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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

Ministers Are Like Catchers

Monday, March 28, 2005

There's a piece in Sunday's New York Times about Yankee's catcher Jorge Posada. It's a look at what all is involved in that part of a catcher's job commonly referred to as "handling the pitching staff." It's Posada's favorite part of the job:

"My favorite part is knowing that they're comfortable, knowing that, no matter what, they can count on me. What I really enjoy most about catching is the relationship with a pitcher. The most important thing is they can relax when I'm back there and know that I did my job, I did some homework on hitters."

This was my favorite part about being a catcher in high school and in college. I had a good coach in high school who taught us catchers about pitching mechanics, how to be a sort of pitching coach behind the plate. The most rewarding part about catching was always the sense of confidence that a pitcher puts in you when they trust that you know what you're doing. They depend on you.

At my 10-year high school reunion last summer, one of the pitchers from the old team sat and talked my ear off for about an hour. It was like an added verse to Springstein's "Glory Days." Mostly he recalled games we played, pitches he threw in certain situations, pitches I called, the way I crouched and gave him a target to throw to.

In college, most of the pitchers asked the coaches to throw to me, because the other catchers didn't know what I knew; they hadn't been taught how to work with pitchers. But I couldn't hit a lick, so those pitchers were disappointed most of the time. I suppose that's fair.

Ministers are like catchers. They have to build relationships with people. They have to be able to quietly observe people, their "mechanics," if you will, of speech and action and thought. They have to be able to speak to people as individuals with the knowledge of who responds to what (which pitcher has an ego and will blow up if you give him instructions? Which one will listen to you?). They have to be a calming, reassuring presence to people in high-pressure situations. They have to build people's confidence in themselves. They have to go through the messes with their people, and their people have to know that they are with them, on their side, pulling for them.

I've long been in the habit of looking back over my life and speculating as to how the things I've done and the things I've learned have formed me for the calling I'm presently in. But this is one I haven't thought about before. Minister-as-catcher is a strained metaphor, I know, but when you're new to this gig you'll grab onto anything.


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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 4:45 AM | link | 2 comments |

Easter Message

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Few, I know, will labor to read the whole thing. But I post it for your edification all the same. The DVD will contain added features, such as behind-the-scenes-of-writing revelations like this one: almost the whole message was written in the midst of the lingering smell of a cat box in need of changing and surrounded by the sultry and whiskey-soaked tones of Kathleen Edwards.

Read on, if you dare. I'm off to change the cat box.

The Message of Easter or Sometimes The Ground Shakes
Based on Matthew 28:1-10

I.

The sun hadn’t fully come up by the time Mary Magdelene and the other Mary got going. Dawn was only just breaking as they made their quiet way through city streets and out to where Jesus, the one whom this city had crucified not two days ago, was entombed behind a securely sealed stone.

Neither of them had slept very well the previous night, and so they were eager for the first break of light, as it gave them a compelling reason to rise from bed and be about the day’s activities. Though they didn’t speak much, passing stray dogs along their way, each was glad for the company of the other; it had been a traumatic two days, and the one thing neither of them wanted was to be alone.

They knew their way. They were there before, watching as Joseph of Arimathea rolled a great stone in front of the door of the tomb and then went away. They had stayed there, just sitting, for some time, hours perhaps. They hadn’t known what exactly to do. There was no plan for days like the one they had just been through, no protocol.

Should you just go home and have dinner? You’ve just witnessed a brutal public execution; and not just of any common criminal, but of the most important person you’ve ever known. What do you do then? Where do you go? They had had no answers, so they had just sat there. They sat there long enough to see the guards arrive. They watched in silence as the tomb was sealed and the guards took their impenetrable posts.

Every step now drew them closer to the place where they had sat for so long the night before last. The sun was chasing the long shadows as they walked past the hill with the three crosses. They were a cruel morning memorial, setting in motion fresh images in the women’s minds: sounds, sights, smells even—all of them cemented now in their memories and inseparable from one another. The visual cue of the crosses started to make it all come back.

They looked briefly at one another and then continued on their way, neither wishing to speak of what they both were thinking.

They were looking forward to making use of the morning’s quiet at the tomb. They didn’t really have any reason for going to the tomb other than to simply be there. To pray, perhaps. Maybe to share in hushed tones their most precious memories of him. But mostly, it appeared, they wanted to be with someone else. Each needed to share the grief and the shock with another and to begin the process of healing and letting go together. The crisp morning air, the chirping of birds, and even the ground beneath their feet—solid, dependable, immovable—would soothe them and gently nudge the healing forward.

Little did they know, things were about to go from bad to worse. For the air, the birds, the ground, and even time itself was about to be split wide open right before their tear-swollen eyes.

II.

As anyone who has lived through one can tell you, there’s never a good time for something such as an earthquake. But some times seem most definitely worse than others.

A group of college students from Kansas was on an international mission trip in Kobe, Japan, when a devastating earthquake hit that city in 1995. The earthquake was a terrible tragedy for everyone in Kobe, but for that group of young students, strangers in a strange land, struggling already with the simplest routines of day-to-day living in that place, the earthquake was particularly terrifying.

Like the two women visiting the tomb that first Easter morning, those students were caught completely unprepared and ill-equipped for what was happening around them. Fear overcame them. Some later described how they were unable to speak, or even move. Surely there is no good time for an earthquake; but for those students there could not have been a worse time.

But that was how it had to be.

For Mary and Mary, could there have been a better time to see what they saw when they reached Jesus’ tomb? Could there have been a time when they were more prepared for a “great earthquake,” more able to deal with an angel of the Lord, flashing like lightning from heaven and rolling away the tomb’s stone? Would there have come a moment when the two of them could have dealt with the sight of a company of grown men, imperial soldiers, men of violence and coercion, shaking from fear right in front of them and collapsing in the dirt. Could there have been a better time?

Sure. There could have been a better time. But this is the time. This is happening right now, whether they’re ready for it or not. The powers of this world are being defeated right now; mighty men and their empires are shaking in their boots right now; the very ground beneath the world’s feet is trembling right now; unsuspecting people are staring open-mouthed into the blinding face of heaven right now.

Resurrection is happening right now.

All of this is happening to the tune of this simple message: “he has been raised.” Right now, all of this is happening as the message echoes off all the corners of the world: “he has been raised.”

This is the message, the message of Easter.

This is the message to Mary and Mary, caught off guard and already reeling from more than they can take: “Do not be afraid . . .he has been raised.”

This is the message to the grief-stricken, the confused, the hopeless, the lost: “Come, see the place where he lay.” It’s empty. “He has been raised.”

This is the message to those who think they know how the story ends: “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here.” You will not find him in the tombs of history and rational inquiry. “He has been raised.”

This is the message to a nation fixed to televised images of a dying, brain-damaged woman and her family, her husband and lawyers, judges and protesters: “Come, see the place where he lay,” where life was ended and where death proclaimed its’ victory. “He is not here.” There is something more to life than living and dying. “He has been raised.”

This is the message to teenagers and families in a small Minnesota town visited by horror and mayhem: this is not the end; your tears will be dried and your nightmares will scatter in the light of day. “He has been raised.”

This is the message to communities lost in wondering what went wrong, where all the people went, why things can’t just be “the way they used to be”: “I know you are looking . . . He is not here.” You need now to look outside this tomb. He is not here; he is out there. “He has been raised.”

III

This was the message to that group of American college students caught in a Japanese earthquake: “Just as he said. Just as he said.” Just as he said to you in words you could understand, he will now show you. He will show you in his time. “He has been raised.”

And this was the message to Mary and Mary: “Go quickly and tell.”

The message of Easter is that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And that message is given first and foremost on Easter morning not to the chief priests, not to the professionals, not to the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, not to the polished and the prepared, those who have their act together and have it all figured out. The message of Easter is given to two women, stuck deep in the mire of disappointment and confusion and broken faith. “I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has been raised, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay.”

Because they have been given the message they are now different people. They are no longer mourning women visiting a tomb; they are now preachers of the good news of the gospel: he has been raised! They are no longer on the outside of events, watching helplessly as things unfold; they are now the first bearers of the message of Easter, running to tell the disciples, running to tell the whole world: he has been raised, just as he said!”

You see, the message of Easter is not one that can simply be heard. It isn’t something that the world can listen to one day out of the year and then go on about its business as if nothing had happened. It isn’t a “nice story.” The message of Easter changes people; it takes the people to whom it is addressed and transforms them—sometimes over and over and over again—into new people. And the less qualified they think they are the better. The message of Easter transforms spectators into participants, followers into leaders, mourners into dancers; it turns mumbling youngsters into preachers, and it ties the tongues of the eloquent.

He has been raised. He has been raised. He has been raised.

IV

There. I’ve said it. I’ve said it in the simplest and most profound way that I know how: “He has been raised.”

That is the message of Easter. That is the message that finds you this morning right where you sit. That is the message that found Mary and Mary right where they were. That is the message that sent them stepping over collapsed guards and running through city streets in the bright light of day while governors and leaders huddled in the cover of secrecy to lie and deceive .

That is the message that has changed the world forever. That is the message that continues to change the world, that continues to dispel darkness with the truth.

And that is the message that claims you right where you are. What you do with it is up to you; Mary and Mary, after all, could have gone back home, be it out of fear or disbelief. And you can go back home the same way you came. But the message is before you; the invitation is open. What will you do with it?


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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 11:46 AM | link | 4 comments |

Stop The Presses!

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

From ESPN.com:

U.S. CLIMBS ONE SPOT IN RANKINGS
Associated Press
ZURICH, Switzerland -- The United States moved up one spot into a 10th-place tie with Italy in the March FIFA rankings.

Brazil remained No. 1 in Wednesday's list, a position it has held since July 2002, a month after winning its record fifth World Cup. France stayed in second, followed by Argentina, the Czech Republic and Spain.

Mexico, which plays the United States in a World Cup qualifier on Sunday in Mexico City, moved into sole possession of sixth, followed by the Netherlands, England and Portugal. Guatemala moved up eight spots to 62nd. The Guatemalans meet the United States in a qualifier on March 30 at Birmingham, Ala.

Read the whole article at---wait. That is the whole article.
posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 12:20 PM | link | 2 comments |

Of Auto Mechanics And Furnace Repair Men

In the past two days I have had to deal with an Auto Mechanic and a Furnace Repairman, and I share with you, dear reader, these reflections thereupon.

Men who do manual labor intimidate me. Or rather, they make me feel like less of a man. Perhaps this is the unavoidable plight of the man of letters (please pardon the shameless self-congratulation implied in that phrase); perhaps it is the over-indulgence of self-derogatory tendencies. But all the same, Auto Mechanics and Furnace Repairman are masters of a technical sort of knowledge which I do not possess, a knowledge which forces the one who lacks it into a state of dependence upon the one who does not.

But, you will say, so does the tax accountant. So does the orchestra conductor. And you don't sweat either of them. True. But with the Auto Mechanic and the Furnace Repairman you have the man who masters the machine--your machine. Besides your car and your furnace, what else of yours does he handle better than you?

Further, I have not yet learned how to converse with the Auto Mechanic or the Furnace Repairman in a way that does not cause me to project onto the both of them the image of my father. Which projects onto me the image of the pestering and annoying little boy. Here is the man, working under the hood or behind the furnace grate, doing the things that men do; and here is the yapping, apologizing, fumbling fool of a boy, doing his best to avoid embarrasing himself or drawing the workman's ridicule. The whole encounter can be very traumatic, psychologically speaking.

But this afternoon, perhaps, some light broke through this dark cloud of defeating psychosis. Having been in the house not two minutes, the Furnace Repairman (having been tipped off by my landlord that I am a churchman), said to me: "You know how my day started out? I found out my dog had been run over."

He then proceeded to relate the details: the dog was a 13 year-old terrier who had run away on Monday. He posted "Lost" signs around the neighborhood. He got a call this morning that someone had spotted the dog, hit, on the side of the road. Sure enough. Ten feet from one of his signs, his dog lay, still warm, dead.

He picked him up, took him home, and buried him in the backyard (digging into the phoneline inadvertently).

That is what the Furnace Repairman did before coming to my house. That is what he disclosed to me almost immediately upon arrival. Is it possible that this intimidating man of technical expertise was casting himself upon a total stranger, assuming--hoping--that stranger to possess a technical expertise in matters tragic and grievous?

I still got nervous holding the flashlight while he lit the pilot. I guess these things take time.
posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 11:33 AM | link | 1 comments |

My Lord, What A Morning

Friday, March 18, 2005

The things we will do for a "good cause." The many sundry ways in which we will humiliate ourselves and others if only for the belief that we will bring happiness to someone in so doing.

That said, this morning I'm going to the Community of the Good Shepherd, a residential and day-program facility for men with developmental disabilities, and the employer of my beloved Aunt. "What," you are surely asking, "will you do there?"

Talk with residents?
No.

Walk with residents?
No.

Dress up like a feckin' eejit and sing Irish balaads and Elvis covers with your crazy buddhist vegeterian college counselor uncle?
In the words of Mark Knopfler: "Why aye man."

Believe it or not, this is an encore performance. Somewhere I have a photo of the last time we did this back in 2000. We also had the help of my not-so-beloved roommate at the time, Tim Foreman. But today we're on our own.

The poor residents may be in greater need after we leave than they were before we got there.
posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 7:07 AM | link | 2 comments |

Do You Know This Man?

Monday, March 14, 2005

My Juno email account was overloaded for nearly three months with these fictitious emails from governement officials of every conceivable African country. They were all made to look like official business correspondence, and they all asked me to divert money to some kind of account . . . blah blahblah. Obviously, it was a scam. I read the first couple of lines of the first few emails I got. After that I just had to delete the emails in my inbox that were from people like Okifor Anouwi and Mssr. Mutombo Galabibi, with subjects like, "Urgent Request." I was getting four or five a day, so I ultimately opened a gmail account, just so I would stop getting them. Then, last week, we got a fax at the church that was identical.

Well, it worked on tons of people. Now the guy behind it has been busted. Turns out he lives in Sacramento, of all places. Were other people getting these things? How did they get my email address? Did Juno sell their addresses? And why haven't I received my share of the money that Okifor Anouwi promised me?

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posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 6:26 AM | link | 1 comments |

Mid-March Madness

The taxes are in, the tournament bracket is out, the fantasy baseball team is drafted: yep, Spring is in the air.

My last post was from the downtown library. During that trip, I picked up a couple of books that have occupied my attention quite aggressively. One is Julie Schor's Born To Buy (Reviewed by the Washington Post here), a downright frightening look at child marketing, its history, its tactics, its advocates and practitioners, and, worst of all, its results. This book, of course, is where I got my ammunition for the youth confirmation talks about "Belonging to God" vs. "Belonging to Brands." Specifically, I found stuff like this very helpful:
"These days, when kids ask, they ask for particular brands. A 2001 Nickelodeon study found that the average ten year old has memorized 300 to 400 brands. Among eight to fourteen year olds, 92 percent of requests are brand specific, and 89 percent of kids agree that 'when I find a brand I like, I tend to stick with it.' A 2000 Griffin Bacal study found that nearly two-thirds of mothers thought their children were brand aware by age three, and one-third said it happened at age two. Kids have clear brand preferences, they know which brands are cool, they covet them, and they pay attention to the ads for them. Today's tweens are the most brand-conscious generation in history."

And here's a quote straight from the horse's mouth, from an advertising executive herself:
"Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you're a loser. Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you thell them that they'll be a dork if they don't you've got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities and it's very easy to do with kids because they're the most emotionally vulnerable."

The other book I picked up was a collection of James Baldwin's essays. Through and through, Baldwin is the writer I prefer to read more than any other. Any kind of "understanding" I might possess of the race problem in the U.S. is gleaned heavily from Baldwin's insight and experience. White people, especially, should read him.

But beyond racial issues, Baldwin possessed a keen sense of nationalism, of what it is to be an American in the modern world. He lived in Europe for several years, and given Meredith's and my recent excursion to France, I enjoyed this paragraph from an essay titled, "The Discovery of What It Means To Be An American." I read it several times over.

"I was born in New York, but have lived only in pockets of it. In Paris, I lived in all parts of the city--on the Right Bank and the Left, among the bourgeoisie and among les miserables, and knew all kinds of people, from pimps and prostitutes in Pigalle to Egyptian bankers in Neuilly. This may sound extremely unprincipled or even obscurely immoral: I found it healthy. I love to talk to people, all kinds of people, and almost everyone, as I hope we still know, loves a man who loves to listen."

I still know that. The trouble is, I have met precious few of them, and I have had great difficulty in becoming one. Sometime I'll tell y'all the story of the man who loves to listen that I knew in Ireland, a former Unionist paramilitary who had done 12 years in prison for murder. I loved him.
posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 5:38 AM | link | 2 comments |

Saturday at the Library

Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Kansas City Public Library's newly remodeled downtown branch is pretty awesome. I've been here three times this week. This time I brought my laptop, and I'm set up at a four-top table in the reading room equipped with a LAN internet connection. I came here with the intention of polishing up the closing talk I'm giving this afternoon to a group of middle school students at a confirmation retreat. I gave the opening talk last night. I have some serious doubts as to how well that went over.

The retreat is following the PC (USA)'s Brief Statement of Faith, and so the opening talk needed to focus on that document's opening lines: "In life and in death we belong to God." The substance of the talk was essentially an admission of my own experience of wanting to "belong." I told a story of when I was a freshman in High School and this varsity football player forced me to give up my seat at the school play by telling me that I "didn't belong" there. Then I tried to talk about branding.

That may have been the talk's fatal flaw; it was also its' centerpiece, and the part that I had been most certain of ever since I was invited to give the talks. The problem was that I had this whole thing prepared for brand-aware middle school students from the midwest, kids decked out in Abercrombie & Fitch, Nike, and Hilfiger. The talk went on about "belonging" is something that you have to purchase a lot of the time (I used an illustration from this Douglas Rushkoff essay), intending to compare it to "belonging to God," which is something that you can never purchase, something that God has already "purchased" for you.

I was really pleased with myself. I had sprinkled popular culture references throughout, dropping brand names and making references to things like American Idol. Well, I couldn't have been more out-of-touch with my audience than I was. At one point, I dropped "TRL" (Total Request Live--the daily MTV program watched by millions of teens). One kid leaned over to his buddy and whispered, "What's TRL?" Then it hit me. I scanned the apparel of the 20-or-so kids in the room and saw nary a sign of Hilfiger, Nike, MTV, or Abercrombie. None of the branding megaliths I had indicted were even there.

Maybe someday the message will pop up in one of their heads, perhaps when they start high school; maybe the whole thing was an exercise in self-congratulation on my part; maybe I was just preaching to the choir.

With any grace, this afternoon's talk will go much better. I promise not to refer to anything remotely cultural. Promise.
posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 9:51 AM | link | 3 comments |