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Ghostly Tricks

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Doris and Mary having a good laugh with Abbey – our best caregiver of all. (About 10 years ago)

Over the past 14 years, Mim and I have cared for more than twenty elderly people who have lived with us in our home, usually one or two residents at a time. Almost all of them have lived out their last days with us. Some of them lived with us for just a few days, some a few months, and some a few years. We have been honored to have cared for them as they journeyed from this life into the next life.

Today is All Saints Day, a day to remember each one of them, along with all the other people who have been close to us throughout our lives, and who are no longer with us on earth.

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Mim helping Doris get dressed up for Halloween.

One of our former residents, Doris, has actually been on my mind a lot lately. Doris lived with us almost four years, and she and her family became close members of our extended assisted living family.

Doris had a good sense of humor and liked to joke around with people. She often warned us that she was going to come back and haunt us after she died. Well, she’s come back. Really! I didn’t want to believe that she would follow through on her joking threat, but I can’t think of any other explanation for what has happened.

Several months ago I replaced my 5-year-old HP laptop with my first Apple product, a MacBook. The biggest challenge I had with my transition into the Mac world was getting my big fancy Konica Minolta laser printer/copier to work with the Mac. After hours of trial and error plus long phone calls to Apple Support, I finally was able to download a third-party printer driver that works pretty well – not perfectly, but at least I can print most documents.

A couple days after I finally got the printer working, I tried to boot it up one morning, and it was completely dead. I tried everything I could think of – with no success. I finally placed a service call with Konica Minolta to have them come out to fix it. The printer appeared to be completely dead. Not even the copier function would work.

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My Konica Minolta printer/copier is an excellent color laser printer, but it’s big and heavy.

This printer/copier is a large, heavy, floor model – something I don’t move around very often when I clean house. But I decided to do a little cleaning that day so my office would look better for the Konica Minolta repairman. I tugged the printer in one direction, then the other, to “walk” it away from the wall so that I could vacuum behind it. I couldn’t believe what I saw! The printer cord was plugged into a surge protector/power strip, and the power strip was not plugged into the wall outlet. It was plugged into itself! I called Mim over to take a look. She was as shocked as I was. I unplugged the power strip from itself, plugged it into the wall outlet, turned the printer/copier on, and it worked just fine. I immediately called Konica Minolta to cancel the service call.

img_1600Mim and I tried our hardest to figure out how that could have happened. Did one of us sleep-walk (which we’ve never done as far as we know), struggle to pull the printer/copier away from the wall, mess up the cords, and then shove the printer/copier back in place – all without waking up or making enough noise to wake up the other person or even our dog? Did someone break into the house the previous night while we were asleep and do it as a practical joke? The printer had worked the night before, but not that morning.

Hmmm. Practical joke… The only person we could think of who would do a practical joke like that was the ghost of Doris… In my mind, I’ve given Doris a high-five, and we’ve had a good laugh over it.

I’m sure Doris isn’t the only friendly ghost who has visited our home. The most usual time for ghosts and angels to visit us has been when one of our residents is near death, and a deceased parent, or spouse, or even a stranger comes into the room of the person who is near death. This visitor has come to comfort, or possibly escort the resident to the next life. Mim and I have never seen any of the special visitors ourselves, but several residents have told us about them.

All Saints Day is a time to remember all who have died in Christ, and who are now gathering in heaven to praise God. That includes Doris, even though she may sometimes sneak back down to earth to play a practical joke on us.

The image of a crowd of saints gathering together in heaven is suggested several places in the Bible. For example, Revelation 7:9-10 says:

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

In 1864 William Waltham How, an Anglican bishop, wrote a hymn using this image. Forty-two years later, Ralph Vaughan Williams composed a new tune for the hymn, creating one of the most moving and dramatic of all Christian hymns – “For All the Saints.” Here are the first and last verses. (You may want to google the title for the rest of the words.)

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who They by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, of Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

For me, the highlight of All Saints Sunday is playing this hymn on a pipe organ and hearing the congregation loudly singing the joyful words. It puts a lump in my throat every year.

On the other end of the musical spectrum is a spiritual that describes the same image – “When the Saints Go Marching In.” There are many different verses for this song, both sacred and secular, the usual first and last verses are:

O when the saints go marching in,
O when the saints go marching in,
O Lord, I want to be in that number
when the saints go marching in.

O when they crown Him Lord of all,
O when they crown Him Lord of all,
O Lord, I want to be in that number
when they crown Him Lord of all.

In Cambridge, my hometown, the “Fight Song” for the high school football and basketball teams is “When the Jays Go Marching In.” (The Cambridge mascot is the blue jay.)

Back to our assisted living residents that I’m remembering today. Helen had been my first grade teacher, and had always been an enthusiastic fan of our school sports teams. (Her husband had been the high school principal and the football coach.)

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It was a special privilege to care for my first grade teacher in her last months.

The most fun I ever had playing the organ for a funeral was for Helen’s. For the postlude I played the majestic descending opening line of “For All the Saints” and then played its mirror image in the ascending opening line of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I kept weaving these two tunes together as the people processed out of the church. It was the most fun juxtaposition of very different melodies on the same subject I’ve ever played around with.

I don’t know if Helen thought I was playing a joke on her by making up that postlude, or not, but I’m pretty sure she was smiling along with me and her friends and relatives as they processed out of the church.

Thanks to Doris and Helen and many of our other residents, there’s no doubt in my mind that ghosts and saints still have a sense of humor.

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Our “All Saints Wall” where pictures are mounted of all the people we have cared for in our home.

Gratitude and Surprises

Gratitude words“Gratitude” has been an interesting word to think about for a whole year. Last December when I chose “Gratitude” to be my special word to ponder for 2015 (instead of making any New Year’s Resolutions), I had no idea how much my perspective on everyday life would be altered by thinking about being grateful every single day.

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The first entry in my Gratitude Jar

As you may recall from my blog posts early in the year, I put a “Gratitude Jar” on my desk with the intention of writing down things I was grateful for every day, and stuffing the jar with these notes. I envisioned a jar overflowing with notes by the end of the year.

I just emptied the jar and I had a pretty small handful of notes. After the first week of looking at the jar, I decided I needed to create a little form on the note paper to make it easier to quickly jot down what I was grateful for. When that didn’t trigger me to write things down on a daily basis, I decided I needed to move the jar from my desk to my easy chair where I read my devotional materials. Obviously that didn’t help either. I guess having a “Gratitude Jar” didn’t easily fit into my routine. It seemed like a good idea, but it really didn’t help me.

However, what has worked well for me all year is to think about whatever I’m grateful for every night when I go to bed. This has become a habit that is the best new thing for me in 2015. I don’t limit myself to being grateful only at bedtime – more and more often these thoughts come into my mind during the day, too.

Towards the end of November, around Thanksgiving, several of the daily readings in Sarah Young’s JESUS CALLING book are about being thankful. On November 25, she paraphrases Jesus as saying:

Thank Me frequently as you journey through today. This practice makes it possible to pray without ceasing, as the apostle Paul taught. …

When your mind is occupied with thanking Me, you have no time for worrying or complaining. If you practice thankfulness consistently, negative thought patterns will gradually grow weaker and weaker. Draw near to Me with a grateful heart, and My Presence will fill you with Joy and Peace.

Yesterday in church Pastor Jeff described us as being big winners in the cosmic lottery. He encouraged us to open our eyes and be grateful for all the blessings we have received. To emphasize the point he sang the old camp song, “Rise and Shine and Give God the Glory.” That’s kind of what having “Gratitude” as my special word for the day has been helping me do throughout 2015 – to open my eyes to recognize and be thankful for all kinds of blessings in my life every day.

Marian at organ - tall picYesterday was a day of surprises for me – surprises to be grateful for. I went to church alone because Mim was away at a timeshare in Wisconsin Dells for a few days. Before the service started I was sitting at the organ getting my music set up. I looked back at the entrance to the sanctuary, and there came Mim. She had woken up early and decided to drive from the Dells to Madison for the service. Seeing her walk through the entrance was a nice surprise for me.

After church we decided to go out for brunch before Mim drove back to the Dells and I drove home. We were headed toward a Perkins Restaurant, but when we drove by a Hy-Vee Food Store I said, “Don’t they serve breakfast?” Mim said, “I think they do.” So I turned into the Hy-Vee parking lot.

The host was about to seat us in a booth when we saw Kay and Lynn, two women from church, sitting in the next booth, and they invited us to join them. They had just placed their order, so it was good timing.

We sat down and the waitress came right back. She looked at me and said, “I know you.” She was a little familiar to me, but I couldn’t place her. Then she said something about Chaplain Julia, and I remembered. She had been an inmate at the county jail, and we had gotten to know each other from my playing the piano for the women’s worship service in the jail chapel. She told me that she has been out of jail for two full years now, with no relapses. She has stayed sober and she has a job working at Hy-Vee. It was great to see her again, and to hear that she’s doing well. That was another great surprise of the day for me.

One of the things we always do in jail worship services is pray for each other. We sit in a circle, and we go around the circle, praying out loud for the person sitting on our right. I’m sure this waitress and I have prayed for each other many times. Seeing each other today was a totally unexpected reunion! I’m so thankful that Mim and I spontaneously decided to try out Hy-Vee for brunch as we “just happened” to drive by.

Gratitude Jar 11-30-15When I got home and started to write this blog, I pulled the handful of notes out of my “Gratitude Jar” and re-read them. The note dated March 31, 2015 said, “My heart is full of gratitude for people who pray with me and for me! Especially inmates!” I smiled when I read that. Life is full of blessings and surprises.

Yes. “Gratitude” was a good word to focus on this year. And, Sarah Young was right when she paraphrased Jesus saying, “Draw near to Me with a grateful heart, and My Presence will fill you with Joy and Peace.”

Gratitude bird

An Odd Gift

Some forty years ago, I received a really odd gift from my parents. I had recently graduated from college and was living in a small town in Connecticut. I had become a high school English teacher. My parents gave me, as a gift, their used manure spreader. It wasn’t a particularly practical gift for me. Since I was in the process of furnishing my first apartment, lots of other gifts would have been much more practical.

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This is kind of what my manure spreader looked like. It was definitely the oddest gift I ever received.

I can still picture Mom and Dad grinning at me when they told me about their gift. Dad had just retired from farming (mostly). He had sold the cows, and they no longer had chickens. Mom had already retired from her secretarial job in Madison, and they planned to spend a couple winter months down south each year as long as they could travel.

As a retired farmer, Dad no longer had a need for his manure spreader, nor most of his other farming equipment. However, my sister Nancy’s school-age kids were becoming more and more interested in farming after having moved to a 7-acre farmette a few miles from Cambridge. Dad gave them his old red “H” tractor to get them started with farming.

The old

The old “H” tractor

Dad gave his smaller and newer Ford tractor to my brother Danny with the understanding that he could still use it when he needed it. Danny was starting up a landscaping business and could make good use of the Ford.

Working up the soil for his last garden

Dad driving his little Ford tractor – working up the soil for his last garden – 1991

My parents felt they couldn’t just give the tractors to Nancy and Danny and not give me anything, so they decided I should get the manure spreader. Fortunately, Nancy’s kids had recently bought a small herd of goats to inhabit their barn. They quickly learned they needed a manure spreader, so I was able to sell it to them for a couple hundred dollars – which enabled me to buy more furnishings for my apartment in Connecticut. The gift proved to be practical after all.

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Manure spreader and tractor working together again.

What brought this gift to mind again was a trip that Mim and I took to Minnesota last weekend. It was Mim’s 50th class reunion from Kenyon High School. For about five hours on Friday we drove through western Wisconsin and southern Minnesota farmland to get to Kenyon. We saw lots of fields of golden ripe corn and soybeans ready to be harvested, many fields in the process of being harvested, and a few fields that were already bare. As we drove by some of the bare fields, Mim asked, “What’s that awful smell?” I agreed the smell was very strong and unpleasant. Then I saw a truck and some tubing in one of those fields and I figured it out. They were spreading aged, liquefied, and concentrated manure from the large dairy operations on the fields to begin to fertilize the ground for next year’s crops.

Mim and I talked about how it used to smell back in the 1950s and 1960s when farmers spread manure on their harvested fields. The odor wasn’t pleasant but it wasn’t nearly as strong as what we smelled on Friday. But what we smelled, and figured out, brought back very pleasant memories of the most unusual gift of my lifetime – a used manure spreader. Mim said I had never told her that story before. Even though we’ve lived together almost 43 years, I guess we still don’t know quite everything about each other.

Spending many hours in the car last weekend gave me lots of time to think. One of the things I thought about after telling Mim this story is GIFTS – gifts I have received, gifts I have given, and gifts I know about that other people have given or received.

Heifer CatalogThe children in the Sunday school of the Presbyterian Church in Cambridge where I play the organ a couple Sundays a month, regularly raise money and also invite the congregation to join them in making donations, and then they go shopping in the Heifer International catalog and decide which gifts to buy for families that need just those gifts – chickens, ducks, rabbits, honeybees, goats, or even a heifer.

Similarly, the Lutheran Church (ELCA) on the national level has created a program called “Good Gifts” where you can donate money and choose farm animals to give to a family in need. Last year, instead of giving Christmas presents to the people who work for us in our assisted living business, we donated money to the “Good Gifts” program in their name, so that a needy family somewhere in the world could receive a cow to help them live a better life. I know one year my brother’s grandchildren “gave him” several different farm animals for Christmas through the “Good Gifts” program. He was happier with those gifts than anything else he was given for Christmas that year.

After spending quite a bit of time last weekend thinking about odd gifts, practical gifts, generous gifts, and the whole concept of giving gifts, I encourage anyone to do the same thing – to think about your lifetime of giving and receiving gifts. I really enjoyed remembering the gift of the manure spreader, and lots of other good gift stories of my lifetime. It reminded me of James 1:17, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above …” [New Revised Standard Version]

I guess thinking about gifts ties in nicely with my word for 2015 – gratitude. I’m grateful to God for the many gifts I have received in my lifetime – even the manure spreader, and especially the gift of the foul smell this weekend that brought back these wonderful memories. I’m also grateful to God for the opportunities I’ve had to give gifts and be able to share joy (my special word for 2014) through gift-giving.

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These children received the gift of a goat through Heifer International. Through these gifts they also received the gift of milk, and the gift of hope for a brighter future.

Playtime… Big Time!

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Floey beside my desk, helping me with my blog post.

I was sitting at my desk and Floey was lying on the floor in her usual spot, between me and the patio door. “Well, Floey. It’s been a whole week now. What should we tell our blog readers about your play date with your litter mates last Tuesday evening?”

Frannie with her moms Bonnie and Heidi

Frannie with her moms Bonnie and Heidi

“Wow! Mom, I had the time of my life! You know that. We were the first ones at the dog park, and oh what fun it was to run around inside the fenced area all by myself! I wished you had remembered to bring a tennis ball for me to chase, but at least we found some rings, and they worked fine, even if they didn’t bounce.”

“But we didn’t have to wait alone more than about five minutes before your sister Frannie came with her two moms – Bonnie and Heidi,” I responded.

“Oh, yeah. I couldn’t believe it when I saw Frannie again. She looks a lot like me, except she’s somewhat smaller, isn’t she, Mom, and she has short hair. As soon as we sniffed each other we started to race, just like we did on the Indian Reservation when we were little pups. She’s the only dog I know who’s almost as fast as me.”

I laughed at that. “I took a picture that shows Frannie running ahead of you, Floey. Don’t you think that may mean she is actually faster than you?”

“Not really, Mom. We just took turns being in the lead. Oh, it was so much fun to run so fast!”

“The two of you chased each other constantly for about ten minutes until your brother Otis arrived with his parents – Nicole and Jordan.”

Frannie and Floey racing

Frannie and Floey racing

“Otis has really grown! He’s big. I think he’s almost as big as my cousin Lucy. But he can really run, too. Once Frannie and I went through the sniffing routine with Otis, the three of us chased each other for about an hour. The only times we stopped were when another dog and their human came to the gate to join us. We politely greeted them and invited them to play with us, but they stayed pretty close to their people instead. I think they were amazed at our speed. We really are a fast family!”

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The girls (Frannie & Floey) against the boy (Otis)

“You’re also a very loving family. I watched you, your brother, and your sister tackle each other sometimes, too, and play fight with each other. All three of you are just as gentle as you are fast.”

“Oh, it was so much fun to be together again. Can we do it again, Mom?”

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Otis, Frannie, and Floey lining up for the Pass-The-Ring game

“I think we’ll be able to work it out for all of us to get together every few months. While you dogs were playing, we people talked, and agreed that everyone was having so much fun we’ll have to continue to do this. We also talked about how similar you three are in so many of your mannerisms.”

“Like what, Mom?”

“You all cross your front legs when you sit. You all have the same eyes – you gaze at us with that soft, intent look. And you all hate loud noises like lawn mowers and vacuum cleaners, but you don’t mind thunder. And, you also only eat when you’re hungry. You never over eat.”

“But most of all, Mom, we all run like the wind. We are fast! And running fast is so invigorating!”

“I think you finally had a chance to run enough to get tired out. By the end of the evening, all three of you were lying around, just being content to be together.”

Three very happy dogs resting

Three very happy dogs resting

“Yeah. And then Mim proved again that she’s the primary cook of the family. She knew we needed a little nourishment after all our running. She had remembered to bring along some treats for all of us. Frannie and Otis were pretty impressed at what nice moms I have.”

Treat Time

Treat Time

“Frannie and Otis have nice parents, too, Floey. I think all three of you were very fortunate in having the right people adopt you.”

“Yeah, we were. But I wonder about my other three siblings who didn’t show up at our reunion last week.”

“Well, we know that two of them, Rosie and Charlie, tried to come but their humans had last minute things come up that kept them from joining us on Tuesday. Their moms emailed all of us to apologize and say they hope we all try to get together again. By the way, Rosie’s mom just emailed me to tell me that her brother’s family lives just a block away from us in Cambridge, and that the next time she goes to visit her brother’s family, she’ll bring Rosie along and walk over to our place so you two can play together.”

“Really, Mom! Wow! I can hardly wait to see Rosie again! When do you think they’ll come?”

“I don’t know, Floey. But I hope it’s before the snow flies. Regardless of when it is, at least you know you will see her again. Unfortunately, I think we’ve lost contact with your last sibling. They have never responded to any of our emails. We don’t know if they received them, or not.”

“You know, Mom, I’ve thought a lot about all my litter mates over the past week – since we got together last Tuesday. As I was thinking about them, I felt bad that three of them didn’t come to our reunion. But then on Sunday, I read over your shoulder when you were doing your early morning devotional reading. I’m glad you’ve picked up the JESUS CALLING book again. I like that book. In Sunday’s reading, Jesus said:

Try to see things more and more from My perspective. Let the Light of My Presence so fully fill your mind that you view the world through Me. When little things don’t go as you had hoped, look to Me lightheartedly and say, “Oh, well.” This simple discipline can protect you from being burdened with an accumulation of petty cares and frustrations.   [JESUS CALLING by Sarah Young, Thomas Nelson, 2004, p. 275]

“Even though I had a wonderful time playing with Frannie and Otis, I was feeling a little disappointed that I didn’t see the rest of my litter mates. I had expected to see and play with all five of them. But maybe it was best this way. The three of us sure had a good time. Maybe the others will come next time. I’m certainly not going to worry about it. I’m just thankful that Frannie, Otis, and I got together, and that we’ll do it again. JESUS CALLING helped me put everything in perspective. I’m really thankful I have litter mates and that they live close enough that at least some of us can get together to keep in touch. God is so good to us.”

The next day should have been Sunday. It was a day of rest for all.

The next day was a day of rest for all.

My Cohort in Big Adventures

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Ellen Kogstad – my cohort in big adventures!

In the middle of my 11-day getaway a couple weeks ago, I drove home to Cambridge to have Sunday brunch with Mim and my other cohort in big adventures, Ellen Kogstad. Ellen was in Wisconsin for a wedding, so I jumped at the chance to have a few hours together to catch up on our lives over eggs florentine at a new favorite restaurant in nearby Fort Atkinson.

Mim and I met Ellen 33 years ago, when we lived in Chicago. I was a newly minted MBA, earning a living in the big corporate world high up in the Sears Tower (now Willis Tower). But I was trying to do something more meaningful with my business skills by volunteering on the board of Circle Christian Health Center (CCHC), a medical clinic starting up on the far west side of Chicago, a medically under-served area of the city. At the time, Mim was nursing director of the clinic. One of the three founding physicians of CCHC was Emily Bray who had been my roommate at Wheaton College in the late 1960s.

Ellen had heard about me through my role on the CCHC board, and she wanted to meet me. She had a vision for a new ministry and she was getting her ducks in a row. The problem Ellen wanted to address was the growing number of teen moms who were homeless and were struggling to care for their babies. Ellen had been trying to help them on her own by keeping the trunk of her car filled with diapers and formula. She also hosted drop-in groups of new moms and their babies in her apartment. But she knew she couldn’t do enough alone to seriously address the problems these very young women and their children were facing. To do more she realized she needed to create a non-profit organization broadly focused on addressing all the needs of homeless teen moms and their children. She wanted me to join the board of directors she was trying to form to help create the organization.

New Moms LOGO

That was the first big adventure Ellen and I took on together, along with several other people who were inspired by Ellen’s vision. I served as treasurer on the board for a few years and tried to keep the finances of the struggling new ministry somewhat organized. My mom wanted to help, too. She crocheted lots of baby afghans to help keep the babies warm. (I’ll admit I didn’t pass all the afghans on to New Moms. I kept out enough to be sure her grandchildren would have afghans for their own babies.)

My mom kept crocheting baby afghans until just weeks before she died.

My mom kept crocheting baby afghans until just weeks before she died.

Meanwhile, over the past 30 years, New Moms has grown into an amazing ministry. Last year the organization served over 500 adolescent parents and children – a whole lot more than Ellen could possibly help out of the trunk of her car! (To learn more about this amazing organization, explore their website: http://newmomsinc.org/.)

New Moms Building

The “Transformation Center” – the new home of New Moms, Inc. provides housing to 40 homeless adolescent parents and up to 50 children in single-family apartments all located in one well-designed building on the west side of Chicago.

After getting New Moms off to a good start, Ellen went a different direction. She currently is Adjunct Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at North Park Seminary in Chicago and is a frequent workshop leader. She also has returned to New Moms part time and serves as Director of Spiritual Formation.

Over the years our paths haven’t crossed many times, but in late 2008 we decided to become cohorts again and do another big adventure together. Mim and I had moved to our condo in mid-2007 with the intention of selling our farmhouse. After a year and a half, the house was still sitting empty, and I knew that couldn’t be God’s plan for this beautiful resource – to be unused. Mim and I sent out our annual Christmas letter and solicited ideas about what to do with our farmhouse throughout the economic recession when houses weren’t selling. Ellen called us right away and we scheduled a time for a long telephone conversation on the last day of the year – December 31, 2008.

In that conversation, Ellen shared her vision for our farmhouse – a spiritual retreat center. We talked excitedly for a couple hours, and then scheduled a weekend at the farmhouse to pray and dream and plan together. That was the beginning of Whispering Winds Retreat Haven. I became the primary hands-on person to transform the idea into a real ministry, with prayers and support from Ellen and Mim. For the next four years Whispering Winds Retreat Haven was a bed-and-breakfast-style retreat center that provided hospitality to hundreds of individuals and small groups. Whispering Winds became “A place to be still and be renewed by the Spirit. A place to relax in the peace and quiet of the country.”

Whispering Winds Retreat Haven

Whispering Winds Retreat Haven

At brunch on Sunday Ellen, Mim, and I had a lot of things to talk about, and we had a wonderful time. No plans for another big adventure together – yet…

Since “Gratitude” is my special word for this year, I’ve been thinking about how grateful I am for people, like Ellen, who have come into my life. Of all the millions of people living in Chicago, what are the odds that Ellen and I would ever meet? Pretty slim. Fortunately, there happened to be one critical intersection on our life pathways. Because I was a new MBA serving on the board of a struggling non-profit medical clinic, Ellen heard about me, and she took the initiative to find me and introduce herself. I wonder who told her about me – so I can thank that person. But since I don’t know who that person is – I guess I can thank the one who is ultimately responsible for all grand adventures – God.

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“Family”

Mim and Marian eating lutefisk dinner at St. Olaf College about 40 years ago.

Mim and Marian eating lutefisk dinner
at St. Olaf College about 40 years ago.

About 40 years ago, I went “home” with Mim for the first time. We drove from Chicago to Kenyon, Minnesota, at least a seven-hour drive, the first weekend in December. In Kenyon, we picked up Mim’s mom, Selma, and drove another 15 miles to go to the St. Olaf College Christmas concert. Mim’s mom, who worked in food service at St. Olaf, was able to get us tickets for the concert, a major achievement for a very popular annual concert.  That was the first of many St. Olaf Christmas concerts I went to with Mim and her mom.

That was also the first time I went with Mim to her home church, Gol Lutheran Church in rural Kenyon. It had been Mim’s family church on her mom’s side for four generations, ever since they immigrated from Norway. Also, Mim’s dad had been the pastor at Gol for 20years.

Mim - Selma outside church 125th adjMy first reaction to Mim’s church was – what a beautiful old country church. I was a little frustrated with trying to follow the liturgy, which was much more structured than I was used to, having grown up a Methodist. Mim’s mom was proud to have her daughter and her roommate home for the weekend, so we stood around and talked to a lot of people after the service. That was not my favorite part of the weekend! Making small talk with strangers has never been one of my strengths.

Over the next 20 years, Mim and I went to Kenyon to visit Selma one or two weekends a year, and we always went to church with her. Gradually, I got to know a few of the people in the church and I started to feel a little more at home there.

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Mim and Selma at Gol’s 125th Anniversary

In 1989, Gol celebrated its 125th anniversary in style. Mim and I joined Selma for the whole weekend, and we all enjoyed lots of music, lots of eating, lots of picture taking, and an original play that taught us lots about Gol church history.

Twenty-five years later, last weekend, Gol celebrated its 150th anniversary. Mim really wanted to participate in the celebration. I was considerably less enthusiastic about spending a whole weekend in Kenyon, Minnesota with a couple hundred people I didn’t know.  At best, I might know two or three people. But, I figured this is one of those things you have to do for family. So we spent the weekend in Minnesota.

Much to my surprise, I had a great time all weekend. “Family” really is the key word. As Philip Yancey, one of my favorite authors, has said, “I go to church as an expression of my need for God and for God’s family.” We spent the weekend with one particular branch of God’s family. We were with about 250 of God’s family members – almost all of Norwegian descent. I think everyone had great appreciation for Norwegian-American church history, food, and music. Of the 250 people, I recognized about a dozen of them from my previous visits to Gol. Mim introduced me to about another dozen of her old friends. All 24 of them were people I enjoyed visiting with. I’ll have to admit, it was kind of fun to get together with this big extended church family.

The Rev. John Hagen, a former pastor of Gol, preached briefly from the steps of the farmhouse where the congregation met before the church was built.

The Rev. John Hagen, a former pastor of Gol, preached briefly from the steps of the farmhouse where the congregation had met before the church was built.

Finally I’m beginning to understand that my extended church family is growing bigger and bigger. It started with the church of my childhood  – Willerup United Methodist Church in Cambridge. Even though Willerup is no longer the church where I regularly go to worship God, I still feel connected to some of God’s family members who worship there. I also feel connected to the building itself where I spent literally thousands of hours (on average 4 hours per week, 52 weeks a year, 18 years plus 4 summers during my college years) learning about God. I also feel a connection to the cemetery next door where my parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and other relatives are buried.

My growing extended church family also includes members of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Chicago, Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison, as well as other churches I have been a part of over the years. And since Gol is a big part of Mim’s church family, it has also become part of my church family.

The more I think about my extended church family, the more I realize how big it really is. Beyond all the church family members I know personally, God’s family is described in the Bible this way:

Now you are no longer strangers to God and foreigners to heaven, but you are members of God’s very own family, citizens of God’s country, and you belong in God’s household with every other Christian. What a foundation you stand on now: the apostles and the prophets; and the cornerstone of the building is Jesus Christ himself! We who believe are carefully joined together with Christ as parts of a beautiful, constantly growing temple for God. And you also are joined with him and with each other by the Spirit, and are part of this dwelling place of God. [Ephesians 2:19-22 The Living Bible]

Spending last weekend with all the people celebrating the 150-year history of one small branch of God’s family in Minnesota reminded me of the Bill Gaither song, “The Family of God.” Here’s the chorus:

I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God
I’ve been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His blood!
Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod;
For I’m part of the family, the family of God.

Gol Group Picture 125th

“Part of the family, the family of God”

Remembering the Saints – the most significant people in my life who are now dead

Lots of my relatives - the year before I was born. My brother Danny is sitting on the grass on the right side of the picture - in front of Mom and beside Grandpa.

Lots of my relatives – the year before I was born. My brother Danny is sitting on the grass on the right side of the picture – in front of Mom and beside Grandpa.

 

Thursday of this week is Halloween, the eve of All Saints Day. On Sunday, some churches will read a list of members of the congregation who have died over the past year. This is a time of year to remember the people who are no longer with us who have been significant to us in our own lives, and to thank God for these people.

As I was curled up under the covers in bed this morning thinking about what to blog about today, making a list of these people came to mind – not just the people who died this year, but all the people who have died who have been significant to me. I started making a mental list of them, and I realized I’d better get up and write them down – the names were coming to me too fast to remember and organize in my mind. So I got up and quickly jotted down the names as they came to me, and I realized I’d better limit the number of people to include in the blog. So I crossed off a few names and settled on 13 people for this blog (a good number for Halloween), plus one bonus. I’m still going to thank God for all the rest, too, even if I don’t tell you about them today.

Here’s the list – 13 people who have been very significant to me in my life, and who have moved on to their next life:

  1. Mom and Dad at their 50th Anniversary celebration.

    Mom and Dad at their 50th Anniversary celebration.

    Mom. I think the most significant thing I learned from my mom is about love. I always knew she loved me, as well as my siblings, her grandchildren, her Sunday School kids, the UW students who stopped in to see her at the Presbyterian Student Center in Madison where she worked, the starving kids in Africa that she read about in her mail and sent checks to every month, and everyone else who touched her life – she loved us all.

  2. Dad. My dad taught me about work. As a farmer, he knew that he was responsible for getting all the work done. If the hay baler broke, that didn’t mean he didn’t have to bale hay that day. It meant he had to figure out how to fix the baler as quickly as possible so that he could still bale the hay and get everything else done he had planned for that day. His attitude taught me to be a problem solver as well as a hard worker.
  3. Nancy. My big sister (11 years older than me) taught me to set aside some time every day to read the Bible and pray. When she went away to college, she ordered me a subscription to a children’s daily devotional booklet to help me keep on track.
  4. Helen Knoblauch. My first grade teacher was a very kind and loving person. Everyone in her class knew that she loved them. One way she showed that love was by being the kindest of all to the kid that was hurting the most that day. I remember one day when I was that kid. A leaf had blown into my eye and scratched it when I was playing on the playground after lunch. My eye really hurt and I was crying. Mrs. Knoblauch had me sit on her lap while she read a storybook to the class. That made me feel a whole lot better – so much better that I still remember it almost 60 years later.
  5. Marion Gilberts. She was our church organist and my piano and organ teacher. In addition to using the typical lesson books, she had me learn every hymn in both of the hymnals we used in church. She also gave me the experience of playing in church by having me play an offertory at least once a year. She didn’t just teach me the piano and organ, she taught me to be a church organist.
  6. Aunt Edith at the piano. (In the 1930s she married the happy little boy pictured above, my Uncle Helmer.

    Aunt Edith at the piano.

    Aunt Edith. She was the most creative pianist I ever watched tickle the ivories. She was a self-taught gospel pianist who could play any hymn she had ever heard, in any key you wanted to hear it. The only printed music I saw her use was a hymnal or songbook, yet she improvised all over the keyboard. She is still my inspiration to learn to play more by ear and to improvise.

  7. Rev. Royal Bailie. He was the pastor that confirmed me in the Methodist Church. As a confirmation gift he gave me a different kind of Bible, the J. B. Phillips paraphrase of the New Testament. That’s the only Bible that I completely wore out the binding by opening it too much.
  8. Auntie Emma. Also known as Emma Prescott. She was my grandma’s sister. I always thought of her as the most generous Christian I knew. She and her husband, Uncle Don, supported many children through World Vision and other missions. She once made a comment that I’ll never forget. She said she was glad she didn’t have as much money as one of her daughters had. Stewardship of that amount of money was more than she could imagine handling wisely. That comment has always made me think seriously about my stewardship of all the resources God has given me.
  9. Rev. Bill Leslie. He was the pastor of one of the churches I attended in Chicago for several years. I didn’t know him very well personally, but I learned a lot from his preaching. He prompted me to think for the first time about what my responsibility as a Christian is for dealing with the problems in the city, particularly the problems that resulted from the injustices that are inherent in our culture.
  10. Mark Hjermstad. Mark was a loving pragmatist, and that’s not an oxymoron. He taught me to relate to the world the best way you can. He was a closeted gay pre-kindergarten teacher for special needs children in the Chicago Public School System. We met Mark in church, shortly before his partner died of AIDS. He became one of our best friends. He always encouraged his gay friends to be as open as they could about who they were – although he couldn’t be out as a gay teacher and still keep his own job.
  11. Mary Borgerud. Mrs. Borgerud was my fifth- and sixth-grade teacher. She taught me history, geography, kindness, and generosity. She also taught me to have fun with writing. I still remember one of the essays I wrote in her class – “I’m a Little Mouse with Great Big Eyes.” We also laughed a lot together, especially when she came to live with Mim and me at Country Comforts Assisted Living for the last year or so of her life.
  12. Eileen Scott. Thanks to Eileen I’m a church organist again. Between 1975 and 1999 I didn’t play the piano or organ for anyone except myself at home. In 1999, Eileen learned that the Methodist pastor in town discouraged me from playing for a Christmas program in his church because of my sexual orientation. As a very strong take-charge person, Eileen approached me about becoming an organist in her church, the Presbyterian Church in town. Being a church organist has been a significant part of my life ever since.
  13. Selma Jacobson. I guess now I can say Selma is my mother-in-law. Shortly after Mim and I moved to Wisconsin, Mim’s mom had a stroke which left her paralyzed on her left side. After several months of rehab, she came to live with Mim and me. Despite all her physical losses, she always maintained a positive attitude and a very pleasant disposition. She lived with us for the last five years of her life, and was a daily inspiration to me to accept life for what it is, and to always trust in God’s love and kindness.

And now, for one bonus saint – Megabyte. She was the first dog that Mim and I got together, and she enriched our lives for 15 years. The one thing that dogs know better than anything, and better than anyone else knows, is how to love.

Many names are missing from this list – Grandma, Uncle Helmer, Gary, Clark, Steve, Nicki, Hiram, Joe, Donnie, and more. If I kept naming them I wouldn’t get this blog posted today. There’s also an equally long list of people who are still alive that I’m thankful for. God has truly blessed me with loads of wonderful people – and dogs – in my life. I am so thankful. I guess it’s appropriate that Halloween, the eve of All Saints Day, starts off the holiday season. Then comes Thanksgiving, and then Christmas. All three holidays are times to be especially thankful for all the good gifts God has given us.

Megabyte and Selma welcoming a new kitten into our home.

Megabyte and Selma welcoming a new kitten into our home.