Friday, August 29, 2014

Vacation Souvenirs - Part One

When I returned from vacation last year, I brought home a box of sticks, a few leaves, two containers of maple syrup, one jar of apple butter, and a camera full of pictures. This year, Mike and I went to the same place, the Chautauqua Institute in Western New York, but I left the sticks and leaves on the grounds, took two pictures from a rented kayak, and purchased nothing.  What I did bring back were four words which came to me as I experienced life at Chautauqua.


Most of the homes at Chautauqua have front porches with wooden rocking chairs, and wicker chairs containing colorful, thick cushions. These chairs offered a silent invitation to come, sit, get to know each other, and discuss a lecture or other common topic of interest.

Rarely do I see porches in Indiana, unless I go to an older part of Indianapolis. Many people have decks in the back of their homes suggesting a need for privacy and time away from people instead of an invitation to gather.

Although I did not know anyone who owned a home in Chautauqua, I felt invited to various porches as I walked by each day.


Since cars aren't allowed on the grounds except to load and unload suitcases, people walk everywhere. I heard many snippets of conversation that I found interesting especially since I did not know the background or the outcome of what I heard.  Here are a few samples:

-"Are you sober?"

-"I don't think I can get over her."

-"I'm taking a class in the fall."

-"I need to find a good massage therapist."

-"I really like your blue toenails."

-"The concert last night had a twenty minute intermission which was too long.  I heard that is part of the musician's union."

-"My ex-husband is dying, and I am surprised the feelings coming up."


People often gather close to a large circular fountain in the center of a large grassy area in the middle of the grounds. Twice during the week, I heard two impromptu violin "concerts", in this grassy area, offered by students who come to Chautauqua for enrichment and lessons. I also saw dancers perform their own interpretation of classical music selections. People gather to watch these impromptu events, recognizing the skill and quality.

One afternoon I was sitting in the library and a man waiting to check out a book started singing in a deep, baritone voice the song "Old Man River", from the musical "Porgy and Bess". I couldn't believe an impromptu concert in the library.


The word, "holding" came when I was sitting in the amphitheater where concerts, lectures, and worship occur. One day I watched the Charlotte, North Carolina ballet company practice. Few people sat in the audience, so I could hear tapping from pointe shoes as the dancers moved over the old wooden floor. Last year the stage absorbed a loud, enthusiastic concert by "The Beach Boys". Lectures, services of worship, and symphonies all have been held by the stage for over a hundred and forty years.

These words - INVITING, SNIPPETS, IMPROMPTU, HOLDING - framed by days at Chautauqua and were my souvenirs. I really enjoyed the maple syrup and apple butter from last year, but I think the words will have more lasting value as I explore each one in the future.

To be continued.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Laundromat

I don't like to return home from vacation with a bag of dirty clothes. The day before we left New York, I headed to the Laundromat located near the entrance to the Chautauqua Institute where we spent most of the week listening to lectures and attending concerts. 

I brought my own detergent to avoid paying for the overpriced soap available in the metal dispenser on the wall, lugging a brown paper bag bulging with clothes. As I walked briskly the few blocks from the house where we stayed, I hoped the five dollars I clutched would cover the cost of my laundry.

Choosing the washer closest to the door, I inserted seven quarters for one load. All of the contents of my bag were stuffed into the drum  Glancing at the other people in the room, - an elderly husband and wife and an older man - I realized everyone else brought something to read except me! What was I thinking? I always bring something to do, sewing or a book, while waiting.  Then I saw a sign on the wall: "Closed at 3:30."  The clock above the washer read 3:10. Another sign indicated the washer cycle lasted 30 minutes.

"Who closes a Laundromat at 3:30 in the afternoon at a busy place like Chautauqua?," I asked myself. Exasperated, I failed to realize many of the houses and apartments have their own laundry facilities.

What should I do?  My clothes were already soaking wet in soapy water,as I heard the familiar sound of a washer churn.  First, I decided to sit down and take a deep breath.  I noted the light pink room had a five or six inch border of large flowers in the middle of each wall.

Odd color and border for a Laundromat.  Pink and flowers seem more appropriate for a woman's bathroom or a little girl's bedroom.  Noting someone's color scheme and decorating style for a Laundromat did not solve my dilemma.

Approximately ten minutes into the washing cycle, I decided to remove a few items of clothing. I lifted the lid of the washer. The drum was filled with cold water. I reached in and grabbed a couple of Mike's T-shirts. Dripping wet short-sleeved shirts are heavy. I twisted out as much water as I could, closed the lid and put these items in the dryer which cost $1.25 an hour.

Hoping the shirts were clean after an abbreviated cycle, I was frantically thinking through a plan to manage two dripping wet sweatshirts and other items of clothing when the place closed in ten minutes.  Why didn't I note the hours? Why would a Laundromat have hours? The ones I knew were open 24/7? How could I carry dripping clothes back to the house without getting wet myself?  Besides the place where we stayed offered no place to hang the clothes. What would I do once I got there?

Feeling like a real dunce, I was suddenly rescued when a gentleman dressed in faded jeans and an old T-shirt popped in the room.

"I need to leave. Last one done turn out the lights and lock the door." He delivered his message and left.

"He must be the owner," I thought. "He sure is trusting leaving care of his Laundromat to strangers!"

My anxiety plummeted. The washer could finish. I could use a second dryer to speed the drying process, and the elderly couple who left at 3:30 left their day-old copy of 'The New York Times' on the folding table. Life had turned in a matter of minutes and best of all my clothes could dry.

The place was empty while I folded my clothes. All of the washers and dryers were silent. I loaded my paper sack, remembering the gentleman's request, when a middle-aged husband and wife walked in the door. 

They looked at me balancing my bag overflowing with cleanliness and said, "Are we too late?"

"Oh no," I replied.  "Just turn off the lights and lock the door when you leave." I said smiling.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Honoring the Dead in Life

'I'm copying my own obituary," she said nonchalantly while I was waiting to use the library copy machine.

I was astonished by her frankness to a complete stranger. Feeling stunned and awkward wondering how to respond, I replied, "That's a good idea. You will have printed what you want to say about yourself."

"Yes, I am an English teacher. I want things said the right way. It makes people uncomfortable, though, when I tell them. I met with the funeral director a few weeks ago and he was shaken by my desire to make arrangements. He was young and new in the business. He wasn't expecting someone like me to show up. I have a disease. It's something we all avoid you know."

She fumbled with ten or eleven sheets of handwritten papers, shuffling them occasionally, trying to get them in order. She spread two file folders all over the work table next to the copier.

"Do you know how to work the machine?" she asked.

I showed her the simplest way to copy many pages.

"I'll move fast. I'm as fast as General Motors."

I stood back to take in this woman who opened her life to me in a minute. She was tan and healthy-looking, medium-built, about mid-seventies. She wore a black baseball cap, white knit top, black jeans and tennis shoes.

While a stack of papers went through the machine, she continued to shuffle more papers.

"May I help you organize these?" I volunteered stepping over to the table where she was working.

"Well, those papers are my husband's obituary. These are mine. You take his, and I'll work on mine."

The pages were numbered, so I put them in order. 

"These are ready," I said handing her the stack.

"You go ahead and do your copying while I finish getting these in order."

I copied five pages from a book, and noticed she was still shuffling papers unable to reach any sense of organization.

"I'm done." I said.

"Thank you."

Reading a magazine I heard one of the librarians announced the library was closing in five minutes. I had not paid for my five pages.Returning the magazine to the shelf, I glanced over at the woman who was still at the copier struggling with multiple pages. 

"How many copies are you making?" I asked.


"I'll add your twenty-four copies to my five and pay for both.  The library is closing in one minute." She looked at me surprised, moving the papers all over the table once again.

Eight hours earlier, I heard a sermon during the morning worship service at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York, where I was vacationing, by the Rev. Dr. Allen Boesak, an activist born and raised in South Africa, currently teaching at Christian Theological Seminary and Butler University.  He introduced the idea of prophetic faithfulness which interrupts the flow of evil for the reality of truth in the reign of God.  He continued, "God wills peace, justice and wholeness."

Boesak challenged the congregation, "Don't worry if you can't save the world.  Every act of compassion and justice - every embrace of one who is despised - saves one life. Interrupt the work of evil and bring the light of God's love and mercy to just one life."

I remembered Allen Boesak's words as I listened to the woman talk about her impending death. The evil in her life was an unnamed disease to which she referred several times. I did not know her name, but I saw her as a woman determined to leave her own legacy about her life for friends, family, and anyone else who will read her obituary.  I can't visit during her funeral calling, but I wanted to express compassion for her circumstances. I pray my actions, "made the face of Christ shine" as Allen Boesak concluded happens when we take the time for one life.

God we are surrounded by many lives wherever we go.  Bring us to awareness of those who have needs and guide us to respond however we can.  Amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Singing Hymns and Saying Prayers in Elementary School

I attended three elementary schools from 1953 to 1959, two in Ohio and one in Pennsylvania.

I remember my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Rossi, so well because we sang hymns when we handed in our papers. We finished our work, she stood in front of the class, called us to pass our papers to the end of the row and led us singing a hymn. Two of her favorites were "Come Thou Almighty King", and "All things bright and beautiful". Children's voices singing worshipful music replaced the noise of shuffling papers and talking.

Although no one in the class knew the words to each hymn when the school year started, as the year progressed we learned quickly. Singing hymns in school during the mid-fifties was perfectly acceptable. The door was always open and no parent, teacher or principal complained about the hymns or made comments about the separation of church and state or worried about violating anyone's religious freedom. 

Teachers in the fifties taught all subjects including music, and art. Mrs. Rossi often accompanied us on the piano which was next to her desk.

When I was in the fifth grade my family moved to a small town in Pennsylvania.  Each day we formed a line inside the classroom preparing for lunch.  Just before walking down the stairs in the creaky old building to the cafeteria, one of the children or the teacher prayed.  One student, Simone, was Jewish.  My teacher, Mrs. DeShong, was intentional to ask her to pray every other week. Simone prayed in Hebrew and then translated what she said.

Although my parents took me to church each Sunday, I became aware of God's presence early in life.  Even though my home life was stressful, I knew God was with me. Singing hymns at school brought God to me in another setting.  I listened carefully to the words of each hymn and gained strength to return home to the challenges I faced. 

Praying before lunch in Pennsylvania was another way my faith was nurtured.  Pausing each day, coming to God with gratitude, helped ground my faith as my home life continued to deteriorate. These simple ways of attending to God's presence at school, helped me realize God was everywhere not just in church on Sunday morning.

Considering the nature of my home life, these "spiritual practices", singing hymns and saying prayers before lunch, carried me through the week, until I could return Sunday and sink into the liturgy present in the Episcopal church. The liturgy too, which rarely varied from week to week, was like a familiar coat of comfort, which I looked forward to wearing when I entered the sanctuary.  These "religious experiences" at both school and church, reminded me in different ways that I was not alone, God was with me, and I could depend on God to help me when my mother and father were failing in their responsibility to a small child.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Stirring the Waters

John 5:1-9 describes a pool close to the Sheep Gate called Bethsada, where, those who were sick lay around the water, waiting for it to move.  Occasionally an angel from the Lord went into the pool and stirred the water.  The first sick person to go into the pool after the water was stirred received healing from whatever disease he or she had.  On Jesus' visit to Jerusalem for a religious festival, he went to the pool and visited those gathered.

I carry these verses in my heart every time I swim.  Before I begin, I take a few moments to sit on the edge of the pool and swirl the water with my hands.  I ask God to bless my swimming.  I thank God for the ability to move my limbs so I can exercise regularly.

Swimming is a metaphor for the way God hold us.  The water supports me as I go from one end to the other.   I receive comfort when the water glides over me.  God is in the water because I am never the same person when I complete my laps as when I began.  God works through each stroke and kick, giving me what I need.

I recently wrote the following prayer when I returned home from one of my swims.

       God who stirs the water,
       You give me what I need with each stroke and kick.
        I breathe you in and give the water whatever I want.
        You receive my words, you hold me.
        You cleanse my soul and body with every lap.
        God, I worship you when I swim.
        I praise your kindness and love. Amen.

What passages of scripture do you see each day?  How do your favorite verses come alive in everyday life?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A Matter of Perspective

One day I was walking down the aisle of medical supplies at Target and heard a loud moan.  I turned around and saw a lanky, elderly man who looked distressed.

Concerned, I asked, "Can I help you?"

"I can't find gloves.  My vision isn't good," he replied.

"What kind of gloves do you need?"

"I'm looking for plastic gloves.  The gloves are like elastic and slip easily on my hands."

"Let me check the shelves."

I searched up and down the aisle, finally finding gloves on the lowest shelf just above the floor.

"Here are your gloves.  How many boxes do you want?"

"Oh, thank you.  Just one will do."

The gentleman laughed, "What I want is on shelves that are too low."

I replied, "What I usually want is on shelves that are too high.  We need to follow each other around the store.  You can reach what I need."

He laughed again.  I did too.

Life in the kingdom is sometimes a matter of perspective.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Confession at 22,000 Feet

Mike and I recently visited our daughter, Sarah, who lives in Denver.  We walked down the ramp boarding the plane and a man wearing cowboy boots turned to me and said, "If you're following me I don't know where I'm going."  I laughed, taking the edge off the anxiety that often comes when I fly.

We shared the row with this gentleman; Mike sat on the aisle, I was in the middle and the gentleman had the window seat. Mike brought a book to read, I had a small quilt to make and the man brought nothing to do.

Shortly after we took off, he started talking. He told me he was going to Denver to spend the week fishing with his son, whom he had not seen for two years.

"I've been a truck driver for 30 years. I drive all over the country for a large company," he offered.

I asked a few questions about his work, and told him what Mike and I did professionally.

He seemed eager to tell me more about his life. He began, "I've done a lot of things I am not proud of."

"I see," dropping my hands from the fabric I was piecing and looked into his pale blue eyes. He continued. 

"I fought in Viet Nam. I saw and did a lot of things I didn't want to do. I went to church, but people judged me for riding a motorcycle, for the clothes I wore, my tattoos, my job, my divorce. I want to be married, but I can't seem to hang on to a woman. Takes a special woman to stay married to a truck driver.  I regret my marriage didn't last. I didn't go back to church. I feel what happens to me after I die is between me and God."

I listened and felt l like I was hearing a confession. I told him I was sorry for his experiences at church. I regret he didn't try another church, and will only know God when he dies.

He continued to talk as I resumed piecing a small quilt for a baby shower in early August. I paused periodically to continue eye contact.

"My wife didn't want the boys, so I took them and raised them best I could. We Skype and stay in touch that way."

"Sounds like you did a good job. Spending a week together will give you lots of time to talk."

"Yes we'll have fun in the peace and quiet. I've got bear spray just in case!" he laughed, sharing a story about an encounter he had with a bear a few years ago.

"Oh my! I pray you have a wonderful vacation."

"Thank you. We will."

Our conversation ended just as the "fasten the seatbelt sign" flashed and the attendant alerted us the plane was making the final descent, preparing to land. I took a few pins out of the little quilt which grew as I talked. Quilting is a way I feel God's presence and my piecing provided a holy backdrop of this gentleman's heart. As I folded the quilt to tuck away in my bag, I knew all I heard and carried to God was recorded in the stitches holding the fabric together.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for putting me next to this stranger who had a need to express thoughts that lived deep in his heart. Help me always to stay present to those whom I encounter and keep me mindful when I need to pause, and listen to one of your children. Amen

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Link

Annabel Hartman has mentored me in many ways since I first met her in 1983.  She and her late husband, Grover, were members of Center United Methodist Church where Mike served from November, 1983, to June, 1989.   She prepared meals periodically throughout my pregnancy with Anna.  She attended Sarah's school programs, assuming the role of a grandmother for both children with her interest and love.  I appreciated Annabel's spirituality which helped deepen my own walk with God.

When Mike was appointed to a church in Vincennes, June, 1989, I was sad to leave Annabel.  We decided to stay in touch writing letters.  Annabel, despite her work and involvement with church activities was faithful to answer each letter I wrote.  I have a basket containing her letters and cards which I saved through the years.  Even after we returned to central Indiana in 1996, we still wrote letters.

One letter, I shared my concern about "non-productive" activity such as driving children various places or participating in church events.  I lamented my lack of time to "cultivate my self  because of being engulfed by responsibilities to others."

Annabel replied, "We can be perpetually involved in worship while we are also very busy in the world of daily affairs. Can't just being in the company of others who need relationship cultivate the self?  Driving kids is productive in that we become the servant.  Doing odd jobs at church is productive if we see ourselves as a link in a chain, a part of something bigger than we.  Just being is enough for me if in my position of being I am becoming a bigger better person because I am being for someone else, however simple or menial the task or service" (letter dated May 10, 1990)

I prayed with her letter for many days.  Through the years her phrase, "If we see ourselves as a link in a chain, a part of something bigger than we" left an imprint in my heart and altered my perspective of everyday tasks.  Thinking of myself as a links has brought value to all I do and to each interaction.

I was reminded recently of being a link when I stopped at Walmart after church last Sunday. I volunteered to purchase 24 yards of black fabric for Sarah to use on bulletin boards in her classroom.

"Do you have black fabric?" I asked the employee in the craft department.

"I can't hear you," she replied.  Thinking she might be hearing impaired, I repeated my question looking at her directly.  She pointed to a row of solid fabric on the top shelf.  I reached the bolt and brought it to the cutting table.

"I need 24 yards please."

"What are you doing with 24 yards?"

"My daughter is an art teacher.  She prefers fabric rather than paper on her bulletin boards."

"I like art too.  When I was in Italy I hired  a teacher who taught me to draw and paint.  I won an art contest in fourth grade.  I did a lot of art through the years.  My son is a really good artist.  He draws faces that really look like the person.  I like art a lot."

She cut with new energy as she turned the bolt over and over until cutting the last inch.  She folded the fabric with a big smile placing the pile in my hands.

"Thank you.  You're a link to art helping my daughter prepare her room."

She grinned, "I still like art very much."

Now my days are much less hectic.  I try to be mindful how I can be a link wherever I go.  For example, when I hold the door open for the person behind me entering or exiting a store, I am a link to another's progress.  When I affirm or encourage, I am a link to someone's growth.  When I care for a friend's child I am a link providing space for growth, pleasure or relaxation.  My prayers link me to God in intentional ways for others or myself."

I am so grateful for Annabel's thirty year influence on my life.  I treasure the time I spend with her. Even though she is approaching 99 years, she still fills me with wisdom and love.

How are you a link in the path you follow each day?

God I ask you to guide my heart and direct my vision in ways I can be a link for others. The positive energy I receive when I think of myself as a link to others whom I encounter reminds me how Jesus used objects to explain or link us to you.  Amen.