Tag Archive | fairness

Reflections on a Musical Memory

Christmas Mountain Village SignLast week Mim and I spent four days at our Christmas Mountain timeshare in Wisconsin Dells. Four days is the longest we’ve been away together in years. We had a wonderful time, just relaxing and being thankful we could celebrate our one year wedding anniversary.

As I was enjoying my first real vacation day on Monday, I opened up the magic cloud that follows my computer wherever it goes, and started listening to an album called “Instrumental Songs of Worship for Quiet Moments.” I sat down on the couch and looked through the window at the trees just beginning to turn from dark green to light red. I was going to start reading my book, but I noticed that a symphonic version of an old, old hymn was playing, “The Old Rugged Cross.” As I listened to it, I remembered playing that hymn on a little electronic organ at a Bible camp 56 years ago. I think I was 10.

Mims Reed Organ

Mim’s grandma’s pump organ

Before I explain the significance of that memory, let me give you a little family background.  My mom grew up with a small reed pump organ in the farmhouse. I never saw that organ, but I imagine it was similar to the one Mim’s grandmother had, which we now have at the base of our stairway in our condo.

Sometime after my mom and dad married, they bought a used upright piano. That’s the one I grew up playing. I remember my mom talking about how much she missed having an organ. At that time, in the 1950s and 1960s, electronic organs had become popular. Mom finally saved up enough money to buy a Lowery organ. It had two short manuals and a one-octave pedal board. Mom had negotiated a deal that included our old upright piano as a trade-in.

The night before the organ was to be delivered, I spent all evening playing the piano, for what I thought would be the last time. I was excited about getting an organ, but I knew I would miss the piano. I was saying goodbye to my 88-key friend by playing through all my piano books.

Old upright piano

My mom’s upright piano

The next day, when I came home from school, I was ecstatic to see the new organ, and also to see that the old piano was still there. My dad had bought the old piano back from the delivery men for $50. My dad got a good deal – he paid less than the original trade-in value – because the delivery men were so happy not to have to load the big old upright onto their truck.

Although the piano was my old friend, the novelty of the new organ captured most of my attention for the next few years. The organ came with ten free lessons from the WardBrodt Music Store in Madison. After those lessons were used up, I switched to taking both piano and organ lessons, alternating weeks, from our church organist. The ten free lessons from WardBrodt broadened my repertoire considerably. I’m sure my church organist teacher would never have taught me “The Beer Barrel Polka.”

(It’s a good thing I learned it because a friend of mine, who plans ahead, has requested that I play “The Beer Barrel Polka” for her funeral!)

Lowery Organ 2

A 1960s era electronic organ by Lowery – just like mine.

The following summer, between fourth and fifth grades for me, our church youth group spent a week at Willerup Bible Camp on Lake Ripley in Cambridge. The previous week’s campers had rented an electronic organ for the chapel, and it was still there. Since the camp director knew I was taking organ lessons, she asked me to play a solo for a special evening service toward the end of the week, a service that would include all our parents as guests.

I chose to play “The Old Rugged Cross.” The hymn had two flats, B and E. I always remembered to play the B-flat, and sometimes remembered the E-flat. It wasn’t my best performance, but I was still proud of the fact that I was the only kid at camp who knew how to play an organ.

After the service, my mom asked me why I chose to play that hymn. I didn’t really know why. I guess I kind of liked the melody, and I knew lots of people liked the song. I couldn’t think of any other reason I had for choosing it.

I think my mom’s question had a profound impact on me. For the past 50-odd years, I have always thought carefully about what music I play on either the piano or organ – whether it’s for background music during the dinner hour at the Cambridge Country Inn and Pub or for a worship service in church.

For example, the Scripture readings for last weekend included two stories about God’s grace. The first one was about Jonah, after his whale adventure. He preached to the people at Ninevah, they repented, and God decided not to punish them. Jonah was mad that God had changed his mind. He wanted God to punish them as they deserved. The second story was the parable Jesus told about the landowner who hired people to work in his fields. Some worked all day, some just a few hours, and the landowner paid them all the same wage. The laborers who had worked all day weren’t happy. It wasn’t fair. The disciples also had a hard time seeing the fairness in Jesus’ parable.

Mom looking down at me

I’m pretty sure my mom’s looking down at me, listening to me playing in church…

So what music did I choose for a prelude?

I wanted to suggest the ideas that we need to try to understand what God is telling us, just like the disciples were trying to understand the real meaning in Jesus’ parables, and that God’s message this week is about generosity and grace. I cobbled together an arrangement of three hymns – “Open My Eyes,” “He Giveth More Grace,” and “Amazing Grace.”

I’ve been accused of taking my music selection process too seriously. Maybe I do. Occasionally I choose to play something simply because I like it, but that’s only when I can’t think of anything that relates directly to the Scriptures of the day.

At least I know that if Mom is listening up in heaven to whatever I’m playing, I’ll have a good answer for her if she asks me why I chose to play what I chose. And I’m sure she’ll approve.

Marian at Messiah organ 3

And I have a very good reason for playing what I’m playing!

Surpassed in Giving

My niece Michelle and her kids

My niece Michelle with her 4 kids and a couple friends enjoying the day together

On Sunday I read the best story about generosity I’ve ever read. It was written by my niece, Michelle Kornelsen Hauge on her blog, www.strategicparenting.us. I asked her if I could share her story on my blog, and she agreed. If you would like to be added to Michelle’s email list to get regular notifications of her blog posts, you can email her at wedinparadise@hotmail.com.

Michelle and her husband Kerry have adopted four children and have cared for many more foster children. They take their role as parents very seriously, and are trying to share what they are learning about parenting on their blog. Michelle home-schools the kids, and she also helps Kerry in their three home-based businesses – Jim’s Country Fireplace, Paradise Pond Shop, and Paradise Park (where they host outdoor weddings in their beautifully landscaped back yard).

I’m not a parent, but I find something new to think about every week when I read Michelle’s blog. This week, the theme is generosity. I’ve always thought that my mom was the most generous person I’ve ever known. After reading this post, I think Michelle and Kerry’s kids may have Mom beat.

Michelles kids

The kids playing in their back yard.

 Surpassed in Giving

by Michelle Kornelsen Hauge  (from http://www.strategicparenting.us/)

It’s humbling to be surpassed by your kids. But good.

Michelles vanWe’ve been putzing with the process of selling our old minivan, unsure of how much to ask for it. We finally came to an amount and posted it on Craig’s List, along with an honest description of its many problems.

A week passed, with a few low offers.

Tuesday, just as we began hosting an evening meeting, a man arrived who wanted to buy it now, for a third less than we’d asked. We agreed, quickly re-iterated what needed fixing, signed the title and took his payment. It wasn’t much for a van, but it would pay some bills. In the rush, he drove off with only an ignition key.

Wednesday evening, he began calling and leaving phone messages. By the time I arrived and picked up, he was frantic. His mechanic had the van on a hoist, and was pointing out the problems. They were just as we had described for him the night before. I reminded him of this.

“But I thought they were just little fixes when you said it.” A torrent of frustrations poured across the phone line, intensity building by the minute.

My response was defensive, not compassionate.

I finally cut in, saying that if he wanted to return it, he’d have to come back tomorrow when Kerry was home.

As I washed the dinner dishes, my mind continued the argument.

“You won’t get a van that cheap that doesn’t need repairs … not unless someone gives you one.”

The word stuck in my heart like a burr.

“Give?

“Is that You, God?”

If it was, I decided, Kerry would think it was.

He did. If we gave the man his money back, Kerry reasoned, he could use it for the needed repairs. Kerry never flinches when it comes to giving.

We’ve given old cars away before, but never to angry strangers. This was a stretch for me.

We decided to pull the kids into the process.

The next morning, before the man was due to arrive, we focused our prayer time on his family. Part of his rantings had included a long list of their needs, so we had a starting point.

In the process of praying, the kids decided they wanted to give too. They painstakingly wrote up encouraging scriptures, such as Isaiah 41:10 –

Michelles kids Bible encouragement

Then they raided their money envelopes. Some took out every cent they had. Some chose a generous portion. Pockets were stuffed with readied gifts.

We expected him at 9:00. It came and went. We began math … and finished it. Spelling. Reading. Language lessons. Lunch. The day was long and pregnant with anticipation. We knew he’d come; we still had the keys.

Eleven hours later, as we were preparing for bed, the shout rang out: “He’s here!” The kids scrambled around, digging through the laundry to find their gifts, then dashed outside in their pajamas.

By the time I arrived on the scene, the kids were being embraced. Kerry pulled me off to the side and said, “He’s happy tonight. His mechanic was able to fix everything, and his father-in-law paid for it all.” We had three seconds to decide: What now?

We didn’t give him his money back.

The kids basked that evening in the after-glow of their generosity.

Kerry and I considered what to do.

We eventually determined that the money’s God’s. The next day we decided where to give it. Today the hand-off will take place.

We admire the carefree abandon of our kids’ giving. It seems to somehow surpass the caution of our own. Balance is needed, but this may be one way a small child will lead us.

Michelle - hands-full-of-money50

Time for a new blog? “Strategic Childhood” may be in order.

 

The Blessings of Awful Stories in the Bible

Horizontal image of Bible and creation skyThere are some pretty awful stories in the Bible – like the story of Tamar in Genesis. She was a young widow who disguised herself as a temple prostitute in order to entrap her father-in-law into having sex with her so that she would have a son. Have you ever wondered why that story is even in the Bible? The story certainly doesn’t illustrate what we call “Judeo-Christian values.” A few days ago I think I learned why that story is included in the sacred text.

It was Thursday, the day I play the piano for the women’s worship service in the county jail. As usual, the chairs in the chapel were arranged in a circle with a small table in the center serving as the altar. The chaplain asked the women to think about a time when they had to make a decision and they felt that they didn’t have any good options, only bad ones. Then she read the story of Tamar in a contemporary English version of the Bible. The story was vivid.

We were all quiet for a minute when she finished reading the story. Then we went around the circle, sharing our own experiences of having to make tough decisions. One woman talked about needing money to be able to take care of her two young kids. Her best option at the time seemed to be prostitution. She knew it was wrong, but she didn’t know what else she could do to provide for her kids. Another woman talked about having a mom who was so strung out on drugs that the mom had given her the responsibility of taking care of her little sister. She felt she had to steal to be able to get food for herself and her sister.

The decisions these women made were ultimately responsible for them being in jail. There were serious consequences for whichever option they chose. One woman said she was glad that her choice resulted in her going to jail, where she would have a chance to learn about other options in her life. She encouraged the woman who had been caring for her little sister to pray and read her Bible every day and to trust that God was watching out for her and her sister.

After this time of sharing we went around the circle praying for the person seated on our right. We ended the worship service by singing a song of praise to God, “This is the Day” and we read a final blessing together.

A prison cell doorAs we waited for a deputy to come and unlock the chapel door and to escort the women back to their cell block, I played some lively music on the piano, starting with “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” The women knew the words to the spiritual and they sang along. After several verses, I switched to “Standing in the Need of Prayer.” They sang along with that, too. I asked them for suggestions of other songs to sing while we waited. We sang “This is the Day” again and the other song we had sung earlier in the service, “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God.” Then the woman who had been caring for her younger sister requested “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee,” followed by “Joy to the World,” and “Soon and Very Soon.”

This spontaneous hymn sing while we waited for the deputy was the special JOY of my day. The awful story of Tamar had prompted the sharing of tough decisions these women had made. Sharing stories, praying for each other, and singing together. God was with us again. I’m learning that this is what “church” is all about.

hands-on-the-piano

My Thoughts on Last Weekend’s Big Event

Not the Super Bowl – Church!

Humility SandLast week, as I was planning music for church, I read the lectionary readings for Sunday, as I usually do. I was happy to see that two of the three readings were among my favorites.

The Old Testament reading was Micah 6:1-8, which ends with the well-known verse:

What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8 NRSV)

The Gospel reading was Matthew 5:1-12, a passage commonly referred to as “The Beatitudes.”

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
(Matthew 5:3-12 NRSV)

Sheet Music 2 - Theyll Know We Are ChristiansAfter I read the Scriptures, I thought about what music might prompt people to reflect on living the kind of life God wants us to live. Two songs came to mind: Lord, I Want to Be a Christian, and They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love. Fortunately, I remembered a couple arrangements of those songs that would make a good prelude and postlude. All I had to do was find the music. I found both pieces within an hour, and was all set for the service – after a little practicing.

Last weekend I was scheduled to play for the Saturday evening service at Messiah. (We have three services – 5 pm Saturday, 8:15 am Sunday, and 10:30 am Sunday.) The service was so good, particularly Pastor Jeff’s sermon, that I went on the Internet to the church’s website Sunday morning to watch the 8:15 service as it was streamed live (messiahchurch.com/streaming/).

emptying ocean 9The most vivid image that’s still in my mind from Pastor Jeff’s sermon is a story he told about St. Augustine. The 4th century priest was walking along the shore of the ocean, deep in thought, pondering what God really is like. He saw a little boy who had dug a hole in the sand and was running back and forth to the water’s edge, pouring bucket after bucket of water from the ocean into the hole. Augustine asked him what he was doing. The little boy replied, “I am trying to empty the ocean into this hole.”

Augustine said, “But that’s impossible.”

The little boy responded, “No more impossible than your being able to understand the wonders of God.” Then the little boy disappeared.

The point Pastor Jeff was trying to make by retelling this legend is that we need to be humble. Humility is a virtue that underlies all the Bible readings of last weekend’s service. And it’s a virtue that is undervalued and quite scarce in our society. “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” is what the Old Testament prophet Micah said God wants us to do.

The gift I received from participating in worship last weekend was this image. I can picture myself trying to empty the ocean with a little plastic bucket, and I’ll be reminded – that’s how little I really understand the grand scheme of life on earth and how each of us fits in with God’s plan.

I guess there’s good reason I should be humble.

emptying ocean 10

Sibling Rivalry – We’re at it Again!

Siblings are the people we practice on, the people who teach us about fairness and cooperation and kindness and caring, quite often the hard way.  [Pamela Dugdale]

Danny and me a long time ago

Danny and me a long time ago

My brother Danny was almost two years old when I was born. According to our mom’s notes in my baby book, Danny’s first reaction to me was “pretty baby Marian” as he watched me sleeping in my crib. His next recorded comment was an exasperated, “Marian cries so loud I can’t think!” We’ve had a love-hate relationship ever since – for the past 65 years. I agree with Anna Quindlan when she says, “There is a little boy inside the man who is my brother… Oh, how I hated that little boy. And how I love him too.”

Danny Marrian Kittens

When we couldn’t get along, our cats were our friends.

As little kids, we played together – baseball, football, croquet, cowboys and Indians, Monopoly, and on very rare occasions – maybe once or twice in our whole childhood – we played with dolls. We worked together – feeding calves, gathering eggs, baling hay, washing and drying dishes, and whatever other chores Mom and Dad gave us to do. And almost every day we got into a fight over something – such as which story book Mom should read to us before bed, or whether or not the other person had done their fair share of the work we were jointly responsible for doing. Sometimes the fights were simply words and looks. Other times we’d hit each other. I was usually better at word fights. Danny was better at hitting. Fortunately, our anger at each other never lasted longer than a few minutes.

Danny and Marian - teenagers

Our teen years were not our best.

As we got older, we fought less, but we played together less, too. In grade school, I had become the studious little girl who got straight A’s, and Danny had become the boy who was interested in construction and mechanical challenges, and had little interest in books. If we passed each other in the hallway, Danny would look the other way rather than acknowledge that he knew me. I was an embarrassment to him. I guess the feeling was pretty mutual. The closest friendly thing I remember doing for Danny in high school was type a book report that his girlfriend had written for him so he would pass English.

We lived through those awkward years. When I graduated from college, Danny and his wife (who had written the book report) and their 3-year-old daughter helped me move from Wisconsin to Connecticut for my first job as an English teacher. From then on, we learned to relate to each other as adults, mostly.

Family Portrait - early 1960s

Family Portrait – early 1960s

I still love Danny, and I know he loves me, but we’re fighting again. He’s become the conservative, and I’ve become the liberal. Usually, we can avoid topics where we strongly disagree. But that wasn’t possible last weekend. A friend of ours held a wedding reception in her home for Mim and me. Our friend wanted to provide an opportunity for my family and a few close friends around Cambridge to celebrate our happiness. Although Danny has treated Mim as extended family for the forty years we have been together, he refused to come to our wedding reception because he doesn’t approve of same-sex marriage. That hurt me just as much as all those childhood punches. I’m sure our mom and dad are looking down from heaven and saying, “Won’t those kids ever stop fighting!”

No, I don’t think we will. We’re both human, and I’m sure we’ll both hurt each other, and forgive each other, until we die. “You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.” [Desmond Tutu]

Danny remodeled our old farmhouse into the perfect house for Mim and me. He also built swinging doors to help us keep guests out of the kitchen when Mim and I had a B&B.

Danny remodeled our old farmhouse into the perfect house for Mim and me in 1992. Later he built swinging doors to help us keep guests out of the kitchen when Mim and I turned the farmhouse into a bed and breakfast.

Grace and a Failing Grade

Grace quote with winter scene

Pastor Jeff told a quick story at the end of the church service last week. An old friend of his, a priest, had died earlier in the week. This story was told at his funeral. The priest had been an English teacher in a Catholic high school. Many years ago, one of his students came to him near the end of the school term and begged him not to give him an F. The student knew he deserved an F, but he didn’t want to have to take the class over again. He pleaded with the priest to give him a D instead. The priest responded with, “I’ll give you an A.” The student replied, “Oh no. I don’t deserve an A.” The priest replied, “You don’t deserve a D either. But if I’m going to give you a gift, I’m going to give you a good gift.” Pastor Jeff commented that the story is the best illustration of grace he’s ever heard.

“Grace” is a word with several different but related meanings. One definition that is helpful to me in understanding God’s grace comes from Tony Campolo. He was a frequent guest preacher at my church when I lived in Chicago. He says, “Grace is about us receiving from God blessings that we don’t deserve.”

Jeff’s story made the idea of grace more tangible to me last week. His story also prompted me to remember a couple incidents from the early 1970s when I was a high school English teacher. I also had students who pleaded with me to not give them an F – two of them; and academically, they both deserved F’s.

footballGary was a popular football player. He excelled on the football field, but he certainly never excelled in English. He was too busy to take the time to complete his homework assignments. About a week before the quarter ended he begged me for a D. If I gave him an F he would be kicked off the football team according to the school’s athletic policy.  I told him that if he completed his past-due homework assignments, I would give him a passing grade. The next day the football coach came to see me, to plead on behalf of the student. I repeated my offer. Gary did not complete any of his past-due homework assignments, and I gave him an F. Gary didn’t learn about grace from me, but he might have learned about it from his coach. He was not booted off the team.

F GradeDenny was a skinny little freshman. When he was in class, he was a very pleasant kid, and he was good in English. He was a good reader and a good writer. However, his attendance got progressively worse, and as a result of that, the majority of the grades in the grade book were I’s for Incomplete. I talked with him a few times throughout the term about attendance and completing his assignments, and he always said he’d try harder. Unfortunately, when it was time for me to calculate his grade, I couldn’t justify giving him anything but an F. (I wasn’t allowed to give a grade of Incomplete in that school system.) When Denny got his report card he came to see me with tears in his eyes. “Why did you flunk me? I’m good in English. Can’t you change the grade? My dad will kill me.” I felt so sorry for Denny. I really didn’t know how I could change his grade, even if I could justify it. The school’s grading system wasn’t designed to incorporate grace.

That's me as a brand new English teacher in the early 1970s.

That’s me as a brand new English teacher in the early 1970s.

These two stories happened 42 years ago – just after I had graduated from college. I was living in Connecticut where I was an English teacher for two years. I wonder whatever happened to Gary and Denny. I wonder if Gary understands the concept of grace partly because of the kindness of his coach. And I wonder if Denny ever was given the opportunity to learn about God’s grace by receiving some undeserved gift from someone else.

Besides wondering about my students, I guess I need to think about what I have learned about grace from the people in my life, and I need to thank God for bringing each of these people into my life.

Atlanta megachurch pastor Charles Stanley said it this way, “Thank the Lord for using each person as a tool in your life to deepen your insight into His grace and conform you to the image of His Son.”

Maria’s Story

Abbey is a good listener.

Abbey is a good listener.

“Hey, Abbey. Can you come here a minute? I need to talk, and I need someone to just listen.”

“OK, Mom. You know I’m always ready to just sit beside you and listen. What’s up?”

“I’m really sad today. I heard on the news that a woman in Madison was sentenced to 13 years in prison for killing her three-year-old son. I know that woman.”

“You do? How would you know a a person who killed a child?”

“She’s Maria. She’s been in the county jail for two years – from the time she was arrested, during her trial, and then waiting and waiting and waiting for the sentence.  She comes to the women’s worship service almost every other week, whenever she is allowed to come to the chapel.”

“Wow. You worship God with people who have killed people?”

“Abbey, God loves every man and woman in the county jail. There are lots of nice people in jail. Some of them have made mistakes and are sorry for them, and others are in jail by mistake – they really aren’t guilty. And some are in jail for good reason. God loves all of them.”

Abbey looked thoughtful as she said, “I know God loves them, but do they even think about God? I suppose maybe the ones that choose to go to “church” while they’re in jail think about God some. Maybe they are some of the nicer ones.”

“I wouldn’t describe every inmate that I see as I walk through the jail hallways to get to the chapel as a nice person, Abbey. But I wouldn’t describe every person I see as I walk down the street in Cambridge as a nice person either.”

“Boy, that’s for sure. I tried to say ‘good morning’ to a cat when Mim and I were out walking this morning, and the cat hissed something awful. I was just being friendly. That was not a nice cat! But tell me about Maria. Is she a nice person?”

jail - hand cuffs“Yes, she is. That’s partly why I was so sad to hear she was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Maria is from Mexico and has had a hard life. I don’t know many details, other than that she had a job, a boyfriend, and two children – the three-year-old boy who died and a baby. She didn’t speak much English, although she’s been learning enough to understand and speak it a little in jail out of necessity. Two years ago her son was injured. She took him to the hospital, where he died after a few days. She was blamed for his death. She claims her boyfriend is the one who injured the little boy, although she feels guilty for not protecting her son from her boyfriend. Two years ago when she was arrested, her other child, the baby, was taken from her and placed in foster care. She has not seen, nor heard anything about her baby since she was arrested.

“Can you imagine that, Abbey? Her three-year-old son was killed, her baby was taken away from her, and she’s been sitting in jail for two years waiting to find out what’s going to become of her life. And now she just learned that up to thirteen years in prison are ahead of her. I don’t know anything about the status of the relationship with her boyfriend, other than that he has not been charged with any crime related to the death of her son. I don’t know if he has visited her in jail, or not.”

“Wow, Mom. I see why you’re sad. And you said that Maria is a nice person. With all that’s happened to her, I wonder how she can be nice. I’d be so angry I’d growl at everyone around me!”

“I know it’s hard to understand, Abbey. Maria is very soft-spoken. Sometimes she looks really sad, but usually she tries to maintain a positive attitude, and she has such a pretty smile. She trusts that God will take care of her and she is thankful for that promise of God. Maria is also especially thankful that one of the jail chaplains arranged for her son’s ashes to be brought into the jail and that he held a funeral for her little boy. That was so important for Maria emotionally and spiritually. The chaplain even made all the arrangements necessary to have her son’s ashes sent to her family in Mexico for his final resting place.

“When Maria first started coming to the women’s worship service, another inmate who was bilingual interpreted everything for her. More recently, Maria has been giving her testimony in English, although she still prays in Spanish. A few weeks ago, Maria served as an interpreter for a new inmate who didn’t speak any English. Maria is so kind and gentle and caring. She’s a wonderful example of kindness and gentleness to other inmates.”

Abbey Profile 2“You know what that reminds me of, Mom?”

“What, Abbey?”

“You’ve told me that Pastor Jeff often says in his sermons that we may be the only ‘Jesus’ some people will ever see. Maybe God has allowed Maria to spend so much time in jail because she’s such a good ‘Jesus,’ and she may be the only ‘Jesus’ some inmates will ever see.”

“You may be right, Abbey. I certainly don’t know. But I do know that I am inspired by Maria’s gentleness, peacefulness, and loving attitude despite the twists and turns her life has taken. I also know she will need our prayers to be able to keep strong in her faith as she moves on to this next phase of her life as a prisoner.”

“Will you see her the next time you play the piano for the women’s worship service in jail?”

“I don’t know, Abbey. I don’t know if she’s been moved to the women’s prison yet, or if she’s still in the county jail? And, if she’s still here, it may or may not be the week for the women in her cell block to be able to go to “church.”

A prison cell door“Well, if you see her, tell her that I’ll be praying three things for her:  1) that God will keep her safe in prison;  2) that God will continue to comfort her and help her understand how much God loves her; and 3) that she will be a shining example of God’s presence in prison.”

“I’ll be sure to tell her, Abbey. And, thanks for listening to me. I really needed to talk about this today.”

Abbey-Marian

“Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope”

Dont Bother Me I Cant CopeOne of the first shows I went to see when I lived in Chicago was, “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope.” It was a musical review with songs about major themes of the 1970s – student protests, ghetto life, black power, and feminism. The musical style was a blend of gospel, jazz, soul, calypso, and soft rock. The show won several Tony Awards in 1973. That’s about when I saw it – almost forty years ago. What I remember most about the show is the rhythm of the title phrase, “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope.”

That phrase comes to mind occasionally when I’m dealing with something that’s really bothering me and I think the situation is hopeless. It came to mind again this past weekend with the horrible massacre in the elementary school in Connecticut.

One of the tangents my mind went off on from this terrible story was – Is there anything that could ever drive me to the point of wanting to kill someone? The short answer to the questions is yes. (I’ll explain that more below.) Fortunately, I can honestly say that I never have killed anyone, even though I must confess that emotionally I have wanted to. So, how do I cope with the extreme emotions that make me want to kill someone? How do other people cope?

blue toolboxGrowing up on the farm in southern Wisconsin, I quickly learned to become a problem-solver.  When the hay baler broke, my dad fixed it. When a gadget in the kitchen broke, I figured out how to fix it. A career in business management may seem like an unlikely fit for a farm girl, but it really was a natural. My approach to any organizational problem was to figure out how to fix it. That approach carries over to my personal life, too. Whatever challenges face me, my immediate instinct is to figure out how to overcome the challenge, “to fix it.” I’ve learned to be quite patient with this approach. If my first solution doesn’t work, I look for another one. Killing someone rarely comes up as the solution.

The first time I remember the killing option occurring to me as possibly the only solution to a problem was when I was battling state regulators in the department of commerce and the department of health. Mim and I wanted to put an addition onto our farmhouse so that we could become a wheel-chair accessible bed and breakfast. We were increasing our size from three guest rooms to four and we intended to make the house as universally accessible as we could for an old farmhouse. Only five percent of the B&Bs in Wisconsin were wheelchair accessible. We wanted to become one that was, to begin to increase that percentage. The state B&B law had a provision that said B&B’s could not have additions built onto them. That provision had been a compromise measure when the state had last changed the B&B law several years ago to allow B&Bs to have as many as eight guest rooms, instead of limiting them to four guest rooms. The “No Additions” provision of the law didn’t serve any good purpose and was actually counterproductive to improving the quality of B&Bs. That provision of the law was enforced inconsistently throughout the state – some counties completely ignored it, others enforced it rigorously.

MS CoupleIn our case, the local building inspector, who had to approve our plans in order for us to get a building permit, fought us tooth and nail, along with most of the state regulators in Madison. They were all committed to following the letter of the law rather than the intent of the law. We eventually worked out a compromise that permitted us to build the addition, but we had to conform to commercial building codes rather than residential codes, significantly increasing the cost of our addition. The negotiations took several weeks. We enlisted the support of the Wisconsin Bed & Breakfast Association, which gave us a louder voice. We continued the battle further after completing our addition. We worked with a state legislator in northern Wisconsin to get the law changed again so that no other B&B owners would have the same hassles we had. Additions on B&Bs are now legal – if the house is at least fifty years old. To get the votes needed to pass the new law, another one of those crazy compromise provisions had to be inserted. This one will probably have to be fought by someone else at some other time – a necessary evil of our contentious legislative process.

handgun 4The whole process of working with state regulators was the most irrational and frustrating experience I have ever had in my life. I couldn’t believe how unreasonable the regulators were and how powerless I felt. I can remember saying to Mim in the middle of the negotiations, I now can understand for the first time in my life why someone would actually resort to killing a person. I was that mad. Fortunately, I didn’t have a gun. And, fortunately, I have been blessed with a lot of patience and self-control.

“Don’t bother me. I can’t cope.” Everyone has problems. Everyone has a breaking point. And everyone responds in a different way when they reach their breaking point – when they “can’t cope.”

One of my friends knows that she’s at her wits end when she starts wishing someone is dead. She doesn’t fantasize about killing them. She leaves that up to God. She says that God rarely fulfills that wish, but she trusts that God will eventually help her deal with the relationship problem.

Another friend knows he is powerless to fix most problems, so his attitude is to ignore them. Eventually the problems will go away, or at least they’ll stop bothering him.

The Bible has lots of examples of people who are given terrible circumstances to cope with. Job’s situation was probably the worst. He coped by trying to understand why all this bad luck was happening to him. In the middle of all his sufferings he said, “God has no right to treat me like this – it isn’t fair! If I knew where on earth to find him, I’d go straight to him. I’d lay my case before him face-to-face, give him all my arguments firsthand. I’d find out exactly what he’s thinking, discover what’s going on in his head. Do you think he’d dismiss me or bully me? No, he’d take me seriously.” (Job 23:2b-6 The Message) Despite all the suffering he went through, Job still trusted that God was in ultimate control. Even if Job couldn’t understand why God was allowing these things to happen to him, he would cope by trusting God.

I guess that’s what I should try to do, too. If I can’t fix a problem, and I can’t even fully grasp the reasons behind the problem, I can still trust that God understands what’s happening, and that God is ultimately in control of the whole situation. God understands my frustration, too. For now, that’s enough.

Pastor Holding Bible

The Life of a Farmhouse

Captain Kangaroo talking with Grandfather Clock.

Captain Kangaroo talking with Grandfather Clock.

When I was a kid, I’d occasionally watch “Captain Kangaroo” on TV. One of the characters on the show was Grandfather Clock. He was a tall, normal-looking grandfather clock, except he had a cartoon-like face and he talked. He often talked about whatever was on his mind and how he felt about it.  I thought about Grandfather Clock today because I’ve been having a conversation in my mind with our farmhouse, another supposedly inanimate object just like Grandfather Clock. The farmhouse (FH) was rather talkative and she let me know how she was feeling. FH has feelings, too. At least in my mind she does.

Painting of the farmhouse about ten years ago.

Painting of the farmhouse about ten years ago.

What prompted this conversation is that the farmhouse will be going through another transition over the next month. Whispering Winds will be going on hiatus. The farmhouse will become home to a family for the next couple years while this family is in a transition period.

I asked FH how she feels about this change. She responded, “I’m looking forward to having Mike and Nancy live here. I’ve enjoyed welcoming new people every week or so, but I’m ready for some consistency for a while.  And, Mike said he loves to do yard work. I know you and Mim try to keep up with the weeding, lawn mowing, trimming shrubs, and cutting asparagus and rhubarb, but I can tell it’s a struggle for both of you to keep up with everything. I think Mike may treat the yard more lovingly than you have been doing lately.”

“That’s probably true,” I agreed. “But won’t you miss all the warm feelings shared by the people who come here for retreats?”

“Oh, I’m sure I will, but I expect we’ll go back to welcoming guests here again before too long. I have a 122-year history of welcoming guests into my rooms. I’ve had thousands of people within my walls. Some have stayed for just a day or two. Some guests have become part of the family and have stayed for several years.”

“That’s a long history, FH. Tell me a little about it.”

Marian's grandfather, Martin Kenseth, plowing with horses.

Marian’s grandfather, Martin Kenseth, plowing with horses.

“I don’t remember my first couple decades very well. I know I was built in 1890. My memory of the first family who lived in me is pretty fuzzy. But I remember the second family well. It was your grandparents and your mom and her brothers. They came to live here in 1908. Your mom was just three weeks old when they moved in. A year later your mom was blessed with a baby brother, and then a few years later she got another baby brother. The whole family worked really hard on the farm – milking cows, taking care of chickens, and driving a team of horses to work the fields. But no one worked on Sundays, except for what really had to be done, like milking the cows. Instead, everyone went to church both in the morning and in the evening. But the afternoons were for relaxing and having fun. Throughout the summer, all the kids from church came out to the farm to play baseball on the lawn by the road. Your grandma made root beer for everyone to quench their thirst. All the kids had so much fun!”

“Yeah. I remember my mom talked about how much fun they had playing together here. Everyone really liked my grandma’s root beer, too. Another thing my mom told me about my grandma is that she was constantly rearranging the rooms in the house. My mom said that at some time or other, every room of the house was her bedroom. Is that true?”

FH laughed. “Well, she may have exaggerated a little. But your grandma did move things around a lot. That’s one way she kept me clean. When you move all the furniture out of a room, it’s easy to clean it thoroughly before moving any furniture back in.”

“When I grew up in the house, I always had the same bedroom.”

Building the new barn about 1955.

Building the new barn about 1955.

“Yes, I think your mom compensated for the disruption in her life of constantly changing rooms by never, ever, changing the rooms or rearranging any furniture within a room when she was in charge. When your grandparents retired, they moved to a small house in town, and your parents took over the farm. Your mom loved living here. Your mom and dad modernized the farm to mid-1950’s standards. They built a new barn and they made quite a few improvements to the house – like indoor plumbing, electricity, and a furnace. They added a new kitchen, too.”

“I’ve always loved living here, too. It’s out in the country, but it’s close to town. It’s just so peaceful here. That’s what most of our guests have said about our home. It’s so peaceful.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Marian. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to serve as a peaceful refuge for so many people. I think one of the reasons for the peacefulness people sense here is that God has been directly invited several times to be present within my walls. Your mom first had a house blessing sometime in the 1970’s. The pastor walked through the house, room by room, with your parents and some of their friends and invited God to be present at all times in each room throughout the whole house.”

“I remember my mom telling me about that, but I was living in Chicago at the time, so I wasn’t here for it. But Mim and I had house blessings, too, when we turned you into Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast, and when we became handicapped accessible, and when we became a retreat center, and…”

“That’s right. But you’re getting ahead of my story. After your parents died, you decided to have your brother remodel me into your dream house. What a “facelift” that was! You stretched me from a 1500 square foot century-old farmhouse into a 3000 square foot country home with plenty of space for guests. The expansion was a real shock to my system, but I’m glad you did it.”

Mim's mom (Selma), Mim and me on the front porch

Mim’s mom (Selma), Mim and me on the front porch

“I’m glad we did it, too. We completed the remodeling just in time. About half a year after we moved within your walls, Mim’s mom had a stroke. She became our first long-term guest. She lived with us almost five years.”

“Mim’s mom liked to have guests, too. Quite a few of her friends from Minnesota came to visit and they stayed in my rooms for a few days when she was living with you. That was a good warm-up for my next phase – when you named me “Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast.”

“You have gone through a lot of changes, FH.”

“You’re right about that. A lot of changes and a lot of guests! Over 2,000 guests stayed in my guest rooms over the next five years. They came from all over – from 45 states and 12 foreign countries. It was so much fun to share the peacefulness of the farm setting with so many people. Some people fell so much in love with me that they came back again and again. Some of them even chose one of my rooms as their favorite to return to a couple times a year.”

“That’s when Mim and I decided it was time to stretch you even further – we put on another 600 square foot addition so that we could more easily accommodate people in wheelchairs and with other physical limitations.”

“Yeah. You thought you were doing it for B&B guests, but God had something more in mind. After September 11, 2001, travel declined significantly. You decided to adapt all my doorways a little, put in permanent ramps, and you changed my name again – from ‘Country Comforts Bed & Breakfast’ to ‘Country Comforts Assisted Living.’ That was quite a change, too, but those years were very satisfying. I became ‘home’ to ten elderly people over the next five years, two or three at a time.”

“How did you feel in 2007, FH, when we decided to leave you and move to a new condo in the pasture? You knew we were trying to sell you. Did that hurt?”

“I was a little apprehensive, not knowing who would come along to buy me. But, with more than a hundred years of God bringing the right people through my doors, I knew whoever came next would be the right people. When no one seemed to want to buy me, I couldn’t understand why. But then it became clear. And you caught on, too. God wanted us to be together a while longer. That’s when you renamed me ‘Whispering Winds Retreat Haven.’ I became a B&B-style retreat center. That was my best identity yet. I love having people come through my doors to spend quiet time praying and listening for what God has to say to them.”

“And that brings us to the present – on the verge of another change. Are you okay with it, FH? To have just one family living with you for a couple years?”

“Like I said before, with all the house blessings we’ve had, I know that God will always be within my rooms. Whoever comes through my doors will be blessed. I’m sure that will be the case for Mike and Nancy, and for whoever comes after them, whether I return to being Whispering Winds and welcome more guests coming on retreat, or whether there is some other use for my next phase. I know that God will always be with me, and that makes every next phase a great adventure.”

“I’m glad you feel that way, FH.”

“There’s something I’ve been wondering about you, Marian. When my ‘Whispering Winds’ identity goes on hiatus next month, are you going to keep writing the Whispering Winds Blog?”

“I plan to keep writing every Monday, just as I have for the last couple years. Obviously I won’t be talking about what’s going on at Whispering Winds, but I’m sure God will prompt me to write about other things. I really enjoy the online conversation I’m having with my readers.”

“Good! I’m ready to move on to my next adventure.”

“Me, too!”

The farmhouse this fall

The farmhouse this fall

Getting Together with God and Some Friends in Jail

Singing behind bars.

Last Thursday I had a glimpse into some of the unfairness and viciousness experienced by the women spending time in the county jail. As usual, I went through security to get into the jail and walked down the long hallway to the chapel to play the piano for the women’s worship service. Chaplain Julia was already there, arranging the chairs into a small circle. I turned on the digital piano and confirmed with Julia the songs we would sing – “There Is a Balm in Gilead” and “Arise, Your Light Is Come.”

A few minutes later a guard escorted five inmates into the chapel and locked the door behind them. As soon as we were all seated in the circle, one of the inmates, Georgiana, said, “I know we will have a chance to share what’s on our hearts later, but can I talk now? I really need to talk about what’s weighing so heavily on me.” There were tears in her eyes.

Chaplain Julia said, “Sure. You can talk now.”

Georgiana told us about what was happening in her cell block. “Our cell block is the most dysfunctional cell block in the jail. We’re completely full. There are eight of us. The women in there are so loud and abusive. One woman, in particular, is always yelling at me, telling me to do this, do that – get her some cold water, get this – whatever she wants. And I just get up and do it. Then she yells at me about something else. Anyone who doesn’t do what she says gets beaten up. And she’s so loud, and always yelling about something. I can’t even read my Bible. I can’t concentrate with her always yelling at someone – usually me.”

The other inmates sitting in the circle listened sympathetically. Maria confirmed how bad that cell block is. She said, “I’m in the next cell block and can hear the yelling through the wall. It’s really bad in there.”

Georgiana said, “I know I’m just venting. But it’s so good to be here among Christians and feel their support. I’m just praying it will get better in there. One of the deputies said that the worst woman is going to be moved out. I just pray that will happen, and soon.”

After about 15 minutes of this unscheduled time of sharing and support, Chaplain Julia began the planned service with a short reading about stories in the Bible where God helps women arise out of their circumstances. After the reading we sang our opening hymn together, “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” The women sang heartily.

Then God spoke to us. Just like that. The Scripture readings included Psalm 123. We all were astounded as we heard one of the inmates read these words:

Our Lord and our God,
I turn my eyes to you,
on your throne in heaven.

Servants look to their master,
but we will look to you,
until you have mercy on us.

Please have mercy, Lord!
We have been insulted
more than we can stand,

and we can’t take more abuse
from those proud,
conceited people.

[Psalm 123, Contemporary English Version]

It was like God had been listening to our conversation and knew just what we needed to hear.  A few thousand years ago the writer of this Psalm was crying out to God with almost exactly the same words Georgiana had used today. God has been listening to us crying out for help for a long time.

We continued with the rest of the Bible readings and our testimony time. We went around the circle and each shared what the Scripture readings meant to us personally in the context of what’s going on in our own lives. When it was Georgiana’s turn, she asked us to pray for Lisa, another inmate, whose sister was on life support. Lisa was trying to get a pass from jail to go see her sister and say good-by before they discontinued life support for her. Lisa’s sister had had an aneurism and had suffered considerable brain damage.

After the testimony time and some quiet time for writing down prayer requests we went around the circle again, praying for the person on our right. I prayed for Georgiana. Then we sang our closing hymn. Chaplain Julia ended the service with a blessing, and I went back to the piano to play some uplifting hymns as a postlude of sorts while we waited for a guard to come to escort the women back to their cells.

Since our worship time together had gone a little longer than usual, we happened to hit the change-of-shift time for the guards. That meant we had about a 15-minute wait for a guard to come to take the women back to their cells.

While we waited, I just kept playing more hymns on the piano. When I started to play “How Great Thou Art” I heard a soft, beautiful soprano voice singing behind me. It was Georgiana. For the next ten minutes she sang along as I played. She requested a few praise songs. The ones I knew, I played and she sang. The ones I didn’t know, I listened as she sang a capella. For a few of the well-known hymns – like “Jesus Loves Me” and “Amazing Grace” – several of the women sang along. By the time the guard finally came, we had quite a “choir of angels” singing praise to God.

Whenever two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them. [Matthew 18:20]

Last Thursday, that’s what happened in the county jail. I was richly blessed to be a part of the gathering.