Sunday, August 28, 2016

Hasten - What Elie Wiesel Taught Me About Prayer

Well-known Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, died July 1. He was a prolific writer with thirty books to his credit. His first book, Night, chronicles his experiences after his family was captured by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz concentration camp.

I found a copy of Night for a dollar at an antique store one day when I was looking for a hard-back copy of an old book for an art project.

Night is a description of Elie Wiesel's time in two concentration camps, Auschwitz (May 1944 to January 1945) and Buchenwald (January 1945 to April 1945). Stories of beatings, lack of food, extreme exercise, marching for hours, and humiliation made me wonder how he survived. Most of the prisoners did not. His mother and younger sister died in May 1944 and his father in January 1945.

Elie was a devout Jew. As a young boy he was devoted to study of the Talmud. His interest in Jewish law centered his life. He continued to pray and practice Jewish rites even when he was in Auschwitz.

Shortly before being transported to Auschwitz, Jews were told to place clothing and items they wanted to save in backpacks. All of the Jewish families in Elie's hometown, Sighet, Transylvania, left their homes and gathered in ghettos created in the center of town. They stayed in the ghetto until the day the cattle cars came to take them away.

Walking by his home the day he left, Elie commented -

     "I looked at my house in which I had spent years seeking my God, fasting to hasten the coming of the Messiah, imagining what my life would be like later. Yet, I felt little sadness. My mind was empty." (page 19)

I was taken by his words "...seeking God, fasting to hasten the coming of the Messiah, imagining what my life would be like later."

Jews do not believe their Messiah has come. They are still waiting.

Reading Night and portions of another book Elie Wiesel wrote, All Rivers Run To The Sea, his devotion to prayer, study of scripture, and Jewish tradition impressed upon me his urgent desire for the coming of the Messiah and for what life would be like when that happened. He persevered with hop that practicing his faith would bring about the Messiah's arrival.

Christian Prayer and Jewish Prayer

Reflecting on Wiesel's life prior to the Holocaust caused me to think about the purpose of our Christian practice of prayer. When we pray for peace do e have faith that our prayers will result in peace? When we pray for love, do we believe love will come?

I am reminded of a passage in Mark 11:24, where Jesus tells the disciples, "When you pray and ask for something, believe that you have received it." Jesus is saying, if you desire peace, pray using these words - "Thank you God for the peace I feel." You may not feel peace immediately, but praying with a grateful heart will bring comfort until peace comes.

Elie Wiesel believed that fasting would hasten the coming of the Messiah. His heart believed that through fasting the Messiah would appear. He was praying as Jesus directed, "believing that he had already received," a prayer of faith, trust and gratitude.

What do we believe we can hasten through completing prayer, study of God's Word, fasting and acts of love and service? How can we hasten God's kingdom with all people we meet?

Elie Wiesel's faith sustained him through life in two concentration camps. When he was barely alive, beaten to the core, his life with God remained strong --- I think it is because he prayed, believing and God strengthened him to make it through.

Prayer: God, you have given us an example of a young man deep in faith who believed that he could hasten your coming through fasting and devotion to your Word. Let us believe, too, that praying with faith, trust, and belief, we too can hasten your kingdom and mold us more completely into your image. Amen.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Sustaining Presence of Rituals - Everyday, Liturgical and In Illness

Ritual - an established procedure for a religious or other rite; a book of rites or ceremonies

Most everyone has rituals for beginning their day - awakening, a shower, eat, go to work, stay at home, have lunch and dinner, exercise, sleep. That's a basic outline with individual modifications.

Athletes sometimes observe rituals before a game - eating certain foods, listening to favorite music and wearing the same clothes. Before I jump into the pool to swim, I ask God to bless my time in the water, making those moments holy and meditative.

My ritual each morning links me to God shortly after I awaken. I go to my desk, say the Lord's Prayer out loud twice, pray for my family and friends, record my gratitude from the previous day, reflect on a few verses of scripture, and if a word or image surfaces, I record it. These practices observed before I go downstairs ground my day in God.

Now that I am retired, I have the luxury of spending more time in the morning reading the Bible and in prayer. When I worked, however, I developed an abbreviated form of centering using my 30 minute commute to pray and then read a prayer before I got out of my car. Sometimes it's necessary to be creative and find a meaningful ritual with God.

Coffee Ritual

The March, 2016, issue of O:The Oprah Magazine, had a short feature called "Coffee Mate." The author describes how she got to know the barista who filled her coffee order each morning. He always greeted her with a smile and asked how her day was going. She, in turn, got to know him as he shared stories about his family and desire to return to school. She said, "I've never told him my last name, yet he knows me from the milestones to the minutiae. Sure he's a total stranger, but when he asks how I'm doing, he actually wants to know."

My daughters, Sarah and Anna, stop each morning for coffee on their way to work. They enjoy  camaraderie and familiarity with the baristas who take their orders. When I asked my older daughter, Sarah, what she thought about "Coffee Mate," she replied, "It's all about the ritual."

And it is. There is something sustaining about being greeted by the same face at the coffee shop each day. Often the barista has the coffee waiting before an order is place.  Exchanging pleasantries and conversation builds a connection that can be foundational to the day.

Rituals to Sustain in Challenging Circumstances and Illness

Rituals can offer secure attachments for all stages of life. For moments of celebration such as a birthday or graduation, we often have cake with words honoring the occasion scripted on the top. Invitations are sent, family and friends gather. Sometimes cards and gifts find their way to the person of honor. We know the pattern for celebration - the ritual for gathering and honoring has been set in place for many generations.

Daily living often brings challenges, such as job loss or serious illness as well as frustrations or inconveniences  like a broken computer, a tooth crown that comes off, glitches in event planning or a flat tire. Rituals to sustain in these circumstances can involve coming to church.

I grew up attending the Episcopal Church that uses it's Book of Common Prayer. This book contains all of the services of worship for the calendar year. Holy Communion is celebrated the first Sunday of the month followed by three Sundays that use the service of Morning Prayer. For the occasional fifth Sunday, Morning Prayer is repeated.

Despite growing up in an unpredictable, chaotic home, I knew what to expect on Sunday. I came to love the comforting presence of the service rituals that became familiar over the years. The words and liturgy buried deeply in my heart, grounding me closer to God over time.

The January 18, 2016, Patheos blog ( had an article about the importance of liturgy written by Jonathan Algner who lives with depression. "The Black Dog, The White Pill and Liturgy" describes the importance of liturgy as follows:

"If it wasn't for liturgy, I really might have been done. My depression is worlds better than it was last fall, but there are still times when I feel disconnected. I don't always feel my faith. I don't always feel God's presence. I don't always believe.

But I still go to church, and I say and sing and pray when my heart is often unable to do so.

Even when I don't believe, I say it anyway, " I believe in God, the Father Almighty.."

Even when I don't mean it, I pray it anyway, "Thy kingdom come, they will be done ...."

Even when words fail, I listen anyway, "The body of Christ broken for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you."

And I know that I am no longer alone.

It's restoring.



And it's life giving. Even if all I can do is muster the energy to show up and do my job, the ritual of the liturgy, the word and sacrament, nourishes my faith at its weakest points and gives me strength to carry on."

What rituals form your day?

What rituals are meaningful in worship and help practice your faith?

Prayer: God, part of our forming closer to Your image involves rituals to increase an awareness of Your presence to sustain us at all times. Guide us as we seek You each day. Amen.


Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Special Annotated Gift

A few weeks ago (June 20) I introduced Hannah Brencher's book, If You Find This Letter. I liked Hannah's idea of writing letters to strangers; I wrote a stack of my own to leave for others in various places around town.

Having enjoyed Hannah's book so much, I bought two copies, one for each of my daughters. The book brought up memories reminding me of Sarah and Anna. Hannah mentions her mother's habit of writer her letters at college - I did the same and continue to write to each one frequently as both live far away.

I read one book through the lens of Sarah's life experiences and the other through Anna's. Throughout the book, whenever I found descriptions that linked our lives to Hannah's, I wrote a note or underlined the sentence or paragraph.

For example, on page eight, Hannah describes the lunch her mother made and gave her shortly before the train left to take her to her first job in New York City. "Without unfolding the square mess of silver (aluminum foil), I knew it was two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Four slices of whole wheat bread." In Sarah's book, in the margin next to that passage, I commented, "Remember your elementary school lunches - peanut butter and jelly every day on crumbly homemade bread."

Page 142 brought to mind Hannah's favorite coffee shop. "The Blend was a little coffee shop Libby and I had discovered as we made our way toward Arthur Avenue one morning." This sentence merited a pencil drawing of a coffee cup as well as underlining, since both girls enjoy coffee shops and relish their coffee each morning.

I saw so many connections between Hannah's life and my daughters'. I couldn't resist purchasing two copies of the book, underlining, drawing little pictures with my pencil and adding my own comments.

My oldest daughter, Sarah, celebrates her birthday this month. One of her gifts was my annotated copy of If You Find This Letter, along with ten notecards I embroidered in case she decides to write a few notes to others.

Our family tradition on birthdays is to give the non-birthday celebrant a "sibling box" of small remembrances. This year, Anna will receive her annotated version of the book along with ten notecards.

My prayer is that these two sweet daughters will spread words of affirmation and encouragement in Colorado and Oregon, here and there, at some of the places they like to visit.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for words from others that awaken memories and make connections in joyful and surprising ways. I am so grateful for the wonderful gifts of my daughters and the fun we have together. Bless the writing in the book that enlivened my memory; bless my annotations that will fill their hearts with joy. Our lives are always in your hands. Amen.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

God's Consolation in Art

I came to learn the value of art later in life, when I was almost 50. Nurturing creativity in my two young daughters was always a priority. We had in our home, blank sheets of white paper, crayons, markers, paint and scissors available for their use by the time they were a year old.

I'd read long ago in the Christian Science Monitor that if a parent wanted to have a creative child, do not purchase coloring books, but give them sheets of blank paper. I followed this guideline and ended up raising an art teacher and a marketing specialist who writes a blog and arranges pieces of jewelry for enticing Instagram messages at an independent business.

My own creativity was squelched growing up because my mother saw crayons and coloring as a waste of time. Our only box of crayons spent most of the time on the top shelf of the coat closet. Art in elementary school was hit-or-miss as the classroom teacher, back in the fifties, taught all subjects as well as the "specials" art, music and gym. When we did have art, perhaps a few times a year, every project looked the same as we followed the teacher's directives.

No room was allowed for individual expression nor were variations encouraged. Being locked into copying the teacher's example for color and design seemed robotic, against a child's natural inclination to experiment with color, form or design.

Art Awakening.

When I was approaching 50, I discovered my non-dominant left hand could draw. Drawing connected me to God and became prayer. Art projects touched and opened my soul in ways that deepened my connection to God, and awakened my creativity.

In the July/August, 2013, issue of Alive Now, a publication of The Upper Room, I had a short reflection published:

                              What comes from God

                              Brings me to God.

                              God prays by creating,

                               I create to pray.

These words describe my process of co-creating with God, making art that deepens my faith and nurtures my art.

God's Presence Through Art

Through the years since art awakened, God has walked beside me through various trials and challenges with peace coming through the completion of art projects.

For example, my parents died four days apart in January, 2013. My relationship with my mother and father was difficult, making the way I grieved them a challenge. I searched the internet for articles and talked with a few professionals about how to grieve people who were not responsible parents.

One day, my art teacher, who was aware of my emotional turmoil, suggested we make paper from the stack of sympathy cards I received. I tore over 100 cards into small pieces, and we made eight sheets of paper. I took the tiny, torn pieces of cards we did not use, dried them, and stitched them together. I thought the sheets of paper would be the path to restoration, but it turned out completing this piece designed by God's leading became the source of healing I sought. When the project was done, I finally reached a place of peace related to my parents' passing.

A Source of Comfort

Art continues to be a source of comfort and healing. For example, a week ago Tuesday, I had a day that challenged me with memories surfacing from the past, creating great anxiety, confusion and anger.

Every Tuesday I am a volunteer chaplain at a local hospital. Fortunately I was able to greet and help the people who came my way with care and interest while inside I was experiencing emotional turmoil. That night, I couldn't fall asleep. I asked God for an image to represent my struggle, knowing from past experiences an image is a communication from God. Copying the image and seeing what the image brings, becomes a way to pray, and stay present.

I thought about the layers of my self, what people saw and how I responded compared to the layers behind me that were stacked with memories filled with anger, frustration and anxiety.

I got out of bed, went to my desk, placed a piece of white paper on the board I use to cut paper, removed my X-acto knife from the glass apple cup and cut a series of long rectangles. Cutting the paper released the inner tension and turmoil that had resided in me all day. Then I went back to bed and slept.

The rectangles sat on my desk for a day before I wove them together, then sewing the woven pieces on a square of fabric. While I was completing the project God brought me the word -assurance- that anchored my work. The woven piece was an assurance of God's presence with me.

Later, I found four references in the Bible for the word "assurance." I copied these scriptures and have reflected on them in the following days. The image and word "assurance" remind me I am in God's presence always, no matter what is happening.

Art, lately discovered, but richly pursued, is a source of companionship as I have worked through hard times. God is always present when people are not, offering understanding, strength and comfort.

Art, God and You

Your path with God and art may be different from mine. You may or may not have images to use, but opening your heart to God can bring ways to receive that will relate to your interests. God knows how to reach you with insights, perspectives for days of celebration and challenge.

How to start -

1. Open your heart to God, asking God to enter.

2. I believe art can be a way to work through difficult times or celebrate life. You don't have to create a masterpiece; merely experimenting with color and paper can get you started. For example, get a sheet of white paper and a basic set of watercolor paints. Think about how you feel then find a color that matches your feelings. Paint lines using these colors. Be alert for stirrings that may happen in your heart. Listen to what God might be saying to you. Allow time to rest with your art.

3. Return to the art in a few days. Listen to the art. What does it say? What does God say to you through what you created?

4. Bring a specific event or moment in your life as you interact with the paint and paper. Where does God enter? What image comes? How does God speak to you through the image?

5. Keep your interaction with the paints and paper simple. Allow time to explore fully what you put on paper and how God comes. I have spent several weeks on a simple piece of artwork, sitting with the art and listening to God. There is no hurry. Sometimes it takes awhile to hear a message God wants to convey.

Prayer: God, art museums all over the world are filled with artist's interpretations of your message. You can speak to us too as we gather paper and paints. We can respond to scripture and paint our perspective. We can related to an image that has come to us in a new way. Art can offer an avenue of healing and growth, and moving deeper into you and our created selves. Open our hearts and guide our hands. Amen.