What Makes For a Good Life?
While a college chaplain I was given a year away from duties to write. The door was wide open to my return, but Lynne and I weren’t quite sure we would. We didn’t know what the Spirit had for us. We packed the cars and left Lewiston, Maine, for New Haven, Connecticut. On the day we were leaving, a retired couple with whom we had become friends came by. They had a silver pitcher in their hands, filled with water. They entered the house with farewell tokens, but they held onto the pitcher. After sweet conversation, they asked us to come out to the driveway. We wondered. They called us to where the drive touched the sidewalk and asked us to stand with them. They poured water from pitcher across the line between the drive and the street. “When we lived in Turkey,” Arthur said, “we learned an old custom. When you pour water from a silver pitcher in front of loved ones as they leave, you are saying that they are a part of you and that you know they will return. You must now return to us.” We chuckled, embraced, and said farewell. We did return at the end of that year, for a second dear period on campus and in the community. And as they reminded us of the silver pitcher when we later left in earnest for a new congregation in Chicago, we knew we’d be back—at least to visit. And we remember bringing our boys a few years later to their farmhouse, where they served homemade root beer and told stories of all they’d been doing since we last saw them.
Arthur and Marianne. I saw them at nearly every public lecture on the campus about world affairs. Events coming out of the Chaplain’s Office or Edmund Muskie Archives were of special interest. Marianne was an accomplished musician, and so anything having to do with music caught her interest. They were committed persons of the church. And we learned their story.
Arthur was a retired pastor. They spent most of their ministry in the Middle East. After serving in the North Pacific in 1945, he went to Whitman College on the GI bill. He spent three years teaching English in the oldest American College abroad, Roberts College, in Turkey. Then a few years working in New York on behalf of international colleges. He married Marianne, who shared a hometown. The church sent them back to Turkey, where he oversaw finances for schools and medical missions in Turkey, Greece, Syria, and Lebanon. He was invited to establish a public relations and fundraising program to sustain the American University in Beirut, which he worked on both there and here for many years. He started the first boy scout troop in Turkey. He was instrumental in founding Americans for Middle East Understanding, doing whatever he could to raise awareness of the plight of Palestinians and others suffering in the region. Marianne played in symphonies in the Middle East and tended to much during their time there, including their two children. The spoke with love, wonder, and humility of those years.
When they returned to a small family farm for retirement, which is where we met, they did anything but retire. They grew small crops for food and to share, raised a few chickens for eggs, brewed that root beer, and welcomed whoever came—stranger or friend. They hosted field trips from local schools where students learned about lambing season in the spring, sugaring off in the winter, and making cider in the fall. They were active in political and religious organizations, sponsored public discussions of controversial concerns, worked for civic leaders and issues they respected, and followed their highest love—which was nurturing deep friendships. I wonder how many silver pitchers of water they poured over the years. We were honored to be in that circle and cherish the memories.
As life moved on, we lost touch. I can make no excuse for that but distraction, but they remained in our hearts. In a moment of reflection, I wondered about them the other day. Found an obituary online. Marianne died a few years ago, after 56 years of marriage. Arthur passed about 18 months ago. Some surely poured water from a silver pitcher on their way.
A good life. Not dramatic. Not aggressive. No drive for success. No need for fame, or power, or legacy. Just a simple and persistent desire to serve, to be open to what God had in store, to love others, to love what is beautiful, to gently but strongly advocate God-desired justice for all people, and to make whatever difference they could. Simple. Persistent. Without ego. They left their world better and made room for the Holy Spirit to move through them.
Not a bad way to live. May we all, in our own way, do the same.