Faithfulness

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It is required that a steward be found faithful…

I haven’t given much though to the fruit of the Spirit called “faithfulness” before now. Renita Weems is her book, Listening for God, prompted me to take a look. She says that fidelity or faithfulness is keeping up our commitments, doing the “things I have to do until belief returns”…”to be here not there…”showing that we are serious about touching and being touched…by grace.” I have begun to ponder how to keep faithful during times of global pandemic. To whom? and to what? and how?

It is a Sunday morning…sheltering in place…again! This is a day and time when I would usually be in the car on my way to the sanctuary, to join with the gathered ones to sing, confess, pray, savor sacred text in word, sermon and song, and to greet those I know and don’t know who have come together in Spirit to worship. Instead today I am doing cursory ablutions, curling up on one end of the couch across from my husband, the dog in between, with lighted candles, clicking on the link to our congregation’s pre-recorded worship. I have done this faithfully for all the weeks we have been sheltering in place. I read this week that 48% of churched adults in the country are not tuning into a place of worship, familiar or different at all. But I am very clear that this practice of routine is one of the things that is sustaining my getting through this time of unknowing and anxiety. I surely miss all the elements of corporate worship, but being faithful to this ritual is grounding me, keeping a place marker in my life in its Spirit journey.

I have staked out other practices of fidelity which help me know what time it is and the passing of the hours and days. I try, sometimes against all temptation to do otherwise, to care for my body–the walking, the eating healthily, the taking of meds, the breathing and stretching. I have had to learn, rather late in life to be a good steward of the body I was given, by acting on the routine practices that demonstrate my care for it. I am faithful to my best beloved ones, trying to discover and use the medium that serves each one best–Facebook, Instagram, phone or text. I miss being able to hug and pat my grands, all of them, either from actual or social distancing, but in this liminal period, I am faithful to touching them from afar. I am strongly committed to my practice of reaching out to those who are struggling with health, grief, sadness loneliness or despair, with the same attention to mode and frequency that I choose for my family. I don’t need to know how my communiques are received, because just doing this faithful act reminds and grounds me of who I am and that to which I am called.

It is the faithful routine of all kinds that is keeping me from collapsing into despair these days, especially in my journey of Spirit. I keep a new journal of gratitude right next to me all day long, to capture the unexpected graces that occur when I least expect them. My husband and I go on neighborhood “scavenger hunts” looking for beauty on our morning walks. My own reading–many from voices unfamiliar to me-:African-American, Native American, poets from all around the world–reassures me and points me to the Light. I take mindfulness moments each evening. And there is in me an ongoing stream of prayer prompted by the Spirit, inhabiting my body and mind, recalling sacred text that I can savor, that keeps my faith in the Holy One alive and in motion.

Faithfulness is a gift of the Spirit, but I am learning that it is given to me new every morning, even on the days when I have to slog through early gloom of weather or mood, and that my fidelity is made possible by the Faithfulness of One who is unfailingly faithful and keeps the energy going in me! I am grateful!

Suspended in Time

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Among the hard things that have fallen out of this pandemical sheltering in place is the loss of ability to plan. So many squares in my day-runner are now neither full nor empty, just scratched with cancellations, and there are no future appointments down the weeks to replace them. A trip to see grands? an elective surgery? a dentist appointment? even lunch with the Tall Group? I feel stuck. Since I am used to planning for events, appointments and possibilities, I feel stuck many days!

I get some perspective when I reflect on how many people over the course of history and even in the present day are proscribed in their planning. Who could plan if they are incarcerated or under house arrest or in hiding? Who could plan when they set out, not knowing where they were going or who was taking them? Who can plan is their city is being bombed and occupied by hostile forces days after day? I have enjoyed a life that has afforded me so much latitude, so many choices. And I still have many of them! It’s just that the circumference of my choices has narrowed, and some days I chafe under the restrictions.

Therefore! today I am choosing to explore the edges of my time and space limitations:

  • how can I honor and use my body in the hours in which I have energy? walk the labyrinth, stretch my legs, play the piano, bathe my muscles? all of these I can do without harming myself or endangering others, and can let Spirit energy flow through me.
  • to what can I give my intelligence, to keep my mind flexible? so many resources are available through books, podcasts, blogs and newspapers, on-line or paper right now: daily news summary, a book on Native American philosophy and practice of living with the Earth, journeys with folks on pilgrimage–personal, memorial, spiritual, African-American spirituality.
  • to whom can I reach out in the many modes of communication at hand? friends who are isolated by health or circumstance, those in suffering or in mourning, those with whom I have allowed too much time to pass in our togetherness. Even with sheltering in place, I now have Face Time, Facebook, Instagram, e-mail, snail mail, text messages, phone; how amazing to be granted access to so many far and wide! And how freeing it is to choose one to express love, appreciation and grace.
  • in what ways can I deepen my experience of the Holy One and the worlds that have been created? how can my journey of Spirit broaden without being able to “plan my work, and work my plan”? I have precious time for silence, and therefore, for prayer of many kinds–gratitude, reflection, hope, compassion, lament and need. I can join praying congregations on-line, adapting to singing along with the soloists, saying words of liturgy with the congregation in Spirit without hearing other voices, listening to a Word that come though a screen. And I can use my communication platforms to work for justice and kindness through my giving, my encouragement and my prayers.

What is more elusive is a daily plan. Almost daily my “plan” gets derailed by “tyranny of the urgent:” road closures, doings in the neighborhood, news from near and far. So without a plan, confined to quarters, I rest in these sacred and wise words from the Psalmist:

  • my times are in your hands
  • THIS is the day that God has made,
  • I will bless the Holy at all times, praise shall continually be in my in mouth

In this time which feels hidden and fallow to me, there is still Spirit at work–in me, in the world, even when we feel stuck! Gratefully sighing!

A Prayer for Energy

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You will receive Power…

Come, Holy Spirit!

Today we as a community acknowledge Your Presence in, among and through us! Our life and breath is dependent on You! So much of our own thought and action relies on You! Yet, my prayer today is in particular for that power, that energy, that is promised in Your coming.

I feel out of power, out of energy. This calendar year has brought a sequence of personal physical recovery, a worldwide pandemic, the dissolution of familiar landmarks and institution, the continual barrage of misdeeds and violence, the overlay of great gray loss of trust in process, in fairness, in justice. So today I ask that once again I will be infused with an awareness of Your power in me for the days in which I am living:

  • I need energy to continue to shelter in place, to be vigilant about protecting others and myself from the virulent virus that has swept through the globe.
  • I need energy to keep imagining ways for me to contribute to the healing of the world from the limitations of my age and stage, from confinement, from my location of privilege, with my shortcomings and inadequacies.
  • I need energy to listen deeply and continually to the pain–individual and collective–of the suffering of people I love, those given to my care and the many sectors of the community who have no helper, no advocate, no voice.
  • I need energy to reach out to those who are lonely, isolated, without a community, to bring the gifts of hope, grace and love to them that reflects Your love and presence to them.
  • I need energy to trust that with You there will be a way that “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”

Come, Holy Spirit, breathe on me, breathe in me, give me Your power and energy for the living of these days!

Light through Clouds

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I have set my bow in the clouds…

I received an anonymous gift in the mail during this upset in our world: a prism to place in my window that catches the Light as it comes, and turns the sunrise into a shower of rainbow dots all over the room, bringing joy and healing to my spirit every day the sun breaks through! From my bed or from my prayer corner for awhile the light shines–beautiful, comforting, healing! In this closing days of Eastertide, I am aware that through the entire holy season beginning with Lent, I have been focused on the clouds–real and metaphorical–that have dominated airways–through the media and through personal stories of grief and loss. Even the Easter we celebrated, virtually, seems remote and covered over.

Yet as I received and have learned how to use my rainbow prism, it has become a symbol for me of another truth, which is that behind and through the Great Grayness–of pandemic, of flood, of corruption, of loss–the Light is shining; none of those griefs can douse it! I have been given Light by witnessing the open hearts for so many to care for the most fragile and endangered members of our community, including former students of mine who routinely put themselves on the line for the hungry, the frightened and the those in despair. I take great joy when I see how creatively and vigilantly another former student in ministry cares for the children and women in her church, from a distance. I am blessed when I am able to participate in music that comes in the worship services on-line each Sunday, with leaders both taking the lead and adding the harmony to what we are invited to sing. I am experiencing new dimensions of my beloved family–their resilience, their creativity, their breadth of curiosity and interest! I was surrounded by a rainbow of joy when out of the blue, I heard from my granddaughter, replete with video, asking me to help on a school project.

Primarily though I see points of Light in my sharing this faith journey with so many others, sheltered in place, chafing at the limitations, anxious about the road ahead, yet still faithful in the struggle to hear, to see, the feel the Light of the Holy on themselves and in the world God loves. Out of the shared struggle comes so many question, so many dead ends, yet so much hope!

The book of Lamentations in the Hebrew Bible is all about that grievous struggle–loss, corruption, limitation–yet right in the middle, I find these words: The steadfast love of the Holy One never ceases/God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning!” Like rainbow prism dots all around my room when the sun breaks through the clouds! I am grateful!

Cloudy..,With a Chance of Meatballs

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satisfies you with good…

One of the effects of all the orders to shelter in place these past weeks has been the turning our attention to FOOD, in many ways–how to get it, who has access, whose recipes are being shared, and what satisfies.

On the creative/coping side, I have been delighted to receive recipes that people are sharing, pictures of fabulous concoctions that friends are experimenting with, reminiscences of old family standbys with a whimsical twist for this shelter in place. I myself, having abandoned the culinary arts in our house to the more talented for years, even I have even baked muffins for the last two weeks–for nourishment and for delight! The endeavors of those baking bread, creating interesting drinks and one-step cakes and casseroles make me happy when I see them on Facebook! I only wish I could taste them!

At the same time, I am daily aware of the epidemic of food scarcity and accessibility in the world due to the Covid-19 epidemic. Food banks and soup kitchens are running out of supplies more quickly than they can be refilled. Grocery stores cannot keep their shelves stocked. The lines of cars driving through stations where food is being shared go on for miles. And I am brought up short: what for me is entertainment, fun and nourishment is a gift of my privilege, and it calls me to find ways to act in ways that make sure that all God’s humans can find adequate food. I scour what I read and see for opportunities, and there are plenty to which I can give, deliver and for whom I can pray.. This week these doors opened: Bread for the World, a church pantry, a disaster fund, and an acquaintance that was suffering with no food herself! And today the city councilman provided a list of local food sources open for business. All of them gave me a chance to share from my bounty what I have been given.

Throughout Lent and Eastertide I have been seeing clouds as a metaphor for these time through which we are living–not in clear, sunny skies, but with the pandemic afoot in the world, in a sky with shadows, unpredictable, looming, sometimes even threatening. And the clouds remain! Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is a children’s book by Judi and Ron Barrett, the title of which seems to me, to describe part of the way I am living right now, we all are living, right now. All of the clouds of this upsetting time of our lives are evident: confinement, disappointment, loss, fractures of class and race in our culture, inept government, poverty, vitriol, meanness, uneasiness and anxiety, Yet I hear again the words of the Psalmist:

She sets her table before me in the presence of my inner enemies. She anoints my head with the oil of Her blessing. My cup of joy overflows! (Swallow’s Nest. Marchienne Rienstra)

Therefore, I continue down this path we are walking, “in the shadow of death” without fear, knowing that neven as the clouds continue, there a chance of a table…with meatballs, or cheese and crackers, or brownie torte…as we go. I pray for the Grace to live into that as I recycle that Grace to those I am given to care for!

Mighty Clouds of Joy

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I hit a wall with this pandemic. I observed the end of Lent, the services of Holy Week and Easter Day on-line with my church community, but I was stuck in my own internal musings. I could give a tacit affirmation to the holy events we were acknowledging, grateful for familiar words and rubrics, music, but could not get in touch with my own heart–there was numbness, blankness, opaqueness. Rather than try to parse it, exegete it, power through it, I decided to let it be and to see what and how it would unfold if I continued my daily practices–those that could feed my own longings and those that could reach out to others, whose apparent immediate needs were so much greater than my own.

For the first two weeks of Eastertide, my soul felt static or gray, yet I felt compelled to start and keep a gratitude list in a brand new journal, open-ended, without lines, with a whimsical cover by Brian Andreas that says, “Grateful today for the Sun & the earth & the memories of what it is to love everything life has brought me.” Some days my lists are mundane, sometimes repetitive. Some days they are short lists, other days quite ample. The practice, which I have done often in the past, was not a magic door-opener to my heart, with all my feelings becoming hopeful and joyful. In listening a friend, I heard her say that she allowed that for her right now, Thursday is just a bad day, no matter what; I resonated with that kind of sentiment.

Yet I noticed toward the end of this last week, that my sights were being lifted, that there were some breaks in the clouds, that the words I was reading were beginning to penetrate, have some meaning. Not every word, but some. I am finding that I have days when I rise with hope and ambition, prayerful and energetic, and then others when I am stuck in amber the whole day. What I do know to do is to observe the practices that daily open a way for Grace to get in–and some days I recognize it when it comes.

This is a time for discovery for me. I have not set out on a quest to learn more about myself and my spirit, but I am noticing things about myself that I would not have recognized. I am tranquil and unflappable much of the time, but in these days when I hear singing of all kinds, I feel my eyes fill with tears of longing, of memory, or wistfulness, of need. I discovered a group of gospel singers a while ago called the Might Clouds of Joy. In researching I found that most of them are gone now, but their legacy remains in recording and video, and they sing and praise and lament in a way that gives expression to my own heart: “”I’ve Been in the Storm Too Long,” “Heavy Load” and “”Pray for Me.” And as I join my heart to their song, I feel some more of the blankness and numbness dissipate even as I weep. There is no denial in their song that trauma in our world exists and has sorrowful effects, but there is also joy and hope and trust in the Holy One as well.

The days of sheltering in place, and rules and regulations continue. There is no date of expiration, which is in itself wearying. But there are also Mighty Clouds of Joy, there are gifts of Grace every day, there are communities of faithful folk who are doing everything they can to protect and care for those who are at risk, and the Holy One who hold us does not slumber or sleep or let us go. I am resting and practicing in that place on Good Days, Bad Days…even Thursdays!

Clouds (Crowds) of Sorrow

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“give your sorrow all of its due…Elly Hillesum

In taught a class at church in preparation for Lent, I suggested, after Walter Brueggemann, that one path of practice was to take up the ancient practice of lament, of grieving for that which was lost, broken or dead, as a prophetic statement on the way to hope. Little did I know how deeply that is being called for in me in this Lent. Bruggemann says that the practice of grief is counter to denial, and it “summons the city to be fully, deeply and knowingly engaged in its actual life experience.” (Reality, Grief, Hope, p, 57)

Even with that conviction I have not been prepared for the onslaught of sorrows that keep pouring forth in this season: the deaths of people from my past lives–a former student, a seminary companion, a member of my congregation. And there has been what seem like daily losses of the familiar avenues of routine–access to groceries, freedom to move about the city, gathering for worship, the natural friendly embraces on which I rely. Overlying those changes, which range from inconvenience to outright loss, is the loss of trust in what is being said in the media and from “expert” sources. What is true? on whom can I rely? for what?

The presence of the Covid-19 virus among us has exacerbated all those losses with its threat of contagion, contamination and death, I find myself in a group called “elderly,” at risk, and therefore, the loss of the cultural prize of “youth” and its privilege of place. And the threat of disease is real and unknown, hence a loss of a sense of protection and safety for myself, for those I love, for those for whom I pray.

As much as I am enculturated to glide over grief, to “just get over it,” I find myself this fourth week of Lent called to enter into this cloud, or as Rumi puts it, this “crowd of sorrows.” Rumi asks that I welcome them, even as they “violently sweep the house/empty of its furniture.” I am finding again that the Psalmist also lifts a voice, inviting lament to deep and concrete grieving. Both of these teachers demonstrate that this grieving is clearing the path to the Hope that is the final Word.

It is not lost to me that Lenten practice in some communities has often focused on penitence, on personal confession and recognition of brokenness, sorrow for sin, “things done and undone.” And in this crisis of our life and times, I am woefully aware of the ways in which I am more critical, more fearful, more selfish than what I am called to be by living in Grace. That makes me sad. I would have hoped that by my age and stage, I would be more compassionate, more trusting, more full of Grace.

So I grieve! And with the grieving, I stand in solidarity with our world, and its many particular people who suffer in so many profound ways, Rabbi Earl Grollman writes, “The only cure for grief is to grieve…there is no way to predict what you will feel.” I pray my grief–with the Psalms, with poetry, with music, with walking the labyrinth. And I am sure that grief is not the last Word.

I am free to grieve, because I grieve with Hope in mind. Actually that is the endgame of this entire cloudy Lent–there is Resurrection at the end! There are no final defeats! God keeps my tears in a bottle, as I cleanse the way for the Light to arise! I am giving my grief its due, but only its due!

Clouds of Witness

we are surrounded by a Great Cloud of Witnesses

This Lenten season is becoming more and more cloudy, harder to see clearly, to know what to do, how to be isolated, yet connected. If I were to focus on the snags, the barriers, the alarms, I would be in a cloud so dense, I could not see anything. But daily I see a cloud of witnesses to Life, Hope and Love–all around.

So much has been said about this pandemic crisis–helpful hints, strategies for survival, and government directives–many, many words. All I can do is offer a blessing for the Clouds I see who bring Light to the “new normal,” whatever that becomes:

Bless the mail carrier, who is temporary, new to the block, who despite the rain and the threat of contact with virus, keeps delivering the mail, no matter how late

Bless the manicurist who after his appointments today is closing down to protect his staff, his family and his customers

Bless the therapist and doctor who continue to make themselves available to those who really need them RIGHT NOW, even when it mean inconvenient hours and platforms.

Bless the store clerks and stockers who are working at warp speed to try to fill the demands of panicky shoppers

Bless those experts at every level of government who have to wade through miles of red tape and exert patience toward tone-deaf politicians to bring cure and hope to the nation

Bless the compliant who at great inconvenience and discomfort to their lives and fortunes, self–isolate, alone or with their families, for the good of the community and for their own

Bless the service people who keep our communication systems humming and running–by phone, on-line, through social media

Bless those who already feel isolated by illness or auto-immune compromise who continue to reach out to others with hope, with cheer, with prayers

Bless the ones who are vigilant in their protection and help for those in their circumference of care who are less able to navigate this pandemic by offering food delivery, communication expertise and virtual presence

Bless the faithful pastors and religious leaders who, while caring for themselves and loved ones, are completely committed to keeping connected to the “little ones” in their congregations, who are struggling, but are also willing, to learn new ways of worship and pastoral care under the shadow of this pandemic

As I reflect on each new person who comes into my purview, I claim this prayer from St. Augustine again; it was written for the night time, but it is one that is a pratyer for all of us in the world today and in the days of unknowing that lie ahead of us:

Watch, O Lord, with those who wake, or watch, or weep tonight, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend your sick ones, O Lord Christ. Rest your weary ones. Bless your dying ones. Soothe your suffering ones. Shield your joyous ones, and all for Your love’s sake. Amen

Clouds of Fear

Praying at open windows

We are in a season where the panic and fear seem to cast a cloud over every conversation. Where I live the coronavirus is Topic One in every exchange. Looming large over the nation is the fall election of president and congress-folk who will shape the welfare of individual lives and communities in our nation for the 2, 4 and 6 years to come. Beyond our own shores there is unimaginable suffering and pain–hunger, health, safety, warfare. All of these are reasons to be afraid!

Yet the Lenten challenge for me that keeps making itself evident is the Word most often repeated in Hebrew and Christian sacred texts: Don’t be afraid! This morning I was reading from the book of Jeremiah, about the fearful young one whom God is calling to speak truth to power, the holy words that God speaks are there: Don”t be afraid! The prophet Isaiah charges the trembling ones in captivity in Babylon about to try to go home again: Be strong do not fear! To shepherds out under a night sky, blinded by the Klieg lights of a choral cloud of angels, the opening refrain sung is: “Do not be afraid! And to Mary, called and choosing to be an agent of hope and peace in the world, the angel Gabriel opens with “Do not be afraid!” For one who is on the Lenten journey, this strikes me as the touchstone of the foundation of my meanderings and practice: DO NOT BE AFRAID!

When rehearsing stories of the sacred history, the words are easy enough to read, but what about 2020, with a world which seems to much more interwoven, complex and fraught with the perils of pain and disaster? I am sure that the challenge to let fear go is just as germane for me as it was for each of those hearers, back in their day. Yet, fear feels like an autonomic response in my body, as well as my heart and mind. This Lent how can I say “no” to fear?

I am practicing actions that mitigate my fear. I begin with gratitude; every day I am trying to keep track of the gifts of living I am continually being given–breath, song, beauty–so many more. How can I keep from singing? And singing! That is a powerful way to keep fear from lodging in the heart and ruminations: “I sing because I’m happy I sing because I’m free…” sang Ethel Waters, in “Member of the Wedding.” I also limit my intake of news and social media. I love hearing from and about friends and acquaintances, but too many threads and responses are fear-mongering ones. Therefore, I am deciding to know the bare bones of what’s happening, act responsibly as friend and citizen, and let the rest go unattended.

And I pray. Daniel (in illustration above) never gave up his attention to prayers and thoughts for the welfare of himself, his friends, the people he represented, even when doing so in the way he knew, by an open window, invited the possibility of more suffering. Whatever fears he had were not as strong as his commitment to the God who would never let him go.

This Lent I want to be led by the Spirit, not by fear, by practicing those things which ground me in Holy Presence, fully aware of the reality of the ways of the world. And live in a Spirit of Love, Power and Common Sense.

Frederick Buechner captures it for us all:

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.

Amen and Amen!

Clouds of Lent

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clouds of unknowing

Lent is frequently depicted in linear fashion, one day, one Sunday after another. However, this year I am feeling more as if I have entered a cloud of a season, unclear, unpredictable, with poor visibility. I have taught a class on preparing for Lent, with particular attention to the ways we observe it in my tradition. I have considered and decided practices that I want to follow during these “40 days,” minus Sundays. I have considered the external signs that signify Lent in the Church: purple paraments, special services for Ash Wednesday and Holy Week, a purple candle alight where I sit for sacred conversations, a cross in the sanctuary for prayerful intentions to be tied with ribbons. But somehow in these days in none of those things are giving shape and order to my days, my musing, my habits.

Instead I am needing to continue to travel each day as it arises, some days not knowing where I am going or where I will end up. Some of this is shaped by the ongoing recovery of my husband after surgery. Some is shaped by deadlines set by agencies and “powers that be.” Sometimes the calendar for this year demands attention to occasion that are counter in spirit to Lenten solemnity. And sometimes “things fall apart,” according to Chinua Achebe, “the best laid plans go oft agley,” as Robert Burns tells us. Lent is not so much a journey as it is an ambiance, a backdrop, a cloud of mist which covers my intentional forward vision. This week alone, I have encountered tears and laughter, memory and forgetting, beauty and ugliness, health and healing. And I haven’t known what will arrive until is does! No guarantee that what I plan will be what I can or will do!

So am thrown back on the many times in sacred text where the promise is that clarity will emerge, where resources will be provided, and where Grace will abound. I love the early Christian hymn which names that state of unknowing: Now we see in a mirror dimly…Now I know only in part…” (1 Cor, 13: 12). Then the hymn writer points us back to the daily practices, Lent or not: And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (v.13) So in the midst of this cloud, I can find some place to practice paying attention to the Jesus journey, by asking myself as each new event or demand arises: does this help me be Faithful–to the Holy? to the ones I love? to those given to me to serve? And/or does this help me be Hopeful, sharing that hope with those I encounter? And most importantly, will this be something to which I can be bring Love, which bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things. endures all things?

Joni Mitchell taught me long ago that clouds have many sides to them, that I really don’t know clouds at all, but I don’t need to know what the clouds have in store. I can, with Spirit tenderness and presence, show up for the cloud of each day with Faith, Hope and Love, on this Lenten journey, even as Jesus whom I follow did!