Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Why I Cried When Our Dog Died

(Note to reader: This blog post does not reflect on the current state of my two adult children who have developed into very responsible, respectable citizens. I am very proud of both of them. It reflects what goes through a parent's mind during the process of raising them.)

I am not a huge fan of pets. I’m not against animals, just animals in the house. They are expensive, need constant care, and are too often doted on and loved more than human beings. Many of our pets are fed better than people in the developing world. I think there is something wrong with this.

Children, however, are drawn to animals in the house like I am drawn to freshly-baked bread. So when children entered our lives, we had to put up with a constant begging for pets. We acquiesced, first with a gerbil and gold fish, later a parakeet. We kept advancing and got a cat, each progression to larger animals with some trepidation on my part.

“I want a doggie,” our son would continually beg us in the most pathetic and desperate sounding voice he could muster for all his eight years. This begging went on for years. Dogs, being the most dependent of domestic creatures, were the last thing we wanted to have under our roof.

But the begging continued. So eventually we gave in. Yep, guess we are wimps. We started visiting the local SPCA shelter for a dog we thought would meet our standards. The first one we adopted turned out to be a big mistake; it had apparently been abused by its former owner and responded by biting several of our son’s playmates. We returned that creature pretty quickly to where it we had found it.

I was not too keen on trying again, hoping that the kids had learned their lesson, but they were determined. My daughter did research on the Internet and decided that a cocker spaniel was the perfect dog for us. Boy, was she wrong! But I am getting ahead of my story. We found the cutest four-month old brown and white cocker spaniel puppy at the SPCA. We brought him home and named him Benji. That’s when the fun began. NOT.

Benji was an extremely excitable dog, jumping nervously at every noise, particular ones like the door bell setting him off uncontrollably. The kids worked with him, but had a hard time making any breakthroughs until they enrolled him in obedience school. He was fairly smart and they taught him a number of neat tricks. He almost became tolerable. Almost.

Most of you know that there is more to taking care of a dog than teaching him tricks and getting him to perform them. Apparently our children didn’t. There are such things as walking him twice a day so that he can do his duty, feeding him, seeing that he gets water, taking him to the vet, seeing that flea stuff is applied. And of course, cleaning up after he has emptied the garbage can, ate a loaf of freshly baked bread off the table or barfed up some the dozen foil-wrapped chocolate Easter eggs. By the way, if you thought, or heard that chocolate is poisonous to a dog and can kill it, I’m skeptical.

You probably know where I am going with this. Somehow the children came up MIA when hard duty called. The reverse begging and pleading on our part fell on deaf ears. Threatening to get rid of the dog was met with mocking laughter. I know, by now you are really wondering about our parenting ability.

My wife and I were stuck with doing the dirty work while the kids enjoyed his play. Our son taught him to pull his sled up the hill so that they could coast down together in the snow. Such energy and ingenuity could have been used on the ordinary daily tasks, but to no avail. Ok, so maybe the morning duties were a little early for the children, but there was plenty of time other time during their waking hours that their helping hands could have been useful.

I was used to jogging every morning since I was in my twenties. By now my knees had reduced me to a daily walk instead of a jog, so I included the dog in my morning routine. We developed various routes of two miles in our neighborhood. Benji eagerly and faithfully accompanied me. After a lot of coaching he learned how to heel. For several years I decided to be paid for my morning exercise, so I took on our neighborhood paper route. My wife Esther joined me for part of those years, and so did the dog. I thought that being paid to walk the dog was pretty fair compensation for the responsibility that I thought belonged to the kids.

I complained loudly and bitterly about the dog, especially after dealing with one of his numerous mishaps. My son continually replied, “Dad, you love him and you know it.” Of course, the dog curled up at my feet and came to me since he was fed by my hand and accompanied me in the mornings (Esther did the evening duties), but I would show absolutely no recognition of affection for said creature.

Leading cross-cultural programs for several months several different years made us give up the paper route. First my daughter and her friends, who were now in college, took care of the house and the dog. The second time my son and his roommate took on the duties of house and dog. Each time we returned, the poor dog, who was used to a strict routine from middle-aged owners, was all out of sorts. It took weeks for him to settle back into his (our) beloved routine. At least our kids finally had their turn at total dog duty!!

Our son just before leaving for the vet
The last time we left for a cross-cultural semester, we left the house and dog to some trusted students. At exactly the half-way point, Benji got sick. Our neighbor lady, who is a huge dog lover and keeps her eye out for us and our house whenever we are gone, noticed something was wrong. The students said he wouldn’t eat. So along with our neighbor, our son decided to take him to the vet. He had a tumor on his liver. Already being 13 years old, and any means of intervention seemingly to no avail, by recommendation of the vet, they decided to put him down.

At the time we were visiting our daughter and husband who were doing a term of missionary service in Nicaragua. I knew something was wrong from the cryptic messages on Facebook from our son. We were staying in a wonderful bungalow-like hotel when the news came. Our son sent the picture of him and Benji shown here. I was overcome with emotion. Tears are filling my eyes as I write this. If I have such a distain for pets, and if Benji was such a nuisance to me over the years, why did I cry?

One reason was because it was hard to see my son having to go through with the most difficult and final duty of caring for a pet—putting it down. He really loved the dog even if he didn’t do much with it over the years. It was hard for me to be so far away and not be able to support him.

Beyond that, Benji, as annoying as he was, was a living, breathing creature. He was a piece of God’s creation and marvelous handiwork. Psalm 24:1 declares: “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; yes, even Benji. He loved life and his owners. It was hard to see his quick demise, but he didn’t have a long time of suffering. His short life taught me to be faithful no matter what, to be dependent on others and God. He also taught me that as another creature of God’s handiwork, I too must die. May he rest in peace.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Lessons from the Margins

God has always been on the side of the marginalized. He made provisions for the most vulnerable of society in the Hebrew scriptures; people at the margins. Here are a few examples: Deuteronomy 10:18: He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. Deuteronomy 24:19: When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. Deuteronomy 24:20: When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow.

Seems like the most vulnerable people were the alien, the fatherless and the widow. These were people at the margins of Hebrew society. The provisions made in these verses were the welfare system that God put in place for them. There are myriad other verses which make the same point. God looks out for people at the margins, for the most vulnerable of society.

Things don’t change when we read the New Testament. In Matthew 25 we read about the marginalized: “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” The “least of these” are the hungry, the thirsty, those in prison, the naked, the stranger and the sick. These are people at the margins, people who too often are ignored by the rest of us. When we relate to these people we relate to Jesus.

Jesus often rebukes establishment people and lifts up people at the margins. Just two stories illustrate this. The first comes from the beginning of Luke 21: “He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’”

Here the poor widow was certainly living at the margins, while the rich people were part of the establishment. The rich establishment people looked down on the poor widow as someone to be pitied; someone at the margins. Yet Jesus praises the poor widow while he rebukes the wealthy. The poor woman is attached to God rather than her material possessions. From her marginalization, Jesus teaches us a lesson.

Or consider the story recorded in Luke 18:10: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

The tax collector, even though he is rich, is marginalized in the eyes of the Jewish establishment because he has sold out to the Roman oppressors. Yet Jesus calls him blessed, or “justified,” because he humbled himself by recognizing his sinful state. The establishment Pharisee, who in Jewish society has everything stacked in his favor and can look down on people on the margins, is rebuked. The tax collector recognized that he had to give up control of his ego and his life in order to enter the Kingdom of God. This is another lesson from the margins.

We learn a lot from people at the margins. We find Jesus when we relate to people at the margins. Our lives are turned upside down when we relate to those at the margins. Like the poor widow and the tax collector, we learn to depend on God, to humble ourselves and to be grateful instead of resentful.

How do you relate to people at the margins, and what spiritual lessons have you learned from them?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Pain and Life

I wanted to title this blog post “pain and death,” but I was afraid that in this death-denying culture, nobody would read it. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that any discussion about death is really a discussion about life.

For eight days I was surrounded by various stages of illness and pain. I was hospitalized for four days to have knee replacement surgery in both knees. Immediately following my hospitalization I spent four days in rehab. During those days there were audible moans of pain, and I’m sure, from my own experience, many suppressed ones. Being in the presence of so much pain, and feeling one’s own, makes one begin to wonder if pain is the norm. Pain begins to define reality.
First steps with the new knees

I will never forget that first night in the hospital after my surgery. I had little time for sleep and it wasn’t only because of the pain. There were nurses and aides coming in and out of my room constantly. Little did I realize how many things could go wrong after a fairly routine elective surgery like mine. I imagined them thinking, “Get him through the first night, and he will be fine.” My memory, although admittedly probably a bit foggy from all the medication, remembers being interrupted from my sleep nearly every two hours. I know they checked my vitals, and who knows how many other machines were being monitored to see how I was doing. Was I ever hovering between life and death? Pain makes you have such thoughts.

It was not only the fact that I was under anesthesia and then monitored carefully by a full staff of medical efforts that made me reflect on life. There were other instances that caused me to think about my ultimate demise. For example, the estimated lifetime of the artificial joints in my knees are said to be 20-25 years. The doctor tells me that they should last. Last until what? One starts to do the math.

Then in rehab, I was surrounded by people much older than I. They were recovering from strokes, from heart attacks, from broken hips and other age-related illnesses. Some of them were suffering because of specific lifestyle choices, others from accidents, and still others from having been dealt with a unfortunate set of genes. Life seems to be a crapshoot. Being in close proximity to people seemingly closer to death than I made me reflect on my life and my remaining years.  

Can I avoid some of the pain I saw other patients enduring? Is it simply a matter of fate, or are there things I could be doing now to prevent future hospitalizations? I have always been dedicated to exercise, the years of jogging probably the reason for my need for knee replacements. As my knees became increasingly bad, I switched from walking to cycling, either outdoors or indoors on a stationary bike. I have a rejuvenated interest in pursuing aerobic exercise as soon as my knees permit it. It lowers my blood pressure and makes me feel better all over. 

One health-related item about which I haven’t been so careful, is my diet. My pain-riddled journey has made me more concerned about this. I’m not about to embark on some fad diet, I simply want to eat more moderately to try to balance my weight. My weight has crept up over the years in spite of the exercise, and it has mostly been because of a lack of discipline when it comes to the portions I serve myself at meals and the unhealthy snacks I continually consume.

Through experiencing pain and witnessing others with their own aches makes me more grateful for life than ever. Spending time in a hospital and rehab center and seeing what I may be facing in future years makes me rededicate myself to a healthier lifestyle.

Here’s to life!

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Pain and Creativity

A friend of mine, knowing how much I enjoy writing, innocently asked me in an email: “Getting any writing done [this summer]?” It was a fair question. He had run into me other summers at local coffee shops pounding feverishly away at my keyboard, working on another writing project. And indeed, I had recently completed a manuscript that will be published in September. I had two published articles in a peer-reviewed journal within the past six months, and two articles published in The Mennonite, the magazine for the Mennonite Church (MCUSA), and completed chapters to be included in two other books. My friend was also aware of my participation in a writers’ retreat/workshop at our university for the past number of years; usually held in the month of May.

But this summer has been different. Because of arthritis-riddled knees, I submitted myself to the skill of an orthopedic surgeon for total knee replacement in both knees. I am now nearly five weeks removed from that surgery, and it has been quite the journey. I’ve already written a little about it in a blog post titled “Pain and Prayer”. These past five weeks have been more filled with pain than creativity.

Pain really saps one’s strength and energy. In my earlier blog post, I wrote about ten hours that were nearly unbearable, but since then my pain has been manageable even if constant. In spite of the pain being manageable, I am constantly tired. I take two to three naps a day. At first it was mostly because of my pain medication. It is also because I can’t sleep as deeply at night. Being in a continual state of tiredness does not foster an environment for creativity.
Where I need to spend more time when the pain abates.

There is another factor. Before surgery, I would spend 20 to 30 minutes every morning sitting on our patio in silence and contemplation. These times alone were filled with inspirational moments, whether reflecting on something I’d read, a podcast or music I’d heard, or simply sitting in silence. The pain and the lack of mobility resulting from the surgery has altered this inspiring time. During my rehabilitation, I have tried doing this indoors, in my den, but there are too many distractions, none of the least of which is the pain.

Another possible reason for lack of creativity is that it has been over two years since my wife and I have lead a cross-cultural group to Guatemala and Mexico. I usually come back from these trips with loads of stories that need to be told. Indirectly, it was the pain in my knees that prevented us from leading such a group this past semester. Where shall I go to find new stories?

There is another problem that is related to the above paragraph. I currently do not have any particular writing project on the front burner. I have several ideas for future topics, but none is making my creative juices flow. I do believe, however, if I were not dealing with the pain factor, and if I were back to my routine of patio sitting, and if I were independent enough to drive to the local coffee shops, I would be feverishly pounding away on my keyboard like in years past. New projects and new ideas would feed the old ones and I would be working on several stories at the same time.

Pain is all-consuming and because it saps so much energy, it inhibits creativity. At least this has been my experience. I’m wondering if anyone has had a different experience. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Traveling mercies and perils

An interesting travel story from two years ago that I am re-posting as we enter a season of higher travel. I went through the following harrowing experience traveling from Guatemala to Mexico with 19 students and my wife. Fun to read now, it was anything but fun while we were going through it. Enjoy . . .

On Saturday, March 17, 2012, 19 students, my wife and I, were scheduled to fly from Guatemala City to Mexico City through San Salvador, TACA airlines’ hub. What a harrowing experience we had. We arrived in plenty of time to get the group through check in, but when our first student reached the counter, there was a long delay so I went up to investigate, and the woman trying to check in our student said that she could not find our electronic ticket number for the trip. I gave her several other names of members of our group, and she found some information about us. She saw that we had been on our flight from Washington, D.C, to Guatemala City, and could see our return trip from Mexico City to Washington D.C. through San Salvador, but she could not find the portion of our trip to get to Mexico—where we were hoping to go.

After searching for some 30 minutes, she found our names as being reserved; she just could not find our e-ticket number, and therefore could not confirm that we had paid for the flight. She asked me for our reservation number, and I knew I had packed it and knew exactly where it was, but I couldn't remember which suitcase to find the folder. With all the activities of the last day in Guatemala, who would have thought enough to put that number right with my passport, anyway? Electronic tickets are so handy and I’d never had to produce such a number before!

Rather than search through Esther and my three suitcases, we decided to call our agent MTS Travel’s number on our itinerary. I don't know who I talked to, but she had a very heavy accent and the airport was so noisy that it was REALLY hard to hear OR to understand her, and she got very frustrated with me when I made her repeat stuff. The TACA employee tried several of numbers that MTS Travel gave to no avail. One of the numbers MTS gave turned out to be the reservation number for the group that I was located in a file somewhere in one of our suitcases. Unfortunately, that number did not produce any results at the counter either. Finally, realizing that we DID have seats reserved, and that there were only a few minutes remaining to be able to board the plane, a supervisor decided to check us in, saying that we would be re-issued e-tickets from the central office in San Salvador to solve the information gap on their computers. They hurried us through check-in and we rushed through security and we got to the gate just as they had begun boarding. The plane took off only a few minutes behind schedule. It’s a good thing they rushed us thorough check-in because a preliminary weighing of our bags revealed that about one-third of our group’s bags were overweight. Lots of souvenirs bought in Guatemala!

I breathed a sigh of relief as I settled into my seat. It would have been one thing to be in the situation I was in if I had been traveling alone, but being in that situation with 20 other travelers was nerve-wrecking to say the least. At one point TACA’s ticket counter employee asked me if it would be all right for us to take a direct flight to Mexico City at 8pm that evening since our problem was unsolvable to get on the current flight, and that would give them more time to work it out. I hoped to avoid that if at all possible—I couldn’t imagine entertaining a group of 19 tired, hungry, potentially grouchy students for 12 more hours at the airport in Guatemala City. I also hoped to avoid trying to call Mexico to change arrangements for our pick up without having a phone with me or access to the Internet.

But the story doesn’t end there. We were only headed to San Salvador, and we had to change planes there to get to Mexico City. As part of our check-in process, we had received boarding passes for our Salvador-Mexico leg, but when we started to board, they saw a “show ticket” warning on the boarding passes and stopped us again at the gate. Apparently TACA’s San Salvador central office had done nothing, and we were again in limbo. For some unknown reason, I had shoved into my pocket a piece of computer-print-out gobbeldygook from my interchanges with the airline agent back in Guatemala. How I remembered that piece of paper in my pocket, and was aware enough to hand it over to the agents at the gate, I will never know. Why I hadn’t thrown it away somewhere between Guatemala and the long concourses at the San Salvador airport, I will never know either. Apparently those funny configurations of numbers, letters and explanation points must have made sense to the TACA counter agents in San Salvador, or perhaps they made sense to the computer, because after they started plugging them into their computers, they worked like magic. We were on the plane to Mexico.

My sigh of relief as I now settled into my seat must have been heard around the world. We were rewarded for our ordeal after arriving to the airport in Mexico City. We had a two-hour inter-city public bus ride ahead of us to get to Puebla, our final destination for the next five weeks. Entering the bus we were handed a plastic bag of free snacks including one of my favorites from Mexico, Japanese peanuts, and a free drink of our choice. There was also free Wi-Fi for the trip, so I quickly checked the Phillies score on my iPod, then turned on some music and closed my eyes—relieved and contented. As we traveled through the pass between the two snow-capped volcanoes, Popocat√©petl and Iztacc√≠huatl, I sent a prayer of gratitude heavenward; not only for getting through the computerized messes at the airports, but also for keeping us safe along the way.