The Winters Of Our Lives

“I see trees so green, red roses too,
I see them bloom for me and you.
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
(1968) “What A Wonderful World” Recorded By: Louis Armstrong Composers: Robert Thiele & George David Weiss

Me, being more of a landmark hunter while driving, never even noticed. It was my very observant wife who rang out the news as we pulled into the driveway toward the garage earlier this month. It was a sad moment.

It had been an average sleepy weekday for the most part, when we decided we would treat ourselves to one of our favorite Tex-Mex restaurants for dinner. (For those who may not recognize the word, I will define. Tex-Mex is more of a Texas altered fare of Mexican food. Real Mexican food is not so desirable to the average American palate. Still, if you like tripe, cow tongue, goat, mole sauce, or cactus on your plate, then you may enjoy some authentic Mexican dishes. We enjoy whatever we grow up eating.) We had a pleasant dinner. The clock told us it was time to go home and catch the new episode of, “This Is Us”.

It was about dusk, but light enough to see details. Arriving back at the house we turned onto the driveway. The headlights brightened up the garage doors a bit more than the setting sun. That’s when she said, “It looks like that corner tree didn’t survive the February freeze.” I had not noticed this smaller tree wasn’t blooming like all the others.

(Don’t be fooled by the splash of green on the right side of the photo. That is a branch from our neighbor’s tree leaning over for a photo bomb.)

Our place isn’t a large strip of land, but we do have 12 trees. We have 4 large, older trees in the backyard, some mid-sized, and some even smaller. By the way, the further you drive west in Texas, the less trees you will find. Then there are all of the various plants and flowers decorating the property. My wife is a green-thumbed lady. She should have been a landscaper. It’s a bit astonishing, most everything survived the freak wintry zero degree blast we received in Texas, which shutdown our state for a couple of weeks in February. Many Texans are still recovering from all the frozen calamity.

Photo: A freak ice tornado over the frozen Lake Lewisville, about six miles north of us.

Much of the plant life here has been delayed a tad due to the winter storm from two months ago. Even the grass on our lawns hesitated to wake up. Even so, I find myself cocking my head while gazing at the brown leaves still clinging to the branches of our dead tree. Why THIS tree? We have another one just like it, although bigger, on the opposite corner at the front of the house and it thrives. The tree from our neighbor’s front lawn is only about ten feet away, and doing fine. Why was this tree unable to survive? It’s a mystery to me.

I should mention, as I silently mourned the death of our little corner tree, my wife surprisingly said, “Oh well. I never liked that tree anyway. We need to dig it up and get it to the curb.” I didn’t know she felt that way about the tree. In hopes of a resurrection of sorts, I told her we should at least give it the month of May and see if it’s just in shock. Well, here it is, knocking on May’s door, and still no signs of life.

If you’ve not read the details, I wrote about our winter surprise when it occurred back in February. It may help to explain why there’s a corpse in our yard.

Photo: So many lost power, gas, and water. Some for several days.

Life is like that. One day you are experiencing the average comfortable days of life, with all its subject matters and routines, then WHAM!!! Just like that, an unexpected fierce winter hits you blindsided without warning. You know what I mean. My step-daughter, my brother-in-law, and my mother-in-law, all were diagnosed with cancer within a period of four years. Each one of them can tell you how winter blasts can take your breath away just as you are enjoying the warmth of a Texas sun. Yesterday, my kidney doctor gave me some disturbing news concerning a recent lab test result. I shed tears on my way home. Maybe your wintry blast came by way of a disrupting phone call which cracked the windshield of your life. Some might have faced the frozen chill as they held the hand of a dying love in a cold ICU room. Maybe it’s the memory of a sudden loss of a job, a steady income, or fire, or theft. I will tell you, the sudden loss of a marriage, home, and all that goes with it, can be a piercing sharp icicle to the heart and mind. The management of such frozen squalls is the true test. When you can’t trust others, or the fluctuating elements, or even yourself, where do YOU turn?

As for me, I can tell you, I do tend to “freeze-up” when life dishes out a gust of February. This is a trend I’ve discovered about myself. Too many times, I can testify to hitting the bed shortly after the icy hand of trauma grabs me. Please understand, I mean hitting the bed and staying there for days. Call me nuts but it’s happened. Professionals from the medical field tell us depression, depending on the degree, can lead to a shortened lifespan, or even sudden death. It is vital to shake off the icy particles, get out of bed, and begin the journey to healing. If not, we will not produce the way God intended. We become stagnant, bitter, angry, and yes…icy. The leaves on my tree speak volumes about life’s unexpected oppressive winters.

As we dig up the roots, break off the brittle branches, and put the saw to the limbs, I will remember the blooms it once delivered. I will visualize the Robins singing in its branches. I will recall the small shade it cast around the corner in which it lived. In doing so, I will keep in mind my perspective on the harshness of life, and the winters of life still to come. It will be a true test of Who I trust to guide me through such days. For on my own strength, I will shrivel, I will dwindle, I will wither.

Discover His branch, your vine, your bloom of fruit in fuel for the race.

“Because in joy you shall go out and in peace you shall go on, and the mountains and the hills shall break out before you in song, and all the trees of the field shall clap hands!” – Isaiah 55:12 (Aramaic Bible In Plain English)

Ripples

“Sometimes even now,
When I’m feelin’ lonely and beat,
I drift back in time and I find my feet,
Down on Mainstreet…
Down on Mainstreet”
(1977) “Mainstreet” Written & Recorded By: Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band

(I’ve always wondered if Bob Seger meant to write, “Main Street” vs “Mainstreet”. Oh, well.)

Deep Ellum is an old section of Dallas, Texas, just off the east cusp of the downtown area. The “main” street is Elm Street. However, over the decades, during the development and expansion of what is now known as Deep Ellum, it is a full-blown artsy neighborhood of small businesses dishing up terrific nightlife, complete with restaurants, sidewalk cafes, coffee shops, and live music clubs. You can also expect a plethora of outdoor festivals. A pedestrian’s party haven.

Photo: deepellumtexas.com

The last time I was there, I was enjoying my daughter’s band at a quaint brick-walled night club. She was on a national concert tour that year out of Buffalo, NY.

Deep Ellum was one of the scheduled gigs before performing at the annual SXSW Fest in Austin, Texas.

There’s nothing like the sound of live music, Texas sunshine, and the smell of street tacos in the air. In a bohemian part of any large city, you can always expect street vendors.

Allow me to introduce you to one of Dallas’ most beloved street vendors, 60 year old, Leobardo Torres Sanchez.

Credit: Miriam Torres Leon

Like a ripple of joy expanding out into the streets of Deep Ellum from Leobardo’s goodies cart-on-wheels, comes the opportunity for cotton candy in a bag, or on a stick, (He always wants you to know it was grown right here in Texas. Come to think of it, I might have seen a crop or two myself). He’s also loaded down with apples, popcorn balls, and often in the summer, balloons on a stick. Along with the tasty treats, he has a gift for dancing up a storm, including a pretty mean moonwalk. Those who frequent Deep Ellum know of the exuberant Leobardo very well. He is hard to miss…or hard to miss hearing.

Originally from Mexico, Leobardo has been selling his stuff on the curbs of Dallas for over eight years now. Like many men south of the border, Leobardo left his poor village, leaving his family behind, to find work away from home. He did just that with his focus on chipping-in on the American dream. According to his daughter, Miriam Torres Leon in Mexico, he faithfully sends money back to his family. He is seen as wealthy to others back home. He lives alone in a rented room, lives humbly, but considered blessed. He is a man who truly loves what he does each day.

Credit: Miriam Torres Leon

If you visit this section of Dallas, you not only will hear good things concerning Leobardo from the business owners, their patrons, and the cops on bikes or horses assigned to the streets of Deep Ellum, but also the homeless and fellow street vendors. Many of the homeless have had their hands filled with free goods straight from Leobardo’s cart. Another street vendor mentioned recently to the Dallas Morning News how when he was robbed, Leobardo gave him 40 bags of cotton candy to sell to help stretch the dollar. That is a good reflection of the kind of heart you can expect from this man of commerce on wheels.

As you may have heard, Texas was hit in mid February with a freak winter 100 year storm with temps plunging to zero and single digits for much of Valentine’s Week. Leobardo, and street entrepreneurs like him, were forced off the streets. Being concerned after hearing of the Texas freezing storm, his daughter in Mexico called him. On the 12th, he told her the plummeting temperatures was unbearable to him. He told her not to worry, even though he lost electrical power due to an unprepared power grid, explaining to her that he was in his rental room wearing several jackets and had wrapped himself in layers of blankets. His circumstances was not unique here. Millions of Texans lost power, water, and sometimes gas.

After several days, Leobardo’s daughter could not contact her dad. However, she did put out a message on social media about the situation in hopes the Deep Ellum community might be able to locate him. Unfortunately, his daughter, Miriam, didn’t know his address, or just what part of Dallas he lived in. A couple of street vendors who knew Leobardo, and his location, heard of her digital posts and fought through the frigid weather to check on him.

On Tuesday, the 22nd, as the thawing was welcomed in Dallas, the police did a welfare check on Leobardo. He was found deceased in his frozen room. His body was found in his bed under several layers of blankets and wearing multiple coats. This poor man was one of a multitude of Texans who did not survive the single digit blast from a very rare weather tragedy. The heartbreak is real. Leobardo and I were the same age.

As the news of Leobardo’s death began to circulate, the mourners responded in droves with cash funds for his family in Mexico, flowers, written tributes, and a Go-Fund-Me account. It seems Leobardo was indeed a man of poverty. but wealthy in heart.

As I read of Leobardo’s passing, I was awestruck by the outpouring of the kind citizens affected by this man with what many would consider an insignificant life. Knowing that sounds harsh to read, or say aloud, I must state the following. Many who walked by his cart-on-wheels, maybe even purchased an apple from him on a hot summer day, might have seen him as a “lower rung” individual. Those who drove by Leobardo’s cotton candy stand, while on their way to Del Frisco’s for a $350.00 dinner, may have smirked at his efforts to scrape out a buck, or laughed at his dancing in the dust around his cart. Tears filled my eyes when imagining a man or woman seeing Leobardo ahead at the corner, crossing Elm Street just so they wouldn’t hear him ask in his broken English if they would like a popcorn ball. You know why, right? Because if one avoids someone like him, they are conveniently cancelled in one’s mind, as if they don’t exist. It’s that easy to put someone under the foot.

Then, at some point in my thoughts and imagination of these things, I remembered the outpouring of love from gentler hearts. Some of which who knew him, some who just gave him a smile as they walked around his cart, or perhaps some who bought one of his balloons for their child. I read more of the comments made by the many he impacted with his humble life. That’s when I smiled through a tear which had escaped.

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” – John Donne’s Devotions (1624)

A pebble can be so insignificant under foot. The sound of a hiking boot crushing many pebbles, as the weight is distributed, has a unique tenor. Yet, when the sole applies weight to just one pebble, the resonance is hardly noticeable. But, pick up that single insignificant pebble, toss it into a still street puddle then count the ripples from the point of contact to the outer edges on all sides. Isn’t that all God asks of us while we walk our various pavements? Impact others around you. Sway individuals with your light, so that everyone will see how God works in your heart. In doing so, we make waves.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Making a ripple around you has a blueprint in fuel for the race.

“For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.” Romans 14:7 (NIV)

Texas On Ice

“I really can’t stay.
But baby it’s cold outside.
Got to go away.
But baby it’s cold outside.
This evening has been…
Been hoping you’d drop in.
So very nice.
I’ll hold your hands they’re just like ice…”
(1949 release) “Baby It’s Cold Outside” Composer: Frank Loesser

My posts are written from my desktop computer in our study/studio in the north Dallas suburb of Carrollton, Texas. Today, Saturday, Feb 20th, is the first day this week I felt comfortable enough to plug the computer back into the wall socket. We have been practicing electrical limits, among other outages here.

Linemen have been busy in Texas this past week.

In case you haven’t seen the news this week, Alaska got mad at Texas and threw-up all over us. For my friends up north, and around the globe in winter-friendly areas, allow me to apologize on this printed line before I continue. I spent five years in Buffalo, NY and know how piercing winter can be north of Oklahoma. However, this week in Texas was historical.

It’s a very rare thing, almost unheard of, if we see zero degrees on the thermometer in Texas. It’s also rare to see single digit temps in the winter. We see the teens, but only once or twice a winter, if that. Yet, in the last few days we saw zero and the single digits. To accompany the drastic frigid blasts, we were dipped in snow and ice for much of Texas.

My backyard.

Oh, sure, one might ask what the fuss is about. We love snow here in Texas. We rarely see it. When we do, it may be an inch or two once a year for a day, or even an overnight and morning before it vanishes. However, with the record breaking lows on the temperature scales, the snow and ice didn’t melt all week. Only today we crawled over the freezing mark with snow melting slowly. Swimming pools, ponds, rivers, lakes, and creeks froze. Kids took up ice hockey. Pile-up crashes occurred on the freeways, due to dangerous black ice on the pavement. One event involved a multi-vehicle pile-up in Ft Worth where over 130 vehicles were involved, several fatalities, and dozens injured.

A drone shot of a neighborhood just north of our street.

All of Texas was hit.

Our driveway on the first day. By now we should be in the 50’s & 60’s.

Apparently, Texas can handle a day of the extreme single digit temps, with minus wind chill factors to boot, but if it continues…real problems arise.

The investigations are ongoing, but Texans were struck hard this week. It began with enforced rolling blackout power outages. Then for many, in fact over 4 million, were without power in weather only Canadians could love. The wind turbines, which partially fuels power transfers, froze. The oil and gas pipelines were frozen or interrupted. The cascading rolled along as so many had to go without water, too. At one point, over 13 million, nearly half of Texas, experienced water boiling orders due to water treatment facilities grinding to a halt. I know several in my own circle who went without gas, water, and electric for 3-4 days. A friend posted this shot of how she got her meals together as if it were the 1800’s.

Texans living as if the calendar read Feb, 1885.

Organizations amassed efforts to help in Texas-sized fashion. Water and food lines became the norm. Here’s one at a local church parking lot waiting for cases of water.

Millstone Church parking lot waterline.

For some, desperation took over as grocery stores were raided, leaving empty shelves.

Sadly, various ranchers began cutting off the ears of their cattle due to frostbite. Many farmers with hogs and goats had to do the same. Without gas, electric and water, many poultry plants stopped production as chickens and eggs froze in the hatcheries. Even feed and seed couldn’t be shipped to the ranchers and farmers. Hundreds of sea turtles were rescued on Texas beaches as they could no longer move. The Texas citrus crops are done for in the Rio Grande Valley. It was reported today by Sid Miller, Secretary of Texas Agriculture, that volunteers are harvesting frozen wildlife, deer, wild hogs, antelope, rabbit, etc, for massive BBQ’s and wood smoking to aid in feeding the public. He went on to say that even dairy plants need natural gas to pasteurize milk products. No doubt, Texans are in for a food shortage. Who knows how long it will last?

Unfortunately dozens of Texans have been found dead, and I’m sure many more will be found as the thawing has just begun.

Mistakes were made around the desks of decision in preparing for the unthinkable this past week. Lessons have been harshly learned. Preparedness will be reviewed and replaced for any future natural disasters, even those which Texas doesn’t normally see.

As pipes are being repaired, and shortages hover over us, I know One who is never short on power, and everlasting water.

This classical Greek word, ἐνδυναμοῦντί, changes everything about running on empty while facing outages. The Darby Bible Translation states it very closely to the original Greek text:

“I have strength for all things in him that gives me power.” – Philippians 4;13

The Greek directly places the emphasis on tasks, or circumstances being wooden horses which can be hurdled.

“(For) all things I have strength in the One (endynamounti) strengthening me.” -Direct Greek translation as Paul wrote it. FOREVER CHURNING! No frozen wind turbines here!

Often this verse is taken out of context. Remembering, that text without context is pretext. You really should read the complete chapter in Philippians. Many times Paul admitted he suffered when stuff happened that he could not control. Way too often God allowed Paul to experience the fan being hit. Early Christians were getting hit hard in their own type of cancel culture, not to mention the local government restraints, as well as, Rome itself. But Paul is so encouraging by saying, when the trials come, I know I can, and do, get through them by the One who continually pumps in, like a rushing fountain of water, the ability to overcome by a power which is outside of myself.

Texans are tough, but God is tougher. If we break chains, if we move mountains, it’s because He infuses the strength into us for the purpose. If even hell freezes over, because of his ongoing distribution of His all-powerful grip, we will skate over it. If He should send snow to our rooftops, in a state that takes on 110 degrees in the summer, then He will give us a transfusion of His ability to walk through it.

He will never lose His distributed power. There are no outages in fuel for the race.

“I am the vine, you are the branches; the one who remains in Me, and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” – (Jesus) John 15:5 (NAS)

There’s Always Tomorrow

“There’s always tomorrow,
For dreams to come true,
Tomorrow is not far away.”
(1964) From the TV production, “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”. Composer: Johnny Marks

Our 2021 looks just like what we see in my cover photo above the title. A blank sheet, a clean slate, a fresh page. Notice the pen still has its cap over the business end.

I, for one, will be happy to kiss 2020 goodbye. What a nasty year. I mean that, too. Hard, harsh, disgusting, rude, violent, diseased, and dark. And yet, we were responsible for it all. Sure, we could blame others, and we do. But when in retrospect, the wise ones will say, “We made a terrible mess.” And we did.

My middle daughter, Megan sent me a couple of photos from her house in Buffalo, NY over the Christmas week. Here’s one for you.

My daughter, Megan’s street in Buffalo, NY.

I love a fresh snow. It’s the darkened, oily, old snow I look away from. Lots like 2020.

More than the blank sheet of paper, 2021 may resemble more like this…

My daughter, Megan’s backyard in Buffalo, NY.

Isn’t it true? Do you see it? If you don’t see it, you would be right. There’s 2021 right there in that shot. A fresh mound of virgin snow…lacking footprints.

With all of our flaws, our faults, our flubs, God has seen fit to graciously hand us a frsh new year for us to walk carefully onward. In a way, the Creator is saying, “Here you go. I’m allowing you another year, fresh and clean. Now walk in my ways and just see where your footprints lead.”

Our footprints will tell us not only where we go, where we’ve been, and just how heavy our stomping has been, but we will discover more about our ways.

God knows the beginning and the ending. He knows our A through Z. He knows our pre-historic days, and our eternal lives. Isn’t it fair to say, The Ancient Of Days is also, The Maker Of Our Days? With Him, the crooked is made straight. The gift of free-will demands that we choose how to walk in 2021.

It is up to us.

Tomorrow’s trek requires fuel for the race.

“You shall walk in all the way which the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days…” – Deuteronomy 5:33a (NAS)

My Tribute To Larry Bierl

“I will remember you.  Will you remember me?  Don’t let life pass you by.  Weep not for the memories…”   I Will Remember You, (1995).  Recorded by:  Sarah McLachlan.  Composers:  Sarah McLachlan, Seamus Egan, Dave Merenda

Cover photo:  Anne Neville/Buffalo News

Life sure has its ways of reminding us how we should have corrected ourselves at some point and time.  The rear-view mirror can be a teaching tool.

I lived in Williamsville/Amherst, NY, a Buffalo suburb, from 2003-2008.  It’s approximately 5,300 in population.  I chose Williamsville because it was a beautiful, quaint little area, away from the city where I did a radio show.  The property taxes were higher, with the safe neighborhood, as well as the school district.  It was a superb place for my three girls.

Often times, while driving into the quiet, older downtown village of Williamsville for a dinner run, or a nice walk down to the Ellicott Creek waterfall in Glen Park, we would see a mysterious man walking the sidewalks.  He was quite the oddity for the setting of Williamsville’s more upper-crust reputation.  He was a homeless man, or so we assumed.  The majority of the homeless were seen in the city, not the norm for the Williamsville/Amherst section of Buffalo.  More than likely you would see him clad in camouflage coat & pants, or a pair of cargo khakis, hunting lace-up boots, and long heavy yarn scarves wrapped around his neck that hung down to his thighs.

One evening, while sitting in the car in a parking lot, waiting to pick-up my daughter from a musical rehearsal, I saw the man was nearby, digging through a trash bin outside a Wendy’s fast food location.  At closer glance, I observed the scarves with a better perspective.  The scarves were not scarves at all.  They were extremely long strands of thick, matted hair, appearing to be mufflers of wool.  These strands were not dreadlocks, with crafty braids of hair art, although many attempted a good spin by calling them dreadlocks.  They were as thick as a dock rope.  It was an amazing sight, and certainly highly unique.  It told part of this man’s narrative.

My oldest daughter, Tabitha, 16 at the time, worked part-time for Spot Coffee, a popular coffee and pastry bar.  He made a semi-daily stop there for a tall cup of straight java.  He was offered free coffees and food from most of the businesses in the village. or wherever he showed up, but he always paid when he could.  Empty bottles and cans were his prey.  It was a familiar scene, a plastic trash bag full of the soon-to-be recycled items, draped over his shoulder.  He had a zip-lock plastic bag of coins and dollar bills stashed in the thigh pocket of his pants.  Nobody ever saw him begging on the street corners.  However, the community members, not allowing judgement to overrule them, donated money to him coming and going.  One might wonder how the business owners and the police dealt with him.  I am proud to say, very kindly.  Everyone understood, this man was part of our community, living a life of his choosing.

More days than not, if you drove by Spot Coffee, you would see him sitting at one of the patio tables with coffee in hand, gazing off toward the horizon.  He seemed to live in his own world.  He was gentle, never causing trouble.  Although he was not one to enjoy talking much.  He would respond if spoken to.  My daughter has a big heart.  She made sure she spoke to him while serving him coffee, or whenever she was close enough on other occasions.

Larry Bierl AT Spot Coffee Photo:  Carole Taylor & Buffalo News

Sometimes you could see him sitting outside a Burger King on a sidewalk bench, eating a burger.  Other times, he would be stuffing one into an old worn backpack.  It was not unusual for him to decline someone offering him fries to go with it.  My opportunity was one August afternoon as I jogged by the bench.  You guessed it.  I looked straight ahead listening to Fleetwood Mac on my headset, pretending I didn’t notice him.

Many have seen him walking the campus of the University of Buffalo, watching the pigeons.  There is a subway station there, on the south campus, where he often took shelter.  With that said, I think he simply enjoyed the peaceful surroundings of the campus, even under hostile weather.

After a year of living there, this man just became a fixture to me.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not that I no longer acknowledged his presence, but rather I expected to see him…somewhere.  What’s truly nagging at me is the fact he had a story and I didn’t know it.

Although he was an icon, even a staple in the area, most only heard rumors concerning who he really was.  Not many ever knew his name, including your’s truly.  One rumor painted the man on the street as an alcohol and drug addict.  Another rumor dubbed him as a military vet from the Vietnam conflict.  Because he often paid for his coffee and food, many believed he was covertly wealthy, wanting to experience the street life of the poor.  It’s funny how we can extract scenarios about someone when they are shrouded in mysteries.

One thing is for sure, he was a tough soul.  During the decades of street life, he braved some of the worst winter blasts Buffalo/Niagara had to offer, and they are many.

My middle daughter, Megan, still lives in Buffalo.  Recently I asked if she has spotted the roving man after all these years.  She said he stays pretty much in the Amherst/Williamsville suburbs, but nothing had seemed to change for him.

Last week, Megan posted an article from the Buffalo News newspaper.  During the horrid polar vortex weather system, which blew in sub-zero temps, and all that goes with it, Buffalo was hit extremely hard.

At the height of the storm, he had gone to one of his coffee hang-outs, a Tim Horton’s location, but it was closed due to the travel ban with the deep freeze encasing the region.  (It’s highly rare to see a Tim Horton’s closed due to weather.)  He then entered, for the very first time, the lobby at a nearby luxury hotel.  The manager of the restaurant and bar, offered him coffee and a chair, which he accepted.  Seeing that he was suffering from the penetrating polar winds, he was generously offered a room for the night.  He declined.  (Even if he had accepted, he would’ve abandoned the accommodations soon after.)  The manager then offered hot food, a warm hat, as well as another coat.  As it was his usual form, he declined.  After a small time of warmth,  the poor man began to make his way to the lobby door.  The staff begged him to stay longer, only to watch him nod as he made his frigid exit.

Lawrence “Larry” Bierl, age 67-69, was found the following morning, January 31st, just two blocks down from the hotel, on a bench at a three-sided plexiglass bus stop on Main Street.  Somewhere in the overnight, he had passed away from the wrath of the polar vortex.

Main St Bus Shelter Buffalo

Photo:  Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News

The Buffalo News article had published a beautiful letter from Larry’s extended family.  Nobody was aware he had family at all.  His sister was the writer.  As the family revealed Larry’s story, I could hardly hold my mouth closed.  Larry held a master’s degree.  He was once in management of a well-known airline corporation.  He never was a vet.  He never was a drug addict, or alcohol abuser.  One day, in the mid 70’s, for no apparent reason, he walked away from his life as he knew it to be.  He traveled the country, often hitching rides with truckers and hopping trains, only to return to Buffalo to live as a homeless man.  The family did all they could to help him.  They tried for years to convince him to get help.  He declined.  After many years of tracking him, pushing him to get the much needed assistance he deserved, the family surrendered to his wishes.  Nobody in his family ever knew exactly what happened to his mind, or what derailed his life, but he lived with a mental illness.

After reading of his terrible death, along with his story, I must admit, I cried.  As I write this blog, my mind still hasn’t come to grips with how I feel, or how to process this.  Why?  Because I never spoke to Larry, although many I love had done so.  Not once did I ever offer him a meal, a bottle of water, or a new pair of shoes.  It came to mind to grab a gift card at a hair salon, or a clothing outlet, but I never did.  Clearly, God gave me opportunities, but apparently “I” was more important.

“…Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Jesus –  Mark 12:31a (NIV)

Sure, there were internal excuses.  They went something like this,  “The Buffalo City Mission downtown will take care of him.”  Here’s another,  “My neighbors will do it.”  Of course the most common,  “I don’t have the time on my schedule today.”  Ironically, I’ve volunteered at missions and shelters since I was a teenager.  You could’ve found me feeding the homeless at various soup kitchens, from time to time in my life.  But Larry….not one thing, not once.  Mentioning him on my radio show would’ve been acceptable.  I could’ve brought more awareness to Larry’s plight.  No, I didn’t open up at all.  I had the chance to make a difference in his day.  I did nothing of the sort.  Part of me never wants to hear rejection, even if it’s offering a pair of socks to a homeless one who may decline.  Well, that’s my lame excuse.  Frankly, my tears weren’t just for Larry, but they were also for my seemingly growing jaded outlook.  God forbid that my heart grows cold and hard with age.

Someone very wise once said, “Never cry for a life lost.  Rejoice because it happened.” (Paraphrased)  One sour soul might say Larry’s life was a wasted life, a waste of time, and a waste of space.  However, the hundreds that helped Larry, who gave of themselves through the decades, were enriched by the man.  Think about it.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” – Jesus (Quoted in Acts 20:35 – NAS)

It might be wise to deice, or defog the rear-view mirror first, before going the extra mile.

The ice melts.  The sub-zero temps vanish.  But life…life makes its stamp.  Somewhere in Williamsville/Amherst, NY, if you go to a quiet place, you just might hear the whisper of Lawrence Bierl, “I was here.”

Remembering and serving, floods from the river of fuel for the race.

“Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh (and blood)?”  Isaiah 58:7 (NAS)

Slippery Slopes

“…She was going way too fast.  Before she knew it she was spinning on a thin black sheet of glass.  She saw both their lives flash before her eyes.  She didn’t have time to cry.  She was so scared.  She threw her hands up in the air.  Jesus, take the wheel.  Take it from my hands. ‘Cause I can’t do this on my own.  I’m letting go…”  – Jesus, Take The Wheel, (2005)  Recorded by:  Carrie Underwood.  Composers:  Brett James, Gordon Sampson, Hillary Lindsey.

14 years ago, an old friend of mine, Jaylene Johnson, miraculously survived a severe crash.  (See her car above.)

She is a successful singer/songwriter/recording artist, Juno Award nominee and Covenant Award winner from Winnipeg, Canada.  To say she was exhausted at the end of a cross-Canada solo tour, would be an understatement.  With her heater blowing full throttle, as she was driving home after a heavy snowfall in North Western Ontario, she was eager to see her hometown.  Jaylene was negotiating the roads as well as could be expected.  There was a moment in time she thought maybe it was best to grab a hotel before they closed the highways, but that had yet to happen.  Her car was packed to the roof with her guitars, keyboard, sound equipment, promotional products, and luggage.  The only thing on her mind was the weather conditions bearing down on the route.  She is a cautious driver, well versed in winter driving, but the semis nipping at her bumper were not so careful.  The rear-view mirror became her friend.

jaylene johnson performing

Jaylene on-tour.  Photo:  Tim Hellsten

The last thing she recalls is the map.  She had made it just outside of Upsala, Ontario, in the Thunder Bay District, when all went dark.  (Some of the following details came from eyewitnesses, EMT’s & police reports, along with her own post-accident inquiry.)

Travelling westbound, she had reached the top of a ridge overlooking a valley below.  As she began to descend into the valley, she slipped on some unexpected black ice covering the highway, and lost control.  As her little vehicle slid across the highway, she hit a transport coming eastbound head-on.  When she came to in the wreckage, a stranger on the scene, named “Willie”, pulled her through a shattered window, held her hand, and covered her with his coat before the EMT’s arrived.  As she sobbed, he comforted her while stroking her hair as she laid there in shock.  Fast-forward, she spent the rest of the day on a back brace in a Thunder Bay hospital.  Her body was riddled with pieces of broken glass.

Back in 2004, I was doing a radio show in Buffalo, NY while she had just released her first major album.  At the time, it was rare for Canadian artists to get radio airplay on the USA side of the border, especially independent bands.  I wanted to change that trend in the corner where I was.  The station I worked for was operating with 110,000 watts, reaching well north of Toronto, generally all of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).  The signal stretched over the entire Western New York area, northwestern Pennsylvania, and some portions of Ohio.  There was too many stellar Canadian artists putting out top-shelf cuts, not being heard on the U.S. side.  My number one focus was quality writing, production, along with terrific vocals to debut south of the Canadian border.  However, it was under a global relief, development and advocacy banner where our roads converged.

World Vision International had approached the two of us to join their work in El Salvador, as part of an ad campaign for support.  We worked together there, alongside other Canadian artists, for a week or so.  I was doing live reports back to the radio station as I interviewed World Vision workers, as well as benefactors.  It was there Jaylene and I became friends in a much warmer climate.

me in el salvador with world vision 2004

Jaylene took this photo of an interview I was doing with a World Vision recipient through a World Vision interpreter.

After our trip, we kept in touch.  Jaylene graced my show, in studio, a couple of times when she was performing in the GTA or WNY.  Through the years I kept track of her tours and television appearances.

After hearing from her on the details of the accident, I grew concerned about her health in the wake of such trauma.  In the end, there was no need for concern on my part.  God took the wheel, indeed.

I’ve had my own experiences with icy paths.  When you believe you can negotiate the roads in that condition, caution and prep would be top priority.

Come to think of it, no matter what climate you travel through, icy roads can derail your life.  Do you know what I mean?  We can be living life as a smooth operator, no issues in sight.  Then suddenly, without warning, our feet come right out from under us.  Zero traction takes us by surprise.  We’re never really prepared for it.  Just when we think we are, “BOOM”, on our tailbone we go.  (And it’s always the tailbone, right?)  For some, it might be losing traction on funds and finances.  We might experience losing traction on world peace.  Maybe a loss in traction with our child, our health, our marriage, or our nation.  It happens.  Before you know it, we slide hard into a nearby ditch, off the trek we were to be on. Just like Jaylene’s shellacked pavement, the ice doesn’t have to be thick to cause a head-on collision.  We can find slippage on the invisible, and/or what we deem as non-threatening.  It’s a tragic mistake.  Some find slippery slopes that lead to life-ending results.  There are non-negotiables out there which can transport you to where you don’t want to be.

“…stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand….and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace…” – St. Paul, Ephesians 6. 

In Paul’s time, Roman soldiers were fitted into special sandals with studs on the soles, like cleats.  For me, my preference are my insulated snow-boots with cleats on the rubber soles.  Better yet, Paul indicates a true gripping.  It’s more like the spikes on a mountain climber’s boot.  Anyone who has ever fallen hard on the ice, or slid down a slippery slope in the winter, or did so in a social, political, or economic climate, would recommend cleats in decision making.  Just ask the citizens of Venezuela.  Unlike Jaylene, when driving in the ice on bald tires, your future is certain.

Prep all you want.  There’s always the God-factor outside of your own abilities and strength.  Have you been there?  Maybe you have and you didn’t truly take the time to consider it.

As for Jaylene’s ordeal, a couple of mysteries still hover.  One unsolved oddity surrounds “Willie”.  As she was being placed in the ambulance, she looked back for him.  He, and his coat, were gone.  No person at the scene could tell her who he was, where he came from , or where he went.  Plus, according to the reports, the shear impact from the head-on collision with the transport, and her small vehicle, was of tremendous force.  Yet, she walked out of the hospital, on her own power later the SAME DAY!  Just shocking.

Also, one of the EMT’s was familiar with her music from Canadian radio.  He went the extra mile after taking her to the hospital.  He went back to the scene and helped to retrieve her property from the wreckage, all on his own time.

Lasting effects remain with her, mostly psychological in nature.  To this day, Jaylene will tell you, she can’t seem to fully relax anymore.  Yet, she does see God’s hand in the incident on several levels.  So do I.

jaylene johnson promo Jaylenejohnson.COM

I’m proud to say she continues to write, record, and perform.  She’s now married and raising a family.

When in slippery, tight places, it goes better when fitted with the cleats of fuel for the race.

“For He will give His angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all your ways.  They will bear you up in their hands, that you do not strike your foot against a stone.”  -Psalm 91:11-12 (NAS)