Archive | October 2012

My Little Black Dress

A few years ago, Goodwill advertised that their resale stores were the best places to find the perfect little black dress to wear to holiday parties. That brought back memories of the black dresses I used to have, especially the one I wore to my first grade Halloween party.

When I was a little kid, I kept an old suitcase filled with some “old lady” dresses that I put on whenever I wanted to play dress-up. The dresses had been discards of my grandma. These dresses weren’t like the ones Goodwill featured as party dresses. My dresses all had long sleeves, high necks, and some black lace or decorative stitching and shiny little black beads or buttons to make the dress fancy from the waist up. On me, the hem of the dress fell to the floor. The only way to describe how I looked in these dresses is goofy.

When I was in first grade, I remember that we were told to bring Halloween costumes to school on Halloween so that we could get dressed up for an all-school parade down Main Street in the afternoon. The parade would be followed by a Halloween party in each classroom. I was excited about the parade and party, but I worried about what I could do for a Halloween costume. My friends were talking about the costumes they had bought at the dime store. I knew my mom and dad couldn’t afford to buy me a costume. I didn’t know what to do, so I worried, as much as a six-year-old can worry. My mom tried to come to the rescue by taking me to the dime store to buy a 29-cent mask. It was a really cute puppy face that I liked a lot. But a mask wasn’t a costume. My mom asked me to get out my old suitcase, and I tried on each of my black dresses. We chose the most ornate one for me to dress up as an “old lady puppy.” I wasn’t sure that was as good as a store-bought puppy costume, but at least I had something.

When we dressed up in our costumes that Halloween afternoon, Mrs. Knoblauch, my first grade teacher, burst out laughing when she saw me as the “old lady puppy.” She gave me a big hug – and she also gave me a prize for having the most original costume. It was one of the best days of my life!

I think I even learned something that day. My mom had taught me about making the best of what you have, about being resourceful and creative, and about not just doing what everyone else was doing.

I doubt that I’ll ever wear a little black dress again, or even a big black dress. But whenever I’m prompted to think about black dresses, I have a great memory.

Happy Halloween!

Super Abbey was given a “real” costume from a friend – but no face mask!
She wishes you a Happy Halloween, too.

Salty Cookies, Burnt Cereal, and Learning Curves


My mom worked in Madison during most of my growing up years.  She compensated for not being around home to supervise me as much as she would like by suggesting projects for me to do by myself, especially during the summer.

One project was learning to bake cookies. One of the first times I baked cookies all by myself, I must have misread “teaspoon” and “tablespoon.” I made some very salty oatmeal raisin cookies. Another time I forgot to take all the cereal boxes and crackers that were stored in the oven out of the oven before I preheated it. When I smelled smoke and saw a black cloud drifting out of the stove, I ran to the barn to get my dad. Together we ran back to the house. He put on thick work gloves, and pulled all the hot black smoldering boxes out of the oven. Fortunately, there were no flames.  Then my dad went back to the barn and I went back to mixing up the cookie dough. I was able to bake the cookies just fine in the well-preheated oven. When my mom got home from work, she was a little surprised at all the damage I had done by simply baking a batch of cookies, but she was pleased that I had run to get my dad before doing even more damage. She was also pleased that I had finished making the cookies. At least we had some good fresh homemade chocolate chip cookies to eat, even if we no longer had any cereal and crackers. There was a learning curve for baking cookies, but I mastered the skill well before I was in high school.

Over the years, I’ve learned that there is a learning curve for just about everything I’ve learned to do – from riding a bike to driving a car, from playing the piano for Sunday School to playing the organ for church, from designing a brochure to building a website. As a general rule, regardless of how good I may think my first effort is, the second time I do something is always better. That’s the learning curve.

The learning curve I’m currently mastering is writing and publishing a book. I’ve been writing a book about hospitality for a couple years. I’m very excited about this book. It’s based on the experiences Mim and I have had in being hospitable. We have welcomed literally thousands of people into our home – some as friends and family, others as bed and breakfast guests, assisted living residents, and seekers on spiritual retreat. The Bible says a lot about hospitality, and we’ve learned a lot about hospitality in our life experiences. The purpose of the book is to put all that knowledge together into a coherent message about the importance of hospitality in our lives.

Last year, as my book on hospitality was beginning to take shape, it suddenly dawned on me that I’m at the beginning of a new learning curve – the one for publishing a book. I decided I should try to gain some experience along this new learning curve before I actually publish my book on hospitality. The message of this book is very important to me. I want it to be the best book I can possibly make it. That means it shouldn’t be the first book I publish. The absolute law of learning curves has convinced me of that.

So, what should I publish as my first book?  I want it to be something good even if it is the first project along this learning curve. I quickly realized that there was an obvious answer to what should be my first book. I’d already written most of it. I’ve been writing a blog post every Monday for the past couple years. I have nearly a hundred reflections written. The theme that’s common to most of these reflections is finding messages from God in everyday life.

With the help of a friend, I selected 52 of our favorite reflections – one a week for a year for anyone who wants to read them at the same pace as the readers who have followed the blog.  I grouped the reflections around common topics like VALUES, PRAYER, MUSIC, JAIL, and a few other topics, to accommodate readers who would prefer to read a whole section of the book in one sitting. I tried to edit the reflections so that they flow smoothly from one to the next. Finally, I added a title and subtitle – Listening for God:  52 Reflections on Everyday Life. Currently, the same friend who helped me select the reflections is doing a final edit of the book for me. She hopes to complete her editing this week.

While she’s doing that, I’m deciding which independent publisher to choose to publish the book. Should I go with the independent division of a major publisher in the Christian book market, like Thomas Nelson or Guideposts? Or, should I take a more do-it-yourself route and do almost everything, except the actual printing of the books, by myself?, I went to a couple publishing seminars at the University of Wisconsin this past summer to help me make this decision. I’m learning all kinds of things about publishing – book cover design, interior page layout, e-book formatting, distribution channels, ISBN numbers, US copyright registration, and lots more. This is a fun learning curve to be on!

This week I hope to decide on the publisher and email my book to them. In two or three months, my first book will be published – a paperback of about 200 pages and an e-book for people who prefer to read books on their Kindles and Nooks.

I’m moving along the learning curve. Soon I’ll be able to get serious again about completing the first draft of my hospitality book. I’ve already set aside the second week in November for a week-long writing retreat at Christmas Mountain. I want to complete my first draft of this, my second book, while the publisher is finalizing and publishing my first book. Then I can study all the mistakes I made at the beginning of this learning curve, so that I don’t repeat them in publishing my second book. Anyway, that’s my plan. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

I’m sure there’s still a lot for me to learn along this latest learning curve, but I think I can safely say I won’t burn the cereal and crackers again. Each learning curve is filled with new adventures.

What I’ve Learned about Debating

Marian's high school graduation picture

Marian’s high school graduation picture

Prior to the Vice Presidential Debate last week, Governor Romney was criticized for saying he didn’t think his running mate, Paul Ryan, had much debate experience – maybe in high school he might have had some. That got me thinking about my experience on my high school debate team.

When I was a junior in high school, a few friends talked me into joining the debate team. I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but that was okay. I was having fun with my friends. The national debate topic for high schools in the 1964-1965 school year was: “Resolved: That nuclear weapons should be controlled by an international organization.” Almost fifty years later, I guess the topic is still somewhat timely!

According to the rules for high school debate fifty years ago (I don’t know if they’ve changed or not over the years), a debate team had four members, two affirmatives and two negatives. The affirmatives supported the resolution and the negatives argued against the resolution. Each debater spoke in a predefined order for a prescribed number of minutes. Timekeepers were absolute in cutting off the speaker at the precise second of the time limit. The judge, an English teacher/debate coach from another school, determined the winner based on how convincing the arguments were.

I always debated as second negative. My primary responsibility was to refute the specific plan proposed by the opposition, regardless of what their plan was. Going into the debate, I had no idea what specific plan was going to be proposed. That meant I had to listen carefully to what the plan was, determine quickly what the weakest points of the plan were, and attack the plan where it was most vulnerable.

How did I prepare for that? My fellow negative and I spent many evenings and weekends together reading news magazines, specifically looking for articles related to the debate topic. We discussed how the key points mentioned by experts in those articles could be cited – or refuted – to make our points. Not all high school kids would consider that a fun way to spend several hours every week, but it was a good way for non-athletic friends to have a reason to spend time together.

I gained a lot from my experience on the debate team. I learned how to listen very carefully to what someone says, and how to respond quickly and authoritatively to convince a third person that I had a better perspective on the issue than my opponent.  I also learned that the third person, the judge, responded to more than just the facts I presented. The judge was influenced just as much by my attitude, speaking style, and self-confidence as by my facts.

The rules for Presidential Debates are a little different. The timekeeper has become the moderator with the dual role of asking questions and trying to limit the time each candidate takes for response. The role of judge has been assigned to everyone who votes, although there are plenty of commentators on TV who try to assume that role. The debaters – the candidates – have also learned that the judges – the voters – are influenced much more by their demeanor than by their actual arguments.

In the New Testament, we can read how Jesus debated. The religious leaders of the day frequently tried to trip him up with trick questions. In Mark 10, the Pharisees asked him a question about whether or not divorce is legal. In the next chapter, the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders asked him what authority he had to be doing the things he was doing. In chapter 12, some more Pharisees tried to trick him with a question about taxes. Then some Sadducees questioned him about husbands and wives being reunited in heaven. In all cases, Jesus was a good debater. He always gave them an answer that made them think in more depth about the real question they had asked.

I think Jesus’ best debate performance is recorded in Mark 12.

One of the religion scholars came up. Hearing the lively exchanges of question and answer and seeing how sharp Jesus was in his answers, he put in his question: “Which is most important of all the commandments?”

Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.” [Mark 12:28-31 MSG]

How did Jesus prep for his debates? At times, Jesus went off by himself to pray. I doubt that he had practice debates with his Father, but I’m sure they spent quiet time understanding their values and priorities, knowing what their love for the world would mean for Jesus.

The presidential candidates and vice presidential candidates, all four of them, are known as followers of Jesus. I guess that means they understand and agree with what Jesus said was the greatest and second greatest commandments – to love God and to love our neighbors.

As we listen to the debates throughout this political season, let’s watch for these values to come out as each candidate tries to express his vision for America. Or, if these values aren’t reflected in the official debates, maybe we can think about how they might be reflected in the informal debates we have in our families, churches, and communities.

Or, maybe, we can just think about how these values are reflected in our lives.

Enjoying God’s Many Gifts

Some of the colors of October

Remember how much fun it is to watch a three-year-old tear the wrapping paper off a birthday present, to watch the excitement and delight in her face. She completely trusts that whoever gave her the present has given her a wonderful thing that she will enjoy to the fullest. One of the verses from the Gospel reading yesterday was “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. [Mark 10:15 NIV]”

After church Mim and I took Anna, our assisted living resident, out for breakfast. The morning had begun as a cold, cloudy day, but by mid-morning, the sun was beginning to break through the clouds, and gradually the completely gray sky had turned into a bright blue October sky, with just a few little fluffy white clouds scattered here and there. The sun shone brightly on fall foliage as we drove through the countryside. Yesterday must have been the peak day for fall colors in southern Wisconsin. Anna kept exclaiming with delight at the color of this tree and that, all the way to the restaurant. Even though Anna is 91, she was sure that the “yellow, orange, apricot, and red leaves were the most beautiful autumn colors” she had ever seen. Talk about childlike enthusiasm! We had a leisurely drive, a conversation full of excited exclamations at the beauty of each tree we passed, and a tasty breakfast where we each enjoyed our personal favorites. Anna’s was corned beef hash topped with fried eggs, Mim’s was French toast, and mine was a Greek omelet with fresh fruit on the side. What a way to start a Sunday! Our souls as well as our bodies were feasting!

Mim and Abbey starting down the trail at CamRock 3, a mile down the road from Whispering Winds.

Last Tuesday, Mim and I took our dog Abbey on a five-mile hike down country roads and on trails in CamRock Park. We ambled along for more than two hours. Tuesday was a beautiful day with a bright blue October sky. We hiked through a woodland landscape of every fall color you can imagine – bright red, dark red, rust, orange, yellow, tan, brown, and even some colors not usually associated with fall, like pink and purple.

As we walked the trails, we stopped to take a few pictures whenever something seized our attention –like a patch of deep red sumac in front of some yellow maples, or an open milkweed with seeds just waiting to be lifted out by a gentle wind.

As if all the beauty we saw on Tuesday wasn’t enough, God pointed out even more beauty to me the next day. On Wednesday evening, just as I was ready to leave the farmhouse to go to the condo for dinner, God set a rainbow in the sky. It had been raining lightly, and then the sun came out. I first noticed the rainbow over the trees between the farmhouse and the condo. That was the left half of the arc. As I walked around the yard, I spied the right half of the bow over the farmhouse.

I think God has been talking to me over the last several days through all this beauty in the sky and across the landscape. The Psalms remind us that God often speaks to us like this, without words.

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
[Psalm 19:1-4 NIV]  

How wonderful it is to be reminded that God wants us to notice all the beautiful things around us and to be delighted by them with the enthusiasm of a child.

Happy Autumn! Take time to enjoy it. God wants you to.