Posted in grandparenting, memories, youth

Joys and memories: watching my grandson play baseball

I went to watch my seven-year-old grandson’s baseball game last night. After two seasons of T-ball, he had advanced to a machine-pitch league. His team lost this game, but the coach awarded him the game ball for his efforts!

Watching this game made me think about my own youth baseball experience. I never played in an organized league while growing up. But on my block alone, I had enough friends my age to field two teams to play either on the street or the “ball field.”

The street game required little equipment. We played with a pink rubber ball and a bat. Bases were manhole covers, car bumpers, and sewer drains. We hit single-bounce pitches. The game’s added challenges included traffic, homes on each side of the street, and the unforgiving asphalt surface. When we could only round up eight or nine kids, this was the game we played.

When we had fifteen or more, we played at the ball field, a quick bike ride to a huge vacant lot behind the development where my family moved when I was eight years old. For this game we had gloves, baseballs, and wooden bats. Bases were flat rocks or pieces of wood we found lying around. We used pitchers, but no one threw very hard, so there were hardly any strikeouts. We played a lot of games, especially throughout the summer.

The challenges of this game included a pretty rough field surface. You had to have very quick reactions when ball bounced off holes and rocks in the dirt and grass that wasn’t cut very often. A foul ball into the woods might mean the end of the game if we couldn’t find it. Every once in a while, someone would tag one and it would reach one of the bordering homes. I don’t think we ever caught a window, but we bounced a few off the roof. A few of my friends were pretty good. Only one of them played Little League, beyond the means of most of our families.

It was a good place to hone some skills. Enough that I could later play some college intramural and later, church league softball. I also remember the names of most of the kids and adults I played with. Baseball was really good for developing friendships. Plus, once you’ve played, baseball is much more entertaining to watch, from the major leagues to a local machine-pitch rec league.

Posted in memories

Do you remember melting crayons?

I’m really not sure why this memory recently came back to me. It might have been while thinking about how we entertained ourselves as kids. No phones, internet, Netflix, TikTok, or game systems. How about this: melting crayons.

So I had this Tensor high intensity lamp my parents bought me for the desk in my bedroom. I did plenty of homework under that lamp. Let me tell you, the descriptor high intensity was appropriate. It got hot under that lamp. It was perfect for melting crayons.

I’m not entirely sure when I had that revelation. It might have been after making stained glass windows by ironing crayon shavings between pieces of waxed paper in Sunday School. Or the wax you melted on a letter and impressed your initial into it kit that was popular back then. I was fascinate to hold a crayon as close as you possibly could to the bulb of a high intensity lamb, without touching it, of course, and watching the wax melt.

I began dripping melted wax onto a piece of ruled note book paper and slowly but surely creating a volcanic mountain. Then I would drip enough crayon for the bottom of the mountain and then drip a gold, silver or copper crayon (they were in the coveted Crayola 64 pack, remember?) into the middle. You could then cover the precious metal crayons with browns and greens. Now you had a vein of ore running through the mountain, which you could mine with the pointy end of your compass you bought to draw circles with at school. You could also bore through your wax mountain with a beam of light focused through a magnifying glass. If I got too close and touched the lamp bulb to the crayon, a gentle wisp of smoke floated into the room, with the smell of burnt wax.

I have no idea why this was so much fun and so time consuming. But these moments vividly resurface anytime I sit down to color with my grandchildren. And then I took them to the Crayola Experience in Dallas, TX. I watched as they melted crayons to make small toys to take home. I believe I enjoyed it more than they did!

Am I the only one who ever did this?

Posted in memories, Ministry

The seven seals

I apologize in advance if you ran across this post because you were searching for deep theological insights into the book of Revelation. This two-sided bookmark is on my office bulletin board, and when I glanced at it this past week, it brought back a great ministry memory.

I think my (middle) daughter was sixteen or so when she and a group of her youth group and lacrosse team friends wanted to do a bible study on the book of Revelation. So, once a week we informally got together in the youth leader’s home and worked our way through all the apocalyptic images and symbols. These include the seven seals of a scroll that only Jesus is worthy to open. Their young, imaginative minds delighted in the image of the kind of seals you’d see at Sea World. So I made them each a bookmark with seven seals.

On the reverse side, I arranged pictures of the ten plagues from Exodus. These helped us connect the images of God’s judgment in the Old Testament with these in the New.

Every once in a while, teach kids and youth. It will keep you young. And you will learn a lot!

Posted in memories

Bench-clearing brawl

As I walked into the chapel, the gloves came off and fists started flying before the funeral began.

I must have been feeling unusually compassionate when the funeral home called and asked if I could do a service in their chapel for a local family. I don’t often do this for folks I don’t know, but this time I did.

I visited the family to learn something about their suddenly deceased father. His had been a blended marriage. But the adult children on each side didn’t get along at all.

No kidding. Snarky remarks began as soon as each side found seats in the front row on opposite sides of the room. Each comment was just a little louder and a little more abrasive than the last. One, then another stood up to make an accusation. If one pointed a finger, another pointed more vigorously. The shouting parties inched closer to each other. A hand gesture brushed an arm. The hand was angrily pushed away. A shoulder was shoved. A slap was attempted. A closed fist was raised. Yelled insults became screamed expletives.

As I watched from the back of the room, all the sons and daughters and a few spouses were on their feet, mobbed together in front of the open casket, pushing, shoving, punching and shouting. A few of the larger funeral directors finally stepped in and restored order, but not before one whole side of the family stormed out the door.

When the room had quieted, the head director looked at me and said, “OK, they’re all yours!”

Posted in memories, Stories

The other side of Gabriel

Photo by Don Agnello on Unsplash

A low gutteral growl. A show of teeth and a lunge. A cry of terror. Gabriel had him pinned up against the wall!

I never knew he had it in him.

I’ve written about Gabriel before. When Lisa and I moved to Baltimore for my vicarage, we stopped in Ridley Park to pick up my Labrador retriever Gabriel who had been living with my dad for two years. I couldn’t have a dog in the seminary dorm, so we let him chase squirrels around the yard with my dad’s dog Barney.

Gabriel was solid, mild mannered, a great swimmer and a champion ball retriever. I never imagined him to be much of a guard dog. Although when anyone sees you walking or running with a large dog, they do tend to give you some extra room.

I’m pretty sure it was our first day in Baltimore. We pulled up to our house at the end of the row next door to the church. After a quick stop in the yard, we brought Gabe in. We didn’t think much of the man repairing the lock on the side door. Neither did Gabe, and he let the guy know it. He rushed him with fierce barking, angry teeth and his best “you better get your butt out of here” growl. The poor guy backed up to the wall with a look of terror on his face as I pulled Gabe away. I had never seen this side of him before!

But it was a blessing. Word got around about the big dog in the house and no one ever really bothered us. Except all the neighborhood kids who wanted to run around the yard with him. Once, when my wife had gone grocery shopping, she had him sit in the doorway as she carried in the bags. A stranger offered to help her, but took one look at Gabe and changed his mind.

Good dog!

Posted in church, memories

They closed the church

My brother emailed me a few weeks ago to let me know that the church where we grew up, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania had closed. He thought the building was sold or given to an Ethiopian congregation that had been renting space there. The closing of the church feels like the loss of a close friend.

I was eight years old when our family moved from northeast Philadelphia to Ridley Park in 1965. We attended that church on Sundays because my aunt and grandmother lived in the adjacent apartment building, and that was their church. That’s how I became Lutheran.

When we first began worshiping there, the congregation met in a fairly small building that had a preschool and kindergarten wing on one side. I only have one memory from that older sanctuary. It’s from an Easter Sunday morning worship service. The pastor’s son, a few years older than me, was singing with the choir. He had a solo verse in a piece called, “In Joseph’s Lovely Garden.” He had a wonderful voice and sang well, but felt faint and passed out after his solo.

The congregation built a new sanctuary that I think was dedicated in 1968. My brother remembers going there with my dad to do things during construction, but I have no memories of that. The new sanctuary had two rows of 22 pews with a red-carpeted aisle between them. I know the exact number because I dusted them all many times when I worked there as a janitor while in high school. I have two vivid memories of the dedication worship service. From the loft the organ and piano played “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.” It was the first time I had ever heard that piece, and it too my breath away. The robed choir processed up and around the nave several times during the first hymn before ascending to the loft.

Our family always sat in the third pew from the front on the left hand side in front of the pulpit. My mom and dad never left us three kids there alone when they went up for Holy Communion. They went separately so the other could stay with us. A wise strategy. I didn’t find church all that exciting. The cross in the front consisted of many stained glass stones. We sat there and tried to count them all many, many times.

We never missed Sunday worship unless one of us was sick. I heard a lot of sermons from age eight until I graduated from high school. There is only one thing I remember from all my pastor’s sermons. He would preach about those who were on a “rolley-coaster to hell.” I’m not sure what that was, but I sure didn’t want to be on ride!

After high school, I went to college and then to work in New Jersey, only worshiping there when I was visiting my parents. Both mom and dad had their funerals there in 2005 and 2019 respectively. Over time, pastors came and went and the church went into a slow decline until her final service on May 9, 2021.

Over it’s seventy years, the church educated so many children on Sundays and during the week. It spawned four pastors that I know of, including my brother and I. It served it’s community in many ways.

If you grew up in the church, then you know there is something about the church you grew up in that makes it different than any other. When I grew up and moved away, it was hard to find a new place to worship. No other church ever really measured up.

Posted in Dad, memories

Lunch with Dad

“Hey, Dad!”


“I get to have lunch with you today. How’s that sound?”

Dad simply shrugged.

“I think it’s time for us to head down to the dining room.” I flipped off the locks and the wheelchair began to roll towards the door, a familiar noontime ritual.

“Okay, I think this is your spot.” I pulled him up to the end of a long table and pulled up a chair next to him. ” Hi, everybody!”

Besides us, five sat around the table. One was nodding forward, doing. Another fiddled with a napkin. One smiled at me and asked, “So how do you like it here?” Another nodded.

After filling glasses with water and juice, one of the caregivers came around with a round of vegetable barley soup. I simply smiled and she set a cup in front of me. It was actually very good. My dad focused on his and I shared with him how my kids and grandkids were doing. Around the table, one lady poured her soup into her juice and stirred it up. The gentleman across from me pushed his cup of soup to the lady next to him and said, “Here, you can have it.” She slid it right back.

The main entree arrived next. Everyone had a choice. Grilled ham and cheese with potato chips, or a piece of grilled fish with some vegetables. I thought the sandwich looked pretty good. My dad didn’t look excited about either. The server set a sandwich in front of him.

Dad nibbled on a few of his chips as I ate my sandwich, pleasantly surprised at how tasty it was. At our table, some ate, some just sat, and some smiled at me as I tried to make conversation. “This is my Dad. I’m here from Florida. It’s snowing outside. How’s your lunch?”

Some smiled politely, some drank their juice, some looked off into the distance. Dad must have eaten a decent breakfast. He didn’t seem to be interested in lunch at all.

Until they brought out the ice cream.

Suddenly, everyone was on task. No one refused dessert. Everyone, including myself, dug into the small cup of vanilla. No matter what else is going on in the world or in your mind, if there’s ice cream, it’s a good day!

As we finished up our cups, I showed Dad the latest pictures of his great-grandkids. Some were wheeled away from our table. Others wandered off. Soon, it was just the two of us.

I gave him a hug as he asked, “Are you leaving already?”

“Yeah, my plane leaves in a few hours. But I’ll be up to see you again soon.”

Dad wouldn’t remember my visit to memory care that day. But I do.

Posted in memories, Stories

We made a friend

“Where are we going?” my son asked.

“We’re going to deliver a gift.”

I saw our neighbor drive off. This was our chance. We looked both ways, hurried across the street, and left the brightly wrapped box on the doorstep. Who knew how much time we had? We hurried back home like nothing ever happened.

We knew we were taking a big risk. No one, absolutely no one dared step into this man’s yard, much less approach his door. If your ball rolled up on his lawn, you just left it there. If you were playing in the street and saw his front door open, you ran home. We didn’t even know his name, but we feared him nonetheless.

“We’re going to deliver a gift.” A Christmas ornament and cookies. Guaranteed to thaw a soul, right? At least we tried.

Every neighborhood has one. The one you fear. The one you avoid. The one you taunt. The one you watch from a distance. Where I grew up it was Old Man Somebody.” We didn’t know his name. We didn’t know anything about him. But we perpetuated the legend of the grouchiest, grumpiest, craziest elderly neighbor you could imagine. We would try to taunt him by shouting, “Hey, old man!” and running away. For some reason, when you are eight years old this is great fun. I never even saw the man, yet I was deathly afraid of him.

We got a thank you note. We got a thank you note from Mr. Critchfield, our across-the-street neighbor. From that moment on he waved when we were coming or going. He smiled when he saw us. We smiled at him.

We made a friend.

Posted in memories, teaching

The worst way to die

The question seemed simple enough. “What do you think would be the worst way to die?”

It’s like I flipped a switch. The room full of fairly disinterested 7th and 8th graders came to life with a flood of macabre methods of taking human life. Clearly I was not the first to ask them this question, and they excitedly offered up these horrible ways of killing, some of which I’ve never heard of before.

  • Put someone in a hollow brazen bull and light a fire under it until the person bakes to death.
  • Stuff someone in a barrel and nail the top shut, simply leaving them to die and slowly rot away.
  • Impale the victim on a sharp stick which would slowly pierce the length of their body.
  • Dip someone in the Amazon River, allowing the piranha to eat away their flesh.

I’ve been teaching this age group for a long time, but I’ve never had a class so fascinated with death and dying. I doubt many had even been to a funeral or seen a corpse, so this was all theoretical.

I remember doing a play in Junior High school called “The Lottery” based on a story by Shirley Jackson. It was about a small town that annually chose the name of one citizen who would be stoned to death by everyone else. The tradition provided a communal outlet for hate and anger. When everyone you know takes your life, that seems to be a pretty bad way to go.