Rest

The year of the plague is upon us, but I need a rest. Rest from newscasts, cooking, cleaning, eating, binge-watching Netflix, Zoom calls, and everything else that I use to try to cope with my thoughts that sometimes won’t quit. These activities are helpful, but they can be just another way of blocking out being in the present moment. 

I snapped the shot below last week while walking with my foster dog in Fontainebleau Park in nearby Mandeville, Louisiana. The dog is gone. I regret to say I am a foster failure. She really was not all that much trouble, but I was concerned about the accidents, daily, in the house. Since the bedrooms are carpeted, I closed those rooms to her. But, I was careless with closing doors, so she left stains. She went back to the humane society for an appointment with prospective owners who wanted a forever dog. 

I hoped it worked out for the dog and the prospective clients because I didn’t take her back home with me. I might try another foster dog, but I have to better prepare myself and the house for a nervous, confused animal to be with me, being a somewhat nervous, confused human in these times At least, though, not yet anyway, I am not yet staining the carpets. 

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When I look at the photograph above, it reminds me of words from Eugene Peterson’s Bible translation, “Learn the unforced rhythms of grace,” from Matthew 11:29-30. I need to establish a rhythm of grace: doing things, yes, but sometimes, just being present in the moment.

 

Palm Sunday Meditation

Staying home sucks. I live alone so it super sucks. Truthfully, I am restless. I am yielding to temptation too often to get out more than I need even as Louisiana’s governor urges us to stay home as much as possible.

I am finding it’s hard to change my behavior. I want to leave my home, going wherever I want, whenever I want. I want to live my life on my terms.

When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the people welcomed him loudly with praise. They expected Jesus to be a real king. They thought he was coming to unseat the Romans who controlled Israel in that time. No one expected him to end the week by dying on a cross.

Their thoughts about Jesus had to change. He wasn’t going to rule as a literal king. Change was in the air, but not the change they expected

The religious leaders were on high alert as Jesus entered the city. They didn’t want change. They had power, which they shared with the Romans. Jesus represented a real threat to their way of doing things. They would plot and succeed in getting Jesus killed a week later to preserve their way of doing things so as not to change. They didn’t realize that in killing Jesus, they fulfilled the prophecies of his death and resurrection.

In the coming days, I can choose to embrace change. The coronavirus is here, and I can’t change that. I can find ways to live my best life though as I adapt and live life with the changes happening around me.

So, yes, it sucks. I am going to exercise more, be outside more, work in my yard, read and write more. As needed, I will help my mother with her needs in this time of sheltering in place. Generally, I’ll do my best to adapt to the change forced upon me.

I think of the song, The Times They Are A Changin’ by Bob Dylan.

Come gather ’round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Maybe Palm Sunday represents a religious and outdated celebration to most of the world today.  For me I am going to let Palm Sunday be a celebration of change. I am choosing to this day as a reminder that changing my life and way of thinking is the best thing I can for myself.

The times they are a-changin’.

 

 

Breathe

The weather turned unexpectedly cool yesterday. March had been very warm in south Louisiana. Much of the month had days reaching the upper 80s, shattering records. It felt more like early summer than early spring. Then, yesterday, I woke to a morning in the 40s here on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain. I opened up windows, and let the cool breezes blow in. I breathed in the fresh, spring air.

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These clumps of grass have small lavender blooms. Does anyone know what it’s called?

I spent a fair amount of time outdoors enjoying the mild day yesterday. I pulled up clumps of flowering grass that are threatening to overtake portions the flower beds. I don’t know the name of the plant as it was planted by the former owners of my house, but they produce precious little in way of flowers, but rather spread in large grassy clumps, crowding out my spring bulbs and rose bushes.

I wasn’t able to dislodge much of the roots. A shovel and a strong back will be needed to stop the spread. I’m hoping my yard guy is not afraid in this season of social distancing to tackle the aggressive grassy clumps. I texted him earlier this morning.

Sitting outside early this morning, drinking a cup of coffee, I breathed in the cool air once again. There was a sense of peace and calm, as traffic noise on the nearby highway has lessened considerably in the past few weeks. Some of my neighbors are home all day now, so the neighborhood is quiet.

I thought about the words from a Facebook Live message I heard last night. How am I going to use this time of an unexpected sabbatical of sorts? Do I want to fritter it away with anxious thoughts and actions? Can I dig deep and find peace? What about seeking the presence of God in the mundane tasks of the day? What good can come from this unprecedented time in our nation and world? Will I emerge with a stronger sense of purpose? That’s my hope.

I don’t want to spend my days endlessly scrolling on social media, or mindlessly filling up on snack foods or media binging on streaming shows. I want to emerge with something better. Because one day, the pandemic will pass.

I leave you with a song and lyrics. The worship song, Peace by Casey Corum ends with a chorus that enjoins us to breathe in positive attributes and breathe out negative ones.  You can find the song on YouTube.

Breathe in peace, breathe out strife,

Breathe out death, breathe in life,

Breathe in love, Breathe out hate,

Breathe out fear, breathe in faith.

It Will Be Alright

Several years ago, I downloaded and read A Journal of The Plague Year by Daniel Defoe. Defoe wrote a fictionalized account based on his early childhood memories of the plague that swept London in 1665, claiming over 67,000 lives. It was a memorable read. I never expected to write, or contemplate, even facetiously, about a plague in modern times.

Of course, our plague year cannot compare, even in a joking manner, to the Black Death. Mainly, it’s just quiet around here as the schools and most businesses are closed. The nearby city of New Orleans is emerging as the epicenter of the Louisiana outbreak. It seems like Mardi Gras was our undoing, causing the city and surrounding parishes to give rise to a troubling number of afflicted residents. Currently the state has over 1,700 reported cases and 65 dead. In the city of New Orleans, 827 cases are reported, and thirty-seven have died from the virus.

I’m introverted by nature, so solitude hasn’t been a hardship although I haven’t taken the warnings to stay home that seriously anyway. I find reasons daily to get out and about, whether it be to our local small market, the drugstore, or the post office in my small town. While I am not hoarding food or supplies, I do tend to buy stuff almost every time I venture out. My cupboards are overflowing with soup cans, pasta and lots of dairy creamer among other things.

Last night, I participated in a Zoom telecast with a group, Seeds and Souls, for an Ignatian Meditation. The idea is to listen as a moderator reads a passage of Scripture repeatedly and slowly. After the readings with pauses to reflect, participants reflect on what stood out from the reading.

Last night, the leader, Brian, chose verses from Matthew 6. The theme was not to worry about tomorrow. What stood out to me as he read from the Message translation of the Bible was the phrase, “What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax.” In my mind, I pictured Jesus gently chiding me and offering me the chance to relax. I don’t need any more soup cans, nor do I need to worry about getting paper towels. I am worried, you see, about paper towels as I only have one extra roll in reserve. The local market doesn’t have any in stock. Neither does Walmart or Costco, at least according to their online sites.

Where will I get paper towels? I don’t know. When the time comes the store may have some or not have some. I can always clean spills with a towel I suppose if none are available. Funny thing is, I don’t use paper towels very often. That’s why I have only one extra roll in the house. I prefer to mop up spills with rags or a mop. So why worry about it? As Jesus’ words say in the extraordinary Message translation by Eugene Peterson, “What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax.”

Early this morning, after my 5:30 am coffee and 6:00 prayer service online, I took Daisy, my foster dog, for a walk. We took it slow, as she is recovering from a hip injury. I gave her ample time to put her nose to weeds and flowers growing along the ditches that line our streets. I gave myself time to notice the beauty of the wildflowers, some white, some yellow, and some a beautiful shade of lavender.

In the same batch of verses that Brian read repeatedly last night, he said, “walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp nor shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? . . . If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers . . . don’t you think he’ll attend to you . . . do his best for you?” 

I am going to do my best to avoid looking for paper towels today.

Nonessential Services

I am normally involved weekly in a number of endeavors: tutoring kids at Sylvan Learning Center, teaching English as a Second Language, and volunteering weekly as a receptionist at the local food bank. None of these are considered essential in Louisiana right now. The food bank is still serving clients, but the lobby is now closed. Instead of having a bevy of opportunities to serve and work during each week, I now face an empty calendar because everything I did is now considered nonessential.

What can I do then? I am filling my time with walks in the neighborhood, weeding my flower beds, and catching up on household tasks. Yesterday, I brought my bicycle to a bike shop for a tune-up. I can ride the pathways on the Tammany Trace, a dedicated hiking and biking trail that was once a railroad line throughout the parish.

I can read the book that I can’t return to the library. I checked out A Lesson Before Dying by Earnest Gaines before the tsunami of state closures shuttered the library system. I planned a few reads by African American authors for the month of February. The Gaines book was on the list but I didn’t check out the book until March. Last month, I read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass.

Since I live alone, I thought it would be a good time to share my house with a pet. I planned on fostering a pup from the Humane Society, but I haven’t received a call back from the good folks there. Repeated phone calls go unanswered. I may drop by later today, and I can ask if my help is needed at this time.

I don’t think I am overreacting to the situation at hand. If anything, I have been somewhat lackadaisical in my response to the virus. I was eating out the very day that the state closed restaurants, limiting them to takeout and delivery. I am still visiting my eighty-six year old mother, despite my misgivings. I get out nearly everyday, interacting with the public in some way: getting groceries, visiting the hardware store, etc. It’s been nearly impossible for me to spend an entire day at home.

The governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, shared news and advice in a one-hour broadcast last night. He has been active in directing the state response to the corona virus. As of yesterday, there were 1,172 positive cases of COVID-19 in Louisiana. Most of Louisiana cases, 562, are in the city of New Orleans, 562 cases. Louisiana is one of the leaders in the country with infection rates when the number is case rate is considered per 1000 people. Louisiana only has about 4.5 million people. The city of New Orleans has about 400,000 residents

Governor Edwards shared that today he would be in fasting and prayer for the state. I can do that. I suppose something I do today will be essential as I join many in Louisiana in prayer.  Here’s the Bible verse that Edwards used to end his remarks:

I am the Lord your God,
    who holds your right hand.
And I tell you, ‘Don’t be afraid!
    I will help you.*

I suppose I can feel like I am doing something essential today. I am joining the governor of Louisiana in prayer and fasting. What could be more essential than a moment or two of meditation and asking God for favor in these times?

*Isaiah 41:13 Easy to Read Version

 

Love in the Age of Covid-19

The new coronavirus, also called Covid-19, is drawing comparisons to the flu pandemic of 1919 as well as, gasp!, the bubonic plague in the Middle Ages. I’ve never heard it compared to cholera, but the title is apropos. You must admit my take on the title is catchy.

With non-stop coverage by the media of the worldwide pandemic, it’s hard to escape the barrage of messaging: wash your hands, keep your distance, don’t panic, but do be prepared for a host of issues. Prepare to stay home for 2 weeks or longer, get sick, lose your 401k in the stock market crash or die. All are cast as possible if not probable. Above all, don’t panic. Imagine that? Don’t panic.

I lived through Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I remember those dark days. I’ve lived through one of the worst natural disasters in this hemisphere. What did I learn? I recall that during the weeks and months preceding the Cat5 hurricane that swept in from the Gulf, I had two songs that were always in my head: Dwell by Casey Corum and The Times They are A’changing by Bob Dylan. When the storm had passed and we were in recovery mode, I reflected on those songs. God’s presence was dwelling with me and yes, times had definitely been a’changing.

Now in the time of Covid-19, I have to remember that God is always with me, and times have surely changed in just a few short weeks.  Another thing that stuck with me in the weeks and months following Hurricane Katrina was that serving others become a way of life for me and my church community. We fed the community, first responders, and later, teams. There were scores of volunteers who needed shelter and food as they came to help our neighbors with flooded homes and businesses. I had no time for anxiety. I was too busy.

So how do I love in the time of Covid-19? Here in Louisiana, all restaurants were closed last night until further notice. All schools, colleges and universities are closed. Gatherings are limited to 50 people or less. In New Orleans, the limit on social gatherings is even more restricted. A certain level of anxiety hangs in the air.

A few days ago, I talked for a bit with an anxious neighbor. Mary is an older lady who lives in a home without electricity, running water. She doesn’t have a car. She rides her bike to get groceries or to the gym for showers.  I can be kind to all my neighbors, including Mary.

My little town, Abita Springs, is collecting names of folks in our town who need help with meals, groceries or lack of transportation. They want to help. I can make donations or deliver groceries for my neighbors.

In the big city of New Orleans, a hotspot for the virus, my former church is serving today as a site for grab and go meals for children. New Orleans is a locale not only filled for music and  good food, but also a place rife with poverty. With all the schools shut down, a meal is a good place to start.

So, that’s what love looks like right now. It’s about having hope and sharing hope. We can all do that, can’t we?

Sugar and Amazing Grace

IMG_0209It’s that time of year again when chocolate, candy and flowers become the language of love. As a sugar junkie, it’s a dangerous time of year for me. I love sugar. Not so much in candy, but I can’t say no to chocolate, ice cream or cookies.

I volunteer at the local food bank as a receptionist. Last week, a lady came in to donate  food. She had 2 packages of frozen cookie dough that was calling her name. She had an urgent need to get the stuff out of her house. I understood her pain. One pack was open as she admitted to eating some the night before. Of course, we couldn’t accept an opened package. She was desperate to not go home with the cookie dough. She wanted me to take it home. I declined. I did, however, accept the unopened package to give to one of our clients. 

This weekend I purchased a small heart-shaped box of chocolate, and on a whim, frozen cookie dough. I guess the ladies’ plight at the food bank was somehow buried in my subconscious. I ate all five pieces of chocolate from the heart-shaped box in one sitting.  Then, I ate five squares of frozen cookie dough too before I put it in the trash. I eat certain types of sugary stuff like an alcoholic needs a drink. I can’t stop myself. 

This morning I have been thinking about Jesus’ words that are sometimes called The Beatitudes. In the Message Bible, the passage starts, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” 

I am pretty much at the end of the rope when it comes to sugar. Sometimes, I feel like there’s no hope for me when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight and a healthy relationship to food. If I understand Jesus’ words, then I am actually blessed by knowing I’m at the end of my rope. 

Jesus fills in the cracks left inside me from the self loathing that drains me. That’s how it works. So in the upside down way of God’s kingdom, I am blessed when I am feeling the least amount of confidence in myself. 

That’s the kind of grace that makes me shake my head in amazement. It’s why I posted the quote by Brennan Manning on the sidebar of my blog. Brennan Manning’s life, when examined, makes one wonder anew at the centrality of grace. I don’t want to detail his life’s path in this blog post, but know that he didn’t lead a perfect life.

Jesus comes not for the super-spiritual but for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together, and who are not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace. Brennan Manning

This week I won’t buy any chocolate, cookies or ice cream. I’m going to walk wobbly and weak-kneed through the Valentine’s aisle at the supermarket.  I am not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace. 

 

Was Your Life Changed By A Book?

Last week, a friend wrote on Facebook about a challenge from the New York Times. The Times is asking for entries to answer the query: Was your life changed by a book?  Readers are encouraged to submit an entry of 200 words or less about a book that has influenced your outlook.  I’ve been thinking about this question. What one book would I choose?

On my bookshelf there are many books that helped shape my way of thinking. I thought about Rich Thinking about the World’s Poor by Peter Meadows which helped shape my views on poverty and missions.  I considered a humorous book of short stories by Bailey White, Mama Makes Up Her Mind. Or, perhaps I would select a book from my childhood enticing me to enjoy novels. I particularly recall my delight at ten years old reading The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas.

My mind kept returning though to the obvious book: The Bible, the book of books. I could write paragraph after paragraph about the dramatic, inspirational, and practical dynamics of the sacred book of books. The Bible has inspired multitudes of persons in its uniqueness among books. But let’s keep it short.

My first true encounter with the Bible was almost absurd. I was probably eleven years old at the time that I read excerpts from another book, a bestseller at the time, The Exorcist. My oldest sister had a copy, and I glanced a bit too long at it.  I was scared, maybe even scarred,  by the story of the demonic possession of Regan, an eleven year old girl. I had trouble sleeping for fear that I would share the fate of Regan.

At this time, in the early 1970s, the movie was released, too. I felt like I even resembled the actress, Linda Blair, who portrayed the demon-possessed girl. I was doomed.

My sister assured me that it all was a story, make-believe if you will. However, I knew just a smidgeon about the Gospels mentioning demons. So, I looked up instances in the Gospels of demonic possessions.  Not only did they exist, but they had the power to possess the body and mind. I was terrified even more than before I read the Bible’s accounts.

Demons existed!

So my first forays into reading Biblical texts made me a believer, not of the love of God, but in the power of the devil. If the Bible had accounts of demonic possession, then I could not idly dismiss the existence of such evil personified. I felt terribly hopeless.

My heightened fear of potential demonic possession eased, but a general malaise stayed with me. I had no hope. All life seemed purposeless. It wasn’t just the specter of Linda Blair that frightened me. It was just life in general. What meaning did my life have?

Then, I heard something when I was around 12 years old.  I heard a man speak at my  church who seemed to have an unmistakable sense of the divine about him. It was as if he spoke from a different perspective, not his perspective but from God’s.

I was convinced that the man in the front of the church had something more powerful than words with him that night. He offered me Hope. And I, like John Wesley, felt my heart strangely warmed. I reached out and took hold of Hope.

After that day, the Bible was no longer a book that just offered evidence of the power of the demonic. It offered a story of the One who was more powerful than any demon. I read the Gospels with new clarity. How had I overlooked it before? You see, Jesus did indeed confront demons but he had power over them. People were liberated from the power of the devil.

Since then, I see the Bible in so many ways. It’s not a book to condemn but to set free. It’s about light, not darkness. It’s a book of hidden treasures, with new insights to be gained daily from its reading.

I am certain that the New York Times is not looking for essays on the efficacy of the Bible in influencing a preteen girl both towards fear, and later, freedom. We, in the United States, live in a post Christian world. That great and glorious best-seller, the Bible, has been relegated to a place where it’s influence can be explained as a history lesson, a cultural milestone of years gone by. Current Bible enthusiasts are regarded as oddities, stuck in cultural backwaters that is being swept away by the modern cynical age we live in.

I remain, though, convinced of my convictions. The book that has changed my outlook more than any book I’ve ever read is the Bible. No matter how trite or how inane it sounds, the Bible remains my bedrock and foundation as the most powerful book in my life.  It’s words are like my daily bread, new every morning.

See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? 

Isaiah 43:19

If you want to submit your entry about a book that has shaped your life to the New York Times, you must do it now. Entries must be submtted  by 10:00 a.m on January 15. 

Christmas Eve In Jail

I have been thinking about helping women in jail as part of my church’s outreach. I have done it before, over twenty years ago. Here’s a story from a Christmas Eve visit to the local jail. I hope you enjoy the story as much as I enjoyed being part of this experience.

The buzzer sounded. The doors opened. I stepped into the confines of a women’s jail. It was Christmas Eve. I might have been late, but here I was, about to encounter thirty women prisoners. I thought about the conversation I had a few hours ago.

“Laurie,” Tina said, “I’m not going to the jail tonight. My sister and her family surprised me with a visit. They came all the way from Pennsylvania. I’m sorry.”

I still remember my thoughts as I hung up the phone twenty-five years ago. I had never led the Bible study with the lady prisoners, and I had never gone into the jail alone. In the few short months that I had been accompanying Tina at the jail in Houma, Louisiana, Tina had been the one leading the lessons, praying for the ladies, and generally taking charge of everything. I went along mainly to learn and give support to Tina.

What good could I do alone? And, would anybody truly expect me to come on Christmas Eve? I sat down on the couch next to the telephone. Maybe I should call the jail and tell them I wasn’t coming. After all, it was Christmas Eve, and I had family gathering that night. With a sigh, I decided to go to the jail even though I didn’t have a lesson or a plan. I would undoubtedly just be there for emotional support for the lonely women in jail.

After entering the jail’s doors a few minutes late, I walked into the commons area of the women’s jail. I expected to see a few stragglers with notebooks and Bibles at the tables. Instead, I was greeted loudly by a group of eager women.

“You’re here!” someone shouted.

“Sit down!” another lady said.

Most of the women were talking excitedly among themselves. Others were pulling bedsheets off the bunks. The ladies started wrapping themselves in bedsheets.

What was going on? None of this made any sense until Jenny,* a tall, commanding dark woman, stepped forward to tell me the plan. They didn’t want a Bible study. They planned to put on a Christmas play they had produced among themselves. The one thing they lacked for the drama was an audience. With my arrival, the one hindrance was eliminated. Now, the show could go on.

Mary and Joseph were wrapped in white sheets. A pillow subbed for the baby Jesus. Women standing in for shepherds and wisemen draped sheets over their orange jumpsuits, too.

One lady stood to the side, Bible in her hand. As she read from portions of the Christmas story from the gospels, different actors did their parts. First, Mary and Joseph, along with pillow-turned-Jesus, made their way to the front of the room. They put Jesus on a chair as they gazed adoringly at him. Then, the shepherds came, guided by angels robed in more white sheets. Next, the Three Kings came and presented their gifts of ramen noodles and bottles of toiletries, which I understood to be stand-ins for the more traditional gifts of the Magi.

Interspersed throughout the presentation, the ladies sang Away in A Manger, Silent Night and We Three Kings. At the end of the presentation, the narrator invited everyone in the dorm to kneel before the baby Jesus. The participants of the play readily kneeled on cue. Other women were cajoled, and some were threatened with harm if they didn’t kneel before pillow-turned-Jesus. One way or another, all the women in the jail that night knelt before the solitary pillow representing Jesus.

After a short but blissful moment of silence, I applauded. It was a fabulous, heart-felt performance. After the drama, the ladies were eager to hear my reaction.

“Did you like the play?” one lady asked.

“How were the songs? Did we get the tune right?” another said.

They had spent the entire day rehearsing, and then, waiting for an audience for their re-enactment. No one wanted prayer or counsel that night. No one talked about loneliness,  sadness, or bitterness about missing Christmas with family and friends. That night, they were singular in their purpose to celebrate the birth of Jesus in their own way.

As I left the jail, I thought about how happy the women had been. I expected sadness and loneliness to be the theme of the evening. Instead, the night was defined by a sense of purpose. The ladies seemed content and happy.

What happened that night? I went with the idea that the women needed me to bring inspiration and hope. Instead, they inspired me, and most of all, themselves, in their re-enactment of the first Christmas. The power of the good news of the birth of Jesus was on display that night as the ancient story was retold.

I’ll always remember that Christmas play performed in shades of orange and white on Christmas Eve twenty-five year ago. I’m glad I decided to go to jail on Christmas Eve. Jesus’ birth may have occurred over 2,000 years ago, but in places great and small,  whether it be in palaces or small town jails, his birth and life still influences our world today

For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

Isaiah 9:6

* The name has been changed.