Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Jersey Years - Part One

John 15:13-15 (New Living Translation)

“13And here is how to measure it--the greatest love is shown when people lay down their lives for their friends. 14You are my friends if you obey me. 15I no longer call you servants, because a master doesn't confide in his servants. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.”

New Jersey has the undeserved reputation of being a “vast industrial wasteland.” After having lived there for nine years Nancy and I found that it was anything like the stereotypes about the “Garden State” that have lingered for years. I think there are two types of people who foster this notion. First, there are the transients, the people who get to see New Jersey from Newark International Airport, Newark, Fort Lee, the George Washington Bridge, or the Lincoln Tunnel. Then there are the folks who live in New Jersey. I think they foster the image because they realize that they really have a good thing going and don’t want more people coming in to spoil it all.

I now pen the following words with some trepidation. New Jersey does have a population density problem and there is a lot of concrete, but I have to say it and beg forgiveness from the great State of New Jersey. New Jersey is a great place to live. Yes, it’s crowded, but it also has a beautiful shore, fantastic bird sanctuaries, and the best sweet corn or tomatoes you’ll ever taste. The culture and night life are fine, and if you have a real need for “high” culture New York City is just a five or six dollar toll away.

But more than anything, Nancy and I found that the people of New Jersey are really very nice, much nicer than the reputation they’ve been given. While they’re very direct in their communication, they’re also very warm. And I know that they say “Joisy” and “boid” instead of Jersey and bird. I realize that they ask those confusing questions like “What exit are you?” And I know they love the New York Yankees, the Knicks, the Jets, and the Giants. But that’s all forgivable. I’ll say it again. New Jersey is a great place to live and the folks there are absolutely wonderful.

One of the great lessons we learned in our time there is that it takes a while to warm up to folks, but once you do you have a friend for life.

We got a call from one of those friends this past Saturday night. Even though we left New Jersey eight years ago Wally still occupies a big place in our hearts. We met him when we started attending a small church just outside a wonderful national historical site called Jockey Hollow, which was just down the road from Fort Nonsense. I digressed for a moment to give you, linguistically, some flavor of the Jersey approach to things. How many people reading this post can say that they ever went to a church in Jockey Hollow or ever attended one just down the road from Fort Nonsense? There’s something special about being able to say that.

But beyond the ring of the words, the little church we attended was very, very close to our hearts. In the next few paragraphs I’m going to flit back and forth over the years, reminiscing and treasuring our time there.

The first recollection comes from near the end of our time there. We were living in an eight hundred square foot, four bedroom house in Mount Tabor, a small little community on Route 53 between Denville and Morris Plains. Visualize, if you will, a house with a kitchen, living room, dining room, and four bedrooms all contained neatly in an eight hundred square foot package. To say that the arrangement was cozy is an understatement of grandest sort. At some points, the upstairs hall for example, it was impossible for two people to walk side by side. The largest bedroom (our master suite) was 8x10. And the smallest bedroom was 6x7.

At one point in our lives there we had two foreign exchange students from France living with us. It was during this time that a great need arose in Wally’s life. He needed a place to stay. Now I suppose he could have stayed at a YMCA or a boarding house, but what Wally needed was friends to befriend him. He was going through a really deep valley and living at the YMCA was not going to help him climb his way up out of that valley.

This meant that we had three adults, two teenagers, and two cats living in a sardine can of sorts. You’d think that it we be a difficult proposition, but it wasn’t. In fact, some of the warmest memories we have are of nights sitting around in the living room discussing our Christian faith with the young exchange students, Pierre and Olivier. They were very inquisitive, wanting to see faith that really meant something in the lives of people. They had come readily acknowledging that there was far too little Christian influence in their home country. Those conversations we had, I now see, were very special to them.

As I said earlier, Wally was going through a very difficult period in his life. He’d been married and his wife had left him under the very worst type of circumstance. But he refused to allow the situation to overcome him. I’ll always remember how he exuded grace during those days, far more grace than I ever would have under the same conditions. I recall a conversation late one night when I tried to get him to see things realistically. It seemed to me that he was being used unjustly by the guilty parties in the equation. I felt I knew him well enough to be very direct and so I was. I put it this way – “Wally stop being used. You weren’t the one who was wrong here. Stop being a sap.” I somehow felt that he needed a real dose of reality to shake him up. His answer showed me how wrong I was. “Phil,” he said. “God’s grace has gotten me this far in life and I have to share out of the abundance of that grace that I’ve been given. Even if I wanted to lash out I couldn’t…..I’ve just come to see that grace and love are the only things that will get me out of this. They’re the only real defense I have.”

I’ve never forgotten those words or how beautifully Wally lived them out. I never will.

I’ll always remember the great lesson I learned from him – that grace will, if we allow it to, transcend any reality we find ourselves in.

I also remember the good times; times spent camping with friends along the Delaware Water Gap, sharing our faith with other campers. I have very vivid recollections of beautiful starlit nights when Wally would bring out his telescope and unveil the heavens to us. We would all sit transfixed in the dark as he shone his flashlight into the night sky and describe the heavens. I was amazed at how far a small shaft of light from a flashlight could reach into the heavens. It seemed to me that the beam extended light years into the sky. But even more amazing were Wally’s descriptions of what we were seeing. “Do you see these two stars right here. They’re named Bruised and Broken.” Then he’d move the shaft of light to another object. “This one’s Apollo, the brightest star in the constellation Gemini. Apollo is called the Ruler.” And so it would go until well past midnight. The lesson I’ve always carried from those wonderful nights was that the “heavens do truly declare the glory of God.”

I remember another friend we heard from a couple of weeks ago. At a time that would have swallowed up another man and his family he stood like a rock. Even when he was wronged and circumstances seemed to conspire against him he wouldn’t waver. He walked with God right through it. And the amazing thing about the journey was that it took years, not hours or days or months to make.

I remember a business meeting when we realized that we had too much money in our church’s bank account. I’ve never been in a business meeting quite like it. As soon as everyone realized how much we had we knew we had to give it away. It started small. “Let’s send $500 to Paula in Mali.” Then it kept moving to a crescendo. “Let’s send $1000 to Ali Gonzales in the Philippines.” “Let’s send another thousand to Paul Pelei in India.” Each successive recommendation was met with applause and victorious laughter. When we were done the money was all dispersed. We had given everything we had. I can speak for everyone was there and say that it was the most fulfilled I’ve ever felt after a business meeting. There were no arguments about the money being better spent on other things. There was no talk of where the money to meet our monthly obligations was going to come from. We knew we were in the center of God’s will in doing what we had done and were overjoyed to be there.

I remember time spent praying over a friend’s dry well and singing the old chorus, “Spring Up Oh Well” and seeing that prayer answered.

I remember seeing Wally preach one Sunday morning wearing a World War II vintage helmet. His point, of course, was that we needed to contend vigorously for our faith. His problem was that if anyone looked less like General George Patton in a steel pot it was Wally. It was a good thing we all knew him and got the point.

I remember the laughter and I remember the tears. I remember the times of exulting and I remember the valleys. Our life there was full and it was Christian.

There’s so much more to tell and I think in the days ahead I’ll write more about those times. For now it’s enough to say that our Jersey years were among the most wonderful and fulfilling of our lives. We now see that our time there was spent being part of something special, very real, very Christian. In the years since we’ve left New Jersey I’ve also seen that those years were also a foreshadowing of the Celestial City we will one day fully claim as full citizens:

Psalm 122:1-8 (King James Version)

Psalm 122

“1I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD.
2Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem.
3Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together:
4Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the LORD.
5For there are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David.
6Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.
7Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces.
8For my brethren and companions' sakes, I will now say, Peace be within thee.”

There will be more to follow in the days ahead. Stay tuned.


birdwoman said...

It's nice to see that someone enjoyed living in NJ. I didn't. I have to admit it. But there were a variety of reasons. Namely:
1) I'm a native PA person, and where we come from, NJ people are the jerks who buy your farms, subdivide for profit, and ruin your roads. They drove aggressively and talked trash. I never quite have lost this image.
2) when I lived in Jersey, I could never find my way. The roads all marked how to get to the turnpike, but things like Jughandles and circles. Yikes. I'll never understand driving East on a road marked 95N/295S. I once got to the intersection of new road, new road, and old new road. Just too much growth too fast, I guess.

3) it was all the problems of the country and all the problems of the city with the personality of neither. I lived in a bustling megalopolis seven miles from the nearest gas station with rush hour traffic every day.

Ahhh, I'm glad to be back in PA.


MoxieGrrrl said...

(Surfed through via BlogExplosion & noticed your New Jersey blog) - I've lived here my whole life and still haven't moved out of Morris County. I currently live about 2 miles from where you used to live, and I spend my formative years in Morris Plains.

New Jersey certainly is its own personality, and you gotta drive fast and know where you're going.

And I really miss the circles.

Jersey Joe said...

Fine! Tell everyone about your quaint Mt. Tabor house with its narrow stairways. You,however, left out the most important structure on your property - that wonderfully spacious shed out back that I built so Nancy could store her gardening tools! I rather thought it to be the centerpiece of your abode.

Phil, my brother, you're right. I'm sure that your readers all have fond ( or maybe not so fond) memories of places they've lived in, BUT when you uncork that vintage bottle labeled "The Jersey Years" and pour out those deep recollections, boy, it suuuurrrrre tastes good. Any time we get to talk about those years, I'm reminded of the truly unique bond that developed between all those families. I know that it will never be replaced or duplicated in my lifetime. We are all friends for life and our family is grateful to the Lord that He allowed our lives to cross for those years in a small church with a leaky roof.

We can't wait for Part Two, even though we know "who done it!" Keep up the great work.