Put Your Ounce of Faith Into Action Before Today Ends

Put Your Ounce of Faith Into Action Before Today Ends
Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

The small headline caught my eye: “Local food bank need rises 200% – Donations decline under state’s stay-at-home order.”

The story was hidden under the ‘bigger’ one about a couple hundred protesters honking car horns on the capital’s streets, venting anger and frustration, demanding that the state reopen for business.

They’re part same issue, of course – how to handle the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. No one has clear answers.

But the alarming facts about hunger and unemployment have spiraled out of the air like a U.S.-sized tornado. Over the last 5 weeks 26 million Americans have filed jobless claims. The sum of filings may suggest the unemployment rate hovers around 20%.

Translation: too many people have suddenly lost the ability to pay for the necessities.

Of 200 U.S. foodbanks belonging to the nationwide network Feeding America, 98% said this week they have experienced a surge in demand concurrent with the pandemic outbreak, and 59% say their inventory has decreased. As demand increases, what’s been collected and stored to be given out doesn’t meet current needs. What’s more – about 50% of the clients now visiting food banks are new clients – people who didn’t need assistance just a few weeks ago.

Don’t let your eyes glaze over. These people are your neighbors. And mine.

We pray for them, and we have faith that God will provide. But we can’t stop there. The Lord sent manna to feed the hungry Israelites, but today He’s sent you and me.

Scripture tells us,“[F]aith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17)

God expects us to live out our love for Him in our deeds, and He needs us to do His work in the world. His undying Love is expressed through us – people who allow our faith to shine through our hands and hearts.

So, how can we help?

  • The primary need is funding for food banks, and we can all donate online without ever leaving our couches. Click here on Feeding America to find your local food bank with your state or zipcode. Go to it and contribute $10, $20, $100, or any amount you can. Then, if your budget allows, set a reminder on your phone to make the same donation again in 2 weeks, or monthly, until this crisis ends. Wholesale purchasing amplifies your gift, so your dollar will go farther with an online donation than if you buy groceries and drop them at a food bank in person. At the Anne Arundel County Food Bank near me, every $1 donated equals $7.85 of help.
  • Donate time. Be a driver, package food, or even volunteer virtually by making donor thank-you calls or writing thank-you notes. For example, in Maryland, the Maryland Food Bank in Baltimore is looking for volunteers ages 13-60 to sort and box food. Inquire locally to see what’s needed in your area.
  • Check in with your favorite pantry or shelter and offer the team support. One of my favorites is The Father McKenna Center in Washington, DC. Ask if you can drop off blankets, clothes, or other supplies when you are out. They know who needs what; if they can’t use what you’re offering, they’ll know who will.
  • Forward this post to your friends and family. Remind them that we can all do something. Especially right now.

Each person is a reflection of the divine, and Love Himself demands a response. To stand by and do nothing when people are suffering is to look upon God and turn away. So let’s turn our efforts toward the beautiful faces of people in need and do whatever we can to offer our assistance.

Remember Your Word for 2020? It’s Time to Dust It Off

Remember Your Word for 2020? It’s Time to Dust It Off

What’s “your” word for 2020? You know, the one that filled you with fire and passion back in January, a month that feels like 1979 right about now?

Maybe it’s…fearless, fit, organize, progress, whimsy, gratitude, travel, relax, build, integrity, communicate, or feast.

I’ve only been selecting a word of the year for four years running so I don’t have a long history with this, but I’m gradually learning the value of finding a concept to cling to for enhanced focus. In 2017 it was listen. For 2018, believe. And last year, gently. I even wrote a post about that one.

This year, my word is meaningful, and sitting here at home for 5 weeks in the midst of a pandemic, I am more sure than ever that this particular word was not chosen in a vacuum.

Yes, I got lost there for a bit in the panic and tedium of current events….

I’ve read and watched the news too much. Become fearful and then blasé while scrutinizing the numbers nationwide.

I’ve spent hours sewing masks for my family and wondered if they’d even be needed (and they are).

I’ve pulled every undone project I’ve got (scrapbooks, albums, and quilts) out of my closets and spread them around my dining room, exciting myself with the possibility of finishing them and overwhelming myself with work.

I’ve read a few books, mostly novels, and enjoyed them. But I knew I was using them to escape my anxiety. At times, I chose reading over prayer.

And I’ve walked and walked….alone, and with my kids, dogs, and husband. Around my neighborhood and inside my home. Trod circles going nowhere, arriving back to the place I was before to find it much the same.

And the whisper that I heard in the midst of it all on Easter weekend was this…

Your word is meaningful. Remember? Take it to heart.

Nothing goes unnoticed by the One who sees all.

Before I chose my word for 2020, I asked God for guidance in prayer. I asked that my word be significant for me and what lay ahead. And this word popped to mind clearly and vividly, and it was unshakable for many days.

In the early weeks of this pandemic, I almost forgot it. But I’m determined not to forget it now.

I’m hugging my kids more when they walk by. Playing many more rounds of board games with my youngest son. Prioritizing those projects and accepting that what didn’t get done over many years doesn’t need to get done in a couple weeks.

Meaningfulness is about intention. So for me, that’s only doing something with love and for the glory of the One who made me. Or choosing not to do it if I can’t do it in this frame of mind.

Having this kind of focus changes the energy of any activity.

How about “your” word? The choosing of it was not an accident.

God was, and is always, with you. The divine imprint is everywhere.

So pick up your word and dust it off. How can it be applied it in a new way – in a way that will bring joy to your soul amidst the current circumstances?

Ask your Creator for fresh eyes to see. It’s a habit we can all cultivate, worldwide pandemic or not.

No creature is concealed from Him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must render an account. – Hebrews 4:13

Overcoming Fear and Excuses in a Pandemic: The Note I Should Have Written Years Ago

Overcoming Fear and Excuses in a Pandemic: The Note I Should Have Written Years Ago
Photo by Liubov Ilchuk on Unsplash

On March 20th, after just one week home because of the coronavirus, I saw this question on Reddit: “What has the pandemic ruined for you?”

‘Gosh,’ I thought. ‘What a terrible way to look at it. What about the bright side?’

Two weeks later, I understand this person’s mindset somewhat better.

Though most of us are not physically ill, there is tremendous suffering. Fear, anxiety, grief, loneliness, educational concerns, and serious financial distress. For every person who is trying to embrace the benefits of wide avenues of time, there is another who can only think that this time is coming at great cost.

There are blessings, silver linings for sure, but telling anyone, “You should be grateful,” is callous and unfeeling when they are suffering.

That’s what I was thinking as I stared out the window on a gloomy Saturday afternoon. The rain had stopped for a bit and between drops still falling from the roof, I saw my gray-haired neighbor Ed* come out of his house in his sweatpants and slippers and collect his mail. He stood still for a second or two, rifling through the stack, then turned away from his home. My curiosity piqued, I watched him amble across the street and up onto the porch of Walter’s house, where he put some misdelivered letters and catalogs into the red square mailbox under the awning.

‘That’s neighborly.’ I thought, and then warmth filled my heart as I remembered…

This is the same man who’s helped me countless times to track down our belligerent Beagle Luna after she’s jumped our fence and followed her nose into the woods behind his home. A man who, with his wife Carol, has always bought Boy Scout popcorn from our oldest son, is generous at Halloween, and has offered to help my husband with troublesome trees that cascade over our yard.

‘But,’ I considered, as I watched him slowly retrace his steps and open his own front door, ‘I appreciate him most for that tree.’

It’s a 20-foot pine in his front yard that he’s decorated with colored lights all 18 Christmases I’ve lived in this neighborhood, a sight that blesses my entire season every single year. I can see it from my bedroom, so every December night before I close the drapes and put on my pajamas, I stop to look at it – red, blue, green, and gold twinkles in the inky darkness.

I never told Ed and Carol that I appreciated the effort it takes to trim this tree each year, that I have always felt outdoor decorations were somehow meant for the entire community, and that I have accepted this tree as something of a personal gift from them and am immensely grateful for it.

But – I had long felt that I should.

One of my favorite truisms is, “Never ignore a generous impulse,” and yet this was a strong inner nudge I had ignored for far too long. For years in fact, I’d rationalized it away.

‘A note thanking them for their Christmas tree would be just too weird,’ I’d thought. ‘You don’t know them well. You’re so sentimental, Gretchen. It’s too much and it would make them uncomfortable.’

But the nudge never let up, so I finally settled on this excuse: unusual times call for unusual measures.

Three weeks into the pandemic I wrote the note and taped it to their front door. Thanked them for all the things….especially the Christmas tree. Figured they wouldn’t be afraid to read it because Ed carried mail barehanded over to Walter’s.

Within two hours they called. Ed said Carol could hardly stop crying from the shock of it – that the note made them both feel so good, it meant so much to them. After several minutes, Carol got on the line and told me, “I didn’t know people noticed.”

She didn’t know people noticed…the kindness, the consideration, the attempts to be neighborly.

Do you see this around you, too? Is there anyone you have felt nudged to thank?

In a time when gratitude can be hard to muster, it’s helping me to keep my eyes and memory open to see what’s been there all along – loving, good-hearted people, living just a couple houses away.

With an abundance of love and a little precaution, our shared hope is that the pandemic won’t ruin that for any of us.

No one should seek his own advantage, but that of his neighbor.
1 Corinthians 10:24 (NAB)

*Names have been changed

Think You Don’t Have a Valentine? Bet You’re Wrong

Think You Don’t Have a Valentine? Bet You’re Wrong
Photo by Emma Styles on Unsplash

“Valentine’s Day is Friday,” said my teenage daughter as we turned into the parking lot of her dance school.

I nodded in agreement and circled the lot’s perimeter so I could let her out at the entrance.

Just then her brother announced from the backseat, “I have a Valentine.”

“Who?” said his sister, her voiced cocked with unnatural interest. I could tell she was hoping he was about to reveal a crush on one of his 4th-grade classmates.

“Mom.”

My eyes softened, a smile spread from the corners of my mouth, and some tiny measure of tension evaporated off my shoulders.

‘Great,’ you might be thinking… ‘Her kid just called her his Valentine. Good for her. What about me?’

Isn’t that the way we all think? ‘What about me?’ I do.

Now if you’re a regular reader, you know I have a Valentine in the traditional sense, my husband of almost 22 years. And I am forever grateful for him and the family we’ve made together.

You also know I write a lot on this blog about goodness, generosity, and how an ounce of faith can make it easier to see where divine light shines through the cracks of everyday life.

But what you might not know is that sometimes that’s hard for me.

It’s hard for me to see grace when I feel uninspired. When world news is bad, very bad, or devastating. When my family members suffer with long-term illnesses. When I pray daily for friends whose kids are struggling. When weeks go by in a blur of activity and every short winter day is actually a long darkness. When I fight my body’s desire to hibernate and drag myself out of bed. The promise of spring lightness seems far off.

So I do what I’m suggesting you do. I look up. I try see beyond…

I’m fairly convinced that some amorous souls were thinking along similar lines as they developed this unsophisticated holiday – Valentine’s Day – over the centuries and then, thankfully, the more winsome among us adopted it with gusto.

To keep us focused on what’s cheerful, and frankly, right.

Love.

Love writ large and small.

Because Love always wins.

Not just for star-gazing couples kissing in the moonlight. But for far-less glamorous and equally important pairs too.

Think you don’t have a Valentine? I’ll bet you’re wrong.

Got a neighbor who always smiles at you?

A colleague who wishes you good day – every darn day?

A clerk at a local store or restaurant who knows you by name and takes an extra second to ask you how you’re doing?

Is there a child in your life – any child – who likes to talk to you? Hold your hand? Play a game? Pet your dog?

And best yet – a friend or loved one who paid you a compliment that sang to your soul because it reinforced a truth you’ve always known about yourself – the substance of who you really are?

Love is always with us. It’s not always dressed up and smelling good. It’s often subtle and understated. But it’s always there.

Essentially, beautifully, Valentines are simple overtures of Love, and they are sometimes expressed by sweet hearts we’ve overlooked.

Somewhere in your life, you have a Valentine.

Ask God to make that person’s presence obvious to you. Give thanks when God does. And then rest in the knowledge that this person is simply one channel of the greater Love that is promised to you – and present to you – now and forever.

Ask His Opinion Before Buying the Appliance – The End of a Very Short Series – ‘Assessing a Year’

Ask His Opinion Before Buying the Appliance –  The End of a Very Short Series – ‘Assessing a Year’
Photo by John-Mark Smith on Unsplash

If you read my last post just before Christmas, “Seeing the Blessings on Life’s Twisty Road” (part 1 of this 2-part series), you know I recommend the Daily Examen as a way of reviewing each day for indications of grace.

It works for me.

And now that we’ve entered 2020, I’m encountering more and more gifts in this review process.

Having done broader Examens of the last year, I’m seeing that my ‘reads’ of people are often incorrect. In other words, I am oblivious to what others are really thinking. I assume that all is well when in fact others have opinions – strong likes and dislikes – of which I am unaware – or worse yet, that I’m choosing to ignore. Sometimes at the peril of my relationship with them.

But rather than go ‘deep’ here and tell you a serious story, I’ll give you a fairly lighthearted example from my marriage and you can extrapolate for your own life, however much that might be helpful.

Recently, our vacuum cleaner broke. It was a Sears canister-style model we had for about 8 years – a sleek blue, with a retractable cord, internal bags I replaced when full, and a cool orange indicator light on the handle that told me when the carpet was really dirty (and it was – all the time!!). I liked it, despite the fact that the cord stopped winding and I had to use a wrench to keep it extended; despite the fact that I was constantly buying bags; and despite the fact that the contraption was HEAVY and unwieldy with its 2 segments.

When the motor finally quit my husband practically leapt for joy.

“THANK GOD!! I HATE that thing,” he said with no shortage of enthusiasm.

I was shocked. And taken aback.

I had picked it out myself and didn’t realize the depth of his dislike.

The truth was, I guess somewhere in the recesses of my mind I knew he didn’t like it. I just didn’t really care. His feelings on the matter weren’t important enough to me. And when the truth came out, I had to accept my culpability.

He pointed out that the dead vacuum was quite large and always lying around, just waiting to trip someone.

We got a light, upright model. One he picked out and that I agreed was a great choice.

And when it arrived, he stood it up in the middle of the family room. Then he looked over at me and said,

“If you ever miss the old one, you can just do this.”

Then he lay it on its side so that it became an awkward obstacle in the middle of the room, stepped over it, and walked away.

I laughed until my sides hurt.

We are never too old to have a ‘learning’ moment, and this was one for me.

Too often, we assume we know what’s best and we don’t take others into account.

So – here are a few questions for the new year and each day as you walk through it, one by one:

  • Where was grace shown to me today?
  • Where did another person (or people) accommodate me? Tolerate me? And did I truly consider that person’s wishes?
  • Do I try to see situations from others’ points of view? Do I ask directly for their insights?
  • Do I modify my behavior after hearing what people I care about tell me?
  • Can I smile and laugh when there’s a disconnect, instead of letting it blow up into a bigger problem?
  • Am I showing grace, or pushing my own agenda?

May we all have a blessed 2020.

Assessing a Year – Seeing the Blessings on Life’s Twisty Road – Part 1 of a Very Short Series

Assessing a Year –  Seeing the Blessings on Life’s Twisty Road – Part 1 of a Very Short Series
Yosemite, 2019. View of Half Dome from Olmsted Point.

It was July of this year, and I was climbing California’s mountains in my rental car, just outside the town of Groveland, on my way to help lay 2 beautiful people to rest – the third memorial service I’d attended in almost as many months.

On the twists and turns of the switchbacks, I passed a puzzling, funny road sign. Its traditional yellow diamond shape held a message completely foreign to my East Coast sensibilities.

‘Turn off A/C’

I obeyed and rolled down the windows, deciding that the natural breeze actually felt quite nice after my cross-country flight.

Later, I asked my dad about the sign, and he said most modern cars can handle the hills, but these old notices warn drivers not to stress an engine’s radiator on the steep inclines. They are meant to be helpful.

That tiny piece of memory – me, the curvy road in terrain that varies by season, the weird sign – has come to encapsulate much of how I feel about my year.

It’s been a strange one, at least by my silly standards, as if I could ever plan or anticipate what might happen next.

Lots and lots of ups and downs. Joys and sorrows. Achievements and successes and births, and struggles and woundings and saying goodbye to people so dear to me that I choke when I picture their faces in my mind.

Amidst all of it….blessings….right?

Well, they say there’s always a blessing to be found when we look closely enough, but certain situations make us all wonder.

Sometimes blessings are very difficult to see. Or slow to emerge.

And that’s hard.

On balance, my year has been a good one, but I’ve seen people I care about suffer immensely.

I’ve seen people pass through pain so scarring and deep I know they’d much rather avoid, rationalize, or escape it – do anything other than live with it in real time.

And we’re all moving through territory we’ve never encountered before.

How about you? How has your year been? Too much? Just too darn much for a neat, quick summation?

I’ve done some thinking on this in 2019. In July, I wrote Doing OK? Reflect, and You May Find Out.

But thinking only gets a person so far, so more recently, I’ve been spending some time learning about Ignatian spirituality and doing ‘The Daily Examen,’ a process developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola and used for centuries by the ministry he founded, the Jesuits, and anyone else interested in finding God in the midst of a day or other length of time. It has helped me see blessings when they are not readily apparent.

If we accept it as Truth that God is always with us, it’s not difficult to enter into His presence. We can find Him everywhere. God is closer than breath.

So for Day 1 of this brief series, here are 6 simple steps based on the Examen to help all of us see God in the last 24 hours. Try this over the next week, and consider broadening the exercise to a larger period of time, asking God to help you decipher your life’s events in 2019.

  1. Close your eyes. Imagine God smiling down on you, and you looking up at God.
  2. Ask yourself, “What am I thankful for?” Don’t leap ahead, just give thanks for whatever springs up.
  3. Before reviewing the past, ask for the grace to see yourself as God sees you.
  4. Walk through your day (or week, month, year) one moment at a time. Where did you feel joy? What troubled you? Challenged you? Where and when did you pause? Did you see or feel the presence of God at any particular point? Stay with that for a bit.
  5. What is your response? How is your spirit?
  6. Looking ahead, what comes to mind? With what spirit do you want to move forward?

Suffering and happiness are persistent lows and highs. They just vary in their intensity.

But when we ask for guidance to see our ups and downs in the light of God’s ever-present and eternal love for us, we can be nourished and calmed on the journey. We can find deeper joy regardless of our circumstances.

And we learn we are not riding solo. We are never left to handle life’s switchbacks and strange signs alone.

“Can I Take That Backpack For You?” – Words We Still Need to Hear

“Can I Take That Backpack For You?” – Words We Still Need to Hear
Photo by Charlie Solorzano on Unsplash.

Thank goodness I didn’t wreck the car when I saw them…I was staring so much.

They were three men walking in a line like ducks toward the school, one following another, on the sidewalk opposite me as I pulled out of a parking spot on a one-way street in historic downtown Annapolis.

They were slowed by the bumpy terrain – a place where bricks placed in a herringbone pattern are made uneven by centuries of wear and large roots of trees busting through at sporadic intervals.

Or maybe it was the men’s daughters who shortened their steps.

Tucked behind each dad, sheltered from passing cars and just barely in view, was a little girl holding her father’s left hand. In his right hand, each dad carried a tiny backpack.

And that last precious little girl? Oh – she was engulfed in story, her left arm waving around as she kept her face toward her dad’s, looking up for his responses. And he was nodding and smiling – fully focused, fully present to whatever it was she was telling him.

Three men. Three daughters. So beautiful.

I still remember being small and holding my dad’s big hand. It was warm and soft. And I knew I was safe when I was with him.

And I still remember what it was like to have help from others when I was vulnerable. Friends hauled my backpack for me in high school on more than one occasion when I sprained my ankles.

Perhaps your experiences are similar.

The truth is, we’re all still children at heart. We want two hands to be there for us. One to hold, and one to carry our stuff.

Hours after seeing the fathers and daughters, a dear friend of mine called and shared some concerns with me about one of her children.

In the beginning of our friendship, she used to apologize for taking up my time, but now we have an understanding. Our relationship has matured and we know – we are here to help carry one another’s burdens. We are here to hold each other’s hands.

I tell her my fears and she tells me hers. She admits her mistakes and I reassure her that I’ve made them, too.

We metaphorically link arms, and while one of us protects the other from the world’s traffic, the one who’s feeling vulnerable and small waves her other arm about and tells her story for as long as it takes.

We walk together over the uneven path.

As you’ve probably witnessed, the world consistently fails to appreciate the finer points of real, lasting, and genuine adult relationships. They are tender, sacred domains where vulnerability, weakness, and heart-to-heart sharing is not mocked and scorned, but cherished.

Only in admitting to one another that we are not perfect can we find communion.

Real love means letting down our guard with someone we trust, and offering to guard one another in return.

Our hearts are made for Love.

We crave it.

We want it in its purest form – born in perfection from the place where it is, was, and always will be – safe and eternally trustworthy, from beginning to end.

And to get more of it, we must give it away.

The next time you feel frail, weakened, or exposed – will you turn to a loyal friend – and better still, your Father in heaven – and say, ‘Show me where I can lay down this heavy load?’

And when someone comes to you with a backpack of worry, regret, or just fatigue from too much responsibility, will you help him or her carry it for awhile, while holding out your tender hands, offering your strength and protection?

Yes, we can do this. We can travel the jagged landscape of life, making one another’s burdens lighter with the love of God working through our hands.

Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)