Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Problem Solving

Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results.

By this definition, I'm so very crazy.

How many years have I chosen One Little Word to guide my year? When has it ever worked, really? Okay, the year I chose Gratitude worked out pretty well, mainly because I was already successfully grateful for the many blessings--large and small--in my life and in the habit of cataloging them regularly. That year was rigged for success.

Honestly, I can't even remember my word for 2013. It might have been Intentional. Hold on a minute while I check the blog archives.

Doh, dee, doh....

Yes! It was Intentional. Sort of ironic now, don't you think?

I'd completely forgotten about the One Little Word project until a relative mentioned last week that she's chosen a word for 2014: Time. Then a stamping friend commented that her word was also Time.

Weird coincidence, that. At least they chose the word for different reasons. If two such wildly separate parts of my life synchronized so perfectly, my head might explode.

As I contemplated the Einsteinian insanity of choosing yet another word to forget, into my mind popped The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. Each month for a year she explored a different avenue to happiness and recounted the experience in a single chapter.

A month.

A word a month.

Do you think I could remember one little word for a month? Is my attention span capable of holding a thought that long? Clearly a year exceeds my mental endurance, but a month? That might be do-able. It might also spice up the content of this blog, which has languished (to my thinking, at least) for a while now.

Of course, the new challenge will be remembering to choose a new word every month. This, too, might exceed my endurance. But at least I'm doing something different. The choices might be endlessly random and fun, meaningful or silly, serious or sublime.

Perhaps there's hope for my sanity yet.

What do you think? If you like the idea, what words would you suggest? What do you want me to write about?

Monday, December 30, 2013

Gratitude Journal #219

Today, I am grateful for a joyous Christmas! Here's how it started, courtesy of George's photography skills:

Today, I am grateful for God, from whom all my blessings flow, and His Son, the Prince of Peace and Light and Love and Salvation.

Today, I am grateful for our family, immediate and extended, and the love we share.

Today, I am grateful for our friends, near and far, who enrich our lives so beautifully.

Today, I am grateful for our church and the freedom we have to worship and believe.

Today, I am grateful for plentiful food, well prepared.

Today, I am grateful for our home, comfortable and warm.

Today, I am grateful for our country and those who serve it.

Today, I am grateful for my readers, who make this blogging thing worthwhile.

What are you grateful for today, this last Monday of 2013?

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Love Came Down

This is my fourth and final Advent post. We've prepared our hearts to welcome Christ with hope, peace, joy, and now with love.

What is love? Such a big question! Poets and philosophers and theologians have tried to answer it, but their attempts seem somehow inadequate, don't they?

The Apostle Paul makes a valiant effort to define love in 1 Corinthians 13 when he writes, "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends."

Hmmm. Somehow, even Paul can't nail this thing down satisfactorily. I suspect love is just too big, too much for words to define. I can't say what love is, but I know it when I see it.

I know love when my husband rubs my shoulders that are so very tight with the stresses of the day and when I rub his shaved noggin as he goes to sleep at night.

I know love when people pray for me and when I pray for them.

I know love when my mom listens while I talk myself off a metaphorical ledge and when I listen while she talks herself off one, too.

I know love when someone trusts me with their pain and when I trust someone with mine.

I know love when a friend sends me an email with a link she knows I'll enjoy and when I send a link to a friend.

I know love with every hug and handshake and smile.

I know love a million times a day, a give-and-take love that feeds me and others with kindness.

But sometimes love comes in ways that I don't deserve, can't repay, or can't help.

I know love when Jack's teacher tells me he needs more one-on-one time with her and asks if she can keep him after school for at least an hour each day. She brings skills, knowledge, and instincts to educating Jack that I could never provide for him.

I know love when the hard work and wonderful gifts of the musically talented in our church bless the worship service with heavenly voices and instruments. Trust me. No one wants to hear me sing.

I know love when professionals who are good at what they do bless me with their talents...from the plumber to the banker to the auto mechanic to the physician to the x-ray technician to the barista at Starbucks.

I know love when soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines serve my country and protect my freedom, and when any person or organization anywhere does anything to further freedoms for all.

I know love when police, firefighters, and emergency responders do their jobs...any time, any place.

I know love at Christmas when we celebrate how Love came down to live and walk among us, live with us, die for us.

Jesus came into a world where people had forgotten the most important lesson of God. He came into a world where priests walked past broken and beaten people lying on the side of the road without touching them because they had to stay ritually "clean." He came into a world where the poor sat starving outside mansions full of over-fed guests. He came into a world where kings committed injustice to preserve their power at all costs. He came into a world that had forgotten spiritual things are more important than material things.

He came to teach us how to love...to love God and to love each other as we love ourselves. And He came to love us, undeserving and ungrateful as we often are, with a perfect, gracious, merciful love, bigger than anything we can even imagine.

Thanks be to God for this unspeakable gift.

Merry Christmas!

Food for thought...and feel free to share in the comments! How do you know love? How do you show love? How do you experience Christ's love today?

Monday, December 23, 2013

Graititude Journal #218

Today, I am grateful for meeting one of my blog readers--who happens to be Jonah's nana--as well as other extended family members as I delivered cards to Jonah today. He is doing well, looking great, making gingerbread houses, and enjoying Christmas with his family. I'm also grateful Nick went with me for the visit.

Today, I am grateful for attending the Cincinnati Ballet's Nutcracker with Jack's class last Thursday. We had a wonderful time!

Today, I am grateful for lunch with my honey on Friday.

Today, I am grateful for each and every card I've received this holiday season. I know people are busy and it's hard to make the time for sending cards, but for those who are able to make time, thank you.

Today, I am grateful for almost making my good friend Karen spit diet coke through her nose.

Today, I am grateful for the wonderful choir and bell choir at First United Methodist church, for all the hard work they put in to make worship a glorious celebration to God.

Today, I am grateful for small kindnesses and simple things.

Today, I am grateful for Christmas and all that it means for our salvation.

What are you grateful for today?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Joy to the World!

This is my third Advent post for 2013. The third week of Advent celebrates the idea of joy and how it comes to us not from the world but from God, and often in the midst of great difficulty.

"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

Since I became a Stephen Minister, I have tried to make sure we had a box of tissues on the table during our meetings. Most of the time, the box is already there, but occasionally I have to go in search of one...just in case.

You see, I'm a crier. Always have been. I rarely get through a church service without reaching for a tissue during some prayer request or hymn or sermon, and I knew that during Stephen Ministry meetings, I would need those tissues.

Stephen Ministers help people through extremely difficult situations, and during our meetings, we discuss the care we're providing through peer supervision. We ask questions about how to improve our care, ask about resources that are available to help our care receivers with specific problems, and share how we're coping with the caring situation. We also have a time of continuing education, which includes all sorts of tear-inducing activities, such as role-playing difficult conversations, watching training videos from hospice, or studying subjects like spiritual gifts and forgiveness.

Of course we need tissues. Every. Single. Meeting.

What surprised me most (though it shouldn't have) was the amount of laughter in our meetings. Several people who've walked past our meetings at church have wondered aloud what we laugh about given how serious our ministry is. After all, when you're caring for someone who's dying or going through a nasty divorce or coping with a loved one who's an addict or caring for a parent with dementia, what could you possibly have to laugh about?

Turns out, quite a lot of joy surrounds our ministry to those who are suffering. And if you think about it, joy ought to be a part of it.

Our laughter flows from two different sources. First of all (and by far the most plentiful) is the self-deprecating laughter. We are flawed human beings, every single one of us, and Stephen Ministers have plenty of opportunities to make mistakes, doubt ourselves, and wonder if we're doing any good for our care receivers. We confess those screw-ups that happen sometimes no matter how careful we are, and we receive kind, sympathetic, absolving laughter. At least several of us have made the same mistake, and the universe didn't come to an end.

During our role-play sessions, we say things one should never say to people in pain, we go completely blank and have no idea how to respond, we break character. We drop our guard and expose our weaknesses, and honestly, there's nothing more cathartic or more educational than screwing up in a safe environment surrounded by people who love you and know...know in their bones...that because of your flaws you are chosen by God, His child, to be useful to others.

Feeling safe in the company of others, even in difficult circumstances, leads to support, forgiveness, learning, and abundant joy.

The second source of our laughter comes from seeing God at work in our lives and the lives of our care receivers. When you put your arm around people who are suffering and allow God's love to flow through you to them, you will see results. You see Christ's healing work take place in bodies, minds, and souls. You witness beauty and goodness and light in the ugliest, darkest places.

But you don't just witness it. You are a part of it, a part of God's love and light on earth.

I dare you not to bubble over with joy at that privilege. I dare you not to laugh when, even in the midst of suffering, God shows up and sheds love all over everything like a golden retriever shedding fur. You can't escape it.

You don't want to.

Happiness can be bought. A peppermint mocha makes me happy, a new stamp set, a warm pair of gloves, my golden retriever (fur and all). But joy? True, unfiltered, unfettered joy? That comes when we let love flow through us to others, and this joy, like hope and peace, is found in the most unlikely of places.

The third Sunday in Advent, we light the joy candle and acknowledge that the source of our joy is the Light of the World. Jesus brought this joy into the world, and we are His beneficiaries.

Joy to the world! Thanks be to God for this unspeakable gift!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Gratitude Journal #217

Today, I am grateful I am not a teenager.

Today, I am grateful for store-bought Christmas cards, for having all my Christmas shopping finished, for white lights, for elves on shelves, and for space heaters.

Today I am grateful for the snow on the ground...not too much, but enough to make addressing Christmas cards festive.

Today, I am grateful that cards continue to pour in for Jonah and his family and for every person who has taken him and his family into their hearts. I am grateful that the news from Jonah's scans was good (no matastasis) and that he's eating well.

Today, I am grateful for dogs that are dorks.

"It jumped on my face! Not my fault!"

Today, I am grateful for worship services that lift me up and fill me up.

Today, I am grateful for joy and wish it for everyone.

What are you grateful for today?

Friday, December 13, 2013

This Is Why

This post also appears on my other blog, Simplicity, but I wanted to share it here for my readers who aren't into stamping.

This is why we send cards.

This smile, beaming. This joy. This awareness of love...of loving and being loved.

This child we have taken into our hearts to love and encourage and hurt for.

Jonah enjoys opening his cards and packages. There are so many that he's opening a few a day. Molly, Jonah's mom, texted her mother the following:

Jonah is "reading" some of his cards as he opens them [please realize Jonah can NOT read! but here is what he is saying:] "You are smart, Jonah" "You are my hero" "And heaven and nature sing and heaven and nature sing" " J, O, N, H I, Ha-ha Hee Hee."

Heaven and nature sing in Jonah's voice.

For those of you not following Jonah's Facebook page, there was great news this week. Jonah's scans last Friday were free of metastatic disease. Praise God! Praise the healing hands of the doctors! Praise his parents who are taking such great care of him! Praise the brave boy who is, indeed, our hero in this journey.

May this state of affairs continue.

Last week, I had lunch with my friend Mary. Mary had colon cancer, and she's now well three years later.  When I told her about Jonah, she thought about those things people did for her that had the most positive impact on her state of mind. At one point, she and her mom counted the number of states where people were praying for her. The number gave Mary great comfort.

That got me thinking. What if Jonah had a way to keep track of who was sending him cards? Wouldn't that be cool? I went to a local education supply store and bought the map you see in the picture above. The reverse is a map of the whole world. Using a sharpie, I marked the states and countries from which cards had come. Molly can add the new ones as I deliver them each week.

When I made the delivery on Tuesday, Jonah had received cards from 22 states and four foreign countries.

We can now say 23 states.

Let's grow those numbers!

You can check out the list of cards received HERE. If you send something, check that posting to confirm that I received your mail.

The USPS has let me down before. Just sayin'.

If you want to send a card (handmade or store-bought...doesn't matter!), please use this address:

c/o Susan Raihala
7430 Waterway Dr.
Waynesville, OH 45068

Once again, many thanks to all who have sent and all who are sending cards to this family. Know that when I check my mail each day, the kids and I are even more excited about "Jonah mail" than our own...and several of you have sent me some amazingly beautiful Christmas cards! But the Jonah mail is extra special.

I also want to thank all of you who are praying for them. As my friend Mary experienced, prayers mean something powerful and wonderful is happening.

Let's keep them going up for Jonah, Molly, Ben, and the rest of the family. They need them. They need comfort and courage and peace and joy and hope and love.

Thank you.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Words, Words, Words from Anne Lamott and Rabindranath Tagore

"I have seen many people survive unsurvivable losses, and seen them experience happiness again. How is this possible?

"Love flowed to them from their closest people, and from their community, surrounded them, sat with them, held them, fed them, swept their floors. Time passed. In most cases, their pain evolved slowly into help for others. The great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote, 'I slept and dreamt that life was joy. / I awoke and saw that life was service. / I acted, and behold, service was joy.'"

--Anne Lamott, from Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Christmas Peace

The second week in Advent celebrates the idea of peace. Today's post is adapted from my presentation promoting Stephen Ministry in our church. Although I removed all references to SM here to keep the focus on Advent, I will be happy to answer any questions about it. It's an amazing ministry of care for people who are in pain.  

What do the words “Christmas peace” mean to you? The first thing that pops to my mind is the song “Silent Night.”

“All is calm, all is bright.”

“Sleep in heavenly peace.”

Christmas peace sounds wonderfully…peaceful.

Yet if you think of the story of Christ's birth as it’s told in the Gospels, it’s hard to find the heavenly peace of “Silent Night.” There’s actually a lot of cause for fear and anxiety. We have an unwed teenage mother who could, under the law, be stoned. We have her fiancĂ© who is—to say the least—embarrassed. We’ve also got huge crowds traveling around an empire supervised by armed Roman troops, a human baby born in the unsanitary setting of a stable, a bunch of shepherds who fall on their faces in fear, three crazy men who travel great distances through deserts and over mountains to follow a star, and an insecure king who wants to find that little baby and kill him.

And if all that weren’t enough, it’s tax time.

Still, on the second Sunday in Advent, we light another candle and celebrate Christmas peace.

When Isaiah prophesied the birth of Jesus, he said, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
When that child grew up, He told His followers, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

For Joseph and Mary, heavenly peace came to them in the midst of chaos and danger because they trusted God. As Christians, our peace is found in Jesus, but the world keeps intruding on that peace, and our hearts are troubled and we are afraid.

We experience a lot of stress during the holidays. For many of us, though, that stress is artificial. We worry about buying the right gifts, finding time to bake and wrap and decorate, and fighting the crowds at Best Buy to get whatever i-gadget we absolutely must have under the tree because little Billy's Christmas will be ruined without it!

For others, however, the stress of the season is so very real. Perhaps someone is celebrating the season for the first time without a loved one...or the second or third or tenth time...and the pain of grief is fresh and sharp. Perhaps someone is suffering an illness or watching a loved one suffer. Perhaps a family is falling apart. Perhaps the economic recovery hasn't come to someone who is still under-employed or unemployed.
Real pain, real suffering...made worse by everyone else's joy.

How can we help those who are suffering during the holidays and throughout the year? Well, that stressed-out, dangerous first Christmas gives us a huge clue.

Notice how no one that first Christmas was left alone. An angel comes to Mary to prepare her. She has a belly buddy in her aunt Elizabeth, who is pregnant with the boy John who will grow up to prepare the way for the Messiah. Joseph stands by Mary's side through pregnancy and birth, and he flees to Egypt with her and the baby to escape Herod. The Heavenly Host appears to a number of shepherds who go together to see the baby and go out to share the good news together. Those crazy wise men have each other's backs.

No one is alone.
You see…God doesn’t want us to be alone. He blesses us with community. He calls on us to love one another as Jesus loves us, to celebrate good times together, and to support one another through hard times. Paul tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. We share blessings, and we share burdens.

Every Christian is called to be with and support others in their pain. Sometimes, though, people worry about saying the wrong thing or being overwhelmed by other people's suffering. The worst, most hurtful thing you can do is ignore someone in pain.

Consider the parable of the Good Samaritan. A priest and a Levite walked past a beaten, bleeding, naked man, but a Samaritan--his enemy--stopped and cared for him. How awful that victim must have felt watching his own people walk past and ignore him, and how relieved he must have been when his enemy stopped and helped.

If you're worried about following Paul's charge to mourn with those who mourn, it might help to remind yourself that it isn't your job to fix their pain or make their problems go away. Your job is to be with people in love and kindness, to listen, and to encourage.

You can help.  
When you're the one who's hurting, please be open and willing to accept help from others. By doing so, you bless them far more than they bless you. When you refuse help or shut out kindness, you deny others that blessing of service.
That's part of the miracle of Christmas peace. Blessings abound and rebound and pop up unexpectedly, no matter the circumstances. When we choose to be a part of those blessings, when we trust Jesus, we find  Christmas peace.
Christ's peace be with you today, this season, and always.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Gratitude Journal #216

Today, I am grateful for Christmas trees, for a funny employee at the Christmas tree farm who introduced me and George as "my dear friends Linda and Todd," and Santas who are really good at what they do.

Today, I am grateful for Advent and for Peace...the second week's theme. Our Stephen Ministry group handed out handmade ornaments to the congregation this weekend. The theme for the ornaments this year is Christmas Peace. What a privilege to bring the peace from Christ--peace that passes all understanding--to those who are hurting all year long!

Today, I am grateful for the 42 individuals who have already sent mail to Jonah and his family. To check if your mail has been received yet, please click HERE. I add names as the mail comes in, so if you sent something and don't yet see your name, please check back.

Today, I am grateful for the following comment from Jonah's grandmother:

Susan, it really has been humbling to see the list of all the people who have taken time to send Jonah a card. When I first read of the response, I was feeling something like guilt because I have no way to repay or thank these people personally. No words. I fell overwhelmed at even thinking of making each person a thank you card. You replied to me once with three words that have been my mainstay: Let God repay. Thank you for that freeing thought. In the midst of all of this - God has prompted my heart to realize afresh what He has done for me -- a grander gift of salvation to be sure, but just as undeserved and leaving me equally unable to adequately thank Him or do anything in an effort to repay Him. I know salvation is free and cannot ever be earned -- I am just having a fresh appreciation for being the recipient of something so valued and feeling helpless to express my gratitude. Jonah's Nana~

Today, I am grateful for those who have said how blessed they are to be able to lift Jonah and his family up with cards and prayers. We are blessed as we bless, and it makes hearts overflow.

Today, I am grateful for this reminder that my life doesn't need to look like it belongs on Pinterest...it needs to feel good.

 May your Christmas season be one that feels good on the inside!

What are you grateful for today?

Thursday, December 5, 2013


This is my first Advent post for the year. For those of you who follow other faiths or no faith at all, I hope these posts will give you an idea of what Advent is and what Christmas means to Christians.

What do you hope for? Tuesday, at the junior high choir concert, I heard, once again, the song "My Grown-Up Christmas List." Take a listen to Amy Grant singing it. I'll be waiting until you come back.

Grown-Up Christmas List

What I love about the song, what moves me most, is that line about everyone having a friend. Most of us can't stop wars, or speed up time to heal hearts, or make right always win. But every last one of us can make that grown-up wish of friendship come true for someone.

Be a friend.

Friendship takes so many forms it's hard to define. It's a fluid concept. When we try to create rules about friendship, or pin it down, or expect it to be only a certain way, or set limits on it, we damage the friendship or kill it completely.

Each friendship is unique, and each friendship goes through good times and bad. Sometimes one friend needs more, then the other. Over time, friendship generally balances out, but some very kind people were my friends when I had very little to give back to them. They never asked me to pay what I owed them on the scale of friendship, and so I've tried to pay their gift forward. It's become quite a joy to be friends to others who need more friendship than I do.

Any two people can be friends. I've had friends who were atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, Jewish, Pentecostal, Southern Baptist, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Missouri-Synod Lutheran, and most other Protestant persuasions. I've never had a Hindu or Muslim friend and consider that something I need to correct. I've had friends who were much older, much younger, similar to me, completely different from me. I've even had a few friends who didn't like to read.

Can you even imagine?

Have you noticed that we must put energy into friendship to keep it flowing. Over our many moves in the military, incredibly close friends drifted away because I was no longer in their daily sphere. It was too much work to stay connected to me. We lost touch. The final death knell of the friendship...being cut from their Christmas card list.

That hurt a bit, at first, to realize I still wanted to work at the friendship and they did not, but I eventually learned that it's normal and natural and even good to let go and move on. I treasure the memory of friends like Deena and Becky, though I doubt I will ever see them or hear from them again. They made a wonderful difference in my life, and now, I am certain, they are making wonderful differences in other people's lives.

Occasionally, those lost friends do reconnect. What a joy that is!

Christians sing, "What a friend we have in Jesus." There's a different sort of friendship for you. Talk about one-sided. He does all the work. Freely. He accepts us as we are, flaws and all, and loves us without ceasing and beyond our understanding. All we have to do is show up in prayer and faith and trust, let Him wash our feet and hearts, wrap us in a hug, lift us up from our sickness and sorrow. He's not a transient friend who fades from our lives and forgets about us or doesn't have time for us. He's always there. Eternally.

How it breaks His heart when we lose touch with Him, when we cut Him from our Christmas list!

During Advent, we anticipate and prepare for His birth, the birth of our Savior and Friend. It's our time to reconnect with our Friend, to remember what He does for us and with us.

God with us. Emmanuel.

It's my hope...my grown-up Christmas wish...that we pay His friendship forward, and share that selfless, compassionate, kind, loving friendship with the world. Let's not put rules on that friendship; let's not expect others to be just like us or become just like us.

Let's be friends for a world in need.

What's your grown-up Christmas wish?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Gratitude Journal #215

Today, I am grateful for my mom's visit and that she brought my nephew with her. We had a wonderful Thanksgiving! I hope you did, too.

Today, I am grateful for overhearing the following conversation...

Jack: I don't want to be on the naughty list.
Nick: There's no such thing as the naughty list. It's just a scheme invented by parents to get kids to behave.
Jack: There is TOO such a thing as the naughty list!

Today, I am grateful for the outpouring of cards for Jonah and his family. Anyone who wants to confirm that their card arrived at my house, please check HERE. I hope Jonah will be doing well enough later this week for me to make the first drop-off! If you want to keep up with his progress, check out his Facebook Page.

Today, I am grateful for rest.

What are you grateful for today?