Thanksgiving memories

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Photo by Alison Marras on Unsplash

I’m surprised that I really don’t have a lot of Thanksgiving memories. I really like the holiday, especially preparing and consuming the food. I had to really work to come up with memorable moments from the past.

In high school, the last football game of the season was played on Thanksgiving morning, also marking the end of marching band season. We always played a non-league game against Interboro, a tough opponent from a few towns away. After graduating, that was the game you attended to catch up with all your friends who were home for break.

The only time in my life I remember going out for supper on Thanksgiving was when we went to visit my wife’s Aunt Dot who lived in King of Prussia, just outside of Philadelphia. I’m pretty sure we drove down from Connecticut that year and met my in-laws there. My daughter Katie found it hysterical that her name was “dot.” We went to the mall, the largest in the area at that time, the next day to people watch more than shop.

My Thanksgivings while I was attending seminary were spent at my in-laws home in Columbus, IN. The first time I had just finished Greek and went with my classmate, dorm-mate and future brother-in-law Jeff, who, if I remember correctly, had a pretty nice looking sister who was in her last year at Indiana University. A year later I got to return, now dating his sister but not yet engaged. I think that is when I wrote my first poem for her. (I am sure she has it somewhere.) I don’t remember going there when I was in my final year, but I’m sure we did. Lisa would have been about six months pregnant with Adam that year.

Last year was supposed to be Thanksgiving at our house, but we had a change of plans. With Isaac (grandchild #3) only six weeks old, we decided to take a drive to Dallas to spend thanksgiving with him and his family. The year before I had decided to have our Thanksgiving worship the Sunday before, freeing up the week for travel, and it paid off. After worship on Sunday, we hit the road, spent the night in Pensacola, and arrived in Dallas on Monday night. Three solid days in Dallas, got to hear my son preach and did lots of grandparent stuff.

I do remember that Thanksgiving worship was on Thanksgiving Day when we were in Urbandale, Iowa. Ugh. Never did that before. It was always the night before in Ridley Park, Connecticut and Florida. But I wasn’t the boss, so it was what it was.

I remember all my trumpet descants for the Thanksgiving hymns, too. I may not be playing them, but I sing ’em on the last verse. Still got that tenor range.

OK, I guess I did have a few memories. One of these days, I’ll look at my journals — I’ve got decades of them. That ought to stimulate my memory.

White or wheat?

downloadFourth year of seminary education. Married. One in the oven. Time to get a job to make ends meet. Subway is taking applications. Why not?

I was hired at a store on the south side of Ft. Wayne, about twenty minutes from our tiny (before tiny homes were fashionable) home. Back then, the menu was simpler. Only two kinds of bread: white or wheat. Two kinds cheese: American or Swiss. No cookies. No toasted subs. Old school. We didn’t wear gloves, just washed our hands a lot. Cleaning the bathrooms was as gross though. Some things never change.

Since I was about ten years older than most of the crew, I often closed the store at 2 am. One night, just before I locked the front door, a man came in, pointed a long barrel revolver at my head and said, “Give me the money.” Since we dropped the cash about every half hour or so, there was less than $20 in the drawer. Impatiently he demanded, “Just give me the whole thing.” I handed him the money tray and followed his instructions to lay face down on the floor. After a few moments of silence, I locked the front door and called 911 and the store manager.

I was pretty shaken up by the time I got home around 4 am. The assistant store manager was more upset that the thief took the money tray than he was about the stolen cash. I worked a few more shifts after than, but as call day and graduation approached, we were making plans to move…somewhere. We didn’t know where our first call would be for a few months.

I’m always nice to workers at Subway. I get to do what I do today because of people just like them!

“Would you like to try some toilet paper?”

Toilet-Paper-2My previous memories of making snack mix brought to mind the first job I worked at the seminary with Sitko Field Services. Apparently, the population of Ft. Wayne, IN, represented a good cross section of America, so it was a hot spot for market research. Our job (Lisa worked there, too) involved phone and door-to-door surveys and product testing. Sue Sitko, the owner, brought big city marketing experience to the heartland, and helped us pay the bills as I studied to be a pastor.

The world was very different back then. In the office, I didn’t sit at a computer screen waiting for numbers to be automatically dialed for me. We sat in front of a phone with a page from the phone book and a stack of surveys, calling down the list to find someone who would answer some questions for us. More people than you would imagine were willing to talk to us about television shows, over the counter medications and restaurants. The only hard part was finding the right age group of people to talk to for a representative sample.

One weekend my job was to sit and width the NFL Pro Bowl and jot down every commercial. A boring game and a boring afternoon, but it was good money.

The really interesting part was the door-to-door work. Sometimes you walked around with a clipboard full of surveys, seeking a face-to-face conversation at someone’s home. Yes, this was a different time. But other times the goal was placing a product for them to try. I would go back a week later, get some reaction to the products, and leave a different batch for them to try. It was one thing to get people to test crackers, soda or dog food, but imagine some of the responses I got when I asked, “Would you like to test some toilet paper?” It was tougher but not impossible to find willing participants. Especially if they were one of those families who waited till they used the last sheet before going to store for more. When the survey was over, we got to take home some of the extra product, too.

I used to get survey phone calls, but haven’t for a while. When I did, I tried to answer the questions. I guess I still have a soft spot in my heart for those in search of market research interviews.

When you’re praying for me, say a little prayer of thanks for Sue Sitko, who was a part of preparing me for the pastoral ministry.

Snack mix

DSC_0108There is a lot I have forgotten from my years at the seminary, but one memory that continually resurfaces is one of the jobs I had to pay the bills my last year there: making snack mix. In the days before prepackaged Chex snack mix appeared on grocery store shelves, you had two choices. You could make it at home, which plenty of families did. Or, at least in northeast Indiana, you could but it bulk in a grocery story, who got it from a friend of mine who actually owned a little factory that made one product, snack mix.

It wasn’t especially hard work. If I remember correctly, one team opened case after case of boxes of Chex cereal and Cheerios, carefully slitting open the inner bag so it poured out just right. The second team mixed together a precise recipe of the cereal, pretzels, oil, lots of garlic, and a few peanuts in large bins. The next team would bake the mix in large aluminum trays. Some days you worked the final step, bagging up the cooled mix and boxing it up for shipment to several grocery chains.

It was a popular product. We made tons and tons of snack mix. I’m pretty sure my wife was making it right up to the day our first child was born. (I suppose that’s why it has always been one of his favorite snacks!) I think we got to bring some home to eat. But I know we always came home smelling like garlic. No threat from vampires in our home!

So when someone asks, “What do you have to do to become a pastor?” there are stories just like this, jobs of every shape and size that helped you get through seminary years that were lean in resources but rich in theology. I owe a lot to the guy who came up with the idea of making and selling “mix” so that we (and a few other seminarians) could earn a few bucks and serve the church.

Call Day (part 1: memories)

Call Day 1986

As our family gets ready to travel to St. Louis for Call Day at Concordia Seminary, we are all excited to learn where my son Adam and his wife Sarah will be placed as their complete their studies. In this post I will reminisce about my Call Day in 1986 (exactly 27 years ago) at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN. It’s been a few years, so my recollection may be a bit fuzzy.

Lisa and I had been married for nearly two years and Adam was only three months old as Call Day approached. Our fourth year at the seminary included making Chex mix for Kroger Supermarkets, me working at Subway and Lisa doing some tutoring. The food bank helped us make ends meet with 5 lb. blocks of cheese. We were really glad when Spring arrived, since the little house we rented wasn’t very well heated. Thank goodness for that kerosene heater and a couple of labs to keep us warm.

The week before the call service, we were told that we didn’t have a placement yet. There weren’t enough calls for the graduating class, so we might have to wait until the summer before we found out where we would be going. But the day before the call service, we were told we indeed had a call. The placement process is very confidential, so we had no idea where we would be going.

On Call Day, Lisa’s family came up from Columbus. They had a doubly-vested interest that day since their son Jeff was also graduating. My family decided to take the train from Philadelphia and barely arrived in time for the service. I was singing with the Kantorei and playing trumpet in the balcony (one of the most amazing organs to play with), so when it was time for my call to be announced, I slipped into line and quickly learned we’d be going to Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Coventry, Connecticut. Where the heck is that? Break out the Rand-McNally atlas. (No Google maps — this was 1986, folks). Ah-ha, just a little east of Hartford, in a beautiful rural area of the state.

As the evening progressed and called were announced, I remember one in particular. The professor announcing this one call said, “Peru…” <everyone gasped> “…Indiana” <everyone exhales>. What a great moment. The other great moment is when a certain call was announced and a very clear “Oh, s***!” was spoken. I guess that’s not where they expected to go.

I got to meet the New England District President that night, David Mulder. He was just the right man to welcome me to the district, and let me know I was not stepping into an easy situation. The last pastor at that congregation had not only been asked to resign, but had been defrocked (he was no longer able to be a pastor). Hmm, this was going to be interesting. But hey, the call came with a house! An enormous parsonage. Cool.

And just like that, we were thrust into the real world of parish ministry. (And yes, for those of you with inquiring minds, the document below was created with a typewriter!)

Call Day 1986 B

A week with some guys from the sem

This past week I’ve had the privilege of spending some time with a couple of first year students from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. Originally, my son Adam had planned to spend a week at the beach with three of his classmates. A volcano and tropical storm changed our plans. Adam and his friend John got stranded in Guatemala for an extra week beyond their mission trip, so David and Tyler got the beach house to themselves. We had them over for supper a few night and went out to eat with them twice.

It was a pleasure to spend time with some fresh meat…what I mean is some young bucks…you know, new blood who will be pastors in just a few short years.  Adam is blessed to have some great friends. Our church body is blessed to have some excellent young men preparing for ministry. I was blessed to have a little time with them over the past few days, to laugh, eat, drink, and relax. When I was at the sem some twenty-five plus years ago, the hospitality of so may families was so important to a young single guy trying to prepare for the ministry. I met my wife through one of those families, found work through another, and enjoyed the prayer support of so many others.

If these two men are representative of our seminary graduates, I am very optimistic about the future of our church. They were easy going, faithful, caring, appreciative, and easy to talk to. Good with people, good with theology, good support for my son — great guys in so many ways. I hope they remember my comment that the friends they make at seminary will probably be some of the best they will ever have from now on. The friendships you form and nurture during your seminary days are unique, lasting, and priceless. Rarely will you find anything like that in the parish. These guys are a real answer to my prayers — friends to support, challenge, and encourage my son during his seminary years.

Once in a while I think about the truth that I’m not going to be doing this forever. Someday, one of these guys will be bringing communion to me because I can’t get to church very often. One day they’ll be preaching to me, making sure that I don’t forget about the grace of God, the sacrifice of my Savior, and eternal life. Having met these guys, I now look forward to those days. They’ve definitely got game!

An old friend

A few weeks ago I received an invitation to the 50th anniversary of Luther Memorial in Tinton Falls, NJ, the church I attended when was living in New Jersey and working for Bell Labs before I went to the seminary. It’s been twenty-eight years since I’ve been there, so I am flattered that they remembered me and sent me an invitation. Unfortunately, the celebration is on Palm Sunday, and I am working. But I took a few minutes to write with my my greetings and record a few memories for them.

Just out of college, working my first job, living in my first apartment, I decided to search out a church in Monmouth County, NJ. The first one I tried didn’t even notice I was there. The second one, Lutheran Memorial, embraced me as one of their own from the moment I stepped in the door. The first Sunday there, someone took me to lunch. The next week, they got me involved with the choir and playing trumpet. The third week they invited me to help teach the high school class. And from there, grew to love ministry much more than my profession. The love of that congregation propelled me towards the pastoral ministry in a big way. And for that I will always fondly remember and thank God for my time with them.

What they didn’t teach me at the seminary (part 2)

I am still leaning that I have to do a lot of things around the church I didn’t realize were part of the job description. For example:

  • Changing batteries in smoke detectors that are chirping and driving you up the wall.
  • Compiling the list of who gets offering envelopes, which includes active members, those who regularly attend but are not members, and excludes those members who don’t use offering envelopes.
  • Pick up dead bugs in the chancel.
  • Reassemble chapel Advent wreath that was disassembled to make a Good Friday tenebrae candle holder.
  • Retrieve loaner key from drop box where a black widow spider is living.
  • Fetch new roll of toilet paper for “stranded” parishioner.

A lot of these things end up on my plate just because I’m around just about every day. Try as I might to delegate these jobs, new ones, different but similar will find their way to me.

What they didn’t teach me at the seminary (part 1)

This periodic series is prompted by my son’s blog. He is a first year seminarian at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. You can read some of his impressions at Reverand Seminarian (sic).

I went to seminary a while ago. Twenty-seven years ago to be exact. Pre cell phones. Pre PCs and Macs. But still post-diluvian. I still remember friends, dorms, classes and chapel. I still remember a lot of what I learned. But I’ve learned a whole lot more since then, in the day-to-day task of parish ministry. From time to time I hope to write about this ongoing education.

The first thing they didn’t teach me:  sermon writing doesn’t get any easier. Sermon preparation is a big part of most of my days and weeks since the Sunday morning worship service serves as the hub of the church’s life together. I got all the tools, including Greek and Hebrew, hermeneutics, homiletics, and public speaking. I got good experience through field work and vicarage. So by the time I got to my first parish, I was locked and loaded to change that congregation, and then quickly move on to the community and then the world.

I’ve never really been able to reuse a sermon I’ve written before. Sometimes they really just weren’t that good. Other times they addressed issues specific to another group of people.  And they usually drew upon time and place specific events. I think I’ve reused one or two sermons my whole career. You might think a few times through the three-year lectionary and you’re set for life, but that is not at all the case.

On the way your own life changes. Kids, moves, friends, experiences, joys, tears. Some of that change comes from God’s Word that you spend so much time in. Previously written sermons lack the needed depth created from life experience. So it’s back to the drawing board.

Perhaps I put too much pressure on myself. Each week, I want to say something meaningful, memorable, orthodox, entertaining, relevant, multi-generational, faithful, Spirit-filled, applicable, and cohesive. A tall order for one message, nevermind a weekly sermon. As a result, there are Sunday afternoons where you are haunted with the reality that you didn’t do a good job. In fact, you may have failed to achieve any of those goals. But God is good. You get to try again next week. Believe me, that’s grace.

So what I learned along the way is that most of the time, you do your best and have to trust God’s promise that his word is always effective. That’s because this kerysso stuff is hard.