Rick and Monique

Friday, August 21, 2009

Of Chipmunks and Men


Camper Neal Smith jumped from behind some brush yelling and screaming, hoping to give Rick a scare.  Thought it'd be funny.  Rick was studying one thing or another in the forest for the last forty-five minutes and it was driving Neal nuts.  

"Son of a!"  Rick shuffled nearly four feet backwards.  He moved so fast, it was like time travel.

Neal didn't enjoy idle time.  They'd entered an amazing state park complete with abundant exploration possibilities and an awesome beach.  Neal could think of no acceptable reason they should be sitting around. Joe was mesmerized by the fire, and Rick was, well, he had no idea. 

"Rat bastard." said Rick.


"The chipmunk!," Rick replied. He was pissed. "I've sat here for almost an hour with this stupid bread in my hand, and my chipmunk was three feet from eating the bread from my hand."

"Your chipmunk?" asked Neal. I don't think it's the bread that's stupid; who spends an hour on their knees waiting for chipmunks to eat bread out of their hand?"

"Me," said Rick, "Judas."

And yes, my chipmunk, Rick continued. "I don't have to explain."

"He's not tame, he's not yours," joked Neal.

"Well I wasn't holding out for any other chipmunks!" replied Rick, "I only had that one...and a squirrel but he didn't last."

"How do you know it was a he." Neal never did know when to quit.  "They can't all be 'he' or there wouldn't be so many of those buggers running around."

"That's not the point.  I call them all he, that's just how it is," said Rick.  "Short of catching one and tipping it over, they're all 'he'.  I probably couldn't tell the difference anyhow."

"I am not even going there," said Neal.  "Doesn't matter.  I want to do something like hit the beach."  

"When I camp I do three things," said Rick, "smoke a cigar, drink a beer, and try to get a chipmunk to eat from my hand," said Rick.

"Who does that?" asked Neal.

"I think we covered that already," said Rick. "Anyway, waiting here...the forest calms me.  It's peaceful for me. I listen to the sounds in the forest...sort of like get in touch with nature or whatever."

"Who does that?"

"Who turned you into a friggin' broken record player?"

"What?" Neal had his eyes closed. He rubbed his forehead. "Let's do something."

"I mean, there's something amazing about getting a wild animal to trust me. It's like I think it was when Adam and Eve were created," explained Rick.  "I suppose I'm like one of the trees to them, I don't know."

"You're a tree with Wonder Bread branches," said Neal.  "Awesome."  

Neal paused, "But you're a biker. There's not a Harley man in the world that tries to get chipmunks to eat from their hand," said Neal, "You've got a skull on your gas cap and now you're taming chipmunks."

"It's a God thing man," said Rick, "And the bike came with the gas cap."

"Really?" said Neal, "You should find one with a little heart on it or something."

"Funny," said Rick. "Either way, I'm sitting there in complete silence, as still as possible, and the wind blows, birds sing, and chipmunks appear out of nowhere. Stuff happens man, I'm telling you."

"Dude, that's cool, but I think I'd probably fall asleep face down on the bread and the chipmunk would probably gnaw through my nose to get to the bread," said Neal. "Totally great movie plot."

"You wouldn't fall asleep," Rick replied. "Either way, when they take the bread from my hand, it tickles. Feels so cool. And the little thing is completely silent. You wouldn't believe it, but they don't make any sound. They get the bread and they're gone like magic."

"I like nature."

Neal didn't quite know what to say beyond, "I like nature." It's not like he was ignorant. He just wasn't the type to feed chipmunks.

"It's about the book of Matthew," said Rick.


"If God is willing to clothe the sparrow, how much more blessing will be given to me?" said Rick. "Accept I think the analogy works for chipmunks too."

"That's deep," said Neal. "You feeling insecure?"

"Sometimes," Rick replied. "It's just good to know, that's all."

"A chipmunk feeding Harley dude," said Neal, "That's just funny. Now let's do something!"

"What do we do?"

"Joe's by the fire, let's go and figure that out," replied Neal, "We'll go swimming or play catch, I don't care."

Neal and Rick joined Joe by the fire. Joe stared into the flames. 

Neal sipped his luke warm beer. Rick nibbled on Cheese Nips.

"Swim?" asked Neal.

"Sure," said the two others simultaneously.

Joe, Neal and Rick, partially slouched in their chairs, sipped beer and nibbled crackers.  The fire burned and they watched, rapt by flames. The burning logs hissed and spit.  The three men, without a word, listened to the fire crackle.

A healthy chipmunk skirted from behind them, ran underneath their chairs to the other side of the fire pit. He paused to test some morsel on the ground, but then scampered silently into another part of the forest.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

One Faith, One Hope, One Baptism: A Marriage story

"Hi Grandpa!" said granddaughter Morgan and her husband Roger.

Grandpa's head turned lightly toward them.
A cloudy, dull day, but the small hospital room was painted yellow and stenciled with four leaf clovers. Happy enough.

Morgan and Roger had Sam with them. Their child was three weeks old; the child of two horny 19-year-olds...a sequence of events which birthed a shot-gun wedding six weeks ago, and then Samuel John three weeks later.

They were a Christian family. Nine-months ago grandpa couldn't understand where they had gone wrong. The old man had once been an executive, strong, stalwart and righteous. Nine months ago he couldn't understand weakness.

Sam was wrapped in a borrowed blankey.

A friend had loaned them all the baby stuff she and her husband had. There was no baby shower. It seemed for a time the family was even embarrassed to even admit the two had gotten "together."

Grandpa turned to them feebly. Seven months ago he'd almost disowned his granddaughter... turned his back on her. Six months and two weeks ago he'd discovered he was cancer-ridden. Six months ago his own son had reminded him why his own wife, their mother, had almost divorced him twenty-five years prior.
He'd had a lovely library and one of the most complete libraries amongst his friends and acquaintances. He'd spent hours and hours in the lovely place, studying, reading, practicing one of a thousand speeches. He'd garnered the love of the shareholders, but neglected to gather the hearts of his family.

"Ask your mother, I'm busy!," he'd say.  "And don't come in here while I'm working!"

Accept he was always working.  The church had him pegged as an excellent family man.  The kids hated that.  Everyone suffers from closet skeletons.

Today, yesterday and for six months Grandpa understood weakness, finally. The kind of 'weak' that needs help. He never needed help. The help wasn't all he'd learned.

He turned toward Morgan, Roger and Sam. There they were. They had been there every single day for the last ten days he'd been stuck in the hospital. So had his three children, but Morgan... Morgan lived "outside the box" so to speak. She'd neglected the idea of college to her work at a local floral shop. He'd called her when Morgan's parents mentioned that she was going to wait awhile before deciding about college.

"You're throwing your life away, I fear," he'd told her.

"Grandpa, stop it," was all she said. "You worry too much."

"You come from better stock than flower shop retail, Morgan."

"You delivered milk, Grandpa. You always tell us you began as the milkman."

 The "Milk man" story really took shape when his wife had their first child. Friends really thought it was funny to say, "He looks just like the milk man!"

Anyway, it happens, ya get stuck. Twenty-five years ago he'd realized how stuck he'd been.

He never did sign the divorce papers. He went to counseling instead. None of his friends ever knew he'd seen a shrink.
And his family did not leave him. None of them did.

He once told his pastor, "I never understood why kids who barely knew their father, and only ever heard their mother whine about him, would do so much to help me see the light!"

"Unconditional love doesn't look for reasons not to love," the pastor replied.

They all coaxed him into vast life changes. They endured. They prayed. Margie, his wife, died last year. She'd had a heart attack. They thought she might make it, actually. Four long days in the hospital and she seemed to perk up. But her heart failed her in the end...too damaged.

Before she died though, she took his hand and gave him a benediction. All those years and she was still blessing him. Every day she'd say, "I believe in you, Jack." Kinda pissed him off for years. He felt it put too much pressure on him.

"Yea, yea, great," he'd say, never giving her a thought. He now wished he'd blessed her more. But that was water under the bridge, bygones, history. He tried much harder the last couple years of her life. They talked a long time one night, a few years back. Talked till 4 a.m.

"I never understood where that came from," Jack said.

"I just believed in you so I told you so," Margie replied. "I could see the real you underneath the layers. I knew you were great, even in the beginning when your job title was "milkman.""

"I didn't see you that way though," said Jack. "I regret that every day."

"Can't cry over spilt milk, my dear Jack."

"Ha ha, very funny."

And then he'd almost disowned his granddaughter; couldn't believe his good name had been disparaged.

"Good name, yea right," he thought.

But here they were. Still smiling. He supposed they meant to encourage him; maybe encourage themselves. His hospital room was full of their flowers, their teddy bears.

"Maybe my name wasn't so bad after all?" he thought. "There you go again," again to himself, "It's not always about me for cryin-out-loud!"

These kids were his family.

"The body of Christ doesn't leave itself!" his granddaughter had told him amongst alligator tears on the fateful Tuesday evening seven months ago.

"Where'd you learn such wisdom?" he'd asked her a few weeks after that.

A few months ago had been rough. He'd been angry. But her words cut him through. Then he remembered his wife's benediction.
Most of them were with him today. They'd stayed with him and ten days slogged by. He felt odd. The kids simply watched, smiling...blue and sad and smiling all at once. Ironic. He was going to die. Sad. But they smiled.
"Hi, Grandpa," she said, "Lookin' good as usual." She always said that.

The body of Christ doesn't leave itself.

"Wanna hold him, Grandpa?"

He hadn't the strength to "hold" him. He understood weakness better today than ever before. He nodded. Morgan took four steps to his bedside, leaned over and laid Samuel in the crest of his arm. He didn't move. She kissed his forehead and then Sam lifted his hand in the air...a reaction to the movement or a dream, he didn't know. Didn't matter much.

A solitary tear left Jack's eyelid and crawled down his face. He was beautiful. He couldn't exactly turn completely to look at him, but felt Sam's quick even breaths.

Jack brought one hand over and touched Sam. Then he whispered. Morgan and Roger stepped closer to him to listen, and both of them began to cry. "My first great-grandson," he said.

"May the Lord bless you and keep you," he prayed. "May the Lord shine his face upon you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you his peace."

The body of Christ does not leave itself.

He closed his eyes. And while Sam breathed on, he breathed his last.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


"You know how it works in South Philly," said Max to his pal Vince Papale in the sports film Invincible, "Our strength has always been in our numbers."

Guts. I don't even know how to tell the story. I don't. It's a true story and I can't tell it. This movie's fronted by Vince Papale's story. A hard-up, "you ain't nutten" part-time bar-tender named Vince Papale attends open try-outs for the Philadelphia Eagles Pro Football. Vince eventually makes the team, carrying the boys at Max's bar and the streets of Philly itself along with him.

"Vincy, I don't know how long the Eagles are going to need ya...but the boys could use a little help here."

I can relate to retreating to what feels safe. The unemployed men with broken families and confusing lives left their feelings alone, but found a safe place where friends found something normal. They might've had a few beers at Max's, but the film never portrayed any of these battered guys as drunkards, but as steely tough, vulnerable and broken men. I sympathized with them. I've retreated to my haven, hoping I could trust the place.

The Eagles ran open try-outs one day somewhere in 1980. A relatively uneducated part-time bar-tender athlete from Philly's inner hallways made the team and took a city, doubled over in gray and racked with double digit unemployment, with him.

Sports people would like to think that a city relies on a professional team's reputation. But most average people can't remember who won the Superbowl last year. What they do see for a time though, is potential. I remember how I felt when a tiny, thin, short quarter back named Doug Flutie threw the century's finest college ball hail mary to win a championship game. The game was a very long time ago, but I've gone back to that game from time to time--a tiny Canadian quarterback inspired some of what I believed was possible after that.

Max at Max's bar ran a tab for the "guys." Max never "sewed up" his tabs. I suppose one day he figured they'd pay him back. I'm not sure they ever would--I don't know--it's a true story, maybe I should go ask him. For a time Max simply ran a safe=-house called "Max's bar." The guys would get cranky, they'd hack on each other, they'd talk, they'd drink in silence, they'd...they simply did what they did.

Vince made the team and practiced every day, trying to avoid final cuts. It's understandable that he might not have taken much time for everyone else. None-the-less, his buddies had gotten together every week well before he made the team to play a scratch game on some dirty gridiron, hushed by stolid dreams and accidental enthusiasm. They grappled on no-where streets, tapped by time and economy, a citified desert. Vince drove up to the shadows, hoping for anonymity...embarrassed by his own plight maybe. Great purpose means nothing if you stand alone. Haven.

He couldn't hide and a friend noticed him. "You're friends could use a boost, y'know?" the friend said.

"I got practice..." was all Vince could say.

What's he practicing for? A bigger purpose? Maybe.

I have to think that none of us can avoid purpose. But you don't leave your friends behind, you take them with you. My two RAGBRAI's might've been fun without the team. But I'm sure I've got better stories than I would've because they were there with and for me, and I them.

Friends most likely allowed you to survive this far. They come along.

Portable havens.

Rain came. Mud became what was to overcome and rain washed them. The storm mirrored the boy's scratch football game-- there was no money in it for 'em. There was the plan, the play, the obstacles and triumph. The guys bent each other in blood and brotherhood. They became men of steel and dreams again.

Homes don't protect if there's a hole in the roof. Storms get through. Chains can't hold if a link is missing.

Vince, whetted for his real story hit the melted gridiron and joined his guys. Let the storm rage because nothing could touch them that night. The hole was patched, the link mended.

Leave no man behind.

Christians live in a culture of Skepticism. Maybe they always have.

But we've become more about doing church than following Christ and living amongst his work today. If you could see you wouldn't ask what he'd do and simply follow what he's doing. "Church" is a weekly convocation of the converted and the content. Discipleship is a daily grapple between huddles, plays and action. So many are antagonistic towards working out our faith, crutching their doctrine and theology to their inaction.

I've said it before--I can't win the world for Christ as if He's dead--no, Christ is winning the world to himself and I must be a part of it. If I didn't know better, I'd say a good portion of the Church thinks that church programs fill the void between conversion and heaven. How many of us see the propriety of “church” as the relationship with God? Congregations maintain an 1800’s culture which didn’t change very quickly and didn’t have to react quickly either. Congregations love their schedules, patterns, rituals. Being recessed in ritual blinds you from what’s happening outside the sanctuary’s four walls. We need to change our focus of church from elegant and eloquent apologetics to building the fruits of the Spirit.

No man left behind.

Realize you need the dust and the gridiron because that's where your friends are, and that's where Christ is working. The power of even small pieces of generosity make huge differences in the lives of your friends.

Pastor Harvey Carey said, "How many binders do you need to do ministry?" Everyone has a binders that give them information about this program, this song, this plan... All those binders are now on the shelf! No more binders! Be the church and do the work of the kingdom."

Break from studying the play-book.  Find the storm and the mud-spray because the grapple, the tussle wages heavily there.

They're more than a purpose. They're friends. They're havens.

Vince wasn't pretty, but he was passionate. "The boys can use you right now Vincy, their strength has always been in our numbers..."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

My Bride

The Bride

A marvelous thing,
Love on this side of eternal life.
Love opened the universe.

Envelopes friendship
Embraces need
Strives for perfection
Forgives and heals.

The breeze breathes
Is like the breath of your
Soul that refreshes mine.

Wind unrestricted
Is my life by yours.

Expanding universe
Explosions of creation
Light from early days
Pierces me today.
God’s hand reaches.

My image is His
and my soul endures
on one side of eternal life or another.
I am tended.

Allow time’s pass
Time is our chariot
To the other side of eternal life
Celebrate and live, strong and courageous.

One side time,
The other eternity,
And both divine
With you and my heart…

My heart affixed to yours
In eternity by God’s hand
In death ne’er shall we part,
By God I am with you
On this side and the next.

My eyes are closed
so that I might see
in vivid color and clarity
all that might be
God's design in love.

I am delighted that He has sought
that we might walk together.