Archive | September 2014

Discovering God’s Guest List for My Life

Gods Guest ListI read another one of Debbie Macomber’s books when I was on vacation the week before last. The book was God’s Guest List: Welcoming Those Who Influence Our Lives. The other two books of Macomber’s that I’ve read recently are One Perfect Word (about the idea of having one special word for the year rather than New Year’s Resolutions) and One Simple Act: Discovering the Power of Generosity.

I expected God’s Guest List to be about hospitality. It’s not. It’s about the people God has invited into my life for a reason – to help me become the kind of person I am meant to be. Macomber opens the book by telling an old story about a woman who enters the gates of heaven. St. Peter takes her on a welcome tour to familiarize her with heaven. They walk by a large building with a huge door that’s locked. She asks St. Peter about it, and he says she really wouldn’t want to see that building, but she insists, so St. Peter unlocks the door. The building is filled with millions of beautifully wrapped presents. She asks if this is where presents are stored for everyone in heaven. St. Peter says, “No. These gifts aren’t for heaven. They were meant for earth.” The woman sees a stack of presents with her name on them and asks if she can have them now. St. Peter responds, “No. You don’t need them now. You needed them on earth, but you sent them back unopened. That’s what all these presents are – unopened returns from earth.”

Macomber then goes on to say,

Unfortunately, in real life God’s presents don’t always come gaily gift-wrapped, and they are not always easily recognized. Some even initially come looking like challenges. And often these gifts are people shaped.

The next 14 chapters include true stories and reflections about people who come into our lives –  people whose presence is a wonderful gift from God. Macomber encourages us to make lists of people who have come into our lives – family members, friends, strangers, chance encounters, and so on – people who are on God’s Guest List for us. She also prompts us to reflect on some of God’s Guest Lists for other people that we might be on.

God’s Guest List: Welcoming Those Who Influence Our Lives is a very readable book that I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend.

One of the many people on God’s Guest List for me, and I think I might have been on her list, too, is Glee Ellickson. I met her 11 years ago. One of our early residents at Country Comforts Assisted Living was “Marla.” She had fairly advanced dementia. She had been living at home with her daughter, and Glee had taken care of her when her daughter was at work. As “Marla’s” dementia progressed, her daughter felt that Marla needed more care than she and Glee could provide, so she moved her into Country Comforts. That’s when we met Glee, and we hired her to work for us a few hours a week to help us care for “Marla” as well as our other residents.

I think this picture was taken at their 60th wedding anniversary just a few years ago.

I think this picture was taken at their 60th wedding anniversary just a few years ago.

Glee and her husband Earl had farmed in rural Cambridge throughout their working years. Upon retirement, they moved to a house in Cambridge, and kept busy helping their kids and grandkids, and caring for “Marla” and our other residents. Glee was one of the kindest, most caring people I’ve met. All our residents have loved her, and over the years she became a very good friend of ours.

On July 22nd of this year, Earl died. He had been in declining health for several years, so the death wasn’t a big surprise, but it was still hard for their whole family. They are a very close, loving family.

A few weeks later, Glee finally went to a specialist about her sore throat and raspy voice. The news wasn’t good. She had advanced cancer of the thyroid. Glee stopped in to tell us her news, and Mim gave her a printout of my blog about our “Awful August.” A few days later we received a card from Glee with this message,

Hi Mim & Marian,

I want to tell you how much I appreciated getting a copy of Marian’s “August Blog.”

I’ve read it many times – every evening and also morning. The song [“God Will Take Care of You”] was a long ago favorite that I had forgotten about. It has helped me. Thank you.

I was to University Hospital yesterday. Surgery is for Sept. 9th. Will not know the time till the 8th. I will be there a few days. Pray for me. I will be glad when it is over.

Very thankful for a wonderful family. Hope Sept. is a better month for you folks and also for me.

Thanks to both of you for being my friends.

Love, Glee

Over the next couple of weeks Mim had a few short visits with Glee. The last one was Thursday just after we came home from Christmas Mountain. Glee told Mim, “I’ve made my peace with this.” Three days later on September 21st , two months after Earl went to heaven, Glee joined him.

I’m so thankful that God had all of us on each other’s Guest Lists. The presence of Glee in our lives for the past 11 years has been a real blessing in many, many ways – from her cheerfully helping us care for our residents – to baking the best sugar cookies ever for us and giving us the recipe. I will certainly miss Glee’s smiling face, cheerful disposition, and kind actions. Glee’s presence in our lives has been one of the best gifts on God’s Guest List for my life.

 

Reflections on a Musical Memory

Christmas Mountain Village SignLast week Mim and I spent four days at our Christmas Mountain timeshare in Wisconsin Dells. Four days is the longest we’ve been away together in years. We had a wonderful time, just relaxing and being thankful we could celebrate our one year wedding anniversary.

As I was enjoying my first real vacation day on Monday, I opened up the magic cloud that follows my computer wherever it goes, and started listening to an album called “Instrumental Songs of Worship for Quiet Moments.” I sat down on the couch and looked through the window at the trees just beginning to turn from dark green to light red. I was going to start reading my book, but I noticed that a symphonic version of an old, old hymn was playing, “The Old Rugged Cross.” As I listened to it, I remembered playing that hymn on a little electronic organ at a Bible camp 56 years ago. I think I was 10.

Mims Reed Organ

Mim’s grandma’s pump organ

Before I explain the significance of that memory, let me give you a little family background.  My mom grew up with a small reed pump organ in the farmhouse. I never saw that organ, but I imagine it was similar to the one Mim’s grandmother had, which we now have at the base of our stairway in our condo.

Sometime after my mom and dad married, they bought a used upright piano. That’s the one I grew up playing. I remember my mom talking about how much she missed having an organ. At that time, in the 1950s and 1960s, electronic organs had become popular. Mom finally saved up enough money to buy a Lowery organ. It had two short manuals and a one-octave pedal board. Mom had negotiated a deal that included our old upright piano as a trade-in.

The night before the organ was to be delivered, I spent all evening playing the piano, for what I thought would be the last time. I was excited about getting an organ, but I knew I would miss the piano. I was saying goodbye to my 88-key friend by playing through all my piano books.

Old upright piano

My mom’s upright piano

The next day, when I came home from school, I was ecstatic to see the new organ, and also to see that the old piano was still there. My dad had bought the old piano back from the delivery men for $50. My dad got a good deal – he paid less than the original trade-in value – because the delivery men were so happy not to have to load the big old upright onto their truck.

Although the piano was my old friend, the novelty of the new organ captured most of my attention for the next few years. The organ came with ten free lessons from the WardBrodt Music Store in Madison. After those lessons were used up, I switched to taking both piano and organ lessons, alternating weeks, from our church organist. The ten free lessons from WardBrodt broadened my repertoire considerably. I’m sure my church organist teacher would never have taught me “The Beer Barrel Polka.”

(It’s a good thing I learned it because a friend of mine, who plans ahead, has requested that I play “The Beer Barrel Polka” for her funeral!)

Lowery Organ 2

A 1960s era electronic organ by Lowery – just like mine.

The following summer, between fourth and fifth grades for me, our church youth group spent a week at Willerup Bible Camp on Lake Ripley in Cambridge. The previous week’s campers had rented an electronic organ for the chapel, and it was still there. Since the camp director knew I was taking organ lessons, she asked me to play a solo for a special evening service toward the end of the week, a service that would include all our parents as guests.

I chose to play “The Old Rugged Cross.” The hymn had two flats, B and E. I always remembered to play the B-flat, and sometimes remembered the E-flat. It wasn’t my best performance, but I was still proud of the fact that I was the only kid at camp who knew how to play an organ.

After the service, my mom asked me why I chose to play that hymn. I didn’t really know why. I guess I kind of liked the melody, and I knew lots of people liked the song. I couldn’t think of any other reason I had for choosing it.

I think my mom’s question had a profound impact on me. For the past 50-odd years, I have always thought carefully about what music I play on either the piano or organ – whether it’s for background music during the dinner hour at the Cambridge Country Inn and Pub or for a worship service in church.

For example, the Scripture readings for last weekend included two stories about God’s grace. The first one was about Jonah, after his whale adventure. He preached to the people at Ninevah, they repented, and God decided not to punish them. Jonah was mad that God had changed his mind. He wanted God to punish them as they deserved. The second story was the parable Jesus told about the landowner who hired people to work in his fields. Some worked all day, some just a few hours, and the landowner paid them all the same wage. The laborers who had worked all day weren’t happy. It wasn’t fair. The disciples also had a hard time seeing the fairness in Jesus’ parable.

Mom looking down at me

I’m pretty sure my mom’s looking down at me, listening to me playing in church…

So what music did I choose for a prelude?

I wanted to suggest the ideas that we need to try to understand what God is telling us, just like the disciples were trying to understand the real meaning in Jesus’ parables, and that God’s message this week is about generosity and grace. I cobbled together an arrangement of three hymns – “Open My Eyes,” “He Giveth More Grace,” and “Amazing Grace.”

I’ve been accused of taking my music selection process too seriously. Maybe I do. Occasionally I choose to play something simply because I like it, but that’s only when I can’t think of anything that relates directly to the Scriptures of the day.

At least I know that if Mom is listening up in heaven to whatever I’m playing, I’ll have a good answer for her if she asks me why I chose to play what I chose. And I’m sure she’ll approve.

Marian at Messiah organ 3

And I have a very good reason for playing what I’m playing!

What Do I Really Do?

Sears Tower

In the 1980s Northwest Industries took up the 62nd and 63rd floors of the Sears Tower – about halfway to the top.

Last week I heard from some voices in my past thanks to social media. A couple colleagues from the late 1970s-early 1980s when I worked for Northwest Industries in Chicago emailed me through LinkedIn, the professional networking site. Then I heard from a coworker at TDS in Madison where I worked in the mid-1990s, and then a couple clients from my Cambridge-based consulting practice from the early 2000s.

What prompted all these emails is my “Experience Timeline” on the LinkedIn social networking site.  September of 2012 is when I got serious about completing and publishing my two books, Listening for God: 52 Reflections on Everyday Life and Come, Lord Jesus, Be Our Guest: Adventures in Hospitality. I added an entry on my timeline for September 2012 of being a “Self-Employed Author.” This week LinkedIn announced my 2-year anniversary of being Self-Employed, which prompted the emails from some of my connections.

I haven’t seen Jerry and Jan in almost 30 years. Jerry was Assistant Treasurer at Northwest Industries. Jerry and I never worked closely together and we were never close friends, but there was mutual respect. Jerry must be pushing 80 by now, and he still does some financial consulting. Jan was a Disaster Recovery Consultant in the Information Technology Department. Jan and I traveled together a lot to work with a battery company in Pennsylvania that Northwest Industries owned. When Northwest Industries was acquired and most of the corporate staff lost their jobs, Jerry, Jan, and I, along with several other colleagues each formed our own consulting practices. It was an exciting time in our professional lives.

During that time, Jan and I collaborated on writing a book, The Virus Handbook. In the mid-1980s, computer viruses were just beginning to be recognized as a potentially serious problem. As a Disaster Recovery Consultant, Jan wanted to publish a manual of guidelines to minimize the risk of being infected by a computer virus, but he didn’t want to write it. We spent many hours together with Jan teaching me everything he knew about computer viruses. I tried to structure that information into a useful format and we copyrighted it. I wonder if the copy we sent to the Library of Congress is still sitting on their shelves… We sold a few copies, but the best part of our collaboration was the time we spent working together. We were a great encouragement to each other as we built our own businesses.

cat chemist heliumThose emails prompted me to reflect on the strange path my career has taken over the years – English teacher, editorial researcher for World Book Encyclopedia, systems analyst and eventually systems manager for a large corporation, independent business consultant, B&B owner, church organist, real estate broker, caregiver, and author. I guess that’s a rather strange progression of jobs. Not a typical career path. It’s no wonder I left high school thinking I would become a chemist. I had no idea what I would become. The closest I ever came to chemistry in my career was a consulting assignment I did for a pharmaceutical company in Chicago. I’m sure when I was in high school there’s no way I could conceive of the twists and turns my career would take.

An old concept that I’ve been thinking about seriously for the first time this year is the idea that my life, day by day, should be viewed as a pilgrimage back to God. This idea comes up frequently in the prayers I’m reading in Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim by Edward Hays. Here’s an excerpt from one of the morning prayers for summer:

Prayers for a Planetary PilgrimWhatever this summer day holds for me,
may I find, among its many events,
signs to confirm and direct me
in my primary vocation of pilgrimhood.
May I be eager to assist my sister and brother pilgrims in their journeys.
May I do nothing by word or deed
that will detour them on their homeward path to you.
May I burn with the fire of the sun in loving all the Earth
and all members of your sacred family.
I bow before you, Divine Father, Holy Mother,
Eternal Source of my existence.
Your heart is my home,
from you I have come
and to you I journey this day.

I’m still not sure what the right answer is for the blank for “Occupation” I need to fill out on my tax returns. I’m afraid “pilgrim” might be a red flag. But I guess that’s what my real vocation is. All the other occupations I’ve had along my path just add flavor and spice to my true calling.

Pilgrim Cat

A Pat on the Back

Abbey Profile 2This morning I looked at my beautiful old dog Abbey and said, “Hey, Abbey. Come over here a minute. I want to give you a pat on the back – not just a few pats on the head, a real pat on the back.”

“Okay, Mom. Just a minute while I coax my legs to stand up. They’re not moving very fast any more,” she replied. She slowly stood up and hobbled over to me. Then she eased herself down to a laying position again.

“Abbey, I’ve been thinking about how much you have befriended all of our 93-year-olds. You have become one of their best friends, for each one of them, just as you have for almost everyone who has lived with us. I’m particularly surprised at how much our latest resident has come to love you. I didn’t think she could love again. But you won her over. How did you do it?”

“Oh, Mom.  That wasn’t so hard. She was just hurting a lot, and she took her frustration out on all of us.”

“Yes, but at first I thought she was a little mean to you. I was afraid she might try to push you with her walker to get you to move when she wanted to walk where you happened to be lying on the floor.”

“Oh, she never hit me, Mom. And she was in so much pain. I got out of her way whenever I saw her coming, but when she sat down, I went to sit beside her. She needed to feel that someone loved her. I could do that. Eventually, she even started to pet me. Now sometimes she leaves me some crusts of bread on her plate, and tells you to be sure to give it to me, right?”

Abbey looking up colorized 2“That’s right, Abbey. You have definitely won her over. You know what she told me the other day? She said that you really like her, that you even lay down outside her door sometimes when we’re out. She is so happy that you have become her friend.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Mom. And, you know what? I’m glad that she’s become one of my friends, too. Just like it said in the book you’re reading. You may not know it, but sometimes I look over your shoulder in the morning while you’re reading. On Sunday morning you were reading from that Edward Hays book again, A Book of Wonders. He’s a smart writer. He said,

The best way to remain fully and vitally alive all the way up to the moment of your last and final breath is to constantly strive to be sensitive to other’s needs and suffering, responding to their unspoken cries for help.

“That’s all I’m trying to do, Mom. And in the process, I’m gaining more and more friends. I’m the luckiest dog in the world. I may not be able to get out as much as I used to, but I really appreciate all the new friends you bring in to live with us. Like I said before, it’s great having an endless supply of grandmas.”

“And it’s great having such a loving dog as you, Abbey.”

Thanks, Mom!

Thanks, Mom!

ENOUGH

Last December when I told Mim about the idea of selecting a special word for the New Year instead of making any New Year’s resolutions, she caught my enthusiasm and decided to select a word for herself, too, a word that would help her keep focused on one particular area for spiritual enrichment throughout the year. As you may recall, my special word for 2014 is JOY. I’m having a great time keeping my eyes and ears alert to detecting moments of joy, day by day, and being thankful for all the joy in my life.

Mim headThe word Mim chose is ENOUGH. When she told me her word choice, I seriously wondered if she really understood the concept underlying having a special word for the year. ENOUGH didn’t seem like a very inspiring word to me. But after eight months, I’m beginning to understand why Mim chose that word. What’s happened to me by Mim’s word choice is that while finding moments of JOY is the primary theme of my day-to-day living this year, the word ENOUGH has become the secondary theme. I sometimes catch myself thinking about what’s ENOUGH – enough money to pay the bills as well as think about retirement; enough food to feed everyone in our household, but not too much of anything that might spoil; enough time to get my work done, or at least the really important things on my to-do list…

Fruit StallImagine my surprise when I saw that the theme of Joan Chittister’s Monastic Way pamphlet for the month of August (Mim’s birthday month) is ENOUGHNESS. The painting Chittister selected to illustrate ENOUGHNESS is A Fruit Stall by 19th century English painter, Helen Allingham. The proprietress of the fruit stand is surrounded by dozens of baskets of different kinds of fruits with some fruits piled high against a wall. A woman carrying a small basket is looking at all the fruits to make her selection.

Chittister started her month’s reflections on enoughness with:

In our world, we are at the point in the West where consumption has come to trump need. So now almost no one knows what they really need anymore. But we are wizards at knowing what we want. It’s a universal disease. And it can be fatal.

Throughout the month, Chittister reflected on some of the wide-ranging consequences of not recognizing when you have enough and should stop accumulating more and more and more. On August 12, Chittister wrote:

It is neither abundance nor acquisition that will save the world. It is the simple virtue of enoughness, of knowing that what I have is sufficient for me, of knowing that what I give will end the destitution of others.

Later in the month, Chittister’s reflections became a little more political sounding. On August 27 she quoted Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “The test of our progress is not whether we add to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough to those who have little.” On August 30 Chittister added, “What does it say about a society that can produce multiple billionaires, hundreds of millionaires, but cannot educate its students or pay enough to feed its workers? It says our time of greatness is running out.” Her tone actually reminded me of the Old Testament prophets who criticized the people from turning away from God’s laws.

Yesterday I asked Mim how it was going with ENOUGH being her word for the year, now that she’s been focusing on it for eight months.  She replied, “ENOUGH concentrates on today – not the future. There is enough food, time, energy, etc. for today. I don’t know the future. ENOUGH helps me concentrate on today.” Then she pulled out an email that a friend had sent her. Her friend quoted a paragraph from the May 28, 2014 issue of The Christian Century magazine.

JUST ENOUGH:  Marilyn McEntyre was at first wary when congregants were asked in a worship service to “write your spiritual autobiography in six words.” Then these words came to her:

“Eat the manna. More will come.”

To McEntyre this was an expression of her ongoing anxieties about “saving and spending, keeping and letting go, prudent stewardship and the practice of generosity.” Her six-word autobiography reminded her of the way her mother lived – not far from poverty yet “rich in trust and stories about just the right amount of food, money, help showing up just when it was needed.”

Mim said she keeps the email with her devotional books and re-reads it frequently. It reminds her to trust God to provide for all her needs.

ENOUGH is a word that can be pondered from opposite directions, from:

  • not having enough and trusting that needs will somehow be met, and
  • having too much and figuring out how to share rather than over-consume or accumulate.

Or, as Joan Chittister put it, “the simple virtue of enoughness [is] knowing that what I have is sufficient for me, … and knowing that what I give will end the destitution of others.”

enough