Highway Blues

Trooper Erick Sweetwater saw the young woman sitting at the side of the road, right where the callers had said she was seen. She was staring away from the road, at the expanse of juniper bushes and mesquite and red clay and sand that stretched several miles to the horizon. He pulled his car onto the gravel shoulder and stopped. Leaving the motor running (so the air conditioner would keep the car cool), he opened the door, stepped out, and closed it again. The young woman did not look at him—she continued to stare ahead of her.

Esme felt the hot sun baking her short black hair and her bare arms. Never before had she been left by a truck driver on the road between stops. Never before had she needed to be rescued by a police officer. This was her third summer traveling around the county, and up to now things had gone well. A mixture of anger, embarrassment, and anxiety enveloped her, preventing her from looking up at the trooper as he approached.

Trooper Sweetwater walked carefully toward the young woman, his boots crunching the gravel. He sensed her discomfort. He could see that she was physically unharmed, but he knew that no one chose to sit at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere on a hot July afternoon. The situation required him to be calm, cool, and professional. “May I help you, Ma’am?” were his first words, as his eyes took in her gray backpack, her thin red blanket rolled into a bundle, her white t-shirt, her jeans, and her sandals.

“I suppose so,” she mumbled dimly. “I guess I’ll need a ride back to the Mart.” The Mart was on the north side of town, twenty miles down the road. It consisted of a gas station, two fast food restaurants, and a convenience store; a small motel stood next door. The Mart was a convenient stop for drivers of every kind of vehicle, the last stop of its kind for more than fifty miles along the highway.

“I’ll be happy to take you there,” Trooper Sweetwater assured her, “but first I’ll have to see some identification,” he added apologetically. Sighing, Esme stood and pulled a driver’s license from the pocket of her jeans. “Esmerelda A. Nye,” Erick read silently from the license. He noted her address and hometown and her birthdate, and he glanced between the license and its owner to verify that the photograph matched her face. Still holding the license, he pulled out his notebook and a pen. “What brings you out here to the middle of nowhere?” he inquired curiously.

Esme sighed. Hitchhiking was not illegal, but it was strongly discouraged. Her form of hitchhiking did not involve thumbing for a ride next to the road. Instead, she met drivers—mostly truck drivers, pilots of the big eighteen-wheel trucks carrying food and clothing and furniture and people’s possessions from place to place—and asked them for rides. They were already on the road, traveling from place to place, and they were being paid for their work. Some were forbidden from taking on passengers, but most were not. A few were quick to assure her that they would be happy for her company and expected no additional pay or favors for their trouble. Those that suggested otherwise, she carefully avoided. A lot of drivers were happy for company on their journeys. Some offered her lengthy monologues while they drove, sharing with her their opinions, their perceptions, their views of life and the universe and everything. Others drew her into conversation, as willing to learn about her as to instruct her. A small number drove in silence, not caring to speak or to hear from her. Almost all of them took her from one point to another, and then she was able to find another willing driver at the next point. Never before had she been thrown out of a truck in the middle of nowhere.

But how could Esme explain this way of life to a Trooper and expect him to understand? Esme assumed that she did not fit into the neat categories of travelers of which the Trooper would approve. Deciding to limit her account to the briefest version possible, Esme stated simply, “I accepted a ride from a truck driver. Then we had a disagreement, and he made me get out of his truck. That’s how I got here.”

Erick raised his eyebrows and wrote a brief note on his notepad. “You had a disagreement?” he clarified, and Esme nodded. Although his mind was filled with questions, Erick did not want to stand in the hot sun, and he did not want to force Esmerelda to do so either. Quickly, he made up his mind how to proceed.

Handing the license back to Esme, he gestured toward his car. “Grab your stuff and get in,” he invited. He opened the front passenger door—not the rear doors, that would label her a criminal or a prisoner, but the front door, indicating that she was his equal, possibly even a partner. Esme could not, of course, be his partner, not being a uniformed officer of the law, but Erick was not going to treat her as if she had done something wrong.

Esme picked up her backpack and blanket and climbed into the car. Erick closed the door, got in behind the wheel, and circled back onto the road. For a moment, they drove in silence. Then, quietly and gently, Erick asked her, “What was the disagreement about?”

Esme shrugged. “Politics,” she said. Did anyone ever talk about anything that couldn’t be wrapped up in the word “politics”? Most of the drivers she had met thought along the conservative side of the political spectrum. They admired President Trump and had disdain for President Biden. Some thought that Biden, or his associates, had stolen the election from Trump; others weren’t sure. Some described Biden as a willing partner of evil; others considered him feeble—under the control of the bad guys without himself being genuinely bad. Talk about anything, though—the weather, the condition of the roads, the price of gasoline, law enforcement, people looking for jobs, people not looking for jobs, health and wellness—soon the conversation turned to politics. In politics, at least the way most people described politics to Esme, there were only two sides: one was right and the other was wrong. One side was going to save America from all its problems, and the other was out to destroy America.

Although she did not feel strongly about any of these topics, Esme found that she agreed with the right-leaning truckers she had met. At least she was able to smile and nod and keep things friendly; when a driver asked her opinion, she was able to say the same things other drivers had been saying to her. How was she to know that a driver who looked like all the other drivers, and who sounded at first like all the other drivers, was going to have opinions on the far side of the road? How was she to know that this left-learning liberal truck driver was going to kick her out of her cab merely because they disagreed about something as minor as politics.

“Politics,” repeated the trooper. He obviously wanted more information than that one word from her. In fact, as a trooper, Erick also had an opinion about politics. He had met college girls who outwardly resembled Esme—girls who talked about defunding the police and abolishing the death penalty and legalizing all kinds of drugs and generally being a lot nicer to criminals than to their victims. He hoped that this Esmerelda was not going to be that kind of radical. But, he reminded himself, she was a person in need like other persons in need. His job was to protect and to serve.

“Yeah, politics,” Esme reiterated. Then, to keep the trooper from digging, she gave him more information. “We started off talking about the price of food at the Mart and how it’s going up, and why there aren’t enough truckers working these days to get food and other things where they need to be. Then we jumped to masks and vaccinations and the whole virus conspiracy….”

“You think the virus is a conspiracy?” Erick interrupted her. “You think somebody invented the story?”

Esme shook her head. “No,” she clarified, “I know the virus is real. And I know some people have died from it. But most of the people who get sick from it get better. The way to stop it wasn’t shutting down the economy, or making everyone wear masks, or making everyone get shots that not everyone trusts. They’re using fear to control people, and when they get away with it because of the virus, they’ll keep on using other things to keep people afraid.”

Trooper Sweetwater wanted to ask Esmerelda who she had in mind when she talked about “they” and “them.” He wondered if she had anyone particular in mind, or if she was just casting blame onto some shadowy entity hiding somewhere in the country. But a more important line of inquiry pushed that question out of importance. “So I gather you haven’t gotten the vaccine?” he asked.

Esme shook her head. “Nope,” she said.

“And you’re not wearing a mask,” the trooper continued.

“Nope,” she said again. Then she added, “Look, I got sick from the virus last year. I had a fever and was in bed for three days. Then I got better. I’ve got natural immunity—I don’t need any shot to protect me from the virus. And I’m not going to be able to spread it to anyone else.”

Trooper Sweetwater frowned. “That hasn’t been proven, you know,” he commented.

“That’s only because they don’t to prove it. They don’t even want to study it. They don’t want to know. When people test positive for the virus, they don’t even ask, ‘Have you had this before?’ If they asked, they would know that being sick once protects people better than getting the shots. It works that way with other sicknesses—stands to reason it works the same with this one. But they don’t want to know; it would shoot down their entire play for power.”

By now they had almost returned to the Mart. Erick would not have thrown Esmerelda out of his vehicle twenty miles out of town, but he was uncomfortable knowing that she hadn’t received the vaccine and wasn’t wearing a mask.” Making a quick guess, he said to her, “That’s really why the trucker made you get on, isn’t it?—because you admitted that you haven’t had the shots, and you refused to wear a mask.”

Esme nodded. “Yeah,” she said quietly. “That’s it.” But, in her mind, she added, “but it’s all politics, any way you cut it. If he’d been like the other drivers, if he thought the way they think, he wouldn’t have cared about the mask, or the shot.”

The trooper pulled his car into the parking lot of the Mart. “You can grab your stuff and get out here,” he told her. “And, the next time you ask someone for a ride, maybe you’d better find out how they feel about vaccinations and masks before the two of you hit the road.” Esme took her backpack and blanket and left the car. As she walked away, Trooper Sweetwater reached for his glove compartment. Pulling out a spray bottle of sanitizer, he began to clean the passenger seat and the dashboard of his car.

Esme crossed the hot parking lot, heading for the front doors of the Mart. She felt as if other people were staring at her as she walked. She thought she even heard one person whisper, “That’s her!” But how could any of these people know anything about her? The trooper hadn’t sent out any message about her, at not least while she was in the car with him.

Convinced that she was imagining things, maybe even getting a little paranoid, Esme decided to buy herself a burger and a Coke before looking for another ride. Or maybe she would get a milkshake. And Esme also thought that she might take the trooper’s advice and sound out her driver’s feelings about masks before the two of them pulled out onto the highway.

Life and the Black Dog of depression

In the 1979 movie All That Jazz, Joe Gideon (like the movie’s director and co-writer Bob Fosse) is a successful Broadway and Hollywood choreographer and director who lives life on the edge. He drives himself at work, he drinks and takes drugs, he sleeps around, and he pushes himself to the limit. He both figuratively and literally flirts with death (the literal Death portrayed by Jessica Lange). All That Jazz can be viewed as a brutally analysis of Fosse’s own life, but it also speaks about the choices many other people make in their lives.

What drives people like Joe Gideon to live life on the edge? Often the cause is emptiness within. Stressed by life with its ups and downs, they embrace the downs and overlook the ups. They choose death over life, not suddenly and violently, but gradually, deliberately, and knowingly. The Black Dog of anxiety and depression has more power over them than they have over themselves, and it drives them over the cliffs of despair.

A Christian understands why unbelievers feel this way and act this way. A Christian might wonder why a fellow Christian feels this way and acts this way. Jesus tells us not to be anxious (Matthew 6:25). Paul identifies the greatest gifts of the spirit as faith, hope, and love. If a Christian has no hope, one may suppose, that Christian also has no faith.

I know a man—I’ll call him Martin. Like me, Martin has struggled for years with anxiety and depression. Like most people, this spring has been difficult for Martin: fear of the virus, fear of damage to the economy, fear of violence in the streets, fear of what might happen to himself, to his family, to his job, and to his neighborhood. Martin has not turned to all the wrong answers that Joe Gideon tried. Martin has been faithful in his marriage. He has taken no illegal drugs and abused no prescription drugs. Martin does try his best at his job, but he is not driven to work to the point of exhaustion. But Martin does consume alcohol. He calls himself a “heavy drinker.” That mistake recently put Martin in a very uncomfortable position.

Martin was sitting in church next to his wife when the preacher began the sermon. One of the first things the preacher mentioned was the distress felt by family members when one of them drinks too much. Martin wondered whether his wife had been talking to the preacher about his drinking. (She hadn’t.) The preacher went on to speak of other things, including the grace of God and His power to overcome all evils, even those we bring upon himself. Toward the end of the sermon, the preacher began to list the many idols people put in the place of God, and he dwelt particularly on the sins of alcohol and drug abuse.

As the sermon wound to a close, Martin felt as if things were going dark. It was not like entering a tunnel; it was more like on television when the picture fades to black. He heard the Amen to the sermon; he heard the congregation begin to sing the next hymn. The next thing Martin remembers is lying in the aisle of the church with an usher pounding his chest, performing CPR.

Martin was taken by ambulance to the hospital. He spent the afternoon in the emergency room; then he was in another room for observation for another twenty-four hours. The hospital workers paid closest attention to the working of Martin’s heart. (And, it appears, Martin’s heart is good.) But Martin admitted more than once to the hospital workers that he is a heavy drinker. One of those workers told Martin that he had been admitted with an elevated alcohol content in his blood. In her opinion, he had suffered an alcohol-related seizure. (Other hospital workers said it was not a seizure; aside from blacking out, the symptoms of seizure were absent.)

Martin went home after promising to quit drinking. He was given a drug to reduce the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Along with follow-up visits with his family doctor and with a cardiologist, Martin also followed up with his pastor. They discussed the sin of alcohol dependence, and they discussed God’s grace and forgiveness.

Depression is not a sin. Depression is a symptom that something is wrong—whether physical or emotional or physical. No one cure fits all kinds of depression. A great many factors need to be analyzed: diet, sleep, exercise, stress, fear, guilt, and chemical balances in the body. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—bears a strong feeling that life is not worth living. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—feels unneeded, unwanted, and unloved. A depressed person—whether Christian or nonChristian—will take risks with his or her life. Some risks are sudden and violent: a gunshot, a self-strangling, a strong poisoning, a deliberate car crash. Other risks are slower and less certain: drug and alcohol abuse, reckless driving, overeating or undereating (anorexia), and more.

I cannot suggest much advice about how to help a nonbeliever in this situation, Perhaps persuade him or her that family and friends do care, and that he or she is contributing positive energy to them and to the world. Perhaps ask if they want to live to see their daughter’s wedding, meet their grandchildren, watch those grandchildren grow. Many things in life have meaning apart from God’s blessings; but God’s blessings are the greatest reason of all to keep on living.

The Christian is promised a better life in a better world. This promise is not motivation to end this life and start that new life as soon as possible. This promise is motivation to do our best in this lifetime as we prepare for the better life that is coming. “You will not kill”: this applies, not only to the lives of our neighbors, but also to our own lives. We are managers of the bodies God has made. He intends for us to take care of them. Christians who smoke, Christians who drink to excess, Christians who overeat or who starve themselves: these are not false Christians who have lost their faith. These are sinners who need a Savior and who already know their Savior. These our brothers and sisters who need and deserve our love and encouragement. These are part of the family of God, the body of Christ, whose struggles are more visible than the struggles faced by every Christian in this world.

Joe Gideon flirted with death. So did Martin. In a way, so does every sinner, even those sinners who are simultaneously saints. Viruses and terrorists are not the only dangers in this world; sometimes we are dangers to ourselves. But God says, to Martin and to all of us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9). J.

Ransom (a story based on Matthew 20:28)

Once a good and wise king ruled over a prosperous land. This king loved all his subjects equally, whether they were rich or poor, educated or not, whether the were farmers or storekeepers or shoemakers or blacksmiths or soldiers in the king’s army. The king’s great love for each of the people in his kingdom was deep and unselfish, and in return all the people loved him. Whatever he directed them to do, they did gladly. They did not complain to pay their taxes, the share of their work claimed by the king.

Not all remained peaceful, though, in this kingdom. One of the king’s knights, a leader among the warriors, held anger and jealousy in his heart. Although the king knew that this knight was thinking of rebellion, justice did not permit the king to act until the knight had first rebelled. The knight knew that the king was a just man, and he used this fact to his own advantage.

The evil knight’s rebellion began this way: he started telling lies to the common people of the kingdom, those who loved and served the king in their farms and stores and smith shops. With his lies the knight suggested that the king had been unfair to his people, that his laws did not have in mind what was best for the people, that the king did not truly want the people to have everything that belonged to them.

The people believed the lies of the evil knight and began to disobey the laws of their king. They took for themselves those things that the king had told them not to take; and, in many other ways, they rebelled against their king. The war had begun, and already the knight had captured the citizens of the kingdom.

The castle guards were divided when they heard about the revolution. Some of them joined forces with the evil knight, but many more remained faithful to their king. When fighting broke out inside the castle, the king and his son successfully fought off the evil knight and his followers. They drove the rebels out of the castle and lifted the drawbridge. From that time, the evil knight was no longer allowed in the castle.

Other knights served their king faithfully. They saw that the evil knight and his allies remained alive outside the castle. They also saw that the common people had joined his side, because they loved to hear and believe his lies. The faithful knights were angry; they asked for permission to attack the rebels and complete their victory. Nevertheless, as the king looked out at the common people, he realized how they had been deceived, and he loved them. He called his son to him, and together they planned a way to save the common people from the evil knight. They planned a way to spare them from the punishment demanded by the law for anyone who rebelled against the king.

The prince was the only son of the king, and father and son loved each other more than any other father and son of any time in history. Therefore, when the knights of the castle heard what the father and son had decided to do to save the people of the kingdom from the consequences of their revolution, the knights were aghast. Though they did not doubt the wisdom of their king and of their prince, still they shook their heads and wondered how this unusual plan would end.

Some time later, the prince quietly left his father’s side and slipped out of the castle. The knights watched as he went out into the town, dressed as a common worker of the kingdom. They wondered what he would say to the common people and how they would respond. They wondered if any people would recognize the prince, and, if so, how such people would treat him. They wondered what would happen when the prince found that knight who had begun the rebellion against the king and had led all the people astray.

In the weeks that followed, the prince spoke to many people about the king. He explained the laws of the king and showed how all these laws were for the good of the people. When the people heard his words and were sorry for their rebellion, the prince promised that soon the king would provide a way for their guilt to be removed. He promised that they would be restored to the kingdom at no cost to themselves. Many people rejoiced because of the prince’s words.

The prince did not travel with empty pockets. He used the riches of his father to feed the hungry and to help people with their needs. He did not give to everyone he met, but only to those who called to him for help or whose needs were obvious. He had not come to give away his father’s money, but when he saw how the lies of the evil knight were driving the people his father loved into debt and despair, he was quick to reach out a helping hand.

Some people recognized him. A small group of men traveled with him as he crossed the kingdom. They followed him, not merely because he was giving away money and saying nice things, but because they saw nobility in him and they remembered the love of his father and how much they had once loved the king.

Their goals in following him still were not entirely noble. They dreamed that when the prince would finally take control of the kingdom from the evil knight and the other rebels, they would be lifted up in rank and would enjoy the privilege of being right-hand advisors to the ruling monarch. Some even spoke to the prince, asking him to grant them such favors, since they had been following him so faithfully.

Gently, the prince reminded them how and why he had come. He had not stepped out among the people of the kingdom as royalty to be worshipped and adored, but he had come to them as the servant of the people. His goal was to bring the people back to his father. The prince encouraged his followers to imitate him in this: not to try to be men and women in authority, forcing others to serve them, but to show the kind of nobility the prince showed, serving all the people and meeting their needs. This, the prince said, was the kind of life his father wanted the people of the kingdom to live.

Many people loved the prince, whether they guessed as his identity or not. One group of people, though, hated the prince: the judges of the kingdom. These judges had claimed to be fighting the lies of the evil knight, but actually they had been helping the knight in his rebellion. The judges continued to teach the king’s laws, but they made these laws sound harsher and stricter than the king had ever meant. They offered no hope of forgiveness to those who had broken the laws. The judges boasted that they were keeping the laws of the king. Rather than going to him for guidance, though, they changed his laws to suit their ideas. After the lying knight himself, they were the king’s worst enemies.

The judges had never dreamed that the prince would leave the castle to come among the people. When they saw him, they were furious. They began to look for opportunities to get him out of their way, because they knew that his presence and his teaching would turn the people against them. No doubt some of them recognized the prince and chose to fight him all the same; others convinced themselves that this was not the prince but only an imposter, and they told themselves that they were doing the king a favor by opposing him.

The judges went to the evil knight for help to fight against the prince. The knight, of course, hadn’t the slightest doubt that this really was the prince. All the same, he first tried to tempt the prince to leave his father’s plan and join in the rebellion. When that attempt failed, the evil knight looked for a way to put the prince to death.

The friends of the prince were appalled when they heard how he planned to fight against the evil knight. When the prince warned his friends how the judges would join the fight against him, and when he told his friends what the evil knight was going to do to him, the friends of the prince were very frightened. This was not what they expected of their prince! He spoke of a Ransom, and they were terrified. Because they trusted him, though, they remained with him.

Finally the great day came, the day that the king and the prince had discussed long before. The judges set their trap for the prince, and the prince voluntarily walked into their trap. His friends ran away in their fright, leaving him alone in the hands of his enemies. The evil knight laughed, delighted to have the son of the king in his power.

On that day the evil knight stood before the castle of the king with the prince at his side. “Look, O King,” he shouted, “here I have your son. Are you willing to pay a ransom for his life?” The knight heard no answer from the castle.

“I already have your kingdom in my hands,” the knight boasted. “Now I have your son whom you love so much. I will return him to you, O King, if you promise to let me keep your kingdom and all the people outside your castle.” Again, the knight heard only silence.

“I have offered you the chance to pay a ransom for your son,” the knight called. “You have paid nothing. If I kill your son, the kingdom will remain mine, for no one else in all this kingdom is strong enough to take it from me.” The faithful knights inside the castle boiled in anger, but they obeyed their king and did not reply.

When he still heard no answer, the evil knight commanded that the prince be killed. He left the body at the gates to the castle and rode away, thinking that the kingdom was finally his.

To the amazement of the knight and of all the people of the kingdom, the story did not end here. The king called his son whom he loved back to life; and the evil knight discovered that in killing the prince, he had destroyed himself. No longer were the common people forced to follow him, to believe his lies, to join his rebellion. Rather than paying his kingdom as a ransom to save his son, the father gave his son as a ransom to recover his kingdom.

The king now sent messengers throughout the kingdom to announce that any person who dared to disobey the king’s laws deserved to die, but that the king’s son had already died in that person’s place. Any friend of the prince would be declared innocent of rebellion, because the prince had already paid the price for guilt, enough to cover the guilt of every person in the kingdom.

Many days were required for the messengers to carry this news to all the villages and farms and homes in the kingdom. When the last messenger had delivered his message and everyone in the kingdom had heard the king’s decree of forgiveness through his son’s death, then the king stood for judgment. The prince stood at the king’s side, and he called for all his friends to join him. When the king looked out at his kingdom and saw all those who still believed the lies of the evil knight, all those who refused to be friends of the prince, he was angry. He sent his faithful knights out to slaughter every one of the rebels who had refused their chance to be forgiven by the king. When he looked at his son and the many people who called themselves friends of the prince, the king was glad. He arranged a grand banquet for the prince and for all his friends, and he declared a holiday to be celebrated throughout the entire kingdom.

Though the time of the rebellion seemed long, it was really only a short time for the king, his son, and all the friends of his son. The faithful knights of the kingdom quickly restored the kingdom to its former peace and prosperity. The many men and women and children who had been named friends of the prince lived in this kingdom for a time so long that it couldn’t be measured.

When you give

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:2-4).

Although giving to the needy necessarily involves another person, the act of giving still is largely between ourselves and God. In Jesus’ day, giving to the needy did not involve charitable organizations, income tax deductions, and other technicalities. Today the government allocates money to help the needy. As a result, some people lobby the government for more help or for different kinds of help. Hundreds of other organizations also help the needy; they are funded by contributions, which they seek to raise in a variety of ways. Not all the needy get the help they need from the government and from charities. Some beg on the roadsides for money, and others travel from church to church asking for money. Some are truly poor and needy. Others have chosen poverty and begging as a way of life. Many are under the control of addictions or other mental disorders. All the same, in the United States today, more ways of helping the needy exist than ever before in any time or any place.

Because there are so many ways to offer help to the needy—and because we all receive frequent reminders of the help that is needed—we easily forget that the help we give to others is a secret part of our relationship with God. The Lord has given most of us more than we need so we have the privilege of sharing what we have with others. We begin by helping the members of our family and those nearest to us. We continue by seeing what we can do to assist the needy person who crosses our paths. Merely handing out money does not meet the needs of all the needy. Instead, we can provide food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, clothing for those who lack clothing, and time to visit those who are sick or in prison or lonely. We have different opportunities to serve our Lord by helping the least of our neighbors. When we choose to give to charities, we take time to think—maybe even do some research—to make sure that our money, our time, and our resources are accomplishing the greatest good possible.

If we try to keep for ourselves everything the Lord has provided us, we sin against God and against our neighbors. When we waste our resources—even when we carelessly give to liars and con artists—we sin against God and against our neighbors who have real needs. (Yes, Jesus did say, “Give to everyone who asks.” At the same time, Jesus wants us to be wise stewards of the property he has entrusted to us. He wants each of us to do the most good possible with what we have.) Jesus stresses that, when we give to the needy to call attention to ourselves, we sin. Being self-centered about the help we give to others taints our giving, keeping it from being recognized by God as a good work.

We sin every day. We need God’s forgiveness every day. God forgives us every day. He sends us forgiveness as surely as he sends us daily bread, more than we need, so we can share what we have with others. Jesus sets an example for us to follow. When he healed the sick, he told them not to talk about it. He told them to keep the healing secret. Even today, as Jesus meets our needs for daily bread and daily forgiveness, he does it in a way that other people do not notice. Often, his gifts even escape our attention!

Because our sins are forgiven each day, we are free to be like Jesus. We are free to use what we have to help others. After all, God gave us more than we need so that our help given to others is part of our relationship with God. As we help, we are free to help quietly, so the matter remains secret between ourselves and God. J.

A week late, but I wanted to get it right

Jerry was driving home about ten o’clock Friday night when he spotted a young woman walking on the gravel next to the highway. Her thumb was pointed in the classic hitchhiker position as she walked. Jerry was not in the habit of stopping for hitchhikers, but this young woman seemed harmless. It was late at night on a cool evening, too late and too cold for her to be walking alone, Jerry thought. He slowed to a stop next to her, and she opened the car door and hopped in.

“Thanks,” she said to him. “My name’s Clairisse. I live at 304 Pine Street. Hey, I appreciate the ride.”

“No problem,” Jerry said as he accelerated onto the highway. He knew the neighborhood; Pine Street was in the older part of town, about two miles away. He had no reservation about taking her there.

Jerry glanced at her while he drove. She had long straight blonde hair, parted at the center of her head. A flower-patterned headband encircled her head. She had sky-blue eyes; and when she smiled, she showed straight even teeth. A brightly-colored shirt, blue jeans that flared below the knees, and sandals completed her outfit. Jerry reflected that Halloween had just passed; she might easily be dressed as a hippy for a costume party.

She gazed out the window, drumming her fingers on the handrest of the car door. Jerry struggled to think of something to say to her, but nothing came to mind.  All too soon, he was turning onto Pine Street. He stopped in front of #304, a two-story house that looked as though it had seen better days, although it was hard to be sure in the dark. “Thanks again,” Clairisse chirped at him, and in a trice she was out of the car and headed toward the house. Being a gentleman, Jerry waited until he had seen her open the door and enter the house safely. Then he sighed, shrugged his shoulders once, and drove home.

Saturday morning as he got into his car, he noticed something white between the passenger seat and the car door. Pulling it out, he saw that it was a knitted sweater, the kind that buttons up the front. He had not noticed the sweater Friday night, but Clairisse could have been holding it when she got into the car; she could have dropped it when she left the car. Remembering her address, he decided to return the sweater on his way to work that noon.

Jerry stopped his car on the street in front of 304 Pine Street. He carried the sweater to the door and rang the doorbell. He waited for a few seconds, breathlessly picturing the lovely Clairisse. He rang the bell again. Finally, a tall elderly gentleman opened the door. “Can I help you?” he asked Jerry.

Jerry held up the sweater. “Could you give this to Clairrisse?” he asked. Thinking that the man might be her grandfather, he added, “I gave her a ride home last night, and she left it in my car.”

Slowly, the gentleman took the sweater. “Yes, this belonged to Clairisse,” he affirmed. “You’re not the first young man who brought it back. I suppose you should know, though, that my daughter Clairisse died fifty years ago this weekend.” He didn’t say any more. He just stood there in the doorway, holding the sweater.

“Oh,” said Jerry. “I see.” He could think of nothing more to say. “I’d better be going,” he added, and he turned and walked back to his car.

The old man closed the door. Slowly he ascended the staircase to the second floor. Stopping, he knocked on a bedroom door. The door flew open. Clairisse was standing there.

He handed her the sweater. “It’s back again,” he told her.

“Did you get much of a reaction when you told him I was dead?’ she asked, taking the sweater.

“Not much,” he replied. Shaking his head, he commented, “I don’t see why you keep doing this.”

“It’s fun!” she exclaimed. She gave the gentleman a smile and closed the bedroom door.

Discussion questions:

  1. This short story is based on a common urban legend called the Vanishing Hitchhiker. What details does the author add to the story?
  2. How would you react if someone told you that a passenger who rode in your car last night had been dead for fifty years?
  3. In the song, “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” why does the captain want Dinah to blow her horn. Being that she’s in the kitchen, do you think the horn signals mealtime? Or what?
  4. Did you notice that the surprise ending to the story does not clarify whether Clairisse is a playful girl or is actually a ghost after all? Explain.

J.

Research/Trouble

Marion looked across the table at his wife and smiled. “I’m picking up some interesting skills, working at the library,” he said.

Marion and Julie didn’t often get to eat lunch together. Their busy schedules did not mesh well for shared meals. Breakfasts were eaten on the go, along with other morning preparations, including packing their lunches. Dinners were often separate because one of them had an evening meeting or the other had to drive the children to a dance class or a soccer game. Only on Saturdays and Sundays did they get to eat together, and Sundays the children were usually there as well. That made Saturday lunches special.

“Special skills?” Julie asked him.

Marion nodded. “So many people come in trying to research their family trees, I feel that I’m becoming a professional genealogist. They always ask for help, although some of them know more about family research than I do. In fact, a few of them have taught me a trick or two. It’s gotten to the point that I’m tracking down people in my spare time—living or dead, it doesn’t matter: I can find them.

“Yesterday, for example, I remembered a woman I knew back when I was in graduate school. I got to wondering how she is today. So I did some research. I found out that she got married about five years after our wedding. On the application for the wedding license, her husband wrote that he was a professional musician.”

Julie grinned at the phrase but said nothing. Marion went on, “So, I looked him up, and you’ll never guess what he plays—kettledrums! He’s with a symphony orchestra.”

“Here I pictured him in blue jeans and playing guitar in some rock band.”

“No, he wears a suit and a bow tie. He also teaches music at a college.

“The two of them have a son who’s in high school. He even made the national news. It seems that one day he stood up in the cafeteria and sang the national anthem. The school administrators gave him a detention for it.”

“That doesn’t seem fair.”

“No—a lot of people don’t think so. That’s why it made the national news. He wasn’t being disrespectful to the anthem, he sang it properly, as a show of patriotism.”

“The schools are getting so liberal these days. People support a football player for kneeling during the anthem, and then they punish a kid for singing it the right way.”

“It turns out that the next day, dozens of students got up during lunch and sang the anthem. They wanted to support him. But the school didn’t care. They started putting extra teachers on lunchroom duty to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

Julie shook her head. But instead of saying more about the high school student, she asked a different question. “Now, should I be nervous that you’re looking up old flames when you’re at work?”

“Old flames?” he queried.

“Someone upon whom you once had a big crush.”

Marion looked across the table at his wife and smiled. He decided not to mention the high school yearbook photographs he had also discovered online.

(There really have been cases of high school students being punished for singing the national anthem in the high school cafeteria. But the rest of this story is fiction. J.)

A novel

Seven years ago, I wrote a novel. It sounds so easy said that way. In fact, the plot and characters had been growing in my head for several years when I finally started writing. And it took a few returns over the past seven years to tweak the words and sentences so they seemed right to me.

This is the description on the back of the book:

“On Christmas Eve, Mark Pendleton’s wife and daughters were killed in a traffic accident. Now he was left with only his job, his house, and his books.

On Easter, Amy O’Reilly’s boyfriend emptied his apartment of her possessions and locked her out. Now she was left with only her fast food job, her clothes, and her dance classes.

Soon they would each have more. They would have each other.

Their story is told in their own words. But it is more than a he said-she said confrontation. For he was born at the beginning of the Baby Boom, and she was born at the end of the Baby Boom. Now, in the mid-1980s, they are a generation apart from one another. Living and working in Little Rock, Arkansas, they have far less in common than anyone might have guessed. They must learn to share their lives in the face of their many differences.

More than a love story, I Remember Amy is an account of two individuals, both growing, both learning, and both coming to terms with relationships, with forgiveness, and with acceptance.”

Four dollars for the electronic version on Kindle, or thirteen dollars for a traditional book from amazon.com

When I first imagined the story, Mark was to have been injured in the wreck that killed the rest of his family, unable to stand or walk for the rest of his life. Amy was a gymnast before she became a dancer. She would have been on the brink of greatness, expecting Olympic medals and fame and fortune, but untimely injuries kept her from competing at key events. So she returned to her small town, unsung and uncelebrated, with no future ahead of her. Her only employment was cleaning houses. She would have ended up being a caretaker for Mark, and the story would have developed from there.

By the time I was writing, Mark was no longer confined to a wheelchair, and Amy was a college student, fast food worker, and dancer. One key plot twist—which I am not revealing on WordPress—gave me the incentive finally to create the entire story.

It’s set in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1985. Mark has a job in the state government. While I was writing, I did a lot of factchecking to be authentic about the weather, about events happening in town, and even about which restaurants and motels existed then.

For the last two or three weeks, I have been carefully reading through the work one final time. Last night I finished the reading and sent the work to Kindle for publication. It’s already available; I’m excited to see how it will do. J.iremember

A novel idea: part four (help and hope for the homeless)

There was once a con artist, a phony preacher, a wolf in sheep’s clothing: he called himself Tony Alamo. In the 1960s, he said that Jesus had called him to faith and also called him to a street ministry in California. He reached out to prostitutes, drug abusers, and the homeless, developing a commune which operated several businesses for the benefit of Alamo’s so-called ministry. In the 1970s he relocated to Arkansas, where again his church owned several businesses including a clothing factory which sold decorated leather jackets to a number of famous and wealthy individuals.

Nothing is wrong with helping the poor in Christ’s name, giving them jobs and a place to live, while selling the work of their hands to interested customers. But Tony Alamo became a millionaire while those he supposedly befriended remained destitute, hunting through dumpsters for food because he paid them so little. He subjected some of them to verbal and physical abuse. He claimed their young daughters as his wives. Alamo eventually was charged, convicted, and jailed for tax evasion, child abuse, and violation of the Mann act. He died in prison in 2017.

Jason Hero never met Tony Alamo or any of Alamo’s victims. But Jason abhorred the way Alamo took advantage of the poor and helpless. Jason especially abhorred that Alamo misused the name of Jesus to commit his crimes, “for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Jason had compassion for the homeless; but, until he won the lottery, he was not able to do much to help them.

Consulting with experts in charitable work, including attorneys, Jason established the Jason Hero Foundation and Jason Hero Enterprises. The first act of the Foundation was to open a daytime homeless shelter in the inner city. The shelter included shower stalls and a clothes washer and drier, as well as soap, shampoo, towels, and laundry detergent. It maintained a directory of soup kitchens, food pantries, and overnight shelters in the area. Every day, staff was available to consult with the people who visited the shelter. Jason persuaded doctors, nurses, dentists, barbers, social workers, and counselors to volunteer their services at the shelter on a rotating basis. As incentive for their services, his Foundation offered them financial assistance toward their student loans and other professional expenses. Pastors and Christian leaders were also invited to visit the shelter, pray with the homeless, counsel them, and encourage them. The Foundation kept a small paid staff at the shelter to keep it in good repair, to coordinate the schedules of the volunteers, and to make sure no one was abusing their access to the poor and homeless.

Next, the Foundation purchased an empty industrial plant in a smaller town nearby. It also built an apartment flat near the plant. Homeless people who visited the daytime downtown shelter were advised that they could relocate to the town and work for Jason Hero Enterprises. (We’ll assume that the plant, like Alamo’s, produced clothing.) They would be paid a livable wage, with their money first deposited in a Hero Enterprises account. From that account they could buy meals in the company cafeteria, food in the company grocery store, and lodging in the company apartments. On company property the rules were strict: no tobacco, no alcohol, no marijuana, no illegal drugs. Prescription drugs were handled through a resident nursing staff. Professional security endorsed the rules and prevented violence among workers and among residents. Anyone who was asked to leave for violating the rules, or anyone who chose to leave, was given the balance of their account in U.S. dollars. Volunteers, like those who visited the downtown shelter, made their talents available to factory workers and their families, to anyone who lived in the company apartments. Jason Hero Enterprises deducted taxes, offered health insurance, and fulfilled all the obligations of any business. Any financial losses were covered by the Jason Hero Foundation; any profits went to the Foundation and not to Jason.

Third, the Foundation purchased farmland outside of town and began raising food for the company cafeteria and grocery store. Housing units were built, and people receiving services at the downtown shelter could choose to live and work on the farm or at the factory. The same rules applied at both places, and the same services were offered. Jason’s goal was not to establish a permanent workforce at either Enterprises location, but rather to help the poor and homeless recover their lives, develop useful work skills and good work habits, and be prepared to reenter society as productive citizens.

Once again, I had hoped to develop this history in the form of a novel, with conversations, events, successes, setbacks, and dramatic conflict. But this sketch suffices for the present. Next comes Jason Hero’s political career. J.

A novel idea–part three

When Jason Hero won the lottery, he did spend some of his winnings on his personal life. He bought some new clothing. He bought a new car. He bought a larger house, one on a lot large enough that he would not have to hear his neighbors. He improved his diet, buying more fresh fruits and vegetables that he had not been able to afford in the past. But Jason did not invest much money in unnecessary luxuries. He was not interested in a fancy car or fancy clothing; what he bought was practical and comfortable.

Jason (to borrow a line from the musical Hello, Dolly!) believed that money is like manure: it is meant to be spread around to help things grow. So Jason invested some of his millions of dollars in starting two new businesses.

One of his new businesses was called Green Stealth Lawn Service. The Green in the name was not just a boast of greener lawns; Jason intended his lawn care service to be environmentally friendly. He did not offer pesticides or fertilizers; only grass cutting and leaf and debris removal. The Stealth in the name represented the fact that Jason’s workers were to be so quiet that the homeowner wouldn’t even know they had come. Instead of gasoline lawn mowers, they would use hand-operated reel mowers and hand-held trimmers. Instead of leaf blowers, they would use rakes. With the savings in equipment and fuel, Jason’s company would pay higher salaries than competing lawn care companies. Therefore, Green Stealth could afford to hire the best workers and to keep only those who followed the rules. Clippings and leaves and other lawn debris would be packed in biodegradable bags which the workers would leave on a lot purchased by Jason for that purpose. After a year or two of business, Jason would be able to offer his customers mulch, rich compost, and fill dirt as an additional service. The workers and their equipment would arrive in electric-powered trucks, keeping the theme of quiet and environmentally friendly.

Jason rented an office with a telephone for his company. He hired a manager who was in charge of hiring and scheduling. Jason was a customer of Green Stealth Lawn Service. Twice he had workers fired for breaking company rules and bringing leaf blowers to the job. (This would be described in much detail in the novel I thought about writing.)

Jason’s other business idea was inspired partly by the Disney theme parks, partly by Renaissance fairs, and partly by nostalgic movies such as Back to the Future. Jason purchased several pieces of property around the country and had each developed in a different way. One was built on the pattern of a medieval village, complete with a castle. Another was a western ranch, set around the end of the nineteenth century. A third was a suburban community, with all the houses and cars and stores resembling those of the 1950s. Another was a pre-Civil War southern plantation. In each case, Jason had the developers create dwellings that could be rented that would portray the flavor of the time period depicted, yet would also have modern comforts including heat and air conditioning, and hot and cold running water. Customers could come and stay for a night or two, or for a week or longer. When they made their reservations, they would include their clothing sizes; and when they arrived, they would be given clothing suitable for the time and place. They would be served meals also matching the time and place. All the staff—greeters, food servers, property cleaners, maintenance—would be actors and actresses trained to complete the experience of a medieval village, a 1950s suburb, or whatever else the property was designed to represent. Considering the amount of money people pay for the Disney experience and for Renaissance fairs, Jason figured his nostalgia vacations would also be profitable over the long term. His lottery winnings made the short-term construction possible.

Jason also had a thought about using his money to help the homeless, but that will have to wait for another post. J.

A novel idea, part two

As I revealed last week, Jason Hero won the lottery—the grand prize of three hundred million dollars—without buying a lottery ticket. Jason never received the full three hundred million dollars. He took the bulk payment option, which was roughly half the promised figure (which would have been paid out over twenty years had he favored the other option), and about half of that prize was claimed by federal and state income taxes. Jason was left, then, with seventy-five million dollars, which is still a lot of money.

Jason chose to tithe, to give one tenth of his winnings to the Church and to various charities. Some congregations are so firmly opposed to gambling in any form that they would have refused his gift. Others would say that he should have tithed from the pre-tax amount. But Jason decided that he would divide his tithe among seventy-five recipients, giving each of them one hundred thousand dollars. He figured that was a large enough gift to do some good in seventy-five different places, but not so much that it would be harmful. Jason had heard of congregations that had been torn apart by arguments about how to spend a large gift. He did not want to cause any such disputes.

Jason chose several congregations that he had attended over the years, and a couple of congregations that were led by friends of his. He also sent some gifts directly to the denominational office, designated for foreign missions and for charitable organizations. He gave gifts to secular charities, including the American Red Cross. He gave gifts to the local public radio station and to the local public television station. Jason donated money to the zoo, to the symphony orchestra, to the ballet company, to the community theater, to the art museum, to the county’s historical museum, and to the hospital. He sent checks to the schools where he had earned his bachelor’s degree and his master’s degree.

After distributing his tithe, Jason began investing in his own future. He set up an account that would pay him one thousand dollars a week for the next fifty years, using up $2,500,000 of his winnings. He then took another five million dollars and set up accounts for his ten children, nieces, and nephews. The accounts were trusts to fund their higher education. Until they turned twenty-five, they could spend the money only on tuition, other academic fees, room and board, and normal living expenses such as a car, maintenance of the car, and clothing. Those who had already attended college could use the money to pay off student loans and, if they chose, to pursue additional degrees. Once they turned twenty-five, they were allowed to do whatever they wanted with the remaining money in their trusts. Jason knew that half a million dollars would not be enough for any of them to drop out of life and do nothing useful for the rest of their years. He hoped that the college educations they received would grant them fuller lives that would also benefit the people around them.

After all these sensible plans, Jason still had sixty million dollars to spend in other ways. Some of those will follow in future posts. J.