Ghosts of Christmas Presents Past (Part 1)


Posted by Shades Mountain Student Ministries | Posted in , | Posted on Monday, November 30, 2009

I'm sitting in my living room in the soft glow of our Christmas tree. Eggnog in hand (with a light dusting of nutmeg), homemade chocolate cookie by my side (just like the ones I will be setting out near the fireplace 26 nights from now) and "A Charlie Brown Christmas" album from the Vince Guaraldi Trio playing on the record player (to be honest it's playing on my iPod that is running through a tape adapter that is playing on my record player, welcome to 2009).

I recommend playing this video as you read to enhance the atmosphere.

Yes, all is merry and bright.

This atmosphere brings about reminiscent thoughts of days of yore (that's Christmas jargon for the old days). Particularly to the time when Christmas was larger than life, when the reality of Santa was still a possibility, snow meant your days were packed and best of all...Christmas morning held with it the capability of making 365 days of dreaming, wishing and letter writing all worth while.

(Spoiler Alert for readers 10 years of age and younger)

To be honest I didn't grow up believing in Santa. Our family hung stockings, we got our picture taken with him most years, but when it came down to the matter of false truth or imaginary fun my parents erred on the side of imaginary fun. So each Christmas Eve we're put out cookies, fully aware that my dad would be the one to eat them, but we kept with tradition.

With a child on the way and a short amount of time left to figure this parental decision out it's easy to see why my parents did what they did.

But regardless of where the presents came from, what the presents were was always a big deal. I must commend my parents on giving exceptional gifts throughout the years. I have so many fond memories of presents past that I thought it'd be fun to share some. So it's my pleasure to present:

Ghosts of Christmas Presents Past
in chronological order

A Thrifty Christmas - 1984
I was two, almost three, and my parents weren't exactly rolling in the dough. Christmas was right around the corner and times were even tighter. My mom has always been a yard sale junkie and never before had her skills been put to better use.

My parents spent $20 on my brother and I at yard sales buy our Christmas presents that year.

Now this may sound cheap, and you'd be right. But when your two years old you haven't learned that the smell of mothballs (which most yard sale and thrift store finds seem to reek of) means that the toy has been...used. So I wasn't privy to this information and had the most amazing Christmas.

In fact my parents were able to purchase so many toys that they were having to rip them out of our hands to give us another one.  It was an abundance of slightly used, yet much appreciated toys.

Every Father's/Son's Wish - 1989
Keep in mind I'm now seven years old
There comes a time in a boy's life when his father sees fit to take him on his right of passage and being his process of manhood. Often times this is done through a weekend excursion where the father will show the son how to make fire or hunt or fish, perhaps even the right technique when relieving yourself in the great outdoors.

Another way this is done is with the giving of gift. Perhaps some sort of tool or weapon, occasional one that serves both purposes.

This particular Christmas my father gave me that invitation into manhood by way of a gift.

Yes...a scroll saw.

I remember my dad taking me down stairs, plugging it in and showing me how it worked. It came with several attachments such as a drill, sander and many other tools of the trade. 

I remember thinking,"This is what it's like to be a man." I set up a workshop in the basement where I would saw Christmas ornaments (using my father's fishing hooks and ornament hooks) and occasional work on my brother's Hot Wheels that seemed to be losing their speed. 

I can still smell the sawdust and hear the sound it made as it cut. I can still feel the unbelievable vibrations the saw when it cut wood. Vibrations so strong it tickled my hands and made them itch. 

I might have been seven years of age, but I had risen to a new level of manhood. Sure, I only needed to shave bi-annually. But this Christmas was different than the rest. 

You see I went to sleep that Christmas eve a boy...and woke up Christmas morning a man. 

Sega Genesis vs. Super NES or The Sandwich Maker That Wasn't- 1992
Before the days of Sony Playstations and XBOX 360's, the world of video games was ruled by two titans of 16 bit entertainment. Yes my friends...the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES).  Another way to put it would be Sonic the Hedgehog vs. Mario, Luigi and (new to the scene) Yoshi.

Needless to say, most of my dreaming hours were spent fantasizing of one of these. 

Now I must admit, I was leaning more so to the SNES. Mainly for one reason...Mario Kart.

I had played it in Wal-Mart and was amazed at the fun it was to shoot red homing shells at Princess Peach or drop banana peals for an unsuspecting Donkey Kong.  Every time I went there I was sure to seem overjoyed to be playing it every time my parents walked by, knowing they'd get the hint. 

As the days led up to Christmas,  certain box appeared beneath the Christmas tree. It proportions were very similar to that of a Sega Genesis bow. I even measured on my arm how long the box was and compared it to the actual box the next time I was in Wal-Mart. The measurements didn't quite match and I was disappointed in my findings. 

I finally decided to ask my mother about the present. If I was going to be let down on Christmas morning I would want to know ahead of time so I could muster up a forced appreciative response, "Thank you mother" through clenched teeth. 

I casually brought up the conspicuous and its intended recipient. It was to my dismay that it was in fact, a sandwich maker for my Mammaw. A sandwich maker!

Needless to say I was completely distraught and all hopes of Christmas were melted away like the cheese in a grilled cheese sandwich made by my Mammaw's new sandwich maker.

Well, Christmas morning rolled around and my worse fears were true. I opened up boring present after present. One present in particular was a box of CRAYONS! It was very disheartening.

All the presents had been open, that is all except for one. I realized that Mammaw's maker had yet to be opened. I dug it out from under the back of the tree and handed her the thief of all my Christmas joy.

"I think this if for you." I said dejectedly.

"Actually I'm not sure who's that is." My mom said. "Why don't you open it so we know who's it is."

I pulled the paper back to reveal that magic word, SEGA.

It was as if the heavens opened and a choir sang... (press play)

Feelings of remorse flooded my heart  as I realized I had doubted my parents. They had gotten this wonderful gift and I had not given them the benefit of the doubt.

Now to be honest, secretly in the back of my heart I still would have rather had the SNES. It was a foolish thought and one that I tried to hide away deep inside, but it still sat there, calling my name.

Regardless of what I would have rather had or not, the fact remains that my parents knew how to pull one over. They always made Christmas so special and each one is solidified with memories. be continued. 

Tune in soon for Part 2 where you'll hear more Ghosts of Christmas Presents Past like:
-Christmas, Macaulay Culkin Style
-10 Gigs of Tunes
-and more!

    First Constellation


    Posted by Shades Mountain Student Ministries | Posted in , , , | Posted on Friday, November 27, 2009

    In 1996 I was in the 9th grade and had recently moved to Birmingham from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I had left behind some very close friends and this one particular girl, named Christina Perez, on which I had a major crush. She hardly knew who I was and I would have probably never had a chance with her, but it added to the distress of moving to know that I would positively NEVER have a chance with her now. All hope was lost and I found myself living in Bluff Park, Alabama in a home behind the Piggly Wiggly with no friends and especially no girlfriend.

    Every night it was my job to take our dog Buffy out for his evening relief. He would wonder around the yard sniffing out the perfect spot to mark as I waited patiently for him, usually staring off into the wintry night sky and wondering what future lay ahead for me in this new location.

    Needless to stay, most of the thoughts were not hopeful.

    Every night I would stare at the stars, each night becoming more and more familiar with their locations and figuration. I didn't know much about astronomy, but I could spot the big dipper and what I thought was the little dipper. It was always a guess, so sometime I'd make up my own constellations. I knew a few names and would try and match them up. But let's face it, whoever concocted these constellations were stretching it a bit.

    Most of the time I'd think I found some shape and then the next night I'd be out walking Buffy at a different time and the stars would be in a different place and I'd lose my bearings and couldn't find the darned thing.

    However there was one set of stars that I was particularly drawn to. It was these three stars lined up right in a row and every time I went outside I could spot it right away. (Now I know it's Orion's belt, but back then I didn't know and it didn't matter).

    I got to the point that when I went out with Buffy I'd look for it and always found it. It was faithful and unfailing, unlike much in my life it seemed at the time.

    But looking for stars wasn't the only part of my evening ritual. A lot of the time I spent talking to God about what was or wasn't going on in my life. I'd fill him in on how displeased I was at his choice of relocation and my difficulties with finding friends. Although usually the main topic of conversation, as I'm sure it is with most 9th grade boys, was my future love.

    It was then that I decided whenever I saw that constellation, I'd pray for my future wife.

    Fast forward several years.

    Kristin and I had been dating for a while and had come up with this little game (you know the kind that couples play that unless you are a part of are disgustingly obnoxious). Whoever saw the first star at night would call out, "First Star!" and they would get a point. We never really kept track, though if we did Kristin would be winning by a landslide.

    Our game continued on until I could tell our dating relationship was turning into something more. I then told her the story of the constellation and so in addition to calling "First Star" we'd call out "First Constellation" as well. We've been playing this game to this day and I'd like to think that at the end of our life I'll pull it out and win.


    I was walking Buckley tonight (my six month old puppy) as he was preforming his evening relief ritual. It was cold outside and I could see smoky puffs of my breath clearly (ever since I was a kid that always fascinated me). We were walking around the front yard of my house and I looked up and saw those three little stars, lined up in a row.

    All of the sudden these thoughts came flooding in as my memories took me back to ninth grade, walking Buffy in the cold night, staring up at the sky. Lonely, afraid and uncertain of the future.

    And here I was, two miles down the road, thirteen years later and in front of my own home with my new dog and the best part of all...the answer to thirteen years of prayer sleeping just inside.

    The Christ Centered "Church"


    Posted by Shades Mountain Student Ministries | Posted in , | Posted on Wednesday, November 25, 2009

    The church has lost it's beauty. Not exactly "the" church, but church buildings.

    This may seems like a stupid "beef" but the more churches I go in, the further and further i see God and Christ in the design.

    The church has seemed to mimic the culture of the day.

    Starbucks has defined the current meeting place as a location of comfort and relaxation. Cool churches have couches instead of pews or coffee shops instead of lobbies. When you get home or if you missed the sermon you can download the podcast to your iPod. The pastor wears flip flops and speaks from a stool. There are lots of candles.

    It seems this was following our entertainment driven culture as more and more churches seemed to have stadium seating with theater chairs, huge projector screens and attractive lighting. After the service you could buy a CD of the sermon to listen to in your car. The pastor dresses metro and uses "hair products." He's very Ryan Seacrest.

    Before that was the more business culture. The church service was formal and the pastor stood in the center of the stage at his podium and spoke. You could even check out the library in the back of the lobby and purchase a tape of last week's sermon. The pastor wore his three piece suit and combed over hair.

    But rewind much further than all of this. Rewind to a day when the church didn't look like a coffee shop, theater or business meeting but rather was a work of art. Instead of the the cross being nestled off to the side of the stage and the podium in the middle, the church was shaped like a cross, the pastor spoke from the side and the sacraments took center stage. The walls and windows were a constant reminder of our beautiful history as a church and the saints that went before us. The sun shone through their stained glassed depiction and cast it's light on us as if they were telling us to run the race they had started.

    I find myself craving to worship in a sanctuary like that. One that carries a sent of history with walls and ceilings permeated with the prayers of previous saints. A church centered on Christ, even down to its blueprint. What a delight that would be.

    I saw this video of a pastor and his wife that sing under the name "Welcome Wagon" and it brought me to these thoughts.

    I want to be with them, sing with them and worship with them in the shadow of the image of Christ.

    Thanksgiving Throwdown: A History


    Posted by Shades Mountain Student Ministries | Posted in | Posted on Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    Nothing says Thanksgiving like eating buffalo wings.

    No you say?

    Well you're wrong.

    Last night 45 high school students and leaders descended upon our humble abode and devoured wings. Lot's of wings. It's a become a tradition. 2 years running. (You only have to do it twice to make it a tradition).

    Our master chef Scott Leveille, who's recipe has been passed down from his native home in Buffalo, did his magic and made the greatest wings available.

    The drill is, Scott continues to pop out wings until you couldn't possibly eat another wing...then comes the main event. The wings have been hot, but they pale in comparison to what comes next.

    The Hell Brew

    Please understand that I don't use the H-E-double-hockey-stick word lightly. If you've had onc you would know that there is no other way to describe their eternal burning.

    Each year the recipe varies but the essence stays the same. Take the hottest sauce you can find, chop up fresh habanero peppers and then boil the life out of this concoction until it makes a smoldering paste. This is then placed over the wings and anyone with anything to prove steps up to the plate (literally) and shows how much of a man (or woman) they are.

    There is a sordid past to this tradition. Though girls are included in the Thanksgiving Throwdown it use to be a "male only" affair that took place yearly in the kitchen of SMI under the title "Wing Throwdown." Guys gathered around the steel counter tops clutching pitchers of water with the chance at greatness slowly cooking in the distance.

    I would like to rehearse a few of the past triumphs and failures that have unfolded in this greatest of traditions.

    Addison Canavero
    He was a small Hobit of a man but his size didn't represent his bravery. He was the first to try the Hell Brew and was the first to fall victim to it's power. After eating the wing his face began to open up evrey pore on his face and spill it's contents on the floor beneath. Sweat, tears, snot, drool. It was all flowing with great abundance. His hands clutching the steel counter as he cried and screamed.

    The Hell Brew took its first victim.

    My Story
    My first experience of the the Throwdown was almost on accident. I had heard of the get together but had forgotten about it happening. I just happen to stop by the church to check something and smelled to lure of its devilish temptation. I was welcomed in to the kitchen and introduced to the experience. As the year passed I became a member of this sacred club as my capacity to eat wings increased.

    One night in particular I had eaten close to 4 pounds of wings. Needless to stay I was stuffed. In an effort to test the limits of my masculinity I enlisted the help of my trusted friend Jeremy Carter to punch me in the stomach to see if I could contain all four pounds of sweet decadent wings. It's my pleasure to announce that I did in fact "stomach" and contained all 4 pounds.

    This was in fact untill the HELL BREW made its way to the center of the room.

    I downed an H Brew and soon found myself releasing all 4 pounds into a sewage grate outside of the lunch room.

    The Hell Brew remained victorious.

    And now..the coup de grĂ¢ce of all wing stories.

    Josh Bowden
    It had begun as most throwdowns do. Chit chat, classic rock on the radio, sounds and smells common to the male gender..and of course wings.

    The Hell Brew was brought out and guys were placing their manhood on the line.

    Everything was wonderful until Josh Bowden attempted his Hell Brew consumption. He took two bite of the deadly wing and soon vomited in the trashcan near the counter. He hung his head in defeat and sulked out of the kitchen. No one stopped him, as we knew he wasn't quite the man we thought he was.

    It was a sad day for him and for the Throwdown.

    5 minutes later Josh returned to the kitchen with a renewed sense of courage and announced his intent to hop back on the horse and give that wing another try.

    He positioned himself in front of the bowl, clutched the wing and took his first but. But again, it was still too much to handle. In a fit or rage and embarrassment he took te uneaten wing and threw it into the same trash can he had vomited in only minutes later.

    He began to leave the kitchen for the last and final time when a deep voice rang out saying, "Stop!"

    It was the voice of Jim Wall, ex-marine and true man's man. "I can't let you do this." He proclaimed, reaching in the trash can. Grabbed the uneaten wing, which had been sitting in the vomit, and eat it in one bight. This act of manhood and redemption brought grow men to tears as the hooting and hollering turned to hugging and high-fiving.

    One man had fallen to the power of the wing, but at the throwdown...there's no man left behind.

    I hope you've enjoyed this retelling of an ancient tradition. So as you throwdown this Thanksgiving, may you remember those that have gone before us and paved the way for men like me.

    Here's a little taste of this years festivities

    Dear Taylor, It Beats


    Posted by Shades Mountain Student Ministries | Posted in , | Posted on Thursday, November 12, 2009

    Dear Taylor,
       Yesterday your mother and I got to see you for the second time. My how you've grown. You've got little arms and everything. They're so tiny, but they'll get big. No worries.
       We were worried that you might not be okay. It'd been a long time since we've seen you and sometimes not seeing someone you love in a long time makes you a little worried. But the moment the doctor turned her little machine on I saw you right away. And the first thing I saw was this little flash right in the middle of your tiny was your heart, just beating away. Letting your mom and I know that everything was okay.

       The doctor asked us if we wanted to hear it. Well duh, of course we did. She said we might not be able to hear it but she'd give it a try. She flipped a switch and we heard, "BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!"
       It was so loud and so fast. You must have been as excited as we were.
       Then my favorite thing wiggled. You were moving all around. It was like you knew we were watching you and you were putting on a show for us.
       Well done Taylor. It was a wonderful little show. I was very proud.
       I won't see you again for a few more weeks, but I want you to know that I love you.

       Keep that heart beating for me. Mine beats for you.

                                                                         Love, Daddy

    Short and Sweet


    Posted by Shades Mountain Student Ministries | Posted in , , | Posted on Monday, November 09, 2009

    I have begun to grow a fondness for short stories.

    I think it use to be because I was lazy. Why read a novel over a week end when a short story would only last a few minutes? And you could read more than just one.

    But in the past few weeks my decision to read short stories has turned from laziness to appreciation.

    The first ting that began to spark my interest was the writer/tweeter of  @veryshortstories

    All of his stories use only 140 characters (the aloted Twitter amount) and somehow manage to create a sense of place, story, character and so forth.

    To give you an example here are a few of my favorites.

    I held her pretty hand, intertwining my fingers with hers. Enjoying the moment, then putting it with the rest, in the freezer.
    Tommy found his mother on the floor, her back broken. His mind rushed back to the walk home, paying no attention to where he stepped.
     And my personal favorite:
    Steve, the ranger, showed the children where to swim in the lake. That was the agreement. Feed the monster and it wouldn't feed on him.

    Many of these seem like pictureless captions from a Far Side comic, witty with a subtle darkness.

    It began to make me appreciate how each word mattered, not a single word of filler. Just simple and presice.

    A few weeks ago I was on a trip to Virgina and downloaded a podcast that seemed of interest. It was PRI: Selected Shorts Podcast

    Each podcast consisted of several shorts read by various actors. It seemed that most shorts have this interesting arch. You feel in some ways thrown into the middle of a story (I can't imagine how hard it is to establish characters with little time) and you spend the first part wondering where you are and where you're going. The middle you feel as if you're getting the gist of things. But then there's that final twist or climax. Almost like a punch line. Something comes a long leaves you silent and thoughtful.

    I always liked the way these stories left me feeling. It was as if I had just witnessed a work of heart and some of it's soul was still left in me, like a pleasant after taste that leaves you with an appreciation for what you just tasted.

    Out of all of these shorts I listened to there was one that stood out. It was by far the shortest, but certainly the one that left me the most silent.

    It's a short story by the author Joyce Carol Oates entitled "Slow."

    She reads it in this podcast at 32:45 into it. It's only about 2 minutes long. (I've posted the story below but I'd recommend listening to her read it instead, preferably with your eyes closed).


    The wrong time for him to be returning home so she stands at an upstairs window watching as he drives up the driveway but continues a little beyond the area where they usually park in front of the garage and stops the car back by the scrubby evergreen hedge and then there's another wrong thing, it's that she doesn't hear the car door slam, she listens but she doesn't hear, so she turns slow and wondering from the window goes downstairs and at the door where there's still time for her to be hearing his footsteps she doesn't hear them so like a sleepwalker she continues outside moving slowly as if pushing through an element dense and resistant but transparent like water and at the end of the walk she sees that he is still in the car still behind the wheel though the motor has been turned off and the next wrong thing of course is that he's leaning forward with his arms around the wheel and his head on his arms, his shoulders are shaking and she sees that he is crying . . . he is in fact sobbing . . . and in that instant she knows that their life will be split in two though she doesn't, as she makes her slow way to him, know how, or why.

    How masterful. How beautiful.

    Short and sweet.

    Eternal Sunshine of God's Spotless Mind


    Posted by Shades Mountain Student Ministries | Posted in , , | Posted on Sunday, November 08, 2009

    "How happy is the blameless vestal's lot!
    The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
    Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
    Each prayer accepted, and each wish resigned."

    -Alexander Pope

    Earlier this week i re-watched one of my favorite movies, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

    (Spoiler Alert)

    It is the most creative and beautiful film I  think I've ever seen. The gist of the movie (although it twists and turns in a dreamlike fashion) is about a couple, Joel and Clementine, who break up and decide to have the other erased from their memory, provided by a company called Lacuna. Clementine has Joel removed first and when Joel finds out about it decides to have her memory of him removed. Most of the film takes place in Joel's mind as one-by-one his memories are slowly deleted. But as he is reliving these memories one last time he realizes that even though these memories are painful, he doesn't want to lose them. He runs with Clementine through his memories and hides out in other memories in order to keep his memory of her alive. None the less, when he wakes from the procedure all his memories of her are gone.

    This all leads up to the ending that makes the most interesting and beautiful statement of love.

    Joel and Clementine (post procedure) just happen to run into each other and hit it off really well. As they come back home together after their first date they each find a tape in their mailbox containing their pre-procedure interview about why they want their memory removed of each other.

    There is this moment when these two strangers are hearing all of their faults spilled out by each other telling why they broke up and why they can't be together.

    It's obviously a very strange and embarrassing moment, but they come to the conclusion that though they might come to the same place in another few years, though they might hit the same wall, even though one will hold back the other and hurt each other...they still want to give it a shot.

    This made me think about how God knew ahead of time how I would mistreat him. He knew how I would forsake him. He knew all that I would do, and yet he decided to love me anyway. Before the fall, he knew he would demonstrate his love for me in the that while I was  a sinner Christ would die for me.

    I thank God for his spotless mind that knew my hurtful ways yet looks on me with eternal sunshine.