Of grandparents and grandchildren

When I took Clinical Pastoral Education, we did an exercise in mapping our family diagram. Each participant told their family story using game pieces to illustrate. There were special pieces to designate parents, brothers, and sisters. There were ways to illustrate death and divorce if those events had been a part of your family story. Interestingly, the planners of the exercise had made no distinction between children who were born to a family and those who were adopted. That part of the exercise didn’t matter to me. In my family the distinction between entering as adopted or born was not drawn. We were seven. The first two were adopted when they were two and nine years old. Three years later a third sister was born to our family. I was born another two years later, followed by another brother two and a half years after me. The last two boys were 2 and 4 when they were adopted, fitting right into the pattern of the younger children being 2 years apart.

My family is even more complex than that. The youngest two were born to my oldest sister, so they were my nephews who became my brothers. At no time were there more than six children living in our house at the same time and that was just a brief period. Most of the time we were five living at home. The time allotted for each participant in the class expired before I had finished telling my family story and the story was left hanging for the purposes of the class. I had shared enough to illustrate that I, like the others in the class, had come from a unique set of circumstances. There was probably some other point to the exercise, but there was a lot in Clinical Pastoral Education that escaped me.

I grew up with a strong conviction that what families do is to care for children whenever there is a need. When nieces and nephews came to our house they were treated as extensions of our family. The wide spread in ages between my oldest sister and my youngest brother was simply accepted by me. It was just the way our family was.

When we had children of our own, I was much more aware of families where children were being raised by their grandparents. In some of these cases, the parents raised two sets of children, first raising their children and after a break raising grandchildren.

Now that I am a grandfather, I have even deeper appreciation for my parents and for others who have raised or who are raising grandchildren. I was 58 when our first grandchild was born, I have peers who had their first grandchild in their forties, so I know we are older than some grandparents. Still, we are healthy and active. But I can’t imagine having full-time responsibility for young children. We love to have our grandchildren in our home for visits, but usually we have the additional assistance of their parents. Being solely responsible for our grandchildren would be a major shift in our lives.

Of course adopting my two youngest brothers was a major shift in my parents’ lives. They did a wonderful job of helping us older children adjust to the change, but looking back, I understand that they took on a lot of hard work with those adoptions. I am grateful that they were willing to invest in family without limits. They taught me a great deal about family life through the choices they made.

Our house seems pretty quiet today after a visit from our daughter and our grandson. I miss the two year old running into the kitchen yelling “Papa!” with a big hug for me when he got up in the morning. I miss his invitation to “say thanks” before each meal and the way he closed his eyes as we held hands and said our prayer. I miss the deep joy of watching our daughter be such an excellent mother. But I also enjoy the quiet a little bit. I enjoy having the books I put on the table beside my chair being in the same place with the bookmarks in the same pages as I left them. I like being able to leave a project on my desk knowing it will be waiting when I return. I’m not unhappy that our children are raising our grandchildren in their own homes.

Not every set of grandparents have the luxury we enjoy. There are plenty of grandparents raising grandchildren in all kinds of different homes and settings all around the world. They do so because circumstances demand it. They do so because they love their grandchildren. They sacrifice for the sake of the children and they invest in the future understanding that the human story is always the story of many generations. It isn’t just about us and our time on this earth. We belong to a story that is much bigger and much longer than the span of our own lives.

Although my father raised a couple of his grandchildren, he never met our children. Our son was born six months after he died. He knew that we were expecting, but our son never met his paternal grandfather. He was, however, raised with lots of stories about his grandpa. Both of our children heard many stories over and over again. They have a pretty good sense of who he was and how I was raised. I can recognize bits of his personality in them.

In our lives as pastors we have met families of all different sizes, shapes and configurations. We have witnessed families being reconfigured by divorce, addiction, and tragedy. We have witnessed the resilience of children and their capacity to thrive even when faced with incredible changes. And we have witnessed the love of parents and grandparents as they selflessly give their energy and lives to raise children with love.

Today I salute all who care for children regardless of their ages or life circumstances. Thank you for loving and caring for these precious little ones.

July begins

I guess it depends on how you do the numbers. If you simply count the months and divide them in half, six months have passed and six remain, making today, July 1, the beginning of the second half of the year. There are a number of news stories in the headlines that make that assumption. The US economy begins the second half of the year today, according to the New York Times. Using this method of counting, however, leaves us with 181 days in he first half of the year and 184 days in the second half of the year. The difference lies in February, which has 28 days when it is not leap year. Both halves of the year have two months with 30 days, and the rest with 31 except for February. February means that there are three fewer days in the first half of the year than the second.

Technically, if the year begins at midnight, the second half of the year would begin at noon on July 2. Since there are 365 days in the year, when it isn’t leap year, 182 and 1/2 days is half of a year. In leap years, with 366 days, the second half of the year begins at midnight when the day turns from July 2 to July 3.

I’m pretty sure that most people don’t give that kind of trivia much thought. I only became aware of it because of a conversation I had many years ago, when I was a child, with my father. He made the claim that my mother’s birthday, which was July 3, was the first day of the second half of the year. The claim was technically accurate only in leap years and I have no recollection whether or not it was a leap year when he made the claim. Since July is after my birthday, if the conversations occurred when I was 5 or 9 or 13 or 17, it would have been leap year.

It is a silly thought, really. July 1 is close enough to the mid point of the year that it works for journalists to make their stories as if we begin the second half of the year today. We all know what they mean when they do.

For the record, 1776 was a leap year, so July 3 would have marked the beginning of the second half of the year, which is slightly poetic in my way of thinking, since although we think of July 4 as Independence Day because it was the day of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress actually voted Independence from Britain on July 2 and adopted the language of the Declaration on July 4. The day in between, July 3, was a Wednesday that year, for what that is worth.

With July 4 falling on a Monday this year, today is the start of a long 4th of July weekend for some in the United States. As usual, the country will be celebrating with picnics, fireworks, a bit of flag waving and family get-togethers.

I hope to spend a little bit of time over the weekend trying to figure out a small problem with the flag pole on our son’s garage. His garage faces another out building on his farm, with a driveway between. On the garage is a flag pole with the flag of the United States. On the building across the way is a flag pole with the flag of Washington State. The Washington State flag pole is the newer of the two and the flag swivels on the pole. High winds don’t seem to tangle the flag. The pole with the US flag is slightly larger, but has a swivel mechanism to prevent the flag from wrapping around the pole. Somehow, however, it doesn’t always work. The pole is too high to reach without the assistance of a ladder, so untangling it is a bit of an effort. I’ve tried several ways to prevent the flag from wrapping around the pole, but so far have not solved the problem. I could, of course, simply purchase a new pole matching the one with the Washington Flag, but it seems wasteful for me to do so. I’d like to just get the other pole to work properly.

Perhaps since I’ve been pondering this small problem, I have noticed that a lot of flags around our area get tangled on their poles pretty easily. This seems especially true of flag poles that are attached to the side of buildings, with the pole extending at an angle.

It isn’t just flags wrapped around their poles that I notice. I also have noticed that there are a lot of torn and soiled flags being flown. Torn flags are especially evident on the backs of pickup trucks where they are abused by being driven down the freeway at 70 mph. It seems that the display of the flag, usually a sign of patriotism, has become a different kind of political symbol, often denoting a particular set of right-wing views. I’m not sure how the symbol of American Democracy became a sign of a person’s embracing of unfounded election fraud theories, but it has. I’ve begun to associate torn flags and poor flag etiquette with particular political opinions.

There is a box at the fire station where flags that have become torn or soiled can be deposited. Once a year the Boy Scouts and a local American Legion group hold a ceremony for the disposal of used flags with all of the ceremony of proper flag etiquette. It is an easy task to retire a used flag and replace it with a new one. Somehow, however, there are a lot of people who don’t follow this protocol.

No matter how you count, however, the weekend invites a bit of serious thinking about the meaning of democracy and the hard work that is required to protect and defend our unique form of government. The last few years have seen unprecedented attacks on American democracy and a significant erosion of the rights guaranteed by the constitution. This weekend is a good time for a bit of reflection and rededication. May this be the beginning not only of the second half of the year, but also of a fresh commitment to the principles of democratic government.

Guests

My parents loved to travel. They also loved to have guests in our home. When we were growing up, our father’s business was closed for an hour between 12 noon and 1 pm. Our family had the big meal of the day at noon. It was our father’s custom to invite whoever was in the shop at noon to come home with him for dinner. It is possible that this practice was a challenge for our mother, who was the primary cook. Some meals are easier to stretch than others. If you have a roast, you can make the slices a bit thinner. But if you have prepared pork chops, the number you have prepared is all you have. However, I don’t remember my parents ever arguing about guests. I think mother simply prepared extra food for noon meals. Leftovers were common at suppertime in our house.

Their love of travel and their love of hosting guests came together in their membership in Servas International, a network of hosts and travelers. The organization matches travelers with hosts for brief visits. Through the organization, we met friends from around the world. People who were traveling to see the United States often came to our town in part because of its proximity to Yellowstone National Park. We often took our guests on tours of the Park. Growing up in a home where guests frequented our table was a wonderful. It was exciting to see who might come next and what stories they would have to tell of the places from which they came.

My wife’s family also belonged to Servas International. I think that they might have learned about the organization from my parents. When we married, we quickly began to enjoy having guests in our home. Our first apartment when we married was in a building that had formerly been a dormitory on our college campus. At the time we lived there, the building housed church offices on the first floor and the dorm rooms upstairs were used as hospitality for people coming to church meetings. We traded janitorial services for the building for our rent, so cleaned the rooms, including the guest rooms upstairs. When the church organizations did not have guests, we could arrange for our friends to stay in the guest rooms.

Unlike our parents, we never joined Servas, We hosted friends from around the world whom we had met in school or other places. We hosted an exchange student before we had children of our own and later hosted students for short term sister city exchanges and had an exchange daughter for a full year when our children were teens.

One of the important features we both agreed was important when we were shopping for a home is that it have room for guests. Even though there are just two of us, we have a three-bedroom home with room for people to come and visit.

One of the aspects I enjoy about having guests is cooking. After we had been married for a year, we became managers at our church’s summer camp. We had that job for just two summers, but we learned a lot about preparing meals for large numbers of people in those summers. There are some recipes that simply work better when preparing for a group of people. I am an early riser, and I like the role of breakfast cook. Some days when we have guests I cook to order, offering eggs, sausage, pancakes, omelettes, breakfast biscuits and burritos made individually. Sometimes, I whip up a big batch of scrambled eggs and a stack of toast. I like making things that our guests enjoy. I also enjoy cooking dinners and have quite a number of “go to” meals when entertaining.

This morning, however, we have no guests. I’ll probably have a pancake with my breakfast because i have pancake batter left over from the last week of having all of the bedrooms in our house full of guests.

As we went for a walk last evening, we spoke of our guests and how much fun it was to have our house full. The visits went well and we enjoyed them a lot. Our grandson is a delightful child and our daughter is a very good mother. Our Australian guests are lifelong friends with whom we have shared so many experiences over the years that we will never run out of subjects for our conversation. We now have the added dynamic of so many years of memories. When we get together we usually end up looking at pictures from years ago and telling stories of shared experiences.

I know people who are less eager to have guests. Their homes are sanctuaries where they withdraw from the busy nature of the outside world. They like their routines. They find others to be disruptive. I’m sure that there are some couples where one enjoys guests and the other is more reluctant to host. I can see where that kind of disagreement could cause tension. I feel very fortunate that my wife has always enjoyed the adventure of having guests in our home. She has developed a well honed set of skills as a hostess. She loves to look at others’ pictures and hear stories of their families. She has a real gift of remembering names and will inquire about the families of our guests, stirring lots of good conversation.

We had the good fortune of living in the Black Hills of South Dakota for 25 years. The Black Hills are a destination for travelers with so much to see. Fortunately for us, Birch Bay is also a destination for tourists. The close proximity of the mountains and the ocean offer a lot of activities and opportunities for sight seeing. Like the Black Hills, this is an easy place to host guests. There is a lot that we can show our guests from sunsets over the bay to alpine vistas and wildlife.

Our house seems quiet this morning. We’ve got a bit of extra work to wash all of the bedding and towels. But within a short time we’ll be ready for guests once again. Y’all come back now!

Saying goodbye

And now come the farewells. Yesterday, we took our Australian friends to the airport where they boarded a plane for a short visit in California before they fly back to Australia. Today our daughter and our grandson board their plane to go back home to South Carolina. Of course we are not left alone. Our son and his family live just down the road from us.

The process of saying good bye, even with dear friends with whom we’ve said it many, many times before, is a challenge. There is an uncertainty in a good bye. We intend to get together again. We hope to get together again. But in this life there are no guarantees. The joy of being face-to-face, of being able to hug and watch eyes when we converse, of experiencing the presence of those we love - these are sublime and wonderful experiences. As much as we can write letters and make phone calls, as good as the technology of video conferencing is, none of these are a substitute for the joy of being together.

So the mood today is of being tired. It was fun to have our house alive with so many people. It was a joy to have the dining room table full for meals. It was a delight to have our grandson remind every one to “say thanks” before we begin to eat. Entertaining takes energy. It is a good kind of energy, however, and today’s feeling tired is a good kind of tired. Saying goodbye takes a lot of energy as well. So we’ll probably take it easy after we get back from delivering our grandson and daughter to the airport.

Tomorrow it is back to work. One of the things about our profession is that when we take time off from our work, the work continues. Some of the things for which we are responsible are done by our colleagues. Some things can be done before we take time off. Other things need to be done when we return to work. It is a rhythm to which we became accustomed over years of living our call to the ministry.

One of the conversations I had with our friends from Australia, who are both ministers, is about how I find some of the new language and new ways of thinking in the church to be challenging. Younger pastors, who are leading the church in new ways and new directions often use the phrase “self-care.” It isn’t quite the way i thought of things during my career. I feel that it is very important for ministers to be faithful to the observance of sabbath and getting sufficient rest. It is important to exercise for endurance. It is critical to support a life of active ministry with a careful discipline of prayer. But I don’t think of ministry as something that requires self care. During my career, I received a lot of care from being immersed in a loving community. I received a lot of care from a loving marriage and a supportive family. I did not, however, think of myself as needing a “break” from being a minister. Even when we took sabbatical, I saw it as an opportunity to improve my skills and energy as a minister. It was bout strengthening the church - and becoming better at the tasks of being a minister.

I don’t think that there is a very big difference of substance. Today’s ministers, like us, have been ordained. They understand that ministry is a matter of identity, not a role that can be put on and taken off. It is who we are and it is who we are all the time. Mostly it is a shift in language, and I have been through other shifts in language. I know that I can learn new phrases and new words. I can also learn new ways of thinking when I am careful to listen and understand. I trust that my younger colleagues will display grace when I forget and use the old words. I trust that they will be patient with me as I struggle to be patient with them.

The prophet Isaiah declared, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and dreams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19) I am convinced that part of my call at this phase of my ministry is to look for the new things that God is doing. I’ve hd plenty of conversations with tired elders who have plenty of energy for complaining that things are not the way they used to be. I don’t have any interest in becoming one of them. I know that things are not the way they used to be. God is doing a new thing. I have been given health and longevity in part so that I can witness to the newness that is emerging.

And part of that process is saying good bye. Since we are all mortal, we all will come to a point of saying goodbye in this life many times. Gaining proficiency at saying goodbye requires practice. And yesterday and today are days to practice saying good bye. It is hard. It is a challenge even after all of these years - or maybe because of the passage of all of these years.

In our little church in Reeder North Dakota we used to close every service by singing the same song:

God be with you till we meet again.
May his counsel guide, uphold you.
May his loving arms enfold you;
God be with you till we meet again.

Till we meet, till we meet,
tile meet at Jesus’ feet.
Till we meet, till we meet,
God be with you till we meet again.

Those are the words we sang. The language has been updated several times since then to express a more complete vision of God and to make the language more accessible to modern listeners. But when we sing this hymn, the words we sang many years ago still ring in my head and my heart. Some of those with whom I sang the song have died. Some live far away from my home. Some I will not meet again in this life.

I’ll keep practicing the art of saying goodbye, knowing that I’ll never perfect the skill. It will never become easy. It is a discipline of trusting God - a discipline that is worth the energy to nurture.

G'day, mate

Recently our Australian guests encountered another family from Australia in the parking lot while we were touring a local attraction. They exchanged the greeting “G’day.” As Americans, that phrase is iconic Australian speak. It was interesting, however, to witness Australians use it as an identifier. It is hard for an outsider such as myself to distinguish between genuine Australian slang and the commercialized images of movies and other media. Not long after we became good friends with Australians and learned a few slang phrases and differences between Australian English and American English, the actor Paul Hogan appeared in a series of advertisements inviting people to visit Australia. After the passage of years, I am never quite sure what is genuine Australian speak and what is an image projected by the television and movie industry.

The School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics of the Australian National University College of Arts & Social Sciences, maintains an online dictionary of Australian words and idioms. It reports that the use of g’day originated in the 1880s, but that it rose to international prominence through the Paul Hogan advertisement of the 1980s.

There is one Australian phase that I have picked up and use routinely that I believe is genuine. I’ll say “no worries,” when someone apologizes or in other situations where I need to let someone know that I’m not upset. I remember clearly our family conversations while traveling in Australia in 2006 about that phrase. We witnessed a small fender bender car accident and the drivers were conversing following the accident, perhaps waiting for the police to come to investigate. One driver said to the other, “No worries, mate.” If the phrase could be used to diffuse emotions in what was obviously a tense situation, it might have real value. Sometimes when I am in situations where i’m experiencing stress, I remember that phrase and using it helps to diffuse the stress.

Australians also use the phrase in place of “you’re welcome.” When one thanks another, the response is often, “no worries.”

Australians, who seem to love to blend sounds and shorten words, sometimes shorten “no worries” to “nurries.” Then again, there are Australians who say, “no wuckers.” I have no idea how they got that from the original phrase. Then again, I’m not Australian. I just got the leather hat from a shop when I was visiting as a tourist.

The phrase, of course, is more than just words. It is an expression of a generally laid back lifestyle where people choose not to get upset. Maybe my use of “no worries,” is a gentle reminder to myself that there are lots of situations where I don’t need to be upset. I’m not declaring that my life is free of worries, rather that the situation in question isn’t one of my worries.

It has been a delight for us to have a couple of Australians staying in our home once again. Part of the joy is sharing memories, looking at old photographs, and telling stories. Part of the joy is catching up with how things are going in our lives. We’ve been friends for nearly half a century and we have a lot of stories to tell. Another part of the joy is having a bit of that laid-back Australian attitude: no worries.

There are experiences and relationships that go beneath the surface. More than just stories to tell, they shape our personalities. I think that our Australian friends have touched us more deeply than just the way we occasional use words. Our relationship with them has shaped our personalities. At least I hope it has. I admire many of the qualities and personality traits of our Australian friends. I would be pleased if another person recognized some of my words or actions as being influenced by my Australian friendships.

I haven’t yet felt a reason to pursue one of the popular DNA tests that report on one’s ethnic and geographic heritage. I think that I have a pretty good idea what such a test might report about me, but it just hasn’t been something that has captured my interest. Although I understand how our genetic heritage shapes who we are, I don’t believe that it can tell the whole story. As important to my personality as genetics are the experiences of a lifetime of making friends, learning about other cultures, and being influenced by the ideas and actions of others. I believe that who I am is shaped by the friendships I have nurtured. It is shaped by the travels I have made. It is shaped by the people I have loved. I am who I am in part because of who my parents were, but also because of who I have known. How I have been shaped by other people is more interesting to me than the specifics of my genetic heritage.

Having grown up in a family with adopted children and being a father of an adopted daughter has taught me that family reaches beyond genetics. I treasure the presence of our children in my life regardless of how they became part of our family. I don’t think I am any less of a father to our adopted daughter than I am to our son who was born to us.

We can’t chose our genetics. They are given to us. But we can exercise choice in the friends with whom we associate and the care with which we nurture those relationships. So I am intentional about using the phrase “no worries.” It represents something about me that I want to nurture and express to others. It helps me to release small irritations and focus on the important things in life. It is a symbol of deep and lasting friendships. It is a part of who I am because of the people I have known.

Who knows, I may start greeting others by saying g’day. I could do worse with my choice of words. And it it helps me strike up a conversation with a stranger in a parking lot, it will be worth having been influenced by dear friends.

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