Monday, February 25, 2008

Farewell, Old Friend

Yesterday I lost a friend, a spiritual guide and mentor, a remarkable man who I never had the opportunity to meet.

I was fifteen years old, struggling to find a faith of my own, and feeling like church in general had no real connection with the rest of my life. A friend of mine, Clark, invited me to a concert. He had some free tickets. I wasn't much of a concert goer, but I had nothing else to do so I went. That was the night I first encountered the words and music of Larry Norman.

Life changed for me that night. I heard a voice of passionate faith, words that faced the harsh and controversial realities of life with unflinching courage, and music that captured and set free a new generation of believers. Every contemporary Christian recording artist owes a debt of thanks to this remarkable songwriter - rebel, prophet, and pioneer.

This article highlights Larry Norman's unique contribution and how far contemporary Christian music has strayed from its roots: "So Long Ago When CCM Wasn't Awful"

Some of my favorite Larry Norman lines from various songs:

"No more LSD for me, I met the man from Galilee.
He saved my soul and made me whole and heaven is my home.
Sing a song that sets you free. Sing a song of Calvary.
I'm so happy, yes I am. I've been washed in the blood of the Lamb."

"God, I love you, and I just bought your book. I took it home and had a real long look.
I know this may not sound nice, but my favorite part is where you died . . . for me."

"You gotta live your life the best you can, though you sometimes do your worst.
And learn to laugh when you fail, it's not the end of the world,
Your life's a play you can't rehearse."

"When I was a young man, temptation was all around
And when the darkness finds you, it slips up behind you
Tries to knock you to the ground.
But I just kept on going. I was so inspired.
'Cause Jesus, He set my soul on fire."

"You are far across the ocean in a war that's not your own.
And while you're winning theirs you're gonna lose the one at home.
Do you really think the only way to bring about the peace
Is to sacrifice your children and kill all our enemies?"

"So I've been praying for the starving poor,
And I keep pointing toward the open door,
And I keep dreaming of a distant shore
Where men are free."

"I've been rebuked for the things I've said,
For the songs I've written and the life I've led.
They say they don't understand me, well I'm not surprised
Because you can't see nothing when you close your eyes."

"He's good for the body and great for the soul. He's the rock that doesn't roll."

"One way, one way to Heaven.
Hold your head up high.
Follow, free and forgiven,
Children of the sky."

In a message posted on his Web site, written the day before his death, Larry Norman said he knew death was imminent.

"I feel like a prize in a box of cracker jacks with God's hand reaching down to pick me up," he wrote, adding that he planned to be buried in a "simple pine box with some flowers inside."

Some where down the road I will meet my friend Larry in another land, and I will thank him for singing into my soul. I am a stranger made stronger by his life and music. I am looking forward to getting better acquainted. Maybe I'll even sing along with Larry.

One final thought. As I ponder that coming day, I can't help but wonder - will there be any "strangers" looking for me?

Friday, February 22, 2008

American Idol or American President?

I typically don't catch much T.V. besides news and sports, but this week I watched two shows that seemed eerily similar. First, I watched a little of American Idol the other night. I think we get a bigger kick out of the very bad than the very good, and of course the judges, particularly Simon, know how to blow up each singer's bubble and then pop it right in their face.

Actually what interests me more is the interviews with various contestants as they talk about their motives, their hopes and dreams, their fears and insecurity. It seems to me that our whole culture is enamored with, even mesmerized by the whole idea of "celebrity." I guess it is today's American dream, to really be somebody with all the wealth and fame and lifestyle that comes with it.

And, yet, only one will get the prize. All the rest get sent home with everything from "better luck next time" to "you just don't have it", whatever "it" is. Maybe there's a good life lesson in there somewhere.

Then last night I watched a fair amount of the democratic pre-primary debates from Texas and then listened to and read what the various political commentators had to say. I just couldn't help but make the obvious comparison. Two candidates polished to a high gloss, fully rehearsed and prepared, both fighting off fatigue and illness, and both determined to score a few more points with the pundits, to shine just a little brighter than the competition.

And then afterward, each commentator was gushing over their own candidate (Paula) and critiquing the opposition (Simon). Points were awarded for style, for smoothness, for expression, for charisma, and personality. I sat there wondering, is this how we choose the next leader of the free world? Is it really all about creating a sympathetic image or an inspiring persona, that will move our shallow, celebrity-obsessed public to vote? How long until each candidate has a number so we can call in and vote, so that by Thursday night we'll know who gets to be the next Commander in Chief?

Is it the candidate's fault, their campaign manager's, or do we blame the media? Or, is the media just giving us what we really want. Maybe so. I don't mean to be cynical, but I think there has to be a better way. Any ideas?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Way of a Simpleton

Well, since my last post I have blown my nose roughly 850 times, consumed about a gross of those yucky cough drops and a gallon or two of cold medicine. I have also wheezed and hacked and snored my way through several sleepless nights (at least sleepless for Suzanne). Now she has it too. I guess we share everything. Anyway, sorry to fall behind.

I've been reading Robert Fulghum's "Words I Wish I Wrote." I came across some remarkable lines from an unlikely source. See what you think.

Everyone says that my way of life is the way of a simpleton.
Being largely the way of a simpleton is what makes it worth while.
If it were not the way of a simpleton
It would long ago have been worthless.
These possessions of a simpleton being the three I choose
And cherish:
To care,
To be fair,
To be humble.
When a man cares he is unafraid,
When he is fair he leaves enough for others,
When he is humble he can grow;
Whereas if, like men of today, he be bold without caring,
Self-indulgent without sharing,
Self-important without shame,
He is dead.
The invincible shield
Of caring
Is a weapon from the sky
Against being dead.

(Lao-Tzu, "Tao Te Ching")

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Love Me Tender, Love Me True

I was sitting in Mr. Dennis' sixth grade class just after lunch when the big news arrived. It came via a wadded up note tossed to me while Mr. Dennis was writing something on the board. Opening the note, I read the stunning message - words I never thought I would ever see or hear. "Melanie says she likes you." I looked up, trying to play it cool, but anxious to glimpse some sign of confirmation from Melanie, the coolest and prettiest girl in the entire sixth grade. She smiled at me and nodded in the affirmative.

I couldn't believe it. My life was suddenly changed. I was somebody! Melanie liked me! I could feel myself rising in coolness as I unfastened my cheap silver ID bracelet that kept turning my wrist green in P.E. and calmly and discreetly passed it over to Melanie, four seats away. She accepted the gesture and put my bracelet on her wrist. Wow! It was true. Melanie liked me!

Whatever else Mr. Dennis might have said that afternoon didn't matter. I was thinking about my Melanie and daydreaming about the days ahead. Should I walk her home after school? What about the Sock Hop coming up? Do I sit beside her at the lunch table tomorrow? Do I call her up and if I do, what in the world do we talk about?

By the time the bell rang at 3:24 I was pretty nervous about the whole thing. I was wondering just what to say when Melanie came by my desk and handed me back my bracelet. She said, "Let's just be friends, okay?" I looked at the floor and muttered, "Sure, that's fine." But it wasn't. I was crushed. What did I do wrong? How did I blow it in just three hours of class time? We didn't even have a conversation.

Thus I was painfully introduced to the fickleness of human nature and the terrible cruelty of the female of our species.

Since that time, however, I have met at least one wonderful exception to the rule. Her name is Suzanne and she's been wearing my ring for 26 years and 2 months. Has she ever thought about tossing it back to me? Probably, but still she wears it, year after year, through thick and thin, through three kids and two cats and six moves, it's still on her finger.

That's love, I guess, the real stuff. Not just puppy love that comes and goes with the moment. It's real love that shows on her face as I turn out the light, as she snuggles close and tries to warm her cold feet against my leg. Now that's love. Happy Valentine's Day.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

A Sea of Smiling Faces

Last night I was surrounded, completely surrounded by a sea of smiling faces. It was a little unnerving for me at first, even though I recognized every face. I knew every person in the banquet hall. These are my people, my dearest and best, the people who call me pastor. After ten years together on this journey of faith, my people came this night to express their love, to celebrate God's blessings on our church, and to affirm and encourage their pastor in wonderful ways that left me struggling for words to express my thanks and appreciation. I am truly blessed to serve with such saints. Maybe even a little spoiled.

I've been walking around today just basking in the blessing of last evening. I have never been lifted so high by the words and prayers of my people. And, now I'm ready to get back in the game. Send me in, Coach. I might just be good to go for another ten years.

No matter what our calling in life might be, just having someone in our corner, someone who knows what we are up against, someone who is pulling for us, cheering us on, and who believes in us no matter what - it makes all the difference in the world, doesn't it?

Most likely there is someone in your life today who desperately needs a cheerleader, some kind word of encouragement or affirmation just to keep going, just to stay in the game, just to stay on their feet. So keep an eye out today. Somebody out there needs you.

Monday, February 4, 2008

"Way To Go, Little Brother!"

I watched the Super Bowl with about 50 guys in my friend Mark's big shed, complete with a big screen and a vast quantity of ribs, chicken, burgers, assorted sides, and way too much dessert. When the game began, most everybody was pulling for the Patriots to finish their domination of the NFL with a perfect 19-0 record. But by the end of the game, almost everyone was cheering on the rough and ready Giants and their kid brother quarterback, Eli Manning. It was truly an amazing ending to a remarkable game.

I guess there's just something in all of us that loves to pull for the underdog. We cheer when Rocky is still standing at the final bell. And I'll never forget watching the 1980 USA-USSR Olympic hockey game from Lake Placid. Remember? "Do you believe in miracles!" We love it when Goliath takes his lumps from the little guy.

But for me, this football game wasn't just about favorites and underdogs. What moved me was seeing Eli's big brother, Peyton, last year's Super Bowl MVP, up in the box cheering on his little brother. To see the nervous tension on Peyton's face early on, and then the burst of exuberance when his kid brother came through in the clutch with the game winning drive - it was a beautiful thing to see.

Maybe it's just because I am a kid brother with seven older siblings. Maybe it's because Eli looks like he's about 17 years old. Or perhaps it's because we all crave that affirmation, that validation, that encouragement that comes when someone we love and respect smiles and says, "Way to go, kid. You were great."

Some of the commentators are calling it the greatest Super Bowl ever played. I don't know about that, but I am certain that if only little brothers could vote, this game would be chosen as the best ever. Thanks, big brother.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Taking Stock of Ten Years

This week marks my tenth anniversary as pastor of the church I serve. I guess our people are planning a special dinner for Wednesday night to celebrate the occasion. Hitting this ten year milestone has started me thinking about the passing of time.

Beginning in the ministry at age 19, I was the youngest pastor in the history of the first three churches I served. I mentioned that fact to a deacon friend of mine who said, "Brother Drew, that will be a difficult streak to continue." Elwood was right. I'm no longer the kid preacher. I'm supposed to know what I'm doing by now.

Ten years. A decade of time. It's a pretty good chunk of anyone's lifetime. It is the longest I have ever lived in the same town, in the same house, with the same job.

I remember taking our oldest son, Sam, to his new elementary school on his first day. I remember the boys in his third grade class welcoming him with a big cheer because they already had way too many girls. Now Sam is in college and apparently there are too many girls in college, too. He keeps bringing one home with him. Oh well. At least he has good taste.

Our home only vaguely resembles the house we moved into ten years ago. Seems like everything has either worn out and been replaced or been redecorated to death. And if you look close, you can see little clues that the man of the house is not the world's greatest Mr. Fix-it. But, believe me, he tries.

Yet, for all its imperfections, it's still our home, the only home our youngest kids can even remember. Ten Christmas trees. Ten state fairs (we live just down the street from the fairgrounds). A worn out trampoline in the backyard. Kitchen chairs that need to be re-glued. No more minivan in the garage (we had four in a row). We are down to four and they're going fast.

Ten years. From reading glasses to bifocal contacts, from a pocket Testament to a large print Bible, ten years takes its toll. When the kids come up for the children's time at church, I notice that none of them were born when I came as pastor. When I look in the mirror each morning, I see more salt and less pepper all the time. So, am I feeling old? Yes, I am. Is time flying by far too quickly? Yes, it is.

Think of it. Ten years means more than 500 Sundays, more than 500 sermons! God bless my people, they still show up! And, they still know how to encourage their pastor along the way.

Most of all, I just feel blessed, very blessed indeed. God has called me to take the long walk of faith with a wonderful band of brothers and sisters, to make the journey with those I know and love and trust and believe in. Every pastor should be so lucky.