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A Glimpse of God’s Love

Last Saturday, Mim and I tried to drive to Chicago, normally about a two and a half hour drive, for a memorial service. Unfortunately, we got only as far as the distant northwest suburbs before we decided to turn around and go home. Although the weather forecast for Chicago was to get only 1 to 3 inches of snow, visibility had diminished to just a few car lengths, and the roads were getting pretty slippery. We thought it would be wiser to write a letter to our friend’s adult children to explain how much we admired their dad and how much we learned about God’s love from him.

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Jon presented me with a chocolate cake when I retired from the CCHC board.

Jon Beran was one of three founding doctors of Circle Christian Health Center (CCHC), a not-for-profit clinic on the far west side of Chicago – a very poor and violent, mostly African American neighborhood, and a medically under-served part of Chicago. Mim worked at the clinic in the early 1980s after she completed her advanced practice degree as a nurse practitioner. I served on the board of CCHC when I completed my MBA. We both chose Jon to be our personal physician. He was a good doctor, a good listener, and perhaps the kindest, most gentle, and most humble person I’ve ever met. 

When Jon was in medical school in the early 1970s, he attended Circle Church, an Evangelical Free congregation that met in rented space – the Teamster’s Union Hall on the near west side of Chicago, close to Circle Campus of the University of Illinois. The mostly college-aged and young professional members of the congregation enthusiastically committed their lives to serving Christ in their chosen professions wherever the needs were greatest. 

At that time, one of the most socially and economically distressed neighborhoods in Chicago was Austin, on the far west side of the city. A group of people within the Circle Church congregation decided to move into Austin to serve the people of that community. Circle Urban Ministries was founded as the network that would link a medical clinic, a counseling center, a legal aid practice, a youth center, and eventually a church. 

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Staff of CCHF in the late 1970s. Jon and Nita on left.

Jon and his wife Nita (a nurse) bought a house in Austin. They had two children and raised them in that neighborhood. (Their son has become an architect and their daughter has become a family practice physician, like her dad.) Both Jon and Nita spent their entire careers serving the people of Austin through CCHC. Nita passed away two years ago. Mim and I made it to her visitation. It was obvious by all the people from the neighborhood at the funeral home that Nita and Jon were very much loved by their community.

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Mom kept crocheting afghans for babies of teenage mothers in Chicago until just a few weeks before she died.

One of my favorite memories of Jon relates to my mom. When she was in the last stages of liver cancer, Mom and Dad came to live with Mim and me in Chicago for her last six weeks. Although we got Mom signed up to receive hospice care while she lived with us, she needed to have a local doctor see her and prescribe medications. We asked Jon if he would be her doctor. Of course, he said yes. Mom was too weak to ride to the clinic, so Jon made house calls to see her. We lived pretty far from Austin, about a 30-minute drive or 45-minute trip on the “L” each way, but Jon came over to see her as often as she needed him, usually coming by “L.” He carried his stethoscope and other doctoring tools in a Jewel Food Store plastic bag. He didn’t carry a doctor’s bag because he didn’t want to look like a doctor who might be carrying drugs.

Besides caring for Mom’s physical needs, Jon also took time to listen to Mom talk about how she was trusting God to heal her. I didn’t eavesdrop on the whole conversation, but I know Jon somehow related her trust in God to the trust his children needed to have in him when he was teaching them how to swim. They needed to trust that he would take care of them even though they didn’t totally understand how everything was going to work. Then Jon prayed with Mom.

As I mentioned in this blog last week, my special word for 2019 is LOVE, as in the LOVE OF GOD. One of the books I’m reading to kick off my year-long reflection on LOVE is BUMPING INTO GOD: 35 stories of finding grace in unexpected places by Dominic Grassi, a Catholic priest who lives in Chicago. From the back cover of the book,

fullsizeoutput_2785A natural storyteller, Dominic Grassi invites readers to share his warm memories of life in Chicago over the past five decades. He shows how God is reflected in the people we meet every day: a butcher, a bookstore owner, a short-order cook. 

And, I would add, a special doctor named Jon. I’m sure thousands of people have caught a glimpse of God’s love by bumping into Jon sometime in their lives. I know my mom did. And so did I.

 

A Long Talk with My Dog – the best way to begin the New Year.

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Floey jumped down from the couch, stretched her whole body, and sauntered over to me. I was sitting at my desk. She plopped herself down right next to me. But instead of resuming her nap, she looked up at me and asked, “What are you doing, Mom? You look like you’re just staring off into space. What’s on your mind?”

“I’m just thinking about something I said, or rather, didn’t say yesterday, and I kind of regret the conversation.”

“Who were you talking with?”

“I went downtown for a haircut late yesterday afternoon.”

“Yeah. I remember. You took me out for a really quick walk, and then you left. Were you talking with the person who cuts your hair?”

“Yes. She cuts my hair really fast – like in ten minutes. But despite her cutting speed, she likes to talk with me the whole time she’s cutting. I don’t know how she can concentrate on getting my hair cut right, but somehow she does.”

“I wish my groomer was fast like that. She always takes at least 45 minutes, but she gives me a bath, blows me dry, trims the hair around my ears and paws, and gives me a pedicure. She talks to me, too, but I know she’s concentrating really hard on everything she does to me. At least she ends the grooming session with a really good treat. Do you get a treat?”

“No, Floey, I don’t.”

“That’s too bad. Well, what are you regretting about your conversation with your haircutter?”

“We really don’t know each other very well, and our conversations are usually just typical small talk – the weather, how our dogs are doing, any new restaurants we’ve tried, and so on. Yesterday she asked me if I have any goals for this new year. I told her no.”

“You don’t make New Year’s resolutions any more, so you don’t have goals, do you?”

“Well, sort of. Six years ago I changed from making New Year’s resolutions to choosing a special word to concentrate on all year long. The first special word I chose was JOY. Every day in 2014 I thought about finding JOY somewhere in the day. I loved the positive energy that came from finding JOY throughout the whole year. The next year I chose the word GRATITUDE. That was just as inspiring. In 2016, my word was KINDNESS. The next year was HOPE. And last year my word was PEACE. Every year has been really special by having a deliberate focus.”

fullsizeoutput_200f“I remember, Mom, in January of 2015, shortly after you adopted me, you explained “special words” to me, and as a young pup of less than a year old, I chose my first special word – LEARN, because I was going to concentrate on learning all I could to become the best companion to our residents that I could be. Remember, Mom?”

“I sure do, Floey, and you have learned a lot. Everyone agrees that you are our best caregiver of all.”

“Thanks, Mom. But let’s get back to your conversation yesterday. Why are you feeling bad about it?”

“Well, Floey, I should have told the person who cuts my hair (and the customer and hairdresser at the next chair who were listening to us) about how uplifting the practice of focusing on one special word for a year can be. Unlike when making a New Year’s resolution that you know will get broken before the end of the year, when you choose a special word, there can only be positive outcomes – the more you think about an inspiring word, the more inspired your life will be, even if you miss a few days of thinking about it. At least that’s been my experience in the six years I’ve been doing this.”

“One year, Mom, remember I chose a bad word. I chose the word MEOW because I was going to try to learn how to communicate better with the cats in the neighborhood. But the cats didn’t want to get to know me, so I eventually changed words. I borrowed your word of KINDNESS, and tried to be kind to those cats, even though they didn’t deserve it.”

“But even that worked out for good, Floey, because you focused on being KIND, and that enriched your life, didn’t it?”

“I guess so.”

“Anyway, I wish I’d taken the initiative yesterday to explain my approach of choosing a special word every year. Maybe the women in the salon would have liked to try out this practice for themselves.”

“Mom, tell me what you wished you had said to them. How did the word PEACE work out for you in 2018, and what’s your word for 2019? Is that what you wanted to tell them?”

“I guess so. One of the special things I did last year to deepen my understanding of PEACE was to look for all the hymns I could find with PEACE as the theme. I selected 16 of those hymns to include in my next book of hymn reflections. Dona Nobis Pacem, Let There Be Peace on Earth, Peace in the Valley, Make Me a Servant of Your Peace – those are just a few of the hymns that focus on the PEACE of God. I loved doing that study.”

“How about your word for this year?”

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“As I was thinking about what word to choose for this year, I realized that the themes of the four Sundays in Advent are HOPE, PEACE, JOY, and LOVE. I’ve already chosen three of the four themes. LOVE is the only one I haven’t focused on yet. The more I thought about it, I realized the most concise phrase that summarizes the nature of God is GOD IS LOVE. I guess it’s time I try to deepen my understanding of God’s LOVE. So LOVE is the word I chose for 2019.”

“That sounds like a good word for you this year. Do you know if Mim has chosen a word?”

“I think she said her word is going to be PATIENCE. We’ll have to ask her more about why she chose that word for this year when she gets home. How about you, Floey?”

“I chose the word LISTEN. I’m really good at listening sometimes, especially to our residents. But other times, I just block out voices and other noises I don’t want to be bothered with. I have such good ears, I should make better use of the gift of superior hearing that God has given me. I’ll listen for birds, chipmunks, music, the wind – whatever sounds are out there – maybe even for you when you call me to come…”

“Well that would be wonderful! As soon as I know that you listen well enough to always hear me when I call you to come, we can start going to the dog park!”

“That’s great! This is going to be a really good year!”

“You’re right, Floey. And thank you for listening to me now. Talking about what I wish I’d said yesterday makes me feel better. Thanks. You’re already a good listener. You’re off to a good start with your new word!”

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Today’s Politics Should Prompt New Hymns

MM at Moodys PubI’ve been working on my next book of reflections on hymns, and just completed the story behind “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee.” The writing of this hymn was prompted by the social and economic conditions in the United States following the Civil War. As I was explaining the context of this hymn to Mim, she said, “That sounds just like the social, economic, and political situation today. You should blog about it.” So here’s a peek at one reflection that will be in my next book.

The time period following the Civil War in America was turbulent. In the late 1860s, America was beginning to change from a land of mostly farmers to an urban industrial society with two distinct classes of people – the super wealthy and the vulnerable poor – the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, and the slum-dwelling working class. Economic injustice was one of the dominant themes of the day.

Washington Gladden was a Congregational pastor of a church in Ohio. He was very troubled by how society was evolving, and he became an outspoken activist for moral reform in industry, commerce, and politics. He wrote 38 books on related moral reform themes, as well as numerous editorials and articles, and even poems and hymns. He became a noted leader in the Social Gospel Movement, a movement to apply Christian ethics to social problems – to apply Jesus’ teachings to our daily living, to take seriously the prophet Micah’s admonition to “do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

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Gladden was widely criticized by fellow clergymen for his political involvement. They thought he should limit himself to preaching the gospel instead of getting involved in secular justice issues. Gladden wrote the poem,“Walking with God,” and published it in his magazine in 1879 as a response to this criticism. The poem had three verses of eight lines each.

Dr. Charles H. Richards, an editor and publisher of hymns, read the poem and loved it, except for the second verse. He omitted that verse, and split the first and third verses into four verses of four lines each. Then Richards paired the edited poem with the tune MARYTON, and published it as the hymn, “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee” in his book, CHRISTIAN PRAISE. The omitted verse helps us understand why Gladden wrote this hymn. I’m sure he felt better after writing it – even if he’s the only one singing it.

O Master, let me walk with thee
Before the taunting Pharisee;
Help me to bear the sting of spite,
The hate of men who hide Thy light,
The sore distrust of souls sincere
Who cannot read Thy judgments clear,
The dullness of the multitude,
Who dimly guess that Thou art good.

Obviously, Gladden thought his critics were hypocrites who were totally blind to what the Bible really says about justice issues. That was back in the 1870s, as our country was evolving from an agricultural age to an industrial age, and economic changes were bringing about extreme wealth and extreme poverty. 

And that’s what is happening today, as well. Today’s age of technology of all types is bringing about chaos in many new ways. Unfortunately, our political parties have very different ideas about how to address the chaos. And, most unfortunately, people have forgotten how to work together to solve our problems. Listening. Understanding. Compromising. Respecting each other. These seem to be lost skills.

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I feel that many Christians support policies that I believe are contrary to what the Bible says about justice issues, like caring for the needy, and welcoming strangers. I feel just like Gladden felt. Maybe we should all do what Gladden did – write a hymn like Gladden’s, one that begins with words like,

O Jesus, Let me walk with you,
before the horrid Washington crew …

After getting out that bitter first verse, we might be able to move on to more constructive, positive verses, like the ones below, verses that begin with words like, “Help me… Teach me… In hope…”

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What Can I Do?

Floe-Marian faces 2015That question has been on my mind every day for the past couple weeks as I have watched the news from our southern border. And I know I’m not alone.

A few days ago one of my Facebook friends wrote, 

“I just keep giving because I don’t know what else to do beyond contact my legislators… It’s World Refugee Day today. It’s a day dedicated to raising awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the world. If you are at all in favor (or ambivalent) of this administration’s actions, I implore you to take a moment today to educate yourselves and find empathy for those seeking asylum from violent countries in Central America such as El Salvador and Honduras. The vast majority of these refugees are not looking to freeload off of the USA, they are seeking safety for themselves and their families.” 

Nearly half a million people have joined my Facebook friend in making a donation to RAICES, an immigration legal services provider who is committed to reuniting immigrant parents with their children who were taken away from them at our border. (https://www.raicestexas.org). I thought about sending them some money, but I wondered what else I could do to help alleviate the terrible situation of children from Central America being separated from their parents at the border, with no credible assurance that they will ever be reunited. 

I feel particularly connected to the people of Honduras because Mim and I are currently providing support for two girls in Honduras, Dulce and Leydi, through a small organization called Casita Copan. (CasitaCopan.org)

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Leydi, Emily (founder and executive director of Casita Copan), and Dulce. (Photo by Liz Dougherty)

Also, we make donations, at least once a year, to various projects of Buenos Vecinos (BuenosVecinos.org), a small aid organization in western Honduras and Guatemala organized by Ellen Lippman Finn, a retired social worker and jazz musician from the United States. 

51smFhUIbL._SX322_BO1204203200_Ellen wrote a book about her experiences in Honduras, EMOTIONAL WITNESS: My seven-year journey as an aid worker into the heart of Honduras. (The book is available in both print and digital form on amazon.com.) I’d like to share a few excerpts from her book to provide a more personal glimpse into the extreme violence today’s Central American refugees are fleeing. Ellen writes:

My house was robbed again a couple days ago, in front of many witnesses who were afraid to come forward because the robber is a gang member… This was the thirteenth or fourteenth time I’ve been robbed…

I can’t count how many times I’ve been extorted. A couple of them really scared me. One I actually paid off because they threatened to harm a dear friend if I didn’t pay. And as far as murders – I can’t even count how many friends, workers, neighbors have been murdered by police, by an angered person, by narcotraficantes [drug traffickers], by gang members. I barely cry any more.

My neighbor had her head cut off with a machete in broad daylight on a main street. The police didn’t find her attacker. Police never “find” anyone.

One of the worst scenarios that keeps haunting me is the murder of Odilio. He was the kind and respected leader of a mountain village where he built a small school. He had just finished building the school when, in the middle of the night, two crazy men high on drugs forced their way into his house and shot him pointblank while his kids hid under the bed. The children are still traumatized, as well as all of the members of his community. They have now all dispersed, leaving the village empty. This kind of violence can and does happen anywhere and at any time. My friend’s son was murdered in a restaurant. We all live in fear…

One night, I heard gunshots and called the police. They never showed up. In the morning, at about 5:00 a.m., I found a dead body at my gate, full of bullet holes, dried blood everywhere. He was a young fellow I knew. No motive found. No murderer found. What’s worse is this wasn’t the only time I had found a dead body, and I live in a supposedly quiet tourist town. San Pedro Sula, our largest city, a few hours from here, is now considered the most dangerous city in the world due to gang violence.

Later in the book, Ellen described how she put together enough terrifying clues to realize that she was actually on a hit list. She discussed this with Marel, a Honduran friend and co-worker on many of her aid projects. He investigated and confirmed her suspicions. 

… after my conversation with Marel, I periodically saw men walking by my house in pairs, especially in the evening. This frightened me terribly at first. They appeared to be reading. This made no sense. Why would folks be reading? When I asked Marel, he told me that he hadn’t wanted to worry me, so he hadn’t mentioned anything. These men were from his church, many of whom I had helped over the years in one way or another, with food baskets, emergency medical help, house repairs, and school supplies. And yes, they were in fact reading. Bibles. They were walking around my house in two-hour shifts. When Marel told me this, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I was so touched. These men were protecting me in shifts, two at a time, two bibles at a time, praying, monitoring, their cell phones at the ready….

There was a continual yet futile search for more information. As I came to understand it, the narcotraficantes didn’t like that we were working in “their communities.” The more we empowered the communities with schools, or a clinic, or a bakery to make them self-sufficient, the less power and control the narcos would have to extort from the villagers. I still didn’t get it completely, but I was in no position to try and figure it out. I had to leave if I wanted to stay alive…”

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Ellen shopping for school supplies with some of her young friends.

That’s everyday life in Honduras, as seen through the eyes of a 70-year-old former social worker who who lived there for seven years, trying to help families survive their cruel circumstances. She had to flee for her life, and was back in the United States for a while. It’s still not safe for her to return to Honduras (except for a few carefully planned trips to visit her old friends), so she has moved to neighboring Guatemala. Through Buenos Vecinos (which translates to Good Neighbors) Ellen is doing basically the same kind of aid projects in Guatemala that she had done in Honduras – providing school supplies and school lunches, building schools, helping to address medical needs, and so on.

After reading this book, it’s easy to understand why individuals and families in Honduras are trying to immigrate to the United States. They are literally fleeing for their lives.

Back to my original question, what can I do to help? When I lived in Chicago and was working in business, I learned that to solve problems, it is important to figure out how to remedy the immediate problem, but it is just as important to look for the root cause of the problem in order to find a permanent solution. For us in the United States today, the immediate challenge is to reunite children who have been separated from their parents at the border. That’s the problem that brings tears to my eyes every day when I watch the news. That’s the problem (or at least one of the problems) that RAICES is trying to address, and they are getting help from nearly half a million people who are donating funds to support their efforts. Mim and I might join in with a small donation. We want to be a part of this solution.

But we also want to be a part of the long-term solution. Thanks to our connections with Ellen Lippman Finn and Buenos Vecinos, we know that a permanent solution involves making it possible for the incredibly poor families in Central America to survive and even to thrive in their own communities. We can do this by making donations to organizations like Buenos Vecinos so that they can provide resources to these families to help them meet their basic needs – food, clothing, housing, health care, education, and ultimately some means of livelihood.

And, on an even more personal level, Mim and I will continue to support our two girls at Casita Copan so that they can be assured their basic needs will always be met. Both girls will have birthdays this summer. We’ll send them birthday cards, and will provide an extra donation to the organization for birthday presents. They need to know that someone in North America really cares about them and has hope for their future.

Earlier this year Mim and I sent special presents with some friends of ours who went to Honduras to visit face-to-face with the children they support through another organization, Children International (children.org).

Leydi Dulce smiling w presents

(Photo by Liz Dougherty)

We sent Dulce (age 9) a backpack filled with coloring books and crayons, art papers and pens, and other craft supplies, and Leydi (age 16) a tablet computer along with an amazon.com gift card that she can use to download apps or kindle books. (She has Internet access at Casita Copan.)

I’m sure tears will still come to my eyes when I listen to the news again this evening, but at least I know that Mim and I are doing what we can to help solve the huge problems facing our neighbors to the south. If you, like us, want to know what you can do to help solve our world’s current immigration-related  problems, we encourage you to check out the websites of the organizations that are working to solve these problems with both short-term and long-term solutions, and consider making donations to support their efforts. 

www.RaicesTexas.org

CasitaCopan.org

Children.org

BuenosVecinos.org

Also, please feel free to respond to this blog post to share other ideas you may have to address these problems.

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Ellen with some young friends.

And one last comment. Some of the story of Ellen Lippman Finn and Buenos Vecinos may sound familiar to you. I wrote a blog post last February entitled “Memoir of a 70-year-old Super Hero.” If you want to learn even more about Ellen’s story and get a really close up look at the life of a loving and eccentric aid worker in Central America, pick up a copy of EMOTIONAL WITNESS: My Seven-Year Journey as an Aid Worker into the Heart of Honduras. I laughed hard, and I cried hard as I read this book. I highly recommend it. Here’s the link to it on amazon.com.  

Little Hands

6360489455192162291563850737_TrumpDonald Trump gets very angry when people say he has little hands. I noticed his hands last night when he addressed the nation about his Afghanistan War strategy. He used his right hand to gesture a lot as he spoke, and I noticed that his fingers are relatively short. But obviously, his hands are big enough to hold a pen to sign executive orders, and big and strong enough to swing a golf club.

I have little hands. The only adult I know with hands smaller than mine is Mim. Her fingers are about a quarter of an inch shorter than mine.

IMG_2271I sometimes wish I had longer fingers. Most people who play the piano have longer fingers than I have. On both of my hands, my thumb and little finger can stretch over eight notes to play an octave, a frequent requirement when playing special arrangements of hymn tunes. If my hands are in the right position, I can even hit a ninth note, if needed. But absolutely no farther than that. The challenge comes when I need to fill in three notes of a chord with my other three fingers. Sometimes I can do it, sometimes I can’t, depending on the position of each note. Fortunately, I usually play hymn arrangements where I can freely substitute notes I can reach for the ones I can’t, and the music still sounds okay. (Good thing I don’t play too much demanding classical music where substitutions would be considered a musical crime.)

I really enjoy playing the piano (and organ, too). I can get totally lost playing a song like “Be Still My Soul” or “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.” The music becomes a conversation between God and me.

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When I select music to play for preludes, offertories, and postludes for church services, I try to select music that can prompt others to communicate with God in the same way. I start the process of planning the music for the service by reading the scriptures assigned for that Sunday. Usually, that will bring related hymns to mind. Then I’ll search through my books of piano and organ arrangements and choose something that seems to fit the theme for the day.

For example, last weekend, the Gospel was Matthew 15:21-28, the story of Jesus refusing to heal the daughter of the Canaanite woman because he didn’t want to waste his healing powers on the “dogs.” Those powers were intended for the Jews. But the woman persisted with great faith, and Jesus healed her daughter after all. It’s a difficult story to understand. What better hymn to reflect on that than “More about Jesus.” I really want to know more and more about Jesus to be able to understand this story better. As the song says…

More about Jesus I would know,
More of His grace to others show;
More of His saving fullness see,
More of His love who died for me.

More, more about Jesus,
More, more about Jesus;
More of His saving fullness see,
More of His love who died for me..

[Eliza E Hewitt, 1887]

“Coincidentally,” earlier that week I had downloaded a new piano arrangement of that hymn from one of my favorite websites, and I decided that would make the perfect offertory. For the people familiar with the hymn, they could silently pray the words as I played the music. For those who didn’t know the hymn, they could simply enjoy the music. (The tune name is SWEENEY.)

As I was looking for a postlude, I paged through a new book of arrangements I had ordered a few months ago, and came across “O, the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus.” That seemed to me like a very appropriate postlude, considering how Jesus healed the woman’s daughter, even though she was a Canaanite. But, I thought this was another old hymn that would most likely be unfamiliar to most of the congregation. So, I decided to test Mim, a life-long Lutheran, to find out if she recognized the tune. I played the arrangement for her, and asked if she knew it. She said, Oh sure. That’s “Once to Every Man and Nation.” Well, she was right. The tune name is EBENEZER, which is commonly used for both hymns. I guess that made this arrangement doubly appropriate. The theme of that week’s Gospel is both about the deep love of Jesus and about the fact that Jesus’ love is for all people, not just the Jews. group handshake 1

So, what does all this have to do with little hands?

In my devotional reading this morning, I read 2 Corinthians 10:12-18, as specified in the devotional booklet, CHRIST IN OUR HOME. Here’s part of the reading…

We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another, and compare themselves with one another, they do not show good sense. We however, will not boast beyond limits, but will keep within the field that God has assigned to us…

Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. For it is not those who commend themselves that are approved, but those whom the Lord commends.

[2 Corinthians 10:12-13, 17-18 NRSV]

The reflection on this text in CHRIST IN OUR HOME ended with:

Paul’s point is this: we boast and are proud of a … gift that God gave. In fact, to do otherwise might be to deny the gift that God has provided. God has given us many gifts. We can be thankful for them, be proud of them, boast of them, and use them to enlarge God’s kingdom.

God gave me little hands, and a wide exposure to sacred music – from the gospel songs of my Methodist childhood, to the more formal hymns of the church, to Evangelical praise songs and choruses. My fingers are too short, as is my ability to memorize long complex musical phrases, for me to be a classical pianist. But that’s not what God created me for. That’s not what I should compare my talents to. God created me to help create music in church, to help others pray and worship God. And for that, I am thankful – little hands and all.

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And best of all, I don’t have to get as dressed up for church as I would for a fancy concert hall!

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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PLAY – the Best Medicine

A couple weeks ago Floey and I went for a long morning walk, and it really felt like summer for the first time this year. The sun had warmed the air to the mid 70s, a few white clouds floated in the bright blue sky, the birds were singing, and cornfields were showing off neat rows of 2-inch baby plants. Floey trotted beside me on her 16-foot extendable leash, watching carefully for any movement along the side of the road that could indicate a chipmunk, rabbit, or squirrel was hiding from us.

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As we walked along the country road that goes by our old farmhouse, a song that was popular when I was in high school popped into my mind – “Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer.” In my mind, Nat King Cole was singing it, and I was in the driveway of the farm, washing my first car, a 1963 Corvair. I remember I did that on perfect Sunday afternoons in 1966. That song made me smile and feel good 51 years ago, and it made me smile and feel good now as I was walking Floey.

Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer
Those days of soda and pretzels and beer
Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer
Dust off the sun and moon and sing a song of cheer.

When Floey and I got back home, I said, “Alexa, play Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer by Nat King Cole.” My Amazon Echo gadget accommodated my whim, and I listened to the song just as I had remembered it.

Danny and Marian in first go-kart

We also built go-karts.

Summer is my favorite time of the year for lots of reasons. Most of my happy childhood memories took place in the summer – planting tobacco, baling hay, playing cowboys and Indians in the barn, walking down to the woods to explore, playing croquet on the front lawn. There was always lots of work to do, but there was always enough time to play, as well. Now that I’ve grown up, I find that it’s much harder to find time to play, although I’m usually most successful in finding time for play in the summer.

For the month of May, Joan Chittister wrote in the “Monastic Way” devotional pamphlet all about the importance of finding time to play. She started by quoting Proverbs 8:30, “I, Wisdom, was God’s delight day by day, playing with God every moment…”

fullsizeoutput_208aI’ve never used words quite like that to talk about “playing.” But as usual, Chittister gave me something to think about every day. One day she quoted Albert Einstein, “Play is the highest form of research.” She went on to explain, “Play frees our minds to think things we have never had the opportunity to think before. It enables us to come to know ourselves in other ways. It prompts us to think differently – about old things and new.”

Another day she said, “Adults get so work oriented, they forget to keep on growing. As a result we risk never becoming the rest of ourselves. To know who we are and what we can be requires a great deal of aimless activity…”

The next day she added, “To be really happy, we have to discover how to play as well as how to work.”

One of my favorite reflections of the month was on May 23. “Play … gives the mind room to think about more than the present. It provides the space we need to remember what life was like before arthritis of the soul set in.”

“Arthritis of the soul” is an image I won’t forget. I have a little arthritis in my knees, hips, and wrists. I don’t like it, and I do whatever I can to keep it from getting worse. I certainly don’t want to develop “arthritis of the soul,” and if taking time to play can prevent it, finding time to play will become a new priority for me.

So, how do I play as a “mature adult?” I’m not sure that rounding up my cousins to play cowboys and Indians in the barn will be quite as much fun as it was 60 years ago. Chittister had a suggestion. She said, “Get up tomorrow and go do something you’ve never done before. Then, decide if you’d like to do that again. If not, try something else the next day. Keep trying until you discover a whole new part of you. You’ll like yourself a whole lot better if you do.”

I think I have a few ideas of my own about how to play, too. Going for walks with Floey is fun and provides aimless time to think. Going on a treasure hunt with Mim usually ends up at a resale shop where all kinds of discoveries can be made – especially in the book department. Cuddling up with a good book can provide hours of escape from reality. Sometimes playing through a songbook of golden oldies on the piano can be unbelievably refreshing.

Now that the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer” are here, I’m ready to play. I need to prevent “arthritis of the soul.” And, as Joan Chittister says, “There’s no substitute for knowing how to do nothing [i.e., play] without feeling guilty about it.” And now you know how.

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Floey and I also play with gardening on our deck.