Archive | January 2012

Parish Nurses, Nutty Knitters, and More Blessings

Country Comforts

The Farmhouse

This past weekend, a group of nine nurses gathered at Whispering Winds. Friday night was essentially a party, a time to relax and have fun together. Saturday was a more reflective time, an opportunity for sharing and contemplating ways to allow ourselves to be renewed physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

I joined the nurses for some of the partying Friday evening. Most of the nurses had a Catholic background. Some were ex-nuns. As the director of Whispering Winds, I was jokingly asked to be the “mother superior” for the group. That was quite a stretch for a Methodist turned Lutheran.  I interpreted the role following the model of Jesus’ friend Martha rather than following the more usual Protestant stereotype of what a mother superior must be like. I did the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen after enjoying drinks, appetizers, and a wonderful meal with the nurses.

This was probably the noisiest retreat we have ever hosted at Whispering Winds, but without a doubt, God kept her word, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.” [Matthew 18:20] These nurses needed the opportunity to unwind, relax, and share their concerns among themselves. They needed to take care of their own needs rather than focusing only on the needs of others. Based on the comments of the nurses as they left, this 24-hour retreat had re-energized them. (If any of the nurses want to provide their perspective on the weekend retreat, please feel free to comment on this blog.)

As I reflected back on this nurses’ retreat, I thought about lots of different groups who have gathered at the farm, both when the farm was known as Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast and now as it’s known as Whispering Winds Retreat Haven.

The group that rivaled this weekend’s nurses for noisiness called themselves the “Nutty Knitters.” They were a group of 12 women who used to get together when they were high school students to knit scarves for the soldiers fighting overseas during World War II. Sometime in the 1950’s or 1960’s they started getting together for a week during the summer every year. In 2001, they came to Country Comforts for their annual reunion. About half of them lived in various places in Wisconsin. The rest flew in from all over the country – Washington D.C., Florida, Texas, Colorado, and California. When they came to Country Comforts they were in their retirement years, and they all had fascinating life stories to tell.

For breakfast they insisted on everyone squeezing around the dining room table together so that they could all be involved in every conversation. Throughout the day they explored Cambridge and surrounding communities. Usually in the late afternoon they’d gather around the piano and sing golden oldies. In the evening some of them played cards till midnight. Every morning, we found an empty cookie jar. We had promised to keep them supplied with homemade cookies, and they kept us to our word. We baked a different kind of cookies each day.

Along with the aroma of cookies baking in the oven, the house was filled with the love shared by the Nutty Knitters.  The woman who flew in from Florida was suffering with advanced stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. She could no longer eat, and could barely talk. But she made it clear that she wanted to be together with her life-long friends one more time. Throughout the week, each woman spent some one-on-one time with her. Even that was a joyful experience, with so much love filling the house.

Another very memorable reunion happened several years ago. We welcomed two separate groups to the farm on the same weekend. One group was four sisters who had grown up on a farm in central Wisconsin. They were really excited about having their reunion in a similar farmhouse. The other guests were three girlfriends in their thirties, high school classmates who now lived in different cities. They were getting together to remember old times and renew their friendship.

The four sisters arrived first. Since they were so interested in the farmhouse, I took them on a little tour of all the rooms. When we walked into the upstairs guest room, one of the sisters gasped. She walked over to a coffee table book that illustrated Wisconsin farming practices from the early twentieth century. We displayed this book that had belonged to my dad in that room to honor our farming heritage. The sister picked up the book and said, “Our father wrote the text of this book.” The sisters all gathered around the book and paged through it, remembering their father writing the detailed descriptions of all the paintings.

While the sisters were looking at the book, the doorbell rang. The three girlfriends had arrived. I greeted them and led them upstairs to their room. I explained what the other women were so excited about. As I was about to introduce them, one of the girlfriends looked at the book and said, “I know that book. My uncle painted all the pictures. I remember watching him do it when I was a little girl.”

I’m sure God was chuckling over this “chance meeting.” The two sets of guests were delighted with the connection and spent a wonderful weekend together at the farm.

We have hosted all kinds of gatherings at Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast and Whispering Winds Retreat Haven. Family reunions are often scheduled for significant birthdays, like turning 90. That’s usually the age when people become quite proud of their age and begin to brag about it. Friends and families have also gathered here when coming to the area for a funeral. The farmhouse is a comfortable place to be together and share happy memories. Writers groups come to write in the seclusion of their own rooms during the day, and then get together for the evening in the living room to share their progress and to support each other. A group of teachers regularly comes here during long weekends to plan summer vacations to explore the world. They’ve been to China, Africa, and South America. Some senior groups combine a few days here with an evening at the nearby Fireside Dinner Theater.

The farmhouse has a long tradition of being a place for friends and family to gather for all kinds of reasons. My special reward for being the “Martha-style mother superior” who welcomes all these guests into our home is being able to witness God’s love showing up in hundreds of expected and unexpected ways.

A special thanks to the nurses this past weekend for inviting me to blog about their retreat. That prompted me to reminisce about so many of our wonderful guests over the years. What a blessing!

Rain and Snow and God’s Word

Last year our church in Madison (Messiah Lutheran Church – ELCA) prepared a Lenten devotional booklet. Each entry was written by a different volunteer from the congregation. The volunteer was given a verse from the lectionary for that day to be the focus of their reflection. The booklet ended up being a wonderful aid to help all of us meditate on the meaning of Christ being in our lives throughout the whole season of Lent.

This year, I decided to volunteer to write one of the reflections. It’s harder than it looks! The verse assigned to me was Isaiah 55:10. I decided to include verse 11, too, in order to address the full meaning of the sentence.

For as the rain and the snow came down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. [New Revised Standard Version]

As a former English teacher, I know a long, complex sentence when I see one. There are 74 words in that sentence! To get straight to the meaning of the sentence, I cheated a little. I went to The New Oxford Annotated Bible (which just happens to be on the top bookshelf at Whispering Winds), and I looked at their notes. They say verses 10 and 11 basically mean, As rain causes germination and ultimately provides sustenance, so does God’s word. Okay, now the simile is clear. Here’s the reflection I wrote.

Growing up on a farm in Cambridge, I learned all about planting seeds, watching for rain, and harvesting crops. While my dad planted corn and oats in the fields, my mom planted a huge garden with rows and rows of beans, peas, carrots, lettuce, beets, squash, tomatoes, cantaloupe, watermelon, and whatever else caught her eye in the seed catalog. She had complete faith that God would send the rain needed to transform the seeds into a garden full of vegetables – enough for our family and plenty to share with others. And, sure enough, that’s exactly what happened every year.

Verse 10 reminds us that the rain and snow come from heaven to make the seeds sprout and grow into food for us to eat, and verse 11 says that in the same way, God’s word comes to us to fulfill a purpose, and that purpose will always be accomplished. Sometimes that’s a little harder to see because it doesn’t happen on a seasonal timetable.

One advantage of getting older is that I have had more time to observe God’s Word accomplishing its purposes. Just as my mom planted the seeds in the garden and trusted God to provide the rain to produce all the vegetables, my mom faithfully shared what she knew about God’s love with her children and grandchildren. Today I can see her faith reflected in the lives of her children (my siblings) and grandchildren, and continuing on to the next generation beyond that.

God’s Word provides sustenance to us spiritually, just as the rain and snow ultimately provide sustenance to us physically. To me, that says I need to let God’s Word seep into my thoughts just as the rain seeps into the earth for God’s purposes to be accomplished.

High Stakes Musical Chairs

“Musical Chairs” is the game I hated to play in kindergarten.  When Miss Polly asked us to arrange the chairs for the game, I just dreaded the next half hour of the day. As you may recall from your childhood, the way the game goes is that chairs are arranged in a double row with the backs together. The players form a circle around the chairs. When the teacher starts the music, the players walk around the chairs, staying in a circle. When the teacher stops the music suddenly, everyone is supposed to quickly sit in the chair closest to them. The challenge is that there is one less chair than the number of players. The player who doesn’t get a chair is out of the game. Then one chair is removed from the two rows, the music is started again, suddenly stopped, and the players scramble again for the closest chair. The game continues until there is only one chair and two players left. The person to get the last lonely chair is the winner.

The reason I hated the game so much is that the ultimate winner of the game is the person who is the most aggressive – the pushiest kid in the class. I don’t think I ever won the game. The kids who won were the mean kids, the ones I didn’t like.

I thought about that today because I just received an email from one of my business clients. Although these aren’t his words, he has been forced to play a game of “High Stakes Musical Chairs.”

A couple weeks ago he came to me for some help in writing a collection letter. He’s a general contractor in residential construction. For the last couple months he’s been working on a remodeling job. Basically, he coordinated all the carpentry-related tasks for the primary contractor who is more of an interior designer than a general contractor. My client had used all the payments he had received from the interior designer throughout the course of the project to pay for materials and the subcontractors he had hired (cabinet maker, electrician, plumber, drywall hanger, painter). The final payment upon completion of the job would be where he would cover his own expenses and receive compensation for his work. Unfortunately, the interior designer has not made the final payment. The home owner has paid the interior designer for all the work, but the interior designer appears to have spent the money. For several weeks she has been telling my client “the check is in the mail.” My client has done a little checking into her reputation and has learned that he is not the first general contractor to be left without the final payment by this interior designer.

Basically what’s happening in this economy where there’s just not enough money to go around for everyone, is that someone ends up not getting paid. Someone ends up without a chair when the music stops in this high stakes game of Musical Chairs. In this case, it was my client. When I met with my client, we explored the legal remedies available to him and what his best strategy would be to try to make the interior designer want to pay him so much that she would try to figure out a way to get money to pay him. The first letter my client had already sent was a friendly reminder. Then he found out that she had taken her family on a skiing vacation in Colorado for the holidays, probably using the final payment from the home owner for the extravagant vacation. The second letter, which my client and I wrote together, was friendly but it mentioned the possibility of pursuing legal action, if necessary. So far, her response has been anger, along with the continuing explanation that “the check is in the mail.”

Will my client ever get paid? I don’t know. If he pursues legal action and files a lien on the property, the home owners, who are sympathetic to my client, may pay him to get rid of the lien, and then they may try to get their money back from the interior designer. Or, if the interior designer is afraid of losing sole custody of her kids if criminal charges are filed against her, she may find a way to borrow money to pay my client. Or, nothing may happen, and my client will be the loser in this game.

Who’s the real culprit in this situation? On the surface, it may look like the real culprit is the economy. If times weren’t so tight, and money was flowing freely through the economy like it used to flow, there would be enough money to pay everyone what they were entitled to receive. But I think that’s a superficial explanation. The real culprit is the attitude widely held in our society that life is a game and there are winners and losers. The winners are the ones who are the most aggressive and selfish, the pushiest ones, just like we learned when we played “Musical Chairs.”

Until we learn that life is more than a game, the only way to bring about any fairness in life, is to legislate it – and for the “losers” to be able to seek legal remedies. But that will never be more than a partial solution.

If we ever learn that life really is more than just a game, perhaps we’ll learn to care about each other and learn to share rather than grab. Maybe a good start would be to stop playing the game “Musical Chairs” in kindergarten.

To-Do Lists

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. [Bertrand Russell]

We all like to think our work is important – whether the work is what we do on our job or what we do at home. Many of us have so many important tasks to accomplish that we create to-do lists to be sure we don’t forget anything. Worse yet, if the list is so long we know we’ll never get everything done, we prioritize the list so that we can at least try to accomplish the most important things.

My mom taught me how to make to-do lists by the time I learned to write. Every Saturday morning after breakfast the two of us made a list of everything we had to do that day, and we decided which one of us would do each task. The lists usually included vacuuming, dusting, cleaning the bathroom, cutting flowers (if it was summertime), baking cookies, and so on. By the end of the day, we had crossed everything off the list, and we felt a good sense of accomplishment.

Now I usually make my to-do lists on Monday mornings. What’s frustrating is that I know I won’t get everything done, so I try to prioritize. How did I get so busy? I’m self-employed, and I’m my own boss, right? I should be able to cross the unimportant things off my list. But which ones are they?

Yesterday afternoon (I try to avoid work as much as possible on Sunday) I picked up a book that Mim received for Christmas, 100 Favorite Bible Verses for Women. As I was scanning the table of contents, one entry caught my eye: “God’s To-Do List.” The verse was Proverbs 16:9, People may make plans in their minds, but the Lord decides what they will do. [New Century Version]

That prompted me to think about some of the interruptions that drop into my day, like getting a call from a friend whose business is not surviving this economy, and he just needs a listening ear for an hour. Or, sitting with a guest who wants to talk about what she’s learning during her personal retreat at Whispering Winds. Or, receiving an urgent request from Mim to watch one of our assisted living residents while she deals with another crisis. None of these things were on my to-do list, but these things suddenly become more urgent and more important than the tasks on my list.

So, what happens to my to-do list? Some of the tasks get done the next day, the next week, or never. As the list gets longer and longer, I can get more and more anxious about how busy I am, and worry about how my important work isn’t getting done; or I can try to see the list from a different perspective. Probably a better way of saying this is, I can try to see my list, my priorities, and my life from God’s perspective.

This is where finding some quiet time is crucial – whether it’s taking a walk for a few minutes or a few hours, or going away for a personal retreat for a day or two. There will always be tasks on my to-do list. But I guess God has a to-do list for me, too. Just as I used to sit with my mom on Saturday mornings to compile our to-do list, I need to spend time with God to integrate the tasks on our respective to-do lists. My top priority really needs to be spending time with God to begin to understand God’s perspective and God’s priorities. Only then will my to-do list really matter.

New Year’s Resolutions

A Conversation with Abbey

Well, Abbey, it’s already January 2, 2012, and time to continue our conversation from last week about the changes in our lives in 2011, and New Year’s Resolutions for 2012.

I’ve been thinking a lot about whether or not to make any New Year’s Resolutions this year, and I don’t think I will. I don’t like the whole idea of New Year’s Resolutions. It reminds me of Lent – giving up something I really like, you know, like sneaking food off the kitchen counter. Giving up that is giving up one of the special joys in life.

New Year’s Resolutions can be about more than just giving something up, Abbey. Think about something that would make your life better, and think about what could you do all by yourself to make that happen. You know what the ten most popular new year’s resolutions are according to About.com?

  1. Spend more time with family and friends.
  2. Fit in fitness.
  3. Tame the bulge.
  4. Quit smoking.
  5. Enjoy life more.
  6. Quit drinking.
  7. Get out of debt.
  8. Learn something new.
  9. Help others.
  10. Get organized.

Okay. I choose number 5. I’m going to enjoy life more this year. Kitchen counter, beware!

Oh, Abbey. It’s fine to enjoy life more, as long as it’s not at the expense of someone else. You know how it upsets Mim when you take food off the counter.

You’re right. How about if I let the Grandmas sneak food to me. They love to do that, so that’s helping others as well as increasing the amount of joy in my life. How about you. Did you make any new year’s resolutions this year?

Yes. I made a couple. My first one is number 10 on the above list – to get organized. I know you think of me as pretty organized, and I am quite organized in lots of things. But keeping my office picked up is always on the bottom of my to-do list, and I seldom get that far on my list. I only get to it when my office is so cluttered I can’t work. This year, I’m making it a priority to clean up my office every Saturday, so I have a fresh start for the new week.

That’s a good one. Last night I could hardly find a spot to lie down near the patio door.

That should cease to be a problem in 2012.

You know, now that we’re talking seriously about some changes we’d like to make in our lives, there’s something else I’ve been thinking about. You talk a lot about going away on retreat to have some quiet time to reflect on the meaning of your life, about God, and about other things. I’ve never done that. I think I’d like to try it. Can I go to Whispering Winds sometime with you to experience a personal retreat? It’s hard to pray and meditate at home, without being distracted by something. Like last night, I was lying on the floor in the kitchen, thinking about this conversation we would be having this morning, but then I looked up and saw one of the grandmas sitting all by herself in her chair in the living room. I knew she needed to have me close to her, so I went over to her and sat next to her so she could pet me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I really liked doing that. But it distracted me from thinking about God-things.

Normally, we don’t allow dogs at Whispering Winds, but I think we could make an exception for you, considering the circumstances. I could let you stay in my room at Whispering Winds, so guests with allergies wouldn’t have problems. I’m glad you’re thinking about how important it is to have time to be still, away from distractions, to listen to God. Maybe your New Year’s Resolution could be to go to Whispering Winds for a day or two each quarter throughout the year.

That’s great. How about starting this Wednesday! I can hardly wait for some quiet time.

I’ll have to check the calendar, but I think that will work out okay.

By the way, speaking of finding time to listen to God, I also made a resolution related to that for 2012. You know how I read the book, Jesus Calling, almost every day last year. This year I’ve chosen another book to read every day. It’s called A Year with Jesus by Eugene H. Peterson. He’s the author of The Message, that very down-to-earth paraphrase of the Bible.  The foreword to the book begins with this paragraph.

The goal of spending a year with Jesus is to learn how to pray. Our prayers do not start with us. They start with Jesus. Before we ever open our mouths in prayer, Jesus is praying for us. Despite much talk to the contrary, there are no secrets to living the Christian life. No prerequisite attitudes. No conditions more or less favorable to pursuing the Way. Anyone can do this, from any place, starting at any time. But it is only possible through prayer. We can only pray our lives into the way of following Jesus.

I expect this book will be as helpful to me this year as Jesus Calling was last year.

That sounds good. So now we both have New Year’s Resolutions for 2012. Let the year begin!