I also took the time to get to know this man who with his wife are raising twin daughters in Gaithersburg, Maryland. This isn’t too far from where my parents live. And a slightly longer Metro ride to where Todd was born and raised – the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC. When you grow up in a city, suburban life takes some getting used to. But Todd seems to be doing pretty well living his wife’s old neighborhood.
Todd seems like the kind of guy everyone gets to know. He’s very personable, and really likeable. Which seems odd for someone who spends his days catching financial criminals. “There are a lot of people stealing a lot of money. And I catch them.” He told me all about it, from how he got the job to what he does but suffice it to say all I am at liberty say is he helps regulate the stock market and keep it as honest as he can.
What I can tell you is that his employer used to have a program where on specific work anniversaries, employees were able to choose a gift of their choice from a catalog. Depending how many years you worked there would determine how much you were allowed to spend. Todd got the watch he was wearing. “It’s a Tommy Bahama. It’s 11 years old. Other than changing the battery a few times, it’s still works perfectly.”
A big majority of our time was also spent talking about religion, faith, and swapping stories about being Jewish and going to Christian churches. “I had my first crisis of faith when I was five and a friend of mine died” which caused Todd to wonder why God would let that happen. Though he admired the fact I had a calling (and wanted to know all about it), it seems Todd is still wrestling with the idea. He recalls a time, while visiting a Methodist church in Dupont Circle (in Washington DC), that his thinking began to change. To borrow from the minister of that church, “God is always there when you’re ready.”
Todd’s biggest influences came from three men in his life. Two being teachers from his high school days. And the other one his father. “The older I get the more I hear my father.” Now he is one. When it didn’t seem possible to have kids, the miracles of science allowed them. When I told him I thought having twins was a beautiful way to go insane, Todd hasn’t even noticed how crazy it is, “Twins is all I know.”
But that’s not true, because Todd knows how to catch a criminal. He knows how to sail a boat. And even did it on Lake Erie. He also knows what caffeine does to him so he avoids it. Likewise, he has never really liked to drink, so he doesn’t. And although he’s never shot a crossbow, “Sure, I’d be up for shooting one.” I just want to point out, that each of these weird questions I asked him, his first response was always a big laugh followed by an even bigger smile. That said volumes about this man as it did the idea of asking total strangers random questions.
For example, the mascot at Todd’s high school was The Achievers. Yes, you read that correctly. He went to a preparatory school that didn’t have sports, so I guess they had no real need for a mascot. “But I was more of a semi-achiever.” He joked about he would walk into the class on the first day and figure out what he needed to do to get a B, and how much more effort would it take to get an A. If it was too much, he would settle for the lesser grade.
As an adult, Todd figured out that he would be the mascot for his family. Since everyone used to tell him he reminded them of Winnie the Pooh’s dear friend, Todd went out and bought himself an Eeyore costume to wear at Halloween. “Eeyore’s my Spirit Animal.” There seemed to be a dichotomy between how he saw himself and how I did.
If you were to ask me, Todd is more like Rowlf the Dog, his favorite Muppet, the scruffy brown dog who played piano on the show. Both Todd and Rowlf are calm and yet wisecracking. They have deadpan humor and most of his jokes go unnoticed because they are deep. While it’s said that Rowlf was most like Jim Henson, who created and originally performed the character, Todd is one of a kind. Which, of course, contradict the way Todd describes himself. “I’m an average, normal, liberal leaning, city boy living in the suburbs.”
More than that, he is gentle, kind, easy to talk to, and filled with interesting stories. He is also the last person I will meet and write about today. I can’t think of a better person to close the show. I know I tell myself this every year, but KNOWvember is bittersweet.
It’s a joy. It’s a task. It’s easy. It’s hard. Sometimes I don’t want to do it. And I always hate for it to end. Although the pandemic made it more of a challenge, the concept remained the same and it really wasn’t that different. Each person who gave of their time, did so by giving their all. Including Todd.
I am grateful to all my old friends who took the time to pair me with someone they also knew and loved. It says a lot about the kind of people I know. Thanks to them, and people like Todd who gave of their time, KNOWvember 2020, The COVID edition, was a success.
Advent is not the only time God has made us wait. The Bible is filled with stories of God’s people waiting for rescue, deliverance, and salvation. Waiting is a pervasive theme throughout Isaiah which was written sometime after the Babylonian conquest of Israel.
Their country was in ruin. The Temple reduced to dust and ash. God’s people where in tears, suffering in exile. They shouted out to God, like their ancestors had but only to find silence. They wondered had God abandoned them to suffer alone.
They wonder, like we often do today, where God is or why God let this happen to them. In that time between our suffering and salvation, we wait for God to act. And thus, Isaiah reminds us to remain faithful; to wait patiently and with purpose. God is up to something, but what?
Read: Isaiah 64-1:9
Is it strange that Advent begins with a prayer of lament and a plea for help? Or that God’s people cry out for a savior and God makes them wait?
If anything good has come from 2020, it’s that it has made us better at waiting. We’ve waited during lockdowns and quarantines. Waited for test results, and toilet paper to be restocked. We’ve waited on our orders from Amazon and Postmates to be delivered.
Sadly, some have had to wait for hospital beds and respirators. Or outside nursing homes to wave to a loved one. We’ve waited for election results, unemployment checks, for school’s to open and work to resume, and of course we’re all waiting for a vaccine. If we’ve mastered anything this year it’s waiting.
In this particular passage, Isaiah reminds us that the same God who makes mountains quake and nations tremble is also a God who makes us wait. It hardly seems fair, especially when we feel all alone and scared.
What does this say about the character of God who hides from us in our time of need? It doesn’t feel very kind or loving does it? What could be the reason for God to want to leave us to our pain and suffering? I doubt it’s too be cruel.
Writing on this passage, Scott Bader-Saye argues two points on this strange characteristic of our Divine Creator. And I think they are worth pondering. First, he believes God hides from Israel to remind them that God is not exclusively theirs. Think about that for a moment because this problem still persists today.
Not just within Judaism, but within the different sides of Christianity and Islam and other religions. Each is guilty of claiming ownership of God. But here’s the thing, there’s no box big enough to contain, muchless control, God. The pot does not create the potter. It merely showcases her talent and creativity. No one owns God. Instead, God owns us. All of us.
Black, brown, or white; straight, gay, or indifferent, we are God’s beloved children. Or as the psalmist wrote, we are the sheep of his pasture. we can’t ever lose sight of that. Until we stop dividing ourselves over politics, gender, nationality, or religious doctrine the fullness of God’s power and glory will remain hidden from us.
The second point Bader-Saye explores is this idea that sometimes God hides on purpose. And that purpose is to awaken us of our wrongdoing. For example, God might hide to help us deconstruct a distorted set of beliefs and practices that cause us to make God in our image. I think there’s some truth to this.
In seminary, the professors were tasked with deconstructing any preconceived notions of God that we might have brought with us. This was a long process that truly tested the strength of one’s faith. Between shedding the old and the building up the new, there is a long period of waiting in the emptiness of one’s self.
It was an active waiting, where I was preparing my heart to receive God and to see my calling through God’s eyes and not my own. In his time of waiting for God, Isaiah is able to see and understand the difference between the God of Israel and the other gods in the cultures of his time.
He remembers God greatness recalling, “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.” He is stunned and shocked to discover that this God works for the people, and the people for whom God works are the people who wait for God. Advent is a time of waiting for God who is working for us in ways that are yet to be revealed.
John Pavlovitz reminds us, “If we cultivate a bit of faith, that in-between time can be a hopeful space for us, a place where we can welcome transformation. Rather than wanting the time to pass quickly, we can actually enjoy it because we know we are being renovated.”
At the end of our reading today, Isaiah gives us two more insights into God’s character. One as a parent. And the other as a potter. Both of these images reveal an intimate connection that God has with us. To paraphrase Richard Rohr, God is always being drawn to the image of God in us.
Ours is a God who has not abandoned us in our wait, but one whose hand is upon us; shaping us over time like a parent shapes the character of a child, as a potter lovingly molds her clay. “Just as it is with the child in Mary’s womb, there is always change taking place, always new life about to spring forth.”
And so we wait for God to do what God does. To mold our hearts to love as God loves us and to shape our hands to give as God has given to all.
As you busy yourself preparing for Christmas, I hope you will remember this: You are God’s malleable work of art, being carefully shaped into the vessel of God’s incarnation to bring forth the presence of Christ to the world. You are a masterwork whether you know it or not. And a masterwork takes time.
As we enter a time of waiting for the incarnation, we do so knowing God is shaping us to be like him.
Thus in his first letter, John writes, “All of us who look forward to his Coming stay ready – with the glistening purity of Jesus' life as a model for our own” (1 John 3:2-3). By this we will not only be prepared to live in the promised realm of God when it comes, but we also get to experience what life in that realm is like today.
And so, we wait. And as we do we pray, and stick together, and love one another, and see to it that people are cared for and life is shared and peace prevails as we wait upon the Lord who is revealed to us in the incarnation of all that we do.
Bartlett, David L and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting On The Word, Year B Vol 1. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
Pavlovitz, John. Low: An Honest Advent Devotional. Chalice Press, 2019.
Rice, Whitney. "Waiting Upon the Lord." 23 12 2020. episcopalchurch.org (accessed on 28 12 2020).
I also knew from a conversation I had with his wife a few years ago that Sam went to seminary around the same time I didl, where he earned a Masters of Art and Religion. That makes sense.
I could expect that my friend would marry someone who was cool and confident like Sam. She was that way herself as a teenager. Ironically, that’s not who Sam was when he was in high school. “I wasn’t popular. I was short and skinny, and not very athletic.”
For most kids that age this would have been what caused them to go inward or become an introvert. Sam, however, was an extrovert and would use his stature to his advantage.
At sixteen he met a girl who was a parade dancer at Disney World. She told him they were looking for people like him – energetic, outgoing, and confident. He would get the job, playing Mowgli from the Jungle Book. “I wasn’t popular at school, but there I clicked and was welcomed by everyone.”
This gig would push Sam to try new things and grow more confidently. At 19, he met another girl who convinced take his first dance lesson. “They didn’t have a beginner’s class for adults. So it was just me and a bunch of little girls.” His life just went up from there, turning his part-time job at Disney into a full-time career in theater and teaching.
I didn’t ask him about his time in seminary, but I did learn that Sam has never shot a crossbow and Sam has no interest in doing so. “I do have a shotgun story if you want to know it.” Let’s just say it involved a shotgun, some retired Vets, and trap shooting on a boat. It seems like after some disagreement on ship protocol, “Someone finally said, ‘Why don’t you shoot one?’”
Whether or not they knew that Sam had never shot a gun before wasn't the issue really. The way Sam saw it there were two rounds in the gun, “I had a fifty-fifty chance at hitting the target.” The first shot missed. The second hit. Calm, cool, and collected he persisted - traits that help Sam raise a daughter with his wife. "We are different but we compliment each other."
It does make me wonder if his wife would describe Sam the same way. “Outgoing, energetic, sociable, and confident and insecure that the same time.” As a kid he was a button pusher, today he is a “perfectionist with the confidence to fail.”
Not bad for a guy who moved to a new town without knowing a single person. Or for someone who married the “cool chick” from my youth. “I married my Muppet self.”
Which takes us back to Janice, the easy going, free spirited bass player in the Electric Mayhem Band. Believe it or not, Sam played her in the show “Here Comes the Muppets” a live musical that ran at the Disney MGM Studios. I can't think of a better person or a better Muppet to blur the line and get a great story out of it than those two.
What I do recall from those days in early 1980's was a commercial for Head and Shoulders shampoo that said, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." It was a quote by Oscar Wilde.
Well, this was our second chance. And the timing was perfect. Here we were, two adults from rival high schools getting to know one another without the teenage nerves or drama.
As I would learn, Gay has spent these last forty years staying super busy. “I always have projects.” She has worked as a Controller for a private technology company, and has worked as an IT special as well. She has a Masters in Statistics. And now works as a commercial property assessor. She has raised three children and faced numerous personal challenges along the way. Through it all, she has remained married to the same man for 29 years. “I used to tell him that he was my rebound.” We both agreed that marriage is always better the second time around.
So here are a few things that Gay has done since we last met in Indian Rocks Beach, back when I was a surfer and she the cheerleader. After high school, she started going by her birth name, and not her middle name. After a very brief, and regrettable marriage, Gay met a man who sang Elvis to her and married him a few years later. “I don’t even like Elvis, but it worked.” Like me, she grew up sailing.
She and her husband once owned a 35’ Hunter sailboat. She is also a water person. “I love to scallop and scuba dive.” She has shot a crossbow. “I only did it once, but I have pretty good aim.” She learned how to use a gun when a child her dad would take her hunting and let her shoot oranges off the trees.
Her favorite Muppet is Kermit. “He’s sweet and goofy. And he loves everybody.” I like to think that is why our friend wanted us to meet again. Like Kermit, there is an authentic, gentle spirit that radiates from Gay and a confident wisdom gained from years of living that spirit in the world. She too is loving and gives of her time to care for others. She likes to smile and laugh. Even in difficult situations, Gay is able to find hope and strength to persevere.
When asked to describe herself in ten words or less Gay admits, “I am complex, persistent, light-hearted, overly caring and a little chaotic.” These are traits we learn at a very early age. But aren’t fully realized until we’ve lived and wrestled with them for a while. Our time together wasn’t so that we could remember our past , “I thought you were really cute” (included for posterity reasons only) but so we could be fully present, in this moment where life is a little chaotic to say the least.
“Everything I’ve been through has got me to where I am today. I wouldn’t change anything.” I can’t go back in time, to that day she walked into my bedroom. Nor can she go back and tell her younger, teenage self not to “drink a bottle of wine all by myself after ballet practice.”
It may have taken four decades to understand that “things happen for a reason. We are given some hard things to help us later on in life.” Although Gay missed our original interview earlier this month, I am thankfully I had one day left on my calendar for her to get a second chance to make a first impression.
Again, I am only getting one side of this tale. And all I really know is it involved a school dance, some crabapples, a broken windshield, and a tree branch. Also, both boys lived to tell the story. Or so I was told. After a few repeated tries, Phil still remained missing. I must admit, it has my wondering. Who is this mysterious man?
As the only eye-witness to their juvenile crime, I wanted to get Phil’s perspective. I was hoping he would fill in some missing parts, like where he went off to after his friend hit the tree branch. What became of the two men who were out to kill them for throwing a crabapple at their moving car? And what about the girls they left at the school dance?
I could tell you the tale, but it wouldn't be the same. I am almost positive I would embellish it further. It's better if I leave it up to my dear friend to tell and retell the tale for me. That way I can count all the different ways he stretches the facts for his own benefit. Without getting to meet Phil, we will never really know the whole truth.
Suffice it to say, the moral of that dark and frightening night is this: Don't throw crabapples at speeding cars. They will stop, they will chase after you, and if they don’t catch you and beat you up…you might run into a tree and do yourself in.
Of course, the moral of this particular KNOWvember tale is: Don’t let other people write your story.
Get out there, meet strangers, let them know who you are and get to know them. Ask them to tell you something crazy they have done. Better yet, share something crazy with them. If anything, you'll share a good laugh or two. Who knows, maybe they will take your story and make it their own. It's been known to happen.
Years down the road, you'll be sitting somewhere listening to someone tell a story about that very thing you did. And before you know it, you've become an urban legend. Told by strangers who never had the chance to hear it from you directly.
One reason I wanted to me his son Ian is because when I lived in Greenville, Michigan and told people my name, many asked if I knew this particular Ian. I'm not sure why, but it seems like some believe that people who share names all somehow know one another. Well, I can now say, I KNOW this Ian, the ex-Marine, father of four and lover of coffee.
That's the real reason I wanted to meet Ian. You see, about three months ago his dad sent me a bag of freshly roasted coffee beans. Turns out the two of them not only love coffee as much as I do, but together they started a small business venture called Flat River Roasters.
“Ever since I was young I’ve loved coffee.” Lucky for him “my parents are coffee snobs” and Ian learned the art of coffee starting on the right foot. Ian and his dad have always been close. “We hang out a lot. Roasting coffee is just another thing to do with him.”
The idea came when Ian read an article about using a cast iron pan to roast coffee beans. A few experiments later, they found that an air popcorn machine would do the trick. His love for coffee and his inquisitive mind would push the two of them to producing some of the best roasts I’ve ever tasted. But there’s more to the story.
When Ian was a teenager, his little Braeden brother passed away. Working alongside his father, the two roast beans to help raise money for a charity that they created – SuperBub's SuperHeroes – a Childhood Cancer Foundation started in memory of Braeden. I might be addicted to their coffee beans, but as a cancer survivor myself I have no problem donating to this cause (especially when I know I get a bag of beans as a thank you).
Ian shared a story when his platoon spent three cold and rainy days out in the field. “I refused to bring instant coffee with me like the other guys.” The man had his priorities, bringing with him a small fire pot that had a French press attachment. He made a cup and shared it with the others who were frozen and drenched. The mood shifted, and “we had reason to smile when there was nothing to smile about.” It was then Ian realized, “When you’re in a low place, coffee can go a long way.”
Ian is studying to be a mechanical engineer, working a side job, and raising children with his wife. If ever there is a need for caffeine it would be now. He drinks his with cream and sugar, knowing that he will get some coffee snubs for doing so. “I think you start tasting different notes in the beans with it.” Suffice it to say, we stopped that conversation right there. For the record, this Ian (me) drinks his coffee black.
Now, here are a few non-coffee related things you might like to know about the guy who shares my name. He has shot a crossbow, “But it wasn’t a good one.” He has never sailed a boat, “But I’d be up for it because I love water.” And he has no favorite Muppet, “I never watched it as a kid, and my kids haven’t seen it because they aren’t on the streaming services.” Suffice it to say, yet again, we stopped the conversation there.
Another fun story Ian shared with me was about the scar on his elbow that he recently got trying to help assist in a motorcycle accident. (Since serving in the Marines, he keeps an emergency medical bag in his car) It was raining, and the tread on the shoes Ian had on was all but gone. A bad combination. He slipped and skidded on his elbow. Ironic how someone who wanted to help someone else would quickly be the one who needed help. When a fireman saw blood pouring down his arm, and tried to tend to his wounds, Ian told him “The only thing that hurts is my pride.”
It was nice to get to know Ian. Like so many of us, COVID has been hard for him. As a student, his classes are mostly online. As a vet, the Veteran’s Lounge at the school is almost always empty. As a dad, he’s pretty much homebound when he’s not working. “It’s nice to do this with you because I haven’t met a lot of people lately.”
I felt his pain. As I took the last sip of what was now cold coffee, I truly understood what he meant when he said, “When you’re in a low place, coffee can go a long way.” It really can. I have a feeling our friendship will too – even if he stops roasting beans…suffice it say, I’m going to stop right there.
It's a bit ironic that when we met, Kristi was above ground and it was I who was below – sequestered in my basement for one more day as the film crew that rented our house finished shooting their movie. There’s lots to see down here, but nothing compared to the beauty and tranquility of water. And certainly not the kind of adventurous places Kristi is used to.
From dark dives into the underground caverns in Florida to swimming with tiger sharks off the coast of North Carolina, Kristi has gone to places most people only dream about. “When I was ten, I used to watch Dr. Eugenie Clark on TV, and that’s where I fell in love with sharks and water. I wanted to keep her dream alive.” And she is while helping other people live out theirs as well. Her warning to them: “If you don’t know the risks you won’t know what to train for.”
According to the company website (cavecountrydiving.com) “Kristi is a highly trained diver and scuba instructor holding many certifications for technical and cave diving as well as being a certified closed circuit rebreather diver.”
But here’s what it doesn’t tell you. Kristi is also a mother of a teenager and an artist. Her paintings and drawings are inspirited by religious art from the Italian Renaissance. Both her mother and grandfather were artists. “I remember seeing my mom’s sketch book as a little girl and wanting to draw like her.”
Born in New York, Kristi’s family moved around a lot. She lived in Oahu, spent her high school years in Virginia, and now lives and works in the small town of High Springs, Florida which is located about 25 north of Gainesville. It’s here she had a cup of coffee for breakfast.
Halfway through our hour long conversation, I learned that Kristi and I had a lot in common. We both love water. We both love coffee for breakfast. We both love art – especially Italian art. We both had grandparents who were artist, and like her I too studied design in college. Believe it or not, we both have swum with sharks. Although she purposefully went looking for them, I simply ran into them, and even stepped on one while surfing.
Unlike me, Kristi is the oldest in her family. She also married at the young age of 21 to the man who taught her to dive. "My first dive change my life.” But the real game changer came when he convinced her to go into the caves with him. "That's when I was really challenged."
Just so we're clear, cave dives are different then open water dives. In the labyrinth of holes tucked under ground, there’s very little if any light at all. More than just being claustrophobic, there is a risk of getting lost and never making it out. Thankfully, Kristi has lived to tell me all about it. ‘
If she could go anywhere, it would be Italy. If she could give her younger self some wisdom from today, Kristi would go back that awkward stage between Middle School and High School and tell herself, “It doesn’t matter fitting in. Life is short. Make the most of your time.”
You might be asking how has Kristi made the most of her time? Well, she has never sailed a boat. She has never shot a crossbow. She did try a speargun but “it’s just not for me.” And believe it or not, she hasn’t seen a Muppet movie so she has no idea what Fozzy Bear (her favorite Muppet) is up to. “But have you seen some of Jim Henson's other movies? Like Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal?” I had not, so I guess I have some more living to do too. Which is good, considering I still have five more people to meet.
I asked Kristi if this had been worth the time and effort. She offered me an authentic smile and said, “Yes. We seem to have a lot in common.” It seems like I wasn't the only thinking that. I also took her words as a complement; one that came from a person who confidently described herself as “an adventurer, very loyal, curious, and creative.” (Like me!)
In a world where we are so divided over the smallest things, it’s good to meet with people to find our commonality. The way to do this is to meet people where they are. You can start on the surface with a kind conversation. But if you ask me, the real joy of getting to know someone is by diving in and exploring the real beauty that lies beneath the surface. If you're lucky, you'll meet someone interesting like Kristi.
If you’re lucky, you’ve had teachers who help shape who you are. For me it was my art teacher. For Daniel, it was his history teachers. “I wanted to be like them.” In the same high school where he now teaches, Daniel first discovered his love for politics and social justice. Now he’s paying it forward.
Like me, Daniel wasn’t the best student. He confessed high school wasn’t a great experience. “I have a theory that all teachers got into the profession to deal with the stuff they didn’t work out when they were in school.” I wondered exactly what it was that Daniel was trying to figure out. I asked him what advice he’d give his younger self. “Trust yourself more. You don’t have to please everyone.” That’s a hard lesson for some to learn.
As a young teenager, Daniel began to deepen his spiritual journey, becoming a true Judeo-Christian. By his senior year, and many lessons on social justice and civil rights, Daniel became involved in the Farm Workers Movement. for Daniel, this would be the real classroom, a place he learned some of his best lessons of life. He also helped create a communal living co-op in the Yakima Valley before leaving to work on the McGovern campaign in Washington, DC.
During all this time, and the years afterwards, Daniel has never shot a crossbow. And although he grew up near the Pacific Ocean, he’s never sailed a boat. He tried once to help a friend, but that was enough to know he doesn’t need to do it again.
“Life is a struggle.” Especially for those who dare to engage in life like Daniel. When I asked him to describe himself in ten words or less, he gave me a long description. He’s a history teacher after all, not math. We agreed on this: “I’m somebody who likes to do my best.” He has the scars to show for it.
Every scar tells a story. . He got the one over his eye in his early 20’s, in a fight with a guy he didn’t believe knew martial arts. Turns out the guy did. Lesson learned. “Always pay your taxes, always vote, and always believe a person when they tell you they know martial arts.” Wisdom for any age.
We shared sage wisdom and wonderful personal stories. We discussed deep historical and theological ideas, and constantly surprised one another. And there were many laughs in-between. I can see why my girls enjoyed taking his class. He taught me that we are all students. And we all have something to teach. “I’m learning a lot from you. What you’re saying speaks to the place where I want to be as a teacher.”
Daniel is a man in search of himself. He might be a high school teacher because he’s trying to repair damage from his past. But really, he’s just a person who isn’t afraid to engage with the struggle of life. In Hebrew, his name means God is my judge. “It’s what keeps him in check.” But it doesn’t stop him from trying to engage his students or staying engaged in a two-hour conversation with a total stranger.
Daniel is more than a teacher or a student. He is a father, and grandfather; a caretaker and someone who loves art. But more importantly, he is a physical reminder that change happens only if we get involved and engaged. Daniel gets up every morning, drives to school, struggles with technology and the new school norms, to make a difference in the lives of people he has never met. He is a lesson for us all.
Making music and touring is what Johnny knows best. (see him in action here) Just as the pandemic hit, the band Signal 13 had just finished recording their first EP and released the single “Dirty” which hit #1 in Australia. As it often is in the music business, when your record does well somewhere, you go on tour there. But COVID shut that down. “The single hit #1 in the UK the same week Rolling Stones new song was #3” but they couldn’t even celebrate because of restrictions that had been put in place.
Fun Fact: Despite the country being shut down, the band snuck away to Gettysburg to make a music video in a haunted house!
Having known many musicians in my days, I have heard stories about how hard living on the road can be to be on a person. While his favorite bands, like Van Halen or Rush, are flying to gigs, Johnny and his band mates were driving in a beat up car, sleeping in strangers homes, and where more than once, “we had to panhandle for gas money to get home.”
He remembers one time in particular, as they were trying to get back home to Baltimore, MD, they were stuck at a truck stop. “After a few hours of begging, and no luck, a mother and daughter pull up in a red corvette and filled up our tank.” For Johnny, that’s a story. For me, that’s a sermon.
Like Johnny, who took the time to meet with me, kindness is out there just waiting to connect. I sensed from our conversation, Johnny would understand. That he would know kindness doesn’t skip out with your money and leave you stranded at a biker rally in New Hampshire; bad promotors do. He knows that kindness doesn’t kill tours; that’s what killer viruses do. Just as it is with Johnny sitting on this throne behind his Ludwig drum kit, kindness sets the rhythm of life with only a hi-hat, kick and snare.
For a guy who grew up having a professional recording studio as his family room, music might have been his first love, but sometime in 1988 that would change. Around the time hair bands were on top and the Seattle grunge scene was just taking shape, Johnny met a girl who would later become his wife. In 1993, when record deals were being handed out like mix tapes, and street music was toping the charts, the two married. In 1994, the year Kurt Cobain ended his life, Johnny’s life would be redefined when his son was born. A couple of years later, their daughter joined their band.
On fatherhood: “there’s times it’s frustrating, and times when it’s amazing. But having a sense of pride when they accomplish something is pretty trick.” Kids are like that. So too are records.
On his favorite holiday season: “Oh, that’s Halloween.” One year his wife did their make-up with little dots, like they were pixelated to look like old newspaper cartoons. Johnny’s been close to making headlines, but comics seem to be the perfect fit for him.
On advice he’d give his younger self: “Invest in Apple computers.” Leave it to a drummer to remind himself that timing is key to success.
On advice for me: “Hit the drum heads like they owe you money!” Exactly what I plan on doing from this day on.
On tattoos: Johnny had plenty to choose from. A rose for his mother and his father’s old microphone, a pin-up girl, and the Zildjian logo (even though he is no currently sponsored by Saluda cymbals). The one that kept grabbing my attention was an old hot-rod etched into this forearm. “It’s my dream to own this car one day.”
Even if COVID has disrupted his world for now, Johnny still a wild man like his favorite Muppet...Animal, of course. One of the crazy things he has done recently: "Yes, I shot a crossbow at my cousin’s house." Turns out that it was not at his cousin’s house per se, but at a target at the back of his cousin’s property. “It was about 30 yards away. The first shot was bad. I don’t know where it went. But the second one hit.”
Anyone who has ever danced with the music industry, you know that you are rarely given a second chance if your first shot is off target. But that doesn’t seem to stop Johnny from producing hits. It seems to me, he was born for this.
To the average person this might sound strange. But to the creative mind of Eric, it makes perfect sense. What began as a way to creatively capture and chronicle his time in grad school, LEGO Eric often pops up all over the place – sometimes holding a cup of coffee or other times with a tool. “It’s a fun way to document the projects I’m working on without taking a selfie.” Eric has found a fun and entertaining way to bridge his creative imagination with his everyday world. No surprise, he is in the entertainment world.
As we talked, I could hear the footsteps of a production company stomping overhead in my house. They have rented it for a movie set, which I discovered was also Eric’s world. After receiving his B.A. in Theater from Hope College in Holland, MI. Eric moved to Chicago to act. This lead to him trying his hand at directing. “I always played with LEGO sets as a Director, not like a technician or an engineer. I played to create stories.” Turns out, that skill would later pay off.
“I was a better director than an actor.” But in order to get work, he started designing stage lighting for plays. And within a few years he was in grad school getting his MFA in Lightning Design. Today, he is back at his alma mater; only this time as a professor. “I always had a mind to teach.” But at one point, Eric also thought about ministry.
Like I said, I saw some of Eric’s LEGO creations years ago while visiting his parents in Spencer, Iowa. He is a PK – a preacher’s kid – like his sister Laura who I met exactly one week ago. It's not uncommon for a PK to want to follow in their parent’s footsteps. But few ever do. “I’m theologically connected, but I cuss like a sailor.” I can’t think of a better candidate. He confessed that the only thing he likes about ministry is having "the opportunity to write a well-crafted speech every week.” (I would be lying if I didn't say I'd totally have LEGO Eric do pulpit supply for me).
Eric is a story teller, like his parents. Like them, he has started writing a new story, with his wife, as newish father himself. “It’s what I wanted it to be” (when asked about fatherhood) but he was quick to add that “I never really liked babies. I always struggle with someone who doesn’t talk.” Eric likes to talk, and much like I am around both his parents, I held on to his every word.
When his grandmother asked him why he always played with LEGOs he told her, “I love to make up stories.” But he never wrote them stories down. “I should have but didn’t.” Another thing he hasn’t done, but would love to one day, is shoot a crossbow. Like the advice he’d give to his younger self, “don’t sacrifice your dreams for a relationship.” If you want to shoot a crossbow, go for it.
Like I said to his sister, it was really nice to finally meet this man. And not the inch high version of himself. He is a professor of so much wisdom, a director of so much creativity, a big nerd dad and a man with an even bigger heart. He is confident, yet humble; eager to learn, but ready to teach; always ready to create the next scene or set the mood for it.
As I heard someone yell, “Cut!” above me, it seemed like the perfect time to dim the lights and gave him an applause. Life is a story that plays like a movie, or a sitcom, or a drama. And for some people, maybe a musical. When it happens, you can bet Eric and LEGO Eric will be there to play it out for our entertainment. That in itself is a ministry – finding your talent and living faithfully in it.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”