Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Doing Things the Hard Way

We sold Nicaraguan coffee again as a fund raiser for our next trip to Nicaragua this coming year to help install our third Living Waters for the World water purification system, at a church this time. I picked the coffee up once again at Fara Coffee, the Nicaraguan distributor’s office in Austin. When we ran out of Starbucks recently, my husband, John, bought a package of the regular for him and the decaf for me. Only in America can you get decaf Nicaraguan coffee. Decaf coffee is an oxymoron to Nicaraguans. This year it turned out the decaf coffee was whole beans, not ground.

This is a long explanation for why I’ve been doing things the hard way to make my morning coffee of late: grinding the beans instead of simply spooning the grounds out and into the little plastic filter for my Keurig.  I’ve realized some things because of this process. First, grinding the beans takes longer and slows me down. It takes time to dump the beans into the electric grinder, grind the coffee to the right consistency, not too coarse, but not too fine either, or the water will not percolate through the filter. Then I have to brush the remains out of the grinder. I have to allow more time to make a cup of coffee, and the process slows down my usual morning rush—a good thing most days.

I’ve also realized that I love the rich, fresh smell of the whole beans, much more fragrant than coffee that’s already been ground. And the brewed coffee tastes richer and fresher as well. Each morning, the aroma of the beans transports me back to Nicaragua. I see the coffee trees clinging to the hillsides along the dirt roads in the mountains, and the people climbing the steep hills to harvest the beans. The most important thing I’ve realized because of this change in my routine is that fussing with the beans to make my morning coffee reminds me of those sisters and brothers who toil long hours in challenging conditions to make my morning cup of coffee a reality. I know they are not paid a lot for the picking, and they don’t get to drink the finest coffee because the best beans are exported. They drink what is left over, the dregs if you will.

As I think of them in this Christmas season, I remember they are the kind of people with whom Jesus spent much of his time, the poor and the vulnerable--the ones who were considered unimportant in their culture. They are still among us today, the ones our culture considers unimportant--the ones who harvest our food, and cook and clean and do other jobs we would rather not. We who claim to follow Jesus need to see these sisters and brothers and to do what we can to make their lives better. For me that’s helping provide them with Living Water to drink.

Grace and Peace,

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Choose Civility

Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.” Cassandra Dahnke and Tomas Spath, the founders of the Institute for Civility in Government.

A young friend reminded me recently that our politics have been uncivil from the beginning. You have only to remember the duel in which Aaron Burr, then Vice President of the United States, killed Alexander Hamilton, former secretary of the Treasury, to realize that. The stories of campaigns from years ago demonstrate that our political interactions have always contained ugly elements. And yet, this year seemed uglier than the norm, somehow, as if all bonds of civility and decency had been cast off. As I talked with this friend, I agreed that our political campaigns have never been pretty, but I argued that this year was different—perhaps because constant access to social media and the 24/7 news cycle shoved the nastiness in our faces in a way that felt much more intrusive.

I’m wrestling now with what I do about the ugly divisions that plague us in our civic life, especially since the worst impulses of sexism and racism and xenophobia have been ushered into our public spaces during this recent campaign. I grieve for those who are frightened for their own personal safety, and I fear for our future unless we confront the nastier elements that have been unleashed from their dark cellars to parade openly among us. I don’t want the ugliest instincts of the long divisive Presidential campaign that has just ended to become routine.

I know that I will continue to participate in the local NAACP as one way to reach across the divisions in this country. I will also do my best to continue to promote the Institute for Civility in Government, http://www.instituteforcivility.org/, of which I’m also a member.  I display their bumper sticker, which says "Choose Civility." Perhaps God encouraged Cassandra Dahnke and Tomas Spath, two Presbyterian pastor friends, to create this organization some years ago for just such a time as this. Civility seems somehow a tame response to the ugly forces that now roam openly among us, but perhaps like love, civility is a force that is stronger than we think. We think of hatred and violence as overwhelmingly strong forces, but perhaps that is because they get more publicity than the forces of love and hope and civility that are also at work among us.

In a sermon awhile back, I talked about standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon and seeing what the slow, steady force of water had created over centuries. Not something you can see happening as you stand on the edge, but the results are certainly more impressive than anything that could have been created by dynamite and angry human beings. Civility is a force akin to the slow, steady movement of water eroding through the hard rock of our divisions and our anger to reach the bedrock of our humanity, where we are each precious children of God.

Grace and Peace,

Friday, November 11, 2016

Kindness Always Wins

Nettie Reynolds, the chaplain who provided the prayers of the people at the Post-Election Detox worship service at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary the day after the recent election, described her encounter with a tow truck driver wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat as well as her concern that he would not help her if he saw the Obama sticker on her car. Their encounter ended with his folding her into a big hug and telling her not to worry about the sticker because “kindness always wins.” I’m still struggling to decide if I believe that to be true. I want to believe it, and I can think of times in my life when I’ve seen kindness win. But I’m also aware of news reports about those who have reached out in kindness and paid a terrible price. I’m still thinking about this, but that of course means the idea will not let me go and continues to tug at my heartstrings.

I think what it comes down to for me is that I’m going to do my best to be kind, even in circumstances where that may not produce the results I might hope for. Because for me, it’s not about the results. It’s about the kind of person I want to be. And I do not want to be a person who is unkind. That does not mean I don’t have my moments like everyone else, but it does mean that I will do my best to be kind, even when it costs me. I also know that being kind can mark me as a “patsy,” an “easy mark,” “someone to be taken advantage of.” And I’m willing to pay that price to be the kind of person I want to be. There have been times when I’ve allowed myself to be taken advantage of, knowing that was probably what was going on, but choosing to “go the extra mile” in hopes it would make a difference in someone else’s life at some point, even if they might be taking advantage of me.

I remember a time not long ago when a young woman accosted me in the parking lot at a local Starbucks to ask me for money. I’m always a bit wary when I’m approached like that and generally answer, “I’m sorry. I don’t have any change for you.” But in this case, God nudged me to respond. So I offered to buy the young woman a drink, and we walked into the Starbucks together. I asked her if she wanted some breakfast, and she said “yes.” I told her to order what she wanted. She asked if she could also get something for her companion, and I said “yes.” The companion called her while we were waiting, and I heard her say, “I’m coming as soon as I can.”

I paid for the order and walked out with her to find that my car was parked close to the big pickup truck she got into. The guy who was driving looked at me with apparent astonishment. She got in; they drove out of the parking lot and onto the highway, and took off. To this day, I wonder what that was about. What did she really need? Why did I feel compelled not only to respond, but also to go overboard, to respond in the way God does, with abundance? While I’m still not sure if “Kindness Always Wins,” I do believe that no act of kindness is wasted. Maybe this young woman was in an abusive relationship, and the guy sent her out to ask for money. And maybe my response will give her the hope she needs to reach out again when she is ready to ask for help. I don’t know. But God does. And that’s good enough for me.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, August 18, 2016


Our Starbucks writing group wrote this morning on the topics of gratitude and food, which one member dubbed “fooditude.” I know am guilty of failing to be grateful for many of my day-to-day blessings, including having more than enough to eat. There are hungry people around the world who would be grateful for the leftovers from our home cooked meals or one of our infrequent meals out. Serving sizes at restaurants have become gigantic. More than once when my husband and I have eaten out, I have saved half of my meal to take home. The next day, we have shared the left overs for lunch—three servings from one restaurant meal!

I remember reading Ser y Comer, migajas en torno a la identidad (To be and to Eat, leftovers on the potter’s wheel of identity), by Eliseo Perez Alvarez, a Latin American pastor, theologian and philosopher. I remember especially a quote from a woman who said Americans make an event out of each meal as they sit down to eat, while those with less food simply eat something standing up when they are hungry and then get back to work. One of the benefits of mission travel to other countries is the opportunity to see our own culture from a different perspective.

I remember the people who served us at the Luyano Church in La Habana on our second mission trip to Cuba. We paid for the food they prepared for us, and, as a result, we ate much better than our hosts normally did. Our last night in La Habana, we went to a fancy restaurant. As is the case here, the portions were huge, and of course I could not take the leftovers home with me. I did not want to throw away food, something drilled into me by parents who grew up hungry in the Great Depression. I did my best, but could not eat even half of my entrée. Defeated, I asked Louis, our driver, if he would like to take the leftovers home. He eagerly agreed and said his wife would enjoy them. I felt guilty because I had not thought to set aside part of the dish before eating.

In our fast food culture, many of us have lost the sense of the goodness of food lovingly prepared from natural ingredients and often fail to slow down enough to enjoy food while we eat. One of my favorite parts of our stays at Santa Luz in Nicaragua on our mission trips there has been the food, which was simple, but delicious. CoCo, the head cook, went out of her way to pamper us with treats like pancakes because she knew we enjoyed them. In her tiny kitchen she prepared a feast for us each evening from simple ingredients: rice and beans for traditional Gallo Pinto, fresh vegetables like those we buy here only from a Farmers Market or pick from our gardens, and fresh fruit. Sweets were a rare treat, though there was a Birthday cake for CoCo’s on one of our trips.

I think perhaps we most appreciate things that are scarce. I am aware that there are far too many people in our own country who do not have enough to eat. Too many live in the food deserts in our big cities where it’s a long walk or bus ride, if that is even available, to the nearest grocery store. Instead there are mainly convenience stores with no fresh fruit or vegetables. I’m reminded that life is not fair, but I am also keenly aware that in the wealthiest country in the world, we have enough to go around if we made the eradication of hunger a goal and shared from our abundance. Too often we operate from a position of scarcity in our culture, even those of us who claim to worship a God of glorious, unlimited abundance.

Grace and Peace,

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Another Life Transition

Today is the last day my husband will see patients at the clinic where he has practiced medicine for almost 35 years. When I woke up this morning, I remembered when we began medical school and law school together, about three months after we married. Somehow during that hectic time in our lives, I never envisioned this day, 45 years of living later. We have had lots of life transitions in that time, the birth of children, the empty nest, and the birth of grandchildren, as well as the death of our parents and other family members and our own health issues.

Still, this transition seems to merit special examination.  It will be a major change in both of our lives. A good one, I think, but one I know will take loving compromise to navigate. I am feeling now something like the realization that comes when the end of a lovely vacation is approaching, and I strive to enjoy each remaining day, milking all it has to offer. I have no idea how many years the two of us have left. That is in God’s good hands, and I’m content to leave the answer there. What I do know is that my life no longer stretches endlessly before me. A recent illness has been a timely reminder of that.

So now, in whatever time I have left in this life’s journey, I want to savor each day for what it has to offer. I want to gather together such legacy as I have to leave my kids and my grandkids and to clean out the detritus of a long and busy lifetime so the important things are not lost among those that don’t matter. My prayer is that I can focus on the clearing out and then relax and enjoy the time left. I know that God will be with us in this latest transition as God has been in the past.

Grace and Peace,


Thursday, February 4, 2016

Basketball Joy

My heart has been heavy since the recent death of my brother. Perhaps that is why I have especially treasured times of joy and laughter these past few weeks. Riley, one of our grandsons, recently decided to play basketball, a different organized sport in our family, though I have great memories of my sons playing basketball for hours on our driveway while they were growing up. My husband and I went to watch one of Riley’s basketball games. We sat against the wall along the edge of the basketball court as the two teams of 8 year-olds played. The noise was deafening, especially since there was another game on the adjacent court. When the whistle and buzzer sounded there, the players on our side of the divider froze. It was hard to tell where the sound came from. The players had a great time racing up and down the court and trying to hit the basket. Some of them already showed talent. No one cared much about the score. The rules are modified for the young players, so I found myself confused on occasion as I tried to remember the few rules of basketball I learned years ago as a member of the pep squad at my high school. Despite the deafening din of pounding feet and bouncing balls and the noise of the whistles and buzzers, it was great fun.

A week after our grandson’s basketball game, my husband and I sat on the edge of the basketball court at Baylor University to watch a different kind of basketball. He had surprised me with tickets to the Harlem Globetrotters, and not just any tickets, but courtside seats. He hoped they would draw me out onto the floor and into their crazy antics. I fell in love with the Harlem Globetrotters as a little girl, but had never seen them in person. Ticking this item off my bucket list took a long time, but it was worth the wait. I don’t remember when I last laughed that hard. For a time, I forgot my sadness as I laughed along with the rest of the crowd at the silliness on the court, from a ball filled with helium that floated into the rafters, to one of the players grabbing a child from the sidelines to use as a shield to protect himself from a bigger player, to my favorite part: an instant replay acted out in slow motion, using a beach ball instead of a basketball, narrated by the Big Easy, the tallest player on the court. I hated to see the game end.

As we headed home, I contemplated the joy of our time at the game, and how much lighter my heart felt. I thought what fun we could have taking our grandkids to a Harlem Globetrotters game, but then thought perhaps Riley should learn the rules a bit better first, since the Globetrotters broke every rule of basketball I knew, and some I didn’t, from one coach stalking into the middle of the court with his own rulebook to deride the referee, to the player who pulled himself up to stand on one of the goals so a teammate could throw him the ball, which he promptly dropped in the basket. A different kind of joy than watching 8 year-olds learn basketball, a joy punctuated with laughter, made all the more poignant because of the sadness of the last few weeks. I’ve been teaching an adult Sunday school class at my church. The most recent lesson was on prayer. One of the theologians in the study talked about joyful play as a kind of prayer. I like that image. To be truly joyful is to be in God’s presence, which is the purpose of prayer after all. There’s something holy about pure, unbounded, joy. God designed us for love and for joy. When we are filled with joy, we are near to the heart of God.

Grace and Peace,