Are You Good For Nothing?

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Today’s sermon had a particular idea that struck a chord with me. I write this as a challenge for my brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as myself. Please don’t be offended.

Imagine, if you will, Sunday morning. Your family, finally ready for church, loads up in the SUV. You open the garage door from inside, back out onto the driveway, click the garage door shut and off you go to church. After a nice lunch in a local restaurant, you return home, pull into the driveway, click the door open, pile out of your SUV, walk into the house and click the garage door shut. And for the next eighteen hours, the door remains shut. Until the next morning, when the ritual repeats itself for work and school, and then once everyone returns home for the evening, the garage door shuts once again, and your family remains cloistered inside your comfortable cocoon, safe from the world. Day in and day out, you living a comfortable life inside your comfortable home. 

Around you are houses, across the street, next door, behind you, filled with people. They’re called neighbors. Do you know any of them? Can you know them if you live the above routine, hiding inside your safe and comfortable home.  I’ve heard people say, “I pray for my neighbors,” and that’s good, but how can you pray, other than a generic prayer, “God, please bless that family who lives in that house over there,” for people you don’t know? And how can you make a difference in the lives of people whom you’ve never met?

As Christians, isn’t that supposed to be our mission? When asked by the Pharisees what is the greatest commandment, Jesus said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ I’ll ask again, how can you love those whom you don’t know?

But what if you knew your neighbors, by name? And you knew that Andy and Jen, across the street, just had a new baby named Eleanor (Nora) June, born at five o’clock this morning. Calvin now has a little sister. And then you found out what kind of food they like to eat, so you can take them a meal. Or what if you knew Tom, across the street? Tom, a Viet Nam vet who is scheduled for another surgery, his fourth or fifth, and who has to get around with a cane. And Crystal his wife, who ministers in a small, local church. You might pray for Tom’s surgery and offer to help in other ways. Or maybe you know Dave next door. Dave is a widower in his 80’s, a military vet, who lives alone with his dog Wally. He likes to read, mainly military history. You make a point to strike up a conversation with him each time you see him. He might be lonely. And then there are Bob and Mary parents of Chris, who lives next door with husband John and their two kids, Morgan and Nicholas. And next to them are Betty and Klaus, in their nineties, but Betty still loves to come out and do yard work. How might you make a difference in Betty’s life? And next door to them, George and Barb. George drives a school bus and he and Barb spend a lot of time in their beautiful flower garden. Barb’s mother lives with them. And the new neighbor, who just moved in next door, someone you will soon make a point to meet. What if you knew all or many of your neighbors? What difference could you make in their lives? And for Christ?

Jesus also said, You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is good for nothing anymore, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. Your are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lamp-stand; and it gives light to all who are in the house. 

In the movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, George Bailey feels as if he’s a failure, as if his life doesn’t matter. And Old Man Potter, after finding out George’s life insurance policy exceeds his net worth, tells him, “George, you’re worth more dead than alive!” George concludes he and his family would be better off if “he’d never been born.” And so Clarence, his guardian angel, arranges it. But you know how the story ends. The question for you and for me; if you died today, would your neighbors notice? Without you in the neighborhood, what would it be like?

Here’s my challenge to you as Christians; open your garage door and get to know your neighbors, as many as possible. If you choose to isolate yourself, as in the garage door example above, you may as well become Amish and go live on a farm somewhere. Or become a monk and live on the side of a tall mountain. Jesus prayed this in John 17: “I do not ask you to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I also have sent them into the world.” From this prayer we came up with the phrase, “We’re to be in the world, but not of the world.” In the world making a difference. A difference that the world desperately needs.

Knowing your neighbors can be messy, and yes, you’ll be sticking your neck out by getting involved. But what you’ll find is, by knowing your neighbors you learn to love your neighbors and by loving your neighbors you can make a difference in their lives. And if you make a difference in people’s lives, you’ve become salt and light, and when your life is finished, you may hear the phrase, “Well done good and faithful servant.”

 

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Cool Jesus

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*This article was originally posted on 5/22/15.

Note: I have intentionally overused the word “cool” in this piece as a reflection of its overuse in today’s culture and to make a point.

Cool Jesus is a myth. As much as secular America, and sadly, too many mainline churches want him to exist, he doesn’t. In an effort to make Christianity more palatable and less offensive, Cool Jesus was created. This is the Jesus that is full of love and forgiveness, but that’s it. This is the Jesus that “hangs with sinners.” Cool Jesus has long hair, a scraggly beard, and wears Birkenstocks. He may even have a few tattoos.

The idea that Jesus came to “hang out with sinners”—and who wasn’t a sinner?—because they were somehow better than the Pharisees and religious leaders is nonsense. All of them were sinners. The main reason Jesus singled out the Pharisees is they didn’t think they had any sin in their lives; everyone else knew they were sinners—“God be merciful to me, the sinner!”—and it wasn’t necessary for Jesus to pile on. Cool Jesus not only doesn’t address your sin, he completely ignores or accepts it. So, the mantra of the churches has become, “come as you are, Jesus loves you.” Cool Jesus would never offend anyone or, God forbid, hurt their feelings and self-esteem. Yes Jesus loves you—most people not understanding the full meaning of love—but does he love your sin?  Does he accept your sin? Didn’t he come to die for your sin? That seems to be a very serious price to pay for something that is insignificant and doesn’t really matter. So where did this Cool Jesus come from?

It all started with the societal upheaval and revolution that occurred in the 1960’s. The era was certainly about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but it was much deeper than that.  The 1960’s revolution was really about rebellion, rebelling against any authority figure; police, teachers, government, politicians, parents, church leaders, and even God. And against any constraints on behavior associated with any of these aforementioned groups. All of these authority figures began to be mocked in the popular culture and labeled as un-cool or as was the jargon of the times, “square.” Whereas movies used to portray these groups as positive role models, they began to be portrayed as mean, angry, intolerant, not hip, not with it, dullsville. And who wants to be labeled as that type of individual? Ultimately, if you weren’t considered cool, you were ostracized and ridiculed by those who were—and who determined who was cool is a mystery for sure—but the term came to mean so many things as to lose its original meaning altogether.

So the revolution created a Jesus who didn’t quite fit the traditional model. He became the subject of a musical play and movie, Jesus Christ Superstar. He was sung about by the Doobie Brothers, Jesus is Just Alright. And he was even associated with pot smoking by Brewer and Shipley in, One Toke over the Line (Sweet Jesus). “Hey Jesus, come on and hang out with us sinners. Somebody pass that joint over here.” Jesus was being transformed into Cool Jesus, even back then. But before the Cool Jesus was fully created, the un-cool authority figures had to become cool too.

Whereas teachers and professors were previously portrayed as eggheads, they soon began to wear a different persona and create a new, cool image. They grew their hair long, grew beards, switched from Ben Franklin to John Lennon style spectacles, and smoked an occasional joint. Instead of Mozart, Procol Harum was the new cool.

The clergy, pastors and priests, began to change their image as well, all in an effort to counter a perceived stereotype. In the movie The Poseidon Adventure, Gene Hackman’s character was a man of the cloth, but he wasn’t your typical version. He was relaxed, dressed down—no white collar, but instead a turtleneck—and he even cursed. He was strong, tough, and wore his passion on his sleeve. He was cool.

Parents too, wanted in on the act. Instead of being the authority figure in the house and playing the traditional role of parent, they wanted to be their child’s best friend. In order to accomplish this they had to forgo discipline and instead “understand” their child. Child psychologists were in, corporal punishment was out. Parents decided that since their children would “have sex anyway” they would set up a spare bedroom for the occasion, under adult supervision of course, rather than have the teen do it in the back seat of the family station wagon. The same for drinking and drugs; why wonder what your kid is doing at a party down the street, when you can host your own and supply the booze and drugs yourself. These parents may have turned into lousy parents, but they were now cool and their kids liked them.

Politicians, the most stodgy of all the groups, began to change over time as well. Instead of being men and women of character, integrity, and accomplishment, they soon cared more about how they could relate to and fit in with the pop culture. Clinton went on The Arsenio Hall Show and played his version of Heartbreak Hotel on the saxophone. But it wasn’t until he had “sex with that woman” in the White House that he earned his cool bona fides. Our current president, Obama, is known more for being a member of a “choom gang” than for any important papers or legislation. He too appears on the late night talk show circuit, yukking it up with the comedians. But hey, he’s cool. Lousy president, but cool.

In today’s churches, it’s all the rage to be cool; anything to get away from the old stereotypes. You want people to feel comfortable, so you do everything with that in mind. The preachers dress down on stage with designer jeans and the most hip outfits money can buy, even wearing their shirts fashionably tucked outside their trousers. They wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress shirt or khakis. The praise bands rival any rock band and their members are made up of hipsters sporting the most fad conscious tattoos and body piercings. The music is rock and roll, accompanied by a laser light show that would be welcome at any rock concert. And the announcements are made to be as inoffensive as possible.

“We are so, so, so, super happy that you are here with us today. We think you’ll find us to be the coolest church and most fun people around. All we ever do is smile and have fun. See? And don’t forget the coffee bar. And don’t forget to stop by the Next Steps Booth on your way out; we have a super, super, super, cool gift for you.”

I have news for these churches; you will never out-cool the world, nor should you want to. You can do all you want to make the sinner feel comfortable, but the minute you mention sin…Oh yeah, you don’t mention sin. And then there’s Cool Jesus.

But was Jesus really cool? Maybe I’m missing it, but somehow I don’t see him portrayed that way anywhere in scripture. He was actually pretty harsh and demanding, measured by today’s standards. And I find him to be an equal opportunity offender. Jesus made and makes everyone feel uncomfortable. How can you be in the presence of the Holy God of the universe and remain comfortable?  John the Baptist forewarned the religious leaders that the Messiah was coming, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” We know they were bad guys–and of course deserved condemnation–but what about when Jesus addressed the rich young ruler, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” He actually told the poor rich guy he would have to forsake his current lifestyle in order to follow him. Are you kidding? Forsake my lifestyle? So not cool Jesus. And how about when he addressed his own disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it.” What do you mean give up my life? That’s not cool. Or when he said, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Aren’t you a little too demanding Jesus? That isn’t cool. And here’s another indication that he expects us to repent from our old way of life when he said, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” There’s a reason John the Baptist and Jesus were preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And did you notice what happened to Zaccheus when Jesus came to visit him? He spent less than a day with Jesus and without being prompted, he publicly confessed all his wicked behavior and wanted to make things right. Just being in Jesus presence led Zaccheus to forsake his former way of life and repent.

Here’s the truth: Jesus didn’t come to be our therapist and enhance our self-esteem. He didn’t come to be our buddy and hang out. He came to be our Savior and Lord. He isn’t one of us. He’s not a peer; as if he was one of the guys from work that we run to the corner pub and have a couple of beers with. We’re sinners and he’s holy. Each week we sing songs of redemption, but what are we redeemed from? Cool Jesus never addresses the elephant in the room. If the Church refuses to talk about sin, then it should also shut up about the Savior, because without sin, there isn’t a need for a savior. Yes Jesus loves us, all of us. And yes Jesus hates our sin, all of our sin. The good news is, Jesus doesn’t expect you to clean up your life prior to coming to him. You can’t do it. What he does expect is that you recognize your sin. That you repent of your sin. That you forsake your former way of life, and when you seek out the Savior, bring your sins with you. And lay them at Jesus feet. He will accept you as you are and will forgive your sins. Now, that is cool indeed.

The Boat: When Robbie Gets Shot

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For the next thirty minutes, the four of them “play” their way down the trail—swinging on grape vines, pushing one another into pools of water while crossing the creek, throwing acorns at each other—until they finally reach a deserted road. The road runs east and west, dividing the woods in half, with grass and weeds growing up between two dirt lanes. The road rarely, if ever gets used.

“Should we follow the road?” Robbie asks.

Alec puts both hands on his hips and glares at Robbie. “Why would we want to do that? We’re heading north so we follow the trail. And we need to hurry up; the sun will be down in an hour.”

A few minutes later Robbie makes an announcement. “I need to take a leak.”

“Well, there are plenty of trees around, so go ahead. We won’t watch.” The other three converse while Robbie runs off into the woods. He’s known to have a nervous bladder, so he moves deep into the trees, away from prying eyes.

Dougie shouts after him, “Hurry up Robbie. And watch out for rattlers.”

When a good amount of time has gone by, and Robbie hasn’t rejoined the group, Dougie yells for him. “Robbie, hurry up. What’s takin’ you so long? All you had to do was piss.”

“Yeah, hurry up dumb ass. We don’t have all day.” Alec picks up a rock and throws it in the direction they last saw Robbie.

Jason, now concerned, says, “Let’s go find him. He better not be horsing around or he’s dead meat.”

Fifty yards off the trail Jason stumbles upon Robbie on the opposite side of a large oak tree. “Hey guys. Come over here. I’ve found him, but something’s wrong.”

They all run to the slumped figure beneath the tree and as they gather around, they notice his eyes closed. They also observe a flow of blood oozing from his right temple and down his cheek.

“Is he dead?” Alec asks.

Dougie bends over the body. “No, he’s still breathin’.”

Jason gently shakes Robbie.

Robbie’s eyes open slowly and Alec says, “What happened? Why is your head bleeding?”

Not fully cognizant, he mutters, “I don’t know. I was standing there taking a leak and I heard a crack and then a sharp pain on the side of my head. That’s all I remember.”

Jason lifts the hair covering Robbie’s temple and finds a huge welt, with a small hole in the center. There appears to be an object under the skin, and Jason attempts to squeeze the unknown item back out of the hole.

Robbie jerks his head away. “Damn. That hurts.” He reaches up and gingerly runs his fingers along the side of his head. “There’s something in there all right.”

“I know it hurts, but we’ve got to get it out. You don’t want to go to the hospital do you?”

A sharp crack immediately follows an explosion of bark from the tree above their heads. At first, not sure what just happened, the boys are frozen in place, but then Alec says, “Somebody’s shooting at us. Get down on the ground… get behind a tree.” They all four dive to safety behind the trunk of a massive oak. Huddled together behind the tree, the boys, breathing heavily, try to calm their racing hearts.

Jason motions for quiet. “Sit still and listen.”

A squirrel running through a pile of fallen leaves creates the only sound.

“Who do you think it is?” whispers Robbie.

Jason shrugs. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s an accident.”

Alec waves both hands and frowns. “An accident? Come on Jason. No way.”

“Maybe they’re hunting and don’t even know we’re here.” Jason doesn’t believe his own speculation, but he prefers not to jump to conclusions and to give others the benefit of the doubt.

Dougie yells out, “Hey, you better stop shootin’ at us or we’re goin’ to the cops.” At first silence, then faint laughter echoes from deep in the darkened woods.

Alec says, “All right, we have two choices. We can run or go on the offensive.” He surveys the surrounding woods and points to a spot on the other side of a ravine. “Over there are a bunch of hedge apples scattered on the ground. Let’s all grab an armful and start throwing them in their direction. We might scare them out.”

Robbie says, “Hedge apples? Yeah right. What good will they do? They’ll just shoot at us again.”

“They’re going to shoot at us no matter what we do. I would just as soon see one of these hedge apples smashing their faces. That might even things up.” Alec crawls to the tree and gathers ammunition. Dougie and Jason move on hands and knees toward the hedge apples, while Robbie stays behind the tree, not altogether with it at this point.

Once they’ve supplied themselves with ammunition, all four boys spread out in a line and sprint in the direction from where they heard the shot. Shouting like warriors, they hurl the large, green apples, until their supply dwindles to only a few pieces. A lone figure bolts from behind a tree and runs in the opposite direction. Robbie winds up, as if he stands on the pitching mound, and hurls one of the remaining apples at the fleeing figure. Bam, he nails him square in the back. The man drops to his knees with a loud moan.

Robbie’s face and neck have turned a scarlet red and his voice trembles. “It’s Stubby Winston. Shit!”

Stepping out from behind a second tree, Stubby’s brother Lightning fires his weapon. The sound of projectiles ricocheting off the ground and surrounding foliage causes the four boys to drop their ammo and flee. They dive for cover behind the same oak tree.

Jason says, “It’s the Winston brothers and they’re not messing around. We need to get out of here fast.” More blood has seeped from Robbie’s wound. “How’s your head?”

“It’s throbbing, but it won’t slow me down.”

With darkness now becoming their ally, the boys help Robbie to his feet and scamper back to the trail. They run north and eventually arrive at the wood’s edge. They then sprint the remaining fifty yards across the open field and arrive at the intersection of Hickory and Jefferson.

Bent over and catching their breaths at the street corner, a loud plink on the metal STOP sign above their heads startles them. Jason falls to the ground, followed by Robbie and Alec.

Alec says, “Come on guys. Let’s ditch it across the street and hide next to the house over there.” Alec takes off and Robbie and Jason follow.

Huddled next to the house, they peek around the corner and glance across the street. Instead of following them to safety, Dougie walks back toward the woods. With his hunting knife brandished in front of him, he taunts the unseen assailants hidden somewhere back in the stand of trees.

“Why don’t you come on out and show your faces? I’ll kick your asses. I’ll cut you ‘til you bleed like stuck pigs, you damn pussies.”

Jason mutters, “Whoa, Dougie.” But rather than leave him out there humiliated, he calls him back. “Dougie, get over here. You’re target practice standing out there.” All three frantically wave their arms to get his attention.

Dougie finally turns back to them, but before taking a step, he drops to one knee, reaches for his back and grimaces in pain. With shots ricocheting on the ground around him, he quickly gathers himself, regains his feet, and stumbles to safety.

When he joins the others, he drops down on all fours, moaning in pain.

“Where’d you get hit?” Jason kneels down and offers assistance.

Dougie points to his lower back. A spot of blood the size of a silver dollar stains his shirt. Jason raises the shirt to Dougie’s shoulders and the boys gather in close to survey the damage.

Alec says, “Damn, that’s gross.”

A large red and purple welt has formed on Dougie’s back, with a small amount of blood trickling from the wound. The “bullet” or whatever they fired from the gun remains a mystery.

Happy Anniversary, Baby, Got You on My Mind. Again.

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On a warm summer evening, forty-three years ago, good friend Andy Thomas and I met on foot, at the Mark Twain grade school, with nothing more on our minds than to stroll up and down the streets and share in conversation. We always could while away the hours talking. Both of us at the time were unattached when it came to the fairer sex, and since each of us had a driver’s license, why we were on foot must have been a result of a lack of available transportation. But no bother, we liked to walk.

After a brief conversation at the school, we made our way south on Maple street, past Mac Jensen’s place, and down the hill in the direction of Grigg’s Park. Prior to reaching the bottom of the hill, we noticed that the tennis courts were under lights and spotted two people swatting the ball back and forth. Two girls. From that distance, it was hard to identify the players, but Andy recognized one as Angie Rogers. I knew Angie from school. But the other player remained a mystery.

After we crossed Centennial, I asked Andy if he knew the other girl. For some reason, I had become fixated on her. He identified her as the sister of a classmate, Debbie McClendon. I knew Debbie, but not her younger sister, Julie. That reality was about to change.

We enthusiastically approached the tennis court, like moths to a flame, or in my case, like an ox being led to the slaughter, and the two ceased playing long enough to talk with us. Nervous around girls, I’m sure my conversation was limited to a few one word answers and grunts, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the new girl, especially her eyes. The butterflies hovering in my stomach furiously beat their wings, and my knees became weak. I believe I was smitten.

We finally left the two of them to continue their game of tennis, but as we walked away, I’m surprised I didn’t run into a telephone pole or parked car, it being hard to navigate down the sidewalk with your head looking behind you. Our conversation the rest of the night had only one theme, Julie.

A few weeks later, now cruising up and down the streets of Carthage in my royal blue, 1958 Chevrolet Biscayne, I inexplicably ended up driving south on Maple Street, in the vicinity of Julie’s house. How did that happen? Truth be told, I was hoping to catch a glimpse. Lo and behold, who did I see walking down the sidewalk, but Julie McClendon with her good friend Laura Coombs. I pulled alongside them and stopped to say hello. I’m not sure whose idea it was, but they both ended up in my car.

The bench seat was wide enough to accommodate an entire baseball team, but somehow Julie ended up sitting right next to me, with Laura manning shotgun. With her sitting beside me, the sweet smell of perfume, the occasional brushing together of our skin, I found it difficult to concentrate on the road (today I have different distractions causing me not to concentrate on the road while driving, but that’s a different story). She must have batted her eyes at me, because when she asked to drive my car, being under age and thus breaking the law, I immediately pulled over and exchanged places. She always has been able to get me to do whatever she asks.

Keenly aware of what girls prefer, nearing seventeen and never having dated a girl being beside the point, I figured that Julie might not enjoy my loudly playing version of American Woman, so I switched the 8-track to the other side and found These Eyes. How romantic. I would find out years later that impressing her with my music would never happen, but at this point I was grossly unaware.

The remainder of the summer I sought glimpses of her whenever and wherever I could. I did spend an awful lot of time at the Municipal Park swimming pool that summer, her being a lifeguard there not having anything to do with it mind you. You might say I was obsessed, not that I’ve ever been obsessed with anything. But her being only fifteen, we could not officially date. Once the school year commenced, Julie turned sixteen and her parents, probably to this day still shaking their heads in wonder, allowed her to date me.

We became an item around school:

Kissed a few times:

And enjoyed the recognition of our peers on Prom night:

 

Four years, and many adventures later, Julie McClendon became my wife on July 22, 1978. Being inept with the spoken word, I wonder if I’ve ever expressed to her how much she means to me. Still today, when I gaze into her beautiful blue eyes, the butterflies flutter, just as they did on that tennis court forty-three years ago. She is my special gift from God, wholly undeserved. And I am forever grateful. She’s given me two wonderful sons and two special grandchildren.

She’s Julie, Jul, Gigi, Julia Kay, and a host of other pet names. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

Happy Anniversary, sweetheart.

Outsmarting the Neighbor’s Dog or How to Successfully Terrorize Your Little Sister

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The wall became a problem for us when we played any game involving a ball (the ball tended to leave our yard and land in the neighbor’s). What to do? It was obvious we had to get the ball, but how?

In addition to the wall, there was a bigger problem with retrieving our ball; each of our neighbors on all three sides had dogs! The neighbor to our right had three Chihuahua dogs. These were not your normal Chihuahua dogs; they were huge, vicious, long-toothed, some type of hybrid breed of Chihuahua dog. Timmy and I were scared to go over there and get our ball (it never occurred to us to walk around to the front of the house, ring the doorbell, and ask for our ball).

Simultaneously, we came up with the same plan; we agreed, prior to asking, to send Kathy over the wall. But how to convince her?

Initially I tried to bribe her and said, “Kathy, I have some candy I’ll give you (I don’t mess around), if you’ll go get our ball next door.”

Timmy chimed in and begged her, “Pwease, pwease, pwease Kathy, would you go get ow bawh?”

Kathy wouldn’t fall for either ploy and responded, “No. I don’t want to. Besides, ahn’t theh dogs next doah?”

I’ve been known to lie, and said, “Kathy, those are little Chihuahua dogs that couldn’t hurt a flea. I’ll give you all my candy. Please?”

“Okay,” was her response and I had to assume it was that final bribe that put her over the edge.

I know what you’re thinking; what a cruel thing to do to your little sister. I never felt guilty about it until the event was over. Besides, we didn’t have a choice.

Timmy and I got Kathy up on the wall, and we spotted our ball across the neighbor’s yard. No dogs in sight. As we slowly lifted Kathy down, we told her to hurry up before the dogs were the wiser.

As she grabbed the ball and headed back to the wall, out of nowhere, the three amigos, I mean Chihuahuas, bolted toward her. As Kathy tried to climb up on the wall, the dogs jumped all over her, biting her bottom and pulling down her pants.

Meanwhile, safely sitting on the wall, Timmy and I were very helpful.

“Kathy, thwow the bawh ovah the fence,” Timmy offered.

I followed up with this encouragement, “Kathy, don’t worry, those dogs aren’t hurting you. Timmy and I will pull you up, but you have to throw the ball over the fence first.”

The only words out of Kathy at this point were, “Waaahhh!”

We finally convinced Kathy to throw the ball back into our yard, lifted her over the fence, pulled her pants up, told her not to tell Mom, and then went to the tree in the front yard to pull a switch for the discipline that surely would come. In all future endeavors involving balls in neighbor’s yards, Kathy was not involved.

The neighbor behind us had a dog too. This dog was a bit larger than the Chihuahuas and much more aggressive and faster. He was black and white (a cocker spaniel), had very thick fur, and his bite was worse than his bark.

When the ball went over the wall into this dog’s yard, we had to work on our strategy. You couldn’t just climb down the wall into the backyard, because before your foot hit the ground, this dog was all over you, tearing you to pieces. He was a smart dog (adept at undercover work and counterespionage), always hiding behind bushes, beside the house, or wherever he could conduct his surveillance. It didn’t matter what time of day it was, you could not get a foot down and that dog was right there, no bark, just wooosh! He was there.

We weren’t about to let any dog outsmart us however. Our strategic battle plan was brilliant. If the ball was on the east end of the yard for example, one of us would go to the west end of the yard and begin the climb down. This time we had him fooled. While the decoy was on the west end, the other kid was on the east end, where the ball was located. The decoy never intended to set foot in the yard, but the strategy was effective.

The dog ran over to the kid on the west end, and in the meantime, the other kid quickly jumped down, grabbed the ball, and was safely up on the wall before the dog knew what hit him. Then we sat on the wall, stuck out our tongues, and made fun of the hapless dog. If nothing else could be said about us, we were smarter than a dog, at least on this occasion.

Get your copy of Little Heathens here.

Little Heathens: The Perfect Book to Bring Along on a Trip to the Local DMV

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A few months back, I solicited the leader of a local book club to gauge her interest in having the club read my newest book, The Boat. Suspicious, she decided to check me out, unknown to me at the time.

A couple of weeks ago, I did a book presentation at a local library, invited to speak by this same person. After my presentation, she told the story of how she had surreptitiously checked me out.

I came across your book because you had sent me a message on my Young Adult Book discussion meetup page asking if we would be interested in reading your book, The Boat. Before I replied, I wanted to check out your work, so I googled you and looked in the library system to see if there were any books available. Tinley Park had a copy of Little Heathens, and so I put it on hold.

When I got it I was in the middle of reading another book, so I put it in my bag for later. I went to the DMV with my boyfriend and continued reading my book as we knew we’d be there for a long time. He complained and asked what he was going to do because he was bored, so I took Little Heathens out of my bag and told him he could read that.

After about 10 minutes he begins to laugh out loud, so loudly, everyone in the DMV is staring at us. I asked what he was laughing at, and he said, “This book is hilarious.” He finished it that night and then I read it the next day, and after I was done I had my dad read it, as he grew up in the same era, and like my boyfriend and I, he also read it without putting it down. 

Now, we all know about the DMV; a perfect example of government inefficiency on full display. So, if for some reason you have to go to the DMV, take a copy of Little Heathens along and entertain not only yourself, but those waiting alongside you.

Here’s a link, in order to be prepared ahead of time.

The Boat: Jason’s Argument With His Father

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Jason drives down the driveway to park behind his house, and a light coming from the living room stirs butterflies in his stomach. Great. Somebody’s up. Probably Dad.

After parking, he takes a deep breath and considers how the conversation with his dad will go. He knows he’ll be mad at him coming home late, but angrier at not receiving a phone call. He hopes his dad is too tired for a long conversation. Or better yet, asleep.

He finds, to his relief, the back door unlocked, and Jason quietly enters the house. He approaches the entrance to the living room and glances into the dimly lit space. He sees his father slumped down in his easy chair. Good.

Jason tiptoes past, in the direction of his bedroom, but then, out of the silence his father says, “Jason, where are you going?”

“Oh, hi Dad. I didn’t think you were awake.”

“I would’ve been asleep a long time ago. Where have you been and why didn’t you call?”

“There was a party…”

“Come in here where I can see you. And sit down; I want to talk to you.” Jason’s father puts his index finger to his lips. “Your mom’s sleeping, so keep it down.”

Jason sits on the couch, next to his father’s easy chair.

“I’m listening. ‘There was a party…’”

Jason clears his throat. “Yeah, there was a big party out at Miller’s Crossing and I went out there to see what was going on.”

“In your mother’s car?”

Jason forgot that little detail. “Yes, in Mom’s car. I picked up Robbie and we rode around for a while, and then about ten or so we drove out there.”

“You know I don’t approve of you going to those parties.”

The two sit silent for a moment.

Mr. Christiansen says, “Why didn’t you call?”

“If I had called, what would you have said? What would I have said? If I told you what I was doing, you would have told me no. I could’ve called, but I didn’t.”

Jason’s Dad sits upright in his chair. “So, better to make your mom and me worry all night than to risk being told no? You disappoint me Jason. You know better.”

“I’m sorry Dad.” Jason hangs his head and reads the Converse label on the side of his shoe.

“And why did you stay out so late? Your curfew is midnight. Do you realize what time it is?”

“I know what time it is, but…”

His father raises his voice. “It’s four in the morning. We’ve got church in five hours. Why didn’t you call and tell us you’d be late?”

Jason now feels guilty and making excuses won’t change the situation. He figures telling the truth won’t get him into any more trouble. “I had to take care of Robbie.”

“What’s the matter with Robbie?”

“He was drunk.” Jason winces and braces for what’s coming next.

Mr. Christiansen, now at the edge of his chair, leans in close to Jason’s face. “What? Son, I’ve warned you about that. You promised me you wouldn’t get drunk. Have you been drinking?”

“Dad, I didn’t say I was drunk. I won’t lie to you, I’ve had a couple of beers from time to time, but I know my limit. Besides, tonight I had to keep an eye on Robbie. He was wasted and I had to keep him out of trouble.”

“I’ve told you before; I don’t like you hanging around with Robbie. Or Alec. I think they’re both trouble. Why don’t you find some good kids to hang around with?”

Jason now sits on the edge of the couch. “That’s just it Dad. They’re both my good friends. Since seventh grade.”

They both ease back in their seats and sit quietly, neither making eye contact.

Finally, Mr. Christiansen says, “Son, scripture says that ‘bad company corrupts good morals’. Do you understand what that means?”

I’m not an idiot. Of course, I know what it means. Jason knows his dad is right, but doesn’t answer him.

“It means that…”

“I know what it means, Dad. But there’s another scripture that says, ‘there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.’”

“Don’t start quoting scriptures to justify your behavior. You know I’m right.”

A noise comes from the kitchen area. They hear water run in the faucet and then the opening and closing of the dishwasher. And then a door eases shut.

Mr. Christiansen says, “Let’s tone it down. We’ll wake your mother.”

“I think we already did.”

“Tell me I’m not right, son.”

“But Dad, you’ve always taught me the most important quality in a friend is loyalty. What kind of friend would I be if I left Robbie alone at his worst time? He doesn’t normally get that way, but I think his parent’s divorce is bumming him out.”

“The Booker’s are getting a divorce?”

“That’s what Robbie told Alec and me. He acted really mad about it, but I think he’s torn up inside. I need to be there for him. I would want him to be there for me. Jesus said, ‘Greater love has no one than this that one lay down his life for his friends.’”

“Son, it’s good to see you’re learning the scriptures, and I can tell your debate class is really making an impact, but I still say you should find some good kids to be friends with. I’ve seen a number of kids your age at church. Have you tried to make friends with them?”

“Dad, I have my friends. If I waited around for only friends that were ‘good kids’”—Jason creates imaginary quote marks in the air with both hands—“I would be pretty lonely. Robbie and Alec aren’t perfect and have plenty of bad points, but so do the kids at church. And so do I. How am I going to make a difference in the world if the only people I hang around with are those from church?”

Mr. Christiansen sits back in his chair and sighs. “Son, I’m proud of you for sticking by your friends. You’re right, loyalty is important. But not calling and letting your mother and me worry all night was wrong. In that I’m disappointed.”

“Dad, I said I was sorry for not calling you. Whatever punishment you have for me, I guess I’ll have to take.”

“Let’s go to bed son. We can get in a few more hours sleep. We’ll talk some more after church.” His dad rises to leave. “I love you, Jason.”

“I love you too, Dad.”

Jason lies in his bed and the events from the past few hours keep running through his mind. He tosses and turns, unable to fall asleep. I’m glad I didn’t tell him about Alec and the drugs. Or about Robbie running around in his underwear. Or about the Winstons and Mom’s car. Mom’s car? Oh, great.

A Little Heathen’s 4th of July

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Once we outgrew the snakes, the next toys we indulged in were sparklers. Sparklers were much more exciting than snakes. The sparkler was basically a piece of wire, about nine inches long; that included a fuel, usually charcoal or sulfur (the same as black powder); an oxidizer, potassium nitrate for example; a binder such as sugar or starch, which when coated on the wire and dried, allow the substances to remain; and finally, the best part, the aluminum, iron, steel, zinc, or magnesium dust that creates the beautiful, bright, shimmering sparks. The metal flakes heat up until they are incandescent and shine brightly. Once lit, the sparkler shot out colorful sparks at a ferocious rate. They were best played with after dark, so you achieved the full effect of the fire and color.

Each of us ran to Dad with sparkler in hand (Dad had the matches; he probably didn’t think it was safe for us to have our own matches), and he lit each of our sparklers. Whereas we then ran around the yard flailing our arms around in circles, writing our names in the air, and getting as close to each other’s faces as we thought we could get away with, squealing and giggling the entire time.

Once we became good at it, we graduated to a sparkler in each hand, and then maybe two in each hand (if you tried to hold too many at a time, the sparks burned your hand). Besides the obvious, in the wrong hands these little toys had the potential to be quite lethal, in an inconspicuous way.

You see, when the sparkler had burned itself out, we tended to throw the remaining wire on the ground and run back to Dad to get our sparkler refill. Unfortunately, the discarded wire was still extremely hot, and as I mentioned in an earlier chapter of the book, we always ran around barefoot, especially during the summertime. A hot sparkler on the bottom of the foot ensured that in addition to squealing and giggling, there was loud screeching and one-legged hopping around to liven up the evening.

Dad, with a look of incredulity, turned to Mom and said, “Honey, what are those kids doing, jumping around the yard and screeching like that?”

Mom, oblivious to the reality at hand, “I don’t know, dear, I guess they’re just having a good time.”

Purchase your copy of Little Heathens here.

The Boat: When Alec Meets Mrs. Montgomery

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“I really like that top. What’s it called?” Awaiting Cassie’s reply, Alec reaches across the table and places his hand underneath the elastic forming the low, plunging neck line of her top. His fingers lightly rub the lacy bra underneath.

“It’s called a peasant top.” She gently removes his hand from her blouse. “Should we skip breakfast and go somewhere private?”

Before Alec answers, a voice interrupts.

“Would you two like to order something?”

The waitress has been standing there for minutes, but neither of them noticed her.

“Mom!” Cassie springs from her seat and embraces her mother. She points to Alec. “Mom, I’d like you to meet a good friend of mine. This is Alec Thornton.”

Alec’s face turns ashen and he feels his throat tighten. Cassie’s mother, the lady behind the counter and one of his clients, stands before him. He controls his breathing to remain calm, and the two of them lock eyes. He decides Cassie need not know of their arrangement and he hopes her mother feels the same.

He politely says, “Hello, Mrs.…Montgomery, I assume?”

“Yes, it’s Montgomery. Pleased to meet you, Alec.” The two shake hands. Alec relaxes for the moment.

Mrs. Montgomery sits down next to Cassie and they engage in small talk.

“I can’t talk but for a moment. I’m working until six. What are you two doing out so late, or up so early?”

Alec avoids her gaze and doesn’t react to her attempt at humor. He instead pretends to be interested in a conversation occurring in the next booth over.

“Alec picked me up at a party and he remembered me saying you worked here and he wanted to meet you. And we were hungry and this is the only place open this time of night.”

Alec catches Mrs. Montgomery’s eyes, but he’s having trouble reading her. He remains quiet as mother and daughter chit chat for a few more minutes.

Mrs. Montgomery, reacting to the man behind the cash register, stands, and with notepad in hand says, “What can I get for you two?”

Cassie says, “We’ll both have waffles with blueberry syrup.”

Mrs. Montgomery writes the order on her pad. “Anything else?”

Cassie turns to Alec, who faces in the opposite direction. “Alec, anything else?”

“I’ll have a cup of coffee. Black.”

Mrs. Montgomery closes her notepad. “It’ll be here before you know it,” and then disappears behind the counter.

Cassie frowns. “You weren’t very friendly. That’s my mom and you acted like she wasn’t even there. What’s wrong with you? You’re so moody.”

He may have messed up an opportunity for sex later on, so Alec attempts to repair the damage. “I’m sorry. I guess your mom intimidates me. Besides, I thought you two wanted to catch up.”

Cassie reaches across the table and runs her fingers across Alec’s forearm. “When we’re done eating, why don’t we go to the barn and see your boat. It should be private enough for us, don’t you think?”

The tension exited with Cassie’s mother, and Alec’s earlier good mood has returned. He’ll deal with the ramifications of this recent revelation at a later time.

The Boat: When Alec and Cassie Meet the Winston Brothers

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When they step onto the parking lot, Alec stops. His grip tightens on Cassie’s wrist and he points to a place on the other side of the lot. “See the pickup parked over there?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“You know whose pickup it is?” A scowl forms on Alec’s face.

“I have no idea.”

Alec spits out, “That’s the Winston brother’s truck. They’re the bastards who cut my tire and keyed my car. They weren’t in the restaurant, so where are they?”

“Maybe they parked their truck here and went off with someone else.”

Alec pulls Cassie along. “I have an idea. Follow me.”

Cassie resists. “Wait Alec. You told me earlier they’re dangerous. Why do you want to start something with them now?”

“I also told you they already started something, whether I wanted to participate or not. It’s time for some payback, and it starts tonight. If you don’t want to come, here are the car keys. You can wait for me there.”

Alec remains low and moves across the parking lot, maneuvering between parked cars and out of the light as much as possible. For a moment Cassie hesitates, but then follows behind.

Still a distance from the pickup, Alec glances toward the restaurant entrance. And then to the pickup. And back to the restaurant. He dashes between vehicles, in a serpentine movement, to the other side of the lot.

Reaching the side of the truck opposite the restaurant, in a dark secluded corner of the lot, Alec squats down and retrieves two small pieces of gravel. Duck walking to the front of the truck, he reaches down and gropes for the tire valve stem and removes the cap. He wedges the piece of gravel into the stem valve, which creates a hissing sound as the air in the tire slowly escapes. When the piece of gravel is firmly in place, he moves to the rear tire and repeats the operation.

Alec whispers to Cassie, “Do you hear the air? Put your head down here and listen.”

Cassie bends down. “Yeah. I hear it.”

“It’s going to take a while, but eventually both of these tires will be flat as a pancake and they only have one spare in the back of their truck. Bastards.”

Alec stands and pokes his head around the tailgate to steal a glimpse at the restaurant. “I don’t see anybody.”

Squatting down again, he visually inspects the surface of the lot.

“What are you looking for?” Cassie asks.

“A rock. One with sharp edges.”

Cassie scours another area of the lot with better lighting and finds a good size rock. She holds up her discovery. “Like this one?”

“Just like that.”

Kneeling alongside the truck, still hidden from view, Alec gouges a deep fissure in the paint, from the headlights to the rear bumper. When finished, he throws the rock into the woods and wipes his hands on his jeans. But he remains in place, motionless.

Cassie says, “What are we waiting for? Let’s get out of here. We’re going to get caught.”

“Do you have a piece of paper and a pen?”

Cassie removes her purse from her shoulder. “I might have something in here.”

As she digs through her purse, she comes across her “kit” wrapped in a scarf and glances up at Alec, but he’s watching the front of the restaurant and doesn’t notice. She pushes it to the side and continues searching.

“Will these do?” Cassie presents a Bic pen and a receipt from the QuikTrip.

“Yeah, that’s perfect.”

Alec takes the pen and receipt and scribbles out this note:

Nice truck, assholes. You two punks need to be on the lookout. You never know when you might be caught alone some night.

He places the note under the windshield wiper on the driver’s side.

“Let’s get out of here.”

Staying low, while weaving between parked cars, they arrive back at the Trans Am and climb inside. Alec instructs Cassie to lock her door and once they’ve determined it’s safe, they both burst out laughing at what they’ve pulled off.

Cassie inhales deeply and says, “Man that was fun. My heart is pounding. I haven’t—“

Alec catches his breath. “The fear of getting caught is half the fun. You think they’ll be surprised when they see what we’ve done?”

Cassie’s eyes widen. “What we’ve done? I didn’t do anything. You did all of it.”

“You found the rock. It’s your receipt and your pen. You’re as much in this as I am.”

Cassie freezes and her face whitens. “Is that them?”

“Where?” Alec’s eyes dart around the lot.

“Over by the truck.”

Alec peers out the window and sees two men standing next to the pickup, smoking cigarettes and chatting.

“Shit yeah, it’s them. Let’s get the hell out of here.”