Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Sheep Found Comfort

Comfort - to soothe; console; relief in affliction

Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer, last year's Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, described on the NPR show "Fresh Air" his family's flight from Viet Nam to San Jose, California. He was in elementary school.

His parents found work in a Vietnamese grocery store. After a year, they opened their own store that contained food items not available in any other place; such as huge sacks of rice, Vietnamese fruit, and fish sauce called nuoc mam - the life-blood of Vietnamese cuisine.

The odor of the food products in the store, especially the scent of rice, fruit and spices, led Viet Nguyen to notice, "There was a kind of mustiness which I assume might have been alien to Americans, but to Vietnamese people it was the smell of comfort."

Sources of Comfort

Comfort  ... I heard that word earlier in the week when I was visiting one of my favorite places in Fishers, Conner Prairie, an 1829 village filled with costumed people playing various roles in homes and businesses of that era.

I was in the animal barn, my usual first stop. Two large sheep were resting in front of a fan that was as tall as me - just under five feet. Both rested their heads on the metal guard that enclosed the swirling blades.

I asked the attendant if the sheep were hot, especially since the temperatures were cold on the fall day. She replied, "No, they just like to hear the noise of the fan. It brings them comfort."

"Like white noise that sometimes is used to lull babies and young children to sleep?" I asked.

She smiled, "Yes."

Hmmm, I thought, sheep need comfort too. A few days later, I remembered the NPR feature on the comforting smell of the Vietnamese grocery store and reflected on the many ways we need and seek comfort, both humans and animals.

Seeking comfort can soothe our hears and bring peace. There is comfort in familiarity.

Comfort Food

A couple of weeks after my visit to Conner Prairie, I was reading the magazine section of The New York Times. I found this headline: "The Ultimate Comfort Food - when things get tough nerves can be soothed by "aligot" cheesy mashed potatoes."

The author, Tejal Rao, states in the first paragraph:

          "In times of great stress or of flickering low-level dread, I find that canceling all my plans and
           staying in to make mashed potatoes generally helps. This year there were quite a few
           opportunities to do so. Election-related anxiety gnawed at me for months, lighting up old
           networks of pain in my shoulders and back. I started a thrilling, but terrifying new job. I
          worried about my grandmother, almost 80, living alone. I turn to "aligot" the cheese-thickened
          mashed potatoes with roots in central France. "Aligot" doesn't fix anything, but it does put a
          little cushion between you and the abyss, whatever form the abyss might take."

Your Go-To Source of Comfort

Many people have "go to" items when comfort is needed. When I miss one of my children, I take one of their robes off the hook in the guest bathroom and wear it for the rest of the evening.

Sometimes when my heart aches for a healthy home that was not part of my upbringing, I go to Conner Prairie and wander through the homesteads, watching the women sew and quilt or cook over a hearth with an open fire. I note stacks of potholders on the hearth or rows of clay jars made on the grounds lined in order on the pantry shelf - they bring comfort to that part of my heart that still craves order. Even if I have to go to a fictional past, I find it helps.

Comfort - how do you find comfort in times of loss or challenging disruptive or chaotic times?

     - a favorite mug filled with coffee or tea?

     - a scripture that speaks to you and penetrates those chambers of your heart that ache?

     -  pictures of people who are dear and remind you of good times?

     - music or the soothing hum of white noise?

     - physical exercise?

I find comfort in all those and more. Nature, for example, moves me - we who watch the daily rhythms of nature's changes find peace and comfort in that predictable pattern. When I swim, the regular flow of my arms, legs and breathing cycle brings comfort with the predictability, familiarity, from the long-time practice.

May you find comfort, whether in familiar smells of your traditional foods, through the soft murmur of white noise, in the flavor of whatever "aligot"-type food you like to prepare, or in music and movement. Yes, find comfort. We all need it.

For Your Reflection:

What brings you comfort; food? an activity? a hobby? music? scripture? a favorite book?

Prayer: God, your love and presence are our immediate comfort as we go through days that have bumps and unexpected turns. Increase our awareness of your proximity, for you can soothe our hearts and restore our balance in you and in ourselves. Amen.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Tree Cradles (a poem)

Tree Cradles

Made of sticks and leaves
Sealed with mud
In a circle,
Symbol of eternity.
Built to welcome
New life.
Visible only months later
When the cycle of leaves
Comes to the ground
And nature is at rest.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Eight Questions For The New Year!

Before you put away the ornaments from the Christmas tree, file recipes of food you only prepare for the holidays, and organize your presents, get a sheet of paper and a pen to record a few thoughts.

Reflect on experiences during the month of December. Consider these questions:

1. Where did I see God?

2. How did I experience God?

3. When did I offer God's love?

Keep a copy of your reflections in a place where you can reference them throughout 2017, perhaps in the spring after Easter, during July, and in October as preparations for the next Christmas begin.

The answers that come from the questions can reveal the fullness of God's presence as well as give form to changes you might want to implement during the holiday this year.

Additional reflections for the new year are an examination of your life and priorities. Responding to each can offer cleansing and direction in the new year.

4. For what am I longing?

5. What themes keep recurring in my life?

6. Where am I struggling?

7. What is most life-giving to me?

8. What is least life-giving?

Jesus spent time going away for prayer. Although we do not know the content of His reflections, He gave us a model of the importance of being still with God.

Prayer: God, at the beginning of a new year, help us collect our experiences with You and others from this Christmas season. Guide us as we use these eight questions to realize Your presence with us to offer new energy and focus within and guide us in service to You. Amen.

For your reflection: These questions can be used not only at Christmas, but throughout the year.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Happy Holidays!

"Gather the Pieces" will return next Monday. I am enjoying some time with my family.

Peace and blessings to all.


Sunday, December 18, 2016

It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year?

Guest post by Mike Reed

Read Matthew 2:16-18

I like Christmas music, carols as well as "sounds of the season." One from the latter category that I always enjoy comes from the late Andy Williams: "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year." The lively, upbeat song highlights many of the things that bring joy to us at Christmas. You can hardly suppress a smile upon hearing it, even if you are having a "Blue Christmas" day as "The King" would have put it.

From October onward we gear up for this most wonderful time. The music, of course, as I have implied, plays a major role as do decorations, shopping, special programs, parties, family get-togethers, etc. It almost seems un-American if not un-Christian not to feel that this really is "the most wonderful time of the year."

Most of us know the familiar "Christmas story," parts of which appear in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. While the joy experienced in the two stories of Jesus' birth differs from the sentiments sung by Andy Williams, it is still there. However, that does not constitute everything recorded in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus.

In Matthew 2:16-18, which we tend to skip over for the most part, we have a downright horrible , story. In a fit of anger at having been deceived by the wise men who did not return to tell him of the whereabouts of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, the king ordered the slaughter of all children in and around Bethlehem who were two and under. The story ends with words from Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they are no more."

Talk about "pouring cold water" on "the most wonderful time of the year"! This story does just that. Why did such a terrible story make it into the Bible? Who needs such a downer while we are in the midst of a time of celebration?

I will mention only one possible reason why the story remains timely for us. While most people enjoy this "most wonderful time of the year," others struggle for a variety of reasons: illness, loss of a loved one, broken relationships, unemployment, addictions, disappointments, and the like. Such people do not experience the joy. Instead, they feel full of pain, remorse, guilt, and more. The carols and "sounds of the season" that bring comfort to us pass by them like so much noise or even worse, open old or more recent wounds.

Keep that thought in mind as you move through these days. Be alert for those for whom this might not be "the most wonderful time of the year." Pray for them, speak words of comfort if you can or simply listen to them or give them a hug.

For Your Reflection:
Do you know someone for whom the holiday season might present difficulty because of loss, illness, unemployment, mental illness or estrangement? Make time to visit these persons, send a card, bake cookies or extend kindness in some way. Spreading the light of Christ will bring joy to others.

Prayer: "The most wonderful time of the year," can be a misleading phrase as challenges we face often do not take a break during the month of December. Hope can be hard to find amidst the lyrics and melody of this song. Remembering God's presence always, even when it seems "everyone" is rejoicing and celebrating grounds us for these days. God is near, surrounding us with love always. Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Three Simple, Quick Ways To Add Holiday Holiness


Even when Thanksgiving is a few weeks away, many stores display Christmas items - a few since the end of summer. Already I've heard people talk about "the busy holiday season" almost with a sense of dread.

"How can this be?" I wonder, when celebrating the coming of God's son is the best gift ever!

Here are three simple ways to combat the holiday frenzies that require only an awareness of people encountered and experiences you have - no wrapping paper, tape or bows required. Begin each day with these three thoughts:

1.  How can I bless another?

2.  Ask God to open your heart to receive from someone else - a stranger with whom you talk or even a person you see, but don't have any interaction. Blessings can come from others unaware.

3. See how God is revealed throughout your day in a new or unexpected way.

Write these suggestions on a piece of paper and tape it on the inside of your car, on the bathroom mirror, or in the kitchen where you can be reminded of simple ways to add a little holiness to your "to do" list for the day.

For Your Reflection:

1. What do you want to remember and hold from the approaching holidays?

2. How can you make your hopes happen?

Prayer: God, every year we move so quickly through a season that begs for quiet and reflection. Slow us down and open our hearts as we move toward Bethlehem. Amen.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Delight In The Light


Mike, my husband, has never been much on getting the Christmas tree. When we lived in Mt. Vernon, Indiana, a family in the church had a tree farm. Every October we went to their house and tagged the tree we wanted. The first week of December we found our tree on the front porch.

When we moved to the south side of Indianapolis, our daughters, Sarah, Anna, and I, went searching for our tree, always waiting until close to December 20 or 21, when the prices were lowered. Our best bargain was $5.00 for a mangy tree that brightened our living room corner once we added lights and homemade ornaments.

In Vincennes, we continued our tradition of waiting as long as possible to secure a tree that was affordable.

For many years, after we moved to Fishers, Anna and I (Sarah was in college) went to a tree farm, roamed the fields, and finally selected and sawed our tree. Loading the tree into the wagon that circulated up and down the rows and riding back to the little store where we paid, seemed like a hay ride in mid-December.

When the children were out of college, Mike often joined me to select a tree at the lot a block from our home operated by the Boy Scout troop at the church he pastored. Our goal was to find a tree with a straight trunk that would remain upright in the stand.

Last year, while Mike figured with numbers in the checkbook, I headed out to find the tree. Pulling into a grocery store parking lot, I could see lights outlining the area where the trees were sorted by kind, leaning against wooden posts.

The night was cold and windy, but I was captivated by the multi-colored tree lights defining the space. I noticed that the lights were randomly placed. There were four red lights, then a cluster of two blue lights, followed by green, yellow and more red. There was no order in color to the strands - just random placement. Looking at this scene before I got out of my car, I felt delight, delight at the sight, delight in the light!

I needed some delight. The past few days held their own depth of darkness. I missed being with our children on Thanksgiving, a week earlier. A friend's daughter was dealing with monthly chemotherapy due to a brain tumor. Other people I knew and loved were facing difficulty within their families and job loss. Our daughter, Sarah, who teaches in an elementary school in Denver, experienced a lock-down twice in one month because of guns. The massacres in Paris and California left me and I assume many others fearful to go places with a feeling of safety and security.

Driving to the lot, carrying all of these thoughts led me to perceive the world as especially dark, and hung on me as if someone had sewn them to the back of my coat. However, when I saw the string of holiday lights in the distance indicating the boundary of the tree stand, my heart quickened. The random arrangement of lights caught my attention, rearranging my thoughts as I approached.

Martha Steward surely wouldn't approve of four red lights in a row followed by two blue lights, green, yellow and more red, but the light surrounding and giving form to the tree lot soon entered and surrounded my troubled heart, reminding me of three scriptures associated with Advent.

 - Isaiah 9:2 - The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them the light has shined.

 - John 1:5 - The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

- John 8:12 - Again, Jesus spoke to them saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."

I carried these verses with me as I walked around the lot quickly finding a tree that I liked. The helpful scout leader carried the tree to my car, carefully placing it in the trunk for the short ride home.

I felt more peace driving home, amazed how a simple experience of lights offered hope and encouragement to my dark places. When I arrived home, Mike unloaded the tree and surprised me the next day when I came home from tutoring, and found the tree in the stand ready to decorate.

For Your Reflection:

When have you been enriched at Christmas with an unexpected experience?

Prayer: God, you continually amaze me how you come in unexpected places, comforting my soul from Christmas lights randomly arranged in a grocery store parking lot. Far more amazing was Mary's unexpected pregnancy and birth of Jesus in a place as random as a manger. Keep my heart open to receive you wherever I am. Amen.