Tag Archive | change in my life

Back to School – Adventures of a Former English Teacher

That's me as a brand new English teacher in the early 1970s.

That’s me as a brand new English teacher in the early 1970s.

Forty-five years ago I graduated from college as a freshly minted English teacher-to-be.  All I had to do to start teaching was find a job. Back in 1970, teaching jobs were not plentiful, but there were some to be found if you looked hard enough. I decided to look in New England. I guess I wanted a little adventure. Moving back to Wisconsin after graduating from Wheaton College near Chicago wasn’t exciting enough. New England was rich in early American history and literature. That’s where I wanted to go.

I wrote to the state department of education of each of the six New England states, and requested that they send me a list of all the schools in their state that had openings for English teachers. Connecticut was the only state that responded to my letter. They sent me a list of about a dozen schools with openings, along with contact information for the superintendent of each school. I sent letters of application to each of those schools, and arranged for a week of interviews. In my six interviews, I was considered for positions in a couple wealthy suburbs of New York City, a farming community in northwestern Connecticut, an inner-city junior high school in Bridgeport, and a mill town in eastern Connecticut. I was immediately offered a job in the inner-city school, but I turned it down. I was too scared of the environment. A couple weeks after the interviews, I was offered and accepted the position at Plainfield High School – the mill town. They had the dubious distinction of being on the bottom of the list for Connecticut in terms of how much money the school district invested per student. But I was happy. I had a teaching job, and I would have an annual salary of just over $7,000. I felt rich.

Connecticut Tourist Map

Plainfield is on the far eastern border, just north of Voluntown. The closest big city is Providence, Rhode Island, about 30 miles east.

I had a couple weeks to plan my move to Connecticut. My brother Danny and his wife Sandy who was about three months pregnant, and their 3-year-old daughter Cindy agreed to help move me. It would be a little vacation for them, and helpful for me. My dad convinced me to buy a canvas car-top carrier for my little blue Corvair. Mom and Dad let Danny drive their big Pontiac for the trip. This car had a huge trunk. On the morning we left, we packed both cars as full as they could be packed. I brought along most of my belongings: clothes, books, typewriter, clock radio, record player and record albums, a few of my mom’s dishes, and an ice chest filled with chickens that my mom had frozen for me in half-chicken size packages when my dad had butchered that year’s spring chickens. Every empty space in the trunk was filled with fresh vegetables from the garden – lots of melons, tomatoes, and beans. (Not all of the vegetables traveled real well in a hot car for over a thousand miles.)

A big Pontiac - similar to my parents' car. Lots of room in that trunk!

A big Pontiac – similar to my parents’ car. Lots of room in that trunk!

Cindy w ice cream cone - age 3

Cindy – the little traveler

I can’t remember how far we drove the first day, but we managed to keep the cars together despite the traffic. We took turns being the lead car, and it was the responsibility of the lead driver to always keep the other car in the rear-view mirror.

By about noon on the second day we were approaching Hartford. We stopped at a rest stop for Cindy to get back in the car with her parents. She had been riding with me since breakfast, and I think she was getting tired of talking to me.

We decided to drive straight through Hartford to Plainfield with me leading the way – what should have been the last hour or so of our trip. Unfortunately, reading all the expressway signs, figuring out which lane to be in with heavy fast-moving traffic on all sides, and keeping an eye on the rear-view mirror, was too big a challenge for me, and our cars got separated.

Hartford highwaysOnce I got out of the city, I drove very slowly the rest of the way to Norwich, the last city before Plainfield, hoping that Danny, Sandy, and Cindy would catch up to me. They never did. By late afternoon, I went to the police station in Norwich, explained my predicament, and they agreed to notify the state police to be on the lookout for my parents’ light green Pontiac with a Wisconsin license plate. I could even give them the license plate number – the one precaution I had taken before we left Wisconsin was to write down their number, just in case we were ever separated. I drove back and forth between Norwich and Plainfield (about 20 miles) a couple times looking for the car, but with no success. I finally checked into a motel, hoping and praying that we’d find each other in the morning.

Meanwhile, Danny and Sandy drove back to Hartford and checked into a motel there. Danny’s solution for us to get together again was to call our parents to let them know where they were, assuming that I would do the same thing, and that’s how we would find each other. It never occurred to me to call home. That would just make our parents worry. My solution had been to get help from the police. (Danny and I never did think alike. We still don’t, but we like each other anyway.)

playground swingsThe next morning, I drove to Plainfield to the school district office to get suggestions for where to start looking for an apartment. Danny and Sandy had also driven to Plainfield. They drove around the town looking for a playground. Cindy needed to wear off some of a 3-year-old’s energy. They found some swings at the elementary school, which is where the school district office was located.

Fortunately, our paths finally crossed, about 24 hours after being separated.  We shared our stories with each other. Then Danny’s first priority was for me to find a payphone to call the police and tell them to stop looking for him. And my priority was to call Mom so she could stop worrying about us.

payphoneAfter making those calls, we followed up on the apartment suggestions from the school secretary, rented an apartment that afternoon, and unloaded the cars. The next day we went shopping for furnishings – a bed and dresser, a desk and bookcase, a kitchen table and chairs, a couple pots and pans, a mixing bowl and cookie sheets.

Then Danny, Sandy, and Cindy headed back to Wisconsin, and I organized my meager belongings in my brand new apartment. My neighbors came over to introduce themselves and they invited me home with them for dinner.

A couple days later I became an English teacher at Plainfield High School. I quickly became known as one of those two new English teachers who had moved to Connecticut from “out West” – Wisconsin and California. Louise and I helped each other learn how to be teachers while we also learned how to live “out East.”

I guess times have changed a little in the last 45 years. Today, cell phones would have kept Danny and me from having such an adventure. One more reason to be thankful for our ages.

Maybe that’s why one of my favorite gospel songs is “God Will Take Care of You.”

Be not dismayed whate’er betide, God will take care of you;
Beneath His wings of love abide, God will take care of you.

Chorus:
God will take care of you, Thru ev’ry day, O’er all the way;
He will take care of you, God will take care of you.

Thru days of toil when heart doth fail, God will take care of you;
When dangers fierce your path assail, God will take care of you.
Chorus

All you may need He will provide, God will take care of you;
Nothing you ask will be denied, God will take care of you.
Chorus

No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you;
Lean, weary one, upon His breast, God will take care of you.
Chorus

Words:  Civilla D. Martin
Music:  W. Stillman Martin

God will take care of you

Why Was I Created?

Over the last few years I’ve had the practice of starting the day with reading from two or three devotional books by my favorite inspirational writers. This year I’m reading:

  • The Monastic Way by Joan Chittister (a pamphlet that comes monthly, with the readings of each month based on a common theme),
  • Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith by Henri Nouwen, and
  • Through the Year with Jimmy Carter: 366 Daily Meditations from the 39th President.

I’ve mentioned some of the readings by Chittister and Nouwen in my blog, but I don’t think I’ve mentioned the Jimmy Carter book – until today.

Through the Year with Jimmy CarterI picked up this book at The Frugal Muse used bookstore last December, and I thought it might provide an interesting addition to my morning meditations. The blurb on the back of the book said, “Unique among the multitude of daily devotional books, Through the Year with Jimmy Carter combines the grace and wisdom of a deeply spiritual Bible study with personal stories and prayers for each day of the year, all drawn from the Sunday school lessons former president Jimmy Carter taught – and the life lessons God taught him.”

Last week, one of the readings was especially interesting. The title of the reading was “Called by God.” It started with this Bible verse: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” [Jeremiah 1:5] Then Carter cited a nationwide poll that had been published by USA TODAY. The question asked in the poll was, “If you could come face-to-face with God what would you ask?” The most popular responses fascinated me:

6%          How long will I live?
7%          Is there intelligent life elsewhere?
16%        Why do bad things happen?
19%        Is there life after death?
34%        Why was I created? What should I do with my life?

Carter commented, “Just as God had told Jeremiah, ‘I knew you in the womb, and even then I had a purpose for you,’ so God knew us in the womb and has a unique purpose for us.”

I told Mim about this poll, and she mentioned the popularity of the book The Purpose-Driven Life a few years ago. She wasn’t surprised that the most popular question people would ask God is what their purpose in life is. People want to know if there is a purpose for their life.

I remember thinking about that question a lot when I was in high school and college – what was I supposed to become? Or, what was God’s purpose for my life? Or, does God really have a plan for my life – or can I figure out for myself what I want to do with my life?

Marian TDS Caricature

Caricature of me created by a roving artist at a corporate Christmas party during my TDS years.

My ideas on that question have changed over the years. One of the most significant conversations I had with myself about the purpose of my life happened when I was working as a manager of financial systems at Telephone and Data Systems (TDS), a large privately-held telecommunications corporation. I wasn’t particularly happy in that job, mainly because I was routinely working 60 or more hours per week for the sole purpose of making more money for the Carlsons – the very wealthy family who owned the corporation. I didn’t see that any social good was being accomplished by all my efforts. I was convinced I was wasting my life by doing that job. When I reached that conclusion, I started to seriously look for another job. After having two interviews with the State about a position that sounded like a good fit for my skills and interests, I was pretty sure I would be offered the job, so I quit TDS. I didn’t want to waste any more of my life doing meaningless work for the Carlsons.

Oops… I didn’t get offered that state job. I guess I failed to convince the State that I was as good a fit as I thought I was… Which leads me to what Joan Chittister was prompting me to think about last week. The theme for the month of March is failure. The quote she is focusing upon is by St. Teresa of Avila, “To reach something good, it is useful to have gone astray.”

Chittister’s comment on Monday of last week was, “Failure is what teaches us that we belong somewhere else. Only by embracing this new possibility can we become the fullness of ourselves.”

When I failed to get the state job, I decided to spend a few months working full-time with Mim to turn our farmhouse into a bed and breakfast, and to do a little small business consulting on the side. That was 17 years ago. Our business, Korth-Jacobson LLC, has evolved over the years as Mim and I have recognized needs and opportunities to live the lives we think God wants us to live – and that we want to live. My unwillingness to stay in a job that seemed like a waste of time, coupled with my failure to get another job, gave us the opportunity to explore being self-employed – to explore doing the things in life we felt called to do.

Welcoming guests to our bed and breakfast

Welcoming guests to our bed and breakfast in the late 1990s

Thanks to Jimmy Carter and Joan Chittister, that’s what I’ve been thinking about over the past week – the purpose of my life and the importance of the failures in my life – so far. And there’s still more to go… I’m sure I’ll experience more failures before I die, and I expect I’ll gain more insights into what God wants me to do with the life I have left on earth. (I hope there’s some time left for retirement!)

Awful August – except for …

Broken Glass grass and skyDoes it ever seem like your world is shattered? That life is suddenly broken? For some of my family members, that’s what August has been like this year.

I guess I would describe August 2014 along two tracks of events. One track is affecting my broadly extended family. The other track is affecting Mim and me mostly, and a few other unrelated people. I feel like I’ve been running as fast as I can along the “Mim and me track,” but the “broader family track” keeps pulling me over to slow down and cry with my family and wonder what’s happening in our world.

Sandy and Conrad looking out their kitchen window while hospice volunteers did spring yard work.

Sandy and Conrad looking out their kitchen window while hospice volunteers did spring yard work.

Perhaps I should begin by explaining who my “broadly extended family” includes. My brother, Danny, married his high school sweetheart, Sandy, shortly after they graduated from high school in the mid-1960s. They had two kids, Cindy and Kevin. As Danny and Sandy matured, they grew in different directions and divorced when their kids were still young. Danny and Sandy still stayed in contact over the years, primarily because of their kids. They both remarried twice, bringing more in-laws and nieces (no more nephews) into the family. We’re a big, complicated (but probably fairly typical) extended family. I think of Sandy as my first sister-in-law. She is still part of my “broadly extended family.” I knew Sandy in high school, even before she dated my brother. I’ve always liked and admired Sandy. She made me laugh a lot with her quick wit.

Sandy and Conrad holding handsSandy has been in declining health for the last few years, even though she’s only 67. Several months ago Kevin took the picture of his mother and her husband, Conrad, holding hands when she was in the hospital. Kevin had gone to visit her, and he found them both asleep but still comforting each other.

A few days later she was released from the hospital, to go home on hospice. Conrad would take care of her at home.

On Monday evening, August 4, Conrad went to Subway to get sandwiches. He was killed in a car accident on his way home, on the street right in front of their home.

Sandy was devastated. She lost all will to live. She died 16 days later. Her funeral is today.

Kevin has three daughters and his sister Cindy has two sons – all who lost two very loving grandparents in August. It’s been a very sad month. We’re reminded of the observation in Ecclesiastes 3, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” But it’s really hard when two deaths – of people you love deeply – come so close together. Too much time to weep. Too much time to mourn. And no time to laugh and dance.

Farmhouse exterior - summerOn the “Mim and me track,” our farmhouse is moving quickly into its next phase. As you may recall, six years ago we turned the farmhouse into a bed-and-breakfast style spiritual retreat center. We named it Whispering Winds Retreat Haven. A year and a half ago we put Whispering Winds on hiatus and agreed to rent the farmhouse to a family who needed a place to live for a couple years. On August 3rd the renters moved out, five months earlier than planned. We were okay with that because the renters were able to buy a home of their own sooner than they expected, and we really wanted to spruce up the place and try to sell it.

A few days before the renters moved out, I received an email from someone (Jeff) who wanted to talk with me about collaborating on reopening the farmhouse as a retreat center. Eventually Jeff would like to buy the place, but for now he wanted to see if we could work together to reopen the farmhouse as a retreat center. We scheduled a time to get together at the farm and talk. That meant Mim and I had just over a week to “spruce” up the place before our meeting.

We quickly realized that we had a bigger clean-up job on our hands than we had anticipated, and we would need help. Amazingly, within that one week in early August, we had two women from a cleaning service deep-clean the five bathrooms and the kitchen; five men from a landscaping service spend a full day weeding, pruning, and removing three truckloads of brush from the yard; another handyman mow our 3-acre lawn and spread 8 more yards of mulch (he had spread 10 yards earlier in the season); our HVAC service man clean the furnace and repair the central AC; and a friend help us carry a dozen heavy boxes of dishes, glasses, flatware, and other furnishings up from the basement. With all that help, the house was presentable for our meeting with Jeff to explore the possibility of collaborating on a retreat center.

The next week, we had a friend paint walls and ceilings as needed throughout the house, reinstall parts of the kitchen cabinets, and replace the garbage disposal and faucet in the kitchen sink. Mim and I worked, too – mostly moving around furnishings to make the house look like a B&B retreat center again. It was an amazing transformation! Oh, and we also bought a new range to replace the one that had been accidentally damaged beyond repair by trying to clean the self-cleaning ovens with a spray-on oven cleaner. (Caution: Don’t ever do that!)

We were amazed. With the help of half a dozen friends and half a dozen strangers, our farmhouse was completely transformed within a couple weeks – all within the same timeframe between Conrad’s death and Sandy’s death.

Stone Meadows Condominiums

Stone Meadows Condominiums

The day after our meeting with the retreat guy (which had been a great time for sharing ideas, but probably not the beginning of a retreat collaboration), our realtor showed the house to a prospective buyer. Thanks to all the help we had received over the past week the house and 3-acre lawn were completely ready for showing!

But then everything changed. Our friend Sharon, who was renting one of the condos in the duplex next door to ours, was told that her condo had been sold and she would need to move out within a month or so. Sharon is the friend who had welcomed “Mary,” one of the 93-year-olds we care for, as a short-term roommate because we didn’t have room for her in our condo.

So… that’s what the next phase is going to be in the life of our farmhouse… Sharon and “Mary” are going to move into the farmhouse next month. Sharon may also invite her 90-year-old parents to join her for the winter months. We’ve talked with our real estate agent and have decided to take the farmhouse off the market. It seems pretty obvious that this is where Sharon and “Mary” need to be for the next several months.

That’s August 2014. Track one is filled with sadness. Track two is filled with fast-paced problem-solving and lots of hard work. Between the two tracks, we’ve been able to deeply sense God’s presence, God’s comforting love. I guess that’s why I played “God Will Take Care of You” for the prelude last Sunday in church. The awful August of 2014 demonstrates this truth. We’re not in this world alone. God is with us, as are the friends and family God has sent to comfort us, as well as the kind strangers God has ready to help us with our various challenges.

Be not dismayed whate’er betide, God will take care of you;
Beneath God’s wings of love abide, God will take care of you.

Refrain:
God will take care of you, Thru ev’ry day, O’er all the way;
God will take care of you, God will take care of you.

Thru days of toil when heart grows frail, God will take care of you;
When dangers fierce your path assail, God will take care of you.

All you may need God will provide, God will take care of you;
Nothing you ask will be denied, God will take care of you.

No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you;
Lean, weary one, upon God’s breast, God will take care of you.

[Civilla D. Martin, 1904]

Gods presence butterfly

Imagine you have just been arrested! Now what?

arrestedImagine you have just been arrested – for a crime that you may or may not have committed.

Your life has suddenly been put on hold – for who knows how long. You may have small children at home. Who will care for them? You may have a job. What will happen to that? Think of all the ways your life will be disrupted.

Imagine how helpful it would be to talk to a chaplain, someone who could help you think through and pray about the changes that are suddenly happening to you and your family.

In 1970, forty-four years ago, an organization called Madison Area Lutheran Council (MALC) was formed to address this need, along with several other needs. The idea was for Madison area Lutheran Churches to work together to provide a ministry to inmates of the Dane County Jail, as well as to work collaboratively to address other needs (like coordinating the collection of food and clothing for humanitarian relief organizations in Dane County and in other parts of the world). Over the years, other (non-Lutheran) churches have become involved in this ministry, as well.

chaplains

Chaplains John and Julia

Currently, MALC employs two chaplains who work in the Dane County Jail. The Rev. John Mix is chaplain to a daily average of about 800 men in jail, and the Rev. Julia Weaver is the part-time chaplain to a daily average of about 150 women in jail. This ministry is entirely supported by donations from churches and individuals. (You can check out their website for more information about the organization: http://www.madisonjailministry.org/)

As some of you may know, I’ve been involved with jail ministry for the last three years. As a volunteer, I play the piano for the women’s worship service twice a month in the chapel of the Dane County Jail in Madison. In this role I’ve been privileged to hear some of the stories inmates tell of how being in jail has changed their lives, and of how helpful the chaplains have been to them.

One woman talked about how being in jail, talking with the chaplain, and worshiping God with other women in the jail chapel had taught her humility. When she was first incarcerated she thought she was a better person than the other inmates. She was in jail for a mere white collar crime – income tax evasion. She would never hurt anyone or do drugs or commit any of the violent crimes other inmates had committed. But during her months in jail, she learned that God loves all of us despite the mistakes we make in life. And we all make mistakes, just different mistakes. The chaplain provided the opportunity and the atmosphere in the jail chapel for this time of sharing, learning, and spiritual growth to happen.

Another woman sat in jail for two years, accused of killing her little boy who was three years old. When she was arrested, her brand new baby was taken from her and put in foster care. She never saw her baby again. Eventually the trial and sentencing processes were completed and she was transferred to prison to serve time, a 13-year sentence. (She claims she never hurt her little boy. She says her boyfriend was too rough when he tried to discipline the boy, and she is terribly sorry she was not able to protect her little boy from him.)

During her two years in the Dane County Jail, she came to the women’s worship service whenever she could, usually twice a month. She was one of the kindest, gentlest people I’ve ever met. I’m sure the hours she spent in worship services and one-on-one with Chaplain Julia were a tremendous help to her in dealing with her grief.  (I wrote about Maria’s Story in this blog about a year ago.)

yellow pencilIn order for this kind of jail ministry to continue, someone needs to pay for it – salaries for the chaplains, and money for materials like Bibles, paper, and pencils. At every worship service, Chaplain Julia passes around a basket of paper and pencils. Each inmate is invited to write down her prayer requests so that Chaplain Julia can continue to pray for her throughout the week. Chaplain Julia tells the women they can keep their pencils if they need them. Everyone keeps a pencil. Inmates don’t have junk drawers filled with pens and pencils and other odds and ends like most of us have in our homes. A pencil is a valuable gift – a tool that inmates can use to write down their thoughts, or to write letters to loved ones.

JAZZ for the Jail is an annual fundraising concert to raise money to help support this jail ministry – from salaries to pencils. If you are in the Madison area this Sunday evening, I invite you to join us for a wonderful experience.

Chance Allies - 3 heads small

Chance Allies – David, Tisha, Lucas

Chance Allies, a jazz group, will be performing. The group includes a female vocalist (the Rev. Tisha Brown – a UCC pastor), a pianist (Dr. David Allen – a pediatric endocrinologist), and a bass player (Lucas Koehler – the professional musician of the group). Chance Allies was created to do fundraising concerts for churches and other non-profits in the Madison area. Their style of jazz is primarily the smooth jazz from the 1930s and onward – George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and so on – the kind of music I love to sit back and listen to. (You can preview their sound at www.TishaBrown.com)

Love Mosaic

Created by the Backyard Mosaic Women’s Project

In addition to the concert, there will be a silent auction for works of art (mosaics, quilts, and other works) created by inmates and by friends of the jail ministry. There will also be desserts and beverages.

The suggested donation for the Jazz for the Jail fundraising event is $25. The Concert starts at 7:30. Come as early as 6:45 to see the works of art on display for the silent auction. The fundraising event will take place at Messiah Lutheran Church, 5202 Cottage Grove Road in Madison.

If you want to learn more about the jail ministry…
If you want to see (and bid on) some beautiful works of art…
If you want to sit back and enjoy an absolutely delightful concert…
If you want to feast on rich desserts and lively conversation with some friendly people…
Then I invite you to join us for the JAZZ for the Jail fundraiser this Sunday evening at Messiah.

Please feel free to call me (608-212-6197) or email me (mariankorth@gmail.com) if you have any questions. Hope to see you Sunday!

 

Abbey, Mim & Me – Our Special Words for 2014

M-A-M closeup bronze

January is a time every year that I start thinking about how I want this year to be different from previous years. Sometimes I make New Year resolutions. Some years I formulate specific goals. Every year I come up with an immediate to-do list. At a minimum I need to plan how I’m going to get caught up on the bookkeeping for the previous year so I can deliver our records to our accountant to figure our taxes.

To-Do ListI did my January to-do list last week, but I hadn’t thought much about any goals or resolutions for 2014. Then I happened to catch about a minute of an interview with a consultant on TV as I was switching channels. His advice was to pick a single word that would be my focus for the year. He recommended thinking about my needs and wants, praying about it, and then waiting for the word to come to me. It might take a few days or even weeks, but the consultant assured all viewers that just the right word would come for each of us. I thought about it for a few minutes, wondering what word could be my word for the year, but nothing came to me immediately. The next morning the word was in my mind. The word was JOY. That surprised me a little, but then I thought, I’ve been pretty serious in many of my blog posts and much of my ponderings over the past year. Maybe I need to focus more on some of the joyful things in life. Hmmm.

Mim headLater that day I mentioned it to Mim. She said, “We have a book about finding your special word for the year. I can’t remember the name of it, but the author is Debbie Macomber. I’ve already chosen my word for this year. It’s ENOUGH.”

“Enough?” I repeated. “That’s kind of an unusual word to choose. What made you choose that?”

“Oh, there’s a lot to that word. I need to think about what is enough – enough money, enough food, enough work, enough to give to others, enough to keep for myself, enough books to read – I need to know when MORE isn’t better, to recognize when ENOUGH is ENOUGH.”

Then Mim added, “JOY is a good word for you for this year. Did you notice that the quotation on the January page of the wall calendar in your office is about JOY?”

No, I hadn’t noticed. I went to check it out. It was a quotation from Buddha.

Joy comes not through possession or ownership
but through a wise and loving heart.

I think I’m going to learn a lot about JOY this year. By really pondering the word, the concept, of JOY for a whole year, I can’t even imagine some of the new insights I might gain.

Then I said to Mim, “I’m getting kind of excited about becoming more aware of JOY in life. It’s going to be fun to be on the lookout for appearances of JOY throughout the year.”

Abbey with toyShe smiled. During this conversation Abbey had come over to join us. She said, “I’ve been thinking about a word for myself for this year, too.”

“Really, Abbey. What’s your word?” I asked.

“PLAY,” she said. “Even though I’m well into my 80s in human years, I still like to play. I really liked that stuffed pig with a squeaker I got for Christmas. We all need to remember to play, even if we don’t jump quite as high and run quite as fast. By having PLAY as my word, I’m going to remember to focus on finding at least a little time to PLAY every day.”

Mim and I agreed that PLAY was a good word for Abbey for this year.

ENOUGH, JOY, and PLAY. Those are the words for the three of us this year. I’ll keep you posted as the year progresses with what it means to have these words as our focus.

One Perfect Word book coverI couldn’t put my fingers on the Debbie Macomber book, so I went to Amazon.com to find it. The title of the book is One Perfect Word: One Word Can Make All the Difference. As I explored the book online I decided to download a Kindle edition so that I could re-read the book as I’m beginning my own year with the perfect word of JOY.

From the back cover of the book –

Debbie Macomber reveals in inspiring, moving stories that the simplicity of one perfect word can become profound. When Debbie took the time to intentionally focus on a single word – such as prayer, trust, or surrender – for a whole year, this act changed not only herself, but those around her.

“The surprising thing is that when we decide to focus on one word for the year,” Debbie writes, “God takes part in the choosing. That’s why the word is perfect for us. We may not see it at the time, but as we look back we see that it all worked together – our word, our life, our journey.”

ENOUGH, JOY, and PLAY. Let the year begin!

Mim, Marian and Abbey wish you a Happy New Year!

ENOUGH, JOY, and PLAY. Let the year begin!

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.

Grace and a Failing Grade

Grace quote with winter scene

Pastor Jeff told a quick story at the end of the church service last week. An old friend of his, a priest, had died earlier in the week. This story was told at his funeral. The priest had been an English teacher in a Catholic high school. Many years ago, one of his students came to him near the end of the school term and begged him not to give him an F. The student knew he deserved an F, but he didn’t want to have to take the class over again. He pleaded with the priest to give him a D instead. The priest responded with, “I’ll give you an A.” The student replied, “Oh no. I don’t deserve an A.” The priest replied, “You don’t deserve a D either. But if I’m going to give you a gift, I’m going to give you a good gift.” Pastor Jeff commented that the story is the best illustration of grace he’s ever heard.

“Grace” is a word with several different but related meanings. One definition that is helpful to me in understanding God’s grace comes from Tony Campolo. He was a frequent guest preacher at my church when I lived in Chicago. He says, “Grace is about us receiving from God blessings that we don’t deserve.”

Jeff’s story made the idea of grace more tangible to me last week. His story also prompted me to remember a couple incidents from the early 1970s when I was a high school English teacher. I also had students who pleaded with me to not give them an F – two of them; and academically, they both deserved F’s.

footballGary was a popular football player. He excelled on the football field, but he certainly never excelled in English. He was too busy to take the time to complete his homework assignments. About a week before the quarter ended he begged me for a D. If I gave him an F he would be kicked off the football team according to the school’s athletic policy.  I told him that if he completed his past-due homework assignments, I would give him a passing grade. The next day the football coach came to see me, to plead on behalf of the student. I repeated my offer. Gary did not complete any of his past-due homework assignments, and I gave him an F. Gary didn’t learn about grace from me, but he might have learned about it from his coach. He was not booted off the team.

F GradeDenny was a skinny little freshman. When he was in class, he was a very pleasant kid, and he was good in English. He was a good reader and a good writer. However, his attendance got progressively worse, and as a result of that, the majority of the grades in the grade book were I’s for Incomplete. I talked with him a few times throughout the term about attendance and completing his assignments, and he always said he’d try harder. Unfortunately, when it was time for me to calculate his grade, I couldn’t justify giving him anything but an F. (I wasn’t allowed to give a grade of Incomplete in that school system.) When Denny got his report card he came to see me with tears in his eyes. “Why did you flunk me? I’m good in English. Can’t you change the grade? My dad will kill me.” I felt so sorry for Denny. I really didn’t know how I could change his grade, even if I could justify it. The school’s grading system wasn’t designed to incorporate grace.

That's me as a brand new English teacher in the early 1970s.

That’s me as a brand new English teacher in the early 1970s.

These two stories happened 42 years ago – just after I had graduated from college. I was living in Connecticut where I was an English teacher for two years. I wonder whatever happened to Gary and Denny. I wonder if Gary understands the concept of grace partly because of the kindness of his coach. And I wonder if Denny ever was given the opportunity to learn about God’s grace by receiving some undeserved gift from someone else.

Besides wondering about my students, I guess I need to think about what I have learned about grace from the people in my life, and I need to thank God for bringing each of these people into my life.

Atlanta megachurch pastor Charles Stanley said it this way, “Thank the Lord for using each person as a tool in your life to deepen your insight into His grace and conform you to the image of His Son.”