Tag Archive | conversation with God

Little Hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Eliza E Hewitt, 1887]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marian at Messiah organ 2

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

Trying to Remember a Song

Do you ever have one of those songs that keeps running through your mind, over and over and over again, but you can’t quite remember the whole song?

That’s happening to me right now. Actually, the song has been going through my mind for over a week, and I just can’t remember the whole thing. I’ve even spent loads of time on the Internet trying to google it without success.

Singing Xmas Tree 1964

Can you find me?

The song is a choral anthem that the church choir sang when I was in high school, about 1965 or ’66. It’s the only anthem that I specifically remember singing during the high school and college years I sang in the choir.

I just loved this one particular anthem! The words were Psalm 1, the King James Version, verbatim. It was hard to sing, at least to start singing it, because it started very loud and on a high note. It was written in the key of E-flat, and the first note for sopranos was the high E-flat.

The first part is:

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

Then it starts to get a little softer…

But his delight is in the law of the LORD; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.

And that’s as far as I remember the music. I’ve looked up the rest of the words of the Psalm in my King James Bible. I’m sure those are the words we sang, but I just can’t bring the rest of the music back into my mind. I remember that the mood changes at this point, to a very peaceful setting, which fits the words perfectly:

And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.

Then the mood changes again. It becomes more restless:

The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.

Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the  congregation of the righteous.

I can’t remember the tempo or dynamics of the ending. The last words of the Psalm are:

For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous; but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

I wish I could remember the rest of the music, but it’s just not coming back to me. I think what I liked so much about this anthem when the choir sang it fifty-plus years ago was how well the music matched the words. It was exciting to me. I felt we were communicating with God with our whole being as we sang the Psalm together. I felt it in my soul and my body – not just my mind.

5640851837_1fa5c61383_zMany years later I read a quote attributed to St. Augustine, “Whoever sings, prays twice.” That’s what was happening when we sang that anthem. We were not only expressing the words of the song to God, through the music we were sharing our feelings with God. That’s what’s so special about music. With music, our ability to communicate is not limited to our mere intellect. Our mind, soul, and body are all involved as we sing or play a musical instrument.

As you may recall from an earlier post on this blog, one of the reasons I stopped posting to my blog every week is that I wanted to work on some other projects and needed to free up some of my time to do so. One of my new projects is writing a devotional book focused on 365 of my favorite hymns. Over the past few months, I’ve been organizing my thoughts for this book and selecting the hymns to include. I think I’ll start the book with a chapter on The Psalms and how these songs have been sung historically as well as ways they are being sung today. (I’m sure that train of thought is what triggered Psalm 1 to start playing in my mind.)

The Bible encourages us in many places to sing to the Lord. And over the centuries, we have been prolific in our response. Thousands of hymns have their roots in one or more of the 150 Psalms included in the Bible. For example, the online resource hymnary.org (one of my new best friends) identified Psalm 23 as the source of 344 hymns. Psalm 23 is rich in imagery of God as our shepherd. Each hymn of the 344 hymns listed on this web directory built upon this imagery. Some of my favorites among these hymns are:

  • The Lord Is My Shepherd
  • The Lord’s My Shepherd, I’ll not Want
  • The King of Love My Shepherd Is
  • He Leadeth Me
  • Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us
  • All the Way My Shepherd Leads Me
  • God Leads Us Along
  • God Will Take Care of You
  • O Love that Wilt not Let Me Go
  • Day By Day
  • Surely Goodness and Mercy
  • Lead Me, Guide Me

Each hymn can trigger a slightly different conversation with God, although they are all based on the same general image of God as our shepherd. Every one of these combinations of words and music enables us to “pray twice” to God – to pray with our mind, body, and soul. The most usual result of the prayerful conversations based on Psalm 23 is that our troubled soul is comforted, and that pleases God as much as it pleases us.

This newest writing project of mine is bigger than I thought it was going to be, but I love the digressions it’s leading me along – even if I experience a bit of frustration along the way. Whether I ever remember all the music of the Blessed Is the Man…”  anthem I sang with the church choir when I was in in high school, or not, I’ve been blessed by remembering one of my earliest and most dramatic experiences of “praying twice.”

bird singing 1O come, let us sing to the LORD!
Let us shout joyfully to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before His presence with thanksgiving;
Let us shout joyfully to Him with psalms.

Psalm 95:1-2 – New King James Version

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?”

Floey-Marian faces selfie

“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…”

american-goldfinch-fredric-d-nisenholz

Goldfinch and bee on thistle. Internet image.

 

How do you talk with God?

My mom and me looking pious for a program in church about 1955.

That’s something I’ve been trying to learn ever since I was a little kid. I remember the first prayer I ever learned: “God bless our food. Amen.” I said that prayer and then my brother and sister said the Norwegian table prayer, and then we could eat. My mother never had the patience to teach me the Norwegian prayer.

In kindergarten, I learned the prayer I still use before meals, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, and let this food to us be blessed. Amen.”  When my sister (eleven years older than me) went away to college, my mother dropped the Norwegian prayer, and whoever was at the table recited the “Come, Lord Jesus” prayer. It was easier for everyone. And, I guess that prayer let God know we appreciated God’s providing for our physical needs even if the words were English. The prayer didn’t have to be in Norwegian.

As I grew older, I sometimes thought that we should say a more mature prayer like visiting ministers or missionaries would sometimes say, something like “Our Father, thank you for the food that Thou hast provided, and for the hands that have prepared it…” When I was asked to pray in front of guests, I sometimes tried to say something like that, but was never quite sure I was saying it right. I hated to be asked to do the prayer. It didn’t feel like I was talking with God with that kind of prayer. I was doing a ritual for the approval of the guests around the table.

My bedtime prayer was always more spontaneous. Typically it was something like, “Dear Jesus, thank you for keeping me safe today and for giving me a good day. Take care of mother and daddy, Nancy and Danny, grandma…” and whoever else I was thinking about that evening.

In Sunday School and confirmation classes, I learned that my prayer should include several sections: praising God, thanking God for specific gifts to me and those I love, praying for the needs of others, and lastly, praying for my own needs. My bedtime prayers got longer, more inclusive, and more structured.

But praying before meals and at bedtime didn’t really cover all the times I felt I wanted to talk with God about something. Inevitably, there were moments of crisis when I wanted to pray to God for help or protection – like needing to do well on a particular test in college, or walking alone on a street in Chicago when I sensed someone was following me. That’s when I really wanted God to hear me, and I wanted to have God reassure me that I wasn’t alone.

As my understanding of how to talk with God continued to develop, I discovered that music was an amazing way to communicate some of my thoughts and feelings to God, and to gain new insights into what types of communication were possible with God. One old gospel song that helped me envision what my relationship with God could be like was “In the Garden” by C. Austin Miles.

I come to the garden alone,
while the dew is still on the roses;
and the voice I hear, falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.

Refrain:
And He walks with me,
and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own,
And the joy we share
as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

He speaks, and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing;
and the melody that he gave to me
within my heart is ringing.
Refrain.

Over the years, music has become one of the most meaningful ways for me to visit with God. I don’t sing, but I take a hymnal, sit down at the piano and pray the words as I’m playing the music. I can spend hours having a conversation with God through the hymnal.

A few years ago I came upon the book Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. I’ve mentioned this book several times in this blog. It’s a book of daily devotional writings, with each day’s entry written as though Jesus is talking directly to me. Scripture citations are listed at the bottom of the entry as proof that the Bible really does say those things. This book has been very helpful to me in making my conversations with God true dialogs rather than just me stating my immediate concerns. Here’s today’s entry.

Welcome challenging times as opportunities to trust Me. You have Me beside you and My Spirit within you, so no set of circumstances is too much for you to handle. When the path before you is dotted with difficulties, beware of measuring your strength against those challenges. That calculation is certain to riddle you with anxiety. Without Me, you wouldn’t make it past the first hurdle!

The way to walk through demanding days is to grip My hand tightly and stay in close communication with Me. Let your thoughts and spoken words be richly flavored with trust and thankfulness. Regardless of the day’s problems, I can keep you in perfect Peace as you stay close to Me.

James 1:2; Philippians 4:13; Isaiah 26:3

I know I’m not alone in wanting to know how to have a conversation with God, because the disciples also asked Jesus how to pray. In Matthew 6:5 Jesus told them, “… whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Then Jesus went on to say what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father.”

So what prompted me to write about talking with God today? Saturday I participated in a centering prayer workshop at Whispering Winds. Prior to this workshop I had a vague understanding that centering prayer was a Christian form of meditation, somewhat similar to the meditation practices of eastern religions. Saturday’s workshop was led by three leaders who had been trained by Contemplative Outreach, the organization founded by Fr. Thomas Keating in the 1970’s to develop methods of reviving the contemplative dimension of the Gospel. (More about centering prayer and this organization is on their website www.contemplativeoutreach.org.)

In the workshop we learned practices to help us quiet our mind and sit silently with our eyes closed for periods of 20 minutes or longer. At this point, I’ll have to admit that I’m somewhat intrigued by centering prayer, although I’m not about to say it’s the “sliced bread” of prayer. The process of sitting still and emptying our minds of distracting thoughts so that God can fill us is suggested by the Psalm that I have always loved reading, “Be still and know that I am God.” [Psalm 46:10]

One of the key messages from Saturday’s workshop was that as we continue to develop our own personal relationship with God, prayer – or communication with God – takes on many forms, not just one. I can still say “Come, Lord Jesus…” and know that I’m including God in our mealtime. I can pray for my friends and family and others as I understand their needs. I can worship God and ask for help in my life by spending time at the piano with a hymnal. I can read the Bible in a variety of forms to hear God speaking to me. I can go for a walk and hear what God has to say through the songbirds and the rippling brook just down the road from Whispering Winds. And, I can sit silently in a straight-backed chair with my eyes closed for 20 minutes of centering prayer.

God wants to talk to me – and you – just as much as we want to talk with God. We have a lifetime to learn all the ways to do that.