A prayer of thanksgiving for an amazing man

Dear God:

Today the love of my life is celebrating a major milestone: He just turned 80 years old.

I definitely consider Pete to be one of your all-time best gifts to me, God, so here is a prayer of thanksgiving for this wonderful human being you sent to me so many years ago.

I’m thankful for his sense of fun, which has kept me entertained and laughing since the early days of our marriage.

Here we are in front of our first home, posing – at his suggestion – as characters in a Grant Wood painting. (Goodness, we were so young and slender then, but I digress.)

His sense of humor has only gotten more entertaining over the years.

A couple years ago, we volunteered to work in the campaign of a local candidate running for Congress, and Pete decided Mr. Lincoln himself needed a campaign button.

Another thing I love about my Sweetie Petey is how well he gets along with our cats. We like to joke that they have him well-trained.

Below is the first cat we had, a yellow “Morris” lookalike named Torbjorn (Norwegian for “Thunder Bear”), who decided Pete made a really good cat bed.

Pete cheerfully allowed our beloved Olaf DaVinci to photo bomb as I snapped a picture of him playing his dulcimer. This is still his profile pic on Facebook.

He even lets our Champie Cat wash his face.

Before retiring, he was an English and journalism professor at our local Catholic university and his students loved him almost as much as the cats and I do.

One of his artist students would sit in class and draw humorous portraits of him that captured his personality exceptionally well. This drawing made it onto the 10th anniversary cover of The Sleepy Weasel, the college’s literary magazine for which Pete was an advisor.

Since we retired, one of our favorite activities has been traveling. We’ve been to Alaska several times, plus Ireland, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Israel and Palestine.

Here he is, in front of a pretty little bridge in Uppsala, Sweden.

He is a fine musician who loves collecting instruments. I’ve been known to ask, “Do we really need another instrument?” (There wasn’t enough room in our luggage for a new one from a shop we visited in Ireland, below.)

But Pete’s hobby does have a definite upside. How many wives get to be serenaded with dulcimer tunes while doing evening meditation in front of the fireplace?

One of the things I’ve admired about Pete for years is his enviable ability to speak and perform in front of a group.

Here, he is giving a presentation at Jenny Lind Chapel in Andover, Illinois about the psalmodikon, a single-stringed instrument developed in Scandinavia for simplifying sacred music in churches that didn’t have pianos or organs.

He also loves historical research and his writing has been published in several academic journals. Link HERE for an excerpt from the article below that appeared in the May-June 2015 issue of Illinois Heritage magazine.

He’s fond of calling himself an “old dog,” but he’s still open to learning new tricks. He managed to give a presentation for a history conference via Zoom during the pandemic.

Note the cute ponytail that was visible to my camera but not to the audience “attending” the conference.

Always up for a challenge, he helped me make a few videos for our congregation’s online church services during the pandemic.

Here, we are shouting “Hallelujah!” as we wave palm branches in front of my computer’s camera for a Palm Sunday service.

Good sport that he is, he’s agreed more than once to be drafted at the last minute to participate in our congregation’s annual Christmas pageant. Doesn’t he make a great Wise Guy?

One of my favorite photos of my handsome gentleman was taken in early 2020 at Barnes & Noble Bookstore, where we met with friends for Starbucks coffee and pastries just before the pandemic came along and locked everything down.

If I must be stranded on a desert island (or in my home during a months-long quarantine), I can’t think of a better person to be marooned with.

After 37 years of marriage, Pete is still at the very top of my gratitude list. He’s kind, generous, decent and caring, my best friend, the wind beneath my wings, proof positive that there are good men, and the best thing that ever happened to me.

I love that man to the moon and back.

Please watch over him and take care of him, because I want us to have many more years together!

With love and gratitude,

Recipe: Fresh tomato salad

It’s hard to beat fresh vine-ripened tomatoes from the garden.

One of my favorite ways to use them is in this sliced tomato salad with avocados and mushrooms, which is not only delicious, but chock full of good nutrition.

The salad is relatively low in the “bad” stuff like saturated fat, sodium and sugar, but rich in fiber, potassium and Vitamins A and C. Bolthouse Farms makes a delicious classic balsamic vinaigrette dressing with olive oil that only has 15 calories per tablespoon.

This side dish is also super easy-peasy to make – always a plus in my book. Just slice up the produce, toss with dressing and chill in the refrigerator. That’s all there is to it.

The recipe makes two generous-sized servings.

Ingredients

  • 2-3 medium-size tomatoes
  • 1 medium-size avocado
  • 6 large fresh mushrooms
  • 2-3 tablespoons balsamic vinaigrette dressing

Directions

Thoroughly wash produce, remove stems from tomatoes and mushrooms and peel avocado.

Thinly slice tomatoes, avocado and mushrooms.

Toss with the balsamic vinaigrette dressing.

To enhance flavor, refrigerate for a half hour or so before serving.

Nutrition Info

Calories per serving: 125 | Carbohydrates: 13 g | Protein: 3 g | Fat: 8 g | Saturated Fat: 1 g | Cholesterol: 0 mg | Sodium: 85 mg | Potassium: 610 mg | Fiber: 6 g | Sugar: 6 g | Vitamin A: 18% | Vitamin C: 31% | Calcium: 2% | Iron: 8%

God’s other book: Summer flowers

For several summer seasons, one of my favorite meditation activities has been walking through my backyard and gazing upon God’s handiwork.

This year we had extensive landscaping work done in the spring. I planted lots of native perennials, as well as an abundance of annuals. I’ve found gardening to be therapeutic, and the yard is looking beautiful! 

So, as the summer draws to a close, I thought I’d share some photos.

What I love about astilbe is its outrageous showiness. Those plumes! I like to think of them as God showing off…

I’ve been slowly but surely adding native plants to my beds. Not only do they attract pollinators, but once they get established, they require next to no watering or other care, since they’re suited to our local climate. Among my favorites are purple coneflowers and black-eyed susans.

Besides being wonderfully showy, the bee balm that grows along the south side of our house attracts hummingbirds. I just love those tiny creatures! I still haven’t gotten my camera to focus fast enough to catch one flitting from blossom to blossom, but I’m working on it.

Our resident rabbits love the white clover that covers our lawn. And they don’t have to worry about ingesting chemicals along with the yummy clover flowers. Our lawn has been chemical-free for as long as we’ve lived here.

Some welcome visitors have been gorging on our milkweed. I planted lots of it this year, so there’s enough to feed some very hungry caterpillars, along with the bees and butterflies. Since both the monarch and bee populations are dwindling, I’ve encouraged everyone I know to let this “weed” grow in their yards.

While not considered native flowers, my day lilies are so easy to grow and come in so many pretty colors that I now have lots and LOTS of them scattered around both my back and front yards. The good news is, they aren’t invasive, so it’s safe for me to plant them anywhere.

I like to scatter a few annuals throughout my flower beds, so that something is always blooming from mid-spring until frost. Petunias, begonias and lantana are among my favorites.

I have always gotten a kick out of the way I can make my hydrangeas change color just by pouring some leftover coffee around the base of the bush. These blooms started out blue, but some have turned pink after I started the coffee treatment.

What is even prettier (and tastier!) than these blossoms? The vine-ripened tomatoes I’ve just now begun to harvest! And the cayenne pepper will be yummy cooked with a pot of greens.

We also planted a Rose of Sharon tree in memory of our beautiful Olaf da Vinci.

We wanted something with blossoms as flamboyant as our sweet kitty’s personality, and I think we found the perfect little tree to honor him. From mid-summer until frost the Rose of Sharon puts forth an abundance of showy white blossoms with red centers.

My priorities as I adjust to a new reality

In what has become a birthday tradition, I like to start my “personal New Year” by reviewing my priorities. The annual exercise helps me stay focused so various types of clutter – material, mental or spiritual – don’t crowd out what really matters.

This birthday, however, found me in a “dark night of the soul” kind of mood – trying to make sense of and recuperate from a period of upheaval and loss that started even before the pandemic.

In 2019, I was hospitalized three times – once in ICU. Meanwhile, my mother was placed in hospice care in the spring and passed away in the fall. I remember actually looking forward to 2020, which I assumed couldn’t possibly be as much of a ring-tailed monster as 2019 …

COVID-19 has upended our lives in ways I’m just now beginning to completely absorb. Pete was hospitalized twice – for a week in 2020 and then for two very scary weeks in 2021. I’ve lost what feels like an unbearably long string of loved ones from various causes – at least a dozen family members and close friends, a much-admired mentor, my spiritual director, and even one of my beloved cats.

As the endless pandemic rages on in our community, I’ve struggled to establish new routines and ward off exhaustion and depression. I’m ready to turn a corner!!

So this year, I devoted my birthday weekend to prayer and reflection – sort of a personal retreat. Only instead of isolating myself in the house, I spent as much time as possible outdoors, including a trip to Jubilee Farm, where I walked their prayer labyrinth for the first time.

I’ve decided the overall priorities I identified in previous years are still important to me, so they will remain the same for now – my personal relationship with God, self-care, family and friends, our home, my writing, service to others, elimination of backlog tasks, and serenity/gratitude.

For each priority, I’ve set a long-term goal, evaluated my progress for the past year, and created an intention for the coming year. 

Priority: Relationship with God

Long-term goal: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my core values should be and live accordingly.

Progress/changes this past year: In my grief and anger at God over the loss of so many loved ones, I allowed my daily meditation sessions to go by the wayside for several months. Pete and I did make progress in other areas, however. After a year’s hiatus following the death of our previous spiritual director, we began working with someone new. We’ve also spent more time outdoors – mostly in our backyard and walking around the neighborhood – where nature’s majesty reassures me of God’s continued presence.

Intention for the coming year: I want to resume the meditation sessions that have been a vital part of my daily routine for more than a quarter century. I’m also working with my new spiritual director to address my grief issues and find a way to move forward from the disruption wreaked by the pandemic.

Priority: Self-care

Long-term goal: Stay healthy for as long as possible and help my husband do the same.

Progress/changes this past year: I must admit my healthy eating plan flew out the window for much of the year, and by spring, my cholesterol had gotten sky high again. During the height of the pandemic, especially before the vaccine became available to us, I was skimping on all but emergency medical care. This past year I was fortunately able to resume routine dental and eye care and regular visits with my primary care provider, and I completed a round of physical therapy for chronic pain issues.

Intention for the coming year: Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit – pandemic or no pandemic – and I seriously need to get back on track with my healthy eating plan. And keep going on those walks with Pete.

Priority: Family and friends

Long-term goal: Keep in contact and nurture good relationships with the people I love and care about.

Progress/changes this past year: During the spring and summer, we finally got to visit face-to-face with family and friends for the first time in a couple of years – outdoors and mostly in our backyard. We’ve also continued to get together via Zoom and FaceTime.

Intention for the coming year: More and more, I’m confronted with the reality that I’m not always going to have my loved ones with me. Hopefully we’ll be able to do more in-person gatherings, especially outdoor activities. But now that we’ve learned the technology, I’d like to continue the Zoom and FaceTime visits as well. With family and close friends scattered all over the U.S. and in three different countries, staying connected was a challenge even before the pandemic. Why limit visits with far-away loved ones to once every five or ten years?

Priority: Our home

Long-term goal: Maintain our home as a sanctuary for ourselves, our family and our friends.

Progress/changes this past year:  We had extensive landscaping work done in the spring and I planted lots of new native perennials. I’ve found gardening to be especially therapeutic, and the yard is looking beautiful! The inside of the house stays mostly presentable after I deep-cleaned it from attic to basement last year just before my birthday.

Intention for the coming year: Now that our house and yard are looking spiffy, the trick will be keeping them that way. I would like to commit to one hour each weekday for maintenance cleaning. I want to continue adding native plants to our flower beds and turn the yard into one big pollinator paradise. And hang some more pictures on our walls.

Priority: My writing

Long-term goal: Write articles, essays, blog entries and at least one book.

Progress/changes this past year: I kept up with my blog and got some more book excerpts written. Writing and photography have also turned out to be therapeutic. Doing blog posts every other week is working out well. I post often enough to keep readers engaged, but spread out the posts enough so I don’t feel pressured.

Intention for the coming year: I’d like to commit at least one hour per weekday to my writing. I want to re-design my blog a bit to make it more user-friendly, and start working on an overall book outline, now that I have several excerpts written and have a better idea of where I want to go with the book.

Priority: Service to others

Long-term goal: Use a portion of my time, money and talent to help others and create positive change in the world.

Progress/changes this past year: At this point, Pete and i have definitely gotten re-involved in the community despite COVID. We began facilitating “Sundays@6” – an adult faith formation group at our church conducted via Zoom – which has proven to be quite successful. I continued to serve on our congregation’s community service committee and have committed to helping keep their micro food pantry stocked. We became Dominican Associates (who assist, among other things, with the Dominican Sisters’ social justice activities) and we plan to get involved in their anti-racism and environmental efforts.

Intention for the coming year: I plan to continue these activities. I’m content to maintain the “status quo” here, since it’s important that I not allow my schedule to get overloaded the way it constantly was prior to the pandemic.

Priority: Backlog

Long-term goal: Eliminate clutter and backlog tasks that drain my energy, render my life more chaotic than it needs to be, and distract me from achieving my long-term goals. 

Progress/changes this past year: Pete and I finally set up a donor-advised fund with our local community foundation. The fund, created in honor of our parents, will make small grants to local charitable organizations and provide scholarships for needy/underserved students at our local community college. We’d been talking about doing this for years, so I’m pleased.

Intention for the coming year: I’d like to commit to completing a couple more backlog tasks I listed as goals for last year. The first one: Getting together with Thrivent Financial to help us find some socially responsible investment opportunities. The second one: Getting solar panels on our roof. Let’s see if I can actually get them done this coming year!

Priority: Serenity/Gratitude

Long-term goal: Achieve serenity by practicing mindfulness and finding at least one thing each day to be grateful for. 

Progress/changes this past year: To be honest, I haven’t felt a lot of serenity in quite some time. I’ve been discussing my grieving process with my spiritual director, and she’s encouraged me to take whatever time I need to mourn my losses. I’ve discovered it is possible to feel gratitude and grief simultaneously – I certainly feel gratitude for the lives of the loved ones I’ve lost, which is one reason the grief is so strong! Pete and I are finally taking walks. We need to keep this up. 

Intention for the coming year: My spiritual director has suggested doing something to honor my lost loved ones. Pete and I have established the above-mentioned donor-advised fund with our local community foundation in honor of our parents. I planted a Rose of Sharon tree in memory of Little Oley Cat and scattered his ashes under it. I want to find ways to honor those others whose lives I’m grateful for as well, including those I’m lucky enough to still have with me. I’ve also started to experience some spiritual healing through gardening and taking walks with Pete.

As much as anything in the coming year, I’ve decided I need healing and hope. Fortunately, I have a wonderful new spiritual director and some great support from my family, friends and spiritual community to help me on this journey. For this, I am grateful.

I also have a favorite prayer I can recite whenever the need arises:

Amen.

Walking meditation

This year I celebrated my birthday with a three-day weekend dedicated to prayer, meditation and reflection. Only instead of sequestering myself indoors, I tried to stay outside as much as possible.

A highlight of the weekend was a trip to Jubilee Farm, where my husband Pete and I walked their labyrinth for the first time.

Jubilee Farm was established in 1999 by the Dominican Sisters as a center for ecology and spirituality, according to their web site (link HERE).

The labyrinth – one of the farm’s more amazing and popular features – allows us to follow a defined pathway to the center of the circle and back out again, praying and meditating as we go.

Many labyrinths are located in churches or other buildings, but the one at Jubilee Farm is outside.

For more than three millennia, millions of people have used labyrinths as an aid for prayer, according to the Jublilee Farm web site (link HERE for an article about the labyrinth itself).

One of the most famous labyrinths – and the one replicated at Jubilee Farm – is embedded in the stone floor of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres, France. 

At the entrance to (or exit from) the Jubilee Farm labyrinth is a bench where we can sit for a moment to gather our thoughts.

The labyrinth is a single circular path which takes us to a center place and back out again,

At Jubilee Farm, the labyrinth path is mowed right into the pasture grass, as pictured above and below.

There are no wrong turns or dead ends in a labyrinth, the Dominican Sisters assure us. There is one way in and one way out. 

There is also no right or wrong way to pray while walking the labyrinth, a Sister who lives at the farm assured us the first time we visited Jubilee Farm in the spring.

We can pray for people or situations that are on our mind. We can ask a question and leave space for the Holy Spirit to respond. We can give thanks for the blessings in our lives.

Or we can walk in silence, observing the scenery around us and drinking in God’s presence.

All along the path at Jubilee Farm’s labyrinth, Pete and I encountered an abundance of milkweed, red clover and wildflowers.

We also encountered this little guy, who reminds us God wants us to pay attention! Is he magnificent or what?!

Finally we came to the center of the labyrinth, which had a couple of stumps where we could once again sit for rest or contemplation if we wished.

Walking to and from the labyrinth was an experience in itself. On the way back to our car, we walked past this pretty little pond.

Below is a close-up of the water lilies and lily pads in the middle of the pond.

Millions of people around the world use labyrinths as a spiritual practice.

At Jubilee Farm, walking their labyrinth turned out to be nature prayer at its finest! And a great way to start my personal new year.

God’s other book: A new peek at our amazing universe

My inner Nerd Girl got to experience some real excitement this week!

The James Webb Space Telescope has produced the deepest and sharpest images of the distant universe to date, according to a special web site created by NASA, who released the first of the images to the public earlier this week (link HERE).

These images of our amazing universe serve to remind me that religion and science need not be seen as opposed to each other. Who can look at these astonishing images and not see evidence of a Creator?

At any rate, I couldn’t resist sharing some of them in a blog post.

First, here is an artist’s rendition of the telescope. Launched in December 2021, the telescope is about the size of a tennis court, according to NASA, and will operate nearly a million miles beyond Earth’s orbit around the sun. (And I thought my little camera with the 40X zoom lens was fabulous.)

Webb will spend the next 20 years or so collecting data to help scientists study the farthest reaches of the known universe.

The image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, known as Webb’s First Deep Field, gives us a sense of the sheer vastness of the universe. Just think: Each speck of light in the image below is an entire galaxy, except for the brighter specks with spikes, which are stars in our own galaxy.

Each galaxy, in turn, may contain billions of stars, moons and planets. Compared to the universe as a whole, the slice of universe shown in this image is equivalent to the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground, according to NASA.

Sort of boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

When I look at this photo, I’m immediately reminded of Genesis 1:3: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.”

The next image is the Carina Nebula, the largest nebula in our own Milky Way galaxy. The nebula is the part of the image which resembles a mountaintop.

It looks solid, but is actually a giant cloud of gas and dust where stars are born, according to NASA. The stars are formed from the dust in the nebula.

Read Psalm 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Then look at this image. Wow. God certainly is an artist!

What looks like a cosmic fireworks display in the image below is Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies. Some of the galaxies are so close they bump into each other, forming new stars, according to NASA.

If we think our Fourth of July fireworks are spectacular, just look at God’s fireworks …

The galaxy group is visible from Earth in the constellation Pegasus. Stephan’s Quintet is perhaps best known for being prominently featured in the classic Christmas film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The next image, of the Southern Ring Nebula, shows how a star similar to our sun looks as it is dying. The star has been sending out rings of gas and dust for thousands of years, according to NASA.

Does this image look like a giant cosmic eye, or what? It brings to mind Job 28:24: “For he looks to the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens.”

NASA has made its entire collection of images, sounds and video available and publicly searchable online, including more than 140,000 photos and other resources we can download and use any way we like.

The images are available to everyone free of charge and free of copyright restrictions – NASA simply asks to be acknowledged as the source of the material. Their entire collection can be accessed via NASA’s Image and Video Library (link HERE).

And I’m not the only one who thinks our amazing universe points to the existence of a Creator. Turns out many of the the astronauts and other scientists who work at NASA share a strong faith as well.

According to an article in the Houston Chronicle (link HERE), Webster Presbyterian, just down the road from NASA’s mission control center in Houston. is spiritual home to dozens of NASA scientists, engineers, astronauts, lunar mission contractors and their families.

The church, now known as the Church of the Astronauts, has stained glass windows featuring images of the moon, the stars and distant nebulae. How cool is that?

Recipe: Loaded Brussels sprouts

When it comes to my daily quota of vegetable servings, a couple of my favorite restaurants have definitely succeeded in getting Brussels sprouts onto my plate.

Since I’m ALWAYS looking for ways to make veggies more enticing, I have of course sought to duplicate these delicious gussied-up sprouts at home.

As I’ve experimented, I’ve discovered a couple of secrets to making the Brussels spouts turn out crisp and caramelized rather then soggy.

First, bake at a high-enough temperature (I set my oven at 450 degrees). Second, add a small amount of cornstarch to the mixture I use to coat the sprouts.

After much tinkering with possible ingredients, I’ve finally succeeded in creating a reasonable facsimile of the delicious entree served at my favorite eateries.

Even better, the recipe is fairly easy, at least the way I make it.

Unfortunately, the “loaded” version of this recipe is not exactly calorie-free. Sorry!

But even if I leave off the bacon, french fried onion rings and sriracha mayo (or include only one of these as a garnish), the basic sprouts baked with the coating mixture are still pretty yummy.

In the plain version, most of the fat and calories come from the olive oil, which is a “good” fat, so I don’t worry about the calorie and fat content as much.

This recipe makes about 4 servings.

Ingredients

  • 1-pound package frozen halved Brussels sprouts
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 2 slices crisp bacon, crumbled (optional)
  • 6 tablespoons french fried onion rings (optional)
  • Sriracha mayo to taste (optional)

Directions

Cook the bacon until crisp. Crumble and set aside.

Rinse frozen Brussels sprouts in warm water to thaw slightly and remove ice crystals. Drain and place in plastic container with a lid.

Combine olive oil, balsamic vinegar, dijon mustard, honey and cornstarch and blend well. Drizzle the mixture over the Brussels Sprouts, place the lid on the container and shake gently to thoroughly coat the Brussels Spouts.

Spread Brussels sprouts in a single layer on large cookie sheet

Bake at 450 degrees for 25-30 minutes, or until golden brown and crisp, flipping sprouts with a metal spatula every 10 minutes or so.

When Brussels sprouts are nearly browned, top with french fried onion rings and bake about 5 more minutes until onion rings are browned and crisp.

Sprinkle bacon bits evenly over Brussels sprouts and drizzle sriracha mayo over the top of everything.

If you want to reduce the fat and calorie content, use only one of the last three ingredients. Still totally yummy!

Nutrition information

Loaded version

Serving size: 3/4 cup | Calories: 240 | Carbohydrates: 11 g | Protein: 5 g | Fat: 18 g | Saturated Fat: 3.5 g | Cholesterol: 7 mg | Sodium: 256 mg | Potassium: 280 mg | Fiber: 3 g | Sugar: 3.5 g | Vitamin A: 0% | Vitamin C: 0% | Calcium: 22% | Iron: .5%

Plain version (without last three ingredients)

Serving size: 3/4 cup | Calories: 135 | Carbohydrates: 9 g | Protein: 3 g | Fat: 9 g | Saturated Fat: 1 g | Cholesterol: 0 mg | Sodium: 44 mg | Potassium: 280 mg | Fiber: 3 g | Sugar: 3.5 g | Vitamin A: 0% | Vitamin C: 0% | Calcium: 22% | Iron: .5%

Meal kit ideas

In a previous post, I wrote about the micro food pantries that are popping up outside churches, schools and businesses in communities around the country (link HERE).

Then I added a couple of posts about stocking your local micro pantries or food pantries with the same kind of meal kits or recipe kits offered by meal delivery services such as Sunbasket, HelloFresh and Blue Apron (links HERE and HERE).

Meal kits or recipe kits are great for micro pantries and food pantries because it is often hard for people using the pantries to find all the ingredients they need to make a particular recipe. So from time to time, as I think of ideas for meal kits or recipe kits, I will continue to share them.

One of the challenges in creating the kits is the need for the recipe kits or meal kits to use only nonperishable ingredients. Here are some ideas for complete meal kits that meet this requirement – one for chicken a la king, one for tamales with rice and beans, one for chicken alfredo and one for a sack lunch.

These kits can usually fit nicely into a gallon-size zip-lock bag.

For the chicken a la king meal, I include a biscuit mix that only requires adding water. For a family-size meal kit, you might want to consider including two cans of the Chicken a la King for more generous servings. You can also add a can of vegetables such as peas or green beans to complete the meal.

One of the popular Tuna Helper offerings is Tuna Fettuccini Alfredo. I find this boxed recipe works very well with chicken as well as tuna. To complete the meal, add a can of veggies such as zucchini in tomato sauce.

For the tamales with rice and beans, the heat & eat Spanish rice works nicely because one can simply heat it in the microwave rather than needing the additional ingredients often required for the boxed mixes. A plastic container of salsa or taco sauce can also be included in this meal kit.

Sack lunches are also a popular item in either micro pantries or food pantries. Include a protein item such as jerky, a protein granola bar, trail mix, or crackers with peanut butter or cheese, a fruit cup and a container of vegetable juice for a complete and balanced meal. Including a plastic silverware and napkin packet is a nice touch.

Question for readers: Do you have any great ideas for recipe kits for food pantries or micro pantries? Please share your suggestions in the comments section below.

God’s other book: Dandelions

Just my humble opinion, but what’s not to love about dandelions?

They are among the first signs of spring, popping up in our yard even before the grass starts greening.

One can’t help but admire their irrepressible resiliency. These masters of survival can grow up through cracks in a sidewalk and thrive.

Many pollinators rely on dandelions, violets and other early-spring wildflowers to provide nectar before other flowers begin to bloom.

Sadly, people use millions of gallons of herbicides each year to kill these delightful flowers, thus taking a terrible toll on the environment.

We’ve made the decision to keep our lawn chemical-free. Don’t worry, we do mow (though we put off the first mowing for as long as possible).

By about mid-spring, our entire yard has become a colorful dandelion-and-violet patch, which keeps the butterflies and bees very happy.

Even our resident chipmunks like the wildflowers.

And then there are the seed puffs. When I was a child, I loved plucking dandelions and blowing the seeds into the air.

I also loved hooking their long hollow stems together to make a necklace or bracelet.

If we must pull them up, the greens can be added to a salad. Some people also use them to make tea or wine.

I saw the paperweight and necklace below on Etsy. What will folks think of next?

So when others talk about getting rid of dandelions, I always want to ask this one-word question: “Why?”

I don’t know about anyone else, but I love my dandelions! And I’m letting them stay exactly where they are.

Book excerpt: Memes worth sharing

Note: This is an excerpt from We Need to Talk, my book in progress, which examines the polarization ripping apart our society and shares my personal search for an appropriate Christian response. For an overview of the book and to read my previous excerpts, link HERE.

As I search for an appropriate Christian response to the polarization ripping apart our society, one question in particular confronts me: What can I do personally to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem?

I’ve decided one small step I can take is to examine my relationship with social media. As I’ve done so, I’ve come to an inescapable conclusion: I need to pay more conscious attention to what I post, share and “like” on sites such as Facebook. 

My research suggests that several culprits contribute to social media’s role in dividing us. Algorithms that create “echo chamber” bubbles of one-sided information and opinions. Viral spread of false or misleading information in “fake news” stories with click-bait headlines. Political “discussions” that amount to little more than judgmental blaming and shaming, name-calling, insults, character assassination and demonization of opponents.

But one of the biggest culprits? Endless memes promoting hateful and inflammatory messages.

On any given day when I go on Facebook, I can count on seeing at least a dozen memes from progressives and conservatives hurling insults and accusations at each other. The typical fare has become as predictable as rain in April.

Republicans are people too: Mean, selfish, greedy people.

It was so cold this morning I actually saw a Democrat with his hands in his own pockets.

Folks on both sides of the divide seem to relish in-your-face rudeness.

Excu-u-u-use me if my posts offend you, but the future of my country is more important than your precious feelings.

Misanthropes of all stripes show off their generalized contempt for anyone anywhere who disagrees with them about anything.

I lose track of how many times per day I want to say, “You can’t seriously be that stupid.”

The worst part? I have to admit I’ve been part of the problem from time to time. 

Until recently, I often found myself getting sucked into social media fights – even with people I ordinarily liked – over politics and contentious “hot-button” ideological issues.

Whenever a Facebook skirmish erupted – whether the trigger was a Supreme Court decision, debates about a political candidate’s suitability for office, or a crisis playing out in the news – my first instinct was to try and stay out of the fray. 

Alas, I tend to have strong opinions about a lot of issues (imagine that!) and sooner or later, someone would post a meme I couldn’t seem to resist sharing against my better judgment. Okay, I knew it was snarky. Maybe a bit judgmental or even mean. But it was SO clever.

Then, of course, someone on “the other side” would beg to differ with my assessment of the meme’s cleverness, and before I knew it, I was bogged down in another argument.

Finally, I made a decision: I would no longer post memes that “called out” or in any way disparaged other individuals or groups of people – even public figures considered to be fair game. I’ve been pretty disciplined about sticking with that resolution for the past couple of years.

I’ve also started to ask myself this question: What am I encouraging others to post by hitting the “like” button? Am I inadvertently enabling and rewarding name-calling, character assassination or polarizing comments? With that in mind, I no longer react to others’ memes that do any of these things.

On the other hand, I’m not totally against memes in and of themselves. Some make me laugh out loud, and we can all use a bit of humor after a stressful day – especially if we can have a good laugh without it being at someone else’s expense.

Here’s one of my all-time favorites.

So, in addition to avoiding negativity, I’ve decided to take a proactive approach to the meme-war issue. I’ve begun collecting positive memes and posting them on my own Facebook page’s newsfeed when the feuding gets especially fierce or obnoxious.

If I feel I must respond to a political meme (for example, one that I believe promotes dangerous misinformation), I make a conscientious effort not to insult the person who posted it.

For example, I love this meme. Unlike those that try to shame people who resist COVID safety measures, it uses humor to get the point across about the importance of masking without calling anyone names or assaulting their character.

When the meme wars on Facebook get particularly heated or nasty, I occasionally like to drop this favorite into my news feed, with some words of wisdom “attributed” to our 16th president.

However, I’ve come to believe that part of the problem fueling our culture wars is our modern emphasis on brevity.

It is hard to give a complex issue the depth it deserves when our communication is limited to 15-second sound bites, 280-character tweets, bumper stickers and t-shirt slogans. Or memes. And most hot-button issues are complex or they wouldn’t be “hot button.”

With that in mind, I usually prefer to post memes that have nothing whatsoever to do with political/ideological hot-button issues.

Cute animals are one of my favorite go-to subjects when I’m looking for something innocuously funny to share. I mean, who can resist this adorable kitten?

I can also change the subject to the weather. When I post this meme, Facebook friends like to dicker with me over whether the caption should read “Weather in Kansas” or “Weather in Colorado” rather than “Weather in Illinois.” But at least it’s a friendly argument.

I’ve found that Bible-verse memes can be a bit tricky – such a meme in direct response to someone else’s post can come across as hitting people with a “clobber verse.” (And we certainly wouldn’t want to do that, would we??)

But an occasional meme posted to my personal newsfeed – on its own rather than in response to anyone else’s post – can be a subtle, unobtrusive way to share Biblical wisdom in a society that needs to hear it.

Or I can demonstrate love of neighbor by posting a cheery feel-good message.

Religious memes can also be seriously funny. (Who says Christians don’t have a sense of humor?)

If I want to avoid Facebook nastiness, I’ve found I can’t go wrong with a bad pun – especially with some of my friends and relatives of all political stripes (they know who they are).

For a twofer, how about a bad pun that doubles as religious humor – with a cute animal tossed in for good measure?

I’ve found memes that help us laugh at our own foibles are great for sharing – like this one that gently ribs my urge to correct other peoples’ grammar.

Or my “old-timer” frustration with technology.

Finally, there’s always this piece of sage advice, which I may preface with the words “Note to Self.”

Just to clarify: When I say I no longer plan to “like” or share memes that keep the culture wars going, this doesn’t mean I plan to retreat from the political arena altogether.

I don’t plan to stop discussing hot-button issues in appropriate settings such as personal conversations, Bible study sessions or religious education classes. And I certainly don’t plan to look the other way in the face of injustice or forsake my favorite causes.

However, I do plan to stop enabling the trolling, the name-calling, the insults, the character assassination, the demonizing and scapegoating, and the gratuitous rudeness that have become a mind-numbingly routine part of our social media interactions. 

Fear-mongering, blame-gaming, and self-righteous outrage may be the norm on social media these days, but I have a choice whether to participate. Increasingly, I’m choosing not to.

The good news: If I want to share something on Facebook, I’m finding there are all kinds of memes that can make us laugh – or brighten our day or provide a bit of inspiration – without ridiculing or insulting or otherwise bashing anyone.

More good news: I now waste a lot less time arguing about politics with total strangers on Facebook.

Question for readers: What are some positive steps you’ve taken to avoid being part of the culture wars problem? I’d love to hear your response to this question, as well as your comments on the article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).