Some of my fondest childhood memories are of my grandmother and my mother, sitting at the piano, playing and singing their favorite hymns. For my grandmother it was “How Great Thou Art.” My mother’s first choice was more likely “Amazing Grace.” Those melodies made up the background music of my childhood.
My mother died at the much-too-young age of 72 from complications from metastatic colon cancer. Do not, under any circumstances, skip your colonoscopies. If there is blessing in her early death, it is that I know to pay careful attention to my health.
But, there is grief in this memory as well. Her death ushered in a time of grieving for my family. Between 2001 and 2009 we experienced the deaths of my mother, my dad, my husband’s cousin, a child of that cousin, all four of my children’s grandparents, and my husband—the father of my children. Mourning became a constant companion.
I’ve been thinking about those times lately. My clergy colleagues discuss the overwhelming sense of grief that colors our days in this time of pandemic. We affirm that our feelings run the gamut of all the stages of grief that Elisabeth Kubler Ross described so many years ago: anger, bargaining, denial, depression, acceptance. These times are challenging in ways none of us expected. As leaders, we are called to offer hope to others, even while experiencing the very same emotions as those we serve. There is mourning these days. A sense of just making it through the day. An ambivalence. Sorrow. Exhaustion.
The soundtrack of my childhood has been playing underneath the noise of these days of navigating a constantly changing paradigm of mitigation and protection against a virus we can not see. The piano music makes me stop and hum and try to recover some of the lyrics.
When my mother died in 2001, she had planned her memorial service with her pastor. She was secure in the arrangements she had made and the pastor assured us that her wishes would be carried out. First, we gathered in the gorgeous English-style rock garden at the church that raised me to inter her ashes in the dirt that also held the ashes of my grandparents and so many beloved church friends.
Then, we went into the church to remember her life and sing. She had chosen a number of hymns for us to sing. “How Great Thou Art,” yes; and “Amazing Grace.” Several others. And, not just any hymns. The minister told us that each one had been chosen for its message directed to one of us—her children and our families. Despite the familiarity of the hymns I’ve already named, those were not for me. The hymn for me was “Count Your Blessings.” I’d never heard my mother play this one; it was relatively new to me, even though it’s a very old hymn.
At this time of late summer as we’re beginning to harvest the fruits and vegetables of this summer’s growing season, I’m reminded to harvest my blessings along with them. Count my blessings. Enumerate the things that bring joy. Acknowledge the comfort of memory. Rest in a sense of gratitude and abundance.
The words of the hymn pull my heart to the message of hope in the gospel: “Count your blessings name them one by one; count your blessings see what God hath done.” This refrain is more than a Pollyanna view of the world; it is an imperative, a method of clearing our vision and seeing the very presence of God among us.
The first verse might aptly describe these times:
When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
The billows of our time might bring us back to a time of grieving and loss, but when we remember the hopeful soundtrack of past summers we might also remember to number the joys of life.