Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Saying Goodbye to my First Fishing Buddy

I lost an old friend this week. I wrote this for my outdoors blog, but I wanted to post it here as well.

It would have been the summer of 1971.
We moved into our house in February of that year, and I think that summer I got my first fishing rod and reel. I got it from the guy who sold sporting goods in the New Castle Farmer’s Market on weekends.
Not long after, Tommy Riccio, my neighbor across the street, took me to the secret fishing hole that the boys on my block all went to on summer mornings. They called it “Nonesuch Creek” and it’s not just a local moniker, it actually appears on maps of the area. A small little outcrop off the Christiana River, about three miles from our neighborhood.
It was tidal, and dirty, and smelled like diesel and dirt. We never caught anything but carp and catfish but that wasn’t really the point. We weren’t there for trophy fish or to catch our dinner. We were there being little boys. Fishing by ourselves, at a time in this world when little boys could jump on their bikes after breakfast, pedal three miles to their secret fishing hole, and spend the day in the sun, hidden from the nearby highway traffic, deep in a meadow that ran alongside this dirty little creek with the mysterious name.
We’d dug earthworms from our parents’ gardens the night before. We packed a lunch of bologna sandwiches and Cokes wrapped in aluminum foil, in a vain attempt to keep them cold, and we set out on our spider bikes.
Tommy Riccio was three years older, and it wasn’t many more summers before his interests in hanging with the younger boys on the block waned, and he discovered girls and KISS records, and we didn’t do much together anymore.
But for those first few years, he was one of my best friends, and my fishing buddy.
He was creative and funny and mischievous and smart. Like all my other friends on that block, Tommy added the color to my childhood that made it fun and in many ways, tolerable. Home wasn’t the happiest place, but out on the block, with my friends from Monroe Avenue gathered on the white block wall that ringed my yard…I was happy.
Tommy and I grew up, and moved on, but we’d run into each other now and then when I’d get home for a visit and it was always good to see him. Somehow, even after 45 years, I still held him just a little in awe. He was still special to me. They all are, those kids from Monroe Avenue. It is always good to run into my childhood friends and Tommy was no exception.
Tommy passed away unexpectedly last week and the news hit me hard. He’s the second of my close friends from childhood to go, and like Sheila six years ago, this is painful for me. I love his family and I loved Tommy. His mom and dad were always the two people I made sure I visited when I’d get home. His mom passed earlier this year and I still struggle to grasp that. Now Tommy joins her.
I keep thinking about Tommy and that fishing hole and those spider bikes and the time we dissected a bullfrog in his garage and it looked like a scene from a horror movie. I think about the first tree fort we built in the big sprawling oak behind the Ferraro’s house. How we’d tar-papered the roof and it was weatherproof and we would sit up there on rainy summer days and talk about what boys talk about, while the Phillies game was on a transistor radio we’d brought along.
I thought about how we’d all pile into my mother’s VW Beetle and head to the Chesapeake Bay, or to the Drive-In on a Friday night or to the haunted houses at Halloween and we’d all go through them together. One big gang of kids, all from the same dead-end street. Friends to the end.
I’ll be thinking of Tommy next spring, when the snows thaw and the James River runs fast and deep and I begin another season of fishing. The James is a far cry from Nonesuch Creek. It’s beautiful, clean, and surrounded by pristine mountains and the fish I catch are true trophies. It’s what I dreamed of when I was a little boy, fishing that dirty creek with my neighborhood friends. In every imaginable way, it’s better fishing than what Tommy and I experienced on Nonesuch Creek.
Or is it?
There won’t be three other boys there; bikes piled clumsily nearby, with a coffee can full of earthworms nearby and cork bobbers floating anxiously on the water.
We won’t be telling jokes and peeing in the bushes, and getting tanned and sweaty and dirty and enjoying just being out there with each other.
It will just be me. Floating a section of one of the most beautiful rivers I’ve ever seen, like I dreamed when I was a boy.
In my heart though, where the best memories live forever, Tommy will be there. He’ll be there laughing at my jokes, telling me a few of his own, casting to the best spot and watching that bobber with an eagle eye.
He’ll live on in my heart, this old friend of mine, and he’ll fish with me in those brief, flashing moments when I’ll think of him, and Johnny and Richard, with our rods and tackle boxes in our hands, pedaling our way down the path that led to our secret spot.
I can still see his face as it was when we were kids. He’ll laugh, he’ll cast his line in that perfect clear water next to mine, and then he’ll go back to the place in my heart where he’ll be forever.
Godspeed dear old friend.
I’ll see you on a bright Saturday morning next spring. You’ll come out from your place in my heart, and we’ll fish together for a few moments.
Hug your mom for me.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Dear Justin Beiber...please just go away

Justin Beiber.
I can barely even type the name without my skin crawling. The bad behavior. The crappy music. The posing. I admit to my disdain for this kid. My dislike is exacerbated by the fact that he openly claims Jesus.
His behavior has been so atrocious as to have been cornered and throttled by none other than Keyshawn Johnson for speeding through a residential neighborhood.  He’s groped women, allegedly drugged at least one, punched fans, pleaded guilty to a DUI and –if you believe the account of the pilot—forced his private plane to land because he was smoking so much weed in the cabin that the pilot was getting a contact high and didn’t feel safe to perform his duties.
About six weeks ago he cancelled the remainder of his “Purpose” tour and said he wants to focus on being a better person and working on his faith. Being a better person wouldn’t be hard…he’s pretty much a scumbag so anything he does to improve will look great by comparison.
So, we’ve established that I don’t like him. Here’s why:
I live in Lynchburg, Virginia now, but I spent 17 years in Nashville. I had a long run of bad experiences in Nashville and I admit it tainted the waters for me. Nashville is a very cool town with lots to do. But it has a seamy side that I hated. It is a town built on entertainment, after all, and there is a certain intrinsic danger to that. Nashville loves it’s celebrities. I mean loves them. Everybody loves posting on social media how they ran into Carrie Underwood at the car wash or saw the late George Jones at Nacho’s, a wonderful Mexican joint in Franklin where he used to go for dinner quite often. Everybody has their celebrity close encounter stories and they love dishing them out.
Pastors are not immune to this disease either. They never shy from mentioning the latest famous face to attend their services. And if a music star, or a famous author, (beside music, Nashville is a massive publishing hub) or an athlete from one of the pro sports franchises should actually call them their pastor…well, brother, you’ll hear about it soon enough.
I attended three churches during my 17 years in Nashville. The first was pastored by a wonderful godly man who was only slightly affected by the stardom of the town. He loved being friends with Christian musicians. He was a very accomplished musician himself and after forty years in ministry, knew quite a few of them. They came to visit, and often played in our church. He didn’t give them any special treatment and never hesitated to introduce them to congregants who were curious. I met Armand Morales through him because he knew I was a huge fan of the Imperials and sang bass in High School. He never cow-towed to the famous, but he sure loved when they stopped by.
The second church I attended was different. (I changed churches because I had bought a house about 25 miles away.)
It was an average sized church when I first attended, maybe 600 people. Then word got out about the music. (It’s never “Come here this pastor, Man! He can call down the fire! It’s “Come hear our music, the band is incredible!” Because it’s really about entertaining the masses, not preaching content) and word got out about the celebrities who started showing up because of the churches proximity to their neighborhood, and the numbers exploded. Within a few years, they were running about 5000 between the two Sunday services. You never knew which celebrity would show up next…but you always found out when they did because the pastor namedropped on social media. Oh, sure, it was the classic “Humble-brag:” something like this… “So blessed and honored to have [insert famous musician / athlete / politician] in our services this morning. God is good!” Then came the requisite selfie with the celebrity.
You couldn’t get five minutes with the pastor because his schedule was just so jammed. But if you were famous, oh man! “Clear the calendar and hold my calls, Gladys!”
God might have been doing something amazing in the life of Joe Average, but the pastor seldom found out because he was only concerned with the life of Joe Celebrity. It was as if James chapter 2 was entirely torn out of the bible.
The problem is that so many of these celebrities were new in their faith, or if they had been claiming Christianity for a long time, they were stunted because nobody ever dare call them to account. You can’t have Joe Celebrity on your speed dial and expect him to return your call if you were to ever hold him accountable, or preach a sermon against sin; particularly sin he might be committing. (This is why you never heard sermons in Nashville about divorce or drunkenness or adultery. It’s also why Nashville has the second highest divorce rate in the U.S. to go along with the most churches per capita) No way! You can’t run off those famous folks. They write big checks and even more…they add a glamour and air of importance to the pastor’s resume.
All this is in explanation of my issues with Justin Beiber.
First, there’s his Pastor. It’s like the guy is writing his own personal encyclopedia of bad / questionable behavior. Case in point: This is Beiber and his “pastor” Carl Lentz, doing shots in a bar in New Zealand: 

Now I can’t tell for sure, but the guy looks like Bono and George Michael had a love-child. Is there anyone more desperate for outward approval than this shallowman?
His track record is atrocious. I won’t delve into it here because this isn’t a Carl Lentz article but here is a link to one of the many informative stories about this guy. I’ll let you decide: Carl Lentz: Heretic?
So back to Beiber…
If he is serious about rededicating his life to Jesus, returning to the Faith he allegedly claimed as a child, and answering the prayers of a godly mom, I hope he’ll consider doing what Bob Dylan did.
Go away!
That’s right. Justin Beiber needs to go away.
Go away for a while. Hide from the public eye. Spend your “forty years” in the desert. Get ahold of someone who can really disciple you (not this poser you call a pastor. I mean how much discipline and training can you get from a drinking buddy more concerned with popularity than the Gospel?) and let them hold you accountable.
In the late seventies, Bob Dylan made a conversion to Messianic Judaism. He subsequently released three, very powerful, very direct Christian themed albums that rank among his best work. In the years since, he has not overtly written lyrics about his Faith, but it’s there if you’re listening. (Dylan has stated that he tends to keep his personal life out of his music and once he’s addressed a topic, doesn’t like to repeat himself. This is why he stopped at three Christian themed records)
Beiber needs to do the same. 
He needs to go away.
He needs to stop being seen in public, decide if he can really live without the fame and the accolades and the young girls fawning over him. He needs to see if he can really obey Jesus...not just love Jesus. He needs to feel how heavy that daily cross is, and decide if he really wants to carry it or not. he needs to see if he can say with John the Baptist: "He must increase but I must decrease." He needs to spend time with a man of God who will stick a finger in that tiny chest of his and say "Listen, dude...this is wrong what you're doing and you need to stop. You're disobeying Scripture and I don't give a rat's butt who you are!"
He owes Jesus this. He owes us this. The people who claim the same faith and name the same Name. He needs to decide whether he could live without booze and drugs and girls and the fame he so obviously craves. He needs to be stripped of everything he uses to define himself and let himself be transformed by the renewing of his mind.
He needs to get to a point where he says “I’m laying this down and I may never pick it up again."
That or he needs to never mention his faith again. Go slam shots with your poser buddy. Get arrested again. Grope women and irritate former football players. Write embarrassingly stupid things in the guestbook at the Anne Frank museum. Just don’t tell people you’re a Christian. Because you make us all look bad. And anyone who can make me look worse than I already am, is really doing it wrong.
Pastors…please, I BEG you, please don’t ask this kid to come speak to your church. Don’t hold him up as another reclaimed soul. Nashville…don’t give him a book deal and a record deal and a speaking gig. Not yet. Let him prove himself. Let him go a year or two without the bad behavior. Let him mature. Bob Dylan waited over a year before even mentioning his conversion, because he knew, and distrusted, the culture that holds famous converts up like trophies far too early in their spiritual life.
Justin Beiber should do this as well. If he’s serious, and this new chapter is the real thing, then I say “Thank God” and welcome him with open arms. But until then, he needs to take a cue from Dylan
…and just go away.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Jonathan Martin, Liberty University, and what cheap publicity looks like.

NOTE: *This is my personal blog. I've written here for years, long before I was employed by Liberty University. These are my personal thoughts and do not reflect Liberty's position in any way. I did not ask permission to write this, nor have I cleared it with anyone. I do not speak for Liberty University. I am an alumnus, I have a daughter at Liberty, and I work for Liberty in the IT department. These are only my opinions.*

Last week, “well-known pastor” Jonathan Martin was removed from the campus of Liberty University in what became a minor controversy that was troubling at first but soon went away.
We’ve heard the allegations from the Christian Left, (a term as contradictory as “Military intelligence” or “Office of Governmental Efficiency”) about how Martin was denied his free speech rights, how Liberty has secretly become the Devil’s playground, how Jerry Falwell Jr. is sacrificing small animals to a golden image of Donald Trump, and how he has sold his soul to the President. We’ve heard how jackbooted thugs roam the campus, extinguishing dissent and carting off anyone who disagrees with the administration. (That’s why he held on to The Annex even after Commons Three was opened…to isolate the infidels) We’ve heard from those trapped inside, how Jerry Jr. takes those diplomas that the handful of dissident alumni returned to him a while back, and tosses them into his fireplace, warming his hands over their hard-won degree and laughing menacingly while chanting an incantation. Any day now, we’ll get the news of their tragic demise on some inexplicably icy road, Jerry will smile a knowing smile and we’ll all understand what really happened.
Okay…enough with the nonsense.
I’m being my typical Philly-bred wise-guy here but honestly…to listen to the screeching voices of the attack dogs, my humorous description is spot-on. To listen to them, it really is that crazy.
To quote my beloved Mrs. Riccio from across the street where I grew up: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” Where do these people come up with this stuff?
I waited to jump in here because it’s smart to do that when things like this happen. I’ve learned from past mistakes not to go a-blogging when I’m still 140-over-95. (That’s a blood pressure stat for the uninitiated) So I sat on this, waiting to see who responded and how, and thought it over. I also wanted to research just who this Jonathan Martin guy is, anyway, because for a “well known Evangelical Pastor” he’s an unknown to me. Nobody I asked knew who he was either. Then again, people keep calling themselves “evangelical” when they are not. I feel like doing my best Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word…I do not think it means what you think it means.”
So, let’s begin, shall we? This is my opinion on this matter.
First of all, just who is Jonathan Martin?
Well as best as I can tell, he’s yet another liberal who is angry at the somewhat conservative thread woven in Scripture, has decided that God got it wrong, and wants to do something about it. I read his Bio page. I swear he copied it from every other “liberal Evangelical” out there. It reads exactly like Rob Bell’s, and Rachel Held Evans’ and Stan Mitchell’s, and …well you get the picture. Every self-described evangelical who supports gay marriage, socialism, declares every Republican a white supremacist, thinks BLM is doing God’s work, thought Obama was a good president, and believes the notion that everybody makes it to Heaven in the end, seems to like Jonathan Martin’s books.
I didn’t read them. I never will. I read a few parts on Amazon. I don’t need to eat the whole steak to know it’s spoiled. Let me summarize…
He is yet another “pastor” who thinks organized religion is bad, white people’s religion is even worse, (even though he is white) conservative white people are in league with the devil, Grace means “do whatever the heck you want and God will laugh and call you his son anyway.” Oh, and if you don’t fall in line with this view of his…he’s going to hold a protest on your private property and call out the demons he claims are holding you hostage.
Maybe this makes him even more nuts and more heretical than Bell, Evans, Mitchell and those folks, because at least they don’t attach demonic possession to those who disagree. Heck, even Calvinists / Reformists don’t do that, and they used to hold the title for the most spiritually smug.
So, last week, Jonathan Martin, (who conveniently has a new book out, and as a struggling author I can tell you, publicity- even bad publicity--makes people curious about your book. If you can somehow make yourself into a victim, even better!) decided to come to Liberty to hold a “protest” on our campus. In front of the library that bears the name of our founder, Dr. Jerry Falwell Sr. He wasn’t invited, he never asked permission, he sent out word through social media to organize some dissenters among the student body, you know…like Antifa does.
His big protest rally was supposed to happen on Tuesday morning and the evening before he shows up on campus and takes in the “Johnnyswim” (who??) concert in our music hall. Let me reiterate: Our music hall. He gets invited backstage to the green room to visit the band because A: they were apparently friends of his and B: and this is strictly conjecture on my part, they were perhaps in on this whole thing.
So, word gets out, (I’m guessing that he was already on the “campus banned” list from his multiple social media posts and they were just waiting for the opportunity to serve him notice) LUPD finds him backstage and they escort him out.
Of course, the dude from “Johnnyswim” (who??) posts videos about how “armed officers came to our dressing room!” and escorted him out.
With firearms!
The nerve!
Then he said they got him outside and “shined flashlights in his face!”
At night!
Those animals!
Then “Johnnyswim” (who??) says they’re donating their proceeds to some worthy cause and asks their fans to tweet them suggestions. I’m surprised they didn’t give it to the Clinton Family Foundation…’cause that’s what libs do.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Martin is making all manner of publicity hay with this one. Dude can’t wait to post pictures of his warning, tell everyone how abused he was, how he was  bum-rushed from campus, how God told him to protest Liberty and to wage warfare against the demons running rampant on Liberty Mountain, and of course, to offer interviews to every outlet that would stick a microphone in his face or return his phone call. And being Liberty, everyone wants dirt, so there was no shortage of stories run about this outlier. Oddly enough, every story mentioned he is an author and has a new book out, many of them even included a link to that book on Amazon.
As an author, I would have to wonder if anyone was buying my books because they were actually good, or was it because I just puked myself all over the news by grandstanding and using spiritual warfare as the backdrop?
Call me crazy, but I’d prefer my work stands alone on it’s merit and not because I carefully selected an enemy that would get me a lot of press.
So…that’s my wise-guy recap on last week’s events. Now let me dissect it all…
Again, these are my opinions here. I am a Liberty Alumni, a parent of a Liberty student, and I work at the college. I am NOT writing on behalf of Liberty University, these opinions are not theirs, they have not read this or screened it. This is just my blog, and my thoughts on a Sunday morning. Here we go.
Jonathan Martin had no inherent right to just show up on campus and protest. It’s private property first of all, and nobody has that right. We’ve had a very broad spectrum of speakers here, some of whom I disagreed with and wished we hadn’t allowed to speak. But they were invited, and / or asked permission. Nobody snuck on campus and started organizing protests. This isn’t pirate radio or Berkeley in 1968. I have a daughter here and I don’t want her education being interrupted by anyone…much less some guy casting out imaginary demons in front of the library. Capice? Look…if you ask, you will at least be considered. Heck we had Vermin Supreme here last year.
 (Not in Convo, but he was permitted to come speak in an open forum one evening before the election) We’ve had any number of preachers who are only that because they say they are. We’ve had politicians, comedians, business leaders, authors, movie makers. 
We had Rudy here last year and he was a rabid Hillary supporter.

As for those who say free speech is stifled on campus…
I can’t speak for professors or anyone else here. But I don’t feel that I risk losing my job for every post I put on social media. I think I should be about as careful as I would be in any other employment situation. It’s no more or less an issue here than anywhere else. I have read articles by our folks and thought to myself how very much I disagree with them, how very much they aren’t exactly quoting the “company line” and yet they are still teaching here. Nobody is vanishing overnight. At least not that I can see. If you have an issue with leadership, there is always a means to voice that issue. That’s what a board of trustees is for. Organizing a protest to exorcise demons is not how it gets done.
About those alumni returning their diplomas…
I never really understood this action. Not from Liberty students or anyone else. What is it that you think you’re achieving? You worked hard for that, and unless your degree is in college administration, how is it even related? Colleges don’t give money-back guarantees, so sending your diploma back isn’t going to get you anything. Oh wait…it gets you mentioned in a news story.
As for Jerry ignoring the alumni…
I’m wondering what it is Jerry owes me as an alumnus? Seriously. This is Liberty University, not the “Evangelical Higher Education Collective.” I paid my money, hit the books, and Liberty held up it’s side of the bargain. Jerry’s obligation to me as an alumnus is to move the school forward, keep the doors open, and as much as possible, advance his dad’s vision and his own, for my beloved alma mater. If Liberty were to fail financially or academically, do you think they’d blame the alumni?
There is a board of trustees in place for oversight and, given as how we’re doing just fine where a lot of colleges are foundering…I’d say they’ve earned my trust.
I’m free to voice my opinions, concerns, suggestions, whatever. But Jerry doesn’t owe me his ear. He has a college to run.
Does this mean I am in lockstep with everything I see on campus? No. Not entirely. I’m older. I’m a bit curmudgeonly these days. I find myself yearning for the “good old days.” There is a generation gap and I’m on the other side of it. I get that. But we have good kids on our campus and our leadership has yet to fail them. They’re doing fine and I feel a whole lot better having my daughter here than at some state school. Besides…It’s my job to train her spiritually…not Liberty University’s. They add to what I did for 18 years.
Does it bother me that Jerry supports Trump? Oh, heck no! But then, I fully support Trump. But even if he had supported someone else, that doesn’t concern me. He does his job here and who he supports for president doesn’t affect how he does that job. There are no pro-Trump rallies on campus. There are no pro-anybody rallies in fact. Except Jesus. Jesus is still numero uno around here and that’s really the essence of this whole thing.
We alumni need to step back and ask ourselves if we seriously believe that Liberty should never, ever make decisions that we disagree with. Do they owe us that? Okay…if they were really crossing into heresy I’d say yes. But Jerry’s support of Trump, or the school refusing to allow a guy to hold a protest against the school on school grounds, or the occasional speaker who doesn’t pass my personal muster…none of those things means Liberty is selling out, failing, abandoning her roots or forgetting her history.
Liberty is doing fine. I’m here every day. I see it. We’re in good hands both with Jerry and with those under him. I am more impressed every day with the spiritual depth of those I work with. And those I work for. I’m glad my daughter is here and from my perspective, if I have grandchildren someday, I’ll feel good about them coming here as well. Everybody take a deep breath.