Friday, November 29, 2013

Joy Bells

As a teenager, my dad took us to a small church across town on Sunday evenings.  When I say small, that is what I mean.  There would be about a dozen people, and seven were my family.  The rest were over the age of seventy. 
They were sweet people and they loved to have us join their Sunday evening routine.  We would open our hymn books and the pastor would take favorites.  My sister would accompany on the piano as we picked the same handful of songs.  Despite the age of the group, it was not unusual for us to sing “Arky, Arky” and strain our voices to reach the high notes of “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.”
After we were sung out, Pastor Dana would preach to us and then the “whole church” would go to Denny’s. 
I remember all the members of that small congregation.  Best of all, I remember the pastor’s wife, Louise Dana.
I first met Mrs. Dana when I was in kindergarten and I had liked her then.
She always dressed smartly.  Her two inch pumps would match her dress and her chunky earrings would match her necklace.  She was pleasantly plump—she didn’t bother with any diet that came between her and a banana split.   And she had an amazing laugh.  She laughed loud and she laughed often.  Wherever she was would be a party.
When we started attending some ten years later, Mrs. Dana had not changed a bit and probably neither had the evening routine. Mrs. Dana knew the staff at Denny’s by name and they knew her.  We would talk and laugh and she would eat a banana split. 
Then came the news that Mrs. Dana had Lou Gehrig’s disease.  I didn’t quite believe it--she was so full of life and I just couldn’t imagine her anything but her boisterous self.  But she seemed to handle the news well.  She would be there every Sunday evening happy. 
The effects of the disease came on gradually.  Her speech became a little slurred and she became less mobile.  We never talked about it at church.  Everyone knew; we just didn’t know what to say.  Things stayed at their “normal” routine, “Wonderful Grace of Jesus” and all.
Her speech continued to get more slurred although she tried hard to communicate.  When we couldn’t understand, we’d nod and smile.  The evening outing to Denny’s just wasn’t the same though when the boisterous storytelling was replaced by a few laborious phrases.  Her mind was still sharp, but everything she wanted to say and every laugh she wanted to laugh was trapped inside and it couldn’t get out.
Then one week we got a new hymn request— “Joy Bells.”  And she requested it every week after that.  It started, “You may have the joy bells ringing in your heart and the peace that from you never will depart…” 
Mrs. Dana couldn’t sing, but she started bringing a bell to church on Sunday nights and she would ring it every time we said “joy bells” and at the end of every line of the chorus.  It was her way of letting us know that even though she could no longer laugh, she still had joy in her heart.
One bell was not enough.  She brought two…then three…then four…and each week she would ring her bell to make her request and make us ring the bells as we sang.  Honestly, it wasn’t very musical.  But from Mrs. Dana it was joyful.
Time continued to waste away and so did Mrs. Dana.  She had her husband bring Krispy Kreme donuts to church because it was all she could eat and she wanted to share them.  Even on a Krispy Kreme diet, she was now less than 90 pounds.  She would sit silently in the pew and when we said hello to her, she would do her best to give a slight nod.  But when we sang her song, she would ring her bell.  That was all she had left. 
When I rang my joy bell, it was neither musical nor joyful.  I would be too choked up to sing.  I felt strongly for this dear woman whose body could no longer communicate in the ways she loved best.
Or maybe it did.  I doubt any of us who knew Mrs. Dana will ever forget the joy that was her strength in the most difficult of circumstances.  She expressed it in a means and with a fervency that none of us will ever forget. 
That was probably 16 years ago, and I haven’t sung “Joy bells” since her funeral.  But I’ve thought of it many times—always with the collection of souvenir handbells ringing in the background.  And I know that in heaven, Mrs. Dana is talking and laughing again.  And on earth, her memory is reminding us that despite our circumstances, we’ve been instructed to “rejoice always.”  Even when you cannot talk and cannot laugh—no excuses.  Find yourself a bell and let the world know that you are joyful—even when it is through tears.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving Thanks
Four Days.  I had just been given an unexpected and incredible four days off work.  And I was going to use them by staying home—something I haven’t done much this year. 
It’s been a tremendous year—I’ve had some of the most inspiring highs and devastating lows.  I’ve moved.  I’ve traveled.  I’ve worked.  I’ve played.  I’ve been blessed to have three hundred and some days of 2013 and most of them have been absolutely packed full.
So these four days at home were badly needed—badly enough that I turned down the family invitations to travel for Thanksgiving.  I have had furniture sitting unassembled in a box for four months.  I have checkbooks that needed to be balanced, bills that needed to be filed, a car that needed to be cleaned, purchases that need to be returned…the list goes on.  In fact, I made four lists, one for each day—law, real estate, “Remember,” and personal stuff.  And I planned to start with the list I would enjoy the least and work to what I would enjoy the most—just to make sure it all got done.
That meant that Day One would be spent at the office.  I had a long list of projects backed by promises to clients.  Without the phone ringing, with less e-mail and other interruptions, I would be able to make a serious dent in the list. 
I was up at my normal time on Wednesday, had an extra-long devotions, worked out, and was at the office a few minutes before 8:30 in blue jeans for the first of my four days “off.”
By 11:30, I had accomplished nothing.  Not one thing was crossed off my list.  But I still had a lot of daylight left and I was sure that over the course of the afternoon, I would be able to wrap up some of the things I had started.  
By noon, I could tell I had an obnoxious headache coming on.  I wasn’t ready to give up on the day, but I was going to have to take some medicine and try to rest until it kicked in.
Unfortunately, this was one of those times that pain killers killed nothing but brain cells.  I dragged myself back to the computer and wrapped up a few promised projects.  But I was good for nothing else.  Even if I could force myself to continue staring at the computer screen, no one would want to pay for the use of my brain.
So, it was about 4:00 in the afternoon when I put on my pajamas and crawled into bed—a cold compress on my head and the hopes that at some point, sleep would give me some relief from the tight burning sensation in my head that rendered my entire body useless.
One painful minute ticked into the next.  My phone buzzed with calls and text messages but I couldn’t even open my eyes to reply.  All I could do was lie there and be miserable.  So much for my lists.  Day One was a dismal failure.
My mind continued to run through the lists of things that I NEEDED to get done with my long weekend.  I was more and more overwhelmed by the minute.  And I could do nothing.  Not even send a text message.
I crawled out of bed to grab head phones and set my phone to play worship music.  I could do nothing except worship.  And I realized almost immediately that of all of the things in the world that I needed to get done over Thanksgiving, worship should have been at the top of my list. 
I soon found myself singing along with Kristyn Getty and Laura Story.   The peaceful strains of “Be Still and Know” convicted my Martha heart.  The quiet confidence of “Bow the Knee” nearly brought tears to my eyes and so did the timely lyrics of “Come Weary Saints.”  The creative levity of “Don’t Let me Miss the Glory” caused me to raise my hands in the dark.  I felt inspired by the Ball Brothers’ “It’s About the Cross” and humbled by the now “old song” “Make me a Servant.”    Charles Billingsly’s “The Pleasure of My King” helped me keep perspective as my head throbbed and my mind was tempted to wander back to frustration of not being able to get up.    
One by one, the songs spoke to me, making me increasingly grateful for my migraine.  It reminded me of the Sunday School lesson I had given on Sunday, something about giving thanks in everything.  I may be the only one who remembers the lesson, but if there is only going to be one, let it be me. 
I’m thankful for this migraine that turned my heart of tasks into a heart of worship.  I’m thankful for a God who gives us weaknesses on purpose so that we will accomplish His purpose.

“Rejoice evermore.  Pray without ceasing.  In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” I Thessalonians 5:16-18