Tag Archive | spirituality

Memoir of a 70-Year-Old Super Hero

Do you ever fantasize about being a super hero like Superman, Wonder Woman, or even an old fashioned hero like Roy Rogers or Robin Hood and Maid Marian?

I just finished reading a book about a woman that I can somewhat identify with. She’s about my age. She quit her job as a counselor and social worker to begin a new adventure. She plays the piano to relax. Several years ago she moved to Honduras and began an amazing adventure. She became a super hero in my mind, although she would never make that claim herself. Here’s a blurb from the back cover of the book, EMOTIONAL WITNESS: My Seven-Year Journey as an Aid Worker into the Heart of Honduras.

51smFhUIbL._SX322_BO1204203200_In her 60s, and living in Seattle, Ellen Lippman Finn on a whim signed up for a homestay visit to learn Spanish in Honduras. What began as a two-week vacation became a journey that would transform her life.

It would be love at first sight for the former social worker and jazz musician. She fell hard  for the people living in Copan Ruinas and the surrounding mountains of western Honduras. She divested herself of her possessions in the U.S., and moved permanently to the area, where she felt at home for the first time in 50 years.

When Ellen first moved to Honduras, she focused her energy on raising funds to provide school supplies for children living in the rural villages nearby. One school she visited had no blackboard, no desks, not even any books. The teacher taught arithmetic by drawing numbers with a stick in the sand.

But the lack of school supplies was just one problem. The extreme poverty of the area meant little food and serious malnutrition. Ellen turned to her North American friends to raise funds for food and clothing as well as school supplies.

I first heard about Ellen several years ago from the daughter of one of our assisted living residents. At that time Ellen was raising money to give Christmas baskets to rural families. For $25 you could provide a family a gift basket that included toys, clothes, and food for the whole family. We still donate money for four baskets every Christmas to Buenos Vecinos (Good Neighbors), the organization Ellen created.

Each short chapter in Ellen’s book is the story of some kind of adventure she experienced while living as an aid worker in Honduras. Some of the stories are funny, like her description of learning to ride a horse – the only way to get to a particular rural mountain village. Others are sad, like the story of a father carrying his small son wrapped in a blanket to get some medical care, but by the time he arrived, the son had died. Some are scary, and many are heart-warming. All together these stories provide a complex picture of what life is like in that area of the world.

As word spread about how Ellen was able to raise funds and work with the local people on projects that would improve the living situations in many of the poor mountain villages, more and more people came to her for help. Unfortunately, the drug traffickers learned of her reputation, too, and put her name on their hit list. They didn’t want her working in their territory. Ellen escaped Honduras just in time, recuperated with a friend in the States for a few months, and then moved to Guatemala, where she is continuing her work as Buenos Vecinos in that country. Meanwhile, the particular drug traffickers who were out to kill her have been arrested and are currently in prison. That means she can make occasional trips back to Copan Ruinas to visit her friends there.

This is my 70-year-old super hero. Some of her success stories are listed as an appendix at the end of the book – with thanks to her donors.

  • Communities served: 80 in Honduras, 10 in Guatemala
  • Ongoing nutrition and health programs for many schools
  • School supplies for students in 80 communities
  • Teaching materials for more than 100 classrooms
  • Christmas baskets for more than 250 families yearly
  • Shoes for more than 2,000 kids
  • Construction projects completed: 
    • 20 schools and classrooms
    • 2 school playgrounds
    • 2 bridges so children could access the schools from their homes
    • 1 community medical clinic
    • 1 cooperative bakery
    • 11 water projects
    • 1 library serving 7 villages
    • 16 school bathrooms and wash sinks
    • 30 villages received school repairs and renovations
    • 60 schools received shelves, desks, and blackboards
    • 11 clinics received furniture

That’s just some of the items listed in the book. See why she’s my super hero!

One of the themes of the book is Ellen’s evolving perception of her role as an aid worker and her relationship with the people she is working with. There’s one long chapter near the end of the book that explores that theme in depth. Good intentions don’t necessarily result in good outcomes. Establishing boundaries can be extremely hard, especially in life and death situations. Trying to be helpful can get very complicated. Even for super heroes.

I highly recommend reading the book. Here’s a link to it on amazon.com.  I guarantee the book will make you laugh, cry, and think.


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.


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



Being Robbed

Blogger Linda Swanson - "Journey in Process" blog

“Journey in Process” is one of about a half-dozen blogs I follow. Linda Swanson in the blogger.

“I will not be robbed!” was the title of a blog post written by Linda Swanson for her blog, Journey in Process. Linda is a spiritual director who works mostly with missionaries all around the globe. She currently lives in New Jersey. She and her husband, Kevin, who is a pilot and a pastor, have spent most of their careers working for Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), an aviation and technology service focused on providing support to missionaries.

During the year that I have been following Linda’s blog, she has traveled extensively, speaking at several retreats and conferences, mostly for missionaries in Africa and Asia. She’s back in New Jersey now, and a couple weeks ago she wrote about being robbed at her new home and how she reacted to being robbed. That blog post reminded me of the times that I have been robbed, and how being robbed made me feel.

Telephone TableThe first time I was robbed I was in high school. There was a small telephone table in the dining room that I used as the space for dropping my books and purse when I came home from school. I also left a few of my things on that table – like pens and notepads. Sometimes I left some money there, if I didn’t want to have it with me in school.

One day, I remember I left two one-dollar bills on the table.  When I came home from school that day, the money wasn’t there. I asked my brother Danny about it, and he didn’t know anything was missing. When I mentioned it to my mom and dad, my dad said that around noon that day, he saw one of our neighbors come out of the house. (We never kept the door locked.) Dad had walked up to the house from the barn to see what the neighbor wanted, and the neighbor said something about wanting to borrow a tool – but my dad said the situation seemed a little suspicious. The visitor was a new neighbor that no one really trusted yet. Together Mom, Dad, and I concluded that the neighbor had probably come to the house to see my dad about something, and had decided to walk into the house and look around since no one appeared to be home. He probably saw the two one-dollar bills and slipped them into his pocket. My family never did trust that neighbor.

2 one-dollar bills 2 croppedWe did not confront the apparent thief. Mom said I should consider $2 the cost of the lesson I was learning about leaving money lying around in the open. Two dollars may not seem like much now, but back then it was two weeks’ allowance. I felt bad about the money, but I felt particularly bad that the reason I lost the money was that I was careless about where I kept it. I did learn a lesson.

The second time I was robbed I was living in Chicago with Mim and two other women – Marlene and Maurine. We were the four M’s. We lived on the first floor of a large vintage two-flat in a nice neighborhood. One beautiful summer night we left the windows open in the sun room. The next morning we discovered that two of our bicycles had been stolen from the sun room. The thieves had simply cut the screen, climbed inside, chosen the two bikes they wanted to steal, lifted them out the window, and probably rode off on them. We were fortunate they just wanted a couple bikes. They could have walked off with a lot more of our possessions. But I remember feeling spooked – knowing that while I had been sleeping, a couple strangers had been in our apartment. I was a little scared.  I learned a lesson that day, too – don’t leave first floor windows open at night in a city.

This 26-inch 3-speed Schwinn bicycle had been my a really special present I received on my 10th birthday.

My 3-speed Schwinn bicycle was one of the bikes that was stolen. My parents had given it to me on my 10th birthday.

I was almost robbed a third time, but I caught the thief in the act. I was climbing up the steps of the “L” in downtown Chicago. It was about 5:00 Friday evening, and the stairs and platform were crowded with everyone rushing to go home from work. As I reached out my hand to hold the swinging door to the “L” platform I turned to look back at the person behind me to be sure he would grab the door after me and not get slammed in the face. I saw that he was holding my wallet as he was removing his hand from my purse, a shoulder bag. He was startled to see me look at him, and he dropped the wallet back into the purse. When I got through the door onto the platform, I walked as fast as I could to get as far away from him as possible. Again, I was scared, but very thankful. That’s when I learned to use a small purse and keep it inside my completely closed briefcase.

L platformMim has been robbed twice. The first time, she had met me in the loop after work so that we could do a little Christmas shopping. As we walked from the Sears Tower to State Street we passed some kids who were laughing and jumping around on the street. A couple of them bumped into us, but we just smiled and kept walking. Everyone was having a good time, enjoying the spirit of Christmas. However, when we were in a store and Mim reached in her purse for her wallet to make her first purchase, she discovered that her wallet was missing. I paid for the present she was buying, but then we went home and called the police and filed the report. Unfortunately, in this case, Mim also had to notify credit card companies and get a new driver’s license. This robbery wasn’t particularly costly to us, but it was the biggest nuisance.

concrete flower pot w petuniasThe oddest robbery we’ve experienced was also in Chicago. Mim had just finished planting a big concrete pot with petunias and other annuals to sit on the ledge beside the front steps of our two-flat. She went around to the back of the house to put her garden tools away. When she came back to the front of the house to admire her handiwork, the pot was gone. In less than five minutes, someone had stolen Mim’s big flower pot. It had to be a strong person, because the concrete pot filled with potting soil and live plants and soaked with water was heavy. I can’t imagine that someone would steal a freshly planted flower pot to enjoy for the summer.

In all five of these robberies, we were a little shaken. I googled “robbed quotes” to see if someone could express more clearly than I can what our feelings were about being robbed. The closest quote to how I felt was by the British actor John Boyega. He said, “Being robbed hurts – not physically, but from what it does to your pride.” I guess I would substitute “sense of security” for the word “pride.” Being robbed makes you feel vulnerable and a little scared. In our cases, we also felt thankful that the losses weren’t greater.

What Linda said in her blog was,

Linda SwansonRobbed. I don’t know what to do with that word. When I woke this morning, I felt the power of that word start to do a color wash of gray over my perceptions of our new home, our new neighborhood. I lay in bed much longer than normal feeling the word, recognizing where it wanted to take my thoughts and conclusions, assumptions and presumptions. And, I decided not to go there.… Life will only be right if I remember where my security really comes from, that my joy and contentment are based on my relationship with God and not my circumstances.

Thanks, Linda, for reminding me of what it feels like to be robbed, and prompting me to be grateful again that my security really comes from God.

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

Mindfulness – the Earliest Gift of Spring

Floey beside pond 03-16-15I just got back from a walk with my dog Floey. It’s a beautiful spring day in southern Wisconsin. I felt the gentle breeze on my face, and smiled. The birds were singing again. A few weeds next to the sidewalk were beginning to show the first hint of green. Yes. Spring is really coming.

I watched Floey chase a leaf as it drifted across the sidewalk. There were no more mounds of snow to jump on and bury her face in – so she had to make up new games. She timidly approached a sewer grate and sniffed it. Then she heard the rushing water and jumped back. She gave the grate a wide berth as we continued walking down the street.

Floey beside sewer grateFloey caught sight of a pair of mourning doves about thirty feet ahead of us on the walk. She ran up to them and they flew away. Definitely new things to see, hear, smell, feel, and chase on this walk.

“Floey, you have the gift of mindfulness,” I said to her as we continued our walk.

“What’s that, Mom?”

“Mindfulness? Oh that means being fully aware of what’s happening in the moment, and appreciating it. Whenever we go for a walk, you find joy in everything that’s happening around you – what you see, what you hear, what you smell…

Floey playing in snow adjDuring the wintertime, you galloped over snowdrifts and then pushed your nose as deep into the snow as you could go, then jumped up and ran around in circles, smiling from ear to ear. I couldn’t help but smile with you. Now that it’s spring, you’re discovering new sights and sounds and smells. I get happy just watching you. You delight in noticing everything.”

“Of course, Mom. Why wouldn’t I notice what’s going on around me? Don’t you?”

“Oh, sometimes troubling thoughts pop into my mind, and they distract me from noticing all the beauty around me. But, you know, I think spring is the best cure for the disease of distraction.”

“I think you’re right, Mom. If I understand what you mean by mindfulness, I think you were being very mindful Sunday evening. Remember, we were both out on the deck. It was my first time out there. I watched you take a big black cover off the gas grill. Then you fired up the grill. While we waited for it to get hot, I saw you lean on the deck railing and look out at the pond.”

“You were really watching me, Floey. Did you notice that almost all the ice is gone from the pond? And did you hear the birds singing? It was a beautiful time to be outside.”

hamburgers on grill“Yup. And then it got even better. You grilled hamburgers. They smelled so good I could hardly stand it.”

“I know, Floey. There is no better early springtime smell than the first hamburgers on the grill. And then we eat them! A perfect treat for taste buds.”

“Well, I didn’t get to eat anything, but I did get to lick the platter, and that sure was good. I’m not complaining, I’ll always be glad to do the pre-wash on the meat platter, but I wouldn’t mind if you fixed me a hamburger next time, too.”

“Would you promise to savor every bite, and not just swallow it whole?”

“You said I’m good at mindfulness, Mom. Of course, I would thoroughly enjoy the hamburger – although I might have to eat it fast so that I’d be ready to exuberantly enjoy my next moment of life. Maybe I’d have to run out on the deck to listen to a new bird song. Spring is filled with wonderful experiences!”

“Floey, although you still have the energy of a puppy, you can teach me about being mindful any day. You already seem to understand what Thich Nhat Hanh said:

When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace, and love.

Mim called me. She just saw her first robin of the season. I guess she’s being mindful of the signs of spring, too.

Why Was I Created?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marian TDS Caricature

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

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

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

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

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

Welcoming guests to our bed and breakfast

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

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