Sunday, December 8, 2019

From What Perspective?

Many characters are involved in the Christmas narrative - even some inanimate objects. Here are a few I've identified:

    Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the innkeeper, the sheep, the shepherds, the donkey, the manger, the stable, townspeople, others walking to Bethlehem, the star, the kings, angels, other animals, adults and children going by the stable, Simeon and Anna.

From what perspective would you have liked to witness the birth of Christ? Choose one or more of these persons/animals/objects and reflect on their placement in the Christmas story. Use these questions as a guide:

1. What thoughts guided your selection?
2. How do you picture/imagine your choice?
3. Where is your choice placed and how do they move? For example, the shepherds start in the fields and move to the manger.
4. What type of interaction would your choice have with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus?

My Choice

I chose the donkey because this animal could hear all of the conversations between Mary and Joseph as they traveled to Bethlehem, during their time in the stable, and as they left for Egypt. The donkey would have been a wonderful reporter of the most intimate remarks before and after the day Jesus was born, writing an interesting and inspiring account of their travels.

For Your Reflection

In what ways can a change in perspective affect your experience of Christmas?

Prayer: God, we see so many people, animals and objects part of the Christmas story. Let us enter these scriptures so we too can become present to that day and time when Jesus was born. Amen.             

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Cancel Christmas?

(I wrote the following article which  appeared in the Indianapolis Star on Sunday, December 23, 2012, nine days after the shootings in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. At the time, I was providing occasional commentaries for the religion section of the paper.)
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I recently awakened earlier than usual and went to my desk where I pray and write each morning. The sky was dark, so I could not see the woods behind my house or watch the squirrels and birds. I am used to light and activity in the woods to help center in God. I was not expecting darkness.

No one expects darkness. The children and teachers who gathered a week ago at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, did not expect darkness when they left their homes earlier in the day.

Mary's Words Relate to Newtown

When the angel came to Mary telling her she would become pregnant with God's son, Mary replied, "How can this be?"

As word of the mass killing spread in Newtown, across the nation and world, many hearts joined Mary's question, "How can this be?"

Cancel Christmas

I read a comment in the Indianapolis Star shortly after the tragedy, some people in Newtown wanted to cancel Christmas, while others already had removed outside decorations.

Cancel Christmas? Cancel the time when Christians everywhere remember the birth of God's son, Jesus? Cancel the day marking the arrival of the person called 'the light of the world;' 'the bright morning star;' 'the one who in moments of deepest darkness can bring hope, love, companionship, courage, perseverance, comfort and light?' Cancel Christmas ... when we need all parts of Jesus more than ever?

God Is With Mary

Mary spent some time thinking about the angel's words. The angel reminded Mary, "God is with you."

The angel reminds us, we are not alone; God is with us even in darkness.

I continued writing at my desk in darkness, until first light appeared. I could see trees and hear birds. Another natural cycle of darkness and light was complete.

Resolving darkness for those who mourn in Newtown may be a life-long cycle taking different forms.

Celebrating Christmas - the birth of the one who brings light, love and light - can be a hopeful reminder no one ever walks through darkness alone.

May the message Jesus brings be celebrated in Newtown to the fullest glory next week and in all years to come.

Prayer: Lord in your mercy let your presence come to all who feel like the circumstances of their lives are filled with darkness, without light. We are reminded in John 1:5 - "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out." May these words be our hope and strength always, as we seek you, resting in the manger. Amen.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

A Simple Prayer of Gratitude for God's Presence

The entrance to the limestone Benedictine Monastery in Beech Grove, Indiana, where I studied to become a spiritual director, has two words engraved in the stone above the door, "Seek God." I've kept these two words close in mind through the years when I have needed guidance as well as when I had reason to celebrate.

Not too long ago, I was faced with several days of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. I awakened each morning with fatigue wondering how I would make it through the day. I sought God in the early hours of each new day, asking for an opening of my heart so I could enter God's presence in a way that would give me grounding and strength.

Leaning against the dresser in my bedroom, yearning with desire to enter fully the adventures of the day ahead, God responded by filling my heart with energy to sustain and keep me alert to encounters and interactions that would happen as the day evolved.

My response to God in those moments, still leaning against the dresser, was a prayer reflecting my gratitude, with the assurance of God's participation in my life - even when my awareness wanders.

                         Thank you, God, for hearing my prayer.

                         Thank you, God, for knowing my heart.

                         Thank you, God, for your love.

                         Amen.


Prayer: God, these are simple words you gave me, a letter of gratitude, defining how you are with us, always. In our seeking, whatever our circumstance, joyful or challenging, we have reminders of your presence and you know our hearts even before we come to you. In your goodness, you sustain and celebrate our path each day. Amen.

Monday, November 11, 2019

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 his mother with both hands, his face speaking the language neither needed to say. John was scared.

I was 16 years old, teaching swimming lessons at a neighborhood pool. For the first session, which lasted a week, another teenager and I were assigned a group of five, four-year-old children.

Four children gathered, sitting on the edge of the pool kicking their legs, eager to jump in and learn the basics of swimming. John stood behind the group, gripping his mother's hand, wanting no part of swim lessons.

Realizing he needed individual attention, I said to my colleague, "Let me take John. The other children are ready to get into 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 reached both of my hands to this frightened four-year-old and with great courage he took 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 with the other children already bobbing their heads and dipping under water, but a triumph nonethelest!

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday Morning

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 the morning, John had caught up with the other children. He was using a kickboard propelling himself across the pool. He kept his head under water, but when he turned his head to get a breath of air, he was grinning from ear to ear!

Friday, with all of the children together, we taught them arm movements for the freestyle swimming stroke. They stood in the water practicing and before the session ended there were five new swimmers in Columbus, Ohio.

My First Gratitude

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. Now I had a whole pan all to myself!!

"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 55 years later.

Questions for Reflection

1. When was the first time you remember receiving gratitude? Describe your experience.

2. How did this first experience encourage you to offer gratitude to others?

3. How do you maintain an awareness of gratitude all year, not just during November?

Prayer: God, I thank you for this mother's kindness to me. A new world of gratitude opened in my heart that day. Help me be your agent of thanks to all I encounter and an initiator of appreciation.
Guide me in these ways to spread gratitude wherever I go. Amen.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Gratitude All Year

Once again we are 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 gratitude.

Benefits of Gratitude

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

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

He continues that expressing gratitude eah 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 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 feelings 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 phrae, "Five thing we're smiling about this month." An arrow points to a paragraph that describes 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 a few years ago 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 while she was preparing a meal, 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 with Gratitude

I presented a talk last September to a group of clergy spouses about "Staying Together Through the Tough Times." One of my suggestions follows:

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

The Gratitude Drawer

Eight years ago I went to an antique store in Noblesville, Indiana, and purchased for five dollars an old, narrow desk drawer, just the right size to hold a 4 x 6 index card cut in half. I stamped each day of the year at the top of the card. Underneath the date, I record a few words, my gratitude for that day. I look forward at the end of each day to reflect 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, October 27, 2019

Sharing Space - We Do It All The Time

Standing in line at the grocery store, Target, hardware store or any other place can often bring challenges. Sometimes, if we're in a hurry it seems that the person in front needs a price check or got the wrong size or needs another color of the same item or forgot one more apple in the farthest aisle from the checkout lane.

So we wait.

And while we wait, we deal with mounting impatience and frustration when we just want to get on with our day. Why did I get stuck in this line with these people? Why did I have to show up at the exact same moment?

Like it or not, we're sharing space with others in the world.

And yes, sharing space can be aggravating. But sharing space can also offer an opportunity to pray for those around us.

Try offering a general thought or blessing such as "God come to _________ (this woman, this man, this child)" or "Let ____________ (him or her) know the reality of your presence" or "Help this mother have patience with her child while she waits." The simple act of bringing that person to mind, heart and spirit, as we stand in line and share space can bring us new joy or offer a new perspective to the situation.

Sharing Empathetic Space

Recently, I participated in a yoga class held at the Indianapolis Museum of Art on Saturday morning before the museum opens. It's one of my favorite things to do. As I was waiting for the guide to take me to the third floor gallery where the class meets, my mat slung over my shoulder, I shared space with a woman standing next to me. She started talking.

A retired breast surgeon, she was dealing with the challenge of her children living in two faraway places: Florida and Texas. She was debating whether to move closer to one or the other. I listened, sharing my own story of a child who lives far away. We shared empathetic space as we waited for class to begin.

Sharing Soothing Space

Every week when I volunteer at IU Hospital North, I share space with anxious families who are waiting until their loved one returns from surgery. As I sit with them, I listen and reflect their concerns, offering compassion to soothe their anxiety. Walking with them down the hall, the final time for a reunion with the patient ends our moments of shared space.

Sharing Heart Space

Sharing space is about sharing my heart - opening my heart through God's heart. What an honor each day to be given the opportunity to share space with someone else.

A few weeks ago, I shared space in a funeral home. I stood in line to pay respects to a family whose 20-year-old son died suddenly. I starting talking to the woman in front of me. A winding line of college students who wore perplexed and confused expressions, surrounded us. The woman explained a few details of the man's death. "My son, was one of his best friends since elementary school," she added. With each word she said, my heart expanded to envelop her and all others in the crowded setting. Sharing space in this encounter reached the deepest places of my heart as I mourned with her and shared a common bond of shock and sorrow.

Sharing space with others can open the heart in unexpected ways - even those moments that begin with frustration can end with concern and care.

For Your Reflection

1. What places do you share with others?

2. What happens during those long or short moments?

3. How do others share space with you?

Prayer: God, we share space with many throughout our days. Sometimes we engage in dialogue with people; other times our interaction is silent. Open our hearts deeper and deeper to receive your great love, so we can pout out this love with listening, attention and empathy, for those with whom we share space. Amen.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

A Thank You Note - A Nice Surprise

A thank you note for a birthday card helped me appreciate the value of writing gratitude to others.

Every March, I send a birthday card to my friend, Katie, an energetic 88-year-old I met in a water aerobics class at the YMCA. Each year,  along with a birthday greeting, I write on her card, "I want to be just like you!" - meaning in my eighties I hope to have the zest for life I see in Katie.

This year, she sent a thank you card. Along with her gratitude, she said, "I think you are wonderful just the way you are!"

I chuckled when I read these words that led me to pause for a minute and consider the beauty in my life.

An Unexpected Thank You

A few months ago, I received a thank you note from the CEO of Indiana University North Hospital, Randy, expressing gratitude for the time I volunteer each week. I was surprised and never expected to receive a note for my service.

Next time I saw Randy, I thanked him for his gesture of kindness. He told me he tries to write a thank you note each day to an employee or volunteer at the hospital. I was impressed with the faithfulness of this wonderful habit.

My Own Experience With Thank You Notes

Although I didn't like writing thank you notes when I was a child for gifts I received at Christmas, I was glad my mother made me write them. I carried that practice into adulthood. I  taught my children to write thank you notes from the time they were little, beginning with scribblings interpreted as "thank you." I continue to write and send notes myself all these years later as a joyful habit - in fact, I cannot begin to enjoy a gift I receive until I write a thank you to the giver.

Thank you notes express appreciation, but not always for gifts. I have received notes expressing gratitude for leading a program, for vocational and professional support, for being a mentor for remembering a birthday or special occasion, and for support following the loss of a spouse.

I have written thank you notes for a meal provided, for gratitude of a friendship, and most recently I wrote a note to an old friend who gave me reassurance that a mutual friend's final days were pain free and peaceful.

Jesus Says Thank You

Jesus realized the value of offering thanks on three occasions: following the raising of Lazarus, before he fed 4,000 people and at the Last Supper.

Jesus learned that Lazarus was sick. A few days went by before he went to Bethany. When he arrived, Lazarus was already dead. Mary and Martha were grief-stricken.

Martha said, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."

Jesus replied, "Your brother will rise again."

Jesus, Mary and Martha went to the tomb. When the stone was rolled away, Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out. Lazarus walked out of the tomb with strips of linen wrapped around his hands and feet.

Jesus looked up and prayed, "Father, I thank you that you heard me." (John 11:41-42)

Then, when Jesus was preparing to feed four thousand people, he "took the seven loaves of bread and when he had given thanks, he broke them." (Matthew 15:35-36)

Finally, when Jesus and the disciples gathered for the Last Supper, "He took bread, gave thanks and broke it.: (Luke 22:19)

Jesus knew and modeled the value of giving thanks to God.

More Thanks From Reader's Digest

The April, 2018, issue of Reader's Digest, contains an interesting story, "Showing Your Appreciation - The Power of a Thank You Note Can Last A Lifetime." (pages 110-117)

Fifteen people shared their experiences of receiving or writing a thank you note. One was from a woman who'd been a mail carrier for 30 years. When she retired, she wrote a note to each of her 436 customers, thanking them for allowing her to serve them. On her last day, she was surprised when many hung balloons on the boxes and wrote her a thank you note. She concluded, "I hope I delivered all the mail properly that day, as there were tears of gratitude filling my eyes."

Final Thoughts

Last week at a funeral visitation, I saw a woman who was a member of Mike's first church. I met her in June, 1976. I remember writing her a thank you note for bringing us a meal after we moved.

Next time I saw her, she thanked me for the note and said, "You are just beginning to write a lifetime of thank you notes as Mike's career starts."

At the time, I didn't realize the scope of her words, but surely I have written a lot of thank you notes over Mike's 37 years with churches, because affirming people by expressing gratitude is a way I show God's love.

Questions for Reflection

1. Are there people from the past to whom you would like to express gratitude by writing a note?
2. Make a list of these individuals, and write one note a day.
3. Is there someone who has recently completed a kindness you want to acknowledge? Take a moment to write a note of appreciation.

Prayer:  God, you give us everything we need, beginning with the gift of life. You provide for us physically, spiritually, and emotionally. How can we ever thank you for your goodness and love? Guide us to live our lives so we show gratitude in how we respond and interact with others. Help us daily to always give you thanks. Amen.