The Pathmark experience

I think my mom was some kind of genius, at least when it came to raising us kids. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she really knew what she was doing.

I’m thinking specifically of taking my brother, sister and I food shopping each week. In the mid-1960’s, the sun was setting on neighborhood markets as a new day dawned for big supermarkets. Our big supermarket was Pathmark, known for big selection and discount prices.

Mom was a devoted coupon cutter. Each time we went shopping, she made a deal with us. If we helped out, stayed out of trouble and didn’t ask for anything, she would split all the money she saved with coupons between the three of us. We could spend it any way we chose. Ka-ching!

So we were usually helpful, fairly well-behaved, and she didn’t have to field constant requests for stuff we wanted. In return, we usually blew the money on candy and learned a bit about shopping. Win-win. I know the money never amounted to much, but we always felt like we had won the lottery!

Genius.

My top ten “Dad” memories

After the recent death of my 95 year old father, I stopped to list my top ten memories of him. Most of them are from many years ago, but they are all vivid in my mind.

10 – My Dad usually got paid on Fridays, which for him meant going to the bank to cash his check. I remember watching him divide up that cash into various envelopes for church, food, mortgage, clothes, etc. He was raised and lived most of his life in a cash world without credit (or credit card debt). When I read about money-management systems that emulate cash envelopes, I always think about Dad. He was either ahead of his time, or there truly was nothing new under the sun.

9 – One summer, instead of going somewhere for vacation, Dad put an above ground pool in our backyard. Since much of our yard was on a giant hill – great for sledding in the winter, tough to mow in the summer – it was a major project to level out a 15 foot diameter level circle for the pool. But we loved it! You can do a lot of laps in a 15 foot pool without surfacing to take a breath. You can do a lot of snorkling too. I believe that was one of our best summer vacations!

8 – My Dad was an electrical engineer in the 50’s through the 70’s, which meant he went to work in a white short-sleeved shirt and tie. My mom would send his work shirts out to be washed, bleached, starched and pressed at the local cleaners. When they picked them up and brought them home, each was folded around a rectangular piece of cardboard. As kids, we loved those pieces of cardboard for drawing and coloring.

7 – In the summer, Dad would often sit on the back steps and smoke a cigar. Usually a Phillies blunt. Sometimes I would sit out there with him and just talk about whatever, throw a ball for the dog, or just watch the sunset yield to the night. Just before the ash fell, he would tap it into his palm and toss it out into the grass. It was all about the timing.

6 – One summer, when I was in elementary school, Dad went to a salvage yard and bought a whole bunch of wooden planks. After we pulled all the old nails out of those planks, he helped me and my neighborhood friends build a “fort” at the bottom of the hill in our backyard. It certainly wasn’t fancy, but it did have a window and door, shingles on the roof, a dark green coat of paint, and a door. My friends and I spent a lot of time playing in that fort.

5 – My Dad had played some high school baseball and had a glove from the 1930’s that was much different from the baseball gloves of the 1960’s and beyond. The baseball gloves of my generation were huge baskets, but his was little bigger than his hand. His glove meant you had to use two hands to catch. The gloves of my generation let you use one hand to grab the nastiest grounders. Dad spent a lot of time teaching me to throw and catch, a skill that kept me busy with friends for many years.

4 – My Dad commuted to work in Camden, NJ and Philadelphia, so he was usually the first one up in the morning. His go to breakfast was Wheaties. Every morning, he would be up about 5:30 am he would be up eating a bowl of Wheaties with milk before he got dressed and caught the train to work. I remember getting up early just so I could sit with him and have a bowl of cereal and enjoy his company before he went off to to work and I walked to school.

3- Speaking of vegetables, Dad always had an all-star garden. He grew tomatoes, peas, green beans, peas, beets, carrots, kohlrabi and radishes. In front of our house, though, he planted and cared for beautiful flower gardens. From tulip and hyacinth bulbs in the spring to gorgeous azaleas and mums, the front our house was a gallery of color.

2 – My Mom was a pretty good piano player, and she would sometimes play classic sing along tunes that my Dad would harmonize to. The song I especially remember is “Moonlight Bay.” Sitting in church next to Dad, we learned to harmonize to many church hymns.

1 – When my brother and sister were old enough, Mom went to work on weekends. She was a nurse and picked up weekend shifts at the local hospital. My Dad had to make supper and feed us. His go to meal was Hamburger Helper, or sometimes, just browned hamburger and brown gravy. We ate this along with bounty from his garden, which usually included green beans, tomatoes, radishes, kohlrabi, carrots and in the early spring, lettuce. He also made some instant mashed potatoes for the gravy. We grew up thinking he was a pretty good cook!

There you go – my memories of Dad, each of which brings a smile to my face!

The strange journey of confirmation class

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My most recent confirmation class.

In the life of our church, we baptize most of our children as infants and then raise them in the Christian faith. When they are eleven or twelve years old, I get to teach them the basics of the faith in a systematic way, using Luther’s Small catechism as a guide. After two years of weekly classes, we gather with family, friends and congregation for a “confirmation” of the blessings of their baptisms. That day is a reminder of God’s faithfulness as well as a public confession of their faith. My goal is to provide some tools and encourage them to continue to grow in their faith as they enter their high school years.

I believe I have taught thirty-two groups of middle schoolers. It is a fascinating, only-by-the-grace-of-God journey.

I enjoy teaching this age group because they have so many questions. Late-elementary aged children and high school students tend to think they have all the answers. But in middle school, you’ve learned to ask questions.

I also struggle to teach this age group because most of their parents haven’t done much with them since their baptisms. They may have come to some worship services or been in a few Sunday School classes. But on their twelfth birthday, an alarm goes off, and parents insist, “We have to get you to confirmation class!” Few students are familiar with – and some haven’t even heard of – basic stuff like the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles Creed and the Ten Commandments. Many are cracking open a Bible (or a Bible app) for the first time. When I drop familiar names like Abraham, Moses, David and Paul, I’m interrupted with, “Who’s that?” Each year I am starting from scratch.

But that’s OK, because these students are smart! They are taking algebra and geometry, designing and programming robots, and creatively solving future problems. They are active, involved in athletics, music, dance, and scouts. While the digital world is a second language to me, they’re fluent in it.

It takes about two weeks for them to get comfortable with me. Once they know they can trust me and I am a person with a family, a job and a sense of humor, they let down their guard, their personalities come out, and some real learning can begin. While I want each student to have a growing relationship with the Lord, the second-best part of the journey is developing a relationship with me.

Each student claims they can’t memorize anything. Catechism? Bible verses? Can’t do it. Until we start talking about all the lyrics they can sing, movies they can quote, athletes they know everything about and video game strategies stored in their minds. Until I show them how to memorize with purpose. That exercise will serve them well in other areas of life, too.

Every student grows up a lot, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Especially over the summer between seventh and eighth grade. At the start of year two, everyone not only a few inches taller, but the guys start showering and combing their hair and the girls pay more attention to their hair and begin wearing makeup.

Sin and grace are, of course, big concepts to grapple with. Some students never get in trouble. Others constantly get yelled at by their teachers for no apparent reason. When we try and identify sins to confess, few can get beyond not picking up their room or fighting with a sibling. So the idea of forgiveness doesn’t quite have the same impact. Yet. In the course of the middle school years, they will encounter hatred, jealousy, injustice, bullying, and fear in their own lives or in the lives of their friends. That’s when grace begins to mean something.

I am sure I get more out of this journey than my students. I know from experience that those students who were not active in the church before confirmation classes will not be active after. Those who were will be. It’s that simple. It’s all about their family. I just plug in and do my best to help for a few years.

What do I get out of it?

  • I reinforce my own knowledge of Scripture and the Small Catechism. I am no less a child of God, struggling to remember and understand his promises, and come to grips with both sin and grace.
  • I see God’s Spirit at work in the baptized. I am humbled by how little I can do and how much He can do!
  • I see the timelessness of Scriptural truths. So much has changed in the last thirty-five years, but Jesus has remained the same. He is just as relevant for this generation as my own.
  • I have great hope for the church. While my days are numbered in ministry, theirs are just beginning. I tell them they would make good pastors and teachers leaders. To tell you the truth, someday I hope they are mine!
  • It keeps me young. When you hang out with young people, some of it rubs off on you. I thrive on their contagious energy, laughter and creativity.

It is just as much a journey for me as it is for them!