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Ground Hog Day

Within our family of origin, my siblings and I always found it completely hilarious that Dad’s birthday was celebrated on Ground Hog Day. Somehow it always seemed absurdly right that while we were honoring Dad with cake and candles, the rest of the country fawned over whether or not The Celebrity Rodent Formerly Known as Punxsutawney Phil had managed to see his own shadow. Let's face it, there is just not much newsworthy material to work with during all the gray fog, dirty snow, and ice of February. So, against the dullness of that monochromatic background, the four Crosno kids tried to observe Dad’s birthday each year with at least some of the same low-dose insanity that he routinely managed to infuse into the daily routines of our household. For his part, the Big Woodchuck of our family always seemed to take his seat of honor at the head of the table content that he had done good in training his kids to make every day an occasion of celebration, even if the prevailing local mood and weather conditions appeared to suggest otherwise. As none other than Punxsutawney Phil himself might say, every day above ground is a good day, and Dad was the kind of good-natured, Salt-of-the-Earth sort of guy who was always ready to remind you of that fact just in case you had forgotten.

On some days, even the best of us do tend to forget. Perhaps that is why my father worked so hard to remind his kids about the importance of what he always called The Big A.  If you’re unfamiliar with that term, what he had in mind was the kind of positive attitude that contributes so much to the practice of daily obedience through a faithful walk fully sanctified to the Lord’s holy use and purpose for our lives. For Dad, the primary means of grace for acquiring that minimum necessary daily allotment of The Big A came through his 4:30 AM commitment to reading the Scriptures and working through the long Prayer List tucked into his Bible on the end table next to his recliner in our living room. Fueled by a pot of coffee, after Dad had prayed through the burdens of concern he carried for each of his kids, he looked forward to an opportunity to torment each of us with practical jokes while he took turns with Mom in making us breakfast before shepherding us off to school. This meant that on some mornings, we were treated to pancake batter seasoned by his liberal use of purple or green food coloring. On other days, you might find yourself awakened in a still darkened bedroom by a grown man who had gleefully taken aim at you with his Super-Soaker squirt gun. While you might assume that this kind of thing sounds like some sort of dementedly cruel-and-unusual-parental-punishment, in retrospect I think we more or less always took it for granted that the father who was messing with us was the very same man who had been praying for us since before the sun had dawned. So, if at times it seemed that Dad might have been picking on me with those gnarly, Tie-Dye Pancakes, never did it occur to me to actually question my place within his heart. For after trying to sneak a peak from time to time to analyze my ranking on the Prayer List tucked inside his Bible, it was always pretty easy to see just where I stood: Dad loved all of his four kids equally, but clearly, I must have been his favorite.

Now given the distance between our homes and the busy lives each of us are making with our own immediate families, my siblings and I no longer have many opportunities to get together as often as we would like. But when we do, sooner or later we usually find ourselves telling our own favorite stories about the father that we all respect and perhaps recognize more clearly now that he is gone. Sometimes we talk with a smile about his confident but enthusiastically misguided approach to almost every type of household repair or maintenance. To this day, we remain completely amazed that he never managed to burn the place down, even though every work order executed by our resident handyman did seem to require a liberal use of bandages and the application of a tourniquet before it was done. Or, perhaps my sisters will remember how Dad taught me how to parallel park by strategically positioning them to stand to the fore and aft edge of my target destination while I was nervously attempting to steer the family battleship, I mean, Oldsmobile into a final docking position. But eventually, each of us remember Dad’s way of dismissing the children from our living room every evening after dinner, telling us that we could return to ask him our questions much later after he had adequate time to sit and savor one more cup of coffee with our mother. For in making clear to us his sense of priority, he was showing us that to be a good father to his children, he would first need to be a faithful and loving partner to his wife. Looking back on it now, it seems that my Dad was patiently teaching each of us how to be the kind of Christlike spouse and parent that our own families would one day require. Perhaps there are a million more intimate details from our family life that deserve to be remembered. But in the end, whenever I look at my siblings and their own families; it strikes me that each of us eventually became a kind of living, breathing photograph, composed and drawn from the portrait of the man that all of us remember.

Memories can be tricky things, of course, and before my father’s death a few years ago it became apparent that he had become fairly gifted at the fine artistry of a rather highly selective remembering. What I mean by this is that my father was a country boy who was raised on a family homestead in Yakima which dated back to President Ulysses S. Grant. More specifically, in thinking about those years out on that homestead, my Dad tended to remember the good old days of riding his own thoroughbred horse to school, being pulled behind his buddy’s high school hot rod on homemade wooden skis up and down the hills of Wiley City, and the simple joy of using the Crosno outhouse (which was located in my opinion, entirely too close to the site of our family water well) many years after Grandpa and Grandma had established the newfangled tradition of indoor plumbing as an accommodation to their guests. Whether or not these were truly the good old days just as my father imagined them, the constant in all of his adventures was that my Dad never let bad luck or unfortunate circumstances get in the way of developing a good friendship. I have since discovered that this is something that you will often find among country folks, for once they have been able to determine who your people are, you are, as they say, in a relationship.

I guess you could say that over the years of his life, Dad developed plenty of relationships. Many of them began early as a direct result of what you might call a rather highly relational learning style that he developed while managing to spread his undergraduate coursework across five colleges and one correspondence school. Some of that collegiate wanderlust was due to his early promise as an athlete who lettered in both baseball and football. While his football reputation was burnished by at least one noteworthy success running the wrong way to score a touchdown for the opposing team, his prowess at being repeatedly rendered unconscious on the field of battle eventually captured the attention of the Seattle coed who would later become his wife. That my Dad would go on to share 52 years of marriage to my Mom was undoubtedly the result of his strategic choice to propose and present her with an engagement ring on his birthday, the aforementioned Ground Hog Day. We tend to think now that her robust sense of ironic humor seemed to help them both keep their vows along the way. But mostly, I suspect this type of endurance arises as a result of covenant, the kind of promises that we dare to make and keep with one another, especially those which begin to make it possible for us to fully own those further, deeper commitments that continually strengthen us for living and loving together over time. I know it may seem that these days we do not hear too much about such renewable vows, given that so often we instead prefer to emphasize our individual freedoms and the way we desire to keep all of our options forever open and subject to future change. But I think Tim Keller is describing what my parents discovered across the 52 years they were blessed to live as husband and wife: “Freedom is not so much the absence of restraints, but finding the right ones . . . it’s actually the things you chain yourselves to that are the things that set you free.”

By now, I have perhaps worn out my welcome in telling you about my own family, but this week I do so because we are following the story of Abraham and Sarah, our common ancestors in living a life of faith and covenant before God. If you are still tracking with me, let me remind you that a full 88 times in the book of Genesis, the narrator speaks to us about the central concept of blessing, that gifting from the Almighty whose grace is intended to flow into our lives so that we may in turn bestow the same lavish generosity upon all others that we encounter along our way. Boil all of it down and the calculus of God’s covenant with us turns out to be elegantly simple: We are blessed to be a blessing. All other uses for these lives we have so graciously been given are, in the end, completely superfluous. So if we face any problem actually worth mentioning these days, perhaps it is merely that we so often confuse ourselves into thinking that the deepest purpose of our life is to convince all of our Facebook “friends” that we’re really onto something “big.”

Let me close by telling you about something that really is big. Not long ago I was listening to David Brooks, the bestselling author and conservative columnist for the New York Times, as he was speaking about love and community in a lecture at Princeton Seminary. He was talking about those moments of transcendence and unearned joy that come to all of us, and also about those experiences of suffering and pain that may awaken you at three in the morning during some bad night when all your thoughts come to you like a drawer full of knives. In these moments, said Brooks, we begin to intuit a set of deep questions that demand our response: What were you sent here for? Who are you helping? Who are you serving? What is the meaning of your life? Now you do not have to answer these questions, I suppose, but what I heard Brooks say is that those who have given those questions no real thought have to “live with the awareness, and a sense of dryness.” But what can you say about those who are willing to ask and answer these existential questions, those who will give themselves over to the demands of a covenant to be the kind of people who know that they have been blessed by God simply in order to become a blessing to others? By way of illustration, Brooks went on to remind us of a lyrical passage found in the novel, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Berneires. In the novel, an old man is speaking to his daughter as he remembers the love he had for his late wife. He says to his daughter something like this: “Love is what is left over after being in love has burned away . . . and your mother and I had it. We had roots that grew toward each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms had fallen from our branches, we found that we were one tree, and not two.”

May I offer this to you as something of a Genesis command? For on that day when your eyes are finally opened to behold the beauty of this garden in which God has placed you and those that you love for the purpose of being blessed so that you will be a blessing: May you go and do likewise!

Jeff Crosno