Sunday, February 28, 2016

Communion Bread

Last week I received an email from one of the pastors of the church we attend asking me to bake five  loaves of bead for communion. Five loaves seemed overwhelming, so I agreed to two.

I hardly felt worthy to bake bread as I was dealing with anxiety, anger, frustration, loneliness, and confusion as well as forgiveness in the tangled web of 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 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-one years ago as a wedding gift. The bowl held hundreds of batches of dough, but today's was the first to become the body of Christ.

The dough quickly doubled in size. I took half from the bowl, powdered a handful of flour on the sticky places, molded a circle and placed 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, anxiety, resentment and other areas of disconnect in my life, along with forgiveness, blended into bread for God's people day morning. Oh my!!

As I slid the two pans in the over, I prayed that all negative feelings would bake out of me and go right to the heart of Jesus, whose body I formed a few moments ago.

 Sunday Morning

I walked into church the next day, leaving my loaves on the kitchen counter for the hostess to prepare. After greeting a few people, I entered the sanctuary, and found a pew close to the front in sight of  two oval forms of bread covered with embroidered white cloths resting in the middle of the altar.

I recalled the sugar, flour, yeast and milk that I  plucked from noisy grocery shelves days before now transformed into one of the most meaningful aspects of Christian liturgy in a quiet church on Sunday morning.

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

Mike and I assisted the pastors serving communion along the side aisles. I baked the body of Christ, I offered the body of Christ to those who came through my line and I experienced the peace from the body of Christ completely a holy cycle.

As we approach the fourth Sunday of Lent, I can't help thinking of the bread Jesus  served on that first Maundy Thursday to the disciples. Who baked the bread Jesus 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 from baking the bread. Someone always prepares 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. Amen.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Staying Present

I started reading the Sunday edition of The New York Times when I was in sixth grade. At the time, my family lived in a rural Pennsylvania town about 100 miles east of Pittsburgh. Many Sundays after church, we stopped at the "general store" where I purchased The New York Times for fifty cents along with a packet of five baseball cards and bubble gum for a nickel.

Reading the paper took most of the afternoon and connected me with vocabulary and thoughts that were beyond my provincial perspective.

Last Christmas, I received a year-long subscription to the Sunday Times which I still enjoy, from my daughter, Anna. I have my favorite sections and features, one of which is "Business." A column inside the front page, "Corner Office," is at the top of my list. Each week, male and female CEO's are interviewed. Many of them are women under 40 whose successful careers often began in start-up ventures.

The CEO's are often asked to give advice to others in the field or to recent college graduates. They also share questions used to interview potential employees - these can range from describing a person's background, what mistakes have taught them, a personal project and outcome, and what they like to do in their free time.

On Sunday, December 20, 2015, the "Corner Office" interviewed Melanie Whelan, CEO of SoulCycle. When asked to give career and life advice to college graduates, she shared the following"

"Be present in the present. Don't worry so much about where you're going. Just focus on where you are and do the best work you can. The next thing will come."

I liked her emphasis on staying in the present for that is all we have in any given moment.

Staying Present - Grounded in the Moment

Staying present is a basic principle of mindfulness meditation and can assist in staying grounded in
what is going on in the moment. Being focused in the present helps us respond more appropriately and effectively to the people or events before us.

I struggle to stay present. I'm not the only one - many people struggle to stay present because what is happening in life distracts us from the here and now.

"I have so much to do. I can't get focused," we often say. Our minds get "cluttered" in many ways; we think about what we need to do during the day when we are asked to be silent in church. Our thoughts wander to others - to those we love, those who bother us - and interrupt our lives in ways we do not choose.

Sometimes memories from the past, pleasant or unpleasant, intrude and make staying present a challenge.

Staying present or mindful helps us live in the fullness of each moment, so everyone benefits from fighting the intrusions and tendency to drift. Due to my challenges, I've developed a few effective strategies to re-direct my wayward mind back into the moment.

Six Ways to Stay Present

1. Name the thought or emotion that comes and take a deep breath. These two techniques help dissipate the energy unwanted thoughts or feelings can bring enabling me to respond to what is happening.

2. Maintain strong eye contact when talking to someone. Focusing on a person's eyes helps attend to what they are saying.

3. Engage your senses by asking yourself: What are five things I see .....five things I hear.....five things I taste......five things I feel/touch ....five things I smell.

4. Count your steps as you walk.

5. When walking in the neighborhood, at the mall or in a store, outline with your eyes the buildings, displays, houses, mailboxes, tree trunks and other items you see.

6. Pray through a color. Choose a color at the beginning of the day. Be aware of places where you see that color and let it be a reminder of God's presence. Offer a prayer: "God thank you for being with me today."

Staying present can require a lot of work - especially as you are building a new habit. Be encouraged, however, and try this practice in small steps. Some days will be easier than others, but keep working on it. You don't need to reach a level of perfection each day - as you work to stay present you are achieving the goal.

Staying present increases awareness that we live and move in God's presence. Stay present to people and your surroundings may lead to surprises you wouldn't have experienced otherwise - all involving God.

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for the variety of ways you reach us. Keep us alert -in the present, so we can always be attentive to your people and ourselves. Amen.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

"The people are holding us up!"

Spending time with children brings me joy. My three young friends, Alex, Jake, and I'll call the third, Jane, all of whom are eight years old,  fill my home with laughter and fun.

They spend time in the backyard playing kickball or making a little town in the woods from sticks, rocks and dried leaves. They create artwork using chalk on the concrete garage floor or the sidewalk. Their favorite activity occurs in my kitchen when we bake. Baking is the center of our time together; the other activities evolve around this tasty task.

Sometimes Jane comes by herself, as she likes to sew and the boys prefer to be more active. When all three come at the same time, we often pack a picnic and walk to the small park in our housing addition.

Recently, I took Jane to the Indianapolis Museum of Art for her first visit. She enjoys art and had a picture she painted in the school district art show last spring. Touring the museum and seeing art from an eight-year-old perspective brought new vision to a place I've frequented for almost thirty years.

One exhibit, "Floor," by the Korean artist, Do-Ho-Suh, captivated Jane. "Floor" is made of several sections of thick glass plates. Sandwiched between the plates and the hardwood floor of the museum are hundreds of multi-colored, miniature figures. The palms of their hands touch the glass, "supporting" the weight of visitors who step on the display.

Jane ran all over the expansive glass, fascinated by the hundreds of tiny, plastic people. "The people are holding us up," she exclaimed.

"They sure are Jane," I replied.

Community Within A Church

Reflecting on our experience at the museum later in the day I realized "Floor" was an apt metaphor illustrating community - especially church community.

Acts chapter 2, verses 43-47,describes the nature of living in the Christian community:

         "Many miracles and wonders were being done through the apostles and everyone was filled with awe. All the believers continued together in close fellowship and shared their belongings with one another. They would sell their property and possessions and distribute the money among all, according to what each one needed. Day after day they met as a group in the Temple, and they had their meals together in their homes, eating with glad and humble hearts, praising God and enjoying the good will of all the people. And every day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved."

Although life among the believers today may not look exactly like the description in the book of Acts, there are similarities. Fundraisers are often held for those who are sick or to raise support for projects within the church. Groups meet in churches each Sunday to study God's Word. Small groups gather in homes for prayer and often choose a book to read and discuss. Caring for each other is also a focus of the small group.

When our daughters, Sarah and Anna, were born, the churches Mike was pastoring at the time were generous with their love and support. Each gave us a shower, filling our baby's room with clothes and equipment. We had two weeks of meals prepared each time. The church people "held us up" as we welcomed a new member to our family. Their support made our adjustment easier during those early days of new and expanded parenthood.

The church community does "hold us up" during times of celebration and through moments of need. Our family has been so blessed through the years with people in our churches who have "held us up" during moments of challenge and joy.

One day at the last church Mike served, he received a phone call from a seminary colleague pastoring a church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He told Mike about a young couple who lost twins at 23 weeks. He did the memorial service, but the family was moving to Fishers, and needed a church and pastor for the burial. Mike got the family's address as well as the day and time they planned to arrive at their new home.

In Mike's mid-week message to those in the church, he mentioned this family, overcome with grief, and relocating to a town where they knew no one. By the end of the day, people responded, offering meals, childcare for their toddler son, and other kindnesses. The grieving family was "held up" by the church community for many weeks after their arrival.

How can we "hold people up"?

How can we "hold each other up" during moments of celebration as well as during times of need? Here are a few suggestions.

1. Pray for each other - a simple prayer, "God I bring you _____," is appropriate for any circumstance.
2. Send a card or write a note - Cards can be read over and over propped on a desk or counter as a frequent reminder of another's care and thoughts.
3. Bake cookies, muffins or make a meal. These expressions of love from the kitchen are always helpful.
4. Some churches offer prayer shawls that are given to celebrate the birth of a baby or to offer comfort to those dealing with illness or other trying times. Another church gives "Pocket Prayer Quilts," to those who are sick. The tag that comes with this tiny quilt square says, "This Pocket Prayer Quilt was made especially for you to slip in a pocket or purse. Whenever your fingers touch the cross tucked inside, be mindful of God's love and grace for you. Keep it as a tangible symbol of God's peace. James 5:16 - "Pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed."

The Return Home

Jane and I concluded our day at the museum looking at the famous Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture located on the grounds where I took her picture. What a fitting way to end the day in front of a visual that corresponded so closely with Jane's comment about "Floor" - "The people are holding us up."

Prayer: Loving God, thank you for Jane's insight that fit so appropriately the nature of community that you have described and Jesus modeled. Guide us in ways we can "hold each other up" as we experience events in life that come our way. Amen.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Showing Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

Showing Up In Other Areas

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

Kara Tippetts

In November, 2014, I head Kara Tippetts speak at a fund-raising event for the Megan S. Ott Foundation that helps persons diagnosed with breast cancer. Kara's cancer had recently spread to her brain and other vital organs. The foundation brought her to Indianapolis to address family, friends and others who had read her book The Hardest Peace. Unfortunately, Kara died in March, 2015.

While Kara was going through the last weeks of life, she and her friend, Jill Lynn Buteyn wrote a book, Just Show Up - The Dance of Walking Through Suffering Together.  Released in October, 2015, Jill and Kara's book addresses the awkwardness that can come when a friend or family member is dealing with difficult circumstances or is dying. "Showing up" with a meal or with a gift of time sitting in silence or holding his/her hand are meaningful ways to be present during the long days of terminal illness.

Showing Up to Others

I remember when Mike was serving a church in rural North Carolina while he was a student at Duke University Divinity School. One of the oldest members of the congregation died. I was so nervous about what to say to his elderly widow, since being with people in grief was new to me. Mentally, I rehearsed a few sentences to say that I hoped would offer comfort.

When Mike and I arrived at their home, I saw the widow sitting on a couch in the living room. I panicked and couldn't remember my "rehearsed speech." The receiving line of friends moved quickly and when I reached her, I recalled a few of my sentences, talking way too fast to someone who probably didn't retain a word I said. What was important, however, was that I "showed up." I went to her house, spent a few minutes with her and in so doing I held her grief, sharing her loss.

Ways to Show Up

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

1. If you feel comfortable, a hug or embrace conveys love, compassion, companionship and support. No words are needed.

2. Food is always helpful. Waiting for someone to call when they realize a need for nourishment may not come. Difficult circumstances make simple tasks like picking up a phone and dialing a number a challenge. Call ahead to make sure someone is home to receive your gift of compassion and care.

3. Send a card. Write a message of encouragement or a memory you may have if a person has died. Sometimes I cut a heart from fabric to enclose showing a tangible symbol of love to convey continued connection for a person who feels the ground underneath shifting.

4. Let the person discuss whatever he or she desires. Mike and I made a hospital visit to our long-time friend, Bill, who was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in early June. The conversation centered around the ingredients listed in a container of Boost, his liquid nourishment. Boost was important to Bill in these moments, so that is what we discussed. (Sadly, Bill died four months later.)

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

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