All Things Bright and Beautiful

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“All things bright and beautiful. All creatures great and small. All things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all.”

This was a song I learned as a child, and believed the words. I still do.

Something has been resting heavily on my heart for the past several days that I feel like I need to address in my writing. It has to do with this little song, whose words keep playing and replaying in my mind, and about God and God’s creation.

Last week I read that the United Methodist Church, the church I have been affiliated with all my life, ordained a transgender person as a deacon. I read with great interest the article about the ordination of M Barklay, one of God’s bright and beautiful creations. I read about the struggles this person has gone through in reaching this important point within the organized church, and the devotion and dedication to God and God’s work M is so passionate about. I am proud of my church for taking this step of inclusion and acceptance of people who don’t quite fit into the male / female mold, one that many of us hold onto so tightly.

What disturbs me about this were the many comments I read from Christian people condemning the church for this action and for labeling M as a child of the devil (the worst that I read) or a person not worthy of representing the church as an ordained deacon, according to scripture. I was amazed at the hatred, fear, despising, and condemnation that littered the comment section of the online articles that I read.

It makes me sad.

The Lord God made us all, as we teach our children in Sunday School. It is a miracle that any one of us is alive and walking on Planet Earth. I look at my own life and marvel that I am here at all. At any one point in the history of the world, one small thing could have happened to keep a baby from being conceived, and thus, I wouldn’t be here. In my imagination, I can just see my caveman ancestor returning to his cave after a long day of hunting and gathering, wanting a little affection from his cavewoman. She had a busy day, as well, and was exhausted. I can imagine in my mind her hugging her caveman mate, and saying in cave language, “Not tonight, Honey. I have a terrible headache.” But she didn’t. A cavebaby’s life was begun, and here I am, along with a long line of other ancestors, my siblings, and my two sons. And whether any of us are heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, or something in between really doesn’t matter. We have been given the gift of life, which is beyond any labeling that may be tacked onto our backs by others.

God created all things bright and beautiful. To those Christians who condemn homosexuality, gender differences, the concept of “two spirit” people (a Native American term. Read about it!), and anything that doesn’t fit into their narrow belief about God and God’s creation, I feel very sorry for them. I don’t believe that gender differences are a sin. What constitutes sin is us missing the mark of God’s intention for our lives. Who’s to say that God’s desire can’t be fulfilled in people who are a little bit different from us.

I think it is time for Christians, and all people who believe in God, to look at every person as God’s creation. I realize that things happen as a part of being human that make people different from one another, and can certainly make some people evil and dangerous. But we are all God’s children, even the very worst of us. And God is alive in us, even when we shut God into a dark closet and ignore the creator within us.

I wish M Barklay the very best in ministry and in reaching out and touching the people who need M the most to show God’s love to all. I look at the life of Jesus, and can see him reflected in this ministry.

I’m sure there are many who read this who won’t agree with me, and that’s OK. I am content and satisfied with my beliefs, which include believing that God is love, and that God loves everything and everyone that God has created.

“And that’s all I have to say about that” (thank you Forrest Gump for this quote).

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The Christmas Doll

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I wrote this for my blog in 2008. While talking to some friends recently about going to Rich’s Department Store at Christmastime when we were growing up, I remembered this and found it in my archives. This is one of my favorite Christmas memories. Enjoy!

I was five years old and Christmas was getting close. My mother told me that I needed to think about what I wanted Santa Claus to bring me, and that we would go downtown to sit on Santa’s lap once I decided what I would tell him. It didn’t take much thinking for me. All I wanted was a doll that could walk and talk. Nothing else interested me.

Mama dressed me up in my Sunday dress and shoes and bundled me in the winter coat she had made for me. We walked three blocks from our house to the trolley stop in Decatur to ride the bus six miles to Rich’s Department Store in downtown Atlanta. Once there, we easily found the line of children waiting to talk to Santa, and took our place with them. My turn came, and I pranced right up to Santa, climbing onto his lap. When he asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I told him – a doll that walks and talks. Is there anything else you want Santa to bring you? No, thank you, just a doll that walks and talks.

From Santa’s lap, we made our way to Rich’s toy department. Mama and I began looking at dolls to see if we could find the one I wanted. A pretty saleslady approached us and offered to help. I told her what I wanted. She smiled and said, “Well, young lady, I’m not sure we have a doll that walks and talks, but I have lots of dolls that I can show you.” The first one she took off the shelf was a doll that could walk. She showed me how to hold onto its middle and move my hands to propel one leg and then the other forward. The doll was pretty, but she was stiff and couldn’t really walk. She wasn’t the one I wanted. The next doll was one that could talk. But her lips were painted onto her face, and I had to turn her completely upside down to make her chirp a whiny “Ma-ma” from somewhere in the vicinity of her stomach. That wasn’t talking. This doll wasn’t the one I wanted, either. I wanted a doll that could walk and talk.

The saleslady showed me doll after doll, demonstrating what each one could do, but none was the doll I had asked Santa for. Finally, in desperation, she said she had one more, but she didn’t think this doll was right for me, either. Into my arms she placed a big soft baby doll, dressed in pink, with light brown painted hair and blue eyes with real hair eyelashes and eyelids that blinked open and shut as I moved her head. She was soft and plump, and the size of a real baby. She was beautiful! But she doesn’t walk or talk, both my mother and the saleslady reminded me. Thoughts of walking, talking dolls flew out of my mind for a moment as I held this wonderful baby doll. I gently handed her back to the saleslady, and she placed her back on the toy shelf. I had told Santa that I wanted a doll that walks and talks. I knew his elves could make a doll for me that walked and talked. As Mama and I left Rich’s, I counted on Santa to bring me what I really wanted for Christmas.

On Christmas morning, I was awake early to see what Santa had brought me. To my surprise, he had not left a doll that walks or talks under our tree, but the baby doll I had held so tenderly at Rich’s. I gently picked her up and carried her to Daddy’s rocking chair to rock and cuddle until the rest of the family woke up to see what Santa had left at our house. I don’t remember wishing for a doll that walks and talks ever again!

My Christmas doll wasn’t the one I thought I wanted, but she was the one I needed, and she needed me. She couldn’t walk or talk, but that didn’t matter to me. I named her Cathy and loved and cared for her for many years, while she loved me back by simply being soft and huggable, and by gazing at me with those crystal blue blinking eyes.

My wish for us all this Christmas is that we remember that it isn’t getting what we think we want that makes our lives complete. What makes life wonderful is discovering the “baby dolls” we meet along our way who need our love. And it is in our response to them that we become more caring, giving, and compassionate human beings.

And What a Taxi Ride That Was!

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I was in the back seat of a taxi last Thursday afternoon, riding from LaGuardia Airport to the corner of 29th Street and 5th Avenue in Manhattan, where I was to be met by my son, Brian, for a few days’ vacation in the city. I had taken similar taxi rides before on previous visits, and I looked forward to seeing his smiling face and spending time together.

Traffic was horrendous. It wasn’t time for rush hour to begin – it was a few minutes after 2:00 pm when I climbed into the taxi at the airport. My driver was a nice young man with a heavy accent, dark hair, and smiling face. From looking at his ID on the back of the seat in front of me, I deduced that he must be from a middle-eastern country, perhaps Iraq or Afghanistan. I gave him the address of Marble Collegiate Church, which was where I was meeting Brian, and sat back to enjoy the ride.

Two minutes into the ride, my comfort zone disintegrated, and I scrambled for my seat belt. This was one aggressive, and maybe, crazy driver. He weaved in and out of traffic, honking his horn every minute or so, while mumbling to himself in a language I didn’t understand. At times, it seemed to me that he was going around in circles, but in actuality, he was simply trying to find a better route to escape the snarling traffic. He got on his cell phone, talking, I assumed, to dispatch, as he tried to maneuver his way into Manhattan. He was frustrated, and impatient with the traffic situation.

Finally, we came to a dead stop. A tunnel entrance loomed ahead. About that time, Brian texted me, asking me how long until I’d be there. I asked my driver where we were, and if he could give me an approximate time of arrival. He apologized to me, saying that he didn’t know. Twenty minutes, maybe, not sure. The traffic was worse than he’d seen it in a long time. In his heavily accented English, he apologized again, with frustration evident in his voice, saying that maybe he should have gone a different way. I assured him that I understood it wasn’t his fault. My son just wanted an idea of how much longer it would be. It was taking longer than usual for me to get there from the airport.

We began to move at a snail’s pace toward the tunnel entrance. As we approached, we saw a sign indicating that the left lane of the tunnel was closed. All traffic was merging into a single lane, explaining the congestion. I commented that maybe once we got through the bottleneck, things would start moving again. He agreed. Inch by inch, we moved forward. Soon, we were inside the tunnel, and he told me that it wouldn’t be long now. But once we got fully inside, traffic stopped again.

Oh my! I began looking around me. I couldn’t see the end of the tunnel from behind me or in front of me. I began imagining every Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone thriller move I had ever seen, and was beginning to think about getting out of the taxi and walking. The tunnel walls, the echoing noise, the claustrophobia were all bearing down on me. I could get out and just tell the driver to pick me up at the tunnel exit. After what seemed like an eternity, we began to move – a little. Whew!

That was when my ride really got interesting. Brian texted again, and again I asked my driver how much longer. I explained – again – that my son was meeting me where he worked.

“Where does your son work?” he asked.

I told him that it was a church.

“You’re going to a church?” he asked.

“ Yes, my son works there,” I answered, “and he will meet me on the sidewalk outside the church when we get there. That’s why he wants to know about how much longer it will be.”

My driver was interested. From out of the blue, it seemed, he asked me if I was religious. I told him that I was, and I asked him if he was religious.

“I want to be,” was his simple answer.

He then began asking me about my religious upbringing and what was the most important thing I had learned as a child about God in my church. I told him that I had learned lots of Bible stories, but the main thing I had learned was that God is love, and that Jesus taught us that we should treat others the way we wanted to be treated (the good old Golden Rule!). All the while, I was thinking, I can’t blow this. What can I say that will be the right thing?

As we crept forward, we saw that the reason for the delay in the tunnel was a stalled car. It had been moved over to the closed lane by the NYPD, allowing us to progress on our trip. Passing it, I knew it would be only a matter of minutes before I’d be getting out of the taxi. I wanted to say something that would help this young man.

He said that logic made it hard for him to believe in a God of love. His mother loved him, but she wasn’t perfect, and she made mistakes. There are bad people on earth. How can we love them? How could God be all powerful without making mistakes, like his mother did? How can God love everyone? Even the bad people? Even those who make mistakes?

I was sweating bullets, trying to help him in the few blocks and in as many minutes that we had left to travel. I grasped for the only thing I knew to say. “God is in your heart and loves you,” I told him. “God wants us to love other people as God loves.” He asked me a few more questions, which I honestly can’t remember now, I was getting so flustered, trying to say what I believed should be said in such a short amount of time.

As I got out of the taxi, and handed him the fare, I looked him in the eye and said, “Remember – listen to your heart. That’s where God is. You won’t go wrong.” He smiled at me and put his hands to his heart.

With that, he got back into his taxi and drove away, leaving me pondering this unusual taxi ride while waiting on the sidewalk for Brian to meet me.

And now, looking back, I ponder even more. About many things. About getting stuck in tunnels. About stalled cars. About terrible traffic. About meeting Brian at the church. About being in that particular taxi. About saying the right thing. About a young man’s search for God.

About listening to my heart.

When I Die…

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It has been a month since my son-in-law’s almost-ninety-year-old mother, Marta, died. Roy is grieving, and rightly so. He and his mom were very close, and he was the youngest of her five sons. Like me, he was the “baby” of the family. Marta was a lovely and spunky lady, full of vim and vigor, and overflowing with love for her family. Besides that, she was a great cook, and a very savvy EBay trader. She is missed by many, many people.

This brings me to a conversation I had with my son, Brian, last night on the phone. Roy is Brian’s partner, and they have been in a loving relationship for over 15 years. They are devoted to each other.

After Marta’s death, I wrote both of my sons a letter, detailing phone numbers of family and friends, bank account and insurance policy numbers, retirement savings information, location of my legal papers, passport, usernames and passwords, and such, and a brief statement of the kind of sending off I’d like to have when I die. I did this mainly because Marta’s death struck a chord within me that I am not invincible. I also have experienced the deaths of four very good friends in my age group since Christmas, friends who shouldn’t be old enough yet to die.

Brian asked me how long should he mourn for me when I die. Tough question!

My answer was not a simple or straightforward one. One week, two weeks, a month, a year? It all depends….

If I die a sudden or unexpected death at a young-ish age (I am now 68 years old, and still consider myself young in many respects), I would think that the mourning period might be extended longer than I would expect if I should die of natural causes or some old-age illness. From my experience, it takes longer to accept and recover from a loved one’s sudden death.

This was the case with my dad. He died at the age of 85 from a heart attack while sleeping. Very sudden. Not expected. He was a healthy and vigorous man in most respects. It took quite awhile for the fact that he was gone to sink in, and for the mourning to end. There were a lot of things left unsaid between me and my dad, and I never got the chance to say (or think) goodbye to him before he was gone.

Within a year of my dad’s death, my mother began having some minor health issues. She was mourning and missing my dad, and we thought this might be part of the healing process for her. It turned out that it wasn’t. Nine months after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she died peacefully in her sleep. My sister and I shared the responsibility of caring for her through surgery, chemotherapy, and hopefully, healing. By the time her chemo treatments had ended, we knew that her time was limited. She just wasn’t rebounding or getting well. We loved on her and cherished her the last few months of her life. We had the chance to prepare for her leaving us, and when it happened, we knew we had done the right things and had loved her through to the end. Perhaps we never verbally said goodbye to her, but in our hearts, we did, making her passing into eternity a little less traumatic for us.

This brings me back to my son’s question. In the document I prepared for him and his brother, I requested to be cremated when I die. I do not want a funeral service, but want my friends and family to get together and have a party celebrating my life, and theirs. There should be lots of wine and margaritas, plenty of unhealthy food to eat, great music, and good times. It would be nice if they would recall some funny stories about me to share and remember, bringing laughter and joy to the occasion. I then want my sons to spread my ashes in a place, or places, that is meaningful to them. It’s not important to me, but I want it to be special for them.

After all this is accomplished, I don’t want any more mourning. Remembering me is ok. Missing me is ok. Wishing I could be there to witness an accomplishment or special event in their lives, or to share a beautiful sunset, is ok. Wanting to talk to me about a problem is ok. Shedding a tear every now and then is ok. But please don’t wear the black cloak of mourning over me. That is not ok.

We also talked briefly about the possible future of nursing homes and hospice. We both agree that hospice is a very good thing, but have mixed feelings about nursing homes. Jokingly, we agreed that he can put a pillow over my head or take me out to the woods and shoot me if I should ever get to the point where I don’t know who I am and need full-time nursing care. I’m not quite ready to discuss this topic seriously with him, so it was better to keep it lighthearted last night. Which we did.

I think Brian feels better after our conversation. I know that I do. I raised my two boys to be wonderful, independent, smart, caring, and loving men. I think they will instinctively know what to do when the time comes to bid me farewell.

I plan to stick around for quite awhile yet. I have a lot more living, loving, and writing to do! But when I leave, please keep the mourning short and sweet!

I’ll be watching, you know!

Spiritual Gifts? Gifts of the Spirit?

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Today in my Bible study group, our topic of discussion was spiritual gifts. Interesting. It appeared from our study that every Christian is given at least one spiritual gift, and it is important that we identify our spiritual gift/gifts in order to be Christians and to fight the powers of Satan, who, according to the author of the book we are studying, is constantly attempting to derail our faith.

I was confused. And when I get confused, I start doing research. After three hours of online research, reading Bible references to “gifts of the spirit” and “spiritual gifts”, taking four online tests to determine what my spiritual gifts are, and finally talking to my minister sister about the topic, I still am unsure what my spiritual gifts are, and I am beginning to wonder if anyone really is an expert on what spiritual gifts really are.

Each of the questionnaires that I answered had one thing in common, in that with each statement, there was a choice for me to address each one with my response, ranging from (1) Never, to (5) Always True, with choices along the continuum. I had to choose a number between 1 and 5 to select which was most accurate answer for my circumstances. It was difficult for me to select the right number for every statement, and all of the questionnaires had different questions. One of them actually had 100 questions – that seemed like a lot for me to find out what my one spiritual gift might be. And the odd thing I found was that with each of the spiritual gift questionnaires I took, my results pinpointed a different gift. Maybe I was selecting the wrong number choice! The gifts listed on each survey didn’t match the lists on the others, and only a few of the choices seemed to mirror what I read in the Bible. Mostly what I learned from these tests is that I am sensitive, I am a good listener, and that I care about people. One also seemed to point out to me that I don’t do enough in the church, and that I have room for improvement concerning my gift. None of them mentioned Satan.

I need to go back and read the Bible more carefully on this subject. It’s been awhile since I’ve studied it. I remember reading about gifts of healing, preaching, speaking in tongues, interpreting what people say who speak in tongues, having faith, and the like, but I am not well versed on the subject, as Paul wrote about it to the Corinthians, and also can’t say that I agree with everything that Paul wrote.

So, as I put what I am reading and the tests that I have taken into the context of the world that I live in, I wonder about the emphasis that is placed on this in today’s Christianity. And I question whether the pursuit of my own spiritual gifts is something that I should spend a lot of time contemplating.

Now, that’s a good word – contemplate. I have become very contemplative in my faith, my prayer life, and my beliefs. As I contemplate this topic, I ponder “gifts of the spirit.” I see these as the grace gifts that the Holy Spirit has given to me without my deserving them whatsoever. They are not wrapped up presents that God holds on to and hands to me at a time God deems appropriate. If God is love, as I believe, any gift that God gives me is simply that, a gift, with no strings attached, and is given in love, and not with expectation of how I might use the gift. Just the love of God is a spiritual gift in itself.

As God is the great “I Am”, my life is a very small part of “I am.”  Simply being is a gift from God, and a very spiritual one at that, making my sheer existence a spiritual gift. I am alive, I am a child of God, and I believe that the Holy Spirit is within me all the time. God has blessed me with many wondrous grace gifts, and in receiving them, my life now becomes a part of the great “I Am,” or as Paul stated, the body of Christ.

Maybe this is what it means to have a spiritual gift. Perhaps I don’t need to look at the labels given to the gifts listed on these online questionnaires. My entire life and being is a spiritual gift from God. What I do with it is up to me. In contemplative prayer and meditation, I discern God’s will, and then in my daily life, I become the person God created me to be.

Spiritual gifts, or gifts of the spirit. I don’t think I will contemplate on this any longer today. I think, instead, I will be me, the best me that I can be. I will strive to be the me that God created me to be. I don’t need to take any tests or fill out any more questionnaires. And I’m not going to spend time contemplating Satan today – with God’s love and presence with me, I am safe in God’s arms.

Perhaps we don’t need spiritual gifts. Perhaps we are the gifts of the spirit.

It’s Christmas, World!!

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Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Children around the world will be excited and in full throttle about a visit from Santa Claus, and parents around the world will be putting the last-minute touches to their family’s Christmas experience, hoping that they didn’t forget anything. It will be a busy day for most families, one charged with anticipation and energy.

I remember those years fondly. My Christmas is not like that anymore.

Sunshine and I sit in our little living room tonight, while it storms outside. We are safe and snug indoors. My little Christmas tree is lighted and cheerful, but there isn’t a single package underneath it. Two stockings are hung at my hearth – one for her and one for me. Hers is bulging with some chew-toys I bought for her. Mine is empty. I thought about buying myself some little gifts to put into it, but decided against it, reasoning that doing so would spoil the spirit of Christmas. I have received a few gifts from some special people in my life, which have already been opened. There are no surprises waiting for Christmas morning.

Neither of my sons will be with me for the holiday. One is in California, and the other in New York City. Our family is a splintered one. The last celebration we had as a nuclear family was in 1992. That was a long time ago. With the distance separating us, it is too cumbersome to try to put the pieces together allowing us to be together for the holiday. I had my big day with them on Mother’s Day in New York, which was a logistical feat in itself, getting us all in one place at the same time, while keeping it a surprise for me. That day was Christmas and Mother’s Day, all wrapped up in one wonderful week-end package with my sons.

So, now I look at Christmas with misty eyes of nostalgia, a little loneliness, and wonderful memories of Christmases past. I am not sad. In fact, surprisingly enough, I am content with the way my Christmas is shaping up this year, and I am looking at the holiday with a fresh outlook. I spent a wonderful day last week with my brother and his family, and then another day with my friend, George, and his family. No gifts were exchanged either place – we spent our time eating, laughing, and enjoying being together. The celebrations are over for this year.

I look at my little crèche, tucked underneath my Christmas tree, and ponder the Christmas story. I am not satisfied with the story that has been part of my life since childhood, and I wonder how much of the nativity narrative is actually true. It’s a beautiful story, but I can’t help questioning. I think God understands my uncertainty about believing the tale of Christ’s birth, because I have been given some insight about it the past few days, which I can only explain as coming from him.

Instead of focusing on the birth, I have been paying closer attention to the life and teachings of Jesus this Christmas season, especially the past few days. I have witnessed unexpected acts of kindness and generosity, and I have watched as God’s love has been passed from one person to another in the most unusual and creative ways. I see the life of Christ personified in people I meet as they share love, support, financial aid, and helping hands to whomever they encounter. This has touched my life, as I have had the opportunity to share from my abundance with others, in ways that I hadn’t anticipated or imagined. It has been a season of surprises, as I have put my questions and doubts aside and opened my heart.

Of course, I will celebrate the birth of Christ tomorrow night at our church’s candlelight Christmas Eve service. I will think about the baby Jesus, knowing that he grew up to be The Christ. I will wonder at the love of Mary and Joseph for their infant baby son, as they held him in their arms for the first time. But I can’t keep Jesus in the manger; I have to release him to the world. For, it is there that God’s message is told, and it is there that we find our spiritual path, lighted with grace and gratitude illuminating our way to God.

It is Christmas. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Maybe it is more than celebrating the birth of a baby. Maybe it is really celebrating the birth of love.

And that is something about which I have no questions or doubts.

Merry Christmas, world!

You Don’t Have To Go Far To Be At A Resort

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I am staying at “the resort” this week. And it is wonderful.

Actually, I am housesitting for my friend, George, while he is at the beach on vacation with his family. I am staying here to look after the house, his two dogs, and Grace, the hen. While I don’t have the responsibility of taking care of the horses, goats, and all of the other hens, I am enjoying keeping my eye on them to make sure they are ok. But I don’t have to feed and water them. Nice.

Being here has been a Godsend for me. Yesterday I finished the 21-day online meditation program on gratitude and grace, offered through the Chopra Center. This is the perfect setting for me to contemplate all that has been brought to my attention through this series, and I am feeling grace and gratitude flowing and weaving through my being, interlacing in one warm, comforting hug. The quiet peace of the country surroundings, the sparkling water of the swimming pool, the inviting swaying of the yard swing as a breeze sets it in gentle motion – all of these things have heightened my senses and swept out the cobwebs from my spirit. I have had the opportunity to look at my life from a new vantage point, and re-examine where I am and where I want to go.

Gratitude and grace. You can’t have one without the other. The more I express my gratitude and become aware of new reasons to be grateful, the more I feel God’s grace touching my heart and soul, tugging me in new directions for my life, and assuring me that, even with my faults and short-comings, I am loved and cherished.

I am not a perfect person. Far from it. But I am me, and I am the only me that ever has been, ever is, and ever will be. There will never be another me in all eternity. Some people might say, “Thank God!” with a tone of sarcasm, exasperation, or disapproval in their voices. But I say “Thank God!” with all the gratitude and joy I can muster. No, I am not perfect. I have made a ton of mistakes, and continue to falter and miss the mark of who I was created to be. But I have a God who is full of grace and love, and who has enabled me to realize how grateful I am for everything in my life – good, bad, boring, exciting, exhilarating, frightening, and everything else in between.

I will return to my home next week, even though I’ll continue to visit “the resort”. It will be different, though, because this week has happened, and it has made a permanent imprint in the essence of this place. Gratitude and grace. I am so very grateful that I have this wonderful retreat available to me for renewing my spirit and feeling God’s grace.

All I can say is “I am grateful.”