Archive | April 2015

A Roundtable Discussion that Makes My Day

roundtableImagine starting your day almost every morning in a roundtable discussion with six other people plus yourself. In my case, the people are Joan Chittister, Henri Nouwen, God, Jimmy Carter, Christine Dallman, and M. J. Ryan – and, of course, myself. Wow! Quite a group of seven we are. Usually, everyone speaks up in the order listed. We spend about half an hour talking about whatever is on each person’s mind.

Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister

Occasionally the participants of the roundtable discussion change, but for the past four years, three participants have been constant – Joan Chittister (speaking through her monthly pamphlet, “The Monastic Way”), God (communicating through the daily readings of the Revised Common Lectionary – as listed in the daily devotional booklet, “Christ in Our Home”), and me.

Last year Henri Nouwen (“Bread for the Journey”) hadn’t joined us yet, but Edward Hays (“Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim” and “A Book of Wonders”) was in his place. Jimmy Carter (“Through the Year with Jimmy Carter”) is a newcomer this year, too. Christine Dallman (“The Personal Daily Prayer Book”) is also new this year, and she always prays about something a little different every day.

M. J. Ryan (“Attitudes of Gratitude”) just joined the group a couple weeks ago, and she plans to stay for only a couple months. She keeps telling us inspiring stories of people who exhibit a heart-warming attitude of gratitude. Her stories are really helpful in giving us a down-to-earth perspective on life. Pretty soon she’s planning to leave the group, and someone else will come along to join us as a short-termer. Debbie Macomber has often joined us as the floater. She’s the one who got me into the habit of having a special word for each year instead of doing New Year’s resolutions.

I’ll admit that some mornings the seven of us have an amazing discussion and I can’t help but think about it all day long. Other times, even though we had a great discussion, I don’t think about it at all throughout the day.

Usually I don’t say much in these discussions – I just listen and ponder what’s being said. But I discipline myself about once a week to speak up. Sometimes I transcribe these thoughts for my blog.

Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen

A couple days ago, Joan Chittister talked about something Albert Einstein once said about being careful that we don’t limit God by trying to define God. Henri Nouwen said that we need to be careful that we don’t become too legalistic in defining what we claim to be God’s nature. God then spoke up about how helpful the image of Jesus being the Good Shepherd can be to us, and how important it is for us to demonstrate the love and care that shepherds give their flocks.

Then Jimmy Carter wrapped it all up saying how important it is to remember that God is all about showing love and always being kind. He said that his favorite Bible verse is Ephesians 4:32, “Be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” [New Living Translation] I spoke up when I heard him say that. I said, “That’s my favorite verse, too!” Jimmy Carter and I have something in common beside politics! I didn’t know anyone shared my favorite Bible verse!

Jimmy Carter 2It was Christine Dallman’s turn to speak up next. She prayed, “O God, make us children of quietness ….” I smiled at that. I like to be quiet. Then she encouraged us to “Take time to unwind, time to be silent, time to reflect, and time to pray…” Imagine her saying that, just when I’m in the middle of spending two weeks by myself at our Christmas Mountain timeshare with plenty of time to be quiet – time to read, write, think, and pray.

As usual, M. J. Ryan ended our discussion by telling another story about gratitude. She told us about a woman who had suffered a stroke and had lost her ability to speak. She had been a great communicator and had been able to speak five languages. Now she struggled to find words to simply talk with her adult children. The children tried to help her by suggesting words that she might be trying to say, and the experience for everyone was just frustrating. A therapist, trying to help the family, suggested that when they are frustrated by her inability to express herself verbally, they should focus on her attempts to communicate by touch. This opened up a whole new world of opportunity to communicate the love they felt for each other that they had never been able to express in words.

Ryan went on to say that “the trick is to use a source of frustration as a trigger to cultivate an attitude of gratitude.” Then she gave a personal example.

For me it’s standing in line. I absolutely hate to ‘waste’ time; I live my life at a frenetic pace and don’t want anything to get in my way of doing all I have to get done in a day. Until recently, I was the person in the line huffing and rolling my eyes at the wait, jiggling and looking at my watch every few seconds. And when I finally made it to the counter, I was too aggravated from having to wait to be pleasant to the person on the other side of the counter. But since life is full of lines, I finally decided to change my approach. Instead of being annoyed, I decided to see waiting in line as a wonderful opportunity to slow down, to take a few conscious breaths, become aware of my body, and release as much muscle tension as I could. The waits are as long as ever – but now I am grateful for the chance to stop.

Hmmm. That made me think about some of the little aggravations in life that frustrate me… Is there some way I can change those moments into triggers of gratitude? Something to think about…

I’m truly grateful for this roundtable discussion every morning. What an inspiring way to begin my day!

roundtable of books

Getting Caught Whispering

The house on the left was my grandma's. The one on the right was the Spauldings. In between was a row of deep red, pink, and white peonies.

The house on the left was my grandma’s. The one on the right was where Gary and Wayne grew up. In between was a row of deep red, pink, and white peonies. Across the street was a park, the perfect place to play – and fish. Koshkonong Creek ran through the park.

On Thursday of last week I played the organ for the funeral of Wayne, a young man, age 64. He was the kid brother of Gary, a classmate of mine. Gary died a few years ago.

Gary and Wayne grew up in the house in Cambridge next door to my grandma. We were never close friends, but we’ve known each other practically our whole lives. After the two boys had graduated from high school, the family bought my grandma’s house, and Gary and Wayne lived there, next door to their parents.

I remember in fourth grade, Gary and I were in the same classroom. We sat in opposite corners of the room. I was always the shortest kid in class, so I was in the front. Gary was always the tallest kid, so he was in the back. In that classroom, the group of kids that seemed to learn the fastest were on the right side of the room; the ones who took longer to learn new things were on the left.  I don’t remember who sat smack dab in the middle of the room, but whoever he or she was must have been the perfect average in height and learning style.

This wasn't my classroom, but it looks a lot like it.

This wasn’t my classroom, but it looks a lot like it.

One day in fourth grade all of us were taking a test. When we were finished with the test we were supposed to bring it up to the teacher’s desk – in the front left of the classroom – and return to our seat and sit quietly until everyone was finished. I remember taking my test up to Mrs. Schuster’s desk, and walking down the aisle to the back of the room, the long way back to my desk. As I walked by Gary’s desk he whispered something to me. I stopped to respond, and we whispered for a minute. I don’t remember what we talked about. We didn’t escape being noticed by the teacher. Mrs. Schuster loudly ordered me to walk to my desk immediately and not to whisper another word. It’s rare that a teacher scolded me and I felt terrible. Gary and I smiled at each other without whispering another word, and I went back to my desk as fast as I could walk without running.

Being at Wayne’s funeral reminded me of that incident. I never knew Gary or Wayne very well, and that’s my loss. The pastor and one of Wayne’s friends talked about Wayne being a gentle giant, a 6’4” quiet, humble man. He had been a custodian at the Cambridge schools for 25 years. He was an usher in the Presbyterian Church. I wish I had known him better.

Wayne Spaulding, age 64.

Wayne Spaulding, age 64.

I would guess there were between 50 and 75 people at the funeral – more than I had expected. At the lunch at church following the funeral, I went through the food line, and then looked out at the tables to find a place to sit. There were two tables with open chairs. A large round table had four or five women seated and two or three empty chairs. A long table had three men on one side and no one on the other side. I didn’t know any of the women at the women’s table. I knew two of the men at the men’s table. They were classmates of mine. I chose the men’s table and asked if I could make the table co-ed. They welcomed me, and I sat down, facing the three men. I didn’t know Jerry and John very well, but at least I knew they were classmates. I introduced myself to the third man, Randy. He said he was a classmate of my nephew Kevin, and that he had briefly worked with Kevin and my brother Danny in carpentry after high school.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt turns out I had seated myself at the custodian’s table. All three men were custodians at the Cambridge schools and had worked with Wayne. It was a delightful lunch. I learned quite a bit about the schools from a custodian’s perspective. If I hadn’t joined the custodian’s table, I never would have known about the ghost that occupies the upper floor of the old school. I also learned about the issues our volunteer fire department faces with so few people available to volunteer in Cambridge during the day. Most people work in Madison or in other places away from Cambridge. (Randy is one of the volunteer fire fighters.)

I wish I could remember what Gary and I were whispering about in fourth grade. It’s ironic that the two quietest kids in class were caught whispering and were scolded for it. I wish we had been encouraged to talk with the kids in the opposite corners of the classroom instead of being discouraged from talking. We all lost out on the opportunity to broaden our perspectives on life.

I doubt that I’ll meet Jerry, John, and Randy for lunch on a regular basis. But I’m extremely grateful that Wayne’s funeral brought us together for a wonderful time of sharing. Thanks, Wayne.

And Gary – do you remember what we were whispering about almost 60 years ago? I wish we had continued the conversation sometime later, maybe even 50 years later…

whispering closeup

Henry’s Story

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHenry is one of my heroes. I knew Henry for a total of about twelve years, starting in 2000. He wasn’t a perfect person. He had one significant flaw that I knew of – not being punctual. He lived by his internal clock, not his watch. But he taught me more about forgiveness, kindness, and absolute commitment to serving God than anyone else I’ve known in my 66 years of life. (Well, maybe my mom taught me more about those values, but Henry taught me the second most of anybody.)

Henry, who died a few years ago, was a Methodist minister who was called in 2000 to be pastor of Willerup United Methodist Church in Cambridge. Henry was a second career pastor. In his previous career he had worked in sales and marketing for a publishing company. He was about 60, divorced, and the father of two adult children. He was also the legal guardian and caregiver for Bob, a developmentally disabled man in his 40s.

I met Henry and Bob when they moved to Cambridge for Henry’s call to Willerup. Mim and I were living in our farmhouse at the time and we welcomed guests into our home as Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast. Henry wanted Bob and him to stay with us for the first few days during their move into the Willerup parsonage. He thought the move would be less disruptive for Bob if they could at least sleep in an environment that wasn’t as chaotic as a place filled with boxes in the process of being unpacked. However, when Henry and Bob arrived in Cambridge, they discovered that the parsonage wasn’t ready for them. The parsonage was in need of some minor repairs and major cleaning before they could move in.

Henry Hall and Bob SpauldingSo Henry and Bob ended up living with us for a couple months. During that time, we became good friends. As a B&B, we always served them breakfast, but as they were becoming friends, they often ate dinner with us too. Sometimes we’d go into the living room after dinner and gather around the piano for a sing-along, especially on days when my sister Nancy and her husband Clark had also joined us for dinner.

Willerup Sketch-BWUnfortunately, it became clear early in Henry’s time of ministry at Willerup that some members of the congregation were not pleased that Henry, a divorced, second-career pastor, was their minister. The congregation, in general, was quite conservative, and Henry and Bob didn’t fit their image of a traditional pastor and his family. Matters got worse when Bob, who spent his days at a sheltered work environment did some acting out to get more attention. Bob observed that another worker got extra attention when he told stories about his guardian being sexually inappropriate. So Bob tried to tell similar stories about Henry. Bob was right – he got lots of attention when he told these stories. A social worker and even the police got involved.

Word quickly got back to the congregation about these allegations, and certain members of the congregation demanded that Henry be forced to leave the church. Henry tried to continue to minister to the congregation, but stress was beginning to take its toll on his health. Furthermore, one of the social workers believed Bob’s stories without question, and managed to have Henry’s guardianship of Bob terminated, breaking up a healthy “family” relationship that had existed for many years. She also did everything she could to be sure Henry would spend the rest of his life in prison.

That’s when Henry taught me one of his most important lessons. I asked him how he could stand the prospect of spending years in prison because of Bob’s sensational but untrue stories. Henry said, “If I go to prison, it’s because God has a ministry for me to do there. It’s all up to God, and I’ll gladly do whatever He calls me to do.”

The legal case was eventually dropped, but Henry’s reputation was too badly damaged for him to be able to effectively minister at Willerup. He agreed to move to Madison and begin a part-time clown ministry. Being a clown had been a hobby of his for years, and he saw the potential to develop it into an intentional ministry. Henry also needed some less stressful time to regain his health. With all the turmoil, his body had really suffered, and he was put on a waiting list for a heart transplant.

In less than a year of Henry arriving in Cambridge, he was preparing to leave. He decided to take only a few things with him and to move into a small apartment in Madison. He called upon an auctioneer friend of his from his previous congregation to help him get rid of all the rest of his belongings.

Peter Rooster against condoBefore the auction, Mim and I talked with Henry about how hard it must be to give up most of his material possessions. We talked for a long time. He showed us some of his most treasured items that would be in the auction and told us stories about some of them. “Peter” was the name of a life-size cast iron rooster. A member of a previous congregation had given that to him as a gift because of how personally meaningful Henry had made the story of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus, of Jesus’ forgiveness of this betrayal, and of Jesus’ continuing love for Peter and for all of us.

The next day, Mim and I went to the auction. Henry was there. We asked him how he could bear to watch all his treasures being auctioned off. He responded, “I’m delighted to see who is bidding on what. It’s great to see who God has in mind to be the next caretaker of each item. Everything belongs to God anyway. There is no change in ownership.” That was another lesson Henry taught me.

Mim and I really wanted to get “Peter,” the 26-inch tall cast iron rooster. I got into a bidding war over him. I persisted, and “Peter” now stands proudly on the big rock at the corner of our condo – a reminder of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus and Jesus’ forgiveness and continuing love, and also a reminder of all the lessons we learned from Henry.

Peter Rooster against postAbout a year after Henry left Cambridge he got his new heart. The donor was a young man who died in a motorcycle accident. Henry’s recovery was long and hard, but he was determined to recover and continue to develop his clown ministry. He had a new focus for clowning – to comfort people who are involved in heart transplants – the families of donors, the recipients and their families, and the medical and nursing staff who work with everyone involved. He served in clown ministry for about ten years.

I’m very thankful that Henry was called to ministry in Cambridge, even though it was for a short time. By his example, I learned a lot about forgiveness, kindness, and absolute commitment to serving God. Henry is truly one of my heroes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Henry brought along some of his clown gear the last time he came to visit us in our home.

 

 

Being Robbed

Blogger Linda Swanson - "Journey in Process" blog

“Journey in Process” is one of about a half-dozen blogs I follow. Linda Swanson in the blogger.

“I will not be robbed!” was the title of a blog post written by Linda Swanson for her blog, Journey in Process. Linda is a spiritual director who works mostly with missionaries all around the globe. She currently lives in New Jersey. She and her husband, Kevin, who is a pilot and a pastor, have spent most of their careers working for Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), an aviation and technology service focused on providing support to missionaries.

During the year that I have been following Linda’s blog, she has traveled extensively, speaking at several retreats and conferences, mostly for missionaries in Africa and Asia. She’s back in New Jersey now, and a couple weeks ago she wrote about being robbed at her new home and how she reacted to being robbed. That blog post reminded me of the times that I have been robbed, and how being robbed made me feel.

Telephone TableThe first time I was robbed I was in high school. There was a small telephone table in the dining room that I used as the space for dropping my books and purse when I came home from school. I also left a few of my things on that table – like pens and notepads. Sometimes I left some money there, if I didn’t want to have it with me in school.

One day, I remember I left two one-dollar bills on the table.  When I came home from school that day, the money wasn’t there. I asked my brother Danny about it, and he didn’t know anything was missing. When I mentioned it to my mom and dad, my dad said that around noon that day, he saw one of our neighbors come out of the house. (We never kept the door locked.) Dad had walked up to the house from the barn to see what the neighbor wanted, and the neighbor said something about wanting to borrow a tool – but my dad said the situation seemed a little suspicious. The visitor was a new neighbor that no one really trusted yet. Together Mom, Dad, and I concluded that the neighbor had probably come to the house to see my dad about something, and had decided to walk into the house and look around since no one appeared to be home. He probably saw the two one-dollar bills and slipped them into his pocket. My family never did trust that neighbor.

2 one-dollar bills 2 croppedWe did not confront the apparent thief. Mom said I should consider $2 the cost of the lesson I was learning about leaving money lying around in the open. Two dollars may not seem like much now, but back then it was two weeks’ allowance. I felt bad about the money, but I felt particularly bad that the reason I lost the money was that I was careless about where I kept it. I did learn a lesson.

The second time I was robbed I was living in Chicago with Mim and two other women – Marlene and Maurine. We were the four M’s. We lived on the first floor of a large vintage two-flat in a nice neighborhood. One beautiful summer night we left the windows open in the sun room. The next morning we discovered that two of our bicycles had been stolen from the sun room. The thieves had simply cut the screen, climbed inside, chosen the two bikes they wanted to steal, lifted them out the window, and probably rode off on them. We were fortunate they just wanted a couple bikes. They could have walked off with a lot more of our possessions. But I remember feeling spooked – knowing that while I had been sleeping, a couple strangers had been in our apartment. I was a little scared.  I learned a lesson that day, too – don’t leave first floor windows open at night in a city.

This 26-inch 3-speed Schwinn bicycle had been my a really special present I received on my 10th birthday.

My 3-speed Schwinn bicycle was one of the bikes that was stolen. My parents had given it to me on my 10th birthday.

I was almost robbed a third time, but I caught the thief in the act. I was climbing up the steps of the “L” in downtown Chicago. It was about 5:00 Friday evening, and the stairs and platform were crowded with everyone rushing to go home from work. As I reached out my hand to hold the swinging door to the “L” platform I turned to look back at the person behind me to be sure he would grab the door after me and not get slammed in the face. I saw that he was holding my wallet as he was removing his hand from my purse, a shoulder bag. He was startled to see me look at him, and he dropped the wallet back into the purse. When I got through the door onto the platform, I walked as fast as I could to get as far away from him as possible. Again, I was scared, but very thankful. That’s when I learned to use a small purse and keep it inside my completely closed briefcase.

L platformMim has been robbed twice. The first time, she had met me in the loop after work so that we could do a little Christmas shopping. As we walked from the Sears Tower to State Street we passed some kids who were laughing and jumping around on the street. A couple of them bumped into us, but we just smiled and kept walking. Everyone was having a good time, enjoying the spirit of Christmas. However, when we were in a store and Mim reached in her purse for her wallet to make her first purchase, she discovered that her wallet was missing. I paid for the present she was buying, but then we went home and called the police and filed the report. Unfortunately, in this case, Mim also had to notify credit card companies and get a new driver’s license. This robbery wasn’t particularly costly to us, but it was the biggest nuisance.

concrete flower pot w petuniasThe oddest robbery we’ve experienced was also in Chicago. Mim had just finished planting a big concrete pot with petunias and other annuals to sit on the ledge beside the front steps of our two-flat. She went around to the back of the house to put her garden tools away. When she came back to the front of the house to admire her handiwork, the pot was gone. In less than five minutes, someone had stolen Mim’s big flower pot. It had to be a strong person, because the concrete pot filled with potting soil and live plants and soaked with water was heavy. I can’t imagine that someone would steal a freshly planted flower pot to enjoy for the summer.

In all five of these robberies, we were a little shaken. I googled “robbed quotes” to see if someone could express more clearly than I can what our feelings were about being robbed. The closest quote to how I felt was by the British actor John Boyega. He said, “Being robbed hurts – not physically, but from what it does to your pride.” I guess I would substitute “sense of security” for the word “pride.” Being robbed makes you feel vulnerable and a little scared. In our cases, we also felt thankful that the losses weren’t greater.

What Linda said in her blog was,

Linda SwansonRobbed. I don’t know what to do with that word. When I woke this morning, I felt the power of that word start to do a color wash of gray over my perceptions of our new home, our new neighborhood. I lay in bed much longer than normal feeling the word, recognizing where it wanted to take my thoughts and conclusions, assumptions and presumptions. And, I decided not to go there.… Life will only be right if I remember where my security really comes from, that my joy and contentment are based on my relationship with God and not my circumstances.

Thanks, Linda, for reminding me of what it feels like to be robbed, and prompting me to be grateful again that my security really comes from God.