Oh Joy!

Lately I am surprised by life’s smallest joys.

Arriving home from work to find window box brimming with nodding, sassy pansies. Periwinkle, velvet violet, satin butter, summer gold. [Thank you, Janice!]


Package tipping precariously from metal mailbox. Nestled within layers of ready-to-pop bubble, ceramic cup of Hope. [Thank you, Deidra!]


Caribbean Sea, rolled upon dingy, scuffed brown. Breath of spring exhaled into old home.


Little boy bent, intent, wrist snapping scattered droplets. Masterpiece, complete with dried drippy paint glops.


"Happiness turns up more or less where you'd expect it to -- a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeathes it."
Frederick Beuchner

What small joys are you discovering this week?

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Seeing the Lite


I had expectations all right...they just didn't turn out as I expected.

When my pastor first suggested I give up social media for Lent, I balked. "I can't do that," I thought to myself, sitting across from him in the cafe. "It's too risky. There's too much at stake. I can't sacrifice everything I've worked so hard to gain."

I feared the loss. Loss of control, primarily. Fear that readership would plummet, that my itsy-bitsy platform would crumble. But also fear of a deeper loss -- loss of self...

I'm guest posting over at Ginny's Make A Difference to One today. Click here to meet me over there and read about the unexpected blessings of my Lenten fast...

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Palm Sunday Past and Present


As a kid I loved Palm Sunday. Actually, let me rephrase that: as a kid I loved and hated Palm Sunday.

What I loved were the palms themselves. They were a good distraction, the perfect instrument for grazing the polyester rear-end of old Mrs. Kessler one pew ahead and sending my sister into a fit of suppressed giggles. Plus after church that Sunday afternoon we would watch, captivated, as my grandfather fashioned the supple yellow-green fronds into crosses. Later my sister and I would each slide our delicate cross behind the bedroom mirror until, a few months later, it turned brittle brown and eventually slipped beneath the bureau.

Those were the good parts of Palm Sunday. The part of Palm Sunday I hated was the Mass itself...

I wrote this story for this month's "Lincoln Journal Star" column...click here to meet me over there for the rest of the story...

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Sunday is for Singing

See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
is heard in our land.
Song of Songs 2:11-12

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Expecting


I am not a good host.

When I'm expecting guests I work myself into a frothy frenzy. I maniacally sweep dust balls, scrub toilets, plan meals, grocery shop, bake brownies, wash sheets, tidy, organize, straighten crooked pictures, Windex windows, prune dead leaves off house plants. I tackle projects I've been putting off for weeks, like touching up the scuff marks on the basement stair walls. I did this the last time I was expecting out-of-town guests. Except you know what happened? The touch-up paint I used, the paint that was supposed to blend seamlessly into the walls, was the wrong shade. So I ended up having to paint the entire stairwell...all just hours before my house guests arrived. This made me very crabby.

I'd like to tell you that I whirl through the house on a gleeful high. But I don't. I complain ceaselessly. I grumble. I trail after the kids nagging, "Hey! I just vacuumed in here. Can we not keep the sun room mud-free for five full minutes?" I sigh audibly as I bleach the sink gleaming white.

St. Benedict has a lot of say about both hospitality and grumbling. The latter is not tolerated in a Benedictine monastery. Benedictine monks do not grumble – or they're not supposed to anyway. Benedict knew that grumbling – or as he called it, murmuring – is detrimental to one’s soul as well as to the entire community.

And as for hospitality, that is a foundational cornerstone of Benedictine living, the key of which author Jane Tomaine says is "the recognition of Christ in each visitor." The issue is not so much in the preparations one makes to receive the visitors – the scurrying and cleaning and arranging – but in how one receives the visitors themselves: with respect and love.

My problem in the past is that I spent too much time on the preparation, in desiring a perfect experience, than I did on being present for the people. I exhausted myself to the point of emptiness, so I didn't have anything left to give when the guests actually arrived.

Last weekend we had nearly a dozen relatives in town for my mother-in-law's birthday. Without even intending to, I prepared differently this time. I didn't hunch over the stove for hours at a time. In fact, Brad took on the cooking, whipping up barbecue beef brisket in the crock pot, sliced fruit, chips and chocolate cake. I didn't fret over the fact that it wasn't a gourmet meal. I didn't stress over the fact that we couldn't accommodate all the guests in our small dining room. I didn't stalk the kitchen and hover anxiously. Instead I gave Brad's cousins a tour of the upstairs bedrooms, while the other guests served themselves. And then I poured myself a glass of wine, made myself a sandwich and caught up with family I hadn't seen in quite some time.

Ironically I hadn't read the chapter on Benedictine hospitality before my guests arrived. I didn't read the chapter until Tuesday morning. But as I read Tomaine’s advice on hospitality, I realized that I had finally practiced what St. Benedict preached: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).

What’s your key to successful hosting? Are you a frantic preparer or a go-with-the-flow?

Note: This is part three in my Friday Lenten series Blogging Benedict. I am using the text St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living as my guide. Click here to read more about the book (I highly recommend it!). Click here to read other posts in the Blogging Benedict series.

Next week’s Blogging Benedict topic: Work.

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God Has Feet


I've mentioned before that I usually field the theology questions in our house, though not because I want to. For some reason, despite the fact that another adult in the family actually holds a theology degree, the God questions are lobbed at me. I think God himself has something to do with this.

The other night at bedtime Rowan and I talked about God. After the prayer, he burst out, "I want God to be a person! Why isn't God a person?"

Good question, don't you think? I answered as best I could. "Well honey, God isn't a person. God is God. He's not human, except for when he came to Earth as Jesus. But typically God is just God. Not a human, not a person. Just God. "

Can you see why this did not, in fact, clarify the issue for Rowan?

"Daddy says God is a spirit," added Rowan. "But I don't want a spirit! I want a God with feet!"

Well said. Frankly, I would like a God with feet, too. And hands. And a voice I can actually hear in words. I'm with Rowan. It's rough sometimes, this spirit God. And that's pretty much what I told him.

"I know exactly what you mean," I said to Rowan. "It would be a lot easier if we could see and hear God as a human being. But you know, in a way, we can do that, because each person on Earth serves as God's hands and feet and voice. So when you do something nice for someone, or help someone, or love someone, you are actually doing God's work here. And when someone does something nice for you, that's God working through that person."

At this point I gave myself a little pat on the back for explaining theology so succinctly.

Rowan glanced over at me, wry smile turning the corners of his mouth. “So....that means God is bad, too. Because when we do bad things, that's God being bad."

I couldn’t help it. I laughed. "Um, no. When we do bad things, that's the human part of us," I explained, "not the God part."

I could tell by the way he was smiling that Rowan knew this was true. He just wanted to see if I was on my game.

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Breathe Right Psalm

A couple of months ago Brad was watching a football game on television, and I glanced up to glimpse one of the players sitting on the bench. I was surprised to see a breathe right strip plastered across the bridge of his nose with the words "Psalm 91" scrawled on the strip in ink.

At first I was kind of appalled. "How totally lame is that?" I thought to myself. "The guy is evangelizing on his nose."

Curiosity got the best of me, of course, so I looked up Psalm 91. Turns out it was a familiar verse, the one that begins like this:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, "He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust."
Surely he will save you from the fowler's snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

Psalm 91 carries on like this for a while, bursting with images of war, battle, pestilence, plague and snares. It's not a gentle, lyrical psalm. Psalm 91 is powerful, commanding.

The more I thought about it, the more appropriate it seemed that the player had plastered this particular psalm over his nose. Out on the twenty-yard-line, with the clashing of helmets and limbs, the slamming, tumbling, grunting bodies, he surely needed the protection of an army of angels.

Besides, who am I to criticize? I'm not traipsing down the streets of Lincoln, scripture headband adorning my hair, Bible verse purse slung over shoulder. I can't bring myself to mention God at work, never mind broadcast my belief to 4.5 million NBC viewers.

The more I thought about it, I realized Psalm Nose was a braver soul than I.

What do you think about this football player's display of faith?

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Running and Smiling


A couple of years ago I made a New Year's Resolution to smile at strangers. This may not even seem all that difficult to most people. But don't forget, I’m a New Englander at heart; reserved and standoffish, we don't let our guard down easily. And there is no place this inclination towards a steely face is more obvious than on the running path.

I run about four days a week, but I am not what you call a natural runner. I grunt out three or four miles at a ten-minute-mile pace or so, and, creature of habit that I am, I run virtually the same route, day in and day out.

Nothing is more infuriating that running with Brad, because he is a gifted runner. While I huff the “eee,” “ahhhh,” “ooooh” of a woman in labor, Brad breathes inaudibly. I mean it; you absolutely cannot hear him breathing. I pray for heavy traffic to mask the sounds of my struggle while he lopes at my side, pointing out red wing blackbirds and chatting effortlessly. When we run a road race together, Brad cheerfully thanks each and every bystander who offers a cheer, applause or word of encouragement. He actually has the energy and enthusiasm to do this, all while pounding out a 10k. It is profoundly annoying.

This, of course, is why smiling at strangers while I’m running is such a challenge. I’m a grouchy runner, preferring to crank my iPod, focus on my shoes and my relentless suffering and ignore the presence of all humans. Especially runners. Especially runners who look perky and pass me with ease. However, because of my resolution I vow to change my ways. I will smile, and not just a tight-lipped, snarly grimace. No, I will smile broadly, genuinely.

The morning I put my resolution into action was warm, forty-two degrees or so and sunny, the snow melt gushing in a torrent down the street. I knew the fair-weather exercisers would burst out of hibernation and hit the path, intent on whittling winter bellies rounded by macaroni and cheese. I knew there will be lots of required smiling.

Thankfully, I found that most people smiled back as I lumbered past like Bullwinkle. But it was the grumpy ones, the ones who didn't return my smile, who turned my resolution into a religious experience.

My natural inclination, of course, was to curse these unfriendlies, mutter obscenities under my breath and condemn them for their silence: “How hard is it? I'm about to keel over with a stitch that feels like I’ve had my appendix removed about a half mile ago, and you can’t even smile. Really? Is it that much of a burden to you? Really, is it?”

But I smiled. Every time someone passed me on the trail heading in the opposite direction, I smiled and said hello. The grumpier the exerciser, the more broadly I smiled, the more kindly I thought.

I was, in short, pretending.

The funny thing is, I may have started by pretending, by behaving like I actually had a particular quality – the smiling effortlessly quality – but sure enough, it wasn't long before I had a smidge of the actual quality itself. By the time I was done, I actually felt cheerier.

Something I read recently in Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink reminded me of this running and smiling experiment. Gladwell writes about scientist Paul Elkman, who studies facial expressions. In fact, Elkman has catalogued the entire repertoire of essential facial displays of emotion, all 3,000 of them. And what Elkman also discovered in his research is that expression alone is "sufficient to create marked changes in the automatic nervous system."

That is, if we put on a happy face, our emotional state will soon follow suit.

I prefer to view it as God and science working hand in hand. While the Holy Spirit moved me to smile at strangers, even when I didn't feel like it, my body responded – synapses fired, impulses  traveled to and fro, and happiness flowed.

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Sand Dollar Shards: A Story of Forgiveness

Yesterday's reading was from Matthew 6:7-15, a lesson on forgiveness. And I'm going to have to ask you to forgive me...because I haven't written a fresh post on this topic for today. We celebrated my mother-in-law Janice's birthday this weekend, with lots of out of town guests and festivities, so I didn't write a word. Luckily this story I posted back in September covers the topic of forgiveness pretty well, so I thought I'd repost it here today. I'll be back tomorrow with some original material.

Recently Pastor Sara wrote about the topic of forgiveness on Southwood's blog, and it got me thinking about a couple incidents of forgiveness we've experienced in our household recently.

The other morning as I was shaving my legs my foot brushed Noah's tower of sand dollars he had left perched on the edge of the tub and sent them tumbling. Sand dollar shards scattered at my feet -- the largest in his prized collection had broken. As I bent down to pick up the pieces, my first instinct was to blame him. "What a stupid place to leave them," I thought angrily. "It's not my fault they broke; he's the one who left them on the side of the tub for crying out loud."

After I'd dried off and thrown on my clothes, though, I knew I had to tell Noah the truth. I knew I had to apologize. After all, I was the one who had broken one of his favorite possessions.

I approached him in the kitchen. "Noah...um...I'm really sorry, honey," I said, holding out the shards in my palm. "I'm really sorry, but I accidently knocked over your sand dollars in the tub, and this big one broke. I'm sorry."

Noah looked at the broken pieces for a split second, looked up at me, and then, without another thought, said, "It's okay, Mommy. I still have other ones that aren't broken."

Forgiveness.

Now, compare this incident with another that had transpired a couple of days earlier. It was during the morning rush hour -- you know, the frenetic hour leading up to the school-day departure. Rowan and I were in the bathroom. While I brushed on blush, he flailed around, jumping up and down on an imaginary pogo stick, yelling at the top of his lungs and bouncing around the confined space like a superball.

At one point, in a moment of particularly frenzied energy, one of Rowan's limbs swiped a ceramic dish off the sink counter and sent it crashing to the floor, where it broke into a dozen or so pieces.

Now, I admit...this was a favorite dish. I had painted it with Noah at Paint Yourself Silly; it matched the colors of my bathroom perfectly. I often used it to hold my watch or jewelry as I washed my face or brushed my teeth. On the other hand, it's not like it was valuable or held hugely sentimental value. It's not like it was the Spode vase my best friend Andrea had given me for a wedding shower gift. It's not like it was Waterford crystal. It was just a $3.99 dish.

So, you're wondering, how did I react? Was I like Noah, quick to forgive? Ah no. I flipped out. "Rowan! Come on, give me a break!" I yelled. "Are you kidding me? How many times did I tell you to calm down? How many times did I tell you to leave Mommy alone while I was getting ready for work? Now look what happened! You were goofballing around and now look!"

I was not quick to forgive. I was not quick to overlook Rowan's flaws.

Quite a disparity between our respective reactions.

In readily forgiving me, Noah taught me compassion. As Pastor Sara said in her blog:

"It all comes back to compassion. It seems to be an American trait to want to point the blame at someone else. But if we do that, an "I'm sorry" or an "I forgive you" is never even possible. As adults, one of the best things we can do for children is to admit we are wrong sometimes and ask for forgiveness. This shows far more compassion and grace than proving we were right in the first place ever could."

I eventually apologized to Rowan for reacting so harshly to his mistake. He didn't seem to care one way or the other; in fact, he looked genuinely puzzled, like he was having a hard time remembering the dish in the first place. But I did apologize. And I did forgive him for his goofbally ways. And maybe, somewhere in that little heart of his, Rowan forgave me for my overreactive tendencies. Or maybe not. To be honest, it's sort of hard to tell with that one.

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Sundays are for Anticipating

A hush is over everything,
Silent as women wait for love;
The world is waiting for the spring.
Sara Teasdale

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Conversion of Life


When I felt the first trickling inkling of belief, I assumed I was set. I figured once I’d experienced my official “conversion,” I'd be home free, smooth sailing for eternity.

As with most everything else in this process so far, I thought wrong. Beginning to believe in God was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The real conversion, it seems, takes place continually, incrementally, from that moment – and every moment – forward (and backwards).

I should have read Benedict a couple of years ago, when I assumed conversion would happen with the brush of a magic wand. Benedict would have illuminated me with his words on conversatio morum – the conversion of life. St. Benedict’s Toolbox author Jane Tomaine explains the concept this way:

“While stability calls us to remain, conversion of life calls us to change and to grow, to be transformed by the Spirit. It has an outward dimension and an inward dimension. Outward behavior or attitudes change as well as the inner self. God works with both dimensions…Conversion of life is a process where, again and again, we recognize that we’ve turned from God, we listen to how God is calling us back, and we take action to return to living a gospel life.”

I have the perfect example (I may have written about this here before…I apologize if I have).

Last summer I got mad at my neighbor. For weeks he parked his pick-up truck in front of the flower garden that sidles along the picket fence next to the street. Day after day I couldn’t run the sprinklers, couldn’t weed or deadhead or prune, couldn’t even admire the blooming lilies and bee balm and phlox. I griped endlessly about the inconvenience to Brad and to my friend Viviana. “This is ridiculous,” I fumed. “I can’t even see my own garden. All I see is his stupid, ugly, red truck! Why can’t he park in his own driveway? Why does he have to park in front of my house? In front of my garden?!”

I schemed revenge. I decided I would confront my neighbor about the parking issue, and when (of course I assumed when, not if) he refused to move the truck, I planned to yank weeds, toss them into the back of his truck, turn on the sprinkler system and watch with delight as the bed of his pick-up turned into a muddy, glumpy, slimy mess.

I marched over to his house with Rowan in tow. And you know what happened? My neighbor couldn’t have been more gracious.

“I’m so sorry about that,” he said immediately. “We are about to resurface the driveway, would you mind if I parked the truck there just a few more days?” Not only was he pleasant and apologetic, he also took the time to show Rowan how the fountain in his front yard pumped water. And he gave us a tour of the remodeled kitchen. And he offered free three-day passes for Brad and me to use at his son’s new gym.

Needless to say, I was properly humbled. Humbled enough to pick up the phone when I walked in my front door. I called Viviana and explained to her how I’d wrongly judged my neighbor, how I hadn’t loved my neighbor very well at all. It was, in short, a conversion of life experience.

True conversion requires that we prepare our hearts continually for transformation. We continually strive to make God, rather than ourselves, the center. It’s not a day-long or month-long or year-long process. It’s lifelong.

We slowly weed slivers of soil. God plants tiny, fresh seeds, one at a time.

Note: This is part four in my Friday Lenten series Blogging Benedict. I am using the text St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living as my guide. Click here to read more about the book (I highly recommend it!). Click here to read other posts in the Blogging Benedict series.

Next week’s Blogging Benedict topic: hospitality.

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Three-Fourths


We’re at the four-week mark of Lent, three-fourths of the way through, and I’ve hit my stride in the social media fast. I hardly even think about it anymore, except to wonder how I will integrate social media back into my life come the Monday after Easter.

I realize now that it’s not so much a matter of how much free time I have, but how I spend the time I do have. Social media leaves me feeling fragmented, frenzied, because I try to squeeze in as much of it as possible in slivers of time throughout my day. In the past, if I had an extra ten minutes before I dropped the kids off at school, I’d dash over to the computer, zip through a couple of blogs and leave a couple comments. Now I snuggle on the couch and watch Scooby Doo. Or sit and watch morning doves at the feeder for a minute or two.

Life feels less squeezed. Less slap-dash. Fuller. My days have more wiggle room.

So here’s the question: how do I integrate social media back into my life come April 5? How do I strike that precarious balance?

For the record, it is a necessity. While part of me would like to chuck it all forever, the other, more realistic side of me knows that social media – particularly Twitter and blog following and commenting – really does make an impact on growing my own blog audience.

In case any of you wondered about this yourselves, there is no magic bullet to growing readership…except plain, old-fashioned, nose-to-the-grindstone work. This is what all the bloggers with huge followings told me when I first started blogging (I know, because I emailed some of them with this very question). I really didn’t believe their answers – that it was a matter of simply following and commenting on other blogs. I thought there was some big secret, some trick to the process that I wasn't privy to.

Unless I’m still missing the big secret, there is no trick. The key to growing your blog following, the key to increasing readership, is to follow and comment on other blogs. It's that simple. Since I halted this process four week ago, I have noticed a difference in my readership. The daily numbers have dropped (although not as precipitously as I first feared); the comments are fewer; I have only gained a single new follower in four weeks [Thank you to all you loyal followers who continue to read and comment, even though I don't reciprocate! You are wonderful!]. 

Clearly I have not reached that magical tipping point – the point at which my blog will automatically generate new readers. Clearly social media is an integral part of the process.

For now, I have two more weeks to mull. Two more weeks to consider how I will better balance the pull of social media come April 5. Two more weeks to create a strategy that will address my OCD tendencies. Because I know myself. Unless I have a fool-proof strategy, come April 5 my obsessive nature will win in a heartbeat, and I'll be back to the slap-dash, fragmented existence.

So am I the only one who falls prey to this social media addiction? Am I the only one addicted to growing readership? And if I’m not alone, what strategies do you use to balance it all?

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My Irish Eyes are Smiling

We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with gusto in my extended family, a tradition I’ve kept up with my own children (after all, we must balance that Norwegian stoicism with a bit of blarney, don’t you think?).

On Saturday the kids and I made a loaf of chocolate chip Irish Soda Bread, from a recipe handed down from Mrs. Eileen Long, a dear relative who bravely sailed from Ireland to America by herself at sixteen.




Mrs. Long, as we fondly called her, always had a twinkle in her eye, a lilt in her voice, a bit of sass in her replies. Never complaining, always full of mirth and spirit, she exuded a contagious joy to those of us blessed to have known her.

So in remembrance of Mrs. Long and in honor of my dear Irish family (I’ll throw in the French and English family members, too), I give you this traditional Irish blessing:

May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

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Cutting Slack

Last week I had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Not dramatically bad. Just persistently bad.

First the boys sluiced around in the slushy snow and in two minutes flat managed to soak not only their sneakers but also the bottom quarter of their jeans. By the time they got into the car, Rowan was sobbing about his frozen feet and sopping socks, and Noah was bemoaning the fact that he’d have to spend the entire school day in wet sneakers.

Generous and compassionate mother that I am, I did not volunteer to run inside for a fresh change of socks and shoes, but instead tersely suggested they think before they act next time.

Then I had to loop back to the house not once, but twice after I dropped Noah off at school – first to pick up my forgotten cell phone and then again for my neglected wallet.

Later, as I unloaded the groceries from the back of the minivan, one of the paper bags burst open in my hands, sending a dozen Yoplait, bunch of bananas, roll of paper towels, bottle of ranch and can of Folgers tumbling into the slushy slop on the driveway. As I shook the wet mess from each item and tossed them into the entryway of the house, I mumbled obscenities under my breath. I stomped my foot a bit, sending half-frozen glop flying. In short, I had myself a bit of a hissy fit.

While I was shaking slush off my groceries outside, I missed my best friend Andrea calling, who I hadn’t talked to for weeks on end.

And then, after I’d finally unloaded the groceries into the cabinets and refrigerator, I realized that I had lost my credit card.

“Mommy’s having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day,” I complained to Rowan.

“Mommy needs a love day,” he answered and promptly headed upstairs.

Thirty minutes later he re-emerged with a gift, a work of art: seashells fastidiously magic markered in violet and stuck delicately onto a pencil entwined in coral wiki stick. A masterpiece in creativity and ingenuity, if I may say so.


I learned a lesson from Rowan that day, which is this: it pays to cut people some slack, to give others the benefit of the doubt. Instead of ignoring my complaint and rolling his eyes (as I had done to him that very morning), Rowan reached out with compassion and empathy. He cut me some major slack. And I think it would be wise for us adults to do just the same.

After all, how often do you come across a cranky cashier? Or a rude driver? Or a snippy telemarketer? And how often do you react with compassion? I, for one, usually mutter something disdainful under my breath as I walk away: “What’s her problem? Jeez lady, why don’t you choose another profession, maybe like prison guard…I don’t think customer service is the job for you.”

Perhaps before I mutter I should stop to consider that the person might be having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Or perhaps worse. Maybe her mother died last week. Maybe her husband was just diagnosed with cancer.

At the very least we can cut the cranky cashier some slack. Offer a smile or a friendly hello. At the very least we can give the rude driver the benefit of the doubt – a prayer instead of a curse.

You never know what burdens a person carries.

Rowan gave me the benefit of the doubt last week, even though I didn’t deserve it. Who will you give the benefit of the doubt this week?

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”
Philo of Alexandria

Addendum: As I made the finishing edits to this post, Rowan dropped a boysenberry yogurt from atop the counter onto the floor. Purple yogurt spattered to kingdom come. He howled with indignation. I cut him some slack (it wasn’t easy, but I did it – oh why is it so much easier to write than it is to live?! Thank you, God, for giving me the opportunity to practice what I preach.).

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The Grace Loophole


Yesterday’s reading was on forgiveness – the parable in Matthew 18 about a servant whose great debt is erased by the king, but yet later does not forgive a debt that is owed him. Pastor Sara preached on God's forgiveness – namely that God is infinitely forgiving, no matter how egregious our sins. “There is no sin that is a match for his grace,” as Timothy Keller says in his book The Prodigal God.

I love the idea of this, but I admit, I get hung up on one particular aspect of grace, which is this: how grace relates to belief…or more specifically, unbelief.

After all, isn’t the backbone of Lutheranism that quintessential line from Paul in his letter to the Ephesians: “Grace through faith alone” (2:8)? I realize that the context of this line falls within Paul’s discussion of faith versus good works – here he states that it’s not “from yourselves…not by works” that we are saved, but by the gift of God. Nonetheless, the implication is that we must have faith in order to receive such grace.

My question is: do non-believers receive God’s grace? Do non-believers receive salvation?

One of the Biblical passages that troubles me most is this one, from Paul’s letter to the Romans:

“If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (10:9-19).

It’s a pretty clean “If…then” equation: If you believe…then you will be saved. So doesn’t this imply that belief – belief in your heart – is a requirement for eternal salvation? And if so, what happens to the wafflers? The doubters? The non-believers? Is unbelief the only unforgivable sin?

I wish I had the answers to these questions. Because honestly, I’m afraid I’ve discovered a loophole in grace. I worry that the questions in my heart are too big – that my faith isn’t genuine enough, deep enough, heartfelt enough. While I may desire faith in my mind, I'm afraid it doesn’t truly reside in my heart.

What do you think? This may be a can-of-worms question I’m opening here…but do you think non-believers are covered by God’s grace?

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Sundays are for Lite


"I am beginning to learn it is the sweet, simple things of life which are the real ones after all."
Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Humility


I've always been a "good girl." A rule follower. A straight arrow. In high school I never broke my curfew. Not once. I never drank. Never smoked pot. Always did my homework, got good grades. Visited my grandparents and other aged relatives regularly. I wrote prompt thank you notes, visited the dentist twice annually.

I was always a rule follower, always responsible. I still am.

So when I saw this week's Blogging Benedict theme was obedience, I figured "piece of cake." No problem – I've got this one nailed. I am the Queen of Obedience.

I thought wrong.

I should have known Benedict would have a different take on obedience – that he wouldn't suggest simple rule following. Turns out, Jane Tomaine's chapter on obedience is jam-packed – far too much to cover in a single post. So I've chosen one small facet of the Benedictine vow of obedience: humility.

When I read that one of the 12 steps in Benedictine humility is to believe in your heart that others are better than you, I actually laughed out loud.

Well sure, I believe some people are better than I am. Way better. Gandhi, for instance. Mother Teresa. Saint Paul. The pilot who landed the plane on the Hudson. Yeah, those guys have me beat by a mile.

But ordinary people? Grouchy people? Vindictive people? People I don't even like very much? The guy who cut me off on South Street last week and then gave me the finger? He's better? I don't think so. The snippety bank teller? She's better? The slacker co-worker? The person who landed a book deal and can't string together a complete sentence, while my manuscript languishes in the desk drawer? That person is better?

This is the problem. Benedict suggests we need to believe everyone is better – not just the saints and the heroes. He means even the annoying people. The people who have wronged you. The people you suspect might be a little less smart than you.

And Paul meant everyone, too, when he said this to the Philippians:

"Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus." (Philippians 2:3-5).

Pretty tough words to live by, if you really think about it. But I can think of one person who seemed to live this way – humbly, graciously, with humility (someone besides Jesus, I mean).

John the Baptist lived like this. He put the interests of Jesus before himself without a moment’s hesitation.

John the Baptist was a very important, very powerful man in his time. But when Jesus came on the scene, John was quick to point out that he was merely a servant to “the one who comes from above and is above all.” It may have been tempting for John to retain his position in the limelight, but he didn’t do that. Instead, he relinquished all control and was truly joyful that Jesus had arrived. He was willing and eager to step aside and let Jesus take the shining role:

“He must become greater; I must become less.” (John 3:30)

Think about it. That would be like a CEO of a Fortune 500 company stepping down to take a position in the mailroom. What John did was truly remarkable, truly humble.

John makes me think about my own motives. Are they as true and humble as his were? Do I willing step aside to let others shine in the spotlight? Or do I try to take the credit? Do I shine the spotlight on God through my humble serving? Do I make decisions based on selflessness? Do I regard others as better than myself?

Truthfully? No.

So what’s the answer? How do we change our ways? How can we strive to live humbly and obediently? Paul gives us the answer:

“Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13).

How do we change our ways? With God’s help, of course.


How do you try to live humbly and obediently?

Note: This is part four in my Friday Lenten series Blogging Benedict. I am using the text St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living as my guide. Click here to read more about the book (I highly recommend it!). Click here to read other posts in the Blogging Benedict series.

Next week’s Blogging Benedict topic: Conversion of Life.

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Love Notes


Noah writes notes.

It began with Post-Its when he was just learning penmanship. I would find pastel notes stuck to every surface of the house.

Warnings on the bathroom counter: "Wach out! I splld wader! Be carful!"

Endearments left on my pillow, like the clam shell with this no-nonsense sentiment attached: "Here you go!"

Sweet wishes dangling from the dashboard: "Hav a god day!" [that's "Have a good day," in case you're confused].

Now that he writes with ease, his correspondence is longer and more eloquent. Brad receives kudos for his pancake-making skills; Rowan, praise for being a good little brother.

Two favorites that came my way recently: the words to the much-loved song You are My Sunshine transcribed neatly on lined paper -- with "Mommy" replacing the word "sunshine" all the way through.

And another lined sheet bearing the instuctions, "I have some one for you. He is on the next peace of paper," followed by a live ladybug encircled in a heart. That one was presented gingerly, so as not to startle the ladybug and send her flying before the gift was received.

My treasure box overflows with pink and yellow Post-Its, edges curling; ragged scraps; lined and ruled sheets; bold-hued construction paper. I taped the "Sunshine" letter to the inside of my journal. Another note serves as a bookmark in my Bible. Several more hang from my cork board at work.

"I love you very much, Mommy. You are one of my favoret people in the univers."

Love notes to last a lifetime.

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Pilgrimage



I embarked upon a Lenten pilgrimage last week to the Holy Family Shrine in Omaha. I've wanted to stop there for years, seeing the stately barn-like structure -- all glass and beams -- rising above I-80 atop a lofty plain. Last week I finally got the chance.

The timing was perfect. I'd spent the afternoon at a stressful work event in Omaha, where I served as the official photographer. I had arrived there a full 35 minutes late, having gotten myself hopelessly lost on the way. Suffice to say, I'd found myself in Iowa instead of downtown Omaha. Yes, never mind the wrong city...I'd landed in the wrong state.

By the time I began the hour-long drive home, I was in dire need of tranquility. I exited the highway and followed the signs to Holy Family, mini van bumping and splashing down the muddy dirt road. As I crested the hill, I glimpsed the shrine, glass reflecting native prairie grass.


I had the place to myself, so I sat in the pew for 20 minutes or so, watching traffic glide soundless on the highway far below, resting my eyes on snowy expanse, the plains still like a gigantic, white blanket. A stream set into the stone floor below the pews flowed toward the altar, water trickling over smooth river rocks. Jesus hung high against metallic sky. I closed my eyes.



Holy Family Shrine is stunningly beautiful in its stark simplicity. Natural wood, vast panes of glass, arched, beamed ceilings, stone floor. It seemed to me a building built for rest -- a quiet, still place to think and pray and gather oneself inward. I'm so glad I stopped; I just hope it doesn't take me another five years to return.


Do you have a place that brings you peace and tranquility?

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Forty Notes


My friend Kelli launched an inspiring initiative for Lent. For each of the 40 days, she writes and mails a note to someone, describing the ways in which that person has blessed her or positively impacted her life. I love this! Rather than going the traditional route of sacrificing something for Lent, Kelli is embracing reflection and connection -- something we let slide far too often in the hustle-bustle of our daily lives.

Plus I love the nostalgic personal touch of the handwritten note on a lovely notecard -- Kelli is single-handedly reviving the lost art of letter-writing for Lent. This is no small task -- think of writing 40 notes!

I, for one, have placed the card I received from her last week in my treasure box, so that someday, when I'm in need of a lift, I can revisit her kind words.

Are you doing anything unique for Lent this year?

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Repent


In Nathanial Hawthorne’s 19th-century novel The Scarlet Letter, the town preacher, Reverend Dimmesdale, has an adulterous affair with Hester Prynne, who bears his child as a result. When the townspeople discover the affair, they brand Hester with the scarlet letter "A" embroidered upon her dress, but she does not reveal the identity of her lover. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, experiences sorrow and guilt over his role in the affair, yet does not act on his emotions. Instead he keeps his secret and slowly succumbs to psychological and physical distress as the result of his inner torment. Years later he dies moments after admitting to the townspeople that it was he who fathered Hester's illegitimate child.

The Scarlet Letter is a story about repentance, a lesson about the grave consequences of harboring secrets of sin. According to Hawthorne's classic tale, unacknowledged sin – sin unconfessed and unrepented – rots the body and soul from the inside out.

I admit, I have a problem with the word repent. It conjures images of shouting, spittle-flying, finger-pointing preaching from the pulpit, an angry demand that I repent or burn for eternity. To me, the word repent has always been associated with fire and brimstone, vengeance, punishment – an angry God lambasting a sinner. It rings fundamentalist, tent-revivalist.

The word repent, quite frankly, gives me the creeps.

Yesterdays reading (Luke 19:1-10) and sermon offered me another definition of repent to contemplate: that of turning around, a conscious acknowledgment of our sins and a radical decision to change our actions and behaviors.

I’ve never thought of repentance as a choice; I’ve always approached it as a requirement – a “had to” rather than a “want to.” As a kid I equated repentance with penance. After I’d recited my list of sins to the priest, he’d dole out my penance (most often one “Our Father” and two “Hail Marys”), and I would head back to the pew to recite my prayers. For me, penance didn’t require a change of heart and mind, but was simply a duty – a chore – which, once accomplished, freed me temporarily from the burden of sin.

Turns out, the act of repentance may entail a quieter, more reflective approach – an inventorying of one’s sins and then – and this is the key – a transformation of attitude. A change of mind and heart.

It’s hard work, this repenting. No one likes change, and at its heart, repentance requires radical change, from the inside out. It’s difficult enough to confront my laundry list of wrongs, to see my faults lined up in black and white, but then to do something to rectify those faults, to change deep-seated behavior? We all know how difficult that is indeed. Too often I do the inventory – I acknowledge my transgressions – but then stop short right there. Admitting my wrongs is so hard, it often seems like admittance itself should be enough.

But it’s not.

After all, God expects a clean heart, a heart washed pure. Confession begins the cleansing process. Repentance carries it through.

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Sunday is for Sensing Spring

"A light exists in Spring
Not present in the year
at any other period
When March is scarcely here."

~ Emily Dickinson

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Stability


When we were in graduate school Brad entrusted me with his ficus tree, Herman (yes, named in honor of Herman Melville), before he left for Minnesota for a year.

I positioned Herm next to the sliding glass doors and watched as he began to drop leaves at an alarming rate. I moved him to a South-facing window. More leaves littered the carpet. I moved him again, this time to a slightly less sunny spot. Leaves, withered and yellow, wafted like snowflakes onto the hardwood floors. I watered Herman, fed him plant food, repositioned him yet again in a less chilly spot. And still he dropped leaves. After a single week, I was forced to call Brad in Minnesota and report that his once lush ficus now stood naked in my parents’ living room, lone leaf dangling from bare branches.

I’d killed Herman in a record-setting seven days flat.

Turns out, ficus trees like stability. What causes a ficus to shed leaves faster than a sugar maple in a November wind storm? Shifting its location to a new spot. Brad, of course, had left Herm next to the same sunny window for years, without sliding his pot so much as an inch. Then we had tossed the plant into the backseat of my Pontiac Grand Am and carted him to my parents’ house, where my mom and I moved him from spot to spot in a desperate attempt to quell the leaf-shedding.

Uprooted, Herm failed to thrive.

There’s a Benedictine lesson to be learned from Herman the ficus, a lesson about stability. When Benedictines commit to religious life under the Rule, they take three vows: stability, obedience and conversion of life. The vow of stability entails that we simply stay put – and learn to look for God in the here and now.

“In a nutshell, stability is the action of remaining steadfast and faithful to the situation in which God has placed us,” writes Jane Tomaine. “It is persistently sticking with a situation, the people, and with God.”

“Great,” I think when I first read this. “I am hopelessly un-Benedictine.” After all, I do not easily live life in the present moment. More often I stretch half a foot – or an entire limb – into the future, constantly assuming that what’s next (better job, another baby, bigger house, trendier purse) will bring happiness and contentment.

Our culture feeds this tendency, so that over time we grow conditioned to think that it’s okay to drop one thing and move onto the next. Marriage grown stale? Divorce. Bored on the job? Quit. Shoes scuffed? Buy a new pair. We abandon with ease, enticed by the freshness of new.

I, for one, love drama. I embrace the new with abandon – whether it’s a new hobby, an exercise plan, an eating regimen, a friendship – wooed by fresh possibility and excitement. Three weeks later, ask me how the early morning yoga is going. Or how I am weathering conflict with that new friend. Once the bright, shiny surface of the new grows dim, I drop it.

It’s this relentless pursuit of the perfect place that leads to the Herman phenomenon. In all our searching, we end up unmoored, uprooted. Displaced. We end up feeling more and more lost. We wither.

So what’s the solution? Benedict tells us we should aim for stability.

“Stability is achieved through perseverance, through holding on even under great strain, without weakening or trying to escape. It involves endurance, a virtue we do not often talk about today…stability means perseverance with patience,” writes Tomaine.

Simply stated, stability means we hang on in the situation we are in and with the people who are there with us. As we stay put, as we quell the inclination to flee, we find God’s presence.

“When in conflict, do nothing,” my dad always advised – sound advice indeed. When I resist the fight-or-flight urge I often discover that the situation resolves, a solution presents itself. And I often find God in the moment. Sometimes I see him in retrospect, after time has passed and I have a clear perspective in hindsight. Occasionally I experience him in the actual moment itself – in something Noah or Rowan say, in a Bible verse I read or hear, in a hymn echoing in the church sanctuary.

Now back to Herman the ficus.

Much to my surprise Herm eventually recovered. Once I stopped shifting his pot around the house – ironically, once I’d given him up for dead – I began to notice tiny buds bloom on naked branches. Leaf by delicate, unfurling leaf, Herm began to thrive, blossoming into a lush canopy. I never shifted his pot again – until I moved…at which point Herman died, and then was reborn, yet again.

Are you always looking ahead for something new, different, better? How might you nurture the Benedictine practice of stability?

Note: This is part three in my Friday Lenten series Blogging Benedict. I am using the text St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living as my guide. Click here to read more about the book (I highly recommend it!). Click here to read other posts in the Blogging Benedict series.

Next week’s Blogging Benedict topic: Obedience.

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A Baptism


My friend Deepa was baptized last week at Southwood.

I've been curious about Deepa for a long time. She and her husband are active members of the church. They participate in our small group Bible study. They both have phenomenal voices and sing regularly during worship service. They volunteer their time and talents with the church's ministries and in the community.

Although Deepa had been raised Hindu, she’d been a longtime member of Southwood, but yet hadn’t ever been baptized as a Christian. And I couldn’t help but wonder, nosy-nelly that I am, "What was her story? Why was she so committed to Southwood and seemingly so committed to God, but yet not baptized?” I even spied on her as she filed toward the altar in the communion line, and then nudged Brad next to me, whispering, "She received a blessing, but didn't take communion! What’s up with that?" Brad shrugged. He wasn’t as concerned with the nuances of Deepa’s faith (read: not as nosy), but I was mystified.

Last Friday, at our small group meeting, Deepa announced that she'd been baptized the prior Sunday. And she told us why.

"For a long time after I'd started going to church with Drew, I looked for all the reasons why it didn't fit," she explained. "What didn't make sense, what didn't apply to me, what didn't sound right or feel right to me. I was standing off to the side of all the paths to God…in limbo. After a while, though, I began to focus more on what did feel right, what did fit. At some point I realized that I had stepped onto the path. And I decided to make my choice ‘official’ by being baptized into Christianity, in this church, with these pastors, with my friends and family around me.”

I love Deepa's story. It’s so different from my own story, but in many ways so familiar. For years I, too, looked for the ways religion didn't fit. I, too, looked for all the ways God didn't make sense. I, too, went through the motions – just as Deepa admitted she'd done with Hinduism – reciting the right prayers, singing the right hymns. For years the not-fitting was my sole focus, until slowly my thinking began to be transformed. Just like Deepa, I began to recognize the ways in which God did fit; the ways in which, amazingly, he did make sense. I, too, stepped onto the path.

I was raised Catholic and Deepa Hindu. Our religious upbringing couldn’t be more different. Yet here we are, inexplicably meeting on the same path. Here we walk, stepping forward together.

A blessing indeed.

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Stretching

It’s been a full two weeks since the start of Lent, and I find that I’ve settled into a more fluid existence, an ease that at first felt foreign, disconcerting, but is now welcomed and embraced. As many of you know, I’ve given up extraneous social media for Lent – Twitter, Facebook, blog hopping, commenting, stat tracking. And while initially this fast felt stifling, terrifying even, it’s now shifted into a period of liberation, peace and rest. A letting go. And an opening up.

Fresh space widens, allowing me choices I didn’t think I had time to make before. Shall I read a magazine? Watch Scooby Doo and snuggle with the kids on the couch? Glimpse sparrows vie for space at the feeder while the sun rises lavender? Coat a dingy, banged up basement wall clean with vibrant yellow? Bake an extra loaf of banana bread?

A couple of nights ago Brad and I even tried yoga. We’ve been talking about doing this for months; I’d even bought a beginner’s DVD at Target, which sat on top of the player collecting dust for six weeks before I even unsheathed it from its plastic casing.

Let me just say, for the record, that Brad and I could easily take first in the Most Flexibly Challenged Couple Contest. So rather than an exercise in deep breathing, stretching and chi, our yoga routine was punctuated by grunting, wavering, shaky poses, occasional tumbling, labored snorting and sidesplitting laughter. Our hands dangled knee-high as we reached for our toes, one eye on the TV as the instructor placed both hands, palms down, flat on her mat. At one point I looked over at Brad and asked, “Is that seriously a stretch, because honestly it looks like you’re just standing there.”

Yes, this is me...in the unrecognizable triangle pose. Notice how there is absolutely nothing triangular about it.

Suffice to say, it wasn’t a typical yoga experience, but that didn’t matter much. It was something different. And it was time well-spent with my husband.

So it seems yoga might be an apt metaphor after all. Perhaps these six Lenten weeks encourage just that – a stretching of sorts, a limbering and loosening. A letting go. An opening up.

How’s Lent going for you? Are you discovering anything new or unexpected? If you've given up something, is it getting any easier?

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The Moth


Last year we experienced death up close and personal, in our own backyard.

Throughout the winter we had observed a large cocoon dangling like a leather satchel from the river birch tree. We weren’t confident it contained a hibernating creature – Rowan had prodded it too vigorously a couple of times, batting at it like it was a miniature tether ball, so we didn’t have high hopes for its metamorphosis. Nevertheless, one May evening Noah stormed into the house shouting, “The moth is here! The moth is here!” and we all dashed out to take a look.

Its body was furry and plump, like a tiny fruit bat, with a wingspan as wide as my hand. Two bushy antennae sprung from the moth’s head like centipedes, and on its intricately patterned wings shone bright yellow spots, unblinking owl eyes. It dangled a few inches from its cocoon, gingerly folding and unfolding its giant wings, hairy legs twitching a little as they clung to the branch. We all posed for photos with the moth like it was Julia Roberts suspended from the tree.

...This story turns from joy to sorrow to frail understanding. I'm guest posting over at Make A Difference To One today [thanks, Ginny!] – meet me over there!

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Broken

"Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue."
Eugene O’Neill

In third grade I stole a necklace. It was exquisite, exotic – a choker with a black velvet strap and a single, brilliant faux sapphire. I spied it glinting from Kim's desk across the aisle in math class. The necklace sat right at the edge of her desk, within reach.

I had to have it, pined for it, battling a desire so strong it made my stomach clench. So while Mrs. Chase bent over Kim’s shoulder, I quickly reached over and slid my fingers into the open desk, grabbed the velvet strand and balled it into the front pocket of my corduroys, a snake slipping into a dark hole.

Regret rushed in almost instantly, the thrilling high of the conquest crashing into gut-wrenching fear. Stealing, I knew, was a ticket straight to Hell. There wasn’t any denying it – “Thou shalt not steal” is, in fact, one of the more clearly defined commandments. I could practically hear God thundering, “Thou shalt not steal…Michelle.”

Thankfully I had an out: All I had to do was head to the confessional. The problem was, I chickened out each time I braced myself to confess. As I rattled through my list of minor infractions – disobeying my parents, lying, gossiping – I always left off the big one; I just couldn’t bring myself to confess the theft. I would leave the confessional uncleansed, kneel in the pew to recite my penance and curse myself for my cowardice.

Now that I look back, I think I was less terrified of the actual confession than of the inevitable outcome. I figured the priest wouldn’t react too dramatically, but I was positive he would insist not only that I tell my parents about the theft, but also that I return the necklace to its rightful owner. What I could not bear was the thought of the public humiliation, the thought of Kim’s disdain and my classmates’ ridicule. I knew word would get out; I knew my friends would laugh, gossip about me beyond my back, mock me. I chose eternal damnation to save face. Pride, it turns out, was my more egregious sin in the end.

Fast forward thirty years. I’ve since committed far worse sins than theft…and I still have trouble truly confessing my sins to God.

For a long time I equated confession with punishment. To me, the process was a neat equation: you sin, confess, perform penance (punishment), earn forgiveness. It’s taken me a long time to realize that punishment isn’t a necessary part of the equation – and to realize that there isn’t a simple equation at all.

It’s not that neat, this business of confession and forgiveness. It’s messy. Ugly. It hurts.

Several years ago someone told me, in anger, “You break human crockery” – a fancy way of saying I hurt people. Yes. I do. I hurt my husband. My children. My parents. My sister. My friends. My co-workers. Strangers. I break people, intentionally and inadvertently. Probably nearly every day.

What I didn’t realize at the time, though, is that we all do. I'm not alone. I’m not the only person who breaks others. I’m not the only one who is deeply flawed. We all are. This isn’t to say I should let myself off the hook, but merely a realization that I am flawed. A sinner. And that I was born a sinner.

Only God can heal me. And God can heal me only if I let him, which gets back to the subject of confession.

These days I try to be more honest with God. I try to lay it all on the table – my envy, greed, laziness, pride, selfishness, insecurity, anger, fear and doubt. I ask God for help; I ask him to help me discover the root of my flaws and to help me overcome them.

It’s not easy, this honesty. Sometimes I’m tempted to skate over the details, brush past the ugly, paint a slightly less grimy picture. And often, to be honest, I’m glad I’m not speaking to a priest as intercessor; I’m glad another human isn’t privy to the darkest recesses of my soul. But when I start to weaken, when I start to rewrite my story into a prettier picture, I remember that God knows my true heart, flaws and all. And I realize that there’s no point at all in skirting the harsh truth.

I know that as long as I live on this Earth, I will continue to break human crockery – and to be broken myself. But I also know that if I am honest and truthful about the wreckage I leave in my wake, God will forgive me, clean me, purify me. Again and again and again.

“Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Oh, give me back my joy again; you have broken me – now let me rejoice.” (Psalm 51: 7-8).

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