Thirty-three

My son turns thirty-three next week. What do I remember about being thirty-three?

Wow, it’s a stretch. That was 1990. We were living in Connecticut, where I had received my first call as pastor of a small rural church, Prince of Peace, in Coventry, about an hour east of Hartford. Our kids, four and three, were attending the preschool. We had two labs, Gabriel and Rachel, yellow and chocolate, respectively. A big parsonage, probably 3,000 sq. ft. on four acres of land next door to the church. No AC. Only really got hot about 2 weeks each summer. I’m sure my wife had started her nursing classes at UConn by then.

The world wide web was brand new in 1990. No internet for us. No cell phones. No cable TV. We got all our news from TV and the Hartford Courant. Other than the bible, I only had a books I accumulated at seminary for my sermon and bible class preparation. What a contrast with the almost infinite resources available to me now!

I had a computer that I used for word processing, with a 5-1/4″ floppy drive, that I got from my brother, I think. I had a dot matrix printer, too. The church had a stencil duplicator to make weekly worship folders and monthly newsletters. We didn’t have to make too many though. About seventy gathered for worship each week.

I remember getting up very early on a Sunday morning and walking across the yard to the church, where I would practice my sermon a number of times. I would then come back home to help get everyone ready for church at 9:00, followed by bible class and Sunday School at 10:30. I think I taught a midweek bible class, too, but I can’t remember.

It was a very stable community. Not too many people moved to Coventry. Occasional visitors at church. New families joined from time to time. I still remember many of the families who welcomed us and helped me learn how to be a pastor those first few years: Jeram, Sans, Thurber, Garay, Dollock, Ausberger, Hamernik.

I still did quite a bit of running back then, but didn’t race much. I remember hitting softballs out into the yard for the labs to chase. I always wore out before they did. We let them run wherever. When I whistled in the evening, you could see them coming through the field from a half mile away. We had two cats for a while, Fred and Ginger, who also spent a lot of time outside. I’d yell, “Kittykittykittykittykittykitty” and they would come scrambling in from a tree.

We burned a lot of wood in a wood burning stove in the winter. I’d get people to bring over parts of fallen oak trees, and I would split and stack it in the summer time. I absolutely loved swinging the axe through those logs.

The kids and I would often walk down the road where a very small farm had goats and horses near the fence that we could pet. A short drive would bring us to the UConn barns, where we would walk through and visit cows, goats, sheep and horses.

I don’t know if I have any journals from back then. I have to rummage through the box of notebooks I have at church. I don’t even remember if or how much I was journaling at that time. Not as much as I do now. The memories are mostly in my head and in our photographs. But if I find some, I’ll let you know.

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.