Inspiration for Today's World

Category: Stories (Page 2 of 2)

Did You Ever Wonder?

Did you ever wonder where your faith comes from? The question really never meant much to me until one evening, I was trying to organize my thoughts about my mother. She had just passed away and I was to give a “tribute” at her grave side services. Quickly, I found that my thoughts were not centered on some heavy religious doctrine, taught to me from youth. Instead, I found myself reminiscing about the great family stories.

Both my grandmother and grandfather came to the United States from Lithuania. My grandmother came here because she heard the United States was a wonderful place and my grandfather, he came to avoid the draft during the Prussian War. I only met my grandfather once for about five minutes in a hospital; he was ill and dying of cancer. My grandfather chose to abandon his wife and two daughters, taking his son and moving to another city. In a desperate attempt to survive, my grandmother sent her two daughters back to Lithuania to grow up on a relative’s farm near Kaunas. Many years later, as young adults, my mother and her sister would return to the U.S. to continue their lives.

Hill Of CrossesMy life was spent listening to the many stories about Lithuania, life on the farm and the tragic stories of the country’s take over by the Communists. Those stories included my mother’s long walks down the country roads into town and how she and her sister would stop at each of the many crosses along the way to pray. In each of those stories, whether about farm life or the distant relatives I would never know, there was always a sense of pride. With my father’s parents both coming from Lithuania too, it was easy for me to grow up with my own sense of ancestral interest.

There was one very defining story, however, that seemed to open the window to my soul. In Lithuania, there is a place called “The Hill of Crosses” located 12 kilometers north of the small industrial city of Siauliai. Standing upon a small hill are many hundreds of thousands of crosses that represent Christian devotion and a memorial to Lithuanian national identity.

The city of Siauliai was founded in 1236 and occupied by Teutonic Knights during the 14th century. The tradition of placing crosses dates from this period and probably first arose as a symbol of Lithuanian defiance of foreign invaders. Since the medieval period, the Hill of Crosses has represented the peaceful resistance of the Lithuanian faith to oppression. In 1795 Siauliai was incorporated into Russia but was returned to Lithuania in 1918. Many crosses were erected upon the hill after the peasant uprising of 1831-63. By 1895, there were at least 150 large crosses, in 1914, 200 crosses, and by 1940 there were 400 large crosses surrounded by thousands of smaller ones. While Kaunas was not close to Sialuliai, it was easy to see how my mother would have been influenced by these symbols of faith that were so prevalent throughout Lithuanian society.

Hill of Crosses - 3Captured by Germany in World War II, the city suffered heavy damage when Soviet Russia retook it at the war’s end. From 1944 until Lithuania’s independence in 1991, Siauliai was a part of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic of the USSR. During the Soviet era, the pilgrimage to the Hill of Crosses served as a vital expression of Lithuanian nationalism. The Soviets repeatedly removed Christian crosses placed on the hill by Lithuanians. Three times, during 1961, 1973 and 1975, the hill was leveled, the crosses were burned or turned into scrap metal, and the area was covered with waste and sewage. Following each of these desecrations local inhabitants and pilgrims from all over Lithuania rapidly replaced crosses upon the sacred hill. In 1985, the Hill of Crosses was finally left in peace. The reputation of the sacred hill has since spread all over the world and every year it is visited by many thousands of pilgrims. Pope John Paul II visited the Hill of Crosses in September of 1993.

The size and variety of crosses is as amazing as their number. Beautifully carved out of wood or sculpted from metal, the crosses range from three meters tall to the countless tiny examples hanging profusely upon the larger crosses. An hour spent upon the sacred hill will reveal crosses brought by Christian pilgrims from all around the world. Rosaries, pictures of Jesus and the saints, and photographs of Lithuanian patriots also decorate the larger crosses. On windy days breezes blowing through the forest of crosses and hanging rosaries is said to produce a uniquely beautiful music. This rich history was part of my nationality, passed on by the subtle stories by my mother and grandparents. A Lithuania-style cross could always be found on the wall in any of my relatives homes.

My Father on the Day He Left for the Army

As I began to think deeply about my mother’s influence, I came to recognize that in her life, she had learned the gift of simplicity. She had every worldly reason to reject God’s love. Abandoned as a child and sent away across the sea, my mother’s youth was to live almost as an indentured farm hand in Lithuania. Upon returning to the United States, she labored as a servant for a wealthy family. During my birth, she suffered serious medical problems and soon was forced to share her husband with the US Army. I cannot imagine watching my father leave only four weeks after I was born, not to see him again for three years.

My mother never drove an automobile. She had no career. My mother left no worldly legacy. Her focus was always on just serving her family. Her faith was as Jesus says in Matthew 18:3, “faith like a child’s.” In its simplicity was its perfection. My mother trusted in Jesus because it was a worthy truth. In her years of life, I never heard her utter a distrusting word about God. She could not quote you Scripture but she did not have to. She just believed because it was true. In today’s world, that is a rare claim, to have asked nothing of God accept to serve Him. Even in her later years that were filled with pain, never a distrusting word.

Mom-SonAs I laid to rest, the ashes of my mother next to those of my father, all of their dreams, all they had accumulated in life, all of their goals, and all of the accomplishments were now to be measured in how well her family understood her simple faith, the faith of a child. I do not know how my mother passed her faith on to me, but she did and I will eternally thank her. They call my parent’s generation the “Greatest Generation.” And now I know why. In spite of hardship, war, and constant sacrifice, they still knew and loved God. With all the abundance of my own generation and the generation of my children, our greatest prayer must be to simply say one day, “we knew God and and we love Him.” My challenge now is to recognize the “crosses by the roadside,” stopping in reverence and prayer. God is everywhere but unless we stop, we miss the simplicity of His gift of salvation.

Hitting the Wall

brick-wallIt had been a good career move. I relocated my family to Michigan to join a startup company developing manufacturing software. In the late 60’s, software was a risky business. Computer systems were hundreds of thousands of dollars and the return on investment was a difficult sell within most organizations. But the concept of renting time and free software was well received in the market and it paved the way for compounded growth of over 20% per year, year after year after year. The company had become a shining star in the venture capital world. Egos ran high after Fortune Magazine placed it in the top ten most successful startup companies in U.S. history. After going public, the company was purchased by a larger firm. To someone chasing the dream, this is the rainbow’s end, the pot of gold. As a senior manager, I had sacrificed time with my family, time with my wife, traveled heavily for years expecting to enjoy this victory.

Success, however, turned out to be a fleeting thing. The new owners quickly recognized that growth was slowing and replaced many of the department heads with their own. I was moved from being the architect of the product marketing strategy to someone viewed as having old ideas and expendable. After 13 years, each day was to be filled with high rollers, the outsiders, transplanting the very ideas that created the success with their “unethical” and “short-sighted” strategies to pump up revenues. It would have been easy just to leave but when there is so much of your life and sacrifice in a job, one errors to the conservative side and I still had hope. You might say that the new managers were right and I just had sour grapes. Yet when hard work, quality and truth build success, it is hard to accept that deception and cutting corners are the right answers.

Being goal-oriented, I began to reflect upon my life and decided that what I needed to do is find a very personal challenge, succeed in it and then I would regain my self-esteem. The key work here is “self.” I was still very much in charge of my life and with some introspective thought, I decided to train and run a marathon. Why a marathon? Well, I had often jogged to stay in shape. It was the one exercise you could do consistently while traveling. I had also spent time studying runners. After some research, I determined that in running a marathon:

  • No matter how gifted you are the marathon is a sport that requires planning and practice to achieve the goal.
  • Unlike team sports that derive enthusiasm and energy from a group, the marathon runner must overcome the constant, lonely urge to just stop and end the pain. This is only learned through introspection and experience.
  • While knowledge is an attribute of a skilled runner, and reading many books written by other runners adds to one’s insight, it is ultimately the will of a person that determines whether they cross the finish line 26.2 miles later.
  • Therefore, the marathon teaches that to finish requires the embodiment of a vision, self-discipline and, as the gun goes off, a belief that one will succeed.

Yes, a marathon it would be. Training began with runs each day. Living in Michigan also had its challenges in winter. On frigid nights, I would run on a small indoor track at the local college. Days became weeks and weeks became months. On an average, I would run 12 miles a day. Short days were 6 miles and long days over 20 miles. Through the cold of winter, the rain of spring and the heat of summer, I averaged two hours each day running. I cannot even estimate how much pain and discomfort it all caused me. My weak bone structure would cause my feet to blister badly. My uneven gate would make my ankles and knees swell. I was so driven to accomplish this goal that I can recall one winter run when my right foot began to ache, I packed snow in my sweat socks to stop the pain. Yes, I was driven to overcome what I was not getting from my career. I needed to be in charge and accomplish great things again.

When you put so much time into running, you spend a lot of time alone. I spent about two hours a day thinking about how life was treating me. Early in my running, I would give a passing thought to my life but would enjoy the neighborhoods as I ran through them. As the time of each run increased and as the requirement to concentrate grew, I really think this time became my first attempt at prayer. It was a time that I could reflect on my life, the things I sacrificed to achieve what I had done up to that point, to feel sorry for myself because of the unfair circumstances in my life and complain to God. I often asked the question, “What is it you want from me God?” In the 18 months to get ready for the marathon, there were many hours of prayer and many questions to God. In all of that time, I don’t recall receiving any answers. If I did, I was too busy listening to myself to hear Him.

As the time for the race grew near, I began to work out with weights three times a week. I would run down to the local high school and use their track to do speed work. And to complete my knowledge base, I joined the local track club for further training and coaching. Each weekend throughout the last six months of training, I would travel around the local area and run in charity events. If you could trade running tee shirts for bricks, I could have built a house. Did I tell you I was obsessed? Well, I was convinced that with planning, effort and determination, I could once again achieve great things. It was a shame that this was another solution that kept me from my children’s lives and from spending time with my wife. It was a focus on “self” once again.

bob-marathon-noThere I was on October 3, 1982, standing in Windsor, Ontario. There were over 5,000 other people all stretching and anticipating the start of the Detroit Free Press Marathon. This race has the unique distinction to be the only race that starts in one country (Canada) and finishes in another, Detroit’s Belle Isle in the U.S. For October, it was a warm day. My wife had come and dropped me off and drive back to the finish the finish line. She has been at my “finish line” every time I have ever needed her. The track club had insisted I wear the club colors. This was a real honor since one of the club members was a premier runner and would place third in the race. The gun went off and my moment of truth had begun.

The race quickly leaves Windsor through the tunnel and meanders through the city of Detroit. Crowds lined the street and their cheers were medicine to my soul. To plan for such a long time, to work and train so hard, to have sacrificed so much and then to actually be in the race was an emotional high. Crowed lined the streets and cheered the runners on. As the race wound itself through Greek Town, I was approaching the magical 20-mile mark. For those who do not know about distance running, this is the point in one’s running where the glycogen in the muscles is expended and the body must begin to burn fat for energy. It is commonly known as “the wall.” The wall is very real. I often have described it, as running through a marshmallow that was two miles thick. My legs, arms and every part of my body had to do extra work for what was easy to do just a few minutes earlier. The pain began to grow and for the first real moments of the race, I wasn’t sure that I could finish. As the struggle with stopping began to supersede every other thought and emotion, I reached my lowest point I have ever reached in my life.

The collapsing of a dream quickly drove me to God. I could not go on without His help. It was a frightening moment because this is the first time in my life that I heard God’s answer. Not with voices from the city streets or the sky above, but a subtle whisper. “You are not in charge, I am!” In that moment of imparted wisdom, I finally understood I was to give my life to God first. It is a concept that we all hear about. I had been raised a Catholic and even attended a parochial school for a while. Yet to hand over control of one’s life is something I could intellectualize but never internalize. Crying as I struggled with the thought of failure, I was desperate for some kind of help. I cannot tell you how long I ran in that condition. A short time later, God handed me a fantastic gift. He handed me my greatest weakness and with it let me use it as strength.

bob-marathonBy now I must have convinced you that I am an obsessive person. My weakness was that I could not have lived with failure. Had I stopped, I would have had to prepare again for another marathon. Those long hours, those long runs, the thought finishing now was energizing. I could not bear the thought of having to do this again just to get past my ego. Soon I was running up the bridge to Belle Isle and came up to the two miles to go mark. It was the first time I knew that I could finish and it was when I saw my wife. She cheered me on like she always has done as I entered my last mile to the finish line. It was my fastest mile. Three hours and forty-seven minutes and 30 seconds later, I crossed the finish line in 1812th place. On this day time I had learned humility and encountered what was the most life-changing experience of my life.

The following Sunday, I chose to go to church instead of run. It was the first Sunday other than Easter, Christmas, weddings and funerals that I had been to church in a long time. I chose the church because of my neighbors. During the many months of training, several neighbors had noticed me and began to share their own lives with my family and myself. They all went to one of the neighborhood churches and there was something in each of their lives that attracted me. On that first Sunday, I heard the pastor speak on Romans 5:1-5, where the Apostle Paul explains that life’s troubles promote patience, experiences and builds hope. That was exactly what God did for me. He took my career and all of its troubles, crafted my experiences to get my attention and guided me to an eternal decision to place God first in my life. Fifteen more years of running took its toll and I cannot run any more, but that’s OK. I now give my Sunday’s to God and give Him the rest of the week too.

A Road Trip

walloomIt was the late 80’s and I found myself accepting a job with a start up company in New Hampshire. It was a second childhood as sorts because I decided to lease a 2-seat sports car in Illinois before starting the new job. My wife and I decided it would be fun to drive the new car to the East Coast ourselves, taking a road trip through Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont and then into New Hampshire. The drive was fun and we wound our way through the hills and mountains. The weather was perfect and one evening, we found ourselves in Bennington Vermont.

Bennington was a primary gateway to Vermont for those entering from the west. It is the third largest community in the State. Nestled between two beautiful mountain ranges, the Taconics on the west and the Green Mountains on the east, the beautiful Walloomsac River flows through the community. The Town is strategically located in the southwestern portion of Bennington County, directly adjacent to New York State and only 14 miles away from Massachusetts.

hotelReady for a stop, we found a unique Inn located on the main highway into town. There we came upon the Walloomsac Inn. Built in 1764 the Walloomsac is the oldest Inn in the state of Vermont. The Walloomsac was originally owned and operated by five different families. The Deweys, Albros, Hicks, Robinsons, and the Sanford’s owned the Inn until 1891 when Walter Berry bought it and added the large side wing along the road. The separate rear section housed the help and the laundry. There are also barns in the rear for livestock and horses. Many famous people have stayed in the Walloomsac throughout the years including President Rutherford B. Hayes and President Benjamin Harrison. It was an easy decision to stay the night in Bennington.

bigoldfirstAfter dinner, we walked through the town and eventually found ourselves back at the Inn. Across the street was the First Congregational Church of Bennington. The church was designed by Lavius Fillmore and built in 1805. This church is the second meetinghouse of Vermont’s oldest Protestant religious organization that started in 1762. In 1937 the Old First Church was remodeled to include a new altar and the removal of a mysterious side door that was located on the right side of the church and had no apparent use. In 1937 the church was renamed as Vermont’s Colonial Shrine. What we found of most interest, however, was the cemetery adjacent to the church. The cemetery contained the graves of so many of the citizens who contributed to so much to the founding of Bennington and Vermont. It also contains the graves of Robert Frost and approximately 75 revolutionary war patriots as well as British and Hessian Soldiers killed in the Battle of Bennington. The site of Ethan Allen’s home is on the border of the cemetery.

benncemIt was a pleasant evening and we took our time to walk through the cemetery. At first, I must admit that its age and significance did not register with me. Here I was walking among the final resting places of those who not only envisioned America but also fought and died to bring that vision to reality. It was not long before I began to read the epitaphs of those people. The city had honored those who participated in those early battles by attaching a small brass plaque to each stone marker. Quickly, I began to grasp the humility and unselfishness of those people. The concept of sacrifice for freedom was threaded throughout the cemetery.

That night we returned to the Inn and as the evening ended, had time to reflect on all of what we found that day. It was clear to me that almost to a person, the people who founded American intended God to be a critical part of everyone’s life. Missing from their final words were the denominational messages of divisiveness. Imbedded in stone for all of history to reflect upon was the great sacrifice each gave so that God would be “in” America. The next time you see someone attempt to be politically correct by stripping God from our country, remember the little town of Bennington. No one could walk through the cemetery at the Old First Church and not be drawn to understand that God was and must remain the cornerstone of our country.

Epitaphs

It would have been a nice end to the story about a “Road Trip” if I had taken photographs of the Bennington Cemetery stones or even written down those moving messages. However, I did not do either. To help give you a feel for what you can find, there are several sources that you can explore for New England epitaphs of the same period in history. One source is the Internet and the other, a book written by Jane Greene entitled “Epitaphs to Remember.”

Newbury, Massachusetts

Here lys ye body of Mr Daiel Noyes Who Died March ye 15th 1716
Aged 42 yrs
4 mos & 16 days

As you were, so was I God did call
and I did dy Now Children all whos
name is Noyes Make Jesus Christ
Your only choyes.

Madison, Connecticut

Capt. E. Griffin, 1767

The Boreas’ blasts and Boistrous
waves Have tost me too and fro In
spite of both, by God’s decree I
harbor here below. While I do now
At Anchor ride With many of our
Fleet Yet once again I must set
Sail My Admiral Christ to meet.

Boston, Massachusetts

Major John Pitcairn

Fatally wounded
while rallying the Royal Marines
at the Battle of Bunker Hill
was carried from the field to the boats
on the back of his son
who kissed him and returned to duty.
He died June 17 1775 and his body
was interred beneath this church.

Ridgefield, Connecticut

In defense of American Independence
At the battle of Ridgefield, Apr. 27, 1777
Died Eight Patriots
Who were Laid in These Grounds Companioned by
Sixteen British Soldiers;
Living, Their Enemies
Dying, Their Guests.
In Honor of Service and Sacrifice, this
Memorial is Placed For the
Strengthening of Hearts.

Burlington, Vermont

The Corporeal Part of
Genl. Ethan Allen
rests beneath this stone
the 12th day of Feb. 1789
aged 50 years.

His spirit tried the mercies of his God
In whom alone he believed and strongly trusted.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

John Smith 1786

In Memory of
Me JOHN SMITH
who Departed this Life
Jan’ry 10th 1786
in the 57th Year
of his Age

Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord
that they may rest from their labours

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

John Gorham 1715

HERE LYES THE BODY OF THE
HONOURED JOHN GORHAM, ESQ.
COLL. OF THE REGIMENT AND ONE
OF HIS MAJESTIES JUSTICES OF THE PIEASE
IN THE COUNTY OF BARNSTABLE, WHO
DEPARTED THIS LIFE, NOV. THE 11TH 1715,
IN THE 65TH YEAR OF HIS AGE.

Here Lyes a Valient Soldier and A Saint
A Judge, A Justice, Whom no Vice could taint
A Perfect Lover of His Countrys cause,
Their Lives, Religion, Properties and Laws,
Who in His Young, yea, very Youthful Years,
Took up His Sword, with Philip and His Peers,
And when that Prince and His black Regiment
Were all Subdued, He could not be content
to take West
But in the rest

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

In Memory of Mr
John Thacher he died
Aug’st ye 12th 1799 in
his 60th year

Why should we fear the hour of Death
Since life is but a span
By length’ning out our feeble breath
Are more involved in sin
Here I resign my mortal frame
Submissively to GOD
In hopes to meet a Heavenly Train
Through our Redeemer’s Blood

And my personal favorite:

Thurmont, Maryland

Here lies an Atheist: All Dressed Up and No Place to Go.

A Pet Story

Jasmine

Jasmine

This is a story for people who love pets. It begins with the loss of our family cat, Flower. She had grown up with our children and after fourteen years, God reclaimed her love. In the emptiness that followed, we soon found ourselves with a standard poodle puppy named Shasta. For those not familiar with the standard poodle breed, they are one of the most intelligent, known to have an intellect level approaching a five-year-old child. They are filled with energy, love, very emotional and capable of passing on wisdom. Here goes my story.
Shasta had high energy and a strong will. Capable of jumping my six-foot fence, she began her life eager to run free, play with the children of the neighborhood and quickly fill the void in our hearts. Shasta bonded to us so quickly that within a few short years, she became our third child. My family and I were not prepared for how quickly Shasta left us. On a short family vacation, we had placed her in a kennel where she contracted a virus. An incompetent veterinarian gave Shasta a sedative during an examination and walked away. Her loving heart stopped and we were a family grieving again. I was angry with God for the futility and pain of finding and loosing Shasta in two years and for no apparent reason other than someone’s incompetence.

Our house had been empty only several days when we just could not stand it anymore. We called Shasta’s breeder to inquire about another poodle. The breeder responded that Shasta’s mother could no longer have puppies but she had one puppy left from the last litter. This puppy was not show quality and the breeder was having difficulty finding a home. Sight unseen, we made arrangements to pick up a new puppy. Jasmine was not the typical breeder stock. She had been bottle feed from birth and raised by the children of the breeder. We brought Jasmine home and opened what I must reflect upon was the most enjoyable chapter of my life with pets. As Jasmine’s life unfolded, I began to understand that in every experience God provides us the opportunity to learn. All we need to do is open our eyes.

  • One of the first things I noticed with Jasmine was that I often found myself drawing parallels between my relationship with her and my relationship with God. Sort of a master and servant view of life. I could see God as the master, caring for me as I was caring for Jasmine. Here are just few of the wonderful observations passed on to me.
  • Jasmine was everyone’s best friend. She had an uncanny instinct of knowing how to greet you and when you needed a friend. Her eyes were beautiful and penetrating. For each member of our family, Jasmine learned who we were and what we needed. She took her role as family pet seriously and served with high honors. – God wants us to search out the needs of each person he puts in our lives.
  • Most pets quickly become protective over their food, toys, family and home. Jasmine shared everything in her life with my mother’s two cats, my daughter’s chocolate Labrador retriever, with any child that would spend time with her, with any adult who would extend a friendly hand. Everything Jasmine could lay claim to she did not. – I know this is the very character that God would like to see in me.
  • Jasmine was not perfect. Her puppy years were filled with expensive chew toys like woodwork and my wife’s dress shoes. Yet our family continued to love her after appropriate discipline of course. – God provides discipline, training and most importantly, unconditional love to each of us.
  • No matter how many times I would reassure her that I would be back, I would see her sadly watching me through the front window as I pulled away. Her head would droop, and she would turn away slowly. My wife tells me that every day at five o’clock, Jasmine would walk to the laundry room and take up her watch by the door that led into the garage – the door I always used to enter the house. There she would stand with her nose pressed against door jam, waiting for me to return. She would literally bounce up and down when she heard the garage door open. Is that not what our heavenly Father wants us to do? Does He not want us to long for His return and be made joyous by His return?
  • Jasmine spent a lifetime in pursuit of her folly. She chased squirrels with such focus that it brought her abruptly into fences, doors, trees, shrubbery and, on more than one occasion, the pool. We tolerated her futile efforts with salves and dry towels. – Is this not the very character of our God?
  • There was never a day in her life that she worried whether or not we would feed her, pet her, or protect her from the elements. In fact, her trust was so complete she never took food that was not offered. When our grandson was a toddler, he would wander around with a fist full of cheese – her favorite snack. She would follow him and wait for him to walk away from it, but she never took it from his grasp. She never demanded attention, but was always ready to accept it. She was always ready for adventure and would go anywhere as long as we were with her. Jasmine had turned her life over to us as we are to turn ours to God.

Jasmine lived almost 15 years. She had several serious illnesses but always showed strength and resilience, fighting back. Perhaps this last quality was the most meaningful lesson of all. Her trust was unwavering that we would always do what was right for her. She trusted us completely to know that the arthritis pain and the effort to go on had become too great. The look of trust never left her eyes even as we took her on her last car ride to the veterinarian’s office and held her until she gently slipped away. We can’t help but know this IS the unwavering trust we must strive for with God. The lesson she gave us is that He knows us better than we know ourselves. What He chooses to provide is sufficient for our needs and always exactly what we need. As long as He is with us we can live joyfully and trustingly this adventure called life – even as He brings us to the end of our days.

A Million Dollar View

AppalachiaIt was 1995 and I was out on my second mission trip my church’s youth group.  We had gone up into Kentucky to help repair homes for low-income families.  A group of about 30 of us would spend a week doing construction projects, sleeping on the floor of a local mission and getting to know how fortunate most of us were.  This part of Kentucky was home to some of the poorest families in America.  The mean income was around $400 per month and most support came from state funded subsistence programs.  There were no companies to work at, no farms left to sustain families and very little hope for the people we were trying to help.

My particular project that day was to take a group of teens and apply vinyl siding to a small addition that had been added to a trailer by a prior church group.  But before I get into the story, you need a mental picture of the family we were helping.  The head of the household was a woman in her mid thirties.  Living in a small trailer with her were two children, a daughter age thirteen, a son five and her grandson, age two.  Yes, her thirteen-year-old daughter had a two-year-old son.  In addition to the responsibilities of three children, this woman was also taking care of her mother, who was not in the best of health.  Missing from this picture were any male figures for the family.  No men, no grandfather, no husband, no father for the young boy.  It was a tragic reality in this part of Appalachia that most family structures crumbled along with their economic opportunities.

For our church’s teens, this was a real eye opener.  That day, we would put siding on a small addition that had been added to the trailer and fix a front window so rain would no longer come into the living room.  Most of our ministry in this area was focused on keeping people warm and dry, something that most of us never even give a second thought about.  To watch our young people, fifteen through eighteen, talking with a thirteen-year-old mother, playing with the five year old and holding the two year old, opened eyes and hearts.

And now for the lesson learned that day.  It was easy to get focused on the work that had to be done.  The trailer was on a hillside and safety was a constant concern.  The addition was open over the hillside so we added heavy insulation to keep the cold Kentucky winter off the family’s feet as they walked on the floor.  The siding was placed on and caulked thoroughly to keep the water from penetrating the walls and the front window had to be nailed shut and caulked to seal out the water.  Everyone was busy all day.  As the day progressed, I remember standing in the back yard, looking out over the hill out to the valley below.  You could see for miles that day, right out to the next ridge of hills.  I remember thinking that the view would have been beautiful but a large power line ran through the tree line, right through it.  What a shame I thought, man interrupting nature’s grace.

A tap on my shoulder by the woman who was working so hard to keep her family together interrupted me.  She said, “Isn’t that a million dollar view?  That is why I love it here so much.  I am so fortunate to have this place.” Her words were like a knife, driven right into my soul. Could I have become so arrogant in my own life that my eyes could only see the power lines?  How could I have missed the beauty of the view?  As I thought about what I was asking myself, I realized that in my drive to be successful, my very nature had changed.  I could listen to ten minutes of the loveliest concerto only to have the experience ruined by one static pop in a record.  I could loose interest in my new car when it got its first scratch. Yes, I had become a person that focused on the most minor of items at the expense of all of God’s beauty and His good grace.  I was focused on my perfection, not His.

God was kind to me that day.  He gave me a lesson that has changed every view of Mother Nature into one of beauty.  This lesson has made every song I now hear music to my soul.  It has made me grateful to kneel before His son and thank Him for being in my life.  

 

A Lesson from My Father

1st House on Alexander Rd under ConstructionIn 1943, World War II was in full swing.  Just weeks after my birth, my father was drafted into the Army.  To make ends meet, my mother and I lived with my grandmother until my father’s return in 1946.  Now a family again, my parents moved out of my grandmother’s home into an apartment.  Within a few years, my father had an opportunity to purchase an acre of land in Walton Hills, Ohio.  The land bordered the southern end of the “Emerald Necklace,” a county-wide park system encircling Cuyahoga County’s entire border. It would be many years later that my father’s hard work and saving facilitated the construction of a home on the lot.  At thirteen, I moved out of the inner city of Cleveland and begin a wonderful chapter of my life.

Our home was small, a one bedroom, one bath home with a kitchen and living/dining room. The home had a full basement and a nice staircase leading to the attic.  The attic space would become my bedroom.  It had an unfinished pine floor and insulation neatly stapled into the rafters.  There was one small heating duct that went into the space and two attic vents which whisked away any of the heat during both the summer and the winter. I never remember these times as particularly hard.  A few snowflakes in my room in the winter but it was here that I learned to love a thick comforter when sleeping. While austere would be an appropriate description of my surroundings, I spent all my free time in the park behind my house.  So in order to fully understand the significance of my father’s lesson taught to me, I need to explain the topography of the land.

Behind the home was Sagamore Creek.  The creek ran through the park and carried quite a bit of water.  Over the generations, the creek became a stream and then a small river, eroding a deep valley into the shale stone that made up the structure of the land.  The valley was several hundred feet deep.  As my father built the home, most of it himself, there came a time that we needed to address running water and in the country that meant a well.  With shale rock just five feet below the ground, drilling a well was going to be costly.  The first well was drilled about a 100 feet down.  However, the drilling had to stop. My father was out of money and the water supply was insufficient for a family of three.  It would be these following years that I would learn the meaning of the old adage, “forget the blush and share a flush.”

Over the course of the next several years, my father would put all of his extra savings into two more wells.  One was over 300 feet deep.  Each well drilling expert kept telling my father that we had to drill deeper than the bottom of the valley to find water.  It seemed logical.  You live on the edge of a big hill so you need to drill down until you are no longer on the hill but down to the normal level where there is evidence of water.  Each additional well was also dry.  The drilling finally stopped because the money ran out.  So what was life like without adequate water, something we all take for granted these days?

For years, I watched my father who worked in Cleveland, drive to his mother’s home and fill up two five gallon containers of water each day.  Somehow, we managed to cook, clean and bathe with the ten gallons of water that was brought to the house daily.  It was exhausting for my parents, yet I hardly noticed the inconvenience.  I was now approaching 16 and I could see my father still struggling to solve the water problem.  So this is where the lesson began to manifest itself.  Giving up was never an option.  He began by going to the Cleveland Public Library where he found that U.S. Geological Survey maps had been created, documenting the underground water structures of the United States.  These maps included Walton Hills, the place where our home was built.  My father spent days and weeks studying the information, concluding that the experts, the well drillers were in fact wrong about where the water was located.  It seems that underground streams were abundant in the area and only about 25 feet below the surface.  However, they were small and random, sort of like the capillaries in our body.  To pierce one with a 6 inch well was not only impossible but the steel casing just drove right past the streams and went past them, sealing them off.  For all of those years, could it be that water was right below our feet?

1st House on Alexander RdWell, now would come a lesson on taking risks but this time, based on one’s own research and knowledge.  My father purchased five concrete culverts four feet high and five feet in diameter.  He stood one on end behind the house, jumped inside and started to dig.  As digging would continue, the culvert would sink into the earth, thus forming a well.  As one culvert would reach the level of the ground, he would use his car to pull over the next one and stand it on end. One culvert at a time, a well was being formed. But after the first culvert was 5 feet down, the real significance of the task unfolded. Remember the shale rock?  Yes, my father hit stone.  So like any obstacle, he adjusted his thinking and overcame the problem.  Every weekend through the summer, he would rent a large commercial air compressor and a jack hammer.  My father and his brother-in-law, my wonderful uncle Alex, would work all Saturday, every Saturday, taking turns in the well.  They would break up the shale, shovel it into a bucket.  With a pulley and rope, I would pull up the rock, dump it in a wheel barrow and haul it about 300 feet to the backyard where it was dumped out. Yes, there were many, many months of all day sessions. There was that summer vacation where I worked in the well too. Sundays were no different.  Tons of rock all had to be jack hammered out and removed.

Then came the day! My uncle Alex was on the jack hammer when he broke through into a stream of water.  The well filled up so rapidly, that we barely got him out of the well along with the tools before the water rose 10 feet.  From that day on, there was never less than 800 gallons of pure spring water in the well.  I cannot imagine how my father felt on that moment.  So much money lost on wells, so much time spent hauling water, so much worry about his family’s well-being, so many prayers and the absolute joy that he, with the help of his family, finally solved the problem.  To overcome what seemed like an insurmountable challenge, he was willing to learn, to take risks, and trust that there was a solution right under his feet. So now about that lesson that I learned.  In my life, I have had many challenges too, asked or hired many experts, only to be “left high and dry” by their advice. My father taught me that I can exhaust myself, “drilling past the answer to many a problem.” His lesson was that faith, hope, perseverance, hard work and knowledge can go a long way to overcoming insurmountable odds. He taught me that humility is good, giving up is bad, never to stop learning, that hard work is one of life’s joys, not a burden and that your family is truly a blessing. Even though my father is gone now, it is amazing how he keeps on teaching me so much.

 

A Flexible Flyer for Christmas

flexible_flyerThis story is about how God often takes His time in providing insight into the events of our life. In this case, about 30 years.

I was driving down an Orlando highway when I found myself reflecting on one specific night, a long time ago. My son was about five years old. He had gotten a new Flexible Flyer for Christmas but I had been too busy with night school and my career to find the time to take him sled riding. It was late February and by now, my wife was loosing patience with my long list of excuses as to why I had not found the time to spend with my son. So I did what most young husbands do when faced with such decisions, I developed a quick plan to make everything right.

Our home was located in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a lovely village located east of Cleveland. Not far from our home was a state park. Punderson State Park had a large pavilion located at the top of a long hill. The State Recreation Department would open the park in winter. The pavilion would sell hot chocolate and had a large welcoming fire going inside. The hill was equipped with a long powered towrope to pull sled riders back up after their exhilarating downhill experience. To fit my busy schedule, this hill was lighted for sled ridding in the evening. This was the perfect plan. In one night, I could undo the months of wrong by giving my son a great experience with his dad. I could even save my weekend for other projects around the house.

One evening during the week, my son and I went off, sled and all, to Punderson State Park. We arrived to find that this wonderfully equipped facility was practically empty. It was if the park was opened just for us. After parking and pulling the sled to the top of the hill, I placed my son between my legs and got settled for his first sled ride. Now here is where I forgot the most important rule of sledding, never start down a hill you first look over the crest. As I pushed off, it was just seconds until the significance of this rule became evident. The reason no one was there that evening is because the cold weather, the prior weekend’s heavy traffic and some freezing rain had converted the hill into a quarter mile ice rink that rank precariously down hill. Within seconds, we were out of control and speeding down the hill.

My feet quickly bounced off the sled’s handles so I could no longer steer. Not that it would have mattered, we were out of control. It did not take long for panic to reach me. At the speeds we were going, my small son was about to get hurt. My thoughts quickly went to survival mode. I leaned back, gathering my son in my arms. Thoughts went to protecting him from the inevitable harm about to befall us. It was the longest sled ride of my life. Constantly on the verge of crashing, fearful for my son’s well being. We flew through the air, bounced from mogul to mogul, and through the grace of God, somehow we reached the bottom of that hill, still on the sled.

I do remember thinking about God at that moment. It was something that I did not do too often during those years. Getting ahead in life superseded time for God. It was a good example of how fear drives us closer to our Creator. Just seconds after the sled came to a rest, my deep thoughts were interrupted by my son’s raucous laughter. My son wasn’t traumatized by this experience. I had actually delivered the best first sled ride any young five-year-old could have hoped for.

Only one other sled rider went down that hill after my son and I. This young boy shattered his collarbone and was rushed to emergency. My son and I went back to the pavilion to enjoy our hot chocolate and the warmth of a wood fire. This would, in itself, be a nice story but the real significance of God’s message did not become clear to me until 30 years later. Back on that Orlando street, I was reflecting on that evening’s experience and God provided me with the final chapter.

My life had been just like that sled ride at Punderson State Park, often out of control, filled with moments of panic, wondering if I would finish my journey safely. On that day long ago, my son recognized that he was wrapped in his father’s arms. His safety was taken in full faith and my son had the best ride of his life. No fear, no panic, just faith in his father. Isn’t his what God was telling me? I too, am wrapped in my Father’s arms. I too have the choice to trust Him, to place my faith in Him, to know that He loves me and would do anything for me. God was telling me to lean back and let Him make my life that “best ride.”

A Bad Day at the Office

anoleIf you have ever visited Florida then you have probably noticed the small lizards that seem to be everywhere, including the inside of homes. These small creatures are called “anoles.” Most people call them “chameleons” due to the green anole’s ability to change color; however, anoles are only distantly related to the chameleon, and in fact are more closely related to the iguana. Anoles are small lizards adapted for climbing trees, shrubs, fences, and walls. They are frequently seen basking in the sun or hunting insects around Florida homes. Male anoles have a large throat fan, which is often displayed, along with “push-ups” and head-bobbing behaviors when they court or defend territories.

One day, I was just finishing a tough day at work. By tough, I mean that the company I was working for had missed its payroll again. It seemed that one of the large local banks had been slowly extracting accelerated payments for outstanding loans thus forcing the company to rely on its employees to become the financiers of the firm. The company had insufficient funds to pay travel expenses and my charge cards were reflecting several Asian business trips. Other news that day included job reassignments, an announcement that the company would be downsizing to another location in an attempt to lower its costs and that all employees would immediately have their wages cut forty percent. Many of us who believed in the company were now heavily in debt and I think that day, the futility of my hope in a turnaround became evident. I was demoralized, broken and I was relying solely on my faith to keep my hopes alive. But after that day, even hope seemed pointless.

As I left for work, I got in my car to leave. I had parked against some shrubbery and as I pulled away, a small lizard (an anole) jumped onto the hood of my car. It stayed there as I pulled out of the parking place. Yes, it stayed there as I pulled out onto the highway for my commute home. During the drive, I could see that the lizard’s ability to stay on the hood was directly proportional to my speed. As I drove on, I was overcome with a sense of compassion for that little lizard. Inside, I was struggling with a need to stop and chase it off the hood and a complete sense of defeat brought on by my day at the office. As the minutes went by, the lizard slipped further toward the windshield.

Now my speed was up to about fifty miles and hour. It was becoming more difficult for me to watch the lizard struggle in its futile attempt to grip the car. I know it was the weak mental state that I was in that day but as I reluctantly held back my urge to stop, I was being overwhelmed with guilt and concern over a little lizard. Then, while I was thinking again about pulling over and stopping, the lizard disappeared over the top of the windshield. It was another defeat, another straw onto the camel’s back. At that moment, I felt that I had destroyed one of God’s creatures because I just would not stop. Yes, that silly little lizard brought me to tears. These are not moments men are proud of but they happen. So much of our lives become wrapped up in our career and work that we are prone to give up even logical thoughts. I pulled into my garage and went in to sulk. My time was spent in reflection and selfish prayer, “Why me God, why me?”

About an hour later, my wife asked me to take out the garbage. I went out through the garage, grabbed the garbage and walked passed my car. Yes, there on the top of my car was the little lizard, perched and observing his new territory. What had happened was that, as the lizard slipped up the windshield and onto the roof, it found an eddy in the slipstream created by my roof rack. An eddy is a current of water or air running contrary to the main current. It is a space of sanctuary within a storm. Instead of being flung upon a concrete highway at high speed, the lizard enjoyed the ride and was now surveying a new opportunity in my yard. God did not leave long between the experience and the message. I knew right then that faith is all about the same thing. In the storm of things affecting my life, I would find an eddy, a place of sanctuary. God would protect me and He did just that.

meeting-dadIt was a hard several years after that day’s lesson. I was soon out of work and it took several years to rebuild my job experience in a new field. Money was tight but we always seemed to have just enough. Yet the purpose became so clear. My mother and father had recently moved down from Ohio. It had always been hard for me to spend time with my father. He had left for the Army when I was one month old and I really did not meet him until his return three years later. We shook hands at a railroad station, as my mother introduced us. Not having him around during my formative years seemed to have created a permanent barrier between he and I. We were never very close.

Not long after my parent’s move to Florida, my father was diagnosed with cancer. It was a struggle that brought us together. I drove him to his doctor’s appointments, I was with him during his surgeries and recoveries. My time out of work had allowed me to share men’s Bible Studies, work together at our church, and talk about God with my father. He fought valiantly but lost his battle after his last surgery was complicated by pneumonia. God was providing me an eddy to seek my shelter from the winds of life. The lesson’s final chapter came one night while I held my father’s hand and my dad passed away. My father, our Father and I were very close that night.

Stories

Life’s winding road often takes us to interesting places. Here are a few short stories on how circumstance and faith have been intertwined. The spirit behind these stories is not unlike the early habit of journaling that our ancestors used to capture much of today’s understanding of how they lived. Click here to view them all.

A Bad Day At The Office
A Flexible Flyer For Christmas
A Lesson From My Father
A Million Dollar View
A Pet Story
A Road Trip
Did You Ever Wonder?
Hands
Hitting The Wall
My First Home
My Plumb Line
Passions [maybe not so short]
Phil, God and Sagamore Creek
The Lantern
The Road to Heaven Runs Through Pittsburgh
The Ultimate Return On Investment
What’s One Second Worth

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