Sunday, July 31, 2016

Staying Within Reach of Jesus

Jesus was talking to a group of people when a woman came behind him. She had suffered from severe bleeding for twelve years. Hoping to be relieved of her difficulty, she pushes through the crowd with great faith, desiring only to touch the hem of Jesus' cloak.

When she reached the cloak, Jesus turned around. He felt power go out of him and said, "Courage my daughter! Your faith has made you well." At that moment the woman was healed of her infirmity. The simple act of touch cloth, Jesus' cloak, made her well.

I, too, find healing and peace when I touch cloth while I quilt, imagining I am in the crowd right next to Jesus.

My interest in quilting began in 1973 when Mike began serving churches in rural North Carolina while in seminary at Duke University. One summer he pastored two small churches. Often the families invited us for lunch or dinner. We were glad to eat a "true Southern meal" and especially enjoyed getting to know the families, their hobbies and interests.

Most of the women quilted. They were proud of the quilts that they made, showing me stacks of sewed beauty in various colors and patterns. They told me the story contained within each quilt that involved the choice of fabric and design. I could tell that the quilts were a source of pride, containers of family history as well as a source of warmth and comfort on cool nights.

When we returned to Indiana following Mike's graduation, he received an appointment to a church in New Castle, east of Indianapolis. Remembering how much I like the quilts made by the women in rural communities, I took a beginning quilting class at the local YMCA.

A group of women at the church who learned about the class I was taking, gave me a generous supply of fabric scraps from their stash. I had a ready supply of fabric to begin my first quilt - the perfect project for a long Indiana winter.

Cutting the fabric, sewing the squares together and arranging the squares into a nine-patch pattern brought a feeling of peace to my heart. Was I experiencing a connection to Jesus' cloak like the woman long ago?

As I quilted, I remembered the scripture passage where that story is found, Matthew 9:20-22. Placing myself in these passages, I imagined myself touching Jesus' cloak as I manipulated the fabric into a colorful quilt. I truly believed the peace that came whenever I touched cloth was as if I , too, was in the crowd that day reaching for Jesus, content with feeling the hem of his garment.

Recently I read Still Life: A Memoir of Living with Depression by Gillian Marchenko. Early in the book, she references this same scripture in her desperation to find a way out of living with depression.

"There is a story in the New Testament about a woman who hemorrhaged and bled for years. Jesus walked by her one day in a village, and she reached out and grabbed on to his robe. Feeling power leave him, he turned and saw her. 'Take heart,' daughter, he said, 'your faith has healed you.'" I thrust my hands out in front of me. I am a little girl lost in a dark house alone. I need to find that robe. I want to be healed."

Through the years I have made many quilts for my daughter's twin beds, quilt for their dolls and stuffed animals. Quilt-making began for me in 1976 and continues today when I make small quilted pieces to give friends, for pillows or decorations. The feeling of peace that began when I first picked up and sewed fabric squares together and then rhythmically moved the needle in and out of two layers of fabric and one layer of batting, remains today, keeping me in touch with Jesus, the source of all I need.

Prayer: God, many ways connect us to you. Taking a portion of your life and blending with our stories and circumstances keeps us in your life-giving touch. Amen.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

What Does It Mean - My Faith Is Tested?

In the YMCA locker room, I chatted with Judy, a woman I see there frequently. She has custody of her eight-year-old granddaughter. Admiring Judy's stamina to raise a youngster, I always ask what her granddaughter is doing. We talked that day about summer vacation, Judy explaining how she is challenging her granddaughter to read and complete math and English workbooks two levels above her grade.

"You certainly value education,"

"Education is key," Judy replied. She told about her friend whose full-time job at a local hospital was recently reduced to part-time, putting a financial hardship on the family consisting of four children.

"This job situation has really tested my faith," her friend commented.

We talked a few minutes loner before I went to dry my hair.

Reflecting on Judy's words about her friend, made me wonder: How is our faith tested?

Thoughts on Faith

We can assume or hope all who believe in God have faith that is foundational, an anchor that grounds our interactions and responses to all events.

But what does it mean to have our faith tested? Is our faith only tested when bad things come our way?

Do we ask questions of God when we are confronted with an unpleasant challenge, emotionally, personally, professionally? When unexpected illness or other medical uncertainties come our way, is  our faith tested by asking God, "Why is this happening to me? How can this be?"

When "life is good" and things go our way, can we say our faith is strong or tested? When something unpleasant happens to us or to someone we care about, do we automatically say, "my faith is being tested?" Or, is our faith tested when we see a homeless person and question how to respond with some change, purchasing a hamburger or cup of coffee, or walking by?

Whatever trial or test comes our way - life brings those things. We aren't immune to them. It's our response that either brings us closer to God or takes us further away.

Reflection Questions:

1. How do I describe my faith?
2. What is a test of my faith?
3. What does this test reveal?
4. How do I respond? Is questioning God appropriate?

Examples from the Bible about Testing Faith

Looking at Genesis chapter 22, we hear God speaking to Abraham: "Sometime later, God tested Abraham. 'Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love so much and go to the land of Moriah. There on a mountain that I will show you, offer him as a sacrifice to me.'"

God continued with specific instructions for Abraham to follow. Can you imagine how difficult this test was for Abraham? Abraham, however, complied with faithful obedience. Just in the moment when his knife was raised to slay his son, God intervened.

An angel of God called to Abraham from heaven: "Don't hurt the boy or do anything to him. Now I know that you have obedient reverence for God, because you have not kept back your only son from him."

In the New Testament, I wonder if Mary's faith was tested when the angel delivered the news that she was pregnant with Jesus? Her astonished response, "How can this be?" (Luke 1:34) might suggest a momentary waver in faith.

How do others answer the question - What does it mean to have your faith tested?

After I found examples from the Bible of people whose faith was tested, I decide to ask some of my own friends what they thought. I asked, "What does it mean to have your faith tested?"

One person answered: "My faith was tested when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. So many thoughts ran through my head when given that news among which was 'why me?' I was more afraid than anything, but I fairly quickly realized I was in God's hands and prayed for mercy that He would see me through whatever happened."

Another friend replied:  "My faith was tested when my life plans didn't go along with God's plan for me. I could have walked away, but I chose to stay with the Lord and accept the life He has blessed upon me. It has taken many years to fully accept my new situation, but by putting my trust in Him despite my frustration and heartbreak for this path, my faith has strengthened."

Another person shared these thoughts: "What does it mean to have your faith tested? Good question. It seems tied to trials in 1 Peter and in James 1:2-4. 'Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.' Trials seems to be the testing of our faith. When I talk about trusting in God or having hope and then life falls apart do I still believe? Do I still trust? Do I still have hope? The trial stretches me to see if I will stick it out and hold to what I said I  believed."

I spoke with my neighbor who shared these thoughts: "My faith is tested when I see a world that hates God, and it seems like evil is winning. If God is just, why doesn't he right some wrongs now? Why do miracles not happen any more?"

A long-time friend remembered a time when her faith was tested: "In March of 2015, our adult daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Our family was in shock and shut down with fear. I was angry - how could this possibly be? My own mother died of a brain tumor when I was six. My daughter lost her mother-in-law to a brain tumor in 2012. How would my son-in-law handle all of this with two small daughters? This did not seem fair, and I was quick to tell that to God. When my faith was tested, I was surrounded by my family, friends and church - they took care of us and got us through. They were the hands and feet of Christ. This is what helped me to keep my faith during this difficult time."

As for me, my faith is tested when I don't feel the flow of God's presence through my soul. Usually I feel God's presence when I write or complete art. When art and words stop, I am perplexed. "Where are you God? I believe, but I don't see signs of your presence?"

How to Respond When Our Faith is Tested

When our faith is tested, however we perceive these times, it seems the only words to say to God are, "I can't get through this (name the trial or situation) without you. Increase my faith and trust in you so that I can receive the care you will offer." Have we failed whatever trial or test by asking or questioning God? I think not, especially if you still believe in God's presence at all times. You can end with, "Affirm my belief despite not seeing."

Reflection Questions

1. When do you feel your faith tested?
2. How does that feel?
3. How do you respond?

Prayer: God, we do have moments and circumstances that test our faith. We wonder how to respond when life brings events that shake our foundations. Steady us during these times with comfort and the knowledge that you are with us always. Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A Slice of Life

One day in May, at my favorite consignment store, I found a 2016 Mary Engelbreit calendar/datebook. Artist, Mary Engelbreit, captures delight and fun in the childlike expressions, clothing and sayings that are part of each drawing. For a dollar, I bought a book of sunshine.

"Who would want to get rid of a brand new calendar only five months into the year?" I wondered, carrying my purchase out to the car with excitement.

I was so eager to look at the pictures, I flipped through the book at stoplights all the way home. I leaned the calendar against the wall in my office so I could enjoy the cover from any angle where I sat.

About a month later, I picked up the calendar to see the art once again. Opening to the first page, which was the last week of December, 2015, I found entries written more like a journal than a listing of events and appointments. The writing continued through January 11, then stopped.

At first I hesitated to keep reading, as I felt like an intruder to someone's private writing. The notes included daily activities with an infant (teething), a preschooler (playing with dinosaurs), describing household chores like folding laundry, going to the grocery store, eating out, getting young children to sleep, allergy testing, haircut, visiting an elderly aunt after a funeral, preparing for vacation, and drinking hot chocolate after playing in the first snow of the new year.

The last entry on January 11, says, "two days until we leave for Florida!"

Reading these thirteen entries, I received a glimpse of a mother's life, a "slice of life."

It's not the first time I've been part of "a slice of life." For example, whenever we moved, we left behind our own "slice of life" and entered a new church, where I felt I was starting to read a book in the middle, jumping in halfway through that church community's story.

Baskets are prime merchandise I look for at garage sales. When I have a new-to-me basket, I wonder its history. Where was it purchased? What did it hold? In this case, I can only guess about the past, but I provide a new "slice of life" to the basket, making new memories with use.

A friend gave me a stack of incomplete quilts already pieced - leftover squares, triangles and hexagons - given to her or purchased at yard or estate sales. They sat in my closet for a few months, but I finally brought down her pile of fabric shapes and got to work. When I handled the pieces, I realized I was again part of a "slice of life." I wondered about the woman who put the quilt pieces together? What was her name? Where did she live? How did she choose the fabric? Why was she making the quilt? I wish the fabric could talk!

"Slice of life" can provide opportunities for our imaginations to wonder about circumstances, people and events. Encounters with people as we go through our days, at work, in the store, at the library, at the gas pump, are our own "slices of life" where we can spread God's love. We don't need a lot of time or even words to be a source of blessing to another. Even a smile, a non-verbal affirmation, is love.

The image below shows how God envelops our heart in God's heart - the only requirement to fill a "slice of life" with love.

I am sorry the young mother who began the year with prolific writing was unable to continue. She was providing "slices of life" that in the future would have been fun to revisit and remind her of busy days with young children. However, I am blessed with bright pictures by one of my favorite artists who brings joy and delight to my own "slices of life."

Reflection Question: What "slices of life" did you find today?

Prayer: God, open our hearts today to realize "slices of life can become moments to fill others with your love. Amen.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Value of Staying in One Place

We moved to Fishers, Indiana, in 1996, when Mike was appointed pastor of the Fishers United Methodist Church. Since the parsonage was occupied by the youth minister, we needed to purchase our first house. We are approaching the twentieth anniversary of our move. I've never lived in one place for that length of time.

Growing up, I moved six times before I was eleven and attended four different schools between kindergarten and sixth grade. Mike and I moved five times during forty-one years of marriage. Staying in one place has been a long-time desire for me since moving frequently was disruptive and unpleasant.

I made connections with friends when I was young, but relocating a few years later felt like my heart was ripped out. Moving as an adult was equally wrenching as we developed meaningful friendships with people in each church Mike pastored. These people welcomed us with love, celebrated our joys, and sat with us in sorrow.

This past Lent, I found a way to "stay put," so to speak, with a series of stories recorded in Matthew (18:10-14) and Luke (15:1-31) - the lessons of the lost; the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. I focused on the parable of the lost sheep using a method of studying scripture called Lectio Divina or Holy Reading. This ancient way of staying with scripture involves four steps:

    1. Read the scripture. Listen to God's word. Find a word or phrase that speaks to you.
    2. Read the scripture again. Ask, "What is God saying to me?"
    3. Read the scripture a third time. Open your heart to respond to God. What do you want to say to
    4. Read the scripture a final time. Surrender to God's presence. Rest in God.

Lectio Divina is a way to "settle into" scripture and discover what God might reveal.

I read the story of the lost sheep every morning during Lent. I discovered that this story is really about the joy that comes when something that is lost is found.

In both Matthew's and Luke's record of Jesus' words, I "found" this sequence: something is lost (sheep, coin, son), someone (shepherd, woman, father) spends time looking and searching, and then when the sheep, coin and son are found, the good news is shared followed by celebration.

These three words - look, find, rejoice - offer a model for how to seek God every day. In "looking" we become aware of what is around us; as we find God in various ways, we discover how God comes to us and what God gives us; finally, we "rejoice" and give thanks to God for revealing to us that which was hidden, often sharing our discoveries with others.

As I grew mindful of what I might find each day, rather than dwelling on what is lost in my life, my perspective changed. For example during the last few weeks of Lent, I found,

     1. A new walking path thanks to my friend, Donna, who included me in an afternoon trek;
     2. A squirrel with a mouthful of dried leaves and sticks on its way to build a nest;
     3. New ways to rest with scripture and life (look, find, rejoice);
     4. An insight into the meaning of Maundy Thursday;
     5. An article in a magazine that retrieved a lost memory (about my high school charm bracelet);
     6. A patch of green grass in the woods behind our house signaling that spring is coming soon.

Moving created instability when I was growing up, forcing me to say good-bye and start over again. Each time we left a church as an adult, I experienced similar feelings of sadness and regret. All I wanted was to settle in and stay put. I realize now thanks to this Lenten practice of Lectio Divina sending me deeper into the scripture, I could move again if I had to - I don't want to, but I could because I have finally found a way of "staying put" that I can carry with me anywhere in the world.

Prayer: Compassionate and merciful God, our grounding in You is sometimes the only stability in our lives when we relocated or find ourselves in challenging circumstances. Sink us deeply into You as we "look" for you, as we note our "findings," and as we "rejoice" in Your revealing. Amen.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Praying in the Water

"A nasty divorce kept me from coming for two years," she said, pulling on a pair of flippers and adjusting her bathing cap.

"I am so sorry," I said to the stranger sitting on the edge of the pool asking to share a lane with me.

The fifty-meter outdoor pool at my favorite Indianapolis YMCA opened Memorial Day weekend. This pool was my destination today when I awakened from sleeping most of the morning, still exhausted from a recent trip to Oregon.

Most indoor pools are 25 meters, except in a few high schools or the Indiana University Natatorium downtown. To have a fifty-meter pool so close gives me a thrill each time I think about it. I make every excuse to travel to the far north side of Indy where the pool is located.

Common courtesy among swimmers is to ask before sharing a lane, so when I saw a pair of feet dangling from the edge of the pool, I knew my ability to stretch fully into the lane was over. I greeted the woman, who told me in a sentence the challenges she faced the last two years, which limited her time and energy for exercise.

I told her the water was a little cool, but warmed quickly with increased laps. She said she liked chilly water so I thought she will fare better than I when I first started. I told her I would swim against the wall giving her the half near the lane divider. We agreed the arrangement would work well. I pushed away from the edge, after completing the necessary courtesies, thinking how much I knew about the woman in less than a minute of conversation.

Swimming in fresh air is so refreshing. I like seeing the blue sky watching me, covering me with each lap. Occasionally a stray leaf will land in the water, adding further companionship along with clouds and breeze. My body moved effortlessly in the water and I easily completed sixty-eight laps, four short of a mile. I haven't had the energy to swim a mile for months.

I remember how I felt last summer when my swim season at the outdoor pool began. I was filled with so much anger I practically exhaled it into the water with a stream of bubbles. Every time I came to swim, I beat the water, arms and legs brimming with anger, almost escaping from the pores of my skin. When I finished my last swim of the season on Labor Day, 2015,  I took a long look at the pool, thanking the water for holding everything I deposited, mostly anger, mixed with a small amount of gratitude when I could clear a space.

I was delighted to return to a place of great healing over the years. I prayed when I got out of the water that the woman who shared my lane would also find peace with each lap.

Prayer: God, thank you for providing was to express emotions that are healthy. Sharing communion with you in the water brings healing from circumstances that are painful. Holiness is found everywhere, even in a swimming pool. Amen.