A Sermon Somewhere: Parents at the Swimming Pool

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For whatever reason my daughter’s preschool decided to take the three to six year old’s to the local swimming pool this morning.  As ridiculous as this sounds, they weren’t entirely foolish.  They also decreed that every child had to have a parent tag along.  So I spent the morning waddling around water that was a foot deep with fifty parents and fifty preschoolers, reassuring my screaming 3 year old that if he just stood up he wouldn’t be drowning.

As much fun as that was, it was even more fun to watch the parents. Many of them weren’t even dressed in swimming suits.  They wore business casual and stood in a line off to the side, frowning every time they got splashed and otherwise looking at their smart phones.  I just hope they weren’t texting each other.  The most prominent of this group was wearing a tight fitting dress that came down to her knees, boots with six inch heels and she had her hair done up with a good, thick layer of makeup.  She apparently misread the invitation, though I don’t know how.  “Swim Day” is pretty self explanatory.  The only time she looked up from her phone was when her daughter did something cute that she soon captured on the camera on her smartphone.

Then there was the hot tub crowd.  They camped out there as if it was the steam room at a local 5 star resort.  Their faces were furrowed as they dialogued with each other about politics, theology and the meaning of life, the universe and everything in it.  Their children may as well have been hundreds of miles away, out of sight and out of mind.  If I had cigars and vodka I could have made a killing selling them poolside to this crowd.

Then there were the lounge chair parents.  Unlike the business casual crowd, they were at least dressed in bathing suits but they sprawled out on the long chairs as if they were not actually inside an overly chlorinated facility but outside on some beach somewhere getting a tan.  Much like the business casual crew, they were looking at their smartphones and trying to ignore the background noise.  Once again, I could have made a killing selling them poolsides daiquiris.

Then, of course, you had the helicopter parents.  They were actually in the water, seemingly enjoying themselves with their children.  Imagine all the stuff they missed on their smart phones!

Don’t get me wrong, this group had some standout characters.  First, there was the poor father who ended up manning the short tunnel slide that led down to the water.  He stood there all morning arguing with five year olds about who and who couldn’t go first.  At times I couldn’t tell who the five year old was.

One of my closer friends, and heroes, spent the morning arguing with the lifeguards about the ridiculous pool policies.  The pool had a piping network that shot water everywhere which they had strangely refused to turn on.  There was also a giant water slide that they weren’t letting anybody use.  My friend thought all this was an absurd injustice and I totally agree.  He entered into strict negotiations on behalf of the rest of us and, not surprisingly, gained some ground.

Then there was that other parent who mistakenly thought he was one of the life guards.  He stood at the water’s edge, off to the side of the business casual crowd, fully ready to yell at anybody who broke even the tiniest rule, even if the rule only existed in his head.  I think at one point the lifeguards told him to tone it down and that splashing in the water is actually not against the rules.  He blew his whistle at the lifeguards and gave them a penalty flag for not having adequate rules.

As for me, well, I won’t tell you which one of these people I was.  I will tell you that at one point my daughter’s teacher passed by me and said, “Oh I always love it when the dads actually get in the water and play with the children.”  I beamed with pride, assuming that meant I got an A for the day, which is one of my life goals.

But I didn’t get the highest grade in the class.  That prize goes to my 5 year old friend Bridger’s mom.  She went through several rounds of chemo therapy over the winter to try to fight off a dangerous and life threatening cancer.  She is a veterinarian who had to close down her prominent practice to fight the disease.  I am not sure if the cancer is officially in remission or not but she was there today.  The scars of the surgeries were evident all over her body, made more obvious by the fact she was wearing a bathing suit.  Her face looked taut and worn.  Her scarred, wrinkled body looked frail.  But she was right down there in the water with her son, laughing and splashing and enjoying every moment of being alive.

And as I watched her and her son, that got me thinking that well, perhaps there is a sermon in that water somewhere.

 

A Sermon Somewhere: On February, The Perfectly Adequate Month

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Long time followers of this blog know that I am not a huge fan of January.  Actually, now that I think of it, they probably don’t.  I haven’t yet mentioned my distaste for the cold, cerebral 31 days that try to pass off as a legitimate month named January.

Let me try again.  .  .

Long time and new followers of this blog might be surprised to know that I am not a huge fan of January.  It is cold, bleak and miserable and it seems all the more so because it follows the festivities of the Holidays.  December gives us Christmas lights and candy.  January gives us obesity and failed New Year’s resolutions.  January is also the month most Starbucks finally run out of the Pumpkin Spice Latte syrup, so January has that against it too.

With that said, over the last two weeks I have watched an entire foot of snow melt off of my lawn.  The temperatures have risen to above 50 degrees.  The sun has come out and the days are getting longer.

I was thinking about all this yesterday and it suddenly occurred to me that February, unlike its predecessor, is a perfectly adequate month.

For one, the Roman Emperors, Julius and Augustus, both stole days from February and added them to their namesake months.  This makes February the abused and bullied underdog.  And everybody loves a good underdog.

Boy did February get its revenge.

First, February added one day to its calendar every four years just to throw everyone off.

Then February created a holiday for groundhog’s.  Why you ask?  So that February could taunt people with the hope of Spring long before Spring actually arrived.  It was brilliant.

Valentine’s day is an adequate enough holiday too.  It celebrates.  .  .candy hearts.  .  .I think?  Still, everybody likes chocolate and sugar.  They certainly beat the hot dogs typically associated with July and August.

February also has “President’s Day” which is a little bit superfluous given the excess of patriotic holidays but still, a free Monday off from school to go skiing on the first of the Spring powder isn’t all bad.

And let’s not forget that after a bleak, festivity less January, February gives everyone one last taste of Autumn by holding an epic football match played in front of 150 million people complete with ridiculous commercials (which rival the absurdity of Christmas ones) and a half time concert with fireworks stolen right from your July celebrations.  Take that Julius!

But then to top it all off, February also was the month both my children were born.  Oh and my father, without whom I wouldn’t be alive.  In fact, my children are probably why I suddenly remembered that February exists instead of doing what I used to do, which was tell everybody “It’s still January” for 28 extra days.

With all that said, I think it is pretty clear that February is like Liam Neeson in Taken or Mel Gibson in Payback.  The month was down but it wasn’t out and boy did it bring out the groundhogs, footballs, candy hearts and baby children to exact its brutal revenge!

And everybody loves a good comeback revenge story.

I’m not sure if you agree with me or not but either way, I think we can all agree there has to be a sermon in this month somewhere or probably exactly four of them since February can’t have 5 Sundays, unless it is a leap year.

A Sermon Somewhere: The Grow-Before Beard

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This post is part of an ongoing series where I try to find hidden sermon illustrations lurking underneath everyday life.  .  .and fail miserably.

It isn’t easy being in my 30s.  I know I can’t complain considering some people I know are in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s and they don’t make any of that look fun.  But I still want to complain because somewhere over the course of the last 4 years I emerged kicking and screaming from my prolonged adolescence, an adolescence I am told lasted about ten years longer than it should have.  Suddenly I live in a world of meticulous financial planning, poopy diapers, potty training, poopy underwear, desperate and constant house cleaning, meal preparation, lawn care, screaming children and that horrible “R” word: Responsibility.

There is a certain imprisonment to it all, a frustrating lack of liberty that drives me insane most days.  So at the end of October in a desperate attempt to reclaim some semblance of adolescent freedom I decided to grow a beard.  Yes, things had gotten so bad that growing a protest beard seemed reasonable.

Actually, it didn’t seem reasonable.  The last time I tried to grow facial hair was over a decade ago and it didn’t go well.  So I didn’t really decide to grow a beard as much as I decided to not shave for a week and see what might happen.  I told absolutely no one what I was doing.  I would let grow what may, being certain that after a week of neglecting my razor, I would look in the mirror and be totally disgusted by the prickly face looking back.

But something surprising happened.  Right around November 7th, a week into my suburban rebellion, I looked in the mirror and wasn’t totally repulsed, just mostly repulsed.  But I wasn’t disgusted enough to shave quite yet.  I committed to another week.

Right around November 14th I looked in the mirror and actually kind of liked what I saw.  There was actually something worth keeping there.  To my complete surprise, this was working!

Now before you start accusing me of subjective self analysis, many other people agreed.  Suddenly people were commenting on it and telling me they liked me with a beard. The beard made me look “skinnier,” “taller,” and “more mature.” One person even compared me to Abraham Lincoln, which is an excellent costume idea for next Halloween.

They weren’t just trying to flatter me either.  I know this because for some reason my appearance and personality have never drawn flattering compliments.  They have always done the opposite, which is stir up “helpful but constant criticism.”

This was a new me and apparently a more likable me.  With no effort at all, in fact by being lazier, I had accomplished a more mature looking, respectable, presidential self.

My 2 and 4 year old loved it too.  One night as I tucked my daughter into bed, she looked up at me and said, “I like your beard.  Do you like your beard?”

“Why yes, I do,” I answered.

“That’s good because it’s awesome!”  My 2 year old son gave equal sentiments.

There was one minor problem though.  My wife apparently hates beards.  Granted I knew she disapproved of facial hair long before November but I reasoned she just didn’t like my puberty facial hair.  Certainly if I liked how it looked than she would come around.  And if others were raining down compliments, she would certainly fold.  Still, when I set the razor down on November 1st I made a vow to not let my beard be a catalyst for marriage failure.

My wife made no such vow and did not share the sentiment.  She made it clear in no uncertain terms that she wanted it gone and that right soon.

But I had successfully grown it out through most of November and could not shave early, especially since No-Shave-November is apparently “Prostate Awareness November.”  My handsome beard and presidential look were reminding men to get their prostate’s checked.  I was doing a public service and it would certainly let all men down if I quit early. By shaving I could very easily be the reason someone’s prostate killed them.

So despite my wife’s protests I held out until the 2nd of December.  After an afternoon run and a warm shower I stared in the mirror and suddenly ran into a very unique problem, how to get rid of a beard without an electric razor.  I couldn’t just sink $40 into one that I would only use once.  I live off of a pastor’s salary after all.  Instead I had to resort to a blade on a stick, or rather three of them.  It took a half hour, a painful and exhausting one.

What began as a desperate 30 something’s rebellion against the suburban machine, ended somewhat sadly as I watched my grow-before-beard disappear hair by hair into the confines of a sink drain.  I know how it felt.  I was also disappearing back into the confines of suburban drudgery.  But it’s not so bad down here.  After all, there has to be a sermon in here somewhere.

A Sermon Somewhere: Growing Up Down in Backwards Boise

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This is an ongoing series where I try to find the sermon lurking beneath our everyday existence.  .  .and fail miserably.

Also this story did happen but has been embellished for humor’s sake and the names changed to protect the guilty.

I grew up in Boise, ID and never thought anything of it until one day I left for vacation and found others who thought we lived in a kind of backwards place.

For starters nobody east of the Mississippi had ever heard of Idaho.  Back then, if you ventured out that far and told someone you were from Idaho, they likely would reply, “I have a friend in Des Moines!  His name is Bob.  Have you met Bob?”

The answer was “no” for a variety of reasons.

First Des Moines, Iowa wasn’t so small of a place they only had one Bob.

Two, Idaho is a long way from Iowa.

People west of the Mississippi knew about Idaho but all they ever wanted to talk about was potatoes.  I had never heard of Idaho potatoes nor eaten one.  Apparently that is because we were busy deporting them to all the other states.  Still, to this day I can’t recall ever seeing a potato field in Idaho.

If you ventured west of Idaho you met a lot of folks who knew all about Boizee.  They knew so much about it they corrected you when you pronounced it accurately as Boy-see.  Then you got into an argument nobody could win because in their invincibly ignorant minds, we in Boizee were so backwards we couldn’t pronounce our city correctly.

To be fair, Boise was a bit backwards back then.  This was before anybody knew or had heard about Boise State’s football team, mostly because BSU got beat by the University of Idaho and the University of Idaho got beat by everyone else.

We were surrounded by our fair share of corn fields.  Our buildings didn’t stretch all that high.  We ate steak that was shaped like French fries which we dipped in special sauce, which is really just ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together.  And on the weekends we liked sliding down hills on ice blocks.

The most backwards thing about living in Boise was our freeway.  Right before my birth Boise had installed a very convenient offshoot to the interstate that shot the cars right into downtown.  We all called it the connector.  The radio DJ’s who liked to pretend to be cool called it, “The Flyin’ Y!”

Now the Flyin’ Y worked well enough if you were coming into downtown but if you were coming out of downtown the thing was screwy.  If you wanted to turn right and head out west to Nampa, you had to go left.  If you wanted to turn left and head right out to Mountain Home you had to go right.  You heard me correctly, right was left and left was right.  We really were backwards.

I tried to go to Nampa a couple times and ended up in Mountain Home and although Mountain Home is a wonderful place with a cool air force base, I didn’t like spending much time there especially since it made me an hour or so late to whatever was happening in Nampa.

After two times I learned my lesson.  Right was left and left was right.

I was in college one day and hanging out with a good friend in downtown Boise.  Her name was Linda and I remember liking her well enough but not enough to ever formally date.  We both lived in Nampa at the time and had commuted into the big city for coffee.

We had a good time and were coming home, approaching the Flying Y when I changed into the left lane.

Linda said, “We are going back to Nampa right?”

Being a gentlemen’s gentleman I was a little offended.  I’d like to think of myself as the type of guy who would never take a lady the opposite direction from where she wanted to be.  “Of course, Linda.”

Linda carefully replied, “Then you want to be in the right lane.  Nampa is to the right.”

I said, “No.  I’ve been fooled here before.  This is backwards Boise.  Right is left and left is right.  I know it sounds logical to go right so that we can go right but really we want to go left and that will take us right out to Nampa.”

Linda said, “That isn’t true.  If you go left, we’ll be left out in Mountain Home.”

“No, Linda, that isn’t true.  I’ve been left out in Mountain Home and it’s because I went right.”

This exasperated Linda and not just because we only had one mile and sixty seconds to figure this whole right-left business out.

She spoke frankly, “Kevin, get in the right lane.  It will take us out to Nampa.”

“Linda, I grew up in Boise.  We are backwards here.  I know it’s hard to believe but here we ride ice blocks and eat steak fingers and mix our ketchup and our mayonnaise together and root for a football team who probably couldn’t beat their own mothers.  So right is left and left is right and we will be in Nampa in no time.”

Fifteen seconds had passed and Linda’s heart rate was beating faster and faster.  “Kevin, BSU actually had a winning season last year.  They are nationally ranked and haven’t lost a game since last year.  They put up fences on the hills so you can’t ride ice blocks any more and everybody who ate steak fingers just died of heart attacks and their kids all now like kale.  Plus, that special sauce thing is more a Utah commodity.  Boise isn’t what it used to be.  We aren’t backwards anymore and last month they completed work on the brand new connector.  They fixed it and now left is left and right is right.

The signs up ahead were of little consolation.  They were as confusing as Boise signs could be.  The far left one said, “Nampa.”  The middle one said, “Mountain Home.”  The far right one said, “Nampa.”  That was typical backwards Boise.  We’d come a long ways but those signs were all the proof I needed that right was still left and left was still right.

Calmly I told my panicked passenger, “Linda, I was just here six weeks ago and left was still right and right was still left.”

We had five seconds before the missed exit and I was cruising along confidently in the left lane when Linda dropped the truth bomb.

“Kevin, I work in downtown Boise.  I drive this route every single day to get home from work and I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that as of six weeks ago right is now right and left is now left.  Get in the right lane!”

You couldn’t argue with that.  We went right out to Nampa.

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is or even if there is one.  I just know that Linda saved me from being left out in Mountain Home again.  Though really Mountain Home’s not all that bad of a place. There even might be a sermon right out there somewhere.  .  .but only if you go left.

A Sermon Somewhere: Doing Drugs

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This post is the latest in an ongoing series where I try to find the hidden sermons lurking beneath everyday experiences.  .  .and fail miserably.

I am an Evangelical Christian pastor.  This means I don’t like drugs.  Actually I despise them.  True, I like coffee but I always feel guilty for liking coffee, like I am betraying some sort of hidden Bible verse, probably in Proverbs, about caffeine being associated with short life and rebellious children.  When it comes to the other drugs, though, I avoid them all like the plagues they pretend to cure.

I am also a marathon runner and athlete.  This means I respect the character forming nature of proper pain.  Pain is gain and that which dulls pain dulls character.  Anybody who takes anything other than water and sleep is a wimp and probably a Pharisee.

I really don’t like drugs whether they be the big bads (cocaine, heroin, meth) or the regular over the counter meds (ibuprofen, Advil, etc).  I will suffer with a headache or muscle pain for days before it even occurs to me that Tylenol exists.

My wife is always the one that reminds me.

She is a bit more of a wimp.  If she feels the very slightest form of nausea, she is hitting up our medicine cabinet like it holds the gifts of eternal life.  She has the pharmacy section of the grocery store memorized and is familiar with drugs that I have never heard of.  When I get near that section, I pray protection over the demons lurking within and then rush in, find what I need, and rush out before any of them get on me.

In the 8 years of our marriage one of our ongoing “debates” has been over the use of drugs.  I will say something like, “I have a slight headache today.”  She will reply, “Take Advil.”  I will reply, “That’s what the heathens do, dear.”  She will say, “If you feel that strongly about it, then stop complaining.”  I let her win there but in my head I note, “I am not complaining.  I was just making conversation about how the changing weather pattern is affecting the pressure in my head and causing unpleasantness.”  So in the end I win.

That is until this last month.

We moved to Utah a year ago and, as I have noted before, everything is different in Utah.  That apparently applies to the allergens in the air.  Those who have moved to Utah in the last few years quickly remind us that it takes three Aprils for your sinuses to adjust to the unique climate.  They may as well be suggesting you just save up all your sick leave for April.

Sure enough around the second week of April my whole family started to feel miserable.  Stuffy noses, coughs and fevers swept over all four of us, causing an incredible amount of misery.  As always I vowed to muscle through it.  Surely the pollen would eventually settle and I could go back to normal.  In my defense, my wife binged on all of her medicines and still felt miserable.

Three weeks later I was not better but much, much worse.  One Monday morning, my will and strength finally gave out and I reluctantly drove to a clinic.  I was in and out in fifteen minutes.  After listing off my symptoms they told me I had bronchitis because the pollen in my chest had sat for so long that it had become infected.  If I would have just taken over the counter meds it would not have happened.  The doctor prescribed something called “Mucinex” twice a day.  My wife had heard of it but up to that point I thought “Mucinex” was the name of a 1990s rapper.

I followed my orders like a good little obedient heathen and took the Mucinex and felt better within 48 hours.

Then this week my son developed a fever and went lethargic on us.  We chose to let him sleep it off.  Truth be told, I actually enjoyed the peace and quiet from his 4 hour long naps that he took twice daily.  Even better, when he was awake he wasn’t that energetic either, just sat in our arms staring blankly into the abyss.  He drank little and ate less.  We gave him a small dose of Tylenol once a day but it didn’t seem to help and Tuesday, after watching him moan on the couch for an hour, my dad hormones won out and I dragged him to the clinic.

They spent four hours poking and prodding and running tests only to send me home on the fool’s errand of trying to get a urine sample from a not quite potty trained two year old.

We waited all day Wednesday and I reluctantly dragged him back Thursday morning without the urine sample, knowing that now they had to extract the UA in very ungodly ways.  Luckily he had developed a skin rash and an ear ache at that point which were the final two symptoms needed for a diagnosis.

The doctor who saw him was gruff and opinionated.  I could tell he fought himself greatly to not just rage about what his coworkers had done Tuesday as he said through baited breath, “They did what!?”

Not long after, he brought out doses of both Ibuprofen and Advil and fed them to my son, who perked up within the hour.  An hour later he came back and said, “You are free to go but I am just going to have to be mean right now.”  He took a deep breath and sighed before saying through the same baited breath, “You guys have to be totally on top of this, more than you are being.  Medicine every four hours!  Force feed him liquids!  If he won’t drink hold him down and force a syringe down his throat with water or juice.  Is that clear?”

I was just happy to be talking to someone who knew what he was doing though I find the insinuation that I am a bad parent for not giving my kids drugs a bit insulting.

Maybe in the end it turns out drugs might have their purpose, not just for blunting pain but for not dying.  Or they might not.  I am not sure I am willing to let my wife truly win this round quite yet.  After all, who knows about how much integrity my son picked up from suffering so miserably?  I basically just secured him a high school award for “Best Character and Conduct.”  That is an award I never won, by the way.  Probably because my lousy parents gave me too much medicine.

It is also possible that we would have gotten better without the meds.  But now we will never know.

Invincible ignorance truly is bliss.

Either way, there has got to be a sermon in there somewhere.

A Sermon Somewhere: Allergies? Head Cold? Maybe the Flu. . .

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The last time I went out for a run was 16 days and a century ago.  It was a rather picturesque run in the mountains of central Idaho but the scenery did little to compensate for my misery.  At that point I had a splitting headache, a stuffy nose and a congested chest.  I attributed the symptoms to allergies.  After all, every one who moves to Utah complains that their allergies are ten times worse here and the tree pollen was (and maybe still is?) at its annual high.  So I wrote myself a prescription for running in Idaho under the guise it would help clear the pollen out of my system.

It did help a bit but the headache and stuffy nose didn’t go away, even after I returned home to Utah.  As if to add insult to injury the “pollen” caused a fever of 101 degrees for a couple days.  Still I pressed on.  I preached last Sunday with a hoarse voice, a runny nose and a pounding headache.

Then I went to District Assembly.  For a pastor there is never a good week to be sick but District Assembly has to be the worst by far, unless I lived local to our district office, in which case, sign me up to call in sick.  But our district office is 320 miles away, which for me means 2 full travel days and 3, 15 hour long days with multiple speaking opportunities and few opportunities to sit down.  I did okay Wednesday.  I did worse Thursday.  On Friday I woke up without a voice and no desire to get out of bed.  For the first time it occurred to me that it might not be allergies but a head cold.

Then other people have appeared out of nowhere (also known as “Facebook”) claiming the same symptoms but throwing around the word “flu.”  The only problem is that I don’t get the flu because, you know, I am awesome and awesome people don’t get the flu.  At the very least awesome people don’t admit to having the flu.  To be fair, awesome people shouldn’t really get head colds either.  They can struggle with allergies, of course, but they muscle through it like the super heroes they are.

However, I would much rather have the flu than a head cold.  The problem with head colds is that they aren’t really all that bad.  You can work through stuffy noses and pressure head aches and sore throats.  And if you choose not to, than you are lazy, like sinfully lazy.  On top of that, with a head cold, you can lay in your bed or on your couch all day and feel energetic and great, with mild congestion.  If you choose to do that you second guess yourself constantly.  That little Protestant Guilt Angel, whom I’ll just call “Guilt”, whispers in your ear, “See you are fine, you lazy bum!  Get off the couch and accomplish something with your life!”

But the minute you give in to the temptation and pull yourself up to do anything, all the symptoms come cascading back.  Five minutes of “activity” and suddenly you can’t think or walk straight and have trouble putting together coherent sentences.  So you collapse back on the bed and listen to the Guil’s voice for another hour while you slip in and out of consciousness.

Be that as it may, I still called in sick this morning.  After all, no matter what caused the symptoms, you can’t exactly give a 20 minute pep speech if you can’t talk.  So here I sit arguing with Guilt, trying to answer his accusations with reasonable claims like, “I am doing my congregation a favor because I am probably contagious!”  “Sure my voice sounds fine now because all I’ve done is muttered two sentences this morning but a twenty minute monologue would sure bring out the coughs and croaks!”  “It is quite possible I might faint right there on the stage and I know pastors who have done that and never lived it down!” And my personal favorite, “My sermon wasn’t all that great anyway.”

That last one isn’t true at all.  The sermon was awesome, a wonderful little number on the apostle Paul’s wounds and griefs, complete with a clip from the sitcom Scrubs to bring the message home.  Sure I would have hated it after preaching it but now I get to think it is awesome forever with no proof to the contrary, or really just no proof at all.  Actually, truth be told, I have nothing planned for Memorial Day so it will probably get preached then.

Meanwhile I sit here in front of my laptop, starting to feel that my five minutes of coherency are down and that I should probably go sleep to back before ramble I to start incoherently while blowing my chest and coughing my nose while dazing into dreaming of a sermon somewhere.  .  .

A Sermon Somewhere: A Pastor and His Taxes

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There is an old saying that pairs death and taxes together as the two things that are the most certain.  But for whatever reason seminary prepared me ten times better for death than for taxes.  During school, taxes came up briefly and sporadically, enough to convince me that a pastor’s tax situation is more complex than the doctrinal fine points under consideration at the Third Council of Constantinople.  Still here is what I have gathered so far:

As a pastor I am considered self employed at points and employed at others.  I get a housing allowance that affects one part of the tax code but is totally null and void on the other.  If I work from home I might get some deductions or I might not.  I don’t pay in monthly and my church doesn’t deduct taxes on my paycheck.  Instead, under particular and very vague circumstances, I am required to pay in quarterly.  If my church doesn’t reimburse me for all my mileage and expenses I can deduct the remaining, but only if I kept certain records all throughout the year, except in other cases where there are “standard” deductions.  Oh and if you live in a parsonage it just throw the whole thing caddywhompus.  To make things worse last year my wife and I lived in two states and had 4 different incomes.

To make a long story short, we should have just hired an accountant but our beloved accountant lives a couple state lines away and we were unable to find a new one that didn’t charge us less than $250.  Since we didn’t do the quarterly payments, we figured we owed something and didn’t want to pay more than that to have an accountant tell us we owed something.

So we bought Turbo Tax.

For those of you unfamiliar with Turbo Tax, the program keeps a very enlightening running tally of your “refund” at the top of the screen that changes with each data you input.  It started by having me list my dependents.  After doing so the “refund” tally drove up into the tens of thousands.  Then it had me put in the W-2s, after which the “refund” very quickly decreased down to 0 and kept going into the red for several more thousands of dollars, passing “the shirt off your back” until it eventually bottomed out at “One arm and one leg.”

I made a snap judgment that we would give Uncle Sam my wife’s leg and my son’s arm.  I worked some more on trying to find other deductions without much luck until my wife entered the room and I explained to her that she would have to give her leg to Uncle Sam.  She was notably taken aback and asked, “Why MY leg?”

“Well I need mine,” I scoffed because it was obviously true.  She didn’t find it either obvious or true or funny.  So we settled on my daughter’s leg and my son’s arm.  After all, I heard somewhere that if you lose a limb before a certain age it grows back.  They would be fine.

But be that as it may our “refund” eventually came to $6500 that we owed.  We went over that number two or three times and found no solace.  So we stewed about it for a couple days as I came to peace with it all and went to pay the amount.

Very reluctantly and with tears in my eyes I hit the “file” button on Turbo Tax thinking that would settle it.  It didn’t.

After getting my banking information, my online pin and signature, and having me save a PDF of all forms, I went to hit the “file” button again, only to have it list three errors that were needed before I could file.  The first had to do with the EIN number of my daughter’s preschool.  The second had to do with a misunderstanding of a state rebate last year.  The last had to do with some obscure worksheet whose very existence confounded me.  I studied it and entered the number I thought most accurate and miraculously saw our payment halve.

This threw me into a panic because I had little to no idea what had happened.  So we started over from scratch, did the whole thing again, got to that form again and entered the number we thought most accurate only to see it give us roughly the same amount.

To do this day I have no idea what happened with that form or even if what I did was technically legal.  So I googled “odds of getting audited by IRS” and found scores of articles claiming that the IRS’s budget has been cut so drastically that they could no longer afford auditors!  This was a welcome relief.  To add to it, Turbo Tax claimed my “risk of audit” was incredibly low, presumably because a few thousand dollars isn’t worth the audit when you don’t have many auditors lying around.

Still, because I am one of those Evangelical Millenials with a perpetually guilty conscious, I am almost certain I am going to get audited.  I can just picture it now.  My wife and I sitting in the IRS office as a very skinny and short man in a gray suit with small rimmed glasses pours through our financial documents looking for the justification to remove our limbs for King and Country.  My wife and I will sit there nervously babbling about why we did what we did, trying to make light of the whole thing with nervous laughter.

He won’t be amused but I am not scared.  After all, while he digs through those documents, I am sure he will find a sermon in there somewhere!

 

A Sermon Somewhere: A Holy Dilemma Negotiating Internet Prices

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This is the latest in an ongoing series of posts trying to find sermons hiding beneath the everyday stuff of life.  .  .and failing miserably.

I just got off the phone with my internet service provider.  I called them an hour and a half ago.  When we moved a little under a year ago we discovered that our city of 2.5 million people only had 2 major internet providers.  The “competition” or lack thereof had rendered both useless.  So we signed up for the best deal, a promotional rate guaranteed to end after 1 year.

I marked late January, early February on my calendar and have been dreading the call ever since.  As an act of holy procrastination I visited their website first to see if maybe I could get a better deal without having to wait on the phone for an hour to talk to an actual person who would try to sale me on the “bundles” where they give you 3x what you need for only 2x the price.  The website had locked me out of my account but was really vague about it, asking for my customer number.  Ironically, a caveat of my promotional rate was that I would do online billing and the only way to find my account number was in the online bill on the website which I would not get to without the customer number.  This was quite distressing.

Reluctantly I dialed the customer service number.  The first thing they wanted was my unreachable, unknowable customer number.  I bypassed that through clever number pushing and eventually got the annoying elevator music.  It wasn’t without merit.  My two year old son danced to it in the background while I worked on a sermon for fifteen minutes.

Then I heard the glorious voice, waking me from my sermon stupor.  It belonged to a wonderful but completely not understandable man named Kent.  He wanted my customer number.  I explained to him through very baited breath, that the reason I was calling was because there was no way to know the customer number.  He was patient and asked for my billing address.  I spelled my street name for him.  He came up with nothing.  I said the street name again.  He repeated something entirely different to me.  I practically yelled the street name.  He suddenly saw where the error was.

When we got that all cleared up he told me that if they had a great deal whereby I would pay double what I am now but also have cable and home phone and a cell phone.  As poor Kent very patiently tried to explain to me that the bundles were my only option, I argued not so patiently back, “I am not going to pay for something I will never use.”

After a stalemate I finally just said it.  “So you are punishing your continuing customers eh?  Well that confirms what I suspected.  Let me call the other companies and see what options are available.”

There was a pause and then Kent said, “Let me transfer you over to our customer retention department and they will get you a deal!”

I had so many questions, “Wait, what?!  Why didn’t you start by doing that?  Why not just let the customer retention guys begin the conversation?  Why are there even two separate departments?”

I refrained from asking any of them and said, “That’ll work, I guess.  Thanks.”

10 minutes of great sermon prep later another man answered the phone and said three times in a row, “Can I get your customer number?”  I repeated the number, which Kent had provided, three times before he said, “I can’t hear anybody on this line.  Call back if you need anything.”  Silence.

15 minutes later, after entering my account number, listening to very choppy elevator music and doing some great sermon prep, I was talking to a man named John.  I explained the whole situation to him and he said that he could easily leave me at my current price with my current speed.  “Anything else?” he said.

“Nope,” I answered.  “Thanks.  You’ve been great.”  That last sentence had just a tinge of sarcasm to it.

There has been a lot said and written and preached about what how we treat people in customer service.  How do we react when our hamburger doesn’t emerge from the fast food kitchen exactly how we want it?  What tone do we use with our teller when they forget to give us the extra $20 we asked for?  What do we do when our coffee is too hot/cold?  What happens when we are on the phone for 3 hours and finally get a person on the line?  Does our love of our neighbor shine in those times or break under the pressure of not getting what we want?  Does our tone stay even or do we elevate our rhetoric to match our frustration?  Do those moments reveal the selfless love of God or the selfish love of things, or the more understandable hatred of elevator music?

All that is well and good but now I am sitting here realizing that my internet service provider is structured to give the people who throw the most fits the best deals.  In fact, a few months ago a door to door internet salesmen came to my door, hawking my provider’s wares.  When I explained to her we all ready had internet with that company but that our rate was expiring she explained to me, “If you call and act angry they will transfer you around a few times and if you are persistent they will renew your deal.”

I was thinking about her when I expressed my frustration to Kent this morning.  Because of her I knew I had to throw a tantrum, but a controlled one.  I had all ready scripted the line, “So you punish your current customers, eh?” because she told me to say almost exactly that.

And I felt very conflicted about that.  I felt mean and anti-Christ and unloving.  And yet their system is structured in a way that the shrewd bird gets the worm.

But on the other line was Kent.  I have friends who work in call centers and they let me know that on the organizational flow chart for my ISP, Kent is at the very bottom.  Kent didn’t decide to punish the current customers with these ridiculous bait deals.  He doesn’t write policy.  He is just the poor sap they hired to give the bad news.  But then he is also told, “if they yell at you, you can then transfer them to the good news guys but only if they yell at you.”

Well, sign me up for that job!  Who doesn’t like playing the bad cop every day for hours on end while they are told off by thousands of angry customers?  Who doesn’t want to bear the brunt of the shameful practices of a billion dollar corporation?  Who doesn’t want to answer for the sins of corporate greed?

So here’s the thing, we talk so much about acting like Jesus to customer service employees that I sometimes think we miss the point that they are actually far closer to who Jesus is than maybe I can ever be.

Or maybe I just had way too much time to think this morning while listening to elevator music.  Either way, there is a sermon in there somewhere.  .  .and here’s some lyrics from a little known Newsboys song that I can relate a lot too right now!

My Friend Jesus

by Newsboys

I bought a product they should not have sold.
I called the help line,
they put me on hold
I’ve been waiting for an hour
Now my phone’s losing power
And I’m gonna explode.
I hear, “How may I help you today?”
I know a very rude answer,
But I’m wondering, hey

What if everybody talked like my friend Jesus?
If everybody loved like my friend Jesus,
If everyone forgave like my friend Jesus,
It would give the world a new beginning.
What if this is like an early inning?

I state my business;
She puts me on hold.
I’m back to thinking;
I’m gonna explode.
And the dog wants dinner,
And the music they’re playing
is the sound-track of hell.
You say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right?”
Just try listening to Celine Dion all night.

But if everybody talked like my friend Jesus,
If everybody loved like my friend Jesus,
If everyone forgave like my friend Jesus,
If we want to mend world relations
Surely I can show a little patience.

I’ve been waiting around for this world to change.
Another day cut loose, another lame excuse.
I’ve got the why and how to start here and now…
…Then my cellphone drops the call.
…And I spew out vitriol.
…And as my fist goes through the wall, a voice says, “Be the change you wanna see!”

‘Cause if everybody talked like my friend Jesus?
If everybody loved like my friend Jesus,
If everyone forgave like my friend Jesus,
What a changed world this could be

If everybody talked like my friend Jesus?
If everybody loved like my friend Jesus,
If everyone forgave like my friend Jesus,
What a changed world this could be
Starting now, Maybe I can start the change in me.

A Sermon Somewhere: Utah Road Fatalities

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This is the latest post in an ongoing series where I examine the menial stuff of life to try to find a sermon illustration.  .  .and fail miserably!

Last week I drove the 20 mile stretch of I-15 between my house and downtown Salt Lake City three times.  In that 120 miles of driving, I saw more people and cars than I probably saw in one year living in Eastern Oregon where there are few people and even fewer vehicles.

The roads are 5 lanes wide.  Those 5 lanes are surrounded by every vehicle we have yet invented from massive semis to tiny motorcyclists.  Some cars are going 80.  Others are going 40 for no discernible reason.  Every time you change lanes, there is a car in your blind spot.  Every time you go under an underpass there is a traffic cop hiding there.  I am not entirely sure why as it is impossible to speed in Utah, given that even in the city the speed limit is 75.

And there are signs everywhere.  There are merging lane signs, exit signs, mileage signs, speed limit signs and billboard signs.  Awhile back the highway administration, again for no discernible reason, decided to install a bunch of digital signs right above the lanes with messages they can change whenever.  They must have decided we didn’t have enough to look at.

Granted, some of the time those digital boards tell you how long they estimate it will be to important landmarks or junctions.  Other times they put really passive aggressive seatbelt warnings up like, “Click it or Ticket!” or even (and I am not making this up) “That Seat Belt Looks Really Good on You!”

But last week some guy at the highway administration must have lost a bet because the signs read, “There have been 4 fatalities on Utah roads in the last 7 days.”

I have no idea why I needed to know that.

Were they bragging?  Did we set a new record?  Did we beat Idaho and Wyoming who must have had 5 in 7 or, worse, 7 in 7 days?  Is there a ranking somewhere of state traffic fatalities and we are winning it?  After all Utah wins the other records like happiest state and most prosperous state and most Mormon state.

Or where they warning us?  We have a death every other day and we did not have one yesterday!  Today is day 8, watch out!  It could be you.  Under the likelihood that that was the case, I buckled my seat belt and slowed down to 40 behind a gray haired couple driving a white Buick who were doing the same.

Moreover, where did these accidents happen?  Notice the sign didn’t say Utah interstates.  It said Utah highways, which I think included most roads in the entire state.  If they all happened in southern Utah, then I don’t really care.  But if they all happened on the I-15 corridor, than I definitely am buckling all the seat belts in my car, whether or not they are occupied, and slowing down to 20.

Another possibility is that there is a geographical rotation of some sort?  Maybe the first one happened in northwest Utah (where I drive), the next in southeast Utah, then in southwest, then in northeast.  If that is the case, it is our turn again!

Whatever the situation I decided I am not going to cause or be fatality number 5 on day 8!  So I slowed down to 25 and took the next exit to use the back roads.  Based on the huge line of cars at that exit, I am guessing I am not the only one.

This might mean this was all a manipulative scheme to try to reduce traffic on the interstate.  Whatever their plan, it seems to have worked and I am praying for the families of fatalities 1 through 4 and avoiding the Interstate and all highways so my family won’t be joining them.

Meanwhile, did you know back roads are delightful?  There are houses, stores, schools, hospitals, and pedestrians everywhere.  I might get to where I am going a half hour late, but at least I will have had a bunch of people to wave at and houses to admire.  I also might get lost back there but at least I won’t die and after all, there has to be a sermon on those roads somewhere!!

A Sermon Somewhere: The Gospel of Junk Management

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I joke a lot about the classes seminary did not offer.  I do not do so as a way of insulting my education (which was incredible) but as a way of reminding myself that you don’t go to school to learn what to think but how to think.

Still, there were some classes I wish they had offered.  I wish they had a class on how to paint church rooms in a way that offends no one, though I am not sure anybody has mastered that.  It would have been nice to take a course on how to purge your membership list and a lesson or two on making great potluck courses also would have been nice.

But more than anything, it would be really nice to have taken a class (or even achieved a minor) in how to organize, clean, and get rid of stuff inside a church.

I have now had some form of official ministry responsibilities in 4 churches and at least 3 of them seemed to be cathedrals to the gospel of junk management.  It all started when I was a junior in college and I walked into a gigantic room at my local church.  It had been the kid’s church at one point in time but at that moment it was piled completely with junk, one large pile that stretched from wall to wall and from the floor to the ceiling.

I asked the children’s pastor about it and she firmly explained that “some people” insist the church not collect junk but they are wrong.  Instead it is unethical to throw church stuff away because, “you never know when you are going to need it.”  Throwing away something useful that belongs to God is poor stewardship.

Needless to say, she moved onto another ministry assignment a month later and one of the first things I asked the new children’s pastor was, “Can I throw away all this junk?”  He gladly obliged.

A few years later I ended up a senior pastor of a small church with a gigantic facility.  While I was interviewing, I toured room after room that was packed with junk, useless things that nobody would ever need.  We spent an entire year cleaning it all out.

Now I have just taken over the pastoral responsibilities for yet one more assignment and, sure enough, the parsonage and church building are both packed with junk before my arrival.

It seems we have bought into a shallow and non biblical view of stewardship that says God is glorified by how much stuff we accumulate in our ever expanding buildings, not by how many stray and lonely people we welcome into our loving communities.

If the idea is to build a large building and then stuff them with junk for Jesus than we are certainly winning.  We may not be able to take any of it with us when we cross from this life to the next, but at least God will be so “glorified” that our mansions in glory will come prestuffed with old curriculum, televisions from the 1960s, flannelgraphs, blackboards, christmas lights and fake flowers that smell like Lysol.  I can’t wait to die and move in!

At the same time I am reading Henri Nouwen’s, “Road to Daybreak.”  I plan to review it when I finish it but this afternoon I read a brief part about a church in Morienval, France.  The building was built in 1050AD by a group of nuns.  It has three rows, a clock tower and a semicircular choir loft flanked by two elegant towers.  Nouwen prayed the vespers there during Advent one year.  He did so with nuns and monks from the area.  He left the service all ready longing to return because as he put it, “the church was built for prayer” (p. 80).

That sentence made me wonder what our church buildings are built for.  .  .

And there has to be a sermon in there somewhere, but good luck finding it beneath all that junk.