Sunday, August 12, 2018

Baking Communion Bread

A few years ago I received an email from one of the pastors of the church I attend asking me to bake five loaves of bread for communion the next Sunday. Five loaves seemed overwhelming, so I agreed to two.

I remember I hardly felt worthy to bake bread as I was dealing with with anxiety, anger, frustration, loneliness, and confusion as well as forgiveness in the tangled web I imaged my life. I was afraid all of my feelings would transfer to the dough I kneaded and molded.

Baking bread is usually one of the ways I connect with God. I even wrote a day-long retreat "Praying with Bread."

That day, however, I was in a different state of mind. I went through the motions, mechanically, not prayerfully or reverently, gathering and combining numerous ingredients, putting the smooth dough in my favorite brown glass bowl for the first rising. The bowl was the last of a nesting set we received forty years ago for a wedding gift. The bowl held hundred of batches of dough, but that day's batch was the first to become the body of Christ.

The dough quickly doubled in size. I took half the dough from the bowl, powdered a handful of flour on the sticky places, molded a circle and placed in a buttered aluminum pan. I repeated the procedure with the remaining dough.

Before placing the pans in the oven, I studied the loaves. In those mounds of flour I saw the yeast of anger, loneliness, resentment, anxiety and other areas of disconnect in my life, along with forgiveness, blended into bread for God's people on Sunday morning. Oh, my!

When I arranged the two loaves in the over I prayed that all negative feelings would bake out of me and right to the heart of Jesus, whose body I formed that day.

Sunday Morning

I walked into the sanctuary the next day and found a pew close to the front in sight of the two oval forms of bread covered with embroidered white cloths resting in the middle of the altar. I thought about the sugar, flour, yeast and milk, which I had plucked from noisy grocery shelves days before, now transformed into one of the most meaningful aspects of Christian liturgy in a quiet church on Sunday morning.

Then I recalled my prayer the day before, as those loaves entered the oven. As I sat in that pew and examined my heart, I realized even before receiving communion, I felt peace. The negativity had burned away, my feelings now resting in Jesus' heart.

Mike and I assisted the pastors serving communion. I baked the body of Christ, and gave the body of Christ to those attending, completing a holy cycle.

Maundy Thursday

Sometimes during Holy Week I think about the bread served on that first Maundy Thursday. Who baked the loaf of bread Jesus used that night? Maybe the person was someone like me, filled with anxiety, anger, loneliness and other troubling concerns. Maybe they felt that same sense of release and relief in baking the bread? Someone always prepares the bread to offer God's people - I pray each baker always finds release as they pass along through the body of Christ, a blessing and peace to all who believe.

Prayer: Thank you God for the way ordinary tasks can bring us into your presence. You are in all we do. Amen.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

If You Find This Letter

Two years ago our family celebrated the marriage of our oldest daughter, Sarah, to her fiance, Ryan.. We met several of their friends, including, Adam, who introduced them.

As we talked, Adam said, "I really appreciated the letter you wrote me a few years ago when I took Sarah to the airport. I'd never received a letter!"

Never received a letter? Ever?

Astonished, I asked a few questions and discovered that Adam is from Denver, (where Sarah and Ryan lived). He had always lived in Denver so there wasn't any reason for anyone in his family to write him. So the only person far enough to write was a mother in the Midwest, grateful for his kindness toward her daughter who was living in his hometown, hundreds of miles away from Indianapolis.

Letters and Hanna Brencher

Following our return from the wedding, Adam's comment stuck with me. I made a trip to Barnes and Noble to get a book for a friend having surgery. and found Hanna Brencher's book If You Find This Letter.

Letters were important to Hannah. She cherished the letters her mother wrote when she was attending college. In fact, when she moved to New York City following graduation for a job, she decorated the walls of her apartment with letters from her mother and friends.

"Even after I packed up the letters and took them home, " Hannah wrote, "I always wondered what it might be like to give something like that - a bulging package of love letters - to someone I don't even know. To someone who might never get that sort of thing otherwise. Stranger or not we all need the same kind of reminders sometimes. Your're worthy. You're golden."

In her search to find meaning, purpose and direction in a large city, she wondered if other people would like to receive a letter as a way  to bring love and affirmation to their lives. Riding the subway gave her ample opportunity to observe the cross-section of people living in New York. She focused on those who looked forlorn and lost, an image of how she felt inside as she adjusted to a new job and acclimated to a new home.

Writing Letters

Hannah wrote letters to people she saw describing her struggles, trying to find her way emotionally, professionally, as she tried to create a sense of place in a large city. She tucked the letter in an envelope and wrote on the outside, "If you find this letter ...... then it's for you." She placed the letters in subway seats, on bathroom sinks, slipped a few into coat pockets in department stores, in fitting rooms, in the library, all over town.

Over time, the act of writing letters to hundreds of people brought her to a place of peace and purpose, and the loneliness that seemed to follow her every step since she arrived  disappeared.

My Letter Writing

I enjoy writing letters too. I can often express thoughts from my heart more deeply when I write. My daughters who live far away, receive letters from me regularly. While reading the book, I decided to follow Hannah's example not only as a writing exercise, but also an activity to expand my heart and deepen compassion toward those strangers I encounter.

I reminded myself each morning to be alert to someone to whom I could write a letter. I held the image of that person in my heart throughout the day and when I had a moment, I wrote a letter I  would "give" them. A few of the people who "received" my letters include a woman at the post office carrying two large parcels one under each arm, a neighbor who has yellow chairs in the front yard, a young woman walking into the library with a coffee cup held high and a large book under her arm.

Like Hannah, however, I grew weary of writing letters in a notebook and carrying them in my bag. I decided to duplicate Hannah's method; write a letter, put it in an envelope, and drop the envelope wherever I went. At least someone will receive my words of encouragement and love.

I wrote ten letters with the message below:

     "Dear Friend,
    The cloth heart is a reminder that you are loved just the way you are. You are valued and loved for all you do. Your life matters to so many and the love you give sustains and provides comfort.
                                                                             A Friend

I folded the letter and tucked inside a heart I cut from fabric scraps. I also included on a separate piece of paper this sentence of explanation" "A letter of encouragement and love to a stranger." - based on Hannah Brencher's book, "If You Find This Letter."

Addressing the envelope according to Hannah's directive - "If you find this letter it is yours," I  set off with my bundle.

Where Did I Place My Letters?

The ten letters I wrote found homes in a restaurant, a confessional booth in a Catholic Church, at a local YMCA, a grocery store, on a stack of books at the library, and in the pocket of a jacket at Target.

Interestingly, during the two-week time I was delivering letters, I received three letters in the mail; one from a former neighbor, one in the form of a picture from my nine-year-old friend, and a thank you note.

My story with Adam's letter has come full circle. Writing a letter of gratitude to him left an imprint on his heart. His comment awakened me to Hannah's book reinforcing the importance of the lost art of letter writing.

Reflection Question

1. Who among your circle of friends, family and acquaintances would benefit from a handwritten note? Take a moment, put your thoughts on paper and mail an envelope of compassion and care.

Prayer: God, you give us the example of Paul, who wrote letters to people in the churches he established. He offered encouragement, guidance, wisdom, and blessing to each since he was unable to regularly visit. Let us model our ways of expression to others following Paul so we can have a record of thoughts and feelings toward others they can reference forever. Putting our hearts on paper leaves a cherished legacy to the recipient. Amen.

                                 






Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Link - A Bridge of Love

Annabel Hartman mentored me in many ways since I first met her in 1983. She and her husband, Grover, were members of Center United Methodist Church on the south side of Indianapolis where Mike served from November, 1983 to June, 1989.

Annabel care for me as a devoted mother would a child. She prepared meals periodically when I was pregnant with Anna. She attended Sarah's school programs, assuming the role of grandmother for both children with her interest and love. I appreciated Annabel's spirituality which helped me deepen my own walk with God.

Moving

When Mike was appointed to serve in Vincennes, in June, 1989, I was sad to leave Annabel. We decided to keep in touch writing letters. Annabel, despite her work and church involvement was faithful to answer each letter I wrote. I have a basket containing her letters and cards saved through the years. Even after we returned to central Indiana in 1996, we still wrote letters.

A Link

In one letter I wrote Annabel, I shared my concern about "non-productive" activity such as driving children various places or participating in church activities. I lamented my lack of time to "cultivate my self" because of being engulfed by responsibilities to others.

Annabel replied, "We can be perpetually involved in worship, while we are also very busy in the world of daily affairs. Can't just being in the company of others who need relationship cultivate the self? Driving kids is productive in that we become the servant. Doing odd jobs at church is productive if we see ourselves as a link in a chain, a part of something bigger than we. Just 'being' is enough for me, if in my position of 'being' I am becoming a bigger, better person because I am 'being' for someone else, however simple or menial the task or service." (letter dated May 10, 1990)

I prayed with her letter for many days. Through the years her phrase, "If we see ourselves as a link in a chain, a part of something bigger than we" left an imprint in my heart and altered my perspective of everyday tasks. Thinking of myself as a 'link' has brought value to all I do and to each interaction.

An Example of Being A Link

I was reminded of the importance of being a 'link' when I recently stopped at Walmart to purchase twenty-four yards of black fabric for Sarah to use on bulletin boards in her art room.

"Do you have black fabric?" I asked the employee in the craft department.

"I can't hear you," she replied. Thinking she might be hearing impaired, I repeated my question looking at her directly. She pointed to a row of solid fabric on the top shelf. I reached the bolt and brought it to the cutting table.

"I need twenty-four yards please."

"What are you going to do with twenty-four yards?"

"My daughter is an art teacher. She prefers fabric rather than paper on her bulletin boards."

"I like art too. When I was in Italy I hired a teacher who taught me to draw and paint. I won an art contest when I was in fourth grade. I did a lot of art through the years. My son is a really good artist. He draws faces that really look like the person. I like art a lot."

She seemed to cut with new energy as she turned the bolt over and over until cutting the last yard. She folded the fabric with a big smile, placing the pile in my hands."

"Thank you. You're a link to art, helping my daughter prepare her room."

She grinned, "I still like art very much."

A Look Ahead

Now my days are much less hectic. I am always mindful how I can be a link wherever I go. For example, when I hold the door open for the person behind me entering or exiting a store, I am a link to another's progress. When I affirm or encourage, I am a link to someone's growth. When I care for a friend's child, I am a link providing space for growth, pleasure or relaxation. My prayers link me to God in intentional ways for others or myself.

I am so grateful for Annabel's thirty-year influence on my life. I treasure the time I spent with her

How are you a link in the path you follow each day?

Prayer:  God, I ask you to guide my heart and direct my vision in ways I can be a link for others. The positive energy I receive when I think of myself as a link to those I encounter reminds me how Jesus used objects to explain or link us to you. Amen.






Sunday, July 22, 2018

Fill A Basket for A Month

Anna, our second daughter, used to be the director of marketing and media for an independent jewelry story in Portland, Oregon. When we visit her we spend some time at the store perusing the merchandise and watching the jewelry makers put together unique and classic earrings, bracelets, and necklaces.

A few years ago when we were in Portland, I was captivated by a variety of colorful bowls the owners purchased during a trip to Guatemala. The tightly woven containers came in different shapes and depths. I purchased two knowing I would use them my self or for a gift.

Filling the Bowl

I was reminded of a story I read many years ago about bowls in a book by Sue Bender, Everyday Sacred - A Woman's Journey Home. Sue tells about a monk who left his home every day holding an empty begging bowl in his hands. Whatever was placed in the bowl would be his nourishment for the day.

Sue continues - "It was obvious to all who knew me that I wasn't a monk and the very idea of begging would make most of us uncomfortable. In spite of that, the image of a begging bowl reached out and grabbed my heart.

Initially I didn't know whether I was the monk or the bowl or the things that would fill the bowl or all three, but I trusted the words and the image completely."

Sue spends the rest of the book describing stories, experiences and people that filled her bowl over seven years.

My Own Bowls

Looking at the bowls I purchased from the jewelry store resting on my office floor, I considered how a bowl can teach three things about being present to God: open ready to receive and waiting to be filled.

A Project for August

Here's a project for the month of August, during this period in the liturgical year called "Ordinary."

1. Find a bowl. Maybe it's your favorite mixing bowl or your container for cereal.
2. Remember where you purchased the bowl and how you use it. If it was a gift, recall the occasion and the giver.
3. Bless the bowl. Hold the bowl in both hands. Ask God to keep your heart open like the bowl to receive whatever God might want to fill it with.
4. Invite God at the beginning of the day to fill your bowl. Ask God to keep your heart open so you are aware of how God is coming to you. Whatever you feel God leading you to include as the content in the bowl.
5. At the end of August look what filled your bowl. Examine the contents to see what comes to your heart.

My Experience

A few months ago, I filled a bowl for a month with scripture, prayers, newspaper clippings and photographs. I wrote insights and perspectives I received about life from other people, books or God that I wanted to remember. If I received a letter or note during this time, these found a home in the bowl too.

Dried peonies, my favorite spring flower, rested in my bowl, its beauty amplified while it dried. Small pieces of leftover fabric from sewing projects and a church bulletin with sermon notes also filled the bowl.

I carried the bowl just about everywhere I went - resting on the passenger side of the car or going with me from room to room in my house. God speaks anywhere and anytime. The bowl helped me remember to keep my heart open, ready to receive and be filled.

Prayer: Loving and caring God, fill us to overflowing with tangible expressions of your goodness, love and challenge. Guide our reflections with what you give so we can learn more about ourselves and our lives with you. Amen.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Simple Gesture - Looking Behind

Tuesday, as I walked into the hospital where I'm a volunteer, I held open the door for the person behind me.

I heard a voice say chuckling, "Now my mother taught me I was supposed to open the door for you!"

Turning around I saw a tall, stocky older gentleman dressed in faded overalls and a blue T-shirt hold a single rose wrapped in florist paper.

Laughing, I replied, "Looking over my shoulder when I go through a door is a practice I started several years ago. You can open the next door, " I suggested, pausing in the entryway between the two doors leading to the hospital.

Many years ago I wanted to find ways to honor or affirm people I know as well as strangers. The simple act of holding the door for the person behind me to walk through is a way to honor Christ who lives in all and affirm a stranger who happened to cross my path. Not knowing what others are dealing with, I like to offer at least one act of kindness a person can remember from the day.

These lines from St. Patrick remind me to bring holiness to a common act:

     "Christ be with me, Christ within me

       Christ behind me, Christ before me."

Christ lives within me, so when I honor those who are behind and before me, I honor Christ.

Electronic doors open automatically needing no human assistance, but manual doors are everywhere, offering a chance to spread God's love to those who are behind. I step in front, and hold the door and in that moment, for the person who passes through, perhaps my presence represents Christ before them, and when I let the door close and follow them, perhaps I'm Christ behind them.

Prayer: Loving and caring God, keep our hearts open to serve others even in simple acts of opening a door, for all we do is in your name. Amen.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Honoring the Dead in Life

"I'm copying my own obituary," she said nonchalantly, while I was waiting to use the library copy machine.

"That's a good idea." I replied, Then I stopped. What did she mean by making a frank statement to a stranger? I assumed she's planning ahead. "You will have printed what you want said about yourself."

"Yes, I am an English teacher. I want things said the right way. It makes people uncomfortable, though, when I tell them. I met with the funeral director a few weeks ago, and he was shaken by my desire to make arrangements. He was young and new in the business. He wasn't expecting someone like me to show up. I have a disease. It's something we all avoid, you know."

I watched as she fumbled with ten or eleven sheets of handwritten papers, shuffling them occasionally, trying to get them in order. She had also spread two file folders all over the work table.

Helping Another

"Do you know how to work the machine?" she asked.

I showed her the simplest way to copy many pages.

"I'll move fast. I'm fast as General Motors!"

I stood back to take in this woman who opened her life to me in a minute. She was tan and healthy-looking, medium-built, robust and mid-seventies. She wore a black baseball cap, white knit top, black jeans and tennis shoes.

While a stack of papers went through the machine, she continued to shuffle another stack.

Getting Organized

"May I help you organize these?" I volunteered stepping over to the table where she was working.

"Well, those papers are my husband's obituary. These are mine. You take his and I'll work on mine."

I noted she numbered the pages so I put them in order.

"These are ready," I said handing her the stack.

"You go ahead and do your copying while I finish getting these in order."

I copied five pages from a book. I noticed she was still shuffling papers unable to reach any sense or organization.

"I'm done," I said.

"Thank you."

I looked at a few magazines when a librarian announced the library was closing in four minutes. I had not paid for my five pages. I returned the magazines to the shelf and glanced where the woman was still struggling. I returned to the table. "How many copies do you have?"

"Twenty-four."

"I'll add my five copies to your twenty-four and pay for both. The library is closing in one minute." She looked at me surprised, moving the papers all over the table.

Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak

Earlier that morning, I heard a sermon during morning worship at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York by the Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, an activist born and raised in South Africa. He introduced the idea of prophetic faithfulness which interrupts the flow of evil for the reality of truth of the reign of God. He continued, "God wills peace, justice and wholeness."

Boesak challenged the congregation, "Don't worry if you can't save the world. Every act of compassion and justice - every embrace of one who is despised - saves one life. Interrupt the work of evil and bring the light of God's love and mercy to just one life."

I remembered Rev. Boesak's words as I listened to the woman talk about her impending death. The evil in her life was an unnamed disease to which she referred several times. I did not know her name, but I saw her as a woman determined to leave her own impression about her life for friends, family, and anyone else who reads the obituary page. I can't visit during funeral calling, but I could show compassion by paying for copies of her writing. I pray my actions "made the face of Christ shine" as Rev. Boesak concluded happens, when we take time for one life.

Prayer: Help us take time to look around wherever we go so we can notice someone who may need love. Remind us to set aside our agenda and "make the face of Christ shine." Amen.




Sunday, July 1, 2018

Welcoming the Stranger - Welcoming Angels

Welcoming Angels

We arrived at the First United Methodist Church  of New Castle, Indiana, in June, 1976, for Mike's first appointment out of seminary. Young and ready to meet new people and begin ministry, we looked forward to hosting guests. The church arranged for Dr. Eli and Velma Hendrix to speak to the congregation on a mission Sunday. The couple traveled from Vincennes, a town situated in the western part of the state to speak about their work in Haiti.

Eli, an optometrist, and Velma, a nurse, regularly traveled to Haiti offering eye exams and donated glasses to the people.

Velma and Eli stayed with us in our small, two bedroom apartment. When they arrived, we were excited to meet them and learn about their numerous mission trips. Neither Mike or I were aware of what kind of outreach was happening in the small, poverty-stricken nation.

Velma and Eli were devoted to the Haitian people and had the resources to improve their quality of life. Despite having four children, regular trips brought joy to their hearts.

Mike and I listened to the stories Velma and Eli told as we ate breakfast before church. Their passion to bring improved vision to many people was strong and heartfelt. Our souls were blessed by their compassionate hearts and selfless service. We realized as we listened that we were entertaining angels sent by God to Haiti to do God's work.

After their presentation at church, we sent them on their way with gratitude for meeting these two servants.

An Interesting Twist

Mike's career found us moving from New Castle to Mt. Vernon, in 1979. After almost five years, we relocated to a church on the southside of  Indianapolis. Following that, in 1989, Mike was appointed to the First United Methodist Church in Vincennes, Velma and Eli's home church. 

We were excited to see our friends we'd hosted eleven years ago and to learn more about their church and family. When we drove into the parsonage driveway with our fully-packed cars, we followed instructions from Velma in a letter we received shortly before moving, to call when we arrived.

I took a minute to stretch my legs, went into the parsonage, and called our dear friend. Within minutes she was greeting us and welcoming us to our new community.

Although we weren't complete strangers, we were grateful for her warm welcome and prayed that during our time together at the church we could offer her and others in the congregation acts of love and service in God's name. 

Reflection

Welcoming strangers - new neighbors, new people at church or work - can sometimes feel scary. However, listen to where God may be leading as you interact with new people who were sent to you by God. Invite them to your home for dessert to make connections, hear new thoughts or ideas and possibly bring an angelic presence to your home and heart.

Hebrews 13:2 - Remember to welcome strangers in your homes. There were some who did that and welcomed angels without knowing.

Angel: (noun) a person who performs a mission of God or acts as if sent by God.

Prayer: God, you direct us to love one another as you have loved us. We see how Jesus modeled hospitality and love in the way he greeted all whom he encountered. Give us boldness to invite others in your name so that our souls can be stirred, our hearts blessed and new perspectives welcomed as we grow closer to you and others in the kingdom. Amen.