Sunday, August 28, 2011

Dad's Cucuzza's

When my father died on Monday, May 16, his younger brother, Charlie and wife Mary Ann left Buffalo immediately to be present for the visitation on that Thursday night and memorial service Friday morning.

My father's death left only two siblings of twelve- Charlie and Steve. Steve just passed 90 years old and not well enough physically to travel.

It was a very difficult trip for my uncle to make, saying goodbye to his older brother. When my father was laid off by Conrail (railroad) in the early 1980's, Uncle Charlie used his position at the Courier Express (one of the two Buffalo area newspapers at the time) to get my Dad a job. My father was always grateful for his kid brother getting him that job. It's the job he kept until moving to Kansas City five years ago. Despite the distance after my parents moved to Kansas City, it seemed Dad and Charlie were as close as ever by phone and occasional visits my Dad would make to Buffalo. To make matters more challenging, Uncle Charlie and Aunt Mary Ann were planning to come to Kansas City in June to take a Branson trip with my parents. Unfortunately, instead, they were coming a month earlier for a funeral. It was a very tough time for all of us, especially Uncle Charlie.

There's a neat story- another tale of God's providential kindness- I want to relay regarding my Uncle Charlie's visit in May and the pictures you see above.

When Uncle Charlie got to Olathe on May 18, I took him to see my Dad's house. Charlie was most interested in seeing Dad's garden. Gardening is in the blood of any self-respecting Sicilian, and there's great pride and joy connected to crazy vegetables that are passed between each other. My father didn't buy too many tomato plants, for instance. Instead, he had a particular group of tomato breeds he really liked. He would keep seeds and grow them year after year. My father finished planting about half his garden just a couple days before he went in to the hospital. I showed Uncle Charlie the various hanging tomato plants, the elaborate tomato cages to keep out squirrels, and several elevated wooden box structures used for eggplants and radishes. Viewing these things was a sort of link with my Dad, something Charlie needed to do as part of his mourning.

During my Dad's last couple years in Buffalo he started growing a long squash-like vegetable called a "cucuzza". He remembered eating them in soup as a child, so he grew them and gave them away to friends and relatives. When he came to Kansas he couldn't find any cucuzza seeds, but he kept looking. In late April he went to a market that had all sorts of odd vegetables so he asked the Mexican lady who was running the seed section if they had any cucuzza's. He was pretty sure she would have no idea what he was asking for, but instead, to his surprise, she knew the vegetable exactly. She got a packet and put about 20 seeds in for my Dad. He took them home and put them on his work bench in the garage. He never got to plant them.

So there I was with Uncle Charlie looking around the garage after viewing the garden. It was a somber, strange time for us both-seeing Dad's stuff just laying there as he last left it. It was weird as a son and surreal for a brother. Out of the blue Charlie talked about Dad telling him of finding and buying some cucuzza seeds. I was pretty sure Dad hadn't planted them before going in to the hospital. I glanced over Dad's cluttered work bench and saw the packet. On the front, in Dad's handwriting, underlined, and in all caps, it said "CUCUZZA". I grabbed the packet and told Uncle Charlie he needed to take them back to Buffalo and grow them. In a time of deep grief, this little action seemed to give some peace. In a way it was symbolic of how my Dad's life bore fruit in the people he knew and effected. Planting those seeds was sort of like a way of carrying on my Dad's memory . It was therapeutic for Charlie, I am sure. It was for me too.

Well, my Aunt Mary Ann just sent the above pictures of my dear Uncle Charlie, my Dad's baby brother, with the cucuzza's that came from my father's seeds. We all miss Dad, but these cucuzza's are a reminder of how a person's life bears fruit long after they are gone.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Memorial Stone for Dad

A very strange pendulum swing in emotions from yesterday to today.

From laughing and joking about my 40th birthday back to the reality of my father's death three months ago.

We had hoped to be celebrating his 80th along with my 40th, but it was not to be-for me anyways. My father has already begun his eternal celebration.

My mother had this memorial stone designed. I think she did very well. I love how Redeemer is in the background.

Creepiest birthday present ever

Leave it to Brian and Jon to give me the creepiest birthday gift ever.

Bobble Head Tony....yes, on a toilet (don't ask me and don't shoot the messenger).

The inaccuracy of the bobble head is obvious- I don't have a black computer.

Thanks Brian and Jon?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Turned 40 today- Aging is a strange thing

Since I have been at Redeemer I have crossed a few significant age thresholds- first age 25 (the youth called me a “geezer” at that point), then 30 (that was a hard one), and now, most recently I turned 40. Aging is a strange thing.

When you are very young growing up is all you want to do. You want to be old enough to call your own shots and get your own stuff. Then, when you get older, the previously unknown weight of the new responsibilities seem to squelch the novel joy of driving a car, staying out later, and having a job. The job at McDonald’s or cutting lawns tends to get old (especially when most of the money earned pays for gas and insurance) and you realize the need for more education or training. You enter a period of relative poverty while taking lots of classes and hoping there will be a job out there for you when you finally finish school. Age 20 into your mid 20‘s feel like you’re scurrying around trying to finish school, establish a job or gain a clear direction on what you should do for the rest of your life. Your 20’s are prime years, but you never really have a chance to soak in how prime they really are- you’re simply not wise and sensitive enough. One of the biggest rip-offs in life is not realizing how awesome your twenties are when you’re in them. You get in to your 30’s (usually about 30 pounds heavier) when you realize the twenties were the 10 best years of your life from a health and energy stand point. Children are coming as you push 30 and it strikes you how out of shape you’ve become. You frantically find a way to get back in to some kind of shape (by lowering the "in shape" bar considerably) as you push ahead in to your 30's. You swear you eat half as much as you used to (which probably isn’t really true) but you gain weight ten times easier. By your mid 30‘s life is running at a torrid pace- marriage, long hours at work, young kids, all sorts of challenges assail, time rips by.

As you head toward 40 it dawns on you that your prime years physically are gone. There is a sense of prime time evaporating as the mysterious threshold of 40 approaches. Maybe you, like me in my mid 30'a, talked yourself in to playing a sport you once enjoyed and were fairly good at. You still feel decent in your mid 30's, but a sense of Russian roulette with a nasty injury lingers in the back of your mind. Face it, by your late 30's you are on borrowed time athletically. The lure to capture bygone glory is strong. You are weak in resisting the lure, and the crash is hard, but the realization clear- life will be different from 40 onward. Youth and vigor will no longer suffice, you must now make it on age and treachery. You can’t help wishing you knew at 20 the things you now know at age 40. A fruitless wish indeed.

So, here I am at age 40. Some of you are thinking that’s really old and a mark of irrelevance or uncoolness. Others think I’m whining about being 40, which is still so young. For us who are just turning 40, we don’t care what either of you groups think of us, we just know our lives are probably half over or more and hair is growing on our back and in our ears.

I’m not sure if what I have just described resonates with any of you, it’s just my take. I will say this about turning 40- I’m bummed about the things I really can’t do like I used to, but very excited about what lies ahead. I usually define “prime years” in terms of physical health, but I know that’s not really the right gauge. I think prime years should have more to do with the ability to live out and apply accumulated knowledge. I hope I can live more wisely now.

In a nutshell, I hope the rest of my years are colored with more wisdom than the first 40 years. The years I have just lived have prepared me for whatever lies ahead. I needed these 40 years to get ready. The more you prepare for something, the better it is when the time comes. I view 40 as a new beginning of some kind. Sure, my life today at age 40 isn’t totally detached or different from yesterday, last month, last year, or even the last couple of years, but I am trying to maintain a mindset that says new beginning.

What is the greatest lesson I have learned that I hope makes the biggest difference going forward?

I think this is an important question for anyone and everyone, but especially those of us crossing this particular threshold.

Over these last 40 years I have become more convinced than ever of the total relevance and necessity of Christ ruling every possible aspect of my life. Jesus isn’t something that fits a certain compartment of my life- He’s lord of all of it. I have learned my life’s balance and peace is directly related to the place Christ occupies. When He’s the center, there is peace (I didn’t say happiness necessarily..nor am I saying there were no trials). When Tony is at the center and I am pursuing self- everything reeks. The words of Paul echo in my mind-

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)

Christ is my life. He’s not just part of my life, He is my life. There’s nothing simple about life- it’s littered with challenges, hardships, and difficult situations. My sin consistently rears its head and messes things up. Navigating all these things depends on grasping the reality of Paul’s statement here. Christ is my life.

The way I see this lived out is also illustrated by Paul in his general life focus. He focused on three things-

1. The glory of Christ (through my maturing process in Him by the work of the Holy Spirit).

2. The advance of the Gospel (the message of being made right with God through Christ).

3. The progress of the faith of believers (to see others recognize that Christ is their life).

At age 40 I’m even more focused on pursuing these things than ever. Colossians 1:28-29 are my life verses (I'll let you look those up). Maybe my downgraded physical condition will actually serve to make me even more cognizant of my need to depend on Christ- which will serve to grow me spiritually. Such a demeanor should compel me to be more faithful in sharing the message of the gospel. I pray such a stature will allow me to be used by God to build up other believers in their faith in Christ.

Yes, aging is a strange thing, but with Christ as your life, it’s also somewhat exciting.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Great post on Pastoral Pressure by Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung captures so much of what I often feel as a pastor. Everyone experiences pressure these days, so I'm not directing you to his post to have you feel sorry for me and other pastors. But just as it is part of the pastor's calling to know his flock and their challenges, mature christians will care about what their pastor is dealing with.

Here's a part of his post. Read the whole post here.

Ask any pastor who really takes his work seriously and he will tell you of the pressures he feels in ministry—people in crisis, people leaving, people coming, people falling through the cracks, people disappointed by the pastor, people disappointing to the pastor. In the midst of this work the pastor is trying to find time for study, prayer, preparation, and family. He’s trying to improve himself, train up new leaders, meet the budget, get to know a few missionaries, champion important program, manage staff, take care of administrative details, provide for deep, accessible worship and preaching, be responsive to new ideas, listen to new concerns, be ready to help when people are in trouble.

And most pastors feel a burden for all the other things they could be doing: more evangelism, more involvement in the neighborhood, more for the poor, more for missions, more for the denomination, more for the city, more to address global concerns, more to address social concerns. There will be pastors reading this who wonder if the church is still responsive to their preaching, if the leadership will ever be responsive to his leading, if the congregation will ever grow like the churches he hears so much about. On top of all this every pastor has his own personal hurts, personal mistakes, and his own spiritual health to attend to. Who is weak and are not pastors weak?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Um...yeah...there's five loaves and two fishes

We find in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 6, the disciples wanting some time with Jesus alone after several months of missionary work around the Sea of Galilee. They tried to withdraw to a desolate place by boat, but the huge crowds still tracked them down.

Jesus had compassion on the mass of people and so taught them many things. No where does the text say the disciples were jealous or irritated, but you can sense a touch of frustration as they warn Jesus to send the crowds away before it gets dark and they have no where to get food.

And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.

At first blush the disciples come off as caring administrative types who foresee the hungry suffering of the masses and want them to be fed. Upon further review, it seems unlikely their focus is really on the crowds because it was pretty unreasonable to think the small, nearby villages would have the capacity to feed thousands of people. The disciples probably just wanted to send them off to fend for themselves so they could be with Jesus.

The tension rises as Jesus responds with an unexpected command-

But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.

Despite all they had seen from Jesus and their own witness of the miraculous when they went out "two by two" ministering in Jesus' name, they respond to Jesus' command with exasperation-

And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?

They are saying it is impossible for them to accomplish Jesus' assignment to feed 5,000 plus people. They don't have enough money to go buy the food necessary. They also calculate the cost of feeding the people at a year's wages. They are saying to Jesus- "your request is unreasonable...we can't possibly do that."

Such is often the case for us when we know God is calling us to do something. We take inventory of what we don't have to accomplish the task and declare a forfeit. We might even get frustrated with God for calling us to such a hard task or thing. Well, in this case, we learn something of how God works most often- by using our inadequate resources to manifest His power. Let's pick back up with Jesus' response to the disciples miffed "no can do" declaration-

And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.”

OK. Hang with me on this. I have a theory about what just happened. It's sort of like when my son prepares to walk out the door for school with no belt declaring he can't find it. I send him upstairs to get it, he comes down in seconds saying it's not there. I think the disciples were hacked about Jesus not following their plan (to send the crowds away) and so only half-heartedly ventured about the crowd to inventory the actual food available. Are you telling me that a crowd of over 5,000 people didn't even have a stick of beef jerky between them? I don't think the disciples checked very hard.

When the text says "when they had found out, they said, 'five, and two fish.' But we know from the Apostle John's recounting of this story that a young boy had volunteered his food (five loaves and two fish) to the disciples. I think the disciples were ready, like my son, to return to Jesus quickly to declare- "Nope, no food." Instead, a little faithful boy tugs on one of their robes and offers his food to the disciples. So, begrudgingly no doubt, the disciples bring what they have to Jesus as much to say "I told you so" as anything else.

Of course, you know how the story goes-

And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish.

There's lot to learn from this story. Most poignant is the way God takes meager, inadequate resources, and multiplies them. When God calls me to something, He will give me what I need to accomplish the task. It's not for me to declare "it cannot be done" if God says it can. Instead of immediately taking stock of what I don't have or whatever my manifold weaknesses are- may God help me to be more patient and careful to consider what I do have- even if it isn't much.

God seems to delight in using broken, inadequate, skewed, weak, marred, stuff to bring Glory to Himself. Take what He's given you- offer it up to Him- and watch Him bless it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Another great post by Carl Trueman

If you only have time to check out one or two blogs each day, definitely skip this one and check out Carl Trueman's instead.

He just wrote a great post that confronts the seemingly en vogue emergent-like trend that insists we challenge what our less intellectually honest parents, Sunday School teachers, etc. The title of the post is excellent, be sure to check out the whole post:

Here's a great quotation-

Over the last few years I have read dozens of pieces that tell me that it is no longer possible to believe in the historical Adam, in the Pentateuchal narratives, in a Christological reading of the Old Testament, in the Incarnation, in the resurrection, in biblical sexual ethics, and in hell; that, in doing so, I am acting irrationally and am engaged in a desperate quest for certainty. At times such sentiments sadden me; at other times they irritate. A desperate, irrational quest for certainty? How I wish that I might not be certain about a number of those things, given that they fly in the face of my socially liberal instincts.

My response to these criticisms varies depending upon the specific doctrine at issue but I would like to offer one general reply to those who write and email such. I am sorry that you have doubts; I am sorry that your Christian parents or schoolteachers screwed you up with their bad teaching; I am sorry that you can no longer believe the simple catechetical faith that you were once taught; I am sorry that the Bible seems like little more than a confused mish-mash of contradictory myths and endlessly deferred meaning. But that you struggle with doubts does not mean that those who do not struggle in the same way are simply weak-minded, in denial or bare-faced liars. Nor, more importantly, does the mere fact that you have doubts mean that those doubts are necessarily legitimate and well-grounded. Doubting on your part does not constitute a crisis of faith on mine.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Knee Saga thankfulness...and some closure

This past Saturday I participated in a sprint triathlon as a way of giving my knee a final test for recovery. It went pretty well, by my very low standards. I swam, biked, and ran about as good as I can in my current shape. I do think I can do better- I might have one more triathlon in me. My knee felt pretty good.

The truth is, my knee will never be as healthy as it once was. There will always be a damaged ligament and the scar tissue from the reconstructed portions cause regular stiffness. Still, I can walk well, ride my bike fine, and run decently. How blessed I truly am given the severity of my injury. I honestly have come to terms with the likelihood that playing soccer with my beloved RPC United in an adult league is probably no longer a reality. I got to play competitively longer than most has-beens. My competitive juices will have to find other outlets...

I have so appreciated the prayers and encouraging words from many friends since I wrecked my knee last October. It's not a big deal compared to what so many face, but it's been a trial for me. God has taught me a whole bunch through this and I'm still learning.

Would I want it to happen again? No.

Will my knee ever be completely right? No.

Would I change things? No. It's part of who I am-part of who God is making me to be.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Church Camp days all over again...

I just got back from our 4-day junior high camp near Branson, Missouri on the Table Rock Lake. It was a great time. I was one of the helpers and got to teach Wednesday night. It's strange having a junior high son.

The picture above is my son, his buddy Grant, and me (middle) being dragged mercilessly by a nasty lady driving a fast boat until we got thrown off like rag dolls. Great fellowship...sore body now.

The highlight of camp for me was my son not changing his clothes at all for three days! Same shorts and shirt...I assume the same underwear too. I kind of chuckled each time I saw him in the mornings with the same stuff on. Unfortunately his dear mother (my beloved wife) asked me the second day if AJ had changed his clothes. I confessed he had not. She sternly directed me to mandate he change his clothes immediately. So, after receiving such orders, I went to him last night at dinner and said- "I want you to change your shirt now".

About a half hour later I saw him again...this time with the sleeves cut off the same shirt. Well, he changed his shirt!

Momma ain't gonna be happy. I'm smiling...on the inside. Boys are cool.