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“This Little Light of Mine” and a Home Town Protest

Well, it happened again. I turned up too much information, and I need to share it somewhere. It’s too much for the book I’m writing, so I guess it needs to go into another blog post, just like the last time this happened, when I wrote about “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” This time the song is “This Little Light of Mine.”

I’m still spending most of my days working on my newest book, Talking with God through Music: Seasonal Hymns. So far I’ve written hymn reflections on 12 hymns for Advent, 21 for Christmas, and 9 for Epiphany. “This Little Light of Mine” is my last song for Epiphany. Then I can move on to Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. Eventually I’ll get to the patriotic hymns of summer, hopefully while it’s still summer. My goal is to complete the book before the end of the year, and to have written reflections on about 100 seasonal hymns.

But as I said above, I learned a lot about “This Little Light of Mine,” and I want to tell you about it.

According to the National Public Radio (NPR) series, “National Anthem,” produced in 2018, 

Fans know “This Little Light of Mine” as a beloved children’s tune, recognized around the world. But it’s also a spiritual, which was transformed by the nation’s civil rights movement into an anthem of singular power.

In the 1960s, during demonstrations for civil rights, the singing of “This Little Light of Mine” helped to steady the nerves of protestors while angry police officers threatened to beat them up. Freedom singer Rutha Mae Harris recalled, “Music was an anchor. It kept us from being afraid. ‘Everywhere I go, Lord, I’m gonna let it shine…’”

Fifty years later, in 2017, the song was still having the same impact. Reverend Osagyefo Sekou used “This Little Light of Mine” to defuse tensions during a counter-protest before a crowd of white supremacists and alt-right supporters gathered for the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“We had originally said we were going to stand silently,” says Rev. Sekou, a recording artist, author, theologian and activist who helped train volunteers at the counter-protest. “But the Nazis were marching past us in these various battalions, cursing and yelling – mostly homophobic slurs – at us. And you could feel the energy of the people who weren’t with us… [They] were getting amped up.” 

Sekou says he knew, in that moment, he had to change the atmosphere. “I know song can do that. So I just broke into ‘This Little Light of Mine.’”

In a moment captured on video, the clergy and volunteers … are shown standing in a line, their voices rising over the chants of “You will not replace us” from the rally crowd. “The tensions went down … and it shook the Nazis,” Sekou says. “They didn’t know what to do with all that joy. We weren’t going to let the darkness have the last word.”

There’s another story about another movement for justice and the role “This Little Light of Mine” played. This story is from “Sojourners” magazine, December 13, 2013. 

Two years before Occupy Wall Street demanded economic reform at the national level, … hundreds of protestors marched on Bank of America and Wachovia in the fall of 2009. In the midst of the subprime mortgage crisis, with people facing ballooning interest rates and foreclosures on their homes, organizers delivered a theological statement against what they called “usury” – the Old Testament sin of collecting interest from the poor. 

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!” sang 70 customers inside the cavernous lobby at BOA headquarters. “Even in my bank, I’m gonna let it shine!” they sang, marching seven times along the gleaming glass and polished marble walls…. 

The writer of this Sojourners’ article ended the story saying,

I hadn’t known this little light might shine through simple acts of justice: sitting on a bus, ordering coffee at a lunch counter, or transferring your money to a credit union built for people, not profits. I didn’t know all these little flames, brought together in a simple Sunday School song reverberating around an office building, could enflesh the presence of God, even if they weren’t hot enough or bright enough to right the wrongs, nor turn oppression into justice nor usher in the kingdom of God. I didn’t know it could be enough just to catch a glimpse of that kingdom, wherever two or three were gathered in Christ’s name….  I didn’t know this little light might actually free people, here on earth, not completely, but at least give them a bit more freedom from things like debt, or hunger, or poverty, or violence, or loneliness…. 

 

And then there’s a story I personally experienced just a couple weeks ago. But we didn’t sing “This Little Light of Mine.” About a hundred people gathered at Veterans Park in downtown Cambridge, Wisconsin, population less than 2,000, to support the Black Lives Matter movement. According to the 2010 census, the population of Cambridge is 96.8% White, 0.9% African American, and 1.7% Latino. We’re a typical small town of the Midwest. And although racial injustice doesn’t touch us very directly in our everyday lives, we do recognize injustice when we see it, and at least a hundred of us, probably many more, want to do what we can to bring about justice. What we did in the park that evening was listen to a couple speakers, hold “Black Lives Matter” signs, meet some of our neighbors who share our same concerns for justice, stand together in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and pray together, led by one of our local pastors. 

If we hold another demonstration in the future, I hope we sing “This Little Light of Mine” as so many other freedom protesters have done in the past. Why do I care so much about singing this song?

Although most people know “This Little Light of Mine” as a Sunday School song or as a Freedom song for peaceful protests, it is definitely a song that belongs in the Epiphany chapter of my book, as well. The word “epiphany” means “appearance or manifestation.” Epiphany as a church holiday refers to January 6, the twelfth day of Christmas, and it commemorates the Wise Men finding the Christ Child and bringing him gifts. This is considered the first manifestation of Christ to Gentiles. Probably the most well-known Epiphany carol is “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” 

But the Epiphany season is about much more than the Wise Men’s journey to find Jesus. It’s about other ways God has given us an “epiphany” – an “aha!” moment – about the nature of God and our relationship to God’s world. A common theme of Epiphany is light. It is with light, that truth is revealed to us. That’s why we sing “Jesus, the Light of the World,” another Epiphany carol. And Jesus told his disciples to be the light of the world, as well. “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lamp stand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16, New King James Version

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!  [sing 3 times]
Let it shine!   [sing 3 times]

Shine all over Cambridge, I’m gonna let it shine! [sing 3 times]
Let it shine! [sing 3 times]

That’s the song. Regardless of who is singing it, and for whatever purpose, the first verse is always the same. The simple pattern of the first verse can easily be filled in with new words to fit any justice issue – to shed a light on whatever injustice needs to be illuminated – racial injustice, economic injustice, gender injustice, and so on.

As the writer of the Sojourner’s article explained,

I hadn’t known this little light might shine through simple acts of justice… I didn’t know all these little flames, brought together in a simple Sunday School song … could enflesh the presence of God…

“It Came upon the Midnight Clear”

I’m having the time of my life during this “Safer at Home” interlude in our lives. I average about eight hours a day on writing my newest book, Talking with God through Music: Seasonal Hymns. I’ve written a dozen reflections on Advent carols, and thirteen reflections on Christmas carols, with eight more to go. Then there are ten more to write for Epiphany before I can move on to Lent and Easter. Eventually, I’ll get through the whole year of seasonal music. Meanwhile, I’m reliving Christmas these days. 

After I research and write each reflection for the book, I give it to Mim for feedback to be sure the text flows well enough to make sense to her. Yesterday I finished writing about “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” and gave it to Mim to read. She approved. But then I told her about my frustration of having to leave out so much information that I had gathered. I didn’t have room to include it all if I wanted to stick to the format of having just one page for each reflection. When I told her about all the interesting facts I was leaving out, she said, “Why don’t you write a blog post about it so you can include everything you want.” So that’s what this is – my extended reflection on the Christmas Carol, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” 

As we’re experiencing a colder than usual spring these days, imagine yourself back in the Christmas season, singing the carol, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.”

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Tune Name:   CAROL
Composer:      Richard Storrs Willis 
(1819-1900) American composer and organist.
Author:            Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876) Unitarian minister.
Scripture:        Luke 2:13-14  
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.

 

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Edmund Sears grew up on a farm in western Massachusetts, near the Berkshire Mountains. He once told a friend that as a child he imagined that the hilltops touched heaven and that angels rested on the hilltops between heaven and earth on their errands for God. 

His parents taught him and his two brothers the importance of moral values, and they encouraged them to study – once the farm work was done. He graduated from Union College in New York, and worked briefly as a lawyer and a teacher, but soon went to Harvard Divinity School to become a Unitarian minister, graduating in 1837, at age 27. 

The American Unitarian Association supported his work as a missionary in the frontier area around Toledo, Ohio for about a year. Then he returned to Massachusetts, where he accepted a position as pastor of a small Unitarian church in the town of Wayland. Meanwhile, he got married, and by the time his family grew to include four children, he realized he needed a larger church that could support his whole family. He accepted a call to a church in Lancaster, Massachusetts and served there for seven years. 

The mid-1800s were stressful times in the United States. Americans were dealing with the affects of the Industrial Revolution, the Mexican-American War, the California Gold Rush, and the issue of slavery. The social disruption resulting from all these factors put a lot of pressure on Sears as the pastor of a large congregation, where he was trying to provide both leadership and personal support to the members. Sears had a breakdown and retreated back to the small town of Wayland to recover. 

While recovering, Sears wrote the poem “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” This poem is focused on two ideas: first, the angels that appeared on the night of Christ’s birth to announce, “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men!” and second, the dismal condition of the world in his day (and still today as we sing the song). The third stanza (often omitted from today’s hymnals) emphasizes the “woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long.” The last stanza reassures us that the time of peace will come eventually as the prophets foretold. 

This carol has been controversial throughout its history. It may be the only Christmas carol that doesn’t even mention the birth of Christ. Since Sears was known to be a Unitarian, many religious conservatives claimed this carol proved his lack of belief that Christ is truly divine, and therefore the hymn should be removed from hymnals. Other churches rewrote parts of the carol to bring the birth of Christ into it. Because this hymn focused on the awful conditions on earth to contrast the angels’ message of “Peace on Earth,” this hymn is often considered one of the earliest hymns of the social gospel movement.

A year after writing this poem, Sears had recovered enough to accept a call back to the small church in Wayland to serve again as their part-time pastor. He also went back to writing extensively. He was quite outspoken about equal rights for men and women, and for the abolition of slavery. After the Fugitive Slave Law was passed, Sears declared from the pulpit that “when the human and Divine law were in conflict it was the duty of all to obey the latter.” In 1856, Sears preached a sermon entitled “Discourse” in which he not only condemned slavery as evil, but he directly condemned slave owners, as well. The sermon was considered such a strong argument against slavery that the Massachusetts Abolitionists printed it as a pamphlet to be widely distributed.

How the music for “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” became associated with the text is a mystery. Shortly after the poem was written, Richard Storrs Willis composed a musical exercise, “Study No. 23” in his “Church Chorals and Choir Studies.” Willis later wrote in a letter to a friend, “On my return from Europe in [1876], I found that it (the tune) had been incorporated into various church collections apparently to Edmund Sears’ text.” No one knows who is responsible, or in what circumstances, the poem and the tune were joined together. However, the pairing has lasted for more than a hundred years, and it has become one of our favorite Christmas carols.

Imagine a choir of angels resting on the hilltops of the Berkshires as they return to heaven after their appearance on Earth for Christ’s birth. Perhaps with that image in mind, Sears wrote “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” As he pondered the angels’ message, and thought about all the anguish we’re still suffering down here, he wrote five stanzas. One of the most relevant stanzas to us today is seldom sung:

But with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
Beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
And we, at war with earth, hear not the tidings, which they bring:
O hush the noise, and cease the strife, and hear the angels sing!

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Ready or not, it’s here!

fullsizeoutput_2b98HYMNS OF PEACE AND COMFORT is published! This is the first full-length book in the series of books I’m writing about selected hymns and how they help us talk with God – Talking with God through Music. This book includes reflections on 51 hymns based on the theme of peace and comfort. For each hymn, the melody line and verses are shown, followed by the basic facts of the hymn – who wrote the words, what scripture the text relates to, who composed the music, and the name of the tune. The selection ends with some kind of story. It may be what prompted the author to write the hymn. Or, what impact the hymn has had on individuals or globally. Or what experience I have had with the hymn personally.

My original vision for this book was for it to be about 100 of my favorite hymns. When I started to select the hymns to include, I narrowed my list down to about 300 hymns. Oops! That’s too big for a manageable book. With a 2-page spread for each hymn, plus a few extra pages thrown in to organize the hymns into meaningful sections, I would have a 600 – 700 page book. Very few people like to pick up that big a book to read, myself included. So, I decided to develop a series of books, with each book focused on a particular theme. In 2018, the year I started writing this book, my word for the year was Peace. (Each year, instead of making any New Year’s resolutions, I choose one word to be my focus for the year.) Since I was already thinking about Peace, I decided to have this book include hymns of Peace and Comfort.

fullsizeoutput_22b8To be sure my vision for this series of books would speak to others as well as me, I developed a prototype – TALKING WITH GOD THROUGH MUSIC: Reflections on My Favorite Psalm-Based Hymns. The prototype was a short book that I published to get feedback from its readers on the concept of the book, and to get readers’ suggestions on how to make the new books in the series most meaningful for them. I appreciated all the comments I received, and incorporated as many of the suggestions as I could.

At this point, my plan is for the next book in the series to be the hymns of church holidays, which will be mostly the carols of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, and the hymns of Easter.

Now for the title of this blog post – “Ready or not, it’s here.” The books have arrived. If you would like to buy one (or more, possibly for Christmas presents), we need to go back to early 20th century technology. If you would like to buy Hymns of Peace and Comfort, let me know how many books you want and what your mailing address is. You can reach me by:

  • Email MarianKorth@gmail.com, or
  • Call 608-212-6197, or
  • Write Marian Korth, 112 Waverly Dr, Cambridge, WI 53523

The books are $10 each (tax included), plus shipping; or two books for $15, plus shipping. I will send the book(s) along with an invoice. You can mail your payment by check or cash to me after you receive the book(s) and invoice.

I had hoped to set up PayPal on my blog to enable payment by credit card, but after spending a couple hours trying to figure out the integration of WordPress and PayPal, I decided to go back to baking Christmas cookies instead. I hope to have the capability added to my blog by the time my next book is ready, hopefully in about ten months. 

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a PEACEFUL New Year!

2011 Christmas Cookies at farm

I take Christmas baking very seriously!

My Sister Nancy

Nancy-Clark 2 adjToday, November 14, would have been my sister Nancy’s 82nd birthday. She died eleven years ago, just a few days after her 71st birthday. (My age now.) I was alone at our Christmas Mountain timeshare when she died unexpectedly. Mim called me with the shocking and sad news. I spent the rest of my retreat time at Christmas Mountain that week paging through a hymnal and playing all of Nancy’s favorite hymns on my portable keyboard.

I’m at Christmas Mountain again this year on November 14, finishing up the next book in my “Talking with God through Music” series, Hymns of Peace and Comfort. A lot of the hymns I’ve written about in this new book are the same hymns I played eleven years ago, as I was seeking comfort from God while I absorbed what it meant to lose a  sister. Music is truly a gift of God.

Nancy was almost like a second mom to me. She was eleven years older, so I saw her more as an adult than as a kid to play with. She was a big sister I was really proud of. She was smart (salutatorian of her high school class), musically talented (played piano, organ, and trombone), very Christian (she read her Bible and prayed every morning before getting out of bed), and she was always kind and loving to others. 

To say she had an influence on me is an understatement. I like to say that I was smarter than she was (I was valedictorian of my high school class), but she beat me in everything else. I learned to play piano and organ like her, but my arms were too short to play a trombone. When I learned to read, Nancy subscribed to a children’s daily devotional magazine for me to encourage me to read the Bible and pray every morning. I got in the habit, but I’m sure I missed more mornings than Nancy did. I have always tried to follow her example of being kind and loving to others. She was a really good role model for me.

Today is a good day to remember Nancy, and to thank God for all the wonderful people God has allowed me to spend time with in my life.

Nancy-Danny-Marian as kids - cropped

Me and my siblings – Danny, Nancy, and me

Is It Over Yet?

Thanksgiving. Is it over yet? There are two parts to the word. THANKS: I think we did that last Thursday. And today is GIVING Tuesday. So we’re finishing up with THANKS-GIVING today. Good. It’s not over yet. I still have time to blog about “Thanksgiving.” 

I spent the first and third weeks of November this year at our Christmas Mountain timeshare to avoid distractions and concentrate on writing. I’m working on my next book of hymn reflections. I’ve chosen to write reflections on hymns related to four themes for this book: PEACE (my special word for 2018), WALKING WITH GOD, GOD’s FAMILY, and PRAYER. So far, I’ve completed the first two sections and I’m in the middle of the third section now. 

Some of the hymns about being a part of God’s family are commonly sung around Thanksgiving. One of the reflections I wrote this month is for “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” Since Thanksgiving isn’t really over yet, I thought I’d share my thoughts on this hymn as a Thanksgiving blog post. Then I’ll go online to make special donations to a couple of my favorite charities – New Moms and Casita Copan. HAPPY GIVING TUESDAY!

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TUNE:  ST. GEORGE’S WINDSOR
COMPOSER:  George J. Elvey 
(1816-1893) English organist and prolific composer of church music.
AUTHOR:  Henry Alford (1810-1871) Anglican priest, highly esteemed Greek scholar, and hymn writer.
SCRIPTURE:  Mark 4:26-29 Parable of the Seed; Matthew 13:24-43 Parable of the wheat and tares

“THE LODGING PLACE of a traveler on his way to Jerusalem” is the English translation of the Latin inscription on the tomb of Henry Alford, the author of this hymn. He followed in a long line of Anglican clergymen in his family – five generations of them. He was a precocious child. Before he reached the age of ten he had written several poems in Latin, as well as the history of the Jews, and a series of outlines for theologically sound sermons. He became a noted preacher and scholar. His most significant work was an 8-volume compilation and commentary, “The New Testament in Greek.” His hymns and poems are considered his lesser contributions, and many critics considered them an unfortunate distraction from his more scholarly endeavors.

His most famous hymn is “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” He wrote it for “Harvest Home,” a fall festival in England comparable to our Thanksgiving in America. The first verse of the hymn thanks God for another successful harvest. But then the hymn changes its focus to the harvest imagery Jesus used in two of his parables – the seed that grows into a fruitful plant and the parable of the weeds (tares) that grow in the field along with the wheat. By the last stanza, “harvest” refers to the final days of the earth.

In addition to the history and meaning of this hymn, I have a significant personal association with it. When I was 15, my grandmother died on the Sunday afternoon before Thanksgiving. My piano teacher teacher (our church organist) had been working with me for weeks to prepare me to play a fancy arrangement of “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” for the offertory for that Sunday evening church service. That Sunday afternoon, I knew I had to stop thinking about my grandma’s death. I had to stop crying, get myself ready for church, and go play “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” Our neighbor lady, a retired missionary, was the guest preacher for that evening. She sat next to me in church when she wasn’t at the pulpit. She even gave me her handkerchief. (I guess I ran out of Kleenex.) Once I started playing the offertory, I could focus on being thankful to God – not so much for the harvest, but for all these friends in church who cared about me and my family, the “family of God.”

Now whenever I hear or play this hymn, I think about being thankful to God for all the blessings we receive – good friends as well as good harvests.

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Multi-Purpose Melodies

fullsizeoutput_2003When I was in eighth grade, our English teacher gave us the assignment to celebrate National Library Week by writing a poem about books. In general, I was a good student, and I liked to write. But I didn’t (and still don’t) like to write poetry. I complained to my mom about the stupid assignment, and she told me about a trick for writing poetry. She said, “Just make up new words to a song you like. It will turn out to be a poem.” She said the song that always worked best for her was the Stephen Foster song “Oh, Susanna.” I decided to try it, using that song. I remember I started the song with, “I went downtown the other night to get myself a book…” I think I wrote half a dozen stanzas, the teacher loved it, and I got an A. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I don’t remember the rest of the poem.

I’ve thought about that poetry-writing experience periodically throughout my life. I’m sure my mom and I aren’t the only people who know about that trick for writing a poem – or a hymn. A lot of contemporary hymn writers seem to use it, although I don’t think they use “Oh, Susanna.” A lot of them use the hymn tune called BEACH SPRING. I’m not particularly fond of the tune, although it’s okay. It’s not hard to sing. It’s just not all that pretty, in my opinion. But it must be a good tune for fitting lyrics to. One of my favorite hymns that uses this tune is “Come and Find the Quiet Center,” a hymn by Shirley Erena Murray of New Zealand. Here’s the first verse of the hymn:

Come and find the quiet center
in the crowded life we lead,
find the room for hope to enter,
find the frame where we are freed;
Clear the chaos and the clutter,
clear our eyes that we can see
all the things that really matter,
be at peace, and simply be.

Another contemporary hymn writer that has used this tune is Ruth Duck, an American theologian. Here’s the first verse of a hymn she wrote for this tune:

As a fire is meant for burning
with a bright and warming flame,
so the church is meant for mission,
giving glory to God’s name.
Not to preach our creeds or customs,
but to build a bridge of care,
we join hands across the nations,
finding neighbors everywhere.

The reason I’m thinking about “multi-purpose melodies” this week is that last weekend (Labor Day) we sang a relatively new hymn in church, one that uses one of my favorite melodies. The tune is FINLANDIA, composed in 1899 by Jean Sibelius. As a hymn tune, it is most commonly associated with “Be Still My Soul.” The hymn we sang this weekend was “This Is My Song,” a different kind of patriotic song. Verses 1 and 2 were written by American song writer Lloyd Stone. Verse 3 was written by another theologian, Georgia Harkness.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
So hear my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

This is my prayer, O God of all earth’s kingdoms,
your kingdom come; on earth your will be done.
O God, be lifted up till all shall serve you,
and hearts united learn to live as one.
So hear my prayer, O God of all the nations;
myself I give you; let your will be done.

As I was preparing the music for church this weekend, I was reminded of another new hymn written to this tune, “When Memory Fades” by Mary Louise Bringle. Basically it’s a hymn about aging and Alzheimer’s Disease, and where God fits into this picture. Here’s the first verse:

When memory fades, and recognition falters,
when eyes we love grow dim, and minds confused,
speak to our souls of love that never alters;
speak to our hearts, by pain and fear abused.
O God of life and healing peace, empower us
with patient courage, by your grace infused.

I love all three of these hymns – Be Still My Soul, This Is My Song, and When Memory Fades – and this tune is the perfect complement to the message of each one. As I was looking for a piano arrangement of FINLANDIA to play for the offertory to subtly remind people of the opening hymn we had sung, I came across an arrangement by Anne Krentz Organ, currently the music director of a church in Chicago.  The arrangement begins with a bold phrase from FINLANDIA, which is followed by soft and tender phrase from “Jesus Loves Me.” The arrangement moves back and forth between the two hymns, phrase by phrase. Although a piano arrangement has no words, the juxtaposition of musical phrases from these hymns emphasizes the point that Jesus cares about me and loves me always – whether I’m praying to God to “still my soul,” or praying to the “God of all earth’s kingdoms” for peace, or praying for comfort “when memory fades.” God is always near – “Jesus loves me.”

I’m not sure exactly what God created when She created music, but I’m sure glad She shared the same trick with many hymn writers that my mom shared with me – that melodies are multi-purpose, and that using a tune is a great way to write a poem, or a hymn.

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Peace – Let It Begin with Me

Floe-Marian faces 2015“Hey, Mom.” My dog Floey came ambling over to me as I sat at my desk.

“Good morning, Floey. What’s up?” I replied.

“I just saw on TV that it’s supposed to be as hot and humid today as it was yesterday. Do we have to go on any long walks today? I’d rather stay inside where it’s nice and cool.”

“I agree with you, Floey. Maybe we can run up and down the stairs a few extra times for exercise. You let me know when you need to go outside to do your business, and the rest of the time we’ll stay inside.”

“Great plan, Mom! What do you want to do while we’re inside today?”

“I think I’ll get back to writing my next book. It’s coming along pretty well. I’ve completed the first draft of the first couple chapters, and now I’m working on the third chapter.”

“Is this book going to be just like your last one, TALKING WITH GOD THROUGH MUSIC: Reflections on My Favorite Psalm-Based Hymns?”

“It’s very similar in style. I’ve made a few structural changes based the on feedback I got on that book, but it’s the same concept – choosing a favorite hymn and reflecting on its history and meaning. The first chapter includes 16 hymns about peace – hymns like Dona Nobis Pacem, Let There Be Peace on Earth, Peace in the Valley, Peace Like a River, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, Make Me a Channel of Your Peace, and lots more.”

“That’s an interesting mix of peace hymns, Mom. One of my favorite hymns is Let There Be Peace on Earth. Can you read me what you wrote about that one?”

 

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TUNE: WORLD PEACE
COMPOSER: Sy Miller (1908-1971)
AUTHOR: Jill Jackson Miller (1913-1995)
SCRIPTURE: Romans 12:18 (NRSV)
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

THE HUSBAND AND WIFE TEAM of Sy (Seymour) Miller and Jill Jackson Miller collaborated to write many songs together. In 1955 they wrote “Let there Be Peace on Earth” for a very specific purpose. They wrote it to be sung at a week-long retreat for young people who had come from very different religious, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. 

Sy Miller described the effect of the song this way. “One summer evening in 1955, a group of 180 teenagers of all races and religions, meeting at a workshop high in the California mountains locked arms, formed a circle and sang a song of peace. They felt that singing the song, with its simple basic sentiment – ‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me’ – helped to create a climate for world peace and understanding.”

When the retreat was over, the kids took the song home with them, and it quickly spread throughout all 50 states, and then internationally.

The author of the song, Jill Jackson Miller, had lived a life of many challenges. Her mother died when Jill was only three years old. By the time she was 12 she and her sister were placed in a foster home. One of her two brothers died from an accident with fireworks. 

Jill’s life dream was to become a movie actress. After two years of junior college, she moved to Hollywood. She starred as the heroine in several westerns. In 1940 she married Felix Jackson, a German writer and director, and she gave up her movie career at his request. 

They had two daughters. They divorced in 1944, which led to Jill attempting suicide. During her recovery she developed a strong belief in God and felt inspired to become a writer. In 1949 she married Sy Miller, and he convinced her to write songs with him – she wrote the lyrics and he wrote the music. After they wrote “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” the quest for world peace became her life focus. She traveled widely to speak about the power of each person to help create peace. She encouraged people to keep searching for their meaning, their inspiration, their true beliefs, and to forgive themselves and others for mistakes made along the way.

——————-

“Hey, Mom. If what you said is true, that song was written 63 years ago. Do you think the world is more peaceful now than it was in 1955?” 

Danny and Marian in haybarn - brown“That’s a good question, Floey. In 1955, I was seven years old. My fiercest enemy was also my best friend – my 9-year-old brother Danny. I wasn’t very aware of international politics back then. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president – that’s all I remember.” 

“Didn’t you watch TV way back then?” 

“Yes, we did, but there weren’t any round-the-clock politics channels back in those days. We watched comedies like “I Love Lucy.” We spent our time together laughing, not arguing.” 

“How about racial discord?” Floey asked.

“The only non-white kids in my school were Robert and his sister Sandra. Robert was in my class and was a good friend. Sometimes he shared his candy with me. I especially liked it when he gave me a whole envelope of lime Lik-m-maid. We drifted apart over the years, and the last I heard, about twenty years ago, he was in prison somewhere.” 

“That’s kind of sad, Mom.” 

“Yeah, it is, Floey. Peace can be very elusive – on a personal level as well as community-wide and globally. But the message of this song still holds – “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” 

“How’s that, Mom?” 

“Do you know what day it is today, Floey?” 

“It’s Tuesday, August 14, 2018. Is there anything special about today?” 

“Yes, there is, Floey. In Wisconsin and a few other states it’s voting day for primary elections. I’m going to ignore the oppressive heat and go out and vote. That’s one little thing I can do to help us all move toward peace on earth.” 

“Good for you, Mom! I wish I could vote, too. Maybe I should begin a fight for the right to vote for dogs (but not cats – they don’t have the intellectual capacity that we dogs have).”  

“Now, Floey, if you really want peace on earth, you’ll fight just as hard for the right for cats to vote as for dogs. When you accept the universal right to vote as your cause, you’ll have taken the first really big step toward peace.” 

“Maybe, you’re right, Mom.”

“Floey, let’s try to find a shady block or two, and walk down the street together. Maybe we can even sing all the words of Let There Be Peace on Earth.  

Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth, the peace that was meant to be.
With God our creator, children all are we.
Let us walk with each other in perfect harmony.
Let peace begin with me; let this be the moment now.
With every step I take, let this be my solemn vow;
to take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally.
Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

The Little Books Are Here!

9b9cc55960ea3611d835b85b118f3ac4When I was a freshman in high school I went to a national convention in Washington D.C. sponsored by Youth For Christ (YFC). If I remember correctly, there were 10,000 high school kids from all over the country at this convention. The main speaker was Billy Graham. I had heard him speak before in Chicago, and I heard him speak again several times later. He was even our commencement speaker when I graduated from Wheaton College. But the one thing I remember most vividly from all the times I’ve heard Graham speak was at that YFC convention in Washington. He said that one of the most important things in his Christian life was spending time reading the Bible. Specifically, he said he read five Psalms and one Proverb every day, month after month, year after year. The Psalms helped him learn how to communicate with God, and the Proverbs helped him learn how to get along with people.

I remember I tried reading the Psalms and Proverbs every day for a few weeks after I heard him say that, but no magic lights went on. I didn’t quite understand what the Psalms and Proverbs really meant for me in my life as a high school student back in the 1960s. There are a few Psalms that I like reading, like Psalm 23 and Psalm 100. And there are a few verses that stand out, like:

Psalm 19:1 – The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork.

Psalm 46:10 – Be still and know that I am God.

Psalm 51:10 – Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

But in general, I haven’t bothered reading either the Psalms or Proverbs very much in the 55 years since the day I heard Graham commend them so highly. That is, until I started working on my current writing project –  TALKING WITH GOD THROUGH MUSIC, a book of reflections on some of my favorite hymns.

As I started to organize my thoughts for this project, I made a list of over 300 of my favorite hymns, and then I started to do research into the historical background of each hymn and the Biblical references within each hymn. I was quite surprised to discover how prominent the Psalms were in what I was learning. I decided to make the first section of my writing project include only hymns that are based on scriptural references from the Psalms. I selected 31 of my favorite Psalm-based hymns for this section.

My original concept for this writing project was to write a 365-day devotional, with a 2-page spread for each hymn, with the first page being factual information and my reflections on the hymn and the second page being the melody line and lyrics. The 31 Psalm-based hymns would be the hymns for January. It has since dawned on me that a 730-page book is a bigger project than I want to undertake. My current vision for this project is to include 101 of my favorite hymns, with reflections on about 10 hymns for each of about 10 different themes – like peace, joy, comfort, etc. A book that’s a little over 200 pages will be much more manageable to write, and even to hold as you read it.

fullsizeoutput_22baAs I mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve decided to publish my 31 Psalm-based hymns as a separate book, a 68-page prototype of what my 101 favorite hymns book will look like. That spin-off project is now completed. If you would like a FREE copy of this little book, please send me your mailing address, and I’ll be happy to send you one. After you have had a chance to look at the prototype, I would appreciate your sending me any suggestions you may have for how to make the next book better. The last page of the book provides details on how to send feedback.

Meanwhile, an unexpected personal benefit to me of this writing project is that I think I understand a little more of what Billy Graham meant 55 years ago when he talked about the importance of reading the Psalms for learning how to communicate more deeply with God. I’ve gone back to looking at the Psalms again – both in the Bible and in hymnals. Maybe, you will find that reading TALKING WITH GOD THROUGH MUSIC: Reflections on My Favorite Psalm-Based Hymns will provide you with a similar unexpected benefit.

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Dementia, Music, and Talking with God

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Last Thursday Mim and I took a day-trip to Lake Geneva for Rainbow Hospice Care’s 14th annual “End-of Life Conference.” The theme this year was “A Focus on Dementia.” The whole conference was excellent! This is what continuing education is like for people in our business – assisted living.

The morning keynote speaker was Teepa Snow who helped us understand the functional limitations of individuals in each of the seven stages of dementia. She taught us how we can be most helpful when we try to provide care for residents in these stages, as well as how to care for their family members. As Teepa’s speaking and actions evolved into the typical behavior of a person in each stage of dementia, a lightbulb went on in our minds. So that’s why… Now I understand… Behaviors of many past residents came to mind.

The closing keynote speaker was Jolene Brackey, the author of Creating Moments of Joy. Throughout the past 15 years that Mim and I have been doing assisted living in our home, we have given away many copies of her book. The majority of people we have cared for have had some degree of dementia, and this book provides practical examples of how to provide “moments of joy” for these individuals. We’ve made the book required reading for anyone who works with us, and we routinely give the book to the families of our residents with dementia.

fullsizeoutput_22a6Jolene Brackey didn’t disappoint us as a speaker. At the end of a long day of learning for all of us at the conference, she provided us moments of joy as she told us stories and gave us practical examples for sharing joy freely with our residents.

One of the afternoon Breakout Sessions that I found particularly interesting was “Music and Memory.” From my own experience, I’ve known that music still communicates with many people who have very advanced dementia. I used to play the piano monthly for a senior respite organization in a nearby town. One of their clients was a man in his 50s who had early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. He would sit in the group all day long without saying a word. But when it came time for the sing-along, he would join in and sing enthusiastically, remembering all the words of the golden oldies and hymns I played for them.

fullsizeoutput_22a8The “Music and Memory” Breakout Session was an update on the progress of a non-profit organization called “Music & Memory.” The vision of “Music & Memory” is to provide the means for caregiving organizations to give an iPod with a personalized playlist for each person in their care. The playlist includes the favorite songs of each individual, often the popular hits of their high school years. Research has shown that people, even in the advanced stages of dementia, exhibit signs of happiness when they are listening to their favorite music.

In this session, we were asked to pair up with another session participant to learn about their favorite music – something we would need to do with a resident or their family if we were to try to create a personalized playlist. My partner was a college student, whose favorite music type is heavy metal, and whose favorite band is Metallica. In contrast, I’m nearly 70 and my favorite music type is sacred piano, and one of my favorite performers is Steve Hall. Our music vocabularies had almost no overlap. If I had to prepare a playlist of her favorites, I would really struggle. But I enjoyed talking with her and learning a little about heavy metal music. I now have a little better understanding of the incredible breadth of music that can speak to our souls.

Thinking about the power of music is something I’ve been doing for several months. As you may know from previous blog posts, I’m writing a book with the current working title of Talking with God through Music. I’ve actually been working on this book for over a year. Originally I intended it to be a daily devotional with personal reflections on 365 of my favorite hymns. I started writing the book in late 2016, and I started the project by writing reflections on hymns of thanksgiving. Then I worked on Christmas Carols. The more I wrote, and the more I organized my favorite hymns into different categories to figure out where in the year they should be placed in the book, I decided it made sense to start the book with a month’s worth of hymns based on Psalms – the hymn book of the Bible. I finished writing the Psalm section of my book the last time I was at our Christmas Mountain timeshare, a few weeks ago.

Now that I’ve written 31 reflections on Psalm-based hymns, I’ve decided to publish this collection of hymns and reflections as a separate book, Talking with God through Music: Reflections on My Favorite Psalm-Based Hymns. My plan is to use this 68-page book as a prototype for the larger book. I experimented with a lot of new things in writing this book, and I want to find out if all my extra homework is worth the effort. I did quite a bit of research into each hymn to be able to provide information about the author, the composer, and the historical context, along with my personal reasons for choosing the hymn as one of my favorites. I also learned to use music-writing software to create a melody line for each hymn so that readers can actually see the music and lyrics next to my paragraphs to help them remember what the hymn sounds like – to be able to sing it in their mind or even out loud.

I hope that readers will give me feedback on the prototype that will help me tweak the style and format for the larger book. My goal for the final book is to help readers discover how music, hymns in particular, can enrich their ability to talk with God. Music is the language of the soul. As St. Augustine said more than 1500 years ago, “Whoever sings prays twice.” And, as we were reminded last Thursday, music is an amazing means of communication for everyone, regardless of their cognitive state.

fullsizeoutput_22a7If you would like a copy of Talking with God through Music: Reflections on My Favorite Psalm-Based Hymns, let me know. I’ll be happy to send you one. I’d really appreciate your feedback on the concept and structure of the book before I put together my next book. My goal is to submit the text of the prototype to the publisher this week, and to receive the printed copies within a week or two. I’ll write another blog post when I have the books in hand.

 

Playing with My Circle of Pianos

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Big Red – my first piano

I can’t remember a time in my life when I haven’t had a piano as one of my best friends. I was born into a household that had a big old upright piano living in it. Big Red. I remember trying to read its name scrolled in Old English typeface – Bush & Gerts, Chicago – but Big Red is a better name. My mom taught me a couple little melodies to play on some of the white keys near the middle of the keyboard – “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and something about “Birdies in Treetops” so that I could do more than just pound on the keys. When my big sister Nancy (11 years older than me) started to give actual piano lessons to my brother Danny (2 years older than me), I demanded my rights to the same advantage. He was 6, I was 4 when we started. Danny gave up on developing a friendship with Big Red within a year or two. Once he learned “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,” all on the black keys, he thought he knew enough to quit lessons. I kept on until I graduated from high school, although I had to move on to different teachers when Nancy moved away to college.

Throughout my school years, as soon as I got home from school, I’d check the mail lying on the dining room table where my dad had left it (my mom was at work in Madison), run upstairs to change my clothes, and then go straight to the piano to practice. I’d play each song of my lesson 5 times, and then I’d play with Big Red just for fun. Sometimes we’d try to figure out new tunes that I mostly remembered in my head from when I’d heard them on the radio. Sometimes we learned new songs from “Singspiration Gospel Songbooks” that my mom picked up from religious bookstores whenever a new songbook was published.

That’s when Big Red and I really became close friends, spending time playing together after school. Big Red was able to figure out immediately whether I was having a good day or a bad day as soon as I sat down on the old piano stool. If I was feeling sad, Big Red knew just what songs to remind me to play to feel better.

Big Red and I drifted apart a little when I was about 10 and an electronic organ moved into our household and tried to distract me from my piano friend. I developed a close friendship with the organ, too, but never as close as my relationship with Big Red.

The next piano in my close circle of piano friends was Lonnie Lyon & Healy. I’d been living in Chicago with my new best friend Mim for about a year, but I knew that something was missing in my life. I needed a piano friend. The big music store in Chicago at the time was Lyon & Healy, and I heard from another friend that they didn’t just manufacture and sell pianos, they leased them for a mere $15 a month. One phone call and a week later, Lonnie Lyon & Healy moved into our apartment. She was a little spinet with a squeaky sustain pedal, but she quickly became a good friend. We settled into a routine of me getting ready for work about half an hour early, so we could spend some time playing together before I took the “L” downtown to my job.

After a couple years of playing together with Lonnie, she confided in me that she was getting tired and wanted to move back to the store for awhile. I said OK, and went looking for a new piano friend.

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Sally Sohmer – the first piano I bought

That’s when I met Sally Sohmer in the Lyon & Healy store at Woodfield Mall in suburban Chicago. She was a little bigger than Lonnie, but not as big as Big Red. The store called her a console. I thought of her as a short studio piano. I really liked the touch of her keys when I tried her out. I also tried out several of her cousins in the store, but it was an easy decision. I liked her the best, and she was going to come home with me. I knew we were destined to become really good friends. As Sally and I got to know each other better, we experimented with different kinds of music, especially the easier works of classical composers. We had so much fun with Beethoven’s “Rage Over a Lost Penny.” We also began to explore more creative arrangements of hymns, like I had begun to find with Big Red when I was in high school. We also built up a bigger than necessary library of Christmas music.

il_570xN.717033260_mgycSally Sohmer moved to Wisconsin with Mim and me in 1992 when me moved back to the farmhouse where I had grown up, and that’s where we had some of the most fun of our lives. We discovered golden oldies. My mom used to buy popular sheet music before she was married (in the late 1920s and early 1930s), and her collection was still in the store room upstairs at the farmhouse. Mim joined our playtimes for this. She sang some of the most hilarious lyrics we’ve ever heard. “Pink Elephants” became one of our favorites.

A couple years after we moved to Wisconsin, Mim invited Jim Forrest to join our circle of people and piano friends. Mim had met Jim as a patient at the clinic where she worked, and she learned that he was a piano tuner and technician. Jim became our piano tuner – both for Big Red who still lived in the farmhouse and for Sally Sohmer.

After a few years of seeing Jim at least twice a year, sometimes more often, when he happened to be in Cambridge to tune someone else’s piano and we met for lunch, we learned that Jim’s real passion was being a matchmaker between people and pianos. That came up one day just after he had tuned Sally Sohmer. He said, “Marian, I have just the piano for you. It would fit perfectly in this end of your living room. It’s a Baldwin baby grand. It’s a beautiful 5’ grand that I’m rebuilding in my workshop right now. I’m almost finished with it, and I’ll sell it to you for a really good price. You and this piano need to be together.”

Maxine-Marian at piano

Playing with Betty Baldwin while an assisted living resident watches

I responded with, “I already have a really nice piano. Two of them, actually. Why would I want another piano?”

Jim replied, “Ah, but neither of them is a grand. Have you ever played a grand piano?”

“No, I haven’t. But I’m very happy with the pianos I have right now.”

“Why don’t you just come to my workshop in Madison and play the Baldwin, so you can hear and feel the difference between a grand and an upright.”

Mim joined the conversation at that point, and said, “Let’s just go and try it. It will be fun to try it out, and then we’ll know if there’s a big difference, or not.” A few days later we did. I couldn’t believe the difference in touch and sound, especially hearing the high notes just ring out. I may be fickle, but I fell in love with Betty Baldwin on the spot. I sold Sally Sohmer to my brother Danny (not for him to play, but for his daughter Emily to learn on), and Jim found a new home for Big Red at a Victorian style bed and breakfast in Stoughton, where she would fit right in. (At least we could still visit my two old friends.)

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Stella Steinway

A few years later, matchmaker Jim told me that he had just the right piano for me. He was rebuilding a Steinway, the next size up from Betty Baldwin, about 5-1/2 feet. We repeated nearly the same conversation we’d had before, and I went to his workshop to try out the Steinway, just so I could hear and feel the difference between a Steinway and a Baldwin. I fell in love again, and sold my Baldwin to Danny who ended up with two pianos, with his greatest personal musical accomplishment still being “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater” on the black keys.

Stella Steinway has been my best friend (except for Mim, and maybe a handful of other people) for ten years now, and I’m pretty sure our relationship will last for the rest of my lifetime. Then Stella will need to find another friend. I’m helping Jim match up pianos with other friends of mine – hopefully, no more for me. Stanley Steinway, Stella’s bigger brother, went to the Presbyterian Church in Cambridge. I still play with him about once a month, or so.

The only other piano I play with any regularity is Stephanie Steinert, the piano at my church, Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison. Stephanie Steinert is a cousin of Stella Steinway, and they’re almost identical. Stephanie’s designer had worked closely with the Steinway Company over the years, and the style and quality of Steinert pianos rivals that of Steinways.

So, why am I reminiscing about all my piano friends today? Last week Stella and I had so much fun playing together that I just laughed and laughed and laughed. Last weekend our church celebrated All Saints Day, and I wanted to pick out some fun but appropriate music for the Saturday evening service I was scheduled to play. Saturday night services are a little more casual than Sunday morning services, and I usually play the prelude, the opening hymn, and communion hymn on the organ, and I play the offertory, closing hymn, and postlude on the piano.

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Messiah’s Steinert piano and tracker organ

I worked with my digital piano, Claire Clavinova (pretending to be an organ), first to find an appropriate prelude to play on the organ.  We came up with an energetic arrangement of For All the Saints and a fun variation of Shall We Gather at the River. The two pieces fit together nicely and timed out at 5 minutes 30 seconds, just about the right length.

So I was ready to move on to my friend Stella Steinway to play around with all the music we could think up related to All Saints Day for the offertory and postlude. I thought about old gospel songs like “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder” and “When We All Get to Heaven” but I didn’t have any fancy arrangements of either song. Then I turned to my James Koerts 3-ring binder of spirituals I’ve down-loaded from the Internet. Stella and I just played and played and laughed. We finally narrowed down our offertory and postlude choices to just a few, and played them for Mim and Carolyn (one of our 96-year-old residents) so that they could help us decide. Carolyn chose a very jazzy “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” for the offertory, and Mim chose an equally jazzy “When the Saints Go Marching In” for the postlude. By the time we finished making our selections, all the spirits in our household were having a great time. It’s amazing what music can do for the soul. And my friend Stella Steinway never lets me forget that.

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in His sanctuary;
Praise Him in His mighty firmament!
Praise Him for His mighty acts;
Praise Him according to His excellent greatness!
Praise Him with the sound of the trumpet;
Praise Him with the lute and harp!
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance;
Praise Him with stringed instruments and flutes!
Praise Him with loud cymbals;
Praise Him with clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord!

[Psalm 150 – New King James Version]