Candlelight

Candlelight

The power went out amid the wind, rain, and intermittent hail. With each candle that was lit, the room was filled with softness as light bounced off the walls, wrapping us in a welcomed coziness. I don’t think of lightbulbs as harsh or overpowering, but being suddenly engulfed in hazy candlelight, the shift was tangible. A peace and calmness was present, a stillness that said more than that the air conditioner was retired due to the lack of energy.

The shift, produced by a simple cessation of electricity, seemed considerable. The house was quieter, the atmosphere more serene, and my desire for it to remain so more intense. What if we could live this way? Or what if we could live this way some of the time? Armed with a taper candle, I retreated to my bedroom for the night, reading a little by candlelight and admiring the warmth on the pages which was quite different from the typical glow of my bedside lamp. I admired the flame, simple and powerful, as it embraced the room in a flickering of radiance.

My fearful and practical side saw how this situation could be fatal, with people falling asleep before blowing out the candle beside them. And yet, my romantic and traditional side wondered what we lost with the ease of flipping light switches and beams of light that made us think it was daytime in the middle of the night. Could there be a way to recover the naturalness of following the rising and setting sun? Could there be a way to enter this peace wrought by a flickering flame in a way that didn’t mean upending the advantages of living in the modern era?

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Five Loaves and Two Fish

Five Loaves and Two Fish

Venerable Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận spent thirteen years imprisoned in Communist Vietnam without receiving a trial. Of those thirteen years, nine were spent in solitary confinement. The prison conditions he suffered in makes the prison I go to for prison ministry look like a luxurious hotel. From his cell being so humid that mushrooms grew on his sleeping mat to his cell light being left on (or off) for days at a time, Venerable Francis suffered in ways I cannot fathom.

Yet from this suffering emerges a life shaped and formed in the crucible of humiliation. Despite the hatred of his persecutors, he continued to seek after the Lord. Years after being released from prison, Venerable Francis wrote Five Loaves and Two Fish, a simple yet profound book based on his experiences in prison. While most of us cannot relate to the particulars of his life, the truths that emerge are ones that ought to resonate deeply with each of us.

The general theme of his book, as you may have guessed, is based on the Gospel where the little boy offers the little he has (five loaves and two fish) to feed the multitudes present. The boy doesn’t know how it will be enough, but he trusts that offering it to the Lord is what he is called to do. Venerable Francis focuses on the little that we can do to offer ourselves to the Lord. He went from an active ministry as a bishop, serving God’s people with energy and zeal to a life imprisoned, unable to speak to his flock or do the work God was allowing him to do before. Yet even in this lack, or perhaps especially in this lack, he finds that God is still working, just not as he expected.

The book is short and beautiful, so I recommend getting a copy and pouring over the simple truths found in it. But I wanted to highlight two points that stood out to me.

The first truth Francis shares is to live in the present moment. Honestly, if I were confined to a cell for nine years, I might be inclined to live in anywhere but the present moment. The perspective Francis has is, “If I spend my time waiting, perhaps the things I look forward to will never happen. The only thing certain to come is death.” Keeping in mind where he found himself when he considered those words, it was reasonable for Francis to assume he would not survive prison. He chose to embrace the moment and do what he could with what he had.

Through the smuggling efforts of a seven-year-old, Francis sent out messages of hope that he composed during the night. He focused on filling each moment to the brim with love, concentrating on each gesture toward the guards being as loving as possible. The fruit of this was the conversion of many guards. Initially, they rotated the guards often so that he wouldn’t convert them, but then they decided to keep the same ones with him so he would convert as few as possible.

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Joy in Everyday Things

Joy in Everyday Things

Marie Kondo advocates asking yourself if the things that fill your house spark joy. While I don’t live her method, there is something intriguing about asking that question about the items that fill our visual landscape. Many things in my home don’t do that (I suppose I find it hard for spoons and forks to greatly spark joy in me—yet they are pretty useful for eating), but it is perhaps more interesting to consider the things that do fall into that category.

During the pandemic, I’ve spent a lot of time at home. But given this abundance of time at home, I notice that my affections continue to be drawn to particular things in my home and I find once again compelled to acknowledge that beautiful, practical (and impractical) items are so helpful for ushering joy into our lives.

For example, I have a wooden serving tray and it is perhaps odd the number of times I stop to admire the varying grains that run across and throughout the wood. Either as I’m arranging food on it or washing it off, I generally am thinking, “This is so beautiful.”

Or I have a serving bowl that was handpainted in Italy that I purchased last summer while in Assisi. The bright colors that fill the interior bring me a thrill of joy every time I fill it with salad or an array of fruit. As I use it, I frequently remember the peace of Assisi, the quiet of the streets during our time there, and the beauty of being in a place so old.

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From My Heart to Yours: A Lenten Devotional

From My Heart to Yours: A Lenten Devotional

Lent is fast approaching.

Even though I’ve been consistently thinking about Lent over the past few weeks and prepping my students and small group for it, I still haven’t fully decided what I will be giving up/adding to my life for the next 40 days. Many ideas are swirling around, but I haven’t landed on specifics yet. This morning, I was talking with one of the prisoners and after I explained a little about Lent, he asked what I would be doing for it. Great question, friend, I thought, I’m not quite certain yet.

However, there is still time to decide. Time to prayerfully consider how we can draw nearer to the Lord’s heart as we wander into the desert so that He may speak to our hearts more intentionally.

To that end, I created a Lenten devotional for you (and me)! I’m excited about this little project and I hope that it will enable us to have a more fruitful Lent. (Click picture below for the pdf)

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I Had a Slow Childhood

I Had a Slow Childhood

School was called off for today before I even went to bed last night. It meant that my sister and I leisurely watched a movie and then talked for a while before curling up to fall asleep. This morning, the snow hadn’t started yet so I went out of the house for a couple of hours, returning as the snow began to lie thick on the roads. Ideally, though, I would have been still tucked away in my bed or perhaps snuggled on the couch with a cup of coffee as I turned through my latest book.

In high school, I was surprised when I heard that on snow days kids went to go hang out at the mall. For me, it was an unthinkable action. Why would I go out into the blustery weather when that was the exact reason I wasn’t at school? I also was gifted with a father who would have unquestionably smacked me with a hearty dose of common sense if I would have even asked to drive to town despite the weather. Being at home was actually what I wanted to do anyway. While I liked school, I didn’t mind a day of sleeping in and being home. The same still holds true as an adult.

I grew up slow.

By that, I mean, as I grew up, we moved slowly.

I look at the schedules my students have or the schedules of kids and it looks so different from my youth. In elementary school, I usually rode the bus home and I was there until the next day when I left for school. My mom made supper and we all ate together. Sometimes the older siblings were running off to practice or games, but we almost always ate supper around our dining room table.

My summers were quiet, too. Sometimes we explored the farm or watched too much TV or read book after book. But it was slow, with plenty of time and space for us to play in the hay loft or read through book lists with forty to fifty titles. It wasn’t perfection, although my memory tends to cast an overly rosy hue on the days of my childhood. However, it had the great beauty of not being rushed.

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He Changes Things

He Changes Things

I like teaching and I like going into prison. Sometimes, they aren’t as different as one would think.

I’m not in charge of anything at the prison bible study, so I am able to just sit back and observe what is happening. One of my favorite takeaways from last time was how so many of them have experienced the difference Christ makes in their lives. When they follow Him, they live differently. But then they run into situations in life that shake their resolve and make them revert back to their old ways. It was a beautiful grace to watch them speak of how they are better when they follow Christ and His Scriptures but yet how hard it is to persevere in that life.

In part, it was beautiful because I could relate and I could tell by the numerous bobbing heads that so many of them did, too.

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Old Words, New Meaning

Old Words, New Meaning

Have you ever heard a passage in Scripture and been convinced that it was crafted specifically for you in that moment?

Or have you heard a story or verse again but you are really hearing it for the first time with new ears?

Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord?
Who shall stand in his holy place?

Psalm 24

After a college semester in Austria, I spent a week in Ireland with my aunt. One day, I climbed Croagh Patrick, the mountain said to be the place where St. Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland. I’m a plains girl, through and through, but I was excited to have a mini-retreat as I ascended the mountain on my own.

For several months after, I was reminded of this small pilgrimage when I would read Scripture passages that spoke of climbing mountains. Transported, the verses were enriched with the memory of my own mountain climbing experience. The view I had from the rocky summit was striking, reminding me why mountain-top experiences are so formative.

The Lord is king, let the earth rejoice,
Let all the coastlands be glad.

Psalm 97

In college, I went on a mission trip that brought the sacraments to people living along the Honduran coast. We hiked to towns that had no roads and met with people who had almost nothing. My Spanish was limited, but my heart overflowed when I encountered their simplicity and their joy. Returning to campus, I longed to be in Honduras, a place abundant in beauty and where I encountered the tangible presence of the Lord.

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Let Nothing Distract

Let Nothing Distract

This past week, one of my classes watched a movie about the life of Mother Teresa. At one point, right after Mother Teresa had left the Loreto convent, she was shown clearing out her room at a host family’s house. The owner told her they had a lot of spare furniture she was welcomed to use during her time with them. She responded by saying that she needed simplicity so that nothing would distract her from her work with the poor.

I don’t know if that scene happened exactly like that in real life, but her words struck me. Even if she didn’t say that, her life showed that she lived that reality. Perhaps even more impressive, though, was the idea that simplicity gives freedom. It wasn’t a new concept to me, but it was a new concept when I considered it in light of the saint of the slums. Mother Teresa needed poverty in order to be committed to caring for the poor. That may not seem profound to you, but hearing those words evoked a question within me: what makes me think I have more discipline than Mother Teresa?

If Mother Teresa needed simplicity to pursue God’s mission, what makes me think I can follow God without simplifying my life, too?

Her God-given mission was to help the poor. Knowing her own humanity, she knew she had to give up creature comforts in order to remain focused on her mission. Her life of poverty provided the freedom to be generous and sacrificial with her life and time. Material items distract. Compelled by the love and thirst of God, Mother Teresa knew she could not afford to be distracted by lesser things. She created space in her life that could be filled by the presence of God. Fewer possessions crowding her heart yielded greater room to the concerns of the Lord.

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Lent: When You’re Little Enough that No Virtual Window Shopping is a Sacrifice

Lent: When You’re Little Enough that No Virtual Window Shopping is a Sacrifice

Something I gave up for Lent this year is online shopping.  Yet I’ve come to realize in the past week that buying too much stuff isn’t the most prevalent problem.  Yes, I could probably fill a six-foot bookshelf with the stacks of books piled around my room.  The thing that is harder than not buying things is not even looking for them.

My younger sister jokes that for fairly large purchases (like a food processor or an iPhone) I start talking about them six months before I get around to buying them.  I’ve never been much of an impulse buyer.  But this Lent I’m giving up browsing, shopping, and slowly placing items in random online shopping carts.  I have had to catch myself at least two or three times already from following links to Amazon or sites with random household products.

Why am I doing this?  There are two primary reasons: I spend unnecessary time scrolling through websites and I don’t like what looking at so many material things does to my heart.

The first is the lesser of the two.  It is important, though.  Time is a treasure for which it is difficult to account.  The minutes can slip away quickly as I look at what other books will fit nicely into my library.  Or as I scout out birthday presents for family members in advance.  If I am continually feeling like I don’t have enough time, then perhaps I need to evaluate how I invest my time.

But that second reason, that is probably what caused me to stop with the shopping and browsing.  We live in a very materialistic world, but I’ve always felt fairly simple.  That simplicity, though, seems to be more an idea than a practice.  And I don’t like that it seems to be a quality I think I have but actually do not.  Gazing at all of the things I don’t have yet might like to, makes me feel unsatisfied with what I currently have.  Continue reading “Lent: When You’re Little Enough that No Virtual Window Shopping is a Sacrifice”

I Need You, Lent

I Need You, Lent

My bedroom is in a similar state as my soul.  Messy, cluttered, and kind of driving me insane.  The thing is both situations are entirely my fault.

Instead of hanging up my clothes, they have become a mountain covering my ottoman.  Generally, I forget I even have an ottoman and I’ve become increasingly convinced that most of the things in there mustn’t be very important if I never need to access them.  Stacks of unopened letters and papers I should file away add a bit of an overwhelming sense to a place I often use for refuge.  Boxes that need to be broken down for recycling, laundry that ought to be done, and stacks upon stacks of books make my bedroom chaotic.

My soul?  Pretty much the same situation.

There is a great deal of clearing out that needs to happen.  Scripture says to make a highway for Our Lord.  But first, I think I need a plow to come through.  So it is with a heart that loves simplicity yet finds itself attached to abundance that I eagerly head into Lent.

I need Lent.   Continue reading “I Need You, Lent”