How is this for a retreat: Pay $50 for a couple to attend and then discover a $100 dollar bill in one of your notebooks.  I am not making this up.  I had never heard of these retreats when the mailing came.  It was pretty much too good to be true.  When I got the letter, I did not know about the $100 bill that would be in the notebook I received that first evening, but the rest of what was described in the letter was already too good to be true.  It actually was true, it was as good as it was too good to be — even better!

The location for the retreat was Big Cedar Lodge owned by the Bass Pro Shops.  It is located on Table Rock Lake, south of Branson, Missouri.  It is advertised as a Luxurious vacation spot.  They are not lying!   Remember the $50 registration fee?  The retreat was five nights and six days long, April 7-12, 2002.  When we finally drove in, we couldn’t believe our eyes.  Rolling hills spread out in front of us for hundreds of acres at the edge of the lake where all sorts of rustic buildings surrounded by gardens nestled among the trees and carefully arranged landscaping greeted us.  We registered and got our keys.  It took us a long time to find our room — ROOM? – it was a free standing cabin.  Inside was a large living area (with a large fire place), dining area (a large basket of fruit and packaged foods greeted us), full kitchen, king-sized bed, a bath area the size of the living room in our current townhome (of course with a huge jacuzzi tube).  The cabin had a deck area with chairs and a gas grill for outdoor cooking (not that we would have to do any).  The little card on the back of the door listed the room rate as $350 per night.  Clearly, there had been a much better rate negotiated.   

The retreats are called Grace Place Retreats.  They were begun by Dr. John Eckrich (M.D.).  He had been treating Lutheran Professional Church Workers in his practice for many years.  It struck him how stressed so many were.  He had a concern for the health of the church and realized that healthy church workers would be important for the church to remain healthy.  He decided to do something about it.  When the Lutheran Deaconness Hospital was sold some years before that, the proceeds became a benevolent fund that could be approached with grant proposals.  The front of the brochure we received in 2002 describes the Grace Place Retreats as: “A Retreat and Lifestyle Program Offering Integrated Health Skills to Lutheran Pastors and Spouses.”  It has expanded since then to all flavors of church workers.  Almost all of the costs of the retreat were underwritten by the Grant and donations to the Grace Place Program.

Then there was the food!  Big Cedar had five restaurants.  Our meals were catered in the area where our sessions were held.  There was not an ordinary meal to be eaten.  We were never disappointed, always impressed with the quality of the fare.  When we opened our notebooks and discovered the $100 bill, we were instructed to use it while we were there to treat ourselves.  Who are we not to follow instructions?  Mary Ann got a spa treatment of some sort and I got a massage.  Mary Ann was using a wheelchair at the time, and was always accommodated by the staff and the other participants on the retreat.  It was a good experience for her. 

Each morning there was a prayer, meditation, exercise time before the sessions started.  It was called Lutherans in Movement and Meditation.  After breakfast we always practiced Lectio Divina as a group.  That discipline involves reading the same Scripture passage two or three times listening differently each time with silence afterward to let the message settle in and take hold.  One of the days we held a juice fast, followed by breaking the fast with a light meal of bread and fruit.  Evenings included Faith Exploration activities.   One evening we went to a local church for Evening Prayer. 

Sessions focused on a variety of topics aimed at promoting good physical and mental health.  Some were on dealing with stress, looking at our various roles in life.  There was a very pointed session that addressed our marital health and habits.  The four themes addressed were: the priority of marriage, the permanence of marriage, the oneness of marriage, and the openness of marriage.  We were paired with another couple for the retreat so that we could have small group discussions on the various topics.  There was one afternoon that we were to take a sheet of instructions and spend the entire time in silent meditation.  That was the day of the juice fast.  One of the sessions had a leader from our national church body who talked about money management and planning for the future. 

One evening included heading into Branson to see the Jim Stafford show.  We both enjoyed the show (to our surprise).  One afternoon we had a tour of Dogwood Canyon.  It is a sort of private wildlife preserve that was very impressive.  We rode a wagon along a creek filled with visible trout (it was crystal clear) and through an area where buffalo and elk were out in the open.  In a sense, they were the observers and we were the mammals inside a protected area (the wagon).  Some of them came over very close to check us out.  They were huge!   On the afternoon for recreational activities, a few of us rented a pontoon boat and toured the lake on our own. 

Then there was the last evening’s reception and banquet.  We were treated like royalty to a multi-course meal in a banquet room that had the look of an Elizabethan castle banquet room.  There were gourmet appetizers, a lavish meal, each course accompanied by the appropriate libations. 

Dr. John accomplished the goal of giving us a refreshing moment of being affirmed and appreciated for who we were and what we were doing.  We felt valued.  The sessions brought attention to our self-care, physically and spiritually, and sent us away with tools for incorporating better habits into our patterns of living.  Mary Ann and I certainly gained from it.  Our life together was challenging with the Parkinson’s taking its toll on us.  That week lifted our spirits and brought a wonderful respite from the press of daily struggles.  I am very grateful to Dr. John and the Grace Place Retreats for caring enough to commit time an energy and resources to such a nurturing ministry.  It has provided a memory worth keeping.   

 If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.

That January, Mary Ann could simply no longer care for herself.  I didn’t know what to do.  I needed to work to support us (60-70 hours per week as a Pastor).  We couldn’t afford that many hours of paid help.  It would cost more than my salary. The options simply weren’t there.

Then Margaret came to the rescue.  Margaret was (still is) the Parish Nurse at the congregation I was then serving.  She just started phoning people and before I knew it, there were Volunteers from the church staying with Mary Ann when I was away from the house at work.

After it became clear that she could not do the scheduling task and still continue her work as Parish Nurse, Carol stepped in.  For over six years, Carol scheduled Volunteers for weekdays while I was at work, evenings while I attended meetings and did Counseling, Friday evenings and Saturdays for weddings and retreats, Sunday mornings (I had paid help for the early morning hours), even emergency Calls when there was a serious illness or a death.  At one point there were at least 65 different Volunteers.  Some days had as many as five different people filling two or three hour slots.  I have never figured out how one person could manage all that.  I have nominated Carol for Sainthood.

By February, we had gotten back to KU Med Center, the Parkinson’s Clinic. They had transitioned to a new Neurologist, Dr. Pahwa.  He was able to put together a new regimen of meds that allowed Mary Ann to return to a significantly higher level of functionality.  The bathroom needs and the falling would still not allow her to stay by herself for any length of time.

After a year or so, we entered the two years from Hell.  Mary Ann had often complained of heartburn, since she was taking so many pills (I think 30-40).  At least that is what I thought.  It has always been hard for me to accept that I didn’t pick up sooner on the possibility that it might have been more than heartburn.

On June 30 of 2003, Mary Ann was admitted to the hospital through Emergency with a case of Congestive Heart Failure that came within a hair’s breadth of putting her on a Ventilator.  It was discovered that she had had a number of silent heart attacks.  Two of the three main arteries on her heart were completely blocked.  The surgeon was able to stent a branch of one of the arteries, but that was all.  She had another MI (heart attack) while in the hospital.

Mary Ann always moved into a hospital psychosis when hospitalized, hallucinations, agitation, inability to sleep, trying to get out of bed, pulling at tubes.  I stayed all night every night since the Parkinson’s meds were so complex, the various shift changes made it necessary for me to track what was going on.  The staff needed my help to manage her reactions, day and night.  I had to be there when the various doctors came to check on her or report the results of the endless tests and procedures.

By the end of those eight days, after an entire night of Mary Ann repeating “help me” over and over again, for the second time in my adult life, I broke down in tears.  Gratefully, Son Micah was there to hold me.  When she was released and came home, it was one of the lowest times in our life together.  Everywhere I turned to come up with a solution to how we could go on came up empty — except for Carol and the Volunteers.  They are the only reason I was able to continue in the ministry and we were able to survive.

Almost exactly one month later, she was back in the hospital with another MI and another unsuccessful attempt and getting through one of the blockages.  It was a shorter stay.  She came home again.

For a while after that she was doing better.  We returned to a reasonable quality of life.  It would take more than a little heart trouble to stop Mary Ann.  After a year and a half we even risked going on a week long trip by plane from Kansas to Tucson, Arizona for a retreat for older adults.  We had decided that we were not going to just sit at home and feel sorry for ourselves.  We chose to live as fully as possible given the circumstances.

I still blame the air quality on the plane.  Mary Ann was fine when we left the Kansas City airport but had some congestion when we arrived in Tucson.  By then we were using a wheelchair most of the time.  We joined in the activities, got to visit a wildlife center outside of Tucson.  As the week wore on, she was having some labored breathing.  It was March 10 of 2005. I called an ambulance to take her to the nearest hospital.  On the way, the dyskinetic movements that come with the Parkinson’s medicine were so bad that the tech in the back with her could not keep an IV in her arm.  Mary Ann was flailing around and almost flying off the gurney.

They sedated her when we got to the Emergency Room.  Then they took an X-ray.  When the ER doctor returned he said that all he could see what white where her lungs were supposed to be.  By that time she was completely unresponsive.  When I asked if I should call our children to fly into Tucson, he said yes.  The ER nurse confirmed that — so I did.  I will never forget the feelings I had as I sat alone in that ER room, knowing no one there, having been told she might not survive the night.  Mary Ann had been taken for some other test.  I am now living what I feared that night.

The Kids came, Lisa with baby Ashlyn in tow.  Mary Ann was so agitated that even with me there, they provided a hospital sitter to be in the room also.  Four days later, Mary Ann and I were on a plane home.  She had bounced back from that flirtation with death.

Within one day of a month later, the Ambulance came to out house in Kansas to take her to the hospital again.  She had had a stroke. It was April 9 of 2005. At first her speech was gone and her right arm was virtually useless.  It was not a bleed or a large clot, but a cluster stroke, plaque from her carotid artery broken into tiny pieces, lodged in a cluster in one part of her brain.  With a few weeks in the hospital, rehab, followed by outpatient therapy, she regained almost everything.  She was left with some spatial issues that reduced the control of her right hand making feeding herself more of an issue.

Mary Ann refused to give up.  We continued to have a reasonably good quality of existence in spite of the limitations.  The Volunteers and Mary Ann’s strength of will, kept our life on course.  Also by that time I had come to know a great deal about the diseases that had assaulted her and the medications used to treat them.  I was able to make helpful recommendations to the doctors and monitor her condition daily.  I think my advocacy for her with the medical professionals helped the quality of her life, until finally in the last weeks, nothing I did could stop the inevitable.

Before that inevitable day two months ago came, there was more of life to be lived.  That will come next.

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.

We were shocked when even his Assistant knew what we were talking about when we described the symptoms of Mary Ann’s version of Parkinson’s.  KU Med Center was an hour away, but Dr. Koller had a monthly clinic at hospital right here, only ten or fifteen minutes away.   We could hardly believe it. 

Mary Ann’s symptoms had worsened as the medication regimen set up in the hospital in Tulsa before we moved to Kansas simply could not handle them.  In the very first appointment with the KU Med Parkinson’s Department Neurologist, Dr. Koller, he assessed her situation and added a medicine called Permax.  Permax is dopamine agonist. It works by stimulating dopamine receptors in the brain.  It makes the basic medicine, Sinamet, more effective. 

Within one month, the time it took to titrate the Permax to its therapeutic dose, Mary Ann’s symptoms were reduced to being barely noticeable.  That level of functionality remained for almost four years.  It was as close to a miracle as we have experienced. 

In addition, a group of ladies in the congregation welcomed Mary Ann and took a special interest in her welfare.  She developed friendships that ultimately grew beyond the fact that she was the wife of the Pastor.  Connie, wife of Pastor John who had retired from that congregation was also someone who chose not to be defined simply by the role.  She had set a good pattern for Mary Ann to follow. 

I found much comfort in seeing Mary Ann develop those friendships and experience new relationships.  She became much less intensely private and finally admitted that it was true when I told her “they like you better than me.”  She had always in the past contended that the church folks were only connected to her through my ministry.   That had changed with the folks at the congregation I was serving here in Kansas.  Also she realized that she had friends from former congregations who remained friends with her long after we had left those parishes.  They were truly her friends.  In spite of the Parkinson’s, the dozen or so years here before I retired seemed to be some of the best for her in some ways.   

We had found a townhome in a shared maintenance subdivision that was the right size (less than half the size of our home in OKC) with everything on one floor.   It had come on the market the day before.  We got in the first offer at full list price.  The realtor realized that we were very fortunate to get into a maintenance free area at that price.  It turned out to be a very wise choice.

Since Mary Ann could no longer work, eventually there was a small amount of disability income that she was awarded.  It helped us alter the interior of the home so that it was more user-friendly for Mary Ann.  Friends enlarged doorways for us.  A contractor who was a member of the congregation built a roll-in shower and extended the bathroom a bit to allow it to accommodate a wheelchair comfortably in anticipation of that need arising.

We replaced the carpet with one that did not resist her feet moving when they shuffled.  It was a firm enough weave to allow a wheelchair or walker to move easily.  Parishioners did the labor on finishing the downstairs so that live-in help could stay there if that was needed.  There were aesthetically pleasing grab bars that look like and can be used as towel racks placed strategically in the bathrooms, along with tall stools. 

We found a couple of portable electronic doorbell systems that we put together so that there were four buttons spread throughout the places where Mary Ann spent her time.  She could buzz me whenever she needed help.  All the various tools provided an environment that was comfortable and welcoming.  We made a very functional living environment for ourselves — with the help of a lot of parishioners.  We are in debt to all of them for what they have done to help us and care for us. 

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.

I kept moving to be sure there was no confusion about my still being alive.  I did not want to be mistaken for road kill.  At first I saw them off in the distance sitting on the newly mown field next to me as I walked the path at Cedarcrest.  I thought they were regular wild turkeys.  Then I saw them take off.  They were Turkey Vultures.

On the wing, Turkey Vultures are elegant birds.  Their wingspan is almost that of an American Bald Eagle.  When the sun hits them a certain way, the feathers on their wings seem translucent.  They float effortlessly, wings in a V shape, circling and soaring. Once a couple of years ago, one came over me so closely that I could hear the swish of its wings.  As long as a person is far enough away that he/she cannot see the ugly heads, they appear beautiful.

It was very impressive to see so many in the air at the same time.  Later in the walk, a Green Heron landed on a nearly pier as I passed one of the large ponds there.  The morning walk continues to be helpful.  At the moment, I think I actually need it to help keep my healing on course.

Wednesday morning (today is Friday) had been a good one since the Spiritual Formation group continues to provide a rich environment for processing what has gone on or is now going on in our lives in a way that reveals God’s hand, loving and supporting us.   There was a lunch with a good friend including some great conversation, very refreshing.

The afternoon included the second day of exercising.  The muscles that were getting sore, were worked enough to help relieve the discomfort for the moment. Then I headed to the mall to try to get a gift for Granddaughter Ashlyn’s upcoming birthday. I ended up walking the circumference of the mall on both levels, probably adding up to almost as much distance as I do in the morning.  I decided to try to add a mall walk on the hot afternoons.

I ended up at a couple of other places to get the gift.  Even with all that activity, the pain of Mary Ann’s death emerged, staying with me the rest of the day.  Oddly, yesterday a neighbor who lost her husband a couple of years ago, called to see how I was doing and revealed that she had had a bad day on Wednesday also.  Must be something in the air.

Yesterday was some better.  The walk in the morning was followed by a visit from a member and his daughter.  Ed is helping with a bit a caulk repair in the bathroom. They were both fun to talk with.  Later in the day a former member had asked me to to help her process something, a role that feels comfortable for me after so many years in the ministry.  That also was an enjoyable time.

I went directly to the third different support group meeting this week.  While there is a little overlap, they are all different groups.  It is remarkable just how helpful it is to be in a setting in which there is complete understanding and the freedom to laugh or cry without hesitance.  Talking so freely there makes it easier not to talk about the loss with others who will soon tire of hearing about how much it hurts.

The groups also help temper the fears that the pain is still so strong and hasn’t let go yet. It is apparent that those who have experienced a death as recently as have I are struggling at least as much as am I.  Those for whom the death was a couple of years ago, still have access to the pain, but they are not disabled by it.  They are able to enjoy life again.  The groups provide a helpful perspective.

After spending some time with vultures this morning, I got some more organizing done at the house.  I decided to buy flowers in memory of Mary Ann and for myself. I did as I had done before when getting them for her.  I asked the folks at Flowers by Bill for ten dollars worth of colorful flowers.  I was given a large bouquet with varied colors, from pastels to deep, dark colors to bright and cheery colors.  That bouquet now adorns the dining room table.

There was another walk at the mall.  After that I went home and read a very small book called Good Grief by Granger Westberg.  Daughter Lisa had asked about it in a phone call.  She saw it on a Hospice list of recommended books.  That little book was very helpful since it nailed very many of the struggles I have been having and named them as stages in the process.  They are different from the stages of grief traditionally listed.  The book confirmed that feeling each stage fully is a way to get through the grief, incorporating it into the new person who is emerging.  Not everyone will, of course, grieve in exactly the same way, but what he described seems to be the most common experience.

The evening ended with a very enjoyable dinner out with former parishioners.  We came back to the house and talked for a while about a variety of things.  I felt almost healthy again.

A couple of days ago, as I was making one of the rounds in the mall, something very obvious found its way into my awareness.  While Mary Ann has died, I have not.  It doesn’t seem fair that I should be alive and she is not.  Fair or not, it is so.  I am actually alive.  I do not need to feel guilty about that or apologize for it.  I am free to go on with life.  Recognizing that does not make it easy, just possible.

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.

I neglected to tell you in the last post about the activities that helped me turn the corner from the down swing.  I had to clean out more of the storage area in the basement to prepared for getting the new furnace on Tuesday.  Physical labor and progress in cleaning certainly are attitude changers.

A trip to PT’s where I was greeted warmly by a few of the folks there didn’t hurt. A good cup of coffee from there is always helpful.

Then most importantly, I spent some time first reading an article from the latest issue of Weavings, the Spirituality Journal that I find very nurturing.  There was some comfort to be found in the reminder that the Lord’s presence and His love is as close as our next breath (a favorite theme of mine too).

Following that, I started a thought provoking writing by Thomas Merton.  It is in a book of his writings that is titled Love and Living.  His writing is often intense and concentrated — as in frozen orange juice concentrate.  There is more there than the number of words on the page would suggest.  The message is always strong and meaningful and worth adding time to ponder.  It gets tastier as the time and pondering dilute the concentrate.

Not so grumpy tonight.

Not one, but two murders in this post — but let me begin with the Call to the church in the Oklahoma City area.  The Call came a while before Christmas.  I asked for extra time so that I could consider it without Christmas looming.  There is no time to think when things are coming at such a frenetic pace during those weeks.

Even weighing the strong connection to the KC area and love for the people, it was time to move to a full Pastoral Ministry.  Lisa was a Senior in high school at the Lutheran High, Micah was in the 8th Grade at St. Peter’s Catholic school.  I could not take them out of school mid-year.

I accepted the Call and headed for Oklahoma City in February.  Mary Ann stayed in KC so that the Kids could finish at their respective schools.  Next to this last month, that was the most difficult five months in my life, and, I think, Mary Ann and the kids would say the same.

My last Sunday was January 18, 1987.  The Sunday happened to be a rare convergence of dated festivals and a Sunday.  It was the day designated as the Confession of St. Peter. I preached that day.  There was a farewell dinner scheduled shortly before that.  There were over 200 who indicated they would be there.  One of the worst snowstorms in the fifteen years hit that evening.  Almost 200 people came out for the farewell.

Leaving a congregation is excruciatingly painful.  I didn’t realize just how painful it would be.  I seem to be pretty naive when it comes to anticipating the intensity of pain.  I seem to be using the word “pain” an awful lot in this post, and in recent weeks.  What compouned the pain is that I made the choice to leave.  I have never doubted that it was the right choice, but one with consequences that are not all pleasant.

I lived with a family that became my family during that time.  John and Sherrie were truly brother and sister in Christ to me.  They are/were (Sherrie died later in my years there) the most Spiritual people I have ever known.  They lived and breathed the love of the Lord without ever presenting a hint of “holier than thou.”  They were warm and accepting to me.  They understood how hard the transition was for me, and they knew they could not do anything about that.

It was during that time that I discovered must how much I loved Mary Ann, Lisa and Micah.  One weekend, they flew to OKC for a visit.  I can still remember vividly standing in the airport by some chairs in a waiting area, watching the plane they were on take off to head back to KC.  I had then the same feeling I have had in my gut this month.  The thought of the possibility of losing them was intolerable.

A few weeks before the decision was made and I left for OKC, Lisa was on a trip to Florida, spending time with my Sister and Brother-in-Law at their condominium right on the beach on the Gulf side.  She had spent the last three and a half years with a group at the Lutheran High in Kansas City.  That group were the sort of friends who went out together in a cluster, enjoying each other’s company — all good kids.  At that time, her best friend was the Principal’s Daughter.  He had become a sort of extra Dad to Lisa while she was going to school there.

It happened while Lisa was in Florida.  Principal George was stabbed to death just outside the doors of the school.  Lisa came back to be with his Daughter, her best friend, their friends and classmates so that she could be a part of the community as together they dealt with the tragedy.  That story is more complex than appropriate for public sharing.  Lot’s of questions remain.

Then after I moved to Oklahoma City, separated from family, feeling very alone, in spite of the wonderful family with whom I was staying, it happened again.  I had bought an alarm clock from Skaggs, a Walgreen’s/CVS sort of place, just a few blocks from the church.  It was February 7.  I would be preaching my first sermon there the next day, February 8.

When I got home, I discovered that the alarm clock was faulty.  I went back to the Skaggs to return it.  As I stood at the counter just inside the doors to the store talking with the clerk, I heard a strange sound.  The doors opened and someone ran in right in front of me and hid behind the counter.  I smelled the gunpowder.  An estranged husband had just shot in the face his ex-wife right outside those doors.

I walked by to get to my car as she was dying in the arms of an EMT in the parking lot.  The estranged Husband was found some time later at a nearby lake, having taken his own life.

That was the beginning of my ministry in the Oklahoma City area.  I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

Lisa was working at a Dinner Playhouse in the Waldo area in Kansas City as her part time job while going to school.  She will have to correct my remembering about the cut.  I think it was a broken plate that caused the cut on her hand.  She had to go to the Emergency Room to get a number of stitches.  It was difficult for Lisa and hard on Mary Ann who had to deal with it by herself, while I was in OKC trying to focus on my ministry there.

Mary Ann had some tightness and pain in her left shoulder the fall before this.  It moved down her left arm to her hand.  The tests began.  One of them would be outlawed were it used as an interrogation tool.  It is called an EMG [Electromyography].  At that time (maybe still) there was a needle (or needles) stuck in her arm with electrical current going through them, testing the nerve activity.  She described it as torture.

There were other tests, all that came back negative.  She also was having some balance issues.  It was by a process of elimination that a clinical diagnosis was made.  There is no test that would give a definitive diagnosis.

I was in Oklahoma City, she was in Kansas City.  She phoned me.  The diagnosis was Parkinson’s Disease.  The vision of the old fellow shuffling along in the hallway outside my basement office years before when on my Vicarage (Internship) with a handkerchief in one hand catching the drool — that vision popped into my mind.  I never told Mary Ann about that vision.  Mary Ann needed me to be with her.  I needed to be with her.  The Kids needed for me to be there.  I was not.

This has been a difficult post to write.  Any one of those events would have been enough to make the transition very tough.  All of them together made it almost impossible to bear. I remember my feelings all to well as I was helpless to comfort the people I loved most.

All the while this was going on, I was in the midst of an exciting new beginning at a place filled with some of the most nurturing and affirming people I have ever known.  Everyone should have a chance to live in the heart of Oklahoma.  It is one of the best kept secrets in the nation.

Next will come the ministry at the church in the OKC area and our lives there.  I need a break for a post or two or three before the tragic event in Oklahoma City that had direct impact on our little congregation.  Barry Switzer comes first.  Google him if you don’t already know who he is.

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.

There must have been a lot of prayers going to the Lord on my behalf this morning.  The service seemed to go very well — and my emotions stayed at an appropriate level.  That was a gift from the Lord.  Yesterday had not been a very good day in terms of the presence of the pain.  It lay just beneath the surface of my interactions and conversations. 

This morning my apprehensions about what might bubble to the surface during the service were strong.  I had a moment by myself in the van on the way to picking up Joy who would be playing in the service.  As I drove the purpose of the service came into focus again, to affirm the Lord and the witness of Mary Ann’s life.  It was not to demonstrate my grief or display it or garner attention for myself.  Accomplishing those goals was no longer in my hands, but the Lord’s hands. 

That peace that comes sometimes when there is an encounter with the powerful love and Grace of the Lord settled as I drove.  It freed me to release the nervousness.  Lot’s of times I ask for the Lord’s help.  This time it was clear that I could not do this myself.  I don’t have control over my feelings.  They have a life of their own.  Making it through the service was a gift, not an accomplishment. 

The result was that I benefitted from the service more than anyone else.  It really did feel good to have the service at the place where Mary Ann and I both made many of the important transitions in our lives.  It helped provide perspective on her death.  It became part of a continuity, beginning, middle, end, new beginning. 

Most of the people gathered were people who knew Mary Ann when she was a child, a young adult, long before the Parkinson’s.  Their connection with her was longstanding.  It felt good to me in that way to be present again with the Mary Ann I knew from the beginning of our life together.

It was good to have a connection with the congregation from which I retired through Julianna who now lives in Chicago.  She is a Director of Christian Education at a congregation there.  Her Mother serves as the Director of Children’s Ministry at the parish from which I retired. 

It was very meaningful to me that Daughter Lisa, Denis, Abigail and Ashlyn, and Son Micah, Becky and Chloe drove so far just to be part of this community and to give me support.  The family doily that has been popping up in presents or suitcases or any number of places over the years, appeared on the lectern when I came to the front to lead the service (thanks to Becky and Lisa). 

What followed with the lunch and memory sharing time was profoundly healing to me.  It took a long time to get rolling, but the stories and impressions began coming out more and more.  I have always spent about an hour and a half with families a day or two before the funeral of their Loved One, doing what we did this afternoon.  I ask for stories from the person’s life, memories that reveal something of who they were.  I now realize that may have been the single most beneficial part of the ministry to those who are dealing with a death. 

At the moment, it feels as if I have actually regained some of the good feelings that came with having Mary Ann as a part of my life, being a part of hers.  Talking with, spending time with members of her family, nephews and nieces, sisters-in-law seemed to bring me closer to her.  Listening to her three closest friends, Joy, Terry and Cherri, brought me back to our first days together and times we all spent with one another, as well as pictures of her from before I knew her personally. 

Later in the evening, a small group gathered at my Sister’s home.  That group included all five siblings in my family.  The other four range in age from 81 to 72.  I am 6 and 1/2 years younger than my closest sibling.  We are three boys and two girls.  There were lots of memories shared.  We have different sets of memories from our growing up years.  This was a chance to connect the dots on some of them.   We all love each other and enjoy each others company.  We do not necessarily always agree on everything, but we are family.  That time was also very healing to me. 

I have absolutely no idea if the sensation of being healed of some of the pain will last hours, days, weeks or months.  I know that there will be lots of painful times to come.  At least for the moment, a sense of wholeness has returned.  Thank you for all the thoughts and prayers. 

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.

Everywhere we looked, there were Moms with large bellies growing.   Mary Ann felt right at home.  It could not have been the water.  She had come from Ft. Wayne already pregnant.  Whatever it was, the babies popped out one after another, mostly boys.  The day before Micah was born, we had just come from the doctor’s office.  He said that she was already dilated some and would have the baby any time.  I was driving toward home, when to my horror, the engine stopped running.  We had run out of gas.  I don’t remember what Mary Ann said, but some things are better not to know.   Micah arrived the next day, September 7.   I have to admit that I was mightily irritated when I was told that I would have to leave now and go to the waiting room — and awful place with magazines from the 50’s.  I had been in the Delivery room when Lisa was born.  At Research Hospital, the rules changed concerning that issue two weeks after Micah was born.  I can remember taking Lisa with me to the street outside the hospital so that she could wave to her Mom.  She was a little over three years old at the time.  Mary Ann often lamented the timing of having both kids in the heat of summer in hot climates.  It just dawned on me, she may have been blaming me for that!

Then there was the house.  We looked mostly on the Kansas side, in Johnson County, since that was where the church was located.  After a while, nothing seemed to ring our chimes.  There was one possibility, but it was a little over the range that had been suggested to us based on my salary.  Then the realtor said, “We can look at the old house on the Missouri side.” 

Understand that the Missouri side meant a school system that had a typically bad reputation for quality as a city school district.  The Missouri side was more varied racially.  Johnson County was much less varied ethnically.   Both of us appreciated the older feel and ethnic variety of the Missouri side, but mostly, we just fell in love with the house the first time we saw it.   We bought it in 1972 for $22,500.

We had both grown up in older homes.  The “Old House” as she called it, was a two story shake sided house built in 1926.  The developer built to match the topography, leaving trees, curving streets around the hill.  The trees were all tall and stately.  There was a large bed of irises in full bloom.  The lilac bush was hanging with heavy clusters of blossoms filling the air with their scent.  There was the largest pussy willow bush/tree I have ever seen.  There was a spectacular Silver Weeping Birch in the front yard.  Each house in the neighborhood differed from the rest. 

There was a 25 foot long living room with a fire place — french doors to a side porch.  The dining room had a huge hand painted scene that blended with the wallpaper.  It was just an outline and was muted enough not to be distracting.  The Master bedroom was 18 feet long.  with a full bath and walk-in closet.  There were two other bedrooms, much smaller.  The house had a second full bath upstairs and a half bath in the breakfast room downstairs.  The kitchen was quaint, but there was barely room for the fridge.  There was a detached garage with a basketball hoop on the front of it.  Mary Ann loved that there was a basketball hoop out there.   There was something about being able to shoot hoops that she liked. 

The old stone basement had a little water in it at times, but it was no major problem.  There were some very entertaining camel back or cave crickets in the basement.  The house was solid as a rock.  It had shifted as much as it was going to shift decades earlier.  The plaster in a couple of ceilings was in bad shape, but both were repaired for about a hundred dollars.

Early on we remodeled the kitchen just a little, taking the wall to the breakfast room out, putting in sliding glass doors and adding a deck.  Those changes allowed much more space in the kitchen area.  We removed five layers of wallpaper from the walls, patched and sanded.  The walls were in almost perfect shape.  We heard about a fellow who would refinish wood floors.  We tore up the wall to wall carpets and found a beautiful white oak floor with red oak stairs. 

We enclosed the side porch into a multipurpose space.  A parishioner who was very skilled as a carpenter did much of the work, trading labor with me.  Dick did the carpentry for me and I helped him on his Mother’s farm.  At that time his labor would have been $16 an hour, and farm hand more like $3 an hour labor.  It sounds like a good deal at first glance.  Have you ever put up hay in 94 degree weather?  If you have, you know whereof I speak.  I almost died!  Well, maybe not quite that bad. 

Mary Ann made curtains and always had an eye for color.  The house was wonderful.  We felt very much at home there.  Mary Ann put in a little garden near the garage and used branches from the pussy willow for stakes at the ends of the rows.  The garden did not do well, the stakes thrived.  We had little pussy willows growing at the end of each row.   There was a tiny oak tree sapling that sprouted in that garden a few feet from the garage.  Mary Ann refused to let me pull it out.  I carefully explained that it was too close to the garage.  We drove by that house a couple of years ago.  In the intervening thirty some years it has grown into a tall and perfectly shaped oak tree.  The Silver Maple saplings we planted in the front yard had grown from the seeds of the neighbor’s tree.  When we went by that same time, they were huge trees.  The Monkey Grass we brought from Ron and June’s front yard in Memphis decades ago is still covering the terrace. 

I remember Jack, next door.  He was a Great Dane who was so tall that when he got curious and jumped up, his head would be above the top of the six foot privacy fence.  When he went back down the air would catch his ears and they would fly up, looking very silly.  Of course, I fed the birds and squirrels there just as I do now.  If I dared to sit out on the deck too long, interfering with the squirrels eating the olives from the Russian olive tree, one of the squirrels would find a branch right over my head and drop squirrel turds on me.  His aim was remarkable.  We had brought ferns and Jack-in-the-pulpit and wild phlox plants from my folk’s place in the country in Northern Illinois and planted them on the north side of the house in the back yard.  They thrived there for all fifteen years. 

Near the end of the fifteen years there, Mary Ann and I spent three weeks painting the outside of that shake sided house.  We scraped, primed, put on two coats of paint in three colors on that two story house.  Mary Ann did the lower story and I did the upper story.  I also scraped, primed and painted the 22 windows (all 6 panes over one). 

I thought I would tell the story of that house in one post before going on to our lives during that time.  By the way, that house for which we paid $22,500 in 1972 was on the market in 2007 or 8, listing for $310,000 — location, location, location.  

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.

Mary Ann, Lisa and I spent two summers at Camp Beaumont outside of Ashtabula, Ohio.  We packed up enough of our belongings in a U Haul trailor to live in a one bedroom log cabin for each of two summers.  Milt was one of three of us on the faculty who hung out together.  Milt was the art teacher.  He went on to become the head of the Art Department of a college in Nebraska.  Milt was also active in Scouts.  He convinced me to take a summer job as the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish chaplain of a large Scout Camp of some 1200 acres, with 36 sites for troops.

There was a little ring of six or eight cabins for the staff of the camp.  Mary Ann and Lisa hung out with the other families while I ate with the troops, explaining the Religious Awards.  Almost every meal was hot dogs and beans, except for the Jewish troops, who served Kosher hot dogs and beans.

The second summer I bought a bicycle for $3 at a garage sale and road it all summer long.  I had calves of steel that summer.  Poor Lisa got poison Ivy once from the socks I wore with the Scout shorts.  The cabins were simple and very rustic.  It really was a very pleasant setting.  Since we were so close, we made it to Niagara Falls for a visit.  There was a classmate there who took us out to a nice Seafood restaurant to have a leisurely paced meal at a very nice restaurant.  We visited a mushroom farm which was really fascinating.  We ate or put in the freezer package after package of white button mushrooms.

When we were visiting our families in Aurora the Christmas of 1971, driving to my parents house, some smoke came from under the dash.  We never found out what it was, but it was a little unsettling.  After we got to my parents’ house where we had been staying, Mary Ann started feeling badly.  In fact, she began to become rigid as in a mild seizure.

I took her to the Emergency Room in a small nearby hospital.  The doctor had a thick German accent and was about as arrogant and rude a person as we had ever encountered.  He simply decided that we had been arguing and she had gotten so upset that she reacted physically.  It was not so, but he did not believe us and looked for no other explanation.  The next day we went to the doctor we had both grown up with in Aurora.  He put Mary Ann on an anti-seizure medicine as a precaution.  We later discovered that at that time Mary Ann was in the first weeks of being pregnant with our Son.  I guessed that somehow that triggered it, but I have often wondered if that event could have triggered the Parkinson’s.  The literature on Parkinson’s would allow a brain trauma of some sort as a triggering event.

With a second child on the way, we realized that the little house we were  renting would not be big enough for four of us.  We started looking for a house to buy.  We decided to consider a duplex in hopes that the rent from the second unit would help pay for it.

On a Tuesday in April we put $500 down as earnest money on a duplex.  It was the Friday of that week, Mary Ann four months pregnant, a contract out on our first house that Principal Gunther (Gint) asked for an appointment.

Here is how he said it.  We need a new head of the Religion Department and you are not yet ready for that.  We will not be renewing your contract next year.  You need to start seeking a Call (job offer) someplace else.

It was as if the floor had just dropped away, and there was nothing there on which to stand.  (Why do I resonate to that description again now?)  I had to go home and tell Mary Ann that once more, she was pregnant and I had no job.  I called the realtor, who, gratefully, was able to get the $500 check back.

I can only guess that Mary Ann was probably wondering again what she had gotten herself into when she married me.  She had the decency not to say it out loud to me.

When I had left the Principal’s office I went to talk with the other of the three of us who hung out together, Jack.  Jack taught English, but his passion was Drama.  He went on to the English/Drama department at a College in St. Paul, Minnesota.

I have no memory of that weekend and the beginning of that next week.  I do, however, have vivid memories of what started that next Wednesday.

Enough of that for today.

I am now writing from Louisville, Kentucky.  I have been here since Friday evening.  It is good be with Lisa and the Girls and Denis.  It was painful to leave the house Friday morning.  I usually love getting on the road and driving somewhere.  There has been an exhilaration, a freedom I have always felt out on the open road.  I had no such feelings.  It seemed as if I was leaving her behind.  Someone who had lost a spouse recently said that she doesn’t like being away from the house and gets anxious to be home, and then she doesn’t want to be at home when she gets there.  I understand.

It felt very different to be traveling without the constant apprehension about needing to find a bathroom and dealing with taking her into the women’s rest room.  Ironically, the rest area I stopped at in southern Indiana, had a Unisex bathroom.  Now I don’t need it.

It has been good here to be with the Kids and Grandkids.  It is easier not to be dealing with the challenges of stairs and bathrooms and wheelchairs, but I would do it in a minute if I had the chance to have her back.

Yesterday I stopped at Walgreen’s to get a birthday card for Lisa, whose birthday is today, the Fourth of July.  Do you have any idea how many “to Daughter” cards there are that say “from Mother?”  It caught my insides as I tried to pick out a card — something we would have done together.  I picked one that was from both of us.

Yesterday evening was a party that Lisa and Denis had arranged with many of their friends.  Some of them had already met Mary Ann and me in the past.  Lisa and Denis have a wonderful group of friends that function sort of as a local family.  I enjoyed the evening since conversation is a helpful   to me.  There were Kids playing everywhere.  It was entertaining to watch.

Today, Sunday, it was clear from the moment that I woke up, that it would be an uncomfortable day.  I didn’t realize how much I would struggle to keep it together later.  I find the worship services at Lisa and Denis’s church to be very meaningful.  They do a full liturgy, but in a relaxed and welcoming way, rather than a formal way .

Todd who does the music is a real gem.  His work at the keyboard is reverent and accessible.  There may be jazz, classical, or any number of different styles, always perfectly done.  Pastor Paul preaches using lots of visuals, mostly images of great art pieces.  The service is on a large video screen at the front of the church.

Today the service and message were on healing.  The wording of almost everything was not only very compatible with my current need, it spoke almost directly to it.  In many traditions anointing with oil is a liturgical practice intended to bring an awareness of God’s healing into a person’s consciousness.  Today, just before the end of the service the option of going to the rear of the Nave to receive a bit of oil on one’s forehead and a prayer by one or both of those at the station.  It is not done in a magical way but in a way that draws to together the pain and the healing presence of the Lord’s love.

I decided to take advantage of that opportunity.  By the time I returned to my seat, tears were streaming down my cheeks.  I worked hard at trying to keep it from being too obvious and distracting to others.  Lisa was crying quietly when she returned too.  The girls were watching us as attentively.

I was able to talk with folks again after the service.  There were some good conversations with some very interesting people.  During the rest of the day, we did some shopping, had coffee, ate out, sang happy birthday and came home to rest.

Denis and I went shopping at Best Buy and I ended up buying a laptop computer so that when I am traveling I can continue writing.    By the way, I am continuing to work on the thank you notes.  They have all been written, but they now need to be addressed, sealed and stamped.

I stayed back from the trip to see fireworks tonight so that I could get a head start on writing.  Now, I need to get some rest. (Too tired to edit the post, it is gong out as is.)

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.

Fr. John told me about a Principal friend who was looking for a teacher in the religion department of a large Lutheran high school (800-900 students) back in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

By that time I could read Hebrew, Greek, Latin and German.  I certainly knew theology after 8 years of college and Seminary.  I had been trained in preaching sermons.  I had the equivalent of at least an undergraduate degree in Psychology and had had supervised Counseling classes. I could read the Bible in the original languages and analyze passages effectively to discover the meaning for today.

There was a catch.  I had no idea how to teach.  I had had a one term required class in teaching methods but nothing more.  At least it was not the parish.   I would have a chance to get to the heart of the message with kids at an important time in their faith development.  Having just come through the crisis of faith, I could talk candidly about faith struggles.

I took a class in Education Psychology at Washington University in St. Louis during their summer term.  I agreed to give the teaching job a try.   It seemed such a waste to give up on the ministry completely.  I was Ordained on August 17, 1969 at Our Saviour Lutheran Church in Aurora, Illinois (the church in which both Mary Ann and I grew up).

We packed up Lisa and rushed to Ft. Wayne so that I could get to faculty meetings and prepare to start teaching.  Remember the part about not knowing how to teach?  There is more.  I would be teaching three different courses, titled, Old Testament (Freshman Religion), New Testament (Sophomore Religion), and Doctrine and Life (Senior Religion).  There was no text book nor any curriculum for any of the three courses.  Not only had I not been taught how to teach, I had not been taught how to write a curriculum, let alone do so on the fly with the kids sitting in front of me.

I walked into five different classrooms each day, with nothing but the titles of the three courses.  There sat in front of me, 30 to 39 students in a required religion class.  Almost all of the kids came from Lutheran Elementary schools.  They had had religion classes since they were in Kindergarten.  They did not want to be there! I was scared spitless, but of course could not let the kids know.

Teaching is not as much about having knowledge as it is knowing how to communicate that knowledge effectively.  I knew that I needed to talk about the message without using the church words they had heard when they were seven.  The minute I tried the traditional church words, their eyes glazed over. I had no tools to use to construct lesson plans and structure assessment instruments.

While this so far is all about me, the impact on Mary Ann was clear, especially three years later. This part of our story is complicated and dramatic. It turned out to be a volatile time in life for both of us.

I tried to challenge the kids thinking, to make the message personal, to frame it in language they had not used before.  While the head of the Religion Department, Earl, was a very good fellow, who had set up the room I used for a Seminar style of teaching.  He did not have the time to mentor me, help with curriculum.  I had to do this entirely on my own with absolutely no training as to how to do it. He left after my first year there.

What happened as time went by, was that I began to develop good relationships with the students.  I listened to them, treated them with respect.  As an Ordained Pastor my vows expicitly bound me to confidentiality.  It was safe to talk with me.  The time between classes became the most valuable time for kids to come in and see me.  I became friends with most successful students and the least successful students and those in between.   It was a little like going through high school again, only this time I was popular.

There were challenges of course, this was 1969 and following years.  Someone came in after taking a pill in the bathroom that she thought was bad LSD.  Someone came in and announced that she had just gotten “knocked up.”  There was a lot of Boone’s Farm Apple wine and Strawberry Hill consumed in the restrooms.  There were parent problems, relationship problems.

When I led chapels I tried to be as straight and clear as I could be.  Chapels were a challenge since all 800-900 sat on one side of the gym on the bleachers, sometimes dropping hymnals from to the floor under the bleachers.  One time I put together a Communion Service with the kids help.  There were altar coverings that the Art Department had tie-dyed.  There was Communion bread that had been baked in the Home Economics department.  the Music Department provided a small band, a vocal ensemble, soloists, doing popular songs that had words compatible with the message of the day.  “Spirit in the Sky” was a song that was used.  In our tradition, the Passing of the Peace was relatively new (returned from the New Testament worship customs).  The service was a veritable happening.  The kids sat on the floor instead of the bleachers.  When the service was over, the Principal had to get on the loud speaker to get the kids to go back to classes.

Not everyone was pleased with my style.  The Principal that hired me that first summer left by the fall to serve as Superintendent of the Lutheran Schools in Chicago.  The new Principal was not so comfortable with the relational approach that I used.  I caught wind of the discomfort of some, and picked five faculty I thought might be unhappy with my style.  I met with them one on one.  Four said they thought I was doing fine.  The fifth blamed me for every social evil including the Pastor of her congregation who had not been very helpful when her Dad died.

It was April of my third year of teaching that it happened.  More tomorrow.

If you want to write a comment about this or any of the posts on this blog, look to the column on the right side of this page, titled “Recent Posts,”  click on the name of a post and you will find a box at the end of that article in which you can write a comment.  Clicking on the title of the post you are reading will accomplish the same thing.  Comments are appreciated.