Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What Is Better Than Money? Merry Christmas!

We cannot put up a Christmas tree (real or artificial) because one of our cats, Intrepid, eats all kinds of plants and nearly died once from ingesting a lot of plastic branches. (Thanks to a concerned vet who rushed to our house, he is a wonderfully fine herbivore today.) We can, though, note Christmas in many other ways with decorations outdoors, Christmas cookery, finding fun gifts for colleagues, and shopping for the kids and the grandkids.

Ah, shopping for the kids! That is a relatively new and wonderfully pleasant experience. When they were growing up, we never had money for shopping for them. Medical expenses for Doah and Noelle always robbed us of that particular pleasure, and visiting them in the hospital -- Noelle was there Christmas day for a number of years in a row -- meant little time for shopping of any kind had we had any money to engage in that popular activity.

Nonetheless, we have many pleasant memories from Christmases past. For example, one year we had moved into a new place with a fireplace. Donnie had built a warm fire on a cold Virginia night, and we sat together, enjoying the evening while the kids were sleeping. Five-year-old Doah, however, woke up and crept downstairs. Seeing the fire, he began crying loudly.

"What's the matter, Doah?" we asked.

"Ho-ho burn butt!" he sobbed.

For the sake of Santa Claus's posterior, we put out the fire. Doah went off to bed quite happily, satisfied that he had finished his task of ensuring a safe entrance for the deliverer of gifts.

Then there was the year that we had no money at all. Christmas celebrations of the traditional variety were seriously out of the question, especially since we were moving at the end of December. The day after Christmas, as we were taking our first load of household goods to our new residence, we happened to drive past a Christmas tree lot and noticed that the lot had been abandoned. In the back of the lot was a lone, sickly-looking, leftover Christmas tree. Lizzie and Shane jumped out of the car and delightedly dragged it over to Donnie, who lashed it to the roof. Off we went, pleased with our acquisition, although we got strange stares from passing cars. We later decorated our puny little tree with our traditional ornaments, turning it into a festively proud fir. Homemade gifts in the form of food items were the theme of that year. We decorated the tree with cookies, fudge, and other favorite items of the kids that they removed and ate New Year's morning, the day we had decided would be "Christmas" that year.

Other examples of special Christmas events abound. I will share some of them:
(1) Our introduction to Christmas with kids came when Lizzie, our oldest and at barely two years old too young to know anything about Christmas yet -- or so we assumed -- stood in her pajamas at the window as dark settled around our apartment on Christmas eve and suddenly announced, "Santa Claus is coming tonight!" Oh, no! There were no plans for Santa to come that night! Donnie dashed to the car. It was nearly 9:00. The only store still open was a Five-and-Dime, and all Donnie could find in it were little socks for Lizzie's doll. It was enough to make her happy, and from that day we began the practice of one present per child for Christmas.

(2) We tried to make the one gift something very special, but we could never predict our children's strange requests. For example, Lizzie at the age of eight, a precocious fourth grader (she had skipped second grade), asked for a college textbook on genetics. Her interest came from attending the university Russian courses I taught on those days when she had no school and spending the hour in my intermediate Russian course solving problems passed along to her by one of my students who was majoring in genetics. (He also proudly dragged her to the honors program director, who invited her to attend some lecture-form university courses, where she promptly fell asleep. Nonetheless, the director offered to "enroll" her in the honors program as an aspiring college student, but doing so became too complicated. She had to wait another four years before taking her first college course for credit.) When Lizzie, who did become a genetics major for about three years before changing her major to cognitive neuroscience, received her Santa-delivered genetics textbook, she ecstatically raced from house to house in our small neighborhood to display her treasure, then returned home, plopped down beside me on the sofa, and mourned, "None of my friends like my gift! They think it's dumb."

"Well," I asked her, "What do you think? Are you happy with the book?"

"Yes. It's exactly what I wanted, and I really like all the problems at the end of the chapters."

"What did your friends get?"

"They got dolls. That's dumb!" I don't remember Lizzie ever playing with dolls other than the one that needed socks when she was little, a soft pink lamb that my grandmother gave her as a toddler and that she has to this day, and a monkey that my grandmother made for her out of a sock that she eventually wore out.

(3) One year, no one had been in the hospital all year, and we had money for Christmas! It was enough to buy bikes for Shane and Lizzie, pre-teen and teen at the time. Donnie and I were as excited as children to be able to get those bikes for our kids. (Noelle, who is paraplegic, and Doah, who is mentally retarded, never were able to ride a bike, but they got gifts that they had asked for.) That year, Shane and Lizzie had made no particular gift request, and we played a very cruel trick on them. We hung only the bike-lock keys on the tree and hid the bikes behind the house. The keys blended into the ornaments, and after the other gifts had been given out, Shane and Lizzie had nothing. In true Shane and Lizzie fashion, they looked around the tree one more time and said nothing.

"Did all the gifts get passed out?" I asked innocently.

"It seems so," said Lizzie. "Shane and I don't have anything, but that's okay. We don't really need anything. We didn't ask for anything this year."

"Really?" I asked. "Are you sure there is nothing else?" Donnie pulled one of the keys off the tree and handed it to them.

"Oh, oh, oh!" Shane exclaimed, "We have a bike!" Clearly, he assumed that Lizzie and he would be sharing.

"Go look out behind the house," Donnie suggested, and they took off running. We regretted not taking a camera with us when we saw the look on their faces when they caught sight of TWO bikes! They were extraordinarily understanding kids. They knew what it had taken for us to gather the money for two bikes, and they were grateful to us every time they rode them. That was a special Christmas. Donnie got a bike the following Christmas, and for years the three of them would ride together on Saturdays while I spent the day with Noelle and Doah.

The most special Christmas, though, was not one when we had money for gifts but one when we did not. It came two years after the bike Christmas. That year, multiple surgeries drained our coffers dry. Fortunately, we had an artificial Christmas tree with which a relative had gifted us a few years earlier, so we put up the tree and decorated it. Christmas eve ultimately came, and we knew we had nothing for the children. Donnie and I contemplated another year of cookies and fudge, but before Donnie got down to cooking (something he had to do alone -- I am such a bad cook, I would have wasted the ingredients in preparing inedible foodstuffs), one of us -- I don't remember which -- had a scathingly brilliant idea, to quote Hayley Mills' character in The Trouble with Angels. Donnie had by then begun working as a computer graphist, and we conceived of making coupons for each of the kids for one-on-one activities with Mom or Dad: a snack at McDonald's, a special lesson in one of our specialties, private walks, an activity that the child would choose, and so on. Each child received a book of twelve coupons that could be redeemed at will during the year. They loved them, and they used every one of those coupons! That year remains our favorite. In spite of our annually increasingly brighter financial status, no year matched that one for that year Christmas lasted not one day but twelve months.

The end
: As I was writing this post, nostalgia made me turn to Donnie and start reminiscing about that very special Christmas. We want to repeat it. So, we have just decided to give our children and grandkids coupons for future joint activities this year. As for the money we had set aside for gifts, we are now excitedly planning how to get rid of it and have scads of ideas about where to distribute it. I will add a PS later, once we have decided where it will go.

Oh, this year is going to be such a great Christmas!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Monday Morning Meditation #32: Multiplication, God's Way

This week I moved from I Kings to II Kings and wandered into the story of Elisha coming to Gilgal when there was a famine in the land. To a gathering of 100 men with Elisha, a man from Baal-shalishah brought Elisha 20 loaves of barley and fresh ears of corn, who told his servant to give them to the 100 men. The servant asked how on earth these few loaves would feed 100 people, and Elisha responded, "Give the people, that they may eat; for thus saith the LORD: They shall eat, and shall leave thereof." And that is exactly what happened. In a foreshadowing of the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes with five fishes and two loaves and having baskets left over, not only were the people fed, but also there was leftover.

Reading: II Kings 4: 38-44
Meditation: Whenever I hear these stories of God multiplying resources, whether it be loaves of bread or, as earlier in Kings, vessels of oil, I am reminded of so many times when God has has multiplied resources in order to help me and my family, for which I feel immense gratitude. We may live in an imperfect world, in which free will, running rampant, can result in some very bad things happening -- and then watching God bring good out of the bad is highly reassuring. Experiencing the multiplication of resources is about as awe-inspiring as it gets. Since the morning is very early and I do need to get some sleep before heading out to work, I will give only one example, but it is, for me, a powerful one and a bit complex.

After returning to California from Jordan a few years ago, we received an e-note from our tax accountant, informing us that the IRS determined that we had underpaid our taxes by $11,000, based on income from Jordan that we had not thought was taxable but was. The very next day a bill from the IRS stood proudly in our mailbox. "Due immediately" was stamped across it.

Ha! Fat chance in ___! We had just finished moving, and while the majority of our moving expenses had been covered by my new employer, many unanticipated expenses had not been covered. To complicate matters, we had moved all our savings from our bank in Jordan to Shane’s account in the United States to facilitate our return. Our safety valve of $14,000 had us resting easy until the greedy hand of a hospital accountant, unbeknownst to all of us, requested court permission to search Shane’s bank accounts for additional money in order to increase the rate at which he was paying off the costs of the five kidney surgeries of Nathaniel, our grandson. Lo and behold, during the exact two-month period that we were using Shane’s account to hold the money until I was back in the United States and could transfer the money to my own account, the additional $14,000 was found in Shane’s account and without any notice to him, our entire savings at that time was withdrawn by the hospital. All our income had dissipated or been used to cover moving expenses. Now, Uncle Sam wanted $11,000!

Our tax accountant was able to get us a six-week delay, no more. Six weeks to find a spare $11,000 while finishing moving from overseas back to the United States and trying to set up housekeeping, a major one-time expense in itself, turned out to be too great a task for my overwhelmed brain. So, I did what I always do now. I left it up to God. My trust was so complete that I asked only once. Then I put the problem out of my mind, continuing on happily with my daily life, confident that some unique response would come before the end of the six-week period as it always had. It did.

A few days after asking God for help, I received a letter in the mail from Indiana University, where I had worked five years earlier in an interim position. The letter in my hand concerned my retirement fund. I had such a small retirement fund with the university that I had actually forgotten about it. Fortunately, the university had not. According to the letter, all individuals no longer on payroll needed either to take out the retirement funds or roll them over into a retirement fund external to the university immediately. I called the fund, and the amount available for take-out, minus (of course) taxes, gave me 50% of what I needed for the IRS. God had rescued me yet one more time.

The other 50% owed, I was certain, would show up before the end of the six-week period. God had never before left me hanging at half-mast. Sure enough, a week later, a quarterly summary from another retirement fund at another institution, where I worked years earlier, arrived in the mail. I had put that particular fund out of mind because it had taken a big loss years ago. According to the recent statement, though, it still had most of the dollars that had been invested from my pay checks tucked away in it, earning a penny here and there in interest. Those dollars would cover another 40% of what was owed. I called the fund. A very kind gentleman agreed to close my account and send me those much-needed dollars. He could not give me a precise amount but thought it would be close to the amount in the current quarterly summary that I had received in the mail. He explained that I would have to wait for the stock market results at the end of the day, which would determine the precise amount to be disbursed. I would receive whatever the fund was worth at that time, most likely the amount he had just cited to me.

We were close! Clearly, we would not be trapped in IRS hell or married to the IRS for eternity. The remaining 10% would show up somehow. If necessary, I could eke it out of my salary or borrow it from someone.

As it turned out, there was no need to worry about the remaining 10%. The stock market leaped upward over the next few hours. Donnie said he thought it might have been due to the release of iPods on that day —- some of our stock was in technology.

On January 11, we received considerably more than we expected. The amount allowed us to pay off the IRS debt in full on the 12th, the last day of our extension. It also paid our tax accountant’s bill in full. Moreover, after paying all those with their hand held out, we found an additional $400 in our basket. What to do with that? The answer was obvious. That was God’s money. He had over-multiplied our resources, so I compelled to return it to God. (I gave it to Fr. Barry, the director of our local Franciscan retreat center; he was probably amused when I explained that the source of the money was a mathematical miscalculation by God. Actually, I don't think there was any miscalculation; the retreat center really needed that money because their main building had burned down and needed to be re-built.)

And that is far as I can go with you this Monday morning. I retire to prayer, to thank God for the ongoing ways in which He keeps my bread basket full just when they are beginning to look empty, to ask Him to help all others who have empty or emptying bread baskets, and to praise Him for that fact that He really can do this, while still allowing free will to reign. After that, I will spend as much time as I can in contemplation, my favorite part of the day, letting God take over the direction in which my relationship with Him moves.

I will now leave you to your prayer and contemplation, but first, I would like to bring to your attention a Monday morning prayer post that you might enjoy:

Fr. Austin Fleming, priest of the Archdiocese of Boston and pastor in Concord, Massachusetts, posts a prayer each Monday morning that he calls "Monday Morning Offering." I enjoy his prayers very much. I hope you also will find them inspirational. He has graciously given me permission to include a link to his blog on my Monday Morning Meditation posts.

For additional inspiration throughout the week, I would point out two sets of blogs: (1) the list of devotional blogs that follow the enumeration of Monday Morning Meditations on the sidebar of this blog and (2) my blogroll, where I am following a number of inspirational priests and writers about spiritual matters. I learn so very much from all these people. I highly recommend them to you.

Monday Morning Meditation #31: Do Not Cause My People to Sin

This Monday is beginning a bit ineptly. I wanted to get up early; I overslept a little -- not enough to miss out on my prater time but enough perhaps to run out of time to share it with you. I had two loads of laundry to run through before going to work; only one load will make it. (So, do I wear clean underwear and inappropriate clothes, or the other unthinkable combination? I chose the clean underwear -- even though no one sees it!) Fortunately, no need to think about breakfast; my current diet allows only cereal and milk, quick enough to gulp down in five minutes. Donnie casually asked what time I am leaving for Hawaii tomorrow; dunno. I also don't know yet which airline or airport. Will figure that out today. And, the thought is nagging at the back of my mind that my friend, whom my boss forced me to take as a junior manager and who failed as such, never got fully fired on Friday because she ran off on sick leave, then appeared at my boss's office on another issue. I have not been able to reach him to find out if he told her she is being fired by her current supervisor, a senior manager who works for me and with whose decision I concur, from her current position in my organization (he has to help find another position for her -- I looked for something as well).

In any event, I did not have to read far to find something that really struck me today. In the very next chapter, in the very next verse, actually, I came across the story of Baasa, who caused Israel to sin and ignited the ire of God, who smote him, wiping out him, his whole family, any progeny, and all his potential glory as a ruler. Goodness gracious, these Old Testament stories hit home for me!

Reading: I Kings 16: 1-20

Meditation: The story of Baasa opened old sorrows for me. When I first came to faith (at a very late date, I might add), one of the things that I realized with a good deal of sadness was the number of people I had led away from God. Had it been only my family that would have been sad enough, but I had always held leadership positions and had always been outspoken in my atheism. Never pushy, but open about my opinions on just about anything, including what I considered to be an accurate understanding of the non-existence of God. This really confused Americans I had brought to Jordan to teach at a university there. Overwhelmed by the great differences between American and Jordanian life styles, the bridge between which I tried to be for them, they would turn to me for all kinds of physical and emotional help. I earned the title, "God's agent in Jordan." When they found out I was an atheist, they were lost as to what was going on. Only one persevered in not accepting my atheism. He called me "a believer in waiting." Still, as a senior leader in several different positions, working literally on a global scale, I had the opportunity to influence the thinking of many people. Especially younger ones took me on as a role model in far too many cases, a role model that included giving up their faith and accepting my atheist ways. (I was not immoral or unethical -- Donnie says I was "brutally ethical" -- but all decisions were made based on secular ethical systems, not on any thought of God or God's will.)

After coming to faith, I was immensely remorseful for "stealing" people's faith from them. I know God has forgiven me. I know that strong faith won't bend to atheism. I know that God will make right what I put wrong. Still, the remorse is there. Most days now I don't think about it because it is in the past, and it is in God's hands. However, when I read stories like these from the Old Testament, I cannot feel good about who I was. I can only feel grateful for God's grace in the matter.

And that is far as I can go with you this Monday morning. I must run to work, already having finished my prayers for this morning, which I did before retiring, instead of after, today because of the limited time available (and look h ow good God is -- I did finish writing before having to leave for work!). A brief description of the non-private contents of those prayers: I asked, no begged, God to let me help Him put right what I put wrong, something I often do; repented -- oh, how often and sincerely I do! -- for those times in the past that I cannot go back and re-live and did so much harm to so many people; thanked God for those times in which I have been allowed to meet individuals who have re-found their faith after my devastating earlier negative influences on them; and gave praise for the wonderful grace that forgives and forgives and loves and loves. After that, I spent an all-too-brief time in contemplation, my favorite part of the day, letting God take over the direction in which my relationship with Him moves.

I will now leave you to your prayer and contemplation, but first, I would like to bring to your attention a Monday morning prayer post that you might enjoy:

Fr. Austin Fleming, priest of the Archdiocese of Boston and pastor in Concord, Massachusetts, posts a prayer each Monday morning that he calls "Monday Morning Offering." I enjoy his prayers very much. I hope you also will find them inspirational. He has graciously given me permission to include a link to his blog on my Monday Morning Meditation posts.

For additional inspiration throughout the week, I would point out two sets of blogs: (1) the list of devotional blogs that follow the enumeration of Monday Morning Meditations on the sidebar of this blog and (2) my blogroll, where I am following a number of inspirational priests and writers about spiritual matters. I learn so very much from all these people. I highly recommend them to you.

Monday Morning Meditation #30: Lead As Jesus Would

As I read about the successors to Solomon in the middle chapters of the book of I Kings, a clear pattern emerged: not only did these kings sin, but they also caused Israel to sin, much in the manner of Solomon sinning and causing Israel to sin at the end of his life, an act that caused God to be angry with him. With Solomon, it began (in earlier chapters of I Kings) with Solomon's taking of foreign wives against the commandment of God, a command with which God had sought to prevent Solomon being converted to foreign gods through the love of foreign wives and concubines.

Reading: I Kings 15: 33-34
Meditation: It may seem like a bit of a stretch to apply this history to modern leadership, but since modern leadership is the stuff of my every day life, I do see parallels and lessons nearly everywhere, including in I Kings. As was written about Baasa, he "did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD, and walked in the way of Jeroboam, and in his sin wherewith he made Israel to sin," so can it be that leaders of all sorts do evil in the sight of the Lord and in their sin make their followers to sin.

As a senior leader, it is easy to forget the influence that one has over the thinking and beliefs of one's subordinates. More than one display of anger, and some junior leaders will consider that heavy-handed approaches are permissible ways to manage. After all, it is easier to demand and to be angry when one's demands are not met than to share governance, listen patiently to someone you just know is wrong, and to compromise when you just know you are right. A lax interpretation of rules and regulations for self benefit tells both junior leaders and employees that cheating is okay if it is only "a little thing." Remembering that deeds speak louder than words can keep one from self-exemption in acting in accordance with moral and ethical standards especially when one thinks one is not being seen. It is much like with our children. If our words and deeds do not match, our children are more likely to emulate what we do than to follow the principles we hope to inculcate in them through education.

It is far easier than we think to lead those who follow us astray, whether that be astray from moral standards, scrupulous adherence to regulations, or willing obedience of God's commands and taskings. For that reason, I ask God to help me at the beginning of every day (often several times during the day as events unfold) to keep me not only from hurting anyone but also from leading anyone astray. I also ask that His love flow through me and splash onto those around me, that both my words and deeds honor Him, and that I set the kind of example for junior leaders and employees that He would have me set. (Of course, even with God's help, I do not always succeed for human emotions intervene from time to time, causing me to forget to refer the given situation back to God.)

In trying to lead as God would have me lead, I find two sources of leadership development helpful. One is the Bible. Just as the passage from I Kings can provide excellent guidance, so can much throughout the Bible -- those situations where leaders excelled and those where they failed. There is another book that I have found to be quite helpful and that I recommend to any leader: Jesus on Leadership (C. Gene Wilkes). For leaders who are not Christians, a very similar book is put out by the Greenleaf Center, The Case for Servant Leadership (Kent Keith, the author of the Paradoxical Commandments that Mother Theresa loved, otherwise known as "Do It Anyway"); while foot-washing is not mentioned in it, it does reflect principles that God taught to leaders and hoped and expected from them throughout the Bible.

These books help me a lot. God (and prayer) help me even more. And the rest I mess up all by myself -- and go running to God to help me fix it!

And that is far as I can go with you this Monday morning. I must retire to prayer to continue to ask for guidance every minute of every day as I interact with junior leaders and rank-and-file employees, to repent for those times that I have set a bad example, to thank God for so often setting straight with my employees what I do wrong, and to give praise for the way in which He leads me and my subordinate leaders to assist and support those who work for us, the ways in which he ensures that we do not harm any of them exceedingly much, and the way in which He has brought much spirituality into our workplace. After that, I will spend time in contemplation, my favorite part of the day, letting God take over the direction in which my relationship with Him moves.

I will now leave you to your prayer and contemplation, but first, I would like to bring to your attention a Monday morning prayer post that you might enjoy:

Fr. Austin Fleming, priest of the Archdiocese of Boston and pastor in Concord, Massachusetts, posts a prayer each Monday morning that he calls "Monday Morning Offering." I enjoy his prayers very much. I hope you also will find them inspirational. He has graciously given me permission to include a link to his blog on my Monday Morning Meditation posts.

For additional inspiration throughout the week, I would point out two sets of blogs: (1) the list of devotional blogs that follow the enumeration of Monday Morning Meditations on the sidebar of this blog and (2) my blogroll, where I am following a number of inspirational priests and writers about spiritual matters. I learn so very much from all these people. I highly recommend them to you.

Monday Morning Meditation #29: Let Me Discern Between Good and Evil

As I moved on into the book of I Kings, David's long reign came to an end and Solomon was annointed king after a failed attempt by Adonijah to appoint himself king. Shortly after becoming king, Solomon had a dream in which God asked him how could he gift him, to which Solomon replied, "Give Thy servant an understanding heart to judge Thy people, that I may discern between good and evil," whence came what we speak of today as Solomon's great wisdom.

Reading: I Kings 3:19

Meditation: Discernment between good and evil -- what a great gift! And to have the wisdom to think to ask for that instead of something more evanescent or of lesser ultimate value! Solomon did indeed choose well. May we all, if ever given the chance, choose as well.

I suppose that this particular action/verse stopped me in my tracks because this is been a topic that has had me in its grip in recent days. I posted yesterday on Modern Mysticism about nightmares and the visitation by evil forces while asleep at a time when I did not want to believe that Evil, as such, could really exist. I have also posted earlier on Blest Atheist about some unnerving experiences that seemed to be Evil up to no good.

At times, I find it very difficult to discern between Good and Evil. Perhaps this is because I expect to find only Good. (Yes, I am naive in that way.) Perhaps it is because I expect God to protect me from all Evil. (I suppose I am naive in that way, too, although God has never failed to rescue me.) Perhaps Evil can be so enticingly sweet at times that I simply do not want to believe that it is really Evil. (Yes, triply naive, I admit it.)

A couple of years ago, a friend told me that he was being chased by Evil. I remember how scary that was. I remember how much time we spent in prayer together. I also remember how much time I spent in prayer alone, dedicated to begging God to deliver my friend from evil: 20 hours! In the end, Evil lost and God won. It was, however, a battle. I guess that this is what we are being told over and over again in the Bible: there is a battle between Good and Evil, and we are often part of it.

Most recently, an acquaintance with whom I am required to interact at times seems to be caught in a battle between Good and Evil over him, but he does not seem to recognize it. I have pointed it out, and I have seen his face take on strange castings, so strange that I am relieved that I have never had to be alone with him at these moments. I am not the only one who has noticed these facial disturbances and a sense of evil, not emanating from within him but present all around him. He is a believer and professes belief, but sometimes the words sound hollow and his eyes look vacant. I don't know how to help or whether I should help or even if I have properly discerned evil in this case. I may be completely wrong. So, I pray for him. And I pray for me -- for the kind of discernment that God gave to Solomon (even for a small part of it).

And that is far as I can go with you this Monday morning. I must retire to prayer to continue to ask again for greater discernment, to repent for those times that I have mistaken Evil for Good, to thank God for protecting me from evil when I was too naive to know that I was surrounded by it, and to give praise for the way in which He leads me to safety even when I do not know where I am going except that I am following Him. After that, I will spend time in contemplation, my favorite part of the day, letting God take over the direction in which my relationship with Him moves.

I will now leave you to your prayer and contemplation, but first, I would like to bring to your attention a Monday morning prayer post that you might enjoy:

Fr. Austin Fleming, priest of the Archdiocese of Boston and pastor in Concord, Massachusetts, posts a prayer each Monday morning that he calls "Monday Morning Offering." I enjoy his prayers very much. I hope you also will find them inspirational. He has graciously given me permission to include a link to his blog on my Monday Morning Meditation posts.

For additional inspiration throughout the week, I would point out two sets of blogs: (1) the list of devotional blogs that follow the enumeration of Monday Morning Meditations on the sidebar of this blog and (2) my blogroll, where I am following a number of inspirational priests and writers about spiritual matters. I learn so very much from all these people. I highly recommend them to you.

Monday Morning Meditation #61: I Lift Up My Eyes unto the Hills

When I reached Psalm 121 this week, it was clear what this Monday morning's meditation would be about for I had just come across one of my two favorite psalms (the other being Psalm 23, which I think is a favorite for many people). Raised in the foothills of the White Mountains in Maine and New Hampshire, spending the first years of married life in the Bitteroot Mountains of Montana, working recently for two blessed years in the holy hills of Jordan (in the shadow of Mount Nebo), and now sheltered in my current residence by the California coastal mountains, I find hills of any sort to be as essential to my being as the Swiss Alps were to Heidi's of literary fame. The psalm evokes the sense of security, safety, and peace that I feel in the mountains.

Reading: Psalm 121

Meditation: San Ignatio is surrounded by hills, gentle slopes that rise enough into the sky to be considered small mountains but not great summits. As such, they exude an atmosphere of friendliness, like the hand of God reaching out to say, "Here I am; come nearer." I see these hills every day. In the winter and spring, when they are sprinkled with raindrops, they are great folds of green carpets rising toward the sun. When the rain has sunk below the roots of the grass, they become the golden hills of our summer and fall. Whether they are green or gold, I can look upon them and know that my help comes from just beyond them, from God, who pours out love with the sunshine and with the rain. When I take my constitution, lately less daily than it should be, I often find myself reciting Psalm 121, as I look upon the hills.

Here, indeed, I find my help. Here, too, I find that God never sleeps. The sun by day and the moon by night in our clear sky remind me of God's presence, love, and kindness. Here I feel secure.

A few years ago, when I was leaving RCIA, Fr. Greg stood at the door as I was leaving, as if waiting. When I asked what he was waiting for, he said he was watching me go to me car. "Well," I told him, "I hope you have extraordinary distance vision because I walked."

"In that case," he responded, "be careful that you are not attacked on your way back."

Now why he would ever think that anything like that would happen in San Ignatio, I don't know, but then he was in interim priest and did not live here. "I'm not worried," I explained to him. "I feel protected."

In an oddly quiet voice that seemed to come from a sudden understanding, he nearly whispered, "I believe you are." I believe I am, too. Were I to have had any thoughts to the contrary, the day that Lizzie and I escaped from being stalked by three stone 20-somethings would have put those thoughts to rest.

Contemplation: That is far as I can go with you this Monday morning. I now retire to private prayer, repenting for the to many times recently that I have skipped my daily walk because I was too busy, to thank God for always being with me even when I am not with Him and for protecting from all that would harm me, to praise God for His faithfulness as do so many of the psalms leading up to Psalm 121, and to ask Him to protect all my friends and acquaintances and those of His children whom I do not know in the same wonderful way He has protected me. Then I will move on to contemplation, my favorite part of the day, letting God take over the direction in which my relationship with Him moves.

I will leave you now to your prayer and contemplation. First, though, I would like to bring to your attention a Monday morning prayer post that you might enjoy:

Fr. Austin Fleming, priest of the Archdiocese of Boston and pastor in Concord, Massachusetts, posts a prayer each Monday morning that he calls "Monday Morning Offering." I enjoy his prayers very much. I hope you also will find them inspirational. He has graciously given me permission to include a link to his blog on my Monday Morning Meditation posts. (During the week, he also posts great homilies and other thoughtful discussions. I enjoy reading those, too.)

For additional inspiration throughout the week, I would point out two sets of blogs: (1) the list of devotional blogs on my sidebar and (2) my blogroll, where I am following a number of inspirational priests and writers about spiritual matters. I learn so very much from all these people. I highly recommend them to you.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Christmas Pageant

Another goodie from the Internet loop, sent to me by a friend and, I think, worth sharing:
My husband and I had been happily married (most of the time) for five years
but hadn't been blessed with a baby. I decided to do some serious praying and promised God that if he would give us a child, I would be a perfect mother, love it with all my heart and raise it with His word as my guide.

God answered my prayers and blessed us with a son. The next year God blessed us
with another son. The following year, He blessed us with yet another son. The year after that we were blessed with a daughter. My husband thought we'd been blessed right into poverty. We now had four children, and the oldest was only four years old.

I learned never to ask God for anything unless I meant it. As a minister once told me, "If you pray for rain, make sure you carry an umbrella." I began reading a few verses of the Bible to the children each day as they lay in their cribs. I was off to a good start. God had entrusted me with four children, and I didn't want to disappoint Him.

I tried to be patient the day the children smashed two dozen eggs on the kitchen floor searching for baby chicks. I tried to be understanding when they started a hotel for homeless frogs in the spare bedroom, although it took me nearly two hours
to catch all twenty-three frogs. When my daughter poured ketchup all over herself and rolled up in a blanket to see how it felt to be a hot dog, I tried to see the humor rather than the mess.

In spite of changing over twenty-five thousand diapers, never eating a hot meal
and never sleeping for more than thirty minutes at a time, I still thank God daily for my children. While I couldn't keep my promise
to be a perfect mother - I didn't even come close - I did keep my promise
to raise them in the Word of God.

I knew I was missing the mark just a little when I told my daughter we were going to church to worship God, and she wanted to bring a bar of soap along to "wash up" Jesus, too. Something was lost in the translation when I explained that God gave us everlasting life, and my son thought it was generous of God to give us his "last wife."

My proudest moment came during the children's Christmas pageant. My daughter was playing Mary, two of my sons were shepherds and my youngest son was a wise man. This was their moment to shine. My five-year-old shepherd had practiced his line, "We found the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes." But he was nervous and said, "The baby was wrapped in wrinkled clothes." My four-year-old "Mary" said, "That's not 'wrinkled clothes,' silly. That's dirty, rotten clothes." A wrestling match broke out between Mary and the shepherd and was stopped by an angel, who bent her halo and lost her left wing.

I slouched a little lower in my seat when Mary dropped the doll representing Baby Jesus, and it bounced down the aisle crying, "Mama-mama." Mary grabbed the doll, wrapped it back up, and held it tightly as the wise men arrived.

My other son stepped forward, wearing a bathrobe and a paper crown, knelt at the manger, and announced, "We are the three wise men, and we are bringing gifts
of gold, common sense and fur." The congregation dissolved into laughter, and the pageant got a standing ovation.

"I've never enjoyed a Christmas program as much as this one," laughed the pastor,
wiping tears from his eyes. "For the rest of my life, I'll never hear the Christmas story without thinking of gold, common sense, and fur."

"My children are my pride and my joy and my greatest blessing," I said as I dug
through my purse for an aspirin.

Jesus had no servants, yet they called Him Master. He had no degree, yet they called Him Teacher. He had no medicines, yet they called Him Healer. He had no army, yet kings feared Him. He won no military battles, yet He conquered the world. He committed no crime, yet they crucified Him. He was buried in a tomb, yet He lives today. Feel honored to serve such a Leader who loves us.

I think all mothers can relate to the story of the pageant and that we all can take a minute to ponder the wonders of that last paragraph. Wishing you all a blessed Advent and Christmas. Let's not hurry the season; let's experience it fully.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Monday Morning Meditation #71: Let Us Go Up to the Mountain of the Lord

Many apologies for missing the posting of a MMM last week. I did not notice that the post had not gone up until later in the week as I continue with the agony of not having my computer back yet and working off an old clunker that I borrow as needed. We did get a progress report, but it was rather bleak: the techies finally figured out what happened: an unnoticed power surge fried the mother board. The fine print in my warranty says that mother boards fried by power surges are not covered, and so now I have to pay some office 3000 miles away to fix and fedex my computer. Oh well, at least I will have it back, and more engrossing of our time here is a flea battle. We are going buggy with fleas. The cold weather has forced the little biters inside, where they attacked our cats. The cats have now regained to the offensive, thanks to medicine and flea collars. Now the fleas are taking refuge on me. I am considering the possibility of picking up a large dog flea collar on the way to work today. I hope I don't get too many stares!

At any rate, I moved from flea scratching to reading. Very soon, I came across a wonderful verse, Isaiah 2: 3, which reads as follows:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
Reading: Isaiah 2: 3

Meditation: When I first came to faith, it was through the direct intercession of God, and in the early days of my walk with God, I would turn day after day to God, asking for lessons. There would always be a lesson, a difficult one. The difference between learning from a human teacher and learning from God is that God knows exactly where your threshold for learning lies, exactly what your Zone of Proximal Development (to use Vygotsky's term), exactly what you should be able to do when performing at your peak. No human teacher can push you the way God does because no human teacher knows your mind, heart, emotions, motivation, and potential skill set the way God does. So many times I have had to repeat a lesson over and over until the understanding became clearer and the skills more habituated for God put before me more than I thought I could handle, yet somehow I always did handle it, however poorly at first. In my experience as a student and, for a period of time, as a teacher myself, I have never experienced a teacher like God. I guess that is why Jesus is referred to in the New Testament as "Teacher" and why, in Isaiah 2, we are told that God will teach us how to walk in His paths.

Contemplation: That is far as I can go with you this Monday morning. I now retire to private prayer to repent for the times I have tried to avoid God's lessons, to praise God for perfect way in which He knows my every capability and thought, to thank God for His willingness to keep on teaching me when I fail time after time to learn His lessons well, and to ask God to help me become a better student of His ways. Then I will move on to contemplation, my favorite part of the day, letting God take over the direction in which my relationship with Him moves.

I will leave you now to your prayer and contemplation. First, though, I would like to bring to your attention a Monday morning prayer post that you might enjoy:

Fr. Austin Fleming, priest of the Archdiocese of Boston and pastor in Concord, Massachusetts, posts a prayer each Monday morning that he calls "Monday Morning Offering." I enjoy his prayers very much. I think you also will find them inspirational. He has graciously given me permission to include a link to his blog on my Monday Morning Meditation posts. (During the week, he also posts great homilies and other thoughtful discussions. I enjoy reading those, too, as do readers of this blog who have taken the stroll over to his blog.)

For additional inspiration throughout the week, I would point out two sets of blogs: (1) the list of devotional blogs on my sidebar and (2) my blogroll, where I am following a number of inspirational priests and writers about spiritual matters. I learn so very much from all these people. I highly recommend them to you.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Techie and the Traditionalist

Today I experienced the perfect example of the techie married to the traditionalist. We heard some sirens, then I heard noises from Donnie's iPad and asked what was going on. He said he was listening to the dispatch calls to try to find out where the fire in Ignatio was. I stood up, looked out of our big living room window that overlooks the whole town, pointed to a plume of smoke and several fire engines on Fourth Street, and said, "There it is!"

(Just had to share!)

The Price of a Miracle

Here we go again with another Internet story. My sister keeps sending them, and they keep being good enough to share with others. I hope this one is true. I have seen it before, but each time I read it, it is a tear-jerker.

A little girl went to her bedroom and pulled a glass jelly jar from its hiding place in the closet.

She poured the change out on the floor and counted it carefully. Three times, even. The total had to be exactly perfect. No chance here for mistakes.

Carefully placing the coins back in the jar and twisting on the cap, she slipped out the back door and made her way six blocks to Rexall's Drug Store with the big red Indian Chief sign above the door.

She waited patiently for the pharmacist to give her some attention, but he was too busy at this moment. Tess twisted her feet to make a scuffing noise. Nothing. She cleared her throat with the most disgusting sound she could muster. No good. Finally she took a quarter from her jar and banged it on the glass counter. That did it!

"And what do you want?" the pharmacist asked in an annoyed tone of voice. "I'm talking to my brother from Chicago whom I haven't seen in ages," he continued without waiting for a reply to his question.

"Well, I want to talk to you about my brother," Tess answered back in the same annoyed tone. "He's really, really sick, and I want to buy a miracle."

"I beg your pardon?" said the pharmacist.

"His name is Andrew, and he has something bad growing inside his head. My Daddy says only a miracle can save him now. So, how much does a miracle cost?"

"We don't sell miracles here, little girl. I'm sorry but I can't help you," the pharmacist said, softening a little.

"Listen, I have the money to pay for it. If it isn't enough, I will get the rest. Just tell me how much it costs."

The pharmacist's brother was a well dressed man. He stooped down and asked the little girl, "What kind of a miracle does your brother need?"

"I don't know," Tess replied, her eyes welling up. "I just know he's really sick, and Mommy says he needs an operation. Daddy can't pay for it, so I want to use my money."

"How much do you have?" asked the man from Chicago.

"One dollar and eleven cents," Tess answered barely audible. "And it's all the money I have, but I can get some more if I need to."

"Well, what a coincidence," smiled the man. "A dollar and eleven cents -- the exact price of a miracle for little brothers."

He took her money in one hand, and with the other hand he grasped her mitten and said. " Take me to where you live. I wan to see your brother and meet your parents. Let's see if I have the miracle you need."

That well-dressed man was Dr. Carlton Armstrong, a neurosurgeon. The operation was completed free of charge, and it wasn't long until Andrew was home again and doing well. Mom and Dad were happily talking about the chain of events that had led them to this place.

"That surgery," her mom whispered to Tess, "was a real miracle; I wonder how much it would have cost."

Tess smiled. She knew exactly how much a miracle cost: one dollar and eleven cents plus the faith of a little child.

(Double-posted: 100th Lamb and Mahlou Musings.)

Friday, November 29, 2013

Sharing Sick Days with Happy Cat

Short burst of news here. I am finishing up a full week of being stuck inside, including 72 hours straight on the sofa, fighting off an upper respiratory infection. Two weeks ago, we rescued Happy Cat, a feral or, more likely, abandoned cat who had been living outside our house, when he got an upper respiratory infection. I came down with this thing soon thereafter and at the follow-up visit told the vet, jokingly, that I think I caught the cat's illness. He said, given the kind of infection it was, that it is entirely possible that this is what happened. I should have asked him for a shot; the one he gave Happy Cat worked. The cat is now well; I am not. Really thinking about a trip to the vet for me tomorrow morning!

Thankful Thursday #1: A Grateful Heart in Kiev

Since it has been a brutal day for me, having spent more than three hours on foot (taking the metro and marshrutny taxi -- the express mini-bus -- does not eliminate a lot of walking in Kiev), more time in chairs meeting with people, followed by facility tours (more walking beyond the three hours), very little down time, and limited Internet minutes, I have decided to join the Thankful Thursday crowd this week because I am thankful for so much these days. More information about two-year-old Thankful Thursday meme can be found at the website of Grace Alone. So, here is what I am thankful for today.

• In keeping with yesterday’s post, I would have to say that I am thankful again and again for all the times that God takes care of me. I have come to rely on that, whether at home or traveling the world. After all, the entire world is home to God.

• On a pragmatic level, I am grateful for the purse-size Korean hand-fan that I purchased on a whim in Korea; without air conditioning here in Kiev and with the temperatures soaring to unseasonably high levels, I am putting that little fan to good use.

• I am grateful for people who let me know when I have made their lives easier; for example, the young professor who was assigned to be my escort when I visited the university told me she did not sleep at all the night before because she was anxious about our meeting, but once she had met me, she really enjoyed the time we spent together and was quite relieved that things turned out differently from what she had worried about; a hug took away any remaining reservations.

• Of course, in recent days, I am thankful for the health of Shane and Nikolina (and even Nathaniel and Doah, who have had their small issues); we could have lost them both, but we were reprieved (once again, spoiled).

• This week I joined Face Book (under my real name) and found many old friends there, including a number of high school classmates; I also have found new friends; for every single person, I am grateful.

• We got a little bit closer to finding Ksenya this week, and I am very grateful for that.

• I had lost contact with my friend from Austria, and up she popped on my email the morning I was leaving for Ukraine and Germany; I would have been shouting distance from her and not have seen her; instead, after mass on Sunday, we are going to meet in Austria, in the Alps, just across the German border for lunch; I have not seen her for nearly ten years!

• Recently, one of my employees at a branch site became very ill (cancer) and used up all his sick leave, with no end in site; I donated two days of leave to him and asked all 400 of my employees, if they could, to follow suit with one hour or however much they could afford; the payroll clerk tells me that we got many donations (some went straight into the system without going through her so I only know about those anecdotally and some I don’t know about at all); I am very proud of my employees and very thankful for their generosity.

• In the same vein, I am pleased and grateful that nearly all the managers I supervise understand the difference between doing things right and doing the right thing and consistently choose the latter; it makes the working atmosphere so much better.

• I am also grateful that I no longer have any non-believers among the managers in my division; that was not anything I caused or planned; rather, I assume that God is spoiling me again.

• I am grateful that God intervenes in my work place, creating miracles and positioning people to help one another.

• And finally, coming back to where I started this post, I am grateful to God for being in all the strange and familiar places to which I travel so that I am never alone, never without help, and never without someone to talk to.
For what are you thankful this wonderful Thursday?

Thankful Thursday #2: A Grateful, Still Recovering, Heart at Home

Although I am still recovering from that German germ that came home with me from Garmisch and not the best things have happened this week, there is still much for which to be grateful. For example:
• Not only have I blogged this week about robberies, but two people I care about have experienced car break-ins -- in two hemispheres at almost exactly the same time. Go figure! Padre Julio Skyped me from Colombia with the information that his car had just been broken into for the second time in three months; his laptop and a computer that belongs to his school was taken as well. Then, just a little while later, I heard that the car window of my son Shane here in California had been smashed and his i-pod stolen, but $40 in cash that had been stashed away was ignored. (I think both should stop keeping electronics in their car, and I am now going to start taking our tom-tom into the house when we get home even though I live in a small and, I think, trustworthy community. I am thankful, though, that neither person was hurt, and, the robbery was to their car and not to their house. Electronics can be replaced. Of course, I am grateful for all the folks who said that they would pray for Padre Julio. Shane is having a bit of a bad year, too, but since it is darkest before the dawn, I think he will have a very rosy 2010. (Oh, yes, I have an incurable case of optimism.)

• Speaking of incurable cases, I was very, very grateful that the German medicine that I bought as I was leaving Germany worked like magic at the end of last week (before I ran out and crashed into 38 hours of nearly non-stop sleeping over the weekend), allowing me to attend the semi-formal dinner that the head of my organization threw for a very high ranking (national name recognition, but I won't name-drop here) government official held with our six senior managers. I happened to be the manager who ended up sitting across from him and had a very enjoyable dinner conversation, which I would not have been able to manage without that medicine. At the end of the evening, as everyone was shaking hands good-bye, he startled me a bit by hugging me instead of shaking my hand. (No, I was not the only woman there, but I was the only person -- male or female -- that he hugged. Dunno why.) I just said a quick prayer, "Lord, the nation needs him; please don't let me infect him." It has been almost a week, and I have not heard of any dire consequences from his brief meeting with me. Whew! Thank you, Lord!

• Earlier this week, my daughter Lizzie found Princesse, one of her two cats, flattened on the floor where a bed had fallen on her. (she and her husband are moving into a new place.) She was devastated. When she was a freshman in college, Lizzie had acquired Princesse from the US Embassy in Tunis (hence, the French name, as well as a sheaf of vet papers in French that the San Diego vet, who just happened to know French, got a kick out of reading). Princesse was slated to be turned out into the street by the new ambassador at that time, and the former deputy chief of mission, who had returned to the USA where I met her, took upon herself the task of finding homes for all the cats she had befriended while assigned to Tunis. I offered to take Princesse, but when our landlord said, "no cats," Princesse ended up in San Diego with Lizzie, Noelle, and Blaine. Lizzie had Princesse all through college and graduate school to her PhD completion, a real blessing as a source of calm during a long period of stress. Then Princesse accompanied Lizzie to New York, where Lizzie spent two years as a visiting professor at a university in New York. Now, Lizzie, Blaine, Princesse, and second cat Woody, were settling into a new home as Lizzie began a new job as a tenure-track professor at a university in South Carolina. That's when the bed fell. Lizzie and Blaine rushed Princesse to an emergency care facility in nearby Georgia, where the cat had surgery for a fractured jaw. She seems to have some brain damage -- or so Lizzie, whose specialty is brain pathology, thinks, but she is making progress. Three days ago, she began drinking water (still needs a food tube). Two days ago, she started using the litter pan by herself. Yesterday, she started wandering around the room and finding the litter pan by herself through sniffing. Today, Lizzie wrote, "She looked at me! She looked at me! And she knew me!" Yes, one must be grateful for small things, and when trauma happens, we are reminded of how important the small things are. We are praying for brave little Princesse, and we are grateful for every little bit of progress. It is exciting watching her recover, and we are grateful that she is not in pain and not on pain medication.

• I am grateful, oh, very much so, more than words can convey, that this week -- Yippee!! Praise the Lord! -- I found (i.e. re-established contact with) a work-study college student in Jordan who calls me "Mom." An Iraqi with no local family, she needed someone to talk to every time the bombs fell on the university where her father worked or EIDs exploded along Airport Road where her family lived. Typically, she would not be able to reach them when these things happened, and she would come to my office and say, "Mom, may I come in and cry for a while?" I would shut the door, and she would have some peace. Some times she wanted to talk; other times she just wanted company while she sat in silence; yet other times she really did want to cry and to be held. I kept a prayer rug for her in my office so that during prayer hours (she is Sunni) she would have a private place to pray. I met her real mother once when she came to Jordan for some medical care. She seemed to approve of me and told me how happy and relieved she was that her daughter had someone in loco parentis in Amman. I lost contact with my "daughter" about a year after I left Jordan, and when I returned last July, my efforts at tracking her down were futile. I was concerned, but I knww that God has always watched out for her. I am a very poor second to Him when it comes to ensuring her safety, health, and happiness. Nonetheless, I was delighted this week when I found her, through a mutual friend, on Facebook! We are now back in touch! Life is sweet!

For what are you thankful this wonderful Thursday?

More information about the Thankful Thursday meme can be found at the website of Grace Alone.

Thankful Thursday #5: I Love This Town

Early this evening (New Year's Eve), I arrived home after letting my employees leave early for the day. I stayed on a bit because it is only after the hundreds stream home that I have time to catch up on the introverted tasks that need to be done. (If I were to change my open-door policy, I might get more of that kind of task done during the day; however, on the other hand, it might make no difference at all because many employees think that "open door" policy means "open the door.")

The kinds of things I am dealing with at work these days, as I explained in last week's Thankful Thursday post, are highly visible and highly challenging. To build a new office with various programs, managers, and employees in other states in a matter of one month is nigh onto impossible, but there is no option to fail. The work we are doing is in direct support of the US government efforts to bring peace in place of war. God has blessed me incredibly in putting me in this job and insisting that I stay in it. Now I understand perhaps why: with my many languages and experience in working in 23 countries, including the Middle East, I can bring some expertise to the process. In return, it is such a reward to be among those watching peace develop before the rest of the world sees it. (See my post on the wonder of being in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and perhaps contributing just a tiny bit to changes in that country.)

At my office (perhaps I should say offices, since I travel from one site to another routinely), I deal with the world at large, the international scene, the big cities, the places where one often ends up alone in a crowd, where interactions and relations are highly formal and formularized. (Of course, I do have close friends in the various places where I have lived and worked and a warm working relationship with most of my employees. Nonetheless, the mindset is big picture, process, strategic thinking, and impersonal implementation of programs.)

When I come home to San Ignatio, however, I enter an entirely different life. More than being in a different world, my whole life changes. I drove off the local road entering town and turned into the parking lot where we have our only set of stores, driving past the sign at the edge of town that says "Welcome to History." That sign about sums up our town; we still speak Spanish, we still attend daily Masses at the mission, we still very simply and supportively -- or at least, that is how I imagine people lived here 200 years ago.

I parked in front of the post office, which is a small wooden building with a wooden sign -- we are too small a town to merit home mail delivery. After picking up our mail, I called Donnie to see if he would like to order dinner from Pizza Factory, which is next door to the post office, while I went into the small grocery story, The Windmill Market, a few steps across the parking lot from the Pizza Factory, to pick up some dessert and small items for tomorrow. Yes, he wanted to do that, and so he called in the order.

As I stood in line at The Windmill Market about 15 minutes later, the Pizza Factory manager, one cucumber in hand, jumped into line in front of me. "Hi, Steve," I said, yielding room to him.

"Hey, Beth," he said, "I had to run in to get a cucumber for your salad! I'll see you over there in a few minutes. Your pizza is almost done."

After I put the groceries into the car, I started down the wooden sidewalk that connects all the wooden buildings that make up our tiny shopping complex. (I purposely do not call it the town center because the town center is the Old Mission; even the fire station and city hall, such as it is, are located across from the mission -- all of it walking distance from The Windmill, or perhaps I should say that The Windmill and everything else in town, including my house, is walking distance from the mission.) Rolling down the sidewalk on a scooter was a member of the city council.

"Hi, Beth," she called to get my attention. I walked over to hug her, and we got talking about her latest plan for feral cat rescue, an interest we share. We also both are members of Old Mission church; just about everyone in town is, and Fr. Ed is as much the town's leader as is the mayor, serving as chaplain for the fire department (there is no police department -- we are so blessed as a town not to need a police force) and acquainted, it seems, with every person in town.

After finishing the conversation with the city councilwoman, I finally popped into Pizza Factory to pick up my now-ready pizza. The owner was there along with four employees.

"Hi, Beth," the owner called out.

"Happy New Year," I responded. Elizabeth, the daughter of a woman who co-teaches the First Year Confirmation catechism class at Old Mission church with me, smiled. The other two, who were in the back room and whom I know from birthday parties held at Pizza Factory and many other visits there. (Pizza Factory is the only pizza shop in town and the closest thing we have to fast food -- nope, we have no McDonald's, Burger King, or Wendy's, etc.) As I paid for the food, I handed four $5 bills to Steve, one for each of the employees for New Year's. It is a very small amount, but it goes further here than in some other places. My special tip for the Pizza Factory employees is now a New Year's tradition, and for all of us, it is the thought that counts.

The Windmill is on the south edge of time, and my house is on the north side of town. From The Windmill to my house is a one-minute drive and a ten-minute walk. The one minute, though, is wondrous this time of year. The main street lights are decked out with Christmas wreaths that look like halos at night and pictures of saints. (This year they went up in October because City Hall is being renovated and there was no place to store them. City Hall, which is a two-room building, is still being renovated, and so the decorations may stay up for some time yet. That is okay; they are part of what contributes to the feeling of holiness in this town. (My retarded son, Doah, when he first set foot in town after God clearly led me here, stopped, took assessment, and pronounced, "God here!")

As I was carrying the pizza into the house five minutes later, our next-door neighbor showed up with some apples. I thanked and hugged her. She departed as quickly as she had arrived, leaving Donnie and me to our dinner.

I love this town! I am overwhelmingly thankful to God on this Thursday for putting me here.
More information about the Thankful Thursday meme can be found at the website of Grace Alone.

Thankful Thursday #3, Escaping Evil

Some time after coming to faith, strange things started happening to me, so strange that I am reluctant to talk about them in a blog or in real life. I have mentioned them to few people although perhaps if I mentioned them to more, someone would be able to educate me about what happened. I have had a few people tell me that I had come face to face with evil, and that sends some chills through me, especially because I am an optimistic, eternally happy, trusting human being. Moreover, I am hopelessly naive despite the number of years I have lived, the amount of international experience I have garnered, the scope of academic knowledge I have gathered, and the extreme difficulties I have survived. So, it is no wonder that I had no way to interpret at least three puzzling events. (There may have been more, but besides being naive, I am also somewhat oblivious to everything around me, so it is only the great strength of the associated ambient sensation that allowed me to perceive these three.)

The first incident happened in the car as I was leaving work late one evening. I so strongly felt a presence in the back seat that I turned around. There was no one there, and yet the sense of a presence would not dissipate even when I turned on the inside car light. Hm. I had to drive home. Was this my imagination? It did not feel like it. Yet, while not being able to see anything, I felt a terrible sense of something bad, evil, negative, dark. I had a half-hour drive home alone, and I did not much like this sense of something that I could not see in the back seat. So, just in case I was not totally hallucinating, I invited the evilish thing that I could not see to join me in the front seat. "We can pray together all the way home," I told it (out loud, actually), and suddenly it was gone. I drove home with no more interference. I assumed that God had intervened, and for that, I was more grateful than words can relate.

The second incident happened on the mission grounds. I like to walk around them each evening around 9:00. Depending on the time of year, sometimes it is light outside, sometimes dark. On this evening, it was dark. On such evenings, I would spend much time in meandering prayer, and I would also take time out from my ambling to kneel at the church door and pray in earnest. This time, as I approached the church door and stood still, I felt someone standing beside me, about a half-foot taller than me (in other words, average male height). I turned to say something -- and jumped. There was no one there, just a mass of air that was darker than the surrounding air. Spooked, I walked away rapidly, stopped near the close-by rose garden, and looked back. Nothing there. Had it been my imagination? Was I losing my mind? Too much evening air? Determined that nothing was going to keep my from my evening prayer, I walked back to the church door, kneeled, and suddenly felt the dark presence beside me again. Not knowing what to do and determined to connect with God, confident that God would protect me if there was a need for protection as He always had and always does, I said my prayer, surprisingly unimpeded by my "companion," whose presence I felt until I had finished, stood up, and returned to my ambling. I did not look back as I walked away. Perhaps I should have. Suddenly, I heard a leaf crack, as if someone had stepped on it. I whirled around, but no one was there. Then, I looked at the ground, and there was a cracked leaf a few feet away where I could not possibly have stepped on it. Spooked again, at least a bit, but mostly angry and not knowing how to eliminate this "thing" from either my mind or the location (not knowing whether it was real or not -- how does one determine reality beyond a shadow of a doubt?), I shouted at it: "Whoever or whatever you are, real or in my mind, get off this land. This land is God's, and you have no right here." Just as suddenly as it had appeared, in my universe or in my mind, it was gone. I assumed that God had once again intervened, and for that, I was blessedly, relievedly grateful for my aloneness and my returning sense of sanity.

The third set of events began soon thereafter. I was traveling to many locations -- so, what is new? -- and had trouble getting rest because every night I would experience nightmares. I could never remember the details, but I knew they had been dark and frightening, demonic. Sometimes I awoke in the middle of the night from them, a strange phenomenon because throughout my abusive childhood I never once had nightmares. Throughout my difficult parenting-of-special-kids days, I never once had nightmares. Throughout my travels on rickety planes to dangerous countries with no money in my pocket, I never once had nightmares. And I did not want them now. So, I began to pray before going to sleep to God to keep any nightmares away from me, to let me dream only of Him, and He answered that prayer. I have not had a nightmare since. Nonetheless, I still ask every night, and God still gives me my request, for which I thank Him endlessly.

Truly, I am ever so grateful that these apparitions or whatever they were seem to have disappeared in recent days. I am a new convert to Catholicism, to belief of any sort. I don't know how to understand these things. I don't even know if they are related to my newfound belief, about which I am still learning. (I keep asking God for lessons, and He keeps giving them to me -- tough ones.) However, I certainly don't want any other opportunities to learn more about this dark stuff first-hand, regardless of source or what it is related to. I hope God keeps it away from me permanently so that I can at least maintain the self-illusion of being sane! For that illusion, I am grateful!

Now, if you have not written me off as hopelessly insane or the equivalent, please tell me for what you are thankful this wonderful Thursday.

More information about the Thankful Thursday meme can be found at the website of Grace Alone.

Thankful Thursday #7

Today my brother sent me a story that had been sent to him. Obviously, it originated somewhere on the Internet, but I cannot find it in order to give proper credit. Nonetheless, I will repeat because it is a perfect example of what Thankful Thursday is all about.

One day, the father of a very wealthy family took his son on a trip to the country with the express purpose of showing him how poor people live. They spent a couple of days and nights on the farm of what would be considered a very poor family. On their return from their trip, the father asked his son, "How was the trip?"

"It was great, Dad."

"Did you see how poor people live?" the father asked.

"Oh, yeah," said the son.

"So, tell me, what did you learn from the trip?" asked the father.

The son answered:

"I saw that:

- We have one dog, and they had four.

- We have a pool that reaches to the middle of our garden, and they have a creek that has no end.

- We have imported lanterns in our garden, and they have the stars at night.

- Our patio reaches to the front yard, and they have the whole horizon.

- We have a small piece of land to live on, and they have fields that go beyond our sight.

- We have servants who serve us, but they serve others.

- We buy our food, but they grow theirs.

- We have walls around our property to protect us; they have friends to protect them."

The boy's father was speechless.

Then his son added, "Thanks, Dad, for showing me how poor we are."

Isn't perspective a wonderful thing? Makes you wonder what would happen if we all gave thanks for everything we have, instead of worrying about what we don't have.
More information about the Thankful Thursday meme can be found at the website of Grace Alone.

Thankful Thursday #8

Just a brief few thoughts today about some of the many things for which I am grateful.

1. Noelle was facing possible amputation of her right leg because of a bone infection. Fortunately, a new doctor showed up on the scene a few weeks ago and pronounced that he might be able to surgically eliminate the infection (and bone?) without amputating the leg. So, Noelle was admitted with the view to saving the leg, if possible, and we were quite hopeful that we might end up with some optimistic news. As things turned out, we ended up with better than good news; we ended up quite surprised and grateful. The infection had abated sufficiently that all the doctor had to do was to insert some tubing so that the remaining infection can be pumped out over the next weeks or months. Noelle will be released tomorrow.

2. I planned to go to the hospital in a nearby city for a routine blood test (cholesterol) this morning before attending daily Mass, then dropping in to see Noelle, whose surgery was done, without our being told, a day earlier than planned, i.e. yesterday. (Given the results, we have no complaints about missing the surgery. The important thing is that the patient and doctor were both there and did not miss the surgery. I, however, missed my blood test. I forgot my paperwork, and no one was in my doctor's office to fax the order. This was after fasting for 12 hours! However, as I discussed the problem with the doctor's assistant, trying to avoid the need to drive all the way back to San Ignatio, she piped up with the information that the little part-time clinic here in San Ignatio draws blood from 8-10 on Friday mornings. I confirmed. Yes! I can go in just a little late to work and get the blood drawn here. That will save me lots of time in the future. I love it when mistakes turn out to be so helpful. That is often the story of my life, and for that I am indeed grateful.

3. Today, Lizzie (oldest daughter, then age 11), now a professor of cognitive neuroscience and psychology, put a note for her students and others on her Facebook page about the value of failure for learning lessons and becoming better. Yes! Many years ago, when she was 11 years old, she was a straight-A student, knowing nothing about failure. She excelled at whatever she touched, especially academically. Then, she and I went to Moscow for almost a year, where she studied in Russian schools. When she returned to her advanced 8th grade classroom (where students were all working in 9th grade subjects), she had six weeks of school left. Once again, she excelled at English, French, and all her social studies and science classes, as if she had never left. Two subjects, though, produced major hiccups: math and band. She had studied algebra in Moscow and was quite good at it. However, Russian students learn how to do the calculations before studying the theory, and American students study the theory first. So, she failed her theory tests, surprising the teacher when she got 100% on the only exam, the last of the year, when he introduced the topic of calculations. She had to go to summer school. As for band,she had been only introduced to the parts of the flute when we left for Moscow in October. In April, when we returned, everyone was already playing band pieces. She failed band and was told that participation in high school band was "out." The band director also advised her that holding out any dream of learning to play music was naive since she clearly had no talent for it. Off Lizzie went to summer school, studying algebra every morning, and acing all her exams. Her A from summer school replaced her F from the school year, and she was placed in the college track geometry course for her freshman year, finishing that course, too, with an A. In the afternoons, she practiced her flute. She really wanted to learn to play it, so I advertised for a tutor. A member of the Marine Corps band replied. (We were fortunate that we were living in the Washington DC area at the time.) That man was truly gifted and truly patient, with an unusual teaching style in which he had Lizzie observe him (smart man -- observation first is her learning style), then try to follow suit. By the end of the summer, not only could she play the flute, but she could play it very well. She approached the high school band director and asked to audition. He agreed, then took her into the band. During her high school years, she played flute in the school band, school orchestra, marching band, and drama club pit orchestra. When the band lost both its saxophone players at the end of her junior year, she and her best friend taught themselves to play the sax and switched instruments. At her graduation ceremony, Lizzie was presented the band's Most Valuable Player award for that year. I am grateful that Lizzie learned the value of failure. I am also grateful -- and delighted -- to see her passing the lesson that she learned as a child along to her college students of today.

For what are you grateful?

More information about the Thankful Thursday meme can be found at the website of Grace Alone.