Glimpses of Healing and Hope

September 18, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman

Finding places of beauty, spaces of silence and serenity as a contemplative

I created the photo collage at the top of this blog post (above) back in early January 2017 for the first entry of the new year. Writing then about finding quiet spots of beauty and respite, gifts from the Divine that offer balance in chaos, I find now that the same collection of photos provides a proper pictorial introduction to the contemplative stream as Kern Road's current worship series dives into discussion of the six streams of spirituality about which Richard Foster writes in his book Streams of Living Water.

All six of the historic faith streams source back to the life of Jesus; in last week’s introduction to the series, we discovered that new understandings of these streams will help us appreciate Christians who are different from ourselves.  As we learn more about streams other than those with which we are familiar, we hope to grow more balanced and complete in our individual faith journeys. The contemplative stream (the prayer-filled life) focuses on nourishing one’s relationship with God and the inner life through prayer and contemplation.

I am not surprised that natural beauty plays a significant role in the collage; the beauty of creation offers not only respite from chaos, but a replenishing space as well for the interior work to which many contemplatives are drawn as they seek to nourish their relationship with the Divine.

The evocative places in these photos from my life (from left to right and top to bottom) recall moments with local grandkids on a carousel in St. Joe, MI; with Michigan grandkids at Clapton Pond in London; on the Saint Mary’s campus with high school friends; admiring the front porch sanctuary of long-time friends in Lansdale, PA; with a KRMC friend taking in the beauty of her mom’s barn in Everett, PA; viewing with golf foursome women the glorious waterfront in Douglas, MI; enjoying my own backyard in South Bend; inhaling warmth through the window with small group friends at Grandpa’s Woods in Goshen, and appreciating the glory of a sunset overlooking my high school’s memorial garden in Lansdale, PA.   

I discovered in the process of receiving spiritual direction in the middle 90s that I was very attracted to contemplative, listening modes of prayer, and through regular use of those prayer forms, I found myself experiencing perhaps for the first time a sense of God’s unconditional love, so that what had always been pure head knowledge for me gradually became transformed into heart language.

Soon after that realization, a spiritual director friend of mine offered me an image of the contemplative life that I have not forgotten.  Don’t get nervous about whether or not you will be transformed when you spend time with God, she said.  God is like the sun.  If you are outdoors in the daylight, the sun does what the sun does; in much the same way, personal transformation takes place when we spend time with God.  Make the time and space to spend time with the Divine and you WILL be changed, she added! The transformation does not depend on you, but rather on making time in your life to devote to silence, to being with God.”

Well over 10 years ago, I read an inspiring book about finding God in the silence.  W. Paul Jones’ Teaching the Dead Bird to Sing, which I devoured in my down time on a trip to Europe with Jim’s business/econ students, illustrated in a powerful way “both the terror and the exhilarating freedom that come with profound solitude.”

The silence that so threatened the author at first gradually became “a garment of healing” for Jones as he embarked on an adventure of self-discovery, recognizing in time that his capacity for thinking far outshone his capacity for feeling. The plunge into silence ultimately illuminated for him what he called the “elaborate, even skillful, intellectual defenses” he had established to keep feelings at bay. 

The experience of reading about self-discovery and finding God in the silence, even as I was immersed in a whirlwind trip through five countries in three weeks, impressed upon me a serious fascination with the impact of silence on one’s faith journey.

Author/retreat leader James Finley describes silent meditation as a way for contemplatives to experience God’s presence in their lives.  As you expand your meditation practice, in concert with your faith,” Finley says, “you will find that these divine moments come more often, until you are finally awakened to your own deepest self, one with Christ.”

The contemplative journey introduced me to authors like Flora Slossen Wuellner, whose writing taught me that healed wounds can become sources of new life and the channel of healing for others:  that fear when healed becomes compassion, that destructive anger becomes a passion for justice and righteousness, that perfectionism becomes joyous power to build and create.

I was fascinated by Wuellner’s declaration that “the warmth we feel through our whole selves, body and feelings, when we have dared to love, dared to give, dared to meet life with generous openness is the smile of God!” I remember the comfort it was to me to read that, as I had always assumed that warmth might be some sort of smug self-satisfaction!

Not all people of faith will find themselves drawn to the contemplative way. For what it’s worth, here’s a link to Carl McColman’s Is There a Contemplative Personality Type? McColman suggests that contemplation—wordless prayer in which we gaze on Jesus and the mysteries of his life with faith and love—is for everyone, regardless of your personality type. But how we enter contemplative prayer may vary based on our interests and preferences,” according to McColman. Does some part of you relate to the contemplative way of being or yearn to find connection to the Divine in the silence?  

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September 11, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman

 This giant spider web appeared by my prized dahlias one day last week and was gone the next...

These last few weeks of hurricane coverage and a Congressional recess have slowed political cable news to a mere dribble, making space in the temporarily quiet eye of the partisan storm to ponder this quote I saved some weeks ago from the John O’Donohue Facebook page: 

“All through your life, the most precious experiences seem to vanish. Transience turns everything to air. You look behind and see no sign even of a yesterday that was so intense. Yet in truth, nothing ever disappears, nothing is lost. Everything that happens to us in the world passes into us. It all becomes part of the inner temple of the soul and it can never be lost. This is the art of the soul: to harvest your deeper life from all the seasons of your experience. This is probably why the soul never surfaces fully. The intimacy and tenderness of its light would blind us. We continue in our days to wander between the shadowing and the brightening, while all the time a more subtle brightness sustains us. If we could but realize the sureness around us, we would be much more courageous in our lives. The frames of anxiety that keep us caged would dissolve. We would live the life we love and in that way, day by day, free our future from the weight of regret.” (from his book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace

The notion from the O'Donohue quote that “nothing ever disappears, nothing is lost” captured my imagination. I was reminded once again of precious experiences vanishing when I ventured to the yard Sunday afternoon for another look at the gorgeous spider web, pictured above, which I photographed Saturday by my much-loved dahlia bed.  Much to my dismay, the web was gone just a day later, with only an anchor thread now visible from a red dahlia to a wire or branch many feet overhead.

Where did the web go?  Was the spider finished with it?  I watch my dahlias carefully enough to know that the web was not in place a day before I noticed it, that it was spun seemingly overnight, and disappeared just as quickly.  I spotted the web on approach because the spider was poised at the web’s center, virtually suspended in thin air.  Said spider disappeared into the closest bloom as I advanced.

In order to bring that beautiful web out of the shadows, I took the photo from inside our garden, so that the web would show up against our fence, and had to work diligently to make the web visible with lightening and brightening filters. Acknowledging to my Facebook and Instagram friends and followers that #nofilter folks would not like this one, I am quite pleased with having rescued the web's beauty from no notice, especially since I found it gone just a day later!

Krista Tippett, host of National Public Radio’s On Being, said this about John O’Donohue in a late August 2017 airing of an interview taped before his death in 2008: he “often wrote about beauty. He believed that the human soul does not merely hunger for beauty, but that we feel most alive in the presence of what is beautiful. ‘It returns us, often in fleeting but sustaining moments,’ he said, ‘to our highest selves.’”

In response to Tippett’s question about his own personal pictures of beauty, O’Donohue answered: “When I think of the word ‘beauty,’ some of the faces of those that I love come into my mind. When I think of beauty, I also think of beautiful landscapes that I know. Then I think of acts of such lovely kindness that have been done to me by people that cared for me in bleak, unsheltered times or when I needed to be loved and minded. I also think of those unknown people who are the real heroes for me, who you never hear about, who hold out on lines, on frontiers of awful want and awful situations and manage, somehow, to go beyond the given impoverishments and offer gifts of possibility and imagination and seeing.”

You can read the rest of the Tippett/O’Donohue interview here.

In his Beauty: The Invisible Embrace O’Donohue says this: “The human soul is hungry for beautiful….When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming. Some of our most wonderful memories are beautiful places where we felt immediately at home. We feel most alive in the presence of the Beautiful for it meets the needs of our soul. For a while the strains of struggle and endurance are relieved and our frailty is illuminated by a different light in which we come to glimpse behind the shudder of appearances and sure form of things. In the experience of beauty we awaken and surrender in the same act. Beauty brings a sense of completion and sureness. Without any of the usual calculation, we can slip into the Beautiful with the same ease as we slip into the seamless embrace of water; something ancient within us already trusts that this embrace will hold us.”  

Next Sunday, during the first of six streams of spirituality worship services at Kern Road (based on Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water), we will consider the contemplative tradition: the prayer-filled life, which focuses on nourishing our relationship with God and the inner life through prayer and contemplation.  I would add that beauty, receiving it, reveling in it, recording it, reliving it as/when needed, nurtures the contemplative way, most certainly helping to harvest “your deeper life from all the seasons of your experience. How has beauty enhanced your relationship with the Divine?

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September 4, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman

Photo by Tom Bishop

Today is Labor Day and I am sorely tempted to observe the day by taking a break from the “work” of writing a blog post for publication on this particular Monday morning. 

Pastor Janice provided plenty of fodder, however, for today’s Labor Day post by inviting Eunice, Loren, Julie, and Gail to share during worship a bit about how they see their work as an opportunity for service.  Eunice spoke of offering care to nursing home residents and asked us to imagine how it might feel to be living in a facility with people we don’t know, fed and clothed by strangers.

Loren and Julie told of their work with CommunityWide Federal Credit Union, which became more than volunteer work for Loren when he developed sight issues some 45 years ago.  The organization assisted many who had no family or church support, Loren said, adding that the credit union’s mission was “to serve members’ best interests in a variety of ways.” Julie noted that a reward of the job for her has been an awareness of representing the face of God to the credit union’s clientele.

Gail, a recently retired long-time academic advisor and counselor at Ivy Tech Community College, said her work typically involved walking with young people who were first generation college students. “Those we serve end up being blessings,” she said, telling the story of a student who offered gratitude for long-ago assistance on the final day of Gail’s work as an academic advisor. “Serving and blessing are reciprocal,” she concluded.

I love Joan Chittister’s beautiful concept of a spirituality of work: “A spirituality of work is based on a heightened sense of sacramentality, of the idea that everything that is, is holy and that our hands consecrate it to the service of God. When we grow radishes in a small container in a city apartment, we participate in creation. When we sweep the street in front of a house, we bring new order to the universe. When we repair what has been broken or paint what is old or give away what we have earned that is above and beyond our own sustenance, we stoop down and scoop up the earth and breathe into it new life again. When we compost garbage and recycle cans, when we clean a room and put coasters under glasses, when we care for everything we touch and touch it reverently, we become the creators of a new universe. Then we sanctify our work and our work sanctifies us.”

Chittister continues her musings about work by acknowledging that “a spirituality of work immerses me in the search for human community. I begin to see that everything I do, everything, has some effect on someone somewhere. I begin to see my life tied up in theirs. I begin to see that the starving starve because someone is not working hard enough to feed them. And so I do. It becomes obvious, then, that the poor are poor because someone is not intent on the just distribution of goods of the earth. And so I am. I begin to realize that work is the lifelong process of personal sanctification that is satisfied only for the globe. I finally come to know that my work is God’s work, unfinished by God because God meant it to be finished by me.”

In 2012 The Washington Post ran an article by Bill Haley entitled Labor Day a time for reflection on the value and spiritual meaning of work.  Haley offers an example which helps us understand the dignity within many jobs which help others succeed through the “provision of food, shelter, clothing, medical care, education, a just society, effective government, religious freedom, the possibility of meaningful work, access to the arts, freedom and other things required for a society where individuals can flourish, where others can live into God’s design for them.”

Haley uses this illustration to make his point about the dignity involved in working so that others may flourish...“A lot of different sorts of jobs are required to get food on the table: obviously farmers, but also truckers, grocers, butchers, railroad and transport workers, immigrant laborers, workers in food processing plants, policy makers, journalists covering food issues, and many more. There are the people who package it, people who try to provide food for those who do not have enough food, people who work at the food banks. There are the cooks and chefs, and moms and dads who prepare and provide food for their kids. This is just one example of how God uses people to take care of the needs of others through their work, paid and unpaid, so that others can flourish. For any of these professions, a good and deep answer to the ubiquitous question ‘What do you do?’ would be ‘I help feed people.’” 

Matthew Fox in The Reinvention of Work writes: “Good living and good working go together. Life and livelihood ought not to be separated but to flow from the same source….Spirit means life, and both life and livelihood are about living in depth, living with meaning, purpose, joy, and a sense of contributing to the greater community. A spirituality of work is about bringing life and livelihood back together again. And Spirit with them.”

Paul and Ruth from our own congregation have made seven trips to Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) sites like present-day Houston to assist in cleanup and recovery work following a major storm. Their work typically involved food preparation for other volunteers. Houston opportunities for volunteer work will most certainly be coming our way soon. You can stay abreast of volunteer options in Houston by checking MDS’ Facebook page

Consider on your Labor Day break today how your work, your hobby, your volunteerism empowers others to flourish as they “live into God’s design for them.” Repackaging the words of Chittister into a blessing, “May you care for everything you touch, sanctifying your work so that it sanctifies you.”   

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August 28, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman

Black and white eclipse photos plus bespectacled family watching; cake stands from the past, 50 years of photos, singing to recall

This past week began with an auspicious solar display, described by one commentator as the “first coast-to-coast eclipse in a century,” and ended with a slightly early celebration of our 50th wedding anniversary, the latter (though perhaps no excuse) the reason why today’s blog is posting later than usual.

The rituals of observing these two rare occasions, particularly in the same week, seem somehow related. Eclipse “fervor points to an innate human tendency to respond with anticipation—and a mix of fear and fascination—to what is truly awe-inspiring. What underlies this response is our deep human need to practice reverence, to demonstrate honor and respect for something that extends beyond our powers and finiteness,” according to Stephanie Ludwig in a MindBodyGreen post on August 18.

Ludwig goes on to say that “the brilliant American writer Annie Dillard published a captivating essay titled “Total Eclipse” in her 1982 book Teaching a Stone to Talk. It is a profoundly spiritual, even mystical, description of her experience of a 1979 solar eclipse. Consider how you might express your experience of the eclipse creatively. You might journal or blog about it. Write a poem, paint it, draw it, dance it,” the author exudes.

Bari Weiss wrote last Tuesday in the New York Times Opinion Pages that “the neon-orange thumbnail in the sky was breathtaking. It was rivaled in its splendor by the sight of adults in midtown Manhattan who’d taken the time to create pinhole projectors out of old cereal boxes and paper plates.”

Our personal experience of the eclipse, unplanned though it was, turned into a community event at Saint Mary’s College, where we borrowed a grandchild’s official eclipse glasses so that we might safely view the sun as it was gradually eclipsed by the moon.  We did not experience totality in our town, but we look to 2024 when we will have the opportunity to view totality closer to home. (You can read about KRMCer Nancy’s eclipse experience at her blog site. Reading her report led to my photographing my own curtains for shadows shaped by the eclipse’s bite out of the sun, which you see pictured in the collage above.) 

Staying abreast of the steady cascade of eclipse information before the solar event, including this National Public Radio clip of music to enjoy during the eclipse and these ruminations posted in The Mennonite (called Mennos dancing with the stars as sung to Will you let me be), provided advance preparation as well for the solemn ritual of embracing 50 years of marriage with family and friends during the last five days. 

By both default and design, our anniversary party ritualized some of what happened at our wedding as we sang together Be thou my vision which our wedding guests sang with us back in 1967 and which our daughter and son-in-law's guests sang 15 years ago at their wedding.  As we brought together for the party folks who attended our wedding as well as others whom we have met since then, we acknowledged the importance of our rootedness in community.  

In a serendipitous happenstance, daughter Meg displayed some of the cakes she made for the 50-year observance on a pedestal cake stand given her and Jeff at their wedding 15 years ago, a footed cake stand we received 50 years ago, and two flat cake plates with matching ceramic servers that were gifts to my parents 72 years ago, underlining our reliance on the support and role modeling one generation offers the next.

An anniversary party guest gave me a clipping of observations I made about 40 years of marriage 10 years ago in the newsletter published by our church in Illinois. “We have bickered about a lot—our families of origin, budgeting, basement storage, bush trimming—but our underlying commitment to each other and to our faith has been foundational….While it may not be mandatory to the longevity of marriage, it hasn’t hurt that we have much in common regarding politics and religion!” (And that observation could not possibly have foreseen what would be coming down the pike on the political front in the next decade.)

“Both coming from families that knew how to laugh together, we have cultivated the fine art of ribbing one another. He laughs at my logistical shortcomings (ask him about my first drive alone after getting my license at 21 or about my skills with gardening tools); he gets teased in return for his naivete about popular culture,” the newsletter article observed at the 40-year juncture.

Ludwig offers this invitation at the close of her MindBodyGreen essay: “May embracing the eclipse invite us to rediscover reverence in ways that resonate with our own deepest experiences.” Somehow that advice seems relevant to the celebration of a long-term marriage as well.  Where do we find ourselves at 50 years or 40 years or 30 years?  At even 20 or 15 or 10 or 5? 

Chrissy Rutherford’s advice to Harper’s Bazaar readers prior to the eclipse also seems relevant to the celebration of a long marriage: “First, if it’s possible, take time to experience it. If you can, take the day off work or just take that time away from your office. We can be so caught up in the fray of ordinary life and then anticipate something like this but really not prioritize experiencing it, so we end up watching it on television or reading about it in a newspaper. First, actually set aside that time like it’s sacred time—like it is time and space away from the ordinary.”   

No matter the length of your marriage (or some other long-time endeavor), take a moment to experience where you are on that journey and where you have been; dare to look ahead to where the adventure might take you in the future.

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New eyes, new perspective: a kaleidoscope pattern (screen shot taken at this link)    

August 21, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman 

I remember my endless childhood fascination with my earliest experience those cardboard cylinders that spun colored pieces of glass or small brightly-colored trinkets, using mirrors to create forever shifting designs. I expect I was attracted as much to the symmetry of a momentary pattern as to the constantly changing bright colors.

Watching those vibrant pieces twist and turn ad infinitum, never stopping their spontaneous movement as long as I kept up the rotation, was a dizzying experience, and I discovered the possibility of recreating a single configuration to be nearly impossible. (Nor did I have the option then of stopping the action as I did in the photo above!)

I found this reference to a kaleidoscope, from a book called In the Womb of God by Celeste Snowber Schroeder, a powerful one as I sifted recently through the Spirituality & Practice website. “My friend has a kaleidoscope she sometimes uses in her counseling practice. She invites her client to look through the kaleidoscope to catch a new perspective. God’s Spirit within us is like this kaleidoscope; we need to be attentive to it so we can be transformed with new eyes.” 

Given the daily alterations in our current world, it is no surprise that I resonate with the generalized description of kaleidoscope which characterizes the word as representing “a series of changing phases or events.

It’s not easy to view today’s challenges in the world and our own country in particular as offering opportunity, but this Crossing Thresholds article reminds me that ever-changing landscapes provide the chance to stand at a new threshold “pondering whether we have the courage and resilience to step into unknown territory. Such crossing-over places signify transformation and that can be scary or soul-stirring.”

To prepare oneself for crossing thresholds in ‘soul-stirring’ fashion, the article suggests making a daily count of physical thresholds crossed, along with consciously stepping over thresholds to focus on where you are, even as you pause at the threshold to frame your intentions for the next brief space of time.  

As she spoke of last week’s horror in Charlottesville, Pastor Janice reminded us in her sermon yesterday that Charlottesville clergy were “called on to represent love, to protest white nationalism peacefully.”  Clergy folks, she said, “linked arms and lifted their voices in song to oppose white supremacists, and, at a Wednesday night vigil, (those attending) reclaimed the violated campus space, singing ‘We shall overcome’ and holding small white candles” to repudiate the torches of the previous weekend.

Thresholds offer entrances, fresh starts as we make our way in the world under changing circumstances.  Citing the verse as a sound byte to live by, Janice quoted part of 1 John 4:17: Love is made complete among us…in this world we are like Jesus.” In response to her question about where we have seen Divine love played out in our midst, KRMCers shared these scenarios: neighbor helping neighbor, listening well to each other, continuing to practice our anti-violence stance, participating in community house builds, walking beside folks in trouble.  

What functions in our lives as a kaleidoscope to create novel perspective? How might we focus with fresh eyes, cross new thresholds, be more like Jesus?  

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Two hundred people walked from downtown Kennett Square to the Kennett Square Meetinghouse in southeastern Pennsylvania Sunday in one of many (at least 682, according to Vox) vigils organized overnight to Stand with Charlottesville (photos by Sue Davison)

August 14, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman

My brain barely can take in the jumble of information flowing out of Charlottesville as I make the 11-hour drive from Pennsylvania to Indiana on Saturday.  The airwaves are full of new reports and the headlines change hour by hour, though I’m not keeping track of breaking news on Facebook and Twitter because I’m on the road.

When I arrive home, I read John Pavlovitz’s Yes, This Is Racism column and take to heart his comment that “It’s necessary to condemn it so that we do not become complicit...”  By Sunday evening his piece has been shared more than 25,000 times on Facebook.

About the horrors in Charlottesville, Pavlovitz says, “This is our national History being forged in real-time, and to use words lacking clarity now would be to risk allowing the ugliness off the hook or to create ambiguity that excuses it. And yes, there are all sorts of other ways that racism and privilege live and thrive; ways that are far less obvious or brazen than tiki-torch wielding marches. There are systemic illnesses and structural defects and national blind spots that we need to speak to and keep pushing back against, and we will. But in moments that are this clear, when the malignancy is so fully on display—we’d better have the guts to say it.”

Another Facebook friend offers a post entitled Excuses, Excuses in which an Evangelical Lutheran Church of America pastor states this: “I know that we don’t want to be complicit.  I know that we really, really want to say #notallwhite people.  I know that we want to be one of the good white people.  Today, that will be hard. Today, what we can do is admit how we’ve been part of the system, part of the silence.  Today, we have to admit that for some reason, 2,000 people think that it is ok to dehumanize others in this way. Where haven’t you spoken up?  Where in your body are you afraid to speak up? Can you imagine living with this kind of hate that gets communicated to you in subtle and not so subtle ways every day of your life? Can you imagine knowing that your child might die because of the color of their skin?”  

Sunday morning I repost another Facebook friend’s message:  “We MUST NOT TURN AWAY. In our churches, in our schools, in our boardrooms, in our classrooms, we must face every vehicle of supremacy, in every form...the way some benefit, the way others don’t, if we are to ever be “We the people,” if we are ever to be faithful to the sacred image in every human being. If we are ever to be free.”  You can read her message in its entirety here

HuffPost contributor Susan Thistlethwait, professor of theology and president emerita at Chicago Theological Seminary, says, “We must call white supremacy by its right name and destroy it.”  She adds in this article that “the time for thinking oneself innocent just because you didn’t give a Nazi salute in Charlottesville is over.”

Where are our glimpses of healing and hope during this week that hopped, skipped, and jumped from chatter about the threat of nuclear war between North Korea and the United States (see The Mennonite’s response to that threat here) to violence perpetrated by Americans against other Americans?  What are our stories of beginning to make things right? How will we in our Kern Road congregation respond?

Since this weekend’s violence in Charlottesville, I have noticed the hashtag #silenceisviolence showing up here and there.  May we not fall into the silence trap. Here’s a story from my Quaker friend Sue’s Facebook feed that gives me hope about standing against the kind of violence Charlottesville saw this weekend. And here’s a late-breaking response from Brian McLaren. 

Perhaps some of us will choose to be part of South Bend’s Charlottesville's Solidarity Vigil tonight (Monday) at 7 p.m. at the Jon R. Hunt Plaza in front of the Morris Performing Arts Center. Indivisible Indiana District 2 will host the event. The Southern Poverty Law Center urges that we Do something. In the face of hatred, apathy will be interpreted as acceptance. If we don’t act, hate persists. Reach out to your community, speak up against hatred, pressure your leaders to take a stand.

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A selection of Tom's photos reclaimed from missionary slides taken in the 1940s-50s in Ethiopia (top row) and Puerto Rico

August 7, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman

Editor’s note:  Many thanks to KRMCer Tom who prepared precisely written notes to share his story about this project of reclamation and preservation.  You can find his full telling here.  I have condensed the complete version to become this week’s Glimpses of Healing and Hope blog post.  Viewed through the eyes of one visiting 93- and 96-year-old parents this week, I know how important it is to reclaim and preserve old memories. 

Nearly a dozen years ago Tom began scanning his missionary parents’ slides depicting their experiences in Nazareth, Ethiopia, between 1948 and 1950 and Puerto Rico for six years between 1952 and 1961.

By the time the family moved to Elkhart after their second return from Puerto Rico, Tom’s dad had accumulated approximately 500 slides, random selections of which he would project from time to time for the family before his children began college, got married, and had their own children.

When Tom realized the nieces and nephews were growing up with no visual impressions of their parents’ and grandparents’ missionary experiences, he bought a scanner, which he expected to sell on Ebay eventually, and made DVDs of the old slides for each child.  Influenced then, he speculates now, by his job as a Notre Dame employee in the Hesburgh Library’s department responsible for online information, he put about 100 slides on Flickr.

“Something totally unexpected happened” as a result of lodging the slides on Flickr, Tom says. “I started getting comments saying how great the photos were, how glad people were to see them. One email, from an archivist at the Luis Muñoz Marín Foundation in San Juan, caught my attention: ‘You have very nice images that would greatly contribute to our collection. The quality of your material exceeds what is commonly available.’”

Tom remembers that he soon began checking in with other Goshen area missionaries who had spent time in Puerto Rico.  Deciding not to sell the scanner after all, he contacted the other missionaries, many of whom agreed to let him scan their slides. As he observed the growing interest in the color mid-20th century photos to which he had access, Tom realized he had “stumbled onto something significant.”  

He recalls that “once I had called all the people I knew who had been missionaries in Puerto Rico, I had to find another way to get slides to scan. I discovered that many slide collections contained group photos, some of which had names written on the cardboard slide mounts. I was able to find phone numbers on the internet for some of the people in those group photos. I did lots of cold calling and am grateful that so many people mailed their slides to someone they didn’t know.

As a librarian, Tom says he “thought of the project in terms of the basic functions of a library:

·     identify the information that should be in the library (selection)

·     obtain materials with that information (acquisition)

·     organize the information and provide access to it (cataloging)

·     ensure availability of the materials over time (preservation)

I found myself doing all of that in the photo project.”

Tom explains why he chose the mid-1960s as the cutoff point as he selected photos for scanning and preserving. “Before the mid-1960s, one could see glimpses of a pre-modern world in the photos—farmers plowing with oxen, women doing laundry in rivers, thatched huts. Very few people in those places had cameras then, especially outside the big cities, so photos taken in the interior at that time are relatively rare. After the mid-1960s one starts to see superhighways and McDonalds, and many more people had cameras. This of course varies by country—Puerto Rico modernized much sooner than the Congo, for example,” he notes.

You will get a better idea of the content of the photos in the collage above by visiting this link where Tom shared these pictures and a few more to give blog readers an idea of the kinds of memories this project has reclaimed and preserved. (You can see viewer responses by tapping each photo and scrolling down.)  

Tom’s public Flickr account, where he uploads fewer than 10% of the slides he scans, attracts viewers from all over the world, in some cases Tom says, viewers who “have been able to provide much more information about the photos than I could. One viewer provided names and histories of members of Emperor Haile Selassie’s court seen in a photo of the Emperor at a public event. Another viewer provided the serial number, place, and date of manufacture of a steam-powered train shown in a photo, its owners and years of sale, and where and when it was scrapped.”  

One appreciative viewer said:  “I just stumbled upon your Flickr collection of old photos from Puerto Rico; I had to catch my breath.  I have clicked on just a few, but I can’t begin to tell you how deeply moved I am by them. It is as if the Puerto Rico of my childhood has come to life. It’s impossible to begin to thank you.” The site now typically logs between 2,000 and 5,000 views daily. Recently total views reached 13,000,000.  

Tom has received requests to use the photos in textbooks, magazine articles, books, TV shows, and exhibits, he reports. “In one instance, photos from the collection were used as part of a case on land use argued in the Puerto Rico Supreme Court. In another, someone told me they worked with Puerto Ricans with Alzheimers, using the photos from the collection to bring back memories of their childhood. Both were uses of the photos I would never have anticipated,” he said.

“As I approach 12 years of scanning, I’m grateful that a series of seemingly random life experiences and mostly uninformed choices on my part have given me a project that I enjoy, that benefits others, that has let me connect with people around the world,” Tom says about the project. 

Worshiping in their retirement community congregation yesterday with my parents, both in wheelchairs for the first time in my experience, I couldn’t help but think back to the growing up years they provided for me and my brothers so long ago.  Hearing music like Ivory Palaces and Count Your Many Blessings, (though the congregation of my childhood did not clap along to the latter), I recalled the vigor and vibrancy of their young parenting era, chronicled so well in photos and slides my dad began taking as far back as his and mom’s courtship.

I have scanned many of those old prints and preserved them in videos which bring happy moments of recollection or new learning as we celebrate a steady stream of family birthdays and anniversaries every year, as newcomers join the family and look back with us so that we might all move forward together in productive ways.

How have you attempted to reclaim and preserve parts of the past that make today and tomorrow more accessible for yourself and others?  Much gratitude to Tom for today’s story and the quiet reminder that chronicling life for ourselves and generations to come is a fruitful endeavor!

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Have you experienced sacred space or thin places in nature?

July 31, 2017
By Jane Bishop Halteman

Themes from Kern Road's current intergenerational formation class entitled Worshiping God through Creation have taken me back to my first brush with Celtic spirituality in late 2000 after delivering daughter Megan to Belfast for a nine-month stint with Mennonite Mission Network.

Reading all that I could get my hands on about Celtic spirituality back then after a stimulating 10 days in Northern Ireland, I devoured books including Michael Mitton’s The Soul of Celtic Spirituality, with some familiar chapter headings like The Preeminence of the Bible, The Celtic Commitment of Community, and The Mission of Evangelism along side the unfamiliar Love of God’s Creation. I was astounded to learn from J. Philip Newell’s Listening for the Heartbeat of God that the author  could identify Celtic spirituality roots in the New Testament in the mysticism of St. John the Evangelist.  

Later I would become aware of Margaret Silf’s Sacred Spaces which delves into the spiritual insights to be learned from such sacred spaces as hilltops, wells, and groves/springs. I found it all utterly fascinating and unlike anything I had learned in my growing up years.  Always a lover of nature, I had feared as a youngster the Pelagian heresy of loving creation too much; it was comforting to learn so many years later about the Celtic inclination to love the Creator through appreciation of the Divine's creation.   

The jacket of Sacred Spaces notes that “the Celts believed that the visible and invisible worlds, the material and the spiritual, were one.  For them, certain places were sacred—places where the divide between visible and invisible was very thin, where the presence of the spiritual was almost palpable.  They revered such ‘thin places’ as ‘sacred space.’”

A Spirituality & Practice book review notes that “a thin place could be a conversation, a dream, a room, a tree, a dawn, a shore, a dance, a person, a scientific lab, a Sabbath, a Eucharist,” according to Samir Selmanovic, a self-described Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian and author of It’s Really All about God.

“Once,” Selmanovic reports, “while I was teaching a class at a Christian theological seminary in Michigan, a young woman raised her hand to describe the experience that led her to faith. Years ago, in her room, while working on her computer, she turned to reach for a book, and it happened. She smelled God. That’s what she said. You could almost hear the rest of us in the classroom thinking, ‘Oh, please. It is embarrassing characters like this that tarnish the reputation of Christianity as a respectable religion. Let’s talk about something sane and real.’ But she was sane and real, lucid like the bright icy Michigan day outside of the walls of the Andrews University classroom. At her thin place, she caught a scent of God, and her life took a turn.”

In Selmanovic’s words, “Thin places are stopping places where we, for at least a moment, step into what lies beyond the doorway of the world limited to our five senses. These experiences confirm our hopes and bind us to our beliefs. Two worlds become one.”

Our hilltop experiences, which Silf suggests function as our summits of vision, “expose us to a burst of creative energy capable of fueling the next stage of our onward journey,” but these experiences also “demand of us that we move on, that we walk back down to the valleys of our daily lives, there to live in the power and live out the vision of what we have seen and known at the summit.” 

Wells can be pools of possibility or places to be boarded up, according to Silf, who also says that “these wells of our lives may be the very places from which we draw living water.” She goes on to state that wells “enable us to draw life-giving water from the depths of the earth.  Our experience goes ‘down’ as well as ‘up.’ Down to the depths of pain and darkness as well as up to the hilltop summits of energy and vision.”

Silf speaks about groves/springs, another of her named sacred spaces, as circles of hospitality: “The gift of our sacred groves is to bind us together into human communities, large and small, and, just as towns and villages evolve around a source of water, or other resources essential to life, so our personal groves evolve around a ‘spring.’”

She explains the spring like this: “Spring water is given to us gratuitously.  It bubbles up from the depths of the earth without our doing and supplies energy and life without our asking.  It trickles, uninvited, from cracks in the hard rock of our experience.  It takes us by surprise, appearing out of nowhere to refresh and encourage us.”

I am certain the connection I feel to Celtic spirituality and practitioners' ability to see God in nature has led to my mindfulness practice of using photography to become more aware of God in God's creation. Check this Glimpses of Healing and Hope post from last summer for more on contemplative photography. The vision of Celtic spirituality to embrace nature as powerful imagery for the faith journey resonates with me, too, as I have experienced not only the bubbling spring water of which Silf speaks, but also the wells of living water and the summits that fuel the next stage of the journey.

Where have you discovered sacred space or thin places in creation?  Even from your armchair, you might imagine yourself along a rocky Irish coastline with boisterous waves crashing nearby.  Take a moment to let the cares of the day float out to sea as you express gratitude for today’s gifts and open yourself to listening for the voice of the Divine in the beauty of nature that surrounds you.

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