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Elegy for a pastor

Chuck Smith, pastor of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California and one of the leading figures in the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, passed away today after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 86.

To try and explain the impact Chuck Smith had on contemporary American evangelical Christianity, a brief personal illustration. Back in the mid-1970s, in my neck of the woods (San Francisco Bay Area) the reverberations of the Jesus Movement were still being felt in youth culture. It was a heady time, teens and twentysomethings filled with intense love for Jesus and equally intense belief that His return to the earth would be soon and very soon. Wed sit on our bench, located perilously close to the jock bench, in our high school quadrangle with our guitars as we sang and strummed away on our little songs about a great big God. There were all the obligatory teenage angst moments, falling in and out of love at breakneck speed while occasionally musing about what we would do once we were set free from our high school protective cocoon. But we trusted Jesus would take care of that, and besides He would be coming back shortly so why get worked up over a future that would never come to pass?

Being San Francisco Bay Area people, naturally we loathed and looked down on all things Southern California in general and Los Angeles in particular. However, we cut Orange County, south of L.A., a lot of slack. No, not because of Disneyland. It was the home of something we greatly envied, although we were careful to label it anything but envy as of course envy was a sin. This was semantics, though. It was envy.

We envied Orange County for being the home of Chuck Smith.

Where we were, Christian concerts were far and few between. There would be the occasional appearance by Barry McGuire at Mario Murillos monthly Night of Miracles rally in Oakland, but other than that there was precious little. There was no radio to which we could listen; the local stations were all AM dollar a holler junk. But where Chuck Smith was, there were concerts every Saturday night playing our music. There was a radio station, an FM radio station, playing our music. There was a church where we knew wed all be welcome no matter our hair length or dress code. There was a place we knew that if we could only get there we would be blessed beyond words by being at the home base of everything we held dear in our unstoppable zeal. But, we couldnt get there despite whispered conversations about how if we split the gas and had all the boys stay in one hotel room and all the girls in another with no visitations save with the door wide open, maybe we could borrow someones parents van and one day make a pilgrimage to Santa Ana so we could experience in person this magical place from whence came the records on the Maranatha! Music label we eagerly devoured.

Time passed, as it does. Jesus had other plans and didnt come back before the 1980s set in, or any subsequent decade for that matter. Some of us walked away from the faith, disillusioned at the prospect of having to actually live out a normal life with a job and family and everything else that comes with these things. Some of us passed away. But some of us remained, our faith ofttimes battered, bruised and beaten down to the point of near abandonment. Yet we still believed, chuckling over our previous eschatological fixation and learning, as best we could, to be happy with what we had and learning to have faith in Christ alone, not in an image of Him being the ultimate get out of jail card.

This all said, the news of Chuck Smiths passing is not an occasion for nostalgic musing about when we were young, alive, on fire and had all the answers. It is a moment to note all that he accomplished: the artists for whom he provided a platform; the multitude of Calvary Chapels now dotting the globe. His name does not have the recognition factor of other post-WWII American Christianity leaders such as Billy Graham or any given TV evangelist. But today, wherever there is a folk/rock guitar being played and song being sung, and wherever there is a ministry saying come as you are because Jesus loves you and so do we, Chuck Smith is there. And we are all the better for it.

God bless you, Pastor Chuck, now at home in your Fathers arms.

A Royal Blue Silk Rose

You know the routine.

It’s game day, or race day. You take your seat, be it in front of the television or if you’re lucky among the thousands or tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands attending the day’s event. You watch; you cheer and boo; you exhort your favorite. At the end of the day you celebrate or commiserate depending on how the proceedings went. You talk or grouse about it, feeling happy or ticked for a while depending on what happened. And then you file it all away until the next game, the next race. It’s all part of being a fan.

You see the team or individual you root for, and in them that is exactly what you see. It’s not life or death. The sun will come up tomorrow regardless of their performance on that day. Sure, they’re your team, your driver. But that’s all. They’re the ones for whom you cheer. That’s where it ends.

Most of the time.

Sometimes, you see the team, the driver for whom you cheer, and you don’t see them at all. You see a moment, a place in the past, a time where an inexorable bond was forged indelibly identifying a team or individual with someone you know, or someone you knew; a memory that never fades. You see a team or individual, and suddenly you are no longer where you are. You’re somewhere else, somewhere long ago and far away yet as vibrant as though it was happening in the here and now. You’re at your first ballgame; you’re watching a highlight moment with family or friends no longer here. It is as though these moments live again. It is as though these people have never left.

That’s why you take it far more personally than is the norm when someone speaks against this team, this individual serving as a bridge between today and a bittersweet yesterday filled with magic and loss. Sure, you get your back up when someone trashtalks your team or driver. You give as good as you get. But you don’t take it all that seriously. The same cannot be said about the ones unknowingly serving as a bridge. They’re not just another team, another driver for whom you root. They are set apart, privately sacred. They are consecrated; living servants acting as a conduit from where you were and who you were with to where you are now, without those you were with before.

This is why today’s Super Bowl was far more than another game to me, or even another championship game. As has been said before, I am a card carrying season ticket owning member of the Raiders Nation. That’s my team. I go to the home games, I watch the away games on television, I have far too often buried my head in my hands these past few seasons wondering when this team will start playing like the Raiders I grew up with; i.e. winning. I’m a fan.

But when I see the Colts, I don’t see a football team. I see my heritage, this hybrid of Orange County Republican and small-town Hoosier hick born, raised, and living in the San Francisco Bay Area. I hear the phone conversations with my Dad after he retired and moved back home to rural central Indiana, me going with him and Mom for a spell before returning back here, commiserating over the Colts when they were bad and celebrating when they good following their move to Indianapolis in 1984. I see my first Colts game seen live at home, two years after my beloved father had passed away in 1999. In a touch of bitter irony, it was played the first weekend sports had resumed after September 11th, and the pre-game ceremonies were filled with the kind of heartland patriotism coast dwellers deride as hackneyed cornpone drivel. But not to me.

Every season ended with a promise unfulfilled, at best a playoff disappointment. Every season after that game ended with a different promise unfulfilled, something I had vowed upon my first visit to my father’s grave that September of 2001 would someday be done if it was allowed to be done.

It never was.

Not until tonight.

Tonight, as I pull out my Colts finery to wear with even more pride than usual, preparing to luxuriate in this ultimate triumph and its penultimate companion the amazing, heart-stopping comeback victory against the archrival Patriots in the AFC championship game two weeks ago, a note is made of a promise now enabled. It is not a great thing, but it is an item I swore to both my heavenly Father and my earthly father now in heaven would be done. And it will be done.

I will find a royal blue silk rose, and at the base of the pedals tie around it a white ribbon. On it, printed in silver, will be these words:


I will lay the rose on my father’s grave, and then I will look to the skies and say the words I longed to say when my father was here, but know in fact he will still hear:

“They won, Dad.”

They won.