Sunday, July 31, 2011

Clearing the Streets

One night in my early 20’s, long before the GPS, I was following a sales lead, which led me into a Baltimore neighborhood I had never been in before.  I did have a map of the city, but I felt the streets I was on weren’t matching up with what I was reading on the big fold-out.  I eventually found the home, but I didn’t make the sale.  I could have asked for directions from the couple I was trying to sell, but I didn’t want to seem so foreign to them.  So I drove off, but again I was lost within a few blocks.  My inner map wasn’t serving me at all, but then my inner compass clicked on.  I was southwest, and I wanted to get northeast.  But how do I do that?  And suddenly my father’s voice was telling me again, “The city is a grid.  If you’re lost but you know which basic direction you are, you can find where you want to go by remembering one thing—Charles Street runs north and south and Northern Parkway runs east and west, and they both cut through the city.  So when you’re lost, start driving in the basic direction you want to go; and when you dead end, turn right and then make the next left and follow that until it dead ends.  Keep doing that and eventually you’ll hit Charles or Northern…and you’ll know where you are.”  And so I began the pattern.  And fifteen minutes later, I saw the sign for South Charles, and I was back in my comfort zone.  Back on the right path because of what my father had learned having gone before me all those years ago.
Getting lost was my fault really; I should have prepared for the drive as my father would have, by actually preparing.
My dad would have made a good Indian scout, had Baltimore City been his reservation.  He knew the ins and outs and all the nuances of getting around in his city, as he liked to call it, with a real sense of ownership and pride.  His familiarity with his city grew from continual exploration from the moment in his youth he could stretch his independence to the next street, the next block, the next neighborhood.  First on foot, then on a scooter made from the wood slats of an old orange crate and the wheels off a busted skate, graduating to biking on a bike he borrowed from his friend Dottie, and then finally bus and car.  He would follow one street as far as it would go.  And when it ended, he would cut over one street and follow it all the way back, eventually working his way across Baltimore’s woven streets.  He always felt it was important to know his immediate world around him.  Perhaps it gave him a sense of comfort, or it spared him from wasting time later, or maybe it was for an escape.  Regardless, this knowledge, and dare I say skill, served him, and my sister and me, very well.
Although we ended up living in the next county over, once my sister and I were old enough to drive, we were often back in Baltimore, visiting, playing, and eventually working.  When either of us would begin to drive to our new jobs, we figured we would just hop on the interstate and head south to whatever exit we would need.  When we said this, my father would shake his head at our ignorance.  The interstate was always “dangerously” fast.  Backed up.  Unreliable.  Something, of course, we hadn’t anticipated; but surely, in our youthful arrogance, we knew we could navigate.  So, without fail, a few days before a job would start, Dad would say, “C’mon, we’re going to make a dry run.  There’s a better way.” 
He had already gone ahead to investigate the right path for us, not too fast, continual movement, least chance for stopping in a backup.  And now he would put us on that path.
In Deuteronomy 31:8, Moses prepares Joshua as his successor, before all of Israel, with these words of comfort: “It is the Lord who goes before you.  He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”  This assurance from Moses is not exclusive to Joshua.  The promise is that God is with us, always and everywhere.  But not just in the present; he is also ahead of us, down the road, scouting a path for us, the right path.  Because Moses assures “He will be with you,” the implication is that even when we don’t see God He is still there.  We should be at peace that God’s presence is not in our control; it just always is, around us, ahead of us, working for us…whether we like it or not.  I came to find that that’s just how my father worked.
When I was kid, one of my closest playmates, Chris, lived in an apartment in the same Victorian house where we rented ours.  The convenience was fantastic, to me.  But to my dad, not so much.  Chris wasn’t a bad kid; he just followed some impulses where most of us would listen to our inner voices when they told us, “Don’t do that.”  But Chris was my friend, and as a result I would too often follow Chris into situations that may have been less than legal, or be a little more destructive than desired, or trespass in areas where we weren’t very welcomed.  In short, when I played with Chris, I got into trouble a bit too much. 
We liked playing together so much that we thought things could only be better if each school year we were in the same class.  Then, obviously, we could play that much more.  But, at the end of each summer, when class lists were posted on the bulletin board in the foyer outside the gym, so students and parents could drop by and see a few weeks in advance which class you were in, not once was Chris’ and my names listed in the same class.  We figured eventually that the luck of the draw would work out in our favor.  No such luck.  It wasn’t just that we wanted to play during the school day, but there was probably a fear that the other may find another friend to play with without the other there to run interference.  Which is just what happened.  Even though we lived in the same house, we still managed to part ways, and eventually Chris moved away.
Years later, I was recalling my grammar school angst, wondering out loud to my dad what had ever happened to Chris.  It was at that moment my father confessed to me that it was because of him Chris and I had never shared a class.  “Each summer I would go to the school and ask that you two not be put in the same class,” he admitted.  “I just felt that if you two were in the same class, well, let’s just say I don’t think you would have had the same opportunities for success.” 
Without retracting my jaws at the hinge, I couldn’t have hung my mouth open any farther.  “Are you kidding me?” I demanded.  I was stunned, my mind quickly computing the degree of my father’s betrayal.  I mentally played out some of the fun and hijinks Chris and I could have shared.  And slowly I began to realize, in spite of myself, that he was right.  I wouldn’t have gotten a thing done except be sent regularly to the principal’s office.  I eventually admitted to my dad that he was right, begrudgingly. 
What I would have resented as a child, I now realize is what I value about my dad, his presence in my life.  Which is still felt, whether it’s guiding me as I raise my children, or whether he’s speaking to me when I’m lost on back streets.  But what I value most is not just what I saw and heard from him, but especially what I couldn’t see from him—when he was clearing a path, farther down the road. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Presence of the Sun

A couple of weeks ago, Grace, my seven year old, sang the part of Goldilocks in her first play, Character Matters.  It was the culmination of a two-week drama camp.  On opening night, the curtain opened and the cast was in two lines on the hot, brightly lit stage, staring out at wide-eyed parents and grandparents, siblings and aunts and uncles.   My daughter stood there, red-cheeked with two braided pony-tails, and wearing a blue and red polka-dotted dress.  Immediately, I could tell she was a little uncomfortable.  She has this way of pulling her chin a little toward her shoulder and lowering her eyes, and she’ll start to bite her lower lip.  Her eyes were scanning the audience.  She couldn’t find us.  Although I felt like standing on the chair and yelling, “Grace, here we are!” as I pointed to me and her mother, I didn’t want to draw too much attention to us and embarrass her.  So I craned my neck and gave a little wave in front of my face.  And then she found us.
Grace smiled and her shoulders eased and she stood up straight.  I could see the tension ebb from her just because she saw her mother and me.  All she seemed to need was our presence to comfort her, as if our sitting there was enough for her to be able to say to herself, I’m not alone.  I can do this.  The people who love me most are with me.  And that makes everything okay. 
I was filled with joy.  Seeing her up there.  And seeing what her mother and I meant to her.  I hope we always mean that to her.  I know firsthand of what that kind of presence in life can mean.
While playing tag out front one afternoon with Stephanie, a little girl who lived three doors down, she tags me and I run after her.  She runs inside and shuts the door.  As she shuts the door, I reach out to tag her back.  The door shuts on my right index finger, almost cutting the top of it completely off; it hangs on by a piece of skin, and I can actually see into my own finger.  Everyone is freaking out—her folks are yelling, and my mom is shaking my hand and yelling back, and I’m scared to death.  The ambulance pulls up.  I had never seen one.  Its spinning lights and blaring siren fading to a stop seem to buttress my shock and fright.  I can feel the heat of the ambulance and the rising temperature from the increase in bodies surrounding me.  Speculations of my prognosis are already ping-ponging across the huddled crowd.  I look again at my four-year-old finger, wondering how much longer I’ll have it.  I’m not even crying, just breathing harder than I ever have.  There’s only one thing I want, and so I ask, “Where’s Daddy?”
Sitting in the back of the ambulance, I see his car rounding the bend in the distance.  Everything else disappears into periphery as he pulls up in his blue station wagon.  He gets out.  Walks over.  Takes my hand.  Eyes up my finger.  And says, “Oh yeah, they’ll patch that right up.  It’ll be okay.” 
That’s all it took. 
At that moment, I became very calm.  My breathing slowed.  And suddenly everyone around me seemed almost one dimensional.  Because of the shock, my finger ceased to hurt.  The rest of the afternoon, through the x-rays, stitches, and bandaging, seemed to morph into some sort of adventure.  I felt very little fear, all because of one thing: my dad said ‘it’ll be okay.’  Because he had said so, I knew it would be so.  At that age, I had already figured out that my dad never lied; he always told me the truth.  His word was the truth.  It was as dependable as the sun. 
The prophet Isaiah, in Chapter 41, delivers the following assurance from God: “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”  ‘Fear not, for I am with you.’  God’s presence is all that’s needed to alleviate our fear.  To bring about a sense of calm in the turmoil.  Just being there.  Together.  Not alone.  Saying, ‘I’m here.  It’ll be okay.’  And it’s true.  It is true because of what we figure out in our faith—If God says so, then it will be so.  In his presence, it is His word that comforts us.  His word is the truth.  It is a father’s word.  It is as dependable as the sun.
When I was seven, my mother had just divorced my stepfather, and in her despondency, she threatened to move several states away to be near her mother in Kalamazoo.  My sister and I were still living with her then, but we didn’t want to go.  Of course, nor did our father want us to go.  In the three years since he and my mother divorced, my father had remarried and had established a life with our stepmother.  We had created a working routine and were enjoying some feeling of normalcy again.  So when my mother announced that we might be moving, my first thought was not about moving or going to a new school or making new friends; it was how am I going to see my dad.  Behind the scenes, he was already making preparations.
My father had explained to his new wife that wherever his kids go, he goes.  What was most important to him was that he was to be a constant presence in our lives.  And if that meant uprooting his life to follow his children across the world, then that’s what he planned to do.  Without hesitation, my stepmother agreed.  Need be, they would move to Kalamazoo, find an apartment, get new jobs, and continue on as before.
So when I asked my father, “If we move, when will we see you?”  He squared up to me, knelt down, and looked at me eye-to-eye, and said, “Do not worry.  Wherever you go, I will always be there.”  And again, that was all it took. 
Thankfully, my mother decided not to move.  But no matter.  I didn’t care whether we moved or not after that; once my father said he would be with me, and I knew it to be so, my fear drained away.   I must admit that I was a little shocked.  Or was I impressed?  My father was so willing to drop everything and move, just like that, just to be with my sister and me, as if that was the only option.  No decision but to put us first.  It’s a bit overwhelming to realize that someone loves you to that degree.  He did.  
As children, we see our parents as God.  From that first embrace and that first smile and that first feeding, they establish their presence and a trust and a faith that mimics what God’s presence does for us, that presence promised in Isaiah, a presence dependable as the sun.  It makes us safe, and it gives us relief.  It’s strong enough to even help a four-year-old cope with a mangled finger, and losing a game of tag.  It’s strong enough to allow us to sing out in front of strangers.  Strong enough to help us face unknown lands.  

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

No Sacrifice: It’s Just What You Do

When my parents divorced, I was five.  Five years later, my sister and I moved in with my dad and step mother.  During those five years, Dad took us to stay with him every weekend without fail, from Friday after school till Monday morning.  He always had something planned, every weekend…zoo, harbor, picnics at Double Rock park, backyard barbecues.  Sometimes we would just walk through a neighborhood, down a city street, and we’d have an impromptu picnic of perhaps liverwurst sandwiches, cupcakes, and oranges, sitting right there on the curb, between the parked cars.  We loved it.  And in all that time, there was not a single weekend that my dad chose not to have us with him.  He sacrificed his entire social life.  I only mention it because too many fathers leave the picture once they are divorced.  But Dad decided that he never wanted us to feel abandoned, and he wanted to maintain his influence in our lives.  A few years ago, I talked about this with him and I mentioned how that must have been quite a sacrifice.  I asked him if he ever resented all he gave up.  I didn’t ask him in order to judge him; I was just curious.  He said, “There was no sacrifice.  I had two kids.  It’s just what you do.”  

It’s just what you do.

In 1 Timothy, Paul explains, “If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”  This passage lends itself to many interpretations; but in simple terms, to not “provide” for our relatives, in other words to not care for them in the manner needed, is to deny God.  Moreover, we cannot begin to show our love for the world without beginning to show our love for those around us.  “Providing” begins at home.    

As my father spoke, there was no resentment in his voice; he was very matter-of-fact.  And I truly believe that he genuinely did not regret a single day.  In fact, he seemed to stare off a little while he spoke, as if remembering some of those times, maybe some of those curbside picnics.  Although my father didn’t see his life as being full of sacrifice, I saw it as one sacrifice after the other.  He was practiced at it.  But never, not once, was there any hint of regret in his recalling all that he gave up.  Because he never saw it as sacrificing—it’s just what you do.

Perhaps that’s distinction between us: what I see as sacrifice, he saw as providing.  And he was greatly practiced at providing.  Born three years before The Great Depression, my father spent his formative years struggling along with his family to make ends meet, his own father having abandoned his family years earlier.  By the time my dad was 15, he had quit school to work 60 hours a week.  For those 60 hours, Dad earned $14.  He would then give his entire pay to his mother, and she would then give him four dollars.  And every time he retold the story, he would say, “And, man, with that four bucks I was swingin!”  And always as he said “swingin’” he would swing his hand out back and forth, snapping his fingers. He would then launch into all that he could buy in 1941 for four dollars. 

It’s not just his many sacrifices that I shake my head at in some sort of spoiled disbelief; it’s his attitude toward them that strikes me so profoundly.  Whenever he spoke of all he went through in his life, he always told of his lot, not with a sense of woe-was-me, but with a sense of gratitude.  He was always grateful, perhaps stemming from a faith strengthened by any and every grace he received during the Depression, and modeled, perhaps, by his own mother.  Many times I marveled at such gratitude.

In one of three sermons Moses delivers in Deuteronomy, in chapter 28, Moses explains the consequences of serving God with bitterness: “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything.”  The supposition here is that we can choose our attitudes.  Which we can.  Moses is teaching us to serve with joy.  Serve and be glad.  It seems simple, but Moses draws attention to, not just serving God, but serving God with a positive attitude, because it isn’t that easy.  And, there are harsh consequences for not serving joyfully, which is really not the point.  In short, the point is that if we don’t serve God happily, then we’re not serving God at all.  It’s like when I was a child and I broke a friend’s toy and my dad would make me say sorry to the boy.  When I uttered a barely audible ‘sorry’ to the ground, I hadn’t learned a thing; I was just going through the motions of sorryness.  There was no sincere remorse in my heart.  For anything we offer up to be genuine, it must come from the heart.

One could say that my dad had a few jobs in his lifetime.  And from time to time I would ask him for a rundown.  Usually, I would stop him and make him elaborate on three of those jobs, not because of the jobs themselves, but because he held them all at once.  And again, what was so striking was his attitude. 

When I was a baby and my sister was four, my father needed to make extra money to buy the necessities.  He worked full time by day in sales, played music at a local restaurant at night, and picked up the extra crash working part time on an assembly line on the eleven-to-seven shift at a bottling factory. He obviously didn’t want the work, but he felt he needed it until another sales job, for which he had applied, came through.  What I couldn’t believe was his schedule—his shift schedules worked out so that on Thursdays he went to work at 9:00 and then worked the next five shifts between the three jobs until he finished playing the organ on Friday nights,  36 hours of work, stopping only for travel and meals—no sleep.  This went on for a few months. 

“You gotta be kidding me!” I always said, shaking my head, as if to say, Not me, not in a thousand years.    
Again he added, “I had a family to feed—if that’s what it takes, then that’s what you do.”  And he held up his index finger showing one, one point, and then he would say, “You kids never missed a meal, and you never went a day without heat.”  No regret.  No resentment.  No poor me.  Just gratitude.  There was no sacrifice.  It’s just what you do.  And again I would marvel.