Minister's Study

Ministering, writing, and wrestling in a land flowing with sweet tea and deep-fried food

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Valley of the Shadow

We all walk through death's shadow from time to time in our lives. Not death itself -- for most, that comes but once. But each of us brushes against death when it comes to others, just bumping shoulders with the end of this life, time and again, until it is our turn to walk not merely the valley, but step into the cavern, or stride up the mountain of death.

This past week has held more shadows for me than most. I found out at work on Friday that a coworker had just lost not only her step-grandmother (to whom she was remarkably close), but also, in a completely separate incident, her husband's brother. The grandmother was almost expected to pass from this earth. The brother-in-law was not.

Then I found out (also on Friday) that a young lady in our church lost her grandmother, to whom she was also close. The viewing was to be Friday night, so we had to hustle through the car dealership as quickly as we could (which isn't very, but the car thing is less important, and therefore will be the subject of another post) to get there. The funeral and burial was to be held Saturday at 11 a.m.

Pastor Gibbs was headed out of town on Saturday, so I figured on heading up bus visitation, then heading home to work on my lesson and message for today. When I heard about the funeral, I figured I'd send the crews out on visitation and go to the funeral, probably.

Then came another phone call early Saturday morning. A man who attended our church (he has been in the process of moving to the next county, but he still drops in from time to time) was in the hospital, having had some serious emotinal problems, Pastor told me, and the man had even threatened to commit suicide the night before. There's a lot of family difficulty history here that I won't get into.

So I went to bus visitation, sent the crews out, and headed down to the hospital, not really knowing what was going on there.

When I got there, this man was in the emergency room, and they wouldn't let me in immediately. His friend, a man who he led to the Lord a while back, was in the waiting room as well, and he began to fill me in as best as he could.

Apparently, this man had pulled a gun at a family member's house quite early in the morning and threatened to commit suicide. This initiated a four-hour stand-off with the police, including the SWAT team. The poor friend was in the house, while his former mentor waved a gun and ordered him around.

It ended when the SWAT team burst in (here I get conflicting details, but what follows is agreed upon by all) and tasered the man into submission, handcuffed him, and hauled him off to the hospital for involuntary commitment.

His friend, who was there for all of this, was really shook up. He had just been through a scene from a movie, and real people don't belong in movie scenes. Some things, some situations, they just don't prepare you for in high school. For that matter, dealing with the aftermath of a situation like this got left out of the curriculum in Bible college too.

What do you say to a man, with armed special police hovering over your shoulder or just outside the room, who just came out of a four-hour armed standoff, who faces the problems he faces, who is angry at the way he has been treated (and there is some lasting bitterness over some real wrongs -- confirmed by the courts -- done to him and his family by Social Services people already)?

What do you say to his friend, who went through this ordeal? All I could do was reassure him that he did the right things. His actions may well have saved his friend's life, and perhaps even the lives of others.

And then comes the sobering realization that it could easily have been me in that house with a drunk man from my church waving a pistol and threatening to shoot me, himself, his family members, with the SWAT team poised outside. When life and death can hang balanced on whether a word spoken is the right one or not, it is then that I realize my insufficiency, the fact that in that shadowy valley, it's hard to see where to put my feet. The thing I see clearest is the oft-forgotten reality that I really need the Spirit to show me where to place my feet as I walk through that dim Valley of the Shadow of Death.

Friday, April 27, 2007

A bit in my blood

A little bit of the newspaper mindset must have snuck into my blood in the past months. Or maybe it's just my ultra-competitive nature manifesting itself again here.

I find myself taking perhaps overmuch delight whenever we break a story before the other news outlets. I find myself searching the other newspapers, and even checking online with the TV stations, to make sure we beat them to the punch with important stories.

Many people proclaim that they play various sports, enter various competitions, for "love of the game." Some of these profess that they just play for fun -- it doesn't even matter if they win or lose, so long as they get to play.

But I've got to say that for me, playing is much more fun if I win. It makes the 18-hour Mondays and bleary-eyed Tuesdays seem more worthwhile if I can look at our competitors on Wednesday and Thursday and see filler or old news where I wrote a story about something new and relevant. It's even more fun when I read their next week's paper and see them trying to play catch-up, running basically the same article we ran a week before.

We've been getting a fair amount of that lately, which makes this all a bit more fun. A few weeks ago, my editor wrote a piece on a new development -- a 3,000 house development -- that had been rumored for ages, but no one had anything concrete about. Until we did. Several weeks back, we were the first to find evidence that one of our commissioners was moving (again, rumors had flown for ages, but no one had proof). I picked another story out of a letter to the editor of another paper, and it turned out to be a pretty big deal. This past week, all the other papers, even the nearby daily, were scrambling to cover it. In this week's paper, I wrote a piece on Rep. Thomas Wright being called up for public investigative hearings by the State Board of Elections. The weekly would almost certainly have beaten us on that one, but their Raleigh desk chief (who has covered this issue very, very well for the most part -- best work I've seen from that paper) was on vacation, and none of the other local three were clued in. That was fun. We've been beaten a couple of times too, but lately, I'm pretty sure we're winning a good deal more often than we're losing. And whether its ink in my blood or something much older than that, I like it.

In the church world, there really aren't any scoops. If I come up with a new doctrine, that's likely a problem, not a good thing. That sense of competitiveness can't control church ministry -- I'm not trying to compete with other pastors. Guess I'll have to get back to wrestling or chess or something.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Ambassador Baptist Bible College ensemble visit

Boy, it's so easy to fall behind on one of these. I'll think of things I ought to mention in the blog, but by the time I actually get to sit down for a few minutes, there's such a heap that I've forgotten half of them. Of course, the forgetting thing comes pretty naturally, however small a heap of whatever I'm trying to remember there is.

This past Sunday, a men's quartet from Ambassador Baptist Bible College came to sing for the church. That works out in a lot of ways; they took my Sunday School class, which meant I only had to prepare for one message on Saturday and Sunday (it's a bear getting ready for two full-length messages/lessons while working as much as I do). They're also not bad as a singing/preaching group. Not only that, but I had a lot of friends who went there a few years ago, and there is just enough overlap that some of these guys knew some of them.

But the kicker is that one of them turns out to be from the exact same tiny little Minnesota town as my wife! They never lived there at the same time, I think, but they knew so many of the same people and places. And they ran into each other in a tiny little SE North Carolina town, of all places.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Talking to a talent

Wednesday afternoon my wife and I got to talk to a voice from across the sea. Our online acquaintance, known to us as Liloo, let us give her a call. Liloo is an immensely talented young writer who lives in Paris (though she has connections with an astonishing number of places around the world).

Liloo's real name is Aliette de Bodard, and when she's not working for a company that programs guidance codes for missiles, she's writing top-notch fiction. Aliette is a Writers of the Future winner, and has now been published multiple times, with several of her stories being right up there in my all-time-favorites list. My wife has been working on an interview with her for a young new magazine started by the Notebored and Liberty Hall.

Aliette is very good, and it was a pleasure and an honor to chat with her for a bit.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Strawberry pickin'

Yesterday, the closest thing to a day off I take these days, we got up in the morning and decided to go strawberry picking. There were lots of other things we probably needed to be doing, but sometimes, you just have to take a break.

The farmers markets have started carrying strawberries, so I figured it wouldn't be any trouble to find a you-pick place. There was an ad in our paper for a strawberry farm, so we drove down there, and sure enough, the plants were loaded with enormous, succulent berries.

Unfortunately, they wouldn't let us pick them. They'd sell us boxes that they had picked (and they looked good), but that's just not the same to a five-year-old (or to this 28-year-old, either). Might nice folk they were, and told us about the only you-pick farm in the area, which turned out to be down in Wilmington.

So we went, and got lots of berries, the gigantic, juicy, perfectly ripe sort. Yum, yum. We love it down here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Here we go again

Well, I'm in my last two weeks with the newspaper. Especially in the aftermath of the passing of my father (which, though it does not cripple me with grief -- Christian, remember -- does affect me, more now than I think I realized at first), it would be easy to be coasting by now, taking soft stories, working steady hours to keep the paycheck coming in for the last couple of weeks before I go full-time with the church, but not doing anything heroic or controversial.

And then there was Monday. The hours were the least of it (I was working from 9 a.m. to 4:30 a.m., except for a bit less than an hour off for supper, and then back in the office at 9:15 a.m. to write one last story.) It's not the paper's fault that my dad died -- it's no one's fault, but it left the paper without a writer they expected to have last week. So the long hours were partly just due to me doing my best to get the job they pay me for done in the time I was there.

But see, something controversial came up. Now, considering I may already rank in the top 5 most hated people on this side of the county right now, at least by people involved in local politics (these things happen when you try to tell the truth without soft-pedaling around people because of their "importance" or affiliation), I really didn't need another controversial story. Shucks, Monday, a lady came in to meet me face to face (we had talked on the phone in an interview or two), and best I can tell, she mostly just wanted to know who to despise, what face to put with those articles she hated so much (for what it's worth, she thought I quoted her fairly). It's a pity -- I think she's a sweet lady, and I like her.

But hey, I wouldn't be me if I ran away from something controversial. Nice thing is, when I told this lady about this other story, I think she left so mad at someone else she might have forgotten to be mad at me (not that I did it for that reason -- I told her about it because it's an issue I knew she'd want to know about and be involved in).

Turns out the Pender County Ministerial Association has been basically teaching Bible classes in two local high schools. Now, the school board (led by their lawyer and superintendent, if what I'm hearing is right) has decided that they need to change how all this is done -- so they've cancelled the classes for next year.

The Bible classes have been entirely funded by donations from the community, textbooks and all. They are electives -- no one has to take them. In fact, the popularity has been such that they have had to add classes, and the ones they have are basically full. The curriculum was chosen because it is a "historical" text, not a "faith-based" text. It has apparently been tested in court for constitutionality and passed. The ministerial association chooses the teachers, and they are well-enough regarded that they have apparently been asked by the schools to help with coaching, counseling, etc.

The school board, saying they are worried about lawsuits, wants to bring the entire program under their control. It's fine with them if the churches and community want to keep giving money, but they have to give it to the school system with no strings attached other than that it go to Bible classes. They want to choose the curriculum (why they'd want to change at this point, I'm not sure, considering the one in use has withstood court challenge successfully), and they want to hire the teachers the same way they'd hire any other teacher, with no input from outside. And they have cancelled the classes for next year, apparently on the assumption that they can't get these things done in time.

Now, best as I can tell, there has not been one complaint within the county about these classes. (There was one complaint -- not a lawsuit, just a threat of one from the ACLU -- in an urban neighboring county, which apparently brought this about.) The schools tell me that these are rules they have to obey -- the teachers have to be certified, and so on. But no one has shown me where these rules come from. And if what they're doing now is against the rules, federal or state, why did they break the rules since 1983 (or whenever these rules went into effect)?

The school board and superintendent say they have nothing against Bible classes, and the ones that exist have been handled wonderfully with nothing but positive comment. They say they don't want to change a thing, but they have to. The Ministerial Association says the changes are arbitrary and unnecessary, probably just a power play to bring one more thing under school board and superintendent's office control. The Ministerial Association says it is willing to work on a compromise, but hasn't received any indication the superintendent is willing to even dialogue with them as equals, much less compromise.

There are some ironies here. I'm not a member of the ministerial association. Lots of great guys in there, but many of us are just so many leagues apart in what we believe that my presence would probably either be contentious or wasted, and I see no point in either outcome. I am EXTREMELY leary of the Bible being taught in public schools, particularly from a perspective I think is foreign to it and by teachers I expect don't even look at it close to the same way I do. There are other reasons, but even as a pastor, I'm not a huge fan of bringing religion into the school systems. There's another pastor who does part-time work for us, largely as a photographer (he's really, really good -- his sports photography belongs in the national magazines sometimes, not just a local paper), but also as a writer. And he and I are both pretty ambivilant about the Bible being taught in a public school classroom.

Funny thing is, our editor, using basically the same logic as a Time Magazine article earlier this month (which he hadn't even read) editorialized that these classes ought to remain -- the Bible is a huge part of our culture, and when taught as a historical and literary work, is something any educated United States citizen should be aware of, whether they disagree with it or not. This goes double when you've got people willing to do it at no cost to the school system, while the schools scream about lack of funds.

So he wrote the editorial (I did proof and contribute, even though I'm not sure I'm 100% behind it, so any problems with it are still partly mine), and I wrote the article. Schools versus the churches. And we thought Democrats versus Republicans could be contentious. Here we go again.

Monday, April 16, 2007

My dad

It's always tough to sum up a person's life in a few words, or even a few pages. People try at funerals, glossing over the rough spots, hitting the high points. Full-scale biographies seem to come a little closer, but I'm not even sure most of them are adequate.

How would I describe my father, David B. Robelen? I wish I had the time and space at the moment. My wife suggests, after hearing some of what she heard as his friends and acquaintances quietly spoke, that I try to write a biography. Maybe someday; he was a remarkable, brilliant, innovative man, who never put himself forward, and so often never really received his due. Even for me, who knew him for 28 years, about 24 of which I can remember, there are big shadowy places in his 67 years, entire decades of which I know little but a few cute stories and a snapshot or two.

At the moment, though, here is an autobiography he wrote about four years ago. It includes some of his accomplishments in the model aircraft world and several pages of pictures at the end.

The thing with that is that first, it just focuses on his model aircraft accomplishments -- it barely mentions his 37 years at NASA (he was there from the start, hired the day it became NASA instead of the NACA). Much of what he did there was classified, but there is a lot to tell, even from what isn't. Then, remember that he never puts himself forward. He would rather focus on the airplane, the equipment, than on the innovativeness that produced it, or the world record it set and holds. And finally, with the pictures, there just wasn't anyone taking photos at all the best times.

Maybe when I get a little more time, I'll post some of the pictures I've got, or some more links. My wife wrote a blog entry about him, which includes more links, too.

For now, I've got to head off to start my grueling Monday.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Back again

I'll have to post more about my dad and our trip later, but for now, we're back.

We got there and back safely (with one little hitch when we were pulled over -- because the rental's license plate wasn't done properly.)

Now, it's back to trying to get ready for tomorrow.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Sunday and Monday down, Tuesday and following to go

Church went well yesterday for Easter. We had a solid crowd, although due to some folk out for medical and travel reasons, we actually had more last Sunday, which I think is a bit funny. Sunday is always grueling, and although it is a joy, it's definitely hard work.

Today was a Monday. That meant a 13+ hour day at the paper (rather short for a Monday, really), in this case, playing catchup from being gone on vacation all last week, as well as trying to get ahead. I think we may have gotten a scoop or two with some help from our new advertising guy. I ended up writing four short articles today, along with doing the (brief) crime reports. (Apparently, many criminals take Easter week off too -- crime was unusually low last week.)

It looks like my job is pretty desirable, and not just to me. I think at last count, the editor had 14 or 15 applications for my position.

Anyhow, tomorrow, I'm off to pick up a rental with a gentleman from our church (which has been tremendously gracious in all of this). Then it's up to VA for a viewing tomorrow evening and a funeral on Wednesday morning. Then we'll play it by ear for our return.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Dad's in heaven

I just got word from my mom a little while ago that my father passed away this afternoon. She insists there is nothing we can do there right now, so I should do my preaching tomorrow, write for the paper Monday, and head up to VA on Tuesday.

Those of the praying persuasion, if you could keep our family, particularly my siblings, in your prayers, I'd appreciate it.

I'm not sure exactly when I'll be back. Probably Friday or Saturday. I feel a little bad about the strain this puts on the pastor here and the newspaper (I've never been this unreliable in my life!) But sometimes, family has to come before any other group of people.

Fortunately, all six of his children had the opportunity to see him in the week or two before he died, and we know he is a believer and therefore in heaven.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Back from vacation

In the whirligig that is my life, I guess I forgot to mention here that we were going on vacation. Maybe that's because we took off immediately after I finished working a 9-9 at the paper to try to get a few articles in prior to leaving.

We drove down to North Myrtle Beach to meet my wife's parents. We spent a little time there, saw some of Charlestown, camped out on Hunting Island for two nights, passed around a flu bug (I'm still recovering), slept nowhere near enough, and had a generally good time. Pretty normal for a vacation, I guess. I'll see if I can get a bit more up about it when I get the chance.

And politicians wonder why we don't trust them

One of our Pender County commissioners sold his house and farm a little while back.

Now, it's not normally a big deal when your average Joe sells his place -- hardly the concern of the public, unless we're dealing with an unusual or historically significant property, a newsworthy buyer, or a lot of land/money. And in this case, you've kind of got all three. But it's important for a much bigger reason in this case.

You're not supposed to be a Pender County commissioner unless you live in Pender County, specifically in your district. Now, rumors have been flying since even before the last election that this commissioner wasn't going to finish out his term, but that's all they were -- rumors. So naturally, we didn't print them in a newspaper. It's part of our job to sort out facts from rumors (something I think a lot of national news outlets have forgotten).

But when he sold his property -- that was a fact. So I called him up to ask him about it. He rhetorically asked what business it was of the newspapers, and hung up on me.

Well, it's the business of the newspapers because it's the business of the people if they're about to have a change of representation (and, of course, there are those other three reasons above why it was newsworthy).

This commissioner has family ties to the newspaper, and the paper and he were always very friendly, up until the change in ownership, and he still has friends in the office. Unfortunately, before he and the new owners and editor had a chance to develop a good working relationship, he was involved in leading the Democratic Party's attempt to redistrict the county, and he did it in a way that seriously called into question his openess and honesty.

Now, following that fiasco, myself and the editor actually drove out to his farm and let him tell his side of the story, complete with attacks on a couple of his former allies who kind of changed sides. I wrote the story, and while it was a scoop for us (no other paper really had his side), it was also a real benefit to him to be able to give his side without us challenging his account or allowing his opponents to do so.

Well, fast forward to two papers ago, and he wouldn't speak to me at all about the sale of his property (maybe he forgot how far beyond any reasonable standard of fairness we went for him just a few weeks before). I would have been delighted to run an article with him explaining what was going on and his plans, either to stay there (a possibility, depending on the contract he has with the new owners), live elsewhere in his district (again, permitted -- you don't have to own land in your district to be a representative, just live there), or talk about who he would like to see take over his seat. But he wouldn't speak, which left me with public record facts, like who he sold it to, how much he got, what portion was cash, when the contract was signed, and so on, and then anything I could get from other people.

Now, I could have done a hatchet job on this commissioner, and I suspect papers do this. Since he wouldn't talk to me, I could have assumed that he was up to something under-handed and gone straight to his political enemies for quotes. And boy, would some of them have given them to me.

But I didn't do that. Instead, I called up a lawyer and asked about the legalities of a change of commissioners, and then I called this man's political allies and friends. And I quoted them saying that they expected him to finish his term, think he's a wonderful commissioner and doing a great job.

When we ran the article, I did quote his rhetorical question and say that he hung up on me -- that's all he gave me, and I did use the factual material about the sale of the property, because the story wouldn't have had much meat without it.

While writing that story, some things seemed odd, so I kept looking into the sale of the property, and I heard more rumors, so I kept looking. Turns out the new owners (kind of -- they'd created a whole new company just to buy this place) of the property just finished a hush-hush settlement of a class-action lawsuit for mistreating migrant laborers. And in spite of those reassurances from this commissioner's allies, the new owners said he only had the right to stay in the house until January -- still a year before the end of his term.

Meanwhile, this commissioner called in and cancelled his subscriptions to our paper.

Well, it wouldn't be right to write an article about his plans (or this company he sold his farm to) without asking him -- that's just ethical journalism. So I called him. And basically as soon as we started talking, he started cussing. He accused me of doing a smear job on him (not even close to true), and of letting the cat out of the barn (of course, if everything is aboveboard, why should he care where the cat goes?). He insulted me in the most vulgar and profane of terms, insulted my mother, insulted me some more, and then hung up.

A couple minutes later, a co-worker told me I had a call. I picked it up, and it was the commissioner. He cussed me out some more and invited me out to his farm so he could try to beat me up. Then hung up again. Turning the other cheek was beginning to strain my neck, so maybe it's just as well he didn't have more along those lines to say at that moment.

Then he called back and wanted to speak to the editor. They went at it for a while, with him throwing accusations, apparently most upset that we had published his personal business. (Of course, everything we printed, except the lawyer's explanation and the quotes from his own friends, was all public record, available to anyone who wanted to go to the tax assessor's office and ask.)

And then it turned out that he hadn't even read the article. He had cancelled his subscription, cussed me out, basically threatened me both to me and to my editor, and thrown all manner of accusations at us -- without even reading the whole article that made him so mad or giving me a moment to explain that. I guess he never even knew that I played nice in that article, getting my information from his friends instead of his enemies.

Also in the course of that conversation, the editor tried to find out from him what his plans were as a commissioner. He explained that you don't have to own a place in a district to represent it (true, and I think I made that point in my first article), that his voter registration and taxes were handled here (good point, and something that would almost certainly be looked at in a court case), and then he went into explaining that he had been elected for a four-year term. The editor kept pressing, and he answered, on the record, that he was here "till death do us part."

Well, I wrote the next article, describing the new company (and the guy I talked to seemed pretty decent) and mentioning that although the new owners said he was only contractually allowed to stay in the property until January, he had said that he was there for the duration. Again, I would have loved to have more input from him (and it would have looked very good for him if he had made an on-the-record statement that he knew nothing about the new company's legal difficulties), but all I really had was what he told my editor on the record.

I took off on vacation (another story in itself), leaving the article behind. Then, after we went to press with that (remember, he said "till death do us part" and made a big deal of how he was elected for a four-year term), we found out he resigned. I guess he redid the math on that four-year term.

So where did all this cynicism about politicians come from anyhow? I just can't figure it out.

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