Sunday, December 9, 2018

It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

(Guest post by Mike Reed)

Read Matthew 2:16-18

I like Christmas music, carols as well as "sounds of the season." One from the latter category that I always enjoy comes from the late Andy Williams: "It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year." The lively, upbeat song highlights many of the things that bring joy to us at Christmas. You can hardly suppress a smile upon hearing it, even you are having a "Blue Christmas" day as "The King" would have put it.

From October onward we gear up for this most wonderful time. The music, of course, as I have implied, plays a major role as do decorations shopping, special programs, parties, family get-togethers, etc. It almost seems un-American if not un-Christian not to feel that this really is "the most wonderful time of the year."

Most of us know the familiar Christmas story, parts of which appear in both Gospels of Matthew and Luke. While the joy experienced in the two stories of Jesus' birth differs from the sentiments sung by Andy Williams, it is still there. However, that does not constitute everything recorded in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus.

In Matthew 2:16-18, which we tend to skip over for the most part, we have a downright horrible story. In a fit of anger at having been deceived by the wise men who did not return to tell him of the whereabouts of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, the king ordered the slaughter of all children in and around Bethlehem who were two and under. The story ends with words from Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled because they are no more."

Talk about "pouring cold water" on "the most wonderful time of the year!" This story does just that. Why did such a terrible story make it into the Bible? Who needs such a downer while we are in the midst of a time of celebration?

I will mention only one possible reason why the story remains timely for us. While most people enjoy "this most wonderful time of the year," others struggle for a variety of reasons: illness, loss of a loved one, broken relationships, unemployment, addictions, disappointments and the like. Such people do not experience the joy. Instead, they feel full of pain, remorse, guilt and more. The carols and "sounds of the season" that bring comfort to us pass by them like so much noise or even worse, open old or more recent wounds.

Keep that thought in mind as you move through these days. Be alert for those for whom this might not be "the most wonderful time of the year." Pray for them, speak words of comfort if you can or simply listen to them or give them a hug.

Prayer: "The most wonderful time of the year," can be a misleading phrase as challenges we face often do not take a break during the month of December. Hope can be hard to find amidst the lyrics and melody of this song. Remembering God's presence always, even when it seems "everyone" is rejoicing and celebrating grounds us  for these days. God is near, surrounding us with love always. Amen.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Mary's Hesitation - Then Consent

Read Luke 1:26-38

Do you ever wonder what Mary was doing when the angel came to tell her she was pregnant with Jesus? Artists, especially during the Renaissance, depict Mary dressed in ornate, flowing robes, with detailed fancy sewing on the sleeve cuffs and hem. Angels with large wings rest beside her.

The cover of the November/December, 2014, issue of The Upper Room shows Mary wearing a white t-shirt, blue jumper, white socks and saddle shoes. Her medium-length brown hair was pulled into a ponytail. She held a book, while an angel was next to her.

I have always envisioned Mary wearing a patched robe, a long braid down her back, her hands covered with dough as she made bread. She might have been thinking about tending sheep later in the day or going to the market while the dough rose, when an angel interrupted.

Her Hesitation

When Gabriel gave Mary the news about her pregnancy, she did not reply, "Oh, I am so happy. I've always wanted to be a mother." Instead she said to the angel, "I am a virgin. How, then, can this be?"

Despite her astonishment and surprise, Gabriel gave Mary encouragement by saying that the Holy Spirit will come and God's power will rest upon her (Luke 1:35). These are words of God's provision for Mary and hope for the days ahead.

Even though Mary experienced strong emotions (verse 29, 34) during the angel's visit - she's surprised, troubled and fearful - Mary has the assurance of God's companionship. She will not go through these days of unexpected pregnancy alone (verse 35). Comments about her condition may come, but that doesn't shake her because she finally realizes God is with her.

Often viewed as a model of obedience, Mary's question indicated uncertainty and confusion. The angel gave Mary more information about how the pregnancy would occur (verse 35) even sharing details about her cousin, Elizabeth's, pregnancy in advanced age as an additional example of what God can accomplish (verses 36 and 37).

Mary's Consent

Mary consents by saying, "I am the Lord's servant, may it happen to me as you have said" (verse 38).

We don't know how much time passed between Mary being deeply troubled by the angel's news (verse 29), her question (verse 34), and finally her acceptance (verse 38). Despite the shocking news she received, she was able to sense God's presence as she realized in these moments the mission God gave her.

Our Hesitation

We  may often feel like Mary when Gabriel told her she was pregnant, as unexpected circumstances come our way. When serious illness comes to a seemingly healthy person, when relationships are impaired, when a beloved family member or friend dies, when a job loss or relocation happens, we can be troubled and question, "How can this be?"

My Hesitation

I remember two different occasions when Mike received word that he was being assigned to another church and I received desirable part-time job offers. One job was with preschool children, the other at the county hospital. I waited several years for both positions. When Mike told me we were moving, I had to decline the opportunity with preschool children, and hand in my resignation at the hospital after working five months.

My Consent

I cried out, "How can this be? I've waited patiently for these positions, and now we have to move? Seeking God daily through prayer and reading eventually enabled me to give God my disappointment and receive peace. God's generosity was evident because after both moves, I was able to find employment in our new city.

Through prayer, we offer ourselves to God, acknowledging we need God's help to grow through the many challenges life brings, prompting the question, "How can this be?"

Our Consent

Eventually, with God's companionship, we can join Mary with acceptance and say, "I am yours, God. You are with me all of the time and through whatever I am experiencing."

For Your Reflection

1. When in your life have you said to God, "How can this be?"

2. How did you respond?

3. What was the outcome?

Prayer: God, how many times do we cry out, "How can this be?" when we struggle or when we receive unexpected challenges. Help us trust your constant companionship for all parts of life. Amen.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

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 mention "the busy 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 someone you see, but don't interact with. Blessings can come from others unaware.

3. See how God is revealed throughout your day in a new or unexpected way. Ask yourself before you go to sleep, "When did I feel closest to Christ?"

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 can 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 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.