Featured

Welcome

This is the post excerpt.

Most Biblical scholars think Theophilus (Luke 1:3) was a real person. I do not. I think Theophilus is a sobriquet for all lovers of God, which I have taken to be applicable to anyone searching for truth, willing to listen to truth, or at least overhear a search for or conversation about truth, even from an unlikely place with farfetched ideas about truth.

If you are such a lover of God, welcome. I am eager to discover who might be interested in overhearing my search for truth–my reflections, my wandering thoughts. In anticipation of you, I address my musings to…

Dear Theophilus,

post

Cigar Box

Other than on a store shelf, I don’t think I have ever seen a cigar box with cigars in it. Humidors were of no use to me. Cigars were of no use to me, especially as a second-grader.

I have only ever known repurposed humidors; repurposed for everything imaginable.

Every August we kids would search out the dads of our neighborhood friends who smoked cigars so we could salvage them for school—crayons, pencils, paper clips, rubber bands, love notes (oh, the love notes: “Do you like me? Circle yes or no”). If it would fit, into the box it would go. I put a piece of tape on mine so no one would get into it.

Cigar boxes were an integral part of our culture, and I think a child who never had a cigar box has been terribly deprived.

At Mom’s workplace the cigar box contained petty change and stamps; they were interchangeable.

My Dad had a couple of cigar boxes, organizing manly paraphernalia interpretable by some Rosetta Stone that resided in his head alone—bolts, washers, screws, nails, oil, drill bits, allen wrenches.

A saintly senescent woman in our church kept her wooden, loaf-shaped BREAD OF LIFE container in her cigar box—those small, plain white cards that were about an inch-and-a-half wide and three-quarters of an inch high. The chapter and verse were on the obverse and the text on the reverse so that you could quiz yourself either way. She also kept her prayer list in there. It comforted me to know I was on that list.

You can imagine, then, how nostalgic this poem made me feel when I discovered it.

The Cigar Box
(
Copyright © John Cassens | Year Posted 2007)

I have a cigar box with corners frayed and lid barely holding on.
Its contents being small things I’ve made and objects that I’ve found.

An odd-shaped rock, a marble, a feather are three of many that lasted well.
But the little objects are no better than the stories they could tell.

I held these things so precious once when I was a wide-eyed boy.
Now in my hand this timeless bunch of memories bring me joy.

I lay the treasures cross the table to see what I once had found.
I conclude that tomorrow if I’m able I’ll walk and search the ground.

Somewhere in that old creek bed or on the side of the grassy hill,
memories are no longer dead and find them I surely will.

Something lying there since time began, hidden so none before could see.
But now as if somehow planned, it would be given just to me.

The creases corner my eyes today as I’ve far from weathered well.
The box’s edges also appear that way but we both have stories still to tell.

I am weathered so like this old box and both of us remember when
we found the feather and the rock with their stories locked within.

Regardless how worn we may seem, the box and I contain the past.
Beyond aged exteriors lies the dream that memories do not die but last.

* * * *

Cigar boxes have a fascinating history. Introduced in 1840, by 1863 they were regulated by American law. As early as the Civil War they were being up-cycled into musical instruments, either fiddles, banjos, or guitars.

As time passed, some cigar boxes were as or even more expensive than the cigars, especially in their repurposed life. Many are collector’s items. Elegant cigar boxes are often up-cycled into furniture, cedar chest-of-drawers, jewelry boxes, baby beds, toy trucks, cuckoo clocks, almost anything you can imagine.

The cigar box on my desk is much humbler. It is King Edward The Seventh Imperial—in 1940 the “world’s best selling cigar”—a kind of garish gold, cardboard, perfectly worn all over. It has crayon markings and a scorch mark in the bottom from something like a candle. It was once owned by a woman named Ellen, who inscribed her name in that elegant old script that was taught in the early twentieth century. Someone, evidently later than Ellen, kept keys in this box, because “Keys” is written in an entirely different hand-writing. Around 1985, someone kept stamps, because it says so right on the box: Stamps 22¢. I judge this cigar box to be about 60 years old, but that is only a guess. It does not smell at all like tobacco.

I imagine in the mind and heart of a cigar box, it would Nirvana to be up-cycled into a cigar box guitar. You can find cigar box guitars online that are extraordinarily delicate and expensive. “Ronnie Wood (the Rolling Stones) is using one on an album due in 2016. Paul McCartney played a slide cigar box 4-string while fronting the Foo Fighters on TV. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Tom Waits and Ed Kind (Lynyrd Skynyerd) have played them. Buddy Guy got his start on a homemade 2-stoiring ‘Diddley bow,’ and Blind Willie Johnson learned his craft on a 1-string—as did thousands more obscure and unknown musicians, who made that blues sound famous.” (https://www.famous-smoke.com/cigaradvisor/5-things-about-cigar-boxes)

* * * *

I tend to press analogies too far, but my life is kind of like a cigar box. In this analogy, God looks at me the way I look at cigar boxes: “Son, I have no need for the stuff that’s in you right now. Let’s get all of that out and I will repurpose you into something useful and noble.”

What might that be, I wonder. Oh, I’d love to become a cigar box guitar, especially one of those fancy ones that sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars. Or even an elegant, expensive, showy cedar chest or coffee table.

I don’t think I would like to hold keys or crayons or stamps. That would be so…ordinary, mundane, banal. But if my experience is any indication, God sometimes needs us to do exactly that kind of pedestrian, modest, quotidian kinds of task. “Son, I’ve got folks lined up to be one of those cigar box guitars. If you really want to help me, you can do this [insert humble task].”

Every cigar box wishes it were originally made of cedar with brass hinges and handmade fittings. Every cigar box wishes it were up-cycled into a cigar box guitar, or a jewelry box, or polished into an antique piece. But most are not. Most are humble, especially in their re-purposed life.

I wonder what this cigar box would say for itself.

The Cigar Box
Robert L. Hinshaw, CMSgt, USAF, Retired
© All Rights Reserved

The cigar box reposed upon the closet shelf for nigh on fifty years.
Oft his family wondered what it held. Perhaps some treasured souvenirs?

The old man, a veteran, had fought in the European Theater of Operations.
He never talked about that nor did he ever boast of any special decorations.

Alas, he mustered for that final call of the roll to begin his eternal bourne.
His passing left behind a loving family and a grateful nation to mourn.

Rifle shots echoed o’er the hills – the clarion sound of “Taps” was played.
The Chaplain rendered words of hope and in hallowed clay he was laid.

His son sorted through his Dad’s things learning facts he never knew.
Neatly folded in a trunk was his army uniform looking almost new.

He found hundreds of ribbon-bound V-mail letters to his beloved wife,
Expressing his love and hope for their life together beyond the terrible strife.

He was curious about the cigar box and pulled it down from the shelf.
There he found treasured things that his Dad had kept to himself.

His dog tags on a chain, faded snapshots of his wife and old army pals,
Staff sergeant chevrons, his honorable discharge and some old decals.

He choked back tears of pride as he discovered the coveted Silver Star,
and the citation that read of his bravery for heroic actions on the Saar!

There was also a Purple Heart and two Bronze Star Medals he had earned.
He was in awe of his humble but heroic Dad and the things he had learned!

* * * *

You just have to believe that this cigar box did not originally hold expensive, Cuban stokes. It almost certainly was not made of cedar. There was nothing about it that drew attention to itself. It just had to be a humble, King Edward The Seventh Imperial, made of cardboard and weathered and so ordinary as to be almost invisible.

I am sure this cigar box wanted to be repurposed into something ostentatious, flamboyant, noteworthy.

But that was not its calling. Its calling was to hide something precious to someone particular, to be placed on a closet shelf for fifty years, and then to be discovered, not on eBay or Amazon or an antique store, but by a son. Once its precious cargo was disclosed, it could easily be discarded, and probably was, having performed the purpose its owner re-purposed it for.

Most of us wish we had been originally made of cedar with brass hinges and handmade fittings. Failing that, and having given up our original contents, we sometimes wish we had been up-cycled into an expensive piece of furniture, perhaps a cedar chest-of-drawers, or best of all, a cigar box guitar.

But often God asks us to give up our insides and be turned over completely to Him for a purpose exactly as nondescript as holding keys, or stamps, or petty change, or love letters, or war medals that no one would see for fifty years, and then only by his son.

St. Paul admonishes us to be content. I’m working on that. I sit here looking at a King Edward The Seventh Imperial, a kind of garish gold, made of cardboard and weathered and so ordinary it is almost invisible. And it’s a fine cigar box. It has history. It has scars. It has character. It has served many owners well and admirably. Its tasks have been most very humble.

The first poet above expresses my sentiments:

The creases corner my eyes today as I’ve far from weathered well.
The box’s edges also appear that way but we both have stories still to tell.

I am weathered so like this old box and both of us remember when
We found the feather and the rock with their stories locked within.

Regardless how worn we may seem, the box and I contain the past.
Beyond aged exteriors lies the dream that memories do not die but last.

My cigar box sits in front of me on my desk.

It’s a fine box.

And I’m okay.

One Step Forward, One Step Back (Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, January 2016)

A few days ago, a good friend sent me this link: http://www.campusreform.org/?ID=7140

Evidently, a couple of universities will host “privilege walks” this year, 2016, in commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

Students who participate are asked to stand in a straight line and respond to a series of questions designed to identify privilege or lack thereof.

According to campusreform.org, “The purpose of the exercise is to ‘divide people into different locations’ in a room in order to show students how ‘small privileges in society place individuals in different places in society.’”

For example,

“If you have ever felt unsafe because of your sexual orientation, take one step back.”

“If you have a foreign accent, take one step back.”

“If there were more than 50 books in your house growing up, take one step forward.”

“If you were sexually active with several people and it would improve your social reputation in other people’s eyes, take one step forward.”

And so on…

Okaaay.

I may have some details wrong, but I trust the source and I think I have the essence of it.

Besides, I am not a reporter. This is only my response to yet one more bizarre development in our culture.

Also, I am not objective. But in fairness, neither are the organizers of this exercise. I mean, if you believe that being “sexually active with several people” which thereby improves “your social reputation in other people’s eyes” is a good thing, then you may as well believe in unicorn farts.

But this report did get me thinking about what kinds of questions I might ask if I were conducting the exercise.

For example,

If you were taught the wisdom of Proverbs 13:22: “A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children,” take one step forward. 

If, following this wisdom, your grandparents and parents made sacrifices so you could realize a better life, take one step forward.

If your parents took you to church and Sunday school regularly and taught you the Golden Rule, take one step forward. 

If you have had a religious experience from which you realized you were supposed to think of the welfare of others and make sacrifices for their benefit, take one step forward.

If your mom and dad spanked you when you were a little terror, take one step forward. 

If you are bi- or multilingual, take one step forward.

If you were taught right from wrong and that no one has more responsibility for who you are and who you become than you, take one step forward. 

If Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired you to abandon your racial prejudice because, “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God,” while “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law” (Letter from Birmingham Jail), take one step forward.

On the other hand,

If you were spoiled by helicopter parents, take one step back. 

If you were sexually promiscuous and brought a child into the world and abandoned your role and responsibilities as a father, take one step back (while your child takes 10 steps back even before he can walk; maybe you should carry your helpless infant 10 steps back yourself, and then abandon him like the ancient heathens).

If you were sexually promiscuous and brought a child into the world and became a child-mother with a child and therefore proscribed your life options by 90%, take one step back (while your child takes 10 steps back).

If you were never taught the value of delayed gratification, take one step back.

If your parents were addicted to government assistance and taught you that government money is free, thereby passing that addiction and ingratitude on to you, take one step back.

If you were never taught the incomprehensible, extraordinary price our country’s forefathers paid in order for us to be free enough to criticize them, take one step back.

If you are so ungrateful for the millions of lives lost in our country’s wars to provide you with the extra time to contemplate in peace (and arguably luxury) how underprivileged you are, and you are not humbled by that to the point of speechlessness, take one step back.

If you are so unaware of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, dream of a color-blind society in which individuals and families would get fair opportunities to succeed because a guarantee of success is a pipe-dream, take one step back.

We all have values that guide our steps—either one step forward or one step back.

In very many ways, we each make our own map for our lives, one step at a time.

East Berlin

On New Year’s Eve 1984, it was still possible to take a day trip into communist East Berlin. One descended into a subway near the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church (Gedächtniskirche) to take the relatively short ride that passed ominously under the otherwise impenetrable Berlin Wall, where three humorless border guards waited to take one’s passport and collect 30DM (West German Marks, worth approximately $10) in exchange for 30M (East German Marks, worth approximately $2), immediately deducting 5M for a one-day visa. Everyone received strict instructions to spend the remaining 25M in East Berlin on goods and services, under no circumstances take the currency out of the German Democratic Republic, and without fail to return before the last train departure to collect one’s passport and take the train back to the West, presumably safe and unchanged.

This I did, more or less.

At mid-afternoon I emerged into a soundless, colorless, almost lifeless, black & white East Berlin. A snowfall was covering the ground, and it muted shades of gray into drabber shades of gray. Gray park benches were snow-covered. Gray, leafless trees were snow-covered. Every building was gray. The few persons out—an older gentleman supportiing the arm of his wife, or two older women holding one another’s arms—were swallowed in gray overcoats and hats that were snow-flaked, and from under which peered worn, gray faces with small black eyes. Black, white, and gray—but mostly gray.

The only sounds were the tires of Trabants—drab green, drab brown, drab gray, or just drab—crunching snow and the muffled sound of its two-stroke engine belching black smoke that curled upward through the snow, dissipating, becoming gray. Only two or three now and then; hardly a rush hour.

I estimated how far and in which directions I could walk, counting blocks and taking carefully calculated right-angles guaranteed to bring me back to this destination shortly after dark but well before the last train departure.

Two churches, converted into museums, were closing—a pamphlet was available, but no guide, and no worship. Most amazing was a grocery store with dusty shelves on which canned goods were spaced about a foot apart: a can of beans, a can of fruit, a can of soup, cans with no labels, all of them dented. An elderly couple stared at the cans trying to decide. No fresh fruit, no dairy, but an ample supply of vodka—and long, hard, uncut bread stacked like stove wood.

At dusk I found a coffee shop that sold books, or a bookstore that sold coffee; there was not much of either. I bought a cup of coffee I could not drink and a scone I could not eat. I bought a copy of Karl Marx’s Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei, and Vladimir Lenin’s Staat und Revolution.

I risked a conversation with a young man who wanted very much to be proud of his country, but his effort rang hollow. “I wish I could go with you,” he said. “I would rather be poor there than here. At least there I could hope to escape the poverty.”

Having found few goods and services on which to spend my 25M, I took the remaining 10M and placed them in my boot. I wondered what the penalty is for smuggling currency out of communist East Germany. It was made of aluminum, just like play money from my childhood, and it would be easier to show family and friends than to explain. So I risked incarceration for 10M—approximately 70¢.

At about 9:00 p.m., I emerged from the Kurfürstendamm subway station in West Berlin to an explosion of light and sound and color, the very definition of bustling. Neon everywhere, traffic congestion honking and inching along. Enormous, brilliantly lit billboards.

A homeless man was panhandling in front of a fancy restaurant. Hookers were soliciting outside a church into which worshipers were filing. Drug dealers hovered near a detox center. A Salvation Army band was playing outside an adult bookstore; passersby were placing money in their kettle. The stores—grocery, fashion, jewelry, Mercedes Benz and BMW dealerships, hotels, even bookstores that sold coffee and coffee shops that sold books—were opulent, but full of shoppers. Not commercialism as much as commerce.

When I left this place only a few hours earlier, nothing seemed amiss. But the contrast coming from East Berlin to West Berlin was like plunging into a much-too-cold pool. It took my breath.

I have pondered that experience endlessly, and I have come to a few conclusions: Freedom to do and be good is directly proportional to freedom to do and be bad, and freedom has inherent hazards.

I saw no vice in East Berlin, but I also saw no virtue. I saw no homelessness in East Berlin, but also no wealth.

A state can prohibit accumulation of wealth, but no state can eradicate poverty. A state can suppress evil actions and bad decisions, but not without suppressing good actions and good decisions.

The free will that made it possible for Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit is the same free will that made it possible for them to love God.

I know well the arguments comparing capitalism and socialism and communism, but no argument can take from me that experience.

Capitalism and freedom are not perfect, and their road is perilous. But I have been to the end of the metaphorical road where socialism and communism lead. It is soundless, colorless, almost lifeless, black, white, and gray—but mostly gray.