Our Holy Land pilgrimage: Where Jesus walked

Several years ago, my husband Pete and I took the trip of a lifetime – a tour of the Holy Land. The tour, hosted by St. John’s Lutheran Church in Rock Island, Illinois, invited us to see the stories of the Bible unfold while we walked “as a pilgrim along the paths of Christ and the early Church.”

Titled “Peace Not Walls,” the trip went beyond simply touring the famous archeological and historical sites. We got to see the international church in action by visiting programs sponsored by the Lutheran World Federation, met personally for conversations with people on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and attended a church service conducted in three languages simultaneously.

Needless to say, visiting the holy sites themselves was an amazing experience. In many places, churches or shrines have been built in the exact locations where – based on best estimates by historians, archeologists and others – events mentioned in the Bible are believed to have taken place. Some of the churches themselves are hundreds of years old and still conduct services.

Shepherd’s Field (above) is believed to be the place where an angel appeared to shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus. The site is considered one of the best places from which to view Bethlehem as it would have been seen by the shepherds. Below are the ruins of a fourth-century Byzantine church at Shepherd’s Field.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (above), built in 565 A.D. over the site where Jesus is believed to have been born, is the oldest continuously functioning Christian church in the world. Today, custody of the church is shared by the Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic and Greek Orthodox churches. Below, a 14-point star in the middle of the grotto located under the Church of the Nativity’s main altar is said to mark the exact spot where Jesus was born.

Tourists flock to the place along the shore of the Jordan River (above) where Jesus is believed to have been baptized. We saw a number of people getting baptized at the time of our visit. In the photo below, one can see in the distance a monastery built where Jesus is believed to have been tempted in the wilderness. (The monastery is nestled about halfway up the hill toward the right in the photo.)

In the photo below are the ruins of what is believed to be the house Peter shared with his mother-in-law and his brother Andrew. It was in this house that Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, the paralyzed man and others.

The Church of the Multiplication (above) was built on what is believed to be the site where the miracle of the loaves and the fishes took place. The Church of the Beatitudes (below) is located on a small hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the traditional “mount” where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

The Garden of Gethsemane (below) is where Jesus experienced the agony in the garden and was arrested the night before his crucifixion.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (above) is built on what are believed to be the locations where Jesus was crucified, buried and rose from the dead. It is considered by many to be the most important holy site in Christianity, and is visited by more than a million pilgrims each year. Inside the church (below) one can see the Stone of Anointing, where the body of Jesus was laid down in preparation for his burial after he was taken down from the cross.

The photo below was taken in the garden outside the tomb where Jesus is believed to have been buried, and where the women were told, “He has risen!”

Book Excerpt: More resources

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

As I’ve been conducting research for my book, I have come across some great resources for navigating the culture wars. In my last excerpt, I listed several thought-provoking books I’ve been reading.

In this excerpt, I include some additional resources. They range from organizations that help us have better conversations and improve our news media literacy to web sites that let us evaluate a public official’s truthfulness and fact check what we see on Facebook and other social media.

More in Common

With teams in the U.S., the United Kingdom, France and Germany, this organization seeks to counter polarization and build bridges across dividing lines through research, publications and other initiatives. Their detailed research into what drives fracturing and polarization incorporates insights from political science, psychology, sociology and other fields to map different segments of the population according to their values, beliefs and sense of group attachments. Their research is summarized in a number of publications on topics ranging from immigration to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of their most widely-quoted publications is Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape, in which they identify an “exhausted majority” of Americans who are fed up with this country’s endless culture wars. Link HERE.

Braver Angels

Braver Angels (formerly Better Angels) seeks to depolarize the American public through grassroots organizing. The group offers a range of experiences including online and in-person workshops, documentary screenings, book discussions and one-to-one conversations on a variety of polarization-related topics. The group’s premise is not that we must change our mind on issues we’re passionate about in order to agree with people on the other side, but that we learn how to have more reasoned conversations. The organization emphasizes engaging those we disagree with, trying to understand the other side’s point of view even if we don’t agree with it, and supporting principles that bring us together rather than divide us. Link HERE.

Living Room Conversations

Dialogue experts have developed Living Room Conversations as a conversational model to help people bridge their differences by identifying areas of common ground and shared understanding. Within this model, the nonprofit organization has developed over 100 conversation guides on topics ranging from politics in faith communities to abortion, immigration, race and gender issues that can otherwise be tense to talk about. The conversations can take place in person or online. The organization has a Faith Community Team to help church congregations that want to host these conversations. Link HERE.

The Flip Side

The Flip Side promises to help us get out of our media bubbles and analyze important issues by presenting the best points from both sides of the political spectrum. An editorial team – consisting of both progressives and conservatives – sifts through more than 30 news publications daily, chooses one or two issues to focus on, and reads the recent op-eds and analyses about these issues, choosing the most thoughtful and informative articles from each side. The team then chooses the most representative excerpts and quotes from each side, has each of these fact-checked by at least one progressive and one conservative team member, and compiles them into an email that can be read in about five minutes. Link HERE.

AllSides

The mission of AllSides is to expose people to information and ideas from all sides of the political spectrum so we can better understand each other. The site takes each day’s top news stories from the left, center and right of the political spectrum and displays them side by side so readers can get a feel for how each side’s news media may be slanting their coverage. The site also provides media bias ratings for over 800 media outlets and writers, so the reader can easily identify different perspectives. Their “Red Blue Dictionary” explains differences in perspectives on hot-button issues like climate change and racism. In addition, they offer “civil dialogue partnerships” to provide opportunities for respectful dialogue across political divides, and a school program to help students from middle school through college learn media literacy skills. Link HERE.

FactCheck.org

A project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, FactCheck.org bills itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. The organization monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. The web site also offers a guide on how to spot fake or misleading news, as well as step-by-step instructions on how to flag fake news on Facebook. Link HERE for the organization’s web site, HERE for the fake news guide, and HERE for instructions on flagging fake news.

American Psychological Association: Stress in America

Since 2007, APA has commissioned an annual nationwide survey to examine the level of stress across the U.S. and understand its impact. The annual Stress in America survey measures perceptions of stress among the general public and identifies leading sources of stress, common behaviors used to manage stress and the impact of stress on our daily lives. In recent years, the APA has consistently found that significant numbers of U.S. citizens feel stressed by the current political and social divisiveness. If nothing else, the survey results make clear that the culture wars are more than simply a petty irritant and draw attention to the serious physical and emotional implications of the stress caused by constant conflict. Link HERE.

Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

The center, at Columbia University, offers programs which integrate the theory of conflict resolution with its actual practice. The center publishes an extensive list of more than 100 organizations/groups/web sites seeking solutions to toxic polarization. The focus of the organizations on this list ranges from government, news media and business/economics to education, the environment, technology/social media and faith-based initiatives. Link HERE.

Question for readers: Do you know of any additional organizations/web sites – particularly faith-based groups – that help the public navigate the culture wars constructively? I’d love to hear your recommendations. 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).

Recipe: Ground beef crumbles

Today I’m sharing one of my favorite cooking hacks.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought about making a recipe using ground beef crumbles, only to change my mind at the last minute because the only meat I had available was frozen solid and would take forever to thaw before I could even start browning it.

Then I hit on a solution: Why not use ground beef I’ve already browned ahead of time and frozen for nearly instant use? Batch cooking at its best.

I start by sautéing an onion, green pepper and garlic for a bit of extra flavor. Then I add five pounds of fresh ground beef, which I brown and drain thoroughly, separate into recipe-sized portions and store in the freezer until I need it.

And voilà! When a recipe calls for browned ground beef, all I have to do is pull a bag of the crumbles out of the freezer and pop the crumbles in the microwave for just two minutes. 

The crumbles can be frozen for up to three months and are handy for use in beefy mac, chili, taco filling, ground beef stroganoff, spaghetti, sloppy joes … the list goes on.

This recipe makes six 10-ounce bags of crumbles.

Ingredients

  • 5 pounds fresh lean ground beef
  • Large onion, diced
  • Large green bell pepper, diced
  • 2½ teaspoons minced garlic
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • Dusting of freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Sauté onion, green pepper and garlic with oil on medium heat in a large dutch oven until vegetables are softened and slightly caramelized, adding a very light sprinkling of black pepper.

Add the fresh (unfrozen) ground beef to the sautéed vegetables a bit at a time, breaking it up as you go with a large high-temperature-resistant hamburger meat chopper and stirring constantly until all meat is browned and crumbly. 

Drain the meat thoroughly and place in a shallow, loosely covered container in the refrigerator until the meat has cooled.

Once cooled, split the crumbles into recipe-sized portions – I usually make each portion about 10 ounces – and place portions in plastic freezer bags. Transfer to the freezer promptly.

When it’s time to use the crumbles, remove from the freezer bag, place in a microwave-safe dish and heat on high for about two minutes. Then add to your favorite recipe!

Nutrition information

Per 10-ounce recipe portion, based on 90% lean ground beef. Depending on the recipe the crumbles are used in, final portion size may vary considerably.

Calories: 715 | Carbohydrates: 5 g | Protein: 75 g | Fat: 150 g | Saturated Fat: 37 g | Cholesterol: 245 mg | Sodium: 250 mg | Potassium: 340 mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 1 g | Vitamin A: 0 % | Vitamin C: 28% | Calcium: 4% | Iron: 70% 

God’s other book: Butterfly nursery

We have been hosting monarch butterfly babies this past month.

The venture actually started about two years ago when a friend of ours sent us some milkweed seeds. I planted them in the spring of 2020. And waited …

“Why aren’t the monarchs coming?” I asked my friend.

Be patient, my friend said. They will find our milkweed patch eventually. It takes time.

Complicating the situation, the folks who take care of our yard maintenance would occasionally get overly enthusiastic with their weed pulling and pull out milkweed plants as well. Aaargh!

Fortunately the plants didn’t get pulled up by the roots and some grew back. And one of my sisters gave me three more plants to add to the ones I’d grown from seed.

To prevent further disturbances, Pete made this sign while I roped off the plants.

After a year and a half of not-so-patient waiting, we finally saw … EGGS! I was so excited, only to discover that OOPS! They weren’t monarch eggs at all, but aphids. Oh dear.

But then came a beautiful sight – a tiny caterpillar! Now I was really excited.

The caterpillar ate and ate and ate. And grew. And grew. And grew. It must have tripled in size in the space of a week.

After that, I saw more caterpillars. I ended up having six of them in all, busily munching away on the milkweed we planted for them. Those little guys are voracious eaters.

And then they began to wander off, one by one, to begin the pupa (chrysalis) stage. I spotted one of them crawling up the side of the house, looking for a safe place to turn into a butterfly.

At this point, I was SO tempted to snag one of them and bring it inside, so I could watch the transformation. But I resisted. My research tells me that it disrupts their ability to migrate if they are brought indoors for even a short period of time. So I grudgingly let them all go. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see where any of them went, so I’m just going to hope they’re safe!

The way I see it: I planted the milkweeds. God will do the rest.

Pete has been joking that I’m experiencing the “empty nest syndrome.” I just loved watching those little caterpillars grow. I miss them already, but hopefully I’ll soon get to see a few more monarch butterflies sipping nectar from the other flowers in my yard like this one in the photo above that I snapped last year.

To increase the possibility that I’ll get to host lots more caterpillars next year, I’ve ordered another sixteen milkweed plants to add to other flower beds.

I like to think of this project as “God’s work, our hands.”

Book excerpt: Books to help us navigate the culture wars

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

As I’ve been conducting research for my book, I have come across some great resources for understanding and navigating the culture wars, ranging from books and academic research to web sites created by organizations working for change in the way we relate to each other. 

Following are some books I’ve found especially thought-provoking. The authors include ministers and theologians, academic researchers, historians and journalists. They span the ideological spectrum from those who lean conservative to those who lean progressive to those earnestly trying to remain nonpartisan.

Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America, by James Davison Hunter. This is the book that introduced the phrase “culture wars” to our vocabulary when it was first published in 1991. Reading it now reminds us that the polarization tearing apart our society has actually been developing for decades. Hunter, a sociologist, uses the term to describe how conservative Christians (Protestant and Catholic) and Orthodox Jews joined forces in a battle against their progressive counterparts – secularist, reform Jews and liberal Catholics and Protestants – to gain control over the family, art, education, law and politics. The term not only captures a political struggle over cultural issues, but a conflict over “the meaning of America,” he says. 

The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue, by Deborah Tannen. This eye-opening book is, if anything, even more relevant today than when it was originally published in 1998. Tannen, a linguistics professor, describes “a pervasive warlike atmosphere” that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight: The best way to discuss an idea is to set up a debate; the best way to settle disputes is litigation; the best way to begin an essay is to attack someone; and the best way to show you’re really thinking is to criticize. The author demonstrates how our use of language reflects this mindset (the war on drugs, the war on cancer) and shows how our determination to pursue truth by setting up a fight between two sides keeps us from recognizing and remaining open to other options.

Why We’re Polarized, by Ezra Klein. Using insights from political scientists, media commentators, and cultural critics, this book aims to show how America’s political system is polarizing us — and how we are polarizing it — with disastrous results. In the past, says the journalist and political analyst, parties separated over their ideas for dealing with specific issues. But now the name of the game is “negative partisanship,” where we hate the other party more than we like our own. Klein describes the feedback loops between polarized political identities and polarized political institutions that he believes are driving our system toward crisis, and shows how these feedback loops reinforce each other.

Uncivil agreement: How politics became our identity, by Lilliana Mason. Political polarization has moved beyond disagreements about matters of policy, says Mason, a political scientist and professor. The author explains how the growing social gulf across racial, religious, and cultural lines has recently come to divide neatly between the two major political parties, then shows how our current “us versus them” conflicts are rooted in partisan “mega-identities” that tap into a powerful current of anger and resentment. She warns that, although the polarizing effects of social divisions have simplified our electoral choices and increased political engagement, these divisions have not been a force that is, on balance, helpful for American democracy. 

Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, by Arthur C. Brooks. Today in the U.S., there is an “outrage industrial complex” that prospers by setting American against American, says Brooks. This has created a “culture of contempt” – the habit of seeing people who disagree with us not as merely incorrect, but as worthless and defective. Brooks, a social scientist, uses a combination of behavioral research and his experience as head of a policy think tank to argue that our only choices are not to simply play along or be left behind. Instead, he offers suggestions for how to love and respect one another despite our differences.

Thou Shalt Not Be A Jerk: A Christian’s Guide to Engaging Politics, by Eugene Cho. According to Cho, an evangelical pastor and president/CEO of the Christian advocacy organization Bread for the World, Christians should never profess blind loyalty to any political party, but should engage with politics because politics inform policies which impact people. Cho urges readers to stop vilifying those they disagree with – especially the vulnerable – and to remember that hope arrived not in a politician or system or great nation, but in the person of Jesus Christ. “When we stay in the Scriptures, pray for wisdom, and advocate for the vulnerable, our love for politics, ideology, philosophy, or even theology, stop superseding our love for God and neighbor,” he says.

God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, by Jim Wallis. This book focuses on what Wallis considers to be the role of religious hypocrisy in politics, and critiques both the “religious right” and the “secular left.” Clearly, God is not a Republican or a Democrat, says the theologian and founder of Sojourners magazine. He argues that America’s separation of church and state does not require banishing moral and religious values from the public square. But he also believes the best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable or loyally partisan but to maintain the moral independence to critique both the Left and the Right. 

Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility, by George Yancey. Christians have struggled with racial issues for centuries and often inadvertently contribute to the problem, Yancey says. He adds that the situation is made more complex by the fact that Christians of different races see the issues differently. A sociologist and consultant for a variety of churches on racial diversity, Yancey analyzes secular models of addressing race promoted by conservatives (colorblindness, Anglo-conformity) and progressives (multiculturalism, white responsibility) and explains what he sees as the advantages and limitations of each. He then offers a new model for moving forward, urging people of all races to walk together on a shared path – not as adversaries, but as partners.

Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People, by Charles Camosy. Camosy, a professor of theological and social ethics, promotes a Consistent Life Ethic that goes beyond a narrow focus on abortion to include such issues as poverty, immigration, mass incarceration and treatment of the environment. He believes a new moral vision, especially one which embraces Pope Francis’ challenge to resist “throwaway culture,” has the capacity to help us find common ground and move beyond stale and lazy arguments which artificially pit progressives and conservatives against each other. He calls for a culture of encounter and hospitality to replace a consumer culture in which powerful people profit from ideological conflict and the most vulnerable get used and discarded like so much trash.

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, by Diarmaid MacCulloch. This epic saga may be more than 1,000 pages long, but it turns out to be a fascinating read. MacCulloch – an ecclesiastical historian – traces in stunning detail the origins of the Hebrew Bible, how Jesus’ message spread through the ancient world, how the New Testament was formed, and how the three main strands of the Christian faith (Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) developed and spread through every continent. In his section about Christianity in the U.S., he charts the surprising beliefs of the founding fathers, the rise of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, and religion’s role in the present culture wars. In the process, he helps us discover Christianity’s essential role in shaping human history. We also gain an understanding of how Christianity came to have so many denominations, and an appreciation for the fact that our recent splits and schisms are certainly not a new phenomenon.

Question for readers: Have you read any good books on navigating the culture wars constructively? I’d love to hear your recommendations. 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).

Recipe: Cheesy veggie casserole

This casserole meets a couple of my criteria for an ideal recipe: It’s not only tasty, but super easy to make. Throw together frozen vegetables, a can of soup and pre-made topping and pop in the oven.

I use the Birds Eye Oven Roasters vegetables because they are pre-seasoned and thoroughly delicious, the Campbell’s Healthy Request cheese soup because it has half the fat and sodium content of regular cheese soup, and the smallest possible can of French-fried onions so the calorie count doesn’t create too many shock waves.

The recipe makes approximately 6 servings. Leftovers will last in the fridge for up to 4 days or can be frozen for up to 3 months.

Ingredients

  • 15-ounce bag Oven Roasters seasoned brussels sprouts and carrots
  • 14-ounce bag Oven Roasters seasoned broccoli and cauliflower
  • 10-ounce can Campbell’s Healthy Request cheddar cheese soup
  • 2.8-ounce can French fried onions

Directions

Thaw frozen vegetables in the microwave by heating the brussels sprouts and carrots on HIGH for 4 minutes, then adding the broccoli and cauliflower and heating on HIGH for another 4 minutes.

Add cheese soup and stir until all vegetables are thoroughly coated.

Pour into baking dish and bake in 375-degree oven for 25-30 minutes, or until vegetables are of desired softness when tested with a fork. (For slightly al dente vegetables, bake for the shorter period of time.)

Top with French fried onions and bake for an additional 5 minutes, or until onions are golden brown.

Nutrition Information

Serving size: 3/4 cup | Calories: 210 | Carbohydrates: 18 g | Protein: 5 g | Fat: 12 g | Saturated Fat: 2 g | Cholesterol: 0 mg | Sodium: 750 mg | Potassium: 550 mg | Fiber: 4 g | Sugar: 4 g | Vitamin A: 18% | Vitamin C: 0% | Calcium: 2% | Iron: 2% 

God’s other book: Roses, roses

One of the things I’ve missed most about in-person Sunday services at our church is my weekly stroll in the rose garden just outside the back door during our after-service fellowship hour.

The rose garden was lovingly created by two men in our congregation, in memory of wives gone much too soon. A wonderful tribute!

Tucked in among the roses is a plaque reminding us of who is really responsible for all this beauty, and another quoting Martin Luther, who seemed to share my perception about God being immanent in all of creation.

My priorities as I rejoin the world

In what has become a birthday tradition, I like to start my “personal New Year” by reviewing my priorities. Are they the same as they were last year? Or does something need to change? I use my morning meditation time to identify what is most important to me. For each priority, I set a long-term goal, evaluate my progress for the past year, and create an intention for the coming year. 

This annual exercise helps me stay focused so various types of clutter – material, mental or spiritual – don’t crowd out what really matters. And this past year has definitely been a year for clearing out clutter of all kinds. 

The overall priorities I’ve 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. But the past year has brought some unexpected lessons, along with changes in how I approach my priorities. 

While the pandemic created an enormous amount of disruption, the prolonged quarantine forced me to slow down, which in turn gave me an opportunity to evaluate how I spend my time. If nothing else, the pandemic reinforced my desire to actually live my life rather than sleepwalking through my days while I rush-rush-rush through deadlines and appointments.

At first, I struggled to establish new routines and ward off mild depression, but with a bit of creativity, I began finding ways to turn the enforced downtime into a surprising level of genuine productivity. With so many activities cancelled, my schedule opened up and needless “busyness” disappeared. 

Frankly, I’d like to keep it that way, which raises the question: What changed during the pandemic, and which changes would I like to hang onto?

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: Our church building remained closed for a good part of the year, which meant no in-person Sunday services. However, my husband and I did “attend” our church’s online service nearly every week, and we participated in a weekly Bible study group, a book group and committee meetings via Zoom. Since the ongoing quarantine almost entirely prevented us from leaving the house, I had time for meditation sessions nearly every morning and added some evening sessions as well. I also spent more time outdoors – mostly in my backyard and walking around my neighborhood – where nature’s majesty constantly reassured me of God’s presence.

Intention for the coming year: As Pete and I rejoin the outside world, I want to make sure my indoor and outdoor meditation sessions remain part of my daily routine. Sadly, one of my losses in 2020 was the death of my spiritual advisor last fall. I had engaged her three years earlier to help me sort through my bushel basket full of questions about everything from what my life purpose should be in retirement to my occasional doubts about the existence of God. She was completely nonjudgmental, and encouraged me to be honest about the questions I had. In her honor, I plan to keep asking those questions as I move forward in my spiritual journey.

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: With our twice-weekly Stay Fit exercise program cancelled and my healthy eating plan off the rails because of emotional binging on too much comfort food, I started the year well on my way to gaining the dreaded Quarantine 15. However, I reminded myself that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit – pandemic or no pandemic – and I mostly managed to get back on track. Pete and I added yoga and regular walks to our routine and, with our favorite restaurants closed except for takeout and delivery, I spent a lot more time cooking.

Intention for the coming year: Before the pandemic, Pete and I ate out at restaurants way too often – usually several times a week. Worse, we consumed many of those meals at all-you-can-eat buffets. I’d like to keep our new eat-at-home habit in place, since it’s much healthier. 

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: All face-to-face gatherings with family and friends have been off the table since March 2020, and we are just now beginning to plan in-person visits. Thank God for Zoom and FaceTime. Learning new technology – new to me, I should say – really helped me stay in touch with everyone.

Intention for the coming year: 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. So I plan to continue scheduling regular online “get-togethers” with family and friends even after our quarantine ordeal is a thing of the past. Now that I’ve learned how to use the technology, why limit visits with far-away loved ones to once every five 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: I’ve come tantalizingly close to achieving my goal of a perfectly clean house with a place for everything and everything in its place. While quarantined, I cleaned out drawers, cupboards and closets, and tackled the basement and garage. We even got our trees trimmed and some new landscaping completed. 

Intention for the coming year: Now that our humble abode is looking pretty spiffy, the trick will be keeping it that way. I would like to commit to one hour each weekday for maintenance cleaning. I will also be adding several native plants to our flower beds this fall and next spring. I already have the fall flowers ordered.

Priority: My writing

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

Progress/changes this past year: My writing is another priority that has actually seemed easier to achieve under quarantine. I kept up with my blog pretty well, posting nearly every week. I also completed several book excerpts. The pandemic, with its ever-present threat of mortality, reminded me that I don’t have forever to write that book – an item I’ve had on my bucket list since age 10.

Intention for the coming year: I’m now well on my way to actually writing the book and I intend to keep going. I’d like to commit at least one hour per weekday to my writing. I sincerely believe my writing ability is one of God’s gifts to me. If I can discipline myself to stay off the Internet – unless I’m doing something useful such as research or communicating with real people – I could really start to produce an abundance of writing.

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: In our online book group and Bible study sessions, members of my congregation extensively discussed ways to “be church” even with our building closed. I personally found creative ways to contribute to that effort from home, including joining our church’s community service committee via Zoom.

Intention for the coming year: I intend to keep participating in the community service committee, which coordinates a variety of outreach activities ranging from highway clean-up and collecting new books for a local elementary school library to preparing meals for a homeless shelter and keeping our church’s new micro pantry stocked.

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: In addition to the massive housecleaning project, I actually got our tax return done on time. I got some new landscaping done. I got the attic fixed. This last one was a huge undertaking – some raccoons got into our attic and wreaked extensive damage. Luckily, our homeowner’s insurance covered most of the repairs and we got new energy-efficient insulation out of the deal.

Intention for the coming year: I’d like to commit to completing a pair of backlog tasks I’ve been putting off for years. The first one: Getting together with Thrivent to help us find some socially responsible investment opportunities. The second one: Getting solar panels installed on our roof.

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: Despite all the disruption and stress caused by the pandemic, I do have a lot to be grateful for. Unlike so many essential workers, my husband and I had the luxury of being able to shelter in place and stay safe. I’m so grateful I’ve had Pete and our kitties hunkering down with me. We also have some amazing delivery services in town, which reduced our need to venture outside for high-risk activities. Most of all, I’m grateful for the vaccine!!! My fear level dropped by several orders of magnitude once I got that second jab in my arm. Thanks be to God for inspiring the scientists who developed this life-saving vaccine so quickly.

Intention for the coming year: Pete and I are finally taking walks. We need to keep this up. And each morning for the coming year, as we re-enter the outside world, I plan to start my day by reminding myself, “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”