Tag Archive | devotional book

Progress

imagesLast week I was at our Christmas Mountain timeshare in Wisconsin Dells again for a 4-day, solitary getaway. I packed heavier than usual this time. It took me 9 trips to bring everything from the car into the condo. I had one small suitcase with a few clothes, 3 briefcases full of books and notebooks, my computer, my piano keyboard with its ironing board-like stand and folding bench, a step stool so I can reach the top shelves of the kitchen cupboards (where the wine glasses are kept), an ice chest, and a bag of groceries. I’m not a backpacker when I travel. I like to have everything with me that I might “need.” Needless to say, I make myself comfortable in my 1100-square-foot timeshare.

I spent most of my 4 days sleeping, reading, working on my latest writing project, and going for walks when it wasn’t raining or snowing. I had a nice, relaxing time, and I made good progress on my writing project.

fullsizeoutput_2052Several months ago, when I stopped blogging weekly, I defined my next major writing project to be a daily devotional book that will be reflections on 365 of my favorite hymns. I started the project last fall by creating a list of all my favorite hymns and sorting them into the most appropriate month for each hymn.

By October, I was ready to start writing about the hymns for November – mostly hymns related to All Saints Day and Thanksgiving. I did my research on the background of each of those 30 hymns, and I contemplated my personal reasons for liking each hymn.

I designed a 2-page spread to follow for each hymn. The left page will include the hymn title, the tune name, the author of the hymn text including a brief bio of the author, the composer of the tune including a brief bio of the composer, the scripture the hymn is based on, and finally the story I want to tell about the significance of the hymn – what will make the book a devotional rather than just an annotated index to hymns I like. The right page will be a lead sheet for the hymn. I plan to create these lead sheets myself using Finale music writing software in order to address copyright concerns.

I have done most of this thinking, organizing, and writing during a few 2- or 3- day writing retreats at Christmas Mountain over the last several months. At home I’m too busy with other things to focus on such a big project. Over the past 10 years, most of my Christmas Mountain getaways have involved some writing – either writing blog posts or working on bigger projects like this.

fullsizeoutput_2051Late last fall when I had about a quarter of the November hymn devotions drafted, I decided to jump ahead to December’s hymns.

When I was about half done with December’s hymns, I decided to jump ahead to January’s hymns.

When I finished writing all 31 of January’s hymn devotions, I decided to change my approach. Rather than organizing the hymns seasonally, I decided to come up with 12 themes or styles of music, and to organize my favorite hymns within those 12 categories.

Each month will have a particular focus, rather than just being a collection of 30 or so separate hymns that loosely relate to the time of year. I’m currently envisioning this project as being twelve 68-page, self-published booklets. When they are all written I’ll decide whether or not I want to re-publish them as a single book.

My 12 themes, subject to change, are:

  1. Psalms
  2. God’s Love
  3. Lent
  4. Easter
  5. New Life
  6. Nature
  7. Classic Hymns
  8. Spirituals
  9. Gospel Songs
  10. Contemporary Styles
  11. Thankfulness
  12. Christmas

Obviously, many of my favorite hymns could fall into more than one category. Maybe I’ll incorporate cross references in the introduction to each section.

fullsizeoutput_204fI decided to start with Psalms because that’s where church music has it’s beginnings. In my “Introduction” to the Psalms booklet, I wrote:

God loved us so much that God gave us the ability to express ourselves through music. And God told us to use that gift. We are supposed to make music. The Bible is filled with examples of how to do that.…

The book of Psalms is often referred to as the hymnbook of the Bible. It consists of 150 poems set to music. Many of them are songs of praise addressed directly to God. Others are laments, sometimes blaming God for the sorry state the singer is in. Some of the Psalms plead with God for help. All the Psalms can be viewed as tools that can help us express our feelings to God, all kinds of feelings, both good and bad, or maybe it’s better to say happy and sad, peaceful and frustrated….

Over the years, many of these Psalm-based hymns have become favorites of mine. I can identify with the words, and the music helps me express the feelings within my soul….

I started the Psalm booklet with what is perhaps the most widely sung song throughout the English-speaking world today, Psalm 100, “All People That on Earth Do Dwell.” This well-known paraphrase of Psalm 100 was written by William Kethe for the Anglo-Genevan Psalter, published in 1561. The hymn has been published in more than 1,000 hymnals since that time. It is usually sung to a tune called “OLD HUNDREDTH,” composed by Louis Bourgeois in the mid-1500s.

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But this isn’t the only hymn out there that’s based on Psalm 100. About a hundred years later, Thomas Ken, an Anglican priest, wrote another paraphrase of Psalm 100, “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,” often referred to as the “Doxology.” This hymn is also sung to the “OLD HUNDREDTH” tune. (This is the hymn we sang every Sunday while the ushers brought our offerings to the front of the church in the Methodist church where I grew up. We also sang it as the blessing at potlucks.)

About the same time this hymn was first being sung in England, Joachim Neander, a German Reformed Church teacher, wrote a much looser paraphrase of Psalm 100, and adapted a German folk tune to serve as the music for “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” This tune is now referred to as “LOBE DEN HERREN.” Two hundred years later, Neander’s paraphrase was translated into English by Catherine Winkworth. Her translation of this hymn has been published in more than 300 hymnals.

Over the centuries, many other hymns have been written based closely or loosely on Psalm 100. One of the most recent hymns that falls into the “loosely” category is “Halle, Halle, Hallelujah” written by prolific contemporary hymn writer Marty Haugen. He used a Caribbean folk tune to carry his joyful hymn.

The first 8 pages of the Psalms section of my devotional hymns project are devoted to Psalm 100, as expressed in these 4 hymns.

037615d43a4eb23542337b122c5d54d1The original song writer of Psalm 100 must be delighted to know how far and wide this Psalm has spread, especially considering that the Psalm begins with the words, “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands! Serve the LORD with gladness; Come before His presence with singing…” [Psalm 100:1-2 KJV] Millions of people have been singing this song of praise for thousands of years. I’m delighted to be counted among them!

That’s why I’m committed to undertaking this large writing project. I want to become even more aware of how valuable God’s gift of music is, and I want to share that awareness with others.

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Trying to Remember a Song

Do you ever have one of those songs that keeps running through your mind, over and over and over again, but you can’t quite remember the whole song?

That’s happening to me right now. Actually, the song has been going through my mind for over a week, and I just can’t remember the whole thing. I’ve even spent loads of time on the Internet trying to google it without success.

Singing Xmas Tree 1964

Can you find me?

The song is a choral anthem that the church choir sang when I was in high school, about 1965 or ’66. It’s the only anthem that I specifically remember singing during the high school and college years I sang in the choir.

I just loved this one particular anthem! The words were Psalm 1, the King James Version, verbatim. It was hard to sing, at least to start singing it, because it started very loud and on a high note. It was written in the key of E-flat, and the first note for sopranos was the high E-flat.

The first part is:

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

Then it starts to get a little softer…

But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.

And that’s as far as I remember the music. I’ve looked up the rest of the words of the Psalm in my King James Bible. I’m sure those are the words we sang, but I just can’t bring the rest of the music back into my mind. I remember that the mood changes at this point, to a very peaceful setting, which fits the words perfectly:

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

Then the mood changes again. It becomes more restless:

The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.

Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the  congregation of the righteous.

I can’t remember the tempo or dynamics of the ending. The last words of the Psalm are:

For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous; but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

I wish I could remember the rest of the music, but it’s just not coming back to me. I think what I liked so much about this anthem when the choir sang it fifty-plus years ago was how well the music matched the words. It was exciting to me. I felt we were communicating with God with our whole being as we sang the Psalm together. I felt it in my soul and my body – not just my mind.

5640851837_1fa5c61383_zMany years later I read a quote attributed to St. Augustine, “Whoever sings, prays twice.” That’s what was happening when we sang that anthem. We were not only expressing the words of the song to God, through the music we were sharing our feelings with God. That’s what’s so special about music. With music, our ability to communicate is not limited to our mere intellect. Our mind, soul, and body are all involved as we sing or play a musical instrument.

As you may recall from an earlier post on this blog, one of the reasons I stopped posting to my blog every week is that I wanted to work on some other projects and needed to free up some of my time to do so. One of my new projects is writing a devotional book focused on 365 of my favorite hymns. Over the past few months, I’ve been organizing my thoughts for this book and selecting the hymns to include. I think I’ll start the book with a chapter on The Psalms and how these songs have been sung historically as well as ways they are being sung today. (I’m sure that train of thought is what triggered Psalm 1 to start playing in my mind.)

The Bible encourages us in many places to sing to the Lord. And over the centuries, we have been prolific in our response. Thousands of hymns have their roots in one or more of the 150 Psalms included in the Bible. For example, the online resource hymnary.org (one of my new best friends) identified Psalm 23 as the source of 344 hymns. Psalm 23 is rich in imagery of God as our shepherd. Each hymn of the 344 hymns listed on this web directory built upon this imagery. Some of my favorites among these hymns are:

  • The Lord Is My Shepherd
  • The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll not Want
  • The King of Love My Shepherd Is
  • He Leadeth Me
  • Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us
  • All the Way My Shepherd Leads Me
  • God Leads Us Along
  • God Will Take Care of You
  • O Love that Wilt not Let Me Go
  • Day By Day
  • Surely Goodness and Mercy
  • Lead Me, Guide Me

Each hymn can trigger a slightly different conversation with God, although they are all based on the same general image of God as our shepherd. Every one of these combinations of words and music enables us to “pray twice” to God – to pray with our mind, body, and soul. The most usual result of the prayerful conversations based on Psalm 23 is that our troubled soul is comforted, and that pleases God as much as it pleases us.

This newest writing project of mine is bigger than I thought it was going to be, but I love the digressions it’s leading me along – even if I experience a bit of frustration along the way. Whether I ever remember all the music of the Blessed Is the Man…”  anthem I sang with the church choir when I was in in high school, or not, I’ve been blessed by remembering one of my earliest and most dramatic experiences of “praying twice.”

bird singing 1O come, let us sing to the LORD!
Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving;
Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.

Psalm 95:1-2 – New King James Version

Oh, No…

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Typical duplex-style condo at Christmas Mountain Village in Wisconsin Dells

I guess I still have more to learn about GRATITUDE – my special word for last year. As I checked into my timeshare condo at Christmas Mountain last week the last thing on my mind was gratitude. First came disappointment. Then anger. Then “what now?” But let me backtrack…

I wasn’t even supposed to be at Christmas Mountain last week. This was Mim’s turn. A couple months ago we specifically scheduled a few three-night getaways for Mim to have some uninterrupted time to go through several boxes that we had carted over to our condo from the farm in June when we emptied the farmhouse. The boxes contain lots of “important papers” that we had stored in the basement of the farmhouse. Our plan was for Mim to use these Christmas Mountain getaways to quietly go through the papers, to retrieve old family pictures, letters, etc. and to discard what had no continuing value. Our goal is to get the boxes out of the garage before the snow flies so that Mim’s car can return to its shelter instead of sitting on the driveway.

(A brief digression. Mim is thinking of selling her car. We don’t really need two cars. Let us know if you might be interested in buying a 2003 Toyota Matrix, all-wheel drive, in excellent condition and with low mileage for its age – just over 120,000 miles.)

This isn’t the first time we’ve scheduled a Christmas Mountain getaway for Mim, and I’ve had to make the “sacrifice” and take the getaway for her. It’s much harder for her to get away from our assisted living business than it is for me. Mim takes care of our residents physically – monitors their health, gives showers, helps them get dressed as needed, and so on. I help, too, but I do things like order hearing aid batteries on the Internet, scramble eggs, and bake cookies. If one of the people who helps us with real caregiving is unable to cover for Mim, or if a resident has a health concern that needs close monitoring, Mim can’t get away. I can.

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That’s why I went to Christmas Mountain last week. I was on the road at 2:45 Tuesday afternoon – as soon as Denise (one of three people who help us with caregiving several hours a week) finished assembling a small apple crisp just for me. She was making apple crisp for our residents for dinner that evening and decided to make a little one for me. The plan was for me to pop the mini-apple crisp into the oven of my timeshare unit to enjoy the aroma of it baking as I settled into the condo, and to savor it with some vanilla ice cream as dessert with my dinner. (That part of my day went as planned. The apple crisp was delicious!)

The drive up to Wisconsin Dells took exactly an hour and fifteen minutes, the usual, to the highway exit. I stopped at the Walmart near the exit to pick up a pint of vanilla ice cream for the apple crisp. It was sprinkling a little as I got out of the car, so I grabbed my jacket. The store was fairly busy, and no express lanes were open, so I had to wait in line to check out behind 2 large carts of groceries, but I tried to be patient. I was looking forward to this unexpected 3-night getaway, and I was almost there. By the time I left the store, it was raining harder, but at least I had my jacket on.

Ten minutes later I checked in at the registration desk of Christmas Mountain. No line there! I drove to the condo assigned to me. Usually we reserve 2-bedroom condos so we have plenty of space to spread out, but this week, the only unit available was a 1-bedroom condo. Most of the units at Christmas Mountain are duplexes, and that was the case this time, too. There were three parking spaces in front of this duplex, but all the spaces had cars in them. That was a little annoying, but the next duplex wasn’t far away, and there was an extra space there, which I took. It was still raining, and I knew I had at least six trips ahead of me to carry in my suitcase, all my food for three days, my computer, books, a step-stool (because they keep the glasses and mugs on the top shelf of the cupboard – well beyond my reach), and everything else I always pack to be sure I have whatever I might need.

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Carrying one briefcase, my purse, and the keycard, I splashed through the rain and opened the door. And I groaned, “I can’t believe how small this is!” I normally set up my computer at one end of the dining table and use the other end for eating. Obviously that won’t work here. The table is about 2-feet square. It’s smaller than a card table. Grumbling to myself, I went back into the rain to make the other five trips to carry in all my stuff.

When I had everything inside, I sat on the couch to think about how (or if) to settle in. The room was dark. The only overhead lights were two can lights above the kitchen counter. As I looked up I saw a centipede crawling across the ceiling. I looked for a fly swatter, which most units have. I couldn’t find one. I looked for anything I could use to kill the centipede. I finally settled on a long cooking spoon. I positioned my step stool and a dining chair under the centipede. I climbed up and tried to smash it with the long spoon, but I just stunned it, I think, and it fell – somewhere. Fortunately, I didn’t feel it crawling on me, and within seconds I found it scurrying along the floor to safety under the couch.

I sat down on the couch to consider my options. I could simply go home. Or, I could call the front desk to see if they could put me in another unit. Or, I could try to make the best of this unit. As I sat on the couch, I became more aware of how noisy it was. Instead of a furnace, the condo had two wall units for heating and cooling – one in the main room and one in the bedroom. They were almost as noisy as vacuum cleaners.

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Then my cellphone rang. It was my friend Peggy. She and Mim were out shopping in Madison, and they were in the liquor store of Woodman’s. Although Peggy does not drink, she wanted to know what my favorite red wines are. She was re-stocking her wine rack, and she wanted to do it with my favorites. Wow! What a friend to have!

After talking with Peggy, and then talking with Mim for a few minutes, my mood lifted a little. That’s when I thought of my special word from last year – GRATITUDE. I certainly am fortunate to have a good friend like Peggy in my life. And Mim for a life partner. And then I thought of the apple crisp still sitting in my ice chest. How grateful I am for that – and for Denise for thinking to make it for me.

And then I remembered what my plans were for these days – to read a couple books and start working on my 366-hymn devotional book. What a gift to have this unexpected time to do these things.

How quickly I had allowed a few little disappointments to make me forget about being grateful – grateful for time and grateful for friends. And grateful for lots more. Maybe that’s why this little getaway in this tiny condo at Christmas Mountain fell into my lap – I needed to be reminded of last year’s special word. Gratitude.

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Three candles glowing on top of a cardboard box set the tone for the rest of my getaway.

 

The Best New Thing since Sliced Bread

Sliced Bread

I remember the first time I heard that expression. I was living in Chicago and working at Northwest Industries, Inc., the fifth largest corporation in Chicago at the time. Northwest was a diversified holding company with about a dozen companies making products that ranged from tubular steel (as in the Alaska pipeline) to underwear (Fruit of the Loom) and cowboy boots (Acme Boot Company).  I worked in the corporate office located on the 63rd floor of the Sears Tower. As a business analyst in the Information Technology Department, I was part of a team that was always trying to come up with more creative and efficient ways of analyzing data to predict, report, and hopefully enhance profitability. Frequently someone would claim that their idea would become “the best new thing since sliced bread.”

sliced bread photo

I always liked that expression because it was so tangible. When I was a pre-schooler, before my mom got a job outside of the home, my mom used to bake our bread from scratch, once a week, four loaves at a time. My job was to brush a little Crisco on the top of the loaves when they came out of the oven so that the crust would be nice and shiny. Mom usually sliced the bread for all of us, but occasionally Mom wasn’t home, and I would have to cut a slice by myself. I remember how hard it was to cut a slice evenly. Whenever I tried, the top would be just the right thickness and the bottom would come to a sharp edge. Looking back, I can see the real value in being able to have bread that is already sliced.

I still occasionally use the “sliced bread” expression. A few weeks ago it came to mind as I was reading a new little devotional book, 101 Moments of Hope by Edward Grinnan, the Editor-in-Chief of Guideposts Magazine. 101 Moments of Hope is a tiny book that came along free when I ordered a larger book by the same author, The Promise of Hope. I guess I might describe the junior size book as the best thing since sliced bread, or maybe a better comparison would be the best devotional reading since Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling, another one of my favorites that I kept re-reading for four years straight. For a glimpse into the engaging style of Grinnan’s reflections, here’s one reflection from the “Winter” section of the book.

101 Moments of Hope

SALLY BROWN MAKES A BEELINE

Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith…? [James 2:5 RSV]

cocker spaniel 2My little dog Sally Brown teaches me many things, and as usual I learn in spite of myself. The other day on my lunch hour I was impatiently walking her around the block (dragging might be a better word). I didn’t have much time, and I let her know it. But cocker spaniels have relentless noses.

Around the corner came a man – I’m tempted to say old man, but there was really no telling – dressed in a soiled and ragged overcoat, grubby strands of dark hair half-tucked up under a frayed watch cap, his eyes sagging and sad. I, a seasoned New Yorker, glanced away.

But Sally made a kind of scurrying beeline to him, her stubby remnant of a tail vibrating in excitement. It was an utter mystery to me why she picked out this sorry soul to greet with the joy of a long-lost friend. My hand tightened on the leash. I wanted to pull her back, but self-consciousness got the better of me and I slackened my grip.

Sally sat demurely, obligingly allowing herself to be adored and stroked by the grimy hands. She gazed up at her admirer appreciatively. His features softened, a spark ignited in his eyes, and he smiled. “You beeeaauutiful girl, you!” he exclaimed quietly. “Thanks for saying hello.”

He never looked at me. Quickly, he straightened up and was off. I stood and watched the man disappear down the street, wondering how he would have responded if it had been I who had stopped to say hello.

God, sometimes Your smallest creatures have the largest hearts. Help me to do unto others with a larger heart.

[Edward Grinnan, 101 Moments of Hope: Inspiring Thoughts for Everyday Living,
©2011, Guideposts, New York, pp. 10-11]

I’m about half done reading 101 Moments of Hope. I’m tempted to read more than one reflection a day, but I’m disciplining myself so that the book will last me 101 days. I can hardly wait to begin my devotional readings each morning with this little book waiting to be picked up. It’s the chocolate chip cookie of my devotional readings. To really mix my metaphors – see why I say it’s the best thing since sliced bread, or Jesus Calling, or a chocolate chip cookie?

chocolate chip cookie - split

Note: The book can be ordered online from Guideposts directly or from Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and other online bookstores.

 

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!)

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.

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