Mike's Sunday Letter

Holding grandson Sean
--with personal notes
  • We celebrate Scarlette's birthday this Thursday:  #25.  We'll go to Chicago on Friday and Saturday to be with them.
  • The bigger the family gets, the more difficult it is to all get together in a timely manner for Christmas.  So on Thursday night we will go to Springfield to celebrate Christmas with my parents and brothers.  Of course...our Christmas tree is still up, so the season can't be entirely over yet.
  • Reading several things at once these days:  Steven Hess's America's Political Dynasties:  From Adams to Clinton is an easy read, a fun survey of various families in American history who sent multiple generations into national politics.  Some include presidential families (Adams, Roosevelt, Harrison, Taft, Kennedy, etc.  Other families are less well known, but equally fascinating:  the Livingstons, the Muhlenbergs, the Bayards, the Tuckers, etc.  Professor Susan Bauer's The History of the Ancient World does a nice job of making characters and events come alive in narrative style.  Craig Barnes's The Pastor As Minor Poet is a small, thoughtful book:  the gentle and persuasive, the kind of book a pastor needs to read now and then in order to reconnect with the essence of our profession.  And in order to stimulate my latest project and research, I'm delving deeply into Lawrence Freedman's Strategy:  A History.  The book is wide ranging, ground breaking, practical, and evocative.

January 24, 2016
It Once Was Lost, But Now is Found
I have a dozen boxes of "stuff" in my garage belonging to my 3 daughters:  filled with papers, books, art projects, stuffed animals, souvenirs, photos, diaries, knick-knacks, and what-nots.  I'd really like for them to take all that stuff and store it in their own places.  But since all three daughters currently live in apartments, I'm not pressing the point.
Ironically, I was visiting my parents a couple days ago in Springfield, and they handed me a bag and said this:  "We've been going through our closets and we'd like to you take your stuff." 
Does parenting never end?  I didn't even know I still had stuff in my parent's home.  So I rooted through the bag and discovered contents from 1956-1972. 
One item is a letter from my Grandpa Smith to my father, when I was only two years old.  My brother Jim had just been born, two days prior to the letter.  Grandpa uses hillbilly spelling.  "I'm very happy to here of this new member of the Smith family and would have been pleased if it had been a little girl, but thay can come along latter on, lots of time yet.  I hope mother and baby is getting along fine and a cors papa too.  "I'm working days this weeak, but todas my last one for awhile." 
Grandpa goes on with a couple other matters, then he gets to his point:  "say John, I think your mother feels kinda let down about you not asking her up there to be with you and help out with Mike. You know how mom is about anything like that so if you care to call her as soon as you get this and ask her up for a weeak or so, I'm shure she would feel better about it."  (We were living in the Chicago area, my grandparents were in the St. Louis area.)  He chats a little more, then closes with this, "Well but guess I hafte close now as I have work to do so you do as you pleas about calling mom...your best Pal, Dad." 
I'd never seen the letter before.  And after I read it aloud, my dad briefly noted that grandpa always felt better when Grandma went away for a week. 
It fascinated me to read this correspondence from a man who only had a third grade education.   He migrated from the hills of eastern Tennessee (after World War I with the rest of his siblings) and got hired on at the Standard Oil refinery across the river from St. Louis.  Because he was an invalid for the last 15 years of his life, I had long forgotten who he was in his healthy years...until I read this letter.  He was a master of charm, storytelling, humor, peacemaking...and self-interest.
The stuff in that bag also included the most memorable greeting card I have ever received.  I have thought of it many times over the years, but did not know it was still extant...until this week when I pulled it out of the bag from my parents. 
The card simply says, "From your grandparents with love and pride."  Inside is a hokey little Hallmark poem about graduation.  At the bottom it is signed, "Grandpa & Grandma Haworth, May 30, 1972," the day I was to graduate from high school. 
The reason the card was so dramatic?  Grandpa had died suddenly, on May 28.  Grandma had prepared the card ahead of time. 
I had received countless cards and postcards from them in my growing up years, merely giving cursory notice that both their names appeared in the signature.  But when I opened this particular card, I suddenly knew this would be the last one I would ever get with his name on it.  Seeing the signature, I rushed into the bathroom and locked the door so no one would see me cry.  
There is one other item in the bag I want to share with you:  a postcard.  In 1962, the Los Angeles Dodgers opened their new baseball stadium.  They printed up postcards calling the place, "The finest baseball stadium in the country."  Grandpa and Grandma Smith, visiting family in Los Angeles and knowing I liked baseball, purchased one of those cards, wrote me a note, and mailed it with a 4-cent stamp. 
That postcard was my most favorite...ever!  It birthed my first life altering goal:  I immediately yearned to visit Dodger stadium (even though I am a Cub fan.)  That allure stretched from days into years into decades, never satisfied.  So when I was in my late 30s, and our family planned a vacation to California, my friend Dave got us tickets to see the Cubs play the Dodgers in that stadium.  Of course I told my daughters about that postcard, and explained that our impending pilgrimage was to satisfy a hunger I'd had since I was 7. 
We got to Los Angeles...and then the baseball players went on strike...the day before our game...my dream poisoned by the nightmare of a labor dispute.    
It was not until I was almost 60 years old, visiting Mindy when she lived in Los Angeles, that I finallymade it to see "the finest baseball stadium in America."  By that time it was the third oldest park in the major leagues (out of 30), and it had lost much of the spiffiness promised by that long ago postcard.
I've thought about that wonderful card for ages.  Assuming it had been accidently thrown in the rubbish, I have spent years searching antique shops searching for a duplicate, but to no avail. 
And then, Thursday afternoon, looking through these cheap scraps and bits from my past, I discovered it:  the card itself, with a note on the back from my grandmother!  This fountainhead of one of my life's great dreams, is in reality, an artist's so-so dreamy rendition of the now dated ballpark.
The hymn "Amazing Grace" includes these words, "I once was lost, but now am found."  Those lyrics refer, of course, to losing our way in this life...and then being rescued by God...then getting to start over...and then living our lives anew with a full portion of God's grace and joy and power.  It is a MAJOR and rare phenomenon.  But occasionally a riff on that drama unfolds in tiny ways.  Something from our past is long lost...but then abruptly found.   Our hearts quicken, our spirits rise up, our gratitude awakens, and even such a small helping, the grace is amazing.  --Mike

 The Sunday letter is something I have done now for over 20 years.  It is a disciplined musing:  mindfulness, memory, and imagination.  I write it when I first wake up on a Sunday morning and then share it with the congregation.  The letter you see published here is usually revised from what the congregation receives.  This discipline of thinking and writing puts me in the place of describing rather than advising.  It prepares me to proclaim the gospel rather than get preachy with the souls who will sit before me.  --JMS




J. Michael Smith | 2508 S. Cottage Grove | Urbana | IL | 61801