“Celebrations And Serendipities” | Blog #40

“Celebrations And Serendipities” | Blog #40

Being back in Bethlehem and traveling the backroads over to Princeton on Monday allowed for both celebrations and serendipities. The serendipitous connections led to celebrations and added to the celebratory connections I already had planned. For instance, I found out an old hs friend living in Boston was in visiting her folks on Sunday and would be leaving Monday morning. So, Lori Fegely Hill came over to where I was staying, and I opened a Gin & Tonic bar for us in the hotel lobby. Lori was the class ahead of me and the time we had to catch up, commiserate, celebrate our kids, and share compassion was the perfect end to a long, fruitful day.

Monday’s lunch was with Alan Shannon-Breslin, one of my oldest friends. Alan lived down the street and around the corner on Cornwell and he, Johnny Krupka, and I would meet at a post-box at the intersection of Shakespeare and Westminster at the bottom of the hill and walk up to East Hills Junior High and Freedom High together. We sang in church choir together – he with the much better voice – and were bunk mates on church youth retreats. I especially remember one of the retreats where we were together and shared prayer when I had come to a critical turning point born of the understanding of the overwhelming goodness of God’s grace in my life. Alan was also the first person I knew who was in Mensa; his humor was so quick and intellect so penetrating that I was always laughing and learning in his presence. During the summers in hs he, Johnny Krupka, and I would play handball at the Community College, and during the school year we were often in plays together, though he would get the starring role, especially if it were a musical! Alan went off to the Naval Academy for college and I had the good fortune of going over to see him in Annapolis a number of times, where he continued in theatre and sang in the Navy Glee Club. He returned to the Lehigh Valley and has had a career as an accountant and financial planner, but I have always thought that he understood the doctrine of vocation better than most of us from the home church who went into the ministry. Watching his faithfulness over the years has been an encouragement and I treasure the time we get to spend whenever we can visit. His last question to me was, “I know you pastors pray for other people, but how can I pray for you?” Thanks be to God for such a faithful friend.

One of the frustrating things I’m discovering on this trip – a peregrination, really – is that museums are often closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. From lunch with Alan, I wanted to go to the Allentown Art Museum (https://www.allentownartmuseum.org/), but it was closed. So, too, was the National Museum of Industrial History, housed in the old Bethlehem Steel Plant (https://www.nmih.org/). So instead, I drove around the Steel plant that they’ve made into a music venue called “SteelStacks” with the old furnaces as a backdrop. Also, I decided to spend a couple of hours reading in the public library where I spent so much time as a kid. Even walking around the perimeter brought back the excitement of going there, knowing that the books housed within could open worlds to me. In Mr. Miller’s AP Brit Lit class I learned John Keats’ poem, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer and the first line resonated with my experience of the library:

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

In that library, much had I traveled in the realms of through the pages of the countless books, magazines, journals, and maps. 

Dinner was spent in the little hamlet of Hellertown at the old Crossroads Hotel with Karen Clauser. Dinner with Karen was a serendipity since I had planned to meet Charlie Snider, Tom and Anne Snider’s son, who had grown up at WPC. Unfortunately, Charlie (newly married and recently hooded PhD!) had come down with COVID and Karen was willing to join me. I had a special reason for going to the Crossroads. It was one of my dad’s favorite haunts. Often, when we were in middle school and high school, Pop would stop off at the Crossroads on the way home after night court, get a pizza, eat a slice, and leave the rest of the cold pie out on the counter for my sister and I to grab for breakfast. The other reason I wanted to go is it has one of the best cheesesteaks in the area. Karen was a stand-out basketball player for our high school, and I tease her and Amy (who was a stand-out basketball player for the Greeneville High Greene Devils) that I want to see them play a game of H.O.R.S.E. some day.

Tuesday morning, I went by my old church to spend time praying in the chapel and sanctuary. The chapel really isn’t all that special. There isn’t anything really remarkable about it architecturally. Nevertheless, it is where the power of worship took root in my soul. Back in the dark ages the children of the church went directly to worship in the chapel, so the parents could focus on the preaching of Elam Davies (the great Welsh preacher who went on to 4thPresbyterian Church, Chicago), or Lloyd John Ogilvie (who never had an unpublished thought and went on to Hollywood Presbyterian in LA before becoming the Senate Chaplain from 1995-2003). College and high school kids ran the worship service for the children in the chapel and it was such an important place for me that whenever I was home for college, I would invariably find myself visiting within 24 hours of being home, drawn to have prayer in that holy place. The sanctuary always struck me as majestic in its simple beauty. Like WPC’s Laudaute Youth Choir, my home church had a youth choir that sang weekly. Until I started working, being in the choir was a significant influence in my developing faith-life; sitting up on the right side of the chancel with the other basses, trying to listen to Keith Brown’s preaching and timing Dick Ferguson’s interminable pastoral prayers – until I came to realize he was lifting the congregation to God. Mom was buried out of the chapel and Pop out to that sanctuary, so being there helped me remember them. I was surprised to see a plaque in the chapel for a gift in memory of Steve Dyer. Steve was a contemporary who was tragically killed in a hang-gliding accident when we were in college. His roots in the US went back very far; staying with him one time when we were in junior high, he showed me a piece of furniture that had come over with a forebear on the Mayflower. I hadn’t thought of Steve in years, but all of those memories came rushing back.

Tuesday lunch was with Freddy Donatelli at the municipal golf club in town. I’m glad the statute of limitations has long expired for any damage I did trying to learn how to play on the “muni” back in the day. I’ve known Freddy forever! Not only did we go all the way through school together, but we were also in the same Indian Guide “tribe” in elementary school. Indian Guides was a program that came out of YMCA to promote father/son bonding. Not as “merit badge” oriented as Scouts, it nonetheless provided time for boys and their dads to grow close. And we had a strong “tribe” in the East Hills section of the city, meeting in each other’s houses and going on the occasional camping sessions. Those camping sessions were not, let me be frank, my dad’s finest hours, until, of course, it came to telling stories around the campfire. Freddy easily remembered the time Pop and I managed to turn over a canoe in the lake, but also the spellbinding stories Pop would spin at the end of the night. He still lives in the old neighborhood, and I am grateful to have the chance to keep up. 

Driving to Princeton, I took the county roads over to 611 that runs along the Delaware River. Such a drive through the country allowed for the chance to see so many of the old stone barns and stone farmhouses that were such a part of the memory of growing up in Eastern PA. One summer during college I got a job working on 5 bridges up and down the Delaware River and it gave me a deep appreciation of the landscape such that when I discovered the “Pennsylvania Impressionist” artists I understood why their paintings were so critically acclaimed (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pennsylvania_Impressionism). To look at their paintings takes me back to that summer with the sylvian greens against the river’s blues. Driving past and over the bridges was like seeing old friends. 

When I arrived in Princeton I drove to the Seminary and had another serendipitous encounter: the first person I saw on campus was my friend Chris Currie, pastor of St. Charles Ave. Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. We both had a “what are you doing here” moment when we stumbled upon the other. He was on campus for a symposium on Karl Barth and he invited me to join him for the afternoon lecture. Well, what could be more of a lure than a lecture on “Barth and the Doctrine of Election” so I found myself sitting in the lecture room of Stuart Hall marveling that I first sat in that room 40 years ago this coming September. 

So much to celebrate and so many serendipities for which I thank God. These have been full days filled with such wonderful connections with friends.