A Song I Can Sing

Music has always been my go to touchstone with God. Sometimes when the requisite reading of scripture doesn’t serve up the desired comfort/blessing/encouragement or (insert the current felt need here), worship music can usually connect with my spirit and bring a satisfactory satiation of that longing for contact with God.

That’s why the following experience rocked me in a way that caused me to evaluate my dependence on a song to make me feel good; to meet my needs.

It is so hard to face the fact that it’s not about me. It never has been but I act like it is. But can I go through the withdrawals and dependencies on a predictable formula for relationship with God without the hard work of investing time and honoring Him just because He is worthy. It is all about Him.


 

Church was nearly over. The pastor handed me songbook and asked me to find one to sing before dismissing the meeting. I opened the hymnal and proceeded to look for an appropriate closing song.

As I leafed through the pages I noticed that none of them were familiar to me. I didn’t know any of them! There were lots of songs. Many were old, old obscure hymns extolling the virtues of the faith. Some were deep theological truths set to music.

Others seemed to concentrate on the beauties of nature; how the robin’s song echoes the glories of God and creation shows His handiwork. But I couldn’t sing any of them because I didn’t know them.

By this time the pastor had slid onto the piano bench to accompany the singing. I turned to him. “I don’t know any of these songs; I can’t sing them,” I said.

“Oh, I know lots of songs from that book. There are some good ones,” he said.

“But I can’t sing them because I don’t know them,” I insisted. I looked again, but it was no use. Nothing was familiar;

I had no song that I could sing.

I woke up. A song that I knew well had been in my mind and heart for about a week. I found it on YouTube and played it.

Tears came quickly. This, this was a song I could sing. “To Him Who Sits on the Throne and Unto the Lamb, Be Blessing and Honor and Glory and Power Forever!”

My ability to find a song in life has usually been a process but never lost for long. With the ups and downs of typical spiritual struggles and victories, there have been those high, joyous experiences with God of emotional exuberance.

There have been times of wrestling with self and the dark night of the soul. In time though, the sun would break through and a song would lift me out of seeming despair.

Now here, at the ending of the service; perhaps a metaphor of the late summer of my life, I found myself unable to find a song. Except that the only song I can sing is one extolling His praises.

It is not one found in a codified hymnal disconnected from the realities of life. Not a song about God but a song to God.

It turns the attention away from me and the facts of what I know, or don’t know, and in spite of that gives praise to Him Who sits on the Throne.

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Storied Past – 21

“Is Pastor Marlowe home?”

A distinguished man stood on the porch. He was dressed well and looked important.

“Uh, yes; yes he is. Please come in. I’ll tell him he has a visitor. I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name,” Mary Elizabeth queried awkwardly.

“Oh no, my apologies. Please tell him Judge Parker would like a few moments of his time, if at all possible. Thank you, miss.” He stepped into the small entry.

“Of course; I’ll be right back.”

“Dad, there’s a Judge Parker here. He said he’d like to see you for a few minutes.”

“Judge Parker? Oh my; I wonder what he wants. Thank you, Mary Elizabeth. I will be right there.” Marlowe looked a bit rattled. “What in the . . . ?” he thought. He went out to greet the visitor.

“Judge, welcome. What brings you over today? I hope I don’t have an unpaid parking ticket.” Marlowe gave a nervous laugh. “Thank you, Mary Elizabeth. Could you give us a few minutes alone?”

“Pastor Marlowe! Great to see you again. It’s been a while. And is this Mary Elizabeth Hammberg, wife of Ed Hammberg?” he asked.

“Yes sir,” Marlowe answered. “That is, she is married to him, yes. What does that . . .”

“Oh, good!” the judge interrupted. “I’d love to have her be part of this conversation, if you don’t mind, Marlowe.”

“Well, does it concern her?” Marlowe was puzzled at this request.

“Actually, I believe it does, and should. May we sit down and talk someplace?” They gathered in the pastor’s office with the two residents wondering what this was all about.

“Thank you Pastor for giving me a few moments. I’ll get right to the point.” He paused for emphasis. “I’m sure you are both aware that Ed was involved in an accident a couple of weeks ago.”

“Yes,” Pastor Marlowe said. “I had heard something about that. Is he OK or did he wind up in jail?”

“Well, he is fine. No injuries that I am aware of. I assigned him some community service in place of incarceration. He has started that already. What I want to talk about though is why you, young lady, are living here with your parents and not with your husband. Did he mistreat you in some way or is there some other reason?”

“No, he has never hurt me. My father said . . .” She apparently thought better of the direction she was headed. “Well, Ed started drinking some and my father thought he might hurt me. He insisted, er . . . suggested that I come back home for a while.”

Marlowe butted in; “Well, I felt like he was developing habits that could cause problems down the road for Mary Elizabeth, Judge, so I . . . suggested that she come home until he got straightened out, that’s all.”

“Mmmm,” Judge Parker intoned. “But he never physically or verbally abused you or caused you to feel afraid?”

“No, never, Judge. He came home after work a little late sometimes and I know he had been to the pub but when he came home he usually just went to bed. A few times he seemed angry and spoke rough to me but he wasn’t mad at me. Seems like there was something bothering him, like he was angry about something or someone.”

“What do you think was bothering him, Mary Elizabeth?” The Judge probed a little, hoping to get to the bottom of this. He had known Ed since he was a pipsqueak and his family as well, so the recent behavioral acting out wasn’t adding up.

“Well . . . I’m not really too sure, Judge. I noticed it a little while after our wedding. We do still love each other so I don’t think he was sorry we married or anything.”

“You know folks; I’ve known the Hammbergs for many years. They have lived in the Valley for more than thirty-five years and have been a good, solid Christian family. Ed’s dad and I went to college together and I have been in their home many, many times. I watched Ed grow up with his two sisters. I saw how he treated them and the way he honors his parents. He has always given my wife and me the utmost respect. So his behavior the last little while really puzzles me. And, it seems to have started not long after he and you, Mary Elizabeth, were married.”

“Well, I . . . I don’t know. Yes, he, or rather it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me either.”

“Well, people change you know, and sometimes they aren’t always who you think they are,” Marlowe interjected with a hint of sarcasm.

Judge Parker looked directly at the pastor.

“Yes, that is true, Pastor, but they don’t usually change overnight like that unless there is a motivating factor in their environment. In Ed’s case, it seems like what he has been doing is some kind of coping mechanism for, as you pointed out Mary Elizabeth, some pain or disappointment he has been experiencing. My years of judicial experience and psychology training years ago have taught me to look deeper than the presenting misbehavior. Usually, there is a reason.”

Marlowe could hardly sit still. “Well I had counseling training when I went to Seminary, too. These kinds of behavior are, at the root, sin. So when someone goes out and gets drunk there is a simple answer; he or she needs to get saved!”

“Pastor Marlowe, I don’t think every situation is quite that simplistic. And, in my court room, I try not to rush to judgment but try instead to look behind the behavior for a cause. Sometimes folks just need a little understanding or someone to take the time to help them process through a past or present issue. Seems like that would be how you would operate in your position too, don’t you think, Pastor? Kind of like how Jesus did with everyone, except the religious elite?”

“Er, yes, of course. Like Jesus did. Right.” Marlowe realized he had been set up.

“And, going one step further, aren’t we all glad we didn’t get immediate judgment for our past sins and “mistakes?” Judge Parker looked directly at Marlowe again, hoping he got the implicit reference.

“Oh, absolutely, Judge, absolutely. I completely agree; couldn’t agree more. In fact, Mary Elizabeth and I were discussing their getting back together again right before you came. Right, sweetheart? We were just saying that it might be good for them to have another go at it; that he was needing help with his recovery. Yes, I completely agree.”

“Well now, that is good news, Pastor. Let me know if there is anything I can do in addition to the community service piece. I am looking forward to reconciliation and recovery for this couple. I believe that’s what God would want, don’t you agree?”

“Yes, your honor, yes I do. That’s what God would want. Amen.”

“Wonderful! I will excuse myself then. I am hoping the best for you two, Mary Elizabeth. Oh yes; there’s no need to share our conversation with Ed. He has enough to worry about right now. Good day!”

“Thank you Judge, thank you very much,” she mumbled.

Mary Elizabeth couldn’t quite grasp what had just happened. Stunned at the influence the judge apparently had and her father’s sudden reversal she wondered how, or what could cause her father to change his hard views so quickly. Did the judge elicit that much respect from Marlowe, or . . . or did the judge have some kind of power over her father? Did he know something? What was it?

– To Be Continued –

Storied Past – 17

The pain had slowly stolen back into Paul’s consciousness. He remembered the morphine drip and he pushed the button a couple of times.

Then he thought, “Maybe I could push it about twenty times; might solve a few other problems, too.”

That line of thinking caused him recall the confrontation with Ramona. She was right, he supposed. He had been a jerk, though that was so hard to admit for a man with an ego as big as his. He hoped that she would agree to listen to his . . . well; he didn’t quite know what to call it; confession was just too humbling a word.

The next morning, Ed Hammberg, the truck driver, was sitting in court waiting to talk to the judge about his version of the accident. He had “fortified” his courage with an adult beverage prior to arriving, contrary to his lawyer’s advice, but with his record, he figured was going to need all the help he could get.

Ed was Pastor Marlowe’s son-in-law and a long-time church attendee. Of course, there was a time when he was a Sunday school boy and knew all the Bible stories. He was fascinated by the flannel graph cutouts and loved the songs. Nobody else could sing I’m in the Lord’s Army and do all the motions as vigorously as he. But, like Ramona, he had rebelled against the pastor’s strong directives and his constant intervention in the smallest details of the lives of his congregation.

He was deeply struck by Marlowe’s daughter, however, and he played along with the whole system just so he could win Mary Elizabeth’s heart. Though a very pretty girl, no one ever suspected she had any thoughts of her own. She dressed very conservatively and tended to be introverted. With a strongly opinionated father, how else could she be?

Not very long after they were married, Ed started to miss church and within a year he had joined his work buddies at the nightly bar stop before going home. Mary Elizabeth, on the advice of her father, left him and moved back in with her parents. That only served to give Ed permission to engage in whatever he wanted. After a DUI last January, he slowed down for a while but resumed the plunge into self-destruction soon after probation.

Now, as his name was called, he moved to the front of the courtroom.

“Edward Hammberg?” The bailiff called out.

“Yes sir.”

“Well young man, you look familiar. When were you before me last?” the judge inquired.

“Uh, last January, sir,” Ed stated.

“Yes, I believe that’s right, and my record states that we had a conversation about alcohol abuse. How have you been doing with that? Are you attending those classes I sent you to?”

“Oh yes, sir. I went to all of them, sir. All ten weeks.”

Ed was a bit nervous about the question but had attended the AA classes faithfully through the probationary time.

“So then, tell me what happened on the 25th; last Wednesday evening.” Judge Parker prompted.

 

Becky and Ramona stood next to each other serving in the meal line at City Reach. As each person passed in front of her she placed a generous portion of scrambled eggs on their plate and gave them a smile. She also noticed that as the morning flew by she recognized the feeling of joy at participating in this act of kindness and that it energized her. In fact, it became a genuine, fulfilling activity that affirmed her in ways that little else had for a long time. This must be what Becky had referred to last night about becoming who she was wired to be.

She was also to be something else. Morning sickness seemed to be passing more easily but now she had noticed her body starting to exhibit physical signs of pregnancy. Standing that morning in front of Becky’s mirror she could see her profile was changing. The idea of motherhood was settling in to a certain degree and unlike her initial rejection, acceptance of this idea was truly a miracle.

“I don’t know Becky, but I’m thinking I might be able to do this mothering thing; that is, I think I might want to try.”

“I’m glad to hear that, Ramona. I’ll help but I believe you have the self-confidence inside you to raise a child once you’ve made that decision. You are a strong person, you know. Just look at how your conversation went with Paul. You showed your strong side!”

“Yeah, I kind of surprised myself there. But I was ticked and he needed to hear the truth. Of course, I guess I need to hear the truth about my own actions, too.”

Marona; I mean Ra-mo-na,” Marcy had just moved into view. “How’s your Dad doin’ today; how’s he doin’ I mean?”

“Good morning, Marcy! Well, I saw him last night and he fell asleep on me so I plan to get back after I’m done here. Thank you for asking.”

“Awright, that sounds good. Tell him I’m prayin’ for him, OK, I’m prayin’.”

Then Ramona said something she wouldn’t have dreamed of proposing six months ago.

“Would you like to go with me, Marcy, to see my Dad?”

“Yup, I would. Then I can pray for him myself! I’ll be waitin’; whenever you’re ready! I’m goin’ to the hospital to pray for her dad,” she told the man in line next to her. “He’s real sick!”

 

Ed finished his rehearsal of the night of the accident. The responding officer that night gave his report, which largely matched what Ed said. To the judge, the facts were pretty clear that Ed really was not at fault. However, since the judge knew Ed and his propensity for alcohol addiction, he decided an additional rehabilitation effort might be helpful. The judge knew Pastor Marlowe and a little of the home life situation of the Hammbergs and in his wisdom he had a brilliant idea.

“Mr. Hammberg,” he started, “your story and the officer’s story are close enough that I feel like this Mr. Paul Wieser, the victim in this incident, was primarily at fault here, even though you should have maintained control of your vehicle. I also believe that with your record and tendency to want to drive when you have had more alcohol than you should, you need a little accountability in your life. I will call your employer and have a conversation with him but I am assigning you some community service.”

Ed shifted on his feet.

“I am going to have you show up three days a week for three hours a day for a total of six weeks at the service organization, City Reach, down on Main. You can find it. Report back to me in six weeks and we will debrief. Understood?”

“Yes sir, your honor!” Ed replied.

“Next?” the judge queried.

Ed paused for a minute before shuffling off. What was this place? Six weeks? Talk to his boss? Little did he know what was in store for his and Mary Elizabeth’s future.

Storied Past – 16

“Do you know him?” Ramona whispered, not wanting the other bed to eavesdrop.

“Well he, I, I mean he was in the shop a few weeks ago and was hitting on me.”

“On you? Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure it was him. Wait, do you know him too?”

“Honestly, I wish I didn’t, but he,” she lowered her voice to where she was only mouthing the words. “He’s the one who attacked me that night, Becky!”

Becky’s face lost color as the news sunk in. “Yikes! That changes a few things.”

Ramona took Becky’s arm and led her out of the room.

“I have not seen this guy since that night, Becky, and I’m not going to let him get away again until I’ve straightened out a few things. I mean it. I feel like pushing his gurney back out into the street and letting that truck have another try!”

“I’m sure you do, Ramona, but look at it this way. Maybe God allowed this to happen to him so he could stop and think about life for a change.”

“I don’t know. What he’s been doing might be pretty hard to change. I mean, look, he charms all these women, has his way and then disappears. He gets what he wants and escapes any consequences. Pretty good gig, from his perspective.”

“Ramona, I know you will remember that there are rules about life; rules that say whatever you sow, you will reap. In other words, at some point, you can’t escape those consequences. It may be that now is that time.”

“Are you saying that because I left church looking to have fun; because I wanted to enjoy my friends and party that I deserved what I got? I didn’t deserve getting pregnant the first time I was with a guy and it wasn’t even my own choice! I was raped, Becky and he needs to pay for that, not me!”

The girl slowed down for a minute to let a nurse pass. Becky spoke up first.

“I’m just saying that along with pursuing justice there is also a bigger picture here. None of this took God by surprise. Not your legalistic background, not the early death of your mother, not your exploring the fun side of life and not the rape. The fact is He still and always has loved you, Ramona. You have been handed a challenging situation now and how you work through it will set the tone for the rest of your life.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, this guy hurt you deeply, I know. Even though your choices put you in a vulnerable place, his actions were very wrong. The facts at this point are that you are pregnant and whether you choose to have the baby or not, it will change your life from what you probably thought it would be.”

“That’s for sure!” Ramona sighed.

“So when I said it didn’t take God by surprise I mean He can accommodate any detours you may take on the way to becoming who you already are.”

“I’m sorry. That sounded pretty confusing, Becky. Becoming who I am? If I already am then why do I need to become that?”

“Ramona, you were born with gifts, a calling and a destiny. You are a unique, one-of-a-kind creation. You have dreams, passions and needs like we all do. But it takes time and opportunity to realize that calling and actually become who we were wired to be.”

“OK,” Ramona replied. “I think I am starting to get that. But how do you know all this stuff? I never heard it in church. I think we mostly were taught we had to become holy, stay holy and then . . . and then, well I don’t know what because I never made it that far. To be a Pastor or a Pastor’s wife was the highest achievement anyone could hope for.”

“That is a calling, but it is not the calling for everyone. There are so many places to serve God and each other and none is better or worse than another. The key is to find that calling you are passionate about and do it with excellence.”

“I guess I did an excellent job of screwing up my life. I wonder if I can ever undo the mess.”

“Ramona, there are some things that can’t be undone. The good news is that there is hope. Hope that despite the mess we may have made, God doesn’t throw up his hands in despair and say something like, ‘There you’ve gone and done something even I can’t fix, Ramona. Good luck, you’re on your own!’ He wants to be in your life and help you become who He created you to be.”

Ramona stared at the still life print on the wall behind Becky. It was faded from so many years hanging in this one spot. At one time the colors were brilliant and happy, but now they were all some varying shade of lavender, bleached yellow and faded red. It struck her that what she had become was a still life image without vibrancy.

Just a few months ago she thought the church couldn’t stop her and the whole world was waiting to show her a rocking good time. Filled with excitement to open each prettily wrapped “Box of Chocolates,” she quickly admitted naivete when one of the first boxes she opened contained a snake; which bit her badly.

She closed her eyes. A tear stole out from one side. Becky noted this and immediately asked God for direction in her response.

“Let’s go home, Ramona. We both need some rest.”

 

Driven by the wind, a steady rain started hitting the window by Paul’s bed rather hard. Along with the darkness, it accentuated the isolation that Paul was feeling. Here he was in this hospital bed; no one he knew was anywhere close and not really able to call anyone just yet.

His parents were divorced and his father moved to the east coast with a new bride. Within a few months, he passed away leaving his mother still in the small town 30 miles away. Paul’s job in sales brought him through Maple Valley every few weeks, which is why he ran into Ramona that night in the roadhouse.

He had few friends since leaving high school due partly to an itinerant work schedule. Craving the popularity he once enjoyed, he replaced the hard work of building quality relationships with manipulative encounters. His inattention to a proper work ethic and several bouts with too much alcohol had resulted in dismissal from his job a few days before the accident.

Truth be known, he had slipped into a depression. That foray into church a few nights before, though he didn’t realize it, was a desperate cry for some kind of help. He had heard about Jesus somewhere in the past but really had hoped to talk to some friendly face. If only he had seen one!

– To Be Continued –

Storied Past – 15

A look of fear and guilt pushed Paul’s eyes to maximum width. A deed of pure selfishness and utter wrong resurfaced in his mind. If it were other circumstances, he may have charmed his way out of the girl’s certain confrontation. But he could do nothing but lay there in captive submission to whatever she surely was about to unleash on him.

Ramona was so stunned no words came. An awkward awareness of the situation crept up into her brain along with the flush on her face. Paul, or at least that guy; the guy she had spent that evening with in the roadhouse and then . . . and then, well the awful hours and days that followed.

“Paul?” She whispered. “What . . . what happened to you?” She realized the immediate circumstances obviously dominated the initial conversation.

“I . . . I was going to call you.” He stammered out in a weak, muffled voice. “I . . . I’m sorry I . . . ”

“Mister, Paul, or whoever you are, don’t even.” Ramona said in a measured but strong, quiet voice. “I asked you what happened, that’s all. Can you at least give me enough respect to answer me with a little straight truth?” She was gaining confidence with every syllable.

“I’m sorry: yes, I can.” He started to really grasp the vulnerability of his position in this unexpected encounter. There was no way to run even if he wanted to.

“Well, I was walking across the street in an unlighted crosswalk and got hit by some idiot’s truck.”

“Hmmmm.” Ramona breathed. Her mind went to all sorts of responses she could have spat out, like, “Yeah, I did too,” or, “I think the idiot was in the crosswalk,” but to her surprise, she restrained herself.

“Is anything broken?” She kept it practical.

“Well, my chest hurts, my head is wrapped as you can see, and my left leg is in some sort of a cast, I think.”

“Ramona.”

Mr. Beckett called softly from the next bed. “Ramona, could you step over here for a minute?”

Ramona moved around the curtain again to face her father.

“Dad, that is the guy,” she whispered. “The guy I met before . . . I mean, he’s the guy who attacked me. What do I do?”

“Serious? You mean he’s the baby’s father?” Beckett whispered too.

“Yes,” she whispered back. “I know it’s him. What should I do?”

“Well,” he started, “well he’s not going anyplace soon, that’s for sure. We have time to figure it out.”

That was one thing about her father she really respected. He was wise about things. She knew he could analyze and process things very well and he always seemed to come to good decisions about hard situations. Well, except for that irrational outburst in the mercantile store. That was really so unlike his regular demeanor. Church stuff made him act irrational too, though. She had to say that.

“Ramona?” Now the other bed was calling. “Ramona, I . . . I really am sorry. I hope we can have a conversation when I get better. I want to, I mean I’ve been thinking, I mean before this accident, that I need some help. I have been messed up and something has to change. Would you . . . be willing to talk to me, I mean in spite of what I did to you?”

“Mister, I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it. But you aren’t going anywhere soon and I know where you are and I intend to have a short conversation with you, along with somebody like Officer Riley.”

“Really? You would really do that? I know I deserve it. Never mind; just never mind. I mean, please, can’t we just talk first?

“Well, mister, the last time we talked you charmed my pants right off me and that will never happen again!” She spat this out with a venomous edge to her voice now.

“I know, and the drug was totally wrong, too. But that’s what I want to talk about. I . . . well, I need you to know that I wish I could do that night differently. You are such a great girl and I so took advantage of you, I’m . . . I’m such a toad.”

This last sentence seemed to take a great effort to get out of Paul. He looked drained. The whole shock of seeing Ramona in this context and him in such a vulnerable position weakened him physically and emotionally.

Ramona looked at him with a truck load of skepticism. “I will be back. You can be sure of that,” and moved back to the other side. Her father had drifted off to sleep again so she sat down in the worn, plastic overstuffed chair to think. It was 8:25 pm.

Becky had quickly closed the coffee bar. The whole bizarre narrative that Ramona had reeled off earlier has occupied her mind all evening. Fact is, she had to remake a few drinks because she didn’t seem to be able to focus.

What a story! The whole part about the Edith angel, though a strange tale, was entirely in the realm of God activity. After all, hadn’t she and Jeremy prayed for an intervention no matter what or how?

Locking up, she hurried down the street toward the hospital. It was possible Ramona was still visiting her father and she wanted to be there for her.

And what about that guy in the next bed? She wanted to tell Ramona about him, too; that she thought she had encountered him in her coffee store.

The hospital elevator was so slow! But after an eternity and a stop on the second floor to let on an entire entourage of family from the second floor maternity ward, the elevator groaned to a stop on the third.

Confusion from the family about having gotten on the “Up” elevator when it should have been the “Down” caused the doors to open and shut several times before she could wriggle out through the crowd.

“Excuse me, I need to get out. Thank you.” Finally free, she hurried down the corridor to 314.

“Ramona? Oh, good, you’re still here.”

“Hey Becky, guess what? I have to tell you something!”

“Well, I have to tell you something,” Becky insisted.

“The guy in the next bed . . . ,” they both said at once.