My “Unscared” Friend

When my children were small, lightening storms and loud noises stressed them. Living in the south, fireworks and thunder storms are frequent uninvited guests.

I came up with a solution for their fear that made an indelible mark on them. The calming mechanism I taught them for their unsettled feelings they now teach their own children.

As my young children would run to me fearful, I would simply open my coat or robe, and say, “Come into my un-scared coat”, and I would envelop them. It was a promise to them that within my presence, wrapped inside my jacket, they had no reason to fear, everything would be alright.”

I have in my life my own “unscared” coat, but it’s not a piece of fabric. My coat is a friend named Jeff. Jeff is everything you’d want in a companion; strong, loyal, fiercely protective of those he loves, and most importantly in his presence, you feel safe.

Early on in our friendship, I asked his wife how they met. She extolled his amazing qualities, and his sweet character traits. In the middle of her praise, I interrupted her and said, “You couldn’t help but love him because of your mom, I mean, “Haven’t we always heard that choosy mother’s choose Jeff?” It was a hilarious pun at the expense of a Jif peanut butter slogan.

Jeff came to mind one late night in January as I returned home from major back surgery. As my wife pulled up outside our home, I quickly realized that I would never be able to navigate the thirteen steps needed to get into my front door. So at 10 pm, I called my “coat” Jeff. As if waiting by the phone for my call for help, He arrived with his sweet wife and steadied me on my climb inside.

Despite my sedated condition, I jokingly told his wife once safely inside that we now had something in common, “We both feel safe in her husband’s arms.” Jeff merely laughed.

As I count my blessings each day, I count as one of them my friend. It’s not often you find someone whose heart and body mirror the size a granite monument. I didn’t tell you that my friend has also been recognized for being the best police officer in our city.

For me, that’s not bad company to keep. In fact, in his presence he makes me feel “unscared”. There’s not many people in my life that I can say that about.

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A Mother’s Anguish at Christmas

I was startled awake by the urgent tones of my cellphone. No one calls during the predawn hours on the Sunday before Christmas unless its important. As I answered the phone with a hello, my bleary eyes glanced at the bedside clock, the time was 4:45 am.

The voice on the other end was professionally monotone, “Hello, is this the chaplain on call?” “I can be” I responded. It was the local general hospital and their need was pressing. “Sir, we have a newborn infant that has been fighting for its life all night, I have been apprised by the doctor to see if you can be with the family.”

The operators last words were jarring, “The baby is dying, the family is requesting your presence.” It was not my weekend to serve on the chaplain’s staff but preaching on Saturday’s and being Sunday, it made me the likely choice to call. I was the only one available this cold morning.

I hurriedly dressed and made my way to the hospital within minutes. It was God’s design that had me living but a short distance away. The hallways were deserted, as I made my way to the neonatal intensive care unit. The nurse at the outer desk knew I had to be a pastor. Who dresses in a suit and tie at 5 am?

Softly she said, “Follow me, I’ll give you access to the room where the family is gathered.” Trailing behind a few steps, the only noise between us was the clicking of our heels as we made our way to the secure door. Using the proper access code, she ushered me into the room, pronounced to the grieving family who I was, then vanished.

No words were exchanged as I looked at each person in the room other than their somber nods of acknowledgment. The room resembled a dim theater, darkened walls, everyone facing forward. The focal point being a clear oxygenated bassinet with an anxious young mother sitting as close as she dared staring lost in thought at her struggling infant. In her arms she clutched a white pillow as if it was a surrogate for what lay before her. She sat with a light jacket draped upon her slumped shoulders still wrapped in her hospital gown.

A mother’s vigil for a child is most painful to watch. You see in her gaze; she would unselfishly trade places with the object of her undying love; even if she had only known her infant for an hour.  I learned from her family that the baby’s given name meant resolute. He was aptly named. For inside his medical cocoon the little infant lay connected to countless cords and leads. Intermittent soft then jarring rhythmic beeping sounds of his life sustaining medical equipment was the only thing that kept track of the waning hours of his life.

I studied the face of this sweet mother. You could see her thoughts taking her down a sorrowful path of what she hoped might have been. She would never see his first steps, see him ride his bicycle, never feel his hugs or kisses on a warm summer day.

Now into the fifth hour of her vigil, the obstetrician who had delivered the child, chose to be with the mother in the final minutes of her son’s life. As if on cue, the machines began their swan song of lessened beeps and alarms until all went silent.  All eyes were on the doctor as she drew out her stethoscope, leaned over the bassinet and listened briefly for a heartbeat.

Turning to make her pronouncement, she simply leaned down to speak to the mother and softly stated for all to hear, “I’m so sorry, he is gone.”

She quickly disconnected the infants medical lines, and in a wrapped blanket placed the infant in the mother’s arms. Now clutching her little boy to her breast for the final time, her body became wracked with sobs.

It was another mother’s grief many years ago that had her too slumped in anguish, this time at the foot of a wooden cross. Her tears and sobs were on display for all the heavens to see.  It is said of mothers, that no matter the age of their sons, in their eyes, they will always remain their little boys.

As Jesus’ mother Mary gazed on the suffering of her boy, she too experienced an indescribable pain. How could she live life without her firstborn? How could a baby, her baby, be born to die?

Grief is inexplicable. It is in its rawest form, the most emotional test of love…learning how to say goodbye.

These two mothers 2000 years apart shared an inexplicable bond, each child’s identity was connected in the word resolute. Unwavering and determined may have been the name of the second child, but it was the hallmark of the first one. He died long ago that the second child would one day be free. His promise of conquering death for us all, is the greatest hope an anguishing parent and world can hear.

One day soon, this child of Bethlehem who gave His life willingly for each one of us, will one day wipe away all our tears, mother’s especially, and will say, welcome home my child. 

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John in Wonderland

I recall as a child being fascinated with mirrors. They could redirect sunlight to brighten up a darkened corner and when placing one mirror in front of another, rows of the very same mirror would reflect into a long shaft to infinity. However the more I aged, mirrors lost more of its fascination. Why? because they don’t lie. Whatever is placed in front of it, will be perfectly reflected back.

I often envisioned what it would like to be able to walk through a mirror and enter into a parallel universe. Unlike the fairytale character Alice in the Looking Glass, my side of the mirror for me holds greater sway. On the opposing side of her mirror, she continually interacted with outlandish characters, talking heads, and a world that was crazy and surreal. Alice and I have something in common. I am grounded in the present while living among the surreal.

What I see beyond my mirrored edge is a world that doesn’t make sense. If I were to manage the world, I wouldn’t be beginning road work the day before the busiest holiday travel day of the year. I wouldn’t be squeezing a three lane highway down to one lane with a plethora of orange road cones causing insane traffic jams.

Last night while visiting a local retailer at the height of the Christmas season, not one cash register with a human soul could be found. Each shopper was relegated to bagging their own goods and checking themselves out. Even during this shopping “experience” not one sales person could be spotted. Apparently all the store’s money spent on wages, is better served in buying cameras to watch their customers exit strategies.

I am amazed that despite Thanksgiving being written in stone each and every year on our calendars, most individuals choose to shop the day before. The ensuing result is a mass of humanity rarely seen except in Disneyland or Japanese water parks. If I was a manager of a store, wouldn’t my mission be to improve the flow of traffic? Apparently my manager’s decision making processes is akin to a squirrel on psychedelic mushrooms trying to find places for his nuts. The whole store was rearranged for the busiest shopping day of the year for shopping cart chaos.

I envision the morning team meeting the Monday beforeThanksgiving. “Okay earthlings, today we’re going to put the bread section where the healthy food was, we’ll place tuna and sardines with exotic international foods, and we’ll mix toenail clippers and sundries with pet supplies. This should improve the shopping experience. Also, let’s play hide and seek on Wednesday so customer service can be non-existent. ”

This week my mailbox was full of flyers and catalogs promoting Black Friday deals. One of the items advertised at a local retailer I wanted. As I entered the store and inquired about the advertised kitchen appliance, the salesperson said, “Sorry they’re are all gone.” As he began to walk away, he muttered, “We only got five of them in the store anyway.” Why would a store pay for a massive advertising mailer touting deals, if their supply chain is five?

This season more than others I am finding less charitable and happy people, and why not? 

Everything in 2020 appears to have been made for frustration and chaos. Roadways, stores, the presidential election, Covid numbers. Yet, while everyone else is stressing over EVERYTHING, on my side of the mirror it’s a whole different world.  

On my side there’s logic and optimism that brings hope. It’s the polar opposite of what I’m seeing in the parallel universe. My struggle each day is striving to keep these two worlds apart.

In my childhood mirror, it was only me, and sometimes in my present life, it still is. For in my mirror I still find joy, peace, love and humor in abundance. My world may seem like fantasy to others, but I don’t care. For me, it’s the antidote to a world gone mad.

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Throughout history, there has been a dearth of volunteers to work kitchen duty. One of my wife’s favorite sayings is, “We only have a kitchen because it came with the house.” Being the parents of three children we had in the past hosted a cadre of friends and children of friends, and we have never forgotten the mountain of work it requires to feed and clean up a kitchen after a party.

One exhausting day after feeding a house full of people, our place looked like we had been hit by a tornado. My wife exhausted, flopped in the chair, “We didn’t have guests, we had locusts!” she exclaimed.  We empathize with individuals who are left with a ton of work after the last of the party goers have vanished. So, like the biblical character Martha, we tend to stick around until the end of a celebration so we can help clean up.

One night we were invited to some community friend’s home for a Christmas party. Their place was teeming with guests, most of whom we had never made acquaintance. To keep from mindless chatter and chit-chat conversations, we chose to work in the kitchen, it’s quieter and we always felt more productive. The night seemed to go on forever as sunset comes early in the winter months.  Finally, the last of the guests said their goodbyes and we wrapped up our self-imposed duties of cleaning up for our friends.

The soiree must have worn out the hosts because as we said so long to them, the outside light went off the moment we stepped off the porch and walked the fifty feet to our car in the driveway. As we began to place our things in the car our friends inside the house did the most unexpected thing. Thinking everyone had gone, they rushed into their bedroom like they’d been shot out of a cannon and began to undress in front of their large bedroom picture window. With lights still blazing inside, we saw them undressing faster than Superman in an empty phone booth.

Before we could even get our seatbelt fastened, we watched in horror as pants and blouses were thrown about the room as if they were being ejected by a threshing machine. Now down to their underwear, it was then as the lady of the house began to unhook her bra strap, I really panicked. My wife with urgency said, “Let’s get out of here before they see us!” I whispered back, “I can’t! They can see us from their window, if they see our lights, they’ll be mortified!”

Thinking quickly, I said to my wife, “Don’t turn on the lights, scoot over into the driver’s seat, I have an idea. Place the car in neutral and I’ll push us out the driveway.” My wife said, “But the house sits on an incline at the end of the driveway.” I was confident that if I could get a running start, the car could make the slight upturn up the hill as it left their property. I then could run around and hop into the car and glide down their hill out of view.  I could turn on our lights when I was free of their expansive yard.

As I huffed and puffed our sizable car out their long driveway to freedom, I dared not turn around. I knew that I could never look my friends in the eye if I knew what their birthday suits looked like. I’d always seen them in church looking so prim and proper; and I wanted to keep it that way. I called on divine assistance in moving our behemoth of a car. Despite my cheeks being red from the cold and embarrassment, I huffed, and God puffed, and jettisoned us to freedom.

I have had many memorable encounters with friends and acquaintances that have been brief. But, this kind of “brief” encounter has never been repeated. Here’s hoping it never does.

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