Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Hurricane and the Rock

Saturday night and Sunday morning The Weather Channel displayed scenes of houses with their windows boarded up and ocean waves that seemed ready to snatch Stefanie Abrams off the boardwalk and toss her out to sea.

Then in church, our pianist chose weather related opening hymns. So as worship assistant, I found myself leading the congregation first to Higher Ground and then to The Solid Rock. Having gone that far, it seemed natural to share Jesus’ short parable at the end of what most Christians call The Sermon on the Mount. 

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24 – 27, NIV)

There are 103 words in those 4 verses. Not one of them is IF. Or JUST IN CASE. No, the hurricanes will come. Are we ready? And what happens after?

Several years ago I wrote a sketch about this passage for my JesusQuest class at Watsontown Christian Academy, but I never quite figured out how to use it. We tried live student actors, and produced an amusing disaster. The substantial student portraying the house on the sand relished crashing onto the floor, shaking the entire classroom.

This past year I took a puppetry class with some of my students, and A Tale of Two Houses became an international hit—in Pennsylvania and Jamaica. I embellished two shirt boxes to create the two houses, Miss Roxie and Miss Sandy. Insert a white-gloved hand with peepers, and you’ve got a talking house. A female puppet portrayed the reporter, and my construction worker puppet performed the role for which he was purchased, with the best Brooklyn accent I could muster.

For your amusement, and hopefully edification, here’s scene two:

[REPORTER enters with microphone]
That’s it, get a wide shot of all the damage and then bring the camera in for a close-up of this house.…
Good morning, this is All Weather, All the Time TV, coming to you live from the aftermath of a terrible storm.
Last night Hurricane Lucifer pounded this small coastal town with 90 mile-per-hour winds.
Ten inches of rain fell in two hours, causing heavy flooding.
You can see in the devastation around me there appears to be only one survivor.
Miss, excuse me, may I ask you a few questions?
[ROXIE looks around, up and down, and seems confused.]
Huh? Are you talking to me?
Yes, I’m from All Weather, All the Time TV. I understand there was a terrible storm here last night, Miss, uh…
Roxie. My name is Roxie.
Miss Roxie, can you tell our viewers your impression of the storm?
[ROXIE looks around.]
Am I on TV?
Yes, Miss Roxie. You are on TV. Now, would you describe last night’s storm for our viewers?
It was horrible!
Go on.
Just horrible. The wind never stopped. It seemed to come from all directions at once.
I thought it would knock me over! I think it blew my shingles off.
[ROXIE feels her head]
And the rain?
The rain never stopped. I’m soaked inside and out.
And what about the flooding?
Don’t talk to me about the flooding. I have water up to my sofa!
But you are still standing.
[ROXIE pats herself all over.)
I am still standing! I owe it all to the rock.
Excuse me?
The rock. I owe it all to the rock. See? My foundation is solid rock.
[JOEY enters]
Okay, guys, start unloading. Stack the lumber over dere, the siding dere…and, uh, bring the shingles over here. We’d better start on the roof first.
[REPORTER approaches JOEY]
Excuse me, mister, uh…
Joey Manzoni, Petra Construction.
Mr. Manzoni, we are trying to film an interview here. Do you mind?
Yeah, I do mind. Da Boss wants dis house fixed up pronto.
This house? It’s a wreck! Why doesn’t he just tear it down?
Are you kiddin’? Dis old beauty? Da foundation is solid rock.
Da Boss loves this house. Now, if you don’t mind…
[JOEY gently guides REPORTER out of the way)
Okay, guys, let’s go! Shingles over here! Marv, grab the ladder…

The sketch ends with the puppets lip synching to a wildly energetic song, “Build Your House Upon the Rock.”

I had one purpose in writing this sketch. I wanted to reveal one sentence of truth. All the other lines, the puppets, and the music showed up to make that possible. So don’t miss it. Here it is:

Da Boss loves this house.

Not to belabor the point, like the characters in the La Quinta ads, but just in case you don’t get it, I’ll gladly explain.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Shopping Spree

Oh goody, fall catalogs…and what they represent.
They promise that the neighborhood’s bored and whiny children will soon be locked in a brick building beneath a fluttering American flag.
No, not Guantanamo Bay. School.
Fall catalogs prophesy a day when I will smell like vanilla berry body wash for longer than the five minutes it takes to work up a sweat drying off after a daily shower in August.
            Smiling models and the promise of free shipping entice me to open a clothing catalog, which tempts me with soothing phrases like wrinkle-resistant, complete comfort, silhouette slimming, and s-t-r-e-t-c-h.
It occurs to me that if I need s-t-r-e-t-c-h, I probably shouldn’t wear it.
            I cover the faces of the models so as not to be deluded by their beauty. How does the $29.99 denim heather fleece set look without the flawless skin, button nose, and sparkling blue eyes above the neckline? 
          With my head there, will it look like the gray sweat suit I wore four decades ago in the Park Ridge High School gym?
            Even the euphemistically labeled full-figure models have sleek, fat hair tossed casually over their voluptuous shoulders. My shoulders are bony, all the padding having migrated to the region between my navel and my knees.
            And where are these women, anyway? 
            Page One, wearing the amethyst sweater and pearl slacks, smiles in front of an oil painting at a gallery. 
            An artistically blurred field of flowers behind Page Twenty-three matches her orange spice turtleneck, and sunlight glints off her artificially whitened teeth. 
          Page Twenty-six grins from a porch swing in her mint jammies.
I just want to know how the cocoa jacket (machine wash/dry) on page 51 will look when I’m pumping gas in a cold drizzle come November.
            Carefully crafted advertising slogans challenge real life experience:
These styles move easily from day to evening! But I don’t. Not without a nap.
Surround yourself in softness! Last time I tried that, the kids had to pull me out of a faux fur beanbag chair.
Split skirt is back! Yeah? On whose planet?
Weekend comfort—seven days a week! Not unless I lose my job.
            What’s this? Forgiving fit, perfect prices! My resistance crumbles. I must buy a new fall wardrobe.
            I toss the models on the recycling pile and grab my car keys. Salvation Army store, here I come!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What's your major?

“So you’re leaving for college soon.”

“Yep. Time to amass an unbelievable amount of debt while using up any discretionary cash my parents still have.”

“That’s great! I know you’ll enjoy paying it back the rest of your life. What’s your major?”


“What exactly does that mean?”

“It means I don’t have the foggiest idea of what I’m doing.”

“Ah…well, have a great semester!”

While some 18 year olds know exactly what they want—pre-med followed by medical school with a specialization in inter-species organ transplants—more and more students are entering college Undeclared. (I’d provide a statistic, but I’d have to make it up.) I don’t worry about them; they will figure it out by trial and error, even if it means squeezing a 4 year degree into 5 years.

No. I worry about people who go Undeclared not through college, but through LIFE. All that can be added to the name and dates on their tombstones is HUH? 

And I worry about people who put their major focus on minor issues and activities, and little or no focus on major issues and activities, because I keep drifting into that category. I suffer from MMS. Major Minor Syndrome. (Also called MMS, Minor Major Syndrome)

I regularly awake feeling less than cheery. Why? Interrupted sleep…caffeine deprivation…unsolved and unsolvable problems…sin nature…all of the above? This morning I made my way to the piano and a book of easy to play worship songs. We Fall Down…How Great is Our God…In Christ Alone…Chris Tomlin’s adaptation of Amazing Grace. I played the notes and mused on the lyrics, occasionally trying to sing along. (I usually can’t play and sing at the same time. I’m not Twila Paris.)

As I played, I realized I’ve been (once again) majoring on minors. The songs reminded me that as a declared follower of Jesus the Messiah, my major focus should be the greatness and love of God my Father. The mercy and grace given to me in the death and resurrection of Jesus my Lord. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit my Counselor. 

And my response of love and obedience.

Jesus told his followers, “In my father’s house are many mansions.” So do I focus on the reality of the mansion—a fabulous future in God’s presence—or on the color of the trim? Green or blue? Yellow or white? Yep. You’ll often find me in the spiritual equivalent of Wal Mart’s paint department, obsessing over bookmark sized cards embellished with shades of colors.

Fellow MMS sufferers, can we earn a degree by majoring in minors? Do students who fail to focus on what’s important ever achieve magna cum laude?

My man Paul—some call him St. Paul or the Apostle Paul—had this all figured out. 

First he spent some years majoring in minors:  his racial purity, his memberships, his impeccable behavior, his nastiness to anyone who disagreed. Then his academic adviser called him in. Knocked him on his tuckus. I think the adviser knew all Paul could become and couldn’t stand to see God’s gifts to Paul wasted on minors. He helped Paul choose a great major and stick to it. 

(You can read a more traditional account of this in Acts 9, Acts 26, and Philippians 3. Use if you don’t have a Bible handy.)

Paul declared his major in a letter to his friends in the Philippian church:  I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it. (Philippians 3:10 – 11, The Message)

Maybe due to his own experience with MMS, Paul makes a great life coach. He encourages me to major in love and minor in spiritual gifts. Major in other people and minor in myself. Major in gratitude and minor in grumpiness…no, drop grumpiness altogether…don’t even audit.

If you detect my MMS symptoms showing, don’t hesitate to ask me, “What’s your major?”

But please be gentle about it. And I’ll be gentle with you.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Yurt Blurt

I lodged in a yurt
With Gene, my spouse,
Leaving all comfort
Back at our house.

With Keith and Ruth
We yurted, we four.
(To tell you the truth,
They yurted next door.)

No closet to keep
All of my junk,
And I had to sleep
On a thin-mattressed bunk.

The showers were cold;
The showers were hot.
And it must be told:
Clean they were not.

At one in the morn,
With flashlight turned on,
Both scared and forlorn,
I hiked to the john.

Loud critters each night
And campers up gabbing
Worsened my plight
And increased my crabbing. 

I thought at Belleplain
There’d be woodsy scent.
But my lungs felt pain,
By campfire smoke rent.

After three nights of yurting,
Homeward I fled.
I’m no longer hurting
With electricity, AC, Dish TV, internet, in-house plumbing, and a king sized bed.