Help is on the way

I have always loved Psalm 121 (text below). It’s one of the Psalms of Ascent, which pilgrims to Jerusalem would sing as they walked toward the celebration of one of the three annual feasts. The opening phrase—“I lift up my eyes to the hills”—is so simple and evocative. It reminds us of those moments of quiet awe when we’re out in creation and can rest our eyes on distant hills or mountains.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
    from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

[Our Creator] will not let your foot be moved;
    the One who keeps you will not slumber.
The One who keeps Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day
    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
    the Lord will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
    your going out and your coming in
    from this time on and forevermore.

Psalm 121 (NRSVUE)

            However, recently I’ve gotten a different vibe from this psalm. Creating an illustration to be included in The Peace Table Bible storybook brought this to the fore. Of course before beginning my image, I read the psalm again and meditated on its narrative. Why is the psalmist (or singer) lifting their eyes? It doesn’t seem to be for refreshment or awe. The speaker/singer needs help. And it’s not that a rescuing army is about to sweep over the crest of the hills! It’s God who will be the source of help.

            “The Lord is your shade at your right hand,” promises the psalmist, so that “the sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” This song is about a trek through a desert landscape where sunlight can be harsh and unrelenting, where night brings other dangers.

            So I decided not to sentimentalize Psalm 121 in my illustration. I chose metal vintage-watch pieces for the sun, moon, and stars. On the left the figure—singer of this psalm—is panting with the effort of climbing under the sun’s glare. On the right the pilgrim has made it over the hill but must sleep in the open air in darkness, vulnerable to human raiders or wild animals. God’s help is needed for every step along the way.

Photo by Michael Bracey


More recently I’ve been crafting a picture book that tackles climate change and plastic pollution, and seeks to enchant readers with a vision of the beautiful communities of humans and other animals, plants and air and mountains, that can emerge when we take up the work of restoration and healing. This is a pilgrimage we’re invited into today: the journey of changing our lives to lessen climate change and keep Earth inhabitable. Let’s find songs that remind us of God’s loving attentiveness and help all along the way. Let’s find rhythms of joy and mutual care.

As always, you’re also invited to sign up for my newsletter, which will bring more art and meditations to your inbox!

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Jesus Our Mother

My sermon preached December 11, 2022, at Living Water Community Church, Chicago

Isaiah 49:15-16 [NIV Readers ed.]

The Lord answers, “Can a mother forget the baby
    who is nursing at her breast?
Can she stop having tender love
    for the child who was born to her?
She might forget her child.
    But I will not forget you.
I have written your name on the palms of my hands.
    Your walls are never out of my sight.”

Luke 13:34

Jesus said, “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and throw stones in order to kill those who are sent to you. Many times I have wanted to gather your people together. I have wanted to be like a hen who gathers her chicks under her wings. And you would not let me.”

For a number of years now Julian of Norwich has been a good friend and sister to me, starting well before the pandemic began and deepening in these years of solitude. I am delighted to speak to you today about some of her insights into who God is and how Jesus sees us and loves us.

Julian’s writing is not on the level of Christian scripture. It has not been considered and studied for twenty centuries. It seems to have been little known even within the English-speaking world for a good part of the nearly 650 years since Julian received her revelations, though she is recognized as the first woman to have written a book in English. But Julian is being studied more intensively as of late, and she is recognized as a complex thinker and a mystical theologian who has much to offer.

A few basics about her. She was born in 1342 and lived till at least 1416. We are not sure about her name. All the other Julians we know, in history and in our congregation, are male. 😊 Some believe Julian was adopted as her religious name from St. Julian’s Church in her hometown of Norwich, England. But it’s also said that Julian in medieval times could be a name for either a woman or a man.

As a devout young woman, Julian prayed some prayers that are strange to us but not so strange for a dedicated believer of her time. She prayed (1) to come close to death, (2) to see Jesus’s suffering on the cross as if she were present, and (3) to be marked with three “wounds”: contrition, compassion, and deep longing for God.

At age 30 Julian became deathly ill, perhaps from the Black Death—bubonic plague which was sweeping through England repeatedly in those years. She very likely had already lost her husband and at least one child to the plague. All of those prayers were answered as she lay on her deathbed, having received last rites. As she gazed at a crucifix, Jesus’s suffering became very vivid to her and she received a series of “showings” or revelations—visions of Christ’s passion and messages from God. These showings, and her conversations with God about them, determined the remainder of her life.

Julian went into enclosure at some point after receiving her revelations. Enclosure here means moving into a very small space permanently in order to pray and serve God. She became an anchorite, which is different from a nun or a hermit. Nuns generally live in community. Hermits live in almost complete isolation. An anchorite lives in a small cell attached to a church. Julian’s cell was attached to St. Julian’s Church.

Her cell had another tiny cell attached, where another woman lived and did the necessary practical tasks like cleaning and buying food. Julian devoted herself to prayer and writing, except that in the afternoons people from the community could step onto her cell’s little porch and speak to her through a curtained window. She was essentially a spiritual director to them. And she is often portrayed with a cat, as in the above stained-glass window in Norwich Cathedral today.

The Roman Catholic Church was the only official church in England at this time. The church and the government were tied very closely together. The Mass was in Latin, which was not the language people spoke. And the Bible was read only in Latin. John Wyclif also lived in England at this time, and he took a big risk to translate the Bible into English, which was against the church’s laws. If you were one of Wyclif’s followers and were found to have an English Bible in your house, you would probably be taken outside the city and executed.

Julian probably didn’t know how to read and understand Latin; she calls herself uneducated. So she couldn’t study or quote the Bible the way we do. But she would have learned a lot through sermons and through church processions and plays in English, in which people acted out stories from the Bible. Stained-glass windows were visual ways for people to become familiar with characters and events from the Bible.

Julian did know how to read and write in English. And somehow, even though some of her writings challenged official church teachings, they survived in two handwritten copies and have been translated into modern English.

So here we go with some of Julian’s writings.

I have been combining botanical paintings with some of my favorite quotations from Julian. Julian pays a lot of attention to God as Trinity as she explores the riches of God’s self-revelation. Notice her titles here for the members of the Trinity:

  • Power for the Father—not surprising
  • More surprising: Wisdom for the Son, whom she calls Mother—we’ll talk more about this
  • Also surprising: Love for the Spirit. Julian also calls the Spirit Goodness. I had been used to thinking of the Holy Spirit almost as a mere conduit or a communicator of God’s power and wisdom. Thinking of the Spirit as Love and Goodness in herself is fresh for me, and it strikes me as good theology.

Today we’re going to focus on the Second Person of the Trinity in Julian’s writing, so I have put together some images and quotes about Jesus. Julian is especially surprising when she writes about Jesus as our Mother. I love thinking about this in the context of Mary becoming pregnant with Jesus.

First, not only do we share the richness of the Trinity in our essential creation, as the previous slide said. But also Jesus wishes and chooses to enter our humanity. Jesus is the source of our human nature (which Julian calls “fair”—that is, positive and admirable). And here Jesus is our Mother and our Home: we are born from Christ, we are enclosed in Christ, our life is a journey into Christ.

Jesus establishes our identity in himself and considers it very good.

Regardless of our precise theology of the cross, I think believers generally understand that Jesus suffered there for us and with us. So Jesus is our Mother not only as our source but also as One who suffers to give birth to us. Indeed what Jesus endured on the cross is for the life of the whole world. Our deliverance from sin and evil can also be understood as a delivery—Jesus giving birth to us.

If we were all able to live according to our good human nature and identity, we who are mothers would never neglect or forget our children. But we fail at times, as Julian recognizes here, echoing the words of the writer of Isaiah. Jesus as our Mother, however, will never forget or neglect us.

My own mother was a wonderful person, but she was rather hard on me, lashing out occasionally with physical violence or withering words. I think I reminded her of the failings of my dad that made their marriage difficult at times. Knowing God as my Mother has been deeply healing for me—especially opening up to God’s loving gaze, a bonding gaze that is never averted from me. It’s hard to express how bountiful life has become for me as I’ve meditated on Julian’s confident insights into Jesus’s motherly love.

This is a beautiful summary statement of what the incarnation and the cross mean as Jesus’s mothering of us. And look at the threefold promise of Julian’s next sentence: in the past, the present, and the future Jesus continues to feed and foster us. Jesus gives us the food we need to survive both physically and spiritually. And Jesus fosters us like a mentor, helping us to become more and more fully ourselves.

So our life is grounded in the life of our Mother. I want to encourage us to use the title Mother for Jesus, or for the triune God, more often and more freely. We are most used to saying Father (Baba) or Lord (Bwana), but the Bible gives us many examples of God being called our Mother and acting like a mother. Nowadays I sometimes playfully address my own prayers to Mother Lord. In Swahili you could say Bwana Mama!

And remember that Jesus has subverted the title Lord or Bwana itself. When the Bible was translated into English, English society was feudal. So it’s interesting that Lord is the word used to translate titles for God and Jesus in both the Jewish Bible (our Old Testament) and the New Testament. Lords were rich men who owned large pieces of land, farmed by poor people who didn’t own anything. When we call Jesus our Lord, we must remember that Jesus is not at all that kind of lord. This Lord is our mother and our servant, our friend who invites us into maturity and partnership.

Let me close with a quotation from a sermon by Wil Gafney, a Black priest and scholar who happens to love the writings of Julian of Norwich. Dr. Gafney’s words remind me of Mary’s song.

Jesus didn’t want to be king.

Kings take. But Jesus gives.

A king will take your sister, wife or daughter. But Jesus gives women dignity.

A king will take and tax your crops. But Jesus gives the Bread of Heaven and earthly food to the hungry.

A king will take your life if you get in his way, but Jesus gives eternal life.



Scripture version and sermon language were kept simple to honor the many nonnative English speakers in our congregation. I recommend this practice: it helped me try to keep my thoughts really clear. A number of our congregants speak kiSwahili, so I include a few words from that language toward the end.

Image of Julian on her supposed deathbed comes from this page, where I could not find an artist credit.

Dr. Gafney’s sermon is dated October 26, 2022, and can be found here.

Botanical images

These digital paintings are all by Ruth Goring.

  • Northern mountain ash; reference photo is in Allen J. Coombes, The Book of Leaves, ed. Zsolt Debreczy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 479.
  • Northern white cedar, Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
  • Eastern bottlebrush, Churchill Park, Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
  • Sword fern, Matthiessen State Park, Oglesby, Illinois.
  • Serviceberries, Chicago, Illinois.
  • Wild strawberries in my garden, Chicago.

One more thing . . .

In my newsletter I’ve been sharing more botanical art and brief Julian meditations, along with children’s book recommendations. Feel free to contact me (Contact tab, upper right) if you’d like to be added to the address list.

Mother Lord

That’s my new term of endearment for God.

In my recent meditations on the writings of Julian of Norwich, I have relished her prolonged contemplation of Jesus as our Mother: how he gives birth to us twice, in creation and on the cross, and how he tends us day by day.

Who describes Jesus’s mothering of us better than Julian? My botanical illustration is of serviceberries on a tree near my home.

Julian’s trinitarian theology is clear and sound: the three Persons are One, and what is done by any of them is done by the one God. What one Person is, all three are together. Thus in other places she writes that God is both Father and Mother.

To my sorrow, I remember as a young adult scoffing along with a friend who had visited a “liberal” church where prayers were often addressed to “Father-Mother God.” Now I think such forms of address are true and rich, fully consonant with scripture and various strains of Christian tradition.

In my own prayer life I have tended in the past couple of decades to opt for “God”—usually “dear God”—as a gender-neutral term of address. But I’ve been longing for something warmer, a phrase that expresses more of who God is to me, to us.

Daneen Akers makes an excellent case for switching to “Mother God” and ditching the male terms and pronouns altogether. Of course she’s not the only advocate for this; on the page I’ve linked, you can download a helpful PDF she put together quoting other thoughtful Jesus followers who have made this change.

Somehow my heart has been wanting a term that clashes a little more, calling attention to itself, yet one that could come to feel natural on my tongue. This past weekend I hit upon “Mother Lord,” and it feels just right. Lord has a feudal feel, but it’s what the biblical translators continue to use, and its Aramaic equivalent was what the first disciples called Jesus most often. I like retaining this familiar title because it conveys honor and trust and glory. And I have used it all my life.

As a child I called my mother Mommy, and as a teen I switched to Mom. Mother feels different, larger. It speaks of intimacy and belovedness, respect and dignity. Our Lord is Mother to me and to my mother and father, to all generations of humankind. She is our Source, giving us life, tending us, challenging us, calling us home.

“Mother Lord” makes me chuckle a little, and it seems to hold my whole ongoing journey to know God more.

Giving God names that reflect our awe and affection is a very scriptural thing to do. Have you come up with a special name for God? I would love to read it.

Full of endless heavens

Twilight in my neighborhood

For a few years now I have been pondering the words of Julian of Norwich, the medieval woman who at age 30 received a series of “showings” or revelations of the love of God. She dedicated the rest of her life to praying through these visions, asking God questions about them, deciphering their meaning. In fact after she wrote them down, she began writing them again as she understood more.

Julian moved into a small anchorhold–a monastic cell built against a wall of St. Julian’s Church in the city of Norwich, England. Another woman lived in an adjoining cell and took care of her practical needs so that Julian could live as an anchorite, mostly in solitude for prayer and writing but in the afternoons receiving visitors who came to her porch window to seek her counsel.

I feel a great kinship with Julian, not because I possess comparable wisdom and dazzling intellect but because I too have had deep experiences of God’s love. Julian’s insights speak to my heart. They are carrying me through these years of terrifying climate change and pandemic and war and the violence of white supremacy. Julian is an older sister who holds my hand, grieves with me, and helps persuade my anxious body to rest in love.

The title I chose for this post is from an extended meditation on a brief vision Julian received. A lord (remember, she lived in medieval England) is sitting on a throne with a servant nearby. The lord asks the servant to take care of a certain task, and the young man leaps up to obey–but immediately stumbles and falls. Instead of berating him for his awkwardness, the lord descends from the throne and kindly takes his hand to help him up.

Julian is fascinated by this parable/vision and spends several pages interpreting it. The lord, of course, is God, and the servant is the paradigmatic human being, Adam. The first sin committed by the first humans in the book of Genesis has long been called “the fall.” But Julian is moved and astonished to see how gently God responds to Adam’s offense. This was not the God portrayed in most church sermons in her day.

Julian shares other insights as she digs into this parable–too much to explain here. What I’ve been carrying around in the notes app on my phone is one phrase: within the lord she sees “a great refuge, long and wide and full of endless heavens.”

Every time I read it, I must stop and take a deep, glad breath.

God is some kind of a river, some kind of a sky, some kind of a forest in which every vulnerable created thing is welcomed and protected.

Today’s poem is a bird

A poem by Cynthia Wallace, with my Spanish translation

The Uvalde massacre, & before it the Buffalo massacre, is too painful–& too telling of the deep wrongs of my country. This poem disavows its own importance, but it is necessary right now. We need poets & artists to help us get through these terrible days.

After the poem I’ll link pieces by the wonderful young writer/theologian Danté Stewart that have also helped me. I think you’ll be strengthened by them too.

Peace to you, and hold your children close.

Today’s poem is a bird

perched on the top of a fence.

Does the world need another poem?

The world needs

another bird

perched on the top of a fence.

The world needs me to scrub this pot

and scour this sink and sweep these crumbs.

The world needs me to brush this budding

grown-up tooth in my boy’s mouth,

and all the baby teeth beside it.

The world needs

to cry out for the baby teeth,

the milk teeth,

the ragged grown-up teeth

not yet smooth,

gunned down on this very day

in the United States of America.

The world needs to sing a keening sorrow song

with the mothers seeing their children’s toothbrushes tonight,

the notes so true they ring out a silent scream.

The world doesn’t need another poem.

The world needs a revolution.

The mothers need to have their children.

The mothers need to be telling their babies to

brush their teeth and get along to bed.

Cynthia R. Wallace

El poema de hoy es un pájaro.

posado en lo alto de una cerca.

¿Necesita el mundo otro poema?

El mundo necesita

otro pájaro

posado en lo alto de una cerca.

El mundo necesita que yo friegue esta olla

y que restriegue el fregadero y barra estas migajas.

El mundo necesita que yo cepille este capullo

de diente adulto en la boca de mi niño,

y todos los dientes de leche a su lado.

El mundo necesita

clamar por los dientes de leche,

los dientes de adulto irregulares

aún no alisados,

en este mismo día acribillados a balazos

en los Estados Unidos de América.

El mundo necesita una canción de luto esta noche

con las madres que miran los cepillos de dientes de sus hijos,

notas tan afinadas que resuenan en grito silencioso.

El mundo no necesita otro poema.

El mundo necesita una revolución.

Las madres necesitan tener a sus hijos.

Las madres necesitan mandarles a sus bebés

que se cepillen los dientes y suban a la cama.

—C. R. Wallace, translated by Ruth Goring

An interview and an essay from Danté Stewart for this time of grief:

“After Uvalde school shooting, minister Danté Stewart says to protect your humanity in grief,” interview by Tonya Moseley and Samantha Raphelson on Here and Now, WBUR (Boston Public Radio)

“After shootings in Buffalo and Texas, it’s clear dark days require deep love,” Andscape

Bedtime conversations

My last post hinted at the wild conversations that can happen with children when bedtime is filled with songs, stories, and prayers. My own kids shared a bedroom for years because of a tight budget, so our bedtime ritual involved them together. Many of our most important conversations happened during those years.

            No topic was forbidden. My children’s defenses would be down, and sometimes they’d blurt out rather extraordinary things.

Claire: Why do angels always carry torches?

Mom: I didn’t know they did. Have you seen an angel?

Claire: Yeah, the other day I ran around the corner of Andrew’s house and there was an angel.

Mom: Oh wow, did you talk?

Claire: Yeah. I told him I was sorry for saying bad words.

            As a missionary kid and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship alum, I’m stuck for life with an internal theology monitor. My invisible antennas went up as my daughter spoke. Claire’s angelic encounter seemed to pass scriptural tests: it was unexpected and it prompted repentance. I couldn’t recall any Bible story book illustrations of angels carrying torches (for Brits, flaming torches, not flashlights). But the mental image is beautiful, and completely consonant with biblical imagery.

After singing Christmas carols, before we trooped up to their room for the rest of bedtime.

It was at bedtime that my children told me—together—that they’d decided they wanted to be baptized.

It was at bedtime that they told me they hoped a family member traveling abroad would die instead of coming home.

            It was at bedtime that they told me they’d conferred with each other and agreed that they hoped a family member traveling abroad would die instead of coming home. I held in my shock and did not reproach them but asked why. Their answer was a revelation to me, helping me understand that the family environment needed to be made safer for them.

            Some years later, when my kids had their own rooms, Graham and I had a bedtime conversation and prayer very like that in Isaiah and the Worry Pack. It was a God-encounter for both of us. A week or so later, I asked him how his sleep had been. “OK,” he said. “If I’m having trouble sleeping, I just run a mini-version of ‘The Worry Pack’ like a video in my mind.”

            That was when the thought came to me that perhaps someday I should make our experience into a book.

            Claire was in junior high when she told me at bedtime that some peers at school made fun of a disabled classmate and she had joined in. Later, on her own initiative, she had apologized tearfully to the girl, and they became friends.

Finally, there were the daytime conversations that emerged from our bedtime sharing. One fall afternoon when Claire was three, we were driving in the neighborhood and I called her attention to a small maple tree whose leaves were afire. “Isn’t it gorgeous?” I rhapsodized.

            Claire burst out from the backseat, “I love God!”

            Bedtime talks and readings had formed her to see the world theologically, as made and sustained by God.

My children were no more creative than the children in your life are; they had no more capacity for entering God’s presence than your children have. So as you wake up to God’s love and learn new, fruitful ways to pray, share your experiences with them. Of course what you share needs to be at their level, and it needs to connect naturally with their lives and struggles.

            There’s no telling what new adventures you’ll have together. And sometimes you’ll find your young ones leading the way.

So many ways to pray with kids

Praying with children is one of the most important things we can do to foster their life with God.

            My kids and I prayed before meals throughout their growing-up years, and spontaneously anytime they were hurt, frightened, or sick. But the most important time for prayer was bedtime. After I read a picture book or a middle-grade book chapter to them, and a Bible story, we took turns praying. Then I sang something peaceful as they drifted off to sleep. This practice calmed and nurtured all of us and bore sometimes surprising fruit.

            Our routine was modeled on my own experiences growing up in a large family with missionary/teacher parents.

Prayer in the Land of Gorings

Not all those early experiences of prayer were nourishing. Our dad would periodically decide to lead family devotions following breakfast. It always fell flat—I can’t remember a single time that morning devotions didn’t feel awkward and pedantic, with Dad posing schoolroom-type questions that failed to engage our lives or our struggles. The practice always petered out after a few dutiful stabs at this perceived obligation.

            Bedtime prayers were a whole other story. For years—beginning in our eldest sister’s infancy—little Gorings gathered in PJs each night for the enchantment of a poem or two read aloud, followed by a story or book chapter, a Bible story, humorous songs and a hymn or two, and finally prayers. It was our warmest time together; it grew our imaginations and helped to form an indelible family culture that keeps my siblings and me deeply bonded to this day. We have all remained in the faith.

Arrayed in our pajamas just before going to bed and starting the nightly ritual. That’s me on the left. Three more siblings were yet to come! And then my parents adopted two more when the rest of us had grown into young adults.

Bedtime is best

What makes bedtime a particularly rich time to pray with our little ones? I think there are a couple of reasons.

            First, as they become sleepy children’s normal defenses go down. Especially if the parent is unhurried and attentive at bedtime, children may get in touch with tender or sad feelings and blurt out things they’d not say in daylight.

            It is a gift just to find words for our feelings and experiences. Then they can be brought to God in prayers of thanksgiving and petition.

Two favorite photos of my kids in childhood

            Second, bedtime is a natural time to think back on the day and look forward to what is coming. Cindy Bunch’s Be Kind to Yourself (IVP, 2020) wasn’t around when I was a young mom, but if it had been, I’m pretty sure I would have used its simple examen questions—what’s bugging you? what’s bringing you joy?—to help my kids articulate hardships of the past day and places where they had sensed God’s presence.

Kid-friendly prayers

Prayer with children can take other forms too. My picture book Isaiah and the Worry Pack (IVP Kids, 2021) models an imaginative way of meeting God through guided imagery. It’s based on an experience my son Graham and I had together one night when he struggled with some big worries. Jared Patrick Boyd suggests ways to pray Scripture imaginatively with children in Imaginative Prayer (IVP, 2017).

            Memorized prayers can be helpful too. When I was a child, we often recited “Now I Lay Me.” Its mention of death would make it off-putting to many parents nowadays. But falling asleep is entering another country, mysterious and affording children even less control than they have over their waking hours. Maybe it’s not so bad to provide our kids a prayer that contains their fears within a little rhyme that expects God to hold them in both waking and sleeping, living and dying.

            Some lovely prayers to read and perhaps memorize with kids—in daytime as well as at bedtime—can be found in Traci Smith’s Prayers for Faithful Families (Beaming Books, 2020). And a great resource is coming soon from IVP Kids: Little Prayers for Ordinary Days by Tish Harrison Warren, Flo Paris Oakes, and Katy Hutson (2022).

Singing as prayer

Singing can be a prayer practice too, of course. I adopted my daughter Claire at age one after she had suffered serious neglect and starvation in an institution during her first six months of life. As she grew, she became especially fond of the hymn “Children of the Heavenly Father.” For years she requested it practically every night, along with prayers that she wouldn’t have bad dreams.

Claire at 18 months, now in the US, with my mother, Susy Goring, who had literally rescued her from death.

            Years later Claire was at the National Registrar’s office in her birth country, Colombia. She’d entered to apply for her identity card so that her dual citizenship could be recognized. An encounter with the director of the new digital population database led to an amazing bonus: printouts of the birth, ID, and death records of her birth mother!

            Holding these documents, Claire wandered out onto Plaza Bolívar toward the national cathedral while waiting for a friend to complete an errand of her own.

            Then from inside the huge church she heard music—the organist at this Colombian Roman Catholic cathedral dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus began playing a Swedish Lutheran hymn, “Children of the Heavenly Father.”

            Claire told me later that her heart began pounding in surprised awe. But she was also flooded with peace. Even though she’d just learned that she’d never meet her birth mother in this life, she might be able to track down other members of her biological family, now that she had her mom’s documents. And the hymn reminded her that the gentle, attentive Father she had met in bedtime prayers would be with her. All along God had been bearing her, as the hymn says, “in his mighty arms.”

Note: I have many stories of funny and extraordinary conversations about God that arose out of prayers with my kids. Too many to tell in one post! So I welcome you to subscribe (above right, next to the title of this post) if you’d like to read them in the coming weeks.

How I learned that God is for me

As Isaiah & the Worry Pack‘s launch day draws near–just 11 days from now!–I’ve been happily busy with writing and interviews about this book, worry/anxiety experienced by children, prayer, and my kids’ books more generally.

I’ve thought again and again of an experience during Lent 1991 in a little church in West Chicago. I had been introduced to guided-imagery meditation before then, through books and a therapist, but on this Wednesday night it changed my life.

My first (sad and abusive) marriage had ended, and I still wondered whether divorce was one of the worst sins, essentially a departure from the faith in which I had grown up. I had moved my kids across the country, and now I was in a church service with a bunch of strangers. The woman at the front invited us to close our eyes and participate in a prayer exercise called Garden of the Heart.

Picture your heart as a garden.

Mine isn’t even full of weeds. It is a patch of dry, hard, absolutely barren dirt.

My heart was rather like this barren ground at Abu Simbel, Egypt. Photo from Creative Commons.

Where are you in the garden?

Right in the middle, lying prostrate with my face in the dirt.

Now Jesus comes into the garden. What does he do?

I suppose he picks up a hoe and starts poking at the dirt to break it up for planting.

No! I see Jesus. He is right beside me on the ground, face down in the dirt.

I cried and cried that night—healing tears. God had come into my devastation, my life’s failure, and instead of hurrying to fix things was mourning with me.

My inner desert had become a place of intimate encounter—a garden for the sprouting of something beautiful, unforeseen, and utterly wild.

Wildflowers in City Park, New Orleans. Photo by Jami430 under the Creative Commons Share-Alike License 4.0.

New picture book: Isaiah and the Worry Pack!

Official launch is November 9, 2021.

Preorder here! Or through your favorite local or online bookstore.

This story was in my heart for many years–& I had written it down, but that was long before I had learned what I now know about picture book structure & pacing. I’m a late bloomer with picture books, but I keep thinking, I am so glad each book has come out when it has. Each needed to ripen in its own way.

Isaiah & the Worry Pack grew out of my years of seeking God intensely, partly because I just wanted a more experiential faith, & partly because my marriage was failing & I was in deep pain. I delved into practices of contemplative & charismatic prayer, & God drew near. Of course God had never left, but now I was learning how to listen & to see with the eyes of the heart.

I will write more about the experiences of those years in other posts; for now I just want to say that my own spiritual search nurtured my children’s spiritual lives too. One night my son, aged 10, & I had a meditative prayer experience together very like what the mom & son experience in Isaiah & the Worry Pack. It didn’t preserve him from all anxiety thereafter, but the guided-imagery prayer became a tool for him to use on his own when he was struggling to sleep.

In the story, Isaiah & his sister & mother are living far away from his father, just as we were. Kids in single-parent households are not doomed to become disconnected from God because of the trauma of separation or divorce. I feel pretty strongly about this!

I haven’t seen a picture book like Isaiah & the Worry Pack out in the world! I hope you will get copies for the young ones in your life, & I hope it deepens their own life of faith.

I met Jesus yesterday, and his name is Will

I was walking home from a backyard birthday party in my neighborhood—the first festive gathering I had attended in person since the covid-19 pandemic restrictions had begun sixteen months earlier.

I had been snapping pictures of beautiful trees and an inspiring front yard with rhubarb, a cloud of dillweed, and a sign with a Wendell Berry poem planted near the sidewalk. I walked under the Metro train viaduct and saw him at the Clark Street intersection.

The man was white with graying hair, wiry, and deeply bowed at the waist. He was pushing a bike and had stopped to catch his breath.

When I caught up with him, I asked if he could use some help pushing his bike. He demurred but then said yes, so I took hold. It took him a little while to release his hold—I think he wanted to make sure it wasn’t too heavy for me. I too am graying. Once he realized I was OK with the weight, he let go. A heavy bag hung from the handlebars, and another was fastened behind the seat.

As we headed north on Clark, he told me that he was heading to his girlfriend’s apartment near the Mexican bakery up ahead. She had been bedridden for eighteen months; I didn’t catch her diagnosis. Her mother had died of covid in October 2020.

He himself had been attacked and robbed on the Red Line months ago. He had undergone surgeries but was left with a wracked body. He thanked me for accompanying him. “My name’s Will,” he said.

“And I’m Ruth,” I replied.

He pointed to a gangway to enter his girlfriend’s building, on the opposite side of Clark. I suggested that we continue to the corner to cross at the light, but he veered into the street midblock. North-south traffic was stopped or slowed by red lights at the moment, so I followed him and waved to drivers who made way for us.

At the narrow gangway opening, he insisted on taking the bike. I followed him to a locked gate that held a row of mailboxes. He unlocked it and I helped steady the bike as he squeezed through, ducking under the mailboxes. He didn’t want me to enter the building with him, even though he’d be hauling the bike up three flights of stairs. So I said goodbye and continued my walk.

* * *

All my life I have struggled to respond ethically to people in need in public places. I have been urged not to give to those who panhandle, as they may be feeding a drug habit. I have been urged to give them a small amount of cash and acknowledge their humanity. Some people advise offering only food as a way to flush out those who want cash for nefarious purposes.

I haven’t figured it out. I advocate for government programs that would provide housing and meet other needs. I give to food programs. But these initiatives have not yet provided everything that’s needed, so I still meet struggling people on the street sometimes.

Viaduct in my neighborhood

Given Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 25, I have realized that I must recognize Jesus in prisoners, sick folks, and others who suffer need and oppression. People don’t have to be virtuous and free of drugs to be Jesus to me. And I’m not their savior, just their sister.

Sometimes I give some money and say “God bless you.” Sometimes I have no money and can only smile at them and pray. Occasionally I stop to talk. My city is full of Jesus.

Will was not panhandling; he was pushing his bike along without asking for help. I got to be his sister for a few minutes, marveling at his determination, his willingness to walk bent over, struggling for breath, to reach his sick girlfriend. And then I had to respect his boundaries as he insisted that I go on my way while he somehow pulled his bike up the stairs alone.

* * *

One way that I process my grief at news of catastrophic floods and fires, intensifying effects of climate change, is to walk in my neighborhood as often as possible. I take many pictures of flowers, trees, the lake, the sky. Earth is sick “through our own grievous fault,” as the Book of Common Prayer confession says, so taking walks is a way of fulfilling Jesus’s parable of instruction: “I was sick and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).

The whole earth is filled with God’s glory (Isaiah 6:3 and many other biblical passages). Given extreme economic inequities, pervasive effects of racism, and an oppressive criminal “justice” system, it is also filled with God’s suffering.

I want to be a friend who stays awake with Jesus in Touhy Park or crossing Clark Street. I want to keep my eyes open to Jesus’s presence in my neighbor’s riotous butterfly garden—cup plant and bee balm pushing toward the sun. And in the labored steps of a man named Will.