Thursday, June 23, 2005

With Flying Colors

“A capable, intelligent, and virtuous woman – who is he who can find her? She is far more precious than jewels and her value is far above rubies or pearls.” ~ Proverbs 31:10

Remember when I said I was going to try to start writing shorter columns? Well, I’ve made very little progress in that department, but this week I’ll probably break a record. My computer has been in the shop for over a week and the technicians still haven’t diagnosed the problem. I never realized how much I depend on e-mail as a form of communication! So last week I went to the Manhattan Public Library to do a little catching up, and now I am at our house in Manhattan trying to get this column out before I head for home and start preparing for a trip to Cedar Rapids, Iowa this weekend to attend our niece Melissa’s wedding.

Between the loss of my computer and back-to-back trips, I’ve been a bit distracted. For that reason, this week’s column will be short and next week I won’t have time to write a column at all. But I’ll return the following week, just after my 47th birthday on July 3rd, which is also the 2nd anniversary of the start of my Reflections column.

Two weekends ago I flew to Ohio to attend my daughter-in-law’s graduation from nursing school on June 11th. Erin (Jared’s wife) graduated summa cum laude with an Associate of Applied Science Degree in Nursing from Marion Technical College. We feel especially proud of Erin for this great accomplishment because of the difficult circumstances she faced while pursuing her degree.

First of all, she has been living with her parents while Jared has been serving in Navy in Mississippi. They see each other for a month during the summer and off and on throughout the year. Erin’s parents, John and Lu Stricklin, have gone above and beyond the call of duty by allowing Erin and the boys to live in their house for the past several years. But they both have full time jobs, so for the most part, Erin has been fully responsible for the care of Asher, age 5, and Gabriel, age 2. In fact, Gabriel was born on the day Erin was scheduled to start nursing school the first time. Ah, the well laid plans of mice and men....

In an unfortunate irony, little Gabe ended up back in the hospital on the eve of Erin’s graduation. He had been sick with a bad cough for the days leading up to the graduation, but when nurse Erin got out her stethoscope and listened to his breathing, she decided that she and Jared needed to take him to the ER right away. After Gabe was admitted, the doctor ordered chest x-rays, which were inconclusive for pneumonia. But one thing was certain – he was one very sick little baby.

Erin & Gabe in hospital with Erin's parents, John & Lu

During the night Gabe’s fever spiked to 104.6 so they kept him on an intravenous tube throughout his stay. One time Gabe turned to his mommy and said two heart wrenching little words: “Help me.” So Jared and Erin got virtually no sleep for the two nights preceding Erin’s graduation. Erin’s sister Misty stayed with Gabe at the hospital during the graduation ceremony – then her mom traded places with Misty so she could attend the pinning ceremony. That night I offered to stay with Gabe at the hospital so Jared and Erin could get some much needed rest. (They were also able to attend the graduation party of a fellow nursing student whom Erin had tutored.)

Gabe and I had a special bonding time that night, although he will never remember it. The first half of my grandma tour of duty, however, was a complete nightmare. He coughed and cried off and on and sometimes he would thrash about in so violently that I could barely hold him down. I was also worried about the I.V. tube and needle in his little arm. Then every two hours the nurse would come in and administer a respiratory treatment where they would put a little mask over his face and have him breathe in the medicinal vapors. Around 2:30 he miraculously calmed down and we both slept for five hours until Jared, Erin and Asher arrived at 7:30 to find grandma and grandson sleeping like babies side by side.

Despite the unexpected turn of events and the accompanying stress, I still came away feeling like it was a wonderful trip. I so enjoyed spending time with Jared, Erin, Asher and Gabe. Several times Asher gave me a hug and said, “I just want to tell you that I love you, Grandma.”

Thank God Gabe was released from the hospital after three days and is back to his usual rambunctious self. His stay in the hospital seemed symbolic of the many challenges Erin faced along the road to accomplishing her goal of becoming an RN. Raising two boys by herself while working in home health and tutoring other students and then graduating with top honors is indeed a great accomplishment.

Last week Erin called with some more exciting news. “I need big prayers!” she exclaimed into the phone. She had just learned that she would be able to take her final boards/exam on Tuesday, June 21st. “God willing, I’ll be an RN by the time I move to Mississippi.” (Note: Erin later learned that she passed her boards!)

That’s the other big change in their lives. Now that Erin has earned her nursing degree, she and the boys will be moving to Mississippi to finally be reunited with Jared. As Asher says, “I’m gonna live with my daddy forever!”

It’s been a long road for the whole family, but I’d say they all passed with flying colors!

“And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of the things that were spoken to her from the Lord.” ~ Luke 1:45

Jared, Erin & Asher on Erin's Graduation Day ~ June 11, 2005

Thursday, June 16, 2005

God Hates Hate

“Behold, how good and how pleasant [it is] for brethren to dwell together in unity!” ~ Psalm 133:1 (KJV)

The weekend before last I attended the Women of Faith conference at Kemper Arena in Kansas City – compliments of my good friend, Rhonda Smith. My daughter-in-law Lisa went with me to the Friday night conference which featured an inspirational presentation from Jennifer Rothschild ( Although Jennifer lost her sight to disease at the age of fifteen, she has managed to maintain her faith in God along with an amazingly positive attitude. Jennifer is married with two sons and is the author of “Lessons I Learned in the Dark” and her latest release, “Touched by His Unseen Hand.”

On the morning of the Saturday conference I flipped open the Bible and my eyes fell directly on the above verse. What a fitting Scripture for the Women of Faith! That is precisely what makes their conferences so special; women gathering from all walks of life and different religious denominations to celebrate something we share in common – a love for the Lord.

In contrast to the demonstration of unity within the walls of Kemper Arena, however, Fred Phelps and his clan of hate mongers were picketing on the street corner outside of the conference. I couldn’t believe my eyes – although, nothing should surprise me when it comes to the Phelps family. Still, I wondered why on earth they would be picketing the Women of Faith conference!

“Hate is the consequence of fear; we fear something before we hate it; a child who fears noises becomes a man who hates noise.”
~ Cyril Connolly, English journalist, editor and writer (1903 - 1974)

I know I am not alone in my feeling of utter disgust by the messages displayed on the Phelps’ signs; messages so vile that I cannot even repeat them in my column. And to think that they do this in the name of God is simply incredulous. God, who is love, doesn’t hate homosexuals, as the Phelps’ profess. In fact, God doesn’t hate ANYONE! Most of us are familiar with the message of John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life." That is the Good News in a nutshell. Then the next verse reads: “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”

It saddens me deeply to see the Phelps family traveling all across the country picketing events and funerals of gay men.

“Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated, and this was an immutable law.”
~ James Baldwin, American novelist and essayist (1924 - 1987)

The Bible says that the tongue is a restless evil – with it we praise the Lord and with it we curse men who have been made in God's likeness. “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:18-10)

One of the other speakers at the Women of Faith conference was Sheila Walsh. Sheila shared a story about a time when her young son Christian was pulling off the petals of a flower saying, “I love my mommy, I don’t love my mommy.” Then when he got down to one petal he was on “I don’t love my mommy,” so he turned to her and said, “Mommy, this flower is one petal short.” Sheila went on to say that God is never “one pedal short.” He always loves us – no matter what we’ve done or how many mistakes we’ve made in our life. God’s only language is the language of love – pure and simple.

Sheila then shared the following Biblical passage. After reading this, I don’t see how the Phelps could ever proclaim that God hates anyone:

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” ~ Romans 8:31-35;37-39 (NKJV)

The following tale by poet, journalist and humorist Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911) titled, “The House by the Side of the Road” seems apropos:

“He was a friend to man, and lived in a house by the side of the road." ~ Homer
There are hermit souls that live withdrawn
In the place of their self-content;
There are souls, like stars, that dwell apart,
In a fellowless firmament:
There are pioneer souls that blaze their paths
Where the highways never ran;
But let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.
Let me live in a house by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by –
The men who are good, and the men who are bad,
As good and as bad and I.
I would not sit in the scorner’s seat,
Or hurl the cynic’s ban;
Let me live in a house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I see from my house by the side of the road,
By the side of the highway of life,
The men who press with the ardor of hope,
The men who are faint with the strife.
But I turn not away from their smiles nor their tears –
Both parts of an infinite plan;
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

I know there are brook-gladdened meadows ahead,
And mountains of wearisome height;
That the road passes on through the long afternoon,
And stretches away to the night.
But still I rejoice when the travelers rejoice,
And weep with the strangers that moan,
Nor live in my house by the side of the road
Like a man who dwells alone.

Let me live in my house by the side of the road,
Where the race of men go by –
They are good, they are bad, they are weak, they are strong,
Wise, foolish – so am I.
Then why should I sit in the scorner’s seat,
Or hurl the cynic’s ban?
Let me live in my house by the side of the road
And be a friend to man.

“For this is the message that ye heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.”

~ I John 3:11; 4:7 (KJV)

Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Essence of Grace

“Clothe yourselves therefore, as God’s own picked representatives…by putting on behavior marked by tenderhearted pity and mercy, kind feeling…gentle ways, and patience – which is tireless, long-suffering and has the power to endure whatever comes, with good temper.” ~ Colossians 3:8,12

I would like to dedicate this column to my very special sister, Connie, who will be celebrating her birthday on June 9th.

I chose the above verse this week because it describes Connie so well. To me, Connie is the very essence of grace. She is full of “tenderhearted pity and mercy, kind feeling, gentle ways and patience.” She is also “tireless, long-suffering, and has the power to endure whatever comes.” In other words, Connie is “all of the above.”

When our sister Patricia passed away I wrote a poem about our family, listing each sibling by name along with their special quality. In that poem, I described Connie as “the sweetest soul” that ever lived. Even though she quickly dismissed this notion as thought it didn’t apply to her, I still stand by it. Connie is soft-spoken and mild-mannered. She exudes God’s love and peace to such a degree that it is almost tangible – so much so that at times I have not felt deserving to even stand in her presence.

I have often told Connie that I think she is the most spiritual one of us all. However, she did not always walk the straight and narrow. After going through a rebellious period during her youth, Connie found the Lord and now she is a living testimony to what God can do if we will simply invite Him into our life. I remember when I was a teenager I saw a handmade card that Connie had given to our parents. On the front of the card she wrote: “I have returned to the God of my fathers.” And she’s never looked back since.

The Bible says that you can tell a tree by its fruit and it also talks about the fruits of the Spirit being “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22,23) You don’t have to spend very much time with Connie before you can see that these fruits of the Spirit are clearly evident in her life.

When Connie was younger, she would dress up in a Santa costume every Christmas Eve, complete with cotton eyebrows, moustache and beard. Then she would sneak away from the festivities when none of the younger kids were looking, put on her costume and walk across our front yard shouting “Ho, Ho, Ho! Me-r-r-r-r-r-y Christmas!” in the lowest voice she could muster. We all watched in utter amazement as “Santa” passed by the picture window carrying a sack of goodies. Then one by one we would sit on Santa’s lap and describe all the items on our wish list.

"Santa Connie" with Eileen, Bill & Mary

Another Christmas Eve tradition in the Van Kirk family was putting on original skits. One of the annual favorites was a skit performed by Connie and Joanne where Connie would dress up as a shepherd and lie down on the ground pretending to be fast asleep. Then Joanne would sing the chorus to this song: “Rise up shepherd and follow. Follow, follow.” But Connie (the shepherd) would just keep snoring and didn’t budge. Then Joanne would act like she was agitated while she desperately tried to maintain her composure and continued to sing “Rise up shepherd and follow” through gritted teeth. No matter how many times we saw that skit, it was still funny. (I guess you had to be there.)

Connie is also the one we credit for our parents having one more baby (Bob) after child number eight (Bill), because she reportedly prayed fervently that Mom would have another baby. Then when Bob was old enough to ride in a bike seat, Connie would often take him with her on outings around town, along with another friend who also had a younger sibling.

Eventually Connie got married to her husband, Art, and had three little babies of her own: Naomi (who has a 5-year old daughter, Kelsey Constance), Peggy, and Zachery. Connie was a homemaker and stay-at-home mom until a few years ago when she embarked on a challenging journey to become a registered nurse. Connie achieved her goal with flying colors, and now lends her gentle spirit to patients in hospice care.

Dad & Connie on Connie's Graduation Day

But those of us who had the privilege of growing up with Connie have long benefited from the many gifts and talents that she possesses. We have been blessed by a sister who is full of compassion and understanding and who is always there to lend an ear or an encouraging word. I recall one time when I was going through a difficult struggle and Connie gently admonished me to “cast my care on the Lord.” Although I knew she was right, I must confess that I wanted to strangle her. Yes, sweet souls and truly spiritual people can be downright annoying at times. But seriously, Connie is a gift from God and we are all so thankful to call her our sister and our friend.

This complete version of the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr seems to sum up Connie’s whole approach to life:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it,
Trusting that you will make all things right, if I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen

Finally, I’d like to share an excerpt from the Hallmark card I sent to Connie for her birthday:

“I wish you . . . beauty to enrapture your soul
And goodness to comfort your spirit.
And I wish you harmony with all creation
So that wherever you go, you will be at home in the world
I wish you these things not only because it is your birthday
But because you are my sister
And you are worthy of every good thing my heart can hope for you.”

You are loved.

"The Sweetest Soul" - Connie in 2004

Thursday, June 02, 2005

It Took a Village (Part II)

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.”

~ Proverbs 3:5,6 (RSV)

“I have held many things in my hands, and have lost them all; but
whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess.”

~ Martin Luther

. . . . Continued from last week

Keen’s first step in trying to sell the trash business was to call our local competitor, whose enthusiastic reaction gave us ample reasons to feel optimistic. However, after we turned over all our financial records at their initial meeting, we never heard from him again – even though Keen tried unsuccessfully to reach him several times a week. After six weeks passed without any word, my brother Bill convinced us to inquire elsewhere. “Eileen, that’s not even courteous, much less good business for him not to return your calls,” Bill exclaimed.

The next day Keen made a call to Waste Management of Topeka and by 5:00 that evening they had returned his call. The salesman explained that Waste Management was in the “acquisition mode” and therefore they were very interested in purchasing our business. Within three months the transaction was complete and Keen was enrolled as a freshman at Kansas State University.

After news about the sale of the business and Keen’s career change was announced, he received a lot of encouragement from friends and family, including the following letter to the editor which Alma citizen Lyn Posey submitted to the local paper:

“I would like to say I appreciate, along with lots of others, everything you have done for this community and want to wish y’all the best of luck in your new endeavors. I’m sure you will succeed with the greatest honors as you have done at everything you have ever tried. You have made a difference and an impression on so many lives.” (The Signal-Enterprise, December 31, 1998)

The largest hurdle to overcome involved that all-important area of finances. You know, that pesky little detail that allows you to keep the lights on and put food on the table? Basically, when it came to the money side of our new adventure, Keen and I made a conscious decision to close our eyes, hold hands and take one gigantic leap of faith into the abyss, because we knew that was the only way Keen was ever going to get off the treadmill of the trash business and be free to pursue his degree. As they say: “You can’t steal second base with your foot firmly planted on first.”

“One beautiful, blue morning, the sailor points his bow toward the horizon, turns sail, and bids farewell to safe, solid ground.”
~ Hallmark card Keen received

So we came up with a bottom-line figure for the sale of our business and, much to our surprise, Waste Management’s offer was right in the ballpark. Then my father surprised us by offering to cover Keen’s tuition expenses at Kansas State! We were on our way.

From there we combined all of our resources including the proceeds from the sale of the business and money leftover from the settlement we received after winning the Supreme Court case. Then we paid Uncle Sam his share and spent another chunk paying off our house in Alma and Manhattan.

"Go, sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your sons can live on the rest." ~ II Kings 4:7 (RSV)

Although we were officially debt-free at that point, the remaining funds would not be enough for the next seven years. But we had faith that God would see us through, and we still had some additional assets to sell, including our car wash and restaurant. Yes, we’ve pulled out all the stops and cashed in all our chips in this quest (including our retirement accounts), but as Keen once said, “You don’t reach the end of the war with bullets leftover.” Now I’m fairly confident that both our tax accountant and financial advisor think we’re nuts, (along with several other people, I’m sure), and still others are scratching their heads about why I haven’t gone to work to help out. But I do help out, by holding down the fort and keeping things running smoothly at home. And it’s been worth every dollar spent to see Keen’s dream become a reality, while at the same time pursuing my own dream of writing a book about our story.

I remember when we first embarked on this journey I received a letter of encouragement from my good friend, Debbie Varney. (She and her husband Greg are the pastors of Light of the World Christian Center in Topeka.) Debbie reminded me that if God provided “manna from heaven” and “water from the flinty rock” for the Israelites while they wandered for forty years in the desert, then He could and would provide for us. And He has.

“Forty years you sustained them in the wilderness; they lacked nothing; their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell.” ~ Nehemiah 9:21 (Amp)

One thing we have learned from this experience is that not all of God’s angels have wings. Keen’s parents, Jim and Jean Umbehr, have been two of those angels. Since the time Keen dropped out of college right after high school, my in-laws have encouraged him to go back to school. His Uncle Jerry gave him a memorable pep talk once, too. Just like my dad, Keen’s parents went beyond mere encouragement to offering financial support. We are eternally grateful to them for their generosity in covering the most expensive part of Keen’s education – his law school tuition. Plus they deeded us some pasture land which provided enough rental income to pay all of our personal property taxes each year. Then when Keen didn’t get into law school the first time, his brother Kevin and wife Falethesa graciously gave us $6,000 to cover the expense of applying to multiple law schools. So you see, we have many people to thank for helping us reach the end of this journey, and we will never forget everyone’s kindness towards us.

Recently, Keen sent me the sweetest thank you note, which I would like to share:

“I needed to tell you that I couldn’t have accomplished the attainment of a J.D. without you. Your love for me, your support, your constant encouragement, your sacrifice, your patience made it all possible. My commitment to you is that I will make all the sacrifices worth it all. I will love you and honor you, and provide for you in the manner appropriate for the Queen you are. I love you!

We have now crossed the finish line together! What is next?”

Isn’t that sweet? It’s just one of the many reasons why I am still so in love with my husband after all these years.

In closing, I would like to share two letters of congratulations and encouragement which held special meaning for Keen and me. The first one is from our friend, Scott:

“Congratulations to you BOTH--and to your boys. It's been a long hard struggle for all of you and I'm glad to know that it has turned out well in the end. In a way, what Keen has done is very like this quote: "To will to be that person one truly is, is indeed the opposite of despair." When we embrace that person we are after all the layers of camouflage are stripped away, we experience the opposite of despair and are empowered for the work we were born to do. Keen is a humble, honest and upright man, and with this God-given nature as the guiding force he was able to fight the good fight and finish the race, and now has been awarded the crown of victory. Well done, Keen! You truly are a good and faithful servant of God who did not bury his talent out of fear, but instead invested his time and talent and energy to do those things which are right and good. Your journey has resulted in blessings not only for you and for those you love, but for ALL those who have witnessed your struggle.”


This final letter is from another friend of ours named Ron Ebberts:

To the Umbehr Family,

So this 14th day of May 05 the Umbehr Family has reached a major milestone. The story of how this day has come to be is one which might be shared with the world, and, if read with care, could alter many lives . . . .

I know at times challenges have been great, there have been some setbacks – all seem to have offered a deeper challenge and afforded clearer direction for dedication. For people and families of lesser character, Mr. Umbehr, there would not be this day of accomplishment. Now the privilege of greater service commences today. I expect you, Keen Umbehr, to run this state or challenge the Congress of the U.S. to wake up.

May you all be richly blessed as people who know you are blessed.”

“I thank my God upon every remembrance of you.”
~ Philippians 1:3 (NKJV)

Part of "The Village": Keen's parents, Jim & Jean Umbehr;
Keen, Eileen and Eileen's father, Joe Van Kirk

Keen & Eileen at Keen's law school graduation May 14, 2005