“Normal”

Normal is an interesting word. The American Heritage Dictionary defines normal as “conforming, adhering to, or constituting a usual or typical standard, pattern, level, or type.”
It took until my junior year in college for me to realize my eyesight was not normal. I was oblivious to the gradual deterioration that had taken place over the years, so I thought the way I saw the blackboard was the way everyone else saw it. While everyone else was seeing sharp lines and distinct shapes I was seeing fuzzy lines and blurry shapes.
What finally triggered a visit to the eye doctor was a drive home from Western New York after a long day on the ski slopes. The sun had set and a light snow was falling as I edged my little Ford Festiva onto the road home. The road was dark and curvy and the snow began to fall harder the closer we got to home. My brother-in-law was with me and I remember repeatedly saying to him, “boy it’s bad out here tonight. I don’t know if I can make it.” Since this is not the type of thing you typically hear a 22-year old male saying when he is with another guy, I should have immediately recognized that something was not normal. Later on my brother-in-law shared with me that I kept creeping farther and farther over the steering wheel as if I was trying to crawl out onto the hood or something, and by the time we pulled into a gas station at his suggestion I was squinting so tightly he wondered whether my eyes were even open. He graciously offered to drive the rest of the way home and I accepted feeling relieved that I didn’t have to navigate the elements any longer. As we pulled back onto the road I began to realize just how poorly and slowly I had been driving. I felt like we were in a rocket as Rob pressed down on the accelerator. I was a little concerned at first because it appeared reckless until he began to share that he could see things. Things like signs…with words and symbols on them…and oncoming cars. But the biggest shock to me was that he could see these things long before they were at the nose of the car, which is quite short on a Ford Festiva mind you. The next morning I scheduled an appointment with the eye doctor.
Our mind has a tendency to play tricks on us when it comes to “normal”. If we have been born into something or it’s all we’ve ever known, then our propensity is to label it “normal”. For example, it is “normal” in our culture to date. As a matter of fact, though parents differ on the appropriate age for their teenagers to begin this practice, it is not considered bad parenting to allow our sons and daughters to go out on dates. It’s even considered “normal”. But if we were living in the early 1900’s shortly after the word “date” entered the American vocabulary we would have a completely different understanding of normal. Few parents, or sons and daughters for that matter, would have wanted to be caught dating, since it was a lower-class slang word for prostitution. If someone wanted sex for money they went dating. (Mark Driscoll, Religion Saves, 181-183).
Oh how things have changed, but maybe not as much as we think. We may think we define dating differently than the way it was understood back in the early 20th century but how many times do our young women get taken out on dates in which the young man pays for everything and then expects he will get something in return. Couldn’t that, by definition, be loosely understood as a form of prostitution? Just a little food for thought.
Just because something is considered “normal” doesn’t make it right. There are a lot of things considered “normal” today that weren’t a decade ago. Some of those changes are good and some are not. I’m concerned that it is more common for followers of Christ to live life by conforming to what is classified by the surrounding culture as “normal” than it is to transform to the standards of the One we are to be following. We are far too happy with “normal” when Scripture clearly teaches not to conform or adhere to the patterns or typical standards of this world. Instead, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. Our minds, like my eyes, need an appointment and regular check-ups with the Doctor. Some of us may need a new prescription so we are able to see the road signs – words and all – and the oncoming traffic. Then we stand equipped to navigate life in such a way that people see clearly we are followers of Christ. We need to stop letting our mind play tricks on us, stop accepting “normal,” and embrace God’s will by allowing Him to renew our minds.

Mashed Potato Sundae

I have a sweet tooth for ice cream. All it takes is a stroll through the ice cream aisle at the grocery store or a Dairy Queen commercial and all my defenses collapse. But several years ago I had a horrible ice cream experience that nearly changed my love for the arctic dairy treat forever.
Some friends of mine knew of my love for the cool creamy stuff and thought it would be funny to play a practical joke on me. They built the most beautiful caramel sundae the world has ever seen. OK, so that’s a little of an exaggeration, but you must picture in your mind a pretty doggone good lookin’ sundae. Just one look at the finished product made my glands jump into overdrive. So with spoon in hand, bib around my neck and my friends gathered round, I prepared myself for my journey to ice cream heaven.
I dug my spoon into the creamy caramel creation, pulled out the biggest scoop I thought my mouth could handle and thrust the spoonful into my mouth. I was instantly thrown into a state of confusion. Instead of finding myself on the Rocky Road to heaven, I was on a Mississippi Mudslide of misery. My taste-buds were expecting the cool, sweet, creamy flavors of an ice cream sundae but instead they were greeted with the warm, bland, pastiness of mashed potatoes and gravy.
I have nothing against mashed potatoes and gravy, but when one is expecting a caramel sundae I don’t know that anything could taste worse. Mashed potatoes and gravy may be able to be doctored to look like a real sundae but with the first taste there is no denying the combination is a counterfeit – just a poor reproduction of the real thing.
The joke, for my friends, was in the fact that they knew I was going to recognize the counterfeit just a little too late. Imagine the shock that would have ensued if, upon that first bite, I had really believed I was eating a caramel sundae and continued digging in, commenting on how cool and sweet and creamy the sundae was. The joke would have still been on me, but my friends may have brought my sanity, or at least my definition of a caramel ice cream sundae, into question.
Most of us would agree that humanity’s general orientation is toward ourselves. Whether it is conversations between parents and children or the advertising industry and the talk show circuit the connecting mantra is something akin to, “You’re worth it,” or “You deserve it.” Peruse the aisles of any bookstore and notice the growing self-help section. We want to feel good about ourselves and unlock our inner power, thereby contributing to the betterment of this giant blueberry. Then hopefully, we’ll be remembered for a generation or two as a good person. We even go so far as to scientifically prove that we are justified in focusing on ourselves because of the evolutionary processes that have put us atop the food chain. We are a people who are generally oriented toward ourselves.
Yet in the end all of this sounds about as pathetic as calling mashed potatoes and gravy a caramel sundae. And the truth is, it doesn’t settle all that well in our souls. We know this isn’t the real deal, but we’ve done our best to convince ourselves and everyone around us that it is as real as it’s going to get. And as long as the propaganda keeps playing in our ears, well, then it must be true. All the while we wonder why, if this is as real as it gets, all the pieces just don’t seem to fit together to make much sense. From marriages, to parenting, to worldwide peace it feels like we’re trying to fit square pegs in round holes.
Perhaps a shift in orientation is in order. Perhaps if we oriented ourselves toward God rather than ourselves we may find the pieces fitting together like they are meant to, not necessarily like we think they should, but like they are supposed to. And then suddenly when we sit down for that caramel sundae and put the first scoop in our mouth we would actually feel the rush of an arctic treat rather than some sculpted potato substitute. You can keep pretending the spuds are the real thing, me, I’m gonna get back to the real thing.

Associate Pastor of Family Ministry Search Team Presentation

This audion clip is from Sunday morning, June 13th at MorningStar Baptist Church.  The search team has spent the last six months prayerfully seeking to fill this pastoral position at our church.  This presentation is a report of their process.  After the presentation the search team turned the process over to the congregation who will take part in the candidating weekend and then vote.

 

Misery Meets Grace

            My eleventh Christmas started out as the worst Christmas experience of my life.  That was the year I had the bright idea that it would be fun to secretly find out what all my presents were before Christmas morning.  So, two weeks prior to Christmas I snuck into my parent’s room and spoiled the surprise. 

            Waking up that Christmas morning was worse than waking up for the first day back to school after Christmas break.  The guilt and shame were so heavy that I thought I would need the fire department to extract me from my bed. 

            As I trudged down the hallway to the living room that morning I was met by my overly enthusiastic little sister who was under strict orders to wait until I got into the living room before evening touching a single present.  She met me halfway and began dragging me down the hallway with the strength of two teams of firefighters.  Normally this would have been cause for evasive action, but this morning I welcomed the helping hand as I lumbered down my personal death row.  When we finally got to the living room I could barely look up at my parents.  Their smiles and excitement made my stomach convulse even more, a feeling that was further accentuated by the box that my sister thrust into my stomach with a giggle and a, “Merry Christmas Mark!”  I looked down at the box, “a lego set,” I thought.  You would have thought I was holding a king cobra.  In my mind I had dropped the box and stepped back screaming like a little girl, but on the outside I had mustered every ounce of willpower I had to keep hold of the box and forced a smile.  I had to do this for Mom and Dad.  I may have ruined my Christmas but I didn’t need to ruin theirs too.  Déjà vu resulted from each present that was placed into my hands; socks, coat, baseball glove, forcing me to fake surprise for the family.  It was miserable and as I came to the last present I couldn’t take it anymore.  I had a feeling my parents could tell something was wrong, so I hung my head and confessed every sordid detail right there in front of the Christmas tree. 

            I thought every present would immediately turn to coal.  Then I thought my parents would just gather everything that lay in front of me throw it in the trunk of the car and take it to some eleven year old who would really appreciate it.  Neither of these things happened.  Instead, my Mom began to cry and my Dad looked at me and said, “We already knew, we just wanted you to tell us yourself.”  It turns out I hadn’t been as covert as I thought I was.  Through her tears Mom explained to me how she had noticed something out of place in her closet a couple weeks ago but didn’t think much of it until she saw me getting more and more miserable.  She put two and two together and realized I had gotten into the Christmas presents.  My parents were disappointed over missing the surprise on my face as I opened the presents, but their hearts broke more over the misery I had inflicted upon myself.  Pushing aside their own pain they asked me if I had learned my lesson then gave me a hug and told me they loved me. 

What happened next turned my worst Christmas experience into my best.  While I was hugging my Mom and apologizing through the sobs, my Dad slipped something onto my lap.  I thought I was going to look down and see a present that would again prompt déjà vu but instead when I looked down my mind drew a blank.  Finally, I reflexively looked into my parent’s eyes with a face full of surprise, wonder, and a good measure of perplexity.  My parent’s faces beamed right back.  Maybe in spite of, maybe because of, maybe both my parents had secured one present for me they knew would be a surprise on Christmas morning.  As I tore into the present I didn’t care what it was and honestly I can’t remember what it ended up being.  I had already received the greatest present.  I knew I didn’t deserve this gift.  I knew I didn’t deserve my parent’s forgiveness and kindness.  I knew my parents were well aware of all this and still gave the gift. 

That Christmas, grace was the greatest gift I received, and as I look back now I realize how much my parent’s actions helped me understand the grace of God wrapped in a babe in swaddling cloths and lying a manger.  Its a gift we don’t deserve.  Its kindness and forgiveness we don’t deserve.  With full knowledge of this God still places the gift on our laps inviting us to receive it with wonder and maybe even a good measure of perplexity.

Beyond My Control

            The older I get the more and more I realize there are many things in life that are beyond my control.  Yet, I find myself trying on a regular basis to control many of them.  What I have also realized is this is a phenomenon that is shared by many of my fellow human beings.

            Take time for example.  We have zero control of time – nada.  I have yet to find an individual who has mastered the ability of slowing down, speeding up, rewinding or pausing time.  Though there have been movies and books that grant characters these special abilities the last time I checked all those movies fell under the classification of fiction and fantasy.  I have yet to see one that begins with the words, “based on a true story.”  There are those who would like us to believe they are living a true story in which they have slowed or stopped time through the wonders of cosmetic surgery. In reality all they have done is effectively masked the certainty we all face that time is no respecter of persons.

            Though all have at least a subconscious knowledge of the vainness of seeking to control time we still expend amazing amounts of energy on this effort in futility.  Year after year we chase after the proverbial fountain of youth, seeking immortality.  Why?  In large part because we want to live forever, we don’t want to see time run out on us.  We want to cheat death, beat death, laugh in the face of the Grim Reaper as he stands before us totally impotent. 

Imagine for just a moment the implications if someone did actually come up with a marketable way for people to control time?  What a precious gift for the family member who never got to say goodbye or reconcile with a loved one who passed away unexpectedly.  And how beneficial would it be for someone in danger to simply pause time in order to steer clear of the danger about to ensue.  This would be a great military weapon especially when our special forces find themselves hot on the trail of known terrorists who seemingly continue to slip through their grasp.  But not all the implications are good ones.  For every good result we can cite there are a handful of bad ones as well.  This epic struggle is what good movie plots are made of, keeping powerful tools meant for good out of the hands of evil tyrants with an insatiable lust for power, destruction and control.

Regardless of what we may see played out at the local movie theater and on our home entertainment centers there always has and always will be certain things outside the realm of our ability to control and time is just one of them.  Like it or not there are aspects of this life we live in which we are the drowning victim bobbing in the middle of the ocean in need of a rescuer to throw us a line.  It doesn’t matter how hard we try or how much effort we expend because all that will ultimately result from our efforts is a tired victim bobbing in the middle of the ocean hoping and praying ever more frantically for any sign of a rescuer on the horizon.  It wouldn’t matter if you were an endurance swimmer, a lifeguard, or the person with the longest running lucky streak in history, we find ourselves on equal footing when we’re alone hundreds of miles from a shoreline.  A hope for timely help is the only thing we have.

            As I’ve aged I would like to think I have become wiser, and as I ponder these things beyond my control I realize that instead of trying to shape reality to how I think it should be I should be living within reality as it is.  If I’m bobbing in the middle of the ocean it doesn’t matter how much I believe I am living a different reality, unless a rescuer shows up I am sunk.  I can think I’m on a tropical beach basking in the noonday sun all I want but in the end all I end up with is an empty fantasy.  The good news is there is a rescuer on the horizon who throws a lifeline to all who stop trying to control and shape their own reality and send out an SOS asking for His help.  The question is will we stop thrashing around and trying to save ourselves or will be accept reality and cry out for His help?

Whose idea was it to make bumper cars dodge ’ems?

            There used to be a ride at fairs and in amusements parks that was a little boys dream.  It was the bumper cars.  For most boys between the ages of three and ten you couldn’t get much better than the bumper cars.  This little ride gave young boys not only the opportunity to drive but also the opportunity to drive into other cars, and not just any car but cars that contained siblings and parents.  For many little boys bumper cars were five minutes of pure delight.  Where else could a boy who didn’t possess a driver’s license jump in a car by himself grab hold of the wheel, press down on the accelerator, feel the freedom of the wind whipping through his hair and then slam into the car containing his little sister broadside, without being concerned about getting in any kind of trouble?   For a boy bumper cars were sheer genius.

081107_bumper_cars            Scientific and technological advances have done much to improve our society.  I remember when I was a kid my parents would just plop me in the backseat of their VW bug and then halfway to our destination I would crawl over the back of the seat and curl up in the trunk compartment for a nap.  There’s safety for ya.  Today, when our family heads out to get groceries we strap our little son in tighter than an F-15 fighter pilot for the half mile trip.  So, advances in safety have brought us a long way and improved many things, but the day that someone began to dabble in the realm of bumper cars was a sad, sad day for boys all across the globe.  It must have been a disgruntled sister somewhere, with a mild case of whiplash that made the suggestion that bumper cars needed a ‘facelift’.  Most boys at the time would not have called it a facelift but something more like stripping bumper cars of everything sacred, holy and, well, fun.  And so it happened, amusement parks and fairs all over the land took down their bumper car signs and replaced them with the dreaded dodge ‘em sign.  At the sight some applauded but many groaned.

            When the signs were changed nothing really changed about bumper cars other than the focus.  The cars were still the same, the arena was still the same but instead of having the freedom to drive wherever you wanted into whomever you wanted now all drivers were encouraged to do their best to dodge the other cars driving around the arena.  And for those who had the opportunity to enjoy the thrill and excitement of bumper cars the thought going through our minds was someone has clearly missed the point of bumper cars by changing them to dodge ‘ems.

            Many of us sit in church each year and celebrate what is traditionally known as Palm Sunday.  We celebrate and remember the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem at the beginning of the final week of His life.  We remember the joyous crowds and the celebration that ensued as His procession entered into the city.  And in remembering this time we have our own celebrations I’m sure. 

            But what is interesting to note about the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is that while the crowds were shouting, celebrating and filled with excitement, Jesus wept.  He didn’t just cry a tear or two.  These are not tears of joy from someone who has just been crowned with a great honor, no, Jesus tears are tears of lament.  Jesus is openly wailing.  He is broken hearted and crying out in mourning with just as much fervency as the crowd is crying out with fervent excitement.  Why?

            Because Jesus was thinking bumper cars while the crowd was thinking dodge ‘em.  The crowd was looking to Jesus to bring immediate peace through the overthrow of an oppressive empire while Jesus was intent on bringing true peace through the overthrow of the oppression of sin.  Jesus knew that nothing, not military might, peace marches, worldwide disarmament, education, or social advances could bring lasting peace.  He knew that the only thing that could bring true internal and eternal peace in the midst of even the greatest chaos, confusion and strife was a restored relationship with God on his terms.  The crowds at the triumphal entry missed this and just a few days later had deserted Jesus and some even joined in the cries of,  “Crucify Him”.  Let’s learn from their shallow worship and come to God on His terms of peace and experience the true and lasting peace with Him He so desires for us.  He’s playing bumper cars, are you?

Little Hiatus

I want to apologize for the lack of updated information through the month of April.  I have been in the midst of transition and education.  But now it appears as though I will be getting things up and running again and regularly adding to the website.  Thanks for your patience, keep checking back regularly.  Mark