping that there was Light somewhere in the dark night. It came to me in the encouraging words of a brother.

He was a well known musician, having had both secular and sacred career success and I was his host for the day. He was in town to perform a concert later that night, but the afternoon hours were mine to fill. I took him to a bar that I frequented where the steak tips were out of this world. We talked for hours - and I peppered him with questions. He finally looked across the table and said, “Loren, I don’t have all the answers, but I do know this… I see Jesus in you.” No sweeter words could have come to my ears. I was reflecting the Light after all. From that day to this - it is all I have ever tried to do - reflect the glorious Light of Jesus to a dark world.

If Jesus is the life choice you make, your spirit will be sweet and overflowing no matter your situation. You will know the reality of True Love and it will carry you Home to a place where you are worth everything to your Father who dwells there in perfect Light.