Who I Am

Who I Am

My Facebook friends might recognize this photo from a post from this summer. My daughter, Kerra, and her family were visiting when then four- year-old Emaline made her singing debut at Grandaddy’s church. “Amazing Grace”–and it was a sweet sound indeed!

Just a few weeks ago I came across the printed version of this image and when I held it in my hands I was struck by two things: I am a tactile person and holding the photograph to look and reflect on the moment it was taken gave me a whole different perspective than just looking at the same photograph on a screen; and wow, how this picture tells the story of who I am.

Certainly there is more to me than a man in ecclesial vestments, clutching a guitar and a precious grandchild. Indeed! But those three things, drawn together in one place, go as far as I can imagine to speak to the deepest, truest and best me.

There is that little girl.

She is my first grandchild and my first granddaughter. She was the first to award me with the title I coveted so–first owned by my own grandfather, who I knew and loved for thirty seven of his ninety two years. It took her two iterations: “Da-da-daddy,” and “Gran-daggly” before she finally got to “Grandaddy.” [I must admit, “Gran-daggly” sure made me smile!]

Emaline stands in this photo to represent the family that I love so. As long as I can remember, I have been loved and have loved lots and lots of people that I am related to by blood, or by being married into the messiness that is sometimes known as “family.” I would not trade all of your good family memories for all of my hard ones if it meant giving up my family. I love them warts and all.

There are those fancy robes.

The green chasuble was handmade by women of my congregation. The wooden pectoral cross was hand-carved by a dear man from my congregation from local cedar. Under the chasuble I wear a pastor’s stole that was given me when I was ordained. The vestments are all symbols of what I do on Sunday mornings. But they don’t begin to speak to the honor, the joy, and the privilege of wearing them.

When I was on Sabbatical in the summer of 2018 I came to the conclusion that the book I hoped to write would still have to wait. I would not beat myself up over that unfinished and important (to me) work. I remembered that I wrestle with words for a room full of people every week. It is obviously God’s Word first, and then I listen and pray and do my best to make a connection between that Holy word and the Holy happenings of everyday life, where sometimes we notice God showing up and sometimes–to be quite honest–we wonder where God might be hiding? At the end of my Sabbatical I came to this conclusion:

I see myself as the “writer in residence“ at Faith Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Lebanon Tennessee. The good people there call me “Pastor” and I get to do all sorts of amazing things with them in addition to writing. They let me lead worship on Sunday mornings and preside at the Holy Supper and baptize their babies into the death and resurrected life of Jesus Christ. They invite me into their thoughts and hearts and joys and sorrows, and ask me to say words to God at their bedside before surgeries, and during other important events of their lives and the lives of those they love. I even have the high and holy privilege of saying the last words for their loved ones before they are laid to their final rest. I get to invite them to the table to share a meal in a specific moment and place, which, through the mystery of faith, connects all of us in every time and every place.

I have imagined myself as a pastor since I was about seven years old. After almost fifty years I finally got to be one. I have not been disappointed.

And finally, there is that guitar.

There is no way I would say the guitar is more important than anything else in the picture. But the guitar is really what nudged me to say the truth of who I am.

As I was looking at the picture (the day I first held it in my hand) I was thinking of what I needed to say about the guitar. It started something like this: “The guitar is a 1969 Gibson J-50.” I imagined in my writer’s mind telling the true story of buying it from my friend, the late Pete Cummings, the end of the summer after we had both graduated from high school in 1973. I paid $200 for the guitar–mostly to impress the girl I was taking on a date for the second time, who I thought would never go on a first date with me in the first place. But about the time I started painting a narrative picture in my mind I realized 1969 was fifty years ago.

Fifty. Years.

The guitar has accompanied me through some of the most memorable events of my life. I have played it for people I loved more than life, and people I didn’t even know. I have played it at friends’ and strangers’ weddings, funerals, church camp, camp fires, on a beach at night and by a dear friend’s deathbed. I played twice a week for five years, for tiny tots at a Mother’s Day out program. I have played it for more hours than I can count just for me–and those were some of my most important performances. It has helped me tell my story in ways I could have never imagined to people I never dreamed would hear my story.

Live at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville

Who am I? I am a grandaddy and a pastor. I have been a student, a warehouse worker, Gospel Music business executive, worked in the TV and film production industry, had a career in insurance sales and management, worked as a lay professional at a church, and now am an ordained Lutheran pastor. All along the way–across every single one of those jobs and vocations and even between them (when that happened a time or two along the way) I have been a guitar player. And I have been a singer. And I am so thankful that who I am is held together by the strong thread of music.

The girl I wanted to impress is long gone. The guitar is still here, and has brought me so much joy and so much life in the 46 years I have owned it. Sometime in this year of 2019 that beautiful instrument turned fifty years old. I wonder if I was playing it somewhere on its actual birthday?

“Happy Birthday” seems sort of strange for an inanimate object. But then, that guitar sure seems to come to life sometimes. And it has sure brought me to life many, many times.

Gordon Kennedy, (who co-wrote the Eric Clapton hit “Change the World”) played my guitar at a songwriting workshop. So did Beth Nielsen Chapman (who co-wrote the Faith Hill hit “This Kiss”) sitting to the right in this photograph. It played as well for them as it always does for me!

Her Name is Gretchen

“You don’t tell your story so people will know you better. You tell your story so people will hear their story in your own.”

Robert Benson

“Any sorrow can be borne if a story can be told about it.”

Karen Blixen, quoted by Richard Lischer in The End of Words

Her name is Gretchen.

Is, not was.

I have wanted to tell this story thirty times. I have wanted to tell this story for thirty years.

When the long summer days grow shorter, and children start back to school, and the next break on the calendar is “Labor Day,” I know what is coming: back-to-back birthdays.  My daughter, Lindsay, has a birthday on September 5th, and her mother, Leann, has a birthday on September 6th, and in the midst of the joy and celebration of the bundling of these birthdays, comes the sorrow of a memorial that must be made in the midst of them: birthdays and deathdays. (FYI: As if we must hide from the stark reality of the latter, the spellchecker red-underlines “deathdays” as misspelled, but not “birthdays.”)

Life and death, birth and burial, always held in tension on this day. Highest joy in one hand, and deepest sorrow in the other. Prayers of simultaneous thanksgiving and remembrance, are offered. My fingers are fastened together as tightly as the memory of the good and the bad that I feel deep in my being.

Her name is Gretchen.

Since Leann was a little girl, she had chosen a name—actually made up the spelling—of her child, if she had a girl. Having “conditions” when one gets married is probably not the wisest of things, but I knew this was a condition, or a law, or an irrevocable beneficiary, if I was going to have this one as my wife. “Kerra” would be the name of our first girl. And it was. At least I got to put my own mark on that naming, by picking out the middle name: “Leann,” after her mother. I scored points on two counts that day: living up to the pre-marital child-naming condition, and honoring a mother with a namesake, all in one fell swoop. Meet “Kerra Leann.”

But I had my own childhood naming ideas.

They began to form when I was in junior high, and became interested in my surname, and its connections to Germany, and the little bit of family history that my father could tell me.  I thought if I ever had a little girl, it might suit her to have a German girl’s name: “Gretchen,” I thought. “That seems pretty ‘German.'”

As I grew older I honestly do not remember giving much more thought to naming my little girl “Gretchen,” and I certainly never considered  it important enough to be a deal breaker for selecting a life-mate. I do remember I had picked out a little girl’s name, but not a little boy’s name.

We found out we were expecting a second time in the spring of 1990.  Kerra was three years old, and the right age to be really excited about a new baby. The whole family was excited. As I recall, my mother had suggested not sharing a baby’s name before the baby was born, because then one would have to put up with explaining, and defending the choice right up until the day of the birth. I thought that was wise council. Until it wasn’t.

At about 22 weeks into the pregnancy, I accompanied Leann to an obstetrician visit. An ultrasound was scheduled, and she thought I might want to be there for the news that might arise from the examination.  When the doctor walked in the room, where the two of us were waiting, and he smiled and asked: “What’s he doing here?” we found out the ultrasound would be scheduled on this visit–not done.  But as the doctor felt and prodded and listened to a rounding stomach with his stethoscope, he announced: “Well…maybe we will be doing an ultrasound today.  I think I hear two heartbeats.”

With no history of twins on either side of our family, we were quite shocked and surprised by the news.  A few minutes later, on another floor of the doctor’s office building, we found out we were indeed expecting twins, and, at the same time, there were some concerns about a significant difference in the rate of growth of the two babies.  So we received a referral to yet another doctor’s office in the neighborhood, and the term “specialist” started being thrown around like it was a sign of being privileged.

There was long enough between the two ultrasounds to grab lunch, call our parents to let them know of the exciting news, and to ask for prayers, as we moved toward learning more about the possibilities of a very complicated pregnancy.

At the second-in-the-same-day ultrasound appointment, which included a (then) new technology, Doppler ultrasound, which measures the flow of blood, the specialist informed us that our identical twins—girls— had a rare (and rarely positive outcome) condition known as “twin transfusion.”  Being able to see the flow of blood confirmed that “Baby B” was receiving used and contaminated blood from “Baby A” through an umbilical cord that was not returning directly to the mother.  So Baby B was getting blood from the mother, and used blood from her twin sister.  Because the outcome for the babies, and sometimes for the mother, was so dire, the doctor recommended terminating the pregnancy.

We decided to just hang on to the very small percentage of hope, and see what would happen.

Although I have spent a fair amount of time and money on my formal theological education, this was the school at which I learned the most about prayer, and how God answers prayer (or doesn’t), and about God being in control (or not), and how God’s plan (as some would frame it) just couldn’t be God’s plan, if what eventually happened in “the plan” for Baby A and Baby B was actually written out on God’s own creative drawing board.

In the next calls we made to our parents, the previous nervous laughter and “what-if’s” about twins, was filled with sounds without words—mostly sobbing—on both ends of the line.

“We will pray….we will ask everyone we know to pray,” was the response that we got, as we rolled out our breaking news.  It happened. People really did pass the word, and people prayed. I know this, because I received many a note and letter from people I’d never met, who were third or fourth in succession of hearing this news that had been passed from somebody who knew us, to somebody who didn’t. It was astounding. But somehow, “Pray for Baby A and Baby B” just didn’t seem quite appropriate. They needed names.

I guess if ours had been a typical one-baby, second-girl pregnancy, Leann and I may have had to arm wrestle over our baby’s name. “You named the first one. It’s my turn this time!”  Now we needed two names, and we really didn’t particularly have even one name that either of us were insistent on using.  So we both got to pick a name, and I got my wish: “Gretchen. I’ve always thought Gretchen would be a pretty name for a girl.”  Leann liked “Lindsay spelled with an ‘a.’”  So we both got our choices.  We took advantage of needing two names to honor two other important women in our lives: Leann’s mom, Marie, and my mom, Jane.  I’m not sure exactly how we decided “Baby A would be ‘Gretchen Marie,’ and Baby B would be ‘Lindsay Jane,’” but that is how it worked out. When I think back on it, I wonder if Leann was thinking: “Baby A has a better chance of making it. I got my ‘Kerra,’ and so Matt should have his ‘Gretchen?’”

Her name is Gretchen.

Is, not was.

Lindsay Jane lived. Gretchen Marie did not.

I’ve written a few words about that sad day, that one can find here.  But what I write in this space is not about the sadness of Gretchen’s death. It is about the thirty years of sadness of not hearing her name.

Every now and then, I write something that brings an unexpected gift to me. I never write with that intention, but it certainly happens more often than I expect, and certainly more than I deserve.  This writing has been no different. I believe paying attention and telling the truth are the two most important things a writer must do. I believe the same for plumbers as I do for poets, and the same for seamstresses as I do for songwriters. Pay attention. Tell the truth.

I have loved this passage from the Book of Isaiah for a long time. I have never really associated it with my memories of Lindsay’s birth and Gretchen’s death until this very writing.

I have prayerfully read these words from the prophet, Isaiah, to people who are about to have serious surgery, and I have read it to people who are going through a really hard place. I read it to my life-long, dearest friend, on her death bed, about three days before she died, and a Holy Presence wrapped me and her, and our other two dearest friends who were present for that special farewell, in an embrace as strong as the Universe, and as gentle as a whisper of love.

But now thus says the LORD,

he who created you, O Jacob,

he who formed you, O Israel:

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;

I have called you by name, you are mine.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,

and the flame shall not consume you.

For I am the LORD your God,

the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:1-3a NRSV)

The Holy Presence wraps around me the very same on this day.

There is truth in every line of this Word from God, through the prophet Isaiah. There is truth for Gretchen, and truth for Lindsay, and truth for their dad. I would be safe in saying there is truth here for you too, dear reader, whether it is truth you need on this day, or truth you might need on a day to come.

God has called you by name, and you are God’s.

Gretchen, I have called you by name, and you are mine—will always be mine.

Your name partly lives on with your sister, Lindsay Jane-Marie, and, in some sense, because you are genetic copies of each other, so do you.

Gretchen is your name.

Love,

Dad

You are afraid of them, but Jesus would call them: “Neighbor”

Since Tennessee’s Governor, Bill Lee, made the decision to allow refugees to continue to be settled in Tennessee, several counties and municipalities in the state have started working to pass local laws to prohibit giving these people a chance at freedom and opportunity. (Isn’t that sort of what America was founded on?)

This information was provided by Lutheran Services of Georgia–an organization which has settled refugees for decades.

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is secure:

• Resettlement is the most difficult way to enter the U.S., and refugees are the most thoroughly vetted individuals in the U.S., going through all screenings before they arrive.

• Vetting includes biometric and biographic checks; interagency intelligence sharing; screenings against multiple domestic and international terrorist and criminal databases; background investigations by the FBI, Department of Defense, State Department, and National Counterterrorism Center; and in-person interviews by Homeland Security officers.

• Refugees receive an interest free travel loan to pay for the cost of their transportation to the US. Refugees give back to their new communities.

Economic Contributions

• Refugees start working as soon as possible, pay taxes, start businesses, purchase homes, and become U.S. citizens.

• While refugees receive initial assistance upon arriving in the United States, they see particularly sharp income increases in subsequent years. While refugees here five years or less have a median household income of roughly $22,000, that figure more than triples in the following decades, growing far faster than other foreign-born groups. By the time a refugee has been in the country at least 25 years, their median household income reaches $67,000—a full $14,000 more than the median income of U.S. households overall

• Over a 20-year-period, refugees contribute, on average, $21,000 more in taxes than the initial investment to resettle them. In 2015, refugees contributed $21 billion in U.S. taxes.

• The average workforce participation rate of refugees is 81.8%, above the national 62%.

• 13% of refugees were entrepreneurs in 2015, compared to 9% percent of the U.S.-born.

• 40% of all Fortune 500 companies were founded by refugees, immigrants or their children.

• Many industries, like hospitality and meatpacking rely on refugee workers. Across the U.S., the low number of refugee arrivals is putting a strain on businesses, especially in rural areas.

• For the state of TN, a snapshot of the demographic and economic contributions of refugees shows that in 2015, refugee population household income was $649.9M with total spending power of $497.5M. Total taxes paid was $152.3M

Is there a Link Between Refugees and U.S. Crime Rates? To examine this issue, New American Economy used refugee resettlement data from the U.S. Department of State’s Worldwide Refugee Processing System to calculate the 10 cities in the US that received the most refugees relative to the size of their population between 2006 and 2015. This revealed a telling pattern: Rather than crime increasing, nine out of 10 of the communities actually became considerably more safe, both in terms of their levels of violent and property crime.

Here is new analysis on the economic cost of opting out of refugee resettlement for a few key states. TN stands to loose $4.1 million.

A Dozen Reasons Not to Love the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017

Here is a link to the Congressional Budget Office Score on the latest Senate proposed Better Reconciliation Act of 2017.

Click to access 52941-hr1628bcra.pdf

If you don’t have time to read all 22 pages, here are some highlights (This is simply copied and pasted. My own editorial comments are in bold type.):

1) Compared with the June 26 cost estimate for a previous version of the legislation, this cost estimate shows savings [to the federal deficit] over the next 10 years that are larger—as well as estimated effects on health insurance coverage and on premiums for health insurance that are similar.

2) enacting this legislation would reduce federal deficits by $420 billion over the 2017–2026 period. This is about $100 Billion more than the previous version. Good news for the deficit.

(Bad news for the disabled [like my son, Matt], the elderly in nursing homes, and children born into or living in poverty through no fault of their own who will be subsidizing this deficit reduction plan by the cuts to their Medicaid health care and services.  Very brave of the Republican Senate to do that. Very brave.)

3) The largest savings would come from a reduction in total federal spending for Medicaid resulting both from provisions affecting health insurance coverage and from other provisions. By 2026, spending for that program would be reduced by 26 percent.

4) In 2026, for people who are made newly eligible under the ACA (certain adults under the age of 65 whose income is less than or equal to 138 percent of the federal poverty level [FPL]), Medicaid spending would be reduced by 87 percent, from $134 billion to $17 billion

5) This one is my personal evaluation, and I am sourcing a bar chart in the report.  The June 26 version shows a cut of $772 Billion in Medicaid.  The July 20 version shows a $756 cut in Medicaid.  PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DO NOT LISTEN TO SENATOR LAMAR ALEXANDER WHEN HE WILL MOST LIKELY SUGGEST THESE NUMBERS MEAN “THE NEW PROPOSAL INCREASES MEDICAID SPENDING BY $16 BILLION”)

6) The increase in the number of uninsured people relative to the number under current law would reach 19 million in 2020 and 22 million in 2026

7) Under this legislation, in 2018, average premiums for benchmark plans for single policyholders would be about 20 percent higher than under current law,

8) under this legislation, 64- year-olds could be charged five times as much as 21-year-olds, CBO and JCT expect, compared with three times as much under current law—resulting in higher premiums for most older people.

9) For many lower-income people, the net premiums paid in the nongroup market under this legislation would be lower than those under current law if they purchased benchmark plans, but the plans would require them to pay a greater share of their health care costs.

“We will lower your premiums” the Republican Senators told us.  What they didn’t tell us: “The deductibles and copays will be much higher for all of you.”

10) For older people not eligible for premium tax credits, net premiums (after taking into account the tax savings from paying premiums from a health savings account) could be more than five times larger than those for younger people in many states, rather than only three times larger under current law.

11) Under this legislation, for a single policyholder purchasing an illustrative benchmark plan (with an actuarial value of 58 percent) in 2026, the deductible for medical and drug expenses combined would be roughly $13,000, the agencies estimate.

12) Because a deductible of $13,000 would be a large share of their income, many people with low income would not purchase any plan even if it had very low premiums.

If you are an “older American” – say, just a few years shy of being eligible for Medicare; if you are a family member of a person with Developmental Disabilities; if you are poor or working poor, or if you are a Christian, and simply aware of Jesus’ cry for the poor and a Christian’s call to be for the same thing Jesus is for, then you might want to call your United States Senator and let them know you oppose this legislation.  Offer a word of encouragement to them. One hundred bright Americans elected to deliberate and write legislation that builds up our great nation should really be able to come up with something better than this. (202) 224-3121

What He Saw

My father’s backyard view.

This is the last picture I took of my dad in his home. June 3, 2016, my mom and I brought him home after a three-day stay in the hospital for a mild heart attack. He would go back to the hospital the next morning and would go to his eternal rest less than 24 hours after that.

I remember after he drove his power chair up the ramp of his home, instead of going straight through the sliding glass door that leads from the deck into the house, he pivoted to where he could see this magnificent view (that this photograph barely even captures). It made me grin to think this was the first thing he wanted to do after getting home from the hospital – take in this view that he had experienced for 60 years. So I tried to capture with a picture one of the things that he loved.

As I look back now, on this anniversary of my father’s death, I can’t help but reflect on all the things that he saw in his almost 91 years of life. This particular view of his beloved Old Hickory lake changed almost by the hour. The clouds one can see in this picture would eventually transform into the backdrop for a multi-hued sunset of gray and rose and blues and flecks of gold sparkling on the water. My mother reminds us that every day they woke up and looked outside, the lake provided them a new and different vista.

It seems that most every thing my father saw was filled with possibility and new potential. I can hardly remember a discouraging word coming from his mouth. About the only times I remember him raising his voice at me was was for parental guidance that was wholely deserved. However, I do remember him (surprisingly) fussing at his grandchildren on occasion. It was when he heard them say: “I can’t!” He would respond with a firm: “Don’t ever say ‘you can’t.'” And he would leave it at that. I think even as youngsters they got it – that this man who had walked with a brace from the time he was 7 years old, and whom they had witnessed not being slowed down a single step by that “handicap,” was gently reminding them that sometimes it is nothing but our attitude that gets in the way of our achievement.

My dad was amazing at seeing things the way they could be and should be, and then figuring out a way to get involved in moving his vision as close to reality as he could. He did that as a PTO dad, as a State Legislator, as a member of the city planning commission, as a leader in his church.

He was also amazing at seeing things that would never be and loving them just the same. When Leann and I were expecting our third child I had already decided if it was a boy I was going to name him John Mathias Steinhauer, IV. But I was not naming him after me. I was naming him after my dad. A few hours after Matt was born, and we discovered he had Down syndrome, I was really torn about what my father would think about having a retarded grandchild named after him. I never asked my dad what he thought about that. I didn’t have to. He was always as proud and involved with Matt as any of his seven grandchildren. What he saw was “one of his grandchildren.” He didn’t see the imperfections and obvious differences that the world would see in Matt.

If I see half the things my father saw – the way he saw them – I will be OK.

Between the Light and the Darkness

Advent Light

On a crisp November afternoon I found myself between the light and the darkness.

There is an official name for the celestial version of that condition: “dusk.” I needed to be there as I installed outdoor Christmas lights. In that place between light and dark, I would be able to see what I was doing, as well as being able to see the lights themselves.

Alone with the silence, I found myself quiet and still enough to reflect on the great empty space that had come upon me over the Thanksgiving Holiday, due to the absence of my sweet father after his death in the late spring.  Standing in the shadows of my house that blocked a setting sun, holding a tangled wad of Christmas lights, I was surprised to catch myself not fretting over having to spend extra time getting the green-wired-mess straight.  Instead, I was fretting to myself over my friends and family who have made this journey before me.  “Why didn’t you tell me it would hurt like this?” I asked all the faces I could think of who had experienced a “first Thanksgiving” (or Christmas) without Mom or Dad.  In the same instant I was asking myself: “Why did you not know it would be this way – you who have prayed for, and walked with, people on this same journey as their pastor?”

Shaking my head seemed more appropriate than shaking my fist.  And I quickly remembered having the same feeling after my first grandchild, Emaline, was born – that feeling when I understood there are some life experiences for which words fall short of showing the way for another to know the truth.

In the almost six months of having to go through all those hard “first-time-without-Daddy” annually occurring events, this had been the hardest yet.  After his death on June 5th, Father’s Day came around exactly two weeks later, and soon on the heels of that sad reckoning was what would have been his 91st Birthday on July 23rd.  Maybe I was still so numb from his death that I was somewhat protected from the deep sorrow in those first “first-time” experiences. When my birthday rolled around in early November, I was quite sad that I didn’t get my annual birthday lunch at Nashville’s German restaurant, The Gerst Haus.  My dad always took me and his dear lifelong friend, Lucien Swint, for lunch (our birthdays were close together).  Afterwards we would explore their boyhood stomping grounds, by driving slowly through East Nashville, with the two of them narrating a play-by-play of who lived in every house, and the memories that resided on what seemed like every street corner and old building.  It was an annual tradition rich with meaning for me.

Dictionary.com defines the adjective “dusk” as “tending to darkness.”  I understand the thinking behind that being the possible description of an adjective, but I really think “tending to darkness” should be a verb. It adequately describes my feelings on that afternoon of hanging lights.  I was indeed “tending to darkness” – the darkness of my own soul and spirit.  But because “dusk” is that liminal place between daylight and dark, while I might have been “tending to darkness,” I seemed to be “leaning to light.”

I thought about some other “firsts.”  I thought about what my dad might have felt like the first time he got to hold me after I was born.  I thought of the first time he went to one of my school plays, and the first time he heard me sing and play my guitar in public.  I thought of the first time he got to see me hold my own child for the first time.  I thought of the first time he got to see me lead worship as an ordained Lutheran pastor.  The sun kept going down and the coming of dark could not be avoided. But maybe because I had spent that day in the reality of Advent hope, my spirit was no longer tracking step-for-step with the declining sun.

Advent is a four Sunday season of the church that begins the liturgical year.  Some people think about it as a “countdown to Christmas,” but in reality, it is a season to reflect on the expectant waiting and preparation Christians  are called to do until the return of Jesus Christ at the end of the age.  In churches that observe the liturgy, one will see altars and pulpits draped with blue fabric, and the clergy vestments will include blue stoles.  There will be a wreath of four blue candles, and in some churches perhaps one might see banners and other decorations bearing the blue of Advent.  It is a “blue” season, and as it turns out,  it seems that description could be taken literally and figuratively.

Advent occurs over the very days that the daylight hours grow to their shortest and darkest.  There is scientific evidence that a lack of sunlight can impact and magnify feelings of depression. Like my own experience, this is the time of year when many people experience the exact opposite emotion of all that is being advertised, talked about, and promoted in the malls and TV commercials: joy, happiness, celebration.  It is a time when, for some people, it is very easy to find one’s self in a “blue” mood.

The color “blue” is used for Advent because it is known as a color that represents “hope.” Perhaps there is no better reason to hope, in this season of Advent, than to reflect on the promise of Christ’s return and what that will mean for all who find themselves in darkness this time of year.

There are two passages from the book of Revelation that offer great hope:

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;  he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3b-4 NRSV).

And,

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there (Rev. 21:22-25).

No tears, no darkness.  That’s enough for me to hope for on a crisp November afternoon.

 

Father Teacher

There is so much I want to say at the death of my father – an amazing, kind, gentle and loving man.  I could point you to the several hundred word articles written about his life after he died that were published in local papers and social media.  I could point you to a beautifully done TV news story about his time with FDR at Warm Springs, GA, when he was a 7 year old boy, that aired on the day after he died.Happy Father's Day II

When my dad was diagnosed with some significant heart problems in the last few days of his life I really thought I would have some weeks left to be in his presence. I had already decided that for Father’s Day I would publish a poem that I wrote for him 15 years ago on my blog.  It seemed to be even more true after the ensuing decade and a half since its creation.  Instead, the Father’s Day recognition was offered as a brief Eulogy for him at his funeral on Wednesday, June 8, 2016.

While I hope the images of a “parent/child” relationship are universal enough for anyone to appreciate, there is one stanza that was written out of an experience that only a handful of people witnessed, and so I will share that experience with you here so you may listen to the poem with greater clarity.

The summer after my freshman year in college, when my dad was serving in the Tennessee State Legislature, he and his colleague and good friend, Rep. Jack Burnett, took their families to Nassau, Bahamas, for a week at Paradise Island Resort.  In addition to me, my high school aged sister and my junior high aged younger brother were present.  The Burnett family included two daughters that were about my brother’s age.

Upon checking in at the hotel my dad asked the clerk if he could recommend a good “family oriented” show that we might experience.  “Of course!  The ‘Bahamian Review’ is in our own hotel and it includes dinner and a great floor show!” the clerk replied.  “And it is ‘family’ oriented?” my dad confirmed.  A couple nights later the two families, dressed in our fine dinner wear, were seated at a long table that accommodated the dozen of us.  The table butted right up against the stage, so one could not ask for a better seat in the house.

After a wonderful meal the house lights went down, the show orchestra began the overture.  Spotlights swirled around the large room full of dinner theater attendees and as they swept across the stage I sensed something was moving from the ceiling above.  My brother was sitting with his right shoulder against the stage, and I was directly across the table from him.  As the stage lights began to come up, I looked above to see two giant bird-cage-like contraptions on each end of the stage and in addition to the feathers and glittered costumes there were two beautiful women wearing nothing from the waist up!

As this situation became apparent to the rest of the table I could see my mother “look” at my father with a: “this is a FAMILY show?” look in her eyes.  The only way my brother and I could avoid the tension between my mother and father (and the embarrassment of having all the young females in our group see our blushing faces) was just to keep staring at those cages and those naked women inside them.  As I shared with the family and friends gathered for my father’s funeral, when I told this story there, if looks really could kill, then we would have all been gathered in the summer of 1974 for my father’s funeral, and we would have been begging his friends with political connections to get permission for his widow and (our mother) to be released from jail (where she was being held for justifiable homicide) long enough to attend the funeral.

My life is full of fun stories because of my dad.  My life is full of good memories and deep wisdom because of my dad.  I am grateful and glad.  But today my heart hurts in realizing this is the first Father’s Day in 60 years that I will do it without my Dad.

I love you Daddy!

Father Teacher

I’ve spent a fair fortune in recent years,

          to hang a paper in a frame,

to add some letters behind my name,

that would tell the world

I have learned.

But now I know to the “nth” degree,

the greatest lessons were given me

by a loving

     living

                   legend…

my Daddy.

You taught me how to shake a hand

   and look somebody in the eye.

You taught me how to open my mouth

   and speak distinctly.

   Did I?

You taught me how to avoid a fight;

 it served me well,

 not a single black eye.

You took me to exotic places

and showed me

   dancing naked ladies.

(That your life was spared

for another day on the beach

 was perhaps

  the greater miracle!)

You’ve lived your life in such a way

  that to mirror yours would be OK.

And now the turn is mine alone

to pass these lessons to my own.

My greatest hope when I do,

is that I pass them the largest part

of what I learned from you.

Matt Steinhauer – Father’s Day, 2001

Growing Roses

Roses
I’ve never tried to grow a rose,
but from those who do
I hear
a challenge awaits. 

The soil must be right,
the shears sharp
the sun bright
the trellis straight.
 
All these pieces put into place
in right order
and right space,
might yield
a bursting fragrant bloom,
petals soft to touch,
color to catch your eye
quick before it’s gone.

I’ve never tried to mother a child
but from women who do
I see
a challenge awaits.

The love must be right
the discipline sharp
the smile bright
the truth straight.
 
All these pieces put into place
in right order
and right space
might yield
a healthy happy life,
returned hugs to hold onto,
words to wash the worries away,
quick before they’re grown.

Growing roses
is like growing children.
You get back
what you give them.
 
Matt Steinhauer

Good Days in the Life of a Downs Dad

This essay was first published in the Op Ed section of The Tennessean newspaper in September of 2006. I wrote it in response to a news story reporting a decline of births of Down syndrome babies due to prenatal testing that led to terminated pregnancies. I wanted expecting parents to know what they might be missing.

I am not a medical ethicist or an activist for the disabled. I am a father of a son with Down syndrome. Since the birth of my son, and the September 3, 2006, article about the decline in birth rates of babies with Down syndrome, it has been 4249 days. It has been that many days since our family received the news and made the assumption that our third child and first son would bring us years of hardship and challenges because he came to us with that extra chromosome on what should have been the twenty-first pair. We probably cried that many tears upon hearing the news. But I have also learned at least that many lessons in life and love from my son in the almost 12 years he has graced our lives with his presence. Let me share just a few of them with you.

Me and Matt on the night of his graduation from Station Camp High School in May of 2014. Me and Matt on the night of his graduation from Station Camp High School in May of 2014.

“I’m sick of you, I’m sick of this trip, and I’m sick of Aunt Edna!” That quote from Chevy Chase’s “Vacation” movie was delivered by Matt while he was standing in our kitchen, having a particularly frustrating day. It brought peals of laughter from Mom, Dad and his teenage sister. It is one of many pieces of internalized movie dialogue Matt will deliver at the most appropriate time in either English or French (since he enjoys interchanging the language and subtitles on the DVD’s he watches).

He came home from school last week (he is a main-streamed fifth grader) “on strike” because he was skipping down the hall. I noticed one time that Matt also skipped down the sidewalk into school every morning after he got out of the car. I have wondered many times, while observing him, why none of the other children were skipping and how old one must be to be “too old” to skip? Can you imagine how much better place the world would be if the U.S. Congress was required to hold hands and skip around the Capitol each day before they began their sessions?

When he was about five years old he called me over to the kitchen table, where he was eating his Rice Krispies, and asked me to “listen.” I bent down and positioned my ear near the bowl and exclaimed, “Wow, Matt! What do you hear?” Expecting the reply of “Snap, Crackle, Pop,” I was humbled to hear his incredible insight: “It’s raining in my cereal.” Listen to a bowl of Rice Krispies some time and then listen to the rain beat against your windshield in the car in a rain storm. You will be amazed.

Within hours of his birth I wrote in my journal: “I am able to hide all of my imperfections behind the façade of my relatively normal brain and body. Matt’s imperfections just hang out there for the world to see. I wonder which of us is worse off?”

Yes, there are challenges, and questions about the future and our life is changed because we have a special needs child. If I could choose now to have Matt “normal” or with Down syndrome, I would choose to have him just the way he is. He may have “less” than typically developing children in some areas, but he has so many talents, so much sensitivity to the world around him, and brings more gifts to our life than some “brilliant” adults I know. This letter may not change the course of the trend in possible terminated pregnancies, but if just one expecting parent reads it and says “yes” to bringing another child like Matt into the world I will be 4249 times grateful – and so will they!

Last Dance

My brother, Steven, rightly claims that he got the first dance with my first daughter, Kerra. As I recall, we were at a family wedding reception when he picked up my toddling daughter and grinned while informing me: “Looks like I’m getting the first dance with Kerra!” He reminds me of that just about anytime we are at a wedding and there is dancing involved.

I have recently been revisiting my journals that I have been keeping for almost 25 years, and was given a gift to relieve some of the sting of not having had that first dance with Kerra.  Whatever cards and notes and written memorabilia I collect during a particular season of journaling goes into a pocket of the cover of that journal, or simply tucked into the inside cover when my journal has no pocket.  I came across an undated “Thank You” from Kerra, and it referred to “that extremely sweet note” that I had written her.  In her note to me she shared: “The thought of you even chaperoning my dance in middle school made me want to kill you guys! Even though it was just dancing! But to let you come in and dance! (Ha ha) what a change.”  She continued: “I also was honored to have my last dance of the junior prom with my father.… I will remember this prom forever though. Thanks for the dance. XOXO I love you.”

It made me smile on many levels. Kerra has given us our first granddaughter, Emaline, and it is just fun and rewarding to think on her life transitions from middle-school-paranoia of the highest order – one’s father threatening to “hang out” at a middle school dance – to high school proms, to marriage, and finally to motherhood. The writing gods rewarded me with the details of what transpired to cause our writing each other. As I leafed through the volume of my journal where I found the note, I came upon an entry in April 2004. I wrote from Washington DC, where I was ironically chaperoning a middle school trip with my younger daughter, Lindsay.

From my journal: Kerra had told us about a week before prom (this past Friday night), parents of officers were expected to help with decorating. So Leann and I arranged to be present and help her do that. What we didn’t know until just 24 hours or so prior to the event was that we also had to help tear down at 11:45 PM!  I lovingly and jokingly told her, “Okay, but I get the last dance!” She laughed and said “Okay.” 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Friday night (we weren’t supposed to be there until 11:45) she called me about 11:15 to ask where we were, and to say she and her date we’re ready to go and that they already played the last dance and I missed it and she wanted to dance with me! So we hustled over to Vanderbilt Stadium Club and found Kerra. She got the DJ to play one more slow song and we got to dance! I was so happy and delighted and almost “lost it” as we stepped out on the dance floor – her looking radiant and beautiful in her aqua blue gown and her hair fixed so pretty. I made it through about half the dance before I had to turn it back over to her date to finish the dance so I could go back and collect my thoughts. I hope she knows how much I love her and appreciate her asking me to dance with her!

++++++

There were a couple more things in the thank you note that I did not mention. One of them was Kerra’s admission of crying when she read my note to her. Because she was honest with me about that, I guess I should be honest with her – that when I dictated my journal entry into this blog post, I had to stop about three times. Would you like to guess why? There are many thoughts and ideas, much musing and pondering that I could share on this blog. It seems that I devote most of it to writing about my children. The truth is that I will never be able to share all that I have learned from them by being their father – there’s just not enough white space to write it all.  The other truth is I could write every day for the rest of my life and never express the joy and gratitude and thanksgiving that I have at being given my beautiful children: Kerra, Lindsay, and Matt.