Sunday, June 26, 2016

God is in the Laundry

Many churches in the Indianapolis area support a homeless ministry by housing adults and children in their church building for a week. Interfaith Hospitality Network (IHN) is a nationwide organization that helps families in practical ways, starting with finding a place to stay. The families spend the day at the downtown IHN office where volunteers and staff help them find permanent housing and jobs. The families return to the host church close to 6:00 p.m., where they have dinner, play games, and sleep in a Sunday school room converted to a bedroom.

Church members cook meals, drive the guests to and from the church, and plan activities for the children after dinner. The church provides towels and bedding for the guests which are stored in a large closet in the basement so when the families completed the program recently, I volunteered to take a couple of bags of laundry home.

I went downstairs to get my bags before church. I chose two, both of which were bulging in asymmetrical ways. Trying to keep my balance while carrying these bundles up the stairs was interesting as I had to shift my position and keep them from toppling over my head and downstairs again. However, the minute I picked up the plastic bag and held it to my chest, my heart was filled with God's presence.

I received with gratitude God's unexpected appearance doing an ordinary task. I took the bags home, dumping the towels, sheets and mattress covers on the living room floor and started what would end up being six loads of laundry. When I loaded the washer, I wondered who had used the towel or sheet I had. What circumstances led them to become homeless? I thought about the children who slept on the sheets, knowing how disruptive moving every seven days to another church can be to their emotional development and security.

Constantly seeing new people at church might impair healthy attachment and sense of trust. The stability children and adults need to function effectively can be missing with homeless individuals. The complexity of the physical, social and psychological toil homelessness can bring filled my heart with prayer and compassion for these nameless people. I could touch them through the remnants of their stay and offer prayer as they moved on to another church.

When I folded the clean and dry sheets, towels, and mattress pads, I prayed for the person who will use each of them in the future. I prayed that he or she would feel God close during this time of disruption and crisis. I prayed for a smooth transition from homelessness to home.

While I folded the stacks of bedding, I was reminded of an article I read in the March 2004 issue Oprah's "O" magazine. The author, Sara Davidson, describes her experience at a Benedictine abbey
in Bethlehem, Connecticut. She was able to participate in worship services and eat with the sisters. She learned all work was completed prayerfully and with love. Her last responsibility before leaving was to change bed linens.

She started by tugging at the sheet corners, trying to hurry along. Then she remembered how the nuns
"put love into the cheese, the flowers, and fruit they grow, the animals they care for, the shawls they weave, and the honey they make. Why not put love into the linens for the next guest who arrives feeling shy, uncertain, expectant? I slow down and smooth the pillows gently, tenderly as Mother Margaret Georgina had suggested handling the cheese. The material remembers". (page 242)

I have assurance that the material for the next person will hold the love and prayer I put into washing and folding each towel, sheet and mattress pad. The material will remember and in a way directed by God will be conveyed to the next child or adult.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Take Time To Write A Letter

Last month our family celebrated the marriage of our oldest daughter, Sarah, to her fiancé, Ryan. We met several of their friends, including Adam, who introduced them.

As we talked, Adam said, "I really appreciated the letter you wrote me a few years ago when I took Sarah to the airport. I'd never received a letter!"

Never received a letter? Ever?

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

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

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

Hannah wrote:

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

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

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

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

I enjoy writing letters too. I can often express thoughts in my heart more deeply when I write. My daughters, who live far away, receive letters from me regularly. While reading Hannah's book, I decided to follow Hannah's example, not only as a writing exercise, but also an activity to expand my heart and deepen compassion toward those stranger I encounter.

I reminded myself each morning to be alert to someone to whom I could write a letter. I held the image of that person in my heart throughout the day and when I had a moment, I wrote a letter. A few of the people who have "received" my letters include a woman at the post office carrying two large parcels one under each arm, a neighbor who has yellow chairs in the front yard, and a young woman walking into the library with a coffee cup held high and a large book under her arm.

Like Hannah, however, I grew weary of writing letters in a notebook and carrying them in my bag. I decided to duplicate Hannah's method: write a letter, put it in an envelope, and drop the envelope wherever I went. At least someone will receive my words of love and encouragement.

I wrote ten letters with the message below:

     "Dear Friend,

          The cloth heart is a reminder that you are loved just the way you are. You are valued and loved for all you do. Your life maters to so many and the love you give sustains and provides comfort.

                                                       A Friend."

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

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

I've now spent almost two weeks writing a letter to someone I've encountered during the day. The ten letters I wrote have found homes in a restaurant, a confessional booth in a large Catholic church, at a local YMCA, a grocery store, tucked between books in the library, and in the pocket of a jacket in Target

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

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

The story of Adam's letter has come full circle. Writing a letter of gratitude left an imprint on his heart. His comment awakened me to Hannah's book reinforcing the importance of the lost art of letter writing. Next time I talk to Sarah, I plan to tell her about the time I spent with Adam and how his gratitude encouraged me to keep writing.

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

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

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Heart Struggling to Float: How the Simple Prayer, "Jesus Come" Brings Freedom

Every Saturday morning from Memorial Day to Labor Day I swim a mile at the fifty-meter outdoor pool at the Jordan YMCA in Indianapolis. I like the challenge of an extra twenty-five meters, the typical length of  local pools.

Usually I begin my swim using hand paddles made of thick plastic along with a float between my knees. Strengthening my upper body happens when I swim using only my arms.

Last Saturday, my fingers were getting sore and a little numb as I completed the thirty-sixth lap, a half-mile. I slipped the paddles and the float onto the pool deck and continued the next thirty-six laps using the freestyle stroke. Swimming into the fullness of the water, I felt my energy shift.

My uncomfortable fingers locked onto the paddles by thick rubber tubes became a metaphor for the way my mind was interlaced with negative thoughts that burrowed in my brain like worms going through tunnels in the dirt. With each stroke, I felt a burden lift and freedom emerge as I went from one side of the pool to the other.

When I first began my swim, I wondered how I would ever emerge with refreshment  I usually experience. Negative thoughts increase suffering and suffering weighs heavily. Removing the paddles released the pain in my hands and heart, allow for "Jesus come", my mantra for the remaining eighteen laps to enter.

A simple one-or-two-word phrase or mantra became a prayer asking God to adjust my heart and move on to healthier thoughts. Swimming through the water, my hands moving like a paddle, my legs the motor, I feltl the water rushing over me, bathing my body in cleansing ways.

When I touched the deck after 72 laps and jumped out of the pool meeting the chilly mid-60's degree temperature, I felt renewed and restored. Walking to the basket where the floats are kept, I looked over my shoulder once again at the water holding all of the negativity I released.

I am thankful for the way God worked when my simple prayer, "Jesus come," was received from a heart struggling to float.

Prayer: God, thank you for the way two words can summon depths of your healing to a troubled soul. Remind us we can always come to you, knowing simple ways can reach the expanse of your love. Amen.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Finding God in the Strawberry Patch

I like to go the first day picking starts because the strawberries are abundant on the vine and I can fill my box quickly. As the season progresses, the ripe berries aren't as clustered as in the beginning and it can take almost double the time to pick.

Venturing to the fields for opening day, I found the berries big and almost burgundy in color - and they filled the bushes. And thus begins my day of worship.

Worship? Yes, I regard the time I spend picking strawberries as a time of worship. From an opening prayer of thanksgiving and music to a closing benediction, I watch for elements one might find in a typical Sunday liturgy and find God throughout my time in the strawberry patch.

I begin by giving thanks for health, energy and mobility to stoop low to the ground, and reach across the row to find ripe berries hidden under the leaves of larger plants.

When I go to the fields, I'm assigned a row or "pew" marked by a fluorescent pink flag. The row is "all mine" for the duration of the time I pick.

Music for the day comes from birds who chirp and sing continuously. The clickety-clack of a train that is part of a grain elevator operation a mile away sounds periodically as I pick.

Music also comes from the chatter of adults and children who interact with excitement. I usually hear parents caution, "If the berry is white, don't pick it. Find a bright red one!" Children offer squeals of excitement when they discover a strawberry, "I see one! I found a bright, red one!"

The offering has an interesting twist as I take something from the patch rather than bringing something to the basket that is passed up and down the rows each Sunday. I offer thanks for receiving a part of the bounty of God's creation.

The benediction when I finish begins when my berries are weighed, I pay, load the bulging box into my trunk and take one more look over the fields of God's abundance - a picture of God's goodness.

Worship can occur any place if you open your heart and stay aware of God's presence - even in the strawberry patch.

Reflection Question: As you travel this summer or explore places close to home, where can you experience worship in a non-traditional setting?

Prayer: God, in your generosity you offer more places to worship you and sense your presence than in a church building. Thank you for the ways you provide prayer, music, other people, an offering and benediction - a common outline for worship in unlikely places like a strawberry patch. Amen.