Vacation Needed!

fullsizeoutput_200d“Hey, Mom, we need to talk. These last few weeks have been very different. You and Mim went away on vacation and you didn’t take me along. Instead you sent me away to stay with a couple different friends. Why did you do that? I don’t understand. Why did you go on vacation?” Floey looked up at me with a very puzzled expression on her face.

“I guess it’s time for a long talk about vacations. But first, tell me about your time staying with your friends. You had a good time with your friends, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did. Denise is one of my favorite people. And her husband Steve, and their grandkids are fun people to spend time with. They fed me really well and they let me chase rabbits in their yard. I had a great time living with them for a few days, although I missed you and Mim. And then after a few days they took me over to Peggy’s place. I really like Peggy and her two dogs Buddy and Quincy. And Peggy’s sister Bridie was there too. I had a really good time playing with all four of them for several days. But it would have been better if you had come with me, and we all could have had a good time together. Why did you go away? That’s what I don’t understand.”

“Floey, you have lived with us for almost five years, and you have never had the opportunity to learn about vacations. We used to take a one- or two-week-long vacation every year. But when we started doing assisted living in our home, about 20 years ago, we had to stop taking vacations. That was too bad, but necessary.”

“But why do you have to go away on vacation?” Floey asked.

“Vacations are important to our mental and spiritual health as well as to our physical health. Vacations allow us to escape completely from our daily routines. We learn to approach activities and challenges from a totally different perspective. On the third day of our vacation, on Saturday, we faced a significant challenge.”

“Oh, no. Tell me about it, Mom. Were you OK?” Floey looked quite concerned.

“Well, Floey, do you know why we took a road trip to North and South Dakota for this vacation?”

“I think you were going to a wedding out there, right?”

Mim baby pic adj“You’re right. Mim spent the first six years of her life in the Dakotas. Her dad was a Lutheran pastor and served four small country churches on the far northwestern edge of South Dakota. On Christmas and Easter he went to all four churches to lead worship services, a circuit of over a hundred miles on dirt roads. On normal Sundays, he alternated churches, leading worship at two churches each Sunday. Mim’s family has maintained close friendships with some of these church families over the decades since they left in 1953. Several months ago Mim received an invitation to the wedding of the grandson of one of their closest friends, the Howe family. We decided to plan our first vacation “in retirement” around this wedding. The wedding venue was to be the Howe Hereford Ranch, which spans the North and South Dakota border on the western edge of the two states. We took two days to drive the 950 miles out there, and stayed at the Tip Top Motel in Hettinger, ND, the town closest to the ranch, about 30 miles away by mostly gravel roads.”

“That was a long drive for just a wedding, Mom.”

“But it was a really special wedding, Floey. Mim got to see family friends she hadn’t seen in almost thirty years. When we still lived in Chicago, Mim and I took some summer vacation road trips to Hettinger, bringing Mim’s mom along with us, so she could visit with her many friends. But we haven’t been back to the Dakotas since Mim’s mom had her stroke in 1993.”

“Well, I guess the wedding was a good chance to see a lot of those old family friends. But tell me more about your vacation, and more specifically your challenges,” Floey urged.

fullsizeoutput_29d3“On Saturday morning we drove from the Tip Top Motel to the ranch to be sure we remembered how to find it. We got there about 11:30 and found the ranch buzzing with activity. Dozens of family and friends were hard at work getting everything ready for the 5:00 wedding – putting centerpieces on the tables in the barn for the reception, setting planks on top of bales of hay in the closest pasture for seating a couple hundred guests for the wedding ceremony, preparing salads in the ranch house kitchen, ironing the groomsmen’s vests in the living room, etc. We found Avis, the groom’s aunt in the kitchen, and we asked her for directions to Golden Valley Church – the country church where Mim had been baptized almost 72 years ago. We had packed a picnic lunch for ourselves before we left the motel in Hettinger. Our plan was to try to find the Golden Valley Church and have a picnic there. We had most of the day for exploring, with the wedding not being until 5:00.

fullsizeoutput_29d1“Avis gave us directions and warned us to be careful. They had received a lot of rain earlier in the week. She thought we could get through, but she wasn’t sure. We drove several miles over gravel roads when we saw the little white church on top of a hill. We turned off onto the dirt road. About a mile up that road we saw some muddy ruts ahead of us, but it looked like another car had driven around the dip in the road and continued up the road. We decided to try the same thing. Bad decision! We were promptly stuck in the mud, and we couldn’t drive out. We were good and stuck!”

“Oh no, Mom. What did you do?” Floey looked worried.

“Mim was driving and she felt awful. The only people we knew we could call for help were the groom’s family, people who were already as busy as they could be with wedding preparations. I pulled my iPhone out of my pocket to see if I had Avis’ phone number. I read it to Mim, who used her trusty old flip phone to call. Charlene, the groom’s mother, answered the landline phone in the ranch house. She said not to worry. She’d find someone to come tow us out. Meanwhile, Avis heard about our predicament and called Barb at a neighboring ranch, closer to Golden Valley Church. Avis called us back to tell us that Barb and her son, Brandon, were on their way to tow us out.”

“Wow. They sure seem friendly out there. Then what happened?” Floey wanted to hear the rest of the story.

“We decided to eat our picnic lunch in the car while we waited for out rescuers. As soon as we finished eating, a pick-up truck pulled up behind us. Barb and Brandon hopped out of the truck and I got out of the car.”

“What about Mim?” Floey asked.

Version 2“She stayed behind the wheel. She was wearing sandals and was afraid she’d get stuck in the muddy ruts just outside her car door. Then Brandon got a rope and a hook from his truck and hooked the back of our car to the front of his truck. Mim put the car in reverse and Brandon pulled the Prius backwards out of the mud. When on the hard and dry dirt road, Mim stepped out of the car, and the four of us stood and talked for about 15 minutes. Then Brandon directed Mim how to turn the car around safely on the dirt road (between a corn field and a hay field), and stayed till we were headed in the right direction to get back to the ranch. Then Barb and Brandon left. They also had to get home to get ready for the wedding.”

“They really were helpful strangers, Mom.”

fullsizeoutput_29d9“Yes, they were. We ended up sitting with Barb and Avis at the reception, and really enjoyed getting to know Barb better. But that’s getting ahead in the story. Mim still wanted to see Golden Valley Church, so we walked almost a mile up the hill to the church. It wasn’t locked, so we could go inside to fully explore the sanctuary, the basement kitchen, and the cemetery out back. Mim recognized several of the names on the gravestones. The church no longer has an active congregation, but the building is on the National Historic Registry. Former members of the congregation, including Avis and Barb, try to keep the building in quite good shape, and it’s still occasionally used for weddings and family gatherings.”

“After all that, did you get back in time for the wedding?”

“After exploring the church, we walked back to the car, and then drove as fast as we dared on dirt and gravel roads to get back to the motel in Hettinger to get cleaned up and dressed for the wedding. We arrived back at the ranch by 5:05, almost in time for the 5:00 wedding. Fortunately, the wedding started closer to 5:30 than 5:00.”

“Were you ever lucky the wedding started a little late!”

fullsizeoutput_29d7“Yes, we were, Floey. Mim actually drove the 55 mph speed limit on those gravel roads to the ranch – something I was sure she’d never do! It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day for the wedding. The ushers handed us each a bottle of water as they ushered us to the hay bale seating. It was a big, beautiful wedding with six bridesmaids and six groomsmen, plus a flower girl and a ring bearer. After the ceremony, we strolled leisurely back to the barn for the reception. As we talked with other guests, we quickly learned that our reputation had preceded us. We were the two women from Wisconsin who had gotten stuck in the mud up by Golden Valley Church earlier in the afternoon. What everyone was talking about was that we actually got cell service out in the fields. That was unheard of for that area. It had never occurred to us that our cell phones might not work out in the middle of nowhere. Everyone we talked with agreed that God was watching out for us. Somehow God must have kept some angels very busy boosting the signals to and from the cell towers.”

fullsizeoutput_29d8“Really? Do you believe that, Mom?” asked Floey.

“Sure. That’s the only explanation that makes any sense, Floey. That’s what I meant when I said vacations enable us to think about different things, and to see things from different perspectives. Without all the daily distractions and constant interruptions that we try to block out at home so that we can keep focused on our usual routines, on vacation we don’t have to protect our routines. We can more easily see and think about how God is taking care of us, both through the actions of strangers and possibly even through some occasional divine intervention. That’s why vacations are important.”

“I think I see,” Floey responded.

“We have more examples of God watching out for us on this vacation – like when we were approached by a wild buffalo as we picnicked in Teddy Roosevelt National Park – but I think you get the idea…”

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Moving on to the Next Phase of Our Lives

ddKDiBP7QtqhQpiYFYQsPgMonday of this week seemed really strange. It was the first day of the next phase in our lives. The day before, Anna, our last long-term assisted living resident, moved on to her next life. She had lived with us for eight years, and had just celebrated her 98th birthday a couple weeks ago. She died peacefully last Sunday with Mim holding her hand.

Now Mim and I are beginning the next phase in our lives. We’re planning to be “retired” for several months while we recuperate and clean house. (We’re both in our early 70s.) But then we plan to work a little more. We have talked informally with Rainbow Hospice Care about the possibility of Rainbow referring families to us who feel they can no longer care at home for their loved one who is receiving hospice care. We would care for their loved one in our home for their last few days, weeks, or possibly months. But we aren’t ready to start doing that yet. We need a break first. That’s our plan.

In the immediate past phase of our lives we have provided assisted living in our home. We have done this for over 16 years.

Whispering Winds Retreat Haven

The previous phase of our lives had been turning our remodeled farmhouse into a bed and breakfast. We welcomed a couple thousand people into our home over a five-year period. We began the B&B in 1998. We loved it, and we experienced steady growth in the business. By late 1999 we decided to put an addition onto our house to be able to accommodate people in wheelchairs and with other mobility issues. We named the addition our Nightingale Suite. We became one of a handful of B&Bs in Wisconsin that were wheelchair accessible. But in order to do that, Mim and I had to become politically active to change the Wisconsin B&B law to permit additions to be built onto B&Bs. Getting the law changed was the most frustrating experience of our lives. But with lots of help from other B&B owners and a few savvy state legislators, the law was changed, and we were able to complete our addition.

On September 11, 2001, the B&B phase of our lives began an abrupt change. After 911, tourism dropped drastically all over the country, all around the world actually. Our steady growth in “room nights” for our Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast came to an end. After  several months of having many more empty rooms than full rooms, we decided we needed to re-think how we would earn a living. That’s when we decided to re-christen Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast to Country Comforts Assisted Living, capitalizing on Mim’s experience as a registered nurse. In November, 2002 we welcomed our first two assisted living residents.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe’ve been in the assisted living phase of our lives for 16 years and 5 months. During that time we’ve had a total of only 10 days without having a resident to care for in our home, and those days were all in the first few months of the business, 16 years ago. Fortunately, we have always had two or three excellent caregivers to give us a few hours off each week, and even an occasional night or two away. But even during our time away, Mim has always been on call as the nursing expert. 

In our 16+ years, we have cared for 20 people in our home, all but three of them through their last moment on earth. (Two recovered enough to go home, and one had to move on to a facility equipped to handle patients with advanced dementia.) In addition, we have cared for four other individuals outside of our home through their last days. We’re truly thankful for all the people, both residents and their families, God has brought into our lives throughout this phase of our lives.

Selma and baby Pun croppedkWe had good preparation for the assisted living phase of our lives by caring for our parents. In 1987, we cared for my mom for the last six weeks of her life. She and my dad came to Chicago to live with us while we cared for her. A few years later, in 1991, Mim and I took some time off from our work in Chicago to come to Cambridge to care for my dad throughout the last couple weeks of his life. And finally, in 1993, a few month’s after we moved to Wisconsin, Mim’s mother had a stroke that left her paralyzed on her left side. We cared for her in our home for almost five years.

Although both Mim and I have loved being in the assisted living phase of our lives, we’re ready for a little break. And on Monday of this week, that break began. It feels really strange to be able to come and go as we please, and not have to be sure our residents are cared for while we’re gone.

“Christ in Our Home” is a quarterly devotional booklet published by Augsburg Fortress in Minneapolis. Yesterday the scripture reading was from the end of the first chapter of Matthew, where an angel of the Lord told Joseph in a dream to marry his pregnant fiancee, Mary – that God had a plan for their lives. The comments in the devotional booklet really caught my attention as I was reflecting on the changes happening in my own life.

I have a hunch that most of us can relate to Joseph, because most of us have had something happen in our lives that took us off our planned route… Joseph later found out that God had a plan for him the whole time. It wasn’t Joseph’s original plan, but it was much better…

When life diverts us onto a detour, it is comforting to remember that God is with us, that God is still in control. And when we trust and believe in this, there is no detour too great to cause us to lose our way. When our lives seem out of control, we can trust that God is still in control and has a plan for us… [p. 82]

Mim and I have exciting plans for the next phase of our lives. Whether things happen exactly according to our plans, or not, we learned from the B&B and assisted living phases of our lives that God’s plans may be even greater than ours. We’re eager to see what’s next!M-M Close-up - cropped

The Love of a Dog

fullsizeoutput_281cOn February 23 we celebrated Anna’s 98th birthday. Anna has been living with us as an assisted living resident for eight years now. Some of her family members came for a little party, and everyone, especially Anna, had a really good time.

One week later, Anna had a stroke. It was about noon on Friday. She had walked with her walker over to the kitchen counter for lunch. After she had been sitting there a few minutes, she started to look a little sleepy and unsteady. Both Mim and I got up to check on her, helped her into a wheelchair, wheeled her into her bedroom, and then helped her into bed. As Mim checked her blood pressure and had her squeeze her hands and did other diagnostics, our dog Floey jumped into bed with Anna, and refused to leave her side. Anna giggled at Floey’s devotion and she reached down to pet her. Floey is a good friend of Anna’s, but she’s never hopped into bed with her before. Floey knew something was wrong, and she sprang into action to help Anna every bit as much as Mim and I had. 

Floey showed Anna just how much she loved her, and how important she was to her. I foolishly tried to coax Floey out of the bed with a treat to be sure she wouldn’t be in our way. She wouldn’t budge. Her place was with Anna. She loves Anna, and she knew Anna needed her to comfort her.

That’s kind of like God’s love, I think. At least, I think I begin to understand a little more what God’s love is like when I see Floey’s love for Anna.

We don’t know the final outcome of Anna’s stroke. She might be with us another couple years to make it ten years with us at Country Comforts Assisted Living, and a hundred years on this earth. Or she might not. What we do know is that she’s in the care of a loving God. And Floey is helping us understand what that means. 

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Floey and Anna watching TV together

A Glimpse of God’s Love

Last Saturday, Mim and I tried to drive to Chicago, normally about a two and a half hour drive, for a memorial service. Unfortunately, we got only as far as the distant northwest suburbs before we decided to turn around and go home. Although the weather forecast for Chicago was to get only 1 to 3 inches of snow, visibility had diminished to just a few car lengths, and the roads were getting pretty slippery. We thought it would be wiser to write a letter to our friend’s adult children to explain how much we admired their dad and how much we learned about God’s love from him.

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Jon presented me with a chocolate cake when I retired from the CCHC board.

Jon Beran was one of three founding doctors of Circle Christian Health Center (CCHC), a not-for-profit clinic on the far west side of Chicago – a very poor and violent, mostly African American neighborhood, and a medically under-served part of Chicago. Mim worked at the clinic in the early 1980s after she completed her advanced practice degree as a nurse practitioner. I served on the board of CCHC when I completed my MBA. We both chose Jon to be our personal physician. He was a good doctor, a good listener, and perhaps the kindest, most gentle, and most humble person I’ve ever met. 

When Jon was in medical school in the early 1970s, he attended Circle Church, an Evangelical Free congregation that met in rented space – the Teamster’s Union Hall on the near west side of Chicago, close to Circle Campus of the University of Illinois. The mostly college-aged and young professional members of the congregation enthusiastically committed their lives to serving Christ in their chosen professions wherever the needs were greatest. 

At that time, one of the most socially and economically distressed neighborhoods in Chicago was Austin, on the far west side of the city. A group of people within the Circle Church congregation decided to move into Austin to serve the people of that community. Circle Urban Ministries was founded as the network that would link a medical clinic, a counseling center, a legal aid practice, a youth center, and eventually a church. 

1980-Medical-ministry

Staff of CCHF in the late 1970s. Jon and Nita on left.

Jon and his wife Nita (a nurse) bought a house in Austin. They had two children and raised them in that neighborhood. (Their son has become an architect and their daughter has become a family practice physician, like her dad.) Both Jon and Nita spent their entire careers serving the people of Austin through CCHC. Nita passed away two years ago. Mim and I made it to her visitation. It was obvious by all the people from the neighborhood at the funeral home that Nita and Jon were very much loved by their community.

Mom crocheting

Mom kept crocheting afghans for babies of teenage mothers in Chicago until just a few weeks before she died.

One of my favorite memories of Jon relates to my mom. When she was in the last stages of liver cancer, Mom and Dad came to live with Mim and me in Chicago for her last six weeks. Although we got Mom signed up to receive hospice care while she lived with us, she needed to have a local doctor see her and prescribe medications. We asked Jon if he would be her doctor. Of course, he said yes. Mom was too weak to ride to the clinic, so Jon made house calls to see her. We lived pretty far from Austin, about a 30-minute drive or 45-minute trip on the “L” each way, but Jon came over to see her as often as she needed him, usually coming by “L.” He carried his stethoscope and other doctoring tools in a Jewel Food Store plastic bag. He didn’t carry a doctor’s bag because he didn’t want to look like a doctor who might be carrying drugs.

Besides caring for Mom’s physical needs, Jon also took time to listen to Mom talk about how she was trusting God to heal her. I didn’t eavesdrop on the whole conversation, but I know Jon somehow related her trust in God to the trust his children needed to have in him when he was teaching them how to swim. They needed to trust that he would take care of them even though they didn’t totally understand how everything was going to work. Then Jon prayed with Mom.

As I mentioned in this blog last week, my special word for 2019 is LOVE, as in the LOVE OF GOD. One of the books I’m reading to kick off my year-long reflection on LOVE is BUMPING INTO GOD: 35 stories of finding grace in unexpected places by Dominic Grassi, a Catholic priest who lives in Chicago. From the back cover of the book,

fullsizeoutput_2785A natural storyteller, Dominic Grassi invites readers to share his warm memories of life in Chicago over the past five decades. He shows how God is reflected in the people we meet every day: a butcher, a bookstore owner, a short-order cook. 

And, I would add, a special doctor named Jon. I’m sure thousands of people have caught a glimpse of God’s love by bumping into Jon sometime in their lives. I know my mom did. And so did I.

 

A Long Talk with My Dog – the best way to begin the New Year.

Floey looking at camera

Floey jumped down from the couch, stretched her whole body, and sauntered over to me. I was sitting at my desk. She plopped herself down right next to me. But instead of resuming her nap, she looked up at me and asked, “What are you doing, Mom? You look like you’re just staring off into space. What’s on your mind?”

“I’m just thinking about something I said, or rather, didn’t say yesterday, and I kind of regret the conversation.”

“Who were you talking with?”

“I went downtown for a haircut late yesterday afternoon.”

“Yeah. I remember. You took me out for a really quick walk, and then you left. Were you talking with the person who cuts your hair?”

“Yes. She cuts my hair really fast – like in ten minutes. But despite her cutting speed, she likes to talk with me the whole time she’s cutting. I don’t know how she can concentrate on getting my hair cut right, but somehow she does.”

“I wish my groomer was fast like that. She always takes at least 45 minutes, but she gives me a bath, blows me dry, trims the hair around my ears and paws, and gives me a pedicure. She talks to me, too, but I know she’s concentrating really hard on everything she does to me. At least she ends the grooming session with a really good treat. Do you get a treat?”

“No, Floey, I don’t.”

“That’s too bad. Well, what are you regretting about your conversation with your haircutter?”

“We really don’t know each other very well, and our conversations are usually just typical small talk – the weather, how our dogs are doing, any new restaurants we’ve tried, and so on. Yesterday she asked me if I have any goals for this new year. I told her no.”

“You don’t make New Year’s resolutions any more, so you don’t have goals, do you?”

“Well, sort of. Six years ago I changed from making New Year’s resolutions to choosing a special word to concentrate on all year long. The first special word I chose was JOY. Every day in 2014 I thought about finding JOY somewhere in the day. I loved the positive energy that came from finding JOY throughout the whole year. The next year I chose the word GRATITUDE. That was just as inspiring. In 2016, my word was KINDNESS. The next year was HOPE. And last year my word was PEACE. Every year has been really special by having a deliberate focus.”

fullsizeoutput_200f“I remember, Mom, in January of 2015, shortly after you adopted me, you explained “special words” to me, and as a young pup of less than a year old, I chose my first special word – LEARN, because I was going to concentrate on learning all I could to become the best companion to our residents that I could be. Remember, Mom?”

“I sure do, Floey, and you have learned a lot. Everyone agrees that you are our best caregiver of all.”

“Thanks, Mom. But let’s get back to your conversation yesterday. Why are you feeling bad about it?”

“Well, Floey, I should have told the person who cuts my hair (and the customer and hairdresser at the next chair who were listening to us) about how uplifting the practice of focusing on one special word for a year can be. Unlike when making a New Year’s resolution that you know will get broken before the end of the year, when you choose a special word, there can only be positive outcomes – the more you think about an inspiring word, the more inspired your life will be, even if you miss a few days of thinking about it. At least that’s been my experience in the six years I’ve been doing this.”

“One year, Mom, remember I chose a bad word. I chose the word MEOW because I was going to try to learn how to communicate better with the cats in the neighborhood. But the cats didn’t want to get to know me, so I eventually changed words. I borrowed your word of KINDNESS, and tried to be kind to those cats, even though they didn’t deserve it.”

“But even that worked out for good, Floey, because you focused on being KIND, and that enriched your life, didn’t it?”

“I guess so.”

“Anyway, I wish I’d taken the initiative yesterday to explain my approach of choosing a special word every year. Maybe the women in the salon would have liked to try out this practice for themselves.”

“Mom, tell me what you wished you had said to them. How did the word PEACE work out for you in 2018, and what’s your word for 2019? Is that what you wanted to tell them?”

“I guess so. One of the special things I did last year to deepen my understanding of PEACE was to look for all the hymns I could find with PEACE as the theme. I selected 16 of those hymns to include in my next book of hymn reflections. Dona Nobis Pacem, Let There Be Peace on Earth, Peace in the Valley, Make Me a Servant of Your Peace – those are just a few of the hymns that focus on the PEACE of God. I loved doing that study.”

“How about your word for this year?”

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“As I was thinking about what word to choose for this year, I realized that the themes of the four Sundays in Advent are HOPE, PEACE, JOY, and LOVE. I’ve already chosen three of the four themes. LOVE is the only one I haven’t focused on yet. The more I thought about it, I realized the most concise phrase that summarizes the nature of God is GOD IS LOVE. I guess it’s time I try to deepen my understanding of God’s LOVE. So LOVE is the word I chose for 2019.”

“That sounds like a good word for you this year. Do you know if Mim has chosen a word?”

“I think she said her word is going to be PATIENCE. We’ll have to ask her more about why she chose that word for this year when she gets home. How about you, Floey?”

“I chose the word LISTEN. I’m really good at listening sometimes, especially to our residents. But other times, I just block out voices and other noises I don’t want to be bothered with. I have such good ears, I should make better use of the gift of superior hearing that God has given me. I’ll listen for birds, chipmunks, music, the wind – whatever sounds are out there – maybe even for you when you call me to come…”

“Well that would be wonderful! As soon as I know that you listen well enough to always hear me when I call you to come, we can start going to the dog park!”

“That’s great! This is going to be a really good year!”

“You’re right, Floey. And thank you for listening to me now. Talking about what I wish I’d said yesterday makes me feel better. Thanks. You’re already a good listener. You’re off to a good start with your new word!”

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Is It Over Yet?

Thanksgiving. Is it over yet? There are two parts to the word. THANKS: I think we did that last Thursday. And today is GIVING Tuesday. So we’re finishing up with THANKS-GIVING today. Good. It’s not over yet. I still have time to blog about “Thanksgiving.” 

I spent the first and third weeks of November this year at our Christmas Mountain timeshare to avoid distractions and concentrate on writing. I’m working on my next book of hymn reflections. I’ve chosen to write reflections on hymns related to four themes for this book: PEACE (my special word for 2018), WALKING WITH GOD, GOD’s FAMILY, and PRAYER. So far, I’ve completed the first two sections and I’m in the middle of the third section now. 

Some of the hymns about being a part of God’s family are commonly sung around Thanksgiving. One of the reflections I wrote this month is for “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” Since Thanksgiving isn’t really over yet, I thought I’d share my thoughts on this hymn as a Thanksgiving blog post. Then I’ll go online to make special donations to a couple of my favorite charities – New Moms and Casita Copan. HAPPY GIVING TUESDAY!

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TUNE:  ST. GEORGE’S WINDSOR
COMPOSER:  George J. Elvey 
(1816-1893) English organist and prolific composer of church music.
AUTHOR:  Henry Alford (1810-1871) Anglican priest, highly esteemed Greek scholar, and hymn writer.
SCRIPTURE:  Mark 4:26-29 Parable of the Seed; Matthew 13:24-43 Parable of the wheat and tares

“THE LODGING PLACE of a traveler on his way to Jerusalem” is the English translation of the Latin inscription on the tomb of Henry Alford, the author of this hymn. He followed in a long line of Anglican clergymen in his family – five generations of them. He was a precocious child. Before he reached the age of ten he had written several poems in Latin, as well as the history of the Jews, and a series of outlines for theologically sound sermons. He became a noted preacher and scholar. His most significant work was an 8-volume compilation and commentary, “The New Testament in Greek.” His hymns and poems are considered his lesser contributions, and many critics considered them an unfortunate distraction from his more scholarly endeavors.

His most famous hymn is “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” He wrote it for “Harvest Home,” a fall festival in England comparable to our Thanksgiving in America. The first verse of the hymn thanks God for another successful harvest. But then the hymn changes its focus to the harvest imagery Jesus used in two of his parables – the seed that grows into a fruitful plant and the parable of the weeds (tares) that grow in the field along with the wheat. By the last stanza, “harvest” refers to the final days of the earth.

In addition to the history and meaning of this hymn, I have a significant personal association with it. When I was 15, my grandmother died on the Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving. My piano teacher teacher (our church organist) had been working with me for weeks to prepare me to play a fancy arrangement of “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” for the offertory for that Sunday evening church service. That Sunday afternoon, I knew I had to stop thinking about my grandma’s death. I had to stop crying, get myself ready for church, and go play “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” Our neighbor lady, a retired missionary, was the guest preacher for that evening. She sat next to me in church when she wasn’t at the pulpit. She even gave me her handkerchief. (I guess I ran out of Kleenex.) Once I started playing the offertory, I could focus on being thankful to God – not so much for the harvest, but for all these friends in church who cared about me and my family, the “family of God.”

Now whenever I hear or play this hymn, I think about being thankful to God for all the blessings we receive – good friends as well as good harvests.

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Today’s Politics Should Prompt New Hymns

MM at Moodys PubI’ve been working on my next book of reflections on hymns, and just completed the story behind “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee.” The writing of this hymn was prompted by the social and economic conditions in the United States following the Civil War. As I was explaining the context of this hymn to Mim, she said, “That sounds just like the social, economic, and political situation today. You should blog about it.” So here’s a peek at one reflection that will be in my next book.

The time period following the Civil War in America was turbulent. In the late 1860s, America was beginning to change from a land of mostly farmers to an urban industrial society with two distinct classes of people – the super wealthy and the vulnerable poor – the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, and the slum-dwelling working class. Economic injustice was one of the dominant themes of the day.

Washington Gladden was a Congregational pastor of a church in Ohio. He was very troubled by how society was evolving, and he became an outspoken activist for moral reform in industry, commerce, and politics. He wrote 38 books on related moral reform themes, as well as numerous editorials and articles, and even poems and hymns. He became a noted leader in the Social Gospel Movement, a movement to apply Christian ethics to social problems – to apply Jesus’ teachings to our daily living, to take seriously the prophet Micah’s admonition to “do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

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Gladden was widely criticized by fellow clergymen for his political involvement. They thought he should limit himself to preaching the gospel instead of getting involved in secular justice issues. Gladden wrote the poem,“Walking with God,” and published it in his magazine in 1879 as a response to this criticism. The poem had three verses of eight lines each.

Dr. Charles H. Richards, an editor and publisher of hymns, read the poem and loved it, except for the second verse. He omitted that verse, and split the first and third verses into four verses of four lines each. Then Richards paired the edited poem with the tune MARYTON, and published it as the hymn, “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee” in his book, CHRISTIAN PRAISE. The omitted verse helps us understand why Gladden wrote this hymn. I’m sure he felt better after writing it – even if he’s the only one singing it.

O Master, let me walk with thee
Before the taunting Pharisee;
Help me to bear the sting of spite,
The hate of men who hide Thy light,
The sore distrust of souls sincere
Who cannot read Thy judgments clear,
The dullness of the multitude,
Who dimly guess that Thou art good.

Obviously, Gladden thought his critics were hypocrites who were totally blind to what the Bible really says about justice issues. That was back in the 1870s, as our country was evolving from an agricultural age to an industrial age, and economic changes were bringing about extreme wealth and extreme poverty. 

And that’s what is happening today, as well. Today’s age of technology of all types is bringing about chaos in many new ways. Unfortunately, our political parties have very different ideas about how to address the chaos. And, most unfortunately, people have forgotten how to work together to solve our problems. Listening. Understanding. Compromising. Respecting each other. These seem to be lost skills.

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I feel that many Christians support policies that I believe are contrary to what the Bible says about justice issues, like caring for the needy, and welcoming strangers. I feel just like Gladden felt. Maybe we should all do what Gladden did – write a hymn like Gladden’s, one that begins with words like,

O Jesus, Let me walk with you,
before the horrid Washington crew …

After getting out that bitter first verse, we might be able to move on to more constructive, positive verses, like the ones below, verses that begin with words like, “Help me… Teach me… In hope…”

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