Wednesday, December 23, 2015

In Search of a Can of Beans

In the congregation I serve, stories abound about what Greg Risberg gave to others in the form of his humor, his hugs, and his thoughtful and generous attention. 

Just over a year ago, Greg passed away. He was 67 years old and one of the most kind-hearted, genuine people I’ve known. Greg was an author (Touch: A Personal Workbook and 52 Bright Ideas to Bring More Humor, Hugs and Hope into Your Life) and motivational speaker, who, over the past 30 years, brought his ‘Humor with a Message’ programs to more than half a million people across the country as well as in Canada, England and Australia. 

After Greg died, his wife Madeleine shared with me the story the first time he came to her home for dinner. Filled with first-date jitters, he wanted to do things properly and wasn’t sure what he should bring. So, he arrives, knocks on the back door, and walks in holding a can of beans.  When Madeleine asked him why he was bringing the can of beans, he replied: “Because I just didn’t feel like I could come over empty-handed.” 

That was the beginning of a relationship between two beautiful people, who really understood that the best gift they have to give one another and others is not material presents, but their open and honest presence. 

Our culture tells us that we should always bring something with us, that wrapped up, shiny things are important in making people feel good -- and in making us feel good about ourselves.  It’s always a thoughtful gesture to offer a gift of some sort, but there’s something far more profound and sustaining than anything we can carry in our hands. This is the gift of our presence. 

Twenty years ago my Christmas traditions changed irrevocably when my grandmother Carlson suffered from a stroke that not only paralyzed an entire side of her body, but also rendered her unable to swallow. As a Swedish gourmet and proud housekeeper who grew up in Iowa, Grandma Carlson did the holidays up. She not only prepared Christmas dinner, but also led the tree trimming and decorating. When I came home for the Holidays after her stroke, it was painful to see her in such anguish. Then on one visit when it was just me, I brought our church’s hymnal [Singing the Living Tradition], with the idea of sharing some readings and hymns, particularly the Christmas carols. Once I began singing, my grandmother calmed down and seemed more peaceful. It was extraordinary. For over 30 minutes, she didn’t sigh or complain or say a thing, she just listened. Sometimes we are present with those we love in silence or song rather than gifts or conversation, and that is okay.

Fourteen years ago, my cousin Bruce in Boone, Iowa was hanging Christmas lights when he fell off the ladder, an accident that left him quadriplegic. Bruce had served in the Army. He had jumped out of airplanes over 50 times. And then, in one split second, a freak accident changed his whole life, as well as the lives of his wife and three children (ages 10, 7, and 6 months). 

When I moved to Oak Park in 2003, I visited Bruce and his mom Rosalie for Thanksgiving. It was hard. I didn’t know what to say. But even in our inadequacy, our presence is enough. 

This past Thanksgiving, I returned to Boone as I have several times over the years. On this trip, we talked and laughed and went to the local Methodist church for dinner where they served 400 meals (that’s 32 turkeys!) During the trip, my four-year-old daughter climbed up onto Bruce’s lap and hung out there.  She loves standing on his wheelchair between his feet or sometimes right on his feet.  The joy I saw in both of their eyes was dearly precious.

Our Holiday traditions naturally evolve or change abruptly. But what is most important is that we develop traditions that provide quality time with others, where we can give of ourselves  -- and, that most precious gift -- our attention. And, we need to open our own hearts to receive that gift when it comes to us. 

In the spirit of Greg Risberg, “The time we spend with others is precious,” he says.  “And one of the most important ways we have to affirm our relationships is paying attention to what others need to talk about without letting our own concerns get in the way.”

….. A true gift from a generous friend.

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