Vocation: Called, Again?

Preacher: Doug Johnson
Date: August 14, 2016

[Following is the transcript of a homily delivered by congregation member Doug Johnson on August 14. 2016. No audio is available.]

“On the 7th day God rested. The grandchildren must have been out of town.”

So quips Gene Perret, Carol Burnett’s writer and producer. Since 2011, Carolyn and I have had a new calling to the vocation of grandparenting. Like Samuel in the scripture reading [I Samuel 3:1-10], it was God calling me, even if I didn’t recognize it at first. My response to becoming a grandfather is shaped by what I used to do – organizing people to do good through government and community groups. Let me tell you a little about that. I got a Masters in Social Work degree from U of Wisconsin, expecting to be a family therapist. I soon realized that I have a keen interest and skills in organizing community programs. Mental health administration was my work for 20 years as we raised our two children. Budgeting, program redesign, and coalition building – this was my first calling. There were good professional and economic reasons for the career path I followed, but as with Samuel, God’s call was at work. Opportunities for greater service became available as I listened.

As I share my story of different forms of organizing work over the years, I want to express the faith that forms the foundation for it. I have been fortunate my whole life to be surrounded and encouraged by Christian family and churches. I believe that God is Love and active in an imperfect world. I am convinced that a Christian life requires good actions as well as a right mind. I also believe, but constantly need to rediscover, that my good works do not earn me God’s blessings. No, by the grace of God we are loved much more than we could ever deserve. It is in response to that gift that we are free to follow the example of Jesus and perform good works, to share God’s love with others. And this freedom makes new and surprising things possible.

Mid-career my employer, Washington County, decided to hire me to a newly created position of county administrator, to work with the elected board and coordinate all 24 departments of county government. “Herding cats” is what I told people I did, only partially in jest. I learned a lot about working with a variety of people, the importance of the right timing, encouraging positive linkages, and about taking initiative while respecting others. There were many tough times, lots of tough issues. I believe that God was present in those times.

I remember the turning point in discussions about expanding the two-year U of Wisconsin campus there. The facilities of the college are owned in partnership between county government and city government. The City of West Bend opposed a needed expansion; the County agreed with the college that an expansion, especially of science labs, was vital. The community advisory board to the campus invited me to meet with them to consider next steps. They were mad and ready to fight. They were expecting to send a letter of objection to the City – telling them to support the campus they once championed. “What do you think, Doug?” “Hmm…I may have an odd view of things, but I think you should thank them for their past support. Let’s re-build the partnership.” After discussion, that’s what happened. New financing options were worked out. A private donor took an interest and pledged $1 million, allowing for a science building not just a wing of classrooms. A 4-year engineering program was initiated for the benefit of both local businesses and skilled scientists returning to earn college level training. God was present in allowing love to win.

During those 15 years of responding to my 2nd calling - county administration - I also had the chance to see how caring about people and organizing could be shared as a volunteer in a variety of settings. I took my turn as the President of a Rotary Club involved with community and international service projects. I organized a choir for the start-up United Methodist church that we had joined, supplementing the guitar band that had the primary music role. We started with no music, no director, and 7 or 8 interested singers; the 2X a month choir still sings 17 years later. I joined the United Way Board and chaired several committees. Good was accomplished for worthwhile causes, for the community, but also for people who gave of themselves when encouraged and supported. Sometimes the number of community needs seems just too large. God is present to encourage, to sustain worthwhile efforts, and to uplift people.

How did grandparenting become a new and compelling calling for us after all this? I want to be very clear that while I am the one talking today, Grandma Carolyn is my partner in this adventure, the star of this show! Without her love, her cooking, and her diligent care for our family, I would not be here today. As we worked in the last stages of our careers, it was not at all clear that we would have grandchildren, and if we did, where they would live. When our daughter, a doctor specializing in maternal - fetal health and genetics, moved from Atlanta to Boston after residency, Seymour was born. Carolyn’s help was needed regularly - a week most months – especially when our daughter returned to work full-time. Carolyn retired and became a frequent Milwaukee – Boston flier to fill this need. Even though my life and work in Wisconsin continued, my identity began to change. There were new pictures on my desk and a few of the staff started to call me “Grandpa Doug.”

Think about a time in your life when you were moved to the edge of your comfort zone, maybe in the past, maybe right now. What kinds of questions nagged at you? The decision to have a second child was that kind of challenge for both parents and grandparents. We were filled with questions. Since I was planning to retire soon, would we consider moving to Boston to take on a bigger role? What a scary and exciting idea! Was this even possible? How could we be sure that my daughter’s family would be in Boston for a long-time? What would our new life look like, feel like…what are we needed for? As Carolyn and I talked and thought, we came to see that we were being called to provide what we now say are “support services”. Our calling is to develop and lovingly offer whatever day-to-day help will allow “#2-tike Lyndon” and his brother Seymour to grow and thrive, and their parents to enjoy the blessings of both working and parenting. Some would say we are doing chores. I prefer to think that we are also helping pregnant women to get good medical care, even in the middle of call nights. Yes, this too is organizing! The plea came from our daughter and son-in-law, or so it seemed. But just as with Samuel, God was calling me a third time.

Every grandparent is unique and relates to her grandchildren as geography and family circumstances require and permit. How exactly do I respond to this calling? I drive a lot, not a small task on the busy, confusing, round-abouting Boston streets. I tote a lot of groceries. I get library books. I delivered frozen breast milk to the Mothers Milk Bank. I studied our finances and clarified options for how to afford a condo here and use our pensions and savings to support ourselves. I do a lot of dishes and fold laundry. I take the cars in for maintenance and annual inspection stickers. I play trains and celebrate “good job Red Sox” with each victory that we record with a sticker. I greet the tired walkers home from day care and carry the enthusiastic little guy to the bathroom to “wass hanna”. I help Carolyn to make a family dinner experience possible with our daughter and son-in-law, no matter the uproar of little ones, no matter the work schedules that evening. 

We don’t grandparent alone. When we moved to Jamaica Plain we knew that we needed to build a new life for ourselves, separate from though intertwined with our daughter’s family in Brookline. We needed a church community; we needed friends; we needed activities and involvements. We need to contribute to encouraging and creating a community that will be the kind of place we want for our grandchildren. How fortunate we are to have found United Parish! We celebrate the variety of people in this congregation – all are welcome. With others here we want to face up to our racism and to support actions and attitudes that deal with the problems of mass incarceration. We especially have been surprised and touched to meet other folks who are called to grandparenting, each in our own ways. When we affiliated with this congregation last November with two other couples who had moved here to participate more actively in helping with their grandchildren, I knew that something special was possible. A loving God was again at work. We organized! We met each other, we listened and learned, and we started "Growing Grandparents."

This past Monday we met to make plans for the year ahead. We want to be a place for active grandparents and others to connect – welcoming, studying, socializing, and serving. Our book study for the fall – The Whole-Brained Child – will begin in October. The group is a blessing that makes us feel especially welcomed, nourished where we are. But it also makes us care even more deeply about United Parish and all its ministries. We are grandparents, yes, and sooooo much more!

Carolyn and I have had a very good life; we were married 46 years ago at Cornell University. When we went to graduate school in Wisconsin we enthusiastically stayed to work, and to raise our babies as they came – a daughter and son. The four of us – that was our Wisconsin family. We developed close church friends and supported one another’s children to grow and make their way. As our children moved away and retirement approached, the life we had known and loved would not be the same. We prepared to re-shape our life there. And then the call came – can you help us here in Boston? How much would we risk to accept this opportunity? God was with us as we realized that this is where we need to be. In love, all the challenges are just small stuff. I love having a daily relationship with my grandsons. I laugh with Seymour during dinner when we talk about the toy store in JP that grandpa walked past that day…Boing! I smile (inside and out) when Lyndon runs to me to give me a big hug. And I love doing the dishes when I can hear that my son-in-law is getting to devote his half hour before bedtime to play with the boys at the end of a long day.

With God’s help and the encouragement of many people, we pray that our grandchildren and yours will grow up to know and love the special older adults in their lives. Amen.