Santa in a South Baltimore Door

Over twenty five years ago I was a Director of Christian Education at Catonsville United Methodist Church near Baltimore. Every Christmas, a woman from my Disciple Bible Study class stays in touch by sending me a card with a big jolly Santa Claus on front. This annual tradition comes from a God incidence story I shared with her class.

Santa had a special meaning to an elderly South Baltimore couple named Mr and Mrs. Murphy. They lived a few doors up from my parents house on East Randall Street, and were among the 114 customers I had on my two newspaper delivery routes, which I served daily for over four years.

That first Christmas, I was 14 years old and this was my first “business”. I wanted to do something special, that I could afford, for my customers. I bought some boxes of Christmas cards, twenty-five per box, with five different designs; one of which was a Santa. I signed each card, sealed them in the unmarked white envelopes, and delivered them to each customer’s door.

The next day, Mr and Mrs. Murphy met me at the door and invited me in. They wanted to tell me how happy they were to have received the card. It was the one with Santa. The dear couple explained how they’d had a son, long ago, who had died; he was just in his twenties He had a particular fondness for Santa Claus. They explained how important Santa was in their son’s life, and it was very much apart of the bond they all shared together. The details are lost to me now, but when they opened my Santa card, it touched their hearts and brought back joyful memories of their beloved son.

A random deed on my part was a sacred blessing on theirs. It’s one of those “God things”, I believe. God knows the details of our loves and our losses, our joys and our tears. And He can move within the simplest things we may do, and bring a blessing to a heart that so desperately needs it.

For the four Christmases during which I served those paper routes, and without advanced planning by me, the Murphy’s always got the Santa Claus in their door.

South Baltimore Travel Log

As a boy, growing up in South Baltimore, I had two newspaper routes. I delivered the News American to the front door of every one of my 114 customers. I got strong cycling legs from this; carrying about 35- 40 pounds of newspapers nestled on a two-inch wide strap, diagonally positioned across the front of my body like a sash. I walked briskly for about 45 minutes to an hour everyday; up five steps, down five steps, over and over. I often had face to face contact with folks, got to hear their stories, and enjoyed, (unbeknownst to me) a practical course in pastoral care.

Many of my customers- my neighbors- were older than my parents. I would often have five minute chats with one who had a surgery coming up; another whose family was struggling with something, and another whose husband could always be found in the bar up the street. His wife said he was at “his office”. They had seven kids, and she always looked frazzled and tired. Yet she always smiled. Never complained.

On those days when the newspaper delivery truck was late, I was late. Mrs. Burke was at her door, waiting for me with an impatient look of disgust. She frustrated me because she was mad at me for something I had no control over.

You ever have an injustice like that? You are unjustly criticized for something you could do nothing to prevent. I was 17 years old by that time. No quite an adult and not quite a kid. I sure couldn’t address this elder woman as an equal nor could I justify my performance with excuses she wasn’t buying and was not interested in hearing. I kind of resented her after awhile.

Then one day, as I reached the steps of their house, her husband came to the door to receive the paper. Sadly he informed me that his wife had cancer and was in the hospital for surgery. I could see the worry in his eyes. As I delivered the rest of my papers, I couldn’t get his face off my mind. And in turn, I could envision her face (with her customary look of disgust at my being late), and pondered.

I had my license by then, so I borrowed Dad’s car and drove across the Hanover Street Bridge to the hospital. Mrs. Burke was as surprised to see me enter her room as I was to be entering it. It was just the right thing to do, and somehow that night, I had the guts to do it. I didn’t know the Bible very well then, and I wasn’t even going to church, but the seeds had been planted long ago in my soul.

I was kind of scared of this woman, so it must have been a God thing behind it; certainly no virtue of my own.

From that time forward, after she came home, she never scowled at me again on those days when I was late. In her kind smile I could see I was being pardoned. And when she died, the family told me how my visit had meant so much to her and that she frequently talked about it.

It’s no wonder that Jesus says that the whole Bible hangs on two main commands: Love God and love your neighbor. I learned how much influence that second one can have on so many people and in so many situations, and for such a very long time. That was forty years ago and it still touches me when I think of it.

Thoughts and Prayers

When I saw the headline about the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27th, I felt like my own family had been attacked; as if I had lost a brother. I don’t have a brother, nor are any of my relatives Jewish, yet this heinous crime felt so personal for me.

Out on my bike in the morning darkness I was reflecting on how when I was a kid in elementary school, Billy the Kid (William Henry McCarty, Jr.) was the only mass killer I’d ever heard of; at least the most well known. Now the list keeps growing, as mass shootings are a somewhat a regular news item across our country.

The same reactions follow; calls for gun laws, complaints against the divisive tone of our political discourse and social media posts. And the well worn, familiar line: “Our thoughts and prayers are with…” But that no longer cuts it. People are a bit annoyed when they hear it. Yet that line brushes up pretty close to the real issue with which are being confronted more and more.

People want the legislators to legislate a solution , and the President to say unifying and consoling things. But the issue is not the gun. It is the heart of the one who’s turning that gun against the innocent. It’s the same issue with the guy who’s been mailing pipe bombs to prominent political leaders. No gun there; but the same evil intent.

We know the familiar debate about removing guns versus having good guys with guns so they can defend against the bad guys with guns. On and on it will go, as we continue to avoid the deeper issue.

Thoughts and prayers” brush up against that boundary of the spiritual realm.

Ever notice that the media perks up when a president or other high level leader calls the act or even the perpetrator himself “evil”. You see, if there is evil, then there has to be “good” somewhere as well. And the good leads to God, the One who defines what “evil” is. How can you discern the difference between good and evil unless there is a standard? And that standard didn’t evolve out of nothing. Someone had to declare it and make it known. But we don’t want to go there, because if we start admitting there is a God to Whom we all must give an account, then that begins to offend certain people’s sensibilities.

God’s word through the prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? (Jeremiah 17:9).

Right there is where the problem lies. But it is also the great equalizer. It is describing a universal condition which exists in everyone with a heart . The “good” and the “bad”, the Democrats and the Republicans; even the Independents, the Green Party, and everyone else. Every one of us has a heart condition.

Both the problem and the solution lies within the hearts of all sides. If we could calm down and look at each other from that perspective, that we are equally responsible on all sides for the direction our culture is heading, then there will be no sides when it comes to the essentials of being a community, a nation.

No I will not even consider taking a firearm and mowing down people I strongly disagree with. And probably, neither will you. But what positive thing am I doing to counter the negative I see and hear? Often doing nothing good is about as harmful as doing something bad.

Writing from prison to his church family in Philippi, Paul tucks in two lines referencing a conflict there.

I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. And I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel.. (Philippians 4:2-3a).

He doesn’t describe the sides of the debate, but emphasizes the necessity of these two women to work it out and get on the “same page” with each other. And he asks the “true companion” to whom he’s writing to help them bridge their differences. The whole body was being affected by the tension between these two.

The cause of the whole community was more important than the sides of a debate that’s long been lost to history. What do we see here? Paul valued the women themselves and the unity which they had all enjoyed and ultimately longed for.

Don’t we all?

One nation under God: E pluribus unum: “Out of the many, one”

Yorktown and Now

I was at a four day conference in Lightfoot, VA, just up the road from Williamsburg. The route into town was the same one taken by General George Washington and Comte de Rochambeau on their journey to Yorktown, in September, 1781.

Washington would later say that French naval superiority was the “pivot upon which everything turned “ preventing British General Cornwallis from receiving aid or effecting an escape from the Yorktown peninsula. Thus, October 19, 1781, the American Revolution was won and the United States was free and independent of Great Britain’s power.

I rode my bike through Williamsburg and on to Yorktown, pondering what that time must have been like for all those troops and sailors. When I entered the now National Park grounds at Yorktown, the neatly mowed remains of the British army’s earth works were the first thing I saw.

I rode into the village area and saw the monument that was set up a century after the victory and was dedicated by President Chester Arthur. With the beautiful blue sky in the background and the York River beyond the bluff, it was so quiet and solemn. This is a sacred place where an amazing world-changing event occurred. Having just come from the most divisive Senate hearing on a Supreme Court nominee I’ve ever seen, this place begs for attention. I stood at the base of the monument and thought to myself, the whole U.S. Congress needs to take a field trip down here. It quietly says, “Remember from whence you have come.”

Perhaps every newly elected (and re-elected) federal official needs to have an orientation session at Yorktown. The shameful behavior of elected leaders (of both parties) cuts to the heart when I remember the great hardships and sacrifices of the 18th century version of the “greatest generation”. Soldiers who had no shoes, who went for months without pay, poorly fed, often sleeping on the ground, in the rain and heat, and yet standing firm. Compare our comfortable millionaire legislators and billionaire president to George Washington who served his entire term as Commander in Chief of the Army for no pay.

The monument describes the surrender of the world’s greatest military power of that time.

The British surrendered “…TO HIS EXCELLENCY GEORGE WASHINGTON, COMMANDER IN CHIEF OF THE COMBINED FORCES OF AMERICA AND FRANCE,

TO HIS EXCELLENCY COMTE DE ROCHAMBEAU, COMMANDING THE AUXILIARY TROOPS OF HIS MOST CHRISTIAN MAJESTY IN AMERICA,

AND TO HIS EXCELLENCY COMTE DE GRASSE, COMMANDING IN CHIEF THE NAVAL ARMY OF FRANCE IN CHESAPEAKE.”

Wow, did you see that? Washington was referred to as “His Most Christian Majesty in America”. Can you imagine who would gather and protest around this monument today? They’ve probably never read it.

I rode through the streets of the little town and down to the beach, where children played in the water and people walked their dogs on the brick promenade. So peaceful and beautiful. Yet out there in the river, are the sunken hulls of ships that fought battles and fired cannons at this shore line. Death and destruction, fire and smoke, the smell of gunpowder, and the stress of a 19 day siege of this small town; it all plays through my mind as I look out at the peaceful and nicely manicured place it is today.

Do we take our peace and freedom for granted? As I stand where great yet unknown men and women stood over two centuries ago, I wonder what they would say about what we are doing with the legacy they left to us?

When Down is Looking Up

As a pastor, I have a front row view of the hardship and suffering that happens in people’s lives. The diseases, the accidents, and the unforeseen tragedies that occur can alter the course of a family, a marriage, a career, and certainly the life of the one experiencing the trial.

Some say that God puts some people flat on their back to make them look up. Perhaps so; some people need a little kick in the backside to wake them up to what’s before them. But on most occasions, I think it’s just life. The rains fall on both the good and the bad.

Funny how we see a tragedy or hear a shocking diagnosis and we immediately jump to value judgments; whether this person deserved this or not. Who can say that?

I have learned great lessons from people who have known suffering. They often have a sharper eye for blessings. When you’re having a bad time, do you find yourself paying closer attention to how good you have it as well?

The wise person who loves the Lord has learned to not put the roots of their soul in earthly things which can, and eventually do, pass away. Their roots are in God and they see everything else as a gift to receive and not an entitlement or a possession to be owned.

It’s much easier to lose count of our innumerable blessings than it is to take inventory of the things we think we own. Treasures on earth are so easy to lose, but treasures in heaven are forever.

As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:34).

To Boldly Go

We scheduled a family vacation trip to Milwaukee to visit our oldest daughter, Elizabeth.  She is working there and living with a friend's family over the summer.  Marcella suggested I begin the trip westward on my bike, then she and Joanna (our 14 year old) would rendezvous with me at the end of the week, when they would depart from home.  I was rather excited about making the ride.

I left on Monday, July 16.  Our rendezvous date would be on Saturday, the 21st.  How far could I get on my new Raleigh road bike in six days?  Toledo, Ohio was my original goal.

  I left at 5:30 am from our home in Clear Spring, arriving at the Western Maryland Rail Trail (W.M.R.T) in Big Pool at 6 am, as the rising sun was brightening up the area.  I remembered back in 1998 when this trail was built, right near the parsonage where we had lived.  As I rode along the black top, I remembered a day, not so long ago, when our toddler Elizabeth, was walking by my side, holding my hand .  Proudly she declared, "I walk with Daddy!"

Now, I was riding this road on my way to see our young adult, college student.  I hoped she will still would want to walk with Daddy through these next chapters of her life.

In Hancock, over breakfast at the truck stop, I opened my Bible to seek a word for the day.    On these rides I often ask God if I am where He wants me to be, doing what He wants me to do. I want my life to matter, to make a difference in the world.  Turning to Psalm 131,  I come back to earth.

"Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty.  Neither do I concern myself with great matters, nor with things too profound for me.

Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with his mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me..." (Psalm 131:1-2)

What great things does a child worry over?  With what grand ideas does a weaned child concern himself?  Contentment in the arms of the one who loves him.  When I ride, I know I am in the arms of my loving Heavenly Father.

I ride by myself, but I am never alone.  And with that I am content.

After riding the 22 mile length of the WMRT from Big Pool to Pearre,  I headed into dirt and rock roads toward Cumberland, which I eventually entered via Route 51.  So, nice and quiet and peaceful on these back roads.

Needing  water, I stopped at a little country store for a drink.  Harry Shryock, owner and proprietor, invited me to sit a spell and cool off.  He is a World War Two veteran, having served in Germany.  He told me about those times.  The German soldiers were boys just like he was.  

He started his store "from scratch" in 1947 with his wife.  At her passing last year, they had been married well over 60 years.  He talked about about how things have changed.  This current generation doesn't like to work, he said.

Then, I encountered Tiffany.  When I got to my hotel in Cumberland, she checked me in.  Later she called my room to be sure I was satisfied with everything.  Later she personally came up to my door with a bag of snacks and a bottle of water, a special welcome gift.  Harry needs to meet Tiffany.

It's a good day.  I am with God and with my bike.  And I am content.

 

These Honored Dead

I have enjoyed exploring our great country from the saddle of my bicycle for many years.  I especially have enjoyed the small towns where there is a diner or local coffee shop where the "elders" of the community gather.

It doesn't matter what town or in what state, there is a gathering place where people with long histories of doing life together meet.  In Knightstown, Indiana, four men and a woman were seated at a table in the local donut shop.  Eighty-two year old Mervin Kilmer saw me admiring the nearby veterans memorial.  He came over to invite me to join them for their regular Monday morning breakfast.  This is where all the problems of the world are solved, he told me.  He's probably more right about that than most folks would consider.

When It Looks Impossible

In the Gospel of Luke, the angel Gabriel promised a teenager, a virgin, named Mary that she would give birth to a Son; the Son of God, Jesus.   Joseph would be his stepdad.  How could this be?  He told her that her relative, Elizabeth, a woman well past childbearing age, was already six months pregnant (with her son, John the baptizer).

These common, ordinary women, were part of something bigger than themselves or their expectations of themselves.  Impossible stuff!

Trophies and Their Stories

I have accumulated a lot of trophies over the years; especially as a kid and a teenager.  Baseball, oratorical contests, and even a citizenship award. In later years they were all clutter to me, and so I disposed of them.  But one small trophy remains.

It was my first trophy.  A marble block with a gold plated plastic cyclist mounted on top; first place for a bike race I won when I was nine years old.  It was at Federal Hill in South Baltimore, on the circular drive that is now covered over for a playground.  In that park, twenty years after that milestone race, I proposed to Marcella.  And then, twenty years after that, that bicycle was proudly ridden by our eleven year old daughter, Elizabeth.  What a story it could tell.

Seeing What You See, But Missed

Do you get so used to having blessings at your disposal that you forget how blessed you are?

I love to explore historical places and imagine what life was like for those who came before us.  I am especially into George Washington these past few years.  After a long hot bike ride one day, as I was enjoying a well-earned hot shower, I got to thinking:  "George Washington probably never got to enjoy a hot shower."  They had tubs; the water would be hauled up from a creek or well, and heated on a fire.  And it was the slaves who did that; I doubt he handled that himself.  And for all the work they did to prepare his bath, they likely never had that benefit for themselves.

Confusing Activity With Accomplishment

Saint Simeon Stylites achieved notability in the 5th century AD for living 37 to 47 years (accounts differ) on top of a small platform near Aleppo in Syria. He started on one that was nine feet off the ground, gradually increasing the height till he was on one that was fifty feet up.  Though he was an ascetic monk who sought to get away from people so that he could pray and meditate, more people were drawn to him because of his unusual practice. When he died on September 2, 459 AD, a disciple of his found him stooped over in prayer.  Apparently as he was seeking God in prayer, he left his body and this earthly life to speak with Him in person.

The Illusion That Eludes You

For much of my life I had been a perfectionist.  And I suffered for it greatly. So often I missed the fun of trying something different because I was afraid I would do it wrong.  I couldn't accept that just enjoying the attempt is a kind of perfection all its own.  How so? 

Perfection,  particularly in the biblical sense, simply means completion.  When you attempt worthy things or just have fun trying out, there's a perfecting process going on that stretches your boundaries, challenges your comfort zones, and makes you a more complete version of you.

Starve the Darkness

After dropping off my daughter at a program in downtown Hagerstown, I went to my "field office" at Starbucks to do some work.  But when I arrived, I discovered that I had brought none of it with me.  After scolding myself for this mistake in planning, I realized that it wasn't a mistake.

I have learned that these unscheduled twists to my routine are often a message from heaven; that there was something else for me to do-- and somewhere else I needed to be. And it occurred to me that the place was downtown; so I went back.

Spoiled By The Blessings

Do you get so used to having blessings at your disposal that you forget how blessed you are? 

Do you have food in your cupboard?  Does clean water run from your faucet?  Do you realize that in the United States, even in the wealthier ones like Maryland, that there are still people living in houses that don't have indoor plumbing?  Do you believe that you are entitled-- that you have rights--to these things.  Well, there's a spoiled attitude right there.  Not that this is wrong; it just is. 

Things Are Not Always as They Seem

Many years ago, I was riding my ten speed bike on a long tour through Western Maryland into West Virginia.  My bike was carrying about 35 lbs in the rear panniers.  Heading home over the Catoctin Mountains, I'd had ridden through a series of long climbs and fast descents.  I was a bit worn, as the late summer rains began to fall. Turning onto a long road that would lead me beyond the grand hills to a roller coaster of ups and downs for miles to come, I saw a yellow diamond shaped warning sign through the rain drops.