Monday, June 29, 2009

Good Writing is Still Best Savored in Print

If you want to read a good story, one that will make a good day great or a cruddy day tolerable, go to a local store and purchase the June 28, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated. The cover story features big league catcher Joe Mauer, who is chasing a .400 batting average this season. His is a fine story, but the gem of the issue is the one pictured to left, "The Way It Should Be" by Thomas Lake. The picture is of the issue opened up on top of my wife's laptop with a post-it note in the middle saying "Read this."

Lake's essay tells the now-famous story of Mallory Holtman and Liz Wallace, who helped opponent Sara Tucholsky record her first and only collegiate home run. Tucholsky tore her anterior cruciate ligament while rounding the bases. These two opponents, led by Holtman, literally carried her around the bases, helping her touch each one along the way. You can see the a video essay by ESPN at the end of this post, but you should really read the story first.

To be sure, this is a great character story, but that is not my point. My point is that Lake's telling of the story makes one of the great character-though-sports moments of my life better, and reading it in print enabled me to savor the story in a way that a digital edition just cannot. The article is filled with anecdotes of how the story affected very different people all over the country and puts Holtman's act in the larger context of her story.

I began reading the article at the lunch table, and then I wadded up the magazine and took it to another room. Then phone calls interupted and I set it, open, on my desk. On the way back to work I picked it up and scanned where I left off. Taken again by the story, I was forced to sit down and finish the last few paragraphs. Along the way the pages were stained a bit by the oils of the bread from my sandwhich. The magazine had been opened and closed, pages folded and unfolded and krinkled. All of this indicated that the magazine had been handled quite a bit. Thus, the folded up pages on my wife's computer, stained by my finger prints, with the hand-written note communicated much more than the words on the note. It said, "This really moved me" in a way that cannot be replicated by an email or Facebook link or even a post-it note on a Kindle. I would like to think that this is significant, as my wife longs for the intimacy of knowing my thoughts, and like most men what I'm "feeling" often goes without notice.

Good writing is still best savored in print. Indeed, there is something about print that makes good writing qualitatively better, especially when it is shared.

It is a funny convergence, this reading of the Lake essay today, as I had been thinking about print and digital media since Friday, when Robb Krecklow, the publisher of the Van Wert Times Bulletin and a member of my congregation, published a column on how print media is still very much around, even if the digital revolution is changing things. I would love for the paper to start putting Robb's column up on the web.


Perhaps that would defeat part of the purpose.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dried Cork

One more night of vacation Bible school (VBS) to go! The kids are having lots of fun and (it appears) learning a bit in the process. By the end of the evening, however, I'm tired and like to unwind with a glass of vino. As a conoissuer of cheap Chilean wine I was ready to try my last remaining bottle; namely that of the 2004 Solterra carmenere grape. Now, I say I like to have a glass of wine, but the truth is that I'm no expert. I have a good and helpful little cork removal tool, and I haven't had any trouble with it in a while, but this evening was a disaster. First there was this:

Then there was this:

Thus, I forced to do this:

Now, I was expecting a bit more out of this wine, as I paid an additional $1 for this particular bottle (The "Reserve" got me.), but it ended up having the aroma of something like an alpaca farm. Thus, in addition to the totally dry cork that forced me to strain my vino, the wine itself did not go well with my low-fat Cheese-its.

In any case, it made for a good laugh with me and my wife, and that's always worth it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pastoring in a Rural City

Pastoring in a Rural City

by Rev. Lance Armstrong O’Donnell

12 April, A.D. 2007; rev. 9 June, A.D. 2009[1]

Earthly Point of Contact

“Hey, Lance!” I hear from the lane next door. I have just walked into the local bowling alley. It is early spring and my youth group is out for a little Sunday afternoon fun. I turn to see a couple familiar faces, but at first I cannot remember the names, so I say hello and we begin to talk. I became acquainted with this couple at a neighborhood association meeting, and our conversation is about some of the issues that drew us together in the first place, a conversation that quickly leads us to local politics, for two of my members are running for local office, and both are involved in the issues about which we are speaking. However, the member running for mayor is not mentioned, so I say, “What about so-and-so?”

“Oh, he hasn’t been here long enough. He’s only been here twenty years or so.”


The little interchange above says a great deal about what rural communities value and how they are organized and function. One must understand that I met this couple over city-type issues, namely, proposed changes to the increasingly busy state highway that runs right through town and right in front of my church building. Furthermore, the man speaking to me is not fond of the current mayor and knows that he has been a divisive figure. Moreover, the current mayor is not a native son of the community either. What matters, in the mind of this man and to most people in rural settings, is that the one of candidates has been here longer. Longevity reigns.

Now, in the larger cities in which I have lived and worked, it is hard for me to imagine the opponent of an unpopular mayor being dismissed because he’s “only been here twenty years or so.”

All this is to say that in a rural city you will have some “city” issues like indigents, traffic problems, drugs, crime, race, poverty. My experience suggests that such issues in suburban and urban communities are typically faced in a “can-do,” urgent, and functional manner. (The “inner city,” I believe, is another matter.) My experience in urban and suburban environments suggests, for example, that if the mayor isn’t doing his job well enough, then people will not have significant value conflict with electing a new mayor, even if he hasn’t been around that long. However, in a rural community, even a rural city, communal ties are strong and generational, and the value priorities are different: longevity reigns.

This is not to say that merit and function and urgency and a host of other values are irrelevant in the rural environment. It is simply a matter of priority, and this has profound implications for ministry.

What is a “Rural City”?

Before I continue, let me speak for a minute about the seeming paradox of the “rural city.” (The U.S. Census Bureau calls the city I’m talking about a “micropolitan,” but not all micropolitans are “rural,” so I’ll stick with “rural city.”) The rural city is a center of commerce and population that serves as the hub of a larger geographic area whose ethos is agricultural. The rural city has houses closely packed, some with small yards and many with no yards at all. It will have run down buildings and graffiti and--as I alluded before--in microcosm, most if not all of the issues faced by larger urban centers. The difference is that most of those living in the rural city, deep-down, do not think of themselves as “city people,” and for myriad reasons, they choose to stay even though moving to an urban center would present many of them with greater opportunities for economic and cultural “advancement.” They choose to stay, typically, because their value priorities are family, community, longevity, a tie to the land. These things trump all others.

Ministry in the Rural City

Many reading this will say, “Of course!” because they are from rural areas, but those from urban areas, or those who have acclimated to the suburban-urban value set, will find ministry in the rural city confounding. And, truth be told, even those from rural environments will be confounded because the very decision to leave and attend the seminary is a decision driven by different value priorities. One leaves “the plow” behind because the call to serve trumps all other things. When you make that decision, when the call to serve overrides all other values, you automatically are at odds with those who choose to stay.

Thus, I am increasingly convinced that the only way to overcome the longevity obstacle (and other values obstacles) and faithfully pastor in such an environment is to view one’s self as a missionary.

A missionary, of necessity, is a pastor and sociologist. A missionary understands that he is an outsider and that he will likely always be an outsider. He accepts that reality and even sees it as an advantage. His God-given task is to proclaim the Gospel, and as an outsider he may be able to understand the people to whom he is sent in ways that they cannot see themselves, and if he is wise he may be able to preach the Gospel to them in a manner that penetrates even more deeply into the soil of their lives. Thus, a missionary will consciously use all the tools at his disposal--earthly and theological. Like the missionary in a totally foreign land, he will immerse himself in their lives, taking the attitude of a learner, asking Who? What? Why? When? How? He will assiduously take notes. He will honor his “ancestors” in the ministry and the ancestors that make up the fabric of communal memory in the land to which he is sent. He will learn to speak ill of no one, for all are related. He will take, from the very beginning, the long view. He will not look vainly at his own ministry. He will see that it is Christ’s mission, and trust the Word to grow in due season. He will find his joy not in the immediate signs of “success” so important to the suburbanite, but in the glory of discovering the Word itself.

Indeed, the more the rural city missionary immerses himself in the people’s lives and comes to know them and their values, the more he agonizingly prays for wisdom as to how the Gospel is to be proclaimed, the more he will understand that he is Christ’s instrument, and the more he will find the Word taking deep root in himself.

Yes, pastoring in a rural city is a missionary task, and if this is your call, may our Lord Christ prosper the work of your hands.

[1]. This essay was submitted at the request of the Rev. Scott Stiegmeyer of Concordia Theological Seminary for a collection of essays for seminary students. It was not included among the final collection, but my convictions remain as a missiological and pastoral statement.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Revenge" Comes to Van Wert!

Our local newspaper, the Van Wert Times-Bulletin (, is reporting today that automotive design corporation Revenge Designs will build a new sedan in Van Wert, Ohio based around the radical and highly efficient new motor designed by Doug Pelmear. 

This is an E85-only engine that is reported to get 110 miles per gallon. The Times Bulletin reports that Pelmear "has placed one of his motors inside a 1986 Ford Mustang, qualifying for the multi-million dollar first prize in the Progressive Automobile X Prize by averaging 110 miles per gallon. Pelmear quickly pointed out, however, that this is not some gas-sipping motor that will be impractical for general use. It performed at that mileage level while still producing 400 horsepower and 500 ft.-lbs of torque."

Those are amazing figures, and great news for our area of the world!
For the Revenge Design facility story see "Revenge Designs Chooses Van Wert for Facility" (

For more on the innovative Pelmear engine see "Pelmear Opens Manufacturing Facility for 110 mpg Engine" at

Monday, June 1, 2009

The 2009 GM Bankruptcy and Childhood Lessons on Leadership and Responsibility

I think there is a lot that I should not say right now, so I will be brief, but the collapse of General Motors makes me want to SCREAM!!!!

Pictured to the left is an image of the Pontiac "J Car" that I lifted off wikipedia. I was just a kid when my father, a mid-level General Motors manager-executive, bought a new one of these for my mother and her long drive to and from work. It was a piece of #%^$ from the moment he brought it home, and that is a charitable statement coming from a pastor.

Look, I know that a lot of innocent people are going to be hurt by this, including MANY in my own family, but I can't see these headlines and ponder what is going to happen to my mother with the potential loss of my father's pension, and not think of the string of explitives that poured forth from my father's mouth when his brand new J car was falling apart. I can't help but think of the lessons on leadership that he gave that day. I was just a kid, but I vividly remember my dad talking about the better way of quality that he had learned while stationed in Japan in he early 1960s. I remember him being really *&^(& about that J car and telling me, basically, that union and management leadership failed in their moral responsibility to put the systems in place to build a better car when they knew it was possible. 

Leadership makes a difference, and though I'm not an auto industry insider, it's impossible to avoid the conclusion that over the years the labor AND management leadership failed. To be sure, the quality of GM vehicles has improved markedly since that wretched J car, but any eejit with half a brain knew that the rise of the Eastern economies would at some point drive up demand for gas and that fuel prices would spike.  Yes, all these manufacturers are being hit by a big storm, but some are weathering it better than others, in part, because they had the foresight to invest in less profitable products in the short term because it would better help them to prepare for the future or other eventualities.

To see a future problem and look the other way, or to know a better way and choose to ignore it, is not just a "mistake," it is a moral failure--dare I say?--a sin.  This lesson applies in all areas of life. In fact, it's interesting just how often I think of that J car example in my pastoral work. It can be very easy for a pastor to see issues in his congregation and say to himself, "I'll leave it for the next guy to clean up." There is no faithfulness and love of neighbor in that sentiment. 

Whether as a pastor or a parent or as a worker on the line or as a senior executive, part of our responsibility to our neighbor whom God has called us to serve is to--in the words of Martin Luther--"help him to improve and protect his possessions and income." The collapse of General Motors will be an abiding lesson to me about the consequences of bad leadership. It reminds me of how my father passionately rejected my occasional --to use his words-- "half-@#!" effort at my childhood chores and always encouraged me to "do it right the first time."

We have a moral responsibility to do the best we can at what God has called us to do. There is no other way.