Monday, January 04, 2021

And Is It True?

And is it True?

The other night as my husband Tom and I were watching the “Cri de Comer” episode of The Crown season 3, we heard British Poet Laureate John Betjeman reading his “Jubilee Hymn” which was written to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, commemorating the 25th anniversary of her ascension to the throne in June 1977.  The above attached YouTube lets you hear him read it himself.  

Listening, I immediately thought of my favorite poem of Betjeman’s:  his “Christmas.”  I love the last three stanzas, and most especially the last two lines.  

And is it true,

This most tremendous tale of all,

Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,

A Baby in an ox's stall ?

The Maker of the stars and sea

Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,

No loving fingers tying strings

Around those tissued fripperies,

The sweet and silly Christmas things,

Bath salts and inexpensive scent

And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,

No carolling in frosty air,

Nor all the steeple-shaking bells

Can with this single Truth compare -

That God was man in Palestine

And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Those questions that start the 4th and 5th stanza hit home as I saw the numerous weekend church services that included Communion .  I realized anew how appropriate it is that we consider not just the birth and the death of Christ at this season, but also the important third act of this Salvation Trilogy:  His resurrection.  Is it true that He became a Child and lived and died and lived again . . . for me?  It is.  He came for me.  And you.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Perpetual Thanksgiving

"I am grateful for what I am and have. My Thanksgiving is perpetual." ~ Henry David Thoreau

We stayed home from church today. The Virus and all. We're already on our second church service, this one my home church. The pastor is doing an activity with the children asking them to say what they are thankful for based off of the acronym GRACE. I'm playing along here:

G = God, grace, goodness, graciousness

R = rest, road trips, root beer, Reynolds family, Rittenhouse family

A = Aastrup family, apples, America, apple pie, abilities,

C = cats, compassion, company, contentment, cookies, courage, Christmas, church

E = education, energy, encouragement, everlasting life, eternity,

One of the things I'm thankful about getting older is that I am more and more content with less and less. I am less critical of, and more patient with, myself and others. I am less demanding and more understanding of myself and others as well.

I am definitely grateful for all those who have journeyed with me, whether for a few steps, for the long haul, and for any amount of time in between.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Because I'm Free

Western Bluebird * South Rim * Grand Canyon
I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free,
for His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

One of the songs on continuous loop in my head last week is truly an oldie but goody. Written more than 100 years ago, "His Eye is on the Sparrow" has been a source of encouragement to me during the stresses and strains of life many times over, but especially recently. Inspiration for the hymn came when Civilla Martin and her doctor husband visited Elmira, NY in the spring of 1905. There, they met and developed a friendship with a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Doolittle. The husband was a cripple who took himself to work in a wheel chair. The wife had been bedridden for nearly 20 years. And yet despite these trials and tribulations, they were supremely happy Christians who were an inspiration to their friends.

One day while the Martins were visiting, Dr. Martin asked what was the secret to their hopeful optimism. Mrs. Doolittle's response revealed her great dependence on God and the comfort she and her husband drew from Him: "His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me."  "The beauty of this simple expression of boundless faith gripped the hearts and fired the imagination of Dr. Martin and me," says Mrs. Martin. The hymn was born out of this experience. The next day she mailed the poem to Charles Gabriel, who supplied the music. Singer Ethel Waters so loved this song that she used its name as the title for her autobiography. The Biblical passages the verses draw on come from Matthew 6 and Matthew 10:

Matthew Chapter 6:26
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?

Chapter 10:29-31:
29 Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.  30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  31 Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows. 

As I read about this song's history, I was even more inspired. My troubles may seem huge to me in the moment, but when I step back and put them in perspective, never mind put them in God's hands, they become very manageable:

Why should I feel discouraged?
Why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely
and long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion?
My constant friend is he:
His eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me.

I sing because I'm happy,
I sing because I'm free,
for his eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me

"Let not your heart be troubled,"
his tender word I hear,
and resting on his goodness,
I lose my doubts and fears;
though by the path he leadeth
but one step I may see:
His eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me.

Whenever I am tempted,
whenever clouds arise,
when song gives place to sighing,
when hope within me dies;
I draw the closer to him,
from care he sets me free:
His eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me.

The part of the refrain that is most wonderful to me is the line that says "I sing because I'm free."  I read a devotional last week about knowing the Truth and "the Truth shall set you free."  That's the wonder of it all, that our God—the Truth—loves us so much, that He truly will set us free from all that worries or troubles us. Knowing this, why don't we sing more often?  Knowing this, why don't we shout it from the rooftop?  Knowing this, why are we ever discouraged?  His eye is on the sparrow. And I know He watches me. What do you know?

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Multi-tasking a Catastrophe?!

It seems our cat Sophie is concerned that we are trying to do too many things at once.  Today, she apparently thought I shouldn't be trying to record scores in Jupiter at the same time I'm watching not one, but two webinars!  Here's her solution, at least in part (at left).  Of course she didn't realize that she was only adding to my distractions  instead of decreasing them :)  So it goes in my Life in the Time of Corona!

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

So Live, That . . .

“Every year the two most important days of your life go by.
One is your birth day. The other is your death day.
The one you know, and celebrate.
The other passes unbeknownst to you or anyone else.”
~ Mark Twain

Ten years ago, I attended a memorial service for a friend I'd known for some two dozen years. She was a major figure in the international classical music world, a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 30 years, a highly respected violin teacher, and a much beloved wife, mother, mentor, and friend. She passed away after a seven-year battle with cancer. A life-long Christian Scientist, she had a profound relationship with God that eclipsed that of many a professed Christian. 

The memorial service was held in Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory of Music. Dozens of musicians from all facets of her life presented a nearly three-hour long concert in tribute to their mentor, teacher, colleague, and friend. In between the musical pieces, friends, fellow musicians, and former teachers shared their memories of this amazing woman. As I sat there listening, I heard over and over mention of a life lived with passion and joy. All talked about her calling as a teacher, about the profound influence she had on their and others' lives, both musical and personal.  I can't say I was jealous of all that was being said, but I certainly was inspired. My friend lived her life in the moment, and for the moment.  She knew that each moment mattered, and she made certain it mattered for all she spent time with. She knew, in the end, that God's love made all the difference in the world, and she made sure to let everyone else know that too. It was amazing, in that mostly secular setting, to hear person after person talk about God's love as it shone through their friend and teacher's life. The final speaker, my friend's husband (a friend of even longer standing), talked about her peace and contentment, right up to the end of her life. She died, he said, without regret.

On the 10th anniversary of this memorial service, my friend’s husband posted a follow-up on Facebook that received over 500 responses of comments and emojis.  Reading those comments last week reminded me all over again of the wonder, the power, the necessity of a well-lived life and how the light of my friend’s influence has not dimmed one iota over the past ten years.  The love for her was just as strong, the loss just as poignant.  What a privilege to have known someone like that, and what an important reminder of the importance of how we live our lives!

Every year I like to share William Cullen Bryant's poem "Thanatopsis" with the juniors. Bryant was an American poet, Massachusetts born and raised, who first made his mark on the literary world in the early 1800s at the age of 17 with the publication of this meditation on death. A fairly long poem, it addresses the natural cycles of life, the importance of living that life so that when death comes along, there is no fear, no worry, only peace and contentment. I had to memorize the last nine lines of the poem when I was a junior in academy.  I’ve never forgotten them. The words made an impact on me then, but I didn't realize at that age what they really meant until later.  The words have been haunting me again since I read the Facebook post about that Sunday night ten years ago. It is no coincidence that Bryant and his poem are usually in my lesson plans towards the end of the school year. I need his reminder of the importance of living our life so well that when our time comes to leave this life, we can go peacefully, and with no regrets. And I like for that to be one of the last things I share with students before we separate for the summer—and with some, maybe, forever.  Bryant put into words what my friend put into reality.  Both challenge me to reexamine my own approach to life and live it to the fullest, and with confidence and joy.  Here are those last nine lines of a profound poem written by a teenager two hundred and nine years ago (an amazing thing in and of itself):

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

Another American writer, humorist Mark Twain, wrote a somber observation once that I quoted at the beginning of this devotional.  Once you get over the cleverness of his statement, you have to admit its truth: we don't know the hour of our death.  But according to Bryant, we should know the necessity of living our lives so that our day of death is not an issue of concern.  We should be attentive to the way we live our life is and the quality of our relationship with God. It is always a timely message for me to be reminded of that.   This time, the reminder was complimented with the reminder of that decades-ago experience in memory of my friend. She was able to show us all the way to so live our lives.  She stood tall as an example of Paul meant when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 16: 13-14, “Keep your eyes open, hold tight to your convictions, give it all you’ve got, be resolute, and love without stopping (The Message).”  My prayer is that we each so live our lives that if our time comes before Jesus does, we can go to our rest, ready for that great getting-up day when He returns to awaken those who rest in Him. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Your Destiny, God's Plans

“Leave to thy God, to order and provide; in every change, He faithful will remain.”
Katharina von Schlegal

It never fails. Or should I say He never fails. Every time I think I have nowhere to turn, nowhere to go, that there is no one there for me, He comes to my rescue. Every time. Without fail.  Every time, that is, that I remember to ask for His help.  That’s the wonderful thing to me about God: that He never fails me.  It’s also the curious thing about me: that I often fail to ask Him to help me. You would think I’d learn. You would think I’d remember how good it is when I let Him lead. You would think I’d think!

I suspect I’m not the only one living this paradox. In fact, I suspect that every one of us has been guilty of living it at one time or another. Maybe far too often, right?! Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m only human. A human still trying to find my way in a puzzling and frustrating world. A human too stubborn and proud to give myself overto anyone or anything else, too jaded to trust completely, too wary to place myself entirely in anyone’s hand except—maybe— His. A human who does not want to worry about anything, but who isn’t quite ready to give up the luxury of worrying if it means giving up control of my life in the process. A human just like you, right? 

When I was getting ready to graduate from college, my mother gave me the most important advice she’s ever given me—and she’s given me a lot over the years. My mother is a wonderfully wise person, though, and I respect her enormously.  When she tells me things, I pay attention, because she, too, has never failed me. Her advice has ranged from ways to deal with friends (when I was younger) to colleagues (now that I am older), from religion (when I was younger) to spirituality (now that I am older), from cooperation (when I was younger), to independence (now that I am older). She is the one who helped me make peace with myself as a teenager, and she helped me make peace with God as a young adult. “Place your destiny in God’s hands,” she told me” and you will always be safe, you will always be secure. You will never have to worry.”

She was right, you know.  He has never failed me whenever I have consciously asked Him to take charge of my life, and even when I haven’t. He has always taken care of me whenever I’ve had the courage to place my life, my destiny, in His hands.  And yet—for some reason, I don’t always immediately give my problems over to Him. I know from experience that all I have to do is ask. So, why is that so hard for me? I don’t even like to click he “help” button on my computer! And why am I not alone in this hesitance to trust?  Don’t some of you have that same struggle? Perhaps it’s because we don’t always want to go where God takes us if we give ourselves over to Him. Or perhaps it’s not that we don’t want to go, but that we’re afraid to go, or afraid we won’t be able to do what He requires if we give Him our lives.  Or perhaps we want what He wants, but are afraid others will make fun of us or won’t understand us for following His will instead of ours. Or perhaps we are less sure of Him than we are of ourselves.

Let me tell you something—something I know for a certainty. You will never regret giving yourself over to God’s charge. Never. I never have, although I have often wondered just how things were going to work out. But without fail, when I’ve looked back, I’ve been able to see that whatever has happened, when I’ve placed my trust and my destiny in God’s hands unconditionally, it has been the right thing. Without fail.  That’s an incredible statement, don’t you think? Even more incredible is to know it is not hyperbole. It’s true, I think, because God loves us unconditionally. And He has plans for us. Plans He hopes to put to use if only we ask and allow Him—to. He tells us in Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

But how do we get to that place? How do we keep from worrying about our destiny and let it rest easily in His hand? Jesus suggests some very specific things to do with the time we might otherwise use up in worrying, and I’d like to recommend them to you today. He says to seek first His kingdom. That means to focus your attention on heaven before you do anything else. If you do that, all other things will fall into place. If you do that, you will be able to embrace His second suggestion. “Do not be afraid,” He says. If you are focused on Him and your heavenly future, you have nothing to fear for your earthly present.  He will take care of you. He will not forsake you. Not only in the big things—like school plans and finances—but also in the little things, no matter how trivial they might seem. Third, He tells us “Do not worry for tomorrow, for tomorrow will take care of itself.”  If your attention is on today, and you are living today for the kingdom, there is no need to worry about tomorrow. In fact, the kingdom is already yours for the believing, because the Father wants to give it to you. Jesus goes on to suggest that we not anchor ourselves with earthly possessions—or worries. He tells us to give them all up for what we will have in His kingdom. “For,” He says, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” 

I love the words to that wonderful hymn “Be Still my Soul.” They have empowered me over and over since I first read them and paid attention to their meaning:

Be still my Soul, the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God, to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still my Soul, thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still my Soul, thy God doth undertake
to guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my Soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

Be still my Soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone;
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my Soul: when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

Today, I encourage you to give your life over to Jesus. Place your destiny and your plans fearlessly and confidently in the hands of your Best Friend. He will never fail you. Never.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Instruments of God's Peace

Mooselookmeguntic Lake, Rangeley, Maine
Some time ago, I watched a movie about a man I knew almost nothing about except that he had written a prayer that has been beautifully set to music I have played and sung many times. I love the words, but even though I’d been to the place where the author lived and worked many years ago— I never knew the story behind them until I saw that movie. His home is as picturesque and peaceful a place as you might imagine, nestled in the rugged mountains of Italy. But it took watching the story of Giovanni Francesco Bernardone and simultaneously finding myself in a dark enough place to crave desperately what he’d written about, for me to understand what this priest, otherwise known as Francis of Assisi, meant when he wrote this prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, Grant that I may
not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

It was more than 800 years ago that Francis penned those words. No doubt they were meaningful words for him in his time. But I’d like to suggest to you that they are just as important– and necessary – for today’s Christian – today’s Seventh-day Adventist – in 2020.  Now, more than ever, we need to be understanding of each other, we need to be looking out for each other – whether it be while we are all at home, or when we are back at school, at work, or at church. With all the sadness and stress of the world around us, there has never been a greater need for peace – the peace of Jesus Christ. And there has never been a better place or time than right here, right now.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:9 that the peacemakers will be called the sons—and daughters—of God. George Herbert, a 17th century English poet and pastor, says that “Where there is peace, God is.” The question is, then, how do we become peacemakers, and thus bring God to the world? The answer lies, pretty plainly, in the words of St. Francis. At first glance, you might notice that St. Francis works in opposites; in lights and darks; in contrasts. He talks about hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness, and sadness. This is what we find in the world—a world without the love of Jesus. He then asks that God make him an instrument of peace—and through that instrument, allow Him to sow love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy—just the opposite of what exists in the world. This is what we are able to produce when God works together with us in the lives of others.

The second half of the poem centers on us – on our innermost selves – our needs and desires. God understands how easy it is for us as humans to get carried away with our own turning of the good into bad. St. Francis felt that, too, and so he asked for personal help in humility, in directing his focus away from himself and back to others. He asked for help in giving, with no thought for receiving. But the wonderful thing about this is that when we give, the opposite occurs: we end up receiving more than we give. He reminds us that forgiveness is a two-way street, a two-part process. When we forgive others, genuinely forgive them, it comes back on us as well. A forgiving spirit earns forgiveness as well.

Then St. Francis shows us one more paradox, perhaps the most exciting and important one of all. He says, “it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.” Not only does the death of Christ on the Cross give us a way to Eternal Life, but when we die to self – not just through baptism, but in our daily lives as Christians – we are given new life, and we begin walking the pathway to Eternal Life.

As Christians, then, according to St. Francis, we need to negate the negative opposites in the world through cultivating the positive opposites in our lives. Easier said than done, but not impossible. The Bible gives us several examples of unlikely candidates for being His instruments of peace: Zacchaeus, Naaman, Esther, Saul among them. The fact is, only Jesus and His love can take a person filled with hatred and injury and use him or her as an instrument of His love and healing. Jesus did that with those we read about in the Bible. He can do it for each one of us today. Instead of bringing darkness to those around us with criticism and unkind words, we can – as instruments of God’s peace – bring light – sowing loving words of encouragement and understanding. We can show faith in each other, act kindly towards one another at all times, and, yes, bring joy to each other.

I encourage you to think of ways you can personally be an instrument of God’s peace right here, this very day. It is my prayer that you will take St. Francis’ prayer and make it your own. Then God can and will make you an instrument of His peace. And the world, this church community, will be a better place.