Everclear margaritas

yuanbin-du-87642It was the spring of 1982, a significant year for me. I had quit my job at Bell Labs in New Jersey and moved to Austin, TX to begin a new job with a friend of mine who was helping to start a new company. They were going to make deep oil well probes to check the pressure far below the surface. I would be the programmer, working alongside some engineers who would design the hardware. Coding is a hot topic now. Back then I was doing assembly language programming on 8086 Intel chips.

Within two months, the company dissolved and I found another job with Bausch and Lomb, a division of Houston Instrument, just before the advent of CAD/CAM. My division programmed these massive tabletop printers for architectural drawings. It was really cool to see the pens whip around a huge sheet of paper to render a drawing.

Anyway, it was during this time that I realized I enjoyed everything I was doing with the church more than anything I ever did with my job. The pastor who confirmed me told me I should become a pastor, but I never gave that any more thought. Till now, when a vicar at my Texas church said the same thing nine years later. Hmm. Is that even a possibility? After all, I didn’t study any theology as an undergraduate. Could I really do that? My vicar and pastor assured me I could. In fact, lots of seminary students were second career.

So I applied. I sent off my application to Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN, where there were more second career guys than system guys. “System” guys went to a Concordia undergraduate school and majored in pre-seminary studies. I wasn’t a “system” guy. I had a liberal arts degree in Math.

Well, if I was going to go to the seminary and study to become a pastor, I wanted to start doing things that pastors did. What could I do? I could go out and make evangelism visits. In the context of my south Austin church, this meant following up on Sunday morning visitors to worship. The evangelism committee consisted of the vicar and his wife, a couple of young women, another guy and me. I think we got together on a Tuesday night, divided up some index cards with contact information on them, and went out to knock on doors and thank them for worshiping at our church. Hopefully, this would lead to further conversation.

My memories are a bit hazy (and you’ll learn why in just a bit), but I think we had some good visits and good conversations. I’ll be honest, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I was just willing to learn. After we attempted our visits, we reconvened at a certain time and place to debrief. On some nights we would meet at a little Mexican cantina that served Everclear margaritas.

Some of you are thinking, “What’s that?” Others are thinking, “Whoa!” Everclear is 190 proof grain alcohol. (In college, I learned that grain alcohol was an ingredient in Purple Jesus punch.) As you can imagine, throw a shot of that into a margarita and it is definitely party time. I was told, you can only have one. Halfway through my drink, I knew they were right. No one needs more than one of those. Not even on evangelism night!

Few know it, but this is one of the factors that contributed to my deciding to pursue studying for the pastoral ministry. After knocking on a few doors and taking a few sips, I thought, “You know, I think I can do this.” Of course I had no idea all that would be involved in being a pastor, but this was certainly a plus.

I never got to be a part of an evangelism team like this again. I’ve gone out on plenty of visits with plenty of other people, but we never took the time to share our experiences over a delicious and potent beverage. Since I’ve been in Florida, I’ve had some fascinating theological discussions at Tiki bars and beachside wineries, but none of them were quite like my experiences in Austin. If you were to ask me who was most influential in my decision to become a pastor, these dear friends just might be at the top of my list!

 

 

“Can we play with your dogs?”

Two Labrador dogs

We lived on the end of the row while I was doing my vicarage (internship) in Baltimore, so we actually had a yard in-between us and the church. It wasn’t a big yard, but was fenced in so the dogs could be out there.

We also lived right across the street from an elementary school. I was told that over six hundred children lived in the nine-square blocks about the school. I don’t doubt that estimate. There were always kids coming and going, running and laughing.

And knocking at our door. You see, we had the dogs. We brought the yellow Lab, Gabriel, with us. We brought home a chocolate Lab, Rachel, a few months after we arrived in the city. They were great companions at home, on walks and when I went for runs. They were great watchdogs, too. Right after we arrived, a repairman came to the house to fix a lock. Gabriel had him pinned against the wall with a snarl I had never seen before.

And the neighborhood kids loved them. It was not unusual to hear a knock at the door and find 18-20 kids on the front step asking, “Can we play with your dogs?” We would let them out in the side yard and the dogs would chase the herd of kids to one end of the yard, and then the kids would chase the kids to the other end. The smaller children would ride the dogs around the yard like ponies. The kids would throw balls and sticks, and then try to wrestle them away from the dogs.

I’m not sure who loved it more – the kids or the dogs. Finally the kids would tire or have to go home, and the dogs would collapse, exhausted and happy, panting with their tongues rolled out on the floor.

We were there over thirty years ago, yet I can still vividly remember the sound of gunfire from a passing car, the all night conversations and music passing by our window, and those excited little voices asking, “Can we play with your dogs?”

Lunch and a ride

OK, one more “that time I helped someone” story:

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Photo by Oscar Nilsson on Unsplash

This one happened in Florida, late one morning when the intercom from the front office told me, “There’s a man on the phone who wants to talk to the pastor.”

I knew how these conversations usually went. But I wasn’t all that busy and was feeling fairly pastoral, so I said, “OK, I’ll talk to him.”

It was a little different than what I expected. He didn’t ask anything of me other than wanting to have lunch with me. I was free for lunch, so when he told me where he was, I told him I would meet him at the barbecue restaurant just a quick walk away.
When I arrived at Woody’s, I figured that he was the guy standing by the front door, so I introduced myself, we went inside and sat down.

I told him lunch was on me. I was fairly certain a request for help would eventually come, so I was prepared to pick up the tab. When the waitress came, I ordered a lunch special, but he only got a plate of fries and some ice water. Interesting.

As we waited for our food he did most of the talking and I mostly listened. He was an experienced truck driver and was on his way to St. Augustine for his next job. He didn’t have his own truck, but was meeting someone for his next haul.

The food arrived in a few minutes, and while I enjoyed some pulled pork and sweet tea, he launched into a lengthly monologue about driving truck, his experiences and what he hoped his future would look like.

trucks“You know all those orange and blue trailers you see on the road? Those are all beginners. That’s their first job. Trust me, they aren’t making much money. Barely enough to get by. They are just learning how to drive, so when you see them, give them lots of room.” I took his word for it, though I didn’t know if that was a fact.

I did ask, “So how long do you have to drive before you are making good money?”

He said, “At least ten years. Until then, you aren’t making anything. Most drivers don’t last that long. You have to stay clean — no record, no drugs, no alcohol. Most can’t do it. Companies can’t find drivers who are clean and most guys who want to drive can’t get jobs.”

Our conversation went on for about an hour. Mostly about truck, a little bit about family, and of course a mention of church life, since I’m a pastor and all. Then he mentioned that he just need to get up to St. Augustine to pick up the truck for the next job.

I said, “I can give you a ride.” He was meeting someone at a place near the outlet mall. Half-an-hour away, not a problem. Of course, in the back of my mind a voice tried to tell me I probably shouldn’t do this alone. But I didn’t feel threatened and he seemed honest enough, so we headed up the interstate to his destination.

On the way we talked about where he had lived in Florida, his time in the military, his kids, who were grown and living somewhere, and of course a quick mention of wanting to get back to church. In fact, when he was in the area, he would probably stop in.

When we got to the motel, he told me his truck was arriving the next day. I wasn’t going to just leave him there, so I went inside and paid for a hotel room for him.

As I drove home, I marveled at how he chose to spend a couple of hours with me rather than just asking for some help. I don’t know if he had practiced that skill, or if it just worked out that way. But it was effective. I probably would have said no to an outright request, but was willing to help as the need unfolded. Pretty clever. I’ll bet anyone could use that strategy. Invite someone into your life, gradually unfold your need, and let them be a part of your story.

I didn’t come away from that encounter feeling used. Instead, I was fascinated how our lives had intersected for just a moment in time. I learned a lot. Every time I see one of those trailers on the highway, I remember that day and what he told me about those drivers. I also think often about my vocation, and how people seek out a pastor for help. I’m safe, often generous and usually compassionate. I didn’t do any preaching or teaching that day, just bought a guy lunch and gave him a ride. Ministry moments aren’t spectacular. Neither was Jesus. Maybe that’s the point.

“All we need is a campsite.”

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Photo by The Digital Marketing Collaboration on Unsplash

It doesn’t happen as much as it used to, but some who are seeking help knock at the door of the church. One family I remember in particular wasn’t in search of food or fuel, but just a campsite.

As most are, they were on the way from one place to another, and just needed a place to stay for a week while in Florida. I’m not sure why it was a week, but that was their story. They had a running car, a couple of kids, a tent, a propane stove, camping equipment, and food. They had everything they needed except for a place to pitch their tent for a few nights. But there was a campground just a few miles away, and they wondered if I could help pay for a site.

Not a problem. I drove down with them, went to the camp office and said I wanted to pay for a site for them for a week. It was pretty warm that afternoon, but it was cold, oh so cold in that office. The icy stare I got from the woman behind the desk would have made Frosty shiver. “We don’t usually do that.”

I said, “I just want to pay cash so this family can camp here for the week. I’m a pastor here in town.”

Her look softened every so slightly for just a moment, but then she held form, “We don’t like to do that.”

“I don’t understand.”

She stood up and walked from behind the counter, “It’s not that I don’t appreciate what you’re doing. It’s just that when the weeks up, we won’t be able to get them to leave. The we have to call the sheriff and I don’t want to have to deal with that.”

I just looked at her. She looked back. “But OK, I’ll do it this one time. It’s just that we don’t like to do this kind of thing.”

The campground wasn’t full or anything. No big events were coming up. But I understand. If you don’t want to have to kick them out, it’s better to not let them in. She must have had that experience before. I never thought of that.

It often isn’t as simple as we think. It usually isn’t easy helping people, no matter what anyone else might tell you. It’s rarely a “one and done.” There is sometimes another chapter to the story. Or someone has to clean up the mess later.

Maybe you can find something (or someone) a little closer.

His-and-Hers-Brown-Bag-Lunch-9As I’ve mentioned before, you can live out in the middle of nowhere, and people will find your home, especially if you are the pastor and you live next door to the church. One thirty-something gentleman that I remember from our Connecticut days drove up our drive way and knocked at the door one evening. He told what I came to learn was the usual story: in-between jobs, family to feed, anything I can do to help. Not that we had that much cash anyway, but in those pre-ATM days, you couldn’t even go out and easily get some. You usually had to go to the bank and cash a check.

But we didn’t send him home empty-handed. We packed up a few supper leftovers, a few non-perishables in the pantry, and he was thankful. He also came back every few weeks with a similar story, and we sent him home with similar provisions. Some bread, a little tuna, a couple pieces of fruit, whatever. We just did the best we could.

We talked each time and I got to know him a little bit better. On one occasion, I learned that he had found a job, but needed money for gas. In the course of the conversation, I learned that he had driven from another town, about thirty miles away, to come and see me. When I told him that he would have had enough gas to get back and forth to work had he not made the sixty-mile round trip to my house, he didn’t quite understand what I meant.

Even though he did come by the house a few more times, I didn’t help him any more after that. I finally had to tell him not to come back to our house and seek help closer to home. He only came back once more, about a month later. I guess he thought I might have had a change of heart.

I learned that you don’t have to give a lot to help someone. Just what you have. And you don’t have to do it forever. Just for a time. Our efforts sometimes have ends as well as beginnings.

A place to stay

knock“You are a priest, so you have to give me a place to stay.”

Those were the first words out of the woman’s mouth when I answered the door one evening just before dark and found her standing on our front step. We had only been at my first parish for a year to two. Even in the rolling rural hills of eastern Connecticut, a variety of people quickly found out that we lived in the parsonage next door to the church. So we got the usual procession of people looking for food or gas money, but till now never a demand for housing.

Inge introduced herself with a thick Swedish accent. She hadn’t been in America very long, found herself abused and estranged from her husband, and had nowhere to go. I think at some point we actually met her husband, but there wasn’t going to be any reconciliation. She was also Lutheran, actually a pastor of some sort herself. We were a combination of naive, compassionate, and new at this, and we had a huge house full of rooms we weren’t using, so we took her in. Our family was small, just my wife and I and our infant son — and now a boarder.

She didn’t bring much with her. Inge had little money, just a few items of clothing and personal items in a small suitcase. Her habits were a little different than ours. She liked eating bread slathered with mayonnaise and tomato sauce. On many a pasta night we found ourselves with no sauce. She also like to make sweet rolls with lots and lots and lots of butter. I seem to remember that she showered and shaved only occasionally, taking more of a continental approach to hygiene.

Inge found a job at some kind of small manufacturing company in our town, one she could walk to. She did attend worship and bible class when she didn’t have to work. She used some of her income to buy things like a VHS player, which she wanted to take back to Sweden with her. Since she was “buying American” for the moment, we saw a glaring flaw in her plan. She wasn’t actually saving anymoney to go back home.

After a few months, we decided we would help her out. She didn’t have a bank account, so we cashed her paychecks for her, withholding some and saving up for a flight back to Sweden. Within a month, we had enough for the trip. I purchased a ticket, drove her to La Guardia, and dropped her off. I don’t think we ever heard from her again.

I have helped a lot of people in a lot of different ways over the years. This was the only time we actually took someone in. It’s been a memory-stretcher to recall this story. I wasn’t journaling my life then as I do now. I definitely remember it being a less fearful and more innocent time, before the Persian Gulf conflicts, 9/11, Internet, wifi, and smart phones.

I’m not sure we would do this again. Were we foolish or faithful? Hard to say. Following Christ seems to be a mixture of both sometimes.

 

You need to hear it again.

silvestri-matteo-176500The call came pretty late last night, about 10:45. I was driving, and felt my phone buzz in my pocked, but didn’t listen to the message until after I got home. “She said she thinks he’s dying.” I only live about a mile away and I didn’t want them to be alone, so I headed over to the apartment.

When I arrived, it was and it wasn’t what I expected. I’ve been with many people in hospice care for the last days and hours of their lives. I’m familiar with the shallow, irregular, rattling breathing. I just didn’t think it would happen this soon. Just hours earlier, he had been awake, conversant, signing his own documents and deciding to come home from the hospital. Hospice hadn’t even been to the house yet, and it looked like he’d be gone before they even arrived. He wasn’t conscious, but he also didn’t seem uncomfortable, which was a blessing.

A few more people arrived. All we could do was wait. Wait for a call back from hospice. Wait and wonder whether it was a wise choice to come home. Wait and pray, commending him to the Lord’s care.

With her encouragement, we left about 12:30 pm. She knew who to call if anything got out of hand. When I called back this morning, I learned he had died about an hour after we all left. Her words to me on the phone were, “I know he’s with the Lord. I just hope God accepts him.”

Without hesitation, I replied, “I have no doubt! He had faith in Christ. We just talked about that the other day when I brought him communion, He was forgiven. You don’t have to worry about that at all.”

“Thank you so much. That’s just what I needed to hear.”

If you know me at all, you know I talk about that all the time. Maybe when you’re sitting there on a Sunday and life is pretty good and you don’t have too many worries, it doesn’t register. But when the breathing stops, you feel all alone, and reality kicks in, it suddenly becomes an issue. So, you need to hear it again. If I can, I’ll be there to make sure you do.

Lately it seems like I’ve been spending a lot of time with people who get hit with stuff over and over again. What do you do for someone when the cancer keeps coming back? Or the headaches? Or the strokes? Or the flooding? I’m humbled knowing I don’t have a whole lot of answers. But I get to bring Christ, and he gives more than we ask or imagine.

“I don’t want to be too far from church.”

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Photo by Cassie Boca on Unsplash

Over the past few weeks I’ve been spending time with families who are making some big decisions about their living situation. For a variety of reasons, they may not be able to continue living in their homes and are exploring other options, from moving in with family to assisted living and long term care. This can never be an easy decision to make. For some, the decision is being made for them by family who are taking a greater role in caring for them. For others, the handwriting is on the wall, and they know that hour is coming.

A common theme in our discussions is church. One of their concerns is not wanting to lose access to their church family, involvement and worship. Among the many financial, health and transportation issues that must be addressed, their faith life rose to the top, like cream atop the milk. Continue reading

The red sofa

IMG-7566OK, it’s really a love seat. But it is really red. And I see it every time I leave my house or come back home. Because it sits, faithfully, on my neighbor’s lawn.

If you ask me, it shouldn’t have a place in someone’s yard. It shouldn’t have a place in someone’s house, either. Three weeks ago my neighbor put it out on the curb, assuming that the garbage men would pick it up. Nope. They didn’t want it either. It has now been soaked by the rains, ignored on bulk pick up days, and endured the intense heat of the October Florida sun. Passing dogs have baptized it, bugs have taken up residence in it, and mold has begun to thrive in it.

It doesn’t seem to bother my neighbor at all. He cuts the lawn around it. He stacks weekly trash against it. It has joined his unsightly array of halloween, occult and just plain ugly lawn ornaments.

I suppose there are times in life when you need a red sofa. Like when you’re going to murder someone in your living room. Or you’re bleeding from some orifice. Maybe you’re addicted to ketchup. Think about it. Someone actually made this love seat. Someone actually bought it. And yes, now someone has set it out in the yard for all to enjoy.

Just wait — I’m going to come up with a story to go with it.