Tag Archive | women’s worship service

An Odd Favorite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mary and Abbey were friends, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mary and Doris sharing good times.

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

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

Joy in Unexpected Places

Dane County Jail on the top floors of the City-County Building on Martin Luther King Junior Drive in Madison, WI.

One location of the Dane County Jail is on the top floors of the City-County Building in Madison, WI.

The highlight of my day last Thursday came at the end of the women’s worship service in the county jail.  As usual, I had gone to the Dane County Jail in Madison to play the piano for the women’s worship service. But this service was a little different. Instead of a more typical opening hymn, we sang the refrain of the contemporary hymn by Bob Dufford, “Be Not Afraid.” The words are:

Be not afraid
I go before you always.
Come, follow me,
and I will give you rest.

We sang the words quietly, meditatively, three times.

Then we continued with the rest of the service. The chaplain read from the Bible. Each of us shared with the group how the Bible story spoke to us personally. Everyone wrote down prayer requests to give to the chaplain to pray throughout the week.

Hands playing pianoDuring this quiet time I played softly on the piano. I repeated “Be Not Afraid, and then switched to “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Some of the women hummed along. Then we went around the circle and prayed out loud for the person seated on our right. We ended the service by singing “Be Not Afraid” again, but with slightly different words. We sang the refrain three times, but we sang it as a response to God with the words changed to  – I’m not afraid. For the final blessing, we went around the circle in the opposite direction we had prayed, and we each asked for God’s blessing on the person standing to our left.

Then the highlight of the day for me happened. While the chaplain rapped on the window to try to attract the attention of a deputy to unlock the chapel door and escort the women back to their cell blocks, the women stood around talking to each other, and I played the piano again as a free-form postlude. I started with “Be Not Afraid” and then repeated “Jesus Loves Me.” One of the inmates, Linda, sang along from the opposite side of the room. Then I played “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Linda came over to a chair next to the piano, sat down, and sang several verses of the spiritual – I kept playing as long as she could think up verses. Then I asked her what she wanted to sing next. She responded immediately with, “Do you know ‘We’re Marching to Zion?’”

I started to play a few measures of the verse to be sure we were thinking of the same song, and she started to sing the refrain. I jumped ahead to the refrain and she sang it with a strong, beautiful alto voice as I played. After the refrain, she went right ahead with the verses and I followed her lead. We had a joyful time singing and playing together. I was sorry the deputies came so quickly to take the women back to their cells.

Here are the words of the song. We only had time to sing two verses, but I was amazed she knew all the words of the verses she had time to sing.

MARCHING TO ZION

Refrain:
We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion;
we’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.

Come, we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known;
join in a song with sweet accord, join in a song with sweet accord
and thus surround the throne, and thus surround the throne.

Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God;
but children of the heavenly King, but children of the heavenly King
may speak their joys abroad, may speak their joys abroad.

The hill of Zion yields a thousand sacred sweets
before we reach the heavenly fields, before we reach the heavenly fields,
or walk the golden streets, or walk the golden streets.

Then let our songs abound, and every tear be dry;
we’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground,
we’re marching through Emmanuel’s ground,
to fairer worlds on high, to fairer worlds on high.

I’m sorry I can’t let you hear what Linda and I sounded like in the jail chapel. But if you want to hear the hymn “We’re Marching to Zion,” you can go to www.youtube.com  and enter the title in the search box. Or, here’s a direct link to a pretty a cappella rendition that I like: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgjEaF5O6RI

Whether it’s through music, or in other ways, I hope you have many unexpected joyful moments today – and every day.

 

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Getting Together with God and Some Friends in Jail

Singing behind bars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Psalm 123, Contemporary English Version]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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