Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Warfles

We moved to the tiny little community of North Rome in Northeast Pennsylvania right after Larry graduated from seminary.  He accepted the call to youth pastor there, sight unseen.  There was nothing there except the church and a little country store that belonged to the Warfle family  They didn't sell much, only a couple shelves of Kellogg's Corn Flakes and some cans of sardines.  I don't even remember them selling the basics like milk, eggs and bread.  If they did, I've long forgotten it. 

There was the dad, Leroy.  He was tall with a big stomach, dark-rimmed glasses and a brush cut.  His wife Sandy, short and blond with big teeth, appeared to be several years younger than her husband.  She must have been the second wife because the four older siblings were too old to be hers.  They all lived in the little house attached to the store.  There was  Leroy Jr., Bill, Vern and their sister Gloria.  The two younger ones were Laramie and Cherokee, but they went by Tucker and Squaw.  In fact, they all had nicknames.  The only other one I remember is Bill's, and they called him Pickles. 

We moved to North Rome in June of that year, and shortly after we arrived the Warfles set up an outdoor kitchen in their back yard.  It had four legs with a roof of corrugated steal to protect them from the rain.  They hauled out an old wood stove with burners to cook on and a sink that they kept filled for the dirty dishes.  I quickly realized that this was not your usual family.

Besides the store, they had a furniture refinishing business.  I'm not sure how much business they did, but it was obviously enough to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.  I didn't see the older boys working all that much, but if there was ever anything out of the ordinary happening in our little community, they'd be out their front door to check it out.  I don't think they were lazy, just laid back.  Extremely laid back.  They did get Larry out of a serious jam one time, however.   He was doing three courses by correspondence our first winter there.  Long before personal computers, everything had to be typed or written out.  After completing several lessons, he put them in three white envelopes and into his coat pocket to mail.  That winter of 1977 was like something they hadn't seen in years.  It never stopped snowing, and it was Larry's job as assistant pastor to keep the parking lot cleared.  He decided to run the plow before mailing out his assignments so he could get to the mailbox.  When he finally reached into his pocket it was empty.  He looked at the huge piles of snow around the perimeter of the parking lot.  He panicked, realizing that he had no idea where to even begin looking.  And then he thought of the Warfles.  And they, feeling a bit sorry for him, began to go through those enormous snowbanks, looking for three white envelopes buried somewhere in that winter wonderland.  Amazingly, they found his hours of work and three slightly damp envelopes were soon on their way to Indiana Wesleyan University.  He was never so grateful to anyone in his life.

Larry plowing during the winter of 1977

Even though the older siblings were in their late teens and early twenties, they were like children.  At Christmas time they could hardly contain their excitement.  Unable to wait for Christmas day, they would always open their gifts several days early.  One time we were heading out to see family but first stopped to wish them a Merry Christmas.  When we told them where we were going, they were curious about how far that might be.  After explaining that it was a three-hour trip, Leroy Jr.said he couldn't imagine traveling so far to see anybody.  As we pulled away, I could see the three brothers shaking their heads in pity.

The Warfles were not church going folk,  but I did what I could to live Christ in front of them.  One year right before Christmas, I set out all the goodies I had baked and invited them over for the afternoon.  Except for Leroy Sr. they all came, filled up their plates and we visited.  I played some songs on the piano and I remember Sandy asking if I would play "White Christmas" for her.  I don't think they stayed more than an hour.

Even though the Warfles had never shown any interest in Christianity or the church while we knew them,  a critical time in their lives changed that.  Sandy suffered a pretty bad stroke, the church was there, and they were ready.  She and her husband became believers.  I'd like to think that maybe some of what we lived had a part in that.

The store and the house are gone now and the Warfles have moved on.  But the memories associated with that family will always make me smile.   I mean, how many boys do you know named Pickles?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Tidings of Great Joy--A Christmas Reflection

I visited a friend this week whose home is beautifully decorated for Christmas.  Her tree is exquisite and  holiday music fills the house.  We talked as she set out a platter of sugar cookies to enjoy with our tea. We jumped from one topic to the next when suddenly the conversation turned serious.  Her eyes filled with tears as she told me how difficult this time of year is for her, how much she dreads it.  She lost her husband several years ago; but she still feels his absence, and never is that more pronounced than during the holidays.  But to see her festive surroundings, one would hardly suspect the loneliness she still carries. 

I have another friend, considerably younger, who experienced the devastating loss of her mother a few months ago.  Now she is going through those "firsts."  You know what I mean.  She just barely gets  through her first Thanksgiving without mom when Father Christmas comes pounding on her door.   And rather than relieve the pain, those "holly, jolly" days of Christmas simply make  it all the more acute.  She's having an especially difficult time right now.  Emotions are raw, the loneliness and longing for her loved one at times overwhelming.

I'll be honest.  There have been times over the years that I've resented the holidays.  Life in the pastorate can be especially demanding during Christmas, and because my gifts are in the areas of  music and performance,  I find myself taking on extra responsibilities.  More often than not it has been a privilege, not a burden.  But other times I wanted nothing more than to simply retreat and let the world celebrate without me.  I was simply weary of the whole thing.

I believe there are many who are weary right now.  Some, who like my young friend are grieving  the loss of someone dear, will survive, move on and "find joy in the mornings" of those Christmases yet to come.  The pain will be temporal and I am glad for them.   But there are others for whom that pain remains a constant.  There is little or no hope of a better tomorrow, no promise of good things to come and loneliness and despair are their constant companions.  And Christmas does little for them.  If anything, the loneliness becomes more overwhelming and the despair only gets deeper.

I think God has allowed me to carry a small part of that pain this Christmas.  I am lonely for my children, so many miles away.  I will not be with any of them this year, the first time in over 30 years.  So I now understand in small part the longing that separation brings.  I am also grieving for one of my own, an adult-child who sees no promise of a better tomorrow.  The pain is not my own, it is his.  But I carry it.   God says,  "There is a world full of people who don't know me.   There are many in pain and without hope.  And I carry that pain because I love them."  

Christmas was meant to be joyous.  When the angels appeared to shepherds announcing the arrival of the Christ Child, they brought a message of hope that incited those men to seek out the baby and share the wonderful news with others.  "Fear not," the angel said.  "I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord"  ....And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest and peace on Earth, good will toward men."

There's no doubt that I have every reason to joy in the season.  I am celebrating God Incarnate, Him in the flesh among us.  Wow!  What isn't there to rejoice in?  But I also carry those "tidings of great joy" within me as a child of the Living God.  And with that comes the obligation to let the hurting, the grieving, the needy, and the despairing know that there is a Hope in the person of Jesus Christ.   And if I need to know a little bit of pain to catch a tiny glimpse of God's love for a broken world, then I welcome it.   I can't think of a better Christmas than that.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas Story in Costa Rica

"A cheerful heart is good medicine...." Proverbs 17:22

It was Christmas Eve, 1985.  I had been living in Costa Rica for four months.  It was a big change, leaving our small rural church in Pennsylvania and moving to a new country with our three young children for a year of language study.  Costa Rica is an exciting place to live, a beautiful and diverse country.  So even in the midst of studies we were living wonderful  days of adventure and discovery.  One can travel from the Atlantic to Pacific in just hours, and we visited both coasts several times.  We saw our first volcanoes, traveled high mountain road with breath-taking views and rode trains that carried us through valleys of green and up steep inclines. We spent endless hours on busses and explored canals by boat.  We watched artisans at work and walked through churches and basilicas.

There were times, however, when I longed for home and friends.  Sundays were especially hard for me as I missed our church in Pennsylvania and the people there.  And now Christmas was upon us as well.  This would be our first time away from all that we knew, all that was familiar.  It helped that my sister Dawn had flown in to be with us.  But there was still a feeling of disconnect, that Christmas wouldn't be the same.

We never quite figured out how, but we were able to get WGN out of Chicago on our little black and white television each day.  It was a lifeline for me, getting stateside news and watching Cubs games.  And then in the evening, without warning,  the signal would change over to HBO.  Someone in the area obviously had a satellite and we were reaping the benefits of that signal.

It was late Christmas Eve, the kids were sleeping and the little black and white had already switched over for the evening.  A Christmas movie was coming on so I stretched out on the couch to see what was playing. It was new, one I'd never seen.   It was a magical tale about a boy in Indiana who conspires to have Santa bring him an official Red Ryder Carbine-action Two-Hundred-shot range model air rifle for Christmas.  I was riveted to the set, never moving but  laughing more than I had laughed for a very long time.  I laughed through every scene:  From Ralphie's father fighting the irrepressible furnace to obsessing over the long-legged table lamp,  the infamous stick your tongue to the flagpole scene,  Christmas morning with Ralphie in the pink bunny suit to the neighborhood dogs eating the family turkey and finally culminating with dinner in a Chinese restaurant eating duck. And as the film ends with Ralphie and his younger brother Randy snuggled in for the night, their parents settled comfortably on their couch with tree lights glowing and snow falling,  I cried.

I'm still not sure why it affected me as it did, but it met a special need on that Christmas Eve night 25 years ago.  Somehow I felt different afterwards,  happy to be where I was, spending the holidays in Costa Rica with my family.  And as I continue the tradition of  watching "Christmas Story" again this year, I will remember that place and time, laughing during the same scenes and feeling that catch in my throat as the closing credits come across the screen. 

Right after Christmas last year I was browsing through the ornaments at an area Hallmark store and was delighted to find a spectacled Ralphie in a pink bunny suit.  I carried my treasure home and packed it away with the other Christmas stuff.   So naturally as I began pulling out the ornaments this year,  I laughed out loud when I found him among the decorations.  I had forgotten about this special find and couldn't wait to put him in a place of honor. And that's where he hangs, top and center on the tree, reminding me of that night when I needed to laugh.

We're told in Proverbs that a cheerful heart is good medicine.  I'm so glad God created me with the ability to laugh.  Even the spasmodic dysphonia, the voice disorder that at times prevents me from talking or singing, that loves to stop the words and music from leaving my throat, can not stifle my laughter.  When I am especially discouraged or frustrated over my condition, laughter not only frees my voice, but it does something in my spirit.  After all,  what is more healing, more cleansing than a laugh that comes from the belly?

Mark Twain said "Humor is mankind's greatest blessing."  He may have been on to something.  I don't know if it's the greatest, but it's definitely a gift.  And one that I am most grateful for.