Monthly Archives: June 2009

“Michael and Farrah and Me”

Michael Jackson’s death had been announced a full day before the news finally reached me. I never cared for his work, and I found his public persona quite unsettling, but I’m the first to admit that he’s an iconic figure of no small cultural significance.

The announcement of Farrah Fawcett’s death got by me, too. As a boy, I was one of millions with that famous poster on my wall — the one with that mane of blonde hair and that brilliant smile. “Charlie’s Angels” was an important event every Wednesday night, as evidenced by the waiving of my otherwise strictly-enforced 8:30 p.m. school night bedtime.  

When the news finally did reach me, it was emblazoned across a gigantic television screen in the CNN Center in Atlanta, Georgia. I was in the midst of my church’s annual short-term mission trip, and we were sitting in the food court of Ted Turner’s media palace. We had come to share the gospel with the homeless population in Atlanta’s inner-city, in one of the most economically-depressed and crime-infested neighborhoods in the country. Our assignment that day had been to establish contact with someone in Centennial Park and see to it that they had a good lunch and a conversation about their need for a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

I was sitting with my co-leader Diane, the six teenagers who compose the mission team, and LaMar, our guest. Overhead on the enormous screen, breathless CNN reporters were reporting on Michael and Farrah’s deaths. By the urgent tone and the sheer abundance of coverage, one would have assumed a president had been assassinated, but I couldn’t stop listening to LaMar tell his story.

Once a happily married man, his life imploded suddenly when his wife was murdered. As is often the case, the husband became the prime suspect, and LaMar was arrested and charged with homicide. He languished in jail for months, awaiting trial while doing his mourning behind bars. Finally the charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

Still paralyzed with grief, he left jail to re-enter a life that was predictably in wreckage. His job had been given to someone else, his apartment had been lost and his modest savings had been eaten up by legal fees. Penniless, homeless, and friendless, LaMar’s daily life by the time we met him consisted of little more than rudimentary survival.

As I listened, in the corner of my eye I could see footage of the weeping throngs who had made their pilgrimage to lay flowers outside the gates of Michael Jackson’s home. In Neverland did the King of Pop a stately pleasure dome decree…

LaMar could sometimes get a bed at the gospel mission near Centennial Park, but usually he had no choice but to sleep wherever he could find soft ground, like in the city’s cemeteries. His days were spent looking for work. Through local ministries, he found a way to get a shower every morning, along with clean, presentable used clothes. I commented that his well-groomed appearance and good communication skills were qualities that should have made him highly employable. LaMar nodded politely, responding to my thoughtless statement by explaining that even more than cleanliness and intelligence, most interviewers expect applicants to provide a permanent address on applications.   

After a time of prayer, we went our separate ways. There may have been celebrities on the giant screen overhead, but it was LaMar I was thinking about, not Michael or Farrah. 

On our last day in the city, I had the privilege of preaching at the free breakfast the team cooked and served to the homeless at Eagle’s Nest Ministries, our base of operations in Atlanta. I looked into the faces of the suffering men who had come for the meal, and there was our friend LaMar, giving me an encouraging smile and nod. My text was Luke 8, the account of the demon-possessed man who slept in the graveyard and was delivered by Jesus.                    

After the meal, I stood by to greet the men as they left. As LaMar and I shook hands, the young man in line behind him smiled whimsically and asked, “Why didn’t you say a prayer for Michael, preacher?”

I thought for a second. “Because I want to pray for the living,” I said. The young man shrugged.

“You do that for me, will you, Jim?” LaMar said with a wink, turning to head back out to the street. “You just go ahead and keep on praying for the living.”

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“The Green Gorilla and the Porcelain Phoenix”

Rumored to be a hotbed of drug trafficking, free love, communist pamphleteering and witchcraft was Monmouth’s own mid-1970’s precursor to the video arcade: “The Green Gorilla.”

Back in the day, such establishments were called “rec rooms.” For a brief, bizarre moment, that den of iniquity and bumper pool existed on the corner to the west of the Italian Village.  My parents warned me to stay away from it — they were convinced it was the fetid lair of Monmouth’s most subversive hop-heads. I once asked Dad if I could go in there and he immediately launched into a blood-curdling account of men in pony tails, a floor littered with used syringes and children going in but never, ever coming out.

Dad started off coherent enough, but as he got more worked up, his cautionary tale eventually morphed into a musical number that was strikingly similar to Professor Harold Hill singing “Ya Got Trouble,” (but which was completely in compliance with the Parody and Fair Use exception of the Copyright Act, section 107). He donned a straw boatman hat and, with a wink, he tilted it at a jaunty angle. Then he grabbed a bamboo cane, and invited me to “sit down and give a listen.” And it went a little somethin’ like this:

“That Green Gorilla is crawling with hop-heads, Jimmy!
Wild-eyed, rabid, godless hop-heads!
Don’t go in there!
AAAAAAAAAAAH!!!
They’ll put ‘something’ in your drink!
Next thing you know, you’re jumping out a window like Art Linkletter’s daughter!
Dopers! Oh, we got Dopers!
Right here in Maple City!
That’s ‘Dopers’ with a capital ‘D’
And that rhymes with ‘G’
And that stands for ‘Green Gorilla!'”

Not long after the Green Gorilla was shut down by a task force led by Carrie Nation, Elliot Ness and a young Janet Reno, I remember Dad driving me in his red Impala station wagon to the aftermath of a great blaze. It was just off the square in the 100 block of South Main. We idled there, shamelessly rubbernecking at all that was left of “Newsland.” Was it arson? A lightning strike? Spontaneous bookstore combustion? I don’t recall. But I do know that the fire department, like a tattoo proofreader, arrived too late to do anything. As he choked back tears, I heard Dad utter, “Now where will I get next month’s Jet Magazine? Where will my next issue of “True Detective Stories” come from?”

But then, bidden by an unseen presence, we looked upward in search of hope, and gasped in unison at what we saw. Amidst the smoldering ruins of the once thriving bookstore, on what remained of the second story, the charred blackness gave way to a single, gleaming object. Miraculously unscarred by the inferno, it stood out from the ashes like a beacon — a brilliant white toilet had defied the flames. It seemed to hover over the sooty rubble, a triumphant and transcendent symbol of the irrepressible spirit of Monmouth! Awe is too small a word for what we felt at that moment.

Today, we are a nation at war. We stand on the precipice of economic disaster. Our once great country is led by a man who learned politics in Chicago. Oh Newsland toilet, at this moment of fearful uncertainty in our republic, it is to your courageous example that we now turn for inspiration. It could have been you that Winston Churchill spoke of when he said, “Never give in, never give in, never; never; never; never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense and, of course, really awesome commodes.”

Epilogue: The bookstore reopened a few months later in the 100 block of South First Street.  Newsland enjoyed a brisk trade for many years after, in no small part, I’m sure, because of its eclectic inventory: It was the only place in town where one could buy both a copy of Hustler and a Book of Mormon. One-stop shopping!

Incidentally, not once did I dare enter the Green Gorilla. My friend Mikey did, however.

I never saw him again.

“Father’s Day: Dad Readiness”

I had my dad readiness tested the other day. Hannah, who will turn 8 next month, and her 6-year-old brother, Daniel, were outside playing. I was in the parsonage with the other five while the Mrs. was at a meeting. Suddenly, Hannah burst through the door with wailing and gnashing of teeth. Daniel was on her heels, and he too was crying, shrieking “accident” over and over. Hannah was in full-force tattling mode, crying, pointing at Daniel and speaking in tongues. At this point, Daniel demanded a lawyer.

I began to look Hannah over. She was holding her hand on her head. When she pulled it away, blood like I’ve never seen outside an MMA cage began to pour down the side of her face. When she saw those scarlet billows start to spread, Hannah screamed and insisted that I kill Daniel. Daniel screamed and committed interstate flight to avoid prosecution. Gracie, who just turned 12, screamed and gave Hannah the Heimlich maneuver. Jamie, my 10-year-old namesake, screamed and began running around in circles. Mary, who is 4, screamed and began running around Jamie as he ran around in circles. Three-year-old Mercy screamed and dashed outside to start a signal fire for the rescue team. Sam, my 2-year-old, screamed and began beseeching the Lord for a miraculous healing.

While the Bennett Circus of Mayhem raged on around me, I located Hannah’s small scalp wound. A block of wood, which Daniel had carelessly tossed over his shoulder, had conked her cranium. I alerted the Mrs., who took the patient to the clinic. Three stitches and an ice cream cone later, she was fine. Once I sedated the other children with veterinary tranquilizers and tucked them in for the night, they were fine too. As for Daniel, a federal joint-agency task force caught up with him the next day, holed-up in a Toys-R-Us on the Arkansas-Missouri border. He surrendered peacefully and is now back home, awaiting trial.

With Father’s Day approaching, I’m thinking of Todd Palin. Sexagenarian David Letterman cracked a perverse sex joke about Palin’s 14-year-old daughter. When the Palins dared to respond, the ever-effete MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann opened fire, calling the girl’s mother “sanctimonious, holier than thou, exploitative, undignified, pedantic, childish, self-inflicting, insipid, backwards, embarrassing, over-reactive, overreaching” as well as a “delusional lunatic.” Then, in a statement that defies both logic and decency, he actually characterized Letterman as “the victim” and praised him for continuing “to take the high road in the face of repeated attacks by a politician.”

Huh?! How could he possibly think … oh, wait. A quick check of Keith Olbermann’s online bio page is enlightening. It states, “has never been married and has no children.” ‘Nuff said.

Regardless of your politics or how you feel about Sarah Palin, honest moms and dads will agree that a twisted sex joke about their little girl is fightin’ words. Leave it to a blow-dried, Botox-ified, metrosexual, non-dad like Keith Olbermann to miss that.

What kind of dad would Olbermann be? One can only guess, but it’s safe to assume that his son, should he ever have one, will never lack for quality time with pops. Every Saturday, after a hearty breakfast of gluten-free scones, it’s athletic father-son bonding time as Keith and Keith Jr. hit the Equinox gym in matching leotards, ready to get their Dynamic Pilates Fusion on. Next, it’s straight down to Devachan’s for self-heating sea algae facial masques and hand massages. Top it all off back at the condo with the Kathy Griffin marathon on the Bravo Network, and the patriarch’s work is done.

Letterman, who was a mildly amusing chap as recently as 1994, doesn’t have Olbermann’s excuse. Employing the ultimate stupid human trick, he actually has fathered a son. And the geriatric jokester finally condescended to marry his baby-mama a mere five years after the boy’s birth. There’s a profile in old-school paternal manhood if I’ve ever seen one.     

Is there a media double standard? Of course. I mean, if Bill O’Reilly were to so much as hint that Sasha and Malia cheated at “Candyland,” Olbermann and the rest of the liberal press would crucify him. But the real point here is that it is possible to go too far, no matter who you might be, when it comes to making sex jokes about a man’s little girl or calling his wife names. Todd Palin has exercised admirable restraint so far, but if I were Letterman and Olbermann, I’d keep an ear out for the approaching roar of an Arctic Cat F6 600.

Fightin’ Words

I had my dad readiness tested the other day:  Hannah, who will turn eight next month, and her six-year-old brother Daniel were outside playing.  I was holding court in the parsonage while the Mrs. was off doing something pastor’s wife-ish.  Suddenly Hannah burst through the door with wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Daniel was on her heels, and he too was crying, shrieking “Accident!” over and over.  Hannah was in full-force tattling mode, crying, point at Daniel, and speaking in tongues.  At this point, Daniel demanded a lawyer. 

            I began to look Hannah over.  She was holding her hand on her head.  When she pulled it away, blood like I’ve never seen outside an MMA cage began to pour down the side of her face down to the front of her shirt.  When she saw those scarlet billows start to spread, Hannah screamed and demanded that I kill Daniel.  Daniel screamed and committed interstate flight to avoid prosecution.  Gracie, who just turned twelve, screamed and gave Hannah the Heimlich maneuver.  Jamie, my ten-year-old namesake, screamed and began running around in circles. Mary, who is four, screamed and began running around Jamie as he ran around in circles.  Three-year-old Mercy screamed and dashed outside to start a signal fire for the rescue team.  Sam, my two-year-old, screamed and, using the coffee table as a pulpit, began beseeching the Lord for a miraculous healing. 

            While the Bennett Circus of Mayhem raged on around me, I located Hannah’s small scalp wound which, by the way, she sustained when a block of wood, which Daniel had carelessly tossed over his shoulder, conked her cranium.  I alerted the Mrs., who took the patient  to the clinic; three stitches and an ice cream cone later, she was fine.  Once I sedated the other children with veterinary tranquilizers and tucked them in for the night, they were fine too.  As for Daniel, a federal joint-agency task force caught up with him the next day, holed-up in a Toys-R-Us on the Arkansas-Missouri border.  He surrendered peacefully and is back home, awaiting trial. 

            With Father’s Day approaching, I’m thinking of Todd Palin.  Sexagenarian David Letterman cracked a perverse sex joke about Palin’s 14-year-old daughter, to the howling delight of his studio audience.  When the Palins dare to respond, the ever-effete MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann opens fire, calling the girl’s mother “sanctimonious, holier than thou, exploitative, undignified, pedantic, childish, self-inflicting, insipid, backwards, embarrassing, over-reactive, overreaching” as well as a “delusional lunatic.”  Then, in a statement that defies both logic and decency, he actually characterized Letterman as “the victim” and praised him for continuing “to take the high road in the face of repeated attacks by a politician”! 

            Huh?!  How could he possibly think…Oh, wait:  A quick check of Keith Olbermann’s online bio page is enlightening:  It states, “Has never been married and has no children.”  ‘Nuff said.  Regardless of your politics or how you feel about Sarah Palin, honest moms and dads will agree that a twisted sex joke about their little girl is fightin’ words.  Leave it to a blow-dried, Botox-ified, metrosexual, non-dad like Keith Olbermann not to get it. 

            What kind of dad would Keith Olbermann be?  One can only guess, but it’s safe to assume that his son, should he ever have one, will never lack for quality time with Pops.  Every Saturday, after a hearty breakfast of gluten-free scones, Keith and Keith Jr. hit the Equinox gym in matching leotards, ready to get their Dynamic Pilates Fusion on.  Next, it’s straight down to Devachan’s for self-heating sea algae facial masques and hand massages.  Top it all off back at the condo with the Kathy Griffin marathon on the Bravo Network, and the patriarch’s work is done.

            David Letterman, who was a mildly amusing chap as recently as 1994, doesn’t have Olbermann’s excuse.  Employing the ultimate stupid human trick, he actually has fathered a son.  And the geriatric jokester finally condescended to marry his baby-mama a mere five years after the boy’s birth.  There’s a profile in old school paternal manhood if I’ve ever seen one.       

            Is there a media double standard?  Of course.  I mean, if Bill O’Reilly were to so much as hint that Sasha and Malia cheated at “Candyland,” Olbermann and the rest of the liberal press would have him hung in effigy.  But the real point here is that it is possible to go too far, no matter who you might be, when it comes to making sex jokes about a man’s little girl or calling his wife names.  Todd Palin has exercised admirable restraint so far, but if I were Letterman and Olbermann, I’d keep an ear out for the approaching roar of an Arctic Cat F6 600.

Inuit/Aleut Body Count

“VBS: The Kids Are Alright”

George Barna. His work is a blessing, but it’s also depressing. He’s the Christian’s statistician, the Holy Roller’s pollster, the Bible-thumper’s number cruncher. Barna seldom has good news about American believers, but nothing concerns me more than his recent findings about children and teens. It was George Barna who interviewed more than 20,000 young adults and teenagers only to learn that “Six out of 10 young adults in their 20s were involved in a church during their teen years, but have failed to translate that into active spirituality during their early adulthood.” Looking at stats alone would make anyone pessimistic: Moral decay among youth, Christian families shaken by adultery and divorce, rampant hostility toward believers — I’m thankful my real-life experiences are a lot brighter.

And that’s my word to the pouting pastor and downhearted deacon laid low by the data: If you want to feel optimistic about the future of the church again, gather some stats of your own by getting very deeply involved in Vacation Bible School. You’ll be glad you did.     

I’m actually sad for the minister who sees VBS on the calendar and promptly lays in a five-day supply of M.R.E.’s, barricades his study door with all 59 volumes of the Word Biblical Commentary, and prays no one will ask him to referee duck-duck-goose.  You’re missing out, reverend. You spend every day looking pastoral, pious and dignified, all while suppressing that gnawing desire to spray paint macaroni and glue it to cork board. You know as well as I do that getting clotheslined in a round of Red Rover is way more fun than alliterating a three-point sermon outline. Put down that edition of The Collected Sermons of The Rev. Dr. Tedious Q. Yawnensnore for just five days. Honestly, have all those dusty old tomes taught us nearly as much as one nice lady putting a paper baby Moses on the Flannelgraph?

My enthusiasm for Vacation Bible School today stems from all the precious summer evenings I spent as the little guy in the pew, memorizing scripture and singing about a boy named David and a giant who came tumbling down. I loved sitting under the tutelage of “Shorty,” the diminutive VBS teacher at the First Christian Church. She was always genuinely happy to see me, never failing to make me feel like Jesus actually did want me for a sunbeam. It was Shorty who helped me get the glitter just right on that memo pad craft I was making for my mom. Last year, she attended a funeral I officiated. She hadn’t seen me for 35 years, but she still remembered teaching me.

And thank God for Jerry and Joan Marlow. I devoted all my evil boyhood powers every day to mercilessly teasing their daughters – Debbie, Dawn and Davina – until those poor girls ran down West Boston Avenue in tears. Nevertheless, Jerry and Joan always made sure I got to the Foursquare Church’s VBS. I know they were motivated by a loving, sincere desire to see me trust Jesus, but I suspect it wouldn’t have broken their hearts if, as a side benefit, the Holy Spirit had brought me under conviction about tormenting their children.

Incidentally, it was at the Foursquare VBS that I first learned a truth that is now lost to the ages: Scripture is easier to memorize when you know you’re going to be reciting it to a pastor’s wife in clown make-up who has a pocket full of Jolly Ranchers.

It occurs to me that I fit into the very Barna statistic I cited. Just like the 60 percent of young adults he polled who had abandoned church, when I hit my teens, I rejected God. I chose a path of depravity and alcoholism. But one day, all the prayers and teaching that countless VBS staffers had invested suddenly paid a dividend. A dormant seed of faith, planted decades earlier, finally germinated. I realized that Jesus still wanted me for a sunbeam, and I desperately wanted to be a sunbeam for Him.

A VBS curriculum author recently lamented, “So often, kids are treated like second class citizens by church leadership. Children’s ministry is looked at as the ‘bait’ that brings in the parents, not a valid ministry in itself.”

I’m so thankful that wasn’t the case with the Marlows and Shorty. May it never be the case with my church either.

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