Sunday, October 29, 2017

A WNBA Player, Philippians 4:13 and Me - What do we have in common?

"Tamika, come inside. It's time for dinner!"

No response.


The three-year-old who would later become a basketball star in high school and go on to play for the University of Tennessee and eventually in the WNBA, was not ignoring her father. She didn't hear him. Shortly afterwards, Tamika Catchings was diagnosed with significant hearing loss and fitted with hearing aids.

Until she was seven, the aids were not a deterrent to everyday life. However, when she started second grade, someone made fun of her speech, her hearing aids and her twice-weekly departure from the classroom for speech therapy. She felt different and often walked home crying at the end of school.

Tamika Catchings, the featured speaker at  St. Luke's United Methodist Church one Sunday morning in late summer, began her message with the above story.

Philippians 4:13

The scripture she used was Philippians 4:13 - "I can do everything through him who gives me strength." She described the challenges she faced in elementary school, moving four times before she was seven, including a year in Italy where her father played for an Italian professional basketball team; her parents' divorce when she was in the sixth grade; adjusting to life with a hearing loss, especially after she threw her hearing aids into a grassy field one day on the way home from school.

Each time, she wove in the verse from Philippians, that she can do all things through him who gives her strength.

Her parents couldn't afford to purchase another set of aids, so she had to sit in the front row of the classroom and concentrate intensely while the teacher spoke. She became a proficient lip-reader. Despite these difficulties, she excelled in academics through junior high and high school, and on the basketball court as well. God gave her strength.

When she was in the seventh grade, she told her parents she wanted to play in the NBA (there was no WNBA at that time). They replied, "If anyone can, you can!" She believed them and took on the words of Philippians 4:13. Despite her hearing loss, and occasional injuries, she focused on how God could help in all parts of her life. "I can do all things" encouraged her daily, enabling her to reach seemingly insurmountable goals.

My Experience with Philippians 4:13

Reflecting on Tamika Catching's story later Sunday afternoon brought back a time when this scripture carried me through a series of difficult days in January 2013.

My father died on Friday, January 11 of that year. Shortly after Mike and I arrived in Columbus, Ohio, for his funeral the following Tuesday, my mother entered hospice care, the night of my father's visitation.

On the way to my father's funeral, Mike and I decided to stop by the nursing home to check on my mother. When we entered the facility, I asked for a chaplain to come to her room, as I felt the need of spiritual support along this uncharted path.

I walked down the hallway as if I were walking into a lion's den, not knowing what to expect due to the complex, dysfunctional relationship I shared with my parents. With each step, I kept breathing deeply God'swords, "I can do everything through him who gives me strength."

The Presence of God Gives Strength

God's presence came quickly preparing me for what I would encounter.

We found my mother agitated, thrashing from side-to-side in bed and moaning as if in pain. I pulled a chair to her side and put my hand on her left shoulder just as the chaplain appeared. The nurse in charge of her care said, "I'll go get a shot with some medication to calm her."

Even though her eyes were closed, I started talking close to her ear, knowing she could hear until the end. I told her it was fine for her to leave, to join my father, her father and her three siblings. Then I spent time talking about her mother, who died from diphtheria when my mother was seven. I believed most of my mother's emotional difficulties in life came from the loss of her mother and subsequent lack of nurturing.

"Your mother is waiting to hug you, and hold you, Mother," I said. "You will be with your mother forever.

Gradually, I could feel the tension in my mother's shoulder lessen as I talked. She stopped thrashing and moaning, and by the time the nurse returned, I told her the shot wasn't necessary. She could see for herself the change in my mother's demeanor.

The chaplain said a prayer, and as we left to attend my father's funeral, he said, "You sure must come from a loving family."

Strength in Being Misunderstood

"Oh, my!" I thought. I remembered my longing for a mother who was emotionally present that began when I was six or seven. She was not there for me. She could not provide strength and did not provide protection when I needed it most. No, I did not come from a loving family; I am, however, strengthened by a loving God.

I walked to the car, grateful to provide what my mother needed during the last hours of her life. I would never have been able to do this on my own; I needed God's strength and direction. With God, I could offer comfort. With God, I can do all things, but only because God gives me strength.

She died less than four hours later.

Tamika Catchings and Me

Although our situations were different, Tamika Catchings and I found strength beyond our own capabilities to face the experiences and challenges that life brought. I am so grateful God heard the cry of my heart and provided so generously on a day that was filled with complicated and complex emotions.

We can do all things through God, who will strengthen us in a range of situations, from giving a teen the vision to join the WNBA to a woman sitting at her mother's side, offering comfort to someone who was unable to offer comfort to her own child.

This is God's promise. This is God's strength.

For Your Reflection

1. Challenging experiences come from all parts of life - our families, our work, our church, dealing with our own sinful nature. What scripture has provided strength to you?

2. Describe a time when you have needed extraordinary strength.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for becoming real to us when we feel weak or when we struggle. We have assurance you will provide for our needs and you do! For the ways you care for us, we are always grateful. Help us remember that you are ever ready to help, no mater what is happening in our lives. Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Full Circle with the Body and Blood of Christ

Mike and I volunteered to serve communion on World Communion Sunday, October 1. We were assigned to the right balcony on the east side of the sanctuary.

We normally sit on the main level, so being placed "above" gave us a new perspective on worship. After the sermon, we left our pew and went to a small table in the hallway where we found a chalice filled with grape juice and a loaf of bread wrapped with a burgundy towel.

After the communion liturgy, the congregation began to make their way to where we were standing.

"The body of Christ broken for you," I said, handing a small piece of bread to each person.

"The blood of Christ shed for you," Mike said as each person dipped his or her piece of bread in the juice.

The last three people to take communion were people we knew from the last church Mike pastored: John, and his son, Sam, and Sam's wife.

A Thought from the Past

As we were driving home after the service, Mike commented, "The last time I gave communion to John, he was one of he people making life difficult at the church. What a difference twenty-one years makes."

In 1997, after Mike had been at Fishers UMC for a year, a lesbian couple became members. Many people were uncomfortable having these two women and their son as part of the congregation. John and his wife, were among the most vocal in protest. Eventually over forty families left the church, including John and his family. Those days brought great difficulty to Mike as he dealt with the conflict.

Just a few months ago, Mike ran into John at Starbucks. They caught up on what happened in John's life over the years, including the death of his wife.  As they talked, John apologized for his actions and words many years ago, offering Mike a sense that this difficult situation was finally resolved. 

John came full circle with Mike over a chalice of grape juice and a loaf of bread. In the brokenness of the body of Christ, there is love, understanding and acceptance.

The body of Christ, broken for you... for us.

The blood of Christ, shed for you....for all of us.

Reflection Questions

1. Is there someone in your life with whom you've had a conflict or disagreement?
2. Have you resolved or made an effort to talk about the difficulty and come to a place of reconciliation?
3 Ask God for clarity as you remember and consider a new way of being with the individual.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for the way healing comes in our children. Grant us wisdom and vision to "mend our fences" so we can offer peace and acceptance to all. Amen. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Lament for a Fallen Bird

I peeked into the red-berry-laden bush outside Target recently and was startled to see a bird sitting on a nest.

Back in June, a white egg on the sidewalk in front of the bush clued me that a bird might be close by. (Read August 7, 2017, "Gather the Pieces," The White Egg on the Sidewalk.) I poked my head into the bush and saw a bird on a nest settled in the Y-form of a few branches. I did not see babies even though I checked every time I walked by. One day, I noted that the bird was gone. I assumed she left for home.

Now, three months later, I was astonished to find the bird again, sitting on a loosely constructed nest, her belly getting fuller with each visit I made.

I stopped and talked to her one day, asking if she was pregnant, but she just looked at me with large, black eyes outlined by aqua feathers. My visits to Target now included a stop by the bush to check on the bird's progress. I learned she was a mourning dove. One day I noted how the bird's body filled the nest to the edges of the branches.

New Birth

A few days later, I looked in the bush and saw two pairs of bright, black eyes staring at me from their loft above the ground. The two babies looked healthy, with their black and gray feathers fluffed out, making them look almost as big as their mother.

I continued monitoring their progress with each trip to Target. The babies along with their mother were a cozy trio in the Y of the tree.

A Discovery

On my birthday in mid-September, once again I ventured to Target for a few items. Looking forward to seeing the progress of the bird family, I walked by the bush. The nest was empty and one of the babies was on the mulched ground, scooting along dragging its legs behind.

"Oh, my!" I thought. "The mother is gone, and the baby has fallen out of the nest and appears injured."

I started to cry, wondering how a mother could abandon a hurt baby. On my way into the store, I thought of ways I could help the bird - take it to the vet or leave it alone, hoping the mother might return.

My thoughts were on this poor bird as I went from aisle to aisle until I finished and bagged my groceries. Leaving the store, I was still perplexed how to help, but I finally decided the best thing to do was leave it in its habitat and hope the mother would come back.

The next day, I was determined to check on the bird despite a busy day. Getting out of my car I was apprehensive what I might find - Did a racoon eat the bird during the night? Did the bird die overnight from possible internal injuries? Or maybe the bird gained strength and flew away?

I reached the bush and looked all around. The bird was gone. I saw no feathers or other signs of struggle. I looked up to the nest and it was still empty. My best hunch was that someone came along and took the bird home or to a vet.

My Reflection

Most shoppers were probably too busy to notice a bird family They likely focused on what they needed at Target, then continued with their errands and agenda for the day.

I remembered the first time I saw the mother bird on the nest in June, how I was filled with God's presence. I carried that image for many days as a reminder that God was with me and that God was in that mother bird as much as God was in me.

We know God created all things, animals, trees, flowers, and humans. I regarded that first encounter with the bird as communion with another part of God's creation. The subsequent story of the abandoned bird touched my heart in such a way that I wrote a lament (a piece of writing that expresses sorrow) to capture my feelings from the bird's perspective.

                                      A Lament for A Fallen Bird

          I fell to the ground
          From a nest high in a red-berry-laden bush.
          My sibling and I were chubby and strong
          Filling the nest along with our mother
          To overflowing.

          When our mobility increased
          We wiggled and squirmed
          Vying for the limited amount of room
          In the Y of the tree branches.

          Over I went one day,
          Landing on a bed of mulch and dried leaves
          Surrounding the bush.
          My legs broke and dragged behind me
          When I tried to scoot along using my belly and wings.

          My heart broke in the fall, for I knew no one
          Would look down, see my dilemma and offer help.

          The nature of my species is to abandon those not
          So here I rest, unable to fly
          I look up at the abandoned nest
          Realizing I am abandoned too,
          To live with broken legs and a strong body,
          Scooting along, hoping to make a life
          For myself with limited mobility. 

          The family takes off without me
          And I am left behind
          With God near.

For Your Reflection

1. Have you experienced nature in a way that has touched your soul and led to a new insight or perspective about life?

Prayer: God, thank you for the encounter with this bird family that in some ways reminds me of the story of my own family of origin. We can see parallels of our lives with what happens in nature. For God's presence in the bird and in me that brought about oneness for a moment in time, I am grateful. Amen.


Sunday, October 8, 2017

Guideposts Blessings - God Cares for Every Little Hair

Skimming through an outdated copy of Guideposts magazine (April, 2009), several phrases from the articles caused me to pause. I grabbed a sheet of paper and a pen and wrote down the words that caught my heart.

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

In Search of Blessings

These phrases were exactly what my soul needed. I marveled how God seemed to magnify each one as I read paragraph after paragraph.

Realizing that I don't need to comprehend the main idea of a sentence or paragraph or even a complete article to gain benefit, I continued to read, gaining encouragement along the way. How many more nuggets can impact me? How many more blessings can I find?

A few months later, I picked up a stack of Guideposts at the YMCA offered for free in their lending library. The next set of words I received from reading the articles are listed below.

         I get quiet and listen for God's presence.
                 You know what I need.
         You never know what's going to happen, but you have to trust.
                 God will provide.
         Your sins are forgiven.w
                 I am called to be God's hands and feet wherever God sends me.
         I offered a prayer and sighed in relief.
                 I trust that God will make a way to find good in the most difficult circumstances.

Sometimes God reveals how personally we are known by leading our hearts along unlikely paths when we do simple tasks, like reading a few inspirational articles.

God Knows The Hairs of Your Head

Luke 12:6-7 says, "Aren't five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one sparrow is forgotten by God. Even the hairs of your head have all been counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth much more than many sparrows!" (Good News)

How can God know how many hairs are on the heads of all the people in the universe? Yet an omniscient, all-loving God has indeed counted them all. Surely that reveals how deeply and intimately God cares for each of us.  All of us are noticed. All of us are known. All of us are remembered.

How I Know I'm Known

When I've been directed to certain phrases in a magazine that are exactly what I need, I realize God knows and remembers me. Throughout my days and over the course of my life, so many moments could only be orchestrated by God - revealing how personally God knows and cares for me.

Reading magazines like Guideposts and seeing these phrases that stand out helps me realize others find God in everyday life, just as I do and their words, in turn, help me find God throughout my day.

Watch for God.  Perhaps, you, like me, will see God in symbols or shapes or interactions or in phrases that stand out as you read the Bible or a Christian publication. Pay attention to these details and I hope you'll sense God's intimate attention and care for you.

Questions for Reflection

1. What indications have you noted that revealed the deep, personal knowledge God has of you and your needs?

2. As you read the Bible or other spiritual publications, have you ever listed sentences, phrases or even a word that stands out? Try it!

Prayer: The expanse of people you have created is immense, God, and it's unfathomable for us as humans to imagine knowing each and every one. Yet, we are given the promise that You do indeed know each one of us. Thank you for being a personal God as well as one who is omnipresent and omnipotent. Amen.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

What Makes A Church A Holy Place

"St. Sava is the place that keeps our Serbian culture alive in New York (City). Without it, I'm lost," said one church member after a  fire destroyed the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava on May 6, 2016.

"The grand, gothic arches have welcomed me every Sunday since 1973, framing baptisms, weddings and funerals, " she continued..

As an act of solidarity, Calvary Episcopal Church, a few blocks away, offered to house the services for St. Sava in their sanctuary until the cathedral is reconstructed.

A group of parishioners looked at the beautiful stained-glass windows inside the Calvary sanctuary. "The sanctuary is unfamiliar," they said, "but God and the prayers are the same. It's not our church, but it's a holy place. Wherever we go God will be with us!"

Differences in Church Buildings

Church buildings are all different. Some resemble auditoriums, while others are more traditional with wooden pews and a center aisle. Some feature altars and crosses, while others cover the wall with art and provide no chairs and instead have their worshipers stand.

Despite these differences, they do have a common feature - they are places where just being inside can draw people to God.

Church Buildings as a Conversation

An article by church architects, David Woodhouse and Andy Tinucci, ("Building Faith" in the February, 2017, issue of "Guideposts") explained how these two men feel about designing a church.

     "We think of our designs as one side of a conversation. The building says something to the worshiper and the worshiper completes the conversation by responding with his or her faith. That's why we try not to put too many pictures or words into our designs. We keep things abstract. We try to give worshipers room to have their own experience of God using their own imaginations."

In their design philosophy, light, building materials, size, sound, wood, stone or carpeted floors all contribute to a person's experience of God when entering - and their conversation with God in worship.

Churches I Have Known

This article caused me to pause and recall the design of the churches Mike pastored through the years. When he was in seminary at Duke Divinity School, he served three, small country churches painted white with tall steeples. There were no frills or decorations, the altar and the pulpit were the main focus. Two of the churches had cemeteries next to them, as was common long ago.

The remaining churches, all in Indiana, had unique features. Two had balconies (First United Methodist Church in New Caste, and First United Methodist Church in Vincennes). Two, Faith and Zoar United Methodist in Mt. Vernon, had a belfry where children took turns each week pulling the thick, frayed twine cord to move the bell, signaling the beginning of worship.

Another church, (Center United Methodist in Indianapolis) had a long, center aisle with fifty pews on either side. Eight stained-glass windows, installed during Mike's tenure, offered an impressive side focus to the sanctuary.

Mike's last church, Fishers United Methodist, had four aisles, with brides having the choice to enter from any one of them. A descending dove depicted in layered brick on a wall behind the altar was a reminder of the Holy Spirit.

Until I read the article in "Guideposts," I never thought about how construction of a church could influence the worship experience or draw people together, giving them space for their own private time with God. The two architects believe that churches "need to be free of the distractions of modern life."

My Church

Because I attend a large church and sit toward the middle of the sanctuary, I have trouble seeing the altar, especially when people stand. The large fount used for baptism is in my direct view, but what sets me in alignment with God is when I seen the five-tiered row of votive candles on a front table. Watching people light a candle, and pause, forms a beautiful picture of coming to God in prayer. Mike and I always light a candle at the end of each service.

The congregation of St. Sava will surely miss worship each week in their holy place. However, the generosity of Calvary Episcopal Church clearly demonstrates the love of Jesus. I pray, in time, the Serbians will find new markers in the sanctuary that will help them sense God's presence in a new setting. After they rebuild their own space after the fire, perhaps more conversation with God than ever before will happen.

Questions for Reflection

1. What makes you experience God's presence in your church or in churches you've visited?

2. Do you find the sanctuary where you worship a distraction-free zone? If not, how does that affect your worship?

3.Where do your eyes focus when you enter the sanctuary? On the lights, organ pipes, woodwork, carpet, flowers, altar cloths, candles, stained glass windows, pictures, the choir, pastor, organ? Do you find these invite you to conversation with God?

Prayer: The generosity, God, of your people in times of adversity demonstrates the way we are always in mission to others. Bless those who are displaced and help them find their familiarity in you despite adverse circumstances. And may we all find a rich, deep, intimate conversation with you in all the places where we gather to worship. Amen.