Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Icebox...

Well, first of all, you have to be old enough to know what an "icebox" is, don't you? I'll try not to make today's blog be about getting older, but I'm getting older, and a lot of stuff just keeps reminding me of that, like using the term, "icebox." Political "dirty trickster" Roger Stone was indicted this week, and came to the front of the news queue. As part of that coverage, it was reported--and backed up by photographs--that he has a portrait of late President Richard M. Nixon tattooed on his back. Two younger types this week asked me who Richard Nixon was. Older, I'm telling you, older! Or maybe just old?

"When I was your age, I used to walk three miles to school in the most frigid weather carrying a gym bag, a trumpet case, and my books!" We old people say things like that to younger types. I might make two comments about this statement: 1. the younger types ask, "What's a gym bag?" and 2. every part of this statement is true for Yours Truly. I grew up in Oil City, PA, and attended my7th grade year (which was "Junior High" in that day) at South Side Junior High School. The building was actually condemned--also true! It was unsafe, and the third floor was blocked off with what sufficed as a police line in 1967. When we had assemblies in the auditorium, we had to take an umbrella in case it rained, because the roof leaked like a screen door on a submarine. The only redeeming thing about South Side was that it was just a few short blocks and a reasonable walk from my home, because I lived--you guessed it--on the South Side of town. However, commencing with the 8th grade, we were moved to the "new" Junior High, which was the old Senior High, as they had now moved into a beautiful new building in Hasson Heights, near where most of the richer people lived. The "new" Junior High was built into a hill that was on the North side of town, so not only did we have to walk much farther, but we had to climb "heartbreak hill" to get there. I can remember arriving at school huffing and puffing, wheezing, and dragging, only to then climb several flights of stairs to get to my homeroom. And when you were sucking serious air at 8:00AM, that "old smell" of the building--probably an amalgamation of asbestos, machine oil, cheap floor wax, and termite sawdust--just coated the inside of your lungs. Oh, and just before reaching "Heartbreak Hill," we had to cross railroad tracks bifurcated the town, and a train came by at about 7:50AM on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. SO, if we didn't beat the train, we had to stand there with all our hardware and freeze in the Winter, get drenched in the rain in the Spring, and baked in the sun as Summer approached. There were two saving graces to this whole exercise: we used to put stuff on the train tracks to get flattened by the locomotive; and the school building, itself, was in Ripley's "Believe it or Not" for being the only building that you could enter all five floors from the ground because it was built into the side of a mountain. Other than that, when that "Junior High" (they never came up with a modifier) was leveled by the wrecking ball a few decades ago, not many of us even got moist peepers.

Back to the "icebox." I will never forget the icy mornings making that trek. Did I say that we also had to walk across a three-span, steel bridge with open grate walkways to GET to the aforementioned train tracks? It is called the State Street Bridge, it crosses the mighty Allegheny River, and the wind whipped across that sucker like a tornado, pulled out straight like you'd stretch a Slinky. Even to this day, when I walk in an icy cold wind--like what is coming upon us this week--I have visual flashbacks of that bridge in Winter. It was so cold that if someone threw a snowball at you it felt like an oven-fresh bun, by comparison. And with my big ears, my head kept turning into the wind, and I got the full force of it. Meanwhile, my friends would crouch behind my trumpet case and my gym bag.

"But why didn't your parents take you to school?" Nobody's parents took them to school. Nobody's. If you didn't live far enough out to ride the bus (I think you had to be considered "rural"), you walked. Most families owned one car, if they were lucky, and the working parent--usually the dad--had to be at work by 7:00AM, or even earlier if he was doing shift work. That's why they built the new Senior High School on "the Heights"--the wealthy families' kids had a short walk, and it just crossed the "rural" barrier for us South Siders, so we DID get to ride a bus up there for Senior High. Of course, we stood in the middle of a busy intersection waiting for the bus, and in Winter, we had to wait at least 45 minutes for a late bus before our tardiness would be excused. These were the worst of times, these were the worst of times.

With temperatures and wind chills being forecast at State Street Bridge levels this week, we at St. Paul's already cancelled Wednesday activities, and our local schools have declared an "icebox" day. Thanks to the progress of human evolution, we make these decisions in 2019. Our kids will be healthier, safer, and better for it. They never cancelled school in 1968 for a "Polar Vortex," even if they HAD known what one was. And not a day goes by that I don't think about assessing the damage this caused to our psyches, and how many points we dropped on the I.Q. scale because of frozen brain cells. It's weeks like this that make me break out in a seriously threatening and diabolical laugh anytime someone dares mention "the good old days." Stay safe, stay warm, stay IN, Beloved. Spring is out there...


Friday, January 18, 2019

Snow Job...

Time to update the blog...what shall I write about? Trump? Nope--tired of it. Government shutdown? Nope--ditto. The United Methodist Church and The Way Forward? Nope--ditto, ditto, ditto, and the modified PLAN ditto! I could write some nice, comforting faith-based piece? Nope--just got done writing a sermon; am spent on faith-based stuff. So, let's talk about snow...

Since the National Weather Service and the NOAA are either not getting paid, or are working with skeleton crews, I think they are funnin' with us about the forecasts for "Stormzilla" this weekend. Here in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, they are saying we can get between 3 and 18 inches of snow--that's one big "between." Forecasts always look so prescient when you give yourself such latitude. I stopped to buy milk at Giant Eagle last night--because we need milk, not because of the storm forecast--but the "stormers" beat me to it. I got one of the last half-gallons in the place. I didn't go near the bread or the toilet paper. We're packing meals for the "End Hunger" program on Saturday, and people are already calling to see if we're cancelling. No, people are still hungry. We may have less "packers" for the assembly line, but we'll get our 24,000 meals packed. We did decide to begin an hour early, as the bulk of the snow is not supposed to come until later in the afternoon--3 to 18 inches. At 3 inches, Pittsburgh is paralyzed. At 18, it's the apocalypse, and we're just waiting for the Pale Rider.

We DO live in Western Pennsylvania. Even before climate change began affecting us, we got snow, and sometimes, lots of it. And it gets cold in winter. I'm not sure why we seem to manufacture such panic, annually. Oh, and I'm not going to debate the climate change issue, either. I figure there are two kinds of people, when it comes to climate change--those who believe the science about it, and idiots. Regardless, we get snow. It's Western Pennsylvania. And it gets cold. If you are the entrepreneurial sort, and want to make some fast cash, get a van, load it up with milk, bread, and toilet paper, and go door to door. Tell the residents you'll be around every time they forecast 3 to 18 inches.

The church struggles with weather forecasts and snow. Businesses generally stay open. Libraries stay open. Schools close, mostly for the safety of the students, as those "yellow submarines" they ride are just a big skate on ice and snow. But what about church? If we're talking a church that pretty much hosts weekend worship, a Bible study, and maybe a committee meeting, they're pretty much out of business if they let a snowstorm bring them down. A church like St. Paul's? With preschool, daycare, Kidz Korner, and a raft of other activities, studies, community use of our building, and such, we have a "weather alert" on our website and networks to let folk know when we have to cancel or alter schedules. We also have a parking lot that is so large it's in two townships, so maintaining it in inclement weather is a bear--and rather expensive. But, we are in Western Pennsylvania. We get snow. And it gets cold in Winter. And with a church facility that has been added onto eight times, we have pipes in uninsulated ceilings, drains that have to pump UP hill, and roofs that leak when the gutters freeze and back up. Our head custodian runs around here like Nanook of the North. But we usually stay open, and people come--hearty people...sometimes CRAZY people! Seriously, they are usually people dedicated in their faith, and loyal to their church. But they are a bit crazy. I'm not sure that going out to church in the midst of a whiteout, following the salt truck, and sliding around in our giant parking lot is what Paul meant when he said we are "fools for Christ."

And, if we GET the 18 inches of snow, I'll have my usual thoughts about retiring to a warmer climate--Florida, Arizona, even Arkansas, which one of the senior publications recently cited as the most economical place for us old people to live. Then, I come to my senses: Florida can't even VOTE properly, they're so nuts down there; Arizona has been having 115 degree temperatures, and sandstorms; and Arkansas? ARKANSAS? Have you SEEN their politics? Those of you who know me, know I'd last 45 seconds in Arkansas. My religion is far too "liberal," my politics are far left of that, and I can't abide country music. I don't have a dog, I don't have a pickup truck, and never plan to leave my wife (and hope the reciprocal of that is true, honey?). After all of that "weather reckoning," my lovely wife says "DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT moving where they don't have 'seasons'!" She likes the seasons. Honestly, I do, too--especially Spring and Fall. I've looked, by the way, and there is no place on planet Earth that is always Spring or always Fall. You either have to live with perpetual Summer or perpetual Winter, if you go South or North. So, it's like cable TV service--if you want Spring and Fall, you have to take Summer and Winter, too. And you get your best deal if you bundle them.

So, it's going to snow. Maybe a lot. Things will close, or not. Unless you already are stocked up, you'd better figure out alternatives for bread, milk, and toilet paper. Rest assured, if the roads get bad, it's almost a guarantee that the worst drivers will flood the highways. They'll drive their SUVs, go too fast, secure in having all-wheel drive, not thinking that when it comes to stopping, they're driving something the size of Delaware with only four little patches of tire available to halt their forward progress. And lots of them won't have their lights on, because they don't want you to see them coming--surprise! So, what are we to do? Stay warm and safe, Beloved. And remember: We live in Western Pennsylvania. It snows. It gets cold in Winter. But Spring is only 9 weeks away! Shalom, yinz!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Hugging Jesus...

This photo has been making the rounds of Facebook and the Internet. I believe it is an artist's conception of a person arriving in heaven, and upon encountering Jesus, is embraced by him, or joyously and spontaneously embraces him! The artist captures the joy on the individual's face quite effectively, and for most people of faith who view the painting, an empathetic smile--or even a tear or two--may ensue.

What emotions, if any, does the picture elicit in you? Many who post or email it, comment about how they hope this will be the scene when they "cross over," or they relate it to a loved one or dear friend who has recently died, and are comforted by the artist's portrayal of how that one is now in the arms of Jesus. I thought about a dear, dear church member in my first appointment--Velma--who passed away many years ago. Velma was the most "connected to Jesus" person I have ever known. Ever. And she was maybe the only person I ever knew who, I believe, really matched the Apostle Paul in "praying without ceasing." Velma prayed every day for each pastor whom had ever served her church. I remember how honored and blessed I was to be a part of that personal litany. Years after leaving that appointment, in a few of my darker moments, I was lifted by remembering that Velma was praying for me. I also remember the grief I felt when I got word she had passed. (Oh, I wasn't sorry for Velma, because she was hugging Jesus! No, my grief was for missing those daily prayers!) This picture could very well be Velma arriving in glory. Believe me, Jesus would have had to pry himself from her, and it might have taken a few days.

I like the picture, for it really got me thinking about a couple of things. First of all, we really can't tell the gender of the individual hugging Jesus. And given that the "rainbow colors" are prominent, it's very possible that this gender ambiguity is intentional by the artist. This Jesus welcomes all, and in this depiction of heaven, "All means all."

My next observation may trouble some of you, OR, you may be strange in the way that I am strange. For, you see, I have no interest in hugging Jesus. At least I don't think I do. The few times I have been in the presence of persons of some great note, I had no compulsion to run up to them and solicit a hearty handshake, or even approach them directly, let alone embrace them. Initially, I stood silently in their presence, not too close, and was quite caught up in awe of the individual, and what they represented to me. (Please know that I am not referencing persons of mere celebrity status such as sports stars or actors, but academicians, authors, theologians, musicians, artists, or elected officials in high office, either political or religious.) I even had this view of my college and seminary professors. I could never call them by their first names, much preferring to use their earned titles. I had no desire to "befriend them," preferring instead to "sit at their feet, take in their teachings, and impress them by how seriously I treated their subject and excelled in their class. I also wanted to honor them by "making good" on what they taught me by integrating it into my life, philosophy, and later, my ministry.

Well, with that in mind, do you see why I don't get jazzed up with the idea of hugging Jesus? This is Jesus--the Son of God, co-creator of the universe, the protagonist in "The Greatest Story Ever Told," God's "star-child" bridge to humanity! This ain't ol' uncle Frank, or even my departed grandmother! In my mind's eye, I can image just standing there, looking at him in unbelief that I have somehow been privileged to be in such close proximity. I think I'll be sizing up his appearance against the database of portrayals of Jesus I remember from my earthly sojourn. I hope I'll won't be too stunned to listen, in case the "still, small voice" I disciplined myself to hear in the silence now actually becomes audible and unmistakably directed at me. In my fondest dreams, I can imagine him saying, "I'm doing an update to the Sermon on the Mount in room 203 in five minutes, won't you sit in?" Or "Hey, have you met Paul yet?" Or even still, "Peter didn't pull that 'May I take your coat?' bit on you when you arrived, did he? That rascal!" I'm really hoping he doesn't say something like "Welcome, my son" or "Enter into the joy of the Lord," for I KNOW I'll just pass out, given that I'll be so wrapped up in awe as to be paralyzed.

Thanks to God's abundant grace, I know I will have nothing more to "prove" to him about myself, any more than I did in this life. Still, I think I will want to "worship" Jesus by continuing to absorb his teaching, accept his acceptance of me gratefully, and go about building new relationships just like I did on earth.

I might eventually get around to singing, and even spouting a few scriptural expressions of praise, but I'm not hugging Jesus. Now, please don't think that I'm suggesting that any of my thoughts about this encounter should be yours. In fact, I hope you have a few, vivid "heaven hopes" of your own! After you do whatever you do in those first moments in the presence of Jesus, don't forget to meet us for class in room 203. And would someone bring at least one lunch to share? I hope he didn't grade my sermons...

Final thought: what if Jesus hugs ME? I'll probably whoop and cry like the person in the painting, for what else would I do when the one who is the source of my greatest blessings, the one who helped me find my earthly partner (whom I've never escaped being in awe of, either), and guided us as we raised our family and spirited our ministry, grabs MY neck and pulls me close? I'd be a hot mess.

Well, that really wasn't my FINAL thought. I hope that one is many, many years off!

Shalom, Yinz!

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...