Tag Archive | funeral

A Glimpse of God’s Love

Last Saturday, Mim and I tried to drive to Chicago, normally about a two and a half hour drive, for a memorial service. Unfortunately, we got only as far as the distant northwest suburbs before we decided to turn around and go home. Although the weather forecast for Chicago was to get only 1 to 3 inches of snow, visibility had diminished to just a few car lengths, and the roads were getting pretty slippery. We thought it would be wiser to write a letter to our friend’s adult children to explain how much we admired their dad and how much we learned about God’s love from him.

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Jon presented me with a chocolate cake when I retired from the CCHC board.

Jon Beran was one of three founding doctors of Circle Christian Health Center (CCHC), a not-for-profit clinic on the far west side of Chicago – a very poor and violent, mostly African American neighborhood, and a medically under-served part of Chicago. Mim worked at the clinic in the early 1980s after she completed her advanced practice degree as a nurse practitioner. I served on the board of CCHC when I completed my MBA. We both chose Jon to be our personal physician. He was a good doctor, a good listener, and perhaps the kindest, most gentle, and most humble person I’ve ever met. 

When Jon was in medical school in the early 1970s, he attended Circle Church, an Evangelical Free congregation that met in rented space – the Teamster’s Union Hall on the near west side of Chicago, close to Circle Campus of the University of Illinois. The mostly college-aged and young professional members of the congregation enthusiastically committed their lives to serving Christ in their chosen professions wherever the needs were greatest. 

At that time, one of the most socially and economically distressed neighborhoods in Chicago was Austin, on the far west side of the city. A group of people within the Circle Church congregation decided to move into Austin to serve the people of that community. Circle Urban Ministries was founded as the network that would link a medical clinic, a counseling center, a legal aid practice, a youth center, and eventually a church. 

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Staff of CCHF in the late 1970s. Jon and Nita on left.

Jon and his wife Nita (a nurse) bought a house in Austin. They had two children and raised them in that neighborhood. (Their son has become an architect and their daughter has become a family practice physician, like her dad.) Both Jon and Nita spent their entire careers serving the people of Austin through CCHC. Nita passed away two years ago. Mim and I made it to her visitation. It was obvious by all the people from the neighborhood at the funeral home that Nita and Jon were very much loved by their community.

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Mom kept crocheting afghans for babies of teenage mothers in Chicago until just a few weeks before she died.

One of my favorite memories of Jon relates to my mom. When she was in the last stages of liver cancer, Mom and Dad came to live with Mim and me in Chicago for her last six weeks. Although we got Mom signed up to receive hospice care while she lived with us, she needed to have a local doctor see her and prescribe medications. We asked Jon if he would be her doctor. Of course, he said yes. Mom was too weak to ride to the clinic, so Jon made house calls to see her. We lived pretty far from Austin, about a 30-minute drive or 45-minute trip on the “L” each way, but Jon came over to see her as often as she needed him, usually coming by “L.” He carried his stethoscope and other doctoring tools in a Jewel Food Store plastic bag. He didn’t carry a doctor’s bag because he didn’t want to look like a doctor who might be carrying drugs.

Besides caring for Mom’s physical needs, Jon also took time to listen to Mom talk about how she was trusting God to heal her. I didn’t eavesdrop on the whole conversation, but I know Jon somehow related her trust in God to the trust his children needed to have in him when he was teaching them how to swim. They needed to trust that he would take care of them even though they didn’t totally understand how everything was going to work. Then Jon prayed with Mom.

As I mentioned in this blog last week, my special word for 2019 is LOVE, as in the LOVE OF GOD. One of the books I’m reading to kick off my year-long reflection on LOVE is BUMPING INTO GOD: 35 stories of finding grace in unexpected places by Dominic Grassi, a Catholic priest who lives in Chicago. From the back cover of the book,

fullsizeoutput_2785A natural storyteller, Dominic Grassi invites readers to share his warm memories of life in Chicago over the past five decades. He shows how God is reflected in the people we meet every day: a butcher, a bookstore owner, a short-order cook. 

And, I would add, a special doctor named Jon. I’m sure thousands of people have caught a glimpse of God’s love by bumping into Jon sometime in their lives. I know my mom did. And so did I.

 

Ghostly Tricks

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Doris and Mary having a good laugh with Abbey – our best caregiver of all. (About 10 years ago)

Over the past 14 years, Mim and I have cared for more than twenty elderly people who have lived with us in our home, usually one or two residents at a time. Almost all of them have lived out their last days with us. Some of them lived with us for just a few days, some a few months, and some a few years. We have been honored to have cared for them as they journeyed from this life into the next life.

Today is All Saints Day, a day to remember each one of them, along with all the other people who have been close to us throughout our lives, and who are no longer with us on earth.

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Mim helping Doris get dressed up for Halloween.

One of our former residents, Doris, has actually been on my mind a lot lately. Doris lived with us almost four years, and she and her family became close members of our extended assisted living family.

Doris had a good sense of humor and liked to joke around with people. She often warned us that she was going to come back and haunt us after she died. Well, she’s come back. Really! I didn’t want to believe that she would follow through on her joking threat, but I can’t think of any other explanation for what has happened.

Several months ago I replaced my 5-year-old HP laptop with my first Apple product, a MacBook. The biggest challenge I had with my transition into the Mac world was getting my big fancy Konica Minolta laser printer/copier to work with the Mac. After hours of trial and error plus long phone calls to Apple Support, I finally was able to download a third-party printer driver that works pretty well – not perfectly, but at least I can print most documents.

A couple days after I finally got the printer working, I tried to boot it up one morning, and it was completely dead. I tried everything I could think of – with no success. I finally placed a service call with Konica Minolta to have them come out to fix it. The printer appeared to be completely dead. Not even the copier function would work.

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My Konica Minolta printer/copier is an excellent color laser printer, but it’s big and heavy.

This printer/copier is a large, heavy, floor model – something I don’t move around very often when I clean house. But I decided to do a little cleaning that day so my office would look better for the Konica Minolta repairman. I tugged the printer in one direction, then the other, to “walk” it away from the wall so that I could vacuum behind it. I couldn’t believe what I saw! The printer cord was plugged into a surge protector/power strip, and the power strip was not plugged into the wall outlet. It was plugged into itself! I called Mim over to take a look. She was as shocked as I was. I unplugged the power strip from itself, plugged it into the wall outlet, turned the printer/copier on, and it worked just fine. I immediately called Konica Minolta to cancel the service call.

img_1600Mim and I tried our hardest to figure out how that could have happened. Did one of us sleep-walk (which we’ve never done as far as we know), struggle to pull the printer/copier away from the wall, mess up the cords, and then shove the printer/copier back in place – all without waking up or making enough noise to wake up the other person or even our dog? Did someone break into the house the previous night while we were asleep and do it as a practical joke? The printer had worked the night before, but not that morning.

Hmmm. Practical joke… The only person we could think of who would do a practical joke like that was the ghost of Doris… In my mind, I’ve given Doris a high-five, and we’ve had a good laugh over it.

I’m sure Doris isn’t the only friendly ghost who has visited our home. The most usual time for ghosts and angels to visit us has been when one of our residents is near death, and a deceased parent, or spouse, or even a stranger comes into the room of the person who is near death. This visitor has come to comfort, or possibly escort the resident to the next life. Mim and I have never seen any of the special visitors ourselves, but several residents have told us about them.

All Saints Day is a time to remember all who have died in Christ, and who are now gathering in heaven to praise God. That includes Doris, even though she may sometimes sneak back down to earth to play a practical joke on us.

The image of a crowd of saints gathering together in heaven is suggested several places in the Bible. For example, Revelation 7:9-10 says:

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

In 1864 William Waltham How, an Anglican bishop, wrote a hymn using this image. Forty-two years later, Ralph Vaughan Williams composed a new tune for the hymn, creating one of the most moving and dramatic of all Christian hymns – “For All the Saints.” Here are the first and last verses. (You may want to google the title for the rest of the words.)

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who They by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, of Jesus, be forever blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia! Alleluia!

For me, the highlight of All Saints Sunday is playing this hymn on a pipe organ and hearing the congregation loudly singing the joyful words. It puts a lump in my throat every year.

On the other end of the musical spectrum is a spiritual that describes the same image – “When the Saints Go Marching In.” There are many different verses for this song, both sacred and secular, the usual first and last verses are:

O when the saints go marching in,
O when the saints go marching in,
O Lord, I want to be in that number
when the saints go marching in.

O when they crown Him Lord of all,
O when they crown Him Lord of all,
O Lord, I want to be in that number
when they crown Him Lord of all.

In Cambridge, my hometown, the “Fight Song” for the high school football and basketball teams is “When the Jays Go Marching In.” (The Cambridge mascot is the blue jay.)

Back to our assisted living residents that I’m remembering today. Helen had been my first grade teacher, and had always been an enthusiastic fan of our school sports teams. (Her husband had been the high school principal and the football coach.)

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It was a special privilege to care for my first grade teacher in her last months.

The most fun I ever had playing the organ for a funeral was for Helen’s. For the postlude I played the majestic descending opening line of “For All the Saints” and then played its mirror image in the ascending opening line of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I kept weaving these two tunes together as the people processed out of the church. It was the most fun juxtaposition of very different melodies on the same subject I’ve ever played around with.

I don’t know if Helen thought I was playing a joke on her by making up that postlude, or not, but I’m pretty sure she was smiling along with me and her friends and relatives as they processed out of the church.

Thanks to Doris and Helen and many of our other residents, there’s no doubt in my mind that ghosts and saints still have a sense of humor.

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Our “All Saints Wall” where pictures are mounted of all the people we have cared for in our home.

Consistency vs. Change

Marian Smiling BW adjFive years, four months, and one week. That’s how long I’ve been writing weekly blog posts for the Whispering Winds Blog. As of today, that’s 279 posts. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had something to write about every single week without exception. Sometimes the ideas have come from Mim, or Pastor Jeff, or something I experienced, or something I read, or even something I ate! Sometimes I just happened to remember something from my past. Sometimes I even think God might have planted an idea in my mind for me to explore.

I really enjoy writing this blog, and I plan to continue to write posts as long as I can. However, I’ve decided to heed the advice of one of my own posts. On April 29, 2014, I posted “The Virtue of Inconsistency.” I began the post with one of my favorite quotations: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

After five years, four months, and one week, I’ve decided to introduce a little inconsistency into the timing of my blog posts. I don’t know yet when I will make my next post to this blog. It may be next week, or it may be next month. My plan is to post to the blog whenever I have something to talk about.

For example, I’m going to Chicago this week for the funeral of an old friend. I expect to see a few friends from my early years in Chicago at the visitation. Maybe I’ll want to share some of my thoughts from that day. Maybe not.

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Staff of Circle Community Health Center where Mim worked and where I served on the board in the early 1980s.

Also, I haven’t written anything lately about worshiping God in jail. I don’t play the piano twice a month for the women’s worship service in the county jail like I used to. I just play occasionally, usually for special times like Christmas and Easter, but I’ll be playing twice in August. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m inspired by one or more of the inmates – or the chaplain – and I’ll want to tell you all about that.

And, I’ve started to read the first of my two new books on kindness. I’m quite certain I’ll learn something that I’ll want to tell you about. Or, Floey may just decide it’s time for another one of our conversations – either about kindness, or about something else that pops into her mind.

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So, why have I decided to be more sporadic with my blog posts?

Typically I spend about 12 hours a week thinking up a topic, writing a reflection, editing the language, finding or taking pictures to illustrate it, formatting the layout, posting to the blog, and announcing the post by email and on Facebook. Those 12 hours are often the best hours of my week. I really enjoy doing a blog.

But, there are a few other projects percolating in the back of my mind, and I think I need to take back some of my time from the blog to devote to these other projects for a while. One project has to do with writing, one with music, and one with both.

511XwNSqK8L._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_The writing project relates to a book I read several months ago, SOUL SURVIVOR: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church by Philip Yancey. This book has a Preface, an Epilogue, and 13 chapters in between. Each chapter is about a person who profoundly affected the author’s life, who had an impact on his soul. The characters were as wide ranging as Mahatma Gandhi and Leo Tolstoy, John Donne and Frederick Buechner. The stories Yancey told in each chapter were fascinating. By the end of the book, I found myself wondering, “Who are the people who have influenced my life? Who are the people I’ve known personally as friends and family who have impacted my soul? Who are the people who have influenced me from afar like Joan Chittister and other favorite authors?” I decided I’d like to write about my own spiritual journey, following the pattern Yancey established, by writing a short chapter about each person who has had a significant impact on my spiritual development. I don’t know that I’ll ever publish the book, but I think the process of writing it will be very enlightening to me personally. I may post individual chapters on my blog if I think others may benefit from reading my observations.

The music project is in response to a specific request. A few months ago Mim asked me for a special present for her 70th birthday – August 5, 2017 (next year). She wanted to give me plenty of time to get it ready. She wants me to record a CD of me playing some of her favorite music on the piano. She said she was thinking about what she might miss most after I die (assuming I die first), and she decided it would be listening to me playing the piano. Hence her request. We’ve come up with a list of hymn arrangements, classical music, and golden oldies she really likes. Based on the length of the lists, I think we’re talking about three CDs, not one. I need to get busy. I’m not planning to die soon – but Mim has proposed the deadline of her next birthday, only 12 months away.

Marian playing Baldwin

The third project, which involves both writing and music, is something that I want to do simply for myself because I think it will be both fun and inspiring. I want to put together a 3-ring binder of 365 of my favorite hymns, arranged by season and date. I want a 2-page spread for each hymn with the hymn itself on one side, and a story or reflection related to the hymn on the opposite side, with space for journaling comments on the bottom of the story side. Essentially this book will be a daily devotional for me to use based on great hymns.

I can hardly wait to get started on all three projects. By freeing up some of the time devoted to my blog, I think I can jump into the new projects. (And I have a few other projects in the back of my mind, too, waiting for free time and the right time to begin…)

My next blog post is unlikely to appear next Tuesday morning. But whenever it’s ready, I’ll send out my usual email and will also announce it on Facebook, as I have done for the past five years, four months, and one week. Also, if you have signed up to receive my posts directly from WhisperingWinds.com, you will continue to get them as they are posted.

Thanks for being my faithful readers over the past five years. I value the relationship we have begun, and I trust it will continue to grow as I incorporate the benefits of inconsistency into the next phase of my blogging and other writing.

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Grinning from Ear to Ear

Floey is always happy to see me - or anyone else.

Floey is always happy to see me – or anyone else.

Floey greeted me as I walked in the door.

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That’s me – grinning from ear to ear.

“Hey, Mom, welcome home. But why do you have such a big smile on your face? I thought you were at a funeral.”

“You’re right, Floey. I was at a funeral. It was the fifteenth funeral I’ve played the organ for so far this year. It was a very nice funeral for a beautiful, kind, loving, 103-year-old woman. There was a lot of love expressed and felt throughout the whole church.”

“That’s nice, Mom, but you’re grinning from ear to ear. Did the funeral really put that big smile on your face?”

“Well, not really, Floey. It was almost noon when I left the church and I was really hungry, so I stopped at the McDonald’s in Cottage Grove on my way home.”

“What in the world did you eat at McDonald’s that made you that happy?”

“Well, I was hungry for their filet-of-fish sandwich, and of course I got the ‘meal deal’ to get fries and a soda with it. The food was good, but that’s not what made me smile. When I pulled into the BP station that the McDonald’s is attached to, I saw that there was only one parking place left. I took it, but groaned when I saw three big construction workers get out of the van next to me and walk toward the McDonald’s entrance. I followed them into McDonald’s, and groaned again. The small restaurant area was packed with over a dozen people in line. I almost turned around and walked out. I probably could drive home and make a sandwich about as quickly as I would get my food here. But by that time, I was really craving a filet-of-fish sandwich, so I decided to wait a couple minutes to see how fast the line moved. I was amazed. In almost no time, I was ordering my meal. The clerk offered to give me my cup while I waited for my meal, so I could get my soda right away. I got my drink, waited just a couple minutes, and then sat down to eat in a clean booth.”

McDonalds Filet-of-Fish Meal

Not the healthiest, but just what I was hungry for.

“You were lucky, Mom. Sometimes you really have to wait a long time to get your food at that time of day, and then when you do, there’s no place to sit – or at least no clean place.”

high five“Yeah, I know. I really was lucky. As I ate my meal, the crowd cleared out. When I was ready to leave, there was no one in line, and the clerk who had waited on me was standing alone at the counter, waiting for whoever might come in the door next. She smiled at me as I got up to leave, and she wished me a good rest of the day. I dropped my empty containers in the trash can and walked up to the counter. I told her, ‘I’m impressed! You are efficient! I can’t believe how quickly and pleasantly you served everyone. When I came in here a little while ago and saw the crowd, I almost turned around and walked out. I’m glad I didn’t. You’re really efficient!’ She flashed me a big smile, put up her hand for a high-five, and called back to her co-workers, ‘Hey, a compliment! A compliment!’ A customer standing nearby smiled, the clerk smiled, and I smiled.”

“Wow, Mom. I bet from the way she reacted, she doesn’t get many compliments.”

“I think you’re right, Floey. And you know what, by taking the time to give a well-deserved compliment, I put smiles on the faces of three people – the clerk, the other customer standing nearby, and me. I bet there were smiles on the faces of the other workers in the kitchen that the clerk had called back to, as well. It was so easy to give a moment of happiness to so many people, including myself.”

Kitty and Floey

Kitty and Floey

“I know all about that, Mom. You know how I always run to the door to greet whoever is coming. I do that to let them know they are welcome in our home. I want them to know that I am grateful that they came to see us. That greeting usually makes them happy, and that makes me even happier.”

“I should have known, Floey, that you would have all this figured out already. You know just how to give anyone a moment of happiness.”

“Thanks, Mom. I really try. I think that’s my mission in life.”

“Floey, do you remember my special word for 2015?”

Floey looked thoughtful for a moment. “I think it’s GRATITUDE.”

“Yeah. That’s it. GRATITUDE. I haven’t written much about my special word lately, but this incident reminds me to be grateful for all the good little things that happen every day. By being grateful for the surprisingly good and quick service I got at McDonald’s, I was prompted to give a compliment, which prompted the clerk to share the compliment, which gave a whole bunch of us a reason to smile and be happy.”

“So that’s it, Mom. GRATITUDE for the good little things in life has you grinning from ear to ear.”

“Yeah. Now you know my secret, Floey – and I know yours,” and I gave her a big hug.

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Friends and Relatives, Cats and Dogs

How many friends and relatives, cats and dogs does it take to make one’s life wonderful?

Hundreds. Maybe thousands. What it takes to make a life wonderful is to learn to appreciate – to be thankful for – the  enrichment each person and pet contributes to one’s life.

Mim and Marian with Megabyte - our first puppy - in our living room in Chicago.

Mim and Marian with Megabyte – our first puppy – in our living room in Chicago – 1990.

During the last couple weeks, Mim and I have had opportunities to see lots of friends and relatives from much earlier times in our lives. That got me started thinking about all the people in our lives – in our whole lifetimes – and how much all these people, and pets, have enriched our lives.

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Mim and cousin Roger in 2006.

Last Friday, we attended the funeral of Mim’s last first cousin, Roger Hovey, age 93. We drove over 500 miles to Clear Lake, South Dakota for the funeral. After the service we ate a funeral lunch in the church fellowship hall with about a hundred of Roger’s friends and relatives, and we enjoyed a couple hours of visiting, mostly with second cousins of Mim. Then we drove 500 miles home. That’s how we spent Thursday, Friday, and half of Saturday last week. The trip was exhausting, but the time spent remembering Roger’s life and talking with Mim’s relatives was incredibly refreshing.

Roger and his wife June had lived and farmed in South Dakota their whole lives. For the last 30 years or so they spent their winters in Florida. When Mim and I moved to Wisconsin from Chicago 23 years ago, Roger and June started to drive through Cambridge almost every spring and fall on their way to and from Florida for a short visit. They never called to schedule the visit. They just rang the doorbell, usually mid-morning, and came in for a cup of coffee and an hour or two of conversation. Fortunately, either Mim or I always happened to be at home when they came. The last few years their daughter Pam drove with them. We always enjoyed their short, lively visits. Each visit was a time to step out of our daily routine and enjoy both reminiscing and catching up on the current lives of these loving people from our past – in this case, Mim’s past. However, over the 20 years of their twice yearly visits, they became good friends of mine, too.

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June and Roger with their daughter Pam and her husband Gene – 2006.

The week before the funeral, Mim and I went to Chicago for a church music conference. (All this travel is very unlike us with our 24/7/365 assisted living business, but everything just happened to work out smoothly for these two trips.) The conference was great, both practical and inspiring. But even better was the reconnection with more old friends and relatives. One day we had lunch with Mim’s niece and her daughter. We hadn’t seen them in at least 25 years. That evening we had half-pound cheeseburgers and a pitcher of Sangria in the beer garden of Moody’s Pub, our old hang-out in Chicago, with Marilyn, a friend from my college days who co-owned and lived in our two-flat in Chicago with us for 13 years.

Marilyn, Mim, and Marian in the Beer Garden of Moody's Pub - 2015.

Marilyn, Mim, and Marian in the Beer Garden of Moody’s Pub – 2015.

On our way back to our motel from Moody’s we drove through our old neighborhood and stopped to see Ruth, the woman who lived next door to us in Chicago. At 98, she’s still living in her two-flat, now all by herself. Until just a couple years ago, her sister Elaine had lived with her. Although Elaine was six years younger than Ruth, Elaine passed away first. We talked about some of the changes the neighborhood has seen in Ruth’s lifetime. Her parents had built the two-flat she is still living in, 90 years later. Their family was one of the Russian Jewish families who settled in that block of Chicago when it was first being developed in the 1920s.

Ruth (left) and her sister Elaine and their first dog Jenny, visiting us in our farmhouse just after we moved from Chicago to the farm in 1992.

Ruth (left) and her sister Elaine and their first dog Jenny, visiting us in our farmhouse just after we moved from Chicago to the farm in 1992.

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Zoe – still a puppy at heart until the day she died at age 15.

One of the more current things we talked about was Ruth’s dog Zoe. Her 15-year-old dog had died less than a week ago. One of Ruth’s friends wrote “Elegy for Zoe” on her blog, MidwesternRobot.com. It’s a beautiful story about Zoe and about close-knit friendships in the neighborhood. (I encourage you to follow the link to Zoe’s story, but be prepared to shed a tear or two.)

That’s partly why I’m reflecting on how friends, relatives, and pets enrich our lives throughout our whole lifetime. That’s what makes life so wonderful. I guess that’s why the Bible tells us to love each other.

For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Galatians 5:14]

Fortunately, throughout my lifetime, I have had many, many neighbors – friends and relatives and cats and dogs – who have loved me and enriched my life greatly. It’s good to take time to remember these wonderful people and other loving creatures from our past.

Mim and Pam in cemetery - 2015.

Mim and Pam in cemetery – 2015.

Shopping for a Tombstone

Marian at organ-MessiahSo far this year I have had the privilege of playing the piano or organ for nine funerals. I typically play for between five and ten funerals a year – and it’s only July! In the 31 days from June 1 through July 1 of this year, I played for five of those funerals. Needless to say, my mind has been spending lots of time thinking about funerals lately.

Every funeral is different, and I try to match the music I play to the emotional and spiritual needs of the family. Sometimes the person who died has planned their funeral and they have specific requests for what music they want at their funeral. Other times, family members have requests. Sometimes the pastor will offer suggestions. And sometimes I try to piece together what I know about the person and family and make a best guess at what music will be most comforting. One of these funerals was for a suicide and the family was in shock. One man had died suddenly, probably from a heart attack. One woman was close to 100 and had been in declining health for a long time. In all cases, loving friends and family were left behind and they needed to be comforted.

musical notes cartoonThe musical requests for some of the funerals in June were rather unusual. Besides the popular funeral hymns of “Amazing Grace,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” “In the Garden,” and “How Great Thou Art,” I was asked to play polkas, waltzes, and folk songs.

After watching families struggle over what should and should not be included in their loved one’s funeral, I decided I need to add another item to my personal to-do list: to plan my own funeral. Hopefully, I will get that done before the end of the year. At least that’s my target date.

Then, one day last week, I read in Jimmy Carter’s devotional book that I should think about what epitaph I’d like to see on my gravestone. Carter wrote, “I’m sure that most of us have given at least some thought to what we want inscribed on our gravestone…. Our lives need to have the right purpose. We need to look upon our service to Christ as the greatest achievement of all. And when we start thinking this way, we’ll start shaping our lives differently.” [Through the Year with Jimmy Carter, ©2011, Zondervan]

Archie Monuments wideThat reminded me of a day in 1987, several weeks after my mom had died. My dad and Mim and I drove to Archie Monuments in Watertown, Wisconsin, about 25 miles from Cambridge. We were going shopping for a tombstone for my mom’s (and ultimately my dad’s) grave. Before we left on this shopping expedition I called my brother and my sister to see if they had any preferences for style, color, or anything else. Since tombstones aren’t something you shop for every day, neither of them had put much thought into it, so they had no preferences for us to consider.

blank tombstones croppedMy dad had put some thought into it. When we got to Archie Monuments, he picked out his preferred style right away, an upright granite stone with a smooth, curved top. Most of the stones at that time had coarse chiseled tops, but he was adamant about wanting a smooth polished top, and he explained why. He wanted bird droppings to be washed off by the rain. We couldn’t argue with that, so the first decision was made. I completed the style selection by choosing a very dark gray-colored granite. I thought a really dark stone with just a few lighter gray flecks of color would be striking, and actually beautiful.

But then came the hard part. What information should be included on the monument? The name KORTH would be on the top. On the lower left side would be ELSIE with her birth and death dates, and on the lower right side would be CARL with his birth and death dates. No middle names or initials would be included, but exact birthdates would be included, not just the years. My dad was as adamant on dates as he was on the smooth top surface of the stone. I have no idea why he thought it was important for future generations to know exactly what day he died. But it was important to him, so that was what we specified.

2015-07-13 Korth tombstone 1With the factual information and monument style determined, we moved on to the more creative design work. Fairly quickly we decided to have a pair of praying hands etched on my mom’s side because she firmly believed in turning to God in prayer for every concern she had in life. On my dad’s side we selected a flower growing up beside a cross as a reference to his being a farmer who trusted in God.

Then for the hardest part of all – choosing an epitaph. Fortunately, the consultant at Archie’s gave us a book of sample epitaphs to page through for ideas. The three of us finally agreed on “I know that my redeemer lives.” I think my dad was pretty indifferent to the words, but he didn’t have any better suggestion, and he was tired and wanted to go home. We had already spent about three hours making the decisions up to that point. But both Mim and I were confident that those words summarized the most important aspect of my mom’s life – she had a very strong faith, and her belief in God was the most important part of her life. And Dad would just have to live (and rest forever) with the epitaph we primarily selected for Mom.

I chose the font for the text on my own. I don’t remember its name, but it’s very legible and looks dignified. I also asked for the shadow effect in the engraving. We were finally ready to go home. Shopping for a tombstone is not an easy job. All three of us were exhausted, but pleased with our choices.

I don’t think I’ll go as far as designing a tombstone for Mim and me by the end of this year. I’ll be happy if I get my funeral planned. But thanks to Jimmy Carter’s urging, I might start thinking about what I might like our tombstone to look like, and what I would like it to reflect about my life and Mim’s life and our life together. I guess maybe this is something Mim and I have to work on together. Maybe it will be a job for next winter.

When I went to the cemetery yesterday to take a photo of my parents' tombstone, I wandered through the cemetery. This stone is one of my favorites. It's the parents of my piano and organ teacher. The musical staff on top has the notes and words "I love to tell the story. Below Paul's name is engraved, "Local preacher over 40 years" and below Sarah's name is engraved "Church organist over 50 years."

When I went to the cemetery yesterday to take a photo of my parents’ tombstone, I wandered through the cemetery. This stone is one of my favorites. It’s the parents of my piano and organ teacher. The musical staff on top has the notes and words “I love to tell the story.” Below Paul’s name is engraved, “Local preacher over 40 years” and below Sarah’s name is engraved “Church organist over 50 years.” The stone tells the story of their lives very nicely.

My Musical Destiny

Welcoming guests to our bed and breakfast in 1998.

Welcoming guests to our bed and breakfast in 1998.

Seventeen years ago, Mim and I created a new business called Korth-Jacobson, LLC. Within that business structure we have done lots of different things – from being a bed and breakfast to selling real estate; from doing strategic planning and project management for small businesses to providing music in churches and a pub and other venues; from hosting spiritual retreats to caring for the elderly in our home. All of these businesses have been based out of our home. For the past 12 years, one of our businesses has been Country Comforts Assisted Living. We currently care for two 94-year-olds in our home, and we also coordinate the care of a third almost 94-year-old who lives with a neighbor.

By the very nature of this caregiving business, we are working 24/7. Whenever we are at home, we are responsible for being sure the needs of our residents are met. Whenever we are not at home, we need to be sure another caregiver is present to meet these needs. We have finally realized that to meet our own need for a break, we must take some time off, and that means we need to be away from our work environment – away from home. Lately we’ve established the schedule of taking Tuesdays and Thursdays off from about 1:00 or 1:30 pm till about 8:00 pm. Our most usual destinations on these days are Woodmans, Costco, and occasionally Trader Joe’s for groceries; Menards for hardware items; Farm & Fleet for dog treats and toys and for clothes when they go on sale (really!); and resale shops for books, clothes, gifts, and other bargains we “need.” Occasionally we’ll go to a movie if we don’t have any shopping that needs to be done.

A couple weeks ago we redeemed a gift certificate from a good friend and went to see the matinee performance at the Fireside Theater of “All Shook Up.”  We had a wonderful time listening to all those Elvis songs from the 50s and 60s, and laughing about the inter-racial mix-ups and mistaken sexual identity antics. Hearing those Elvis songs from our grade school and high school years brought back one of my childhood memories.

Lowery Organ 2

Lowery electronic organ, state of the art using vacuum tube technology in 1957.

My sister Nancy (11 years older than me) started giving me piano lessons before I started school. I’ve  enjoyed playing the piano ever since. When I was nine, my mom bought a Lowery electronic organ. She had grown up playing a reed pump organ, and she missed playing an organ. A piano wasn’t as much fun for her, although she played it some. When the new electronic organ was delivered to our house I was as excited as I could be. I got to take the ten free lessons that came with the organ from Ward Brodt in Madison, and then I continued taking lessons from our church organist – both piano and organ. But from my first organ teacher at Ward Brodt I learned that any kind of music can be played on an organ – not just hymns. I had to walk through the print music department at the store to get to the lesson rooms, and I always browsed the music on my way out of the store. Most of my allowance was spent on music books with titles like “The Best Hits of 1962 for Easy Organ.” I acquired quite a collection and learned to play songs as varied as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” to “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”

One Thursday morning when I was about 10 or 11, (I know it was Thursday because that was my mom’s day off) Eleanor Jarlsberg, one of my mom’s friends from church, came over for morning coffee. Mom and Eleanor were sitting at the dining room table drinking their coffee, and I was in the living room playing the organ just for fun, not practicing. I was going through my latest “Greatest Hits…” book. I was playing mostly the slower and quieter songs so that I wouldn’t disturb their conversation in the next room. When I finished playing the Elvis’ hit “Love Me Tender,” Eleanor asked me what hymn that was – she really liked it. When I told her it was an Elvis Presley song – not a hymn, she laughed and laughed, and I felt kind of embarrassed.

That’s when I began to put two and two together to understand that my destiny was to be a gospel pianist/organist, regardless of the type of music I tried to play. I’m not the gospel pianist that my Aunt Edith was who added all kinds of embellishments all over the keyboard. I’m not very good at that. I’m the kind of gospel music player that can play very expressively by varying volume and where on the keyboard I’m playing – high or low – and by sometimes holding a note a little too long to build the tension. I do simple stuff to draw the listener into the emotional message of the song.

Over the years as I learned more classical music on the piano and more traditional hymns and hymn arrangements on the organ, I tried to become more classical in my style of playing. But that was never as much fun for me. But then I noticed that Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” can easily morph into “Jesus Loves Me.” And that “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God” can weave itself into Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.”

Beer Barrel Polka sheet musicOne morning last week I had a musical breakthrough. A few years ago, a friend of mine was planning her funeral, and she asked me if I would be willing to play for it. Of course, I said sure. Then she said she wanted the funeral to be a joyous time of celebration. One of the songs she wanted me to play was “The Beer Barrel Polka.” I happen to know the song because that’s one of the songs my first organ teacher at Ward Brodt taught me. But, I’ve felt uncomfortable with that song for a funeral ever since she made the request. My friend died last week. As I was mulling over whether nor not I should play the song, it suddenly dawned on me – if I can morph “Clair de Lune” into “Jesus Loves Me” I certainly can morph “The Beer Barrel Polka” into “Jesus Loves Me.” So I did.

Yup. That’s my destiny. Regardless of what type of music I try to play, gospel is what’s going to come out. God made me that way, and I’ve finally come to whole-heartedly accept it.

Thanks, Nancy, for helping me learn that lesson.

Nancy Koplin cropped

Nancy Koplin, a good friend who helped me find “Jesus Loves Me” in “The Beer Barrel Polka.”

Getting Caught Whispering

The house on the left was my grandma's. The one on the right was the Spauldings. In between was a row of deep red, pink, and white peonies.

The house on the left was my grandma’s. The one on the right was where Gary and Wayne grew up. In between was a row of deep red, pink, and white peonies. Across the street was a park, the perfect place to play – and fish. Koshkonong Creek ran through the park.

On Thursday of last week I played the organ for the funeral of Wayne, a young man, age 64. He was the kid brother of Gary, a classmate of mine. Gary died a few years ago.

Gary and Wayne grew up in the house in Cambridge next door to my grandma. We were never close friends, but we’ve known each other practically our whole lives. After the two boys had graduated from high school, the family bought my grandma’s house, and Gary and Wayne lived there, next door to their parents.

I remember in fourth grade, Gary and I were in the same classroom. We sat in opposite corners of the room. I was always the shortest kid in class, so I was in the front. Gary was always the tallest kid, so he was in the back. In that classroom, the group of kids that seemed to learn the fastest were on the right side of the room; the ones who took longer to learn new things were on the left.  I don’t remember who sat smack dab in the middle of the room, but whoever he or she was must have been the perfect average in height and learning style.

This wasn't my classroom, but it looks a lot like it.

This wasn’t my classroom, but it looks a lot like it.

One day in fourth grade all of us were taking a test. When we were finished with the test we were supposed to bring it up to the teacher’s desk – in the front left of the classroom – and return to our seat and sit quietly until everyone was finished. I remember taking my test up to Mrs. Schuster’s desk, and walking down the aisle to the back of the room, the long way back to my desk. As I walked by Gary’s desk he whispered something to me. I stopped to respond, and we whispered for a minute. I don’t remember what we talked about. We didn’t escape being noticed by the teacher. Mrs. Schuster loudly ordered me to walk to my desk immediately and not to whisper another word. It’s rare that a teacher scolded me and I felt terrible. Gary and I smiled at each other without whispering another word, and I went back to my desk as fast as I could walk without running.

Being at Wayne’s funeral reminded me of that incident. I never knew Gary or Wayne very well, and that’s my loss. The pastor and one of Wayne’s friends talked about Wayne being a gentle giant, a 6’4” quiet, humble man. He had been a custodian at the Cambridge schools for 25 years. He was an usher in the Presbyterian Church. I wish I had known him better.

Wayne Spaulding, age 64.

Wayne Spaulding, age 64.

I would guess there were between 50 and 75 people at the funeral – more than I had expected. At the lunch at church following the funeral, I went through the food line, and then looked out at the tables to find a place to sit. There were two tables with open chairs. A large round table had four or five women seated and two or three empty chairs. A long table had three men on one side and no one on the other side. I didn’t know any of the women at the women’s table. I knew two of the men at the men’s table. They were classmates of mine. I chose the men’s table and asked if I could make the table co-ed. They welcomed me, and I sat down, facing the three men. I didn’t know Jerry and John very well, but at least I knew they were classmates. I introduced myself to the third man, Randy. He said he was a classmate of my nephew Kevin, and that he had briefly worked with Kevin and my brother Danny in carpentry after high school.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt turns out I had seated myself at the custodian’s table. All three men were custodians at the Cambridge schools and had worked with Wayne. It was a delightful lunch. I learned quite a bit about the schools from a custodian’s perspective. If I hadn’t joined the custodian’s table, I never would have known about the ghost that occupies the upper floor of the old school. I also learned about the issues our volunteer fire department faces with so few people available to volunteer in Cambridge during the day. Most people work in Madison or in other places away from Cambridge. (Randy is one of the volunteer fire fighters.)

I wish I could remember what Gary and I were whispering about in fourth grade. It’s ironic that the two quietest kids in class were caught whispering and were scolded for it. I wish we had been encouraged to talk with the kids in the opposite corners of the classroom instead of being discouraged from talking. We all lost out on the opportunity to broaden our perspectives on life.

I doubt that I’ll meet Jerry, John, and Randy for lunch on a regular basis. But I’m extremely grateful that Wayne’s funeral brought us together for a wonderful time of sharing. Thanks, Wayne.

And Gary – do you remember what we were whispering about almost 60 years ago? I wish we had continued the conversation sometime later, maybe even 50 years later…

whispering closeup

Awful August – except for …

Broken Glass grass and skyDoes it ever seem like your world is shattered? That life is suddenly broken? For some of my family members, that’s what August has been like this year.

I guess I would describe August 2014 along two tracks of events. One track is affecting my broadly extended family. The other track is affecting Mim and me mostly, and a few other unrelated people. I feel like I’ve been running as fast as I can along the “Mim and me track,” but the “broader family track” keeps pulling me over to slow down and cry with my family and wonder what’s happening in our world.

Sandy and Conrad looking out their kitchen window while hospice volunteers did spring yard work.

Sandy and Conrad looking out their kitchen window while hospice volunteers did spring yard work.

Perhaps I should begin by explaining who my “broadly extended family” includes. My brother, Danny, married his high school sweetheart, Sandy, shortly after they graduated from high school in the mid-1960s. They had two kids, Cindy and Kevin. As Danny and Sandy matured, they grew in different directions and divorced when their kids were still young. Danny and Sandy still stayed in contact over the years, primarily because of their kids. They both remarried twice, bringing more in-laws and nieces (no more nephews) into the family. We’re a big, complicated (but probably fairly typical) extended family. I think of Sandy as my first sister-in-law. She is still part of my “broadly extended family.” I knew Sandy in high school, even before she dated my brother. I’ve always liked and admired Sandy. She made me laugh a lot with her quick wit.

Sandy and Conrad holding handsSandy has been in declining health for the last few years, even though she’s only 67. Several months ago Kevin took the picture of his mother and her husband, Conrad, holding hands when she was in the hospital. Kevin had gone to visit her, and he found them both asleep but still comforting each other.

A few days later she was released from the hospital, to go home on hospice. Conrad would take care of her at home.

On Monday evening, August 4, Conrad went to Subway to get sandwiches. He was killed in a car accident on his way home, on the street right in front of their home.

Sandy was devastated. She lost all will to live. She died 16 days later. Her funeral is today.

Kevin has three daughters and his sister Cindy has two sons – all who lost two very loving grandparents in August. It’s been a very sad month. We’re reminded of the observation in Ecclesiastes 3, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” But it’s really hard when two deaths – of people you love deeply – come so close together. Too much time to weep. Too much time to mourn. And no time to laugh and dance.

Farmhouse exterior - summerOn the “Mim and me track,” our farmhouse is moving quickly into its next phase. As you may recall, six years ago we turned the farmhouse into a bed-and-breakfast style spiritual retreat center. We named it Whispering Winds Retreat Haven. A year and a half ago we put Whispering Winds on hiatus and agreed to rent the farmhouse to a family who needed a place to live for a couple years. On August 3rd the renters moved out, five months earlier than planned. We were okay with that because the renters were able to buy a home of their own sooner than they expected, and we really wanted to spruce up the place and try to sell it.

A few days before the renters moved out, I received an email from someone (Jeff) who wanted to talk with me about collaborating on reopening the farmhouse as a retreat center. Eventually Jeff would like to buy the place, but for now he wanted to see if we could work together to reopen the farmhouse as a retreat center. We scheduled a time to get together at the farm and talk. That meant Mim and I had just over a week to “spruce” up the place before our meeting.

We quickly realized that we had a bigger clean-up job on our hands than we had anticipated, and we would need help. Amazingly, within that one week in early August, we had two women from a cleaning service deep-clean the five bathrooms and the kitchen; five men from a landscaping service spend a full day weeding, pruning, and removing three truckloads of brush from the yard; another handyman mow our 3-acre lawn and spread 8 more yards of mulch (he had spread 10 yards earlier in the season); our HVAC service man clean the furnace and repair the central AC; and a friend help us carry a dozen heavy boxes of dishes, glasses, flatware, and other furnishings up from the basement. With all that help, the house was presentable for our meeting with Jeff to explore the possibility of collaborating on a retreat center.

The next week, we had a friend paint walls and ceilings as needed throughout the house, reinstall parts of the kitchen cabinets, and replace the garbage disposal and faucet in the kitchen sink. Mim and I worked, too – mostly moving around furnishings to make the house look like a B&B retreat center again. It was an amazing transformation! Oh, and we also bought a new range to replace the one that had been accidentally damaged beyond repair by trying to clean the self-cleaning ovens with a spray-on oven cleaner. (Caution: Don’t ever do that!)

We were amazed. With the help of half a dozen friends and half a dozen strangers, our farmhouse was completely transformed within a couple weeks – all within the same timeframe between Conrad’s death and Sandy’s death.

Stone Meadows Condominiums

Stone Meadows Condominiums

The day after our meeting with the retreat guy (which had been a great time for sharing ideas, but probably not the beginning of a retreat collaboration), our realtor showed the house to a prospective buyer. Thanks to all the help we had received over the past week the house and 3-acre lawn were completely ready for showing!

But then everything changed. Our friend Sharon, who was renting one of the condos in the duplex next door to ours, was told that her condo had been sold and she would need to move out within a month or so. Sharon is the friend who had welcomed “Mary,” one of the 93-year-olds we care for, as a short-term roommate because we didn’t have room for her in our condo.

So… that’s what the next phase is going to be in the life of our farmhouse… Sharon and “Mary” are going to move into the farmhouse next month. Sharon may also invite her 90-year-old parents to join her for the winter months. We’ve talked with our real estate agent and have decided to take the farmhouse off the market. It seems pretty obvious that this is where Sharon and “Mary” need to be for the next several months.

That’s August 2014. Track one is filled with sadness. Track two is filled with fast-paced problem-solving and lots of hard work. Between the two tracks, we’ve been able to deeply sense God’s presence, God’s comforting love. I guess that’s why I played “God Will Take Care of You” for the prelude last Sunday in church. The awful August of 2014 demonstrates this truth. We’re not in this world alone. God is with us, as are the friends and family God has sent to comfort us, as well as the kind strangers God has ready to help us with our various challenges.

Be not dismayed whate’er betide, God will take care of you;
Beneath God’s wings of love abide, God will take care of you.

Refrain:
God will take care of you, Thru ev’ry day, O’er all the way;
God will take care of you, God will take care of you.

Thru days of toil when heart grows frail, God will take care of you;
When dangers fierce your path assail, God will take care of you.

All you may need God will provide, God will take care of you;
Nothing you ask will be denied, God will take care of you.

No matter what may be the test, God will take care of you;
Lean, weary one, upon God’s breast, God will take care of you.

[Civilla D. Martin, 1904]

Gods presence butterfly

The Misfit Funeral Organist – Part 2

“When in doubt, leave it out.” That was the advice of the soloist for the funeral last week. She teaches music at some college in Minnesota. I took her advice to heart.

For her solo, Mendelssohn’s “O Rest in the Lord,” I learned the piano accompaniment just fine, and I didn’t need to leave anything out.

fingers stretching on piano 3But I was glad to wholeheartedly heed her advice for the violin solo, Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” The violinist almost always had the melody, so I took the liberty of leaving out lots of the extra notes I was supposed to play on the piano. I figured it was better to keep up with him than to slow us both down by trying to stretch my short fingers into awkward contortions just to plunk out all the “right” notes. I always played at least one note with him, just not all the notes on the page. We started and ended together, and in between, I supported the melody with enough notes that the piece still sounded like Bach.

I used the same principle – “When in doubt, leave it out” – for selecting pre-service music for the funeral.

Oakwood Organ - full viewThe day before the funeral, I went to the nursing home chapel to acquaint myself with the pipe organ. It was a small tracker organ, apparently modeled after the organ Martin Luther himself played. It had two manuals and a standard pedal board. It had vertical rows of three stops for each manual, one pedal stop, and three couplers. It looked like a nice little organ that would be fun to play.

Except for one thing, which I discovered when I climbed up on the bench to start playing. There was no expression pedal. That wouldn’t seem like a major omission, but for me, it was. I’m short. When I stand up straight, I’m almost five feet tall. When I sit perched on an organ bench with my feet dangling, I have to stretch to reach the pedals. To keep my balance, I rest my right foot on the expression pedal whenever I’m not using that foot to play a pedal on the pedal board. With no expression pedal, I had no foot rest to help me keep my balance. I had to try to sit very still. Even reaching to the far right or the far left with my right or left hand to pull out a stop threatened my equilibrium.

Hymns - portraitThat made it easy for me to make a decision about what kind of music to play for the prelude and postlude. I wasn’t about to challenge myself with any fancy arrangements or classical music that would put me at risk of losing my balance and falling off the bench. I quickly decided to go with a selection of hymns. I asked the violinist (the grandson of the deceased) about Hazel’s ethnic and religious background to try to identify what types of hymns might have been some of her favorites, as well as the favorites of the people who would be at the funeral. Since she was Swedish, I started with “Children of the Heavenly Father” and played for about 15 minutes, progressing through a dozen hymns, ending with “Beautiful Savior.”

As I was selecting the hymns to include in my sequence, I tried to line up hymns in related keys so that there would be a natural progression to each hymn. As I was looking for a classic hymn in the key of G, I came across “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.” First I included it, but then I took it out because I thought it might sound too “joyful” for a funeral. I followed the principle – “When in doubt, leave it out” – so I removed it from the sequence. If I were selecting the hymns today, I would make a different decision. As part of my daily devotional reading this year I’m going through a new hymnal, mentally singing one or two hymns each morning. Today my hymn was “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” The words of the first verse are:

bird singing 1Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love!
Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, praising thee, their sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive the gloom of doubt away.
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day.

How appropriate those words are for a funeral!

For the postlude I played “Go, My Children, with My Blessing” and a confident, fancy (but NO PEDAL) arrangement of “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” – something I often play for funeral postludes.

Marian at Messiah organ 5

That’s me, sitting much more comfortably on my home church’s organ bench.

Despite the challenges for me in playing for the funeral last week, I guess I can take out the word “misfit” from my role as funeral organist. I need to thank the soloist for giving me the license to “When in doubt, leave it out.”

Even with simplifications, God’s gift of music always gives comfort.

And since I didn’t fall off the organ bench, I still really like to play for funerals. But I definitely prefer organs with a foot rest – like Messiah’s. Or, a nice piano.