Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sandwich Eater from Heck

True story...

This morning I was in the office, typing away, reviewing a rubric in preparation for the next class.  That part is not true.  Truthfully, I forget what I was working on.  The memory has been sandblasted from my mind.  They say the body has no memory of pain, and I am thankful it is so.

What I remember is that I was involved in the deal, making sure the employer gets his money’s worth.  Making sure the students know how not to fail the next assignment.  Then it goes dark.

He comes in.  He is a coworker.  I share an office with about eighty dozen other people because the college stacks adjuncts together like cordwood.  It saves money and makes room for more sports programs and administrative assessments.  I’ll call him John.

John doesn’t just enter the office.  He’s snuffly and blowing his nose.  I have a vision of Horton hearing a Who.  But, snuffly and nose-blowy?  No problem.  It’s the cold season.  Have some compassion.  I double-down on the fancy book learnin’.  It’s ok.  I stabilize.

John sits.  He blows again.  He uncrinkles a newspaper in front of him on the desk opposite mine.  The wind picks up.  The trees sway a little.  Clouds blacker than Lindsay Lohan's eyebrows form, and then the storm breaks.

From the depths of somewhere, his armpit I think, John pulls out a breakfast sandwich.  And not just any breakfast sandwich, but a breakfast sandwich wrapped in something forged in the paper-mill of hell.  The newspaper before him is like an ant walking on velvet in comparison.  This thing, this brown, sandwich-paper, it’s what Satan uses for toilet paper.

The sandwich reminds me of how my father in law used to wrap Christmas presents:  triple, sometimes quadruple layers of paper and a quarter spool of tape -- crinkle-crackle crinkle-crackle crinkle-crackle crinkle-crackle crinkle-crackle!  It’s like John’s skinning a porcupine over there.  That’s how long it takes.

And it hurts us.  It hurts our ears!  It must stop.  Oh, the tumult in my soul!  I cannot bear it, but I must.  I’m in the middle of an Edgar Allan Poe story and I’ve stopped typing.  But, it’s almost done.  It’s almost good again.  The paper stops screaming and I can breathe.  Until it dawns on me... he’s going to eat in the office.

A snuffly, blowy, newspaper reading co-worker is going to eat a crinkling-paper wrapped breakfast sandwich and he’s sitting next to me.  The smacking ensues and he’s enjoying this sandwich with approving hums and aahs from somewhere deep.  He’s reading that paper and he’s grunting with the cold in his nose and I’ve just seen the obliteration, the utter and complete annihilation, of anything resembling inner peace or calm.

I retreat to the tower of iron will, a place deep in my psyche; my last nerve, the line before froth drips from my mouth; think Danny Torrence in the Shining.  The tower has been in service through the long years.  It’s the inner sanctum where the slimy tendrils of Cthulu horror can reach only so far.  It is not my happy place.  My happy place has been napalmed.  The little blue jonquils and floppy-eared bunny rabbits living in my happy place are crisp and black and smoldering.
The sounds of the smacking and throat-scooting and paper rasping pig (did I just call my coworker a pig?!) sitting next to me has me laying on a cold, wet concrete floor in a fetal position begging for it all to stop.

I log off.  I gather my things.  I go get a cup of coffee in the department lounge.  It is quiet again.  I survive.

Why am I like that?  Don’t know.  Just am.  Will it happen again?  Yes, it will.  Any saving grace or lessons learned?  Maybe…

Consider that we are to love one another:  strangers, fellow pilgrims, enemies, and neighbors, one another as we love ourselves.  Ok fine, I know that.  It’s not always easy, but I know that.  I try.  Some people are hard to love but we try anyway, in spite of ourselves and in spite of them.

Then there’s Christ.  Christ will never eat a sandwich in my ear.  He is perfect.  Loving Christ is different.  I (we?) should never feel obligated to love Christ, like we ‘have to’.  When that happens, it’s not like it should be.  Loving Christ should be a great joy, not a burden.  It is something we should want, not something we have to.  Think about that…

Thursday, October 18, 2012

For Evil to Prosper

From what I have read, and from those I have communicated with via email, the Western (think cowboys & indians & tumbleweeds) is what I'm going to call a cold market.  The Western genre is not selling as widely as, say, vampire teen-lovers, women getting spanked by gazillionaires, or super-brainy detectives chasing serial killing terrorists around the globe.  So, sez I to myself, I need to write me one of them there Westerns.

That's just how I roll.

For Evil to Prosper is now out, exclusively, on Kindle for the first 90 days.  See what I did there, the word exclusively?  Makes you want one don't it?  In January I will make it available for the Nook and other types of ereaders.  That said, if you non-Kindlites send me a box of cookies or something of equal or greater value, plus your email address, I'll send you the file.  It will take some detective work as I'm not about to put my email address out here for the world to see.  You can make a comment to this post and I'll get back with you.

The book is about a young man named Jack Schidtt and how he becomes the sheriff of Pergamos.  Pergamos is a fictional town somewhere in the Nebraska territory, though there is some confusion.  It might be in Colorado.  Most people aren't sure since the debate over statehood is not yet settled.  But, the real problem is that a group of men come along and start terrorizing the mostly good people of the town.  Nobody seems to want to do much about this and Jack (who knows a thing or two about what's worth fighting over) has some deciding to do.  It isn't after until Jack's daddy gets shot, right there in the church building, that he decides to go after the men.

And if that description there doesn't make you want to download the book,I don't know what will.  The cover is very cool too.  Look at the cover.  Isn't it cool?  Makes you want to reach for your credit card like a spendthrift slobber-monkey with a treat-button in its cage.  Go ahead.  There's only one way to find out how great this book is.  You know you want to.

Anyways, I'm excited about it.  Another fine cover from Rebecca Swift, another nice formatting job from 52Novels, and thank you Nancy (you know who you are) for helping with the line-editing.

One thing this allows me to do is focus more fully on other projects.  I'd like to get one more book out by the end of the year, but that window is closing fast.  I had no idea the amount of effort it takes to get something like this put together.  As a matter of fact, I have learned a great deal about e-publishing since starting these endeavours earlier in the year.  More on that later.

In the meantime, my family still enjoys electricity and groceries.  So, please buy my book and leave an honest review on Amazon.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Redeeming the Time

It is hard to appreciate what it means to have the children home, together, for supper until you are old enough to appreciate what it means to have the children home, together, for supper.  How's that for profound?
What with practices and meetings and activities and friends and the natural forces continually and inexorably calling children from home, we should know that one day it will be the exception that we sit and eat a simple meal together.
Some days are already gone.  Cherish those that remain.

Friday, October 5, 2012


Being a pastor is hard.  Most people have no idea.

I’ve preached thirty-one funerals in the past sixteen years.  This included my grandmother’s and my father-in-law’s.  Only one time did I not meet the person in the box before they got there.  In a way that's a blessing.  An acquaintance from work at the time knew I was a preacher, of some sort.  That's how he phrased it, "Aren't you a preacher of some sort?"  When I told him I was he asked if I would do his father’s funeral.

For one winter funeral there was snow on the ground and it was below zero.  A back-hoe broke the ground for the burial.  The family wanted a grave-side service.  I kept it brief and at the end the machine used to lower the coffin into the earth had frozen.  The cemetery workers were short staffed that day and asked if I could help lower the coffin with straps.  I did.  Another time a paramedic asked if I could help move the body into the bag and then onto the gurney.  I did; all for people I knew.

I’ve seriously counseled five couples with troubled marriages.  Three of those couples went ahead and got the divorce.  One of those couples I did the original services for.  For a second couple I did a renewal of the vows ceremony.  Of the other eight marriages I’ve performed, three have ended in divorce.  Good thing I didn't go into counseling.

I’ve been cussed at and have had to walk away from those I’d known for years.  Midnight emergency rooms are always interesting.  There was the father of a church member who had MERSA, gurgling in his oxygen tent, covered with palm-sized boils on his face and arms, me in a medical hazmat suit.  I don’t know if he recognized who I was.  I read him a couple of psalms and prayed.  He died two days later.

Then there are the liars, the alcoholics, the porn-addicted, and the one or two heroin addicts I’ve known and tried to minister to.  Should I tell you of nursing homes and what goes on in them?  I once found a church member in late stage alzheimer’s who had slid out of his wheelchair.  His arms were stuck above the straps and pulled up over his head by the seat belt.  The rest of him was sitting on the floor.  He was moaning loud enough that I heard him from the hall before I entered the room.  I called the aide and together we unbuckled him, sat him back in the chair and washed the slobber from his chin and neck.  The skin on his face and neck was bruised and he had those deep red indentions across his arms from the straps.  That’s how long he’d been there.

Every week people tell me they’ll see me next Sunday and never show.  I guess this one sounds petty.  But over time even small things take a toll.  If nothing else, be nice to your pastor and pray for him.

Early on, towards the end of my “running from God’s call” phase, an older pastor advised me that if I could be satisfied doing anything aside from being a pastor, that I should do that instead.  I was young then.  I did not know what he could be talking about.  Nearly seventeen years later I can say that advice is pretty much true.  Layered into that let me add the following:  being called to pastor a “small” church means you will pretty much be ruined for any other career path on this earth.

Did I not mention I pastor a small church?  When I first started our official role carried just over a dozen names.  Two of them were my wife and I.  We were the youth group.  At high tide we once boasted forty-eight church members.  Today we’re in the thirties.  The world gauges success by these numbers.  This is a non-scriptural reality and staying encouraged can die by it.

Pastoring a small church means leading and caring for a congregation not able to meet your family’s financial needs.  So, following the call, the small church pastor has to juggle things like paying the mortgage and buying electricity with teaching, preaching, praying, making visits, and seeking out those who don’t have a church home.  Sooner or later it is necessary to find another job, “on the side'; all the while telling yourself there is no such thing as a small church.

I know what that is supposed to mean, and I believe it.  But still…

Of course it’s possible to find enjoyable work aside from a pastorate.  But for me, and I imagine thousands of other pastors across the nation, the real passion remains behind the pulpit.  I can’t see spending 50 or 60 hours a week for some corporation or industry while putting the minimum number of hours into the church.  I’ve always tried, sometimes unsuccessfully, to make ends meet the other way around.

The job-on-the-side mentality hasn’t been the best for my professional development but it has offered a wonderful perspective about a good number of things; how the world and people work.  I can see how it would be easy for the full-time pastor to get tunnel vision and either forget or never learn a few critical things about people.  I meet lots of new people, mostly the ones who say they’ll visit on Sunday and never show.  I see situations repeated constantly, they’re just dressed different.  It’s a wonderful set of life lessons that a good number of people could profit from knowing.

It’s an interesting club; the small church pastors.  It’s not a career.  I had to learn that.  All the time preaching the need to accept the Word of God as is, I had some eye-beams to lift.  I mean, the conception is that a pastor has about a hundred and fifty church members, a nice car, insurance, a house, livable wage, nice clothes; all provided by the church.  Where’s that guaranteed in the Bible?  It took a few years for the truth to sink in.

You know you are talking to a small church pastor by the way he answers the question:  "What do you do?"  It gets tangled and messy almost from the beginning.  “I’m a pastor, but I also…”  Then they fill in the blank:  janitors, morticians, sheriff’s deputies, salesmen, substitute teachers, computer nerds and office workers, so on, and so forth.

Invariably though, and don’t miss this point:  talk to enough of them and you’ll appreciate it doesn’t matter what else they do, just so long as they get to continue in their pastorate.  That's the calling right there.

Whatever-it-takes, render unto Caesar and then let me do what I was put on earth to do.  There are tired hours each week spent preparing for the leadership and spiritual feeding of the flock the Lord has allowed.  And maybe a thousand times a year he is exhausted from mopping floors or putting in a twelve hour shift on the assembly line or from taking his kids to another practice.  That’s usually when Sister Overwrought calls, wanting to know why he said that one certain thing, that five word sentence in the middle of that forty-minute sermon.  Did he really mean it a certain way? Because, if so, Houston, we have a problem.

The small church pastor will end up questioning why and he will wonder about quitting, just like the time before.  But he never quits, until he absolutely drops because his health has been compromised by stress and overwork and age.  Maybe after his second bypass and that torn rotator cuff, when his vision dims from cataracts and he don’t like to drive at night, maybe then he’ll slow down.  If that’s not passion I don’t know what is.

Such a man can’t help but accumulate life experiences that are not quite normal.  By normal I mean things other people seldom stop to consider, are allowed to see, or think about understanding.  As an adult I’ve had many jobs.  I won't bore you with the list.  Just know that through every one of those jobs I’ve been a Pastor.

Many people hate their jobs and complain as though it’s their bad luck to have one like theirs.  If only, they think, they could move up in the company or go somewhere else, or win the lottery – then things would be better.  Meanwhile they break the speed limit to get to work in the morning, risking their lives and mine for something they hate.

This is the greener taller grass on the other side of the fence, but based on what I’ve seen, most jobs are similar.  Only the tasks and the pay scales differ.   Of course that means on some levels there is a world of difference, but don’t be fooled.  People are people no matter where they work and there are a lot of people whose self absorption doesn’t allow them to like their jobs, just like there are those who think they really do  have it that bad.

The pastor of a small church is just blessed enough to have something he is both called to perform and also loves.  Most times, in spite of himself, and sometimes in spite of others, he wouldn't have it any other way.