Saturday, September 17, 2005

Joe and Rita's Miracle

Deuteronomy 11:1-5 (New Living Translation)

Deuteronomy 11
1 “You must love the LORD your God and obey all his requirements, laws, regulations, and commands. 2Listen! I am not talking now to your children, who have never experienced the discipline of the LORD your God or seen his greatness and awesome power. 3They weren't there to see the miraculous signs and wonders he performed in Egypt against Pharaoh and all his land. 4They didn't see what the LORD did to the armies of Egypt and to their horses and chariots--how he drowned them in the Red Sea as they were chasing you, and how he has kept them devastated to this very day! 5They didn't see how the LORD cared for you in the wilderness until you arrived here.”

Today was the first day since our vacation that I’ve felt like my feet are actually planted on the ground. For a couple of days before this beautiful day both my head and my feet were still buzzing, shaking off the cobwebs of our long road trip.

I’m not quite caught up on my reading, but will be by the beginning of next week. One of the things I noticed was that there were a lot of commenters and readers who stopped by my blog over the past three weeks and found time to say something. Most were very kind, and greatly appreciated. There were some that had a bit of bite to them, but they were appreciated as well. I’m going to respond to comments in as much detail as time and space will permit in a week or so. That will give me time to give thought to the issues/questions raised by some of the fire eaters out there or to cool my anger from a boil to a seasoned simmer. It will also give me some time to reflect on the abundant kindness that many others have shown in what they’ve written. With that said, I’d like to offer my sincere thank you for reading Another Man’s Meat.

There were many memorable moments during our vacation. So many, in fact, that it’s hard to say which of them was the most memorable of all. As I think about them I’m reminded of a discussion Nancy and I had with Michael, my youngest son, years ago while we were on the road somewhere in New Jersey. I don’t know why the question occurred to him, but it did. “Do you love Nancy more than me?” Michael asked from the back seat. I remember slowing down for a moment, pondering the question. Then I looked over at Nancy, hoping that I might get some help in answering the question. All I got was a smile that told me that I had a very interesting son and that he had a very interesting question. When I didn’t answer for a while Michael repeated the question. “Do you love Nancy more than you love me?” I first attempted to be clever. “I’m not sure that’s a very good question, Michael.”
“Why not?”
I was stumped. It really was a good question. I reflected for a few miles and then told Michael that Nancy was my first love, hoping that would satisfy him. It didn’t. “You mean that you love Nancy more than you love me,” he responded. I tried responding more directly. “Michael, you know that I love you, don’t you?”
“Then what’s troubling you?”
“I think you love Nancy more than you love me.”
“Michael, it’s not that I don’t love you any less than I ever have, it’s just that my love for Nancy is different in some ways from my love for you. My love for her carries some different responsibilities than it does for you. I’ve promised that I’d spend the rest of my life with her and honor her as long as we “both shall live.”

Michael is now married and I think he understands what I was trying to tell him that night along the road in New Jersey.

Memories are, like love, treasures that come with various shades of meaning. Saying that one is more important or treasured than another is really missing the point. Each memory, each treasure has a very special place in the heart where it resides. It doesn’t compete with any of the others, it complements them.

The first of the treasures we gathered during our vacation was our visit with Joe and Rita Sereika. Nancy and I met them years ago in New Jersey. It began for us with a promotion for me into FedEx’s logistics division based at the company’s eastern region headquarters. As I recall we’d already found a place to live, an old Victorian in Montville, which was not far from the region office. With that done we set out on a search for a church home. About ten minutes after we started we stopped in a Christian bookstore on Route 46 just west of Parsippany. I figured that if anyone would know where the churches were in the area the folks who worked there certainly would. We went into the store and I launched right in. “I’m looking for a church in the area,” I said. The young woman behind the counter chuckled. “There are lots of them,” she replied.
“Well, there’s a particular kind of church I’m looking for.” Then after I described what we were looking for she shook her head and said there wasn’t anything like that in Parsippany or anywhere else around. We were about to leave when a voice from the other side of the store boomed out, “I think there’s a little church in Jockey Hollow like that. I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never been.”

We got directions and the rest, for us, is now history. We attended Christian Center, a small, vibrant Charismatic church, which sat across from the Ford Mansion, which in turn sat at the entrance to Morristown National Park, which is also known in the area as Jockey Hollow.

At first I think it was the idea of a church being in a place called Jockey Hollow that attracted me. But once I began attending I found that there was more to this little church than met the eye. By and large, it was a young person’s church, although not exclusively so. Along with the church’s youth came an on-fire idealism that was bringing young Christians in. Once there they would consider what to do with their lives. I’m amazed even now as I think about it. This little church (about 40 strong) sent missionaries to Tibet, Mali, Russia, the Philippines, Afghanistan, and other far flung places around the world. This little church supported missionaries in the outer islands of the Philippines, India, and Poland. A vibrant pro-life movement sprang up from this church. The church also hosted a coffee house called Light in the Woods that drew young people from all over New Jersey on Friday or Saturday nights. It was a church that was truly alive.

We really got acquainted with Joe and Rita through circumstance. Joe was one of the elders and Rita served in another leadership capacity, finances if memory serves me right. By trade Joe was a design engineer and worked for Monroe Systems. In case you’re wondering what a design engineer does, he or she is the person who can make a calculator or an adding machine look like something you’d want to put frosting on and eat. Joe’ I’ve heard, was exceptionally good at what he did.

While circumstance was kind to Nancy and me during those years, it didn’t seem to be that way for Joe and Rita. I don’t have enough space or memory to give all the details, but there are enough that I recall to give you a real flavor of what life was like for them during those hard times. First, they got caught in a bad real estate transaction. They’d bought a house in the Parsippany area, contingent on the sale of their home in Byram, New Jersey. When the home in Byram didn’t sell Joe and Rita were stuck holding the bag. At one point they pleaded with the “brother” they’d bought the house in Parsippany from to no avail. Then Joe lost his job at Monroe. There were, as there were for lots of companies in New Jersey those days, the dreaded “cutbacks.” In corporate lingo, Joe became “redundant.” With no job and a dwindling savings account things were getting more difficult to manage by the day. In the face of all that a lot of folks would collapse under the strain. But Joe and Rita never did. In fact, it seemed that their faith, outlook, and reliance on principle grew even stronger.

Joe, as I said, was one of the elders at Christian Center. And, it was in this capacity that our friendship really grew. The church itself came upon hard times, and at one point found itself without a pastor. It was at this point that Joe and the other elders asked me if I would help them through the difficulties, and I agreed. Thinking back on it now I can vividly see God’s grace in action. What one of the leaders lacked, another had. I was the wooly haired prophet. Joe was the teacher, the calm, measured, tempered voice in our midst.

The church functioned as a church should. We prayed over wells that had dried up. We prayed with and counseled folks who claimed to have multiple personality disorders. We endured and constantly patched a leaky roof. We sent missionaries to Mali and Afghanistan with our blessing. We made way in our hearts for a group of recovering alcoholics, some of whom later went to other mission fields. And so it went.

The personal elements of our friendship are the most treasured, though. In addition to being a cracker-jack, albeit unemployed engineer, Joe was a master carpenter, fisherman, and jack of all trades. That, combined with my fumbling, inept ways with tools or fishing poles, was the one of the cornerstones of our relationship, with our Christian faith being the chief cornerstone. I remember a conversation Joe and I had once about fishing. As I recall he asked if I’d like to go fishing with him sometime and, trying to bring some levity to the answer, I responded, “No thanks, Joe. I’ve heard that fishing is nothing more than a jerk on one end looking for a jerk on the other.” Joe never got upset. In fact I think he may even have laughed a bit with me. But, some time later, after pre-arranging things with Nancy, he showed up at my house at about 5:30 A.M one Saturday morning., boat in tow. “Let’s go,” he said. “We’re gonna’ go look for some jerks.” It was one of the most wonderful mornings I’ve ever had. Joe would look through his polarized sunglasses, cast, and a bass would find its way to his hook. It was amazing. He caught a bunch and I caught one or two.

The personal elements of our friendship didn’t always revolve around fun things. In time we hired a pastor, who I affectionately think of now as “Pastor Butt-Hole.” It was during those difficult times that Joe seemed even stronger. He hadn’t found a job and made something of a living doing handy work. The bank account, I’m sure was looking slim. In the midst of all this we had a new leader who was clamoring for more and more of the church’s money. One crisis seemed to lead to another until the church teetered on the brink of collapse. It was during these times that Joe was the rock that held us together. Any time I felt like giving in I’d see his face, smiling, and fixed like flint and I’d know that I, too, had to go on.

I’m running up on two thousand words right now, so I’m going to fast forward a bit. When the crisis passed and the church was still standing Nancy and I felt that, with our job done, it was time for us to move on. In 1997 we moved to Memphis, and in 1999 we moved to Emporia. Our paths crossed again with Joe when we moved to these wonderful Flint Hills. I’ve learned over the years that my epitaph will never read “He was a real Handy Man.” Knowing that, when the time came, we found a way to fly Joe out to Emporia to do some work on our house. While the visit was short, it was productive. Joe did an enormous amount of construction in our library and dining room, and on one day trip, helped Nancy find Victory Fellowship, the church we’ve attended ever since we’ve lived here.

Joe still didn’t have a job back in 1999 when we moved to Emporia. It seemed that no matter what he tried, there was no door open to him. I remember that while he was here he even interviewed with FedEx for a manager’s position. I think he would have been a great manager, but I wasn’t on the hiring committee. He didn’t get the job. But he didn’t get discouraged either. He just kept on keeping on.

That brings us to our stop in Lewisville, North Carolina almost two weeks ago. We spent the afternoon before Day catching up. It seems that the miracle that had eluded Joe and Rita for so long caught up with them as soon as they moved south. It was a miracle years in the making, just waiting on all the right elements to come together. This is how it happened. In those difficult days in New Jersey Joe began branching out, trolling so to speak, for jobs in other parts of the country. I don’t know the full circumstances, but what I do know will amaze you. He found himself in North Carolina. He’d been looking for work there, to no avail. During one of the trips he decided to sit down with a school official to see what it would take for him to become a teacher. The meeting was arranged and, in the course of their conversation, the school official got interested in Joe’s engineering drawings. From there things really moved quickly. The official asked Joe if it would be alright if he bought his son over to see Joe’s work. Joe agreed and the son came over. Joe then showed the young man everything about the drawings. There was something in Joe’s presentation that intrigued the man. There was something special.

Joe thought everything was about to wrap up when the school official told him that he wanted to hire him as a teacher. It seems that he saw that Joe has a real gift for teaching and he, unlike the corporate world, saw it as Joe was showing his son the intricacies of his drawings. That, I submit, was a miracle of grace!

Joe’s been teaching for some time now. He teaches a class of “disadvantaged” youth and the fit is perfect. As I sat and listened to Joe describe how much he loves what he’s doing, the wonderful impact he’s having on the lives of young people, and how perfectly it all fit together I could feel the hair on the back on my neck standing on end. To see the culmination of what Joe was searching for, and God was preparing, all those years, converge in Carolina is a miracle of the first order. To see Joe and Rita’s faces lit up with a real sense of everlasting life is a great joy for Nancy and me. I no longer have to wonder whether Joe and Rita’s prayers, or ours, were hitting some brass ceiling on the way to heaven. They were answered!

I wonder now if someone reading this post might be wondering if an answer to a prayer is ever going to come, or if it’s even being heard at all. I hope that this brief recounting of a miracle years in the making will in some way sustain your journey.

C.S. Lewis once called the God we Christians believe in is the “Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye.” There are times I’ve pondered those words, wondering whether God is far more demanding than we could ever imagine, without a shred of grace in His nature. But, when I see a miracle like Joe and Rita’s unfold over the years I see more clearly. The narrow gate and the needle’s eye are designed for those who not only divide the word of Truth, but also live by it. It's grace unfolding slowly, wonderfully, over time.

That’s the story of Joe and Rita’s miracle, a treasured memory to us. It’s history now, recorded in the books of heaven. I hope, in closing, that it will bring comfort and strength for your journey.


Lucas Stephens said...

Praise the Lord! I am truly encouraged reading of the working of our Lord God in these lives whom you and Nancy have touched. I have been praying and believing for my miracle and am even more encouraged to continue believing that God will bring much goodness out of this struggle and time in my life. I am grateful to read your bloggings, Phil. It is as if I am there when you write. I sense I really do understand what you are writing. Thank you for continuing to use this gift from God. Your friend and brother in Christ.

Gone Away said...

I was going to say something about you living a full life, Phil, but then I realized that wasn't strictly correct. Full, yes, but now overflowing. Thanks for brimming over for us.

Joe & Rita said...

Dear Phil,
Thanks. Your kind words are humbling. Most times we go through circumstances and seasons praying for a change or an end without taking stock of the solid foundation being laid right under our very feet. That foundation always turns out to be the very platform we need to be able to step off into the next arena that the Lord has for us. Some foundations take more time to strenghten and lay.

Your words also cause us to reflect back on those dark times and those wonderful happy times. Rita and I were never alone. We grew into a clearer appreciation of God's immediate care for us, which I will confess, at times seemed distant. Rita and I possess the treasure of a deep relationship with you and Nancy and other Christian Center brothers and sisters that has been forged through loyalty, trust and friendship. God has certainly produced a miracle for our family, but just as our circumstances had a plan and purpose for us, so does our placement here in North Carolina. We've learned a lot and now are in a position to share His blessings as He brings opportunity.

We can't discover what tomorrow, the next hour or the next minute will bring, but we can allow that time to affirm that God is in control of bringing just what we need just when He needs us to have it.

Thanks for your uncomprimising walk, your wonderfully loving marriage and our friendship that can't tell time.

Joe & Rita

Jerry Hanel said...

Hello again.

Welcome home. I'm sorry that the words you came home to caused you to "boil", but such is the life of one wearing his ehart for the world (literally) to view.

"Do not loose heart in doing good." The words you speak, although some disapprove, are of truth. I am immeasurably impressed by the wisdom you display, and your consistency in standing by God and your convictions.

It's great to see others being touched by God, which gives me faith and reassurance that God is working something good in my life. Thank you for sharing those words.