Pray without Ceasing

If there is one Bible verse responsible for making me the world’s most eclectic Presbyterian, it is probably this verse. If I have to pray without ceasing, then I need some variety in my prayer life!!!  I was taught to pray in Sunday School as a child:  The Sunday school teacher would ask if we had any prayer concerns.  We shared our (often humorous) concerns.  He/she prayed, lifting our concerns before God and often concluded with the Lord’s prayer.  This is more a model of a pastoral prayer, praying for the concerns of the people, which happens in Presbyterian worship on Sunday morning.  If there’s someone I am especially concerned about, I put a picture on my refrigerator and say a quick prayer every time I see it, and I never hesitate to lift a concern to God, no matter how small!  If we don’t trust God with the little things, how will we trust God with the big stuff???  We don’t bother God by praying!  But it would be a weak prayer life if all we did was share concerns!  Just after instructing us to pray without ceasing, St. Paul says “give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  Prayer is the most wonderful opportunity to practice gratitude for anything and everything!

St. Paul says “Do not quench the Spirit…but test everything; hold fast what is good.” I have always taken this as permission to have rich and varied prayer life.  I love reading the Psalms especially, but any scripture, as a form of prayer; the fancy name for this is Lectio Divinia.  I see art journaling the Bible as an extension of this practice. Singing hymns and songs of praise is yet another way to pray.  Whenever I get behind the wheel of the car, the prayer that pops in my head is:  “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner.”  This may tell you something about my driving!  It is also a variation of a prayer common in the Greek Orthodox tradition:  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”  Sometimes I pray the Rosary, a beautiful meditative prayer from the Catholic tradition, which helps me deeply reflect on the life of Jesus.  But the simplest way I’ve found to pray without ceasing is to do everything in love and offer it to the Lord, no matter how humble the task.

So what is prayer? Prayer is simply the practice of God’s presence in our life, knowing that God is always with us!  (It is enough to simply be still for a moment and know God!)  Only a deep awareness of God’s presence in our life can make it possible to pray without ceasing!

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Start by Doing What’s Necessary

There’s one question Lisa Nichols Hickman asked at the end of chapter two that I haven’t answered yet:

Consider the delicate balance between love for neighbor and love for self. How do you maintain the balance?  What are your checks and balances for keeping the two in tandem?

I don’t know if this answers the question, but…

When life is flowing along smoothly, I rarely experience conflicts between love for neighbor and love for self. Everything in my life dovetails effortlessly; I feel as if I am where I need to be, doing what I need to do, and everything runs smoothly.  But when the laundry starts piling up and the clutter gets out of control and I start eating junk and I don’t get my short workouts done, then I know life is out of balance.  The love I share with others (my family, co-workers, my church family, friends, or neighbors) is rarely the cause of my breakdown.  More often, I am just a bit out of sorts myself; I get myself stuck by dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.  I do better when I stay in the present moment!  And sometimes I just need to pause and hit the reset button.  During these times I am reminded of another St. Francis quote:

Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

I was thinking about where I could put this quote in my Bible and I thought back to the time I was asked to be a Deacon in the church.  Before our ordination, we read St. Paul’s instructions regarding Elders and Deacons in Timothy together.  And I remember our Pastor Deb Miller explaining the importance of taking care of ourselves and our households so that we could serve.  Somehow St Francis’s words of wisdom seemed to fit well beside those instructions. And as it turns out, there’s something that just makes me happy about putting the words “doing the impossible” on a page of the Bible that happens to be filled limitations.  (My mom is an ordained Presbyterian minister, and I have been blessed by so many women daring to speak in church, especially Rev. Deb Miller!)

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Thinking of My Little Sunday School Class

The final prompt at the end of the second chapter of Writing in the Margins by Lisa Nichols Hickman:

Read Deuteronomy 11:19.  In the margin, make a pledge to God for the way you might teach a child in your life about scripture.

At our church, I teach the preschool Sunday school class.  I enjoy children and young people of all ages, but our children’s ministry director tells me:  “You have patience for the little ones.”  So that’s where I end up!  There’s a certain privilege in being the first Sunday school teacher to introduce children to the stories of the Bible.  I use Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Children of God Storybook Bible.  The illustrations are beautiful, the text is easy to understand, and the selection of stories is timeless!  I usually start class with time to play in our classroom; then we do an art project; then there’s more time to play, and when the kids are ready, we have snack and a Bible story.  (They usually start asking for a snack, which is the perfect time to catch them when they are ready to sit and focus on the story!)  I have a very small class, but it is always fun!

I found myself thinking of my class with this assignment.  Here’s the prayer that found it’s way into the margins…

Dear Preschoolers,

Most of all, I pray that the time we spend together playing, making crafts, and reading Bible stories will help you know deep down in your heart that you are always loved by God. As we talk and discuss the stories in the Bible, I hope you will begin know what it means to love God and others, and that it’s normal to have struggles with God, with each other, and even ourselves.  I hope you catch a glimpse of the redeeming power of God’s never-ending love and that one day you will grow to appreciate how the Bible has transformed lives and influenced the World for the better in countless ways.  I am eternally grateful to you for showing me that it is good to have fun immersed in the Word!

Love, Sally

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Reflections on the Good Samaritan

A lawyer asks Jesus what to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds with a question:  “What is written in the Law?  How do you read it?”  The man responds with the two great commandments (Love God and your neighbor as yourself).  Jesus says, “You answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”  The lawyer is not satisfied.  He wants to know exactly how to put this into practice.  He asks, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus responds with the familiar story of the Good Samaritan.

As an aside, I never understood how deeply honest the lawyer’s question was until I began trying to explain what it means to practice Christianity to others and discovered that the whole idea of loving people outside your immediate family/social circle, what’s more your enemies, could be viewed as a little weird. Someone said to me:  “It’s not exactly clear how you should go about loving everybody.”  It struck me as a funny statement because I know that as a Christian I do not go about loving everybody at once.  I just do my best to love individuals as God brings them into my life.  I’ve always viewed the twin commands to love God and others as practical guides for living life.  Any real challenges or conflicts can be worked out along the way.  And it seems to me that the great commandments presuppose trust in God.  We have to trust God to bring us to the right place at the right time and give us what is needed to act in accordance with His will: 

For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And it is not your own doing:  it is the gift of God, not a result of works so that now one may boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.-Ephesians 2:8-10.

If God prepares the good works for us and the Holy Spirit leads us to do them, then the love that we share with others is merely a sign that we are in Christ to the glory of God.

Back to our story: Two very religious men, a priest and a Levite, passed by the stranger who had been stripped by robbers, beaten, and left half-dead.  We can give these men the benefit of the doubt:  They may have had good reasons.   But in the story it was the Samaritan man who was moved to compassion and responded with generous, even extravagant care.   It’s easy to imagine the Samaritan as an ordinary man who simply returns to the business of caring for himself and his family after this encounter.  He didn’t go looking for someone to help, but when he saw the need he responded with love.

I think the story of the Good Samaritan puts to rest a concern that I have heard expressed from time to time: For some, the only logical conclusion of loving others who are fundamentally different is to erode what differentiates one group of people from another.  As a matter of practical reality, I just haven’t found this to be true.  Caring for others has only led me a better understanding of what makes me different.  I have gained a deeper appreciation and loyalty to the tradition that has helped shape me even as I have learned to see the good in other traditions.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, the man’s only identifying feature is his nationality. Jesus showed concern for the Samaritans, a group closely related to the Jewish people that became separate and hostile.  Jesus reached out to them in unconventional ways through the stories he told and through his encounters with them.  His special concern for them did not change the fact that they were a separate people, and the man’s identity as a Samaritan is crucial to the story.

After telling the story, Jesus asked, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” Jesus asked the lawyer to look past differences and to see the good in the other.  The lawyer, who was likely taught never to even talk to Samaritans, did not answer by simply identifying the man as “The Samaritan.”  Instead, he says, “The one who showed mercy,” and Jesus simply responds, “Go and do likewise.”   Showing mercy doesn’t mean wiping away our differences, but caring for each other in the sense that good parents care for their children’s safety and well-being.  With trust in God, an awareness of context, and a dash of creativity, love starts to seem sensible (really!).  The key is not to overthink it.  Trust God and show some love as you interact with others today!

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Love God. Love Others.

Really and truly the practice of Christianity can be summed up in the two great commandments. Love God. Love others.  It should be simple, right?

So why do we have the long history from Adam and Eve, through Noah, Abraham, Moses, the kings, and the prophets? Why do we have four versions of the Gospel story and all the formational letters for the early church and Revelation?  Why do we have two thousand years of church tradition, stories of saints, doctrines and creeds, and the proliferation of churches around the world.  How did a message so simple get so complicated?

I believe God’s hand is still at work. God just wants us to know something of the breadth and length and height and depth of love.  I know that personally I’ve just begun to comprehend the love of Christ and that love far surpasses all knowledge!  God loves you and me, too!!!

My heart stickers came out to play:

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Deus Meus, Mea Omnia

The next prompt in Writing in the Margins caught me a little off guard: “Psalm 86:12 echoes the affirmation of Francis of Assisi, Deus Meus, Mea Omnia (My God and My All).  In the margins next to Psalm 86:12, or anywhere else that seems apt, write Assisi’s cry.”

I read Psalm 86 a number of times. I also read and reflected on the life of St. Francis.  To me, St. Francis’ heart-felt cry seems to belong to the passage that spoke directly to him, claiming his life and setting his course:

Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay.  Acquire no gold or silver or copper for you belts, no bag for you journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food.  And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart.  As you enter the house, greet it.  And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.  And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.   (Matthew 10:  8-14)

According to the story, the instruction that St. Francis received from God was to rebuild the church, and the ever-literal St. Francis set to work on repairing the physical structures of churches. St. Francis also rebuilt the church in a more figurative way by reading the Gospel of Matthew and putting Christ’s words into effect.  He cared for the poor and the sick.  He read Jesus instructions to the twelve apostles and astonishingly he followed them.  He offered his life as a living sacrifice, imitating Christ in all that he did.  His love for God was reflected in a deep love and affection for all of God’s creation, birds and animals, too.   His legacy includes the Franciscan orders, the beautiful canticle of creation, the first nativity scene, and the prayer that found itself into the margins of my page.  I considered adding a prayer card with his picture or drawing St. Francis, but St. Francis lived to point others to the cross (my hope is that you can see just a hint of St. Francis in the cross, too!):

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Reflecting on the life of St. Francis reminds me what it means to love God and what it means to be holy. It helps me remember that though the canon of the Bible ends with Revelation, God’s story continues through the tradition of the church, which incorporates stories of the lives of saints whether they be canonized like St. Francis or un-canonized like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The witness and example of Christians who came before us is such a blessing!  Reflecting on the lives of saints can draw us right back to the Word as we reflect on the passages that meant the most to them.

An Unexpected Treasure Delivered to My Door

My father read this blog and showed up at my house with a delivery. He brought me my Grandmother’s well-loved, large-print King James Bible.  I made a fun discovery:  My grandmother was a margin writer!  She left little notes and also the dates that showed the last time she read each chapter.  The notes show that she read through the Bible cover-to-cover three times in ten years before passing away at age 100 (and was working toward a fourth reading!).  I am grateful to have my grandmother’s Bible as a companion for this journey!   The note on the first page of Proverbs says:

Wisdom involves the practical application of God’s teachings to every day living.

Just knowing how important the Bible was to my grandmother (and so many others from prior generations) gives me a certain passion to inspire more people in our busy, easily distracted generation to have a new reason to break open their Bible and read! I would love to do something to help restore Biblical literacy among Christians and non-Christians alike.  It makes this Presbyterian a little sad to read statistics and hear anecdotes regarding how little people today know about the Bible.  And few and far between are people who can read the Bible like my grandmother did:  as a single story of redemption and love!

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My Grandmother’s Bible!

Love!

Let me start by saying that the next journal entry did not turn out anything like I first expected! I am doing my best to trust the process;  what follows is just a little evidence that writing in the margins can be “a life-giving, chaos-breaking, creative conversation”.

I finally made it to “Chapter 2: Love Letters” in Writing in the Margins.  The first prompt was to write in the margins key concepts gleaned from 1 Corinthians 13, the great text on love.  I know this passage by heart; it pops into my mind no matter what I am facing; and it was read at my wedding.  Curiously, my first thought was “Ugg!  Not that passage.”  And my first vision of the verse was hearts, lots and lots of hearts.

When I was in high school a youth minister suggested putting our own names into the description of love to see if the passage adequately described us. Somehow the verse took on almost a legalistic interpretation and became my answer on how to respond in all situations.  “Be kind. Be patient.  Don’t be irritable.  Don’t insist on your own way.”  And over time, not insisting on my own way made me feel a little lost.  Then later the passage talks about growing up and giving up childish ways—I guess I’ve always felt the need to grow up and be serious (and most of my time is spent handling serious matters), but the truth of the matter is that I am light-hearted soul (who sill likes stickers!).  Anyway, the passage took on a heavy quality for me in the past couple years.  I’m not sure that was the right way to read it!!!

I read the passage and heard the quiet whisper in my heart: ”Read it again.  Let God love you.”  After reading it several times, I read the prior passage:  how the church is one body with many members, each one important to the whole.  The passage on love made more sense to me within that context, and these words found their way into the margins:

Everyone matters to God. We are each blessed in our own way to be a blessing to others.  We all have gifts.  What is most important is the love that inspires the giving.  God is loving and kind toward us and rejoices in the truth of who we are created to be.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve read and thought about this passage countless times. Today was the first time the words “The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” jumped off the page to me.  Blame it on spending too much time at my son’s karate class and seeing the Yin and Yang symbol, but not all of us are created to be rock, solid pillars of the church.  Some of us are more yielding, flexible, adaptive, and responsive.  Our tender, buttercup-like qualities may be perceived as weakness, and the love that is offered in our joyful bubbles may go unnoticed and unappreciated—but God notices!   Instead of the hearts I expected to see in the margins, I found buttercups with the simple plea:  Please don’t stomp the buttercups.

I found myself asking the question: Is there some way I can share some love in this new blogging adventure?  There is already enough noise and clutter on the Internet.  I want to share something that builds others up and encourages others.   Is there some way I can help readers appreciate how God loves them, especially any reader drawn to the whole crazy idea of putting rainbows, hearts, and stars in the margins of the Bible?

Here’s what came to me…

Buttercups (maybe you are one or know one!), if you are opening your Bible to find a little solace, comfort, and joy in a fun and creative way, sometimes the most loving thing you can do for God and others is be true to your own way in the world. See the worth in the small ways you make life brighter:  bringing flowers to cheer up a sad soul, practicing unexpected sweet acts of kindness, giving a tearful stranger a spontaneous hug, or sharing a laugh or a smile with a passer-by.  If you connect easily with others and see the good in people, that’s a blessing.  You are bubbly, busy, cheerful, friendly, fun-loving, funny, positive, and smiley, and the world needs more of your joyful noise!  If all of the following is true, then it may also be true that you are delicate, easily crushed, and often misunderstood (and you bounce back quickly again and again and again—most people in your life don’t realize how often!).  Others may not know how to take you, and just leave you alone.  My prayer for you is that God will protect that special quality about you that is filled with joy.  Stay effervescent always!  God rejoices in your truth!  You are indispensable!!!001

Laughter and Anguish

In her book Writing in the Margins, Lisa Nichols Hickman shares a quote from Virginia Woolf:

The beauty of the world…has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish.

She suggests perhaps this is why we open our Bibles, to meet this reality of life.  I’ve spent a lot of time with four passages offered by Lisa Nichols Hickman as ways to explore the relationship between joy and pain in God’s world.

There’s no doubt, studying the Bible precludes a person from expecting a world free of trouble.  What wisdom have I gained from these passages?  Joy breaks through anyway; there are blessings in the midst of some of life’s worst experiences; life is a gift and God is faithful; hard though it may be, peace can be found in trusting God’s perfect timing.

Words of Peace

I am feeling very sad for a neighbor of ours.  As I reflect on this passage, family and friends have gathered at his side; his battle with cancer is coming to an end.  Ecclesiastes tells us “For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.” The passage offers bittersweet words of encouragement.  There’s truth to the words.  The trouble comes when it is hard to accept the timing.  We pray for a miracle; hold onto hope.  The time comes anyway.  With these ancient words, God offers peace in the midst of sorrow.  Some of life’s occasions are just more difficult to accept.

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