Conscious contact

Now that I’ve discovered a reliable way to address my occasional doubts about God’s existence – immerse myself in nature – it’s time for the next step in my spiritual direction journey: Addressing my questions/doubts about a “personal God.”

Matthew 10:29-30 says “not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered.” How do I quell my periodic doubts about whether God really cares about me and other people, let alone sparrows? Does God truly have a plan for my life and does God honestly try to communicate directly with me?

With these questions in mind, I’ve dedicated this year’s Lenten season to improving my conscious contact with God. And the logical way to do this is through prayer. 

Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of In All Seasons for All Reasons: Praying Throughout the Year, suggests using Lent as “a time to explore new ways of prayer.”

Among the forms of prayer suggested by Father Martin and my spiritual director, I’d like to focus on the following. While I’ve used some of these prayer techniques off and on for years, I’d like to commit to doing them on a more regular, disciplined basis. Others, such as the “examen” and “lectio divina,” I’ve never tried before and find intriguing.

  • Morning meditation. A time set aside for prayer before I start my day. 
  • Prayers of petition and intercession. Prayer on behalf of myself or others.
  • Prayers of thanksgiving. Expressing gratitude for answered prayers and other blessings.
  • Nature prayer. Encountering God through creation.
  • Writing/journaling. Keeping a journal to record the fruits of prayer, or using writing itself as prayer.
  • Music. Both making and listening to music as a form of prayer and meditation. 
  • Lectio divina. Sacred reading as a prayer method and guide to living.
  • Examen. Prayerful reflection on the events of the day to detect God’s presence and discern God’s direction for my life. 
  • Mindfulness in church. Paying closer attention during church services, and trying not to get distracted by my own random thoughts. 

As I pray, my spiritual director suggested I spend some time listening as well. Say (or write) a prayer, then be silent. Quiet my mind for a few minutes and wait for God’s response. What is God saying to me?

Questions allowed!

“It’s God’s will. You mustn’t question God’s will.” 

If I’ve heard this admonition once, I’ve heard it a gazillion times – usually when I’ve challenged some aspect of religious dogma or someone’s interpretation of a Biblical passage. And I must admit, I tend to become innately suspicious when any person (or church denomination) does not want me to ask questions. 

The Bible itself brims with stories of prophets and apostles who questioned God’s will – or tried to change God’s mind, or expressed doubts out loud – and lived to tell about it. 

When God commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh and prophesy against that city, Jonah tried to flee rather than carry out the command and got angry when the people of Nineveh actually repented of their sins. When Job fell on excruciatingly hard times, he didn’t lose his faith, but he did confront God, demanding to know why these things were happening to him.

Wikipedia defines a doubting Thomas as “a skeptic who refuses to believe without direct personal experience” – a reference to the Apostle Thomas, who refused to believe the resurrected Jesus had appeared to the other apostles until he could see and feel Jesus’s wounds for himself. Even Jesus, as he faced crucifixion, pleaded with God, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.”

But when people “caution” me not to question God’s will, I’m not sure it’s God’s will they’re worried about. I suspect what some of them really mean is, “Don’t question my interpretation of God’s will.” I haven’t yet decided whether it’s worth the effort to question God’s will, but I can certainly challenge another human being’s interpretation of it.

My own questioning of “received wisdom” began early. At age 8, I listened in shock as a mainline Protestant minister “explained” to the congregation that “God does not intend for black people to be equal to white people.” As a teenager, I simply refused to believe someone who claimed my baby sister would not go to heaven because my parents were unable to have her baptized before she died. 

When I was in college, some evangelical classmates talked excitedly about The Late, Great Planet Earth, a book by Hal Lindsay which speculated the Catholic Church was the Great Whore of Babylon mentioned in the Book of Revelation and the Pope was the Antichrist who had the number 666 engraved on his ring. I may not have agreed with every single aspect of Catholic teaching, but I was repulsed by the blatant bigotry and said so.

More recently I’ve debated folks who think God favors capitalism over socialism or America over other countries, the so-called “prosperity gospel” promoting the idea that God wants us to be wealthy, the assertion that God cares whether we sing traditional hymns or contemporary music at our church services, and the whole concept of predestination. 

One reason we have so many Christian denominations is that we have so many different interpretations of “the truth.” The various sects and denominations offer contrasting teachings on everything from baptism (sprinkling or immersion? infant or older?) to communion (wine or grape juice? open or closed?) to how one gets “saved” (baptism or personal decision?). And then there’s the debate over whether a church should take positions on hot-button “political” issues such as immigration and gun control. When Christians can’t agree on the “right” answers, how do I sort these things out for myself if I can’t ask questions?

I’ve discovered it’s not only important to question other people’s ideas, but my own as well. I must admit I occasionally notice cognitive dissonance between my stated values and my actions. For example, I say I care about the environment (God’s creation!), yet keep contributing excessive waste to our ever-expanding landfills. I say we all ought to invest in solar power, but have yet to install the panels on our own house. Along with Pope Francis, I decry consumerism, yet can’t seem to stop accumulating STUFF. I share the Bible’s concern about the poor, yet avoid looking too closely at the impact of my spending and investment habits on economically disadvantaged people. I could go on.

Whether we’re talking about church dogma or political/ideological positions, one thing I’ve been asking myself lately is, do I really believe everything I claim to believe? Or do I pay lip service to certain ideas to please my peer group? Do I secretly think someone else should be responsible for upholding certain values while I’m exempt? Could a fearless moral inventory of the type promoted by 12-Step programs be in order? (For those unfamiliar with 12-Step groups, the fearless moral inventory involves seriously examining one’s own attitudes and behavior.)

I’m aware that the mere act of asking questions carries risks. Will I stop believing in God altogether if I express too many doubts? Will I decide the church I’m attending is no longer appropriate for me? Will I stop agreeing with friends on certain issues, and will they no longer consider me an ally or want to be friends with me?

Yes, it is possible I could end up wanting to go to a different church. (Again.) Or I could stop believing in God altogether. Or I could lose friends. But it’s equally possible that answering questions to my own satisfaction could strengthen my faith, encourage me to appreciate my current church even more, and allow me to discern who my real friends are.

Matthew 22:37 says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Your mind, it says. Your mind.

I’ve been encouraged by reader responses to recent blog posts in which I’ve acknowledged struggling with various aspects of my faith. 

Chrissie, author of the blog Word Quilt (link HERE), had this response to one of my posts: “To doubt and still believe [is] a real definition of faith, but not blind faith.” Exactly, I thought.

Elizabeth, author of the blog Saved by Words (link HERE), responded to another of my posts: “If you didn’t question the very basis of your faith, you would be merely borrowing someone else’s faith.” I like that. And I completely agree.

Ultimately, what I want is my own personal faith – one that will stand up to reason and scrutiny. What that means is, I will probably be questioning God, myself and others until I draw my last breath. And for now, I’ve decided that’s okay.

Moving forward

What’s next, as I embark on the next leg of my spiritual direction journey? How do I maintain and build on my progress?  

My first goal will be to spend some time each day outdoors – away from the computer screen, away from the political bickering by culture warriors on TV and Facebook, away from endless news reports about people’s inhumanity to other people. Because nature constantly reminds me of God’s existence, going outside is something I can easily do whenever I encounter those pesky doubts. I need to immerse myself in God’s creation. Watch sunsets. Listen to cicadas. Smell some flowers. Feel the breeze against my face. Take a walk. Dig around in the dirt and plant flowers or veggies. Experience evidence of God with all my senses. If severe weather keeps me inside, I can nurture the plants in the sunroom or watch the birds and squirrels from the picture window in the living room. Meanwhile, I’d like to start each day with Psalm 118:24, which reminds me, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” 

While I’m nowhere near my original goal of “a place for everything and everything in its place,” I’ve made some real headway sorting through physical clutter. I still advise houseguests against venturing into the basement or garage (I’d rather not have to file a missing person report), but the house mostly stays presentable enough so I’m not totally embarrassed when someone drops by without notice. I plan to continue with my spiritual director’s recommendation: Devote one hour per day to tackling clutter. And stop collecting more and more STUFF to fill a home already bursting at the seams with too much material abundance.

My spiritual director and I have also explored various kinds of “spiritual clutter” that crowd attention to God out of my life – and I eliminated a major distractor by walking away from an incredibly abusive volunteer work situation. As much as leaving the organization saddened me, I must say I love the newfound free time. Deadlines have practically disappeared. I feel so much “lighter” – like I’ve put down the 100-pound bag of stress I carried around for five years. Now, as I ponder the question of vocation, I must resist the urge to plunge into something new right away. I need to be selective as I discern where God wants me to go next.

My continuing spiritual journey also involves asking more questions. Lots of them:

  • The nature of God. I’ve decided there must be some kind of Creator. But who, or what, is this Entity I choose to call God? Is God distant and uninvolved, as some deists claim? Or is God a “close-up” entity who not only cares about each of us personally, but intervenes regularly in human affairs?
  • Authority. What is my authority for what I believe? The Bible? Church tradition? Clergy? Why, or why not? What about the priesthood of all believers? Where does science fit in? Since not even all Christians agree on the issue of authority, how do I decide who is right? Also, who or what outside of church has influenced my beliefs? How reliable are these sources of authority? Should I rethink some of them?
  • Church. Why go to church, when by my own admission, I feel the presence of God most while immersed in nature? Is there anything I can get from church that I can’t just as easily get by going outside? If we go to church, how often do we go? What characteristics should I look for when evaluating a church? What characteristics serve as deal-breakers? 
  • Prayer. What is prayer and how should we pray? Can writing, singing and gardening be forms of prayer? Is it okay to ask God for things? What about “crowd-sourced” prayer on Facebook?
  • Salvation. Some Christians say we’re “saved” through baptism, while others insist we must make a personal decision for Christ. Which is it? What about predestination? Is there a literal heaven or hell? If so, who goes where? What does salvation mean, actually?
  • The 10 Commandments. How do I relate these Commandments to 21st Century issues? For example, I promise I’ve never even been tempted to worship a golden calf made from melted-down jewelry. But what about the bronze bull on Wall Street? What does it mean to keep the Sabbath Day holy in a 24/7 culture that worships productivity? What constitutes stealing? Your wallet may be safe with me, but what about the way I invest my money?
  • Sin. In a world where many “sins” have been reframed as “diseases,” is sin still a legitimate concept? Is sin a specific act or is it the condition of separation from God? How would liberal Christians define sin versus how conservative Christians would define it? Who is correct?
  • Creeds. Considering that no creed exists anywhere in the Bible and a number of Christian churches don’t have one, do we need a creed? If so, what should be in it? 
  • Politics and the Culture Wars. Part of my motivation for seeking spiritual direction was the extreme level of vitriol permeating our society in recent years. I’ve begun to suspect I’m part of an Exhausted Majority who feels pressured to take sides in the Culture Wars, but at the same time doesn’t fit neatly into either the liberal or conservative camps. As the partisan positions have gotten more and more extreme, common sense seems to have flown out the window. This has prompted me to ask: What are my own beliefs and what is my role as a Christian in our society’s political battles? Even if we think someone’s values are totally wrong, how do we change hearts and minds if we demonize certain people and won’t have anything to do with them? 
  • Ecumenism. Is there a common core of beliefs shared by most Christians, regardless of sect or denomination? Do all of these denominations offer equally legitimate paths to God? Is there a way to heal the divisions between believers and relate respectfully to people whose viewpoints differ from ours?

That’s just for starters. 

When my spiritual director asked me point-blank if I ever doubted the existence of God, her question gave me permission to “go there.” For the next leg of my spiritual journey, I want to keep being honest about the questions I have.

One thing I do know for sure: I’m grateful to be making the journey with this spiritual director. When I shared this list of questions with her, as usual, there were no lectures. She just smiled and asked, “Where do you want to start?”

Spiritual progress

A little over a year ago I found myself at a spiritual crossroads. 

My husband and I attended church almost weekly, and I had read the Bible from cover to cover, along with shelves full of books on religion and spirituality. Yet I still found myself asking the “big” or “ultimate” questions. What do I actually believe about God and why? What is God’s purpose for my life? What are my values, or what should they be? How do I live my life in a way that is consistent with my beliefs and values?

Several factors led to this renewed questioning. The transition in focus and priorities prompted by my retirement. The “time is limited” epiphany that comes with being 60-something, losing loved ones and developing chronic health problems myself. Questions about faith and a church’s true purpose raised by reading the Bible and serving on my church’s evangelism committee. The internal tug-of-war over my own values brought on by the increasing divisiveness and polarization in our society.

I made a commitment: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my values should be, and live accordingly. Toward this end, I engaged a spiritual director to help me explore these “ultimate” questions and reorder my beliefs and values as necessary. Seeing a spiritual director does not replace going to church, of course – it’s a supplement, rather than a substitute. Spiritual direction is a one-on-one partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God. 

I must admit the idea of working with a spiritual director made me a bit nervous at first. While I hoped this person would ask the hard questions, I didn’t want someone who would merely push me to adopt their own belief system. I needed this person to be nonjudgmental and open to the idea that I was questioning all kinds of dogma, from the spiritual and religious to the political and ideological. 

My spiritual director, thankfully, has been patient as I grapple with questions some would say I shouldn’t even be asking. For the past year, we have met monthly for one-hour sessions. She offers a variety of suggestions for homework assignments, allowing me to choose which ones I might find most helpful. She recommends various reading materials as well.

I had already developed a morning meditation ritual – sitting in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cat in my lap and a cup of coffee by my side while I journal about my priorities for the coming day. I began using this time to write out my thoughts and insights generated by the homework assignments. I’m a rather “visual” person, so I’ve also used imagery to describe what I’m experiencing at any given moment. 

One of my first assignments: Come up with an image that best symbolizes my present spiritual condition.

I created a Photoshop image of myself buried under a mountain of clutter and added a rope to represent the tug-of-war over everything from my time to my personal values caused by competing demands and continual conflict. Underneath the papers and boxes and to-do lists, I placed several boulders with labels on them – fear, anger, pain – to represent the steady stream of anxieties and resentments that kept me awake at night and pre-occupied during the day. A pair of arms juggled several balls in the air – family, friends, volunteer work, the house. More balls had been dropped and were nestled on the ground at the bottom of the heap – my writing, self-care, God.

Using the graphic as a starting point, I listed those areas of my life that felt not-so-well-ordered. My relationships. A messy house. Our finances. My frantic, overloaded schedule. Health issues ranging from aches and pains everywhere to heart problems, along with my inability to sustain a healthy eating plan for more than a few days at a time. My writing, which seemed to languish. My emotional life, which often left me feeling like a walking bundle of anxieties and resentments. The suspicion I entertained from time to time that my life had been reduced to crossing items off endless to-do lists. My spiritual life, with all those questions and doubts.

I shared my “laundry list” with my spiritual director and showed her the graphic. I described the chaos that seemed to permeate my life, stemming from my own challenges with organizing skills, my talent for procrastination, my difficulty saying “no” to demands on my time, and my penchant for getting sucked into other people’s dramas. Repeated efforts to get my life under better control often left me feeling more frustrated than ever, I confessed. 

My spiritual director listened to this litany without negative judgment – at least none that I could detect. Looking the graphic over for a moment, she asked, “What stands out for you?”

I pointed out the “God ball” at the foot of the clutter pile. God was there, of course, but after creating this image, I could see vividly how clutter of all kinds – from endless STUFF to excessive commitments – blocked my spiritual path.

I half expected her to supply some relevant Bible verses about the Godliness of cleanliness and self-discipline. But instead of helping me incorporate my “God ball” back into the rotation of balls I was juggling, my spiritual director suggested I leave it where it was for the time being. “Just sit with it,” she said.

Back at the drawing board (Photoshop, that is), I pulled up my Clutter Mountain graphic and painted my “God ball” gold. I then imagined myself crawling out from under the junk pile and sitting next to the golden God ball with my eyes closed and my back to everything else – a cup of warm coffee in my hands and my two cats at my side.

Of course, this meant the other balls I was juggling would drop, I told my spiritual director when I showed her the edited graphic. “That’s okay,” she said. “Those other balls will still be there when it’s time for you to get back to them. They’re not going anywhere.” She suggested I spend an hour each day tackling the clutter – just one hour – and leave the rest for the next day.

Then she asked me, “Have you ever questioned the existence of God?” She didn’t flinch when I said, “Oh yeah. More than once.” One of the things I’ve liked is that she’s continued to be nonjudgmental. I’ve been able to talk about things like my history of church-hopping (and religion-or-spiritual-tradition hopping) and I’ve even been able to acknowledge occasional doubts about God’s existence without getting a lecture.

I went to work on the clutter, using my spiritual director’s recommended one-hour-per-day approach. While I still have a long way to go before achieving my goal of “a place for everything and everything in its place,” slowly but surely, I’ve gotten my house to a point where it is at least presentable enough to invite people over from time to time.

I set a boundary with myself regarding my schedule. Before adding a new ongoing commitment to my calendar, something else must come off.  Some of the commitments really mattered to me: time with my husband, a meal with family or friends, singing in the church choir. But several other commitments had crept into my schedule because I should have said “no” and didn’t.

As I continued taming my schedule and tackling the endless clutter – one hour and one day at a time – a flash of insight occurred to me. A little epiphany, one might say. Could the question of God’s existence be what I was distracting myself from with all the to-do lists, the frantic scheduling, the endless cleaning and the mindless Internet surfing that cluttered my life and unquieted my mind? My spiritual director agreed that I might be on to something. 

For most of my life, I had leaned toward the idea that there probably was a God. Yet, those pesky doubts did creep in from time to time. I didn’t voice them to anyone, though. If the folks at church ever doubted God’s existence, they certainly weren’t letting on.

I confessed to my spiritual director that what I really wanted was that “blinding light” experience the Apostle Paul had on the road to Damascus, or the burning bush Moses encountered. I wanted to be like those people who saw the blinding light or the burning bush, just knew what they knew about God, and had their mission in life spelled out for them.

She recommended I use part of my morning meditation time to be completely quiet. “Listen for God’s voice,” she said. 

Well, the blinding light hasn’t happened for me – at least not yet. But what has happened is nearly as amazing. 

One thing that became glaringly apparent when I tried to quiet my mind and listen for God’s voice was the level of resentment and anxiety that continually filled my thoughts – much of this prompted by a not-for-profit organization I was heavily involved in. For several years I had dedicated an average of 5-10 volunteer hours per week to this organization and contributed thousands of dollars.

The organization was not church-related, but its program served a cause dear to my heart, and I had previously thought nurturing its development might be a significant part of God’s plan for my retirement years. However, warring factions within the organization seemed more focused on vanquishing each other than they were on the mission. The leader personally targeted me and others whose competence and dedication threatened his sense of power. 

After five years of relentless conflict and escalating abuse, I had to admit this organization’s dynamics were never going to change. And no matter how worthy the cause, I was doing untold damage to both myself and my other relationships by continuing to participate. With much sorrow, and after consulting with my spiritual director, my pastor and a valued mentor, I walked away. 

My husband was so happy with this decision, he celebrated by taking me out for supper at my favorite seafood restaurant. I could literally feel the tension flow out of my body as I tied up loose ends and turned tasks over to others. I’ve dropped 15 pounds since I resigned from the organization because I no longer feel the need to counter stress by opening the refrigerator door and mindlessly stuffing my emotions with junk food. My schedule opened up considerably.

Then I walked outside. Dismissing the existence of a God is tempting when so many people who claim to speak in God’s name spew hatred for their fellow and sister human beings while committing assorted hypocrisies and evil deeds. Denying God’s existence gets even easier when watching one terrible event after another unfold on the news. But I’ve found it’s almost impossible to deny the existence of a Creator when I’m outdoors with evidence of God all around me.

So, to ward off those nagging doubts that surface from time to time, I try to get outside as much as possible. Regardless of the weather, I like to start my day by feeding the birds (and squirrels) while my morning coffee brews. During the growing season I tend a garden and several flower beds. I take walks along an amazing tree-lined bike trail that runs beside a creek near our house. Strolling through our backyard, the bike path or a neighborhood park admiring the flowers and snapping wildlife photos sure beats watching the news and arguing with complete strangers on Facebook. Immersing myself in nature’s majesty continually reminds me there is an ultimate Creator.

My spiritual progress may seem agonizingly slow to anyone reading this. But for me, finding a way to effectively address my occasional doubts about God’s existence is HUGE. Summoning the self-respect and courage to walk away from an abusive situation has also been an enormous step in the right direction. As they say around the tables at 12-Step meetings, we aim for spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.

Time to fasten my seatbelt and embark on the next leg of my spiritual journey. 

Can I learn to like winter?

Ten inches of wet, heavy snow fell over the weekend, and the forecast predicts more on the way, along with strong winds and frigid temperatures. After being thoroughly spoiled by mild weather for a week or two, we’re back to January in central Illinois. Looks like we won’t sit on our deck grilling brats anytime soon.

I’m definitely a spring and fall person. Spring offers promise – those first green shoots poking up out of the ground, a backyard in bloom, and the vow that this year, I really will stay on top of the weeding. What’s not to love about fall – especially if I ignore the fact that winter follows. Few sights are more gorgeous than a sunset forming the backdrop for rioting brown-orange-yellow-crimson leaves. 

But winter? It gets dark in the afternoon. Utility bills go up. Add in cold and flu season. Last year, Pete and I were continuously sick from Thanksgiving to Easter except for a week of respite in late January when my family finally got together for Christmas. After Pete wound up in the hospital with pneumonia, we seriously considered becoming “snowbirds” and moving to Arizona this winter, but the mere thought of the hassle changed our minds.

Why is it that spring rushes by faster than a fire truck with its lights flashing, while the coldest days of January poke along like that driver ahead of us on a 2-lane highway who thinks the speed limit is 35 m.p.h.? Why can’t spring last as long as winter? I know. Technically, winter has 90 days this year, and spring has 92. But regardless of what the calendar says, winter came quite early – with record snowfall before November was half over. 

On the other hand, Psalm 118:24 reminds us, “Today is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” I’m pretty darned sure this includes winter days. And since I turned 60, life has begun feeling much too short to wish whole months away.  Therefore, I’ve decided I either need to move to a place with a more temperate climate or find some way to stop hating winter.

I haven’t always disliked winter.  When I was a small child, my reaction to snow was, “Oh boy! Let’s go sledding! Make snow angels! Build snow forts! Make a snowman! Have a snowball fight!” Making snow angels lost its luster once I reached junior high school age and got vain about how my hair looked, but I still appreciated the “no school” announcement. 

Could I possibly learn to like winter again? 

Snow is pretty – especially when seen through the picture window in our living room. In early November, snow covering the still-colorful fall leaves created an interesting – and gorgeous – effect.

Bare trees project a certain majesty. Photo of the magnificent tree below was taken at the North Carolina home of cousins Anne and John.

Of course I can better appreciate the beauty of ice-coated branches when the ice stays off sidewalks and doesn’t trigger a power outage. 

Snow even adds beauty to dead weeds. 

Our Christmas cactus in the sun room only blooms once a year, and that’s in the winter.

Christmas is the one time of year when I can usually count on seeing most of my family. Pete and I have also started a tradition of inviting friends to our house for greens and hoppin’ john (a dish made of black-eyed peas and rice) to help us ring in the New Year. The hoppin’ john and greens are pictured below, right.

I’ve come to think of cold weather as God’s gift to people who need to be inside getting some work done. With 10 inches of snow on the ground and wind chill temperatures below zero, I can clean closets or work on a deadline project without feeling deprived by spending the whole day inside.

Winter weather reminds me of several other things I should be grateful for as well. Not being homeless. Not having a job such as postal carrier that requires me to work outside in sub-zero temperatures. Having a house with a garage, so I don’t need to dig our cars out of a foot of snow. Sixty-degree days in January. Snowdrops and crocuses that start poking their heads up in late February, just as I’m beginning to crawl out of my skin with cabin fever. Bird (and squirrel) watching.

I’m especially grateful for cardinals this time of year. In the middle of all the black-and-white dreariness appear those tiny splashes of brilliant red.

I’ve found it helps to think of winter as hibernation season. Bears do it, so why not me? Time to bundle up under a half-dozen quilts and read an 800-page book. Work on a deadline project and not feel guilty about staying indoors all day. Experiment with soup recipes.

I’ve also started leaving my Christmas decor up long past the time when the holidays are over. The twinkling lights make the room feel warmer and brighter in the mornings, and the winter weather outside doesn’t seem so harsh. They add such cheer to the darkness. This year, I’m keeping the Christmas tree and lights up till Lent. 

This morning I had a cat curled up in my lap and a cup of coffee at my side while I did my morning meditation. (I can see why having a warm cuddly pet is good for reducing blood pressure.) Christmas lights blinked cheerfully while I sat in the recliner in front of the fireplace bundled up in a flannel nightgown, yoga pants, hoodie, two pairs of socks and bedroom slippers. (This get-up will not get me featured in a Victoria’s Secret catalog, but it sure is comfy.) 

The forecast for this coming weekend predicts a real MESS — a mixture of snow and ice, strong winds and plunging temperatures. But we’ve stocked up on groceries. I’m preparing a casserole dish and some soup to get us through the pair of storms headed our way. And the lights that frame my windows are battery-operated, which means I’ll have a well-lit living room even if the power goes off. 

Here’s to staying warm!

3-2-1 Quote Me Challenge: Holiness

Thank you to Vickie at Vickie’s Book Nook and Meditation Corner for nominating me for this challenge. I’ve enjoyed reading her posts.

The 3-2-1 Quote Me Challenge was created by A Guy Called Bloke. You choose 3 bloggers to write 2 quotes each, on 1 word you give them.  

The rules of this Challenge are as follows:  

  • Thank the person who selected you.
  • Post 2 quotes on the topic selected for you.
  • Select 3 bloggers to take part in 3-2-1 Quote Me.
  • Give them a topic/word.

The topic Vickie gave me was “Holiness.” The two quotes I’ve chosen feel especially appropriate, since my New Year’s resolutions (at least as close as I come to New Year’s resolutions) involve carving out more “God time” and practicing better self-care.

Quote #1:

My husband and I usually go to church on Sundays (except in the summer, when the choir doesn’t sing and we go on Saturdays). But resisting the urge to cram the rest of the day full of activities can be a challenge. Since it’s so hard for me to just relax, it’s good for me to remind myself that God intended for us to rest at least one day a week.

Quote #2:

I’ve done pretty well with a Lenten discipline I committed to in 2018 – incorporating at least 3-5 servings of vegetables and fruits into my diet each day. Alas, I suspect my “temple of the Holy Spirit” still doesn’t appreciate the amount of junk food I manage to slip past my lips along with the veggies, especially the sugar-laden stuff. But the veggies and fruits have been a good start and I’d like to do a better job of laying off the sugar as well.

Thank you again, Vickie, for nominating me. This was fun! You even gave me an excuse to play with Photoshop – the program I used to create these graphics – and I love playing with Photoshop.

My nominees

One of the inspiring parts about creating my blog has been “meeting” people who also write about spiritual issues. So I’m nominating three of my favorite “spiritual journey” bloggers:

  • Ordinary Time – Feeling God’s presence in music. Plus a wealth of historical information about each of the featured hymns.
  • Seeking Divine Perspective – Believing the Word of God “regardless of how I feel.” When encountering this woman’s words, I sometimes suspect she can read my mind.
  • Scot in Progress – Thought-provoking essays by a Scottish mother blogging about “life, faith, doubt and crossing religious divides.”

My topic for my nominees:  Grace.

NOTE:  There is no specific deadline for this, meaning you can answer whenever you choose. (Actually, Vickie sent me this challenge a few weeks ago and I’m just now getting to it.) And there is no obligation to participate. It is my pleasure to nominate you since I thoroughly enjoy reading your blogs.

Have a wonderful grace-filled day!

The reason for the season

I must admit I’ve had my share of “Bah! Humbug!” moments this year. 

My resistant attitude kicked into gear when I saw a department store’s first Christmas display, along with a suggestion to get my holiday shopping done early. “Good grief, it’s July!!!” I wanted to scream. 

By Halloween, I routinely declared to anyone who cared to listen, “I don’t want to even think about Christmas until the day after Thanksgiving. One holiday at a time, folks.” 

By Thanksgiving, my resistance had escalated to full revolt. I informed family and friends that I did not plan to go anywhere near a department store on Black Friday. Furthermore, I planned to boycott any business that made its employees leave their families in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner so adult customers could get a head start on fighting over the latest must-have toy.

Paul Hayden, editor-in-chief of ConservativeTruth.org and a personal friend, may be my polar opposite politically, but he shares my sentiments about the materialism surrounding Christmas. “I have been somewhat cynical about Christmas sometimes – not so much the day or the spirit, but all that seemed to surround and even engulf Christmas,” he writes. “The commercializing of Christmas bothered me even when I was a kid. I liked getting gifts, but not the advertising of Christmas, using the beautiful and wonderful birth of the Savior and Lord Jesus in order to SELL stuff. It really messed it up for me.” (Read his article HERE.)

If there truly is a War on Christmas, it’s not being perpetrated by the Walmart greeter who wishes us “Happy Holidays!” or the barista who hands us a plain red cup at Starbucks. The real culprit, to my mind, is the consumerism permeating our society, crowding out the reason we celebrate Christmas in the first place – Christ entering our world. 

So the YouTube video Advent in 2 Minutes got me thinking. (Click on the image below to watch it.)

“If you’re sick of Christmas by December 25, you haven’t done Advent correctly,” the video asserts. “Advent isn’t about shopping, stressing, planning or buying. Advent is expectant waiting, hopeful anticipation and joyful preparation for God coming into our lives and hearts in all moments, all places, all times – past, present, future. Commemorating the birth of Jesus, welcoming God into our lives every day, preparing for Christ’s second coming.”

The video, produced by Busted Halo (a ministry of The Paulist Fathers, a religious order of Roman Catholic priests whose Website can be found HERE), offers several suggestions for getting through the holiday season without succumbing to the pressures of the commercialized world. Volunteer at a hospital or soup kitchen. Spend extra time in prayer. Be patient with our families. Speak kindly to strangers. Go to church. Share hope with those who need it most. 

So … time for Take Two …

I started Advent this year with an annual tradition of listening to Handel’s Messiah all the way through while putting up Christmas decorations. My favorite part is the Hallelujah chorus, which I could listen to over and over again like a teenager, so I’ve been playing it periodically while I’m at my computer as well. I absolutely love the “Christmas Food Court Flash Mob” video, created by Alphabet Photography in 2010, in which the Chorus Niagara gives a stellar performance of the Hallelujah chorus at a mall in Ontario. It seems so appropriate, reminding shoppers of the true meaning of Christmas.

I also love the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, and I have a soft spot for talented kids who sing. So one can imagine my joy at coming across a Christmas version of Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” sung by 10-year-old Kaylee Rogers and the Killard House School Choir. Killard House is a school in Northern Ireland that serves children with special needs. I hope Kaylee, who has autism, and her classmates realize what gifts from God they really are!

At church, I renewed my efforts to follow our choir director’s advice. “Think about the message,” Jan encouraged us during our weekly practice sessions, as we rehearsed Advent and Christmas selections.

When our church put on its annual Christmas pageant this year, I must admit I was dubious. A “pop-up” pageant? Rather than participation by children only, members and visitors of all ages were invited to take part. “Come ready to hear the story of the birth of our Savior and imagine yourself in the scene!” its organizers suggested, as members were invited (cajoled, snagged) to stand in as angels, shepherds and all the other roles. My husband (pictured below, right) was recruited, and the whole thing turned out to be memorable. 

What to do about gifts? 

In addition to my distaste for battling crowds at department stores, our family circumstances present special challenges. Between us, my husband and I have family members scattered over ten states and three different countries, which makes seeing everyone impossible. So we hit upon a solution – instead of buying a bunch of STUFF people don’t really need and figuring out how to get it all delivered to people we can’t visit, my husband and I are making a small donation to the charity of each recipient’s choice.

Our family members chose a nice variety of deserving charities – from Big Brothers Big Sisters and a ministry in Guatemala to a couple of women’s shelters and an organization that benefits veterans. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how this decision would go over with the younger children. But I was in for a pleasant surprise – if anything, some of the kids seemed to warm to the idea even more than the adults. Several of them opted for animal shelters.

I’m also learning about some charities I didn’t know existed. One of my favorite discoveries is Lumos, which focuses on issues involving the world’s most vulnerable children (website HERE). Named after the light-giving spell in the Harry Potter books, the organization was founded by author J.K. Rowling. “She’d be one of the billionaires listed by Forbes,” explained Eric, our 21-year-old nephew and fervent Harry Potter fan who chose Lumos. “Except she’s given away so much of her money, she no longer qualifies.” 

Now there’s an attitude that could make the world a better place year-round, I thought.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Gratitude, Part 2

Over Thanksgiving weekend, my husband Pete and I went to North Carolina for a long-anticipated visit with some favorite cousins who live near Asheville. Two previous attempts to visit had been foiled – the first time by wildfires burning in the area, and the second time by illness. Maybe, we hoped, the third attempt would be the proverbial charm.

The photo above was taken just as we entered Tennessee. Yes, the sign below points to the “Rocky Top” of bluegrass and country music fame. The town of Rocky Top is just down the road a piece from Pete’s hometown of Norris in the eastern part of the state.

We stopped at a bluff overlooking Norris Dam, one of Pete’s favorite places. From this location, one can observe breathtaking scenery. On the day after Thanksgiving, the mountains were covered with trees still hanging onto their blazing multicolor fall leaves. I got to shoot several photos of the beloved Smokies. So far, so good. We were only a couple hours from our destination.

Then we ate supper at one of our favorite restaurants in the area, and dropped in at a Walgreens pharmacy to check my blood pressure. I had experienced a brief A-fib episode earlier in the day and was still feeling a little bit “off.” Among other things, a blood pressure monitor can detect an irregular heartbeat and I wanted to make sure my heart rate had stabilized. Alas, my blood pressure had skyrocketed and I was promptly sent to the emergency room.

I expected the ER folks would give me some medication to bring my blood pressure under control quickly, then release me. This was the treatment usually offered by my regular doctor at home. Instead, they admitted me to the hospital for an overnight stay and more tests. Needless to say, being in a hospital 500 miles from home was not part of our vacation plans and I began to feel downright surly, especially when there seemed to be no guarantee I would be released the following day either.

We relayed the news of our “detour” to Pete’s cousins. They immediately offered to come visit us at the hospital in Knoxville. Since this visit involved a two-hour drive for them, I resisted the offer at first. But Pete pointed out that a visit from the cousins might possibly set Murphy’s Law in reverse.

So John and Anne, Lise and Nate made the two-hour drive. And sure enough, Murphy’s Law-in-Reverse was activated. No sooner had we posed for the photo below (that’s me in the hospital gown worn over a pair of jeans), the doctor came in and announced that the tests were normal and I was free to leave.

So on we went to North Carolina, where we stayed in a hotel room at the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, a beautiful resort tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mission of the conference center, owned by the United Methodist Church, is “to be a place of Christian hospitality where lives are transformed through renewal of soul, mind and body.”

The folks at the conference center seemed to practice Christian charity as well as hospitality. Although we called after 7 p.m. to let them know we wouldn’t be coming the first night of our reservation (way past the deadline for a cancellation), when they heard my story, they didn’t charge us for that night. My husband and I have stayed at the conference center several times now, and love the place. Below is one breathtaking view, as seen from our hotel room.

In the end, we got to spend two days with our fabulous cousins after all. We enjoyed cousin Anne’s fine cooking on Saturday night. On Sunday, we all piled into their van to take Nate back to his college in Charlotte, where he is studying to be a chef (the school actually offers an entire course on chocolate). Along the way, we stopped at a restaurant and I enjoyed a meal of Cajun-style barbecued salmon. It was delicious and the company was delightful.

As an added treat, I got to visit the horses who live next door to our cousins. When I held out some apple cores, they walked right up to me. If anyone thinks cats and dogs are the only pets who beg for food, they haven’t interacted with horses. These two have begging down to a science.

So I ended up with plenty to be thankful for, after all. I’m especially grateful for our cousins’ visit while I was stuck in a hospital 500 miles from home. They certainly didn’t have to go out of their way like that, especially when they had another all-day trip to make the following day. But they did – and revived my faith that there are plenty of kind and generous people left on the planet.

My Gratitude List for 2018

    Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.            1 Chronicles 16:34

In what has become an annual tradition, I like to celebrate Thanksgiving by making a Gratitude List. And I have plenty to be grateful for this year:

My husband. As usual, my sweetie tops the list. After 33 years of marriage, I still consider him a gift from a loving God. 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!

My family. I have sisters and cousins who double as friends, along with wonderful nieces and nephews. And I’m fortunate to be blessed with amazing parents. During Dad’s final illness a few years ago, I was awestruck to realize how many people love my parents and to hear story after story about their generosity in the community.

Good friends, past and present. These irreplaceable people – including one special angel now in heaven – know my quirks and flaws and love me anyway.

Our kitties. My life has been graced with some fine cats, dating back to earliest childhood. These sweet fur babies curl up next to me while I sleep, sit in my lap while I work at my desk, comfort me when I’m distressed, and love me unconditionally. 

Our church community. We belong to a congregation where people actually try to live out the values they profess. They agree to disagree about volatile political issues. (I’ve been in churches with an unofficial litmus test, where people could and did get ostracized for not taking the “right” stance on an issue.) They even still speak to each other after surviving the merger of three congregations. And … after a two-year search, we finally have a new pastor!!

Other supportive people. Those who mentored me over the years – from my grandparents to my favorite teachers to supervisors at work – helped me become the successful person I am. Now I have a patient and nonjudgmental spiritual director mentoring me as I approach Senior Citizenhood – the next phase of life.

My health. My relatively good health lets me stay active, a minor miracle considering the not-so-good things I did to my body earlier in life – the cigarettes, the junk food, the lack of proper exercise and my talent for burning the proverbial candle at both ends. After repeated bouts with flu and other viruses last winter that landed both my husband and my mother in the hospital, we’re all healthy for the holidays. Thanks be to God!!!!! 

Our home. Our beautiful dream house has a cozy fireplace I sit next to during my morning meditation, a sunroom, eat-in kitchen, piano, office space for each of us and plentiful storage and closet space. Our yard is filled with flower beds. We live in a lovely neighborhood with a bike path leading to a nearby park and botanical garden.

My writing ability. I’ve known since third grade that writing would play some role in my life’s purpose. From young adulthood on, this gift from God has assured me I’ll never starve, or get bored even after retiring.

Financial security. We have not had to worry (at least not too much) how we’re going to survive our retirement years. We can travel to places like Ireland, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, Israel and Palestine. And being able to hire someone to clean our house and mow our grass has certainly made my life easier.

Mother Nature in all her majesty. This year I enjoyed one of the most gorgeous falls in recent memory – I swear the leaves were rioting! No matter which season we’re in, I love the wildlife that populates our backyard – the birds and squirrels that visit our feeders, the foxes that live under our deck, the butterflies and rabbits.

Little things. The first ripe tomato of the summer. Gentle rains at the right time. “Ordinary” days when broken appliances are all I need to fret about. Not to mention low-calorie food that actually tastes good.

Being alive. God has granted me another year. While many folks complain about aging (and I must admit I do this myself from time to time), today I choose to be grateful I’ve been able to grow old.

And last but not least  …  SPRING IS COMING in 120 days!!!

For all of this, God, I thank you.

Here’s hoping everyone has a happy Thanksgiving!

God’s fireworks

The frost sadly zapped my annual flowers early this year. But as the saying goes, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” And the fall leaves, which seem to need a good freeze to get really colorful, are making up for the lost flowers.

Here is the view from my kitchen window in the late afternoon.

Kitchen

The street outside my house.

Street Scene2a

And the nearby park, which I like to drive through on my way to everywhere, especially this time of year.

Pond

Gawking at trees is one of my favorite pastimes.

Red tree

Yellow tree

Orange tree

Park scene

Street scene1

The seeds and berries are pretty this time of year as well.

As are the leaves that have dropped to the ground.

Some flowers stay colorful and interesting even after the frost has zapped them.

A few perennial flowers have managed to survive the freeze. Love the ones that hang in there!

And here’s the cute kitty who followed me while I was snapping some of my photos. So of course, I need to include her here.

New Salem kitty