A prayer of Thanksgiving: So great a cloud of witnesses

Dear God,

One of the ways I like to celebrate Thanksgiving is by reviewing my blessings. Most years, this means creating a gratitude list that contains all the usual suspects ― friends and family, our home, our church community, financial security, and so on.

Over the past two and a half years, however, I’ve lost what feels like an unbearably long string of loved ones from various causes – nearly a dozen family members and close friends, a pair of much-admired mentors, a spiritual director, and even one of my beloved cats.

Three years ago, I used this space to thank you, God, for my wonderful parents (link HERE).

This Thanksgiving, I thought I’d use this space to thank you for several more really amazing people, because I am beyond grateful that you chose to put them in my life.

Pete’s cousin John actually seemed more like a brother than a cousin ― he and Pete were in communication with each other nearly every day. They both loved bad puns, good music and friendly arguments about politics. John honored his inner child who still loved trains, which endeared him to his grandkids, and he was a walking encyclopedia on everything about trains. He is pictured above (center) with a couple of his friends at a “live steam” model railroading event.

My Aunt Irene lived in Arizona, so I didn’t get to see her all that often in my adult years, but she and my Uncle Ben were a huge presence in my life when I was growing up. When my uncle died tragically young in a farming accident, leaving her with a business to manage and four children all still at home, she showed the rest of our family what true courage, determination and sheer grit really looked like. She was always an inspiration to me.

Some folks were so much a part of our family when I was growing up, they qualified as “bonus relatives” in our minds. “Bonus Uncle” Jim and “Bonus Aunt” Shirley certainly fit that category. As long-time friends of my Mom and Dad, Jim and Marian and Roger and Shirley were a constant presence during my childhood. And they blessed our lives just as surely as any “blood” relatives could have.

I often referred to our friend Will as “my favorite curmudgeon with a heart of gold.” During the many, many meals Pete and I shared with him and his lovely wife Paula, Will loved to play the cantankerous-old-man role, arguing about everything from politics to religion to musical techniques. He was also generous to a fault, often slipping a homeless person a $20 bill without a second thought.

John and Peg were among the first friends we made when Pete and I moved to central Illinois in 1985. They were writers, editors, teachers and extraordinary mentors to people of all ages, including us. And retirement didn’t slow them down in the least. Into her 80s, Peg was a tireless activist for social justice in our community. At 96, John was working on yet another book and joining our merry band of musicians to play his harmonica.

Jessica was the kind of boss everyone should be blessed to have. She and I worked together for more than a dozen years and her management style would best be described as “tough but fair.” She had clear expectations, but at the same time, showed profound and obvious respect for the dignity of everyone who worked with her. When I went on to become a supervisor myself, Jes was a major influence on my own leadership style.

Our church congregation has lost more than a dozen truly irreplaceable people over the past three years. Among those I was closest to were Jeanie Boo, Gene, Coralie and Lois.

Jeanie (top left) and Gene (top right) were in the choir with Pete and I for nearly 20 years. Gene also lovingly tended the rose garden outside our sanctuary, one of my favorite places to walk and meditate. Jeanie would often tell people, including me, “You’re a gift from God.” How many people besides my mother have ever told me that??

Lois (bottom left) and Coralie (bottom right) did so much to help my mother-in-law feel welcome after she lost her husband of 60 years and moved to central Illinois, where she knew no one except Pete and I. They even took a Bible study class to her nursing home when she could no longer come to church. I will always be grateful to them for their amazing hospitality.

Sister Margaret Therese was my spiritual director for three years prior to her passing in 2020. I met with her monthly for one-hour sessions in which we discussed everything from trying new prayer techniques to eliminating “spiritual clutter” from my life to discerning where God wants to lead me next. What I appreciated most about her was her completely nonjudgmental attitude, something I have tried to emulate in my own relationships with others.

It’s actually been seven years since I lost my bestie Patti, but I still miss her fiercely. She was my co-author of several “best-practices” manuals, a terrific mentor, my BFF and my partner in crime. She was a spellbinding speaker, but she also had a talent for making individual people, including me, feel special and gifted ― a major reason why everyone who knew her loved her.

Hebrews 12:1 talks about the “great cloud of witnesses” ― people who have gone before us, joining the ranks of those gathered before the throne of God:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

In this “cloud of witnesses” are the people who have given shape to our lives and set an example for us on how to live. They are the folks who have inspired us and cheered us on.

So as I count my blessings this year, I definitely consider these amazing people to be among my personal cloud of witnesses. Thank you God, for blessing me with each one of their lives.

With love and gratitude,

Our Holy Land pilgrimage: the Old City of Jerusalem

Ten years ago this month, Pete and I took the trip of a lifetime – a tour of the Holy Land. (Hard to believe it’s been that long ago!)

In previous posts, I’ve shared photos of the famous archeological and historical sites we visited (link HERE), the cities and towns where Jesus walked (link HERE), and the memorable experiences we had such as sharing communion on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee (link HERE).

One of the more fascinating parts of the trip was touring the Old City of Jerusalem. Walking through its narrow streets and alleys felt like stepping back in time.

Surrounded by ancient walls, the Old City is home to sites considered holy by three major religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, and the Dome of the Rock Islamic shrine are all located there.

Here is a panoramic view.

Via Dolorosa – Latin for “Sorrowful Way” or “Way of Suffering” – is a processional route through the Old City. Believed to be the route that Jesus walked to his crucifixion, the path has been followed by Christian pilgrims for centuries.

Fourteen “stations” along the Via Dolorosa’s roughly half-mile path signify events mentioned in the New Testament and Christian tradition, and many pilgrims stop at each station for a short session of prayer and reflection.

Among the events commemorated are the places where Jesus was condemned to death, where he fell while carrying his cross, and where he was stripped of his garments.

Some of the stations are located in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, pictured here, including a site believed to be the place where Jesus was crucified and another site believed to be Jesus’ empty tomb.

The Western Wall is a place of prayer and pilgrimage sacred to the Jewish people. The wall is believed by devout Jews to be the last remnant of a retaining wall that surrounded the Second Temple of Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.

The Western Wall has a men’s entrance and a women’s entrance (above). Below, people stand next to the wall to pray. Again, there is a men’s section and a women’s section.

The Dome of the Rock (pictured below) is an Islamic shrine revered by Muslims as the spot from which they believe the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven.

The Foundation Stone and its surroundings which lie at the center of the dome are also considered the holiest site in Judaism. The Dome of the Rock is situated in the center of the Temple Mount, the site of Solomon’s Temple and the Second Jewish Temple.

Below is a close-up of the Dome of the Rock’s tiled facade.

The Cardo in Jerusalem’s Old City was the city’s main commercial avenue for 500 years. Cardos were generally lined with shops and vendors, and served as a hub of economic life, making them the “heart” of ancient cities.

Pictured above are ruins of the Cardo, and below is a mural depicting what the Cardo would have looked like in its heyday.

Today’s marketplaces in the Old City remain colorful. Tiny shops, open-air markets and food stalls fill the crowded alleyways. Throngs of tourists from all over the world make for some fascinating people-watching.

Some of the little shops are truly amazing.

Outdoor cafes offer delicious local favorites such as falafel and hummus.

A gentleman sitting in an alley with his very colorful pet bird attracts lots of attention from passersby.

Little gardens are tucked into the landscape everywhere.

When we were there, one of the flower beds contained a prayer I imagine millions of people have sent up over the years.

Memes to share: Bad puns

My sweet hubby has been pretty miserable this past week while recovering from surgery, and he’s solicited prayers, healing wishes, good vibes and bad puns from friends and relatives.

I’ve already been sending up lots of prayers, but the bad puns also cheer him up and he’s got lots of friends and relatives happy to oblige. So I decided to help in the effort.

As they say, laughter is the best medicine …

It’s a Dickens of a thyme to feel sick, with all the gorgeous weather outside, and I’m missing my walking companion, so I hope this helps!

Meanwhile, continued prayers from everyone are appreciated.

Book excerpt: Confessions of a spiritual mutt

Note: This is an excerpt from 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.

My church’s adult faith formation class has been discussing Christianity’s Family Tree, a fascinating exploration of how several denominations came into being and what their members believe. One thing I like about the book is that author Adam Hamilton refrains from criticizing the denominations he writes about. Instead, he compares members of various faith traditions to relatives we might meet at a family reunion, and invites us to enrich our own faith by learning what we can from our “cousins” in Christ who belong to the other traditions.

Studying the book has also helped crystallize for me why I’m increasingly at peace with the convoluted nature of my own spiritual journey. Hamilton’s personal faith experience somewhat resembles mine in its twists and turns – he started life as a Roman Catholic, joined a Pentecostal church as a teenager, then ended up a member of a United Methodist Church, where he is now a minister. I’ve done some hopping around myself and, like him, I’ve come to see my rather zig-zaggy spiritual path in a positive light.

My journey through the spiritual/religious kaleidoscope began early. The church my family attended on a given weekend often depended on where we had Sunday dinner. One week we might attend the mainline Protestant church we and several members of Dad’s family belonged to, while the next Sunday might find us at the more conservative church Mom’s side of the family attended.

Being of different denominations, the two churches presented contrasting teachings on everything from baptism (sprinkling or immersion?) to communion (wine or grape juice?) to how one gets “saved” (baptism or personal decision?). But Dad regularly assured us, “In the end, we all worship the same God.” And the extended-family feasts that followed church and Sunday School are among my favorite childhood memories.

In college, I joined Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru), a nondenominational student organization whose main attraction for me was that these classmates didn’t pressure me to participate in the drug scene or the sexual revolution. (In the early 1970s, both proliferated on campus.) Some of the classmates invited me to attend services with them at a local evangelical free church, where congregation members encouraged us to join them for Sunday dinner – a great outreach effort for homesick students, I must say.

After college, I followed the trajectory of a growing number of today’s young adults and became a “None.” I didn’t stop believing in God altogether, but I was preoccupied with chasing professional brass rings and worshipping at the altar of career success. I referred to the endless round of political fund-raisers, Chamber of Commerce cocktail parties and Happy Hour gatherings with colleagues as “networking” and convinced myself these alcohol-soaked events were essential to my job … until I wound up in detox.

When I embarked on my recovery journey in the early 1990s, I immersed myself in the 12-Step movement, which labeled itself “spiritual but not religious.” The people I met “around the tables” came from a wide variety of spiritual/religious backgrounds with wildly diverse understandings about God. Folks at the meetings advised me, “Take what you need and leave the rest.”

Meanwhile, my husband and I joined a church that shall remain mercifully nameless. Members seemed obsessed with pointing out how smart they were in comparison to most Christians. The toxic organizational culture – marked by constant bullying, backbiting, infighting and power struggles between rival cliques – ultimately drove us out of the congregation. After that, I took another hiatus from church, though I continued to attend 12-Step meetings.

In my late 40s – after a huge medical scare during which I prayed fervently and made promises to a God I hoped would still listen to me – I started going to a mainline Protestant church with my husband and mother-in-law and periodically sneaked into a couple of Evangelical/Pentecostal churches my parents, other family members and friends now attended.

Shortly after I started going to church again, I began working for a faith-based prison re-entry program that encouraged congregations to “adopt” incarcerated mothers reintegrating into the community. Part of my job description involved recruiting and training a team of volunteers from each congregation to work intensively with their “adopted” mother and her children. The recruitment process required me to attend services at a dazzling array of churches – from Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian to Baptist, Evangelical and Pentecostal. Every month or two would find me attending a different congregation’s church service.

In addition to sampling the denominational smorgasbord as part of my new job, I read the entire Bible from front to back for the first time in my life and discovered passages that prompted me to observe, “So that’s where the Pentecostals get their belief about speaking in tongues … where the Catholics get their belief about purgatory … where the Evangelicals get their belief about the Rapture.” And I found myself agreeing with Dad’s long-ago observation: “In the end, we all worship the same God.”

I now belong to the mainline Protestant church I began attending nearly 20 years ago with my husband and mother-in-law. I like that the people at my current church do their best to practice what they say they believe. I like their involvement in serving the larger community. I like that I’ve been able to ask questions in our adult faith formation class that probably would have gotten me burned at the stake in a previous era, and I haven’t been excommunicated or struck by lightning. At least not yet. So even though I’m still questioning a lot of things, my current church is where I’ve settled and plan to stay.

But I haven’t stopped exploring ideas or getting spiritual support from a variety of sources.

Over the years, I’ve continued to attend Evangelical and Pentecostal services when visiting family and friends. Members of my parents’ congregation never failed to make me feel welcome when I went to church with them and I absolutely appreciate how supportive they were of my parents during their final years when I lived too far away to be as involved in their day-to-day care as I would have liked.

More recently, my husband and I have been receiving spiritual direction from a pair of Dominican teaching Sisters and this year we joined their “associates” program. Spiritual direction is a partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God, and serves as a supplement to – rather than a substitute for – church. During monthly sessions, I have been examining my relationship with God, prayer, my personal values, and various lifestyle choices. As associates my husband and I assist, among other things, with the Sisters’ social justice activities such as their anti-racism and environmental efforts.

I’m an insatiably voracious reader as well. I subscribe to both Christian Century (mainline Protestant) and Christianity Today (Evangelical), as well as America Magazine (Catholic). I devour books by authors from a variety of faith traditions – some of the more interesting titles I’ve been reading lately include Falling Upward by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, Do I Stay Christian? by Emerging Church leader Brian McLaren, Thou Shalt Not Be a Jerk by Evangelical pastor Eugene Cho, Creation as Sacrament by Greek Orthodox theologian John Chryssavgis and Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor.

During a recent session of my congregation’s adult faith formation class, I shared some details about my rather eclectic spiritual background. “I guess you could call me a spiritual mutt,” I joked. One of the other participants responded, “I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing,” and I would be inclined to agree.

Some might consider my spiritual journey – with its hopelessly squiggly lines – confusing. (At best!) But I’ve come to believe that experiencing a variety of traditions has had benefits. I certainly don’t claim to have a corner on the truth about religious/spiritual matters. I refuse to demonize people whose beliefs differ from mine. I’m less likely to get drawn into squabbles with other Christians over the long list of issues Martin Luther would label “adiaphora.” And I get thoroughly impatient when either conservative or progressive culture warriors imply that people who belong to a denomination other than their own “aren’t real Christians.”

Instead, like Hamilton, I prefer to learn from my “relatives” in Christ and to look for areas of agreement. What I really care about these days is how well a church encourages its members to fulfill these commandments:

  • Love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.

“When we view the body of Christ as a tree, there are several things we begin to realize,” says Hamilton, in Christianity’s Family Tree. “We are reminded that all the branches share the same roots and trunk. Our roots are Judaism. Our trunk is Jesus Christ. Permeating the entire tree is the Holy Spirit, which feeds the leaves and allows the tree to grow.”

Hamilton reminds us that in the beginning, Christianity did not have denominations. There were no Lutheran, Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal churches. Christians were known as “followers of The Way” or simply followers of Jesus Christ.

And I still trust my father’s advice: “Remember, in the end, we all worship the same God.”

Question for readers: What has your spiritual journey been like, and has it changed over the years? 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).

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?