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Happy Birthday!

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My mom wanted a picture of her flower bed. That’s why I’m holding my birthday cake outside.

The earliest birthday party I remember was my brother Danny’s 7th birthday. I was 5. He had invited about a dozen of his classmates to come over after school on his birthday – September 11. Mom had organized lots of simple games to play, and all the games had prizes for the winners. Even though I didn’t know most of the kids, and I was much younger, being only a kindergartener and they were all second-graders, I was allowed to play the games. One of the games was dropping clothespins into a quart jar. Whoever got the most clothespins in the jar, won the game. I didn’t get any in the jar. But what was so wonderful about that, is that I learned that there was such a thing as a booby price. I won the prize for being the worst player of the game. Wow! What a new insight into life! You don’t have to be the winner to be special and win a prize. Even being the worst at something can be good.

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Danny

I think I was about 10 when I went to the best birthday party ever. It was for my friend Susan. It was in the summertime, I remember. Susan had invited about 10 of our classmates, all girls. She had told us in the party invitation to wear play clothes, not to dress up in party dresses. When we all arrived at her house, we piled into a couple cars and rode to a farm near Lake Mills. This wasn’t just any farm. It was a horseback riding stable. The stable owner paired each of us up with a horse and helped us climb into the saddle.  In my case, my legs were too short to reach the stirrups regardless of how much he tried to shorten the straps. He finally figured out that he could maneuver my feet into the leather above where the stirrups hung, and that would stabilize me enough to not fall off the saddle, especially if I held on tight to the saddle horn. I was in heaven. At that time in my life, Roy Rogers was my hero. My biggest dream was to have my own horse. That never happened. But that day, I could pretend, and I loved the gentle old horse that plodded along the trail, dutifully following the horse in front of her. Our ride lasted an hour. Then we got back in the cars and rode home to Susan’s house where she opened her presents and we had the usual birthday party supper – hot dogs, potato chips, Kool-Aid, birthday cake and ice cream. I think I can safely say I’ll never forget that day! Almost 60 years later I still remember it as the best birthday party ever.

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Susan is on the far left. I’m next to her, sitting down.

I could write on and on about special birthday celebrations, like:

  • The year Mim turned 30 and I gave her 30 presents. The most fun that year was shopping for presents that would reflect Mim’s interests at each year of her life – a sort of biography of Mim written in presents.
  • fullsizeoutput_20d0The year our mystery-loving friend Marilyn turned 40, and Mim and I gave her seven little presents, each being a clue to what her real present would be – a weekend trip to Waverly, Iowa, where we boarded a luxurious passenger train for a 3-hour journey, and we dined on-board with a 4-course gourmet dinner as we watched the countryside fly by.
  • The year I turned 50 and my co-workers decorated my office in black because they mourned my passing into old age.
  • Or, this year, when Mim will turn 70 on Saturday, and she will receive a 5-CD set of me playing some of her favorite songs on the piano – as she requested.

Birthdays are on my mind these days because summertime is the busy time of the year for birthdays in our household. Our resident Carolyn turned 96 on June 13. (Our other resident Anna had already turned 96 earlier in the year.) On June 24, I reversed the digits “96” and turned 69. Mim is already 69, and will turn 70 this Saturday, August 5. Then on August 22, Dulce (the girl we help support in Honduras) will turn 9, and on September 1, Leydi (the other girl in Honduras we help support), will turn 14. Like I said, summertime is the birthday season for us.

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Celebrating Carolyn’s 96th Birthday at Norske Nook – Denise (one of or colleagues), Anna, Mim, Carolyn.

Yesterday I spent some time thinking about how wonderful it is to celebrate birthdays. Honoring someone’s birthday is the perfect opportunity to let the birthday girl (or boy) know how special they are. One tradition in our home is to stand up all the birthday cards on the piano for a week or two as a strong reminder of how loved that person is. The birthday girl needs to be reminded of how special she really is.

“There are two great days in a person’s life – the day we are born and the day we discover why.” [William Barclay] Celebrating birthdays helps us remember that.

I hope you are filled with love and joy as you celebrate your own birthday and the birthdays of your friends and family throughout the year – and every year. Happy Birthday!

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Remember Me?

Eight months ago I stopped publishing my blog every week. Now I post an entry sporadically, averaging about one a month. The one thing I’ve been consistent about is always publishing on Tuesday morning. Today that tradition ends, too. It’s Friday. Specifically, it’s Good Friday, and there’s something on my mind that I want to share with you.

SKM_C22717041309390For the past several years, our church, Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison, has published a daily devotional booklet to be used during Lent. In January, members of the congregation are invited to volunteer to write a one-page reflection on a Bible verse that will be assigned to them. Every year volunteer writers range in age from elementary school children to very senior citizens. The resulting booklet is a wonderful devotional aid for all of us to read throughout lent. Here’s a link to this year’s booklet on the church website: http://www.messiahchurch.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/2017-Lenten-Booklet-MASTER.pdf

I’ve volunteered to be one of the writers every year. But the verse assigned to me in 2014 just didn’t speak to me. I had no idea what to write about, and I discussed that concern with my partner Mim. The verse was:

Jesus crying with a loud voice said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. Luke 23:46

Mim said, “Oh, I can write about that.” And even though Mim hates to write, she did it. She started her reflection with, “Having been a nurse for 40-plus years, I have been with many people as they have breathed their last…” It was the perfect verse for Mim to write about.

This year my verse is also from the book of Luke, and again it’s the one scheduled for Good Friday.

One of the criminals said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Luke 23:42

I decided to give my reflection double duty by posting it on this blog as well as having it appear in our church’s devotional booklet.

fullsizeoutput_204dWhy in the world did one of the criminals hanging on the cross next to Jesus ask Jesus to remember him? Why was it important to this criminal to be remembered by Jesus?  Why was the question important enough to Luke that he included it in his Gospel?

We all want to think that we matter as a person. At the women’s worship service in the Dane County Jail (where I volunteer as pianist), we take time to pray for each other.  The inmates, the chaplain, and I sit in chairs arranged in a circle. Each person shares what’s going on in her life as we go around the circle sharing our thoughts and feelings. Then we pray for each other by name. The person on my left prays out loud for me. Then I pray for the person sitting on my right. Then she prays for the person on her right, and so on. Each person is remembered. Each person is important in God’s eyes. And each person needs to know that.

I think that’s why the criminal on the cross asked Jesus to remember him. He needed to know that he mattered, that Jesus would remember him. Jesus reassured him that he would. In the very next verse Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

One of my favorite prayers in our hymnal is “Jesus, Remember Me.” It’s a simple Taize chant that repeats the words of this verse over and over again. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.…”

Yesterday I played the piano for the women’s worship service in the Dane County Jail again. I don’t play there twice a month any more like I used to. I just play occasionally for special services. Yesterday was a special service to observe all of Holy Week, including Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. That’s a lot to cover in a little more than an hour. But with all of that, we took time to sing four hymns. One of them was “Jesus, Remember Me.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that Luke had a very good reason for including the criminal’s request in his Gospel. That’s my request, too.

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Ghostly Tricks

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Doris and Mary having a good laugh with Abbey – our best caregiver of all. (About 10 years ago)

Over the past 14 years, Mim and I have cared for more than twenty elderly people who have lived with us in our home, usually one or two residents at a time. Almost all of them have lived out their last days with us. Some of them lived with us for just a few days, some a few months, and some a few years. We have been honored to have cared for them as they journeyed from this life into the next life.

Today is All Saints Day, a day to remember each one of them, along with all the other people who have been close to us throughout our lives, and who are no longer with us on earth.

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Mim helping Doris get dressed up for Halloween.

One of our former residents, Doris, has actually been on my mind a lot lately. Doris lived with us almost four years, and she and her family became close members of our extended assisted living family.

Doris had a good sense of humor and liked to joke around with people. She often warned us that she was going to come back and haunt us after she died. Well, she’s come back. Really! I didn’t want to believe that she would follow through on her joking threat, but I can’t think of any other explanation for what has happened.

Several months ago I replaced my 5-year-old HP laptop with my first Apple product, a MacBook. The biggest challenge I had with my transition into the Mac world was getting my big fancy Konica Minolta laser printer/copier to work with the Mac. After hours of trial and error plus long phone calls to Apple Support, I finally was able to download a third-party printer driver that works pretty well – not perfectly, but at least I can print most documents.

A couple days after I finally got the printer working, I tried to boot it up one morning, and it was completely dead. I tried everything I could think of – with no success. I finally placed a service call with Konica Minolta to have them come out to fix it. The printer appeared to be completely dead. Not even the copier function would work.

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My Konica Minolta printer/copier is an excellent color laser printer, but it’s big and heavy.

This printer/copier is a large, heavy, floor model – something I don’t move around very often when I clean house. But I decided to do a little cleaning that day so my office would look better for the Konica Minolta repairman. I tugged the printer in one direction, then the other, to “walk” it away from the wall so that I could vacuum behind it. I couldn’t believe what I saw! The printer cord was plugged into a surge protector/power strip, and the power strip was not plugged into the wall outlet. It was plugged into itself! I called Mim over to take a look. She was as shocked as I was. I unplugged the power strip from itself, plugged it into the wall outlet, turned the printer/copier on, and it worked just fine. I immediately called Konica Minolta to cancel the service call.

img_1600Mim and I tried our hardest to figure out how that could have happened. Did one of us sleep-walk (which we’ve never done as far as we know), struggle to pull the printer/copier away from the wall, mess up the cords, and then shove the printer/copier back in place – all without waking up or making enough noise to wake up the other person or even our dog? Did someone break into the house the previous night while we were asleep and do it as a practical joke? The printer had worked the night before, but not that morning.

Hmmm. Practical joke… The only person we could think of who would do a practical joke like that was the ghost of Doris… In my mind, I’ve given Doris a high-five, and we’ve had a good laugh over it.

I’m sure Doris isn’t the only friendly ghost who has visited our home. The most usual time for ghosts and angels to visit us has been when one of our residents is near death, and a deceased parent, or spouse, or even a stranger comes into the room of the person who is near death. This visitor has come to comfort, or possibly escort the resident to the next life. Mim and I have never seen any of the special visitors ourselves, but several residents have told us about them.

All Saints Day is a time to remember all who have died in Christ, and who are now gathering in heaven to praise God. That includes Doris, even though she may sometimes sneak back down to earth to play a practical joke on us.

The image of a crowd of saints gathering together in heaven is suggested several places in the Bible. For example, Revelation 7:9-10 says:

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

In 1864 William Waltham How, an Anglican bishop, wrote a hymn using this image. Forty-two years later, Ralph Vaughan Williams composed a new tune for the hymn, creating one of the most moving and dramatic of all Christian hymns – “For All the Saints.” Here are the first and last verses. (You may want to google the title for the rest of the words.)

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who They by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, of Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

For me, the highlight of All Saints Sunday is playing this hymn on a pipe organ and hearing the congregation loudly singing the joyful words. It puts a lump in my throat every year.

On the other end of the musical spectrum is a spiritual that describes the same image – “When the Saints Go Marching In.” There are many different verses for this song, both sacred and secular, the usual first and last verses are:

O when the saints go marching in,
O when the saints go marching in,
O Lord, I want to be in that number
when the saints go marching in.

O when they crown Him Lord of all,
O when they crown Him Lord of all,
O Lord, I want to be in that number
when they crown Him Lord of all.

In Cambridge, my hometown, the “Fight Song” for the high school football and basketball teams is “When the Jays Go Marching In.” (The Cambridge mascot is the blue jay.)

Back to our assisted living residents that I’m remembering today. Helen had been my first grade teacher, and had always been an enthusiastic fan of our school sports teams. (Her husband had been the high school principal and the football coach.)

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It was a special privilege to care for my first grade teacher in her last months.

The most fun I ever had playing the organ for a funeral was for Helen’s. For the postlude I played the majestic descending opening line of “For All the Saints” and then played its mirror image in the ascending opening line of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I kept weaving these two tunes together as the people processed out of the church. It was the most fun juxtaposition of very different melodies on the same subject I’ve ever played around with.

I don’t know if Helen thought I was playing a joke on her by making up that postlude, or not, but I’m pretty sure she was smiling along with me and her friends and relatives as they processed out of the church.

Thanks to Doris and Helen and many of our other residents, there’s no doubt in my mind that ghosts and saints still have a sense of humor.

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Our “All Saints Wall” where pictures are mounted of all the people we have cared for in our home.

Congratulations to My Great Niece Mollie

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Mollie at her first gymnastics meet at age 6

I was inspired and I learned a lot last Saturday – actually 2 Saturdays ago. It was a great day!

Prior to that Saturday, I had never been to a gymnastics meet. I guess that doesn’t make me a very good great aunt, since my 17-year-old great niece Mollie has participated in gymnastics since the age of 6. That Saturday Mim and I decided to take the opportunity to watch Mollie compete at the State Gymnastics Meet being held in Madison at the Alliant Center.

I knew Mollie always liked to run and jump and turn summersaults. I remember watching her demonstrate her skills when she was still a toddler. On Saturday, we were able to see how those skills have developed.

I said I learned a lot on Saturday. I learned that gymnasts perform and compete in four different events – bars, beam, floor, and vault. Without going into details, I concluded that bars and floor are the most fun to watch, the most graceful. Beam and vault are the scariest to watch. I admit, I was scared for everyone competing in every event. I can’t imagine having my body do any of the things they all do with such strength and grace.

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A still shot of Mollie performing on bars.

Watching these incredible gymnasts perform brought back humble memories for me of tumbling in gym class when I was in grade school and high school. One of the things we were required to do was run, jump, and turn a summersault over someone lying on the mat. Then over 2 people on the mat. Then 3. Then 4. Believe it or not, I managed to be successful – until it was 5 people on the mat. My head landed on the fifth person, and then my body didn’t follow through quite right, and I ended up with a very stiff neck. As I recall, I even missed a couple days of school nursing my neck, although I never saw a doctor about it. Fortunately, by the time I got back to gym class, we were finished with that exercise, and the class had moved on to rope climbing – which I simply refused to do. I wasn’t going to climb up a rope to touch the ceiling of the gym. What if I fell and broke my neck!? I got my only D in all my years in the Cambridge School System for my non-performance in gym class that semester.

My great niece Mollie is very different from me. I’m sure she could have tumbled over 5 bodies by the time she was 3. I think she must have been born with springs instead of bones, considering how she can flip her body around. But besides being born with springs, she has worked really hard training her body to do what she and her coach want it to do. Her daily routine for years has been to go to her gym in Madison to work out for a couple hours after school – every single day.

944877_1655880611344242_714344027203013612_nThe result of her dedication was becoming Number 1 in the state of Wisconsin for gymnastics in 2016. She placed first in all 4 events, which also meant she was first overall. We were all so proud of her.

What made me the proudest was the way Mollie and the other gymnasts all treated each other. During the Awards Ceremony at the end of the competition, Mollie’s name was was the first one called because she had placed placed first in the first event. She climbed up to the top spot on the platform and was given her medal. When the 2nd place winner was called, as she climbed up to the number 2 spot on the platform, Mollie reached down to give her a big hug. The same for the 3rd place winner. Everyone seemed genuinely pleased with each others’ accomplishments. This behavior was repeated for each award for each event. Similarly during the warm-ups and competition, all the gymnasts hugged and cheered each other on. Kindness was on display everywhere throughout the meet.

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Mollie’s kid sister Gracie declaring that her “gold” medals really aren’t gold, but impressive nonetheless.

Although Mollie is still a junior in high school, this will be her last year to compete in the state gymnastics championship. She has received a full athletic scholarship to the University of Kentucky. She will speed through her senior year of high school to graduate in December, and start college and gymnastics at Kentucky in January 2017.

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Mollie with her proud parents.

But she’s not quite finished with competition for this year yet. Her next meet will be in St. Louis for Regionals, and depending on her status there, she may go to Nationals at Fort Worth. (She’s competed at Nationals the last two years.)

I’m truly excited for Mollie. And I’m proud of her gymnastic skills and accomplishments. I was amazed to watch her on Saturday. But most of all, I’m thankful that she’s already learned so much about kindness.

KINDNESS is my special word for this year, and I’m delighted to see it popping up all over. Last week I blogged about kindness in end-of-life care. This week I’m blogging about kindness in gymnastics, and specifically as demonstrated by my great niece Mollie. Who knows where I’ll see another amazing demonstration of kindness next… I think I chose a great word to focus on this year!

P.S. I’ve attached a youtube video below that shows Mollie in action.

Tap Dancing in Church

you_make_me_feel_like_dancing_tap_dancing_cat_poster-r51004af4ca5e48cf85af6aa87fffa6f0_w2q_8byvr_512That was a first. A woman tap danced to my postlude in church Saturday evening. I was playing a pretty jazzy arrangement of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” on the piano, and I heard some rhythmic tapping. It sounded great, and I sensed a few people gathering together to watch someone near the front of the church. Unfortunately, I couldn’t look up to see what was going on because I had to keep my eyes on the sheet music I was playing. The woman tapped throughout the whole postlude, and then left before I got a chance to meet her. Mim told me it was fun watching her, but she didn’t know who she was. I really enjoyed the percussion sounds that her tapping added to the postlude. I think I had just as much fun playing for her as she must have had by tap dancing.

I wondered what prompted the woman to start dancing. Maybe she tap danced to the postlude because she couldn’t resist the jazzy beat of the arrangement (by Melody Bober – my favorite piano arranger).

Or maybe she did it because of Pastor Jeff’s homily. He talked about having the courage to do what God calls us to do. After all, we are God’s children, and we should have the courage to do what we feel we are called to do. Perhaps for her, she was being called to express her joy, and to praise God through tap dancing.

Or maybe both of the above.

I just finished reading the book, A Song to Sing, a Life to Live: Reflections on Music as Spiritual Practice, co-authored by Don Saliers, a theology professor and church music director, and his daughter Emily Saliers, a member of the Indigo Girls, a folk-rock duo known for their vibrant music and social activism. In chapter 2, entitled “A Sound Spirituality,” the authors say,

imagesThe human body with all its senses is the primary location of the impulse to acknowledge the glory and power of God. Rituals, whether sacred or secular, always involve the body and its senses – what is heard, seen, tasted, touched, and given bodily expression in movement and gesture. … Spirituality is not an idea in the brain but rather a disciplined bodily experience that grows deeper with practice. … 

Unless we pay no attention or deliberately suppress our senses, the body is always being touched by music, is always ready to become a musical instrument. (p. 21-22) 

Maybe the tap dancer allowed herself to become a percussion instrument to become a part of the music and to experience its joy.

The tap dancer was not the only person who was touched by the jazzy music at the end of the worship service. Several people talked with me after the service, saying how the lively postlude gave them a physical lift, some extra energy to finish out their day.

The Bible tells us to make music and dance to praise God.

praisehimdancePraise God with trumpet sound, 

praise God with lute and harp.

Praise God with tambourine and dance,

praise him with strings and pipes.

Praise God with clanging cymbals;

praise God with loud clashing cymbals!

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!

[Psalm 150:3-6]

God has given us the gift of music, and has provided some suggestions for how to use the gift.

A couple weeks ago in this blog I explained that my spiritual practice throughout Lent this year is to spend some time alone playing prayerful music on the piano every day. Music is more than a means of offering joyful praise to God. It can be a means of communicating with God, expressing feelings of all kinds. One of my favorite hymns is “My Life Flows on in Endless Song” by19th century American Baptist minister Robert Lowry. Here are some of the words.

55497b4c76534024d9fccb9c960bc7edThrough all the tumult and the strife,

I hear that music ringing.

It finds an echo in my soul.

How can I keep from singing?

Over the next several weeks, in church (and anywhere) we’ll be singing songs like: “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord,” “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” “The Strife Is O’er, the Battle Done,” “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,” “Thine Is the Glory.” The music will help us feel and express emotional extremes as we strive to understand God’s love for us, and learn to reciprocate that love.

Praise God for the gift of music. And tap dancing as one more way of experiencing that gift!

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The Emotional Jackpot

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Mom’s 8th grade graduation picture. Mom is at far right.

As I was thinking about what to write in my blog this week, I picked up my mom’s little black book again. This is the little hardcover “Memorandum Book” that Stella Lillesand, my mom’s Sunday School teacher, had given her in 1921, when Mom was 13 years old. Mom had used this book to write down Bible verses as she memorized them starting on October 2, 1921 and ending on August 5, 1923.

Her first entry was “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19:14) Her last entry was “But thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord.” (I Corinthians 15:57)

I decided to look up any verse she might have memorized the last week in January, this week almost 100 years ago. On January 29, 1922 she wrote, “A friend loveth at all times.” (Proverbs 17:17) When I read that, I thought I’d hit the emotional jackpot. My best friend, Mim, and I have celebrated the week between January 24 and February 1 for the last 27 years.

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January 29, 1922 – Bottom of left page

The last week in January of 1973 I met Mim at a small group Bible Study in Chicago. I had just accepted a position as an editorial researcher for The World Book Encyclopedia and I needed to find an apartment, move into it, and be ready to start my new job in three days. I was staying with my friend, June, while I looked for an apartment, and I’d gone with June to her church Bible Study.

After the Bible Study, Mim walked across the room to talk with June and to meet me. When Mim found out I was under pressure to find an apartment and move in three days, she invited me to stay with her in her apartment until I found a place of my own – regardless of how long that might take. On February 1 of this year, we will have lived together 43 years. I never did find a place of my own.

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Mim and me in our first apartment in Chicago – 1973

By the time Mim and I had lived together 16 years our friendship had deepened and our lives had become quite intertwined. When a close friend of ours died without a will, we realized we should have wills and power of attorney documents drawn up for ourselves. We asked our Lutheran pastor if he would be a witness to the signing of our wills. He said he would be happy to do that, but also suggested that we might want to have a Blessing Ceremony for the church to bless our loving relationship and our lifetime commitment to each other. Both Mim and I thought that was a great idea, and on January 24, 1989 our pastor and a few close friends gathered in our home for our Blessing Ceremony.

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A picture from our Blessing Ceremony – 1989

Just two and a half years ago, on September 15, 2013, we added one more date to our list of anniversaries to celebrate – the day we were legally married.

All three of these dates are very significant to us. Being legally married conveyed the same rights and privileges to us that all other legally married couples have. That’s a huge relief from a practical standpoint. The Blessing Ceremony is when God and the church blessed our commitment to love and cherish each other for the rest of our lives. The day Mim and I met each other and Mim offered me her friendship, along with a place to stay, marked the beginning of a loving friendship that was surely a precious gift from God.

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Our Wedding Picture – 2013

I think God put a pretty bow on this gift, perhaps a “God-wink,” by letting me discover that the Bible verse my mom memorized the last week in January of 1922 was “A friend loveth at all times.” God gave me the gift of a very special best friend 43 years ago, a friend who loves me at all times, just as God intends for us.

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Christmas in Jail

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The upper floors of the City-County Building in Madison, Wisconsin are part of the Dane County Jail

“This is the first time I’ll be in jail over Christmas. I’ve been in jail a couple times before, but never over Christmas. I feel so bad for my family. Being in jail hurts my family more than it hurts me. I feel so bad for my kids. I’m really hurting my family by not being home with them for Christmas. I can’t let this happen again. I’ve got to get my life back together.”

The young woman struggled to keep tears from seeping out of her eyes as we went around the circle in the jail chapel, talking about what the Christmas story that we had just read in Matthew and Luke meant to us today.

I tried to imagine what it would have been like for my mom to be in jail over Christmas when I was a little girl.  It’s hard to picture my mom being in jail. I think the most illegal thing she ever did in her life was speed up to 70 miles per hour to pass a car on curvy Highway 12, driving from Cambridge to Madison on her way to work in the morning. The speed limit was 65 back then, and she had a gadget in her car that buzzed when she reached 66 mph. That didn’t happen very often.

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Family portrait, about 1960: Nancy, Dad, Mom, Danny, Marian

But supposing Mom was in jail, whether guilty of anything, or not… What would Christmas have been like for me?

  • No Christmas baking: No cut-outs to frost and decorate. No Norwegian cookies. No date bars. No new recipe experiments – Mom tried out one or more new recipes every year. No homemade peanut brittle. No Holiday Hill whipped cream cake…
  • No one to ensure the whole house was decorated for Christmas, not just the tree.
  • No one to help us memorize our parts for the Christmas program in church.
  • No perfect Christmas presents. Mom always figured out what we wanted most, and managed to do all the Christmas shopping during the lunch hours of her job in Madison.
  • No one patiently trying to teach us patience on Christmas Eve as we waited for Dad to finish milking the cows and then come back into the house so we could open our presents.
  • No Christmas stockings. Mom always gave each of us one of her old nylon stockings with runs to set out on Christmas Eve for Santa to fill with an orange, an apple, a candy cane, and a few small wrapped presents for us to open on Christmas morning.
  • No special dinner on Christmas Day. Pan-fried chicken was my favorite.
  • No one to play Scrabble with me on Christmas afternoon.

I understood the young mother’s point in the jail circle. Christmas is a very important time to be with family, not to be sitting in jail. But that’s the situation for her this year. The other inmates understood her point, too. They felt the same way.

As we continued around the circle, we got to me. I commented that hearing the whole Christmas story read in one sitting – the shepherds, Jesus’ birth in the stable, the wise men – reminded me of a question that’s printed in the bulletin of one of the churches I’m playing at this Sunday. “If you could play a part in the Nativity story, which role would you want: shepherd, inn keeper, wise man, angel, Mary, or Joseph?”  I said that I would either want to be an angel or a shepherd. It would be so much fun, so thrilling to be singing – or playing an instrument – to be welcoming Baby Jesus into the world. Several of the inmates explored this idea for themselves. One said, “Oh, I’d want to be a shepherd. It would be so exciting.”

Nativity images

When we all finished sharing our thoughts on what the Christmas Story meant to us this year, it was time for our annual Christmas carol sing. I went to the piano and Chaplain Julia handed out song sheets. She told the inmates they could keep the song sheets if they wanted, but she would have to remove the staples before they could take them out of the chapel. Most of them wanted to keep the song sheets.

Christmas carols

Chaplain Julia said they could request two things – the song to sing and which verses to sing. The first song requested, as soon as Chaplain Julia asked for requests, was the last song in the booklet, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” The requester asked for all verses. Actually, all verses were requested for every song we sang. And, boy, did we have fun singing! There was never a long, awkward pause waiting for a request. As soon as we finished one song, another request was immediately out there. The women sang every song with enthusiasm, as a truly special women’s choir. I think we all identified with the angels. We sang a lot of angel carols – “Angels from the Realms of Glory,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” As usual, we ended with “Silent Night.”

When we finished singing, Chaplain Julia asked me, “Could we choose to be Baby Jesus in my question of who we would like to be in the Christmas Story?” She said, “It would be wonderful to be Baby Jesus and feel all the love of everyone singing to me.” The inmates agreed.

I guess a little miracle happened in jail last Thursday. The women who came to the chapel to worship God and sing Christmas Carols, walked in feeling the weight of being in jail over Christmas, away from their family and loved ones. When they walked out of the chapel and were escorted back to their cell blocks, their spirits were lifted. I’m sure some of their spirits were still praising God, singing “Glo-ri-a in ex-cel-sis De-o.” God’s love was being experienced right there in jail.

angels and Mary and Jesus

This picture may be bleached a little too white, but it still shows love – wondrous heavenly love and peace present on Earth.