Monday, December 28, 2015

"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" ( a guest post by my husband, Mike,a retired United Methodist pastor)

Read Matthew 2:6-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 20, 2015

How Can This Be? ------ Mary's Hesitation then Consent

Luke 1:26-38 - "The angel came to her (Mary) and said, "Peace be with you! The Lord is with you and has greatly blessed you." The angel said to her, "Don't be afraid, Mary; God has been gracious to you. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus."

"Mary said to the angel, "I am a virgin. How, then, can this be?"

"I am the Lord's servant," said Mary; "may it happen to me as you have said." And the angel left her.
(Good News Translation)


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

Last year's cover of the November/December issue of The Upper Room, shows Mary wearing a white t-shirt, blue jumper, white socks and saddle shoes. Her medium-length brown hair was pulled back to a pony tail. She held a book while and angel stood close by.

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

Her Hesitation

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

Gabriel encouraged Mary by saying the Holy Spirit will come and God's power will rest upon her (verse 35). These are words of God's provision for Mary in the days ahead.

In the midst of her astonishment, fear and surprise (verse 29, 34) Mary is assured of God's companionship. She will not go through these days of unexpected pregnancy alone (verse 35). Regardless what comments about her condition may come, she realizes God is with her.

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

Mary's Consent

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

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

Our Hesitation

As unexpected circumstances come our way, we may feel a little like Mary did when Gabriel told her she was pregnant. When serious illness hits a seemingly healthy person, when relationships are impaired, when a beloved family member or friend dies suddenly, when a job loss or relocation is announced, we can feel troubled and question, "How can  this be?"

My Hesitation

I remember two different occasions when Mike received word that he was being assigned to another church at the exact moment I received long-awaited, desirable part-time job offers where he currently was serving. One job was to work with pre-school children, the other at the county hospital. I'd waited several years for both positions

Eventually, I had to decline the opportunity to work with pre-school children and hand in my resignation at the hospital after only working five months.

I cried out, "How can this be? I've waited patiently for these positions, and now we have to move."

My Consent

Seeking God daily through prayer and reading eventually enabled me to give God my disappointment and receive peace. God's generosity followed after both moves, I was able to find employment in our new city.

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

Our Consent

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

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

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Basket Name

Sue Monk Kidd's latest book, The Invention of Wings, is about a young slave, Hetty, and her mother, Charlotte, a seamstress who works for a wealthy family in Charleston. At the beginning of the book, Hetty explains that a family who owns a pregnant slave names the baby. However, when the mother looks at her child resting in a basket where slave babies rest while their mothers work, a name would come based on what the baby looked like, on what was happening in the world, or a personality trait the mother noted.

Hetty was given the basket name, "Handful", by her mother. As the story evolves, Handful is shown to be a strong-willed determined little girl who grew into her mother's perceptions of her character. Hetty is referred to as Handful throughout the book.

Most infants today don't rest in baskets, but in crib or little seats that rock electronically. Perhaps fathers and mothers today who watch their infants sleep or play get an idea of his or her personality and find a nickname to use reflecting what they see in the child. Sometimes nicknames stick and the child is called by this name rather than the given name.

When Jesus was born, we are told Mary laid him to rest in a manger, a container of straw for animals - not the most sanitary place for an infant. When the angel, Gabriel, came to tell Mary about her pregnancy, Gabriel also revealed he baby's God-given name, Jesus.

I wonder if Jesus also had a "basket name" or "manger name" given by Mary and Joseph as they watched him during those first few weeks of life?

Jesus came to be known by many names as his ministry evolved. Just like "Handful" described the per Godsonality of one of the main characters in Sue Monk Kidd's book, the names given Jesus by those who wrote the Bible identify his character as "Prince of Peace;" "Good Shepherd;" "Bread of Life." These names go deeply into Jesus' core and give us metaphorical ways to relate to God's son.

There are over two hundred names for Jesus listed in a recent Google search including the following:

  -- Lamb of God
  -- Holy Child
 -- Alpha and Omega
 -- Blessed of God
 -- Bright and Morning Star

"Bread of Life" is my "basket" or "manger" name for Jesus. For decades, baking biscuits has been one of my favorite activities. When our kitchen table was full with two little girls, I made a batch of biscuits twice a week to accommodate the appetites of our family. Bringing biscuits to others, something I like to do, conveys the love of Jesus and represents the name of Jesus to which I connect.

Sometime during this holiday season, you will see a nativity set in someone's front yard, at church, in a store or in your home. Pause for a moment and if you can find a small set, hold in your hand the figure of Jesus resting in a manger.

---   What name of Jesus from the list above do you connect with most?

---   Why does that name have meaning for you?

---   How can spending time reflecting on this name deepen your experience of Christmas?

As you hold Jesus, what "manger name do you give him? What story is behind the name?

Prayer: Jesus, you came to this world and were placed in a manger. The "bread of life" rested in a food bed for animals. However you come to us in the name we call you, we hold you dear as you hold us close always from our "basket days" to our endings. Amen.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Sending My Heart in a Box

My heart goes in one of those postal service priority mailboxes a few times a year when I send one of our daughters, Sarah and Anna, their birthday presents.

Recently, my heart entered a box for a different reason. In July 1978, when I was eight months pregnant with Sarah, Mike was one of the pastors at the First United Methodist Church in New Castle, Indiana. One day we drove several boxes of donated clothing to an organization, Church World Service, located in Nappanee, a city in the northern part of the state.

After we delivered the boxes, we visited the agency gift shop that sold items from third world countries. We decided to purchase our baby's first gift that day, a wooden nativity set made in the Holy Land. Not knowing our baby's gender didn't matter as we prayed that the representation of Jesus' birth would become a treasured part of our child's holiday season.

Through the decades, the small nativity was displayed on the kitchen table next to the Advent wreath. Sarah learned the story of our travels that day, as I told her each year when we put out the decorations.

Sarah is getting married next May. Deciding this year that it was time for the nativity set to go to Sarah, I carefully wrapped it in white tissue paper, and put in in the postal service box.

Holding the nativity one more time, looking at the wooden animals, Mary, Joseph and Jesus, I remembered our experience that warm summer day, looking through the store trying to find "the perfect gift" for our child. I thought about all of the parsonages where the manger was displayed.

Now that Sarah is getting married and will soon have her own home, it's time for the nativity purchased with great love 37 years ago to begin a new life and start a new history with Sarah and Ryan.

Prayer: God, thank you for a symbol that represents the joy I felt carrying Sarah as I imagined Mary's joy giving birth to your Son. Bless this nativity as it moves to a new home, carrying my love and blessing for a Merry Christmas to Sarah and Ryan. Amen.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Crimson Starbucks Cup - A Beacon of Light on A Gray, Rainy Day

Driving to Nora, part of the north side of Indianapolis to purchase gift cards for my children at Whole Foods, I noticed a homeless man holding a sign. He was sitting on a stack of plastic crates in the grassy median at the entrance to Nora Plaza.

Stopping at the light, I rolled down my window and asked if I could get him something to eat.

He replied, "No, but I would like a cup of coffee - black."

"Ok, I'll be back."

Circling through the light I drove to the Starbucks a short distance away. Since I do not drink coffee, ordering a large cup was a new experience. Entering the store, I quickly placed my order and decided to purchase a gift card in case the man got hungry or thirsty later in the day.

Carrying the large, hot coffee in one of those controversial bright red cups, I felt like I was in a church processional, walking down the aisle, carrying a candle of light and love. I walked through the parking lot, and dodged a few cars to reach the man and make my delivery.

On that rainy, mid-November day, the wind was blowing with force creating a wind advisory that I heard on the radio. These blustery conditions made walking a challenge. Seeing the man sitting in this weather mess for a period of time evoked compassion.

He must have been a tall man because when I reached his perch we met each other at eye level. I handed him the cup, and took note of the layers of clothing, his bloodshot eyes heavy with fatigue. His large, rough looking hands took a break from holding the sign that described his status in life.

He reached gratefully for the coffee, my candle of light on a gray day.

I showed him the gift card. "You can use this to get something to eat or more coffee."

"Thank you. Have a nice day. Make it a good one!"

Not expecting any response I was surprised to receive a blessing for my day. Moving toward my car, I noticed a pile of plastic grocery store bags and a backpack on the opposite side of the street from where the man sat. These must be his earthly possession gathered in one spot.

I reached my car and turned on the heat.

I don't know the circumstances of this man's life, but I do know that Jesus told us to care for one another - not just our family or friends who live in homes, but for the least and those on the fringe regardless of what brought them there.

When I arrived home, I went to my desk to read the Upper Room devotional for November 18. The thought for the day was: "Today I will offer hospitality to strangers in my path." The scripture listed was Hebrews 13:1-3: "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it."

Wow, I was right on target in my mission without knowing "my commission for the day." I pray my beacon of love and light contained in a bright crimson coffee cup will be a sign of hope and love for this child of God, perched on a stack of plastic crates at a busy intersection. - and that he can "make this day a good one" despite his circumstances.

Prayer: God, you bring us people each day who need a kind word or smile or a more tangible expression of love. Give us boldness to keep our eyes open so we may show hospitality to all in your name. Amen.

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Pound Shower for Thanksgiving

From January 1979, to November 1983, Mike served two churches west of  Evansville. We lived next door to one of the churches in Mt. Vernon, a town of 7,000. The other church, Zoar United Methodist, was in the middle of a cornfield with rows and rows of cornstalks on either side and across the street.

The gravel road that led to the church generated puffs of dust as we traveled along. An outhouse from the days before indoor plumbing rested in the church backyard, a testament to progress, convenience and the long history of the congregation. A water pump was on the south-side. An idyllic scene of days gone by was captured in this country church that found ten to fifteen people in attendance each Sunday morning.

A big attraction for the children was the inch-thick brown rope knotted at the end that led upwards to the belfry. Pulling the rope each week brought delight to the four or five children who attended.

The people who attended Zoar were either farmers or worked in the large General Electric plastic plant situated on the paved road we took to the church. A few people did both - farmed the land part-time and worked at GE.

We often returned home on Sunday morning with a bag of zucchini or string beans or a dozen freshly laid eggs from these people who shared generously their resources. We were surprised, however, at the first all-church Thanksgiving dinner we attended in November, 1979, to find a row of brown paper grocery bags on the old church pews that formed a border on one side of the fellowship hall.

We enjoyed a delicious meal that evening with tables covered with food characteristic of Thanksgiving Day. Following dinner, one of the church leaders stood before those gathered, welcoming everyone especially Mike, me and one-year-old Sarah.

He continued: "We have a tradition at Zoar Church to honor our pastor and family each Thanksgiving with a pound shower. All of our families have filled a bag or two with a pound of flour or sugar or oranges or anything else we could think of to stock your pantry."

Overwhelmed with gratitude, we hardly knew what to say. Carrying the bags to our small car required multiple trips with help from a few of the men. When we arrived home, we put our sleepy Sarah to bed and unpacked all of the bags. We found beans, corn, tomatoes, potatoes, all from their gardens, as well as store-bought candy, flour, sugar, two-dozen fresh eggs, turnips and a pumpkin. We didn't have enough room in our small kitchen to store our bounty so we placed the surplus on shelves in the basement.

A few people put small toys or books for Sarah. Our hearts were surely filled that first Thanksgiving dinner with the Zoar congregation and the four that followed. The sweet, generous people in this farming community shared from their abundance in a way that covered our table all winter.

Prayer: God, your generosity was reflected in the kindness shown by the members of Zoar Church that left an imprint on my heart long ago. Guide me each day to show your love to all I encounter in ways appropriate to their needs. Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

"You must have been brought up right!"

Every Monday I stop at the Starbucks on the corner of 56th and Emerson. Although I don't drink coffee, I like tea. Peach Tranquility is my current favorite.

Monday, November 2, was more like Monday, July 2, with temperatures near 80 degrees, a bright, shiny sun and slight breeze added to the mix of unusual weather. When I got out of my car I noticed a short, elderly woman, holding a cane in one hand, a Starbucks cup in the other. In between hands, smashed like an accordion, were a newspaper, a tablet of paper and numerous other papers.

Seeing her struggle to open her car door, I hurried across the parking lot to offer assistance. Relief spread across her face when she saw me.

"You see I had company for two weeks. I don't know if I can recover!"

"That's a lot of cooking and cleaning. You must be exhausted." I could see the lines of stress and fatigue all over her face. "I hope you can go home and rest," helping unload her arms and settle in the driver's seat.

"You must have been brought up right. Thank you for your help," she said, slipping into her car with the same relief noted when a person finally lays his or her head on a pillow, exhausted from a long day, ready to sleep!

Walking into Starbucks to place my order, I wondered how the woman assumed because I was helpful I had been "brought up well." Does responding with kindness necessarily reflect one's upbringing? I don't think so - not in my case, for sure.

I am thankful my act of kindness blessed a stranger, but thinking that I was "brought up well" was not the origin of my generosity. Reflecting the love of Jesus, following the model he presented for interaction with others grounded my actions.

That day I was able to live the first of three suggestions I offered last week to bring holiness to the holiday season - bless another.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for keeping my eyes open and heart ready to respond in service to those I meet along the path I walk each day. Amen.

Related Reading: 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Three Simple, Quick Ways to Add Holiday Holiness

Even though Thanksgiving is a few weeks away, many stores are displaying Christmas items, a few since the end of the summer. Already I've heard people talk about "the busy holiday season" almost with a sense of dread.

"How can this be?" I wonder. We'll be celebrating the coming of God's son, the best gift ever!

Here are three simple ways to combat the holiday frenzies that only require an awareness of people encountered and experiences you have - no wrapping paper, tape or bows required.

Begin each day with these three thoughts:

1. How can I bless another?

2. Ask God to open your heart to receive from someone else - a stranger or even a person you see, but don't interact with. Blessings can come from others unaware.

3. Watch how God is revealed throughout your day in a new or unexpected way.

Write these suggestions on a piece of paper, and tape it inside your car, on the bathroom mirror or on the kitchen cabinet where you can be reminded of simple ways to add a little holiness to your "to do" list for the day.

Prayer: God, every year we move so quickly through a season that begs for quiet and reflection. Slow us down, open our hearts as we move toward Bethlehem. Amen.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

What Quilts Your Heart?

Recently I was reading one of Scott Russell Sanders' book, A Private History of Awe, that is a memoir about his life. I like the way he uses words to describe what he sess. Turning page after page, I felt comfort in my heart as he described in detail where he lived and people he encountered.

"How can words bring comfort?" I wondered, especially since I was unfamiliar with the places he described and I have never met him.

God can speak and reach our hearts in many ways. Some find peace at the ocean or walking through the woods. Others through sewing and piecing quilts, like the ladies in every church Mike pastored even when he was at Duke, found comfort emerging from the work of their hands and companionship of others working on a common project.

Well-written sentences that reflect the heart of the author can offer comfort to someone like me who appreciates the way words come together to express thoughts, ideas or describe people or places.

As I continued reading, it wasn't so much his memories, but the depth of self that he brought to his past where comfort emerged. He was not describing hardship or sentimentality, but a warmth and depth of feeling related to his surroundings.

"This writing quilts my heart," I thought, meaning the gathering and recording of thoughts bound together with the sensitivity and of his writing style went right to my heart, mirroring the flow of a thread-filled needle entering and exiting two layers of cloth and batting.

For many years I made quilts and found great joy and comfort from this craft. Now "piecing" together words bound with God's blessing and inspiration brings comfort and peace.

What quilts your heart? What life experiences do you find to bind together? Whatever moves in and through your heart to soothe and mend or celebrate is bound together by God's love.

Prayer: God, everyday we gather pieces of what we experience. Sometime we are comforted, while other moments bring sadness, discouragement. All are part of your kingdom and come from our interactions and experiences. Help us bring all of our pieces, binding them with your love, to quilt our hearts with your presence that rests in all. Amen.

Image by Jude Hill, Creative Commons via Flickr. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Let It Be

Paul McCartney wrote the song "Let It Be," first released in March, 1970, following a dream about his mother who died when he was fourteen. Paul was close to his mother explained that in the dream his mother told him, "It will be all right, just let it be."

Although Paul contends that the song has no biblical connection, I find the words comforting when I relate Mary, the mother of Jesus, to the words Paul uses to describe his mother. Never having a nurturing mother, I connect deeply with Mary, Jesus' mother. I've even presented a few programs on Mary, including "A Protestant Befriends Mary."

When I imagine Mary, I think about the tasks she did every day, such as tending sheep, watching a friend's children, baking bread, sewing and praying. Although I don't tend sheep, I do sew, bake bread, care for a few friend's children and spend time with God.

Recently I was having a day when an experience with a group of people stretched my ability to stay present and mindful. I struggled to relate to the conversation that evening, though I was able to celebrate and offer encouragement while I was there.

Driving home I recalled my decades-long association with this group, remembering all of the events we shared together.

That night I went to bed, but awoke at 3 am and couldn't sleep. I felt energy coming from words, so I wrote about my experience the night before. Throughout the next day, challenging emotions surfaced as well as the lyrics of Paul's song:

          When I find myself in times of trouble, mother Mary comes to me,
          Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
          And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me
          Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
          Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be,
          Whisper words of wisdom,
          Let it be.

Once again I wrote from a different perspective about my evening, going much deeper than previously, reaching the core of painful emotions. When I finished writing, I paused, turned the page of my notebook and drew an image that came from God, reminding me of the rainbow God sent after storm destroying all living things on earth.

God sent the image below to bring comfort and remind me I am not alone. The image is Mary, the mother of Jesus, holding a loaf of bread over the manger:

The first two stanzas of Paul McCartney's song became real to me once again, reminding me how well God knows my heart.

Prayer: God, you know the numbers of hairs on our head, which reflects the ways you care for us and consider our needs. You use song, image and words to come to us, to remind us of your presence and to reveal how individual your caring ways are. We are so grateful. Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

It Takes A Village for Children and Adults

The saying, "it takes a village," became popular a few years ago, attributed to African cultures reflecting their belief that a child has most potential to become a healthy adult when an entire community takes part in raising.

Jane Cowen-Fletcher wrote a children's book called It Takes a Village in 1994, about a young girl caring for her younger brother. The children realize the whole village is watching them.

Former First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1996, presented her vision for the children of America in a book It Takes A Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us. She focused on the influences that connect children outside the family as well as advocating for a society that contributes positively to a child's upbringing.

The United Methodist Church recognizes the value of a Christian community in the service of infant baptism. The pastor asks the parent or parents of the child a few questions, then addresses the congregation with these words:

           "Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and include this person/these persons now before you in your care?"

The congregation replies, "With God's help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround (baby's name) with a community of love and forgiveness, that he/she may grow in his/her trust of God, and be found faithful in service to others. We will pray for him/her that he/she may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life."

The congregation at the time of a child's baptism takes responsibility for surrounding the child, nurturing the child in faith. The parents are reassured they are not alone raising their child - the village is with them.

Although the term "it takes a village" usually refers to raising a child, I've noted several examples where adults in difficult circumstances are experiencing the love and care of a village.

For example, I am friends with a family whose husband had a reoccurrence of melanoma in the spring, and was initially only given a few months to live. Immediately meals were arranged for several weeks. Offers of childcare appeared. One couple took care of the family's pets, enabling a long-awaited vacation to become a reality. People volunteered to drive the husband to work. The village  has responded to help this family navigate these rough waters in a variety of loving and caring ways.

Another friend, whose daughter (also my friend) is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor, described a bag of cards and notes she has received from family, and friends.  My friend "carries her village" in a sack of paper, reading and re-reading the notes when she needs encouragement, always feeling surrounded by compassionate hearts who love her dearly.

We are always part of the village - sometimes we serve, sometimes we receive, and sometimes we rest - like the passage in the book of Ecclesiastes describing the cycle of life, "for everything there is a season."

Prayer: God, just be believing in you we are part of your village, community and kingdom. The word isn't important, but love and caring for each other is core to your commission we receive. Keep our eyes and hearts open so that whatever age or circumstance we encounter we become you in our response. Amen.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Jesus the Master of Customer Service

Spending time at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles was not my idea how to begin a recent Tuesday. The office is closed on Monday the day I realized my driver's license was missing. I could feel my anger build as the day progressed, realizing I needed to add one more thing to the next day, already stacked with activity.

Since my attitude was not helping my approach to the day, I asked God  Monday evening to make my wait at the BMV a time of holiness - either give me an opportunity to bless someone or open my heart to what another might teach me.

Tuesday I arrived early to the local branch. Walking to the lobby inside the front door where people wait for the office to open, I quickly was joined by a man and a woman who seemed to know each other. We chatted about the Colt's game the previous night, wondering where the long-promised "near Super Bowl performance," was in the third loss of the season.

As our wait continued, these people described their places of employment - the man worked in a warehouse and the woman was a Kroger manager.

I said to the woman, "What is the most challenging part of your job?"

"People try to get things free and use outdated coupons," she answered.

We chuckled, still waiting in the lobby for the office to open.

The woman added, "I am always thinking of customer service in my job. I wish these people would at least let us in to take a number and wait in a chair rather than just stand. I'm getting tired. Today is my first day off in two weeks."

When I worked for St. Vincent Hospital, patient care was our primary focus. However, our department scores on patient satisfaction were given at quarterly meetings. These markings, comparable to customer satisfaction, were monitored closely. We often attended programs and workshops on effective communication with and care of patients as well as their families and friends.

When I read the gospels, Jesus' pattern of interaction always demonstrates attention, love and compassion - especially to those people on the fringe of society.

In Jesus' day, those on the fringe had diseases like epilepsy, leprosy or were considered demon possessed. Women were regarded as secondary citizens, certainly not worthy of association with someone like Jesus or other me in positions of town leadership and authority.

Jesus regarded everyone with love - that's wonderful customer service.

Reflecting about people on the fringe today, the homeless come to mind as well as those who are unemployed, living in poverty, struggling with addictions or mental illness.

Everyone in some way may feel on the fringe at various times in life as struggles with illness, relationships, grief, job loss and other challenges of living can make us feel alone or isolated. We all need excellent "customer service," especially during those times - whether from people or directly from God.

The woman waiting with me in the BMV lobby had compassion for those who were standing behind her, waiting to enter the main office. Although she couldn't change the circumstances, her thoughtful remark carried desire and concern for others. That reminded me of Jesus, the Master of customer service who regards everyone with love. I know I felt loved that day by simply chatting, and the day offered these moments of holiness, just as I had prayed.

Prayer: God, providing customer service to those we encounter means following Jesus' model of love and compassion. Strengthen us to go out of our way to reach those whom we see "on the fringe" with the embrace of Christ. Open our eyes to family and friends who may be going through circumstances that make them feel "on the fringe" even temporarily. Deepen our capacity to love greatly all we encounter for in each other we see you. Amen.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Mowing the Grass - Present to God

When my daughters, Sarah and Anna, were young, I had to find creative ways to find time to pray and be still with God.

Although they played on the deck while I swam, the forty minutes spent in the water gave me space for reflection. The mental clarity when I emerged from the water refreshed my body and spirit.

When we lived in Mt. Vernon, Indiana, a small town in southwestern Indiana, there was no year around swimming pool. The community pool was open from Memorial Day to Labor Day which gave me an opportunity to connect with God in the water once again.

Most of the year, however, I ran three to four miles every day. The length of the town from east to west was 1.3 miles. Taking off from my house on the west side of town, and running east, returning for a couple of laps on the small street next to our parsonage made for a nice three mile workout.

Wanting to combine exercise and time with God, my running route became a path of prayer.

Mowing the grass also brought time for silent reflection. We moved to Indianapolis in November, 1983, and the next summer I started mowing our large yard. We lived alongside a busy road on the south side of Indy that did not offer a lot of external quiet, but mowing row across the large yard helped me reach the quiet, inner space where God entered. I finished the lawn each week, refreshed, renewed and restored.

Caring for the yard during the summer of 1984, brought special meaning. Toward the middle of July, I realized I wasn't alone going up and down the path outlined by the width of the lawn mower.

Back in those days there were no home pregnancy tests, so I had to wait several weeks, then get a test at Planned Parenthood to confirm, indeed, I was having a baby. Carrying around a new life that I kept secret for awhile gave me a head start on communicating with another much-desired infant.

We "chatted" each week in the front and back yard. I wondered what this new life would look like. What would his or her talents and interests be? Wondering how I could love another child as much as my first kept me perplexed as the months went on. When I finally held  Anna, in March, 1985, my heart expanded quickly realizing there was enough love to go around.

Although I no longer need someone to care for my children while I escape to pray, the ways I nurtured my faith years ago are still with me today - swimming, and mowing the grass.

Waiting or postponing intimacy with God until "he/she starts pre-school or kindergarten", or "when I retire or work part-time" are not an option. Try these simple ways to incorporate God into everyday  life.

1. Put a candle or a cross or other small symbol that remind you of God in the kitchen, a busy place for most people. When you see each one, acknowledge that you are always in God's presence. Take a deep breath, inhaling God's love, strength, patience or what you need in that moment.

2. Combine what you are doing with an awareness that God is with you. A simple mantra such as the following may help: "God as I cook, I remember ____________;" "God when I fold _____'s shirts keep him safe;" "God as I watch my child/children play let them run and stretch and enjoy all their bodies can do;" 'Jesus come when I eat, cook, and work in the yard, bringing me to you always."

3. Practice gratitude. At the end of the day, recall at least one part of the day for which you can give thanks.

4. Say the Lord's Prayer every morning. This short, comprehensive prayer honors God, reminds you to bring God's kingdom wherever you go; offers thanks for food and forgiveness for ourselves and others; guides us to keep our minds pure; celebrates God's power and glory all around.

5. Write and tape one scripture a week or month to your bathroom mirror. Read the message while you brush your teeth, asking God to bring a new insight or perspective on these words.

These steps can increase our awareness that God is with us as well as deepen the inner space where God can enter and fill.

Prayer: God, open our eyes and hearts to creative ways we can pray with you when we have difficulty finding time to sit and be still. Amen.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Wisdom in Unexpected Places

Wisdom - knowledge, wise sayings or teachings.

When I was in high school and college and needed information for a paper or project, one of my parents dropped me off at the closest library where I spent a few hours looking through encyclopedias. The library continued to be a resource when I needed to read about a particular topic throughout much of my adult life. Recently, however, I discovered a new place of wisdom -  the wrapper of Hall's cough drops!!

Last week I had a sore, dry throat, so I purchased a package of Hall's sugar-free cherry cough drops. Unwrapping the first one, I noticed the following phrase printed on the paper: "A pep talk in every drop." Looking further I saw these words in the center of the diamond logo: "Dust off and get up," "It's yours for the taking," "March forward!" "Conquer today!"

Wisdom in a cough drop wrapper?? Through the next five days, while my cough healed, I accumulated quite a pile of wrappers, containing endless wisdom and good wishes including the following:

"Put your game face on ...Let's hear your battle cry ...Seize the day ....Get through it ....You can do it and you know it ...Power through ...Don't waste a precious minute ... Nothing you can't handle ....Keep your chin up."

I realized there were other "unlikely" places for gleaning wisdom such as fortune cookies, on pieces of Dove chocolate and the front page of the Indianapolis Star (which always prints the same Bible verse, 2 Corinthians 3:17 - Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.). The Fishers YMCA has a basket of narrow, multi-colored strips of paper containing scripture. Patrons are welcome to take one or more at each visit.

Perhaps the people at Hall's want to offer an encouraging word to those who aren't feeling well, to brighten their day and distract their physical duress. Well, it worked. I gained a bit of wisdom and energy, each time I unwrapped one of their cough drops.

Where do you find wisdom n unexpected places?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

An Opening Is A Beginning

Last summer I taught a class at the Chautauqua Institute in western New York called,  "Praying with Sand, Paper, Paint and Pen."

One of my students came in the first day and shared how she was going through a divorce. The second day she provided more detail acknowledging how her husband's infidelity was causing upheaval in their family.

Another student commented, "Why don't you pray for the other woman?"

The woman replied, "That's an interesting thought."

The third day of class we shared our pictures of prayer completed in various colors and designs.

"I decided to pray for the woman who now lives with my ex-husband. I used yellow and green and these shapes," she said showing us her picture.

Noting spaces of white in the middle of the paper and on the sides, I commented, "Even if this is all you do,  there is an opening."

My student smiled.

Opening our heart can be the first step to creating space for God to enter. Opening breaks the tension, tightness and hold that can grip our very core when difficult circumstances come our way.

Thirteen years ago, Sarah gave me a paperweight for Mother's Day. A red heart is in the middle surrounded by clear glass. The hollow center of the heart dips into the base. You can feel the depth of the opening with your finger.

Dipping your finger into the heart and "roaming" through illustrates how much room an open heart offers for God. Rough patches happen in many forms and it's easy to close our hearts when pain overwhelms. We can become hardened with envy, jealousy, anger and frustration.

However, even small openings or spaces, as my student left between shapes, are room enough for God's light to enter and slowly work along the raw and rough insides of our hearts. God's love can be a soothing balm that over time will lessen pain or change to a new form that is manageable and doesn't carry quite the hurt that once was there.

How can you create openings in your heart and space for God to come in and work?

Prayer: God, no one is immune to sorrow or loss for circumstances happen in life that hurt and harden our hearts. We often call to you for understanding and in our cries are the beginning of openings where you can come in and work through the hard tunnels and passages that hardship seems to burrow. Send your light to these places so that peace can come. Amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Not Reading

I attended an author fair at the Carmel Public Library on a recent summer Saturday afternoon. More than twenty authors gathered to sell their publications and interact with visitors.

Talking with other writers inspires me. I love learning why he or she is interested in a particular topic to write a book. Intrigued, I went from table to table, skimming books and chatting with the authors. Three different writers asked me the same question that was an unexpected query, "What type of books do you like to read?"

I was stumped!! First, I didn't expect an author to ask me a question and second, I had to reveal my lack of reading during the past several years.

Embarrassed, I replied to each, "I haven't been reading. I write." My brief response ended the conversation and I walked to the next table.

Not reading books during the past few years has left a gap in my life. I miss getting lost in a book, thinking about the plot while I am at work or driving, eager to return to read what was going to happen with my favorite character or how the plot would evolve.

I learned a long time ago that reading expands vocabulary, inspires imagination and is especially helpful for those who like to write.

One of my favorite blog writers is Charity Singleton Craig. When I see Charity's writing appear in my email, I click immediately. Her post on August 27, "Read and Respond: Writing Comes from Reading," chronicles her path of reading beginning when she was four. Charity references another writer, L. L. Barkat, who comments in her blog, "Green Inventions Central" on August 25, 2011, about her fourteen year old daughter's passion for writing poetry is due to her prolific reading. L. L. Barkat says, "All that reading, I'm convinced has shaped her writing."

Maybe all of the reading I used to do has influenced my writing, the writing I do today. Much of my reading as an adult involved authors and their processes of writing including Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Madeleine L'Engle, and Kathleen Norris, all of whom have a reflective, self-exploring style. 

The day after the author fair I stopped by the library in the church I attend, hoping once again to find a book to read. After all, since "reading comes from writing," I was desperate. I chose a book by Robert Hamma called Landscapes of the Soul: A Spirituality of Place.

The author shares a story in the introduction about a third century monk, St. Antony, who is asked by a philosopher how he can survive without books. St. Antony's reply gives me comfort: "My book, sir philosopher, is the nature of created things, and it is always at hand when I wish to read the words of God."

Although I haven't advanced beyond the introduction, I did receive encouragement for my lack of reading by learning than an awareness of God as I look deeply at people, things, events and experiences in my world, will let me find God there ...... and write what I discover.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Guest Writer: Anna Reed - "Not quite a bowl, but it worked just fine."

On June 14, I shared a picture of a bowl purchased at Betsy and Iya, the store where Anna, my youngest daughter is in charge of media and marketing. The blog entry invited readers to select, bless and fill a bowl in whatever way they chose during the months of July and August.

Anna completed the project.  Here is a picture of her bowl and comments about the experience.

"When I read my mom's post from June 14th, I was filled with the customary inspiration that comes after reading her words. I connected even deeper to this particular post since the bowl she described came from the shop where I work. I am beyond delighted that something she bought during a visit to Portland inspired such a mindful project. When I read the call-to-action for her readers to also conduct a "bowl project," I knew it was something I wanted to do.

I have the classic conundrum of those with both a small living space and borderline hoarder tendencies: I don't have a lot of room in my one bedroom apartment, but I do have a lot of things I want to keep. Most of these things are reminders of love. My parents are a constant reminder of love, and their acts are the things that remind me of God's love as well. My bowl - not a bowl at all, but rather a small vessel handmade by one of my favorite ceramists in Portland - became a place for holding these special things.

Often times, I am messy in my way of keeping track of these items that cross many miles to get to me and remind me that I am loved. Having the bowl project gave me a devoted place to keep these things, a place that is beautiful in decoration and easy to access, but also didn't take up too much space in my apartment.

Things that found their way in there were mindfully placed mementos of love: handwritten notes from my mom, an envelope addressed by my dad (just seeing familiar handwriting is a reminder of love to me), a movie ticket a friend bought me out of love - because we both needed to escape the heat and what better treat than a cool, dark theater?

Through the project, I learned that simply being open and ready to receive is enough to find oneself "overflowing with expressions of love," as my mom wrote. It doesn't have to take up a lot of space in your mind or on your countertop, nor is it complicated to catalogue. I never second guessed what I put in the bowl, I just knew. Because I was open.

Ultimately, my bowl experience was a fulfillment of my mom's prayer for her readers at the end of her post. That prayer reads: God, fill us to overflowing with tangible expressions of your goodness, love and challenge. Guide our reflections with what you give so we can learn more about ourselves and our lives with you. Amen.

Who doesn't want to feel that? I feel blessed that I did through this project, and continue to because of it."

Anna Reed, August 27, 2015.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Circle of Quilting Moms - A Circle of Love

One of the many blessings of being in ministry is the congregations Mike pastored. We were fortunate in each church to have men and women who became surrogate grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles to Sarah and Anna, filling gaps that our lack of family provided. Many of these friendships continue today even though we have not been in some of the churches for over thirty years.

When we moved to Fishers, in June, 1996, Sarah was a freshman at I. U. and Anna a sixth-grader. We were embraced once again by a loving church community.

Anna became acquainted with a wonderful group of girls and one young man who became fast friends through school events, but mainly by participating in church youth group. Their friendship deepened as they served on mission trips as well as celebrated birthdays, went to the prom, ate at favorite restaurants, and traveled to the mall. The families of these young people - particularly the mothers - became friends too, as we watched our children grow.

Following high school graduation, the mothers gathered four or five times during the school year to prepare care packages. Each mother brought five small gifts which we exchanged then mailed to our college student. These surprises contained candy and other treats, all expressions of love and care.

Following college, one by one, the children married and had babies. For each marriage and birth, the "circle of moms" gathered to make a quilt for the bride or new mother, which we presented at a shower for family and friends.

Making a quilt gave us the opportunity to come together, and piece our good wishes and blessings in a tangible form for these young couples and growing families. Just last week we gathered to present an eighth baby quilt to the newest grandchild among the group.

Making each quilt begins when we meet at the fabric store and choose the material. I am reminded of pioneer families who made quilts for their daughters and nieces. Often these young families left in covered wagons to explore unsettled territory and start homesteads. The stack of quilts that made the trip were reminders of love that followed their new beginnings. The children of our circle are heading out on their own journeys, and we're sending them off with our own reminders of love.

Years ago I saw the following phrase in a book of quilt patterns: "When this you see remember me." All of the families who have received quilts from the "circle of moms" have these words stitched into every quilt, a permanent record of love and affection from mothers who came together nearly twenty years ago through a connection at church and who continue to show love and support to our children.

Prayer: God, there are many ways you provide for us and one of those is through communion with each other. Our ties deepen when you are there and we become family to each other. Thank you for bringing us together, for the experiences we share, building memories to fill our hearts and bind us closer to you and each other. Amen.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Strange Trajectory of One of My Favorite Books

I  first met my friend and writing teacher, Ann Kroeker, through her book, The Contemplative Mom - Restoring Rich Relationships with God in the Midst of Motherhood - published in 2000.

Ann's book is a helpful guide to navigating and nurturing intimacy with God while juggling the responsibilities of being a mother. The book was my favorite gift for many years to give friends or mothers-to-be when I attended a baby shower.

Several months ago, I was perusing through the Carmel Library used bookstore after my writing class with Ann. I noticed her book on one of the shelves. Pulling out the paperback copy, I could tell it had not been read because there was no crease on the cover. I opened the book to discover the following inscription:

          Jennifer (not her real name), Remember always to seek God as you raise your new baby. Love, Jacquie

I wrote the words eleven years ago to a friend's daughter who occasionally cared for Sarah and Anna when we lived in Vincennes. The daughter moved to Indianapolis after her marriage and when I was invited to her baby shower, I gave a copy of The Contemplative Mom.

I purchased the book from the library bookstore, sharing with Ann my discovery via email when I returned home.

Looking and the book and reading the inscription eleven years later left me disappointed. I chose with care and thoughtfulness a gift to nurture a young mother's faith as she adjusted to the shift in daily routine life with a newborn brings. I wanted so much to share Ann's suggestions in a book that is packed with easy ways to cultivate awareness of God's presence in the chaos of raising children. To find that new book, unused on the used shelf in the library bookstore was disheartening.

A few weeks later, I went to pick strawberries at Spencer's Farm near Noblesville. I look forward to these few weeks when I can rest on a straw-covered path and weave my hands in and out of plants, choosing the ripest berries. Picking can become meditative especially with a blue sky overhead and a cool breeze. I was clearly centered in God's presence that day as I went up and down my assigned row.

When my large cardboard tray was heaped to a peak, I paused one more time to inhale the experience before getting up. I heard two women talking to each other and to their children who were picking three rows over. One voice was familiar and I quickly realized it was Jennifer, the one to whom I gifted Ann's book. I last saw her a few years ago when I visited her following a death in her family.

I hardly knew what to do, especially since I had the copy of the book I gave her in my car.

Do I re-gift?

Do I say nothing"

Do I trust God to be at work in her life?

I didn't know if she would recognize me, although I thought with a few cues she probably would. I didn't want to embarrass her with a re-gift.. So I prayed that God would keep her close as she cared for her expanded family, knowing that perhaps there was another book guiding her walk with God.

Prayer: God, there are many ways we come to you, sometimes through gifts from others. We  develop our own style to increase familiarity and intimacy with you who created all often independently of books or readings. Guide all who love you and desire to serve in your name. Amen.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Pool Deck at the YMCA - A Place to Commune with Other Faith Traditions

Finishing the last lengths of my swim to complete a half mile, I did stretches while still in the water. I looked on the deck in front of me and saw a Muslim woman speaking out loud, reading from an iPad. I recognized Norah, having spoken to her before at the Fishers YMCA, so I jumped out of the water, grabbed my towel and gym bag, and walked over to the bench where she sat.

A burqa outlined her face and hands. "Are you praying?" I asked. She looked up with recognition, extended her hand and smiled.

"I've seen you before reading the Koran out loud. I admire the way you are public with your faith. I'm a Christian, but I don't carry my Bible wherever I go."

Putting aside her iPad, Norah replied, "I'm reading the Koran. We pray five times a day wherever we are. In such a busy life, we look to our great creator to remember our faith."

We chatted a few minutes. When her little boy finished swimming, I said good-bye and walked to the locker room. I never see anyone reading the Bible while their child or children have swim lessons. Norah's bold demonstration of her faith was inspiring.

Reflecting on my encounter later in the day, I focused on Norah's description of the importance of pausing and praying five set times during each day. This practice reminded me of the monastic ritual of praying the hours, something I did for many years especially during the time I worked at St. Vincent Hospital.

One day a week (I rotated the days; Monday, one week, Tuesday, the next, etc.) from the time I awakened until I went to bed, I remembered God at the beginning of every hour. At first, I looked at the clock often throughout the hour. However, as the day progressed, I  found "my soul took me to the hour" before I realized the time. My "day of the hours" as I called it, became a mini-retreat. Each day frequently ended with a new insight about my walk with God or with a deeper awareness of God's presence.

Pausing at the beginning of every hour was a way to stay centered in God as well as acknowledging that God was with me.

Here's an experiment. Choose a day to practice "a day of the hours." Select five times throughout your day to pause and pray. You may want to use these focused moments with God to pray for a decision or circumstances you are facing or for an individual about whom you care. Or you can use this time to direct your thoughts to God's presence surrounding you. Reminder alarms on watches and cell phones can assist if you desire.

We share similar practices of other faith traditions. Perhaps the terminology or sequence is different, but honoring common features can help build bridges and encourage understanding.

Prayer: God, you are the creator of all persons. We have more in common than differences. Help us learn from each other and befriend all. Amen.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Join the Trend of the Day --- Pray in Color!!

According to the Huffington Post last week, six of the top twenty selling books on Amazon are adult coloring books. I scanned the list and found these titles -

Adult Coloring Book: Stress Relieving Patterns by Adult Coloring Book Artists
Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest and Coloring Book by Johanna Basford
Creative Haven, Creative Cats Coloring Book by Marjorie Sarnat
Creative Haven, Whimsical Gardens Coloring Book by Alexandra Cowell.

Reading the advertisements about each one, I spot common words like relaxing, stills the mind and calming. Finding this article was timely for me, as I just finished teaching a class as the Chautauqua Institute in western New York called "Praying with Paper, Pencil, Paints and Sand."

Nearly eight years ago at the annual "Spirit and Place" series of concerts and lectures held in Indianapolis each November, I attended Sybil MacBeth's daylong program on her book Praying in Color. The author described frustration with her prayer life that included difficulty sitting still and inconsistency in spending time with God. She liked to doodle, however, so the high school math teacher began making shapes and forms, including the names of persons for whom she wanted to pray. She added color to her designs with paints or crayon. This method of using patterns and color helped her enter God's presence, stay focused in prayer, and develop an attentiveness to hear God speak.

I have used her way of praying for many years. Often I don't have words to say when I bring my feelings to God, but I can find a color or two that seems to "give language." Adding a design and continuing with the pattern or color eventually leads me to words that open a pathway to God and to my heart.

I told my students last week, "Praying with paper, paint and pencil is not about art, but about prayer." Letting go of the thought, often restraining, that this type of prayer is not for a juried art show, helps people relax and begin to experience a new way to enter God's presence.

Here are a few suggestions to get started.

1. Gather a pencil, a box of children's paints, and a sketchbook or sheet of white paper, a cup of water - these are the "tools of prayer."
2. Find a quiet place at a desk or table. Know that God is with you. Offer a prayer to increase your awareness of God's presence as you draw, paint and pray.
3. Regard your paper as a sacred and holy space for communion with God.
4. Make a list of the people for whom you want to pray, including yourself.
5. Begin with shapes and lines, adding names as you pray. When you finish, paint the design. (See below for example.)
6. Carrying the image you made throughout the day is a way to remain close to God. You have created a visual prayer list.
7. A blank piece of paper, paints, a pencil and brush can become as sacred as a monk's cell where God is received in the silence of your heart.

My students at Chautauqua responded well to the class. Each day we shared our "homework" from the day before from sketchbooks and large pieces of paper. They were delighted with the pictures that resulted from dealing with difficult family circumstances, as well as the way God came to them as they drew and filled in with color.

Knowing there is a creative way to relax, relieve stress or meditate that reverts to the way young children develop visual perceptual skills will be interesting to follow. I wonder if holiday shopping this year will find boxes of crayons along with the books mention in the Huffington Post under the Christmas tree? Maybe others will discover coloring or painting their own designs or patterns in prayer will lead to a deeper connection to God and self.

Prayer: God, there are as many ways to come to you as there are people. Open us to the experience of creating our own shapes and patterns, and adding color can bring us into an awareness that we are always in your presence. Amen.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

I Stole a Prayer Shawl

Several years ago, my then spiritual director, Gwen, a Carmelite nun, was on the staff of one of the Catholic churches in Fishers. Each month we met in her office located in the church basement.

Parking in the front lot, I entered the narthex outside the sanctuary, and walked downstairs. Gwen listened to the cries of my heart and brought God's comforting and encouraging presence.

Many times after we finished, I paused in the sanctuary or looked at the art lining the walls. Just inside the front entrance, there was a wooden ledge that held finished prayer shawls. Every month I examined the stack, touched the yarn, admired the pattern knit or crochet knowing that I was holding someone's prayers.

I wondered with longing if the prayers of those who made these precious pieces would become absorbed in my body and bring complete healing that I desired. So I unfolded and refolded each one, making the stack straight and tall, coveting a different one each month.

One year for my September appointment the waters of the mental illnesses I faced seemed to keep my boots stuck in the mud for longer periods. When Gwen and I finished that day, I went right to the prayer shawls as if they were the holy clothes wrapped around Jesus in the tomb.

Examining each one, I found a shawl crochet with brown, green, orange and yellow yarn, reminding me of the trees that were already changing color. These fall colors grabbed my heart. Although I didn't fit into any category designated to receive a shawl - I wasn't physically sick; no one in my family had died; the babies in my home were all grown; I wasn't a member of the church; I had not lost my job - but I took one anyway. I needed something to hold that would offer God's presence in a tangible way.  Interestingly, I didn't feel guilty about taking the shawl for each was made with love and prayer for someone hurting - and that was my qualification.

Every night since that day nearly five years ago, I curl the shawl close to my chest, insert my fingers through the open spaces in the crochet design, absorb the love and prayers that went into its creation and fall asleep. In the night if I awaken with fear or anxiety, I loop my fingers around the yarn and grasp the hope of God's presence.

A few years later I decided to send a small donation to the church for their prayer shawl ministry. I included the following note:

     "Enclosed you will find a donation for your prayer shawl ministry. I took a prayer shawl and treasure the beautiful way it holds the prayers made by servant hands."

My prayer is that someday all persons who need a picture of God to clutch and cuddle can receive a shawl, not just the people whose needs are physical, more visible or involve grief.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Repeat Post from Chautauqua

Mike and I are attending the Chautauqua Institute in western New York this week where we are teaching. Mike's class is "Moving Beyond Fundamentalism" and my class is "Praying with Paint, Paper and Pen."

We enjoy our time on the lake, listening to lectures, hearing concerts, watching ballet and attending daily worship.

Last year I shared my experience listening to Rev. Allan Boesak, an activist born in South Africa, currently teaching at Christian Theological Seminary and Butler University, both in Indianapolis.

I quoted part of a sermon he gave which follows:

     "He introduced the idea of prophetic faithfulness that interrupts the flow of evil for the reality of truth in 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."

I pray my actions make the face of Christ shine as Rev. Boesak concluded happens when we take the time for one life.

My original post occurred on August 21, 2014. Image by Isabelle Kroeker Photography. Used with permission.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Pause - to cease or suspend an action temporarily; a temporary stop in action or speech.

Back in the fifties, there was an advertisement for Coca-Cola showing a man in a business suit holding a bottle of the drink. The caption said, "At 4 p.m. the pause that refreshes." The slogan, "the pause that refreshes" became popular, suggesting that stopping or pausing for a drink of ice-cold Coca-Cola at any time of the day can offer refreshment.

Pauses also occur when we are in conversations and need a moment or two to collect our thoughts and think of a word we want to say. The pause button on our remote enables us to stop of movie or a recorded show to get a snack, use the bathroom or get up and stretch.

Focusing on the word - pause - during the past two days enabled me to find value in a word that might not quite define our fast-paced world of instant communication. For example, I needed a small bookcase for my office. Driving through our neighborhood, I stopped at a garage sale, spotting a bookcase before I got out of my car. I reached in my purse to pay, chatting with the mother and daughter who were in charge.

They explained how many friends and family members made donations that filled the garage. The mother added all of the sales were being used to finance and adoption for her daughter who had lost four babies. While she helped me carry the bookcase to my car, the mother explained the various options available for adoption locally and internationally. We stopped outside my car as the mother detailed her daughter's anguish with infertility.

Driving away, I realized that pausing added meaning to my purchase, gave me a lot more information than I expected when I walked the driveway to the sale.

Then I went to visit my friend, Donna. When I arrived, she had a bouquet of daisies and pink roses picked from her yard ready for me to take home. Donna paused during her busy day to pick a bunch of flowers that speak of her compassion and care for the challenges I face. Donna set aside time from preparing for a niece's baby shower, and caring for her daughter, Katie, who is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor, to send a grouping of love my way.

Continuing along that Saturday morning after swimming, I stopped by one of my favorite quilt stores in Nora, Quilts Plus. Being the only customer, the two employees welcomed me into their conversation about the valedictorian at one of the large Indianapolis high schools who is  homeless. Amazed at the witness of resilience to persevere despite horrible circumstances, we concluded this young lady will be an inspiration as she goes to college and pursues a career path.

At the cash register, the employee proceeded to tell me the story of one of her adopted children finding her birth mother. Pausing to listen to the complications and joys of the discovery, I learned about implications I'd only ready about in the newspaper or magazines.

Once again, pausing with people most of whom I didn't know, opened a window into their souls that tapped compassion in my heart.

Jesus modeled pausing. When people came to Jesus seeking healing and advice, he patiently responded to each one. He could have said, "I need to go _____;" "I'm too busy;" "I need to rest." Instead, he paused at each encounter, offering God's presence through his attentive listening.

Pausing does take time, extra time. I look at what I gained at the garage sale and the quilt store by pausing and listening, adding depth and meaning to each experience.

Now when I look at my bookcase or drive by the house where the garage sale occurred, I can bring the couple to God as they await a child. When I used the fabric purchased at Quilts Plus, I remember the homeless valedictorian and the employee whose daughter's knowledge of her birth mother added a new dimension to their relationship.

Being the recipient of Donna's pause brings a smile to my face and comfort to my heart when I see the vase of daisies and roses on my kitchen table.

Take a moment today and pause ----- what happens? Become aware how you are the beneficiary of someone else's pauses.

Prayer: God, you pause frequently to hear our prayers and receive our praise. Fill us with patience to pause at each encounter for we are meeting those who are made in your image. Amen.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Early Morning Quiet

One morning I was sitting at my desk watching the sun rise and wrote the following poem:

Early morning quiet,
The sun rises to begin a new day.
The same sun that rose
When God said, "Let there be light."

The present connects with the past.

Adam and Eve saw the same sun I see today. So did -

The sun links me to Adam and Eve,
and all humanity created since my birth.

Gather all these person,
They are a photo gallery of the
family of God living in me.


Friday, July 10, 2015

Art Matters

Life's deepest wounds often leave us with no words. Those wounds shove feelings and memories into hard-to-reach places in our hearts, but no words. Without words, how do we process those wounds? When we can't speak our pain, how do we find healing?

Through art.

Art matters.

I believe art has the power to tap into those deep, hidden places and lure the experiences out so we can examine them, grow and with God's help, heal.

Two years ago my parents died four days apart. My family had two funerals in four days. My father died first, then my mother stopped eating and joined her husband the afternoon of his funeral.

My parents were beloved by their friends at work and church, by neighbors and other acquaintances. However, these people only knew one side of their life and not the childhood I experienced growing up in an abusive home.

I was in a swirl of emotions following their deaths. Reading a few books on grief added more confusion. My thoughts didn't fit into anything I read as the author referred to the reader's "beloved family member," or "cherished mother."

Seeking the counsel of pastors, therapists, friends whose parents had died and even a grief counselor did not help clear the fog in which my brain dwelled as I tried to resolve who they were to me with comments I heard over and over at the funeral home about how wonderful they were.

I always wanted to study art and writing. Within a few months of my parents' passing, I used my inheritance to begin taking classes in both subjects under the teaching of two strong Christian women.

Kandi, my young art teacher, took me under her wing as we began to draw objects looking at shape and value. My writing coach, Ann, a seasoned author whose first two books I read, introduced a new path to me of extracting deep wounds buried decades ago, through creative instruction. Her small writing assignments brought into the open anger, frustration, abandonment and injustice - words that were foreign to me, but started to give form and expression to my chaos.

I wrote about my early life and sent my work to Ann, who read each piece with the same care as if she were editing a prize-winning novel, receiving all of the ugliness of the past without judgment or questioning. The process was helping me put words to my wounds and address my pain. I would see Ann on Thursdays, and Kandi on Tuesdays, as well as a counselor on Monday. That trio formed a powerful combination for my healing.

Kandi suggested one day I take the sympathy cards I received - over 100 - and tear them into little pieces so we could make paper, which we did. After the paper dried, I was left with lots of unused torn snippets of cards. Most pieces had a word on them, whether handwritten or printed on the original card. I used the pieces to make even more art. I sewed together leftover scraps into a "paper quilt" putting into action Jesus' words to the disciples following the feeding of the thousands to "gather the pieces and let nothing be wasted."

I brought my art projects to show Ann, and she noted all the words and phrases remaining on the scraps, separated from their original messages. She suggested I create "found poems" using words found on these pieces and working them into a new message of my own. Below is one of my found poems:

                   Someone will keep your troubled heart,
                   Holding it close, with peace coming during a difficult time.
                   Words are inadequate to express concern and sympathy
                   When deepest comfort is needed for the heart.
                   Jesus reminds us, "I give unto you peace. Let not your heart be troubled."

Working with these hard, shriveled remains of sympathy cards to patch together my pain into a new form while writing "found poems" from remnants of verses from the cards, I felt my heart eventually arrive at a place of peace regarding my parents that I had not felt for decades.

The making of paper and a "paper quilt" tapped into those hidden places and pulled things to the surface so I could examine them, put words to them, and find healing.

Art and writing unexpectedly gave form to my loss, my past, and brought healing to my heart.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Lost Art of Letter Writing

A few years ago one of my daughters asked how often Mike and I talked during the year we saw each other only on weekends. She was astonished when I replied, "We never spoke from Sunday to Friday. We wrote letters."

The Age of Letter Writing

I explained that before cell phones, long-distance calling was expensive. Rates were cheaper after 9 p.m. and before 8 a.m. Phone calls were only for emergencies or conveying information, rarely for pleasure. Even today when we speak with Sarah and Anna, I appreciate hearing their voices as much as the conversation. The pleasure and joy of "hearing someone's voice" has perhaps lost its value with texting and email communication.

Letters offer a permanent record of affection, information, encouragement and love. For example, my friend, Annabel, and her husband were members of Center United Methodist Church on the south side of Indianapolis, where Mike served from 1983 to 1989. Annabel, who will soon be 100, became a surrogate mother to me. She encouraged my writing and affirmed me as a young mother.

During my pregnancy with Anna, Annabel frequently brought muffins or vegetables to supplement our meals.

Letters from My Mentor

When Mike was appointed to serve in Vincennes in June, 1989, Annabel and I began a regular correspondence. After our move, I shared our family activities, and often asked questions related to raising children, managing my time or my walk with God. Interestingly, when we moved to Fishers, and visited often in person, we continued to correspond. The stack of letters and cards I have saved accumulated over 28 years is a treasured keepsake of shared memories, advice, and encouragement from someone who loved and cared for me deeply.

When I visited Annabel before Mother's Day, I took all of her letters and cards. We read through many of her thoughts and looked at the stationery she chose reflecting her passion for human rights, equality, nature, wildlife preservation, and reconciliation. Sitting side by side on her couch, she cried, realizing the importance her letters had in my life.

I've saved letters Sarah wrote to Anna from church camp and from when Sarah worked at Culver Academy Summer School and Camp during summer breaks from college. These letters are cherished and rest in a box of memorabilia.

A little pencil in God's hand - the Walking Letter

The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 3:3 - "You show that you are a letter from Christ ... written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone, but on tablets of human hearts." These words can be interpreted to mean that all who love and serve God are "walking letters," writing each day the ways in which we script our faith.

Mother Teresa was interviewed in the December 4, 1989, issue of TIME magazine. When asked to describe the nature of her work with the poor she replied, "I don't claim anything of the work I do. It is his (God's) work. I am like a pencil in his hand. That is all. He does the writing. The pencil has nothing to do with it. The pencil has only to be allowed to be used."

Jesus was more like Mother Teresa's description of her work. Jesus was a pencil in God's hand, writing how to live and love in the kingdom; whereas Paul used letters, some of which were penned in prison to speak to believers on various topics related to life in the church.

The Power of Writing by Hand

A few years ago a series of articles was published about the science of writing things by hand. The research indicated that our brains work differently when we form letters with a hand-held implement and we learn more effectively than when we type.

Another study found that when pre-school children look at letters of the alphabet, those who practiced writing the letters showed more activation in the visual areas of their brains than those who had practiced letter recognition alone. Writing by hand seems to help lay the neural groundwork for reading.

I write all of the articles for "Gather the Pieces" first, by hand, then I type. I find that ideas flow more from my heart when I hand-write compared to using a computer.

Of course, writing letters takes more time as well as organization to have paper or stationery and pen or pencil available. Recently, a book I purchased at a church rummage sale, Someone Cares - An Encyclopedia of Letter Writing, lists 23 topics for letter writing including letters for keeping in touch; blessing; thank you and appreciation; sympathy and condolence; complaint and employment.

Perhaps you know someone who would appreciate a handwritten note. Letters come from the heart and writing that comes from deep within can give the recipient a permanent record of our love, care and compassion.

Prayer: God, we thank you for the ways we can be expressions of your love to others. As we are pencils in your hand, guide us in tangible ways to let others know how much we care and write a few letters today. Amen.