Sunday, December 10, 2017

Darkness and Light Simultaneously




Many scriptures designated for reading during Advent refer to light.

-  Isaiah 9:2 - The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

-  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."

Once I had an experience of light and dark simultaneously when Mike and I flew to Portland, Oregon, to celebrate our youngest daughter's thirtieth birthday. One the return leg of our trip from Denver to Indianapolis, we departed at 6:00 p.m. We flew in light most of the way; however, about an hour before landing, I looked out the window and noticed darkness gathering below.

I was in an interesting place 30,000 feet above ground with darkness below, while seeing light from the sun above. Remembering times of darkness in my life, I knew that despite what I was going through I eventually would see a breakthrough to light. Light was hovering above the darkness like I witnessed in the airplane - I just couldn't see it or feel it.

I am reminded of John's words about light and darkness at the beginning of his gospel. John 1:5 says, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

John is saying that whatever darkness we experience in life - our own sin, loss, challenging circumstances, impaired relationships - it is not strong enough to block or extinguish the light of Jesus, the source of light, strength, encouragement or whatever we need to get through life's unexpected events.

Shortly before we landed, the pilot came over the loudspeaker and said, "We are preparing for our final descent before landing."

As the plane got closer to the ground, darkness gradually engulfed the cabin. However, when I looked out the window one more time, I could still see light. I saw in reality the words of John 1:5. My experience holding darkness and light simultaneously will serve as a reminder and encouragement that no matter what I encounter, the light of God is there too.

Prayer: God, thank you for moments when we see and realize your truths through experiences in your kingdom. You paint pictures to illustrate scripture giving us an image to carry and remind us always of your presence. Amen.

For Your Reflection:

1. Even moments of deepest darkness have the light of God's presence. What times in your life have held light and dark simultaneously?


Sunday, December 3, 2017

Basket Name



Sue Monk Kidd is one of my favorite authors. Years ago she began writing for Guideposts and Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life. Her books include  When The Heart Waits, The Mermaid Chair, and The Secret Life of Bees, which was made into a movie in 2008.

Sue is from the south and her writing reflects the culture and tradition from that part of the country.

Her latest book, The Invention of Wings, is about a young slave, Hetty, and her mother, Charlotte, a seamstress who works for a wealthy family in Charleston. At the beginning of the book, Hetty explains that the family who owns a pregnant slave names the baby. However, when the mother looks at her child resting in a basket where slave babies rest while their mothers work, a name might come to her based on what the baby looked like, on what was happening in the world, or a personality trait the mother noted.

Hetty was given the name "Handful" by her mother. As the story evolves, Handful is shown to be a strong-willed, determined little girl who grew into her mother's perceptions of her character. Hetty is referred to as Handful throughout the book.

Most infants today don't rest in baskets, but in cribs or little seats that rock electronically. Perhaps mothers and fathers today who watch their infants sleep or play get an idea of his or her personality and find a nick-name to call the baby, reflecting what they see in the child. Sometimes nicknames stick and the child is called by this name rather than the given name.

Jesus' Names

When Jesus was born, we are told Mary laid him to rest in a manger, a container of straw for animals - not the most sanitary place for an infant. When the angel, Gabriel, came to tell Mary of her pregnancy, Gabriel also revealed the baby's God-given name.

I wonder if Jesus also had a "basket name" or "manger name," given by Mary and Joseph as they watched him grow during those first days and weeks of life?

Jesus came to be known by many names as his ministry evolved. Just like "Handful" described the  personality of one of the main characters in Sue Monk Kidd's book, the names given Jesus by those who wrote the Bible identify his character: "Prince of Peace," "Good Shepherd," "Bread of Life." These names go deeply into Jesus' core and give us metaphorical ways to relate to God's son.

There are over two hundred names for Jesus listed in a recent Google search including the following:

     - Lamb of God

     - Holy Child

     - Alpha and Omega

     - Blessed of God

     - Bright and Morning Star

My Favorite Name for Jesus

"Bread of Life," is my "basket" or "manger" name for Jesus.

For decades, baking biscuits has been one of my favorite activities. When our kitchen table was full with two little girls, I made a batch of biscuits twice a week to accommodate the appetites of our family. Bringing biscuits to others, something I like to do, conveys the love of Jesus and represents the name of Jesus to which I connect.

Sometimes during the holiday season, you will see a Nativity set in someone's front yard, at church, in a store or in your home. Pause for moment and if you can find a small set, hold in your hand the figure of Jesus resting in a manger.

- What name of Jesus from the list above do you connect with most?

- Why does that name have meaning for you?

- How can spending time reflecting on this name deepen your experience of Christmas?

As you hold Jesus, what "manger name" do you give him? What story is behind the name?

Prayer: Jesus, you came to this world and were placed in a manger. The "Bread of Life" rested in a food bed for animals. However you come to us in the name we call you, we hold you dear as you hold us close always from our "basket days," to our ending. Amen.

For Your Reflection

- Write the "manger name" for Jesus on a piece of paper. Place the paper in your Bible, on your desk or in a place where you can refer to it during the early months of the new year. What additional thoughts come as you linger with Jesus' "manger name"?


Sunday, November 26, 2017

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 holiday season 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 you talk to or even a person you may see, but don't interact.  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 holiday season?

2. How an 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, November 19, 2017

Gratitude All Year


Once again we are almost entering that time of year when we are encouraged to remember our blessings and give thanks. I've noticed, however, that I am reminded year round to give thanks and value the offering of gratitude.

Benefits of Gratitude

Derrick Carpenter in his article "The Science Behind Gratitude and How It Can Change Your Life" notes that those who have a regular practice of acknowledging those things for which they are grateful:

         - experience more positive emotion,
         - feel more alive,
         - sleep better,
         - express more compassion and kindness,
         -have stronger immune systems,
         - have increased life satisfaction.

He continues that expressing gratitude each day can be as simple as writing down a few words, and putting the paper in a gratitude jar.

Write It Down

A feature in the Wellness section of a recent TIME magazine (October 2, 2017), "New Ways to Become Healthier and Happier,"  suggests, "Write a thank you note, reflecting on a friend's impact can brighten your day and theirs," and "Jot down what you're grateful for. Doing so has been linked to greater feeling of happiness."

Five Things to Smile About Each Month

The popular "O" magazine, Oprah's publication, features a whole page in each issue called "The Gratitude Meter." In the middle of the page is a circle with the phrase, "Five things we're smiling about this month." An arrow points to a paragraph that describe  the gratitude represented in each photo.

We don"t have to write for Oprah to do the same, finding at least five things to smile about each month.

Gratitude Alphabet

One of my favorite bloggers,  Amanda Blake Soule (Soule Mama), has a new book that came out last month called The Creative Family Manifesto: Encouraging Imagination and Nurturing Family Connections. She devotes one chapter to gratitude and suggests trying a gratitude alphabet. "Write each letter of the alphabet on a large piece of paper and then decide something for which we are grateful corresponding to the letter."

Children and adults can enjoy this activity. Using the gratitude alphabet at various times of the year nurtures an  awareness of thanksgiving.

Cooking Gratitude

Lilly Burana wrote "Cooking Up Gratitude" in the July/August, 2016, issue of Women's Day describing how cooking a meal for her family used to be a chore she dreaded. One day she remembered that Sunday dinner at her grandmother's house meant wonderful comfort food.

She noted her grandmother "enjoyed cooking, her skills honed as the young, widowed mother of six." Lilly remembered reading this poem on a plaque her grandmother had hanging above her sink.

          "Thank God for dirty dishes; they have a tale to tell.

           While others may go hungry, we're eating very well.

            With home, health and happiness, I shouldn't want to fuss;

            By the stack of evidence, God's been very good to us."

My Experience of Gratitude

I presented a talk in September to a group of clergy spouses about "Staying Together Through The Tough Times." One of my suggestions follow:

"Live with gratitude. Keep a list each day of things for which you are grateful. Gratitude offers a different perspective than reality - that all is not overwhelming and difficult. Gratitude encourages an awareness of God's presence, provision and faithfulness, and recognizes goodness even when life is difficult."

The Gratitude Drawer

Six years ago I went to an antique store in nearby Noblesville, Indiana, and purchased for five dollars an old, narrow desk drawer, just the right size to hold 4 x 6 index cards cut in half. (See picture above.) I stamped each day of the year at the top of the card. Underneath the date, I record in a few words my gratitude for that day. I look forward to the time I spend reflecting on the events, people or experiences I want to remember.

Every Day Throughout The Year

Making gratitude an everyday practice, not just in November when Thanksgiving is celebrated, can fill our hearts with God's abundant blessing. Try some of these ideas so that you might experience more positive emotions, sleep better, smile bigger and feel more alive.

For Your Reflection

1. How can you develop an awareness of those parts of everyday life for which you are grateful?
2. Writing in a journal or on index cards can be reminders of God's provision and goodness throughout the year. Try it!

Prayer: Thank you, God, seems inadequate to describe the way you provide for us. We read numerous examples in the Old and New Testaments how persons in seemingly dire circumstances were given provisions to survive and thrive just like you do for us today. Guide our hearts to offer thanks to you for your generosity throughout our days. Amen.




Sunday, November 12, 2017

God Is In The Laundry

Many churches in the Indianapolis area support a homeless ministry by hosting fourteen homeless people in their church building for a week. Family Promise, is a nationwide organization that helps families in practical ways, starting with providing temporary housing. The families (adults and children) spend the day at the downtown office, where volunteers and staff help them find permanent housing and jobs. The families return to the host church close to 6:00 p.m., where they have dinner, play games and sleep in  Sunday school rooms converted to bedrooms.

Church members cook meals, drive the guests to and from the church, and plan activities for the children after dinner. The church provides towels and bedding for the guests. One Sunday after the guests left, I volunteered to take a couple of bags of laundry home.

Finding The Bags Of Laundry

I chose two bags, both of which were bulging in asymmetrical ways. Trying to keep my balance while carrying these bundles up the stairs was a challenge. I had to shift my position to keep them from toppling over my head and forcing me downstairs. However, the minute I picked up the plastic bags and held them to my chest, my heart was filled with God's presence.

God's Presence

I received with gratitude God's unexpected appearance doing an ordinary task. I took the bags home, dumping the towels, sheets and mattress covers on the floor, starting what would end up being six loads of laundry.

When I loaded the washer, I wondered who had used the towel or sheet I held. I asked myself, "What circumstances led them to become homeless?" I thought about the children who slept on the sheets, knowing how disruptive moving every seven days to another church can be to their emotional development and security.

The complexity of the physical, social, and psychological toil homelessness can bring filled my heart with prayer and compassion for these nameless people. I could touch them through the remnants of their stay and offer prayer as they moved on to another church.

When I folded the clean and dry sheets, towels and mattress pads, I prayed for the person who will use each of them in the future. I prayed that he or she would feel God close during this time of disruption and crisis. I prayed for a smooth transition from homelessness to home.

A Benedictine Experience

While I folded the stacks of bedding, I was reminded of an article I read in the March, 2004, issue of Oprah's "O" magazine. The author, Sara Davidson, describes her experience at a Benedictine abbey in Bethlehem, Connecticut. She was able to participate in worship services and eat with the sisters. She learned all work at the abbey was completed prayerfully and with love. Her last responsibility before leaving was to change the linens on the bed she used

She started by tugging at the sheet corners, trying to hurry along. Then she remembered how the nuns "put love into the cheese, the flowers, and the fruit they grow, the animals they care for, the shawls they weave, and the honey they make. Why not put love into the linens, for the next guest who arrives feeling shy, uncertain, expectant? I slow down and smooth the pillows gently, tenderly, as Mother Margaret Georgina had suggested handling the cheese. The material remembers." (page 242)

I have the assurance that the material for the next person will hold the love and prayer I put into washing and folding each towel, sheet and mattress pad. The material will remember and in a way directed by God will be conveyed to the next adult or child.

Thoughts for Reflection

1. Everyday tasks like washing, folding sheets, making a bed, cooking dinner can seem mundane, but when done with love and an awareness of God's presence can add meaning and blessing to others as well as yourself.

Here are a few suggestions of short prayers to say while you are completing laundry or cooking:

.God I pray your blessing on the person who will sleep under these sheets/use these towels/wear these clothes.  Come to them and give them what they need.

Thank you, God for this food I am preparing. Let it strengthen the bodies of those who will enjoy it, so they may be able to complete their work, learn in school and relax at the end of the day. I pray for those who do not have regular meals that agencies and programs may provide for their needs.



Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Confession at 22,000 Feet

A few years ago, Mike and I went to visit our daughter, Sarah, who at the time, lived in Denver. We walked down the ramp to board the plane and a man wearing cowboy boots turned to me and said, "If you're following me, I don't know where I am going." I laughed taking the edge off the anxiety that often comes when I fly.

We happened to share the row with this gentleman. Mike sat on the aisle, I was in the middle and the gentleman had the window seat. Mike brought a book to read, I had a small quilt to make and the man brought nothing to do.

Shortly after we took off, he started talking to me. He was going to Denver to spend the week fishing with his son, whom he had not seen for two years.

"I've been a truck driver for 30 years. I drive all over the country for a large company," he offered.

I asked a few questions about his work and told him what Mike and I did professionally. That opened him. He began.

"I've done a lot of things I'm not proud of. I fought in Viet Name. I saw and did a lot of things I didn't want to do."

I set my stitching aside to look him straight in his pale, blue eyes. He continued.

"I went to church, but people judged me for riding a motorcycle, for the clothes I wore, my tattoos, my job, my divorce. I want to be married, but I can't seem to hang on to a woman. Takes a special woman to stay married to a truck driver. I regret my marriage didn't last. I didn't go back to church. I feel what happens to me after I die is between me and God."

I listened and felt like I was hearing a confession. I told him I was sorry for his experience at church. I regret he didn't try another church, and will only know God when he dies.

He continued to talk as I pieced a small quilt for a baby shower planned for when I return.

"My wife didn't want the boys so I took them and raised them best I could. We skype and stay in touch that way."

"Sounds like you did a good job. Spending a week together will give you lots of time to talk."

"Yes, we'll have fun in the peace and quiet. I've got bear spray just in case!" he laughed.

"Oh my! I pray you have a wonderful vacation."

"Thank you. We will."

Our conversation ended just as the "fasten seat belts sign" flashed and the pilot alerted us the plane was making the final descent.

I took a few pins out of the little quilt, which grew as I talked. Quilting is a way I feel God's presence, and my piecing provided a holy backdrop for the outpouring of this gentleman's heart. As I folded the quilt to tuck away in my bag, I knew that all I heard and carried to God was recorded in the stitches holding the fabric together.

Questions for Reflection

1. Have you been in a place where someone has opened up to you talking about their concerns either about faith or life circumstances?

2. How have you responded? Have you set aside what you are doing and given the person your full attention? How does your response reflect the way God listens to us?

Prayer: Thank you, God, for putting me next to this stranger who had a need to express thoughts that lived deep in his heart. Help me always to stay present to those whom I encounter and keep me mindful when I need to pause and listen to one of your children. Amen.






Sunday, October 29, 2017

A WNBA Player, Philippians 4:13 and Me - What do we have in common?


"Tamika, come inside. It's time for dinner!"

No response.

"Tamika."

The three-year-old who would later become a basketball star in high school and go on to play for the University of Tennessee and eventually in the WNBA, was not ignoring her father. She didn't hear him. Shortly afterwards, Tamika Catchings was diagnosed with significant hearing loss and fitted with hearing aids.

Until she was seven, the aids were not a deterrent to everyday life. However, when she started second grade, someone made fun of her speech, her hearing aids and her twice-weekly departure from the classroom for speech therapy. She felt different and often walked home crying at the end of school.

Tamika Catchings, the featured speaker at  St. Luke's United Methodist Church one Sunday morning in late summer, began her message with the above story.

Philippians 4:13

The scripture she used was Philippians 4:13 - "I can do everything through him who gives me strength." She described the challenges she faced in elementary school, moving four times before she was seven, including a year in Italy where her father played for an Italian professional basketball team; her parents' divorce when she was in the sixth grade; adjusting to life with a hearing loss, especially after she threw her hearing aids into a grassy field one day on the way home from school.

Each time, she wove in the verse from Philippians, that she can do all things through him who gives her strength.

Her parents couldn't afford to purchase another set of aids, so she had to sit in the front row of the classroom and concentrate intensely while the teacher spoke. She became a proficient lip-reader. Despite these difficulties, she excelled in academics through junior high and high school, and on the basketball court as well. God gave her strength.

When she was in the seventh grade, she told her parents she wanted to play in the NBA (there was no WNBA at that time). They replied, "If anyone can, you can!" She believed them and took on the words of Philippians 4:13. Despite her hearing loss, and occasional injuries, she focused on how God could help in all parts of her life. "I can do all things" encouraged her daily, enabling her to reach seemingly insurmountable goals.

My Experience with Philippians 4:13

Reflecting on Tamika Catching's story later Sunday afternoon brought back a time when this scripture carried me through a series of difficult days in January 2013.

My father died on Friday, January 11 of that year. Shortly after Mike and I arrived in Columbus, Ohio, for his funeral the following Tuesday, my mother entered hospice care, the night of my father's visitation.

On the way to my father's funeral, Mike and I decided to stop by the nursing home to check on my mother. When we entered the facility, I asked for a chaplain to come to her room, as I felt the need of spiritual support along this uncharted path.

I walked down the hallway as if I were walking into a lion's den, not knowing what to expect due to the complex, dysfunctional relationship I shared with my parents. With each step, I kept breathing deeply God'swords, "I can do everything through him who gives me strength."

The Presence of God Gives Strength

God's presence came quickly preparing me for what I would encounter.

We found my mother agitated, thrashing from side-to-side in bed and moaning as if in pain. I pulled a chair to her side and put my hand on her left shoulder just as the chaplain appeared. The nurse in charge of her care said, "I'll go get a shot with some medication to calm her."

Even though her eyes were closed, I started talking close to her ear, knowing she could hear until the end. I told her it was fine for her to leave, to join my father, her father and her three siblings. Then I spent time talking about her mother, who died from diphtheria when my mother was seven. I believed most of my mother's emotional difficulties in life came from the loss of her mother and subsequent lack of nurturing.

"Your mother is waiting to hug you, and hold you, Mother," I said. "You will be with your mother forever.

Gradually, I could feel the tension in my mother's shoulder lessen as I talked. She stopped thrashing and moaning, and by the time the nurse returned, I told her the shot wasn't necessary. She could see for herself the change in my mother's demeanor.

The chaplain said a prayer, and as we left to attend my father's funeral, he said, "You sure must come from a loving family."

Strength in Being Misunderstood

"Oh, my!" I thought. I remembered my longing for a mother who was emotionally present that began when I was six or seven. She was not there for me. She could not provide strength and did not provide protection when I needed it most. No, I did not come from a loving family; I am, however, strengthened by a loving God.

I walked to the car, grateful to provide what my mother needed during the last hours of her life. I would never have been able to do this on my own; I needed God's strength and direction. With God, I could offer comfort. With God, I can do all things, but only because God gives me strength.

She died less than four hours later.

Tamika Catchings and Me

Although our situations were different, Tamika Catchings and I found strength beyond our own capabilities to face the experiences and challenges that life brought. I am so grateful God heard the cry of my heart and provided so generously on a day that was filled with complicated and complex emotions.

We can do all things through God, who will strengthen us in a range of situations, from giving a teen the vision to join the WNBA to a woman sitting at her mother's side, offering comfort to someone who was unable to offer comfort to her own child.

This is God's promise. This is God's strength.

For Your Reflection

1. Challenging experiences come from all parts of life - our families, our work, our church, dealing with our own sinful nature. What scripture has provided strength to you?

2. Describe a time when you have needed extraordinary strength.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for becoming real to us when we feel weak or when we struggle. We have assurance you will provide for our needs and you do! For the ways you care for us, we are always grateful. Help us remember that you are ever ready to help, no mater what is happening in our lives. Amen.