Friday, May 22, 2009

Frank's Tips for Surviving the Secretary of State

I took my middle child to the Secretary of State today to acquire his level one driver's license. (That's the BMV for my three Indiana readers). It was . . . exactly what you would expect. And since Frankly Speaking is such a helpful oriented blog (wink, wink), I thought I would pass along several useful tips for surviving your upcoming trip to purgator . . . er . . . the license branch, as we call it back home.
  1. Pack a lunch. And plenty of fluids. There is a reason that the acronym is "SOS." You might want to go as far as investing in a GPS transponder beacon in case your loved ones become concerned for your whereabouts. And they will. In fact, you might want to stop at Gander Mountain before your visit to see if there is something freeze dried or dehydrated just to be certain that it is edible after your long delay. The wise survivalist will pack additional food for his fellow travelers so that the freeze-dried ice cream you bring along can be traded for a higher place in the line.
  2. Bring documentation. All of it. That you've ever received. Because, when you step up to the counter and the bureaucrat on the other side asks you to identify yourself, smiling and responding, "I am me," isn't going to cut it. You're going to need your Social Security card, naturally. And your birth certificate - the original one with the raised seal. You're also going to want something official with your address on it. A water bill; a title to your vehicle. If, however, you are like my son and have not lived long enough to establish that you are who you are, you might also want to bring along the scrapbook that your mother made for you. Locks or hair, your first lost tooth, the tubes that you had in your ears at one point - each of these contain traces of DNA that can be used to establish your identity. A report card works, if it has your address on it. But you might also want to bring along your teacher(s), and other relatives that can tell helpful anecdotes about the time when you were four years old and urinated on the front lawn in full view of the ladies bridge club across the street.
  3. Ask a computer guru to accompany you. Your service specialist is probably going to have to input your data at least once or, as in my case today, four times, before calling tech support for assistance. If at all possible, just bring Bill Gates with you to the branch. Or Steve Jobs. Oh wait . . . if the State used Apple they wouldn't need tech support.
  4. Make a game of it. This can make all the difference between sanity and . . . well, insanity. Begin a pool with your fellow masochists. Everyone throws in a buck to bet which employee is going to be serving you. Will it be the girl that looks like she graduated high school twelve minutes ago? The frustrated former middle management executive from GM? Really want to have fun? Stop at the bakery beforehand and snatch a random "now serving" number. When you arrive at the SOS, wait several minutes and then loudly ask, "Wait a minute! Did I miss my number? I've got 83 here!" Of course, that only works if they're nowhere near 83, but you can figure out that part of it.
  5. Make a buck. Make sure you take two numbers (you'll have to do this on the sly). Wait thirty minutes and then very quietly auction off the extra number. You're going to have to be subtle about this, however, as someone is likely to rip the pen and chain off the counter and either use the chain to strangle you or the pen to shiv you (or both).
With enough creativity, planning and patience (and a prescription for Valium), your trip to the Secretary of State doesn't have to be a mind-numbing, exercise in frustration.

NOTE TO "THAT READER": It is called humor. The views expressed in this column were intended to be satirical in nature and are not intended to reflect anger, frustration, perspiration or indigestion. Thank you, have a nice day.

Monday, May 18, 2009

If anyone aspires to be an elder . . .

I enjoyed visiting with Jim in my office earlier today. In the course of our time together, he asked how much our church's elders were paid. He was really surprised when I told him that they are all volunteers. I can understand why.

I've known some great elders in my time as a preacher, and they all desrved to be paid. Ray S. cared enough to confront me when I was still wet behind the ears. Ron R. was like an uncle to me when we lived in Kokomo. Terry U. is the most biblically literate elder I've ever known. Mike K. is the first elder I've ever been able to call a "friend who sticks closer than a brother."

It's not enough to say that these men all deserved to be paid, either. Fact is, you couldn't pay them enough for a lot of what they do. My dad was an elder, and I watched him experience the joys and the heartache of serving in that role. There were times when serving was an almost unbearable burden. Just the other day we talked about one particularly difficult congregational meeting when he was on the hot seat for making what was, at the time, a difficult leadership decision. Twenty-five years removed, the pain is so real that it is still hard for him to talk about it. Fact is, every elder I've ever known has had similar experiences.

An hour or so after Jim asked me how big our "elder payroll" is, South's elders met for their monthly meeting. It was a good one. I really appreciated the input the guys have in our ministry. They all bring different gifts to the table, and God seems to give them the right thing to say at the right time.

Mike V. keeps his eye on the bottom line. I really love that he has a heart for ministry and that he does all he can to make our financial resources go as far as they can. Without him and his team keeping an eye on the books, we'd be in tall grass. He has a heart for seeing people become all that God has called them to be - including me.

Dick has a dry, but great sense of humor. He usually sits quietly by, but when he speaks he asks the right questions, and can break down an issue so that it is manageable. Tonight he took a complex issue and framed it in a way that made it seem less intimidating.

Terry S. is an encourager. He is the most extroverted and gregarious elder with whom I have ever served. Terry stops by my office to pray with me every Sunday morning. He encourages the whole staff that way. His vocabulary is filled with superlatives, which he dishes them out liberally (and means every word).

Mike B. is kind. And steady. And sure. If Mike says he is going to do something, I can count on him doing it. He keeps track of all the new members at South and makes sure that each of them receives a visit in their home from the elders. He will tell you that Mr. Palmer (or maybe Doc Doty) was "Mr. South." But for me, that person is Mike.

Chris is so insightful. He asks probing questions that cause the staff to reflect on on their spiritual condition. How are we with God? What is robbing our joy? Are we being true to our staff covenant. Chris is always looking for "the vision" thing, but he is careful to make sure that we don't get so focused on the big picture that we neglect our own spiritual condition.

Joe is the newest of our elders. His heart for families is evident and he leads by example with his own. His priorities are clear: God, family, ministry, work - in that order. He, too, is quiet by comparison. And that gives his words, when he speaks, even more weight.

Terry R. is a servant. When he retired from GM earlier this year, he devoted his time to custodial work at South. But he doesn't "neglect the ministry of the word and prayer" to sweep floors. Terry was instrumental in leading a couple to Christ just this last week. He is so grounded and understands that the best ministry is done in relationship.

Tom has been a personal encouragement to me, too. In a lot of ways, he has a no nonsense approach to life, and yet when he ministers to people he does so with an obvious grace and mercy.

Every one of these men is amazing.

There will be, no doubt, a cynic or two that will read this and suggest that I am currying favor with the men who are my overseers. So be it. But credit is due where credit is deserved, and these men deserve credit for their service. That's not why they do it, of course. (They might even get a little bit ruffled at the idea of me writing this.)

Bill Hybels made a statement a while back that stuck with me. (I quoted a portion of it in my last post, actually.) He wrote, "The local church is the hope of the world, and its future rests primarily in the hands of its leaders."

If he is right, and I think he is, that means South Lansing Christian Church has a great future ahead.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Life, death, eternal life and other truly important events . . .

Yesterday was one of those days that alternates between heartache and joy. A day when a preacher feels both incredible helplessness and incredible hope.

The day began when I met a physician that has a vision for a free health care clinic in an under-served area of Lansing. Her grant proposal was well written. She has over $100,000 in in-kind donations. She needs another $200,000 to get her project off the ground. I don't think there is anything our church can do. Helpless . . .

Talked with a guy who is really struggling in his marriage right after that. He and his wife are nearing the seven-year mark, and the frustration is palpable. We've talked before. Sometimes they do well together; sometimes they don't. I believe they have all the resources they need for a God-honoring marriage. And yet I often feel pretty helpless to move them in that direction.

I spent three hours preparing a funeral sermon for a nine-day-old baby boy. The apparent contradiction between God's omnipotence His goodness was hammering in my ears the whole time. So I decided to acknowledge it. There are some times when "that don't make no sense" as Delmar's friend Pete likes to say; times when God seems asleep at the switch. God is big enough for us to admit our doubts, I think, but as I contemplated how to bring hope to this boy's family, I felt pretty hopeless.

I delivered that funeral sermon shortly after that, but not before I stood beside mom and dad as they peered into the bassinet at their little boy. He was exquisite - just like one of those "real life" baby dolls that you buy your daughter so she can feel all grown up when she plays mommy. There were lots of tears. And through the sobbing I felt pretty helpless.

At the funeral dinner that followed everyone was very complimentary. They said my words brought comfort and healing. In spite of the brutal events of the day there was laughter and joy. (Being a Christian makes all the difference at times like these!) As evening came, the sun finally began to shine.

The day concluded with me immersing two folks into Christ. What a huge blessing that was! Tom and Nancy were befriended by a group of folks from our church that camp together and cruise together and, well, they do just about everything together. It seems they also share the gospel together, too, because Tom and Nancy went public with their faith in Jesus last night. Afterward, their friends gave them a beautiful Bible. Nancy was overheard to say, "This is the first Bible we've ever owned." Amazing.

That is how the church works. This organic, living, breathing thing that is the hands of Christ and the hope of the world. Bringing comfort to people that are hurting; bringing Christ to people that are hopeless. The local church is the hope of the world. And in a day when this preacher felt pretty helpless, the church was a source of great hope for me, too.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Romans 8:28, painfully real

Terry called me this morning. “Frank, I need you to come to the hospital. Gene and Amy are here. Their two-week-old son, Landon, passed away this morning.”

When Amy fed Landon at 3 AM she could tell something wasn’t right. Then he stopped breathing. They laid him on the floor and Greg began CPR while Amy called 911. Gene prayed and breathed for his little man, but by the time the paramedics arrived, Landon still had not come around. And he never did.

As I showered and dressed to go to the hospital I couldn’t help but think of the verse I am supposed to preach tomorrow morning: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Really? Was that what I was supposed to tell Gene and Amy? "Hey, guys, God is going to bring something good out of this." Was that going to be any comfort for their 6-year-old son, Anthony, who just wants to know where his baby brother went?

Was God working all things for the good when the detectives interviewed Gene and Amy separately to determine if their stories matched? Was God working all things for good when Gene and Amy arrived home from the hospital to find two police cars sitting outside to secure what might potentially be a crime scene? When Amy was asked to “re-enact” what took place with a baby doll – how did God work that for good?

Following their routine investigation, the police determined that there was no foul play, but that is small comfort for Gene and Amy because Landon is still dead. Though the police have their questions answered, their family is left with a singular unanswered question: “why?”

I have some answers to that question, but they are all theological. They minister to the head, but leave the heart wanting. And when that happens – at times like this – it takes great faith to believe this verse, to claim it as one’s own, to believe that God can see the whole movie and not just the frame or two that is our existence.

And that may be, at least in the near term, the only good that can come of something this painful.

Monday, May 04, 2009

One Friday Night: Police, Prom and Parenting

Last Friday I watched Abby get all dolled up for the Everett High School Prom. She and her friends from South's youth group all went together and, even though she attends Grand Ledge High School, they fixed her up with a guy from Everett so she could hang with them. Tyler was the young man's name, and he seemed nice enough.

Even though I just met Tyler, I wasn't worried about him. As I said, he seemed nice enough, and besides, Abby had just completed a Lansing Police Department self-defense course. She had already spent some time showing her brothers and I her new moves. For her final exam, in fact, she defended herself against LPD Chief of Police Mark Alley. He suited up in a specially padded outfit and attacked her, and she kneed him in the groin and punched him into submission. Frankly, I don't want to mess with that girl.

Still, one doesn't just send his daughter into the night without a reservation or two. So I put on my bullet proof vest and chaplain's uniform and went for a ride along with LPD Sergeant Emmons. I reasoned that, if there was a problem, I would be able to get anywhere in the city rather rapidly, and would have unparallelled communications.

The night was interesting, to say the least. We began with bar checks. We drifted in and out of several downtown bars. The Cadillac Club was slow. Things were dead at The Firm. Across the street, though, at Club X-Cel the place was jumping. The Sergeant and I found ourselves surrounded by a passel of drunk co-eds who wanted to dance with a cop in uniform. I shot the Sergeant a get-me-out-of-here look and he plowed a path to the door. He found the whole thing pretty amusing.

We checked out the bars in Old Town - including my first (and probably last) gay bar. Frankly, it was the coolest spot I was in all night. The owner is a gifted artist who personally made all the artwork and furnishings. We checked out some city parks, too, including the fish ladder where the salmon will soon be leaping their way upstream to spawn.

As we were headed to Rum Runners to check it out we received a call about a shooting on the North side of town. We raced across town with lights and sirens and arrived in fairly short order. As we turned the corner, the first thing I saw was a girl in a prom dress. My heart skipped a bit as the dad in me wondered . . . Abby had no reason to be in this neighborhood. In fact, I knew she had planned to be in Ovid by this time, but still, I couldn't help but be a bit concerned.

When we pulled up, the victim was being loaded into an car by several friends to be taken to the hospital. The police delayed them until paramedics could arrive, which they did moments later. From that point on, the whole situation seemed like something out of a movie. Police canvassed the neighborhood and interviewed neighbors. They questioned a group of partiers that were near where the shooting occurred. They looked for evidence.

After the scene was secured, the Sergeant and I headed to the hospital. I was able to pray with the victim's family in the waiting room. As of this morning, I am uncertain how the victim is recovering. We continue to pray.

For the first time since moving to Lansing, I experienced the reality that this is a city. I have known that, of course, but Friday night I saw it up close and first hand. It is eclectic and alive. We are a multicultural, energetic place filled with life and excitement. We're not a utopian community, to be sure - did I mention we stopped a man with crack cocaine in his pocket Friday night - but Lansing is, relatively speaking, a very safe community. The murder rate here, for example, is less than in Ft. Wayne, Indiana - the nearest large city to where I used to live.

Still, that is little consolation for a dad who watches his first born spread her wings and begin to live more independently.

It is, all in all, a lesson in trust. Trust in my daughter. Trust in her judgement. Trust in our community. And trust in God. For that part - the part that is teaching me to trust - I give thanks. The rest of it, I'll just endure.