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Plaza Towers Elementary School

plaza towers elementary

I had never heard of the Plaza Towers Elementary School before my week-long mission trip to Moore, Oklahoma, this week.

I had heard that an elementary school had been struck by the tornado that roared through Moore on May 20, and I vaguely remember that some children were killed, but then I hear a lot of bad news.  I didn’t pay much attention.

Last Monday, after a day of getting to Oklahoma and settling in and doing only 2-3 hours of debris-clearing work, our 12-person mission team drove slowly through the areas devastated by the tornado, mostly residential streets.

A great deal of the debris has been cleared away.  Many city blocks where houses once stood are now cleared with only concrete slabs visible.  But there were a few blocks where houses looked as though they had been blown apart with a powerful explosion.  Those houses, we were told, should be cleared away soon.

Finally, though, we saw the school.  Well, the school isn’t there anymore, but we saw the memorial that has sprung up on the fence around the school property.

First – and hard to miss – were the American flags.  In Oklahoma, where “the winds come sweeping down the plains,” those flags are always standing at attention.

Next we saw T-shirts.  Dozens of them.  Every relief group that comes through, it seems, leaves a shirt with the names of the volunteers scrawled across the organization’s name.  (I didn’t keep an exact count but I think church youth groups accounted for the majority of the T-shirts I saw.  Where would Moore be today without church youth groups, I wonder?)

Finally we saw greatly enlarged photos of families who had lost their homes in the tornado.  The families were shown next to where their home had been.  Mostly they were smiling and happy.  And the tag lines that accompanied the photo included: “A tornado took our home, but no storm can ever take our faith.”  “Our house may be broken, but our home is strong.”  And here’s the one that brought tears to my eyes: “We lost it all, but walked away with everything.”

How do people find that sort of resilience in the face of so much devastation and loss?

Inside the fence were seven small chairs for each of the seven children killed when the walls of the school collapsed.  More children might have been killed, but at least one teacher shielded her children with her own body.  Both of her legs were broken – and her pelvis too – but the children beneath her walked away unharmed.

I was struck by the importance of that shrine.  People seem to need holy ground.  People need a place to come and be quiet and reflect on the enormity of what has happened.  Holy ground can be just about anywhere.  A civil war battlefield.  The site of a terrorist attack.  A property where a school once stood and where seven children lost their lives.

On the last day we were there, the group I was with left attached a shirt to the fence.  The shirt had all of our names – and the name of our church.  We listened to a few verses from scripture.  I prayed, trying my best not to cry.  And then we sang one verse of “Amazing Grace.”

It was as holy as any church.


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Bill Benson and the Village Mountain Mission

Dominican Republic1

A little over 12 years ago, after a few years of sailing the Caribbean in retirement, the brother of one of my church members sailed into a small inlet along the northern coast of the Dominican Republic.

Like many sailors before him, he was looking for some shelter during a storm.  But something happened on that brief visit that changed his life.

Bill Benson had retired from a career with the Boy Scouts of America and was enjoying a well-deserved retirement on his sailboat.  His plan was to keep sailing the Caribbean and to finally spend some time with his wife after years of seven-day work weeks with the Scouts.

(This is the place in the story to tell the old joke about how to make God laugh.  You tell him your plans.)

What happened was that Bill fell in love with the people of the Dominican Republic and – importantly – he saw their need.  The Dominican Republic isn’t as poor as Haiti, which shares the same island, but it’s plenty poor and its educational system is among the worst in the western hemisphere, worse even than Haiti’s.

Bill spent the better part of the next two years riding around the island on a motorcycle, trying to figure out how best to be of help to these people.  Finally – and it’s a good story, but really it’s his to tell – God let him know that two years of research was enough and that it was time for him to get started.

So, Bill founded the Village Mountain Mission. He bought a beautiful piece of land in the Dominican Republic.  He acquired some vehicles.  And he started inviting mission teams from the U.S. to join him in building houses, and starting schools, and providing medical care.

I’ve gone on mission trips just about every year for the last 20 years, usually to places in this country and usually with high school students, but I’ve also gone with church members of all ages to places like Haiti and Peru and the Philippines and (last November) to South Africa.

This one, I have to say, was the toughest yet.  I returned last Tuesday night and have never been so glad to get home.

The work was hard, there was no escape from the heat, and the living conditions were … let’s just say they were primitive.

I don’t like camping.  Never have.  And this was tougher than any camping trip I’ve ever taken.  But Bill wants mission teams who visit the Village Mountain Mission to eat and live the way the people of that island eat and live.

And mostly we did.

But … and every person who has ever gone on a mission trip will tell you this, I returned tired and happy.  I learned something – about myself, about the Dominican Republic, and about what God is doing in the world.

I had the privilege of riding in the front seat with Bill Benson several times during the week we were there, and so I had an opportunity to see up close what a 70-something man looks and sounds like when he gives up retirement to follow God’s call in his life.

To be honest with you, I have never pictured my own retirement like that, like Bill’s.

And then I came home and read the scripture reading I had chosen to preach about tomorrow, Jesus’ parable about the “rich fool.”  Jesus of course doesn’t tell us that the rich fool was retired – in fact, there doesn’t seem to be anything in all of scripture about retirement – but I couldn’t help reading this little parable as a story – and maybe a warning – about retirement.

Jesus’ parable is a story about someone who has accumulated a great deal over the course of his life, someone who has been very responsible with his property, and someone who should probably feel good about all that he has.  And nowhere, it’s important to note, does Jesus criticize the man for having worked hard and done well.

And yet, Jesus is not at all flattering.  As Jesus tells the story, God is displeased with the man – not for his hard work, and not for his wealth, but for his attitude, his unwillingness to notice anyone around him.  He’s all caught up in himself.  And God uses the word “fool” to describe him, a word that in biblical terms is, well, rather harsh.

I serve a church with plenty of retired people – and with plenty of people who are at least contemplating retirement.  I don’t usually go out of my way to step on toes, but I’m thinking that tomorrow I’ll talk about Bill and I’ll ask a few questions about retirement.

Like, what is it exactly that God asks of us?

(Photo credit: This photo was taken by a member of our mission team.  Thanks, Anna.  Remarkably, if you face one direction, you see sugary sand, palm trees, and that wonderful blue Caribbean water.  If you look the other way, you see abject poverty and thatched-roofed huts.  All week long, as we built a house for a family in the village of Cambiaso, the contrast was jarring.)

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Hope begins in the dark

anne lamott

“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”  Anne Lamott

For a world-class worrier like me those words ring true. Hope does begin in the dark.  It’s like Easter in that way.  It begins in the early dawn when we aren’t quite sure what we’re seeing, when there’s a lot more doubt and panic than faith.

Hope begins as a glimmer, the faintest sort of thing, that if you aren’t looking closely for it, you miss it.

I miss it often.  I’m not one of those people who sees God all the time in every single moment.  I sometimes envy those people who are able to do that, or claim they’re able to do that, but I’ve never been one of them.  I tend to remember later what happened, that thing I saw, and then I’ll think, “Wow, what was that?  That was no coincidence.”

But even then I’ll be skeptical about it.  And it’s not that I don’t want to give God credit for much of what happens.  It’s that I don’t very often know what to make of what happens in my life.  Was it God?  Or was it something else?

Sometimes I don’t dare to let myself think that God would do something wonderful for me.

A few months ago, in a really dark time, I saw a glimmer of something and wanted it to be a reason for hope.  I kept looking, and as Anne Lamott puts it, I kept waiting and watching and working.  And today I’m pretty much convinced that I saw something. Some people around me knew what it was before I did.  One person I know who claims no faith – at least not in any conventional, church-going sense – said, “That sure looks like God to me.”

She was right.  And so I thought, “If she can see it, then it must be something I should pay attention to.”

I hope to get better at this as I get older.  I’m working on it.  I would like to notice – a little earlier and with a little more certainty – what God is up to in my life.

(Photo credit: That’s Anne Lamott.)

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Mariano Rivera and Me


The Most Valuable Player in last night’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game was Mariano Rivera, a 43 year old pitcher for the New York Yankees.  He pitched one inning – the eighth – and got his three outs without giving up a hit or a walk.  For him it was just another day at the office.

But there was more going on last night than an older player getting his outs.

When Rivera went out to the mound before the inning started – for his warm-up throws – his team-mates did something they never otherwise do.  They stayed in the dugout – and cheered along with the 43,000 or so fans who were there.  They wanted him (and him alone) to receive the ovation they believed he deserved.

Rivera is retiring at the end of the season, and he’s using the season as a kind of farewell tour.  He was drafted at 19 years old and has been pitching pretty much since then, missing only the last half of the 1992 season to elbow surgery.  And with more than 20 saves in the first half of the season, Rivera remarkably is pitching as well as he ever has.

Here’s the really interesting thing about him: he’s universally loved within the league – players, coaches, managers, even front office staff and other ballpark employees.

I should point out that I personally don’t like the Yankees and never have.  I’m a lifelong Tigers’ fan and will always despise the Yankees (and their insufferable fans).  But it’s hard not to like Rivera (except when he’s pitching against the Tigers).

New York magazine published a profile of Rivera last month, and the profile disclosed something about Rivera that many fans do not know.  He’s a Christian.  And not just an occasional church attender, but someone who treats his faith as the most important part of his life.  “Everything I have and everything I became is because of the strength of the Lord,” he said to the reporter.

Christian athletes of course are nothing new.  Every sport has them – Tim Tebow in professional football (barely), Jeremy Lin in professional basketball, and so on.  But these days Christian athletes are often tolerated more than loved.  Tebow, for example, was such a polarizing presence on the New York Jets last year that for a while no team wanted him for the coming season.

So, what sets Rivera apart?  Part of it is that he’s earned the respect he’s getting by being around so long, so dedicated to his sport, and – well – so good.  At this point people are willing to listen to anything he says.

But I think there’s more, and this is something other athletes – and Christians in general – could pay attention to: He’s humble.  For someone who has achieved so much, this trait is especially striking, but I suspect he was humble when he was a nobody.  His humility makes his faith seem sincere and genuine and believable.

Even that New York magazine reporter was in awe – not because she was interviewing a sports celebrity, but because that sports celebrity was not all that impressed with himself.  As Rivera put it, “God put [my baseball talent] in me, for me to use it.  To bring glory, not to Mariano Rivera, but to the Lord.”

There’s one Yankee I admire.

(Photo credit: As with many of the photos I use on the blog, I found this one in a search of Google images.  However, an alert reader has pointed out that Rivera is a right-hander, and the photo clearly shows him throwing left.  He’s a great pitcher, but he probably doesn’t throw from both sides.  So, I’ll assume this photo was flipped.  Back in my college newspaper days, we used to flip photos so that, for example, a person wouldn’t be looking off the page.  I’ll assume something like that happened here. Good eye, Jim!)

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High School Mission Trip

high school mission trip Putnam County

The first days back from a high school mission trip are ordinarily tired ones.  It’s a time to catch up on sleep – and return to a healthy diet.

I can’t ever remember craving a leafy green vegetable as much as I did yesterday.

Working in the Florida gulf coast heat is one thing, but being responsible for 25 high school youth 24-hours a day for five consecutive days is another.  There is no down time.  It’s hard work.

So, I’m back home, and I’m tired.  And I’m achy from sleeping on the floor.  But I’m happy too.  I’m thinking our church has some great kids.

When I was in high school – back when the earth was still cooling – I don’t remember being nearly as sincere and earnest as these kids are.  Last week we divided into small groups after the evening programs, and I was frankly a little scared that first night about what was going to happen.

When I was their age, I was sarcastic and not very willing to engage with the topic, whatever it was.  I think the other kids back in those days were pretty much the same way I was.  But times have changed.  The kids from my church engaged during our small group time with sincere and thoughtful responses.  They wanted to talk.  And they listened (or pretended to listen) when I talked.

I’m not much of a youth leader.  I’ll admit that.  I’ve worked with some outstanding youth leaders over the years, and I’ve admired their gifts.  But I’m not one of them.  I tend to be soft hearted and a push over, and as you can imagine kids can size up that situation pretty fast – and take advantage of it.

So, when I go along on these trips, I like to take a secondary role, with lots of one-to-one conversations and relationship building.  I know where just about all of our kids are thinking about going to college and what they’d like to major in when they get there.  I know where all of them were born and where they grew up.  I know what high schools they attend and whether or not they like their school.  I even know a surprising amount about their homes and families – and about the relationships there.

While painting a large wall last week I learned that one of our girls, who came to our church because her father is incarcerated and because our church has an active support system for families with incarcerated moms and dads, is planning to join the Army after high school and become a nurse.  She’s got her future planned.  When she graduates from college she expects to be a lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

I’ve taken an interest in her since our first mission trip together two years ago.  A few months ago I had the privilege of baptizing her.  And now I get to encourage her as she pursues her goals.  It’s not going to be easy, given her current circumstances, but she’s one of the hardest-working high school students I’ve ever met.  And if anyone can accomplish an ambitious goal, she can.

Yes, I’m tired, but I’m happy too.

(Photo credit: I don’t have any photos from this year’s trip, but here’s the gang from two years ago – in Putnam County, Florida.)

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Any surprises?


“Have there been any surprises in your 30-plus years of ministry?” someone asked me this week.

“That’s a good question,” I said, looking thoughtful, using the time-honored method of stalling for time to think of an answer.  “I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that before,” I said, still stalling.

“Why is this such a difficult question?” I thought to myself.  “Haven’t I been surprised during my ministry?  Aren’t I surprised each day?”

I have heard a great deal in my office over the years.  People have revealed personal details about their lives that I never expected to hear, that I never wanted hear.  They have spoken about heartbreak and cruelty.

Members of churches I have served over the years have been lied to, betrayed, and hurt in unspeakable ways.  Some of them have endured so much evil that I wonder how they are able to go on.

But was any of that surprising?  In a word, no.  I listened to them, and I tried to absorb the meaning of what they were telling me, but was I surprised?  I have to say no.  Surprised – maybe – that they were telling me, surprised that they were trusting this information to me.  But surprised that such things happen? No.

If anything, I’ve come to expect to hear those stories.  I’ve learned that when someone sits in my office the story I will hear will more than likely break my heart.  But it won’t surprise me.

I suppose the times in my ministry when I’ve been most surprised – and I’m surprised in a way to type this – have been those times when I’ve heard stories of thoughtfulness and caring, when I witness acts of kindness and sympathy, when I see someone speak up in a situation of injustice.

Then, I’m surprised.  And usually moved to tears.

In a church I served several years ago, I announced one Sunday morning that a spike in fuel prices had resulted in an extraordinarily large heating bill for the month.  I was sure no one knew what the church paid in utility bills each month, so I decided to let them know how a single bill had affected our budget.

Later that day a man came to my office with a check in his hand.  It was made out for the exact amount of the utility bill.  He said, “I want the church to have this because I don’t want any of our fine ministries to suffer.”

I said, “Thank you,” and he left.  And after he had gone, I slumped in my chair and cried.  My shoulders heaved.  It had never occurred to me that anyone would think to do such a thing.

I was as surprised – and pleased – as I have ever been.

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Pablo Casals and Me

if it ain't broke

So, there was a lot of email response to my recent “Blog News” post.

Mostly the responses urged me not to change anything – not to listen to busy bodies who gave me advice about my blog. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was the concerned response from several people.

Thanks, everyone. I get it. But two points. One, I asked for the advice. It wasn’t as though people came to me and told me how my blog could be better. I went to them – and I’m still going to them.

Which leads to my second point. Trying to be better isn’t the same thing as fixing what ain’t broke.

Reminds me of the old Pablo Casals story. Someone noticed that the great cellist, then in his 90s, was practicing on his cello with great concentration. “Why do you bother?” someone asked. And Casals – this may be an apocryphal story, but I like it – said, “Because I’m noticing improvement.”

Of course. What Casals and I (and probably a few others down through history) believe is that it’s important to keep trying to be better.

Isn’t anyone impressed that I signed up with “Bloggers Helping Bloggers”? Doesn’t it sound like a grand humanitarian organization – like “Doctors Without Borders”? Okay, maybe not, but it sounds promising, and maybe I’ll get some really cool ideas.

Again, thanks so much for the feedback. And thanks for liking the blog as it is. I should have known that most of my readers who are church members would be opposed to change … on principle.

(Photo credit: Any first-year Latin student should be able to translate that one.)

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