Embracing Darkness & The Solar Eclipse

blogpic Embracing Darkness and the Solar EclipseIt was a thrilling moment to view the total solar eclipse from the stairs off the deck in my own backyard. With my special viewing glasses, I looked up at the sun at 1:18 PM Central Standard Time, and saw total darkness. This moment of mid-day night didn’t last very long, reminding me of John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” When Jesus was crucified, the daylight turned to darkness, but like this eclipse, the darkness did not overcome God’s power to save and bring life and light where there was once only death.

Isn’t it amazing how God uses the creation to reinforce and remind us of eternal truths—the darkness is momentary while God’s love and light are constant and eternal; the caterpillar enters the pupa of apparent death and emerges in a bodily transformation and resurrection; the seed falls to the ground and dies and yet it rises again to bear much fruit; our energy—whether in daily life or healing from a trauma—ebbs and flows like the tide, waxes and wanes like the moon, moves forward and inches back before surging forward again, like a flower reaching for the sun.

It’s easy to forget that in the darkness, in the resting, in the letting go, God does her best work! That is when God is working out something new in us—and God must do it in secret, during the “dark night of the soul” because if we knew what God was up to, we would grab control of the process, and manipulate the outcome! 

The eclipse reminds us to linger in the darkness, to savor the silence, to embrace the shadow—for the light is coming, the resurrection is afoot, transformation is unfolding, for God is working in secret and in silence to create us anew. Hold fast to the promise and patterns of God, for the dawn always follows the night.

Photo Credit: Rick Fienberg, exlipse.aas.org

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What The Holy Spirit Can Do in Ten Minutes!

blogpic BreastCancerQuiltI’m starting my second year of classes at Aquinas Institute of Theology for a Certificate in Spiritual Direction. During July, I had a one-week Intensive Practicum during which our class practiced Spiritual Direction with each other in threesomes: one was the Spiritual Director, one was the Directee, and one was a Compassionate Observer. We met for a ten-minute session followed by reflection and sharing.

I was in an emotionally vulnerable place that week. My husband, Dan, had left the morning of my first day of class to move to Texas for a new church job, and I needed to get the house ready sell, help our youngest get ready for college, and begin to wind down at my job for a move I had not wanted to make. I didn’t want to move when our youngest was just starting college, especially since she picked one that would be within a 5-hour drive of home; she would now be 10 hours away. Her older brother is changing colleges, majors, and his life-course, and our oldest was about to move to a new state and city to look for a new job. My children had already been through so much and I did not want to add to it by selling their home while their own lives were in transition, and they were still growing into adulthood. They had endured a mom with rigorous breast cancer treatment and chronic severe migraines, the illness and death of three beloved grandparents, the loss of their church home when it was time for Dan to resign as pastor, and other life traumas along the way. The last thing in the world I wanted to do, was to add to their losses by losing their home and having their parents move 600 miles away.

Tuesday of that week I listened to a podcast of The Moth Radio (“true stories told live”) as I got ready in the morning. One of the stories just uncorked me. Of course, I already had my makeup on, but I just bawled. I figured it was the all the loss and change going on, and that story gave me a chance to get some of it out. I went to class still sad, like my emotions were just under the surface with the flood gates ready to open at any time. This meant I did not want to be the Directee while someone else practiced being the Director! I wanted to hold it together.

I managed to avoid being the Directee the previous day, and that morning, but by the afternoon it was my turn to be the Directee and I couldn’t get out of it. I told my two partners that I started the morning crying, just so they knew. The Director started with a prayer and then we started. With tears streaming down my face, I shared why this move now was so hard, what my children had already been through, and that I did not want to add to it. The Director was the one person in our class who was the least confident in her role and future as a spiritual director, and was developing into an artist in retirement, so I wasn’t sure how this was going to go.

At the end of my tearful monologue, she asked me, “what was the story about on the radio?” In the back of mind, I thought it was the wrong question; why wasn’t she asking me about all these feelings of loss and grief? But I answered her question: the story was about a quilting group that made quilts for all the families in their east coast town who lost loved ones during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The story-teller recounted the meaningful, tear-filled moments when they delivered their quilts to the families. Then the Director asked me, “where do you see yourself in that story?”

Suddenly, I remembered that I had received a handmade quilt from the congregation I served when I was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer—that’s what made me cry, even though I did not make the connection on my own! We had been loved, supported, prayed for and helped in every way possible during my treatment, and the quilt—with squares made from each family in the church—was a symbol of all that support.

Her next question was even more startling; “If God were to give you a quilt square for this time in your life, what would it look like?” I responded, “It would probably have a sea of faces on it to remind me that there still is a community of people who will love and support us through this change and loss now, just as before.” Then she said, “If you were to give your children a quilt square, what would you put on it?” The answer was obvious, “It would probably be the same square, to remind them that there is a sea of people—both friends and family—who would help, love and support them in their life even when we’re living in a different state. And then it hit me: perhaps they won’t experience this community of support unless their parents get out of the way! The tears dissipated and a feeling of relief and peace came over me.

Isn’t it amazing what the Spirit can do in ten minutes through someone who doesn’t believe she’s going to be a good Spiritual Director? Her experience as an artist led her to pick up on the image of the quilt, and in that conversation, I received everything I needed. It was truly stunning, especially since I have my breast cancer quilt laying over a chair in my office, and everyone who comes to me for conversation or Spiritual Direction looks right at it!

Even with the quilt staring me in the face every day I walk into my office, I did not make the connection between The Moth story about the 9/11 quilts and my very own quilt. I needed a Spiritual Director to ask me the right questions for me to see and experience God’s presence and love which was always with me. I couldn’t get there on my own. 

Ever wonder how God is working in the daily details of your life that you may not be noticing? If so, may I suggest a Spiritual Director? You will be amazed at what God is doing in and around you!

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A Tale of Two Parties

blogpic Feeding5000A sermon preached at Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Florissant, MO on 8-6-17 for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost on Matthew 14:13-21

In Matthew chapter 14, we have a Tale of Two Parties. King Herod was having a birthday party and since it was royal celebration, we can imagine that they pulled out all the stops. There was an abundance of food, music and dancing. Officers in the Roman empire, wealthy landowners and merchants, and those who supported the Empire’s domination of Galilee were likely invited. They feasted on dates and olives, grapes and figs, nuts and pomegranates, fish and lamb, bread and honey, goat’s milk and cheese. The wine flowed and the guests had more than their fill.

But while the festivities were going on, John the Baptist was held in Herod’s prison for telling the king that he could not take his brother’s wife, Herodias, as his own. When her daughter danced for King Herod, he was so pleased, he said she could have whatever she wanted. Herodias urged her to ask for John the Baptist’s death with his head delivered on a party platter. King Herod and his guests had such abundance, yet they did so little with it. They fed themselves and took what they wanted, while wreaking destruction and death for John and those who would say this is not God’s way of life.

When Jesus heard the news of John’s death, he went away to deserted place by himself where our text for today begins. And this sets the scene for the second gathering in our Tale of Two Parties. Jesus goes far away from the towns, villages and markets so he can have time to grieve the death of his cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus doesn’t get much time to grieve however, because the crowds follow him out into the wilderness—a barren place where there is no bread, no olives to pick, no fig trees, and certainly no goats to offer milk or meat. The wilderness wandering to follow Jesus does not deter the crowds however, because they are accustomed to hunger.

Unlike King Herod and his birthday party guests, and unlike most of us here today, the people in these crowds were not used to eating their fill. They were not in the practice of being able stuff themselves with all they wanted and then have an abundance of food left over. In the Ancient world poverty was a visible and common phenomenon. According to estimations by scholars, nine out of ten persons lived close to the subsistence level or below it, and this was true both in urban and rural areas. The Roman empire exacted their taxes as well, even in seasons of low harvest. There was no middle class, and unless you were in the top 10% wining and dining with King Herod, life was precarious and hunger was a constant and familiar companion.

So they follow Jesus out to the wilderness—he’s the closest thing they’ve seen to hope because the Herod’s of the world are not sharing. As Jesus sees the crowds following him, he had compassion on them. Even though he was desperate for a break and some time alone, he saw their poverty, their illnesses, their suffering, their needs and he couldn’t say no. In fact, “compassion” literally means “to suffer with” someone—when their suffering causes us pain as well. One of my spiritual mentors says that the compassion is “having your heart broken” over someone else’s pain. When Jesus saw the illnesses, the poverty, the needs of the crowds following him out to the wilderness, his heart broke. Instead of walking away from the suffering crowds, he moved toward them. Jesus started a party of love and healing, of seeing and touching the needs of God’s people.

Well, it started to get late in the day, and the disciples thought enough was enough. “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” And then Jesus says something startlingly direct, “They need not go away, you give them something to eat!” Of course, the disciples don’t see how they can feed possibly 15,000+ people (5,000 men + women and children!) with five loaves of bread and two fish.

Before we jump right to the miracle of the exponential multiplication of bread and fish (the kingdom’s new math!), we can’t miss Matthew’s crucial point: Jesus expects his followers to feed hungry people! There’s a party going on in the kingdom of God where disciples feed hungry people, and then they clean up afterwards collecting the 12 baskets of leftovers, a basket for each disciple. Unlike King Herod, who does so little with so much at a party that ends in destruction and death, Jesus asks his followers help him do so much with so little at a party that ends in fullness and goodness and life!

And this is true every single day of our lives. There are always two parties going on--and I don’t mean Democrats and Republicans–I mean Herod’s party and Jesus’ party. Herod’s party loves our consumer culture where more and bigger is better, and the one with the most stuff wins. At Herod’s party, our portion sizes have exploded and we glorify stuffing ourselves, complete with eating contests (one of my sons met a challenge to eat 100 chicken nuggets at marching band camp in high school). After the Golden Corral Buffet restaurant opened a few years ago near our house, they had to hire security guards to stand at the buffet to prevent fights from breaking out. If you’ve driven through Amarillo, Texas, you know you can win a free meal at the Big Texan Steakhouse if you can eat an entire 72 oz. steak along with baked potato, roll with butter, shrimp cocktail, and salad in under 1 hour (we were there when a college student tried it and he said he ran out of saliva). It’s a party where we already have so much, yet we want more and more and never seem to be sated. A professor at Aquinas Institute of Theology shared with us that there is enough clothing in the world to clothe every person on the planet for the next five years. I try to remind myself of this when I look at my closet full of clothes and think I have nothing to wear. The US is less than 5% of the world’s population and yet, we consume 24% of the world’s energy resources. It’s a party where we all have so much, but do little with it.

And then there’s Jesus’ party, where our heart’s break for the 785 million people—1 in every 9 people on the planet—who do not have enough food. Jesus’ party makes it clear that we do not have an abundance or an amount problem—we have a distribution problem. God has given us an abundant creation where we produce enough food to feed everyone, we just don’t make sure everyone gets it.

Last month Professor David Pimentel of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences reported that, “if all the grain currently fed to livestock in the US were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million”—the exact number of hungry people in the world. He adds that if we all ate grass-fed livestock instead, we would still all have our protein needs met.

After the Dalai Lama delivered a lecture, a member of the audience asked him if he could supply an answer to the problem of world hunger. He responded: “Sharing.” That’s why at Jesus’ party, he looks at us and says, “you give them something to eat.”

Even if you don’t have a lot to share, Jesus invites us to offer what we have, trusting that God can do so much out of even small offerings that come from us saying NO to overconsumption of the world’s resources and the damage to creation and to the poor that results. As his followers, Jesus asks us, “for whom does your heart break?”

Atonement has wonderful ways for us to join Jesus’ party, bringing fullness and goodness and life to those who are suffering:
• For Paul and Dolly, their heart breaks for those who stand at intersections with a cardboard sign that says they’re hungry and homeless, so they provide us with these red bag lunches to give them. We can look them in the eye, acknowledge them, and offer a meal.
• For Bill, his heart breaks for our elderly and homebound, most of whom live alone and no longer cook, He makes soup and freezes it so the parish nurses can bring a homemade meal to them on their visits.
• For Bernie and Debbie, their heart breaks for the homeless women and children who stay downtown at Gateway 180 Homeless Center, so they pack brown bag lunches for them. Last Sunday the workroom was full of volunteers packing lunches.
• For Jane, Jill, Debbie, our preschool class and other gardeners, their heart breaks for those who frequent the Safehouse and the TEAM Food Pantry, so they grow fresh vegetables in Atonement’s community garden.
• For Kelly and Dan, and all who help with Room at The Inn, their hearts break for those who are homeless and need a place to stay, so they help monthly with overnight accommodations and food in our fellowship hall downstairs.
• For Rick, the Congregations in Service Team, and 563 volunteers who came on July 15th, our hearts break for hungry children in developing countries, so in one day, we packed 107,568 meals with Feed My Starving Children. One meal costs 22 cents and we see that God can do so much with so little.

For whom does your heart break? It may be different from feeding the hungry—it may for injured veterans and their families, or those in chemotherapy for cancer, or children who need books, or drug-addicted babies at the hospital who need to be held and rocked, or supporting those who grieve the death of a child.

Our life is a Tale of Two Parties every day, and the choices we make matter to the world and to God. Our culture entices us to Herod's party, but we listen to Jesus instead. Jesus invites us to join his mission of compassion to bring relief and joy those who suffer. All you have may be 5 loaves and 2 fish, or 22 cents to share. But when Jesus hosts the party, that’s always more than enough to do good and to bring life!

Photo: Artwork by ©Laura James Used With Permission

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Still Goal-Oriented at Age 96!

blogpic MildredWintercropped“I don’t see well, I don’t hear well, and I can’t walk at all, but other than that, I’m doing pretty good." So says my new hero, Mildred Winter, the former Kindergarten teacher in the Ferguson-Florissant school district who pioneered the Parents As Teachers (PAT) program which is now in all fifty states and nine countries. "I’m 96 years old and I feel an obligation to contribute something since I’m still here.” 

As a teacher, Winter observed that her kindergarten students who came from parents who read to them, taught them, and gave them new experiences were much more advanced than those who did not. Research later showed that children who come from homes without such opportunities never caught up to their peers. This gap motivated Winter to begin PAT so that every parent could learn how to support their child’s development beginning at birth. Using resources from neuroscientists on brain development, along with educational ideas and home visits, PAT began steadily enhancing the brain growth of children by educating their parents. Gone were the days when teachers told parents not to teach their child anything, but to leave it to the school, whose teachers would do it ‘right' when kids arrived as a blank slate.

PAT is for children prior to starting Kindergarten; Winter’s current goal is to extend the program to include Kindergarten so parents and teachers can benefit from the unique PAT approach of teaching the neuroscience of a child’s brain development and also to encourage teacher visits to the homes of their students. Winter talks on the phone regularly with Stephen Barr, the Assistant Commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (a department Winter ran for eleven years) toward fulfilling this goal. Winter's goal is to get this prjoject included on the Agenda for August Administrators Conference for Missouri School Superintendents. If you know your Superintendent, please send them this article as a heads up for their upcoming conference in Jefferson City! I will be calling the two Superintendents I know!

In addition to her passion as an educator, Mildred Winter models for us Christian vocation—being used by God to bring good to the world. Mildred embodies a refreshing reminder that this is a job from which we never retire!

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Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.