Thanksgiving 2019

It seems to have been a bit of a tradition for me, year after year, to take note of the things I’ve been thankful for in recent days. Without further ado, and in no particular order:

  • My first five months as a pastor. God has been unfolding, at a measured pace, the full panorama of what this entails. I am so grateful for it, and so amazed at my friends who have gone in full-time and deal with e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g all at once.
  • Over 26 years of marriage. Good start…
  • Thanksgiving dinner with Mary and the kids. We went out again this year, and once again had a lively conversation at dinner that we just never quite seem to do around the house, with everyone going in different directions. It’s special.
  • All the people I’ve met on the journey into ministry who have made it special and have been supporting me at different stages.
  • Greek class is over soon. SO thankful for that ending!
  • Sarah’s 2019, which featured her completing high school, being in her own graduation ceremony, and landing a job in another city that lets her explore the field she thinks she really wants to do. I am beyond grateful that she is loving the work and has such a great opportunity to see what it can be about.
  • Sharing with David–either a steak dinner, or a story and a laugh, or whatever oddity he’s found online that he wants to tell me about. I’m grateful for him and for him wanting to share his world with me.
  • The sacred privilege I’ve had of helping a parishoner transition to death and the promise of what lies beyond. Certainly one of the more moving, significant, and utterly real roles I’ve been able to play since joining the pastorate this year.
  • My new boss at my day job, who has made it an easy transition and who has also been very supportive of my “part-time job.”
  • God’s blessings, abundant such that we can redo our kitchen and make plans to redo the basement without having to take out a loan.
  • Our trip to England in January. Still a highlight of the year, sometimes wish I could be back there.

What have you to be thankful for this year?

Empty Nesting: One Month

This week marked one month since our daughter moved out to take her new job two hours southwest of here. How’s life in the empty nest? Some thoughts and observations:

  • I am beyond proud of all she’s done in her first month. Like, JMU had its Parents’ Weekend earlier in the month. One of the highlights took place in her theatre: the comics from “Whose Line Is It Anyway” were performing on her stage, and she ran lights for it. She said she hit her cues well, but then all of a sudden Wayne or Ryan would get up and say something, and she’d have to jump and shift. Yep, that’s improv! But guess what: at age 18, you just lit the guys from “Whose Line.” That’s awesome in any book.
  • The dog is super confused: her pack keeps shrinking. She used to spend a-l-l-l-l day with our daughter. We would feed the dog breakfast, then she would scamper upstairs, push open a bedroom door, and curl up on the bed until our daughter awoke. Now we go to work and the dog is all alone. She keeps looking at us with a very concerned expression: “What did you do with everyone? I’ll be good: don’t send me away too.”
  • Related: Our flexibility is actually a little less now. Whereas previously we could text our daughter to ask her to feed the dog ’cause we’re going out, we can’t do that anymore.
  • The house is quiet now. Like, more so than I’ve ever experienced it. Two old people just don’t make that much noise I guess.
  • To some extent, we still haven’t really figured out this new situation. It’s not like we’re jetting off to Cancun or dining out every night (see: Dog, Feeding Thereof) and Lord knows I still have homework. This is a transition that won’t be flicking a light switch.
  • In the evenings we’ll clean up the dishes and put everything away before going up for the night. For some strange reason, no longer are we coming downstairs in the morning to a host of new dishes that piled up in the sink later that night. That part I don’t mind.
  • We now make a lot less trash and recycling, too. Doesn’t seem very often at all that I’m taking anything to the curb.
  • We saw her briefly last week, and when she pulls out her phone to start showing pictures of her theatre, her eyes sparkle. That’s what any parent would crave: seeing their child light up at something they get to do. We truly are blessed.

Even Pastors’ Wives Get New Kitchens (Sometimes) (Eventually)

For the last six weeks, the main level of our house has been a disaster zone, and we’ve been living and cooking on small table…because after 15 years in the house, and 31 years since it was built, we redid the kitchen.

20190909_072037The “before” panorama shows the aged late-80s cabinets and the laminate countertops that were well and truly tired and ready to go. We really didn’t like the cabinets over the peninsula at the left, and were ready to let go of the useless soffit at the top of the cabinets by the ceiling.

We had talked about this for y-e-a-r-s. Fundamentally, we wanted it to be more open, more modern, and have more storage and convenience. And we had saved for quite awhile, so that we didn’t have to take out a loan to do it. We met with our real estate agent, who gave us tips on what to do, and not do, if we’re looking to sell in the next five years (as we transition into grace-and-favor housing in a parsonage somewhere), and she told us how much we needed to spend (and not spend!) to achieve that. We worked with the contractor who had done all our windows and doors years before, and he was able to keep the costs to within our budget. It certainly helped that we were keeping all the major appliances and the floors!

20191019_095334And this is what it turned into! Brighter lighting, white cabinets, grey quartz counters, a white tile backsplash, and eliminating all the soffitts and overhead cabinet made it so much better. When we moved back in, we surprised ourselves with how much more storage there was. We were able to move holiday dishes out of the dining room and into a cabinet here, where we never could have done that before!

The process wasn’t perfect, of course; no renovation is. The contractors didn’t cap the lines after demo day, and we awoke the next morning to a flood that seeped into the rec room below (so guess who’s now redoing the rec room!). And delays from misordered cabinets meant an additional couple of weeks living in limbo.

But it’s done now, it’s paid for, and it’s ready to host the next Chili Bowl, or even Mary’s birthday party later this year, and Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. And it moves us one step closer to being ready and able to move out: not only because the house will be more market-ready, but also because we were able to go through things and donate what we no longer needed. Even that bit of stewardship alone was worth the headaches.

The Emptying Nest

I’ve previously written about a sense that despite the struggles my daughter had in high school, she was about to launch, and launch spectacularly.

We may be at T-minus-ten…nine…eight…seven…

This week we learned that three months out of high school, she has been accepted for a position at James Madison University down at Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she will be working on the staff of the Forbes Performing Arts Center. Working with her supervisor, she will manage two of the campus’s auditoriums: one frequently used for dance and other recitals, the other often used for guest speakers and diversity events. She will be meeting with potential clients–groups wanting to use the space–and helping them prepare their event, then helping run the technical side of the event (lights, sound), for about 30 hours a week on average. She starts in just ten days–so we’re in the midst of trying to find her a place down there and planning a move for next week.

She is super excited about it, and we are super excited for her. She had said her goal for this year was to get a job in the technical side of theatre, to learn more about whether this is what she truly wants to do. Now she has a chance to do that, to learn more about theatre management in the process, and to do so on a college campus–so she can also get experience with that world, and consider whether that’s something she actually wants to do, as well. There are so, so many potentially great things that can come from this, I can’t even begin to list them all.

Of course, we will worry. A little. She’s a fiercely independent young woman, so I’m sure she can take care of herself two hours from home. She will figure things out, she will adapt to what comes up. And I know she will face setbacks along the way, and I pray she brings the resilience to handle them all.

But most of all, I will miss her. I will miss having her around, I will miss being able to share a laugh about something that we both, in our twisted senses of humor, find funny. I will miss hearing her and her friends laughing in some corner of the house, and I will miss hearing the front door chime when she gets home late from visiting them. I will miss sharing Ultreyas with her, and seeing her on the mountain for Chrysalis.

The house is about to become much, much emptier: just me, Mary, and the dog (who will be beside herself–what, all y’all keep leaving!). There’s going to be a little less life around here, a little less of what made this home special.

The nest is well and truly emptying, and while there is that touch of melancholy, I couldn’t be prouder of my kids.

Alex

Alex the kitten went home about ten days ago, and I miss him.

At the end of June, Sarah came to us with the news that a friend of hers needed help. I’ve written about this friend before and his struggles to live independently; apparently he had gotten himself a little kitten, barely 12 weeks old. Well, the landlord got wind of it and said, You can’t have a kitten here; the response was, Fine, we’ll move at the beginning of August then to a place that will allow kitty to live there. But then there was the problem of what to do with kitty until then. Which led him to Sarah, which led her to us.

I love cats, I grew up with them, so it was real easy for me to say Yes! But Mary and David are allergic, so we had to discuss it a little first. We decided to put Alex in the media room downstairs, and keep him corraled there so he didn’t get cat dander everywhere (and also kept him away from our dog, Fergie).

Sarah brought Alex home at the end of June, and of course he was adorable. Dainty little “mew!” sounds, and a purr motor that just would not quit. He’s entirely black, and, as you can see in the picture, has no compunction about curling up on my homework and demanding attention.

Alex is one of those kittens that make people fall in love with cats. He loved being with me, even by the end of the time with us curling up on my lap a bit. He would play, he would purr, he would be appropriate with his razor claws and kitten teeth. He didn’t fear us, he didn’t run and hide under the furniture, he accepted us totally and looked to us for love and attention, just as it should be.

I’ve written before about how our pets can teach us about faith: they are totally dependent on us for food, love, and care, and are perfectly happy in that state. In that regard, they teach us what we should look like in our faith with God–recognizing that God alone is the source of all that we are and all that we have, and turning to him for our source of love and fulfillment. Alex reminded me, once again, what that relationship can look like: playful, joyous, and forthright.

Sarah took Alex home in early August, where he will be one of a menagerie of pets in her friend’s new apartment with his other roommates and their puppy, snake, and turtle. I pray we put Alex on a good path, of trusting humans and being able to love. And that’s not a bad month’s work.

Agonizing Decisions, Part I

Nobody ever promised life would be easy. We’ve had a heckuva decision to make recently. Sarah came to us with news that an 18-year-old male friend from another Virginia city (i.e., a significant distance off) was being evicted from his apartment within days and on the verge of becoming homeless. She asked, Could he come stay with us and start to make a new life here in Northern Virginia?

Oy.

Very long story short, this is someone whom she knows far better than we do: we had met him once, last summer, and I think I spent all of four hours with him that weekend. We spent about 40 minutes on the phone with the young man to hear him out directly about his present situation. 

On the one hand, he has no car and no license. He wants to work in an industry that isn’t local to our neighborhood, so he would need a way to get to work. He’s very desirous of working, but for various reasons (not important to get into here) hasn’t kept a job more than a few months. For various reasons he hasn’t been able to go to his parents for assistance. He seems like a decent person who’s struggling to get his life started. But I really don’t know him, and how do I bring someone into my home (in the presence of my wife and 18-year-old daughter) whom I don’t really know all that well?

On the other hand: Christ has no hands and feet but ours. What good does it do to talk about Christ’s love in action, if I can’t see it through?

“I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink.  I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’ “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’ “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’” Matthew 25:42-45

So what do we do? What is the proper Christian response to this?

We took counsel from many, many friends, and I cannot say any of them said, “Absolutely, you have to take him in.” Which is itself an interesting observation. I got a lot more responses along the lines of sharp, whistled intakes of breath, and caution to not do it. And to be sure, the last thing I would want is someone who takes up residence in my basement and then can never leave–not only for the impact on my family, but all the more, because it won’t have really solved the problem, only changed it and put it on my family’s back.

This becomes all the more a real question as I transition into the pastorate. I’m not aware that I’m under any obligation to take into the parsonage every homeless person who shows up at the door. But I am expected to help, and to help in ways that don’t create further harm to the person seeking help. Plus…it’s my daughter. And it’s a friend of hers.

I have agonized over this for weeks. An awful lot of my prayer life went into this topic for awhile.

So what should I have done? Let me know your thoughts…then next time I’ll share what we actually did.

Saying “So Long”

The memorial service for Mom was last weekend, November 10, 2018. While not extensively attended, it was widely attended–people there from all aspects of our lives, and it was so heartening to see them all there. As part of the service, Joel, Deb and I each read a passage that Mom had wanted read, then offered our reflections on her. She had asked me to read 1 Corinthians 13 (the “love chapter”), and here’s what I said.

* * * * *

Love. A mother’s love.

I want to share with you some of the stories I have about my mother, and in the process, you can see what she loved, and how she loved.

One of her first memories was being taken at age three to the center square of her hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania, with the throngs of people celebrating V-E day. This began a lifelong love of history for her, and patriotism, and love of everything having to do with America and the Fourth of July, which was always a special day to her. Her love of history and government lives on in my own work for the Federal Government, as well as her grandson’s love of history and his career in archaeology, finding new history.

Her passion was teaching elementary age kids. Her first classroom was a first grade class in Allentown, PA, where she taught for a couple of years while earning her Master’s. Then after being a stay-at-home mom to us, teaching us as we grew up, she returned to teaching, and became the media center director–never just librarian–for Chamberlin Elementary School. She was the first to bring computers, including an Apple Lisa, into the school for the students to use and learn. And she took an old claw-foot tub, painted it, filled it with blankets and pillows, and set it by the check-out desk for kids to curl up in and read. All to enhance kids’ abilities to learn in a fun way.

The mother’s love extended to keeping us out of trouble. In third grade, we moved from Vermont to El Paso, Texas, and I got in trouble in my first day in Miss Escobar’s class. She had asked me a question, and I answered, “Yes.” She said, “Yes what?” I honestly didn’t know there was more to be said! My mom had to be the one to call the school and explain to the principal that “he wasn’t being disrespectful, that’s just not how teachers are addressed up north.”

In the late 1970s she rode the wave of emerging political activism, helping to found a newspaper in South Burlington, VT, and leading the League of Women Voters. She loved her music and arts: when she was at the assisted living home, she loved going with us to see Ben Cook in one of his productions, and telling everyone about it. We had to reassure the staff that yes, she really did know someone on Broadway!

She was a woman of strength. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1985, and after her second husband passed in 1987, she fought to stay independent and live in their home until 2006, when the PD began to expect more of her than she could do alone.

She had her own style. When we were making plans to move her to her assisted living apartment in 2011, and discussing what furniture to take and what to leave, she noticed in the lease agreement that she was allowed to paint the walls in her room. And so it came to be that she moved in with walls I’d painted for her, of colors she’d chosen: slate gray on most walls, and two bright red accent walls. Staff were forever popping in just to see it, a room that wasn’t in institutional white. She was really disappointed she couldn’t do that in her nursing home room. You know, Jesus promised us that “in my father’s house, there are many rooms.” I know one of them right now is painted in slate gray and red, and decorated in Early American antiques.

There were two things she really loved: one was the music of Barry Manilow. I have no idea how she found out, after moving to Virginia in 2011, that in 2012 Barry Manilow would be at Wolf Trap, but she did, and insisted on going. So I took her, in her wheelchair, to the special seating at the back of the arena. There was a comedian who came out first, and he was OK, then the lights went down, they rearranged the stage…and a single spotlight came on, shining on a single man in a white suit as the music started…and my mother started squealing like a 16-year-old at Shea Stadium for the Beatles! I was horrified!

The other thing she loved most was the works of Beatrix Potter, and Peter Rabbit, as anyone watching her PTRABIT license plate around town would see. The last movie she went to was this spring, when Peter Rabbit came out. I took her, and we were easily the oldest people in the theatre, with dozens of five- and six-year-olds there. I would just watch her, enthralled as she was with seeing her favorite character on the big screen. At one point, the action is very slapstick, and the five-year-olds behind us are squealing with joy. Mom leaned over and said, “I’ve missed that sound.”

But what she loved most of all was her grandkids. Nothing would outdo her love of hearing stories of what they were up to.

And so what am I going to miss about my mom being gone? I’m going to miss not being able to take her to her grandkids’ college or high school graduations. I’m going to miss having her over for family dinners, or the times she would make a big production of her own family dinners. I’m going to miss Christmas: mom always made it special, always decorated so much, that this Christmas is going to be hard.

And I’m going to miss a mother’s love. I’m gonna miss my mom.