Headlines from First Thoughts

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Monday, December 25- The Christmas Angel in the Brown Hat

Two weeks ago, I received this letter from someone who passed by our church. It's a wonderful story and worth sharing "in her own words."

Merry Christmas!

The Christmas Angel in the Brown Hat

Silent Night was playing on the radio as I drove to work. I love the holy day season because of the birth of God’s Son. The crowds of people shopping and rushing around to find that perfect turkey or ham for their Christmas dinner make it very stressful.

I arrived at work all smiles; I had to make a good impression. I was working as a temp and as a temp you would like to be hired full time, so you try a little harder. In most cases a temp is treated like you have a bad case of measles. Your co-workers do not realize you are just like everyone else in the office, you just need a job. I had begun to get used to it by now, so I kept smiling.

This was the second Friday of the month, so that meant pay day. The company I worked for did all their banking in the middle of downtown Knoxville. Oh hey!! This meant I would have to drive in that downtown mess, use up my lunch and be in a worse mood than I was already in.

The temperature was about freezing, but for some reason I did not feel cold. I hate to say it but I was enjoying the Christmas trees on top of the buildings. I really did not know Knoxville had such beautiful old buildings in the downtown area. This walk was becoming very nice.

I finally see the bank that was a quick two blocks. My eyes focus in on something else in front of the First Baptist Church. I was simply frozen in my tracks. In front of me was the most beautiful manger scene I had ever seen. I was in kind of a hurry to get to the bank, but I knew I would be stopping on the way back to my car.

I left the bank and raced to see this wonderful treasure I had found. I stood in front of the First Baptist Church and listened to O Holy Night playing in the background. I had found Christmas in the middle of a busy street and I wanted to tell everyone about it. So I decided to write about it when I got home. I am a long way from being a Nobel peace writer, but I do my best. As I stood there I could feel the presence of another person standing near me, almost shoulder to shoulder I might add. Gosh!! Does he have to stand so close--there is a whole sidewalk?

The gentleman was of small frame, well dressed and very polite. On his head he was wearing a brown dress hat and holding a walking cane with a gold tip on the handle. I looked him over from head to toe, not knowing if I needed to run or see what he was doing standing so close. As we stood there together not saying a word, he finally spoke. “This is beautiful is it not?” It seemed that he came out of nowhere and he was asking me questions. “Do you know how many people stop and take time to admire this?” he asked. “I have no idea,” I answered, somewhat puzzled. I was so shocked at his response: “Only three or four a day.”

I thought to myself, “That cannot be right.” It was hard to believe that something so beautiful could be taken for granted. It came to me that we, as humans, take our Savior for granted a lot. God loves us every day not just at Christmas.

As my friend, yes I said my friend, walked away, he tipped his brown hat, tapped his cane and said, and “God bless you for taking time to stop.” I was speechless, so I just gave him a smile and a big wave.

In a moment my heart was changed so much. It was filled with a peace and thankfulness to have met someone so special. I did not ask him his name, so I call him “My Angel in the Brown Hat.” I was really happy I had to cash my check that day. I do not mind going downtown anymore.

I will always remember my Angel in the Brown Hat.

Saturday, December 24-- One Less Trip

I promise to do things differently this Christmas Eve. Flashback to this same time last year. Kelly and I were safely nestled in a Bed and Breakfast in Charlotte. Along with her family, we were attending a wedding of a friend. I officiated the small ceremony. If it had not been a family friend, I would have said "no." After all, it was Christmas Eve. They accomodated my schedule, however. They knew that I needed to be back by 5:00 p.m. for the Christmas Eve service, and I booked a flight immediately following the ceremony to get me from Charlotte to Knoxville in time for the wedding.

The flight, however, took place in a car. When I arrived at the airport, I discovered United Airlines had canceled the flight (this was a time when they apparently did not need the business). They also did not know how to get in touch with customers. I had not received the email they sent, but none of that mattered at 1:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve. I had a service to preach before the clock struck 5.

Because no other flights were leaving Charlotte until 5:30, I flew down to the Hertz desk, rented a car; and attempted to avoid every speed trap between there and Knoxville. I was befuddled, I missed my exit out of Charlotte and drove through Spartanburg, South Carolina, en route to Knoxville. I arrived at 4:45 p.m.

I threw on my robe and went out to await the service. An usher greeted me. "Dr. Shiell, the city bus service (KAT) is about to tow all the cars parked in front of the church." (This, too, can only happen on Christmas Eve.) I ran to the front of the church with the bells of 5 o'clock tolling. KAT was staging buses in front of our church, and the attendant was upset that cars were parked where buses were attempting to stop. It was Saturday; I'm sure KAT figured no one would be at church on Christmas Eve; and the travelers assumed no one would need their spaces they normally used on Sunday when KAT was not staging buses.

With all the authority of John the Baptist I could muster, I told him that there would be no cars towed on Christmas Eve. I promptly returned to the sanctuary (in the spirit of baby Jesus, of course) and led the service.

Mary and Joseph had the flight to Egypt, but I had the flight from Charlotte. Joy to the world.

Saturday, December 23-- Secret Santa

So it was Larry Stewart after all! Five years ago, I was touched by the actions of an unknown man in New York. The first Christmas after 9/11, this man walked the streets of Kansas City, MO, giving away $100 bills. Despite all the internal "this is not how you help people long term" urges, I was moved by his actions, motives, attitude, and anonymity.

After realizing a tabloid was preparing to publish his identity, Larry Stewart took off the mask, revealed his name, and his full story. He's a millionaire battling cancer. He's a man who once ran out of money after losing his job. He vowed to help others "if he ever had money to do so." This man kept his promise. He's given away roughly $1.3 million since he started.

Larry Stewart is not the only Secret Santa in the world. Many more anonymously help others no matter what the quantity. He's just one more sign, however, that the best gifts in the world are given without hope of recognition or repayment. The greatest deeds in the world are accomplished behind the headlines. Keep up the good work!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Friday, December 22-- More Gifts of Christmas

This morning, I posted a story from our Christmas brunch from the perspective of one of our guests. This man needed clothes for a photograph to send to his mother for Christmas.

Someone special went along for the ride, however. The story begins at the end of the brunch when things were winding down. Parker had been wanting to get with "Mr. Ed," Ed Crook, and go for a ride. Ed found me in Trentham Hall following brunch, took Parker, retrieved the car seat, and started toward Ed's vehicle. On the way, however, they bumped into the guest who was needing a new pair of pants. Ed convinced another deacon, Mike Cunningham, to go with him to the local thrift shop; and Parker went along for the ride. While I'm supervising cleanup operations, Parker is encountering his first experience directly serving the least of these.

Parker asked Mike quietly, "Sit by me." They put the guest in the passenger's seat, and the four went to the thrift shop. They found a nice pair of pants, a shirt, and a tie; but they could not find a place to try on the clothes. The store manager discovered the foursome in the back in the corner behind a wall outfitting the guest; the manager and was not pleased. The group apologized, excused themselves quickly, and arrived back at the church with our guest neatly attired.

I asked Parker about the experience later, and he didn't have much to say. I told him, "You know, you did something Jesus wants us to do, to be kind to each other."

Parker's reply: "That's a verse in the Bible."

Lesson learned, gift received, even when you're just along for the ride.

Thursday, December 21-- Advent Gifts

From my friend Ken Hall, President of Buckner International.....
(read this post at http://bucknerprez.typepad.com/ken_hall/2006/12/the_generosity__2.html)

The Generosity of Others – Part 3
A Picture of Hope
Carol McEntyre serves as the Buckner community minister for First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. It’s one of our collaborations with churches as we team with them to provide viable, meaningful social ministry in their communities. Listen to her story of generosity: “On Dec. 2, the Buckner collaboration at First Baptist Knoxville hosted the downtown Christmas Brunch, an event designed to reach out to families in need in our area. Over 800 individuals and families came to eat breakfast, listen to local choirs sing Christmas carols and receive a new pair of shoes.

“A member of our church, who is a photographer, also took family portraits of everyone who attended. One homeless gentleman who came to the event from the local mission asked if we could get him a clean set of clothes to wear for his portrait. He hadn't seen his mother in many years and wanted to mail her the photo for Christmas.

“Two of our volunteers ran out and purchased the young man a new set of clothes. He wore them so proudly as he posed for the photo. When it came off the printer, he went around the room showing it to all the volunteers. For a moment, he was a normal guy, getting his portrait taken by a professional photographer, to give to his mother for Christmas. What a great gift!”

Have a good weekend. Remember that there are others in need. Think of a way to answer their need.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Wednesday, December 20- After Annunciation

"After Annunciation"
Madeleine L'Engle

This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There'd have been no room for the child.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Tuesday, December 19-- Seeing through the Light

Frederick Buechner reminds us the funny thing about light is you can never see the light itself, you can only see the thing that the light illumines. It’s not the light that you see in the middle of the cave, it’s the dimly lit pathway out through the rock. It’s not the flame that you see in the house, it’s the carpet, or the hallway to show you the way to the place of safety.

When we light the candles of Advent, we see others who are praying with you, the faces of church people who are surviving with you. They remind us that God is coming, and God will restore.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Monday, December 18- Christmas movement

Christmas moves. It moves from angels to Mary and Joseph. It's a journey of a couple not only to Bethlehem but then to Egypt and back home to Nazareth. The Son of God moves into the world and changes it forever.

It's not enough for the story to stop with a simple nativity and a picture or two in the Bible. That's something for a museum or china cabinet. We can't merely tour the site where Jesus was born to experience Christmas. The wonder of Christmas moves home. In every corner of the globe, Christmas is expressed uniquely in cultures. The Christ child goes home with people who express the story in their own way. It doesn't change the message or the meaning, but it adds to the heritage of our faith.

What would Christmas be without "Silent Night, Holy Night." We have the Germans to thank for it. What would Christmas be without "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing?" We thanks to Charles Wesley in Great Britain for that. Poinsettias were imported from Mexico. Christmas trees began with Martin Luther, and on and on we could go.

Where will Christmas take you this season? How will you express the story in your way? If you're like me, most of the surprises are discovered along the way.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sunday, December 17-- Gifts of Neighbors

Christmas day is difficult for some people, especially if the day is associated with grief. I heard this story told in McGregor, when I was pastor of First Baptist. Jim Johnson described a painful moment that turned into an opportunity to share love.

"Mr. and Mrs. Lange, German immigrants, had lived for many years on property west of our farm. Their three sons and two daughters had grown up and moved away. We had three boys and one girl living at home.

"Our family and the Langes shared good times and bad times. When my parents moved next to the Langes, Dad thought the fence should be rebuilt. Instead of protesting like most neighbors would, Mr. Lange pitched into pay for the fence and helped Dad built it.

'Good neighbors keep a good fence,' Mr. Lange said.

"When Harris Creek running through our farms overflowed after a heavy rain, Dad and Mr. Lange would go to work togeteher repairing the barbwire water gap. If a cow crossed onto the othe's farm, it was cared for and returned to its own herd.

'That man is honest,' Dad would say of Mr. Lange. 'He treats his wife and children good.'

"I felt safe knowing our neighbors a half-mile away were ready to help with any problem.

"Mr. Lange, who was older than Dad, developed heart problems, and Mom and Dad visited to help the Langes however they could. Mrs. Lange often insisted we go with her to the cellar to pick out canned goods to take home.

"Across the open fields, from our front porch, Dad kept a watchful eye on the Langes' visitors.

"We awoke on that cold, icy Christmas morning. When Dad came from the barn, he said, 'There are a lot folks at the Langes'.'

"Two aunts were visiting our family of six. Just as Mom pulled the turkey and dressing from the oven, the telephone rang.

'My father died this morning,' said one of the Lange girls.

"Grief and pain filled me parents' faces. Dad took one look at the turkey and said, 'Mama, I'll be back in a little while. I'm taking this to the Langes.' Mom nodded.

"When Dad returned, we gathered around the table. Dad gave thanks to our Master for food and for a good friend and neighbor. I don't remember what Santa Claus gave me that year, but I remember the gift my parents gave me-- a gift of how neighbors love one another."

One of the first people I met in McGregor, and still to this today one of our good friends, was one of those "Lange girls." They're still sharing the story, and showing the example learned from the Lange's and the Johnson's one painful Christmas day.

Saturday, December 16- The Distance to Bethlehem

Another classic Christmas poem, this time from Madeline Sweeney Miller....

"How far is it to Bethlehem town?
Just over Jerusalem hills adown,
Past lovely Rachel's white-domed tomb--
Sweet shrine of motherhood's young doom,
It isn't far to Bethlehem Town--
Just over dusty roads adown,
Past Wise Men's well, still offering
Cool draughts from welcome wayside spring;
Past shepherds with their flutes of reed
That charm the woolly sheep they lead.
Past boys with kites on hilltops flying,
And soon you're there where Bethlehem's lying.
Sunned white and sweet on olived slopes,
Gold-lighted still with Judah's hopes.
And so we find the Shepherd's field
And plain that gave rich Boaz yield,
And look where Herod's villa stood.
We thrill that earthy paretnhood
Could foster Christ who was all-good;
And thrill that Bethlehem Town today
Looks down on Christmas homes that pray,
It isn't far to Bethlehem Town!
It's anywhere that Christ comes down
And finds in people's friendly face
A welcome and abiding place.
The road to Bethlehem runs right through
The homes of folks like me and you.

Friday, December 15-- The Gift

This poem, originally written from the perspective of a mother to a son, could also be read from the perspective of God to us.

"Can You Come Home for Christmas?"
Thomas Carruth

I'm writing to you somewhat soon
About a certain, special date;
Strange thing to do, right here in June,
But Christmas plans just will not wait...

The papers praise your civic worth;
The people join in warm acclaim
(I somehow knew, before your birth,
That multitudes would sound your name).

Your calendar is always filled
With such important things to do;
But I'll admit that I'd be thrilled
To get one special gift from you.

No packages, no presents fine;
No fuss or flurry, no ado;
No frilly, fancy place to dine;
The Christmas gift I want is you.

Can you come home for Christmas, Joe
And maybe spend a day or two?
It is a lot to ask, I know
The gift I really want is you!"

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Thursday, December 14-- Christmas Letters

When did the "Christmas letter" craze begin? Do you receive these? They're the annual state- of- the- family reports from people who send Christmas cards. I still receive a few cards with just a nice picture; but most of the time, the sender includes a highlight reel of the year's landmarks.

I've noticed something this year however. The older the writer, the more realistic the picture. Younger families usually write glowing reports: "Little Julie was born, Johnny can now ride his bike to France and back, Glenda is now a straight A student at Harvard." The info is nice, but you really want to ask, "Are these people real?!" Even I know there's more to the story. Where's the good stuff? Where are the failures and problems? Tell me about a few bad breaks.

Enter the senior adult letter. Few mature citizens send out the annual letter, but they are usually the most interesting. They not only include the snapshots of the year, but invariably they discuss surgeries, medications, pains, aches, test results. This is good stuff-- maybe a little too much-- but at least you get a realistic picture of life. "Why try to paint a rosy picture?" the senior adult asks, "Just tell 'em like it is."

Matthew had to be nearing the retirement home when he finally edited the pieces of Jesus' story into a cohesive Gospel. He didn't pull any punches. There are a few nice, glowing images. He includes a report of "righteous" Joseph and wealthy magi. Those fit well into the nativity pageant.

But then we also read the rest of the story. Jesus is related to Rahab, and Herod slaughtered most of the babies born at the same time out of fear. Joseph and Mary spend most of the time on the road, and the world ignored the birth of Jesus.

Matthew's Christmas letter wasn't rosy, but it was realistic. Maybe that's a story worth sending more than once a year.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Wednesday, December 13-- Kindergarten Party

Advent took on a whole new meaning for the Shiell home Tuesday night. We were invaded by approximately 1800 Kindergarteners and their parents for a class Christmas party.

The groundwork for the assault was laid long before tonight. When I was growing up, we learned in American history Congress passed an obscure law in 1925 that stated, “All school parties must be held in the school classroom.” Apparently, we failed to notice the fine print: “Except at Rocky Hill Elementary in Knoxville.” Little did we know that when Kelly was crowned “Room Mother” what this new title would do to change our lives. I of course became “Room Husband,” which meant that I received ample opportunity to volunteer on Fridays and work the pickup area at the end of the day. I also discovered plenty of other chances to know the kindergarteners and their parent-enablers.

Immediately after the coronation, however, Kelly’s doc placed her on bed rest. “Relief!” I said. I would not be responsible for as much room husbanding as I thought. But somehow Kelly’s doc and Kelly were conspired to remove the bed rest restriction by Thanksgiving. To celebrate the end of bed rest, Kelly decided to actually invite the entire class over for the party. Miss Corden actually endorsed this event, because I’m sure she knew that old 1925 law was still on the books.

The first wave hit at 6:15, followed by one after another until by 6:45 the entire Dunbarton Oaks subdivision (at least this is how it felt) thundered with the sound of elephants on the 2nd floor of our home. Parker’s tree house became an outpost for another assault. Soon a football game broke out on the front lawn with all 1800 Kindergarteners. What made matters more exciting, Queen Kelly actually served a buffet of cookies, cake, candy, pretzel-thingies, hot chocolate with more sugar to put a diabetic into a coma. I’m not kidding about this part. This was a feast fit for Rachel Ray. What were they thinking?

But soon I realized that, as Miss Corden said, “This was probably the best Christmas present you could ever give Parker.” The gift of relationships can only be shared with people. The joy and fun of boys and girls conquer many fears and worries, and 5 year olds know how to spread that Christmas cheer better than anyone else. Just let them take over—cookies and all—and they will show you how to enjoy the season in ways you never thought of. I’m not sure how God will bring peace on earth, but my guess is that much like his first coming, he will start with the same laughter that only the Christ child brought and a 5 year old can bring.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Tuesday, December 12-- Hearing Voices

Before we were born, all we could hear were voices. They were coming from the outside. Can you remember that time, safe in the confines of your mother’s tummy? Did your big brother say, "Hello"? Did your mother sing to you? You probably thought life was so easy then, fed by a cord, nurtured and cared for; but then something happened that you were not planning. After 8 months, the noises grew louder. Things around you changed. Suddenly, a light flashed; you arrived into a new world. You were so stunned by the lights and the temperature; and perhaps what you saw. All of a sudden those voices had eyes, ears, and hands. You were so overwhelmed you just let out the biggest scream of your life. And you realized that YOU had a voice too.

As Eugene Peterson notes in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, before Jesus was born, the only thing that the world knew about God was through the sound of voices. Think about all the references to God’s voice in the pages of Scripture. Genesis 1 opens with the very word, the voice of God calling out breathing, moving, speaking the world into being. Just a voice. When God intervened in the world from time to time, he spoke to boys like Samuel in the still of the night, through the angel of the Lord appearing to Joshua, and to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The prophets spoke after they listened to God, and kings claimed to be at the right hand of God listening; but at best, all they had was a voice to speak to them.

John describes it this way in his marvelous paraphrase of Genesis 1-2, this time with resurrection eyes to see it. In John 1, we read, “In the beginning was a voice—in the beginning was the word." The word-- the voice-- was with God, the word was God. The voice made it—all things were made by him and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” Word, voice, light, all united together from the very beginning of creation. That's a voice worth hearing this season.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Monday, December 11- Bethlehem, Georgia

How large was that little town of Bethlehem? Let's just say that if Bethlehem were located in Georgia, the village would not have made the map. According to the Knoxville News-Sentinel Sunday, the map makers in Georgia decided to remove all communities "under the population of 2,500 to "eliminate clutter." From what we know about Bethelehem, the population was no more than 1,000 at the time of Jesus' birth...probably more like 600. When the world was focused on Rome, Jerusalem, and other capitals, God chose the place described in Micah as "least among the rulers of Judah."

Is that how God works today? While the world focuses on events in Washington, London, Moscow, and Baghdad, God works just as readily in Bucksnort, Tennessee and Oglesby, Texas; Cut-n-Shoot, Texas and Opp, Alabama. When it comes to the work of God, location doesn't matter. The faith of the people make the difference. The God of the universe just asks us to be ready....even if no one else can find you on the map in Georgia.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Sunday, December 10-- Holding Your Breath

At the theater, there is one moment in the production when everything is so quiet, you can hear your own heart beat. It’s so still, you can hear the thoughts of the parents standing beside you awaiting the moment when they are going to see little Susie in her brand new pink dress. At the same time, there’s a lot of activity going on behind the scenes. The stage hands scurry with last minute details; the cues arrive through the stage headphones; the sound operators are poised to cue the microphones. It’s the final hush before the curtain rises; it’s the moment the conductor raises his baton before the downbeat of the orchestra; it’s the pregnant pause before the lights turn on.

This moment, says, Frederich Buechner, is Advent. That’s what we’re in right now; it’s the extraordinary moment before the moment. The world holds its breath waiting for God to cue the camels, the manger, the shepherds and the magi. We hold our breath right before the curtain rises on the drama of this Christmas story.

Saturday, December 9- Advent Publicity

How do you spread the word about Advent? You could always try the strategy used by the promoters of the new "Rocky" movie. Yes, as in Sylvester Stallone, Rocky XXVIII. This guy is old enough to be Parker's grandfather, and he's still fighting. Now his producers are "Christianizing" the character. Read this email that I received a few weeks ago. You'll think it's a joke at first, but I've actually received two "invitations."

Dear Leader,
Sylvester Stallone (as in, "Rocky") cordially invites you, as a leader in the faith and family community, to JOIN HIM ON THE PHONE LIVE this Friday at 12:30 - 12:50 pm Pacific Time.
Sly would like to take some time to talk to you about the faith and values that run through the Rocky films, and share with you about his upcoming movie, Rocky Balboa, the final chapter in the Rocky story (yes, Stallone himself gets back in the ring!).
As space on this call is limited, please CLICK HERE TO RSVP immediately to reserve your spot.
In interviews with various faith-based publications, Sly recently shared some of his thoughts about the Rocky character and faith:
"In Rocky, if he's just a fighter, then it's just a boxing story, and I told the producers in the beginning, 'It's not a boxing story; it's a spiritual journey. It really is about a man that has been chosen to accomplish a role, to be an example for other people.' " Interview with New Man Magazine
"If you don't have a great relationship with God, you can go off the deep end. The Christian foundation of life is really the perfect ideal which one should base every decision they make on, because it comes from a sense of kindness, a sense of giving, a sense of fairness, and it avoids everything which I'm exposed to every day in my particular industry which is greed, and avarice and jealousy and bitterness . . ." Interview with Catholic Digest
We recently screened Rocky Balboa for some key leaders, who had a chance to meet with Sly after the screening. Here's what they had to say:
"Life is hard, and faith can help us to face some of those challenges and issues in our past and you see Rocky do that throughout the movies but particularly it comes to kind of a peak in this movie and it was exciting to see." Jud Wilhite Senior Pastor, Central Christian Church Las Vegas, Nevada
"I thought it was a tremendous film. I thought it was powerful. It was not an overtly Christian film, but it was a film filled with Christian themes of faith and hope and second chances and redemption, and I would say that for us as Christians that it gives us real fodder for conversations with people to talk about those themes." Mark Mittelberg Writer, speaker and Church Consultant
"I guess if there's one theme that stood out for me was the whole idea of self esteem. And how important that is to be formed in the family, first of all, and then, if it gets lost along the way, that it can be regained. And that's a good message for people to know, and to hear that there's always hope." Sister Rose Pacatte Daughters of St. Paul
We at Motive Entertainment (we managed the grass roots campaigns for The Passion and Narnia, among others) have created a variety of FREE faith-based Rocky resources for teaching and preaching (visit www.RockyResources.com).
Though this is not a religious film, we believe there are many themes ("The Heart of a Champion," "Fighting the Good Fight," "Recovery After a Fall," etc.) that relate to faith and values. But don't take our word for it - listen to Sly himself explain how he has woven these themes into his movies.

Needless to say, I didn't join "the conference call." Consider me another cynic if you wish, but I just don't think "Rocky" fits the genre of the "Nativity Story," the "Passion of the Christ," or even the "Chronicles of Narnia." I'm beginning to grow weary of the "Christian" marketing schtick anyway. Hopefully my church is more than just another "untapped consumer waiting to spend money."

It's no wonder God chose to send angels to the hillsides instead of the temple. If God had a "marketing plan," it certainly did not follow a Hollywood script. The only ones open enough to listen were not looking for a superstar. They were looking to the stars, gazing into the night sky, or obeying God daily. When they heard the news, they bowed in reverence and spread the word to friends and enemies.

So this season, if you want a glimpse of the kingdom of God, watch for events less commercialized, like the cries of a baby or the stars in the skies. You'll be better prepared for heaven's publicity plan.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Friday, December 8- Shoes of Peace

The week preceding the second Sunday of Advent prepares us for the Sunday of peace. I will confess that in our peaceful neck of the woods, we need to walk a little ways to see the world's hurts. The turmoil of Iraq, the difficulties in Sudan, the hardships of people battling AIDS, the hurts of neighbors losing jobs-- we can block all of them out if we really try. That is, until the people facing hardships walk into your world.

This happened to one of our church members this past Saturday at the Christmas brunch. He was working the shoe department of the brunch, distributing donated gently used and new shoes to guests. One man walked in wearing a pair of shoes that did not fit quite right. They were in farily good shape; but like everyone else who wears shoes, it doesn't really matter if they look good. If the shoe doesn't fit, you can't wear it. He found the right pair on our rack. After trying it on, he took his old shoes that really weren't that old and put them on the rack. Our member asked him, "Sir, don't you want to take your shoes with you?"

"No," he said, "These are in pretty good shape, and maybe someone else can use them."

Less than an hour later, another guest walked in. He needed shoes badly, and he discovered the "old" pair of shoes. He tried them on, and they were a perfect fit. They were still warm from the heat of the former owner.

Peace arrives as one needy person shares with another person out of generosity and love. Maybe we just need to be in the right place to see it walking into our world.

Thursday, December 7- Home for Advent

It’s hard to paint a picture of a vibrant 21st century Center-City Church. We can use all sorts of techniques, talk about ministries, and find a few ideas from other congregations. I can tell some stories, and I usually catch a glimpse of it each day I’m in the office. Rarely can a person see it framed at one time. This weekend, we saw it at First Baptist Knoxville; and it looked a lot like a spiritual home.

In a span of 24 hours, we fed over 800 people in our building with over 245 volunteers and donations of clothes, sleeping bags, food, and more. The second annual Christmas brunch brought the working poor, Latinos, South Knoxville families, homeless, and the spiritually needy into our church for an experience like none other. As one person said, “You are one of the bright lights in the city.” Your light shined Saturday, but you did it 1B’s way. You served across generations and languages. College students, median adults, youth, senior adults, young adults, and kids all had a part; and we truly could not have done it without each one. We modeled a missions lifestyle to one another by watching choirs and missions offer a gift to those who do not normally have this kind of quality programming; and we demonstrated these values to our own children by treating others better than ourselves. Missions is much easier caught than taught. You showed that Saturday.

If Saturday weren’t enough for a great weekend of ministry, we studied the Bible and worshiped together Sunday to open the Advent Season. On Sunday night, Kely Hatley, Sydnor Money, Karen Smith, and Kelly Shiell brought together another classic example of our church. We worshiped together across generations, led by an incredible Chapel Choir, Golden Notes, Praise band, and instrumentalists. We decorated our sanctuary together, and the youngest to the oldest played key roles. These people offered their best offerings to God, whether through decoration or music, in a quality way that showed their lives are being transformed by Christ.

We learned several things from the weekend. It’s not only fun to serve, but it sure is fun to serve together. There is something about picking up plates of scrambled eggs when you know that 200 others are helping. Hanging garland is much easier with 200 of your closest faith family. Another thing we learned is that people want to be involved, and typically become more involved, when they can be a part of something first. Many of our volunteers are not church members…yet. Two of them actually joined Saturday. Some, however, are getting involved because you invited them to a music group or asked them to serve on a Brunch team. These are easy ways not only to introduce them to what makes us First Baptist but to introduce people to each other. A third thing we learned is that people like to be treated like people. When someone speaks to you in the pew—whether guest, member, poor, or rich—we just feel welcome. I watched you greet people with a loving touch.

I have seen these kinds of things throughout my tenure here at 1B. I’ve watched you do this in Croatia, through Operation Inasmuch, at South Knoxville Elementary, in Helena, Arkansas. All these have been vital to the ongoing ministries of our church, and they have benefited other people and organizations beyond our walls in ways too numerous to explain. But this weekend, everything came home. We could see how these walls have become a missions, ministry, and worship center. First Baptist is a warm, hospitable, safe platform to live out the gospel; and we have brought our experiences outside the walls to benefit the center city of our hometown.

That’s just the beginning of the season, but this weekend is all about seeing the picture come together and living it out in 2007. Thanks for what you are doing and being together, and welcome home.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Wednesday, December 6- 5 Year Olds and Advent

The greatest thing about a 5 year old during Advent is that he gets it. I know that preachers, musicians, and decorators seem to have a corner on the market this season. What would Advent be without sermons, music, trees, and garland? But everybody needs to see this from the world of a 5 year old.

Parker, who has been planning for this moment since last Christmas, is fully engaged this year. He's been actively involved in decorating the house, helping hang the outdoor lights, even giving instructions about "his" tree in his room. His little tree sits atop a train table, with of course, Papa's old train. It's straight out of a Belgian train factory, or at least that's the story we've been told. It runs with a voltage convertor, a wing, and a prayer, but in Parker's mind, it's a real train. And when the lights switch off in the room, the train chugs around the track. The glow of the train's headlight is surpassed only by the brightness of Parker's eyes as he engineers the railroad.

He knows the real story of Christmas; even the train track encircles a small nativity. Parker can tell you the whole story if you have the time. The point, of course, is not to get the story right or to have everything perfect. The point of the season is the size of his imagination, wonder, and belief. Hope is real, faith is active, and he's ready for all of it.

I don't know what you're up to this season, but I hope you find a child to hug and to ask about Christmas. It won't take much to understand what they're saying. Just watch their eyes.

Tuesday, December 5- Unpacking the Decorations

It's the ritual that begins Advent at the Shiell home. We unpack the decorations, or at least, Kelly does. My job is to retrieve them-- some from the garage, others from the basement. We have the annual worry and concerns: "Which lights are broken, which are working, which ornaments are broken." We discover that someone under the cover of darkness has sneaked into the boxes of lights, unplugged one bulb from the very end of the strand (thus causing all to be useless), and somehow tangled all the others together. It's quite fun.

When a strand of lights carefully packed last year becomes the object of frustration, perhaps it reminds us of the unique discoveries about our own lives this time of year. When family arrives and friends reunite, we discover rearranged lives, a tangled web, and the individual whose life seems to shine more dimly. I wish we could chalk the effects up to the gremlins in the basement. Unfortunately, the causes are more lifelike. Words spoken in frustration, dreams and plans that change, mistakes made, and pathways chosen lead to the annual holiday discovery: "a lot can change in a year."

So before you throw up your hands in frustration, however, remember that people are different than strands of lights. We can untangle, we can change, we can be different, and hearts can glow again. But it takes more than an annual checkup. It will take timing, listening, understanding, and the reminder that at this time of year, angels have much more power than years of regret. Even if those regrets seem to be retrieved every year, with hope and prayer, so much can change in a year.

Monday, December 4, Tools of Christmas

"They are tools, not toys," says Father Christmas when explaining the purpose of gifts in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Father Christmas arrives at the moment of greatest fear: when the children and beavers, fleeing the oncoming witch, think they have been overtaken. Father Christmas appears to deliver presents for the coming battle between good and evil.

This perspective should guide us as we exchange the gifts of Christmas. They are the tools to show the world who Christ is. It might be hard to imagine an ipod or a Wii serving as a tool of Christ. But with a little creativity, a downloaded itune can be a song of encouragement. A Wii can be the platform for starting a friendship with a person who does not know the love of Christ.

On Saturday, our church is using gifts as tools. Sleeping bags for children, food for adults, and shoes for everyone are instruments of Christ's peace during Advent. By sharing these gifts, we have a platform for building relationships with people who do not normally come to our church and may not know the hospitality of First Baptist.

It's all in how you use the tools.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Song for Advent- Sunday, December 3

I have stumbled onto a song for Advent. It's not found in the hymnal, and I doubt it's on the top 10 list of choruses. The lyrics remind me of one of the qualities of Advent: "Waiting."

Entitled "Waiting on the World to Change," and sung by John Mayer, the lyrics are

me and all my friends we're all misunderstood
they say we stand for nothing and there's no way we ever could
now we see everything that's going wrong
with the world and those who lead it
we just feel like we don't have the means to rise above and beat it

so we keep waiting
waiting on the world to change
we keep on waiting
waiting on the world to change

it's hard to beat the system
when we're standing at a distance
so we keep waiting
waiting on the world to change
now if we had the power to bring our neighbors home from war
they would have never missed a Christmas
no more ribbons on their door
and when you trust your television
what you get is what you got
cause when they own the information,
oh they can bend it all they want

that's why we're waiting
waiting on the world to change
we keep on waiting
waiting on the world to change

it's not that we don't care,
we just know that the fight ain't fair
so we keep on waiting
waiting on the world to change
and we're still waiting
waiting on the world to change
we keep on waiting
waiting on the world to change

one day our generation is gonna rule the population
so we keep on waiting
waiting on the world to change
we keep on waiting
waiting on the world to change

Mayer's lyrics are an apology for his (my?) generation's response to the world as it stands now. He lists various reasons/excuses while we are just waiting for the world to change. Westand for something, but it's hard to get a foothold in a world full of frustrations, problems, and issues. Mayer's solution is to wait.

In Advent, we wait; but we do not wait for the world to change. It already has. Jesus came, died, and was resurrected. That's the good news. In Advent, we await his return. And while we're waiting for the world to change again, we are not sitting back apathetically hoping for another solution. We live responsibly, worship the Christ, do our best, and trust in the God of the past, present, and future.

This message gives hope to those who live in despair about the problems of the world and can motivate people who do not think there is any way they can make a difference. Jesus said my kingdom does not have to break in politically, militarily, or even commercially. It arrives quietly in backlot mangers, through desert travelers looking at the heavens, and illiterate shepherds seeing angels. That's what faith is about. It's something to believe in while we're waiting.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

John the Baptist, Isaiah, and the Orange Barrels

Just in time for Thanksgiving, I-40 is now open. Knoxville greeted me with orange barrels and the obligatory, "it's almost finished" two years ago. Now we have smooth driving from the church to Pellissippi Parkway and back. Or in preacher terms, "I can get to Parkwest hospital and back without packing a sack lunch."

Isaiah, road crew for the Hebrew Bible, and John the Baptist, engineer of paving in the Gospels, would have been proud. Both announced, "Prepare the way for the Lord," and "make a way in the wilderness." For Isaiah, it meant a desert road from Babylon to Jerusalem. Not exactly the highway to heaven, but it would mean hope for the Israelites. John posted signs along the highway announcing a Person coming who was mightier than he.

Advent is about repaving the roads and pathways of life. It's about putting up the orange barrels and redirecting our energy toward a Messiah who has come and will come again. The project requires setting new priorities, paving over the holes of sin with the material of forgiveness, and taking direction from the Supervisor of the heavenly contstruction project. It's not an easy task, but the world needs this kind of direction in life.

We know it won't be easy, and one paving project often leads to fixing other parts of a road. Even in Knoxville, by this time next year, they will close downtown in a attempt to fix the clogged arteries through the center city. But for this Thanksgiving, we are grateful for a job completed, for lighter commutes, easier access, and the hope that new directions will bring.

Thanksgiving for a Churchman

On Saturday, Kelly, Parker, and I gathered in Owensboro, Kentucky, to pay tribute to her grandfather. We will miss him at Thanksgiving this year. He never met a meal he didn’t like and as he wiped the last crumbs from his mouth, he always said, “This is the best meal I ever had.” That kind of statement typified a life of giving and gratitude.

We said goodbye to a true churchman. He chaired every building committee, capital campaign, deacon council, search committee, and group at Far Hills Baptist in Kettering, Ohio. If I know anything about building chairmen and capital campaign chairmen, he was also the first to give his offering—sacrificially—so that others will be inspired to give. He made sure the family was in church and stayed on them to remain involved in church. He’s the only person I know that when he moved closer to his daughter’s family and joined First Baptist Owensboro, they made him a deacon and soon thereafter a deacon emeritus.

He was man enough to cry at the drop of a hat and give hugs to anyone who tried to date their way into the family. In Grandaddy’s mind, you didn’t have to earn your way into the clan.

He was an avid reader of this newsletter and quite a student of worship. He would show me the worship guide from his church, discuss our bulletin with me, and ask probing questions. He was genuinely interested, not in a critical way, but so that he could learn even more about his own life of faith.

When I was in high school, I was naïve enough to think that churches just happen. The formula was simple: get the WMU, the prayer room, the youth group, Sunday School, and the Choir moving in the same direction, and you’ve got a great church. But churches don’t just happen. People like Frank Parks happen to join the cause because they care so much about Jesus that they want their church to live like Christ.

Albert Schweitzer remarked, “The great secret of success is to go through life as a man who never gets used up.” Frank forgot more about church life than most people ever knew. And my guess is we’ll still be telling several more Frank stories for years to come—stories about meals, and church, and family. And it will be the best advice we’ve ever had.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

In Memory of Ruth Ann Foster

Ruth Ann Foster, one of the founding faculty of Baylor's Truett Seminary, died Thursday after a long bout with cancer. I was her first student grader at Truett. A few reflections on a professor-friend....

When I first met Ruth Ann Foster, I was sitting in Christian Scriptures 1, trying to decide what the name "Christian Scriptures" meant, and asking myself, "Why didn't they just call this class 'Old Testament'?" On the first day of class, she announced that we would write 7 exegetical papers in one semester. After all, this was Truett Seminary, not that other one. A couple of days later, one of our fellow students evened the score by embarrasing her at El Chico in front of our Dean, Robert Sloan. It was the beginning of a long friendship of laughter and scholarship.

We became friends, not because of anything I did; but I think she and I could relate to one another. We were both non-Texans. Both of us attended fundamentalist schools in the past, and both were just grateful to be in Waco instead of Fort Worth. I married a girl from Ruth Ann's home state of Kentucky. Kelly and Ruth Ann shared a love of Kentucky basketball.

Ruth Ann helped me continue to unbox and bless my past and figure out how to use it in the future. She asked me to be her grader, and she put up with my bad habit of leaving every file drawer open at her desk. I tolerated her "office" (really a cubicle) that she kept a minimum of -32 or as low as the First Baptist Waco air conditioner would let her. I think Nancy de-Claisse Walford, who shared the other side of the office, wrote her dissertation in about 9 months just to keep warm.

More than anything, Ruth Ann was our pastor when I was in seminary. When the other professors took interims and preached on Sundays, Ruth Ann preached and pastored the students. She did not need a pulpit; she used her desk and her classroom to exhort us in our callings. Yes, she could hold her own against every Calvinist, closed minded, anti-women-in-ministry student she taught. But she handled every confrontation the way Bonhoeffer prescribed in Life Together, with honesty, grace, poise, and candor. And she showed each student how to disagree and still remain friends with some of the very people with whom she debated.

She helped us create the Truett Community. When the administration handed down another change, Ruth Ann kept us going. When Conyers couldn't find the right room, Ruth Ann laughed right along with us. When none of us liked the covenant groups, Ruth Ann let down her guard and was transparent enough to be a part of the groups. When students had problems, Ruth Ann hid her own private pain and showed up every time she could, even though she didn't feel like it.

Quietly behind her has been her mother Alice who played the best piano in Kentucky or Texas if you pressed her. She has cared for and loved on Ruth Ann and on every student that has walked into her home and helped them change a light bulb.

Sloan, Creed, Conyers, Foster, Dilday, Houser, deClaisse-Walford, Harbour-- all of them arrived in 1994; and all have a very significant place in my heart and in the formation of Truett Seminary.

The glue that held us together was Ruth Ann Foster. She leaves a legacy that we should all emulate.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Sabbath Jars

Most people begin practicing Sabbath by trying to find a 24-hour slot. They schedule the time, try to take a break, and feel guilty about the laundry or the email for an entire week. That feels more like time management to me, not observing Sabbath. In the wilderness, the Israelites first practiced Sabbath by trusting that God would provide manna—twice as much before their day off, and the regular amount afterward. Sabbath begins with acknowledging God’s provision and trusting God during a day off.

Last Sunday, I shared ways that individuals and families can recognize that God will always supply their needs. I suggested following a method similar to the one in Exodus 16. Find a jar (or use the one given to children and youth), and fill it with symbols of the ways God has provided for you in the past. Focus on the intangible gifts: a picture of family, a timely email of encouragement, a token of laughter or love. Display the jar in your home; discuss it with roommates, friends, and family. Every time you see it, you’re preparing for Sabbath. You will know that God will take care of you before and after your day of rest.

As a church, we have a similar assignment. Last year, God demonstrated his provision tangibly through our pledges to the capital campaign. We used “Fulfilling the Promise” flower pots with prints of FBC children’s hands to decorate the breakfast that day. The flower pots are back; but this time, we don’t need pledge cards or balloons. I want to know other ways that God has provided for our church. We share a collective memory of several hundreds of years of service at 1B. How have you seen God provide? Drop something in the flower pot: a picture, a note, a memento. Note paper is provided nearby each flower pot; scribble a phrase or two and added to the soil. These pots are placed throughout the church.

The Sabbath Series ends October 1 with communion. On that day, people bring their jars of God’s provision to worship. We will also share the blessings of God’s provision that they have left in the “Fulfilling the Promise” pots. Every time we remember God’s provision, we celebrate Sabbath. Let’s remember for generations to come.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Sabbath Definitions

I'm preaching a series of messages on Sabbath over the next month. If you announce the topic of Sabbath, suddenly everyone has a definition.

I heard a few comments in the hallway Sunday:

“Dr. Shiell just gave everyone permission to sleep in church.”

“This means I get out of laundry and cooking today.”

“If we’re supposed to keep the Sabbath, where do I put it?”

Part of the fun of Sabbath is dusting off an old treasure, much like finding a gift in the attic left unopened for years. The other part comes in redefining what Sabbath means for our time and our generation. Each generation has had to do so. Much of the furor over the Sabbath in the Pentateuch began over adapting a commandment to a wilderness tribe. When Jesus arrived, the Pharisees were still trying to figure it out and missed the point entirely; and they did not care for his definition too much.

I can tell you what Sabbath is not. It’s not counting footsteps, passing more Blue Laws, or skipping movies. All those things limit the gift to a few simple things we can check off a list and say, “Ok! I got one out of 10 commands right.”

I can’t tell you how to define Sabbath personally. Church staff and others who work on Sunday know that Sabbath goes beyond one day of the week.

Part of the joy of rediscovery comes in studying the concept and redefining it. As you do, several themes of Sabbath should be remembered, observed, and practiced as you find the joy in the gift. (I reserve the right to add to these as we move through the series, and I welcome your additions and comments on these themes.)

Sabbath is a time.

Sabbath brings people together. From creation forward, Sabbath is about reuniting a community-- whether tribe, church, friends, or family.

Sabbath is different than the ordinary routine. We spend most of our time sleeping and working for pay; and if we don’t, someone is providing both for us. The Sabbath breaks whatever makes up the bumping, grinding, and draining parts of your life.

Sabbath points to eternity. One day a week reminds us that this is partly what heaven feels like.

Sabbath is stewardship. It says, “I know God will provide even if I take a break.”

Sabbath is generosity. It extends rest to those worn by the labors of life.

Sabbath is dependence. The world goes on without us because God is in charge.

Sabbath is more than a 24-hour period on a calendar; it’s a lifestyle of finding restful moments throughout the week.

According to Abraham Heschel, the rabbis described Sabbath as a man getting lost in the woods only to find a large palace in the middle of the forest. This month, in the thicket of your schedule, may you find a palace in time.

A Sabbath for Cal

Life in Knoxville after a football game is combination recovery, therapy (depending on the final score), post-game analysis, and victory party (again depending on the final score). When I planned to start a sermon series on Sabbath yesterday, I knew what I was getting into. Football and Sabbath don't mix. It's not very restful dealing with traffic congestion, pre and post game stress, and the reality that football like Sabbath rolls around every week. Sometimes several times a week. But I thought, "It's Labor Day weekend; what a better time to focus on this Gift from God."

The last thing I expected to see on Sunday after UT's route of Cal on the river was a Cal fan plunked right in the middle of the sanctuary for the first service. At first, I didn't recognize our blue-and-yellow-clad guest. He feverishly took notes during the sermon and found me in the library after the service. He identified himself and told me that he had flown in from Berkely for the game. He was very complimentary of the people and the warm welcome, but he especially liked the prayer before the football game. "We couldn't do that in California. The believers there just gather under the trees and pray before the game-- much like that prayer yesterday, for the important things. It's just football, you know."

It's just football. The guy on the losing end of Saturday just stole my sermon. On Sunday, the scoreboard doesn't matter. Even in the midst of the fun of cheering on a team, football needs a Sabbath. For one guy from Berkely, who hopped a plane to watch his team learn about life in the SEC, he found true rest. Thanks for the gift.

Saturday, August 26, 2006


Parker brought home his first homework assignment Friday. Kelly and I picked him up from school together. Friday was his first full day, and the teacher sent home some work to do. It's due Wednesday, but being the industrious Dad that I am, and knowing that Tuesday night could be torture trying to get it done, Parker and I worked on it together Friday afternoon.

Friday's assignment involved the alphabet. They're working on the letter M next week, so the assignment was of course about all things "M": Mommy, munching, M & Ms. You get the picture. The first assignment, however, was really not the homework. It was getting Dad to figure out the assignment. I leafed through the yellow folder that was supposed to contain the worksheet, read through the note to parents, and we began. Parker had an "M" sheet in his hand, complete with an "M" man to color; and I naturally assumed this was the homework sheet.

We began the process. We had to find magazines, tape, and scissors. He was supposed to (1) cut out "M" from magazines, both pictures of words starting with M and the letter itself, (2) paste them on the page, and (3) write his name. We assembled the old magazines we could find and started cutting. Watching Parker attempting this was a little bit like trying to get jello to stop moving. He was all over the place. In my lap, on the floor, looking around, asking for a break every 15 minutes.

About midway through the assignment, I continued reading through the yellow folder. There were other pages inside that contained notes to the parents. I happened upon another sheet that said, "Sample Letter Page" at the top. The sheet had examples of how to complete the assignment. I realized, "Parker's M page doesn't match the sample page in the folder." Even worse, I couldn't find a blank version of the sample page.

I pretended to urge Parker to continue but had this sinking feeling, "I've just caused my son to fail his first homework assignment. He's filled out the wrong homework page." After the 10th time looking feverishly through the folder, I found a blank page that matched the sample completed page.

"I think we were supposed to do that one," said Parker.

"Yes," I replied, trying not to admit a mistake and frustrate him even further, "We were just practicing on the other page. Now this one is for real."

When we finally completed the assignment we had two perfect homework pages, one exasperated Dad, and a reminder that life could be easier if you had all the instructions in front of you at the start. You can't read a book, a homework assignment, a Bible or even a life by just taking one part at a time. You need to see the big picture to understand the concept. That's the kind of work that I need at home.

Friday, August 18, 2006


Parker described his first day at school in one word: "GREAT!" Since he has never attached this adjective to anything, I think we've found a winner.

The morning started early for yours truly. I woke up at 5:00 a.m. ready for the new day. I felt like it was my first day. I aroused the young scholar around 6:20, to which he promptly responded, "It can't be morning already!" After shaking off the cobwebs, we were off and rolling. Kelly and I rode together for the inaugural day. We parked, snapped a few photos, and escorted Parker to the waiting area. I'm proud to say that not a tear was shed by any of us. We talked to Miss Corden, chatted a bit with Miss Cochran the student teacher, and handed Parker off to the world of public education.

Last night, he told me all about their quest for the Gingerbread man, that a real Gingerbread man was somewhere in the school, and that his class would find him. Good for him. We need all the cookies we can get.

Apparently, the day was so productive, they gave him the next day off. He doesn't have to return until Wednesday. Hopefully by then, we'll be ready for another GREAT day.

Monday, August 14, 2006

First Days

Rocky Hill Elementary School

We practiced, studied, prepared and I think we’re ready. Kelly and I mapped the route. (Turn left out of the driveway, right, right, and left.) We consulted with well-known educators like Joe Dent. We met the teacher, the student teacher, and even the new principal. We passed all the tests. We’re finally qualified to be parents of a Kindergarten student.

Parker was ready about 18 months ago. As a very advanced boy, he knew where Rocky Hill Elementary was located when we arrived in Knoxville. He pointed it out every time we drove by. He practically aced his Preschool test at St. Mark’s Early Education School for Smart Intellectual Children. Seriously, he really did have to take a test. I would not joke about this. He was graded on the scale of “Most of the Time,” “Sometimes,” and “Not Usually”-- “M” “S” and “NU.” He received an “M” in every category except one. He aced important subjects like “Counts 10 objects meaningfully,” “Hops for six feet,” “Gallops,” “Follow three unrelated commands in sequence,” “Holds pencil properly,” “Able to separates from Parents,” “Puts toys away and cleans up.” (Apparently, there was not a home version of the test.)

He received an “NU,” however, in “Skips.” You can imagine the horror on Kelly’s face when she realized she had failed to teach my son how to skip. After recovering from the sheer embarrassment, we enrolled in an advanced summer program called “Summer Skipping for Struggling Superchildren.” He can now skip with the best of them. Yes, Parker has been ready for a long time.

On the other hand, I have been more worried about me and Kelly. When we walked into the kindergarten classroom, his new teacher Miss Corden handed us our “first homework assignment.” I was afraid at first they might be test us over the same material from Preschool. Already I could read the report card.

“Follow three unrelated commands”: go to the store, pick up milk, buy stamps

Grade: NU (can’t remember all 3)

"Holds pencil properly”: do I get to use the computer?

Grade: NU. (This is why no one can read my handwriting today.)

"Able to separate from parents/child”: in the parking lot? In the room? Where?

Grade: NU. (Kelly cried at the open house.)

Instead the homework was directed at the students: “Show them where the bathroom is,” “Put on your nametag,” etc. What a relief!

Thursday morning, when both of us take Parker into the hallowed halls of Rocky Hill, our little boy will reach another milestone; and so will his parents. All of us will grow up a little more and learn to be more prepared for the days to come.

Saturday, August 05, 2006


Life is tough, but life without a vacation is tougher. So I opted for #1 and drove to Florida. We spent a few days with friends and a few days with just the family. In the hottest week in America, it was great to be in sunny Florida. If you're going to be warm, you might as well roast on the coast!

Among many other things I read while I was relaxing, I noticed in USA Today that the average freshman spends $1,200 to decorate and outfit their dorm room. Not bad for a closet!

Bill and Kelly at an outdoor concert with... Guess Who? .... Kenny Rogers (the people behind us were bored)

Friday, July 21, 2006

54 years and Counting

Rafaello David and Bathsheba 1515

There's a side to David's life that is awfully tempting to preach. It goes something like this, "If you don't do what David did, then your life will turn out even better." In other words, "If you don't sleep around with women, if you're nicer to your kids, if you have healthy boundaries, and go to church each Sunday, then you won't have to deal with Baathsheba, the loss of a child, Absalom, and the like."

I know, however, plenty of God-fearing childless couples as well as Christ-loving dysfunctional families. Our relationship with God isn't based on a formula of good works=easy life. Most of the time, things work out fine; and most people have relatively good lives when they follow the Lord. They aren't immune to problems, but their relationships with God helped them through the issues. It did not get them out of the mess.

I've been reflecting on all this over the last several weeks as I've preached through David's life. On Sunday, the journey comes to an end; I get to go on vacation after that. But smack dab in the middle of my series, I saw the sermon lived out.

I was visiting a nursing home one Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago. Kelly and little Parker were galavanting in Florida on their annual two-week-break from me. So I took the opportunity to do things I don't normally do on Sundays. Like show up for the lunch bunch at the nursing home. I met some folk who watched us on tv, but I was really there to see two of our best church members in action. Each week, they go back to the place that both of them spent many weeks caring for a dying parent. They return so that they can love on those who have no children to care for them. They feed meals, hug, touch, and smile at people who can't smile back.

As I pushed the elevator button to go back to my car for the rest of my "busy" day, I complimented them for their ministry and thanked them for their faithfulness. The wife said to the husband, "I've been with him for 54 years, and you know, I wish I could just tell the young people that you're going to need somebody to wake up beside when you're older and take care of you."

Their lives haven't been easy, but they have stayed faithful. And their obedience in the nursing home is one aspect of many different ways they serve. And they live out a story that's even better than David and Baathsheba, David and Absalom, and David and everyone else. These very real people have made it, and they're still going strong 54 years later.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Next Time Your Hip Hurts

From the New York Times Magazine.....

What He’s Been Pedaling

Published: July 16, 2006
“That’s the one,” Floyd Landis said, his index finger tapping rapidly on a glossy page. “That’s what I want.” It was a lovely June evening in Murrieta, a small city in Southern California, and it was 10 days before the start of the Tour de France, the most prestigious and grueling of all cycling races. Landis, one of America’s hopefuls in the race now that Lance Armstrong has retired from the sport, was sitting on his patio, eating a piece of Greek-style pizza and shopping for a new hip.

Skip to next paragraph
Enlarge this Image

Jonathan de Villiers for The New York Times
Landis in his Strasbourg hotel room two days before the start of the Tour de France, demonstrating the time-trial position that he calls the Praying Mantis.

The Tour de France
Go to an Interactive Feature »

Top, Landis's initial fracture. Middle, the screws that fixed the fracture. Above, with blood cut off by the fracture, the ball of the hip, normally round and smooth, has become worn and necrotic.
Actually, he was not shopping so much as hunting. As Landis looked through the pages, his lean 5-foot-10, 150-pound body shifted hungrily, his muscles flickering beneath his tan Harley-Davidson T-shirt and blue jeans. His gaze was sharp and intense; his reddish hair stuck out in spots, as if it were electrified.

Landis, who is 30, slid the booklet, an annual report from a joint-replacement manufacturer, across the table toward Brent Kay, his doctor. Together they gazed at the silvery ball-and-cup assembly identified as the Durom hip system.

“Nice, huh?” Landis said, and it was hard to argue. In the oversize photograph, the Durom was a glistening, precision-milled orb. It resembled a Henry Moore sculpture or perhaps an expensive set of drawer pulls.

“Sure, it might look good,” Kay said, drolly setting himself up for the inevitable bike-shop bon mot. “But do they make it in titanium?”

“They’d better!” Landis’s face beamed with a fierce smile, his voice rising with mock indignation. “I wouldn’t want anything to slow me down!”

Landis was being funny here, and like most of his humor, this joke works because it cuts two ways. First, it’s funny because in almost every situation in his life, Landis is slow. He walks with a limp. He sits as often as possible and cannot cross his right leg over his left. He takes elevators instead of stairs, valet-parks at the shopping mall and sometimes has difficulty sleeping. Running is out of the question. Like many of the 216,000 Americans who will receive hip replacements this year, his life is defined by chronic, debilitating pain.

Second, it’s funny because there exists a singular situation — which is to say, when he is on a bike — in which Landis is extremely fast and strong. He is so fast and strong, in fact, that this year he has won three world-class races and, as of July 7, was among the leaders in this year’s Tour de France, which ends July 23 in Paris.

But perhaps the funniest part is that Landis has been successful at keeping his hip condition a secret from teammates, rivals and the media for 20 months, confiding it only to a small handful of doctors and close friends. This maneuver has involved what Landis, who was raised as a Mennonite in Lancaster County, Pa., calls “a few adaptations.”

“I always have to get on my bike putting my right leg over first,” Landis told me. “If I tried to get on the other way” — tilting his pelvis against his damaged hip — “I’d be lying on the pavement. Then people would be standing around wondering what the hell’s wrong with that guy?”

Landis’s right hip — his original, in the car-mechanic parlance of the joint-replacement field — is afflicted with osteonecrosis, or bone death, a degenerative condition caused by lack of blood supply. (The condition, which forced Bo Jackson, the star football and baseball player, to get a hip replacement in 1992, is also called avascular necrosis.) Essentially, the ball of Landis’s hip has withered and collapsed, resulting in bone that his doctors liken to a chunk of rotten wood, a sunbaked desert and a half-melted scoop of ice cream.

The Tour de France’s status as the world’s most physiologically demanding event is largely unquestioned. The riders cover 2,272 miles at an average speed of 25 miles per hour, roughly the equivalent of running a marathon almost every day for almost three weeks. In the Pyrenees and the Alps, they climb a vertical distance equal to three Mount Everests. They take in up to 10,000 calories per day, the equivalent of 17 Big Macs, elevating their metabolic rates to a level that, according to a Dutch study, is exceeded by only four species on earth. All of which transforms Landis into the embodiment of an intriguing question: Is it possible for someone with a ruined hip to win the Tour de France?

Kay, who has worked closely with Landis for four years, and Dr. David Chao, Landis’s orthopedic surgeon, are in the best position to address that question. When asked, they swiftly list a few factors that work in Landis’s favor: the hip will be replaced, so it cannot be damaged any further; cycling is a nonimpact sport (that is, it doesn’t place weight on the damaged hip); Landis possesses a high pain tolerance and an unusually strong work ethic.

When pressed further, however, clinical rationality gives way to hapless shrugging. “This is uncharted territory,” says Kay, who runs the Ouch Sports Medical Center in Temecula, Calif. “I expect that people will freak out a little when they hear about this; they’ll say it’s dangerous to let him compete. Well, before they say that, they need to know Floyd. The only way to stop him would be to literally chain him to his bed, and even that probably wouldn’t do it.”

Chao, who serves as team physician for the San Diego Chargers, says that he sees “a lot of injuries, a lot of guys playing with pain. But if I were a betting man, and you showed me Landis’s X-rays, I would bet my house that he could not be competitive in the Tour de France. This is the hip of a guy who, if he were just a weekend warrior, would have problems with everyday living. But to be a top athlete? Where a 1 percent performance loss is a big deal? No way.”

As for Landis, he responds to the question in his customary fashion, which is to question it. “Well, I’m doing it, so it must be possible,” he said, his face flashing into the sharp, faintly incredulous expression he often gets when he talks about his hip. “All the doctors have ever been able to tell me is that I should get a replacement when the pain gets to be too much. O.K., that sounds fine, but how much is too much? Can anybody tell me that? How much is too much?”

andis jokes about his hip a lot. As Kay puts it, he’s a one-man comedy show. During my visit last month, the Floyd show consisted mostly of vivid, darkly funny monologues, most of which spring from his hourly epiphanies.

“I got it!” Landis said. “When this is over, I’ll have the surgeons give me my old hip, and I’ll sell it on eBay. I’ll mount it on a trophy.” He pantomimed lying on a stretcher, talking to an invisible surgeon. “Excuse me, could I please get a to-go bag?”

“I need a cane!” he blurted out another time. “I’m going to show up at the tour with a cane, diamond tipped. Or maybe I should just go straight to the wheelchair. Motorized, with rims. Now that would be classic: drive up to the start, get out of my wheelchair and get on the bike! Yes!”

Yet when Landis was asked what his hip feels like, he fell silent. “It hurts a lot,” he said after a while. “Mostly, it stops me from doing things.”

How much? What’s it feel like?

Landis squinted. He rubbed his hand over his face.

“It just hurts,” he said finally. “Some days are worse; some are better.”

Part of his ineloquence is job-related. Bike racers, like test pilots, don’t like to talk about crashes or pain. Least of all Landis, whose distaste for excuses is well known in the professional ranks. As he concisely puts it, “You’re either good enough to win or you’re not, period.”

Fortunately, a survey begun in 2005 by the Osteonecrosis/Avascular Necrosis Support Group International Association offers a measure of insight. Respondents wrote that their pain was like “sharp stabs,” “crunching bone,” “labor pains,” “electrical shock” and “grinding your bare feet into hot broken glass and jagged shards of metal.” Another respondent invoked the labors of Sisyphus; still another wrote: “You lose everything even yourself in the pain. It consumes everything.”

Landis is better at describing a different sort of ache: the uncertainty of deciding when and how to swap out a painful-but-still-usable body part. In one of our first conversations, which took place after he revealed his condition to me in mid-May, Landis spoke about the process. “It’s so hard, deciding which way to go,” he said. “Some days I just wish the thing would collapse just so it would get resolved one way or the other. It’s too stressful, not knowing what’s going to happen. It’s a big weird gray area, and I’m tired of it.”

Landis officially arrived in that gray area on Nov. 19, 2004, after he came to Kay complaining of deep hip pain. “Just the fact that he admitted he was in pain meant in my mind that this was serious,” Kay recalls. “I saw the X-ray and felt sick to my stomach.”

It wasn’t a complete surprise. Landis and Kay had been dealing with this hip since January 2003, when Landis fractured it in a crash. But since July of that year, the story line had been his gutty, two-surgery comeback to help his U.S. Postal Service teammate Armstrong win the 2003 Tour de France. Seemingly fully recovered, Landis had followed it up with a breakout 2004 season that saw him join the top ranks of the sport. But that story ended with the radiologist’s blunt report: advanced osteonecrosis, 25 to 50 percent femoral head collapse, with superimposed osteoarthritis. It was a textbook case: cut off from the blood supply, the femoral head was withering into a cauliflower-shaped knob that was already grating away at the remaining cartilage.

Landis’s situation was complicated by the fact that he had just left U.S. Postal to sign a three-year, $700,000 contract to lead the rival Phonak team. Worse, his new team had just been hit with a series of doping scandals — among the riders fingered was his fellow American Tyler Hamilton — which endangered the team’s spot in professional cycling’s ProTour. “Those were very, very dark days,” Landis’s wife, Amber, told me. “Floyd was all over the place mentally.”

Landis explained: “I finally had everything the way I wanted it, and then suddenly it was all going to go away — my team, my health, my career, everything. I got paralyzed by the whole situation. So I just told myself that it was going to be all right and blocked everything else out.”

He began researching his options. (“Floyd spent three straight days at the computer,” Amber recalled. “I don’t think he slept.”) Kay posted pseudonymous queries on cycling Internet forums, trying to locate professional cyclists who had successfully returned to competition after a hip replacement. (He found none.) Landis studied medical literature and haunted chat rooms and after a few days came to a decision. He would approach his hip as an experiment. He would ride on it for one or two years, then get a new one.

“Odds were, a replacement would work O.K. and take away the pain, which would be a huge thing,” Landis says. “But it’s still an unknown as far as performance goes. I basically decided to treat the hip like an old car — if it still works, you may as well run it into the ground.”

He also decided to tell only his coach, his trainer, his agent, his financial adviser and a few other close friends, swearing them all to secrecy. “I was worried about people finding out and somebody stopping me from riding,” Landis says. “In retrospect, I probably should have been more open. But I didn’t want anybody thinking I was damaged goods. And I had this idea that if I could just keep riding, everything would be O.K.”

Just before Thanksgiving in 2004, three days after the initial diagnosis was confirmed, Landis underwent a medieval-sounding palliative procedure called decompression, in which his hip was drilled with a dozen or so small holes that relieve pressure and help renew blood flow. Leaving the hospital on crutches, Landis employed a decoy, placing a large splint on his healthy right ankle. When asked about his limp, Landis said that he had tripped on some stairs, nothing serious. A few days later, the experiment officially began as Landis flew to Europe to meet his new team and to begin preparation for the 2005 season.

When Landis saw the Swiss doctor in the white lab coat, his heart sank. It was 10 days after his decompression surgery, and Landis was standing in an exam room near the Phonak corporate headquarters outside Zurich, wearing only his underwear.

At first, Landis hadn’t been worried about passing the physical. In his experience, the exams were perfunctory at best, designed to fulfill the “physically able to perform” boilerplate contained in every rider’s contract. But Phonak, as it turned out, was relatively new to the cycling game and eager to display their Swiss thoroughness and efficiency. All riders, it was announced, would be receiving full orthopedic examinations. “When I heard that, I figured I was screwed,” Landis recalls. “I’d be packing my bags, looking for another job.”

The Swiss doctor began by eyeing Landis’s posture and announcing that his right leg appeared to be five millimeters shorter than his left. (The difference, because of the collapse, is actually on the order of 15 millimeters.) Then, as Landis lay back on the exam table, the doctor began to pry and rotate his legs. Landis did the only thing he could think of: he stiffened his good left leg so that it came close to matching his right.

To Landis’s disbelief, he passed. “What was that guy thinking?” Landis told me, almost offended at his good fortune. “At that point, I couldn’t walk up stairs without a handrail!”

Temporarily rescued, Landis spent the rest of the winter as he would spend much of the 2005 season: pretending not to hurt. Unable to press hard on the top of the pedal stroke with his right leg, he pedaled harder with his left. To ride his time-trial bike, which required a hunched aerodynamic posture, Landis was forced to ride on the nose of his saddle, a near-proctological position that drew amusement from his fellow riders but which, because it created a wider angle between his trunk and his femur, permitted his hip to work. “Everything’s a compromise,” he says. “You get one pain or you get the other pain. No way around it.”

He adapted in other ways, acquiring a shoulder-rolling, stiff-legged walk to disguise what a trained eye might identify as an externally rotated antalgic gait. Landis was assisted in his subterfuge not only by his offbeat reputation but also by cycling’s social structure. As a rule, professional riders live and train apart from one another, gathering only at races and occasional training camps. Phonak, like most ProTour teams, consists of 25 riders, an ever-changing handful of whom are chosen by coaches to compete in each event. At races, when Landis’s teammates noticed his walk, they saw it only as an invitation to tease him about his rap-star strut. “I’m not quite as cool as they think I am,” Landis says archly.

His friends came up with codes. In phone calls, his coach, Robbie Ventura, referred to Landis’s hip as “the finger.” Another friend would ask Landis how “his bad back” was doing. As the season wore on, the secret held.

“I was kind of amazed at first that nobody noticed,” Landis says. “But then I realized that it’s such a weird thing, that you’ve really got to look for it. Everybody’s ready to look to see if you’ve got a cough or if you’re two pounds overweight, but they’d never look for this.”

Landis’s most useful adaptation, however, came in the form of an idea. It was planted in his head by Kay, who, as fate would have it, suffered osteonecrosis of the shoulder from a college car accident and had gone on to complete six Ironman triathlons. Kay’s idea was that it might be possible, through repetition, to wear a useful groove in the bone and cartilage of his damaged joint. “Floyd really liked the groove idea,” Kay says. “He never wanted to look at the hip or any X-rays or even talk about the clinical part of things, but he kind of fixated on that idea.”

Landis explains: “When the hip does something weird and it hurts, I always imagine that it’s cutting a better path in the joint. I’m probably fooling myself, but I may as well imagine something good is happening, since it definitely doesn’t help to think that it’s getting worse.”

The secret also supplied psychological fuel. During races, Landis cataloged riders and their favorite excuses. “Every time I heard somebody talk about how bad their stomach ached, I thought, That guy will be easy to beat when I get in shape,” Landis says. “And that works pretty well, because sooner or later, everybody makes an excuse.”

To outward appearances, Landis’s 2005 season fell below expectations. He finished 3rd at the Tour de Georgia, 11th at the Dauphiné Libéré and a hard-fought 9th in the Tour de France behind Armstrong. The true results, however, could be found in another number. According to his estimates, Landis rode 250 days for 5 hours per day at a cadence of 90 revolutions per minute. Which means that the damaged femoral head moved 6.7 million times back and forth along a narrow track within the cup of the hip joint.

n my second day with Landis, we traveled with Kay to Chao’s San Diego office for Landis’s pretour cortisone shot in his hip. (Cortisone, a non-performance-enhancing hormone with a variety of anti-inflammatory and other beneficial effects, is a banned substance. Landis’s condition, however, which his doctors have selectively described as “bursitis,” has allowed his team to obtain a therapeutic use exemption from the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s governing body.)

After administering the shot, Chao gathered us at a conference table cluttered with a hardware-store jumble of ersatz bones and hip-replacement samples, testament to an expanding industry fueled by two trends — an aging, active generation and an increase in obesity. By 2030, hip replacements in the United States are expected to increase 174 percent, to 572,000 a year, according to a 2006 study by Exponent, a Philadelphia technology research firm. Artificial-knee implants are expected to increase 673 percent, to 3.48 million, over the same period, combining to create a rise in demand so abrupt that some wonder whether there will be enough qualified doctors to perform the required implants and the inevitable reimplants, called revisions.

The explanation for this increase lies partly with an ever-younger population of joint-replacement patients, some of whose arthritic conditions are accelerated by running and other impact sports, and partly with better technology. New, more durable plastics, along with improved metals and ceramics, promise to lengthen the 10-year life span of current replacements. These developments are not lost on the $4.3 billion joint-replacement industry, which has begun to develop niche products, like a knee designed specifically for women, and has also enlisted celebrities like Jack Nicklaus and Angela Lansbury to market directly to patients. In a similar fashion, Landis plans to raise the profile of osteonecrosis and hip-replacement issues through the charitable organization he intends to start during this year’s tour, tentatively called the Floyd Landis Foundation.

Conversation eventually turned back to the groove theory, specifically to whether this groove might actually exist. Chao, a brisk and cheerful surgeon who trained at Harvard and Northwestern, smiled knowingly and reached for Landis’s X-ray. As we leaned in, Chao pointed to a cloudy, half-moon-shaped blur on the rim of the femoral head, just beneath the pelvis. It was 1.5 centimeters long and a centimeter deep; it looked like a tiny pearlescent goblet.

“There’s your groove,” Chao said, tapping the film with a pen. “It’s soft, and the pelvis is pushing down on it. It’s a dent.” Landis looked at the X-ray intently, faintly pleased at this revelation but distinctly unsurprised.

When I ask him about it later, Landis said: “It was good to see, but it also makes sense to me. There’s a lot of friction, a lot of pressure. Logically, that pressure has to go somewhere.”

Geographically, Farmersville, PA., is situated in central Lancaster County, close to New Holland and Paradise. Spiritually, it is located close to 17th-century Europe, from which the Mennonites emigrated in order to escape persecution and follow the mandate set out in II Corinthians 6:17: “Come out from them and be separate.” As a young man, Landis obeyed the dictum, but not quite in the way his parents would have preferred. “That boy put us through the mill growing up,” Floyd’s mother, Arlene Landis, told me. “Just doing the normal thing, that’s boring to Floyd.”

By Lancaster County standards, however, the Landises were middle of the road. Floyd, his four sisters and his brother enjoyed the comparative luxury of being able to listen to the radio, attend public high school and ride in cars. And yet, to the young Landis, being Mennonite seemed to involve an unusual number of rules: no dancing, no television, no uncovered heads for women and no mingling with the unrighteous. “It wasn’t all the rules that got me, so much as the fact that they didn’t seem logical to me,” Landis says. “We weren’t allowed to wear shorts in gym class. Does God really care if somebody wears shorts or not?”

In Lancaster County, Mennonite children who test limits are said to “stretch” their parents. For Paul and Arlene Landis, the elastic started to fray when Floyd bought a mountain bike at age 15. At first, he used it to travel to remote fishing holes. Soon Landis was entering races, some of which took place on Sunday, a day when vigorous exercise was expressly forbidden. Landis kept riding, dominating regional races and then, at 17, winning the Junior National Mountain Bike Championship. Pressure was building, from both sides. “They basically told me I was going to hell if I kept racing my bike,” Landis says. “I love my parents, and they’re good people, but that didn’t make any sense to me. So I knew I had to get out, and the bike was the way.”

Two years later, he moved to California, having never tasted alcohol or caffeine or seen a motion picture. With the help of mountain-biking pals, Landis soon enacted a kind of Mennonite Pygmalion, receiving an education about music, movies, TV and dating. Landis returned the favor by supplying a few lessons of his own. “He did monstrous workouts no one else could do,” says Will Geoghegan, a former teammate on the Chevy Trucks mountain-bike team. “He sought out the pain and embraced it. Floyd worked so hard that we all had to decide about him — either he had a screw loose or he had a calculated plan to get what he wanted.”

In fact, Landis had a plan, an eight-year training regimen that he had drawn up with the help of his coach at the time, Arnie Baker. Some years called for Landis to log 24,000 miles, or about once around the globe. The level of training diminished Landis’s performance in races, but he was focused on more long-term goals.

In 1999, Landis switched over to road racing and three years later was signed by U.S. Postal, which at the time ranked as the sport’s version of the Yankees. Landis was quickly drawn into the orbit of Lance Armstrong, who was impressed by the newcomer’s unconventional sensibility and his toughness. The two trained together often as Landis grew into one of Armstrong’s top support riders and perhaps his closest friend on the team — at least until 2004, when Landis’s outstanding season drew offers from other teams, and he decided to leave U.S. Postal for Phonak. From there, the friendship deteriorated fast. Armstrong considered Landis’s move traitorous, while Landis considered Armstrong unreasonable, pointing out that Phonak had doubled Postal’s contract offer. The two spent most of 2005 in an occasionally spiteful feud, partly fueled by the fact that with his hip in such bad shape, Landis felt he had little to lose.

“There aren’t many guys in the peloton” — the main pack of riders in a road bicycle race — “who are willing to tell Lance to go screw himself,” says David Zabriskie, a top American who rides for the Danish CSC team. “Floyd just didn’t care.”

It was late afternoon, and Landis was reclining in the front seat of Kay’s Lincoln LS, the seat slid all the way back for comfort. We were on our way to the mountains north of San Diego to see the spot where Landis crashed in 2003. At the moment, however, Landis’s mind seemed focused on the future: specifically, on how the disclosure of his hip problem might play out at the Tour de France.

Historically, the spectacle of the injured rider who refuses to quit ranks as one of the tour’s most reliable sources of gloire, starting with Honoré Barthélémy (broken shoulder, dislocated wrist and eye injury, 1920), Eddy Merckx (broken jaw, 1975), Pascal Simon (broken shoulder blade, 1983). But Landis had a hunch that his disclosure might inspire a less worshipful reaction, at least among his rivals. “I better bring the X-rays, because some of them aren’t going to believe it,” he said, going on to recount the memorable drama at the 2003 tour, when Hamilton, riding for CSC, was forced to display X-rays of his cracked collarbone to quell intimations of fakery. “Most of the guys, though, will just not care. Which is fine with me — why should they?”

While Landis’s disclosure might surprise his rivals, his performance most likely won’t. The 2006 season — season No. 2 of his experiment — has so far been a resounding success. More interestingly, Landis is not sure why. “The hip doesn’t hurt any less,” he said. “It doesn’t feel all that different. I’m just going faster now.”

This past winter, Landis returned to Murrieta looking forward to his first surgery-free off-season in three years. He spent six weeks off the bike, underwent ultrasound therapy, trained a bit less than usual and watched in surprise as his power numbers ticked upward. (Power, the key measure of a cyclist’s ability, is measured by sensors mounted to the pedal cranks or wheel hub.) In 2005, Landis could maximally produce 900 watts for five seconds. By this spring, he could push 1,250 watts, a 39 percent boost.

His year started brilliantly. In February, he won the Tour of California. In March, he won Paris-Nice, and in April he won the Tour de Georgia. All told, it amounted to more than 1,900 miles of world-class competition. Landis was so dominant that until a below-average performance in early June’s Dauphiné Libéré, some in the media speculated that he might be doping, a rumor that entertains Landis to no end. Though not quite as much as the reports that some rivals have begun to copy his uniquely painful position on the time-trial bike. “Maybe they should break their hip, and it would work better for them,” Landis told me with a smile.

Kay attributes the improvement to a combination of increased rest, lack of stress and the fact that the joint seems to have stabilized. “It’s encouraging,” he said guardedly. “Something bad could still happen — some soft bone could break loose, maybe. But basically, it seems like he’s been able to remodel the joint and make it functional.”

I suggested to Landis that given this new stability, he might put off the hip replacement another year. As he suggested, run it into the ground. “No, no, no,” Landis said. “This hip gets used up, an athletic career gets used up. At some point, things are done, and this thing is almost there. Plus, Amber would kill me.”

Landis plans to schedule his hip replacement surgery for a few weeks after the Tour de France, to give himself maximum time to train for the following year’s race. While Landis’s position with Phonak appears secure for the near future (he has an option on his contract through 2007), the level of his post-operation performance is an open question. “We’re completely in unknown territory,” said Chao, pointing out that when Bo Jackson briefly returned to baseball after his hip replacement, Jackson, formerly one of the league’s fastest players, slowed noticeably. “In baseball, you can lose speed and still perform, but that might be harder in cycling,” Chao went on. “On the other hand, the thing going for us is that Floyd’s sport is not impact-loading like baseball or football, so the replacement won’t loosen. And also of course that he’s Floyd.”

We left the thronging highway and drove into the hills, gliding through a classic Southern California landscape of avocado trees, Hearst-like mansions and large, impeccably clean sandstone boulders. After 15 minutes we made it halfway up a steep incline, and the car stopped at the intersection of Calle Vista Lejos and Sunset Terrace. Landis climbed out, moving in his usual strut. “I hit right here,” he said, pointing to a spot in the center of the road. He walked us through the crash: his decision to turn right instead of going straight, his front wheel skidding out, his body slamming the ground, his 30-foot skid, his abject crawl off the road.

Then he showed the reason why: a thin, barely visible sheen of dark pebbles exactly the color of asphalt. The pebbles apparently came from an adjacent hillside. It was a fluke of topography, a happenstance of pressure, time and wind. Landis picked up some of the pebbles and shook them in his fist like tiny dice.

Later, back at his house, Landis would finally open up a little about the pain. He would say: “Everybody thinks you can overcome pain if you want to enough, and let me tell you, you can’t. This isn’t some Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, where somebody can get shot in the leg and keep going. There’s pain that makes me stop, makes everybody stop.”

He would keep talking, his voice growing softer. “My parents would look at everything that I’ve gone through and say that all this is God’s plan, which makes it sound like a good thing. But I can’t do it, because I have to work with what’s true. Things end. We’re all going to die. But until that happens, there’s really a lot you can do. Especially if you realize this is your last opportunity.”

But for now, standing on a sunny road in the middle of nowhere, Landis was looking for something lighter to say. Which he found. He should buy a plot of land next to the crash site, he said, then build a giant house and erect a lemonade stand to sell T-shirts with a big stylized picture of his hip bone on them.

“I should really do that,” he said, smiling as he limped and strutted back toward the car. “That would be perfect!”

Daniel Coyle, who has written for Play, the Times sports magazine, is the author of “Lance Armstrong’s War.”

Google Search