Tag Archive | Henri Nouwen

Remembering my “times” in Jail

Dane County Jail on the top floors of the City-County Building on Martin Luther King Junior Drive in Madison, WI.

Dane County Jail on the top floors of the City-County Building on Martin Luther King Junior Drive in Madison, WI.

The last couple weeks I’ve been spending a lot of my time working on a new booklet, “Stories from JAIL Ministry: Personal Reflections of a Volunteer.” I recently agreed to speak about the Jail Ministry at a potluck luncheon of the senior citizen club of our church, Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison. Since I like to write more than I like to speak, I thought having a little booklet to hand out to everyone would be a nice supplement to the things I talk about during the lunch presentation.

Stories from JAIL MinistryI knew that putting together a booklet would be easy and fun for me to do. Most of the chapters were already written. I would simply take the jail-related blog posts I’ve written over the past four years, compile them into a booklet, cut out the ones that seem repetitious, and edit the remainder of the posts to fit into a manageable booklet size. I’m almost finished, and I was right. It was fun!

The part of the process that was the most fun was remembering all the posts I’ve written about worshiping God together with the inmates and the chaplain. It was fun to remember many of the inmates and their life stories. It was fun to remember taking communion together and talking about what that meant to us. It was fun to remember sharing how God was speaking to each one of us at that moment and then praying for each other. It was fun to remember singing together, especially the times I accompanied the ad hoc choir that occasionally formed after the worship service while we waited for an officer to come to escort the women back to their cell blocks.

Yesterday morning, before I started working on the final draft of this booklet, I read the following in Henri Nouwen’s daily devotional book, Bread for the Journey:

The Church is that unlikely body of people through whom God chooses to reveal God’s love for us.

That’s it! As I put all these blog posts together, I realized, these incarcerated women are part of “that unlikely body of people through whom God chooses to reveal God’s love for us.” Through these women’s lives, God’s love and care can be seen. These women are part of the same Church as the people I worship God with on Sunday. And it is through this Church, God’s Church, that we experience and begin to understand God’s love. The apparent difference between the incarcerated part of the Church and the part of the Church that worships God in a beautiful building on Sunday morning is that the incarcerated members are currently in difficult circumstances and those circumstances are obvious to everyone. But we’re all members of the same Church, God’s Church.

GOV065In the past four years that I have been going into the jail regularly to worship God with these incarcerated members of the Church, I have learned to take the words of Jesus more seriously when he said:

I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
[Matthew 25:35, 36, 40 NRSV]

If you would like to receive one of these booklets, send me an email at MarianKorth@gmail.com. Be sure to include your mailing address, and I’ll drop one in the mail for you when the booklet is finished – within the next week or so.

My Mom – from her Boss’ Perspective

Elsie at PresHouse

Mom at work at Pres House in the 1960s.

I guess it’s natural to think about the special people in my life from strictly my own perspective. Obviously, that’s how I know them. I’ve written about my mom several times in this blog. Long-time readers of my blog know what she was like – at least from my perspective.

A couple months ago, I came across something that enabled me to see my mom from someone else’s perspective. When Mim was keeping a low profile, trying to recover from the flu, she decided to page through some old family scrapbooks. She came across a 1972 newsletter from the Presbyterian Student Center (Pres House) at the University of Wisconsin. Here’s the article that caught her attention:

Pres House 1

Pres House – the Presbyterian Student Center at UW Madison – where Mom worked during most of my growing up years.

Elsie Korth Retires June 30

Mrs. Elsie Korth, secretary and bookkeeper and receptionist at Pres House for 16 years, will be retiring June 30, 1972. I doubt that we will see the likes of her again. Surely the only secretary in existence who complains to her bosses when she has nothing to do; she has kept me, Jim Jondrow, and the entire present MCM staff hopping to find work. So excellent and efficient is her work, that we are all thoroughly spoiled!

By the fact that so much of the news in this newsletter has come addressed to Elsie, we can see ample evidence of another kind of service to us which Elsie has performed over the years. As an ever-listening and concerned friend of so many Pres House people, she provided a part of our student ministry that will not be forgotten. A member of the oldest Scandinavian Methodist Church in the world in Cambridge, Wisconsin, she certainly represented Willerup Methodist Church to this campus. And who can forget those delicious cookies and treats which Elsie delighted in surprising us with, or the terse commentary on the events and times permeating our ministry over these years. Oh, Elsie, we will miss you indeed.

The Pres House board surprised Elsie with a picture, in green, of U.S. Grant, lots of praise, and a sad farewell. When the staff asked to take her and her husband Carl out to dinner as a going away occasion, she asked instead if we could attend a Sunday afternoon buffet on their farm with our families. True to Elsie! We only ask, Pres House friends, that with Elsie’s departure you also continue to write to us at Pres House! You may continue to write to Elsie at: R. 2, Cambridge, Wisconsin 53523.

I smiled and got a little teary when I read that tribute to my mom. I remembered that fourteen and a half years later she was still receiving Christmas cards from some of those former university students and co-workers. I went through the Christmas cards sent to Mom in 1986 to let the senders know that she had died in October that year. Some of them wrote back to me, explaining how much they had appreciated knowing her.

As I was thinking about the Pres House newsletter article, I remembered the summer Mom taught me her work standards very clearly. It was the summer before I started my junior year in high school. I was asked to take over the job of preparing the Sunday bulletins for Willerup Methodist Church. The church did not have a secretary back then.

mimeograph machineThe process in those days (the 1960s) was:

  • Using notes provided by the pastor, type the bulletin on a mimeograph stencil.
  • Ink the mimeograph machine by squeezing thick black ink from a big toothpaste-like tube onto the roller drum and turning the crank of the mimeograph machine a few times to spread the globs of ink evenly.
  • Literally crank out about 150 bulletins on special bulletin paper stock.
  • Wait for the ink to dry and then fold the bulletins in half.

The pastor showed me how to type the stencils and work the mimeograph machine the first Saturday I did the bulletin. I thought the bulletins looked a little messy, but I was proud that I had learned how to do it. My mom was horrified at the quality. I think that’s the only time she was really embarrassed to be my mother. Well, maybe there were other times, but I never knew about them. This time there was no doubt. She was mortified when the pastor announced to the congregation that I had prepared the bulletin and had agreed to do them for the next couple years. After that first bulletin, Mom realized that if she wanted me to produce bulletins that met her standards, she’d have to teach me herself. So she did.

She taught me to start the process by typing up a draft of the bulletin from the pastor’s notes. (This was in the days of manual typewriters.) Then I would carefully proofread it, and if necessary, retype the draft. The next step was right justification. Wherever there was text that was more than one line long, such as a prayer, I had to figure out the best places to insert an extra space to ensure an even right margin. Mom taught me the best places – after periods and commas, between phrases, and around long words – in that order. I penciled in a mark on the draft for each place an extra space was needed.

Then I was ready to type the stencil, which was a blue, heavily waxed sheet. I had to type exactly as indicated on the marked-up draft. If I made a typo, I used a little bottle of liquid wax to brush over the typo, wait for the wax to dry, and then retype the word. If the wax was too thick or if the typo introduced spacing issues, I’d have to start a new stencil from scratch.

Our bulletins had pretty pictures on the covers, and I tried to fit all the information on the inside and back cover. Otherwise I had to do even more stencils for an insert.

Our bulletins had a pretty picture on the front cover and a story on the back cover. I tried to fit all the worship and announcement information on the inside. Otherwise I had to do even more stencils for an insert.

When I complained to Mom about how tedious the process was, she told me I had it easy. At Pres House the bulletins had three narrow columns to right-justify instead of just two wide columns, and her typewriter had increments, not just spaces, i.e., an “i” was one increment wide, an “m” was three increments, and most other letters were two increments. Try right-justifying that manually! I guess I did have it easy.

Mom also taught me two different methods for folding the bulletins. Either method produced perfectly folded bulletins – no unmatched corners, ever!

After a few weeks I got to be just as picky as Mom, and she was no longer embarrassed to see the bulletins in church on Sunday mornings. I guess I have to thank her for having a high standard for any work I produce to this day.

“So excellent and efficient is her work, that we are all thoroughly spoiled.” I guess that’s how Mom’s boss saw her. I liked reading the Rev. Dr. Jim Jondrow’s perspective of her from 1972. I also liked reading “ever listening and concerned friend … delicious cookies … terse commentary …”

Most of my memories of Mom relate to family times. It was good to read this newsletter, to see Mom from someone else’s perspective, and to be reminded of long-forgotten memories.

Everyone sees life and everything in it from a slightly (or greatly) different perspective. It’s always worthwhile to try to see someone else’s perspective on things, especially things close to us, including ourselves. Henri Nouwen wrote about this in “Friendship in the Twilight Zones of Our Hearts” in his book Bread for the Journey. He said,

There is a twilight zone in our own hearts that we ourselves cannot see. Even when we know quite a lot about ourselves – our gifts and weaknesses, our ambitions and aspirations, our motives and drives – large parts of ourselves remain in the shadow of consciousness. …

Other people, especially those who love us, can often see our twilight zones better than we ourselves can. The way we are seen and understood by others is different from the way we see and understand ourselves. We will never fully know the significance of our presence in the lives of our friends. That’s a grace, a grace that calls us not only to humility but also to a deep trust in those who love us.

Different perspectives. I’m really glad Mim paged through that old scrapbook, and shared with me the treasure she found. Seeing my mom from someone else’s perspective was enlightening and heartwarming. Now I’m more thankful than ever for Mom.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Mom sending fresh-cut flowers from her garden home with me to Chicago.

When I lived in Chicago and drove up to the farm in Cambridge to visit, Mom always sent fresh-cut flowers from her garden home with me. (Along with bags and bags of whatever vegetables were ripening in the garden.)

A Roundtable Discussion that Makes My Day

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

Joan Chittister

Joan Chittister

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

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

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

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

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

Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

roundtable of books

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.