Wednesday, March 09, 2016

What really matters

Over the last several months, I've been practicing the art of taking into account what really matters. Through a variety of circumstances I think I've become more open to embracing beauty in each moment. Thankfully, there is a little person in my life that helps me with my practice, my grandson O.
At the age of two years, O has already helped return me to a place of playfulness when we spend time together. From acting out stories with his Dr. Who action figures and dueling with toy light sabers... we play ALL DAY!
O has also helped me to slow my pace a bit. He takes note of little things that I used to miss - like cool turtles in aquariums, kettle corn stands, and stopping to look at what is creeping along a nature trail path - because he's aware enough to notice.
The sweetness O shares with me is more than cotton candy and cookies. (Yes, there is cotton candy and cookies.) But his sweetness is a gift that lasts longer than any treat that can be bought. O's sweetness and joy is a gift that fills my heart to overflowing and also calls me to continue to practice the practice of taking account of what really matters.
Here, as a novice practitioner of gratitude, is what really matters - collecting and playing with toys that stir the imagination, discovering new creatures to ooh and ahh over, sharing cotton candy and getting your face and hands messy and holding hands to carefully cross the street (before we look both ways).
Especially life filled with moments with O.
O really matters.
Thank you O, you are a gifted gratitude teacher.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Parables on Parables: The Prodigal Son

Here written is a parable I wrote a few years ago based on the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is an updated version (originally posted in 2007)

I remember the day that Mr. G's youngest son left to make a life for himself away from the family farm. Our family had worked for Mr. G even before I was born, so my memories of him and his two boys farming together were an extension of my own family life. I honestly can't remember Mr. G's boys not being a part of my life.
Every morning, it was my job to collect water from the well for morning household chores. As I carefully carried gallons of fresh water in the bucket upon my head, Mr. G would smile and greet me saying, "Here you go. “, and place a fresh-plucked flower from his own flower bed behind my ear.” A daisy for my day-star!” he would say on his way out to do his work. Mr. G had planted many different wild flowers in his flowerbed. He would water and weed those wild flowers as his morning ritual just like my water carrying. Our days would begin with water carrying and flower tending as we waited for the boys to get ready to leave for the days’ work.

Mr. G has two sons, Michael and Simon. Michael, the youngest, was fun loving and free spirited. Simon, the eldest, was serious and focused on tending to the farm.

There was a buzz about the farm this morning as I walked to the well. "How dare that child ask for his inheritance now?" muttered Molly the head cook to Ella her assistant. "Maybe he just not interested in farming like Simon. Michael is a free spirit." exclaimed Ella. "Well, free spirit or not, Simon is the eldest and he deserves his reward before Michael. You have to earn your way in this world, you know!"

Mr. G looked tired this morning, but still smiled, gave me a daisy and called me by the name of one flower or another from his garden. There was sadness in his eyes as he looked out the past gate and towards the horizon. Who was he looking for? Did Michael really leave the family farm?  Simon met his father and they quietly walked off together to begin the daily chores.

Days passed and there was no sign of Michael. Some days, Michael used to play hide and seek in the garden with me and I missed the fun we used to have. I asked Simon if he would play a round of hide and seek but he growled, “Don’t you have something better to do than playing silly games? I think Michael is playing enough games for all of us."
Morning after morning and water bucket after water bucket, Mr. G and I would chat about the flowers and how he took care of them. Mr. G said, "You know rose petal, people are a lot like flowers." "Flowers?”, I exclaimed, “ I know you tell me I look like a flower, but how do I act like one?" I replied. He smiled and began to explain, "First, flowers seeds have to be planted in good soil. Then the flower seeds need to be watered, get plenty of sunshine. Hopefully, the flower seed can break out of the soil, turn towards the sun and be nourished so it can grow to full bloom.”

"Excuse me Mr. G, but how can a flower seed DO anything? Doesn't the gardener control what happens in the flower bed?" "Not really, petunia - I've tried to grow many different kinds of flowers in this flowerbed. I've planted them in the best soil, watered them every morning, and removed the weeds and sometimes the seeds just don't grow, Petunia.” A tear rolled down Mr. G's face as he said, "Every one of us is like the flower seed, Hollyhock, and we all are drawn out of the darkness and dirt to be nourished by the sun."

"Mr. G, can I ask you a question?" I asked. "Certainly, Sunflower."
"Are you hoping that Simon and Michael are drawn out of the dirt and show the world who they are - like the flowers?" “Yes, dear one. It has been my hope that my children would turn towards the light of love and grow.

"Tulip, All in all, the good gardener only wants to see the beauty of the flower he planted. He wants to see all color, vividness and joy bursting from each and every petal. The good gardener wants to see his garden grow as beautiful and strong as it can be. I desire that both Simon sand Michael can find a way to be happy and fulfilled, to receive the light of the sun here on the farm.”

We sat at the edge of the flower bed, picking weeds and listening to the morning birds singing. "Freesia, I’d best get to the fields for now. There are more flowers out there for me to check on, said Mr. G. as he got up from his flowerbed and walked down the path to the front gate of the farm. Just as he reached the gate, Mr. G turned and looked back to me and said, “Hey there Violet, please remember that love is a gift that is given – not earned. I pray that both Michael and Simon remember this gift of love too!’ I thoughtfully listened to Mr. G’s words, his concern for his boys and how he cared for all the flowers of the fields, and said:
“I know that love is a gift, because you share it with me every day when we talk together – how could anyone forget a love like that?  You are a good gardener, Mr. G!”
Mr. G smiled – and headed out to the field as one who knew love, because he had received love and had hope in his heart that all might remember it is a gift that can only be given – not bought or earned. Humble seeds – flowers and people – bloom in the light of love. Every day, Mr. G continued to watch water and weed in the lives of his flowers and waited expectantly for the morning that his garden and his children would be drawn out of the soil, be nourished by the sun and show their whole-hearted beauty to the world around them.

God is calling to each one of us, "Come back, with your whole heart."
The parable of the prodigal son is an expression of the complex structure of family relationships, grace and forgiveness and ultimately God's perspective on our place with him. Grace, light, warmth, comfort, and healing are represented in the role of the Father in this parable. The character of the father is a sketch of God's grace filled attitude towards humanity. Just as the father in this parable longs for his lost son to return home and his eldest son to return to a relationship based on grace and not works. God desires us to come back to him.

It could be said that the father in this parable represents grace, the prodigal son imperfect humanity, and the eldest son works. All three of these characters are ones that each one of us can play out in and through our lives.
We are imperfect like the prodigal son: self-seeking in nature. We can be harsh and unforgiving like the eldest son; causing divisions and judgment to rule over the relationships in our lives. The role we play varies over the journey of our lives but with God’s help we can be givers of grace and breathe life into the world around us.
No matter what role we can relate to the most, God calls to each one of us to, "Come back, with your whole heart." God knows that we are all lost without him - through his grace we can receive the joy of our salvation (Psalm 51). Just as the young son came home to receive the forgiveness and restoration, our God is standing waiting for us to return home in one way or another.

Prayer: Heavenly Father - The gift of grace provides light, warmth, comfort and healing. Continue to allow this gift to grow in you today by coming home to God with your whole heart.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Use what you have: Building Community with Art

What happens when you combine canvas, acrylic paint and an open invitation for people to come and create? Community happens.

Earlier in 2015, I was in the midst of considering a practical way to prayerfully observe the season of Advent and my first inclination was to do something creative. In my own heart, I was longing for some space to rest and reflect upon the season of Advent, where hope, peace, joy and love reside.

Through the social networking site, Meetup, I started a group called, "Buffalo Artists Share" and set some dates for a group to gather at a local church to work on an Advent mural project. (For the lesson plan on how to make a canvas mural, email: Church members as well as folks from the Meetup group were invited, over a period of three weeks to come and paint, eat some lunch and get to know each other. The most engaged participants in the project, turned out to be from the general public. 
Over four weeks, the painters painted all four sections of the mural and the mural also was used to compliment the devotional time for pastors in the Niagara Frontier Conference, as well as being used in Christmas Eve worship as a means of reflecting on where the hope, peace, joy and love of God can be found. Because we "used what we had", the community of  St. Mark and Good Shepherd Lutheran Churches was able to connect with the surrounding community of Buffalo both inside and outside of our church and Synod walls. 

For the season of Lent, another community art and spiritual life project is being planned. For five weeks, stories of Jesus life will be shared and people are invited to come, to listen, and to create images based on the story they hear. At the end of the five week sessions, dubbed "Artful Prayer", the group will celebrate with a pot-luck dinner and reveal their creations.

In a time where pastors, parishioners and churches are looking for answers to the questions of how the church can grow; it might be good to take stock in what they already have. Every church might not have a visual artist on hand, but you probably have knitters, woodworkers, cooks, and teachers. If you ask around, I'd bet you find a painter too!

The people who cross your doorstep are our churches greatest asset in helping to build relationships with people on the other side of our church doors. If you long for a place of warmth and hope, you may be surprised to find it in the faces of the people that you already see on Sunday morning. The interests and gifts we already have are the gifts God gives is to share to help build communities of faith that make a difference.

Use what you have, yes you do have it!

Vicar Tara

Thursday, December 31, 2015

When A Painting Comes Together

It happens on her clock, not mine. 
After walking past the unfinished canvas every morning, she suddenly gives me the clue I needed - at midnight.
It's like searching for the right word, to have it suddenly pop into your mind except it's in a foreign language. 
It happens when you relax just enough to remember that creating art is a joy and playfulness is welcome. Playfulness is welcome in this "Dreamscape" and it's just what I needed to feel and see with my own eyes once again.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

365 empty pages...

Luke 3:4-6 As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Life is unpredictable, to say the least. We have hopes for our families, our friends, and for our work to inspire us. We desire to fill each day of the year with memories to hold on to. Mary Oliver, the poet, writes about this desire to live life to the full, in her well-loved poem, The Summer Day

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
 Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
—Mary Oliver

The New Year is before us like an open book. The days of 2016 are unwritten with 365 clean pages waiting to be filled in. And while some people’s minds may be dwelling on what their resolution will be, my mind is caught in a loop of words from Luke 3… “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” The imagery of Luke’s words capture my imagination. I love how the gospel speaks of the “valley that shall be filled…mountains brought low…the crooked straight…and rough ways made smooth.” As I take a moment to reflect on 2015, I can see times where the valley seemed bottomless, the mountains reached past my point of seeing their peak, the crooked was horribly tangled beyond untangling, and the rough was an impassible off road journey. But in the midst of all the overwhelming “bigness” of those times that challenged and caused me to question my path – Jesus made a way through. There were blind corners, steep inclines and a few rather unexpected detours in the 365 days of 2015, but somehow Jesus was with me.

Image taken by Gregory Slagle, Jamestown NY
We do not know what the New Year ahead has to hold, but we know that each day gives us the space to write some new stories about each of our “wild and precious” lives. For the unwritten days of 2016, Jesus knows the way to get there and how to be present wherever the year takes us. Jesus is walking with us, pouring him into our lives with the good news of the gospel that resolves to make us new – every day.
For the year we say farewell to and the year that we about to greet – Jesus walks with us – and this is a resolution that God alone can keep.

Vicar Tara

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Slow as vinegar: Waiting for Christmas

Earlier this week I had the chance to wander down Hertel Ave. in North Buffalo and came upon a store called "The House of Olives". The store was filled with metal barrels fill of fancy flavored olive oil and various kinds of vinegar. Each barrels was set up with a sample bottle and little tasting cups for unlimited sampling of their supply of oils and vinegar. I smelled and was amazed at the variety of the flavors available. This place could make cooking really fun! After my friend encouraged me to taste the vinegar -I did and was surprised at it's sweetness, but I was also taken aback by something else.

While I expected the olive oil to be think and oily (after all it is oil), the flavored vinegar was incredibly sweet but it also was thick and syrupy. It's consistency I discovered, from the gentleman filling the small bottles for gift sets, made it necessary for him to slow down in filling them. No matter how he tried to hurry, the vinegar syrup would only pour so fast and that pour was as slow as molasses in winter.

As the days pass through this season of Advent, it seems like the days begin to run faster as Christmas Day approaches. Time begins to spin faster in our tree trimming, cookie baking, and present wrapping. The moments of each day are to fast and furious. We are like the oil and vinegar vendor trying to fill our bottles as fast as we can - so that all of the orders of Christmas will be filled.

But perhaps this Advent, I could learn something about slowing down from my sample of berry vinegar. In order for me to discover this vinegar I had to take a pause from my day and open a door to a space I'd not yet seen. In order for me to get to this place, a friend had to encourage me to taste and see that berry vinegar is good. In order for me to pour it, I had to choose a flavor and wait patiently for it to drip, drop, drip into my shallow plastic cup. In order for me to taste it, I needed to tip the cup and wait as it rolled slowly towards my lips and suddenly all I could smell and taste was sweetness.

It's a wonder how something I'd only understood as sour can become sweet in taking pause, in hearing encouragement from a friend, and choosing to take the slow road to taste unexpected sweetness.

Waiting for Christmas can be a frantic rush or it can be as sweet as slow vinegar.
May your days of waiting for Christmas be unexpectedly sweet and my you have someone to share it's sweetness with.
Image found at

Saturday, December 05, 2015

Advent 2: Julian, Suffering and Peace

“All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”

― Julian of Norwich

It's the Eve of the second Sunday in Advent and "Peace" is our point of focus for the coming week, Julian's words meet us in a time where peace may seem far off...
For refugees wandering...
For victims of senseless violence...
For those without a place to call home...
For those suffering sickness and grief...
it seems crazy to repeat her words.
Some may even go so to say the her words are foolishness.

But, there are some words we need to repeat -
perhaps even more in times like these.Julian's words mean to assure each heart that in the midst of all circumstances that Jesus the Christ is always present.

1 Corinthians 1:18 speaks of how some might perceive the gospel message to be foolishness...
"For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God."

Julian of Norwich was not speaking about suffering, having never suffered. At a young age, she was close to death in the midst of a serious illness at suddenly saw a vision (as well as others) of Christ crucified.Shortly after the series of visions she recovered.  (For more on Julian's life visit Wikipedia)

While this account may seem unbelievable, the records of this event and theological writings that followed Julian's mystical experience remain impressive.

In the midst of suffering, Christ was present with Julian.
So, in the midst of our suffering, Christ also is present with us.

For those hearts too full or empty due to the grief they bear, this presence of Jesus Christ is anything but foolishness.

May all manner of things be well for you and yours in this coming week of "peace".
Christ is present.
Christ is with you.
Christ is the Prince of Peace.