Thursday, January 31, 2008

A father's blessing

Twelve years ago this weekend, we buried my father.

He was unlike any man I have ever known. My father poured himself out like a sacrifice for his family, his church, his community. He worked two jobs, three jobs for years. All the while he was a scoutmaster, a church elder, a devoted father, a faithful son, a committed husband. I can say now, though I could not have said it then, that my father was not perfect. He had secrets and flaws - private blemishes. I have learned a lot about blemishes in my own life. I don't hold them against him.

Dad loved Pennsylvania. He would pack us into our Dodge van and pack off to pitch a tent in the woods to hear the sound of the forest at night -not a sound we heard alot in Pittsburgh. He taught us to fish, we would motor out on the foggy face of a lake as the sun rose and the herons preened in the shallows. We caught some fish, but the time we spent on the water with my father was worth more than any treasure we could have pulled out of that lake.

We were Steeler fans. He was not insane over the Steelers, but he was a patriotic Pittsburgher and loved the team out of a sense of honor. He was alive when our city really was, as a nineteenth century wag once quipped, "Hell with the lid off." We grew up watching comedians on our little black and white television using our home as a punchline. There was plenty to be proud of in our smoky town, but the world didn't know it - not until Franco Harris plucked that deflected pass out of the air on that chilly winter afternoon. Suddenly there was something about Pittsburgh that wasn't funny at all. We had always been proud, now the world could see some of the reasons. A team of black men and white men, Italians, Poles, Irish, Rednecks, Scholars - as diverse and tough as the city whose name they claimed spent a decade claiming a piece of history, even as the steel industry collapsed around us. Those of us who lived through that time know what a football team can mean to a community.

Once the 'Seventies were over, we waited a long time for the Steelers to make it back to the big game. The 1996 team was a powerhouse, but in order to claim that "one for the thumb" they would have to beat the great dynasty of that decade. We wanted to believe that the Cowboys could be had, but in our hearts, we had our doubts.

The afternoon of the game, I talked with my Dad on the phone. He had survived a heart attack the year before. Years of too many jobs, too many midnight bowls of ice cream and too many cigarettes had taken their toll. He was scheduled to go into the hospital the next morning for a procedure whose name I don't remember. We talked about how things were going. I asked how he was feeling. "Frankly, I feel like Hell." It wasn't the kind of thing he would say. The year of living with his own mortality had worn him down in a lot of ways. Projects went unfinished. He grew increasingly quiet and sad. The burdens of a lifetime - burdens he had heroically carried for years - were breaking his weak heart.

We talked about the game. Both of us had concerns, but we were confident that Our Team could beat the odds. As game time approached, we wrapped things up. Saying goodbye was always a little clumsy for us. Dad was not an "I love you" kind of guy. For years I had tried to wheedle one out of him. We would hug goodbye and I would whisper "I love you, Dad." Sometimes he would say "I love you, too." but it always felt as if I had cornered him. After a while, I stopped playing the game. I knew he loved me. I could hear it in his voice when we spent time together on my rare trips back home. I said goodbye and was about to hang up, when he said it...

"God bless you."

My father had never, ever said that to me. He was not being casual. He was giving me his blessing.

The Steelers lost Super Bowl XXX, obscenely. I don't remember much about the game. I remember my Dad's blessing. And I remember the nest night when I cam home from work. My sister had called. Dad's procedure had not gone well. By nine o'clock my father was dead.

We buried him under the snowy Pennsylvania mountains that he loved. It is a beautiful spot with a view of the valley and the smell of pine trees and hardwood all around. The last time I was up there, I saw deer tracks in the snow around his grave. He would love it. I go there every once in a while to catch him up with my life. I have carried his blessing through some rough times, but it stays with me intact. And when we say goodbye, I always tell him I love him. It's ok. He doesn't feel any pressure to respond. And somehow I think saying it doesn't bother him so much any more.

God bless you, Dad.

I love you.



The icon of St Joseph and Jesus is from Bridge Building Images.

Our favorite lake, Pymatuning.

Smoke over Three Rivers is from the web site of GASP, the Group Against Smog & Pollution. They've been fighting to clean up the 'Burgh since Joe Greene was a rookie.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

We need your best, not just the best you can do

This is a post I've had rattling around my imagination for a while. If you're following Fat Man Running , then you know that I have made some changes in my life -- changes that I hope will become permanent. The idea in my title is one of the things that I hope will keep my commitment alive.
Mrs P and I were sniping back and forth a few days ago - (yes, sniping can strike even the best of families) - and I was griping about the way she will complain about a thing like a pain or an old glasses prescription for months without doing anything about it. This makes me nuts.

Before I go on, I should tell you that there are two important parts of this argument. First, I was absolutely right. She does do that and it does make me crazy. Second, I do the same d@mn thing which makes me pretty vulnerable when I try to call her on it.

I resolved this conflict in classic American Male style by making it as forcefully and as loudly as I could. The advantage here is that my Bride can't get a word in edgewise - the disadvantage is that I will invariably say something so incredibly stupid that it dwarfs the original offense. Here's how I think it went...

"Why didn't you take care of X last summer when it started bothering you?"

"There were other things to worry about."

"Like what? What could be more important that X?"

"The cats needed meds, Molly needed tests, I was looking for a job, we were trying to sell that old car, your depression was getting worse..."

"But don't you see how dealing with this back then would have made all those things easier? You act like everyone else is more important that you are."

"Well, they are."

"Well, we need you. We need you with X. You're no good to us without X. We need you at your best, not the best you have at the time."

OK, if you have lived with someone for any length of time, you know that the only part of that last line that anyone hears is the part about "you're no good to us without X". That was a really stupid thing for me to say because a) it is not true, and b) it obscured the actual insight that I managed to squeeze out at the end.

Doing your best is just not good enough. Not when the best you have is a sliver of what it could be if you were a better steward of your own life.

I know that your house was decimated by last night's storm and you need help cleaning up, but years of cynicism and personal neglect have made me a lazy, unpleasant person who would do more complaining than working, so I'll stay home and pray for you. I wish I could do more, but that's the best I can do.

That might be honest, but it is worthless to your neighbor and to God.

I would love to tithe to support the church or the poor or the Children's Museum or whatever, but I have piled up so much credit card debt that nearly every penny is accounted for. I wish I could give more, but this is the best I can do.

Yeah, right. Look - if Mrs P needs me and I'm confined to my room because I stopped taking my meds or I've drunk myself into such a state that I can't stand up - rolling over and moaning, "I'm sorry Baby, I love you." isn't giving her my best. She isn't getting anything. I will have wasted the strength and health and intelligence that God gave me so I could be her partner. Those parts of me that should have belonged to her, I have chosen to spend elsewhere.

When she needs my best, I won't have it. All I'll have is what's left -- the remnant I call "the best I can do".

Well I don't want her to have to settle for the best of what's left of me. When my wife needs a husband, I want her to have my best. When the people I manage need a leader, I want them to have the best leader I can be. I want my employer to have my best, not just the best parts that I didn't trade for a few bottles of Rolling Rock the night before. I want the animals who rely on me to have my best. My neighbors, my community, my family - if I really value these people, I will make sure that when they need me, they will get the best God gave me -- not just the best of the parts that I haven't used myself.

So that's why I'm going to the gym. Not so I can "treat myself better", but so that when someone needs the best from me, I will be able to give it.

The life God gave me was a gift. The way I've treated that life has been a sin in many ways. I live today under judgment as a consequence of that sin -- but sin always hurts more than just the sinner. People need me to be better than I am today. My loss is their loss too.

When I eat something stupid or don't drink my water or skip stretches or stay up too late, then I can't walk as far or as fast on the treadmill as I need to. When I hit the red "stop" button while gasping for air, my lungs burning and my chest pounding after half a workout - I haven't "given it my best." I gave my best to David Letterman or Krispy Kreme. The gym just got what was left over.

Jesus' life requires more of me than the best that's left. If I want to be a Christ-like husband, neighbor, citizen, and friend, then I need to be ready to give the best just as Jesus always was.

Jesus went off by himself to pray. I go to the gym. I learn new computer programs. I listen to tapes and pick the brains of successful managers who have more experience and wisdom than I do. I put down the laptop and actually pay attention to my wife once in a while. The road to my redemption is paved by doing the work of restoring the best I can be.


Here's an intriguing post from Paul M. Jones on why "Do Your Best" is such a lousy way to manage people.

And Joe McCarthy out pennsy's Pennsy with this existential musing about doing your best vs. trying to do your best (among other things.)

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Fat Man Running - the adventure begins

Today I am beginning a new blog project I'm calling Fat Man Running. I have avoided posts about myself because ... oh, I don't know. Maybe I just want to feel important and smart. It's easier to be cosmic than to be real.

Anyway, I've decided to break that policy in order to journal an adventure that I hope will last for the rest of my life. Mrs Pennsy and I joined a gym yesterday.

Let me put this into perspective - I am 47 years old, 6'-4" tall and weigh 374 lbs. That's a body mass index of 45.5. That number is not an accident. It is a consequence of a lifetime of choices - some good, mostly bad. A lot of destructive habits produced this body, and I sort of hope I can change the results by changing my behavior.

I will still bloviate about God, the Universe and All That in this space. My relationship with my Creator is one of the primary reasons I have started off on this adventure. I'd sort of like to be able to tell God that I did something with the healthy, strong body I was blessed with besides filling it with chocolate and potato chips.

Actually, there are several things I'd like to be able to do. I'd like to live long enough to retire, for example.

So off I go. Maybe my story will inspire someone else, as I have been inspired. I certainly hope that by putting myself "out there" I can develop a sense of accountability to someone - even if no one else reads. I really want to succeed this time.


1/13/08, Rainy & Cold
374 lbs
Treadmill walk
1.25 mi
0:25 min
180 Max HR

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

What's in a Name? - The Holy Name of Jesus

On January 1, the eighth day after Christmas, we remember the day Joseph & Mary's child was circumcised and named.
And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
(Luke 2:21)

They obeyed the command that both had received from holy messengers. In Luke's gospel, the angel tells Mary
Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most high.
(Luke:30 (b) - 32 (a))

In Matthew, Joseph is told not to abandon his pregnant finace with the promise
Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.
(Matthew 1:20 (b) - 21)

The name of the child was important enough that both evangelists tell us that it was given to his parents by angels. In English, we identify that name with the man Jesus of Nazareth, but to Jesus' own people, his name was filled with meaning.

The name that we translate into Jesus was Yeshua in Hebrew. It is actually a familiar version of the name Yehoshua. It means "Lord (or Jehovah) who is salvation)."

In English, we might call a child Faith or Godfrey or Regis if we wanted to give them a name that sounded particularly pious or royal. Any author chooses character names carefully because of what they say about the person who bears them. Oliver Twist or Billy Pilgrim are names that tell you something about the character before you even meet them.

So it is with the name of Jesus. It was not a rare name in Hebrew culture, but it was a special one.

If the life of Jesus is a story, then God is that story's author. God chose Jesus name deliberately so that "Jehovah" and "salvation" would be present in the mind of the listener whenever that name was mentioned.

In time, he came to be known as Jesus Christ, but Christ is not a name, rather it is a title, from the Greek christos which is the translation of the Hebrew messias meaning "anointed one." In the gospels, the evangelists refer to Jesus the Christ. After the resurrection, the early Christians transformed Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus into a single proper name, not unlike Julius Caesar.

So what's in Jesus' name? Not a magic spell that grants us wishes when we pray "in Jesus' name." Instead, his name honors both his heavenly father, and the world whose salvation he came to effect. Just as Jesus was both God and human, so also his name spans two dimensions - Jesus the man and Jesus the name are both links between the creator and creation. The name Jesus testifies to the radical love God has for the world.

Peace and Happy New Year!

The icon of the Circumcision is from the remarkable website Orthodoxy in China