About seriouslyseekinganswers

I am on a spiritual journey in which I'm questioning everything I think I know.

When Martha Stewart becomes a verb

During a recent church service, I heard the familiar story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10:38-42. The two sisters open their home to Jesus as he travels with his disciples. While Martha busies herself with preparations, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to his teaching. Martha complains to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me!” Jesus answers, “Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Now, I don’t need to take any of those Are-You-Mary-Or-Martha quizzes on Facebook to figure out which sister I am. As someone who struggles constantly with perfectionism in areas ranging from my diet and my housekeeping to my writing and my spiritual life, I seriously relate to Martha. 

In fact, the Mary-versus-Martha story reminds me of a visualization exercise my spiritual director recommended shortly after we began working together. She instructed me to imagine myself in my ideal spiritual state. As I did this exercise, I realized I’d been imagining my “idealized state” (not to be confused with “ideal spiritual state”) for most of my life. I have daydreams that would rival Walter Mitty’s about an amazing woman I facetiously call Super Me. This marvelous creature is a slightly older version of myself, and she has her life TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL. 

Not only can Super Me leap tall buildings in a single bound, she has a meticulously ordered household, with a place for everything and everything in its place – even in the garage and the basement. She frequently invites family and friends to splendid gatherings, where she serves up a banquet better than anything Martha Stewart could produce. She has managed to achieve a svelte figure by adhering to an eating plan that is not only healthy, but painless, because she has re-educated her palate to prefer vegetables over chocolate-covered peanut butter cookie bars and she never misses her Stay Fit exercise class even during an ice storm. She volunteers for various organizations that work to make the world a better place, and she even serves on the board of directors for a couple of them, but she never gets burned out because she’s learned how to set appropriate boundaries without people getting mad at her. Her recently published book sits atop the New York Times bestseller list. And she never loses sleep at 3 a.m. wondering who God is and what God wants from her, because she has finally discerned ALL the answers to life’s “ultimate” questions.

The Super Me fantasy is particularly potent when I’m working on New Year’s resolutions, or engaging in my annual birthday tradition of evaluating my priorities and setting goals for the coming year. Coupled with the Super Me fantasy is what I’d call the Ultimate Rejection fantasy, in which people wrinkle their noses in utter disgust when they find out what my house really looks like if I’m not expecting company. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Luke had told us that Martha harbored both of these fantasies from time to time.

I’m relieved whenever I discover I’m not alone in having “Martha” tendencies. I laughed out loud when Alicia, author of the blog For His Purpose, used “Martha Stewart” as a verb. “I like to say I can just Martha Stewart everything,” Alicia confessed in one of her posts (link HERE), as she expressed her fear that the exchange student coming to live with her family would decide that her whole household was nuts and run screaming back to Russia in response to the chaos. In my own case, I feel compelled to warn houseguests not to venture into my basement or garage lest I find it necessary to file a missing persons report and organize a search party to rescue them.

“As an overachieving Martha myself, I am trying to understand Mary doing the better thing first,” said Elizabeth, author of Saved By Words (link HERE), in response to my birthday blog post, in which I outlined my priorities for the coming year (link HERE). “Not that Martha is doing anything wrong. Just that at the time sitting at Jesus’ feet was more important.” In the ensuing discussion, she and I agreed we both might possess some Martha-like traits.

The dilemma is real. 

I struggle with the advice Jesus gave Martha. I agree that we need to keep what’s really important at the forefront. This was brought home to me rather painfully over the summer. With my beloved mother in hospice, the past few months represented my last chance to “visit with her more often.”

On the other hand, doesn’t Galatians 5:22-23 remind us that one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control? In my mind, self-control equals the self-discipline to maintain healthy eating habits, family obligations, a clean house and active participation in church and community, among other things. 

And then, of course, we women have the Proverbs 31 Woman often held up by fellow believers as an example to emulate. If the Proverbs 31 Woman were transported to the 21st Century, I can imagine her having Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s career, Christie Brinkley’s looks and Martha Stewart’s homemaking and entertaining skills. For starters.

Besides, I’ve found that several of the priorities I identified in my birthday post are really no longer optional for me. For example, with my newly-diagnosed diabetes, healthy eating is no longer simply a worthy goal, but a medical necessity.

While perhaps less crucial, crossing backlog tasks off my to-do list actually makes my life easier in the long run. Certain things really do need to get done, like it or not. Keeping the fridge and pantry in order reduces food waste – better for both our budget and the environment. When the clutter around the house gets out of control, my whole life feels out of control. It’s stressful to have deadlines hanging over my head all the time.

And I have one priority that hasn’t changed since I was 10: Write a book! The fact that I’m retired means I have never been in a better position to achieve this dream, and the time to do it is now, not some future date when everything will have settled down and fallen into place so I can start living my life in earnest.

All of this requires some level of the self-control spelled out in Galations 5:23 as a “fruit of the spirit.”

The good news is, my life does not feel nearly as out of control as it did prior to my retirement, when I was juggling the 24/7 demands of running a social service organization. And I do like to think my current priorities are a vast improvement over the ones I had in high school, when being popular was my number one goal, or even in my 40s and 50s, when my top priority (judging by my behavior) was chasing after brass rings and fancy job titles. 

Before I retired, it seemed as if my life had been reduced to crossing items off endless To-Do lists: my To-Do List for work, my To-Do List for household chores, my To-Do List of personal self-care routines, my To-Do List of urgent matters, even a Master List to keep track of all the To-Do Lists. This elaborate system of lists was suggested by the day-planner I carried around constantly and jokingly called “my conscience.” I constantly juggled so many balls in the air, I was convinced I had to keep these multiple To-Do Lists or I wouldn’t remember to do simple things like brush my teeth. Despite all the To-Do lists designed to help me hold myself accountable for how I spent my time, I couldn’t seem to keep up with all the demands.

Even now, however, repeated efforts to get my life under better control often leave me feeling more frustrated than ever. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul, when he says in Romans 7: “I don’t understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. … I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” 

So yes, I do need to practice some reasonable self-discipline. But at the same time, I also want the next chapter of my life to amount to more than eating, sleeping, dodging other people’s dramas and crossing items off To-Do lists. In other words, I’d like for my life to include a few more “Mary” moments.

It’s nice to be able to find things when I need them without sorting through mounds of clutter. But I probably need to face the fact that our home will always look like real people (and pets) live here, no matter how much time I spend cleaning. There will never be a time when my house is in perfect order inside and out, including the closets, the garage and the basement. The perfectly clean house exists only in Better Homes and Gardens – and then only for the hour or so needed to photograph it. Unless you’re Martha Stewart, who probably not only has a full-time housekeeper, but a full-time housekeeping staff. (Speaking of Martha Stewart, is she the ultimate “Martha” in the Mary and Martha story?)

 “Baby steps,” my spiritual director often advises when I complain of my life feeling out of control. “That’s what matters.” The baby-steps advice does seem to work when I heed it. In the past month, I’ve finished cleaning the fridge (one shelf at a time), the freezer in the basement (one shelf at a time) and the pantry (one shelf at a time), as well as sorting through several weeks’ accumulation of junk mail. I’m finding ways to make the food preparation required for healthy eating easier – batch cooking, for example. 

Meanwhile, I try to muster the self-discipline to include morning meditation in my daily routine as often as possible. This reminds me to keep my relationship with God “in the #1 slot,” as the folks around the tables in 12-Step groups would say.

Of course, when it comes to Super Me, I’m in no danger of achieving that exalted state anytime soon. One thing coping with multiple medical issues over the past few months has done for me is, I’ve stopped trying to Martha-Stewart anything. At least for now, while I’m healing. And maybe, as Martha Stewart herself would say, “That’s a good thing.”

As I write this, it occurs to me that if I really did manage to achieve the level of perfection I fantasize about in my Super Me daydreams, people might not necessarily like me. After all, I personally find other people intimidating when their lives seem too perfect.

Fortunately, I’ve learned that God loves me the way I am – not because I’m perfect, but because God is perfect. Good news, indeed, even if I have to remind myself of this from time to time.

There’s a secret part of me, however, that still hopes Mary helped Martha wash the dishes after Jesus left. After all, food preparation and clean-up don’t happen by themselves.

An abundantly extravagant greeting

When people read John 10:10, we may be tempted to think of abundance in terms of wealth or possessions. But I sense that Jesus had something entirely different in mind.

This past Sunday evening represented the tail end of a bruising week that began with my spending the night in a hospital emergency room and ended with my mother’s funeral.

Needless to say, the week had left me feeling both emotionally and physically exhausted.

In a show of support, some longtime friends of ours invited my husband and I to join them at an all-you-can-eat buffet for a feast of serious comfort food.

As I stepped out of the car and walked through the restaurant’s parking lot, God greeted me with a stunning display of abundantly extravagant beauty. The photo below doesn’t begin to do it justice.

But it does offer evidence that the “abundance” Jesus talks about in John 10:10 has to do with much more than money or material goods.

A blessed day

On my birthday, I resolved to begin each new day of the coming year by reminding myself, “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it!”

I must admit the past couple of days posed a challenge to this resolution. 

I got a message from one of my sisters telling me that Mom – who had been in hospice care since May – might not make it through the night.

“How can I possibly rejoice in a day that may include the loss of a person I love dearly?” I asked God as Pete and I drove the two-and-a-half hours up to the farm where Mom lives, and where my sisters and I grew up.

I prayed and hoped against hope that we would make it there in time for me to hug Mom and talk to her at least once more.

Thankfully that prayer was answered. Mom did survive long enough for me to get there and hug her good-bye.

My last words to her were, “I love you!”

Her last words to me were, “I love you too!” 

“We need to regard each day we still have her as a blessing,” my husband had said repeatedly over the past few weeks.

I was indeed blessed to have that last day with her. Thanks be to God!

I know she is now with God and happily reunited with Dad, whom she has missed terribly over the past six years.

One of my sisters snapped this photo of the sun rising on our family farm. I think it makes the perfect background for Psalm 118:24.

Sunshine Blogger Award

First of all, I’d like to thank Cecilia from Thy Word, My Thoughts (link HERE) for nominating me for the Sunshine Blogger Award. I’ve enjoyed reading her blog.

Cecilia presents a Bible passage in each of her posts, then shares her thoughts about how it applies to her own life experiences. Be sure to check out her blog if you haven’t already. 

About the Sunshine Blogger Award:

This award offers peer recognition for bloggers who inspire, are creative and spread positivity – a token of appreciation and admiration.

Here are the rules:

  • Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link back to him/her.
  • Answer the 11 questions provided by the blogger who nominated you.
  • Nominate 11 other bloggers and ask them 11 new questions.
  • Notify the nominees by commenting on one of their blog posts.
  • List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo on your post.

I’ll answer the questions Cecilia had for me first:

  1. What is the longest time you’ve ever lived in one location? I’ve lived in my current city for 34 years.
  2. What is the most powerful lesson you have learned from your relationship with Jesus? That God loves me even though I’m not perfect.
  3. What is your favorite meal? An ice cream dinner shared with Lise, a cousin who lives in Denmark.
  4. Who inspires you the most and why? My parents. They’ve taught me every good lesson worth learning.
  5. What was the last book you read, and did you like it? I most recently finished Inspired by Rachel Held Evans. A powerful writer gone much too soon. RIP, Rachel.
  6. What is your favorite season? Spring or fall.
  7. Is it easy or difficult for you to speak about your faith to others? It’s often very difficult to speak about it in person. But I can write about it just fine, hence my blog …
  8. How would you describe yourself? I like to think of myself as a lovable eccentric.
  9. Where do you find inspiration for your blog posts? Often from other bloggers. I just love the blogging community.
  10. Do you have a mentor? A lovely Dominican Sister named Marilyn who was so supportive through about three of my last jobs. I count her as a personal friend as well.
  11. Are you an introvert or an extrovert? An introvert, definitely.

Now for my nominees:

  1. Pete at Ordinary Time. (Link HERE.) A spiritual journal featuring the musings of a fellow “spiritual mutt” with “amoeba-like ecumenical tendencies.” 
  2. Chrissie at Word Quilt. (Link HERE.) Chrissie’s job title says it all: Happiness engineer. In addition to a great blog, she has provided me with lots of encouragement as I got my own blog up and running.
  3. Anne at Mehrling Muse. (Link HERE.) Delightful slice-of-life vignettes about family life in the North Carolina mountains.
  4. Elizabeth at Saved by Words. (Link HERE.) Thoughtful reflective essays and short memoir pieces on topics ranging from politics and religion to memories of her growing-up years.
  5. Annie at Seeking Divine Perspective. (Link HERE.) Lots of common-sense wisdom about seeking God’s perspective in our daily lives, told with refreshing humility and an engaging sense of humor.
  6. Sally at Theology of a Newfoundland Housewife. (Link HERE.) Meditations about Christian unity and rural life in Newfoundland.
  7. Jennifer at Feeding On Jesus. (Link HERE.) Jennifer does a great job of countering the “angry bully” image of God that some of us picked up in childhood, by illustrating repeatedly that God is love. 
  8. Ruth at Planted By Living Water. (Link HERE.) Ruth encourages others by sharing how God’s grace, love and mercy are working in her personal life.
  9. Alicia at For His Purpose. (Link HERE.) Heartfelt stories that keep Jesus at the center, told with refreshing honesty and a sense of humor.
  10. Dawn at Random Bits of Trial and Error. (Link HERE.) As an amateur photographer, I love great photography and you’ll find an abundance of it here.
  11. Susanne at Cats and Trails and Garden Tales. (Link HERE.) More fantastic photography, plus stories about an adorable cat named Benji. What’s not to love?

Here are your 11 questions:

  1. How would you describe yourself?
  2. What brings joy to your life?
  3. What inspired you to start your blog?
  4. What’s the most unexpected thing you’ve come across in your blogging journey?
  5. If you could ask God one question, what would it be?
  6. What’s one thing you’ve changed your mind about over the years?
  7. What is your favorite Bible story or parable?
  8. What major obstacle in your life has God helped you overcome?
  9. What is the Bible verse/passage you turn to most often for comfort?
  10. What would you like people to remember you for?
  11. What are you thankful for today?

To my nominees, please don’t feel pressured to accept this award and all its details. If you’ve been nominated before, don’t feel obligated to participate again. Just know that I appreciate reading your posts, I’m so grateful you read mine, and your comments and feedback help me grow! 

Blessings,

A mix of science, religion and some creative fun

One of my favorite pastimes is playing with Photoshop, especially when the mid-to-late summer heat keeps me mostly indoors. And I’ve always been a Nerd Girl at heart, so of course I love NASA’s Image and Video Library (link HERE).

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 – NASA simply asks to be acknowledged as the source of the material.

So take Photoshop, plus NASA’s Image and Video Library, plus a few of my favorite Bible verses, and what does this add up to? Several hours of creative fun in honor this summer’s 50th anniversary of Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin taking humanity’s first steps on the moon. (Wow, has it really been that long? I remember this monumental event like it was yesterday.)

The photo below, captured by Hubble, depicts a small region within M17 (the Omega Nebula or Swan Nebula). M17 is one of the largest star-forming regions in the Milky Way galaxy. The image provides the perfect background for Psalm 19:1, don’t you think?

On a visit with Mom to her church, the pastor declared during a sermon, “I have no problem with the Big Bang Theory. God said, ‘Let there be light.’ And BANG! We got millions of stars and galaxies.” I like that. And this photo from the NASA library of NGC 602 – a portion of the Small Magellanic Cloud, one of the Milky Way’s closest galactic neighbors – makes a perfect background for Genesis 1:3.

Sometimes – especially during the kind of trying times I’ve been having lately – I just don’t understand what God must be thinking! But then I have to remind myself God’s ways are not our ways and we have to trust God even when we don’t understand God. The NASA image popularly named “Earthrise” – one of my favorites! – serves as a potent reminder of this differing perspective, as outlined in Isaiah 55:8-9.

The iconic image “Blue Marble,” taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft on its way to the moon, has to be my all-time favorite NASA photo. Notice how no national borders or other human distinctions can be seen here. The image seems like a fitting background for Galatians 3:28, one of my favorite Bible verses.

I love this montage of planetary images taken by spacecraft managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA. Included, from top to bottom, are images of Mercury, Venus, Earth (and moon), Mars, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune. (I have to admit I miss Pluto.)

The author of the blog Seeking Divine Perspective (link HERE) suggested the following image of the Helix Nebula, popularly nicknamed “The Eye of God.” Does this image look like a giant cosmic eye, or what? At any rate, it makes a perfect background for Job 28:24. Thanks, Ann!

Shortly after touching down on the moon for the first time, Buzz Aldrin took communion while reading John 15:5, which he had written down on a note card. (And I thought taking communion on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee was amazing.) “At the time, I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormous achievement of Apollo 11 than by giving thanks to God,” Aldrin later wrote in his 2016 memoir No Dream Is Too High.

Aldrin’s historic communion in 1969 is still commemorated every year at his church, Webster Presbyterian, just down the road from NASA’s mission control center in Houston. Now known as the Church of the Astronauts, Webster Presbyterian is spiritual home to dozens of NASA scientists, engineers, astronauts, lunar mission contractors and their families. The stained glass windows feature images of the moon, the stars and distant nebulae, according to an article in the Houston Chronicle (link HERE).

What’s really great about the NASA site is that the thousands upon thousands of photos 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 photos and not see evidence of a Creator? And I like knowing that many of the the astronauts and other scientists who work at NASA share a strong faith as well.

My priorities as I turn 64

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? 

As always, I used this morning’s meditation time to identify what is most important to me. For each priority, I set a long-term goal, evaluated my progress for the past year, and created an intention for the coming year. 

The past year has felt like one long roller coaster ride marked by repeated trips to the hospital for myself, family members and friends. Even our two kitties developed medical issues. So needless to say, some of my priorities ended up sidetracked or completely hijacked.

However, I decided the priorities themselves are good ones, 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.

This little annual exercise helps me stay focused so various kinds of clutter – material, mental or spiritual – don’t crowd out what really matters.

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 this past year: I’ve met monthly with my spiritual director, who has helped ease my doubts about God’s existence and guided me in exploring various kinds of prayer.

Intention for the coming year: I plan to continue working with my spiritual director to improve my prayer life. I’ll also use journaling, imagery and other exercises to sort through my beliefs about God, clarify my values and explore more of my burning questions.

Priority: Self-care

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

Progress this past year: First, the good news – I persuaded my husband Pete to embark with me on a healthy eating plan, beginning the day after my last birthday, and I’m now down 30 pounds from my top weight. The not-so-good news – I’ve had several recurring medical problems, some of them stemming from the ever-growing pharmacopeia of pills prescribed to me by various doctors over the years. In March, the blood-thinning medication I was taking landed me in intensive care for two days. Since then, I’ve been weaning myself off nearly half those meds under the supervision of my primary care provider.

Intention for the coming year: Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit and I’ve resolved to take better care of mine! I’ve begun getting much more assertive with my health care providers regarding medications and coordination of care. Meanwhile, I plan to continue shedding weight and I’d like to experiment with recipes delicious enough to convince both my sweetie-pie and myself that healthy eating can be fun rather than torture! I also need to focus on developing a regular sleep schedule and improving my exercise routine. 

Priority: Family and friends

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

Progress this past year: Again, there’s been good news and bad news. The good news is we got to see most of my immediate relatives at least once, including a cousin who lives in Denmark, and we reconnected with a pair of close friends we hadn’t seen in a couple of years. The bad news is, some of my family and friends have spent as much time negotiating doctors and hospitals as I have. And the really sad news is that, after more than a half-dozen hospitalizations over the past year, my beloved mother is now in hospice care.

Intention for the coming year: More and more, I’m confronted with the reality that I’m not always going to have all of my family and friends around me. I plan to spend quantity as well as quality time with Mom in the time we have left with her, and stay in contact with other family and friends through regular visits or correspondence. I also want to let the people I love know how much they mean to me and stay out of other people’s battles.

Priority: Our home

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

Progress this past year: Alas! The goal of a perfectly clean house with a place for everything and everything in its place still eludes me.

Intention for the coming year: I need to commit to one hour each weekday for cleaning and sorting. I’d love for this to be the year I finally sort through all the accumulated STUFF in our house, recycle or give away anything we don’t need, and find a place for whatever we decide to keep. Then, develop a maintenance schedule to keep the house clean and neat on an ongoing basis so I can invite people over more often. I want to enjoy our beautiful home!

Priority: My writing

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

Progress this past year: I’ve actually been keeping up with my blog pretty well and have even acquired some followers. I’ve found that posting once every 2-3 weeks works for me.

Intention for the coming year: I’d like to devote 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 – and avoid the kind of mindless surfing that wastes hours and hours of time – I could really start to produce an abundance of writing. I also want to make my blog more user-friendly and take advantage of all the cool tricks Word Press is capable of.

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 this past year: Shortly after my last birthday, I followed through on my decision to walk away from an abusive volunteer work situation that had been poisoning my soul for way too long. I have no regrets about that decision. With all the trauma from medical issues, I’m glad I haven’t had to contend with this additional stressor on top of it all!

Intention for the coming year: I plan to continue my current church activities – choir, bringing treats for fellowship hour on Sundays, bringing soup or desserts for Advent and Lenten suppers – and my participation in a musical group that entertains residents at a local retirement center twice a month. That’s enough for right now, because I’m learning I can do a much better job in one or two areas if I allow myself to pare down my commitments and focus my energy rather than trying to spread myself too thin. 

Priority: Backlog

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

Progress this past year: I got our taxes done on time for the second year in a row! I’m not sure if our accountant has recovered from the shock.

Intention for the coming year: I need to make a list of tasks that are hanging over my head and commit to crossing off one thing each week. Large tasks can be broken down into bite-size chunks if necessary. I also need to avoid nerve-wracking deadline pressure by getting things done before the last possible minute! This unfinished business only keeps me in crisis mode and turns my focus away from important priorities like writing, healthy living, keeping our home looking nice and spending time with family and friends. What I also need to commit to, for now, is to not take on any new projects until I have everything crossed off my backlog list!

Priority: Serenity/Gratitude

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

Progress this past year: With my own health problems and with my mother in hospice care, I’ve experienced quite a bit of stress for the past several months. But the good news is I’ve been blessed with a tremendous amount of support from family, friends and church people. For that, I am VERY grateful! 

Intention for the coming year: If nothing else, this past year has reinforced my desire to actually live my life rather than sleepwalking through my days while I rush-rush-rush through deadlines and appointments. I want to be AWAKE! While we Christians may talk a lot about heaven, I believe God also meant for us to enjoy and appreciate life in the here-and-now. If that’s not true, why did God create flowers, beautiful sunsets, majestic trees that turn gorgeous colors in the fall, and small furry animals who curl up with us in bed? I need to reserve mornings for Pete and I as much as possible, take walks when the weather is nice, notice my surroundings and remember to count my blessings. 

And each morning for the coming year, 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!”

Nature prayer

Martin Luther is said to have observed, “God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars.” 

Tertullian is quoted by Galileo (link HERE) as saying, “We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word.”

In other words, one can think of nature as God’s “other book.”

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 several veggie, herb and flower beds. On warm sunny days, I take walks along an amazing tree-lined bike trail that runs beside a creek near our house. Sometimes I grab my camera and visit a neighborhood park.

Whether I’m feeding the critters, admiring the flowers in our backyard, snapping photos of flora and fauna at the park or strolling along the bike path, experiencing God’s creation with all my senses ranks as one of my favorite activities. Not to mention one of my most effective forms of relaxation and stress relief. (It sure beats arguing with complete strangers about politics on Facebook.) 

Immersing myself in nature’s majesty continually reminds me there is an ultimate Creator. As I’ve said before, I find it almost impossible to deny God’s existence when I’m outdoors with the evidence 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 and engage in what has become my most potent form of prayer: Nature prayer.

According to the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, author and editor-at-large of America magazine (link HERE), nature prayer is simply being “attentive to the presence of God in nature.” 

For me, this form of prayer doesn’t even necessarily need words. Just looking at the vibrant colors of spring blossoms and fall leaves. Listening to birds singing and cicadas humming. Drinking in the scent of lilacs. Feeling a gentle breeze against my face. Tasting the sweetness of a vine-ripened strawberry. 

I’m aware some Christians eye nature prayer with suspicion. Isn’t it too “New Agey?” Too “pagan?” Aren’t we worshipping creation instead of the Creator? Resistance to nature prayer has always baffled me, frankly, because the Bible itself is chock full of passages that extole nature and invite us to immerse ourselves in it, appreciate it and learn from it.

Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” 

Luke 12:27 says, “Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” 

Being in nature not only brings us close to God, but can restore us physically and spiritually. The opening verses of the 23rd Psalm affirm, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.”

Psalm 104:24 exclaims, “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” In fact, Psalm 104 in its entirety presents one long ode to the natural world – mountains that smoke, melodious birds, wine that gladdens the heart, trees and streams that protect and feed wildlife of all kinds.

Even Jesus found nature conducive to prayer and meditation. After a long day of healing, teaching and preaching to crowds, “he withdrew himself into the wilderness and prayed,” says Luke 5:16.

For those interested in pursuing nature prayer from a Christian perspective, the Web site Busted Halo (link HERE) offers suggestions for an “outdoor retreat.” Designed to “deepen our relationship with God and nature,” this retreat has three parts, each involving prayer and reflection – seeing God, listening to God, and breathing in God. To access the retreat guide, click HERE.

As I engage in nature prayer, I sense God speaking to me every bit as directly as God speaks to me while I’m in church or reading the Bible. 

When I watch a brilliant sunset dance along the tops of rioting fall leaves, I sense that God loves beauty.

When I watch a hummingbird flit from blossom to blossom sipping nectar while its tiny wings flap 70 times per second, I sense that God wants to inspire awe.

When I observe the more than three dozen varieties of flowers just in my own backyard, I sense that God prefers diversity.

When jonquils poke up through snow, I sense that God encourages us to feel hope. No matter how cold, dark and bleak life may seem, spring will come eventually.

Most importantly, when I’m immersing myself in nature, I understand at the deepest level that we are meant to appreciate and care for God’s creation. Because nature is part of God’s creation and a gift to us, we have an obligation to protect and preserve it.

A lesson in acceptance

Sometimes compromise really is the best answer, especially when one’s conflict is with a small animal.

I used to get so frustrated with the squirrels in our backyard because they wouldn’t stay out of the bird feeders. I tried everything to thwart the little trespassers – putting feeders in hard-to-reach places, using safflower seeds (which they’re rumored not to like), and investing in every allegedly-squirrel-proof contraption I could find.

As anyone reading this will probably guess, nothing worked for very long. Squirrels, I discovered, have amazing problem-solving skills. Give them a day or two and they’ll figure out how to overcome every obstacle we place between them and the tasty treats we were hoping would entice cardinals and goldfinches.

One day when I stopped at Wild Birds Unlimited to pick up some goodies for my feathered friends, a photo of a chubby-cheeked squirrel greeted me at the front door along with a sign that read, “Oh go ahead. Feed them too.” Just inside the door sat a display of feeders and a feast prepared especially for them. We could choose from corn on the cob, peanuts in the shell, or a special Wildlife Blend. We could put this bounty in a simple tray feeder or opt for a fancier Squirrel Table and Chair Feeder.

At long last, I decided to enjoy the squirrels instead of fighting them. After all, I’m pretty sure our bushy-tailed buddies never got the memo that all the enticing delicacies were for birds and not for them. Besides, where is it written that we’re supposed to feed birds but not squirrels? Yes, I know they’re rodents, but hey – they’re really kind of cute little acrobats.

I’ve now installed a couple of the tray-style feeders so my furry marauders can sit instead of hanging upside-down while they eat. If they want to …

Both the birds and squirrels love that tray and have even gotten somewhat good at sharing space – except for the blue jays, who dive-bomb squirrels and other birds alike when they decide it’s their turn to eat.

But the jays seem to come later, after the other critters have been gorging for a while, and hey – blue jays are really pretty and they don’t understand memos any better than squirrels do.

Spiritual lessons from animals

But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind. – Job 12:7-10

God has blessed me with a fine parade of pets over my lifetime, and these precious companions have taught me valuable spiritual lessons. 

Throughout my childhood, I often related to pets better than I could to people. From this photo, it’s clear that Dad and our first dog taught me to respect animals from an early age.

Mewlinda, a friendly gray farm cat who lived to be about 25 years old, exhibited saintly patience with small children – which is fortunate, since I liked to dress cats in doll clothes. I wish I had a photo, but she looked a lot like this cute girl we met at a state park last fall.

My pets prompted me to learn healthy assertiveness. When I first lived on my own, any “no pets” rule was a deal-breaker, no matter how nice the apartment I wanted to rent. I offered to pay an extra deposit if necessary, but potential landlords had to understand that my furry roommates and I were a package deal.

The critters in my life continue to impart lessons. Here, Oley gently coaxes me to keep my priorities straight …

… while Champaign – basking in a small patch of morning light on our sun porch – teaches me the importance of mindfulness and living in the present moment.

They remind my husband and I that companionship makes just about any activity more fun – or at least more endurable. Here’s Oley, helping Pete grade papers …

Torbjorn helping me assemble a newsletter …

… and Champaign helping me wake up in the morning. (Who knows? If I didn’t have that little cat alternately purring and howling in my ear at 6 a.m., I might sleep all day!)

The creatures who share our space in the backyard have taught me we don’t always need to fear strangers, especially when we learn more about them. My first impulse when I discovered a fox living under our deck was to call animal control. But a bit of quick Google research assured Pete and I that foxes pose no threat to humans as long as we maintain respectful distance, and we grew to love Roxy and her kits.

Several animals demonstrate for us the art of seizing opportunity: Oley likes to sneak a drink of water straight from the bathroom faucet.

Vixen and DW, the horses who live next door to our North Carolina cousins, know they’ll probably get a treat if they greet visitors at the fence.

A goose in our neighborhood park eagerly anticipates a slice of bread.

And the squirrels in our backyard figure, “Why let the birds have all the good stuff?

My friends and relatives have some cuties I adore almost as much as my own. Piccolo shows us how to be way cool without even trying – by simply being himself.

Nala derives pleasure from simple things … like watching the popcorn popper perform its task.

Millie, an adorable beagle we like to think of as our semi-official church dog, shows us how to win friends and influence people as she visits sick congregation members (including me, when I was in the hospital). She’s such a good sport, she allows us to dress her up as a sheep for our annual Christmas pageant. 

Animals have thoroughly convinced me that some angels have four legs, fur and whiskers.

During a particularly challenging time in my life – when I was enduring both work and health problems – our sweet Angie Cat sat with me in my recliner every single morning as I poured my feelings of fear, anger, resentment and despair onto my journal pages. I can only aspire to practice such unconditional love. May you rest in peace, my beautiful little friend!

Bear, a magnificent Great Pyrenees, helped his human buddy though some of his darkest hours, staying faithfully by his side as he put his life back together. And then, one day this past winter, this beautiful boy was gone. Everyone in his Nashville, Tennessee neighborhood misses him greatly.

Members of our church had only begun to love Creed – our new pastor’s dog – when God called him home suddenly. Creed left behind a heartbroken congregation.

Finally, some animals teach us to risk loving again, even after a painful loss. 

When I’ve lost beloved pets over the years, I’ve often been tempted to say, “Next time I’m not going to get q-u-i-t-e so attached.” Friends have confessed similar thoughts. Invariably the new pet has other ideas – and before we know it, we’re absolutely smitten. Again. 

“Grief isn’t just something to endure,” says clinical psychologist Mary Pipher, author of Women Rowing North, Reviving Ophelia and several other books. “It also is a reflection of our capacity to love.” Our new fur babies don’t replace the ones we’ve lost, of course. Instead, they expand our hearts and show us that love is an endlessly abundant and renewable resource.

My friend who lost his beautiful Bear over the winter posted a photo last week and asked, “Should I take him, yay or nay?” Of course the pup went home with him. Who could possibly resist this furry little bundle of pure tail-wagging joy?

Gospel, our congregation’s newest church dog, came home with our pastor a few days ago. How long before our pastor and the rest of the congregation start spoiling him absolutely rotten? Can anyone count to one?? Oh wait … I can see the spoiling has already begun.

Perhaps the most important lesson our animal companions teach us is this: LOVE WINS.

Every. Single. Time.

Praying for pets

Pete and I live with two furry bundles of love and mischief – Olaf DaVinci, a gorgeous Maine Coon, and Champaign Le Chat, a beautiful cream-colored domestic longhair. Needless to say, we absolutely adore them.

About four months ago, we noticed Oley had started to limp and could no longer jump up onto the bed or his other favorite perches without a struggle. He was insatiably thirsty and peed copiously. I took him to the vet. The verdict: Diabetes.

No sooner had we begun to absorb this distressing news, when the vet delivered another whammy: Champaign had early-stage kidney disease.

Is it permissible to pray for pets? I certainly hope so, because my intercessory prayers began the minute I got the news about our furbabies:

Dear God, please take care of our sweet kitties. Help them respond to treatment and don’t let them suffer. Please, please, please! I love these little guys. Amen.

Fortunately, I’ve never encountered anyplace in the Bible that suggests we shouldn’t pray for our beloved companions. “Ask, and it shall be given you,” says Matthew 7:7. The verse doesn’t tell us what to ask for – it simply says, “Ask.”

While I haven’t found specific references to pets in the Bible, several passages indicate God cares about animals and expects us to care about them too.

“You, Lord, preserve both people and animals,” says Psalm 36:6.

 “Not one sparrow … can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it,” says Matthew 10:29.  

“The righteous care for the needs of their animals,” says Proverbs 12:10.

The Bible points out that animals can impart spiritual lessons. “But ask the beasts, and they will teach you,” says Job 12:7. 

Animals even show up in the Ten Commandments. Not only should we take time off on the Sabbath, but our animals should as well, says Exodus 23:12: “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest.” 

And who can imagine heaven without critters? In God’s future kingdom, “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them,” says Isaiah 11:6. 

In other words, God loves His creation – all of it!

As if I needed further assurance that God listens to prayers on behalf of our furry (or feathered or finned) companions, I’ve learned that many Christian churches ranging from Lutheran and Methodist to Catholic and Episcopalian hold a special “Blessing of the Animals” ceremony on the Feast Day for St. Francis of Assisi, who was famous for his love of all living things. 

Kevin E. Mackin, OFM, a Franciscan friar of the Holy Name Province, offers a delightful description of one such service in an article on franciscanmedia.org [link HERE]: “Usually the Blessing of Pets is held outdoors. But I remember it rained one year, and all were invited inside St. Stephen’s Church in Manhattan. It was quite a sight to see pairs of creatures—one human, one animal—sitting in the pews. The pastor joined right in with his beagle. Noah’s Ark was never like this!”

“It’s okay to pray for anything that is on your heart,” says Linda Evans Shepherd, an evangelical Christian speaker, author and president of Right to the Heart Ministries (link HERE]. “After all, God not only created animals, but He’s interested in the things you’re interested in.”

At any rate, I’ve concluded it’s absolutely appropriate to keep Oley and Champaign in my prayers and I’ve been asking God for wisdom to make the right decisions regarding their medical care. 

The vet prescribed a diabetic diet for Oley and a kidney-support diet for Champaign. I would need to give Oley medication twice a day and bring him to the vet’s office every other week for testing. 

At first the logistics seemed impossible. With the kitties on separate special diets, how could I keep them out of each other’s food? Besides, Champaign was such a picky eater. What if he simply refused to touch the food prescribed for him?

I worried that medicating Oley might prove to be an insurmountable task. In the past, when I needed to give him meds, he resisted me to the point of running and hiding whenever he saw me. How on earth would I be able to do this twice a day for the rest of his life? 

And the doctor had to be kidding about bringing Oley to the vet’s office every two weeks, I thought. Both cats had let me know in no uncertain terms how much they hated vet visits – and that was when I only took them once or twice a year.

However, when we went on Facebook to solicit some crowd-sourced prayers, several friends shared their personal experiences of caring for pets who had either diabetes or kidney disease. After hearing their stories, Pete and I began to relax.

The good news: Treatment has gone better than we dared to hope. 

We keep the cats out of each other’s bowls by feeding them in separate rooms. I’ve minimized trips to the vet by learning how to do some of Oley’s testing at home. And whoever invented Pill Pockets deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. Oley thinks his pills are treats!

When an office visit can’t be avoided, I try to reduce Oley’s anxiety as much as possible by giving him a mild sedative. One of the vet techs has invited me to call her when I’m in the parking lot so we can take him straight to a room where he doesn’t have to meet any dogs. 

Lately, I’ve been offering prayers of thanksgiving:

Dear God, getting a urine sample from Oley was WAY easier than I thought it would be. Thank-you for inspiring the person who invented Nosorb kitty litter!

Dear God, I was worried that Champaign might not eat enough. But I’ve been sneaking more and more of his prescription food into his Gravy Lover’s salmon. So far, this is working. Thank-you! 

Our experience of the past several weeks has even taught me to be grateful when our little darlings get ornery – especially Oley, since mischievous behavior signals that he’s feeling better. Here he is, eyeing Pete’s cereal. 

“Some people criticize the amount and cost of care given to pets,” says Franciscan friar Kevin E. Mackin. “People are more important, they say. … However, I believe every creature is important. The love we give to a pet, and receive from a pet, can draw us more deeply into the larger circle of life, into the wonder of our common relationship to our Creator.”

“So when you pray, pray for the provisions you need, your family members, your church, nation, hurting friends and world peace,” says author Linda Evans Shepherd. “Only don’t forget to pray for your pet. God’s grace is big enough to cover your prayers for even the little paws in your life.”

For me, the fear that we might love and care for our pets more than we love and care for other people represents a false dichotomy. I love people and pray for them. I love my pets and pray for them too. This is not an either/or proposition. Love and prayer are not limited commodities or finite resources. There is enough of both to go around!