His name was Herman Estabrook, and to look at him, you wouldn’t have considered him to be much of a candidate for greatness; but make no mistake, in his own unique way Herman was a great man, and yes, one of the true “saints” I’ve had the privilege to know over the years. This was not to say that he was ever wealthy, or particularly powerful and successful in life; on the contrary, he spent most of his days simply trying to make ends meet. He was a potato farmer by trade, but the truth was that he never could make a real living doing that, so he had to supplement his income with part-time jobs, one of which was that of school bus driver for the little town of New Limerick, Maine. And it was there, over the course of two generations, that Herman found his true calling.
Herman did more than just do pickup and delivery for the local school; he knew the names of every one of those kids who boarded his bus, and they all knew him. He talked to them, and more importantly, he listened while they were talking; which was easy, because Hermon genuinely cared about what they had to say. Herman was the best kind of school bus driver: patient and kind to the little ones scared to get on the bus for the first time; firm but friendly to the ones who had a habit of raising a ruckus in the back seats; and, if there was one who just happened to be having a bad day, somehow Herman always managed to have a piece of bubble gum handy to help cheer them up.
He really loved those kids, and the kids loved him right back. In fact, one of Herman’s prized possessions – something he proudly showed off to visitors – was a well-worn photo album filled to overflowing with school pictures and snapshots that these children had given to him over the years; and the thing was, Herman could tell you stories on every one of the children represented, many of whom had long since grown up to have families of their own!.
Though by the time I came to know him age and eyesight had forced Herman to give up driving that bus, kids still seemed to always flock to him. At the church I was serving as student pastor, he was known as “Uncle” Herman, and it became commonplace to see our Sunday School kids huddled in a corner after church having bubble-blowing contests! Oh, from time to time, I’d hear some of the parents grumble that Herman was giving their children way too much sweet stuff, and couldn’t he please at least switch to sugarless gum, but nobody ever said too much, because truthfully, most of those parents remembered when they got bubblegum from Uncle Herman when they were little!
No, Herman didn’t have a long resume or a rich stock portfolio, and he didn’t carry a lot of influence in the greater scheme of things; but in terms of greatness, I’ve met very few people who were his equal. When Herman passed away, it was one of the biggest funeral services I’d led up to that point, and in a whole lot of ways unlike anything I’ve ever seen since. The funeral home that day was filled with people – and an inordinate number of children; children of all ages, each one determined to let Herman’s wife Isabelle know just how much her husband had meant to them. The walls of the stately funeral home chapel were quite literally covered with homemade works of art and illustrated thank you notes from all these kids; and something else I’ve never forgotten: there were also all these incredible flowers surrounding the casket at the front of the chapel, with nearly every arrangement having one thing in common.
Stuck here and there in and through the flowers were… little wrapped pieces of Dubble Bubble Bubble Gum.
It was one of many glorious reminders I’ve been given over the years of just how much one life well-lived can unknowingly end up touching so many others. But even more than this, it has served as something of parable regarding the importance – and ultimately, the utter simplicity – of our call to Christian evangelism.
I use that “E-Word” with some trepidation; after all, here in the “mainstream protestant church” of which we in the United Church of Christ are a part (albeit a progressive branch of that stream!), evangelism is a word that still tends to make us a little uncomfortable, as though it belongs to the more conservative and fundamental of our Christian brothers and sisters. Moreover, historically speaking, evangelism has long taken on the heavy, austere tone of a somber undertaking; which, particularly in the congregational church, seems rooted in our New England Puritan heritage and still evokes images of relentless hellfire and brimstone preachers shaking their judgmental fingers from lofty pulpits. And that’s unfortunate: because not only is evangelism central to our calling as Christian people; a mandate, in fact; (it’s called “The Great Commission” for a reason, friends!) also at the very heart of it, evangelism is simply communication… God centered, spiritually uplifting, personally affirming life-giving communication. Evangelism is communicating, maybe one on one, but just as likely in a group setting with words spoken or action taken, this incredible love of God in Jesus Christ we’ve received so that others might come to know the Lord as we do.
And while evangelism can and does happen amidst the crucial challenges that each of us faces – and can and should, at least in this preacher’s mind (!), include some measure of proclamation of the Word – my experience has been that it happens just as often (and admittedly, sometimes more effectively) in and through the random happenstances of daily life. I’m talking about the conversations that are shared over a cup of coffee; the casual but welcome invitation to join with neighbors on some sort of outing or project; casseroles and coffee cake, brought forth at the times they’re needed the most, all accompanied by words of comfort and a loving embrace; and, for that matter, a piece of bubble gum offered to a trembling kindergartner heading out toward an unknown world for the very first time.
Some would argue that small expressions of caring are only the first steps in “winning souls” to Christ, and that true evangelism requires more direct outreach; and perhaps in some ways they’re right about this. But one should never underestimate the lasting impact of seemingly random acts of loving-kindness for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.
All I know is that for all our post-modern efforts to grow churches and nurture disciples, I look out into the congregations I’ve served and see folks who found their way to our church – and consequently, to Christ – not so much as a result of the programs we’ve offered, nor as a response to our style of worship or the particular hymns we’ve chosen to sing on a given Sunday; not even out the pastor’s earnest attempts at eloquent preaching. They’re sitting there in the pews because someone in that congregation invited them in, and said that they ought to come out to the fellowship hall after worship for some coffee and sweets; because they were made to feel profoundly welcome in this family of God’s people at a time when perhaps they felt most alone.
And I also know that somewhere out there, there are parents who want their own young children to have the same experience of church and Sunday School and God and Jesus that they had growing up, and are working to make that happen; a desire for Christian nurture that’s fueled by fond memories of a kindly “uncle” at their church who always seemed to have a pocketful of bubble gum, as well as a smile and the time to share with them.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry