Thursday, November 19, 2009

What I Learned

B. Stuart Noll
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In the past several weeks I have encountered some unusually rewarding interactions with people. These folks, varied in their lives and lifestyles, were complete strangers. Further contact is uncertain but, trading in the experiences would be unfathomable. The quality of the exchanges so touched my soul I cannot help but bathe in the presence of the indescribable and stand in awe of the diversity, complexity, and mysterious power implanted within each being and each moment.

I’m reluctant to admit it but, initiating relationships, as gratifying as most of them are for me, is not my forte. Fortunately for me, I’m married to a woman who loves people as much as I do and is a natural in the art of networking. Being unintentionally reserved, I’m often apprehensive entering into new relationships. I’m painfully aware of my insecurity but I’m learning with each introduction. Growth experiences come in all shapes and sizes. Relationship development is an area of need for all of us that contributes significantly to the quality of our lives, yet we so often overlook its practice.

This story isn’t about me...directly. Though it is my perspective, it’s more about encouraging the pursuit of relationships that develop, reinforce and enhance a sense of gratitude for who we are, what we have and why we’re here. Better yet, it’s about finding something within ourselves with each new person we meet. Uncovering the truth about ourselves through discovery and discernment can be a frightening episode or an exhilarating journey. The choice, essentially, is up to us.

Reaching out and honestly approaching other people or looking within ourselves isn’t easy for many of us, but it is necessary. By challenging our own comfort zones, within or without, we discover new worlds, or should I say worlds that parallel our existence here. Often, we’re just too comfortable and unaware to see them.

My deepest gratitude goes to my wife, Debbie Phillips Noll, (pictured below)
for being who she is and for being the impetus of change in our lives. I also want to thank the people with whom we have shared a few moments in time over recent weeks and months. Experience may be the greatest teacher, but its people who attend and conduct the classes! I extend my gratitude to Judith Richerzhagen, Professor Conrad Heatwole and his wife Janie, and the Geiger Family, Gene, Holly, Cassie, Jenn, Grant, Brooke and Tess, and all of the people and families who participate in the Mennonite Your Way program. My appreciation also goes out to Debbie Dugger, Director of the Chesterfield County Youth Group Home and to her staff for the opportunity to work with young men and women in their care.

It doesn’t seem to matter who the teacher, author or messenger is, we approach a significant life when we remain spiritually aware, focused on the present and most importantly when we demonstrate love unconditionally to those in our presence. My wife, Debbie is a phenom at spotting opportunities that will enhance our lives and she never misses a chance to remind me to practice what I preach! She’s a great coach too, and I’m sure she intuitively knew we would both benefit greatly by our recent experiences.

In retrospect my childhood conditioning did not prepare me well for adult living; so the diversity of recent experiences helped me understand some old but very important principles, albeit later in life than I would have liked. Those principles are; that we actually do get what we sow; time is relative and passing so not making good use of it is unwise. Our spirits may transcend this world but history dictates that our bodies are on a timeline. Being honest with ourselves and others is critical to finding joy, and life is a lot more pleasant when we recognize, as Jesus said in the gospel of Luke, “the Kingdom is within.” Internally I express that as meaning I already possess all I need to live the life of freedom intended for all of us. So while gratefully accepting this gift of life and the gifts of those with whom we have recently interacted I view each occasion as a blessing intended to enhance an already unbelievable set of circumstances we call life!

What’s unusual is that as a mentor, fitness instructor and budding life coach I have opportunities to observe and discuss some of these values regularly. I find, however, that an unexpected or impromptu set of circumstances leads to the greatest life instruction because you aren’t preconditioned to expect a specific outcome. Don’t get me wrong, expectations and conditioning are important but it’s the point of application where I believe the greatest lessons are learned.

So, here’s what I learned. First from my wife, a person doesn’t need to have the best of everything to get started. It doesn’t matter what you are trying to accomplish, “done” never comes before “doing” and you cannot “do” if you do not start! I have seen Debbie begin things she had no experience with and become successful at by doing it one step at a time. Did she make some mistakes along the way? Absolutely, but that never stopped her from doing anything or attempting anything new.

Our association with the people in this story is a direct result of her desire to learn about bed and breakfasts and to discover new, cost effective ways to travel and meet people at the same time; activities we both enjoy immensely. I have asked if she experiences fear during her new adventures. She assures me she confronts it, but often forces herself to push through each occurrence the best she can throwing caution to the wind and paying attention to the moment she’s in.

Those who venture beyond what can only be experienced by the physical senses know about the goodness associated with the faith they used to get beyond the unbelievable. I am fortunate to learn life lessons this way, vicariously, through my relationships with Debbie and others. I don’t think she knows to what extent her spiritual proclivity for and love of life and people influences my growth as a man and as a human, spiritual being. She just keeps on giving. That’s unconditional love.

I’m not sure Judith Richerzhagen will even have time enough to read this far down the article, though I really hope so, because she was our introductory quest as a host for Mennonite Your Way. There could not have been a more appropriate example of service than this strong spirited woman who graced us with her presence for two evenings on her way to a two year stint of service to the Malawi tribe in Africa.

As I read her blog I realize that nothing worth having or experiencing is easy. I am sometimes a slow student, I know. Life is rarely trouble-free but even the weakest people can be strengthened by spiritually mature individuals and Judith was one who had a powerful connection to the source of all being. I saw her energy and steadfastness through her pain the day I dropped her off at the bus station in Richmond, Virginia. She put her army sized duffle bag on her back preparing to board the bus that would move her one step closer to helping an African culture with health care needs. Her back was weak and strong at the same time. I saw her heart on her sleeve and I will not forget the example she set and offered freely as our first experience with Mennonite Your Way, but more importantly as a servant with a calling she clearly recognized and was willing to answer regardless of the obstacles. That’s unconditional love!

From the Giegers I was reminded that families are so important and it is critical, for the development of the individual, the family and society to have examples of unconditional love at the head of the household. I saw this in the eyes and actions of Gene and Holly Geiger. I also saw it in the eyes of their children, Cassie, Jenn, Grant, Brooke and Tess. They were together. They enjoyed each others being. You could tell they were family!

There seemed to be an understanding that what mom and dad said or did was good for them, not just something coming from an authority figure. The children were respectful of their parents and each other. Granted this was vacation, but I sensed for the most part this was the way they lived their lives. How refreshing!

There was joy and anticipation in their hearts and I sensed that each child knew they were fortunate to be in this family unit. The Giegers would not know how much this affected me because intellectually, I knew this kind of family unit existed, but as a child I didn’t experience it. I can only hope that love remains, humbly and intentionally in the hearts of Gene and Holly as well as each child, for what I observed while they were in our home for one evening was spiritually exhilarating. I saw a presence that only accompanies the kind of love found among people who genuinely care about each other and practice it with each and every breath. That’s unconditional love!

Then, there was our fabulous stay with Conrad Heatwole and his gregarious wife Janie. Debbie and I have been in search of a piece of property in the country for a while now and we got to pretend a little bit with two really fascinating and active people. The Heatwoles are perhaps the epitome of Mennonite hospitality and I could not possibly describe the peace and beauty that was their home.

But that home was not just material in nature, it was Conrad and Janie. Despite being professional people they are good with their hands and minds and hearts. They opened up their home to us with all it represents of them and what they believe. By the way, it’s a very popular venue for many who travel through the beautiful western Virginia Mountain area, but you visit more than just their home. They are humble in their service and I would not do their story justice by attempting to repeat what little I know, but with Conrad and Janie you’re guided by a spirit of life, an extension of their mastery of the gifts given to them and, in turn, shared with their fellow man; not out of obligation, but out of the experience, presence and example of a higher form of unconditional love.

The last but certainly not the least of my recent experiences and one that is ongoing is the Chesterfield County Youth Group Home in Chesterfield, Virginia. I have had the great good fortune to mentor young people for over 20 years now and I am still in awe of the power or love to overcome the greatest of obstacles, especially in today’s ever growing society of immediate gratification and identity crises. It seems that every year that passes is one more year in which we seem to feel we have to stretch or open the envelope of life a little wider. When will we learn the lesson of responsibility and contentment?

I was introduced to the director of the home, Debbie Dugger by, who socially adept wife Debbie. As I listen to the young men and women in the county’s care, or anywhere for that matter, it seems as though they are seeking some external force to bring them peace or happiness or sanity. Of course at the age of adolescence peace and happiness take a back seat to identity.

It has been said and I have learned “there are no mistakes, only lessons.” I learned that each of the teens I see is on their own path and neither I nor their parents, or anyone else for that matter, can live their lives for them. The only thing we can do is love them; love them with the gifts we were given to do so and trust that there is a higher power; a God who loves all of us so unconditionally that the judgment and justice we experience is not penal but in actuality, life giving.

My greatest hope is that each child who comes into our presence will learn the lessons of sowing and reaping, the lessons of choice and consequence and the realization that eternity exists and we all have a place in it. But most of all, I pray that they will have the opportunity to experience what I have learned in the last few weeks and months; something I’ve known in my heart; that there is faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love…unconditional love.

The lessons of life are never ending. Thank you to all of you who believe, practice and share the wisdom...”God is love”...healing, life giving, unconditional love.

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