God in the World

The Breath Giver

God breathed Life into me, and yet I know His Presence by the way He steals my breath: 

  • at the beach
  • during a sunset
  • beside a waterfall
  • during a meteor shower
  • at the birth of a lamb
  • when my husband puts his arm around me
  • when my kids laugh

Evidence of the Breath Giver is breath-taking.

You know those moments, you stop for them. You allow yourself to experience the wonder. You receive the gift. These are moments we can't control or command, we can't take them. They are moments that are given and we receive them. This is the foundation of faith--wonder. This is the heart of the psalms, and the heart of so much poetry. We notice the ordinary and we wonder at it.

And that impulse to stop, to breathe it in, to write it down? Another name for that is worship.

I looked up the definition for wonder and it is this:

to be surprised by beauty

And that is exactly what wonder feels like isn't it?

We have been keeping a list of what we notice to be sacred. We started it on the first day of this month, and it is good, right? To unclench ourselves and open our hearts and eyes? To receive the gifts already given? The practice alone is good.

But perhaps we might use our list to write some poetry. Ummmmm, won't that be good too?

The Hundred Names of Love

We are celebrating National Poetry Month and today I get to introduce you to one of my favorite contemporary poets.

I had the immense pleasure of meeting Annie Lighthart several years ago. She is a generous and genuine soul. I love all of her poetry, but I wanted to share this one with you because it illustrates "Noticing the Sacred" which is where my heart is right now. I remember those exhausting early days of parenting, waking up in the middle of the night to the cry of a child. These moments become luminescent when Annie shines a light on them, helping us to notice the sacred in the ordinary.

The Hundred Names of Love
The children have gone to bed.
We are so tired we could fold ourselves neatly
behind our eyes and sleep mid-word, sleep standing
warm among the creatures in the barn, lean together
and sleep, forgetting each other completely in the velvet,
the forgiveness of that sleep.
Then the one small cry:
one strike of the match-head of sound:
one child’s voice:
and the hundred names of love are lit
as we rise and walk down the hall.
One hundred nights we wake like this,
wake out of our nowhere
to kneel by small beds in darkness.
One hundred flowers open in our hands,
a name for love written in each one.
~Annie Lighthart

Want more? She has a beautiful book of poems here.

And her website is here.

Noticing the Sacred

I went for a walk in September last year. I walked and prayed for over 200 miles.

And I wondered, What if Jesus Christ really is The Way?

Not just the goal. No. What if He is the road we walk? What if He carries us continuously? Wouldn't that mean that everywhere I step is Holy Ground? What would my life look like if I lived that way?

Today is the first day of National Poetry Month. I challenge you, and I challenge myself, to notice the sacred in today. The essence of poetry is the same as the essence of prayer--paying attention with your entirety. What if you are standing, right now, on Holy Ground? What if you treated the person in front of you as Holy? What if this moment, this object, this...This was sacred?

My Sacred List for the month of April begins with these:

1. Warmth and the smell of applewood just beginning to push back the cold in the morning, thanks to the hands of my beloved who rose before me and braved the cold floor to make a fire.

2. A text--a smiley emoticon from my 19 year old son away at college.

3. My yoga mat. It used to belong to my father, now I use it to connect my spirit to my body and to pray for the people with whom God populates my heart while I'm stretching.

What's on your list? I would love a glimpse into your sacred life if you are willing to share in the comments.

Thank you. And. Happy National Poetry Month!

Shimmering Contrasts, India Part 9

Speeding through the streets of colorful metropolitan Kolkata, we slow down and stop near the hippodrome to let a small flock of about fifty goats cross the street. Through the car window I watch a man in a bright orange tunic and pants, wearing a turban and carrying a mat under his right arm walk out onto a nearby soccer field. He is not bothered by the two dozen men chasing a ball up and down the green. He walks into their midst, opens his mat and sits. He is an orange beacon in a green sea and the soccer game parts around him, continues almost uninterrupted, different cultures occupying the same space.

This week we take two mornings to visit freedom businesses. These are businesses that exist to give people work, choices, and dignity. The two businesses we visit are specifically aimed at releasing women caught in the sex trade.

The first one we visit partly because we are considering using them for t-shirts. Shandra wants me to make a logo that can be used on t-shirts that will be sold to raise funds. To do this I need to understand what this company can and cannot do. The company is called FreeSet and you can find them online here: http://freesetglobal.com/

I meet the art-prepareres, the color-mixers (with their rings of Pantone color cards!), the fabric cutters and shirt-assemblers, and then I buy several t-shirts. I want to know how much drape there is in the cloth after it is printed. I am delighted to say that these shirts become personal favorites. They are soft and maintain their hand.

The logo I dream for the House of Light Project incorporates these things: a flame in an Indian-like pattern because their word for light is the same as their word for flame, a house within the flame and the word jyoti (flame) in Hindi inside the house. The house is filled with light and it emanates light. Beneath the flame is the website address where people can donate to the project. It is a little website I set up for them that they will maintain as they grow. The donation portal goes through Cru, which is the established and highly regarded non-profit that employs the feisty Shandra. The address is: houseoflightindia.com

The second freedom business we visit is Sari Bari. I have loved their products for many years, and we think it might be a good connection for the nuns at the House of Light. Sari Bari creates products--mostly blankets and bags--from used saris and straight stitching called kantha embroidery. The atmosphere among the women in the workplace is one of easy camaraderie and dedication to the work. There is something light and beautiful about the place. It feels like an oasis. You can find them online here: http://saribari.com/

Sister Dorothy, the smallest, youngest and newest sister in the house, comes with us to our meeting with the president of the company. One day I will create art to honor this most amazing woman. She does everything with her whole heart. This earnest woman, speaks to a tall, quiet earnest man with a heart for justice, peace and healing. I watch God stitch the ends of their fabrics together as they speak and I still don't know how He does it. Words are insufficient to describe that afternoon as we sit cross-legged together, grateful for the mats beneath us and the kindred spirits before us.

Sacred ground in the middle of the largest sex trade district in India.

Different cultures occupying the same space.

I Am Disturbed, India Part 3

I pushed open the door from the hotel and stepped into the Kolkata heat. Immediately, my glasses fogged up. As I stood wiping them, I could feel sweat collecting between my shoulder blades. By the time our driver dropped Shandra and I at the sewing machine shop, our clothes had melted into our skins.

But inside the shop, the atmosphere was quite chilly. Neither the manager nor his assistant smiled. When he spoke, the manager was careful to look pointedly away from us, mostly out the window, so that we became most familiar with his right ear and shoulder. He asked us a lot of questions, he didn't answer ours. The assistant brought us tea. The manager didn't drink his. I didn't drink mine.

"I could feel the steam coming out of your ears in that cold room,"  Shandra would laugh about this for weeks. And it was true. My anger was growing and I was struggling to contain it. This man, Lord! He is so condescending! How? How is he going to be able to do the things we have contracted him to do? How can a man this arrogant teach the women at the House of Light? His arrogance is a wall... And suddenly I realized I was catching a glimpse of another invisible story. There was so much I didn't know about this man, so much I would never understand; however, it was clear that he was woven into this tapestry. To discount him would be to leave a hole in the fabric. That's when the Holy Spirit broke into my own arrogance.

"There is much I don't know," I leaned forward. "Teach me."

He turned and looked at me for the first time. He waved at his assistant and thus began an hour of "training." I let him show me the machine features and I cooled down. He let me ask questions and he warmed up. We embroidered several samples onto black cloth and with each stitch our conversation became more real. Then he asked me to step into the back room. He wanted to show me the machine I should have bought. It filled the room. He showed me that it operated in exactly the same way as the smaller one but moved significantly faster.

"Tell me why you prefer this machine," I asked him.

"It's so much faster! You cannot hope to be competitive in the industry with the machine you bought!" He took a breath, "Tell me why you prefer that machine."

I laughed, "Because it is so much slower! That machine will go to a home for girls. They will learn on it without losing any fingers and then have the skills to get jobs later."

"A home for girls? It is going to a home for girls?" He looked at the floor for a second. He spoke very quietly, "Then you have purchased the correct machine." When he looked up he was smiling.

Shandra signed the papers and we packed up the boxes. She would laugh later, "I don't know what you did but you gained a friend in that shop." The Holy Spirit wanted to use the stones in my own wall of arrogance to build a bridge. As we were leaving I picked up the black cloth on which we had stitched out several samples, "Can I have this?" The assistant snatched it out of my hand, but the manager gave it back to me, "Of course you must have it, there is no problem." He gave us several business cards, "You must please disturb me for any reason. If the sisters at the House of Light need anything, machine maintenance, lessons, any question at all! I will look forward to being disturbed by them."

This textile piece is titled The Holy Spirit Disturbs Us. I wanted to do a textile piece to remember that moment. I loved that the manager used the word "disturbed" because it so accurately encapsulated all of our feelings that morning. We were negatively disturbed by one another, then we were positively disturbed by the Holy Spirit who invited us to try again. The piece is entirely hand-stitched to honor the effort, one stitch at a time, one word at a time, that it takes to choose to build a bridge.

   The Holy Spirit Disturbs Us,    Michelle Winter ©2016 cotton thread on cotton fabric stitch mounted to 16x20" museum board

The Holy Spirit Disturbs Us, Michelle Winter ©2016 cotton thread on cotton fabric stitch mounted to 16x20" museum board

The gray background fabric felt chilly to me, like the atmosphere in the shop when we first arrived. The orange square is the Presence of God, which is always there. The straight stitches are a nod to a form of traditional Indian hand embroidery called kantha. They form lovely undulations in the fabric (and texture is the reason textiles are my first art love). I chose white embroidery floss because I wanted something that didn't stand out too much. I wanted the stitching to feel almost atmospheric. The straight lines at the bottom are about the paths in which we are often stuck. The undulations are the unintentional ripples those paths can create. The scattered stitches are the times when the Holy Spirit explodes us out of our paths. The curved stitches are the times when we are merely nudged to see things in new ways. Anything can happen when The Holy Spirit Disturbs Us. I used a mounting technique that was new to me. Though it was a pain-staking process, I am so happy with the result and will definitely use it again.

In Which I Get What I Don't Deserve, India Part 2

It is a humbling experience to be fed by those with little food, or given a gift by those who have nothing to spare. It is tempting to refuse the kindness offered so generously, but it is precisely that staggering generosity that overrides all refusals. The only way to receive such a gift is to surrender to it, to accept it knowing there is no possibility of repayment. It is practical grace. All grace.

The second day we were in India I met Sunaa. At first I thought I was there to care for her, but instead she carried me. I tried to paint the gift of her. The first attempt was a very abstract painting, but there was too much pain in it. I painted over it, and the second attempt was too structured. There is a lot of structure in India, but much of the healing I witnessed happens outside of it. I made a third, and then a fourth attempt. By then the layers were building up and I liked the complexity of the textures. Then I realized that Sunaa's gift impacted me and shaped the rest of the trip for me because of it's simplicity. The painting below looks nothing like what I had envisioned. It is not about pain or need. It is about the deep capacity every single human has to bless another.

Sunaa is from Kerala, in the south of India. Kerala, where bananas grow, where they speak the beautiful Malayalam language and wrap sweet spirits in warm chocolate skin.

"Why did you move so far from home to come here?" I ask her.

She answers slowly, and clearly, "I wanted to help people. I didn't know how I could help, but I thought . . . perhaps I could give kindness."

"Who did you want to help?"

She is quiet for some time, searching for the words. Then she smiles. Sunaa looks me in the eyes in a most un-Indian way until we both know that I am listening with my heart.

"You."

And I receive the gift.

Overwhelming kindness.

Grace.

All grace.

   What If All We Had to Offer Was Kindness,    Michelle Winter     ©2016 acrylic on 20x24" canvasboard

What If All We Had to Offer Was Kindness, Michelle Winter ©2016 acrylic on 20x24" canvasboard

Invisible Stories, India Part 1

One of the first decisions a storyteller makes is where to begin the story. Do I begin at the beginning and trace the events chronologically? That might make the story easier to follow. Do I begin in the middle, drawing you quickly into the action? Do I dance around the edges unfolding the back story and the forward action in concert? I want to take you with me. I want to immerse you in this India Story.

But I can't.

The story is too big to tell, too deep and wide to hold.
And so, He hid the pieces inside the people.
The people.
That we would reach for one another and become
The poem.
~Michelle Winter, 2016

I entered into a long parade of stories invisible to me. I couldn't see the beginning. All I could do was reach out my hand and try to catch some shimmering confetti, pieces of Truth, as they flew by.

I missed much, but there were pieces of blue and green: women with gentle hands who offer kindness and healing; a girl who sets aside her need for rest to support her broken friends; women who have given up their lives to create a home and a family for the hurting.

There were pieces of red: men and women with fire in their eyes and hearts who have left their homes (some from other cities, some from other countries) to fight for justice and to rescue those who cannot fight.

There were pieces of orange: a feisty woman determined to pour herself out for the least of these; a quiet man hoping to change the world one person at a time.

And yellows, and golds: children who hold on to life and to one another, a middle aged woman reaching around the world to connect people who can be more effective together.

But, all that would come later. On the day we landed in India, we had been traveling for 36 hours and still had a drive ahead of us to the hotel. The streets were noisy, but the sounds organized themselves into music as we drove. There was heat, and breeze, colorful curbs and buses, the fog and stain of diesel, crowds, curry, lost luggage and a red alert for terrorist activity in the area. 

This is my first day, the landing day:

   After A Hard Day, Rest    Michelle Winter ©2016 acrylic on 20x24" canvasboard

After A Hard Day, Rest Michelle Winter ©2016 acrylic on 20x24" canvasboard

And so, perhaps there is a beginning after all. This is the only story I can tell. It is my story of how I danced in the parade of love and compassion in India...if only for a few steps along the way. 

Contemplative Photography: God in the Ordinary

A few years ago after a conference, some friends and I were quickly packing the car to return home. I carried the cooler through the garage. One of my friends came running into the garage from the street still holding the bags she had taken out.

"I wouldn't go out there," she said. "There are a couple of ah...a couple of um..."

"Unseemly characters?" I offered.

"That's putting it nicely."

I went out anyways.

There were two large men approaching, one black, one white. As soon as they saw me coming they walked toward me.

"Mama!" yelled the big black man. That made me smile.

"Oh Mama, how you doin'?" He stuck out his hand. I was still carrying the cooler so I offered my pinky. He took it and shook it heartily.

The white man said something I couldn't make out, and his friend said, "No man. It's ok. I know Mama and she loves me." Then he wrapped his arms around me, gave me a big hug and planted a huge kiss on my cheek.

"See?" he said. They began walking away, "You take care now, Mama."

It was so beautiful. I felt anointed. A (perhaps slightly inebriated) angelic kiss from someone who felt safe near me.

On Pentecost, the disciples leave the protection of their rooms. They go out into the streets, into the world filled with the Holy Spirit and the gifts He gives: faith, hope and love among many others. They go out. But God is already in the world. The feasts and fasts, the festivals of celebration and remembrance, the studying, God is in all those things. But He is also in the Ordinary, and it is in the ordinary where our faith is truly experienced. God inside me, is the same God that is outside me. When I go out with my eyes open, I get more of God. Such a good thing.

I've been working for some time on trying to load all the projects I have done with churches and retreat groups onto the Project page. I hope that people looking for resources will find a spark they can use. It has been remarkably slow going, but I have just finished a page for a contemplative photography project we did titled God in the Ordinary. You can find it here.

Other posts on contemplative photography:

Treasure Hunting

Going On a Treasure Hunt

Going on a Treasure Hunt

On a gray morning a few years ago, Todd and I went into downtown Portland on a breakfast date. We happened to take our cameras with us.

"Have you noticed the doors along this street?" Todd asked, staring out the restaurant window. After breakfast he was all about the doors and door frames. He was so delighted with his treasure. He took photos from every angle, laying on the ground to get some shots of interesting lintels and door knobs. At first, I was entertained just watching him.

 The painted "Forgive" is on the right side of the stand and the yellow "Free" is on the left side of the base.

The painted "Forgive" is on the right side of the stand and the yellow "Free" is on the left side of the base.

After awhile I needed some other entertainment.  I took my lens cap off and prayed. So, Lord, do you have anything for me today? I'm listening. I turned around and it punched me in the stomach. Do you see it? Right there on a cold November street in downtown Portland: "Forgive" in white paint, and "Free" printed in yellow caps. It's the timing that  always amazes me. At that moment, this wasn't just an interesting oddity. This was there for me, and I was listening.

This photograph is not a money picture. It isn't well composed, it's flat, there is nothing arresting about it. I share it here because contemplative photography is most importantly about listening. It is about relationship. It is about being aware of God's Presence and meeting Him with my presence. Contemplative photography is a prayer. Sometimes these prayers will result in a beautiful photograph, but they will always result in a spiritual closeness. Improving your skills as a photographer is an enjoyable and worthy endeavor, but don't let any real or perceived lack of skill keep you from going on a God-seeking treasure hunt with your camera in your hand.

If you would like to use your camera as part of your devotional time this week, prayerfully look for the treasures the Lord has hidden for you. You do not need to limit yourself to quiet places, but you do need to be keenly aware of your surroundings so limit personal distractions if you can. Listen, but also allow yourself to experience wonder and to be delighted.

Walking Barefoot in the World

I stood on hallowed ground today. The library at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon,  is showing twelve pieces by sculptor Diana Lubarsky.  I have seen images of these pieces before. She has pictures of each sculpture on her website. I was unprepared for the impact of viewing these pieces in person. There is a warmth, a life that emanates from each clay, bronze and terra cotta person Diana has lovingly and respectfully formed. She tells the story of the holocaust. She tells sorrow, perseverance, love, hope, sacrifice, uncertainty, deep aching loss, loneliness, injustice, peace, legacy, healing, and defiance. I experienced all  these emotions at the exhibit today, but I was overwhelmed by Faith—a burning bush in the desert, a light so unexpected that I couldn’t turn away.

 Diana Lubarsky's  Diaspora I , on exhibit at the Pacific University library in Forest Grove, Oregon during the months of September and October 2014.

Diana Lubarsky's Diaspora I, on exhibit at the Pacific University library in Forest Grove, Oregon during the months of September and October 2014.

I recognized these clay people. Is it ok to say that? I have never experienced anything close to the horrors they lived, but I recognized the loneliness, the grief, the sorrow, as well as the fierce love and defiance. Suddenly, the holocaust victims had faces. They were individual people, not just notes in a textbook. They were here and then they weren’t. We lost millions of people. We lost.

But God. I sat in the exhibit and had to confess to my God, that I know nothing, that I don’t understand, that I am so very small. But God was in this place today and I worshiped The Mysterious One. Because there is nothing else.

Diana Lubarsky’s exhibit will be at the library at Pacific University until October 31st, 2014. I highly recommend it. There are better pictures of the current exhibit here.