Archive | October 2015

“Music . . . controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits”

Marian at Messiah organ 4Now is the time to start singing and playing the big, powerful hymns of the church. It all started last Sunday – Reformation Sunday. Our opening hymn at Messiah Lutheran Church was A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. I tried to set the mood for it with a much louder than usual prelude – a simple but bold arrangement of two of my favorite old hymns – A Mighty Fortress is our God and Holy, Holy, Holy. I loved the big, bold start to the service.

We continued with that big, bold style for the hymn we sang during the offering, O God, Our Help in Ages Past, and we ended the service with Lift High the Cross. I played To God Be the Glory for a big joyful postlude.

Pastor Jeff built upon the theme of boldness by talking about standing boldly for Christ, and he included I Have Decided To Follow Jesus as his sermon hymn. In his homily he included the famous Martin Luther quote, to “Sin boldly.” No, it’s not a typo and I just left off the g. It’s not “Sing boldly.” It’s “Sin boldly.” (You may want to listen to the sermon to hear the quote in context. Here’s the link to the sermons. Then click on October 25, 2015.)

Personally, my favorite Martin Luther quote is, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits. . . . A person who . . . does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God . . . does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.” Luther wrote those words in the forward to one of his books, according to Robert J. Morgan in his book Then Sings My Soul: 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories.

2015-10-26 Stone Meadows Pond

A picture of autumn in our back yard. I took the photo yesterday when I was grilling hot dogs for lunch.

It’s almost November, and autumn is finally here. Most of the leaves have turned from all shades of green to brilliant shades of red, orange, yellow, and brown. One day last week I picked up the biggest, boldest maple leaf I have ever seen in my life. I brought it in for 94-year-old Anna to trace and color. I had to give her an 11” x 17” sheet of paper for it to fit.

The leaf has started to curl, but Ann was able to trace it when it was still fresh.

The leaf has started to curl, but Anna was able to trace it when it was still fresh.

Big and bold. That’s what I associate with autumn. Big pumpkin fields with thousands of bright orange pumpkins. Acres and acres of golden corn fields and soybean fields. Bold, blustery winds making corn husks fly from fields into back yards and streets in the neighborhood – keeping Floey busy chasing them during our walks.

Big and bold. That’s the kind of music I associate with November. Hymns of Thanksgiving for God’s wondrous love and caring, for God’s generosity to us. Hymns like Thanks Be to God, Now Thank We All Our God, Come Ye Thankful People Come, Count Your Blessings, and We Gather Together.

I spent Sunday afternoon at the piano, playing all the big, bold Thanksgiving hymns I could find to begin planning the preludes and postludes for the rest of the year until Advent, which starts the end of November this year. I had a great time.

Speaking of Advent, I used to be quite self-disciplined and I didn’t let myself play any Christmas music, even at home, at least until after Thanksgiving. But there is so much wonderful Christmas music, one month isn’t enough time to enjoy it all. Now I let myself start playing it the first of November (at home only). But I need to be careful not to allow Christmas music to take away from the big, bold music of autumn and Thanksgiving. God gave us music for all seasons of the year to enjoy and ponder.

I totally agree with Martin Luther. “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits. . . .” Thanks be to God!

Ann coloring the huge leaf she traced on 11x17 paper. She told me she wants to include all the colors of fall in the leaf.

Anna coloring the huge leaf she traced on 11×17 paper. She told me she wants to include all the bright, bold colors of fall in this leaf.

Remembering my “times” in Jail

Dane County Jail on the top floors of the City-County Building on Martin Luther King Junior Drive in Madison, WI.

Dane County Jail on the top floors of the City-County Building on Martin Luther King Junior Drive in Madison, WI.

The last couple weeks I’ve been spending a lot of my time working on a new booklet, “Stories from JAIL Ministry: Personal Reflections of a Volunteer.” I recently agreed to speak about the Jail Ministry at a potluck luncheon of the senior citizen club of our church, Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison. Since I like to write more than I like to speak, I thought having a little booklet to hand out to everyone would be a nice supplement to the things I talk about during the lunch presentation.

Stories from JAIL MinistryI knew that putting together a booklet would be easy and fun for me to do. Most of the chapters were already written. I would simply take the jail-related blog posts I’ve written over the past four years, compile them into a booklet, cut out the ones that seem repetitious, and edit the remainder of the posts to fit into a manageable booklet size. I’m almost finished, and I was right. It was fun!

The part of the process that was the most fun was remembering all the posts I’ve written about worshiping God together with the inmates and the chaplain. It was fun to remember many of the inmates and their life stories. It was fun to remember taking communion together and talking about what that meant to us. It was fun to remember sharing how God was speaking to each one of us at that moment and then praying for each other. It was fun to remember singing together, especially the times I accompanied the ad hoc choir that occasionally formed after the worship service while we waited for an officer to come to escort the women back to their cell blocks.

Yesterday morning, before I started working on the final draft of this booklet, I read the following in Henri Nouwen’s daily devotional book, Bread for the Journey:

The Church is that unlikely body of people through whom God chooses to reveal God’s love for us.

That’s it! As I put all these blog posts together, I realized, these incarcerated women are part of “that unlikely body of people through whom God chooses to reveal God’s love for us.” Through these women’s lives, God’s love and care can be seen. These women are part of the same Church as the people I worship God with on Sunday. And it is through this Church, God’s Church, that we experience and begin to understand God’s love. The apparent difference between the incarcerated part of the Church and the part of the Church that worships God in a beautiful building on Sunday morning is that the incarcerated members are currently in difficult circumstances and those circumstances are obvious to everyone. But we’re all members of the same Church, God’s Church.

GOV065In the past four years that I have been going into the jail regularly to worship God with these incarcerated members of the Church, I have learned to take the words of Jesus more seriously when he said:

I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
[Matthew 25:35, 36, 40 NRSV]

If you would like to receive one of these booklets, send me an email at Be sure to include your mailing address, and I’ll drop one in the mail for you when the booklet is finished – within the next week or so.

Why Dogs Need an Ecumenical Church

Floey - Lucy talking in shop - cropped

Cousins Lucy and Floey discussing life

The other day I overheard a conversation between Floey and her cousin Lucy, a golden retriever who is just a few months younger than Floey. Mim, Floey, and I had walked over to my brother’s house for our afternoon walk, and Lucy came out of the Carpentry Shop to play. My brother Danny followed her with a couple tennis balls and a ball thrower. After about twenty minutes of chasing balls, everyone was ready to take a break. That’s when I overheard Lucy and Floey talking. They didn’t seem very happy with each other.

“Floey, I can’t understand why you don’t bring the ball back to Dad to throw again. Why do you just chase the ball, and then plop down on the ground and look at the rest of us, daring us to come get it? That’s not the way to play ball!”

“That’s the way I play ball! Once I catch the ball, why in the world would I return it? It’s mine, fair and square. The game is chasing, anyway, not catching a ball just to return it.”

Floey - lying with ball 10-11-15

Floey – protecting her tennis ball

“You’re wrong about that, Floey. God created us dogs to retrieve things for our humans. That’s part of God’s grand scheme in life. I’m especially good at retrieving things for my human friends, that’s why everyone calls me a “golden retriever.”

“That’s crazy, Lucy. You’re making up God’s design in life to fit what you like to do. God didn’t make dogs to retrieve little tokens for bossy humans with nothing better on their hands to do than throw tennis balls. God created dogs to run really fast, to chase away wild animals to keep the dangerous enemies away from our human friends.”

Lucy and Floey waiting for another tennis ball to be tossed

Lucy and Floey waiting for another tennis ball to be tossed

“Oh, yeah!” Lucy replied. “God created us to catch ducks that our humans shoot for food and to bring the ducks back to our humans. When our humans throw tennis balls, they are just trying to keep us in shape for those important hunting expeditions.”

The dogs were quiet for a few minutes. They were both catching their breath after all that running and arguing. Finally Floey said, “I’m thirsty, Lucy.”

“Me, too. Let’s go into the shop for a drink.”

Floey drinking in shop

Floey quenching her thirst in the shop water bucket

They both got up and trotted into the shop. Floey lapped up a cup or two of water from the shop water bucket. Then she looked over at Sadie, the canine matriarch of the Carpentry Shop. Sadie was lying on her pillow near one of the saws. She looked over at the two young dogs, hoping they wouldn’t come over and try to get her to play. She let out a low growl to let them know her thoughts. Meanwhile, Lucy quenched her thirst at the water bucket.

Sadie - the matriarch of the shop

Sadie – the matriarch of the shop

Mim, Danny, and I had followed the dogs into the shop. Danny walked over to the treat corner and said, “Anyone want a treat?” All three dogs followed him to the opposite end of the shop, and he gave each dog an extra large Milk Bone. It was the biggest treat Floey had ever seen. She bit it, and half fell out of her mouth. Lucy, who had already gobbled up hers, reached down and gobbled up that half before Floey realized what was happening. But Floey didn’t seem to mind. Even half of that treat was more than she usually gets.

Treat Time in Shop 10-11-15

Treat time in the shop

Floey said to Lucy, “Let’s go back outside before your dad starts up any of those noisy saws. I hate how noisy it gets in here.”

“Okay,” Lucy responded, and both dogs went back outside. Sadie followed them, but found a nice spot in the shade to lie down.

Lucy and Floey wandered over to another shady spot to continue their conversation. Floey started it. “Lucy, you have the biggest mouth of any dog I’ve met.”

Lucy and Floey enjoying a lively discussion

Lucy and Floey enjoying a lively discussion

Lucy looked at her cautiously but didn’t say anything. Maybe she was wondering if Floey was mad about that half MilkBone she had taken away from her and eaten.

Floey continued. “I mean that as a compliment. I’m impressed when I watch you carry two tennis balls at once. I never could do that.”

Lucy and Floey resting after playing

Cousins Lucy and Floey acknowledging their differences…

Lucy smiled. “Thanks, Floey. I think God gave me such a big mouth so that I can easily retrieve things, like ducks, for my humans.”

“That may be,” Floey said thoughtfully.

Lucy added, “You know, Floey, you are the fastest runner I’ve ever seen. Until you came along, no one ever beat me to a tennis ball, no matter how far it was thrown. I was the fastest dog around, maybe because I’m the youngest. But then you came along, and you beat me every time.”

“Like I said, Lucy, God created me to chase away wild animals to keep my humans safe. God gave me the ability to run really fast.”

Lucy and Floey smiling big - adj 10-11-15

Lucy and Floey – friends forever

Both dogs were silent again for a few minutes, thinking. Finally Floey broke the silence. “Did you ever think, Lucy, that maybe God created us with different gifts? Maybe God gave you the gift of retrieving and me the gift of chasing. Maybe God intends for you to retrieve ducks, and God intends for me to chase wild animals. Just think about how much good we can do together, each of us using our special gifts! God’s world is a better place because of us and our God-given gifts!”

“You’re right, Floey! I remember one day my dad read something about this in the Bible. I think it was I Peter 4:10 (NIV), Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.”

“That makes sense, Lucy. Look, here come my moms from the shop. I guess I have to go home. See you tomorrow, Lucy. Bye, Sadie.”

Sadie and Lucy watching us walk home - sending us good wishes to come again.

Sadie and Lucy saying “Good-bye, good friend.”

An Odd Gift

Some forty years ago, I received a really odd gift from my parents. I had recently graduated from college and was living in a small town in Connecticut. I had become a high school English teacher. My parents gave me, as a gift, their used manure spreader. It wasn’t a particularly practical gift for me. Since I was in the process of furnishing my first apartment, lots of other gifts would have been much more practical.


This is kind of what my manure spreader looked like. It was definitely the oddest gift I ever received.

I can still picture Mom and Dad grinning at me when they told me about their gift. Dad had just retired from farming (mostly). He had sold the cows, and they no longer had chickens. Mom had already retired from her secretarial job in Madison, and they planned to spend a couple winter months down south each year as long as they could travel.

As a retired farmer, Dad no longer had a need for his manure spreader, nor most of his other farming equipment. However, my sister Nancy’s school-age kids were becoming more and more interested in farming after having moved to a 7-acre farmette a few miles from Cambridge. Dad gave them his old red “H” tractor to get them started with farming.

The old

The old “H” tractor

Dad gave his smaller and newer Ford tractor to my brother Danny with the understanding that he could still use it when he needed it. Danny was starting up a landscaping business and could make good use of the Ford.

Working up the soil for his last garden

Dad driving his little Ford tractor – working up the soil for his last garden – 1991

My parents felt they couldn’t just give the tractors to Nancy and Danny and not give me anything, so they decided I should get the manure spreader. Fortunately, Nancy’s kids had recently bought a small herd of goats to inhabit their barn. They quickly learned they needed a manure spreader, so I was able to sell it to them for a couple hundred dollars – which enabled me to buy more furnishings for my apartment in Connecticut. The gift proved to be practical after all.

manure spreader and tractor 4

Manure spreader and tractor working together again.

What brought this gift to mind again was a trip that Mim and I took to Minnesota last weekend. It was Mim’s 50th class reunion from Kenyon High School. For about five hours on Friday we drove through western Wisconsin and southern Minnesota farmland to get to Kenyon. We saw lots of fields of golden ripe corn and soybeans ready to be harvested, many fields in the process of being harvested, and a few fields that were already bare. As we drove by some of the bare fields, Mim asked, “What’s that awful smell?” I agreed the smell was very strong and unpleasant. Then I saw a truck and some tubing in one of those fields and I figured it out. They were spreading aged, liquefied, and concentrated manure from the large dairy operations on the fields to begin to fertilize the ground for next year’s crops.

Mim and I talked about how it used to smell back in the 1950s and 1960s when farmers spread manure on their harvested fields. The odor wasn’t pleasant but it wasn’t nearly as strong as what we smelled on Friday. But what we smelled, and figured out, brought back very pleasant memories of the most unusual gift of my lifetime – a used manure spreader. Mim said I had never told her that story before. Even though we’ve lived together almost 43 years, I guess we still don’t know quite everything about each other.

Spending many hours in the car last weekend gave me lots of time to think. One of the things I thought about after telling Mim this story is GIFTS – gifts I have received, gifts I have given, and gifts I know about that other people have given or received.

Heifer CatalogThe children in the Sunday school of the Presbyterian Church in Cambridge where I play the organ a couple Sundays a month, regularly raise money and also invite the congregation to join them in making donations, and then they go shopping in the Heifer International catalog and decide which gifts to buy for families that need just those gifts – chickens, ducks, rabbits, honeybees, goats, or even a heifer.

Similarly, the Lutheran Church (ELCA) on the national level has created a program called “Good Gifts” where you can donate money and choose farm animals to give to a family in need. Last year, instead of giving Christmas presents to the people who work for us in our assisted living business, we donated money to the “Good Gifts” program in their name, so that a needy family somewhere in the world could receive a cow to help them live a better life. I know one year my brother’s grandchildren “gave him” several different farm animals for Christmas through the “Good Gifts” program. He was happier with those gifts than anything else he was given for Christmas that year.

After spending quite a bit of time last weekend thinking about odd gifts, practical gifts, generous gifts, and the whole concept of giving gifts, I encourage anyone to do the same thing – to think about your lifetime of giving and receiving gifts. I really enjoyed remembering the gift of the manure spreader, and lots of other good gift stories of my lifetime. It reminded me of James 1:17, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above …” [New Revised Standard Version]

I guess thinking about gifts ties in nicely with my word for 2015 – gratitude. I’m grateful to God for the many gifts I have received in my lifetime – even the manure spreader, and especially the gift of the foul smell this weekend that brought back these wonderful memories. I’m also grateful to God for the opportunities I’ve had to give gifts and be able to share joy (my special word for 2014) through gift-giving.

2 children w goats

These children received the gift of a goat through Heifer International. Through these gifts they also received the gift of milk, and the gift of hope for a brighter future.