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Monday, November 23, 2009

That Tune that Gets Stuck in Your Head (Thanksgiving)

One of the downsides of being married to a preschool teacher is that she comes home singing these little ditties that are aimed to teach four year olds. Usually, the tune is familiar and whistleable. But after running around in the cranium for four days straight, it gets old.

Such it is with a little Thanksgiving tune Karen has taught her children:

"I am thankful for my friends
And my family,
Thankful for the food I eat
And thankful to be me."
(Tune: Row, Row, Row Your Boat)

To help kids' retention, Karen uses sign language for the motions. So, not only have I found myself chasing that little song around my head, I have hand motions to go with it.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I'd like to put into practice what I've learned from this little song. I'm not entirely self-less in this. My hope is that getting this out of my system will shake it out of my brain, too.

"I am thankful for my friends . . ."

You know, I have so many friends, of varying degrees. I tend to be skittish about being to close to too many, consequently, I am comfortably close to a lot of people. My very closest friends know who they are, and I am thankful for them.

I am thankful to have so many friends. There are plenty of people who have few, if any. I work full-time in a retirement community and I would consider almost all the residents there to be a friend to one degree or another. The people who live here are so caring and kind and rarely speak a "discouraging word." The people at Church are good friends: people who pray for me and with me, who care about what's going on in my life, who take an interest in the things I'm interested in.

It would be literally impossible to list friends here without alienating some, so I'm only going to cite two examples. I'm not sure why these come to mind, but they do.

The first is an old high school friend named Rich. I hadn't seen or heard from Rich since graduation until we reconnected on Facebook several months ago. He and his family went to the Church I went to then and he always had a way of encouraging me and making me laugh. I really enjoyed Rich's father, James/Jim, also. (Whether it was James or Jim doesn't really matter: I always called him Mr. Xxxxx.)

After all those years - 33+ now - you might think that I'd think of Rich less as a friend and more of a renewed acquantaince. There is some truth to that, except that it seems to me that Rich is the same guy he was in high school. He has worked, married, reared a family, and now is a grandpa. And as I read his Facebook page about his exploits with his family, I see the qualities that I appreciated about Rich's Dad coming to life through him. But that's exactly what you'd expect from the Rich I knew in high school.

Another is a friend I haven't seen for a long time, Harry. Harry is in his mid-80's now and recently lost his wife, Lorraine. Shortly after Karen and I moved to Indiana, Harry and Lorraine moved to Ocala, Florida. We've kept up spotty contacts over the years, but Harry and I are one of those friendships that just picks up where you last left it. Lives change, people change, and many things happen in between, but when we talk, it's like we never stopped talking.

When Harry was telling me about Lorraine's death, I couldn't stop crying. She was one of the most beautiful, caring people I ever knew. She was taken by Alzheimer's Disease. Through it all, Harry told me, she never forgot him. Even when she couldn't recall anyone else, she remembered Harry. That's what makes true friendship, doesn't it? No matter how grim things become, you remember who your friends are.

"I am thankful for my friends
And my family . . ."

There are three sides to family and I'm thankful for all three sides. The first side is my own family, the one Karen and I created in June 1981. We expanded it in 1985 and 1988 to include our kids. There has been no greater joy in my life than to be with my own family and I'm thankful for them.

I'm thankful for marriage. A friend of mine once said that "in order to be successful in marriage, you have to like the idea of being married." This is absolutely true. It is a value that Karen and I deeply share. For all the quirks we each have (I have them in spades), this underlying foundation of love for one another and our enjoyment of each other has made marriage our mutual blessing.

The second side of family is the family that reared me. Mom's been gone ten years now and my brothers and sister are scattered to the four winds. We got together for the first time since Mom died last June. I was amazed that, in spite of our widely divergent paths, we acted like brothers and sister once more.

A specific blessing for which I am thankful is a reconciled relationship with my Dad. He and I haven't always been close. In fact, there have been silent periods between us that lasted for years. Nothing direct mind you: our family has always played "passive aggressive" like champions.

That was until Mom died. In her death I came to terms with the fact that life is too short to be estranged from loved ones, especially my Dad. I let go of grudges that weren't mine to carry. I set aside my own expectations that were juvenile and impossible. The result has been a relationship with Dad that is healthier and more relaxed than ever.

The third side of family is the family I married into. Karen and I were opposites when we got married: I'm the oldest child, she's the youngest; my parents were 21 when I was born, her Mom was 35 and her Dad was 39 when she was born; I was a city boy, she was/is a country girl. For a long time Karen's family had the veneer of people without problems. My family had problems for as long as I could remember.

I am thankful for Karen's Mom and Dad and for the example of a solid, life-long marriage they provided for me, especially when we were newlyweds. I am thankful for her Dad because I had never met any one who worked in a factory before knowing him. I never really knew a farmer, either. I am thankful for my mother-in-law, who had the wisdom to teach Karen how to be a good wife and Mother.

My greatest appreciation for Karen's family, especially her Mom and Dad, is their faith. Karen's Dad was someone whose life had been transformed by the Gospel. Living for God was more than a passion for him: it simply was who he was. There were really no questions about things like going to Church or working on Sunday or which of the bad words were OK. He lived his life accountable to God and, if you could peek at his final marks, I suspect you'd see that he got into Heaven with all A's.

"I am thankful for my friends
And my family,
Thankful for the food I eat . . ."

Perhaps too thankful. My adult life has been fraught with one diet after the other. I've been up and down and up and down on the scale, though more up than down as my latter years have settled in. Other than a few minor health concerns, my weight doesn't really get to me.

This is good because I am really thankful for food. I am thankful that I married a great cook. Here are some specific thing Karen makes that I am thankful for:
- Mediterranean pasta: this is a cream based pasta with nuts that costs a couple hundred calories just to smell
- Those oatmeal cookies from the Swiss Pantry cookbook: a happy reminder of our years in Berne (pass the milk, please)
- Chicken with long grain rice: Although this certainly raises both blood pressure and cholesterol, it is also one of the tastiest things I've ever put in my mouth
- Secret recipe chicken marinade: She says it's only Worcestershire and vinegar, but I know better, and when the chicken comes off the grill, mmmm-mmmmm
- Sugar Cream Pie: Not like those store pies, this is the real deal - real cream, real sugar, and not much else (I'm drooling)
- Chili: Chili is supposed to be a man's domain, but Karen makes chili that puts men to shame - we have to sleep in separate rooms after we have it :-)
- Salmon on the Grill: Again, she says she doesn't do anything special to the salmon, but how does it happen that hers is better that anyone's?
- Steaks: Without fail, when I have a steak in a restaurant I leave wishing that I had simply been at home with one Karen made
- Green Salad: Maybe its the big wooden bowl, I don't know, but Karen's mixed green salads complemented by her always unique blend of ingredients are the bomb
- Peppermint Trifle: Another simple secret recipe that leaves you begging for more

I could go on, but now my stomach's growling. I'll never finish if I don't move on to:

". . .thankful to be me."

I don't put a lot of stock in "being me." I know who I am and I know what I'm capable of, and it isn't very good. I know that I'm selfish and bigoted and often Pharisaical. I'm not so thankful for my moods, my temper, and my self-indulgence.

It would be more accurate to say that I'm thankful for who I am in Christ. I am thankful that God didn't reject a sinful man like me and leave me to wallow in my sins. I am thankful that He saw me for who I could be, not for who I am. I am thankful every day that God gives me hope and optimism and grace and those things trump the wickedness I'm so prone to.

Thanks for reading this. I hope maybe I've helped you to be thankful for all you enjoy at this Thanksgiving.

And maybe I've passed this little song on so it can run around your head for a while:

I am thankful for my friends
And my family,
Thankful for the food I eat
And thankful to be me.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

"Only 72" - a little perspective

A woman came to my office today to talk about her neice.

"She's developed a rare form of Parkinson's disease. It's in her hands now but will be spreading fast. If you have a moment, will you pray for her? She's only 72."

That's right: "Only 72."

You see, the woman who came to my office (the woman with Parkinson's aunt) is 93. She's an active member of Rotary, her Church, and life in the retirement community where I work. She doesn't drive anymore, but she gets around like no one's business.

To her, 72 is a spring chicken.

We have nine people who live here who are over 100 years old - their average age is 102 and five months. When I'm not being pastor (at the moment), knowing these old folks gives me a different view of the world. It gives me hope.

There are 92 people who live here who are over 90 years old. Far and away most of them are in good health, living mostly independently. In fact, seven of them live in our on-campus condominiums, completely independent.

The fact that I work around so many people who are so full of health for so many years has given me a few perspectives on my own health and happiness.

First, I need to quit worrying about so much. The other day I was with a 102 year old man taking him on an errand. I was a little late picking him up at the store. I apologized for my lateness and he said, "You know, life's too short to worry about little things like that. Besides, time is something I have plenty of."

He's right. I hope when I'm 102 I can say with confidence, "time is something I have plenty of."

Hopefully, I'm learning to worry about the 'big things' and let go of what I can't deal with. Someone I love is in the hospital - that's a big worry. Can't get reception on the TV - no big deal. The less I worry about, the better view I have of life.

One of our centenarians (I'll call her Carolyn) worries about very little. She walks with a cane now, but she still walks. The cane she uses is a beautiful black polished piece of wood with a well-worn brass duck's head on the top. The cane belonged to her grandmother. :-)

Carolyn drove until she was 99. She is now 104+. She told me once, "I want to get stopped for speeding sometime so I can see the look on the officer's face when he sees I was born in 1905." You gotta love a woman like that.

Anyhow, Carolyn was in one of our dining rooms having a late breakfast - it was about 9:30 a.m. Defying all conventional wisdom, she sat at her table with a plate in front of her with two eggs over easy, four strips of bacon, a hearty serving of hashbrown potatoes, toast with real butter, a cup of real coffee. As I approached her, she was shaking salt over her breakfast like there was no tomorrow.

"Carolyn," I said, "I wish I could use salt like that. But you know . . ."

"They told me that too over the years," she replied, "But you know what? I like salt."

And that was that. She didn't worry about what all the doctors and magazines said. She liked to salt her eggs. At 104 I say "more power to her."

Second, I need to be healthy. Most of our 90 year olds are from the pre-smoking, pre-drinking generation of life. Smoking is prohibited on our campus here and a vast majority of our folks don't drink. Those who do drink don't drink much more than wine or an occasional beer.

They also have lifelong healthy habits. They garden. They walk. They read good books. They keep informed about current events. They go to Church regularly and have strong personal devotional lives. Many of them still play musical instruments or a hobby that they enjoy. These are lifelong, healthy habits.

I need to be more healthy. Carolyn's salt habit not withstanding, she, and others in the 90+ age group learned a few things through their lives. They learned to enjoy walking where they could. They learned to do without in the Great Depression. They learned to work for what they had before paying for it - rather than getting swallowed in debt they couldn't pay afterwards.

Even their recreation was healthier. These folks played baseball - they didn't have satellite with a dozen channels of baseball to watch. These people went camping in tents, building fires, hunting and fishing and all thay - they didn't travel place to place in a $250,000 RV with all the amenities of home. They were leaders, builders, donors, and workers. And when they were done, they went home - not to a bar, not to a club, not to other distractions - because home was where their hearts were.

Third, these people really enjoy living. Every day is a new adventure. Everyday they get out of bed with a list of things to do, people to see, wishes to fulfill. They love their families and they enjoy their friends.

These folks have taught me that part of the joy of living to be 90 and 100 is simply to accept the joy of every day.

Finally, our 90+ and 100+ gang has taught me that aging is truly only a state of mind. No one is going to prevent wrinkles or compromised immune systems or greying hair or muscle shrinkage or any of the other 'benefits' of aging, so why try to fight it?

When we're kids, we go through a whole lot more changes in our bodies, minds, and souls than we do as adults. But even in our adult years we change. Through the parenting years and the empty nest years, our bodies adapt to whatever comes our way.

Why should we think that aging would be any different? Yes, joints weaken, circulation slows, breathing becomes more difficult, etc. But why can't we accept that this is as much a natural part of our lives as learning how to balance on a bicylce or develping a mind to attend college or anything else?

Our older older adults remind me that it's healthiest and best to take life in stride and accept what comes your way instead of trying to fight it. There's no harm in growing older . . . and it sure beats the alternative.