Thursday, December 18, 2014

Another Slaughter of the Innocents

My heart has been hurting since I heard the news of the recent slaughter of school children by the Taliban in Pakistan. I cannot wrap my mind around that kind of hate. I can vaguely comprehend a mentally ill person doing such a thing. But to gun down more than a hundred children and their teachers in the name of some twisted, self-created god is beyond me. Echoes of Herod’s slaughter of the children in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus echo in this Christmas season. And I weep for the parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters and all those who are grieving because of this horrific act.  Even the survivors’ scars will last a lifetime. I close my eyes and see kids the same age as my grandchildren, and I grieve for those who have lost the future promise of those young lives.

I spoke this week for the first time in several years about the Institute for Civility in Government, and its work to encourage civility in the process of government. Two Presbyterian pastor friends founded the Institute. I helped them write the story of the Institute in the book, Reclaiming Civility in the Public Square: Ten Rules that Work. I told those who came to hear my talk that as I was writing the book, I was coincidentally also teaching an adult Sunday school class on religious violence. Because of that juxtaposition, I reached the conclusion that the opposite of civility is not incivility. The opposite of civility is the violence that comes with the breakdown of civil society—the kind of violence exhibited by the Taliban in their bloody massacre. I told the audience that the Institute defines civility as: “Claiming and caring for one’s own identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.”

In the discussion that followed my presentation, I was struck by one man’s suggestion that the Institute’s definition of civility sounds like grace. I’m still thinking about that, but I like that idea. It’s not exactly how my theological dictionary defines grace, but favor and kindness, the definitions for the Greek and Latin words from which our theological term grace is derived, do sound like another way to define civility. That is we stand up for our own beliefs, but we extend favor and kindness to others as they do the same. If all of us practiced that kind of civility, we might have a bit less violence in this weary world.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Gift of Presence

Fermin’s dad, Jesus, the patriarch of a large extended family that included 33 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren, was 92 years old when he died recently. I attended his funeral to honor Fermin, and Fermin’s wife, Maria, who have worked at our church for many years, quietly cleaning, moving furniture, and doing what has been asked of them without complaint. Church sextons are underappreciated saints.

In addition to their regular work at our church, a number of years ago, Fermin and Maria graciously helped me lead a Spanish Bible study, so our small adult mission team could prepare for our church’s first adult mission trip, a visit to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. They patiently listened and gently corrected our attempts to speak Spanish as we laughed and learned together. Their assistance helped us better connect with our hosts at the church in Nuevo Laredo and provided a boost to my ongoing efforts to learn to speak Spanish.

I followed Jesus’s family into the sanctuary at one of the local Catholic Churches, not far from my own Presbyterian one, and walked into a different world than the one I inhabit on Sunday mornings at my own church. But also a familiar one because of time spent in worship in Mexico and Cuba and Nicaragua on mission trips. The Catholic worship service was unfamiliar, but the sadness that hung over the gathering was all too familiar from my attendance at similar services in other places. It is hard to say goodbye to a loved one, no matter how long they have lived.

Humbled by their gratitude for my presence at the funeral, all I could do was express my condolences. And remember again how important human presence is, especially when we are hurting. Much as I enjoy being connected with family and friends via the Internet, it’s not the same as being with others in person. God created us for community, for that place where we can share joys and sorrows and laughter and tears and hugs.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, November 20, 2014

Jesus is my nightlight

I have been thinking about icons after visiting the Icon Exhibit at our local Cultural Activities Center here in Temple. It is a remarkable collection of artwork by a Russian woman done in response to ancient iconography. Icons are not part of my Presbyterian religious tradition and seem like an exotic concept--one in which I have not participated. But then I notice the Jesus candle that is burning next to me as I write.

I told my seminary classmates during my time at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary that Jesus was my nightlight. It is a wonder the old dorm building in which I lived during the week in my two years there did not catch fire from the many candles that burned in many rooms at all hours. A power shortage would not have been a problem. I kept a candle with Jesus and his Sacred Heart pasted on the glass container near the window on my built-in desk in my dorm room. And I kept it lit all night long. I took great comfort from the visual reminder that Jesus was with me during that challenging journey.

I do not remember when the Jesus candle habit originated. I think perhaps some years ago when I taught an adult Sunday school class using Richard Foster’s book, Prayer, a follow-up to his book, Celebration of Discipline, which included prayer. In the class, I used the Jesus candle as a focal point for our prayers. I still keep a Jesus candle burning on our kitchen table. I light it first thing in the morning while I wait for my coffee to brew. My youngest son teased me once a few years ago about the practice, and for probably the only time in my life, I said the right thing at the right time: “The candle is a reminder that Jesus is Lord of this house.” I usually keep a spare Jesus candle on the kitchen counter so I never run out of the light of Jesus.

Recently the candle burned out on Sunday afternoon, and we were without a replacement until I returned from the grocery store Monday morning. I missed the light more than I expected. I do not spend a lot of time sitting and looking at the candle, except at times like now when I’m working at the kitchen table, but it is a comfort to know it is burning there. The candle is a reminder of who, and whose, I am. I’m a visual person, so I value visual symbols, icons perhaps.

I do not normally keep the candle burning here at home overnight. But sometimes I leave it lit as a constant prayer in time of need for individuals, for whole communities, or for myself and those I love. At such times, the light of Jesus is a reminder that Jesus continues to pray for us. Sometimes, Jesus is still my nightlight. 

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Centering Myself

I am always grateful for time with my writing friends. This morning Bonnie and I were the only ones able to make our early morning Starbucks meeting. I told Bonnie about my time at the Renovare prayer retreat and about the workshop on centering prayer. I told her I’d been practicing faithfully since my return home. I shared what I’d learned at the workshop and suggested we spend ten minutes in prayer before we began writing. She agreed, and the two of us spent ten peaceful minutes praying silently in the midst of the busy Starbucks where our group meets each week.

After the time of prayer, we wrote about centering ourselves. One member of our Starbucks’ group is an artist, who teaches pottery. I have learned from her about the importance of centering the clay when beginning to throw a pot. If you don’t center the clay properly, it will wobble, and the pot will become misshapen as the wheel spins. I realized that if centering prayer is a way to enter into God’s silence and center myself in God’s presence, then centering prayer is also a way to allow God, the Potter, to properly shape my life. If I never slow down enough to center myself on the Potter’s wheel, my life will be wobbly and misshapen. That reminded me of the hymn, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” which includes the words, “Thou art the Potter, I am the clay. 
Mold me and make me after Thy will, 
While I am waiting, yielded and still.” Now you will also hear this lovely hymn playing in your mind.

It has been easier than I expected to make time each day to center myself in prayer; to let go for a few moments of all those things I think are so terribly important. It is always a blessing to step into God’s presence. This morning’s time of prayer at Starbucks was a reminder that it is possible to do that anywhere.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Crawling up into God's lap

I am grateful to Bryan McDowell, the leader of the workshop on Centering Prayer at the Renovare Prayer Retreat I attended at Mo-Ranch in the Texas Hill Country this past weekend. He provided us with the image of centering prayer as something like crawling up into God’s lap. I immediately thought about the joy of cuddling my small grandchildren in my lap and how much that means to me. I have been practicing centering prayer since I returned home. I had fallen away from this practice and forgotten how much it blesses my life.

Walking the labyrinth was another spiritual practice I’ve let slide. After the workshop on the history of the labyrinth with Nancy Willet, I walked the Mo-Ranch labyrinth with Pat, a new friend I met at the workshop. I had never walked a labyrinth with someone I knew before, and it multiplied the blessings of that experience. Pat was one of many amazing people I met at the retreat, people for whom prayer is as necessary as breathing.

I also spent time with my assigned small group, led by Brian Hardesty-Crouch, the leader of the workshop on the Prayer of Examen. We laughed and shared our stories and prayed together. Brian and Jeff and Mike and Laurel are now part of my life’s story. Their openness and willingness to be vulnerable and to listen made me feel welcome and loved, and I’m grateful for the blessing of knowing them. All of us at the retreat were blessed to spend time learning from Nate Foster and Richella Parham, the keynote speakers, young people who are wise beyond their years. I look forward to reading their books!

Prayer is just one of the spiritual disciplines Nate talked about at the retreat. To call prayer a discipline makes it sound like doing push-ups with someone barking out the count. I think that’s why I like the image of a child crawling up into God’s loving lap so much. It sounds less like punishment and more about the blessing of being in God’s presence. That, in reality, is where I spent this past weekend, in God’s presence through the prayer and the worship and the singing and the reminders that I am a child of God.  I returned home refreshed with my parched soul abundantly watered. My challenge now is to make the time to continue practicing prayer and other spiritual disciplines to keep myself centered in God’s presence in the midst of all that this life throws at me.

Grace and Peace,