Thursday, May 23, 2019

Memorial Day Poppies


Growing up in Alaska, I remember making poppy posters every May in school for a Memorial Day contest. My mother had won the all-school prize in the contest when she was in the same grade school, and I wanted to do the same. I never won the big prize, although I often won the class prize.

I knew the purpose of the poppies were to remind us of soldiers who had died in wars, but I didn't know how poppies came to symbolize the fallen, so I did some research.

Poppies have been grown for centuries for their brilliant flowers and as medicinal herbs, but they are technically classified as weeds because of their tenacious quality. Their seeds lie in the ground and spring to life when the soil is disturbed.

From 1914 to 1918, the Great War, now known as World War I, ravaged the landscape across Western Europe, where most of the fiercest fighting took place. Some 8.5 million soldiers died of battlefield injuries or disease. 

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae served as a Canadian brigade surgeon for an Allied artillery unit in northern France and Belgium (then known as Flanders), where the Battle of Ypres tore up the fields and forests, wreaking havoc on the plants, trees, and soil. About 37,000 Allied soldiers were killed, wounded, or went missing in the battle, as well as 37,000 on the German side. A good friend of McCrae's was slain. 

Early the following spring, 1915, McCrae noticed bright red blooms springing up from the battle-scarred ground. Struck by the sight of the poppies, he wrote a poem, "In Flanders Fields," in which he channels the voice of the fallen soldiers buried under those hardy flowers:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

Flanders Fields Cemetery Courtesy
Interestingly, the lime content in Flanders Fields was so increased by the battle that today only poppies flourish there.
Published in Punch magazine in late 1915, the poem soon became one of the most famous to emerge from the Great War. Even though McCrae himself died in January 1918 from pneumonia and meningitis, his poem's fame spread to America, where it inspired Moina Michael, a professor at the University of Georgia, to write her own poem in response, which she titled, "We Shall Keep Faith." In it, she accepts the challenge, saying, "We caught the torch you threw/And holding high, we keep the Faith/With All who died."

Michael vowed to always wear a red poppy as a remembrance of the sacrifices made in Flanders fields. She bought red fabric and made a batch of poppies for herself and her colleagues to wear. After the war, Michael taught a class of disabled veterans and realized they needed financial and occupational support. She came up with the idea of making and selling red poppies to raise money to support returning veterans.

Eventually, Moina convinced the Georgia branch of the American Legion Auxiliary, a veteran's group, to adopt the poppy as its symbol. Soon, the National American Legion voted to make the poppy its official national emblem.

While other countries wear the red poppies on November 11, Veteran's Day, which honors all living veterans, Americans wear the symbolic red flower on Memorial Day to commemorate the sacrifice of the many men and women who have given their lives fighting for their country in all our wars.

And thank you, Jesus, for laying down your life for our sins!


Thursday, May 9, 2019

In Memory of My Mother

As an adult, I only spent a couple of Mother's Days with my mother because we lived on opposite coasts, but I always sent her the prettiest card I could find. In later years, I was able to call her. She's been gone for nearly seven years now, but her influence on my life still lingers. The daughter of Charles and Florence Personeus, the first Assemblies of God missionaries to Alaska (1917-1982), my mother followed in their footsteps in ministry.

Mother playing the piano at about 85 years of age
In Alaska, at the age of 10, Mother taught herself to play the piano. "I was just playing the notes," she said, "but I wanted to play better."

In her early twenties, she heard someone play "fancy," as she called it. One night, she prayed, "Lord, please help me to play fancy." She went to bed, and dreamed that she was playing all over the keyboard.

The next morning, when she awoke, she went to the piano and began to play. For the first time in her life, she was able to play fancy. "It was God who gave me the ability," she said. She played the piano or organ for services in every church they pastored. Until the last week of her life at the age of 89, in spite of Parkinson's and cancer, she played hymns from her wheelchair in the senior living home in the dining room at meal times, running arpeggios all up and down the keyboard.

Mother & Me
A favorite memory of my childhood was waking from Sunday afternoon naps to hear her playing the piano and singing hymns in her beautiful soprano voice. She gave me piano and singing lessons. Whenever I would practice, if she heard a wrong note, she'd called from the kitchen to let me know.

When I was four years old, my parents began operating a children's home in Juneau, Alaska. While Daddy worked to support the home, Mother cared for the thirteen children, including her own three preschoolers. Nine of us were under five with two babies in cribs, and Mother often had no help. Sometimes she'd get so busy feeding and looking after us children that she'd forget to eat.

After five years, her health broke, and my parents had to close the home. A few years later, my father became a pastor, first in Pelican, then in Seward while I was in high school, and in Valdez after we left home.

Throughout their years of pastoring, Mother worked alongside my pastor-father in music, children's and women's ministries, and visitation. She had begun writing Christian songs when she was 16 and before she died had compiled a book of 44 of her songs and a Christmas cantata she had composed. She sang solos, duets with my father or me, and trios and quartets with various members of our family in church and on the radio. She directed and often wrote all the Christmas and Easter programs.

My parents, Bob & AnnaMae Cousart
In addition to her church work, she was active in the community as well as in PTA, including several years as president. In Juneau, she served on the city and territorial election boards, which counted the votes when Alaska voted for statehood, working 26 hours straight. She also collated the Constitution for the new state. In Valdez, Mother worked as a U. S. postal clerk. When they moved to Fairbanks, she conducted weekly church services in the Pioneers' Home. She was not allowed to read the Bible, but she could sing anything she wanted, so she set verses to music and sang them.

After 25 years ministering in Alaska, my parents spent well over 30 years pastoring in the Yakima and Kittitas Valleys of Central Washington. For a few years, they also ran a Christian school there.

Mother was one of the most creative people I have ever known. In addition to composing songs, she wrote poems, articles, short stories, and teaching materials for church publications. An excellent seamstress, she worked her way through college doing alterations in a dress shop and made most of her own clothes as well as ours. I don't think she ever bought a dress she didn't remake to add her special touch to the design.

A wonderful cook and baker, she sold pies and cakes for the Cookhouse in Pelican and decorated cakes for special occasions. Two I remember specifically: a Grumman Goose seaplane carved out of cake and frosted to look like an Alaska Coastal plane for my father's birthday. (He had been boss of cargo at that airline for 10 years in Juneau.) For a PTA event in Seward, she carved out a large apple from layers of cake and frosted it a shiny red--an apple for the teacher. It looked just like a real apple, only much bigger.

Mother also invented a method of crocheting with plastic wrap and wrote a book, AnnaMae's Plastic Wrap Crochet Craft, which tells how she cut and worked with plastic wrap and included many of her own patterns. She sold her creations at bazaars, craft fairs, and gift shops, although she gave most away as gifts. I have a complete set of her lovely plastic wrap Christmas tree ornaments in a variety of colors. The pearly white snowflakes and angels are my favorites.

She loved to invent gadgets and new ways of doing things. One time in Pelican we were viewing a Billy Graham film in church when the 16-mm projector broke. She fixed it with a bobby pin and the show went on.

Mother was a perfectionist and had strong opinions she was not afraid to express. She never accepted the mediocre in herself or us. When she taught us girls how to sew, she made us rip out seams until we sewed them straight. We began paraphrasing Galatians 6:7, "Whatsoever a woman 'seweth,' that shall she also rip."

We often said that Mother "trod where angels feared to tread." During the summer of the Gulf oil spill, she wrote several letters to President Obama telling him he needed to declare a national day of prayer for the situation. I imagine that in heaven Mother is now teaching angels how to sing.

Above all, Mother loved the Lord and did all she could to see that everyone she else knew Him too. She was a woman of strong faith and experienced many healings through prayer. At her knee I learned to pray. In her kitchen I learned to cook and clean and iron.

In fifth grade I wrote a poem about my mother. One line said, "She is concerned, of that I am sure,/That I live a life that's clean and pure." I still believe that. In spite of her sometimes annoying perfectionism, I always knew she loved me and was praying for me until the day she went home to be with the Lord. I like to think that she is still praying for me from inside the Pearly Gates.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

After the Storm

This morning while I was eating breakfast, I glanced out the window and saw the old lilac bush at the edge of our lot weighted down with lush blossoms. The bush was already old when we moved here twelve years ago, and I have never seen it bloom with so many flowers. What was different this year?

Macroburst in Hudson Valley last May
Then I remembered that the middle of last May the storm of the century had exploded upon us  The Hudson Valley and especially our area had been hit by a macroburst that generated winds of at least 110 miles per hour on the ground.

A macroburst is an outward burst of strong winds at or near the surface with horizontal dimensions larger than 2.5 miles and occurs when a strong downdraft in a severe thunderstorm reaches the surface. (If the diameter is less than 2.5 miles, the downburst is a microburst.) High winds hit the ground and burst out in a all directions.

Our mobile home park took the full brunt of the storm, which also generated several tornadoes up and down the river. Many trees toppled on homes causing much costly damage. In fact, entire tree-covered hillsides are still littered with uprooted and fallen trees that became even more noticeable after the leaves fell off last fall and snow highlighted each one. With the arrival of spring, new life is camouflaging the damage.

That storm nearly destroyed our lilac bush. Because damaged branches hung over the street. the park manager pruned out many torn or fractured limbs. I wondered if the bush would recover.

Today, out of curiosity, I looked up how to prune lilac bushes. Knowing when to trim lilac bushes is important, I learned. In fact, the best time to prune is right after their flowering has ceased. This allows new shoots plenty of time to develop the next season's blooms. If pruned too late, you can kill the developing buds.

Last year's storm had hit at exactly the right time to prune lilac bushes!

Storms are God's way of pruning His green earth. The Bible uses the figure of pruning to teach us a valuable lesson:

In 1 Corinthians 3, the Apostle Paul compares God's people to a vineyard. God is the husbandman. He wants His people to bear fruit, so He prunes the vines (believers in Christ) to help us be more fruitful. Hebrews 12:6 points out that God disciplines every one He loves. John 15: 2 says that if a branch does not bear fruit, He "takes it away." This word in the Greek  means "to raise up, elevate, lift up." In the first century, when a plant wasn't producing fruit, the vinedresser would lift it up so it could get more sunlight.

Even the branches that bear fruit are pruned so they may be even more fruitful. We need God's help to grow even more in Him. God uses the storms and hardships in our lives to grow us, to help us become more like Him.

That's why we can say that "all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28, NKJV). People often forget to read the next verse which explains how all things work together for good--that we might be "conformed to the image of  His Son," Jesus Christ.

Pruning is not pleasant. It hurts. But it is for our betterment.

Are you going through a difficulty right now? Be encouraged. Allow God to make you more like Jesus through this time of pruning.

Books by AnnaLee Conti

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Story Goes On!

The Garden Tomb just outside Jerusalem
Easter is past. The tomb is empty! And the story goes on!

The Bible tells us that on the evening of the first Easter...

The disciples were meeting behind locked doors because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders. Jesus was standing there among them! "Peace be with you," he said. As he spoke he held out his hands for them to see, and he showed them his side. They were filled with joy when they saw their Lord! He spoke to them again and said, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Then he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit." 
John 20:19-22, NLT

The links in the chain of the plan of Redemption began in eternity past when the Father and the Son devised salvation's plan. In their foreknowledge, they knew that Adam and Eve would sin, so they planned that the Father would send the Son, the Son would suffer and die as the Redeemer of the world, and the Holy Spirit would empower the disciples to preach the gospel and be witnesses of the provision for salvation from sin through Jesus' death and resurrection.

The Father and the Son had completed their parts. Now, as Jesus breathed on His disciples and told them to receive the Holy Spirit, He was passing the baton to them. Through the power of the Holy Spirit that would be imparted to them on the Day of Pentecost, they must now spread the gospel to the world that was waiting to hear the story of Redemption. 

The disciples were the connecting link between Christ and the world He had died to redeem. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

Then Jesus added, 

If you forgive anyone's sins, they are forgiven. If you refuse to forgive them, they are not forgiven.
John 20:24, NLT

This was a reference to the forgiveness of sins that He had just told them should be preached in His name. The forgiving of sins would in reality be the work of Christ, although its proclamation and pronouncement would be by His disciples. He was committing to them the preaching and propagation of the salvation He had purchased with His blood.

Today, as His disciples, we too are sent into the world with the message of salvation.

Christianity is always one generation from extinction.

Are we doing our part to spread the Good News to our generation?

Books by AnnaLee Conti

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Prophecies Fulfilled In Jesus' Death

Image result for the crucifixion painting
Rembrandt's Painting of the Crucifixion
Every detail of Jesus' death on the cross was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

Eight hundred years before the time of Jesus, David, king of Israel, described the Crucifixion in great detail in Psalm 22:

I am scorned and despised by all! Everyone who sees me mocks me. They sneer and shake their heads, saying, "Is this the one who relies on the Lord? Then let the Lord save him!" 
My life is poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint....
My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth....
My enemies surround me....
They have pierced my hands and feet. 
I can count every bone in my body. 
My enemies glare at me and gloat.
They divide my clothes among themselves, and throw dice for my garments 
(vv. 6-8, 14-18).

It reads like the Gospel accounts, yet when David wrote it, crucifixion had not yet been devised!

The Book of Isaiah was written about 700 years before the time of Christ, yet Chapter 53 reads like an eyewitness account of the trial and execution of Jesus. Verse 7 says:

Image result for pontius pilate condemns jesusHe was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not  His mouth.

In the Gospels we read that He was tried by the high priest, the Sanhedrin (Jewish ruling council), and Pilate (the Roman governor--only he could give the death penalty). Jesus had no defense attorney, and He refused to speak on His own behalf. Only when He was forced to answer a direct question did He even open His mouth.

When Pilate turned Him over to the Roman soldiers to be scourged, they dressed Him as a king and pressed  a crown of thorns on His head to mock Him. Blindfolding Him, they struck Him and tried to get Him to prophesy who had hit Him. Through all this, He did not utter a word--just as Isaiah had prophesied.

Isaiah 53:9 describes Jesus' burial:

He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in His death. 

Neither violent nor a deceiver, Jesus did not deserve to die. Crucified as a common criminal between two thieves, He would have been buried in a mass grave, but Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and influential man, asked Pilate for the body of Jesus and buried Him in his own newly hewn stone tomb.

At least 16 specific details of the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament were fulfilled to the letter in of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. According to the laws of probability, the chance of these events happening in the life of one individual is infinitesimal!

Fulfilled prophecy is one unimpeachable proof that the Bible is the Word of God. Biblical prophecies span many millennia, deal with individuals, cities, nations, world events, and cover moral, social, and spiritual movements, as well as the physical universe, the kingdom of God, and Jesus Christ.

They are detailed and specific, often contrary to all normal expectations, and given long in advance of their fulfillment. Yet, literally hundreds of prophecies have been perfectly and meticulously accomplished. That's why we can have confidence that those which have not yet been fulfilled will be fulfilled to the last detail.

No other book in the world contains such specific prophecies. Other so-called prophecies are so vague that they could be "fulfilled" in many ways, but the Old Testament prophecies were so detailed that their fulfillments were obvious.

Fulfilled prophecy is God's seal of authenticity as 
the Author of the Scriptures.

Books by AnnaLee Conti

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Donkey's Story

This Sunday is Palm Sunday. I love to write stories of how it might have been behind the scenes in Bible stories. If the donkey Jesus rode into Jerusalem could talk, here is the story he might have told about that first Palm Sunday:

I had always wished I were a horse. Standing beside my mother, I often watched the horses go by carrying Roman soldiers. How important they seemed! Once, I even saw Pontius Pilate, the the Roman governor in Jerusalem, ride by. His horse acted so proud. I nickered. If only I could carry a king. But I knew kings didn't ride donkeys.

Still, I was anxious to grow up, to be useful, no matter what my life's work would be. Whenever Isaac, my master, needed a worker, I would bray in my deepest voice, trying to attract his attention so he would let me help. But he always chose my big brother instead. I felt useless and unhappy.

Then today, two men untied me. I could hardly believe what was happening. At last, I was going to be useful! I was a little nervous, but I walked as tall as I could, ears up, back straight. I may not be as regal as a horse, but I would do my best.

I wondered what these two fellows had in mind for me. Who was this Jesus they said needed me? Isaac seemed to think he was a good man--a prophet, he said.

As we neared Bethphage, I saw a small group of people gathered around a man. He looked rather ordinary, until I got close enough to look into his eyes. His eyes--how kind and gentle they were...yet sad too. I'd never seen eyes like his before.

The two men, "disciples" they called themselves, draped some of their clothes on my back since I didn't have a saddle. I stood very still as the man they called Jesus climbed on my back. I sensed his calmness, and I wasn't nervous anymore. Slowly, we walked down the dusty road toward Jerusalem. Clip-clop, clip-clop.

Soon, many people began following us. They spread their garments in the road to make a soft path for us. Some people cut palm branches and waved them as they all began to sing, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!"

By this time, everyone in Jerusalem was asking, "Who is this?"

"It's Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth," his disciples answered.

Then, someone shouted, "Let's make him our king!"

Suddenly, I remembered the old prophecy of Zechariah, "Look, your King is coming to you. He is humble, riding on a donkey's colt."

I was carrying the King of the universe on my back--Jesus, the King of kings, the very Son of God! Why, this was better than all of my dreams put together! I was blessed above all donkeys.

What if ...

What might the donkey have thought the next morning?

The next morning the young donkey awakened. The pleasant memories of yesterday lingered. After breakfast, he arched his neck and walked proudly with mincing steps back toward the city of Jerusalem.

On the way, he noticed a group of people over by the well. "I'll show myself to them first," he thought. They took no notice.

"Throw your garments down," he muttered crossly. "Don't you know who I am?"

They stared in amazement. Then someone uttered an oath and threw a stone at him.

"Miserable infidels," he thought in bewilderment. "They don't deserve me. I will go toward the market. That's where the good people will be waiting."

Courtesy Pinterest
No one at the busy market noticed his arrival. "The palm branches," he shouted. "Where are the palm branches? Have you forgotten so soon?"

Dazed, he hung his head and slowly plodded back to his mother for comfort.

"Foolish child!" She nudged him gently. "Without Him, you can do nothing."

This story illustrates a vital truth. When God uses you to do something for Him, do we try to take the glory to ourselves for what He has done through us?

Do we try to accomplish many things apart from Him?

We should not be surprised when our enterprises fail. Just as the branches cannot produce fruit unless they remain attached to the vine, so apart from Him we can do nothing. We must remain in Him and allow Him to remain in us.

And He deserves all the glory!

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Harmony or Cacophony?

When I was studying music in college, I was required to learn how to play several different types of musical instruments--percussion, strings, woodwinds, brass. Even within each class of instruments, I found much variation in size, shape, sound, tone, and pitch. The tones of brass instruments stand out and may even blare; the flute trills, as does the tiny piccolo an octave higher; and the mellow strings serenade. Some are solo instruments, and some are not. Yet, each is essential in an orchestra to make beautiful harmonies.

Corrie ten Boom used to tell the story of the famous conductor, Sir Michael Costa, who was leading a rehearsal with hundreds of instruments and voices. The choir sang at full voice, accompanied by the pipe organ, the roll of drums, and the blare of horns. In the midst of all the din, the man who played the piccolo far up in a corner said to himself, “It doesn’t matter what I do,” and he stopped playing.

Suddenly, the great conductor flung up his hands and brought the rehearsal to a complete standstill. “Where is the piccolo?” he cried.

The piccolo, though the tiniest of instruments, was missed. The same is true in the Church. Though we are all created by God, we too each have unique abilities, talents, and interests. God's "orchestra" needs each one of us in order to play the beautiful harmonies that attract people to Himself. If you are not there, you are missed.

Have  you ever listened to an orchestra tune up? That sound is cacophony, but it is necessary to tune up to the same pitch, concert A. A lady in one of the churches we pastored loved to play her guitar and lead worship. She "tuned to herself," she said. That was okay as long as she was the only one playing, but when we tried to form a worship team, we had cacophony.

As Christians, we must allow the Holy Spirit to tune our "instruments" to His will for our lives in order to be in harmony with God's purpose and plan. We must learn to harmonize together, play the same piece of music, and follow the Conductor. Some instruments take the lead and are in the spotlight while others harmonize--all at the will of the Conductor. When we all blend together, exquisite music results.

God has given the Church gifts of pastors, teachers, leaders, and others who work alongside to "make harmony" in the church community. People who are not in harmony with the leaders do not make beautiful music to the Lord and do not provide a good witness to the world around us.

In an orchestra, not all instruments play all the time. Some play to provide variety, to enhance the melody, or to make a different sound. It is important that all respond on cue to the conductor.

Likewise, in the Church we need to be alert to the needs and quick to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to pray or minister, to listen and obey. When all the instruments yield to the commands of our Conductor, the result will be a beautiful, harmonious expression of praise to the Lord.

Let's offer ourselves as instruments of righteousness to the Lord.