The farm wife makes her Christmas list

Give me sisters and brothers with crockpots full
and running over. A bed piled high with coats

and diaper bags. Leaves to extend the kitchen table.
Thick catalogs to booster seat the kids.

A percolator perking thirty cups as we pass
plates of monster cookies and whoopee pies.

Albums with ancestors solid as their barns.
Battered Rook cards we use to shoot the moon

and dominoes branching in every direction.
Paper snowflakes till strings of hearts

replace them. The old piano we can’t afford
to tune, that gives us our pitch when we sing

“Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow,”
the version with echoing alleluias and amens.

Silence washing over us as we wave to the last
car pulling out, side by side like newlyweds.

—Shari Wagner
from The Farm Wife’s Almanac (Cascadia Publishing House)

Red Barn [cm]

The farm wife finds grace in her empty barn

Inside the house, dust is dust,
but here it looks holy, suspended

in slanted light that slips between
boards. Jacob’s ladder could be

rungs to a loft where barn swallows
brush the dark with the curve

of their wings. Every joint is pegged
tight as Noah’s ark, but there’s room

for everyone—nesting sparrows
and mice that scatter from burlap sacks.

When I slide the big door back,
sunlight rushes in to fill the empty bin

where Jesus could be reaching up
to touch black and white faces

gazing down. I like to picture him
swaddled by the breath of cows.

—Shari Wagner
from The Farm Wife’s Almanac (Cascadia Publishing House)


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Discovering Unexpected Gifts

As we approach the holidays, many of us are facing questions and thinking about how we gather with family and friends to celebrate safely in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and election year politics.  The holidays are a source of stress in ordinary years due to some of the following reason: memories of the past, too much to do in too little time, financial stress, pressure to have the “perfect” holiday, weather, poor eating and drinking choices, cultural bombardment (Christmas music in stores and decorations starting after Halloween) and pressure to do unwanted activities.  Bereavement, loss, loneliness and separation from support systems can all intensify holiday stress.  Covid-19 has created a sense of loss and bereavement for some among us, while feelings of loneliness and being separated from our support systems may also impact our holiday planning and spirit this year.  The pandemic has also created an opportunity to prioritize what is most important, and the holidays are no different.

This is the year to reevaluate our holiday celebrations and focus on the activities that create a sense of meaning for ourselves and our family in the chaos and uncertainty of 2020.  Below are some questions to consider as you plan for the upcoming holidays. Perhaps they can help you discover a sense of meaning, yet decrease some stressors of the holiday season.  They are by no means an exhaustive list, but could be an opportunity to start a conversation. 

  • What is most important to you during this holiday season?
  • What enhances the meaning of the holidays for you?
  • What takes away from the meaning of the holidays for you?
  • What holiday tradition or activity is most important to you?
  • Are there traditions and activities you are doing just because you always have—or your family always has?
  • What is your greatest fear about this holiday season?
  • What is a new holiday activity or tradition you would like to try this year?
  • What are your expectations of yourself this year?
  • What do you see as others’ expectations of you during the holiday season?
  • What is something that you could do for yourself to cope with the challenges of the holidays this year?

Communicating changes to holiday traditions and routines is a critical component of navigating this process.  Try to build in as much flexibility and creativity as possible and look for opportunities for forgiveness, healing and reconnection this holiday season.  Perhaps, the unexpected gift of 2020 is rediscovering the “holy” in Holiday.


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Home Sweet Home Pivots, Surpasses Fundraising Goals to Help Families

Snow!  The first planning meeting of the 2020 Home Sweet Home committee had to be virtual because of a snowstorm in February. One of the committee members even said, “This will be our biggest challenge of the year.” If only. Let’s take a look at how Family Promise’s main fundraiser did a major pivot during the pandemic to continue funding hope, help and home for families without shelter.

First, a bit of background on this fundraising event:

  • For more than 20 years, Home Sweet Home has taken place to celebrate Family Promise volunteers and raise funds to help every child have a home.
  • The 2019 event sent records with more than $100,000 in donations and 400 people in attendance.
  • A dedicated committee of volunteers from half a dozen congregations puts together this event that includes a silent auction, wine pull, dessert auction and volunteer recognition, with numerous event sponsors.
  • We honor the IHN Coordinator of the Year, Family Promise Volunteer of the Year, and the highest honor of the Dean Lindsey Lifetime Achievement Award.

So 2020……

When the world shut down, the committee continued meeting via Zoom to come up with Plan B, C and D.  We settled on a “hybrid” approach of three, socially distanced sessions in person, as well as livestream for those at home.  Would it work?

YES!

God is good and so many were faithful donors to make the night a success!  We raised $98,500 which far surpassed our modified goal of $50,000. The testimony of three former guests reinforced how Family Promise makes a difference in helping families find homes.  You can read success stories by linking here.

Take a look at photos from the night here as well as read more information on how supporters safely and creatively supported the cause.

Thanks to so many from First Mennonite and Shalom who support Family Promise!

Kenda talking with Troy Washington of Channel 6 at Home Sweet Home

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Empowering Families in Transition

After spotting the late-July request from Family Promise of Greater Indianapolis (FPGI) about the need for more congregations to support their new Apartment Shelter Project, I knew I wanted to engage with this ministry.  FPGI does a phenomenal job of supporting and sheltering families as they transition from homelessness to finding a permanent home. Then, as part of the After-Care program, case managers journey beside the families for up to two years to help sustain their housing.

Like everyone else, Family Promise has been greatly affected by the global pandemic and had to pivot quickly from coordinating shelter at hosting congregations to placing families in apartments that the nonprofit leases.  After housing families temporarily in hotels in the spring of 2020, FPGI began the mammoth task of locating and setting up eight to ten apartments for families in their shelter program.  In July, due to the concerning effects of the pandemic, the City of Indianapolis awarded Family Promise a major grant to lease ten additional apartments in order to help ten more families.  What an exciting blessing!  At the same time, it required FPGI to depend even more on volunteers and additional staff to make that happen. 

As First Mennonite Church has been a host congregation for over 25 years, I was trusting our congregation would join me in supporting this Apartment Shelter Project.  And since my own family has served this organization in many behind-the-scene ways over the years, I was hoping they would be willing to volunteer to move donations and set up an apartment. Neither my church family nor my individual family disappointed me!  My son Jonah said later about the experience, “It felt good to help, because everyone deserves a place to live.”

Due to coronavirus concerns, and with FMC leadership’s approval, I created a protocol plan so our congregation could donate and drop off needed items safely at our church building.  Mike Chapuran, FPGI Executive Director, quickly placed First Mennonite Church on a furnishings team with two other congregations (The Promise United Methodist Church and St. Elizabeth Seton Catholic Church).  He provided a long list of housewares and supplies needed to outfit a two-bedroom apartment and sent a Signup Genius (SG) structure that we customized for our furnishings team.  The list of supplies included typical needs like sheets, blankets, towels, and pots & pans.  But it also included items that people may not think about a family needing like wastebaskets, toilet bowl brush & plunger, first aid kit, extension cord, closet organizers, a pack n’ play and basic tool kit.  (Through Mike’s efforts, Mustard Seed of Central Indiana partnered with FPGI to provide basic furniture for each apartment.)

The furnishings team coordinators then advertised the need with the signup link to our three congregations simultaneously.  We were all astounded and excited when within only five days of publishing the link, various members of our congregations had volunteered to provide almost all of the 220-plus items.  During late August and early September, FMC scheduled three drop-off time periods; plus a few folks dropped off items at my house.  I so appreciated how Alicia Amazan, Deb Helmuth and Melanie Schmucker, our FMC hosting coordinators, volunteered to assist in collecting donations.  (One of the side benefits of organizing this project was that I could see many FMC faces in person!)  

The furnishing team coordinated with Mike Chapuran to arrange dates for apartments to be leased and ready for supplies.  Our set-up day was scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 19.  Relying on the strength and energy of my husband and sons, our family filled up our minivan with FMC donations stored at the church and headed for the apartment located at Carriage House East (near 42nd and Mitthoeffer Rd). An FPGI staff member unlocked the apartment and answered our questions.  Since the apartment was on the second floor, my three guys walked up and down the stairs many times delivering items.  When the other two congregations arrived, Kevin, Isaiah, and Jonah helped their volunteers bring in their donations too.  Due to the coronavirus, everyone involved that day wore masks the entire time and attempted to social distance as much as possible. 

Several of us worked at setting up the apartment by unpacking items, putting things away, washing all the new dishes and kitchen supplies, making beds, constructing the closet organizers, setting up the TV, putting together a high chair, a booster seat and a stroller, and hanging the shower curtain.  My guys were also kept busy unwrapping packaging from new items, breaking down and carrying cardboard boxes to our van for later recycling, moving extra items that were donated to the FPGI van, and taking trash out to the dumpster.  The whole project that day took roughly three and a half hours.  Kevin was glad to help out, saying “It put a smile on my face knowing that kids would be running through the apartment soon and, hopefully, feel safe with their own space.”

When it was all over, we were tired, but satisfied, knowing that two days later, a family in crisis would have a simple, but safe place to stay.  Thank you so much, First Mennonite Church, for your quick and generous response in supporting a family shelter and following our mission statement… “A welcoming faith community committed to making peace, seeking justice and serving as the hands, heart, and voice of Christ.”

Latest news:  FPGI reported on their Facebook page that on Friday, 11/6, they were able to set up apartment shelters #17 and 18.  Their last two apartments (#19 and 20) were scheduled to be set up on 11/8.  It is wonderful to hear about so many congregations and groups in Central Indiana who are working together to fulfill this need for families without shelter. 


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Exploring Community at First Mennonite Church Indianapolis

When thinking about the theme of “Sharing and Caring,” I immediately thought back to the Sunday morning I agreed to speak at First Mennonite Church. This was in 2014. As I re-read thru my notes, I came to realize so many of the ways in which we can experience community at FMC now are still the same as they have always been. There are some expressions of community which may take a slightly different form or format now. This is partly due to the contagion we are in and partly due to the many changes in technology since 2014. We can still be community to and for each other in many ways. We are probably our own biggest limiting factor.

I invite you to reflect on what I wrote and said in 2014 and consider ways you can be community to someone at FMC, your neighborhood, your work, your school or another group. I hope you will be surprised at how “present” you can be with someone, even if not physically adjacent to each other.

Finally, read the addendum to this talk, as it has been updated to reflect the community who has been there for me, again, during the illness and recent death of my father.

First (Recognized) Personal Experience of Church Community

It was October 16th, 1976. This was a Saturday. A neighbor man picked me up and drove me to my parents’ home. As we approached the house, I could see the driveway was filled with cars. Other cars were parked in the lawn and many were in the neighbors’ drives. As I walked into the house, I was met by my disconsolate father who simply hugged and embraced me and just wanted me to hug him. My mother was nearby and once Dad released me from his arms, she was readily available to also receive and give a prolonged embrace. She had tears in her eyes and it was obvious she, too, had been crying for some time.

As we stood in the dining room, I realized there were many other people present, some around the dining room table, some in the nearby kitchen and at least another dozen or more in the adjacent living room. Most were sitting, sometimes two or three to a chair. The couches were overflowing. Some there were my former youth group members or church friends of my parents and others were from our church or neighborhood. As I walked into the room, a space just appeared for me on one of the couches. Those who were already on that couch simply scooched together even tighter. I sat and wept intermittently while feeling the arms and hands of others reaching out to let me know they were there for me.

The afternoon before, my middle brother had been killed in a car accident while he was driving home after school on a Friday. The rest of the events aren’t really relevant for today’s purposes. However, these circumstances brought about the first time I recall sensing community from the church. I was only 19 or 20 at that time, and even though I had only attended this church for about 2 years before going off to college, the people from that congregation made certain that my family and I were not alone that first day, or in the days, weeks and months following the tragic event in our lives. The people from that church gave us food for our bodies; they gave us words of consolation and hope for our broken spirits. They also gave us their presence and assurances of their continued presence. I am convinced beyond any doubt of how important and powerful being the recipient of church community was for me at that time, and how important it has been in my years since then.

Second Personal Experience of Church Community

Roll time forward approximately 10 years. It is now 1986. By then, Deb and I had been married about 7years and had been living in Indianapolis where we had been attending First Mennonite Church. We had just had our first child. Sometime, during all of this, someone from the church organized a baby shower. A baby shower for us? Why us? Well, it was simply the custom. If someone in the church was having their first baby, then, the church hosted a baby shower. But, why a shower for us, I still asked myself?

We had only been here about 5 years. We were here for medical school and I was in residency. We could be as transient as many previous students or residents or as many of the students to come. Yes, we knew a lot of people, but many only by name or face. But a baby shower was held. The rooms off of the kitchen were packed. Some of the people Deb barely knew. Gifts were opened and passed around. Stories were told. Suggestions and ideas abounded. There were lots and lots of people here, or so I am told. This shower happened in the days when couples’ showers were not as frequent, so it was given mostly by women primarily for the mothers of new babies. So, though I don’t remember being there, I do recall loading up our car after the shower with what seemed like a never-ending supply of diapers, blankets, books, powders, booties, hats, clothes and more clothes for our new little girl. I remember Deb and I saying to each other, “Wow” and “Wow” and “Wow” over and over and over again. The generosity of time, of spirit, of gifts, of money, of inclusion spilled over.  I clearly remember a strange, warm feeling of community from the people of this church. Somehow, we felt like we belonged here.

Background

The experiences I just related are just two of the many experiences of community I have felt over the years. One was prior to being at First Mennonite. One was here at FMC. One was during a time of terrible angst and pain. One was during a time of great joy, anticipation and celebration.  Community happens at both ends of the spectrum and at many intervals in between.

Let’s take a look at community at First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis in a bit more detail. But, first, let me provide you with some confessions and a little background.

Those of you who know me or even are around me occasionally know that I can be irreverent at times. I openly confess this to you. I am the oldest of five children. All of my siblings are brothers. My parents were missionaries. My dad was a teacher, a Bible Institute Director and a pastor. So, not only was I a Missionary’s Kid, but also a Teacher’s Kid and a Preacher’s Kid. How many more “Kid” does one need after one’s name in order to qualify for the prototypical ‘rebellious’ child or irreverent teen / adult? After all, perfect behavior was expected of me all along my growing up years. So, try to cut me some slack. Regardless, I confess, I am irreverent at times. It is this very acknowledgment and awareness of my irreverence and many other faults which makes standing before you today and preparing to stand before you today such a humbling and, yet, meaningful experience.

I also confess, that I haven’t and don’t always put forth a spirit of community. Sometimes, this is to individuals; sometimes, to groups of persons. I don’t believe this is intentional most of the time. It is usually due to my own tendencies toward introversion, or lack of awareness of those around me or simply not having honed some skills in showing and providing community. However, I am still learning and growing in these areas. I have the desire to show more facets of community to others. Again, it is the very acknowledgement and awareness of my many faults in this area which makes standing before you such a humbling and, yet, meaningful experience.

On a related note, it was Shannon who approached Deb and me by email about speaking today. I did indeed say, “Deb and me”. You will note it was both of us she approached. It wasn’t one or the other, it was both of us. What many of you don’t know is that, in Deb, I have been blessed beyond my imagination with a person who has grown into being the primary source of community in our household. She is our source of community not just for her family, but with my family, with our friends, with our children, with our small group, and so many others. This may be thru texting or emailing, sending birthday cards, get well cards, taking a meal, making phone calls, taking time to go visit, doing someone’s nails, wrapping a care package, etc. She has been the primary communicator, planner and organizer for nearly all of our family events. She thrives on helping others feel like they can find community. She has lived by reaching out to others early and often and helped to provide a sense of community for them. For this and much more, I am so grateful to Deb and her witness of community to me during our 35+ years of marriage (now, 41+). So, I have honored her request to not speak from the front of the church this morning. It was the least I could do.

Opportunities to be Community at First Mennonite Indianapolis

These opportunities abound in a variety of manners and a little creativity can make this list expand a lot.

Children

  • hold baby showers
  • have a used clothing and toy gifts/sales
  • celebrate births
  • staff a volunteer nursery
  • have child dedications
  • let youth provide babysitting
  • be Sunday school teachers
  • staff Bible memory program
  • staff Christmas program
  • plan Easter egg hunt
  • lead children’s time during worship
  • support adopting parentshelping with fundraising projects

Youth

  • be sponsors
  • hold and attend fundraisers
  • be formal / informal mentors
  • support the parents
  • encourage worship participation
  • offer tutoring
  • facilitate camp experiences
  • offer job shadowing opportunities
  • support conference trip
  • support service opportunities
  • help with higher education expenses
  • provide career counseling
  • help when struggling with school difficulties, gender identity, bullying, or other issues

All

  • help on church workdays
  • pack, load or unload during moves
  • provide cleaning services
  • drive to doctor appointments
  • sit with/during chemo/therapy
  • pray for those on prayer card
  • attend men’s breakfast
  • attend women’s bible study
  • help with parenting skills
  • sing in the choir
  • share teaching techniques
  • give music lessons
  • nurture abilities with arts and crafts
  • share physical or occupational therapy advice or techniques
  • support parents who have children with special needs
  • support children who have parents with special needs
  • support children who are in the muck of divorcing or divorced parents
  • mentor medical students/residents/graduate students
  • learn about specific physical needs (automatic doors, nut free environment)
  • learn about specific social needs (autism spectrum, Down’s syndrome)
  • learn about specific neuro-psychologic needs (loneliness, depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorders)
  • share skills in areas of networking, social media platforms, general IT/IS, electrical, telecommunications, roofing, plumbing, woodworking, vegetable and flower gardening, painting, cooking, tree trimming, etc, etc.
  • help with disaster relief
  • help with church building maintenance
  • prepare or deliver Meal Train food
  • make visits to hospitals, homes, retirement residences
  • mentor students/residents/graduate students
  • be in a pastoral support group
  • be on playground duty
  • welcome others during fellowship time
  • invite someone to your small group
  • go Christmas caroling
  • be present to those who grieve loss of jobs, physical or mental abilities,
  • moves, departures, illness, death
  • welcome new members
  • share new job skills
  • fast for a cause
  • provide job leads

There is no shortage of ideas. Pick just one or three!

Addendum to Affirm Yet Another Experience of Community

October 11, 2020 following the death of my dad on September 26th, an excerpt of what I wrote:

Thank you for your words, cards, emails, calls to Dad, texts or calls to Mom, presence at the memorial service or viewing the service on line as well as other ways you have been of support to me during the illness and death of Dad. I have been floored by the sheer number of persons who made contact, over 80 and counting! For someone like me who is not on any social media, that is a large outpouring. And I am grateful and feel blessed.

So, yes, being community is real and is important and is still very possible today and now, when we need it more than we once thought. May you find ways to receive community and give community to one another.

Caring for and sharing with my dad. This photo was taken in June 2018, the last time I was able to take Dad fishing. We drove to Amigo Centre where I had hired a pontoon driver to take us out on Peron Lake. Dad fished, while I re-baited his hook and took off the few small bluegills, he caught during that one hour. Well into his course of dementia, he thought we “had fished all day”. He enjoyed himself a lot and talked about it the whole way home! My joy was being with him and watching him enjoying himself. I would do it all over again if I could.

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Sharing from our Kitchens

During the recent pandemic months when many people have been cooking and eating at home, and cooking and eating at home, and, yes, cooking and eating at home, some folks have been exploring creative ways to provide tasty meals—maybe without spending as much time in the kitchen.

The following random responses are paraphrased from haphazard questioning!

  • Thursday is a highly anticipated carryout night. Children and parents take turns choosing a restaurant, which results in supporting quite the range of locations!
  • Buying food in larger quantities has resulted in cooking bigger batches and freezing extra for later meals. This has allowed fewer trips for groceries and quicker preparation later.
    Cookie and ice cream

    Sweet Memories [cm]

  • When cooking or buying carryout meals, plan for leftovers—lots of leftovers. Learn to love leftovers!
  • A variety of soups have provided a comforting focus for meals.
  • Discovering Trader Joe’s frozen mashed potatoes (and frozen sweet potatoes) has made cooking this familiar food faster and easier—but start with browned butter in the pan and use milk rather than water for the liquid!
  • Adding teriyaki or soy sauce to soups, stews, or meats adds extra flavor and allows using less salt. Herbs can also reduce the need for salt.
  • Deciding as a couple to start a weight control program is easier than doing it alone.
  • Watching cooking shows has provided inspiration to try new foods and recipes.
  • Involve children in cooking their favorites, while teaching them about healthy foods.
  • A Zoom cooking party with extended family provided lots of laughs. Each household used some of the same specific ingredients, but could combine them anyway they pleased. Several new favorites resulted from this entertainment!
  • Crockpots and Instantpots have simplified mealtime for some families.
  • Setting the table, lighting candles and sitting down to eat together without television or phones can create a peaceful, sharing experience, or erupt into silliness with joke night.
  • Children doing online school at home enjoy handy, healthy snacks like Cheerios, cheese crackers, apple slices or peanuts—perks not usually available when they were at school in person all day.
  • Discovering an instant-read digital thermometer and using it to check doneness has resulted in tastier baked goodies. The magic internal temperature for most bread, cookies and brownies is 190 degrees.
  • If spaghetti is on the menu, cook more than needed. Place six “nests” of extra cooked pasta on a cookie sheet, cover with wax paper and freeze overnight. Place in a Ziplock bag and store in the freezer –ready to reheat and add sauce for the next pasta night.
  • Romantically dubbed “French Picnics,” these meals involved a small group gathering at a distance in a backyard with each couple bringing their own chairs, bread, cheese, munchies and beverage for safe sharing and creative fellowship. Parkas, heated blankets and a firepit may be required to carry this into the next season.
  • Give thanks for having a kitchen and food to cook.           

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Sharing My Hobby

Would I dare to submit a photo essay to MennoExpressions claiming that my hobby fits the goal of congregational caring and sharing?

Would I dare, as a non-professional photographer to exhibit my iPhone
snapshots?

This is what I would like to say in such an essay.
Where I was privileged to walk may become your experience too.
What captures my attention might capture yours.
What inspires me might inspire you.
Let’s try it. The organizing topic: My neighbors and me.

“No food this time, just chairs.”
“Here I come to cover you up!”
“Mind if I stop in this afternoon to watch you use the lathe?”
The size of my neighbors’ houses is less important to me than the beauty of their gardens.
“Hi fellows. How’s it going?”
“What fun to watch your daughter after last evening’s downpour.”
“Of course, I’d be pleased to show you the drum and talk about composting.”
“Know something? Your first year with cannas is off to a great start.”
“Oh thanks for calling. We are safe. The lightning struck the sycamore out front.”
“Hey, thanks for helping. I could not have done that myself.”

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COVID-19 Holidays

January of 2020, the Liechty extended family began making plans to have a Christmas Holiday extravaganza, of sorts, for the upcoming December.  We had time to plan; the grandparents were in their 90s, but healthy.  This was THE time to get everyone who could possibly make the trip “Back Home in(to) Indiana”!  All of our children were going to try to get here, whatever the barriers!  A family photo would be taken!  We could fill rows at the church as we attended a service with the grandparents!

Best made plans, right?  Covid-19 and illness have intervened.  Many of us still have our reservations at the hotel we planned to occupy.  We’re reluctant to give up all hope until the last possible cancellation date, even though we recognize it’s not going to happen. Discussions are presently ongoing as we try to re-imagine the holiday. 

No doubt this is true for many families.  Some will get together with no precautions in defiance of the virus that has taken so much already.  Others will test, keep distance or maybe do some zooming.  Since our family presently has Covid-19 in one sibling branch, and Grandma is now dealing with a significant medical issue, we can’t avoid the obvious risks.  What are our options?

We’ve discussed a “game day” online.  Apparently, this is possible; my sister plays Mahjong with a group every week.  Maybe we could have a meal together (though apart) and share our food creations?  Could we do a family photo from a zoom call?  Or could we create a family pic by sharing each person or family pod from a specific day?  Should we be masked as a memory of the year, or not be masked in that picture?  Can we still have “whiskey night” and share our favorite new discoveries through verbal description?  Hmmm.  There are many questions.

Nothing is the same as being together, giving hugs, sharing impromptu stories and memories, food, and getting to know the newest “littles” in the mix.  We will come up with some hybrid.  For us, there is no choice. 

What are you doing to acknowledge traditions and plans for the holidays this year?  How are you reimagining the plans you had made? Perhaps we could share some creative thoughts.  I asked several people what they had considered, and most said they hadn’t thought about it yet.  Others were prompted to start thinking things through.  The FMC Faith Formation page has encouraged people to write some ideas as well. 

Deb and Robin Helmuth adjusted their Thanksgiving Day plans when the pandemic worsened. A rearranged morning schedule included taking and sharing an eat-in-the-garage breakfast for a single friend with no local family, and switching to separate, virtual modes for the annual Drumstick Dash race. Their area family decided not to eat all together indoors, though they would see each other briefly—wearing masks– and share food. As Deb explained, “It really boils down to the fact that these holidays are calling all of us to share our love and care for others in the safest ways we can. We don’t want to have regrets.”

Pastors Bob and Mag Smith are entertaining some in-person time with a small portion of the family only after testing and several isolation days.  This is one way a recent “All Things Considered” piece offered as a means to reduce risk. Suggestions in that segment also included:

  1. Driving to your destination and taking your own food in the car.  Flying is fairly safe, but airports are not.  Try to put in isolation time at an Airbnb for a week after your arrival.  If your trip is very short, it might not be worth it. 
  2. If you have a college student coming home, check the dashboard for that school and find out what kind of infection rates exist. Ask if the school will be doing exit testing, and if they don’t, have the student test anyway and consider some isolation time after a student returns as well as a coronavirus re-test.

But the best suggestions were some my SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) group has talked about as we try to finish up our in-person SURJ work this year:  BUY A GREAT PARKA!  Learn to be Scandinavian.  Deal with the cold and stay outside as much as you can.  Make a fire or get an outdoor heater. 

There ARE ways to mitigate risk.  There is no perfect way.  Decisions will have to be made.  Remember Deb Helmuth’s mantra:  No Regrets!

P.S.  We’re all tired of Covid-19.  If you need motivation to consider precautions, look up some of the recent stories in the NYTimes or the Washington Post of families who loosened up because “It was just family”.  Or check out the CNN response to the President’s recent criticism of their Covid-19 coverage.  It’s powerful.  


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“I’ve Got This!” – Or So I Thought

When Indiana shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, I approached the “stay at home” orders with a healthy mixture of anxiety and confidence. Buoyed up by messages of hope and perseverance, like from Carrie Newcomer who made her song “You Can Do This Hard Thing” a mantra for our collective survival, I felt a sense of connection and hopefulness as I entered the pandemic-imposed isolation.  

It also helped that for Lent I had decided to dedicate some time each day to practicing mindfulness. Little did I know how significant that focus on being present in the moment would become in just a few weeks.  

My mindfulness prompt on March 17, just a couple of days after IUPUI closed down the campus, was:  

“An ancient Chinese proverb says:  ‘You cannot stop the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can stop them nesting in your hair.’  Think about what this phrase means about being mindful.  Write a poem or draw a picture that captures your thoughts about the phrase.”  

Now, that was a challenge for someone who doesn’t consider herself to be much of a poet and even less of an artist!  Nonetheless, I set out on my evening walk, thinking about COVID-19 as a huge flock of “birds of sorrow” flying overhead and contemplating what it would take to keep them from “making a nest in my hair.”  As words starting popping into my mind – communication, compassion, open-mindedness, determination — it occurred to me that the letters that make up COVID itself just might give us all the answers we need.  When I got back from my walk, I created this “Not-in-My-Hair” shield.

The shield reinforced my feelings of hopefulness – it gave me confidence that it just might be possible to turn what has been lost into new life and to transform despair and fear into new beginnings.  

Here we are, four months later, and I am no longer as convinced that “I’ve Got This.”  I find myself feeling stressed by the resurgence of COVID-19 cases, irritated by what I see as irresponsible and risky choices that are being made by individuals as well as institutions, and trapped by travel restrictions. 

Then a thought occurs to me.  Maybe, just maybe, that “Not-in-My-Hair” shield might have the answers needed to get through the current situation, too; so, I pull out my Lenten journal, flip to March 17, and take another look at my “work of art.”   

  • Creative solutions and Compassion definitely are still needed.  
  • Open-mindedness and Organization certainly can’t hurt.  
  • Virtual communication continues to be my lifeline.  
  • Interdependence – recognizing that what each of us does affects everyone else – is critical right now.  (And, for myself, I could definitely add another “I” word: Imperturbability, being able to stay calm and avoid becoming upset or agitated.) 
  • Determination and Deep Faith come together to give us the roots we need to stand firm and the wings we need to fly. 

I’m still not sure “I’ve Got This,” but it’s good to be reminded of what can keep the “birds of sorrow” from nesting in my hair. 

Tiny Cottage by Bethany Habegger

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Doing Church in a Pandemic

Singing in Church

Kalonda, Congo, 1981
Close together
wooden benches
children packed into the front rows
enthusiastically singing,
waving, clapping, dancing.

Indianapolis, 2019
Padded pews
space between us
modulated voices
harmony
children in the back
with distracted parents.

COVID, 2020
Computer screens
miles apart
children dart in and out of view
we mute ourselves when we sing.

Doing Church in a Pandemic

I’m used to sitting in the front row at Shalom Mennonite Church, seeing only the worship and song leaders and preachers up front. On Zoom I see rows of faces. I click back and forth to see who’s here. I am distracted by my own face and try to adjust the camera.

Preaching works fine on Zoom; fewer distractions on Speaker view. One or two persons read the litany while others follow along from home. Singing is the biggest challenge. We can each sing at home but can’t hear each other. I see what tech-savvy folks are doing in other locations (including Quito, Ecuador), but our congregation hasn’t gotten there yet.

Zoom is a great medium for folks with social anxiety. One can hide one’s face or turn the camera to the ceiling. Some folks have been attending who rarely or never could gear themselves up to come to an in-person service. Shy folks watch from behind their names. We are joined by folks who are at a distance, snowbirds and folks who have moved away.

For a person who doesn’t drive and doesn’t have internet, this is a terribly lonely time. No access to email, no friendly person picking one up on Sunday morning and chatting on the way to church, no fellowship meals. Listening to worship by phone is a poor substitute.

How to be church together in such a time?

Our Shalom leaders created a panel of deacons who check in on each person or household on a regular basis. A social calling tree is available to encourage informal conversations. Small groups meet by Zoom or stay in touch informally. We still take meals to folks who have had surgery or been hospitalized. 

Our sharing time takes on a new urgency when several members of one family are ill. Some of us work in health care or other high-risk settings. We pray for each other, virtually reaching out to surround each other with the hugs we can’t share.

Looking ahead, it’s not easy to find the best path. We feel the desire to draw together, while the rising Covid case numbers pull us apart. Will cases spike when school opens? When will it be safe enough to gather in person? How will we care for the most vulnerable among us?

There have been plagues and pandemics before, but in reading about them we underestimated the upheaval that they caused. Now it’s our turn to live in a pandemic. Lord help us, we pray.

Artwork by Maggie Girard

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