Just call me Flo

Florence Rose Neal was born into a large and loving Norwegian family on Camano Island, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest, an idyllic spot encircled by Puget Sound and stately Douglas firs, and watched over by the distant snow crowned Olympic Mountains. Her hardworking parents spoke Norwegian and they all learned the hard language of living off the land.

flo's family copy
The Karo family. Florence is upper right.

While still a child, the family moved to Colorado where life was demanding and money was tight. At fourteen Florence went to work so her youngest sister, Peggy, could graduate from high school.

One day a handsome, young evangelist named John Neal drove up to the boarding house in Uravan, where Florence worked. He was ten years her senior, but his deep faith and snazzy new car won her heart. When John left town, the spunky and fair nineteen-year-old left with him as Mrs. John Neal, her name from then on.

John and Florence Neal 1939
Rev. and Mrs. John Neal

John was a warm hearted, charismatic man with black curly hair and dark Cherokee skin. He abandoned a lucrative career as a tool and die maker to follow his call to ministry, and for the next fifty years, Brother and Sister Neal became the spiritual force that would bring hundreds into the Kingdom in southern California, Oregon, and Washington. They had five children: John was first (after this dad was “John A” and son was “John R”) and the twins, Karon and Karl, arrived three years later. Peter and Rodney showed up twelve and fifteen years later, rather like a second family. Their ministry blossomed as the children grew. They built churches and potlucked their way into the lives of many who still cherish their commitment and uncommon hospitality.

john, flo, and kids copy
John R. standing up, the twins are on laps.

Those were the days when men were the breadwinners and made the decisions. Wives kept house, cooked, and raised their families. Pastor’s wives also ran the Women’s Missionary Society, the local PTA, sang in the choir, and made home make chicken and noodles for church dinners. If she could have played the piano, she probably would have done that, too.

Florence Neal (center) South L.A. Sunday school celebration 1951
Florence, center

Florence was the consummate pastor’s wife with her bubbly personality, outgoing hospitality, and overflowing love of people. Above all, she was a prayer warrior. She and John A., who also had a contagious, enthusiastic faith, saw many divine healings and marvelous salvation experiences. Many men and women credit the Neals with their call to ministry.

Change

As often happens, life became more complicated as the children grew up. John A. briefly changed careers and then moved into and out of a grueling pastorate unlike those of his early years. Karon and Karl had four different high schools. John R moved on. John A. and Florence maintained their pattern. An opportunity would come up and, although Florence prayed with him about it, John A. made the decisions and she followed. It wasn’t her place to question but to follow.

John, Mom, Karon, Dad, Karl, Pete, and Rod August 1965
Dave and Karon’s wedding day: back, l. to r: John R., Florence, Karon, John A., Karl; front, l. to r: Peter, Rodney

Lodi, California (where I met them all), Salem, Oregon, and then Seattle Washington ensued. There were rewarding milestones along the way as the older kids married and started having families, but pastoring was becoming more difficult and it was taking its toll. Peter and Rodney were growing up and in high school. In Seattle, Mom began working full time to revitalize a day care at the Seattle church. Frankly, she was magnificent! The day care flourished remarkably. With her eighth-grade education, state licensing could have been a problem. However, she so impressed the examiner with her know-how, administrative skills, and curriculum development that they approved her—and the Day Care—with flying colors. Meanwhile, Pastor Neal struggled with depression, frustration, and conflict within the church. Seemingly endless rain and the dismal gloom of sunless days weighed heavily on him and they returned to California. Brief pastorates followed there and in Nevada—with another declining day care for Flo to revitalize—but Dad’s age and fifty-three years of pastoring caught up with him, and they finally retired.

A second start

With minimal social security and an insignificant pension, they had to find an economical place to live with some way to earn additional income. Karl lived in Sierra Vista, Arizona, which was the perfect spot. They bought a few acres of land and set up a mobile home park that would support them. The freedom from pastoring, abundant sunshine, and the wide open spaces of the high desert brought healing. Florence (few people called her Sister Neal any more) worked as a nurse’s aide and did the bookkeeping for their business. Dad found derelict mobile homes in the classifieds and together they cleaned them up, and built porches. Dad clambered onto rooftops and repaired swamp coolers and Mom fumigated desperate appliances and restored them to a pristine and sparkling state. On Sundays Dad filled in as interim preacher. Life was good for the next few years.

John and Flo 1986 Dad's 75th birthday
John A. and Florence 1986, Dad’s 75th birthday

Failing health and bad knees eventually forced Dad off the roofs and they sold the mobile home park and moved to Tucson. This would be their last move together. Decreasing mobility from Parkinson’s disease and increasing dementia (Alzheimer’s was never formally diagnosed) crippled Dad. Mom barely escaped an emotional and physical breakdown caring for Dad, who no longer recognized her, referring to her as “that woman who works so hard.” She dressed him and made sure he always looked good. Weeks of little sleep and Dad’s unpredictable behavior pushed her to the breaking point, yet she soldiered on. It never occurred to her to find a facility where he could be cared for by professionals. She was the wife. It was her obligation. At the breaking point, she finally arranged for a hospice facility, but just one week after taking up residence there, he passed away. It was February 11, 1994. For the first time in her life, she was alone.

 Transition

For the next three years, Mom—like most widows—struggled to find herself. Profound loneliness descended upon her. She had always been Mrs. John A. Neal, and John A. was gone. Who was she? How would she survive? After a couple of years, she was floundering. Then, three years after Dad’s death, her granddaughter, Jodi, and her husband, Tom, invited her to live with them and help care for their two little boys.

TJ and Curtis 1997
T.J., left, and Curtis: 1997

It was a godsend; an important step in establishing her new identity. She had a family again and the little boys were a breath of fresh air each day.

Karon and Mom April 27, 2002
Karon and Florence at a welcome party in Anderson

In 2002 she moved across the country to Anderson, IN where we lived, and took an apartment at Harter House, a retirement community where two meals were provided and yet she had her independence. She established herself at South Meridian Church of God where we were pastors, and developed some strong friendships. During the next couple of years she became a vital and positive force in the Harter House community, but she began to realize that she was not ready for group housing and, when we moved to Columbus, Ohio as pastors at Meadow Park Church of God, she followed, renting an apartment overlooking a small lake and not far from the church.

 Just call me Flo

Columbus was a new place and Flo emerged from the ten years of becoming. It isn’t that being Mrs. John A. Neal was bad. It’s that she discovered a whole new person inside that was not tied to a profession or another person. As we introduced her to everyone at church, she responded with, “Just call me Flo!” She had been learning many things along that path. We watched in amazement as she taught us what she was learning.

It’s okay to be yourself. It’s all right to have an opinion and to voice your preferences. It’s okay to set boundaries. In fact, it’s critical to mental health. She learned to say “no” to those who would abuse her generous spirit, leaving her broke on more than one occasion. After so many years of squeezing into the role of pastor’s wife and putting the expectations of others ahead of her own needs, she chose to minister where she wanted, and not in the places others said she should. She was more than Mrs. John A. Neal now; she was Flo, pure and simple.

Not setting boundaries had almost destroyed her. Caregiving is exhausting and can be perilous. Mom’s generation grew up with a profound sense of duty, sometimes to the point of self destruction. There’s much to celebrate in this attitude, and many of us have benefited from those who have served us so faithfully. However, setting boundaries is crucial to mental and physical health, especially with loved ones. If we don’t take care of ourselves, no one will.

Mom discovered that certain things she had always done could now be done without the encumbrances of being the pastor’s wife. Her gift of teaching evolved into being an active participant in an adult Sunday school class. (She said she was too nervous to teach any more.) There she shared the spiritual lessons she had learned in a lifetime rich with experiences and wisdom. Many in the congregation benefited and grew to love her.

Always a prayer warrior, she enlarged her focus, keeping a three-ring binder jammed with handwritten requests that she jotted on bulletins and that people slipped into her purse. She especially focused on three areas: her apartment building, the youth in our congregation, and those who were discouraged or ill that could use a visit. She and a friend from church regularly visited those on the church prayer list. People began to come by her apartment for prayer, or bring others for encouragement. Over Scrabble, she counseled young mothers and new Christians. (That didn’t mean she would cut you any slack if you misspelled a word!)

Flo heard that the youth group needed counselors. She was the oldest person to volunteer! Of course, all-night lock-ins and paintball excursions were beyond her. She couldn’t sit on the floor anymore. But she could attend meetings and activities where she ate pizza and kept notes in her prayer journal. She invited some of the youth to her apartment on Sunday after church, where she had prepared special treats and introduced them to Scrabble (no doubt beating them soundly).

Her deep passion to win others to Christ was evidenced in her supreme joy of living, whether riding a roller coaster

Flo on ferris wheel Columbus, OH 2007
Flo at the Ohio State Fair

or greeting all of the employees by name at the local Kroger store. And at the bank.  And at the filling station. She felt that God was inviting her out of her comfort zone and she began to reach out to the many Asians moving into her apartment. Her unique introduction to a new resident was to take them a dish of Jell-o along with a big smile. Her bubbly personality and that Christ-filled smile overcame many a language barrier. Two young Korean men in Columbus enrolled at the Ohio State University became her adopted sons. She brought them to church and, when they graduated, was invited to the celebration dinner with their parents, who flew over from Korea (the only non-family present)! She took books to an elderly Indian neighbor who she was delighted to discover was not only a Christian but also an avid reader. All day long he had sat alone while his adult children were away at work—until Flo showed up, God’s sunshine to a stranger in a foreign land. She hosted a Bible study in her apartment and became friends with a young Japanese woman hungry for friendship. That young woman accepted Christ and later drove all the way from Cincinnati for her memorial service.

Flo, John, Karl, Karon, Pete, & Rodney 2004 60th b-day K&K 001
Flo and her five kids at Karon and Karl’s 60th birthday party; l. to r: Karl, John R., Flo, Karon, Peter, Rodney in 2004

In short, Flo, an eighth-grade graduate, a pastor’s wife with five children, a day care and preschool director who brought in educational curriculum that was the best in Seattle, a nurses’ aide in Veteran’s Hospitals, the local Florence Nightingale in her Arizona community, a beloved prayer partner to scores of people, a beloved grandma and great grandma (known simply as “Great”)—that Flo—became more passionate, effective, and loved in her eighties than most of us become in our entire lives.

December 20, 2007, was going to be a full day. She had attended two Christmas parties that week and was going to meet Karon to attend a third. But she never arrived. On the way she had a heart attack that allowed her to slow down, steer off the road, miss fire hydrants, cars, and telephone poles, and come to a stop on the grass across from the church where she stepped into heaven at the age of 86. At her memorial service, just three years after arriving in Columbus, over 250 stayed after the service for a potluck dinner (several brought Jell-o in her honor) where they took two hours at the open mike telling what she had meant to them. One gentleman concluded by saying, “Life is best when you ‘go with the Flo!”

“The world has yet to see what God can do with a man fully consecrated to him” is attributed to the great evangelist Dwight L. Moody, who lived his life with the goal of seeing what God could do if he were totally committed to him. Some of us were blessed to witness God’s light shining through another committed person: a woman named Flo, who wanted nothing more than to be a witness for Christ. And to win at Scrabble.

Flo Christmas 2006
Flo  at Christmas 2006

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Becoming Ageless, or the Purpose of Aging

Are you fascinated with how people age? I am. A popular Internet feature called, “Where Are They Now?” features photos of show business legends when we knew them and as they look now. Usually the changes are dramatic. After fifty years, some people are unrecognizable. Others look almost the same. Why is that?

Henry Winkler before and after
Henry Winkler as “the Fonze” on “Happy Days” and in 2015

Well, there’s genetics, skin tone, and, with the complexity of the human body, multitudes of reasons for this. Ultimately, does it matter? Some say yes. They feel that their looks are too important to allow nature to take its course, which explains the surging worldwide phenomenon of cosmetic surgery and why Hollywood stars seem almost ageless.

But only for a while. Clearly, growing old is inevitable. Our bodies were never intended to live forever. Have you noticed that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead once, but not twice? Lazarus died like the rest of us will. It’s inescapable.

The question is not “How can you look good as long as you live?” but “What can you learn about being truly ageless?” Being ageless is a matter of the spirit, not the body.

Becoming ageless

Becoming ageless is the exact opposite of looking as young as you can for as long as you can. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take care of yourself or that you should dress sloppily. Rather, we must change our focus from the physical to spiritual. Dr. Paul Brand, trail-blazing hand surgeon who did groundbreaking work with lepers in India, was son of missionaries. Long after most people would have retired, his parents stayed on in India. And, after his father died, his mother flatly refused to move back to England and take up residence in “one of those graveyards for old people,” remaining until her death in a remote village in India where she continued her loving work among those to whom she had given her life. In later years, she disliked how she looked as she grew older and so she removed all the mirrors from her house so she could concentrate on her beloved villagers. They never saw an “old person,” but only a woman alight with Christ’s love and the Holy Spirit who lived with them until she was finally carried out on a stretcher. She clearly was ageless.

How vastly different from those around the world today who are obsessed with appearance: looks, and above all, a carefully crafted public image. Was there ever a time when more people spent more time creating a facade that they think will impress people but which is, in fact, far from reality? Besides the political and entertainment personalities who do this, don’t many of us put pictures and information on Facebook and Twitter that we think will impress people? Not to mention dating sites, where 10% of dating profiles have been determined as fake, particularly from men.[1]

I am trying to pay less attention to the way I am aging, but I confess that I am way too aware of my wrinkles and loss of muscle tone. It’s vanity, plain and simple, and I’m working to shift my focus. This is what God is telling me: He chisels away our mortality so we can reveal his image. This has to do with aging, healing, sickness—everything. The purpose of aging is to abandon the physical. When we expend Herculean effort to look young and vibrant, we miss the purpose of aging, which is spiritual vitality. Have you considered that feebleness is really a gift?  We are given youth only long enough to learn that our bodies are not the place to invest.  The death rate is 100%.

As a pastor I was sometimes given a window into the true nature of the physical. I watched a beautiful young woman in her late twenties decline shockingly from aggressive cancer. As her abdomen swelled with the virulent malignancy, her muscle tone and body fat elsewhere was cannibalized by the awful disease until she became skeletal and almost unrecognizable. Just as extraordinary, however, was the spiritual growth that blossomed within her ravaged body. When I saw her just before her death, I could not hide my immediate dismay at her awful appearance. She smiled and said, “It’s okay, Pastor. I’m abandoning this house very soon for one that is both perfect and eternal.” She glowed with an inner light that moves me even now as I recall that sacred moment. I could almost see the exchange taking place as her spirit outgrew and displaced her body.  I have never forgotten this moment when the true nature of physical life was laid bare before me.

God makes everything new.

In the film The Passion of the Christ Jesus says to his mother on his way to Golgotha, “I am making everything new.” These words of Christ actually come from Revelation 21:5, although I found them deeply moving and fitting during this scene. It is the risen, glorified, and resplendent Christ who explains heaven in John’s vision.   This is not just an overhaul, or a sprucing up of things that need repair. No, this is absolutely new, never before witnessed creation, just like at the beginning of time. In this way Time Works Backwards.[2] All the way back to Genesis before the fall. Unspoiled. Unpolluted. Untouched by sin. Forever beyond the ravages of time, because time will be gone. Forgiveness, grace, acceptance, and healing will have finally and completely accomplished their purpose. And we will have a new body, not a clumsy remake!

“My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20).

“Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven….Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth.  For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3).

[1] https://blog.siftscience.com/2016/what-percentage-of-dating-profiles-are-fake/

[2]  Phrase from The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis

The Truth about Getting Old

“You’re not old, grandma, not really old!”  One woman’s five-year-old granddaughter comforted her about turning 65 and, holding her face in her hands, assured her that she really was still a valuable person.  Getting old is a problem if even little children don’t want you to become an old person. Why?  Where does a little child get the idea that old is bad?

Today when our youth oriented society hears “old,” they immediately conjure up images of incontinence and vacant-eyed Alzheimer’s patients. It seems that most everyone in this country associates getting old with bad things: poor health, deteriorating appearance, being dependent on others, and even irrelevance. “In the workplace, if you reach a certain age, you’re getting a message that you really should get out of the way, make room for younger people, and at the same time, getting a message that you’re a burden on society if you do.”[1] It is almost to the point that to refer to someone as “old” is offensive.  And we do not like to talk about dying. But that’s another blog.

Did you ever think about being old when you were young? I never did. That happened to someone else, like my parents. Mostly I never even thought about it. It was at my fiftieth birthday party that the “old” jokes started coming out. We all laughed when somebody gave me an application for AARP. It was hilarious that I was given a cane with a horn on it. Other gifts were a magnifying glass, a nose hair trimmer, a couple of quarts of prune juice, and a box of Depends. This was all good-natured fun and we loved it.

But now–suddenly, (if you can call two decades “suddenly”)—here I am, almost 72. Now, don’t immediately jump to my defense and say, “That’s not old!” It’s okay. However, my body and mind are undergoing something big, and I want to talk about it.

I have found myself woefully unaware of the profound effects aging can have. On top of that, I am surprised about how intensely these changes affect me when I thought it would be “no big deal.” And, if I fulfill my parents’ genetic legacy, I’m just a novice at aging with decades still to go.

Growing old: the bad news.

  • Aging changes your body, like it or not.

I used to think, when looking at my parents, “Why do they look so sad all of the time?”  Now I see those same expressions on my face! It was not sadness, disapproval, or anger. It was gravity! We praise those who, like actress Cicely Tyson, are still starring in Broadway shows at 90, but the truth is most of us will not be this vigorous at 90, even if we exercise, eat right, and keep a great attitude. Our bodies wear out, period. We wear out at different rates and from different things, but we do wear out. Genetics deals each of us a different hand when it comes to aging. I hope that you’re in the majority of the population who do not have arthritis. However, neither Karon nor I can wear the shoes we used to because our feet hurt too much. Your hair may be white but your face is still smooth. My hair may still be mostly brown, but my face looks like a road map.

We find our list of doctors growing to include urologists, ophthalmologists, cardiologists, rheumatologists, and, for some, oncologists. Our shopping trips now take us to aisles at Walmart we never expected to be in. We look around, embarrassed, when we select Depends Shields, “for drips and dribbles.” (I can imagine the young graphic artist who designed this package rolling his eyes. He never imagines that he, too, will need such things.) We ask people to speak to our left side because that’s our good ear. And why does everyone mumble these days?

The Mayo Clinic suggests that we can expect these changes as we grow older: your cardiovascular system, your bones, joints, and muscles, your digestive system, your bladder and urinary tract, and your memory.[2]

  • Aging can change your mind, like it or not.

Most of us older people have moments when we can’t remember where they put our keys or forget or confuse people’s names. Like the two couples below…

Two elderly couples were enjoying friendly conversation when one of the men asked the other, “Fred, how was the memory clinic you went to last month?”

“Outstanding,” Fred replied. “They taught us all the latest psychological techniques, like visualization, association, and so on. It was great. I haven’t had a problem since.”

“Sounds like something I could use. What was the name of the clinic?”

Fred went blank. He thought and thought, but couldn’t remember. Then a smile broke across his face and he asked, “What do you call that flower with the long stem and thorns?”

“You mean a rose?”

“Yes, that’s it!”

He turned to his wife, “Hey Rose, what was the name of that memory clinic?”

Some normal, mild memory loss comes to almost all of us with aging, but many will face more serious cognitive impairment, dementia, or Alzheimer’s. (My mother died of Alzheimer’s.)

  • Aging robs us of family, friends, and independence.

According to the U. S. Census Bureau, 800,000 people in the US are widowed each year. 87% of those are women. Loss of a spouse is ranked as the number one stressor. 60% of these widowed (men and women) will experience a serious illness such as cancer, shingles, or heart disease in the twelve months following that loss.[3] In addition to this there is an increased likelihood that a recently widowed person will die (between 30% – 90% in the first three months and around 15% in the months thereafter). This is one of the best documented examples of the effect of social relations on health.[4]

cw-shultz
My Mom and Dad, Clair and Retha Shultz in 1999. He died in 2003.

The loss of independence is extremely difficult. I remember someone called me after church one Sunday and said, “Dave, I followed your parents home from church today and your Dad was all over the road.” Not only that, but he was parking half on and half off the curb. More frightening was the thought of the accidents that might happen. We finally had to insist that my Dad relinquish his driver’s license.

As he entered the nineties, my Dad struggled with a deep sense of irrelevance. Not only was his car gone, but so were his study and woodworking shop, two places that defined him. Then his mind began to fail, as did his ready wit. When I look in the mirror I see my Dad’s wrinkled face looking back at me. I am trying to prepare myself for these contingencies.

  • Age can diminish spiritual vitality.

The Bible talks a lot about age and offers many examples of people who maintained or lost spiritual vigor. Notable is King Solomon: “As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been” (1 Kings 11:4 (NIV).

Dan Davis, a Lifeway author, writes[5]: “Notice how this verse does not begin. It does not begin ‘When Solomon was young and imploring the Lord for wisdom’ or ‘When Solomon had just completed building the temple….No, it begins ‘When Solomon was old.’”

Worldliness, you see, creeps in slowly….it sits down and talks like a friend. Worldliness does not, at first, talk to you about bad things. It just talks to you about…things. Before long trivia fills your mind. Television programs, games, and doctors’ appointments become the focus of your days. And slowly, the eyes of your heart become heavy, start to close, and eventually you fall asleep. You stop reading the Bible, stop praying, and stop thinking about God. And that was Solomon’s undoing. Solomon was still smart, but he lost his focus and abandoned his first love.

Constructive responses to growing old.

 Even in the face of such daunting statistics, we can face the future with hope and joy. David Roper in Our Daily Bread [6] observes, “Old age does not have to focus on declining health, pining over what once was. It can also be full of tranquility and mirth and courage and kindness, the fruit of those who have grown old with God.”

  • The human spirit can transcend difficulty.

ree-glamor-shot-2005
My Mom, Retha Shultz, posing for a “glamour shot” at 90. Mom lived until she was 97.

I am blessed with stellar examples of this upbeat and give confidant attitude. My Mom used to say that “old” was one decade beyond wherever she was. She meant by this that she would not let a fatalistic and downcast mindset overtake her.( You can read her story here: That was then. This is now.)

flo-on-ferris-wheel-columbus-oh-2007
My mother-in-law, Flo Neal, riding the Ferris wheel at the Ohio State Fair in 2006, the year before she died at 1986.

My mother-in-law, Flo Neal, became noticeably more vibrant in her eighties. She refused to allow pain or handicaps to limit her. In fact, we didn’t know almost until her death that she had terrible pain in her legs from peripheral arterial disease. Until the day she died, at 86, she disciplined herself to reach out to her neighbors and friends, many of whom still testify to her dynamic spiritual impact.

  • This body is just our temporary home. Our spirits are eternal.

Paul’s illuminating words underscore this essential truth. “God, who first ordered ‘light to shine in darkness’, has flooded our hearts with his light….This priceless treasure we hold, so to speak, in a common earthenware jar—to show that the splendid power of it belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:6-7, J.B. Phillips). We must remember every morning that our fragile and transient bodies are but a short-lived residence for our spirits, which are unconquerable!

David Roper, who I quoted above, must use a walker because of peripheral neuropathy. “I’m trying to learn, however, that my limitation, whatever it may be, is a gift from God, and it is with this gift that I am to serve Him….Seeing our so-called liabilities this way enables us to go about our business with confidence and courage. Rather than complain, feel sorry for ourselves, or opt out, we make ourselves available to God for His intended purposes”[7]

  • Being active can vastly improve the years we do have.

helen-karon-and-dave-90th-b-day-june-2012
Karon, Helen, and I in Seattle at her 90th birthday party in 2012. She’s still going strong!

Medical science continues to discover how vitally important exercise is for the human body, no matter how old you are. Helen Flynt, my adopted mother, now in her mid-nineties, still walks three miles a day, a longstanding practice that surely contributes to her energetic schedule. In a recent email, she told me that, “I try to limit activities to two a day, if possible” (in addition to walking, of course). She also attends special events, such as a Regional minister’s meeting, a three-day affair in Portland (she lives in Seattle), a Mariner’s baseball game, and regularly is involved in weekly church functions and monthly interest groups, such as Quilter’s Anonymous. Until a year or so ago she also was in the Senior Swingers Orchestra that performed several concerts a year, but she dropped out because “it was taking too much time for rehearsals and programs.” I am exhausted just contemplating this schedule.

Obviously, Helen’s energetic lifestyle is beyond many of us, but we all can exercise, even if it’s only walking regularly. Karon and I play tennis three times a week. Don’t imagine us leaping across the courts with tanned and muscular bodies. No, but we do play doubles with other seniors, a great way to enjoy the sport when your joints complain. Most in our group are old hands at joint replacements, cataract surgeries, and back surgeries like mine. As beneficial as the exercise is the hour and a half we spend laughing three times a week. The point is to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. Move, move, move. Your body is built for exercise.

  • Our spiritual life is capable of endless growth and enrichment!

Even as our bodies weaken, our spirits can blossom as never before. I love this promise from Psalm 92:12-15

But the godly will flourish like palm trees
and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon.

For they are transplanted to the Lord’s own house.
They flourish in the courts of our God.
Even in old age they will still produce fruit;
they will remain vital and green.

They will declare, “The Lord is just!
He is my rock!
There is no evil in him!”

Many of us are still busy with activities, travel, and hobbies. Even in retirement it is easy to let time for Bible reading and prayer slip away. How tragic if now, with flexible schedules, we slide God and His Word to the back burner. This is why illnesses, pain, and difficulties can be our friends, because they make us realize our need for constant connection with God.

arlyne-wells
Arlyne Wells (taken from her Facebook page in 2016)

Arlyne Wells was in a dreadful automobile accident twenty-four hours after her high school graduation in 1989. Left a quadriplegic for the past twenty-seven years, she exudes an outgoing positive attitude and daily uses her Facebook page to post uplifting and positive scriptures and quotations. She has a great sense of humor. She surely faces constant and enormous physical and emotional challenges, disappointments, and pain, yet she chooses to invest her time by cultivating her relationship to God and encouraging others. This focus allows her to keep upbeat and optimistic rather than allow her handicaps to defeat and discourage her. Arlyne is not old but she is facing many challenges typical of old age. She is doing it with grace and a growing spiritual vitality born of her strong will and intention to help others.  I want to do this.

[1] Laura Carstensen @ http://www.npr.org/2016/02/06/465819152/times-have-changed-what-should-we-call-old-people

[2] See the full article here http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/healthy-aging/in-depth/aging/art-20046070  This article also suggests the best ways to stay as healthy as possible.

[3] http://www.widowshope.org/first-steps/these-are-the-statistics/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2636447/

[5] http://www.gospelproject.com/2013/01/07/creeping-worldliness/

[6] “ Red Hackle,” Our Daily Bread, September, October, November 2016, November 27, Our Daily Bread Ministries, PO Box 2222, Grand Rapids, MI 49501-2222

[7] Ibid. “This Gift.”

Incredibly insightful and hilarious observations about recovery from major surgery.

In the hospital:

  • Make sure and have someone take a picture of you immediately after surgery while you’re still pain-free from that marvelous anesthesia and you haven’t seen the hospital food yet. You won’t look that good again for weeks. (RANT: By the way, why don’t they give you that anesthesia for pain when you’re banging shamelessly on the “nurse” button and when she toddles in an hour later and says cheerfully, “Here’s some Tylenol for you, dearie.” Tylenol is as useful as a mint-flavored suppository.)
  • Do not put your best foot forward or put on a cheerful grin and say you’re doing great. They will believe you and send you home within the hour, still hooked up to your catheter and IV bags.
  • Don’t be a hero when you use the handy dandy hand-held urinal for the first time. Throw your fuddy-duddy inhibitions to the wind and ask for help, or you’ll wish you had. (And it takes a loooooong time for them to change the bed.)
  • Remember that Murphy’s Hospital Laws are in full effect:
    • Murphy’s Hospital Law #1: your dazed, bleary-eyed drooling is in direct proportion to the importance of the visitors who have just come to see you (like Pastor Jeff and Robyn).
    • Murphy’s Hospital Law #2: there will be a mix-up on the scripts they send you home with. (Two surgeries and we’re batting one thousand.) When you call to get the right script, the joyful voice on the voice mail assures you that when will return your call within 24 hours. Translate this, “some time before Jesus comes.”
    • Murphy’s Hospital Law #3: the script you finally get is not covered by your insurance and costs $375 for thirty days.

At home:

  • Get used to the jazzy, new look of old people after back surgery:
  1. You will have permanent, tractor tire-like indentations in your hair and skull from using your CPAP machine not only at night but also for two naps each day.
  2. Your knee-high white compression socks add a lovely fashion statement when combined with your silky black basketball shorts.
  3. Have you ever noticed old people have coffee and ice cream stains on their shirts? Behold, stains are us!
  • Tips for showering. When you have graduated from your walker to your cane for everyday use, leave the walker in the shower to use as hand rails. Yep, it’s nifty.
  • Keep your grabber handy for when you drop things in the shower. However, if you drop the bar of soap, call in the troops because you will run out of hot water before picking up that slippery son of a gun.
  • Keep your grabber handy all of the time, period. I have successfully used it to retrieve apples from the fruit drawer in the refrigerator, a box of oatmeal from a high shelf, and countless other things. However, Karon doesn’t like it when I substitute it for a tender pat on the behind.

The Things of Home

 

It was an old 78 rpm record that contained one of my favorite stories. I still can hear the lovely voice of Loretta Young tell the heartwarming tale, “The Littlest Angel,” about a four-year old boy who doesn’t quite fit into heaven because there’s simply “nothing for a little boy to do.” The Understanding Angel takes the cherub onto his lap, wipes his tears, and asks what he misses most. At the end of the story we find that it was the ordinary but irreplaceable things of home: a butterfly with golden wings, captured one bright summer day on the high hills above Jerusalem, a sky-blue egg from a bird’s nest in the olive tree that stood to shade his mother’s kitchen door, two white stones from a muddy river bank where he and his friends had played like small brown beavers, and a tooth-marked leather strap, once worn as a collar by his mongrel dog, who loved him with absolute devotion. The box containing these simple things was the littlest angel’s gift to the Christ Child and the gift that pleased God most.

I know it’s only a fanciful tale, but I think the author, C. Tazewell, understood how God values the things we treasure since they bring us joy, and since the cherub’s simple gift contained the very things the little boy Jesus would also play with when he wandered the Galilean hills.

joyful Hummel figureSeveral months ago, our daughter walked over to our china cupboard and opened the door. There sits “Joyful,” a small Hummel figure of a girl playing her guitar, her legs straight out before her. Jodi said, “When I see this figure, I know I’m home.” Joyful was an engagement present to Karon and me long before Jodi was born and she has never known our home without it. How is it that this little piece of pottery can evoke such powerful feelings? It is one of the “things of home.”

The familiarity of furnishings and objects warm our hearts. In many cases, items in our home have stories behind them. Just like “Joyful” suggests home to Jodi, seeing a picture or item immediately reminds us of a good period in our lives, a beloved friend, or an event that symbolizes something, like our marriage.

My things of home

Right now I’m sitting at my desk where I write, read the Bible (on my computer), pray, design greeting cards, and connect with the world. My desk itself is a sterile IKEA piece that’s cheaply made. But the objects on and around it make it “home.”

bookHolding the computer monitor one and a half inches higher (so I can sit properly) is the “Better Homes and Gardens Complete Guide to Gardening.” I haven’t used it in more than a decade and its most useful function now is that of a block. But seeing it there each day transports me back to the Midwest where I pored through its beautiful pages, reaped landscaping ideas, and sought answers for marauding Japanese beetles. Its beautifully photographed pages are bright in my mind’s eye.

karon and other photosPhotographs, of course, are of my beloved wife and family. My kids and their spouses smile at me from a Florida restaurant where we celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary. Karon’s smile lights the room, the trilogy of photos taken for her mother when Karon was a teenager. For fifty years that smile has lifted and blessed me more than she knows.

Chinese lampA Chinese carving of an old man that my father fashioned into a one-of-a-kind lamp casts a warm pool of light. My parents purchased this carving in Trinidad, our onetime home in the British West Indies, and it has been a part of my childhood home ever since I can remember. Just to see it ignites wonderful memories: smells of curry wafting in the evening air, exotic flowers in the yard, and sultry breezes billowing mosquito nets at bed time.

The red, white, and blue afghan was lovingly crocheted for us by Helen Ford, church secretary at South Bay Church of God in Torrance, California where we entered the ministry as youth and music ministers. She and her husband, Frank, were wonderfully supportive toward us, and even loaned us the down payment for a car!

pencil holderSome other sentimental things surround me: a coaster made by Kimmi Lyon, my granddaughter; while a graphics major at AU; a pencil holder with an inset photo of Curt, my grandson, sitting on my shoulders at Disney World. (He now is 22, an engineer, a weight lifter, and engaged to be married.);  and a beautiful hardwood chiming mini-grandfather wall clock, a farewell gift from North Anderson Church of God after completing a nine-year pastorate.

M&J StitcheriesElsewhere in the house are a cross stitch of two ducks made by my mother when I was a boy, some needleworks made and given by my two daughters when they were young, and many more family photos.

Karon’s Things of Home list is mainly photographs of family and our piano, given to her while she was in high school by her Mom and Dad, John and Flo Neal.

What are your favorite things? I’m not talking about food, music, or sports, but rather the simple, little things that make you feel at home.

Is it wrong to enjoy things?

Sometimes we may almost feel guilty for feeling such affection for “things” when the Bible tells us to treasure things in heaven and not of this earth. However, don’t you think that being comforted by things is far different than worshiping and hoarding them, as misers do? I do. I can easily imagine how wonderfully it comforted Jesus—with no home of his own—to stay with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. I can see him taking a nap in the back of the house while the ladies fixed dinner, awakening to the marvelous fragrance of baking bread and the sound of clinking dishes down the hall as they set the table. The dour Pharisees criticized him for attending banquets, but Jesus didn’t care because he enjoyed life. I’ll bet he knew a few good jokes, and we know he attended wedding receptions since He provided more wine when the host ran out. He was a human as we are human, and gave us the faculties to appreciate the beauty of His world and the comforts it provides. He strolled the beautiful Judean hills ablaze with wildflowers and surely took pleasure in the singing of birds at sunset. As God He rebuked the wind and the waves, but as a man he needed a cushion to sleep on in the back of the boat.

As we grow older we must downsize, which means ridding ourselves of things we no longer need. My parents had a house, attic, and two sheds full of things when they finally made the plunge to sell the house and move into something smaller. What was hardest for them to relinquish were their many souvenirs from around the world. They were flabbergasted that others placed no value on their Indian and African artifacts. Even after we children and grandchildren took our favorites, many were given to a local charity. Wisely, Mom and Dad kept their favorites; a couple of these stayed with them through two more downsizings until the end. That’s the way it is with the things of home. What has value to one is unimportant to another. How could it be otherwise? Yet they have inestimable value.

The gentle ticking of a clock and the faded photo of a young couple on their wedding day speak to us of home, where we are at peace and can shut out the madding, noisy world. To wake up in the morning among familiar, timeworn surroundings and to have those we love greet us with a friendly gaze: these are true riches. We can easily let go of a big house as long as the accommodations into which we move have space for a few favorite reminders of the wonderful life we have lived.

If you are a caregiver for the elderly, inquire about their things of home. Make sure some familiar belongings accompany them to a new apartment or facility where everything may be strange and intimidating.

Does God have favorite things?

You and I are the “things of home” to God. The Bible brims with the story of God and His desire for honest companionship. Eden in its incredible, pristine beauty was created for one reason: as a beautiful home for the ones He loved. When careless behavior and selfishness sabotaged and destroyed that plan, God found a way to salvage the original dream that flowed longingly from his big heart. His astounding self-sacrifice restores to us and to God the chance to be together and to have loving, honest companionship. He keeps us and will take us with him forever!

CW & Ree 1938
Claire and Retha Shultz, around 1938

This old song was my Mother’s favorite. She and Dad—in their younger days— often sang it as a duet.

My God And I [1]

Austris A. Wihtol and I.B. Sergei

 My God and I go in the field together;
We walk and talk as good friends should and do;
We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter;
My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue.

My God and I will go for aye together,
We’ll walk and talk just as good friends do;
This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,
But God and I will go unendingly.
[1] © 1935 New Spring (Admin. by Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc.)

 

Letting Go

letting go
Seven days ago was that perfect day gardeners dream about: sunny, a light breeze, time on my hands, and work that needs to be done. This is what I love and have always loved. I remember even as a child the satisfaction of sweeping dead leaves from the sidewalk and weeding flower beds so they look better. The love of growing things and landscaping yards has been my hobby for as long as I can remember. I have scoured plant catalogs for days as spring approached and woefully discovered that what arrives in the email rarely bears even a slight resemblance to the bountifully blooming plant pictured on those pages. Nevertheless I persevered: fertilizing, spading, weeding, and planting. I drew landscaping diagrams on graph paper and witnessed the circles and lines transform into flowering crab apple trees and beds of brilliant tulips. I wore out wheelbarrows and shovels and frequented local nurseries so much they knew me by name. I designed pergolas in California and rock gardens in Arizona. And I loved every minute of it.

Seven days ago Karon also answered the gardener’s call and tackled a project that involved moving rocks, a furniture dolly, and a wheelbarrow. Not that long ago I would have been the one moving rocks and wheeling them to a new spot with the furniture dolly. Seven days ago, not so much. Work like that now disables me for several days and so, much to my chagrin, I step aside and let Karon do the “big” jobs. Instead, on that perfect day, I settled for a less arduous task of trimming last fall’s dead foliage out of the planter and around the bird feeders. I felt the warm sun on my shoulders and listened to the house finches fussing over the sunflower seed in the feeder. My favorite music was playing from Pandora in my back pocket. Yes, it was a glorious day. In about an hour I had filled up the trash can and slowly stood to view my handiwork. Yup, it looked great!

The next morning it was hard to stand up and I reached for my cane. Burning pain accompanied those familiar aches in my back and down my legs. It subsided long enough for some tennis with friends, but by afternoon I knew that my evening plans would not materialize. Karon went to the church dinner without me. My pain sidelined me from our Sunday service, too. Odd, sitting home on Sunday morning.

 

A Painful Realization

Later, as I sat reading the Bible and writing in my journal, I sensed that another milestone was arriving that I don’t want to acknowledge: soon I am going to have to give up gardening. I can hardly even write these words because it’s inconceivable to me that this day may be near. But I’m afraid it is.

As we age we start saying “goodbye” more and more often. The children grow up and leave home. The grandchildren grow up, too, and get married. We retire and leave meaningful work we loved. We sell the house and downsize, probably the first of other such moves. We attend more funerals than weddings. We adapt to hearing aids and patronizing strangers. We catch a look at our reflection in the Walmart window and see our father or mother instead, stooped and wearing big tennis shoes. Can that be us? Yes. I’m afraid that very few of us look like the “vibrant” older adults on the cover of AARP magazine.

Socrates quote

I’m learning that letting go is part of aging: we must let go of the demand that everyone agrees with us, looks like us, or thinks like us. We must let others—even our children and grandchildren—be themselves. I must let go of my perfectionism. (I know, I know. But it’s so hard when everyone needs my advice and so many pictures need straightening.) I must let go of things that are not good for me, and now—sadly–that includes some of my favorite things.

Many people—some not that old—face difficult change. Even children cope with cancer, cystic fibrosis, autism, and their parents’ divorce. Thousands face eviction, evacuation, or the catastrophic loss of life and limb in natural disasters and war. If we don’t die first, we will all grow old.

Our national and world situations seem worse than ever, and there is a lot of discontent these days on the Internet:  people rail at change and post online about being “mad as hornets” about this and that. I admit that I am disgusted along with the psalmist who pleaded to God, “Don’t let liars prosper here in our land” (Psalm 140:11). I fear America no longer even faintly resembles the America I know and love, and the majority of voters share neither my ideals nor my hopes. Every generation faces similar wars, losses, and personal disappointments.

If all we get from disappointment and aging is bitterness and anger, are we not missing the most fertile years of our life to become like Christ? We can learn to face loss without becoming resentful. We can learn to accept change without blaming others or God.

 

Good from Loss

I remember hearing a missionary friend once tell me that his life had been characterized by lots of goodbyes: goodbye to friends, favorite restaurants, familiar neighborhoods, and family. But he went on to say that he discovered there also were many hellos: new friends, new foods, and new things to appreciate. Maybe we can learn to look for hellos: more time for reading, perhaps; or more time to pray. Some may face the frightening prison of Alzheimer’s disease, but most of will always be able to pray. God is endlessly creative and has the knack for making things out of nothing. (Read Genesis.) Cannot He create fresh ideas in our aging minds and bring us to refreshing discoveries about transferring our reliance from what we have lost to what we still have; and ultimately to God alone?

We must learn to let go. These are the years to get rid of our controlling demands and our stubborn wills. Have you ever thought that anger is a demand? These are the years to take time—we have plenty of it—to cherish others and find ways to encourage them and help them to feel good about themselves. These are the years to finally study the Bible and ask God to reveal himself to us in different ways. Now is the time to learn contentment and to accept—with joy—what each day offers.

Perhaps every generation is surprised by aging. Even though we as children have seen our pet turtles and goldfish die and, more recently, our parents fail, it’s a shock when we are the ones who hurt every morning and walk everywhere with aching feet. Perhaps being forced to let go is God’s way of gently forcing us to prepare for the transition from a physical world to one of the spirit, from being independent to interdependent to dependent.

let go and let God copy

Last year one of my first blogs was about my mother’s transition from life to death and her phrase,” That was then. This is now.” My mistake was thinking it was easy.

 

Parenting: the Forgotten Years

2015-09-14 18.09.14-4Our daughter, Jodi, was here for a couple of days of R&R from her crazy, busy life in Chandler as a nurse in a pediatric critical care unit. She loves to come and flake out, get up late, eat the food she remembers from her childhood, and spend long hours visiting, looking at the mountains, and sharing how God is working in her life. I mentioned that I was working on a blog about parenting but that I wasn’t sure who would read it since most of my Facebook friends, the largest audience for my blogs, are long past child-bearing years. She stared at me and said, “So parenting stops?”

As I’ve thought about it, I now realize that parenting not only never stops, parenting adult children has become a lost art in our society in which nontraditional families flourish and generations live miles apart. These “forgotten years of parenting” actually corroborate for your adult children everything you told them as they were growing up. In fact, the same actions, traditions, and practices that were important to your children as they were growing up are even more important to your adult children and grandchildren. In other words, they need you now more than ever. They need to know that you are who you said you were all those years. Tremendous security emanates from dependable people and we all need such people in our lives. How wonderful to be those people for our children.

They still need your approval

Adult children don’t need to be told what to do but they need to know that you love them and believe in them. You can never tell anyone too much that you love them. They need to hear from you often. They still need you to take an active interest in their lives and families.

When our son, Jon, was in Little League, Karon used to sit in the stands and yelled at him to pay attention, to watch the ball (when he was batting) and to watch the batter (when he was on the field.) Mostly, however, she yelled, “That’s my boy!” Years later she yelled, “That’s my boy!” when he was in pilot school and took off in his F16, and again when he graduated from the USAF Academy. She doesn’t yell that particular phrase much these days, but she says it in many other ways every time they talk on the phone or text.

Understand that your relationship has changed.

Now you and your children are adults. We don’t want them treating us like children, and you must no longer treat them like children, correcting their behavior or controlling their friendships. We must respect our children as we respect any other adult and wait for them to invite us to give our opinions. If we blatantly disagree with their living patterns and act like they don’t have a brain in their heads, we will only distance them and will eventually drive them away.

Karon is a master at treating our children like adults. For example, when watching our grandchildren (when they were small), she always kept open communication with their parents about their preferences in disciplining and training them. Then she supported that behavior. She never corrected their discipline or the things they did, and would never have even dreamed of correcting them in front of their own children. When our kids did ask her for advice, she was happy to offer it.

Set and keep boundaries.

We all do better when someone expects us to be our best. We act better when someone is watching and caring about us. However, sometimes parents of adult children still have a reason to “Direct your children onto the right path, and when they are older, they will not leave it” (Proverbs 22:6). A dear friend of ours struggled with her youngest child who, partly because of unfortunate physical issues, got the short end of the stick in life. However, as an adult he consistently made bad choices, chose bad friends, and developed bad habits. Even after he got married he called her to bail him out. She didn’t want to believe that those were the only times he called until we pointed it out to her. She so desperately wanted him to be happy that she enabled his irresponsible behavior, repeatedly sending him money when she could not afford it, and even buying tires for his car. What he needed from her was for her to say, “Enough!” which she finally learned to say. This story still has not had a happy ending. Ultimately we learn that our children make their own lives and we must accept it.

Love them unconditionally.

Life is hard and sometimes our adult children choose people and habits that make life harder. While we must set boundaries, the most important thing we can do is to love our children unconditionally. This does not mean we do whatever they ask or condone wrong behavior, but it does mean that we never withhold our love. Sometimes –rarely, thank God—extreme circumstances dictate that, for our own safety, we must totally cut off a relationship. Most of the time we can keep communication open and continue to invest ourselves emotionally. We pray and trust that our prodigal children will someday come to themselves and come home (as happened in the parable Jesus told in Luke 15). Our children need to know that when that happens, they will find a warm smile, hot food, and open arms. God is the one who told this story and we need to remember that we all have been prodigals who are whole only because of his incredible, healing love.

Let them see your struggles

Mimi was married and Jon and Jodi were still at home when my depression forever changed our lives. I left pastoral ministry and for the next seven years followed other career paths. My faith was severely tested. My marriage and family suffered from my inability to maintain any emotional closeness. I questioned everything I ever believed and withdrew from every important person in my life. Because of my wife and children’s incredible longsuffering and commitment to me, and because of God’s extremely personal care for me through His Word, I eventually moved beyond the worst of it. Forever scarred, we live on, thankful for God’s grace and each other.

I asked them later how this experience affected their respect for me. They all said, “I respect you more.” This speaks of their integrity, maturity, and faith. But it also underscores the wisdom Karon and I had (by God’s grace) to openly discuss it and keep them apprised of every step along the way.

I am able to live with depression because my wife and children love me and also because of antidepressant medication. But aging is continuing to change things:  my back problems limit both movement and travel. It’s likely that our physical strength will continue to decline, changing our lives in ways that many older adults are discovering. I’m thankful that I can talk with my children openly about these struggles, because I need their outlook and spiritual support.

Keep the Faith

The most powerful legacy we can leave our children is our faith. It is no accident that scripture promises God’s blessings on those he favors to continue for several generations. Karon and I recently talked about how blessed we are to each have grown up in Christian homes. Those homes were by no means perfect, but they gave us priceless foundations that sustain us. Those of us with adult children must continue growing, forgiving, serving, and loving. How we behave in our later years validates—or invalidates—everything we have ever taught them. Maybe this is the time to conquer longstanding habits that have plagued us through the years and to finally forgive siblings for old hurts. This is not the time for them to hear us ranting about how people treat us or that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. God gives us hope and optimism even in the face of cancer and Alzheimer’s and we must point them to it.

Above all we must pray: pray for our children and their children; pray for ourselves and our country; pray for those who need help and healing; and pray for our world. Our schedules are more open these days. Physical limitations may corral us, but this we can do. For years we were too busy to read the Bible through and to keep a detailed prayer list. Now we have the time and there is no better way to use it.

Stay in touch

Mimi, John, DS and KS SeptYears ago I waited for people to make an overture of friendship before I would offer a hand. Such a misguided idea! Thank God I learned to take the initiative! Over the years I have been saddened to observe many people who wait for others to communicate. “She should apologize first!” “Why doesn’t he ever call?” “They never write.” Your children lead busy lives and you should not be too proud—or lazy—to keep communication open. You will find a way that is best for each relationship. Some like you to call. Others prefer texting. Email is still used by some (although not by many under sixty years old). Sending a note or card is uncommon these days, but there still is nothing quite like getting a handwritten note or letter in the mail. Don’t be offended if they never let you know they received it. God will use your every effort to strengthen the bond between you.

My adopted mother, Helen Flynt, always calls on my birthday. We don’t often talk at other times of year, depending instead on Facebook and email. But I can expect to hear her familiar voice on my birthday, and I love it. I know she’s thinking of me. She, now that both of my parents are gone, reminds me many times each year that she’s thinking of me, or that she’s proud of me. And if you think that a seventy-one year old man doesn’t need this anymore, you fail this exam.

That was then. This is now.

Why we must accept change in our lives.

Ray, Beulah, and Ree as a baby
My mother as a baby with her father and birth mother.

My mother was a remarkable woman. Her mother died of cancer when my mom was six and her only sister, Ruth, was three. She had three stepmothers, two of whom also died while she was still at home. No one spoke to her about her losses as was the pattern of that generation. My grandfather was a wonderful man, but times were different then and he was dealing with his own grief. My mother was launched into adulthood, a naïve young girl without even the slightest idea of what caused pregnancy. A gifted pianist and devout Christian, she went to Anderson College[1]) with a strong faith in God and hope for the future

CW & Ree separate college photos finished
Mom and Dad in college

There she met my father, Clair Shultz. He was the youngest of seven children in a family hit hard by the depression. Inventive and mischievous, he went to college because a Sunday school teacher saw his potential and talked him into it. Mom fell for his pranks, like putting firecrackers under her dorm room door, and they were married in 1935 on a Christmas Day when it was four below zero.

Their ministerial career began with the pastorate of a small church in Noblesville, Indiana. Two short-term Minnesota pastorates followed, after which they decided to apply for missionary service in Trinidad, British West Indies (where I was raised). Later assignments included some time in Jamaica and then in Kenya, East Africa. They learned Swahili in their 50s.

Change everywhere.

I never realized until just before my father’s death that Mom was the strong one in the family. She endured tropical storms, tarantulas on the front porch, rats the size of housecats in the kitchen, and the near-death of her infant son with whooping cough. She taught Sunday school with flannel graphs, did the mission bookkeeping, and helped start a Bible training school. She also managed the onslaught of change that characterized the rest of her life. One of her biggest challenges was when my sister and I, each at the age of thirteen, were sent back to the States to go to school.

In every place she lived, she had to change. She changed families (thinking of young missionaries as her kids), cultures, and devastating accidents. She traveled around the world more than once, documenting her travels in aerograms written in her delicate hand on airplanes and from distant hotels.

Mom Shultz for obituary
Mom five years before she died

Her biggest adjustments came after she and Dad retired. She was diagnosed with primary lateral sclerosis, a disease which gradually robbed her of mobility: first a cane, then a walker, and finally a wheelchair for more than twenty years. We watched her and Dad downsize from a three-bedroom home (filled with shells from Barbados and zebra skin rugs from Africa) into a two bedroom condo (with spacious bedrooms), and then into an apartment in an assisted living facility. Always she went to something smaller, something less. She gave away her favorite Blue Danube dishes, her bronze flatware from Thailand, and her Chinese buffet. When Dad died at 93 (she was 92) she downsized into an efficiency and finally, no longer able to manage on her own, into skilled care; first a private room and then a double. She gave up e-mail—her lifeline to others—and her checkbook. We watched her gradual devolvement and sometimes joked about her unwillingness to relinquish a final bookshelf of Bibles and well-worn favorites. Pneumonia precipitated her move to skilled care. Now totally cared for by others, her life had shrunk from the entire world to a hospital bed. Gradually dementia shuttered even that world. She died in 2011 at the age of 97.

That was then. This is now

I first heard the phrase, “That was then. This is now,” when they started downsizing. More and more frequently she said the words as if to remind herself that change is inevitable and fighting it is pointless. One of her caregivers, who also was a close friend, marveled frequently that Mom never complained about her disease or her losses. When we asked her about missing Dad, she would say, “That was then. This is now.” To a woman who years before had sacrificed her children to serve the Lord, the scriptural pattern had become her bucket list. “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-21). I see these words as one of my mother’s greatest legacies to me.

We spend so much time resisting change and complaining about circumstances. We gripe about the neighbors who never mow their lawn and we worry about the solvency of Social Security. We desperately hope that cancer won’t knock on our door and that no one in our family will die too soon. We’re sad to think that the children will grow up, spread their wings and fly away, and then complain when they move back home. Living out my days in a nursing home with overworked nurses and hallways that smell like urine is one of my biggest fears is. I think many have that fear.

If truth be told, we cannot do much about most of these things. But a life lived in fear is no life worth living and I think we underestimate our resiliency and inner resources to adapt to change. The human race has endured the unspeakable in wars and concentration camps. Foreclosures have left us homeless, wars have left us childless, and disease and accidents have left us with lifelong pain. History teaches us, if we will pay attention, that even with such loss and pain people rise above and beyond to find meaning and make a difference. I want to be one of these people.

Things to Remember

  • Enjoy the life you have.

With all of the loss and pain you may have endured, there are good things to celebrate. Try to think about what you have instead of what you don’t have. Thank God for your body, even if it is disabled or ravaged by disease. It’s the only one you have and you need to make peace with it. I’m not saying that life is easy or that you can think positively and change circumstances. Life is hard. But you are a survivor. That was then. This is now.

  • Don’t play the “If only” game.

Many spend their lives wishing things were different. “If only I had married differently.” “If only my daughter had not been in the car with the drunken driver.” “If only…” we can do this for years and it changes nothing. We must grieve our pain—with help, if necessary—but we eventually can make peace with our past. That was then. This is now.

  • Find a creative outlet.

God made you to create. He is The Creator and has made you in His image. Creating things, whether writing a poem or rebuilding a car, is extremely healing. I have written about depression in another blog, and I will be writing about living with pain in another. What I know is that deciding to begin blogging has changed my perspective remarkably. It has given me a place to process my past and to gain perspective from all those gracious enough to respond. What creative things can you do?

  • Reestablish your faith.

Downsize your wants and stop accumulating. Beauty fades. Riches are fleeting. Anchor your life to what no one can take away. Reach out for God and you will find him. How wealthy is that person who invests in eternity!

C. S. Lewis said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Bingo. It is my contention that the Bible offers the best future for any of us. Those who cast their lot in with Jesus Christ are assured of life forever with him, above and beyond pain, sickness, and death. And it gives me great joy to think of Mom is heaven, lifting her coffee cup in a toast and saying, “That was then. This is now!”

[1] Now Anderson University http://www.anderson.edu/

Comfortable clothes. Comfortable people.

DS in sweats at piano cropped

Back in the 1980s my dad showed up for the family picnic in a striped blue shirt, plaid brown shorts, black socks, and dress shoes. Looking at him in mild horror, I whispered to my wife to please never let me dress like that. Just the other day I glanced in the mirror as I went forth to meet the day. I drew in my breath sharply. Plaid shorts, American flag T-shirt, black socks, and sandals! Oh no! What happened? I was not only more stooped like my Dad used to be, but somewhere in the last ten years I apparently had a stroke in the part of my brain that controls good taste in clothes.

When you’re young it never occurs to you that someday you’ll walk differently or visit a podiatrist (“What’s a podiatrist?” we said.) When your energy levels are surging and body responds without a hitch every time, you cannot imagine stumbling along or have trouble getting out of a chair. And, I suppose, you never think that someday you might develop different standards for life that place a low priority on many of the things you’ve admired your whole life.

The older I get the more I find myself wearing comfortable clothing. I used to buy fashionable shoes, often from Florsheim; now they hurt my feet and I wear tennis shoes and gardening clogs. I wear socks all of the time (because my feet are cold) and my farmer’s tan now stops at my ankles. Sweatshirts and sweatpants do well around the house in the winter. I used to dress in the current style; but have you noticed what’s in style these days? All the stores in the mall cater to young people and, even I could find something I liked, it would not fit my body that long ago lost the fight with gravity.

I value clothes that fit easily. I wear clothes a long time, until they wear out, actually. Why spend money on new clothes when you’re on a fixed income and you have plenty of things to wear (even if the garments you think of as new were purchased ten or more years ago)? Let me assure my children, lest they worry, that I will not go out in public in pajamas and slippers or wear clothes so old they advertise Eisenhower for president (“Ike, Ike, he’s our man!”). Nor will my photo appear on the web site, “People of Walmart.”

Here’s my point: aging brings us far more benefits than liabilities, even as we lose vision and mobility. It has taken me a long time to be comfortable inside the body I have, and I want to keep that perspective.

What other perspectives have come with age?

  1. We are more accepting.

Here’s an example: we’re a part of a wonderful church where we are totally welcome as we are. The 8:30 a.m. service is one in which we sing old hymns and I play the piano (something I haven’t done since I was in high school). Acceptance in this group has been immediate and unconditional. At our potlucks we commiserate about back surgeries and unashamedly bring pillows to sit on. We pray for each other’s children and never think about whether what someone is wearing is fashionable or not. We’ve been through the war, sat at deathbeds, and cried over wayward family members. We’re survivors who celebrate life together and rejoice in our wonderful God, who loves us.

  1. Experience provides a clearer perspective

When you’ve lived a long time you understand what is valuable and what is not.

  • Friends, for example, are important. Popularity is not.
  • Family, both by blood and by choice, are priceless.
  • We listen to news broadcasts differently. Jesus said we would hear of wars and rumors of wars, that famine would come as would times of plenty. The important thing is that we belong to God and it’s his world. We won’t get out of it alive, anyway, and when we leave this world, a better one is waiting.
  • We value people with integrity and have no use for pretense, showmanship, or politicians who create their belief systems based on public opinion polls.
  1. We recognize true heroes.

The media loves to give attention to those who “accomplish” things. But is it an accomplishment to reach my one hundredth birthday or is that a genetic hiccup? I’m happy for those who are still running marathons into their eighties, but most of us can’t achieve this and it falsely labels youthfulness as success. Recently ABC aired a nationally televised awards program in which someone who had recently undergone surgery to switch sexes was given a standing ovation for heroism. Please!

The elderly see through this utter nonsense. We may use wheelchairs and Depends, but we know that heroes are motivated by a love for people and respect for truth.

We have made peace with our past.

The perspective of years helps you separate and discard painful experiences because we know they do not define who we are. Only recently did my wife, Karon, help me see that I still clung to put-downs and thoughtless hurts in the past. I now realize that nursing that pain only hurts me and not the persons who did those things. I have chosen to lay aside my victim mentality and no longer focus on the pain of my past, my failures, or poor decisions. We are so much more than abuse, job loss, or bullying.

Forgiving everyone in your life, even those now dead, will bring you unimagined freedom and joy. In the New Testament, Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive someone. Jesus answered in the vernacular of his day, “without number!”

I thank God for my past and everyone I’ve been privileged to meet. Some have brought me pain. Others have been uncommonly kind and generous. All have enriched me and helped to shape me as I am today. I thank God for his grace that forgives me and his endless love and optimism that ceaselessly encourage me day after day. Not everyone will like me, marvelous as I am. Life’s experiences continue to stretch me and build my faith. And tomorrow will be a wonderful day!