Archive | October 2013

Remembering the Saints – the most significant people in my life who are now dead

Lots of my relatives - the year before I was born. My brother Danny is sitting on the grass on the right side of the picture - in front of Mom and beside Grandpa.

Lots of my relatives – the year before I was born. My brother Danny is sitting on the grass on the right side of the picture – in front of Mom and beside Grandpa.

 

Thursday of this week is Halloween, the eve of All Saints Day. On Sunday, some churches will read a list of members of the congregation who have died over the past year. This is a time of year to remember the people who are no longer with us who have been significant to us in our own lives, and to thank God for these people.

As I was curled up under the covers in bed this morning thinking about what to blog about today, making a list of these people came to mind – not just the people who died this year, but all the people who have died who have been significant to me. I started making a mental list of them, and I realized I’d better get up and write them down – the names were coming to me too fast to remember and organize in my mind. So I got up and quickly jotted down the names as they came to me, and I realized I’d better limit the number of people to include in the blog. So I crossed off a few names and settled on 13 people for this blog (a good number for Halloween), plus one bonus. I’m still going to thank God for all the rest, too, even if I don’t tell you about them today.

Here’s the list – 13 people who have been very significant to me in my life, and who have moved on to their next life:

  1. Mom and Dad at their 50th Anniversary celebration.

    Mom and Dad at their 50th Anniversary celebration.

    Mom. I think the most significant thing I learned from my mom is about love. I always knew she loved me, as well as my siblings, her grandchildren, her Sunday School kids, the UW students who stopped in to see her at the Presbyterian Student Center in Madison where she worked, the starving kids in Africa that she read about in her mail and sent checks to every month, and everyone else who touched her life – she loved us all.

  2. Dad. My dad taught me about work. As a farmer, he knew that he was responsible for getting all the work done. If the hay baler broke, that didn’t mean he didn’t have to bale hay that day. It meant he had to figure out how to fix the baler as quickly as possible so that he could still bale the hay and get everything else done he had planned for that day. His attitude taught me to be a problem solver as well as a hard worker.
  3. Nancy. My big sister (11 years older than me) taught me to set aside some time every day to read the Bible and pray. When she went away to college, she ordered me a subscription to a children’s daily devotional booklet to help me keep on track.
  4. Helen Knoblauch. My first grade teacher was a very kind and loving person. Everyone in her class knew that she loved them. One way she showed that love was by being the kindest of all to the kid that was hurting the most that day. I remember one day when I was that kid. A leaf had blown into my eye and scratched it when I was playing on the playground after lunch. My eye really hurt and I was crying. Mrs. Knoblauch had me sit on her lap while she read a storybook to the class. That made me feel a whole lot better – so much better that I still remember it almost 60 years later.
  5. Marion Gilberts. She was our church organist and my piano and organ teacher. In addition to using the typical lesson books, she had me learn every hymn in both of the hymnals we used in church. She also gave me the experience of playing in church by having me play an offertory at least once a year. She didn’t just teach me the piano and organ, she taught me to be a church organist.
  6. Aunt Edith at the piano. (In the 1930s she married the happy little boy pictured above, my Uncle Helmer.

    Aunt Edith at the piano.

    Aunt Edith. She was the most creative pianist I ever watched tickle the ivories. She was a self-taught gospel pianist who could play any hymn she had ever heard, in any key you wanted to hear it. The only printed music I saw her use was a hymnal or songbook, yet she improvised all over the keyboard. She is still my inspiration to learn to play more by ear and to improvise.

  7. Rev. Royal Bailie. He was the pastor that confirmed me in the Methodist Church. As a confirmation gift he gave me a different kind of Bible, the J. B. Phillips paraphrase of the New Testament. That’s the only Bible that I completely wore out the binding by opening it too much.
  8. Auntie Emma. Also known as Emma Prescott. She was my grandma’s sister. I always thought of her as the most generous Christian I knew. She and her husband, Uncle Don, supported many children through World Vision and other missions. She once made a comment that I’ll never forget. She said she was glad she didn’t have as much money as one of her daughters had. Stewardship of that amount of money was more than she could imagine handling wisely. That comment has always made me think seriously about my stewardship of all the resources God has given me.
  9. Rev. Bill Leslie. He was the pastor of one of the churches I attended in Chicago for several years. I didn’t know him very well personally, but I learned a lot from his preaching. He prompted me to think for the first time about what my responsibility as a Christian is for dealing with the problems in the city, particularly the problems that resulted from the injustices that are inherent in our culture.
  10. Mark Hjermstad. Mark was a loving pragmatist, and that’s not an oxymoron. He taught me to relate to the world the best way you can. He was a closeted gay pre-kindergarten teacher for special needs children in the Chicago Public School System. We met Mark in church, shortly before his partner died of AIDS. He became one of our best friends. He always encouraged his gay friends to be as open as they could about who they were – although he couldn’t be out as a gay teacher and still keep his own job.
  11. Mary Borgerud. Mrs. Borgerud was my fifth- and sixth-grade teacher. She taught me history, geography, kindness, and generosity. She also taught me to have fun with writing. I still remember one of the essays I wrote in her class – “I’m a Little Mouse with Great Big Eyes.” We also laughed a lot together, especially when she came to live with Mim and me at Country Comforts Assisted Living for the last year or so of her life.
  12. Eileen Scott. Thanks to Eileen I’m a church organist again. Between 1975 and 1999 I didn’t play the piano or organ for anyone except myself at home. In 1999, Eileen learned that the Methodist pastor in town discouraged me from playing for a Christmas program in his church because of my sexual orientation. As a very strong take-charge person, Eileen approached me about becoming an organist in her church, the Presbyterian Church in town. Being a church organist has been a significant part of my life ever since.
  13. Selma Jacobson. I guess now I can say Selma is my mother-in-law. Shortly after Mim and I moved to Wisconsin, Mim’s mom had a stroke which left her paralyzed on her left side. After several months of rehab, she came to live with Mim and me. Despite all her physical losses, she always maintained a positive attitude and a very pleasant disposition. She lived with us for the last five years of her life, and was a daily inspiration to me to accept life for what it is, and to always trust in God’s love and kindness.

And now, for one bonus saint – Megabyte. She was the first dog that Mim and I got together, and she enriched our lives for 15 years. The one thing that dogs know better than anything, and better than anyone else knows, is how to love.

Many names are missing from this list – Grandma, Uncle Helmer, Gary, Clark, Steve, Nicki, Hiram, Joe, Donnie, and more. If I kept naming them I wouldn’t get this blog posted today. There’s also an equally long list of people who are still alive that I’m thankful for. God has truly blessed me with loads of wonderful people – and dogs – in my life. I am so thankful. I guess it’s appropriate that Halloween, the eve of All Saints Day, starts off the holiday season. Then comes Thanksgiving, and then Christmas. All three holidays are times to be especially thankful for all the good gifts God has given us.

Megabyte and Selma welcoming a new kitten into our home.

Megabyte and Selma welcoming a new kitten into our home.

Grace and a Failing Grade

Grace quote with winter scene

Pastor Jeff told a quick story at the end of the church service last week. An old friend of his, a priest, had died earlier in the week. This story was told at his funeral. The priest had been an English teacher in a Catholic high school. Many years ago, one of his students came to him near the end of the school term and begged him not to give him an F. The student knew he deserved an F, but he didn’t want to have to take the class over again. He pleaded with the priest to give him a D instead. The priest responded with, “I’ll give you an A.” The student replied, “Oh no. I don’t deserve an A.” The priest replied, “You don’t deserve a D either. But if I’m going to give you a gift, I’m going to give you a good gift.” Pastor Jeff commented that the story is the best illustration of grace he’s ever heard.

“Grace” is a word with several different but related meanings. One definition that is helpful to me in understanding God’s grace comes from Tony Campolo. He was a frequent guest preacher at my church when I lived in Chicago. He says, “Grace is about us receiving from God blessings that we don’t deserve.”

Jeff’s story made the idea of grace more tangible to me last week. His story also prompted me to remember a couple incidents from the early 1970s when I was a high school English teacher. I also had students who pleaded with me to not give them an F – two of them; and academically, they both deserved F’s.

footballGary was a popular football player. He excelled on the football field, but he certainly never excelled in English. He was too busy to take the time to complete his homework assignments. About a week before the quarter ended he begged me for a D. If I gave him an F he would be kicked off the football team according to the school’s athletic policy.  I told him that if he completed his past-due homework assignments, I would give him a passing grade. The next day the football coach came to see me, to plead on behalf of the student. I repeated my offer. Gary did not complete any of his past-due homework assignments, and I gave him an F. Gary didn’t learn about grace from me, but he might have learned about it from his coach. He was not booted off the team.

F GradeDenny was a skinny little freshman. When he was in class, he was a very pleasant kid, and he was good in English. He was a good reader and a good writer. However, his attendance got progressively worse, and as a result of that, the majority of the grades in the grade book were I’s for Incomplete. I talked with him a few times throughout the term about attendance and completing his assignments, and he always said he’d try harder. Unfortunately, when it was time for me to calculate his grade, I couldn’t justify giving him anything but an F. (I wasn’t allowed to give a grade of Incomplete in that school system.) When Denny got his report card he came to see me with tears in his eyes. “Why did you flunk me? I’m good in English. Can’t you change the grade? My dad will kill me.” I felt so sorry for Denny. I really didn’t know how I could change his grade, even if I could justify it. The school’s grading system wasn’t designed to incorporate grace.

That's me as a brand new English teacher in the early 1970s.

That’s me as a brand new English teacher in the early 1970s.

These two stories happened 42 years ago – just after I had graduated from college. I was living in Connecticut where I was an English teacher for two years. I wonder whatever happened to Gary and Denny. I wonder if Gary understands the concept of grace partly because of the kindness of his coach. And I wonder if Denny ever was given the opportunity to learn about God’s grace by receiving some undeserved gift from someone else.

Besides wondering about my students, I guess I need to think about what I have learned about grace from the people in my life, and I need to thank God for bringing each of these people into my life.

Atlanta megachurch pastor Charles Stanley said it this way, “Thank the Lord for using each person as a tool in your life to deepen your insight into His grace and conform you to the image of His Son.”

Stumbling along in Life

Abbey looking up colorized 2Abbey was lying on the floor beside my desk as I was going through emails. After about ten minutes, she looked up at me and asked, “Hey, Mom. Have a few minutes to talk?”

“Sure, Abbey. What’s up?”

“When we were out for our walk this morning, did you notice me stumble? I was prancing along, really enjoying our walk. The grass was completely covered with a slippery coat of frost, but it felt nice and cool on my paws. We walked on the sidewalk for a while over by the neighbors, and then we turned around to come home. I was thinking about what a beautiful, crisp, fall day it was. Then splat. My face hit the ground. We had turned onto our circular drive, and I was trotting along next to the curb. I guess I tried to hop up on the grass, and my leg didn’t do what I expected it to do, and I fell right on my face. It hurt a little, but mostly, I was embarrassed.”

“Yeah, I saw you stumble, Abbey. I’m glad you were able to get right up and continue the rest of our walk. I’m always afraid you might be hurt when you stumble.”

“Why did that happen, Mom? I never used to stumble. Now it seems I stumble a lot.”

“Remember, we asked your vet about that. He said a few long words that basically mean that some of your muscles are getting weaker. That’s why you can’t open your mouth wide enough to pant and why you’re beginning to stumble. He says there’s nothing we can do to fix it. But, Abbey, try not to be embarrassed about it. All of us stumble in our own ways sometimes.”

“Really, Mom? How do you stumble?”

“Oh, sometimes my mind stumbles – that is I forget something. Several weeks ago, I forgot to go to a haircut.”

“I bet you were embarrassed about that!”

“I sure was. My mental clumsiness affected others, not just myself.”

“Yeah. At least when I stumble, I only hurt myself.”

“What did you do, Mom?”

“I apologized profusely, and scheduled another appointment for another day. The person who cuts my hair was very gracious about my mental lapse.”

“That’s good. It’s really hard not to feel bad when we don’t meet our own expectations of ourselves, isn’t it.”

“Whenever I make a mistake, like when I’m playing the organ in church, I say it keeps me humble. We always like to see ourselves as perfect. But we aren’t.”

“I’ll try to remember that, Mom. Whenever I stumble on a walk, I’ll say God tripped me to keep me humble.”

“That’s not exactly what I said. Perhaps God allows you to stumble and that gives you the opportunity to develop other traits, like humility, or patience. God always loves you, and doesn’t like to see you hurt or embarrassed.”

“Oh, Mom, that’s too many words to remember when I’m trying to pick myself up as fast as I can before too many cats and other dogs in the neighborhood see me flat on my face. I’ll just say God tripped me. Of course I know that God still loves me and always wants what’s best for me.”

Well, okay, Abbey. How do you feel about going for another walk this afternoon?”

“I can hardly wait. I don’t think I’ll stumble. I’ll try to concentrate harder on how to move my legs. But if I do stumble, I’ll consider it simply an exercise in strengthening my character. I guess even when life seems to be getting harder, it’s really helping me become a better dog!”

Abbey Profile 2

“O Lord, I want you to help me”

GOV065

If you were confined to jail for several months, and you were allowed to get together in the jail chapel with the chaplain and a few other inmates for an hour once every two weeks to have a time to read the Bible, share your thoughts, pray for each other, and sing a couple songs, what songs would you want to sing?

I’ve been thinking about that very question quite a bit over the past several weeks. As you may know, I join the women in the jail chapel about twice a month to play the piano for their worship service. The chaplain chooses the songs we sing, based on the Scriptures we’re reading for that service, as well as knowing some of the songs the women really like to sing. The women always sing enthusiastically, but it’s pretty obvious which songs are their favorites. “Amazing Grace” is on top of the list. “How Great Thou Art” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” are other favorites.

At the end of every service, while we’re waiting for the guards to come to escort the women back to their cellblocks, I play an informal “postlude.”  I usually improvise on a couple upbeat spirituals like “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand” or “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” or “Standin’ in the Need of Prayer.” The inmates are chatting during this time, and sometimes one or two of them come over to the piano to talk with me while I’m playing, often to request a song for me to play.

hands-on-the-pianoSeveral weeks ago a young woman asked me if I knew a particular song. She didn’t know the name of it, but it went something like – and she started to sing it. I stopped playing and listened to her sing. She didn’t remember many of the words. What she remembered was, “O God, help me, help me, help me. O God, help me.” I told her I didn’t recognize the song, but I’d try to find it on the Internet. She said she’d really like to have us sing that song at worship sometime. When I got home that evening I googled the words, and I thought I’d found the lyrics and a few youtube performances of the song. Unfortunately, I concluded that I wouldn’t be comfortable trying to incorporate that song into our worship experience. The overall message of the song was one of hopelessness and the ultimate triumph of evil.

Two weeks later, the young woman was at the worship service again, and she asked me if I’d found the song. I said I’d looked for it, but I wasn’t sure about it, and I asked her to sing it again. This time, another inmate also knew the song, and together they remembered more words. They sang, “O Lord, I want you to help me, help me on my journey, O Lord, I want you to help me.” When I got home I googled those words and found the lyrics to a different song along with several youtube videos. This is a song that could be very meaningful for anyone who is turning to God for help with their life circumstances, especially for women who are incarcerated.

I’ve searched everywhere I can think of to try to find sheet music for the song so that we can sing it together in jail, but I haven’t been able to find it. If anyone reading this blog knows where I can find the print music, please let me know. Here’s a link to one of the youtube videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ss1R0TdkbUI

I’ve copied the lyrics below, however, this seems to be a song that lends itself to the substitution of phrases for whatever the singers want God to help them with. I haven’t been able to find a writer of the song – most sources list it as “traditional.”

Oh lord I want you to help me 
Oh lord I want you to help me 
Help me on my journey, help me on my way 
Oh lord I want you to help me 

While I’m waiting I want you to help me 
While I’m waiting I want you to help me 
Help me on my journey, help me on my way 
Oh lord I want you to help me 

Oh lord I want you to help me 
Oh lord I want you to help me 
Help me on my journey, help me on my way 
Oh lord I want you to help me 

While I’m singing I want you to help me 
While I’m singing I want you to help me 
Help me on my journey, help me on my way 
Oh lord I want you to help me 

Just as for all the other songs we sing in the worship service in jail, this song could be just as meaningful for those of us who are not in jail. We can substitute our own phrases, as well.

Back to my original question, if you were sitting in jail, what songs would you want to sing? For me, one of my favorite songs to play, wherever I am, is “Surely the Presence of the Lord is in This Place.” Here’s a youtube performance of this song for you to enjoy, wherever you are right now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzDGvDZxnuw

Chapel Window

Thoughts on Gratitude

Gratitude is the single most important ingredient to living a successful and fulfilled life.
(Jack Canfield, creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books)

Anna in wheelchairAnna, the 92-year-old woman who lives with Mim and me, knows that very well. She is so appreciative of everything anyone does for her. “Thank you” is probably the most used phrase in her vocabulary.

Last Saturday was a beautiful autumn day. It was warm and sunny with a light breeze –more like late August than late September. Mim and I decided to take advantage of the unusually nice weather and take Anna to Old World Wisconsin, a living museum about an hour’s drive east of us.

The first highlight of the day came before we even got to Old World Wisconsin. We decided to take roads we seldom drive in order to see (and smell) some new scenery. About half-way there we smelled onions. Then we saw it – an onion farm during harvest. We saw several wagons full of onions next to empty fields with long troughs where specialized equipment must have dug out the onions. Anna was delighted to see a large-scale onion farm. This was a first for her in her 92 years of living, and Anna is a real onion-lover. The day was off to a wonderful start, and Anna was beaming. So were Mim and I, even if we aren’t as big fans of onions.

When we arrived at Old World Wisconsin we were able to roll Anna in her wheelchair onto the tram. We went directly to the German farm where they were preparing root vegetables for storage in the cellar. They cut up samples of raw carrots, rutabagas, beets, and kohlrabi. Anna tasted and raved about how good everything was. We wheeled her into the various gardens surrounding the house, and she talked with each of the museum workers who were all in character as a German immigrant farm family. From there we followed the gravel pathway to a couple other German farms and to a small Polish settlement. We watched the oxen in one pasture, and sheep in another. Anna had grown up on a farm in northern Wisconsin and really enjoyed being back on the farm like it used to be in her youth.

Sampling root vegetables.

Sampling root vegetables.

After we had explored the German and Polish areas we got back on the tram and rode to the Yankee area and Crossroads Village. We were able to push the wheelchair inside the general store and we looked at the merchandise. It was fun for all of us to imagine what it was like to live in rural and small town Wisconsin in the 1800s. Back outside, Mim and I found a bench to sit on while Anna visited with other museum characters. About 3:00 a Civil War era band marched down the gravel road and set up to play a concert in the grove. After the concert we went home.

Visiting with the gardeners.

Visiting with the gardeners.

Yes. Anna knows that “Gratitude is the single most important ingredient to living a successful and fulfilled life.” She wasn’t thinking about her arthritic pain. She wasn’t wishing she could walk to get up close to everything there was to see. She was grateful that we had taken her on this outing, and she was as happy as could be.

So why did I write about Anna’s attitude of gratitude today?  Yesterday when Mim and I were out for a walk, Mim suggested that I should write about gratitude today. She said that her heart was just filled with gratitude for all the warm wishes and congratulations we have received for our marriage. We’ve received dozens of cards, emails, Facebook and blog comments, and face-to-face congratulations. Both of us are overwhelmed by everyone’s kind wishes, and we are extremely thankful to each one of you. We are thankful that you are a part of our lives.

Wedding Cards on Buffet

Just as Anna is grateful for the many blessings and people in her life, Mim and I are grateful for the same. One of the readings we included in our wedding was called “Aztec Prayer to God.” It’s from the book Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim by Edward Hays. It says a little more about gratitude, about being thankful for each other.

O Divine Parent and Gift-giver,
let me not take those I love for granted,
failing to remember
that you have loaned them to me only
for a very short while.

Help me, this day, you who are absolute love,
to love those you have loaned to me,
as if tomorrow you would call them home to you.
Let me not take them for granted
or be blind to the marvel of their presence,
to the sound of their voices,
the joy of their companionship,
or the beauty of their love.

May their minor faults and failings,
which often cause me discomfort,
be seen as trivial transgressions
compared to the marvel of the gift
that you have loaned to me
for only a short while.

One last thought on gratitude. “The miracle of gratitude is that it shifts your perception to such an extent that it changes the world you see.” (Dr. Robert Holden)