All posts by Johnna

I am a Christian educator and writer.I have worked in churches, denominational offices, and seminaries. I have a PhD in Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, with a focus on Practical Theology and educating in faith. In 2010, my book, "How the Other Half Lives: the challenges facing clergy spouses and partners," was published by Pilgrim Press. I believe that words can build doorways that lead to encounters with God through the Spirit.

Gather Your Things

Gathering my things is a way to bring together the various items that have been toted here and there, to take stock of their location and condition, and to remain aware of their usefulness. It’s a way to make sure I have what I need before I get halfway through a writing assignment, a recipe or a home improvement project. Gathering my things makes getting my work done easier and more pleasant, and it prevents me from buying new items unnecessarily. Perhaps I’m more grateful when such gathering reveals the material bounty already present in my life.

But I want to take the reminder to gather your things beyond the literal sense. I want to practice gathering my thoughts and feelings, my shortcomings and my talents. I want to recognize what is mine to offer or withhold, to honor the boundary between my own stuff and what belongs to my neighbor. I don’t want to burden others with what is mine to bear, and I don’t want to assume burdens and tasks that belong to others. In churchy words, I want to take up my own cross, offer my own gifts, and live the God-given life that is uniquely mine. I want to encourage others as they do the same. And I want to be a good companion while we all walk through this time and place together. And for the many things that require more than one person, I want share what I have and accept the gifts of another. If I can do that, I’ll live a blessed life.

Lord, help me gather the things you have made mine. Gather my hours and days, Lord, for your purposes. When my time ends, gather me in your arms and bring me home. Amen.

[This is one in the series, Every School Day. Click above for more information.]

Lunchtime!

Give us this day our daily bread…feed my sheep…whenever you eat this bread, remember me…

At my high school, I needed a paper ticket to get lunch in the school cafeteria. Every day, I handed over my lunch money, got a ticket, chose an entree, and handed the ticket to the cashier on the way to a table. But for many students, this daily activity was a source of embarrassment: the paper tickets were color coded – free lunch, reduced lunch, and full price lunch each had different color tickets. What was (most likely) an easy way to keep track of how many free, reduced, and full price meals were consumed had (most likely unintended) social consequences; the financial status of every student who ate school lunch was on display for anyone who cared to take a look. And apparently, many did look: it was humiliating enough that some students chose to go hungry rather than stand in the lunch line with the “wrong” color ticket.

[Fortunately, this doesn’t happen very often these days. School children key in a number and the computer keeps track of the finances. It’s still not a perfect system, but it’s a whole lot better than it used to be. Perhaps fewer go hungry as a result. ]

That break in the middle of the day, the time to nourish the body and give the mind a break, shouldn’t come with a side of humiliation. If all things come from God, food included, shouldn’t it be respectfully and kindly given? If I am unable to give without punishing the one who receives, it reveals more about the sad state of my spiritual affairs than it does about the financial straits of someone else.

Lord, help me remember that your prayer isn’t just for my daily bread, but for oursMay I be a respectful giver and a grateful receiver. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

 

Time for Recess!

Everyone knows that children need a break from school work and the classroom environment. Halfway through the morning, it arrives: recess. Children get out of their chairs and head outside to run around and play. Recess brings exercise that builds a healthy body, and unstructured play that restores the mind. Just a few minutes makes all the difference. Learners return to their desks with renewed ability to learn and grow. Recess is the frosting on the cake that is a good school day, and the relief from drudgery and stress that a bad day brings.

The benefits of taking a break in the work day are well known. So why do I act like skipping recess is a better, more virtuous choice than skipping rope outside for a few minutes?

Use Your Inside Voices

It’s not something anyone said when I was a child, but something very often heard when I became the mother of young children. It’s a reminder that high volume isn’t necessary in enclosed spaces. But there’s an assumption in these words that isn’t stated and often isn’t true: that the one who speaks with a quiet voice will be heard and listened to. Hearing doesn’t guarantee listening – a truth many toddlers are painfully acquainted with.

Still, small voices are often drowned out by louder and larger ones. Being overlooked and ignored can come with devastating consequences – it’s often what the holy, lovely, and precious experience. The wondrous is ignored and discarded in favor of the merely loud and obvious.

Today, Lord, help me listen to the quiet voices that sing of your love. May I recognize a quiet truth when it speaks. Amen.

[This is one in the series, Every School Day. For more, click “Every School Day” above]

 

Check Your Answers

How do I reply to someone who asks me an insulting question, an upsetting question, a question that at best is beside the point of whatever conversation it arose from? On good days, I answer with respectful disagreement, supportive correction, and a bridge between question and context. On days when I’m irritated or tired, I set the facts straight without thought or regard beyond factual accuracy. If I’m grieved or frightened, I return personal insult for personal insult with a roll of the eyes and click of the tongue. For the person on the receiving end, it won’t matter what words I use: it’s the ugliness of their delivery that remains. Insult for insult is still insulting.

But….

On the days I remember that God embraces whomever I meet in conversation, I’m aware that questions are often beside the point. The crux of the matter is the encounter with a living, breathing beloved child of God. Language provides a bridge between soul and soul. If such a one constructs a shaky bridge from insults or ignorant words, perhaps those are the only materials available at the time. Now the choice is mine: do I answer by tearing down the poorly made span, or do I use my answering words to shore it up?

Take One And Pass The Rest On

It could be a vocabulary quiz or an math test; it might be directions for an experiment or a list of things needed for a holiday party. Every so often, perhaps a picture or article just for the sheer pleasure of seeing or reading something beautifully created. Whatever it was,  it wasn’t meant to be hoarded by the one or two learners who were handed a whole pile of them. Whatever the teacher handed out was meant for everyone – the fun ones as much as the worksheets that required mastering a new skill or a significant time investment. No one needed two or more: one was more than sufficient.

I wonder if there’s a profound life lesson in this ordinary practice. What if I took only one of what was necessary for me to learn and live well? What if the rest I handed on to my neighbor, offering the opportunity to learn and grow, to work and play? Can it be that almost everything I’m handed is meant to be handed down the line?

Lord, give me the strength, wisdom, and generosity to hand on what was never meant for me to keep. Amen.

 

 

Open Your Books

It started with a chocolate cream pie one August morning in 2002 – that’s when Joan entered the book of my life and my family entered hers. It continued when she introduced my four year old son to her tree swing, and admired my one year old’s toy car. She was expecting us that August because we were staying in the beach house that belonged to her son and daughter-in-law, just a few hundred feet from her door. I wasn’t expecting a kind gesture or a warm welcome for my family; had Joan never bothered with us, I’d never  have known what I was missing. My life, my family’s life story, would have been the poorer for her absence.

Joan came into our family story, but she didn’t come alone. She brought her husband, Ben. Ben and Lena, the next generation down, added their family stories to the book of our lives – adventures of family who lived in the beach house long before it sheltered us, and the secret toy stash hidden below the bookshelf. Joan’s daughter and husband, Jaime and Larry, added their stories as well – and a quick guide to the best asian food in the area.

Over the years, Joan and her family brought more blessings than I can list. Her husband and son made beautiful benches for a library garden project I was working on; my father got a tour of the family oyster business – something he treasured long after he had returned home to New Hampshire. Joan was kind enough to accept soup and bread every so often because she knew it was an expression of love from me and mine to her and hers.

Yesterday, I stood with my husband beside the place where Joan is resting after a life well lived. Surrounded by her family and the friends who were her larger family, we said our farewells and thanks to her. How much she was loved and how well she loved is written in the book of life that holds all of our sacred stories. It’s an honor to be included in Joan’s story – a gift that came only because we opened our books to each other.

Child of God, daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, friend. Your book is truly a book of love…

[Peter Gabriel, The Book of LoveShall We Dance (sound track), Casablanca Records, October 12, 2004

Call and Response

Let me know you are here when I call your name.

Self revelation isn’t for the faint of heart, but choosing to disappear from sight and hearing even among friends becomes a habit that gets more difficult to break as the days, months, and years pass. In most school classes, there’s that one boy or girl that can barely muster up the courage and volume to be counted at the opening day’s attendance. This isn’t just shyness or a quiet nature, this is a debilitating fear of being heard – and once heard, coming up short in some soul shaking way. Perhaps escaping notice is preferable to rejection, but such reasoning leads nowhere good.

Disappearing from hearing is different from being out of sight. A voice can penetrate the darkest of places, and doesn’t fail even when the one who hears is looking in the wrong direction. Speaking reveals location, sure, but it also reveals emotions, opinions, and ideas. Much can be learned by listening, and much communicated by what is said, shouted, or sung.

God calls many people by name all through the Bible; angels and dreams do the same. Most everyone who hears the call answers, imperfectly and sometimes reluctantly. Blessings, suffering, danger, miracles, and death are in store for those called, but most answer God in some form of here I am, anyway.

None of us have the power to call people to life and love the way God does, but any one of us can be the voice God chooses to speak with. God’s call may come to us directly, or through anyone who speaks to us. Whatever may come of it, it is a holy blessing to answer with our own I am here. If all of us can dare to answer when God calls, perhaps a bit of self-revelation on a smaller scale may be dared as well…

[This is one of an ongoing series. For more information, click Every School Day above.]

 

I love you! See you after school!

My parents (and grandparents, when my family lived with them between moves) said these words to me through and beyond my growing up years. No matter what happened during the day – good, bad, or indifferent – I had been sent out from and would return to a family that loved me. It’s the everyday miracle of offering and accepting love each morning, and the assurance that a warm welcome awaited at each day’s end. Did my parents realized how important it was for me to hear this daily benediction? Did I?

It’s such a powerful gift and a difficult revelation to say I love you, even to someone who already knows it and has said the same to us. The words don’t come easy. It’s even more difficult to say I love you while looking in the eyes of a beloved other. To be seen and loved, to see and love another – that’s nothing short of holy. To know that returning home at the end of the day brings the same blessing of seeing/being seen and loving/being loved – that’s a reminder that holiness embraces and infuses each day from beginning to end.

I love you! See you after school! Maybe life itself is God’s version of these words, spoken in air, light, flesh and blood. I love you! My love goes with you into this life and I will see you when your life’s adventures bring you back home to me. 

 

Put Your Coat On…

Every chilly school day, it’s the same. Students leave their High street homes, turn a corner, and walk down my street. As soon as they are out of their parents’ sight, they whip off the hats, coats, jackets, and mittens their parents just made them put on. Girls swap sneakers and boots for strappy sandals with three inch heels, boys take off long-sleeved shirts to reveal the T shirts underneath. Tottering on icy streets, shivering and covered in goosebumps, they make their way the last quarter mile to Middle and High school. Just after 2pm, they will reverse the process, returning to home and parents re-dressed.

I can’t say why dressing for the weather is just too embarrassing for my young neighbors, or why making a fashion statement is worth frozen toes and wind-chapped arms. Image is everything, even at the cost of chattering teeth.

Most of these boys and girls will grow past this phase, eventually wearing weather appropriate clothing of their own free will. A decade or two down the road, they will be the parents insisting that their own children put on hats and coats. Age accounts for a good part of this change, but I think there’s another essential element to this transformation. A parent knows a truth that their children may not: deep, abiding love makes all of us capable of seeing the unique beauty of every person, and incapable of valuing something so inconsequential as off-season fashion.

Seeing with the eyes of love gives us just the barest glimpse of how God sees us. It’s a rare gift, but some even grow to see everyone with such eyes.

Dear God, give me eyes to see the beauty of everything, and the heart to love without limit. Amen.