Sunday, March 24, 2019

Life is Hard - God is Good - The Beatitudes Reversed

Matthew 5:1-10 - Now when he 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."

Jesus traveled to many towns and cities as his ministry evolved, preaching to those who came to hear him and healing many who were sick.

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? Usually I associate the word, "blessing" or "blessed" with a gift bestowed by God. Why would mourning or being hungry or persecuted be gifts from God? These passages seem to be a contradiction.

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 for the 10 people I have know who died since August, 2017, some of whom were close friends, others parents of friends, while others were acquaintances.

I received a thank you note from the mother of one of Anna's friends, who 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 reordered 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 experience 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 that "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, March 17, 2019

What Makes Church A Holy Place

"St. Sava is the place that keeps our Serbian culture alive in New York (City).Without it, I'm lost," said one church member after a fire destroyed the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava on May 6, 2016.

"The grand, gothic arches have welcomed me every Sunday since 1973, framing baptisms, weddings and funerals," she continued.

As an act of solidarity, Calvary Episcopal Church, a few blocks away, offered to house the services for St. Sava in their sanctuary until the cathedral is reconstructed.

A group of parishoners looked at the beautiful stained-glass windows inside the Calvary sanctuary. "The place is unfamiliar," they said, "but God and the prayers are the same. It's not our church, but it's a holy place. Wherever we go God will be with us."

Differences in Church Buildings

Church buildings are all different. Some resemble auditoriums, while others are more traditional with wooden pews and a center aisle. Some feature altars and crosses, while others cover the walls with art and provide no chairs, instead having their worshipers stand.

Despite these differences, they do have a common feature - they are places where just being inside can draw people to God.

Church Buildings as a Conversation

An article by church architects, David Woodhouse and Andy Tinucci ("Building Faith," in the February, 2017, issue of "Guideposts") explained how these two men feel about designing a church.

"We think of our designs as one side of a conversation. The building says something to the worshiper and the worshiper completes the conversation by responding with his or her faith. That's why we try not to put too many pictures or words into our designs. We keep things abstract. We try to give worshipers room to have their own experience of God using their own imaginations."

In the design philosophy, light, building materials, size, sound, wood, stone or carpeted floors all contribute to a persons's experience of God when entering - and their conversation with God in worship.

Churches I Have Known

This article caused me to pause and recall the design of the churches Mike pastored through the years. When he was in seminary at Duke Divinity School, he served three, small country churches painted white with tall steeples. There were no frills or decorations, the altar and pulpit were the main focus. Two of the churches had cemeteries next to them, as was common long ago.

The remaining churches, all in Indiana, had unique features. Two had balconies (First United Methodist Church in New Castle, and First United Methodist Church in Vincennes). Two, (Faith and Zoar United Methodist) had a belfry where children took turns each week pulling the thick, frayed twine cord to move the bell, signaling the beginning of worship.

Another church (Center United Methodist in Indianapolis) had a long, center aisle with fifty pews on either side. Eight, long rectangular stained-glass windows, installed during Mike's tenure, offered an impressive side focus to the sanctuary.

Mike's last church, Fishers United Methodist, had four aisles, with brides having the choice to enter from any one. A descending dove depicted in layered bricks on a wall behind the altar was a striking reminder of the Holy Spirit.

Until I read the article in "Guideposts," I never thought about how construction of a church could influence the worship experience or draw people together, giving them space for their own private time with God. The two architects believe that churches "need to be free of the distractions of modern life." While I have loved the stained glass of Center Church and the brick dove descending at Fishers, I like the idea that a distraction-free worship space is a gift to the busy, modern person who craves a conversation with God.

Your Church

What makes you sense God's presence in your church or in churches you've visited? Where do your eyes focus when you enter the sanctuary? On the lights, organ pipes, woodwork, carpet, flowers, altar cloths, candles, stained-glass windows, pictures, the choir, the pastor, the organ? Do you find them a distraction, or do they invite you to conversation with God?

The Church I Attend

Because I attend a large church and sit toward the middle of the sanctuary. I have trouble seeing the altar, especially when people stand. The large fount used for baptism is in my direct view, but what sets me in alignment with God is when I see the five-tiered row of votive candles on a table to the right of the sanctuary. Watching people light a candle, and pause, forms a beautiful picture of coming to God in prayer. I always light a candle at the end of each service for myself or others for whom I pray.

The congregation of St. Sava will surely miss worship each week in their holy place. However, the generosity of Calvary Episcopal Church clearly demonstrates the love of Jesus. I pray in time, the Serbians will find new markers in the sanctuary, that will help them find and hold God's presence. They will rebuild their own space after the devastating fire, perhaps inviting more conversation with God than ever before.

Questions for Reflection

1. Do you find the space where you worship a distraction-free zone? If not, what kind of conversation does it invite?

2. Where does your eye fall as you sit or stand in worship? How does your focus affect your time with God?

Prayer: The generosity, God, of your people in times of adversity demonstrates the way we are always in mission to others. Bless those who are displaced and help them find their familiarity in you despite difficult circumstances. May we all find a rich, deep, intimate conversation with you in the space where we gather to worship. Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Full Circle with the Body of Christ

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

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

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

"The body of Christ broken for you," I said, handing a small piece of bread to the person in my row.

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

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

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

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

Just a few months ago, Mike saw John at Starbucks. They caught up on what happened in John's life , including the death of his wife. As they talked, John apologized for his actions, and words spoken many years ago, offering Mike a sense of resolution of a difficult situation.

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

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

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

Reflection Questions

1. Is there someone in your life with whom you've had conflict or disagreement?

2. Have you resolved or made an effort to talk about the difficulty and come to a place of reconciliation?

3. Ask God for clarity as you remember and consider a new way of being with the individual.

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

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Kate Bowler - God Whose Name is Love

Last week, 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 three years ago.

I saved the spring, 2018, issue of the Duke Alumni magazine, because of  a feature and update on Kate, who teaches at the Duke Divinity School. The article reported that Kate continues to be part of a small group of patients receiving an experimental immunotherapy treatment which, fortunately, is working. She receives a CT scan every ninety days and if nothing has spread - if nothing looks worse - she gets another three month reprieve.

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

She added, "My own post-diagnosis world has brought me into a different relationship with God." In the midst of heartbreak, she is 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 for 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 we be.

Carrying this song in my heart over sixty-five 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 Jesus preach and teach.

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

Showing Love Unexpectedly

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

A few Sundays ago, 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 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 right 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 to 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, February 24, 2019

Everything Happens For A Reason - The Prosperity Gospel


I received a text late Sunday morning, February 4, 2018, from our youngest daughter, Anna, that Philip, her friend of ten years, had died eight months after being diagnosed with stage four colon and liver cancer.

 Initially, she debated whether to come for the memorial service. (Anna lives in Oregon.) Mike and I left the decision to her; 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 Philip was raised, arriving at the church an hour after the visitation began.

Anna was anxious and the intensity of experiencing the loss of a long-time friend 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 Philip's mother and father.

Although we had to wait over an hour, that time enabled me to observe how Philip's parents greeted each person with gracious hospitality, listening carefully to the condolences offered. Our time came to talk to the family. I finally met Philip'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.

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 Philip'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 Philip'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.

Kate 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 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 4 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 incredible trite. Christianity, also saved the day. You really want a brave faith, one that says, in the midst of crushing brokenness, there is the 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," they don't know what else to say in tragic circumstances, and 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, for a shooter to kill students in Florida and Connecticut - or any other tragedies and challenges life brings. There is no reason. There may be causes for such happenings, but not reasons.

I can rest with the 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 tragedies, 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 leads people away from God, who promises over and over to be with us when our hearts are crushed and we are broken from varying circumstances.

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 14:27 - "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 grow through unfortunate events and find deeper meaning in life. Those who know God can find the value of intimacy with God's companionship, compassion 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 reached 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 she demonstrated by traveling so far to be present to Philip'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 experiences of the past few days as well as deal with her grief. However,  depended on God, who offers companionship and mercy in all circumstances to those who call upon him to care for Anna and Philip'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 circumstances surrounding 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 dealing with difficulties based on your own experience?

Prayer: Loving and caring 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, February 17, 2019

Praying Through the Colors


I  am always looking for new ways to connect with God. As an artist, I am drawn to color. I noted one day, even pastors have trouble praying.

Writer and pastor, Elizabeth Myer Bolton says, "Sometimes I find it hard to pray. I know that may sound odd coming from a pastor, but it's true. If Jesus were standing here beside me, one of the first questions I would ask is that same soft and vulnerable question the disciples asked so long ago, "Lord, teach us to pray." (Luke 11:1-4.)

As she presented this request to God, she began to think of color as an avenue to prayer. In the  days to follow, she would choose a new color each morning or each week and then turn her attention to God as that color came into sight.

One day she took note of the blessings of yellow around her. "Such a perfect color against the doldrums of winter. A bowl full of lemons, and found egg yolks from one of our neighbor's chickens, the color of black-eyed Susan's waiting for spring, the sweet, powdery lemon drops my great-grandmother loved to eat. I will give thanks to God for the bright yellow rays of the sun that rise every morning to greet us, and warm us. I will say a special prayer for the Haitian man driving the yellow taxi cab going down the street. I will pray for the woman in the subway station who is wearing a yellow hat."

New Ways to Pray

One day, I decided to choose a color, as Elizabeth suggested and pray through the color. Starting with blue, I kept alert wherever I went looking for something blue. I saw a child wearing a blue coat, a blue box in the grocery store, blue fabric when I went to the quilt store, blue shoes on a woman standing in line at Target, and many more. Focusing on blue, helped me stay present to my environment and present to God.

Over the next few weeks, I prayed through yellow, purple, green, brown and red. Finally, running out of colors, I chose orange.

Other than the fruit or the changing leaves in the fall, orange is not a common color in the world around me. However, my experience with orange came to represent a moment of deep connection to God.

Praying with Orange

On one of those orange days, when I hadn't seen a single orange item, I drove a friend in the late summer to see my work on display in an art exhibit downtown. On a busy four-lane highway, I heard a siren. The ambulance approached from a side street. I slowed down and let it pass by.

Unfortunately, a truck behind me, did not notice my car and slammed into the rear end. My car jolted and shook. I felt a crunch from the rear of the car and heard glass shattering. I was afraid my car was going to blow-up because the impact was near the gas tank. Fortunately, the across-the-shoulder seat belt restrained us from being thrust forward.

After the ambulance sped by, I pulled my car over to the narrow berm. My friend, who was uninjured, calmly called 911. Soon a policeman arrived to gather details and get insurance information from the truck driver and myself.

Forty-five minutes later, the policeman sent us on our way. We were so thankful that we weren't hurt and I could still drive the car. My friend and I decided to forego the art show and return home.

Finally Orange

Easing back into the line of traffic, I had to make a left turn and go down another street until I could make a right turn and start back to where we lived.

The stoplight I approached turned yellow, then red. In that moment, I had a flashback to what just happened. I felt anxiety, wondering how I could drive my car home. I gripped the steering wheel tightly offering grounding for the present. I finally let out a deep breath realizing how fortunate my friend and I were not to receive any injury.

Before the light changed, I looked up at the vehicle in front of me, and saw orange! A bright orange sign was propped on the back of a semi-truck. I don't remember what the sign said, all I know the sign was orange, and orange was my color that day. Oh my! Despite my weakness and distress from the collision, when I saw orange, I felt God's presence and offered silent prayers for God's protection an hour ago.

Praying with Color

Following the accident, I continued the practice of praying through colors. I found flowers, clothes, boxes in stores, cars, highway signs drawing me to God. But out of all the colors I saw, bright orange was not just a sign on a truck, but a sign of God's loving attention toward me in my moment of need.

Reflection Question

Choose a color at the beginning of a day. Look for the color wherever you go. When you find the color, pause for a moment and remember you are in God's love and presence. Maybe you will say a short prayer or ask God to open your heart to hear what God might say to you. Offer to God what is in your heart.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for teaching us a fresh way to pray through the array of colors around us. Seeking you through color increases our awareness that you are everywhere. Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Praying with Bread - Bread for Communion

I recently received an email from one of the pastors of the church I attend asking me to bake five loaves of bread for communion the next Sunday. Five loaves seemed overwhelming, so I agreed to bake two.

I hardly felt worthy to bake communion bread, as I was dealing with anxiety, anger, frustration, loneliness and confusion as well as forgiveness in the tangled web I imaged my life. I was afraid all of my feelings would transfer to the dough I kneaded and molded.

Baking bread is usually one of the ways I connect with God. I even wrote and presented several times, a day-long retreat called "Praying with Bread."

Today, however, I was in a different state of mind. I went through the motions mechanically, not prayerfully or reverently, gathering and combining numerous ingredients, putting the smooth dough in my favorite brown glass bowl for the first rising. The bowl was the last of a nesting set we received forty-four years ago as a wedding gift. The bowl held hundred of batches of dough, but today's batch was the first to become the body of Christ.

Rising Dough

The dough quickly doubled in size. I took half the dough from the bowl, powdered a handful of flour on the sticky places, molded a circle and put in a buttered aluminum pan. I repeated the procedure with the remaining dough.

Before placing the pans in the oven, I studied the loaves. In those mounds of flour I saw the yeast of anger, loneliness, resentment, anxiety and other areas of disconnect in my life, along with forgiveness blended into bread for God's people on Sunday morning. Oh, my!

When I slid the two loaves in the oven, I prayed that all negative feelings would bake out of me and right to the heart of Jesus, whose body I formed that day.

Sunday Morning

I walked into the sanctuary the next day and found a pew close to the front, in sight of the two oval forms of bread covered with white cloths resting in the middle of the altar. I thought about the sugar, flour, yeast and milk, which I had plucked from noisy grocery shelves days before, now transformed into one of the most meaningful parts of Christian liturgy in a quiet church on Sunday morning.

Then, I recalled my prayer the day before, as those loaves entered the oven. As I sat in the pew and examined my heart, I realized that even before receiving communion, I felt peace. The negativity had burned away, my feelings now resting in Jesus' heart.

Mike and I assisted the pastors serving communion. I baked the body of Christ, and gave the body of Christ to the congregation, completing a very holy cycle.

Lent Approaches

As we approach the season of Lent in a couple of weeks, I can't help thinking of the bread served at the Last Supper. Who baked the loaves used that night? Maybe the person was someone like me, filled with anxiety, anger, loneliness and other troubling concerns? Maybe they felt that same sense of release and relief in baking the bread?

Someone always has to prepare the bread to offer God's people - I pray each baker always finds release as they pass along through the body of Christ, a blessing and peace, to all who believe.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for the way a simple task, baking bread, became a way to healing and peace. Remind us that all we do is a pathway to your presence. Amen.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Sowing Seeds at the Grocery Store

One day on the way to an art class, I stopped in a local grocery store to purchase an orange and an apple for a mid-afternoon snack.

I stood in the checkout lane behind an off-duty Marion County sheriff whose food filled the belt. Noticing my two small purchases at the end of his order, he said in a booming voice, "I'll pay for her fruit. I am a seed sower. I like to be a seed sower!"

I was flustered at first. "You don't have to do that."

He smiled. "I like to be a seed sower."

I thanked him for his generosity. "I will pass on your kindness in the future."

Following him out the store, I saw him load his groceries in the sheriff's car right next to me - the only two cars in the parking lot.

I thanked him again and we offered each other blessings for our day.

His kindness reminded me of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 9:11 - "We have sown spiritual seeds among you. " The sheriff was living out these words written by Paul, flowing from the love of God in his heart.

Paul wasn't talking about sowing seeds that result in plants, but "spiritual seeds" that when "planted" through acts of love encourage the recipient to ponder the kindness and perhaps "sow it forward" to someone else. Love sows love, you might say.

For Your Reflection

How can you declare and demonstrate, "I am a seed sower," like the sheriff did to me?

Prayer: God, living and moving among your kingdom is what we do in our jobs, in stores, at parks, and in all of the places we go. Remind us to be "seed sowers" in whatever form that may take. We know you bless our efforts to spread your message of love everywhere. Amen.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Take Time to Write A Letter

Two years ago last May, our family celebrated the marriage of our oldest daughter, Sarah, to her fiance, Ryan. The wedding was in Boulder, Colorado, outside Denver, where Sarah and Ryan lived. We met several of their friends that day, including Adam, who introduced them.

I remember as we talked, Adam said, "I really appreciated the letter you wrote me a few years ago thanking me for taking Sarah to the airport. I'd never received a letter!"

Never received a letter! Ever?

Astonished, I asked Adam a few questions, and discovered Adam is from Denver, had always lived in Denver, so there really wasn't a reason for anyone in his family to write him. The only person far enough away to write was a mother in the Midwest, grateful for his kindness toward her daughter, who was living in his hometown hundreds of miles away in Indianapolis.

Following our return from the wedding, Adam's comment stuck with me. I made a trip to Barnes and Noble to get a book for a friend having surgery and found Hannah Brencher's book, If You Find This Letter.

Hannah and Letters

Letters were important to Hannah. She cherished the letters her mother wrote when she was attending college. In fact, when she moved to New York City following graduation for a job, she decorated the walls of her apartment with letters from her mother and friends.

"Even after I packed the letters and took them home," Hannah wrote, "I always wondered what it might be like to give something like that - a bulging package of love letters - to someone I don't even know. To someone who might never get that sort of thing otherwise. Stranger or not we all need the same kind of reminders sometimes. You're worthy. You're golden."

In her search to find meaning, purpose and direction in a large city, she wondered if other people would like to receive a letter as  a way to bring love and affirmation to their lives. Riding the subway gave her ample opportunity to observe the cross-section of people living in New York. She focused on those who looked forlorn and lost, an image of how she felt inside as she adjusted to a new job and acclimated to a new home.

Hannah wrote letters to people she saw, describing her struggles, trying to find her way emotionally, professionally, as she tried to create a sense of place in a large city. She tucked the letter in an envelope and wrote on the outside, "If you find this letter .... then it's for you." She placed the envelopes on subway seats, on bathroom sinks, slipped a few into coat pockets in department stores, in fitting rooms, in the library, all over town.

Over time, the act of writing letters to hundreds of people brought her to a place of peace and purpose and the loneliness that seemed to follow her every step since she arrived disappeared.

My Joy Writing Letters

I enjoy writing letters too. I can often express thoughts in my heart more deeply when I write. Although one daughter moved back to Indianapolis over a year ago, when she lived in Denver, I wrote letters regularly to her and her sister who lives in Oregon. While reading the book, I decided to follow Hannah's example, not only for a writing exercise, but also an activity to expand my heart and deepen compassion toward those strangers I encounter.

Like Hannah, I decided to write a letter, put it in an envelope and drop the envelope wherever I went. Someone will receive my words of love and encouragement.

I wrote ten letters with the message below:

"Dear Friend,
     The cloth heart is a reminder you are loved just the way you are. You are valued and loved for all you do. Your life matters to so many and the love you give sustains and provides comfort.
                                                                           A friend."

I folded the letter and tucked a heart inside I cut from fabric. I often include one of these fabric hearts when I send a letter to family or friends. I also included on a separate piece of paper this sentence of explanation; "A letter of encouragement and love to a stranger - based on Hannah Brencher's book, If You Find This Letter."

Addressing the outside of the envelope according to Hannah's directive - "If you find this letter it is yours." - I set off with my bundle.

I spent almost two weeks delivering the letters, which have found homes in a restaurant, a confessional booth in a large Catholic church, at a local YMCA, a grocery store, on a stack of books at the library, and in a pocket of a jacket at Target.

When I place each letter, I offer a prayer that the person who finds it will be blessed and encouraged.

Interestingly, during this two-week period, I received three letters in the mail; one from a former neighbor, one in the form of a picture from my nine-year-old friend, and a thank you note.

Adam's Letter

My story with Adam's letter has come full circle. Writing a letter of gratitude to him left an imprint on his heart. His comment awakened me to Hannah's book reinforcing the importance of the lost art of letter writing.

Reflection Question

Who among your circle of family, friends and acquaintances would benefit from a handwritten note? Take a moment, put your thoughts on paper, and mail an envelope of compassion and care.

Prayer: God, you give us the example of Paul, who wrote letters to people in the churches he established. He offered encouragement, guidance, wisdom and blessing to each since he was unable to regularly visit. Let us model our ways of expression to others following Paul, so we can have a record of thoughts and feelings toward others they can reference forever. Putting our hearts on paper leaves a cherished legacy to the recipient. Amen.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Reaching Out to Touch Cloth: An Act of Faith Filled with Power

Over twenty years ago, I read through the story of the woman who reached out to touch the hem of Jesus' cloak (Matthew 9:18-22). I identified with her need for healing, her longing, her hope.

She pressed through a crowd with faith if she could reach the hem of Jesus' garment, she could be healed of twelve years of hemorrhaging. She got close, leaned in, and I can almost feel her fingertips against that material - the instant she made contact, the bleeding stopped. She would have realized it immediately.

At her touch, Jesus turned around feeling power leave his body.

I knew that woman's longing. I, too, wanted that power.

In my desire to feel the power of Jesus, I began making a series of small quilts that reflected my bleeding, hopeless soul - it was my way of reaching out with my own fingertips to touch cloth, to feel power, to receive healing. Was it possible? Would I experience Jesus? Or would it just be a series of stitches pulling together a creative venture?

One after another, in the creation and quilting of these projects, moving the needle and joining three layers - fabric, batting and fabric -  I may not have felt Jesus' healing power, but I did feel God's presence.

My fingertips touched the colorful cloth and I thought of the woman touching the cloth of Jesus' cloak. Sensing that thread pulling snug the layers and running my finger along the edge, I felt close to Jesus,  just like the woman.

Fabric in Jesus' Life

Fabric was part of Jesus' life in several key moments.

 --- At Jesus' birth he was wrapped in swaddling cloth. (Luke 2:7)

 --- When Jesus washed the disciple's feet he used a towel. (John 13:1-17)

 --- The cloak Jesus wore was central to the story of the woman with a hemorrhage. (Luke 8:43)

 --- The clothes Jesus wore before being crucified were divided among the soldiers. (Matthew 27:35)

 --- Linens Joseph of Arimathea wrapped around Jesus' broken body remained in the tomb following the resurrection. (John 19:40)

Each of these occasions revealed a word important to those who follow Christ: birth (swaddling cloth); servanthood (towel); healing (cloak); suffering (clothes before crucifixion); resurrection (linen).

Reflection Questions For Each Stage of Jesus' Life

   1. Birth - What new thoughts or ideas are energizing your time with God? God works in and through us to birth a deeper faith and stronger trust.

   2. Servanthood - How are you showing the love of God through helping others?

   3. Healing - What in your life needs to be touched for healing; resentment, envy, grief, physical illness, thoughts, sins?

   4. Suffering - Everyone deals with suffering at some time in life; illness, disappointment, loss, impaired relationships. How can you welcome God's companionship to help you through those times that bring difficult and challenging circumstances?

   5. Resurrection - Celebration or resurrection joy comes every day when we offer thanks for God's goodness. Even when we suffer, we can find small things that give us hope for the day.

Over the years, quilting kept me anchored in God's presence and eventually helped me grow in faith. It tied me to the story of the woman touching Jesus' cloak and her heart encounter with God's son.

I still quilt and remember with gratitude the many ways cloth appeared in Jesus' life offering milestones to guide my path of faith and devotion to God. Those projects I made symbolize for me the intimacy and power that flows from God to an individual.

Prayer: Cloth connects us to people in the Old and New Testaments. Jesus' life was marked by the appearance of cloth at significant moments. Thank you, God, for the mystery of life in you that brings us closer to your son as we touch cloth. Amen.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

A Twist to the Test

Walt Bettinger, CEO of Charles Schwab Corporation, shared in a New York Times article (February 7, 2016), about an experience he had in college. He was about to take the final for his business strategy class. Striving to maintain a perfect 4.0, he spent long hours preparing for this last exam, memorizing formulas to do calculations for case studies.

He described what happened:

     "The teacher handed out the final exam, and it was on one piece of paper, which really surprised me because I figured it would be longer than that. Once everyone had their paper, the teacher said, 'Go ahead and turn it over.' Both sides were blank.

     And the professor said, I've taught you everything I can teach you about business in the last ten weeks, but the most important message, the most important question, is this: 'What is the name of the lady who cleans this building.'"

Bettinger continues, "And that had a powerful impact. It was the only test I ever failed, and I got the B I deserved. Her name was Dottie. I'd seen her, but I'd never taken the time to ask her name. I've tried to know every Dottie I've worked with ever since."

I copied this article and sent it to my oldest daughter, Sarah, who at the time was an art teacher in the Denver public schools. She is about to celebrate nineteen years of teaching. I wanted her to read this story because she naturally follows the lessons Walt Bettinger's professor tried to teach his class. Throughout her time teaching, she has befriended every custodian in the schools where she worked. She not only values their contribution of cleaning her room each day and emptying the trash, but she spends time talking to them, asking about their families, honoring them as people.

Sarah often bakes a batch of chocolate chip cookies to take to the custodians when they have gone the extra mile to clean a particularly messy art room or to offer compassion for a personal struggle they are experiencing.

"The custodians are my best friends," I've heard her say a few times, "because they are willing to take time to do tasks that make my job easier."

When I asked what she thought of the article, she replied, "I showed it to the custodian."

What if one day we went to church and when it came time for the sermon, everyone in the congregation received a blank sheet of paper. What if the pastor started the sermon by saying, "You have a blank sheet of paper. Write the name of the custodian at this church, at your workplace or your gym. Or write the name of your mailman or garbage collector or other people who make your day easier, assisting in some way that you take for granted." What if you gave yourself the assignment right now!

If you have no name on the paper, make it your mission this week to introduce yourself to a custodian, mailman, or trash collector and express your gratitude to them for their work.

Prayer: Loving God, you surround us with people who help us each day, but we have no idea about their name or life circumstances. Help us show an interest in them like you continuously do with us, and show us ways to extend love and gratitude. Amen.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Logistics of Praying for Others





"Will you pray for my mom? She's having surgery next week."
"My sister is having a difficult pregnancy. Can you keep her in prayer?"
"I was just diagnosed with depression. I am really scared. Will you pray for my doctor to find the best course of treatment to help with my mood changes?"

Sunday after church has always been a busy time when people come to me asking for prayer. I scrambled to find a small piece of paper in my purse to record their request or relied on my memory to recall their needs.

However, when I prayed each morning during the week, I often couldn't find my scrap of prayer requests or remember who I had promised to lift up in prayer. I needed to find an organized way to pray for friends as well as my family so I could be faithful to those who trusted me with their joys and concerns.

A Solution

One day, I was walking through the school supplies section of Target. I noticed a stack of unlined index cards and had an idea. I purchased several packages of cards and put together a plan for my prayer life.

On the first card, I wrote names of friends alongside their circumstances. On the reverse side, I wrote names of friends who were pregnant. I started this practice in July, and by December, the card was covered front and back with names, some crossed off as their situation resolved.

I also created a separate card for my husband, our two daughters, their husbands and myself. I put their initials at the top of the card.

Each day, I write the date and my prayer for them. By December, each one has at least five cards covered front and back with my prayers for the year. In early January, each year, I write an individual letter of love and encouragement to my daughters and their husbands. I wrap the letter around their cards so they can see how I prayed for them. The final step is mailing the letters and the cards.

I have found, over the years, that using index cards is an efficient way to organize and record my prayer life.

For Your Reflection

1. What system do you use to pray for other or circumstances in our world?

Prayer: Thank you God for helping us solve problems as simple as creating a meaningful way to pray for those I love. Amen.