Category Archives: Faith

Strength and Courage

In a box of dusty papers lay a treasure buried years ago:  a poem from Mother on the importance of both strength and courage.  Her hand-written note across the top of the page made this an even greater treasure, “For Barbara, who exemplifies this better than anyone I know.  Lovingly, Mom.”

From Mother’s hand and my dusty box, from my heart to your eyes, words on strength and courage:

Strength and Courage

It takes strength to be firm.
It takes courage to be gentle.

It takes strength to stand guard.
It takes courage to let down your guard.

It takes strength to be certain.
It takes courage to have doubt.

It takes strength to fit in.
It takes courage to stand out.

It takes strength to feel a friend’s pain.
It takes courage to feel your own pain.

It takes strength to hide your own pains.
It takes courage to show them.

It takes strength to endure abuse.
It takes courage to stop it.

It takes strength to stand alone.
It takes courage to lean on another.

It takes strength to love.
It takes courage to be loved.

It takes strength to survive.
It takes courage to live.
(Author Unknown)

*Personal Update:  Some people tour national parks during the summer.  I toured emergency rooms and urgent care clinics, instead.  I recovered quickly from a round of pneumonia, thanks to care I received in an Omaha hospital.   Outpatient cataract surgery gave me better vision than I’ve had since high school.   My recently broken foot has mended. An adrenal deficiency is still problematic and its cause undiagnosed.  Heart and lungs are behaving well.  Next summer I want to visit parks.

“Get the peaches!”

Like many folk, I reflect on the year past and the one yet to come as one year turns to the next. Maybe because Christmas, New Year’s, and my birthday happen in a seven day smash-up, I get extra existential and ponder not only the meaning of my life but all life.

A message doesn’t appear on a wall, nor lightning in the sky as I muse. Instead, I annually reaffirm the need to accept ambiguity. I also reaffirm that the purpose of life is to bring as much love and wholeness into the world as possible: to bring joy, beauty, compassion and peace wherever we are; and to connect mortals with the Divine who is known by many names and in whom we live and move and have our being.

Fame is not the purpose of human life. Love and goodness are. Sometimes we get to see a bit of the difference our love makes, but in this life, we never see all the ramifications of our actions. Love makes a beautiful mosaic beyond our mind’s ability to imagine.

In the midst of my pondering, a friend sent me a Los Angeles Times article. It reminded me that the purpose of my life once again is to fill in my part of that mosaic. Bob’s Christmas gift to me is now my New Year’s gift to you.

I Didn’t Say Get the Story. I Said Get the Kid His Peaches.

It happened one Christmas Eve a long time ago in a place called Oakland on a newspaper called the Tribune with a city editor named Alfred P. Reck.

I was working swing shift on general assignment, writing the story of a boy who was dying of leukemia and whose greatest wish was for fresh peaches.

It was a story which, in the tradition of 1950s journalism, would be milked for every sob we could squeeze from it, because everyone loved a good cry on Christmas.

We knew how to play a tear-jerker in those days, and I was full of the kinds of passions that could make a sailor weep.

I remember it was about 11 o’clock at night and pouring rain outside when I began putting the piece together for the next day’s editions.

Deadline was an hour away, but an hour is a lifetime when you’re young and fast and never get tired.

Then the telephone rang.

It was Al Reck calling, as he always did at night, and he’d had a few under his belt.

Reck was a drinking man. With diabetes and epilepsy, hard liquor was about the last thing he ought to be messing with, but you didn’t tell Al what he ought to or ought not to do.

He was essentially a gentle man who rarely raised his voice, but you knew he was the city editor, and in those days the city editor was the law and the word in the newsroom.

But there was more than fear and tradition at work for Al.

We respected him immensely, not only for his abilities as a newsman, but for his humanity. Al was sensitive both to our needs and the needs of those whose names and faces appeared in the pages of the Oakland Tribune.

“What’s up?” he asked me that Christmas Eve in a voice as soft and slurred as a summer breeze.

He already knew what was up because, during 25 years on the city desk, Reck somehow always knew what was up, but he wanted to hear it from the man handling the story.

I told him about the kid dying of leukemia and about the peaches and about how there simply were no fresh peaches, but it still made a good piece. We had art and a hole waiting on page one.

Al listened for a moment and then said, “How long’s he got?”

“Not long,” I said. “His doctor says maybe a day or two.”

There was a long silence and then Al said, “Get the kid his peaches.”

“I’ve called all over,” I said. “None of the produce places in the Bay Area have fresh peaches. They’re just plain out of season. It’s winter.”

“Not everywhere. Call Australia.”

“Al,” I began to argue, “it’s after 11 and I have no idea . . . . ”

“Call Australia,” he said, and then hung up.

If Al said call Australia, I would call Australia.

I don’t quite remember whom I telephoned, newspapers maybe and agricultural associations, but I ended up finding fresh peaches and an airline that would fly them to the Bay Area before the end of Christmas day.

There was only one problem. Customs wouldn’t clear them. They were an agricultural product and would be hung up at San Francisco International at least for a day, and possibly forever.

Reck called again. He listened to the problem and told me to telephone the Secretary of Agriculture and have him clear the peaches when they arrived.

“It’s close to midnight,” I argued. “His office is closed.”

“Take this number down,” Reck said. “It’s his home. Tell him I told you to call.”

It was axiomatic among the admirers of Al Reck that he knew everyone and everyone knew him, from cops on the street to government leaders in their Georgetown estates. No one knew how Al knew them or why, but he did.

I made the call. The secretary said he’d have the peaches cleared when they arrived and give Al Reck his best.

“All right,” Reck said on his third and final call to me, “now arrange for one of our photographers to meet the plane and take the peaches over to the boy’s house.”

He had been drinking steadily throughout the evening and the slurring had become almost impossible to understand.

By then it was a few minutes past midnight, and just a heartbeat and a half to the final deadline.

“Al,” I said, “if I don’t start writing this now I’ll never get the story in the paper.”

I won’t forget this moment.

“I didn’t say get the story,” Reck replied gently. “I said get the kid his peaches.”

If there is a flash point in our lives to which we can refer later, moments that shape our attitudes and effect our futures, that was mine.

Alfred Pierce Reck had defined for me the importance of what we do, lifting it beyond newsprint and deadline to a level of humanity that transcends job. He understood not only what we did but what we were supposed to do.

“I didn’t say get the story. I said get the kid his peaches.”

The boy got his peaches and the story made the home edition, and I received a lesson in journalism more important than any I’ve learned since.

I wanted you to know that this Christmas Day.
By Al Martinez
December 25, 1986, 12:38 p.m.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times

It is enough for me. Happy New Year.

Cause for Hope: Christmas 2013

A minor cold expectedly turned my health upside down this week. As I adjust yet again, I am trying to believe what I wrote for the Pasadena Presbyterian Church in December, 2006.  These words remind me of the real reason Christians celebrate Christmas:  God’s love for the world.  Here is what I wrote in 2006.  It is based on Jeremiah 33:14-16.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.  And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness. (Jeremiah 33:14-16)

The Prophet Jeremiah’s words were spoken by one who, while standing in a time of hopelessness and despair, encountered the sovereignty and love of the God who saves us and for whom we wait.  I met that same God last week in a parking lot.

It happened at Home Depot at 6:30 on Saturday morning while many of you were still asleep or getting an early start on your Christmas shopping.  Our two young dogs have turned part of our back yard into a patch of dirt.  My mission was to cover the dirt with sod and, in so doing, save our carpet.  In addition, our son Chris’s golden retriever was spending Thanksgiving with us and that would give us 3 sets of paws to track in dirt.

After 4 trips to Home Depot in one week, two of them long before dawn, I was desperate.  I just missed the last of the sod at the Monrovia store at 6:00, but heard the Covina store still had some. I headed to Covina.

There it was:  my holy grail.  Then I couldn’t find a clerk to sell it to me.  Finally, someone in lighting said, “Go find Hope.  She works in the garden department.”  “Really,” I thought rather cynically, “I’ve been looking for hope all week.”

Hope wasn’t visible, however, when I reached the garden department.  But someone else agreed to take my money.  As I walked out to get my car, another customer walked out beside me, calling over his shoulder in a deep baritone to the young man at the cash register, “I’ll get my car and be right back.  I know where to find Hope.”

I couldn’t believe it:  The whole point of the Christian faith had just been stated confidently by a tall, strong baritone at 6:30 on a Saturday morning in the parking lot at Home Depot: “I know where to find Hope.”  Thank you, God for parents who name their children Faith, Grace, and Hope.

The sun was rising as I drove home, and my car was full of the fresh smell of grass and dirt.  Tendrils of coral, pink and blue stretched across the horizon. The hills grew clear against the sky.  My heart quieted in the presence of such beauty.

On the way home I listened to National Public Radio tell the latest on the wars in Iraq, assassinations in Lebanon, and a court battle over air pollution.  I remembered people whose struggles I know–struggles of unemployment, grief, illness, and loneliness; people who struggle to get out of bed, to put one foot in front of the other, to find hope.

Over and over again, that baritone voice echoed in my being, “I know where to find Hope.”

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.  In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety.  And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.

I watched the sky change hue as the sun came up. The interplay between sun and shadow, light and darkness, spoke to me of life and death, of good and evil, of struggle and of hope that day, the hope that comes from knowing our existence rests not in our hands, but God’s and that God will come to save us.  God’s hand, not mine, made the sun to rise.  I know where to find hope.

Some of Israel’s most pushy, hopeful, and imaginative poetry was uttered during times of military defeat and Babylonian exile. We might have expected words of resignation. But no. Israel’s faith was in a God who is an active participant in creation and deliverance.  Here again, in a dark hour, God’s prophet Jeremiah proclaims extravagant hope: God hears. God comes. God saves.

What is our cause for hope this Advent 2006?

Is it the courage of soldiers walking through a shattered country
or the persistence of fragile governments?
Is it peace envoys sent to the Middle East?
If it is only our self–our military might or our diplomatic wisdom–there is no cause for hope.

Does our hope lie in denying the reality of suffering,
the tenacity of sin, the existence of evil, our own culpability?
Can living in a Disneyland world where the sky is always blue, and
we refuse to see the suffering of the world or
feel our own heartache
ever let us know
the deep and true joy that Christ’s birth brings into the world?

Can such denial give us the strength to fight for good?
Can it give us the commitment to work for peace?

If this is all we have, there is no cause for hope.
If it is left up to us to save the world or to make our life right, then what real hope have we when the chips are down?

But our hope is in God.

Jeremiah speaks to Israel when it is exiled, powerless, far from home, with no end in sight, seemingly deserted by God.  In such a time as this, the prophet says, “We know where hope is!  There shall be justice and righteousness in the land. God reigns!”

Twenty-five hundred years later, Jeremiah still speaks in a time of uncertainty and war, of anxiety and sorrow, of pain inside the church and out. We long to be saved, not merely in some other-worldly sense, but in this world, right now, because there is much from which we need to be saved.

In such a time as this, we hold onto truth spoken in a parking lot, truth spoken by Jeremiah: We know where to find hope.

We celebrate Advent and sing of freedom because we know ourselves captive.
We celebrate Advent and sing of comfort because we have allowed ourselves to see our brokenness.
We sing of joy because we have dared to love and hence have known sorrow.
We sing of peace because we know the horror of war.
We sing of hope because at times we ourselves feel hopeless.
We sing the prophet’s words and we prepare for Christ’s birth
because we know the cause for hope, and we hunger yet for more.

It takes a great deal of hope to be honest about our situation in exile. The church calls this very faith, hope, and honesty: Advent.  We admit that we need some future not solely of our own devising. We tell the truth about our condition because we believe that God has made our situation God’s own. In Advent, we give thanks that God’s love shines through even human sin and suffering and will come to us in a babe born into a sinful and aching world. We know where hope is.

Come, Lord Jesus, though we know not when.  Come, Lord Jesus, and save us, in this life and in the life to come.

*Note:  Advent is the name by which the Church refers to the four weeks before Christmas, as time of internal reflection and prayer in preparation for receiving anew the message of Jesus’ birth at Christmas.