From Lexington and Concord to Bagdad, thank you.

I can stand on the courthouse steps and criticize my government or gather with fellow believers and worship God openly without fear because from Lexington and Concord, to Fort McHenry, to Belleau Wood, to Iwo Jima, to Chosin, to Bagdad, and in thousands of other battles, large and small, for more than 200 years soldiers have put on American military uniforms and all too often have given their lives. Thank you!

Banana Heads

I enjoy cooking, and since I’ve been sheltering in place because of the threat of COVID-19 on every door handle and shopping cart, I’ve had more than enough time to cook. Throwing a handful of raisins into the sauce today, my mid drifted back to my undergraduate days. (Don’t be shocked at the raisins. They balance the acid and bring out the sweetness of the tomatoes.)

My first degree was in music from Jacksonville State in the middle of rural Alabama. Ironically, it was there in the foothills of the Appalachians of all places, I met a petite Italian (Sicilian)-American, Mr. Giovanni Maltese, who has remained special in my memory. He taught music appreciation, music literature, and class strings. He was a particular pleasure to be around, though if you talked during class he would keep you in line by admonishing, “Shut up, you bunch of banana heads, and listen to the damn music.”

Beyond his passion for music, one of the things that endeared him to me was how he welcomed his students into his home. As with the Maltese family, my dad’s family came from Sicily. Dad tells stories from his childhood of his father cooking spaghetti sauce overnight and of big family lunches on Sundays at Aunt Katti’s after she had spent half the night cooking. In similar family style, Mr. Maltese invited his classes to his home at the end of each term.

The memory of an evening at his home, as one friend said, is like a dream now, just yesterday and yet forever ago at the same time. That night his students arrived to find several small tables set around. Sauce was simmering. The smell, oh, the smell. He placed the sauce and pasta on the tables, along with bowls containing various meats. We sat. He bowed his head and offered thanks. As the meal began, he lamented “a rude student” who some years before had wandered around “looking for God under the tables” after grace. Then I tasted his sauce for the first time, biting down on a raisin plumped with sauce. Ever since, raisins have been in my own sauces. Beyond this, the details of that evening fade to shadow, except for the feeling of welcome and home that permeated the evening and has followed me for forty years.

A few years ago before Mr. Maltese passed away at the age of 95, I contacted his son John for the recipe that I recall enjoying around the table, after thanking God for the meal of course.  

I share the recipe below and hope you enjoy it, as well as the love of family and friends around the table again soon. I pray we will recall how being apart from each other felt and allow that to make each meal and each moment all the more special. I think Mr. Maltese would agree, and I think he would also remind you to thank God for your meal… and your health.   

In John’s words and shared with his permission, here is the sauce that Mr. Giovanni Maltese learned from his mom from Trapani, Sicily.

It’s very easy. Use cans of tomato paste (two cans of water per can of paste) as the base. I usually add a can of tomato puree. You can make as much or as little as you like, but if you add a lot of meat, you’ll need a fair amount of sauce (for this pot I used 16 ounce cans of paste – remember to add the two cans of water per can of paste) and one 28 ounce can of puree. That’s quite a bit of sauce, but I’m cooking for a lot of people, and I want leftovers (the sauce freezes well). Simmer. Peel a couple of large onions and add 8-12 cloves of garlic (leave them whole) and brown them in olive oil and add them to the sauce. Then brown some sweet Italian sausage and add it. I do the meatballs by feel: ground beef, Italian bread crumbs, grated Parmesan and Romano cheese, lots of finely chopped garlic, parsley, pepper, garlic salt, and enough eggs so that the meat won’t fall apart. Brown the meatballs and add them to the sauce. Sometimes I add breaded chicken or veal cutlets (also browned in olive oil before being added), pork chops, even chopped zucchini. Add a couple handfuls of raisins. Simmer over low heat for about three hours. It tastes best if you refrigerate it overnight and simmer it again for about an hour or so the next day before serving. Believe it or not, there’s no other seasoning – the garlic, onions, and meat add plenty of flavor. Mangia!

Forsake Not Assembling Together, especially if there are pork chops with gravy

I had lunch today with a long-time friend who had come up because of the death of another Christian brother. As we broke bread, actually chips and salsa, I shared some thoughts that had been running through my head for several months regarding “not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together” (sorry, I think in KJV). Of course, the current situation with the COVID virus and prohibitions on public gatherings has sparked more than one social media conflagration about whether churches should hold services or not. And I’ll sheepishly confess I have been caught up in the machinations, going so saw far as to use the term whack-a-doodle. Yeah, that was mature of me. Anyway….

My thoughts really have little or nothing to do with whether my local congregation will hold worship services this Sunday or next. Instead, they go back to an article I read by a minister some months ago. In it, he discusses Hebrews 10:25. He commented that even when he took his family on vacation he made sure that they were in a worship service somewhere. While there is nothing wrong with this, I’m not convinced that’s exactly what the writer of Hebrews had in mind.  

I attend worship services weekly at my local church. We have numbers of gifted teachers who spend hours in preparation for their classes and deliver lessons that uplift and edify. My pastor’s sermons are biblically sound, culturally relevant, and frequently entertaining. The music pastor and his wife are the most musically gifted couple I have ever met, and they lead a choir and band that I would stack up against anyone. The services are powerful and moving. But for me, the most spiritually nourishing time, if you’ll pardon the pun, is the fellowship supper we share on Wednesday evenings.

Turning to scripture for a moment, consider the Acts 2:46 description of the gatherings of the first believers. They met daily at the Temple, probably observing the Jewish times of prayer, and in homes sharing meals with gladness. Far from the austere stereotype many have of believers, these first century brothers and sisters delighted in each other’s company.  This, likewise, is how I delight in the Wednesday evening fellowship suppers.  

I like seeing Michelle’s beautiful and welcoming smile when my kiddos and I walk in.

I enjoy verbal jousting with Wayne, the guy who keeps the kitchen humming. His dad Marvin and my grandfather were friends. In fact, his dad was instrumental in my grandfather hearing and responding to the gospel. Rita, his sister-in-law, and Pam work the serving window. Pam’s daughter Autumn was my work study when she was eighteen or nineteen. She was and is THE gold standard for being a conscientious young adult. This year I had her daughter in one of my college classes. She is a sweetheart like her mom.

I enjoy chatting with Lisa. We’ve known each other for about ever. Her dad was a minister with my dad. Back in the day, I served with her late husband as his music pastor. Our sons are about the same age and friends. We share memories, the struggles of single parenting, and hopes for our children’s futures over loaded baked potatoes or meatloaf.

I’ve known Johnathan, our young adult pastor, his entire life. His dad and my Uncle Allen were extremely close growing up, and over the last four years, Johnathan and I have grown close.  He’s my accountability partner. Since I am a single adult Christian, I hold myself accountable to him, and he inserts humor when he checks on me. His wife Tammie is mission focused! I like to pick at her, telling her that she’s one of only two people in this world I’m afraid of. (My Aunt Susie is the other.)

I enjoy chatting with David, a new friend, who should have his own food-on-the-go blog. The man knows food and how to enjoy life! He knows sorrow, too, a type of sorrow we share.  

Finally, my pastor and his wife eat with the congregation. He’s not a celebrity; he’s one of us.

Lest it seem I’m viewing life through stained glass colored lenses, I’m not buds with everyone. Sometimes we have disagreements. (Remember my whack-a-doodle comment. Yes, I’ve repented for it.) We may disagree, but we’re still family. We love each other, even when we don’t like each other so much.

THIS is “assembling together.” This is communion and community. This is where iron sharpens iron. It is also where wounds are bound and healing takes place. This is where we share our joys and sorrows.

Though it is important to spend time together in corporate worship expression, it is equally and maybe more important to share our lives intimately with each other, to strengthen and support each other, “especially as the Day approaches.”

Oh and yeah, pork chops with gravy are my favorite.

To Sing or Not to Sing: A Theological Conundrum

My son Nick is graduating high school and looking toward college and career. While he is not likely to go into music as a vocation, he is considering taking music classes and using his musical talent in church music. He’s already active in our local church’s music ministry and is musically gifted…. plus he practices, which is vital. But, that’s a conversation for another day.  Anyway, we have been having discussions about appropriateness of music, lyrics, etc., for different worship settings. Those conversations with my son have me reflecting on an event in a church service from a few years back.

When working on my master’s degree in music at Samford University, I took a course in its Beeson Divinity School. I was required to take two courses outside of the school of music. I chose an education course, a mistake, and a religion class with the head of the school and a fantastic instructor, Dr. Timothy George. In one of the classes, he recounted how in seminary as a student he noted that in chapel professors would not sing on certain verses of hymns because they disagreed theologically with the content of the verse. As an aside, this says something about hymns. Hymns, true hymns, are traditionally storehouses chocked full of theological “stuff,” which is one reason among many that I bemoan that my church tradition actually sang few historic hymns of the church and why I fret that even those churches that once included them have begun to drop their hymns by the wayside. But this is not about my regret at the dearth of hymns. It is, however, about bad theology set to catchy tunes.

A few years back I found myself in a church service where Dr. George’s anecdote came home to me in a visceral way. As I was participating in the congregational singing, the worship leader led a song that troubled me. Two things stood out. For one, it used the first person pronoun I ten times in the chorus. (Now, to be fair, it was a contemporary praise chorus, so it’s not like it had that many different words in it anyway). Still, as the song progressed I found myself unable to join in singing, not unlike those seminary professors who found themselves faced with a theological impasse. I could not go forward. I would not sing the lyrics.

Two things about the lyrics troubled me. First, the emphasis on I seemed at odds with the idea that we were engaged in corporate worship. Of course, I understand that individually we must have a relationship with Christ. But the emphasis was not about an individual relationship with Christ but sounded more about me… my… mine. This was reinforced, not only by the profusion of first person pronouns, but by the remainder of the lyrics.

My son, fifteen years old at the time, was in the same service. After church, he said something about how the song bothered him because of the emphasis on being so blessed and blessed every day and everyway sounded to him too much like Joel Osteen (his words, not mine). It was very much a sentiment that “I’m a winner. No worries. It’s all going to be rainbows and sunshine.” I cannot help but wonder why no one has set Romans 8:36 to music for a contemporary praise chorus: “For your sake we are killed every day, and we are accounted as sheep for slaughter.” (For the record, Romans 8:36 quotes Psalm 44:22, so it has been set to music at least once by our ancient Jewish forebears.)

I have to wonder, where is our sense of sacrifice for the sake of Christ and the gospel? How would our brothers and sisters facing persecution and martyrdom at the hands of Islamic extremists in the Middle East or at the hands of a communist government in China respond to the I-I-I-am-blessed-and-blessed-the-best songs that we glibly sing? Or what of Hus, Polycarp, or the Apostle Paul? What would they who willingly laid down their lives say about our we-are-all-winners-everyday theology?

I wonder if they would sing along or remain mute.

Ten Tips for Moving to Online Instruction with Short Notice

With school closings from elementary through university across the country as a response to COVID-19, many are opting to use online learning options and often doing so on short notice and with limited experience in online instruction. I don’t mean to be presumptuous with this blog. I don’t claim to be an expert. But since I teach online and face-to-face classes, I’ve been contacted by friends who are new to online instruction and are having a baptism of fire. Here are a few tips I put together. This is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully it is a good start for those moving to online instruction on short notice.

I keep an ancillary page for all of my face-to-face classes. I seldom use it for instruction. Still, it is great to hang handouts in, etc. However, it can quickly be turned into an instruction page, for example, when I have to attend a conference or go to an offsite meeting or am out sick. So that’s a good idea for the future.

For now, KISS. Keep it simple, except none of you are stupid.

Your institution likely has an adopted online learning management system and a basic template for it. Find out and use it. If not, there are free versions such as Moodle, which happens to be one I’ve used.

1. First, communication is paramount. Decide how you will communicate and announce this to your students repeatedly. (You know why.) Use it frequently. This reinforces and reassures. Also, post contact information prominently. Communication is half the battle.

2. Put all important documents and handouts in one folder/module/unit, even if you duplicate in other instruction areas.

3. Take some time and decide how best to organize your instruction. Then construct folders/modules/units for each topic or lesson in whatever online platform your school uses. REMEMBER TO MAKE CONTENT PUBLIC/VISIBLE.  But don’t go for whistles and bells at this juncture. Make life easy for your students and yourself.

4. Make SHORT instruction video/audio recording with free software. I use Screencast-O-Matic. But there are several. Divide your lecture/discussions into 10 minute or shorter snippets. (Shorter snippets work well in live instruction also, but that’s a pedagogical discussion for another day.)

5.  Use free stuff like Screencast-O-Matic, Skype, Freeconferencecall.com, Zoom. Also, most major publishers are opening up their online resources for free. Yes, it’s a way for them to show off their wares, but so what. Use it. Contact your local rep for more info. And there are lots of open access resources, Youtubes, etc. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Use a free one.

6. Devise alternative forms of assessment. A scantron test shouldn’t be the only method you’re using anyway. Be creative. There are lots of ways to determine if your students are learning.   

7. Finally, be patient. Reassure your students. Many of them are panicking. Also, others think it’s a vacation, so get their attention.

8.  Social media might also be a valid part of your online plan. If you decide to utilize social media, however, be cautious of privacy issues.

9. Move forward without panic. You’ve got this. You’re a professional. You’re going to be fine.

10. I couldn’t really think of a tenth tip, so I’ll just add wash your hands frequently and sanitize your keyboard. That’s good advice anytime.

L’Dor V’Dor

I was at the college recently chatting with my colleague Jimmy and his English class. I don’t recall the specifics, but he commented something jokingly to the class about Dr. Rizzo’s great-great grandfather. Knowing I’m something of a family historian, he confessed he was trying to stump me. So I rattled off about two hundred fifty years of one of my family lines: my father Fredrick “Bucky” Rizzo, his dad Fred, his Nicolo, his Matteo, his yet another Nicolo, and his yet another Matteo, and finally back to the 1700s to Calogero Rezza in Contessa Entellina, a small village in the mountains of Sicily that was settled in the mid 1400s by Albanian refugees fleeing Islamic armies. (Like I said, I’m the family historian.)

But the significance of generations struck me in a different way last Sunday when I saw two smiling faces singing during the altar service.

My pastor, Victor Massey, had preached from the book of Ruth. (Incidentally, if you’ve never heard my pastor preach, you should. He’s good.) In the closing of his sermon, he referenced Ruth 4:21 & 22: “And Salmon begat Boaz, and Boaz begat Obed, and Obed begat Jesse, and Jesse begat David.”

The David mentioned is King David, who was the first king of Israel and the ancestor of Jesus. But there’s much more to unpack. Salmon’s wife was Rahab, the woman who hid the Israelite spies in Jericho and in doing so saved herself and her family. Of course, Ruth was the wife of Boaz. She was a Moabite, descended from the incestuous relationship of Lot and one of his daughters, yet because of her faithfulness to her mother-in-law after her father-in-law and husband died, she ultimately became the wife of Boaz. Both women, who otherwise were outside of the covenant between God and Israel, nonetheless, became ancestors of Jesus the Messiah. Their actions not only affected their lives, but their families and successive generations.

L’dor V’dor  is the Hebrew term that translates “generation to generation.” As Pastor Massey expounded on the passage, I couldn’t help but think about the idea of generation to generation, particularly as I noticed those two smiling faces singing together. The two smiling faces belonged to my son Nick and my cousin’s daughter Ashlyn. Both Nick and Ashlyn do, indeed, have beautiful smiles. Both have also dedicated their lives to serving the Lord, leading worship in song each week at the Sumiton Church of God. In that moment in my mind’s eye, however, I saw not only their smiles but envisioned the generations that came before, all a part of this one congregation.

Nick and Ashlyn share great-great grandparents Travis and Gladys Burton, who were members of the Sumiton Church and served faithfully some seventy plus years ago, which is a conservable part of the congregation’s history of just under one hundred years. Counting Ashlyn’s beautiful kiddos, there are now six generations of my family who have been part of this congregation – L’dor V’dor! Of course, you can’t bequeath salvation like you can a farm or a car. Still, it is each generation’s responsibility to pass on the faith, to live an example, to teach the scripture, from generation to generation.

What would have happened if one generation had failed in the charge? That’s something, frankly, I don’t want to think about because the potential consequences are too disconcerting. At the risk of invoking syrupy echoes of “Will the Circle be Unbroken,” I cannot emphasize too much how this is a charge that is our responsibility to the next generation, whether family or friend.

So from Boaz, to Obed, to Jesse, to David…

Or the Apostle John, to Polycarp, to Irenaeus…

Or from Travis and Gladys, to my Grandfather Buel and his brother Lowell, to my mother and her cousin June, to my cousin Kevin and me, to our children and grandchildren and generations to come…

L’dor V’dor!

Victimae Paschali Laudes

(This is a little note I posted on social media Easter 2011. Without going into the details, 2011 was one of the most difficult years of my life. Only the passing of my dad in 2016 surpasses it for shear grief and struggle. But even in the tough times, God is faithful – He gives hope – and is to be praised.)

I picked up the lamb for Easter yesterday, and I’m going to pull fresh herbs today and start working on the rub for it. I also got some Easter bread from Nabeel’s Market. It came with plastic eggs to put in it, but we’ll be boiling real ones for it. (By the way, yellow onion skins make an amazing and dark red dye for the eggs.) There will be more Easter goodies for Sunday. The family is coming to the house to celebrate. All this is heritage and tradition and celebration, but it’s meaningless without first of all acknowledging the true and resurrected Passover Lamb. Without Him, all else is meaningless.

The hymn Victimae Paschali Laudes, which is almost a thousand years old, presents the simple yet profound faith of believers from the first century to the twenty-first, a faith based on one person, fully man and yet fully God, who was crucified, raised from the dead, and who will one day return to judge both living and dead. Without Him, there is no hope, but through Him, and through Him alone, we have hope – we have access to the Father. To Him be praise forever.

Latin Text:

Victimae paschali laudes
immolent Christiani.
Agnus redemit oves:
Christus innocens Patri
reconciliavit peccatores.
Mors et vita duello
conflixere mirando:
dux vitae mortuus,
regnat vivus.
Dic nobis Maria,
quid vidisti in via?
Sepulcrum Christi viventis,
et gloriam vidi resurgentis:
Angelicos testes,
sudarium, et vestes.
Surrexit Christus spes mea:
praecedet suos in Galilaeam.
Scimus Christum surrexisse
a mortuis vere:
tu nobis, victor Rex,
miserere.
Amen. Alleluia.

English Translation:

May you praise the Paschal Victim,
immolated for Christians.
The Lamb redeemed the sheep:
Christ, the innocent one,
has reconciled sinners to the Father.
A wonderful duel to behold,
as death and life struggle:
The Prince of life dead,
now reigns alive.
Tell us, Mary Magdalen,
what did you see in the way?
I saw the sepulchre of the living Christ,
and I saw the glory of the Resurrected one:
The Angelic witnesses,
the winding cloth, and His garments.
The risen Christ is my hope:
He will go before His own into Galilee.
We know Christ to have risen
truly from the dead:
And thou, victorious King,
have mercy on us.
Amen. Alleluia.

Peter Frampton is Bald!

(from June 28, 2011)

I’m sitting on my front porch and gently rocking in my porch swing. I should be grading papers, and I’ll get back to that shortly. But it is just so nice outside right now. It rained today and cooled things off. So it’s nice out here with the tree frogs and crickets serenading me. (Sorry, I waxed a bit sappy and poetic there.) Yeah, my front yard needs cutting, but it’s not that bad. I’ll get to it by the weekend. From here I can see the herb and flower garden in the front of the house. It’s looking good. It’s nice and green with a splash of colors from the flowers and has plenty of mulch, so it won’t require too much weeding as the summer progresses. I can see the new American flag I got over the Father’s Day weekend. It looks good hanging there, and if you’ll allow me a moment, I want to thank all the men and women past and present who served under it and who kept and continue to keep me safe to sit on my front porch.

Now, to some of my younger friends and students, it might seem odd to celebrate sitting on a front porch swing. But in reality, there’s a lot of peace that comes along with owning a front porch and a swing to go on it. My kids are nearby playing and are safe and healthy. In fact, I just got back from the doctor today for a checkup for Nick. You know, they say that when you have your health, you have everything. Well, I think when you know your kids are safe and healthy, that’s actually closer to having everything.

Sure, I have problems; we all do. Some of you know mine more intimately than others. But I have many, many blessings more blessings than problems, and I should count them more often. One, two, three, there’s another one and another one… Seriously, there’s a lot of good and love in my life. I have lots of family and friends who love me, and thanks to social media I get to trade messages with family and friends down the block or across the country or even on the other side of the globe. I really do have lots of things to be thankful for.

You know, I just thought of one more before I close. I have hair and Peter Frampton is bald! Have you guys seen him in those Geico commercials? For those too young to recall, the man had lots of hair “back in the day.” And now, well, not so much. Yes, I really do have lots to be thankful for.

Eternity Began Tonight (from August 16, 2009)

It was so special tonight seeing my babies baptized. Nick was funny. He’d listened to Pastor Rick and my dad about locking one arm with the other hand and holding his nose. He walked up to the baptistery in this position. In fact, we could hardly get him in the water because of the pose. I wanted to roll. Olivia was nervous. She told her mom something about being so nervous that she wasn’t sure she could walk to the baptistery. But they both made it into the water, down, and up again. It was precious and humorous, but it was more than that.

Baring Christ return, at some point we will be separated from each other, but it will be temporary because of Christ death, burial, and resurrection that we were portraying in the baptismal experience. We will never be separated from Christ. He will never leave or forsake us but will go with us all the way.
During praise and worship, somehow it was different tonight. I sensed Christ in such a unique way. He was Savior – from the foundation – for me. I knew I would see Him someday, that I would, indeed, be in His presence. My children had accepted Him as Savior. We would be together in His presence forever. My dad had baptized them. As a family we would enjoy His presence forever. These are things that I knew, and had known, but had never put them in the same context. It wasn’t abstract. It was real. In reality, eternity had begun already.

We sang a Hillsong chorus “Worthy is the Lamb.” There’s a line in it that always moves me, but more so tonight. The Son, very God of very God, eternally existing with and eternally loved by the Father, was the “Darling of Heaven.” He was loved above all by the Father, but He came and the Father allowed Him to be abused and hurt and maligned and so debased that I don’t have the words. He, in the form of sinful man, could have with a whisper ended it all; instead He suffered the pain and indignity for my babies, for my dad, for me, for whosoever will.

How could I not bow and love Him, worshipping at His feet? How could I avoid those eyes of love? Why would I?

God “ain’t” through until He says so.

God “ain’t” through until He says so. Society can tell you that you’re finished. Your family can tell you that you don’t matter. Your body might even tell you, no. But don’t listen to anyone except the One who called you according to His purpose.

Gideon was from the small tribe of Manasseh. His family was poor, and he was the least among them. Yet he became an innovative military leader and delivered Israel.

David’s father didn’t even think enough of him to call him in from the field, yet the prophet could not crown a king of Israel until the least in the family was presented to him.

Joseph’s brothers threw him out, expecting never to see him again. But God exalted him to power and through him saved the family that had discounted and discarded him.

Abraham and Sarah became the parents to the child of promise when they were well beyond the age when their bodies should have allowed them to become parents. But God’s Spirit made alive that which was dead in the flesh and gave them a son and made them the ancestors of Messiah.

Don’t count yourself out when God hasn’t.