Playful, Pius or Remembered Stuff

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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Speaking of Trains

This summer we took a big trip, and experienced many adventures for posting.  I must begin with the train.  Yes, we took the train.  We took the train to Philadelphia, and back here to Los Angeles, with a lot of stuff in between.

We had often talked about taking a long trip by train for many years now.  When I was invited to preach in Wilmington, DE, and then appointed as a commissioner to General Assembly, we decided this was the time to put the two events together and travel by the good old iron horse.  Actually I think the iron horse reference means the old fashioned steam locomotive.  And how that would have been a blast!  But no, this was standard AMTRAK diesel.

But it was still adventurous.  We had a great time, and will probably take another trek by train, one of these days.  It's delightful to see the scenery in such a relaxed atmosphere.  There was a sort of adventurous thrill I experienced when the train first began to move.  It was diminished, but still fun every time the train began to move again.

But there were some modifications to my somewhat romantic notion of travel by rail.  I had anticipated night travel to gently rock me to sleep as the mesmerizing clickety-clack of rail seams created the perfect white noise.  Well, not so much.  To be sure there were many stretches that almost fulfilled that fantasy.  But for the most part we had to get used to violent jerking that would challenge agile young people to keep their feet--and we are neither agile nor are we young.  The compartment was small enough that we could hold on to something or other whenever we needed to move around.  The hallway leading to the dining car was narrow enough that instead of throwing us to the floor, we merely bumped our shoulders first on one wall then on the other.  Yes, it was a challenge, but I thought it was fun.

When the conductor adjusts our couch to become a bunk bed, we discovered another challenge.  Climbing up to that upper bunk was designed for a contortionist.  Okay, I'm no contortionist, and I did make it up there, but I assure you it was not without pain.  During one leg of our journey we had a less spacious compartment.  This one not only required a contortionist of sorts, but I learned something about myself.  I have a mild case of claustrophobia.  I was sure I could not get to the top bunk, but I did.  And then the ceiling began to creep down upon me.  I panicked.  I even cried out.  I couldn't get down, and yet I did--rather rapidly in fact.

Believe it or not, we learned to use this narrow bunk as a double bed.  It's so wonderful being married to a tolerant spouse.  That bunk was so narrow (and we are NOT narrow) that I slept with my feet near my wife's face, and she the opposite.  That was just one night.  The rest of the time we had the deluxe accommodations in which the bed was a more believable double.  Again I thank God for a tolerant companion.

I made it sound as though we didn't sleep, but we did.  We learned to adjust, and any hours we missed at night we could always make up during nap time.

The meals were worth a blog post of their own.  When one buys the deluxe accommodations the meals are included in the price.  The food was good and very well prepared.  Though the menu provided variety, it did become rather limited when we spent six days on the train.  A seasoned traveler warned us to order the steak dinner the first night because they sometimes run out.  We did so, and it was not disappointing.

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Spooky Train Ride

My great grandfather (or was it my great, great?) was some exec with the Swiss railroad.  I think this story came down from him.  At least my mother told me this story, and attributed it to him.  The line of transmission for some old family stories becomes blurred with time.  Anyway, here is what my mother told me.

On a dark and foggy night the train chugged along the mountainside when the engineer began to notice an ominous image in the fog ahead.  It appeared to be an angel beckoning him to stop the train. He called to his fireman to see if he had the same view.  These two men rubbed their eyes and stared into the foggy night, they concurred that there was a definite image of an angel, persistently urging them to stop the train.

It seemed irresponsible to stop the loaded train halfway up the mountain, but the more they talked it over, the more they began to spook one another.  Finally the engineer brought the iron horse to a stop. The image was still looming ahead of them in the fog.  With its wings spread wide, the angel was demanding that they halt their progress.  Just then the conductor came up the tracks from several cars behind the engine.  "Hey, we're not scheduled to stop for several miles.  What are you doing?"

"Don't you see that angel in the fog, there ahead of the train?" answered the engineer.  "I'll take the responsibility for an unscheduled stop, but I just felt I had to stop."

"Oh, yeah.  I see what you mean.  Let me look up ahead along the tracks and see if I can find anything." agreed the conductor.  He strode ahead along the tracks for a hundred or more feet when he suddenly stopped and let him mouth fall open.  He ran back to tell the engineer what had happened.

As he approached the halted train, the engineer called out, "Hey Fritz, get back on the train.  It was nothing.  We found a dead moth was caught right inside the headlamp with its wings spread apart.  In the fog it gave the eery appearance of an angel.  You can tell your grandchildren how silly your engineer friend was when he saw that image in the fog."

"I will tell my grandchildren, alright, but it won't be about a silly engineer.  Barely a hundred yards ahead of us the bridge is washed away!"

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Tent Camping

Experiences from the terrifying to the humorous come to mind merely by those two words: tent camping.

My parents taught me to love camping, having taken me to the Mammoth Lakes every year for vacation for several years in a row.  A nine year old boy finds great delight in living in the dirt, digging a hole to poop and swimming once a week instead of taking a bath.

We camped in tents at June Lake before there were condos.  Hey, it was before there was a paved road.  (Yes, I am that old.)  The latrine was behind a tree up the hill.  I had my own pup tent, and didn't mind sleeping on the ground.  That was then.  Now not so much.

I actually rose at dawn to catch a trout and fry it for breakfast.  Camp food was wonderful.  The ashes that drifted into the beans just made them taste better.

Now my wife has taught me the sensible pleasure of camping at resort hotels.  On a recent junket she ordered lobster eggs Benedict.  And as for the pup tent and earthy mattress, I've come to the place that I am unable to get down to the ground, and if I do, I need serious help getting back up.  Now for an octogenarian whose bladder demands attention at 4 in the morning, that routine is way out of the question.

There were several years that Barbara and I took our boys camping, however.  It was not because I had convinced her of the joys of the rugged life.  No, it was an economic necessity on the preacher's impecunious salary.

There was the time we traveled from Front Royal into the Blue Ridge Mountains to find a camping spot all by ourselves.  I kept the boys busy hiking and Barbara fixed meals.  It was a beautiful sight.  Some people just do not appreciate the experience of cooking and doing dishes in refugee conditions.

When we visited Williamsburg for the first time, we pitched the tent not far from the town and made daily trips.  Very educational.  On the Lord's day we took a drive to see Yorktown, but there was a rainstorm that stopped traffic.  It was like we were parked under a waterfall.  Later, when we returned to our campsite, we discovered that a tree branch had fallen through our tent, ruining the tent and drenching the contents.  Wasn't that funny?  No, actually it was not.  Other campers let us use their station wagon so, between their's and ours, we housed the family for one last night.  Later it was reported that that storm produced 2 inches of rain in half an hour.

Fast forward a few years.  The kids are grown, and we have camping friends.  I weighed my chances of giving my wife a pleasant camping experience, and decided I should cook.  I determined to cook gourmet meals.  Steak from the freezer would take two days to thaw completely, and a favorite of ours was cornish game hens.  I simply doused them with generous amounts of salt, pepper and garlic. then I double wrapped them in heavy foil.  I rolled them back and forth over the grill, listening to the spit and crackle of rendering meat.  Couple that with potatoes baked the same way and maybe some corn or a veggie bought from a farmers' market on the way, and we had a worthy meal.

This became our planned routine for camping until we ran into hornets.  Camping with our dear friends, Bob and Susan Lee and their two children, I treated everyone to this cornish game hen banquet.  However, who knew that there was a hornet nest nearby?  And who knew that they would be frenzied by the scent of grease?  It turns out we were more in danger of eating a live hornet than we were of being stung by one.  This definitely modified the pleasure intended for this meal.

They say with age there comes wisdom.  I think the point is with age more mistakes have been experienced by all the dumb things one has done.  If this is wisdom, so be it.  The wisdom I have gained in lo these many years has me enjoying the camping we do at resort hotels.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Termites and their work

Many years ago when I was up studying for a sermon late at night, I heard a distant noise, sorta like Horton hearing a Who.  It is amazing what sounds can be made by an old house when there are so few competing decibels to mask them.  It was a tiny cross cut saw, or like the distant crunching of a corn-on-the-cob eating contest.  I rose from the table and crept about the room, where ever my ears detected the source of this curious sound.

My keen hearing (remember, this was many years ago) brought me to the fireplace.  In this clean and seldom used fireplace was one old log, cradled on the andirons. And it was definitely from this log that the sound was emanating.  It wasn't a constant sound.  It wasn't a freak or capricious sound.  It came in a deliberate series of cadences.  It was too tiny to be creepy, but it was--in its own way--ominous.  I concluded that it was an army of termites, so I kindled a fire and consumed the log.

Fast forward many years.  A friend in the building trade, a contractor who does a little of everything, told me that, yes, you can hear termites at work, but usually it requires a stethoscope.

I'm sorry, my ears are not as sensitive as a stethoscope, but I did hear those dastardly beasts at work in my fire place.  I can't imagine any other explanation for that tiny munching sound.

The reason I was reminded of that silly experience is that recently my wife awakened me to listen to the definite sound of gnawing.  No, this was far too noisy for termites.  In the middle of the night, my judgment being muddled, I told her that it was probably a tree in the wind rubbing against the house.  Not a bad description of the sound, actually.  But in the light of day it was obvious there was no tree anywhere near the house to comply with that simple explanation.

The next night I heard the noise myself before the narcotic of sleep dulled my senses.  It may have been a rat or raccoon (please, not a beaver) chewing a two-by-four in the crawl space under the house.  I haven't heard it again, but it is on my mind.  I may have to ask some daring, slender young man to inspect the foundational timbers under our bedroom.

My friend says, just be certain it isn't in the attic.  He claims that rats, and other assorted rodents, tend to chew on the insulation of electrical wiring.  This may cause the house to catch fire, or at least it may electrocute the varmint, creating a growing stench

Wednesday, December 23, 2015


Okay, I cheated.  The following post was written a couple years ago, but I'm too occupied with other stuff to take the time to write another Christmas post right now.  So this will have to do.  I hope you will forgive me.

I enjoy hearing of family traditions for the holidays.  Thanksgiving is still relatively free of commercialism, so they are infringing on it with Black Friday's now.  But most folk still like to get family together for turkey and all the trimmings.  If you like turkey sandwiches, it is best to be sure you host this meal.  After picking and burping, the men retire to the couch to watch football, the kids play outside, and the ladies clean up.  No, it's not fair, but that is the tradition. 

Then there are myriads of differing Christmas traditions.  Some make certain to find a church that has a Christmas Day worship service.  Others may read the Christmas story as recorded in the gospel of Luke.  In our home we actually memorized this portion of scripture and recited it together.  In most of our homes, however, Jesus got little more than a tip of the hat.  We piously proclaimed that we were celebrating His birth (and we actually convinced ourselves this was true), but the main event always comes down to the fun of opening presents on Christmas morning. 

Some homes allow for one curious present to be opened Christmas eve, as the remainder wait for the morning.  I've heard of some homes where the presents are opened Christmas eve.  I forgot to ask them what they did in the morning.  Slept in, I suppose.  It is so difficult for a kid to wait past 6 o'clock to get out of bed and begin the arduous task of ripping open all those pretty packages.  If dad was up the night before, assembling a complicated toy until the wee hours of the morning, 6 o'clock is mighty early.  But that was part of the tradition when I grew up.

I don't know when I began to realize that it really was more fun to give than to receive, but parents get even more fun than their spoiled little ones, seeing the twinkle in their excited little eyes.  We teach them so easily about greed and indulgence.  Then, as they grow, we hope to teach them that a man's life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses.

Since my Barbara's birthday is December 24, and since we got married on December 26, you might think we developed unique traditions.  It might have been nice to have a routine that would give proper emphasis on each of these significant calendar events.  But we never found a way to do that.  When we tried to go to a fancy restaurant on our anniversary, we were still so full of Christmas goodies that we couldn't enjoy a meal as we might on a different night.  So I suppose you might say our tradition began to be to celebrate our anniversary on any night, but not Dec. 26.  That works much better.  On our first anniversary, we were in Philadelphia to attend Westminster Seminary.  We did go to Old Bookbinders restaurant, and I learned to eat a whole Maine lobster.  I told the waiter I would order it on the provision that he taught me how to eat it.  He came with a complete bib, a nutcracker and a tiny fork and showed me the finesse of dismantling one of these delicious beasts.

Then, because we usually had a Christmas eve service, Barbara constantly had her special day trampled with other plans.  Seldom did she get her chocolate cake (unless she herself broke down and bought one).  What does a family do with a chocolate cake when the house if already full of candy canes, pfeffernusse cookies, fruitcake, hard candies, fudge, etc.? 

She was frequently short-changed, even when growing up because her father too was a minister.  Yet it was my dear wife who supported and encouraged us to have Christmas eve services where ever we were.  And, of course, she played the piano for the service.

We do share fond memories of one special Christmas eve service in our fledgling chapel in Neptune, NJ. when the first snow of the season arrived in the form of a blizzard that night.  Our neighborhood came out for the service in unusual numbers.  Ushers had a snow shovel by the door with which they periodically cleared the porch.  And when we lit candles and sang "Silent Night" to conclude the service, we had a tradition that almost everyone there cherished.  It was necessary to dig cars out of the parking lot, and at least one of them needed a passing cowboy with a rope to pull him out of the slippery stuff.

We had taken an enjoyable Christmas Carol and scripture reading service, with a pointed sermon for the holiday visitor, and made it a time to point to Jesus, the author of all of our good times.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Controlling Power

I discovered that braking on black ice is like riding a bobsled.  This southern California boy moved east to attend Seminary in Philadelphia.  On my way to school one chilly morning I jammed the brake to prevent hitting the car that had incomprehensibly stopped in the middle of the intersection.  What I learned later was that the train tressel just above had been dripping water on the roadway below all night long.  And that roadway was freezing that water into a large, invisible lake of ice ("black ice").  I swear the car accelerated, and I ran into the car ahead.  Had to total it out and shop for another car, but that's another story.

My point is simply this: that scary moment when I realized I was not in control of this car.  There are moments in our lives when we must admit that awkward or dangerous truth: I can't stop this immanent calamity.

Fast forward 10 years or so.  A special musical group was singing at our church.  We had invited the community.  I met a young man who told me how he had become a Christian.  It seems that the lead female singer in this group had been a long time friend of this guy.  After a few years during which their paths went different directions, they met again.  Only everything was different.  She was now singing for the Lord, but he was still doing drugs.  He told me that he decided to give up the drug scene and straighten out his life, but terror struck when he found he couldn't do it.  All along he thought he was taking drugs and alcohol as a matter of choice which he could quit whenever he chose.  It really spooked him that he was not really in control.  He asked his long time friend how she dumped the drug scene, and she simply told him that Jesus turned her around.

Just one of many accounts of the terrifying power of sin in our lives.  The girl who develops an obsession with her figure.  She wants to be slim, and so refuses to eat.  It becomes a fixation which is out of her control.  We call it anorexia, but it has the power to kill.  It begins with a prideful obsession with her appearance.  Okay, you may want to argue the point, but it is still an illustration of how we lose control.

One who is managing money for others and finds himself in serious financial need may cross the line and "borrow" some of that money which will never be missed.  But as the conscience grows a callous, he finds the second and third time a little easier until he is overwhelmed and finally uncovered as a thief.

The managing of the half truth is an art with many people.  Instead of having a concern for the truth, this person finds verbal spin to work for social advantage.  It gains friends and influences people.  He doesn't see himself as the inveterate liar he has become.

It is so easy to view or read porn with just a little search.  No one needs to know, so why not a little indulgence.  No harm, no foul.  But we hear of those who wake up to realize this is an addiction which they are powerless to control.  "Having eyes full off adultery and that cannot cease from sin" (II Peter 2:14).

There is a point when we decide to play with sin, but it is like opening the door for a malicious giant who pins you to the floor.  At this point, try as we might, we cannot get up.  To use another analogy, sin is like a virus within us.  I keep seeing the commercial encouraging me to get my shingles shot.  They remind me that if I have had chicken pox, I already have the virus in me.  Even so when sin is triggered by a little "indulgence" we set off powers that overwhelm us, and the virus of sin is fatal.

The fallen condition of human nature is no joke.  Scripture tells us that Joseph's brothers were not able to speak kindly to him.  They had become controlled by jealousy and hatred that it was not possible for them to break the cycle.

The good news about Jesus is that He died to deliver us from sin.  He paid the penalty, yes, but He also rose again to break the power of sin.  He is the only real "higher power" that can deliver the 12 step alcoholic.  He can throw that giant that has you pinned.  He is the great physician who can cure that virus.

Oh dear reader, come to Christ today!

"But now being made free from sin, and become servants of God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life." (Romans 6:22)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Saying "Goodbye"

Final goodbyes are packed with emotion.

One of our very dear friends is currently headed for the finish line, and we must cheer her on to victory.  What a difference it is when there is a living hope in the finished work of Christ.  He has canceled our guilt by his work on the cross.  And He has fired our confidence in the future by rising again from the dead to prove His promises.  How hopeless it is to face death without this.

In my 50 plus years in the ministry I have said "goodbye" to many people, and some very dear friends.

Before even getting to seminary (and before we were married) Barbara and I experienced the passing of her grandfather--on her 20th birthday.  He was convinced that he had been sent to a nursing home to die, and so he did.  It was not, therefore, a pleasant birthday for her.

Then there was the dear old lady friend from our church who was dying of heart problems.  While we were visiting her, we three began to sing something like "What a Friend we have in Jesus" and she stopped singing to grasp her chest.  When Barbara and I also stopped singing, she made motion for us to continue singing as her pain subsided.  Singing the love of Jesus was more important to her than death pains.  Not long after this she passed into glory.

I'll never forget the time I was visiting a dear saint who had labored in service of the Lord for many years.  Even though she knew many scriptures, I have learned to go with the familiar.  God's children always seem to appreciate the old, familiar verses.  She was not well enough to communicate at this time, but she knew me and knew I was there at her hospital bed.  I decided to recite Psalm 23 without use of a Bible.  It was one of those things when the very familiar plays tricks on you.  I left out a phrase of this Psalm, and I know she knew it.  I can imagine the two of us laughing about this when I see her in heaven.

It has to be a priority of every pastor to visit his people when they are in the hospital.  I have always tried to keep this responsibility at or near the top of my list.  When I haven't visited in a day or two, or when I have heard of a change in condition, I always made it a point to be there quickly.  One such character was in our Wilmington congregation, languishing with cancer tumors popping up here and there.  When I came to his bedside one afternoon, he was choking on growths in his throat.  He looked at me and said, "You show up at the damnedest times!"  To this day I'm not sure that was a compliment or a complaint.

When I'm not certain of the spiritual condition of the one I am visiting, I stay with the familiar, and usually read John 14:1-6, making emphasis in my comments about Jesus saying no one goes to the Father except through Him.

People don't want to talk about dying, but when they are in the process, the subject can hardly be avoided.  Even though I may have a man as a captive audience, it's not fair (or helpful) to overwhelm him with nagging toward repentance.  But just to lay upon him the simple claims of Christ on him by reading John 3:16; John 5:24 or Romans 6:23 and praying that the Holy Spirit will use it as He pleases.

Those visits must be about Jesus.  Certainly it is not about me (how convincing I can be), and not even about my dying friend (pleasant memories or false comfort).  I must tell myself, "Keep it simple, Stupid!  Keep it simple."