Hope Finds Community

On a cool fall day – as the leaves began changing their seasonal clothes, I joined a friend for Sunday service in a country church.country church

The white clapboard exterior adorned with an iron bell, calling the community to gather. An open door – both figuratively and in reality. All welcome. All embraced.

Picture the TV show, “Little House on the Prairie” and the serene little church where families sat together and knew everyone – where all were accepted and worshipped together.

Wooden pews, missing from contemporary church buildings, enabled us to sit close, to feel connected as the organ invited us into the prelude.

Bead board on the ceiling, a treasure for this “Fixer Upper” fan, and a real wooden pulpit fashioned by a craftsman.

We stood together to speak words of commitment, our common belief in the God of the ages. With syncopated action, we pulled hymnbooks from their ledges and turned to the song that echoed with the remembered faith of our fathers.

I did not need to see the words, knowing every note and the lyrics of all three verses. My favorite hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness” echoed with the harmonies around me. Oh glory! Four-part harmony once again – its absence unknown to my soul suddenly awakened.

Then a message of hope from the book of Ephesians, delivered by the passionate pastor – the shepherd of this country flock. The female pastor – yes – a woman embraced and accepted for her leadership qualities, obviously called to this community and loved by all.

My grieving heart at peace. The raw emotions somehow salved in the peace of this place. A step back to where I once grew up, so like the country church of my past.

We have lost something precious with our darkened sanctuaries, our theatrical great rooms with cappuccino-smelling lobbies and stackable chairs. With our mega churches and multiple services, we no longer recognize the friendly faces of those who share our faith.

Yes – faith remains intact no matter what the setting. But the simple purity of a country church service emanated hope by its very presence into the sacred.

We stood, sang together the Doxology, then received the benediction. Grace covered us, and we exited in peace.

Once again, I was filled with hope, embraced by this community and the God who placed them there. And within the safety of that place, my soul found momentary rest.

©2017 RJ Thesman – All Rights Reserved

Check out my latest works on my Amazon author page.

Advertisements

Hope Mourns the Sparrow

One of the joys of my life arrives every morning when I feed the birds.

I am praying my new place will include a small back yard where I can pour out the seed, call to the birds and watch these amazing creatures float toward me.Jesus Calling - Sept 1

But last week, we had a surprise visitor. A huge hawk swooped down, rapidly chose his prey and killed one of my sparrows. With sharp talons, he easily lifted his breakfast from my deck, then disappeared in the early morning fog.

Most of the time, we don’t pay attention to sparrows. We are attracted to the flashy cardinals, the sweet chickadees and even the raucous blue jays with their blue and silver details.

Sparrows are just the extra birds that fly near us, their plain brown feathers almost an invisible blend on weathered decks. Perhaps an afterthought in the creator’s mind, the bird with which to compare all the others.

Sparrows don’t seem to matter much. Unless you’re one of them.

During this transition time, I empathize with the sparrow. I feel as if the flashy authors of the world have passed me by, and I am trying to catch up.

Other ministers and writers have spent years honing their careers while I stayed in the background, worked in administrative roles, quietly pointed the mouse and clicked on Excel charts.

Others developed speaking ministries, world-wide podcasts and reams of manuscripts while I worked three jobs to raise my son and try to survive.

“Bless me, too, my Father,” is often the cry of my heart.

Now…during this time of the unknowns, I feel even more sparrow-ish than before. My own drab browning pales in comparison with those who seem to have it so easy.

Yes, I know this sounds like whining. But I struggle between authenticity, the brutal honesty of the heart and a complaining spirit. I wish I knew the difference.

I want to see my own dreams come to pass even as I know the desires of my heart may not necessarily sync with the whispers of the divine.

Predators of discouragement and fear stalk me. So quickly, they sharpen their talons and wait for my most vulnerable moments to swoop in and destroy hope.

Yet some days – praise God – more days than not – I remember how God cares for even the sparrow.

Not one of us falls without his knowledge and empathic tears. Each of us, though feeling drab, are still painted with his art – each feather delicate in his design.

I replay a favorite hymn, grateful for the internet and the YouTube software that makes it easily accessible.

His eye indeed on this sparrow. My heart secure in the knowing that he cares for me.

Sparrows of the past are still mourned. Each one a creation missed, a relationship betrayed, an opportunity denied.

Yet the One who created them in the first place still exists and promises an even better life to come.

Here’s to all of us sparrows in the world. We occupy important spaces in the universe, each of us here for a purpose – for a time.

May we embrace our lives for what they represent, a glorious praise for the presence of each day and a supreme hope for a better tomorrow.

©2016 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

Hope Bleeds at Sundown

sunsetWe first noticed this phenomenon with Dad. During the final stages of his dementia, dusk triggered an inward call. He rose from his chair and began pacing up and down the living room, going nowhere yet constantly moving.

His eyes shone with an almost maniacal light, as if he obeyed a substance or a creature we could not see. By that time, he no longer spoke, so we couldn’t ask him what he was looking for or where he wanted to go. It became his nightly ritual until he could no longer walk.

I fully expected him to pass away during the dusky hours, when the Oklahoma sun begins its descent into the horizon. But no, he graduated to heaven in the middle of a spring day – simply by ceasing to breathe and walking away with Jesus.

Years ago, when my mother worked as a nurse in the hospital, she told me how important it was to work the night shift and watch out for her patients. “If they’re going to die,” she said, “they’ll die at night.”

Something about the night conjures up the dark fear of death – all those spooky movies with a full moon shadowing gargantuan monsters. I find that strange, because I love sunsets and when I finally lay me down to sleep, I say, “Ah! Yes!”


But then, the scenario is different when Alzheimer’s and/or dementia capture the brain.


 

We have noticed the sundown change in Mom as well. She eats supper early, around 4:30 at the assisted living facility. Perhaps they schedule it early for a purpose, because they know what is coming for many of their residents. Shortly after supper, Mom moves into her most confused state of the day.

We know better than to visit her in the evening, because she will be concerned about the farm and what is happening there, even though she hasn’t lived in the country for many years. In the evenings, she will forget Dad has passed. She will talk about him as if he is coming into the room and she must prepare his clothes for the next day.

At dusk, Mom will argue about nonsensical things – what day it is, what year it is, whether we have already celebrated Christmas and whose name she drew and what present she bought. It doesn’t matter what we say or how we try to explain, the shutters of understanding have closed for the day. She is lost within the sunset hours.

An old hymn reminds me of the timelessness of heaven and how we will someday no longer fear any type of sundowner symptoms.

“Beyond the sunset, oh blissful morning

When with our savior, heaven is begun.

Earth’s toiling ended, oh glorious dawning

Beyond the sunset, when day is done.”

 

You can listen to the entire hymn here: Beyond the Sunset

I guess there’s a good reason hope bleeds at sundown. Maybe that’s the time believers are most restless for heaven, searching for the Savior and for their loved ones who graduated before them.

Next time I see Mom at dusk, I’ll take her hand to calm her down and say, “It’s okay, Mom. Only a few more sunsets until your journey is over. Be still. The best is yet to be.”

©2016 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

Hope Finds Its Sanctuary

Praying_HandsDuring the winter months, I often journal and pray in the bathroom. My bathroom is tiny, so it’s the warmest room in the house. I sit on the heater vent, put a pillow behind my back and proceed to write my thoughts and communicate with God.

I figure God knows all about our physical bodies anyway and he doesn’t care where we meet – as long as we continue the relationship.

In the movie, “Oh God,” John Denver was embarrassed when God showed up while he was taking a shower.

“What?” God said, a la George Burns. “You think I don’t know what your body looks like? I made you.”

So I figure God doesn’t care that his daughter needs to stay warm and chooses the bathroom to keep from freezing even while her heart forms words of praise.

It seems a strange place to set up sanctuary, but then again – I’m close to the Kleenex if I cry and the cat also likes spending time with me in private places.

One of my friends, however, chooses a different way to worship – on the broad plains of Kansas or tucked into a booth at a unique coffee shop. Jane Tucker writes on her blog about wonderful Midwest locations as she revels in the expanse her camera sees, the grasses of the Flint Hills and the sun-colored flatlands of her homeland Iowa. Her blog’s tag line “Postcards from the Heartland” aptly describes the homey feel of her verbiage and the joy of finding the divine within natural wonders.

Her worship is just as genuine as mine, although hers is a wide and colorful expanse while mine is in a tiny room.


I have a feeling God loves spending time with his children and he doesn’t really care how we worship. Whether we dance with colorful scarves, sing off-key in the shower or sway to the harmonies of an old hymn – the important point is that we take time to meet with our maker.


The poet King David described places of worship, “From the ends of the earth” or “Within the sanctuary” or “With all that is within me.”

Places and people vary yet the creativity of methods to thank God for his many blessings helps us treasure relationship with him.

So wherever we are and however we choose, let’s find our sanctuary and plant hope by spending time with God.

Among my followers, I’m wondering where and how you worship? Do any of you find joy in a tiny room? Or is your worship best expressed within the confines of the traditional church building? Does a particular location stir you to praise the God who created you?

©2016 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

What Alzheimer’s Cannot Do – Part 6

Alzheimer’s cannot destroy faith.Praying_Hands

During a Thanksgiving weekend several years ago, I visited Mom at the assisted living facility. It was Sunday and per her usual practice, she wanted to go to church.

So she dressed up, picked up her Bible and we walked down the hall toward the dining room. A visiting pastor had volunteered to preach a brief sermon and lead these elderly saints in worship.

The room was filled with Alzheimer’s and dementia residents in various stages of the disease – beautiful shades of white and gray hair, curly perms and a few shining bald heads of the rare men in the crowd.

The pastor kept his words brief, then we sang some of the favorite hymns: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “Amazing Grace,” “When We All Get to Heaven.”

Most of the residents hummed along, some fell asleep, a few still knew some of the words. I sang lustily, my mezzo soprano blending with the bass of the pastor. My mother remembered some of the lyrics and hummed through the rest.

Then the pastor said, “Please join me as we all recite Psalm 23.”

I thought, You must be kidding, buddy. These people can’t recite a passage of Scripture. They can barely remember their names.

But they surprised me.

I watched them and listened as around the room – every single resident recited word for word the precious Shepherd’s Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”

The King James version, with none of them missing a beat.

“He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.”

How many of them prayed that God would restore their lives, do a miracle in their bodies and release them from this disease, this long and tragic goodbye?

“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

A righteous life includes reading the word of God and hiding those words in their hearts so that when the end of life comes, when those final years flip over onto the calendar, these residents would hang on to what really matters.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

These saints understood the Psalm better than I because they live within that valley. I could see it in their eyes, in the faces accessorized with wisdom-carrying wrinkles. They knew this valley and only God could help them walk through it unafraid. And they believed he would comfort them along the way and never leave them alone.

“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”

Food no longer provided comfort because the appetite was gone, the taste buds had forgotten a favorite flavor or the joy of family meals. Yet smiles surfaced around the group – maybe a dim remembrance of God’s anointing on a life, the cup of joy that once ran over and now waited for its fulfillment.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

My mother, her voice clear, her eyes bright – solid in her faith and waiting for her timeline to end.

Each one of them in the room, recited what they believed. I could not speak. Tears choked me as I realized there’s a place deep within us, a sanctuary of the soul that cannot be stolen by whatever is happening in the brain.

Alzheimer’s cannot and will never destroy faith.

Amen and amen.

©2015 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

What Alzheimer’s Cannot Do – Part 3

Alzheimer’s cannot destroy our family ties.family quote

Dad was an introvert while Mom was the talker. They made a great team and even though Mom’s personality stays intact, she seems a bit more closed off since her beloved Hank graduated to heaven.

Yet … our family remains strong and devoted to one another. Mom is still and always will be the matriarch.

She comes from a long line of matriarchal women who raised their children with leather belts and switches from the trees. Women who knew how to kill a chicken, then strip its feathers and fry it to a golden brown.

Women who worked a job outside of home, shopped for the harvest crew and put a huge meal on the table so that hungry men found sustenance. Then woke early the next morning and did it all over again.

Women who fiercely protected their children, used every resource available and saved enough money so their kids could attend college without going into debt.

During this holiday season, we will drive Mom to the same farm where she raised us. I will buy a pecan pie and Cool Whip so she can have her favorite Thanksgiving treat.

She will sit at the table and occasionally speak. When she does, we will listen – even if it doesn’t quite make sense. Because she is the Mom, the grandmother and now – the great-grandmother.

And sometimes, as she sits in the recliner beside the fire, I will catch her with a look on her face and wonder, What is she thinking?

Is she homesick for heaven? Probably. Is she missing her husband, her mother, her grandmothers who taught her so much? Certainly.

Is she remembering those days when she fixed the entire Thanksgiving meal, then organized the clean-up crew, saved all the leftovers and planned how she would make the budget stretch so that every child had a special gift on Christmas? I would bet so.

And sometimes – in the glow from the fire – I see in her the features of all the matriarchs before her and I know Alzheimer’s can never destroy those family ties.

That same strength has been shared with my siblings and I. We have attempted to pass it on to our children so that faith, determination and perseverance never diminishes throughout our generations.

In the Mennonite church, we used to sing, “Blessed be the tie that binds, our hearts in Christian love.” As I observe my mother throughout these waning years of her life, those family ties keep us bound together.

This brutal disease of Alzheimer’s can never destroy those ties.

©2015 RJ Thesman – Author of the Reverend G books http://amzn.to/1rXlCyh

The Power of the Music

As the trauma-induced dementia stole my father away, one joy remained – the memories of music. He lost his ability to speak and to sing. He no longer strummed the old Martin guitar or plunked chords on the piano. But the memory of the music remained.

I know this because I saw it in his eyes. Although Dad gradually lost the ability to respond by voice or even touch, the lyrics and the sounds of music cached in his memory. Eighth notes and rests, fermatas and repeat signs retained their sacred hold on Dad’s soul. Although he loved many types of music – country western, classical and the harmonies of chorales – it was the hymns that evoked life to the very end.

“Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine. Oh what a foretaste of glory divine. Heir of salvation, purchase of God. Born of his spirit, washed in his blood. This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long. This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long.”

Whenever I visited Dad and entered his bedroom at the end of the hallway, I started singing this old hymn – Dad’s favorite. Since the day he gave his heart to Jesus, during halftime of a college basketball game, the blessed assurance of his salvation wrapped his heart in security. Dad chose this hymn during sing-alongs. He and I sang it together when we ministered together at nursing homes. He carried that blessed assurance with him even during the tragic fire that started the long road toward dementia. His soul wrapped itself around the meaning of those words and blessed him during the darkest times.

I stroked Dad’s hair and patted his hand as I continued to sing through all the verses of his hymn. Each time I sang to Dad, a spark lit up his eyes. Somewhere inside that ravaged brain, the music stirred a memory. Although he could not verbally share it with me, his eyes spoke the truth. The blessed assurance of his eternal security in Christ still existed. His soul echoed the joy of those words.

During Easter weekend of 2008, I once again entered Dad’s bedroom and sang his hymn. I patted his hand and looked into his eyes for the familiar spark of remembrance. But this time, it was gone. Only a blank stare greeted me. The dementia had finally stolen from him the last vestige of memory. I knew Dad was on his way to heaven where the music would never end.

One month later, my sister called me and said. “Dad’s finally Home. It’s over.”

At his funeral, we sang the words once again. The music reverberated throughout the sanctuary, surrounded the dear body lying in the coffin and echoed through the hallways of the church. As Dad’s earthly story ended, that blessed assurance became his epilogue. His song carried him into the arms of Jesus and once again, I marveled at the power of the music.

As caregivers, we must find out the special songs that comfort our loved ones. As we sing those melodies or play an instrument at the bedside, we connect once again. And in that connection, we find joy even in the waning moments of life. The power of the music transcends our one-dimensional lives and transports us to those spiritual havens we long for.

Happy Easter, Dad. I love you, and I miss you. In your memory, I will sing your song.