Sunday, April 22, 2018

Candle Hour

In the March 18 edition of the New York Times, I read "Candle Hour" by Julia Scott. She explained that when she was a teenager, an ice storm came through Montreal, knocking down a giant tree limb in the front yard of her house.  For seven days and nights, the power was out, forcing the family to use candles for their light source.

The author concluded that no one in the family remembers what they talked about or ate during that week, but they all remember the use of candles enabling them to eat, read and continue with daily life.

Now that she has settled in California, she started the practice of "candle hour." An hour before she goes to bed, she turns off all of her devices, and lamps, and lights a couple of candles, "enough to read a book or stare at the flame. I have a journal ready, but don't pressure myself to write in it. "Candle Hour" doesn't even need to last a full hour. I sit until I feel an uncoupling from the chaos or until the candle burns all the way down or both."

She continues, "Candle Hour" has become a soul-level bulwark against so many kinds of darkness. I feel myself slipping out just out of my day, but out of time itself. I set aside outrages and anxieties."

My Thoughts

Always looking for new ways to connect to God, I decided to sit with a candle in silence for an hour. Sometimes I have trouble sitting still, so I planned my hour at the end of the day, 6-7 p.m. I gathered some paper, a pen, a glass of water and a book I've been reading. I put away my cell phone, set the kitchen timer for an hour and began.

"My Candle Hour"

At first, I focused on the candle flame, watching it move and sway even when the air seemed still. I took a few deep breaths, inhaling God's presence. My heart filled with a deep peace. When I felt restless or my mind wandered, I looked at the candle.

I worked on a poem I wrote the night before and reflected on a passage of scripture. The first time I looked at the clock, eight minutes remained in my hour. I was amazed I sat for so long. I concluded the hour by reading a few pages from my book.

Reflections on "Candle Hour"

I can understand why Julia Scott maintains an occasional practice of "Candle Hour." Feeling refreshed at the end of the day gave me new energy for the evening. My soul was renewed a if I'd been on a weekend retreat. Clarity during the hour helped edit the poem I wrote. I received so much benefit from "Candle Hour." I am eager for another time in the days ahead, perhaps during the hour before I go to bed.

Suggestions for "Candle Hour"

1. Set aside electronic devices.
2. Decide how much time you want to devote to the practice. If an hour seems too long, try thirty minutes. You know what works best. Set a timer.
3. Have something to drink close by as well as paper, pen, a book, the Bible or needlework. You can also use this time to reflect on a passage of scripture.
4. Light the candle. God is here.
5. Take a deep breath.
6. Ask God to quiet your mind and open your heart.

Reflection Questions

1. How was your experience with "Candle Hour?" Were you able to let go and relax? How did God come to you?
2. Did you receive any new insight, perspectives or greater clarity as you sat?
3. Would you like to try "Candle Hour" again?

Prayer: God, when we light a candle we see a visible representation of your presence. We are also reminded that Jesus is the light of the world. Let us remember that as believers we carry the light of God wherever we go. Guide us as we sit with a candle to listen for your word or just rest in the peace of silence with you. Amen.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Gather the Pieces

One of my favorite scriptures in which I have rested and walked is John's account of Jesus feeding five thousand people (John 6:1-13). When everyone finished eating, Jesus instructed the disciples, "'Gather the pieces left over; let us not waste a bit.' So they gathered them all and filled twelve baskets with the pieces left over from the five barley loaves which the people had eaten.'"

We don't know what happened to the twelve baskets of crumbs. One commentary I read suggested the disciples and Jesus ate the crumbs because they were so busy caring for the people they had no time to eat. Others say Jesus and the disciples might have taken the baskets to distribute to the poor. Whatever happened, Jesus recognized the value of pieces and did not want them wasted.

Most of us gather pieces throughout our day. We gather thoughts to put in sentences. We gather ingredients to make a meal. Quilters gather pieces of fabric to make a quilt. Carpenters gather materials to make furniture or a house.

Birds gather pieces to make nests. Recently, I took a walk in my neighborhood and found two nests in bushes. I examined each one closely, and noted these pieces the birds gathered: twigs, bright green plastic netting, yarn, paper, plastic wrap and leaves.

"Even the birds know the value of pieces," I thought.

Pieces are important parts of the whole picture we call life. Gathering pieces in many different ways throughout the day can bring us to wholeness in living.

Just like Jesus realized the value of crumbs or pieces remaining from the bread, we too, know the value of all of the pieces of our days. Each is important and can reflect the many ways God is present.

     When Jesus said,
    "Gather the pieces
     After the  meal" -
     He meant the crumbs,
     But the people
     Are pieces, too -
     Pieces of God
     Gathered together.

Reflection Question

1. Write down all of the parts or pieces of your day. How many do you have?
2. Thank God for your full life, asking God to bless all you do.

Prayer:  God, you are in the pieces as much as you are in the whole or complete parts of our lives. Knowing you are in all reminds us of the holiness of each moment. Amen.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

A Creative Study of The Prodigal Son

Second Presbyterian Church, a large congregation on the north side of Indianapolis, has always made music and the fine arts a priority, as much as missions or other outreach programs. I was invited to participate in a five week seminar - "Faith Expressions - an exploration of the Parable of the Prodigal Son through artistic expression." I was delighted.

The Seminar's Purpose

The seminar series looks at the Parable of The Prodigal from these perspectives - religion, literature, poetry, music, dance and the visual arts. Five faculty, all retired from nearby Butler University, direct the seminar - each taking the lead in one of the areas.

Rembrandt's portrait of "The Return of the Prodigal Son" (see below) was the central visual for the seminar.

What Will I Offer?

I was apprehensive sitting through the first lecture as I did not know how I could make a contribution. I listed myself as a mixed media artist which allowed me to explore different areas of art that I complete.

I asked myself a couple of questions as I listened to the introductions of the faculty and other artists.

How can I connect with this familiar story? What piece of art will come from my interaction with this text knowing that my background will influence the way I understand this incident?

Other participants were sharing ideas they had to interpret the scripture or to connect with one of the people in the story. I sat in my chair, getting restless, knowing that eventually God would give me a thought, but not right now.

The Idea

As I was driving home, God presented the idea of a monologue given by the prodigal's mother. The mother is faintly seen in Rembrandt's painting, in the upper left-hand corner. 

"A monologue, God? I've never done a monologue. That means I have to memorize my talk and I'm not good at memorizing. Oh my!"

Despite my concerns, when I arrived home, I went right to my desk and grabbed a pen and piece of paper to record the words. God poured out of my soul a monologue from the mother's perspective. A poem also followed a few days later. God provided abundantly.

Here is my monologue from the mother's perspective called, "A Mother's Heart."

I hardly knew what to think when he gave our son his inheritance - and then that wayward child went away to spend the money, who knows where - and we didn't hear from him for what seemed like forever.

Now all of a sudden, he is home. I haven't seen him yet; he's busy with his father and the servants, but I did hear him mention a famine in the country where he lived and longing for food, even food that the pigs ate, but he got nothing! And all of the inheritance is gone!

I will be glad when it's my turn to see him. I'm hesitant how he will respond after so much time. I've torn lots of cloth in my sorrow over his leaving, not knowing if I would ever see him again - so many strips of cloth, swaddling my heart with comfort while tears flowed down my cheeks. See the raw edges of torn cloth? That's how my heart felt as time went on, raw.

I prayed each day for God to keep him safe wherever he was. It seemed a useless prayer for such a long time, but now he is back! How do I greet answered prayer?

While I wait for him to come my way, I'll bake a loaf of barley bread. He used to like it when it was just baked. I bet it will taste good to him if he's as famished and starving as he says. Maybe he will look at the bread in a new way realizing that in Jesus, the Bread of Life, there is no more longing or being lost or trying to find a path through money and wild living.

Artist Reception

When the day arrived for the artist reception and program, I felt prepared to give my monologue.
To add authenticity to my presentation, I took a piece of lavender fabric to bind around my head. I gave my monologue boldly and with a full heart sharing the connection I made with this mother from long ago. The mother, a forgotten perspective, was now given a voice.

For Your Reflection

1. Take a moment to sit in quietness and openness before God.  
2. Choose a story. Listen to the story. Write down the names of the people involved.
3. Ask yourself a few questions: Which person stands out for me and why? What is the person's purpose in the story? What emotions does the story evoke?
4. What creative ways can you respond to God's word?
5. Share what you have done with  a friend.

Prayer: God, we come to your stories filled with curiosity about the participants and the message. Our hearts quiet and become open as we reflect on your words. Guide our creative expressions of what you have brought to us so we may sing, dance, write poetry and made a piece of art in response, realizing that what we make brings us into co-creating with you. Amen. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies - The Prosperity Gospel

I received a text late Sunday morning, February 4, from our youngest daughter, Anna, that David (not his real name) her friend of ten years, had died eight months after being diagnosed with colon and liver cancer.

David and Anna lived in Oregon, but after his diagnosis, David returned to the family farm in southwestern Indiana for treatment. Anna and David were able to spend some time together before he left.

Anna was updated on David's condition throughout the eight months, but the finality of his passing was difficult. Initially, she debated whether to come for the memorial service. Mike and I left the decision to her, but after much thought she decided to attend.

Anna Arrives Home and the Visitation

Picking her up at the airport Thursday evening, the day before the visitation, gave our family unexpected time to be together.

Friday afternoon, Anna and I drove to the small farming community where David was raised, arriving at the church an hour after the visitation began.

Anna was anxious and the intensity of experiencing first-time loss of someone about whom she cared was palpable. I offered encouragement as we walked through the gravel parking lot to the church reminding her that she possessed great courage to come and offer comfort to David's mother and father.

Although we had to wait over an hour, that time enabled me to observe how David's parents greeted each person with gracious hospitality, listening carefully to the condolences offered.

Our time came to greet the family, and I finally met David's mother and father about whom I heard so much. Anna was embraced with love and warmth. She spoke kind and consoling words despite her sadness for the loss of a long-time friend.

The Memorial Service

The memorial service was Saturday morning where several persons - family, friends, work associates, and a former teacher - spoke about a man who loved adventure and enjoyed fullness of living during his 35 years.

The Luncheon and Kate Bowler

At the luncheon following the service, I sat next to David's high school art teacher. She was one of the speakers and shared samples of his art as well as the impact he had on her life. As we were talking, she said, "Well you know everything happens for a reason. Sometimes it takes awhile to figure out why."

I looked at her and hoped she didn't share these thoughts with David's mother and father. I remembered a book I just read Everything Happens For A Reason And Other Lies I've Loved, 
written by Kate Bowler, an assistant professor at the Duke University Divinity School. She also completed extensive research on the prosperity gospel for her graduate studies, and published, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.

The essence of the prosperity gospel is the "quintessentially American belief that God rewards the right kind of faith and that if you are suffering you must have done something wrong." (Faith and Leadership, Duke University - "Kate Bowler - Not All Pain Has To Be Explained," February 6, 2018).

Kate Bowler continued, "When someone gets sick or unfortunate circumstances arrive like a job loss, impaired relationships and illness, etc. the reason is because the person has done something wrong. Misfortune is seen as a mark of God's disapproval while fortune is a blessing from God - the core beliefs of the prosperity gospel."

My Response

In those moments of fresh grief and remembrance I was not going to express my opinion to this woman who a few minutes earlier explained that she was spiritual, but not religious - words I've heard before and believe they mean something different to everyone who speaks them.

Thirty-five-year-old Kate Bowler wrote Everything Happens for A Reason And Other Lies I've Loved
after she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. She says, "My body was failing me. Pain rippled through my limp arms. I was no longer proof of anything that testified to the glory of God, at least not in the eyes of the people around me. I was nothing like a sign or wonder." (page 19)

When asked in a TIME magazine interview (February 5, 2018) if she felt Christianity had failed her, she answered, "Sometimes it felt like that, in part because of the stuff people said using the Christian faith to be incredibly trite. Christianity also saved the day. You really want a brave faith, one that says in the midst of the crushing brokenness, there is something else there, the undeniable, overwhelming love of God."

I do not believe everything happens for a reason. I feel people say these words because the thought offers understanding, or they don't know what else to say in tragic circumstances or in a strange way it brings comfort to them and the suffering family.

I can't think of a reason for a previously healthy, productive joy-filled young man to get cancer or for a child to be raised in a home that is harmful or for a baby to be born with birth defects or for a child to have learning difficulties or for a shooter to kill seventeen students at a school in Florida - or any other tragedies and challenges life brings. There is no reason.

I can rest with these situations I described above for weeks and never come up with a reason why - as the teacher thought. Things just happen and there is no length of time to determine when an answer will come, because there is none. There are causes for tragedy, but not reasons - cancer cells start to grow in a healthy body; emotionally disturbed parents try to raise children; chromosomes aren't divided properly to produce healthy children; unstable persons use guns inappropriately.

God's Assurance

The prosperity gospel is inaccurate and can lead people away from God, who promises over and over to be with us when our hearts are crushed and we are broken.

For example, these three passages describe God's presence:

Deuteronomy 31:8 - "The Lord himself will lead you and be with you. He will not fail you or abandon you, so do not lose courage or be afraid."

Matthew 28:20 - "And I will be with you always, to the end of the age."

John 12:27 - "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."

Individuals can go through unfortunate events, and find deeper meaning in life. Those who know God can find the value of God's compassion, companionship and mercy.

Driving to the Airport

After the luncheon, Anna and I drove three hours to reach the airport so she could board an early evening flight to Oregon. She was so tired, she leaned back in the passenger seat and rested.

When we got to the airport, I pulled next to the curb so I could have a few minutes to offer last minute encouragement. I told her to be gentle with herself, to let her memories come through, write about them, cry, and take good care. I reminded her of the great courage it took to be present to David's parents, bringing comfort, expressing compassion and showing care.

Releasing my hands from around her shoulders was so hard. I wanted to continue to walk beside her as she processed the moments of the past few days as well as deal with her grief. However, I am depending on God, who offers compassion and mercy at all times to those who call upon him to care for Anna and David's family in the days ahead.

Questions for Reflection

1. When have you experienced the loss of a close friend or family member?
2. What were your emotions?
3. How did you respond to the loss?
4. In what ways do you help others who are dealing with a death or other trying circumstances?
5. What advice can you offer to those who are having difficulty based on your own experience?

Prayer: God, so many times tragedy and trying circumstances come our way. You are the first to cry when these events happen and the first to be available to console and comfort. Thank you for your care that settles in our soul when we are distressed or when we celebrate. We are thankful we can always depend on you and you are always there for us. Amen.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Questions for Holy Week

Lent is just about over. Whatever you gave up for the forty days, you can resume in less than a week.

Typically during Lent, Christians are asked to look inward and spend time in self-examination. Here are a few questions for reflection as Holy Week begins. Perhaps as you answer each one, you will come upon a new insight or perspective about yourself  or God to carry into the days after Easter.

1. Where or when do I experience God's presence? ________________________.
2. What name do I call God? _________________________________________.
3. What does God call me? __________________________________________.
4. God's word for me today is ____________________________.
5. I need to forgive ____________________________________.
6. I am in awe of God's ________________________________.
7. I sense that God wants me to __________________________.
8. God is challenging me to _____________________________.
9. An object that reminds me of God is ____________________.
10. The greatest joy of my life with God is _________________.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for Lent when we can set aside time to examine our lives in your light. Thank you for Easter when Jesus becomes eternal light to fill our hearts each day. Amen.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Finding Sanctuary in Target

Looking for a quiet place to reflect on a rainy, damp Ash Wednesday afternoon, I skipped the library. Instead, I chose the Starbucks tucked inside the neighborhood Target.

Would I be able to concentrate and even stay warm in the coffee area just inside the frequently opening front door? I ordered my tea and found an empty table. No one else was around and surprisingly, the longer I sat, the warmer I became. Maybe the large cup of tea I clutched sent warm waves through my hands to my body.

New Scripture

I began to reflect on three passages of Scripture that enveloped my heart:

     - Philippians 4:12 - "I have learned this secret, so that anywhere, at any time, I am content, whether I am full or hungry whether I have too much or too little."

    - Matthew 28:20 - "And I will be with you always, to the end of the age."

    - John 12:27 - "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."

I was grateful for the ways these new verses came after enduring a period of desolation for the past several months. I gained encouragement from Mother Teresa, who, despite feeling God's absence, continued to complete each day in ministry with the poor and sick in Calcutta.

My Own Desolation

When my time of "loneliness from God" began last December, I was led to a passage in Leviticus 25:2-6. God is giving direction to Moses about the use of the land.

     "When you enter the land that the Lord is giving you, you shall honor the Lord by not cultivating the land every seventh year. The seventh year is to be a year of complete rest for the land, a year dedicated to the Lord. Do not plant your fields or prune your vineyards. It is a year of complete rest for the land."

I, like the land, needed rest from  a year of teaching and leading groups just about every day at my church. I was spent and like the soil, I needed time off.

However, after a few months, when I felt ready to resume my writing and art, I had no words or images. My companionship from God through writing and art had disappeared and my heart deeply felt the loss.

My spark from God was gone and I wanted it back.

A portion of each day, I asked God, "Why did you take my writing and art away?" Writing and art had always been prayer for me. When I received no answer from God, I felt frustrated, angry and disconnected from the source of everything I need in life.

Then, one day, I was reflecting on my losses and those three new scriptures came. These words from God spoke of content (even when I felt God's distance), of Jesus' constant companionship (even when I felt lonely) and offered encouragement for a troubled heart and soul longing to write and create.

A Spark Returns

I finished my tea, pushed the cart around Target to gather a few items. To kill some time, I perused the book selections. Suddenly, as I roamed up one aisle and down the next, words started to come to my heart, describing an experience a few days earlier walking through an empty field littered with clumps of dirt and dried corn shocks.

Celebrating the return of my spark from God, I paid for my items and hurried home to get my tablet of paper and pen and start writing.


For Lent this year I am reading "Forty Days With Grounded:  A Devotional," the back pages of the book "Grounded" by Diana Butler Bass. On day two, I read the following words that offered encouragement and hope as I was seeking to make it through these barren days.

     "Every time I have experienced new depth or new wisdom in my spiritual life, the path toward the new awareness begins with a sense of loss of God's presence. God seems absent, unavailable in the usual places, elusive. I am lost. I have learned to trust the question, 'Where is God?' as a marker along the way. No fear. Only a sign to pay attention to the ways in which the spirit is speaking."

The author offered me a new perspective about my "wasteland," a term through which I was passing and finally, slowly exiting.

God Speaks at Target

I wasn't expecting anything unusual to happen that Ash Wednesday when I entered Target, but I left feeling my spark with God was beginning to return. As words tumbled out of a weary and confused soul, I knew that God can enter our hearts anywhere -  even in Target.

Questions for Reflection

1. Have you experienced God's absence?  What words would you used to describe this time?
2. How are you encouraged when God seems distant?
3. What practices help you stay focused on God during days or weeks of feeling lost?

Prayer: God, sometime we feel like you are sitting right next to us, while other days we feel that you are so far away. During these moments of drought help us stay steady and firm in you because we have the assurance you are with us always. Amen.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Seeking Spaciousness During Lent

Genesis  2:7 - "The Lord God took some soil from the ground and formed a man out of it; he breathed a life-giving breath into his nostrils and the man began to live."

Anticipating the ground would be muddy, I changed into a pair of old boots I carried in my trunk. The cleared rows were bumpy with large clumps of dirt defining the space. Dried corn shocks littered the ground, remnants from last year's harvest.

I was walking a cleared corn field belonging to a friend. I was struck by the spaciousness of the open field and yearned to find that same space in my heart. I quit teaching a few classes and leading a weekly support group both at church. I sought rest and renewal felt the stirring of my desire as I walked in the empty field.

Ash Wednesday came a few weeks later with the the reminder that humanity came from the earth and will return to the earth at the end of life.

When I received ashes on my forehead at the noon Ash Wednesday service, the pastor quoted Genesis 3:19 - "You are dust and to dust you shall return."  My mind flew back to my walk in the field where I walked on dust, dirt, as I traversed the spaciousness of an open field.

Lent began with a desire for spaciousness blended with the sobering reminder that eventually I will return to the earth. Keeping spaciousness of heart will be my challenge for Lent. On that cold January day when I drove back from the field, I already felt enclosed by buildings and houses along the way. I know I'll feel the same as I move through the 40 days of Lent, soul-scrunched and longing to open wide to God, to people in my life, and in the world.

Questions for Reflection

1. What is your heart seeking this Lent?
2. How can you reach your desire?
3. What image comes as you walk these days before Easter?

Prayer: Thank you, God, for the space of forty days to go deeper with you. Guide our hearts and give form to our desires so that we may learn more about ourselves and you. Amen.