Dreaming The Best Dreams

The Bible is full of dreams and dreamers.  According to this reliable source, dreams may turn out to be the roadmap for our lives, the warnings that keep us from tragic blunders, and the aspirations so lofty that we spend the rest of our lives trying to live up to them.

Dreams may usher us into heaven or leave us with a limp that will always remind us that it’s worth wrestling with angels to find our true identity in God.

One thing is sure: as the wise man said, “Without a vision the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18)  There must be a dream.  There must be a hope.

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I love the idea that God has a dream for us.  We are a “promise” He has made to himself and to the world.  Brian McLaren suggests in his book The Secret Message of Jesus that we might even paraphrase the line from the prayer Jesus taught us to pray that says “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” this way: “May all your dreams for your creation come true.”  If we pray this, of course, it means that we must “trust God and God’s dreams enough to realign our dreams with God’s, to dream our little dreams within God’s big dream.”

As we live this year out, may we dare to “Dream On”, and may those dreams be lived inside the eternal dream of God, a dream so big that “we will never see the end of it or fully understand it” until we are at last “filled up with God himself. “ (Ephesians 3:19b)

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Give It Away

In the U.K. December 26th is Boxing Day.  The tradition started when servants who worked hard during the labor-intensive Christmas holidays, were given time off the day after Christmas; gifts of needed clothing, food, and extra money were given them by their masters. But in the U.K. today, this day has become the day to box up things families have accumulated or outgrown and give them to charities that serve the needy.

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 But not just on Dec. 26, but as a way of life, maybe “Give It Away” should be more than a catchy song title, but a revolutionary way of living that goes against the grain of almost everything we see or read or hear in the culture around us.  We hear much about accumulating as much as possible, protecting and securing what we accumulate, and making sure that when we die, we keep our accumulations from being taxed, siphoned, stolen or diminished any more than is absolutely necessary and legal.

But Jesus taught a different way and invited those who want to be truly happy to totally tip the culture up-side down.  If we spend our lives always striving to win, He taught, we will ultimately lose.  But if we spend our lives giving ourselves away, we won’t be able to even hold all the winnings.  He said the gentle-spirited folks would end up with the whole earth, and that the comforts of life will fall to those who know how to mourn.

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Now, it seems, psychologists and counselors are catching up to what Jesus said.  Ingrown living tends to contribute to depression, fear, and anxiety, while caring about others, getting involved in great causes, and investing energy to be the answer to the problems we see and sense is an incredibly enriching, joyful, and rewarding way to go – and an effective cure for sadness, depression, and feeling overwhelmed.

So, after this season of gift-giving how shall we live?  We can “live large” or stay small.  One thing is promised: we can never outgive the Giver of all good things.  Go ahead.  Just try!

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If you want more happy than your heart can hold ,
If you want to stand taller – if the truth were told –
Take whatever you have and give it away!
If you want more happy and a lot more fun
And deep satisfaction when the day is done –
Throw your heart wide open and

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Touch Christmas

What a wild circus of textures Christmas is!  Come, let’s “feel our way” around the glories of this tactile celebration!

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First feel the soft skin of a baby, who is God-made-most-touchable, most-vulnerable for us who “were afar off.”

Touch a baby; tenderly embrace a child to honor Him who was Love in a baby blanket…. in our arms.

Touch the rough texture of a well-worn wooden manger and the prickly straw that fills it.

Touch the moist noses of the cows and horses that stand, curious, around.  Feel the night air.

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Then touch the celebration that has gradually come to surround this “most touchable” happening.  Feel the needles of the evergreen tree and boughs that announce that because of Jesus we shall always live!

Touch the snow that covers the ground and remember the “covering” – the atonement – that makes us “whiter than snow” in the eyes of God.

Touch the red berries on the branches we gather and put in all sorts of containers, remembering that this child would one day shed his blood that its life-giving qualities could fill us all no matter the shape, size, or condition of our containers.

Touch the lights as they burn warm, string them everywhere.  Light the streets and the houses, the cathedrals and the back streets with them, for the chill of death has been replaced by warmth and light.

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Touch your children, your neighbors; the community with reconciliation.  Take someone a warm cake; extend a warm handshake; offer the thawing warmth of forgiveness.

Hold and ring the gold and silver bells.  Ring out the news that the Creator of the galaxies has touched us.  Yes, ring the bells and pass them on!  Touch someone else.  We are not alone!


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Christmas in the Country

I believe there is a homing device in every human heart.  Even if we’ve never had a good home to go home to, there is an innate yearning for one where we are cherished and understood.  In our yearning, we see this as a place of peace where there is no pretense and where we are accepted for who we truly are – not for what we’ve accomplished or how we look.

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And there is no time like Christmas for pulling us back to such a place.  Usually, how much we love and look forward to Christmas as a holiday is in direct proportion to how close to this ideal home really is.  Sadly, for many the reality of the holiday is one of the most painful experiences of the year.

Perhaps the reason we cling to the ideal at Christmas more than any other time is that this celebration is in honor of the One who came to bring true peace, joy, love, and a place to belong.  And the truth is that no family home and no human relationship can ever totally give us what we need.  Every parent fails sometimes.  Even love falls short.  Every child disappoints and turns prodigal at one time or another.  No sibling is totally supportive or faithful to protect the secrets with which he or she has been entrusted.       

Even so, home is the nearest thing we have to a metaphor for belonging.  The imperfection of us all keeps us yearning for another place – that place that will truly be Home. 

Thankfully, our memories tend to preserve the good and forgive the flawed.  I’m sure my Grandma’s house in the country was not as good as I remember it.  The “front room,” as she called it was not as big, the kitchen not as warm, the snows not as white or as deep as I remember trudging through to get to that farmhouse with the fieldstone porch.

As I recall, she and grandpa opened the big double doors to that front room only for special occasions.  The piano was in there, and she would always have the old itinerate piano tuner come just before Christmas so we could sing carols around that piano when we all crowded in.

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The Christmas tree she put in that room was not a pine, but a cedar tree Pa would cut fresh from the woods behind the barn.  The ornaments were of World War II vintage and before – scenes painted on clear glass balls – and there were strips of foil we called ice sickles, big lights of every color and real candy canes.  Grandma would always make fresh popcorn balls with sorghum molasses, wrap them in a new thing called Saran Wrap® and hang them on the tree for us kids to “snitch” when no one was looking.

Grandma baked for days before Christmas: pies of apples and cherries from their orchard, fudge, taffy, and “divinity” layered in boxes between buttered sheets of waxed paper, cinnamon rolls for breakfast and homemade bread.  These were all prepared before the real cooking started.

To this day I find myself running my fingers over mixing bowls in antique shops that have brown and gold sheaves of wheat on them or picking up green Fire King baking dishes and pie pans longing to take them home to see if they would somehow turn things I make into the magical tastes of my childhood for my grandkids to remember.

Country life always seemed to separate the boys and the men from the women and girls.  The guys would “mosey” out to the barn to talk to Pa while he milked the two cows they always kept to supply them with milk and butter.  The boys would help him throw down hay for the night, feed the cats and gather the eggs from the henhouse.  On summer mornings gathering eggs was Grandma’s job, but in the winter when she was less sure of her footing, Pa brought in the eggs.

Meanwhile, the women would take up stations in the kitchen peeling potatoes, opening jars of green beans Grandma had canned the summer before and cutting up squash, onions, brussel sprouts, and turnips.  The girls would set the table in the living room, then work on the puzzle that became a family project all through the days of Christmas. 

I don’t remember much about the gifts.  They were simple, practical and usually handmade.  I do remember hugs and thank you’s.  I remember Grandma loving whatever I gave her as if she’d been wanting it all her life.  I have a picture of someone in our family holding up a string of pearls – probably ordered from the Sears catalog (“the wish book,” we called it) – and looking as if this necklace was as precious and rare as diamonds.

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There was never any doubt why we had Christmas.  Since Grandma had lost most of her eyesight, my daddy read the Christmas story from Luke while the children sat on someone’s lap or on the floor leaning back on some seated grownup’s knees.  We all knew the words by heart, but familiar as they were, they always brought tears to our eyes – like we were hearing this wonderful story for the first time.

Grandma would pray, and when she prayed, the angels quit fidgeting around, swishing their wings and got still.  We knew that sooner or later every one of our names would be specifically mentioned; Grandma would thank the Lord for the gift of each one of us and ask His tender care and guidance as we grew and changed and became what He intended for us to be.

After prayer and presents, the music would begin.  Grandma played both the piano and the guitar; Pa played the “fiddle” and the “mouth harp.”  We all knew sooner or later he’d grab Grandma by the arm and try to make her dance around the room; she’d say, “Oh, Pop, quit!”  And we’d all laugh.

The children would ask for their favorite of the songs that Grandma had always sung to them:  “Redwing,” “Mockingbird Hill,” or “Listen to the Mockingbird.”  It never seemed strange that all our favorite songs were about birds. 

We also sang Grandma’s favorites: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “I Must Tell Jesus,” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

It seems to me now, looking back, that I was the most adored of children, and I know all the grandchildren would say they thought they were.  Truth is we all were.

As night fell and the kerosene lamps were lit, it seems to me that the love in that house could be touched – like soft velvet or the smooth fur of a kitten.  The snow could pile to the eaves for all we cared.  We were home, we were fed and we were loved.

Photo by Angela Kellogg

Photo by Angela Kellogg

When Bill and I started thinking about recording a video for Christmas with the Homecoming Friends that would come to be called Christmas in the Country, it was the images of Christmas at Grandma’s house that came to mind.  To that, I added the memories of my own childhood home and the rituals that have been now handed down first to Bill and me then to our children, and now to their children.

Someday there will be a new celebration in a new Country. There will be no gap between the ideal and the reality; the relationships around that circle will be perfect and totally beautiful. There will be songs of thanksgiving and praise for Christmas completed, for the One who brought heaven to earth will have then brought earth to heaven, and we will all finally be home.

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Thank God For Grandparents

Amy with her grandma Lela

Amy with her grandma Lela

Thank God for grandparents everywhere who love with perspective, and to grandchildren everywhere who so need such love.

Sometimes I think that love – to be it’s sweetest – must ripen on the family tree one generation beyond the parent stage.  Oh, parental love is tough – like a fruit picked partially green; it will take a lot of jostling.  But to be infused with the sweet juices of compassion, humor, and understanding, love needs a little ripening.

Someone has said the generation gap is only between succeeding generations.  Defenses seem to wane after that.  When you can’t tell your parents, you can always tell grandmaIf daddy can’t fix it, grandpa can.  And don’t we all deserve to have at least one person in our lives who thinks we’re the prettiest, the smartest, the cleverest, and the least flawed person on the face of the earth?

With environmentalist Lee in Colorado

With environmentalist Lee in Colorado

Simon with is papaw Bill at Culver Academy

Simon with is papaw Bill at Culver Academy

Let others warn, discourage, point out the pitfalls.  Grandparents are for encouraging, embracing, accepting and risking the moon.

Of course, grandparenting has changed.  Granny, these days, is seldom knitting in her rocker.  She is more likely to be racing her grandchildren down the street on her motor scooter or teaching them in-line skating.  Grandads are more likely showing their grandkids to speed-shift the convertible than to plow a straight furrow.  But grandparents still think you can, believe in the impossible, and take the time.  They may even, if you’re good, let you stay up late watching Gaither Homecoming videos!

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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.

Photo by Angela Kellogg

Photo by Angela Kellogg

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.


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.


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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