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. 






Sunday, June 24, 2018

lt's All in the Hands - Baking Biscuits Full of Love

Crafting Happiness

"Crafting Happiness" an article in Whole Living magazine (June, 2010) speaks to the value of hands-on work to satisfy a primal craving to create solid objects. Kelly Lambert, a neuroscientist at Virginia's Randolph-Macon College, made an interesting observation while reading the Little House on the Prairie series to her daughter.

Thinking of the contrast between her own push-button lifestyle and Ma Ingall's day-in-day-out labor, she realized that hard physical work producing palpable results might be a source of pleasure. Ma's chores - collecting rainwater for baths, sewing every article of clothing for her husband and children - were no laughing matter. And yet, Lambert came to think, as connected as these tasks were to the survival of Ma and family, they were also quite rewarding.

She also notes that physical labor strongly influences well-being. Whenever we make something - bread, a scarf, a piece of pottery, biscuits, a quilt, art, "the brain's executive-thinking centers get busy planning, then happy anticipation begins, reaching out to other parts of the brain that make us dive our hands into action."

Baking Biscuits

I could identify with her observations because when I bake biscuits, I have quite a ritual that begins with the thought, "I want to make biscuits for _______. She is sick, celebrating a birthday, just had a baby, I enjoy being her friend, she is going through a rough time etc."

Then I light a candle to remind me I am in God's presence doing holy work.

Gathering the ingredients takes me to two cupboards. Pouring the ingredients into the bowl allows more time for reflecting on my purpose for baking.

Feeling the texture of the dough helps me know if I need to add more flour.

Finally, putting the dough on the kitchen table, ready to knead, allows me to add prayer and thanksgiving for the person I am remembering. Kneading my love along with God's love as I turn and fold the dough reminds me as I create I am not working alone.

The Pleasure of Baking Is Tied To Touch

About a year ago, an article in the New York Times Sunday magazine section (April 30, 2017), "It's All in The Hands" featured Dorie Greenspan, a young woman learning to bake from her mother-in-law, a professional baker.

Dorie described her first experience touching dough. "Had I been more experienced, more attuned to the language of baking, I might have understood that everything I needed to know about dough was in my hands. But my hands didn't know enough then. Today they're my trustiest tool."

I know this from my own experience with biscuit-making. The touch of my hands on the dough is a good barometer of the readiness of the dough for baking. They are definitely my trustiest tool too!

Greenspan continues, "Baking is handwork and for me, all that is joyful, comforting, gratifying and even magical about this work is packed into the simple act of baking biscuit. I practice a kind of meditation while I make them. I concentrate on how each step feels - not because it makes a better biscuit, but because I like having my senses on high alert, anticipating and responding to the dough's change."

I thought I might be the only one who thought of the deep meaning and beauty of praying with thankfulness for the recipients of each biscuit I bake, kneading love into the dough itself, but Greenspan follows a similar process.

"By the time I pry open the baked biscuits, cover them with strawberries and top it all with whipped cream, my handprints are baked into them. So are a large measure of joy and a small pinch of hope. Maybe what I've baked will linger in someone's memory or even make a new baker."

Yes, I feel like Dorie, my handprints and love baked into each biscuit ready to share with someone else. It's all in the hands, but I believe it's all in the heart, too.

A Reflective Activity

1. Decide on an activity that you want to complete with an awareness of God's presence.

2. Light a candle. Take a deep breath. Say a simple prayer, "God, you are with me as I _____."

3. Complete the task.

4. Reflect on your experience of intentionally asking to be aware of God's presence while you worked.

Prayer:  God, we find you in the everyday experiences of our lives. We don't have to go anywhere to have a glimpse of you because you are right where we are. Everything we do can draw us closer to you and enable us to listen more deeply for the Holy, a connection to the sacred. Guide our awareness so we can keep our hearts open to you for your words, your strength, perseverance, guidance, compassion or whatever we need. Amen.




Sunday, June 17, 2018

Showing Up

Showing up is a phrase I use almost every day. Just this morning I was talking to a woman at the YMCA. She mentioned her reluctance to get out of bed on a cloudy, rainy day to exercise.

"At least you showed up," I offered, "even though you didn't feel like coming to spend time on the equipment."

"You are right," she replied with a grin. "I showed up, now I am ready to go to the fitness center, then I can go out to lunch with a friend."

"Have fun!" I added, as she walked away carrying a thick book.

Writers Show Up

Writers are often encouraged to "show up" at their desks or laptops to encourage a daily writing routine even if there aren't any thoughts to record. "Showing up" means you are half-way to beginning another essay, short story, blog entry, poem or other form of written expression. Moving a pencil on paper or fingers over a keyboard begins to generate words into thoughts, ideas and sentences. "Priming the pump," as people used to say long ago, to get started, get moving or continue thoughts still works today.

Elizabeth Gilbert

Recently I heard well-known author, Elizabeth Gilbert interviewed on the Diane Rehm show on NPR. Elizabeth was promoting her book, Big Magic. When talking about life, she said, "You win already by just showing up."

"Showing up" relates to all parts of life, showing up to work, showing up to a friend in need, showing up for a committee meeting, showing up for a service project - the list is endless. "Showing up" relates to our ways of being present to each other even when circumstances are challenging. My friend, Ann, "shows up" to visit her elderly father in an assisted living facility several times a week despite having a less than stellar childhood. She perseveres in her visits to show love and compassion, energized by God's love.

Kara Tippett

A few years ago I heard Kara Tippett speak at a fund-raising even for the Megan S. Ott Foundation that helps persons diagnosed with breast cancer. Kara's cancer had recently spread to her brain and other vital organs. The foundation brought her to Indianapolis to address family, friends and others who had read her book, The Hardest Peace. Unfortunately Kara died a few months after she spoke.

While Kara was going through the last weeks of life, she and her friend, Jill Lynn Buteyn, wrote a book Just Show Up -the dance of walking through suffering together. Jill and Kara's book addresses the awkwardness that can come when a friend or family member is dealing with difficult circumstances or is dying. "Showing up" with a meal, or with a gift of time sitting in silence or holding his/her hand are meaningful ways to be present during the long days of terminal.

My Experience Showing Up Long Ago

I remember when Mike was serving a church in rural North Carolina while he was a student at Duke Divinity School.  One of the oldest members of the congregation died. I was so nervous about what to say to his elderly widow since being with people in grief was brand new to me. Mentally, I rehearsed a few sentences to say that I  hoped would offer comfort. When I saw the widow sitting on a couch in the living room,  I panicked and couldn't remember my "rehearsed speech." The receiving line of friends moved quickly and when I reached her, I recalled a few of my sentences, talking way too fast to someone who probably didn't retain a word I said. What was important, however, was that I "showed up", I was there, I spent a few minutes with her and in so doing held her grief, sharing her loss.

Reflections on Showing Up

Through the years, I've learned "showing up" for those dealing with difficulty is simple, but hard. Here are a few suggestions:

1. If you feel comfortable, a hug or embrace conveys love, compassion, companionship and support. No words are needed.
2. Food is always helpful. Waiting for someone to call when they realize a need for nourishment may not come. Difficult circumstances make simple tasks, like picking up the phone and dialing a number a challenge. Call ahead to make sure there is someone to receive your gift of compassion and care.
3. Send a card. Write a message of encouragement or a memory you have if a person has died. Sometimes I cut out a heart from fabric to include a tangible symbol of love to convey continued connection for a person who is struggling through challenging circumstances.
4. Let the person discuss whatever he or she desires. Recently, when Mike and I made a hospital visit to our long-time friend, Bill, dealing with inoperable cancer, the conversation centered around the ingredients listed in a container of Boost, his liquid nourishment for many weeks. Boost was important to Bill in these moments, so that is what we discussed.

God "shows up" every day. "Showing up" to God can take many forms - prayer, worship, singing, acts of service, participation in small groups, taking a walk, art or other ways reflecting our individual ways of being with God.

Prayer: God, you "show up" wherever we are everywhere and in everyone. Open our hearts to see you. When we "show up" and absorb you, we can "show up" to others in your name. Amen.


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Kate Bowler God Is Love


Recently, (April 1), I wrote about thirty-seven-year-old Kate Bowler's latest book, Everything Happens for A Reason and Other Lies I've Loved. The book grew from her experiences following a diagnosis of Stage IV colon cancer two years ago.

The spring 2018 issue of the Duke Alumni Magazine arrived this week with a feature and update on Kate, who teaches at the Duke Divinity School. The article reports that she is now part of a small group of patients receiving an experimental immunotherapy treatment which seems to be working. She has a CT scan every ninety days and if nothing has spread, if nothing looks worse - she gets another three month reprieve.

"She describes her life now as 'vine to vine.' She chooses the best vine available, hopes there'll be another one after that one, and gives her best swing, over and over and over."

She adds, "My own post-diagnosis world has brought me into a different relationship with God."

In the midst of heartbreak, she has been surprised to feel the presence of God more powerfully. "The only category I understand more is the love of God. Both the experience of wanting to be close to God and the surprise of the feeling that God is close to me."

The Love of God

The love of God is core to our beliefs as Christians. I remember when I was a child attending Sunday school in an Episcopal Church, a song we sang almost every week is the early 20th century children's hymn "God Whose Name Is Love." The verses include the following:

         God whose name is love, happy children we,

         Listen to the hymn that we sing to thee.

         Bless us everyone, singing here to thee,

         God whose name is love, loving may be be.

Carrying this song in my heart over sixty years speaks to the importance of the words as a foundation to my life. The song not only describes who God is - love - but also offers a challenge in the last line - "loving may we be" - how to live with others.

Growing up in a home that was less than loving made the words in this song even more important. I recall praying at my desk in elementary school or on the playground at recess and feeling God's love in my heart. God's love sustained me then and continues to ground me at all times.

Jesus Is Love

Jesus, the embodiment of God's love, models throughout the gospels how to treat others, even those who are outcasts or on the fringe of life. He affirmed others by acknowledging them as children of God, which brought healing and strength to those people who came to hear him preach and teach.

Filled and fueled by God's love, Jesus made an impact and modeled life by God's design.


Showing Love Unexpectedly

The church I attend has a small table in the front of the sanctuary filled with tiered layers of votive candles available for lighting. Every week when the service ends, Mike and I light two candles and pray.

On Sunday, May 6, just after I lit my candle and turned to walk away, a lady approached, crying. I paused and put my arm around her for a few minutes as she lit a candle and continued sobbing. She slowly gained control of her emotions and I left.

A few minutes later, I was passing through the fellowship hall or "donut room," where people gather to drink coffee or eat a donut and visit. I saw her and as I approached, her eyes filled with tears. When I gave her another hug, I said, "I prayed that you would feel God's love and presence." She smiled.

Opportunities for spreading God's love are everywhere and often unexpected.

Love

Dealing with a serious illness has shaken and changed Kate Bowler. She says, "I do possess a solid belief in God, but I don't call that faith. I don't know what faith is. I really don't. I just don't know what it means now."

Despite her struggles with faith and certainty, Kate is resting in the love of God to sustain her through these days as she teaches and is a wife and mother.

Although my path has not involved illness, a simple song in Sunday school launched me into God's abundant love and gave me hope when I was in elementary school. I hold onto that same hope all these years later.

          Bless us everyone, singing here to thee,

          God whose name is love, loving may we be.

Reflection Questions

1. What is sustaining you when life is hard?

2. How can you  model Jesus' love and the last line in my childhood song, "loving may we be" to family, friends and even strangers?

Prayer: Generous God, you lavish your love on us in the ways you offer care for our bodies, minds and souls. Even though we sin and fall short of where we need to be as your children, your abundant
love comes to us wherever we are. Let us be grateful for your never ending goodness. Amen.









































Sunday, June 3, 2018

Troubling the Water


Tracy K. Smith, 2018 poet laureate of the United States, seeks to raise national awareness for a greater appreciation of reading and writing poetry.

Tracy is using her stipend of $35,000 to visit rural areas where most writers are unlikely to travel. She says, "I want to just go to places where writers don't usually go, where people like me don't usually show up and say, 'Here are some poems. Do they speak to you? What do you hear in them?'"

The cover story of the April 15, 2018, New York Times magazine features Smith. "The meditative state of mind a poem induces, she believes, can be a 'rehumanizing force,' an antidote to the din of daily life, in which our phones continuously buzz with news alerts perfectly algorithmed to reinforce our biases."

One of Tracy's Favorite Poems

One of the poems she likes to read to the audience is "Wade in the water/God's gonna trouble the water." God's 'troubling the water' is a reference to a line in the gospel of John 5:1-7, testifying to divine healing. Sick people are gathered around the pool at Bethesda.

She explains, "For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool and troubled the water. Whosoever the first after the troubling of the water steeped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. Trouble on the surface of the water is a sign of God's presence."

My Experience with John 5:1-7

I've been swimming laps at least five days a week since 1975. Mike and I started swimming when he was a seminary student at Duke University Divinity School.

Through the years swimming became a place of silent worship as well as a great way to exercise.

When I studied John 5:1-7 a few years ago, I decided to begin by taking my hand and "stirring the water" before entering the pool, asking God to bless my time and speak to me while I swim.

Over the years, swimming back and forth from one side of the pool to the other, I've received insights and perspectives for my life as well as images to draw. I've felt God hold me close as I worked through anger, and resentment and dealt with other topics of concern.

Afterwards, I get out of the pool and shake off the water that still coats me with God and helps me emerge with a soul cleansed and refreshed.

God Still Troubles The Water Today

God still troubles the water today, with words for the poet, Tracy Smith, with insights for me when I swim, and for others who hear God's voice.

Reflection Questions

1. In what circumstances have you experienced "troubling the water" - God's presence in life?

2. How can you "trouble the water" for others?

Prayer: God, you "trouble our lives" every moment we breathe as your presence is always available no matter what is happening. We don't need water for "your troubling" to happen, for wherever we are, you are. Your troubling blesses our lives and keeps us close to you. Amen.