In these daily meditations I have often told stories of the great heroes of the faith– reformers like Martin Luther, missionaries like John Paton, and evangelists like Billy Graham. I have also told many stories of the tremendous courage and character of those who suffer for their faith in nations where Christians are persecuted. These stories of extraordinary lives of faith inspire me to a stronger faith in my more ordinary life, and I hope they do the same for you.
I have also told stories of ordinary people I have known who have had extraordinary faith, doing the best to serve God with what they were given, even if it was in more humble circumstances. I am also inspired by these people, as I was inspired last week when I read A Pretty Good Person: What it Takes to Live With Courage, Gratitude, and Integrity (1990). This book by Lewis Smedes (1921-2002) describes the Christian life for ordinary people, those doing the best they can with the hand they have been dealt. In the book (pages 69-71) Smedes tells the following story of a man who faced some tragic losses and had some painful regrets. Yet, he could be content with what God had given him, take comfort in God’s forgiveness, and look back on his life with gratitude. He won’t make the history books, but he was ‘a pretty good person.’ God does not want us to depend on our good works for salvation, God does not want us to take pride in our goodness, but God does want us to be good.
John Maakgeld lived most of his life in garbage. It began with his father. When Theodore Maakgeld came to this country, he settled in Cleveland as a helping hand on a garbage truck, in the days when garbage was hoisted on dump trucks over a human shoulder. His boss dropped dead at the dump one day, so Theodore bought the truck from his widow. Until the day he died he earned a decent living by carting garbage from uptown restaurants to the landfills on the edge of town. As soon as his shoulders were big enough, John Maakgeld helped his father heave the garbage from the cans to the truck and then off again. As a young man, John bought his own truck.
It did not take John long to figure out that there was more money to be made if he could get his hands on more than one truck someday, hire drivers, and keep several of them going at the same time. Before he was thirty he managed to get four trucks on the road, and figured he was on his way to big things in garbage. But three bad things happened to him along the way to the top of the heap.
First came a meeting with a Cleveland chapter of the mob. They told John that nobody could haul garbage in Cleveland without paying for protection. But John told them he figured on being an exception to the rule. A week later somebody stole one of his trucks, loaded it to the hilt with fresh manure, backed it into his garage, and blew it up with dynamite. This persuaded John that paying tribute was a necessary evil in garbage hauling.
The second bad thing that happened was the Vietnam War. His son Ted was drafted, but he had moral feelings about not going. He wanted to be a conscientious objector and run away to Canada. John believed that when a young man’s country calls him to fight a war, that person has to go, whether it’s the war of his choice or not. Anybody who ran away was no son of his. Ted was shamed into the draft, and went to Vietnam. He was there for a couple of months when a squadron of American fighter planes accidentally strafed his platoon. Ted died by military mistake.
The third bad thing happened to his wife, Lanie. Lanie’s left leg suddenly wouldn’t do what she told it to do; and, two years after Ted got killed in the war, Lanie was told she had multiple sclerosis. She needed a lot of care, and it changed John’s life.
Garbage began to stink. He felt like a coward for doing business with crooks. The war turned bad, and Ted’s dying lost its point. So did hauling garbage. And now Lanie was sick and was going to get worse. He stayed in the business because he was fifty and didn’t know how to do anything else. But he sold off four of his five trucks, kept only one, drove it himself, finished the run by noon, and dedicated his afternoons and evenings to Lanie.
John is in his seventies now. Lanie is gone. He mostly pokes around in his Sears cords and rag-wool sweater, cooking meals, cleaning the house, and keeping his Buick tip-top. If you got him talking about his life, you would get a stream of thought that goes something like this:
How do I feel about the life I’ve lived? I’m not complaining. Not ashamed either; getting rid of garbage is important. People don’t think about that until it piles up. I wish to God I hadn’t paid off those crooks. But I did it, so what can I do? I wish to God I had never talked Ted into going to war. It seemed right to me then, and given who I was and how I felt about this country, I’d probably do it again, but I’m sorry I did. What I believe is this. My life is one little stitch in the sleeve of God’s big pattern. Lanie always said that I did pretty good with what God gave me to work with. And she did a lot to get me to believe that God forgave me for my foul-ups. I’m grateful for that and I’m settling for what I’ve had and what I’ve done.
We all have a story to tell. We have to take responsibility for it– the bad chapters and the good, the good choices and the bad choices– in the sure knowledge that God will forgive us the bad ones and set us free to write better ones in the time we have left.
Galatians 6:9 — Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
Acts 10:37-38a — You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good.
Psalm 37:3-4 — Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Lord, I have to make a choice, and I’m afraid that I may make the wrong one. But I have to make it anyway and I can’t put it off. Guide me to do what is right in your eyes. Then, I will make my choice, and trust you to forgive me if I do wrong. And, Lord, I will also trust you to help make things right afterward. Amen.