Archive | June 2014

Another Lesson from Abbey

Thank You Kiss“Hey, Mom. Thanks for showing me Aunt Marilyn’s blog post last week. I’ve heard a lot about Millie and Aunt Marilyn’s two previous cats, and I’m sorry I never met them. I don’t remember that you’ve ever taken me to Chicago to see your old home and to visit with your old friends.”

“Well, Abbey, we don’t get to Chicago very often any more. At least you’ve gotten to know your Aunt Marilyn from the times she’s come up to Wisconsin to visit us. She used to live on the first floor of our two-flat in Chicago. She was our extended family, sharing the same street address.”

“According to Aunt Marilyn’s blog, her cat Millie was pretty smart. Millie must have been a good companion. I bet she taught Aunt Marilyn a lot about life.

“That makes me think about all I’ve taught you about life, Mom, and what I still need to teach you before I move on to heaven. I’ll be able to meet Millie in heaven, face-to-face, before too long, so I better get busy teaching you what you still need to learn while I’m still here.”

Ann - Abbey 3“I’m afraid that’s true, Abbey. Your time on earth may not be much longer. I don’t know what the first few years of your life on earth were like, but over the last eight years you have been a wonderful member of our family. You have demonstrated an incredible amount of love and patience with everyone who has lived with us. You have loved and been loved by over a dozen grandmas and a couple grandpas. Although you still like to sit with the 93-year-olds in our household, I can see that you have a much harder time getting up and walking with them.”

“Yup, but I’m still enjoying life. I’m not ready to leave you yet. There’s still one really important thing I need to teach you.”

“What’s that, Abbey? I’m all ears!”

“That’s just it. You often say “I’m all ears” when someone wants to tell you something that you really want to hear about. Or, you may talk about a wonderful sight that you’ve seen with your eyes. But I’ve never heard you say, ‘I’m all nose!’ God gave you the sense of smell as well as hearing and sight.”

“I guess you’re right, Abbey. You certainly make good use of your nose. You’re always sniffing out whatever is on the ground or in the air.”

“That’s right. Nothing gives me more pleasure than reading all the smells on the ground when we’re out for a walk. You don’t seem to pay much attention to all those wonderful smells. Yesterday you went for a walk and looked at all the flowers around the farmhouse. Did you take time to smell the peonies and the mock orange blossoms and the wild roses?”

“They were all so beautiful, all of them in full bloom.”

“That’s my point. You saw all the blooms, but did you smell them? When God created everything on earth, God created smells and tastes as well as colors and sounds. Remember all the burnt sacrifices described throughout the Old Testament? The practical purpose of burning all those sacrifices was to create wonderful fragrances for God to smell. For example, after the flood described in Genesis 8, when Noah came off the ark, he built an altar to make burnt sacrifices to God.

God smelled the sweet fragrance and thought to himself, “I’ll never again curse the ground because of people. I know they have this bent toward evil from an early age, but I’ll never again kill off everything living as I’ve just done.” [Genesis 8:20-21 The Message]

“God didn’t decide to bless the earth because of how it looked or sounded. It was because of how wonderful the burnt offering smelled. You people just don’t get it,” Abbey continued. “The sense of smell is the most godly of all the senses. Jesus and his friends when he was on earth understood this. One of my favorite Bible stories happened just days before Jesus was crucified. Here’s part of the story.

Lazarus and his sisters invited Jesus to dinner at their home. Martha served. Lazarus was one of those sitting at the table with them. Mary came in with a jar of very expensive aromatic oils, anointed and massaged Jesus’ feet, and then wiped them with her hair. The fragrance of the oils filled the house. [John 12:2-3 The Message]

mock orange blossoms

Mock orange blossoms

“Just imagine what that must have smelled like, Mom. It was probably even sweeter than the fragrance of the mock orange blossoms at the farm.”

Abbey continued her lecture. “The apostle Paul understood the superiority of the sense of smell over all other senses. When he was thanking the people living in Philippi for all the gifts they had sent him, he said:

And now I have it all – and keep getting more! The gifts you sent with Epaphroditus were more than enough, like a sweet-smelling sacrifice roasting on the altar, filling the air with fragrance, pleasing God no end. [Philippians 4:18 The Message]

“Are you beginning to get it, Mom? God didn’t put all these wonderful fragrances on the earth just for us dogs. You can smell them, too, if you pay attention.”

“You’re right, Abbey. I need to remember to pay more attention to the smells surrounding me. The first time I smell someone cutting their grass in early spring, I notice how sweet and refreshing it smells. When a neighbor is grilling hamburgers outside, I notice that smell. It makes me hungry. And I create wonderful smells in the kitchen when I’m baking cookies.”

“You’re beginning to understand, Mom. But, try a little harder. Every time you step outside, sniff the air, like I do. I doubt you’ll ever put your nose to the ground like I do, but there are plenty of smells at your nose level, too. Maybe you’ll start to thank God each time you get a whiff of something that’s simply wonderful, or something that brings back a special memory.”

“I’ll try, Abbey. Thanks for nudging me to become a little more aware of another one of God’s magnificent gifts.”

“You’re welcome, Mom. Thanks for listening. I want to talk a little more about Millie, but I guess we can do that next time. I hear Mom Mim singing in the kitchen, and… Sniff the air, Mom! Do you smell it? I can smell that she’s cooking something that smells really good. She may need my help… See ya later, Mom.”

Marian - Abbey - Mim: We're always learning something from each other!

Marian – Abbey – Mim: We’re always learning something from each other!

The Misfit Funeral Organist – Part 2

“When in doubt, leave it out.” That was the advice of the soloist for the funeral last week. She teaches music at some college in Minnesota. I took her advice to heart.

For her solo, Mendelssohn’s “O Rest in the Lord,” I learned the piano accompaniment just fine, and I didn’t need to leave anything out.

fingers stretching on piano 3But I was glad to wholeheartedly heed her advice for the violin solo, Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” The violinist almost always had the melody, so I took the liberty of leaving out lots of the extra notes I was supposed to play on the piano. I figured it was better to keep up with him than to slow us both down by trying to stretch my short fingers into awkward contortions just to plunk out all the “right” notes. I always played at least one note with him, just not all the notes on the page. We started and ended together, and in between, I supported the melody with enough notes that the piece still sounded like Bach.

I used the same principle – “When in doubt, leave it out” – for selecting pre-service music for the funeral.

Oakwood Organ - full viewThe day before the funeral, I went to the nursing home chapel to acquaint myself with the pipe organ. It was a small tracker organ, apparently modeled after the organ Martin Luther himself played. It had two manuals and a standard pedal board. It had vertical rows of three stops for each manual, one pedal stop, and three couplers. It looked like a nice little organ that would be fun to play.

Except for one thing, which I discovered when I climbed up on the bench to start playing. There was no expression pedal. That wouldn’t seem like a major omission, but for me, it was. I’m short. When I stand up straight, I’m almost five feet tall. When I sit perched on an organ bench with my feet dangling, I have to stretch to reach the pedals. To keep my balance, I rest my right foot on the expression pedal whenever I’m not using that foot to play a pedal on the pedal board. With no expression pedal, I had no foot rest to help me keep my balance. I had to try to sit very still. Even reaching to the far right or the far left with my right or left hand to pull out a stop threatened my equilibrium.

Hymns - portraitThat made it easy for me to make a decision about what kind of music to play for the prelude and postlude. I wasn’t about to challenge myself with any fancy arrangements or classical music that would put me at risk of losing my balance and falling off the bench. I quickly decided to go with a selection of hymns. I asked the violinist (the grandson of the deceased) about Hazel’s ethnic and religious background to try to identify what types of hymns might have been some of her favorites, as well as the favorites of the people who would be at the funeral. Since she was Swedish, I started with “Children of the Heavenly Father” and played for about 15 minutes, progressing through a dozen hymns, ending with “Beautiful Savior.”

As I was selecting the hymns to include in my sequence, I tried to line up hymns in related keys so that there would be a natural progression to each hymn. As I was looking for a classic hymn in the key of G, I came across “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” First I included it, but then I took it out because I thought it might sound too “joyful” for a funeral. I followed the principle – “When in doubt, leave it out” – so I removed it from the sequence. If I were selecting the hymns today, I would make a different decision. As part of my daily devotional reading this year I’m going through a new hymnal, mentally singing one or two hymns each morning. Today my hymn was “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” The words of the first verse are:

bird singing 1Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love!
Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, praising thee, their sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive the gloom of doubt away.
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day.

How appropriate those words are for a funeral!

For the postlude I played “Go, My Children, with My Blessing” and a confident, fancy (but NO PEDAL) arrangement of “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” – something I often play for funeral postludes.

Marian at Messiah organ 5

That’s me, sitting much more comfortably on my home church’s organ bench.

Despite the challenges for me in playing for the funeral last week, I guess I can take out the word “misfit” from my role as funeral organist. I need to thank the soloist for giving me the license to “When in doubt, leave it out.”

Even with simplifications, God’s gift of music always gives comfort.

And since I didn’t fall off the organ bench, I still really like to play for funerals. But I definitely prefer organs with a foot rest – like Messiah’s. Or, a nice piano.




Funerals and the Misfit Organist

That’s me. The misfit funeral organist. I’m not sure which order the words should be in. They’re all nouns linked together to convey one image – me as an organist who likes to play for funerals, even though I shouldn’t. I’m a misfit. I should avoid funerals, at all cost, just like my mom did.

Mom-Dad on stump

Mom & Dad never agreed on funerals.

In all my growing up years, I attended only two funerals – my Grandma’s when I was in high school, and my Uncle Art’s when I was in college. For all the other family friends and relatives that died during those years, my dad went to the funerals, my mom didn’t. She hated funerals. I think the main reason for this was that she always cried – even if the deceased wasn’t someone close to her, and that embarrassed her.

I can remember overhearing a conversation between my mom and dad about going to someone’s funeral. My dad thought they both should go to it. My mom was adamant that she was not going to go. My dad said, “When you die, probably no one will show up for your funeral.” My mom replied, “I don’t care. I won’t be there either.” So, my dad went to all the funerals by himself. Hence, I didn’t grow up going to many funerals.

Gary Kenseth grave stoneThe first funeral I was asked to be the organist for was my cousin Gary’s. That was in 1996, almost 20 years ago. I was pretty nervous. I had very little experience as an observer of what organists played for funerals. Furthermore, I was afraid that I would cry so hard I wouldn’t be able to see the music. I even asked my doctor for some pills to keep me calm. I took one of the pills the day before the funeral to test its effect on me, and I decided the pill relaxed me too much. I concluded that if I took a pill before the funeral I’d probably play lots of wrong notes and I’d play them very slowly.

Instead, my Aunt Edith (Gary’s mother and the gospel pianist and organist I’ve written about before on this blog) helped me by giving me a long list of music to play as pre-service music. That got my attention focused on the music. She had listed lots of old hymns and gospel songs. For the recessional, she wanted me to play a spiritual that Gary had really enjoyed singing when he was still in school, “Do Lord.”

I learned a lot about the role of music in funerals from this first experience as a funeral organist. Pre-service music does more than just cover up the silence (or the conversation) while people wait for the service to begin. The music can bring back memories. It can draw attention to how much God loves us. It can comfort us. The hymns we sing together as a congregation remind us that we are a family, sharing the loss of someone we love, but sharing our memories and our hopes, as well. The special music often sung or played by family members or close friends is a gift for everyone present, a glimpse into the music the loved one liked best. The recessional moves us on with life, knowing that God is still with us and will never leave us.

Marian at Messiah organ 4Over the next several years, I put that lesson to good use. I became the organist of a small, aging congregation in Cambridge, and played for many funerals every year – once even three funerals in one week. My mom would have never understood how I could play for all those funerals. I’ll admit that sometimes I get a little teary, but a quick wipe with a Kleenex clears up my eyes enough to see the music.

I’ve learned to really enjoy playing for funerals. Music can be an incredible comfort to people who are grieving the loss of a loved one. I feel privileged to help provide that sense of peacefulness.

So why am I a “misfit funeral organist”? And why am I writing about it now?

This week I’m having second thoughts about everything I’ve learned about playing for funerals. I’ve been asked to play for a funeral for someone I don’t know, in a nursing home chapel where I’ve never even seen the organ. I’ll have to accompany both a concert violinist and a vocalist who teaches music at a college in Minnesota. I guess I feel a bit intimidated.

I wish Aunt Edith were here right now to make up the list of what to play for pre-service music.  I spent all afternoon on Sunday thinking about that, paging through books and books of classical music as well as hymnals. I even asked the pastor if I was a misfit for this funeral. He said I wasn’t, but I think he might have said that because he didn’t want to find another organist.

Well, I’ve finally come around to my last resort – where I should have started. I’m praying for God’s help in selecting and preparing the music. And I’m beginning to remember what I’ve learned about the role of music in funerals – comfort. Now I’m focused again on the gift of music God has given us.

Music is the language of the spirit.
It opens the secret of life
bringing peace, abolishing strife.
     [Khalil Gibran]




Imagine you have just been arrested! Now what?

arrestedImagine you have just been arrested – for a crime that you may or may not have committed.

Your life has suddenly been put on hold – for who knows how long. You may have small children at home. Who will care for them? You may have a job. What will happen to that? Think of all the ways your life will be disrupted.

Imagine how helpful it would be to talk to a chaplain, someone who could help you think through and pray about the changes that are suddenly happening to you and your family.

In 1970, forty-four years ago, an organization called Madison Area Lutheran Council (MALC) was formed to address this need, along with several other needs. The idea was for Madison area Lutheran Churches to work together to provide a ministry to inmates of the Dane County Jail, as well as to work collaboratively to address other needs (like coordinating the collection of food and clothing for humanitarian relief organizations in Dane County and in other parts of the world). Over the years, other (non-Lutheran) churches have become involved in this ministry, as well.


Chaplains John and Julia

Currently, MALC employs two chaplains who work in the Dane County Jail. The Rev. John Mix is chaplain to a daily average of about 800 men in jail, and the Rev. Julia Weaver is the part-time chaplain to a daily average of about 150 women in jail. This ministry is entirely supported by donations from churches and individuals. (You can check out their website for more information about the organization:

As some of you may know, I’ve been involved with jail ministry for the last three years. As a volunteer, I play the piano for the women’s worship service twice a month in the chapel of the Dane County Jail in Madison. In this role I’ve been privileged to hear some of the stories inmates tell of how being in jail has changed their lives, and of how helpful the chaplains have been to them.

One woman talked about how being in jail, talking with the chaplain, and worshiping God with other women in the jail chapel had taught her humility. When she was first incarcerated she thought she was a better person than the other inmates. She was in jail for a mere white collar crime – income tax evasion. She would never hurt anyone or do drugs or commit any of the violent crimes other inmates had committed. But during her months in jail, she learned that God loves all of us despite the mistakes we make in life. And we all make mistakes, just different mistakes. The chaplain provided the opportunity and the atmosphere in the jail chapel for this time of sharing, learning, and spiritual growth to happen.

Another woman sat in jail for two years, accused of killing her little boy who was three years old. When she was arrested, her brand new baby was taken from her and put in foster care. She never saw her baby again. Eventually the trial and sentencing processes were completed and she was transferred to prison to serve time, a 13-year sentence. (She claims she never hurt her little boy. She says her boyfriend was too rough when he tried to discipline the boy, and she is terribly sorry she was not able to protect her little boy from him.)

During her two years in the Dane County Jail, she came to the women’s worship service whenever she could, usually twice a month. She was one of the kindest, gentlest people I’ve ever met. I’m sure the hours she spent in worship services and one-on-one with Chaplain Julia were a tremendous help to her in dealing with her grief.  (I wrote about Maria’s Story in this blog about a year ago.)

yellow pencilIn order for this kind of jail ministry to continue, someone needs to pay for it – salaries for the chaplains, and money for materials like Bibles, paper, and pencils. At every worship service, Chaplain Julia passes around a basket of paper and pencils. Each inmate is invited to write down her prayer requests so that Chaplain Julia can continue to pray for her throughout the week. Chaplain Julia tells the women they can keep their pencils if they need them. Everyone keeps a pencil. Inmates don’t have junk drawers filled with pens and pencils and other odds and ends like most of us have in our homes. A pencil is a valuable gift – a tool that inmates can use to write down their thoughts, or to write letters to loved ones.

JAZZ for the Jail is an annual fundraising concert to raise money to help support this jail ministry – from salaries to pencils. If you are in the Madison area this Sunday evening, I invite you to join us for a wonderful experience.

Chance Allies - 3 heads small

Chance Allies – David, Tisha, Lucas

Chance Allies, a jazz group, will be performing. The group includes a female vocalist (the Rev. Tisha Brown – a UCC pastor), a pianist (Dr. David Allen – a pediatric endocrinologist), and a bass player (Lucas Koehler – the professional musician of the group). Chance Allies was created to do fundraising concerts for churches and other non-profits in the Madison area. Their style of jazz is primarily the smooth jazz from the 1930s and onward – George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and so on – the kind of music I love to sit back and listen to. (You can preview their sound at

Love Mosaic

Created by the Backyard Mosaic Women’s Project

In addition to the concert, there will be a silent auction for works of art (mosaics, quilts, and other works) created by inmates and by friends of the jail ministry. There will also be desserts and beverages.

The suggested donation for the Jazz for the Jail fundraising event is $25. The Concert starts at 7:30. Come as early as 6:45 to see the works of art on display for the silent auction. The fundraising event will take place at Messiah Lutheran Church, 5202 Cottage Grove Road in Madison.

If you want to learn more about the jail ministry…
If you want to see (and bid on) some beautiful works of art…
If you want to sit back and enjoy an absolutely delightful concert…
If you want to feast on rich desserts and lively conversation with some friendly people…
Then I invite you to join us for the JAZZ for the Jail fundraiser this Sunday evening at Messiah.

Please feel free to call me (608-212-6197) or email me ( if you have any questions. Hope to see you Sunday!