Monday, February 28, 2011

Jeannie's Box

Fawn likes to hike.  One of her favorite spots is Runyon Canyon at the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking Los Angeles where she and her friend Jeannie sometimes climb.  One day Fawn mentioned that Jeannie had erected a prayer box at the top of the canyon back a couple of years ago.  "But some vandals broke the first one, so she had to replace it.  Then they broke that one too,"  she told me.  "But that's ok.  It just makes her all the more determined."

I hadn't thought much more about the prayer box until I received the March issue of "Guideposts" a few days ago.  A woman from Oklahoma City wrote about a friend telling her of a discovery made by another friend while on a hiking trip in California, a prayer box at the top of Runyon Canyon.  The story so inspired the writer that her church decided to craft their own prayer box and set it up at a bus stop not far from the church.

My interest was piqued, so I got on the Internet and googled "Runyon Canyon's prayer box."  Several videos popped up.  From what I could piece together,  Jeannie felt a special closeness to God as she prayed at the top of the canyon after a climb.  And it's there that she got the idea to place a simple wooden box at that very location with the words "pray it forward" written on the side. People were invited to write down their prayers and take a moment to pray for others before they headed back down the mountain.  Well, the first two boxes were destroyed, but that didn't in any way deter Jeannie.  In October of last year, she and a group of 20 or so headed up the trail once again with box number three, this one much larger than the others.  Beautifully crafted, it was carried by the gentle builder himself, a giant of a man in a baseball cap and a muscle shirt.  She calls him James  The video ends with the prayers retrieved from the second broken box being placed into the new one.

The last two videos were shot just a few weeks ago.  Jeannie explains in the first that box number three has met the same fate as the first two.  But she refuses to be discouraged.  "It doesn't put out my fire," she says. "It makes me all the more encouraged to bring something back even better."  And that she does, for in the second video yet another group is shown carrying seven  fifty-pound bags of cement up the steep trail while several others carry gallons of water.  The video concludes as the post is firmly set in its concrete base in preparation for the fourth, and hopefully final prayer box.  Its chances are good.  James and a fellow by the name of Yosemite Steve have constructed a hundred- pound metal box this time.  I have a feeling that James won't get it up the hill by himself. even as big and strong as he is.  But that's alright, because this dream of one seems to have caught on and is infecting a lot more people.  It somehow seems appropriate that it will take the strong arms and backs of several to carry it up that steep incline and then set it in place.  I suspect that those who join in the celebration will be the largest yet.

I love the word perseverance.  Jesus tells a story about a farmer who went out to sow his seed.   The seed  falls in four different places, but it's only "the good soil" that produces "a hundred times more than was sown."  When he later explains the meaning of the parable he concludes with this: "But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop."

I wonder how much more of the good stuff could happen if we didn't give up because of a little opposition.  Vandals smash our box and we throw up our hands and say, "I quit!"  And let's face it, people who quit early on rarely inspire.  But not only is Jeannie's resolve to keep a prayer box on that mountain inspiring, her attitude of seeing the opposition as an opportunity makes me want to cheer.  And perhaps her example will encourage others, including myself, to go all out for the thing worth fighting for.

By the way, in that article I mentioned the writer concludes with this:  "People are using it.  The prayer box seems to be catching on.  From a mountain trail in California to a bus stop in Oklahoma."   Wouldn't it be something to see a crop of public prayer boxes springing up all over the place?  We just might be amazed at what a little opposition and perseverance can do.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ellie

Bob Updyke was buried on a Thursday morning.   His funeral was the day before, and there was a nice little turnout of folks that came to pay their respects.  But there were just four of us that followed the SUV carrying his remains into the cemetary that morning.  The SUV is better in snow than a hearse the men from the funeral home explained.  As if it really mattered.  It was terribly cold,  and I couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for the two young men in work clothes standing a short distance from the fresh grave,  occasionally stomping their feet and hitting their gloved hands against their arms.  Waiting.  Larry made sure the service was short:  some scripture,  a few personal thoughts and then a prayer.  We didn't linger when it was over.

It's funny how one thing leads to another, how a simple comment can change the course of a day.  Our original plan was to take Ellie right back home.  She had some errands to run that afternoon, one being to pick up her paycheck.  But the subject of donuts had come up, and because  Ellie works in a supermarket, we offered to take her by to get her check and yes, to buy some donuts.  There were just four of us, but Ellie works in the bakery and insisted we buy the full dozen because it's cheaper.  Larry and I looked at each other.  What were we going to do with a dozen donuts?  "I know," I said.  "We'll give some to John."  John's our retired neighbor and is always teasing me for homemade cookies.  We invited the ladies back to our place with the promise of coffee, and they accepted.

Ellie is a natural storyteller.  It didn't matter that we'd left her husband's grave barely an hour earlier. Once the coffee was brewed, she started talking about her growing up years in Elkland, Pennsylvania,  a little town just over the state line.  Her mom died the day she was born,  and her grandparents took to raising her.  Many of the stories revolved around  her grandfather who was also the deputy sheriff.  He was an intimidating man who ruled his home and community with an iron fist and a shotgun, and that included chasing off her suiters using whichever of the two was necessary.  For an hour she regaled us with stories of people and events that had us with mouths wide open one moment and laughing the next.

Then I noticed John going to his mail box.  I usually have the blinds closed at the window facing his home, but on this particular day a neighbor boy had watched for the school bus from there.  His mother had gone into work early that morning and asked if he could wait at our house.  I'd never thought to close the blinds after he left.   I went to the door and hollered,  "John, come on over!  We bought you a donut!"    John has a nice garage attached to his house with an old antique gas pump outside the double doors.  He's one of those guys that's got to be busy all the time, always in motion it seems.  If he's not helping a neighbor, he's working on a vehicle.  He'd been painting a car that particular morning and was giving it a bit of drying time when he'd decided to check his mailbox.  That's when I spied him through the slats.

I set a glass of milk and a cream-filled donut in front of our neighbor while introducing him to the two ladies at the table and added that Ellie had just lost her husband that very week.  He graciously offered his condolences and asked where she was from.  "Well, I live right down here on Richard Street"  she told him.  You can see Richard Street from the parsonage.  It's just a block away.  "But I grew up in Elkland," she continued.   His eyes suddenly brightened.  "You come from Elkland?  That's where I grew up!"

For the next several minutes there was a volley of names going back and forth between the two of them with hardly a break.  I sat between the two,  my head moving back and forth like a spectator at a tennis match.  And though I can't remember all the names and wouldn't dare repeat them if I did, I decided that there couldn't possibly be a more unusual  group of characters than what lived in Elkland.   There was perfect rhythm as the volley continued between them, the list of names growing and the stories connected with them bringing such delight to Ellie, in both the telling and the hearing.

But John had an appointment, and the storytelling finally came to an end.  He said his goodbyes, and the four of us sat there with our empty cups knowing we had things to do.  But there was one more story to tell, and there was no laughter this time.  She told of  flying for the first time to see her brother and his family, and she was scared.   A gentleman in the terminal began talking to her, and possibly sensing her nervousness, assured her that he would take care of her until she was with her family in Detroit.  And that's exactly what he did.  He stayed with her the entire time, even making sure that she was deposited safely into their care before he left her.  But the extraordinary part of the story was that when he saw her brother, the two men immediately knew each other.  They had been classmates.  "Can you imagine," she said.  "Of all the people in Detroit, and he knew my brother."  She continued, her eyes glistening.  "God took care of me that day.  I knew he sent that man to me."    And then she paused.  "'And today I feel like I'm in Detroit all over again." 

A dozen donuts, open blinds and a mailbox.  Just a coincidence some might say.  Perhaps.   All I know is that two neighbors who had lived barely a block apart for 26 years came together at what I believe was a preordained moment, planned by a loving God to remind a woman who had just buried her husband that she was not forgotten.  Who better than her Creator would know exactly who or what she needed?  So the storyteller that she is, I can see Ellie someday sitting at her little kitchen table with a friend.  "Let me tell you about the day we buried Bob, " she'll say.  "It was bitter cold, and we ended up at the pastor's house for coffee and donuts afterwards."  Then she'll pause for just a moment, her eyes will brighten, and  suddenly she'll burst out laughing. "And then God sent me somebody from Elkland, right when I needed it the most.  And I felt like I was in Detroit all over again." 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

It Started With A Dream

April 25, 2005

My son-in-law starts a new job Monday and it all started with a dream.  I didn't know Zac when he was a kid, but from what I understand, he was naturally gifted on the football field from the time he was pretty young.  By the time he got to high school it was pretty obvious that he was heading to college on a football scholarship.  He signed with the University of Alabama at Birmingham, broke several records,  and took them to their first bowl game.  After all, he was really good.

Right before the draft his senior year, Zac headed to California for several weeks of intensive training at one of the best sports' facilities in the world.  It paid off.  The Packers picked him up as a free agent and he headed to Green Bay.  We were planning a trip to Tennessee to see him in a preseason game when we got the call that he'd been let go on the final cut.  I imagine that was an especially long trip back from Wisconsin to Alabama.  But he had a dream, and when the call came from the Ravens  he didn't hesitate.  He headed to Baltimore.   We had a house full the Monday night they played the Packers. Every time he was on the field we stood and cheered.  By the way,  Baltimore won that night.  We gloated of course.


Zac married my daughter in the spring that year, and after the honeymoon they headed north.  We were all  disappointed when we got the call several weeks later that he and Fawn were coming back to Alabama.  He'd been cut once again.  They set up housekeeping in Birmingham and he went back to school to finish up his degree.  That's when the next call came, an offer to play football in Germany for a season.  He decided to go, taking his new wife with him.  Things went well.  Not only did they get to see a bit of Europe but they made the championship as well.  Another offer came stateside but things didn't work out, he'd been injured and needed surgery.  It seemed to be the end of the road for Zac and possibly his dream.

Zac in Baltimore

While training back in California Zac had made quite an impression, for not only is he an exceptional  athlete, he is a young man of character. They obviously noticed because Athletes' Performance contacted him, asking if he'd be interested in coming on staff as a strength trainer.  He'd be working with professional athletes and those aspiring to play for the NFL.   He accepted the offer.  He told me once that his favorite time of the year was in the winter when the top college guys from around the country would come in before the draft.  He'd work with these guys for several weeks, helping them to get their bodies conditioned for the challenges ahead.   But more than that, he wanted to influence them in a positive way.  He has a concern for the athlete who is unable to handle the sudden fame that comes with playing professional ball.  So each year after the training was over, he would make reservations at a nice restaurant and invite the players for a free meal sponsored by his church in Los Angeles.  There would sometimes be an inspirational speaker, but the primary objective was to let these guys know that as they entered some of the most intense days of their lives, there would be someone there for them.

The Bible has quite a bit to say about dreams.  Dreaming is not for the fainthearted, and let's face it, dreamers are often misunderstood.  I think the ultimate example has to be Joseph who was a dreamer extraordinaire, and his brothers most certainly misunderstood him.  In fact, they despised him for his dreams.  Maybe they resented the fact that all they saw in their future was herding sheep.  But the day would come many years later when Joseph would see the fulfillment of those dreams.  They hadn't come easily, far from it.  But because God was in the dream and Joseph maintained his integrity, the outcome was certain. 

There are a lot of us who dream, but that's as far as it goes.  Like I said, serious dreaming is not for those who are afraid to go for it.  It takes genuine courage.  Let's face it,  we fear failure or rejection so we settle for the status quo.  I wonder how many people die disappointed,  full of regret that they never took a chance.  At that point, rejection seems pretty insignificant. 

I know people who aren't afraid to dream.  Tony knew extreme poverty as a kid,  raised in a severely dysfunctional home by a single mom.  Today he's working on his doctorate, planning to teach at the university level someday.  And last year he ran the Chicago marathon and finished, the fulfillment of another dream.    My friend Brenda is a grandmother who commutes over two hours a day to get her Masters in Speech Pathology.  She needs that degree to continue working with children who struggle to form words properly.  And then there's Fawn, my own daughter, who invests so much time into the lives of people who are struggling with obesity, helping them to live joyful and productive lives.  She dreams that someday she'll be used to impact many more.

So back to Zac and his dream.  I asked him once if he missed playing ball.  He said it wasn't so much the playing as the camaraderie of the team that he missed, and I could hear in his voice that the dream was still there.  We rarely understand why God permits certain things to transpire in our lives.  I'm pretty certain that my son-in-law didn't understand why he was in Green Bay, so close to being on the roster, then released.  Or why he was training others instead of playing himself.  But when the call came from Green Bay that he was being considered for a position on their coaching staff, somehow it all started coming together. Sure there were five or six guys being considered, all with more experience than him.  But there was a strength coach who saw an extraordinary young man six years ago and stayed in contact with him.  And when the time came to fill a position, he knew who he wanted on staff.

I think I mentioned he starts Monday:  Zac Woodfin,  Assistant Strength Coach of the Green Bay Packers.  And it all started with a dream.

Lambeau Field, Home of the Green Bay Packers

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ode to Valentine's Day

Does it seem to you peculiar
And to this I am inclined
To say that one day makes us crazier
Than all the rest combined?
And have you by chance noticed
That when the 14th comes around
Store shelves are full of chocolates
And confections do abound:
Chocolate kisses, pink m and m's
And candy hearts that read:
"Call me" "love you" "marry me"
And "You're the one I need."
Hallmark specials, heart-shaped pillows,
Bath and body stuff,
Balloons with sayings, mushy cards,
And if that is not enough:
Teddy bears, pajama grams,
Roses and perfumes,
Romantic dinners, moonlight cruises,
Candle-scented rooms.
And while we're on the subject
Of love and candy hearts
We'll include that chubby cherub
With his quiver full of darts.
That Cupid lad is quite the imp.
He simply won't relent
Until he has you close at hand,
Romance is his intent.
And when he finds his victim,
This funny little sprite
Takes aim and shoots straight at the heart,
And much to his delight
He hits the mark, he gets his prey.
To be a little more precise,
One more chump has met his fate
And he will pay the price:
Upscale restaurants, movie dates,
Expensive jewelry,
Fancy clothes, exotic trips,
Flowers sent FTD.
And possibly, just possibly
It seems quite evident
That this could lead to something more,
Say something permanent!
Like a ring, a wedding, then a home.
Add two kids or three,
In-laws, cousins, grandparents,
An extended family.
And on and on the cycle goes.
I'm relieved, I'll not pretend.
'Cause if it stopped, we'd all be cooked
Since life on earth would end!
So I solemnly now determine
That I promise not to gripe,
But enjoy this day of Valentine
In spite of all the hype.
Bring in on, every bit of it,
The gift, the song, the treat,
For this day is a reminder
Of  what makes life so sweet!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

An Extra Pair of Eyes

Today, February 5th, is the one year anniversary of our friend Roe Russell's death.  I've already told you a bit about his family, the funeral, and that wonderful magical barn.  There's just a bit more I'd like to tell.


Mary loves Boston terriers.  She's owned  four, but I've only known two of them.  It's a nice breed,  loving and affectionate.  She had Bubbles when we were living in North Rome back in the late seventies.  She fit her name well as she was especially exuberant,  spinning around  like a top whenever we stopped in.   Dixie isn't quite as energetic as Bubbles was, but I have no doubt she enjoys company just as much as her predecessor did.

We had seen Roe and Mary only two or three weeks earlier sometime in January.  Having lived in the south for so many years, we rarely got back to Pennsylvania.  But now we were living in New York and we knew that Roe's Alzheimer's was worse.  So we traveled down to Bradford county and spent an hour or so with two of the dearest people we have ever known.  Of  the entire North Rome congregation, there had never been a family closer to us than this one.  But this visit was different.  It was immediately obvious that Roe didn't know us.

February was still young when he died.  We headed to Mary's as soon as we heard the news.  Larry visited with the two daughters, and Mary and I retreated to the living room.  There she told me about admitting him to the hospital,  his unexpected turn for the worse, the call in the night and the family's goodbyes. During the course of our conversation she mentioned  how odd Dixie's behavior was the night Roe died. "She howled and howled." she said.  "It was so unlike her."  And I recalled something from my own childhood.

I had just turned 14 when my grandmother died.  She had been been in a local hospital for blood clots in her legs when she suddenly passed away.  My grandfather, several years her senior and crippled, was at  home several miles away.  His dog Chipper howled mournfully through the night.  I've often wondered if my grandfather might have anticipated the bad news before it came, sensing that something was amiss.

Sometime ago I read about a nursing home cat that lies on the beds of the residents right before they die.  The cat, normally quite reclusive, will suddenly show up in a room, staying until the resident's last breath.  There are theories, of course.  Some believe that someone close to dying emits certain smells.  You can draw your own conclusion, but I tend to think it's more than that.

  

While living in Colorado Springs several years ago, we rented a house for about six months. The previous tenants had been drug users (we found the paraphernalia to prove it) and Satanists.  The basement was comprised of two bedrooms and a sitting area that was painted and decorated in dark reds.  The colors reminded me of what you'd find in a Chinese restaurant, but this particular room was much less inviting.  We had a new Shih Tzu pup at that time who was always at my heels, following me everywhere.  But he would never go into the basement of that house.   I found it odd as our previous home had plenty of stairs which he never hesitated to climb.       

In the Old Testament there's a story about a prophet named Balaam.  He disobeys God and heads down the road on this donkey, going where he's not supposed to go.  As he's traveling along , the beast suddenly becomes obstinate and refuses to continue on.   Little does Balaam realize that the donkey sees an angel with a sword blocking the way.  After Balaam takes his staff and begins beating the animal, she looks at him and asks him what he thinks he's doing.  True story!  Balaam might have been a prophet, but his donkey was more spiritually perceptive than he was. 
 

It seems that God has placed within some animals an extra sense,  like an extra pair of eyes allowing them to see what we on this side of eternity simply can't.  It reminds us that there is indeed a spiritual kingdom that we will enter one day. Perhaps some of our four-legged friends are simply able to catch a glimpse of it before we do.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Look Who's Been Drinking the Punch

Punxsutawney Phil

Well the word is out:  Spring will be early this year.  And how do we know this?  A groundhog told us.  I've been doing a bit of research on this little hairy guy named Phil who lives in a tiny little place called Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.  He's been doing this for 115 years now, and he's only predicted an early spring 15 times.  Hmmm.  I'm pretty sure that doesn't make him very popular with those of us who live near  the arctic circle.  Alright.  That might be a bit of an exaggeration.  But let's face it.  This has been a brutal winter thus far for a lot of folks, and we will grasp at any glimmer of hope we can. 


Part of the Inner circle
Now back to Phil.  Of all those century plus predictions he's made, he's only been right 39 percent of the time.  Makes you wonder doesn't it?  Actually, I think it's some kind of cult that has millions brainwashed.  For example, do you know that there is an Inner circle of 14 members, and only they can determine what Phil's prediction is?   After all, we don't all speak Groundhogese.  That privilege goes to the President of the Inner circle  who Phil talks to.  And do you realize that the same groundhog has been around for all these many years?  He's lived twice as long as I have!  Well, it turns out that this "Inner circle" has discovered the fountain of youth or something like that.  Every seven years in the early part of summer he's fed a sip of Groundhog Punch which lengthens his lifespan by seven more years.  That's pretty extraordinary for a little brown ball of fur that doesn't usually make it past his sixth birthday.  Actually, I think that number would be higher if he'd stay away from the  road.   But that's besides the point.

The President of the Inner circle speaking Groundhogese with Phil
T
A couple of summers ago we were traveling from Buffalo to Maryland.  I noticed on the map that we'd only be an hour or so from Punxsutawney.  I suggested to Larry that it might be kind of fun to take a side trip.  After all, who knew when we might be that close again to such a famous place.  Several years ago while traveling from Colorado we decided to go see Mount Rushmore.  That was approximately six hours out of our way, so what was a measly 60 minutes?  Besides, what was seeing some dead presidents carved into a mountain compared to seeing a groundhog that could predict weather?

Back to Punxsutawney.  Let me tell you just a bit about this city.  I mean town.  I mean...oh whatever it is.  This  place has a population of about six thousand people.  It's pleasant enough, but all in all it's pretty average.  Well,  that is except for the groundhog statues everywhere.  If you want something to aesthetically improve your village why not put up some of those pretty pole lamps?  They look great at Christmas with the lights strung.  But how do you string lights on a groundhog and have anyone take you seriously?  Why take a groundhog seriously at all?

Just one of the groundhog statues that graces Punxsutawney

Back to Phil.  We had come all the way to Punxsutawney to see him,  so we inquired of someone where he could be found.  I assumed he would be at Gobbler's Knob where thousands upon thousands have descended (actually ascended since it's on a hill I believe) over the years to seek him out.   But no, we would not find him there.  We would find him in the library. Not only can Phil talk, he can read.  It wasn't hard to find the building.  You just look for the statue.  Yes, another one. And there we found Punxsutawney's most famous resident in a large glass enclosure in the library.  Doesn't it seem rather odd that he'd be at Gobbler's Knob in the winter and in a building in the summer?  But hey, I don't think the people in Punxsutawney are exactly normal.  If they believe a woodchuck (that's another word for groundhog) can live over a hundred years and that one of their own can speak Groundhogese, I'm not at all surprised to find Phil cooped up in the library during the nicest time of the year.

Actually, I enjoy Groundhog Day.  When I was teaching music to children in Alabama, we'd always sing groundhog songs in February.  To be honest, I don't think those kids had a clue as to what six more weeks of winter even meant.  Azaleas are blooming in March!  I grew up in New York, and though I enjoyed those first few months of ice-skating, sledding and building snow forts, by February I was weary of the whole thing.  I'm actually glad that a very ordinary place like Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania gets us out of our winter doldrums for a day, reminding us that no matter how much longer we might have to wait, Spring is coming.  Can't wait!