Saturday, December 24, 2016

I Am Santa Claus

The following post has become a Christmas season tradition on this blog because it is so full of great memories for me. I hope it brings back a few for many of you as well. Only 1 more sleep 'til Christmas...

Way back in 2010 I put together a little slideshow featuring pictures of kids from the various youth ministries I served over the years and jolly old Saint Nick. Most of these pictures were taken at youth group Christmas parties. Some of the "youth" in these old photos are over 40 now. Many of them have children of there own. Others are still in college. The point is, I can look back at these pictures and remember all of the love and Christmas cheer we would all share this time of year and it is very special to me. For you see in every single picture in this slideshow, I am Santa. It's me under the beard. I always loved doing the Santa thing, and looking back at these memories is great fun.

I chose the song I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday from one of my favorite old school bands, All Star United. This song is full of energy and joy, but it also carries an important message. How much better would this world be if we were the people all year long that we try to be at Christmas? Enjoy the slideshow. And if you happen to be in it, thank you for some unbelievable memories. I would love to hear from you all. Have a very, merry Christmas!


Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Christmas Pickle

Today is the birthday of one of my heroes, my dear friend Lisa Jewett. In honor of her special day and this special time of year, today's post is an ornament story that concerns a special (although a little strange!) gift she gave my family back in 2005. Here is the legend of The Christmas Pickle!

According to Lisa, the idea of putting pickles on Christmas trees goes back to Germany during one of the World Wars. Soldiers marching through the German countryside would often enter house looking for food and take all that a family might have. One Christmas Eve a family, trying to save some food for themselves, hid some pickles in their tree, where they went unnoticed by the scavengers. As a side note, we do not know if these were individual pickles or the entire jar. In any case, the family had a pickle feast! Over the years that followed it became tradition to hide one pickle in the tree on Christmas Eve as a reminder of that night. The child who could find the pickle on Christmas morning would receive an extra gift and much good luck for the coming year. The Christmas Pickle became a symbol of blessing and prosperity. So when Lisa presented us with our very own pickle ornament, we hung it on our tree. Even though it seemed quite odd. It's there every year, and she has already been over to look for it in 2016- even thought it's not Christmas Eve yet. Will hid it from her but she found it anyway- although this year he made it tough on her! And the tradition continues...

Lisa is a part of our family. We all love her very much and love that we get to spend so much time with her. Tonight our extended family will be celebrating at Kobe's, where despite the fact that she will be the guest on honor my son Will is not going to let her play the big drum! Lisa is one of the best friends anyone could ask for, and she means the world to me. She continues to need to our prayers and out hugs in her ongoing battle; cancer won't quit, but neither will she!!! That odd pickle hanging on our tree is a reminder that we have indeed been blessed by her friendship and her love. Happy Birthday, Lisa! And may Santa bring you a case of pickles this year!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

NYC 2016

In November of 1976 (my senior year in high school)I went with a group of friends to a seminar at the United Nations sponsored by Friends United Meeting, a national organization of Quakers. That was my first trip to New York City. Over the years that followed there would be 15 more trips (We think this made 11 for Marilyn) to the Big Apple. I took small youth groups and large ones. I went by myself to plan trips on 3 occasions. I went with a group of friends once, and with my parents and Marilyn once. But the last youth group trip was in March of 2005, and I had not visited since- and had never been able to take our now 21 year old son, Will. Last week (Nov. 10-14) we fixed those two problems with one glorious trip. It was a triumphant return! The city keeps evolving- the old Milford Plaza is now called Row NYC and looks like a boarding home for hipsters (even the spiral staircase and chandeliers are gone!)- but it is still so familiar. It was an interesting time to be there, with thousands protesting our new President-Elect and disrupting traffic, clogging 5th Avenue in front of Trump Tower and filling Times Square and Central Park at times. It is sign of how universally disliked Mr. Trump is in the city he calls home that the cabbies were complaining about him- not the traffic problems. New York is a city like no other.

My years of planning trips and my knowledge of the city allowed for us to do some incredible things, as did having set aside a LOT of money (shout out to my Mom in heaven!) to spend! After flying to Newark, we surprised Will and his girlfriend Michelle with a limo ride (see picture at top) in to the city and our room at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, located at 47th and Broadway- the heart of midtown Manhattan. Our 29th floor room, complete with a view of Times Square, set a great tone for a fabulous few days together. We began our adventure with lunch at Planet Hollywood and an exploration of Times Square.

Thursday evening featured dinner reservations at Carmine's, a classic family-style Italian eatery so authentic you expect to run into Don Corelone most any moment! The restaurant was long a favorite with the groups I traveled with over the years. A long, leisurely meal was followed by front row seats to see The Lion King, one of two shows chosen by Will and Michelle. It felt like Ed the Hyena was laughing at us- personally! And yes- that's us with the actors who played Mufasa and Sarabi. So cool!

On Friday we did a Movie/TV On Locations Tour, visiting famous spots around the city. We saw the apartment building used for outside shots on Friends, the Ghostbusters firehouse and a variety of other great sights. Our guide was an actor and stuntman who really knew his stuff.  The tour ended at McGee's Pub, the real life version of McClaren's Bar from one of our favorite TV shows, How I Met Your Mother. We had a great meal there, with Will proclaiming the McClaren's Steakburger one of his all-time favorite hamburgers.

That night we had VIP passes to the Empire State Building, which allowed to skip as 2 hour wait and head straight up to the observatory levels (TOTALLY worth the extra bucks!). As many times as I have been up there, the view never ceases to amaze me.

Saturday morning we had breakfast at Ellen's Stardust Dinner, where Broadway bound servers serenade you with show tunes while you eat- and they were awesome! Four of them even did an amazing version of One Day More from Les Miz- it was like they knew I was there! We then took the new and improved NBC Studios Tour, which was great fun and included Will and Michelle being filmed as part of a make-believe talk show. After boarding a doubledecker tour bus and seeing Central Park, Harlem and the Upper West and East Sides while nearly freezing to death, we grabbed some pizza before heading to our second show of the weekend.

Show #2 was Aladdin, which none of us had seen before. The music was wonderful, and once again being on the front row made us feel very much a part of Agrabah. James Monroe Iglehart, who won a Tony for his portrayal of Genie, was simply a tour-de-force. The rest of the cast was stellar as well, and the changes to the story from the animated movie worked very well. There was even an actual flying carpet. And just as a bonus, Jonathan Freeman, who voiced the villainous Jafar in the animated version, played Jafar on stage! It was an incredible night for all of us.

Sunday was filled with more sightseeing, shopping and adventure, including seeing Battery Park and the Freedom Tower. The day ended with a fabulous meal at Michael Jordan's Steakhouse in Grand Central Station, followed by one final visit to Times Square. It was a perfect ending to a nearly perfect trip.

We flew back to Tampa on Monday, tired but ready to do it all again as soon as we can! It was truly a blessing to get to share one of favorite places with Will and Michelle, and to share it again with Marilyn. And it also reminded me of the hundreds of others that have shared that adventure with me over these past 40 years. What do you think, old friends? Reunion trip? I'll buy dessert...

Have a blessed day!

Monday, November 7, 2016

Meet the Deplorables

You may already know that imagining Donald Trump as our President scares me. He has zero experience in government or in leadership outside the dictatorships that are his businesses. He is morally bankrupt, as shown through his business practices, his attitude towards women and his total disdain of anyone who is not white. He is not a true Republican, has never been anti-abortion (and is certainly not pro-life- he a self-confirmed lover of war) until it became convenient, and could not be a worse example of what it means to be a follower of Jesus (Think I'm being too harsh or judgmental? Go to Matthew 5, read The Beatitudes and tell me when you get to one that describes Donald Trump. Just one. I'll wait. And while you're at it, find a Fruit of the Spirit- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control- that he exhibits. Again, just one. Still waiting...). In the big picture he has failed at everything- marriages, his University, businesses gone bankrupt, treating other humans with respect- he has ever done, if you don't include looking out for himself. But most of us, myself at the top of the list, make mistakes and have personal failures. My fear of a Trump presidency goes beyond his own failings. You see, as much as The Donald scares me, over the past few weeks I have been reminded that some (although certainly not all) of those who are supporting him actually scare me more. Witness the following accounts. 

* My wife works in downtown Tampa, and a few weeks ago there was an afternoon rally for HRC  in a nearby park. One of the women she works with attended. This lady is a well respected attorney and one of the sweetest people you could ever hope to meet. She is also of Asian heritage, although she was born and has lived her entire life in the the USA. As she left the rally, she was approached by an elderly Caucasian couple wearing Trump buttons and carrying protest signs- as is their right. As she passed them, they begin to call her names, using the ethnic slur "Chink" and questioning if she was here legally. Their language became foul as they screamed at her, and by the time our friend returned to the office she was in tears. Deplorable is too kind a word for such people.

* I sat in the food court of an Orlando mall eating lunch and people watching. A father and son walked by my table. The father- approximately 35 years old- was wearing a Trump hat and button. On the front of his blue t-shirt was a picture of a rifle. The back of the shirt read, "George Zimmerman is a Hero!" His son- around 10 years old- wore a red t-shirt with a target logo on the front pocket area and the following inscription on the back- "Shoot first, ask questions later!" I knew these people existed. My fear is that a Trump presidency will bring them out of the shadows and empower them. And that is horrifying.

* I sat alone in the local Dairy Queen eating lunch as four men talked at a table close to me. They were white men in their 30s or 40s, clearly on lunch break from a job that required them to work outdoors in the hot Florida sun. At first they talked about sports and especially the Buccaneers early season woes. I tuned in, always curious to hear the opinions of others. From football they moved into a discussion of the Black Lives Matter protests currently being raised during the national anthem at various sporting events. They were offended by the protests, as is their right. In fact, they were very angry about it. The conversation then turned to politics and how much they hate...and I mean HATE!- Hillary Clinton. They were confident that Trump will win, because who in their right mind would "vote for that lying bitch." President Trump will turn things around, they declared. And then they revisited the Black Lives Matter issue. "When Trump is elected," the best dressed of the group declared, "he'll send snipers to ballgames and shoot those f***ing ni**er bastards. Let's see 'em protest then." There are so many parts of that statement that offend me I don't know where to start.

Donald Trump did not say or do any of those things. But as we keep seeing over and over, the things he says INSPIRE his supporters to say and do those things. He seems to want them to say those things, and creates an atmosphere where such things are perfectly acceptable. And that is why this election scares me so badly. If he wins- and that could happen- that mentality wins along with him. And everyone who does not think like Trump and his Klan (yes- intentional!) will be caught in the cross-hairs. 

Donald Trump is unfit to be President. He was fired from his job hosting a reality TV show, for Pete's sake! I wouldn't vote for him to be dog catcher. And for those of you who support him, please give me a rational argument that doesn't begin with, "But Hillary..."  You say HRC is liar and a crook, yet Trump is caught in a lie nearly everyday and has actual court cases awaiting him. Hillary has none, and she has been investigated for the past 25 years. She's a long way from perfect, but she is qualified, experienced and ready to serve. DT is none of the above. Recognizing that Hillary has issues and that Trump is a madman are not mutually exclusive positions. It's just that one is far more significant than the other! While on our Hawaiian vacation 2 months or so ago I overheard our election being discussed by two men, one a Brit and the other an Aussie. They were both very confused as to how someone like Trump could be a finalist for the most important job in the world. The Australian gentleman asked, "You don't really think he could be elected, do you?" The Brit pondered the question a moment and replied without much certainty, "No. Not even the bloody Yanks are that stupid." I pray that my British friend is right. 


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

God Bless Our Teachers

Today, teachers in Hillsborough County (Tampa, FL) go back to work.  They have been preparing their classrooms, preparing lesson plans, receiving training and getting ready for a new school year. Today, the students arrive!  In a few parts of the country this has already occurred; in other regions it is yet to come. In any case, these dedicated men and women prepare to face a new group of students under increasingly difficult situations.  Many are not paid as well as they should be. Some face budget crunches that force them to purchase many of their own supplies. They will encounter difficult students, difficult parents, difficult school boards...and local politicians who simply don't get it. The simple fact that so many of them return to their schools today to fight these battles should earn them our unending respect and admiration.

It should also earn them our prayers. Wherever you are, whether school has already begun or doesn't start for a few weeks yet, make today a day of prayer for the teachers you know.  Ask God to bless them, protect them, encourage them and inspire them. And then ask the teachers in your life what you can do to help them this year. We count on teachers to make a difference in the lives of our children. Let's use today as a springboard to make a difference in the lives of those teachers. To those of you who continue in this most noble profession- and I am blessed to call many of you, from all over this nation, my friends- may God grant you wisdom, energy, insight and serenity as you go through this school year. You are loved!

Because of Jesus,

Sunday, August 7, 2016

We All Fall Down

The following lesson comes from the ragamuffin soul of the late Brennan Manning. I believe that you- just like me- will be able to see yourself in these words. We all fall down. And then Jesus picks us up, dusts us off, and we start all over again- fresh, clean and new. Have a blessed Sabbath.

“Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last 'trick', whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school. 

'But how?' we ask. 

Then the voice says, 'They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.' 

There they are. There *we* are - the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life's tribulations, but through it all clung to faith. 

My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.” 

― Brennan ManningThe Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out

Because of Jesus,

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A Trump In the Temple

"Be smart," they told me. "Avoid politics and religion," they told me.  Smart was never my strong suit...

There seems to be a lot of confusion and debate in both the media and the Christian community about why Donald Trump has become an acceptable candidate for the Evangelical church. There should be no confusion at all. It's a simple matter. Since the rise of the Moral Majority in the late 1970s, Christian leaders have been consistent in voice and committed to the idea that real Christians vote Republican. That's nearly 40 years of indoctrination for the average Sue and Joe who fill a pew on Sunday morning. Many of our pastors and leaders have made it very clear- a vote for a Republican candidate is a vote for Jesus. So the logical conclusion- and this reckless course we are now on- was inevitable. The fact that Mr. Trump has nothing in common with most conservatives, evangelicals, Christians or even many Republicans doesn't matter. Trump has no relationship with the church; he seemingly discovered the need for a belief system just in time to run for office and lure in voters. The leaders  have spoken for 40 years, and we have learned. He is a Republican. So vote for him. And based on poll numbers, much of the mainstream evangelical Church seems prepared to do just that - or at least they did until he began once again showing his true colors these past few weeks.

My point? We've spent too many years listening to the wrong voices. We have bought into the thinking that voting for a specific party is the way to "return our nation to God." Many of these leaders may have meant well, but the fact is they forgot the most important thing. Only one voice should speak for the Christian community. And that voice belongs to Jesus.

What would The Christ have to say about The Donald? Obviously I don't know. But there are things we do know. We know that Trump has said that winning is all that matters, that he lives for the art of the deal and that money is power. We know that he singles out specific groups of people that he finds unworthy of love and support. We know that he considers himself as a superior human being to many on this planet. We know that while Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers," Trump responds to every situation with confrontation and bomb slinging. And we know that all of those things are in direct contradiction of the teaching of Jesus. It is true that most politicians (indeed, most people) do poorly when their character and beliefs are compared to the Messiah. Hillary is no exception; her faults are many. But at least she is not pretending to be a Christian for the purpose of being elected, having spent her life as an active part of the United Methodist Church. All of us fall short of the example of Christ. But few fail the test as completely as Trump.

So how should the Church view the Republican nominee? Here's my take- and I fully confess it is a judgmental one. I think we should recognize that if the Christian community backs Trump, then we are opening the door to a money changer in the temple. You remember the story of how Jesus responded to them. He overturned tables, scattered their followers and threw them out of the temple. If we put Trump in the White House by allowing him into the temple, thinking he will lead our nation on the path of God, we should do it with the full knowledge that Jesus will probably have to throw him out. Or at least remind us that we should...

I wish I thought the Church would come around to understanding that politicians and patriotism cannot save us, only Jesus can- and he came for the world, NOT just for USAmerica. I wish our leaders would acknowledge that Trump may be a good politician but he's a horrible human being, and that the latter is much more important than the former. I wish the believers who scream "SOCIALISM" at every mention of the right sharing of resources in our nation would pause and read Acts 2:42. I wish lots of things. But right now, my biggest wish finds me in agreement with something my old friend Jacob Lupfer posted on Twitter a while back. I wish a year ago we had lined up behind Jeb Bush and given our nation a rational choice in November. Instead, we are starring into the abyss that would be a Trump in the temple. Vote for Trump if you must. But do not do it because he represents Jesus is any way, shape or form. Because he does not.

Because of Jesus,