Tag Archive | family of God

Is It Over Yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An Odd Favorite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mary and Abbey were friends, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mary and Doris sharing good times.

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

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

“Family”

Mim and Marian eating lutefisk dinner at St. Olaf College about 40 years ago.

Mim and Marian eating lutefisk dinner
at St. Olaf College about 40 years ago.

About 40 years ago, I went “home” with Mim for the first time. We drove from Chicago to Kenyon, Minnesota, at least a seven-hour drive, the first weekend in December. In Kenyon, we picked up Mim’s mom, Selma, and drove another 15 miles to go to the St. Olaf College Christmas concert. Mim’s mom, who worked in food service at St. Olaf, was able to get us tickets for the concert, a major achievement for a very popular annual concert.  That was the first of many St. Olaf Christmas concerts I went to with Mim and her mom.

That was also the first time I went with Mim to her home church, Gol Lutheran Church in rural Kenyon. It had been Mim’s family church on her mom’s side for four generations, ever since they immigrated from Norway. Also, Mim’s dad had been the pastor at Gol for 20years.

Mim - Selma outside church 125th adjMy first reaction to Mim’s church was – what a beautiful old country church. I was a little frustrated with trying to follow the liturgy, which was much more structured than I was used to, having grown up a Methodist. Mim’s mom was proud to have her daughter and her roommate home for the weekend, so we stood around and talked to a lot of people after the service. That was not my favorite part of the weekend! Making small talk with strangers has never been one of my strengths.

Over the next 20 years, Mim and I went to Kenyon to visit Selma one or two weekends a year, and we always went to church with her. Gradually, I got to know a few of the people in the church and I started to feel a little more at home there.

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Mim and Selma at Gol’s 125th Anniversary

In 1989, Gol celebrated its 125th anniversary in style. Mim and I joined Selma for the whole weekend, and we all enjoyed lots of music, lots of eating, lots of picture taking, and an original play that taught us lots about Gol church history.

Twenty-five years later, last weekend, Gol celebrated its 150th anniversary. Mim really wanted to participate in the celebration. I was considerably less enthusiastic about spending a whole weekend in Kenyon, Minnesota with a couple hundred people I didn’t know.  At best, I might know two or three people. But, I figured this is one of those things you have to do for family. So we spent the weekend in Minnesota.

Much to my surprise, I had a great time all weekend. “Family” really is the key word. As Philip Yancey, one of my favorite authors, has said, “I go to church as an expression of my need for God and for God’s family.” We spent the weekend with one particular branch of God’s family. We were with about 250 of God’s family members – almost all of Norwegian descent. I think everyone had great appreciation for Norwegian-American church history, food, and music. Of the 250 people, I recognized about a dozen of them from my previous visits to Gol. Mim introduced me to about another dozen of her old friends. All 24 of them were people I enjoyed visiting with. I’ll have to admit, it was kind of fun to get together with this big extended church family.

The Rev. John Hagen, a former pastor of Gol, preached briefly from the steps of the farmhouse where the congregation met before the church was built.

The Rev. John Hagen, a former pastor of Gol, preached briefly from the steps of the farmhouse where the congregation had met before the church was built.

Finally I’m beginning to understand that my extended church family is growing bigger and bigger. It started with the church of my childhood  – Willerup United Methodist Church in Cambridge. Even though Willerup is no longer the church where I regularly go to worship God, I still feel connected to some of God’s family members who worship there. I also feel connected to the building itself where I spent literally thousands of hours (on average 4 hours per week, 52 weeks a year, 18 years plus 4 summers during my college years) learning about God. I also feel a connection to the cemetery next door where my parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and other relatives are buried.

My growing extended church family also includes members of Resurrection Lutheran Church in Chicago, Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison, as well as other churches I have been a part of over the years. And since Gol is a big part of Mim’s church family, it has also become part of my church family.

The more I think about my extended church family, the more I realize how big it really is. Beyond all the church family members I know personally, God’s family is described in the Bible this way:

Now you are no longer strangers to God and foreigners to heaven, but you are members of God’s very own family, citizens of God’s country, and you belong in God’s household with every other Christian. What a foundation you stand on now: the apostles and the prophets; and the cornerstone of the building is Jesus Christ himself! We who believe are carefully joined together with Christ as parts of a beautiful, constantly growing temple for God. And you also are joined with him and with each other by the Spirit, and are part of this dwelling place of God. [Ephesians 2:19-22 The Living Bible]

Spending last weekend with all the people celebrating the 150-year history of one small branch of God’s family in Minnesota reminded me of the Bill Gaither song, “The Family of God.” Here’s the chorus:

I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God
I’ve been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His blood!
Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod;
For I’m part of the family, the family of God.

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“Part of the family, the family of God”

My Mom’s Wedding Ring

My mom's wedding ring is a simple gold band with seven tiny diamond chips set in the top quarter of the band.

My mom’s wedding ring is a simple gold band with seven tiny diamond chips set in the top quarter of the band.

I wore my mom’s wedding ring to church on Sunday. I sometimes wear the ring when I want to feel that Mom is especially close to me. Often that’s when I’m planning to play some extra special music on the piano or organ at church, and I know Mom would really enjoy listening to it. I usually wear it to church on Christmas Eve when I play lots of Christmas music on both the piano and organ, and lead the congregation in singing Christmas carols.

I wore the ring last Sunday because it was my last Sunday of being an organist of East Koshkonong Lutheran Church. I’ve been half-time organist there for exactly one year to the day. I may still play at East occasionally as a substitute, but I’ve decided to stop playing there regularly, and will be playing more often at my home church, Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison.

East Koshkonong Lutheran Church is a beautiful old country church about 5 miles southwest of Cambridge.

East Koshkonong Lutheran Church is a beautiful old country church about 5 miles southwest of Cambridge. The sanctuary has some of the most beautiful stained glass windows I have ever seen. The organ and piano are in the balcony.

For my last regular Sunday at East, I played an extended prelude, about fifteen minutes. First I played two arrangements of my mom’s favorite gospel songs on the piano – “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and “In the Garden.” Then I played one of my favorite piano arrangements that weaves together two hymns – “It Is Well with My Soul” and “Be Still My Soul.” Then I moved to the organ and played a transcription of “Finlandia” – the original source of the tune for the hymn “Be Still My Soul.” I’m pretty sure my mom was listening.

After church I was honored with a special coffee hour. I was a little uncomfortable with being the center of attention. (I got that trait from my mom. My dad would have loved the attention.) But it really was nice to have so many people come up to me to tell me how much they had enjoyed my playing over the past year. Some of them have become good friends and I’ll miss seeing them regularly. Others I had not met previously, but it was nice to know they had enjoyed my music and they wanted me to know that.

I’m very thankful for the experience I’ve had over the past year of becoming a part of the church family that worships together at East. I guess I’ll still consider the people at East to be part of my “extended church family,” and I’ll look forward to subbing there occasionally to be able to worship together again.

That reminds me of a song written by Bill Gaither. It was a favorite of one of our assisted living residents, Mary Borgerud, and we used to sing it together frequently when she lived with us.

I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God –
I’ve been washed in the fountain, cleansed by His blood!
Joint heirs with Jesus as we travel this sod;
For I’m part of the family, the family of God.

My mom liked that song, too. Maybe I should wear her ring more often to be reminded that we’re always in the company of a really big extended family, the family of God.

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