Archive for April 2019

Being Redemptive Synonyms

April 21, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    April 21, 2019

    “And all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24)

I was writing a chapter in the book I’m currently working on and came to a pondering point. I had just used a certain word to describe the mood of one of the characters and I needed to say something similar about him again. To use the same word would have been repetitive at that point, like reading the First Grade Primer with Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot, and Puff. 

“Sally ran. Sally ran up the hill. Sally ran fast. Sally ran and ran!”

Didn’t want that! So I searched for another word that would describe the same situation, a synonym of the already used to communicate the same picture. 

This past week the scenes from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris have elicited a torrent of tears. Parisians who have seen five months of protests (Yellow Vests protesters) were united in their sorrow as flames shoot up from the 850 year old church. They sang together in a candlelight vigil, a mass community of people dealing with loss.

It’s interesting that the protesters have now returned, angry that billions of dollars have been promised by tycoons around the world to rebuild the structure!

Notre Dame is a symbol for the redemptive story of the gospel. It’s holy space that was, ironic as it sounds, in the midst of a restoration project. The preliminary reports are that something connected to the restoration- an electrical short or similar- was the cause of the blaze. Now, despite protests by French citizens, there will be efforts to save and rebuild.

In our own country the past couple of weeks have been stained with the burning of several African-American churches in the south, the threat of an 18 year old girl infatuated with school shootings, especially Columbine, and other assorted acts of evil that let us know the Deceiver is still active and productive.

In the midst of the darkness, however, there are the stories of redemption and the power of the gospel. Redemption comes in many forms, actions, and stories. It takes the form of a Notre Dame security guard rushing to save two priceless relics from the burning building. It  surfaces in the two million dollars of contributions that have been received to rebuild the three Louisiana churches. It appears in the gathering of Columbine families yesterday to remember those who died and those whose impactful stories continue on even in the midst of those deaths. People like Dave Saunders, the teacher who died in the midst of saving some of his students.

A synonym of “redemptive”, in fact, is “saving.” Many of us have been saved from harm, sometimes even from the harm we self-inflict, by someone else who has come alongside us and taken our hand, pulling us from what would be a bad ending. 

Being redemptive synonyms is our opportunity to make a difference, to compensate for the tragedies that surround us, to be new revelations of the Christ story in the present. 

Living out the gospel is a continuous synonym of the redemptive story of Christ. Oh, that there would be more stories of transformative redemption, as opposed to antonyms to the good news!

Middle School Brainiacs and Maniacs

April 20, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                            April 20, 2019

                      

I approached the desk of the assistant principal’s secretary, who also handles athletics.

“Kristen, sometime today would you be able to print me off track rosters so we can have a copy for the bus ride today?”

“Sure! It may be a while, though. I’m behind because of all of these discipline referrals I need to type up.” To the left side of her computer a stack of papers position themselves like pancakes.

“The maniacs are alive and well!”

It happens each school year around this time. Students start thinking they’re either invincible or uncatchable. This past week a student, who I love dearly, received after-school detention for stuffing another student into a garbage can. I asked him who reported it, as in which teacher or administrator. “No one,” he replied. “It was on one of the security cameras.”

Ahhh, yes! The cameras see all! Last year…about this time!…I broke up a fight before it really started between two 7th grade boys, both muscular deficient and evidently on some kind of supplement that is able to raise their level of annoyance. One of them made a comment about the girl walking with the other boy being his girlfriend. He said it with ridicule in his voice so the other boy responded, “You wish you could even get a girlfriend!” That was it! The pocket protectors were cast to the side and they were ready to further embarrass each other, but I stepped in. And it was all on camera!

A couple of years ago…about this time…an 8th grade boy thought he would pretend to be one of the Avengers, blessed with super human gifts, and slide down the stone barrier of the staircase that separated the first flight of stairs from the second. He overcompensated too much to the right and went over the edge, dropping about six feet onto the lower steps. He wasn’t seriously injured, but paramedics had to be called to treat him for possible injuries.

My number one rule, “Don’t do stupid!” needs to be put on a banner and displayed at each of the entrances of the middle school about this time of the year. Teachers are thankful that the security cameras can’t capture the essence of their thoughts around the end of April!

Thank God there’s also the brainiacs in the midst of the student population- the kids that are guided by intelligent decisions and the quest for knowledge. I heard one young man talking to his father, a math whiz himself, and the content of their conversation…er, that is, what I heard of their conversation sounded something like this:

“But if Q is taken to the tenth power and square rooted with the negative feature of X, wouldn’t that make it supportive of the equation Y divided by Z cooked in butter and multiplied by the baking temperature of Q on the second Thursday of the month?”

“Yes, but what if X ends up being the anthesis of Y? Would that effect the judgment of Z when taking into consideration the altitude of the cake mix minus brown sugar?”

Something like that!

Brainiacs are the saviors of teachers the last six weeks or so of the school year. In a sea of “Fortnite” addicted adolescents, the brainiacs are the life raft of hope. They are the ones that teachers don’t have to worry about, the ones who still ponder the why’s and “what if’s” because they want to know, not just because they desire an “A” in the class. 

This time of year they stand out. The Office for Stupid Decisions is overpopulated! Kristen is just trying to keep up with the paperwork!

Life and Death, And Life In Death

April 14, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                     April 14, 2019

                   

Yesterday I participated in a memorial service for a gentleman and a gentle man named Jim Newsome. I had been his pastor for the last three years or so of my final pastorate. Back in November I posted a writing about the last visit Carol and I had with him and his wife, Pat. He knew he only had a few days to live and in the only time I ever saw him exhibit impatience he said to his wife, “Okay! I’m ready to go, but when’s it going to happen?” Five days after we sat by his bed he passed on into Glory.

The gathering to remember him was punctuated with stories and laughter, a book of tales and experiences. During the service someone made the statement, “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”

I have found the truth and the meaning in those words in recent years. Each  morning I brush my hair with my dad’s hairbrush and I think of him, a year now since he passed on. Every time I fire up our grill to cook some hamburgers I can smell the sizzling aroma of the burgers he would cook. They were the best hamburgers I’ve ever tasted! Mine are tasteless in comparison, and I’m okay with that! Dad was the grill master. I’m simply a guy who stands by a grill.

My mom has been gone for five years now, but every time I see the crossword puzzle in the daily newspaper I think about her. My dad, brother, and I could be having an in-depth discussion about present-day terrorism and the role of a democracy in fighting it and my mom would suddenly break into the conversation with…”Laurence, what’s a three letter word for fish-and-chips fish?” 

Both of my parents are gone, but they’re still alive each day.

Each of us lives and each of us dies. The sweetness of this world is the relationship we still experience with the one who has passed away. Death ends a life, not a relationship. 

At Jim’s reception following the service a 10 minute video was showed of his portrayal of The Lone Ranger, an act he did for various groups and gatherings for 19 years. Suddenly, he was back with us, back when he had more hair, but still it was him! Each time I see The Lone Ranger I think of him.

We often see death as the final brushstroke, finishing the work. It’s suspicious looking, mysterious, and characterized as cold and somber. And yet it’s communicated as gloriously better, awe-inspiring, and pain-free. 

The memories of the departed stay with us. They continue to live and bless us. 

And the person of faith lives on even if he dies. The last words I spoke to Jim were, “If I don’t see you again, Jim, I’ll see you on the other side!” 

And he looked at me, gave me half a wink, and said, “Plan on it!”

Middle School Passing Period

April 13, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                   April 13, 2019

                             

It’s like an 8:00 A.M. corridor in an O’Hare International Airport terminal…many people rushing and others in no hurry at all…people on a mission and others who look like they’ve been beaten into submission…people all put together and others who are frantic as they seem to be coming apart.

Instead of an airport terminal, however, it’s a  middle school hallway…between class periods. It’s the four minutes of bedlam where a thousand students are required to navigate slimmed down hallways to get from one classroom to the next. 

I stand with two of the awesome sixth grade teachers, Dan Ferrante and Stephanie Wilcox, against a railing watching the mixture of personalities and temperaments pass us by. 

Some use it to ask one of their teachers a quick question or to plead their case for grace.

“Ms. Wilcox!” whines one girl, as she sticks her lower lip out and speaks in a tone that conveys the world is coming to an end, “I didn’t get all of my math homework done…but it wasn’t my fault! My little brother was sick and I had to do his jobs around the house, PLUS my own!” She punctuates the agony of injustice in being the overworked child of the family with a deep sigh.

Ms. Wilcox is very understanding of the inconvenience and tells her that she will send an email to the mom to express her concern for the illness of the brother and her understanding of the daughter’s inability to complete her math assignment.

Eyes wide open greet the teacher’s response. “Oh, you don’t have to do that! He’s…he’s fine today! Our…ahhh…internet is down anyway!”

Ms. Wilcox knows the talent this student has for avoiding work. She’s heard it all before. As the student walks away she enjoys a giggle of satisfaction over the terror she has created in someone who’s been prone to be the terror!

Several eighth graders walk down the crowded hallway with their noses in their cell phones, oblivious to the mass of bodies around them. 

A couple of sixth grade boys with an obsession for looking cool walk by with AirPods in their ears, as if their social status has been elevated. AirPods are the middle school version of a high school student driving a Maserati GT Convertible to school. They think people notice! They overestimate their peer group. Little Tommy, who has so many papers sticking out of his folder that it resembles the aftermath of a tornado, notices only the obstacles in his path to science class. His coat, which he never takes off, flaps in the hallway breeze and one shoelace is untied and so loose the tongue of the shoe looks thirsty! AirPods mean as much to him as hominy grits!

A small herd of seventh grade girls roam down the way in unison. Their conversation is so fast-paced they sound like Alvin and the Chipmunks. Never once do they acknowledge the three teachers. We are obstacles in the midst of their verbal jabber.

The boy I sent to the office last week passes by and I sense a scowl. He may have just spit on me…in his mind! His preference is to have the inmates run the asylum. Teachers are like prison guards. Someday he may find out from first-hand knowledge that prison guards are different!

“Mr. Wolfe, who are you subbing for today?” asks a cute sixth grade girl who still isn’t tall enough to ride the carousel merry-go-round by herself. 

“No one! I just decided to come and hang out in the hallway for a while.”

She giggles and goes on to her Language Arts classroom, not sure if I’m serious or trying to fool her. 

Another sixth grade girl. “Mr. Ferrante, do you want to read my speech?”

“Sure, but maybe at the beginning of our lunch period…unless I can read it in 15 seconds!”

There are the few who seek to take five minutes to get to their destination. They are in no hurry…with the exception of the 2:45 bell at the end of the school day. Jet propulsion empowers their feet at that point!

The crowds lessen and the teachers turn towards their classrooms. For the next 57 minutes the terminals will be quiet until the next class period’s flights begin boarding. 

Middle School Food Intake

April 10, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                 April 10, 2019

                              

“Sam, what’s this?” I pointed to the food and drink he had taken out of his backpack and placed on the desk in front of him.

“Breakfast!”

“An Arizona Ice Tea, a fruit roll-up, and a bag of cookies?” I reply with confusion etched across my face.

He nodded his head and looked at me, searching for some reason why I seemed unreasonable. I was substitute teaching in a 6th Grade class and what I didn’t realize was that the treasures now in full display mode on Sam’s desk happened to be what he had every morning in this class. Sometimes a sleeve of Ritz Crackers or chocolate-covered mini-donuts were on the menu instead of cookies, and Gummy Bears instead of a fruit roll-up, but that’s it!

“You didn’t have time to eat at home?”

“No! I never do!”

“Nutritious breakfast there, big guy!”

He smiled back at me as a Chips Ahoy disappeared into his mouth. 

Being around middle schoolers these past few years has brought back the memories of what I would consume at school when I ran the halls of Williamstown Junior High/Senior High School as a 7th grader. Back in those days, before technology took over, my parents would give me money to buy “lunch tickets”. In the school cafeteria a student handed in a lunch ticket and proceeded to have unappetizing food plopped on the tray by scowling ladies wearing hairnets. Lunch was an ordeal. There were no chefs serving fine cuisine there. In fact, the weekly menu came out ahead of time so students would know what unrecognizable food items had been placed on their trays. 

Williamstown also had candy machines in its hallways and I remember selling my lunch tickets at a discount for hard cash…er, coins to jam into the candy machine. PayDays were my lunch of choice!

When I was in high school in Ironton, Ohio we’d walk a block down the street to Smitty’s and consume Hostess Fruit Pies and Little Debbie’s.

So Sam’s breakfast of non-champions smelled of past memories and choices. What I’ve noticed is that he’s not unusual. In various classes students bring out snacks of Cheetos, Fritos, Oreos, and once in a while…a granola bar! They “snack” their way through the school day. I don’t see too many apples emerging from backpacks!

As I’m eating my salad during the lunch period a few students come into the classroom to chat and razz me. One has a fudgesicle, another ramen noodles, and the third munches from a bag of potato chips. 

“You all don’t eat lunch in the cafeteria?” I ask.

Three faces of disbelief greet the question. The cafeteria is too stressful, too confining. Bringing a bag of chips means the student doesn’t have to stand in line, and can use the 30 minutes to socialize and do whatever, ALTHOUGH I wasn’t quite sure where the fudgesicle had come from!

Cafeteria food offerings are much better than when I was a 7th grader, but many students need that high dose of sugar to satisfy their cravings. I can’t tell you how many Starbucks Frappuccino drinks I see being consumed in the first two hours of a school day. Also, there’s never a school day that goes by where a few parents don’t arrive at lunchtime with a bag from Arby’s, Chick-fil-a, or Jimmy John’s because they promised the Johnny Jim’s they’d bring them lunch that day.

The interesting thing for me is that I’ve noticed that I EAT HEALTHIER when I substitute teach. It’s usually a salad, or cottage cheese and cucumber. Don’t think too highly of me, though! I eat a light lunch so I don’t fall asleep in the afternoon classes…like I used to do in American History class back in high school! The teacher had a soothing monotone voice and the heavy non-nutritious lunch made my eyelids heavy with sleep. My understanding back in those days of our nation’s story was distorted by only catching the first 20 minutes of each class period lecture!

Perhaps the diet of many middle schoolers could explain the irrational decisions that they are prone to make…like the boy who was dared to walk into the girl’s locker room…and he did! For the next five school days after that he could eat what he wanted to…at home! Perhaps that was because of his poor eating decisions!

No…no, that’s just because he was a middle schooler! 

The Following of Influencers

April 7, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                  April 7, 2019

                              

More than 24 million people follow Huda Kattan on Instagram, and she has 2.2 million subscribers on YouTube. Ever since Kim Kardashian wore a series of false eyelashes that Kattan has created, her cosmetics products have attracted a crowd. 

She is one of the new breed of social media marketing people called “influencers.” An influencer does just that! Influences the opinions and decisions of other people who follow them.

Some influencers are compensated by companies whose products they promote. For example, if an influencer takes a selfie of himself eating an Egg McMuffin he may be compensated in some way by McDonald’s.

Why? Because his followers model their behavior after him. Egg McMuffins may go up a hundred thousand in sales the day after he posts a picture of him biting into one.

It is why athletic footwear companies pay top-level athletes boatloads of money to wear their brand. What did Air Jordan mean before it became the name of a Nike shoe? Suddenly millions of athletes began lacing up Air Jordans because of Michael Jordan and the subtle idea that they would be skying through the air like him. 

Influence is not new term. Kids have been told to stay away from so-and-so because he’s a bad influence. In other words, when a young boy hung around with him he was prone to making stupid decisions. Parents, of course, would also talk about who might be a good influence on their child! 

Coming from a long career as a church pastor, I always felt the tension in people’s lives over who and what influences them the most. There were those who were passionate about Jesus, sought the leading…the influencing, if you will…of the Holy Spirit, and the whisper of God. And then there were those who fluctuated- on fire for the Lord one week and as ho-hum as generic peanut butter the next. Finally, there were those who it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out were not being influenced by Jesus much at all. 

These days it seems that Sunday church attendance fluctuates according to what time the Denver Bronco’s game kicks off, or how nice the weather is outside, or other Sunday commitments like youth soccer, baseball, volleyball, basketball, or lacrosse.

In other words, “church” has decreasing influence on people’s lives. Each year in the United States between 6,000 and 10,000 churches now close. They’ve become irrelevant in the eyes of much of the populace. Like Amazon has made the locally-owned book store a memory of the past, change has caused many of our places of worship to close up shop.

And yet there’s hope!

Just as people are influenced by the images of Huda Kattan fake eyelashes, the symbols and images of the Christian faith are still strong influencers. The Cross of Christ will always be powerful and meaningful. The image of an empty tomb conveys the possibilities of life in the midst of darkness and death. A broken piece of bread continues to influence me to ponder and think about my identity in Christ.

Granted the influencers of the Christian faith are not fluff and cosmetic, which seem to attract a certain part of our population, but they are deeply significant and rooted in truth.

“Church World” has been rocked in recent times by scandals, pastors who have been worshipped more than Jesus himself, and identifying with the voice of politics as opposed to the politics of Jesus. There are a growing number of people who now identity the church as one of those “bad influences.”

Perhaps there will be a renewal on the horizon of some influences that will lead hurting people back to the source of hope and darkened minds back to the Light! If fake eyelashes can influence millions of people, could a new vision from God influence the multitudes of people whose eyes are weary from the search for something meaningful and enduring?

Preferred Line Skippers

April 6, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    April 6, 2019

                              

It was crowded, but coming from Colorado where we had just recently experienced a type of blizzard called a “bomb cyclone” we were okay with the crowds in the midst of sunny 70 degree weather. 

None of us had ever been to Universal Studios-Orlando, so we trudged the pedestrian lanes through the park together, dodging kids darting in front of us and clueless visitors who kept stopping to take family photos in the most inconvenient places.

Estimated wait times were posted in front of each attraction…30 minutes for this one, a quick 15 minute wait at that one. Our family of seven charted our course. What did we want to include in our day? What did we want the kids to experience? Where would we eat lunch and what would we eat?

And so we got in line for our first ride attraction, a 45 minute wait for an experience that was surely going to have longer lines later on in the day. We inched our way forward like kids in the elementary school lunch line.

To the side of us, however, I noticed that other people kept passing us by. It was as if they were in the express lane of the highway and we were in backed up traffic. I asked my daughter, Kecia, what the “zip-by-us” line happened to be?

“That’s for people with preferred status!”

“Preferred status?”

“You can pay an extra fee and skip the lines.”

“Oh!” I pondered the thought. I had just forked over $25 to park, paid a king’s ransom for our admission tickets, and now Universal was tempting me to join the illusion of being a part of the upper crust for another fee that bordered on extortion. 

Later on I checked to see what that extra fee would be…$10, $20? Would it be as much as the parking? 

$139.95 per person…on top of the regular admission fee of $115!
Let’s see! Let me do the math! That would be for our family of 7…ahh…$1,784.65, plus the $50 to park two vehicles…$1,834.65…plus lunch!

What does a willingness to spend $2,000 for a day at an amusement park say about us? Does it say something more about our impatience in waiting or our desire to receive preferential treatment? Or is it an indication that our culture now has an excess of impatient people who want to be pampered and made to feel special?

The fact that plenty of people strutted by our “poor man’s line” hinted that the last option may be closer to the truth than we want to admit. 

Humility did not rush by us that day at Universal. It stood to the side so it didn’t get trampled. In a crowded place it went unnoticed and disregarded. 

Such is life these days in more ways, it seems, than an amusement park!