PRESTON AND THE GAS THIEVES

Sunday mornings when I was kid, the radio was on in the kitchen while we ate breakfast and got ready for church. We listened to “Radio Bible Class”, which started things off with a male quartet singing the theme song, “Tell Me the Story of Jesus.” Part of the lyrics went like this:

“Tell me the story of Jesus
Write on my heart every word.
Tell me the story so precious.
Sweetest that ever was heard.”

This song was a staple in our church services, and by the time I was eight I must have heard and sung it scores of times. I knew it by heart. But when the quartet got to that third line, “Tell me the story so precious,” what I heard was, “Tell me the story of Preston.”

Preston? Who was Preston? Looking back, it must have been the combination of static and a cheap radio that made me hear the words wrong. Or maybe this quartet had really bad diction. But I didn’t know that at the time.

I heard what I heard, and I spent a year or two of my Sunday breakfasts wondering who Preston was. Not a disciple, as far as I knew. Did Jesus have a brother nobody had mentioned? And why were these men singing about him?

I could have just asked my mom and dad. But I didn’t. Maybe it was because Sunday mornings were pretty chaotic, what with my parents having to feed and dress five kids under the age of nine, and get them pottied, teeth brushed, and in the car and on the road. Especially in the winter, when everyone had to be swathed in coats, hats, mittens and boots. The atmosphere didn’t lend itself to musical or theological questions, which is ironic, because we were getting ready for church. And then I’d forget about it until the next Sunday morning, when once again I was presented with the mystery of Preston.

There were other times in my childhood when I didn’t ask. Once, when I was five or six, the whole family was coming home from visiting relatives. It was dark, past our bedtimes. As we turned onto our long gravel driveway at the farm, Dad paused to scrutinize the tire tracks illuminated by the headlights. Any farmer worth his salt knows the tire patterns of all his vehicles, and can pick out an intruder.

Here was a tire track that didn’t belong.

“Gas Thieves,” Dad pronounced, shaking his head. Like all farmers, he had his own bulk gas and diesel fuel supply, stored in big metal drums on elevated stands. There were no sophisticated locks back then. It was easy for nefarious characters to cut the padlocks and drain the fuel. I didn’t figure all this out until I was older. But that night in the car I perceived this wasn’t a good situation.

When I heard “gas thieves,” I immediately conjured up an image of huge birds, kind of like roadrunners, who stole gas from farmers. I’d probably never heard the word “thieves” before, but instead of asking questions, I made up an explanation that made sense to me. It gave me a delicious quiver to think of these strange creatures. It didn’t occur to me that gas thieves were ordinary humans, albeit sneaky and dishonest ones, driving around in pickup trucks, siphoning gas from innocent farmers.

In retrospect, I’m surprised at my lack of questions about Preston or gas thieves, especially since I grew to be a question asker. Maybe I wasn’t very smart back then. Or maybe I was just a kid with a big imagination. Kids inhabit a world of narrow experiences, and only know what they’ve seen and heard. Any explanation they can come up with is the truth, as far as they know. They simply don’t know that they don’t know.

But say I HAD asked the adults about Preston or the gas thieves. Being a kid wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting, Nor would I have these amusing stories to write about. We all need a little levity these days.

Preston and the gas thieves, I thank you for your help.

IMPERSONAL EFFICIENCY

The Covid lockdown has me reflecting on how humans communicate. I’ve been thankful for Zoom and Skype and all of our electronic ways of talking to each other from home, because talking to each other is as much a basic need as food and air.

But electronic communication obviously lacks the immediacy and warmth of being in the same room with another human, being able to touch and hug, or to see the twinkle or the pain in the other person’s eyes. It’s efficient, but doesn’t enhance relationship by itself. It reminds me of a joke my father-in-law told.

He was a quiet man, not given to drama or drawing attention to himself in a group, but every once in awhile he told a funny story that was all the funnier because it was so unexpected, and delivered deadpan, until his wry smile at the punchline. Also, having grown up in a German community in North Dakota, he talked like Lawrence Welk (who grew up just down the road), which added a lot of flavor.

This story is about Farmer Jones and Farmer Brown. These two farmers had a feud going, who knows what about, but they refused to talk to each other. This worked fine until one day when Farmer Brown’s bull broke out of the pasture he was supposed to be inhabiting and ended up in Farmer Jones’ pasture.

The normal procedure in this case would be for Farmer Jones to call Farmer Brown and give him a heads up, or, if he was exceptionally generous, to load up the bull in his truck and haul him home. But Farmer Jones was having none of that. He decided to send a telegram instead. The shortest possible telegram, because apparently you were charged for telegrams by the word, and Farmer Jones wanted to spend as little money as possible communicating with his sworn enemy.

After giving it a great deal of thought, Farmer Jones sent a one-word telegram: COMFORTABLE.

There was no response from Farmer Brown.

A few days passed. Military maneuvers were conducted in Farmer Jones’ pasture (unlikely, I know. This is a joke, remember). When they finished and cleared out, a grenade was left behind, and believe it or not, Farmer Brown’s bull found it and swallowed it.

Farmer Jones sent a second one-word telegram to Farmer Brown: ABOMINABLE.

Still no response from Farmer Jones.

A couple of days later, as the grenade-carrying bull cavorted in the pasture, he tripped over a large rock, and exploded (note to city dwellers: bulls are boys; cows are girls).

Farmer Jones sent a final telegram to Farmer Brown: NOBLE.

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What an efficient communicator Farmer Jones was. The bull and Farmer Brown were dispatched with only three words. Of course nobody sends telegrams anymore, but we have a modern version of telegrams called texting.

Texting has many advantages. It saves time. You can do other things while having a texting conversation, thus accomplishing the multitasking our culture so values. If you don’t want to interrupt the person you’re texting, you can send your message or question and let them get on with their day.

If you’re feeling shy, or threatened by the person you’re texting, the degree of separation helps you feel less vulnerable and more in control. If you’re angry, frustrated or disappointed, texting might be a better option in order to keep things from exploding.

Often though, texting, like Farmer Jones’ telegrams, is pure laziness, a stand in for personal communication. At times I feel the emptiness of staring at a text and wishing I could hear the words and how the person is saying them. I want the other person to hear my voice so they don’t have to wonder what I really mean. I suppose that’s why emojis were invented, as insurance. If someone texts “I have to cancel lunch today,” and I reply with “OK”, I’m going to need to add a smiling face to let them know it’s really OK. And while hearing from someone by text is better than no communication at all, texting can feel like we’re keeping each other safely at arm’s length. Which I believe we are. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes that’s needed, or the best way of communicating at the time. Let’s just be honest about what’s happening.

Texting is a mixed bag.

Somewhere I read that while sheltering in place we should be looking for what God is doing. I had no answer to that for weeks into this, but now I’d say that God might be showing us how desperately we need the community of flesh and blood. We’ve zoomed and skyped and texted and emailed and talked on the phone, which has been wonderful, but no substitute for physical presence.

Last weekend my husband and I went out to dinner at an actual restaurant, sat at an actual table, and were surrounded by actual people, in person (appropriately distanced, of course). For a few minutes I drank in the buzz of friends greeting each other with gusto, spirited conversations and laughter, masked servers running back and forth, all the interactions, and it was glorious. It felt like waking up after a long, deep sleep and finding that the world is still there.

Loneliness kills; sometimes our bodies, always our souls. Now that we’re gearing up to spend time with people again, we need to savor and value the in person-ness of community, the hugs (soon, I hope), the crinkly-eyed smiles, the fragrance of a grandchild’s hair. We need to be generous with in-person conversations, not just electronic communication. What an incredible gift, to look people in the eye, for real. Our hearts need people.

And that, my friends, is NOBLE.

ALL WE HAVE TO DECIDE

I can’t be the only person waking in the middle of the night and wondering. Wondering about how the global economy is going to survive a massive shutdown. Wondering about when this unnatural, abnormal way of life will end. Wondering in what ways life will have forever changed when the crisis is over. And anticipating all the investigations and accusations and political gamesmanship that will most certainly ensue, and drag on indefinitely. There’s a huge heaviness in all of this.

These are times that nobody wanted or planned for. But we shouldn’t be surprised, because disastrous and dangerous times have been around for all of human history. Why should it be different for us in the 21st century?

J.R.R.Tolkien, the masterful author of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and a devoted Christian, speaks to this reality in a scene that is one of my favorites in the movie trilogy. Frodo, the Hobbit elected to return the ring of power to the Mountain of Doom in order to stop evil from taking over Middle Earth, is expressing deep fear and regret to Gandalf the Wizard, his mentor, friend, and the one who got him into this mess to begin with. The whole company is in grave, immediate danger from Orcs, evil inhuman creatures, who’ve been alerted to their presence in the Mines of Moria by the bumbling curiosity of Pippin (the Simon Peter of Lord of the Rings).

Frodo, pulled away from his comfortable life in the Shire, and sick of the whole thing, even though the journey has barely begun, doesn’t pretend to be brave. He just comes out with it: “I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

Gandalf, himself weary with struggle, and about to experience an epic fight for his very existence, replies, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

There it is, in just a few words. Our only decision is what to do with the time given to us. Not a period of time, but the limitations and frustrations of the current situation, and the uncertainties of the future. What does this mean for a time of limited opportunities while being forced to stay at home? Perhaps mostly a firm and committed belief that God is not surprised by this. Letting him build patience and unselfishness in me while I wait. Realizing that I’m not the only one missing hugs from grandchildren.

Things are what they are. We have no control over a virus, or the people in charge of a shutdown, and no influence over what they’re doing, whether it’s helpful or harmful. Honestly, there seems to be a lot of wandering around in the dark, but how could there not be? This is unmapped territory.

Back to Frodo and Gandalf. (If you haven’t seen the movies, go watch them as soon as you finish reading this. It will take nine hours, but you have the time. Besides being an incredible story, it’s marinated in Biblical truth). After battling the Orcs and attempting to leave the Mines of Moria, in fact, just as they are almost out, Gandalf is captured by a fierce creature called Balrog, and is assumed to be lost forever. Frodo and the rest of the company are nearly paralyzed with grief, but what do they do? They keep going. They have a mission.

Easter weekend is here. There will be no egg hunt with my grandsons, or dinner plans with family and friends, or gatherings at church to remember Jesus’ death and celebrate his resurrection. Though connecting electronically is a gift, it’s not the same as gathering with God’s people. Easter joy will be heavily tempered with loneliness and longing.

Our experience will be more like the very first Easter, where a small band of confused, frightened followers of Jesus gathered after witnessing his crucifixion. I wonder what they said to each other. Maybe there was nothing to say. Maybe they just wept, or sat in numb silence. This wasn’t what they were expecting, and now they had to figure out what came next. And of course they were in for a huge surprise, which changed everything, and set them on a path they could never have imagined.

We didn’t ask for this, but it’s what we have. But on this Easter at home, let’s ask God to give us a spark of surprised joy.

Here is Paul’s prayer for us: “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:18-21).