Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Friday, December 24, 2010

I Heard the Truth on Christmas Day

Christ In Winter: reflections on faith from a place of winter for years of winter…

It’s Christmas, almost, and I miss my friend, Phyllis, for it was at Christmas time that I first met her, when we were both ten years old. I miss her especially when I hear “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

My family had moved from the working-class near-east side of Indianapolis to the country near Oakland City in March. Phyllis and I were both in fifth grade, but I didn’t meet her until Christmas time. I was in 5-A, kids who started school in January, and she was 5-B, kids who started in Sept. She lived in town and I rode a school bus. And we went to different churches.

I went to Forsythe, an open-country Methodist church. Phyllis’ father, Jimmy Graham, was the pastor at Oak Grove General Baptist Church, a mile down the gravel road from Forsythe, while he attended Oakland City College [now Oakland City Univ]. Those churches held different theologies, but we shared a common culture, and so we also shared a common VBS and Christmas program. It was at that shared Christmas program in 1947 that I met Phyllis.

After the little children had “said their pieces,” and the older ones had sung a carol in a rag-tag choir, there was an excited stirring, especially among the Methodists, who were not used to excitement in church, at least not of the Baptist kind. Everyone looked to the back of the church. Striding confidently forward, holding an accordion almost as large as she, came this skinny little girl. She stepped up onto the platform, worked the bellows, and began to sing, with the deepest, fullest voice I had ever heard. Her song was “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Longfellow’s 1863 poem, written in the midst of the Civil War, later set to John Calkin’s music.

I had never before heard a song like that, or a voice like that. It seemed like I was in the presence of royalty, or perhaps twelve-year old Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet,” or Margaret O’Brien in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” [1]

I met Phyllis then, but she didn’t meet me. Because of different grades and buses and churches, we didn’t really meet until we were freshmen in high school. We met then because I was in the girls’ biology class.

I was a mid-year student, and worked on the school newspaper and sang in the chorus. In a small school, with limited class offerings, that meant a confused class schedule. As a freshman, I had the second semester of “Commercial Arithmetic,” without benefit of the first semester, with mostly junior girls, and since I was otherwise scheduled during the boys’ biology class, I was placed in the girls’ class, taught by Iva Jane McCrary, the “old maid” home ec teacher. Phyllis and I sat across a big sewing table from each other. Phyllis was quite pretty and very smart, which meant that I could look at her or her test paper and expect erudition in either case.

The high point of freshman biology was learning about “human reproduction,” which took two whole days. When those two days came, though, Sammy Kell and I, Sammy being the only other boy with a class schedule as eccentric as mine, were sent off to sit in the principal’s outer office during class, since we did not have the right mind-set, or equipment, presumably, to learn about human reproduction with the girls.

When I returned to class, I asked Phyllis about what I had missed. “I think you’ll still be able to have children,” she said.

In our sophomore year, Phyllis’ father graduated from college and took a church in Tennessee. I did not see her again until I was the new Methodist campus minister at Indiana State University and Rose Polytechnic in Terre Haute, just graduated from Garrett Theological Seminary, and she was a new professor of mathematics at Indiana State, having just received a PhD from Indiana University. Typically of Phyllis, she had done graduate work in math because she felt it was her weakest subject, thus the one in which she needed extra work to be a truly educated person.

Phyllis was pleased that I had indeed been able to have children, two darling little girls. She became a member of our family, a special aunt to Mary Beth and Katie, sharing meals and picnics and friends.

The Wesley Foundation did not have its own worship services, and as the new campus minister, I got to preach only once a semester at Centenary Church. By the time those rare Sundays came around, I had a lot of ideas and passion stored up. Those were Sundays when Phyllis became a Methodist. After one of those sermons, she waited until everyone else had filed past me at the door, then reached up and grabbed me by the top of my robe and pulled me down to her face and said, “You don’t know it yet, but when you’re in that pulpit, you’re something special. People will believe what you say just because of the way you say it. So you make damn sure you say the truth.”

So, in memory of my friend, whom I miss especially at Christmas time, I will say the truth, words I first heard in the full husky voice of a skinny little girl:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead nor doth he sleep.’
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth good will to men.’

May the peace of God be with you,

[1] I had a special crush on Margaret O’Brien because I had seen a photo of her holding the same fifth-grader reader I used at Lucretia Mott Public School # 3 in Indianapolis. Interestingly, at least to me, Margaret shares a birthday with Joe Frazier, the baritone of the Chad Mitchell Trio and Episcopal vicar in Big Bear Lake, CA. Each is 19 days further advanced in decrepitude than I.

[Some of the words above I spoke at Phyllis' memorial service, and some appear in my book, "The Strange Calling."

(Unless inspiration strikes unexpectedly, this will be the last Christ in Winter post until next year. Happy New Year!)

{I also write the fictional “Periwinkle Chronicles” blog. One needs a rather strange sense of humor to enjoy it, but occasionally it is slightly funny. It is at}

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Applause at Christmas

Christ In Winter: reflections on faith from a place of winter for the years of winter…

I have been applauded only twice in church, church applause being reserved for musicians and children, and both of those occasions were at Christmas, perhaps because Christmas is a season that features musicians and children, and the folks were already in the mood to applaud.

The first was Forsythe Methodist, open country, about three miles out of Oakland City, IN. We had moved there in March after I was the young shepherd in the East Park Methodist Christmas play in Indianapolis. I became a real shepherd, not of sheep, but cows and pigs and chickens. Later, when I was a freshman at IU, I was asked to be the narrator for the Christmas program at Forsythe. I was a little late for rehearsal, having hitchhiked down from Bloomington after my last class, and when I walked in, all the gathered children, perhaps 30, plus a choir put together for the occasion, since Forsythe was too small to have a choir for ordinary time, spontaneously broke into applause. I was considerably embarrassed and tremendously pleased. Forsythe had always accepted me, and now it applauded me, just for showing up.

My second occasion of applause was a Christmas at Wesley UMC in Charleston, IL. On Christmas Sunday, I made one of those stupid-preacher mistakes, the ones that are obviously mistakes after you’ve done them but which you don’t recognize as such beforehand. The children and I were lighting the Advent wreath and the Christ candle during “Special Time With Children.” I asked for volunteers. We got all the candles lighted. But there were still little hands up, volunteering, but no more candles. I snuffed out the candles and asked if anyone else would like to help light things up. The congregation broke into applause. [1] We re-lighted, with new volunteers. We kept repeating that until every child had lighted one of the candles.

In those occasions of applause, I learned the true meaning of Christmas: everybody should have a chance at sharing the light, and if you show up late, you’ll find out how folks really feel about you.


[1] I later learned that it was Art Snider, an academic counselor at Eastern IL U, who started the applause. He recently told me, “I always felt sorry for you. You hated administration so much, and the church was so big and the staff so small, you had to do a lot of it. I thought you should have staff members to do that stuff, so you could concentrate on preaching and pastoring, like Harry Emerson Fosdick at Riverside Church in New York.” It’s nice to think that someone once thought of me in the same sentence as HEF.

{I also write the fictional “Periwinkle Chronicles” blog. One needs a rather strange sense of humor to enjoy it, but occasionally it is slightly funny. It is at}

(If you would prefer to receive either “Christ In Winter” or “Periwinkle Chronicles” via email, just let me know at, and I’ll put you on the email list.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The True Meaning of Christmas

Christ In Winter: reflections on faith from a place of winter for the years of winter…
“The True Meaning of Christmas”

The first place I learned the true meaning of Christmas was East Park Methodist, on New York St. in Indianapolis, almost to Rural St, 6 or 7 blocks from our house.

I was nine years old and had the second lead in a two-man Christmas play. I can’t remember the title. I was a young shepherd who learned the true meaning of Christmas from an older shepherd when the star of Bethlehem appeared to us.

The older shepherd was William B. Lewis, about fifteen years old, who was always called by his entire name. I would walk at night, by myself, in the dark, along New York St, where the bullies hung out in front of the hardware store, to meet William B. Lewis to rehearse. If the person with the key didn’t show up in time, or at all, to unlock the church, William B. Lewis and I would hang around on the church steps and talk about comic books. He favored “Don Winslow of the Navy,” since WWII had just ended and military comics were quite popular. I felt a bit inferior, since I still liked “little kid” comic books, Disney stuff like Mickey Mouse.

When the Christmas program time came, though, it was William B. Lewis who had spent too much time on comic books and had not learned his lines. It was my first experience with improv, but I managed to carry us both and learn the true meaning of Christmas—you need to know your lines, but be ready to improvise.


{I also write the fictional “Periwinkle Chronicles” blog. One needs a rather strange sense of humor to enjoy it, but occasionally it is slightly funny. It is at}

(If you would prefer to receive either “Christ In Winter” or “Periwinkle Chronicles” via email, just let me know at, and I’ll put you on the email list.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Tirckiest Spritziest Christmas Cookies

CHRIST IN WINTER: reflections on faith from a place of winter for the years of winter…

[Today is replete with Academy of Parish Clergy friends. Paul Binder, who passed along the “Florida Wonderland” song, reminds me that he is from Mt. Vernon, IN, not New Albany, which I should have remembered, since my Oakland City teams played in the same conference,” The Pocket Athletic Conference,” as Mt. Vernon, although he moved there at 15 after growing up in Seattle. He is a Purdue grad, which punishment surely must absolve him from all the rest of his sins. Another FL APC friend, David Imhoff, says he is already singing “Florida Wonderland” at the nursing homes and other gatherings where he ministers at this time of year. And APC friend Suzanne Schaeffer-Coates posted recently that she was going to bake her trickiest cookies because middle son Malcolm said they are his favorite. Helen couldn’t stand not knowing just how tricky they were so asked, and got this reply…]

My trickiest cookies are what you'd call Spritz cookies, and I call "cookie gun" cookies.

In my first church there was an old lady, who I thought was older than God. She made the best Christmas cookies, and my favorite ones were these Spritz cookies. She gave me the recipe, and I bought a cookie gun in a yard sale, and set to work. The cookie gun made me crazy, as I could never get the timing right and I'd either have too much blob or not enough, and when it did start pushing out the cookies, I had to go likity split to keep up with it.

It turns out that Jane had given me the recipe by memory and had messed it up, so the ruined cookies weren't entirely my fault. The next Christmas, she drove herself to my house with her cookie gun, her recipe, and her cookie sheets. She made me buy a pound of Land O' Lakes butter (and leave it out the night before - she even called me the night before to make sure I'd put the butter out - to soften), Pillsbury flour (not Gold Medal), fresh McCormack Almond Extract, sugar and whole milk, and large eggs and PAM. When she got there, she made me lay out all of her's and my cookie sheets, and then mix the dough. The last cup has to be mixed by hand (literally, by hands). Then the assembly line, poom, poom, poom, pop out those cookies. Her hand operated cookie gun just spat them out perfectly. Then one sheet at a time, into the oven. 4 minutes...turn the sheet around facing the other way. 4 more minutes...out. New sheet in, set timer, take cookies off hot sheet onto cooling racks. Wash sheets between batches.

I was exhausted when we were finished. She was fresh as a daisy and helped me clean up, and took her stuff home with her - leaving me all the cookies, because she was going to make another batch at home.

For Christmas she gave me $$ to buy new cookie sheets and cooling racks. The following years, as she got even older, she came down to supervise my baking "her" cookies, and sat in a rocking chair and rocked baby Henry while I made them under her watchful eye. After she died, I continue to make the cookies every year, enjoying the memories, but hating the hard work and my electric cookie gun. I'd try other cookie guns that I bought in subsequent yard sales, but couldn't get the pressure right.

As I said in my FB "post", I stopped making them two years ago, but last year Malcolm said that he missed them, so I knew I had to make them this year. Last week, looking for something else in Walmart, I saw a $10.00 cookie gun that said that it measured out the exact amount of dough each time. So on the appointed day, I got out my cookie sheets, "Pammed" them, made the dough (butter softening all night, new Pillsbury flour, fresh eggs, whole milk, fresh almond extract, sugar, etc.), opened the cookbook to Jane's handwritten recipe, and set to, channeling her in my thoughts. The new cookie gun worked a treat, and in less time than I would have thought possible, they were done (yes, I turned the cookie sheets every four minutes), I was cleaned up, and had two tins of cookies.

Malcolm is happy, I am happy, and in heaven, I know that Jane is happy.

(If you would prefer to receive either “Christ In Winter” or “Periwinkle Chronicles” via email, just let me know at, and I’ll put you on the email list.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Hot Time in the Years of Winter

My Academy of Parish Clergy friend, Paul Binder, who lives in FL, even though he is originally from IN, New Albany, if I remember correctly, sent the winter song below. It is a good reminder that not everyone who lives in the years of winter can expect a white Christmas, unless it’s white sand. Thanks, Paul, and Merry Christmas!

Florida Wonderland
(sung to the tune of Winter Wonderland)

Sea shells ring, are you list'nin'?
On the beach sand is glist'nin'
What a wonderful sight we're happy tonight'
Walkin' in our Florida Wonderland

Gone away is the blue bird, here again is the snow bird
We sing a love song, as we go along
Walkin' in our Florida Wonderland

On the beaches we can build a sandman
And pretend that he is lifeguard Brown
He'll say, “Are you sweatin'?” We'll say, “No man,
Cause we can go in swimmin' all year round.”

Later on we'll perspire as we float on a tire
To face unafraid the plans that we've made'
Walkin' in our Florida Wonderland.

(By an anonymous lyricist, fortunately!)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Geniuses Don't Repeat

Christ In Winter: reflections on faith from a place of winter for the years of winter…
Geniuses Don’t Repeat

One of the good things about looking back over your life in old age is that you can see who you really were and are. In that process, I have learned that I am a genius.

That’s partly because Jane Smiley has pointed out my genius in her book about John Atanasoff, who invented the computer. It’s not that he and I are the same sort of genius, although I am amazingly proficient at un-inventing the computer, inventing ways to make it NOT work. Geniuses, however, have certain traits in common. Smiley lists those traits. I have them all.

Once having conquered a field, a genius gets bored and moves on to something else. That’s my story. I once had a straight-A semester in college so did not feel the need to do it again. I ran a marathon. I won a contest and got a poem published. I wrote a book and got it published. I went to spring training with the Cincinnati Reds. I won the love of a beautiful woman. No need to repeat. That’s genius.

Suzanne Schaefer-Coates said on Facebook, after I posted “When Father Rode the Mail,” that I should post a Christmas story each day until Christmas. I replied that then I wouldn’t have anything for subsequent years. That caused Naomi Roberts to point out that a writer does not hold back. [1] But that would be a repeat. I’m not holding back, Naomi, but because I’m a genius, I don’t repeat.

Several weeks back a reader of this blog wrote to Abingdon Press and suggested to the editor that he get me to write a book. He replied to her that he had looked at the blog and that it was indeed okay and that I should contact him. The reader forwarded his reply to me. I have done nothing about it. That’s not procrastination nor is it laziness; it’s just the way of us geniuses. I’ve already written a book. Four, in fact. No need to repeat.

Cancer research indicates that patients who get better DON’T do things for other people. It also indicates that patients who get better DO do things for other people. What? The difference is the feeling of obligation. If you do for others because you feel obliged, you get worse. If you do for others because you want to, you get better. People who stop doing out of obligation get better, but they get even more better if they do good by choice.

One of the advantages of old age is declining energy. I have more good things to do for others without obligation than my time and energy allows, so there is no need to do obligatory things in order to be a good person.

I’ve often thought about writing a book of reflections for old folks, sort of like “Now That I Have Cancer I Am Whole,” my book of reflections for cancer patients, and those who love them. I’ve even worked on it from time to time. My title was to be “Bloom Before You’re Planted.” It’s actually Helen’s title. I was extolling Walt Wagener as the best example I know of blooming where one is planted. She said, “I want to bloom BEFORE I’m planted.” It’s a wonderful thought, and a great title. “Christ In Winter” is a good title, too. But taking it on with an actual publisher, with an editor like Ron Kidd, that would feel like an obligation, and geniuses don’t do obligation. It leads too easily to repetition.

May the genius of the present moment be with you,

[1] That’s one of the problems with Facebook; your friends can see how you are trying to weasel and call you on it. Naomi thinks that I am a writer, instead of a genius, because we met as members of The Red Herring Fiction Workshop in Urbana, IL, instead of Mensa. Come to that, I don’t think either of us are members of Mensa, either.

{I also write the fictional “Periwinkle Chronicles” blog. One needs a rather strange sense of humor to enjoy it, but occasionally it is slightly funny. It is at}

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Joy to the Mysterious World

Christ in Winter, Dec. 18, 2010…

Vic Stolzfus, although Mennonite, was a member of Wesley UMC in Charleston, IL when I pastored there, and the Chair of the Sociology Dept at EIU. He went on to become President of Goshen College, and is now retired and rewound.

As we move toward the mystery of Christmas I would like to pass along to you a quote from an African friend of Vic’s: “I would rather live in a world surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small my mind could comprehend it.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

When Father Rode the Mail


{For many years, I wrote a new Christmas story each year to use as the sermon at the Christmas eve service. This is the most-often published of those. It is true. If you wish to use it for worship or reprint in a newsletter, etc, please do so.}

Before the green hills had become the spoil banks of the strip mines, when United States highways were graveled ribbons and mules still pulled the plows, where the Wabash meets the Ohio, my father "rode the mail."

It was not a regular job. The people in the hills read slowly and wrote only when they had something important to say. A postage penny was a lot of money.

Once each week or two, however, the letters and circulars for the folks in the hills mounded up until they filled a leather mail-pouch. When the papers peeked over the bag top, my father unhitched the mules with which he had been grading the roads since he was twelve, saddled up his horse, and clucked a "giddyap" out toward the cabins where no roads dared to go.

The trackless hills, where the woods are deep, are cool and pleasant in the haze of summer. When the autumn comes, though, the heavy rains dump the soggy maple leaves down upon your head. The water sneaks in between your hat and the collar of your coat. Then the hills hunker down and close in and say, "Beware."

It was on such a day that Father lost his way. So when he crossed a clearing and saw a cabin, it was both relief and fear that ran with the rain down along his backbone. From underneath his dripping hat he hailed the gray, unpainted shack.

"Helloooo, the cabin," he called.

No answer. The owner must be in on such a day, he thought, or else the cabin was deserted.

His right foot had left the stirrup and was half-way over the horse's rump when he saw the shotgun. Only one barrel, but it was big, and it looked straight out at him from where the door had cracked open. Off the saddle, he waited.

"What do y' want?" a thin voice from behind the shotgun demanded.

Father thought fast.

"I'v brot your mail," he called.

"And I need a place to git dry," he added.

The shotgun held its place, and so did Father. Finally, however, the muzzle lowered toward the rough boards of the porch, and Father lowered himself to the ground.

"Come," the cabin called, and Father went.

Inside the door he met the oldest, frailest-looking woman he had ever seen. A hound dog that must have shared her birthday lay in front of the fireplace. A table, a ladder-back chair, a bed, the shotgun, a shaker chest, and a stool were the cabin's only other occupants.

The woman was still wary.

"I don't git no mail," she said.

Father fished into the pouch and hooked an old circular. He pushed it out across the gap between them. A thin, veined hand took it and held it close to two slow eyes. The eyes were satisfied. The hand pointed to the chair.

"Sit," she said.

Father sat. He wondered a little at how the old woman had read the circular while holding it upside down.

She brewed some tea. They sipped and sat before the fire until the silence of the roof reported that the rain had gone. They did not talk--just sat and sipped together--the very young man who was only beginning, the very old woman whose life was ending.

Father said, "I'll be goin' now. I thank you for the shelter and the tea."

The frail old hands picked up the circular as he left.

From then on when Father rode the mail, he put into the pouch an old sale bill, or a circular, and he took it to the little cabin in the clearing in the woods. Each time the young man and the old woman sat and sipped in silence. Each time Father noted that the "mail" of his last trip had been tacked up on the wall.

When the winter comes, the rains stop, but the sky is gray as slate sometimes, and the wind sneaks past the button sentries. In those cold days, Father was especially glad for the cabin and the fire and the tea and the silence.

A week before Christmas, Father put an old catalog into his pouch, along with all the cards for others on the way, and set out to ride the mail. He took the catalog to the cabin. There they sat, the silent young man and the quiet old woman. As Father rose to leave, the old woman spoke into the silence.

"It was good of y' to leave your own family and come out to see me on Christmas day," she said.

Father looked at the walls around him. There was no calendar, only the circulars and sale bills winking back at him in the firelight.

Father did not ever talk very much, but many, many years later, when he told this story to his children and grandchildren, he said, "I guess she never did know it wasn't really Christmas day."

Perhaps he never knew it really was.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


I haven’t posted for a few days, because I’ve been fasting. No, not food-fasting. Brain-fasting.

First an apology to those of you who received the 12-13 post by an “Iron Filings” email as well as reading it here. The apology is not because you had to read it twice; Nina Morwell says that is okay. But I intended to send most of the emails by Blind Carbon, so that each would receive an individual copy rather than having to read all the other email addresses at the top. But it was late at night, at least for me, and I got the CC, regular carbon copy, box confused with the BCC box, and clicked the wrong one each time.

That’s an example of why I am brain-fasting. Every once in a while my brain, as well as my drain, gets clogged. I unclog by going for several days without thinking. About anything.

I listen to music. I don’t think about it; I just listen.

I look at the scenes around me. I don’t think about them, I just look. Winter is a great time for that, just looking. There is snow beyond the windows, and a tree with lights and ornaments in the living room. No thinking required.

I eat. Winter is a good time for that, too. Cookies. Meatloaf. Chili. Stew. No thinking, just the taste of comfort.

I watch TV, which requires no thinking at all.

I think I heard this story from Bob Hammel, the great Indiana sports writer: David Starr Jordan was president of Indiana University and also a great ichthyologist. [It’s called “ick” thyologist because fish are slimy.] He had a reputation for remembering names. If he met a freshman in the fall, he could still call that student by name in the spring. Leland Stanford hired him away from IU to be the first president of Stanford Univ. After he had been at Stanford for a while, he ran into an old colleague from IU. “Do you still remember the names of all the students?” the colleague asked him. “No,” said Jordan. “I’m at the stage of life where every time I remember a freshman, I forget a fish.”

I’m at that stage where I must brain-fast every once in a while, unclog. Winter is a good time for brain-fasting.

May the pleasures of an empty winter brain be yours,

Monday, December 13, 2010

Spirit of Gentleness

I watched the wonderful Concordia College [Moorhead, MN] Christmas concert on PBS Monday night. One song they performed was Jim Manley’s great “Spirit of Gentleness,” which is in a lot of hymnals, including one of the Methodist auxiliary hymnals, “The Faith We Sing.”

Jim is an old friend and credits me with giving him a big break. Along about 1969, when I was campus minister at The Wesley Foundation at Illinois State University, I came across his first album, an audio cassette, “Raggedy Band.” I thought it was the best theological music I had ever heard, especially the songs, “You’re Gonna Hear From Him Again,” and “What We’ve All Been Waitin’ For.” The Wesley Foundation had a special fund for special occasions. I decided I would use some of it to bring Jim to our campus, so everyone could have the great experience of hearing his music, in person. I didn’t know how far we’d have to bring him. He lived in Hawaii! He was the chaplain of a children’s home there. It’s a long way from Hawaii to Normal, IL.

But we sprung for a ticket. His brother and his wife, who lived in Kansas City and didn’t get to see him very often, for obvious reasons, drove up for the occasion. Jim stayed at our house, and his brother and his wife were hosted by Dr. Deverne Dalluge and his wife, Shirley. Deverne was the treasurer of our WF board. We should have done it the other way around, because we had a cat.

We had a new room in the basement of our little ranch house on Fairchild Ave. My brother, Jim, had helped me build it. I was very proud of it and wanted Jim Manley to spend the night there before his Sunday morning worship/concert at the ISU Union Bldg. Naturally, our cat, Princess, also wanted to spend the night there. We didn’t know Jim was allergic. He had a uniquely throaty and raspy voice for that concert, which I think made it even better, more authentic, sort of Johnny Cash meets Mr. Magoo.

Later, when I pastored at Arcola, IL, Jim’s aunt, Mary Nay, was a member of our congregation. I didn’t know about that connection until Jim was in town to visit her, saw my name on the outdoor bulletin board of the church, and stopped by the parsonage. Helen and I were out of town, but daughter Katie was there, and they had a great visit, in which he told her how his ISU concert, raspy cat-enhanced voice and all, when she was only about six years old, had opened up new opportunities for him. He had recorded songs, but no one had asked him to come perform before.

Jim always called Mary Nay “Uncle Mary,” because he had so many Aunt Marys that she had told him when he was a little boy, “Well, you can just call me Uncle Mary.” She was that kind of woman. A couple of years later, Jim and I did her funeral together.

Jim’s still writing great music, and he still has that special voice. I think Princess may have altered it forever.

Our grandchildren laugh at us and say, “Grandpa, you know EVERYBODY.” Well, yes, I know all the important people, and Jim Manley is the one with the great voice and the great lyrics. I’d like to have “Spirit of Gentleness” sung at my funeral, preferably by Jim, but if he’s not available, the combined Concordia Choirs will have to do.

May the spirit of gentleness be with you,

[You can learn more about Jim’s music, and even order it, at]

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Buttoned-down Signs from God

Bob Newhart and I are contemporaries. We came to adulthood when white shirts with button-collars and narrow ties were the new style. That’s why Newhart named his comedy “the button-down mind;” it indicated a particular age, a new form not only of collar but culture.

I am going this morning to Bay West [Community College] LIFE. LIFE means Learning is For Ever. Everybody there will be of and from the button-down generation, so I decided I would wear a white button-down shirt under my Christmas sweater. I have lots of white shirts, left over from a previous life, and no place to wear them, especially since their collars have shrunk and no longer fit my neck. Thus they go well under pull-over sweaters.

I noticed in the mirror that the buttons on the collar were not buttoned. I seriously considered leaving them that way. No one will see them under my sweater, anyway. Besides, it’s a sign from God. If God wanted those buttons fastened, then God would do something about it.

We do that in old age, look for signs from God. Old men wear three different plaids together because they were the next 3 garments up in the closet, and that is a sign from God that they should be worn together. Old women wear running shoes to church with the laces untied because if God wanted them tied, God would do something about it. Not caring what people think and not being able to reach our shoes has nothing to do with it—we’re just paying attention to the signs from God.

I fastened my collar buttons. You can’t be of the button-down generation if you’re not buttoned down. Still, that’s one of the blessings of old age: more time to pay attention to the signs from God.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On Being Chet Atkins

Christ in Winter is a reflection on faith from one who lives in a place that is defined by winter and who is in the winter of his years…

Hardly anyone listens to cassette tapes anymore. Players for them are not included in cars, or anything else. But I have quite a few tapes, and I have a player, so why not? So I’ve been listening to a tape of Chet Atkins Christmas music.

It reminds me of the time, a year or two before his death, that Chet was on a cruise. He was passing an empty room and saw a guitar, so he went in and started toodling around. Some folks heard him and stopped to listen. Finally one man said, “You’re pretty good, mister, but you’re no Chet Atkins.”

He had an idea, a wrong one, of how Chet should look and play. That happens a lot through our years. People have particular ideas of who and what we ought to be, and we try to live up, or down, to them.

Old age gives us a chance to slough off old identities that don’t really fit us. It gives us a chance to be who we really are.

That is salvation, for being anything than one’s true self is sin. That’s what sin is: separation—from God, from others, from our own true selves.

Old age provides a chance at wholeness, the wholeness of being our true selves.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Nickle and Dimed

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on faith in winter years from the Upper Peninsula, the place of winter…

Jimmie Franklin is a distinguished professor emeritus of American history at Vanderbilt Univ. He earned his PhD at Oklahoma. Before Vanderbilt, he taught for 16 years at Eastern IL Univ, in Charleston, where I was his pastor. We chatted one day about the roles of pastors and the church. He told this story:

He grew up in Moscow, MS. He won a basketball scholarship to Jackson State College, but when it came time to go, he couldn’t. He did not have the 35 cents necessary for the bus fare. His pastor went around town, borrowing nickels and dimes from members of his church, until he had enough money for Jimmie to go to college.

I hope that before they died that pastor and those church members knew how successful Jimmie became. In a way, though, it makes no difference. It’s hard to imagine a smaller arena for Christian witness than Moscow, MS, but that was the only arena those folks had in which to live their faith and so they did, one nickel, one dime at a time.

Sometimes we talk about being “nickel and dimed to death.” In Moscow, MS, a long time ago, there were people who were willing to nickel and dime a boy to life.

Friday, December 3, 2010


I just realized that I posted a Periwinkles Chronicles story on Christ in Winter. To make it worse, it was the 3rd part of a continuing story, so anyone reading Christ in Winter who does not also read Periwinkle Chronicles must have been mightily confused. I have now corrected that.

Christmas Contradictions

Christ In Winter: Reflections on faith from one who lives in the place of winter and the years of winter…

I went to Shop-Ko today. In a special bin of Christmas gift possibilities were both a pocket flask and an alcohol breath analyzer. I suppose they go together. If you drink from the flask, you ought to check your alcohol level before driving or doing surgery. Still, it struck me as a strange combination for a Christmas gift bin.

There are many strange combinations in life. There is an old saying that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” Of course, Christmas is itself a strange combination of Christian holyday and commercial extravaganza.

I think that is appropriate. Christians are called to be “in but not of the world.” We live in this strange world that is both sin-full and redeemed. We need to be able to celebrate the birth of Emmanuel, God-with-us, AT THE SAME TIME that we go to Shop-Ko to buy stocking stuffers.

I don’t think I’m going to get anyone a flask and a breath analyzer, though.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

How to Become More Interesting

Christ in Winter: Meditations from the UP, the place of winter, for people in their winter years…

Seymour Halford’s wife, Beverly, is a geriatric nurse.

“The great thing about that,” says Seymour, “the older I get, the more interesting I am to her.”

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Every-day Pleasures

What Helen calls the “every-day snow” is back here in the Upper Peninsula, here in the land of winter, those light and wandering flakes that don’t accumulate, but just wander on down. Along with the everyday snow of the land of winter come the everyday pleasures of the land of winter.

Such as the smell of coffee in the morning. You can get the smell of coffee at any time of year, of course, but in the winter, the house is closed up, tight, and the smells in the house are stronger.

So we receive anew the everyday pleasures of smell and taste—pumpkin pie, turkey, chili.

And the everyday pleasure of touch—the wrinkled cheek of someone with whom you’ve spent a long, long time, and the smooth cheek of a little person who has a long, long time yet to get wrinkled.

The everyday pleasure of sight, things we could not see in summer, but now in winter the branches are bare, and we can see right through to the playground, to the neighbor’s outdoor lights, the approach of the paper boy through the side yard.

The everyday pleasure of hearing, the closed windows barring the outside sounds, letting us hear the creaking of the steps, the tinkling of dishes in the kitchen, the distant melody of memory.

May the every-day pleasures of the winter be with you every day,

PS: As I get ready to post this, the every-day snow is turning into accumulating snow…and accumulating pleasures.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

On Friends and Hosts

Two or three weeks back, I did not write anything for Christ in Winter for a couple of days because I could not get my computer to work in the Ambassador Inn in Wisconsin Dells. That’s where we meet George and Ida Belle Paterson less frequently than we would like. It’s a convenient meeting spot, half-way between Iowa City, where they live, and Iron Mountain.

The Dells is a tourist spot—water parks and duckboats and all that. We don’t “do” anything there, though. We just talk and look at photos, get caught up on families and insights.

As we get deeper into winter, the friends of spring and summer become all the more important. They share our memories. They are chapters in our biographies.

There is a poignant episode of M*A*S*H where Col. Potter tells a reporter that he loves and respects the bright young surgeons and nurses with whom he works, but he is lonely. He is the only one of his generation. No one else in his unit shares his memories.

George and Ida Belle share our memories.

George spent most of his career in Iowa City, first as the Director of The Wesley Foundation campus ministry at the Univ. of Iowa, then as Chaplain of University Hospital, as a Supervisor of Clinical Pastoral Education, and as a professor in the School of Religion. Ida Belle raised their four children and worked in a doctor’s office. They befriended us when we lived in Iowa City while I did graduate work at the university.

After we moved back to Illinois, we didn’t see each other for around 20 years. But when we followed the grandchildren to Mason City, IA, we took up our friendship again. We had just gotten started when grandson Joe was diagnosed with liver cancer, at 15 months of age. He and Katie spent most of the next year at Children’s Hospital, part of University Hospital in Iowa City, while Patrick worked in Mason City and Helen and I took care of four-year-old Brigid there.

Without hesitation, George and Ida Belle became surrogate parents to Katie and Patrick and surrogate grandparents for Joe. They often kept me in their home when I was at the hospital, too. They helped us all through some very difficult times with the grace of hospitality and presence.

Little Joey knew immediately that these were his friends. One day early in his hospital year, when they came to support Patrick and Katie through the difficult days of diagnoses and treatment plans, he became quite agitated. He could barely talk, but he finally communicated to his mother that he wanted his pants. He was just in a diaper. His friends had come to visit. He knew he should wear pants for such an occasion.

I’ll say more about friendship in the years of winter later, if I can get online, but right now I’ll conclude with this: a good host wears pants.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sharing Wisdom

I prayed for all my preaching friends on Sunday morning, as I do each Sunday morning, wishing I had words of wisdom to share with them. They don’t need my words of wisdom, but I feel uneasy if I’m not sharing words of wisdom, since I seem to have so many, and younger preachers seem to have so few.

That’s not true, of course, on either count. I don’t have wisdom just because I am old, and younger people don’t lack it just because they are young. One of the frustrations of old age, though, is wanting to share what wisdom we do have and finding that no one wants it.

I recall an older man in one of my churches. I’ll call him “Harry.” He thought he was the elder statesman and that whenever he spoke, that was the end of the discussion. I sometimes did not think his word was adequate as the last word, and so I would keep the discussion going. This bothered Harry, enough that he began to give me those “distant” signals that church people give, meaning he would not talk with me about his dis-ease with me, but he told other people in the church, and each year he led a movement to deny me a salary raise.

At one of those “no raise” church conferences, Harry was especially distraught because one of the younger men in the church, in his 30s, had openly opposed him. The next morning Harry was in my living room, bemoaning the lack of respect that younger people had for their elders, and presumably betters.

One fascinating part of that scene was that he still thought of me as his pastor. Even though he disliked me and my unwillingness to acknowledge him as the only wise person in the church, and just the night before had tried to deny me a salary raise, when he wanted to complain about others who did not adequately respect his wisdom, he came to me, and expected me to understand. He wasn’t there to apologize, but to get my sympathy.

I did sympathize with him, of course, in part just because I was his pastor, but also because I could anticipate that time when I would be in his chair, in his years, wanting to share wisdom and not finding many takers.

The traditional way to become wise is by making mistakes. I recall my uncle, Johnny Pond, when he was building his hardware store next to the grocery store of his brother, my uncle Ted, complaining that Ted kept telling him that one thing or another he was doing was a mistake, and that Ted knew it was a mistake because he had done it himself. “Yes,” said Johnny, “but I want to learn the same thing by making the same mistake.”

Listening to the wisdom of others is probably a more efficient method to learn, but it’s not how we want to do it. So I sit and watch younger people make mistakes. I could tell them how to avoid them, but the best lesson is the one you learn on your own. I’m sure that’s true, because that’s the way I did it, and I’m old and wise.

I don’t expect younger people to admire my wisdom. I keep my mouth shut. If anyone asks me for advice, I’ll gladly give it. Otherwise, I’ll commiserate with them when they learn the hard way.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Meaning & Music...Until Monday

Christ In Winter: Reflections on faith from the place of winter, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, for people in their winter years…

I watched an interview with Michael Cunningham, who is Writer-in-Residence at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. He wrote “The Hours,” a novel that he says is a “riff” on Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” I have read neither Cunningham nor Woolf, but I have read several Iowa Writers Workshop authors, such as Marilynn Robinson [Gilead] and Abraham Verghese [My Own Country] and Flannery O’Connor [A Good Man Is Hard to Find], all of whom I recommend.

Cunningham says that words have music as well as meaning, that if you read a sentence or a paragraph to a visitor from outer space, or simply someone who doesn’t know the language, it should still communicate something, simply by its sound.

I sometimes ask people, “If you could be fluent in all the languages of the world, or be fluent in playing all the musical instruments in the world, which would you choose?” Younger people almost always choose the languages, older people the musical instruments.

I think that is because older people have spoken and heard a lot of words that carried no meaning, so we don’t trust words all that much anymore. We suspect that we can communicate better with others, and with ourselves, through music.

So as Thanksgiving Day approaches, I give thanks for the music, both of language and song.

[Now try to sing this entire meditation. I suggest the tune of “Bill Grogan’s Goat.”]

May you have much for which to give thanks, and I’ll try to write meaningfully, if not musically, when I post again on Monday.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Our Boys Will Shine

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on faith from a place of winter for those in their winter years…

In a recent edition of the church newsletter he edits, old high-school friend Don Survant commented on “ear-worms,” those songs that get into your head and just won’t get out. I knew that Don and I had bonded especially well when we were young, but I had no idea that 50 years later, we would both have “Hot Time in the Old Town” tonight worming into our ears at the same time.

Don noted that his old-age ear-worms are usually songs he hasn’t thought of for a long time. Before “Hot Time,” he’d been humming “Waltzing Matilda” for weeks.

The same thing happens to me. Out of nowhere this morning came this song we used to sing at pep rallies before football and basketball games: “Our boys will shine tonight, our boys will shine. Our boys will shine tonight, our boys will shine. Our boys will shine tonight, our boys will shine. When the sun goes down and the moon comes up, our boys will shine.’

As befits a pep rally, it’s a peppy tune, and really hard to get out of my ears. I don’t mind, though, because it brings back lots of good memories, memories of belonging. It was my school, my class. These were our boys. Sometimes I was even one of those boys, longing to shine, to make my friends proud. I belonged.

That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it, this life? Belonging to someone special. Belonging to a family. Belonging to a team, a school, a church, a nation. I have been blessed with all of those.

The problem is when we stop too soon, stop at family or nation, and don’t go on to the greater belonging, belonging to it all, in fullness, belonging to the world, belonging to God, when we settle for a just a touchdown when we could be part of the victory, settle for only a song when we could be a part of the music.

Some day we’ll no longer belong to that special someone, to the family, the team, the nation. It will be time to belong to God alone. Now is the time to get ready for belonging to God by being a contributor to the world’s team, not just a taker. Now is the time to shine.

May the peace of Christ be with you,

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Verdi & God

Christ in Winter: Reflections on faith from a place of winter for those in their years of winter…

I walked this morning to Verdi’s “Aida.” I don’t listen to opera much. I’m more of a folk music or ragtime kind of guy. Indeed, the next thing up after “Aida” was “Piano Honkey Tonk Favorites.” But I have a special fondness for triumphal marches, like “The Grand March” from “Aida.” I like Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” too.

When I imagine my death, I hear one of those triumphant marches playing as the theme.

I have especially enjoyed military marches during my working days. I was a part of “the church militant,” so when I ran or walked, I listened to Sousa or “The Col. Bogey March.” They got me ready for “Onward Christian Soldiers.” But when I transfer from “the church militant to the church triumphant,” I want to hear Elgar or Verdi.

If you had asked me as I walked this morning, “What are you listening to?” I could have told you, because I had chosen the music myself. I don’t always recognize Verdi’s music, though, or any other composer’s, if it comes at me unexpected.

Once I was sipping “Moose Drool” at my favorite coffee house, “Jitters,” in Mason City, IA, chatting with my favorite coffee shop owner, Scott Elsbury. Classical music was coming from the speakers. Scott and I tried to identify it. We couldn’t. The only other customer was a rough and surly looking biker type in the corner. Apparently he got tired of hearing us, because he shouted, in a disgusted voice, as one who must deal with idiots, “It’s Verdi!”

I was somewhat embarrassed. A rough and surly guy recognized Verdi, and I couldn’t.

In the past, if I heard a tune, I felt I should be able to identify the composer. If a line from a poem or a novel, I should be able to name the author. If an historical event, I should be able to state the date. If a person, like “the man who stood on the corner and waved all the time,” I should be able to name him.

A lot of old people are like that. Indeed, we’re sometimes worse, because we’re concerned about losing memory. Old couples will debate for an hour over whether it was Tuesday or Wednesday when the bird pooped on the deck. I knew a woman who had a panic attack because she couldn’t remember Dudley Moore’s name.

But it’s a blessing not to have to remember all that. I’m old. I don’t need the knowledge about a song or a poem, because I don’t have to use it. I can just accept it for what it is, without having knowledge about it.

Now that I am old, I’m satisfied just to hear the song or the line, enjoy the memory of an event, wave back at the man on the corner. I don’t need to have knowledge about something to enjoy it in itself. And I don’t have to be able to explain the Trinity in order to accept and enjoy the presence of God.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Advent Fish

Since Advent will be here soon…

When the folk music era began to give way to rock ‘n roll around 1970, The Chad Mitchell Trio, one of the most successful groups of the 1960s, disbanded. By that time, John Denver had replaced Chad, who had gone onto a solo career, and John went onto a remarkable solo career of his own. Mike Kobluk, the bass, became an arts administrator. Joe Frazier, the baritone, went to Yale Divinity School and became an Episcopal priest.

Even if you were once a famous singer [and are becoming one again, since the Trio reunites once in a while for special events], in Advent, Joe must do what every preacher must do—explain the Incarnation, Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Being a famous singer doesn’t help. Having an aquarium does.

For the kids’ time in worship, Father Frazier shows the children an aquarium.

“If you wanted to really be able to talk to the fish in there,” he says, “what would you do?”

The kids try a lot of things—speaking gobbledygook, hoping it might turn out to be fish language, or tapping on the glass in what they hope is a fish form of Morse code.

“I never help them; they always figure it out for themselves,” Joe says. “Sooner or later, one of them brightens up and says, ‘You’d become a fish,’ and they all say, ‘Sure, you’d become one of them.”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Spam & Memory

Blogspot recently suggest that I, along with all other bloggers, I’m sure, should check my “spam comments” box once in a while.

Spam with an “S” is a food-like substance that comes in a can with a peel-off metal tab to open it. Spam with an “s” is an email-like substance that Blogspot peels off and puts where you can’t see it.

The box for spam comments contains those comments which the spam filter has taken out. I’m not sure what those would be. I looked into the appropriate box. I had no spam comments. So I’m still wondering.

We used to eat Spam. My little brother was especially fond of it. He likes salt and fat.

Now it’s a word for stuff you don’t want to deal with, that has to be put in a different place.

I just Googled Spam. It’s an Hormel product. I clicked on the link. I got the message, “Service unavailable.” Poor Spam. It’s become a bad word on the web, “unsolicited bulk emails,” that has to be put in a box where you can’t even see it, and now the web won’t even serve it.

We once tried to go to the Spam museum. It was in a small mall in Austin, MN, I think. We used to go through Austin on our way from Mason City, IA to Rochester, MN. It wasn’t open that day. [The Spam museum, not Austin.]

Old people think about memory a lot, especially the loss of it. But when I think about memory, I think about S/spam, because…

…memory is a lot like S/spam: It can mean a lot of different things. There are things in there you don’t want to know about. It tastes good because there’s lots of salt and fat. It has a lot of ingredients, some of them mysterious. There’s a museum about it somewhere, but you can’t quite remember where, and it’s probably closed.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Snow flakes fell today. More like drifted. The furnace came on without prompting, as though wanting to keep itself warm. Helen put flannel sheets on the bed. The UPS man wore long pants while making his daily delivery to our house. The geese are flying south. We can see them easily through the bare tree limbs.

Scouts of winter.

I couldn’t find my glasses; they were on my face. I knelt down to wipe up some spilled orange juice and couldn’t get up without pulling on the counter. I looked at photographs from 40 years ago but couldn’t see them because there were tears in my eyes. I passed the Mexican and Italian aisles in the grocery store and went to the oatmeal aisle instead. The cashier gave me a discount.

Scouts of the winter years.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When It's All Over

One of the times I like best is when it’s all over.

Not immediately. That’s when it’s mostly just a letdown. There’s the cleaning up still to do. My mother-in-law, Georgia Karr, used to look at the dirty dishes and the turkey carcass and the wads of ripped paper, the remains of two months of getting ready, and sigh, “There’s nothing as over as Christmas.”

But when the cleanup is over, or at least put off until “later,” there is that time of satisfaction—no more work, no more preparation… it’s over.

I felt that recently at the end of the Trick or Treat night of Halloween, as we played “Apples to Apples” with our daughters and grandchildren.

Grandson Joe had returned, in his “Grim Reaper” costume, from TT. Brigid is too old for T&T now, but just right for jumping up when the doorbell rings to go hand out treats to the little goblins and fairies who ring that bell. But then the designated TT period was over. The outside lights were turned off. We sat around the coffee table with leftover Milky Ways and tried to outguess one another in the A2A game. I’m proud to say that I won.

Halloween used to be “All Saints.” Most churches still celebrate “All Saints” in one way or another, remembering their members who died during the past year.

My name will be on that list one year. I think I’ll be satisfied—no more work, no more preparation—it’s over. I’ll be proud to say that I won.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Snow on Pines

Big snowflakes started down this morning. They didn’t stick. Helen was sad. Everyone else in the UP was happy, but not for the usual reasons. It’s because we won’t have to hear Helen pointing out to us that the pine trees are so pretty with the snow on them. EVERY pine tree! EVERY time we see it! A couple of years ago granddaughter Brigid finally said, “Grandma, you’ve seen pine trees with snow on them BEFORE!”

The snow-covered pines are especially pretty with sun on the snow. Just thinking about them made me remember Lloyd Stone’s great hymn, “This Is My Song,” usually sung to the “Finlandia” tune. Here is the second verse: “My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine; but other lands have sunlight, too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine. O hear my song, thou God of all the nations, a song of peace for their land and for mine.”

It is important, in the land and years of winter, to appreciate each and every spot of beauty, EVERY time. It is also important to remember that other people in other places have beauty to appreciate, and ours is not better than theirs, only different. And not even different, if it’s snow on pines!

And also with you,

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Accepting Memories

Winter is a time of forgetting.

I would be hard pressed to prove that I have a past. All the buildings through which I passed to get to winter, all the buildings of my spring and summer and fall, almost all of them are gone.

Mercy Hospital, where I learned to breathe. Lucretia Mott Public School # 3, where I learned to read. East Park Methodist Church, where I learned to pray. The Tacoma Theater, where I learned that good guys wear white hats and use six-shooters that never run out. Maple Crest, my mother’s name for our little farm, where I learned how and when to plant and harvest. The Storm and Ohio Theaters, where I learned that the words and the mouths don’t always match. The Departmental, my middle school, where I learned that I could set the curve. My high school, where I learned to appreciate curves. My college dormitory, Linden Hall, where I learned to think.

They exist now only in memory.

I used to imagine what would happen in the future. Now there is little future, and thus little to imagine. I have traded in imagination for memory. In imagination, anything can happen. In memory, one must deal with what actually did happen.

I read this recently: “Things started getting better when I stopped praying for a different past.”

Perhaps the forgetfulness of winter is a blessing. But if we can accept the memories, then they are a greater blessing than forgetfulness.

Winter is a time of accepting the forgotten.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Spring & Winter Wisdom

Both her parents were working that night, so I accompanied granddaughter Brigid to her freshman orientation.

We got her schedule and talked about her new teachers.

“Do you have information on which ones are nice?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter if they’re nice,” she said. “The best teachers are not those who are nice but those who help you learn.”

Throughout the evening, other students as well as parents and teachers went out of their way to say “hello” to her.

“You’re very popular,” I said, as we walked to my car at the end of the orientation.

“No,” she replied. “I’m not popular; I’m respected.”

I wish I had been that wise when I was in the springtime of my years. I wish I were that wise now.

But I am at least smart enough to know that she is right. Even at my age, the best teachers hold me accountable, help me learn. Even at my age, respect is better than popularity.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Living Your Own Life

To be happy, you must live your own life.

By living your own life, I don’t mean being selfish or self-centered. That’s what most people mean when they say “I’ve got to get away and have my own space.” That’s not living your own life; it’s running away from it. I’ve known men who walked out on a wife who had just been diagnosed with cancer by saying “I have a right to be happy.” That’s not living your own life; that’s destroying it.

I’m not quite sure what I DO mean, but I know when I’m living my own life and when I’m not.

I wrote on the first page of “Now That I Have Cancer I Am Whole: Meditations on Life and Healing for Cancer Patients and Those Who Live Them,” that my granddaughter, Brigid, is “my mentor in all things bright and beautiful,” and that grandson Joe is “my hero.” One of the reasons Joe is my hero is that he lives his own life. One of the reasons Brigid is my mentor is that she lives her own life.

That’s a remarkable feat for a young person. It’s a remarkable feat for an old person, too.

The years of winter give me a chance to live my own life. Perhaps a better chance than I’ve ever had before. A unique chance. My final chance.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Unknown Gift

Jim Heathman tracked me down. “How many John Robert McFarlands can there be?” he asked. Too many, apparently, to make it easy to find me. I’m glad he persisted.

He is the grandson of Homer and Hazel Heathman, who lived up the gravel road from us in the Forsythe neighborhood, near Oakland City, IN, from when we moved there in 1947, until I went to college in 1955 and my parents and younger brother and sister moved to Ringwood, IL in 1962. I remember Jim well. Although he was closer to my sister’s age, 5 years younger than I, he and I rode horses together when he visited his grandparents, who were exceptionally proud of him.

The Heathmans and McFarlands were the only people who lived on our road. The road went all the way through from the Oak Hill Road to the Seed Tick Road, but the gravel stopped at our driveway. From there to the Seed Tick, it was just a pair of dirt tracks flanking a ridge of weeds. That was where Jim Heathman and I rode horses.[1]

The Heathmans were very important to us, in part because they were our only neighbors, in part because they were just good people. We didn’t have a car, but they did, always a Desoto, usually blue, and they were willing to take me and my older sister with them when they went places, especially to church. My mother never rode with them, because she never went anyplace; she was too ashamed of our poverty, which showed so clearly in her clothes. My father didn’t ride with them because he was too proud to accept any sort of help. I was ashamed of our poverty, and I was proud, but I wanted to go places. The Heathmans understood that. They made sure I got to go places.

Which is where Jim Heathman comes back into the story. He told me, in a way that perhaps only I could understand, that Mr. Heathman knew I wanted to go places.

Jim lives in NM now, and was reminded of me, even though we haven’t seen each other for around 60 years, because he had come across my book for cancer patients. [2] He was the executor for the estate of his maiden aunt, Hazel Fern. He’s still sorting through her things, and came across the copy of the book that I had given to her. He’s a survivor, so he read it.

That reminded him of something his grandfather once told him. At a time that Oakland City College, the General Baptist College, had been in dire financial straits, his grandfather, Homer, had given them money to help them through. In return, he was to receive free educations for his children. Only one of the three took advantage. He saved one for his grandson, since Jim threatened his parents with “I’ll go live with my grandparents and go to that Baptist college,” which apparently was a dire thought to them, and Mr. Heathman told Jim, “I want John Robert go have that last one.” He wanted the poor neighbor boy to be able to go to college.

I never knew this. I suspect that one day that I can’t remember, Mr. Heathman said to me, “John Robert, you ought to go to college,” and I said, “I’m going to, Mr. Heathman. I’m going to go to IU to the Ernie Pyle School of Journalism and be a great war correspondent, like Ernie was.”

Mr. Heathman never said a thing about that free education he was saving for me at OCC, because he wanted me to go to the places I wanted to go. That gift he didn’t give me, that I never even knew about, is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. Thank you, Jim Heathman, for giving it to me again, now.

And also with you,

[1] The Seed Tick was one of the few roads in the county that actually had a name then. They all have numbers now, like 1100 S or 1900 W, so that my cousin, David Pond, the EMT, can find you when you get drunk and fall off of your ladder. In the 1940s and ‘50s, though, the roads got named any way anyone wanted to name them. Mostly they were called, “You know, the road where Benny Goodman lives,” or “The road the Linigers live on.” I may be the only one who says “Oak Hill Road” for the gravel road that ran from Oak Hill, a community of a store and a barber shop and a few houses strung out along “the hard road,” Indiana Highway 57, west to the gravel Forsythe Road, named for the open-country Methodist Church I attended. Baptists called the same road The Oak Grove Road, after the name of their church. The gravel Seed Tick ran between Highway 57 and the Forsythe/Oak Grove Road. It is now County Road 250 S, but the kart races on County Road 250 S are at “The Seed Tick RaceWay.”

2] “Now That I Have Cancer I Am Whole: Reflections on Life and Healing for Cancer Patients and Those Who Love Them.” AndrewsMcMeel. ISBN-13: 978-0-7407-6372-4. Jim’s copy is the first version, in hardback, because it was his aunt Hazel Fern’s, a gift from me to her.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Interesting People

In September Helen and I went on a cruise with the Chad Mitchell Trio. We’re not cruise people, but Joe Frazier, the baritone, and I are friends through our mutual strange calling. When the trio disbanded, Joe went to Yale Divinity School and became an Episcopal priest, a vocation he still practices as vicar of his church’s mission at Big Bear Lake, CA.

In part because I always feared being boring, even more than being bored, I am attracted to interesting people. Chad Mitchell [tenor] and Mike Kobluk [bass] and Paul Prestopino [banjo, guitar, and mandolin] and Bob Hefferan [guitar] and Ron Greenberg [bass] are fabulously interesting people. So are their spouses.

We know Joe best, so it was from him that we heard phrases like “One night when we were swimming in Tennessee Williams’ pool…” and “Just as I was about to go out on stage in Central Park, Abby Hoffman came up and…” and “When Harry Belafonte took us down to sing with Martin Luther King…”

It’s not quite the same as “One night when we were swimming in Hovey Hedges’ pool…” or “Just as I was about to go into the pulpit, Vic Stenger came up and…” “Then Andre’ Hammonds and I marched into Montgomery, Alabama…” Very few people recognize the names of Vic Stenger and Donna Miller Huff and Mike Dickey and Paula Eskew Nosset and Hazel Jones and Andre’ Hammonds…

…but the people in Hovey Hedges’ pool, Donna Huff and Mike Dickey and Paula Nosset among them, and those approaching me in church, like Vic Stenger and Hazel Jones and Mae Everett, and those who marched into Montgomery with me, like Andre’ Hammonds and Bob Mullins, are fabulously interesting people, too.

The only difference is the name recognition.

As I think back through the years, I am mightily grateful for all the interesting people in my life, even though no one else knows their names. They made sure I was never bored, and their inspiration, and stories, helped me be less boring myself.

I suspect that heaven is, by definition, full of interesting people. If it isn’t, I’m not sure I want to go there; it would be a downer after this interesting life.

And, a reminder because old people sometimes forget: wear clothes. Mark Twain pointed out that naked people hardly ever have any influence on history.*

And may the Christ who is never boring be with you,

*I am indebted to my interesting old friend, Don Survant, for this quote, in the church newsletter he edits. Helen points out that Lady Godiva is an exception, because her chocolates have changed the history of our waistlines.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mistakes & Healing

Being the tallest kid in the school at 6’4, and solid instead of skinny, Don Falls was the football and basketball star in my high school. Through the years, he and his wife, Sharon [Parke], have been the primary organizers of our class reunions. Helen and I had not planned to go to our 55 year reunion in June, because it’s a 1400 mile round trip, but Donna [Miller] Huff talked us into it. I’m glad she did.

Don was having back problems. He thought it was from helping a grandson lift a TV set. He was in pain unless he sat, so he sat as he and I chatted before dinner. Then he had to go back to his place at the table. The chair had no arms, and he couldn’t get up. Don is even more solid now than in high school, and I’m sure it must have been a surreal experience for the rest of our classmates to see the skinny newspaper editor [my high school persona] pulling the star athlete up out of his chair.

Don’s pain, though, wasn’t from lifting a TV; it is from cancer.

Cancer develops if the cells make a mistake when they divide. “…as cells divide and reproduce, they sometimes make mistakes that cripple the cells’ defenses against runaway growth.”[1]

Cancer is certainly not confined to old people, but old people get more cancers because their cells have made more divisions and thus have had more opportunities for mistakes.

It’s not just our cells, though, is it? Just by living long, we’ve had more opportunities for mistakes, mistakes that result in cancers of relationships and memory and hope. I don’t know about you, but I’ve made the most of those opportunities. The good news is that there is healing.

Not necessarily cure. As I pray for Don and other cancer patients during my 2 am prayer watch in the night, I know that his body will probably not survive. We don’t live forever. I see obits every day for people younger than Don and I. There may not be a cure for the mistakes our cells have made, but there is healing for the mistakes our brains and tongues and hands have made. It is called forgiveness. So for Don, and for me, I pray for healing.

And also for you,

[1] Malcolm Gladwell, “What the Dog Saw,” page 112.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Living With the Choices

My brother’s wife, Millie, is not only one of the best persons I know but one of the best teachers in the country. She has worked mostly in special education and reading, but she can teach anything at any level, and do it better than just about anyone else.

One of the reasons she is so effective is that she understands the place of discipline in education, and thus in life.

When a student transgresses, she says: “Because you chose to do what you did, this is the price you must pay for that choice.”

The kid almost always protests and says, “But I didn’t CHOOSE to do it.”

“How did it happen then?”

The answers are familiar: “She provoked me.” “He made me do it.” “It just happened.”

The bottom line is always the same: It was the result of something, anything, but my choice.

Millie’s answer is always the same: “No, it was your choice.”

In one way the kids are right. We don’t choose, in the sense that we don’t think it through. Millie is more right: If we do it, we have made the choice to do it, even if a thoughtless choice.

Sometimes we pay the price for a lifetime of thoughtless choices made when we are young. We choose to smoke, and we pay with lung cancer. We choose to drink or dope, and we pay with addiction. We choose to carouse, and we pay with pregnancy or disease.

In a democracy, voters get to choose their leaders. One of the difficult things about democracy is that everyone has to live with the results of the choices of the majority.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Nature of the Race

I’m not sure I ever saw Glenn Cunningham run, even on tape. In those days, the only possibility would have been MovieTone News at a theater, and I didn’t get to go to those very often. [1] However, when I was in junior high, what we called “Departmental” in Oakland City, I thrilled to Glenn’s exploits as he sought to break the four-minute mile barrier, even though he had been severely crippled as a child.

So, in high school, I ran track. I was too slow even for the mile, though, so I went out for the two-mile race. It wasn’t hard to make the team; nobody else wanted to run that far.

We didn’t really have coaches. We were expected to train on our own. Alva Cato, a childhood friend of my father, was an excellent basketball coach [2], and Delbert Disler was an excellent football coach. They were not much interested in track, though. They went with us to meets, but even then they didn’t really coach. Mostly they stood around and talked to each other.

I assumed that the two-mile run was so long and arduous all I had to do was jog along and everyone else would wear down. That didn’t turn out to be the case. Other runners went out fast and kept going at it. I fell farther and farther behind, waiting for them to falter and come back to me. Along about the sixth of eight laps, I was really way behind. As I approached the curve where Mr. Cato and Mr. Disler were standing and chatting, Mr. Disler took a step toward the track and called out, “You’d better run a little faster, Johney.”

I think that’s the only track coaching I ever had. It was good coaching, though. It told me exactly what I needed to know. The other runners weren’t going to come back to me. I was going to have to catch up to them. Mr. Disler explained in that one phrase that I had misunderstood the nature of the race.

Often we lose just because we don’t understand the nature of the race.

And also with you,

[1] Later, however, I did see Cunningham’s fellow-Kansan and KU runner Jim Ryun break the 880 record in Terre Haute while I was campus minister of The Wesley Foundation at Indiana State U and Rose Polytechnic, now Rose-Hulman. When a man with a stop-watch sat down beside me before the race started, I didn’t know it was Ryun’s coach. I found that out when he became quite excited, to say the least, when he clicked the stop-watch at the end of the race.

[2] Alva’s son, Gene, was in my sister’s class and was one of the few Indiana high school basketball players to lead two different counties in scoring for a season, having led Warrick County in his junior year, when Alva coached at Lynnville, and Gibson County in his senior year. He later became commissioner of the Indiana High School Athletic Assn. and presided over the break-up of Indiana’s famous “one size fits all” state high school basketball tourney [See “Hoosiers”!] into several “size” tourneys.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Harvesting Friendship & Learning

Yesterday I finally put away the deck chairs. I could have done that two weeks ago, but I kept hoping for another deck day.

It has been a beautiful autumn, even though the deck days ended too soon and too abruptly. They always do. You never know when you are sitting there, in dry air, that this day is the last one on the deck.

Autumn is so beautiful to get us ready for winter. Early retirement is like autumn, and we think it will last forever

As a child, of all the seasons, I loved autumn best. The dry air, the bright leaves, the smell of wood smoke. And school.

We lived in the country, without a car, so I rarely got to see my friends in summer time. School meant I got to see my friends again. School also meant that I got to learn new things, advance in knowledge and wisdom. Friends and knowledge—school meant life.

Now I still like autumn because winter follows, and my life is in winter.

Autumn is harvest time, but it’s also startup time. Autumn is the start of the fallow season, the season of rest for the soil, so that it is ready to spring forth into newness after winter.

Winter is the season of rest, but that rest is preparation for new life.

In the winter our world becomes smaller, closed in, and we get through it on what we harvest in the fall, what we harvested in friendship and in learning.

The farther we got into school, the more I learned. The farther we get into winter, the more I learn.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Right Age

Sometimes people have asked us, “Wouldn’t you love to have your children little again, like two years old, when they’re so cute, just for a day?”

I always answered, “No, this is their best age, because right now they are the age they are supposed to be.”

Sometimes it doesn’t seem that right now is my best time. There are lots of aches and pains and limitations that I haven’t had before. Still, this is the age I’m supposed to be, and there is no going back.

I saw this statement recently: “Things began to get better when I stopped praying for a different past.”

“THIS is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Winter and Acceptance

I saw Clark Brogan’s obituary today. He died at 91. In recent years he lived in Decatur, GA, but I knew him as a resident of Mattoon, IL, a retired printer who lived his Christian faith as a gentle but persistent voice on behalf of those Jesus called “the least of these.”

Around 20 years ago, when Clark was about the age I am now, I called on him in a hospital in Champaign, IL, by accident. I was there to see a member of my church. I try to avoid looking into patient rooms as I go down a hospital hallway. There’s little enough dignity for a hospital patient without strangers staring at you. Occasionally, though, you have to glance at room numbers for guidance. As I looked for a number, I saw Clark, sitting on a chair, hunched over in one of those awful hospital gowns. Since he was not a member of the church I served, I had not known he was in the hospital.

When I walked into his room, he looked up at me with such relief and anxiety at the same time. He reached out for my hand. “I’ve been trying to pray,” he said, “and I can’t. I can’t even remember what comes after ‘Our Father…’.”

“You’re in luck,” I said. “I know the whole thing.”

That got the smile I wanted. We prayed. We talked. With anguish he asked if he would ever be able to pray again. I assured him that it was just the anesthesia from his surgery and the pain killers after that had wiped out the rest of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the kind of thing you know when your brain is whole, but which you forget when every cell in your body, including your brain, is depressed by anesthesia. I’m sure he prayed a lot in the 20 years since that chance encounter.

In the years of winter people are subjected to anesthesia and pain killers more often than in former years. And in the places of winter, in times of darkness and cold, people use pain killers more, too. [1]

When I was in campus ministry, one of my friends was Bill Toohey, the chaplain at Notre Dame. He told once of how a student came into his office one Monday and told about how he and his friends had partied all weekend. “Man, we were feelin’ no pain,” he said. “What pain were you not feeling?” Bill asked. The boy thought about it and said, “The pain of being me, I guess.”

That’s why we use pain killers, to take away the pain of being ourselves. Sometimes pain killers are a good thing. If my self is hurting because of some physical ailment, as when the tumor penetrated my bowel wall, I need something to kill the pain so that the physicians can take away the reason for the pain. On my birthday in 1990, my real self had a real tumor that caused real pain.

More often, the pains we want to avoid are emotional and spiritual and relational. We get used to taking away those pains of being our selves by using alcohol or drugs or gambling or sex or food or danger. As we become more like ourselves as we age, the addictions of spring and summer and fall are even more pronounced, and intractable, in winter.

Surrounded in winter by cold and snow, able to look back and forward better because of the slower pace that ice and wind require, that’s a good time to renew our faith in grace, that we are accepted, that we don’t have to be pained by being ourselves, so we don’t need to deaden that self-pain. God’s acceptance takes it away.

I think that’s what allowed Clark Brogan to live as one who was free to live for others. He couldn’t always remember what came after “Our Father,” but he knew he was accepted. [2]

[1] I suspect that’s why Alaska has such a high rate of alcoholism. Binge alcohol users in AK number over 115,000 in a month, more than 20% of the population. Or maybe they drink to forget about politics.
It’s also why the high school principal said in Brigid’s frosh orientation this fall that the drug and alcohol rate among UP teens is higher than the national average.

[2] Perhaps the best sermon ever, after the one on the mount, is Paul Tillich’s “You Are Accepted,” printed in his book of sermons, “The Shaking of the Foundations.” Tillich was a major figure in the NYC community of German immigrants who came here to escape the Nazis. Many of his fellow immigrants were Jews or atheists, but whenever he was preaching in chapel at Union Seminary, where he taught, he would call them up and tell them to be there. They came.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Using It All Up

Winter is coming in today with wind and rain and cold.

If I live winter right, on the first day of spring, I’ll dip the last tea bag, burn the last log, and my snow shovel will break.

The task through most of life is building up. The task of winter is to use up.

I was just a young father when my Grandma Mac began to give me old photographs. I didn’t want to take them. I knew they were precious to her. But she insisted. She did the same with her children and her other grandchildren. She knew the particular photos she passed on to each of us would be precious to us, too. It was time for her to use up her store of precious things by passing them on.

We have friends who have been married sixty years. They told us recently that they had burned their old love letters from their courting days. “There’s nothing embarrassing in those letters,” they said, “but they are just for us. Our friends and children and grandchildren will have their memories of us, but those letters contain memories for us alone.” It was time for them to use up the memories that were too precious to share.

When we followed our grandchildren to the UP, the land of winter, we “downsized,” which means simply getting rid of a lot of stuff we were hanging onto not because we needed it anymore but just because it was there. It was time for us to use up the unnecessary stuff by getting rid of it, mostly by giving it to younger neighbors who are still building up.

If I live winter right, on the first day of spring, I’ll dip the last tea bag, burn the last log, and my snow shovel will break.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Of Grandma Macs

In the posts of Sept. 30 and Oct. 24, I referred to Helen as “Grandma Mac,” as she is to Brigid and Joe. “Grandma Mac” is not just a title. It is a position. A “Grandma Mac” is the linchpin of the family, the one who holds it all together, the bearer of all knowledge, the hearer of all woes, the remover of all spots, the wiper of all spills.

The first Grandma Mac was Henrietta Ann Smith McFarland, my grandmother, the wife of Arthur Harrison McFarland. Even now, many years after her death, whenever anyone in our family says “Grandma Mac,” we know that they mean “Retta,” not any of her successors.

She was five feet tall, in heels, which she wore into her 90s, five feet of dynamite and fun. There was nothing she couldn’t do, including having seven children without ever seeing the inside of a hospital. Indeed, she was never in a hospital until she was dying at age 96. There was no one she couldn’t beat at Chinese Checkers. She was a great fan of her grandchildren and the Cincinnati Reds. She made work into fun. She was the quintessential grandma—laughs and cookies.

Grandma Mac was the linchpin of the family, the switchboard, the one through whom we all communicated, the one who kept track of eight children [she also raised a niece] and 22 grandchildren.

There are other Grandma Macs now. Aunt Gertrude, Aunt Rosemary, Aunt Edna—they are in the next generation of Grandma Macs after Retta. But my wife, Helen, is a Grandma Mac, too, in the next generation after the aunts, and so are Evonne and Carol and Jackie. So was Sandy.

They are the linchpins for their families. They are the ones who keep the clan going, who give it that distinctive family identity.

It’s strange, isn’t it, that these Grandma Macs, who give the clan its identity, were not originally Macs? They weren’t McFarlands until they married one.

Be kind to the immigrants in the family. They will become the linchpins.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Grandma Power

Last night we saw “Neil Berg’s 100 Years of Broadway.” It featured some remarkable Broadway stars, like Carter Calvert [It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues; Cats] and Sarah Joseph [Phantom of the Opera] and Ted Louis Levy [Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk; Jelly’s Last Jam] and Robert DuSold [Showboat; Mamma Mia] and Rob Evan [Les Miserables,; Jekyl and Hyde].

Berg said that his Broadway vocation was highly unlikely, since the only person in his family who had anything to do with show business was his grandmother, who told dirty jokes at an old people’s home. She was the one, though, who believed that he could make it in his unlikely occupation and kept encouraging him. Then Carter Calvert dedicated her recreation of “Memories” from “Cats” to her grandmother, “TuTu,” who every week, when Carter was getting turned down in all her auditions and thinking she should move back to Cincinnati and live with her mother, sent her an encouraging letter and “a check for just the right amount to get me through the next week or month.” [Helen says no one appreciated that more than Carter’s mother.]

That got me to thinking about the influence of grandmothers, and grandfathers.

Josh Hamilton, the amazingly talented outfielder of The Texas Rangers, while still in the minor leagues, got strung out on booze and dope. He went so far down, below the bottom, that everyone else gave up on him, but when Josh showed up on his grandma’s doorstep one bleak morning, without a prayer or a hope, it was she who gave him both and brought him back to himself. It was his white grandmother, “Toot,” that Barack Obama credits with raising him and loving him into an identity beyond the division of race. It was their grandfather who believed in his grandsons so much, the ones who called themselves “The Beach Boys,” although their new sound must surely have been strange to his Sinatra-listening ears, that he mortgaged his house to finance them. My cousin, Carole Ann, and her husband, David, are raising their now eleven-year-old great-grandson, even though they are pushing [or maybe even pulling] eighty years of age.

It set me to thinking about my own Grandma Mac, and how after my high school commencement, my mother complained that Grandma Mac clapped with embarrassing enthusiasm each time I received an award. During the Great Depression, my parents and older sister and I often lived with Grandma and Grandpa Mac, as did seven or eight other aunts, uncles, and cousins, although usually not all at the same time. From Grandma Mac, I learned that it is possible to be happy and hopeful even in the midst of chaos. And that it is okay to be embarrassing in your enthusiasm about your grandchildren.

When we lived with Grandma and Grandpa Mac, when my mother would spank me for some imagined infraction, I am told that my grandfather would go out into the back yard and cry.

The world needs more grandmothers who encourage the little ones, even when they aren’t little anymore, and grandfathers who weep over the pains of the little ones. Be not stinting in your enthusiasm, or in your tears.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Barren Landscape of Winter Minds

I have a friend here in the land of winter who is a staunch Republican. He lives on a corner and displays not just one yard sign for each Republican candidate but three or four signs for each one.

He is occasionally the program chair for a service club composed entirely of people in their winter years. About three years ago, in a non-campaign year, he invited our US Congressman, Bart Stupak, [retiring this year], to speak to the group. Stupak is a Democrat, although he is as firm in his commitment to guns and against abortion as any Republican could be. He single-handedly held up health care reform until he was assured no federal money could be used to help women get abortions.

My friend said that Congressman Stupak did a good job speaking to the club of old people. He didn’t talk about politics at all, but government, telling about what was happening in Washington and what it meant. Afterwards, though, my friend was approached by several members who were angry with him for inviting a Democrat.

“But he’s our congressman,” my friend protested. “He represents us. We need to know what he’s thinking and doing. And what better way to know what the whole Congress is doing than from our own Representative?”

He didn’t persuade them. Stupak was the enemy, and they didn’t want to hear anything from him, not even generic information.

Old people should know better. We’ve been around long enough to know that you often learn the most from those with whom you disagree. Brains shrivel with old age, but our minds don’t have to. There’s nothing quite as pathetic as a narrow-minded old person. Winter is mighty cold if you have no source of warmth but the fire of your hates.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My Favorite Things

Men named Don apparently like Julie Andrews a lot. Don [and Gloria] Survant and Don [and Bev] Bielema both forwarded to me the “then and now” [49 years later-] pictures of Julie and the Von Trapp kids of the “Sound of Music” movie. [Helen and I once danced in the gazebo in Strasburg used in that movie.]

Each of those kids, though, and Julie, too, is not just 49 years older. Each is still the same person s/he was in the “then” photo. In God, everything is always “now,” the “eternal present,” in Paul Tillich’s term, and an eternal present, as in gift, in God’s terms.

The Dons also forwarded Julie’s new version of “My Favorite Things,” one now that she’s almost 50 years older:

Maalox and nose drops and needles for knitting,
Walkers and handrails and new dental fittings,
Bundles of magazines tied up in string,
These are a few of my favorite things.

Cadillac's and cataracts, and hearing aids and glasses,
Polident and Fixodent and false teeth in glasses,
Pacemakers, golf carts and porches with swings,
These are a few of my favorite things.

When the pipes leak, when the bones creak,
When the knees go bad,
I simply remember my favorite things,
And then I don't feel so bad.

Hot tea and crumpets and corn pads for bunions,
No spicy hot food or food cooked with onions,
Bathrobes and heating pads and hot meals they bring,
These are a few of my favorite things.

Back pains, confused brains, and no need for sinnin',
Thin bones and fractures and hair that is thinnin',
And we won't mention our short, shrunken frames,
When we remember our favorite things.

When the joints ache, when the hips break,
When the eyes grow dim,
Then I remember the great life I've had,
And then I don't feel so bad.

Despite the laughter, old age is difficult. We all have those old age maladies of which Julie sings. One of the best ways to deal with a problem, though, is to laugh at it, and to recall those “favorite things.”

Monday, October 18, 2010

When the Applause Fades

As an IU grad and fan, I had reservations about Larry Siegfried, the Ohio State guard on their 1960 national championship basketball team, who went on to win five NBA titles with the Boston Celtics.

I have no reservations, though, about affirming his observation, quoted in his obituary today: “As time goes on, the championship does not mean as much to me. The thing that matters to me is what coach [Fred] Taylor taught us and the relationships, those intangible things. The core values that made me who I am today, that’s what’s important to me.”

The awards, the applause, the power, the successes all fade away, for each of us. And we cannot replicate those. We get too old to win new championships. But we are never too old for the relationships and values that give us meaning.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Knowing Which Side You're On

My mother’s brothers were all handsome men. Even in that group, though, Uncle Jesse stood out. Curly hair. Sparkling brown eyes. A dazzling smile. And even nicer than he was handsome.

So it must have set the hearts of all the girls at Francisco High School to fluttering when he ran out onto the basketball court in the tight little shorts and skimpy singlet basketball players wore in the 1920s.

The problem was this: he wasn’t a very good basketball player. So he never got into a game. Until that night when all the other players had fouled out. To have five on the floor, the coach had to put Jesse in.

The score was tied, and the clock was down to the last minute.

“Don’t touch the ball,” the coach told Jesse. “Just stand there in bounds.”

Jesse did as he was told. But then the unthinkable happened. The ball went astray. It landed in his hands. What was he to do? The thing any player would do; he went for the basket.

He couldn’t dribble, but somehow he kept the ball going—one, two, three bounces toward the basket. The other players were chasing him. The crowd was yelling. He could see the clock down to its last second. He lofted the ball. It went through the net. The crowd went wild.

Then, though, Jesse realized it was the wrong crowd that was cheering him. It was on the visitors’ side of the gym. He looked at the scoreboard. He had won the game, but for the wrong team.

After high school, Uncle Jesse went on to a distinguished career in the Navy, as a pilot and flight instructor.

My mother’s family liked to tease a lot. So whenever there was a reunion and Jesse was present, the story of the errant basket was repeated many times. I was a teen-aged basketball player then myself. I could feel the embarrassment I was sure Uncle Jesse must have felt.

“How can you stand that, hearing that story?” I asked him.

He looked serious.

“All I did was make a mistake, Johnny,” he said. “You’ll make a lot of those in life, and sometimes it will help the wrong team. Maybe even win a game for them.”

Then he gave me that dazzling smile.

“But I always knew which side I was on,” he said.

In the years of winter, I’ve been around long enough to make a lot of mistakes, and sometimes they’ve helped the wrong team. Maybe even won a game or two for them. But the season isn’t over, and I still know which side I’m on.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Love & Hate

I love to paint.

I am painting the deck. It’s very satisfying to cover up the winter-worn and summer-baked bare spots, and to cover up the disgruntled old paint that thinks it’s better and smarter than the rest of the paint just because it was in a sheltered spot and survived the ice of winter and the glare of summer better.

I have to go to the paint store. The guy there sells me mineral spirits to thin the paint by 20% so it will get into the cracks better. I get it home and realize I don’t have a container big enough to mix paint and spirits. I search for one, can’t find anything, and decide I’ll just pour some spirits in on top of the paint in the can and hope for the best. The mineral spirits have an adult-proof lid that I can’t get off, though, so all my worry and searching was for naught. I’ll just spread on unadulterated paint, thus keeping the 7th commandment.

Then I have to remove all the furniture and flower pots and sweep the pine needles and leaves and dirt from the deck. I have to find the steel brush. It has disappeared, so I have to get a putty knife to scrape the old flaking paint off. Then I scrape. Then I sweep again.

I have to wait until the deck has dried adequately from the last rains. I have to watch the thermometer to be sure it’s above 50 degrees, which in Oct. in the UP is only a few hours per day. Of course, those are the hours when the deck is in the sun, and you’re not supposed to paint where the sun hits the new paint. So I paint in drips of time and spots of shade.

Finally it is done. Leaves and pine needles floated down while the paint was drying and stuck in it. I have to rescue them first in order to send them to the hell of fire. Now I’ll have to search for the receipt so I can return the mineral spirits.

I hate to paint.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Place to Fill

Fred Pratt Green was a British Methodist minister. He was 79 when he wrote “O Praise the Hidden God of Love.” It is # 2027 in “The Faith We Sing.” It can be sung to many tunes, but I love the name of the tune listed in TFWS, “O Waly Waly.”

It is the song of an old man who is searching well for final integrity. Here are the words…

“Now praise the hidden God of love, in whom we all must live and move, who shepherds us at every stage, through youth, maturity, and age.

Who challenged us when we were young, to storm the citadels of wrong; in care for others taught us how God’s true community must grow.

Who bids us never lose our zest, though age is urging us to rest, but proves to us that we have still, a work to do, a place to fill.”