Tag: Christian spirituality

Valentines, Lent, and Love Poems

GUEST POST by Mary Harwell Sayler

Today, Valentine’s falls on Ash Wednesday—the beginning of Lent and, in many churches, the annual 40-day season of introspection and self-examination that leads to confession, repentance, and the spiritual freedom needed to receive the joy of Easter.

At first, though, it seems ironic that a Valentine’s Day of flowers and candy coincides with a time typically thought of as giving up something—such as flowers and candy! But then, the colliding and coinciding can help us to see what they have in common with each other and this blog: love.

Praise God our Father!
Blessings on our Mother Earth.
We are their love child.

–Mary Harwell Sayler in PRAISE!

Love of the beloved needs expression! The highest examples of these come in the Bible, the trek toward Easter, and the love expressed in poetry. You’ve undoubtedly read love poems—from greeting card verse on a Valentine to the 23rd Psalm to the poetic lines of a romantic sonnet. [You may have] tried your hand at writing a love poem too.

But “love” has many faces.

Take, for example, this prose poem. I’ll explain it once you’ve had a chance to experience it.

Scavengers
(after reading Attila Jozsef)

Attila the Hungarian poet, I really love you. Please
believe me before you throw yourself beneath that
train. The fright of flying freight crushes my reading
of your prose poems—poems poised with insight
and odd juxtaposition. I try to rescue the paragraphs
you pose from extermination, reeling as I read. What
can I do but pet The Dog you left behind, ragged and
muddy, ready to avenge your wounds and scavenge
the pieces of God you hid in my upper berth on this
looming train?

–Mary Harwell Sayler in Faces in a Crowd

Ever since childhood, I’ve “loved” poetry, which led to my reading the best works of classical and contemporary poets as evidenced in the above poem….. Once my tastes in poetry became more eclectic … I discovered poets from all over the world, each of whom brought experiences beyond my own.

Attila Jozsef of Hungary was one such poet, with his thought-provoking, deliciously-worded, introspective poems (suitable for Lent) such as “The Dog.” But when I learned he’d committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a train, that sad news stunned me into writing a poem pleading for life and poetry and, perhaps, for his forgiveness of those of us who have led easier lives.

Contemplation of our ease versus dis-ease, our lives versus death, our love versus bigotry, bias, boredom, and indifference gives us the stuff of which poetry and Lent are made. But the greatest of these is God’s Word of love.

Child, Child,

If God didn’t love you, no eyes, no ears
would weave into your gut, no
heart would arch into the inner soles
of your shoes, showing you where to go.

If God didn’t trust you, there would be
no joy to oil your neighbors, no love to
cover the sins of your enemies, no Good
News to paper the walls of your head.

Mary Harwell Sayler in Outside Eden

A Spiritual Adventure Story

GUEST POST

by Dr. Mike Parker

On Kitten Creek: Searching for the Sacred by Nancy Swihart is a remarkable, modern day adventure story about how one family, grounded in Christian love and guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit, developed a Christ-honoring community. The power of these verses is fulfilled in her book and life:

In Psalm 71:18, we are encouraged to “declare God’s power to the next generation, His mighty acts to all who are to come.”

Psalm 90:12 tells us to “number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

As I read Nancy’s story, I remembered my own family’s journey… When our first military assignment took us to Kansas, we were blessed with a life-long friendship with the Swihart family as well as our involvement with Wellspring Ministries. My three children, my wife, and I spent many a happy day frolicking on the Swihart farm, enjoying the uniqueness that only farm life can hold, as well as being impacted by the spiritual adventures that took place there on Kitten Creek. Of particular interest to my animal-loving children was the variety of animals found there, which the Swiharts wove into their ministry (and Nancy into her book) much like C.S. Lewis did in his Narnia stories!

This is a life-changing book as it points to self-introspection in regards to how our own lives might be used to further the Lord’s Kingdom here on this earth.

As a retired U.S. Army soldier and now a professor at the University of Alabama, I was impressed by the Wellspring team’s openness to so many college students… their willingness to simply be present, to listen, and to provide a relational community where young people could experience faith in action.

Nancy’s memoir guides her readers to our Savior and encourages a lifetime of focus on Him and the gospel. It reminds us that God provides, corrects, leads, and answers our prayers and needs as we continually seek His presence in our lives. The importance of remembrance is emphasized as the Lord incorporates our whole lives into the strength of our witness for Him, and the value of praying and thinking the Scriptures is encouraged.

In a personal application of this book, though us city folk do not inhabit a farm in Kansas, we do have a small cabin on a river in the Appalachian mountains in north Alabama. We are now inspired to place a Christ-focus in our times there for our family and friends.

On a professional note, I am part of research and ministry with aging congregations across the world. Our team plans to recommend Nancy’s inspirational book as an encouragement to older persons of faith to share their Christ-honoring stories with the next generation and to remind adult children to capture the stories of their parents and grandparents. Nancy provides insightful suggestions and resources about how to tailor and accomplish this. Her own book is a superb example of how one’s own family story can impact this world for the Lord and His life-saving mission.

–Dr. Mike Parker, Professor, University of Alabama, Associate Professor, UAB Medical School, Department of Geriatric Medicine, Non-Resident Scholar, Duke Center for Spirituality and Health


 

God Reviving Me One Morning

A photo I took on one of my walks on the river trail not far from my office.

Stressed, working hard to prepare books for publication in the midst of several life adjustments, one morning I knew I had to attend to my soul. For me, soul care and renewal involve reading, meditating, praying / releasing, and experiencing nature / creation.

First I drank my coffee and read a devotional article that said: “Am I willing to continue yielding my life wholly to God? If so, there is power for me…. God promises help to accomplish the task toward which His Spirit points me.”

I wrote a list of the things on my heart that had become burdens, prayed over them and gave them to God, again.

Then I read: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all that we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!” (Eph.3:20-21,NIV) I prayed this scripture, inserting my name and then the names of our family members. Assurance came.

Then, for the solace and renewal of nature, I drove down to the nearby river trail. There my senses were immediately overwhelmed and filled with the sights and sounds and smells and textures of that lush spot where grassy farmland meets the river that has flowed down from the Rocky Mountains. There, nature burgeons with life.

One thing my husband and I are learning as we live in this high place of Colorado where every season happens in every season—We are learning to appreciate and “seize” the moment. If we don’t come down to the river trail for a couple of weeks, we hardly recognize the place next time. All summer, layer upon layer of grasses and flowering plants keep coming up, replacing the previous layer, each a little higher than the last, reaching for the intense sunshine which often gives way to evening thunder clouds. In the early summer, wild roses were blooming under the giant cottonwoods. Later they had dried up and purple thistle had risen 5 to 6 feet tall, bright and stately. You might think them renegade weeds in your garden, but out here, they’re royalty. Clouds of foamy yellow flower heads grow here and there, and every shade of foliage.

Bird songs abound! I recognize the sounds of killdeer, red-winged blackbirds, and others. I see the orchard oriole that was here last time, and the bullock’s oriole, the eastern kingbird, and many others. A rabbit hops near the river’s edge. Farmers are irrigating today, obviously, because the wet river banks and shallow water indicate most of the river’s flow here has been diverted to the canals. I watch several huge river-bottom fish, and their backs often rise above the water’s surface and I can see the golden eye high on their foreheads. They glisten in the sunshine and are too big for the six snowy egrets nearby to tackle. But if a bald eagle happened by, they’d be easy prey, so visible in the shallow waters. In a clearing on the other side I see prairie dogs with their young. They stand up straight above their holes and suckle their little ones who then lick their mothers faces. They’re cute. And they supply food for the many hawks and owls around here.

In the shady places under the heavy cottonwoods, myriads of butterflies float and flutter. I see one group that fly this way and that and round and round in sync as if propelled by a little twister wind. How do they synchronize their flight in milliseconds like that? The hot sun intensifies the scents of grasses mingled with damp river smells. Several cyclists ride by me, calling out “on your left.” Two lark sparrows perch on the fence and stay there watching me, showing off their harlequin faces, feathers glowing like polished bronze in the sun.

I’m thankful for this day, and this place, and God’s glory all around.

Back at my car, I give thanks to God. As I walk into the house, a CD is playing and I hear the words of a gospel song, “Morning by morning new mercies I see….Great is thy faithfulness.” Tears smart my eyes. I “seize the moment” and find joy in it, and in knowing God is in it!

Don’t Settle for Dormancy—Live Abundantly

Are you settling in to dormancy?

In November I’m reminded of nature’s cycles of dormancy and productivity. Here in Colorado, many trees have lost their leaves. Grass is gradually going dormant and turning brown.

Trees and shrubs have produced seed pods and cones; flower heads have released seeds that may sprout and surprise us in the garden next spring. Pumpkins have been cut open and seeds scooped out and roasted.

Author / scientist Carol O’Casey unwraps the wonder of seeds—using biology, literature, personal experience, and scripture—and applies this to the believer’s life of faith. In her book, Unwrapping Wonder, she writes, “Often times, in order for us to blossom into the abundant life God has in store for us, we must accept our own spiritual brokenness—just as germination requires the seed coat to be broken.”

Don’t settle into dormancy and stay there.

“Are you lacking the life-giving water necessary to initiate the germination process? Do you long for an abundant, seed-coat-busting life? Abandon your dry and routine life to [God]. Risk heat. Risk exposure. Risk growth. And take heart. Jesus tells us, ‘Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds’ (John 12:24).

Even during the dormant season of winter, life is waiting in the seeds. Some plants will sprout surprisingly early, as soon as daylight hours start increasing. Meanwhile, wait in hope and expectancy.

“Allow God to unleash his power in your life. Dream big. Grow great.” Be ready to “sprout where you are planted. And live. Abundantly.”¹


1. The quotations above are taken from the book, Unwrapping Wonder: Finding Hope in the Gift of Nature by Carol O’Casey.

Wonder-cover-sm


Credit for photo of seed capsules of Strelitzia nicolai: Tatters/  http://www.flickr.com/photos/62938898@N00/4745843554

Exploring the Love of God

If you believe, as I do, that God’s essential nature is Love, then you would enjoy reading this book. Cladach didn’t publish it. But I contributed an essay to it entitled, “Opening to God Through Prayer.”

After reading the 80+ essays in the book, I’d like to share with you my review:

Uncontrolling Love: Essays Exploring the Love of God is a treasure trove of diverse viewpoints looking at many aspects of life in light of God’s love being non-coercive. You may not agree with all of the essayists (I agree with most, not all). But they will stretch your thinking and challenge your heart. That’s part of the beauty of a collaborative project like this. Here are quotes from the contributors who especially spoke to me:

Will Albright: “I wonder if God isn’t instead this great music maker, teaching all creation to play and sing along to the melody of love.”

Rick Barr: “In a sense, to be is to be known and to be loved.”

Justin Heinzekehr: “The non-coercive God is not hovering over us with a specific set of directions but is encouraging us to tap into our own creativity without knowing where it will lead.”

Tim Reddish: “Prayer makes a difference, but so do the necessary regularity of the world and every free choice humans and angels make…. It is quite legitimate to say that the Christian and the Spirit are ‘co-praying’.”

Scott Nelson Foster: “It is when we respond to God’s call to love that God’s will is done.”

Sarah Lancaster: “One advantage of thinking about God as uncontrolling is that it allows and impels us to look for God in the regular events in our lives.”

Bob Luhn: “It is the non-coercive, others-empowering love of God that sets a person free to be fully human–capable of loving God with one’s whole being and loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.”

Simon Hall: “If we are spiritual beings, just as much as we are physical, then our prayers matter just as much as our actions. Prayers that attune us to the heart of God. Prayers that lend our voice to God’s voice…”

A BOOK TO READ SLOWLY AND SAVOR. Allow your thinking to be infused and inspired with the truth, beauty, and power of God’s uncontrolling love.

You can find the book on Amazon.

Finding the Sacred in Place, People, and Story

“Are you hungry for a life that is more than simple existence, for something to give you hope, for surprises bathed in an eternal aura? Do you long for fellow travelers, for genuine community, a place where you can tell your story and listen to others? With whom you can share life and experience mission?”

So begins the book ON KITTEN CREEK: Searching for the Sacred by Nancy Swihart

God seems to make sacred the places where true Christian fellowship and community happen.

Inspired by Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri center in Switzerland, Nancy Swihart and her husband dreamed of starting something similar in America, where people could come to learn about and experience—away from their usual distractions—”the God who is there.”

When the Swiharts left their thriving ministries, that were full of “promise” in Southern California and moved to a rustic, old 160-acre farm in the Flint Hills of Kansas, a missional center developed that came to be known as “Wellspring.” This loosely formed, and constantly evolving and renewing fellowship of folks experienced true, transformational community. Through the past thirty years, thousands of people of all ages have benefited from what Wellspring has offered in sacramental, creative, loving, and edifying ways.

Nancy’s memoir released this week.to the following praise:

“Nancy Swihart’s On Kitten Creek is an uplifting and thoughtful read. It will minister to your spirit and move you to give thanks for life’s simple gifts and cause you to reflect deeply about your life, as it has prompted me.” –Ken Canfield PhD., Founder National Center for Fathering; President, National Association for Grandparenting

“Let Nancy give you glimpses of His handiwork among us. Be inspired to look for sacred connections and creative opportunities waiting to surprise you within what may seem mundane in your own life.” –Kay Bascom, Author, Teacher, Missionary, and Conference Speaker

“A look over-the-shoulder and through-the-heart of someone with much to teach every one of us.” –Steven Garber, Principal of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture; author of Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good

I first met Nancy at the Colorado Christian Writers Conference. Drawn by her warm smile, I became convinced that her story fit every part of Cladach’s stated purpose to:

• exalt Christ as Savior and Lord, and know God as Creator, Father, and Redeemer-King.
• witness to His presence and work in creation, and in our world today.
• encourage believers in a mind-set and heart experience of joyful faith and obedience.
• provide practical guidance for developing a life of health and wholeness.
• through the power of story, depict grace to a postmodern world.

Nancy practices listening prayer, gives of herself in hospitality, has searched for and found the sacred in her daily life, and has embraced mystery in the mundane—while caring for farm animals, taking prayer walks on the farm trails, hosting ministry events in the barn, or teaching at a Christian college and giving hospitality to students. Active in local churches, schools, and wider ministries, the Swiharts and their friends together have dreamed, laughed, cried, celebrated, served and shared the life of Christ creatively in ways we all long for.

Let Nancy inspire you to embrace the story that God is writing in your own life!

Amazon currently has the price discounted from $13.49 to $8.83. It’s also available in Kindle and Nook.

Here’s a picture of the Wellspring barn (that is on the book cover) in more recent years undergoing a remodel:

 Nancy with two farm animals, including “Donk” who is in the book.

Nancy with friends at her book-signing in the barn yesterday.

A beautiful tower of books:

(Thanks to Nancy Swihart and Terri Gasser for the photos.)

Holding and Writing What Gives You Life

ROCK_CHAPEL

If only we could get away for a while to some quiet, sacred place and find rest, renewal, and transformation. Surely, then, our writing, as well as our lives, could be revolutionized.

But our lives are so daily. Made up of moments piled on moments, experiences both planned and unexpected. Perhaps, though, your daily routine includes habits that you don’t even view as being a “spiritual exercises” but that are gradually giving you the perspective you crave. That was the case for me.

To speak or write effectively to others, in a way that reaches hearts as well as minds, we must speak and write from our hearts. But first we must get in touch with our own hearts. I’m going to share with you a way I found to do that.

Jesus said “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” If you want the words that flow out of your mouth or pen to be purposeful, meaningful, life-giving … then first tend to your  heart. How do we as writers tend to our hearts? In his book, Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together, Ed Cyzewski describes his practice of daily self-reflection that “grew into an essential exercise that also revolutionized my writing.”

I have experienced something similar. A few years ago I felt overwhelmed and pulled in various directions by duties, desires, and demands, and I felt a need for focus and clarity, an unbroken sense of the Lord’s presence, and a new release of creativity. At bedtime I began the practice of thinking over my day, and I focused my mind on the best thing that happened that day: the time during that day when I felt the most joy and life. I saw those moments as gifts and drifted to sleep embracing the gift God had given me that day:

  • a child’s laughter
  • sunlight dancing on a pond
  • flowers blooming in my garden
  • a surprise visit from a friend
  • the way the Lord spoke to me in a scripture and came close to me in prayer
  • the way the phrases, rhythms, and rhymes of a poem came together.

These moments I treasured in my heart; they gave me hope and a sense of anticipation for the next day, to see what the next day’s moments would bring.

Then I found a charming little book by Linn and Linn, Sleeping With Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, and I learned that what I was doing was a type of Christian spirituality taught by the Ignatians, called “the Examen.” You reflect prayerfully back on a day (or a week, a year) and ask, “What today gave me consolation and life?” You also may ask, “What took life from me, gave me a feeling of desolation?”

It is good for the soul to embrace and hold to the life-giving, consoling moments of our days. And over time, we can observe patterns and learn what we really should focus our energies on, because God indeed speaks to us through the experiences of our days; He wants us to experience His life and joy and consolation in a way that will flow out of us to others. By practicing the Examen you may even discover your unique gifts and calling.

As a Christian writer, this practice and the resulting insights indeed could revolutionize your writing. Rather than laboring to write something you think you ought to write, or that others seem to expect, write the form, subject, theme, and style that engages and expresses your heart as well as your mind, that fills you with consolation, hope, joy, help, and fulfillment. And most likely what you write will do the same for your readers.

PRAISE! for Easter

Are you feeling pressed down by the negativity of the world—bad news, worries, hurts, fears, anger?

If you enjoy contemporary, spontaneous, free verse—or if you are willing to try poetry as a remedy for the affliction of a heavy spirit—Cladach has just released Mary Harwell Sayler‘s book, PRAISE! Poems.

Read this book during Holy Week and be ready on Easter to sing “Hallelujah!”

Let an explosion of praise break forth in your own life with adoration and celebration of our good God!

While these short, contemporary poems acknowledge the realities around us, they also look for the good in everything.

Sections within the book include: Praise • Prayers • Easter • Creation • Wonder • Christmas.

Here are a few sample poems from the book:

Experiencing Wonder

carol-and-chickadee-web 

Carol O’Casey was born to be wild. As a field biologist, pastor’s wife, and author she says:

As soon as I could walk I toddled outdoors to watch tadpoles knit themselves into frogs and clouds quilt the skies. I was at home in nature. Connecting it all to God would come later. Much later.

Those childhood years as an amateur naturalist fueled my passion for nature and led me to pursue a degree in marine biology. Yet, somewhere in the middle of a hardcore science education, I met a man studying to be a pastor. Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor? Suddenly my world of science collided with the world of religion. Little did I know I would soon become a biologist and a pastor’s wife.

While God doesn’t promise us a life of comfort, he does promise to walk beside us. So I navigated the road of the ministry, rough edges and all. Along the way, God provided rich rest stops that soothed my soul. I found hope in his gift of nature as I escaped the expectations of ministry and took a walk on the wild side. Whether exploring field or forest, marsh or meadow, or the edge of the sea, in the natural world I was transformed. There, in the solitude of nature I experienced God’s presence.

What about you? Are you burdened with expectations? Do you feel drained from the demands of the day? God’s creation has the power to restore wonder. And wonder connects us with the divine.

Renowned agricultural researcher George Washington Carver experienced awe in his encounters with the natural world and exclaimed,

“I love to think of nature as unlimited broadcasting stations, through which God speaks to us every day, every hour and every moment of our lives, if we will only tune in…”

In a society obsessed with speed, we must slow down, tune in. How often during an average day do you tune in—or tune out? What daily distractions can scramble your signal?

Perhaps Moses, the ancient futurist, could be considered the pioneer of tuning in to the God frequency. Moses was a murder convict on the lam, wandering in the wilderness, when he stumbled upon wonder. He could have missed the whole shebang. I’m thankful he didn’t. Consider Moses’s journey en route to wonder:

Moses sees: To avoid murder charges and Pharaoh’s pursuit, Moses escapes to the wilderness. While tending the sheep on the far side of the desert (read: the middle of nowhere) Moses sees a sight that piques his curiosity: “Moses saw that though the bush was on fire, it did not burn up” (Exodus 3:2).

Moses slows: Moses moves into step two of his journey to wonder as he intentionally veers off course and investigates. In our frantic, time-starved lives, we often fail to notice what we are seeing. Not Moses. Moses, in the act of holy wondering, pursues this sight of wonder. This burning bush intrigues him and he desires to know more.

Granted, this is probably easy for him to do. After all, what else do you do in a desert in the days before Kindle, Internet, cell phones—conveniences that, while helpful on one front, distract us from the wonder of nature on the other. Moses entertains himself with the world around him—in this case, a burning bush that does not stop. I guess he had become tired of counting sheep (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Moses connects: Because Moses slows to see, he experiences step three on the journey to wonder: Moses connects in a conversation with the God of the universe. “When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look…” (Exodus 3:4). Whoa. Let’s just park there for a minute. Did you catch that? God was watching him the whole time!

God was watching and waiting to see what Moses would do with this wonder created to catch his attention. Imagine God, in eager anticipation, peering out from behind the curtain of his magnificence, waiting to see how Moses would respond. Would Moses look? Would he divert his attention from his everyday duties to notice this amazing sight sparked into existence especially for him? He did.

What happens next dazzles the mind. God calls to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And so begins a personal conversation with the Creator of the universe. How amazing. While Moses leads the sheep through a wasteland of wilderness, dutifully engaged in the ho-hum routine of life, the Creator of the cosmos calls to him. God calls to Moses the murderer, Moses the runaway, Moses the coward hiding in the desert.

Let’s be real. There is no hiding from God. When God wants us, he finds us. His presence goes before us, wherever we go. His presence waits for our attention.

Notice how Moses responds to God: “Here I am.” Three simple words. Honest. Concise. To the point. Through wonder, the burning bush is seared into Moses’s mind; God gets his attention and Moses is ready to listen. No excuses (those come later). Perhaps Moses is stunned speechless. I know I would be. What would be your response to such a call?

“Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them” (Psalm 111:2). As a “wonderologist” (one who studies the wonders of nature), I delight in the details of creation. From the bumblebee that manages to fly on wings that appear too small for its ungainly body; to the dragonfly that rises from its waterlogged larval form and morphs to a powerful airborne adult; to the barnacle that literally stands on its head and snatches its meals with its legs, God entertains and delights us with the endless wonders he has created.

Now I confess, I’ve never seen a burning bush; but then, I’m no Moses. I’m a regular old child of God hiking through creation for a glimpse of the Master. Mind you, nature doesn’t solve my problems, but it does reset my “worry-ometer.” When I explore his wonders, I worry less. Care to join me? You don’t need a degree in science or a month in the rain forest to find wonder. All you need is a willing heart and a few minutes of time to intentionally see, slow, and connect with God and creation.

~Carol O’Casey

from the Introduction to the book, Unwrapping Wonder: Finding Hope in the Gift of Nature

 

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