Thursday, May 30, 2019

Peace in the Midst of Storms

Seeing all the news reports of severe storms in the Midwest and Facebook stories from friends about hiding in their storm cellars for hours these past few weeks has brought to mind my experiences with floods, thunderstorms, and tornadoes.

As a young child living in Juneau, Alaska, in the late forties and early fifties, where it could rain for weeks on end, thunderstorms just didn't develop there. I didn't experience thunder and lightning until our family's first trip to Philadelphia when I was in kindergarten. 

One night, as I lay in bed listening to my grandfather's loud snores, flashes of light outside suddenly lit up the room and loud cracks of thunder drowned out all other sounds. I'd loved fireworks on the Fourth of July, but it was October in a big city, so I was sure it must be something else. 

Were we under attack? It was only five years since the end of World War II, and in Alaska, the only American soil invaded by the Japanese, and with nuclear war on the horizon, we still practiced air raid drills in school. Of course, my fertile imagination could conjure up the worst scenario.

My whimpers must have awakened my grandfather sleeping in the twin bed across from me. I heard his deep voice reassure me in the midst of the storm. "Don't worry! It's just thunder. The storm will pass soon." 

How many times since then have I heard the voice of Jesus whisper, "Peace, be still!" in the midst of my life's storms?

Two months after our wedding in 1967, Bob and I went through the worst flood of the Chena River in the history of Fairbanks, Alaska. I have previously written about that miserable but unforgettable experience. Click here to read it.

During the mid seventies, Bob and I moved to Springfield, Missouri, so he could prepare for the ministry at Central Bible College and the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. Part of Tornado Alley, Springfield sported spectacular thunderstorms as well as tornadoes.

Our first night there, we were staying with friends until we could move into our rental house. Bob had gone to bed and fallen asleep immediately while I was still getting ready for bed. Just as I was about to crawl under the covers, out of nowhere, a huge flash of light just outside our window and a deafening boom awakened Bob. Only back from Vietnam for two years, he leaped up and grabbed me, shouting, "Incoming! Incoming! Hit the floor! Take cover!"  

A few months later, in our rental, one morning as I dressed for work, I heard distant rumbles of thunder. Bob had already left to drop off our son at nursery school on his way to his morning class. As I combed my hair, I felt the sudden urge to pray for the safety of the house and all its contents.

No sooner had I uttered the words when with a great flash of light, the house shook violently. It felt like everything had exploded around me. Still trembling, I checked around and found no damage. Later, I learned that the house next door, just a few feet from ours, had suffered a direct strike that fried all of the electrical appliances inside.

I also recall the many tornado warnings. One night, while Bob was still at his night job, the radio warned of tornadoes. Our son and I could hear the telltale freight train roar as a tornado barreled down a nearby street. We had no storm cellar. Our son's bedroom closet was the only inner space with no windows, so I frantically tossed everything out so we could squeeze in and shut the door until the danger was past. 

During another memorable storm, I stood at a fourth floor window of the Assemblies of God Headquarters building where I worked, looking out at a storm surging over the city. My legs were resting against the air conditioning/heating radiators just under the windows. Suddenly, I felt the walls pushing against my legs from the force of the winds. I backed away quickly. 

That day, several tornadoes touched down on the south side of town. The house of one of the employees was hit. Her young son was home with his babysitter. The tornado sucked him up and carried  him away. When the storm passed, they found the baby caught in a nearby tree, crying with fright but unharmed. Later, as they searched through the rubble, his mother found something to laugh about. The tornado had taken one shoe and left the other of every pair of shoes she owned.

We now live in the Mid Hudson Valley of New York, where thunder rolls and echoes up and down the river. Washington Irving, in his classic story, Rip Van Winkle, compared the thunder rolling up and down the valley to men in the Catskill Mountains playing nine pins (bowling).

When I was teaching a class of second graders in a Christian school near us, we returned to our classroom from lunch one day in the midst of a fierce thunderstorm. One side of the classroom was a wall of windows that afforded a front row view of the storm's ferocity. Someone mentioned tornadoes, and the children panicked.

I opened the Bible to Psalm 29, which vividly describes a thunderstorm--its approach as it grows in intensity, its full impact as lightning hits nearby trees and splits them, its frightening effects that strike fear to even the animals, causing some to give birth. And then the storm passes into the distance, and still the Lord sits enthroned as King and blesses His people with peace. As I read the psalm aloud, the children's fear subsided, and soon the storm was over.

How comforting to know that in all our storms, weather-wise, emotional, or spiritual, God gives us peace--peace in the midst of the storm as well as when the storm has passed by!

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