Monthly Archives: April 2011

Who We’ll Miss–The Hero

Pastor Ken is our church administrator. He’s my boss, aka my immediate supervisor. And he’s a hero.

Now, let me start off by saying that the guy absolutely hates it when I call him “boss,” and that “hero” word would probably put him over the edge. But let me explain him to you. He stands six foot something–six foot three, six foot four maybe. Suffice it to say the guy is tall. He looks like the kind of person you would want next to you if you were walking down a dark alley someplace. But inside that tall and dark man, God has put a truly gentle, truly compassionate spirit. It kind of takes you by surprise. Should some gangster try to attack him in that alley, he would probably ask his attacker if he has a warm place to sleep at night and take him home to his own house. Then he would talk to him and pray for him and try to help him come to faith. Meanwhile, he would find him a job, let him borrow his car, and give him gas money until the guy got on his feet. He would find him help so he could overcome his bad habits and addictions, or his anger and resentment. He would stand in his corner in court, visit him in prison, or drive him across the state line to rehab. And from the moment he met that man in the alley and took him home, he would refer to the man as “his son.” And he would mean it. And that makes him a hero.

I remember the first time I really talked to Pastor Ken. I was waiting on tables at Pizza Hut and he came into the place with four young children. Four very energetic children. I remember thinking he looked like a tall tree with four monkeys hanging off the branches when he walked in the door that day. He was watching the children so their parents, missionaries, could go away together And fearlessly, he decided to take them all out to dinner. I waited on his table, and I admired his valiant efforts to keep them all still and seated.  The kids were talking to him a mile a minute and jumping up and down and he didn’t lose his temper for a second, not one second.  He just enjoyed them as children. He always has a moment for the kids at our church. Always with a high five or kind word for my boys and everyone else’s. And that makes him a hero.

Pastor Ken lost his wife several years ago. I didn’t know her, but he’s told me stories about her, and clearly clearly clearly loved her with all his being. He’s not ashamed to tell you he misses her. But here’s the thing, he hasn’t rolled up in a ball and withered away like I probably would if I stood in his shoes. He hasn’t become angry or bitter. He hasn’t given up on believing in prayer or miracles or kindness or compassion. Instead, he has given his life in service of our church and community. If you need something, he’s always right there. If you’re hurt or sick or lost or discouraged, he’ll be right there. You can count on him. And in the meantime, he’s balancing the budget, running the office, watching the security monitors, and locking up the building because he’s the last one out–again. And if you do catch him and tell him, “Great job, Ken!” he’ll respond the same way again and again. “It takes a team.” he’ll say to you. He’s just not interested in that kind of attention. He serves and serves, but never presumes he’s doing more than anybody else. He’s lived through tremendous grief and has come out with more to give on the other side. And that makes him a hero.

For me, Pastor Ken has been my champion, but he probably doesn’t know that. He has honored me as a leader and has allowed me the space to actually be me if you get my drift. He can listen to me sound off in my hand waving, highly opinionated, Italian way and still hear the respect in my voice behind it. He’s allowed me the freedom to run with my big, grandiose ideas and see them come to fruition. He has laughed at my crazy impulses and stunts, but could always hear the heart for children and families behind them and would let me “go for it.” He’s honored my desire to be the best mom I can be to my boys and allowed me the license to get my job done in the way that best fits my family. He respects my wonderful husband as he watches him love me and ours and has applauded our efforts to serve as a team. He encourages my children as they have learned to serve alongside us. Wow, he even let me buy a set of hot pink lawn flamingos. How many of your bosses would let you do that? So as we trek off to Nebraska, I know I will miss him tremendously. I will miss watching him work to build and rebuild lives, I will miss seeing him moved  with compassion to love the truly unlovable,  and I will miss “shocking” him with my non-Mennonite, Italian ways.  But mostly I will miss serving the families at Petra with him and learning from his selfless example. I can only honor him by going and doing the same, wherever I am.

So yes, Pastor Ken is a hero, but like I said, he probably won’t be too thrilled with me for saying so. I guess I’ll just tell him that it’s the final outburst from his crazy, Italian friend. He should be used to it by now.

Cemeteries, Funerals, and Mickey Mouse

There was a funeral at my church yesterday.

I can tell you with all honesty that serving at funerals has not been one of my favorite parts of being a pastor, but it has been a meaningful one. You would think as a children’s pastor I would not have much to do with funerals, but at our church we have an “all hands on deck” approach to ministering at said events. The pastors all come and do whatever needs to be done. I have been, among other things,  an usher and a greeter and a book-signer person and a door holder and a line organizer and a waitress.  Today the parking attendants were all pastors. (I stayed in the building and monitored the lobby instead,  probably because I was the only one of us wearing a skirt. :)) The truth is, even though we help with all the odds and ends, the primary reason we serve this way is to be a presence of comfortable familiarity for those in our congregation who are walking though the valley of loss, kids included.

As usual, the service was both inspiring and sad and I ended up crying for the loss of this dear man I didn’t really know. Not for him, of course, but for those he left behind. Even through their loss, they were still so grateful for the life  he lived. That’s a beautiful ending for anyone, don’t you agree?

But after the service, I had the opportunity to sit around a table and talk to the other pastors.  And of course the topics were centered around death and funerals. They were sharing different experiences they had, so I chimed in and shared one of mine–the unique experience of spreading my mother’s cremated ashes around Disney World. And of course they  looked at me like I was from Mars, but those of you who knew my mother surely understand how that request was not out of the ballpark for the person she was. She definitely enjoyed the outlandish. Trying to get six Anabaptist pastors to understand the person whose final desire was to become one with Space Mountain and The Pirates of the Caribbean , however, was no easy task!  “What did I think of that?” they wondered.

I told them the problem that I have now, years later , with my mother’s cremation and subsequent “scattering” has nothing to do with where the scattering took place at all. Rather it is in that there is no place to go to remember her. No memorial. And even though I know she didn’t really want a memorial, I think it would be nice now to have one. I would love a place to go and remember her and be able to talk about her with my boys. I think it would be meaningful for them to be able to put a flower on her grave or even just read her name on a beautiful stone. I would like that because I think it would say to them “This person was special to you, and just because you never got to meet her on this earth doesn’t change that fact.” My pastor friends agreed. A person needs a memorial to help those left behind.

Strange as it seems, Orlando and I occasionally have conversations like this. Just last week, as I was drifting off to sleep,  he asked me what I want him to “do with me” (meaning my dead body) should I die in Nebraska. How’s that for a sweet dreams kind of question! My first thought, of course, was “send me home!” but I then I quickly realized that maybe by the time I die, Nebraska will actually feel like home to me. And then I had another thought. Truth is it won’t matter to me, but it might matter to my boys. It will be important for them to have a place to remember me, and even though mine would probably seem like the gravestone of an alien out there in the cemeteries of Nebraska, (Toni Juliano Roth–who?) I’m guessing that my boys won’t really see it that way.

And I was reminded of a scripture that someone read at our wedding. It comes from the book of Ruth: “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

So there you have it. “There I will be buried.” I guess that answers that question. Definitely not as fashionable as eternally resting with Mickey Mouse, but probably every bit as outlandish for an east coast Italian.I think my mother would like it.

Me and my mom at Disney World, 1975

Sometimes It Gets Worse….

Today Orlando and I took another trip down memory lane. But this time we didn’t go anywhere. We just decided to deal with The Toys.

Our attic was, until today, full of toys. Our basement was full of toys. Our upstairs rooms were filled with toys. I’m not sure how it happened, but we haven’t engaged in a serious clearing out of the them ever.  Not one yard sale in all this time. What were we thinking?

Well, I must say that I blame part of it on Disney/Pixar and the Toy Story movies. Our boys think that yard sale-ing toys is akin to abandoning children. They whine and wail at the thought of parting with any of the 257 stuffed animals in our house. Every single one of them has a name and they are organized into “families.” How could we even think of separating them? And heaven forbid anything should land in the trash. I don’t know how many armless action figures and wheel-less  race cars I’ve had to rescue and super glue back together in the wake of grief inspired meltdowns. Not a big deal if your kid only has one or two action figures or race cars, but our boys have hundreds. Yes hundreds. Why? Because everything we’ve ever given them has been a “times four” event. When you have multiples and then other children so close together in age, the best course of action is, most of the time, to give them all exactly the same thing in their Christmas stockings or Easter baskets. So when Benjamin went through his Nascar phase, three Hot Wheels cars in his stocking equaled twelve overall. Times three or four gift events a year times seven years. There you have it–hundreds! We have at least a dozen Buzz Lightyears in every shape and size, four life sized Woody dolls, and enough Potato Heads to create their own galactic army. And then there are the trains. And the puzzles. And the trucks. And the Weebles. And the Leapsters. And the Little People farm. And zoo, and circus, and carousel. And. And. And.

So today we take it on. Orlando is home. The boys are home. So we drag all the toy bins down and up from wherever we can find them. We set them all over the family room floor and we begin to sort. Dig the duplos out of the puzzles. Disentangle the potato head body parts from last year’s VBS beading project. Make sure all the cherries are present in the Hi Ho Cherry O! game. Find all the pieces to the Fire Station set from the 14 different bins they’ve been scattered across. Put all the McDonalds’ toys in a box. No, a bigger box. No, two boxes. No, two bigger boxes. Do we have all the chess pieces? Wait, here’s another one in the bag of marbles.

We even, at long last, sort through the baby toys. The boys are mildly entertained during this part because they have no real recollection of playing with most of those toys, but Orlando and I do. That saxophone with no off button that Nicholas almost never put down. That horse rattle that Dominick loved. Those Elmo telephones that Anthony and Benjamin would hold and babble at each other into, giggling their little baby heads off at each other. Such sweet memories for us in that pile. The boys were quite ready to put everything in this stack in the yard sale boxes. But now Orlando and I found ourselves being more hesitant, suddenly jumping up and saying, “Oh no, we can’t get rid of that.” Like we would all of a sudden be losing our babies if we gave away their toys. Note to self: give away the toys–you still get to keep the kids.

I’m happy to say that I think we survived the ordeal. We have a massive pile to yard sale, sent a huge load to storage to wait for the move, and left only a “survival mode” allowance of toys here in the house. And the boys do not seem to have incurred any serious trauma over the event. But now our house is a total, and I mean total, disaster. Just one day of focusing on something other than upkeep has put us in the proverbial hole in laundry, dishes and dust. And our floors still have piles of unsolved toy mysteries to unravel. I comfort myself in knowing that you have to tear things apart to put them back together. Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. But that’s as far as my self-comfort can get me. Back to school for the boys and back to work for Orlando and me tomorrow, and I have no idea when we’ll get the serious time we’ll need to set it all straight.

Looking on the bright side, we can actually walk in the attic and the toy room now. Even if we can’t walk in the family room. . . .

What We’ll Miss–The Brass Band

For the last seven years, Orlando and I have been startled awake on Easter morning by a loud sound. But the shock only lasts a second or two–the second it takes us to remember it’s Easter morning and to discern what that noise is out on the street.

Actually it’s not noise at all. It’s music, beautiful music! “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” rendered out there in the predawn darkness by  a dozen or so faithful musicians who live in our area–the people who make up the Moravian Trombone Choir.  The choir roams the streets on Easter morning, waking up those of us who live in the borough and reminding us what the day is all about. I always bolt out of bed in an effort to see them–sometimes I can catch a glimpse of them and sometimes I can’t. But when the song is over, they stop playing and walk away so silently it’s like they disappear, and you wonder if they were really there. Or if you were dreaming. Or if you heard angels.  Normally you might think it annoying to be awakened at 4am by a loud, spontaneous concert outside your bedroom window,  but let me tell you, there is something amazingly comforting and revelatory about those melodies on the most important day on the Christian calendar. It opens the doors of your spirit, and it’s like you’re listening to the worship of heaven itself.

“The Band,” as we call it, has been a part of our holiday celebrations for many years now. They play on the streets in our town during the Christmas season, too. On Christmas Eve  they play in the courtyard of the historic Moravian Church Square. We always stop on our way home from our own Christmas Eve service to listen. The boys, usually freezing, are still enthralled by this group who seem to play so effortlessly despite the frost and cold. For us, they are a holy sight. The kind of thing that you see and listen to and know you’re hearing God’s heart.

A few years back we started a Christmas Eve tradition with our boys where we give them new pajamas. I wrap them up and put them in a bag, and when we come home from church that evening, in the ensuing chaos of returning and getting out our traditional Christmas Eve party foods, Orlando sneaks out the back door. He takes the bag, drops it on our porch, rings the bell and runs away. And of course all the boys go rushing to the front door hoping to “catch” whoever it is. But they never do and as they pull the bag into the house, Orlando is always standing right there. Every year they conjecture about who could possibly be giving them these Christmas pajamas. Could it be Deb, our neighbor? Could it be Mr. and Mrs. Kulp, our friends? Could it be someone from church who follows us home? No, they decide. It must be “The Band.” The Band that comes and goes so quickly and quietly. The Band that plays for Jesus. The Band that give us the gift of their music.

Who needs Santa Claus? Here in Lititz, we have the Trombone Choir!

So yes, The Band is on our list of things we will definitely miss. It’s part of the church that founded this community and so permeates the culture and  lives of those who live here. It’s unlikely that our  little town in Nebraska has anything like the Trombone Choir–it’s unlikely that any other town, anywhere does. But this I do know, every village, every town, every borough, every city, every community has a history, has it’s own traditions.  It will be fascinating to discover them in our “new world.”

And fascinating to see what the boys think this year when they get their Christmas pajamas.

Three Words That Changed Everything

I was born in the valley of the shadow of death.

I am the daughter of an Irish mother and an Italian father. My father died suddenly and tragically three months before I was born. A young man, just 39, with seven children and one on the way, his death was a turning point for my family. There was life the way it was before his death and life the way it was after it. And I was born right there at the pivot. So as a child I felt strangely linked to my father’s passing, like in some way my life was birthed from the ashes of his death. That somehow we had brushed by each other between worlds and we had exchanged his final breath for my first. A cloud of mourning settled  over my cradle and stretched into my childhood games and backyard play times. I could see his death in my family’s eyes. Their tears of joy always mixed with sadness when they looked at me.

My family was Catholic, so my earliest memories contain images of tall statues, burning candles, swinging incense, stained-glass windows, and reverent people wearing black robes. I recall sitting in mass on Easter morning as a young child, staring at the huge crucifix that hung behind the priest, wondering what it was all about. This Jesus was a mystery to me. I saw Him as two things: the little baby that was carried around by the Holy Mother, and this lifeless man hanging in front of me. I knew Him by all the right words. Savior, Lord, Christ. But to me He seemed weak and helpless. Someone to be pitied.  Someone who couldn’t defend Himself. Someone who was dead. And dead was something I was well acquainted with.

When I was about nine years old, my family moved to a very small town in Central Florida. Somehow and some way, I found myself drawn to the only church in town, a tiny protestant church with a sand parking lot and clear windows. I recall walking  through the doors that first day and immediately encountering the large, white cross hanging in the front. I found a seat next to a kind-looking elderly woman, and sat down, puzzling.  She smiled at me and handed me a program, and I took the opportunity to ask her the one question that was burning in my mind. “Ma’am,” I asked her pointing to the cross, “Where’s Jesus?”

And this woman, who was old and wrinkly and absolutely radiant with the light of God, looked at me like as though she was expecting the question. She leaned close to me, and whispered three words. Three words that pierced right through my heart and have remained there ever since. “He is risen!” she spoke softly in her warm, joyous voice. “He is risen!”

And in that moment, all I could say was “Ohhh!”  All of a sudden those three words blossomed in the light of that white cross in front of me. He’s isn’t up there because He isn’t dead! He has power beyond death, over death, in spite of death. He, unlike my dear father, conquered death. He is risen!

And as I sat there in that wooden pew, a young girl who had just stumbled in off the street, I knew that I was forever altered by this powerful truth. This God who left the cross and the grave was indeed living, and He was calling out to me. I could exchange the breath of death I had carried for so long for the clear breeze of His resurrected Life. And at that moment, I could feel myself begin to gulp in this clean air as one who had just emerged from a cloud of dirt and dust.

In the weeks to come, I would return to that little church to learn more of Him from those precious, elderly saints. And in the years to come, I would move far from there, and even travel the world in His service. But I must say, when I think of Easter, I always remember that little church and those whispered words. And even though I have walked with Him for many years and have heard those words many times, my heart still leaps with the revelation of their meaning as it did the day I first heard them.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you” (I Peter 1:3-4). When all is said and done, the death and resurrection of Christ is our greatest hope. It is the cornerstone of our faith. It paves the way for our redemption, and our adoption as sons and daughters of God.

“He is risen.” Three words that changed me. Three words that changed everything.

Happy Easter!

My parents, Marie and Anthony Juliano, at the boardwalk in Asbury Park, NJ.

O Piano Man

Orlando plays the piano. Did you know that?

Last week we had a piano tuner here working on restoring the working innards of our upright.  We bought an antique piano from England for each other as a wedding present years ago. It’s a unique piece, the kind of thing that piano tuners just love to poke around in and investigate. So as the piano tuner was poking and the boys were curiously checking out the strange pieces and parts he was lifting onto our rug, Orlando turned and looked at me and said, “I wonder if the boys even know I play the piano?”

Funny, they might not.

The truth is Orlando seldom plays anymore. If you would have told me that could happen when we were dating I would have told you you were totally nuts.  When I met him, Orlando and the piano were practically inseparable in my mind. He played for faculty worship, he played for his students, he played for his family, he played for fun, he played for me. We sat together many an hour going through songbooks and he would play and I would  sing this or that song. Even his hands are meant to play–so big and graceful. I remember during our engagement, waiting and wanting to see our wedding ring on his finger when he played. It seemed like such a part of him. I just wanted to be a part of him, too.

Well, you know how things go. We moved and moved and moved. We worked and worked and worked. And then we had baby and baby and baby and baby. And somehow in all the chaos, the piano was left behind and became nothing more than a big object that needed to be routinely dusted. There was no time to play. There was no time to sing. Even the music seemed to change on us. So we left it behind as something we simply used to do.

Until recently, when the piano tuner came. For our 15th anniversary, minutes after we officially decided to cast doubt to the wind and move to Nebraska, we decided to give each other the gift of a tuned piano. The truth is we never really wanted to stop making music, we just found ourselves in a place where you don’t get to do everything you want. And since we were shaking the dust off our dreams, we decided to shake the dust off the rest of us as well.

So as I finish my very involved church work and he finishes his very hectic school year and emerge from the tunnel that comes with multiple births, multiple babies, and multiple jobs, we are looking at a new season in our lives.  Nebraska is waiting for us, yes, but so is the newly restored piano.

And the older, but still graceful hands that touched it once are eager to begin again.

Could you help me by answering the following question?

Just Keep Swimming

A line from the movie Finding Nemo has been sounding in my head all day. Dory, the forgetful fish, singing to Marlin: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming….”

I went to a pastor’s breakfast this morning on shepherding children with special issues. I left stewing and brewing like I normally do when I attend those types of seminars, but it really wasn’t about the topic at hand, it was about something one of the other attendees said to me.

As usual, I asked a question that opened a can of worms. (Of course I did. Questioning is my one true gift.) But afterward a very nice gentleman came up to me, introduced himself and said, “I can see you are a problem solver. I am, too, and  I just want to tell you something I’ve learned. With some things you can’t solve the problem, you just walk through it.”

He walked away and I wrote it down on my program. I heard God in it.

This kind man who doesn’t know me from Adam hit the nail right on the head when it comes to the way I think. I struggle, struggle, struggle when I can’t solve a problem. I am frustrated by unanswered questions, impossible situations, and dilemmas that won’t be remedied. I feel like there’s more I should do, and either I am the world’s greatest optimist or the world’s most stubborn mule, but I always think “There has to be a way–we just haven’t thought of it yet.We just haven’t prayed hard enough or asked long enough.” But sometimes there isn’t a way. Sometimes there isn’t a solution. Sometimes there is no understanding this side of heaven. And generally speaking those types of situations leave me as a puddle on the floor. They challenge my faith, sap my strength, and crush my hope. And I always find myself going back to my Creator pleading for wisdom and begging for His hand to move. To do something. But sometimes He just doesn’t do. And I can’t do because I don’t know what to do.

But what if… (and please know of me that “what if’s” are not the kind of questions that arise from me usually, so the fact that I have one today is sort of a big deal.) What if this is true? What if there really is no solution to some things? What if what He wants from us is to just walk through the fire? I’ve done it many times, I know. We all have, haven’t we? But when the trial is over and the end has come, I have always felt like a failure for not finding the solution. For not being able to fix it. For not doing more. For surely missing something, somewhere. But what if I wasn’t supposed to solve it in the first place? What if I was supposed to, like the man said, just walk through it?

And in this place of great uncertainty–What job? Sell house? Pack what? School where? Pastor who?–God’s unexpected word to me today was a mercy. In short, don’t solve. Just walk.

Or, as Dory would say, “Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…”