Tag Archive | jail ministry

I Look Forward to “Church” in Jail

Advent Wreath w HOPE text

Last week I participated in one of the most inspiring worship services ever at the County Jail. As usual, I was there to play the piano, and the chaplain and inmates welcomed me into their circle of sharing. Last Thursday afternoon there were 13 women inmates plus Chaplain Julia and myself sitting on wooden chairs arranged in a circle inside the chapel of the jail.

We began our worship by singing a new Advent hymn, “View the Present through the Promise.” (Same tune as “Go, My Children, with My Blessing.”) Then we went around the circle, each of us reading a verse or two from a reading in Isaiah and a reading in Luke. After the Scripture readings, the chaplain invited us to share what, if any, hope and peace we were feeling – hope and peace being the themes for the first two weeks of Advent.

This is a “congregation” that really cares about each other, and it shows. One woman said, “We were just talking about hope and peace in our cell block this morning. We were talking about the nine gifts of the Spirit. I am so thankful I am in a cell block with all these wonderful women. We all get along, and we really care about each other. I am learning so much that will help me live a better life when I get out of jail. Because of this time in jail with these caring women, I have hope, and that gives me peace.”

Another woman said she was glad to be among such loving people, and that today was her 39th birthday. I stepped back to the piano and we all sang “Happy Birthday” to her. One of the inmates, an older woman (the one who knew the “nine gifts of the Spirit”) led us in singing a second verse, “May God bless you …”

Later in the worship service, when we were praying for each other – each of us praying for the person sitting on our right – the “birthday girl” prayed for the person next to her saying, “Catherine is one of the kindest women I’ve met. God, please bless her. I am so proud of her and so thankful that I know her. She is so caring, and and is so good to all of us. As proud as I am of her for being such a kind, loving person, God, I can’t imagine how proud of her You must be. Amen.” Spontaneously, all the inmates in the circle repeated an enthusiastic “Amen.”

I am always inspired when I see the love of Christ reflected in the lives of these incarcerated women. When the service was over and Mim picked me up in front of the jail, I told her “It feels like I’m back at Whispering Winds hosting retreats, and that a group of nuns just invited me to join them for their retreat time.”

Even though it was a cold day, my heart was nice and warm from all the love I felt inside the jail chapel. Hope and peace can definitely be found within these walls. “Surely, the presence of the Lord is in this place.”

Advent Candles - 2 lit - PEACE

Thinking too hard

Abbey and me thinking really hard about something

Abbey and me thinking really hard about something

Sometimes, I think, I think too much. I think too hard about choices as I try to determine what is best. For example,  today I’m trying to decide whether to write my blog about what some inmates said the last time we shared a worship service in the jail chapel, or to write about some new insights I gained last week about why “Christ the King Sunday” really can be relevant to us today. Or, can I relate the two thoughts to each other, and avoid having to choose one or the other… I think I’ll try that.

Marian at Messiah organ 2Every week I think a lot about what music I should play for a prelude and postlude in church. I think the prelude is particularly important for setting the tone for the service, to invite the people into a sense of readiness for the worship experience that is beginning. To help me select music that is appropriate, I study the Scriptures that will be read, I consider the hymns the pastor chose for the service, and I sometimes search out Internet resources for music suggestions related to the themes associated with the lectionary readings for that week. (If I’m short on time, I look back in my files to see what I played three years ago, the last time the same Scriptures were read.)

Last Sunday was “Christ the King Sunday” – the last Sunday of the church year. (Advent, the beginning of the church year when we look forward to the birth of Christ, starts next Sunday.) Last Sunday was also the Sunday before Thanksgiving – a national holiday rather than a church celebration, but with spiritual significance nonetheless. Almost every year, I choose to play Thanksgiving music rather than “Christ the King” music. My rationale has always been – what relevance does “Christ the King” have to us today? It’s much more important to think about being thankful to God for all the blessings in our lives than to ponder the image of Christ as a king.

This year, our music director selected a new song for the women’s choir to sing – “O Christ, What Can It Mean for Us?” by contemporary hymn writer Delores Dufner, OSB. Here are the words.

O Christ, what can it mean for us to claim you as our king?
What royal face have you revealed whose praise the church would sing?
Aspiring not to glory’s height, to power, wealth, and fame,
you walked a diff’rent, lowly way, another’s will your aim.

You came, the image of our God, to heal and to forgive,
to shed your blood for sinners’ sake that we might rise and live.
To break the law of death you came, the law of love to bring:
a diff’rent rule of righteousness, a diff’rent kind of king.

Though some would make their greatness felt and lord it over all,
you said the first must be the last and service be our call.
O Christ, in workplace, church, and home, let none to power cling;
for still, through us, you come to serve, a diff’rent kind of king.

You chose a humble human form and shunned the world’s renown;
you died for us upon a cross with thorns your only crown.
But still, beyond the span of years, our glad hosannas ring,
for now at God’s right hand you reign, a diff’rent kind of king!

Delores Dufner, OSB, b. 1939, © 2001, 2003 GIA Publications

Jesus head 2

Jesus Christ, a different kind of king

The words of that song gave me something to think about. As a “diff’rent kind of king,” Christ came “to heal and to forgive.” Christ is a king who said, “the first must be the last, and service be our call.” Christ, through us, still “comes to serve, a diff’rent kind of king.”

That’s something to think about! And it transitions nicely into our discussion in the jail worship service a week or so ago.

About a dozen women inmates plus the chaplain and myself were sitting in a circle. The chaplain asked each of us to share with the group what we were thankful for. The young woman seated on my right said she was thankful for a second chance. The fact that she was in jail meant that she was given the gift of some time to think about the direction her life was going, and that when she left jail she would have a second chance, the opportunity to begin her life over again. Several other inmates voiced similar thoughts. After we all had shared what we were thankful for, we went around the circle again, each of us praying for the person on our right. We ended the service by serving communion to each other, and singing the hymn, “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ.”

As usual, my spirits were uplifted by sharing this worship experience with the women in jail. Christ is a king who loves every single one of us, forgives us, and gives us second chances. And Christ, “a diff’rent kind of king,” can be seen in every single one of us, as well.

Dr. V. Raymond Edman addressing the students of Wheaton College. I was there, sitting in my assigned seat. September 22, 1967

Dr. V. Raymond Edman addressing the students of Wheaton College. I was there, sitting in my assigned seat.
September 22, 1967

One more thought. (See, sometimes I think too much.) Another personal association I have with “Christ the King” goes back to my college days.

At Wheaton College, students were required to attend a half-hour-long worship service in Edman Chapel every morning, Monday through Friday. We had assigned seats, and attendance was taken. On September 22, 1967, (I was a sophomore) the speaker was College Chancellor, Dr. V. Raymond Edman. The title of his talk was “The Presence of the King.”

Dr. Edman described his experience of meeting the emperor of Ethiopia, His Majesty Haile Selassie. He explained in detail the court protocol that was followed, and then he related that experience to how we should approach coming before the presence of Christ the King – how the Bible says we should “Be still and know that I am God.” He talked about how we should be quiet when we enter the chapel, and how we should quiet our minds as we prepare to listen to what God has to say to us.

As Dr. Edman was making that point, he suddenly stopped speaking and fell to the floor. As Billy Graham said at his memorial service a couple days later, he had moved into “The Presence of the King” as he was speaking.

Here’s a link to both the text and an audio recording of “The Presence of the King”  http://www2.wheaton.edu/learnres/ARCSC/exhibits/edman/. The ten-minute audio version is the actual recording of Dr. Edman delivering this message in Chapel.

Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.

Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974.
In his chapel address, Dr. Edman described walking through this long room, bowing, and being beckoned to come forward to talk with the emperor.

I guess how we approach being in “The Presence of the King” is appropriate to think about on Christ the King Sunday, or any time we approach God, whether we’re at home, work, church, or even jail.

“O Lord, I want you to help me”

GOV065

If you were confined to jail for several months, and you were allowed to get together in the jail chapel with the chaplain and a few other inmates for an hour once every two weeks to have a time to read the Bible, share your thoughts, pray for each other, and sing a couple songs, what songs would you want to sing?

I’ve been thinking about that very question quite a bit over the past several weeks. As you may know, I join the women in the jail chapel about twice a month to play the piano for their worship service. The chaplain chooses the songs we sing, based on the Scriptures we’re reading for that service, as well as knowing some of the songs the women really like to sing. The women always sing enthusiastically, but it’s pretty obvious which songs are their favorites. “Amazing Grace” is on top of the list. “How Great Thou Art” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” are other favorites.

At the end of every service, while we’re waiting for the guards to come to escort the women back to their cellblocks, I play an informal “postlude.”  I usually improvise on a couple upbeat spirituals like “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand” or “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” or “Standin’ in the Need of Prayer.” The inmates are chatting during this time, and sometimes one or two of them come over to the piano to talk with me while I’m playing, often to request a song for me to play.

hands-on-the-pianoSeveral weeks ago a young woman asked me if I knew a particular song. She didn’t know the name of it, but it went something like – and she started to sing it. I stopped playing and listened to her sing. She didn’t remember many of the words. What she remembered was, “O God, help me, help me, help me. O God, help me.” I told her I didn’t recognize the song, but I’d try to find it on the Internet. She said she’d really like to have us sing that song at worship sometime. When I got home that evening I googled the words, and I thought I’d found the lyrics and a few youtube performances of the song. Unfortunately, I concluded that I wouldn’t be comfortable trying to incorporate that song into our worship experience. The overall message of the song was one of hopelessness and the ultimate triumph of evil.

Two weeks later, the young woman was at the worship service again, and she asked me if I’d found the song. I said I’d looked for it, but I wasn’t sure about it, and I asked her to sing it again. This time, another inmate also knew the song, and together they remembered more words. They sang, “O Lord, I want you to help me, help me on my journey, O Lord, I want you to help me.” When I got home I googled those words and found the lyrics to a different song along with several youtube videos. This is a song that could be very meaningful for anyone who is turning to God for help with their life circumstances, especially for women who are incarcerated.

I’ve searched everywhere I can think of to try to find sheet music for the song so that we can sing it together in jail, but I haven’t been able to find it. If anyone reading this blog knows where I can find the print music, please let me know. Here’s a link to one of the youtube videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ss1R0TdkbUI

I’ve copied the lyrics below, however, this seems to be a song that lends itself to the substitution of phrases for whatever the singers want God to help them with. I haven’t been able to find a writer of the song – most sources list it as “traditional.”

Oh lord I want you to help me 
Oh lord I want you to help me 
Help me on my journey, help me on my way 
Oh lord I want you to help me 

While I’m waiting I want you to help me 
While I’m waiting I want you to help me 
Help me on my journey, help me on my way 
Oh lord I want you to help me 

Oh lord I want you to help me 
Oh lord I want you to help me 
Help me on my journey, help me on my way 
Oh lord I want you to help me 

While I’m singing I want you to help me 
While I’m singing I want you to help me 
Help me on my journey, help me on my way 
Oh lord I want you to help me 

Just as for all the other songs we sing in the worship service in jail, this song could be just as meaningful for those of us who are not in jail. We can substitute our own phrases, as well.

Back to my original question, if you were sitting in jail, what songs would you want to sing? For me, one of my favorite songs to play, wherever I am, is “Surely the Presence of the Lord is in This Place.” Here’s a youtube performance of this song for you to enjoy, wherever you are right now.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MzDGvDZxnuw

Chapel Window

Working Together – Joy or Drudgery?

Chance Allies - David Allen, Tisha Brown, Lucas Koehler

Chance Allies – David Allen, Tisha Brown, Lucas Koehler

Last night Mim and I went to a fundraising concert for the jail ministry of Dane County. Chance Allies, a Madison group of three musicians – a female vocalist, a pianist, and a bass player, performed lots of jazz classics, mostly from the era of Cole Porter and George Gershwin. It was a wonderful evening.

Chance Allies - Tisha Brown singingTisha Brown, the vocalist, is a UCC pastor. Last night, she explained to the audience that she had an epiphany while on sabbatical a couple years ago. She has always liked music. For a few years she had even been a music major in college, playing a clarinet. While on sabbatical, she distinctly felt the Spirit telling her to use her desire to sing to accomplish good things. She responded by taking voice lessons, finding a pianist (David Allen – a pediatrician by day) to accompany her, and later adding a bass player (Lucas Koehler – the only full-time musician in the group) to add another dimension to their music. Their goal as a jazz group is to do as many fundraising concerts for non-profit and church-based organizations as they can. They brain-stormed to come up with their name – Chance Allies – which describes how the performers got together, by chance, and what their mission is, to be fundraising allies with organizations they want to support.

As a jazz combo, they play off each other very well. Naturally, the vocalist is the lead for most of the music, but she often turns the lead role over to the pianist or the bass for each of them to freely improvise. And when Tisha is singing, David and Lucas are creative in a totally supportive way to provide cool harmonies or smooth counter-melodies. Watching and listening to them work together so beautifully for a couple hours last night was a wonderful way to end the weekend. Plus, it was an added bonus to give support to the jail ministry. The chaplains work together well in their roles of counselor, advocate, and spiritual guide for the inmates of Dane County Jail. The chaplains need and deserve our support.

Marian Korth Family Portrait BW warmer 2As Mim and I were driving home from the concert Mim suggested, “Why don’t you write about improvisation and working together on your blog tomorrow. We just observed a great example of that happening.” Tisha, David, and Lucas are all great musicians. What makes them successful as a group is that they have so much trust and appreciation for each other’s artistry. They allow each other to freely improvise, and they work together to support the person in the lead as that position is rotated among them.

Can that model for working together apply in other work settings? When I look at how Mim and I work together in our different home-based businesses, I think it can. Mim is the lead in our assisted living business, Country Comforts Assisted Living. She is primarily responsible for addressing the physical and emotional needs of everyone who comes to live with us. I trust her completely in that role, and do whatever she asks me to do to support her. That may be going to the pharmacy to pick up medications, helping her make a bed, or building her a website, www.CountryComfortsAssistedLiving.com.

Conversely, when it comes to writing my books and my blog, Mim is in the supportive role.  She critiques every blog post before I publish it. She also proofs every version of my books before I move on to the next version. Sometimes she even gives me ideas to write about – like today!

Fortunately, Mim and I work together very well. My other work experiences have been mixed. Some good. Some not.

I think the three most important factors that determine whether or not a working relationship will be successful are respect, appreciation, and trust. When I feel that my co-workers respect my judgment in my area of expertise, appreciate what I do, and trust me to do the work – AND when those three factors are mutual among all co-workers, amazing things can be accomplished. That’s what we saw in the concert last night.

However, when any one of those three factors is missing – respect, appreciation, trust – not nearly as much, or as stunning quality work can be accomplished. And, even if some work is accomplished, no one feels very good about it. We all know we could have done better.

If you want to be inspired by watching three musicians work together very well, I encourage you to go to the next fundraising concert of Chance Allies. I may see you there. You can find their schedule on their website, http://www.tishabrown.com/events/.

Chance Allies - working together beautifully

Chance Allies – improvising and working together beautifully

Maria’s Story – Part 2

Another conversation with Abbey

Another conversation with Abbey

When I came home from playing the piano for the Women’s Worship Service at the county jail last Thursday, Abbey met me at the door. “Did you see Maria?” she asked. “Did Maria come to worship?”

“No, Abbey,” I replied. “Maria has already been transferred to the women’s prison in northeastern Wisconsin. That’s where she’ll serve her 13-year sentence for killing her little boy.”

“I’m sorry you didn’t get to see her again, Mom.”

“Even though I won’t be seeing her every month like I have for the last couple years, I won’t forget about her. And, like you suggested last week, Abbey, we can keep praying for her.”

“That’s right, Mom. I’m sure going to keep praying for her. I want God to keep her safe, and help her remember how much she is loved, and help her be an example of God’s presence in prison.”

“You know, Abbey, lots of people are praying for Maria. After last week’s blog post, several people responded on the blog saying they will pray for her. Others told me on Facebook, and some sent me emails. I told the chaplain in jail about all the people who are praying for Maria. The chaplain said she has printed out the blog along with the reader comments and she is going to mail it to Maria in prison. She expects Maria will be quite encouraged when she reads the blog and the comments.”

“That’s good. I hope she gets it soon. I bet the first few days in prison are especially hard for her. She is completely surrounded by strangers – the people she will live with for many years. I wonder if any of them will be friendly – like most of us dogs are.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know, Abbey. But that’s something else we can pray for – that she’ll make some good friends quickly. That reminds me, Abbey. I just finished reading a book entitled 10 Prayers You Can’t Live Without, and subtitled, How to Talk to God about Anything.  It was written by Rick Hamlin and was published this year by Guideposts in New York. It’s a wonderful book!”

“Oh, how I wish I could read. You talk about so many good books, Mom. Tell me about this one.”

“Well, there’s a separate chapter for each of the 10 prayers. The chapters are:10 Prayers

  1. Pray at Mealtime
  2. Prayer as Conversation
  3. Pray for Others
  4. Praying the Lord’s Prayer
  5. Praying for Forgiveness
  6. Pray through a Crisis
  7. Sing Your Prayer
  8. A Classic Prayer to Focus Your Thoughts
  9. Pray in Thanksgiving at All Times
  10. Pray Yes

“Each chapter is filled with stories from the author’s life or from other people’s lives about why or when that particular kind of prayer was extra important for them.”

“I bet that book was fun to read with all those personal stories.”

“It sure was, Abbey. It was very inspiring. Now that you and I are talking about praying for Maria, the chapter on praying for others (chapter 3) is very relevant. I’m sure God cares about Maria whether we pray for her, or not. But you know what really happens, Abbey, when we pray for someone? Listen to what Hamlin said in the middle of that chapter:

Prayer expands your world. You learn to care about people you would never have known otherwise, and you find out what makes them tick. You grow in your ability to love…[p. 53]

“We ourselves benefit, Abbey, by praying for others. And the person we pray for benefits, too. Later in this chapter the author talks about Bob and Lee Woodruff. Bob was the ABC News anchor who was seriously injured in the Iraq war.

You don’t go through something like that without being changed. For Lee she gained a new understanding of the power of prayer. When she was weak, when she was struggling, when she feared she was at the end of her rope, others were thoughtful enough to pray for her. They covered for her. They gave her strength. [p. 66]

“Wow! I get it, Mom. Just think of how Maria must feel if she knows that all of us care about her enough to pray for her. That must make her feel good, even though she knows she has many years of rough times ahead of her.”

“I think you’re right, Abbey.”

“Let’s see, God wants me to pray for others. That kind of prayer is a benefit to the person prayed for and it’s a benefit to me, too. Will you tell me about some of the other kinds of prayers in that book sometime?”

“I’ll try, Abbey. But meanwhile, we have a perfect opportunity to practice this kind of prayer by praying for Maria.”

“That’s true, Mom. AND, I can think of some other people I want to pray for, too. I’m going to start right now …”

Abbey eyes closed-praying

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

Love One Another – Reflections from Jail

Love One Another HANDSOne of the Bible readings in church yesterday was from the book of John.  Jesus said,

I give you a new commandment,
that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you,
you also should love one another.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another.

 (John 13:34-35 NRSV)

But what does it really mean to love one another? Paul addressed this question in I Corinthians 13, a passage frequently read at weddings.

Love is patient;
Love is kind;
Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

It does not insist on its own way;
It is not irritable or resentful;
It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
and endures all things.

[I Corinthians 13: 4-7 NRSV]

But even this reading is somewhat abstract. Tanya, one of the inmates in the county jail, wrote her own poetic reflection on what it means to her when Jesus says to love one another. I talked with Tanya last Thursday after the women’s worship service, and asked her if I could use her reflection in my blog sometime. She was happy to give me permission, although she prefers that I not identify her by her full name.

First, let me describe the context of Tanya writing this reflection. Several weeks ago, during Lent, in one of the worship services, the chaplain gave us about 15 minutes to do something creative to express our feelings. A couple of the women drew pictures. One young woman drew a picture of herself giving a birthday present to her little boy. She said she hoped to be out of jail in time to be home for his birthday. I played the piano – whatever hymns and spirituals came into my mind. One of the women told me she recognized every song I played. Tanya wrote a reflection on what love means to her. That 15 minutes was probably the most peaceful part of the day for all of us.

After listening again yesterday in church to what the Bible says about loving one another, I think now is a good time to share Tanya’s reflection on love.

Love is praying for my enemies –
In the same way I pray for my family

Love is growing in God –
Every day in every way

Love is not only knowing that angels are near –
But feeling them touch my soul

Love is willingness to give all –
And at the same time receive none

Love is a trust that never wavers –
No matter what stands in your way

Love is loving more than you know how –
Yet expecting nothing in return

Love is the melting of your soul –
In the coldest day you’ve known

 Tanya, 2013

Love in action: Mim's mom, Selma, caring for a stray kitten that had been dropped off at the farm.

Loving one another in our home 20 years ago:
Mim’s mom, Selma, caring for a stray kitten dropped off at the farm.

Do This in Remembrance of Me

Mint-CandyI think I was four years old the first time I wondered about what was going on in church when my mom and dad left Danny and me in the pew with strict instructions to “sit still” while they walked up to the front of the church in an orderly line with all the other adults. I tried to see what was going on up front, but we were sitting in the back pew, and I really couldn’t see anything except the heads of all the people in front of me. In a couple minutes my mom and dad came back and my mom gave me a few of those little pink and green and yellow pillow mints – the kind you used to get at weddings. Oh, that was it – they went forward to get some candy, and my mom brought some back for Danny and me.

That’s my earliest memory of what “Holy Communion” was all about. Communion didn’t happen very often in our church back then – maybe three or four times a year. It took me a while to learn that “communion” was about something other than getting candy, but I eventually caught on, especially when my mom stopped bringing back those pillow mints, and she looked for whatever candy she could find in her purse to reward me for “sitting still.”

When I was a kid, we didn’t take communion until we were confirmed, which was in eighth grade. By that time we had learned that communion was a time to remember Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, a time to remember how much Jesus loved us.

One of the most memorable times I took communion was when I was in high school. I was with a group of ten kids and a youth pastor (my brother-in-law) in Mexico at the jungle base of the Wycliffe Bible Translators Missionary Training Camp. We were on a week-long trip to learn about all the different kinds of jobs missionaries held. We happened to be at the jungle base on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. For our communion service we sat on stumps in a small clearing in the thick jungle growth. For the bread and wine we had tostados and grape Kool-Aid. It was a very moving experience. I thought about God’s love for all people, including people all around the world, some who lived in the jungle and didn’t even have a written language – which meant they had no way of reading the Bible, or anything else. What was God like for them?

More recently, I’ve been thinking about communion from a little different perspective. For the past thirteen years I’ve been a church organist. In the Presbyterian church, we had communion once a month. In the two Lutheran churches where I play now, we have communion every Sunday. Usually I’m “working” (playing the organ) during communion, and the main thing on my mind is: How can the music I play prompt people in the congregation to think about how much God loves them? Sometimes it’s by trying to set the right tone and tempo for a reflective hymn that the congregation is singing. Sometimes it’s by playing an old familiar hymn that has words that might bring Jesus’ love and suffering to mind.

holy-communionThis Thursday is Maundy Thursday, the day we commemorate the original “Last Supper.” I’ll be “working” double duty that day. I’ll play the piano for the women’s worship service at the county jail in the afternoon, and I’ll play the organ for the Maundy Thursday service at East Koshkonong Lutheran Church in the evening. I’m looking forward to both services. This is my first year playing at East, so I don’t know quite what the service will be like, although I expect it will follow the traditional Lutheran liturgy fairly closely.

I know what to expect for the service in jail. Based on my experience the last couple years, I expect the service will be quite informal and very meaningful for everyone involved. There will probably be about ten of us sitting on wooden chairs arranged in a circle in the jail chapel. After the chaplain explains what communion signifies, she may invite us to share with the group what communion means to each of us personally. After this time of sharing, the chaplain will bless the bread and “wine” (grape juice); we will pass the cup and bread around the circle; and we will offer communion to each other. As the inmate sitting next to me holds the bread and cup for me, she may say, “The body of Christ, given for you; and the blood of Christ, shed for you” – or something similar. I will pick up a small piece of bread, dip it in the cup of juice, and eat it. Then I’ll take the bread and cup and hold them for the inmate sitting on the other side of me and offer the bread and “wine” to her. The process will continue until everyone has offered and received communion. Then I’ll go back to the piano and we’ll sing a hymn.

Of all the weeks of the year, this is the one to especially remember how much God loves us. Jesus gave us an important tip when he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The important thing that happens whenever we take communion is that we are prompted to remember how much God loves us – even more than my mom loved me when she showed her love by giving me pink and green and yellow pillow mints.

Helping Someone

Last Thursday I participated in the worship service in the County Jail again. There were 11 of us women sitting together in the circle – the chaplain, myself, and nine inmates. The New Testament reading was the last chapter of Romans. We went around the circle, each of us reading one verse. Here’s how the chapter starts.

open bibleI have good things to say about Phoebe, who is a leader in the church at Cenchreae. Welcome her in a way that is proper for someone who has faith in the Lord and is one of God’s own people. Help her in any way you can. After all, she has proved to be a respected leader for many others, including me.

 Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila. They have not only served Christ Jesus together with me, but they have even risked their lives for me. I am grateful for them and so are all the Gentile churches. Greet the church that meets in their home.

 Greet my dear friend Epaenetus, who was the first person in Asia to have faith in Christ.

 Greet Mary, who has worked so hard for you.  [Romans 16:1-6 Contemporary English Version]

The next ten verses were similar personal greetings from the Apostle Paul to all kinds of good people in Rome, people who had helped Paul or other Christians over the years as the first Christian churches were being formed. Then Paul gives his final words of advice and blessing, and the letter to the church in Rome ends.

I’ve never really thought much about the last chapter of Romans. As we read the verses, one by one, the most notable part of the chapter seemed to be how hard it was to pronounce some of the names, especially as we were reading out loud. But then the chaplain said something that made me realize – that’s why these verses are in the Bible! She said, “As we give our testimonies today, think about what your ministry is, or what new ministry you may be about to begin. For example, your ministry may be a ministry of kindness.” That’s it! These people in the book of Romans were examples to us that we each have a ministry that we are called to, regardless of what our circumstances are.

One of the first inmates to give her testimony set the tone for this time of sharing. She said, “My daughter is dying. I know the pain of losing a child. When I get out of here I want to go to support groups to help others going through this pain.” There were tears in her eyes.

Another inmate said, “My ministry is singing and teaching. My parents are pastors, and we’re always singing in our house. Even things like, ‘where’s the cell phone?’ – we don’t say it, we sing it. I love to sing and to teach. My ministry is doing that – singing and teaching.”

The woman sitting next to me said, “I used to volunteer with helping people in domestic abuse situations. Actually, I used to be a case manager. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a job like that again now that I have a criminal record, but maybe I can still volunteer. That’s my ministry, helping people who have been abused.”

A young woman said, “I used to work in a nursing home. I really liked that – caring for people who need help. I couldn’t work with hospice, with people dying all the time. I get too attached to them. But I loved working in a nursing home where I could help people.”

There clearly was a common theme among these testimonies – helping others, just like the people named in the book of Romans.

Would you care to join us in our circle and give your testimony – what ministry has God called you to?

Nurse Holding Elderly Patient's Hand

Reflections on Christmas from a Church Organist

It’s over. The busiest time of the year for everyone, but especially for church organists, is over. As I look back over this holy season, what were the highlights for me?

  1. Marian playing the tracker pipe organ at Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison.

    Marian playing the tracker pipe organ at Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison.

    Celebrating Christmas together with our church family at Messiah Lutheran Church. I played the organ for the 10:00 service on Christmas Eve. This is the fifth year I’ve played for one of the Christmas Eve services. (I’m a half-time organist at Messiah.) The late service on Christmas Eve is my favorite. Even though the church is full, and there’s excitement in the air, it’s a peaceful time, a time to reflect on Jesus being born and what that means to us today.

  2. Celebrating Christmas together with the people of East Koshkonong Lutheran Church. I played at four services – a Norwegian Christmas Carol Sing earlier in the month, the 3:00 p.m. Christmas Eve service, the 9:00 a.m. Christmas Day service, and a special service of lessons and carols on the Sunday after Christmas. I’ve been playing at East half-time since September. This was my first Christmas with them. They provided as many opportunities for their members to sing Christmas carols as they possibly could. Music is a very big part of Christmas for this church. I liked that.
  3. Hosting a Christmas Carol Sing at Whispering Winds. This was especially meaningful because it was the last event at our retreat center before it went on hiatus. We sang for a couple hours. Then we ate Christmas cookies and talked for another hour. It was a fun evening for a great group of friends.
  4. Playing the piano for two Worship Services/Christmas Carol Sings for women in the County Jail. The women really enjoyed being able to choose what carols to sing, and they sang enthusiastically. But what was the most special to me about these services was the testimony time that came just before the singing. A common theme expressed by many of the women inmates was their thankfulness for being able to experience Christmas in jail – far away from all the commercialism of Christmas. They had time to think about the true meaning of Christ being born into the world. They felt closer to God. Some of them also saw this as an opportunity to share the true meaning of Christmas with their children during the limited time they had for conversations with them.
  5. Accompanying Mim as she sings at home. Mim didn’t do as much singing this year as she usually does, partly because her voice has been strained by a long string of colds last year, and partly because we thought we were too busy. But, this is absolutely my favorite way to spend an evening during the Christmas season.

I love being able to play the piano and organ, especially throughout the Christmas season. Nothing is more inspiring to me than to lead a group of people from the organ or piano as they sing “Joy to the World” or “Silent Night,” and to feel the love of God filling the room. It’s the same feeling – the love of God transforming the space – whether it’s a couple hundred people filling the church with their voices singing in beautiful harmony, or a dozen inmates filling the jail chapel with beautiful melodies as an impromptu women’s choir, or Mim singing alone at home. In all cases, God is with us.

Last Saturday morning when I was at church practicing the music for Sunday’s service, the pastor came into the sanctuary to chat for a few minutes. He commented that this Sunday (yesterday) was the last Sunday for singing Christmas carols. It was the last Sunday of the Christmas season. “Joy to the World” was the recessional we sang.

Now I can put the Christmas music away till next year. I’m ready. But I’m sure I’ll be just as ready to bring it out again as we approach Christmas 2013.

 Christmas Music