Sunday, August 7, 2016

O me of little faith

There’s a barber shop on my way to work.  It’s not a beauty shop or a hair salon or a coiffuring center.  It’s just a good ole fashioned barber shop, with a swirling red, white and blue barber pole out front.

For the past 7 years, I have driven by this place – but I’ve never walked inside.  I’ve thought about it, though.  Actually, I’ve fantasized about it. 

Perhaps I should explain.

It’s not the prospect of having of my ever-thinning and ever-graying hair cut that draws me to this place.  I already have someone who lops my locks every couple of months, with whom I am well pleased. 

No. What draws me to this particular barber’s shop is the large sign in his window that advertises a $20 shave.  Admittedly, that’s a lot of money to pay to have one’s face shaved – especially when one has his own electric razor at home that’ll do the job for free.  But ever since I was a little shaver, I have longed to sit in a swivel chair, draped in an apron, lathered to the limits, and have a guy use a straight razor to give me a nice warm, close shave.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to justify such a luxurious and self-indulgent extravagance.  If only it was a little less expensive. 

Ah, watch what you ask for, beloved.

Last month, I attended a  5-day church conference at the Marriott in Lancaster, PA. During a brief break from our business, I took a short stroll.  A few blocks from my hotel, at the corner of King and Prince Streets, I spied a sandwich-board sign with a painted picture of a red, white and blue barber pole and the promise of a $3 haircut!

Upon closer inspection, however, I noticed that this place wasn’t a barber shop but a barber school. In other words, they didn’t want customers - they wanted guinea pigs.

Inside the barber school, hanging on the wall, was a more complete price list of the various services the students offered. The one that caught my eye was the $3 shave.

My first (second and third) reaction was to dismiss that possibility as quickly as I dismissed the $3 haircut.  After all, what kind of person would literally stick their neck out to allow a nervous neophyte to put a straight razor anywhere near their jugular vein just to save a few bucks? 

A person of faith, that’s who!  A person with a tremendous amount of faith.   A person with so much faith that their cup o’ faith runneth over, that’s who!  (see Genesis 22)

In other words, a person not like me.  

To be honest, I don’t have faith…
…that ISIS is going to stop terrorizing the civilized world in the foreseeable future;
…that our country will solve its racial divide so that we can finally live in harmony and unity, as God intended;
…that we’re going to suddenly stop mortgaging our children’s fragile future with our  local, state and national budget deficits. 

Then again, I didn’t have faith that I would ever see…
…the end to Apartheid in South Africa;
…the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destruction           of the Berlin Wall;
…a black man living in the White House, and a woman being nominated by one of the major political parties for the presidency.

Soooo, maybe the next time the Big Bad Wolf of doubt and fear threatens to enter my house of faith, I will, with the confidence of Christ, proclaim, “Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.” 

Monday, July 4, 2016


I entered the Jewish Heritage Museum in lower Manhattan, passing through the museum’s heavy doors and even heavier security.  After taking the elevator to the floor dedicated to the memory of Holocaust victims, I sat down to watch a 15-minute video on the S.S. St. Louis.  Since I had already seen all the sickening newsreels on the Holocaust back  in middle school, I figured I knew what I was getting myself into.   

I was dead wrong.

As her name might indicate, the Saint Louis was a godsend to the 900 Jews who were fortunate to find themselves on the ship’s manifest in May of 1939.  The passengers were refugees, desperate to flee to Cuba in order to escape the tidal wave of terror that was about to hit Hitler’s Nazi Germany.  And for the first half-hour of their voyage, they believed they had succeeded.

But then came a telling telegram that warned the ship’s captain that he had better put the pedal to the metal - because 2 other ships were headed to the same place for the same reason, and there were no guarantees that Cuba, still in the throes of the Great Depression, would put out the welcome mat for any or all of them. 

Tragically, by the time the ship finally found haven in Havana’s harbor, the immigration waters were so muddied by Goebbels’ propaganda machine that the refugees were prevented from disembarking until further notice.  

Further notice never came, of course.   Hours turned into days, and days turned into an eternity.  Like the chaise lounges on the ship's sun deck, negotiations were opened and then closed, re-opened and then re-closed until ultimately, by order of the President of Cuba, the St. Louis had to get the heck out of Dodge.  ¡Inmediatamente!

The tearful and fearful passengers found themselves waving goodbye to their waiting family and friends on shore as the captain pointed his vessel towards, and pinned his hopes on, the United States.  

Surely the land of the free and the home of the brave would extend to these exiles an invitation, he thought.  Surely the residents of E Pluribus Unumville would come to the rescue of these refugees.  Surely the president would bring these innocent victims under the protection of his West Wing.

Alas, the world watched in disbelief as the S.S. St. Louis found no port in the storm of American anti-Semitism.  Eventually, dwindling provisions forced the captain to set sail for “home” - Nazi Germany. 

In a last ditch effort to avoid delivering 900 innocent Jewish men, women and children back into Lucifer’s lair, intense negotiations continued with immigration officials in several European countries as the ship chugged across the Atlantic. 

Of the 4 Allied nations who finally agreed to receive these refugees, 3 of them would soon be occupied by the very forces of evil from which the Jews were trying to flee in the first place, and the fourth was nearly blitzkrieged to Kingdom come!

When the video ended, and my 15 minutes of shame was over, I went outside for a breath of fresh NYC air.  I found no relief there.  Instead, I found myself staring straight into the big green eyes of the world’s most beautiful woman – the Statue of Liberty.

I tried to apologize to her, but before I could fully formulate an excuse commensurate with such egregious sinfulness, this mother-of-all-exiles recited a line from a Jewish-American poetess, saying for the 6 millionth time… “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. 

Let us never forget.

Friday, July 1, 2016


The official slogan of Portland, Oregon, is “The City That Works” -  but the UNofficial  and UNabashed slogan is “Keep Portland Weird”. 

Granted, I was there only once, for a grand total of 12 whole days, but based on that one visit last month, I believe that Portland’s populace is doing a pretty good job of living into their UNstated weirdness.   

So, what’s so weird about Portland?


#1)  Driving – First of all, Portland drivers inexplicably stop their cars, not only at red lights, but at yellow lights as well!  (Where I’m from, people not only don’t stop at yellow lights, they speed up at red lights!)

      Secondly, drivers in Portland will also stop their cars when pedestrians have entered the crosswalk.  Actually, it’s worse than that.  Portlanders will stop their cars if a pedestrian even intends to enter a crosswalk.  (Again, where I’m from, drivers speed up if they see a pedestrian enter a crosswalk!)

    Lastly, drivers don’t/won’t use their horns.  During my recent dozen-day stay in busy downtown Portland, I heard a car horn honk only once - and according to the license plate, the offending driver was from New Jersey!

Moral to the story - It’s as if folks in the City of Roses actually enjoy where they are so much that they’re in no hurry to be somewhere else, or beat someone else.  They literally take the time to stop and smell the roses. Weird, right?

#2) Umbrellas – Portlanders are philosophically opposed to umbrellas.  Now, everybody knows that it rains a lot in the Pacific Northwest - but the locals refuse to use umbrellas. Weird, right?

Moral to the story - Portlanders seem to  handle whatever befalls them.  If it’s rainy, they accept it.  If it’s sunny, they accept it.  They just deal with whatever life throws at them on a daily basis.   So the umbrellas stay at home in an oversized flower vase in the foyer, as God intended.  Perhaps Portlanders should be honest and just call these things "UNbrellas".  

#3) Train tickets – Speaking of being honest, Portlanders are also philosophically opposed to checking commuters'  train tickets.  I rode the light-rail train all the way from the outskirts to the center of the city and back again every day and night for 12 straight days and nights, and no one ever checked to see if I had bought a ticket.   Ever! 

      Of course, I didn’t know this on day one, so I cluelessly plunked down $51 for a 2-week rail pass.  Silly tourist.  In hindsight, that money would have been better spent if I had used it to buy a reconditioned 8-track player!  

Moral to the story - The trains may run on a light rail, but the entire city transit association runs on the honor system.  Weird, right?

#4) The factses about taxes -  Portlanders pay no sales tax.  None!  Zero!  Nada!  So there’s no need to try and figure out what 6.75% of $14.99 is.  Stuff simply costs only and exactly what the price tag reads, or what the shopkeeper says. 

Moral to the story - In Portland, you can actually believe what you read, and you can actually take people at their word.  Weird, right?

#5) What’s REALLY weird about Portland  - I have saved the best for last.  Perhaps the weirdest thing about Portland is that an American city that values, celebrates, promotes and models civility, courtesy, honesty and truthfulness is considered by the rest of us to be weird.  Weird, right?

Friday, June 24, 2016


   Like most clergy, I have this recurring dream (more like a nightmare, really) where I'm late for worship.  The exact circumstances for my distress vary. Sometimes I can’t locate the manuscript of my unforgettable, yet unmemorable sermon.  Sometimes I can’t unlock the front door of the church to get inside.  Still other times, I’ll still be stuck in terrific traffic when the opening hymn is scheduled to be sung (tip: never take the George Washington Bridge to church!). 

   Regardless of the particulars, the overarching theme for all of these troubling dreams is that I’m running late and, for whatever reason, simply cannot get to the pulpit on time for the beginning of the Sunday worship service that I’m supposed to lead.

   I bring this up to you today because I had “The Dream” again last night.  Only this time, it DIDN’T involve a misplaced sermon manuscript, or getting to the elevated wooden pulpit on time, or anything else related to traditional Sunday morning service in a officially sanctioned sanctuary.  Last night, for some reason, the conflict arose from my inability to get to my live-feed, faith-based podcast on time!

   I wrote “for some reason”, but now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure of the reason.

   You see, hours earlier, I had been sitting in my favorite fast food joint (rhymes with “Taco Bell”) when the older fella at the table in front of mine stood up, walked over to the condiment counter, grabbed a handful of napkins and then stashed them in his back pocket.

    Or at least, he tried to. 

    I don’t know if the wad of napkins was too thick or his pants pocket was too small for this mission to be accomplished. All I know is that the poor guy tried, mindlessly and unsuccessfully, to put the same  bunch of napkins into the same back pocket 8 times in a row! 

   Without looking, without thinking, and without success, the man just kept doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

    Sound familiar, Church? 

  Someone just emailed me yesterday that out of all the Annual Conferences in the whole world, ours has experienced the worst percentage drop in worship attendance over the last 2 years!

   Now, I’m no marketing expert, but the words “worst“ and “worship” should never be used in the same sentence - especially in relation to your Annual Conference.   Amen?

   I’m also no psychologist, so maybe when it comes to dreams, a napkin is just a napkin.  But what if a paper napkin is really a metaphor for a manuscripted sermon, or an old wooden pulpit, or immovable pews, or a long-robed choir singing a 250 year-old anthem born of Mother Europe?  And what if a back pocket really represents the ever-increasing number of unchurched folk who are living and playing but not worshipping in our communities?


  Do we really wanna keep preaching the same sermons, singing the same anthems/hymns, reading the same liturgies, following the same order of worship, having the same meeting, conducting the same stewardship drive, scheduling the same fundraisers, using the same evangelistic approach over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again without looking, without thinking, and without success?

    I wouldn’t dream of it!