About seriouslyseekinganswers

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

Book excerpt: Yes, I have questions

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

My continuing work with my spiritual director has involved asking questions – lots of them. What do I actually believe about God? What is my position on each of the hot-button issues that consume our nation’s culture warriors? What is my role as a Christian in mitigating society’s problems and fighting its political battles? What is God’s plan for my own life? How do I live in a way that is consistent with my beliefs, values and purpose?

And I’ve discovered there’s a rather trendy word for what I’ve been doing with my faith during my spiritual direction journey of the past few years: “Deconstruction.” Wikipedia defines faith deconstruction as “a phenomenon where people unpack, rethink and examine their belief systems.”

I’ve also learned that deconstruction is nothing, if not controversial. Some folks argue that the process is mostly an excuse to stop going to church. However, while deconstruction may involve walking away from Christianity and becoming an atheist, this is certainly not true for everyone.

For some, it might involve leaving a congregation that has become dysfunctional or even corrupt and finding a healthier church home. For others, it may warn us that we – or our church – are in danger of being co-opted by the secular culture wars. For still others, it can help in sifting through competing truth claims promoted by Christians of differing denominations. Individuals may also use the deconstruction process for everything from addressing doubts and clarifying values to rejecting inaccurate teachings and holding ourselves accountable.

Can deconstruction strengthen our faith?

The Wikipedia article on faith deconstruction acknowledges that the process may lead to dropping one’s faith altogether, but added that it may also result in a stronger faith. Following are what I’ve come to see as potentially positive outcomes for the deconstruction process, based on my own experience and the experience of others who have shared their stories.

Detecting undue political influence. From the beginning, I have been questioning all kinds of dogma, from the religious to the political and ideological, and have been challenging beliefs and values other people – whether progressive or conservative – want me to hold. Where do I honestly, personally, stand on issues ranging from abortion and racism to immigration and the environment? On what authority do I base these positions? Deconstruction can help us discern whether our positions on moral issues (or those of our church congregations) might be overly influenced by secular right-wing or left-wing politics. One clue might be when God starts sounding too much like a conservative Republican or a progressive Democrat. Could we be guilty of creating God in our own image? Shouldn’t we be following the Lamb rather than an elephant or a donkey? What should that look like?

Spotting red flags. If we pay attention to the news at all, we’re aware of the financial corruption and sex abuse scandals that have rocked whole denominations in recent years. In other cases, an individual congregation can have a toxic organizational culture. A number of years ago, my husband and I walked away from a congregation marked by constant bullying, backbiting, infighting and power struggles between rival cliques. If a congregation is dysfunctional in a way that is truly damaging to its members, the discernment encouraged by the deconstruction process can reveal red flags and prompt us to ask the right kinds of questions when seeking a new church home. What characteristics should we look for when evaluating a church? What characteristics should serve as deal-breakers? Note: The church my husband and I belong to now is much healthier than the one we left. Thank God.

Sifting through competing truth claims. One reason we have so many Christian denominations is that Christians have so many different interpretations of “the truth.” The various sects and denominations offer contrasting teachings on nearly everything, it seems. How does one conduct baptism – by sprinkling or immersion? Should communion be open or closed? How does one get “saved” – by baptism or personal decision? What is our authority for what we believe? The Bible? Church tradition? Clergy? Where does science fit in? And don’t even get me going on how progressive Christians would define sin versus how conservative Christians would define it. When Christians can’t agree on the “right” answers, deconstruction can be a valuable tool for sorting out which beliefs and interpretations we adopt for ourselves. Is there a common core of beliefs shared by most Christians, regardless of sect or denomination? Is there a way to heal the divisions between believers and relate respectfully to people whose viewpoints differ from ours?

Rejecting clearly inaccurate teachings. My need to question “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.” In college, I listened with equal dismay as members of an evangelical student organization eagerly discussed a best-selling book speculating that the Pope might be the anti-Christ and the Catholic Church the Great Harlot mentioned in the Book of Revelation. During my recovery journey, my 12-Step peers encouraged me to fire the perpetually angry bully God of my childhood nightmares and get in touch with the real one. (One might say 12-Steppers were “deconstructing” before deconstruction was cool.) Over the years I’ve also rejected white Christian nationalism, the so-called “prosperity gospel,” the concept of double predestination, and the notion that God really cares whether we sing traditional hymns or contemporary music at our church services.

Personal discernment. For me, the deconstruction process has been helpful for continued, lifelong personal growth. In fact, it has turned into more of an ongoing journey than a “once and done” activity. Now that I’ve retired, what is God’s plan for the rest of my life? How can I improve my conscious contact with God through prayer and meditation? How do I relate the 10 Commandments and other Biblical teachings to the 21st Century issues in my life? What role should I be playing in our church and in our community? How can my husband and I invest our money in an ethically responsible way? Pete and I have also faced a series of personal crises in recent years – the loss of several loved ones, scary health problems, fatigue from the endless pandemic – that leave us only half-jokingly pondering whether the Book of Job was written especially for us. How do we get through this “midnight of the soul” with our faith intact or maybe even strengthened?

Holding ourselves accountable. My deconstruction process has even involved questioning my own attitudes and behavior. I must admit I occasionally notice cognitive dissonance between my stated values and my actions. For example, I decry crass consumerism, yet can’t seem to stop accumulating STUFF. I’ve also come to realize – to my occasional dismay – how much my own values have been shaped by secular culture-war ideologies rather than by actual spiritual beliefs. I feel constantly pressured, even by other Christians, to adopt positions I don’t fully agree with on a variety of issues so I can be ideologically correct and fit in with the people around me – or at least avoid being the target of shouting and name-calling. So, how have I come by my own worldview? Who or what, inside or outside of church, is influencing my beliefs? How reliable are these “influencers”?

The importance of asking questions

While the word deconstruction may be trendy, the process of unpacking, examining and rethinking belief systems is hardly new. One can make the case that “deconstructors” have populated both the Bible and church history for millennia. When prophets and apostles exhorted us to beware of false doctrines, were they not promoting a form of deconstruction? Before Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses that set off the Protestant Reformation, one might say he engaged in some major deconstructing, as did Catholics when they embarked on their own Reformation a short while later. When Jesus repeatedly challenged the religious leaders of his day and asserted “you’ve heard it said … but I say,” I’d propose that he offered us a perfect example of the deconstruction process.

Some would suggest getting around the deconstruction controversy by using a different word – reformation or accountability or discernment. But regardless of which word we use, it all boils down to asking questions – of ourselves, our culture, our leaders, and even our church.

I’ve noticed that some folks get nervous when we ask these kinds of questions. If I’ve heard this admonition once, I’ve heard it a gazillion times: “You mustn’t question God’s will.” Usually this happens when we challenge some aspect of denominational dogma or someone’s interpretation of a Biblical passage. Sometimes our fellow Christians on the political left will imply that we’re complicit in all manner of injustice if we dare to question their ideological dogma, while those on the political right will imply that we want everyone to wink at sin. When people “caution” us not to question God’s will, I suspect what some of them really mean is, “Don’t question my interpretation of God’s will.”

I must admit, I become innately suspicious when any person (or church denomination) does not want us to ask questions. In fact, I’ve learned that discouraging questions should be viewed as a red flag. At best, a group or leader who silences questions may have a personal or political agenda that has little to do with anything Jesus taught. At worst, a group whose leaders or truth claims can’t be scrutinized or challenged may be a dangerous cult, and its leader a charismatic demagogue. Whether or not we question God’s will, we can certainly question another human being’s interpretation of it. Sometimes this is exactly what we need to do.

Worth the effort and the risk

During my spiritual direction journey, I’ve been using my meditation sessions to journal about my beliefs and values and the impact they should be having on my daily life. I want to use my pesky questions to develop a belief/value system that both my rational mind and my conscience can accept, rather than simply parroting a set of values and beliefs that will let me fit in chameleon-like with my peers.

From the beginning of my current deconstruction – or discernment – process, I was aware that the mere act of asking questions carried risks. Would I stop believing in God altogether if I expressed too many doubts out loud, even to myself? Would I decide that yet another church was no longer appropriate for me? Would I lose friends or allies if I stopped agreeing with them on certain issues? Yes, it was possible these things could happen. But it was equally possible that answering questions to my own satisfaction could strengthen my faith, encourage me to appreciate my present church congregation even more, and allow me to discern who my real friends were. That’s largely what has happened – so far, at least.

I strongly believe we are intended to use the mind God gave us to develop our critical thinking skills. 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.” Our mind, it says. Our mind.

Ultimately, I want a personal faith 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. For now, I’ve decided that’s not only okay, but healthy. As I continue my spiritual journey, I want to keep being honest about the questions I have.

Questions for readers: Have you engaged in “deconstruction”? If so, where has this experience taken you? I’d love to hear your response to these questions, as well as your comments on this article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Spiritual direction: Staying the course

As my husband and I begin a new year under trying circumstances, one of my priorities is to continue the spiritual direction journey I began around five years ago.

Spiritual direction – for those unfamiliar with the concept – is a partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God. Monthly one-on-one meetings have involved examining my relationship with God, my prayer life, my personal values and various lifestyle choices. For me, spiritual direction has been a supplement to – rather than a substitute for – church. 

Several factors led to my decision to seek such direction: 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; and the internal tug-of-war over my personal values brought on by the increasing divisiveness and polarization in our society.

I’ve begun to think of this decision as a “God thing” that came at exactly the right time. Pete and I have recently lost what feels like an unbearably long list of loved ones. We’ve taken turns being hospitalized ourselves. COVID-19 has upended our lives relentlessly. Now we’re dealing with chemotherapy (Pete) and cardiac rehab following a heart attack (me).

As we struggle to establish new habits/routines and ward off depression and exhaustion, spiritual direction has turned out to be exactly what the doctor ordered. In fact, when Pete saw how much I was benefitting from the process, he decided to begin spiritual direction himself.

So what’s next, as I continue my spiritual direction journey? Here’s what I’ve worked on so far and where I want to focus my attention in the coming year.

Doubt. I began this journey by learning how to address those pesky doubts about God’s existence that creep in from time to time – mostly by going outside and immersing myself in the natural environment, which constantly reassures me of the presence of a Creator. But I still wrestle with questions about God’s nature, especially in the midst of our current crises. I’ve often found myself asking, “Is God really concerned about each of us personally, let alone each sparrow? Or is that idea just wishful thinking?” One might say I’ve graduated from “Does God exist?” to “Does God care?”

Prayer. I’ve explored a variety of prayer techniques – meditation, prayers of petition and intercession, prayers of thanksgiving, writing or journaling as a form of prayer, nature prayer. I must confess that lately most of my prayers have been of the “foxhole” variety. (“Dear God, please get us out of this jam.” Or simply, “Dear God, help!!!”)

Self-care. 1 Corinthians 6:19 reminds us that our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and my recent medical adventures have sent an unmistakable message that I need to take better care of mine. I really, really need to establish better eating habits and a sustainable exercise program. I want to help nurse Pete back to health as well. We’re assembling a good medical team that can help both of us get the ongoing physical care we need.

Emotional support. Getting the right support system in place has been crucial for surviving recent events. Family and friends have been supportive, and members of our church congregation have reached out as well. We’re on several prayer lists. I’ve added a professional therapist to our medical team to help Pete and I cope with the emotional fallout from battling a pair of life-threatening conditions simultaneously.

Staying spiritually connected. I participate in our church’s community service and faith formation committees and am helping keep our micro pantry filled. Pete and I continue to co-facilitate Sundays@6, our congregation’s adult faith formation class. We are part of an associates program for the Dominican Sisters in our community, where we are involved in their anti-racism initiative.

My writing. I want to start making some real progress on my book, and keep working on my blog. From age 10 onward, I’ve dreamed of writing a book. More than 50 years later, that goal is … still on my bucket list. I’ve known since grade school that writing would play some role in my life’s purpose, whatever that turned out to be. I do consider my writing ability to be a gift from God that should not be wasted. 

Gardening. We had extensive landscaping work done last spring. I planted lots of native perennials, as well as an abundance of annuals, and the yard is looking beautiful! We’ve turned our flower beds into a welcome center for hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. I like to think of this project as “God’s work, our hands,” and have found gardening to be enormously therapeutic.

Finances. This past year, Pete and I updated our wills and power-of-attorney documents. We also established a donor-advised fund with our local community foundation in honor of his parents and mine. This coming year, we want to consult with our financial advisor to help us find socially responsible investment opportunities. 

Clutter. My first spiritual director recommended I devote one hour each weekday to sorting through the physical clutter in our house. This priority may seem trivial in the face of everything else we’re dealing with right now, but when the house is a mess, the rest of my life starts to feel unmanageable. Decluttering is one small thing I can do to feel less helpless when life gets chaotic.

Discernment. From the beginning, I have been questioning all kinds of dogma, from the spiritual and religious to the political and ideological. This “deconstruction/reconstruction” work started with questioning a lot of things I thought I knew, along with beliefs and values other people – whether liberal or conservative – want me to hold. I want to develop a belief/value system that both my rational mind and my conscience can accept, rather than simply parroting a set of values  and beliefs that will let me fit in chameleon-like with my peers. What do I actually believe about God and why? What is God’s purpose or plan 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? What are my own beliefs about the hot-button issues that consume our nation’s culture warriors? What is my role as a Christian in fighting or mitigating society’s problems and political battles? I would like to continue this discernment process.

Keeping our heads above water, for the next few months at least, is going to be a challenge for my husband and me. But I also want our lives to move beyond mere survival mode – from surviving to thriving. Hopefully our continued spiritual direction work can be a key part of making that happen, with God’s help.

Let there be light – all year long

I know some really efficient people who take down their tree and decorations the day after Christmas.

Most years, I’ve preferred to wait until at least January 7, the day after Epiphany. The 12 days of Christmas, after all, are said to run between Christmas Day and Epiphany.

However, in recent years – especially while enduring season after season of pandemic-related isolation – I’ve been reluctant to take the decorations down even in January. The lights, especially, create such a cheery mood in a gloomy time.

So in 2021, I left everything up until just before Easter. Then, in 2022, I decided, “Why take it all down for Easter?”

That’s when I started outfitting my sun room with an “Ordinary Time” theme, complete with tree, lights and decorations.

Just before Easter Sunday, I traded in the Christmas ornaments on the tree (above) for some bird and butterfly ornaments and cute little bows.

Here’s a close-up of bird and butterfly ornaments on the tree.

I replaced the Christmas wreath and red bows above the windows with a wreath full of spring/summer flowers and some sunshine-yellow bows.

In the rest of the sun room, I swapped out the poinsettias and other Christmas decor for “growing season” flowers.

I exchanged more Christmas decor for spring and summer flowers in another corner of the sun room.

Still more flowers fill a third corner. Yes, that’s a cat bed in the chair.

Our Champie often prefers the floor, however, especially if he can bake his little brains in a shaft of sunlight while I do morning meditation.

The swing below is where I sometimes sit for morning meditation.

Above the door leading from the sun room into the living room is one of my favorite Bible verses.

I’m not sure when I’ll take down the Christmas decor this year. The first day of spring, perhaps? Or maybe I’ll get motivated to take it down earlier, now that I have something just as cheerful to replace it with.

Meanwhile, here’s a panoramic view of my “Ordinary Time” sun room, as it looked for most of this past year, with all the “growing season” decor – and the lights blazing.

No time for gloom in this room!

Our annual Christmas letter

This Christmas, quite frankly, finds us in a rather challenging place.

In October, Pete was diagnosed with bladder cancer and is now undergoing chemotherapy. And just as he was preparing to begin his chemo treatments two weeks ago, I was taken by ambulance to the ER for chest pain and really bad heartburn that turned out to be … a heart attack. So I got two stents for Christmas.

Despite the distressing news, we both consider ourselves fairly lucky. Pete’s cancer was actually discovered accidentally, while he was being screened for something else. If his cardiologist hadn’t spotted the mystery mass on his CT scan, who knows how far the cancer would have progressed before it was caught? And my heart attack was caught early enough, the doctors don’t think there will be permanent heart damage.

We also had some major sadness in our household earlier this year. We lost our sweet Olaf DaVinci in the spring. Oley was a big, beautiful, majestic and totally lovable Maine Coon cat with a flamboyantly irrepressible personality. He had a studious little face, thick luxurious fur and a magnificent plume of a tail. He loved to sit on laps. We miss him terribly.

Here he is on the table in our sunroom, the king of all he surveys.

The coming months are going to be a bit of a challenge as Pete continues his chemo, followed by surgery, and I begin cardiac rehab. So everyone’s prayers are greatly appreciated!! Luckily we have been surrounded by the love of supportive family and friends as we go through all this, along with delicious meals sent our way by some special angels.

We’ve even gotten support from complete strangers who probably have no idea how much of an impact their small action is having. When we’re out and about, we make a point of driving by the house on MacArthur Boulevard with this sign in their yard.

Despite the sad and scary stuff, there have been some bright spots this year.

Pete turned 80 in September, and about 30 friends and relatives turned out for our Zoom birthday party. It was GREAT seeing everyone, including people from California, Colorado and upstate New York, as well as Illinois, Iowa and Missouri, most of whom probably would not have been able to attend an in-person celebration.

We’re now part of the Associates Program for the Dominican Sisters in our community. Associates assist, among other things, with the Dominicans’ social justice activities. We had both admired the Dominican Sisters for a number of years. During our 20-plus years of working for human service agencies (me) and teaching at Benedictine University (Pete), we saw up close the many valuable contributions they’ve made to our community and the world.

The photos below show us with our sponsor during the commitment ceremony at the Motherhouse in May.

We continue to be involved in our own congregation. Since COVID broke out, we’d been “attending” church online and doing book group and Bible study sessions via Zoom, and we continue to do so due to our health concerns. We miss being in our church’s choir, which we sang in for years. But we’re finding other ways to contribute our time and talents in our congregation.

Since January, we’ve been leading a new adult faith formation class called Sundays@6, which meets on Zoom. So far, we’ve covered subjects ranging from the 10 Commandments to evangelism to what we can learn from Christians whose denominations are different from our own. The group has about 8-10 regulars who “attend” each week, and the discussions are great!

This year we also had extensive landscaping work done in the spring. I planted lots of native perennials, as well as an abundance of annuals. I’ve found gardening to be therapeutic, and the yard is looking beautiful! We’ve turned our flower beds into a welcome center for hummingbirds and bees and butterflies, and managed to attract some much-loved visitors (above).

And we still have our sweet, lovable, ornery, beautiful Champie Cat. He has been such a source of joy to us as we’ve survived this past year. I often refer to him as our furry little comforter. He was a “rescue kitty” we adopted from a shelter 15 years ago, but there could be a definite debate about who’s rescued whom. We love him so much, and he has us utterly wrapped around his paw!

Here’s hoping everyone has a safe Christmas and an even better New Year.

Grateful for an amazing program

Today, I’m celebrating a major milestone: 30 years of continuous sobriety.

I was what many would call a “functioning” alcoholic/addict. I was married to a wonderful man. I had a nice home. I had a successful career as an award-winning journalist. I never got a DUI. But my life was nevertheless full of the needless complications that came from denying a problem I desperately needed to get real about.

I’ll spare readers the “drunk-a-log” one occasionally hears in 12-Step meetings. Suffice it to say the recreational drug use my friends and I engaged in may have been considered normal at that time among many people of my generation, but it certainly was not healthy. I referred to the endless round of political fund-raisers, Chamber of Commerce cocktail parties and Happy Hour gatherings with colleagues as “networking” and convinced myself these alcohol-soaked events were essential to my job … until I wound up in detox.

When I embarked on my recovery journey in 1992, I immersed myself in the 12-Step movement – one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Recovery from alcoholism/addiction has brought with it many gifts, both simple and profound, but perhaps one of the greatest gifts was the 12-Step program itself.

Rigorous honesty was a hallmark of “the program,” and the first thing that appealed to me was a refreshing level of openness of a kind I hadn’t seen before. People “around the tables” talked frankly about their private problems in ways we usually don’t do in a society that encourages us to paste on a smiley face and edit the details of our lives for public consumption. My own issues didn’t make me as unique as I thought they did.

The program turned out to be an amazing training course in basic life skills. By sharing our stories of experience, strength and hope with others in the group, we taught each other how to acknowledge problems rather than sweeping them under the rug, look for our own part in these problems rather than blaming everyone around us, promptly admit when we were wrong and make amends, and reach out for help when we needed it.

Meetings gave me the chance to practice relating to all kinds of people without a drink in my hand. My fellow travelers often observed at meetings, “We are people who ordinarily would not mix.” And the diversity was amazing – young and old, male and female, janitors and CEOs, every race and ethnic group, every conceivable religion and none.

Some of the positive changes in my life showed up almost immediately.

Mornings were much more pleasant. In fact, when I first got sober, I was amazed to discover I was actually a morning person. Instead of waking up with a hangover, I started the day sitting in my favorite recliner with a cat in my lap and a cup of freshly-brewed coffee at my side while I journaled about everything from spiritual questions to daily priorities. This meditation ritual remains a vital part of my prayer life to this day.

Our house stayed cleaner. I can’t say it stayed perfectly clean 100 percent of the time (we’re talking progress rather than perfection here), but it was at least presentable. That, and my housekeeping standards got a bit more realistic. 

Our financial situation improved even before I started getting better jobs and pay raises. I was surprised to find out how much more money we had left over at the end of each month. I could actually pay all the bills, in full, and even put something into savings.

Instead of sleepwalking through most of my waking hours as I crossed one item after another off my endless to-do lists, I began to take notice of beautiful sunsets, the first crocuses of spring, wildflowers along road banks, fall leaves, and the birds, squirrels and other wildlife in our backyard.

Some changes came more gradually.

I began to have more real relationships, as opposed to the merely transactional ones that were so much a part of my professional life. My marriage improved. (I’m still married to the same wonderful man, who I truly believe is a gift from a kind and loving God.) I visited my family more often. I got better at holding up my end of friendships.

I was increasingly in a position to give back to others.  I became active at church, where I sang in the choir, and did volunteer work in the community. I was able to contribute time and money to organizations that help others less fortunate than I was. (And I learned how to stay off the pity pot long enough to realize there were people less fortunate than I was.)

I got a master’s degree and transitioned from journalism and public relations to a career in human services, where I worked with people experiencing disability issues, addiction, mental health issues, domestic violence, homelessness, human trafficking and involvement in the criminal justice system.

Every so often in those early years of recovery, I’d have little epiphanies.

One morning after I’d been sober a couple of years, I woke up feeling nauseous and achy all over. The first thought that came to mind was, “Should I call in sick to work or will I feel fine by noon and be embarrassed?” Then I burst out laughing as it dawned on me that having symptoms like that now meant I really was sick. There had once been a time when I woke up with flu-like symptoms day after day and considered this normal. How lovely that I didn’t have to live like that anymore!

Another such epiphany came when I suddenly noticed the absence of something – constant fear. I no longer worried about who I might run into at the grocery store, or what they might see in my cart. I no longer risked embarrassing myself in public by announcing to a friend in front of 50 people that her new outfit made her look fat. I no longer panicked when I saw a squad car behind me in traffic because I no longer risked the prospect of shelling out thousands of dollars to pay for lawyers, fines and other expenses associated with a DUI or drug possession charge. I no longer lived in dread that I might do something truly awful – like killing somebody while driving impaired. Or worse, a whole carload of somebodies. Nor did I l have to live with the nagging suspicion that I was doing irreversible damage to my own body.

I know some Christians express concern about certain aspects of 12-Step programs, especially when participants use them as a substitute for church. The 12-Step movement in all its incarnations (A.A., N.A., Al Anon, CODA) does label itself “spiritual but not religious.” The people I met “around the tables” came from a wide variety of spiritual/religious backgrounds with wildly diverse understandings about God. For me, however, the program was what brought me back to God, and eventually back to church.

I was able to deconstruct and reconstruct both my faith and my life in ways I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise. (One might say 12-Steppers were “deconstructing” before deconstruction was cool.) Among other things, my 12-Step friends encouraged me to fire the perpetually angry God of my childhood understanding and get in touch with the real one. On issues of spirituality, folks at the meetings advised me, “Take what you need and leave the rest.”

At this point in my life, I do consider my church congregation to be my spiritual community. And in a way, I think that is one of the things a good 12-Step group can do – it can bring people back into a spiritual or even religious community who wanted nothing to do with any of it prior to their recovery journey.

I certainly don’t mean to imply my life has been perfect since I got into recovery all those years ago. Pete and I have experienced the loss of both sets of parents and several beloved friends. Right now, as I write this, we are living through chemotherapy (for Pete) and cardiac rehab following a heart attack (for me). And, of course, there’s been all the disruption and craziness brought on by the pandemic.

But the program has taught me how to face these crises one day at a time. “The Promises” beloved by the 12-Step community assured us that we would begin to “intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle us.” And, “we will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.” Both of these promises have largely come true.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned that help from supportive people – and from God – is always available in times of trouble. There is no problem so big I have to drink over it, and I never have to face any problem alone.

Stocking your micro pantry in the winter

In previous posts, I wrote about the micro food pantries that are popping up outside churches, schools and businesses in communities around the country (link HERE), as well as ideas for meal kits or recipe kits to put in these mini pantries (links HERE and HERE and HERE).

A major challenge when creating recipe kits for a micro pantry is that only nonperishable ingredients can be used, which rules out ingredients like milk, eggs, fresh meats and most produce.

Winter weather provides yet another challenge: Not only must the items be nonperishable, they must be able to withstand freezing temperatures. This is particularly true in regions where temperatures can dip into single digits or lower. Canned goods or glass jars can break or swell and burst when frozen, creating quite a mess! (Think cans of soda left in the freezer.)

You will want to choose meat that comes in pouches rather than cans – tuna, chicken and salmon are some options. Choose boxed soup rather than canned, or soup mixes in pouches. Peanut butter and jelly, mayonnaise, pickle relish and pasta sauce often are available in plastic jars rather than glass jars.

Fortunately, that still leaves plenty of creative options for meal kits.

For a sandwich kit, pair peanut butter and jelly in plastic jars, or tuna in a pouch with mayonnaise and pickle relish in plastic jars. Add a loaf of sliced bread.

Another meal kit idea might include a package of chicken soup mix, paired with chicken in a pouch. Still more recipe kits can be made with boxes of pasta mix and pouches of meat. Examples include a family-size pouch of tuna paired with a box of tuna noodle casserole mix or a pouch of chicken chunks paired with Alfredo mix.

Breakfast food items are always popular – boxed cereal, boxed juice, instant milk, pop tarts, pancake mix and syrup in a plastic bottle can withstand colder temps.

In addition to meal kits or recipe kits, staples such as sugar, flour, corn meal, rice, dried beans, pasta noodles, powdered milk, powdered egg whites, salt and pepper can withstand freezing and are always welcome regardless of the season.

Other good temperature-resistant items that fly off the shelves include grooming supplies (bar of soap and washcloth, toothpaste and toothbrush, feminine hygiene products), toilet paper, laundry detergent in a plastic container (pods) or box, and small bags of dry cat or dog food.

Snack bars, chips, sandwich crackers, jerky and “snack kits” are great for homeless people who need something that doesn’t have to be heated up or thawed out. These items are also good for putting into sack lunches for work or school.

Despite the extra challenges, keeping micro pantries stocked in the winter is particularly beneficial because factors such as higher utility bills and unexpected medical expenses due to seasonal illnesses are likely to squeeze budgets especially hard this time of year.

A prayer of Thanksgiving: So great a cloud of witnesses

Dear God,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With love and gratitude,

Our Holy Land pilgrimage: the Old City of Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

Here is a panoramic view.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the little shops are truly amazing.

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

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

Little gardens are tucked into the landscape everywhere.

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

Memes to share: Bad puns

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

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

As they say, laughter is the best medicine …

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

Meanwhile, continued prayers from everyone are appreciated.

Book excerpt: Confessions of a spiritual mutt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Question for readers: What has your spiritual journey been like, and has it changed over the years? I’d love to hear your response to this question, as well as your comments on the article. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).