Life

The Preacher Boy  and the Pastor’s Daughter

bruce and polly gerencser 1978

It seems like yesterday…

The early days of fall have arrived and the young preacher boy busily loads his possessions into a dilapidated, dented Plymouth. It’s time for me to go, he says to his Mom. I wonder what she thinks, her oldest son headed off to college, the first in their family to do so. They embrace, a rare expression of emotion,  and the preacher boy quickly turns away, not wanting her to see the tears running down his face.

Soon the preacher boy is headed north and then east of Bryan. Several hours later he arrives in Pontiac, Michigan, the community he will call home for the next few years.  Midwestern Baptist College, A Character Building Institution, says the sign along Golf Drive. The preacher boy had planned to attend Prairie Bible Institute, but God had other plans for him.

The preacher boy parks his car in front of the dormitory, John R. Rice Hall, and quickly unloads his meager possessions. Tall and lean, the red-headed preacher boy, wearing a blue shirt with the number 75 and the name Rev. on the back, moves his possessions into room 207. The dormitory has two floors and a basement, with wings on either side of a common meeting room. The top floor houses the women. The first floor has two wings, one to each side of the meeting room. Students call one wing the Spiritual Wing, the other the Party Wing. The basement, for obvious reasons,  is called The Pit.

The preacher boy lives on the Party Wing. There, he soon meets like-minded young men, filled with God, life, and recklessness. The preacher boy settles into the rhythm of dorm life at a fundamentalist college. Rules, lots of rules, and just as many ways to bend the rules to fit the desires of a youthful heart. The preacher boy would live in the dorm for two years, and in that time he would repeatedly run afoul of the rules. Told he is brash and rebellious, a fitting description, those who know him would say, the preacher boy does his best to outwardly conform to the letter of the law.

The blue shirt the preacher boy wore when he arrived at the college was given to him by a girl who hoped he would remember her while he was away. Not long after, the shirt disappeared, as did any thought of its giver. If there is one thing that the preacher boy loves almost as much as God, it is girls. And here he is, enrolled at a college that will provide him ample opportunity to ply his charm. Little does he know that fate has a different plan.

The week before the official start of classes, a young, beautiful 17-year-old girl from Newark, Ohio moves into the dorm. The preacher boy mentions the girl to his roommate. Stay away from her, the roommate replies. Her father is Pastor Lee Shope. Unfazed by the stern warning, the preacher boy decides to introduce himself to the dark-haired beauty. He quickly learns she is quite shy. Not one to be at a loss for words, the preacher boy takes the girl’s backwardness as a challenge, one that he successfully conquers over the course of a few weeks.

Soon, all thoughts of the field fade into the beauty of the pastor’s daughter. The preacher boy quickly finds himself smitten. Come spring, he proposes and she, despite her mother’s disapproval, says yes. Having known each  other for two months short of two years, the preacher boy, now 21, and the pastor’s daughter stand before friends, family and strangers and promise to love one another until death severs their bond.

Thirty-seven years have passed since the preacher boy and the pastor’s daughter  pledged their troth. Under the proverbial bridge has flowed a shared life, one that has blessed them with a quiverfull of children and grandchildren. The grand plans of an idyllic pastorate, two children (a boy named Jason, a girl named Bethany), and a parsonage with a white picket fence, perish in the rubble of the hard work necessary to parent six children and pastor churches in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Twenty-five years of working in God’s vineyard have left the preacher boy and the pastor’s daughter with deep, lasting scars. They have learned what it means to do without and suffer loss. Yet, they have endured.

Stoicism now defines them. As life has poured out its cruelties and left them wondering why, the preacher boy and the pastor’s daughter continue to hold one another tight, refusing to let adversity win. When their love for God wavered and then died a death of a thousand contradictions, the preacher boy and pastor’s daughter, now aged friends and lovers, joined their hands once more and walked into the dark unknown.

The full moon sits high above his home on this cold winter’s night. The clock on the nightstand clicks as each second passes by, a reminder that life is fleeting. The preacher boy, now a 58-year-old atheist, turns his thoughts to the beautiful, dark-haired girl he met so many years ago. Who would ever have thought we would be where we are today?, he says to himself. Yet…here we are, survivors, taking each and every day as it comes, without a prayer or a God to smooth the way. He wonders what tomorrow will bring, safe in the knowledge that whatever might come their way cannot defeat the enduring love of the preacher boy and the  pastor’s daughter.

I Don’t Want to Die

I don’t want to die and neither do you.

Another family member died. He was 50 and suffered greatly for over 20 years.

Maybe death was a release for him, I don’t know. The preacher at his funeral said it was. All I know for sure is that he is dead and he ain’t coming back.

People say his suffering is over. They speak of him being in a better place.

He can’t speak for himself on these matters. He is dead.

Maybe he would be willing to suffer as long as that meant he could live another day.

Maybe he would choose this life, the only reality he has ever known, over a promised, never-seen, life in a better place.

All of us seem to think that we know what the dead would have wanted.

Have you ever thought about what it means to be dead?

I have.

Perhaps I am a bit morbid, too introspective for my own good.

I have had those moments in the still of the night, moments when I think of being alive one moment and dead the next.

The reality of non-existence.

In a split second, going from a living, conscious, thinking human to nothing.

I am a glass half-empty kind of person, a pessimist and a realist at heart,

Instead of focusing on all my relatives and acquaintances who have lived 70, 80 or 90 years, I focus on those who haven’t.

Dad was 47 when he died, Mom was 54.

I had several cousins who died in their early 50s.

One of my uncles, in his 30s, was murdered.

My sister-in-law died in a 2005 Memorial Day motorcycle accident, She was 43.

My best friend’s sister, a girl I went to school with in the 1960s, died in her early 50s.

I could go on and on…

These deaths are poignant reminders of my own mortality.

Even if I live to age 70, I have 11 years of life left, just short of the amount of time we have lived in our present home.

I don’t think I will live that long. Maybe I will. I certainly hope so, but my body tells me not a chance.

Despite the pain and increasing loss of mobility and cognitive function, I still want to live.

Maybe there will come a day when I won’t want to live any longer. Maybe not.

Today? I want to be counted among the living.

The truth is this: I fear death.

Death is the one experience that no human, including Jesus, has ever come back from to tell its story.

I fear the darkness and finality that death brings.

Fearing death is quite normal.

Who wants to trade a living existence for the emptiness of the grave?

Someone is sure to say, I hate my life, I wish I were dead.

Fine, kill yourself.

I thought so…

Yes, life can suck, life can be unbearable, and life can bring agony and suffering at every turn.

Yet, we still want to live.

Religion exists for the purpose of calming our fear of death.

Forget all the doctrines, religion is the antidote for the frightening reality of death.

Evangelicals Christians love to talk of being ready to die. Take me Lord Jesus when it is my time to go, they piously say.

They speak with big theological words about not fearing death because of Jesus who conquered death for them.

They speaking of their readiness to die for their faith if called on to do so.

Yet, few Christians seem to be in a hurry to die.

Christian want to live just as everyone else does. Don’t listen to their words. Watch how they live.

I find no comfort in religion, nor do I find any solace in thoughts of returning to the collective universal consciousness when I die.

All I know for sure is that dead is dead and I am not ready to become an urn of ashes scattered along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.

As the Petra (a Christian rock group) song says, I want to live until I die.

A Few Thoughts About Mental Illness and Depression

bruce and mom 1957

Bruce and his mom, July 1957

Originally written 2011, edited, corrected.

At the age of 54, my mother turned a .357 magnum Ruger revolver toward her chest and pulled the trigger. The bullet tore a hole in her heart and in a few moments she was dead. Mom had tried to kill herself many times before. This time she succeeded (please see the post Barbara).

When I was 11, Dad had to call for an emergency squad because Mom had taken several bottles of prescription drugs. They rushed her to the hospital and pumped her stomach, and she survived to die another day. Later in the year, Mom and the neighbor lady were in a serious automobile accident in Lima. I say accident, because it is possible that Mom pulled into the other lane of traffic, allowing the truck to hit them.

Mom made a third attempt on her life that same year. I came home from school and found Mom lying unconscious on the floor with blood pooling around her body. She had slit her wrists. Yet again, the emergency squad came, and her life was saved.

As best I can tell, Mom had mental problems her entire life. She was bright, witty, and well-read, but Mom could, in a split second, lapse into angry, incoherent tirades. Twice she was involuntarily committed to the Toledo State Mental Hospital, undergoing shock therapy numerous times. None of the treatments or drugs worked.

In the early 1960s my parents found Jesus. Jesus, according to the Bible, healed the mentally ill, but, for whatever reason, he didn’t heal Mom. The mental health crises I have shared in this post, and others that I haven’t shared, all occurred after Mom put her faith and trust in the loving Jesus who supposedly had a wonderful plan for her life. Mom died believing Jesus was her Savior. To this day, I lament the fact that I didn’t do more to help her. Sadly, I saw her mental illness as an inconvenience and an embarrassment. If she just got right with God, I thought at the time, all would be well. If she would just kick her drug habit, I told her, God would be there to help her. What she really needed was for her eldest son to pick her up, hold her close, and love her. I will go to my grave wishing I had been a better son, that I had loved Mom and my family more than I loved Jesus and the church.

findlay ohio 1971-1974

Mom, Bruce, and friend, Findlay, Ohio, summer 1971

Mom was quite talented. She played the piano and loved to do ceramics. Her real passion was reading, a habit she happily passed on to me. (Mom taught me to read.) She was active in politics. She was a member of the John Birch Society, and actively campaigned, first for Barry Goldwater, and later for George Wallace.

My parents divorced when I was 14. Not long after the divorce, Mom married her first cousin, a recent parolee from a Texas prison (he was serving time for armed robbery). He later died of a drug overdose. Mom would marry two more times before she died. She was quite passionate about anything she fixed her mind upon, a trait that I, for good or ill, share with her. In the early 1970s, Mom was an aide at Winebrenner Nursing Home in Findlay, Ohio. Winebrenner paid men more than they paid women for the same work. Mom, ever the crusader, sued Winebrenner under the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act. The Federal Court decided in her favor.

We moved quite often, and I have no doubt this contributed greatly to Mom’s mental illness. She never knew what it was to have a place to call home. Our family lived in one rental after another, never stopping long enough to buy a home. I lived in 16 different houses by the time I left for college at the age of 19.

I have always wondered if my parents were ever happily married. Mom and Dad were married by an Indiana Justice of the Peace in November 1956. At the time of their marriage, Mom was 18 and pregnant. I learned later in life that it is doubtful that Dad was actually my biological father. There is more to the story of who might be my father, but I have never, for his sake, publicly told the story. Dad meant well, but the instability of their marriage, coupled with us moving all the time, caused my siblings and me great harm. Dad thought moving was a great experience. Little did he know that I hated him for moving us around. New schools (seven different school districts). New friends. Never having a place to call home. No child should have to live this way.

From time I was five until I was 14, my parents were faithful members of a Baptist church in whatever community we lived in. The Gerencser family attended church every time the doors were open (I have attended over 8,000 church services in my lifetime). Mom would play the piano from time to time, though she found it quite stressful to do so. One time, much to my embarrassment, she had a mental meltdown in front of the whole church. She never played again. For a time, Dad was a deacon, but he stopped being one because he couldn’t kick his smoking habit. I suspect the real reason was that he was having an affair.

No matter where we lived or what church we went to, one thing was certain, Mom was mentally ill and everyone pretended her illness didn’t exist. Evangelical churches such as the ones we attended had plenty of members who suffered with various mental maladies. For the most part, those who were sick in the head were ignored or marginalized.

Two decades ago, I co-pastored a Sovereign Grace Baptist church in San Antonio, Texas. (See the I am a Publican and a Heathen series.) One day we were at a church fellowship and my wife came around the corner just in time to hear one of the esteemed ladies of the church say to her daughter, you stay away from that girl, she is mentally retarded. “That girl” was our 5-year-old Down Syndrome daughter. This outstanding church member’s words pretty well sum up how many churches treat those with mental handicaps or illness. STAY AWAY from them!

Many Christians think mental illness is a sign of demonic oppression or possession. No need for doctors, drugs, or hospitals. Just come to Jesus, the great physician, and he will heal you. After all, the Bible does say in 2 Timothy 1:7: For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind. If someone is mentally unsound, it’s the person’s fault, not God’s. Get right with God and all will be well.

I have suffered with depression for most of my adult life. I am on the mountaintop one moment and in the valley the next. Plagued with a Type A personality, and being a consummate workaholic, I am often driven to despair. Work, Work, Work. Go, Go, Go. Do, Do, Do. I have no doubt that the way I lived my life as a Christian contributed to the health problems that now plague me. While I was busy burning the candle at both ends for Jesus, my body was screaming STOP! But I didn’t listen. I had no time for family, rest, or pleasure. Work for the night is coming, the Bible says. Better to burn out for Jesus than rust out, I told myself. And now, thanks to living this way for much of my adult life, I am a rusting 1957 Chevrolet, sitting on blocks, awaiting the day when the junkyard comes to tow me away.

For many years, I hid my depression from the outside world. While Polly and my children witnessed depression’s effect on husband and father, church members never had a clue. I have often wondered how parishioners might have responded had I told them the truth. I suspect some church members would have seen me as a fellow depressive, but others would likely have questioned whether I was “fit” to be a pastor.

In 2008, a few months before I deconverted, I told a pastor friend that I was really depressed. Instead of lending me a helping hand or encouraging me, he rebuked me for giving in to the attack of Satan. He told me I needed to confess my sin and get the victory over it immediately. A lot of Christians think just like this (former) pastor friend of mine.  Depression is a sign of weakness, and God only wants warriors and winners.

barbara gerencser 1956

Barbara Gerencser, 1956

Going to see a counselor was the single most important thing I have done in the last ten years. It took me leaving the ministry and departing from Christianity before I was willing to find someone to talk to. Several times, while I was still a Christian, I made appointments with counselors only to cancel them at the last minute. I feared that someone would see me going into the counselor’s office or they would drive by and see my car in the parking lot. I thought, My God, I am a pastor. I am supposed to have my life together.

Indeed, it took me leaving the church, the pastorate, and God to find any semblance of mental peace. I have no doubt some readers will object to the connection I make between religion and mental wellness, but for me, there was indeed a direct correlation between the two.

I still battle with depression, but with regular counseling and a slower pace of life I am confident that I can live a meaningful, somewhat peaceful life. As many of you know, I have chronic, unrelenting pain. I have not had a pain-free day in 15 years (my days are counted as less pain, normal pain, more pain, and off the fucking charts pain). The constant pain and debility certainly fuels my depression. My counselor says he would be surprised if I wasn’t depressed from time to time.  Embracing my depression and coming to grips with the pain and debility is absolutely essential to my mental well-being. This is my life. I am who I am. I accept this, and I do what I can to be a loving, kind, and productive human being.

To my Christian readers I say this: sitting near you in church this coming Sunday will be people who are suffering with mental illness. Maybe they are depressed. They hide it because they think they have to. Jesus only wants winners, remember? Pay attention to other people. The signs are there. Listen to those who you claim are your brothers and sisters in the Lord. Embrace them in the midst of their weakness and psychosis. While I don’t think a mythical God is going to heal them, I do think that loving, understanding friends can be just the salvation the mentally ill need.

It is not easy being around those who are mentally ill. Let’s face it, depressed people are not fun to be with. We are not the life of the party. When I am in the midst of mental and emotional darkness, I am not the kind of person most people want to be around. I become withdrawn, cynical, and dark. These attributes, coupled with the physical pain I endure, can, at times, make me unbearable to be around. It is at these moments when I need the help of others. Sadly, most people, including my family and friends, tend to pull away from me when I need them the most. I understand why they do so, but the loneliest place on earth is sitting alone in the darkness of night wishing you were dead.

How do you respond to people who are mentally ill? How do you respond to those who are depressed?  Perhaps you suffer with mental illness or depression. Do you hide it? How are you treated by others? If you are a Christian, how are you treated by your church and pastor? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Note

This post is not a cry for help. This is just me talking out loud with my friends.

As I Remember it: Bryan, Ohio Part 1

gerencser family 1950s

My grandparents, Paul and Mary Gerencser and Children, 1950s.  My dad is on the front row, far left.  Only my two aunts, last row, far right, are still alive.

Bryan, Ohio is a small, rural community in the far northwest Ohio county of Williams. Bryan is the place of my birth, which occurred at Cameron Hospital (recently torn down) in June of 1957. My mother moved to the Bryan area in the 1950s. My father was a Williams County native. Dad’s parents, Paul and Mary Gerencser, were Hungarian immigrants who came to America in the 1920s. Arriving at Ellis Island, they made their way to Cleveland, and from there moved to Defiance County, Ohio. Grandpa and Grandma Gerencser later moved to Williams County Ohio after purchasing a 100-acre farm on the Williams/Defiance County line. (please see My Hungarian Grandparents: Paul and Mary Gerencser)

Bryan, the seat of Williams County, has, according to the 2010 census, a population of 8,545. The population in 1950 was 6,365. Racially, Bryan is 96% white. I was 7 years old before I had my first encounter with a black person – a porter at the train station in Chicago. There were no blacks living Bryan during my teenage years. Only a handful of blacks live in Bryan today.  Hispanics make up about 4% of the population.

great black swamp

Much of northwest Ohio was a part of a glacially fed wetland called The Great Black Swamp. According to Wikipedia, The Great Black Swamp:

…existed from the end of the Wisconsin glaciation until the late 19th century. Comprising extensive swamps and marshes, with some higher, drier ground interspersed, it occupied what was formerly the southwestern part of proglacial Lake Maumee, a holocene precursor to Lake Erie. The area was about 25 miles (40 km) wide (north to south) and 100 miles (160 km) long, covering an estimated 1,500 square miles (4,000 km2). Gradually drained and settled in the second half of the 19th century, it is now highly productive farm land. During the second half of the 20th century, efforts were undertaken to preserve and restore portions of the swamp to its pre-settlement state.

….

The land once covered by the swamp lies primarily within the Maumee River and Portage River watersheds in northwest Ohio and northeast Indiana. The boundary was determined primarily by ancient sandy beach ridges formed on the shores of Lakes Maumee and Whittlesey, after glacial retreat several thousand years ago. It stretched roughly from Fort Wayne, Indiana in the west, eastward to the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge near Port Clinton along the Lake Erie shore, and from (roughly) US 6 south to near Lima and Findlay. Near its southern edge at the southwestern corner of present-day Auglaize County, the swamp was so impervious to travel that wheeled transportation was impossible during most of the year, and local residents thought the rigors of travel to be unsuitable for anyone except adult men.

Although much of the area to the east, south, and north was settled in the early 19th century, the dense habitat and difficulty of travel through the swamp delayed its development by several decades. A corduroy road (from modern-day Fremont to Perrysburg) was constructed through the Maumee Road Lands in 1825 and paved with gravel in 1838, but travel in the wet season could still take days or even weeks. The impassibility of the swamp was an obstacle during the so-called Toledo War (1835–36); unable to get through the swamp, the Michigan and Ohio militias never came to battle. Settlement of the region was also inhibited by endemic malaria. The disease was a chronic problem for residents of the region until the area was drained and former mosquito-breeding grounds were dried up.

In the 1850s the states began an organized attempt to drain the swamp for agricultural use and ease of travel. Various projects were undertaken over a 40-year period. Local resident James B. Hill, living in Bowling Green, Ohio, in the mid-19th century, made the quick drainage of the Black Swamp possible with his invention of the Buckeye Traction Ditcher. Hill’s ditching machine laid drainage tiles at a record pace. The area was largely settled over the next three decades. The development of railroads and a local drainage tile industry are thought to have contributed greatly to drainage and settlement.

(Astoundingly, Wikipedia fails to mention the Indian (primarily the Ottawa Indian tribe)  population that inhabited parts of the Great Black Swamp in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.)

Bryan sits just north of what once was the Great Black Swamp. The land of northwest Ohio is flat. Jokingly, local residents say that road overpasses are our mountains. In Williams County, the roads are laid out in a grid: the east-west roads designated A,B,C and the  north-south roads 1,2,3. Most of the roads are a mile or so apart from one another, and it is impossible to get lost in Williams County unless one is drunk.

While Bryan is a rural community surrounded by fertile farmland, it is also an industrial community. Sadly, in recent decades, Bryan has watched its industrial base decline due to factory closings and job outsourcing.

Ohio Art, the maker of the Etch-a-Sketch, still calls Bryan home, but most of its products are now made outside of the United States. ARO, another home-grown major corporation once employing over a thousand people, closed its doors a few years ago. The same could be said for factories such as  Hayes-Albion and Challenge-Cook, both thriving manufacturing facilities until their demise in the 1980s and 1990s.

Northwest Ohio has been hit hard by factory closings and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs. There was a time when a person could make a good living at many of the local factories, but those days are long gone. Wages are stagnant or in decline, and there is little prospect of any sort of economic improvement. While northwest Ohio counties now have some of the lowest unemployment rates in the state, wages remain depressed.

I worked for a number of Bryan businesses during my teen and young adult years. Places  such as:

  • Bryan Nursing Home (closed)
  • Everhart’s Restaurant (changed hands)
  • Bob’s Dairy Freeze (closed)
  • Myer’s Marathon (closed)
  • Foodland (closed)
  • Holabird Manufacturing (closed)
  • Bard Manufacturing (manufacturer of furnaces)
  • General Tire (changed hands)
  • ARO (closed, now owned by Ingersoll-Rand, but manufacturing is no longer done in Bryan)

I also baled hay during several summers, and one summer I participated in a youth work program for teenagers whose families were on welfare. My  job placement was at the local elementary school and the Bryan Sewer plant.

I have moved in and out of Bryan many times over the years:

  • Born in Bryan 1957
  • Lived in or near Bryan from 1957 to 1962 (moved to California)
  • Lived in or near Bryan from 1965 to 1966 (moved to Lima, Ohio)
  • Lived in or near Bryan from 1967 to 1969 (moved to Deshler, Ohio and then to Findlay, Ohio)
  • Lived in Bryan in 1973 (moved to Findlay, Ohio)
  • Lived in Bryan in 1974 (dropped out of high school and later moved to Arizona)
  • Lived in Bryan 1975-1976 (moved to Michigan to attend college, came home during the summer)
  • Lived in or near Bryan in 1979 ( oldest son was born in Bryan, moved to Newark, Ohio)
  • Lived near Bryan from 1995 to 2003 (moved to Michigan)
  • Lived near Bryan from 2003 to 2004 (moved to Arizona)
  • Lived in or near Bryan from 2005 to 2007 (moved to Ney, Ohio where we currently live)

Even now, I live five miles away from Bryan, just across the Defiance/Williams County line.

For many years, I had a love-hate relationship with Bryan and northwest Ohio. In my youth, I couldn’t wait to get away from boring, flat, Bryan, Ohio, yet, despite my resolve never to  return to northwest  Ohio again, here I am, living, once again, in northwest Ohio.

These days, I have made my peace with Bryan. My six children and ten grandchildren live within 20 minutes of here. This is their home, and wherever they are, that is where I want to be. The land may be flat and b-o-r-i-n-g,  but there is something about this place I call home, something familiar and secure.

Now that I have laid a bit of groundwork, in future posts I plan to write about my experiences growing up in Bryan.

Notes

The Great Black Swamp-1987 Ohio Historical Society article by Carolyn Platt

Ohio’s Great Black Swamp-Undated Ohio Inside Story article

History of the Great Black Swamp-2011 The Black Swamp Journal article

A Man and His Wife

polly gerencser 2013

Polly Gerencser, 35th Wedding Anniversary, 2013

repost from July 2013, edited and corrected

It is a warm summer day in Manistee, Michigan. A man and his wife of thirty-five years get out of their black Ford Fusion to view Lake Michigan. They love the water, and if their life’s journey had taken them on another path perhaps they would live in a cottage on the shore of one of the Great Lakes or in a small fishing village on the Atlantic coast.

But as fate would have it, Ohio has been their home for most of their marriage. No matter where they moved, be it Texas, Michigan, or Arizona, they always came back, like the proverbial bad penny, to Ohio.

For the past six years they have lived in rural NW Ohio, in a small community with one stoplight, two bars, two churches, a grain elevator, gas station and 345 people. They live in a town where nothing happens, and the safety and stillness that “nothing” affords is fine by them.

They have made their peace with Ohio. After all, it is where their children and grandchildren live. This is home, and it is here that they will die some moment beyond their next breath.

But from time to time, the desire to dip their feet in a vast expanse of water, to hear the waves crashing on a shore and to walk barefooted on the beach calls out to them, and off they go.

They can no longer travel great distances; four to six hours away is the limit.  The man’s body is used up and broken, most days he needs a cane and some days a wheelchair to get from point to point.  Long trips in the car extract a painful price from his body, a toll that is paid weeks after they have returned home.

But today, the water calls, and on a warm July day they travel to South Haven, Michigan and then up the eastern shore of Lake Michigan to Manistee. Their travels will later to take them to Sault Ste Marie before they return home to Ohio.

Few people are at the Manistee beach, so unlike South Haven where the beaches and streets are filled with pushy, bustling, impatient tourists. The man and his wife have been to South Haven many times, but as they see the scarcity of people and the quietness of Manistee they say, I think we have found a new place to stay when we vacation.

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The beach is owned by thousands of Plovers. It is an amazing sight to behold. The man and his wife are mesmerized by the birds, and the man, ever possessed of his camera, begins to take pictures.

Soon the serenity of the place is ruined by a stupid boy who sees the birds as worthy of his scorn and derision. The birds are covering the landscape of HIS beach, and he will have none of that. So he runs through the mass of birds screaming and waving his arms. This put the birds into flight, complaining loudly about the stupid boy.

The man and his wife turn their attention to the pier and lighthouse in the distance. She asks, Do you think you can make it? He replies, Sure. So off they go.

As they begin their slow, faltering stroll on the pier, they notice a sign that says, No Jumping or Swimming off the Pier. The man smiles quietly to himself as he sees four teenage boys doing what the sign prohibits.  He remembers long ago when he, too, would have looked at the sign and proceeded to do exactly what the sign prohibited. He thinks, the folly, wonder, and joy of youth.

As the man and his wife pass the boys in the water, one of them calls out and says, How are you today, sir? The man thought, Sir? Am I really that old?  He knows the answer to the question before he asks. For a few moments the man talks with the boys, then haltingly continues to walk down the pier with his wife.

Not far from the boys, the man and his wife come upon a pair of ducks: a male, his female, and their brood of ten young ducklings. New life. The man wonders: How many of the ducklings will survive their youth? He knows the answer and this troubles him a bit. A reminder, that, for all its beauty, life is harsh, filled with pain, suffering, and death.

The man and his wife turn back to where the boys are swimming. The man thinks, as he looks at the shallow water with its rock-filled bottom, This is a dangerous place to be diving into the water.

But the boys are oblivious to the danger. The man’s mind races back to the days of his youth, remembering a time when he too lived without fear, enjoying the freedom of living in the moment.

One of the boys climbs back up on the pier and prepares to jump into the water. The man, a hundred feet or so from the boy, points his camera toward him. The man quickly adjusts the shutter speed, focuses the lens, and begins to shoot.

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The man and his wife laugh as they watch the boy. Collectively, their minds wander back to a hot summer day in July when they joined their hands together and said, I do. Thirty-five years ago, they embraced one another and jumped off into the rock strewn water of life, and survived.

Together they turn to walk back to the car. As they pass the boys, the man shouts, I am going to make you famous. The boys laugh and continue on with the horseplay that dominates their day.

The boys will never know that their innocence, their sign-defying plunges off a pier in Manistee, Michigan, warmed the heart of the man and his wife.

It Doesn’t Always Happen to Someone Else

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As a Christian, I believed that if I prayed God would take care of me and he would make sure calamity didn’t show up at my doorstep. In those rare instances when it seemed that God wasn’t answering my prayer and I was facing disaster, I thought that God was either testing me or chastising me for disobedience.

I was relatively healthy until the early 1990s. I played basketball in the winter and softball in the summer. In the fall I cut wood, spending hours sawing felled trees into wood stove sized pieces. I hunted in the fall/winter, walking for miles in the Appalachian foothills. I was, by every measure, a healthy, but increasingly overweight man. Today, I am a crippled old man, worn thin by chronic illness and debilitating pain.

I am still amazed by how quickly the circumstances of my life have changed. It seems that life is being sucked out of me ever so slowly. Gone are the days of strenuous physical activity. Now I am happy if I can do things of physical nature a few days out of the month. Our home is littered with projects in various stages of completion. I will get to these projects soon, I tell myself. The pile of unread magazines on the bedside table continues to grow. I stubbornly refuse to cancel the subscriptions because I just know I am going to catch up on magazine reading one of these days. The same could be said for the unread books that line the shelves in the living room.

Recently, I went over to my oldest son’s home to wire their new bedroom and bathroom. My coming over to help quickly turned into me taking extra doses of pain medication and sitting on a chair while I told others what to do. I was able to get the circuits where they needed to go, and I suppose I could make myself feel good over my son still needing my expertise, but I quietly wept inside as I thought about how much I have lost. Any attempt to do something physically strenuous is met with the screaming objections of my body. I push through the pain, knowing that I will pay a heavy price for ignoring by body’s vociferous objections. I shouldn’t do these things anymore, but the only thing worse than not doing them, is feeling that my expertise and help are no longer needed. We all want to feel needed by those we love.

One of the biggest issues that dominates my every-other-week counseling sessions with Dr. Deal is my unwillingness to embrace life as it is. Even my family doctor has talked to me about the fine line between giving up and embracing the reality of how my life is. There will be no more days of playing basketball or softball. There will be no more days of feeling the sweat run down my face and back as I cut wood on a crisp fall day. There will be no more days of trudging through the woods playing a game of hide-and-seek with a cottontail rabbit or a fox squirrel. No matter how much I want it to be different, I will never be able to read like I once did. While the voracious appetite for the printed page is still there, the ability to process it is long gone.  This is my life, and there is not one damn thing I can do about it.

As a Christian I believed that my physical afflictions were the result of God making me more like Jesus. I believed the way to heaven was paved with suffering. I can confidently say that God never answered one prayer of mine when I cried out to him for physical relief or deliverance. I came to see that I was like the Apostle Paul who prayed for deliverance and God told him no. (2 Corinthians 12:6-9)

These days I now realize that the diseases that are  ever-so-slowly taking life from me are the result of a combination of genetics, environment, and lifestyle choices with a topping of “who the hell knows.” When I whine and complain about my lot in life and say “why me?” the universe shouts back, “why not you?”

Bad things don’t always happen to other people. It is not always another family’s child that gets cancer or is killed in a car accident. It is not always someone else who has a brain tumor, goes through a divorce, or loses a job. It is not always someone else who loses everything in a fire, tornado, hurricane, or a flood. The truth is that life is a big crap-shoot: good luck, bad luck, at the right place, at the wrong place, good genetics, bad genetics, growing up on the right side of the tracks, growing up on the wrong side of the tracks, marrying the right person, marrying the wrong person. The list is endless.

As I peruse the ways of humankind, it is clear to me that very few people live to be old without facing trial and adversity. It is just how life is. If there really is a God, I might find some pleasure and satisfaction in saying DAMN you God  But since there is no God, I am left to shout at a universe that yawns at my death-defying struggle. If the universe could speak it surely would say, this movie always ends the same way. Dead. Next.

It is futile to see life other than as it is. Wishing for days that are long since gone only results in depression and despair. We must embrace life as it is while we go kicking and screaming into the night. We have two choices in life: fight or roll over and die. Yes, life is unfair and bad things happen to good people. Shit happens and it doesn’t always happen to someone else.

Let me end this post with a poem by Dylan Thomas, an early 20th century poet who died at the age of 39:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Arizona: The Day I Got Busted by the Border Patrol

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Gerencser Children, Miller Peak, outside of Sierra Vista, Arizona 2004

If there is one thing I am famous for, at least among my children, it is my wanderlust driving the back roads of wherever we are living at the time. I hate highways and interstates, and, if given a choice, I will always choose a back-road-takes-longer-who-cares-where-we-are-headed route. Our family took many road trips over the years where the only destination was east, west, south, or north.

In 2004, we lived in Yuma, Arizona. We took a lot of road trips, going as far as San Diego,California to the west, Bisbee, Arizona to the east, Phoenix, Arizona to the north, and Mexico to the south.  We traveled countless Arizona back roads, drove around the Salton Sea, and attended a Friends church in El Centro California. I worked for Allegro Medical, Polly cleaned offices, and after work and on the weekends we would jump in our Ford Crown Victoria, the best car we ever owned, and off we would go.

One Saturday, we piled into the car to take a road trip to San Luis Rio Colorado, Mexico. Outside of Yuma, I decided to get off the highway and take a back road. I was headed south and I knew that the road would eventually lead to the Mexican border. After a few miles, the road began to change into a sand version of a rutted dirt road in Perry County Ohio. The road was narrow and I began to notice that there were no houses…anywhere. Polly was worried we were lost. I wasn’t lost, I just didn’t know where I was.

As my family will attest, I don’t turn around and go back. Oh no. I decided to keep driving, only to find out that I wasn’t really driving on a road. I was making my own road through the desert. Now, I began to worry.  The car started getting bogged down in the sand, so I drove faster; you know like a drug smuggler trying to avoid the Border Patrol.

It wasn’t long before I spotted the steel fence separating the United States from Mexico. See, I thought, I know EXACTLY where we are going. At the border fence, I turned west toward San Luis Rio Colorado. Little did I know that the Border Patrol had been watching me.

As I began to drive west, I noticed a Border Patrol vehicle ahead. I thought, this ain’t going to turn out well. Sure enough, they pulled in front of me, stopped our car, and began to question me. I told them we were just out sightseeing and had gotten a tiny-wee-bit off the road. I thought, I bet they have never heard this line before.

But, they believed me, and just before I started to put the car in drive they said, hey, do you mind if we look in your trunk? I thought, Oh no…not that. You see, I carried all my camera equipment in a padded aluminum case, you know the one that looks just like the one drug dealers use in the movies? I told them they could look in the trunk, but, before they did, I explained to them what they would find and I told them they could open the not-drugs-not-drug-money aluminum case.  All they found was camera equipment and they then let us go on our way.

We took the highway home.

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Gerencser Children, Yuma, Arizona 2004

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Polly Gerencser, Arizona 2004, wearing her first pair of pants. Such a heathen :)

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front by Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Please check out Wendell Berry’s books in our bookstore. While Berry is a liberal theist, I find that his writing deeply resonates with me and has had a profound effect on my life.