The story we all share at Easter

A friend of mine owns a travel agency with employees scattered throughout the country. Her crew specializes in Disney-related trips and gets invited to exclusive opening events. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen her beautiful pictures in Italy, in Florida and in amazing resorts.

You’d think, with such obvious success, that it would define her life — that it would be the first thing associated with her name. But she understands that while success may draw others to you, it’s honesty that binds them.

So, like Jesus, she begins by showing her own scars.

She points to the sexual assaults of her two sons, to the ways her family grieved and then began to heal. And every time she shares her story those with scars of their own breathe out and loosened their shoulders. They pull closer. Because even in an airbrushed world, we humans are imperfect. We’re all a bit broken, and we’re all a bit relieved when we know we aren’t alone. When we touch the scars of others, we know that we, too, can find our way toward healing.

This week many of us will hear the story of Easter, the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. If we read further in scripture, it tells us Jesus later appeared to his followers. Of course they were confused, and one man, Thomas, struggled to believe that it could really be Jesus standing before him. So, he made a brave request. Thomas asked to see where the nails had held Jesus to the cross — because he knew the truth was in the scars.

Scars from nails. From depression. From broken relationships. From financial troubles. From giving birth to something new.

They all hold the truth. The truth that we aren’t alone and that pain and hurt can be redeemed and healed.

That’s why my friend unwraps her scars and tells her story to person after person. It would be easier to ignore and push aside and move on. But scars are a testament to overcoming and to resurrection and that makes them worth sharing at Easter and always.


Many ways to wash feet, many ways to serve

many ways to wash feet and serve othersI must have been about 6 or 7 the first time I remember sitting in on our church’s communion service. It was after the official Sunday morning service, after most of the casual visitors had left to see to their pot roasts, when the men slipped off their socks and the women pushed their dress shoes under the pew.

By the time our pastor began to break the bread, a sacred hush had fallen. When the grape juice passed in its simple water glass, all you could hear was the reminder: Do this in remembrance of me.

Then, one-by-one they knelt next to each other and washed their neighbor’s feet. The man who had studied his Bible for decades washed the feet of Daddy, who was new to faith. The woman who owned hundreds of acres knelt before someone just scraping by at the end of the month. There, with the towel and the basin, all those differences washed away.

And there was communion.

All these years later, I still count it as one of the holiest moments of my life – a moment where I saw God’s love for all of us. While I can never recreate that memory, there are many ways to wash feet, many ways to serve one another. Many ways to do this in remembrance.

First, though, we must sit close enough to our neighbor to know her needs, so when she whispers that her very best friend is dying of cancer we can hear her above the din of our own busyness.

When we sit knee to knee, maybe we’ll hear a single dad needs someone to babysit or a friend is overwhelmed and could use help preparing his taxes. Maybe we’ll add a few extra tomato plants to share with an aunt whose arthritis makes gardening almost impossible.

Maybe we’ll know who to add to our prayer lists – and we’ll have people who are willing to pray for us. People willing to wash the dust from our feet. People willing to break bread with us in church and at home and at the ball field. People willing to remember God’s love in the everyday, in the mundane and in crisis.

People willing to have communion.

Looking for God? Let's find him together

#seeGodA small group of us plans to spend the weeks leading up to Easter searching for God and taking snapshots of his workmanship.

Most of us are not photographers, just souls with cameras and a willingness to see Lent differently this year. We hope this project reminds us that we are walking on holy ground — all of it created by a loving God.

Would you like to join us? If so, feel free to post your own glimpses of God on the Simply Faithful Facebook page. We’ll be using #seeGod on Twitter and Instagram to make it easier for everyone to participate.

May you find God everywhere this season,



40 ways to help your family prepare for Easter

IMG_2658Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on activities that help you prepare spiritually for Easter.  Check back tomorrow for part 2!

When it comes to spiritual matters, I often show up without my homework done.

I arrive at church expecting that God will meet me there in the pew with a gift bag of enlightenment, good feelings and blessings. Nevermind that 10 minutes earlier I was begging and bribing my family to hurry up to get there on time – not exactly creating an environment that welcomes stillness or reflection or prayer.

I’m the same way about holidays, too. I might spend hours making invitations by hand, cleaning and cooking, only to forget to welcome God to the celebration. But I was determined to change that, so a couple of years ago my family started a list of things to do every day during Lent.



The list (everything from starting seedlings for neighbors to coloring pictures for people in nursing homes) was cut in strips and put in plastic Easter eggs for my boys to open.

It seemed simple and straight forward – until God got involved.

Our oldest son wanted to help with an Easter egg hunt at Community Lutheran Ministry in Rochester, NY. He donated the $26 in his charity fund but when aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins heard about it, the fund swelled to $250. By the time Easter rolled around, he had helped put together the hunt and 100 Easter baskets for kids in one of the toughest parts of Rochester.


When it was time to put together a care package for a young friend of ours in foster care, it was Benjamin, our then 3-year-old, who was available to go shopping with me. For an hour we wandered through the store talking about what would make Deniese smile. What I thought was a bit beyond him, he fully grasped.

Oh, don’t misunderstand. We failed miserably some days. In fact, coughs and drippy noses kept us from cooking extra meals for the freezer. We wanted to share meals when friends suffered losses or were ill, but we didn’t want to share germs.

Those eggs, and a few others, were left unopened until Easter morning when I turned them over to the boys to play with. It bothered me that I hadn’t done everything, but then I did something rare for me. I forgave myself quickly.

We had done our homework and our hearts were ready for Easter.


Would you like a glimpse at our list, so you can get ideas for your own? 

Here are the basics: We chose 40 activities and prayer requests. Some of the activities repeat, and some are really steps toward a larger project because we didn’t want to overwhelm ourselves – or our budget.

Some tips: I numbered the eggs so that the more time-consuming projects would fall on the weekends. I also bought supplies for all of the activities before Lent so I’d have what I needed on-hand, even if someone grabbed the wrong egg.

Our list:

1. We’ll watch a DVD from Water for Sudan. (You can learn about Salva Dut and his nonprofit on YouTube.)

2. A friend requested prayer for her daughter who is starting a business. We’ll pray for her to have wisdom and favor.

3. Our boys will draw pictures and we’ll send them to a nursing facility to brighten someone’s room.

4. We’d like to have meals on hand to share with friends who are going through medical situations or facing other challenges. We’ll make an extra meal today and freeze it.

5. Community Lutheran Ministry in Rochester, NY, is collecting pennies to support its after-school program and its summer camp. We’ll start a penny jar at our house.

6. We’ll skip some TV time and instead read books to each other.

7. We’ll find 40 things that our family can give away or throw away.

8. It’s our dog’s birthday, so she will get an extra long walk with the whole family.

9. We’ll thank God for five people or things.

10. We’ll start seedlings to share with neighbors.

11. Food pantries can always use help. We’ll see what we have to donate.

12. A friend requested that we pray for people to “truly worship God.”

13.  We’ll send a card to encourage or thank someone.

14. My family will de-clutter another 40 items.

15. Working together, we’ll turn scrap fabric into cloth napkins.

16. We’ll go to bargain stores and see how many books we can afford to buy. We’ll put them in Easter baskets for kids in need.

17. We’ll pray for someone at work.

18. We’ll send a card to someone – a teacher, a mentor, a minister – who inspired us.

19. We’ll read books to each other.

20. I’ve always liked the idea of donating “birthday bags” to a food pantry. We’ll include a cake mix, candles and other goodies to help people celebrate.

21. I’ll play Monopoly with the boys. I hate that game, but they love it.

22. We’ll make another meal for the freezer.

23. A friend requested prayer for her mother, who is burdened with health and financial worries.

24. We’ll do something kind. And we’ll do it secretly.

25. Just once, when we could complain, we won’t.

26. We’ll pray for someone at church.

27. We’ll invite friends to our home for dinner. We haven’t done that as often as we should.

28. Today, we’ll put together an Easter care package for a dear friend in foster care. (Children Awaiting Parents always knows of kids who could use a little surprise. Call (585) 232-5110.)

29. We’ll send an unexpected card or note to a loved one.

30. Again, we’ll de-clutter 40 items.

31. At dinner, we’ll write something we love about each member of our family.

32. We’ll pray for someone at school.

33. The egg we open today will be empty. We’ll talk about Jesus’ tomb being empty.

34. We’ll invite family over for brunch for no particular reason except that we like them.

35. It’s our eighth wedding anniversary. We’ll pray for relationships to be strengthened.

36. We’ll look through photo albums and tell family stories.

37. Just for today, we’ll trade household chores so we can practice looking at things from another person’s perspective.

38. We’ll skip complaining three times today.

39. We’ll invite friends over to decorate Easter cookies.

40. We’ll help with an Easter egg hunt at Community Lutheran.

Day 24: Hope is a prayer throughout all time

I love the kind of letters that come in my mailbox, and this one — this typewritten one from Mary Holley — is so  worth sharing. 

Mary Holley letter

February 4, 2013

Dear Ms. Gregory,

What is Hope? you asked readers of your D&C column of January 14, 2013. A huge challenge, especially after daily negative media reports on the “fiscal cliff” fiasco, the “Sequester” unknown, little Ethan (whose name means Power, Strength) snatched from his friends and family, fate still in limbo. These but a few examples of our turbulent times. Yes, indeed, Hope seems far away. But it must be around here somewhere!

I am quite sure Hope is a survivor. Part of the human psyche since History’s dawn. And a trail-blazer. Hope keeps us going in spite of all natural or man-made disasters. Regardless of disappointment, tragedy, loss.

Hope is good news we look for and sometimes find in unexpected places. Hope is seeing buds of spring clinging fast to frozen trees in winter. Hope is shining in the promise of every newborn baby child.

Hope is a wishing star. A double rainbow. Light in darkness. Heart-warming spark kindling ideas blazing-bright. Hope energizes us to build tomorrow’s dreams today. Hope is that mighty invisible Force moving us on even if we are plodding… even when we’re lost.

Hope is a blessing and gift for every human heart. Ours to keep or give away so freely with our smile, our friendly greeting, just the right words or a comforting embrace. And we still have that gift in good supply!

Hope is a prayer throughout all Time, no matter what or why we believe. Hope lifts us up, lightens our burdens, encourages our hearts, inspires our purpose. Lets us rejoice with praise and thanks-giving.

And so much more… this miracle called Hope!

With many wishes for Good Cheer and Lots of Hope!


Mary Holley

Will you create a journal page for the 40 Days of Hope project?

IMG_0912I know I’m not alone in needing to focus on hope, especially after witnessing so much sadness at the end of 2012, so will you join me in writing about hope for 40 days? I’m starting Feb. 13, which is Ash Wednesday, in hopes that my heart will be better prepared to celebrate Easter.

IMG_0901Just a few days ago I asked for artists of all abilities to create journaling pages. Now, I’m ready to provide more details. I’m looking for 40 artists to create unique and inspiring pages people can download and write on — 8 1/2 X 11 pages that urge us to hope and love. It’s perfectly fine to include your name and Website on the page, and I’d be happy to include a short artist statement and bio here on the blog. I was thinking something like this:

daisy Daisy Dog Designs specializes in mud paw prints. Daisy’s inspiration for her journaling page comes from a poem by Emily Dickinson, which she reads every night in her kennel. Find out more at 

My vision is that after 40 days, we’ll all have a beautiful journal and much better understanding of hope.

So, what do you say? Will you help us out?


When life’s plot gets confusing, trust the Author

Grandma Gregory could spin a tale like nobody’s business. She’d take a routine trip to the corner store and turn it into the kind of story that you’d asked her to tell again and again.

And when she started in on the stories about how tiny Daddy was as a baby, you could practically see the dresser drawer he slept in and the little doll clothes he wore.

So, you can imagine the kinds of letters she wrote to her children. One of my favorites is her party invitation to fill in a ditch. She promises games for the children and wheelbarrow and shovel racing for the adults.

In another letter, postmarked March 25, 1978, she wishes my parents a happy Easter. In it, she writes about how she cherishes her memories from the Easter of 1977 – the year the two of them dedicated their lives to serving God and were baptized. That Easter season, Grandma’s “dream of a lifetime” came true, she writes, before she goes on to encourage them:

“… we’ll come in contact with many things we don’t understand but read your Bible, keep your eyes on Jesus and your hand in his and he will take you through to the end.”

She wrote all of those things before sickness took her husband and diabetes took her legs, before terrorists slammed airplanes into the World Trade Center, before tsunamis raked away entire towns and villages and radiation threatened to poison the survivors.

Now, all these years later, I still find comfort and wisdom in her long-ago letter.

She reminds me to pray not only for protection, but for strength.

Grandma spent most of her life trying to crawl into God’s arms and trying to share his love with others. She was OK with not understanding everything, OK with not knowing how every story ended.

She simply trusted the author.



Finding spiritual meaning in an ugly clay foot

I’ve seen mosaics with gilded halos around the heads of saints and stained glass windows that stretched 20 feet or more, glowing with light. I’ve stood within a breath of Michelangelo’s la Pieta, and I still remember how no detail was rushed or skipped – every muscle, every vein captured there in marble.

And now, I’ve seen the ugly clay foot in my friend Linda Gordon’s car.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure what it was when I first leaned over to buckle my seatbelt. I just saw it out of the corner of my eye, sitting there taped to the dashboard by the clock. It was an inch and a half, 2 inches at most. Pinkish, like my skin, and it had one slightly chipped toe courtesy of an unfortunate fall to the floorboard of the Kia.

I took in a quick breath before I blurted out, “What is that?”

“It’s a foot,” she said, as if it were the most common thing in the world.

She had gotten it at church in the days leading up to Easter. She had her choice among a rooster, some silver coins or a foot – all reminders of Jesus’ final days before his crucifixion.

The rooster was kind of big and unattractive, she said, with a shrug, so she went with the small, ugly foot.

“I painted its toenails after it fell,” she said, as she backed out of her driveway. “I think it looks a lot better now.”

It was hard to argue. She had done a terrific job painting the toenails a shade of cotton candy pink.

“It reminds me that we’re all on a journey,” she said, the foot bobbing just a tiny bit on top of its loop of tape. It was slightly unconventional, and certainly unexpected, but there it was: Her very own quirky religious symbol.

I still like ornate crosses and finely detailed nativity scenes, but I began to see the awkward clay foot in a slightly different light.

Take the next step in faith. Walk with God. Add beauty on the journey, it seemed to say.

“Do you think I could get my own foot for my dashboard?” I asked.

She promised to ask if there were any left over at church. “But you’ll want to paint the toenails,” she advised.

Of course.

Grace and gratitude: Counting ‘One Thousand Gifts’

Photo courtesy of Ann Voskamp

The beauty of purple hyacinths in the snow.

The smell of a granddaughter’s hair after her bath.

All tiny blessings scratched in Lida Merrill’s gratitude journal so she can cradle the moments just a little longer and thank the one whom she believes created it all.

Water droplets off a shale wall.

The stillness of a lake as the morning mist rises and the loons call.

Gifts that once would have been missed are now counted and celebrated in preparation for their Easter observance and in the hope of a life well lived — a life renewed by gratitude and joy.

“The practice of journaling keeps me focused on who I am grateful to and who is the source of what I am grateful for — God,” says Merrill, who along with dozens of other people in the Rochester area, recently read One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.

Voskamp’s story of writing down 1,000 things she was grateful for has earned her a spot onThe New York Times bestsellers list for more than eight months and has inspired countless others to take note of their own gifts and to trust the giver.

In the book, Voskamp references the Greek word eucharisteo, which is the word used to describe what Jesus does when he breaks bread at the Last Supper before his death on a cross. The word means “thanksgiving.”

“But guess what root words are embedded in that word, eucharisteo? Charis — and charis means ‘grace.’ Jesus took the bread and saw it as grace and gave thanks,” Voskamp said in an interview. “And the other word embedded in eucharisteo, is the word chara, meaning ‘joy.’ See it? The triplet, that three-braid cord? Charis. Grace. Eucharisteo. Thanksgiving. Chara. Joy.”

Easter is about joy, about fresh hope and new beginnings, she says. And it all begins with being grateful.

“This tremendous response to the gift of Easter, what can it be but thanksgiving?”

In all things, give thanks

For years, Merrill took note of the kind things that other people did. She filled notebook after notebook in her Rochester home with thanks for the neighbor who shoveled the driveway and the daughter who folded the laundry without being asked. But now, since reading the book, that is changing, said Merrill, assistant pastor at Zion United Methodist Church in West Walworth and director of spiritual life at Heritage Christian Services.

“Now I am noticing what God does in my life; I am noticing the beauty he gives to me.”

It’s a refrain heard time and time again at local book discussion groups where strangers became quick friends as they dug into Voskamp’s poetic writing and questions, her struggles with anxiety and the death of her younger sister.

Laura Bates of Penfield, has been making it a point to write at least three things a day she is thankful for – most often on the “One Thousand Gifts” free app that she uses on her phone.

“I have multiple myeloma (treatable but not curable cancer) and I am finding ways to be thankful for the good this has brought into my life,” said Bates, who attended a book group led by Merrill. She’s thankful for “my closer relationship with God, my appreciation for my family and friends, the fact that I was diagnosed early and the wonderful advances in treatment for this disease over the last several years. Seeing the good in everything also releases you from anger and bitterness.”

For some, the book discussion group became a gift as well.

“People felt safe to share their stories,” said Joan Weetman of Brighton. “Discussions launched by literature can be very rich and personal.”

“My life will be different,” said Char Ipacs of Irondequoit. “I met some wonderful women…  I count each one of these women as one of my 1,000 gifts.”

And while Ipacs expected to learn about gratitude, she was surprised to find how much the book dealt with joy. But the two are inseparable, Voskamp said.

“This book – this really is a dare to fully live – to find joy, right where you are. Because the thing is too often we think joy is ‘out there’ around some elusive next corner. But remember eucharisteo, that Biblical Greek word for thanksgiving? Joy is embedded right in that word. Joy is a function of thanks,” Voskamp said. “If thanks is possible then joy is always possible.”

Thanks in hard times

But giving thanks isn’t always easy, said Benjamin Lipscomb, associate professor of philosophy at Houghton College.

“To be grateful is to acknowledge myself indebted,” he said. “And that is to acknowledge that I’m not self-sufficient, that I’m a receiver and not only a giver.”

Aristotle says that great people, in particular, love to be reminded of favors they’ve given but hate to be reminded of favors they’ve received, Lipscomb said.  Being givers can make us feel strong and superior.  Being receivers, or admitting that we are receivers, destroys illusions of self-sufficiency.

“We’re taught in the Lord’s Prayer to ask even for our food — presumably even if we have a pretty good idea where it’s coming from, and that there will be enough,” he said. “To ask is to put ourselves in the position of receivers, and to prepare to receive in gratitude. Of course, it’s harder to receive things in gratitude that we anticipate.  And harder still to receive things in gratitude that we see as rightfully ours.”

But Jennifer Hopper of Brighton will try, thanks in part to a passage in “One Thousand Gifts” where Voskamp describes keeping hands open to receiving God’s grace.

In all of the book’s pages, “The idea of a closed hand pointing to self and shutting out God is what I will remember most,” Hopper said.

And that hand must remain open, even in the toughest of times, said Merrill.

“Just within the past few weeks of Lent there have been fires, murders of innocents, run away children and drunk driving accidents,” she said. “In the midst of these overwhelming tragedies God is present.”

While God doesn’t orchestrate these events, he is present even when people make decisions that hurt each other, Merrill said. So, she can be grateful that he brings comfort, peace and wisdom, grateful that she can pray for grieving families and know that God is there with them in their suffering.

“I cannot change what I see, but I can change the way I see it,” she said.

That’s how gratitude worked in Voskamp’s heart, too.

“Counting gifts powerfully resurrected me, rose me to the possibility of beauty in places I wasn’t even looking. Awakened me to grace and loveliness in places and moments I was just speeding through, in this relentless hurry,” she said. “Counting gifts slowed me down and resurrected me to really, fully living – attentive and mindful to all the ways God loves me. It was like a budding, an unfurling.

“And once you’ve experienced fully living? You never want to go back.”


Spring cleaning for the soul

In the spring, it seems like God tucks away the long, dreary winter and then instructs all of creation to show off for us. I think of it as nature’s fireworks.

Brilliant red tulips glisten in the sun. Young grass sways in the wind — each blade wonderfully made. Trees come back to life, and everything is new and fresh.

Each year, long before the air is warm enough, I open the windows. I want the stale air out, I say. And even I, the least domestic of three sisters, am inspired and start to deep clean. Cobwebs are hunted down. Dust is scooted outside and heavy furniture is rearranged.

There’s something immensely satisfying about clearing out the dirt and clutter in our homes and in our spiritual lives. And I think there’s something about spring that invites us to do both.

Jews scrub their homes and tidy up their souls in preparation for Passover. Catholics welcome new members at Easter. And in my own family, several of us have cracked open the doors of our hearts just as the daffodils started to bloom.

It was the spring of 1977 — April, in fact — when my parents decided to follow Jesus. Where I grew up, we’d call it being saved or born again. Even though I was young, I remember going to the tiny, white church the night their lives started to change. I doubt more than 60 people could have squeezed into those wooden pews, but in my mind I can still see us sitting on the left side close to the front.

The details get fuzzy for me until the day Mom and Dad were baptized. We gathered just outside of town at a small pond. Their one special request was that they be baptized in unison. So, with the three of us girls standing on the bank, my parents sank back into the muddy water and rose feeling cleaner than they ever had before. They had let go of unforgiveness and tossed out an old stack of pride. They felt free.

I’m sure there were other things weighing on them, habits they had to get rid of later, but I’ve never asked. I have enough of my own spiritual clutter to work on.

I need to sweep out some worry and fear. Maybe I’ll toss envy and gossip in the wash.

And I need to open a window and let some fresh spring air in. Even a soul can get stale.