Tag Archive | daily devotions

The Little Books Are Here!

9b9cc55960ea3611d835b85b118f3ac4When I was a freshman in high school I went to a national convention in Washington D.C. sponsored by Youth For Christ (YFC). If I remember correctly, there were 10,000 high school kids from all over the country at this convention. The main speaker was Billy Graham. I had heard him speak before in Chicago, and I heard him speak again several times later. He was even our commencement speaker when I graduated from Wheaton College. But the one thing I remember most vividly from all the times I’ve heard Graham speak was at that YFC convention in Washington. He said that one of the most important things in his Christian life was spending time reading the Bible. Specifically, he said he read five Psalms and one Proverb every day, month after month, year after year. The Psalms helped him learn how to communicate with God, and the Proverbs helped him learn how to get along with people.

I remember I tried reading the Psalms and Proverbs every day for a few weeks after I heard him say that, but no magic lights went on. I didn’t quite understand what the Psalms and Proverbs really meant for me in my life as a high school student back in the 1960s. There are a few Psalms that I like reading, like Psalm 23 and Psalm 100. And there are a few verses that stand out, like:

Psalm 19:1 – The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.

Psalm 46:10 – Be still and know that I am God.

Psalm 51:10 – Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

But in general, I haven’t bothered reading either the Psalms or Proverbs very much in the 55 years since the day I heard Graham commend them so highly. That is, until I started working on my current writing project –  TALKING WITH GOD THROUGH MUSIC, a book of reflections on some of my favorite hymns.

As I started to organize my thoughts for this project, I made a list of over 300 of my favorite hymns, and then I started to do research into the historical background of each hymn and the Biblical references within each hymn. I was quite surprised to discover how prominent the Psalms were in what I was learning. I decided to make the first section of my writing project include only hymns that are based on scriptural references from the Psalms. I selected 31 of my favorite Psalm-based hymns for this section.

My original concept for this writing project was to write a 365-day devotional, with a 2-page spread for each hymn, with the first page being factual information and my reflections on the hymn and the second page being the melody line and lyrics. The 31 Psalm-based hymns would be the hymns for January. It has since dawned on me that a 730-page book is a bigger project than I want to undertake. My current vision for this project is to include 101 of my favorite hymns, with reflections on about 10 hymns for each of about 10 different themes – like peace, joy, comfort, etc. A book that’s a little over 200 pages will be much more manageable to write, and even to hold as you read it.

fullsizeoutput_22baAs I mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve decided to publish my 31 Psalm-based hymns as a separate book, a 68-page prototype of what my 101 favorite hymns book will look like. That spin-off project is now completed. If you would like a FREE copy of this little book, please send me your mailing address, and I’ll be happy to send you one. After you have had a chance to look at the prototype, I would appreciate your sending me any suggestions you may have for how to make the next book better. The last page of the book provides details on how to send feedback.

Meanwhile, an unexpected personal benefit to me of this writing project is that I think I understand a little more of what Billy Graham meant 55 years ago when he talked about the importance of reading the Psalms for learning how to communicate more deeply with God. I’ve gone back to looking at the Psalms again – both in the Bible and in hymnals. Maybe, you will find that reading TALKING WITH GOD THROUGH MUSIC: Reflections on My Favorite Psalm-Based Hymns will provide you with a similar unexpected benefit.

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Shhh. I’m Trying to Quiet My Mind.

Candle orange w Be-Still-and-Know-That-I-am-GodIt’s hard to be quiet in today’s culture of constant stimulation. Worse yet, we take pride in being really busy, and we brag about our ability to multi-task.

So how can we possibly shut out the noise and concentrate on just one thing for ten minutes, or half an hour, or even an hour? How can we “Be still, and know that I am God!” as we are directed in the Psalms. (Psalm 46:10 New Revised Standard Version)

I’ve thought about that quite a bit over the past several years. I guess what prompted that subject to jump into the swirl of thoughts fighting for attention in my mind six years ago was the fact that I was starting up a spiritual retreat center at our farmhouse – what would become Whispering Winds Retreat Haven. That prospect made we wonder what I could do to help create an atmosphere at the farm where people could be still, be relatively free from distractions, and be able to focus on spiritual things.

3 candles and angelOver the last few years I’ve personalized some of those ideas to help me be focused early every morning before I start my normal daily routines and begin to deal with everything else that will jump into my day. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I start my day by reading from the Bible and a mix of inspiring books and pamphlets. Sometimes it’s hard to take time to do that, especially if I know I have a particularly busy day ahead of me, or an early appointment that I need to get ready for. Regardless of how short a time I may have for this devotional time, even if it needs to be just 5 – 10 minutes instead of the usual 30 – 40, I start by lighting one or more candles. That gives me something for my eyes to rest on when I look up from my reading. I usually light three different candles – one representing the Father, another the Son, and the third the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I have a fourth candle that represents me. It’s much better for me to see flickering candles on the small table in front of me than to notice the stack of papers waiting for me on my desk across the room.

Once the candles are lit, I start my quiet time by reading or mentally singing what I refer to as my call to worship. For a long time I kept a card in my Bible with the following words written by Sarah Young in her book Jesus Calling. It’s written as though Jesus is saying these words directly to me:

Jesus CallingSit quietly in my presence while I bless you.
Make your mind like a still pool of water,
ready to receive whatever thoughts I drop into it.

Rest in my sufficiency,
as you consider the challenges this day presents.
Do not wear yourself out by worrying about
whether you can cope with the pressures.
Keep looking to Me and communicating with Me,
as we walk through this day together.

Take time to rest by the wayside, for I am not in a hurry.
A leisurely pace accomplishes more than hurried striving.
When you rush, you forget who you are and Whose you are.
Remember that you are royalty in My kingdom.

That inspires me to be quiet and listen to what God is talking to me about.

More recently I’ve started mentally singing my own words to the praise song, “Holy Ground.”

This is Holy Ground
I’m sitting on Holy Ground.
The Lord is present
and all around is Holy.
This is Holy Time.
I’m praying in Holy Time.
The Lord is speaking
and every moment is Holy.

Floey Candles 3I’m usually sitting in the easy chair in my office. Floey is curled up on the love seat. And the candles are glowing on the coffee table. A crystal angel is bowing next to the candles. I really feel like I am in a holy place. My mind is quiet, and I’m ready to read, think, and pray. Sometimes I jot down ideas that come to me for a future blog post. Very few distractions break into this holy space.

On a related note (pun intended), I’ve also thought about what I can do as a church organist to help worshipers set aside their distractions to be totally focused on being still and knowing God during their time in church. The purpose of the prelude is to do just that – to help people quiet their minds, to be still and focus on knowing God. That’s why I try so hard to find a prelude that relates to the Scripture for the day.

Another thing that helps me get in the right frame of mind for worship is often referred to as the introit or call to worship. In the church where I grew up, the choir always sang the introit at the beginning of the service. That doesn’t happen at the churches where I play now, and I miss it. One of my favorite introits is Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this Place. Whenever I hear that, I remember that I am in a holy place. That God is present.

Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place
I can feel his mighty power and his grace.
I can hear the brush of angels’ wings, I see glory on each face;
surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.
[Lanny Wolfe]

At any time of the day, when my mind is spinning, and I’m thrashing about from one urgent task to the next, I sometimes remember I’m not alone. God’s here with me, too. I need to stop for a moment and take a deep breath. Maybe that’s the Holy Spirit calming me down. I think it helps that I’ve started my day being still. That helps me remember to ponder how my life fits into God’s world.

Most mornings Floey joins me for devotions. She knows this is a time to curl up on the couch, watch the candles, and be still.

Most mornings Floey joins me for devotions. She knows this is a time to curl up on the couch, watch the candles, and be still. I think God speaks to her, too.

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!)

Canine Wisdom

F sitting 022815Floey came running over to me. Her tail was wagging as fast as it can wag, but she dutifully sat down and looked up at me. “Hey, Mom. Has it come yet?” she asked.

“What’s that, Floey?”

“My check for $50. Remember Ellen at ARVSS (Animal Rescue & Veterinary Support Services) where I came from said I would get a $50 graduation present if I successfully completed a beginner dog training class. And I did it! I graduated way back on February 9. I know you emailed a copy of my diploma to Ellen because I reminded you to do it. Has the check come yet? I can hardly wait to go shopping!”

“Well, Floey. It came, but I lost it. I’m so sorry.”

Her tail stopped wagging. “You lost it? You lost my check? You’re kidding, Mom. Where is it?” Her tail started thumping again.

“No, Floey. I really lost it. I emailed your diploma to ARVSS on Monday, and the check came in the mail on Tuesday. I wanted to cash it for you on Friday so we could go shopping during the weekend, but I couldn’t find it. I looked all over. I just can’t find it. It’s got to be here somewhere! I just can’t figure out where.”

F diploma“Did you look in the rack on top of your desk where you always put checks to be cashed?” Floey asked.

“That’s the first place I looked,” I replied. “I was sure it would be there. It wasn’t.”

“Well, did you look on the shelf at the top of the stairs where you put things to take downstairs?” she asked.

“Yes, I looked there next. I’ve spent a couple hours looking for it.”

F and Marian faces“So that’s why you cleaned off your desk and the work table in your office. I wondered why you were cleaning so thoroughly. You’re usually too busy to clean.”

“Yes. That’s why I’ve been cleaning up so much. I guess that’s a good side effect of losing the check – my office is the cleanest it’s been in months. But I’m so frustrated I can hardly stand it. I don’t know if I should pound the table or cry. I really feel bad, Floey.”

F looking up at me“Oh, don’t feel bad, Mom. I know you didn’t lose it on purpose. I don’t really need to have a $50 shopping spree. It would be fun, but it’s not something I need. What I need is a loving forever family – and thanks to you and Mim, I now have one.” Floey put her chin on my lap. She looked up at my face and said, “Mom, you need to remember what you read all last month in The Monastic Way. I’ve been peering over your shoulder every morning, and I know the daily readings by Joan Chittister were all about patience. Remember, the cover had a quote from St. Francis de Sales, “Be patient with everyone, but especially yourself.”

Face on lapFloey licked the tear that was rolling down my cheek. “Thanks, Floey. I remember the first reading of the month. ‘Patience is the quality it takes to fail and then to recover better, brighter, wiser than ever before.’ I certainly failed by losing your graduation present. I guess now I need to be patient to learn from my mistake – to be more careful about keeping track of important papers, like checks.”

Floey smiled. “My favorite reading was on Friday the 13th. ‘Patience is life without hysterics, without anger, without blame. It is the gift that keeps the world inching toward rightness.’ I think many dogs are born knowing this truth. The first ten months of my life weren’t easy, but I don’t blame anyone, and I’m not angry. With patience, I have now moved into the next phase of my life, and it is good.”

“You really are a good, patient dog, Floey. Thank you for helping me get over my frustration of the moment, and reminding me about how good last month’s Monastic Way was. Another reading that spoke to me was on February 22 – ‘We learn patience by repeating to ourselves over and over again, There is something in this moment that I am meant to learn. And then to stop and learn it.’”

F sitting w crossed legs -0022815Floey interrupted me. “I remember that reading. It ended with a quote from Barbara Johnson, ‘Patience is the ability to idle your motor when you feel like stripping your gears.’ I thought that was a good description. Even though I’ve never driven a car, I guess the feeling is like staying in a SIT-STAY position when a squirrel runs within ten feet of you! That’s patience!”

“Thanks, Floey. You are both patient and understanding. I think you have a lot to teach me.”

ADDENDUM
I drafted this blog post on Saturday. On Monday morning Mim found the check. It was inside its envelope in the paper recycling box under the kitchen sink. Mim had looked in that box before but missed it. We have no idea how the envelop floated into that box. That will remain a mystery. Meanwhile, I’m enjoying a clean desk top and office work table.

Dinnertime

Abbey Hungry 05-12-08

Abbey used to let us know when she was really hungry by bringing us her metal dish – and dropping it on the kitchen floor, making a clatter capable of waking the neighbors.

I guess today is a good day to talk about dinnertime. It’s Mardi Gras – Fat Tuesday – a time of feasting the day before beginning a forty-day fast for Lent. Mim and I are planning to go out for a musical feast tonight – an organ recital by Thomas Trotter (a fantastic organist from England) at the Overture Center in Madison. We’ll probably stop at Culver’s for a cheeseburger and fries on our way there. If the flavor-of-the-day is really good, we might splurge on a small dish of custard – but only if it’s a really good flavor. The real feast of the evening will be musical.

Bread for the Journey coverOver the past few days I’ve been reading about “the meal that makes us family and friends” in the book Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith by Henri J. M. Nouwen. The reflection for February 15 in this daily devotional book started with these words:

We all need to eat and drink to stay alive. But having a meal is more than eating and drinking. It is celebrating the gifts of life we share. A meal together is one of the most intimate and sacred human events. Around the table we become vulnerable, filling one another’s plates and cups and encouraging one another to eat and drink. Much more happens at a meal than satisfying hunger and quenching thirst. Around the table we become family, friends, community, yes, a body.

During most of my growing up years, Sunday dinner, eaten about 1:00 p.m., was the most special meal of the week. My mom usually put a roast in the oven before we left for Sunday school so that it would be almost ready when we got home from church, between 12:15 and 12:30. Mom had the potatoes peeled and waiting in the pressure cooker.  She turned the burner on to start the potatoes and grabbed a package of our own garden vegetables from the freezer, either corn or green beans. While the potatoes and vegetables were cooking Mom made gravy, and last of all she mashed the potatoes. My job was to bake some refrigerator rolls and set the table. Then the whole family gathered around the table, Danny and I said the “Come, Lord Jesus” prayer, and we ate and talked and laughed together. Often my Grandma Kenseth joined us for this meal. The meal ended with a dessert of homemade cookies, cake, or pie – and always ice cream.

What made this meal so special every week was that it was the only meal we all ate together. My dad was usually in the barn milking cows when the rest of us ate breakfast, and also when we ate supper. On weekdays, my dad was the only one home at noon. My mom was at work in Madison, and Danny and I were in school. Sunday dinner was the special time to eat together.  Besides sharing the meal, it was also a time for the whole family to be involved in conversation. I guess those Sunday dinners were pretty instrumental in forming our identity as a family.

In 1973, when I first met Mim and she invited me to share her apartment with her until I could find an apartment of my own in Chicago, Mim and I went out for dinner at the Buffalo Ice Cream Parlor (for cheeseburgers and hot fudge sundaes) to get to know each other a little, and to clarify our expectations as roommates. One of the rules Mim insisted on is that we eat meals together whenever possible, and that we would share equally in the cost of all groceries. I think Mim’s concerns were mostly about not wanting to keep track of which food belonged to each of us. But as Nouwen suggests, “Around the table we become family, friends, community, yes, a body.” Maybe Mim had an inkling of how important it is to share mealtime.

Mim and me, ready to sit down for Easter dinner in the dining room of our apartment in Chicago. We’re still dressed up from church.

Sharing meal time provides an opportunity for developing relationships better than almost any other activity. I was surprised to learn that this is true even for business meals. When I worked for Northwest Industries in Chicago I frequently had to travel on business. During those years I ate plenty of restaurant meals alone. I usually went to the restaurant with a notebook to outline plans and draft reports while I ate. But whenever I went out to dinner with a business associate instead of eating alone, I found that I got to know the person beyond the business context. By “celebrating the gifts of life we share” together over a meal, a genuine friendship usually developed. Meal time truly was a special time, even on business.

Twenty-some years later when Mim and I turned our farmhouse in Cambridge into Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast, we made the decision to have all our guests eat breakfast together around the dining room table. As our guests ate, we stayed in the dining room to refill coffee cups and to be sure food was passed around the table, and also to encourage conversation among all the guests. (We usually had four to eight guests at a time.)  One morning, near the end of breakfast, I remember a young man said, “I was dreading this breakfast – having to eat together with strangers, but I’m really enjoying it. I feel like we’re all friends.”

B&B Guests at breakfast

B&B guests at breakfast in our farmhouse

When we changed Country Comforts B&B into Country Comforts Assisted Living, we changed from sharing our breakfast time to sharing all meal times except breakfast. Mim and I and our residents all like to start our day at different times, so we each eat breakfast on our own. But lunch and dinner are always shared meals. I think that is a big part of what transforms our residents from being strangers living under the same roof into becoming caring family members of the Country Comforts family.

Sharing a meal with our Country Comforts family

Sharing a meal with our Country Comforts family

Today’s reading from Nouwen says, “The table is one of the most intimate places in our lives. It is there that we give ourselves to one another…. We invite our friends to become part of our lives. We want them to be nurtured by the same food and drink that nurture us.”

I’m glad Nouwen’s book prompted me to think about meal time. Whether we’re feasting for Fat Tuesday or eating more modest meals throughout Lent, it’s good to remember that “A meal together is one of the most intimate and sacred human events…. Much more happens at a meal than satisfying hunger and quenching thirst.”

Our extended family gathered around our extended table for Thanksgiving dinner in Chicago, 1984.

Better Than Counting Sheep

Counting SheepOne night last week I couldn’t sleep. I’d taken a Sudafed for some head congestion, and my body just wouldn’t let me drift off to sleep. So, I tried to heed the advice I’d received from a friend and shared on Facebook a week or two ago – use the time to talk with God.

God and I started out by talking about all the things I was grateful for that day. Mim and I were up at Christmas Mountain for a few days, and we’d had a nice, restful day together. After about half an hour of thinking about the events of the day and all the good things that came to mind, I was still wide awake. I guess God wanted us to talk a while longer.

The next topic that came up was all the heroes in my life – or the people on “God’s Guest List” for my life, to use author Debbie Macomber’s phrase. I spent most of the night remembering lots of people who had impacted my life in a very positive way. This was kind of like counting sheep, only each sheep was a person in my life that I was thankful for.

Of course, I started with my mom. Without a doubt, she was the kindest, most loving person I have known in my life. You know that, because I’ve written about her a lot in my blog.

Elsie at PresHouse

Mom worked at the Presbyterian Student Center at UW during most of my growing up years.

Then I thought about my sister Nancy. She was 11 years older than me, so she was almost like a second mom. She was truly my hero when I was a child. She started teaching me to play the piano before I was in school. When she went away to college she subscribed to a bi-monthly children’s daily devotional guide for me to get me in the habit of reading my Bible and praying every morning before getting out of bed.

Nancy-Marian-Danny going to church

Nancy, Danny, and me ready for church.

The next person who came to mind was Mrs. Knoblauch, my first grade teacher. I had lots of good teachers as I grew up in Cambridge, but Mrs. Knoblauch was the one who got me off to a good start in school. The day I remember best in first grade was a blustery day in the fall. When I was out in the playground after lunch, a speck of dirt or a falling leaf blew into my eye. It hurt and my eye wouldn’t stop watering. Every day when we returned to the classroom from the playground after lunch, we would sit at our desks while Mrs. Knoblauch read us a story to quiet us down. That day, she looked at my eye first to be sure I would be okay, and then had me sit on her lap while she read the story to the class. I knew she loved me and would take care of me.

Then I thought about all my grade school, junior high, and high school teachers. Some made the list of heroes, some didn’t. Same for college professors.

I was still wide awake, so I went back to thinking more about my family. My brother Danny and my dad both made the heroes list, people that I admired and who had a positive impact on my life.

Danny is only two years older than me – so we were close enough in age to fight with each other about almost anything. We still disagree on many things, but we’ve learned not to fight most of the time. What I admire most about him is that he inherited our mom’s commitment to being kind and helpful to almost everyone. Probably the most valuable thing I learned from Danny is how to fight when it’s necessary to fight, and how to get along without fighting when that’s the best thing to do.

Working up the soil for his last garden

My dad still drove his tractor until about a month before he died, at age 87.

The earliest memory I have of my dad is riding on the tractor with him. I would sit on his lap and watch his hands on the steering wheel, especially that little gadget that was a ball-like wooden handle that enabled him to control the steering wheel with just one hand, even on bumpy fields. (I vaguely remember these gadgets were considered unsafe, so he eventually had to take it off. I know it wasn’t on the steering wheel when I started driving the tractor a few years later.) I guess the most valuable thing I learned from my dad is that you need to take responsibility for getting things done, regardless of the obstacles that may come your way. If the hay needs to be baled and the hay baler is broken, you figure out how to fix the hay baler. You don’t wait for someone else to do it.

Mim head and sky

Mim – my best friend for 42 years and counting …

I continued to think about all the people who have been positive influences in my life – throughout my career, in my social life, and in my spiritual life. Mim certainly was on the list, along with people who have lived with us (and their families), my aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, classmates, fellow church members, … and, of course, my dogs.

I was able to keep “counting sheep” for several hours, feeling more and more grateful for all the people who have helped me become who I am today. Since you readers don’t have most of a night-time to review all these people with me, I’ll simply say, God and I had a nice, long conversation. Thanks to one sleepless night, I am more appreciative than ever of the many people who have touched my life.

Patti-Margaret-Holly-Edith cropped

Patti (left) and her sister Edith (right) were among our many delightful assisted living residents. Edith’s daughter Margaret and granddaughter Holly joined “God’s guest list” for Mim and me when Edith first became a member of our assisted living family.

 

 

The Worst Sin of All according to Floey

Floey sittingMy new dog Floey and I are still getting to know each other. Christmas Day will mark the one month anniversary of Floey’s adoption date. Mim and I and all of our 93-year-olds are so happy that she joined our family. Floey loves all of us, but it’s clear that I am her favorite. She follows me everywhere. Right now, I’m sitting at my desk, and she’s sitting close beside me.

One day last week as I was reading my daily devotional book, A Book of Wonders, by Edward Hays, I decided to ask Floey what she thought about what he said. The title of the reading was “The Absolutely Worst of All Sins.” He said that in our culture, we tend to think of sexual sins as the worst sins of all. Then he added, “Yet among preliterate hunting and gathering cultures, like the Native Americans, children were taught that the worst of vices was stinginess. Not sex, but greed in all forms, was abhorred.”

I knew that Floey had been born on an Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota. I wondered if any of their early Native American moral code had rubbed off on her. I asked Floey what she thought was the worst sin of all.

“That’s easy,” she replied. “Stinginess.”

“That’s amazing,” I said. “You didn’t hesitate at all with your answer. Why is stinginess worse than murder, or rape, or anything else?”

“Just think about it, Mom. You know that love is the greatest gift anyone can give, right?”

“Yes,” I replied, and she continued, “What is the opposite of being loving? It’s being stingy, right?”

“Floey, you’re really smart for a pup who’s not even a year old yet.”

Floey sitting - profile“Tomorrow, December 24, I’ll be 11 months old, but I’ve lived and learned an awful lot in those 11 months, and I’ve done a lot of thinking about what’s good and what’s bad in life. When people, and all other creatures, as well, are kind and loving and generous, the world is a better place for everyone.  But whenever someone is stingy, they’re looking out only for themselves, and the world is a little less good for everyone – including the stingy one. They start worrying about getting and protecting their fair share rather than contributing to the good of everyone.”

“Wow, Floey. You’ve really done a lot of serious thinking for a pup so young! Since we’re having such a good conversation, let’s change subjects and talk about something I’ve been thinking about lately – the commercialization of Christmas. What do you think about that?”

“You’re not really changing subjects with that, Mom. The commercialization of Christmas is the best thing to happen to temper the sin of stinginess.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“What do you think about when you go Christmas shopping?”

“I guess I think about what each person on my list would like to get, and where I might find that gift for them.”

“That’s all about being generous, not being stingy, right?”

“I guess so…”

“Think back to your earliest memories of Christmas shopping. Tell me about them.”

“Those are good memories. Let me start with some background. It seems that every year in December we get some foggy days. Farmers call it ‘case weather.’ We just had some foggy days last week. Remember?”

“Yeah. I remember. But what does that have to do with Christmas shopping?” Floey asked.

“I’m getting to it. I grew up on a small farm. We had about 20 cows and between 300 and 400 chickens. My dad supplemented the milk and egg income with a cash crop – tobacco. Raising tobacco was somewhat controversial because my parents were opposed to smoking, but tobacco was the most lucrative crop we could raise. Essentially, tobacco is what paid for all the “extras” in our lives, like new clothes, piano and organ lessons, and when we were older, college tuition.”

My family history with raising tobacco goes way back. This picture shows my great uncle Fletcher (2nd from right) taking a break from stripping tobacco with his buddies.

My family history with raising tobacco goes way back. This photo from 1898 shows my great uncle Fletcher (the handsome one – 2nd from right) taking a break from stripping tobacco with his buddies.

“Raising tobacco was a lot of work, from planting it in the spring to harvesting it in the fall to stripping it in the winter. That’s where ‘case weather’ came into the picture. When tobacco was harvested in September, six to eight stalks were strung onto a lath. A lath is like a thick yard stick that’s about five feet long instead of three feet. The laths were then hung in a tobacco shed, the tobacco plants hanging upside down, to dry out. In December when we got several days of foggy weather (case weather), the dried tobacco was moistened from the fog. My dad took the laths of tobacco down from the shed and brought them into the barn. The barn was warm and humid from all the cows living in it. My brother and I had the job of stripping the tobacco leaves off the stalk, leaf by leaf, and laying the tobacco leaves into a press that bundled the leaves into bales of about 40 pounds. Every evening and every Saturday during case weather Danny and I spent many hours in the barn stripping tobacco for two cents a lath. That’s how I earned money for Christmas shopping.”

“Okay, Mom, now I see you’re getting to the point.”

“I worked really hard stripping tobacco the couple weeks before Christmas every year, and I usually earned between five and ten dollars. I felt rich! When I knew how much money I’d earned, I made out my shopping list. Usually, it included Old Spice After Shave for my dad, pretty candles for  my mom, stationery for my sister, and a model car for my brother. If I’d earned enough money, I might get everyone some candy or nuts, too. I always spent all my money on presents for them. It never occurred to me to be stingy and keep anything for myself.”

My family - everyone I bought Christmas presents for when I was a kid.

My family – everyone I bought Christmas presents for when I was a kid.

“That’s exactly what I mean, Mom. The commercialization of Christmas isn’t all bad. It reminds us to be generous to the people we love.”

“I guess you’re right, Floey. I’ll try to think of that when I see all those commercials on TV telling us to shop, just like I think of stripping tobacco for Christmas shopping money whenever I see fog in December. In both cases, I can remember that God wants us be loving and generous – and not be stingy.”

“You’ve got it, Mom. See why I’m proud of my Native American heritage. I see I have a lot to teach you. But that’s enough for today. I think it’s time for another walk. Can we run around the pond again? That’s so much fun!”

Floey standing

My Mom and Me and Bibles

Mom and me praying c1954

Mom and me praying at a church program. We were “on stage” while someone sang a song about praying. I was wearing brand new red pajamas.

My mom got me hooked on exploring new translations and paraphrases of the Bible when I was a kid. Although I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s knowing that the King James Version was the real Bible – the one we used in Sunday School and church and the one to memorize Bible verses from – Mom was always searching for new ways to gain a deeper understanding of what the Bible means.

I remember one year she convinced my Uncle Helmer and Uncle Fletcher to chip in so that together they could give my grandma a Schofield Reference Bible for her birthday. It was still the King James Version, but it had lots of study aids. I knew Mom really wanted that Bible for herself, but she couldn’t afford it. Several years later when my grandma died, Mom inherited that Bible. I have it now.

When I was still in grade school I remember my mom beginning to get newer translations of the Bible to read along with the King James. The first two I remember were the J. B. Phillips paraphrase of the New Testament and the Amplified New Testament. They were about as different as could be in terms of everyday language versus precise word-for-word translation. Mom loved reading them both.

Amplified Bible - Phillips NTWhen I was in high school, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Crusades were periodically showing up on TV, and with them came offers to get a free book of the Bible that had just been paraphrased into easy-to-understand English – a series of books that would eventually become The Living Bible (LB). Mom received most of the Living New Testament this way – book by book. She just loved reading the books in the Living Version. She usually was smiling when she read it because the meaning of each paragraph was so easy to understand. In the mid-’70s when I was living in Chicago I remember walking to a religious book store in the Loop during one of my lunch hours to buy Mom a leather-bound Living Bible for Christmas to replace all her separate paperbacks of each book. I inherited that Bible from her.

Moms Living Bible

New English Bible 2In 1961 the New English Version of the Bible was published in England. My mom didn’t get that version, but Dagmar Vasby, a retired missionary nurse originally from Denmark who had become a member of our Methodist Church in Cambridge, frequently read from that version whenever she spoke in church. During my freshman year in college, one day when I was browsing the campus bookstore I came across the cutest little 3” by 5” leather-bound New Testament in the New English Version. I couldn’t resist it. I spent $12 on the first installment of my own library of Bibles. Its tiny size made it easy to fit into my suitcase over the years, and it traveled with me on most of my business trips throughout the ’80s.

After my college years I followed Mom’s preference for The Living Bible. I liked how easy it was to read and understand – just like Mom said. But then some well-meaning friends in a Bible study informed me that The Living Bible wasn’t as accurate as “real” translations. It was just a paraphrase and couldn’t be trusted for accuracy when doing any in-depth study. That embarrassed me enough to make me switch to the New International Version (NIV) – the gold standard for Evangelicals. Unfortunately, that conversation also cooled my enthusiasm for exploring different translations and paraphrases as Mom and I had been doing for years.

Many years later, in 2009 when I was starting to assemble a small library for guests to use at our retreat house, Whispering Winds Retreat Haven, I included three Bibles – The King James Version (KJV), The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and the New International Version (NIV). The only criticism I received about our book collection was that we should include more translations of the Bible. I guess that’s just what I wanted to hear. Mim and I made several trips to resale shops and used book stores. Our book case quickly reached the point of overflowing. The top shelf was filled with nothing but Bibles – more than a dozen different translations. The rest of the shelves were filled with inspirational books by our favorite authors.

Bible Stack 3Most importantly, I finally resumed my old habit of exploring different translations and paraphrases. Probably the paraphrase I enjoy reading most, just for fun, is The Message (MSG). It provides fresh images for my mind that help me gain new insights into what a particular passage might mean. Another version I’m enjoying is The New King James Version (NKJV). It tries to retain the poetic language of the original King James Version as closely as it can without sacrificing readability for today’s readers.

The most recent version I picked up and am currently exploring is The New Living Translation (NLT). This version is actually a revision of The Living Bible. Like its predecessor, it’s a very readable Bible.

There are a lot more versions out there. But just as my mom didn’t have the money to buy herself a Scofield Reference Bible, I don’t think I can go and buy every translation I’d like to explore. However, I always scan the religious books section in every resale store I enter. I’ve also learned about websites like www.BibleStudyTools.com where you can look up any verse in almost any version you want to read.

I guess I could be hooked on worse things than exploring different translations of the Bible. After all, the Bible says in 2 Timothy 2:15:

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (KJV)

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. (NKJV)

Work hard so God can say to you, “Well done.” Be a good workman, one who does not need to be ashamed when God examines your work. Know what his Word says and means. (LB)

Work hard so God can approve you. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. (NLT)

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. (NIV)

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth. (NRSV)

Concentrate on doing your best for God, work you won’t be ashamed of, laying out the truth plain and simple. (MSG)

Mom was right. The Living Bible says it best, especially the last part, “Know what his Word says and means.”

Bible-candle-praying hands

 

Thank God I’m Sick! Really?

cough syrupFor the past three weeks I’ve been coaxing my immune system to get busy and fix me.  I think it’s been ignoring its job. The day I came home from our mini-vacation at Christmas Mountain I felt like I might be getting a cold. The next day I had a high fever and was mad I’d gotten sick. I rested as much as I could, and by the third day, I was better, but not well.  I was down to a low-grade fever and an annoying, non-productive cough. Despite lots of orange juice, lots of rest, and three bottles of cough syrup in three weeks, I can’t seem to get back to normal. Mim finally bought me a big bottle of cough syrup instead of another little one. The cough is what’s most annoying.

I think I finally figured out why my immune system is ignoring its job. It wants to encourage me to learn something about illness instead of just pouting and complaining about it.

Last Friday, Edward Hays gave me a clue about this in the daily reading from A Book of Wonders.

Edward Hays picIllness in Islam is viewed as a blessing and so should always be borne without complaint. When a Muslim inquires about another’s health, the customary reply is, “All praise belongs to God,” even if that person is sick. A devout Muslim believes that a sickness is a blessing as it is an occasion to cleanse oneself of past sins and because purification is the purpose of existence. Sickness as a blessing is balanced by seeing good health as an equal blessing, because it is a cause of joy and gratitude. We non-Muslims can adopt their response of praising God in sickness or health, in good times or bad, as a healthy habit.

In case I wasn’t paying attention on Friday, Hays’ reflection for Saturday was on the same theme.

In Budhism as in Islam, suffering is generally not seen as a failure of health or as a punishment, but as purification. The followers of Buddha compare suffering with a mystical broom that sweeps away past mistakes and failings. Yet how does being sick with the flu (or worse, afflicted with cancer) act like a broom? One possibility is that illness can sweep away our favorite illusion of being invulnerable and in control. Health, being a precarious gift, should call forth mini-prayers of gratitude every day.

hot spiced wine 3Now, do I really believe that?

One of the blessings of being sick is feeling free to take all the time I want to sit back and read a favorite book. Or play some fun music on the piano. Or watch an old movie on TV. Or drink another cup of hot spiced wine. And daydream. I guess that’s part of the purification process – kind of like pressing the reset button. Thank God for the blessing of being sick for a little while – providing the opportunity for the 3 Rs – Rest, Relaxation, and Reflection. I guess that’s what I really needed.

I don’t know how long I’ll be coughing. So far, today is better than yesterday. But regardless, I think I’m learning “All praise belongs to God.”

 

 

What Do I Really Do?

Sears Tower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pilgrim Cat