Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Simple Gesture - Looking Behind

Tuesday, as I walked into the hospital where I'm a volunteer, I held open the door for the person behind me.

I heard a voice say chuckling, "Now my mother taught me I was supposed to open the door for you!"

Turning around I saw a tall, stocky older gentleman dressed in faded overalls and a blue T-shirt hold a single rose wrapped in florist paper.

Laughing, I replied, "Looking over my shoulder when I go through a door is a practice I started several years ago. You can open the next door, " I suggested, pausing in the entryway between the two doors leading to the hospital.

Many years ago I wanted to find ways to honor or affirm people I know as well as strangers. The simple act of holding the door for the person behind me to walk through is a way to honor Christ who lives in all and affirm a stranger who happened to cross my path. Not knowing what others are dealing with, I like to offer at least one act of kindness a person can remember from the day.

These lines from St. Patrick remind me to bring holiness to a common act:

     "Christ be with me, Christ within me

       Christ behind me, Christ before me."

Christ lives within me, so when I honor those who are behind and before me, I honor Christ.

Electronic doors open automatically needing no human assistance, but manual doors are everywhere, offering a chance to spread God's love to those who are behind. I step in front, and hold the door and in that moment, for the person who passes through, perhaps my presence represents Christ before them, and when I let the door close and follow them, perhaps I'm Christ behind them.

Prayer: Loving and caring God, keep our hearts open to serve others even in simple acts of opening a door, for all we do is in your name. Amen.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Honoring the Dead in Life

"I'm copying my own obituary," she said nonchalantly, while I was waiting to use the library copy machine.

"That's a good idea." I replied, Then I stopped. What did she mean by making a frank statement to a stranger? I assumed she's planning ahead. "You will have printed what you want said about yourself."

"Yes, I am an English teacher. I want things said the right way. It makes people uncomfortable, though, when I tell them. I met with the funeral director a few weeks ago, and he was shaken by my desire to make arrangements. He was young and new in the business. He wasn't expecting someone like me to show up. I have a disease. It's something we all avoid, you know."

I watched as she fumbled with ten or eleven sheets of handwritten papers, shuffling them occasionally, trying to get them in order. She had also spread two file folders all over the work table.

Helping Another

"Do you know how to work the machine?" she asked.

I showed her the simplest way to copy many pages.

"I'll move fast. I'm fast as General Motors!"

I stood back to take in this woman who opened her life to me in a minute. She was tan and healthy-looking, medium-built, robust and mid-seventies. She wore a black baseball cap, white knit top, black jeans and tennis shoes.

While a stack of papers went through the machine, she continued to shuffle another stack.

Getting Organized

"May I help you organize these?" I volunteered stepping over to the table where she was working.

"Well, those papers are my husband's obituary. These are mine. You take his and I'll work on mine."

I noted she numbered the pages so I put them in order.

"These are ready," I said handing her the stack.

"You go ahead and do your copying while I finish getting these in order."

I copied five pages from a book. I noticed she was still shuffling papers unable to reach any sense or organization.

"I'm done," I said.

"Thank you."

I looked at a few magazines when a librarian announced the library was closing in four minutes. I had not paid for my five pages. I returned the magazines to the shelf and glanced where the woman was still struggling. I returned to the table. "How many copies do you have?"

"Twenty-four."

"I'll add my five copies to your twenty-four and pay for both. The library is closing in one minute." She looked at me surprised, moving the papers all over the table.

Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak

Earlier that morning, I heard a sermon during morning worship at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York by the Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, an activist born and raised in South Africa. He introduced the idea of prophetic faithfulness which interrupts the flow of evil for the reality of truth of the reign of God. He continued, "God wills peace, justice and wholeness."

Boesak challenged the congregation, "Don't worry if you can't save the world. Every act of compassion and justice - every embrace of one who is despised - saves one life. Interrupt the work of evil and bring the light of God's love and mercy to just one life."

I remembered Rev. Boesak's words as I listened to the woman talk about her impending death. The evil in her life was an unnamed disease to which she referred several times. I did not know her name, but I saw her as a woman determined to leave her own impression about her life for friends, family, and anyone else who reads the obituary page. I can't visit during funeral calling, but I could show compassion by paying for copies of her writing. I pray my actions "made the face of Christ shine" as Rev. Boesak concluded happens, when we take time for one life.

Prayer: Help us take time to look around wherever we go so we can notice someone who may need love. Remind us to set aside our agenda and "make the face of Christ shine." Amen.




Sunday, July 1, 2018

Welcoming the Stranger - Welcoming Angels

Welcoming Angels

We arrived at the First United Methodist Church  of New Castle, Indiana, in June, 1976, for Mike's first appointment out of seminary. Young and ready to meet new people and begin ministry, we looked forward to hosting guests. The church arranged for Dr. Eli and Velma Hendrix to speak to the congregation on a mission Sunday. The couple traveled from Vincennes, a town situated in the western part of the state to speak about their work in Haiti.

Eli, an optometrist, and Velma, a nurse, regularly traveled to Haiti offering eye exams and donated glasses to the people.

Velma and Eli stayed with us in our small, two bedroom apartment. When they arrived, we were excited to meet them and learn about their numerous mission trips. Neither Mike or I were aware of what kind of outreach was happening in the small, poverty-stricken nation.

Velma and Eli were devoted to the Haitian people and had the resources to improve their quality of life. Despite having four children, regular trips brought joy to their hearts.

Mike and I listened to the stories Velma and Eli told as we ate breakfast before church. Their passion to bring improved vision to many people was strong and heartfelt. Our souls were blessed by their compassionate hearts and selfless service. We realized as we listened that we were entertaining angels sent by God to Haiti to do God's work.

After their presentation at church, we sent them on their way with gratitude for meeting these two servants.

An Interesting Twist

Mike's career found us moving from New Castle to Mt. Vernon, in 1979. After almost five years, we relocated to a church on the southside of  Indianapolis. Following that, in 1989, Mike was appointed to the First United Methodist Church in Vincennes, Velma and Eli's home church. 

We were excited to see our friends we'd hosted eleven years ago and to learn more about their church and family. When we drove into the parsonage driveway with our fully-packed cars, we followed instructions from Velma in a letter we received shortly before moving, to call when we arrived.

I took a minute to stretch my legs, went into the parsonage, and called our dear friend. Within minutes she was greeting us and welcoming us to our new community.

Although we weren't complete strangers, we were grateful for her warm welcome and prayed that during our time together at the church we could offer her and others in the congregation acts of love and service in God's name. 

Reflection

Welcoming strangers - new neighbors, new people at church or work - can sometimes feel scary. However, listen to where God may be leading as you interact with new people who were sent to you by God. Invite them to your home for dessert to make connections, hear new thoughts or ideas and possibly bring an angelic presence to your home and heart.

Hebrews 13:2 - Remember to welcome strangers in your homes. There were some who did that and welcomed angels without knowing.

Angel: (noun) a person who performs a mission of God or acts as if sent by God.

Prayer: God, you direct us to love one another as you have loved us. We see how Jesus modeled hospitality and love in the way he greeted all whom he encountered. Give us boldness to invite others in your name so that our souls can be stirred, our hearts blessed and new perspectives welcomed as we grow closer to you and others in the kingdom. Amen. 






Sunday, June 24, 2018

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

Crafting Happiness

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

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

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

Baking Biscuits

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

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

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

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

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

The Pleasure of Baking Is Tied To Touch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Reflective Activity

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

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

3. Complete the task.

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

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




Sunday, June 17, 2018

Showing Up

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

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

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

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

Writers Show Up

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

Elizabeth Gilbert

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

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

Kara Tippett

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

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

My Experience Showing Up Long Ago

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

Reflections on Showing Up

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

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

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

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


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Kate Bowler God Is Love


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

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

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

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

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

The Love of God

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

         God whose name is love, happy children we,

         Listen to the hymn that we sing to thee.

         Bless us everyone, singing here to thee,

         God whose name is love, loving may be be.

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

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

Jesus Is Love

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

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


Showing Love Unexpectedly

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

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

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

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

Love

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

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

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

          Bless us everyone, singing here to thee,

          God whose name is love, loving may we be.

Reflection Questions

1. What is sustaining you when life is hard?

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

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









































Sunday, June 3, 2018

Troubling the Water


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

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

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

One of Tracy's Favorite Poems

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

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

My Experience with John 5:1-7

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

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

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

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

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

God Still Troubles The Water Today

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

Reflection Questions

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

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

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


Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Barking to the Choir - Father Greg Boyle


During the last two weeks of April, the local public radio station conducted the semi-annual pledge drive to raise funds for programming.

One day during this period, Terry Gross' show, "Fresh Air," was re-broadcast of a November 17, 2017, interview with Father Greg Boyle. Father Boyle founded Homeboy Industries in downtown Los Angeles, the largest gang intervention program in the world. He has also written two books, Tattoo on the Heart - The Power of Boundless Compassion (2011) and Barking to the Choir - The Power of Radical Kinship (2017). Each provide interesting and inspiring reading.

Mike and I heard Father Boyle speak in July, 2016, at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York. Last year, we took four gang members for ice cream, two men and two women, who were visiting Chautauqua for a week. We learned so much from them about developing positive life skills and gaining employment after being part of Father Boyle's ministry.

What Is Prayer?

Toward the end of Terry's interview, she asked Father Boyle about prayer.

"What is the role of prayer in your life?" she asked.

He replied when he was a child, his prayers were rote and petitionary, such as "Please help me pass my math test since I didn't have time to study."

As he grew older, his prayer life changed and became more meditative using mantras such as "resting in You, resting in me." He says, "Prayer helps me find God at the center of my life."

Now that statement is a far cry from a petitionary prayer asking God for something to happen. Father Boyle has moved beyond asking to searching and seeking God in his life through prayer.

My Thoughts

I deeply connected with his words as I do not make petitionary prayer. I bring people for whom I pray each day to God, but I don't ask for specifics. I believe God is aware of their circumstances, so I pray, "God I bring you _____," and let God work.

Father Boyle also acknowledged another one of my beliefs: God cannot protect us from adversity, but as we step into the wideness of God's presence, God will sustain us through any hardship that comes our way.

Hearing Father Boyle speak again was affirming as I connected with the message he proclaimed at Chautauqua and then on "Fresh Air." I treasure the mile I walked with him on the grounds of Chautauqua as we were both returning from a meeting and heading to dinner.

Reflection:

1. How is prayer for you?
2. What does prayer mean for you?
3. Are you involved in petitionary prayer or in a style that seeks to find God at the center of your life?

Prayer: God, you give us direction on prayer in the Bible, but sometimes we come to you begging for results when we really need to be reminded and reassured of your presence to sustain and to guide. Give us encouragement to seek a new perspective on prayer and strength to try new ways of being with you. Amen. 

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Thank You Note - A Nice Surprise



Every March, I send a birthday card to my friend, Katie, an energetic 87-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 if I live to my eighties I hope to have the energy and zest for life I see in Katie.

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

I chuckled when I read her words that led me to pause for a minute and consider the beauty in my life..
Another Unexpected Thank You

A few months ago, I received a thank you note from the CEO of Indiana University North Hospital 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 this gesture of kindness. He told me he tries to write a thank you note each day to a volunteer or hospital employee. 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 habit from my past 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 them myself all these years later as a habit and a joy - in fact, I cannot begin to enjoy a gift until I write a thank you note.

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 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 share 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 not 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 I surely have written a lot of thank you notes over Mikes 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 and praise. Amen.


Sunday, May 6, 2018

Life Is Hard,God Is Good - The Beatitudes Reversed


Matthew 5: 1-20 - Now when he (Jesus) saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down.  His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying,

     "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
      Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
      Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
      Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
      Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
      Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
      Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

One day, Jesus decided to go up a mountain along with the disciples and teach them by offering a series of lessons, later known as the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon described the whole spectrum of life in the kingdom mentioning the poor and the meek, those who are mourning or hungry, those who are pure in heart or merciful, the peacemakers and the persecuted.

Why Are Those Who Suffer Blessed?

I've always wondered why the word "blessed" was paired with each of these conditions. Why are those who are hungry and persecuted blessed? Why are those who mourn blessed? Why would mourning or being hungry or persecuted be gifts from God? These passages seem to be a contradiction in terms.

I spent some time studying the word, "blessed," and reading about the interpretation and meaning of these passages. "Blessed" means divinely favored and receiving from God.

Those who are grieving, hungry and persecuted are blessed because they are not alone. God is with them. Being blessed means that when suffering happens, we can be open to receive God's presence, love, hope, strength and encouragement to help get through difficult days.

My Reflection

In my reflection with this passage I focused on verse four, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." Loss was heavy on my mind and familiar to my heart. I carry loss from my past. I was also mindful of the fourteen people I have known who died since August, some of whom were close friends, others parents of friends, while others acquaintances.

I recently received a thank  you note from the mother of one of Anna's friends whose son died after an eight month battle with cancer. Anna and I made a donation to his place of employment. At the end of the note she said, "Life is hard, God is good."

She was stating a beatitude about mourning in reverse. Jesus said, "Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted." Her comment could be re-ordered to say, "God is good, but life is hard," to reflect the language of the beatitude.

By saying, "God is good," she is opening herself to the vast expanse of God's presence, mercy, love, compassion and comfort in the midst of heartbreak and tremendous grief, that indeed, makes life hard.

God Is With Us

When difficult times come our way, being blessed may not be our first thought. However, knowing  "blessed" means that God is with us, we do not have to go through our days alone, for all that God offers is available.  God welcomes us into his presence.

Questions For Reflection

1. What does blessed mean to you?
2. When you have experienced grief, hunger or persecution, do you feel blessed?
3. How has God helped you through rough times with the assurance you are not alone, but blessed?

Prayer: God, sometimes you speak in ways that seem confusing. When we explore your language we have new ways of understanding your nature and what life in you can offer. Keep us always anchored in you for all life brings our way. Amen.





Sunday, April 29, 2018

Creativity as Spiritual Practice


"Creativity as Spiritual Practice" was recently offered at Christian Theological Seminary for the public to attend. The program was described as a "way to explore God's creativity and our creativity in God's image by reflecting on a scriptural text, using Lectio Divina, and explore creative outlets." Participants were asked to bring a few art supplies to use for their own expression.

I signed up for the hour-long class excited to explore the favorite areas of my walk with God, creativity and spirituality.

Preparing to attend, I gathered a notebook and a few pens. When I arrived, about twenty other people of varying ages were eager to share the experience.

"But I'm Not Creative!"

Many times I've heard people say , "I'm not creative. I can't do things like that" when it comes to putting together an expression of an experience. However, I found these words for those who believe they aren't creative in a copy of "Alive Now" July/August, 2013.

            "Unless we are creators, we are not fully alive. Creativity is a way of living life, no matter our vocation or how we earn our living." Madeleine L'Engle Walking on Water.

When the word, creativity, is mentioned, too often our minds go to famous artists, authors, composers and playwrights. However, as Jan Philips describes in "The 24-Hour Canvas" everyone is creative - it's how we respond to our lives each day.

          "It is blasphemous for any of us to say 'I am not creative.' All we do is create. We have desires, and we create experiences from our desires. We have experiences and we create stories about these experiences. We hear the stories of others and we are moved to tell our own. We wake up every day to an empty canvas of twenty-four hours and every night we go to bed having created our master-piece for the day. We can do this consciously or unconsciously, but we all do it nevertheless." Jan Philips from No Ordinary Time - The Rise of Spiritual Intelligence and Evolutionary Creativity.

The Experience and My Response

Opening the program, the presenter noted the Genesis 1:1 reads, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth," and God has been creating ever since.

She reviewed the steps for Lectio Divina or holy reading of scripture:

     1. Preparing - deep breaths, praying, relaxing
     2. Listening - for a word, phrase or image that calls to us
     3. Meditating - repeating the word and acting
     4. Responding - reflecting on how the word connects with us
     5. Beholding - God's presence with a prayer of gratitude

The scripture for the day was Mark 14:3-9 where Jesus was sitting at a table in the home of Simon the leper. A woman came with an alabaster jar of a costly ointment and poured the ointment on Jesus' head.

We were asked to identify a word or phrase from the scripture that spoke to us and create a response. The question, "How does the word or phrase connect to my life" offered further reflection.

I focused on the words, "as he sat at the table." I thought how a table can be a gathering place in a home. It seemed natural for Jesus to be at a table where people could come and sit and talk for awhile.

My creative response to "at the table" was to tear a table from a piece of notebook paper (pictured above). The table held a loaf of bread. I also wrote this poem:

     At the table, where we gather,
     To talk, to eat,
     We find Jesus,
     Ready to listen or offer a thought,
     And learn about our hearts.
     Jesus gives love and compassion
     In the midst of our day.
     Bread on the table,
     For the bread of life at the table.

After a few people shared their thoughts, we concluded our time with a prayer of gratitude by J. Philip Newell:

     God of life, who chooses creation over chaos, and new beginnings over emptiness, we bring to you the disorder of our nations and world. Bless us and the nations with the grace of creativity. Amen.

Listening, watching and attentiveness are important for the creative process and for life with God. Next time you have some free time, choose a scripture, sit with the process of Lectio Divina and open your heart to God. What can you create with God's leading and direction?

Prayer: God, you have created everything that is in the world. Help us join with you as co-creators to bring new thoughts, perspectives, greetings or more tangible forms of creativity to share with others. Amen.





































   

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Candle Hour



In the March 18 edition of the New York Times, I read "Candle Hour" by Julia Scott. She explained that when she was a teenager, an ice storm came through Montreal, knocking down a giant tree limb in the front yard of her house.  For seven days and nights, the power was out, forcing the family to use candles for their light source.

The author concluded that no one in the family remembers what they talked about or ate during that week, but they all remember the use of candles enabling them to eat, read and continue with daily life.

Now that she has settled in California, she started the practice of "candle hour." An hour before she goes to bed, she turns off all of her devices, and lamps, and lights a couple of candles, "enough to read a book or stare at the flame. I have a journal ready, but don't pressure myself to write in it. "Candle Hour" doesn't even need to last a full hour. I sit until I feel an uncoupling from the chaos or until the candle burns all the way down or both."

She continues, "Candle Hour" has become a soul-level bulwark against so many kinds of darkness. I feel myself slipping out just out of my day, but out of time itself. I set aside outrages and anxieties."

My Thoughts

Always looking for new ways to connect to God, I decided to sit with a candle in silence for an hour. Sometimes I have trouble sitting still, so I planned my hour at the end of the day, 6-7 p.m. I gathered some paper, a pen, a glass of water and a book I've been reading. I put away my cell phone, set the kitchen timer for an hour and began.

"My Candle Hour"

At first, I focused on the candle flame, watching it move and sway even when the air seemed still. I took a few deep breaths, inhaling God's presence. My heart filled with a deep peace. When I felt restless or my mind wandered, I looked at the candle.

I worked on a poem I wrote the night before and reflected on a passage of scripture. The first time I looked at the clock, eight minutes remained in my hour. I was amazed I sat for so long. I concluded the hour by reading a few pages from my book.

Reflections on "Candle Hour"

I can understand why Julia Scott maintains an occasional practice of "Candle Hour." Feeling refreshed at the end of the day gave me new energy for the evening. My soul was renewed a if I'd been on a weekend retreat. Clarity during the hour helped edit the poem I wrote. I received so much benefit from "Candle Hour." I am eager for another time in the days ahead, perhaps during the hour before I go to bed.

Suggestions for "Candle Hour"

1. Set aside electronic devices.
2. Decide how much time you want to devote to the practice. If an hour seems too long, try thirty minutes. You know what works best. Set a timer.
3. Have something to drink close by as well as paper, pen, a book, the Bible or needlework. You can also use this time to reflect on a passage of scripture.
4. Light the candle. God is here.
5. Take a deep breath.
6. Ask God to quiet your mind and open your heart.

Reflection Questions

1. How was your experience with "Candle Hour?" Were you able to let go and relax? How did God come to you?
2. Did you receive any new insight, perspectives or greater clarity as you sat?
3. Would you like to try "Candle Hour" again?

Prayer: God, when we light a candle we see a visible representation of your presence. We are also reminded that Jesus is the light of the world. Let us remember that as believers we carry the light of God wherever we go. Guide us as we sit with a candle to listen for your word or just rest in the peace of silence with you. Amen.



Sunday, April 15, 2018

Gather the Pieces


One of my favorite scriptures in which I have rested and walked is John's account of Jesus feeding five thousand people (John 6:1-13). When everyone finished eating, Jesus instructed the disciples, "'Gather the pieces left over; let us not waste a bit.' So they gathered them all and filled twelve baskets with the pieces left over from the five barley loaves which the people had eaten.'"

We don't know what happened to the twelve baskets of crumbs. One commentary I read suggested the disciples and Jesus ate the crumbs because they were so busy caring for the people they had no time to eat. Others say Jesus and the disciples might have taken the baskets to distribute to the poor. Whatever happened, Jesus recognized the value of pieces and did not want them wasted.

Most of us gather pieces throughout our day. We gather thoughts to put in sentences. We gather ingredients to make a meal. Quilters gather pieces of fabric to make a quilt. Carpenters gather materials to make furniture or a house.

Birds gather pieces to make nests. Recently, I took a walk in my neighborhood and found two nests in bushes. I examined each one closely, and noted these pieces the birds gathered: twigs, bright green plastic netting, yarn, paper, plastic wrap and leaves.

"Even the birds know the value of pieces," I thought.

Pieces are important parts of the whole picture we call life. Gathering pieces in many different ways throughout the day can bring us to wholeness in living.

Just like Jesus realized the value of crumbs or pieces remaining from the bread, we too, know the value of all of the pieces of our days. Each is important and can reflect the many ways God is present.

     When Jesus said,
    "Gather the pieces
     After the  meal" -
     He meant the crumbs,
     But the people
     Are pieces, too -
     Pieces of God
     Gathered together.

Reflection Question

1. Write down all of the parts or pieces of your day. How many do you have?
2. Thank God for your full life, asking God to bless all you do.

Prayer:  God, you are in the pieces as much as you are in the whole or complete parts of our lives. Knowing you are in all reminds us of the holiness of each moment. Amen.







Sunday, April 8, 2018

A Creative Study of The Prodigal Son




Second Presbyterian Church, a large congregation on the north side of Indianapolis, has always made music and the fine arts a priority, as much as missions or other outreach programs. I was invited to participate in a five week seminar - "Faith Expressions - an exploration of the Parable of the Prodigal Son through artistic expression." I was delighted.

The Seminar's Purpose

The seminar series looks at the Parable of The Prodigal from these perspectives - religion, literature, poetry, music, dance and the visual arts. Five faculty, all retired from nearby Butler University, direct the seminar - each taking the lead in one of the areas.

Rembrandt's portrait of "The Return of the Prodigal Son" (see below) was the central visual for the seminar.





What Will I Offer?

I was apprehensive sitting through the first lecture as I did not know how I could make a contribution. I listed myself as a mixed media artist which allowed me to explore different areas of art that I complete.

I asked myself a couple of questions as I listened to the introductions of the faculty and other artists.

How can I connect with this familiar story? What piece of art will come from my interaction with this text knowing that my background will influence the way I understand this incident?

Other participants were sharing ideas they had to interpret the scripture or to connect with one of the people in the story. I sat in my chair, getting restless, knowing that eventually God would give me a thought, but not right now.

The Idea

As I was driving home, God presented the idea of a monologue given by the prodigal's mother. The mother is faintly seen in Rembrandt's painting, in the upper left-hand corner. 

"A monologue, God? I've never done a monologue. That means I have to memorize my talk and I'm not good at memorizing. Oh my!"

Despite my concerns, when I arrived home, I went right to my desk and grabbed a pen and piece of paper to record the words. God poured out of my soul a monologue from the mother's perspective. A poem also followed a few days later. God provided abundantly.

Here is my monologue from the mother's perspective called, "A Mother's Heart."

I hardly knew what to think when he gave our son his inheritance - and then that wayward child went away to spend the money, who knows where - and we didn't hear from him for what seemed like forever.

Now all of a sudden, he is home. I haven't seen him yet; he's busy with his father and the servants, but I did hear him mention a famine in the country where he lived and longing for food, even food that the pigs ate, but he got nothing! And all of the inheritance is gone!

I will be glad when it's my turn to see him. I'm hesitant how he will respond after so much time. I've torn lots of cloth in my sorrow over his leaving, not knowing if I would ever see him again - so many strips of cloth, swaddling my heart with comfort while tears flowed down my cheeks. See the raw edges of torn cloth? That's how my heart felt as time went on, raw.

I prayed each day for God to keep him safe wherever he was. It seemed a useless prayer for such a long time, but now he is back! How do I greet answered prayer?

While I wait for him to come my way, I'll bake a loaf of barley bread. He used to like it when it was just baked. I bet it will taste good to him if he's as famished and starving as he says. Maybe he will look at the bread in a new way realizing that in Jesus, the Bread of Life, there is no more longing or being lost or trying to find a path through money and wild living.

Artist Reception

When the day arrived for the artist reception and program, I felt prepared to give my monologue.
To add authenticity to my presentation, I took a piece of lavender fabric to bind around my head. I gave my monologue boldly and with a full heart sharing the connection I made with this mother from long ago. The mother, a forgotten perspective, was now given a voice.

For Your Reflection

1. Take a moment to sit in quietness and openness before God.  
2. Choose a story. Listen to the story. Write down the names of the people involved.
3. Ask yourself a few questions: Which person stands out for me and why? What is the person's purpose in the story? What emotions does the story evoke?
4. What creative ways can you respond to God's word?
5. Share what you have done with  a friend.

Prayer: God, we come to your stories filled with curiosity about the participants and the message. Our hearts quiet and become open as we reflect on your words. Guide our creative expressions of what you have brought to us so we may sing, dance, write poetry and made a piece of art in response, realizing that what we make brings us into co-creating with you. Amen. 





Sunday, April 1, 2018

Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies - The Prosperity Gospel



I received a text late Sunday morning, February 4, from our youngest daughter, Anna, that David (not his real name) her friend of ten years, had died eight months after being diagnosed with colon and liver cancer.

David and Anna lived in Oregon, but after his diagnosis, David returned to the family farm in southwestern Indiana for treatment. Anna and David were able to spend some time together before he left.

Anna was updated on David's condition throughout the eight months, but the finality of his passing was difficult. Initially, she debated whether to come for the memorial service. Mike and I left the decision to her, but after much thought she decided to attend.

Anna Arrives Home and the Visitation

Picking her up at the airport Thursday evening, the day before the visitation, gave our family unexpected time to be together.

Friday afternoon, Anna and I drove to the small farming community where David was raised, arriving at the church an hour after the visitation began.

Anna was anxious and the intensity of experiencing first-time loss of someone about whom she cared was palpable. I offered encouragement as we walked through the gravel parking lot to the church reminding her that she possessed great courage to come and offer comfort to David's mother and father.

Although we had to wait over an hour, that time enabled me to observe how David's parents greeted each person with gracious hospitality, listening carefully to the condolences offered.

Our time came to greet the family, and I finally met David's mother and father about whom I heard so much. Anna was embraced with love and warmth. She spoke kind and consoling words despite her sadness for the loss of a long-time friend.

The Memorial Service

The memorial service was Saturday morning where several persons - family, friends, work associates, and a former teacher - spoke about a man who loved adventure and enjoyed fullness of living during his 35 years.

The Luncheon and Kate Bowler

At the luncheon following the service, I sat next to David's high school art teacher. She was one of the speakers and shared samples of his art as well as the impact he had on her life. As we were talking, she said, "Well you know everything happens for a reason. Sometimes it takes awhile to figure out why."

I looked at her and hoped she didn't share these thoughts with David's mother and father. I remembered a book I just read Everything Happens For A Reason And Other Lies I've Loved, 
written by Kate Bowler, an assistant professor at the Duke University Divinity School. She also completed extensive research on the prosperity gospel for her graduate studies, and published, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel.

The essence of the prosperity gospel is the "quintessentially American belief that God rewards the right kind of faith and that if you are suffering you must have done something wrong." (Faith and Leadership, Duke University - "Kate Bowler - Not All Pain Has To Be Explained," February 6, 2018).

Kate Bowler continued, "When someone gets sick or unfortunate circumstances arrive like a job loss, impaired relationships and illness, etc. the reason is because the person has done something wrong. Misfortune is seen as a mark of God's disapproval while fortune is a blessing from God - the core beliefs of the prosperity gospel."

My Response

In those moments of fresh grief and remembrance I was not going to express my opinion to this woman who a few minutes earlier explained that she was spiritual, but not religious - words I've heard before and believe they mean something different to everyone who speaks them.

Thirty-five-year-old Kate Bowler wrote Everything Happens for A Reason And Other Lies I've Loved
after she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. She says, "My body was failing me. Pain rippled through my limp arms. I was no longer proof of anything that testified to the glory of God, at least not in the eyes of the people around me. I was nothing like a sign or wonder." (page 19)

When asked in a TIME magazine interview (February 5, 2018) if she felt Christianity had failed her, she answered, "Sometimes it felt like that, in part because of the stuff people said using the Christian faith to be incredibly trite. Christianity also saved the day. You really want a brave faith, one that says in the midst of the crushing brokenness, there is something else there, the undeniable, overwhelming love of God."

I do not believe everything happens for a reason. I feel people say these words because the thought offers understanding, or they don't know what else to say in tragic circumstances or in a strange way it brings comfort to them and the suffering family.

I can't think of a reason for a previously healthy, productive joy-filled young man to get cancer or for a child to be raised in a home that is harmful or for a baby to be born with birth defects or for a child to have learning difficulties or for a shooter to kill seventeen students at a school in Florida - or any other tragedies and challenges life brings. There is no reason.

I can rest with these situations I described above for weeks and never come up with a reason why - as the teacher thought. Things just happen and there is no length of time to determine when an answer will come, because there is none. There are causes for tragedy, but not reasons - cancer cells start to grow in a healthy body; emotionally disturbed parents try to raise children; chromosomes aren't divided properly to produce healthy children; unstable persons use guns inappropriately.

God's Assurance

The prosperity gospel is inaccurate and can lead people away from God, who promises over and over to be with us when our hearts are crushed and we are broken.

For example, these three passages describe God's presence:

Deuteronomy 31:8 - "The Lord himself will lead you and be with you. He will not fail you or abandon you, so do not lose courage or be afraid."

Matthew 28:20 - "And I will be with you always, to the end of the age."

John 12:27 - "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."

Individuals can go through unfortunate events, and find deeper meaning in life. Those who know God can find the value of God's compassion, companionship and mercy.

Driving to the Airport

After the luncheon, Anna and I drove three hours to reach the airport so she could board an early evening flight to Oregon. She was so tired, she leaned back in the passenger seat and rested.

When we got to the airport, I pulled next to the curb so I could have a few minutes to offer last minute encouragement. I told her to be gentle with herself, to let her memories come through, write about them, cry, and take good care. I reminded her of the great courage it took to be present to David's parents, bringing comfort, expressing compassion and showing care.

Releasing my hands from around her shoulders was so hard. I wanted to continue to walk beside her as she processed the moments of the past few days as well as deal with her grief. However, I am depending on God, who offers compassion and mercy at all times to those who call upon him to care for Anna and David's family in the days ahead.

Questions for Reflection

1. When have you experienced the loss of a close friend or family member?
2. What were your emotions?
3. How did you respond to the loss?
4. In what ways do you help others who are dealing with a death or other trying circumstances?
5. What advice can you offer to those who are having difficulty based on your own experience?

Prayer: God, so many times tragedy and trying circumstances come our way. You are the first to cry when these events happen and the first to be available to console and comfort. Thank you for your care that settles in our soul when we are distressed or when we celebrate. We are thankful we can always depend on you and you are always there for us. Amen.













Sunday, March 25, 2018

Questions for Holy Week


Lent is just about over. Whatever you gave up for the forty days, you can resume in less than a week.

Typically during Lent, Christians are asked to look inward and spend time in self-examination. Here are a few questions for reflection as Holy Week begins. Perhaps as you answer each one, you will come upon a new insight or perspective about yourself  or God to carry into the days after Easter.

1. Where or when do I experience God's presence? ________________________.
2. What name do I call God? _________________________________________.
3. What does God call me? __________________________________________.
4. God's word for me today is ____________________________.
5. I need to forgive ____________________________________.
6. I am in awe of God's ________________________________.
7. I sense that God wants me to __________________________.
8. God is challenging me to _____________________________.
9. An object that reminds me of God is ____________________.
10. The greatest joy of my life with God is _________________.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for Lent when we can set aside time to examine our lives in your light. Thank you for Easter when Jesus becomes eternal light to fill our hearts each day. Amen.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Finding Sanctuary in Target



Looking for a quiet place to reflect on a rainy, damp Ash Wednesday afternoon, I skipped the library. Instead, I chose the Starbucks tucked inside the neighborhood Target.

Would I be able to concentrate and even stay warm in the coffee area just inside the frequently opening front door? I ordered my tea and found an empty table. No one else was around and surprisingly, the longer I sat, the warmer I became. Maybe the large cup of tea I clutched sent warm waves through my hands to my body.

New Scripture

I began to reflect on three passages of Scripture that enveloped my heart:

     - Philippians 4:12 - "I have learned this secret, so that anywhere, at any time, I am content, whether I am full or hungry whether I have too much or too little."

    - Matthew 28:20 - "And I will be with you always, to the end of the age."

    - John 12:27 - "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid."

I was grateful for the ways these new verses came after enduring a period of desolation for the past several months. I gained encouragement from Mother Teresa, who, despite feeling God's absence, continued to complete each day in ministry with the poor and sick in Calcutta.

My Own Desolation

When my time of "loneliness from God" began last December, I was led to a passage in Leviticus 25:2-6. God is giving direction to Moses about the use of the land.

     "When you enter the land that the Lord is giving you, you shall honor the Lord by not cultivating the land every seventh year. The seventh year is to be a year of complete rest for the land, a year dedicated to the Lord. Do not plant your fields or prune your vineyards. It is a year of complete rest for the land."

I, like the land, needed rest from  a year of teaching and leading groups just about every day at my church. I was spent and like the soil, I needed time off.

However, after a few months, when I felt ready to resume my writing and art, I had no words or images. My companionship from God through writing and art had disappeared and my heart deeply felt the loss.

My spark from God was gone and I wanted it back.

A portion of each day, I asked God, "Why did you take my writing and art away?" Writing and art had always been prayer for me. When I received no answer from God, I felt frustrated, angry and disconnected from the source of everything I need in life.

Then, one day, I was reflecting on my losses and those three new scriptures came. These words from God spoke of content (even when I felt God's distance), of Jesus' constant companionship (even when I felt lonely) and offered encouragement for a troubled heart and soul longing to write and create.

A Spark Returns

I finished my tea, pushed the cart around Target to gather a few items. To kill some time, I perused the book selections. Suddenly, as I roamed up one aisle and down the next, words started to come to my heart, describing an experience a few days earlier walking through an empty field littered with clumps of dirt and dried corn shocks.

Celebrating the return of my spark from God, I paid for my items and hurried home to get my tablet of paper and pen and start writing.

Encouragement

For Lent this year I am reading "Forty Days With Grounded:  A Devotional," the back pages of the book "Grounded" by Diana Butler Bass. On day two, I read the following words that offered encouragement and hope as I was seeking to make it through these barren days.

     "Every time I have experienced new depth or new wisdom in my spiritual life, the path toward the new awareness begins with a sense of loss of God's presence. God seems absent, unavailable in the usual places, elusive. I am lost. I have learned to trust the question, 'Where is God?' as a marker along the way. No fear. Only a sign to pay attention to the ways in which the spirit is speaking."

The author offered me a new perspective about my "wasteland," a term through which I was passing and finally, slowly exiting.

God Speaks at Target

I wasn't expecting anything unusual to happen that Ash Wednesday when I entered Target, but I left feeling my spark with God was beginning to return. As words tumbled out of a weary and confused soul, I knew that God can enter our hearts anywhere -  even in Target.

Questions for Reflection

1. Have you experienced God's absence?  What words would you used to describe this time?
2. How are you encouraged when God seems distant?
3. What practices help you stay focused on God during days or weeks of feeling lost?

Prayer: God, sometime we feel like you are sitting right next to us, while other days we feel that you are so far away. During these moments of drought help us stay steady and firm in you because we have the assurance you are with us always. Amen.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Seeking Spaciousness During Lent


Genesis  2:7 - "The Lord God took some soil from the ground and formed a man out of it; he breathed a life-giving breath into his nostrils and the man began to live."

Anticipating the ground would be muddy, I changed into a pair of old boots I carried in my trunk. The cleared rows were bumpy with large clumps of dirt defining the space. Dried corn shocks littered the ground, remnants from last year's harvest.

I was walking a cleared corn field belonging to a friend. I was struck by the spaciousness of the open field and yearned to find that same space in my heart. I quit teaching a few classes and leading a weekly support group both at church. I sought rest and renewal felt the stirring of my desire as I walked in the empty field.

Ash Wednesday came a few weeks later with the the reminder that humanity came from the earth and will return to the earth at the end of life.

When I received ashes on my forehead at the noon Ash Wednesday service, the pastor quoted Genesis 3:19 - "You are dust and to dust you shall return."  My mind flew back to my walk in the field where I walked on dust, dirt, as I traversed the spaciousness of an open field.

Lent began with a desire for spaciousness blended with the sobering reminder that eventually I will return to the earth. Keeping spaciousness of heart will be my challenge for Lent. On that cold January day when I drove back from the field, I already felt enclosed by buildings and houses along the way. I know I'll feel the same as I move through the 40 days of Lent, soul-scrunched and longing to open wide to God, to people in my life, and in the world.

Questions for Reflection

1. What is your heart seeking this Lent?
2. How can you reach your desire?
3. What image comes as you walk these days before Easter?

Prayer: Thank you, God, for the space of forty days to go deeper with you. Guide our hearts and give form to our desires so that we may learn more about ourselves and you. Amen.


Sunday, March 4, 2018

A Broken Chalice - That's Where the Light Comes In


Pastor David arrived carrying a small loaf of bread  in one hand and a chalice in another. He was taking time on this cold winter night to serve communion to our small group.

I reached for the chalice noting that the base had a huge chip, a broken edge. Holding the cup containing the grape juice, my fingers rubbed the sharp corner and wound around the curved bottom.

David offered a few opening remarks. As he passed the bread, he said, "The body of Christ broken for you."

My heart stopped on those word as my hands rubbed along the sharp, rough chalice bottom.

Broken Chalice, Broken Hearts

There was surely a lot of brokenness in the room that night:

          -  a young widow
          - an elderly woman whose husband lives in a memory care unit
          - a lesbian student struggling with a relationship with her partner
          - a middle-aged single woman grieving the lack of opportunity to find a spouse through the years
          - a gay man in a confusing relationship

The broken chalice reflected the hearts of everyone in the room.

Over the past six weeks, we developed a deep bond of trust and shared openly about the struggles of our hearts and the brokenness of the past and present.  We offered encouragement and hope to each other.

Oneness in Brokenness

When I noticed the chipped chalice and heard the words, "The body of Christ broken for you," I realized in those moments that Jesus' broken body became one with the brokenness each person carried. Sharing communion strengthened the connection we had with each other and brought God deeper into our lives.

I was reminded of the word of Leonard Cohen's song, "Anthem:"

          Ring the bells that still can ring

          Forget your perfect offering

          There is a crack, a crack in everything,

         That's how the light gets in.

Similar thoughts from the poet, Rumi:

          The wound is the place where the light enters you. 

Leonard Cohen and Rumi offer messages of hope in darkness.

Light Shines in the Darkness

Our brokenness can be hard, challenging, life-altering, but in those cracks, light flows through, to offer strength and hope, bringing ways to cope. We are also reminded that Jesus, too, was broken. The light of Resurrection came into Jesus' crucified body, just like light comes to us.

Everyone in my group welcomed the light of communion into their brokenness, carrying the assurance that they are not alone as the go through their days. Light shines in the darkness as they live the words from John 1:5 - "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it."

Questions for Reflection

1. Think about a time when you were broken. How did you see and receive light to help you get through these circumstances?
2. What ways can you help others who are going through difficult times?

Prayer: We do get overwhelmed, God, when we are broken. We don't move as quickly nor do we respond as clearly to daily events and encounters. Come into those cracks and hard places of our heart, bring your light to ground our struggles and give us ways to see through our days until wholeness comes. Amen.