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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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Let’s Pray, Floey

Floey sitting - profile cropped“Hey, Mom. We need to have a talk.”

“OK, Floey. What’s on your mind?”

“Ever since you stopped writing your blog every week, I feel that we don’t talk at all. Oh, I know we still talk about the birds and the bees and the gophers when we’re on our walks – how beautiful the goldfinches are, how annoying the wasps are, and how fast the gophers can run when I chase them… But we don’t have deep conversations like we used to have. I miss that.”

“Well, I’ve got some time now. What do you want to talk about?”

“I don’t really care. I just want to spend some time with you, talking about some of the things we’ve each been thinking about. I know. Last month you played the piano in jail twice for the women’s worship service again. How did that go?”

“Oh, that was really something, Floey. The main theme we talked about both weeks was God’s healing. We sang There is a Balm in Gilead and Amazing Grace. You know what was the best part of those services?”

“I bet it was singing those beautiful hymns!”

“Nope. It was when we prayed for each other. Remember we all sit in chairs arranged in a circle, and near the end of the service we pray out loud for the person sitting on our right. That means the person on my left prays out loud for me. When she’s finished, everyone says Amen, and then I pray for the person on my right, and so on.”

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Inmates are no longer permitted to hold hands while praying, as pictured. Internet image.

“Well, the first week, Marie, the woman on my left, prayed a long prayer for me. She thanked God for bringing me to play the piano to help them sing hymns. She asked God to bless me and my family. She thanked God for all kinds of wonderful attributes that she thinks I have. I felt really blessed as I heard her pray. Silently, I thanked God for letting me participate in a worship service with these kind, caring women.”

“That must have felt really good, Mom, to be prayed for like that. The woman who prayed for you sounds like a really nice woman.”

“It did feel good, Floey. And Marie seems like a good, kind, Christian woman.”

“After the service I told the chaplain how surprised I was at the long, glowing prayer Marie prayed for me.”

“The chaplain then told me a little about Marie. She was in jail awaiting trial for murdering her teenaged niece. Apparently Marie had been taking care of her niece, and had used physical punishment as a means of disciplining her. When her niece died, she moved the body out of state and managed to keep her hidden for a long time before a relative finally told the police.”

“How can that be, Mom? Do you think she really killed her niece?”

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“I don’t know, Floey. Life is complicated. Maybe killing her niece was an accident. Maybe Marie has severe mental illness. Maybe not. All I know is that she prays like she really loves God and wants to please God regardless of what happens in her life. And I know that she blessed my life by praying for me. And I will continue to pray for her that God will comfort her and bless her regardless of where she spends the rest of her life.”

“Wow. How about your next week in jail? Was prayer time the highlight of that service, too?”

“Yes, it was, Floey. It wasn’t quite as dramatic, but the woman who prayed for me thanked God for bringing me into their services to provide music, and then she thanked God that my spirit was there the weeks that I wasn’t there in person.”

“It sounds like you like to be prayed for, Mom. But I don’t blame you. I’d like to hear someone pray for me sometime, too.”

“I pray for you, Floey, but I’ll admit that I don’t think I’ve ever prayed for you out loud in front of you. We’ll have to pray together sometime. We should pray for each other like we do in jail.”

“I’d like that, Mom.”

skmbt_c28016091209590“On the subject of prayer, Floey, Joan Chittister talked about prayer every day in August in THE MONASTIC WAY. She used a quote by Teresa of Avila as the theme for the month’s daily devotions.

Authentic prayer changes us, unmasks us, strips us, indicates where growth is needed.

“Chittister’s reflection on August 5 really grabbed my attention.

The role of prayer is not to coax God into doing what we think would be good for us. It is to embolden us with the courage it will take to do, ourselves, what scripture shows us Jesus would do in a similar situation.

“On August 12th she wrote:

When we discover who we really are, we are finally able to understand others. To be compassionate toward them. To be a gift to the world.

“Then on the 18th she said:

Prayer is the wail of the soul to become what we are really meant to be.

“Near the end of the month she reached the conclusion:

If we are too busy to take time for prayerful reflection every day, we are too busy to be human, too busy to be good, too busy to grow, too busy to be peaceful.

“You know, Floey, between jail and Joan Chittister, I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer over the past several weeks. I think I see prayer a little more broadly than I used to. It’s not just talking to God about what I perceive to be my needs and the needs of my friends, or thanking God for all the good things in my life. It’s communicating with God on a deeper level, learning more about why God created me, and how I may fit into the big picture of life. And it’s about learning to appreciate all of God’s creation. It’s about communicating with God in many different ways throughout the day and night. And I’m just beginning to learn…”

“OK, Mom. That’s enough deep conversation for now. Let’s go for a walk to look for goldfinches and gophers.”

“Good idea, Floey. Enjoying all of God’s creatures is another way of praying…”

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Goldfinch and bee on thistle. Internet image.

 

Consistency vs. Change

Marian Smiling BW adjFive years, four months, and one week. That’s how long I’ve been writing weekly blog posts for the Whispering Winds Blog. As of today, that’s 279 posts. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had something to write about every single week without exception. Sometimes the ideas have come from Mim, or Pastor Jeff, or something I experienced, or something I read, or even something I ate! Sometimes I just happened to remember something from my past. Sometimes I even think God might have planted an idea in my mind for me to explore.

I really enjoy writing this blog, and I plan to continue to write posts as long as I can. However, I’ve decided to heed the advice of one of my own posts. On April 29, 2014, I posted “The Virtue of Inconsistency.” I began the post with one of my favorite quotations: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

After five years, four months, and one week, I’ve decided to introduce a little inconsistency into the timing of my blog posts. I don’t know yet when I will make my next post to this blog. It may be next week, or it may be next month. My plan is to post to the blog whenever I have something to talk about.

For example, I’m going to Chicago this week for the funeral of an old friend. I expect to see a few friends from my early years in Chicago at the visitation. Maybe I’ll want to share some of my thoughts from that day. Maybe not.

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Staff of Circle Community Health Center where Mim worked and where I served on the board in the early 1980s.

Also, I haven’t written anything lately about worshiping God in jail. I don’t play the piano twice a month for the women’s worship service in the county jail like I used to. I just play occasionally, usually for special times like Christmas and Easter, but I’ll be playing twice in August. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m inspired by one or more of the inmates – or the chaplain – and I’ll want to tell you all about that.

And, I’ve started to read the first of my two new books on kindness. I’m quite certain I’ll learn something that I’ll want to tell you about. Or, Floey may just decide it’s time for another one of our conversations – either about kindness, or about something else that pops into her mind.

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So, why have I decided to be more sporadic with my blog posts?

Typically I spend about 12 hours a week thinking up a topic, writing a reflection, editing the language, finding or taking pictures to illustrate it, formatting the layout, posting to the blog, and announcing the post by email and on Facebook. Those 12 hours are often the best hours of my week. I really enjoy doing a blog.

But, there are a few other projects percolating in the back of my mind, and I think I need to take back some of my time from the blog to devote to these other projects for a while. One project has to do with writing, one with music, and one with both.

511XwNSqK8L._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_The writing project relates to a book I read several months ago, SOUL SURVIVOR: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church by Philip Yancey. This book has a Preface, an Epilogue, and 13 chapters in between. Each chapter is about a person who profoundly affected the author’s life, who had an impact on his soul. The characters were as wide ranging as Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy, John Donne and Frederick Buechner. The stories Yancey told in each chapter were fascinating. By the end of the book, I found myself wondering, “Who are the people who have influenced my life? Who are the people I’ve known personally as friends and family who have impacted my soul? Who are the people who have influenced me from afar like Joan Chittister and other favorite authors?” I decided I’d like to write about my own spiritual journey, following the pattern Yancey established, by writing a short chapter about each person who has had a significant impact on my spiritual development. I don’t know that I’ll ever publish the book, but I think the process of writing it will be very enlightening to me personally. I may post individual chapters on my blog if I think others may benefit from reading my observations.

The music project is in response to a specific request. A few months ago Mim asked me for a special present for her 70th birthday – August 5, 2017 (next year). She wanted to give me plenty of time to get it ready. She wants me to record a CD of me playing some of her favorite music on the piano. She said she was thinking about what she might miss most after I die (assuming I die first), and she decided it would be listening to me playing the piano. Hence her request. We’ve come up with a list of hymn arrangements, classical music, and golden oldies she really likes. Based on the length of the lists, I think we’re talking about three CDs, not one. I need to get busy. I’m not planning to die soon – but Mim has proposed the deadline of her next birthday, only 12 months away.

Marian playing Baldwin

The third project, which involves both writing and music, is something that I want to do simply for myself because I think it will be both fun and inspiring. I want to put together a 3-ring binder of 365 of my favorite hymns, arranged by season and date. I want a 2-page spread for each hymn with the hymn itself on one side, and a story or reflection related to the hymn on the opposite side, with space for journaling comments on the bottom of the story side. Essentially this book will be a daily devotional for me to use based on great hymns.

I can hardly wait to get started on all three projects. By freeing up some of the time devoted to my blog, I think I can jump into the new projects. (And I have a few other projects in the back of my mind, too, waiting for free time and the right time to begin…)

My next blog post is unlikely to appear next Tuesday morning. But whenever it’s ready, I’ll send out my usual email and will also announce it on Facebook, as I have done for the past five years, four months, and one week. Also, if you have signed up to receive my posts directly from WhisperingWinds.com, you will continue to get them as they are posted.

Thanks for being my faithful readers over the past five years. I value the relationship we have begun, and I trust it will continue to grow as I incorporate the benefits of inconsistency into the next phase of my blogging and other writing.

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Do Something!

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Pastor Jeff Vanden Heuvel

“You’re not dead yet. Do something!”

That’s what Pastor Jeff preached about at Messiah last Sunday. He talked about how difficult the past week had been – with two black men being shot in our country, just a day apart, and then five police officers being killed and more injured in Dallas just days later. When you think about all the violence in our country, and the continuing racial injustice and unrest, it’s easy to conclude that the situation is hopeless. Then, when you look globally at the inequity, hatred, and wars worldwide – the big picture only confirms that we might as well give up. Hatred is the victor. Our experience proves that love and justice will never win in this world. Why bother to fight for what’s right? We won’t win.

The Scripture Pastor Jeff turned to was the familiar story of The Good Samaritan. A lawyer had asked Jesus what he needed to do to have eternal life, and Jesus told him to love God with all his heart, soul, strength, and mind; and to love his neighbor as himself. The lawyer then asked Jesus to define who his neighbor was – to put limits on who he had to love. Jesus then told the story of The Good Samaritan, which essentially said there are no limits. Jesus told the lawyer to go and show mercy. Period. No limits.

Pastor Jeff paraphrased that directive to us. “You’re not dead yet. Do something!” Then he offered some practical suggestions of things we can do, starting with becoming more educated on the issues, and discussing the issues with our families and our neighbors….

The day before, on Saturday, I was inspired by an email I received from Ellen Finn. I mentioned her a couple months ago in this blog. She’s the person who introduced me (via email) to Casita Copan in Honduras. Casita Copan is the organization that connected Mim and me with Dulce Maria and Leydi, the two little girls we provide monthly support for in Honduras. (Here’s a link to that post:
https://whisperingwindsblog.com/2016/04/26/another-piece-in-gods-puzzle/)

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Ellen delivering a Christmas “basket”

I have never met Ellen face to face. A friend of mine, the daughter of one of our assisted living residents, told me about Ellen 7 years ago, when she was trying to raise money to give Christmas baskets to poor families in Honduras. Buenos Vecinos (Good Neighbors) is the name of the organization Ellen created. Ellen explained how she got involved with projects in Honduras on the organization’s website, www.BuenosVecinos.org:

I originally went to Honduras to study Spanish and live with a wonderful homestay family for a week. I stayed two weeks. I fell in love with the family as well as the Honduran people and the children absolutely captivated me!

I came back to Seattle and after 3 months, sold most of my belongings and my car, gave up my music career and moved to Honduras to teach English.

Within 3 months I began to see how distressed the schools were in the neighboring villages and decided that I would commit my energies to raising money to building, supplying, and repairing village schools. Soon we found ourselves expanding into areas of health and emergency relief….

On Saturday I received the following email from Ellen:

IT’S MY BIRTHDAY, IT’S MY BIRTHDAY!!!!

Well okay, soon it will be my birthday.

As many of you know I have been privileged and happy to be working in Central America for almost 10 years!

AND NOW, I am about to turn 70 years old and still going strong!!!

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Ellen getting school supplies for her friends.

In these years, together, you and I have built 15 schools, a library, a clinic, bridges, water projects, endless school repairs and furnishings, school supplies and teaching materials for more than 100 schools … and have provided all sorts of educational and health and nutrition programs for children. We have provided emergency services for pregnant mothers, communities in distress and much more!

Many folks have asked me what I want for my birthday and I keep coming up with the same thought.  Operating expenses for a year! 

It doesn’t require much to keep us going…. we can still provide great services on less than $15,000 per year and if we had this sum, we could concentrate more on providing much needed services and projects, and less on raising the funds. This would be such a great way to start my next decade… with time and energy and support to do even more needed projects.

If you’d like to help me celebrate … You can donate at our website www.BuenosVecinos.org

THANKS FOR HELPING ME MAKE THIS BIRTHDAY A SPECTACULAR ONE IN WHICH WE WILL BE ABLE TO PROVIDE SERVICES TO THOUSANDS MORE CHILDREN!

With love and gratitude,
Ellen

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Ellen opening boxes of school supplies.

That email was inspiring to me! One person can’t solve all the problems of the world, but one person can make a difference in the lives of their neighbors.

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Young Hondurans carrying benches from the storage shed to their outdoors classroom.

So, what can we do? Pastor Jeff kept reminding us, “You’re not dead yet. Do something!” So, who are my neighbors? I guess I have some neighbors in Honduras that need some help, and Ellen is willing to coordinate the logistics of getting help from me to these neighbors. I can simply go to her website and make a donation. That’s a start.

And I have other neighbors with needs…. Last week I received a phone call from someone who was trying to line up donations of winter coats for inmates who will be released from the Dane County Jail this winter. The caller asked me if I could enlist the help of our church in this project. The inmates are my neighbors, too. I guess I could follow up on that request. I could also clean out my own closet….

With the world being in such a sorry state, there are plenty of opportunities to be a good Samaritan. As Pastor Jeff suggested, I need to educate myself on the issues underlying the tragic problems in our neighborhood, our country, and our world. I need to look around to see and understand the needs of my neighbors.

Like Jesus said,

“Which of these three [the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan], do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” [Luke 10:36-37 NRSV]

Or, as Pastor Jeff said, “You’re not dead yet. Do something!”

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Jail inmates released in the winter months will need warm coats. Maybe we can help….

(You can hear Pastor Jeff’s homily on the church website. Pastor Jeff always begins his homilies with a song and a story. Even if you just watch the first few minutes, you’ll hear a great story about an old and very clever German Shepherd.
http://messiahchurch.com/media/video/2016-sermons/  
Note: You may have to click the refresh button of your browser and then click the arrow for the July 10 sermon.)

An Odd Favorite

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Doris giving her best friend Abbey a hug. (Abbey was our canine caregiver prior to Floey.)

I thought about Doris last week. Doris lived with us for almost four years. She came for assisted living in 2005, shortly after her husband Ernie died. Doris, a nurse, had been caring for Ernie for many years, and now it was time for someone to care for Doris. She was in her late eighties.

What brought Doris to mind was one of the hymns we sang in church last Sunday – Holy, Holy, Holy. It was Trinity Sunday, and Holy, Holy, Holy is the classic hymn to sing to celebrate our understanding of our three-in-one God – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Doris loved this hymn. During the years that she lived with us, Mim, Doris, and Mary (our other resident at the time) often joined me at the piano in the evening to sing. We sang golden oldies like Let Me Call You Sweetheart and lots of hymns. Almost every night Doris requested Holy, Holy, Holy. 

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Her request surprised me. I grew up in a Methodist church where we did lots of singing. On Sunday mornings, we sang about half a dozen hymns and responses from THE METHODIST HYMNAL, a thick black book that was kept in the racks on the back of the pews. The hymns in the hymnal were the classical hymns of faith, dating mostly from the 16th through the early 19th centuries. I learned to like many of these stately old hymns, and that is how I would describe them – as stately hymns that we sang to formally and respectfully worship God.

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Willerup United Methodist Church, Cambridge, Wisconsin – my family church for generations

On Sunday evenings we sang out of a different songbook, either SONGS OF THE SANCTUARY (the blue book), or MELODIES OF PRAISE (the white book). These hardcover songbooks were handed out to each person as we entered church. The first 15 minutes of the service were spent singing from these songbooks. The pastor usually announced the first song for us to sing, and then it was up to the congregation to call out their requests. The blue book was filled with gospel songs from the 19th and 20th centuries – songs like Just a Closer Walk with Thee, When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder, He Leadeth Me, and Just As I Am. The white book was newer and included songs like How Great Thou Art, Wonderful Words of Life, and Blessed Assurance.

These Sunday evening songbooks were the source of everyone’s favorite gospel songs. THE METHODIST HYMNAL had all the nice stately hymns that were appropriate for the more formal Sunday morning service. The smaller songbooks had the more emotional songs that we would sing to express our feelings. These are the songs that became our favorites.

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When I was in high school I bought my own copy of Melodies of Praise to use at home. I chose a green cover rather than white.

Doris’ favorite hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy, was from the formal HYMNAL, not from the collection of gospel songs in the songbooks. That’s what surprised me. I wouldn’t have been surprised if she had requested What a Friend We Have in Jesus or Jesus Loves Me (although she liked those songs, too). I was surprised at Holy, Holy, Holy being her choice almost every time we sang. 

Today I have very fond memories of the four of us singing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Whenever we sing that hymn in church, I think about Doris and our evening sing-alongs in our living room at Country Comforts Assisted Living, our home.

When Doris died, her daughter asked me to play the piano in their Presbyterian church and to have a hymn sing for her funeral. I gave her daughter a list of every hymn I could remember that Doris had asked to sing in our sing-alongs, and I think we sang all of them at the funeral. In my mind I could still see Doris singing along, especially on Holy, Holy, Holy.

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Mary and Abbey were friends, too.

Mary had a favorite hymn for our evening sing-alongs, too. It was The Family of God. Her choice also surprised me. I’ve known Mary most of my life. She was my fifth and sixth grade teacher, and then my history teacher when I was in junior high. She was 84 when she came to us for assisted living. Like me, she had grown up Methodist, and then turned Lutheran as an adult. What surprised me by her choice of a favorite hymn was that she chose a more contemporary gospel song. I expected her to choose something that had roots in her childhood years, a more traditional gospel song from an earlier era.

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I’ve always been interested in what people choose as their favorite hymns. Over the years, I’ve found it very revealing to learn what someone’s favorite hymns are. When I know your favorite hymns, I feel I’m beginning to really know you.

When I was an organist at the Presbyterian church in Cambridge, we had bulletin inserts for almost every funeral because invariably the favorite hymn of the deceased person was not included in the current edition of the hymnal.

At the request of the pastor, I coordinated the compilation of a songbook of congregational favorites. We asked the congregation to submit a list of their favorite hymns, whether they were in the current hymnal, or not. For all the hymns that were no longer in the hymnal, I found the hymns in my collection of old hymnals from a wide variety of denominations, added some of my own favorites, and arranged them into a songbook.

(I think we adequately addressed copyright issues by obtaining a Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) license and acknowledging that most of the older hymns were currently in the public domain.)

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This “Favorites” songbook has become my go-to book for finding an old gospel song that I want to use in a prelude or as a meditative response, regardless of whether I’m playing in a Presbyterian Church, a Lutheran Church, or even at the women’s worship service of the county jail.

When I played the piano regularly for the women’s worship service in the Dane County Jail, we usually sang two hymns, selected by the chaplain. The inmates, whose ages ranged from 20s to 60s, seemed to enjoy singing, regardless of the hymns selected. After the service was over, I kept playing whatever hymns and spirituals popped into my mind while we waited for deputies to come to escort the women out of the chapel and back to their cell blocks. Sometimes, the inmates sang along as I played, and often they requested their favorites to sing. As I recall, the most frequent requests were Amazing Grace, Jesus Loves Me, and How Great Thou Art.

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Dane County Jail – on the upper floors of the City-County Building

It seems that favorite hymns are surprisingly universal. Regardless of our ages and circumstances, many of the same songs speak to our hearts.

So what’s my most favorite hymn of all? That’s too hard a question. Some days, I think my answer would be Great Is Thy Faithfulness. Other days, I’d probably say Just a Closer Walk with Thee, or To God Be the Glory, or We Gather Together, or How Great Thou Art, or Near to the Heart of God. Last Sunday, I think I would have claimed Holy, Holy, Holy as my favorite. Really!

Thanks, Doris! You taught me that even a stately old hymn that’s two and a half centuries old can become one of my favorites. And thanks to you, too, Mary. You have proven that even octogenarians can learn to love brand new hymns!

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Mary and Doris sharing good times.

(Extra picture… Mim asked me why I didn’t use the picture below instead of the picture above to end this post. Picking favorite pictures to illustrate a story is just as hard as choosing favorite hymns! Sometimes, it’s just too hard to choose. So today you get two ending pictures.)

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Doris, Mary, and Abbey talking and laughing while waiting for our sing-along to begin.

The Joy of Being a Piece of the Puzzle

iStock_000017949838XSmallI’m drafting this blog post on Thursday morning. I plan to post it on Tuesday, my usual day for posting to WhisperingWindsBlog.com. I’m writing this post so early because I plan to spend a few days at our Christmas Mountain timeshare, and I want to spend my time reading, walking, and putting together a picture puzzle, not writing. I want to simply relax.

For that past 14 years that Mim and I have been doing assisted living in our home, most of our vacations have been taken separately, so that one of us is almost always at home to be able to care for our residents. We’ve learned that the most enjoyable way for us to take separate vacations is to go to a nearby timeshare, splitting the week between us. This time, I’ll go to Christmas Mountain Sunday afternoon. Mim will meet me for lunch on Wednesday and then I’ll go home, and she’ll stay at Christmas Mountain till Saturday morning.

Putting together a picture puzzle is something that relaxes me, and I often do one at Christmas Mountain. As a child, putting together a puzzle was an activity I often did with my grandma. She always had a card table set up in her living room with a puzzle in progress. We spent many hours together enjoying each other’s company as we worked on this shared task.

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Grandma and me in her living room, playing with her cat. I don’t have a picture of us working on a puzzle.

As I was thinking about which picture puzzle to take with me to Christmas Mountain this time, my mind wandered to an email I received a couple weeks ago from Tracy, a friend from church. Although she didn’t use these exact words, she marveled at how we are all pieces of a big puzzle that God is putting together. We may not know exactly how we fit into the big picture, but God does. Let me provide the background of our email correspondence.

For the past several years, our church (Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison, WI) has published a booklet of Lent Devotionals – 47 one-page reflections, each written by a member of Messiah. Catherine Puisto, Coordinator of Children’s and Family Ministry, has led this annual project, and has done an amazing job with it. Middle schoolers, teenagers, and adults all contribute their writings. Mim and I look forward to getting the booklet each year, and we usually pick up a few extra copies to share with some of our friends.

IMG_0929The devotional for Maundy Thursday, March 24, was written by Tracy Frank. The verse she was assigned to reflect on was Mark 14:34. “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’”

I’ve read the story many times about Jesus going into the garden to pray just before his arrest and crucifixion, and how he asked his disciples to stay awake with him during this agonizing time of trial, and how they fell asleep. But, I’d never thought about the event quite the way Tracy wrote about it. Here’s part of her reflection:

Who is grieving? Are we awake?

In the story of the life of our Savior, Jesus agonizes over His coming death with deep grief and sorrow. He calls on his friends to stay with him and keep awake for he knows what is coming. The disciples, not understanding the depth of his sorrow, fall asleep and cannot be trusted to be there for him. Can you and I be trusted to keep awake for Jesus?

Everyone around us has a story and many people have stories of deep, deep grief. I can’t imagine the grief held by a woman whose 12 year old son was shot dead by police while playing with a toy gun in a park, or the grief of parents running with their children from their home country because of war, or the grief of a mother whose newborn child has a disease with a diagnosis of only months of life. We live among this kind of pain yet sometimes we don’t respond to the calls of God to live fully awake. …

As Christians we are to trust that God can transfigure grief into joy and we are called to offer grace and compassion to those in pain. …

Maundy Thursday, the day I read this reflection, was a day I was scheduled to play the piano for the women’s worship service in the Dane County Jail. During the time of testimony when we go around the circle and share what’s on our mind loosely related to the Scripture we have just read, I shared Tracy’s reflection – that God has asked each of us to be on the watch for others who are grieving or struggling through difficult circumstances so that we can support them in their time of need.

One of the inmates seemed to be particularly teary that day, and everyone seemed very attuned to her, as well as to what I was saying. I later found out from the chaplain that the teary woman had just found out the day before that her brother had been killed, and she was in the depths of grieving that loss. The women sitting in our worship circle could easily identify with being asked by Jesus to sit together in support of this woman who was grieving.

The next day I emailed Tracy to tell her how her reflection had been used. She responded with, “Thank you for sharing Marian. Could have never guessed when I wrote it that it would be shared in this way. Thankful that God used the thoughts from my heart to connect to women at the Dane County Jail through your words and sharing. Humbled!”

Make-the-Puzzle-Pieces-of-Your-Life-Fit

Pieces of God’s puzzle. That’s what came into my mind as I thought about picture puzzles today. We may not have a clue about how we fit into someone else’s life story, but God knows just how we all fit into the big picture.

Yes. I agree with Tracy. It’s very humbling. And sometimes a source of great joy. I’m glad to be a piece of the same puzzle as Tracy, and Catherine, and Chaplain Julia, and Mim, and my grandma, and you, and everyone else who has touched my life…

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Let Me Introduce My Neighbors to You

Marian and kittenWhen I was a little girl growing up on a Wisconsin farm, I thought of four families as being our neighbors: the farmers across the road just west of us – the Henry Henderson family; the farmers who lived on the farm immediately south of us – The Mulcaheys; the farmers just east of us – the Scotts; and Ruth and Merrill Kenseth, a brother and sister who were double cousins of my mom (their moms were sisters and their dads were brothers) – and they lived on the farm across the road north of us. I didn’t really know any of the neighbors very well, except the cousins. Sometimes, on a nice summer evening, I would walk over to the Kenseth farm to play with their barn cats while Merrill was milking the cows, especially when there was a brand new litter of kittens to play with.

I think the main reason I didn’t know the other neighbors very well is that they didn’t go to the same church as we did, and we primarily socialized with the people within our own church. Occasionally, Danny and I would walk down to the Mulcaheys to play with Michael and Margaret, the two kids in their family who were about our ages, but they were Catholics, so we were discouraged from playing with them too much. We grew up thinking of Catholics almost like a different tribe. They didn’t really believe in God quite like we did. They believed in Mary and the pope and saints and who knows what all… We were Methodists and we knew Jesus Christ as our personal savior. Back then we were taught to avoid people who were different from us, even if they were neighbors.

When I went away to college, obviously I had new neighbors. Living in a dorm, I had roommates, who essentially became my on-campus family. My new neighbors were the young women who lived in the rooms adjacent to and across the hall from us. Since I went to a small Christian college, these neighbors were all members of the same “tribe” and we all became friends.

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My dorm at Wheaton College

After college I moved to a small town in Connecticut where I was an English teacher. I rented an apartment in a relatively new apartment complex of about 20 units. I had two kinds of neighbors in the apartment complex – relatively poor families who couldn’t afford to buy a house, and young teachers who were new to the community. Basically, we became two tribes. I had very little contact with the other tribe.

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Our Chicago two-flat. Sidewalks separate us from our neighbors.

After a couple years in Connecticut I moved back to the Midwest, met Mim, and the two of us lived in Chicago together for 20 years. While we lived in Chicago, at first our concept of neighbor was not very different from what my concept of neighbor had been when I was a little girl on the farm. The houses next to us on all four sides were our neighbors, and to varying degrees, we became friends. Further down the block in any direction we didn’t even know the people, with a few rare exceptions – like when we got our first puppy, we got to know the other families on the block who had dogs.

Gradually, after living in Chicago several years, we began to think of the term “neighbor” in a little broader sense. We thought of neighborhoods, and neighboring neighborhoods. For a few years we attended LaSalle Street Church, located between Sandburg Village – an upscale high-rise residential development and Cabrini Green – the most notorious, gang-infested housing project in Chicago. The pastors at LaSalle prompted us to re-think how we should love and care for our neighbors, and just who our neighbors really are.

Back in Cambridge, after 20 years in Chicago, my concept of neighbor continued to evolve. I still thought of my neighbors as the people whose homes (or farms) were adjacent to ours. But then we subdivided the farm. Most of the acreage became new housing – a small apartment complex (The Hamptons), a condominium development (Stone Meadows, where Mim and I now live), and a couple residential subdivisions (Winterberry and Summer Prairie). Would all these new housing units, over 100, shelter a whole new community of neighbors for us? Mim and I tried to start out being neighborly by bringing homemade cookies or bread as a welcome gift to each new neighbor as they moved into their home. We kept that up for about the first half-dozen or so neighbors, then we stopped. I guess I need to think a little harder about just who my neighbor is, and how I should treat them…

Stone Meadows

This is where we live now. Our condo is on the right.

So why am I thinking so much about neighbors today?

Sheriff Mahoney

Sheriff Mahoney

A week and a half ago I went to the annual meeting of the Jail Ministry. Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney was a special guest at this meeting, and he gave a short talk about the needs of inmates. Sheriff Mahoney said that his biggest hope is that the people of Dane County would stop thinking of jail inmates as violent criminals getting exactly what they deserve by being incarcerated, but rather think of jail inmates as their neighbors. He said that 80% of the inmates are in jail for crimes related to their addiction to drugs or alcohol. They need healing, not punishment. Mahoney said that in his 35 years of law enforcement experience, he has not known even one inmate that was rehabilitated just by being kept in a cage for a while. For all inmates who have been successfully rehabilitated, they succeeded because they were in an environment that provided the resources that enabled them to heal. The chaplains and volunteers of the Jail Ministry are an important part of those resources – people who care, who listen, and who try to help the healing process.

Mahoney closed his remarks by coming back to his biggest hope – that we all start thinking of inmates as our neighbors.

The dictionary defines neighbor in geographic terms – “a person living near another.” [www.merriam-webster.com] But the Bible broadens the definition of neighbor significantly, as this New Testament incident illustrates.

Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?”

He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”

He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.”

“Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”

Looking for a loophole, he asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

Good Samaritan sketchJesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.

“A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’

“What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”

“The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.

Jesus said, “Go and do the same.” [Luke 10:25-37 The Message]

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Dulce Maria is the little girl on the left.

According to Jesus, it’s very important for me to love my neighbor, almost as important as it is for me to love God. In order for me to love my neighbor, I need to understand who my neighbor is, and Jesus makes it pretty clear that it’s not just the people living in the houses adjacent to my house. I think Jesus would agree with Sheriff Mahoney, that the inmates of the Dane County Jail are my neighbors. But that’s not all. Immigrants from Mexico and the Near East and actually all over the world are my neighbors, too. Dulce Maria, the little girl in Honduras that Mim and I sponsor, is our neighbor. Homeless people in Cambridge and Madison are our neighbors. Anyone who needs someone to listen and care and help. Anyone who needs to see God’s love in action in their life. These are my neighbors.

I guess I have more neighbors than I thought.