Tag Archive | love your neighbor

The Best Thing about Darkness

There seems to be much more darkness in the world today than there was a week ago, when I last posted my thoughts on this blog.

Clock and Calendar

In the most literal sense, the sun rose 9 minutes later today than it rose a week ago, and it will set 7 minutes earlier than it set a week ago – a net change of 16 minutes more darkness today than last Tuesday. By next Tuesday we’ll lose another 15 minutes of daylight. I don’t know how these times are calculated, but I trust the chart that is displayed on www.SunriseSunset.com. And, in a general sense, these times are confirmed by my personal observations. I’ve noticed that it’s getting dark a lot earlier in the evening, and I’ve noticed the same thing has happened this time of the year every year of my life. We’re moving into a season of darkness, a time when there is more darkness than light.

In a global news sense, the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday night have brought a terrible sense of darkness across the whole world. How can there be so much hate in the world that people kill other people that they don’t even know? I don’t understand ISIS. But I don’t understand how we can turn a blind eye to people who don’t have food to eat and who will soon starve to death, either. And I don’t understand why there is extreme poverty in the world, in the United States, in Wisconsin, and yes, poverty, hunger, and homelessness even in my own home town. All around, we’re in a season of moral darkness, as well as having fewer hours of daylight.

eiffel-tower - night

The Eiffel Tower in Paris – the City of Light

Adding to this season of darkness, a friend of mine posted an entry on www.CaringBridge.com yesterday.

The days are darker and time seems to be going fast. After several consultations with my radiation oncologist and others on my cancer care team, I have chosen to start radiation once a day for 15 days. The team thinks it may shrink the [brain] tumors enough to slow down some of the cancer progress and symptoms. Discussion indicates possible life expectancy of two weeks, or two months, or who knows.

RuthAnn WilsonWell, those are all guesses. No one knows, of course. I will live every day the best I am able….

So far I have minimal pain and very loving care.

I have received many precious cards and letters from many of you. I treasure each one, and I enjoy reading them over and over, or having them read to me. I wish I could answer each one of you. Please know that I appreciate you so very much….

My friend is an inspiration to all of us who know her. Even though she is walking through “the valley of the shadow of death” she knows that God is with her, and she is comforted by God’s presence. Her strong faith and positive attitude are truly a comfort to all of us.

Lots of darkness is surrounding me today as I write this, but the best thing about a season of darkness was highlighted to me this morning as I read My Personal Daily Prayer Book by Christine A. Dallman and Margaret Anne Huffman.

Small deeds of goodness in the aftermath of trouble, like fireflies flickering against a dark sky, can blanket the world with sparkling lights.

When Mim and I still lived on the farm, sometimes on summer evenings, after dark, just before going to bed, we would walk our dogs to the end of the driveway to look across the road at the soybean field, glowing with hundreds, maybe thousands, of fireflies hovering just above the plants like silent fireworks. It was a beautiful sight, one that could only be seen in the darkness.

Fireflies over field

I can’t stop the days from getting shorter this time of year.  I can’t stop terrorists from killing. And I can’t feed everyone in the world who is starving. But I can listen to someone who is grieving. And I can send a card to let someone know I’m thinking about them and praying for them. And I can donate to the local food pantry.

I like the image of being one of the fireflies hovering over the dark field. Care to join me? Together we can make a marvelous display of hope above the darkness.

Fireflies close up

Friends and Relatives, Cats and Dogs

How many friends and relatives, cats and dogs does it take to make one’s life wonderful?

Hundreds. Maybe thousands. What it takes to make a life wonderful is to learn to appreciate – to be thankful for – the  enrichment each person and pet contributes to one’s life.

Mim and Marian with Megabyte - our first puppy - in our living room in Chicago.

Mim and Marian with Megabyte – our first puppy – in our living room in Chicago – 1990.

During the last couple weeks, Mim and I have had opportunities to see lots of friends and relatives from much earlier times in our lives. That got me started thinking about all the people in our lives – in our whole lifetimes – and how much all these people, and pets, have enriched our lives.

Mim and Roger Hovey

Mim and cousin Roger in 2006.

Last Friday, we attended the funeral of Mim’s last first cousin, Roger Hovey, age 93. We drove over 500 miles to Clear Lake, South Dakota for the funeral. After the service we ate a funeral lunch in the church fellowship hall with about a hundred of Roger’s friends and relatives, and we enjoyed a couple hours of visiting, mostly with second cousins of Mim. Then we drove 500 miles home. That’s how we spent Thursday, Friday, and half of Saturday last week. The trip was exhausting, but the time spent remembering Roger’s life and talking with Mim’s relatives was incredibly refreshing.

Roger and his wife June had lived and farmed in South Dakota their whole lives. For the last 30 years or so they spent their winters in Florida. When Mim and I moved to Wisconsin from Chicago 23 years ago, Roger and June started to drive through Cambridge almost every spring and fall on their way to and from Florida for a short visit. They never called to schedule the visit. They just rang the doorbell, usually mid-morning, and came in for a cup of coffee and an hour or two of conversation. Fortunately, either Mim or I always happened to be at home when they came. The last few years their daughter Pam drove with them. We always enjoyed their short, lively visits. Each visit was a time to step out of our daily routine and enjoy both reminiscing and catching up on the current lives of these loving people from our past – in this case, Mim’s past. However, over the 20 years of their twice yearly visits, they became good friends of mine, too.

June-Roger-Pam-Gene 2006

June and Roger with their daughter Pam and her husband Gene – 2006.

The week before the funeral, Mim and I went to Chicago for a church music conference. (All this travel is very unlike us with our 24/7/365 assisted living business, but everything just happened to work out smoothly for these two trips.) The conference was great, both practical and inspiring. But even better was the reconnection with more old friends and relatives. One day we had lunch with Mim’s niece and her daughter. We hadn’t seen them in at least 25 years. That evening we had half-pound cheeseburgers and a pitcher of Sangria in the beer garden of Moody’s Pub, our old hang-out in Chicago, with Marilyn, a friend from my college days who co-owned and lived in our two-flat in Chicago with us for 13 years.

Marilyn, Mim, and Marian in the Beer Garden of Moody's Pub - 2015.

Marilyn, Mim, and Marian in the Beer Garden of Moody’s Pub – 2015.

On our way back to our motel from Moody’s we drove through our old neighborhood and stopped to see Ruth, the woman who lived next door to us in Chicago. At 98, she’s still living in her two-flat, now all by herself. Until just a couple years ago, her sister Elaine had lived with her. Although Elaine was six years younger than Ruth, Elaine passed away first. We talked about some of the changes the neighborhood has seen in Ruth’s lifetime. Her parents had built the two-flat she is still living in, 90 years later. Their family was one of the Russian Jewish families who settled in that block of Chicago when it was first being developed in the 1920s.

Ruth (left) and her sister Elaine and their first dog Jenny, visiting us in our farmhouse just after we moved from Chicago to the farm in 1992.

Ruth (left) and her sister Elaine and their first dog Jenny, visiting us in our farmhouse just after we moved from Chicago to the farm in 1992.

Zoe - dropped

Zoe – still a puppy at heart until the day she died at age 15.

One of the more current things we talked about was Ruth’s dog Zoe. Her 15-year-old dog had died less than a week ago. One of Ruth’s friends wrote “Elegy for Zoe” on her blog, MidwesternRobot.com. It’s a beautiful story about Zoe and about close-knit friendships in the neighborhood. (I encourage you to follow the link to Zoe’s story, but be prepared to shed a tear or two.)

That’s partly why I’m reflecting on how friends, relatives, and pets enrich our lives throughout our whole lifetime. That’s what makes life so wonderful. I guess that’s why the Bible tells us to love each other.

For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Galatians 5:14]

Fortunately, throughout my lifetime, I have had many, many neighbors – friends and relatives and cats and dogs – who have loved me and enriched my life greatly. It’s good to take time to remember these wonderful people and other loving creatures from our past.

Mim and Pam in cemetery - 2015.

Mim and Pam in cemetery – 2015.

Henry’s Story

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHenry is one of my heroes. I knew Henry for a total of about twelve years, starting in 2000. He wasn’t a perfect person. He had one significant flaw that I knew of – not being punctual. He lived by his internal clock, not his watch. But he taught me more about forgiveness, kindness, and absolute commitment to serving God than anyone else I’ve known in my 66 years of life. (Well, maybe my mom taught me more about those values, but Henry taught me the second most of anybody.)

Henry, who died a few years ago, was a Methodist minister who was called in 2000 to be pastor of Willerup United Methodist Church in Cambridge. Henry was a second career pastor. In his previous career he had worked in sales and marketing for a publishing company. He was about 60, divorced, and the father of two adult children. He was also the legal guardian and caregiver for Bob, a developmentally disabled man in his 40s.

I met Henry and Bob when they moved to Cambridge for Henry’s call to Willerup. Mim and I were living in our farmhouse at the time and we welcomed guests into our home as Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast. Henry wanted Bob and him to stay with us for the first few days during their move into the Willerup parsonage. He thought the move would be less disruptive for Bob if they could at least sleep in an environment that wasn’t as chaotic as a place filled with boxes in the process of being unpacked. However, when Henry and Bob arrived in Cambridge, they discovered that the parsonage wasn’t ready for them. The parsonage was in need of some minor repairs and major cleaning before they could move in.

Henry Hall and Bob SpauldingSo Henry and Bob ended up living with us for a couple months. During that time, we became good friends. As a B&B, we always served them breakfast, but as they were becoming friends, they often ate dinner with us too. Sometimes we’d go into the living room after dinner and gather around the piano for a sing-along, especially on days when my sister Nancy and her husband Clark had also joined us for dinner.

Willerup Sketch-BWUnfortunately, it became clear early in Henry’s time of ministry at Willerup that some members of the congregation were not pleased that Henry, a divorced, second-career pastor, was their minister. The congregation, in general, was quite conservative, and Henry and Bob didn’t fit their image of a traditional pastor and his family. Matters got worse when Bob, who spent his days at a sheltered work environment did some acting out to get more attention. Bob observed that another worker got extra attention when he told stories about his guardian being sexually inappropriate. So Bob tried to tell similar stories about Henry. Bob was right – he got lots of attention when he told these stories. A social worker and even the police got involved.

Word quickly got back to the congregation about these allegations, and certain members of the congregation demanded that Henry be forced to leave the church. Henry tried to continue to minister to the congregation, but stress was beginning to take its toll on his health. Furthermore, one of the social workers believed Bob’s stories without question, and managed to have Henry’s guardianship of Bob terminated, breaking up a healthy “family” relationship that had existed for many years. She also did everything she could to be sure Henry would spend the rest of his life in prison.

That’s when Henry taught me one of his most important lessons. I asked him how he could stand the prospect of spending years in prison because of Bob’s sensational but untrue stories. Henry said, “If I go to prison, it’s because God has a ministry for me to do there. It’s all up to God, and I’ll gladly do whatever He calls me to do.”

The legal case was eventually dropped, but Henry’s reputation was too badly damaged for him to be able to effectively minister at Willerup. He agreed to move to Madison and begin a part-time clown ministry. Being a clown had been a hobby of his for years, and he saw the potential to develop it into an intentional ministry. Henry also needed some less stressful time to regain his health. With all the turmoil, his body had really suffered, and he was put on a waiting list for a heart transplant.

In less than a year of Henry arriving in Cambridge, he was preparing to leave. He decided to take only a few things with him and to move into a small apartment in Madison. He called upon an auctioneer friend of his from his previous congregation to help him get rid of all the rest of his belongings.

Peter Rooster against condoBefore the auction, Mim and I talked with Henry about how hard it must be to give up most of his material possessions. We talked for a long time. He showed us some of his most treasured items that would be in the auction and told us stories about some of them. “Peter” was the name of a life-size cast iron rooster. A member of a previous congregation had given that to him as a gift because of how personally meaningful Henry had made the story of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus, of Jesus’ forgiveness of this betrayal, and of Jesus’ continuing love for Peter and for all of us.

The next day, Mim and I went to the auction. Henry was there. We asked him how he could bear to watch all his treasures being auctioned off. He responded, “I’m delighted to see who is bidding on what. It’s great to see who God has in mind to be the next caretaker of each item. Everything belongs to God anyway. There is no change in ownership.” That was another lesson Henry taught me.

Mim and I really wanted to get “Peter,” the 26-inch tall cast iron rooster. I got into a bidding war over him. I persisted, and “Peter” now stands proudly on the big rock at the corner of our condo – a reminder of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus and Jesus’ forgiveness and continuing love, and also a reminder of all the lessons we learned from Henry.

Peter Rooster against postAbout a year after Henry left Cambridge he got his new heart. The donor was a young man who died in a motorcycle accident. Henry’s recovery was long and hard, but he was determined to recover and continue to develop his clown ministry. He had a new focus for clowning – to comfort people who are involved in heart transplants – the families of donors, the recipients and their families, and the medical and nursing staff who work with everyone involved. He served in clown ministry for about ten years.

I’m very thankful that Henry was called to ministry in Cambridge, even though it was for a short time. By his example, I learned a lot about forgiveness, kindness, and absolute commitment to serving God. Henry is truly one of my heroes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Henry brought along some of his clown gear the last time he came to visit us in our home.

 

 

Observing Holy Week – Jail Style

City-County Bldg 2Last Thursday I participated in the women’s worship service at the county jail. I’ll be doing the same thing again this Thursday, Maundy Thursday. Women inmates have the opportunity to go to worship once every other week. The women from half the cell blocks are given the opportunity one week, the other half the next week. Last week four inmates chose to come to the worship service. With the chaplain and me, six of us sat in chairs arranged in a close circle with a small table in the center that served as the altar.

We observed all of Holy Week in about an hour. We started with one woman reading the story of Palm Sunday, of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Then we jumped ahead to Maundy Thursday. The chaplain explained the two key events that happened that evening – Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, and Jesus sharing bread and wine with his disciples – the first Last Supper. That was a natural lead-in for us to share communion with each other.

potters crackersUsually in the past when we’ve shared communion, the chaplain has provided elements that are commonly available in jail – saltine crackers and a plastic cup of grape juice from the canteen. But this time, she brought something special – Cranberry Graham organic artisan crackers from Potter’s Crackers and organic grape juice. The chaplain had picked up the gourmet crackers and organic juice at the Willy Street Co-op.

The chaplain explained what communion represents in her faith tradition and asked each of us to explain what communion means to us. Then the chaplain held the basket of crackers and the cup of grape juice and offered “the Bread of Life and the Cup of Blessing” to the inmate sitting at her right. The woman picked up a cracker from the basket and dipped it in the grape juice. As she ate it, we all smiled as she crunched and ate the cracker. The crackers were really crunchy, but oh so tasty. Then the first inmate held the basket and cup, and offered the crackers and grape juice to the woman sitting at her right. We kept smiling while we waited for her to finish eating her crunchy cracker.  Then she offered the holy meal to the next person, and so on until all of us had been served.  I’m glad there were just six of us sitting in the circle so we could truly savor this moment of holy crunching and sharing.

When all had been served, we ended the meal by singing a hymn, just like the original disciples at the first Last Supper. The hymn we sang was “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” I wonder what hymn Jesus and the disciples sang.

Hands playing pianoSince we were trying to observe all of Holy Week in that one worship service, we read more Scripture and talked briefly about the crucifixion and resurrection. Then, as usual, we went around the circle with each of us talking about what was on our minds related to the readings or other thoughts. All four of the women were thinking about being released from jail. One woman was going to be released the next day, and she was really anxious to see her little boy again, and her boyfriend. The three others were going to be released within a couple weeks. All four women were concerned about being able to turn their life around so that they would never have to return to jail, and so that they could live a good, meaningful life. Then we prayed for each other out loud. We went around the circle again, praying for the person on our right, by name. After praying, we sang “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” We ended the service by reading a blessing as a benediction.

A prison cell doorWhile we were waiting for a deputy to come to escort the inmates back to their cell block, one of the women asked if I knew how to play the song “This Little Light of Mine.” I started to play the tune and she sang along. Then we all sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Both songs seemed quite meaningful for young women about to be released from jail, and about to go back to the rest of their lives.

I left jail that day thinking about lots of things –

  • What kind of bread did Jesus share with his disciples in the first Last Supper? Was it really crunchy and flavorful? Do church worship committees think seriously about the kind of bread they serve for communion – and what that could symbolize on multiple levels?
  • What hymn did the disciples sing before leaving the meal? I can’t believe that I never noticed before that it says in Mark 14:26 that they sang a hymn! That gives me a new perspective to keep in mind when I select music to play as background music during communion in the churches where I play organ.
  • How will God take care of each of these women as they return to their lives outside of jail? After all, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
  • Why do I feel so thankful and invigorated by the prayer the inmate sitting on my left had prayed for me and my family? And, do all the inmates and the chaplain feel the same way when someone prays for them by name? I bet all people (or almost all) are inspired when they know that someone is specifically praying for them…

I’m truly grateful for the opportunity to get together with these women to read scripture, share communion, express thoughts and feelings, sing hymns, and pray together. I need to write up a note about this to drop in my Gratitude Jar.

Gratitude Jar w note 4

 

 

 

The Goose Family is Home Again! Happy Spring!

3 in pondI got up from my desk and walked over to the patio door. “Oh, look, Floey, the Goose Family has returned.” A goose made a big splash as it landed on the water. The honking got even louder as another goose landed. “That looks like Gilbert and Gloria. Let’s go out and welcome them.”

“Who in the world are they?” asked Floey. “And what in the world are they?”

“Oh, that’s right, Floey. You’ve never met them. I’ll introduce you. Oh, look, here comes one more. That must be Grace. I bet Gregory won’t be far behind.”

I clipped Floey’s leash onto her collar and opened the patio door. Even though the sun was shining, it was a little cool to go outside without a jacket, but I couldn’t wait.

Floey looking at pond w ice“Welcome home, Gilbert! Hello, Grace! Hi Gloria! So good to see you again! Where’s Gregory?”

“Hi, Marian,” honked Grace. “Gregory will be here soon. He was busy teaching some of his favorite Lenten hymns to some teenage geese out in the countryside. He told us to go ahead and that he’d catch up with us later.”

Gilbert swam over close to the edge of the pond where Floey and I were standing. “Where’s Abbey? And, who is the new pup?”

1 walking on ice“It’s so good to see you again, Gilbert. This is Floey, short for Florence Nightingale, the nurse. Come on, Floey, you don’t need to hide behind my legs. The goose family shares the pond with us every summer. They’re wonderful neighbors.”

Floey peeked out from behind my legs. “Nice to meet you,” she said, but she stayed very close to me.

Gloria swam over to join our conversation. “Nice to meet you, too, Floey. But I’m anxious to tell Abbey all about our trip. Is she inside?”

“I’m afraid not, Gloria. Abbey joined her friends and family in heaven last November. She brightened our lives for eight years, but then she had to go home. Floey joined us shortly afterwards.”

Gloria responded, “So sorry to hear about Abbey. She was my best dog friend ever.” Gloria looked off into the distance for a moment. Then she turned back and looked directly at Floey. “I’m glad to meet you, Floey. I’m sure we’ll become good friends, too. Do you like to sing?”

Floey facing camera - icy pond behindFloey smiled. “I love to sing. And I have a really wide range – all the way from bass to soprano! Really! And I can sing every note in between, too. Listen…” She started with a low growl, then barked a few notes in her midrange, and ended with a howl that kept going higher and higher.

“Wow! We’ll be glad to have you sing with us,” she said to Floey with a smile. Then, she turned to me and said, “You know what song I think of whenever I’m sad, or when I think about a really good friend, like Abbey, who’s no longer with us? I think of ‘Near to the Heart of God’ by Cleland B. McAfee.”

Gilbert looked at Gloria, and nodded his head. Together they sang the first verse and refrain,

There is a place of quiet rest,
Near to the heart of God,
A place where sin cannot molest,
Near to the heart of God.

O Jesus, blest Redeemer,
Sent from the heart of God,
Hold us, who wait before Thee,
Near to the heart of God.

Grace heard Gilbert and Gloria singing and she swam over to join them for the second verse.

There is a place of comfort sweet,
Near to the heart of God,
A place where we our Savior meet,
Near to the heart of God.

As the goose trio was singing the second verse, another goose circled overhead, and then splashed down onto the pond. It was Gregory. He cleared his throat, looked knowingly at the three singers, and then sang the third verse as a solo.

There is a place of full release,
Near to the heart of God,
A place where all is joy and peace,
Near to the heart of God.

The four of them sang the final refrain together, a perfectly blended 4-part choir. Both Floey and I had tears in our eyes when they finished. I said, “That was just beautiful. I’m so glad you are all back home with us. Welcome, Gregory. Now that you’re all here, I know spring has come.”

“Sorry we couldn’t make it for the beginning of Lent like we usually do,” honked Gregory. “This has been a terrible winter, and we just couldn’t fly north for the longest time. We started out several times, but we always had to turn around and go back south. I’m sure glad we’re finally here.”

“That’s right,” chimed in Grace. “There’s no better place than the Whispering Winds Pond to sing all those wonderful Lenten hymns. They are such good reminders of how much God loves us. I think we need to get busy singing some more. It will be Easter in less than two weeks, and, as I recall, there are 81 hymns in the Whispering Winds Lenten songbook, ‘Songs about the Love of God.’ Now that we’re all here, I think we should start with ‘Let’s Just Praise the Lord.’ That should warm us up good. Floey, why don’t you sing soprano on this one…”

4 geese on pond

Minor Characters in Our Life Stories

In last week’s blog post I wrote about the Sunday dinners of my childhood. To keep the story short, I left out one of the minor characters in those dinners, Eva Frankson. I’ve been thinking about her ever since.

Eva lived with Grandma. My grandma had a small house across the street from the west side park in Cambridge. The house had a large eat-in kitchen, a living room, one bedroom downstairs and one bedroom up in the attic. The bathroom was downstairs – a room large enough to hold Grandma’s loom where she wove rag rugs. (That’s another story.) Eva had the bedroom in the attic.

Eva worked as a waitress in one of the restaurants on Main Street. Grandma had worked in the same restaurant, and I guess that is where they met each other.

Grandma - Eva - waitresses

Waitresses of the Cottage Restaurant in Cambridge, about 1950. My grandma is on the left. Eva is on the right. I don’t know the three in the middle.

When I was in grade school, sometimes I would go to my grandma’s after school instead of taking the bus home, and I’d wait for my mom to come home from work in Madison to pick me up. Grandma and I usually spent the time putting together picture puzzles. We both loved to do puzzles. I remember listening together, very quietly, to hear Eva come in the front door after her walk home from work at the restaurant. If she was really tired, she’d stop in the living room before climbing upstairs to her room. Eva would compliment us on our progress on the puzzle, and then she and Grandma would talk a little bit about the day. But mostly Eva just sat down and rested. She was tired. After a few minutes she’d climb the stairs to her room.

Eva and Grandma with their cats. Eva never liked to have her picture taken - that's why she's hiding behind her cat.

Eva and Grandma with their cats. Eva never liked to have her picture taken – that’s why she’s hiding behind her cat.

Whenever Mom invited Grandma to go anywhere with us, she often invited Eva to join us. Once they both rode with us all the way to Wheaton, Illinois to visit my sister Nancy in college. It was pretty crowded in the car with Mom and Dad, Grandma, Eva, Danny, and me. I remember I sat on Eva’s lap for the whole car ride of almost three hours. I’ll admit, I got tired of sitting still. But as I look back on the trip 60 years later, I guess Eva probably got even more tired of holding me, although she never complained.

Eva never said much about anything. She was always pleasant, but very quiet. I once asked Mom about whether or not Eva had any relatives. Mom said that her parents had given her away when she was a little girl. Someone had been visiting them, and they had commented on what a nice little girl she was. The parents said they could have her if they wanted her. So they took her home with them. I guess that’s all Mom knew about the story.

The one person Eva occasionally talked about was John. Another time I asked Mom who John was. She said that although Eva had never married, she had a son named John. He had been killed in a farming accident when he was 13. I never learned any more details.

Eva was a quiet, extra person in my life. Kind of like a bonus family member – another  grandma, but not quite the same. She was part of the Sunday dinner family. After Grandma died, Mom helped Eva find another place to live and continued to include her in many of our family activities.

Eva w coffeeWhen I was in college, I came to the realization one day that my brother Danny had grown from a subtly rebellious teenager into a kind and caring young man. It was the day I learned that Danny had become the person that Eva could call upon for help whenever she needed strong young muscles to move something heavy, or a creative problem-solver to fix something. Danny was always there to help her. I guess Eva’s quiet presence in our lives had enriched Danny’s life as well as mine.

I’m glad last week’s blog post prompted me to remember and be thankful for Eva, one of the many “minor characters” who has enriched my life story.

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.