The Route

Technically, I am not an employee of FedEx.  I work for a local subcontractor that operates in several smaller towns around Austin and San Antonio.  Contractors purchase routes from the global FedEx corporation much like subcontractors build parts of a house or franchisees purchase rights to run a restaurant chain.  I usually run route 504 in rural Fredericksburg, TX – famous as the hometown of WWII Admiral Chester Nimitz and some excellent smelling German bakeries.

Loading in the Morning

As you can imagine, it is quite a logistics-fest at the station each morning.  There are 34 loading bays for semi-trailers on one side of the building, 5 primary loading belts for delivery trucks and vans on the other, and a mess of conveyors in between.  Status screens scattered throughout the building so the direction each belt is travelling.  Green lines are belts in motion, white are stationary, and red indicates a problem, error, or stoppage.

This photo was taken at the end of the day, so little was happening.  Belt VL-1 on the left is where evening pickups are loaded as we return from our routes.  Package handlers scan each incoming box and, in this case, many trucks returned at the same time and the belt was full.  One of the handlers pulled the stop cord, much like on a city bus, to get the belt to stop for a moment.  My subcontractor works off belt VL-5 on the right.  There are handlers sprinkled throughout the belt system moving packages from one chute/direction to another.

There are more trucks/vans than there are spaces at the belts.  Some of us, including me, get their packages loaded onto rolling carts.

We take the carts to our vehicles parked outside and load up there.  This is great when the weather is breezy and sunny like below, not so great when it’s hot and humid.

Getting Around the Route

Each package has a sticker that identifies what’s called a sequence number.  A computer system tries to order the packages in a logical routing.  In a perfect world you could just run the packages in order of the sequence number – and in densely packed neighborhoods that generally works.  Not on mine, though.  My route is rural enough that there aren’t neighborhoods to speak of, so I have to organize my packages based on the major highways the stops are near.

Here’s every address I’ve been to since I started on my own.

Here are the major roads/highways.

And the “zones”.

I end up with four sections in the van devoted to these four zones: US-290, US-87, Ranch Road 963, and Doss, TX.  As I load each box into one of the zones in the van, I plot the address as a starred point in Google Maps.  This ensures I’ve touched every single package going into my van and I don’t miss something while loading.  As I deliver to the address, I’ll un-star the spot on the map.

Some days one zone is heavier than others and I might run it first for the feeling of getting stuff done quickly.  Other times it is so spread out that there is no best “first” way to take.  In close to 30 days I don’t think I’ve gone the exact same way through the stops.  Southernmost to northernmost is 21 miles.  East to west is 26 for a total route area of 546 square miles (more than I estimated in the previous post!).

Fun Stops

Most stops are your everyday residence or business just off the road.  I grab the package, put it on the front porch and move on to the next.  Other stops have long driveways that twist and turn eventually revealing the residence deep in the Texas landscape.

I always enjoy this stop because the cows and longhorns are often by the front gate.  This is a family-owned family-friendly ranch with a fun, decorative entrance gate.  One of the steers when I took this picture, though, was starting to get antsy and was pawing the ground.  I left promptly.

There’s a house with its own landing strip!  The owner flies a vintage Cessna Birddog taildragger in and out of the 1,500 ft paved strip.  You drive onto the runway to and from the residence.

Awesome.  I also deliver to an aircraft engine repair shop.  Their packages are always full of heavy parts.

If the route is particularly heavy, I’ll be out later, but it means the beginnings of beautiful sunsets.

Difficult Stops

Being rural, most driveways are gravel or barely cut-in grass paths.  I can’t go down this road until at least 2 days after rain.  Those puddles are several inches deep and hide sticky mud through which my van won’t navigate.  I’ve gotten stuck on a different road only once but was able to rock and reverse out of it.  It would have been several hours before someone could have rescued me.

Obviously if the weather is bad it will slow everything down.  Thankfully Texas weather is only severe for a short time.  This was the only instance of low visibility I’ve experienced so far.

End of the Day

Sometimes we come back with packages still in the van.  There are many reasons, but most often include: a signature is needed and no one was home, the address was incorrect, or the address couldn’t be found (happens more on rural routes when streets are colloquially named but not officially on the map).  We head back to the station and park our vehicles wherever there’s a spot, ready for the next day.

Sometimes we encounter colleagues who finished their route around the same time and caravan back to the station…

…which is quiet upon our return, ready for the next early morning package sorting shift.

Finally, not a complaint but a request.  I love shopping online and get almost all my computer and gadget purchases delivered.  We order kid’s clothes and other non-essential supplies online often.  But all delivery services across the sectors are, understandably, very busy right now.  This past Thursday I was called in on my day off because it was known that we’d hit a non-peak package record that almost rivals normal peak Christmas volume.  Please only order what you need, and, when things eventually go back to normal, load up the family or make a solo trip and support your local brick and mortar stores.

And don’t forget to continue financially supporting your charities/nonprofits/faith communities of choice.  Their recovery will be much slower than that of consumer goods retailers.

Coming Soon

The Packages – You can bet that Walmart boxes will fall apart if you merely breathe on them, Sam’s Club boxes are marginally better, Omaha Steaks do a great job shrink-wrapping their insulated coolers, and Chewy (online pet food/supplies) boxes are just awful.

Life on the Ground

Many of you know that our family moved to Austin, Texas at the beginning of 2020. Moved by the Holy Spirit, my wife, Lauren, took a pastoral call at a Lutheran church and I took this transition as an opportunity to explore a career in nonprofit philanthropy and administration. Once our transition was announced, I began submitting applications to local nonprofits. The result of 37 applications was 3 phone screenings, 1 followup conversation, 5 kind but deflating rejections, and no communication from the balance.

It was okay. I reflected upon this time as an interim – a time to continue my online master’s degree, to cook more meals for the family, and be otherwise supportive of Lauren’s new endeavor. She would take the kids to school and I picked them up. Occasionally we would stop for treats on the way home. A pattern of regularity emerged that felt like a new normal. Then our old dog, Sophie, developed an acute vestibular syndrome and needed almost full-time care for about two weeks. I was home. I did it gladly, though there were two times we called the vet needing council on making the difficult decision to let her go. The vet was patient, kind, thoughtful, and encouraging – ready to help us regardless of the decisions we made. Sophie recovered, almost miraculously, and, aside from some remaining balance issues, has gone back to being a 14 year-old lab.

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But the days at home were beginning to wear on me. I don’t think I am well suited to house spouse. Our finances with just one job were tight but not untenable and we were close to selling our home in Forest Park, IL. Even though I didn’t need to work, I wanted to. I wanted to do something meaningful. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of people.

So I began to expand the job search to more than just nonprofit organizations. I applied to bookstores, news agencies, even the exact same computer sales position at Best Buy I held almost 10 years ago. Nothing there, either. Then Covid-19 started showing up in the United States and I knew that there would be more laying off than hiring. I don’t want to say I began lowering the bar in the jobs for which I applied because that demeans and undervalues those who would be incredibly grateful for those jobs. Or it would somehow insinuate that I am “better than that kind of work”. Instead I’ll say I began looking for employment where ever I could find it.

A historical interjection. When my sister and I were kids, my dad worked as a computer networking instructor. He traveled around the country training the IT staff of companies the likes of Boeing and Dell, and government agencies the likes of the NSA. (Dad, if you’re reading this, I don’t think I’m exaggerating?) His company would send his paychecks via FedEx – so when that white van with purple and orange letters showed up in front of our house each Friday, there was much rejoicing. My sister and began to learn the time of day our driver usually arrived would watch the end of the driveway like hawks. We jostled to receive the parcel and pull that wonderfully satisfying pull tab that opens the standard 8.5 x 11 FedEx Letter envelope.

So when, in my broadened job search, I saw an urgently hiring call from FedEx in Austin, I applied. It seemed fitting that, almost 25 years after waiting and watching for FedEx to show up to my childhood home, I could potentially be that person for someone else. Poetic? Providence? Coincidence? Doesn’t really matter. 22 hours later I received an email asking me to come in and get started. Yup…urgently hiring.

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Roughly around the time of this writing I’ve marked 30 days with FedEx Ground. I’ve been trained, gained a DOT medical card, and have been checked out in the company’s vans (not the big box trucks yet, but the smaller Transit/Sprinter-type vans). I rode along with a great guy with close to 5 years under his belt and, upon his endorsement, was handed my very own route in the rural area outside of a small town about 1.5 hours west of Austin. My uniform and my van have purple and orange letters on it.

On the way home today I was reflecting on the last 30 days: what I’ve learned, what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard, and what I’ve experienced as a FedEx Ground driver. To mark the lunaversary of my employment I thought I might share some those reflections in a multi-part series on this blog. To prevent walls of text, I’ll include some pictures: some will be actual photos of my journey so far, others will be hand-drawn illustrations to demonstrate a point. As those students who took 7th grade religion at Grace Lutheran School with me will no doubt attest, my drawing skills are…sub-optimal. It should be a good laugh, at least.

For fellow J’s out there, here’s what you can expect from the series:

  • The Route – My “territory” is roughly 400 square miles. I don’t deliver every single mile every single day, but I’ve logged 355 unique stops so far. I really like most of the them, but others draw an exasperated sigh when I load them into the van.
  • The Packages – You can bet that Walmart boxes will fall apart if you merely breathe on them, Sam’s Club boxes are marginally better, Omaha Steaks do a great job shrink-wrapping their insulated coolers, and Chewy (online pet food/supplies) boxes are just awful.
  • The People – I serve a variety of households and businesses: family owned shops, farm/ranch equipment garages, mobile homes, apartments, B&Bs, a quarry, a state park, and a multi-million dollar development. The people who live and work in those places are as varied as the places themselves. I regularly cross paths with UPS drivers, they usually wave. Same with USPS, but they always wave. Amazon drivers, not as much.
  • The Land – I see some beautiful scenery out there in the hill country of Texas, but some of the roads can be treacherous even on a clear, sunny day. Also, I want a simple house on a big slice of ranch-land.

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Like when this blog was a solely a collection of my sermons as a pastor, I welcome your comments, questions, and feedback. I don’t claim to know every answer only 30 days in, but I’d be happy to attempt a response to your burning logistics/delivery questions. If there’s something more you want to hear about, let me know.

And thanks.

Soaked

We don’t feel the need to look up the definition of words that we’ve heard or used a thousand times. In our minds the meaning is clear. Our understanding of the word is already forged. So as we gather today to ponder again the narrative of Jesus’ baptism, as we celebrate the sacrament for two young lives, I invite us to think about the words we use in this ritual around the font: because there, too, we hear words the meanings of which we think we know.

Live, hear, share, proclaim, serve, and strive. These are the verbs of the baptismal covenant promises. Promises made at the font by candidates, parents, sponsors, godparents, indeed all of us, every time we remember our own. As the covenant of baptism is forged by word, Spirit, and community, we’re all promising to live those verbs out in our lives.

I was fascinated to learn that there are 9 definitions of “to live” in the modern English dictionary; one of them especially catching my eye: “To live is to have a life rich in experience.” Whenever God’s people live in community with one another there is Christ in the center of them promising presence until the end of the age. And that even then our lives will continue in his unfailing grace and unending love. To live among God’s faithful people is to join our brothers and sisters across time and space to worship God and give thanks for all that God has done. All because of what God does with a bit of water and a whole lot of love. It is a rich experience, indeed.

We promise to hear God’s word and that is so much more than our ears processing sound waves as they pulse through the air. Just like sharing in the Lord’s Supper is much more than passing a passing a plate of potatoes at dinner. There is great weight to these actions: hear God’s word and act, be shining lights, be salt for the earth. Share the bread and wine and be one bread, one community.

Bible Studies, talking about your favorite verses, discussing the more challenging ones, teaching your children about Noah’s Ark or Jesus’ friend Lazarus, touching a wine-soaked wafer to the lips of someone who is dying and cannot eat, doing all of this to remember the one who came to save us from sin by giving his own self. Hearing and sharing are much, much more than going through the motions of Sunday morning: for we hear and share God’s life-giving gifts to those whom God loves as much as God loves you.

Another verb of baptismal promise is to proclaim. We are all called to proclaim the good news of God in Christ. Every one of us: not just pastors standing in pulpits. And not just once, or once in a while. We are called to proclaim the good news day after day, never ceasing, just as the disciples did in Acts. The voice that calls down from heaven as Jesus comes from water is not just for him, but for everyone gathered by the river: “This one right here is my beloved.” “This one right here is the one who is promised.” “This one right here is the way and truth and light, and your baptisms are now exactly the same as his.” Go and do likewise.

When despair, fear, and darkness press in we cling to our baptisms in Christ, to the hope and courage and light promised to us. As we mourn those who have gone before us, we ground our sorrows on the framework of grace, the bold claim that our death is wrapped up in Jesus. And just as Jesus is raised from the dead…so too, us. We are united with Christ in death and in life through baptism, we are united throughout temptation in the wilderness. United in wandering through the country sides of our city bringing Good News to the poor, binding up those others who are brokenhearted, those who are blind, lame, alone, afraid, pushed to the edge, imprisoned, and dying.

Our baptisms aren’t just for us, but for the world around us too. We are called to live in baptismal hope and to respond to God’s grace by telling the world our story: which, in the end, is really God’s story. The story of immeasurable love poured out for all people.

But it is hard to do. The wilderness exists. The temptation to abandon our calling is real. To serve all people following the example of Christ means colliding with two difficult words that make things challenging for us: “all” and “example”. Those words can be troubling because the story of Jesus is full of people who probably don’t belong to the Nazareth Country Club or shop at the Jerusalem Gap. Those not like us for whatever reason we come up with, they are the “all”, and Jesus’ unwavering love is the “example.” That is the mission field, that is the ministry of the church. There are many times when we would be thrilled if the “all” wasn’t so broad and the “example” wasn’t so high a standard. But it is.

The story of Jesus’ ministry to the people on the outside is the example for ministry to those of us here on the inside. We are the church for the sake of the world. Here when we gather around word, water, meal, and fellowship and when we gather in our various offices and shops, around meeting agendas, water coolers, business lunches, and staff parties. You are the church in your car, the sport’s field, the airplane.

We are the church. And while you and I might not ever heal a blind man, cure a leper or raise someone from the dead, we can most certainly love our neighbor, clothe our neighbor, visit our neighbor, feed our neighbor. Because ultimately that is the example of Christ. That deep and abiding love of the Word dwelling among us: sent to model love, especially for the “not us.”

In a world full of systems that are cruelly efficient at labeling those who aren’t like us it is challenging to serve especially in places where we’d rather not be. It is difficult to strive for justice and peace when the systems that promise injustice and war seem so unbeatable. But the gifts of God given to us in baptism are reminders that we are equipped to do just that. We know a God acting in ways that defy imagination throughout the history of creation. We are given the power of the Spirit, hear the word of God, are nourished by Christ’s own self, and sent out with good courage knowing that God’s hand is leading us and God’s hand is guiding us.

You, you beloved children of God, you are called by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ, forever. You are a part of the story that draws us together yesterday, today, and tomorrow by Christ the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. You are God’s son. You are God’s daughter. You are beloved, you are called, you are equipped, you are ready.

The verbs of baptism are present. They are active. They are imperative and they are gift for you. It is a wild ride in these waters. But we never journey alone, for there is always a community around us, its arms outstretched as we come up from the water announcing a profound and holy truth: We welcome you into the Lord’s family. We receive you as a fellow member of the body of Christ, a child of the same heavenly Father, and a worker with us in the kingdom of God.

As songwriter Matthew West reminds us: “The Christian life was never meant to be lived alone. Together we’re a body. A family. The people of God” In River Forest, in Austin, Texas, and in every other corner of the world. As I step down from this pulpit for the last time, I give thanks for the privilege of serving as your pastor. You have blessed, nurtured, formed, and strengthened me as we have lived out these baptismal verbs together. While a new distance will soon separate us, we are never far apart from those we love and who love us. May God’s blessings be upon all of us this day, and always.

Amen.

The Real Us

Sermon Christmas Day A
December 25, 2019
John 1:1-14

With his request approved by management a local news station cameraman quickly used his cell phone to call the local airport to charter a flight. He was told a twin-engine plane would be waiting for him at the airport. Arriving at the airfield, he spotted a plane warming up outside a hanger. He jumped in with his bag, slammed the door shut, and shouted, “Let’s go!” The pilot dutifully taxied out, swung the plane into the wind and took off.

Once in the air, the cameraman instructed the pilot, “Fly over the valley and make low passes so I can get shots of the fires on the hillsides.”

“Why?” asked the pilot.

“Because I’m a cameraman for the local news,” he responded, “And I need to get some close-up shots.”

The pilot was strangely silent for a moment, finally, he stammered, “So, what you’re telling me is you’re not my flight instructor?”

Cases of mistaken identity often form the comedic core of many narratives in many cultures. We expect someone in particular, experience a series of ironically cohesive events, and come to find out we aren’t with the person we expected. When I was younger and would answer the phone at home my pre-adolescent voice sounded quite like my mother’s. “Oh, hi Laurie!” the caller would exclaim, and with all the bass an 8-year old could muster, “No this is David, let me get her for you,” I replied, quite put out that my vocal identity had not yet distinguished itself. To this day I still answer the phone with my own name, a habit formed out of necessity and annoyance, long before I began being confused for my dad.

We do many things to set ourselves apart from others. We rightly long to discern who we are and how we fit into the world around us. We teach and encourage children, youth, and teenagers to explore their uniqueness, give them space to discern their identities, provide opportunities for growth in their sense of self. We are always trying to figure out who we are, what we are about, how we fit in. We deeply desire to know that we are special, that “me-ness” and “you-ness” means something, that “I” matter.

But the journey is complex, the path to meaning is crooked and bumpy, because humanity has a terrible tendency to look upon others and decide that their “me-ness” doesn’t mean anything. That their “you-ness” is not special because it doesn’t fit into my preconceived box. The sounds of passing judgement against another person’s “me-ness” echo across the globe, our country, our backyards, or within our own homes. It echoes within our own selves, when one looks into the mirror and doesn’t like the one reflected back.

That judgment, those echoes, those painful reflections in the mirror don’t stop just because it’s Christmas and we’re supposed to be happy and merry. Systems that break down rather than build up don’t take time off. They don’t wait for the holiday season to end to sow seeds of discord and strife. Which is precisely why we take this break and remember that what happened that dark night long ago is so much more significant than a festive birthday party.

The fourth gospel we hear this morning helps us remember that God has put on flesh and is moving in. John reminds us that incarnation of the very Word means that God chooses to enter into our humanity, into all of its fullness and faults, all of its power and pain, all of its joys and sorrows. And at the same time, the incarnation is a revelation of who we are. In it, through it, because of it, we begin to realize, that in God’s decision to become human, our humanity matters.

The real me, the real you, the real stranger. That matters. Our flesh-y-ness, our searching, our longing, our hope and dreams, our disappointments and shortcomings, they are all wrapped up in the present of Christ’s presence: and those things are loved. They have been loved from the beginning, from the Word that called creation into being. They are loved by the light of the world, the light that shines in the darkest places of our lives. They will always be loved by God made flesh, that not only goes where we go, but is who we are.

Christmas is where we find in the manger our true selves. The real me. The real you. The real us created in love, to love. To love and serve the Lord by loving and serving our neighbor: other fleshy humans who mean something too. Martin Luther sums it up like this:

The shepherds went to Bethlehem, and when they found the baby they knelt in adoration. Then they told the whole countryside round about what had come to pass. And then we read that “the shepherds returned.” And that certainly must be a mistake. But no, it says they returned. And where to? To their calling – to their sheep. And a very good thing for their sheep indeed.

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating every year, because every year we fleshy beings need to remember: Christmas is not a day, it a way of life. A way of living. It is the yearly, daily, moment by moment remembering that God has put on flesh and dwells among us. Dwells in, and around, and through you.

A you that is loved. A you that is cherished. A you that is washed and fed and nourished. A you called to make a difference in the world. A you that means something. A you whose imperfect humanity is so perfectly loved by God, that our identities will never be mistaken again.

God-Breathed

In 2015, the Triple A Foundation for Traffic Safety sponsored a study in which drivers were hooked up to brain activity monitors and asked to drive in a controlled environment while using their phones at stop signs and red lights. The study revealed that even using hands-free voice commands left the driver distracted for around 27 seconds after putting the phone down or completing the voice commands. At 25 mph, a typical neighborhood speed zone, the vehicle traveled almost 3 football fields in length before researchers discerned the driver was paying attention to the road again. Here in our area, that distance likely includes even more stop signs, certainly several alley and cross street intersections, and any number of pedestrians and other vehicles moving in potentially conflicting directions.

If this is the result of a study in a controlled environment, imagine what could and does happen every single day on roads across the country. In fact, we don’t have to imagine, state DMVs publish stark data about traffic and pedestrian fatalities caused by drivers distracted by technology in their cars. But it’s not just phones in cars. We are a distracted people and our lives are very noisy.

News is sensationalized and shouted on the television, magazines and newspapers print salacious headlines in 72 point font, advertisements tell us we’re not good enough but the product it’s pushing will make us better, and our own fragile psyches continue to nag us about our appearance, our intelligence, and our worth. The narrative of our lives is clouded and convoluted because so many people and things are telling us what kind of person we should be and what things we should have. We are distracted and life is very noisy.

We don’t exactly know what was going on in Timothy’s ministry that caused Paul to write again, but we do know that Paul was languishing in a cold Roman dungeon for the second time as he wrote. Christianity was still infantile and was illegal throughout the empire: a threat to the militaristic Pax Romana and the Emperor’s kingdom and godhead claims. Into the noise of an unfavorable political and social system, Paul urges his colleague to persist in proclaiming the Gospel.

Continue in what you have learned and fully believe, be persistent always, keep on proclaiming, keep on encouraging, keep on being patient, keep being alert, keep on suffering, keep on working, keep on carrying on. Keep on carrying out the work of ministry because there will always be the noise of hate that seems to drown out the proclamation of God’s love. Proclaim the Good News because there will always be times when it seems like there is nothing but bad news everywhere else. Preach, teach, and live Jesus because people will otherwise head off to scratch their ears with whatever else confirms their already discerned bias.

And if you’re sitting there thinking that Paul’s letter could have been written to 21st century American Christians then you are exactly right! The great joy of this inspired, God-breathing, living and life-giving Word is that it still means something to and for us, today. But as for you, Dave, Ed, Margaret, Cindy, as for you Grace Lutheran in River Forest, continue in what you have learned and firmly believe. As for you, carry out your ministry fully. Through the Spirit, God has drawn this congregation together because we need and long to hear Good News in the midst of a noisy world. In response to our baptismal callings, you and me and we carry out ministry within and without these walls.

These stones create sacred space in which we worship, those classrooms foster learning and faith formation, your staff prepares bulletins, manages calendars, dream dreams, make plans, develop programs, walks with those who are hurting, and waits with those who are dying. The sunlit atrium offers glimpses of the resting places of saints who have gone before us and holds canvas bins into which we offer gifts and food for those caught up in poverty and inequitable policies. All the while supporting benevolent organizations that do all of this in places we cannot be with people we do not know.

But none of this works without your carefully and prayerfully discerned financial offerings; without your response to the ways in which God’s Good News has cut through the noise of life and revealed a love, peace, and hope that cannot be found anywhere else. We give not because it makes us feel better, or knocks a few dollars of our tax bill, or because we agree with everything in our congregation, or even like our pew neighbors.

We give because it reminds us that we are stewards of everything God has first given us: our selves, our time, and our possessions. We give because we are unafraid to live in the same abundance modeled for us in God’s gift of Jesus crucified and raised. We give because, together, we really do want to carry out the ministry entrusted to us: ministry uniquely and purposefully given to Grace Lutheran Church and School for almost 120 years.

We give not because it makes us feel better. We give because it reminds us that we are stewards of everything God has first given us.

It is in faith that we make financial promises today. Faith that these resources we give will be stewarded well in support of the ministry to which we have been called. It is through faith that we increase our levels of support because of the richness of God’s gifts to us. And it is by faith that we have learned and firmly believe that salvation through Jesus Christ – the Good News of God – cuts through the noise and calls us God’s own.

We can always scratch on that.