Reunion: Small Town Cafe Style

Usually the tables and booths are filled with the regulars, but every once in a while, the tables are pushed together and a bunch of people, all about the same age, all the same gender, walk in, obviously happy to see each other, because it is a reunion of sorts.

Today’s reunion is exciting—the last time they got together was yesterday—-to practice for winning the state baseball championship. Twenty young men and their coaches indulged in a hearty breakfast, paid for by the grandfather of one of the team players, to celebrate all the victories and to anticipate the next step: playing on the field of the Iowa Cubs in Des Moines for the high school state championship.

The regulars stop by their tables, leaning on canes, to wish them luck. Advice is positive—-Have fun, no matter what! Play hard! Play smart!

Most of the time, these reunion groups are Social Security recipients, reuniting years and years and years after the last time they took the field as a team.

I can’t help thinking that thirty or forty years from now, these young men will reunite around these same tables, or tables similar, to not only recall the glorious days of athletic ability, but also to reaffirm the friendships that were established with a ball of some kind, on a mat or floor or field of some kind, ghosts of the people lined up in those professional photographs, all wearing the same colors, the same style.

They will be very different thirty years from now, but they won’t notice because they’ll see with their hearts more than with their eyes the colleagues who walked and ran and lifted with them through those formative years. They’ll catch up on details—families, business, vacations, but soon the talk will become story telling. The stories will be specific to those years when they worked so hard together that they practically breathed simultaneously.

I welcome these groups somewhere between anticipation and dread, because one day, a group will walk in who is young enough (old enough?) to be my former students. More anticipation than dread, because I enjoyed my students and it will be good to see them in this later stage of development. Dread because they might not remember me or I might be the one who ruined their four-point. (Yes, I know they collaborated in earning a grad of B grade.)

Story-telling is a symptom of our humanity. Story-telling is civil, because the facts can’t be changed, although they can be embellished and variegated and interpreted. The story still remains, even though it is remembered differently by the participants. Take for instance, the four Gospels in the Christian Bible. The religious authorities did not choose one gospel over another: they chose four (out of six or seven possibilities) . All are valid. All “happened,” even if many of the events cannot be verified through human means. Story-telling is a way of remembering and we each remember differently. Our individual memories are important because our experiences are different. Imagine a house with many rooms and many windows. Each of us is in our own room and we see from our own window. What I see from my room is different from what you see from your room. We both see the blizzard, but my view shows trees bowing over and your view shows drifts piling up.

Storytelling is how we share those experiences that prove (and think of the word “prove” in the older sense of “test.”) who we were, who we are.

Even as I finish this reflection, those darling boys are standing on the field of some people they hope to emulate. They will pitch and catch and run and bat. At some point, the game will end. What will never end is the stories they will have to tell each other after today.

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Job 1:1-2:10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
1 There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. 2 There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. 3 He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. 4 His sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. 5 And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” This is what Job always did.
6 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7 The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 8 The Lord said to Satan,“Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” 9 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
13 One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, 15 and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, 19 and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”
20 Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21 He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.
2 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2 The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3 The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” 4 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5 But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”
7 So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8 Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.
9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
+++
Job would have been a great role model. He worshipped God. He owned more cattle and donkeys and sheep and camels than would fit in any Iowa fairground. He had ten kids, who were great partiers. He loved his kids so much that he paid their fines, in case they partied a little too much.
He was rich. He had a good wife. He was in good health.
What could possibly go wrong?
How often have you asked yourself that question? What could possibly go wrong? You get a job, you buy a house or you find an apartment you can afford. You have a car, you have gas money. What could go wrong?
You have kids. They grow up to be self-supporting adults. They give you grandkids. What could possibly go wrong?
You eat food that is not too salty, not too sweet. You exercise. You get regular checkups with your doctor. You use your seat belt. What could possibly go wrong?
And yet. Things go wrong. You lose your job. Your car breaks down. Your kids bend the law to the breaking point. You take a trip to the ER with chest pains.
In an instant, all your wonderful, perfect life—the perfect life you created through wise decisions and hard work—goes all to pieces.
You’re not the first one to lose what you saved for. You’re not the first one to watch your plans fizzle like a July 4 sparkler.
Centuries ago, people wrestled with the same injustice of gain and loss. The book of Job is an amazing story that seeks to explain and understand how our earthly efforts can be dashed to pieces, no matter how good, how righteous, how generous, how hard-working we are.
First of all, we need to recognize that Job is a work of fiction. We know it is fiction because it includes in the story events that no human could have witnessed.
6 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.
This is pure speculation on the part of the author, but it is important to the entire book because by the end of the book, it helps us to see the character of God.
Speaking of the character of God, this God does not sound like the God we worship. We believe in a steady, no-nonsense God, a God who protects God’s creation, especially human beings. The God in this story is willing to gamble on God’s creation.
Why question the character of God? Most of the books of the Hebrew Bible present God as parental, rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior. But sometimes that philosophy doesn’t follow through.
We all know that. We’ve seen good behavior go unrewarded. We’ve seen bad behavior go unpunished. When we’ve witnessed enough of that, we start to ask questions. Is God really the God we’ve been told about? Does God really care? and that leads to more questions: Why remain faithful to God when prayers go unanswered, when a righteous life is afflicted with pain and loss?
Perhaps you know someone who has given up on God. Perhaps you know lots of people who have given up on God.
Let me clarify: this is not the same as giving up on church. You are reminded every Sunday, just by looking around, that these pews used to be full of people. The people who filled them have not necessarily given up on God. They’ve given up on relationships, on community within the church, but many of them still believe in God.
Giving up on God is quite a different thing. It means that the spiritual part of our selves has been dealt so many blows that we feel abandoned by God. When to even go out of your house brings threats of violence, when working full time does not provide enough money for food and rent, when availing yourself of the best medical care possible does not keep away heart attacks and cancer….God seems to be missing.
So, Job did everything by God’s book. And you know what? He wasn’t even an Israelite, so shouldn’t he get extra points for worshipping the one true God?
Back to the heavenly board meeting:
7 The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.”
Satan was not the devil-character that we see in horror stories and Halloween costumes. Satan’s role was to look for sinners, not cause sinning. When he spotted a sinner, he reported said sinner to God, who would deal with the sinner accordingly.
8 The Lord said to Satan,“Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.”
God seems to be rather proud of Job. Perhaps he wants to point out to Satan that Job will never be in the naughty list. But Satan calls God’s bluff:
9 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”
In other words, of course, Job worships God, because he knows that God has given him everything he has. Worshiping God is a no-brainer.
But God does a strange thing: God gives Satan power over Job’s blessings. He doesn’t give Satan power over Job’s heart, mind, and soul—just the riches and all the things that give Job pleasure.
Satan loses no time in getting to work on Job. In one day, he takes away everything that Job has worked for.
13 One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, 15 and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.”
But then something worse than financial ruin occurs.
18 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, 19 and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”
Did Job curse God? No:
22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.
But Satan wasn’t finished. He planned to win this bet with God.
7 So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8 Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.
Now Job’s wife steps into the story. Remember that all those sheep and camels were just as important to her survival as they were to Job’s. And, further, those ten children had been carried in her womb. Her loss was as great as Job’s, maybe greater. She gives up on God.
9 Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.
Even in his great misery, Job replies with equanimity. His faith is not shaken. But how long will he maintain his faithfulness? How long would you maintain your faithfulness?
Amen.
P.S. To be continued…

Generation by Generation

Reunions. The stigma is rampant among the latest generation. Boring old people who have boring stories. People you don’t know talking about people you don’t know. People who have seen better days.
In fact, those people have seen days that the youngsters can’t imagine.
If you sit at the table and listen, you learn about adventures you will never have. Uncle Jake raced horses. Uncle Jake was a boxer, a winning boxer. Uncle Jake served on a submarine in World War—-wait for it—-ONE! He was eligible because he was only 5’5″. He was only 17, too, but that was a secret. He nearly fell overboard while the submarine was deployed off the Coast of Alaska. Figure that one out!
Rex’s second wife wasn’t a favorite, but every body loved his first wife.
Aunt Irma made cherry dills. You mean pickled cherries. No. Cucumbers pickled with cherry leaves and dill. (And before the sun sets, two of us have found a source for cherry tree leaves.) (And one of us promises to bring a batch of dill to the funeral on Wednesday.)
Yes. A funeral so close to the reunion. The first reunion for Lonnie to miss, only because he died on Friday. Lonnie was special because he lost most of his arm when he was seven. Nothing dramatic; more tragic. He fell out of a tree and broke his arm. That doctor put a cast on and said it would be fine. It wasn’t. Gangrene set in. That never slowed Lonnie down; he was an auto mechanic for nearly fifty years. He also played the accordion. Try to picture that. But he’s most remembered for his kindness, his cheerfulness, his generosity.
These are first cousins. They are in their 80’s and 90’s. Even the ones who always seemed like the youngsters of the family are in their 80’s. The next generation, first cousins, once removed, are getting to know each other because they have to drive some of the first cousins to the reunion. But not everybody needs a ride. George and Carolyn still come under their own power. But Lisa brought her mom and aunt and partner? roommate? best friend? Whatever. Nancy always brings enough of her home-fried chicken to give us all leftovers to take home. Because she is so frail these days, that chicken is extra special and extra-appreciated. Kay always makes her apple-sour cream (not sour cream-apple) pie, just like Aunt Irma used to.
These people are not boring to my generation, because we knew the preceding generation, the ones who get flowers on their graves every memorial day. They were our grandparents, our grandparents’ brothers and sisters—our great-aunts and great-uncles.
Some we never knew, especially Van. Van was dragged to death by a horse. He was wearing rubber boots and his foot got caught in the stirrup. The horse ran for home and was waiting at the barn door with the half-dead boy when Grandpa and Grandma Schaefer got home. Every copy of a photograph, notorious among those who have seen it, has been destroyed. It was the custom, back in the day, to photograph the deceased in the casket. Van was badly mauled, and not being embalmed, his face and body swelled and the sight was of a monster instead of the handsome young brother they all remembered.
In our family, on my mother’s side of the family, many of the men (and my mother and her cousin, Gla) served in the armed forces. We spent some time sorting out who was in what war when. My mom is the only WW2 veteran left. George served in the early fifties. His ship was headed to Korea when the truce was signed, so they headed to Japan, to work in the military hospitals.
Then we talked about what wasn’t talked about: the war veterans of WW 1 & 2 and how they never talked about being in the war. Except at some family reunions: the veterans would go off to a room by themselves and talk. Maybe it was a kind of therapy.
We have soldiers all the way back to the War between the States, but no stories remain from those days.
That is the great thing about reunions. Some stories continue to live after their heroes die.
Frank’s wife, Sally was an entertainer, the kind who accompanied herself on a piano or organ. Whenever she played in the Quad-Cities. she and Uncle Frank would have supper with Uncle Everett and Aunt Ivy. Amber was only a little girl then, but she remembers Sally sitting at her mother’s vanity, putting on more makeup than Amber had ever seen, in preparation for the evening’s performance.
Uncle Frank and Aunt Sally had three boys, followed by a sister, who, even though named Merle Marie, was and still is called “Sister.”
Some mention is made of cousins who have not stayed in touch, not with hard feelings, but with a melancholy wonder.
My generation, the first cousins once removed, don’t tell many stories. That’s because we don’t share much more than this reunion and some mighty fine DNA. The first cousins grew up together, played together, celebrated together, so they share the stories, either from their own experience, or from the stories they heard form their parents.
But today, maybe because Lonnie just died, the stories were about that first generation of brothers and sisters—-Helen, Iva, Frank, Bill, Irma, Gladys, and Van. Before long there will be no one to tell their stories, so today, we locked in a few more memories before the memory keepers are gone.

The Spider Story 07.14.19

I leave the house with a crap sermon, no hymns chosen. ( I have a very accommodating organist.)
I get in the car, last driven by not me. Seventy-two miles my fancy old-lady Buick tells me. You have seventy-two miles left for this trip. It’s already Toronto minus 30. But, I only have to drive 52 miles, so I’ll be fine, even though my trip home will be serenaded with a warning light.
But let me tell you about the spider. I reach for the handle of my car door. There, blocking my way, is a perfect spider web, the symmetrical kind that must have at least a mile of thread carefully connected at even intervals, stretching from the side mirror to the door handle to the roof. Perfect. But I don’t even have time to photograph it because I’m running late. So I take off, forgetting about the spider.
About fifteen miles into the trip at 60+ miles per hour, I look out my side window. The spider, sometime in the last fifteen minutes, has crawled into the middle of the web and is hanging on for dear life. I slow to 60. But by the time I get to to Toronto (Iowa), she, and her web are gone.
I hope she bounces.
We have a crowd today. Jake is back from Korea. Six us of us share the sacrament. Because Beulah is in danger of passing out from the heat, we sing just one verse of each hymn. Of the three hymns I choose, two are unfamiliar, so we change to more familiar hymns. Only in a small congregation.
I spend only a short time at the tavern. Everything is pretty quiet. I drink my cup of coffee, then mosey over to the cardplayers to visit a bit. It’s a Sunday tradition. I wish everyone a good week and head south to Dixon. Krista Tippet is on and once again I vow I will relisten to her broadcast. I never have.
I pull into Dixon, open the windows in my office and turn on the fan. Then I choose three hymns. It is so hot that the organist is forsaking the balcony and playing the piano by the altar. Halfway through the hymn after the sermon I figure out how to rewrite the sermon.
Just outside of Dixon the old-lady car tells me I need gas. Ok. And then I realize I’ve left my phone on my desk. Fifty years ago that would have been no problem. The phone wouldn’t have been able to leave the desk. But I need my phone by my side every minute of every day, so I turn back, confident that I still have enough gas. I text Bim my usual Sunday text: “Leaving Dixon.” I like to think it’s so he won’t worry about me, but it’s really about him having dinner ready when I get home.
This Sunday is different because Walter is here. All two-and-half years toddler attitude of him. “Walter, it’s time for lunch.” “Not me.” “Walter, put your shoes on.” “Not me.” Walter, it’s time for a nap.” “Not me.”
I’m not complaining; just observing. I did try to blame my undercooked sermon on Walter. Who can write a sermon when a toddler is snuggled up against you? (If you think I should have had the sermon written hours, if not days before Saturday night, you’re wrong.)
So, it’s evening. The sun is sinking and so am I. Walter has his second wind and he and his brother are arguing over who gets to be the garbageman.
Earlier they were chasing down robbers, building cushion forts to protect themselves from some sort of attack, and now they are making coffee. That means they are drinking enough water to challenge the heftiest pull-up.
When Walter was born, Charlie was five years old. I wondered what they would have in common. The answer: everything. I have never seen brothers play together so well. It took only a few days for Walter to become Charlie’s best friend, and the feeling is mutual. They will protect each other to the death.
Speaking of death, I hope the spider flew off into the ditch and has woven a lovely web between stalks of daylilies and Queen Anne’s Lace. She persisted for fifteen miles and speeds that must have taken away her breath. (Do spiders breathe?) I’m not the kind of person who stops the car to rescue a spider. And I was late.
I preached on Ecclesiastes 8 & 9 today. Pretty pessimistic stuff. But what we have that the writer didn’t have is hope, eternal hope. The spider’s only hope is to reproduce. Our hope is even more long term and more personal. Perhaps by tonight, that spider has become the dinner instead of the diner. She is also a symbol of the Wisdom writings—-observations about the world around us, about what works and what doesn’t work. Weaving a food trap on my car door didn’t work. I recommend that the next spider try her hand at the area around my flowerpots. They won’t be getting any more attention this summer. Best wishes, future spider.