Bless This Marriage

I believe that life is sacred—all of it—because it is God’s currency of time, given to us to spend on this side of eternity.   The passages of our lives deserve to be marked by a sacred celebration and a renewed commitment to recognize what is eternal in every moment.  We need times to stop down and refocus on the “why” of life and to prioritize the way we are spending this precious gift we have been given.

Marriage is not only one of the most important passages of life, but also should be a holy sacrament, bringing together two people, two families, two histories, and two futures.  It is much more than a civil contract; it is a serious long-term commitment, because it marks the beginning of a new home, the natural habitat for human beings and their nurture to maturity physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

This blog (or vlog) and the two to follow will be audio/video blogs, celebrating three of the most significant passages of life:  marriage, the dedication of a new home, and the birth of a baby.  They will also be available in gift book form for sharing with friends who are celebrating these passages of life.

CLICK THE VIDEO BELOW TO WATCH AND LISTEN

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It Ain't Done 'Til It's Done

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While I was growing up, my mother said more times than I wanted to hear, “It’s not done until it’s done!”  This would apply to everything from taking the bait “clean off the hook” before I put away a fishing rod, to hosing off the spade and rake (and, at the end of the gardening season, oiling the spade) before I put the tools away in the tool shed.  It was applied to putting my bike in the garage before I went to bed, neatly hanging up the dish towel after the dishes were dried, and making my bed and straightening the bathroom before I left for school.  Along with this valuable training, came the ethic I learned from my parents and grandparents before them: pay your bills in full, don’t buy what you can’t afford, and always “pay your tithe” first, if you want God to bless the rest.  Oh yes, and never live so close to the edge financially that you can’t help those who are in need and offer hospitality to whomever God brings into your life.

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I have been so grateful for this heritage of responsibility. My parents didn’t leave my sister and me much of an inheritance, but they left us a legacy of great value.  I hope Bill and I have passed that legacy on to our kids.

We have learned that we must be frugal so that we can be generous.  We’ve learned the value of “deferred gratification,” that the things we wait for are all the dearer when they come.  We’ve discovered that gratitude makes every day a treasure and the simplest pleasures sweet.  And we’ve learned that how we do a thing is as important as the doing of it, whether it is writing a song, making a recording, pruning a grape vine, or putting garden tools away for the winter.

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We have experienced in our own home and in our homes of origin the joy of deep rest after a day of honest labor, the contentment in knowing we have paid our debts, and the rich reward in sharing our blessings with others.  We have been as enriched by drives into the Indiana countryside as by trips around the world.  In our travels we’ve enjoyed a few really lovely hotels and some of the simplest accommodations, but we always think the best place of all is home.

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                  We have found true what Paul once wrote to the believers in Phillippi:

“I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances.  I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little.  I’ve found the recipe for being happy, whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty.  Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.”  (Phil. 4:12-13  The Message)

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Plumb Lines and Levels

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My Daddy was a carpenter.  I grew up making “villages” for my miniature people and animals out of piles of sawdust and pinning curls of wood shavings into my hair when I was pretending to be a princess.  I became familiar with Daddy’s tools, and he showed me how to use them: the plain, the saws, the sanders, and, of course, hammers, nails and screwdrivers.  To this day I love beautiful woods with interesting grains and can’t help running my hands over their smooth polished surfaces.

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One of my father’s tools often made its way into his sermons.  It was his “plumb line”, a piece of heavy metal shaped like a tiny child’s top and tied to a piece of twine.  He used it as the acid test on vertical supports like wall framing, beams, pillars and the finished edges of walls of wood and masonry.  The plumb line was pulled by gravity, so even unlevel ground that could fool the naked eye, couldn’t fool the plumb line.  If the plumb line said the board was straight, it was straight.  Cross beams could then be lined up on the horizontal and their accuracy could be measured with the “level”, a wooden board with a hole in the center across which two tiny tubes of oil had been fixed, each with a bubble inside.  The “plumb line” and the ”level” measured the quality of a carpenter’s work and predicted whether or not, years later, the plaster applied to that wall would crack or the floor joists laid would creak.  The plumb line and the level could even prophesy whether a hundred years from now a building would still stand straight and strong. 

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There are in any age, at any time, winds of public opinion, changing trends, and popular viewpoints.  There are styles of dress, transportation, décor and behavior.  There are “fads” and “stars” and “influencers” and “idols”.  There is political rhetoric mainly designed to get votes by appealing to voters’ immediate material advantage and current felt needs.

But there is only one perfect model and one accurate measuring stick that is trustworthy.  It is the “plumb line” of God’s word and the walking, living Word – Christ himself, the great leveler.  Against this Living Word everything else must be measured if it is to stand the winds of change and the storms of time.

The prophet Amos lived at a time not unlike our own.  It was a time of control freaks, self-sufficiency and affluence, yet a time when the poor were too often oppressed and injustice was an accepted practice.  Religious performance was common but spiritual integrity and real obedience to God was uncommon.  Here in his own words Amos said: “The Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, checking it with a plumb line to see if it was straight”. 

And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?”

I answered, “A plumb line.”

And he replied, “I will test my people with a plumb line……” (Amos 7:7-8a)

Jesus was a carpenter. He would have been very familiar with this measuring device. He came to be the living, walking plumb line so that our lives would stand straight and strong, enduring and withstanding all the pressures of the times. He asks us to be citizens of another Kingdom, and to measure wealth, success, acceptance, and status by another measuring device than the fickle opinion of the current culture. It is an eternal edifice that we are building with the moments and choices of this day.

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Folding Sox

We were on vacation with our son and Bill’s father whom I’ve always called by his first name George.  One morning George found on his dresser the socks I had washed and folded for him with his underwear.  He came out of the bedroom grinning, unfolding a pair.

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“Lela used to fold socks like this,” he said.  “But I never learned how to do it.  I just can’t get it right.”

He was pleased and was relishing this small gesture of holding a household together, treasuring a family.  He and Lela had been married 65 years when she died.  I wondered if he ever noticed this while he had her.  I wondered if he ever told her thank you for the millions of socks she folded.

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When Bill and I got married, Bill still lived at home.  His mother changed his bed with air-dried sheets she used to carry, wet and heavy up from the basement where she did the washing – up and out to the clothesline where she carefully shook each sheet free of its wrinkles with a crisp snap, folded it in half, and pinned it with wooden clothespins to the line in the back yard where the sheets were dried by the Indiana prairie wind and the sun.  She would fold them and all the other wash – underwear, dish towels, bath towels, pillowcases, and dozens of socks – and put them all clean and smelling of summer breeze and marigolds into drawers and linen closets.  The dozens of pairs of underwear – boxer shorts and white tee shirts – and the pillowcases and cotton handkerchiefs she sprinkled, folded into themselves into round mounds that looked like bread dough rising, and placed them in a laundry basket to be ironed that night by the T.V.  Yes, the underwear, pillowcases and linen handkerchiefs, white shirts, blue shirts, work shirts and blue jeans, housedresses, aprons, and feed sack dish towels were all ironed.

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Gestures of love – touching the clothes, smoothing, patting, folding, patting some more – when sometimes she couldn’t pat the bodies they went on because they had changed from little boys to men before her eyes, or because they were too busy or too “grown-up” or too gone-all-the-time to be touched and enfolded or patted any more.

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I couldn’t help thinking about all the nights this family of five had crawled into bed between fragrant sheets and burrowed their heads into sweet-smelling freshly ironed pillowcases, felt the comfort, inhaled the “summer” and caressed their pillows.  Did Lela long to be caressed sometimes too, and patted?  On cold nights did George sometimes burrow his nose into her soft neck smelling of Estée Lauder after her bath, and tell her how much he loved having his socks folded, his shorts ironed, his meals hot, his house clean, his needs met, and a warm body to hold?  Or did he just trust that there are some things that don’t have to be said.  Does he still think that now?

Maybe not, maybe now he knows how important it is to say it.  So he says it to me.  “Lela used to fold my socks like this.  I’ve never been able to do it, but Lela did – just like this.”

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Dwarfed by Majesty

There is a certain thing that can happen in a one-night concert in an auditorium or arena, and Bill and I have been sharing such evenings with beautiful people all over the world for more than fifty years.  We have seen many a cold sports center or city auditorium turned into a cathedral by the presence of the Lord.

But there is something quite different that can happen when a group of seekers travel together on a ship for a whole week, bumping into each other over breakfast, experiencing a salmon bake in the pine woods by a cold spring-fed stream, or being reduced to silence by the intimidation of a glacier.  Or how about smelling the pristine waters where blue icebergs float by just a few feet away carrying a family of seals?

Some of my most memorable conversations have “just happened” in a little Russian Orthodox church in Sitka or while standing at the ship’s rail listening to the once-in-a-lifetime sound of a glacier “calving.” 

I have to admit that Alaska is my favorite trip.  Maybe that is because I grew up in Michigan where there were logging villages in the Upper Peninsula and cold rivers where the Coho salmon climbed the “ladders” to fight their way upstream.  I guess that may have been where I learned to love people who are willing to swim upstream against the current of common opinion.  I love the hardiness of people toughened and tempered by weather and sometimes the struggle to conquer the elements and survive.

This summer, cruising the intercoastal waterway in Alaska, I especially loved being surprised by a waterfall as the ship sailed round a bend of an emerald green mountain,  or seeing a pod of orcas playing like children in the icy waters.  Most of all I loved both the solitude and community—the quiet moments by myself to listen to the “still small voice,” as well as the accidental chance to  have coffee with old friends I’d never met.

For whatever reason, there is a certain thing that happens when the Family of God gets away from the plastic pressures of dulling routine to sail to a place where we are once more reminded what God had in mind when he created the beautiful, unspoiled wilderness and gave it to us to enjoy and preserve.  Fill that ship with music celebrating the wonders of not only God’s creation, but the marvel of a God who walks with us (or in this case, sails with us) through the oceans of our lives, and something so memorable happens that it continues to inform years of landlocked days back home.

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Good Things Just Take Time

photo by Meg Ballard

photo by Meg Ballard

As kids prepare to go back to school, we realize that the jeans that fit fine in May are halfway to their knees, and the tennis shoes are so worn and stained that they certainly won’t do for the first day of classes.  The marks on the wall we made last August to record their height is two inches shorter than the one made this morning.

The voices are changing, too.  The sound of that sweet child calling from his upstairs bedroom sounds strangely like a man; and the little girl that loved to wear her pink and lavender dress is bounding in to breakfast in brand new tattered and frayed jeans and an oversized tee shirt tied in a knot just above her navel, allowing a peak at her bare belly.

When did this happen?  When did we go from holding a cuddly infant to dropping a child at kindergarten?  And where went the time between kissing a second grader good night to hosting a pizza party for 14 teen-agers?  How amazing, too, that we survived the turbulent years adolescence to enjoy these coming-back-home moments with responsible adults with kids of their own, parenting with wisdom that sometimes puts to shame my own bungling attempts at being wise and engaged.

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I’m sitting on the porch today sensing hints of the season changing from summer to fall.  The zinnias are tall and in full bloom of outrageous colors.  I saw the first chrysanthemums at Welche’s Nursery this week, and the leaves of the giant maple beside the driveway gate are showing edges tinged in scarlet.  That tree was just a sapling when we first poured the cement for the driveway. In fact, when we built this house and were still teaching English fifty-three years ago, we could still see my parents’ back deck across the creek.  Now there is a forest of pines, maples, sycamores, oaks, and willows between us and what we now call the Creek House.

I readily confess that patience is not a natural virtue for me.  But over the years of serving God, I have come to know that good things just take time.  Tall, lush trees, an English garden, a good rich marriage, deep friendships, and responsible adult kids just take time, whether I’m patient or not. “And who of you by worrying,” asked Jesus “can add a single hour to your life?” But I am learning to sigh fewer sighs of exasperation because things aren’t moving as quickly as my limited perspective would like.

I am learning to trust the process and to “pull the camera back,” to see the bigger picture and not be so focused on the details of today. I am learning to pick my battles and save my “nos” for the big stuff.  I am coming to realize that the promise to “work all things together for our good” means “good” from an eternal perspective; I am also learning that pain is often the shovel God uses to dig a wider, deeper capacity for holding what is eternal in the here and now.

And my impatient nature is finally relaxing in the trust that “good things just take time.”

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Michigan in My Bones

Bill was born two blocks from where we now live; he grew up less than a mile from there.  When we got married (he was 26), he simply moved across the driveway into the little house we rented from Bill’s parents.  Four years later we moved to the house we built less than a mile away while we were still teaching high school English.  We have lived in that house ever since, here in the vast farm country of Indiana, the center of the even more vast heartland prairie of America.

I have come to love this flat country where you can see the sun rise and set across fields of soybeans and corn, and measure the days of summer by how tall the cornstalks and how thick the beans.  It is home to memories made ever since I first came at seventeen as a freshman at Anderson College—now a fine University.

But sometimes I get a longing for Michigan where I was born and grew up and where my pastor parents lived until they moved to Indiana to help us with our tiny children so I could travel and sing with Bill on week-ends.  I am a March-born Pisces, and I am drawn to water like a fish; it is near water where I can best breath.

So sometimes, as much as I love Indiana, I just need to get my Michigan fix.  Bill is quick to sign on, and we go north to the places that shaped me:  the tiny village of Burlington, the cereal city of Battle Creek, and the gateway to the real north-country, Clare.  Last week was such a week. 

My grandparents’ house with the field stone porch.

My grandparents’ house with the field stone porch.

As we drove, I told the stories once again about how before I was born my parents’ families lost their farms in Missouri during the dust bowl year of 1932, about how they took my tiny sister and moved to the industrial north, to Battle Creek, Michigan.  I told him once more about how they got work in factories like United Steel and Wire, Union Steam Pump, and, eventually, Post Cereals.

Farm house where we lived when I was little.

Farm house where we lived when I was little.

We drove past the house with the field stone porch were my grandparents lived and where I went as a little girl to pick black raspberries in the woods, gather the eggs from the chicken coop, and watch my grandmother make apple butter in her huge copper cooker on the wood cookstove. We found the farm house built in the late 1800s just down the road where we lived for a while before my parents took a struggling group of less than thirty people and began a ten-year journey of building a strong congregation.  We found the “parsonage” where I grew up, at first a rat-infested, run-down two-story house that my carpenter father and design artist mother transformed into a livable, welcoming place where teen-agers, church families, and visiting clergy could be enfolded into the warmth of our family.

Bill and I went by the church where my parents pastored and the cemetery where my grandparents are buried.  I showed him the roaring St. Joe river that flows behind the church, the river where the youth group speared carp and fished for bass and bluegills, and the square white building across from the church that was then a small market run by an Italian family named Ricotta where Daddy stopped many times to pick up bread and milk on his way home.

The parsonage in Burlington

The parsonage in Burlington

We found the little clapboard building that was the library where I read or checked out every Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery in print.  There were book shelves on all four walls and wooden benches facing them, a desk for the librarian, a few wooden chairs for grown-ups, and a pot-bellied wood stove in the middle of the room for heat in the winter.  I remember having to choose which side of my body to fry and which to freeze, depending on which way I sat on the benches.

As we drove down M-60, I named families that were our friends, most of whom went to the church.  We passed the land that was once the Michigan State African-American camp ground where our family went every night of the camp to hear some of the greatest preachers and singers in our movement and beyond.

North Ave church of God

North Ave church of God

We drove on to Battle Creek and visited the church that my parent led that congregation to build on North Avenue when I was still in college and where Bill and I came to visit when we were first married.  We talked about the nights Bill picked me up at midnight when I got off work from Kellogg’s where I worked summers to help pay for college.  It was on one of those nights that Bill gave me an engagement ring.

We are not good at selfies, but here we are beside the Cass River in Frankenmuth.

We are not good at selfies, but here we are beside the Cass River in Frankenmuth.

We checked into the Bavarian Inn in the darling German-Bavarian town of Frankenmuth to spend some time with my sister’s daughter Melody and her husband Greg who pastor in the near-by town of Millington.  What a sweet time we had with them remembering my sister, sharing stories, and then attending worship with them on Sunday!

Sitting on Melody’s and Greg’s long porch.

Sitting on Melody’s and Greg’s long porch.

All the while, I was breathing air fragrant with cedars, pine and the smell of fresh water lakes and streams. The white paper birch and poplar leaves were quivering in the breeze, and stray gulls from the Great Lakes glided sporadically overhead.  We sat on the long porch of Melody’s and Greg’s log house and caught the flashes of bluebirds and gold finches against the dark green of the trees.  A deer or two nibbled leaves in the edge of the woods behind their yard, and a great blue heron could be spotted now and then rising from some lake in the distance.

The next time I have a longing for the state that’s “in my bones,” or maybe for the fresh water in my veins, my sweet husband and I will go on up to the north country above Clare and on to the big lakes and the dunes.  But for now, I’m okay in Indiana.

Michigan

Michigan isn’t just a state;
It’s a state of mind.
The fragrance of pine and the nutty smell of birches,
Their bark peeling into sheer ruffled sheets of grey paper.
Michigan is a liquid place of creeks and rivers,
Lakes and streams and springs bursting out
In the most unlikely places.
It’s sand – between your toes,
In your tennis shoes, on the linoleum.
It’s piles of sand in the yard,
Under the swing, along the road.
It’s dunes of sand, beaches of sand,
Get-lost-winding-trails of sand.
Michigan is fried potatoes and onions
Cooked on a Coleman stove along the highway.
It’s Vernor’s Coolers at Dairy Queen,
Fudge from Murdick’s and pasties
From a roadside stand on the Keewenaw Peninsula.
Michigan is something fragile –
Fragile as an Indian Peace Pipe,
A pink Ladyslipper or the delicate
Color of Northern Lights in the silent sky.
Michigan is tough –
Tough as the steel on a Detroit assembly line,
Tough as the year-round residents
On Beaver Island,
Tough as the survivors of the Missouri Dust Bowl
Or the lean years in the Kentucky mountains,
Who lost it all and built it back
With worn-out tools at Ford or Post or Kellogg.
Michigan is the music over the lake at Interlochen.
It is art on the gallery sidewalks of Petoskey.
It’s a Dutch dance in wooden shoes
Among the fields of tulips.
It’s a Frankenmuth Christmas that lasts
All year long, and the mist
Rolling in while your head is turned
To hide the bridge.
It’s black dirt, golden wheat,
And ten shades of purple lilacs.
Michigan is an attitude.
It’s helping a neighbor without being asked,
Fishing ‘til the catfish bite,
And waiting ‘til the cows come home,
If you have to, to see a kid “turn out.”
And once she does, Michigan is a big mitten
To warm her hands
And welcome her home.

© Gloria Gaither, 2005 Used by permission
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Coffee Evolution

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Since these days there are usually just the two of us rattling around our kitchen in the morning, we bought a Keurig coffee maker.  Bill likes it because he can work it and, he says, each cup tastes like the first cup from a fresh pot.  I like a different roast than he does, so each of us can have the roast we like best.

But really I like coffee from the old stove-top percolator I grew up with.  I love the cheery rhythm of it perking along to some unnamed primitive melody, coaxing the sun to rise and sing along for joy.  I love the aroma of real coffee escaping from the ground beans and permeating the atmosphere of first the kitchen, then wafting its way to the corners of the bedrooms, pulling sleepers to consciousness in a way they’ll never forget.

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I love to pour the first cup, inhale the coffee steam, and take the first sip.  Yes! Morning is here! A fresh start.  A new possibility. A new me.  I love the sound of my husband’s “u-m-m-m” as he, too, smells the full-bodied scent and tastes the rich flavor only perked coffee can produce.  The day should start like this!

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These days it is followed by a shared reading—he in his chair and I in mine by the fireplace—of a real newspaper.  He reads the sports section first, while I go over the front page for local and national stories, and then the editorials.  Conversation naturally ensues, applying to regular life the principles of good team-building and fair play (or not!) of sports and the encouraging or devastating results of political or economic choices.

Beginning the day like this is a new luxury for us, lingering over a great cup of coffee having uninterrupted conversation. We treasure these minutes that often also include phone conversations with some or all of our grown children about their children’s activities and endeavors or about their own spiritual breakthroughs or aspirations.

It’s all good.  It was good when the scurry to collect homework, uniforms, instruments, and lunches was a part of our morning.  It was good when the house was full of neighborhood kids making cornstarch clay figures, finger painting, carving pumpkins, and stringing cranberry and popcorn garlands.  It was good when the place was rocking with teen-agers dancing, practicing with their rock band, writing and filming video mysteries, and rehearsing scenes for high school plays.  It was good when college students came home with roommates, girlfriends and boyfriends and a month’s worth of dirty laundry.

Soon, it will be good when our children and their families come home for a week-end of bonfires, cook-outs, swimming, and fishing.   It will be fun to cook big meals again and hear the house reverberating with guitars, keyboards, basses, and drums.  It will be good sitting and talking on the porch with a fire in the firepit until it gets dark and the lightning bugs come out and pond frogs and cicadas start their serenade.

And it will be good when the smell of fresh perked coffee wafts its way up the stairs to pull from their sleep the people we love the most to gather around the big oak table for pigs-in-a-blanket, scrambled eggs, and fresh fruit to share new spiritual insights, political opinions, and stories of the grandkids’ latest adventures.  The prayer time around the table will be deeper and richer than when we once read Egermeiers Bible Story Book before school.

After we circle the kitchen to pray for safe travels, hug each other, and walk these beautiful children down the mill stone walk under the grape arbor and to their cars, it will be just Bill and me in our old farm kitchen, reading our devotions and a real newspaper, and sipping good coffee.  And it will be good. It will all be good.

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This is The Place

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Not too long ago I had coffee with a friend I’ve known for years.  Before we knew each other, we were growing up in the same area of the same state.  Both of our fathers were pastors in similar churches, and I’m pretty sure we went to the same youth camp in the summer.  Our fathers knew each other from pastors’ fellowships and both had a passion for helping new areas establish new churches.  Both served on Boards of Church Extension, my father in our state and hers, eventually, moved to our church headquarters to serve on the national board.

Photo by Angela Kellogg

Photo by Angela Kellogg

We really became close friends as adults, and that friendship has grown more important to us both over the years.  We meet as often as our schedules allow just to catch up and share our hearts. Over coffee that day she said to me, “I’m going to have my grandson for two weeks this summer (He is eleven).  I am going to take him to Park Place Church and walk him down the aisle, show him where my mom used to sit, show him the alter and tell him, ‘This is where we pray and sometimes cry; here is where we dedicate little babies and get married and have funerals....’” She went on to basically say she was going to explain the sacred places we both hold dear and the community that has held us both through more chapters of our lives than I could ever share or even explain.  Her precious grandson—only one generation removed from the community of faith—had never been inside a church.

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That night I could not get her words out of my mind.  I told Bill about this and spent a restless night thinking about this little guy and so many other kids I know who are without the safe haven of the community of true believers in this chaotic world.  We wanted to somehow share what we were feeling in a strong, maybe even urgent song for families everywhere.  Bill came up with the perfect music for the words that were echoing in my mind from the coffee conversation.

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We all need a sacred space where our souls can find peace.  But we need to make sacred again other spaces for us to dwell as well.  Our homes need to be sacred again.  Our porches where we talk, the spaces where we work, our bedrooms and kitchens where we make love and share meals:  these need to be touched with the eternal and made to be sanctuaries of safety and wholeness.

As I write this, I am praying for a purging of anything that has fallen short in what we call the church.  I am asking for healing of our broken hearts and a restoration of a powerful support system of firm believers—the Family of God—full of love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace so that we who claim the name of Jesus can gently scoop up a generation of beautiful kids and their families and love them back to the table where there is already a place set for them.  One thing for sure:  things will never be right or complete until all the children come home.

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The Alabaster City

I’ve always thought our national anthem should be “America the Beautiful”.  It captures so much of what America is on her best days.  (And it is easy to sing!). It pictures the unparalleled geographical variety of this vast country, much of which Bill and I as traveling troubadours have been privileged to experience.

Photo by Angela Kellogg

Photo by Angela Kellogg

Historically, this has been a nation formed from vast migrations of peoples from all over the world, yet whatever our countries of origin, there is a corresponding terrain in America to make us feel at home. Rugged coastlines? They are here in both our northeastern and northwestern states.  Vast plains covered with miles of golden grains and grasses?  The belly of America is the breadbasket of the world.  Parched arid deserts?  Ah, yes, we have those, too, stretching for miles across the badlands with shifting sands hot enough to scorch the toughest of the brave.  There are the painted deserts and the red rocks, rocks bigger than a cathedral, but looking more like stacked giant loaves of baked bread.  Did your family immigrate from the high mountains? There are in America the great Rockies with peaks to take your breath away or the mist-shrouded Smokies covered with forests so green and lush even artists never tire of trying to capture their mystery and nuances of color as the seasons change.

Photo by Lucas Finley

Photo by Lucas Finley

Did your ancestors make their living from the sea?  The Great Lakes are seas with—can you believe it?—fresh water fed by deep springs; great boats can sail from “sea” to “sea”.  And what of those warm countries where magnolias perfume the night air, and giant pines drop pine cones as big as your head, where peaches and sweet apricots fall in juicy, golden pools and where oranges and grapefruit drop in your own back yard?  We just call that the South.

Photo by Angela Kellogg

Photo by Angela Kellogg

So this song captures the endless variety of a great land “from sea to shining sea.” But it captures much more than a welcoming terrain and breathtaking vistas.  It captures the character of people who have endured, suffered, and persisted in believing that there must always be a cause worth dying for.  While admitting that our country has not always been noble and admirable, we have sought to forgive each other our short comings and have aspired to higher goals and better character.  We have chosen to never give up even on ourselves.

The song encourages us, when we are too reactionary and sometimes downright vindictive, to pray for more self-control and to ask God for the character to show mercy instead of revenge.

Oh, beautiful for patriot dreams that see beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.

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If we who love our great land lose our vision, our drive to keep believing that there is a dream out there for a more perfect union and an ideal that could become a reality, we will slide into the oblivion of lost nations and forgotten people.  If we accept more and more as the norm, filthy streets, polluted waters, crumbling infrastructure, and children crying in the night because there is no one sober or sane enough to feed them, we will quit singing any national anthems or respecting any song of freedom.  If through the darkness we stop pressing toward the goal of “alabaster cities” that gleam in the dawn of a new day, “undimmed by human tears”, we will be destined to disintegrate into dust and end with a whimper.  If violence replaces graciousness, if anger eclipses mercy, if rancor drowns out laughter and misery extinguishes the flame of hope, there will be no nation and, eventually no such thing as beauty or aspirations.

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It is we who belong to another Kingdom, who are called to be light in the darkness,  yeast in the loaf, salt for preserving and bringing out the delicious savor—it is we who must daily lift our nation’s aspirations to  a better city, a new standard, a more worthy goal. 

Until this nation has a new birth of freedom, we must hold high a more holy model and work to realize a more compassionate community by living—each of us every day—in a way that convinces the desperate that at least in our corner of the world God’s Kingdom can come on earth as it is in heaven.

America the Beautiful

O beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain
America, America, God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea

O beautiful for Pilgrim feet, whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat, across the wilderness
America, America, God mend thine every flaw
Confirm thy soul in self control, Thy liberty in law

O beautiful for heroes proved, in liberating strife
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life
America, America, May God they gold refine
Till all success be nobleness, and every gain divine

O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears
America, America, God shed His grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea

Katharine Lee Bates

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"A Place of Her Own"

Every woman needs a place of her own; a corner, a room, a space in the garden she can call her own where she can get alone with God, where she can go to read or think, where she can shed private tears or write in her journal. Given the pressures of life, the demands of work and family, most women need “an escape hatch,” a place where we can run and hide for a moment to catch our breath, recoup and regain perspective.

For my mother I suspect it was her sewing room, where to the whir of the sewing machine (and earlier the rhythm of the treadle) she could think undisturbed while she created designer fashions from the patterns on her sewing table.

Photo by Angela Kellogg

Photo by Angela Kellogg

For my sister it has always been her garden with its abundant blooms and bird-feeders and trellises growing with the great globes of red tomatoes she had nourished.  There in the garden she and God have had many an intimate conversation and, I suspect, these encounters were why her spirit always seemed to be a homeplace for weary hearts.

Our daughter Suzanne has her writing place where the sweet fragrance of blank paper and the pungent smell of ink blend with the delicious musty aroma of treasured books.  There she cocoons herself away with her cat and gives into her natural hermit nature to express a world that only comes alive for the rest of us on the page.

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Amy is a nester by nature, so she makes every space her own and invites the world into her quiet place.   She and Andrew both have the gift of hospitality and live their outwardly frantic pace as a natural rhythm that we have always referred to as “AMYtime.”

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My special places are an old mission chair by the fireplace in our Indiana farm kitchen, our cabin in the woods, and my potting shed.  The potting shed and its secluded green space is by now an old friend and a place where I can go to dig in the dirt, write in my garden journal, and pray. My other soul-place is the seaside; I’m sure there must be salt water in my veins, for the beach always calls to me.

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The other day Suzanne sent me this poem about décor.  She called it “Finishing Touches.”  I loved it so much, I asked her if I could share it with you.  After all, the most beautiful décor of all is light shining on the special place where your heart feels at home.

The GUIDE TO STYLE IN LIVING tells how
to arrange with organized random
the globed scented candles, books, vases,
how to find palette (no more than three

patterns), how to fill wall space.
“There is a balance to this room,”
it says, the fresh coat of indigo paint
drying behind a fire engine red armoire.

I sling it down on the body of my one
random border collie who looks at me
like I’ve lost it.  I glance around this room
centered around the rich texture of woods
winter bare.  Still I admire how the charcoal,
taupe roughness juxtaposes my worn
jean jacket strewn haphazardly across
the pine trunk at the foot of my four poster bed.

This rocker I received from my husband
when our oldest was born now recovered
for the third time, rests rightfully in the corner.
the book on Aristotle Jesse was reading

lies decorously, a disconnected leaf,
in the floor next to the yellow and black
stripes of Cliff’s Notes on PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
screaming their presence at the muted door.

And I realize how we have found palette
filled empty wall space, and how we
balance, sometimes precariously, in the details
of our randomly, organized lives.

Suzanne Renee Gaither Jennings

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The "New" Kitchen

We built our house when we were still teaching school nearly fifty-three years ago.  Over the years it has morphed to suit our growing family and the changes in our lives.   The garage became half warehouse, half office before we turned it into a family room.  The original family room is now our bedroom to which we added (after we got our kids through college) a bathroom with two large closets.  Our great “farm kitchen” was the most invasive remodeling of the house’s history; we actually tore open the back side of the house and built on a two-story addition: a kitchen below and a “playroom” above. 

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It all started the day a builder friend of ours stopped by with a giant wooden pulley wheel he had rescued from the demolition of the old tomato-canning factory.  This factory was eventually to become the nationally known family-owned Red Gold tomato products company that now takes up a huge part of a square mile in our county. 

“Got any use for this?” Grady Porter said when I followed him out to his pick-up truck parked in our driveway.  It was beautiful to my eyes – a primitive antique that had been used to lower the apparatus that mashed the juice from the tomatoes in the giant vat.

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Bill had already mentioned to me that our kitchen/dining area had become a bottle neck in our house, but I had insisted that it was adequate.  The giant wooden wheel now jarred my imagination.  About this same time our town had begun replacing with concrete (sadly, not restoring) the Star-of-David ceramic brick sidewalks, because over the years tree roots had made many places uneven for walking.  These gorgeous, glazed bricks were stacked around town in piles and offered to anyone who would haul them away.  We could hardly believe this, because these brick sidewalks had been in place over a hundred years and had such a rich history.

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Then, too, was the “ridding out” of the old millstones when the mill was torn down.  From that demolition our builder friend Grady had rescued several millstones and the giant weathered wooden mill sign.  (This now hangs in Studio A of our recording studio)

All this rescuing of our town’s history resulted in our deciding this might be a good time to build the kitchen of which we’d always dreamed.

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“If we’re going to do this, I told Bill over coffee one morning, let’s think of everything we’ll wish we had done if we look back on it.”  That began our list of what we wanted to include to make this truly the “heart” of our home.  Bill wanted a fireplace in the kitchen for cold Indiana winter mornings.  You know how he loves to build fires!  I wanted a window seat for reading and a real built-in daybed for sick or tired children (who never want to be far away in upstairs bedrooms when mom’s in the kitchen) and for unexpected guests who worked late at the studio and needed a place to literally fall into bed.

Our other kitchen lacked a pantry, and we both wanted a big kitchen table and a workspace large enough to serve as both a food preparation space and serving board for buffets when we had a house full of people.

The giant pulley wheel, we thought, would hold copper utensils over the serving island; the bricks would be the industrial flooring.  The millstones would be the walkway into the kitchen under a grape arbor we would build and plant so that in August our kids would have the memory of “eating their way to the door” from the vines heavy with purple harvest.

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Two other elements surprised us as we planned.  Coming home one Saturday night from a concert, we saw the sky orange from a huge fire.  It turned out to be the old school (then  a junior high building) where Bill went to high school.  We drove to Bill’s Aunt Lilie’s house which was a block from the school to check on her (she was then in her eighties).  She was up and had coffee on in case anyone came by at 3:00 a.m!  Together we watched as most of the inside of the brick structure was destroyed by the fire.  The rest of the building was eventually declared a hazard and the bricks were torn down, too. Because this building had played an important role in Bill’s life, we were able to salvage enough of the bricks to build our kitchen fireplace.

The thick white ash beams from a very old barn on a farm near the place where Bill grew up was also disassembled, and these we used for the ceiling beams of our new kitchen.  We were careful to save the hand made wooden pegs and blacksmith forged iron spike nails used in the barn’s original construction. Many of the best pieces of barn wood siding we used on the lower walls of our kitchen to complete the feeling of warmth and history.

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By this kitchen fire we have raised our children, supervised homework, solved problems, tucked in cousins, rocked our grand-babies, dried out soggy snowsuits, celebrated special occasions, and spent hundreds of regular days.  It truly has been the “heart” of our home.

The window seat has served as a “changing table” for seven grandbabies and the daybed is still “fought over” when those grandchildren come home for a sleep-over.  I’ve worn out two stovetops and a couple of ovens.  We’ve served hundreds of meals to friends from all over the country and around the world.

And when Bill gets home from this weekend of concerts, I will put on a huge pot of soup, make a green salad, and warm some bread.  Bill will bring in his little brown suitcase and build a fire.  I’ll light the candles under the “curly stairs” and on the mantle; I’ll set the table and play some soft music. We will exhale the stresses of the road, and inhale peace.  Home again!

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Welcoming The Children Home

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Now on its third bunch of little ones from two generations, “Horseshoe Hideaway” was originally built for our middle daughter, Amy who loved to read and often needed to escape the noise of a busy musical family. It became not only a playhouse but a place of solitude and, for Amy, a place to display her horse-showing winning ribbons and her collection of books about horses.

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Over the years, her children and other grandchildren have adapted this space to their own favorite pastimes. Now our youngest, Mia and Liam, cook pretend meals, display their collections of nature treasures, and sweep the porch in preparation for the arrival of pretend guests.

Another planned space for making the children feel at home is the creek bank of “Gaither’s Pond.” As I write this, our white swans are hatching their signets on the peninsula across from the nature observation deck we built on the stump of an old willow.

When we planted seedlings in our bare yard forty years ago, Bill and I talked about how one day our grandchildren would play hide-and-seek through the trees. Well, now they do! And they all run down the same hillside their parents once enjoyed. There is something to be said for “staying put” in this mobile age. As hectic as our lives are, we all need a place to which to come home.

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I Wish You

It was Suzanne’s college graduation party.  Family friends and relatives, schoolmates and old teachers all sipped punch and ate raspberry cake under the willow trees beside the gazebo at the creek.  She had played there as a child – fishing for catfish and catching turtles and garter snakes.  Memories raced across the green hillside and peeped out from behind the apple trees in the orchard. 

Friend Angela, Amy, Grandma Gaither, Suzanne, cousin Lisa at graduation party at the creek

Friend Angela, Amy, Grandma Gaither, Suzanne, cousin Lisa at graduation party at the creek

I listened as our friends wished her success as a writer, fame as a lyricist, fortune in her chosen work, and honor in grad school.  What would we wish her, Bill and I later asked as we sat in the yard swing apart from the others.  It wouldn’t be wealth, we decided, or notoriety.  And success would be awfully hard to define.  What we would wish her would be some grand times and some hard times, some wins and some losses, some sunshine and some rain. We would wish her growth…and vision…and the ability to feel what others feel who are hurt or left out or lonely.

As we had done so many times before, we found ourselves drawn that night to the passage of scripture that has been read probably more often in our home than any other, for it stated so well what we wished then for Suzanne and for all our children as they face life’s shifts and changes.

May your roots go down deep into the soil of God’s marvelous love; and may you be able to feel and understand, as all God’s children should, how long, how deep, and how high his love really is; and to experience that love for yourselves, though it is so great that you will never see the end of it or fully know or understand it. And so at last you will be filled up with God himself. (Eph. 3:17b-19 NLB)

From this graduation experience came the song “I Wish You”. Soon we will watch a new class of graduates walk down the aisle to get their diplomas. One of those graduates will be our beautiful granddaughter, Madeleine. And this will be our wish for her as it was for her mother and her Aunt Suzanne her Uncle Benjy and for her brother Lee, and cousins Will and Jesse who have come before her.

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I wish you some springtime
Some “bird on the wing time”
For blooming and sending out shoots;
I wish you some test time,
Some winter and rest time
For growing and putting down roots.

I wish you some summer
For you’re a becomer
With blue skies and flowers and dew;
For there is a reason
God sends every season;
He’s planted His image in you.

I wish you some laughter,
Some “happy thereafter”
To give you a frame for your dreams;
But I wish you some sorrows,
Some rainy tomorrows,
Some clouds with some sun in between.

I wish you some crosses,
I wish you some losses,
For only in losing you win;
I wish you some growing,
I wish you some knowing,
There’s always a place to begin.

We’d like to collect you
And shield and protect you
And save you from hurts if we could;
But we must let you grow tall,
To learn and to know all
That God has in mind for your good.

We never could own you,
For God only loaned you
To widen our world and our hearts.
So, we wish you His freedom,
Knowing where He is leading,
There is nothing can tear us apart.

William J. Gaither and Gloria Gaither
© 1977 Hanna Street Music (BMI). All rights reserved.

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Letter from Mother

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I am thinking of my mother these days before Mother’s Day.  There are no words to express my gratitude for her:  her bright and questing mind, her compassionate heart, her sassy way of arguing with the world, the way she thought there was no end to my and my sister’s potential.  She taught us to love God and the world he made.  She showed us how to live our lives outward on a daily basis.  She was a warrior on her knees and would (and did!) fight the devil himself for our souls.  I received this letter from her in the early 70s, and I wanted to share it with you.

 

Dear Gloria, Bill, and children,

It is good to be alive and see the fast-moving panorama of history being made in our world.  We are living in explosive and important days.  But...

We are full of self-praise of our unheard-of achievements, and lazy with our luxurious conveniences.  We have paid a dear price for progress, and have been robbed in the process of sacred beauties, smells, and sounds that only the wind in the pines can suggest.  The tantalizing memories of common things are drowned out by the metallic clicking of computers and the static radio interference of electric fences.  Our speed and world-wide communications are marred by smog and antenna, which pollute our air and mark up our sky-lines. We strive to take a walk around the earth in endless space, and miss the joy of a simple walk around our gardens with a small child, the real wonder of the universe!

Yes, we accept these marvels with gratitude, but I am glad I have lived to see some other things, to feel the down-to-earth blessings of little pleasures, to hear the sounds of different springs and to smell the aromas associated with a much less complex life.  I am glad I have lived to remember:

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 A man plowing with a walking plow and a team of horses, his lines tied around his waist, and his dog following quietly behind him.  I have smelled the fresh-turned sod, and watched silver winged blackbirds picking up fat worms in the last furrow.

 A dash-churn, a wooden spoon worn thin from many stirrings, and bumpy from the tooth marks of little babies who have cut their teeth on its rugged edges.

A hand-hewn potato masher, and a “butter-print.” Fox-fire in a damp, dark woods, its eerie glow piercing the mist of a mucky swamp.

A one-room school house, with “dinner buckets” which were originally syrup-pails, standing in their shiny rows.

A “bobwhite’s” nest, and turtle eggs hatching in the hot sand. A mother opossum resting herself in the sun with her rat-tailed youngsters hissing, and tumbling over each other across her pouched belly.

An old-fashioned hog butchering, with barrels of scalding water, and kettles of rendering lard and sizzling cracklings.  The after-treat of fresh country sausage and hot biscuits.

Sliced apples, and cut-off corn drying on snow-white sheets and covered with cheesecloth on the sunny side of a shed roof. A dish pan full of wilted lettuce fresh from a spring garden.

A new-born calf getting a “wave-set” from his mother’s wet tongue.  Lilies-of-the-valley bowing gently in the soft breezes around the tombstones in a country church yard. A mother hen warning her clueless brood that a hawk is lingering near.

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Trillium and May-apples blooming in a budded woods. My father splitting logs along the river bank.  I can still hear the quick out-let of his breath as the heavy mall made contact with the battered wedges.

Frozen ruts in a country lane, and ice designs in hoof-print puddles.  Mud dropping like too-stiff frosting from wagon wheels, throwing ruffled chunks along the roadway.

Real burning candles on a Christmas tree!  Home-made bread cooling on the reservoir of the old black, wood burning cook stove. Hunting a bee tree, and stealing the honey. The haunting call of the whip-poor-will at dusk.

Yes, it is interesting to watch on television the very battles of our men in the armed services on the other side of the world.  It is marvelous to ride 80 miles an hour in the luxury of air-conditioned cars on our super highways.  It is great to listen to stereophonic music, to enjoy push-button heating and have instant food . . . but there is a price to pay, and we are paying it.

Once, our big boys quit school to help “Dad.”  Now, we have shifty-eyed, shaggy-haired delinquents who roam our streets and shuffle down our halls in search of “kicks.” It seems that the more we obtain of this world’s goods the less we really appreciate those who provide them.  The more God gives us, the less we obey Him.  I am sure this need not be, and evil brings its own destruction.  None-the-less, we are paying a price for progress, and I am glad I have known these others things.
Lovingly, 
Mother

I am wondering what my mother would add to her list if she were here to write to me today.  Cell phones that keep us from looking at each other including our children?  Churches that smell of mildew and empty pews?  Kitchen tables around which families only gather on holidays?  Condo elevators instead of screened doors that squeak and bounce shut with the constant traffic of family activity? 

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Knowing my mother, though, I think she would love millennials and gen-xers for their inquisitive minds, their ability to ferret out phonies, and their amazing ability to navigate a complicated and often dangerous world. Her front porch would still be a stopping-by place for three generations of seekers with honest questions and a ready sense of humor. She would still be taking them “for a little walk around the creek” to see the newly hatched swan signets or inside to peer over the back deck to see the outrageous blooms on the magnolia I once pulled up and dumped on the trash pile. The coffee pot would still be on, the Bible with all its markings would still be open on the table, and a Mason jar full of zinnias she’d just cut from the yard would be there to give you when you left.

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Art: The Language of the Soul

There are some things we cannot communicate to others or articulate for ourselves by using statements, spreadsheets or ledgers.  Words hammered into manuals, mission statements and creeds fall far short.  There are thoughts so much higher than our thoughts that they must come to us in inklings (they are all our finite minds can hold at one time), and even these droplets from the ocean of truth must come by revelation.

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God used art.  He used it way before He carved simple rules on tablets of stone on Mt. Sinai –these were only emergency rescue measures, concessions to the destructive dictates of our small perceptions and fallen inclinations.

But in the beginning was a love song breathed into the formless void so moving that the building blocks of all things filled the void, and from these vibrating sound waves all things began to “live and move and have their being”.  He flung heat and warmth, color and light on the canvas of utter darkness, and, as James Weldon Johnson tried to put into words, he “spangled the night with a thousand stars”.  But, oh, it was much more than that.

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With humor, with delicate detail, with intricate precision, He created, not just for the moment but for limitless generations of life to come with built-in safeguards and adaptive potential we are even now only beginning to recognize and appreciate.

Yet all of creation was but a postcard, inviting us to something beyond.  We can only imagine.

There has to be a song.  There has to be inspiration.  There has to be revelation for which we then need metaphors and pictures, drama and music and dance to hint at what we have perceived. 

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Some things are eternal not temporal, transcendent not immediate.  Some truths are so immense that they escape even the most sophisticated of measuring sticks and weighing scales the human mind has developed.  Glimpses of these truths overpower our systems.

And so we sing.  We tell stories and write poetry.  We employ the language of symbol.  We dance.  We dramatize for each other the insights too big for our formulas or explanations.  And we believe.  Yes, we believe.

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Revisiting Good Friday

Each year I re-read the story of the days before the Resurrection from the book of Matthew, just so see if I had missed anything. This year was no exception.  I was reading the part in chapter 27 about Jesus on trial before Pilate, a story I had read and heard read since I was a child.  I had followed the story from the Passover meal Jesus and his disciples had celebrated in the upper room, Jesus’s act of washing of the feet of the disciples to show them how a leader should serve, the breaking of the bread calling it his “body broken for them,” the taking of the hallowed cup from the table and the drinking of it and offering it to them as “the cup of the New Covenant...that your joy may be full.”  I read  Peter’s declaration of total loyalty and Jesus’s prediction that Peter would deny him three times before the break of dawn, of His then telling Judas to “do what you do quickly.” 

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 I had followed the story through the agony of Gethsemane and the vision of just what was in the cup, remembering as I read, the songs we had written inspired by these verses and the whole musical (In the Gardens) about the broader story of redemption stretched like a banner across three gardens (Eden, Gethsemane, and the garden of the tomb). I read on through the actual betrayal with a kiss of Judas, Peter’s striking of the guard with his trusty sword and Jesus’ rebuke of this act, followed by the healing of the severed ear.

 I followed the story from Gethsemane to the awful night of denial, flogging, shaming, and the mock crowning of “the King” with a crown braided of clippings from a cruel thorn bush by the soldiers guarding this “criminal.” I read again the proceedings of the so-called trial before Pilate and his questioning of Jesus, interrupted by the delivery of a note from Pilate’s wife.  She had spent a restless night troubled by a dream and sent the letter asking her husband to have nothing to do with this innocent man.

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 Then came the part about Pilot’s tradition of releasing a prisoner on Passover, offering a choice between the serial criminal Barabbas, and Jesus. And about how the crowd, infiltrated by the chief priests and their cronies, having heard the offer, yelled, “Barabbas!  Barabbas!”  Exasperated, the account said,  Pilate asked for basin of water to wash his hands of the whole thing.  “See to it yourselves,” he had shouted, “I am innocent of the blood of this just man!” 

 Then came the line I had never really internalized before:  “All the people answered, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children.’”

 I stopped reading.  Illumination flooded my soul.  This is the very prayer I pray for our children every day!  What the clueless crowd that day intended as a condemnation and curse, was, ironically, a prayer! And this was exactly what Jesus was headed to Calvary to do—to cover with his blood the very lives of those and their children who were condemning him to the cross, so he could pour his love and his very blood back on every heart that would accept it.

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 No wonder the very guards that carried out His execution, as they had so many more, stood amazed at the end of that day and said, “Surely, this was the Son of God.” 

 This morning I prayed, as I always do, that our precious children and their children will know today that they have been covered by the blood of the One who came to show us what God is really like—that there is no end to this kind of Love, and that they have access to the power of it as they live their lives in a divisive and sometimes ugly world, bringing the healing of grace, forgiveness, and joy that only comes from something otherworldly.

 And, yes, another song came from the Word’s inexhaustible source.

LET THIS BLOOD BE UPON US

 Verse 1
Like the restless crowd that milled around the city,
Pilate’s wife tossed restless in her bed.
Was it fear or dread or was it pity?
She wrote an urgent note to clear her head.

 Verse 2
The trial found no crime to charge the prisoner;
The angry mob still shouted their demand—
“Then you see to it!” weary Pilate answered,
“From my hands wash the blood of this just man.”

 Chorus
Let this blood be on us and our children!
Let His cross cast its shadow over us.
Let this blood be on us and our children—
Let this blood, let this blood be on us.

 Verse 3
What the clueless crowd once screamed in agitation
Is the prayer our trusting hearts breathe every day;
It’s our only hope and sweetest consolation:
Let the precious blood of Jesus make a way.

 (repeat chorus)

 Bridge
Let this blood be upon us; let this blood be upon us;
Let this blood be upon us; let this blood be upon us.
Let this blood be upon us; let this blood be upon us.
Let this blood, let this blood be upon us!

 (repeat chorus)
Lyric:  Gloria Gaither, © Hanna Street Music 2015
Music: Dony McGuire, © Rambo-McGuire Music 2015

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The Prodigal's Mother

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I’ve often wondered what the prodigal son’s mother was doing all that time her boy was away. The biblical account says the father had been the one who had the confrontation with their son. The young man wanted his inheritance now. He wanted to take charge of his own life. He ­didn’t buy the old promise of deferred gratification.

The father must have come back to the bedroom and collapsed on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands, and sobbed as he told the boy’s mother that he had given their son his share prematurely and that he was, even as they spoke, packing to leave the house and set out on his own.

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He ­hadn’t listened to reason; he ­hadn’t wanted to hear about how much richer he would one day be if he would trust his father to make wise investments for him and, as the inheritance grew, allow his father to teach him everything he would now learn the hard way. No, he ­wouldn’t hear of it. He wanted his share now, not when he was too old to enjoy it, like his father.

How torn that mother must have felt between the practical wisdom of her husband and a mother’s need to try to understand, too, where the boy was coming from. He ­wasn’t a bad boy. He was just immature, and she well remembered the passions that once drove this man whom she loved to take risks, strike out on faith. ­Hadn’t he loved her when she was a naïve and inexperienced girl? What had they known then of what the future would hold?

She could feel her heart splitting down the middle. She was helpless to stop what was happening to her family.

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She stood silently with her hand on her husband’s heaving shoulder. What could she say? It was done now. The boy was an adult for all intents and purposes, yet in her heart she knew that, protected and provided for as he’d been, he’d be a sheep among wolves once he got wherever he was determined to go. He ­didn’t have a clue!

It was as if that whole evening were moving in slow motion, like the recurring dream she’d had since she was a girl, the dream in which she was trying to run down the lane to her old childhood farmhouse. Something she ­couldn’t see was chasing her and she could feel it gaining on her, but her legs ­wouldn’t work right, and she ­couldn’t seem to scream for help. She just kept trying to run or call but ­couldn’t do either. She would wake up in a sweat, unable to identify her fear.

She felt the same panic rise now. It had no face, yet she could almost feel it breathing on the back of her neck. She could only pray that her son would come to his senses before something tragic happened.

The boy left. His parents stood and watched as he slowly turned into a speck on the horizon, then disappeared. They both went back to their routine after that. Thank God for work! But they kept feeling as if there was something pending, that all their sentences ended with question marks.

Their other son kept things going. They could always depend on him, and they were grateful. The farm prices stayed steady. The crops flourished, yet somehow their prosperity and good fortune seemed pointless. The color in their lives was gone, and they moved about through sepia-toned days.

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The mother would often catch her husband standing on the porch around sundown, looking at the place on the horizon where their son had disappeared, but he never mentioned how much he missed his son. She longed to talk about the things that gnawed at her heart and churned in her stomach, but her husband was a man of few words and she knew he would respect his son’s decision to walk away.

Often at night when the house was still and she could hear everyone’s measured breathing, she would slip down the stairs to the bench and table by the window. She would pick up the quill and write letters she knew could never be sent. There was no address for “a far country.” Or sometimes she would climb to the roof, where she could see the stars and feel the breeze stirring the night. Here where there was no risk of being heard by the household servants, she would send her son messages on the wind, for it must blow, too, where her son had gone. And she would pray.

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Her husband saw him first. He was standing on the porch like he often did at the end of the day, straining toward the horizon. He called to her. Did she see it? That speck where the road met the waning sunset?

At first she saw only the heat waves rising from the freshly plowed field. No, to the right of the clearing—did she see it?

She ­couldn’t dare to hope, yet the figure now materializing was unmistakably a man ... but her husband was already running down the lane toward the road.

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Daring to Prune

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This is the season for renewal.  It is a time when old, spent foliage is sloughed off to make way for new buds to form.  It is a time for pruning while the sap still lies deep enough in the plant that the useless branches and parasitic suckers can be lopped off without damage to the healthy central core.

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Late last fall I cut back severely the grapevines that grow on the grape arbor we built several years ago over the millstone walk leading to our backdoor.  (Our kids and grandkids have always loved eating their way in grapes into our kitchen.)  We had put off the pruning too long because we love the cozy vine-shelter over the walk in the hot summer, and we have paid for that misplaced kindness in grape harvest. Last August just a few anemic orbs were there to be tasted.  It was time.  Past time.

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This winter we have felt bare and exposed as we went into the house.  The seasoned old grapevine trunk has shivered in the snow like swollen arthritic kneecaps and elbow joints exposed to the elements.  But, come spring, life – insistent, vibrant – will burst from these old gnarled roots.  Wild new sprouts will begin to wind themselves around the cables we’ve stretched between the timbers and make their way to the strong framework of wire overhead.  By hot weather great clusters of purple and red fruit will dangle above our heads exuding that rich aroma of communion I remember from childhood’s sacred celebrations.

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 This time of year I’m thinking about other kinds of new growth and new sprouts and young vines that, full of glorious life and freedom, can wind their way across chasms, spanning empty cold spaces, bridging gaps with love and the sweet aroma of fellowship.  I’m longing for the people of God to find in a fresh new way to “taste and see that the Lord is good” and, being “rooted and grounded in love,” be “able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love.”

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 I’m longing in my own heart to experience a new burst of courage to leave my comfort zones to  “Reach out and experience the breadth!  Test its length!  Plumb the depths!  Rise to the heights!  Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:17b-19 The Message)  I want to dare to prune away old attitudes and preconceived ideas knowing that in the warm days ahead the fruit of bridge-building grace and mercy and love will be so plentiful and sweet it will drip down our arms for the sheer joy of it!

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I Declare - Psalm 19

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It was the sun pouring through the kitchen window at 7:00 am for the first time after the long winter that made me turn to Psalm 19 instead of the chapter in Colossians I had been reading that week to the kids at the breakfast table.  And I thought I knew that “nature psalm,” for I’d heard it since childhood.  I was reading it “for the kids,” right?  So they’d focus on this glorious first sunny morning of early spring. 

But as I read, I became overwhelmed with the way this fellow-poet had reached from the circumstances of his life (writing a song for this “director of music” to use) into mine more than two thousand years of mornings later.

The psalm was divided into five parts, I noticed as I read.  It opened with the familiar “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”  It went on to say that day after night the articulate heavens and the knowledgeable firmament verbalize wisdom, and there is no corner of the earth where their voices cannot be heard and no language barrier that keeps everyone from understanding.

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Next is a lovely metaphor.  Pretend that God has pitched a wedding tent in the sky and the sun is the bridegroom who comes out, greeting and spreading a warm welcome on all his guests.  Or pretend that the sun is a champion rider who gets his joy from racing perfectly from one end of the course to the other delighting everyone in the stands on the way.

Well, then, the psalmist asks, what are the heavens declaring?  And verses 7-11 are a list, an amazing all-encompassing beautiful list of what the heavens declare.  These declarations so powerfully bring into focus what life should be about, so speak to our human frailties, so heal our broken dreams, so reassure our lost confidences, so pinpoint our areas of weakness that the Psalmist literally falls to his knees in repentance.

His error and hidden faults, his smallness and willful sins are all exposed.  And more than that, he begins to ask himself if we are supposed to be the most articulate of all God’s creatures, what are our lives saying?  Are our faults and pettinesses, our selfish narrow-mindedness and lazy preoccupations, our lack of faith and our paralyzing fears making the declaration of our days?

Shamed by the articulate firmament, we hear our own voices praying aloud with the Psalmist’s in repentance and supplication. 

“May the words of my mouth and the meditation
of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord,
my Rock and my Redeemer!”

The children were very silent as I sobbed through the final words of the Psalm, then together we prayed:
Jesus, this day let our actions and attitudes be in sync with all creation.  May we articulate praise in the moments we have.  Amen

 A song lyric came from this morning’s devotion with the children.  I simply called it “Anthem”, and I wrote it to music by Michael W. Smith.  Steve Green recorded it.  Here are the lyrics:          

In the space of the beginning was the living Word of Light;
When this Word was clearly spoken, all that came to be was right.
All creation had a language—words to say what must be said;
All day long the heavens whispered, signing words in scarlet red.

Amber rays and crimson rainbows, twinkling stars and flashing light,
Punctuated heaven’s statement: “God is glorious, perfect, right!”
All day long the sun proclaims it like a bridegroom, dressed in white,
Coming from his tent to greet them, all his guests feel his delight.
Words of love and warmth he whispers, warming all who hear his voice,
“Oh, be glad and share my table, dance and celebrate!  Rejoice!

All creation, sing His praises!
Earth and heaven, praise His name!
All who live, come join the chorus!
Find the words! His love proclaim! 

Lyrics: Gloria Gaither © 1988 Hanna Street Music
Music:  Michael W. © 1988 O’Ryan Music, Inc.

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