A teacher named Mr. Chiavetta

Awkward me with braces toward the close of 8th grade.

In seminary, a prof once instructed the class: “Think back to when you were in junior high.” A student raised his hand and asked: “Do I have to?”

Many feel that way. Junior high – now often called “middle school” – is that awkward in-between time. You’re no longer a young child, but you’re not yet an adult. Living in the cracks can be excruciating.

A few years ago, I not only thought back to junior high; I went back. In the village of Spencerport, New York, I drove by what used to be Ada Cosgrove Junior High (now the high school). I thought back to the 8th grade day when my world fell-in. Did a close relative die? Was there a fatal car accident? No – there was nothing as dramatic as that. But in the world of an 8th grader, being ostracized is a punch in the stomach. The injury occurred when around the lunch table a friend launched a verbal assault:

We don’t want you at this table. Why don’t you just go sit somewhere else?

It had already been a rough year. I’d been bullied relentlessly in social studies class, a special agony for a bright but sensitive and slightly built boy terrified at the prospect of a fight. My friend’s cutting words over lunch were the last straw. I stood up and – half-dazed – made my way down the hallway toward the music room.

Mr. Chiavetta was the 8th grade guitar teacher. My clumsy fingers never mastered the instrument, but he didn’t seem to mind. He’d patiently shown me the basic chords and encouraged me. What’s more, I knew that he was a follower of Jesus. His door was open that fateful day, so I slipped into the music room where he greeted me warmly. “Mr Chiavetta, do you have a minute to talk?” I wondered. “Sure, Greg, what’s troubling you?” Knowing I was in a safe place, I broke down in tears and told him what had just happened in the cafeteria and what a discouraging year it had been. He listened kindly, and when the emotional blister was lanced, he prayed with me. That day, his name wasn’t Mr Chiavetta. That day, his name was Jesus.

There’s a lot of talk about public schools these days. Saboteurs have never been stronger. Yet on that day, a troubled boy found courage to go on because an underpaid 8th grade public school music teacher showed up for work. As a Christian, he spoke comforting words in my heart language. To this day, I’m grateful.

There are many public school teachers like Mr Chiavetta, people of Christian faith who are society’s unsung heroes. This essay is for them. You matter. When politicians cut your budgets, when some would rather inscribe “abandon all hope ye who enter here” over your school-house door, when the hours are too long and the rewards seem too few, please  stay. You made a difference for me and you still make a difference for many.

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The power of modeling

DatsunThe stick shift stood tall, like a bully daring me (the punk) to step over a chalk line. Sure, I had my driver’s license, but I had passed my road test with our family car, an automatic. This was different. At 17, this was my first car, a 1973 Datsun 610, and this was no automatic. This was a four-on-the-floor. The price had been reasonable and the decision to buy the economical two-door sedan seemed wise at the time, but now I wondered: What had I done?

It was Sunday night. Early Monday morning, I was to report to the grocery store across town for my first day on the job. Thankfully, all is not lost when you have an amazing Dad. With me riding shotgun, he drove my Datsun to the empty parking lot of a nearby department store. He could have immediately switched spots and told me how to drive a standard, but for now, he had a better plan. “Watch me, Greg” he advised. Then patiently he modeled how left leg and right hand work together to clutch and shift. First he showed me, and then later – behind the wheel myself – I imitated his actions. A punk no more, an hour later, I drove us back home. The bully had been defeated.

Driving stick shift isn’t the only area in life where modeling is powerful. It is just as important when it comes to Christian faith. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, was direct: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1, NIV). Youth are meant to observe those who are older. The sobering question is:

What are we modeling?

Foul language, harmful habits, and infidelity play out on the family stage. The saying is true: “Little pitchers have big ears,” but children also have open eyes. When they see us modeling negative things, they will pattern their own lives accordingly. The apple rarely falls far from the tree.

Thankfully, the power of modeling can be turned in a positive direction. Riding along with his parents, a six-year-old boy piped up from the back seat. “Daddy,” he said, “I’m going to be just like you. I’m going to be a Christian, and I’m going to be a pastor.” A smile came across the young father’s face. I felt honored to witness a sacred moment.

Singing about a father’s influence on his son, Philips, Craig and Dean pray:

Lord, I want to be just like you, ‘cuz he wants to be just like me.

Mothers also model confident living for their daughters. Providing a pattern of egalitarian marriage is a godly heritage that young girls can admire. They in turn will seek out men who understand and practice the mutually beneficial synergy of teamwork.

As for families, so for faith. St. Francis of Assisi reminded us: “Preach always. When necessary, use words.” We learned in first grade during “show and tell” that showing beats telling every time.

Who’s watching you? What are you modeling? May God give us grace to lead lives that others will want to imitate.

On Houston airports and Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown, a well-loved cartoon character created by Charles Schulz
Charlie Brown, a well-loved cartoon character created by Charles Schulz

We theologize a lot about prayer. It touches so many aspects of who God is and God’s interaction in the world.

Sometimes we say that God responds “yes, no, or wait.” But have you ever had a moment where “no” or “wait” simply weren’t going to cut it? You had to have “yes” or else something irretrievable would be lost?

Times like that are faith building.

In Matthew 7:7, Jesus made it simple:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you”(NASB).

What prayers have you whispered – or shouted – in desperate moments, and God replied with a resounding and timely “YES!”?

Here’s my story. Share yours in the comment thread.

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In March 2009, Amy and I were about to move to Kenya following a 3 year hiatus in our missionary service. I was asked to come to Nairobi for the Africa Regional Leadership Conference. At the same time, our younger son, Brad, was in his senior year of high school in Bethany, Oklahoma. He had already participated in several school plays, but this time was different. The play was “You’re a good man, Charlie Brown,” and he had the lead role. He was Charlie Brown.

Thankfully, I was able to book my return plane flight to be back home in Oklahoma City just in-time for the final performance. Little did I know that the airline had other ideas. At London Heathrow, the plane was delayed for almost 2 hours. What was to be an easy connection in Houston, to catch my final plane back to OKC, now would be hopelessly tight.

Many hours later, we landed in Houston and pulled up to the jetway. I looked at my watch. I had exactly 30 minutes until the connecting flight to OKC took off. Waiting nervously for the carousel at the baggage claim to start moving, almost in a panic – How could I miss his last performance? This was my son! – I prayed a hurried prayer:

“God, you know that I NEED to be at that performance. Smooth the way in this airport. Help me to make that plane!”

No sooner had I prayed when the belt started moving, and the very first suitcase that came out? It was mine,  unheard of on a crowded international flight. Score one for God.

Excusing myself profusely, and explaining that I had to make my son’s final high school play performance, I elbowed my way to the front of the long line in the passport control area as people gladly let me pass. They seemed to understand. I told the immigration officer why I was in such a desperate hurry and to what terminal I was headed. He glanced at his watch, stamped my passport, and handed it back to me with these words:

“You’ll never make it.”

That only motivated me more. Pulling my two bags, I ran all out-of-breath to the train that connects the international to the domestic terminal. After only 1 minute, the train pulled up and I climbed on. Exiting the train, I dashed to the escalator to the lower level, realizing I had a mere 6 minutes before the plane off. They were announcing the final call for my flight.

At the bottom of the escalator, one of those motorized cars for the elderly and disabled was waiting. Though I’m neither elderly nor disabled, I explained that I was on the OKC flight. The driver threw my suitcases on board, and told me: “Hop on!” Horn blaring and red beacon flashing, we hurried to the gate. Thanking the driver, I handed the agent my boarding pass and rushed down the jetway. Stepping onto the plane, there was only one seat left empty, my own. As I collapsed exhausted into my seat,  the plane door closed and we began to taxi. I  made it! A sincere “Thank you, Jesus” quietly escaped my lips.

Any one of those quickly executed steps along the way in that busy Houston airport that March day would have been surprising enough, but only a loving and powerful God could have orchestrated them together, and all so that a proud Dad could make the final play performance of his amazing son.

5 things my boyhood church did right

Rochester (NY) Zone Junior Quizzing team, circa 1971
Siblings, unite! Rochester (NY) Zone Junior Quizzing team, circa 1971. L to R: Mark Crofford, Val Clemens, Phil Clemens, Greg Crofford

There’s a lot of second-guessing happening on the internet these days, popular bloggers lamenting how the church is failing “this generation.” So to balance out all the hand-wringing, indulge me a retrospective on my own growing up years. Here are 5 things my boyhood church did right:

1. Simple preaching – Reverend Morris Wilson never had more than an 8th grade education, but he had a call to preach. His sermons were not complicated, but they connected. He knew how to laugh and how to make us cry. Reverend Wilson (no one dared call him “Morris” – that would be disrespectful) was a master at holding things up to sanctified ridicule: “Some people say this. I say that’s applesauce.” Or to motivate us, he would chide: “It’s time to get off our blessed assurance and get busy.” It was direct, loving and anointed. It’s hard to beat that combination.

2. Adults included kids – My parents went to choir practice at 5 p.m. and the evening service didn’t start until an hour later. At 5:30 p.m. some of the old saints would gather for prayer in the “upper room” over the gymnasium. Tired of running around in the hallways with my brothers, around 12 years old, I climbed the stairs to the upper room one Sunday evening and asked if I could pray with them. They welcomed a boy when they could have chased me away. I remember the prayers of those saints, as they prayed for the pastor, cried for lost loved ones, and asked God to send a revival to our church. Those prayers from Mr and Mrs Whitman, Mr and Mrs Laird and others impacted my young life. They taught me to trust God for things small and large.

3. Bible quizzing – My mother, Marilyn Crofford, was our indefatigable Jr. Quizzing coach, and from the age of 7 I remember studying books of the Bible. We had cardboard boxes with cards numbered 1 to 4, shipped from the Nazarene Publishing House in Kansas City, and we’d pull the card that corresponded to the right answer to the question (see b & w photo above). Later this became teen quizzing as I did my best to follow in the footsteps of my older brothers. By the time I graduated high school, I had memorized large swaths of the New Testament. Quizzing taught me the importance of team work, and much of the Scripture I quote to this day first lodged itself deep within me during those long hours of study. Back then, I was working for a trophy to put up on the mantle next to my brothers’. Those trophies are long gone, but the benefits of digging into Scripture linger.

past_47
World Bible Quiz, 1981 – Our Upstate NY District team took first place!

4. Visiting people at home or in nursing homes –  My dad wasn’t a pastor, but he took his job as Sunday School teacher seriously. Some Saturday mornings, he’d go calling on absentees, and he’d take me along. By doing so, he taught me something about shepherding. Or at Christmas time, the children’s church leaders would load us kids up in the bus and we’d go visit old folks in nursing homes. One Christmas, I got to sing a solo on “Away in a Manger.” Those nursing home visits taught us to remember the marginalized, people who otherwise might be “out of sight, out of mind.”

45 rpm record, with one song on each side
45 rpm record, with one song on each side

5. Right and wrong – When I was just 8 or 9, I remember one morning in Sunday School when Nada Rogers, my teacher, played a 45 record for us. (Alright, I’m dating myself with this story.) Something came over me that day, and I just had to have that record! Reaching in my pocket, I pulled out the 35 cents my dad had given me for the Sunday School offering. “Mrs Rogers,” I said, “I want to buy that record from you.” “It’s not mine, she said, so I can’t sell it to you.” But I wasn’t so easily dissuaded. I kept nagging her until finally she said: “Greg, for me to sell something to you that doesn’t belong to me would be wrong. Do you understand?” That day, she taught me an important lesson. There is such a thing in this world as right and wrong. There are boundaries that God has laid down, and they are there for a reason.

Does this mean my boyhood church was flawless? Far from it! Academic Dean emeritus Donald Young of Eastern Nazarene College once quipped: “I’m glad the church isn’t perfect. If it was, they wouldn’t let me in.” But for all it did wrong, my church did a lot of things right. What’s more, I suspect what was true in the 1970s is no less true in 2014. What good things is God up to in your church? Tell the world!

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Image credit: EPier.com

Progress report – Day 41

My Avalanche AX 175
My Avalanche AX 175

New Year’s resolutions – remember those?

In the spirit of accountability, indulge me this post today. Rewinding to the end of 2013, I resolved four things:

1) To love my wife even more;

2) To go deeper with God;

3) To keep my mind sharp;

4) To keep my body strong.

Loving my wife more than ever – I’ll have to let Amy grade me on how I’m doing. Lord knows I’m far from the perfect husband, but I can say this: I’m more convinced than ever that on 1 June 1985 when I took my marriage vows with Amy – other than the day when I was 7 and said “yes” to Jesus, deciding to follow Him – those vows that day in June were the best decision I’ve ever made. Can I say that 4 days before Valentine’s  Day?

On going deeper with God – My following a reading through the Bible in a year has made me hungrier to know my Lord (Phil. 3:10). But this year, I’m glad that others are coming along for the journey. If you read French, check out my “30 Minutes avec Dieu” journal.

As for keeping my mind sharp – Besides the theological reading that feeds this blog, I’ve found that reading things non-theological has been refreshing. I’m enjoying my daily dose of news sites, especially nbcnews.com, csmonitor.com, slate.com, and theatlantic.com. Right now, I’m reading Theodore Boone: The Accused by Grisham and A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The Kearns-Goodwin tome is a big one, and I’m on a slow read of 3-5 pages per day at bedtime. It’s a well-written book, and I love history.

The toughest one has been “keeping my body strong.” At 50 I’m in the AARP zone, but I refuse to be an old 50! When I’m at home, it hasn’t been a problem getting out on the bike and riding for 15-20 minutes in my hilly neighborhood, although the first few days were a killer. (Thanks go to Claude, my neighbor,  a biking aficionado and brother in Christ who rode with me twice and gave me some good tips, helping me avoid what he called the “heresy” of stopping and walking my bike. Did Claude know the right word to choose, or what?) Rainy days have called for some adjustment, and three times I’ve made a little indoor track of our living room and dining room, walking fast instead of biking. On those days, I’ve had to remember that the goal is not riding a bike. The goal is getting and staying fit. It sure is easy to confuse the means with the end! (Hmmm, there might be another blog post in there somewhere…)

Through these 6 weeks, a passage keeps coming to mind:

No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:13-14).

With all this striving, I’m glad that my acceptance with God does not depend upon my imperfect effort. Now more than ever, I’m glad for the grace of God, the unmerited favor that reminds me when I fall short, that’s O.K. God’s love and my acceptance with Him do not depend upon my performance. Still, I’m also glad for the other kind of grace, God’s power at work in me. I’m reminded of one of my favorite scenes from the movie, Hoosiers. Scott, the average basketball player who rarely is in the limelight, has a close walk with God and prays before games, kind of a precursor to Tim Tebow. His dad is the team chaplain who is also a local preacher. In the key part of the game, Scott comes off the bench and starts stringing together two pointers.”What has gotten into you?” the coach asks. “It’s the Lord,” Scott replies.  “I can feel his strength.”

I’m feeling a lot like Scott these days. It’s a good place to be, and all the credit goes to Jesus.

Next progress report: May 2014

What are your strengths?

Body_Coach_Dumbbell_set_10_kg_innerLast week, we had a two day seminar on the Strength Finders program by Gallup. Following an extensive questionnaire, Gallup determined that – out of 34 possible strengths – my top 5 are:

1. Achiever

2. Intellection

3. Context

4. Input

5. Learner

Achiever means that I don’t feel good at the end of the day unless I have in some way been productive. It also means that I often have a gnawing sense that I could have done more. This is the ghost of the unanswered e-mails, the pending projects, etc. Achiever has an upside (i.e. several earned degrees), but the “shadow side” for me means finding it hard to relax.

Intellection means processing things mentally. This requires space and time. I’m typing this on a blog, probably a pretty good indicator of intellection!

Context signifies wanting to know the background to a situation before acting. It’s the historian’s gift, and can be very helpful, as long as wanting to know background doesn’t become an excuse not to act.

Input and learner go together. It is collecting and classifying data, as well as hunger to know more about the world. Like context, the shadow side of these strengths might be paralysis, or simply categorizing data rather than using them for some good purpose.

Since we did this activity in a group, each of us wore a name badge listing our top 5. It’s a helpful tool for teams, as we seek mutual understanding and for leaders as they assign tasks to team members in-light of their strengths.

I like how Strengths Finder focuses not on who I am not, but rather on who I am. When I know where I’m strong I can maximize those abilities for the best possible impact.

Are you interested in discovering your strengths? You can check it out on Gallup’s website.

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Image: Sport Bay

Last-place finish

cross_countryThis essay, based upon a cross-country meet in the autumn of my first year in high school, appeared in the Standard for August 9, 1992. I have no photo from the event, but this pic from a recent Pennsylvania meet evokes my own experience as a young man in Spencerport, New York.

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Dark clouds loomed overhead, threatening to turn the high school cross-country meet into an impromptu swimming competition. At last, skittish officials called runners to the starting line. A shot from the starting gun cracked the misty air. The race was on.

While we jostled for early position, my mind hurried back in time, even as my body advanced with smooth strides. Academically, the year was off to a good start. I ranked near the top of my freshman class, but my longstanding awkwardness in things athletic grated on my self-esteem like a coarse wool sweater. The previous summer, I determined to scratch the itch or die trying. An early day in September, I boldly laced on my factory-fresh blue Nike trainers and made for the locker room.

Friends had warned me of the rigors of racing, and their advice proved accurate. The first athletic “Everest” consisted of eight consecutive timed miles. Our drill-sergeant coach barked out impatient orders as he pushed our bodies to the edge of endurance. Hard work in practice paid off; my race times improved from meet to meet. Soon there were some on the team I managed to outrun. Still, I envied those runners who placed high in the standings and could cheer others as they entered the chute and crossed the finish line. Improvement notwithstanding, I usually got no more than a bird’s-eye view from the other end of things!

A sharp elbow from a teammate snapped me out of my daydream, and I set myself squarely to the task at hand. Two and one quarter miles later, the verdict was in. Unfortunately, the puddles turned out to be the only unique aspect to this latest effort. I crossed the finish line about two-thirds back in the pack.

Most runners quickly donned their sweat suits and headed for the buses, anxious to get warm and dry. Spectators became fewer, so no one seemed to notice one mother who stood at the mouth of the finish chute. Scanning the distant field with a hand over her eyes, her facial expression betrayed the worry she felt. Could there be someone still out on the course? I thought. For several minutes she kept up the vigil, starting at the slightest movement upon the horizon.

Moments later I spotted the object of her concern. In the distance, a bobbing figure was approaching. It became obvious from his halting stride that this youngster was in a great deal of pain. As he drew closer, the strained expression on his face bore eloquent testimony to the difficult run it had been. Drawing on all the strength he could muster, the boy’s determination was outdone only by the encouragement of his devoted mother. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she yelled through cupped hands: “Come on, Johnny! You can make it! You’re almost here!” Exhausted, he stumbled the final few yards, then fell headlong into the warm embrace of his mother’s arms. I overheard the tender words: “You made it, Johnny! I knew you would. I love you, son.”

Slowly, I walked toward the team bus and took my seat among my companions. The miles swept by while I replayed the scene in my mind’s eye. Soon I pondered a different type of race, but a race nonetheless. The apostle Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 9:24 of the Christian race: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize” (NIV).

Children of God have a clear course marked out before them. For sure it is not all roses; the narrow way never is. There are swirling streams to be forded, jagged roots that must be sidestepped, and sharp inclines to mount. At the times the Christian runner even falls flat on his face, mocked by the elements around him. When you face lands in the mud, there is but one thing to do: Get back on your feet, and in God’s power, press on. The finish line is still up ahead.

By most people’s standards, Johnny was a lousy runner. No crowds lined the chute to cheer his last-place finish. No blue ribbons or “great job!” pats on the back awaited him. Yet somehow I sensed that for mother and son at that moment, nothing could be more of a reward than the unfeigned love between them.

The cross-country season ended, and with it my fleeting dreams of running stardom. But the lesson for life learned that rainy Saturday in October lives on. From the view of many I meet, I’m so far back in this world’s race you could even count me out. There will be no great accolades from dignitaries, no medals of commendation for a hasty “rise to the top,” no Nobel peace prize or prime-time television interviews. Last-place finishers don’t guest host “The Tonight Show.” However, with sheer confidence I can say I’m “running to win the prize.” And when I finally get to the finish chute, I suspect everyone will have already boarded the buses and gone home. Everyone except One, that is. His name is Jesus, and when I fall exhausted into his outstretched arms, he’ll put the first-place crown on this last-place finisher. That will be worth it all.

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Photo credit: The Patriot News