Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Great expectorations

Before I get too deep into today's topic, I want to make one thing clear -- I love Houston, I really do. It's got a great job market, low cost of living, and mild winters. Sure, the traffic's bad, the air is polluted and the humidity could drown a lobster, but overall, it's a great city.

But when you get 5 million people together in one place, in one of the greatest ethnic melting pots in the world (Houston no longer has a "majority" ethnicity, just a whole lotta minorities that add up to 100% of the people), you're going to see some strange stuff. Which brings me to my topic today: spitting.

I was a baseball player, so I understand spitting. Didn't do it much, but I understood it. Build up some saliva, launch it forcibly into the air, and watch it fall on the field while giving the other team the evil eye. If done correctly, it can be quite intimidating. Done incorrectly, you'll get a wet spot on your uniform, but it dries quickly so it's not a big deal.

In Houston, though, I've seen lots of people spit. And they're not on baseball fields. No, these people are in their car. The process usually goes like this:

1) Car is sitting at red stoplight, driver opens door
2) Driver leans head out, spits onto the ground
3) Sometimes, but not always, the driver will look at the spit for a while
4) Driver closes the door and takes off normally when the light turns green

I've seen this happen at least 50 times in the past couple of years. I don't ever remember seeing it a single time while growing up in the Midwest, so I must ask... is car spitting a Houston thing? Is there something about this place that makes people generate extra saliva or phlegm?

And it's not just redneck Cowboys in pickup trucks either, oh no. In fact, a good portion of the expectorators have been Muslim women in full head scarves. I'm not kidding. These are women who would never dream of showing a little bit of ankle in public, but they'll lean out of an open car door and hawk a loogie at a major intersection. I have a theory that they're in the month of Ramadan and are taking their fast so seriously that they won't even swallow their own saliva, but I'm not sure. It's not the kind of thing I really feel comfortable asking them.

No point today, no moral to the story -- just an anecdote from big city life deep in the heart of Texas. I'm getting old enough now to begin recognizing my own ignorance, so I know there are many things in this world I'll never understand. Things like fractals, Hebrew verb tenses and why the French love Jerry Lewis. I guess it's time to add "mass spitting at stoplights" to the list.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Shave and a haircut... more wins?

This is a quick update on my previous entry, regarding superstitions. Among them was the idea that some guys don't shave while they're on a winning streak.

Well, Houston Astros players Jeff Bagwell and Brad Ausmus were two of the players who could light a match with their face, due to more than two weeks' worth of impressive facial hair. After losing the first two games of the World Series, Jeff and Brad have decided it's time for a change, so if you tune in to the game Tuesday night you will see that they have shaved down to just a goatee.

I felt like getting caught up in the spirit and joining them in their follicle pursuits, but there was one problem... I already have a goatee. Where do I go from here? I can't shave it all off, as it makes me look 12 years old and does me no favors in my career. Not to mention what it would do to my 2-year-old daughter -- she had enough trouble adjusting when I wore contact lenses on Saturday instead of my glasses.

Then, of course, I had to laugh at the irony of getting caught up in the very behavior I had satirized here in my blog. So now, I will not be joining in any kind of superstitious mumbo-jumbo, pretending that the things I do will have any effect whatsoever on how a team of professional athletes performs on the field. The Astros are down two games to none, and only a fool would think he could make a difference with his own little rituals at home.

So if you'll excuse me, I have to go put on my special Astros hat, which I've been saving for desperate times like this. I know what I said earlier, but c'mon... this is the World Series! It can't hurt, can it?

Friday, October 21, 2005

"Depend on the rabbit's foot if you will..."

Superstitions. Most people have held on to one or more of them at some time in their lives.

After playing organized baseball for over 20 years, I've seen more than my fair share of superstitions. One guy in high school wore the same t-shirt under his uniform for every game. Oh, that's no big deal, you say... lots of people do that. Well, except this guy thought it was bad luck to actually wash the t-shirt. I played on his team for two years. Nasty.

In college, there was a guy who had to eat chicken before every game. Another who had to do 100 push-ups every day during the season. You have guys who will never step on the foul line, for any reason. Others who step on it every inning on purpose. And guys like me, who don't really bother to look where they're stepping. But my bat had to be just right, my batting gloves had to be black and made by Franklin Co., and the undervisor of my hat usually had initials or a word to keep me pumped up (for an in-depth look at undervisors, see this link).

You can be sure you will see lots of superstitions in full effect during the World Series between the Astros and White Sox this weekend. The Astros have never been to the World Series -- the White Sox haven't been there since 1917. You'd better believe that whatever those guys have been doing over the past few weeks, they'll keep doing it, no matter what. If it means no shaving (true for Jeff Bagwell and Roger Clemens, among others), then we'll see a team full of lumberjack look-a-likes on the field. If it means beans for breakfast, then load 'em up and pass the air freshener, because these guys won't risk their good fortunes. I remember that KU basketball player Keith Langford brought two pairs of shoes to every game. If he played a good first half, his shoes stayed on. But if he played lousy, then adios to the Adidas, and out came the new pair for the second half of the game.

Surely this is just a crazy athlete thing, right? Surely I can't stretch far enough to apply any of this to spirituality, right? Well, you know what my dad would say to that: "I'm sure you can apply it to all kinds of things. And don't call me Shirley."

Don't worry; I won't make this too personal. Maybe you've just seen somebody who needs to sit in the same place at church every week. Or maybe you just happen to know a guy who insists on three songs, a prayer, two songs, communion, a sermon, then two songs and a prayer. And me, I've got this friend, see, and he only feels like he really "did" church if the communion servers all wear suits and ties.

Of course, nasty t-shirts, beans for breakfast or the right brand of batting gloves have never won a baseball game. Likewise, true worship is not about the number of songs, the placement of prayers or the attire of the members. We may take comfort from these things, but there's no substance there. God keeps it simple, but his demands are not easy. He just wants a heartfelt sacrifice of self. David makes it clear in Psalm 51:16-17 (see here).

Oh, I almost forgot, let me finish with the quote that was started in the title of today's blg entry:

"Depend on the rabbit's foot if you will, but remember it didn't work for the rabbit." -- R.E. Shay

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Do you want the ball?

My beloved Astros lost an absolute heartbreaker of a baseball game last night; a game that may go down as one of the most dramatic in postseason history. Now they have to go to St. Louis and win on visiting turf to get to the World Series. Houston has been waiting over 40 years to get to the World Series... no pressure, huh?

But athletes at this level don't worry about the pressure -- they thrive on it. I remember loving it when the game was on the line, and I was up to bat, or I was pitching. I lived for those moments. Times like that were why I played the game.

A few years ago, I was playing in a semi-pro league here in Houston. My wife Jamie and one of my friends (the Associate Minister at our church) were there watching, it was the final inning, two outs, tie game, and I was coming up to bat. As I walked to the plate, Jamie and our friend were right there across the fence. I looked at them, smiled, and took my place in the batter's box. She knew that the higher the pressure got, the more fun it got for me. When the game was on the line, I wanted the ball (or bat).

The Astros and Cardinals pitchers understand this. Earlier today, Cardinals pitcher Mark Mulder said, "You want to be out there in an important game and be that guy who has got to make the pitches and get the job done." He and his teammates want the ball.

What about at church? Like any organization, churches have their problems. How many members, when times get tough, want to get involved and help find solutions? How many would rather sit aside and watch as others work? How many want to sit and criticize without investing any of their own time and energy? If a church is to manage crises and make peace in tense times, it has to have a sizable pool of people who want the ball.

Paul loved to use sports analogies to illustrate spiritual truths in his New Testament writings. Likewise, the baseball playoffs continue to give me ideas of what it means to be a Christian in 21st Century America. Pretty soon the playoffs will be over. The Astros might win, they might not... the world will go on either way. But God's kingdom will continue to need workers. There will be people in pain, hungry families looking for a meal, heartbroken widows and widowers seeking a shoulder to lean on. There will be spiritual seekers of truth, jaded members questioning their faith, and confused teenagers looking for guidance (though they won't admit it). This isn't a game, it's real life. Usually it's messy, difficult and consumes a lot of energy. God's looking for someone to step up. Who wants the ball?

Thursday, October 13, 2005

A little Houston humor for ya...

A seven-year-old boy was at the center of a courtroom drama in Houston today when he challenged a court ruling over who should have custody of him. The boy has a history of being beaten by his parents and the judge initially awarded custody to his aunt, in keeping with child custody law and regulations requiring that family unity be maintained to the degree possible.

The boy surprised the court when he proclaimed that his aunt beat him more than his parents and he adamantly refused to live with her. When the judge then suggested that he live with his grandparents, the boy cried out that they also beat him. After considering the remainder of the immediate family
and learning that domestic violence was apparently a way of life among them, the judge took the unprecedented step of allowing the boy to propose who should have custody of him.

After two recesses to check legal references and confer with child welfare officials, the judge granted temporary custody to the Houston Texans football team, whom the boy firmly believes are not capable of beating anyone.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Potty Training and Grace -- Messy Lessons

My daughter Samantha is almost three years old now, and the past week has been a mostly-successful effort in potty training. She hasn't worn a diaper during daylight hours in several days, so my wife and I are very pleased. For almost four months now we've had two kids in diapers, and we're very ready to drop that back down to one.

But here's the thing. Every time Samantha has an accident, it's a total freakout. She screams, she cries, she absolutely loses control and gets beside herself with panic and frustration. We try to console her, but she's gone, in a world all to herself and far beyond the sound of our voices.

What she doesn't understand is that this is all part of the process! We knew she would have accidents -- all kids do. Unfortunately, what could have been a quick accident with a 30-second cleanup turns into a 30-minute exercise of consoling a distraught toddler. Why can't she just get over her mistake and move on with the day? Doesn't she realize that not only are we okay with the occasional mess, but we actually expected her to do this?

Then I thought about my relationship with God as Father, and me as the child. My life is a neverending training ground, and often I'm going to mess up. And often my mental image of God during these times is of a sinister old man, shaking his finger at me knowingly and ready to send lightning straight down into my cranial vicinity.

There's only one, teeny tiny problem with my mental image of God... it's dead wrong. Not only does He provide me with grace in my weakness, he actually expects me to sin sometimes. How could He not? After all, He's a pretty smart dude, and last time I checked, my odds of living even one sin-free day are pretty low. I'm approximately 0-for-5000 in living a sinless day since my teen years. So yeah, God expects me to mess up now and then; that's a given.

What I forget, though, is the importance of my response to sin. I have several choices:
1) Ignore it
2) Blame someone else
3) Recognize it, ask for forgiveness, and move on with God's work
4) Wallow in guilt, beat myself up, and basically lose dozens of opportunities to serve God because I'm too busy in my egocentric view that God is shocked by my imperfection.

Samantha's been choosing #4 quite a bit during potty training, and I found myself asking, "where did she get that???"

Don't you hate it when you ask a question like that, and God taps you on the shoulder, clears his throat, and raises an eyebrow at you?

Saturday, October 08, 2005

"When I was hungry, you gave me food"

In the New Testament, Jesus was pretty clear about feeding the hungry. In a nutshell, he's for it.

I had the opportunity this week to spend 4 hours doing volunteer work at the Houston Food Bank. What an incredible operation they have! It's amazing at a business and logistics level to watch how they train a constant stream of new labor, put them to work in a matter of minutes, and produce thousands of pounds of boxed food items every hour.

But what a shame to leave with only an impression of the efficiency. The important thing is how they serve those in need, mostly people affected by Katrina and Rita right now. Recent statistics revealed that the Houston area has served and/or shipped over 6 million meals in the last two months. The previous "record" was 2.5 million meals in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew.

It makes me wonder... how many of these servants are Christians? Or faithful/religious in any sense? I guess there are two main questions I'm mulling over:
1) How many Christians in the Houston area have been involved in hurricane relief efforts over the past several weeks? Are we following the example and instructions of Christ?
2) How many non-religious people have done relief work? And what drives them? If they don't believe in God, and we're all just random results of evolution, what special value does human life have anyway? To paraphrase one of my favorite preachers, if humans are only "molecules in motion", and there is no soul, no God, no absolute truth... why help people?

I know this is a millenia-old issue, and this certainly isn't the first time I've wrestled with it, but it came storming back into my mind while working at the Houston Food Bank.

Note: Half the workers there were convicts, getting a half-day prison leave to pack boxes of food. They had different reasons for being there.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Sports Nut

This was a weekend of sports firsts for my 2-year-old daughter Samantha. First we went to a local mall for some indoor mini-golf. The place scored extra points for being a blacklit, glow-in-the-dark course that gave away free bracelets after playing. On the 16th hole she scored a true 2, with no hands touching the ball and no nepotistic scoring system from daddy.

Later in the day we played baseball together for the first time. Baseball is my favorite sport, so this was an important event. While her hand-eye coordination is fledgling, her bat speed was tremendous! You can be sure that if/when she connects with the ball, it will go a loooooong way. At one point she said, "Daddy, I will teach you how to play now. You go like this." The lesson was very good, and much appreciated by daddy.

Speaking of Samantha quotes, here are a few other zingers from the past week:

-"Oooooh, a grasshopper! I ever so will not touch it."
-"Daddy, you're all naked!" (I had shorts on, but no shirt)
-"I'm going to touch your nipples now." (She did)
-"It does not fly anymore. It is very dead." (A butterfly she brought inside; her diagnosis was correct)
-"The elephant sings the night song." (I have no idea)

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