The Heart of the Matter

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During this COVID outbreak, I frequently call to check in with Trinity’s older members who are quarantining.  This week, I spoke with a retired pastor who attends Trinity.  I always enjoy talking with Dale.  Perhaps he’d told me before, but I’d forgotten, that his older sister is also a retired pastor.  In her mid-90’s, I remarked to him that she must have been quite the trend-setter.  Indeed, he confirmed that she faced much opposition and an uphill battle from the moment she verbalized her ministry call… which would have been in the 1950’s!  Women weren’t supposed to be ministers in the 1950’s.  It was a man’s job.  God called men, right?  After all, the New Testament tells women to be silent in church.

Fortunately, today, women are welcomed as pastoral leaders in many Christian denominations and churches.  Welcomed because people understand that 21st century American culture is very different from the ancient Mediterranean world.  We recognize that women are not property, nor are they inferior to men.

To truly live according to scripture, we need to understand scripture.  To understand scripture, we need to understand the differences between our cultures.  A great deal of our New Testament epistles or letters contain contextual theology, an early evangelist’s instruction/responses to people asking questions or facing challenges specific to their lived experiences and context.  If we do not understand the intersection of culture and theology, we’ll make inappropriate applications that don’t fit our cultural experiences and context.  Worse yet, they may cause spiritual pain and harm to those whom God loves.

This Monday, July 20, is our monthly Fusion gathering at Trinity.  The speaker will be Jason Conner.  Jason arrived at Trinity two weeks before COVID shut-down.  I’d say I’m amazed he didn’t give up on us (because he’s never seen our sanctuary with more than 45 people in it!), but it’s become pretty clear to me that Jason doesn’t give up easily.  A gay man, he’s faced a lot of rejection and judgment from churches over the years.  Yet, he has such a deep love for Christ and the Church that he has endured, wisely recognizing that God is more welcoming than many who claim to represent God.

I invite you to come and hear Jason’s inspiring story this Monday, July 20, at 6 p.m. on Trinity’s south lawn.

Fusion is a once-monthly gathering offering an alternative experience in Christian community.  It’s designed for individuals who might describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” and as seeking a sense of community, but may not be attracted to traditional, or even contemporary, church worship services. 

Fusion features a speaker sharing a personal story based upon a specific topic and a bible (sacred) story connected to their own experiences.  At the conclusion of the speaker’s narrative, participants are invited to join in “table talk” to share their personal stories and perspective in a facilitated, small group setting.  Fusion concludes with a free meal.  You are invited to connect, discover and grow within this community. 

Can’t physically make it to Fusion?  It’s live streamed on our Fusion Facebook page.

http://www.trinitylafayette.org/fusion https://www.facebook.com/TrinityFusion/

[Check out my new Twenty at Twilight weekly video post.  Twenty at Twilight airs each Wednesday from 8:40 to 9:00 p.m.  It is a quiet, reflective way to end the day praying the scripture.  View on Trinity’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TrinityUMC509  This week’s post:  https://www.facebook.com/TrinityUMC509/videos/3109484055805564
Also, check out my new book Companions on the Journey: Foundational Spiritual Practices available through Wipf and Stock (https://wipfandstock.com/companions-on-the-journey.html) or contact me directly for a signed, discounted copy.
Contact me regarding spiritual direction at tracey@trinitylafayette.org] 20200324_200934

Be Kind

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A while back, on news coverage of the protests, I saw a young girl holding a sign.  It simply said, “Be kind.”  Simple.  Basic.  Yet so important.  Kindness and gentleness seem to be at a shortage in our culture these days.  And, although we might think that we all should have learned how to do it in kindergarten, perhaps a refresher, updated for our current culture and context, might be helpful.  I’d like to come up with a clever “Top Ten” list in true David Letterman fashion.  But, our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter.  So, I think I can boil it down to three….

  1. Wear a mask.  I recognize that there may be people who, because of a medical or mental health condition, find this difficult.  And, I think we need to show some compassion when this is truly the case.  But don’t just shed the mask because you don’t like it, it messes up your makeup, or – worst of all – you think it’s a political statement.  It’s not.  It’s more of a “golden rule statement.”  In our gospels, Jesus continually calls his followers to love others, even to the point of laying down our lives as he did.  The science doesn’t lie.  Masks help prevent spread of infection.  When I consider needing to sacrifice my life for someone else’s well-being (the true gospel call), something as basic as wearing a mask feels like I am actually getting off pretty easy.
  2. Don’t ask people how they are unless you mean it.  A lot of people right now are feeling frightened, anxious, overwhelmed, confused, and frustrated.  They need someone to talk to.  The only thing worse than no one to talk to is someone who pretends to care and doesn’t.  When you ask how someone is, really listen to their reply.  If you sense the emotions I’ve listed above, invite them to talk more about their feelings.  Listen with the ear of your heart, as St Benedict would say.  Listening is the ultimate expression of hospitality and welcome.  And, if what you hear worries you, offer to help them find a qualified professional to talk with.
  3. Show respect and open up dialogue with people who are nothing like you.  Our nation has become so divided and so many of us have locked ourselves up in our own echo chambers.  That perpetuates the cycle of misunderstanding, mistrust, and – ultimately – violence.  Invite others to share their stories, their experiences with you and – for the love of God (literally!) – don’t critique or diminish their experience.  Even if you vehemently disagree, don’t use their openness as a doorway to disagreement.  If you disagree, perhaps say something like, “It’s hard for me to understand that perspective, but I appreciate you sharing it with me.”  And, don’t offer your own perspective, unless they ask for it.  The goal of listening is understanding and empathy.  Listening isn’t a tool to get our own rhetorical foot in the door.

Listen.

Be gentle.

Be kind.

And the world will be a much better place for all of us.

The Family of God

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View the Maundy Thursday reflection

Holy Week

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Click on the link below for my vlog for Tuesday of Holy Week.  Have a blessed week.  In these dark days, we are never alone.  Christ walks with us.

How to Suffer Like a Christian

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At Trinity we’ve been doing a Lenten study based on the book Transforming Our Painful Emotions by Evelyn and James Whitehead.  In the book, the authors remind us that negative emotions aren’t a bad thing.  They are our bodies’ invitation to explore what is going wrong in our lives.  When we face our emotions and sit with them, we can peel back the layers to see what is really happening deep within us.
Right now many of us are experiencing a mixture of negative emotions:

  • Fear as we watch the COVID death toll daily mount,
  • Loneliness as we follow social distancing rules and stay at home orders
  • Anger that this seemed to catch our nation unaware and so poorly prepared
  • Shame that perhaps we should have been better prepared personally (Why did I let myself run out of toilet paper? Why don’t I have a functioning thermometer? Why didn’t I put more into my savings account?)
  • And of course, grief…

I now walk through my church sanctuary about once a week.  Last week as I walked through, I caught myself saying right out loud (not that it mattered because no one was there!), “I miss you.”  It’s not just its breath-taking beauty – the stained glass windows and exquisite woodwork.  I miss what it symbolizes for me.  I can imagine people in their usual pews and see myself scurrying around before church to catch up with members, greet new visitors and review last minute service details with musicians and sound people.  (Especially I miss seeing the kids race around.)

What about your daily, everyday life do you miss most right now?  What are you grieving the loss of… even if that loss is temporary?  In the book, the Whiteheads talk about steps in processing our grief:

  • Accepting our loss

    sanctuary
    Trinity’s sanctuary
  • Respecting our pain
  • Creating cherished memories, and
  • Finding hope for the journey ahead

But how do we do that?  Well, one of the ways we can process our grief as people of faith is through lament.  The Book of Psalms contains many lament psalms.  A lament psalm is a ritual through which we can give voice to our grief.  These psalms allow us to bring our distress before God, praying that what we lost might be honored and transformed.

In the sermon for this week (check out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQWdjf6wVBI&t=452s), I remind us that Jesus’ words from the cross in Matthew’s gospel (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) are the opening words of Psalm 22, a lament psalm.

This week I want to invite you to process some of the grief and loss you have experienced through this current COVID crisis by writing you own lament psalm.  And, you are even invited to share it with others through Trinity’s website (www.trinitylafayette.org).  Below is the lament psalm literary structure.

STRUCTURE OF A LAMENT PSALM

  • Intimate address – such as “My God” or “Jesus, my Friend.”  An intimate address that reveals your relationship with God.  Think of this as establishing that intimacy heard in the gospel hymn, “Precious Lord, take my hand…”
  • Complaint – make known to God what upsets you in detail.  Don’t be reluctant to engage in overstatement or hyperbole.  Tell God how this virus is impacting your relationships, your mental and physical health, your employment, your financial stability.
  • Demand God’s Help – The psalmists weren’t reluctant to demand that God do something.  They were too desperate to be polite and reasonable.
  • Appeal to God’s Honor – the psalmists reminded God that this was personal.  Their message was “If I belong to you, God, and you don’t help me, what will people think of you?”
  • Revenge on / Defeat of One’s Enemies – COVID-19 is an enemy threatening us.  Many of spoken of it like a war we are waging.  What do you wish God would do to this enemy?  Personify this virus; create your own scenario of how you wish God would attack it.
  • Call to Praise: after pouring out your soul…
    • be still,
    • breathe,
    • rest, and then…
    • Remember God’s faithfulness to you; God’s care for you and others.
    • Express your confidence in God and invite others to join you in praising God

 

Check out my new book, Companions on the Journey: Foundational Spiritual Practices at https://wipfandstock.com/companions-on-the-journey.html or view links on my home page

Forgiveness

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The year after I graduated from college, I dated a guy – I’ll call him Joe.  It was a messy situation.  He had a girlfriend at the time and just couldn’t seem to break off his relationship with her.  I realize as I write this that I make him sound like a jerk.  But he really wasn’t.  He was just one of those people who could never bring themselves to ripping off the band-aid… Those people whose lives are prolonged agony because they just can’t ever make a hard decision.  And it was a hard thing; his girlfriend was his sister-in-law’s sister.  ugh… Anyway, we dated on and off for nearly a year.

Now, I’ve got to own it.  I should have put the brakes on it at the start.  And, of course we tried that “we’ll just be friends for now.”  But that never really works when you’re romantically inclined.  I suppose I just didn’t realize how much frustration and anxiety were building up in me until the day, in a heat of anger, I sat down and wrote a letter to his other girlfriend.  She had been suspicious and I confirmed all of her suspicions.  I let her know where we had gone on dates, how long we’d been seeing each other, etc.  It was brutal.  I just sang like a canary.  But, as soon as I dropped it in the mailbox, I felt sick with regret.  That evening Joe came to pick me up for a date and I knew I had to tell him what I’d done.  He was devastated and utterly shocked.  And, obviously, that was the end of our relationship.

For months after, I was plagued by the guilt of what I’d done.  Should I have ended the relationship?  Absolutely!  But not the way I ended it.  It was cruel and, frankly, I was shocked that I had done such a thing.  It was out of character and made me mistrust my own trustworthiness… if that makes sense.

Two and a half years later, Britt and I met and eventually began to date.  And those self-doubts were still plaguing me.  They were like a lodestone I drug around with me wherever I went.  About one month into dating Britt, one day my phone rang.  It was Joe.  He was just calling to see how I was doing.  Our conversation was gracious and pleasant.  After a while, I knew I had to tell him that I was dating Britt.  I didn’t want our conversation to be misleading.  He said he was happy to hear that.  We hung up and haven’t spoken since.  But that day’s call made such a difference for me.  Now, he never said, “I understand why you did what you did and I forgive you.”  He didn’t need to.  But I knew, instinctively, that he did forgive me and there was something about his forgiveness that allowed me to release that lodestone of self-doubt.  As Britt and I embarked upon our relationship that would lead to marriage, Joe’s call set me free of my burden and my baggage.

Resentment, anger and judgment are so toxic.  But forgiveness and grace bring us new life.  Resentment, anger and judgment tear us apart.  But forgiveness and grace knit us back together again.

Social philosopher Hannah Arendt writes that “forgiving is an eminently personal affair in which what was done is forgiven for the sake of who did it.”  In other words, forgiveness considers the value of the other person irrespective of what they have done.  Now, that is not to say that we should allow ourselves to be other people’s doormats.  We all deserve to be treated with dignity.  But it is to say that we must find a way to get past our feelings of hurt and blame; to get beyond seeing the other person as some horrible villain and be able, once again, to see them as a beloved child of God.

For more reflection on how grace and forgiveness offer us new life, check out my sermon at: https://youtu.be/J7FWKmDEIDU   The link goes lives on March 22 at 6 a.m.

Listen to recent sermon podcasts at http://www.trinitylafayette.org/sermons and check out my new book, Companions on the Journey: Foundational Spiritual Practices at https://wipfandstock.com/companions-on-the-journey.html or view links on my home page

Generosity

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My Sunday message was on the topic of generosity.  I preached on the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John, chapter 6.  The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the only miracle told in all four of our biblical gospels.  But only John provides the detail that it was one young boy who provided the five loaves of barley bread and the two fish.  As modern people we are often unaware that children were not thought of in the ancient world in the way we think of children today.  I remember in seminary a professor sharing from one ancient philosopher who wrote that children were “bundles of chaos that needed to be beaten into submission.”  That was neither a joke nor hyperbole.  In the ancient world, the only value a child had was their potential to grow up and become a respectable adult.  (Who, if they did so, would then become their aging parents’ “social security” and the opportunity for the family to continue to produce heirs.)  Their status as a child was of no value in the ancient world.  Furthermore, John’s mention that the bread was made of barley indicates this child came from a poor peasant family (which most people in the ancient world did anyway).  Barley grew faster than wheat and was cheaper and easier to harvest.  So, Jesus’ partner in this miracle was someone who was poor, vulnerable and socially insignificant.  And, for this miracle to occur, this boy had to give up everything he had with him that day.  True confession: I would have probably hidden a loaf under my tunic just in case things didn’t work out.  But that little boy gave up everything while others, at least according to John, contributed nothing.

The longer I live the more convinced I am that few things demonstrate our faith in Jesus more than radical generosity.  We can say we trust Jesus.  We can yap about it until we’re blue in the faith.  But, the willingness to give sacrificially for the well-being of others – making ourselves vulnerable and taking risk – will truly reveal whether or not we trust Jesus.

I think that’s a timely message.  Maybe we should all think about it when we go to the store and are tempted to hoard a six-month supply of toilet paper!

Some of us are very fortunate right now.  We have jobs that allow us to work from home.  We have employers who continue to pay us.  But that is not the case for everyone.  So, if you are still getting your pay check (or social security or pension), why not share it with someone who’s not.  Some small businesses have been forced to shut down and send their employees home.  While I assume our government will take steps long-term to meet their financial needs, that won’t help them right now when their utility bill or rent is due.

Also, many NPO’s that serve the most vulnerable members of our community, like the homeless, are struggling right now.  When volunteers don’t come in to supplement staff, staff must be paid overtime for those extra hours.  Many of these places allow volunteers to bring meals into shelters and facilities or donate ingredients and prepare food on site.   They count on that when they prepare their annual budgets.  Since they serve at-risk populations, they can no longer take the risk of potentially contaminated food.  So they are expending additional resources (beyond their budgets) to purchase food for their clients.

Today I emailed the owner of my favorite coffee shop to see how things are going.  If her business is struggling I plan to send her a check and also to make a donation to Family Promise this month.  I’m blessed to be continuing to receive a paycheck.  I don’t know what the future holds.  Maybe folks will fearfully hold back their contributions to churches in the coming weeks and my income could eventually be jeopardized too.  But today, it is not and I can’t afford to be stingy and selfish based on “potential” future shortage when others are facing a real shortage right now.

I close with these words from the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Corinth: “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (1 Cor. 9:8)

(To read my Sunday message on John 6 and Generosity, go to http://www.trinitylafayette.org/sermons)

Celebration

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My husband and I met in seminary.  Britt was a member of the West Ohio Conference and I was a member of the Western Pennsylvania Conference.  Once we’d decided to marry, we knew we would have a big decision to make about who would transfer their conference membership.  (It seemed like such a big deal at the time.  Yet today, ironically, neither of us are a member of either of those conferences!)

There were lots of factors that went into the decision, especially consideration of family and travel.  But the decision was also influenced by a dinner.  Once a year representatives of the conferences visited the seminaries to meet with the students from their conference.  I believe it was the fall after Britt’s and my wedding that a pastor from Western PA came to visit United.  His first name was Dick.  I don’t even remember his last name.  Generally, the representative/s would meet with students over two days and on the evening of the first day, treat the students from their conference to dinner at a local restaurant for a time of fellowship and camaraderie.  I always looked forward to it.  I like to eat.  I like to eat good food.  And when you’re a poor seminary student, you don’t get many opportunities to eat good restaurant food.  So I was disappointed when I discovered that Dick’s evening out with the seminarians was on an evening when both Britt and I had class.  So much for a nice dinner.  But when Dick found out we had class that evening, he offered to stay an extra day and have dinner with just Britt and me the subsequent evening.

As Britt and I arrived at the restaurant, Dick was already at the table.  He stood and shook our hands.  As we sat down, he said, “I’m so glad we have this opportunity to break bread together.  I was really looking forward to it.”  Then he prayed.  We had a wonderful visit.  He was so excited for Britt’s and my new marriage, the fact that we were reaching the end of our seminary journey, and excited for the many years of ministry ahead of us.  He sincerely seemed to take joy and delight in our young lives, our love and our call.  He wasn’t in any hurry to get out of the restaurant.  He encouraged us to order whatever we wanted off the menu.  That evening’s dinner was incredibly joyful and celebrative.

Hospitality and celebration always seem to go hand in hand.  This Sunday I’ll be preaching the story of Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana.  When I was kid, I thought it was so silly that Jesus would waste his divine power on turning water into wine.  But the miracle wasn’t really about the beverage; it was about the celebration.  Abundant wine and food were the basic ingredients for hospitality, fellowship and celebration.

In Dostoevsky’s classic, “The Brothers Karamazov,”  there is a scene where Aloysha is mourning the passing of his loving mentor, Father Zosima.  As he is grieving and crying, he hears in the background someone reading the story of Jesus’ miracle in Cana.  And, as he does, he has a sudden realization.  Aloysha, listening to the story, reflects: “…indeed was it to make wine abundant at poor weddings he had come down to earth?  And yet he… worked his first miracle to help men’s gladness…  For the one who loves us, loves our gladness, too.”  In other words, Aloysha recognizes, it wasn’t about wine.  This miracle was about people – even the poorest – having the opportunity to celebrate and be glad… together.  God cares about our gladness because God loves us!

This Sunday at http://www.trinitylafayette.org we are celebrating Fusion Sunday.  Fusion, itself, is a celebration.  Our once a month gathering always includes a meal: we break bread, we fellowship, we share our stories and our hearts with one another.  Attending Fusion always brings me joy.  It must bring God joy also since God loves our gladness.

Join us at our next Fusion on Monday, March 16, 6 p.m., when our storyteller will be Mike Herzog.  To learn more about Fusion, join us for Sunday worship at 10:30 on March 8 or go to http://www.trinitylafayette.org/fusion.html or https://www.facebook.com/TrinityFusion/
Learn more about Mike at http://www.mikeherzog.com

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[Listen to my recent sermon podcasts at http://www.trinitylafayette.org/sermons and check out my new book, Companions on the Journey: Foundational Spiritual Practices at https://wipfandstock.com/companions-on-the-journey.html or view links on my home page]

 

Who to Trust

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Some have heard me tell the story of one of the most vivid memories of my childhood.  I got bullied a lot in middle school, mostly because I was small and awkward and not at all athletic AND because my best classes were English and literature.  (I should add I was raised in a local culture that placed the highest value on things like sports, math and science.)  In my 8th grade English class was another boy, Donald, who also got picked on.  He, too, was awkward, bookish, and had verbal skills well beyond his age.  But he seemed to relish his nerdiness (or maybe he just had a healthier ego than me).  Now, the only thing more embarrassing than being picked on for knowing all of the answers in English class was not knowing an answer in English class… and one day that happened.  The teacher posed a question.  And, when no one responded, he called on me.  Not knowing the answer, I felt the flush of embarrassment and insecurity and I panicked.  Then, I heard the brutal words fly out of my mouth laced with sarcasm:  “I don’t know, ask Donald.  He knows everything.”  The room erupted in laughter and, for once, they were laughing with me, not at me.  But, I couldn’t enjoy the moment because I stole a glance at Donald.  We weren’t good friends, but I suppose you might say we were joined in our nerdiness and when I made that stinging comment; well, he looked as if all the breath had been knocked out of him.  It was as if I had dealt him a punch to the gut.

Where did those words come from?  I knew better; I’d been taught better.  I never behaved like that.  But in my moment of panic and insecurity, my 8th grade ego felt its very survival under attack and it felt the need to fight to survive.

I’m not unique, I imagine.  I’m guessing most of us can remember a time in our lives when we did something cruel because, in the panic of the moment, our egos defended themselves in a “damn the torpedoes” fashion.

Likewise, I’m guessing we’ve all been on the receiving end, as well.  After all, if I hadn’t been bullied, I probably wouldn’t have been so quick and cruel in defending myself… not that that is any excuse; it’s just the harsh reality of human nature…

which is why we need to be cautious about our trust in other humans.  I have some wonderful friends and family members.  I trust them.  And yet, there still have been times when their words have hurt and stung.  There have been times when I needed their emotional support and they weren’t there.  There have been times when I shared something important with them and their response went beyond lackluster.  And, I am sure they could say the same for me.

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The picture to the left is a pic I took walking Pompano Beach in Florida.  I was stunned to capture this scene of a gull capturing a fish and toying with it (at least it appeared that way to me).  I got about a half dozen pictures of this gull dropping, grabbing and pecking at this poor fish.  It looked pretty cruel.  But, knowing nothing about gulls, I’m guessing this is how they fish and its actions were necessary for it to survive.  Nature can be pretty brutal.

My point is this: We all need relationships and people we can trust.  But we also need to recognize that trust in humans can only go so far.  We all have egos that are reactive and prone to strike back when they feel they’ve been dealt a blow.  God alone is the only one in whom we can have absolute trust.  No matter what happens, regardless of what we say or do, God will always, faithfully act in our best interest.  Despite all of the cultural jokes about God smiting people, God isn’t like us.  God doesn’t get offended and react by lashing out in the heat of the moment.

God’s love, grace and mercy are everlasting and all-encompassing.

Hidden Within

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As I mentioned in my prior blog, the shells along Pompano Beach in Florida were stunning.  Each day as I walked I would take my time, looking down to spot the most beautiful shells.  I wanted a wide array of colors and sizes and shapes, even different textures… but I also wanted beauty because… well, who wants an ugly seashell, right?  Sometimes I would pick one up but, looking at my current collection, realize that I already had one that bore a striking resemblance.  Sometimes a shell would be partially buried in the sand or was being washed over by the waves.  I would reach down to grab it but, as I pulled it out and examined it more closely, I would notice cracks or pieces broken off.  I was flying back on a plane so I had no interest in taking up precious carry-on space with redundancy or imperfection.  (You can probably see where I’m going with this!)

One morning I noticed a shell upside down on the shoreline.  Its underside was bright and vivid… beautiful!  I thought, “If that is what the underside looks like, I can’t wait to see the beauty of the outside.” I turned it over and my spirits sank.  The outside of that shell was drab and ugly; a blah, grayish shade with random bumps.  Instinctively, I throw it back into the ocean.

But as I walked in silence along the shoreline, my knee jerk rejection of rejecting that shell caused me to reflect:  how often do I fail to notice the interior beauty of people because they don’t match my initial expectations?  How often do I allow first impressions to stop me from engaging more deeply with people?  Had I seen the outside of that shell first, I would have never stopped to examine it.  I would have kept moving along, just ignoring it.

Now, it’s not a big deal when it happens with a shell.  I’m pretty confident the shell I threw back didn’t cry tears that mingled with the waves.  It’s an inanimate object.  But I am also pretty confident that there are times when my judgment of what I see at first glance prevents me from seeing deeper, hidden beauty in people.

I now regret that I didn’t bring that shell home.  I could have put it on the table in my study where I do my morning prayers.  It would have been a really helpful reminder to me to focus more intently and seek out the beauty hidden within regardless of what first meets the eye.

Listen to my recent sermon podcasts at http://www.trinitylafayette.org/sermons and check out my new book, Companions on the Journey: Foundational Spiritual Practices at https://wipfandstock.com/companions-on-the-journey.html or view links on my home page]20200201_122640