Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Wishing you and yours all the blessings of this Holy Season!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Christmas Around the World

Today I am going to be the guest speaker at the local Optimist Club luncheon, an invitation from a church member. He gave me 15 minutes to speak, a limit of six desserts at the buffet, and the topic “Christmas Around the World”. The time limit is welcomed – I won’t have to prepare much; the limit on desserts is no problem – I dropped 12 pounds when my wife signed up for the “Weight Watchers Diet” and I don’t plan to take them back; but the topic required a little research.

What I discovered is that almost every country in the world does Christmas so much better than we do. I am embarrassed that we have reduced this holy celebration into a crass and exasperating shopping experience that stretches from Thanksgiving Day until December 24th.

Yes, this year, Gander Mountain, that outdoorsman paradise, remained open on Thanksgiving Day… (sigh!)

And thanks to the exporting of American culture through television shows and movies, our customs are starting to influence other (richer) traditions that have thrilled children for centuries.

The beginning of Christmas goes back two thousand years to the birth of Jesus, as recorded in scripture. (Okay, I know the Christmas tradition didn’t begin back then, but that’s what it celebrates.) In those countries where Roman Catholicism holds the greatest influence, the celebrations start with Advent, four weeks of preparation before the birth of Jesus.

At my first church, when I tried to initiate some of the Advent traditions, my church members looked at me quizzically and asked, “Isn’t that a Catholic thing?”

In Mexico, the major Advent celebration is “La Posada”, during which a procession weaves through town with figures of Joseph and Mary searching for a place to give birth to the Christ Child. In Italy, children go from house to house reciting poems and singing carols, and are often rewarded with treats and small gifts.

Most of the gift-giving is done on December 6th, the feast of St. Nicholas. Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in what is now Turkey. His parents died in an epidemic and, following the direction of Jesus’ teaching, young Nicholas set about giving away his entire inheritance to the poor. He was made Bishop of Myra at a young age and continued his ministry of giving.

My favorite story of St. Nicholas involved a poor man who had three daughters. Unable to provide a dowry, the family was resigned to the reality that the daughters would never be married. On three separate occasions, bags of gold appeared – tossed through the window and landing in a shoe – enabling the daughters to marry. This was attributed to St. Nicholas, and is supposedly the beginning of the tradition of placing shoes or stockings by the fireplace in hopes of receiving such gifts.

Here’s what I like about the St. Nicholas tradition: Since gifts are given on December 6th, the Christmas Day celebrations in most countries focus solely on the birth of the Christ Child… as it should be. In Bethlehem, a large procession weaves through the streets of the little town, ending at the Church of the Nativity, where the baby Jesus is laid in a manger. In Italy, the faithful gather in Vatican Square to receive a blessing from the Pope. Even in Iraq, Christians carry an effigy of the infant Jesus in procession through the community and into the church, placing it in the manger. Then the priest blesses the crowd – he touches on parishioner, who then physically passes the “Touch of Peace” on until all receive the blessing.

Many countries continue the Christmas celebrations through Epiphany (January 6th), when they observe the visitation of the wise men or Magi. In Russia, children await the arrival of “Babushka” (grandmother). Legend holds that Babushka was invited to accompany the wise men on their journey to see the newborn king, but she was too busy. Later she decided to go, but never caught up with the wise men and never found the Christ Child. So now she travels the countryside delivering presents to all children everywhere in hopes of finding the baby Jesus. (A similar legend is found in Italy about an ugly witch named Befana.)

Here’s my thing: In almost every country I researched, Christmas is a two-part celebration: 1) the birth of Jesus, and 2) the giving of gifts. Whether the gift-bringer is “Dun Che Lao Ren” (China) or “Pere Noel” (France), or “Weihnachtsmann” (Germany) or Sinterklass and Black Peter (Holland), most countries keep the gift-giving tradition separate from the Christ Mass, allowing for the proper respect of both tradition and faith.

It’s worth considering.

While you ponder this, I wish you a very Merry Christmas! May the love and peace of the Christ Child fill your home in the days and weeks to come!

Friday, December 14, 2007

It Was a God-Moment

Last evening I had finished trolling the Cokesbury Bookstore at Lake Junaluska Assembly and was headed toward the cash register to make my purchase and head to the dining hall. But there he stood… in the path between me and my goal. He was an older man with a graying buzz-cut and a cane; the beaded disk at his collar indicated at least some Native American heritage. His nametag said he was Wesley, from McMinnville, TN. And it was obvious he was looking for someone – anyone – to talk to.

But I didn’t want it to be me.

We are at Lake Junaluska, N.C., attending a conference called, “Transforming Lives by Embracing Diversity: Listening – Learning – Celebrating – Empowering”. The first day was easy, as we covered the old territory of racism against African-Americans. Yes, we are all created by God; yes, “Jesus loves the little children; all the children of the world…” Okay, I’ve got that down.

But I didn’t want to talk to Wesley.

I pretended to brows the bookshelves as I tried to duck past him and reach the cash register, but he intuitively knew how to block my path. He must have known I was trying to ignore him, but he followed me down the row of books, leading with subjects hoping to elicit a response from me. It took about 15 minutes, but I finally got past him, made it to the cash register and out of the building. With over two hundred people in attendance at the conference, I didn’t really expect to encounter him again.

This morning the conference attendees gathered in small groups to de-brief our “facilitated discussions” from yesterday afternoon. Ours had been a polite sharing of how racism had affected our lives; I heard from others that their discussions had become quite lively.

As our facilitators recounted our discussions, one mentioned that in her group a Puerto Rican pastor had expressed concern about the American flag found in most United Methodist chancels; the pastor had expressed how that symbol was a barrier for some to come to church – creating an uncomfortable link between the American government and The United Methodist Church. He wondered if others felt that way.

Wesley spoke up. He asked for a show of hands: “How many veterans are there in the room?” His was the only hand raised. Then he began speaking, about the flag, about flag etiquette, about the bold sacrifices many Americans made in “the war”. “Isn’t Puerto Rico a territory of the United States?” he asked. “So when we come to church, we are all Americans… I fought in the war so we can worship… I fought in the war for everyone.” His voice occasionally broke with emotion… the same emotion I had heard in the voices of other vets as they recounted their experiences in WWII.

But as Wesley rambled on, I felt anger building up inside of me. Didn’t the Apostle Paul declare, “We are no longer Greek nor Jew, male nor female, slave nor free”? Didn’t Paul debate the Judaizers who insisted one must first become a Jew to be a Christian? How is this different? Must we become Americans to become Christians? Finally I exploded!

“You say you fought for us, but Jesus died for us. Jesus Christ comes first. Placing the American flag in our churches divides our loyalties. I don’t depend on America for my freedom to worship; in fact, in countries around the world where Christianity is suppressed, people of faith still gather to worship, and in many of those countries, Christianity is stronger for it!”

A silence fell over the room. A facilitator offered a weak cliché to smooth over the debate, and we left. I left quickly, hoping I would not have to encounter Wesley again. I didn’t know what I would say.

Over lunch, as I played the tape over in my brain, I thought, “How ironic; I came here to learn how to ‘embrace diversity’, and when that diversity came – not from black or Native American or Korean or Hispanic concerns, but with another white guy over the display of the American flag – I blew it!”

I looked at the schedule. We would be together at least one more time. Maybe I should apologize for losing my cool before the whole group… that would be big of me. I wouldn’t apologize for my beliefs, but for how I expressed them.

I also thought about skipping the session.

The moment came… and went. I did not have the nerve to speak my conviction. And I left quickly again. This time I was pretty sure we would not see one another again. I admitted if this had been a test, I failed. I would just have to take the “F” and try to do better next time. During dinner I convinced myself that it would be okay; I had made an enemy, but one I would never see again.

The evening worship included communion, and I thought about skipping out, but Bishop Hope Morgan Ward was preaching and I was looking forward to hearing her. She did an exceptional job relating the story of the annunciation through her unique story-telling style.

The Bishop was followed by the liturgy for the sacrament. We read together a unison prayer of confession, partly in English, partly in Spanish. Then we were invited to make our personal prayers of confession to God in silence. It was still eating at me, so I prayed about the heated words I had exchanged this morning with Wesley.

A passage from scripture flashed through my mind… Jesus’ teaching about reconciliation – if you are in the temple making your offering and you remember that someone has something against you, leave your offering and go and reconcile with that person, then come back and make your offering.

I tried to rationalize that it was too late; I would not be able to find Wesley before the sacraments were served. I just hoped God would forgive me.

We stood to pass the peace of Christ. I rose, turned to my left and hugged the large black woman standing there with a welcoming smile on her face. “The peace of Christ.” I turned to my left and extended my hand to the white man standing there. “The peace of Christ.” I turned to see who might be behind me. And there was Wesley.


Um,... I mean, Hallelujah!

And his hand was extended toward me: “The peace of Christ.” I was overwhelmed, but not wanting to miss this God-moment, I managed to blurt out an apology. In the brief exchange, he tried to brush the episode aside, but I refused to let him diminish the moment. [We all need to learn to allow a person to confess their sins to us.]

Communion was special tonight. As I received the bread… “The body of Christ, broken for you”… and the cup… “The blood of Christ, shed for you”… for once it felt right. Christ was there.

As the service concluded, and we gathered our things to depart, Wesley approached again. Again, he extended his hand and said, “God bless you as you travel home.”

He already did… and his name is Wesley.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Prohibition Repealed!

Tomorrow (December 5) marks the 74th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. Through the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution and the Volstead Act of 1919, the sale of alcohol was official prohibited in the United States effective January 16, 1920. The Methodist Church was a leader in the movement, as was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
Fortunately, President Franklin Roosevelt saw the light and signed an amendment to the Volstead Act in March of 1933 – loosening the restriction, followed by the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, signed into law on December 5, 1933. That Christmas, Anheuser-Busch hooked up a team of Clydesdales and delivered a wagon-load of Budweiser to the White House.

While it is probably considered unusual for a pastor to hail such an event, it is with good reason. As history records, Prohibition did nothing to stop the partaking of alcoholic beverages. In fact, alcohol use actually increased during this period.

Prohibition also gave rise to organized crime figures like Al Capone and Bugs Moran, who made millions of dollars through illegal sales. Saloons became “speakeasies” and created a fertile breeding ground for all sorts of illegal activities, including gambling, prostitution and murder.

Near the end of prohibition some supporters openly admitted its failure. A quote from a letter, written in 1932 by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., states:

When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognised. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.

So did hypocrisy. Humorist Wil Rogers joked about Prohibition: “The South is dry and will vote dry. That is, everybody sober enough to stagger to the polls."

Of course, Prohibition wasn’t all bad. Al Capone was something of a music aficionado, and many of his 10,000+ speakeasies in and around Chicago (like The Cotton Club) became the staging area for Jazz, giving up-and-coming black musicians a venue in which to practice their art.

And because the uncontrolled quality of the liquor of the day would often cause serious illness, blindness, and even death, many of those musicians switched from alcohol to marijuana as their drug of choice.

Perhaps it was the hypocrisy that brought about the end to Prohibition. Or perhaps it came about as the government realized they were losing millions of dollars in tax revenues. Remember, Capone was finally sent to prison for tax evasion, not for bootlegging or any of the numerous illegal activities with which he was associated.

Whatever the cause of the repeal, it is important for concerned citizens to remember our history as the City Council moves toward drafting new laws concerning strip clubs in Memphis. Some groups are calling for strict, prohibitive laws that will [wishfully] drive such businesses out of town; some support legislation drafted by the state of Tennessee and adopted by Shelby County that is much more severe than what the City Council wants to implement.

I believe the City Council has the right to allow such clubs to operate. If we have learned anything from 13 failed years of Prohibition, it is that outlawing such activities is not effective. There will always be a lucrative market for viewing naked bodies, as there is for drinking alcoholic beverages; and there will always be persons willing to provide such services. If dancing naked in a club is outlawed, such activities will merely be driven underground – out of sight perhaps, but not out of town.

But I also believe the City Council has the right to require all the licenses deemed necessary, and to provide the appropriate oversight to protect the public welfare. And in the same way waiters and waitresses are required to pay taxes on “presumed tips”, so dancers should be expected to pay the government a percentage of their “presumed tips”.

But preferably not in one-dollar-bills!

The rest is our responsibility. If we don’t want strip clubs in our town, we shouldn’t patronize them. Without our dollars, they will not be able to afford to operate and will simply go away.

What’s more, we should raise our children to respect all people – men and women – not for how they can make us feel, but for who they are. I would not presume to know another person’s motivation for her/his choice of work – many simply say, “It’s a job.” But I suspect few just really, really, really want to show you their private parts for the dollar you are waving at them.

Yet I do know they are all human beings, and many share the same hopes for life that you and I have – to put food on the table, to keep a roof overhead, to possess stuff, to engage in meaningful relationships, and to enjoy all the freedoms our country has to offer.

Let’s not ask our government to repeat the mistakes of the past by imposing laws that we are personally unwilling to keep. There are just some things for which we do not need a law. As my parents used to tell me whenever I got in trouble, “You know better!”

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Where is Margaritaville?

While studying religion at Lambuth College, I wrote a paper entitled, “Santa Is Alive And Well On Planet Earth’. It was a fairly comprehensive work comparing and contrasting Santa and Satan. Before you scoff, think about it: they share the same letters in their names; they both wear red; and they are both mythological figures used by adults to scare children into being good. One delivers good gifts to those who are “nice”, the other delivers eternal punishment to those who are naughty. I thought it was clever.

Dr. Davenport did not. He gave me an “F”. Or, rather, I earned an “F”.

So it is with some trepidation that I launch into this musing. Yet, lest some are misled, I feel the need to clarify just where Margaritaville is for me. If you recall from my last posting, I implied that I go to Margaritaville to overcome the stresses in my life. Because of what I believe to be the wide-spread misunderstanding of the music and life of Jimmy Buffett, some people might have the wrong impression. Wherever it is, Margaritaville is not found at the bottom of a tequila bottle!

That would be a worm!

The “official” definition of Margaritaville (courtesy of Jimmy) is: “A state of mind found wherever one desires, known for its frozen concoctions, cheeseburgers, and frequently misplaced shakers of salt”.

Several years ago I went in search of Margaritaville. I almost found it in Cancun, where the ocean is a beautiful turquoise blue, and the white sandy beaches are pristine (and some of them are topless!). But the poverty in the local economy outside of the tourist area troubled me; Margaritaville has to be guilt-free.

I looked for it in Gulf Shores, Alabama, what one person called “the Red-Neck Riviera”. It was Spring Break, but falling so early in the year, the Gulf Coast was still frigid. There were no wild “MTV Spring Break” parties; in fact, we only saw three college girls sitting on the beach… bundled in hooded sweatshirts and blankets to keep warm. They had come to the beach for Spring Break and they were determined to be there!

I looked for Margaritaville in Hawaii, where the elders of the community are referred to as “Uncle” and the younger men are all called “Cousin”. But the spirit of Aloha is being replaced by capitalism, trash dropped by careless tourists (a polite way of saying “A**holes”) floats in the water, and there are too many damned ABC Stores. And again, life outside the tourist area is not as romantic as along the beaches. Native Hawaiians struggle to maintain their culture as tourism encroaches and forces them into ghettos and even off their own islands.

I looked for it in Key West… and almost found it there. While the cost of living (and regular hurricanes) makes life difficult for local residents, most of them choose to live there anyway. The weather can’t be beat. And Key West provides a welcoming setting for a wide diversity of people – from bikers to gays and lesbians to cross-dressers to Hemingway look-a-likes. And the nightly sunset celebration down at Mallory Square makes life fun every night of the week. I just wish we had found a better beach.

Having trouble finding Margaritaville in tropical locations, I looked for it at a Jimmy Buffett concert. Sort of makes sense, doesn’t it? A couple years ago Jimmy and the Coral Reefers played at the Pond in Anaheim (now the Honda Center), where the Anaheim Ducks play hockey. It happened to fall during Spring Break, so off we went. Unfortunately, many “Parrotheads” chose to arrive when the parking lot opened at noon, and by concert time were sloppy drunk. One guy shouted throughout the concert, “Play ‘Son of a Son of a Son of a…’…whoohoo!” A couple sitting in front of us were smoking (a huge no-no in California), and when another couple asked them to put it out, a fight broke out. I also found two people having sex in the men’s room – thank God for those disposable paper seat covers! I decided that wasn’t what I was looking for either.

So I asked myself, “Just what are you looking for?” My mind pointed me to the book of Revelation, to the description of the new heaven and new earth in chapter 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
I realized then that what I have been looking for is an earthly manifestation of Heaven. And since we don’t have a definite description of Heaven from scripture, why can’t Heaven be white sandy beaches under a warm summer sun, with the soothing rhythm of the steel drum drifting through the air?

Sure beats floating on clouds and playing a harp for all eternity!

The good news is that unlike Heaven, one doesn’t have to die to get to Margaritaville. As Jimmy himself has tried to tell us, Margaritaville is a “state of mind”. So now, instead of searching for it in other locations, I try to live out the spirit of Margaritaville. I make hospitality my calling, and all who come in peace are welcome. When I wear my Hawaiian-print shirts to Annual Conference, it is not about a mid-life crisis, but a quiet call for us to move beyond the coat-and-tie “business as usual”. We need to embrace a different vision, in which people matter more than politics, in which ministry matters more than protecting our turf.

Karen and I have also tried to create a physical manifestation of Margaritaville at our parsonage – a warm, comfortable place; a welcoming place of peace for all people; a hospitable place, where one might even get a frozen concoction and a cheeseburger. A recent guest at our house looked at the tropical décor and proclaimed, “Why, you don’t ever have to go away on vacation!”

That’s my Margaritaville.

And as Jesus tried to teach us, Heaven breaks through every now and then… whenever two or three gather together… even in a place like Margaritaville.

And someday, I hope, even in my church!

Monday, November 26, 2007


A co-worker recently dropped the following "test" into my mail box. Apparently, she thought I was either in denial or hiding my stress levels and thought this "test" could shake me from my condition.

Or perhaps she felt I wasn't stressed enough and she was using the page to prompt me on things about which I should be worried.

After a year-and-a-half of working together, she apparently doesn't know me too well!

You can take the test below (purportedly from the Dartmouth Institute for Better Health) and decide for yourself. My comments will continue afterwards.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Read each stress-related event at the left. If you have experienced that event within the last twelve months, circle the corresponding number at the right. Add the numbers you circled to find your stress level score.

Serious injury or illness - 6
Alcohol, drug or emotional problem - 6
Marriage - 4
Death of a close friend - 4
Trouble with neighbors or friends - 2
Beginning or ending of school or training program - 2
Loss of job, retirement - 2
Selling or buying of a home - 4
Change of jobs, promotion - 2
Trouble with boss - 2
Death of a spouse or immediate family member - 10
Divorce - 8
Reconciliation or separation - 6
Seriouis illness or injury of family member - 4
Family arguments - 4
Child's entering or leaving home - 4
Moving of relative into the household - 2
Move to a new residence - 2
TOTAL: _____

If your stress level score is:
Less than 10 - You have a low stress level and your life has been stable in most areas for the past twelve months.
10-15 - You have a moderate stress level and there has been a lot of change in your life this past year.
16 or more - You have a high stress level and there have been major adjustments in your life this past year.


After taking the test, I scored a TOTAL of ZERO! ... which means I am either completely stress-free, completely in denial, or have passed on to the "church triumphant" unaware!

Frankly, I don't like tests like these. For one, you can't quantify "stress". For instance, I have known people to go through divorce with a stress level of 4 (on a scale of 1-10) and others who curl up in a ball with a stress level that is off the chart.

Likewise, tests like these are not comprehensive. the co-worker who passed it on to me wanted to add the stresser, "Are you caught up in the rush of the Christmas season?" Again, no, I am not.

But ask me what my stress level was last week when a funeral interrupted an already-short work-week. Ask me what my stress level was on Wednesday as I drove through blinding rain on the way to my mother's house for Thanksgiving. Ask me what my stress level is as I approach Charge Conference this weekend.

Okay, that last one is not too high.

Perhaps some people need a test like this to remind them that we live in a stress-filled world. But honestly, who wouldn't recognize the presence of "stress" if they lost a job... or a spouse... You see my point?

What would be more helpful would be a list of "things to do" to help relieve such stresses.
And how do I handle the stress?

Look for me in Margaritaville!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Merry Christmas!!!

Let me be the first to wish you all a very merry Christmas!

Unfortunately, I'm probably not the first -- and it is only November 17th.

Yes, earlier this week I traveled out to the mall and, to my great dismay, there sat Santa, already on his throne at center court, waiting for children to sit on his lap and pose for a photograph!

Then again today, as I went to my favorite Back Yard Burger for lunch, I discovered that elves had been hard at work overnight transforming the restaurant into a "winter wonderland".

I chuckle a little knowing that Elvis Presley Enterprises has been advertising for a couple weeks now: "Santa Claus is coming to town, but first he's stopping at Graceland"... on November 23rd. Oops!

As a Christian pastor, I love celebrating the birth of our Savior, telling the old familiar story of the very pregnant Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem to be registered; finding no room in the inn they were forced to sleep in a stable, where Mary delivered; and the babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and laying in a manger. I love the visitations of the shepherds and the wisemen -- and the annual pageants depicting these with children dressed in bathrobes using grandpa's cane for a shepherd's crook.

Yet we all know that what most are celebrating this early in the season is so obviously not the birth of Jesus. In fact, the only thing the two celebrations have in common is the name, "Christmas".

And I have nothing against celebrating this commercialized version of Christmas. I love the decorations and the presents and the parties. I love hearing Nat King Cole sing about "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire", and Eartha Kitt enticing "Santa Baby", and even the oddly successful combination of Bing Crosby and David Bowie sing about "The Little Drummer Boy". And don't forget the Grinch -- the original cartoon version, not the Jim Carey live-action recreation. Why do they insist on messing with perfection?

But c'mon folks! We're still more than five weeks away from the big day! Let's pace ourselves!

It seems that each year, the commercial celebration of Christmas begins earlier and earlier. No longer is the day-after-Thanksgiving such a big deal. We've been humming the muzak version of "White Christmas" for weeks by then! In fact, a week before Halloween, many stores were holding sales on Halloween costumes and candy to make room to sell Christmas decorations.

Maybe there is an up-side to this though. After so many weeks of sugar plum fairies, "Jingle Bells" and the madness in the marketplace, perhaps folks will be ready for a "Silent Night". And perhaps some small child sitting on a department-store-Santa's lap will look up at the fat man in the red suit and ask, "What's this all about anyway?"

And hopefully someone standing nearby will be able to tell that child about the child born in a stable in the city of David, a savior... who is Christ the Lord.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Chili Cook-Off

Here's one passed along to me by a church member. It's too funny to pass up! Of course, it is supposed to be true (aren't they all) -- you be the judge.

The story comes from a Chili Cook-Off at San Antonio City Park. Frank, a visitor from Springfield, IL, recounts how he was selected to be Judge #3 at the Chili Cook-Off: "Recently, I was honored to be selected as as judge at a chili cook-off. The original person called in sick at the last moment and I happened to be standing there at the judge's table, asking for directions to the Coors Light truck, when the all came in. I was assured by the other two judges (native Texans) that the chili wouldn't be all that spicy; and, besides, they told me I could have free beer during the tasting, so I accepted and became Judge #3."

Here are the score card notes from the event:

Judge #1 - A little too heavy on the tomato. Amusing kick.
Judge #2 - Nice, smooth tomato flavor. Very mild.
Judge #3 (Frank) - Holy crap, what the hell is this stuff? You could remove dried paint from your driveway. Took me two beers to put the flames out. I hope that's the worst one. These Texans are crazy.

Judge #1 - Smokey, with a hint of pork. Slight jalapeno tang.
Judge #2 - Exciting BBQ flavor, needs more peppers to be taken seriously.
Judge #3 - Keep this out of reach of children. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to taste besides pain. I had to wave off two people who wanted to give me the Heimlich maneuver. They had to rush in more beer when they saw the look on my face.

Judge #1 - Excellent firehouse chili. Great kick.
Judge #2 - A bit salty, good use of peppers.
Judge #3 - Call the EPA -I've located a uranium spill. My nose feels like I have been snorting Drano. Everyone knows the routine by now. Get me more beer before I ignite. Barmaid pounded me on the back, now my backbone is in the front part of my chest. I'm getting shit-faced from all of the beer.

Judge #1 - Black bean chili with almost no spice. Disappointing.
Judge #2 - Hint of lime in the black beans. Good side dish for fish or other mild foods, not much of a chili.
Judge #3 - I felt something scraping across my tongue, but was unable to taste it. Is it possible to burn out taste buds? Sally, the beer maid, was standing behind me with fresh refills. This 300-lb. woman is starting to look HOT... just like this nuclear waste I am eating! Is chili an aphrodisiac?

Judge #1 - Meaty, strong chili. Cayenne peppers freshly ground, adding considerable kick. Very impressive.
Judge #2 - Chili using shredded beef, could use more tomato. Must admit the cayenne peppers make a strong statement.
Judge #3 - My ears are ringing, sweat is pouring off my forehead, and I can no longer focus my eyes. I farted, and four people behind me needed paramedics. The contestant seemed offended when I told her that her chili had given me brain damage. Sally saved my tongue from bleeding by pouring beer directly on it from the pitcher. I wonder if I'm burning my lips off. It really ticks me off that the other judges asked me to stop screaming. Screw them!

Judge #1 - Thin yet bold vegetarian variety chili. Good balance of spices and peppers.
Judge #2 - The best yet. Aggressive use of peppers, onions, garlic. Superb.
Judge #3 - My intestines are now a straight pipe filled with gaseous, sulfuric flames. I crapped on myslef when I farted, and I'm worried it will eat through the chair. No one seems inclinded to stand behind me except that Sally. Can't feel my lips anymore. I need to wipe my butt with a snow cone.

Judge #1 - A mediocre chili with too much reliance on canned peppers.
Judge #2 - Ho hum tastes as if the chef literally threw in a can of chili peppers at the last moment. **I should note that I am worried about Judge #3. He appears to be in distress as he is cursing uncontrollably.
Judge #3 - You could put a grenade in my mouth, pull the pin, and I wouldn't feel a thing. I've lost sight in one eye, and the world sounds like it is made of rushing water. My shirt is covered with chili, which slid unnoticed out of my mouth. My pants are full of lava to match my shirt. At least during the autopsy, they'll know what killed me. I've decided to stop breathing -- it's too painful. Screw it: I'm not getting any oxygen anyway. If I need air, I'll just suck it through the 4-inch hole in my stomach.

Judge #1 - The perfect ending, this is a nice blend chili. Not too bold but spicy enough to declare its existence.
Judge #2 - This final entry is a good, balanced chili. Neither mild nor hot. SOrry to see that most of it was lost when Judge #3 farted, passed out, fell over and pulled the chili pot down on top of himself. Not sure if he's going to make it. Poor feller, wonder how he'd have reacted to really hot chili?
Judge #3 - No report.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007


gul'li-ble. A small furry rodent that dwells in coastal tree stumps in New Guinea and feasts on low flying sea birds.

No, really. Look it up!

Now if you believe that, you'll really enjoy the following tidbits, passed generously around the internet... so you know they must be true!

• When Gerber first started selling baby food in Africa, they used the same packaging as here in the USA--with the cute baby on the label. Later they found out that in Africa companies routinely put pictures on the label of what is inside since most people can not read.

• When Coca-Cola first shipped to China, they named the product something that when pronounced sounded like "Coca-Cola." The only problem was that the characters used meant "Bite The Wax Tadpole." They later changed to a set of characters that mean "Happiness In The Mouth."

• When Pepsi started marketing its products in China a few years back, they translated their slogan, "Pepsi Brings You Back to Life" pretty literally. The slogan in Chinese really meant, "Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back from the Grave."

• Coors put its slogan, "Turn It Loose," into Spanish, where it was read as "Suffer From Diarrhea."

• The Chevy Nova never sold well in Spanish speaking countries. "No Va" means "It Does Not Go" in Spanish.

Of course, none of these is true. Yet, they have been used as sermon illustrations on several occasions -- apparently it is more important for a sermon illustration to be funny than it is to be true.

Whenever I run across a sermon illustration that appears too good to be true, I check it out. Did Abraham Lincoln really do that? Did Mark Twain/Vince Lombardi/Ben Franklin really say that? Is Madeline Murray O'Hare still trying to remove religious programming from the airwaves?

If I can't confirm it, I either look for something else or admit, "I don't know if he really said this, but..." A good place to start is at They research urban legends and try to get to the truth of the matter.

Or is that just an urban legend?

My point is simple -- especially to my fellow pastors out there:

Don't be a small furry rodent...

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Happy Halloween!

Yes, this was the scariest costume I could think of... me in a Tux!


Have a Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 25, 2007


“Vampires, mummies and the Holy Ghost,
these are the things that terrify me the most!
No aliens, psychopaths or MTV hosts scare me like
vampires, mummies and the Holy Ghost!”
(Jimmy Buffett, “Fruitcakes” album, 1994)

Yes, Halloween is approaching and scary things abound. No, I’m not talking about “things that go bump in the night”, but the thinking of some well-meaning Christians about Halloween festivities. This has been an issue with me since I was a senior in high school, when I challenged my “pastor-with-a-PhD” about how we should celebrate the occasion. Yes, it was once a pagan festival – as was Christmas, Easter and most of the holidays we recognize today – but that has nothing to do with how we celebrate today.

I faced the issue again last week at my church’s 28th annual “Fall Festival”, a huge event put on by the church for the children of our community. Through this event we see 200-300 faces who don’t attend our church, mostly children! The festival is designed to be a safe experience for the children and help them feel comfortable in our church.

“But you can’t call it a Halloween Party”, somebody once instructed them, and they adhere to that like holy writ. Yet at this “Fall Festival” we still decorate with pumpkins and orange and black crepe paper, play games, give away candy and have a costume contest.

If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck… whatever!

“And no scary costumes,” came the second commandment. To be fair, I have heard that concern expressed many times before. “We don’t want to glorify evil and death.” Actually, the scariest Halloween Party I have ever attended was at a small rural church where – oddly – most of the men came dressed as women and several of the women came dressed as men!

What’s’ up with that?

I grew up a fan of monsters: from Lon Chaney’s “Phantom of the Opera” to Mel Brookes’ “Young Frankenstein”. As a child I actually read Mary Shelley and Brahm Stoker and Victor Hugo. I collected comic books like “Swamp Thing”, “Dracula” and “Vampirella”, and often wondered why Dracula always wore a tux and cape while Vampirella only wore a red “slingshot” bikini.

Not that I minded!

In fact, the monster stories I read were no more frightening than “Little Red Riding Hood” (an innocent child in peril, a wolf eating her sweet, ol’ grandma, and a lumberjack saving the day by killing the wolf with his axe) or Hansel & Gretel (two disobedient children held hostage by an old crone, fattened up with candy with the intent of being eaten). And don’t get me started on the Brothers Grimm – try reading the original version of “The Little Mermaid”… before Disney sanitized it!

Yet I believe I survived my childhood fairly unscathed by all this “glorification of evil and death”. I knew they were not real. I never lost a night of sleep worrying that some monster might get me; there was nothing living under my bed or in my closet.

But as the Church, as people who care, we need to stop for a moment and ask ourselves, “What is scary to children today?”
  • Our nation is fighting a horrible war (is there any other kind?) in Iraq and we are daily assaulted with news of casualties and devastation.

  • Our President and presidential hopefuls constantly remind us of the terror attacks of 9-11 and speak openly of the possibility of more to come.

  • Al Gore is telling us we are killing our planet and that “global warming” is causing cataclysmic changes to our earth.

  • Southern California is on fire, with literally hundreds of thousands of acres scorched, hundreds of homes destroyed, and ½ million people displaced.

  • States in the southeast are suffering from severe drought and have been warned that the water sources in some communities will dry up in 90 days.

  • In Memphis a person is murdered almost every day, children carry guns to school, and street gangs are a very real and present threat.
So tell me again why I can’t dress up like a vampire?

No matter how horrible we might think their costume choices are, in many cases these are tame by comparison to the reality in which our children live. At least at Halloween they are permitted and encouraged to exercise their imaginations, to momentarily replace their very real fears with a different reality – a less frightening reality, a fantasy world that their minds can handle – all in the safety of a church fellowship hall.

And we should encourage that. Perhaps if more of us exercised our imaginations, the world would be a better, safer place… for our children, for us all.

“This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” --Henry David Thoreau

Monday, October 22, 2007

C'mon, people!!!

It caught my eye, a teaser article on AOL. Denny's Beer Barrel Pub in Clearfield, PA, sells the world's largest hamburger, weighing in at 123 pounds! It can be yours for only $379. In their defense, only 80 pounds of that is meat.

Whew! I was worried there for a minute!

While I am pretty sure a single person is not going to sit down at Denny's BBP and eat all 123 pounds at one meal, there are several who have taken up the challenge laid down at Big Foot Lodge in Memphis. Small by comparison, the appropriately-named "Sasquatch" (pictured above) is a mere four pounds of beef. Eat it and all the "fixin's" (as we say in Memphis) in less than 60 minutes and it's free.

Imagine the savings! But take my advice: put that $19.99 you saved into a medical savings account. You'll thank me for it later!

At least the Heart Attack Grill in Phoenix, AZ, is honest about what they sell. Their motto is "A taste worth dying for". Their web site boasts of burgers with names ranging from "Single By-Pass" on up to "Quadruple By-Pass". For example, the "Triple By-Pass" is made up of three 1/2 pound meat patties, six slices of bacon, three chunks of cheese, three eggs, and tons of condiments. They also offer a side of "Flatliner Fries" which are smothered in mozzarella cheese and beef gravy! And just so you "get it", the waitresses are dressed up like nurses!

Okay, "naughty nurses", but you get the point.

The Heart Attack Grill web site also proudly promotes "beer and cigarettes" and their ground-breaking medical text, "The Heart Attack Grill Diet: Eat, Drink & Smoke Your Way to Better Health."

Don't get me wrong. I am not a vegetarian. I love my Back Yard Burger. But I have a rule of thumb that has served me well these 40+ years of life: Never eat anything bigger than your head!

Again, you'll thank me for it some day.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


“Fools’ names and fools’ faces are always seen in public places.” I don’t know who said it, maybe Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln – they seem to get credit for everything. Anyway, I found it hidden in the recesses of my childhood memories.

This is my first blog… I am not sure why I am doing this. Am I about to become another fool’s name in a public place? Or do I really believe I have something to contribute to the great cacophony the internet has become?

I have thought about this, and have decided I am probably posting this blog to fulfill some ego need that is not touched by my weekly appearance in the Asbury pulpit.

But perhaps I do have something to contribute. You see, I am not your typical United Methodist pastor. While other pastors get up early in the morning and decide which necktie to wear, or debate necktie versus clergy collar, I am sorting through my closet to find just the right “Aloha” shirt. (My bishop frowns.) While other pastors debate incarnational theology, I have happily reduced the totality of scripture down to three concepts:
1) In the beginning, there was God.
2) God loves the creation so much that he sacrificed his only Son, Jesus, as the means of saving us from the consequences of our sin.
3) In the end, God wins.

At the risk of damaging its reputation, I confess I am a graduate of the Claremont School of Theology (M.Div., class of 1989, I think). The school is located in a small, sleepy town in sunny southern California. Having grown up in rural western Kentucky, I wanted to see how “the other half” lived. Actually, I wanted to see if all the women in southern California looked like the women on “CHiPs”.

They don’t.

The school was steeped in deep thought. I was privileged to study under some great theologians (I’m not a name-dropper, so don’t ask). But despite receiving the free and free-ing gift of the Gospel many years before, I was still pretty uptight. Rigid. Christianity was still all about laws and duty. Sin.

It was at Claremont that I was introduced to the writings of Matthew Fox – the theologian, not the hunky doctor-star of TV’s “Lost”. Then a Catholic monk, Fox was the primary exponent of Creation Spirituality. He wrote of “musical, mystical bears”, and “Original Blessing” instead of original sin. It was life-changing. Theology didn’t have to be stuffy. Church could be fun.

From there I moved on to the great “conky-tonk” theologian Jimmy Buffett and the island lifestyle, which is not easy to pull off in Memphis. Thanks to Sirius Radio, I work to the rhythm of “Radio Margaritaville”. And whenever I start to feel “beach withdrawal” I visit “Hollister & Co.” at the mall to get a glimpse of Huntingdon Beach, broadcast live each day from the pier.

[Deep sigh.]

And what about the effectiveness of such a ministry? To be honest, it has taken my congregation a little time to get used to me. On the wall outside my office is a long row of elder statesmen in suit-and-tie frowning down on me. But my ministry was validated not long ago when one of my elderly members told me he had been a [member of another denomination] his entire life, but never knew that God loved him until he came to the Methodist church.


So here I sit, sipping on a margarita and putting my name out in a public place -- and when I figure out how to post photos, I’ll put my face out there too!

I invite you to return to “Banana Winds” often, but don’t expect to find deep thoughts here. And don’t look here for those saccharine-sweet “pass-this-on-to-ten-people-you-love” junk e-mails that fill my mailbox either.

I plan to keep “Banana Winds” light-hearted… to share God’s original blessing with all… to celebrate the “abundant life” Jesus promised… and to occasionally shake a few bananas from the trees!