Monday, December 22, 2008

Barter accomplished, neigbhor culture pondered

My grandparent's house in Seattle provided me my understanding of neighborly behavior. They seemed to know all of their neighbors--a visit to their home would also often mean a visit to the neighbor's. One had a huge Great Dane and a carp pond in the back yard. Another neighbor provided treats on most visits. They would loan garden tools, get a cup of sugar, exchange Christmas cards. I thought neighborly living was a lost art. I don't remember good neighbors outside of my grandparents neighborhood.

My life in South Dakota revived my memories. I don't know if neighborliness is a South Dakota quality, or if neighborliness is like politics and real estate--depends on the local situation. My mother thinks her neighbor is a quack and keeps one eye open. My dear wife and I are blessed to have some fabulous neighbors. Saturday night I squatted at their home for a little poker game, shared a six pack of beer and some snacks. No planning of a poker party--only a simple get together. This morning, we practiced a little barter--a gallon of milk (I seem to know where to buy cheap milk) for a package of THE BEST BACON. (Sidenote: supposedly artisan bacon is all the rage, but the Hutterites in South Dakota were making artisan bacon before artisan bacon was artisan bacon). I don't really like bacon all that much. I was a vegetarian for 6 years. But that is good bacon. We get together for a cocktail here, a meal there, a talk while standing in the driveway...they have mowed our lawn, shoveled our snow, watched our children. We have tried returning the favor at times, but we have received the better end of the deal.

Whenever we move, we will never have better neighbors.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Eskimos supposedly have several words for snow. Pacific Northwesterners have several words for rain. In an unrelated item television newswriters and newscasters in South Dakota only have one word for prison--"behind bars."

I find it curious that people spend so much time worrying about the weather, something over which they have no control. I complain and rejoice about the weather--but I don't worry about it. Since moving to the Northern Great Plains, I discovered my mother and grandmother perpetuated a myth that to which I held tightly until my relocation: "It's too cold to snow." I remember days when it would drop to polar conditions, say 25 degrees, and Mom would say, "too cold to snow." I suppose snow happens so infrequently in the Northwest lowlands, that it seems like only perfect conditions produce the white stuff.

As I went for my run this morning, I thought about the 2 degree weather (a warm morning these days) and thought about the forecast for another 2-4 inches in the 12 degree temps this afternoon. I wonder what kind of myths I'm feeding my own children?

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Signs of being a veteran father...

"You kids get off my lawn!"

"Can you turn that music down?!?!? It's too loud!"

"Whoa, it's past 930! Time for bed..."

I discovered that I have begun worrying about fashion for my five year old daughter. It's hard for me to let my daughter wear jeans--they're too low cut. Forget worrying about a muffin top. I have to worry about the "coin slot." I thought it was her body shape, but I think the jeans are really the issue here.

Call me old fashioned (?) but I shouldn't have to worry about this for my five year old. Maybe I should invest in some Nutrogena for a stocking stuffer...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Gilead and other things I've been told I MUST read or watch

About 3 years ago, I was given a copy of the book Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I was told it's a MUST read, especially for those of us serving in the pastoral ministry. Maybe one of my many facets of immaturity is that I do not tolerate being told what I MUST read or watch. Even though I participated in a workshop engaging in a discussing of Gilead, I took a trip back to high school and some college days and did not complete the reading. Being told to read Gilead because I am a pastor brought up horrific memories of being told to read the Mitford Series by Jan Karon. Karon was celebrated at the seminary I attended, so I tried reading a few of the books. I was deeply troubled by the book, namely because the stories glorified an unhealthy clergyperson as quaint. This pastor in rural North Carolina had not taken a vacation in several decades, and he was seen as a good pastor and a lovable loser. Granted, there are very few, if any, positive examples of clergy in popular culture, and I'm not sure if pastors should hope for more positive images.

Many people I respect have loved Gilead, namely L. Gregory Jones from Duke Divinity School. Yesterday, I returned from a long driving trip and attempted to maximize my time by listening to a book. I finally gave Gilead a chance to inspire my imagination. I found the book droning, tedious and overly sentimental. This may have had something to do with the voice of the reader. What did resonate with me was the relationship with preaching that every pastor develops. John Ames develops a respectful relationship with his prepared sermons. Sermons are deeply personal--representing years of scholarship, nuanced and passionate hopes, fears and beliefs. The preacher is essentially bare in front of the congregation. Though Robinson does not personify the sermons per se, there is a relationship between preacher and sermon. I am thankful for this portrayal of the homiletical exercise. I also appreciate Ames' longing love for a child--I have learned in my own parenthood that this is one of the greatest insights into God in my lifetime.

Gilead is significantly more valuable than Karon's works. I believe that defining, depicting, portraying the Church and the pastoral ministry is an enigmatic undertaking. I find I am sensitive about these definitions because I am still optimistic about what I can be as a pastor and what the Church can be in congregational and community life. I have drifted from the altruism of my earlier days of ministry, but I'm still hopeful. Congregations and pastors are sinful and flawed. Unlike God, I have a hard time overlooking some flaws.

In reading a book about the Pacific Northwest called The Good Rain, I learned about a slogan of the town of Astoria, Oregon, in the NW corner of the state--at the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific Ocean. "We ain't quaint." I don't care for portrayals of the Church as quaint. This is where Gilead and the Mitford series meet--quaint portrayals of the Church. In looking at the definition of quaint, I see obsolete, strikingly old fashioned and unfamiliar. Reagardless of my own personal optimism regarding the Church and my own flaws and sins, I have no desire to be part of a quaint Church. I am glad to engage in the discussion about the Church selling its soul to be relevant. This is a worthy discussion. But I have no desire to be part of the quaint.

And...just because the ABC television network says that "Life On Mars" is the "next great cop show" doesn't mean I have to watch it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Nolan Ryan and my family--and an adoption

My father sold some of his baseball cards when I was in college in order to help pay for college expenses. We used to pull those pieces of cardboard out and look at them from time to time. In the first few years of card observation, Dad did most of the talking. He told the stories of Pete Rose, Rod Carew, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, Bobby Bonds, Vida Blue, Joe Morgan, Nolan Ryan, Reggie Jackson--too many to name. Baseball games flashed on the TV from time to time. On a really special occasion the game would be on while we ate dinner--like the All Star Game or World Series. I heard about the days of the Seattle Rainiers and the Seattle Pilots (those few days) and old SIcks Stadium.

The Seattle Mariners came to be in the Pacific Northwest in 1977, about the time I got my first baseball glove. It was a brick colored glove with a copy of Jim "Catfish" Hunter's signature. I think the glove had an "Ed-U-Cated" Heel (whatever that means). Dad took me to a hardware store (I believe) to buy it after I took special interest in his a softball game at the Albertson's company picnic. We had our first catch--I couldn't use one of my dad's gloves, I'm the family lefty. I enjoyed baseball before that time, but between the Mariners and my first glove, I became hooked on the game for life. I attended my first game in the spring of 1977 at the Kingdome, a Saturday afternoon called Picture Day. I stood in line with an admission card waiting for my own polaroid with one of the famous Seattle Mariner retreads. Diego Segui was indeed a retread, past his prime, but a recognizable name nonetheless. He was the opening day pitcher in 1977, getting hammered by the California Angels behind the gas of Nolan Ryan, 7-0. I listened to the game on my grandparents' giant console stereo ("A radio or television should always be a piece of furniture," my Granddad said). Segui was slouched in that box seat. I had my ball glove, Mariner hat, wearing jeans and a horizontal blue and white striped t-shirt. I lost the picture in one of my many moves. It was a great day. My dad bought me a paper cup full of Pepsi with the name "Alpine-Burtco" on the cup. We brought a huge bag of Hoody salted in the shell peanuts and a package of Red Vines. We parked 28 miles from the Kingdome and funneled our way on foot to the King Street Station which put us in the electric atmosphere of the ball park--sounds and smells. It was no Wrigley Field, but it was our home ball park. The players were retreads, but they were our retreads.

Baseball is a medium for relationships. I have known this for years--my family would travel miles just to watch me sit on the bench--I had just as many days of stardom as bench days. These days, baseball is about the only complex conversation topic I can have with my grandmother anymore. We've spent hours upon hours attending to, listening to, or talking about the game of baseball. From her days of going to her hometown team in Portland, Oregon, to the intricacies of our own Seattle Mariners. The players are our friends, though we have never talked. They are our brothers. The voice of the Seattle Mariners, Dave Niehaus, will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in a few days--he was like a cousin or uncle whose voice filled our homes and cars with stories, disappointments and elation.

I once thought in high school and college that I would collect cards like my father. I thought that I could save my cards and sell them to help pay for my daughters' college education. But my life is different. I can't keep up with the cards to make them a worthwhile investment. The chances of my girls loving baseball like I do seems slim right now. Maybe later. Our family has been working hard to reduce, pay off debt and pay for medical care.

As I looked in the many stacked boxes in our storage area--I decided it was time for the baseball cards to go.

My heart ached over the missed opportunity--to be a collector, make an investment, help out my children, keep an apostolic connection between parents and children througout generations. But I think I learned something. A man about my age with a wife and two kids came to my house to make me an offer on the cards after I posted ads on bulletin boards at the Hy Vee and Sunshine Foods. He knew baseball cards were not a great investment, but he kept collecting. I knew they wouldn't bring much. In some ways, the cards were priceless to me. I almost retracted the sale, but something happened. The stories we shared filled the room. We talked about our limited playing careers--and a slight but lingering dream to play amateur baseball in South Dakota. His son was named after Nolan Ryan. We talked about the big games we watched in person and on television. I told him about my day at Yankee Stadium. Stories of regret and joy. I sold all of those cards--hundreds of cards--for a little money. If I wasn't going to continue collecting and they weren't going to be a part of my relationships on a regular basis, I sent my cards to the best home. Little Nolan would someday learn about the man, the athlete behind his name. I probably had 10 or more Nolan Ryan cards in that collection. I contributed a little to someone else's relationships. I put my medium for relationships up for adoption.

I don't have to copy my father using the medium for relationships. I just have to find a medium where my family and I can meet--my daughters and I can meet. My summer has been about finding a medium where my daughters and I can meet. My dad and I will always have baseball.

This summer my daughter and I have tried tee ball, swimming, and soccer. Flashes of joy, but little connection. I'll keep trying. It seems to be that time. She's 5 and 1/2 years old now. I think I got my first glove when I was 6. I don't know what my dad was thinking in sharing baseball with me--maybe he wasn't full of analysis, it's just something he did because he wanted to share. In the grand scheme of things, baseball was only a means to an end. Baseball was another opportunity to know and love my dad. My daughters and I don't have to share baseball. I'm praying that God gives us something special to share.