A prayer of thanksgiving

Dear God,

In Exodus 20:12 and again in Deuteronomy 5:16, you gave us the following commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” 

Fortunately, you blessed me with parents who made following that commandment easy. My life has turned out pretty wonderful. I have been blessed with a good marriage, a successful career and good friends. I owe that in no small part to having a good upbringing by parents who were loved and respected by the entire community. 

But this holiday season is the first that I will be facing without either Mom or Dad, except in my memories. So I’d like to take the time this Thanksgiving to offer thanks for their lives.

As a child with disability issues, I had problems in school, especially with other kids. In those days, diversity was NOT considered beautiful, and I was bullied pretty relentlessly. Compounding the problem was the fact that there were no good services 50-60 years ago – no IDEA, no Individualized Education Plans. Parents and their special-needs kids were pretty much on their own, and my parents just had to do the best they could without the help parents and kids can take for granted today. Despite these obstacles, they raised an honor student who graduated in the top 10 percent of her class.

It’s amazing how a small gesture can change a person’s life. When I was in junior high school, and didn’t have much belief in my abilities, I showed Mom a poem I had written. Without telling me, she sent a copy of the poem to Carol Burnett and it wound up getting published in a book. Then Mom gave me a typewriter, even though it wasn’t my birthday or Christmas or anything, and said, “You could be a famous writer someday.” Okay, so maybe the “famous” part didn’t happen, but I did grow up to be a successful professional writer. I even managed to win some writing and journalism awards. And it started with someone believing in me and telling me I had talent.

I appreciated my parents’ sense of humor when conveying life’s lessons to my sisters and me. Instead of lecturing us extensively about the need to avoid peer pressure, they’d simply say, “If 10 of your friends jumped off the top of the Empire State Building, would you do it too?” Once when I was complaining about a mean boss, Dad said, “You know, you can learn as much from a bad example as you can from a good one.” I took that advice to heart, actually, as I progressed through my career. When I became a boss myself, I thought about the bosses I’d liked, and analyzed what they did right. But I also learned a lot about what not to do from the bosses I didn’t like so well.

Mom and Dad took just about the right approach when I ran into problems. If I found myself in a situation that really and truly wasn’t fair, they were my best allies, and more than once they went to school to help me straighten out misunderstandings with one teacher or another. But if I got into trouble and was guilty as charged, they allowed me to experience the consequences rather than bailing me out the way some parents would. I can still remember when I got into a water fight with a classmate in the home-ec room, and our punishment was staying after school for 10 afternoons to clean ovens. When I complained that the punishment seemed excessive, I didn’t get much sympathy, but was told, “The exercise will do you good.” 

But perhaps the best gift they gave me was their example. 

My parents showed me what a good marriage looks like. I’ve now been blessed for 34 years with the kind of marriage they had, and I know it is possible to have a relationship with someone who loves and respects me and treats me well.

They showed me how to overcome adversity. I was not a happy camper when I got diagnosed with diabetes. But Mom had it for 60 years, and showed me how to live with the condition and accept the dietary restrictions with good grace.

They showed me it was possible to disagree without being disagreeable. One of my favorite memories was of Dad and his brothers arguing about politics, for two or three hours at a time. But they’d all be smiling while they argued, and they’d still be smiling when they got done.

Mom and Dad taught me to be generous and to give back to our community and they walked the talk. Whether it was serving on the school board, teaching Sunday School, or donating $1,000 to help a family at church, both parents were generous with their time and money. Helping others has been a big part of both my career and my volunteer work, and I learned that value from my parents. 

Their generosity has extended to hospitality. Pete and I are both grateful for how nice my parents were to my mother-in-law, making her feel like part of the family after her husband died. They made sure she felt welcome and loved.

And the community loved my parents back. During their funerals and visitations, I was blown away by the outpouring of love and respect from everyone who knew Mom and Dad. Literally hundreds of people lined up to tell my sisters and I what our parents meant to them. Here are just a few examples of the comments:

“Sweetest lady ever!”

“He’d give the shirt off his back.”

“So special, kind and caring.”

“Always so nice to everyone.”

“They changed my life.”

Finally, my parents taught me by example to count my blessings. On my 50thbirthday, I remember joking, “Now that I’m finally mature enough to listen to my elders and believe them, what advice would you pass on? If you had one thing you could do differently, what would it be?” I remember Dad, who was 75 at the time, saying, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” I only hope I can say the same thing when I’m 75. 

So now I try to remember to count my own blessings, and I definitely count my parents to be among those blessings.

With love and gratitude,

Courting my Muse

I picked up a copy of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity because I could relate all too well to author Julia Cameron’s description of writer’s block: “Creative, yes, but in spurts, like blood from a severed carotid artery. A decade of writing and all I knew was how to make these headlong dashes and hurl myself, against all odds, at the wall of whatever I was writing.” 

My own Muse had been on strike for several months, and attempts at negotiation had utterly failed to coax her out of hiding. A prolonged siege of work-related stress had left me feeling emotionally exhausted, with no creative energy whatsoever. I was ready to try almost anything.

Cameron calls The Artist’s Way a blueprint for “creative recovery” – in fact, 12-Step recovery movement lingo is sprinkled liberally throughout the book. She encourages us to nurture and protect our inner artist and to build healthy artist habits one day at a time. While we may relapse into unhealthy patterns from time to time, we seek progress, not perfection. If we faithfully use the tools she outlines in the book, we will experience a creative awakening. 

Why the 12-Step model? “On a societal level, blocked creative energy manifests itself as self-destructive behavior,” Cameron says. “Many people who are engaged in self-defeating behaviors, such as [addictions to] alcohol, drugs, sex, or work, are really in the hands of this shadow side of the creative force. As we become more creative, these negative expressions of the creative force often abate.”

Cameron also invokes spiritual themes extensively. “Those who speak in spiritual terms routinely refer to God as the Creator but seldom see creator as the literal term for artist,” she says. “I am suggesting you take the term creator quite literally. You are seeking to forge a creative alliance, artist-to-artist with the Great Creator. … We are, ourselves, creations. And we, in turn, are meant to continue creativity by being creative ourselves.”

How it works

The Artist’s Way, which has become a classic since its publication in 1992, offers two basic tools for creative recovery – the Morning Pages and the Artist Date.

The Morning Pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness, done first thing in the morning. “Three pages of whatever crosses your mind – that’s all there is to it,” Cameron says. “If you can’t think of anything to write, then write, ‘I can’t think of anything to write.’ Do this until you have filled three pages. Do anything until you have filled three pages. … Just write three pages … and write three more pages the next day.”

We should think of the Morning Pages not as “art” but as an active form of meditation for Westerners, she says. “In the Morning Pages we declare to the world – and ourselves – what we like, what we dislike, what we wish, what we hope, what we regret, and what we plan.” 

“In a sense Morning Pages are prayer,” Cameron told Publishers Weekly. In her book The Right to Write, she elaborates: “Writing gives us a place to welcome more than the rational. It opens the door to inspiration. It opens the door to God or, if you would, to ‘Good Orderly Direction.’ Writing is a spiritual housekeeper.” 

The Artist Date is “a block of time, perhaps two hours weekly, especially set aside and committed to nurturing your creative consciousness, your inner artist,” Cameron says. The Artist Date can be devoted to any pleasurable activity – a concert, a visit to an ice cream shop or a walk in the park – but we must do it alone. Bringing along kids or a significant other is strictly against the rules. We are to make time for an Artist Date at least once a week.

The Artist’s Way also offers a series of exercises. For example: List twenty things you enjoy doing. … List ten changes you’d like to make for yourself. … List five favorite childhood foods. … Describe yourself at eighty. … Complete this sentence: “My payoff for staying blocked is …” 

Some of the exercises seem to have little to do with writing, drawing or other creative activity: Open your closet. Throw out – or donate – one low-self-worth outfit. (You know the outfit.) … Mend something. … Repot any pinched and languishing plants. … Bake something. So why does Cameron include them? “Creativity does not have to always involve capital-A art,” she says. “Very often, the act of cooking something can help you cook something up in another creative mode.”

All of these activities – the Morning Pages, the Artist’s Date and the exercises – are designed to get us past The Censor, “a nasty internal and eternal critic” who “keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth.” (You call that writing? What a joke. You can’t even punctuate. … What makes you think you can be creative?) “Think of your Censor as a cartoon serpent, slithering around your creative Eden, hissing vile things to keep you off guard,” she says. “As blocked artists, we tend to criticize ourselves mercilessly.” 

After Cameron finishes explaining how The Artist’s Way works, she makes a bold promise: “If the basic tools of Morning Pages and the Artist Date are kept carefully in place, you can expect to experience large life shifts.”

Yes, whining is allowed

I first decided to give The Artist’s Way a try about 15 years ago. What did I have to lose? Since I was a veteran of 12-Step groups, the book’s recovery focus was familiar to me. 

The Morning Pages turned out to be fairly easy. I had no trouble meeting my three-page quota most days. At first the writing amounted to little more than a daily To-Do list. Need to do laundry today. … Need to get some grocery shopping done. … Need to get some gas in the car.

Then I began writing about areas of my life that felt unmanageable. This house is full of piles and piles of junk and boxes and boxes of stuff that needs sorting. … I spend too much time getting tangled up in political intrigues at work and not enough time nurturing personal relationships. … I seem to spend all my time juggling and juggling and making to-do lists and doing more juggling and making more intricate to-do lists and I still can’t seem to get caught up. … I’m overweight and out of shape. I need to adopt a healthier way of living.

After that, a litany of complaints and resentments began to pour out onto my Morning Pages. I’m tired of all the childish games at work. … I’m tired of political campaigns that amount to six months of name-calling. … I’m tired of people who question my patriotism unless I vote for their candidate. … I’m tired of cleaning up the house every day, only to see it messed up again the following day. … I’m tired of all these half-finished tasks that never seem to get done.

Some days my Morning Pages consisted of three solid pages of ranting. Everything I try to do runs into some snarly little complicated snag. Why can’t anything be simple? Could one little thing go right? Just one thing? Just one little thing?! … I wish I didn’t have to work for a living. Actually, I’d do volunteer work, but I’d only work for people who treat me right and appreciate me. I want to do work that actually uses my skills and training. What a radical idea. … I want a clean house. I want a sane schedule. I want a full day off just for me, with no one yanking my chain. I want, I want, I want …

All this raging and whining was supposed to release creative energy?

The author of The Artist’s Way seemed to anticipate what my Morning Pages would sound like. She assures us that the Morning Pages “are often negative, frequently fragmented, often self-pitying, repetitive, stilted or babyish, angry or bland – even silly sounding. Good! … All that angry, whiny, petty stuff that you write down in the morning stands between you and your creativity.” 

The Morning Pages “round up the usual suspects,” she says. “They mention the small hurts we prefer to ignore, the large successes we’ve failed to acknowledge. In short, the Morning Pages point the way to reality: This is how you’re feeling; what do you make of that? And what we make of that is art.”

Cameron predicted that the Artist Dates would be harder than the Morning Pages, especially for workaholics like me. She turned out to be right. But I managed to keep my dates most weeks. I went shopping and bought myself some pretty pajamas. I walked through my neighborhood park’s rose garden. I got a manicure and pedicure. 

What happened next

To my surprise, things suddenly started to get done. I spoke up and asked my hairdresser to cut my hair a certain way and got exactly what I wanted. I confronted an electrician who overcharged me and saved $50. I ordered a new computer, something I had been meaning to do for a year. I bought a new freezer, something I’d been needing to do for several years, and cleaned out a place in the basement to make room for it. I got rid of an old washer that had been sitting in the basement ever since we bought the house – 18 years earlier. I baked bread for the first time in months. I planted a fall crop of spinach and salad greens for the first time ever. I cleaned out closets. I walked away from a job that had been driving me crazy and replaced it with a new job that paid twice as much.

According to Cameron, this all makes perfect sense. “It is very difficult to complain about a situation morning after morning, month after month, without being moved to constructive action,” she says. “One of the clearest signals that something healthy is afoot is the impulse to weed out, sort through, and discard old clothes, papers, and belongings.”

But what does all this have to do with writing and other creative pursuits?

After a long, long dry spell – during which I felt guilty even attending meetings of my writer’s group because it seemed like everyone but me had something to share – I finished my first short essay. More essays followed. I co-authored a “best practices” manual with a colleague in my field, and was invited to be a keynote speaker at a conference in Alaska. A couple years ago, I started this blog … and have been writing steadily ever since.

I’ll confess, I don’t do Morning Pages every single day. And I don’t always write three pages. But the Morning Pages continue to be part of my life. 

For my Morning Pages ritual, I settle in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee by my side and a cat in my lap. Sometimes I get to enjoy music when my husband joins Oley Cat and me to serenade us with sacred songs and folk tunes on his dulcimer. 

I journal about my priorities for the coming day. Or I write thoughts and insights generated by homework assignments my spiritual director gives me. Some mornings the writing consists largely of prayers of petition and intercession. Other times I make a gratitude list or offer prayers of thanksgiving. 

Recently I’ve been recording my real feelings about my ongoing medical saga. I’m tired of doctors pushing pills. … I’m tired of bouncing from one specialist to the next like a human ping pong ball. … I’m tired of the feeling that I’m constantly at war with my own body. … I’m tired of symptoms that scare me. … I’m tired of being sick. … I’m sick of being tired. … I’m tired, I’m tired, I’m tired! The first time I wrote like that, tears were streaming down my face by the time I finished writing. But I felt better just getting it all on paper.

No matter what I choose to write about, my Morning Pages ritual continues to offer a great jumpstart to my day when I do it. And I’ve found this ritual to be a perfect form of prayer.

I’ve also continued to treat myself to occasional Artist Dates and expand my creativity in other ways. I may spend an hour or two walking around my backyard or the park snapping photos. Or I experiment with recipes. Or I play with Photoshop and design memes. Lately I’ve been teaching myself to use iMovie, a video editing software application that lets me create video clips.

In short, The Artist’s Way has given my creativity a significant boost over the years, and I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a way to coax their own Muse out of hiding.

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.

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!

Meeting the Risen Christ in a hospital room … and at church

When I visit various churches, I usually encounter one of two symbols – a crucifix or an empty cross. During my recent hospital stay, however, I came across a symbol I hadn’t seen before. 

While propped up in bed doing my morning meditation, I noticed what looked like a crucifix – only different somehow – hanging on the wall a few feet away. I had begun to recover after a stint in intensive care, so I got out of bed and walked over to take a closer look. 

Jesus stood in front of the cross – alive – his arms outstretched as if beckoning me to follow him. 

When I looked it up online later, I saw the cross advertised on a Catholic web site as “The Risen Christ.” I’m pretty sure it’s been around for a while and I had simply never noticed it. At any rate, I liked this particular cross.

The traditional crucifix reminds us of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice on Good Friday, while the empty cross prompts us to meditate on Easter and the resurrection. But as I stood looking at the cross in front of me on that Sunday morning just before the beginning of Lent, I found myself meditating on a different subject: “What does it mean to actually follow Jesus?”

I must say that question took on a bit more urgency in the face of a medical trauma that forced me to look my own mortality straight in the eye without blinking. Not only that, but my mother had just been in the hospital twice in as many months, and I’ve had to face the fact that I may not have her in my life much longer. For good measure, my brother-in-law was hospitalized the same time I was and both my cats had just been diagnosed with chronic medical conditions. Yikes!

The cross on the hospital room wall seemed like an appropriate symbol for the occasion. It not only signified the death and resurrection of Jesus, but the cross we all are asked to bear when we become followers. There will be hardship, sacrifice and struggle, the Bible tells us. But this cross also reminded me that we can overcome hard times with God’s help.

This morning I encountered the same “Risen Christ” symbol again, this time at church. 

The altar was all decked out for the Easter Sunday service. A white cloth and a crown of white and yellow flowers draped the empty cross. Easter lilies and other spring flowers filled the entire front of the church. The sanctuary was gorgeous! As was the music – complete with a trumpet, maracas and drums. (The photos below don’t begin to do the scene justice.)

In the middle of all this, I saw the now-familiar figure of “The Risen Christ” on the processional cross carried down the aisle and placed in a stand behind the altar. Jesus was alive, arms outstretched, beckoning us all to follow.

Congregation members and our minister exchanged this greeting:

“Christ is risen!”

“Christ is risen indeed!”

In her sermon, our minister spoke of emerging from our personal “tombs” – sickness, loss of loved ones, broken relationships – and I reflected on the hospital rooms I’d been in over the past couple of months.

As I came forward for communion, I thanked God for having shepherded me – and my mother and my husband and my brother-in-law and my cats – through this unusually challenging Lenten season.

And the real Risen Christ, alive and present among us, seemed to say, “You won’t be able to avoid pain and suffering, but you will transcend it.” 

Happy Easter, everyone!

Prayers of petition and intercession: Can we ask God for things?

A week before Ash Wednesday, I landed in the intensive care unit at St. John’s Hospital after losing more than a third of my blood from a lesion in my stomach aggravated by blood-thinning medication. At first I thought I might be coming down with the flu – I had awakened with nausea and general achiness – but the symptoms grew progressively worse and by evening, I had muscle cramps and dizziness so severe I found it nearly impossible to walk. 

Fortunately, I decided to call an ambulance rather than try to tough it out and sleep off my “flu” symptoms. Emergency room staff told me I had dangerously low blood pressure, tachycardia and dehydration, and had already lost about 30 percent of my hemoglobin – which carries oxygen to my brain and other vital organs. Over the next 24 hours I received four units of blood. (Thanks to all you blood donors out there!)

To say I was scared would be an understatement. At one point, when I became increasingly worried about the mental confusion I was experiencing, staff sent for the hospital chaplain. Undeterred by my difficulty finding and forming words, the chaplain simply asked me to repeat after her: “Dear God, please help me.” We said this in unison several times, and I found the repetition amazingly calming.

Meanwhile, my husband alerted our pastor and church congregation, then got online and activated the Facebook prayer warriors. (I like to think of this as “crowd-sourced prayer.”) He even contacted our local Dominican Sisters community, which accepts prayer requests on their Web site – one doesn’t need to be Catholic to avail oneself of the service. 

My hospital adventure capped a rough couple of months which saw my mother hospitalized twice, my husband and I both sick with viruses and even our two kitties both newly diagnosed with chronic illnesses. One might say I had plenty of opportunities to practice prayers of petition and intercession – that is, prayers on behalf of oneself or others – along with some good old-fashioned foxhole spirituality.

Now I understand some people get squeamish about asking God for things. There is legitimate concern about regarding God as a combination Santa Claus/magic genie to whom we bring our shopping lists. In fact, I must acknowledge my own impatience with people who say “it’s a God thing” when a parking space opens up for them. However, the Bible is chock full of prayers of petition and intercession – not to mention a heavy dose of foxhole spirituality. 

Just a brief glance at the Psalms offers plenty of examples: 

  • Psalm 77:2 – In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
  • Psalm 27:12 – Give me not up to the will of my adversaries; for false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence.
  • Psalm 69:1-2 – Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold.

Several Biblical passages actually invite us to pray for ourselves and others this way:

  • Psalm 50:15 – Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.
  • John 15:7 – If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 
  • Philippians 4:6 – Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 

One could say the entire Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) qualifies as a prayer of petition:

Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread;
12 And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;
13 And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.

I have to admit at least half the prayers I write in my journal during my morning meditation sessions are prayers of petition/intercession – and that’s when I’m not facing a life-threatening emergency. 

A 2017 Barna Group study of American adults indicates I have a lot of company. In a recent article for the magazine Living Lutheran (link HERE), Kurt Lamont and John Potter make this observation about the study: “Aside from ‘gratitude and thanksgiving’ at the top and ‘reciting scripture passages, meditation or liturgies’ and ‘other’ at the bottom, all other prayer topics are asking for help in some way.”

So … is it okay to ask God for things? Based on my reading of the Bible, extensive church practice and my own experience, I think I can confidently say, “Absolutely!” 

Prayers of petition may encourage us to rely more on God and even rethink some of our priorities. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 1501), “Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. [But] it can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him.” 

Prayers of intercession may remind us to consider the needs of others. During Sunday services, our church offers up prayers of intercession for everything from world peace to comfort for a congregation member who has lost a loved one. Our church secretary keeps a prayer list of people facing illnesses or other crises, as well as a list of people serving in the military, and the entire congregation is asked to keep these people in our personal prayers. Those who participate in our weekly men’s and women’s prayer breakfasts also use these lists as the basis for their group prayers. 

“Our praying does not change God. Instead, it is a way for God to change us,” Lamont and Potter  point out in their Living Lutheran article Pray without ceasing: A Lutheran approach to prayer. “In prayer, we admit that we are in need and we ask God to help us with those needs.”

The good news: I’m healing. My mother now has someone staying with her at night. Even our kitties are doing better. And my husband deserves a gold medal for his unwavering support for all of us over the past couple of months. 

But why is it that I often think to pray only when I’m in some kind of trouble? Foxhole spirituality has its place, but I would agree it should not be our sole motivation for prayer. That is why I’ve dedicated this Lenten season to experimenting with other kinds of prayer as well. 

And when God does answer my prayers, I must remember to say, “Thank you!” 

Morning meditation

Ever since I embarked on my 12-Step recovery journey 26 years ago, I’ve started my day with morning meditation whenever possible.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines meditate as “to engage in contemplation or reflection.” In 12-Step groups, members like to say prayer is talking to God and meditation is God talking to us. For me, meditation is a time set aside for both prayer and reflection. While my personal morning meditation ritual has evolved over the years and may change content from one day to the next, I’ve found that my meditation time easily accommodates several forms of prayer. 

Most days I begin with “nature prayer.” I feed my cats, the birds and (yep!) the squirrels. If nice weather beckons, I may stroll around my backyard and admire the flowers. Right now, early spring has arrived in central Illinois and my snowdrops and crocuses are blooming. Soon they will be joined by jonquils, violets, tulips, pear and crabapple blossoms and the ever-ubiquitous dandelions. These flowers make me so happy! 

Back inside, I settle in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee by my side and Oley Cat in my lap and engage in “writing as prayer.” I may journal about my priorities for the coming day – or what I think they should be, at least. I’ve also used this time to write out my thoughts and insights generated by homework assignments my spiritual director gives me. 

Some mornings the journaling portion of my meditation largely consists of prayers of petition and intercession. Other times I may make a gratitude list or offer prayers of thanksgiving. Sometimes I even get to enjoy music when my husband joins Oley Cat and I to serenade us with sacred songs on his dulcimer.

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

Some Christians express concern that meditation is too “New Age,” or that it’s somehow inappropriate because religions other than Christianity practice it. However, from what I’ve read, meditation is firmly rooted in the Bible. Here are just a few passages that speak about the practice: 

  • Joshua 1:8 – This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful.
  • Psalm 19:14 – Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
  • Psalm 119:15 – I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways.
  • Psalm 145:5 – On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
  • Philippians 4:8 – Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things. (Note: Since “think on” is one synonym for “meditate,” this verse would certainly speak to the practice and it’s also one of my favorites.)

Meditation also has a long history in Christian practice, engaged in by everyone from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early church era to Ignatius of Loyola, Augustine and Martin Luther in the Middle Ages to folks participating in the liturgies of many modern church services. 

Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, shared a personal experience of being so preoccupied that she once arrived at work with no memory of how she got there. Eaton’s own spiritual director offered the following advice about meditation as one remedy for this type of distracted thinking: “Wait for the Lord. Disengage the autopilot. Notice. Just this. Just now.” (Link to her article HERE.)

In my own case, God seems to tell me I need my morning meditation ritual. While I may skip it occasionally – if I have to leave the house for a doctor’s appointment at 7:30 a.m. sharp, for instance – I’ve found that I start to feel a little less “centered” if I miss too many days in a row.

For me, meditation is a way of staying focused on important priorities. Listening to Oley Cat’s soft purr and the crackle of the fire, or watching the squirrels’ antics as they invade the bird feeders helps quiet my mind – a little, for a few moments anyway – and allows me to open up to God’s presence.

So I continue to commit myself to this wonderful and compelling morning ritual.

Conscious contact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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