When you are 22, you underestimate the post office man.
High on the aurora of your independence, you don’t realize you’re forging a lifelong bond with an elderly man who calls his office “The Pickle Jar.”
Roger ran the post office at my seminary.
I had arrived in love with Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, young in Jesus’ unconditional arms, confidently expecting the three best years of my life. I was correct.
But I had no concept of great littleness, of God’s preference for bread over flourish.
I had imagined that moments came in vestments and goblets, hymns and heights. They did, of course, and they filled my table until the legs collapsed in laughter.
Lectures lit my canyon. Conversations flooded my cup. Homework dripped with honey. I cried at Chapel, washed in pink light and surrounded by siblings of a dozen races and a thousand theologies and one Father.
Roger wrangled the mail.
The Secret to a Wonderful Life: J.O.Y.
As basic as breakfast, Roger was there, morning by morning. “Your mother loves you!” He grinned and handed me yet another Hallmark envelope from Pennsylvania. “Jesus loves you!”
“I do, Roger. I can tell you’re living it.”
“I am!” That smile.
Roger raised his thumb: “J.” Index finger: “O.” Middle finger waggling: “Y.” He paused. “That’s it. That’s the secret.”
“Yep. Jesus, Others, Yourself. Live in that order, and you’ll have a wonderful life.”
I would hear that secret a dozen times over the next three years, often shouted over gleefully bad music. Roger had a fondness for unfortunate celebrity singers, inflicting the musical careers of William Shatner and David Hasselhoff upon innocent seminarians and professors.
The Post Office Contest
But the great crescendo of Roger’s year came each April, when he opened the annual Name The Post Office contest. Everyone took this seriously, putting aside theses on the hypostatic union to capture the coinage that would make Roger laugh loudest.
The stakes were high. One winner, and two runners-up, would receive post office awards. Roger worked on these all semester, collecting peculiar objects from flea markets and yard sales, gluing them into gleaming oddities that would make the six-winged, thousand-eyed Old Testament angels look like mere mailmen.
From janitor to provost, the entire community gathered for the awards ceremony, packed into the dining hall as festively as for convocation. Wearing the full weight of the occasion, Roger filled the podium with baldfaced pride.
And one year, my little light shone.
I have many treasures and holy objects from the three best years of my life, books and crosses and scarves. But none holds a candle to the rubber mouse with the oversized head, spray-painted in silver, shellacked to a golden saucer, proclaiming: FIRST RUNNER UP: “BUDAPOST” BY ANGIE!
As theologians and truth-tellers go, Roger was second to none.
I was far from the only one who felt this way. Ours was a community equally enamored of its Ivy League pomp and its post office man’s pageantry. There was no contradiction between the wine and the warmth, the aurora and the oatmeal. Ours was a breakfast nook where the Shepherd waited tables. Ours was the joy.
Intoxicated with joy, our Roger looked into everyone’s eyes with the pause that sees. He looked daily amazed that his friends were 300 22-year-old preachers-to-be, a vast company of corn muffins.
Roger looked like support staff—blessed are the support staff, for theirs is the feast.
Graduation felt like my last supper, my heart so broken I still don’t remember the ceremony. I could not fathom ever feeling at home again.
I should not have forgotten that J-O-Y is a meal on wheels.
Don’t Forget J.O.Y.—Even In Hard Times
I promised Roger I would keep in touch, and we exchanged birthday cards long after he retired to The Villages and Jesus drove me safely to the improbable ministry of a cat sanctuary.
Roger, of course, adored animals, and became a regular donor. At Christmas, he sent me Shell gift cards: “Gas is expensive up there. Keep taking care of the little ones. Love you Ang! Your brother in Christ always, Roger.”
Roger turned 80. I turned 40. Life turned over tables, and I crawled on the floor for oatmeal crumbs. A hungry man convinced me to discard my silver mouse. I turned into a mouse.
I looked backward and I looked up and I wrote to Roger.
I couldn’t explain it, but I knew I needed to tell Roger, before almost anyone else, that I was getting divorced. Into a thank-you note for his latest Shell card, I baked just a few halting, dry raisins.
Roger received them. Roger received me.
Roger wrote four pages, his looping Sharpie script on graph paper. He had been married 40 years before his Edith died in 2013. Theirs had been the joy. Theirs had also been the “ruinous”—I had never heard Roger use such a word—torment of alcohol. He begged his Lord to wrap him in strong wings, raising him above the vale of tears.
His children cared for him. The J and the O enfolded him.
Roger’s lifetime of love letters came home. Roger came home. And then, being Roger, he roared forth to heal others.
One day, behind the wheel of his vintage car, Roger asked that God bring some good from his life. So many were suffering, and his vast heart broke. Were all his efforts in vain?
At once, two eagles commanded the sky.
“I have to say,” Roger wrote, “I was very pleased.”
He wasn’t sure why he needed to tell me this story, only that he did. He knew I would find joy again. Jesus loved me. He loved me, my brother in Christ forever. He hoped to get back to Jersey someday, but we would always be connected, and we’ll all be together again when we go to our reward.
For now, we celebrate the awards. Ours is a great belovedness.
Ours is the joy.
(Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel.)
Whenever life feels messy or uncertain, remember this truth about God’s love: