Bottom Rail on Top

In Ken Burn’s epic Civil War documentary, legendary historian Shelby Foote told the story of a slave who ran away from his master, joined the Union army and came back through the South and seized his own master’s plantation with his regiment. Seeing his former master in a lineup of captured Confederates, he says, “Bottom rail on top this time, Massah. Bottom rail’s on top now.”fences

That is quite a role reversal.

My current hospital foray – the first of my life – has put me in the category of living out a role reversal. I’m the patient, not the clergy visitor.

Yesterday, I looked up from my hospital bed at the doorway, and there stood Larry and Joyce Coffin. We just looked at each other for a couple of seconds, and all three of us broke into laughter like a group of elementary schoolgirls. Over the years and through all the surgeries and hospitalizations they have endured, I have very often visited them! About 30 seconds behind them, Ed and Sylvia House walked in, and we had to explain what we were giggling about.

IMG_0827[1]We all need each other at different times, and that is why the Christian life is supposed to be done as a group and shared experience in this thing called the church, even if certain idiosyncrasies or whatever that we all have become occasional annoyance factors. We can’t really make it alone; we’re in it together. So… spend all the time you can serving others, because a day is going to come when you need what someone else has that you do not at the moment possess.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

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The Get-Along Shirt

Many years ago I heard James Dobson of “Focus on the Family” say that the #1 frustration of parents was the issue of sibling rivalry. I don’t know if that could be statistically proven, but I certainly remember it being an issue of strife in our family past. It particularly got my attention the day a hammer went flying through the air to hit one brother running away from another brother after a verbal altercation!

get-along shirtI have several times on Facebook seen the accompanying picture. Isn’t that priceless? Why didn’t Diana and I think of this? It would have either solved problems, or so complicated them that we would have had fewer mouths to feed!

A “get-along shirt” like this was pretty much what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote about a couple of women in the church in Philippi. He says, “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel…”

These were not bad people; they were effective church workers and servants – commended by no less than the Apostle Paul!  But the benefit of their service was being very much marginalized by some inter-personal controversy surrounding them. It is likely that it also involved other people being put into a position of having to take sides with one or the other. Whatever – the end result was a church-wide distraction that simply did not need to be going on.

Again, I don’t know if it is indeed the #1 frustration of parents, but sibling rivalry and worthless dissention between siblings in the church family is just about the typical pastor’s #1 frustration. Lots of pastors would probably like to have the ability to put some people together inside the same shirt to make them get along! The issues are seldom of sufficient fire to account for the smoke accumulated. Would it not be so very much better to apply some other words of Paul on another occasion to another church:  May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

—–

The above portion of this writing is for next week’s church newsletter. The following will not be a part of that, but for a moment of fun, I will give a Sweet Frog gift card to the first person (not named Buchman) who answers correctly the following two questions about the hammer flying through the air:

1.  The hammer was thrown by …

a. Nathan at Ben

b. Ben at Nathan

c. Nathan at Aaron

d. Aaron at Nathan

e. Ben at Aaron

f. Aaron at Ben

g. Nathan at Jesse

h. Aaron at Nathan

i. Jesse at Ben

j. Jesse at Aaron

k. Jesse at Caleb

l. Aaron at Jesse

m. Caleb at Jesse

2.  The hammer hit the less-than-fully-innocent victim in the …

a. head

b. back

c. buttocks

d. leg

Permit a Wee Money Rant …

Our dear local newspaper begins an article (opinion page) with this statement, “The Lord rested on the seventh day. And sometimes it appears that churches, having done their work on Day 7 rest for the other six.”

So local journalists, why do you need to do that? God forbid you miss an opportunity at taking a shot at Christians, even while writing to applaud one – the article praising the good work of the departing Salvation Army director.

On the same day is another article about my own Hagerstown Rotary Club, which gave away $63,000 to local non-profits – representing the distributions of funds raised over the past year. Within the article is this statement, “Since its inception in 1980, the Hagerstown Rotary Club has raised more than $1.6 million for more than 120 nonprofit organizations.”  This is all very commendable, and I am not knocking it as insignificant.

In reflection over my 19 years at Tri-State Fellowship (beginning here on the 4th Sunday of June in 1994), our church has simply given away about two million dollars to missions and benevolent causes near and far. And in our own lean financial times and while facing our budget for the coming fiscal year, this seems at first glance like a crazy activity to have done. It is a number that roughly equals the amount we have spent on all land and building acquisitions over the same time. Imagine if you personally gave away amounts equal to your mortgage and value of your home. Well, some of you reading this have probably done that … and done it through TSF … which explains why we were able to have done what we did.

Our rewards for giving as unto the Lord are not to be realized in this world – certainly not through a media that generally despises people of faith. It is not even surprising when we take a shot of false accusation, as Jesus said it would occur … “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”  And Peter said to live such good lives amongst the people of this world, that though they may criticize you, your good deeds would be more than obvious.

Yep, yep… but I did find it annoying.

Skulls Everywhere

So here I am in Tucson, sorta attending a gemstones show – the largest in the world, with literally thousands of vendors – along with my bead store business family relatives. I’m here for the family part of it, the warmth part of it, the leave Washington County on something other than a school bus of teenagers part of it … more than the gemstones experience. It is a lot of walking and standing, so on this first day, I did a half day and went back to the hotel to deal with my swollen knee and to write stuff like this!

IMG_0114It really is quite a sight to see crystals and gemstones from literally all over the world … and in all sizes – from the seed bead size of a sesame seed, to crystals actually bigger than a human. There are fossils and meteorites and every shape and size of both raw and polished stones.

But one thing that quite amazed me was the popularity of skulls. You can buy carved stone skulls in every size from beads to larger than life – and you can get them in just about every type of gemstone or color. Dozens upon dozens of vendors were selling them – many of them also wearing clothing with skull prints of varied sorts.IMG_0080

But why? Why skulls? It is a trending item even in the fashion world.

I did some research to find some answers. There were a lot of hits on sites that were asking and seeking to answer the same question. There is no definitive simple answer.

Regarding popular fashion, one writer said, “What happened to make them so immensely popular in fashion? Alexander McQueen happened! The fashion designer created a line of silk skull scarves and the rest is history. Skulls continue to hold a position on the fashion radar, making bold statements everywhere. They have been trending on the streets in various forms.”

Among others seeking to give an explanation to the trend were these suggestions:  “Because it makes you look hardcore and edgy … it is part of Emo and Goth cultures, hence it is everywhere … there is an obsession with death – like ‘The Walking Dead’  … the punk rock chic look is in … it makes you look badass and that is cool … lol, it’s just popular, no one knows why.”

A more thoughtful writer questioned it in a way that has gone through my mind, “But what’s it all about? Down through history, skull iconography has been used in campaigns by invading and dominating forces to instill fear into their enemies, from the Romans, to Vikings, Cannibals, to Pirates, to the Nazis, even to Bikers and Metalheads in the latter half of the 20th century. All fairly antisocial types! So why is the fashion world trying to associate with this?

I think it is a subconscious expression of a worldview by a generation who sees the world as dark and hopeless. There is a sense of meaninglessness in modern world with moral malaise, expressed often by a pervasive sense of despair – that there is a vacuum of answers to the meaning of life. I read where one young woman who was buying some skull fashions lamented about how the world is so full of violence and injustice that “you can’t just go around wearing rainbows and happy stuff.”

That is sad, if indeed this last suggestion is the reason … and I think it had some merit and validity. The generation is yet to be found that can find happiness and contentment in life apart from a vital relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Without that, there is that God-shaped vacuum spoken about by Pascal. This is a timeless truth about the human condition.

IMG_0081

Thinking Soberly

Oh no … with that title, here comes a Randy Buchman rant on the evils of alcohol. Not this time, though most of you know what I think about that!

Today is a takeoff on this Scripture from Romans 12:3 …

For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.

I’d like to think that I could throw a fastball like my favorite guys at Camden Yards, and I made 10s of thousands of throws growing up to do it … but could never make it into the high 80s.  I’d like to think I could run like Frank Shorter, but I couldn’t even run at my best the number of miles he ran in a week when in a rest mode. I’d like to think I’m a legit Civil War scholar like the guys whose books I read, but honestly, they’ve forgotten more than I’ve learned.

Apparently we have increasingly encouraged a new generation of Americans to such an extent that they think they are rather significantly special and gifted.

A 47-year study of 9 million young adults has revealed that more than ever, college students are more likely to view themselves as especially gifted and talented – even in the face of declining statistical analyses to support the contention. Those who self identify as particularly gifted has risen 30% in the past 30 years. Much blame for this is placed upon the abilities of technology – through such as Facebook and Twitter – to make oneself the center of one’s world, replete with huge numbers of “friends” and “followers”.

And I suppose this result is the fruit of participation trophies in youth sports, granted to kids for simply being on the team and finishing the season, whether they won anything or not. This is the fruit of grade inflation and re-centered SAT standards. It is the end result of the self-esteem movement.

But what’s wrong with self-esteem? Well, understood correctly, nothing … for it is actually a proper and healthy view of self in the universe. That is, if one sees oneself for what he is in Christ, and only because of God’s grace.

That passage quoted above from Romans goes on to say that we have each been given gifts for the service of others – that we might give what is beneficial to others, even as we receive where we lack. And in Christ, one is – to quote Anchorman – “kind of a big deal.” A person in Christ is royalty (1 Peter 2:9) and an ambassador of the King of Kings (2 Corinthians 5:21). But not because of what we have done, but because of Christ’s work and God’s grace in opening our eyes to this truth.

May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whichthe world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. – Galatians 6:14

How Big is the Number 315,000,000?

Thoughts on Mass Killings, Immigration, Sheep, and Bead Stores (I can string those things together!)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s population clock, the number of resident people in our country is right now just shy of 315 million. One person is born every eight seconds, though one dies every 12 seconds. Add an international migrant coming every 46 seconds, and the net gain is four people every minute of the day.

So, my question is: How big is the number 315,000,000?  Let me give you a bite-sized way of getting a grip on that number by the use of an illustration I’ve thought of in recent years.

Those of you who know our family well know that we own a beads jewelry craft store business in Mechanicsburg, PA that my wife manages. It is part of the franchise of such stores begun by our son and his wife – Potomac Bead Company – with locations in 12 different places in several states and Scotland.DSC_0074_01

Most years, I only ever see our store once – on New Year’s Day – the day when business people everywhere take inventory. Yep – inventory in a bead store! Instead of choosing to sell something like cars or refrigerators, my family sells little things – millions of them to be exact.

When you walk into our store, you are overwhelmed with a sea of colors flooding your eyes. I have always enjoyed the exclamations that come out of the mouths of people who walk in for the first time! The colors come from strands of thousands upon thousands, nay, millions of beads of all colors, materials, shapes, and sizes. The choices are so vast that it sometimes leaves folks with a paralysis of analysis as to what to choose to make something beautiful.

Most of the product is sold in strands of, say, 25-75 beads of the same material strung and hung on the wall. But there are tubes with hundreds of tiny little beads called “seed beads” that are also available. Pretty much anything you can put a hole through and hang on your person is available.

One year recently while doing New Year’s inventory, I did some math by estimation of how many beads were in the store – counting everything … strands, tubes, etc. – and I believe a good round number is about 6 million.

Now consider this:  It would take 52 stores the size of ours to represent the number of people that there are in the USA. Now imagine this:  Picture those 52 stores all on the same city block. Let it be known that in that mix of beads, every so often, one of them was going to be totally toxic to a wearer. How would you find which one it is … or which ones out of the millions were potentially harmful?

That is what it is like trying to figure out who is going to be the next killer in a school or mall.

I don’t see a solution that is an assured fix. It is a problem about 30 times worse than dealing with illegal immigrants. Saying that guns should be eliminated is about 30x more difficult than saying that all illegals should just be deported. Right … just do it. Actually, I probably exaggerated. It is only about 20x more difficult given the estimated number of guns in the country.  But you get the picture.

If we take the problem back to its most central core, the issue is one of sin and evil that exists in the world. We are all terminally affected by it physically. And through faith in the work of Christ, we are spiritually saved for eternity. Yet in this world we are hampered by its continuous presence and expressions, affecting us all in varied degrees, and affecting some in such extensive amount as to yield catastrophic consequences in their lives and the lives of others.

The spiritual issue is one of separation – especially from God and the perfect relationship we were meant to have with Him. That separation, that loneliness, that sense of loss and isolation … is felt more particularly by some people over others. We know that the world abounds with people who, while still having no eternal fix for their separation from God, have rather successfully compensated for it by filling their lives with all manner of temporary fixes and pleasures.

Yet there is another smaller population who never gets a fix of any sort … not spiritually, and not even temporarily here in this world. Due to one of a variety of reasons – many related to mental illness, which is a very real and pervasive problem – they do not fit in. Their daily lives are hour-to-hour reminders that they are isolated from what appears at least to them to be a normal life of relational happiness.

As a coach in a public high school, I see some of these people every day. For some reason, they don’t fit – be it physical defects of size or appearance, social awkwardness and insecurities, the gaping wounds of family dysfunction, or the effects of mental illness or some debilitating condition – they walk through the halls alone and in a sort of daze. This school experience is not fun; it is a daily hell on earth. Some days mocked; many days ignored; all days miserable.

So, for that one bead out of 315 million who has had enough of the pain of life; and when the combination of evil, pain, and mental illness combines into a stew of anger and frustration that overflows, what becomes a prime target for that outrage?  A school fits well at the top of a short list of such … as would a mall, certain work places, or other public places of gatherings of people – such as even a church.

So how to fix or prevent this? Well, only God can (and will) ultimately fix the basic root cause. Until then, removing guns from society or eliminating the tools or places of the expression of this anger appears wrongly directed in my view. It seems to me the need is to help people – seeking to reach to those who are most disenfranchised. Now, this argument could immediately be used to argue for more funding to promote mental health and social welfare programs … and yes, I’m one of those conservative Republican types who is a skeptic about fixing things by merely throwing more money at it. I recognize these programs have a cost, and I honor those who give their lives fully to work in such difficult fields of endeavor as mental health and social services.

My rant here is to direct the consideration of any reading it to a personal involvement where you are with those you know who fit into varied disenfranchised profiles. If you don’t know anyone like that, you must really be isolated. I certainly see them in school and have had them on my teams … but I can tell you that they are around churches too. They are everywhere. And though my job does indeed, yes, lend toward my responsibilities being involved with bolstering, encouraging, and discipling hurting people, I choose beyond it to have a handful of folks with whom I’m frequently engaged – people who are not especially lovely in their current composition, but who need human connection and encouragement.

Within the context of the church family, this is our primary duty of ministry. And just beyond the walls of our church, reaching lost people becomes the primary strategy. And down to the level of our individual lives, it is the expression of Christ within us: the Christ-like way of doing as he did, illustrated by the parable of the shepherd with the lost sheep … illustrated as well by the hosts of occasions where Christ saw the hurting individual when the disciples saw only the masses of the crowds.

There is a silent fulfillment of life in this undertaking. I will tell you though that at times, when you bring a sick puppy into your life, it bites you. But Christ came and died for us when we were sick dogs biting him (see Romans 5:8).

We can’t fix 315 million; nobody can, and no law is able to do so. But we can be an agent by God’s grace to help fix a handful of people around us.

The Ghost of Christmas Programs Past

I have been performing in Christmas pageants and programs my entire life – no joke! I probably missed being in them at ages 1 and 2, but not age 3.  My earliest memories include my mother pushing me onto stage to sing at a ridiculously young age. She was in charge of the programs, and she knew my birth father was a professional singer – so, I was predestined to be out there! And doing the same is what I’ll be a part of this Sunday at Tri-State at 9:30 and 11:00.

At my previous church in New Jersey, probably around about the late 1980s, in the midst of a choral program, I had arranged for a person in the audience to stand and shout out in an angry voice something similar to:  “All this cheerful Christmas music is just a waste! I don’t see what there is to be cheerful about. There are crazy dictators all over the world and injustice is something we see around us every day! I’m sick of all this joy, joy, joy!”

Of course, the audience was not expecting this (and I had an uncle in the crowd – who was admittedly a bit slow – ask me the next day, “Hey what was the matter with that guy yelling last night?”)  But, back to the program – I had it planned that I would respond to my planted fellow needing anger management, “You are correct; and you are far from the first to make note of that very problem. Just have a seat and listen to the words of this old song.”

I had chosen a very creative arrangement of the old hymn “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  That song is set to a rather cheerful melodic line and harmonies. But if you know the lyrics, you know that there is a stanza in which the text changes from expressions of joy and light, to a statement of the dark realities of a troubled world … and my choral arrangement set this following verse in a dark and foreboding minor key.  Written on Christmas day in 1863 – in the midst of the Civil War and upon the recent severe wounding of his son – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed within his poem:

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

And in despair I bowed my head: “There is no peace on earth,” I said, “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”

On this sad day of national grief over the tragedy in Connecticut, we can surely resonate with these thoughts! Hate appears to be winning.

But the game is not over yet; the final verse of the poem – of life – of God’s work – is not written yet. Hence Longfellow wrote:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”

There is no hope but in God; there is no peace or final justice but in the cross and the victory of Christ over death, sin, and all the injustice rooted therein.

… the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?” But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. …  Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.