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.


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.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Full Circle with the Body and Blood of Christ

Mike and I volunteered to serve communion on World Communion Sunday, October 1. We were assigned to the right balcony on the east side of the sanctuary.

We normally sit on the main level, so being placed "above" gave us a new perspective on worship. After the sermon, we left our pew and went to a small table in the hallway where we found a chalice filled with grape juice and a loaf of bread wrapped with a burgundy towel.

After the communion liturgy, the congregation began to make their way to where we were standing.

"The body of Christ broken for you," I said, handing a small piece of bread to each person.

"The blood of Christ shed for you," Mike said as each person dipped his or her piece of bread in the juice.

The last three people to take communion were people we knew from the last church Mike pastored: John, and his son, Sam, and Sam's wife.

A Thought from the Past

As we were driving home after the service, Mike commented, "The last time I gave communion to John, he was one of he people making life difficult at the church. What a difference twenty-one years makes."

In 1997, after Mike had been at Fishers UMC for a year, a lesbian couple became members. Many people were uncomfortable having these two women and their son as part of the congregation. John and his wife, were among the most vocal in protest. Eventually over forty families left the church, including John and his family. Those days brought great difficulty to Mike as he dealt with the conflict.

Just a few months ago, Mike ran into John at Starbucks. They caught up on what happened in John's life over the years, including the death of his wife.  As they talked, John apologized for his actions and words many years ago, offering Mike a sense that this difficult situation was finally resolved. 

John came full circle with Mike over a chalice of grape juice and a loaf of bread. In the brokenness of the body of Christ, there is love, understanding and acceptance.

The body of Christ, broken for you... for us.

The blood of Christ, shed for you....for all of us.

Reflection Questions

1. Is there someone in your life with whom you've had a conflict or disagreement?
2. Have you resolved or made an effort to talk about the difficulty and come to a place of reconciliation?
3 Ask God for clarity as you remember and consider a new way of being with the individual.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for the way healing comes in our children. Grant us wisdom and vision to "mend our fences" so we can offer peace and acceptance to all. Amen. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Lament for a Fallen Bird

I peeked into the red-berry-laden bush outside Target recently and was startled to see a bird sitting on a nest.

Back in June, a white egg on the sidewalk in front of the bush clued me that a bird might be close by. (Read August 7, 2017, "Gather the Pieces," The White Egg on the Sidewalk.) I poked my head into the bush and saw a bird on a nest settled in the Y-form of a few branches. I did not see babies even though I checked every time I walked by. One day, I noted that the bird was gone. I assumed she left for home.

Now, three months later, I was astonished to find the bird again, sitting on a loosely constructed nest, her belly getting fuller with each visit I made.

I stopped and talked to her one day, asking if she was pregnant, but she just looked at me with large, black eyes outlined by aqua feathers. My visits to Target now included a stop by the bush to check on the bird's progress. I learned she was a mourning dove. One day I noted how the bird's body filled the nest to the edges of the branches.

New Birth

A few days later, I looked in the bush and saw two pairs of bright, black eyes staring at me from their loft above the ground. The two babies looked healthy, with their black and gray feathers fluffed out, making them look almost as big as their mother.

I continued monitoring their progress with each trip to Target. The babies along with their mother were a cozy trio in the Y of the tree.

A Discovery

On my birthday in mid-September, once again I ventured to Target for a few items. Looking forward to seeing the progress of the bird family, I walked by the bush. The nest was empty and one of the babies was on the mulched ground, scooting along dragging its legs behind.

"Oh, my!" I thought. "The mother is gone, and the baby has fallen out of the nest and appears injured."

I started to cry, wondering how a mother could abandon a hurt baby. On my way into the store, I thought of ways I could help the bird - take it to the vet or leave it alone, hoping the mother might return.

My thoughts were on this poor bird as I went from aisle to aisle until I finished and bagged my groceries. Leaving the store, I was still perplexed how to help, but I finally decided the best thing to do was leave it in its habitat and hope the mother would come back.

The next day, I was determined to check on the bird despite a busy day. Getting out of my car I was apprehensive what I might find - Did a racoon eat the bird during the night? Did the bird die overnight from possible internal injuries? Or maybe the bird gained strength and flew away?

I reached the bush and looked all around. The bird was gone. I saw no feathers or other signs of struggle. I looked up to the nest and it was still empty. My best hunch was that someone came along and took the bird home or to a vet.

My Reflection

Most shoppers were probably too busy to notice a bird family They likely focused on what they needed at Target, then continued with their errands and agenda for the day.

I remembered the first time I saw the mother bird on the nest in June, how I was filled with God's presence. I carried that image for many days as a reminder that God was with me and that God was in that mother bird as much as God was in me.

We know God created all things, animals, trees, flowers, and humans. I regarded that first encounter with the bird as communion with another part of God's creation. The subsequent story of the abandoned bird touched my heart in such a way that I wrote a lament (a piece of writing that expresses sorrow) to capture my feelings from the bird's perspective.

                                      A Lament for A Fallen Bird

          I fell to the ground
          From a nest high in a red-berry-laden bush.
          My sibling and I were chubby and strong
          Filling the nest along with our mother
          To overflowing.

          When our mobility increased
          We wiggled and squirmed
          Vying for the limited amount of room
          In the Y of the tree branches.

          Over I went one day,
          Landing on a bed of mulch and dried leaves
          Surrounding the bush.
          My legs broke and dragged behind me
          When I tried to scoot along using my belly and wings.

          My heart broke in the fall, for I knew no one
          Would look down, see my dilemma and offer help.

          The nature of my species is to abandon those not
          So here I rest, unable to fly
          I look up at the abandoned nest
          Realizing I am abandoned too,
          To live with broken legs and a strong body,
          Scooting along, hoping to make a life
          For myself with limited mobility. 

          The family takes off without me
          And I am left behind
          With God near.

For Your Reflection

1. Have you experienced nature in a way that has touched your soul and led to a new insight or perspective about life?

Prayer: God, thank you for the encounter with this bird family that in some ways reminds me of the story of my own family of origin. We can see parallels of our lives with what happens in nature. For God's presence in the bird and in me that brought about oneness for a moment in time, I am grateful. Amen.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Guideposts Blessings - God Cares for Every Little Hair

Skimming through an outdated copy of Guideposts magazine (April, 2009), several phrases from the articles caused me to pause. I grabbed a sheet of paper and a pen and wrote down the words that caught my heart.

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

In Search of Blessings

These phrases were exactly what my soul needed. I marveled how God seemed to magnify each one as I read paragraph after paragraph.

Realizing that I don't need to comprehend the main idea of a sentence or paragraph or even a complete article to gain benefit, I continued to read, gaining encouragement along the way. How many more nuggets can impact me? How many more blessings can I find?

A few months later, I picked up a stack of Guideposts at the YMCA offered for free in their lending library. The next set of words I received from reading the articles are listed below.

         I get quiet and listen for God's presence.
                 You know what I need.
         You never know what's going to happen, but you have to trust.
                 God will provide.
         Your sins are forgiven.w
                 I am called to be God's hands and feet wherever God sends me.
         I offered a prayer and sighed in relief.
                 I trust that God will make a way to find good in the most difficult circumstances.

Sometimes God reveals how personally we are known by leading our hearts along unlikely paths when we do simple tasks, like reading a few inspirational articles.

God Knows The Hairs of Your Head

Luke 12:6-7 says, "Aren't five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one sparrow is forgotten by God. Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth much more than many sparrows!" (Good News)

How can God know how many hairs are on the heads of all the people in the universe? Yet an omniscient, all-loving God has indeed counted them all. Surely that reveals how deeply and intimately God cares for each of us.  All of us are noticed. All of us are known. All of us are remembered.

How I Know I'm Known

When I've been directed to certain phrases in a magazine that are exactly what I need, I realize God knows and remembers me. Throughout my days and over the course of my life, so many moments could only be orchestrated by God - revealing how personally God knows and cares for me.

Reading magazines like Guideposts and seeing these phrases that stand out helps me realize others find God in everyday life, just as I do and their words, in turn, help me find God throughout my day.

Watch for God.  Perhaps, you, like me, will see God in symbols or shapes or interactions or in phrases that stand out as you read the Bible or a Christian publication. Pay attention to these details and I hope you'll sense God's intimate attention and care for you.

Questions for Reflection

1. What indications have you noted that revealed the deep, personal knowledge God has of you and your needs?

2. As you read the Bible or other spiritual publications, have you ever listed sentences, phrases or even a word that stands out? Try it!

Prayer: The expanse of people you have created is immense, God, and it's unfathomable for us as humans to imagine knowing each and every one. Yet, we are given the promise that You do indeed know each one of us. Thank you for being a personal God as well as one who is omnipresent and omnipotent. Amen.