Tag Archives: Jesus

Dust And Ashes

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There’s a reason God made us out of dirt…

Having been raised in the United Methodist Church, I am familiar with the season of Lent and the tradition of self-denial many Christians observe as we remember the final days of Christ’s earthly ministry and His journey to the cross.  Year in and year out, whether I’ve been active in a church or not, Lent has always been a special time for me as I remember Who Jesus is, and who I am.

What I am.

This year I am singing and serving in a Lutheran church, and their observance of Lent includes elements I had never experienced before, including The Imposition of Ashes, a portion of the Ash Wednesday service in which the pastor or priest takes ashes and makes the sign of the cross on the foreheads of those who wish to receive them.  The ashes came with the scriptural reminder that,  “… thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.”  (Genesis 3:19)  Receiving the ashes proved to be an overwhelming moment for me, and as I returned to my seat, quiet tears crawled down my cheeks as I contemplated the coming season of Lent and the nature of Christ’s sacrifice for me. No amount of self-denial I exercise during Lent can make me truly understand the magnitude of that sacrifice…and that is not what Lenten self-denial is meant to accomplish anyway.  My self-denial helps me to be more mindful of Who He is.

And what I am.

I am dust, and to dust I am going to return.  Genesis tells us that God took the dust of the ground, breathed life into it and it became Man.  Without God’s breath of life in me, I am only dust.  A collection of chemicals, elements and water.  Someone once analyzed the monetary worth of a human body based upon its chemical/elemental makeup, and that value was something along the lines of $5, including our skin.  A fascinating and humbling prospect.

I’ve always believed there is a reason God made us out of dirt. If He had chosen gold or jewels to make humankind, we might feel overly confident in the intrinsic value of our substance.  Acknowledging that God made us from the dust of the earth, breathing His Spirit into us to give us life, we can realize where our value really comes from, if we choose to.  I am grateful that my substance is frail dust, and that my true worth is what God has breathed into me.

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Old Scores

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Musicians’ tools of the trade…

This past weekend was a musical extravaganza for me, very busy and extremely rewarding.  Knoxville Choral Society and Chamber Chorale, accompanied by members of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, performed our annual Fall Concert on Saturday evening at the historic Bijou Theatre downtown, and presented an encore performance Sunday afternoon at the Community Church in Tellico Village.  I was indeed blessed to take part in these concerts and to have been chosen as a soloist.  I no longer take these blessings for granted because I know my days as a soloist are limited. I’m getting older every second, after all, and nothing lasts forever. 

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Between those performances I also had the communion solo for two church services.  So it was a very busy weekend, and I will admit that by the time it was all finished, I was pretty worn out.  Still, this kind of activity gives me much more than it takes out of me.

Part of the concert program was the Christmas portion of Handel’s “Messiah”, a familiar and beloved sacred choral and orchestral work, and a demanding one.  My “Messiah” score is the one I have used for every performance I have ever done since college.  It is 31 years old.  I purchased it as a college freshman because my voice teacher wanted me to learn some of the soprano solos in it, and even though we did not perform “Messiah” that year, he knew I’d need the score for the next year (and for the rest of my life!).  So he told me to go ahead and buy it.  It may be the single most-used piece of music I own to this day.

Even when I have sung portions of the work with church choirs that used a different edition, I have always used my own score.  It is old and worn, with some dog-eared page corners and rusty marks from paper clips of years gone by, like little scars on the page.  It contains markings from the conductors I’ve worked with and from the voice teachers who have coached me, as well as my own unique system of symbols and notes to remind myself to watch, to straighten my tone, to shape a phrase or to raise my eyebrows so I don’t go flat.  It’s a sort of shorthand developed over decades.  I have my own language of markings, and every other musician I know has theirs as well.  It’s as unique as a fingerprint, and just as personal.

As I have asserted before, I am a collector, of objects and of memories, and I am sentimental about all of them.  My “Messiah” score is much more to me than a piece of music.  It is Scripture set to music, the story of Jesus in types and shadows, and as substance and promise fulfilled.  It is also a sort of scrapbook, a memory album of the many times I have raised my voice to offer the gift God gave me back to Him, alone as a soloist and with a chorus of other musicians.  So much more than words and notes on paper, my ‘Messiah” score is a trusted friend, filled with my memories of musical offerings past and dreams of the ones yet to come. 

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His Eye Is On The Sparrow

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Why I collect feathers…

Yesterday I took the dog to the vet for a quick checkup, and as we were leaving, I spotted a beautiful, large bird feather on one of the shrubs outside the office.  With great joy I said, “Look, Roy!  It’s another feather for Mama!”  I am a collector, of objects and of memories.  I don’t remember exactly how my feather collection began, or even when, except that it was several years ago.  And it is not as though I have an organized system for keeping and viewing them, or for documenting when I found each one.  I tend mostly just to stick them in books or my Bible (along with the occasional pressed flower or leaf), although I have included a few in art projects and used some to make bookmarks.  Someday when I am long gone, others will inherit my books and find my collected feathers inside as a little surprise. I hope they will get a smile from them.

I know that these feathers come from birds, but I still like to imagine that they are dropped from the wings of some guardian angel that God has placed along my path.  A childlike notion, but a comforting one just the same.  God knows we all have moments when we need comfort, and I believe He sends us comforts that speak to us where we are, in a language we  can understand.

In telling his followers not to worry about the future or things they could not control, Jesus explained that God has numbered the very hairs on our heads, and not even a sparrow falls to the ground without The Father’s knowledge.  And He values us much more than many sparrows.Image

An old gospel hymn simply and sweetly reminds me of this promise, and I can’t remember whether I learned the song or the Bible passage first.  Both of them seem ingrained in my consciousness since before I can remember.  The chorus of the hymn explains my life, testimony and reason for singing better than anything I could have written myself:

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“I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,  For His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me.”

Indeed, nothing in my life is beyond His watchful, loving care.  He sees when I am hurting, or joyful or at loose ends.  He sees my frustration and fear.  And sometimes, He places a feather in my path to remind me that He is looking out for me.

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Little Pink Bible

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Jesus, girl power and a funeral

One of my favorite treasures is my little pink Bible. It was a gift from Mom and Pop Cutshaw for Christmas one year. I had been wanting a small, pocket-sized Bible that I could carry everywhere with me, for quick reference and portability. It has my first name embossed on the front in shiny silver letters.

I sometimes wonder if I own too many Bibles, and if that could be a sin somehow. It might be different if I didn’t read them, but since I do, maybe it is OK that I have so many. I have several different translations because they help me to understand what I am reading. I have a few Bibles that belonged to Mama, and they won’t be going anywhere until I have died and someone passes them along to the next generation, probably filled with poems, clippings and pictures, like they were when they came to me. I have several One-Year type Bibles that I use for daily reading, again in various translations that I alternate year by year. And yes, I read it daily. It’s a discipline that has taken shape over the years and now it is as much a part of my life as breathing and food. And just as nourishing.

I am not a minister in the official-trained-ordained sense of the word, but I took a ministry class last year which opened my eyes to all kinds of spiritual service and allowed me wonderful opportunities to offer pastoral care to people in need. Many friends and family members supported me in seeking this opportunity and in fulfilling it once I was accepted into the program. My cousin, Judy, was a very vocal believer in this process and in my efforts to learn through it.

Toward the end of last year, Judy’s mama, Betty, succumbed to years of health problems and passed away in December. Because of my recent ministry experience, and because she loves me, Judy asked me if I would serve as chaplain and preach her mama’s graveside service. After I made sure that it was permissible for me to do so, I accepted this invitation with joy and deep gratitude.

What an incredible honor…and responsibility. Judy and I met at a coffee shop to talk about memories from Betty’s life, favorite scriptures, poems, even a funny story or two to share both laughter and tears at the graveside. Betty had an independent streak and had been quite the feminist in her lifetime, a trait that sometimes made for awkwardness between her and her husband, Crawford, on election day. She cast her last ballot in the Presidential election of 2012, an absentee ballot from the hospital, and quipped that finally Crawford, who had passed away in 2011, would not cancel out her vote! Politics aside, Betty and Crawford both spent their lives serving Jesus and living by the principles He taught, each in their individual ways.

It was cold the day we buried her, and I showed up at the cemetery in all black from head to toe, except for one thing. I conducted her graveside service using my little pink Bible. Judy said that would have pleased Betty very much, the pop of pink and the girl power of a female chaplain. As I read from that little pink Bible, my thoughts were of Betty and our family, and of all the ones who have gone to Heaven before us. And I gave thanks for Mom and Pop Cutshaw, who had given me this wonderful gift so many years ago, a gift that helped me to send off my beloved family member with laughter, tears and prayers.Image