All Shall be Well: a Book Review

“The Gardener entreats us to step into the world he made and walk with him, to receive from his hand the daily bread our bodies, minds and hearts so deeply crave.” writes Catherine McNeil in her new book, “All Shall Be Well” However, as the author points out, we are missing the way the garden should be speaking into our lives. We tend to look at all our human made structures and goods to parch our thirsty souls. How do we awaken our senses to all that God has provided for us? In a beautiful writing style which lifts up our calendar seasons as seasons of the soul, she offers insight which points us in the right direction.

Seeking the Gardener

Starting with the image of the Gardener meticulously and lovingly creating and caring for his garden, she reminds us of the intimacy between Creator and creation. As the author points out, “Adam and Eve fell into trouble when they adopted the habit of of talking about God rather than to him.” As a result, the tendency of looking for provision from other sources began. God longs for intimacy with us yet remains sovereign. Within that mystery, we can find him if we seek him. And that means looking for God’s character through all that has been created. God never stops speaking. Are we listening?

God of the Seasons

“All Shall Be well” encourages us to be vulnerable before God who loves us unconditionally. To not be afraid of asking hard questions and finding refuge in the midst of uncomfortable seasons. The book is laid out according to the four seasons beginning with Spring and then subdivided into chapters speaking into specific aspects of them. Each chapter focuses on a character quality that reflects God’s image. For example, “winter” includes chapters on snow:rest, wilderness:dependence and salt:endurance. Weaving personal stories through reflection and insight, McNeil’s words are as beautiful as the topic. In addition, at the end of each chapter are questions for the reader to ponder which help with action steps.

All Shall be Well

The title of this book is fitting for such a time as this. Julian of Norwich a fourteenth century mystic who pronounced “All will be well” for anxious souls living in troubling times. We live in such moments. Lots of loud voices, nonstop news updates and polarizing relationships tempt us to wonder where God’s presence is in all of it. Yet, as we are reminded in the book, God has not moved. Our senses must be awakened again to seeing, hearing, and feeling him all around us. When everything else appears to be changing, it is comforting to remember where we can find refuge.

How Our Ebenezers Share Our Story

Several years ago, my family instituted an ancient practice: creating Ebenezers. We needed physical reminders that God is with us. Always. Remembering our past gives us hope for the future.

It’s not exactly a well known practice although it should become one again. “Ebenezer’s” claim to fame is a word found in the hymn, “Come Though Fount of Every Blessing.” The reference comes from 1 Samuel 7:12 in which Israel defeated the Philistines. In gratitude for God’s intervention in the battle, Samuel held up a stone calling it “Ebenezer” (God helped us.)

Much of our life as a family involves seasons of pain and struggle followed by seasons of provision and restoration. Creating markers to remember the ways God’s hand moved in our lives points us to God’s character.

We find ourselves in good company.

“The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they camped in Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. 20 Those twelve stones, which they had taken out of the Jordan, Joshua set up in Gilgal, 21 saying to the Israelites, “When your children ask their parents in time to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ 22 then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’ 23 For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you crossed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea,[b] which he dried up for us until we crossed over, 24 so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, and so that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” Joshua 4:19-24.

So we write the names and dates of specific events in which we experienced God’s goodness, glory, deliverance, or simply presence on the stones or create them into a sculpture representing them. . Because it goes without saying that at some point our voices will strain as we cry out for God’s help. And the testimony of the stones will speak words of hope to us. We will remember again that God sees us. Hears us. Shows up. Always.

Tell me about your ebenezers.

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Why I’m Thankful for a God of all Seasons

It caught my eye as I stepped off my porch. A small orange dried leaf laying alone on the ground.

It’s sight summoned up a whirlwind of emotions. While I embrace some parts of fall, I adore summer. Seeing that orange leaf signaled to me that fall is back. I scanned around quickly gauging the color scheme of the trees. Green seemed to appear as the majority of hues on my landscape palette. But tinges of orange edged the shapes of the trees.

Cozy, candle lit evenings, pumpkin flavor, and hot apple cider bring me delight. But the change to a cold, dark landscape does not. Truthfully, winters sting my body and soul. I relish sun and warm air kissing my skin. However, God has called me to this midwest climate for now and I can look for God’s glory in its midst.

Glimpsing at that lone leaf reminded me that there is comfort in the order of seasons. They point to a God who has created a stunningly beautiful, mysterious and orderly universe that synchronizes to breathe life into all creation. This season of in-between serves to remind me that I need seasons. All of them.

An orange leaf on a balmy August morning tells me that fall is around the corner-but not yet. I can prepare for what’s coming because I’ve been there before and I know that, despite my disliking for cooler weather, God’s provision is taking place-for the earth and for me. It’s not always an easy lesson. Recognizing that the universe does not revolve around me needs to be spoken into my life in various ways-including a lone orange leaf.

But, I am grateful that God’s holiness intersects my our world. And in the midst, speaks to me through a leaf.

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Why I Decided to Change the Pace of My Life

Recently, I dropped out of a race.

Truthfully, I didn’t even realize I was running. My daily liturgy moments became focused on competing with others. I lost track of who God made me. Why was I racing in the first place?

My days became frantic. Constantly checking social media, creating content for posts, and learning how to do better. Yet, while I was focused on “more,” I was feeling “less.” Less peaceful. Less confident. Less productive in other ways.

As someone who wants to embrace new opportunities that present themselves, saying no is challenging. I don’t want to miss anything. Yet I recognize that sometimes God calls us back to rest.

When I step back, I am letting God’s character show through me as I enter into the places where I am led right now. That includes exploring other creative outlets that give me pleasure. It means also humbly acknowledging that God can use others to move in the places in which I have stepped aside. Perhaps, my own blessed experiences have occurred because someone else left a place for me

So I hit the pause button. I slowed down my pace and reflected on my identity and who I was trying to please. Emily P Freeman’s words in her book, The Next Right Thing, speak to me. In writing about filtering choices, she says, “Choose your absence so that your presence will have more impact. ..As him (Jesus), then listen well. Your work is your work. Your pace is your pace. Your life is your life. What a gift.”.

Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
    don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
    he’s the one who will keep you on track.
Proverbs 3:5-6

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Why Practicing Hospitality Has Sacred Implications

In the last few years, I learned how much language and behaviors are intertwined.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass,” describes her surprise at learning there is no word in the Potowatami language for “please.” Kimmerer writes of her findings, “Food was meant to be shared, no added politeness needed; it was simply a cultural given that one was asking respectfully.”

The native people realized what is already woven throughout scripture. Connections are sacred. Our Creator God provides for us and sustains us-sometimes through each other. Here’s the rub: our ancestors’ narratives speak of offering up our resources to both the “neighbor” and the stranger.

Practicing hospitality in our American “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps” culture, appears challenging. It implies that “ours” is not really our own. However, growing acknowledgement of the isolation in our communities creates ideas for bringing back the desire to share time and self with others. Transformation takes place in the midst.

Lauren Winner, in her book Mudhouse Sabbath says, “God’s creation gives us a model for making and sharing homes with people, but the reality of God’s Trinitarian life suggests that Christian hospitality goes further than that. We are not meant simply to invite people into our homes, but also to invite them into our lives.”

Sometimes, it means simply looking to your street. How many neighbors do you actually know? What about the ones you do know but seem like polar opposites politically, in worldview, or theologically. Can you ask God to open your hearts and invite them in?

Looking for ideas how to implement hospitality into your rhythms?

Host an outdoor movie at your church or back yard. My family showed movies on Friday Nights on the garage door. Popcorn included!

Gather around the campfire and make smores.

Host an appetizer/dessert time as a casual “get to know you” gathering

Combine resources with other neighbors and rotate hosting a weekly soup supper. For another fun idea, check this out: http://www.fridaynightmeatballs.com/

Implement and support a neighborhood little pantry http://www.littlefreepantry.org/

Bake cookies for neighbors for no specific reason

A friend of mine opens up her house on Friday mornings for anyone to drop in

” Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything. Be quick to give a meal to the hungry, a bed to the homeless—cheerfully. Be generous with the different things God gave you, passing them around so all get in on it: if words, let it be God’s words; if help, let it be God’s hearty help. That way, God’s bright presence will be evident in everything through Jesus, and he’ll get all the credit as the One mighty in everything—encores to the end of time. Oh, yes! “ (1 Peter 4:8-11)

How do you practice hospitality?

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As the School Year Begins Again: My Prayer as a Substitute Teacher

Lord of my life,

May I develop a posture that reflects your welcoming presence, offering a place of refuge

May I see you in their faces, a reminder of the breadth of your character and creativity

May I offer mercy when it seems least deserved because that’s what you offer me

May I exhude patience knowing that we are all people on the way

May I sense your wisdom when the complexities of humanity bear their wounds

May I breathe out your name when I say theirs so that they realize they are known

May I be a vessel of help to the one who is usually sailing the ship

When the days become long and heavy, remind me that you help carry the load in this place you have called me

Amen

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Learning to Thaw Five Years After a Polar Vortex Blew into My Life

Anniversaries remind us of where we have come from and where we are headed.

Five years ago, I was recovering from a polar vortex which had pushed it’s cold breath into my family’s landscape. As many hid within the warm confines of a home, we felt the cold air penetrate our walls. The icicles appeared as frozen fingers clutching our family with its sting.

Five years ago, illness and death attempted to paralyze us. We became accustomed to confronting the exhausting days of mental illness. It has woven itself into the identity of our family. But this time, we encountered something new, My teen son became suddenly ill. Moments turned into days turned into weeks. More of the story can be found here: https://stephaniejthompson.com/2017/01/31/httpstephaniejthompson-com20170131how-i-found-peace-living-in-the-not-yet/ In the midst dealing with his duel health struggles, deaths of loved ones released punches to the gut.

Wrestling with grief

Unexpectedly a family friend, young and healthy, passed away in her sleep from a heart attack. The reality of traveling lightly on this earth smacked our souls.

My husband’s beloved grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. Our 97 year old matriarch whose resilience to previous injuries and illness made us believe she would always rally, actually passed from this life. Her impact on our lives and others around her left a festering wound.

His aunt, with whom we were very close, died from a stroke. As we grieved once again, my younger son recognized the ways funeral had become a part of our rhythm. One more good-bye. Could we sustain one more fierce blow?

Apparently so.

One day, my husband announced that his job might be eliminated in a corporate buy out. After a week sitting in the frozen tundra, we received an answer. As it turned out, he remained employed but his company family no longer resembled what he had known.

Learning how to respond to a Polar Vortex

Five years later the polar vortex blew in again. However, this time, we found ourselves on the other side of the last one. We experienced some small stings of the weather that surrounded our landscape and our lives. But this time, we knew that we pushed through the last ones. We recognized the need to not face this chill alone. We need the warmth from huddling with others in prayer and accepting their help to keep walking toward spring. Toward a season of new life.

We are still thawing out. The brain and body don’t easily forget the sting of frostbite. A bit of fear at the thought of experiencing it again remains. Truthfully, a bit of the sting of the warming period permeates my body. My senses are heightened at the sound of an ambulance, when my son is out of my sight, and at the presence of a symptom in one of children which appears to indicate a recurrence of the previous affliction.

But I can’t live in fear. So I remember that summer arrived this year as it did five years ago and the three others in between. I soak in the sun during this season of rebirth. I find comfort knowing that regardless of the season, I am held and loved by God who sees me. (Genesis 16:13).

Learning from the Wisdom of Pecans

I am thankful for pecans.

I’ll admit I have taken them for granted and that’s worthy of lament. The knowledge of the profound design and fruiting process of pecans is largely unknown. That has sacred implications for me as an individual and us as a society. For there is much to learn from them.

As I savor the words written in Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, I feel my soul feasting on their nourishment. The native people, in her case, the Potowotami Nation, share what they know about the sacred design of earth and all that inhabits it. Creation points to God’s character. As image bearers, we can’t afford to be deprived of that wisdom.

Kimmerer shares the story of her grandpa discovering the gift of pecans as a boy recently resettled to a new territory in Kansas. Like the previous nuts that scattered their land, these fruits held a reserve of protein and fat for survival during the winter. It even comes in a naturally protective shell. The mast fruiting process of the trees indicates a system of sharing resources so that all fruit together-whether small or large,rooted in fertile or infertile land.

“The pecan trees and their kin show a capacity for concerted action, for unity of purpose that transcends the individual trees. They ensure somehow that all stand together and thus survive, ” she writes.

A small nut. A simple treat. A gift that speaks of a great God whose handiwork in a tiny piece of provision points to the beautiful picture of community as it was intended.

Pecans add a sweet crunch to my salads, infuse the flavor of my husband’s favorite ice cream and offer a little treat in the midst of the mundane. Yet, wrapped within these tiny nuggets, are life giving elements. Literally. For that, I give thanks.

“Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8)

How do you see tastes of Heaven in your landscape?

Why I Can Sit With the “Middle” Parts of My Story

The temptation to peek beckons me. How can I live in the tension of an unfolding story?

Whenever, I read a book, I am drawn into a new place.. The pages introduce me to new characters whose lives speak into mine. Their world challenges me to evaluate the mores of my own. I become immersed in a life outside my actual one; at times, I wish desperately that I could talk with these new friends with whom I connect. Maybe someday I will.

Regardless, I develop empathy for their struggles. How can I leave them in situations of uncertainty? Will they seek restoration for themselves and others? What if they make choices that are not in their best interest? Being present in the middle of the story and sitting in it is often uncomfortable.

I learned that I can’t necessarily control how the story ends. My story or others’ stories. Certainly I have choices that affect the unfolding of events in my life as well as the lives of others. We are connected. But I don’t always get a peek into how those “middle of the story” conflicts in the plot will resolve. That’s hard. But I know that God is redeeming those moments even if I can’t see it.

As tempting as it is to turn the page to the end, I recognize that won’t really resolve anything. I will miss all that the author reveals in the uncomfortable details of the “middle.” I won’t be privy to the dimensions of a character’s humanity and how it plays a key role in other elements of the story-not just the ending. I need to sit with every part.

So, I’ve learned to resist peeking at the ending. I don’t want to miss the beauty that can still be found in the hard, uncomfortable middle moments. In pages or in reality.

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God’s Character is Not Intimidated by Distance: New Lessons from a Familiar Story

“Then Jesus[b] said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with[c] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’  Luke 15:11-19

The story is familiar …at least in my mind. It seeps into my mind and heart through the filter of my contemporary Western European context. Still, I am pointed to God’s character: forgiveness granted unconditionally..As the “prodigal, I recognize the implications of my trespasses to my Father and others by my choosing distance. As the older brother, I am jealous by a Father who loves the rebel sibling with the same intensity as one who strives for obedience..

Last year, I realized I was missing something.

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[d](Luke 15:20-21)

N.T. Wright in his book, The Lord and His Prayer, brings this perspective: “…in Jesus’ world, the more senior you were in a community, the less likely you were even to walk fast. It shows a lack of dignity, of gravitas.

So when Jesus told a story about a man running, this was designed to have the same effect on his audience, if, say the Prime Minister were to show up for the state opening of Parliament wearing a bathing costume. It’s a total loss of dignity.”

And when we discover why this man is running, the effect is even more shocking. This man is running to greet someone: someone who has put a curse on him, who has brought disgrace on the whole family.”

Well, now ….what do I do with that?

God’s character is not intimidated by lack of reverence. God’s character is not intimidated by the extreme nature of the sin. God’s character is not waiting to respond until we have done “our part.”

God already begins running toward us before we have acknowledged our trespasses. Distance is not a means of separation.

Jesus tells us “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who sin against us.” I admit I have struggled with the nuances of this this new Kingdom. How could God run toward me in such a posture of embrace? What does that imply for the way I “do likewise” as an image bearer and disciple to my human “siblings?”

God’s character penetrates the distance between us. I pray for a heart and a posture that becomes a vessel of pouring that truth into others.

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