Sacred Meals and Invitations

This morning I slowly opened my eyes to bright sunlight. As I lay in bed, still sleepy, I reflected back on the last few days and on Thanksgiving, just hours before.

A dear friend arrived on Tuesday from Ghana to stay with us. The first time she ever came to the United States was as an 18-year-old from Karachi, Pakistan, here to attend college in Western Massachusetts. She arrived just days after the 9/11 attacks that sent the world into a spin and redefined wars and border crossings. Mariam has now lived in multiple countries with her family, and writes well on what it is to be globally mobile. She is the epitome of what it looks like to learn and grow across cultures and communicate across boundaries.

Her arrival sparked stories and conversations that have been lying dormant in my heart. These global connections are more than friendships – they are opportunities to share stories, they are ways to promote understanding, they are journeys into our hearts and what is really going on. Every morning we have curled up on my couch with homemade lattes, savoring the sweetness and time. These hidden stories don’t make sense to everyone, but they do to Mariam.

Yesterday we worked together to prepare a Thanksgiving feast. Traditional turkey and stuffing blended with Palak Paneer and parathas with a goal to make sure every guest was suitably full to the brim with food and thanks.

It was an eclectic group of us around the table. In today’s climate, some may consider it a dangerous Thanksgiving. An American raised in Pakistan and an American raised in the military feasted with friends from Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Iran. There were no walls and there was no talk of walls.

There were stories topped with cranberry sauce, thankful hearts accompanied by whipped cream. There were linguistic comparisons and nostalgia over favorite foods from passport countries, there were missed references and laughter to make your stomach hurt.

There is something sacred about sharing a meal. In the liturgy of our faith tradition we experience the bread and the wine, the body and the blood in remembrance of a meal. But the sacred act of sharing a meal continues when we, equipped through the liturgy, go out into the world. That is why the meals that Christ shared while on earth feel so important. As humans, our need for food and water, the reaching across a table to share these with simple words like “please pass the bread” bind us together in mysterious and hopeful ways. Author Leslie Verner says “A meal equalizes, for as we dine together, we lift the same utensils to our lips and touch the same bread to our tongues.”

There are times when I lose hope for this country, land of my birth and my passport. I wonder how a place with so many resources and such abundance can collectively operate without generosity, with an ethos of scarcity instead of abundance. I think about the lessons I have learned about hospitality and invitations, living out of abundance from the land of my childhood, and the lands that I have loved and lived in as an adult. I lose hope for myself, for how quickly I get caught up in the pervading attitude of “me first” and others last. I feel anger toward the fact that in a worldwide crisis of displacement and refugees, a nation with room to spare has stalled resettlement.

But when I think about yesterday, about a room full of people from around the world who gathered with laughter and joy for a shared meal, I know that’s not the whole story. I know there is more. I know that there are many opening up their homes and making room for more; many who hate walls and want to build bridges.

And I am convinced that inviting others into our homes is one of the most hopeful acts of resistance possible.

We are going into a season of excess and abundance – my prayer is that we – that I – channel that abundance into loving well and serving more, that I channel it into invitations and hospitality.

The ending paragraph of the book Invited is nothing less than inspired. Throughout the book we see an invitation to a different way of living and being, a way of living out of abundance not scarcity. So I close with her words on this day after thanksgiving, inviting all of us into another way to live.

Lord, pry the film from our eyes, the scales from our skin, the shield and sword from our hands. Equip us to notice the stranger and the strange. Embolden us to be the stranger and the strange. Pull us into the flow of your Spirit at work in the world, infusing our ordinary days with your extraordinary presence. Hold open our eyes to to admire your wonders and delight in your mysteries. Fill us with gratitude for the paths you’ve paved for us, and all the ways you’ve proven that you are Emmanuel, God with us.

Motivate us to always invite, because you never stop inviting. Inspire us to welcome, because you lavish generosity on us and promise to refill the gifts we give away.

Come Lord Jesus.

Let us live like invited ones.

Epilogue of Invited by Leslie Verner

Amen

Christmas Eve Reflection from Thessaloniki

Every year I write a Christmas Eve Reflection. Usually it’s in a fully decorated home with Christmas music playing in the background. It’s written in the midst of the frenzied joy of Christmas in the West and I usually have presents to wrap and stockings to fill.

This year I write it from the sunshine of Thessaloniki and a 4th floor apartment. The sun is starting to set and the fading light peaks through floor to ceiling windows. My youngest son is sitting near me in what can only be described as a “companionable silence” – trite except it’s not. It is delightful.

Our Christmas reflects the year we have had. It is unusual but we are grateful. There is little stress as we prepare for a midnight Liturgy and the dawning of Christmas morning. It is a gift.

Earlier today I sat in a salon and got my hair cut. The longer I sat, the more Greek I became and the result pleased the stylist greatly. Later I walked toward Aristotle Square, joining crowds of cafe goers, musicians, and city dwellers. I thought about my family members who are not here and missed them.

I got back to the apartment where we are staying and read about a friend who is dying. She has lived life so well, she has loved so well. Tears and the juxtaposition of the joy of a holiday combined with an imminent death flood over me.

I am so aware this year of the many events in all of our lives that we keep hidden from the spotlight of social media. Despite what the social media developers would like us to believe, we share only the highlights and the well-edited photographs of our lives. But the truly important things we share with those who don’t need edits or highlights, those who walk us through shadows and into the light of grace.

The betrayals and separations, emergency room visits and hospitalizations are left out of the public narrative. We don’t share the trips to the counselor’s office and the hard soul work of confession. We don’t share the nights of tears we shed for those we love or the sadness of a womb that is empty. We don’t share those moments of grace when we have prayed for the impossible and have received.

We share the newborn baby – we don’t share the 35 hours of labor that birthed the baby.

And this is as it should be. We don’t have the capacity to be emotionally naked with everyone, nor should we cast our great pearls of grace before the swine of social media.

Instead we live life in the light and shadows of daily grace, periodically posting snapshots of that grace for the world outside to see.

So as you see my snapshots, and as I see yours, may we not yield to the temptation to believe that these are anything more than snapshots. May we remember that there is enough sadness in all our lives to crush us, and enough grace to raise us up.

Most of all, may we remember that a baby in a manger changed our world and hope was born.

Merry Christmas Eve dear friends!

Be Still and Create

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“In an age of movement, nothing is more critical than stillness. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.”

Pico Iyer in The Art of Stillness


I sit on my couch, coffee beside me, mindlessly playing a game on my iPhone. This has never been a problem for me before, but it is now.  I was the one that never succumbed to this kind of mindless drivel. I would create through writing, decorating, or planning innovative public health programs.  Now, even when I have time I struggle to focus; struggle to keep any sort of disciplined schedule.  As I play the game, my mind wanders. It wanders to my mom, a recent widow; to one of my children who is going through a crisis; and then on to other more mundane worries. They all have one thing in common: they are out of my control. What is in my control is pressing five red squares linked together. This will create a rocket, and with that little rocket, I will win this game and claim victory over a machine. And then I will do it again, and again, and again.  Until I don’t win, and I restlessly realize that I have just spent an unthinkable amount of time on a phone game.

In The Art of Stillness, author Pico Iyer talks about how many people in Silicon Valley try to observe an internet Sabbath. People take a 24 to 48 hour break from their online jobs creating high tech instruments and content so they can relax and reboot. Employees take this time so that they are at maximum creativity when they return. They rest so they can create programs that keep us, their ever-willing customers, online all the time. It is a profound irony that someone somewhere may have taken an internet Sabbath and then created a game that I now sit and play for hours. I squander my moments of stillness and with it, my ability to create.

I have run out of lives on my game, and so I wait. I wait and I think about what it means to be still; what it means to renew my mind and soul so that I will pay attention; so that I will have both the desire and the will to create.


I live in a city that goes to bed late and gets up in the early morning hours. My first activity as I leave my apartment is to walk 15 minutes to the subway. Noise is immediate and continuous. It’s in the train engine roaring, in people having conversations, in the homeless population at Central Square, sometimes insulting each other and other times laughing, but always loud. I travel three stops to my office in downtown Boston, the busiest section of the city. The pace and demands are relentless, wordlessly declaring that being still is an absurd impossibility. And this creeps into my subconscious mind, so that even when I have time, I have bought into the lie that being still is impossible.

Yet all around, I see evidence of how being still creates life. The small purple flowers of crocuses have just emerged from a still earth.  The brown branches of long dormant forsythia have given birth to brilliant yellow flowers.  Budding trees and bushes join this holy movement and add their pops of color against a grey April sky and cold sterile buildings.  After months of stillness, spring bursts forth like an artist who has taken a sabbatical and moves on to create her greatest work of art.

It is the work of a God whose infinite creativity spoke a world into being, who marked off the dimensions of the earth’s foundations as morning stars sang.

“Where were you
when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you possess understanding!
Who set its measurements—if you know—
or who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its bases set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
when the morning stars sang in chorus,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”*

Between marking off the measurements of the earth’s foundations and laying its cornerstone, was God still? Did he create, and then sit in stillness, communing with members of the Trinity, only to go back days, months, and years later and create more? Has stillness always been a part of creation?

Be still, and breathe.

Be still, and create.

Be still, and bring life.

Be still, and know God.


The lives on the game have refreshed. I pause a minute and realize that what I long for, this game cannot give. Only taking a time to be still will equip me to write the words I long to write, to create the programs I long to create.  I reluctantly shut off my phone, the hardest step in the process of disengaging from what has become my adult pacifier. Outside the city is still. Inside, I sit in stillness, my own communion with the holy Trinity. This moment is perhaps the most creative thing I will do today, but it is a start and it is enough.


*Job 38: 4-7 NET

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Thanksgiving for the Broken-hearted

Robynn and I were recently texting about Thanksgiving. This year both of us will fill our houses and hearts with people who are hurting. These will be the tables of the broken-hearted, chairs of the grieving, glasses of the bewildered, and dessert plates of the deserted.

What do we do when our tables are filled with the broken-hearted?When comfort feels as elusive as sunshine in winter?

We raise glasses of gratitude, because gratitude precedes the miracle. And God knows, we need miracles.

As we texted back and forth, comfort and friendship were in every word. Though miles away, we were walking beside each other.

Robynn’s last text to me that day is the one I have posted below. May you who fellowship with the broken-hearted know that we are with you through this Thanksgiving weekend. We pray that your tables will be ones of grace and the deepest of peace.


Broken tables and backless chairs—- we gather with pain and imperfections and pray for the great grace of gratitude to accompany our mashed potatoes and gravy.

The whole world is grey. Even the geese have flown south. We sit abandoned and isolated surrounded by noise and green bean casserole.

Jesus come. Be our healing. Be our holy guest. Make house calls to the weary and worn down. Sit with us a spell. Turn our water into wine and our emptiness into something that can hold second helpings of hope. With whip cream perhaps… wouldn’t that be all kinds of yummy?!

With love,

Marilyn and Robynn

On Death and Living in the Moment

Today’s post is from my daughter-in-law Lauren. She is amazing and I love her words in this piece. You can read more about her work here. Thanks for reading!

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“Bikini Baby” Baby Lauren and her dad. 

New Years Eve, four years ago. 

It was 9 days before my dad died, but we didn’t know that then. Cancer doesn’t give you a timeline. It just kind of chooses to detonate in weird increments – it progresses quickly when it wants to and chills when it wants to. All we knew was that the doctors started sending over hospice nurses and we had reached a point where they no longer could help his body, but just give morphine to help while his body drowned.

New Year’s Eve was never a crazy important holiday to us, but it was still a holiday. And something about holidays sort of illuminates the cracks of your life, the good and the bad. I remember reading people’s Facebook statuses of “this year was blah blah blah”. Be it good or bad, I couldn’t read what people were saying without comparing it to my current misfortune. I was angry that good things could continue while he was suffering and I was mad when people talked about how they had a hard year because their car broke down. Get over it. And then I’d feel wildly aware of my selfishness. It was a horrible cycle.

We knew the upcoming year brought death. It brought dread and we knew it. We didn’t know when exactly or what it was going to look like, but we knew it was coming. So to survive, my heart changed its syncopation with time. I switched from the typical “new year” grandiose thoughts and dreams and wishes of the upcoming year to thoughts and dreams and wishes for the next minute. The next hour. Looming death bends time a little bit like that. It makes you despise and cherish purgatory.

My dad was watching TV and I was watching my mom watch him. We both saw the space between his spirit and his body getting bigger and bigger. I was receiving texts from friends and family asking “how are you doing, Lauren?”. Well, I’m watching the coolest dude on earth suffer slowly and I know I’m not very emotionally articulate right now but like, I’m really f&%ing mad. And helpless.

This cocktail of emotions would start small as a pit in my stomach and then it would slowly overwhelm my entire body until I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t be in the room for another second. I wasn’t okay with it.

So. I forced my husband (God bless him) to make up a “New Year’s Eve show” with me to perform for my dad. Just like I had done when I was young, except with more alcohol this time. We slaved over this performance (honestly, “performance” is giving us way too much credit, but we really tried). My mom would come out and ask what was happening and I’d tell her to go back because she was ruining the surprise and I’d catch her making “I’m so sorry” looks to my husband. When we went in for the “performance”, I was legit nervous. I wanted to make my dad laugh and I wanted to take the weight off of the night and off of his chest. We stumbled through it. It was bad and we started over so many times but my parents watched like they had always watched for my entire life. God bless them, too. That’s A LOT of questionable performances they had to endure. At the end, my dad turned to my mom and earnestly asked her “Did I miss something? Was that it?” The four of us erupted in laughter. What I wouldn’t give, to be back there in that small Arizona room, cackling with the three of them.

And then the ball dropped and my dad reached over and kissed my mom at midnight. I remember wondering if he didn’t move all day so that he could reserve enough energy so that when it came time, he could kiss his wife at midnight. I remember the sheer gratefulness that he made it to midnight. That my mom didn’t have to be alone for it.

I’m trying to focus on that feeling. I know a lot of people are scared for the upcoming year. There’s a lot of dread and fear surrounding general humanity, not to mention political changes happening. I get it and I feel it. And we can’t ignore it. That’s ignorant and irresponsible. 

But I also think we can incorporate other feelings that come with choosing to live in the moment and being open to the small gifts of the moment. And we have to love each other and have sympathy for all pain, however big or small the world tells us it is. Selfishly choosing insecurity of how to handle and acknowledge our neighbors’ pain, over empathy, is barbaric. 

Anyways, happy 2017 – I hope that we are able to find the silver linings in the dark and gratitude in the now.

To You Whom I’ve Never Met


Last week, my husband came home with a package. After tearing off the brown paper, I opened a beautiful, decorative, handmade sign for our home. Someone who I’ve never met, who has never seen my world, took the time to make it for me. I couldn’t believe her kindness and generosity. And so I began thinking about so many of you, you whom I’ve never met. You who email, comment, and encourage. This is for all of you. 

To You Whom I’ve Never Met….

I read your messages and I alternate between weeping and laughing. We share so much – yet we’ve never met. From boarding school tears and laughs to awkward first days in our passport countries it is like we are brothers and sisters.

And yet – we’ve never met.

We know the joy of international terminals, and the tears of the word ‘goodbye.’ We share the cynicism that overpowers when we confront narrow world views and the fresh breeze that comes of kindred spirits communicating. We know what it is to grow up too quickly and yet be considered immature in many ways. We don’t have a clue what it would be to stay in the same place for life and yet we partially envy it.

We share all these things – and yet we’ve never met.

I receive your emails and your messages, your tweets and your texts. We might share our thoughts through a couple words, or through long paragraphs that detail our stories. No matter – there is a common thread that binds us.

We come from places of faith and places of doubt, from different countries and political persuasions, but something binds us together.

We know what it is to live in a world between, we know what it is to communicate across boundaries. Whether those boundaries be in our back yard or across the ocean, we navigate them regularly and learn through the hard and the easy.

And yet, we’ve never met.

Others of you have stayed in the same place all your lives. Yet, you read and connect with my words with warmth and empathy. You encourage me to be settled but not stagnant, to love places that are near and far.

Thank you. For being a part of this journey; for living between worlds so well; for being okay with home not always being a ‘place’; for laughing at the funny and crying at the difficult; for loving the world and understanding negotiation; for getting what it is to be ‘other’ and using that to make a difference. Thank you for being the third culture kid, global nomad, and lover of the world that you are.

Maybe someday we’ll meet, but until we do, I’m grateful. 

And Jenn Sforza, thank you for my beautiful sign! 

I Love Where I Live-Part I

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Sometimes I remember other places where I used to live and I sigh with nostalgia. When you’ve been everywhere it’s hard to settle somewhere. I regularly battle postal code envy.

This morning as I was getting ready for the day I smiled. I have a good life. There’s so much about living here that I love. It struck me that I should make a note about those things when days are sunny. What would it look like to think about the things I love about where I live? It seems like such a tangible way to live here and now.

I was talking these things over with Lowell. He remembered something he had recently read in Sacred Fire by Ronald Rolheiser. Rolheiser lists ten indicators of spiritual maturity. I was fascinated when Lowell said that the first one on the list is Live in gratitude and thank your Creator by enjoying your life. He goes on to say:

As well, our gratitude is meant to carry something else: enjoyment of the gift that is given to us. The highest compliment we can give a gift giver is to enjoy the gift thoroughly. We owe it to our Creator to appreciate things, to be as happy as we can be. Life is meant to be more than a test, and so we might add this to our daily prayer: give us today our daily bread, and help us to enjoy it without guilt.

I’ve invited others into the joy of discovering what we love about the places we live. I wrote several friends who grew up somewhere but now live somewhere else. I asked them to tell me the top six reasons they love where they live. The responses were so full of joy (and so plentiful…this has become a mini-series)! My friends took pleasure in thinking about their corner of the globe—they seemed to delight to tell me what they enjoy most about where they’ve been placed.

We live here on purpose. There are other places we could live, or even have lived—but this is the place we are now. And we owe it to our Creator to live in gratitude, to be as happy as we can be.

Robynn Bliss

I grew up in Pakistan.
I live now in Manhattan, Kansas.

  1. I love Radinas –our local coffee shop! It brings me joy that the morning baristas there know my drink of choice: single extra hot latte with half the regular vanilla syrup!
  2. I love the sense of community that thrives in this small city. I appreciate that people are friendly. They smile and nod their heads at me when I pass.
  3. Kansas has these wide-open skies and expansive horizons—I love that! It speaks to me of eternity and glory.
  4. I’m so grateful for USD383 (our school district) and the opportunities my kids have here. I’ve watched with pride as they’ve each tried their hands at pottery, school plays, sports.
  5. I love the Flint hills and the Konza prairie—unusual elements of creation right outside our back door!
  6. It fascinates me that we get to experience all four seasons when they come to visit –which is often—sometimes all in one week. There’s a reason most Kansans are fixated on the weather. They get a lot of it!

Karis N

I grew up in India, England and America.
I now live in England.

  1. I love that I live at home in my room and that it’s somewhere where I know I don’t have to leave in 6 months time.
    2. I love that I have an easy commute to work and that my colleagues are awesome.
    3. I love that I have a really solid core group of friends here and that doing life with them is a privilege and a joy.
    4. I love the fact that it doesn’t snow here.
    5. I love that public transport runs effectively here.
    6. I have 2 churches I go to here and both are family and that is a rare and special thing to have.

The list could go on!
I love the post script that Karis added: I call 2015 the year I learned to be content. Because I spent January-March itching to get back to America. Then I spent March to June being content where I was but still wanting to go back to America. And then I spent June-October wondering if I even should go back to America. And then I spent October-December telling people that it’s final and I’m back in England indefinitely.

Jill B

I grew up in Southern New Mexico and El Paso, Texas.
I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Six things I love about Albuquerque:

  1. Amazing sunsets
  2. Green chile
  3. 360 days of sunshine per year
  4. Seeing all the stars from our roof
  5. A mix of people: Hispanic, Native American, and more
  6. Wide open spaces with mountains
  7. And green chile—yes it’s that good to mention twice!
  8. And wait…coconut margaritas but need Robynn here to fully enjoy!!

 

Leaf R
I grew up in Holland, Australia, and India.
I live in Northern Thailand.

1. The sky is spectacular every day. It can be filled with every type of cloud, or golden light and in the ‘Green Season’ when it rains and rains, it is filled with rainbows.
2. My spiritual community at the moment is full of people who appreciate and love beauty. Everyone works together to bring more and more beauty to our little Christ-Centred Meditation Space. Often we will be sitting together in a circle and someone will get up and move something slightly or light a candle so that the space is more pleasing to be in.
3. The little town where I live, Pai, is a hub of musicians and poets. Artistic freedom abounds and there is a lot of sweetness and support as well.
4. I love going to the local market on Wednesdays when all of the Hill Tribe people come down from their villages and do a big shop for supplies. Everywhere I look is a potential postcard picture.
5. The place where I live is safe. My son can ride his bike all over and I can imagine a future where my daughter will be treated respectfully. I am so thankful for this.
6. There are still enough challenges to facilitate spiritual growth. I know that God is still working in me and that this chapter of life is a gift and that somehow (in ways I do not fully understand), these are the conditions that are needed to make me more like Christ and to help me understand His love more…if I will allow Him to do His thing.

What do you love about where you live? 

Some Thoughts on Gratitude

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There’s this wonderful tradition built into the tapestry of American culture: Thanksgiving. Every year on the last Thursday in November, Americans gather in families, in groups, with friends, in communities for the sole purpose of expressing thanks. Granted a lot of the gratitude is buried under the gravy and the goodness of green bean casserole and the great mountain ranges of mashed potatoes but still the heart of it remains. This is a country determined to mark their thankfulness with an official holiday to underscore it. I love that!

I’ve spent some time thinking about gratitude recently. What does it look like to be truly grateful? Where does thankfulness come from? How can I cultivate it? Yesterday’s turkey dinner and the joys of family reunited still distract me a little but here are some of my scattered thoughts on thankfulness—

  • Each of us has the capacity to be grumblers. It’s easy to complain. It’s easy to commiserate and spiral downward into self-pity. We all have struggles and things we’re up against. Each of us face circumstances we’d like to skirt around. But even as all those things are true, the opposite is also true. We all have so much to be thankful for.
  • Being thankful is a choice. We were created with the amazing ability to choose. It was perhaps the most dangerous of decisions our Creator made. Giving us freedom to choose meant we might choose badly, we might choose against our Creator, we might choose self-destruction. But He still chose to give us that gift. And because we have that, we can now choose to be thankful.
  • It takes intentionality, effort and practice. Being thankful doesn’t come easily to us. Sometimes I think it’s the hardest work we’re given to do. The Psalmist admits as much when he says, “Make thankfulness your sacrifice to God…” (Psalm 50:14) It’s a sacrifice. It demonstrates our surrender. It takes work.
  • Meaningful memes or clever quotes on thanksgiving, while inspiring for two or three minutes, don’t necessarily result in a grateful heart. You have to actually be thankful. And for that to happen you have to stop and consider the gifts you’ve been given and then say that powerful pair of words: thank you!
  • One of our core needs as human beings is the longing to be known. Often it translates initially into wanting to be seen. William James says, “The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated.” There is nothing worse than feeling invisible, unacknowledged, unappreciated. In a strange way, gratitude is the antidote to this. When someone stops and says thank you to you it affirms that you exist. You have been seen. You matter. One of your longings has been met and there is some healing in that.

”Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”*  Like Piglet, we all have the capacity to contain a lot of thankfulness.

My husband Lowell described faith recently as our ‘thank you’ when we receive the grace that God extends to us. If we believe that we are rescued by grace through faith (Eph 2:8)—then grace is the undeserved gift Jesus gives and faith is our heart’s response, our ‘thank you’. Unless we receive the gift of God, unless we respond, unless we say thank you we’ll be stuck in our own befuddlement. Receiving the gift, given freely, ‘just because’, certainly not because of anything we’ve done to deserve it is the humblest most life-changing moment of thankfulness we’ll ever know.

The Apostle Paul exhorts readers in his letter to the Philippians: ”Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:6-7) Honestly laying our hearts out to God, telling him thank you for all that he’s up to allows us to experience a profound peace that’s difficult to understand!

The world is in an abysmal way. The refugee situation in Europe, the ongoing conflict in Syria, the after-effects of Paris and man-hunt in Brussels, the horrendous situation in Mali, the helicopter crash in Kasmir…all of it weighs on the world’s shoulders. It’s too much. The unequal distribution of the world’s resources seems cruel and unjust in times like this. The “why” questions stammer in my soul when they’re not tripping over my tongue. I can’t understand it. I don’t imagine that I ever will.

What I do know is that for whatever undeserved reason I have been tremendously blessed! I am among the lucky few. I have so much: peace and stability, leftovers from yesterday, Netflix and a public library. I will be thankful. I’m determined to approach God with gratitude this holiday season. I want to “Enter his gates with thanksgiving; (and) go into his courts with praise.” (Psalm 100:4) Want to come?

*A.A. Milne

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

In my faith tradition traditionally December 25th is celebrated as Western Christmas. (Stay tuned for more on Eastern Christmas or Nativity.)

In our family, this has never been a time just for gifts and extravagance in everything from material goods to food. Instead it has been a time to remember the birth of someone we believe changed the world — from the calendar we use to the Church to the individual.

I am so grateful for you, the readers of Communicating Across Boundaries. You’ve read, commented, purchased Between Worlds, and offered your generosity in so many ways. We in this space come from many different faith traditions and beliefs. Thank you for graciously reading and responding to my beliefs, communicating across the boundaries of faith and culture. You have made this space what it is today.

As I sit beneath a Christmas tree, with colorful lights twinkling brightly, I am incredibly grateful for an extended family that spans continents, for the gift of five amazing kids who offer their unique selves to the world in various ways, to Holy Resurrection, a church that has lovingly embraced our family, to my husband who shares my love for people and the world and enters into life with a unique passion that is passed on to all he meets.

And I am grateful to the Word made flesh, “Only Begotten Son, Immortal Word of God. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven….”*

See you in the New Year! And there’s still time to purchase Between Worlds before 2015! OH YES THERE IS!! 

*Hymn of the Incarnation sung at each Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church.

The Good Ole’ Days: Remembering Thanksgiving in the “old” country!

We (Robynn & I) wish you a Happy Thanksgiving from the United States! Enjoy this post by Robynn about the “Old Country.”

thank-you

Those were Thanksgivings where kimchee lay down next to the roast chicken and we celebrated with true gratitude the extraordinary community we got to be a part of.

One of my favourite days of the year when we lived in India was always Thanksgiving Day. I’m referring to American Thanksgiving with sincere apologies to Canada and other nations who have similarly marked days for thankfulness or to celebrate a successful harvest:  The Netherlands, Grenada, Australia’s Norfolk Island, Liberia, Germany’s Erntedankfest or Japan’s Labor Thanksgiving Day. Thanksgiving Day isn’t celebrated in India, except of course among expatriate communities of Americans tucked around the country. On the second Monday of October, Thankgiving in Canada, it was always far too hot to celebrate with any vigor! But by the end of November, the temperatures were favorable. The hot summer was over, the messy monsoons after-mud was all dried up and there was nearly, if you used your imagination, a Fall-like atmosphere in the air! It was time to party! We took that celebration to a whole new level in the way we honoured American Thanksgiving. In fact the day became affectionately known as, the International American Thanksgiving Hosted by a Canadian! (And I was that Canadian!)

Our house was perfectly situated for such an event. We lived in an ancient stone house built right next to the Ganges River. Our house was built around a central courtyard with a massive mango tree growing out of the center. There was a staircase up to the roof with a glorious view of the river on the eastern side, a view of the city from the other three sides. From the roof top you could also look down into the open courtyard in the center of our home. While the house was actually quite small, the courtyard was large and hospitable. The last year we were there 111 people attended our Thanksgiving day and all managed to find a place to sit down: on chairs , on mats, on cushions, on the roof, in the living room, in the tree house!

With no turkeys available and no pumpkins in the market we had to improvise. We hosted a potluck. People from all over the world find themselves living along the banks of the Ganges river in the vibrant little city of Varanasi. Those same people are often nostalgic for their favourite foods. Once a year, at our International American Thanksgiving, they’d give into their memories of home and food and family, creatively substituting ingredients where necessary, they’d bring amazing dishes to share at our table. Typically we’d have mountains of mashed potatoes and gravy with roasted chickens and stuffing piled high. But we’d also have kimchee salad and fruit platters and sushi and tandoori chicken. There was often rice pulau with chunks of lamb and oodles of raisins. There was cabbage salad and sweet glazed carrots and green beans cooked up with onions and garlic. If the season cooperated, and we were lucky, someone might have found sweet potatoes in the bazaar. Those were smothered in a syrup made from coarse sugar and raw molasses to make a tasty vegetable side dish. Often we had curried dishes next to more traditional thanksgiving fare. Aloo Gobi. Muttar Paneer. And one of my favourite eggplant dishes: Baingan Bharta. Usually someone’s mother had sent a tin or two of cranberry sauce to complete our meal. Those were shared with joy and rationed out by the teaspoon! The dessert table was always divine. It held squash and carrot pies, apple pies, banana cream pies, lemon or key lime pie without the key limes. There was milk tart, dumplings, spice cakes, lamington and Ute’s special tiramisu. It was an international feast of international treats lovingly prepared by international cooks with whatever ingredients they could find, or had saved especially for the day.

After everyone had eaten their full and the coffee and tea had been served, we cleared the plates and got ready for the afternoon’s entertainment. With no football game to distract us, we found our own fun! A stage was created to the west side of our courtyard. Everyone turned their chairs, or their cushions on the courtyard floor to face the stage. People sat on the roof and watched down below. Babies crawled through and around and over the legs and laps of aunties and uncles. Toddlers toppled and played with leaves fallen from the mango tree in the center of our courtyard. Every year we had a talent show as part of our unique Thanksgiving Day celebrations. There were classical Indian dances from our little girls in dance class, there were silly songs and sad songs, there were painful magic shows, my husband Lowell would demonstrate our dog, Koyla’s, ability to understand 5 or 6 languages, someone would tell a story, another would have a series of jokes. And then the afternoon would be over. We’d linger long over another piece of leftover pie, another cup of hot chai. Slowly people would trickle out, no one really wanting the day to be over.

Our first Thanksgiving back in the US was in 2007. As we were making plans for it, our kids asked what we were doing for the talent show. Lowell laughed gently and then told them that the talent show wasn’t really a part of a traditional Bliss family thanksgiving in Kansas. Our children were aghast. How could you have thanksgiving without the talent show?

Making plans for a different type of Thanksgiving this year, with Lowell’s mom now living with us, and Lowell’s brother’s family now out at the farm, I wonder what changes we’ll see. It makes me remember those other Thanksgivings, a world away, on the banks of the Ganges. Those were Thanksgivings where kimchee lay down next to the roast chicken and we celebrated with true gratitude the extraordinary community we got to be a part of. Those were, in my mind, the good ole days.

(Although, truth be told, I don’t miss the annual awkward moment in the talent show where Lowell played his tin whistle with his nose….!)

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/thank-you-gratitude-appreciation-490607/ adapted by Marilyn Gardner

How a Cynic Met a Gratitude Journal – Thanksgiving 2013

It’s 39 pages and counting. It’s sometimes written in black ink, sometimes blue; there’s an occasional pencil entry and red ink dots a few of the pages. Some of the entries are scribbled, others are printed carefully, some hold explanations in brackets. “It” is a gratitude journal and I am a cynic. 

For a full year after Ann Voskamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, was released I had people tell me I should read it. “You need to get this!” said one emphatically. “You will love it” said another.

Oh.Really. I thought. It sounded so boring. It reminded me of Nicky Gumbel’s view of Christians before he became one “They were sooo boring. And no matter what” he told his friend “Never let them into your room!” 

On a whim one day as I was idling, I happened on a website where you could download the first chapter of the book at no cost. This was perfect. I would now be able to confirm my opinion with authority. By page three my throat was catching, by page five I was sniffling, by page seven tears were pouring down my cheeks. All my cynicism, all my ignorance of the book and its premise, all my skepticism about best-selling books by Christians — all of that was washed away in a tearful apology that Ann would never receive.

My cynical heart was moved. The words in the book pierced with the challenge of “Eucharisteo”.  The author notes that every time Jesus performed a miracle, he first gave thanks. “In everything give thanks” the words of scripture tell me. Seemingly an impossibility, words written by someone who didn’t live in my reality, and yet there it was. And a deeper look at the man who penned the words, the Apostle Paul, made it clear that his reality was far more difficult than mine could possibly be.

As I read the book, I began to get the gnawing sense that I needed to do this, that I needed to begin a journal. I didn’t want to admit it, so stubborn am I, but I was deeply affected by the importance of thanks – the truth that Eucharisteo precedes the miracle.

So I began.

At first it felt silly. I would sit at dawn as per my routine, looking out a window at a sky not yet ready for morning. I would hold my pen and my journal, lost in thought. And then I would begin to write.

Warm home-made bread with honey on it.

Jobs.

Hurting heart.

Pain and healing.

Day after day, page after page, this cynic’s icy heart melted with the warmth of gratitude. 

At 39 pages I reached one thousand. I look back and see miracle on miracle. This conflict resolved, this child in college, another with a heart restored. The list is a story that only God and I would understand. It would make sense to no one else, but I think that’s the way it is supposed to be. I marvel at the way just listing thanks, inscribing gratitude in ink on a plain page, is changing the way I see life, the way I view my reality. It is healing my mind and changing my vision.

So today I remember this journey and I thank God that he saw fit to change a cynic’s heart and begin to fill it with gratitude.

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The turkey has brined since early yesterday morning with a savory concoction that my daughter created. Pies are everywhere, and our refrigerator has vegetables, fruits, olives, and cheeses in such abundance that each time we open it, we fear the door won’t shut.

This afternoon our home will be filled to capacity with people from Israel, Iran, and Russia. As Christians, Muslims, and Jews we will share the holiday together with traditional Thanksgiving foods that include turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and stuffing.

I am so grateful to you who read and share in this writing journey. Ann in Cambodia, Jill in New Mexico, Petra in Phoenix, Pari in Kuwait, Janet in Minnesota, Rachel in Djibouti, Lara in Somerville, Carol in Istanbul, Donna in Chicago, Stacy in Dubai, Judy in Moscow, Bruce in Gardner, Jayna in San Antonio, Leslianne in Washington DC, Dounia in New England, Bettie in Macon, Sophie in Australia, my mom in Rochester. There are so many more of you who have emailed or commented, letting me into your world. It is a gift.

So from me, sitting at my computer trying to write out thoughts that make sense:

 *  Thank you *  شكرا  *  danke  *  آپ کا شکریہ  *  спасибо  *  merci  *

* teşekkür ederim *

Gratitude – Number 245 & Muffin Monday

In my worn journal I look back until I find it — Number 245. I’m frantic to find it, it seems crucial to the day.

It’s written in slightly messy, black cursive, as if the writer was in a hurry. The journal is 39 pages of thanks — my first foray into giving thanks in a concrete way, a way where I can look back.

Number 245 is squeezed between ‘Les Miserables – stories of grace’, and ‘rental cars’, as if an afterthought. But it’s there as I knew it would be.

The words are ‘Monday Mornings’ and then in brackets beside the words ‘knowing I can’t do it on my own’. And it’s true. I can’t. What is true every day, that I can’t do this alone, comes with a force on Monday.

It’s as though God is whispering to me, urging me to remember. Urging me to remember that it is He who redeems Mondays, who takes me from Sunday’s rest through Monday’s unknown, who reminds me I can’t do this on my own. The words of author Ann Voskamp, challenged to speak words of gratitude through her pen, through keeping a journal that resulted in the book One Thousand Gifts, resonate:

“That which I refuse to give thanks for, I refuse to believe Christ can redeem”

So I thank God for number 245 in my list of One Thousand Gifts: Monday Mornings (knowing I can’t do it on my own).

“But, first, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.” Aslan to Jill in The Silver Chair


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Pumpkin Pie MuffinsI love the muffin cookbook I am getting through connecting with Stacy and today’s recipe is a perfect fall Muffin: Pumpkin Pie Muffins. They’re called ‘Pumpkin Pie Muffins’ because they are made with canned pumpkin and the same spices as pumpkin pie. Stacy promises that the whole house will smell like you’ve been baking pie. Either click on the above link or the picture to get to the recipe.

Insta-Lover of Instagram

Today’s post is by Stef. Enjoy and Happy Valentine’s Day! 

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Being a lover of photography, I always chuckled a bit at those who took pictures on their smart phones and posted them on different social media sites. Then, I myself got an iPhone. Almost immediately I downloaded an iPhone application called Instagram. Instagram is a social media app that allows for users to post minimally edited pictures to a personalized profile. Once posted, other users can view the pictures and “like” them or comment on them if they so choose.

Though I am still a dedicated camera user, I have become an insta-lover of Instagram.

I consider all of my Instagram photos to be amateur shots and by no means think this iPhone app makes me a photographer. I do, however, love capturing the little moments throughout my day. Instagram helps me keep track of my blessings and what makes me smile. Looking back at each picture reminds me of all the things to love about life.

Enjoy this peek into the past few weeks of Stefanie’s Life through Instagram!

Insta-love - pottery plates

Insta-love Boots made for walking insta-love crepes Insta-love Drinks Insta-love elevator insta-love Franny Insta-love house by the road Insta-love My Books Insta-love salad Insta-love Shakes insta-love Stef Insta-love Stef and Snow Insta-love taxi
Insta-Love 2 Tigris on pillows Insta-Love

Someone Has to be in the Middle

Uzbekistan Airways Boarding Pass

I looked at my boarding pass. 8B. Smack in the middle like the white of an Oreo cream cookie, only not yummy.

And I hate the middle.

The tickets were purchased late. A last-minute trip to grieve with family over loss. Last-minute tickets yield middle seats. The grid that showed us available seat options on the website was blue in the middle and occupied white everywhere else.

While the middle of a cinnamon roll is something to crave, to fight over, the middle airline seat is something to run from. Squished between two strangers, last zone to board, looked at with hostility as you walk down the aisle — nothing good about the middle!

But. Someone has to be in the middle. Someone has to squish between those two strangers. Someone has to turn this seat into opportunity. Someone needs to see the humor of two people whose names you don’t know, mouths open in sleep, a slight snore coming from one of them, falling on my shoulders. The one in yellow is on my right, the one in black on my left.

I settle in for a long flight. Can there be hope in the middle?

I’ve packed all my reading material, and, because I was last to board they took away my bag at the gate telling me I would meet it at the other end. All I have is a One Thousand Gifts Devotional I’d ordered on a whim. There’s a space at the back to count those gifts or graces, count the moments I’m thankful for — even if I’m not really thankful.

So I open it and write “Seats in the middle” Right under it I write “Hope in the middle”.

I scan through the titles of the devotionals. The word Grace is in all 60 titles. I flip to Devotion number 5. It’s called ‘Here-Now Grace’. That’s the one I need. I’m tired, I know it’s a long flight, I’ve got worry hanging on my shoulders like a back pack full of bricks. And I’m in the middle seat. I need ‘Here-Now Grace’.

I read the words several times before I accept their reality. “The holy grail of joy is not in some exotic location or some emotional mountaintop experience. The joy wonder could be here! Here in the messy, piercing, ache of now, joy might be – unbelievably – possible. The only place we need see before we die is this place of seeing God, here and now.”*

So I’m not off the hook. The holy grail of joy is here in the middle and I need ‘Here-Now Grace’. Because Someone has to be in the middle.

*From One Thousand Gifts Devotional by Ann Voskamp

When Home is Hard

I shut my eyes willing the bright sunlight to soak into me, willing myself to never leave. I was in seventy degrees and sunny. I was in peace and quiet. My backpack full of burdens was unloaded and I rested easy.

But I knew I was going home. And right now home is hard.

Home is ice, snow, and hard earth. Home is question marks and unknowns. Home is unopened mail, dishes in the sink that should be in the dishwasher, potential for conflict.

Home is hard.

I felt myself tensing up – how could I go back to hard? I had tasted easy – I didn’t want hard. I had tasted peace – I didn’t want chaos. I had tasted rest – I didn’t want frenzy. I had walked the clean, cold tiles of my friend’s home, and sat in the warmth of a park while looking on mountains in the distance. I had stopped to take in palm tree silhouettes at twilight and sunsets across an expansive sky. I had slept with no neighbors above me yelling at their dog and pounding across the floor at midnight.

What do you do when home, the place you look forward to, the space where you belong, is hard?

I take a deep breath, hold out my hands, and ask for grace. I breathe in Grace. Grace to enter hard. Grace to enter chaos. Grace to enter frenzy. Grace to enter with gratitude. I can’t do this on my own – I’m desperately in need of intervention.

Because right now? Home is hard and hard needs the transformation that comes through gratitude and grace. 

Phoenix, sunsets, palm trees

Chasing Peace

I was never good at the childhood game of ‘Tag’. You know the one: A group of kids on a playground decide to play Tag. One person is ‘It’. That person has to chase the other kids until they can tag one of them.

“Tag – now you’re it!” you shout.

Being ‘It’ when you can’t cross the athletic line is not fun. Everyone else is faster, so I chase, and chase, and chase – but tagging someone feels unattainable. I gasp for breath and keep on chasing. At some point I don’t want to play any more. I know that everyone is glad I’m ‘It’. They have a better chance of never getting tagged. Every single person playing feels just out of reach of my hand. My best scenario is that others will get as tired as me, or bore of the game, but until then – I just keep chasing.

Sometimes chasing peace is like a game of tag. I chase after it but it seems just out of reach. I chase and I chase and I chase, but I can’t quite find it. I try different strategies, different methods, I envy others who seem to have more of it.

I long for peace in a world that offers chaos.

It’s exhausting trying to chase Peace.

In high school I blithely sang the song “I’ve got Peace like a river, I’ve got Peace like a river, I’ve got Peace like a river in my soul….” And I did. We sang the song loud, with energy, gusto; all of us missionary kids, all of us sure of our salvation and our peace. We were young and didn’t have to chase Peace. We knew it well, knew that it was accompanied by no less than three guitars, loud, and innocent.

Peace was in our long walks in mountain settings. Peace was in our prayers and petitions. Peace was not elusive, it was ours for the taking.

But high school was a long time ago and my world has grown increasingly complex.

And I realize I’ve tried to chase Peace. Tried so hard and so long, like I tried to catch another during my childhood games of tag. But I think I have it all wrong. I don’t think Peace can be chased.

20120811-074139.jpgI think Peace is more like chasing a butterfly – as long as I frantically chase it, it will be just out of reach, but the minute I stop, give up the chase and relax, it comes and sits on my shoulder.

And I realize that Peace comes through rest.

 

Peace comes through obedience.

Peace comes through trust.

Peace comes through service.

Peace comes through gratitude.

It’s there for the asking, but it can’t be chased. As I release my right to Peace, as I learn how to rest in where I am today, Peace comes.

Gifts of the Season

In this post Robynn beautifully wraps up Christmas for us by giving us a glimpse of the gifts of the season. 

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Christmas gifts

There was wrapping paper and bows everywhere. There was a lovely tree full of sentiment and ornament. But here’s the best of what I received this Christmas:

*Our friend from Christmas past, John, came through the week before Christmas Day. He brought a box full of various shampoos. I know it’s awfully random but it pleased me.

*Adelaide wanted to buy her “enemy” a present with her very own money. She thought it might change her heart toward this girl at school she struggles to like. I don’t know if it did. But it changed mine thinking she would do that.

*A friend, fellow church goer, close associate wrote me a letter a week before Christmas and apologized for pain she had caused me nearly 7 years ago. It made me cry. I had moved on–I had chosen to forgive without the apology. But her letter softened my heart and filled me with a quiet peace. She is released. And I am lighter for it.

*I have a kind mother-in-law who suffers great physical pain. She has for years. Seeing her face light up at the sight of her granddaughters blessed me. It’s a gift to have her in our lives and to live so close to them now is sweet privilege.

*A boy in Bronwynn’s class greeted me on the way to school the other morning with a finger pointing up to the sky. An enormous flock of geese flew overhead. Look at the Birds! I did. And my faith grew as I remembered Jesus cares. And I told Ryan to have a great day. He had made mine.

*A tattered envelope arrived all by itself on December 21. The bottom was mostly torn off, the contents hung precariously inside. And in it was an enormous check for an insanely large amount from sacrificial saints. And I cried.

*I loved seeing Connor, our 15-year-old son, decked out in his tuxedo, singing with 79 other public high school students, “Rejoice, Sing Praises to the Lord our God”. It was worship in an unexpected place. The force of it, the harmonies, the potential of it all brought tears to my eyes.

Grace just shows up! We are changed when we notice it and offer it hospitality.

That’s the essence of my one resolution this year: Notice. Invite. Embrace. Change.

What are your gifts from the season? Would love it if you shared with us through the comments! 

You Get What You Get and You Don’t Get Upset!

I travel often with a colleague/friend who is from Romania. We have no end of things to talk about – from feeling like ‘little immigrant girls‘ posing as grown-ups, to citizenship, to parenting – our conversations are involved and interesting.

Mariuca has a little girl who is four years old. Dark haired with curls and beautiful eyes, she is the image of her mama. Since my children are now older and more complicated I delight in hearing some of the stories of her daughter.

One day as we were traveling and talking about raising contented kids, she talked about teaching her daughter early on that you accept what you are given, take it gratefully and don’t get upset. She taught her the phrase “You get what you get and you don’t get upset!” 

I looked at her in happy astonishment as she told me. What a great phrase! Though it didn’t originate with my friend – it was the first time I heard it. It’s applicable to all of life from hearing that your favorite restaurant is out of your chosen entrée to finding out that you didn’t get the job you applied for — and so much more.

“You get what you get and you don’t get upset!”

Contentment Philippians 4-11 Coffee Mugs It’s the perfect phrase for a spoiled society. A society that tends to want more and more, never quite satisfied with what is in front of it.

It’s the perfect phrase for the disgruntled, the discontent, the restless, the disappointed – you get what you get and you don’t get upset.

It’s the perfect phrase for this season, where discontent and addictions to ‘more’ color the white lights and frosted beauty that surrounds me.

It’s the perfect phrase for me when I veer  toward wanting more; Not wanting the healthy sort of ‘more’ — more grace, more discipline, more passion that leads to doing more than I ever thought I could, but the unhealthy “I want more” that leads to discontent and dissatisfaction.

So today, with Thanksgiving but a memory and the Advent season in front of us,  can I commit this quote to head and heart?  That’s the big Monday question!

What about you? How have you learned to be content? How do you teach your children contentment?