It Takes All Types to Make a World

I enjoy people watching – gotta admit it’s true. And today I’m sitting and typing this at Younger Toyota, while I wait for my car to be serviced.

Sitting across from me in the waiting area is a father and his two sons whom I’d guess to be about ages 15 and 11.

The father is clearly telegraphing his life values and interests. He is wearing a humorous tee-shirt with a giant “WANTED” printed over a couple of pictures of large-mouthed bass about to chomp on a lure. And at the bottom is some sort of “fish killer” message. He is also sporting a camouflage hat. Clearly, this guy is the stereo-typical outdoorsman. I can tell you right now that his vehicle being serviced here simply has to be a four-door Tundra truck. The only thing curious is that it is not a Ford or Chevy that he fixes himself on some cement blocks at home. Update: he is now talking with some on his very large and outdated cell phone about sources of ammo.

The oldest son is clearly a chip off the old block. His camo hat is accessorized (not a word he’d use of course) with various pins and lures. Wearing hiking boots and jeans, the most interesting part of his attire is his red and white plaid button-up dress shirt – that has the sleeves deeply cut out. Along with his peach fuzz-encouraged goatee (I think that is the effort being attempted), he is the next gen expression of Larry the Cable Guy.

Larry the Cable Guy

Larry the Cable Guy

But here’s where it gets interesting. The 11-year-old is entirely different – in dress and deportment. This kid looks like he must have been the illegitimate child of Silicon Valley tech geek and who was abandoned at birth and adopted across the country by a family valuing horsepower over megabytes. The boy is wearing a shirt sporting a movie fantasy theme, with cargo pants and sandals. While his older brother is reading Field and Stream magazine, this younger boy is frantically working away with an iPad.

I don’t mean to be critical… laugh with me here, it is just funny. Hey, I confess to being a geekie guy in many ways, while at the same time having a flock of chickens and a rusted out pickup truck in the woods.

It is simply humorous that so many family systems get such a different mix of kids in the same house from the same parents! When folks over the years have said to me some version of “I don’t know where this kid came from and how he got in our house,” I have just said to them, “God gives us what we need.”  And God has given us a world with all sorts of varied personalities, sometimes even under the same roof.

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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.

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We Are Not Ranking Well These Days!

Two somewhat similar religious/church studies have come to my attention in the past week, and our area and the state of Maryland does not score well in either.

bible-cities-square-220x220The first is a Barna Research Group look at how the Bible is viewed in 96 geographical areas of the country – around major cities. It ranks the most and least “Bible-minded” cities by examining how people in those urban areas view the Scriptures. The research asked about how much people use the Bible, as well as how much they value its authority – thereby reflecting the overall openness or resistance to God’s Word.

Cities and urban areas in the top 10 were:  Knoxville, TN (52% of the population is Bible-minded), Shreveport, LA (52%), Chattanooga, TN (52%), Birmingham, AL (50%), Jackson, MS (50%), Springfield, MO (49%), Charlotte, NC (48%), Lynchburg, VA (48%), Huntsville-Decatur, AL (48%), and Charleston, WV (47%).

At the bottom of the list were Providence, RI (9%), Albany, NY (10%), Burlington, VT (16%), Portland, ME (16%), Hartford, CT (16%), Boston, MA (16%), San Francisco, CA (16%), Phoenix, AZ (17%), Buffalo, NY (18%), New York, NY (18%), Cedar Rapids, IA (18%), and Las Vegas, NV (18%).

So where was Hagerstown? Well, we were grouped as “Washington D.C./Hagerstown” and ranked 63rd at 25% … not so great. I guess it can be argued that the District dragged us down!

The other listing that caught my eye was written in an article called 493 Churches to Watch in 2013. This was actually a compilation of 22 lists of U.S. churches since 2004 that have been chronicled as the largest, fastest-growing, and best known for influence, innovation, or church planting. I am sorry to report that Tri-State Fellowship did not make the list. However, nothing remotely close to us made the list either; and there were only a handful of Maryland churches – mostly ethnic congregations – from the Baltimore and D.C. area in Md.  Probably the closest to Hagerstown of any church on the list is McLean Bible Church in Virginia.

This is not the easiest area in which to minister, but there sure are a lot of people to reach out to with the truth!

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.

Living within the New Normal

How to live effectively as a despised minority

My conclusion in the wake of this election cycle is that there is a new normal that has arrived, walked in to our cultural house through the front door, hung up its coat in the hall closet, put on slippers and reclined in the prime seat of the family room, and claimed the master bedroom.

The “new normal” – This is a phrase we often use at the annual gathering I attend of lead pastors of Evangelical Free Churches of similar size as TSF, called “Team 500.”  There we are talking about the church culture trends of lower commitment to a local congregation, a lesser attendance pattern equaling the definition of faithfulness, consumerism driving worship choices, declining generosity, and an overall softer view of moral choices.

But a new normal has arrived for the entire culture and the entire country. I am sad that this is true, though to not acknowledge it is to be in denial. For a number of years, this question has been in the balance, but the tipping point has come and the country and the culture have gone over to a different place – to a new normal. This is not the end of the world, but it is the end of the world as we’ve known it.

There has been much written since Tuesday – some of it good, most of it horrible. Some of the worst has come from the pens of evangelicals – high-minded statements, though without substance.

Yes – substance. This is what is lost in the new norm. We now have entrenched symbolism as the replacement for substance, along with the preference for subjectivism over objective truth.

One of the most inane pieces I read was an evangelical saying that what needed to be learned from the election is that the winning candidate appears to care more than the loser – that it is all about caring and demonstrating such as God’s people. Though a stated bone was thrown in a participial phrase that indeed the caring needed to be genuine, the entire tone of the piece was to emphasize how we market ourselves.

I’m mindful of the old illustration about objective faith. All the well-intentioned faith placed in a weak object will not hold. A person with deep faith in thin ice will soon be very wet and cold, whereas minimal faith in thick ice leaves a person secure. We live in a day that emphasizes the marketing of the appearance of the ice rather than the examination of its depth and substance.

Even within my own denomination, a piece was written that said there is one political party which is successful for caring about diversity, whereas the other does not – that we should learn from this and model such an inclusive diversity theme. I am all for diversity and celebrating it; that is what heaven will look like – people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. But let us be thoughtful at the same time. Let us understand that in spite of their verbal bluster the alleged group to model has fewer examples of diversity in the upper ranks of government than does the alleged perpetrator. Let us be thoughtful that redistribution does not solve root causes of a lack of industry and individual responsibility – Scriptural themes. Let us, in Maryland, be more thoughtful so as to see that the alleged champions of diversity have an entrenched and unjust network of preventing the very opportunities they trumpet as their raison d’etre (congressional districts that protect white urban power over ethnic and rural constituencies).

The greatest loss is objective truth. It is increasingly gone from the decisions affecting marriage and family, or what constitute “legal” versus “illegal.” Forget clear Scriptural injunctions about same-sex immorality; replace it with squishy statements like I read in the Facebook posting, sadly, of a person who actually grew up attending TSF, “I’m so proud of my state for giving ALL couples equal protection under the law.”  Forget that those who are “illegal” aliens are … uh … illegal; replace it with provisions and opportunities beyond those who are “legal.”  I understand the emotions; I can even love the people involved and feel compassion for younger folks victimized by the choices of older generations. But we have taken the meaning away from words; we have replaced it with mere feelings and passions.

It is not like this sort of alien cultural environment has not happened around the church before. In more generations than not, the church has had to live in a rather hostile culture. I wish it were not so. Paul encourages prayer for those in authority toward the end of a peaceful context for the church to thrive. And there are historic instances of the true church best thriving in the most hostile of contexts.

But it is sort of like the old Woody Allen quote: “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”  I’m not afraid to live in a hostile culture; I’m just said that it has to be much more that way. I’m sad for my kids and my grandkids.

So we need to learn to live in the new norm. But living there does not mean we jettison eternal values, truths, and admonitions. And to my evangelical brethren: As you salve your wounds with religiosity-based verbiage of “the last I checked, God is still on the throne” … remember … it is from that authoritative seat He decreed that His Word is a lamp to the feet and light to the path (not your feelings), that you are not to forsake the assembling of yourselves together in the community of the church which is His program for this age, and that the varied “one anothers” of the New Testament didactic corpus have little to do with consumer choices and your own personal preferences.

The sands have all shifted.