Sunday, November 18, 2018

My First Experience Receiving Gratitude

I saw John and his mother walk to the side of the swimming pool where the lessons began. He clung to her with both hands, his mouth drawn tight, lip quivering and his eyes wide open. John was scared.

I was 15 years old, teaching swimming lessons at a neighborhood pool. The other teacher and I were assigned a group of five, four-year-old children for the week-long lessons.

The other children gathered, sitting on the edge of the pool, kicking their legs, making big splashes, eager to jump in the water and learn to swim. John stood behind the group, gripping his mother's hand wanting no part of swim lessons.

Realizing this little boy needed individual attention, I said to my colleague, "Let me take John. The other children are ready to get in the water."

His intense fear of the water stirred compassion and sadness in me and a desire to help. John clung to his mother most of the first day. Nothing I did or said convinced him to release his bond. Finally, I extended both of my hands to this frightened four-year-old and with great courage he reached for one of my hands and then the other, still standing close to his mother, but inching closer to the side of the pool

By the end of the first class, John stepped tentatively - always holding my hand - to the edge of the pool where he sat, dangling his legs. A small triumph compared to the other children already bobbing their heads and dipping under water, but a triumph nonetheless!

The Week Continues

Tuesday morning we began again sitting on the edge of the pool, playing with the water and talking. By Wednesday, John slipped into the waist-high water and with increasing confidence jumped and played copying the activity of the other children.

Toward the end of Wednesday's class he bent over and put his face in the water. I clapped, his mother, watching from the side, clapped and John emerged from the water with a huge smile on his face.

Thursday, John jumped in the pool, put his face under water and joined the class as they learned to float and kick. By the end of Thursday's class, John had caught up with the other children. He was using a kickboard as he propelled himself across the pool. He kept his head under water, smiling all the way!

Gratitude

Friday, with all of the children together, we taught the arm movements for the freestyle stroke. They stood in the water practicing and before the session ended, there were five new swimmers in Columbus, Ohio.

When John's mother came to pick him up on Friday, she carried an aluminum pan covered with foil.

"Thank you so much," she said, smiling, handing me the pan.

Lifting the lid, I saw a stack of brownies. My mother never made these delicious treats. I'd heard about them, but never tasted one.

"Oh, thank you so much. I'm proud of John!" I replied, equally pleased with her son's progress.

This mother taught me I could receive someone's concerns and then serve as an agent of change in a little boy's life. The plate of homemade brownies, a tangible expression of a mother's gratitude for my
work with her child, was an unexpected surprise. The impact of her kindness remains with me over fifty years later.

For Your Reflection

1. Are there people in your life who need to know how much they are appreciated? Sometime before Thanksgiving, take a moment to write a note or send an email and extend gratitude.

Prayer: Loving and caring God, first we need to offer thanks to you for all of the blessings in our lives. We get so busy that we sometimes neglect to say we are thankful to you and to others who bless us in different ways. Help us pause and reflect during this week that we celebrate Thanksgiving and honor those who mean so much. Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Memory Quilts for Sean and Jillian

I first met my dear friend, Selena, on a windy, chilly, snowy day, a week before Christmas in 2010. She and her husband, Jeff, along with their two-year-old son, Alex, and members of their extended families, were standing on snow-covered icy ground near the front of a small rural cemetery.

When I got out of my car, my eyes went quickly to the tiny, grey casket perched on a wooden bier in front of a large hole dug in the earth. I'd never attended an infant funeral.

Mike stood next to Selena and Jeff, although I easily could have picked them out in  a crowd, with grief molding their faces and eyes that were blank, allowing tears, not vision, to settle in and flow.

I stood to the side to let the family have full view and hear the prayers and words Mike would say to commit two, sweet little souls to God and their bodies to the earth. The twins, born at 23 weeks, survived a few days. Sean, the little boy, lived one day, his sister, Jillian, two.

The Story

Jeff and Selena birthed and lost the babies while they lived in Raleigh, North Carolina. A month later they moved to Indiana, wanting Sean and Jillian to be buried close by in their new town.

They knew no one in Indiana. However, God set to work an amazing series of events to bring them to a church in Fishers, that would envelop them with love and compassion. Their pastor in Raleigh knew Mike from when they attended the Duke Divinity School. He contacted Mike, describing Sean and Jillian's deaths. Mike set in motion through a series of emails and phone calls to arrange a few nights of meals, to assist with the early days of their arrival and following the funeral service.

Even the caretaker of the small cemetery was a member of the church. She quickly arranged a plot for the children to be buried.

Coping with Loss

Facing such deep grief and knowing few people, Selena turned to her long-time skill in quilting to companion her through those days and months of processing great loss.

She and Jeff were given all of the quilts that touched Sean and Jillian while they were in the hospital. Early in February, 2011, Selena decided to make two memory quilts, one for Sean and one for Jillian, to send to the hospital in Raleigh where they were born.

With her then three-year-old son, Alex, by her side, they found quilt shops in the Indianapolis area. Eventually she purchased the perfect fabric to honor her dear children. Planning the quilts and purchasing fabric, gave Selena structure and focus for her days.

Into the spring and summer, she sewed and quilted, finally finishing them in mid-fall, ready to mail to Raleigh in time for the first anniversary of their deaths, November 18. Before she packed the quilts, she asked the two pastors of the church, her Bible study group, and a few friends to pray over her handwork. The quilts were heavy with her grief, but also heavy with prayer from those who cared and loved her.

Selena's Words

I asked Selena to describe her experience making the memory quilts.

"The hum of my sewing machine has always brought me a sense of peace. As a young girl, I'd play with my dolls at my mother's feet under the table while she sewed, hearing the monotonous hum of the needle piercing the fabric.

I grew up and discovered my love for sewing in particular, making beautiful quilts. Eight years ago, my husband and I lost our beloved son and daughter. At a time when I didn't want to get out of bed in the mornings, I knew I needed to honor them by living.

The hum of the machine once again brought me peace. At the hospital in Raleigh, we were given everything our children touched, including quilts, blankets and hats. I found comfort in these items because I was touching what they had last touched.

I decided to start making memory quilts in their honor to give the feeling of touch and warmth to other families. While I piece together bright, happy fabrics (because I know the personalities of my children are bright and happy in Heaven), I pray for each of them. I also pray for the baby girl who will receive my daughter's memory quilt and the baby boy who will receive my son's memory quilt, praying deep into the threads, breathing prayers into the batting, lovingly holding the fabrics as I lovingly held my own son and daughter.

I have made two quilts each year since their passing. I send them to a nurse who works in the NICU where Sean and Jillian received care. She, along with the staff, decide which family will receive the quilts each year. I know my children are resting in the arms of the Lord, proud of what their mother is doing, listening to the peaceful hum of the sewing machine."

For Your Reflection

1. How have you worked through times of deep grief and loss?
2. What ways help you touch those places of grief that seem endless, without words or form?
3. Can art (I consider quilting an art form.) become an avenue of expression, a picture of what wells from your heart?

Prayer: God, many times we plow through unbearable grief, similar to what Selena and Jeff experienced. Our loss may have a different nature, but deep grief is often without form. Thank you for Selena's gift of sewing that allows her to companion others who are going through difficult loss. May you bless each with love and prayers that are within every stitch and inch of fabric. Guide those who are in grief; lead them to a way through using a hobby or special interest so that their grief can come to a place of peace, glorifying you with gratitude as Selena has modeled. Amen.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

A Little Prayer to Start the Day


Going through a season of loss and change over the summer, I decided to read a book by one of my favorite authors, Kathleen Norris, A  Marriage, Monks and a Writer's Life. Kathleen covers a variety of topics reviewing her past and dealing with acedia or apathy.

She also takes the reader through her husband's struggle with cancer. When David died, she felt fragile and disconnected from God.

"But I did find a prayer for myself that proved suitable for mourning and my continuing struggle with acedia," she noted.

          "This is another day, O Lord. I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord,
for whatever it may be. If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely. If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly. If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently,  And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly. Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus. Amen.

The prayer she found touched my soul. Although I wasn't fragile, I had experienced a time of feeling distance from God. I liked the simplicity of the words as a way to prepare for a new day. I found how helpful it can be to use prayers from others.

I voiced the prayer to begin my day for several weeks. It brought peace and comfort during a time when God felt far away. The simple tasks described, standing, sitting still, lie low, do nothing, are ones we do everyday without thought. The prayer, however, invites us to regard these actions as holy and purposeful.

The beginning words acknowledge the uncertainty that each day can bring, at the same time offering grounding in God for whatever might happen. This assurance of God's constant presence reminds us we are not alone, no matter what happens.

The prayer ends with a desire to add meaning and depth to the words, to take them to heart, welcoming the Spirit of Jesus to energize our outward focus with those we encounter.

I find myself going to the words of this prayer during the day as a reminder that whatever simple tasks is before me God is with me and what I am doing is holy.

Prayer: Loving and caring God, our simple actions are deep with meaning and holy because you are with us. Help us always live and respond with the heart of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Kingdom of God Is Like .......Meijer, Color, Comfort

When I reached the entrance to Meijer, dodging raindrops and splashing my canvas shoes into puddles, I experienced relief. Shaking the rain off my umbrella in the side entrance, I found one of the half-size carts to push. Folding my umbrella into the basket, I collected my frazzled brain to recall what I needed.

"I like your umbrella," a voice said behind me. "The color is comforting."

I turned around and saw an elderly woman, the Meijer greeter, wearing a bright, red vest. She looked tired and steadied herself again the pole corralling all of the shopping carts.

"Oh, thank you," I replied astonished my cheap, teal-colored umbrella brought comfort to a weary soul.

Color and Prayer

Color has a way of invoking responses as this kind lady demonstrated. Sometimes when I cannot find words to express what I am feeling I turn to the small box of Crayola paints resting on my windowsill. I find a color  or colors that connect with what is in my heart and paint strips on a piece of white paper.

Pastor Elizabeth Myer Boulton shared her thoughts on color with the following essay: "Ode to Yellow."

          "Sometimes I find it hard to pray. I know that may sound odd coming from a pastor, but it's true. If Jesus were standing beside me, one of the first questions I would ask is, 'Lord, teach us how to pray.' (Luke 11"1-4)

          In my imagination, Jesus answers that request with something like this: 'One way to go about praying, my dear, is to focus on a particular color to carry with you for the day or the week. Pray through that color. Pick one and pray through it.'

          So, my color today is yellow. I will learn to pray through the color yellow. I will give thanks to God for the bright yellow rays of the sun. I will say a special prayer for the man driving the yellow taxi cab going down the street. I will pray for the woman on the park bench wearing a yellow hat.

          Today, every time I see the color yellow, I will lift  up a prayer of healing, of comfort, of protection of thanksgiving for a God who teaches us how to pray."                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  Perhaps the Meijer greeter was praying through teal or maybe in the moment I walked into the store, she was sad or lonely or dealing with a circumstance where her heart was hurting.

As I walked up and down the aisles choosing groceries, I carried her words with me, reflecting how walking into Meijer, on a rainy day, with my five dollar umbrella, brought her comfort. The kingdom of God is like this ...... Meijer, color, comfort.

For Reflection

1. Choose a day when you want to increase your awareness of God's presence by noting a color.
2. Start in the morning praying, "Today, God, I want to be aware of you as I observe _________ (name the color).
3. When I see (color) I can pray for someone, pray for myself, offer gratitude, ask to feel God's love or comfort or strength or healing or ask the Holy Spirit to enter my heart or whatever else comes. God will provide for your experience.
4. At the end of the day, spend a few minutes reflecting on your time with God and the color you chose, maybe writing a few words or sentences.

Prayer: God, we never know how we can be an unsuspecting vessel of your love as we run errands, go through stores, and libraries and the post office. Use us as you will to bring your message of love wherever we go. Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Bold in Faith

Finishing the last lengths of my swim to complete a half mile, I did a few stretches while still in the water. I looked on the deck in front of me and saw a Muslim woman speaking out loud while reading from an iPad. I recognized Norah, having spoken to her before at the local YMCA. I jumped out of the water, grabbed my towel and gym bag and walked over to the bench where she sat.

A burqa outlined her face and hands. "Are you praying?" I asked. She looked up recognizing me and extended her hand, smiling.

"I've seen you before reading the Koran out loud. I admire the way you are public with your faith. I'm a Christian, but I don't carry my Bible wherever I go."

"I am reading the Koran," she replied. "We pray five times a day wherever we are. In such a busy life, we look to our great creator to remember our faith."

I said good-bye and walked to the locker room to shower. I never see anyone reading the Bible while their child or children have swim lessons or play in the water. Norah's bold demonstration of faith was inspiring, I thought.

Praying the Hours

Reflecting on my encounter with Norah later in the day, I focused on her description of the importance of pausing and praying five set times during each day. This  practice reminded me of the monastic ritual of praying the hours, something I did for many years, especially during the time I worked at St. Vincent Hospital.

One day a week (I rotated the days: Monday, one week, Tuesday, the next etc.) from the time I awakened until I went to bed, I paused at the beginning of each hour to pray. At first,early in the day, I looked at the clock often during the hour. However, as the day progressed, I found that 'my soul reminded me of the hour' before I realized the time. My 'day of the hours' as I called it, became a mini-retreat for the week. Each day frequently ended with a new insight about my walk with God and always with a deeper awareness of God's presence.

Remembering God at the beginning of every hour was a way to stay centered on God as well as acknowledge that God was with me.

For Reflection

Here's an experiment. Choose a day to practice 'a day of the hours.' Select five times throughout your day to pause and pray. You may want to use these focused moments with God to pray for a decision you are facing or for an individual about whom you care. Or you can use this time to direct your thoughts to God's presence surrounding you. Reminder alarms on watches and cell phones can assist if you desire. As you feel more comfortable, add more hours and then a whole day.

Consider these questions.

1. How does God come to you?
2. Do you sense God's presence more deeply?
3. What can you learn from the practice of praying the hours?

Prayer: God, you are the creator of all persons. We can share similar practices of other faith traditions. Perhaps the terminology or sequence is different, but honoring common features can help build bridges and unify all. Amen.






Sunday, October 14, 2018

"Wait I have to go to Bible study ........"

Scripture: Matthew 9:18-22 -  "While Jesus was saying this, a Jewish official came to him, knelt down before him, and said, 'My  daughter has just died; but come and place your hands on her and she will live.' So Jesus got up and followed him, and his disciples went along with him.
   A woman who had suffered from severe bleeding for twelve years came up behind Jesus and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, 'If only I touch his cloak, I will get well.' Jesus turned around and saw her, and said, 'Courage my daughter. Your faith has made you well.' At that very moment the woman became well."

The story begins when a Jewish official, whose daughter had just died, interrupted Jesus with an urgent plea. "Come place your hands on her and she will live." Jesus and the other disciples followed him.

Along the way, a woman who suffered from bleeding for twelve years saw Jesus. She said, "If I only touch his cloak I will get well." The woman didn't need to speak to Jesus or even look at him. She needed no interaction - just to touch his cloak. Jesus took a moment to respond to her saying, "Courage, my daughter. Your faith has made you well." The woman was healed at that very moment.

Jesus' Pause

Jesus shows us a willingness to set aside what he is doing and be present to people who come to him. He could have said to the Jewish official, "I'm not done teaching. I will be with you in a few minutes." He could have ignored the woman's needs so he could hurry and reach the official's house. Over and over we read how Jesus pauses, listens and responds to those around him.

Our Lives and Jesus' Life

I believe Jesus' life was as busy as ours can be, but in different ways. Jesus didn't let the demands people were making on his time get in the way of being present in the moment, even to those who interrupted.

Several years ago, I attended a Wednesday morning Bible study at the YMCA. The class began at 9:00. My gym bag and purse were slung over my shoulder, ready to leave when the phone rang. I knew if I answered the call I would be late. I picked up the phone and listened to a friend who needed someone to listen. I couldn't say to her, "I'm sorry I can't talk now, I need to go to Bible study so I can learn how Jesus loved and cared for others." So we spoke for ten minutes, then twenty minutes. Finally forty-five minutes later we finished and agreed to meet the next day to continue the discussion.

I drove to the YMCA anyway, arriving for the last five minutes of the study. I don't know what I missed during class that day, but I know I'm glad I didn't miss a a chance to follow Jesus' example to pause, set aside what I was doing and be present to my friend that day.

Reflection Questions

1. Is it easy or hard to set aside our daily agendas when someone needs our help?

2. Have you been late to an activity because you paused to listen to a friend or family member? How does allowing time for others unexpectedly make you feel?

3. When have you ignored someone to continue with your plans? Do you regret taking time to be present?

Prayer: Loving and caring God, help me follow the example of Jesus as I encounter people - both those who I plan to see and those who randomly cross my path. Guide me to set aside my agenda and respond to others. Amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Jesus Wrote

Jesus preached, blessed, ate, celebrated, walked, talked and ........ wrote!

John chapter 8:1-11, described an encounter Jesus had with teachers of the law and Pharisees who asked about a woman caught in adultery. The punishment according to Jewish law was stoning. Before he responded, Jesus took a minute to write in the sand. Verse 6: "But he (Jesus) bent over and wrote on the ground with his finger."

Jesus knows the importance of the answer, so he takes a moment to write.

"As they stood there asking him questions, he straightens up and says to them, "Whichever one of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her." (verse 7)

After he answers the teachers and Pharisees, he bends over again to write on the ground.

We don't know what Jesus wrote, but he did give the example to pause and reflect before answering.

The End of Reflection

On Sunday, June 12, 2016, The New York Times featured an article by Teddy Wayne called "The End of Reflection." The author recognized a change in his life. In the past when he had extra time, he would "observe or think about my surroundings or take a walk."

Now he notes, "I pick up my phone to check a notification, browse and read the internet, text, use an app or listen to audio (or on rare occasions, engage in an old-fashioned 'telephone call'). The last remaining place I'm guaranteed to be alone with my thoughts is in the shower."

Wayne quotes Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, "As our technologies increase the intensity of stimulation and the flow of new things, we adapt to that pace. We become less patient. When moments without stimulation arise, we start to feel panicked and don't know what to do with them, because we've trained ourselves to expect this stimulation."

Carr sees the use of the internet and other electronics  as "the loss of the contemplative mind."

We need a contemplative mind to stay in touch with God. If we go with the trends Wayne and Carr are  noting in their article and book, we are doomed to shallow thinking and impatient attitudes.

AARP

The January, 2016, issue of American Association of Retired Persons included a short article, "The Write Way to Slow Down." The article explains, 'One thing proved to help you slow down is writing your thoughts and feelings in longhand. On paper. It's not just writing; it's taking time to think and process recent life events. The ritual is an effective way for you to analyze situations creatively and to stay centered during difficult times.

There it is again. Writing. The way to slow down.

Jesus modeled it well for us and John captured the moment of writing in the sand.

Returning to Jesus

Jesus knew the Pharisees and teachers of the law were waiting for an answer. Jesus realized the importance of the question required careful thought so he paused, twice, to write on the ground. They were expecting consent to the Jewish law, so Jesus' answer stunned them when he offered compassion and forgiveness.

Of course, no one knows what Jesus wrote before or after he responded or if he wrote something to the woman, to those asking the question, or to God the father. Perhaps he wrote a prayer asking for wisdom prior to his answer and a prayer of gratitude afterwards. No one knows.

Jesus offers a model to use not only when we are involved in thought-provoking or difficult conversations or responding to a question with a friend, at work, at church or other places.

1. Take a moment to pause before replying. Collecting thoughts and organizing how to phrase an answer can result in an effective and meaningful response.

2. Offer a quick prayer for guidance.

3. Write down a few thoughts - after all, the article reminds us that writing slows us down.

4. Say a short prayer of gratitude for God's help after replying.

Slowing down in today's fast-paced world is a challenge, but necessary. Companionship with God demands times of silence, contemplation and reflection to grow deeper in faith and hear God's voice.

For Your Reflection

1. What do you think Jesus wrote in the sand?
2. How can you incorporate Jesus' model of writing before replying to everyday life?
3. What is the value of writing for you?

Prayer: God, advances in communication seem to discourage the contemplative mind. How can we weigh seriously and listen to your voice as we talk with others and consider matters of importance? Help us to use Jesus' model of pausing and writing in our interaction and during our time with you. Amen.