Joe Kay is the associate minister at Nexus United Church of Christ, Butler County, Ohio. He also writes a weekly blog at https://joekay617.wordpress.com. His email address is listed on the blog, in case you care to contact him directly.
Articles By This Author
Packing Hate and Risking Love
The sickness in our society is driven by the way we mistrust and pull away from one another; how we decide to care only about ourselves and our immediate families; the way we choose to serve only those who are like us – same race, ethnic background, sexual orientation, religion, political views.
Everyone else gets minimized and pushed away. We arm ourselves to protect our shrinking little space. We live like moles, wary of predators.
In guns we trust. In fear we live.
From This Day Forward
When I reached high school and started dating, my relatives had a lot of questions: "This girl you’re going to the movies with: Is she Catholic? Slovak? What’s her family’s last name? What does her father do for a living?"
She had to be Catholic, of course. Preferably Slovak. If not, some other nearby nationality. Anything less would get disapproving comments. Those questions may sound odd now, but they mattered back then. The Catholic Church had only recently concluded Vatican II, which tried to bridge centuries of animosity between churches. Accepting Protestants as equals was something new. And many of the immigrants in my neighborhood were trying to preserve the culture and traditions that they brought from Europe. They were afraid of losing their heritage in the new land.
For them, traditional marriage meant choosing someone from the same faith, the same ethnic background. Simply put, they were afraid. Terrified, actually. They feared that if marriage changed, their world would fall apart.
That's why to so many people, my relationship wasn’t about finding someone who fit me — it was more about me finding someone who fit them.
Finding God in Plain Sight
We looked at the famous photo of Earth taken from Apollo 8. If you remember, it was the first time we got to see ourselves from the vantage point of another body in space.
The boys wondered why the photo was so grainy. I told them it’s from the 1960s. They seemed to think those were prehistoric times and started talking about pixels.
I told them that the grainy photo of Earth kind of fits what we do at church. We try to help each other find God in this picture. Sometimes when it seems that God is nowhere to be found, we just have to look a little closer and recognize the divine everywhere.
Lauren Hill and the Morning Fog
As I stepped outside the gym at Mount St. Joseph on the morning of Oct. 23, I immediately noticed the sun working hard to burn off a thick fog that had obscured the sunrise.
And I thought: That’s what Lauren Hill is doing.
I’d just finished talking to Lauren. You might know her story. Lauren was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor during her senior year in high school. She asked God for a little guidance on what she should do with her final year of life.
Ask, and you will receive. She wanted direction. She got it.
Lauren decided to go ahead and attend Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati and play basketball, even though she had only months to live.
The goal was to play in a game and score a basket. As it turned out, she played in four and made five baskets — 10 perfect points.
She also started a foundation to raise money for cancer research, hoping doctors will find a cure for other young people after she’s gone.
Yeah, I know: Spending your precious, limited time helping others instead of worrying about yourself. What a concept.
Grace Bats Last
A bunch of us writers were in Florida covering spring training a few years ago. Our sports editor took us out to dinner. During the conversation, she asked if we ever found ourselves pulling for a favorite player to do well — say, in the ninth inning of a dramatic comeback.
The response was unequivocal and unanimous. No! Never! Not in the ninth inning!
By the bottom of the ninth, the story is written. Ready to be sent out as soon as the game ends. A lot of hard work has gone into those sentences. The home team had eight entire innings to take the lead. Sorry. They had their chances. Now they should just lose quietly. Don’t mess up my story!
For the most part, sports writers hate dramatic comebacks. You have to hit the “delete” key on a lot of hard work. And then you frantically rewrite on deadline, which is the toughest type of writing.
Some time later, though — and this may not come until you’re driving home at 3 a.m. — you let your brain throttle back from hyper drive and say: Wow, that was pretty cool. Even though it drove my typing fingers crazy.
One of the best things about sports is that there’s always a chance for something grand at the end. Something that can take your prose away — and your breath away — in one unexpected moment.
Maybe that’s why fans — OK, and yeah, even sports writers — revel in those incredible finishes. They remind us of the sweetly unpredictable nature of our lives. And how in each of our lives, as Anne Lamott puts it: “Grace bats last.”
I’ve seen that ninth-inning comeback play out many times.
Subversive Little Crumbs
I stood at the bread shelf in the neighborhood grocery store, trying to decide which loaf I should buy. Tough decision. I looked at all the types of bread and went back and forth many times.
Which one would be best for communion? I didn’t know. I’d never had to make this choice.
Our pastor was at a conference for the weekend. As the associate minister, I would be presiding over the Sunday service for the first time. Before he left, we went over the details of all that had to be prepared.
He reminded me that I needed to buy the bread for communion.
Uh, I hadn’t thought about that. Where do you get it?
“The grocery store will do just fine.”
So there I was, looking over the loaves, wondering which one looked the most, well, communion-y. Maybe that pretty, round Tuscan loaf. Wait, maybe the nice Jewish rye over there. My wry sense of humor kicked in. Jesus would smile over that, right? Being Jewish and all.
No, better not …
I finally picked an Italian loaf — mainly because it was big and it looked pretty and it was on sale. I put it in my basket and headed for the self-checkout line.
When I scanned the loaf, the automated voice asked: “Do you have any coupons?” No, no communion coupons. Not today.
I swiped my credit card and was reminded that my purchase would earn me a few cents off my next gasoline purchase. How’s that for transubstantiation — bread transformed into bonus points?
A Beloved Guest at Inn-Sanity
I’ve become a big fan of author Anne Lamott. How can you not love someone who says her thoughts about others are sometimes so awful "they would make Jesus "want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish?”
And when she screws something up — which would be often, of course — she has a “Bad Mind” that starts telling her she’s such a loser. Always has been, always will be.
I know that voice. A couple of weeks ago, we talked about that voice at church. Our reading was the story about Jesus getting baptized in a muddy river and how he heard a distinct and unmistakable voice talking to him as he stood there dripping. The voice called him beloved. Reassured him that he was loved, deeply and passionately. In our discussion after the reflection, I mentioned Anne’s "Bad Mind" and how it’s often my mind too, screaming to be heard and believed. Our pastor — who also likes Anne — asked if anyone else hears that Bad Mind voice. Everyone raised their hand. Nodded, too.
Yep. We all seem to be on a first-name basis with that voice. At least I’m not the only one.
Your Story Stinks … Oh, and Peace on Earth
The letter arrived at work about two weeks after baseball’s opening day in 2003. It had a Zanesville, Ohio, postmark. A return address sticker mentioned a Mrs. Howard Richardson.
What‘s this about?
Inside was a handwritten note along with a neatly clipped copy of my Cincinnati Reds season preview story from the Zanesville Times Recorder. I didn’t have to read far to get the gist.
This Mrs. Howard Richardson — she wasn’t happy with me. Not at all.
In beautiful cursive — the kind of handwriting you don’t see anymore — she pointedly took me to task for suggesting the Reds could be awful that season. I should be more positive, she insisted. It would help the players.
“You get more flies with honey than vinegar!!!!!” she wrote. (Yes, underlined and topped off with many exclamation points.)
The note was signed: Evelyn Richardson.
How A Drunk Man Got Home One Christmas Eve
I was 6 years old, growing up in Cleveland. It was Christmas Eve. The traditional Slovak meal was ready on the stove — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home so we could eat.
The waiting part was no surprise.
My dad was an alcoholic. During the Korean war, he went off to serve as a paratrooper. He was wounded. My mom said the experience changed him. He brought some personal demons with him when he returned.
Those demons seemed to emerge especially during the holidays. When my dad got off work, he’d go to a bar downtown near the butcher shop where he worked. The other workers would have a holiday drink and go home. My dad would stay and keep drinking. He couldn’t stop. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons. Who knows?
While he was at the bar, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.
Finally, my mom decided we would eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We always got new ones for Christmas, the kind with the footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes. Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited. My mom got very anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.
Finally, headlights lit up the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but it wasn’t my dad’s car. We could see two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.
Why Are Manger Scenes So Weird?
Figures in nativity scenes are pretty weird, aren't they? This is true of most manger scenes, whether we’re talking about the ceramic one under a tree or the statuesque one in a church or the plastic one on a lawn. First off, there’s Mary, always looking very fresh and calm and full of reflection — which is quite impressive considering that she just gave birth without any sedative. Then there’s Joseph, doing some kind of man-thing off to the side — holding a lantern or a large stick. He looks totally composed, too.
And there’s the baby Jesus with a full head of hair, wide-open eyes and arms outstretched like he’s ready to belt out a song.
Not to ruin anyone’s Christmas spirit here, but what the heck?
If our manger scenes were realistic, Mary would be recovering from a painful labor full of sweat and blood, with a look on her face that’s anything but serene. And Joseph — wouldn’t he be a nervous wreck, too? His hand too shaky to hold a lantern?
And about that newborn. Shouldn’t he be red-faced and screaming? Eyes clenched closed and wisps of hair stuck to the top of a head that‘s still odd-shaped from all the squeezing?
Instead, we’ve sanitized and romanticized it. We’ve removed all the blood and sweat and tears and pain and goo. It’s no longer something real. We’ve left out all the messy parts. The oh-my-God-what-now parts. The I’m-screaming-as-loud-as-I-can-because-it-really-hurts parts. The oh-no-I’ve-stepped-in-the-animal-droppings parts.
The real parts.
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