Thursday, February 26, 2009

My Brother, My Friend

To the outside world we all grow old. But not to brothers and sisters. We know each other as we always were. We know each other's hearts. We share private family jokes. We remember family feuds and secrets, family griefs and joys. We live outside the touch of time. ~Clara Ortega

The dynamics of family are certainly interesting, to put it mildly. The dynamics of my relationship with my brother and his relationship with me were, at least to my thinking, unique. My brother and I were both close and far apart. A strange dichotomy, to be sure – distant, yet somehow near. Now, as the distance lengthens, so does the nearness of the memories that we shared.

Gone are the days of wild adventures while being babysat by my big brother (I could write a book on his babysitting alone). Gone are the days of cruising with him and his girlfriends (as a pint-sized chaperone) to the A & W Drive-in for a frosty mug of root beer. Gone are the days of Snakes and Sea Creatures getting loose in the backyard much to the horror of our Mom. Gone are the days of building foxholes and booby traps for War games in the field behind the church on 237th Street. Gone are the days of playing Monopoly, Mastermind and Trivial Pursuit together. Yes, those days are gone forever, but they are not forgotten. They have been relived again and again in my mind for the past week.

I can still hear Mike’s voice. I can still hear Mike’s laugh, also. I can’t even imitate it, (I’ve tried), but I can definitely hear it. It was a part sardonic, part amusement, low-pitched, semi-growled and semi-grunted, bawdily-tinged laugh that was uniquely all his own. It almost always caused me to laugh. In fact, when we were together, I think he liked to "crack-wise," (real old-school term!), just to try and make me laugh. I’m smiling now as I think about it.

I appreciate the smiles and the laughter that Mike brought to me. It just all ended too soon. Unfortunately for me, the time has come that I have to say farewell. I will always love him. He remains embedded in my heart, my mind and my memories. He truly was his own person. He was smart, interesting, and one-of-a-kind.

He was my brother. He was my friend.

Blessed is the servant who loves his brother as much when he is sick and useless as when he is well and can be of service to him. And blessed is he who loves his brother as well when he is afar off as when he is by his side, and who would say nothing behind his back he might not, in love, say before his face.
~St Francis of Assisi

Monday, February 23, 2009

Winds of Wonder

After a challenging several days, I felt zapped and sapped entering into our monthly iPray prayer meeting at Cornerstone on Sunday evening. I preached Sunday morning to the surprise of just about everyone. Though I feel that the content was good and needed, hindsight being 20/20, I should have taken a “day-off” from that part of ministry. It’s quite difficult to deliver the positive life-transforming gospel of Jesus Christ when you are in the midst of dealing with tragedy.

Last night, Karlene and I came to the church early before the prayer service where I made my way to the altar and fell on my knees feeling as though a 10-ton weight was on my shoulders. The combination of personal, professional, and spiritual issues all seemed to be crashing upon my life – all at once. Actually, I seemed to be crashing under the heaviness of so many internal and external circumstances converging like the perfect storm.

Karlene began the prayer service with me still praying at the altar. I arose and made my way to my office where I washed my face, attached my microphone and headed back to the sanctuary for the prayer service.
As soon as I walked through the door, tears began to well up in me again and I headed to the front row. Karlene was leading worship and there was a powerful sense of the Spirit of God present in the house. I just stood there with my hands over my face overwhelmed by the enormity of everything. I knew I couldn’t lead the service. I knew I couldn’t speak. I was totally wrung-out. So I just stood there.

Thank God for a wife who is sensitive to the Holy Spirit. In the middle of my “meltdown,” (for lack of a better term), Karlene went Old-school and started pulling songs out of the past. She started singing “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, there’s just something about that name.” I couldn’t even sing, but with a lump in my throat and heaviness in my heart, I contemplated the words to that old chorus. My eyes were closed in worshipful prayer or prayerful worship – I’m not quite sure what you would call it – and as we came to the final stanza of that song, something happened. A cool breeze blew across my person, as if someone had just walked in front of me. Surprised by the closeness of it, I opened my eyes to see who had come up to me, but nobody was there. At least nobody I could see with my natural eyes.

There is a scripture in Jeremiah (51:16) that says “When (God) utters his voice… he sends the wind from His storehouses.” I realized, right then and there, that God had sent his wind from his storehouses to me. That wind brought strength. That wind brought grace. That wind brought peace – and so much more. All of the things that I was running short on, God sent me from His vast supply in the heavens -- riding on a gentle breeze of the divine kind. I discovered once again last evening, how incredibly great God truly is. I discovered once again last evening, how true God’s word is. I discovered once again last evening, that there is no shortage in him.

Everything that we need can be found in Jesus. Last night, in my hour of need, I experienced it for myself -- a fresh breeze, God-sent, from heaven’s unlimited supply.

Thankfully, the wind is blowing again.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Life from Death

It is Saturday morning – 48 hours removed from the news of my brother’s unexpected death. I would like to begin by saying thank-you to all who have offered, and continue to offer, prayers and condolences to both myself, and the entire family. Your kindness and support has been both encouraging and strengthening for all of us. When I get the opportunity, I will attempt to call each of you and personally thank you for your many kindnesses. Please know that you are loved and much appreciated.

A Long Day

Yesterday was another long and grueling day. I drove my wife and parent’s up to my brother’s Condo in Chatsworth. We arrived there at around noon where we met up with my nephew, Michael, his wife, Heather, and my great-nephew, Albert (who is the spitting-image of my brother – his grandpa). Tears flowed as Michael and I held each other in a long embrace. So much was said though nothing was spoken during that lengthy hug.

It’s hard to believe that my nephew – my brother’s youngest -- is 33 years old. Understandably, he is taking the death of his father extremely hard. As we were talking, he stated that down deep in his heart, he always knew that one day he would be the one to find his father dead. That inner thought that he carried became an unfortunate reality that has left him – and the family – shaken.

We believe that Mike had a heart attack and died instantly as he was on his computer. After all our calls and attempts to locate Mike, my nephew drove down to his home. He said he was crying as he drove, knowing on the inside that it would not be good. He found his father on the floor in the computer room. Sadly, he had been there for several days. It was a horrible scene for my nephew –or anyone, for that matter -- to have to experience.

Nearly five years ago, my brother went into the hospital for open-heart surgery. The only reason the family found out about it was that the hospital called his closest relatives to make post-surgery arrangements. He hadn’t let anyone know that he was going to have heart surgery. That was typical Mike. He was a character. He did his own thing and marched to the beat of a different drummer. He was a bit of a social misfit, independent and reclusive. So not having any contact with him for an extended period of time was not out of the norm, it was actually par for the course.

I think that Mike didn't quite know where he fit at times -- especially when it came to our family. He enjoyed open space, whether it was the wide expanse of the ocean, the bigness of the desert wilderness, the grandeur of the mountains, or even the openness of the internet -- it was open space and he fit there.

Needles in a Haystack

We assisted my nephew going through my brother’s house to find financial documents, insurance papers, and personal effects that he needs for legal purposes being the next of kin. We also wanted to assist him with any funeral arrangements, etc. As you can imagine, it was quite difficult just to go into his house, even with odor neutralizer. Yet, with tears in our eyes and sadness in our hearts, we spent hours going through his house sifting through cabinets, drawers, closets, boxes, papers, junk and a whole lot of memories.

A Bigger Picture

Upon returning home last night, we all were exhausted. Not physically, for that was the easiest part. The day left us mentally and emotionally spent. Throughout the day, we had experienced highs and lows, tears and laughter. Yet out of the bad and ugly came something good. It was a silver lining. A positive opportunity arrived in the midst of a negative scenario. We were able to reconnect with family that had previously been disconnected – family that is wanted, family that is needed and family that is loved.

Last weekend, Tara had the Disney animated movie “Lilo & Stitch” playing on the big screen for my great-niece, Bella. I walked in on the ending in which Lilo says, "Ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind." That line has been reverberating in me ever since. That is what this is all about. That is the bigger picture. Bigger than me, my siblings, or my parents. It truly is all about family... and no one should get left behind -- in any sense of the word.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Loss of My Brother

It's been a difficult day. It’s difficult to know where to start. It’s difficult to put my thoughts together. It’s difficult to share what I am feeling. It’s just difficult. Just before noon, my cell phone started ringing off the hook. I picked up the call from my wife, Karlene. She asked me where I was and then told me to meet her at the house ASAP. I knew that it was something big. I arrived home moments before Karlene and watched her pull into the driveway and get out of the car. I did not say a word. I did not want to. She started saying; “I’m sorry,” as she came toward me. Then, with tears in her eyes, said two words, “Your Brother.”

Strange as it sounds, a premonition that I had over a week ago has come true. Last week, I told Karlene that I had a bad feeling about my brother – a very bad feeling. I just had a sense, a feeling, in my spirit that something was wrong. For the past several days, our family has been trying to get in touch with him. With him being divorced and living by himself, our efforts were to no avail. Today we know why. He was found deceased this morning in his bedroom by my nephew.

Mike was 12 years older than me. He was my only brother. Even though we were quite a bit apart in age, we still loved each other as brothers. The age difference, my brother’s loner attitude, and our increasingly divergent lifestyles, helped us to not be as close as we could have been. However, my mind is filled with many great memories of the times that we had together.

When I was a child, Mike often babysat me for my parents. When he was old enough to drive, mom and dad bought him a 1957 Chevy Bel-air wagon that he promptly turned into a sweet hot rod. He enjoyed driving it and I enjoyed riding in it. Mike loved the Ocean, especially the tide-pools off of Palos Verdes where he would collect sea life. He and I went there several times with his teenage friends and my beagle “Honey.” To this day I remember him watching me at the small parsonage we grew up in. Mike would sneak-in his rock & roll or comedy records to listen to, make himself a quadruple-decker sandwich (with everything on it) and sit down with a half-gallon of milk – it was party-time! I remember the day in 1967 that he joined the Navy and left our home forever. I missed him then. I miss him now.

We also spent time together at our Grandmother’s house out in the country near the town of Chowchilla, CA. Mike was 16 or 17 and had an Air Rifle and Pellet Pistol – both of which I coveted even at my young age. I distinctly remember that one day I kept pestering him until he let me shoot his BB gun out beside the barn. He had set up a few old bottles and tin cans upon the fence for target practice. Mike had an ornery streak and after letting me shoot the gun, gave me a devious look and told me that I had to the count of 10 before I became the target. I high-tailed it around the side of the barn, my PF Flyers going as fast as they could. He got to 10 and started yelling, “I’m gonna shoot you!” and I knew that he meant it. I was screaming for my Grandma as I rounded the side of the house heading for the sanctuary of the large enclosed front porch. I reached the screen door of the porch at the same time as Mike started shooting, which also happened to be the same time my Grandma stepped-out of the house to see what the commotion was all about. Grandma let out a shriek as she took a BB, meant for my backside, just beneath her right kneecap and went down like a bag of dirt. “You shot me, Mickie!” Grandma screamed. She seemed shocked by the fact that her favorite grandson – her “itchy-boy” – had just shot her with his BB gun. I wasn’t shocked. However, Mike was mortified and that was the end of the BB gun at Grandma’s.

In the Navy, Mike spent several years overseas which caused an even greater separation or disconnect between us. Then, in the late-seventies, after stints in Guam and the Philippines, He was transferred to the Mare Island Naval Base in Vallejo, CA. I only got to see him a couple of times while he lived up there. One was to watch Super Bowl XV on January 25, 1981 when the Raiders beat the Eagles. When he moved to Canoga Park a short time later, he provided a refuge for me to get away and spend a few days if I needed a place to stay. We spent one weekend breaking-in his brand-new VHS VCR by watching close to a dozen movies that we “rented” from a “movie store.” All of that was brand-new back then and we had a great time.

I enjoyed fishing with Mike and he always hated the fact that I would out-fish him every single time we went out. He wasn’t shy about letting me know it, either. Whether it was saltwater or freshwater, the story was always the same and his classic responses, which were sprinkled liberally with colorful metaphors, make me want to laugh even now as I think about them. Whether it was fishing, board games or whatever, Mike hated getting beaten in anything – especially by me, his kid-brother.

Mike had a brilliant mind and a near-genius IQ. He could fix just about anything mechanical or electronic. He could just look at it and figure out how it worked or how to make it work. Computer issues? No problem. He was the IT/Computer guy for Panavision for many years.

Mike was reclusive and didn't come around much. I don’t know if he was comfortable with himself, but he was comfortable being by himself. Surprisingly in the last few months he started popping-in from time to time. A few weeks ago, he showed-up and we were able to spend some time together. He brought his photo portfolio. Showing us some of his favorite photos. I told him about the photos that I really liked from his website ( He was always into photography. It was what he really enjoyed doing. We talked and reminisced and laughed. It was a good visit. That was the last time that I saw him or spoke to him. It was shortly before his birthday.

Mike and Debi, (my siblings) and I, all celebrate our birthdays within days of each other in January. The birthdays have come and gone. Unfortunately, so has my brother Mike. He has come and he has gone. Yet, he left a mark upon my life that I will never forget.

I'll miss my big brother. In fact, I already do.

Friday, February 6, 2009

High Fiber

I am sitting at the computer this wet Friday morning eating a "high fiber" breakfast consisting of a piece of whole grain/whole wheat toast and a new (to me) high fiber, hot cereal by Kashi called "Truly Vanilla." One thing that I have to commend Kashi for is truth in advertising, because this "stuff" that I'm eating is just as the name states; TRULY Vanilla! For some reason, I don't think that their naming of the product and my definition of the product, though using the same two words, are inferring the same thing. Pouring it out of the packet, it looks like oatmeal mixed with birdseed. But, I am a gamer, so I cooked it in the microwave and gave it a try. The cereal, filled with nearly every whole grain you can think of, is fairly bland actually. After one bite, I decided to "doctor-it-up" with some Splenda to make it a bit more palatable (As Mary Poppins taught us, "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down"). SO, I have now eaten it -- more because it is good for me than the fact that it is just good.

Sometime back, my doctor urged me to increase the fiber in my diet. "You are not getting enough fiber in you!", my doctor warned quite adamantly. Then the entire team of medical professionals ganged-up on me with a list of all the terrible things that are potential by-products of not having enough fiber in one's body -- with the one's they were referring to being me! "You have to change your diet, or you will be back here again, having surgery", they said. All it took was that one "S-word" to shake me awake. Whatever I can do to help myself get healthy, (and stay away from surgery-- as you readers know about surgery and me!), I'm all for it! "Cut-out the fried food, stay away from the MSG, lower your fat intake, and you can set yourself free!" (Lyrics from "High Fiber Rap" that I just made up).

Since then, I have become more conscious of what I am putting into my body. I read the labels of foods... fat content, fiber content, calories, and what the ingredients consist of. I have dropped 30lbs, lowered my cholesterol, and am in better shape than I have been in years. I have chosen to live a low-fat, high-fiber lifestyle.

This all got me thinking about Christianity.

A couple of nights ago, the Lord dropped a thought into my heart about my "Christian" lifestyle. I have been challenged by this thought throughout this week; Am I living a healthy, "High Fiber" Christian life?

What is the "Fiber" of our Christianity? Fiber is defined as "Something that provides substance or texture." So what provides the substance or texture in our lives that we live for Christ? I believe that the answer to that question is found in the Biblical teachings of Jesus himself, recorded in Matthew, chapter 6.

In Matthew 6, Jesus talks about "substance" for our Spiritual lives. In His teaching, Jesus lists the things that are truly important for us to integrate into our lives. These are the "High Fiber" principles of Christianity.

Ironically, Jesus begins where most people choose not to -- with the importance of "Giving." He then moves on to the importance of "Prayer." Next he deals with the attitude of "Forgiveness," which is necessary for our prayers to be effective. Then he talks about "Fasting," another activity that many Christians do not know much about. The chapter ends where it began, as Jesus' teaching comes full-circle back to the principle of "Giving."

According to Jesus, these are the important parts of the Christian life. The healthy Christian life consists of a balanced diet of Giving, Praying, Forgiving, Fasting, & Giving to start the cycle all over again. Like the high-fiber Kashi I just finished, you may not think that these things taste all that great -- but remember, the benefits of this diet are eternal!

Healthy living -- the Jesus way.

Try it today!

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Super Bowl that was Super

Let me start with a confession. I'm not the big football honk that I used to be years ago. In fact, I don't think that I have sat down and watched an entire NFL game, beginning to end, all year. With that stated, I watched the Super Bowl in it's entirety.

I am a sucker for Cinderella stories. I love the underdog, who overachieves and ascends to greatness. Therefore, I was captivated by the Arizona Cardinals. Who? The Cardinals?! In the Super Bowl?!! Yes, the team that had never been to the Super Bowl before -- that had rarely even been in the playoffs in their lengthy history -- was on the center stage against a beast from the east, the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Cardinals, led by the amazing Kurt Warner, (Spirit-filled quarterback), overcame one of the best defenses that the NFL has ever seen and even took the lead late in the fourth quarter, (which, in my opinion, will go down as one of the greatest finishes in Super Bowl history), before succumbing to another incredible last-second Steelers comeback, directed by Ben Roethlisberger, (also a Born Again Quarterback), by the score of 27-23.

The game, which is often won or lost by the strength of a team's running game, was a game of the receivers. The Wide Receivers Larry Fitzgerald of the Cardinals and Santonio Holmes of the Steelers were simply electric in the dramatic final quarter. Holmes walked away with the Super Bowl MVP trophy for his final-minute catch in the corner of the end zone that snatched victory from the jaws of defeat for the Steelers.

Yesterday at Cornerstone, I preached on "How to Be a Super Bowl Christian." I used the sports metaphor for our Christianity, drawing upon experiences from coaching High School football many years ago.
A Key to being a champion Christian is to "Be a Receiver."
We are to receive Jesus -- Receive the Word -- Receive the Holy Spirit and Receive one another.

There are several tips to being a good receiver:

1) It starts with the Right Stance.
The right stance is important for you to get off the line and into the play. Many Christians do not receive, because they take a wrong stance and get stuck on the line and out of the play.

2) You have to Run the Right Route.

One of my duties as a football coach was to teach the players to run the routes that the playbook called for. When you run the right route you find yourself in the right place to receive what God has for you. Don't run your own route -- make sure you are following the Lord's direction.

3) Keep your Hands Up.

You have to be in a ready position. Prepare yourself for the play that is coming -- ready yourself to catch the pass that is coming your way. When we raise our hands, not only do we surrender to the Lord's will for us, but we also ready ourselves to receive from Him what we need.

4) Always expect a Pass.
Expect God to send things your way. Expect to be blessed. Expect to be benefited. God is looking for you. Every good and perfect gift comes from above. Believe it - expect it - receive it!
These tips, if followed, will help you become a Champion for Christ and live an overcoming life of victory. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:24, "play to win!"

"Now thanks be unto God, which always causes us to triumph in Christ."
-2 Corinthians 2:14