Archive | January 2013

Helping Someone

Last Thursday I participated in the worship service in the County Jail again. There were 11 of us women sitting together in the circle – the chaplain, myself, and nine inmates. The New Testament reading was the last chapter of Romans. We went around the circle, each of us reading one verse. Here’s how the chapter starts.

open bibleI have good things to say about Phoebe, who is a leader in the church at Cenchreae. Welcome her in a way that is proper for someone who has faith in the Lord and is one of God’s own people. Help her in any way you can. After all, she has proved to be a respected leader for many others, including me.

 Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila. They have not only served Christ Jesus together with me, but they have even risked their lives for me. I am grateful for them and so are all the Gentile churches. Greet the church that meets in their home.

 Greet my dear friend Epaenetus, who was the first person in Asia to have faith in Christ.

 Greet Mary, who has worked so hard for you.  [Romans 16:1-6 Contemporary English Version]

The next ten verses were similar personal greetings from the Apostle Paul to all kinds of good people in Rome, people who had helped Paul or other Christians over the years as the first Christian churches were being formed. Then Paul gives his final words of advice and blessing, and the letter to the church in Rome ends.

I’ve never really thought much about the last chapter of Romans. As we read the verses, one by one, the most notable part of the chapter seemed to be how hard it was to pronounce some of the names, especially as we were reading out loud. But then the chaplain said something that made me realize – that’s why these verses are in the Bible! She said, “As we give our testimonies today, think about what your ministry is, or what new ministry you may be about to begin. For example, your ministry may be a ministry of kindness.” That’s it! These people in the book of Romans were examples to us that we each have a ministry that we are called to, regardless of what our circumstances are.

One of the first inmates to give her testimony set the tone for this time of sharing. She said, “My daughter is dying. I know the pain of losing a child. When I get out of here I want to go to support groups to help others going through this pain.” There were tears in her eyes.

Another inmate said, “My ministry is singing and teaching. My parents are pastors, and we’re always singing in our house. Even things like, ‘where’s the cell phone?’ – we don’t say it, we sing it. I love to sing and to teach. My ministry is doing that – singing and teaching.”

The woman sitting next to me said, “I used to volunteer with helping people in domestic abuse situations. Actually, I used to be a case manager. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a job like that again now that I have a criminal record, but maybe I can still volunteer. That’s my ministry, helping people who have been abused.”

A young woman said, “I used to work in a nursing home. I really liked that – caring for people who need help. I couldn’t work with hospice, with people dying all the time. I get too attached to them. But I loved working in a nursing home where I could help people.”

There clearly was a common theme among these testimonies – helping others, just like the people named in the book of Romans.

Would you care to join us in our circle and give your testimony – what ministry has God called you to?

Nurse Holding Elderly Patient's Hand

Enjoying Gifts – Both Yours and Mine

Gift - Gold

Yesterday I saw and heard something wonderful! Mim and I went to the Overture Center in Madison to hear the Madison Symphony Orchestra perform with Gabriela Montero as guest pianist. I had never heard of Gabriela Montero before yesterday, but she was going to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and we knew we would enjoy the music enough to compensate for the frigid Wisconsin weather we’d have to tolerate to get there.

We were right! The whole concert was absolutely beautiful, but the real highlight was totally unexpected. After the standing ovation for the performance of the piano concerto, Gabriela Montero came back on stage and asked the audience to sing or call out a musical theme, and she would improvise on it as an encore. Someone called out, “I’ve been workin’ on the railroad.” Montero (a native of Venezuela) looked a little surprised, laughed with the audience, then plunked out the tune on the piano one note at a time and asked, “Is this it?” The audience responded with a hearty “Yes!” She said, “No one has ever asked for this tune before.” Then she paused about ten seconds and began an amazing improvisation on that tune for about five minutes. She put almost as much exuberance and variety into improvising that tune as Beethoven had put into writing his Piano Concerto No. 1.

I looked on YouTube this morning to find an example of Gabriela Montero’s improvisation on a familiar tune. This link ( is to an improvisation of “Happy Birthday.” This video might help you imagine what she did to “I’ve been workin’ on the railroad” yesterday.

Gabriela Montero definitely has the gift of musical improvisation. And she uses it well to bring joy to many people – from the “birthday girl” honored in the above video, to the thousands of people who marvel at her spontaneous improvisations in concert halls around the world.

Gifts…. That subject was on my mind yesterday because of the second Scripture reading in church, I Corinthians 12:1-11. I’ve been reading THE MESSAGE paraphrase a lot more lately to try to gain fresh insights into familiar Bible passages. Here are verses 4 and 7 from THE MESSAGE. “God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere, but they all originate in God’s Spirit…. Each person is given something to do that shows who God is. Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people!”

After yesterday, I know that one of the gifts God has given Gabriela Montero is musical improvisation.  But the Scripture says that each person gets something – everyone receives gifts, and there is tremendous variety in what these gifts are.

That prompted me to think about some of the gifts the Spirit has given me. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that I described the prelude I played on the piano in church yesterday morning as improvisations on “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The same word, “improvisations,” does not describe the same thing Montero did with her tune and what I did with mine. I think the gift God has given me is the sensitivity to figure out what hymn tune will help someone in the congregation draw closer to God. Generally I choose music that complements the Scripture readings of the day, and that is arranged in a style that reflects the mood of the text. That certainly is a very different gift than what the Spirit gave to Gabriela Montero.

The last verse of Sunday’s reading (verse 11) puts some perspective on the different gifts we each receive, “All these gifts have a common origin, but are handed out one by one by the one Spirit of God. He decides who gets what and when.”

I’m thankful for the gifts the Spirit has given me, and even more, I’m thankful for the gifts the Spirit has given others.

small blue christmas gifts

Reflections on Christmas from a Church Organist

It’s over. The busiest time of the year for everyone, but especially for church organists, is over. As I look back over this holy season, what were the highlights for me?

  1. Marian playing the tracker pipe organ at Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison.

    Marian playing the tracker pipe organ at Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison.

    Celebrating Christmas together with our church family at Messiah Lutheran Church. I played the organ for the 10:00 service on Christmas Eve. This is the fifth year I’ve played for one of the Christmas Eve services. (I’m a half-time organist at Messiah.) The late service on Christmas Eve is my favorite. Even though the church is full, and there’s excitement in the air, it’s a peaceful time, a time to reflect on Jesus being born and what that means to us today.

  2. Celebrating Christmas together with the people of East Koshkonong Lutheran Church. I played at four services – a Norwegian Christmas Carol Sing earlier in the month, the 3:00 p.m. Christmas Eve service, the 9:00 a.m. Christmas Day service, and a special service of lessons and carols on the Sunday after Christmas. I’ve been playing at East half-time since September. This was my first Christmas with them. They provided as many opportunities for their members to sing Christmas carols as they possibly could. Music is a very big part of Christmas for this church. I liked that.
  3. Hosting a Christmas Carol Sing at Whispering Winds. This was especially meaningful because it was the last event at our retreat center before it went on hiatus. We sang for a couple hours. Then we ate Christmas cookies and talked for another hour. It was a fun evening for a great group of friends.
  4. Playing the piano for two Worship Services/Christmas Carol Sings for women in the County Jail. The women really enjoyed being able to choose what carols to sing, and they sang enthusiastically. But what was the most special to me about these services was the testimony time that came just before the singing. A common theme expressed by many of the women inmates was their thankfulness for being able to experience Christmas in jail – far away from all the commercialism of Christmas. They had time to think about the true meaning of Christ being born into the world. They felt closer to God. Some of them also saw this as an opportunity to share the true meaning of Christmas with their children during the limited time they had for conversations with them.
  5. Accompanying Mim as she sings at home. Mim didn’t do as much singing this year as she usually does, partly because her voice has been strained by a long string of colds last year, and partly because we thought we were too busy. But, this is absolutely my favorite way to spend an evening during the Christmas season.

I love being able to play the piano and organ, especially throughout the Christmas season. Nothing is more inspiring to me than to lead a group of people from the organ or piano as they sing “Joy to the World” or “Silent Night,” and to feel the love of God filling the room. It’s the same feeling – the love of God transforming the space – whether it’s a couple hundred people filling the church with their voices singing in beautiful harmony, or a dozen inmates filling the jail chapel with beautiful melodies as an impromptu women’s choir, or Mim singing alone at home. In all cases, God is with us.

Last Saturday morning when I was at church practicing the music for Sunday’s service, the pastor came into the sanctuary to chat for a few minutes. He commented that this Sunday (yesterday) was the last Sunday for singing Christmas carols. It was the last Sunday of the Christmas season. “Joy to the World” was the recessional we sang.

Now I can put the Christmas music away till next year. I’m ready. But I’m sure I’ll be just as ready to bring it out again as we approach Christmas 2013.

 Christmas Music

Making Progress

Holding Glasses over BibleFor thousands of years, from Abraham to Paul, God has been trying to teach us about hospitality – both by example and by instruction. From my mom to Mim, God has been teaching me to pay attention to all of these lessons. My second book, Come, Lord Jesus, Be Our Guest:  Adventures in Hospitality, is my attempt to put everything I’ve learned about hospitality all together into one long, meandering story. There are many twists and turns in the story. Each episode tells about an event that happened in my life, that in retrospect, I can see – “Aha! That’s how God wants me to treat people.” Or – “Oh, that’s NOT what God wants me to do again.” Each episode begins with a Bible verse in which God may be saying, “See, that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you in My Word.” Here’s an example of one of the shorter episodes early in the book.


Be kind to one another …
[Ephesians 4:32a NRSV]

I moved into Mim’s apartment in Chicago on February 1, 1973. I decided to get adjusted to my new job before I started to look for an apartment of my own. That was fine with Mim. We quickly learned to share the space, the food, and the expenses.

And we learned each other’s habits. One of Mim’s habits was inviting people into our home. One day she received a call from a college friend. A friend of this friend was taking the bus to Chicago. Mim’s friend asked her if she would take this young woman “under her wing” to be sure she was safely oriented to the city. Of course Mim agreed to do that.

greyhound busThe evening of this friend-of-a-friend’s arrival, Mim and I took the “el” down to the loop to the Greyhound Station to look for a young woman who would be looking for us, but none of us had a description of the other person. Eventually we figured out who was who, connected, and took the “el” home together. We gave her maps of the public transit system, described the safer and less safe areas of Chicago, let her sleep on our couch for a few nights, and then she was on her own.

Did we keep her safe? Did we help her out? I don’t really know. But I was beginning to think a little more about how we should treat strangers. With the same kindness you would treat your best friend, or Jesus himself, I guess. We need to “be kind to one another.”


This week, I’m at Christmas Mountain for my last of three writing retreats I’ve taken over the past three months to complete the writing and revising of this book. Then I’ll begin the publishing process. If everything goes as planned, the book will be available in both paperback and e-book format by summer.

Last week, I tried to make the final changes to the third (and hopefully final) round of proofs on my first book, Listening for God:  52 Reflections on Everyday Life. Remember, this is my “learning curve” book. I’m learning quite a bit about the publishing process, which was my goal. Previously, I’ve never thought about whether or not I cared if the long tail on the drop-cap on the first word of each chapter actually touches the second letter of that word. Am I being too picky? Or, does that really make a difference in the readability of the text? Or does it make a significant difference in the overall appearance of the page and whether it looks inviting or sloppy? I’ll be glad to be done with this process. This isn’t the fun part of writing a book! Fortunately, the end is almost in sight, I think. I’ll let you know when the book becomes available.

One big thing I’ve learned already about writing and publishing books – I’d prefer to be doing just one book at a time! My mind gets too easily confused about what applies to each book. Pretty soon the first book will be done and available on Then my mind can relax. Maybe…

The earliest picture I have of me thinking really hard about something - probably keeping 2 storybooks straight...

The earliest picture I have of me thinking really hard about something – probably keeping two storybooks straight…