In Praise of Soup

Nothing for me heralds the transition from autumn to winter like soup on the supper table. A good soup is warming, filling, and frugal. A pot can be whipped up using cans relatively quickly, can simmer all afternoon, or  can simmer in a slow cooker from morning ’til night. The aromatic scent of spices fills the house and beckons all to pull up chairs to the table. Add salad and bread, and the repast becomes a feast.

Guess what we had for supper tonight? If you guessed soup, you’re invited over for an amazing bowl of curried sweet potato and lentil soup, along with a spinach, apple, walnut, and cranberry salad. My spouse’s homemade whole wheat and white bread rounded out the menu. And if you live too far away for leftovers, click here for the recipe we used.

As a busy clergy/writer couple, we look forward to slow cooker soup meals at the end of busy days. We use lots of beans, brown rice, fresh vegetables, and ethnic spices. Because we use fresh seasonal ingredients and try to buy our legumes in bulk, most recipes are quite frugal. We keep stock and leftovers in the freezer to add to soups, decreasing food waste. Another benefit of soup is that many recipes can be easily and quickly expanded if a need exists for a few extra bowls.

Last night, for example, we enjoyed a big kettle of “loaded potato” soup (minus the bacon bits). The recipe is simple: combine a sauteed onion and crushed garlic to taste, a five pound bag of russet potatoes chopped, flavor with salt and freshly ground pepper, and add enough veggie stock to just cover the potatoes. Once they’re soft, add chives, up to two cups of shredded sharp cheddar cheese, and plain Greek yogurt (or sour cream). We use a potato masher and and enough skim milk to reach a consistency that’s thick, creamy, but still sporting potato chunks. Yum.

Other favorites are tomato, butternut squash, vegetable, black bean, split pea, and vegetarian bean chili. We’re always open to try new recipes, and this time of year we eat soup, salads, and sandwich combinations several times a week.

I am thankful for good food, especially for the food we are able to purchase from local farmers and markets, and share with generous friends who garden. I am also grateful for the warming and comforting properties of soup suppers when the temperatures drop and nights become longer.

A meal doesn’t have to be time-consuming and expensive to be good for you, tasty, frugal, and local. Soup makes a fine option for entertaining because it’s easier on the cook. Try putting together a couple of soup options, a few loaves of bread, and a hearty green salad the next time you host guests. Better yet, make it a “crock-luck” soup party and let everyone contribute something for the table.

What are your favorite soups? Feel free to share a recipe!

Photos by erin.kkr, jeffryw, and Qfamily. Thanks!

No Place Like Home

How wonderful one’s own bed can feel! Not that the hospital bed was uncomfortable–I actually slept pretty well all things considered, and all the caregivers were excellent. Still, it was good to get home this afternoon.  It was relaxing and fun to sit at the dinner table with my family, although I had a tough time not laughing and straining my neck.

Yes, the blessings of a soft bed with fluffy pillows, potato, chive,and sharp cheddar soup with homemade breads, and being with the ones I love are not to be taken for granted. Fresh coffee, a refrigerator and pantry full of good, healthy food, and plenty of heat and light are blessings indeed. Oh, and I’m quite sure a hot shower will be counted among my blessings when I can finally take one! Have to let that surgical wound heal a bit more, you know.

It’s amazing to me how easy it is to take the basics for granted, at least this thought crossed my morphine-muddled mind several times yesterday.  Simply shuffling across the room while “dancing” with the caddy that held my IV bag or attempting to eat the delicious crab cake on my dinner tray despite a raw throat provided opportunities to reflect on the ordinary blessings of walking and chewing. Even something as simple as blowing in the respiratory therapy device brought to mind that every breath is a gift of God.

My situation is miniscule compared to those being faced by so many other folks right now. I think of people who are facing life-threatening illnesses, devastation from Superstorm Sandy, or economic calamity. Boy howdy, I am lucky. Even if I get a not-so-nice report on the nodule biopsy, I’ll still count myself in pretty good shape because I have access to good healthcare, a loving family, and a broad network of support. Most of all, I have faith in a loving and generous Creator who proclaimed everything good and desires good for all of us.

One final blessing I’ll share with you is Nurse Andi. She was an awesome nurse–patient, kind, efficient. I kept thinking she looked familiar but couldn’t quite place her face with a context. Today, on the ride home, I remembered. She was a student in one of my freshman English classes at the local community college several years ago. How cool to see that a good student has turned into a most capable healthcare professional.  That one small connection was a true blessing. You never know when something in your life will come full circle.

Off to follow Dr. McKee’s orders–rest, rest, and more rest! And blessings abound.

So how about you, friend? What about your home has been a blessing to you today? What have you taken for granted? What can you do to be a blessing to someone else right now?

Photos by sblezard and Valerie Everett.

Bridge Over Life’s Troubled Waters

You never know when life will throw a curve ball in the midst of a smooth inning. One minute things are looking just ducky, and the next minute you are dealing with a crisis for which you are patently unprepared. It might be diagnosis of a major illness, an accident, the death of a loved one or friend, the loss of a job, a natural disaster, or any combination of nightmarish components. In short, it only takes one instant for life as usual to shatter like glass at your feet.

I’ve been there; perhaps so have you. My curve ball was a breast cancer diagnosis on the heels of a traumatic divorce that left me a single parent in a vulnerable financial state. At the time, I could barely fathom how to pull myself out of the muck of my predicament. Thankfully, other people could see more clearly, and family and good friends came to my aid. While no one can carry another person’s load, my friends, parishioners, and family journeyed with me–forming a bridge of solidarity between despair and hope. It was their faith, their hands, and their prayers that carried me across. I am so thankful for each one of them. I am where I am today because of the many relationships that formed a net of security and safety against the onslaught of suffering and fear.

Now it is my turn to be there for others whenever possible, however possible. We live in a world marked by suffering. Right now, well over a million people have had their daily existence altered by Hurricane Sandy in the northeastern United States. Some people have lost everything; their lives will never be the same. Sure, some day life may be better, but right now that horizon is nowhere in sight. They need that bridge that you and I can be–in prayer, through dollars given to relief efforts, and in messages of care and support. You and I, all of us, can send waves of prayer and healing intentions out to those in need in addition to tangible forms of aid. We can seekto stop rash judgments, blame, and negative energy that works against hope and  healing. We can make a difference.

Tonight the congregation I serve is hosting a screening of The Line, a new documentary film by Linda Midgett, presented by Sojourners. This 40 minute film tells the story of four people who have fallen below the poverty line–plunging from lives of hope and promise to days and nights of fear and anxiety. As their stories make quite clear, there are very few of us who don’t walk this line and who aren’t immune from falling below it. All it takes is one major illness, one job loss, a divorce, an accident, or a natural disaster to change life forever. The thing that separates this film from others I’ve seen is that it does offer hope., and it lays claim to a better future for all people by inviting everyone to the table to engage in dialogue about how to fix broken systems and outdated policies. It is a gem of a film. If you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to spend 40 minutes of your precious time watching it and thinking about it.

As for me, The Line and the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy remind me of how grateful I am to have had a bridge to walk, crawl, and be drug across in my own needful hours. I am so thankful for the many hands that would not let go of me, for those who insisted that I get back up and start walking on the other side to a place of greater strength and stronger faith. You all are living proof of the strength we bear when we journey together. So, today I give thanks for you–family, friends, and colleagues. I give thanks for health. I give thanks for a roof over my head, food to eat, clothes to wear, a car to drive, and work that is meaningful and delightful. I give thanks to the Creator of the Universe who loves me and is there for me no matter what. There is so much for which to be grateful. I could count blessings all day long and still not run out of reasons and people for which to be thankful.

Yes, the waters of trouble and suffering may run high and dark, but tides ebb and the sun rises again, and always life is still very, very good. Never, ever take your gifts and blessings for granted. Count them carefully and joyfully. Thank as many people as possible. Look for ways to be a blessing to others. Do something each day to make this world a better place.

What can you do to brighten your own part of the planet? What one thing can you do right now, today, to make someone’s life a little better? Please share your thoughts, intentions, and ideas. Blessings to you!

Photos by c.mcbrien, sojo.net, and theps.net. Thanks!

Thankful for Access to Healthcare

Me before first chemo session. I shaved my head and donated the hair to Locks of Love rather than watch it fall out. I figured someone ought to have use of it!

Several events of this week have made me aware of just how thankful I am to have access to healthcare. I am extremely fortunate. My spouse and I serve as pastors to congregations that are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). One of the biggest expenses in the benefits category to our congregations is our family healthcare policy–and it is a wonderful policy. Our denomination also places a strong emphasis on wellness and preventative medicine, offering us both incentives and resources to attend to our health as an act of stewardship and faithful discipleship.

One of the reasons I am so thankful to have insurance is because I am a breast cancer survivor. I was diagnosed in June of 2004, and underwent surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation between late summer and Easter 2005. The diagnosis came just one week after my girls and I had moved to Rushville, New York, to begin internship. What could have been a nightmare turned out to be a formative experience and a lesson in blessings, the goodness of God, and the importance of community.

My internship supervisor, the congregations of St. John and St. Paul Lutheran, the UMC in Rushville (in whose parsonage we lived), my extended family, dear friends and neighbors, seminary professors and staff, and an amazing team of physicians, technicians, and caregivers surrounded me with more love, prayers, and care than I could have ever imagined. I would never wish a cancer journey on anyone else, but I can say that the blessings and gifts in the experience far outweighed the difficulties.

Here’s the important thing about my experience. Had it not been for a free mammogram and basic student health insurance, I might have waited too long due to financial insecurity and the rigors of grad school and single parenting. My cancer was aggressive and moved extremely quickly, breaking out of the breast into my lymph system. St. John and St. Paul worked together and threw a chicken barbeque benefit with help from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans that raised enough money to keep us from bankruptcy, and the hospital and cancer center helped me find a study, subsidies, and grant funds to help offset what student insurance would not cover. Even so, I am still paying down student loans that were necessary to take, especially considering the cancer slowed my graduation by an extra year. Still, I maintain that I am one of the lucky ones. I am alive and healthy. Every day is a gift.

Because of the cancer, however, other insurance would have been difficult to get. I was able to move directly from student insurance to ELCA insurance, but when I went on leave from call to assist my parents in 2009, I was not able to find insurance that I could afford, so I had to stay on the ELCA plan and pay the premiums out of pocket. I was lucky to have that option, but the year and a half I was on leave was financially devastating–even though I worked three jobs (a contract family and youth ministry position at my home congregation, adjunct teaching at two colleges, and freelance writing). It was a tough time, but again, the gifts of being able to be close to my parents outweighed the sadness of leaving a call, a community, and friends I loved and the tenuous financial situation of living hand to mouth.

I’ve been reminded of the gift of healthcare this week as I’ve seen and heard about others struggling with serious health issues. Two family members were hospitalized. Both have insurance, thanks to Medicare. Were it not for insurance, all of these folks would be in horrible situations.

My own 24-year-old daughter would not have affordable healthcare were she not able to remain on our family policy (thank you, President Obama). She currently works for a non-profit ministry as a mental health worker, and they offer no group coverage, only a minimal plan brokered through a local insurance agent that has a high deductible and minimal benefits. This was a shock to her after returning from working in Korea as a teacher–where national healthcare is good and provided at a minimal cost.

Today I read Nicholas Kristof’s essay in the New York Times about his friend, Scott, who is without healthcare–a Harvard educated, intelligent, thoughtful man, who simply took a chance on not purchasing a private plan and ended up with stage four cancer. Click here, please, to read the story for yourself. It reminded me again why I am grateful to have health insurance and ready access to fine healthcare.

June 6, 2010–Six years a cancer survivor and just married, with daughter the younger, my mother, and Mr. Husband. Daughter the elder attended the wedding via Skype. Every day is a gift!

If you do not have insurance, please look into how you might get some; don’t play roulette with your life. If you cannot afford it, pursue every avenue to find subsidized insurance. We can all inform ourselves about the issue, seeking facts behind the polarizing rhetoric, and write to our elected officials urging them to continue to pursue a way to provide care for all citizens. Finally, if you do have insurance, be sure to give thanks for it. It could save both your physical and financial health some day.

P.S.: To all the many people who walked with me through the wilderness of cancer, thank you again. You will always be held close in my heart, and I am grateful for each and every one of you.

Three Simple Steps to a Better Day

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Want to make your day a better one? Any day can be at least a little better with a simple mind shift. All it takes is applying three simple, tried and true actions consistently throughout any 24 hour stretch of time.

Even the dreariest of days can be transformed by this simple shift in thinking and response. And it’s how you begin the day that sets the tone for the hours and events to follow. In short, the day you will lead is largely controlled by your attitude and approach to it.

Almost 2,000 years ago a Jew and Roman citizen named Saul of Tarsus (renamed Paul after he became a follower of The Way of Jesus), wrote to fellow believers in Thessaloniki and suggested three simple practices that are still applicable today: rejoice, pray, and give thanks. If practiced faithfully and lavishly, these practices will help make any day a good day–or at least improve a bad one significantly.

Before you get out of bed, offer a prayer of thanks and rejoice that you are alive, breathing, and gifted with another day of life. Continue this practice throughout the day–not just offering thanks around meals and before bedtime. Remember that everything, absolutely every good thing in your life is a gift from the One who spoke the cosmos into being.

Take time to marvel at the gifts of nature. Give thanks for the produce at the farmers market. Give thanks for clean water and the conveniences of electricity, phone service, and wireless communication. Rejoice in the company of family and friends. Pray for the needs of others often during that day. If a driver cuts you off in traffic, pray that his or her needs are met and that all is well. If you hear the sirens calling your local volunteer firefighters and emergency personnel, offer a prayer of safety and well-being on their behalf.

Finally, as you fall into bed at the end of the day, give thanks for the gifts of the day, thanks that you were able to meet any challenges, again pray for the needs of others and yourself, and trust that a good night’s holy rest will be yours.

Practice these three simple steps on a regular and frequent basis, and I guarantee your life will be changed for the better, and your outlook will improve. Come on…what do you have to lose?

Photos by david c. stone and hotflashes. Thanks!

Moving Day

What a week! It’s been one replete with blessings, heartaches, work, and worry. It has also had bright moments of joy lavished with laughter and seasoned with love.

Daughter the Elder and I moved Daughter the Younger into her dorm room on Thursday. The minivan was completely loaded, but it all fit nicely into her space (see photo above), and she’s not contacting me much, so that means she’s doing o.k. No news is good news when it comes to the college freshman on the first weekend.

Is it easier the second time around? No, not really. At least one knows what to expect, but it’s still an emotional day. You want your child to soar. You want her to do well, make good friends, be inspired to learn, grow as a scholar and person, and have fun, too. You just want it to be good.

Yes, there were a few tears, although I held it together until we got to the highway. She’s ready. I’ll be fine. It’s all good. I am thankful she has this opportunity, and I’m grateful to have had this day with both daughters. Even the requisite trip to Taco Bell was alright.

I am so thankful to have spent this day with two young women whom I love so very much. There’s only one problem now; it’s way too quiet around here. Sigh.

Vacation Time

Last week I took a mini-vacation, and it was wonderful. It was supposed to involve a trip to see my spouse’s family, but conflicting work schedules made it necessary for me to stay behind. Because we could not go to New England with the rest of the family, my two girls and I determined that we would take the single day neither one of them was scheduled to work and go to the beach. Yes, that’s right. We got up very early, drove four and a half hours to spend seven hours at the shore, and then drove right back home. It ended up being a fine adventure and gloriously good time.

Our lovely mini trip cost less than a night’s stay in a budget beach motel, and we enjoyed a full day of fun, quality time together, and relaxation (I took a two hour nap and read while they walked the boardwalk). I am so thankful my youngest daughter insisted we take this whirlwind girl trip getaway. Just a few hours of ocean air, salt water, surf, and sun helped melt away accumulated stress.

Maybe it has something to do with the American work ethic, or perhaps it is my Germanic heritage, but whatever the root cause, I have a difficult time taking vacation. I am lucky; I have a job that provides generous paid time off. Not all Americans have that luxury. In fact, about one in four Americans has no paid vacation time or holidays as a  job benefit. Even so, I still have a hard time breaking away.

And yet, God commanded us to take Sabbath time., designating the first day of every week as time to reorient oneself to a right relationship with God, and to take sufficient time to rest and recharge. If God considers Sabbath time so important, why do I have such a difficult time taking the vacation time I am granted? Why are many Americans working themselves into illness and poor health? Why is paid vacation and holiday time a “benefit” offered to the lucky workers and not all working Americans?

In case you think I’m odd, read this article posted on Salon’s website. You might also wish to review this policy brief, entitled “No-vacation nation USA– a comparison of leave and holiday in OECD countries,” by Rebecca Ray and John Schmitt that is referenced in the article. Produced for the European Trade Union Institute for Research, Education and Health and Safety, the report provides a comparison of paid leave and holiday time for 21 wealthy countries (16 European countries, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States). After reading the entries for the other countries describing the various governmental policies for how paid leave and vacation time is guaranteed to workers, here is the statement for the United States: “United States law offers no statutory paid leave. The only exceptions are for government contractors and subcontractors covered under the Davis-Bacon Act (18).”

Here’s another telling excerpt from the report’s introduction (p. 2):

In the absence of government standards in the United States, almost one in four workers there has no paid leave and no paid public holidays at all. According to U.S. government survey data, the average worker in the U.S. private sector receives only about nine days of paid leave and about six paid public holidays per year, substantially less than the minimum legal standard set in the rest of world’s rich economies excluding Japan (which guarantees only 10 paid-leave days and requires no paid public holidays).

You can access the entire report here.

We are conditioned to think that vacation and holiday time may lead to lower productivity and sloth, even though credible research says otherwise.  If you do have paid vacation time and holidays as part of your work package, be thankful–and take it. Your body, your mind, your family, and your spirit will thank you.

Thankful for Walks

The last few months in our house have been excruciatingly busy, and because of that fact I let my fitness slip. I never happened to be near the YWCA and couldn’t seem to make the time for a special trip there. At home, something always seemed to intervene to keep me from my yoga routine and regular walks. It didn’t take long for a few pounds to creep back on (Thanks stress eating and lack of willpower!) and a general sense of malaise to settle over my days. What had originally been inconvenience and busyness gave way to stress and sluggishness. Ugh!

One day I finally realized just how far away from my healthy routine I had fallen. Sure, I was still making time for prayer, meditation, and study, but my physical self was suffering neglect. So I decided enough was enough. It was time to blend in a few more salads, a couple of extra glasses of water, and a long daily walk.

Walking is great exercise. It requires no special equipment other than decent shoes and a safe place to walk. It provides a completely different view of the world on foot than what one sees encased in a speeding box of plastic, glass, and metal. It can be a social activity or a respite that provides needed “self” time. It improves posture, breathing, and cardiovascular fitness. Even bone density gets a boost. Check out this article from the Mayo Clinic for more information about the many benefits of walking.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of taking two long walks. It was glorious! I used one of the walks as time to talk with my mother. Thanks, mom! It was good to hear your voice. I used the other one to spend time with my youngest daughter and the dogs. Thanks, family!

After my brush with the fitness slump and dumpy blahs, I have a renewed appreciation for the benefits of daily walking as an important part of my thanks-living lifestyle. In fact, I’m going to take the dogs for a walk around town right now.

How about you? Do you enjoy walking? What benefits do you gain from walking? I’d love to hear from you!

Photo by h. koppdelaney used under Creative Commons License. Thanks!

Quality Time in Target

Shopping is not one of my favorite activities. In fact, I normally loathe it. Today, however, I went shopping, and it wasn’t so bad because it involved spending quality time with my 18-year-old daughter while she shopped for college.

We started out with a stop by her favorite fast food restaurant (Taco Bell) for seven layer burritos and cheesy potatoes. As fast food goes one could do a lot worse. Then we hit the big red bulls eye (a.k.a. Target). She had money to spend thanks to generous relatives and friends who sent her graduation presents, so there was no pressure on the “Bank of Mom.” That definitely took the financial edge off of the trip.

Normally, if I have to go to a place like Target I am armed with a list and the dedication to be in and out as fast as possible. Today, we spent well over an hour meandering the aisles comparing towels, paring knives, and ice trays. We looked at lights, fans, pillows, and all manner of dorm-related goodies. Best of all? We talked. I would have walked under the halogens inhaling the dyes and scent of plastic all day long to have this kind of quality time with her.

I am keenly aware that every moment is now a precious one. My spouse and I took her earlier this week for her college orientation. This is real, and it is happening in a little less than two months. It seems like just yesterday that she was a toddler. It surely wasn’t so long ago that she sat on Cinderella’s throne at Disney World and glowered for the camera. Wasn’t it just last week she secured her driver’s license? Senior year of high school? Where did THAT go?

Now she’s talking about classes and foreign exchange programs and internships. I see a new confidence in her words, growing maturity in her actions, and excitement about the future. These are good things, and I am so happy for her.

Yep, I’ll take my quality time in Target, watching old episodes of Dr. Who, or walking the dogs with her. Time flies when you’re having fun–and it flies when you see your child growing up, too. I hope that I can be a good steward of the remaining time we have left this summer and that I can then gracefully release her to her future with  prayers, hugs, and care packages.

What are you doing to take advantage of precious moments with the ones you love? Don’t let time pass ya’ll by now, you hear!

Photos by Matt Callow and Sharron Blezard used under Creative Commons License. Thanks!

Give Thanks for Hands

Tonight we celebrated Maundy Thursday with a reminder to give thanks for hands that serve and hands that love. Jesus’ act of washing his disciples feet prior to their final Passover meal together was a focal point of the gospel reading (John 13:1-17, 31b-35). Modeling servant leadership for those who would carry on, Jesus also issued a command that they love one another. In effect, God made flesh illustrated what it means to serve and love, and he did this by using his hands in service to others.

Before coming to the table for Eucharist, those present had the opportunity to stop and dip their hands in the waters of the baptismal font and dry them on a towel held by a servant leader. (You have to understand that most Lutherans are rather reticent about exposing their feet for a ritual washing, but since “cleanliness is next to Godliness” we have no problem washing our hands!)

Not only did this simple act serve as a reminder that we were washed clean in baptism, it also illustrated the value of hands that serve others. So we washed, we ate and were strengthened, and we were sent to serve in the world. We are to love one another actively, using our hands for the good of our community and world.

Whose hands do you need to give thanks for? Perhaps your mother’s or father’s hands or maybe those of a grandparent. What makes their hands so remarkable? How do (or did) they use them in service to others? Close your eyes and see their hands before you.

Remember the words of Isaiah 52:7: How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, the good news of peace and salvation, the news that the God of Israel reigns! (NLT) How beautiful, too, are the hands that serve others in love!

Whether it is preparing food for a family gathering, holding a hurting child, mending clothes, tending a garden, preparing the altar for worship, or repairing a window in the church building, the hands that serve are beautiful indeed. Don’t forget to give thanks for hands!

Lent 40/40/40 Challenge

Honoring Relationships

I was saving him for last, but thinking about hands that serve reminds me to honor my spouse. He has amazing hands! They knead bread to keep our family fed, they are handy with household repairs or changing oil, they are creative as they tap, tap, tap on his computer keyboard, and they offer amazing back and neck rubs. Thank you, dear wonderful life partner, for using your hands to serve others, to show your caring and love, and to lift the bread and wine as the officiant at Christ’s holy meal. You are a treasure!

Giving Possessions

Have you ever read Sandra Cisnero’s short story “Eleven”? If not, I highly recommend it to you. Click here to read it online. I have a red sweater that has always sort of reminded me of the sweater in Cisnero’s story–even though it isn’t ratty like the one in the story. Well, today I’m finally releasing it from my closet to find a new home. Bye, bye red sweater!

Giving Thanks

Tonight I give thanks for hands. I give thanks for my mother’s hands that have held me and stroked my hair when I’m sad. I’m thankful for my father’s hands that worked so hard to provide for us. I’m thankful for my spouse’s hands as he kneads bread dough each week. I’m thankful for the hands of those in our faith community who do so much and serve so well. I am thankful to have two hands to put to good use in the service of others. Blessings abound!

Photo by Nojhan used under Creative Commons License. Thanks!