Friday, August 25, 2023

Travel: Interesting Things In Kansas and Uncle Johnny Turns 100

When Uncle Johnny calls me, he hollers into the phone, wondering how I’m doing, how Paul is recovering from his accident, and, sometimes, when I’m coming to see him. “You’ll come see me when I’m in a box,” he grumbled one time, and I thought that was probably true. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if I found a way to see him before that?

I holler my answers when Johnny asks me questions, and on a good day he hears about 10% of what I’m saying. But we still manage to feel connected and up to date, and that’s what matters.

Johnny is my dad’s youngest brother. Dad lived to be almost 103, Johnny just turned 100, and their mother was almost 104 when she passed. “Sucks to be you,” a young friend told me when I quoted these numbers. But I am ok with the longevity genes I carry, because “Kansas Mommi” and Dad and Johnny made it look like long years of enjoying life, pursuing interests you didn’t have time for when you were fifty, and (Mommi especially) getting by with speaking your mind because people give you a free pass when you’re old. Dad was reading a classic—I think it was War and Peace—shortly before he died, and he wrote countless letters in his final years. Mommi was also a prolific letter-writer, with a mind tack-sharp almost to the end. Johnny had been living alone since his wife, Bertha, passed away maybe six years ago, and he hosted a revolving roster of visiting relatives in his basement. “Johnny’s EconoLodge,” he called it. In the last year, his son and daughter-in-law moved into the basement to stay with him.  Up to age 99, Johnny also had a job spraying his neighbors’ fencerows.

When the family announced a 100th birthday party for Uncle Johnny, I remembered his comment about seeing him in a box and decided to prioritize seeing him alive and well.

So Paul and I, as well as most of my siblings and their spouses, headed for Kansas two weeks ago. We stayed in some friends’ beautiful house and filled our days with a book event, an afternoon tea with a fun bunch of ladies, a visit to a museum, church on Sunday, visiting an Amish family whose daughter lives with our daughter in Thailand, cooking dinners for all of us, and of course the party itself, all in the context of Kansas in August.

At the tea party, I met my friend Miriam’s daughter-in-law, a lovely young lady who told me she grew up in Washington State, in the mountains, no less. She indicated that the transition to Kansas hasn’t been easy.

I tried to imagine it. Living in the Northwest, you expect the horizon to be like a frame around your world, and you get used to driving an hour or so and seeing a completely different landscape. All the physical features—from forests to desert to ocean beaches to high mountains—are wild and huge and breathtaking.

The graph-paper-grid roads, the landscape, and the farmhouses reminded me of Minnesota where I grew up, only Kansas is more so. Roads don’t detour around lakes, and the land is even flatter than central Minnesota. The roads are wide and the fields are wider.

I heard someone use the word “boring.”

“Here, we watch the sky for drama, rather than the landscape,” one of the women said.

That made sense to me. Compared to Oregon’s sedate weather, the Midwest’s tornadoes and hail and thunderstorms are wild drama. If I lived in Kansas, I’m sure I would watch them like all the locals and download a weather-radar app on my phone.

Still, I think I’d find it difficult to look at those flat fields, stretching to the flat horizon, day after day.

However, there’s something I could endlessly watch for sheer entertainment if I lived in Hutchinson, Kansas, and that is the people. Not only does the community offer Uncle Johnny and all his quirks, along with dozens of interesting relatives, it is also home to a unique stripe of Anabaptists who value reading and studying more than any other group of Plain people I’ve had the chance to observe. I decided to make the most of this trait and organized a book signing plus had a boxful of books in the car during Johnny’s party. Happily, that was the right move, and my favorite customer was the Amish woman, probably fifteen years older than me, who bought a stack of books at the event at Rendezvous Coffee and then nimbly climbed into her blue tractor and drove away.

Hundreds of people showed up for Johnny’s party, and the line waiting to greet Johnny stretched around all four sides of the gym. I talked with many different people, finding the most random points of connection. Evelyn and I were penpals when we were teenagers. Emma Grace was the little sister of my playmate Priscilla in Iowa when I was four or five, and now she’s married to my cousin Herman. My cousin Freeman and his wife Margaret came from Oklahoma, and we reminisced about the tea party she hosted at her house and how her son came in with a snake he’d found, which she realized was not a wise move to make if I was her guest. Roy from Montana is my local friend Jane’s brother and he’s married to my cousin Glenn’s daughter. And on and on, with not nearly enough time to connect and observe like I wanted, especially with a bunch of little Amish children kicking a soccer ball or waiting patiently in line. But what I squeezed in was precious and nourishing, deep down.

The Amish generally aren’t big on hugging, but Johnny is an exception. He hugged all of us and let us know how glad he was that we had come. I’m told he learned to hug after his children were pretty much grown up, and his daughter decided The Time Had Come and taught her parents this valuable skill.

Johnny has also learned to use a cell phone. My cousin John Earl’s wife Janice told me that the week before the party, Johnny had asked her to take him to town. They arranged a time, and Janice arrived to pick him up. Johnny didn’t come to the door, and she couldn’t find him in the house. She looked all around the basement, fearing she’d find him collapsed or worse, but no Johnny.

Finally, she called his cell phone. Johnny answered, hollering, “I’m not interested! I’m almost one hundred years old, and I’m outta the game!”

That’s his standard answer for telemarketers.

So Janice knew he was alive, but she still didn’t know where he was.

Finally he came walking in from a row of trees some distance from the house, where he’d been cleaning up in preparation for company coming. He had forgotten about Janice coming to take him to town.

I hope when I’m 100 years old I can still look outside and see mountains on the horizon, because despite being raised in the Midwest, I like having a frame around the world. Even more, I hope that I’ll keep in touch with my descendants and nieces and nephews, find useful things to do and good books to read, and welcome hundreds of people to my party. I hope I drop useless traditions and pick up new ones that serve me far better. I hope I find life endlessly interesting, whether I live in Kansas or Oregon or the uttermost parts of the world.

Maybe the key to an interesting life is not so much where you live, but how, and among whom.

Here's part of the line waiting to wish Johnny a happy birthday.

At the family dinner after the party, they served lots of delicious food, but all that really mattered to us was Amish peanut butter spread on homemade white bread. We used to eat this delicacy at the communal meals after the Amish church services of our childhood, and there is nothing like it in the whole world.
Dipping the sticky substance onto my plate, I tried to explain to my brother-in-law Chad who grew up Holdeman Mennonite and sadly deprived. "This stuff will make everything in your life all better. If you are stressed about anything, it will all go away when you eat this. It is that amazing."
I don't know if Chad believed me, but we see here that my sister Rebecca and brother Marcus immediately partook of their bread and peanut butter before touching the rest of the meal.
That is how it is with Amish peanut butter.

Roy read to the little kids

Paul and my cousin Truman caught up with their lives.

Chad the brother-in-law's cousin John took us on a tour of the Inman museum. He is really good at what he does, and I absorbed more Mennonite history in two hours than in the past ten years. 
Anna and Marcus, Loraine and Fred, Rebecca, me and Paul, and Margaret and Chad
[the sibs are Marcus, Fred, Rebecca, me, and Margaret. Our oldest brother, Phil, wasn't there.]

This lady came to my book signing in a tractor. The writing is from the coffee shop window. I contacted her daughter about posting this shot. She said, "Oh, that's my sweet mom, and she will be perfectly fine with it! Side note: This 84 year old Amish lady learned how to text since she knew that was her grandchildren’s primary way of communicating. She has a very strong desire to keep learning even in the limits of her Amish faith!"
[See what I mean about Kansas people?]

Tuesday, August 01, 2023

Mr. Smucker Speaks: Identifying with Nicodemus

I recently read through John 3, the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night.  As I read the conversation, I had a unique experience:  I related to Nicodemus in ways I seldom do with people in Scripture. 

We are told three facts about Nicodemus. From those, we assume other things, and from his conversation with Jesus we can deduce several more things. We know that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, probably a life-long Pharisee which means he was a religious conservative.  We know his name was Nicodemus.  He was a ruler among his people.  He was not a dramatic man like some of the scribes and Pharisees.    I am a life-long Mennonite and a religious conservative.  My name is Paul.  For 25 years I was an undramatic minister among the Mennonite people.

When Nicodemus came to question Jesus, he did not do it like it seemed most of the scribes and Pharisees did.  He was not dramatic.  He did not create a scene.  He seemed to be older, and trying to piece things together.  He seemed to know all about the law of Moses and how things were to be.  He seemed to know about God.  But then Jesus appeared.  John does not tell us if Nicodemus ever saw a miracle or ever heard Jesus preach.  But it is easy to infer that Nicodemus was troubled because he saw that Jesus was definitely from God, but he was so different and he taught things so differently.  So Nicodemus decided to visit Jesus, address him respectfully,  and try to figure things out.  

Toward the beginning of their conversation, Jesus introduced a brand new concept, the new birth, that Nicodemus had never been taught and could hardly wrap his mind around.  Nicodemus responded with questions.  Jesus answered the questions with comparison between physical birth and spiritual birth and statements like being born of water and born of the Spirit which we still don’t know for sure what it means.  Then Jesus states that Nicodemus should just accept what Jesus says and realize that there are some things our human mind has trouble comprehending about God and how he works.  He uses wind for an example.  Jesus reminds Nicodemus that he recognizes wind.  He hears it and feels it, but he cannot control it, nor will he ever understand how it comes and where it goes and why at times there are wind gusts.  Today the wind is still beyond complete human understanding.  Being born again is the same way.  We see the effects and hear the effects and can understand it to a certain degree, but there is a lot about it that Jesus knew Nicodemus would never fully understand or comprehend, even when he explained it.

Nicodemus answers, how can these things be?  There is not enough context to say for sure, but to me Nicodemus seems to be saying, “How can it be that there is a spiritual concept I have not been taught and that you are telling me I cannot understand?  I am Nicodemus.  I am a ruler of the Jews.  God has given us the law.  I have studied it.  Surely somewhere in the law is the answer.   How can it be that being born again is a true concept and God never distinctly mentioned it before?”

Jesus’s response was to state that it was okay for master of Israel who has studied the law and who was a follower of God to not know things.  Jesus implied there were a lot of earthly things and heavenly things God would not tell us because our human brains would have trouble understanding it.  Nicodemus needed to be okay with that, and it appears he was.  Jesus then proceeded to tell Nicodemus about the brass serpent being lifted up and compared that to himself being lifted up and then the wonderful verses 15 and 16 --15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

These wonderful concepts were all brand new things for Nicodemus, things he had never been taught.  Things that were not immediately supported by what he already knew.  It was hard, but Nicodemus made tremendous growth that evening with Jesus.  Even though it was difficult, he seems to have enjoyed what he was learning.  Nicodemus, as far as we know, remained a Pharisee, a ruler in Israel.  He believed in Jesus.  He had eternal life.  We are told in John 7 that Nicodemus defended Jesus in a public way and in John 19 that Nicodemus brought myrrh and aloes for Jesus’ burial.  Nicodemus in his older years realized that even though he was a leader, he was a smart man, and he had studied scripture, he needed to be careful how he formed and expressed his opinions. He also needed to be open to learning and growing even though it was hard and made him end up at a new, unforeseen place.

Growing, learning, and changing are hard work. When I was a young child it was a natural process to grow and learn, even though I had to work hard at learning from my parents and teachers. I worked hard in high school and college. Marriage, children, teaching school, doing ministry in the church, and running a business added to the work of growing older. Now that I am mostly retired, at times it is tempting to sit back and stop learning and growing and changing as I get older.  

Recently I have watched older Christian leaders grappling with new ideas which confront things they have been taught from an early age and that they have always believed.  Things that are based on Scripture, and implied by Scripture, but not definitely stated in Scripture.  As I have participated with these leaders, I have been struck with how important it is to recognize my own limitations and to realize that there might be a lot about what I have learned and been taught about eternity, raising children, and controlling people under my authority that God cannot show to me because I have a frail human mind.  I need to work at forming my opinions, but I also need to be able to understand, like Nicodemus, that some things God will not try to explain to me because I might not be able to understand.  That is growth that is very hard for an older person and I struggle at times with being willing to say “This is what I think it means.” If God did not say that specifically in Scripture and I reach my conclusion because of implications and inferences, I need to reach the place where I can say, “This is what I think God is saying” rather than “This is what I know God is saying.”

A week and a half ago I was with my aunt and some cousins and their wives. We began talking about how much water we needed to drink, difficulties with leg cramps, hearing issues, and other older people health issues.  Someone made the comment that growing old is hard and involves hard work, but it still can be fun.  I was reminded of that on Friday when I organized an overnight canoe trip on the Willamette River like I had done numerous times up until maybe 10 years ago.  I had not been in a canoe since I had my fall over 3 years ago.  Planning took a lot of work to find paddles and gather the canoes and fix the trailer.  It was hard, but a lot of fun.  

Once on the river, paddling was much harder.  With one bum arm, I could not handle being in the back of the canoe, but the sense of freedom I felt by paddling a canoe was intensified by the realization that with hard work, much harder work than when I was younger, I could still enjoy paddling a canoe down the river. We observed red-tailed hawks attacking a bald eagle which flipped over at the moment of attack, and we saw a deer swim the river.  Paddling was hard work, but probably more fun as an older person than it was as a younger person. Like Nicodemus, I want to never give up on learning and growing.

The day after the canoe trip, Mr. Smucker hiked up Mary's Peak.

He joined us for a few minutes of the weekly Red Barn Coffee Hour.
He didn't drink coffee, though.