Archive for June, 2010

Erin is in the middle of the three standing, showing pics of her son.

About 30 of us gathered in the meeting room for our first session. There were people from all over the country and from a variety of lifestyles. Some were just beginning life together. Some were well into retirement together. There were singles and married, straights and gays, men and women. After all in the group introduced themselves, Erin introduced herself by giving a testimony of how she became aware of her need to simplify her life. She was a hoarder. She told us the many different types of things she had saved and accumulated. Her small home was a museum of her life – but most of the artifacts were in the dozens of boxes that created the small pathways in her apartment. After hearing her description, I imagine all felt as I did. First, “Wow, that must have been terrible. I want to get rid of clutter in my life, but I don’t have it that bad.” Second, “There’s hope! If she was able to change, maybe I can, too.”

One day, her husband had a serious discussion with Erin, saying, “I love you and I want to always live with you – but let me describe for you the remarkable life I want to have with you.” Then he talked about a home that was uncluttered and comfortable – one in which they could host friends for meals and parties –  one in which they could raise a family in comfort– and one in which they could use as a work place. (They both dreamed of working from home.) She agreed that this was what she wanted as well. Then Erin began planning a way to have an uncluttered life, but keep all of her stuff. Soon, she realized you can’t have both. She also realized that she had a basic problem – she didn’t know how to make a decision about stuff. What do you keep? What do you toss out? What do you say “yes” to bringing into your life, and what do you say “no” to – and why? This retreat was designed to help us decide what wanted out of life that Simplicity could offer and give us tools  for making decisions that would help us create “your remarkable life”.

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I’ve wanted to go on a Pendle Hill retreat for years. As I read Parker Palmer’s works (Parker headed up PH for several years), I’d think about going to PH to hear him. So when the sabbatical opportunity came up, I looked into it. I discovered that Palmer has left the leadership of PH. His work is currently focused on civility and/in democracy. “That’s stupid!” I thought. “Someone should rein him in.”

OK, I didn’t really think that.


As I looked over the courses that were being offered during the sabbatical time, the weekend retreat on Simplicity reached out to me. As I read the description, then read it to Susan, it seemed like something we would both get a lot out of. And we’ve never been around Quakers, so going to a Quaker retreat site had lots of appeal, too.


Pendle Hill was a beautiful place to spend some time. Everything was so green and well kept. There were flowers everywhere. (These were not green.) Ancient trees mentored the saplings. We checked in at the house that would also serve as our meeting space, Upmeads. The room itself looks like a library. It is full of old books like I would love to browse through, but never took the time to do so. We met the retreat administrator, Judith Applegate and our retreat leader, Erin Rooney Dolan. All I knew of Erin was that she’s written a book on simplifying one’s life and that she has a webpage, www.uncltterer.com.

We got the key to our dorm room, got a bit settled and joined the other retreatants for dinner. All of our meals were fresh and delicious.

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On our way to the weekend retreat at Pendle Hill in PA, we stopped by some relatives’ house near DC for the night. Keith and Mimi are Susan’s uncle and aunt. They have hosted us so many times on our visits to DC that recently Mimi wrote Susan, “it doesn’t seem like we’ve had a real summer unless you’ve been with us.” Because of them, we’ve been able to take in all the DC sites over the years. From the very first week-long stay there, the assumption was that Keith would drop us off at the Metro in the morning, we’d be tourists all day while they were at work, then we’d get back together in the evening for dinner together at least a couple of times. It has been a great schedule for us! But the highlight of our trip has been the time spent with them. There is always interesting and fun conversation. Through the years of raising our boys, they have always been very affirming of our style of parenting and of the boys themselves. This trip we only had an evening and a morning together, as we are not “tourists” but “passers-through”. Still, it was a very nice visit. It’s nice to have nice relatives.

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A sabbatical is a good thing. I was tempted to make it too much of a good thing. My first proposal to the personnel committee for how I would use my time was met with admiration – and with a great deal of resistance. Being the first on our ministry team to have this opportunity, I felt a real burden to make it full and purposeful, full and helpful, full and intentional. And really full. This, in spite of counsel from friends who had gone on sabbaticals or those who dreamed of going on sabbaticals, of using this time to slow down, to have some time for doing nothing, just hanging out at the home place with no agenda for the day. I saw the sabbatical as a huge gift that I needed to be a responsible steward over. I was a trustee over a large investment and I wanted the “owner’s” to know they had gotten a large return on their investment. I did not want to risk being accused of squandering.

In my original plan, I was going to be gone nearly all of the thirteen weeks, visiting Baptist historical sites, visiting CBF missionaries, attending conferences – as well as having fun visiting places like National Parks. “Cut it back,” I was advised. “You don’t realize how much time thirteen weeks is and what all you need to do just to keep life going during that time – you’ve still got to pay the bills, visit your parents, do yard work and garden work – some things you really need to do yourself or for yourself.” So, I cut some things out of the sabbatical plan and built in more time at home with no real agenda. This is one of those pauses, and I am beginning to see their wisdom. We’re spending this week doing the yard work, finishing the garden and getting the boys ready for their summers – Ben for summer school at NCSU and Todd for his summer job in Delaware. There will be nothing productive for the job that happens during this time. It is simply time for our family to be together, to get some family stuff done and to get the mundane done, as well. We needed this time. I needed this wisdom.

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After Chattanooga, we went to Atlanta to see the Prairie Home Companion Show live at the Fox Theater. I’ve been a big fan of this radio program and of Garrison Keillor for years. I’ve wanted to go to a live show for years – and this year, the time and distance were right. Garrison Keillor’s Saturday night show is a place I’ve found joy and humor in the Kingdom of God. That, unfortunately, is not always easy to find in the Church, which is ironic, since God is the author of joy and laughter. Indeed, that is one of the things Keillor often pokes fun of – not blatantly or authoritatively, but through stories of fictional characters and a gentle reinterpretation of Christian history (i.e., American Puritanism and Midwestern Lutheranism).

As close as we would get to Garrison Keillor this evening, I thought.

We got to our hotel, which is another grand building right across the street from the Fox Theater, in time to freshen up and change clothes. We’d hoped to make a guided tour of the Fox, but they do this sporadically, it seems, and we could find no information about one. So we got to spend 30-45 minutes just walking around. The Fox Theater is an amazing building with a great history. It was nearly torn down before some local citizens pooled resources together to see that it was not only not destroyed but was restored to its former grandeur. I assumed there would be a vendor’s table with PHC CDs, books, etc., but there was not. That’s’ maybe a strategic error on their part, because I was excited enough to be there that I’d have bought something, even something I already have!

The view from our seats, without binoculars.

When we got to our seats we discovered that we were in the very last row of the very top balcony. I knew I’d ordered the “cheap seats”, but I didn’t know they were this far from the stage. However, knowing they were going to be a good distance away, I had prepared by packing us two pair of binoculars. It was as good as being on row 20, as far as I was concerned – maybe even better.

The show was great, with musicians I’d not heard of, but enjoyed, and the expected great warmth and insights of Keillor as he guided the show. Roy Blount, Jr. was also great. We know him best from another radio show, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me. Susan and I watched the movie Prairie Home Companion the week before leaving for this trip, so I had an idea of what we might see. What surprised me the most was that the program was a creation in the making as the hours marched along. As Keillor would be speaking into the mic, a producer would rush up with a piece of paper, show it to Keillor, who would nod, then point to someone – apparently they were going to sing next and not the person who was standing at the other mic (they’d get their chance later) – but it is all done so artfully that the radio audience has no awareness of what the chaos behind the scenes really is.

After the show, Susan and I  headed out to find some dinner. We decided to just walk around a few blocks to see what might be around. As we rounded the corner of the Fox, we saw a cluster of people standing at a loading dock. I knew immediately that these 30 or so people were waiting to have their moment with Garrison Keillor, and that we would join them. In reflection, this seems kind of odd when I think about other people’s heroes and what makes for a celebrity. Who were we? Not sports fans, not rock star fans, not movie star fans – we were English majors.

Garrison was gracious.

When Keillor came out, he was very gracious. He knelt to sign a girls red pair of tennis shoes (he always wears red tennis shoes on stage), and continued signing books and programs until everyone had a chance to get his autograph and express their appreciation. This spoke volumes to Susan and me in reflection – he didn’t have to do this. He could have said, “Be gone!” and we would have respected that – after all he’d had a full day and deserved some space and quiet time. A close up photo shot would have pleased me and this is really all I expected. But so far on this sabbatical, I’m getting more than I expected.

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Saturday, May 22

 Today, we went to the Chattanooga aquarium. I love going to aquariums, because I get to see creatures that are outside of my daily observations. I still enjoy seeing a Blue Jay or a grasshopper or a puppy, but to watch a jellyfish or sea horse or octopus is fascinating to me. Maybe it’s the novelty of it. But it also gives rise to two reflections: First, what a creative God! Second, what else have I never seen?

Breakfast at Rembrants. Yum!

In a neighborhood near the aquarium and art museum

The Chattanooga aquarium has a well deserved reputation of being one of the best. There are two sections, fresh water and salt water. I took the suggestion of a stranger that we begin with the fresh water. (This was a man I ran into at the TN visitors center. He overheard me talking to the attendant at the desk and gave his opinion that, though he was from Atlanta and a member of the aquarium there, he thought the Chattanooga one was better because it has a flow to it. I don’t think it was an intentional pun.) You take an escalator to the top then work your way down. At the top you start with the beginnings of a river in Tennessee. You follow that water to the bottom where you end up in the Gulf of Mexico. So, there is a logical progression.

A seahorse, of course

Looking like a leaf


My favorite part of this section was the otters. If I were to be an animal, I’d want to be an otter. They just seem to love life. My favorite section in the salt water side was the sea horses. I didn’t realize we have sea horses off the coast of NC, but there were some here.

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Detour Blessings

Today I went to the early services again. It was easier waking up this morning. I suppose I could eventually get used to this schedule. During the Mass, the Abbot gave a longer and much better sermon on Jesus forgiving Peter for his denials.

After breakfast, I packed up and drove to Madison. We had fresh strawberries and ice cream before heading to Chattanooga. I debriefed some with Susan’s father as Susan got some things finalized for packing. As I talked, I noticed my voice was getting hoarse – even from only a week of very limited use!

We were forewarned that there had been a sinkhole on I-26 that closed the east-bound lanes, so we got off the exit as traffic was backing up. There was a TN state park there, Indian Stone Fort, build by Native Americans 2000 years ago. Susan and I walked all around the perimeter of the park on the trails, passing several very nice waterfalls. We also visited the museum, then had some oranges in a small shelter. It was a very pleasant detour. We would never have stopped there if not for the traffic detour.

When we got back on the alternative route, traffic was totally blocked. As we crawled along, we passed an accident that had just happened going the opposite direction and saw the remains of an accident ahead of us. We were stopped completely as I was firing up the GPS to look for an alternative route. I glanced to my right (Susan was driving) and noticed that the well-worn white pick-up truck beside us had not moved ahead, but was about three car lengths behind the next car. I looked over and saw that the driver, a man in his forties, unshaven and missing a few teeth, was looking at me, asking me to roll down my window. I assumed he wanted to move into our lane and was asking if he could move in ahead of us when there was space. Instead, he asked, “Y’all trying to get out of this mess?” “Yeah, if we could.” “You got a navigation system?” “Yes.” “Take this.” He handed me a map with yellow highlights. “Take Springer up here, use the map then use your navigation. You’ll go through Manchester.” “Thanks!” I set the GPS for Manchester, did ignore highways and she said, “Take the next right on Springer.” Between the map and the GPS, we had a much better time on our way.
I was amazed that this happened. Here, he had a map, highlighted two alternative routes, picked us out to ask if we wanted to get out of the traffic, timed it perfectly so we could make it into the other lane and make the next right turn (Springer) (Our next move was to cross over the interstate, so we would not have been able to use this route at all.) It was like a minor miracle or an angel. Susan thought it was that he saw our out-of-state plates, but I wonder if something more was going on, and I’d like to think so. Either way, he was a real blessing to us.

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