Friday, November 26, 2010

Five Kernels of Corn


If you visited any grocery market this week, you knew Thanksgiving approached. Crowded aisles. Full carts. Smiles exchanged. Shoppers looked for everything from poultry and pumpkin spices to turkey trussing twine. Near me, two men dressed in work clothes had a cart full of cooking oil and told me they were frying a turkey at their shop that day. They pointed to a stack of yams and asked, “Is that a sweet potato?” I hope their turkey and trimmings turned out tasty.

The festive atmosphere in the market got me in the mood to refresh my knowledge of the first Pilgrims in our country. Their history of sharing among those-who-had and those-who-had-not helped created one of our countries favorite holidays, Thanksgiving.

On September 6, 1620, the Mayflower made its way from Plymouth, England to Cape Cod, where the first Pilgrims stepped ashore on November 11 of that year. During the two months aboard the ship, the 102 passengers experienced both hardships and hope.

Other than the usual seasickness, the first half of the voyage was smooth sailing. At the well documented site tells of one sailor who ridiculed the passengers “cursing them daily” saying he looked forward to throwing their dead bodies overboard. The first crew or passenger to fall ill was that sailor, his curse falling back on himself.

Aboard the Mayflower, three wives were pregnant, and Mrs. Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth at sea, and named her son Oceanus. The second month of the sea trip found the crew and passengers in danger as they encountered many storms. Twenty-five-year old John Howland, thrown overboard when the ship rolled, grabbed a topsail rope and hauled himself back toward the ship where the crew hoisted him aboard with a boathook. Two of the passengers perished with colds before the ship sighted land. Others died the next winter.

Early 1600 explorers found Native Americans hospitable and friendly, willing to trade and share what they had, until greedy men captured some of the natives taking them as slaves. Captain Thomas Hunt captured 24 Native Americans to take back to Spain. One of those later nicknamed “Squanto” learned English and arrived back in America just before the Pilgrims. “Squanto” negotiated trading and a sort of peace between the Europeans and the hostile natives, but he too succumbed to greed and began taking bribes.

The Native Americans while mainly hunters and gatherers grew patches of corn, beans, and squash to supplement their diets. In abundance, wild strawberries were gathered and made into cornmeal-strawberry bread. And the Pilgrims eventually learned from their adept neighbors to catch eel and use fish to fertilize their rows of corn.

At the Bi-Centennial of the Landing of the Pilgrims in 1820, a speech given by Daniel Webster told of the many hardships the Pilgrims suffered during their first two years. But he also recalled the neighborliness of natives and others who traded or sent food to the hungry Pilgrims, who sometimes got by on rations of four or five kernels of corn a day.

By the spring of 1623, after two dismal harvests, the Pilgrims had better learned how to plant their crops but in June a six week drought ensued. The Pilgrims met on a clear-skied July morning and prayed for rain for nine hours. The next day it rained. Winslow reported that the sky "distilled such softe, sweete and moderate showers…as it was hard to say whether our withered corne or drooping affections were most quickened and revived."

That fall, the Pilgrims had their best crop ever and didn’t face starvation again. Some current families adopted the tradition of placing five kernels of corn by each Thanksgiving place setting and then each diner takes turns naming five things for which they are thankful.

Milton Jones, representative of Christian Relief Fund, recently wrote after returning to the USA from poverty stricken and war torn Liberia, “If you were born in our country in history at this time, it’s like winning the cosmic lottery. No people in history have been as blessed as we are. I’m not saying that to make any of us feel guilty, but it should make us feel grateful.”

Happy Thanksgiving, dear readers. I’m counting my five pieces of corn and giving thanks, and you are among my five blessings.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

When the Cliche Becomes Music

Because I really, really like words, I enjoy reading about what inspired a speech, a novel, a work of art, or a hymn. An overheard conversation, a sighting, a “chance” meeting, one moment in time – within all lie numerous possibilities when an artist grips them and works more volume into the inspiration.

Here’s how a beloved old hymn was borne of a casual remark, in fact it ushered from an old cliché. Joseph Philbrick Webster, an accomplished musician, enjoyed composing music for the general population. Born in 1819, he grew up in the east, where he was a member of the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston, Massachusetts (a musical society founded in 1815. Sill in existence, its original creation was to perform old and new music).

As many young men in his day, he migrated until he settled in Elkhart, Wisconsin. There, he met up with a Doctor Bennett, whose hobby was writing verse. For years, they partnered in writing songs for the general public, Dr. Bennett wrote the lyrics and Mr. Webster wrote the music. Because his medical practice kept him busy, Doctor Bennett didn’t produce any much verse as Mr. Webster would have liked, and the lack of lyrics often left the composer Webster without employment and personal gratification.

At these times, Webster tended to get melancholic with short bouts of quiet and sadness until he paired his tunes to more of the doctor’s lyrics. Many such days found him arriving at the doctor’s office, hanging his violin and hat on a peg and warming self by the potbellied stove in hopes that the doctor had produced more verse.

On an autumn day in 1867, Webster walked into Bennett’s office. Out of habit he hung his hat and violin on the peg. Seating himself, he said nothing. The doctor immediately recognized from his friend’s gloomy disposition that he was depressed again, “What’s the trouble now?”

“Oh nothing,” Webster answered dismally, “Everything will be all right by and by.”

Dr. Bennett went to his desk where he wrote prescriptions and said aloud, “By and by. That sweet by and by.”

The two friends looked at each other with that knowing look that says we may have something here. Dr. Bennett picked up his pencil and paper and began to write. While he wrote, two other men from the town dropped in to chat and joined Webster around the potbellied stove. Within half an hour, Dr. Bennett had written three stanzas and the chorus of a hymn.

Webster plucked his violin from the peg and in less time than it took the good doctor to write the inspired words, Webster had his tune. The four men formed a quartet and sang the new hymn, and within an hour of Webster uttering the casual cliché “by and by,” a hymn was born. Webster’s melancholy fled as the lyrics fed his soul and his composer-work restored his purpose in life.

Here’s a stanza, “There’s a land that is fairer than day, and by faith we can see it afar; For the Father waits over the way to prepare us a dwelling place there.” I wonder how many times Webster’s casual remark has been sung over the years? How many times has it brought comfort (strength)? “In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore; In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore.”

Working with likable people. When music lifts up your soul. The comfort of a friend. As we approach the Thanksgiving Holiday, watch for those times when acts of charity come your way in singles, duet, trio, or even quartet. The apostle Paul encouraged his readers to give “thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Especially take the time to give thanks when conditions arrange something better than you expected -- when the cliché becomes music.

Contact Cathy at

Friday, November 12, 2010

Cling, Commander in Chief, and "nearly out"

Two of my favorite stories hale from past Commanders in Chief of our country and in honor of veterans I share them with you.

Ulysses S. Grant served as our 18th president from 1869-1877. A single man, he arrived at the home of the woman he was courting, Julia Dent. Her family, soon departing to attend a wedding, asked him to join them. In a buggy with Julia, they came to an overflowing creek and a “rickety” bridge. Mr. Grant assured her that all would be well saying, “Now, now. Don’t be frightened.”

“I’m terribly afraid. I’m going to cling to you no matter what happens,” Julia said. And she grasped his arm and wouldn’t let go until they were safely across the bridge. After they crossed, Julia said, “Well, I clung to you didn’t I, Ulysses?”

“You certainly did.” After a moment of silence, he turned to her and said, “How would you like to cling to me for the rest of your life?” Apparently Julia was keen on the idea for they married in 1848. (quotes from Paul F. Boller’s “Presidential Anecdotes”).

The second story is one supposedly told by Abraham Lincoln, and I read it in Carl Sandburg’s “The War Years.” Of course many tales are attributed to Lincoln that probably didn’t originate with him. But he did find comfort in storytelling, especially ones that involved humor. With the burden of the presidency, the Civil War, and his heavy involvement in military strategy, he said one evening that he imagined himself to be “the most tired man in the world.” Humor helped him take a mini-escape from the load he carried.

He told of a “backwoods housewife” with a whole passel of ragtag children playing in her front yard. A wandering preacher came by and tried to sell her a Bible. She took offense at his questions: Shouldn’t every home have a Bible? Did they even own a Bible?

She replied in a sharp tone that of course they owned a Bible. But the overbearing preacher expected her to prove her claim. She hunted in her strewn house and found no Bible. She called in her army of children and they too searched. At last, one of the urchins found a few tattered pages of “Holy Writ” in a cluttered corner and held them up in triumph to the preacher.

The man harrumphed at the wrinkled and bent pages. How could they even think those few pages to be a Bible? The stubborn woman remained firm, and fortified her claim saying, “But I had no idea we were so nearly out!”

The two stories from men behind the rank of President of the United States captured my mind with several phrases and words this week – cling, commander in chief, and the woman who didn’t know she was “nearly out” of the Bible.

I recently read about a northern church in the United States, a congregation of people from Ghana, who relish this new found freedom of worship. This church hopes to bring about a revival of Christianity in their community and across this land. Our forebears saw the wisdom of freedom in worship and speech. They recognized and fought so that we could be assured natural human rights, and Jesus declared that real freedom begins in him, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:31-32). The creator of our bodies, minds, and souls will always be our best govern for private and public behavior.

In everyday circumstances and when we are in trouble, our Father, remains bigger than our lives. He “clings” to us! When we cross rising creeks, God shores up rickety bridges and sees us safely to sound shores here or beyond. He remains our Commander in Chief throughout life, and, praise God, he isn’t subject to elections and four-year-terms.

Want to find out more about this best-of-all Commander in Chief? Rummage around in God’s Word and discover comfort in his forever presence. And a Bible at hand – that means you will not be caught “so nearly out.”

Friday, November 05, 2010

Acting in a Name

The first man Adam had a tough job description when God asked him to name the animals. Some of us had trouble naming two kids, much less a herd of mammals, a flock of birds, and all the little fishes in the deep blue sea.

Have you ever wondered why your parents named you what they did? One time I asked and my mother said that she and Dad liked the name “Catherine.” My mother commented before I was born, “We could name her Catherine and call her Cathy.”

My dad answered, “Just name her Cathy.” So, I received that name at birth and later found that it means “pure one.” Where did your name come from? Does a bit of family history accompany it? We named our son after his great grandfather and his middle name is carried by at least three ancestors. Our daughter also received a variation of a family name.

Through the ages, babies received names connected to events which happened around the time of their birth or conception. More than a few infants were named after hurricanes, presidents, or pop stars. Sometime around the fourteenth century, people began to populate the earth to the extent that additional last names were needed. In medieval England, three out of five men had the name, William, Henry, Robert, John, or Richard. That’s about the time surnames became helpful.

Most people received their family names in one of four ways. A last name could come about by adding the word “son” to their father’s name (called patronymics), such as Peterson, Adamson, or Hanson. Second, people were identified by the landscape where they lived such as Hill, Woods, Glen, or Wells. Third, an occupation could help identify people such as Cartwright, Shoemaker, Baker, Boatwright, or Carpenter. Finally, last names derived from a distinguishing characteristic, personality, nickname, or nationality, Lightfoot, White, Brown, Christian, Whistler, Smiley, French or Norway.

To me, a few parents showed a flight of imagination or fleeing of their senses when they named their daughters: Crystal Chanda Leir, Hedda Lettuce, and Paige Turner. Perhaps parents wanted to toughen up their sons by naming them Rufus Leaking, Pete Moss, Terry Dactyl, and Stu Pid.

Statisticians say that children with weird names often learn to cope better than others. I don’t know if that’s true, but I remember Johnny Cash’s song, “A Boy Named Sue,” suggested that a girl name would build brawny character. But I think the more reliable people in a family should choose a baby’s name rather than anchor a child with a name like “Tulula Does The Hula From Hawaii.” True story. The girl was made a ward of the court, so they could find a proper name for her.

Every day, we act in our own name and sometimes in the name of others. I have a POA (power of attorney) on file with the IRS, so that I can inquire and pay taxes in my husband’s name. Bible hero David sent servants on a mission to Nabal asking for food in payment for their security services during sheep sheering, and the messengers announced their arrival in “David’s name.” (1 Sam. 25:9).

As the bride of Christ, the church received Christ’s name, and each disciple of Jesus is linked through his name and receives authority to act in his name. “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

At the moment of this writing, Earth’s population calculates at 6,856,688, 805 (according to Even though we are most often identified by our name, may you distinguish and be distinguished by the name of Jesus. With his help, may we do our best to live up to his name, at which one day “every knee shall bow” (Philippians 2:10).

Eugene Field wrote a ditty about names, “Father calls me William / Sister calls me Will / Mother calls me Willie / But the fellers call me Bill.” People may tag us with many names and nicknames, but when our fellow companions think of us, may they at that moment, note and know that we are intricately connected and interwoven in The Christ.