Category Archives: Faith and Spirituality

Palm Sunday: Everyone Loves a Winner

On Palm Sunday Jesus was hailed as a celebrity, a military and political hero-to-be.  As he and his disciples entered  the city of Jerusalem, adoring, cheering crowds greeted them.  The news was out: at long last, the King of Israel was here.  He was the chosen one sent by God to restore power to the Jewish nation.  He rode on a donkey to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9:  See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.


It was a time of great rejoicing for the people of Israel.  A new day of freedom and empowerment was dawning, thanks to the advent of the conquering Messiah.  The palm branches they waved were emblems of Israeli nationalism.

In just a few days, though, the tide would turn. The admiring throngs would scatter when it became clear that Jesus was not the kind of king they had desired and expected.  Even his dearest friends would desert him.  He would be betrayed by one of his own, turned over to the Roman authorities and crucified. On Good Friday, it would appear that this man was no winner.


Good Friday, however, is not the end of the story.

Mindful Eating, and a Mindful Lent

In Lenten seasons past, I have denied myself some treat that I take for granted. Or I haven’t, and I’ve felt guilty about it. Either way, the result was less than inspiring.

One year, I avoided all desserts, including chocolate, ice cream, cake and candy. I stood firm in my abstemiousness. My Lenten sacrifice was technically a success, and perhaps it was worthwhile. It showed me that I do possess a measure of self-control. But spiritually, there was no real gain. Looking back, I see that I was at times a sanctimonious kill-joy. My husband’s family came for a visit, and I made a beautiful cake. But I didn’t eat a single bite, and I let it be obvious that I wasn’t eating. This, no doubt, did nothing for my own or anyone else’s spiritual edification.

Another year I tried to turn Lent into a diet. I may have lost a few pounds; I can’t even remember. Possibly I became lighter, but no more enlightened. It was during this time that I realized Sundays were not included in Lent. This prompted me to overindulge every Sunday, making Monday’s austerity even harder to face.

This year I’m not giving up a specific treat. Instead, my goal is to observe a mindful Lent. There is much talk these days of the benefits of mindful eating, a Buddhist-inspired practice whereby in savoring a single almond or three raisins for a half hour, we discover a more abiding pleasure in food. I will not go to this extreme, but I will try to be far less mindless in my eating. On most days, at least, I will count out my twelve cancer-fighting cashews (recommended by Dr. Oz), instead of grazing thoughtlessly from the container. And on all days, I will try to be thankful for the bounty of nourishment that is within our easy grasp. I will cook healthy meals for my family, and consume in moderation.

I will try to be mindful not only in eating, but in living. The Biblical basis of Lent is the forty-day period of prayer and preparation that Christ spent in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. Remarkably, he fasted the entire time, and even in his physically weakened state, he resisted repeated temptations by Satan. That forty-day fast was certainly a serious endeavor, so much so that it tends to make us forget about its greater purpose. We trivialize Lent when we turn it into an exercise of nothing more than our willpower over food. Christ’s forgoing of food was not the point; it was one aspect of spiritual preparation, of renewing his connection with the Father in order to be effective in his ministry.

After the example of Jesus, Christians are encouraged to strengthen their ties to God during the six weeks before Easter. By following a more disciplined program of Bible study, prayer, introspection, good works and moderate or sparing consumption, we are better equipped to fully appreciate the power and the glory of the resurrection.

Maybe I’m taking the easy way out this Lent. It’s true that I hate the thought of giving up chocolate, for example, when we have Russell Stover’s candy remaining from Valentine’s Day. (I also hate waste.) But simply giving up on a certain food hasn’t helped me recharge my spiritual battery in the past. Instead, my goal will be to live each day of Lent mindfully, prayerfully, and humbly. I probably won’t succeed every day, but I will keep my sights on the brilliant blessing of Easter that awaits. This will give me a fighting chance.

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Not off-limits for me this Lent, but to be savored (mindfully)!

What’s with the Ashes?


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Today, we are likely to see people walking around with a messy black smudge on their foreheads. Some may be sharply dressed in business attire, which makes the apparent dirt on their faces look all the more incongruous. My husband has remarked that these people strike him as somewhat irritatingly smug. He thinks they broadcast their piety too overtly: I went to church today, on a weekday. Aren’t I good? Aren’t I saintly? It wouldn’t hurt you to go to church, too. To me, they are brave. They took time off work for their faith, and they are willing to bear a visible sign of it in a secular world.

Here, then, is why I will go to church this Ash Wednesday (although our service is at night, and unless we need milk or some other grocery staple, I will head straight home afterwards.) 

                You are dust, and to dust you shall return. 

                –Genesis 3:19

Ash Wednesday is a reminder of what would have been, without the transforming salvation of Christ. God uttered the words above, angrily, to Adam and Eve, just before he booted them out of Eden, the garden of paradise that could have been their eternal, blissful home. Because they disobeyed God, they forfeited a life of ease and joy. They were sent out into desolation, forced to eke out a living through toil and pain.

If you grew up going to Sunday School, you’ve heard the story many times. (And if you haven’t, I hope you won’t let a discomfort with the creation story get in the way.) Maybe you’ve wondered: What were they thinking? The first couple had it great: full-time leisure, full-time luxury. Their every day made a vacation at one of the world’s supreme resorts pale in comparison. The trees dripped with delicious treats, theirs for the easy picking. All except for the apples on one tree.

There was a serpent in the garden. He was wise and wily, and he knew about that whole free-will thing. Indeed, he owed his existence to it. He looked with contempt upon the innocent contentment of the two humans. He realized the fragility of the thread that kept them in their lovely home. It wasn’t long before the serpent made his move. Appealing to Eve’s pride, he offered an opportunity for further greatness. Knowledge equal to God’s was at her fingertips, but God selfishly chose to keep this power to himself. She deserved better, didn’t she? So Eve ate from the tree. Adam, who apparently needed no convincing, munched along complacently.

Paradise was lost, for the taste of a forbidden fruit. We may think we would have known better. But probably not. Like Eve, we might have fallen for the pride trap. Or maybe, like Adam, we might have given very little thought to the matter: If Eve says it’s fine, it must be. (I envision one of David Letterman’s goofy expressions on Adam’s face.) In simply thinking we would have known better, it’s evident that we would not have. With free will comes the ability to make the wrong choice, a choice we tend to exercise repeatedly. Like Adam and Eve, if left to our own devices, our fate would be to wander in the dust. 

Repent and believe the good news!

–Mark 1: 15

But we are not abandoned, without hope, in a barren land. Paradise is still within our grasp. On Ash Wednesday, we confront the grim reality of our sin, of our tendency toward pride and selfishness. On our own, we could never be good enough to work our way back to Eden. But we don’t have to be. Jesus took our sins upon himself. As the spotless Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice, he wiped our messy slates clean.

To accept Christ’s free gift of salvation, we need to acknowledge our wrongheadedness and to ask forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is granted for our willingness to repent; it’s not contingent on our going forward without a misstep. We are human; we will stumble and lose our way at times. We cannot be perfect in this lifetime, but we can desire to achieve perfection.

The ashes are marked on the forehead in the shape of a cross, the instrument of death that became the tree of life. Christ’s good news saves us from a future of ashy, dusty nothingness, replacing it with the promise of unimaginable joy in a paradise everlasting. We can’t even comprehend unending joy; our flawed human nature prevents us. But we will understand it fully, and magnificently, one day, I am convinced.

Today I saw the first few green buds emerging from the gray bleakness of our yard, in a wild tangle of honeysuckle. This seems very fitting, on Ash Wednesday, when we celebrate the life that comes of death, of the new birth offered to us without price. 

God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we  were  still sinners, Christ died for us.

–Romans 5: 6-8

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The Candles of Christmas Eve

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The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

 –Luke 1: 5

Our church’s candlelight Christmas Eve service is one of the highlights of the year. Each person receives a small white candle upon entering. Toward the end of the service, the sanctuary goes dark. The acolytes assist the congregation with the lighting of the individual, hand-held candles. Gradually, while we sing Silent Night, the light grows. By the final verse, the sanctuary is brightly glowing, as each member of the congregation holds high a lighted candle.

The process is a beautiful expression of God’s love. Into the darkness of the world, God sent a light. It appeared dim and insignificant at first. But soon it grew brighter and kindled countless other lights. When we allow the light of God’s gift to come alive within us, we glow. And we, in turn, have the power to spread the light. Our combined light is a mighty force. The darkness will not overcome it.

The source of the light is one baby, born to an unknown young woman and witnessed only by her trusting husband and perhaps the animals of a stable. In an unlikely juxtaposition, a multitude of angels announces the birth not to the ruling elite, but to shepherds in the fields outside of town. (This is nevertheless appropriate, because the baby’s great ancestor David was a shepherd boy when he was hand-picked to be king.) Before long, the birth of the child has attracted the attention of wise men from distant Eastern lands. Led by a singular star, they embark on a long journey to find the humble family. They bow down in awe before the baby and present him with rare and costly gifts.

God’s great gift turns the world upside down, upsets its expected order. There is no room in the comfort of any inn for God’s only son. Angels appear to lowly shepherds, and kings worship a baby. Allowing God’s light to shine within us may lead us to unexpected places. The tidiness of our lives is likely to be overturned. This is the difficulty in letting our inner light shine. Its power may summon us to go where we would rather not venture. It may be more convenient to quench that light, to hide it under a bushel. But knowing that the flame that dwells within us is from God, the light of salvation, ever-present, we can have the courage to go where it wills us. The darkness will not overcome it. We need not fear, for we are never alone. On this Christmas Eve, I pray for the light to be kindled and nourished throughout the world. And I pray for the strength to let the light be my guide. 

Do not be afraid; for see—I bring you good news of great joy for    all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

–Luke 2: 10b-11

The Christmas Donkey and Little Lambs



Family and friends began giving my daughter Christmas picture books as her first birthday approached.  She has quite a collection now. Two of our favorites are The Donkey’s Dream, by Barbara Helen Berger, and The Christmas Donkey, by Gillian McClure.   The subject of both books is the donkey that carried Mary and her unborn baby to Bethlehem.  The life of this ordinary donkey is powerfully transformed by his participation in the Christmas miracle.  The stories are lovely, as are the illustrations, which recall medieval illuminated manuscripts. 


The two books brought special meaning to this sweet little gray donkey I made as a somewhat later addition to our felt ornaments.  He is unique–strangely, I only made one.


These lambs are reminders of the other animals that witnesssed the miraculous birth. 


Trying to be the Church

On the first Sunday in October, our church tried something different. We canceled regular worship services so we could go out into the community and be the church. While we church-goers know the point of our faith is to do God’s work, we tend to forget this central truth as we sit complacently in the pew. It’s easy to become a passive consumer or a critic of church theatre. It’s also easy to become disheartened, to despair at the enormity of the world’s problems. Our change in routine was intended as a reminder that we must be active in our faith, and that with God’s help, even the smallest of our good deeds is magnified.

There were several projects to choose from: providing lunch for the homeless at a local shelter, renovating an elderly woman’s home, assembling kits for AIDS caregivers, decorating placemats for use in a prison ministry, and a music and fellowship program for nursing home residents.

My family and I took part in the music program at the nursing home. I knew it would be rewarding because two of our most talented and versatile musicians were the headliners. They are the heart and soul of our monthly Bluegrass Night, an event that draws performers and their vintage instruments from all over Virginia.

When we arrived, about fifteen residents had assembled, and the long, narrow room was already filled to capacity. I had envisioned a more spacious, less awkward setting that allowed for a larger audience and more freedom of movement for the musicians. Obviously, trying to be the church affords no guarantee of a cathedral-like work space. Our church that day recalled Christianity’s earliest era, when members met in cramped hidden rooms.

The bluegrass duo kicked off the music with a couple of rousing old standards. I’d like to say that the audience was spirited and enthusiastic from the first bright banjo note, but this was not the case. A few residents smiled, some kept time with nods and light clapping, but the initial responses ranged from torpid to tepid. We invited requests, but the group remained inert.

We had a wide range of musical talent available, so we pressed on. One of our younger members sang and played her guitar beautifully. Another offered two lovely flute selections. A lively original song by one of the bluegrass pair was well received. With each successive performance, the crowd became more visibly appreciative.

A burst of energy accompanied the unexpected arrival of one of our youth, bearing both guitar and cello. When her mother sang a moving a cappella version of In the Garden, we reached a turning point. A frail, pencil-thin man knew every word. He sang along and moved his hands gracefully as though directing the choir. Everyone joined in on the chorus. The audience had finally warmed up, and the group had achieved a sort of unity. The differences between residents and volunteers, so striking at first, were less apparent. When our bluegrass veteran offered an old Gene Autry favorite, a tiny quiet lady in a wheelchair burst to life. As she sang heartily, eyes closed, head back, we could sense the warm rush of memories that swirled around her.

My daughter and I had planned to play a few violin and piano duets. As we arrived, I realized with dismay that I had left my hymnal on the kitchen table. While D has the gift of playing by ear, I do not. My husband made our performance possible; he jumped in the car to locate a United Methodist church and borrow a hymnal. We were in an unfamiliar area, but he was successful, as I knew he would be. By the time he returned, the division between performers and audience had decreased further. Our group had become a pleasant circle of fellowship. The piano was out of tune, but I played softly and minimized the notes so that D could carry the melody. I was especially glad to be her mother that day.

Most people would agree that music is a powerful connector. But given the opportunity, it’s also a vital conduit for the Holy Spirit. That Sunday morning, it was not just the music that drew us together in ways that words alone cannot. God was with us, just as he was in those early house-churches of the first century. With His help, we took some baby steps in our quest to be the church. We didn’t end war, illness and poverty, but we brightened up a little corner of our world. The music carried the breath of God’s presence, immediate, dynamic, and enduring.