Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Friday, December 24, 2010

I Heard the Truth on Christmas Day

Christ In Winter: reflections on faith from a place of winter for years of winter…

It’s Christmas, almost, and I miss my friend, Phyllis, for it was at Christmas time that I first met her, when we were both ten years old. I miss her especially when I hear “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

My family had moved from the working-class near-east side of Indianapolis to the country near Oakland City in March. Phyllis and I were both in fifth grade, but I didn’t meet her until Christmas time. I was in 5-A, kids who started school in January, and she was 5-B, kids who started in Sept. She lived in town and I rode a school bus. And we went to different churches.

I went to Forsythe, an open-country Methodist church. Phyllis’ father, Jimmy Graham, was the pastor at Oak Grove General Baptist Church, a mile down the gravel road from Forsythe, while he attended Oakland City College [now Oakland City Univ]. Those churches held different theologies, but we shared a common culture, and so we also shared a common VBS and Christmas program. It was at that shared Christmas program in 1947 that I met Phyllis.

After the little children had “said their pieces,” and the older ones had sung a carol in a rag-tag choir, there was an excited stirring, especially among the Methodists, who were not used to excitement in church, at least not of the Baptist kind. Everyone looked to the back of the church. Striding confidently forward, holding an accordion almost as large as she, came this skinny little girl. She stepped up onto the platform, worked the bellows, and began to sing, with the deepest, fullest voice I had ever heard. Her song was “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” Longfellow’s 1863 poem, written in the midst of the Civil War, later set to John Calkin’s music.

I had never before heard a song like that, or a voice like that. It seemed like I was in the presence of royalty, or perhaps twelve-year old Elizabeth Taylor in “National Velvet,” or Margaret O’Brien in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” [1]

I met Phyllis then, but she didn’t meet me. Because of different grades and buses and churches, we didn’t really meet until we were freshmen in high school. We met then because I was in the girls’ biology class.

I was a mid-year student, and worked on the school newspaper and sang in the chorus. In a small school, with limited class offerings, that meant a confused class schedule. As a freshman, I had the second semester of “Commercial Arithmetic,” without benefit of the first semester, with mostly junior girls, and since I was otherwise scheduled during the boys’ biology class, I was placed in the girls’ class, taught by Iva Jane McCrary, the “old maid” home ec teacher. Phyllis and I sat across a big sewing table from each other. Phyllis was quite pretty and very smart, which meant that I could look at her or her test paper and expect erudition in either case.

The high point of freshman biology was learning about “human reproduction,” which took two whole days. When those two days came, though, Sammy Kell and I, Sammy being the only other boy with a class schedule as eccentric as mine, were sent off to sit in the principal’s outer office during class, since we did not have the right mind-set, or equipment, presumably, to learn about human reproduction with the girls.

When I returned to class, I asked Phyllis about what I had missed. “I think you’ll still be able to have children,” she said.

In our sophomore year, Phyllis’ father graduated from college and took a church in Tennessee. I did not see her again until I was the new Methodist campus minister at Indiana State University and Rose Polytechnic in Terre Haute, just graduated from Garrett Theological Seminary, and she was a new professor of mathematics at Indiana State, having just received a PhD from Indiana University. Typically of Phyllis, she had done graduate work in math because she felt it was her weakest subject, thus the one in which she needed extra work to be a truly educated person.

Phyllis was pleased that I had indeed been able to have children, two darling little girls. She became a member of our family, a special aunt to Mary Beth and Katie, sharing meals and picnics and friends.

The Wesley Foundation did not have its own worship services, and as the new campus minister, I got to preach only once a semester at Centenary Church. By the time those rare Sundays came around, I had a lot of ideas and passion stored up. Those were Sundays when Phyllis became a Methodist. After one of those sermons, she waited until everyone else had filed past me at the door, then reached up and grabbed me by the top of my robe and pulled me down to her face and said, “You don’t know it yet, but when you’re in that pulpit, you’re something special. People will believe what you say just because of the way you say it. So you make damn sure you say the truth.”

So, in memory of my friend, whom I miss especially at Christmas time, I will say the truth, words I first heard in the full husky voice of a skinny little girl:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead nor doth he sleep.’
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth good will to men.’

May the peace of God be with you,

[1] I had a special crush on Margaret O’Brien because I had seen a photo of her holding the same fifth-grader reader I used at Lucretia Mott Public School # 3 in Indianapolis. Interestingly, at least to me, Margaret shares a birthday with Joe Frazier, the baritone of the Chad Mitchell Trio and Episcopal vicar in Big Bear Lake, CA. Each is 19 days further advanced in decrepitude than I.

[Some of the words above I spoke at Phyllis' memorial service, and some appear in my book, "The Strange Calling."

(Unless inspiration strikes unexpectedly, this will be the last Christ in Winter post until next year. Happy New Year!)

{I also write the fictional “Periwinkle Chronicles” blog. One needs a rather strange sense of humor to enjoy it, but occasionally it is slightly funny. It is at}

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Applause at Christmas

Christ In Winter: reflections on faith from a place of winter for the years of winter…

I have been applauded only twice in church, church applause being reserved for musicians and children, and both of those occasions were at Christmas, perhaps because Christmas is a season that features musicians and children, and the folks were already in the mood to applaud.

The first was Forsythe Methodist, open country, about three miles out of Oakland City, IN. We had moved there in March after I was the young shepherd in the East Park Methodist Christmas play in Indianapolis. I became a real shepherd, not of sheep, but cows and pigs and chickens. Later, when I was a freshman at IU, I was asked to be the narrator for the Christmas program at Forsythe. I was a little late for rehearsal, having hitchhiked down from Bloomington after my last class, and when I walked in, all the gathered children, perhaps 30, plus a choir put together for the occasion, since Forsythe was too small to have a choir for ordinary time, spontaneously broke into applause. I was considerably embarrassed and tremendously pleased. Forsythe had always accepted me, and now it applauded me, just for showing up.

My second occasion of applause was a Christmas at Wesley UMC in Charleston, IL. On Christmas Sunday, I made one of those stupid-preacher mistakes, the ones that are obviously mistakes after you’ve done them but which you don’t recognize as such beforehand. The children and I were lighting the Advent wreath and the Christ candle during “Special Time With Children.” I asked for volunteers. We got all the candles lighted. But there were still little hands up, volunteering, but no more candles. I snuffed out the candles and asked if anyone else would like to help light things up. The congregation broke into applause. [1] We re-lighted, with new volunteers. We kept repeating that until every child had lighted one of the candles.

In those occasions of applause, I learned the true meaning of Christmas: everybody should have a chance at sharing the light, and if you show up late, you’ll find out how folks really feel about you.


[1] I later learned that it was Art Snider, an academic counselor at Eastern IL U, who started the applause. He recently told me, “I always felt sorry for you. You hated administration so much, and the church was so big and the staff so small, you had to do a lot of it. I thought you should have staff members to do that stuff, so you could concentrate on preaching and pastoring, like Harry Emerson Fosdick at Riverside Church in New York.” It’s nice to think that someone once thought of me in the same sentence as HEF.

{I also write the fictional “Periwinkle Chronicles” blog. One needs a rather strange sense of humor to enjoy it, but occasionally it is slightly funny. It is at}

(If you would prefer to receive either “Christ In Winter” or “Periwinkle Chronicles” via email, just let me know at, and I’ll put you on the email list.)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The True Meaning of Christmas

Christ In Winter: reflections on faith from a place of winter for the years of winter…
“The True Meaning of Christmas”

The first place I learned the true meaning of Christmas was East Park Methodist, on New York St. in Indianapolis, almost to Rural St, 6 or 7 blocks from our house.

I was nine years old and had the second lead in a two-man Christmas play. I can’t remember the title. I was a young shepherd who learned the true meaning of Christmas from an older shepherd when the star of Bethlehem appeared to us.

The older shepherd was William B. Lewis, about fifteen years old, who was always called by his entire name. I would walk at night, by myself, in the dark, along New York St, where the bullies hung out in front of the hardware store, to meet William B. Lewis to rehearse. If the person with the key didn’t show up in time, or at all, to unlock the church, William B. Lewis and I would hang around on the church steps and talk about comic books. He favored “Don Winslow of the Navy,” since WWII had just ended and military comics were quite popular. I felt a bit inferior, since I still liked “little kid” comic books, Disney stuff like Mickey Mouse.

When the Christmas program time came, though, it was William B. Lewis who had spent too much time on comic books and had not learned his lines. It was my first experience with improv, but I managed to carry us both and learn the true meaning of Christmas—you need to know your lines, but be ready to improvise.


{I also write the fictional “Periwinkle Chronicles” blog. One needs a rather strange sense of humor to enjoy it, but occasionally it is slightly funny. It is at}

(If you would prefer to receive either “Christ In Winter” or “Periwinkle Chronicles” via email, just let me know at, and I’ll put you on the email list.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Tirckiest Spritziest Christmas Cookies

CHRIST IN WINTER: reflections on faith from a place of winter for the years of winter…

[Today is replete with Academy of Parish Clergy friends. Paul Binder, who passed along the “Florida Wonderland” song, reminds me that he is from Mt. Vernon, IN, not New Albany, which I should have remembered, since my Oakland City teams played in the same conference,” The Pocket Athletic Conference,” as Mt. Vernon, although he moved there at 15 after growing up in Seattle. He is a Purdue grad, which punishment surely must absolve him from all the rest of his sins. Another FL APC friend, David Imhoff, says he is already singing “Florida Wonderland” at the nursing homes and other gatherings where he ministers at this time of year. And APC friend Suzanne Schaeffer-Coates posted recently that she was going to bake her trickiest cookies because middle son Malcolm said they are his favorite. Helen couldn’t stand not knowing just how tricky they were so asked, and got this reply…]

My trickiest cookies are what you'd call Spritz cookies, and I call "cookie gun" cookies.

In my first church there was an old lady, who I thought was older than God. She made the best Christmas cookies, and my favorite ones were these Spritz cookies. She gave me the recipe, and I bought a cookie gun in a yard sale, and set to work. The cookie gun made me crazy, as I could never get the timing right and I'd either have too much blob or not enough, and when it did start pushing out the cookies, I had to go likity split to keep up with it.

It turns out that Jane had given me the recipe by memory and had messed it up, so the ruined cookies weren't entirely my fault. The next Christmas, she drove herself to my house with her cookie gun, her recipe, and her cookie sheets. She made me buy a pound of Land O' Lakes butter (and leave it out the night before - she even called me the night before to make sure I'd put the butter out - to soften), Pillsbury flour (not Gold Medal), fresh McCormack Almond Extract, sugar and whole milk, and large eggs and PAM. When she got there, she made me lay out all of her's and my cookie sheets, and then mix the dough. The last cup has to be mixed by hand (literally, by hands). Then the assembly line, poom, poom, poom, pop out those cookies. Her hand operated cookie gun just spat them out perfectly. Then one sheet at a time, into the oven. 4 minutes...turn the sheet around facing the other way. 4 more minutes...out. New sheet in, set timer, take cookies off hot sheet onto cooling racks. Wash sheets between batches.

I was exhausted when we were finished. She was fresh as a daisy and helped me clean up, and took her stuff home with her - leaving me all the cookies, because she was going to make another batch at home.

For Christmas she gave me $$ to buy new cookie sheets and cooling racks. The following years, as she got even older, she came down to supervise my baking "her" cookies, and sat in a rocking chair and rocked baby Henry while I made them under her watchful eye. After she died, I continue to make the cookies every year, enjoying the memories, but hating the hard work and my electric cookie gun. I'd try other cookie guns that I bought in subsequent yard sales, but couldn't get the pressure right.

As I said in my FB "post", I stopped making them two years ago, but last year Malcolm said that he missed them, so I knew I had to make them this year. Last week, looking for something else in Walmart, I saw a $10.00 cookie gun that said that it measured out the exact amount of dough each time. So on the appointed day, I got out my cookie sheets, "Pammed" them, made the dough (butter softening all night, new Pillsbury flour, fresh eggs, whole milk, fresh almond extract, sugar, etc.), opened the cookbook to Jane's handwritten recipe, and set to, channeling her in my thoughts. The new cookie gun worked a treat, and in less time than I would have thought possible, they were done (yes, I turned the cookie sheets every four minutes), I was cleaned up, and had two tins of cookies.

Malcolm is happy, I am happy, and in heaven, I know that Jane is happy.

(If you would prefer to receive either “Christ In Winter” or “Periwinkle Chronicles” via email, just let me know at, and I’ll put you on the email list.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Hot Time in the Years of Winter

My Academy of Parish Clergy friend, Paul Binder, who lives in FL, even though he is originally from IN, New Albany, if I remember correctly, sent the winter song below. It is a good reminder that not everyone who lives in the years of winter can expect a white Christmas, unless it’s white sand. Thanks, Paul, and Merry Christmas!

Florida Wonderland
(sung to the tune of Winter Wonderland)

Sea shells ring, are you list'nin'?
On the beach sand is glist'nin'
What a wonderful sight we're happy tonight'
Walkin' in our Florida Wonderland

Gone away is the blue bird, here again is the snow bird
We sing a love song, as we go along
Walkin' in our Florida Wonderland

On the beaches we can build a sandman
And pretend that he is lifeguard Brown
He'll say, “Are you sweatin'?” We'll say, “No man,
Cause we can go in swimmin' all year round.”

Later on we'll perspire as we float on a tire
To face unafraid the plans that we've made'
Walkin' in our Florida Wonderland.

(By an anonymous lyricist, fortunately!)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Geniuses Don't Repeat

Christ In Winter: reflections on faith from a place of winter for the years of winter…
Geniuses Don’t Repeat

One of the good things about looking back over your life in old age is that you can see who you really were and are. In that process, I have learned that I am a genius.

That’s partly because Jane Smiley has pointed out my genius in her book about John Atanasoff, who invented the computer. It’s not that he and I are the same sort of genius, although I am amazingly proficient at un-inventing the computer, inventing ways to make it NOT work. Geniuses, however, have certain traits in common. Smiley lists those traits. I have them all.

Once having conquered a field, a genius gets bored and moves on to something else. That’s my story. I once had a straight-A semester in college so did not feel the need to do it again. I ran a marathon. I won a contest and got a poem published. I wrote a book and got it published. I went to spring training with the Cincinnati Reds. I won the love of a beautiful woman. No need to repeat. That’s genius.

Suzanne Schaefer-Coates said on Facebook, after I posted “When Father Rode the Mail,” that I should post a Christmas story each day until Christmas. I replied that then I wouldn’t have anything for subsequent years. That caused Naomi Roberts to point out that a writer does not hold back. [1] But that would be a repeat. I’m not holding back, Naomi, but because I’m a genius, I don’t repeat.

Several weeks back a reader of this blog wrote to Abingdon Press and suggested to the editor that he get me to write a book. He replied to her that he had looked at the blog and that it was indeed okay and that I should contact him. The reader forwarded his reply to me. I have done nothing about it. That’s not procrastination nor is it laziness; it’s just the way of us geniuses. I’ve already written a book. Four, in fact. No need to repeat.

Cancer research indicates that patients who get better DON’T do things for other people. It also indicates that patients who get better DO do things for other people. What? The difference is the feeling of obligation. If you do for others because you feel obliged, you get worse. If you do for others because you want to, you get better. People who stop doing out of obligation get better, but they get even more better if they do good by choice.

One of the advantages of old age is declining energy. I have more good things to do for others without obligation than my time and energy allows, so there is no need to do obligatory things in order to be a good person.

I’ve often thought about writing a book of reflections for old folks, sort of like “Now That I Have Cancer I Am Whole,” my book of reflections for cancer patients, and those who love them. I’ve even worked on it from time to time. My title was to be “Bloom Before You’re Planted.” It’s actually Helen’s title. I was extolling Walt Wagener as the best example I know of blooming where one is planted. She said, “I want to bloom BEFORE I’m planted.” It’s a wonderful thought, and a great title. “Christ In Winter” is a good title, too. But taking it on with an actual publisher, with an editor like Ron Kidd, that would feel like an obligation, and geniuses don’t do obligation. It leads too easily to repetition.

May the genius of the present moment be with you,

[1] That’s one of the problems with Facebook; your friends can see how you are trying to weasel and call you on it. Naomi thinks that I am a writer, instead of a genius, because we met as members of The Red Herring Fiction Workshop in Urbana, IL, instead of Mensa. Come to that, I don’t think either of us are members of Mensa, either.

{I also write the fictional “Periwinkle Chronicles” blog. One needs a rather strange sense of humor to enjoy it, but occasionally it is slightly funny. It is at}

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Joy to the Mysterious World

Christ in Winter, Dec. 18, 2010…

Vic Stolzfus, although Mennonite, was a member of Wesley UMC in Charleston, IL when I pastored there, and the Chair of the Sociology Dept at EIU. He went on to become President of Goshen College, and is now retired and rewound.

As we move toward the mystery of Christmas I would like to pass along to you a quote from an African friend of Vic’s: “I would rather live in a world surrounded by mystery than live in a world so small my mind could comprehend it.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

When Father Rode the Mail


{For many years, I wrote a new Christmas story each year to use as the sermon at the Christmas eve service. This is the most-often published of those. It is true. If you wish to use it for worship or reprint in a newsletter, etc, please do so.}

Before the green hills had become the spoil banks of the strip mines, when United States highways were graveled ribbons and mules still pulled the plows, where the Wabash meets the Ohio, my father "rode the mail."

It was not a regular job. The people in the hills read slowly and wrote only when they had something important to say. A postage penny was a lot of money.

Once each week or two, however, the letters and circulars for the folks in the hills mounded up until they filled a leather mail-pouch. When the papers peeked over the bag top, my father unhitched the mules with which he had been grading the roads since he was twelve, saddled up his horse, and clucked a "giddyap" out toward the cabins where no roads dared to go.

The trackless hills, where the woods are deep, are cool and pleasant in the haze of summer. When the autumn comes, though, the heavy rains dump the soggy maple leaves down upon your head. The water sneaks in between your hat and the collar of your coat. Then the hills hunker down and close in and say, "Beware."

It was on such a day that Father lost his way. So when he crossed a clearing and saw a cabin, it was both relief and fear that ran with the rain down along his backbone. From underneath his dripping hat he hailed the gray, unpainted shack.

"Helloooo, the cabin," he called.

No answer. The owner must be in on such a day, he thought, or else the cabin was deserted.

His right foot had left the stirrup and was half-way over the horse's rump when he saw the shotgun. Only one barrel, but it was big, and it looked straight out at him from where the door had cracked open. Off the saddle, he waited.

"What do y' want?" a thin voice from behind the shotgun demanded.

Father thought fast.

"I'v brot your mail," he called.

"And I need a place to git dry," he added.

The shotgun held its place, and so did Father. Finally, however, the muzzle lowered toward the rough boards of the porch, and Father lowered himself to the ground.

"Come," the cabin called, and Father went.

Inside the door he met the oldest, frailest-looking woman he had ever seen. A hound dog that must have shared her birthday lay in front of the fireplace. A table, a ladder-back chair, a bed, the shotgun, a shaker chest, and a stool were the cabin's only other occupants.

The woman was still wary.

"I don't git no mail," she said.

Father fished into the pouch and hooked an old circular. He pushed it out across the gap between them. A thin, veined hand took it and held it close to two slow eyes. The eyes were satisfied. The hand pointed to the chair.

"Sit," she said.

Father sat. He wondered a little at how the old woman had read the circular while holding it upside down.

She brewed some tea. They sipped and sat before the fire until the silence of the roof reported that the rain had gone. They did not talk--just sat and sipped together--the very young man who was only beginning, the very old woman whose life was ending.

Father said, "I'll be goin' now. I thank you for the shelter and the tea."

The frail old hands picked up the circular as he left.

From then on when Father rode the mail, he put into the pouch an old sale bill, or a circular, and he took it to the little cabin in the clearing in the woods. Each time the young man and the old woman sat and sipped in silence. Each time Father noted that the "mail" of his last trip had been tacked up on the wall.

When the winter comes, the rains stop, but the sky is gray as slate sometimes, and the wind sneaks past the button sentries. In those cold days, Father was especially glad for the cabin and the fire and the tea and the silence.

A week before Christmas, Father put an old catalog into his pouch, along with all the cards for others on the way, and set out to ride the mail. He took the catalog to the cabin. There they sat, the silent young man and the quiet old woman. As Father rose to leave, the old woman spoke into the silence.

"It was good of y' to leave your own family and come out to see me on Christmas day," she said.

Father looked at the walls around him. There was no calendar, only the circulars and sale bills winking back at him in the firelight.

Father did not ever talk very much, but many, many years later, when he told this story to his children and grandchildren, he said, "I guess she never did know it wasn't really Christmas day."

Perhaps he never knew it really was.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


I haven’t posted for a few days, because I’ve been fasting. No, not food-fasting. Brain-fasting.

First an apology to those of you who received the 12-13 post by an “Iron Filings” email as well as reading it here. The apology is not because you had to read it twice; Nina Morwell says that is okay. But I intended to send most of the emails by Blind Carbon, so that each would receive an individual copy rather than having to read all the other email addresses at the top. But it was late at night, at least for me, and I got the CC, regular carbon copy, box confused with the BCC box, and clicked the wrong one each time.

That’s an example of why I am brain-fasting. Every once in a while my brain, as well as my drain, gets clogged. I unclog by going for several days without thinking. About anything.

I listen to music. I don’t think about it; I just listen.

I look at the scenes around me. I don’t think about them, I just look. Winter is a great time for that, just looking. There is snow beyond the windows, and a tree with lights and ornaments in the living room. No thinking required.

I eat. Winter is a good time for that, too. Cookies. Meatloaf. Chili. Stew. No thinking, just the taste of comfort.

I watch TV, which requires no thinking at all.

I think I heard this story from Bob Hammel, the great Indiana sports writer: David Starr Jordan was president of Indiana University and also a great ichthyologist. [It’s called “ick” thyologist because fish are slimy.] He had a reputation for remembering names. If he met a freshman in the fall, he could still call that student by name in the spring. Leland Stanford hired him away from IU to be the first president of Stanford Univ. After he had been at Stanford for a while, he ran into an old colleague from IU. “Do you still remember the names of all the students?” the colleague asked him. “No,” said Jordan. “I’m at the stage of life where every time I remember a freshman, I forget a fish.”

I’m at that stage where I must brain-fast every once in a while, unclog. Winter is a good time for brain-fasting.

May the pleasures of an empty winter brain be yours,

Monday, December 13, 2010

Spirit of Gentleness

I watched the wonderful Concordia College [Moorhead, MN] Christmas concert on PBS Monday night. One song they performed was Jim Manley’s great “Spirit of Gentleness,” which is in a lot of hymnals, including one of the Methodist auxiliary hymnals, “The Faith We Sing.”

Jim is an old friend and credits me with giving him a big break. Along about 1969, when I was campus minister at The Wesley Foundation at Illinois State University, I came across his first album, an audio cassette, “Raggedy Band.” I thought it was the best theological music I had ever heard, especially the songs, “You’re Gonna Hear From Him Again,” and “What We’ve All Been Waitin’ For.” The Wesley Foundation had a special fund for special occasions. I decided I would use some of it to bring Jim to our campus, so everyone could have the great experience of hearing his music, in person. I didn’t know how far we’d have to bring him. He lived in Hawaii! He was the chaplain of a children’s home there. It’s a long way from Hawaii to Normal, IL.

But we sprung for a ticket. His brother and his wife, who lived in Kansas City and didn’t get to see him very often, for obvious reasons, drove up for the occasion. Jim stayed at our house, and his brother and his wife were hosted by Dr. Deverne Dalluge and his wife, Shirley. Deverne was the treasurer of our WF board. We should have done it the other way around, because we had a cat.

We had a new room in the basement of our little ranch house on Fairchild Ave. My brother, Jim, had helped me build it. I was very proud of it and wanted Jim Manley to spend the night there before his Sunday morning worship/concert at the ISU Union Bldg. Naturally, our cat, Princess, also wanted to spend the night there. We didn’t know Jim was allergic. He had a uniquely throaty and raspy voice for that concert, which I think made it even better, more authentic, sort of Johnny Cash meets Mr. Magoo.

Later, when I pastored at Arcola, IL, Jim’s aunt, Mary Nay, was a member of our congregation. I didn’t know about that connection until Jim was in town to visit her, saw my name on the outdoor bulletin board of the church, and stopped by the parsonage. Helen and I were out of town, but daughter Katie was there, and they had a great visit, in which he told her how his ISU concert, raspy cat-enhanced voice and all, when she was only about six years old, had opened up new opportunities for him. He had recorded songs, but no one had asked him to come perform before.

Jim always called Mary Nay “Uncle Mary,” because he had so many Aunt Marys that she had told him when he was a little boy, “Well, you can just call me Uncle Mary.” She was that kind of woman. A couple of years later, Jim and I did her funeral together.

Jim’s still writing great music, and he still has that special voice. I think Princess may have altered it forever.

Our grandchildren laugh at us and say, “Grandpa, you know EVERYBODY.” Well, yes, I know all the important people, and Jim Manley is the one with the great voice and the great lyrics. I’d like to have “Spirit of Gentleness” sung at my funeral, preferably by Jim, but if he’s not available, the combined Concordia Choirs will have to do.

May the spirit of gentleness be with you,

[You can learn more about Jim’s music, and even order it, at]

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Buttoned-down Signs from God

Bob Newhart and I are contemporaries. We came to adulthood when white shirts with button-collars and narrow ties were the new style. That’s why Newhart named his comedy “the button-down mind;” it indicated a particular age, a new form not only of collar but culture.

I am going this morning to Bay West [Community College] LIFE. LIFE means Learning is For Ever. Everybody there will be of and from the button-down generation, so I decided I would wear a white button-down shirt under my Christmas sweater. I have lots of white shirts, left over from a previous life, and no place to wear them, especially since their collars have shrunk and no longer fit my neck. Thus they go well under pull-over sweaters.

I noticed in the mirror that the buttons on the collar were not buttoned. I seriously considered leaving them that way. No one will see them under my sweater, anyway. Besides, it’s a sign from God. If God wanted those buttons fastened, then God would do something about it.

We do that in old age, look for signs from God. Old men wear three different plaids together because they were the next 3 garments up in the closet, and that is a sign from God that they should be worn together. Old women wear running shoes to church with the laces untied because if God wanted them tied, God would do something about it. Not caring what people think and not being able to reach our shoes has nothing to do with it—we’re just paying attention to the signs from God.

I fastened my collar buttons. You can’t be of the button-down generation if you’re not buttoned down. Still, that’s one of the blessings of old age: more time to pay attention to the signs from God.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On Being Chet Atkins

Christ in Winter is a reflection on faith from one who lives in a place that is defined by winter and who is in the winter of his years…

Hardly anyone listens to cassette tapes anymore. Players for them are not included in cars, or anything else. But I have quite a few tapes, and I have a player, so why not? So I’ve been listening to a tape of Chet Atkins Christmas music.

It reminds me of the time, a year or two before his death, that Chet was on a cruise. He was passing an empty room and saw a guitar, so he went in and started toodling around. Some folks heard him and stopped to listen. Finally one man said, “You’re pretty good, mister, but you’re no Chet Atkins.”

He had an idea, a wrong one, of how Chet should look and play. That happens a lot through our years. People have particular ideas of who and what we ought to be, and we try to live up, or down, to them.

Old age gives us a chance to slough off old identities that don’t really fit us. It gives us a chance to be who we really are.

That is salvation, for being anything than one’s true self is sin. That’s what sin is: separation—from God, from others, from our own true selves.

Old age provides a chance at wholeness, the wholeness of being our true selves.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Nickle and Dimed

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on faith in winter years from the Upper Peninsula, the place of winter…

Jimmie Franklin is a distinguished professor emeritus of American history at Vanderbilt Univ. He earned his PhD at Oklahoma. Before Vanderbilt, he taught for 16 years at Eastern IL Univ, in Charleston, where I was his pastor. We chatted one day about the roles of pastors and the church. He told this story:

He grew up in Moscow, MS. He won a basketball scholarship to Jackson State College, but when it came time to go, he couldn’t. He did not have the 35 cents necessary for the bus fare. His pastor went around town, borrowing nickels and dimes from members of his church, until he had enough money for Jimmie to go to college.

I hope that before they died that pastor and those church members knew how successful Jimmie became. In a way, though, it makes no difference. It’s hard to imagine a smaller arena for Christian witness than Moscow, MS, but that was the only arena those folks had in which to live their faith and so they did, one nickel, one dime at a time.

Sometimes we talk about being “nickel and dimed to death.” In Moscow, MS, a long time ago, there were people who were willing to nickel and dime a boy to life.

Friday, December 3, 2010


I just realized that I posted a Periwinkles Chronicles story on Christ in Winter. To make it worse, it was the 3rd part of a continuing story, so anyone reading Christ in Winter who does not also read Periwinkle Chronicles must have been mightily confused. I have now corrected that.

Christmas Contradictions

Christ In Winter: Reflections on faith from one who lives in the place of winter and the years of winter…

I went to Shop-Ko today. In a special bin of Christmas gift possibilities were both a pocket flask and an alcohol breath analyzer. I suppose they go together. If you drink from the flask, you ought to check your alcohol level before driving or doing surgery. Still, it struck me as a strange combination for a Christmas gift bin.

There are many strange combinations in life. There is an old saying that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” Of course, Christmas is itself a strange combination of Christian holyday and commercial extravaganza.

I think that is appropriate. Christians are called to be “in but not of the world.” We live in this strange world that is both sin-full and redeemed. We need to be able to celebrate the birth of Emmanuel, God-with-us, AT THE SAME TIME that we go to Shop-Ko to buy stocking stuffers.

I don’t think I’m going to get anyone a flask and a breath analyzer, though.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

How to Become More Interesting

Christ in Winter: Meditations from the UP, the place of winter, for people in their winter years…

Seymour Halford’s wife, Beverly, is a geriatric nurse.

“The great thing about that,” says Seymour, “the older I get, the more interesting I am to her.”

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Every-day Pleasures

What Helen calls the “every-day snow” is back here in the Upper Peninsula, here in the land of winter, those light and wandering flakes that don’t accumulate, but just wander on down. Along with the everyday snow of the land of winter come the everyday pleasures of the land of winter.

Such as the smell of coffee in the morning. You can get the smell of coffee at any time of year, of course, but in the winter, the house is closed up, tight, and the smells in the house are stronger.

So we receive anew the everyday pleasures of smell and taste—pumpkin pie, turkey, chili.

And the everyday pleasure of touch—the wrinkled cheek of someone with whom you’ve spent a long, long time, and the smooth cheek of a little person who has a long, long time yet to get wrinkled.

The everyday pleasure of sight, things we could not see in summer, but now in winter the branches are bare, and we can see right through to the playground, to the neighbor’s outdoor lights, the approach of the paper boy through the side yard.

The everyday pleasure of hearing, the closed windows barring the outside sounds, letting us hear the creaking of the steps, the tinkling of dishes in the kitchen, the distant melody of memory.

May the every-day pleasures of the winter be with you every day,

PS: As I get ready to post this, the every-day snow is turning into accumulating snow…and accumulating pleasures.