Archive | March 2013

Do This in Remembrance of Me

Mint-CandyI think I was four years old the first time I wondered about what was going on in church when my mom and dad left Danny and me in the pew with strict instructions to “sit still” while they walked up to the front of the church in an orderly line with all the other adults. I tried to see what was going on up front, but we were sitting in the back pew, and I really couldn’t see anything except the heads of all the people in front of me. In a couple minutes my mom and dad came back and my mom gave me a few of those little pink and green and yellow pillow mints – the kind you used to get at weddings. Oh, that was it – they went forward to get some candy, and my mom brought some back for Danny and me.

That’s my earliest memory of what “Holy Communion” was all about. Communion didn’t happen very often in our church back then – maybe three or four times a year. It took me a while to learn that “communion” was about something other than getting candy, but I eventually caught on, especially when my mom stopped bringing back those pillow mints, and she looked for whatever candy she could find in her purse to reward me for “sitting still.”

When I was a kid, we didn’t take communion until we were confirmed, which was in eighth grade. By that time we had learned that communion was a time to remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, a time to remember how much Jesus loved us.

One of the most memorable times I took communion was when I was in high school. I was with a group of ten kids and a youth pastor (my brother-in-law) in Mexico at the jungle base of the Wycliffe Bible Translators Missionary Training Camp. We were on a week-long trip to learn about all the different kinds of jobs missionaries held. We happened to be at the jungle base on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. For our communion service we sat on stumps in a small clearing in the thick jungle growth. For the bread and wine we had tostados and grape Kool-Aid. It was a very moving experience. I thought about God’s love for all people, including people all around the world, some who lived in the jungle and didn’t even have a written language – which meant they had no way of reading the Bible, or anything else. What was God like for them?

More recently, I’ve been thinking about communion from a little different perspective. For the past thirteen years I’ve been a church organist. In the Presbyterian church, we had communion once a month. In the two Lutheran churches where I play now, we have communion every Sunday. Usually I’m “working” (playing the organ) during communion, and the main thing on my mind is: How can the music I play prompt people in the congregation to think about how much God loves them? Sometimes it’s by trying to set the right tone and tempo for a reflective hymn that the congregation is singing. Sometimes it’s by playing an old familiar hymn that has words that might bring Jesus’ love and suffering to mind.

holy-communionThis Thursday is Maundy Thursday, the day we commemorate the original “Last Supper.” I’ll be “working” double duty that day. I’ll play the piano for the women’s worship service at the county jail in the afternoon, and I’ll play the organ for the Maundy Thursday service at East Koshkonong Lutheran Church in the evening. I’m looking forward to both services. This is my first year playing at East, so I don’t know quite what the service will be like, although I expect it will follow the traditional Lutheran liturgy fairly closely.

I know what to expect for the service in jail. Based on my experience the last couple years, I expect the service will be quite informal and very meaningful for everyone involved. There will probably be about ten of us sitting on wooden chairs arranged in a circle in the jail chapel. After the chaplain explains what communion signifies, she may invite us to share with the group what communion means to each of us personally. After this time of sharing, the chaplain will bless the bread and “wine” (grape juice); we will pass the cup and bread around the circle; and we will offer communion to each other. As the inmate sitting next to me holds the bread and cup for me, she may say, “The body of Christ, given for you; and the blood of Christ, shed for you” – or something similar. I will pick up a small piece of bread, dip it in the cup of juice, and eat it. Then I’ll take the bread and cup and hold them for the inmate sitting on the other side of me and offer the bread and “wine” to her. The process will continue until everyone has offered and received communion. Then I’ll go back to the piano and we’ll sing a hymn.

Of all the weeks of the year, this is the one to especially remember how much God loves us. Jesus gave us an important tip when he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The important thing that happens whenever we take communion is that we are prompted to remember how much God loves us – even more than my mom loved me when she showed her love by giving me pink and green and yellow pillow mints.

What Best Friends Talk About

One of the nice things about living with your best friend for forty years, is that you’re comfortable with regularly sharing your thoughts with each other. Mim is an avid reader, and almost every day she tells me about something she’s reading in one of the books she has in progress. Likewise, I tell her about interesting things I find on the Internet, and occasionally in books, magazines, or newspapers.

Senator HironoLast Friday provided a good example of our two-way sharing of thoughts. I did a quick check of emails and Facebook before going upstairs for breakfast, my usual pattern.  A friend of mine had posted this picture (on the right) of Senator Hirono on Facebook.

I printed out the picture for Mim, along with a thoughtful piece by Joan Chittister on the “weariness” of the people of the church worldwide, and how Pope Francis may really bring some new hope. The new pope’s humility may indicate an ability and willingness to understand some of the concerns of the poor, and to respond lovingly to their practical needs, just as Christ would respond.

An hour later I was back at my desk, and Mim came downstairs to ask me if I knew anything about Teilhard de Chardin. I said he was one of the theologians we studied in a religion class my senior year at Wheaton. That was 43 years ago, and about all I remembered was his name. Mim said she had just read an interesting quote by him. “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

What a clear way of describing the perspective on life I need to keep in mind! As spiritual beings, we are not confined by our human experience. That says a lot to me. I’ve been thinking more than usual about the temporary nature of life on earth. In the last few weeks, four people have died who have been extremely close to my nieces and nephews – a best friend, a mother, a father, and a mother-in-law. How comforting to know that they are spiritual beings, and that their spirit lives on. We all are spiritual beings, and our existence doesn’t end just because our human experience on earth has ended.

Now you know. The secret is out. This is what lesbians talk about in the morning – at least those who have been best friends for forty years.

Family Portrait - 2012    Kevin Korth, photographer

Family Portrait – 2012 – Kevin Korth, photographer

Your Gift to the World

Grandma's Flower Garden Quilt

Grandma’s Flower Garden Quilt

Grandma and Grandpa. The little girl scowling on the right is my mom. The happy little boy is Uncle Helmer.

Grandma and Grandpa. The little girl scowling on the right is my mom. The happy little boy is Uncle Helmer.

My grandma (Mom’s mother) used to make quilts. At some point she started making a green “Flower Garden” quilt, but she never finished it. When Grandma died, Mom took the quilt pieces with the intention of finishing the quilt sometime.

Mom was not fond of sewing. She used to tell the story of one time she tried to cut out a dress pattern. She kept getting two of the same sleeves instead of a left and a right sleeve, over and over again, regardless of how she positioned the sleeve pattern piece on the fabric. She was getting more and more frustrated. Finally, her young daughter Nancy, who was intently watching her, suggested turning the pattern piece upside down. It worked!

Mom liked to embroider and crochet, but sewing was not her gift. I grew up sleeping on beautifully embroidered pillowcases. When I was in my 20s and 30s, Mom crocheted afghans in the right colors for every room in our house and for every car we ever owned. But she never did sew my grandma’s quilt pieces together.

Mom crocheting a baby afghan.

Mom crocheting a baby afghan.

I share my mom’s lack of skill in sewing. In high school I took “Home Ec” one year and had to make a dress. One of my classmates, Connie, put in the zipper for me. The zipper was the best looking part of the dress. I never wore the dress. In college, my friend, Claudia, tried to teach me how to knit. My first and only project was a pair of slippers. I tried to wear them around the dorm, but one slipper was too tight and the other was so big it kept falling off my foot. Claudia knitted me a pair of slippers that fit to inspire me to keep trying, but I gave up. Knitting wasn’t my gift.

When my mom died, my sister, Nancy, took our grandma’s quilt blocks and hired Aunt Edith (the gospel pianist I wrote about last summer) to finish making the quilt. When my sister died, none of her kids claimed the quilt, so I took it. I have it on display on a wall-mounted quilt rack in our home.

Last week my cousin, Gloria, brought me a snapshot of that quilt (at top of this blog post) along with her mother’s notes about finishing the quilt for Nancy. Gloria was in Cambridge for a few days to help her brothers and sisters get everything ready for their parents’ estate sale this past weekend.

Aunt Edith's notes.

Aunt Edith’s notes.

According to Aunt Edith’s notes, she started to put together my grandma’s quilt pieces into the “Flower Garden” pattern on October 27, 1989 and she finished the project on May 19, 1990. It took her 303-3/4 hours and cost her $15.90 for thread and other materials. She charged Nancy 71¢ per hour for 303-1/2 hours (she gave her ¼ hour free!) for a total price for labor and materials of $231.39. Nancy gave her $500.

In The Monastic Way daily readings for this month, Joan Chittister’s focus is “Doing What You Like.” For March 3 she wrote, “Doing what I like doing is not a waste of time. It is my gift to the rest of the world.”

I am so thankful that Aunt Edith knew that. She faithfully used her God-given gifts – both at the piano and at the quilting frame – to create beauty. Those were her gifts to us.

Aunt Edith at the piano. (In the 1930s she married the happy little boy pictured above, my Uncle Helmer.

Aunt Edith at the piano. Sometime In the 1930s she married the happy little boy pictured above, my Uncle Helmer.

The 4 Best Books I’ve Read Recently

3 books and kindle on desktopI’m sitting with three books and my Kindle on my desk right now. Within the past few weeks I’ve finished reading the three books. The fourth book is on my Kindle. All four books are excellent, and I want to tell you about them. Maybe you’ll want to read them, too.

Over the past year or so, I’ve been so busy writing my own two books that I haven’t taken the time to read much. Now that my second book is at the publisher, I’m starting to catch up on all the books I’ve been wanting to read. Am I ever having a wonderful time!

First, A New Devotional

Let me start with the book that I’m still reading – the book on my Kindle, Designed for Devotion: a 365-Day Journey from Genesis to Revelation by Dianne Neal Matthews. This is one of the books I’m using for daily devotional readings this year. (I’ve read Jesus Calling by Sarah Young for the past four years and decided to try something different this year.) I came upon Matthews’ website when I was building my own author website and I was looking for models to figure out how to structure my website. Her website (http://www.diannenealmatthews.com)   was obviously effective – it got me to download a Kindle version of her devotional book. Here’s the short description of her book from the website:

Designed for Devotion Book CoverThis new devotional combines fascinating historical background information about the Bible with practical application that readers can implement in their lives each day. Dianne guides readers on a journey through the Bible from beginning to end, highlighting major events, characters, stories, and teachings. These meditations will bring you deeper into the Scriptures as you deepen your relationship with God.

As someone who grew up going to Sunday School every Sunday from the time I was three, I knew all the popular Bible stories very well. What I’m missing is a broader understanding of how they all fit together, and also a more adult perspective on what God may be trying to tell us through these stories. Several times over the past forty years I’ve started annual reading plans designed to lead me through reading the whole Bible in a year. I never got much beyond Genesis. There was too much detail to give me the broader picture I was looking for. I think this devotional is exactly what I need.

Today I read the story about Joshua sending spies to scout out Jericho to determine how to defeat the city so that the Israelites could enter the Promised Land. Rahab, a prostitute, protected the spies by hiding them in her house. Rahab had heard rumors that the God the Israelites worshiped was the one and only true God, but she didn’t know all the details. In this devotional the author summarizes the Bible story and then suggests implications for our lives today:

Rahab gives us a marvelous picture of trust. So often we get caught up in what we don’t know or can’t understand. Or we focus on the lack of tangible proof that God is working in our life. God wants us to act on the basis of what he’s already revealed to us…

So far, I’ve read the first two months of the devotional, and I’ve covered the first five books of the Bible and now I’m into Joshua, the sixth book. Obviously, a lot has been left out of this “Cliff’s Notes” retelling of the Bible, but I’ve learned a tremendous amount about how God relates to people – from Adam and Eve to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and many others. It’s a fascinating progression of stories, and now I’m finally able to grasp some of the progression. This devotional book isn’t a replacement for reading the Bible directly, but it certainly is a valuable complement to it.

The Last 3 Books I’ve Read

Now to the three books I’ve finished reading over the last few weeks. Each of the three books digs into a single issue and approaches the issue with a combination of telling personal stories and searching the Bible for understanding and meaning. In my opinion, all three books deserve a 5-star rating. On Amazon.com, their average ratings ranged from 4.4 to 4.8, which means that the majority of reviewers agree with me!

I’ll briefly describe each book below. If you want more information about any of the books, you can look them up online or browse a local bookstore. You can also email me with any questions you may have, or post them on this blog.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood Book CoverA Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard as when I read this book. But I did more than laugh. I thought about some of the virtues God wants women to possess, based on what the Bible says, what various churches say, and what common sense tells me today. Rachel Held Evans is a young evangelical woman who is a prolific blogger, author, and speaker. For this book, she wanted to dig into the Bible to try to understand how a godly woman should live. After her initial study, she identified twelve topics that she would explore in depth, month by month, as she tried to live out a full year of “Biblical Womanhood.”  She started in October with the theme of gentleness. The primary Biblical reference was I Peter 3:3-4:

Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. (NIV)

Each month she prepared a to-do list to help her live as the Bible instructed. For October, the list was:

  • Cultivate a gentle and quiet spirit, even during football games (I Peter 3:3-4)
  • Kick the gossip habit (I Timothy 5:12-13)
  • Take an etiquette lesson (Proverbs 11:22)
  • Practice contemplative prayer (Psalm 131)
  • Make a “swearing jar” for behaviors that mimic the “contentious woman” of Proverbs (Proverbs 21:19; 19:13; 27:15)
  • Do penance on the rooftop for acts of contention (Proverbs 21:9)

The rest of the chapter describes the sometimes hilarious and sometimes insightful predicaments she gets into. The theme for July was Justice. One of the to-do’s for that month was to switch to fair trade coffee and chocolate. She also traveled to Bolivia with World Vision to observe how people in one small village of the world live. Her adventures every month gave me something to seriously think about related to how God wants me to live my life in my world.

PrintTorn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate by Justin Lee. A few years ago I googled “gay Christian” and ended up learning about the Gay Christian Network (http://www.gaychristian.net). They describe themselves as “a nonprofit ministry serving Christians who happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, and those who care about them. Besides hosting a website that is supportive of LGBT Christians (and friends) who are trying to reconcile being gay and being Christian, the Gay Christian Network sponsors an annual conference to bring LGBT Christians together for mutual support. Mim and I went to the conference in 2011. We had never been a part of a group of hundreds of LGBT Christians before – worshipping God together, telling our stories, listening to inspiring speakers (including author Philip Yancey), and making new friends. That’s where we met Justin Lee, the founder of this organization and author of Torn.

Torn is Justin’s life story. He grew up in a loving, Southern Baptist family, and was a committed Christian from early childhood. He earned the nickname of “God-boy” because living life the way God intended for him was always in the forefront of his mind. In high school, he reluctantly came to the conclusion that he was gay, through no fault of his own. His personal struggles in dealing with this realization make up the first half of the book. In the rest of the book Justin takes us along on his search to understand what the Bible really says about being gay.

One of the blurbs on the back cover of Torn was written by Rachel Held Evans. This is what she says about his book:

This is the most important book I’ve read in years, and it will be the first I recommend to anyone interested in bridging the divide between the LGBT community and the church. Justin has given us a precious gift with this story. May we receive it with the same courage and faith with which it was delivered.

Andrew You Died Too Soon Book CoverAndrew, You Died Too Soon by Corinne Chilstrom. How would you react if someone who is very close to you committed suicide? How would you grieve? How can you be supportive of others who grieve in this type of situation? Can the Bible give us any comfort? These are some of the questions Corinne Chilstrom deals with in this book. Chilstrom is a Lutheran pastor and a nurse, and her 18-year-old son committed suicide.

Granger Westberg, author of the book Good Grief endorsed Chilstrom’s book with these words:

I was deeply moved as I read this absolutely honest story by a Christian mother who lost her son – by suicide. Grieving parents will find this forthright documentary written by a loving mother in deep grief to be more than just supportive – it glows with spiritual insights. Corinne Chilstrom has opened her heart, mind, and spirit to all people who are struggling with seemingly unendurable grief.

I kept a Kleenex in my hand as I read this book. I had to wipe a lot of tears from my eyes to be able to see the words clearly enough to keep reading. But I learned a little more about God’s promise to never forsake us. I also learned a little about how to be a helpful friend to someone who is grieving the loss of a child or other dear one through the tragedy of suicide. It’s a good book. Another endorsement on the back cover of the book said, “Chilstrom’s book speaks to Christians who want to know what to do in the face of sudden tragedy… This is a book for us as we learn to grieve, for all of us as we learn to live.” (Norma Cook Everist, Wartburg Theological Seminary)

What Should I Read Next?

Biblical womanhood, the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, and suicide – three big topics – and three excellent books. Plus a fascinating daily devotional that attempts to organize all the Bible stories I learned as a kid in Sunday School and put them into perspective. Thank God for books!

I haven’t decided which book to pick up next to read. Any suggestions? What’s the best book you’ve read recently? I really want to know – and I suspect that other readers of this blog would like to know some good recommendations, too.