Archive | July 2015

I’m Getting Smarter Every Day

Floey's award for successfully completing the Intermediate Class.

Floey’s award for successfully completing the Intermediate Class.

“Congratulations, Floey. You did it. You graduated from Intermediate Class at Dog’s Best Friend Training in Madison. I was surprised your teacher decided to award you your certificate, even though you will have to miss your last class. Apparently you learned everything you needed to know in five classes instead of six. Wow! I guess you’re pretty smart.”

Floey sitting smiling 07-06-15“Thanks, Mom. I knew I could learn all the stuff they wanted to teach us in class, but I learned a lot more, too.”

“What else did you learn, Floey?”

“The most important thing I learned is that there’s more than one RIGHT way of doing things. That’s something lots of dogs – and people, too – never learn.”

“Tell me more about that, Floey.”

“Well, some people and dogs communicate only with hand signals. They don’t use any words at all. At first I thought that was dumb. It’s fun to talk. But then I realized that sometimes there’s a good reason for it, like when you’re outside and a big noisy truck goes by. You can’t hear anything but an engine roaring. But a dog can still see a hand signal. I guess it really makes sense to learn both words and hand signals, so I made sure I learned both in class.”

“That seems like a good idea. I’ll try to remember to use both words and hand signals when I want to tell you something.”

dog walking - multiples“That’s OK, Mom. It’s not necessary, but it’s nice. Another example of different RIGHT ways of doing things is that some dogs heel on the right side of their person. I always thought dogs had to heel on the person’s left side. But the teacher said either way was RIGHT. At first I was skeptical. I thought the teacher was being too easy on the dogs that were heeling on the WRONG side. But I went and talked to one of the dogs who was heeling on the WRONG side, to politely tell him he was doing it WRONG, and he politely told me to mind my own business and listen to the teacher. I didn’t particularly like that dog.”

“I know which dog you mean. I didn’t particularly like his person either. Fortunately, they seemed to like each other.”

“Yeah. I really liked most of the dogs and people in this class, and I especially liked the teacher. She had so many good ideas, and she encouraged us to pick and choose the ideas that appealed to each of us the most. Boy, is she open-minded.”

“You know, Floey, I just read something about a week ago in Joan Chittister’s pamphlet, The Monastic Way. She said,

It takes humility to accept the fact that there may be other equally good ways to do things than the way we ourselves have always done them. It’s amazing how small our lives can really become. And at our own hand.

“Chittister may be on to something, Floey.”

“That’s right, Mom. That’s one of the big things I learned in this class. My way of doing things is usually the RIGHT way. But another dog’s way of doing things – even if it’s different from my way – can be the RIGHT way, too. There’s not just one RIGHT way to do something. It’s not a black and white world. It’s much more colorful than that!”

“I agree. I wish that’s something everyone would learn – people as well as dogs. Maybe the best way to teach the rest of the world is to try to practice open-mindedness as much as we can ourselves. Not everyone gets to go to a class like you did to learn that there’s always more than one RIGHT way to do something.”

“Sounds good to me. Now, do I have any more classes to take, or have I learned everything?”

“Hmm. I’ll have to think about that.”

Floey-Marian faces selfie

Floey and me thinking really hard about future educational goals.

Shhh. I’m Trying to Quiet My Mind.

Candle orange w Be-Still-and-Know-That-I-am-GodIt’s hard to be quiet in today’s culture of constant stimulation. Worse yet, we take pride in being really busy, and we brag about our ability to multi-task.

So how can we possibly shut out the noise and concentrate on just one thing for ten minutes, or half an hour, or even an hour? How can we “Be still, and know that I am God!” as we are directed in the Psalms. (Psalm 46:10 New Revised Standard Version)

I’ve thought about that quite a bit over the past several years. I guess what prompted that subject to jump into the swirl of thoughts fighting for attention in my mind six years ago was the fact that I was starting up a spiritual retreat center at our farmhouse – what would become Whispering Winds Retreat Haven. That prospect made we wonder what I could do to help create an atmosphere at the farm where people could be still, be relatively free from distractions, and be able to focus on spiritual things.

3 candles and angelOver the last few years I’ve personalized some of those ideas to help me be focused early every morning before I start my normal daily routines and begin to deal with everything else that will jump into my day. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I start my day by reading from the Bible and a mix of inspiring books and pamphlets. Sometimes it’s hard to take time to do that, especially if I know I have a particularly busy day ahead of me, or an early appointment that I need to get ready for. Regardless of how short a time I may have for this devotional time, even if it needs to be just 5 – 10 minutes instead of the usual 30 – 40, I start by lighting one or more candles. That gives me something for my eyes to rest on when I look up from my reading. I usually light three different candles – one representing the Father, another the Son, and the third the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I have a fourth candle that represents me. It’s much better for me to see flickering candles on the small table in front of me than to notice the stack of papers waiting for me on my desk across the room.

Once the candles are lit, I start my quiet time by reading or mentally singing what I refer to as my call to worship. For a long time I kept a card in my Bible with the following words written by Sarah Young in her book Jesus Calling. It’s written as though Jesus is saying these words directly to me:

Jesus CallingSit quietly in my presence while I bless you.
Make your mind like a still pool of water,
ready to receive whatever thoughts I drop into it.

Rest in my sufficiency,
as you consider the challenges this day presents.
Do not wear yourself out by worrying about
whether you can cope with the pressures.
Keep looking to Me and communicating with Me,
as we walk through this day together.

Take time to rest by the wayside, for I am not in a hurry.
A leisurely pace accomplishes more than hurried striving.
When you rush, you forget who you are and Whose you are.
Remember that you are royalty in My kingdom.

That inspires me to be quiet and listen to what God is talking to me about.

More recently I’ve started mentally singing my own words to the praise song, “Holy Ground.”

This is Holy Ground
I’m sitting on Holy Ground.
The Lord is present
and all around is Holy.
This is Holy Time.
I’m praying in Holy Time.
The Lord is speaking
and every moment is Holy.

Floey Candles 3I’m usually sitting in the easy chair in my office. Floey is curled up on the love seat. And the candles are glowing on the coffee table. A crystal angel is bowing next to the candles. I really feel like I am in a holy place. My mind is quiet, and I’m ready to read, think, and pray. Sometimes I jot down ideas that come to me for a future blog post. Very few distractions break into this holy space.

On a related note (pun intended), I’ve also thought about what I can do as a church organist to help worshipers set aside their distractions to be totally focused on being still and knowing God during their time in church. The purpose of the prelude is to do just that – to help people quiet their minds, to be still and focus on knowing God. That’s why I try so hard to find a prelude that relates to the Scripture for the day.

Another thing that helps me get in the right frame of mind for worship is often referred to as the introit or call to worship. In the church where I grew up, the choir always sang the introit at the beginning of the service. That doesn’t happen at the churches where I play now, and I miss it. One of my favorite introits is Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this Place. Whenever I hear that, I remember that I am in a holy place. That God is present.

Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place
I can feel his mighty power and his grace.
I can hear the brush of angels’ wings, I see glory on each face;
surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.
[Lanny Wolfe]

At any time of the day, when my mind is spinning, and I’m thrashing about from one urgent task to the next, I sometimes remember I’m not alone. God’s here with me, too. I need to stop for a moment and take a deep breath. Maybe that’s the Holy Spirit calming me down. I think it helps that I’ve started my day being still. That helps me remember to ponder how my life fits into God’s world.

Most mornings Floey joins me for devotions. She knows this is a time to curl up on the couch, watch the candles, and be still.

Most mornings Floey joins me for devotions. She knows this is a time to curl up on the couch, watch the candles, and be still. I think God speaks to her, too.

Shopping for a Tombstone

Marian at organ-MessiahSo far this year I have had the privilege of playing the piano or organ for nine funerals. I typically play for between five and ten funerals a year – and it’s only July! In the 31 days from June 1 through July 1 of this year, I played for five of those funerals. Needless to say, my mind has been spending lots of time thinking about funerals lately.

Every funeral is different, and I try to match the music I play to the emotional and spiritual needs of the family. Sometimes the person who died has planned their funeral and they have specific requests for what music they want at their funeral. Other times, family members have requests. Sometimes the pastor will offer suggestions. And sometimes I try to piece together what I know about the person and family and make a best guess at what music will be most comforting. One of these funerals was for a suicide and the family was in shock. One man had died suddenly, probably from a heart attack. One woman was close to 100 and had been in declining health for a long time. In all cases, loving friends and family were left behind and they needed to be comforted.

musical notes cartoonThe musical requests for some of the funerals in June were rather unusual. Besides the popular funeral hymns of “Amazing Grace,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “In the Garden,” and “How Great Thou Art,” I was asked to play polkas, waltzes, and folk songs.

After watching families struggle over what should and should not be included in their loved one’s funeral, I decided I need to add another item to my personal to-do list: to plan my own funeral. Hopefully, I will get that done before the end of the year. At least that’s my target date.

Then, one day last week, I read in Jimmy Carter’s devotional book that I should think about what epitaph I’d like to see on my gravestone. Carter wrote, “I’m sure that most of us have given at least some thought to what we want inscribed on our gravestone…. Our lives need to have the right purpose. We need to look upon our service to Christ as the greatest achievement of all. And when we start thinking this way, we’ll start shaping our lives differently.” [Through the Year with Jimmy Carter, ©2011, Zondervan]

Archie Monuments wideThat reminded me of a day in 1987, several weeks after my mom had died. My dad and Mim and I drove to Archie Monuments in Watertown, Wisconsin, about 25 miles from Cambridge. We were going shopping for a tombstone for my mom’s (and ultimately my dad’s) grave. Before we left on this shopping expedition I called my brother and my sister to see if they had any preferences for style, color, or anything else. Since tombstones aren’t something you shop for every day, neither of them had put much thought into it, so they had no preferences for us to consider.

blank tombstones croppedMy dad had put some thought into it. When we got to Archie Monuments, he picked out his preferred style right away, an upright granite stone with a smooth, curved top. Most of the stones at that time had coarse chiseled tops, but he was adamant about wanting a smooth polished top, and he explained why. He wanted bird droppings to be washed off by the rain. We couldn’t argue with that, so the first decision was made. I completed the style selection by choosing a very dark gray-colored granite. I thought a really dark stone with just a few lighter gray flecks of color would be striking, and actually beautiful.

But then came the hard part. What information should be included on the monument? The name KORTH would be on the top. On the lower left side would be ELSIE with her birth and death dates, and on the lower right side would be CARL with his birth and death dates. No middle names or initials would be included, but exact birthdates would be included, not just the years. My dad was as adamant on dates as he was on the smooth top surface of the stone. I have no idea why he thought it was important for future generations to know exactly what day he died. But it was important to him, so that was what we specified.

2015-07-13 Korth tombstone 1With the factual information and monument style determined, we moved on to the more creative design work. Fairly quickly we decided to have a pair of praying hands etched on my mom’s side because she firmly believed in turning to God in prayer for every concern she had in life. On my dad’s side we selected a flower growing up beside a cross as a reference to his being a farmer who trusted in God.

Then for the hardest part of all – choosing an epitaph. Fortunately, the consultant at Archie’s gave us a book of sample epitaphs to page through for ideas. The three of us finally agreed on “I know that my redeemer lives.” I think my dad was pretty indifferent to the words, but he didn’t have any better suggestion, and he was tired and wanted to go home. We had already spent about three hours making the decisions up to that point. But both Mim and I were confident that those words summarized the most important aspect of my mom’s life – she had a very strong faith, and her belief in God was the most important part of her life. And Dad would just have to live (and rest forever) with the epitaph we primarily selected for Mom.

I chose the font for the text on my own. I don’t remember its name, but it’s very legible and looks dignified. I also asked for the shadow effect in the engraving. We were finally ready to go home. Shopping for a tombstone is not an easy job. All three of us were exhausted, but pleased with our choices.

I don’t think I’ll go as far as designing a tombstone for Mim and me by the end of this year. I’ll be happy if I get my funeral planned. But thanks to Jimmy Carter’s urging, I might start thinking about what I might like our tombstone to look like, and what I would like it to reflect about my life and Mim’s life and our life together. I guess maybe this is something Mim and I have to work on together. Maybe it will be a job for next winter.

When I went to the cemetery yesterday to take a photo of my parents' tombstone, I wandered through the cemetery. This stone is one of my favorites. It's the parents of my piano and organ teacher. The musical staff on top has the notes and words "I love to tell the story. Below Paul's name is engraved, "Local preacher over 40 years" and below Sarah's name is engraved "Church organist over 50 years."

When I went to the cemetery yesterday to take a photo of my parents’ tombstone, I wandered through the cemetery. This stone is one of my favorites. It’s the parents of my piano and organ teacher. The musical staff on top has the notes and words “I love to tell the story.” Below Paul’s name is engraved, “Local preacher over 40 years” and below Sarah’s name is engraved “Church organist over 50 years.” The stone tells the story of their lives very nicely.

Kindness or Foolish Generosity?

5dollarThere, I did it again. Two and a half years ago I gave $5 to a stranger who asked for a dollar or two to buy gas to get home for Christmas. I was at a McDonald’s parking lot just off the interstate between Cambridge and Wisconsin Dells.

This time was just a couple weeks ago. Mim and I were walking down West Mifflin Street in Madison, just off the Capitol Square.  We were headed back to the parking garage to get our car after attending a wonderful Saturday morning piano and organ concert at the Overture Center. A woman, probably in her 30s, approached us and asked, “Can you give me $2 so I can get a bowl of soup?”

Purse - WalletMim said to her, “I don’t have my purse with me,” and looked at me. So did the woman.  With all eyes on me I lifted my tiny wallet out of my little purse dangling from my wrist, and pulled out my wad of folded bills. I always keep my money in order, so my smallest bill was on the outside of the wad. It was a five. I peeled it off and handed it to her. “I don’t have any ones. I hope this is OK,” I said with a grin on my face as I handed her the $5. She looked at me a little strangely and took the bill. She said, “Thank you,”  and we walked our separate ways.

Wallet with $5 in wadAfter a few steps Mim asked me, “Do you think we’ve been conned?”

“I don’t think so,” was my reply, “but even if we were, I’m sure she needs that $5 bill more than we do.”

I didn’t think any more about the incident for a couple weeks. Then last week, it popped into my mind again. I have no regrets for giving $5 to the woman, whether she used it for soup, or not. But I started thinking about what would have been the best way to handle the situation. I guess my most obvious options were to A) ignore her and keep walking toward the parking garage, or B) give her some money. But I wonder if there are any better options.

When I lived in Chicago and worked in the Loop, I walked by people asking for money every day. I never gave a dime to anyone. I rationalized that my money would go farther by giving it to church or other social service organizations, which I did. In retrospect, I think I was being very unkind. By simply ignoring everyone who asked me for a quarter or a dollar, I made it perfectly clear to them that I didn’t care about them or their problems. Which I guess was true. My actions proved it. As I look back, I’m surprised at how hard-hearted I was.

homeless womanI suppose that some people who  walk up and down the street asking for a dollar or two are desperately trying to get money for drugs or alcohol, and that giving them money is simply delaying them getting into some kind of treatment program. And I’m certainly not skilled at identifying which people on the street are really hungry and need a bowl of soup, and which ones are focused solely on getting enough money to support their addiction.

Living where I do now, I don’t meet people on the street asking for money every day – maybe just a few times a year is more likely. But it happened a couple weeks ago, and I know it will happen again sometime. When that time comes, I want to do what our pastor is constantly encouraging us to do – to be Christ’s hands in this world – I want to be kind like Christ was. But what does that really mean today?

Floey smiling profileAs I was thinking about this, I turned to my usual source for wise insights. I asked Floey what she thought. “Hey, Floey. What do you do when someone you don’t know asks you for some help?”

“What do you mean, Mom? What kind of help?”

“Well, what I’m really asking, Floey, is what should I do when a stranger comes up to me on the street and asks me for a couple bucks. I know you don’t carry money around, so it’s not quite the same thing for you, but what do you think I should do? The person apparently needs help, but that’s the only thing I know about her.”

“Does the person make you feel scared? When a scary stranger comes up to me I growl at them and start to back away. I don’t want to hurt them, but I don’t want them to hurt me either.”

“No, Floey. The kind of stranger I’m talking about is someone who really needs some kind of help, like maybe just a couple dollars to buy a meal. She might be a homeless person.”

“Oh, then the answer is easy. Give her what she needs, if you can. Remember when you first adopted me last year, and we talked about my Native American roots – how I came from an Indian reservation in Minnesota?”

“Yes, I remember talking about where you came from, Floey.”

“I told you that in my Native American culture, the greatest sin of all is stinginess. The reverse is also true. The greatest virtues are love, kindness, and generosity – the opposites of stinginess.”

“I guess if I believe that, too, then the answer should be obvious – I should give the stranger what she asks for, if I can. I should be loving, kind, and generous.”

“Yup. That’s what I’d do. I’d give her what she asked for, if I could.”

“But what if I’m being conned – and she just wants me to give her money because she’d rather ask for it than work for it?”

“You can’t know that. You don’t have that piece of information about a stranger you’ve never met before. You only know what you can see and hear at that moment – and that’s what you’re supposed to act on.”

“Thanks, Floey. That’s good advice. I think I’ll try to keep a few dollars handy in my pocket whenever I can, just to be sure I can be loving, kind, and generous the next time a stranger approaches me on the street and asks for a couple dollars.”

“I think that’s a good idea, Mom. Now do you know what I’m going to ask you for, even though I’m not a stranger?”

“I’m sure I can guess. Yes, Floey. We can go on a walk! Thanks for helping me finish this blog post first. Now let’s go sniff out an adventure.”

Floey sitting smiling 07-06-15

Floey – ready to go for a walk.