Athens (but not Greece)

Athens (but not Greece) (1,224)

July 31st, 2011

5:32 A.M.

I am in my Kia Amanti, which now has 201,851 miles on it. It is still running. And so am I, as I drive on this Sunday morning down to Athens, Pennsylvania, to do a 10:00 A.M. presentation at the AthensUnitedMethodistChurch. It is normally my practice to go down the day before to set up on the Saturday night. But there were two obstacles to that this week. An opportunity came up to share on Saturday evening in the Rochester, New York, area, and also all the motels in the Athens, Pennsylvania area are presently occupied by workmen drilling for natural gas—which I quickly found out was not what I thought it was.

So I am on the New York thruway driving away from Rochester towards my destination. It is beautiful—looking like it is going to be a gorgeous day, and the few cars on the road seem courteous, although I am sure a bit curious about why I am traveling early, possessing a tale of their own.

You can plan to wake up at the crack of dawn and even go to bed early the night before in preparation for such an excursion. It doesn’t really make any difference. The body kind of does what the body wants to do. I think that’s why some people insist they are not “morning people”—because somewhere deep in their thinking, they presume that one should awaken refreshed, rejuvenated and exhilarated for the day. When that doesn’t happen, I think they draw the conclusion that there must be something wrong with them. Actually, it is rare for human beings to rise from the bed motivated. End of story. There’s always a little something that’s bugging you physically, taunting you emotionally, troubling you mentally or trying to spur you on spiritually. That’s why I describe the human experience as the most organized mess possible—organized in the sense that the pieces appear to be linked in some inexplicable way, but a mess because they are not willing to cooperate with one another on any given occasion.

So I feel awake, but I have a crick in my neck (having been attacked by a motel pillow), a sting in my knee and a song in my heart. (I just threw the “song in my heart” part in so I wouldn’t come across too cranky.)

I thought I would take you on the journey with me today, which means I will be posting a little later, so I can give you the full representation of what happened during the Athens service. Jan is kindly typing for me as we drive down the road, and with a little luck we will find T-Mobile service so we can post this without using carrier pigeon. (Jan doesn’t really want to be typing right now. Jan really wanted to eat breakfast before we typed jonathots, but alas, there really wasn’t anything open. So she is trying to maintain all the dignity of her Southern training, without resorting to any grumbling or cursing whatsoever. Admirable.)

What am I thinking about this morning, you might ask? (Actually you probably wouldn’t ask, but I do need to move my story along.) I’m thinking about what I want to share with these folks. I usually end up with thirty-eight to forty-four minutes on a Sunday morning, depending on whether I stay on their schedule or accidentally steal some moments. It’s not much time—especially when you don’t know the people and you spend the first eight to ten minutes convincing them that you were born in a civilized country and do have a birth certificate.

I have at my disposal, or better stated, availability, songs to sing, instrumental music, jonathots to share, stories of the road and bits and pieces of insights on Jesus’ gospel, which he hoped we would continue to propagate instead of just building edifices to his name. Those essays fall into three major categories. Some are life lessons, some are stories from my personal portfolio, and then the rest fall into a category of spiritual anecdotes delivered in a parable style, with a moral to the story.

You really want a little of each type, but not too much of any one. If you put too many stories in about yourself, you open yourself up to the grumpers who contend that you’re just trying to praise your own accomplishments. If you do too many on life’s lessons, then you kind of come across like a bald, overweight schoolmarm. And the problem with sharing about Jesus in the church, believe it or not, is that because everybody thinks they already know everything about Jesus, the subject can be panned, or even viewed as taboo because you might step on a few toes and doctrines along the way.

Now I’m not trying to portray that it’s an impossible task or even brain surgery (although I don’t know why I use that comparison, having never studied cutting open the cranium). It’s just that time is precious and if you believe you have a mission in life, which by the way, may be the main reason you push past those aches and pains on a morning like this, you always want to make sure you put your best foot forward and give the freshest blessings you can to those you meet.

Look! The sun is beginning to rise. I rolled down my window to see if the sun had any complaints. None that I heard. I saw a deer standing by the side of the road. Aside from the fact that it appeared to be a bit annoyed that I was zooming by, it, too, was ready for the day. And then there was a bird that just flew onto the road, seeking some nourishment via carrion. Not my preference, but who am I to criticize?

The next stop will be breakfast—and Jan will be happy.

We’re supposed to be at the church to set up at 8:30. I don’t particularly like Sunday morning set-ups because there are so many people around, and when you do a sound check in an empty church building, it always sounds loud, which every amateur hearer will be happy to point out. I can try to explain that it’s going to sound different when people arrive, or that I’ve done this for a long time, but it only sounds defensive and honestly, in a world of thin-skinned people, bruising is too easy. So I usually just smile and say, “Thank you”—unless I’m in a grumpy mood or woke up with a crick in my neck.

I will take a brief hiatus at this point and drive until we can satisfy Jan’s primal urge for morning food. And then we will continue.


Jan survived until we got to Watkins Glen, New York. It was touch and go, and a little nastiness and fussiness began to etch its way across her features, but we found a Burger King, which did provide us breakfast (except when we got two miles down the road, we discovered they forgot to put in one of our sandwiches, so doggedly we returned to retrieve our portion. The mission had an almost scriptural feel to it: “He who endures to the end will get some the sausage and egg croissant.”)

We arrived in Athens fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, so we threw away our trash and sat back to enjoy the peace and quiet for a few moments. Arriving at the church, we were greeted by a wonderful gentleman named Ed, who carried our equipment in for us since we are now old and teetering on decrepit. (Actually, I guess “teetering” might be a forewarning of decrepit.)

Pastor Marty was delightful, with a gentle spirit and an open heart. The business of religion often turns ministers into aged technicians in frustration long before their time. The smart ones, filled with spirit, find a way around it. Such is Marty.

The congregation arrived, and like a lot of small-town churches, they weren’t really sure what to expect from us. Sometimes they wonder if having fun in church—as we suggest—is proper … or even legal. Actually, I think some of the teenagers keep an eye on the back door to make sure the police don’t come in to make random arrests. What would be that charge? How about “giddiness without a license?” Here’s another one: “joy speakable that should remain unspoken.”

I love my job. I get a chance to turn strangers into hearers and hearers into thinkers and thinkers into feelers. If they get that far, we usually end up friends. If they don’t, they usually just grab cookies and coffee and run for the door, hoping that next week some sensibility will return to the holy of holies.

Before the program began, we took some time to piece together those essays and stories I told you about. I think we achieved a good mix. I liked one fellow who came up to my book table afterwards and said, “I want to tell you it was wonderful. And Amen.”

I said, “I see. You like the best of both worlds.” He laughed.

Isn’t it glorious to see people laugh? I never saw anybody firing a gun while giggling. Although completely impractical for aiming, it also is implausible because of the nature of humor.

We met some wonderful, middle-America people, dreams still intact, wondering when politicians will leave them alone long enough that they can get about the business of making them come true. It was a great day.

I’m once again in my car on I-86, driving back, with Jan reminding me that I promised we could stop somewhere and eat on the way home. (Jan may be the most slender glutton I’ve ever known. I consider that a compliment—to have a vice that has no visible evidence. I was never able to succeed at that. Jan has been very nice to type all these insults without smiting me or editing as she went along.)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this morning, as we criss-crossed down through New York to take you with us to Athens, Pennsylvania.

Athens, Greece, was considered to be the birthplace of democracy. Athens, Pennsylvania, was a place we just left—where democracy still survives.

Published in: on July 31, 2011 at 4:41 pm  Leave a Comment  
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