Monday, November 26, 2012

Fear in the Country? Nope.

I spend a great deal of time in our family's cabin in Iowa. There are people who live within a mile or so of me, in fact, some friends live just up the hill, but for the most part I feel pretty isolated down in this valley.  There isn't much traffic on the gravel road that goes past our land, I have a river just to the west of me and hills to the east and south of me.  The sounds are very different here than they are in Omaha, where I am constantly distracted by sirens and tires screeching on the street outside our house.

My nights here the last several weeks have been interrupted by yelling and howling. Coyotes must be in the middle of mating season or something.  The first night, I woke up and had no idea what was happening. I had to open the window so that I could make out the sounds.  I was glad to be able to close it quickly and feel safe again.  The next night, there was more noise and a lot of howling happening. I opened the main front door and the sounds were coming from the meadow, maybe two hundred yards from me.  I listened for a few moments, got myself totally creeped out, slammed the door and crawled back under the covers.  The third night, I was coming back after dark, drove in the lane, turned my car lights into the meadow and the coyotes were in the wood pile, right there in my meadow.  Sigh.  I had to think really hard about whether my laundry was going in with me then or if I was going to get it out of the Jeep in the morning.  Sanity reigned and I opened the back seat car door, grabbed the laundry basket and ran for the cabin.

Coyotes aren't the only things that make noise around here.  There are several hoot owls up in the hill and when they are calling to each other, it is seriously spooky.  One morning in the early dawn, I heard deer making noises in the meadow. It took me a while to be able to identify that sound.  Another night, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by dogs (probably coyotes, but who knows), screaming and barking up in the hills.  It sounded as if they had something treed and were trying to get to it.

Several people have asked how I can be out here by myself.  I guess I'm a lot like my father. He loved being alone and fear of the outside world just isn't going to mess with that.  At the same time, I know that Dad built this place and once I am inside, it is solid and safe.  Dad didn't build things to fall apart.  We used to laughingly tell him that the things he built would withstand a nuclear holocaust.  The man used nails and screws and if there was the smallest concern, he would use more nails and screws.  He built a loft for Carol's college dorm room. It was stronger and heavier than anything you can imagine. I still don't know how they got that thing up to her floor and then back down again.  It's now here at the cabin.  He used a lot of lumber while building it. His construction may not have been perfect, but it was solid.

Fear of this world just isn't something I can let control me, though.  Carol and I lived on Park Avenue in Omaha for several years.  It wasn't in the best part of town, but the apartment was beautiful. We loved it, but always said we would move out the first time we heard gun fire.  Well, we moved to a much nicer part of town and one Sunday we came back from church and Carol went into her closet to get something different to wear.  She brought several items of clothing out to me and said, "What do you suppose did this?"  There was a hole through them.  We tried to brainstorm anything. We had problems with mice, maybe one of them had gotten into her clothes. Snakes? Who knew?  Then, she found the bullet hole in her closet window and we followed its path through the clothing into the wall.  It had finally exited in the closet on the other side of the wall, in our neighbor's apartment.

Carol had heard a car backfiring the night before and didn't think anything of it.  We called the police and they were asking us questions about people that might hate us.  Are you kidding?  We'd never been in those types of relationships and didn't encounter people like that in our business either.  We were completely freaked out.  Fortunately, a couple of days later, the police department called us back.  Two brothers down the street about three blocks (we were at the top of a "T"), got into an argument and started shooting.  A stray bullet had come that far to our place.  But, Carol and I didn't move out of there. Fear wasn't going to reign.

Max came home one day and found the back door standing open with the window broken out. His first worry was the animals in the house and then he saw that we'd been robbed.  Joy. The fear from that experience lasted for a while, but at some point, I quit worrying, even though we were sure it was just kids breaking in and taking what they could.

Several years ago, a young clerk at the convenient store which is located a half block from our house was murdered after the end of her shift.  I woke up to lights flashing and when I looked out the window, there was police tape everywhere. It hadn't gotten as far as our house, but was strung through our neighbor's yard.

Living in the city, with its noise and craziness is much more frightening to me than living in the country with loud animals. I know what their reactions will be ... to light, to sound, to me and I know that I'm safe from them when I close the doors and shut the windows.  I'm not scared of these animals ... much.  I wouldn't want to be in the meadow in the dark and startle one of them.  I willingly admit to jolts of fear that send me tearing inside and slamming doors shut behind me.  But, I wake up in the morning and they've all returned to their dens and nests. It's a good equilibrium we've found.

Monday, November 19, 2012

This is Thanksgiving Week

Many college kids are already home, having started their break last Friday.  School teachers are looking forward to Wednesday evening and cessation from kids, grading, testing and everything else. Business people are desperately trying to get everything done before the long weekend, families are planning to travel, people are planning big meals and yet others are preparing for the big shopping day that happens on Friday.  It's one of those crazy weeks that is a holiday for practically everyone.  How can you not enjoy a holiday that simply requires you to say Thank You!

When I was growing up, Thanksgiving was one of the few big holidays that didn't require us to be at church.  Dad generally planned his Thanksgiving service for Sunday evenings and everything else was canceled for the week.  By the time Wednesday evening rolled around, everyone just relaxed because for the next twenty-four hours, there was absolutely nothing going on

Living in a Pastor's house at Christmas and Easter isn't necessarily the best place to be holy.  Prior to those holidays, Dad turned into a bear and Mom wasn't much better. There were programs to prepare, choirs to rehearse, extra services to design, volunteers to wrangle, then don't forget all of the family things that had to happen. Christmas was always stressful because Dad knew money was going to flow out as quickly as he could bring it in and so he would fight and spit with Mom over every little thing.  She was quite frugal and there were many years she spent hours creating wonderful gifts for us rather than spending money in the stores.  And honestly, I'll tell you that those gifts are the ones we three kids remember the most.  By the time we got to the Christmas Eve service our nerves were all frazzled and we acknowledged there was one more Christmas in the books and it was time to move on.  Christmas Day would come and go and everyone relaxed because we had some time before the Easter craziness kicked off.  That week was nuts with Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter sunrise and then two regular services.  Once again, tempers were frayed and we just waited for it to be over.

Thanksgiving was just not like that.  We didn't travel anywhere, we just stayed home and relaxed and enjoyed the day. Dad wasn't stressed out because Mom had spent money on gifts, He didn't have to talk to people or manage services.  Mom wasn't upset about anything, it was just a nice day.

Because legend had it that the Pilgrims had five kernels of corn that first Thanksgiving in the New World, Dad began a tradition of giving thanks for five things.  He would get five kernels of seed corn and place those on our plates.  Then, we went around the table; each giving thanks for one thing and eating a kernel.  Mom began serving cooked sweet corn and he would put five kernels of that on our plates, that was much better.  Then, all of a sudden, Dad's sweet tooth kicked in and we got five pieces of candy corn on our plates.  Those were the good years.  But, each year, before the meal started, we sat down to a plate with five kernels of corn and we remembered that we had a great deal to be thankful for in our lives.

We still have a great deal to be thankful for.

I'm thankful for my family. They love me.

I'm thankful for friends. Those whom have known me for decades and those whom have known me for just a short time.  They all bring color and depth to my life.

I'm thankful for a mind that allows me to learn and find joy in learning.

I'm thankful for the opportunity to live in a country where I am free to be who I am, to worship the God I love, to associate with people I care for and to express my thoughts without fear of reprisal.

I'm thankful for a life lived knowing Jesus Christ personally.  There are so many other choices I could have made and I'm grateful that He continually drew me close.

Can you come up with five things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving?

Monday, November 12, 2012


I love hands.  One of the first thing I look at on people is their hands.  They tell me so much about a person.  Strong hands, delicate hands, wrinkles and lines, callouses, arthritis, manicures, scars.  There are so many stories that can be told by looking at a person's hands.

My father's hands were strong and even when he had to manage with Parkinson's, he continued to work with his hands to keep any flexibility possible. I see those hands gripping a pulpit on Sunday morning as he preached, or pulling a hook out of the mouth of a fish. They strum a guitar or grasp a hammer.  In small ways, they can be seen in my hands.

My mother's hands were beautiful. She never had manicures or did anything special with them, but they were always feminine with strength and beauty.  She used her hands to spank my bottom and wash my hair. I remember her hands flying across a typewriter or covered in clay at her potter's wheel.  She held paintbrushes in those hands and sewed late into the night.  Her hands were everywhere in my life.

I remember my Grandma Greenwood's hands, as she washed dishes, kneaded bread, put clothes out on the line, played games with me or held my little hand in hers.  I remember the hands of my friends, while they age, they never change. I would recognize their hands in a heartbeat.

Last week, I used a picture of hands holding the world in one of my Pour Out a Blessing blogposts.  I had actually found many different images, but the one I used struck me because of the hands.  These aren't perfectly manicured, but are strong, hard-working hands.  The type of hands I believe God has. His hands would be rough and worn from the work they do, they would be gentle and strong so He can touch our hearts.

I've always loved the image of gnarled hands clasped in prayer. Albrecht Durer's "Praying Hands" drawing is one of my favorites and there is a beautiful story that has been told around this image.  The story is told of Durer and his brother. They came from a family of eighteen. Both brothers were talented artists, but the family could only afford to send one to Nuremberg to study.  The two, after many discussions, worked out a pact.  A coin toss would settle which one went first, while the other worked in the mines to support him.  After four years, the brother would return.  Either sales of his art or work in the mines would support the second brother in his studies.  Albrecht Durer won the coin toss and left for Nuremberg while Albert spend four years in the mines, ensuring payment of his brother's education.

After the four years had passed, a celebration was held to celebrate Albrecht's return.  At dinner, he told his brother that it was now his turn to pursue his dream, but Albert began to cry.  It was too late.  Work in the mines had smashed every one of the bones in his hands, some more than once.  He could barely hold a glass, much less draw with a pen or brush. It was too late.    In honor, Albrecht Durer drew those damaged hands as he regularly saw them, in prayer.

Whether the story is true, the beauty of this drawing remains for me.

I've watched my own hands age.  They are no longer smooth, but are now filled with lines and scars.  My nails are always kept short, so I don't spend a lot of time with manicures. Sometimes they ache, but they continue to be my link to the world, whether I am playing the piano, writing letters to friends, working on classwork or writing a story.  You know, my father always told me I was never going to be allowed to own a power saw.  He made his entire body shudder at the idea that I might hurt my hands.  He loved listening to me play the piano and the thought that I couldn't do that any longer scared him. My fingers aren't quite as beautiful or as limber as they were when I was seventeen, but they have their own strength.

I am thankful for all the hands that have been part of my life.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Happy Birthday, Frank!

Today would have been my father's 79th birthday.  That just seems crazy. Time goes by much too quickly!

Dad and I had a tough relationship.  I actually look at him from two separate angles.

First of all, there is the Dad I am so proud of I can hardly stand it.  He was one of the most amazing pastors I've known in my life.  He delivered good, strong messages on Sunday mornings, but that wasn't what made him such a good pastor. It was everything else that he did.  Dad was smart ... wicked smart.  He loved to read, even though he complained that he was terribly slow at it.  He'd watch Mom or me tear through a book and just snarl at us in envy.  But, he read a lot and he remembered what he read.  Dad was an athlete, so physical things didn't scare him.  He started taking kids on adventure trips early on in his ministry.  For a while he was involved with Boy Scouts and took those kids all over the place, but then he realized that the youth groups in his churches could enjoy trips and all he had to do was make sure everyone was safe.  He could do that.

There were things our family did that I would never consider doing now ... because Dad made them seem easy and if they weren't easy for anyone else, he just took care of them.  I thought I loved to go fishing, but what I discovered was that my love of fishing came about because Dad did all the hard work.  We'd walk the river at the cabin fishing, he'd set out trot lines and wake me up several times throughout the night to walk them with him.  But, he cleaned all the fish and then told everyone how much work I'd done.  We went on fishing trips into Canada. Every morning at 4 am, he'd knock on my window and I'd crawl out of bed, bleary-eyed and wander down to the dock so that we could get out on the lake where he just KNEW there would be a school of walleye.  I'd try to drag myself awake for 45 minutes while he quietly motored out to a location he'd spotted.  Then, when I was nearly awake, he'd hand me a fishing pole and let me go.

The first time we went, he knew I might be squeamish about baiting the hook (he believed in minnows), so he did it for me.  Then, when I caught a fish, he'd take it off for me.  Well, the lasted for a very short time.  I have fairly sensitive fingertips and once he taught me how to feel the fish hit and then set the line, I was hauling them in, one after another.  He wasn't getting any good time for fishing himself.  Finally, he asked if I would learn how to either bait the hook or remove the fish from the hook.  I just laughed.  "I'll learn them both!" I said and so I did.  When we got back to the camp, he still told everyone how I out-fished him.  That was a pretty big deal, because Dad was an amazing fisherman.  He cleaned all the fish and let me go back to the cabin and take a shower.  I can't imagine fishing with anyone else.  No one would take care of me the way he did out there on that lake.

Camping?  Dad was a master at camping.  We didn't have a motor home, he had designed a tent when he was very young and commissioned a tent maker to create it.  It's heavier than sin.  In 1982, Dad, Mom, my brother and I traveled into Canada.  Dad's plan was to drive as far as the road would take us.  He'd looked at the map and found a camping spot on a beautiful lake.  He was pretty sure no one else would be around.  He was right.  We drove our van, with a canoe on top all through the night.  All four of us changed seats and kept that trip moving.  Dad had packed the back of the van so that two people could sleep on 8" foam mattresses which were held off the floor by crates filled with every single thing we would need during that trip.  He had packed the food in coolers and crates, had all of the tools necessary and when we arrived at the campsite, he began setting things up immediately.  The tent went up, a tarp was strung between trees to keep our table clear and protected from most rain, a toilet seat came out from under the beds and he dug a pit between two downed trees, then set the seat up far enough away that we had privacy and were still safe.  He turned that campsite into a home for the next week and we had a blast.  He and Jim stayed in the tent. Mom and I didn't like the noise wolves made around the campsite and slept in the safety of the van.  I tried sleeping in a tent one more time in my adult life and realized that without Dad there to think of every little thing and ensure that his family was safe and comfortable, it wasn't very much fun.

He did the same thing in his churches.  He made it safe for people to attend.  There is so much garbage that happens in a church, but Dad deflected it all ... or as much as he possibly could ... knowing that if it was on his shoulders, no one else would miss the good things that God had for them.  If there was conflict, Dad waded right into the middle of it with no fear and made sure that everyone recognized that right was right and wrong was wrong and right was going to win.  He believed in the power of prayer and spent hours on his knees.  Every Sunday morning before worship service, Dad walked to the altar to kneel and pray.  Worship wasn't going to begin without prayer.  He invited others to join him and every single Sunday, there were always people who were willing to be visible in prayer because he was so open about it.

Dad was an introvert, but no one would have ever known that.  It was God's love that flowed through Dad to other people.  He was just a conduit and he acknowledged that.

Dad wasn't afraid of hard work.  From painting a very high steeple at his first church in Gravity, Iowa (a story that people told for a long time because he scared them to death), to making sure that the Board of Trustees didn't have to show up at the house every time an appliance broke down or a window was broken; Dad was always first on the line to do the hard work which came from owning property.  We continually heard from people that they were always surprised to see Dad already working on a problem when they showed up.  They were used to the pastor just calling a repairman and submitting the bill. If Dad needed extra help, he called on the people he knew could do the work and then they dug in and did it.

He took every church that was in the red into the black within a year.  He knew how to cut back on expenses and tighten up the budget until he had encouraged people to support the ministry of God in their midst. He was the first to tithe from his salary and though he never said a word about it, people recognized that when his generosity far outpaced theirs, they could be a little more generous with their church.

I've been in a lot of different churches under a lot of different ministers since Dad moved away from the Omaha area.  I've experienced both amazing and horrid pastors.  But, I don't believe that there are any who had more integrity and compassion, dedication and commitment to leadership as my father.  He was never going to be a mega-church pastor, but for the lives he touched, he was the best pastor people would ever know.  He's the best pastor I've ever known.

The rest of the story?  Well, he was as human as they come.  Thank goodness he had my mother around to temper his behavior with his family.  He could be strident and unforgiving, legalistic and forceful.  She balanced him and the two of them managed to have a home with kids who grew up pretty well.  My problem was, I was very much like him (but do not think for a moment I accepted that when I was young).  I quit talking to him in high school at some point.  He just pissed me off every single time I approached him at home.  The man needed to just loosen up and let us live a little bit.  I suspect that all three of us kids had our issues with him.  It wasn't easy being Frank Greenwood's kid.

I have a lot of funny stories about my life during those years with him ... one of these days I'll let you in on some of them!