Sunday, February 19, 2017

Letters - Annabel and A Former President

When my 101-year-old long-time friend Annabel died in late December 2016, she left me a stack of correspondence that spanned thirty-three years. Annabel valued the permanency of the written word in many ways.

For example, Annabel and her husband, Grover, kept a guest book on their coffee table in the living room. Before family or visitors left, they were invited to sign and date their presence. Even little children who could barely write their names were included. The Hartmans valued all people who entered their home.

Exchanging letters was a way Annabel and I liked to communicate. In the short talk I gave at her memorial service on January 28, I recalled how even when we lived in the same town and the two of us could talk on the phone or visit, we still exchanged letters. Writing to each other was one of the foundations of our friendship, one that offered me an opportunity to preserve the wisdom, encouragement, and perceptions on life that Annabel gave.

Presidents Like Letters 

A few presidents read and responded to letters from constituents as a regular practice, including Barack Obama, who read ten letters a day from the multitude of mail that reaches the White House every day. Staffers carefully chose the letters that the former president read and responded to each night after dinner.

Obama describes the value of letters in an interview from the Sunday magazine section of The New York Times on January 22, 2017: “Constituents feel like you are hearing them, and that you are responding to them – that makes up for a lot of stuff. That kind of instilled in me the sense of – the power of mail. And people knowing that if they took the time to write something that the person who represented them was actually paying attention.”

The article continues:

“[T]he letters gave me permission to legitimately slow down, an opportunity for nuance and contradiction. I didn’t understand how meaningful it would end up being to me.”  
“By the time I got to the White House and somebody informed me that we were going to get 40,000 or-whatever-it-was pieces of mail a day, I was trying to figure out how do I in some way duplicate that experience I had during the campaign. And I think this was the idea that struck me as realistic. Reading ten letters a day – I could do that.” 

Barack Obama concluded, “I tell you, one of the things I’m proud of about having been in this office is that I don’t feel like I’ve lost myself.” He said, “I feel as if – even if my skin is thicker from you know, public criticism, and I’m wiser about the workings of government, I haven’t become …cynical, and I haven’t become callused. And I would like to think that these letters have something to do with that.”

Even the former president valued the communication he received from the American people represented in the ten letters he read each day.

Abiding Love 

I miss Annabel so much and can’t believe she is gone, even after living 101 years. I thought she would live forever.

At the memorial service, I showed those gathered my stack of letters bound by a tan string. “Here is a stack of many letters I received from Annabel. They are pieces of her that I can access whenever I want a ‘visit’ or need to ‘hear’ her voice again.”

A few days later, I randomly chose a card to read, dated November 5, 2009. She signed the card, “Abiding love, Annabel.” Looking up the definition of abide, I found: to remain, continue, stay. Although Annabel isn’t here anymore her love for me abides always.



For Your Reflection – 

Is there someone to whom you would like to write a letter, perhaps offering encouragement, sharing thoughts or recounting what is happening in your life? Take some time to get a piece of paper, a pen and envelope, and offer your recipient a treasure of communication.

Have you received letters in the past that have particular value? How do you cherish the person who wrote?

Prayer: Thank you, God, for ways we record our sentiments and thoughts on paper. This lost art of communication has permanence allowing us to read and re-read what has been expressed. Allow us to make room and time to record our thoughts and offer pieces of ourselves that others can refer to forever. Amen.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Power of Tiny Things

A quilt over one hundred years old hangs on our family room wall, pieced and quilted by a group of women who met weekly to sew at Center United Methodist Church on the south side of Indianapolis.

We lived in the parsonage next door to the church for six years from 1983 to 1989. Sarah was five years old and Anna was born a year later.

The sewing ladies met in an old farmhouse one quarter of a mile from the church every Wednesday from 10:30 am to 2:30 pm. Those who attended packed a lunch and took a break close to noon to eat.

A couple of times a month Anna and I walked through the cornfields between the parsonage and the farmhouse and visited the women. We admired their handwork.

Anna and I enjoyed watching the ladies make quilt after quilt, marveling at the speed and efficiency of their hands. Toddler Anna delighted in the attention these "grandmas" gave her as they stitched and talked to her with love and warmth. They even let Anna explore the space under the quilting frame that was like a little cave with the quilt-top forming the "roof."

A New Quilt Top

One year a friend of one of the women gave the group a stack of ten quilt tops made by her recently deceased mother. The sewing ladies decided to quilt each top. A few were used in the annual church auction while others were purchased by people in the church.

When Anna and I were visiting a few weeks later, the ladies announced that they were giving the almost-finished quilt in the frame to me!

I was astonished! We weren't moving, which is often the occasion for special gifts. They wanted me to have the quilt as an expression of their love for me, Anna, Sarah and Mike.

The quilt has hung on the wall of every parsonage or home ever since, occupying a place of honor and pieced remembrance from the hearts of loving women.

One Night

Recently, I was looking at the quilt thinking how it has been the backdrop for many Christmas trees and pictures of Sarah and Anna. I marveled at the hundreds of tiny stitches holding the quilt together.
There is power in each stitch, for if one or two come out or break, the quilt will pucker, hang unevenly, and its beauty will be compromised.

I reflected on the power of other tiny things - how an inch-sized postage stamp can carry the range of sentiments from one person to another. How the small cap on my tire holds the air and maintains pressure so I can drive my car. The tip of my pen enables me to record my thoughts on paper.

Jesus, too, speaks of the power of small items to explain the kingdom using a mustard seed, yeast, salt and a pearl. Yeast shows how faith will grow and expand (Matthew 13:31-33). The value of life in the kingdom is more valuable than hidden treasure or a pearl (Matthew 12:44-45). Salt reflects how Christians shine for God by brining out the best in others (Matthew 5:13-14).

Look around as you go about your day. What tiny objects do you find? What is the value of these small items? I can think about the importance of sugar crystals or drops of cream that flavor many cups of coffee each morning.

Every single day I enjoy the quilt given with so much love by the women at Center Church. I notice the importance of each stitch that holds the layers of fabric and batting together reminding me that tiny beginnings described by Jesus are the nature of faith.

Prayer: God, so many times in our lives we are consumed with big things - big house, big cars, big vacations. Help us step aside, alter our vision and bring us to an awareness of "tiny things" that can grow and deepen our faith, and trust in you. Amen.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Swamp Walk - A Poem

Slivers of ice

On the surface of the creek  -

Thin geometric shapes

Forming a puzzle,

In chilly water on a




The swamp is part of Ritchey Woods, a forest at the edge of Fishers, Indiana. A great place to explore in the winter and warmer weather.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Praying with a Cup

Most evenings, I take a minute to pour something warm in a mug and sip it. It’s an ordinary activity and I never thought that it carried any meaning. I was just thirsty!
Then I started taking a six-week study at my church using “The Cup of Our Life” by Joyce Rupp. Rupp shares how the ordinary cups we use each day can become sacred vessels that connect us with life and draw us closer to God. She explores how the cup is a rich symbol of life, with its emptiness and fullness, its brokenness and flaws, and all of its blessings.
For the second class, everyone brought his or her favorite cup to share. One woman brought a cup made for her when she was born. Another person in her late 60’s showed a cup she’d purchased when she and her friend visited Chicago right after college graduation. She said the cup represented the beginning of her adult life. The cup has held coffee as well as pencils and now holds a collection of extra buttons sewn in clothing.
One of the leaders of the group held out a cup that belonged to her recently deceased mother. She said at her parent’s house, everyone in the family—siblings, in-laws, grandchildren, nieces and nephews—had a cup they used when they visited.
When her mother wanted to pray for someone in the family, she went to the cupboard, pulled out the person’s cup, and held it while she prayed.
What a great idea, I thought, to “hold’ someone while praying by wrapping your hands around the contour of the cup.
When I got home I went to the cupboard where I got out the initial cups my children, Sarah and Anna, and my son-in-law, Ryan, use when they are home. Even Anna’s boyfriend, Brian, whom I haven’t met, has a cup. I can hold and pray for him too as he and Anna deepen their year-long relationship.
The cup is a container for holding something – coffee, tea, pencils, buttons, soup, or markers. But holding someone else in prayer by clasping his or her cup adds meaning to the prayer experience.
Suggestions for using a cup in prayer:
1.     Surround the cup with both hands similar to embracing the one you love.
2.     Take a deep breath, inhaling God’s love, exhaling any clutter that keeps you absorbed in yourself and unaware of what God is offering.
3.     Pray for the person who uses the cup.
4.     Conclude your time of prayer by asking God’s blessing and love for the one you care about so deeply.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for a way we can hold those close in prayer who aren’t nearby. Hugging them by holding a cup can connect us more deeply to them as we pray. Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Hearing God’s Voice with an Assist From Art

I subscribe by email to a few blogs - Charity Singleton Craig, Ann Kroeker, Laura Boggess, and (in)courage are a few of my favorites. Sometimes I’m disappointed when I don’t read a thought or receive an insight that I can apply to my life. In fact, for a period of a few weeks, I quit reading these blogs and a few others, telling myself: “These don’t apply to me.”

I realized after these few weeks that my attitude was distancing me from God, something I didn’t like.

Frustrated with my distance, I was desperate to recapture communion with God that has sustained me through many rough patches since I was a child.

How I Heard God’s Voice Through Phrases 

The first thing I tried was reading a few Guidepost magazines that someone donated to the chaplain department of the hospital where I volunteer each week. I thought for sure reading these stories of God at work in other’s lives would surely help. Well, the opposite happened. Reading how God helped others, I thought, “God is helping these people who believe and put their faith and trust in God, just like me. Why don’t I hear God’s voice like I used to? Why doesn’t God answer my prayer for connection? God seemed to answer the prayers of these people in various circumstances and trials – I just want to feel God’s presence?”

God did begin to sense my needs as I read each magazine. I would record a phrase or word from each article that spoke to me. Here is what I recorded from the April, 2009, issue:

  • Give me strength.
  • Thou art with me. 
  • Make good come. 
  • Bless my work. 
  • Lord, thank you. 
  • Open my heart. 
  • I need you. 

The first phrase I chose, “Bless my work,” carried me for many days, slowly rebuilding a foundation for a soul in despair that wondered why God felt so distant and far away.

One Saturday, feeling especially disconnected, I became restless, alternately standing up and sitting on the couch. Finally, I felt a stirring in my heart and these words came: “God is here.” I celebrated another moment of connection, knowing these three words came from God. God reached my heart with a personal message.

Upon reflection, I discovered that the blogs I dismissed and thought were not relevant to what I was experiencing did have something to offer. When I read the content more calmly and with an open heart, I saw that they contained scripture references, phrases, and perspectives, just like the Guidepost features. When I isolated these elements and applied them to my life, I gradually felt more connected to God.

At long last, I was back on track with God!!

How I Heard God Through Art 

Often when I am caught struggling, in turmoil, where I have no language to express what I am experiencing, I turn to art to give form to my disequilibrium and create an opening through the chaos.

These past few weeks when I felt distanced from God, I went to a box of fabric scraps resting in a box in my office. Choosing a few strips, I held the cloth and wondered how could I represent “connection”? After some consideration, I took a four-inch-long piece of cloth approximately two inches wide, folded it in half length-wise and then tied two knots. I repeated the same folding and knotting sequence with strips of fabric for many days, trying to re-establish my link to God and knot it in place.

In time, my heart opened as I folded and tied. Art was helping my return to God.

I am deeply grateful to God for helping me realize that even though I may not feel God, God is with me and guides me in my search to reach a destination – that destination is always the heart of God. 

St. Augustine said, “That which you are seeking is causing you to seek.” During those weeks, I kept seeking God, and God was directing that search, giving me tools to use until I heard God’s voice once again.

Prayer: God, thank you for navigating me through weeks when you felt distant and far away. You were guiding my way, offering ideas that eventually let me hear your voice again. I am so grateful. Amen.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Sheep Found Comfort

Comfort - to soothe; console; relief in affliction

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

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

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

Sources of Comfort

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

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

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

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

She smiled, "Yes."

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

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

Comfort Food

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

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

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

Your Go-To Source of Comfort

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

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

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

     - a favorite mug filled with coffee or tea?

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

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

     - music or the soothing hum of white noise?

     - physical exercise?

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

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

For Your Reflection:

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

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

Monday, January 9, 2017

Tree Cradles (a poem)

Tree Cradles

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