Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Two Men

Ragged dirty clothes covered the short stocky frame of the man as he stood outside the supermarket.  I was living in La Ceiba, Honduras at the time and was accustomed to seeing beggars outside of El Ceibeno.    But I couldn't help notice the heavy, several sizes too large jacket hanging from his stooped shoulders.  La Ceiba is hot, very hot.  The coat seemed odd, out of place.  His feet were bare, caked with several days  of dust and dirt.  Someone placed a coin into his short, stubby hand.  He raised his head and smiled, revealing a mouth full of broken, rotting teeth.  And I saw the eyes slanted slightly.  Down's eyes.

Some things bothered me very little while living in Honduras.  The street smells I could pretty much ignore.  The drunks lying in their own vomit and filth outside the bars by the mission house, I could look past them.  Even the street kids, some of them with bags of glue up to their noses, I could handle.   And in a land where the blind beg, the homeless rummage through garbage cans and the handicapped fend for themselves, you simply do what you can.  You put some coins in the outstretched hand of the cripple, give a sandwich and a piece of fruit to a hungry child or a pair of shoes to the one in need of clothing.

But when it came to those with mental disabilities, I struggled.  The man with Down's didn't look cared for.  I wondered how he got to the store each day and where he stayed at night.  And because he was Honduran, I knew he could expect no government assistance, no mental health program,  no assisted living facility, no special school. Nothing at all.

And then there was the man who lived next door to us.  Actually, the fire department was next door but he was always there,  fed and housed by the firemen.  His clothes were neat, his face was washed and his hair combed.  Average in height and build, if you were to merely glance at him you would see nothing out of the ordinary.  That is, until you looked into his eyes.   I saw that same look a couple of years ago while subbing in a class for mentally disabled children.  Its name is autism. 

I wondered where God was in the lives of these two men and others like them.  I longed to know how they could possibly comprehend the love of their Heavenly Father when they were obviously out of touch with so much around them.

One day I was hurrying along the sidewalk towards town when I saw the short, squat figure in his oversized coat heading my way.  As I drew closer I realized he was oblivious to me and everything else around him.  For cupped in his stubby hand was a bright red flower.  His nose was deep in its folds, inhaling deeply of its fragrance.  His eyes were but slits, and his mouth was open in pure rapture at the delight of it.  He moved on past me, and God spoke in a whisper to my heart.  "He knows me, Marcy.  I am the source of all joy.  That's what you have just seen."

A few days later I heard beautiful music coming from outside the front gate of the mission home.  Someone was whistling.  It immediately reminded me of a record I sometimes listened to while growing up,  "The William Tell Overture" performed by a man who was blind.  I was amazed that a person could whistle like that, and the fact he couldn't see made it all the more beautiful to me. I peered out the slats to see if I could could catch sight of the talented musician.  There, leaning against a concrete post was our neighbor with the vacant eyes.  I stood there by the window in awe, not daring to move until the song was over.  God once again spoke to me in that still, quiet voice.  "He knows me.  His eyes may seem empty.  But he sees things you know nothing about."

These two men taught me something.  God has no limits, especially when it comes to His love.  And because He loves these special children, He speaks in ways that we can't even begin to comprehend.  The day will come when their minds and bodies will be perfect.  But for now He speaks to them in His own way and simply says, "I am God and I love you." 

There's a little more to this story.  The red flower I mentioned earlier grows in abundance along the sidewalks in La Ceiba.  One day I picked one and held it to my nose.  To my amazement it had no smell.  Nothing.  So exactly what fragrance was coming from my young friend's flower?   I guess we'll never know.  That's between him and his Heavenly Father.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Second Chances

It seems like we're hearing a lot about second chances lately.  Michael Vick was back on the playing field for the Philadelphia Eagles after spending a couple of years in prison.  I don't know how happy the animal rights people are, but I'm glad that he's had a chance to play again.  Let's face it.  The guy is a football phenom, and why shouldn't he be able to use that amazing talent?   Time will tell if Michael is truly a changed man as he says he is.  He's had some quiet time to think and a great mentor in the person of Tony Dungy.  I want him to do well, living productively and wowing those who love to see what he can do with a pigskin.  And if this year was any indication, I think he's going to be around for awhile yet. 

Then there's Ted Williams.  He's the homeless guy from Columbus with the great speaking voice.  It turns out he used to be a professional announcer, but alcohol and drugs took their toll, and he ended up homeless.  A posted video of him went viral and suddenly he was the most popular guy in America, showing up for interviews on several programs including "The Today Show," "The Early Show," and "Entertainment Tonight."   It seemed he was everywhere, and along with the fame he was getting some high profile job offers.  Finally there was the "Dr. Phil" show.  This man whom no one knew a week earlier was suddenly exposed for all his shortcomings.  I saw part of the show and I'll admit I felt a bit uncomfortable.  Granted, he has issues.  If you're living on the street as a panhandler and a petty thief, you've got some things to work out.  But why the good doctor and in front of millions?  The gentleman looked lost, vulnerable, a bit overwhelmed with it all.  Last I knew he was back in rehab after a night of drinking and the whole world knows it.  I hope that Mr. Williams makes it.  I really do.  His mama has been praying for him a long time.  But there's a lesson to be learned here.   Leonard Pitts from the Miami Herald wrote a column recently saying that we Americans love to root for the underdog.  But he also says that we tend to think that fame and fortune are enough to change a person.  That's simply not the case.  He concludes:  "It is nice to be famous.  It is better to be whole."

Our friend Jimmy Stanfield knew firsthand what it was to have a second chance.  An avid hunter, six years ago he took a tumble from a tree stand.  As he lurched forward his pants caught a nail, and he found himself hanging upside down about twenty feet or so from the ground.  I'm not sure where he kept his cell phone.  All I know is that even as he lurched downward, the phone stayed with him.  He was able to place a call that saved his life that day.  Life certainly has its ironies, and Jimmy's story is no exception.  A few weeks ago he fell again.  This time there was no grab of a nail.  This time he hit the ground and entered eternity.  Larry flew to Alabama a few days later to preach his funeral. And he talked about second chances.  You see,  after Jimmy took that first fall, he started taking his spiritual life a lot more seriously.  I believe he knew that God had given him a gift, and he didn't squander the opportunity given  him.  The first time he fell, he simply wasn't ready to die.  The second time he was. 

Michael Vick.  Ted Williams.  Jimmy Stanfield.  One broke the law, one turned to drugs and alcohol, and one lived a pretty good life.  And all were without a God who will do what He can to make each of us whole.   You know, we all love a good second chance story with a happy ending.  I'm glad that's what God offers us.  But in His case, there's not a cut off number.  He gives us opportunity again and again to get it right.   

Thursday, January 13, 2011


After we heard about Roe's "passing," Larry and I headed down to see Mary.  Her Boston terrier greeted us at the door in the same way Bubbles, her Boston terrier from 25 or so years ago had, with great excitement and exuberance.  It must be the breed.  But unlike Bubbles, this dog's tongue hangs from the side of his mouth, something to do with a little too much anesthesia from an episode at the vet's she says.

Mary has always surrounded herself with animals.  When the farm was up and running there were always the numerous barn cats. But there were also the privileged few that lived in the big house beside the barn.  I remember them being long-haired and quite fat.  There was one in particular that especially impressed me, a long-haired orange beauty.  I can't remember his name now, but my calico had gone into heat for the first or second time, and she was a hankering.  A neighborhood cat named Herc (short for Hercules the Warfle boys told me) was hanging around and I wanted her to have absolutely nothing to do with him.  It was obvious that he had lived less than a stellar life (or lives, being a cat and all) and had the many battle scars to prove it. His face looked like it had been pulvarized several times, a bit like Rocky Balboa after each of his big fights.  I guarded the front door like a sentry, afraid that my little feline might try to make a break for it while I wasn't watching.

Then I got a wonderful, bright idea.  I decided to ask Mary if I could borrow her long-haired orange.  If our calico was going to have a family, the children might as well have a cultured, well-behaved father.  I called Mary, told her of my plan, and she, always so accomodating, deposited him shortly after.  They were both sent to the basement (with food and water of course) and for two or three days that's where they stayed.  Thinking back, maybe the basement wasn't the best setting for "romance," but I was convinced that hormones and testosterone would win over.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  There was a lot of yowling, but not the kind that leads to kittens.   Disappointed, I had Mary come and get her cat.  In the meantime, I continued to endure my young pet's mournful wails. You can imagine my dismay when she slipped out the front door without detection and met up with Herc, the neighborhood bad boy. She started to "show" a few weeks later.  I knew who the daddy was and dreaded to see what kind of babies he had sired.  Much to my surprise and delight, however, she presented us with a litter full of some of the most beautiful kittens I had ever seen.  The resemblance to their daddy was there, but it was also pretty obvious that before he had taken to the streets, he must have been quite the tom.

Part of a familiar quote from Shakespeare says something about "the best laid plans of mice and men" going awry.  We think we have things all worked out, put our plans into motion and then wait for everything to fall perfectly into place.  But how often we are disappointed and frustrated because things don't happen as we had hoped. Sometimes there are other forces that work against us.  You know, like a cat named Hercules.    Sometimes they might even work out for the better.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Barn

I wrote the following account last winter after our friend Roe Russell's funeral.  I introduced him and his family in the last story I posted.  Keep reading to the end.  You'll find a surprise.

When I was a young girl, I thought it would be wonderful to live on a farm.  Some of my cousins had farms and I truly envied them.  I used to dream of marrying a farmer one day, living the idyllic life surrounded by rolling green hills and horses frolicking in the pasture.  I didn't marry a farmer, however.  I married a preacher boy.  And rather than living in a big white farmhouse surrounded by freshly plowed fields, I was living in a little white parsonage with hardly a yard.

Perhaps that's why I was so drawn to the Russell's barn.  It's a good thing I was, because there was little to do in the tiny community of North Rome.  When company came we would naturally start figuring what we could do for recreation.  Back then we didn't have personal computers or video games.  Videocassette recorders hadn't even been invented and DVD players were still in the somewhat distant future.  We had only two or three television stations that came in, even with an antenna on the roof.  It didn't take us long, however, to figure out that we had two very special things going for us:  We had one of the best creeks in Northeast Pennsylvania and we had Roe Russell's barn. 

We had lots of company in those early years of our marriage.  I remember our first Easter with Larry's entire family.  Even the married ones showed up with their families, and they all stayed in our little house that had two bedrooms and one bathroom.  I recently walked through that same parsonage.  It's now twice the size with two or three baths, several bedrooms and a family room. How easy it would have been to kick our feet up in such a spacious house, even with my in-laws there.

I don't know that our guests were nearly as excited about the barn as we were.  But whenever we would load up the cars and head over, everyone seemed eager to go.  Looking back, I'm not sure what the attraction was.  After all, it was just a barn.  Granted, Roe had one of the bigger milking operations in the county, and his cows were some of the best.  There was a wheel hanging on the barn wall charting when the heifers would go into heat, thus determining when they should be inseminated and with which bull, courtesy of Sire Power, the company that provided the services.  I was absolutely fascinated with this whole idea of cows being artificially bred with "stuff" that cost hundreds of dollars a shot.  The better the bull, the bigger his name, and the more you paid for his services.  And if all went well, you got a better calf, better herd, better production or something like that.  I was so fascinated with this chart that whenever we hauled our out-of-towners over for a visit, the wheel was always a part of the grand tour.  Better yet, if Mary was nearby feeding the calves, she would patiently explain again and again how the whole thing worked. 

The barn is gone now.  The day came when Roe could no longer keep the farm going and the equipment and livestock were auctioned off.  It was several years later when we returned for a visit and saw that the barn had been taken down.  The landscape seemed off, like a picture that hangs not quite center.  It leaves you with an unsettled feeling, like something's not quite right.

Mary and I were talking about the barn right after Roe's funeral.  Funny how funerals bring up the past, things you haven't thought of in a very long time.  We reminisced and laughed as we recounted all the many visitors who had filed through that place.  And then she told me something I had never known.  "You know," she said.  "We had a famous actor come to our barn."  I looked at her curiously.  "Bill Steiner brought him but I can't remember his name."  Bill Steiner was a seasoned cinematographer who lived on the hill above Roe and Mary with his wife Shirley.  He knew a lot of people in show business.  Mary continued.  "He was in that movie 'Rain Man.'"  My mind began to turn.  Was it possible that Bill Steiner had brought Dustin Hoffman to see Roe's barn?  I said his name, not quite believing.   "Yes, that's him," she responded. "Roe was pretty excited."

The story simply reminded me that Roe's barn was just as extraordinary as I had always believed it to be.  If Bill found it special enough to bring around an Oscar-winning actor, then truly it must have been a magical place all along.  How else could it have called us back time and again?  And though it no longer stands, all physical evidence gone, I see it still, forever etched in my memory.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Roe's Funeral

I wrote the following last winter.  I asked Mary if she would mind if I posted my thoughts from back then.  So with her permission, I would like to share with you one of the most difficult experiences I had as a young youth pastor's wife more than 30 years ago.  Amazingly, the story isn't over as you will see.

Roe Russell

February 2010

We said goodbye to a dear friend this week.  His name was Roe, and he was 77 years old.  He spent most of his years farming, working at a profession he loved with his whole heart.  He and his wife Mary had three children, two daughters and a son.  The son was in the middle.  His name was Rick.

Larry had just graduated from seminary and God placed us in a tiny little community in Northeast Pennsylvania.  North Rome had a growing church plopped down in the middle of nowhere.  There are four or five roads that lead there, and on Sunday mornings the parking lot would fill up with cars and trucks coming in from all directions.

We had come to pastor the youth, and it didn't take long to discover that these kids were hungry.  One in particular was really hungry, Rick.  Newly graduated from high school, he latched onto Larry like a magnet to metal.  He never missed youth group and began studying his Bible voraciously, asking questions and seeking counsel about some personal things in his life. We sensed that God was doing something pretty deep, preparing him for something special, perhaps even the ministry.

Since Rick had been raised a farm boy, he was pretty comfortable handling the equipment.  One time he drove his dad's brand new tractor pulling a hay wagon filled with teens over some back country roads.  Nobody thought much of the sound of gravel kicking up behind the tires, pinging against metal  It wasn't until the next morning when daylight broke that Roe found every inch of his brand new John Deere splattered in tar.  Rick set to work cleaning up that tractor. Immediately.  I imagine it took a good while.

Rick had a younger cousin, Ed.  Although he attended church with his family, he really wasn't very interested in much beyond that.  We had two teen groups going, one for those more his age and then one for the older youth.  But we couldn't seem to pull him in.

The following October Larry and I decided to take some vacation time, travel to Florida and see some family.  While there we received a call.  There had been an accident.  Rick had been shot while hunting.  A bullet had hit him in the throat, and he died a short time later.  Ed had fired the gun.

I have memories of a particular picture that hung at the top of the stairs in my grandparents' house while I was growing up.  The picture and the setting are forever imprinted in my memory, never changing.  In the same way, I will always see Rick's young cousin on his Aunt's living room couch, his parents sitting stiffly on either side.  It was the night before the funeral and I remember well the awkward way he sat, the way his hands laid in his lap and the look of bewilderment on his face.

I don't know if it was that tragedy alone that began the change in Ed, but I'm pretty sure it had something to do with it.  I believe he knew he couldn't go it alone, and he didn't.  He became more involved with the youth, his walk with Christ deepened and one day he answered the call to be a pastor.

Back to the present, back to Roe.  His funeral was this week.  His wife Mary was there and his two daughters and their families of course.  There were several other family members and friends as well, not unusual for such an occasion.  And Ed was there.  He along with his wife and four young children had traveled several hundred miles to attend.

All those years ago, more than 30 now, who would have ever imagined what could be.  For though Ed is family, he is also pastor.  And though he had come to grieve as family, he had also come to comfort as pastor.  And he did just that as he stood there, speaking of the assurance and hope that a grieving family craves in times like this.  But there was still more to be said,  and in a very personal moment he spoke of how as a young seminary student he was finally able to accept their forgiveness.  His gratitude was evident.

When Rick died, we had a hard time making any sense out of it.  I still don't understand it all.  But I'm getting some glimmers, little pieces of it, like a puzzle coming together.  And for now, that's enough.