Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Gift of Listening

I just completed two weeks of travel with my father’s WWII POW exhibit. The exhibit is designed to honor my father, of course, but it is also designed to encourage those who attend to remember to thank veterans and service people whenever they have the opportunity. The exhibit also encourages people to tell their own stories. Every person has a story to tell. Certainly, some stories are more dramatic than others, but every person has unique experiences in life that can be very interesting and informative.

At every exhibit I took the time to ask the veterans who attended about their own stories. Often, the response was, “no one is interested in my story” or “no one cares.” I was stunned at how common this response was. When I pressed them a little, almost all of them began to tell me a little of their story. And within seconds, almost every one of them began to cry. Their lips would quiver and their eyes would well up with tears. I was amazed. Very quickly it became clear that people are very touched when someone takes the time to listen. I did not have hours. In most cases I did not have much time at all, but each time I had the opportunity I took a few minutes to listen. It is astounding what people will tell us in just a few minutes if we listen.

Part of their openness to telling their stories, of course, was that some of them had just heard me tell mine. And part of their emotion was that many of these were men who had served in time of war and experienced significant threats to their lives and the loss of comrades and friends. Vietnam vets in particular were emotional about their experiences. The war was such a divisive one in this country and the first to be played out on television on a daily basis. These vets came home not to parades and heroes welcomes, but to derision, criticism, and outright scorn. When I thanked these veterans, they all commented on how infrequently they had heard this.

Politics and wars aside, this experience reinforced for me the deep significance of listening. It is a gift. It is a gift to the one who is heard and to the one who listens. We live in an activity-crazed, frenetically paced time. We simply do not have much time to stop and listen to each other. When we do, people are surprised, and if we really listen, they are nurtured by the attention. But listening is also a gift to the one who hears. Each time I heard a story and looked into the eyes and soul of another human being and heard their story, I felt somehow that I was on sacred ground. Each time I learned something that I did not know before and each time I encountered some part of the image of God.

When my children were little I remember them telling me something and I would respond with a “uh-huh “ or “okay.” Intuitively (and by my body language) they knew that I was not really listening. More than once my children called me on this. They would say, “Mommy, you are not really listening.” They were right. I wasn’t really listening. I was distracted and attending to something else. My recent road trip to do my father’s exhibit has renewed in me a desire to really listen to people. Listening is a gift. And it is a gift that I can give.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Til Death Did Them Part

Although my father’s story of his time as a prisoner of war in WWII is a very tragic one filled with brutality and man’s inhumanity to man, it does have a fairytale ending of sorts.

When the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, of the 300,000 prisoners they had taken, 200,000 survived—barely. Like my father most of them were severely malnourished and diseased. Almost all of them weighed under 100 pounds. The prisoners lost an average of 25 pound a year. Most were prisoners for 3.5 years, meaning they lost 75-90 pounds. My father joined the Army weighing 160 pounds, and he weighed 90 pounds when he was liberated. All of these POWs were seriously ill with malaria, dengue fever, beri beri, and dysentery. Along with 200,000 other soldiers my father spent the next three months in a variety of hospitals being nursed back to his normal weight. It took almost three months. In October 1945 my dad was in Schick General Hospital in Clinton, Iowa, getting very close to being released to go home. There he met Alpheus Brown, who was in the bed next to him. They were both from the Brainerd Lakes area of Minnesota. Al showed my father a picture of his sister Hazel. She was a beautiful young thing! My dad declared, “I am going to marry her.” Al was outraged and responded, “Over my dead body!” Uncle Al later told my husband and me that he thought my dad was some kind of a weirdo! He was so friendly and talkative, Al thought something was wrong with him. But true to form—my father was a very determined man—Ken went home, met Hazel, and less than three months later they were married. The plot thickens.

Mom’s sister Harriet had also begun dating another ex-POW and long-time family friend Carl Kramp when he returned home in October 1945. Mom and Harriet had a best friend named Arlene Leibold. They did not want Al to be left out of the fun, so in late December they called Arlene and asked her if she would like to go out with them. Ken and Hazel, Carl and Harriet, and Al and Arlene went out on a Friday in late December. I don’t know what happened Saturday, but on Sunday Al and Arlene were engaged too. On February 20, 1946, the three couples were married in a triple wedding at my grandparent’s home in Nisswa, Minnesota. The brides all in identical gowns, the guys all in U.S. Army uniforms covered in medals, all three couples married after dating each other less than three months.

Young people who hear this story are aghast. How could these couples possibly do such a thing? They barely knew each other! And what bride would want to share their wedding day with two other couples, let alone wear the exact same dress? And the venue? A living room? As kids would say today, “Shut up!”

Yet these three marriages stood the test of time. Al and Arlene were married 30 years when Al died of a heart attack in 1976. Carl and Harriet were married over 60 years when both of them died in their eighties. And my mom and dad were married 60 years and two months when my father died in 2006. These marriages worked. These men came home after sacrificing some of the best years of their lives serving their country and settled down to do the same for their wives and families. The same work ethic, dedication, and faithfulness that got them enlisted and deployed, and helped them survive unspeakable brutality now went to work to build their homes, families, and this great country we now live in. These Greatest Generation men and women knew what commitment was. When they said “until death do us part,” they meant it.

The sorrow and suffering of their stories was in large part redeemed by this happy ending of three marriages that stood the test of time. All three men almost gave their lives in service to their country. When they survived they did give their lives in service to their families. They remained faithful to each other “till death did them part.”

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Power of Story

Some 300,000 Allied and American soldiers were captured and imprisoned by the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II. One in three perished. There were a lot more POW’s in the European theatre but only one in thirteen perished there. These are just historical facts. Interesting but no one except history buffs get too excited about the statistics.

My father was one of the 300,000 captured in the Pacific, and he was one of the 200,000 that survived. He was severely malnourished and diseased but he survived. The doctors said he would never be able to have children because of the damage done by those three and a half years. The doctors were wrong. I am one of his five children. And not only did my father survive and have children, he thrived and raised a family that now numbers forty-one, with more on the way. I am passionate about telling his story.

My father survived the Bataan Death March, two POW camps and a prison infirmary in the Philippines, a hell ship transport, and forced labor in a copper mine in northern Japan. His three-and-a-half-year ordeal as a prisoner of war is a story of the power and grace of God combined with the determination and hope of a young man. All of a sudden people are very interested in and emotionally moved by this POW story. Why? Because it is a personal story and not just a historical fact. Personal stories are powerful. When told with passion and detail they engage people in quite remarkable ways.

First, personal stories can introduce the listener to a real person. When told well, the audience feels like they come to know the person. Second, personal stories can cause the listener to remember stories of their own. Emotional connection with another person’s story brings to mind experiences of their own and re-engagement with their past. Third, personal stories can inspire listeners to engage more fully in the present. When people experience deep emotion related to real-life experiences of others, they are inspired to experience life more deeply in the present.

This past week I have been telling my father’s POW story, and the response is quite remarkable. People of all ages and stages of life experience my father as a person and express significant appreciation for who he was. People of all ages and stages also open up and begin telling their own stories that are equally engaging. Many of the stories I have been told in the last week have never been told before. Hearing my father’s story encouraged them to tell theirs. And people of all ages and stages expressed a desire to engage more fully in the present—appreciating family and friends, and making the most of whatever life they have to live.

I love telling my father’s story. I love it because it reconnects me to him even though he died five years ago. But I also love telling my father’s story because of the way it impacts those who hear it. The multiplication potential is incalculable. I especially love that my father’s story encourages others to tell their stories too. Personal stories are powerful. The more people telling them, the more life will be enriched for all who tell and all who hear.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Taking Time to Thank a Veteran

Once again today I told my father’s story. A WWII POW story that continues to be written in the lives of his children and grandchildren. The story is a brutal and tender one. Full of the brutality of war and full of the tenderness of a man who rose above the brutality and became a person of grace and hospitality diametrically opposed to what he had suffered.

Each time I do the exhibit I make a point of greeting, introducing, and thanking the veterans who show up. A lot of them show up. They come from all branches of the military and from all kinds of service experiences. Pilots, engineers, medics, sailors all come with unique stories, and many of them are almost entirely untold. Some of them do not want to talk about what they experienced. Many do not think anyone cares. Some have never been asked. One of the hopes I have as I travel and present this exhibit is that folks will begin to pay attention to the stories in their families. Not just war stories but whatever the family story might be. Every family has a story.

One of the most profound lessons of my research and travel to better understand my father’s story is understanding how very much I have been shaped by his story. The Greatest Generation became parents whose WWII experience profoundly shaped families, culture and country. Hearing their stories helps us understand so much about ourselves. The stories of our veterans especially need to be heard, and they need to be thanked for their service and sacrifice. The WWII veterans are dying at a rate of one thousand per day now. We don’t have a lot of time to listen. We don’t have a lot of time to say thanks.

The very first time I presented my exhibit, a ninety-two-year-old veteran named John showed up in full Navy dress-white uniform. It fit him like a glove, and he looked like a million bucks. His entry was a show stopper. All heads turned. My beautiful twenty-eight-year-old daughter met him at the door and escorted him in. I interviewed him briefly, and the whole placed erupted in applause. His story was even more remarkable because he had remained married to the same woman for seventy-two years. (He had just lost his beloved wife four months previously.) He represents the faithfulness that so many of the WII veterans knew and lived. A faithfulness hard to find today.

Today I met a Vietnam veteran. Richard and his wife volunteered to help at the exhibit honoring my father. As soon as Richard came, I shook his hand and asked him what his service was. He said that he was in Vietnam for two years. I looked him in the eyes and said, “Thank you so much for serving. I am grateful.” Then Richard said something shocking. He said, “You know, I have not heard that very often. “ He paused and looked off into the distance and then added, “ In over forty years maybe ten times someone has thanked me.” How very sad this is. Whether we agree with the cause and circumstances of American involvement in any particular war, we can always thank the men and women who serve. Vietnam was a particularly thankless war. The veterans did not come home to ticker-tape parades and fanfare. They came home to protesters and draft dodgers who spit and jeered at them. It was a war that divided Americans, and the division was played out on national TV every night. But, nonetheless, men and women served and sacrificed. They ought to be thanked more than ten times in forty years!

The following is a letter from a friend of my brother’s, Danny DeArmis, after our father had died and after Danny learned about our father’s WWII POW experience.

Dear Ken,

They say that what you don’t know won’t hurt you. Truth is what you don’t know can hurt you. Thank you. Because of you, I shook his hand. I sat as his dinner table. I rode in his car (an adventure all its own!). I only wish I’d known enough to tell him “thanks.”

You introduced me to him. It was really no big deal to me at the time. Another old man, hard to listen to, hard to understand. He seemed to be preoccupied the whole time I was around him. I watched you interact with him and it seemed difficult and awkward. He bounced from subject to subject and person to person. And yet, when I looked deeply I could see more. He loved you. And his appreciation for you, his daughters and his wife, was deep. I watched him one day as you entertained a crowd in his hometown. He was proud, but not in a way that indicated surprise. He expected you to be at least as good as you were. He was sure of your success.

I wonder now about his secrets. I wonder how he suppressed his anxiety and fear. I wonder if the memories had faded, and pain worn off. Its no wonder that he could run a red light without fear. Its no wonder he could work quietly and patiently with his hands at his workbench.

Until recently, I didn’t know what people meant when they called his generation, the greatest generation. How does one come to that conclusion? Now I understand…they were the greatest generation because they were men and women, who choose service over self, sacrifice over gratification, future over present, and principle over peace. It was the greatest generation and Mr. Davis epitomized it.

I never knew about…

him being abandoned by his country…

the sixty miles he walked …

the prison he lived in…

the meals he missed…

the beatings he endured…

the fear he felt…

the loneliness he suffered…

the despair he experienced…

the chains he wore…

the hope he’d lost…

the debt he paid so I can enjoy my pursuit of happiness.

If only I had known all of this, I would have thanked him myself. What I didn’t know did hurt me…and cost me that opportunity.

Danny DeArmis

If you know anyone who has served in the military, take the time to learn his or her story. Encourage the person to pass it on to his or her children and grandchildren. And the next time you see a veteran, take time to ask when and where he or she served. Then take the veterans hand firmly, shake it, look him or her in the eyes, and say thank you. It may be one of a precious few times he or she has heard these words.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Anatomy of a Church

The church is the body of Christ. Sounds theologically profound, but what does it really mean? The practical interpretation is really quite simple. By virtue of what we do with our hands and feet, eyes and mouth, heart and mind, by the power of the Spirit we are Christ active in the world, continuing to do the work of the Father. We are literally the physical presence of Christ in the world. When the body is working properly—valuing each member equally—amazing things can happen. First Presbyterian Church in Downey “exercised” the body of Christ last Saturday (May 7).

A small group went to the home of one of its members and used their hands and feet, hearts and minds, eyes and ears to assist a single woman in getting her home more livable—one member, overwhelmed by all that needed to be done, encouraged by several members helping get it started. This woman is an active member of the local body.

Another part of the body was exercising at the local Street Faire. We offered prayer, played games with children, gave out prizes and information and expressed interest in the community by our presence. We met a young woman preparing to be deployed to Afghanistan, prayed for her, and pledged to be ongoing support for her while in Afghanistan—one member, overwhelmed by duty, encouraged by several members promising support. This woman is not an active member of our local body. But the body of Christ does not have geographical or organizational boundaries.

This is, perhaps, one of the greatest tests of the authenticity of the body of Christ—the impartiality of the work we do in Christ’s name. Christ poured out his life for all—Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. No club card required.

The anatomy of a church comprises the parts of the body functioning in the world and continuing the work and witness of Christ. By this will the world know that we are followers of Christ, that we show love for one another.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Tears and Typos

On the plane to Atlanta I decided to read through my book for the first time. I began working on this book twenty years ago. For the last year and a half I have spent almost every spare moment on this book about my father and his imprint on my life. My heart and soul are in it. I have read and re-read each chapter, struggled with each sentence, and revised and reworked every word. But until yesterday I had never just read it cover to cover. I was surprised. Reading the book brought me frequently to tears. I was surprised because the material is now so familiar I did not think it would touch me so deeply. I was pleased that it did. But I was also greatly distressed. After hundreds of reads and rereads, after a professional edit there are still so many errors! My deep sense of satisfaction at the emotional import of my father’s story was regularly dashed by typographical and grammatical errors in the preliminary manuscript! Just moments apart, I was taken from exhilaration to deep disappointment. I was brought to tears but I was also regularly distracted by the errors and resulting changes that would need to be made before this book is ready to publish.

Funny thing . . . life and ministry is like this too. Every day I find myself deeply moved by events and people, and within seconds I can be completely distracted by the slightest little glitch or idiosyncrasy. Seconds apart I can feel compassion and contempt. I can breathe in hope and as I exhale I can be brought to despair. Tears and human “typos” are the warp and woof of life. No matter how much I try to control my life and ministry, things happen. I am human. The people I work with are human. Human typos happen. The joy of victories and the agony of defeats are every day recurring themes.

On Sunday I was part of a team mediating conflict in a local church. The tears and typos were glaring. In this case, they were literal. Folks attempting to express their concerns and pain fought back tears. But in order to keep the conversation honoring of God and respectful of all who attended we had to correct verbal typos. The ground rules for conversation in times of disagreement require constant tracking of the words we use. “I felt disrespected” invites dialogue. “You are disrespectful” establishes monologue. One brings possible healing, the other further wounds. No matter what I am feeling the words I choose have the power to invite others also to feel and express what they feel, or, they have the power to shut them down. Tears draw us in, typos distract. But they are both regular and critical parts of life and ministry. Writing and speaking reflect life—full of tears, full of typos.

Reading my book through gave me great joy and significant frustration. But my reflecting on this experience has given me refreshing insight into my life and ministry. As I live my life and try to do ministry authentically from my life I will be less troubled by the juxtaposition of joy and sorrow, victory and defeat, tears and typos. I will revel in the deep emotion and I will work through the distractions wherever they come from. My manuscript will get better. But it will never be perfect. So too with my life and ministry. God is in the business of redeeming our lives and our ministries by using both the tears and the typos for his purposes and his glory. God in his grace and mercy is able to direct me through the ups and downs of ministry and life. I will keep reading, and I will keep improving the manuscript. And now I can better see the value in both.