Tag Archive | angels

Christmas in Jail

City-County Bldg from City Hall

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

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

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

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

Family Portrait - about 1960

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

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

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

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

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

Nativity images

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

Christmas carols

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

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

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

angels and Mary and Jesus

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

 

 

A Litter Reunion

Floey - thinking hard about something, lying on the couch with her legs crossed, as usual.

Floey – thinking hard about something, lying on the couch with her legs crossed, as usual.

“What’s on your mind, Floey? You’ve been staring off into space for a long time,” I asked.

“Oh, hi, Mom. I didn’t notice you come into the room. I’ve been thinking about tonight.”

“Oh, yeah. Tonight’s your big night. You’re going to see all your litter mates again for the first time since your adoptions. I bet you’re excited.”

6 puppies playing cropped

Just over a year and a half ago, Floey and her litter mates must have looked a lot like this.

“In some ways, I am. I can hardly wait to see them. All six of us will be together again for the first time in over a year. But I’m sure we’ve all changed a lot. I know I have. What if I don’t like them? What if they don’t like me? We all played together the first six months of our lives, but then we were moved away from the Indian reservation in northern Minnesota where they wanted to shoot us, and a rescue group brought us to Wisconsin to find new homes. Over the next few months we all went our separate ways. What if one of my brothers or sisters has turned into a really mean dog? I don’t want to play with any mean dog, even if he or she is a sibling.”

Two dogs grin against each other

Floey’s imagination gone wild…

“Wait a minute, Floey. You mean to tell me that you will stop loving one or more of your siblings if you don’t approve of the way they act tonight?”

“I guess so, but only if they deserve it, Mom. If they growl and snap at me, and act like an enemy, I’ll be very disappointed, but I won’t play with them. With five litter mates, I’m sure I’ll find someone else who’s nicer to play with.”

“Oh, Floey, don’t worry about this. I bet they’ll all be nice dogs. I’m sure they were all adorable pups just like you when they were chosen to be adopted. You’ll have a great time playing together again tonight.”

“I hope so, Mom. I think you’re probably right, but I’m a little worried anyway. What if …”

“Floey, since you have a nagging little concern about the ‘what if’ possibilities, I think I need to tell you about what I read in Jimmy Carter’s devotional book this morning. He referenced Matthew 5. Here are the verses he referred to from THE MESSAGE version. Jesus said:

“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. …

Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.

[Excerpts from Matthew 5:38-48]

Jimmy Carter went on to explain, “The command to ‘love your enemy’ is both startling and unique to the Christian faith; no other religion has a parallel teaching… Christ commanded [us to have] … a self-sacrificial love for other human beings [and dogs], even for those who may never love you back or who may not seem lovable.” [“Through the Year with Jimmy Carter”]

Floey-Marian faces selfie“Mom, does that really mean that if one of my siblings has turned into a mean dog, that I need to pray for him?”

“Yes, Floey. I think it means that you need to pray for him, and play with him, too – be nice to him, kind of like Jesus said to give him a present of your best coat.”

“Wow! That might be hard. What if he bites me, or grabs my collar and drags me?”

“Well, that probably won’t happen. Remember, your litter mates are probably all just as nice and fun-loving as you. But if one of them is overwhelmed with all the excitement, remember that Mim and I, and all the other adopters, will be there, too, and we’ll see that no one gets hurt. For all of us, our dogs are our best friends, and we’ll take care of all of you. Oh, and most important, God will be there, too! Your Mama Dog will probably be standing right next to God, the two of them watching all of you playing together.”

“OK. I’ll stop worrying, and just be excited about our first reunion,  6:30 tonight at the dog park. Are you going to bring special treats for me and all my new/old buddies?”

1 dog angel

God and Mama Dog watching the play date.

Shhh. I’m Trying to Quiet My Mind.

Candle orange w Be-Still-and-Know-That-I-am-GodIt’s hard to be quiet in today’s culture of constant stimulation. Worse yet, we take pride in being really busy, and we brag about our ability to multi-task.

So how can we possibly shut out the noise and concentrate on just one thing for ten minutes, or half an hour, or even an hour? How can we “Be still, and know that I am God!” as we are directed in the Psalms. (Psalm 46:10 New Revised Standard Version)

I’ve thought about that quite a bit over the past several years. I guess what prompted that subject to jump into the swirl of thoughts fighting for attention in my mind six years ago was the fact that I was starting up a spiritual retreat center at our farmhouse – what would become Whispering Winds Retreat Haven. That prospect made we wonder what I could do to help create an atmosphere at the farm where people could be still, be relatively free from distractions, and be able to focus on spiritual things.

3 candles and angelOver the last few years I’ve personalized some of those ideas to help me be focused early every morning before I start my normal daily routines and begin to deal with everything else that will jump into my day. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I start my day by reading from the Bible and a mix of inspiring books and pamphlets. Sometimes it’s hard to take time to do that, especially if I know I have a particularly busy day ahead of me, or an early appointment that I need to get ready for. Regardless of how short a time I may have for this devotional time, even if it needs to be just 5 – 10 minutes instead of the usual 30 – 40, I start by lighting one or more candles. That gives me something for my eyes to rest on when I look up from my reading. I usually light three different candles – one representing the Father, another the Son, and the third the Holy Spirit. Sometimes I have a fourth candle that represents me. It’s much better for me to see flickering candles on the small table in front of me than to notice the stack of papers waiting for me on my desk across the room.

Once the candles are lit, I start my quiet time by reading or mentally singing what I refer to as my call to worship. For a long time I kept a card in my Bible with the following words written by Sarah Young in her book Jesus Calling. It’s written as though Jesus is saying these words directly to me:

Jesus CallingSit quietly in my presence while I bless you.
Make your mind like a still pool of water,
ready to receive whatever thoughts I drop into it.

Rest in my sufficiency,
as you consider the challenges this day presents.
Do not wear yourself out by worrying about
whether you can cope with the pressures.
Keep looking to Me and communicating with Me,
as we walk through this day together.

Take time to rest by the wayside, for I am not in a hurry.
A leisurely pace accomplishes more than hurried striving.
When you rush, you forget who you are and Whose you are.
Remember that you are royalty in My kingdom.

That inspires me to be quiet and listen to what God is talking to me about.

More recently I’ve started mentally singing my own words to the praise song, “Holy Ground.”

This is Holy Ground
I’m sitting on Holy Ground.
The Lord is present
and all around is Holy.
This is Holy Time.
I’m praying in Holy Time.
The Lord is speaking
and every moment is Holy.

Floey Candles 3I’m usually sitting in the easy chair in my office. Floey is curled up on the love seat. And the candles are glowing on the coffee table. A crystal angel is bowing next to the candles. I really feel like I am in a holy place. My mind is quiet, and I’m ready to read, think, and pray. Sometimes I jot down ideas that come to me for a future blog post. Very few distractions break into this holy space.

On a related note (pun intended), I’ve also thought about what I can do as a church organist to help worshipers set aside their distractions to be totally focused on being still and knowing God during their time in church. The purpose of the prelude is to do just that – to help people quiet their minds, to be still and focus on knowing God. That’s why I try so hard to find a prelude that relates to the Scripture for the day.

Another thing that helps me get in the right frame of mind for worship is often referred to as the introit or call to worship. In the church where I grew up, the choir always sang the introit at the beginning of the service. That doesn’t happen at the churches where I play now, and I miss it. One of my favorite introits is Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this Place. Whenever I hear that, I remember that I am in a holy place. That God is present.

Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place
I can feel his mighty power and his grace.
I can hear the brush of angels’ wings, I see glory on each face;
surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.
[Lanny Wolfe]

At any time of the day, when my mind is spinning, and I’m thrashing about from one urgent task to the next, I sometimes remember I’m not alone. God’s here with me, too. I need to stop for a moment and take a deep breath. Maybe that’s the Holy Spirit calming me down. I think it helps that I’ve started my day being still. That helps me remember to ponder how my life fits into God’s world.

Most mornings Floey joins me for devotions. She knows this is a time to curl up on the couch, watch the candles, and be still.

Most mornings Floey joins me for devotions. She knows this is a time to curl up on the couch, watch the candles, and be still. I think God speaks to her, too.

Fluffy Clouds, Still Goldfinches, and Dirty Windows

Clouds over Cornfield

Up in heaven, a new angel must have been assigned to weather control for southern Wisconsin last week. As a newbie, he’s not quite sure how to maneuver all the clouds and keep the seasons in line. We’ve been covered by some of the biggest, fluffiest clouds I’ve ever seen in my life for the last couple days. But what’s really weird is that we’ve had October weather in July.  Instead of trying to keep cool with temperatures in the 80s and 90s, we’re trying to keep warm with temperatures in the 50s and 60s.

Pond to CondoOn our early morning walk Saturday morning, Mim pointed out two bright yellow goldfinches high in a tree just down the road from us. However, as we got closer, we discovered that the finches were two bright yellow leaves near the treetop. Even the tree was fooled by this weather! And we were fooled by the early-changing leaves. As we walked closer to the tree, our perspective changed, and we could see that the yellow dots were leaves. That’s why the “goldfinches” didn’t fly away when they saw us coming.

Perspective sharpens or distorts reality for us all the time. Way back in the time of the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius said, “Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” But for some reason, it’s so easy to forget that “truth.” Whether we’re talking politics, or religion, or today’s news stories.

The Apostle Paul wrote about this phenomenon in 1 Corinthians 13:12-13.

We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, know him directly just as he knows us! But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love. (The Message paraphrase)

That reminded me of a story I’d read and shared on Facebook last week. I told it to Mim as we walked down the country road:

Clothes LineA young couple moves into a new neighborhood. The next morning while they are eating breakfast, the young woman sees her neighbor hanging the wash outside. “That laundry is not very clean; she doesn’t know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap.” Her husband looks on, remaining silent. Every time her neighbor hangs her wash to dry, the young woman makes the same comments. A month later, the woman is surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and says to her husband: “Look, she’s finally learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this?” The husband replies, “I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows.” And so it is with life… What we see when watching others depends on the clarity of the window through which we look.

Since we know that the window through which we see life is always somewhat dirty, or foggy, or provides some other kind of distortion, perhaps we should remember Paul’s advice, “Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.”

To “love extravagantly” may be for me to give the benefit of the doubt to the neighbor hanging up “dirty” laundry, to recognize that I may not have the complete “truth.” Or, for me to trust that my nephew who consistently supports the “wrong” side of every political issue that I care about, really is making the wisest judgments possible, given the “truths” he sees. Maybe the windows we’re each looking through just have different smudges.

After all, even the two bright yellow leaves on the tree acted upon their perception of October in July, not on the “truth” of a new weather control angel in heaven still getting used to the controls.

Yellow Leaves on Green Tree

Angels Among Us

Abbey kissing Marian bwThe past three weeks have been quite strenuous for all of us at Country Comforts Assisted Living. One of our residents was living through his last days in this life. Abbey is always a really big comfort to our residents as well as to their friends and family during this time of life transition, but it takes its toll on her too. I talked with her about that this morning.

“Good morning, Abbey. How are you feeling today?”

“Good morning, Mom. I think I’m a little better, but I’m still not feeling very chipper. My stomach still feels funny and I don’t have lots of energy. I think I want to keep my walks pretty short today.”

“That’s too bad. We’ll keep you on rice and hamburger for another day, too. You’ve been feeling bad for almost a week now. What do you think is wrong?”

“Oh, I know what’s wrong, and it will just take me some time to recover.  I really miss Robert. [I’ve changed his name to protect his privacy.] I know he lived with us less than three weeks, but he was such a nice man. His first morning here he shared his bacon with me – a bite for him and a bite for me, back and forth until we ate it all up. He shared it equally with me. I don’t know any human that’s been that generous. And he petted me so gently. When his eyes looked at me, I could tell that he was a man filled with love.”

“Yeah. I agree, Abbey. Robert really was a nice man. He had lots of friends who came to visit him. A lot of people really liked him.”

“That’s for sure. His daughter came to see him a couple times every day, and she always greeted me at the door with some good petting. And her husband always had treats for me in his pocket. Robert had one really special friend who sat beside him for hours, just being with him.”

“You know, Abbey. We’re really lucky. We’ve said before that our house is filled with a cloud of love when someone is coming to the end of their life. The house is filled with the love of friends and relatives. It’s so peaceful.”

Abbey Profile 2“But that’s not all, Mom. I know you didn’t see them, but angels were here during Robert’s last couple days, too. Robert talked about the two men and two women he saw in the corner. I saw them, too. They were angels who had come to comfort Robert and to show him the way home to God. Many of the people who come here for end-of-life care see angels before they pass on to the next life. I know you can’t see them, but I do, and the person who’s getting ready to be born into their new life sees them, too.”

“You know, Abbey, the Bible actually talks about that. In Psalm 91:11-12 it says, “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” (NRSV) God sends his angels to watch out for us. I know we often have angels in our house when a guest draws near to the end of their life. I can’t see them, but our guests often tell us about the angels they see in their room.”

“Actually, I hate to say it, Mom, but I think that’s what upsets my stomach. I’m so excited by these heavenly guests that my body doesn’t know how to react. And when the angels leave, taking our guest with them, it takes me a few days to recover from the amazement of what I’ve seen and felt. I also miss our guest.”

“I think that might explain why you always seem to get sick just as one of our residents gets ready to move on to their next life.”

“I’ll get over it. I’m so thankful for how much God has blessed us by letting all these special people and their angels live with us, even if it’s just for a short time.”

“You’re right, Abbey. We’re so fortunate to have all these people share their lives with us. God has really blessed us.”

Family Portrait - Marian, Abbey, Mim

Family Portrait – Marian, Abbey, Mim

“I Saw Jesus”

Early one morning a few days ago, I walked by Emma’s* room on my way to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. I heard Emma talking, so I stepped inside her room to be sure she was okay. Emma is one of our two assisted living residents. She is 91, has dementia, and is quite frail, but she usually has a very cheerful disposition. We have cared for her in our home for more than three years.

Emma was lying in bed. Her eyes were wide open. I asked her if she was feeling okay, or if she needed anything. She looked at me and said, very clearly, “I saw Jesus!”

I thought I had heard her right, but to be sure, I asked her, “Did you say you saw Jesus?”

“Yes,” she responded. “I saw Jesus.”

“Did he know you?” I asked her.

“Yes.” Then the moment of clarity had passed. She continued to say words, but I couldn’t understand what she was trying to tell me. She looked very happy and was quite excited as she continued to talk.

For the past ten years, my partner, Mim, and I have been providing assisted living services in our home. We usually have two residents living with us. All twenty of the residents who have lived with us thus far have been quite frail, and many of them have had some degree of dementia. Most have come to live with us until they are ready to pass on to their next life. One resident lived with us for only a day before she passed on. Another resident lived with us almost four years. Most live a year or two.

Mim and I have learned that it is quite common for our residents to see visitors from heaven when they get closer to the end of their lives. The visitors may be angels, friends and family members who have preceded them in death, and now Jesus himself. Unfortunately, Mim and I don’t get to see these visitors. Only the resident can see them, and the resident is very comforted by the visit. The visitors seem to be here to alleviate any fears our residents may have about moving on to the other side.

My conversation with Emma last week brought to mind the song, “I’ve Just Seen Jesus” (words by Gloria Gaither, music by William J. Gaither and Danny Daniels). A few of the words are:

I’ve just seen Jesus
And I’ll never be the same again.

That prompted me to think about how music helps us both understand and express what we’ve learned about God’s love through our life experiences. Over the next few weeks I’ll have the perfect opportunity to share these thoughts. Pastor Joan Gunderman and I are working together on creating a Lenten e-retreat entitled “The Scandal of Lent.” Joan’s part is to write reflections based on the key themes of the book, The Scandal of Lent, by Robert Kysar. My part is to write reflections based on Lenten hymns, gospel songs, and spirituals for each week of Lent. Each reflection will include information about the song as well as links to online performances of the song. Our intent is that everyone who participates in this e-retreat will be able to say along with Emma, “I saw Jesus,” or at least be able to say, “I understand more about God’s love now than I did before, and I’ll never be the same again.”

For more information about our Lenten e-retreat, click here.

* To protect the privacy of our resident, I’ve changed her name to Emma in this blog post.