Giving Chapter 29

Tuesday nights during lent, I have been going to a book study. One of my reasons for being there, among my busy life-goings-on, is to accompany dad. Driving a few miles over one small hill, my dad and I arrive minutes later after leaving the house.

The study is based on the book, “We Make the Road by Walking”, by Brian McLaren. Now, we drive. Brian would prefer we walk, I guess. His book is a weekly dig-into new ways forward based on Christian ideology. Change us, change the world – in a broad sense. Granted, a Christian life to change the world is far different than a two minute jaunt over a small bump in a tiny town. Our hill is tiny. The hill to change the world? Immense.

Chapter 29 is the third week. We’ve been to two thus far. In 48 hours, dad and I will head back for a group discussion and insight into this chapter.

There will be twenty+ opinions about what the author intended. In all, four to eight spoken, and close to twelve remaining silent souls will sit in traditional church metal chairs. Three arcs of varied thinking sit-systems is what has drawn me into this array of lenten devotional insight. I am interested in conclusions drawn – with individual pencils – on the idea-canvas that is this book:

Chapter 29 is titled, ” Your Secret Life”. When I first turned over to page 136, Groucho Marx and a silly duck dropped into my brain … You bet your LIFE it did! My second thought was, “This could get a bit spicy … ” Then again, remembering THAT secret life most likely isn’t to what the author is referring, so I didn’t need to revisit those particular evenings in my past.

“We all wish the world would change.” Agreed … and so begins Chapter 29. I stopped there twice. Both times I read this 4-page reflection, those seven words, linked with personal challenges, the tail-end of a pandemic, and a Russian-Ukrainian disaster, created an emotional, locked chain on reason and logic. The world makes no sense. None.

How does Brian address this concern? Using biblical principles, withdrawing inward to become the change we want to see in the world.

I would argue the tenants of self-reflection and inward examination aren’t solely handed over to the biblically minded among us. Orienting toward a higher power, aligning hopes with a higher energy, vocalizing needs and concerns to the universe, and asking for guidance away from that which can harm is standard practice for many belief systems apart from Christianity. The maypole around which all these religions dance – and one I wholeheartily agree brings about the most colorful of change in the world – is silence and secrecy.

This is where Brian and I begin to walk the road together. As he writes, “… if we make our lives a show staged for others to avoid their criticism or gain their praise, we won’t experience the reward of true aliveness. It’s only in secret … that we begin the journey to aliveness.”

He advocates giving, meditating, and fasting in secret to pull away from the pressures of the world … thus becoming that “change” we want to see.

In my talk-abouts with the few surrounding my hot tea moments, I rarely discuss larger conflicts beyond my control. It’s difficult to balance a restaurant table with untold numbers of sugar packets – let alone try to figure out how I can change the mess at the eastern border of Ukraine right now. Should I continue to mask, or decide to argue about Hunter Biden’s laptop?

All of this, I am understanding, is best handled quietly. Brian, kinda, has the right idea; however, the transformation may not change the world as much as it changes the individual.

In the end, isn’t this what these book studies in church buildings are all about, anyway? Perhaps most attend wondering, “Why am I here? What is there to gain? What’s in it for me to learn?”

My take-away, first of all, is a paid-for supper as compensation for taking dad in the first place 😉😁 …. Second, apart from the Christianity angle, I do find value in the humanity of the lessons. My extended family members who sit in those three arcs have opinions I value and humor I appreciate. In turn, my contribution is to remain “partially” silent and enjoy the time together.

The recognized lenten season should change those who are open to it. Whether this alters the will of a higher power is up for debate. The world is a tough place. I do believe if we take time, in silence, to think over things in private and give our time and resources under the radar, the “larger than life” problems – both known and unknown – will work out, … or not.

At the end, Brian says, “… a seed will take root”. Ok. I’ll take a more pragmatic approach. You’ll feel better through giving. This may not directly change the direction of a bad thing in the world, but that small act of secret, outward generosity will simply be a nice, warm, vibe.

Groucho and I will bet on it.

Beside Rusty Roads

Best guess is a late 1940’s Chevrolet panel truck, thanks to my good friend Joel. Beyond any spit and polish for next summer’s picnic outing, a happy heap caught my eye. It sat only a few feet back from a two-lane road heading south from a bustling intersection where folks jammed their modern machines bumper-to-bumper at a McDonald’s drive-thru lane. A crossroads just a few minutes drive away from a lot where one could park their automobile and wait, … and wait, for a loved one to be discharged from the small local hospital. The waits are, indeed, longer now that 2020 has been in our lives. Normal time stopped being normal back around March, … here in Western PA.

Bumps, bruises, and scrapes still happen in this borough. Little ones are being born while others are saying their final good-byes in the same, small, white, one-story building known as the Conemaugh Nason Medical Center. It’s where my mother – thirteen years ago – began her five year cancer journey with the discovery of a little, stage three shadow. Her wait ended in 2012 while resting comfortably in less intimate surroundings. Time was kind to her. Happy as life was, she didn’t live long enough to see us 6 feet apart without hugging each other, or smiling behind masks. Yes, this is a time when she wouldn’t need to see the 2020 things I see – except, maybe, the really cool things like this:

I think it’s on private property – comfortably far enough away from the residence sitting yards back from the road where I pulled off the highway. Definitely not far from a shotgun’s range, however, had the owner been so inclined to aim my way during the 30-second’s time I was snap-happy with my camera phone. Hey, to get a Time Magazine worthy photo like this, one must take risks, right? Honestly, though, driving by – headed south on my way to an appointment – I made a mental note to stop on my way back through an hour, or so, later. “On the left in the woodsy patch … past the white farm house, green road sign, with the two hay bales by a rusty tractor … and three cows (if they haven’t moved) – in reverse”, firmly embedded in my mind. A lot for this mid-50’s mental confusionaire to remember, mind you, but certainly doable under the day off circumstances. And so, I did – less than an hour later. Remembered … and done.

Time, certainly, is a great word for this jalopy. What pandemic? Do you think masking and distancing bothers this guy? I drove the remaining twenty minutes to my home thinking about how slowly time progressed for him since the shiny days when life was new. Bumpers fresh, hood up and down without a squeak in earshot, hubcaps clicked in on rubbery black-mirrored tires, and 30-cents per gallon gas filled up to the top of his tank. Oh the pleasures that must have crowded into the secretive section past the front third of the, now, rusty vacated engine block? What hidden tales are still there as of yet discovered?

Seventy years. Seven decades of life breathed into this metal structure … most years sitting by the road, I suspect. In all probability, used functionally until the mid-to-late 60’s then set aside. Benefit of the doubt here: Forty years out of commission. Two scores unused, done; However, appreciated and admired more now than before – if not by others, me.

Thousands of cars drive by. This is a busy road … one of the busiest in PA – a two lane highway on the way to our Turnpike and a couple major interstates. One could find alternate routes, but time and money are valuable resources, so travelling this road is easiest and most convenient. How many passengers in Prii, Hondas, and Fords – myself included – have whizzed by over the years without noticing such wonderful friends beside the road? You’ve done it in your borough, town, and state as well. The everyday sights are so, … well, everyday, we develop an immunity to the appreciation of all that’s around us.

We look at it casually, but don’t see it for what it is. I fear this happens when we look at others, too. Those who are aged, perhaps, or less fortunate. Some who don’t look like us – sitting by the road, a bit rusty around the edges, hollowed out by a life that left them years ago when gas was more affordable for them. This is not a summons for us to appear in court for crimes against our neighbors. It is simply a typed reminder to myself, and possibly others, that responsible compassion toward others should be something we need to keep in our minds.

I drove the remaining twenty minutes simply replacing that 40’s Chevrolet with two gentleman in my neighborhood. How many times do I drive by? A lot. Can I stop every time? No. What should I do for them, especially now, when we’re in the middle of a pandemic at worse, or a really bad flu epidemic at best? I don’t know. They do have some advantages over a fragile, rusty Chevrolet. Social safety nets are in place to help the unfortunate, however, weather hasn’t been kind to them – 70-year old cars, or sidewalk folks with, seemingly, no hope, food, or family. If either are pushed, they may crumble. It’s a definite conundrum.

Whatever the look-ahead scenarios may be, we’re not excused from seeing what it is. The reality has to be noticed as it is and addressed. It starts with compassion. Responsibly recognize their bumps, bruises, and scrapes in life and help out when and where you can. I’m not advocating giving irresponsibly, or being taken advantage of by someone who doesn’t want to be helped. My Uncle always said, “You can’t push a rope” … and this is so appropriate here. Volunteer at a food bank, donate money, give of your time to a cause helping the needy … I don’t know what else may be available in you community.

This rusty guy in the picture above had some life way back when. Maybe, as I type and think, “he” maybe was a “she”? The owner loved her so much, possibly the barely legible letters once read, “Foxy lady” on the side. Last thing I wanted to do was walk up a muddy path to ask. I suspect the original owner isn’t alive to ask, anyway. The thirty-seconds along side a busy road was enough time to hop out of my Honda, take a Pulitzer-prize winning photo, then leave. My appointment went well, the bottle of tea I bought two hours prior was warm, and ten minutes ahead I had to face the memories of mom, once again, being told – for the first of many times – “cancer is your new normal”. Just ahead, Nason Hospital.

Just ahead for us? More of the same, no doubt, but with a few changes. Some vaccines will give us a light. A change in Washington coming – a slight one, perhaps, as the same old gridlock in Congress gives me little hope for reform. Some financial relief for Americans, save the billions in pork spending. Another time, another day for that.

For now, let’s keep looking – and seeing – the rusty wonders around. Be giving and compassionate toward those you see along your path. Busy road, or solitary journey, you can make a difference in their lives I’m sure.