Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Coming of age: Resting the horses at the fence row

Plowing corn with a team of horse at age 13, and the beginning of reflective listening/learning.

I will never forget the summer of 1943. I grew up in a number of ways during my 13th year. Plowing corn with a team of horses for the first time stands out as a major transition story in my life. I count it as such in my memory. This an adult activity. I was entering the manhood world of farming back then. Before it was gathering eggs, feeding the horses, leading a horse for the hay fork, being a water boy for threshers, etc.,but now I was out in the field for a day’s work. I was also paid a small sum.

I was being taught by my father who was a few rows away with a cultivator and a team of horses. The cultivator was a work in itself. You sat in the seat with your feet in sturips to set the depth of the blades and help guide the cultivator. You held on to the handles to guide the blades also, one for the left hand and one for the right. Getting rid of the weeds in the center of the corn rows was the object. And above all, being sure not to get into the corn row and root out a hill of corn.

Back than the corn planters would check in the corn so you could row in both directions, north south or east west. Now they plant the seeds very close together in rows and they till more with pesticides. The number of bushels of corn is much higher now for a number of reasons.

When we would plow up and back, stopping at the fence row, my father would share his views about people, life, and the world. I don’t remember the specifics but I do remember his way of continually thinking about something. I credit him with introducing me to the importance of reflecting on our life situations.  I gave this memory a metaphorical name, “resting the houses at the fence row,” and moved the practice to many different places.

When my father later became chronically depressed over the loss of the family farm the reflecting continued but in a more repetitive manner without the freshness and variety of his younger years. The reflections displayed more anger at the same time. But the early benefit had already been adopted in my practice even though it became a lost cause for him.

When I became involved in Clinical Pastoral Education I found reflection was built into the learning methodology.  I readily grasped the importance of this discipline.  And I realized this wasn’t a discipline everyone adopted as a way of life.  Just like having a time for prayer there was the time to come apart to reflect. The mind became the playground for emerging possibilities. Or the same good could be done on one to one over a coffee cup, or in a small discussion group. There is a whole discipline of reflective learning and reflective listening.

The Befriender training and the pastoral care department incorporated the practice which led to a number of innovative pastoral programs.

A more humorous outcome of the expression came about in this way. During a cardiac rehab session there was a farmer who was a typical type A. He was old enough to have plowed corn with a team of horses. I asked him, “Did you ever rest the horses at the fence row?” He said, “No. I always had another team waiting there.” The horses had the rest and he kept jumping from one plow to another. Would a more reflective life have benefited his heart? And was he about the change now? I can’t say he did.

Marlin Whitmer
Founder of the Befrienders, story metaphor listeners in a hospital setting, who were identified as making a difference in the quality of life in the community.

Transformative dimensions of adult learning. - ‎Mezirow - Cited by 8894
Transformative learning: Theory to practice - ‎Mezirow - Cited by 3082

Reflective Learning Theories. ... Schon studied Dewey and his theories very carefully, and he believed in two types of reflection: Reflection-on-action, which is an unconscious event that deals with the knowledge we use to solve problems and carry out actions. Reflection-in-action, which occurs as the action is happening.

Second language listening: Theory and practice - ‎Flowerdew - Cited by 585

Reflective listening is a communication strategy involving two key steps: seeking to understand a speaker's idea, then offering the idea back to the speaker, to confirm the idea has been understood correctly.


diabolou, the word for devil in Greek


On Monday the 18th of September I was reminded again of the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness. I was reading Matthew 4:1-11 in the Daily Office. The temptations involved stones to bread, Jesus replied with nourishment from the Word of God. Then to throw himself off the top of the temple, Jesus, “do not tempt God,” Then the third, "if you are ...  you have the kingdoms of the world," and the reply, “Worship only God and serve him.” Each Scripture answer is worth exploring. The account ends with the Angels came and ministered to him. Luke has the devil coming back at a more opportune time. Luke is more realistic for me although I would not want to deny the presence of angels being present through my many years

What has caught my eye the most over the years is the Greek word for the devil, diabolou. The devil works through the thrust. The devil piggy backs on our daily events. The resource does give a literal “cast through.” We get our word ballistics from Bolou.

We can move the word diabolic, diabolic, to many different places, all indications and revelations as to who we are serving.

Mark has Jesus was tempted. No specifics. Mark does use Bolou as the way Jesus was thrown into the desert where he was tempted. Temptations are a wake up call.

διαβόλου  .

Marling Whitmer
An advocate of the study of metaphors, metaphorical patterns, and deep metaphors. They are the key to how language functions. A training of lay people in the art of story metaphor listening with a six session DVD that tells the story of how this came about and the implications for health care.

Monday, September 11, 2017

A Lesson from First Grade

This question appeared in Richard Rohr’s reflection on “Hope in Darkness: Grief”,  Friday, September 8, 2017

"What are the ways in which your losses have transfigured your soul?”

With 80 plus years as resource for reflection I am not without material. My guide in answer to the question, and the question frames the answer, will be personal events that transfigured my soul both personally and professionally as a hospital chaplain and an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church.

Like the immune system in our bodies, this will have both specificity and
Non-specificity, particularity and universality, both/and rather than either/or.

Starting with the particulars, my early years, 8 and 1/2, were lived on a 160 acre generational family farm. My great grandfather, James Franklin Whitmer and Harriet Munn were the first owners to my knowledge. I am not sure if they homesteaded in the 1840's. 

The farm was located 9 miles north of Wilton Jct., Iowa. Back then it was known as Wilton Jct. They have since dropped the Jct. 

I started school at 5 years of age, entering first grade. We did not have kindergarten. My teacher was Miss Spencer. I have never forgotten her name. She is a key person who helped transform and influence my soul at an early age. Her influence continues to this day. My only mistake was not to get word to her in later life. But my mistake does not deter me from passing on the gift she gave me in first grade --- A listening presence.

I am guessing this was in the spring of 1936. My father took a load of corn to Bennet, Iowa, for sale. My little dog Topsy tagged along. Topsy was a rat terrior given to me by my Grandfather Whitmer. They were his favorite breed of dogs. On the way to Bennet Topsy was run over by a car. When I came home from school that day, my father informed me what had happened. I remember running back to school to tell my teacher. She must have listened deeply. Her presence as I told my sad, tearful story, remains in my memory. The story is part of the foundation for a story listening group, a grief resource group, and a grief recovery group at St. Luke’s Hospital, now Genesis Hospital in Davenport, Iowa. I will also include the first Hospice in Scott County as another outcome and a Clinical Pastoral Education program. 

My first three years of learning in a one room school house are never to be discounted. There were 16 students at the time in grades from one through six. I was in the largest class of five, three boys and two girls. We had individual desks and when class time came we all went up front to the recitation bench.

From that beginning I would move to four different schools before finishing high school in Muscatine, Iowa, the home of the Muskies. Grades 3-4 were in Muscatine, 5,6, and 7 were in West Liberty. Grades 8 and part of 9 were in Nichols, Iowa. There was a continual uprooting and change for my more introverted ways. One of my ways of coping was to make humorous comments. They helped establish a relationship with my peers but the teachers had a different response. Back then, in grade school more than once, I was up in front of the class standing in the corner. I never did figure out what that was supposed to accomplish.

Somehow the moving about, the loss of the family farm, my father's grief and depression, and frequent loss of friendships, made me more sensitive to the importance of relationships and transitions. An understanding of transformation came much later.

Several years after becoming a hospital chaplain the Befrienders came into existence. Another story. They were trained to listen to the stories of hospital patients. Our  discovery, the majority of stories shared included some kind of loss and grief.  We then formed an educational reflector group called the grief resource group in January of 1975. Within a year we started a grief recover group with six people meeting in ten week segments. That changed to every other week all through the year. Grief as the natural response to loss and change is the universal we all experience.

The Grief Recovery program still continues in the Genesis Health System in a expanded way. The CEO of the hospital experienced the death of a child in an accident and that event generates his support and expansion of the grief recovery program. Losses can transform our souls and our way of responding.

I will have more to say about our learnings from the grief recovery group. The most exciting discovery, and Aha!, was learning the language of transition and transformation from the people who were making the journey. Reflective listening was our mode of discovery.

I name the experience with my teacher in first grade for the outcomes of activities in my professional life as a hospital chaplain. Her listening presence established an awareness that remains to this day. I don’t think it was written into her lesson plan for that day.


Marlin Whitmer
retired hospital chaplain and founder of the Befrienders, story listerners, in 1966

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Remembering 5th grade

Greetings One and All,

I had a life changing experience when I was in the 5th grade. At that time of my life I was an outgoing, friendly, and skinny kid. Small for my age is what they said. When they chose sides for sand lot baseball or some other sport contest I could count on being chosen last. Could you call this training in character building? 

Because of my small size in high school I could wrestle at 105 and 112 lbs. I ran the mile and half mile in track. These are sports that are as much more individual effort than team. You are on your own for the team. One time I did pin an opponent in 30 seconds. I ran the mile under 5 minutes, 4:55 and a half-mile in 2:30. Today at 180 pounds I can hold my own although the doctor has given me homework to reach 170 pounds.

The life changing event came on a warm spring day in 1940. I was to fight the president of the gang that could be called "the south of the tracks gang." This group was made up of kids whose fathers worked on the railroad and most  lived south of the tracks in West Liberty, Iowa. I belonged to the group. It was nothing like gangs of today. We liked to hunt for flares along the railroad tracks that had not burned out. John Mulink had a rifle that shot 22 shorts and we would use tin cans placed on a fence post for target practice. We met in a tool shed in the back of his house. The tool shed was along the tracks going north to Minneapolis. At that time West Liberty was the station where both the East and West trains crossed the tracks of the North and South trains. We are talking about the huge steam engines that pulled the trains.
The other side of the story is my relationship with another gang. They represented the more cultured society in the town. We were in the school band. We took music lessons. We read books and went to the library. We met in our homes since they were larger. Now the president of the cultured group did not think I should be associating with this other group. Therefore, to test my loyalty I was to fight my friend, John Mulink, the president of the group from south of the tracks.

There we were, two groups of kids between two houses, standing on the nice green grass in an early warm day of spring. What do I remember? I talked my way out of the fight. It never happened. What did happen? I left both groups. I became a friend to each individually. This was an internal, spontaneous decision. I do not remember giving this much thought but I do remember my response. In a few years we moved to a farm near Nichols, Iowa, but the memory and my decision continue to this day.

I would repeat this story pattern many times over my lifetime in situations where I was in the middle of two sides. The issues changed but the dynamics remained the same. 

The privilege and benefit in being a hospital chaplain for 28 years allowed for much of this dynamic.  I was relating to the most powerful and the most vulnerable in the same location. I could make a story list of opposites. I could table hop at lunch. I could sit or talk with those in white, or some other department color, or administration, a board member, or a doctor, a patient, or a family member, or people from house keeping and the kitchen crew.
Now in the second half of life I still reflect on that early experience and its continued appearance. Living with opposites, facing the paradox, acknowledging contradictions, embracing the many ways to express this is basic --- to my world view.  

This early experience and continuing encounters now, connect in my mind with the word “integrity.” In Scripture the word does not appear all that often. As a noun it often follows the word walk, walk in integrity, and it also appears before heart, our innter being. The meaning has to do with completeness and blameless. I have started looking up "integrity" in the HUB resource for the Hebrew interlinear.

The first place the word appears is in the Book of Genesis, chapter 20, in a repeat story that first occurs with the Pharaoh where Abraham says Sarah is my sister. This makes you wonder about the character of Abraham and his righteousness. My explanation for this is in seeing Abraham as a wanderer, tent dweller, without an army; so he schemes to protect himself. Unfortunate or fortunate, his wife becomes his first line of defense as well as a lesson in ethics. The story with the Pharaoh is repeated in more detail in Genesis 20 where King Abimelech described as having a "blameless heart," translated "integrity." Hebrew story tellers fascinate me, since the word first appears with someone outside the Tradition. Those on the outside, margins, inform and help from those inside.

Another place the Hebrew word is translated integrity is in Psalms 25 and 26. The word integrity is identified as an individual trait. I have more research to do.
Ps1lm 26, 1 Give judgment for me, O Lord,
for I have lived with integrity; *
I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered.

2 Test me, O Lord, and try me; *
examine my heart and my mind.

3 For your love is before my eyes; *
I have walked faithfully with you.

11 As for me, I will live with integrity; *
redeem me, O Lord, and have pity on me.

12 My foot stands on level ground; *
in the full assembly I will bless the Lord.

In other places the word appears with walk with integrity and also follow by heart. Integrity embraces both action and meaning depending on the context.

The word appears most often in the Book of Proverbs since it finds a welcome home in the wisdom literature.

Back to what I learned in the Fifth Grade. Dr. Robert Cole of Harvard
supports my experience in a series of books about children. He
interviewed children and listened to their stories. It seems a lot of
learning goes on in our figurative Fifth Grade and even lower grades. I
won't go into detail about his books in this e-mail. But I will give you
the titles: The Moral Life of Children, the Political Life of Children,
and the Spiritual Life of Children.

As metaphor, our “Fifth Grade” stories will reveal much about ourselves as they move throughout the changing context of our lives.