Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Jersey Years - Part Two

1 Peter 2:1-17 (King James Version)

1 Peter 2

“1Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, all evil speakings,
2As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby:
3If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious.
4To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious,
5Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.
6Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded.
7Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner,
8And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.
9But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light;
10Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.
11Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul;
12Having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that, whereas they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation.
13Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;
14Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.
15For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men:
16As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.
17Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.”

After I posted part one of my recollections of our lives in New Jersey I got some very interesting commentary in response.

There was this from “Birdwoman:”

“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.”

How right she was. I’ll never forget my first encounter with a “jughandle.” We were going to visit some friends and had been told to turn left from one road on to another. So, about a mile from where I was to turn I did what seemed to be the most sensible thing. I got into the left lane. Well, when I got to the road I found out too late that in order to turn left I had to be in the right lane. Does that seem as counter-intuitive to you as it did to me at the time? It took me two years to get used to it. But, interestingly enough it actually does make a lot of left turns safer. And I learned along with that to trust the signs. Somehow, only in New Jersey mind you can you be going both north and south and east at the same time.

Then there was this from “MoxieGirl:”

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

Saying New Jersey has its own personality is putting it very delicately. In fact I don’t think there is a word to describe it. It’s a world in which, when folks ask you where you live, you respond by saying something like, “I’m exit 42 off Interstate 80” or “the Rockaways” or “Boohton (even though it’s spelled Boonton).” And I could really relate to the speed “thing.” It took a while to get used to driving seventy-five on the turnpike in bumper to bumper traffic. And it also took some time to realize that it was always a good idea to bring a book or two along with you when you traveled New Jersey’s interstates and turnpikes. When the traffic gets gridlocked there it’s much better to read something from John Grisham or some pulp fiction than it is to “rubberneck” and complain.

But the comment that really hit to the heart of our life in New Jersey was this one from “Jersey Joe:”

“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.”

I’m sure, dear reader, that you don’t need to read between the lines to see that “Jersey Joe” is someone Nancy and I know. His name is Joe Sereika, and he, his wife Rita, and their children, Adam, Amy, and Alex shared those memorable times with us.

There’s a lot I could tell, but for the sake of time and space I’ll mention two of the things that bound Joe, his family to Nancy and me with those chords that cannot be broken.

The first is the shed Joe mentioned in his e-mail. Joe’s primary occupation and professional background was in design engineering. When he would describe what he did it all sounded very interesting. He told me once that what it all boiled down to was making something like the design of a calculator or an adding machine so appealing that once you saw the design of the finished product you’d like to put frosting or barbeque sauce on it and eat it.

Unfortunately for Joe the economy hiccupped in the early part of the nineties and, like a lot of other New Jersians, he got laid off. And worse yet, this all happened at a time when he and his family had been put into a very precarious position. I won’t say anything else about it other than this – I’ve always loved the grace, love, and dignity in the response Joe and Rita made to this long term crisis. They never wavered in their faith, they never lost hope, they never abandoned their principles. I’ll leave anything further about this in their hands.

One of the great things about Joe is that he is not the type of man to sit around and feel sorry for himself. He did something about his situation. In addition to his skill as an engineer he also had (and still does, I’m sure) great skill as a carpenter, plumber, electrician. I admired this, especially since I have absolutely none in those areas. Well, my lack of skill and his expertise converged at a point of need for both of us. Nancy and I had bought a “fixer-upper.” It was, in New Jersey terms, a real “handy man’s special.” My problem, of course, was that I was the last person needed to fix the all the “special” problems this house had. Nancy, realizing this, got Joe involved, and as it all turned out, it was Divine intervention on every level. The wonder of it all was that it was all encompassing and symbiotic. By the time the project was finished Joe had done such a great job that we had to get a certificate of occupancy for it. It was a thing of beauty, more beautiful even than those calculators he had designed for years. It was so good that I often told guys that I knew that if they ever had occasion to be relegated to the couch for a day or two they could stay in the shed until things got patched up.

The great thing about the relationship was that Nancy and I never had to worry about the things that bedevil many people when they deal with contractors. There are very few times in life when professional and personal relationships work so well and one doesn’t get in the way of the other. Trust was the foundation and everything was built upon that trust.

Joe did this sort of thing to support his family for years. I even remember once telling him at church that a day would come when his work would dot the New Jersey landscape and folks would look at it much like they look at a piece of art in a museum. They might gaze on it as they were passing by and say admiringly, “That’s a Joe Sereika…..man what a beauty. Have you ever seen the likes, it’s like a gingerbread house…..Why I think I could put some frosting on it and eat it”

There were many lessons I learned from Joe during those times, but none was more important than maintaining integrity during those tough times. The Psalmist put it this way:

Psalm 25:21 (King James Version)

“21Let integrity and uprightness preserve me; for I wait on thee.”

Having seen it in his life and work, I know that Joe believed that. I know because he lived it out.

Next, there was Joe’s love of fishing. Now you’d think I would share that love, being from the hardy stock of Newfoundland. But the gene clearly missed me. I recall once, after Joe had invited me to go bass fishing with him, telling him that fishing wasn’t my thing. I think I put it this way. “Joe, I’ve heard that fishing is really nothing but a jerk on one end looking for a jerk on the other.” He just smiled and didn’t say a thing in response. But about a month or so after that he came by my house before dawn, woke me up from a perfectly good sleep and said, “Let’s go.”

We spent the morning moving slowly around a small northwest New Jersey. As I think about it now those four hours seemed like four minutes; the time went all went too fast. I’m still amazed by the skill Joe showed in this arena, too. It seemed to me that he had a sixth or seventh or eighth sense. He would peer through his polarized sunglasses and cast to just the right spot. It was almost as if the bass were sitting there with their mouths open saying, “Right here, Joe…..Come on, big boy, my mouth’s wide open…..Right here.” I don’t remember how many he caught, but it was a lot for sure. I think I caught two, and those were purely accidental.

I think back on it now and see the wonder in that day. It was, in a sense, a classroom, with the maestro doing his work effortlessly and the novice observing, learning. The lesson I took from that day has stayed with me. My life of faith should always be like that, it should be a joy, not a burden or something to be taken lightly. In the same way Joe taught me how to catch bass, God Himself is showing me that He wants me to learn how to catch men. All I need to do is get in the boat with him, put down the oars, and watch.

There’s so much more to tell and so little space or time. I guess in the days ahead I’ll have to write more about those wonderful days. There’s enough to fill the pages of a book. I’ll close with this for today. Joe said it beautifully: “Uncorking that vintage bottle sure tastes good.”

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