Sunday, January 29, 2017

Praying with a Cup

Most evenings, I take a minute to pour something warm in a mug and sip it. It’s an ordinary activity and I never thought that it carried any meaning. I was just thirsty!
Then I started taking a six-week study at my church using “The Cup of Our Life” by Joyce Rupp. Rupp shares how the ordinary cups we use each day can become sacred vessels that connect us with life and draw us closer to God. She explores how the cup is a rich symbol of life, with its emptiness and fullness, its brokenness and flaws, and all of its blessings.
For the second class, everyone brought his or her favorite cup to share. One woman brought a cup made for her when she was born. Another person in her late 60’s showed a cup she’d purchased when she and her friend visited Chicago right after college graduation. She said the cup represented the beginning of her adult life. The cup has held coffee as well as pencils and now holds a collection of extra buttons sewn in clothing.
One of the leaders of the group held out a cup that belonged to her recently deceased mother. She said at her parent’s house, everyone in the family—siblings, in-laws, grandchildren, nieces and nephews—had a cup they used when they visited.
When her mother wanted to pray for someone in the family, she went to the cupboard, pulled out the person’s cup, and held it while she prayed.
What a great idea, I thought, to “hold’ someone while praying by wrapping your hands around the contour of the cup.
When I got home I went to the cupboard where I got out the initial cups my children, Sarah and Anna, and my son-in-law, Ryan, use when they are home. Even Anna’s boyfriend, Brian, whom I haven’t met, has a cup. I can hold and pray for him too as he and Anna deepen their year-long relationship.
The cup is a container for holding something – coffee, tea, pencils, buttons, soup, or markers. But holding someone else in prayer by clasping his or her cup adds meaning to the prayer experience.
Suggestions for using a cup in prayer:
1.     Surround the cup with both hands similar to embracing the one you love.
2.     Take a deep breath, inhaling God’s love, exhaling any clutter that keeps you absorbed in yourself and unaware of what God is offering.
3.     Pray for the person who uses the cup.
4.     Conclude your time of prayer by asking God’s blessing and love for the one you care about so deeply.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for a way we can hold those close in prayer who aren’t nearby. Hugging them by holding a cup can connect us more deeply to them as we pray. Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Hearing God’s Voice with an Assist From Art

I subscribe by email to a few blogs - Charity Singleton Craig, Ann Kroeker, Laura Boggess, and (in)courage are a few of my favorites. Sometimes I’m disappointed when I don’t read a thought or receive an insight that I can apply to my life. In fact, for a period of a few weeks, I quit reading these blogs and a few others, telling myself: “These don’t apply to me.”

I realized after these few weeks that my attitude was distancing me from God, something I didn’t like.

Frustrated with my distance, I was desperate to recapture communion with God that has sustained me through many rough patches since I was a child.

How I Heard God’s Voice Through Phrases 

The first thing I tried was reading a few Guidepost magazines that someone donated to the chaplain department of the hospital where I volunteer each week. I thought for sure reading these stories of God at work in other’s lives would surely help. Well, the opposite happened. Reading how God helped others, I thought, “God is helping these people who believe and put their faith and trust in God, just like me. Why don’t I hear God’s voice like I used to? Why doesn’t God answer my prayer for connection? God seemed to answer the prayers of these people in various circumstances and trials – I just want to feel God’s presence?”

God did begin to sense my needs as I read each magazine. I would record a phrase or word from each article that spoke to me. Here is what I recorded from the April, 2009, issue:

  • Give me strength.
  • Thou art with me. 
  • Make good come. 
  • Bless my work. 
  • Lord, thank you. 
  • Open my heart. 
  • I need you. 

The first phrase I chose, “Bless my work,” carried me for many days, slowly rebuilding a foundation for a soul in despair that wondered why God felt so distant and far away.

One Saturday, feeling especially disconnected, I became restless, alternately standing up and sitting on the couch. Finally, I felt a stirring in my heart and these words came: “God is here.” I celebrated another moment of connection, knowing these three words came from God. God reached my heart with a personal message.

Upon reflection, I discovered that the blogs I dismissed and thought were not relevant to what I was experiencing did have something to offer. When I read the content more calmly and with an open heart, I saw that they contained scripture references, phrases, and perspectives, just like the Guidepost features. When I isolated these elements and applied them to my life, I gradually felt more connected to God.

At long last, I was back on track with God!!

How I Heard God Through Art 

Often when I am caught struggling, in turmoil, where I have no language to express what I am experiencing, I turn to art to give form to my disequilibrium and create an opening through the chaos.

These past few weeks when I felt distanced from God, I went to a box of fabric scraps resting in a box in my office. Choosing a few strips, I held the cloth and wondered how could I represent “connection”? After some consideration, I took a four-inch-long piece of cloth approximately two inches wide, folded it in half length-wise and then tied two knots. I repeated the same folding and knotting sequence with strips of fabric for many days, trying to re-establish my link to God and knot it in place.

In time, my heart opened as I folded and tied. Art was helping my return to God.

I am deeply grateful to God for helping me realize that even though I may not feel God, God is with me and guides me in my search to reach a destination – that destination is always the heart of God. 

St. Augustine said, “That which you are seeking is causing you to seek.” During those weeks, I kept seeking God, and God was directing that search, giving me tools to use until I heard God’s voice once again.

Prayer: God, thank you for navigating me through weeks when you felt distant and far away. You were guiding my way, offering ideas that eventually let me hear your voice again. I am so grateful. Amen.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Sheep Found Comfort

Comfort - to soothe; console; relief in affliction

Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer, last year's Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, described on the NPR show "Fresh Air" his family's flight from Viet Nam to San Jose, California. He was in elementary school.

His parents found work in a Vietnamese grocery store. After a year, they opened their own store that contained food items not available in any other place; such as huge sacks of rice, Vietnamese fruit, and fish sauce called nuoc mam - the life-blood of Vietnamese cuisine.

The odor of the food products in the store, especially the scent of rice, fruit and spices, led Viet Nguyen to notice, "There was a kind of mustiness which I assume might have been alien to Americans, but to Vietnamese people it was the smell of comfort."

Sources of Comfort

Comfort  ... I heard that word earlier in the week when I was visiting one of my favorite places in Fishers, Conner Prairie, an 1829 village filled with costumed people playing various roles in homes and businesses of that era.

I was in the animal barn, my usual first stop. Two large sheep were resting in front of a fan that was as tall as me - just under five feet. Both rested their heads on the metal guard that enclosed the swirling blades.

I asked the attendant if the sheep were hot, especially since the temperatures were cold on the fall day. She replied, "No, they just like to hear the noise of the fan. It brings them comfort."

"Like white noise that sometimes is used to lull babies and young children to sleep?" I asked.

She smiled, "Yes."

Hmmm, I thought, sheep need comfort too. A few days later, I remembered the NPR feature on the comforting smell of the Vietnamese grocery store and reflected on the many ways we need and seek comfort, both humans and animals.

Seeking comfort can soothe our hears and bring peace. There is comfort in familiarity.

Comfort Food

A couple of weeks after my visit to Conner Prairie, I was reading the magazine section of The New York Times. I found this headline: "The Ultimate Comfort Food - when things get tough nerves can be soothed by "aligot" cheesy mashed potatoes."

The author, Tejal Rao, states in the first paragraph:

          "In times of great stress or of flickering low-level dread, I find that canceling all my plans and
           staying in to make mashed potatoes generally helps. This year there were quite a few
           opportunities to do so. Election-related anxiety gnawed at me for months, lighting up old
           networks of pain in my shoulders and back. I started a thrilling, but terrifying new job. I
          worried about my grandmother, almost 80, living alone. I turn to "aligot" the cheese-thickened
          mashed potatoes with roots in central France. "Aligot" doesn't fix anything, but it does put a
          little cushion between you and the abyss, whatever form the abyss might take."

Your Go-To Source of Comfort

Many people have "go to" items when comfort is needed. When I miss one of my children, I take one of their robes off the hook in the guest bathroom and wear it for the rest of the evening.

Sometimes when my heart aches for a healthy home that was not part of my upbringing, I go to Conner Prairie and wander through the homesteads, watching the women sew and quilt or cook over a hearth with an open fire. I note stacks of potholders on the hearth or rows of clay jars made on the grounds lined in order on the pantry shelf - they bring comfort to that part of my heart that still craves order. Even if I have to go to a fictional past, I find it helps.

Comfort - how do you find comfort in times of loss or challenging disruptive or chaotic times?

     - a favorite mug filled with coffee or tea?

     - a scripture that speaks to you and penetrates those chambers of your heart that ache?

     -  pictures of people who are dear and remind you of good times?

     - music or the soothing hum of white noise?

     - physical exercise?

I find comfort in all those and more. Nature, for example, moves me - we who watch the daily rhythms of nature's changes find peace and comfort in that predictable pattern. When I swim, the regular flow of my arms, legs and breathing cycle brings comfort with the predictability, familiarity, from the long-time practice.

May you find comfort, whether in familiar smells of your traditional foods, through the soft murmur of white noise, in the flavor of whatever "aligot"-type food you like to prepare, or in music and movement. Yes, find comfort. We all need it.

For Your Reflection:

What brings you comfort; food? an activity? a hobby? music? scripture? a favorite book?

Prayer: God, your love and presence are our immediate comfort as we go through days that have bumps and unexpected turns. Increase our awareness of your proximity, for you can soothe our hearts and restore our balance in you and in ourselves. Amen.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Tree Cradles (a poem)

Tree Cradles

Made of sticks and leaves
Sealed with mud
In a circle,
Symbol of eternity.
Built to welcome
New life.
Visible only months later
When the cycle of leaves
Comes to the ground
And nature is at rest.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Eight Questions For The New Year!

Before you put away the ornaments from the Christmas tree, file recipes of food you only prepare for the holidays, and organize your presents, get a sheet of paper and a pen to record a few thoughts.

Reflect on experiences during the month of December. Consider these questions:

1. Where did I see God?

2. How did I experience God?

3. When did I offer God's love?

Keep a copy of your reflections in a place where you can reference them throughout 2017, perhaps in the spring after Easter, during July, and in October as preparations for the next Christmas begin.

The answers that come from the questions can reveal the fullness of God's presence as well as give form to changes you might want to implement during the holiday this year.

Additional reflections for the new year are an examination of your life and priorities. Responding to each can offer cleansing and direction in the new year.

4. For what am I longing?

5. What themes keep recurring in my life?

6. Where am I struggling?

7. What is most life-giving to me?

8. What is least life-giving?

Jesus spent time going away for prayer. Although we do not know the content of His reflections, He gave us a model of the importance of being still with God.

Prayer: God, at the beginning of a new year, help us collect our experiences with You and others from this Christmas season. Guide us as we use these eight questions to realize Your presence with us to offer new energy and focus within and guide us in service to You. Amen.

For your reflection: These questions can be used not only at Christmas, but throughout the year.