Immortal Beloved

In the midst of a persistent Pandemic, there is still joy! Last Saturday night, Gary and I went to the Des Moines Symphony, which is in its 84th season. We both love music and attend the symphony fairly regularly. In the midst of strict requirements for entrance, the Des Moines Symphony has discovered ways in which to create a new normal. Everyone with a ticket is required to wear a mask and show their ID and vaccine card before entering the concert hall. The precautions are non-negotiable in order for everyone to be safe. And there are no longer smiling people handing out the programs. You’ve got to pick them up from a table yourself!

The program, called “Immortal Beloved,” was conducted by Maestro Joseph Giunta, who is in his 33rd year as music director of the Des Moines Symphony. It was inspired by a series of love letters that Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), a life-long bachelor, wrote to a woman whose identity is one of the great mysteries of classical music. The letters, addressed to “my angel” and “immortal beloved,” were written in pencil in rough draft form and were never sent. They were discovered not long after Beethoven’s death in 1827 in a secret drawer in his Vienna apartment, interspersed with his music.

In July of 1812, Beethoven wrote a letter to his unknown “immortal beloved.”

Good morning, on 7 July

Even in bed my ideas yearn towards you, my Immortal Beloved, here and there joyfully, then again sadly, awaiting from Fate, whether it will listen to us. I can only live, either altogether with you or not at all. Yes, I have determined to wander about for so long far away, until I can fly into your arms and call myself quite at home with you, can send my soul enveloped by yours into the realm of spirits – yes, I regret, it must be. You will get over it all the more as you know my faithfulness to you; never another one can own my heart, never – never! O God, why must one go away from what one loves so, and yet my life in W. as it is now is a miserable life. Your love made me the happiest and unhappiest at the same time. At my actual age I should need some continuity, sameness of life – can that exist under our circumstances? Angel, I just hear that the post goes out every day – and must close therefore, so that you get the L. at once. Be calm – love me – today – yesterday. What longing in tears for you – You – my Life – my All – farewell. Oh, go on loving me – never doubt the faithfullest heart Of your beloved.

Karl Joseph Stieler, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As I listened to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (from Piano Sonata #14 in C-sharp, Op. 27, No. 2 – 1801), played by 18-year-old Campbell Helton, I couldn’t help but imagine Beethoven’s yearning to love and be loved.

The second half of Saturday night’s Des Moines Symphony was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was a Russian virtuoso pianist, composer, and conductor of the Romantic era. The Piano Concerto No. 3 premiered in 1909, with Rachmaninoff playing it himself.

According to the Des Moines Symphony program notes, a thirty-concert tour of the U.S. was planned for 1909-1910 by promoter Henry Wolfson. Rachmaninoff would play as well as conduct in many cities around the country, and his Third Piano Concerto was composed for this tour. Rachmaninoff undertook this tour in order to be able to purchase the new American invention: an automobile. (He bought his first car in 1912.)

The concerto, which has been called the Mount Everest of all concertos, was performed by Natasha Paremski, an incredibly gifted, fiery, and passionate musician. Paremski began studying piano in Moscow when she was just four years old. She moved to the US at age eight and debuted at age nine with the El Camino Youth Symphony in California. Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #3 is extremely challenging technically, and Ms. Paremski had me sitting on the edge of my seat the entire time.

Bain News Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Rachmaninoff is my favorite composer, and I could only wonder at his genius as well as the amazing skill of Ms. Paremski, as she played without a score in front of her. What kind of world could we create if we allowed God to use us to be instruments of:

  • Passion
  • Sensitivity
  • Creativity
  • Imagination
  • Beauty
  • Hope
  • Vulnerability
  • Tenacity
  • Possibility
  • Hospitality
  • Joy
  • Grace
  • Overcoming Obstacles
  • Fire
  • Forgiveness
  • Encouragement
  • Tenderness

What might our world look like if we treat all human beings as immortal beloveds?  Not for the purpose of buying a car, but for our immortal souls.

P.S. Gary and I will be leading a pilgrimage to the Holy Land from February 1 to February 11. The next Leading from the Heart will be published on Monday, February 14.





Are We There Yet?

When I was growing up, our family would take summer road trips to different parts of the country. Stuffed into our “woody” station wagon, I and my three siblings would vie for a seat next to a window. Unfortunately, my younger brother and sister would often have to sit in the middle because my older brother and I had seniority. Most commonly heard in our station wagon were these laments, “He touched me!” “Tell her to stop singing,” “I’m hungry,” and “Are we there yet?”

I still hear these words, “Are we there yet?” as I interact virtually with a variety of people on a daily basis. Like you, I’m tired of the Pandemic, and I can’t seem to get used to the new normal, whatever that is. I spend hours every day sitting in front of my computer, either writing or participating in an endless stream of Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings that threaten to turn me into a zombie.

It’s not always easy to be motivated in this liminal time. We recognize our own anxiety, are not able to fully focus on our work, and the littlest things can set us off. At the same time, we are all wondering about the future of The United Methodist Church and are asking the same questions, “What’s happening? Will General Conference be postponed again? When is COVID going to end? Why aren’t we there yet?”

I have noticed over the past two years of COVID-19 that many of us have struggled with our own mental health. That includes me as well. We have had to isolate from others, work from home, wear masks, worship over Zoom, and refrain from being physically near others. I am especially concerned about the toll that COVID-19 has taken on our children and youth. I am deeply grateful for our teachers: for the ways in which they have had to pivot in order to teach virtually, and also for being aware of the emotional and relational needs of their students.

COVID has changed us and our world forever. Never could I have imagined that we would enter a third year of fighting COVID infections. As the highly contagious Omicron variant continues to sweep through our country, we recognize that over 800,000 American lives and millions of other lives around the globe have been lost.

Clergy and laity alike have had to reinvent themselves in ministry. Let me give a “shout out” to our pastors! Just as teachers have had to completely change their normal protocols, pastors have also had to learn how to provide pastoral care, worship, and teaching remotely. Forty years ago, none of that would have been possible. So, how do we cope in such a time as this? How do we live fully, serve faithfully, and innovate creatively when it’s a struggle at times to simply get out of bed?

At the same time as vaccines are quickly created to fight COVID variants, we are also experiencing the resilience of the human spirit around every turn. Merriam-Webster defines resilience as “the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.” Another definition of resilience is “the ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, pressed, or bent.”

Frank M. Snowden, who is Andrew Downey Orrick Professor Emeritus of History and History of Medicine at Yale University, is the author of Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present. Having studied pandemics for forty years, Snowden is convinced that Covid-19 was not a random event. He said, “People talk about the return to normality, and I don’t think that is going to happen.” Last spring, as Snowden was inundated with people wanting to know more about COVID-19 pandemics, Snowden himself was diagnosed with COVID-19.

No, we’re not almost there. There will be many more infections, and there will very likely be more variants. We cannot totally control COVID, but what we can do is become more resilient. The University of Michigan has published suggestions for well-being as students cope and practice resilience during COVID-19. The Well-Being diagram below is described this way. “Well-being is the journey we take, one step and one choice at a time, to care for ourselves. It’s how we appraise and feel about our lives, including success in school and all other aspects. It’s personal, family and friends, community, and beyond.”

Specific tips for students include:

  • Name how you are feeling.
  • Stress: show grace to yourself. Stress uses up a lot of energy.
  • Be kind to others. These are difficult times.
  • Keep connected. Stay in touch with family members, friends and colleagues regularly.
  • Mourn what you have to give up.
  • Engage in regular physical exercise.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Practice meditation and mindfulness.
  • Avoid the traps of alcohol, drugs, and unhealthy relationships.
  • Don’t overdose on news and give social media a rest.
  • Manage screen time.
  • Discern what a new normal would look like and create a schedule for yourself.
  • Don’t binge.
  • Reach out to others. Make a difference.

I am also intrigued by a new model for dealing with stress that is helping high school students in Dubuque, Iowa cope with COVID-19. It’s called “brain health retreat rooms.” If students are feeling overwhelmed or anxious during school, they are able to leave class and go to a set apart room. There are different areas in these retreat rooms, one of which is targeted for students experiencing high levels of stress. In this room, there are chairs that surround a student like a cocoon and enable them to feel safe and loved. There is also an area where students can meet with counselors and enjoy snacks.

Are we there yet? No, but we’re getting there. The first step is caring for ourselves. By God’s grace and by walking beside each other (masked, of course!), we can become resilient and create a new normal for our world.
















Barbie, Ida Wells, and the Legacy of Justice

I never played with Barbies as a child. I just wasn’t into dolls. I’d rather roam the woods, ride my bike, and play sports. Well into my years as a local church pastor, however, I was in a women’s group where Barbie became a beloved icon of women’s empowerment rather than a symbol of a standard of physical beauty that most women could never achieve.

It has been gratifying to see that Mattel, the producer of Barbie, is, indeed, keeping up with the times by creating different Barbies that do not “fit the mold” as far as traditional feminine beauty and roles. Therefore, I am delighted to acknowledge that on this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Mattel’s Inspiring Women Series is releasing to select major retailers the Ida B. Wells doll, celebrating the famous African-American Black journalist of the early 1900s. The doll shows Wells in a floor-length dress, holding a miniature replica of the “Memphis Free Speech” newspaper, where she was both editor and co-owner.

Knowing how important it is for girls and boys alike to have inspiring role models, the Barbie Inspiring Women Series honors women throughout history who have been examples of courage and determination. Ida Wells was born into slavery in 1862, yet she was able to overcome many obstacles to become a journalist and courageous activist for civil rights and women’s suffrage. Wells married Ferdinand R. Barnett in 1895 and, from then on, used the last name Wells-Barnett. Ida and Ferdinand had four children, and Ida was responsible for starting the first African-American kindergarten in Chicago. She was a candidate for the Illinois State Senate in 1930 but lost.

Wells-Barnett was part owner of a Memphis, Tennessee newspaper and boldly wrote of the inequality she experienced as an African-American. She also spoke out forcefully about the epidemic of lynching, the systemic and brutal killing of African Americans in order to reinforce white supremacy.

As an anti-lynching activist, Wells was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for her “outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.” She also helped found the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

“I am honored that Barbie has chosen to celebrate my great-grandmother, Ida B. Wells, as part of its Inspiring Women Series,” said Michelle Duster, Wells’ great-granddaughter and author of Ida B. Wells, Voice of Truth, in a statement. “My great-grandmother was a trailblazer, who courageously followed her convictions and challenged the status quo by fighting for civil rights and women’s suffrage. This is an incredible opportunity to shine a light on her truth and enduring legacy to empower a new generation to speak up for what they believe in.”

Mattel, Inc. said in a recent Instagram post, “#Barbie is proud to honor the incredible Ida B. Wells as the newest role model in our Inspiring Women series, dedicated to spotlighting heroes who paved the way for generations of girls to dream big and make a difference. Born into slavery, Ida grew to become a journalist, activist, and suffragist – bringing light to the stories of injustice that Black people faced in her lifetime and co-founding several organizations including the NAACP. When kids learn about heroes like Ida B. Wells, they don’t just imagine a better future – they know they have the power to make it come true.” Other dolls that have been released in the Inspiring Women Series include Dr. Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, and Amelia Earhart. I am grateful for Mattel and their effort to create dolls for both boys and girls that honor heroes in our world.

It is no coincidence that the Ida Wells doll is being released on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which is observed on the third Monday of January each year. It is a time when we remember the legacy of Dr. King and all those who have and continue to be leaders in the struggle for racial justice. We also recommit ourselves to living our lives in a way that honors and respects the humanity and gifts of all people. I invite you to use this prayer from The United Methodist Book of Worship (pp. 434-435) in your devotions today and throughout the week as you remember and celebrate the courage of those who paved for a way for justice and equality.

We remember the conviction of Martin Luther king, Jr., that

  “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor;

   it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Therefore, let us pray

  for courage and determination by those who are oppressed….  

We remember Martin’s warning that

  “a negative peace which is the absence of tension”

  is less than “a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”

Therefore, let us pray that those who work for peace in our world

  May cry out first for justice….

We remember Martin’s insight that

  “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality

    tied in a single garment of destiny.

  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

Therefore, let us pray that we may see nothing in isolation,

  but may know ourselves bound to one another

    and to all people under heaven….

We remember Martin’s lament that

  “the contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.

  It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo.

  Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church,

    the power structure of the average community is consoled

    by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”

Therefore, let us pray

  that neither this congregation nor any congregation of Christ’s people

    may be silent in the face of wrong,

  but that we may be disturbers of the status quo

    when that is God’s call to us….

We remember Martin’s

  “hope that dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away

  and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted

    from our fear-drenched communities

  and in some not too distance tomorrow

  the radiant stars of love and brotherhood

    will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

Therefore, in faith, let us commend ourselves and our work for justice

  to the goodness of almighty God.[i]



(Quotations from Letter from the Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr.,

Litany by W.B. McClain and L.H. Stookey)

[i] The United Methodist Book of Worship, Nashville, TN, The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992, pp. 434-435.









[i] The United Methodist Book of Worship, Nashville, TN, The United Methodist Publishing House, 1992, pp. 434-435.