Thanksgiving -- A Hymn Of Praise

You are probably in the middle of plans either to “go home” or to prepare for family and friends who are “coming home.”  The foods you are preparing have a history with your family and just thinking about them brings back waves of memories: grandma’s pumpkin pies, Aunt Lillie’s banana pudding, mother’s homemade yeast rolls.   Even the recipes cards are smudged with fingerprints made by mamma’s butter-covered hand or a drop or two of turkey broth someone smeared on the page as they stirred in the now familiar ingredients.

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The tables will be set soon with linens someone gave you, and the arrangement of the house will likely be the way it was last year that seemed to work best for a crowd.  You may go out and cut the flowers for the tables from the rosebush Aunt Evelyn started for you or the hydrangea your daughters sent to celebrate your twenty-fifth anniversary.  And the autumn or Christmas candles will be set in the crystal candle holders that came from dad’s side of the family.

If you stop to consider, you will, like our family, find yourself being so grateful for the long line of memory-makers that have made life rich and beautiful, who taught by being thoughtful, caring, generous and selfless what is truly important in life.

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There may be other memories, too, those memories that made you vow to “never say that to a child” or “always notice when someone is lonely.”  Negative memories shape us, too.  We can choose to take a different course, to forgive instead of holding grudges, to embrace instead of pushing away.

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Rituals are those habits we make in celebrating what is good and sacred and important.  They are sometimes the motions we go through – the framework of our lives that holds us together until the more worthy emotions return after love has been betrayed or promises broken.  Rituals and heirlooms help us remember our better selves, our purer natures, our more admirable moments.  They call us home to our ideals and reestablish our center of being.

In the end Jesus is the only ideal against which all else can safely be measured.  He is the center of our joy.  He is the ground of our gratitude.  He is the focus of our family celebrations.  He is the Source of all that does not disappoint.

May this be the year where like a magnet draws metal, your family and ours will be drawn to the centering force, the only inexhaustible Source for all we expect from holiday relationships: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, long suffering, forgiveness, tenderness…and great memories!

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What Good Are Love Songs?

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Ezekiel must have been an amazing speaker.  (He must have been the Tony Campolo of his day!)  He warned, he told stories, he reminded people in colorful terms of their history with God.  He called out wicked leaders and exposed corruption in high places.  He predicted the very collapse of the country God had chosen for them and with which he had blessed them.

 He drew great crowds!  The people said, “You’ve got to go hear Ezekiel!  He is such a passionate communicator!  He’s incredible to watch and hear.”  But when all was said and sung, they went home entertained and stimulated, but nothing really changed.

 Ezekiel fell on his face before God for some answers, and God spoke to him giving him even more things to say to the people, things so dire that it tore Ezekiel’s heart out to have to preach them.  Then God said this to Ezekiel: 

 As for you, son of man, your countrymen are talking together about you by the walls and at the doors of the houses, saying to each other, ‘Come, and hear the message that has come from the Lord.’  My people come to you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice.  With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words, but do not put them into practice. When all this comes true—and it surely will—then they will know that a prophet has been among them. (Ezekiel 33:30-33 NIV)

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What God wants is for his creation to not only listen but turn. He woos; he gives a land flowing with milk and honey.  He longs for His children to bask in His love, feast from his amazing supply, love each other, and dwell in His sweet peace.  He longs for us to reflect and spill out mercy to others, joy in His presence, and rest from our frantic and empty pursuit of pseudo-living.  He promises that if we follow the “decrees that give life,” we will surely live.

There is still time to turn.  There is still time to do more than enjoy the music and the poetry. There’s time to internalize the message and let the music draw us into the dance God intended life to be. 

Once there were prophets, but we wouldn’t hear them.
Once there were wonders; we wouldn’t believe.
Fire and manna once rained down from heaven;
Great mighty winds once parted the seas.

When we were blindest, God sent his vision;
When we were deaf, He spoke and we heard.
The Light of the World walked through our darkness—
Jehovah, Himself, the Incarnate Word.

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But what good are love songs, if they don’t make us lovers?
Why be an eagle that won’t spread its wings?
Why write our hearts out?  We’re not moved by the passion,
And if love songs don’t change us, then why do we sing?          

                                   
                                               

Lyric:  Gloria Gaither ©Hanna Street Music (BMI)
Music: Woody Wright Wouldhewrite Music(ASCAP)

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Wisdom From Ann

 Our Grandson celebrating his birthday with his friend Ethan and Ann Smith

Our Grandson celebrating his birthday with his friend Ethan and Ann Smith

My friend Ann Smith is well into her tenth decade of life.  She is smart, wise, witty, and perceptive. She is a global thinker and international traveler.  She spends a disproportionate amount of her time with college students, young married couples, and mid-life persons in ministry.  And she has been a close friend and mentor to Bill and me for over fifty years.

 At the beginning of each decade, Ann asks God to show her what He wants to grow in her.  She asks God to give her a clear insight into her deficiencies and a vision of what He is calling her to become in this decade of her life.  Though Ann considers these revelations to be personal, many have turned out to be life-changers for us as well.  Here are a few:

  • There is a big difference between expectations and expectancy.  Work on getting up every morning with expectancy and not expectations—of yourself, events, and other people.  With expectations you will always be disappointed.  With expectancy you will see each day as a great adventure and every good thing as a bonus.

  • When meeting any human being, ask God to reveal what He had in mind when He made them, then to give the grace to treat them as if that had already been accomplished.

  •  Ann and her husband Nathan were long-term missionaries to Japan. On her last three-week trip to Japan to say farewell to the country and people she loves so deeply, she sat alone on a hillside, looking at the mountain in front of her and the flowing river below.  God seemed to be saying: “Ann, I am calling you to be as solid and unshakable as a mountain and as flowing and adaptable as a river.  There have been times in your life when you have been as solid and firm as a mountain, but not as flowing and adaptable as a river.  And at times you have been as flowing and adaptable as a river, but not as grounded and solid as a mountain.  My child, I want you to be both.  Find the balance.”

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 How wise are all of these insights!  In these precarious times, God is calling us all to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”  He wants the trademark of our days to be joyful with childlike expectancy, and like Moses when he and the Israelites were facing the formidable Red Sea, be able to say, “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.”

 When we get edgy with others who don’t see things exactly as we do, even people who are contentious and difficult or downright wicked, could we pray silently that God would give us the vision of what He had in mind for them when He made them and give us whatever internal resources we need to be instruments of change for an eternal outcome?

 And dare we strive to be grounded in the things that are deep and unchangeable truths, yet be gentle, flowing, refreshing, and adaptable to the situations and personalities He brings into our lives?  May we “dwell together in love” and dare to trust that we dispel the darkness, not with a sword, but with the light?

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Learning To Lose

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Grief comes in many forms.  There is the deep grief from the loss of someone dear—a mother, a father, a sibling, an influential grandparent.  Each of these are totally different losses, and the grieving is complicated by the kind of relationship we had with each when they were alive.  Was the relationship deep and true?  Was it broken by betrayal, anger, or jealousy?  Is there regret on our part that we didn’t try harder, say more, make that trip, write that letter, make that call?

 There is the grief of losing a spouse, a person who has literally and spiritually been the other half of us, a grief that seems to split us right down the middle.  If the grief is a death, especially of a long-term marriage partner, we lose the habits we’ve formed together, the memories we’ve made, the places to which we have travelled or planned to visit together. We lose the “knowing you’ll be there” when we wake up in the morning, the shared routine of each day.

 Some griefs are for the living: friendships lost, loves betrayed, trust destroyed.  Maybe these are the hardest.  Such losses never really resolve but are like a splinter buried deep in tender flesh; scar tissue may form, but the splinter is always there to fester anew when life brings new irritation.

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 The bitterest grief must be the death of a child, no matter the age of the child.  The things only a mother knows, the dreams only a father can harbor—all these things (as Luke says of Mary), parents just keep and ponder them in their hearts forever.  A baby is a unique person from the beginning, developing like a seedling every day into the quirky specialness of a personality dictated by generations of accumulated DNA.  Added to that is the environment those who love (or neglect or abuse) these children create for them to live and breathe in, shaping or distorting the person God intended them to be.  So the loss of a child is a deep enduring grief.  And as with most griefs comes with the question, “What if…?”  Even the best of parents, lovers, spouses, friends, care-givers, mentors ask themselves, “Could I have done more, made other choices, taken advantage of other opportunities?”

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 Regret and remorse are only helpful to us if we use them to change this day.  Loss is of a part of this temporal life, but, unfortunately, we, especially in America, don’t seem to have a very good theology for loss. We seem to be all about winning.  We are not very intentional in our circles of spiritual formation about asking, What do I have left?  What opportunities do I have today?  What would I do, where would I go, what would I say if I knew the person coming in the door, the friend whose text I just received, the old classmate I bumped into at the grocery this morning, the child I just tucked into bed, the sweet man whose body I just reached for before I went to sleep—what if that person was living for the last time today? What should I let go of?  What should I treasure and notice?  How should I break the silence? What priceless gift am I taking for granted?

Lord, whether I’m losing my shape, my hair, my status, my fortune, my influence, or someone dear to me, help me to choose wisely what I’m hanging on to and what I need to let go of.  Help me to turn my grief into gratitude, my loss into love, and my regrets into restoration. Let me reach for and embrace the joy you promised in the morning.

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Enjoying The Trip

I can’t remember when I didn’t love to “go someplace.”  My childhood memories could be chronicled in cars and the trips my family took in them.  I loved, for example, the “Model T” kind of car my grandparents had with running boards and prickly hair-velvet upholstery, and I looked forward to the occasional days they would pick me up from school when my parents were away and take me to Tekonsha for ice cream or out to their farm to spend the night.

 1949 Hudson Hornet

1949 Hudson Hornet

            When I was seven my daddy bought a Hudson Hornet 4-door Sedan. It was big and smooth and low.  It had a heating system that actually heated in the winter and even defrosted the windows.  There was room up in the back window (in the space behind the back seat) for a small child to curl up and go to sleep. Those were the days before seat belts.  I remember the magic of night trips when I would lie in the window and watch the street lights go by as we passed through the Michigan towns, and the moon smiling down on me as we traveled through the countryside.

            I remember my first flight on an airplane (all alone to a speech contest in Washington, D.C.) and the trips our family took to camp meeting and fishing vacations.

 From the “Bread Truck” to a motor home.

From the “Bread Truck” to a motor home.

            The first traveling Bill and I did together was in a station wagon.  Our small sound system and boxes of LP albums were in the back and sometimes extra boxes were even under our feet or on our laps.  In time, The Gaither Trio graduated to a white panel truck that we called the “Bread Truck”, then to a Dodge motor home, and eventually to a used “Eagle” bus.

            I always knew that “home” was a lot bigger concept than a house in one town on one street.  Being a P.K. (preacher’s kid) the temporary places we called “the parsonage” were only “home” because our family lived and loved in those houses.  By the time Bill and I had our babies, we were quite certain that “home” was portable – it was wherever we could be together, and when we weren’t together, it was never really “home”, even if one or some of us were at our house in Indiana.

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            We learned to  create “home” in motel rooms and dressing rooms and tents and campsites.  We learned to play games, notice things, and savor experiences along the way--together! We found that no matter where we were in the country or in life, it’s all about enjoying the trip…and each other on the way.

            It is a good thing, I think, to know that home is portable, that home is a condition of the soul.  In the meantime, we are allowed places to rest our souls for a while here, and wherever our souls are at rest, it is home. 

            I have a feeling that when we get restless on this journey we call life, if we listen, we just might hear our Father say:  “Hang on, child.  We’re not there yet!”  I can only imagine, because of the wonderful places we have been allowed to “rest our souls” together here, what our Father has up his sleeve when we get where we can settle in forever.  It will be enough just to take it all in and be together with no need to pull up stakes and move.

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Victory Lap Of Summer

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The end of summer is the victory season!  It is the wonderful “big win" over the long battle with beetles, weeds, and dry spells, when we can relax and enjoy the fruits of our labors.  How natural and beautiful it is, then, to decorate our tables, mantles, countertops and doorways with the harvest!

How about filling a huge old wooden bowl with acorn squash, gourds, small pumpkins, colorful cabbages, and even red potatoes?  Slip in some red oak branches (with the acorns still attached), sprigs of golden wheat, or twists of bittersweet to fill in the spaces and add color.

Or fill a tall container (a tin bucket, an old crock or churn, a hollowed-out birch log, or a copper pitcher) with cattails, Japanese maple branches, sunflowers, or black-eyed Susans.

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English ivy, bittersweet, and Washington hawthorn branches with their red berries all make a beautiful mantle display.  Add chunky candles in a fall color and a few Osage oranges (They are green!) for accent.

With chrysanthemums, so plentiful this time of year, create a welcoming entry with pots or bouquets of yellow, orange, rust, or burgundy mums.  Add a basket of shiny red apples and a stack of pumpkins around a rustic fountain or a weathered garden bench.

Think of the five senses—sight, smell, taste, sound, and touch—as highways into the city-center of the soul and mind.  The more “roads” you can use, the greater the impact, so use as many textures, colors and shapes, fragrances, tastes, and sounds as you can to invite your guests into the soul of your home.

Have the coffee on, the music playing, the candles lit, the fountain flowing, the apples polished.  Everything must say, “Welcome home!  Now you can breathe!”

 

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The Ultimate Navigation Device

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I just signed up for one of those all-intelligent GPS apps on my cell phone because Bill and I are on a road trip, and this thing promised everything, including the moon!  I followed its yellow brick road all the way through the inquisition this faceless entity in silicone valley dreamed up, demanding codes and credit card numbers and my grandmother’s maiden name.  In much less time than all this took, I received an email telling me that I had, indeed, been charged for the app.

The only problem was in setting it up.  I chose every option on every instruction and could find no place to re-set “home.”  Someone at software Oz-land had set “home” to be in Santa Cruz, California.  No matter what destination I set, the directions were always from a home base that was never mine.   As a result, all the directions the lady genie-in-a-jug gave with that I-know-more-than-you-do certainty in her voice were about 1300 miles off.   Oh, the directions claimed to be headed for our destination in the wondrous lake country of Michigan, but they were starting from a place that was never home and would take me back to a place that never would be home.

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I want a homing device that will take me home.  I want one that when I am lost or on the wrong road will keep saying, “Re-calibrating.  Re-calibrating.”   And even when I think I know what I’m doing and where I’m going and oh, so confident about taking a shortcut, I want a device that will insistently not let me off the hook until I get back on course and heading home.

A good navigational app is accurate because the chip implanted in it is constantly receiving clear signals from a satellite that can pinpoint where the person holding it is anywhere on the planet.  It tells me exactly where I am on the map.

There are a lot of metaphors for the written Word of God:  a light for my path, a roadmap, a sword to fend off enemies, a guide on the trail of life.  But the greatest thing about the written Word of God is that it is the signal received from the Logos, the Word that is the Source of all things. 

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If I “hide the Word in my heart”, if I “eat the Word”, if I internalize it and make it a part of my very being, I am carrying always the “chip” tuned to the signal from above and beyond that can trace my journey, and always, no matter how far I wander, bring me safely home—home to myself, home to the True North, home to the First Cause of all things—home to my God.

 

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Pain: What Good Does It Do?

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When we stand before any audience anywhere, there is one thing at least that unites us: we are all “going through stuff,” and most of what we are going through is not pleasant.  No, it is mostly painful, whether that pain is physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual.  Many times, it is all four, at least to some degree.  Illnesses, for example, affect our relationships, our mental well-being, and our emotional state.  These make us question God or lead us to cling to Him more, seeking His wisdom, trusting Him not to waste this experience but to somehow use it for some good and lasting purpose in our own lives or those of someone else.

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Some of those to whom we sing have been taught harmful and untrue things about God and pain: that their loved ones were allowed to die or they themselves experience great loss or illness in order to punish them for some past sin, or that emotional agony was sent by God because they were not one of the “chosen few.”

So, not only are we called to sing the truth about the nature of God as revealed in Christ himself, but to dispel some tragic fears and doubts instilled in hearts long ago by ignorance, superstitions, or well-meaning error.  Fortunately, we can trust the Holy Spirit, by His promised presence, to take the inspired songs and the truths in them and speak to hearts on both sides of the footlight correcting what is wrong, illuminating what is true, and revealing purposes never before recognized.

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We all know this: that we were promised a great Comforter, and He has come to use every pain, failure, setback and loss for our ultimate and eternal good – both here and in the life to come.  He who came to “bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve in Zion, to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair”       (Is. 61:1a – 3a) – He has come!

The pain we feel is not for nothing.  The tears we shed are not wasted.  The losses we know will be redeemed and our mourning turned to laughter.

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The Log Cabin

In 1978 Bill and I built a log cabin in the woods.  At that time, we were traveling on the week-ends and keeping up a schedule all week--running a publishing company, writing songs together, and doing what parents of young children do.  We ran kids to music lessons, school activities, horseback riding lessons, ball games, 4-H, and church activities.  Our home was filled with guests of extended family, traveling singers, and the friends of all three of our children. Like every other mother I knew, I did the grocery shopping, cooked meals, weeded and pruned the gardens, swept the porches and walks, and tried to keep up the laundry. Bill mowed our big lawn and planted trees.

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We needed a place where we could get a break in this schedule, where I could write, and we could enjoy nature, play games and do crafts away from our busy house.  We considered maybe getting a little cottage on one of the northern Indiana lakes, but realistically we knew that after a full concert week-end, we would not be excited about packing up supplies, food, and kids to drive three hours from home again.  That would not be restful or restorative—especially for me! So instead, we decided to build a little log retreat only a bike-ride away from our house in the middle of the woods. 

This sweet place has been a sanity-keeper through so many chapters of our lives.  When our kids were in elementary and middle school, I would often go there after I dropped the kids off at school and spend the day reading and writing or just thinking and praying.  I would take something to fix for supper, and Bill would leave the office early to pick up the children from school and come out to this quiet place.  We would gather wildflowers, build a hut in the roots of the giant oaks, or find craw-dads under the rocks in the stream.  Bill always built fires, in the fireplace and Franklin stove in the winter or in the firepit in the summer and fall.  We would all play checkers, Rook, or dominoes or paint with water colors, make cornstarch clay ornaments, or build with Lincoln logs. If it wasn’t a school night or in the summer, we would sometimes spend the night; other times we just stayed until bedtime and went home. 

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As the kids got older, the cabin was party-central for birthday sleep-overs, Halloween parties, chili suppers, and cook-outs.  Amy hosted after-theater production cast parties, and all three of them went to the cabin for leaf-collecting, mushroom hunting and exploring expeditions.

When our children entered young adulthood, this was where we had wedding or baby showers or going-away parties for schoolmates leaving for college.  As the kids married and had children of their own, the cabin welcomed them home.  Amy and Andrew and little Lee lived here the year Andrew was writing his doctoral dissertation; it was also the place where they brought home newborn Madeleine.  Suzanne and Barry and their boys have used this place as a getaway, and Benjy and Melody have stayed here with their two little ones, retracing with them the steps down the hill to the creek and the trails through the woods.

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Now there are just the two of us. Today when I finished working at home I came to the cabin around 2:00 and brought out tomatoes and sweet corn from the garden for supper and some bacon and eggs for breakfast.  I sat on the deck swing with my coffee, praying for the grandkids, listened to the birds and critters, and inhaled the air full of oxygen straight from the maples, elms, sycamores, and oaks.

Bill joined me after his appointments were finished at the office; he walked the long trail back and forth to the county road, registering 12,000 steps on his fit-bit.  As technology has gotten more sophisticated, the woods and the cabin in it has remained pretty much the same.  By evening the cicadas began their symphony.  The evening sun turned the trees of the forest a golden shade of green.  The stream down below was a bit deeper this week and wider, too, because of the late summer rains we’ve been having.

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After supper, we sat on the deck swing being so thankful that we still love each other.  We breathed in the nutty smells of the woods and listened to the gentle sound of water trickling over river rocks.  Bill disappeared for a while, and I knew without checking that he was building yet another fire in the firepit, and that soon the smell of wood smoke would draw me out to sit until well after dark; we would recite the stories and recount the memories we’ve made here.  I knew too, that I’d pull out my cell phone and take a video of Bill’s crackling fire and record the crickets and cicadas to send all over the country to our kids and grandkids that in my memory still dash through these woods, playing “ditch-em” or “monsters”, or huddle around this fire roasting marshmallows.

The text I sent read: “We’re at the cabin.  Wish you were here!”  It wasn’t long before my phone began to ping with messages as those we so love and miss sent back: “We wish we were, too!”  It doesn’t get better than that.

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Finding Balance--Really!

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We hear a lot these days about moderation and balance: a little work, a little play, some good food, some entertainment, a few days off, a little religion, a good book or two, a self-help class, a good physical fitness program…a little of everything and not too much of anything.  So, by today’s standards the instructions in Deuteronomy 6 for running our lives and rearing our children seems a bit extreme.

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“Love the Lord your God,” the instructions say, “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”  (Seems to me that pretty much covers everything – everything seems to be focused on loving the Lord your God.)  Then the manual goes on to tell us how to pass that single-minded commitment on to our children.  We are to teach it by talking about God and loving Him when we sit at home and when we go jogging, when we get ready for bed, and at the breakfast table.  We are to paste it on the refrigerator and the kitchen bulletin board.  We are to put sticky-pad notes on the steering wheel (as we go on the way) and on the back storm door window when we leave the house.  We are to “bind it on our foreheads” and tie it “as symbols on our hands.”  Now, I don’t know if that means wearing “Jesus saves” bracelets and “sign of the fish” rings, but I think it means to keep around us reminders to ourselves of what life is all about.

Now, you might be saying, “That’s a lot of religion, don’t you think?” And you might just be right.  Unless, as we go about being balanced physically, mentally, emotionally, vocationally and religiously, loving God is WHAT WE ARE!

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I Will Go On

“I Will Go On” is one of the most encouraging songs we’ve ever written.  It is also one of the most discouraging, and I must say it was far easier to write than it is to live out.  It is encouraging because it reminds us over and over to get the hard stuff into perspective, realign our worldview, and get the past behind us.  It is one of the most discouraging – at least for me – because about the time I get to the place where I have put the past behind me on one issue in my life, repented for my attitude of resentment, self-deprecating regret, or paralyzing discouragement and asked God to help me refocus on Him and the future and surrender to the upward pull of His grace, some new life-tsunami sweeps into my life.   

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Perhaps that is why confession, repentance, trust in, and reliance on the work God has done (and not on our own abilities), gratitude and praise, and active compassion for others are all so essential to the ongoing faith life of believers.

“I Will Go On” comes to the surface for Bill and me as one of our favorites of the songs we have written.  We have found that it is so basic to a healthy spiritual life to keep on forgiving not only others, but ourselves as well.  It is so necessary to have the courage to admit it when we are less than gracious, to let go of bitterness and regret before it takes root, to embrace hope – both for ourselves and for those around us – and to choose to turn and face forward, as Paul said, “toward the prize set before us.”

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Counselors tell us that this song is not only good theology, but good psychology as well.  Baggage from the past can shut down our future.  Grudges and resentment can sabotage the good relationships just waiting to be realized.  Authorities say that kids who grow up around score-keeping and getting even or who hear their parents stewing on injustices (when has life been fair?), learn to come at life with their fists doubled up ready to take on the first person who crosses their path.  From there it just becomes a matter of bigger weapons: fists, sticks, clubs, guns, bombs…until the whole earth becomes encampments of bullies, lying in wait to blow up the planet.

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How incredibly revolutionary are the words of Paul and Timothy and their letter to the community of faith in Philippi:

You’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things
true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the
best, not the worst, the beautiful, not the ugly, things to praise,
not things to curse. 
(Philippians 4:8 The Message)
 Photo by Miguel Bruna

Photo by Miguel Bruna

The cup of life holds only so much.  In order to fill it with love, joy, peace, contentment, goodness, and progress, it must first be emptied of anger, blame, resentment, bitterness, grudges, and negative energies.  It’s up to us.

The great news is that God promises to empower us for right living the minute we admit our failures and embrace His perfect work in us.  “Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.” (Philippians 4:13 The Message)

 

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Don't Leave Without Saying Good-Bye

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Traveling has been a part of our lives from the very early days of our marriage until now.  When our children were little, our singing took us away nearly every weekend and occasionally for longer periods of time.  Although leaving was common, it was never easy.  Suzanne said to us when she was three, “I know you have to go, but don’t leave without saying ‘goodbye’.” She knew that the “leave-taking” was very important to everyone’s security and sense of purpose.

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Even before they were old enough to understand fully the concepts of time, distance, and location, the children always insisted on knowing the answers to five very important questions: Where are you going? How long will you be gone?  Can we come with you?  Who will stay with us?  When will you be back?  Over and over we would answer these questions giving specific information: “We are going to Houston, Texas.  We will be gone three days.  You can’t come this time, but Grandma and Grandpa Sickal will stay here at the house with you and will take you to your piano lessons on Saturday.”

Then we would give advice like, “Don’t argue; take care of the dogs and always remember to love each other.  If you need anything, Grandma will help you.  And, remember that whatever you do or wherever you go, you represent our family.  People will judge us by how you treat each other and your grandparents.”

When Jesus was leaving his disciples to return to His Father, He, too, knew that leave-taking was very important.  He knew that we human beings could handle separation as long as He “didn’t leave without saying goodbye.”  And the questions His children needed to have answered were the same ones Suzanne, Amy and Benjy used to ask.  With specific clarity Jesus gave them answers, although they could not fully comprehend the dimension of what he was telling them.

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“I go to my Father,” he said.  “You can’t come with me yet, but don’t worry, I won’t leave you alone.  The Holy Spirit will be your constant companion, and I must go so that He can come.  While I’m gone He will teach you everything you need to know.  I will be gone, by my time, only a little while, though it may seem long to you.  But you can be confident that I will be back, and when I come again, it will be to get you and take you where I have been all this time fixing up a special place for us all to be together…forever.  After that, we won’t have to say ‘goodbye’ again.”

Then Jesus gave some special parental instructions.  “Love and take care of each other.  The way you treat each other will tell the world about our family, so remember Whose child you are.  Some problems may come up, but whatever you need, you can ask for it using my name.  I’ve signed for you, so all I have is at your disposal, and the Holy Spirit will see that you have it.  And remember, we’re a part of the same family tree: I’m the roots and trunk; you are the branches, so our growing will be together.  And when you feel lonely or afraid, rely on the promise that I have insulated you in prayer and you belong to me.”

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The Potting Shed

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I have always loved digging in the dirt and making things grow.  When we were first married and had built our house, Bill did all the mowing of our big yard.  The mowing was great therapy and gave him a place to think, he said.  I love getting my fingers in the soil and over the years have dug up sod in several places to make various gardens.  One I call the English garden, because it has a white fence and trellised gateways, diamond-shaped and horseshoe-shaped flower gardens, and benches to sit on to read stories to the children and later the grandchildren.  Another was the “cutting garden” along the fence at the bottom of the hill, and yet another was the “shade” garden that borders our backyard fence.

But, because Bill’s father had always grown a huge vegetable garden, I had never tackled growing produce to eat.  A few years ago, when spring came, I decided it was time to try “frame gardens” for vegetables and to build a potting shed where I could keep my own tools (they always seem to walk away when I keep them in the garage), and where I could get a head start on the season by starting seedlings early.  I also longed for a place of my own to keep my gardening books and to repot and divide house plants.

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Finding just the right place for a potting shed took some research and planning.  I knew I wanted windows and a skylight on the southeast side.  I would need a potting bench, cubbies to hold soils and materials, a floor that could be hosed down, and a potting sink for watering and clean-up.

A pair of young adventuresome builders were willing to take on this project and before long the framework was in place.  While they worked on the building, my gardening friend and I began to plan the frame gardens.

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Although we got started late, we were able to plant tomatoes, green beans, eggplant, carrots, peppers and onions by buying some plants already started and by sowing early blooming seeds.  With the help of Randy Sigler who has helped us with the grounds for forty years now, we put in a stepping stone path and dug out the hard clay around the potting shed, replacing it with organic soil for flowers, lavender, and herbs.

I found a small chair for our grandson Simon and an antique mission chair for me that just fit in the corner.  Simon decorated the peg board (for hanging tools) with rubber stamps of dragonflies, butterflies and flying insects.

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That next fall Josh and Sharon, our grounds keepers, built two new frames with layers of organic materials (see Lasagna Gardening by Patricia Lanza) that included leaf cuttings, chicken straw, seasoned manure, vegetable peelings, wood ash, peat moss, etc.  These frames were then covered with black plastic to let the organic layers “cook,” then uncovered after the snows were gone.  Soon they were ready for seeds and seedlings when the threat of frost was past and the soil was warmed by April rains. Our grandchildren Mia and Liam helped me plant seeds and seedlings in the ready frames.

By now the potting shed has become my special place to think, pray, plant, paint, and sometimes to hide.  And there is nothing like going to the garden to “pick our supper” of tomatoes, onions, lettuce, eggplant, peppers, and beans.  I know I could buy vegetables at the store, but somehow it is not the same.  Food grown in this place of peace seems to taste better!

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Picnics I Have Known

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My mother was a master of making something out of nothing.  She could make a garden out of a rocky weed patch, a designer suit out of a remnant, or a lovely home out of an old run-down parsonage.  She could turn a week at a borrowed cabin in the woods with no electricity or plumbing into an unforgettable vacation or a camp tent into a youth haven.

And almost any occasion was a great excuse for a picnic.  The first warm day in spring would be sure to bring out the old pieced quilt and a basket full of baloney sandwiches, apple slices, carrot sticks and homemade cookies.  Mother would chirp, “Let’s have a picnic!” and before you knew it, the quilt was spread out under the big maple tree and my sister and I and whatever friends happened to be at the house at the time would be giggling over the stories mother made up to keep us all entertained.

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Since both my pastor-parents served on several boards and committees around the state of Michigan and at our church headquarters in Indiana, road trips were a regular part of our lives.  Michigan highways were punctuated by roadside picnic areas with tables and charcoal grills at which our family often stopped on the way to our destination.  Daddy carried a two-burner Coleman stove in the trunk and a cooler that mother stocked with fresh eggs, bacon, tomatoes, cheeses, garden vegetables and cold cuts.  There was nothing as wonderful as the smell of sliced potatoes and onions frying and coffee perking as I skipped around the roadside “park”, hunting rocks for my collection and picking Queen Anne’s Lace and buttercups.

Daddy was a man of infinite patience who never seemed to tire of loading and unloading coolers, grocery bags, suitcases and boxes of supplies.  Nor did he complain about launching rowboats and tackle boxes in and out of Michigan lakes so my mother could do what she loved most of all—fish until it was too dark to see the bobber.

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Of course, having caught our limit in huge bluegills and bass demanded another picnic!  This time, after cleaning and filleting our catch back at the cabin, Mother would coat the fish with cornmeal and fry them; she would spread the oilcloth over the outside table where by the light of a kerosene lantern we would eat fish at midnight served up with sliced tomatoes, bread, and lemonade.

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Mother is gone now, but the picnic-instinct is in my DNA!  We can’t count the great picnic memories we’ve made down by the creek that has come to be know as “Gaither’s Pond”, thanks to our son Benjy’s video series for kids.  And Mia, Liam, and Simon love nothing more than to eat breakfast on the front porch while all nature is waking up.  The children leave leftover toast in the hollow of the maple tree for the squirrels to find and sit motionless (can you believe it?) while the wrens are feeding their babies in the big planter of geraniums on the porch.

I sit with my coffee and pray that when life gets hard and problems knotty, these little ones of the third generation from mother will remember that it doesn’t take much to turn life into a picnic if you keep the music in your soul!

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More Than Hot Dogs And Fireworks

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This month we celebrate freedom.  We enjoy it with picnics and fireworks and outings, but these celebrations will have no meaning if we do not consider that the gift of freedom has throughout our nation’s history, been purchased with the blood of men and women, and with the wound to the souls of many a parent who live with the loss of their child long after their soldier stopped breathing on some muddy or sun-parched battlefield.  Even today as we play the ballgames, fish the ponds, roast the hot dogs, or set off the explosions of color into the night sky, someone is dying, and some family will get the word that their child will not be coming home.

That is why we must know why we fight, why our boys and girls are sent, and why they die.  The cause must be real and the objective clear and true.  No young American must die for political maneuvers or to help the economy.  It must be for freedom.  Yet freedom dearly bought is always to be treasured and pursued over a false peace where no one is free. Living in fear must be held at bay by the burning fires of right living and right choosing.  We must never prostitute our women or barter our men to escape conflict, and, in avoiding conflict, live with the impending knock on the door of our fragile dwelling places by those who would demand a higher and higher payment for ransom.  The greedy landlords of this world will never have “enough” and simply go away.  It is fool-hardy for us to think they ever would.  There are fates worse than death, and there must always be virtues and freedoms worth fighting for.

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So, we have paid this ultimate sacrifice through our history to eradicate injustice, to defend the powerless, to eliminate ruthless dictators, and to establish a spiritual and physical place where children can be taught and nurtured in those virtues that endure, while their parents go about the daily task of justice, mercy, industry, and self-discipline for the cause of right and freedom for all.

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We must today love and encourage and forgive each other as we play and sing and feast.  We must celebrate something true, not just celebrate.  And that true thing—our freedom to think, work, worship, and speak—will always be dear, because freedom is not and never has been free.  Like the turning of a house into a home, the hollowing out of a country is a daily and active process that grows more precious with every virtue won and every inclination to evil and selfishness defeated.

The nicks in the furniture, the dents in the siding, the cracks in the sidewalk, the trees that have grown to shelter and cool are all testimonies to the process that makes a home—or a country—a thing of beauty and value.

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Vacations Become Part Of You

My parents were pastors who loved to take small struggling churches and nurture them to wholeness.  We learned to live creatively on very little income, yet because mother was an artist, a designer seamstress and a decorator, and Daddy was a fine carpenter, our parsonages were always beautiful and comfortable when they finished their renovations.

 Gloria in Toronto at historical fort

Gloria in Toronto at historical fort

Mother was always up on current styles, too, and made my sister’s and my clothes so that we always felt well-dressed and never self-conscious.  Mother had been a model in Battle Creek, Michigan, before they became ministers, so she thought it was important to teach us girls good posture, good manners, and ways to make others feel at ease.

Daddy always planted a huge garden and out of its yield, mother created beautiful meals.  Our house was full of guests (ministers, missionaries, evangelists, and families in our church) and lots of teen-agers from the youth group.  Now I wonder how we fed so many so often on so little.

But one thing my parents always prioritized, no matter how careful we had to be with our money, was the family vacation.

Every summer we loaded up the car with produce from the garden, and groceries to last two weeks, plenty of bait for fishing, our tackle boxes and fishing poles, and off we’d go to some beautiful Michigan lake or a cabin in the northern virgin pine and white birch forests.

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Daddy hauled many a soggy rowboat in and out of marrow-bottomed lakes because mother loved to fish.  Often, we’d clean our catch after dark by the light of battery-operated lanterns, then fry fish and sliced potatoes and onions for an almost-midnight feast which we’d enjoy to the symphony of crickets and cicadas that filled the woods and then lulled us to sleep through the screened windows of our open-raftered cabin.  What contentment!

One of my favorite memories is a vacation we spent on Little Manistique Lake in the Upper Peninsula where we stayed in a wonderful log cabin with a fireplace.  I remember, too, a huge four poster bed in the room where my parents slept.  The side trips from this vacation spot were great adventures.  We visited a place called Big Spring where from a glass-bottom boat one could see the lake being fed from a deep dark hole that seemed to go to the center of the earth, a huge fresh water spring gushing from a depth we could only imagine.

At dusk, we would drive (after dinner and ice cream cones) to the edge of the small town where the city dump was like a wildlife exhibit.  We’d turn off the lights of the car and wait, and soon we’d see the great bulk of brown bears lumbering out of the woods with their cubs to search for discarded food.

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As the week went on, we learned that the solid log house in which we were staying was the first home of a German immigrant who had come to upper Michigan more that fifty years before with his young bride.  The immense hand hewn bed we had so admired they had brought from Germany – their only piece of furniture from “home.”

The man still lived on the property, and all of the cabins and the resort were now owned by his son and his wife.  He had been, all his life, a teacher of English literature, but had for many years been retired.  His wife was gone by then, and he had moved into a two-room cottage near his log library.  Mother, a lover of great literature, struck up a friendship with him, having long discussions about their favorite authors.  One night she invited him to come over for dinner and treat us to an evening of reading around the fire.  He selected Shakespeare and Browning for the evening’s readings, and we all sat mesmerized as this learned man with the voice like a great Shakespearean actor, interpreted passages from the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare and the poetry of Browning.

To this day, I love those two important writers and can still hear the booming voice of an old German schoolmaster, wrapping me in the music of words one cool Michigan summer night.

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I Remember Daddy

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Daddy was a Pastor, and he was perfect for that work.  Like the father I knew at home, Daddy was caring, steady, dependable, responsible, and righteous.  I say righteous in the best sense of that word, for he had a passion for right, and right guided his decisions, whether those were spiritual, social, domestic, or financial.  He tried in our family, in the church, and in the community to “do the right thing”.

Daddy loved my mother and was extravagant in appreciating her.  He always said God ordained for them to be together because she had all of the gifts that he lacked and together they were an effective and formidable team.  He was thorough and loved research and study; she was instinctive and creative.  He was social and loved to experience fellowship; she knew how to do everything—and I mean everything—with beauty and flair.  She could pull off a happening!  Both of them loved people and were generous with their time, our home, and what finances they had.  They both loved deep philosophical concepts, were thrilled with new insights, and enjoyed nothing better than a challenging discussion.  Our dining room table was the place to be if you wanted to learn, be challenged, or hear some great stories.

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To this day, I think of going to the phone to call them to come across the creek to our family room to hear the newest song we have written, especially if it contains a deep theological truth.  If I had one wish, it would be that they could be in our life for a day or two to experience what God has done with our songs and to hear what our children have created since they left us when the kids were young.  Maybe God has made provision for them to at least hear some of the praise and rejoicing that has been sent heavenward from concerts and from the private hearts of believers as they worshipped through the music.

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I always thought my dad was the strongest person I ever knew, that nothing could get him down.  But one time in his life I saw him almost lose his faith and his joy.  He was in a very discouraging pastorate fraught with problems.  He couldn’t seem to see any change taking place in the lives of people he poured his heart out to teach and lead.  It was a real wake-up call to me to learn that good and Godly men were vulnerable to discouragement and even despair.  I knew I had been one of many in my father’s life that just assumed he was impervious to defeat.  I realized after I was more mature, that everyone needs encouragement and soul support. 

Out of that experience came a lyric to which Benjy wrote music and Amy recorded on the CD Some Things Never Change.  The song was titled “My Disheartened Old Hero” and maybe it is a good song for Father’s Day—to remind all of us who are fortunate enough to have had a great dad to say so!  And to be specific about all of the things we appreciate about our “righteous” fathers.       

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I Then Shall Live

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In 1976 Francis Schaeffer wrote a very important book posing the question:  How Should We Then Live?  I was deeply impacted by that book and the many questions the book asked of the thinkers of that decade.

Over the years that followed the question presented itself to me as a serious Christian, as a young parent, as an American, and as a citizen of the world community.  How would Jesus ask me to live given the culture and circumstances – both personal and global – in which I was living out my life?

Having always loved the music “Finlandia” written by Jean Sibelius, I sat down one day in the 80’s to listen to what I felt it was saying to me.  This is sometimes a difficult task when a piece of music has been the setting for other familiar texts, but as I listened it seemed the music was saying, “I then shall live as one who’s been forgiven…”

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If I wrote that line, what would follow?  How does one live forgiven?  Certainly, gratitude would be the first response.  But what then?  What would be the “living out” part of being treated with grace?

As the music played, I wrote quickly what I felt the Spirit was dictating to my soul.  When the words were on the page, I read them and had to admit that these were words easier to write than to faithfully live out in all areas of my life on a daily basis.  Again, Francis Schaeffer’s questions had intersected with my life and I was held accountable to answer, not just with words, but with my days.

The song found its way into choral arrangements and hymnals, but not until the Vocal Band and Signature Sound men began to sing it did it reach so many regular people like me.  If we could all begin to believe that each of us is “where the buck stops” if the world is ever to be changed by the beautiful message of redemption – not just in what we say, but in who we truly are – I believe something amazing could happen.

The problems of the world are huge: hunger, war, crime, betrayal, devastation.  The issues each of us deal with as individuals are huge:  inadequacies, past failures, wasted opportunities, physical limitations, financial reversals, broken relationships.  If we looked at the problems of the world and our own personal challenges as a whole, we would be paralyzed by the immensity of it all.  How could we possibly change anything? 

But we can take on this day.  We can affect the lives around us where we are.  We can choose our attitudes toward those with which we interact.  We can forgive today’s offenses, live gratefully today, rejoice in the progress we’ve made so far.  We can choose to live outward toward those who are in need in our neighborhood, extended family, pockets of poverty in our area.  And we can do what we do today as “unto the Lord” with no “keeping track” or ulterior motives.

In time things will change – in ourselves and in our world.

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Plant A Tree

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If you want to make it home, plant a tree!  Trees are our statement of faith in the future, our daily journal of the present, the repository of memories of days gone past.  Trees are an invitation to birds and wildlife.  Trees are the budding promise of spring, the cooling shade from summer's scorching heat, a circus of color in the fall, and in winter, the stark reminder of the necessity of bones and framework to the form and shape of our lives.  Trees are a metaphor for the cycle of our own days – and those of our parents and our children. 

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And what is it about trees that are so irresistible to children?  Certainly, every yard worthy of the name must have a “climbin’ tree” where a kid can scale to the heights to get perspective on life, escape a bully, or hide from siblings.  A great tree is a “jungle gym” and a hut where the Mowgli in each kid can come to the surface.  It should have one great horizontal limb from which a swing can hang with long ropes that lets a kid (or a grown-up) swoop out over the hillside to survey all his or her domain.  When Bill and I first built our house fifty-two years ago, we planted trees, many of which were saplings we rescued from the creek side when we dredged out our pond.  One was a silver maple which we planted because we knew it would grow fast.  By the time the kids were ready for school, the tree was ready for them.  They would hide notes in the knothole in the trunk, use it as a launching pad for Star Wars invasions, and climb high enough to eat peanut butter sandwiches out of our collie’s reach.  Soon they were good enough climbers to be on a first name basis with the black squirrels and the blue jays. 

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These days the silver maple has made the upstairs porch seem like a tree house and our children’s children have claimed it for their own.  The twigs that blow down when we have a storm are still collected to start fires in the kitchen fireplace, while bigger limbs are trimmed back and used for bonfires at the creek.

Many an afternoon nap has been stolen on an old quilt we spread under the tree.  Sometimes apple slices, graham crackers and white icing sandwiches and cold glasses of milk turn the quilt under the tree into an impromptu picnic.

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The willow tree by the pond marks our favorite fishing spot; the magnolia by the garden swing is a great place to hide.  The pines shelter the tall steel swing set while the “sweet pea trees” attract honey bees and hummingbirds.  The English walnut that arches over the pool and the orchard began in a coffee can from a seed planted by a teenage boy named Michael, and the spruces came to our yard as seedlings from my parents' “Christmas tree farm” churchyard in Michigan.  Bill’s grandpa Grover saved the hard maple seedlings along Hanna Street by tying white rags across them back when the bulldozers were shaping our home site four decades ago.  Now they form an arbor over our street like a welcome arch.  And the two hundred arbor vitae that formed a green thirty-foot hedge on the east property line were planted when they were barely 12 inches high by Bill, his dad, and his grandpa.

The lilacs were a gift from a friend, and the pink dogwood down by the English Garden fence came from my parents because its blossoms remind us of the cross.  The apple tree in the English Garden came up on its own from seeds I shook out of my tea towel on the days I sat on the garden bench peeling apples and reading James and the Giant Peach to our children.

Friends who come to see us will likely as not get you a tree tour.  Every tree has a story.  And those stories are so woven into the fabric of our family’s sense of place that we can hardly tell where we stop and the trees begin.

When someone we love builds or buys a new home, we usually send a tree.  We know that no matter where you live, it will never be “home” until you plant a tree.

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Free To Be Grateful

I was born three months after Pearl Harbor was bombed. I remember (barely) rationing of certain materials and food stuffs, gas, and metals. I can recall my mother’s friends talking about “the war effort” and “rolling bandages”.

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I grew up with a cousin (born in the same month as I) whose father, my father’s only brother, was wounded in action in New Guinea and was given a “purple heart”. At four years old I wasn’t sure why the real heart he had wasn’t good enough, but my family spoke about it like it was an honor to have the purple one. When he came home to claim his little daughter from my grandmother and grandfather who were caring for her, he brought a new wife who was the army nurse that had tended to his wounds in the army hospital. As it turned out, she was from Mississippi and had the only real southern accent in our family.

My uncle finished his education in literature and theater with a civil defense loan and taught in the Chicago area until he retired. He and his army nurse wife had four more children. Phoebe, the cousin who was like a sister, still keeps in touch, and Jeannie, one of the other four children, came to spend the day with me when we were singing at Willow Creek Church.

My father never served in the military, but became a wonderful pastor who with my artist/writer mother built strong congregations in Michigan. Both of them had a passion for people and instilled in my sister and me a love for God’s kingdom the world over.

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One of Bill’s earliest memories of his sixth Christmas Eve, when, at his family’s Christmas gathering, word came that his Aunt Lillie’s handsome son Glen had been killed in Germany only a few days after he had been deployed. This bright young man was engaged to a lovely girl and had hoped to go into the ministry of the Nazarene Church where he had been active in the youth group. 

From then on for years, there was certain sadness for Bill about Christmas Eve and the Gaither family celebration. Maybe that is why we tried to make new memories with our children on Christmas morning.

Like most families, ours has been affected by the loss or injury of one of our own who served in the defense of our country.  For Aunt Lillie the fracture to her soul caused by losing a son never fully healed, though she lived to be in her nineties. And my family was changed forever by “the war”. Many men and women who have experienced the horror of war carry deep wounds. Scar tissue of the spirit finally forms, and life goes on. But nothing is ever quite the same. There are emotional sacrifices that go on long after “Johnny comes marching home”.

The freedom that we treasure in America is unique in all the world. As we begin the summer season traveling, gathering, worshipping and celebrating with our families, let us take time to savor our freedoms. Let’s use these freedoms—rare in the world—to do good things.

We are free to help others,
     free to assemble,
          free to be generous,
               free to pray,
                    free to learn,
                         free to criticize and question.

Let us always be aware that freedom is not free. It has come at great cost, a price that should cause us to live aware and grateful. And may we never misuse this precious freedom or use it as a license to take away someone else’s freedom.

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