Category Archives: Faith & Compassion

A Katrina Story of Encouragement

May this story be an encouragement to the people of Houston and to those who are called to be there for them. It is taken from the The Social Cause Diet, a collection of inspiring personal accounts and essays on the subject of volunteering.

Social Cause Diet Stories - CrayfishFried Turkey and Boiled Crawfish


The shotgun style house stands about a city block from the Mississippi River in uptown New Orleans. The street wasn’t flooded during Hurricane Katrina but the wind blew old Mr. G’s roof to pieces—which is what can happen when you’re too poor to pay for termite treatment. The rain did the rest of the damage; by the time Mr. G and his sister, Miss B, got home, there wasn’t any way to save the walls. Like so many in the city, they needed to gut and chuck and start to rebuild.

It took two years to find help, because they sure didn’t have enough money to go it alone. Forget insurance, and they weren’t getting much from the government. But they had friends and they had church. And the time came when they wound up at the top of the list of the Rebuild program of the Episcopal diocese of Louisiana. Every week a different group of volunteers came by and took a turn. When it was our turn, the job was well underway. The walls had been stripped and rewired and reinsulated. New vinyl windows were set in the old frames. Although creaky and crooked, the old reprobate started looking pretty good with its new clothes on, in this case gypsum drywall and a first coat of tape and compound.

We were the ones who dressed it up. No big thing except that none of us had ever done anything like this work. But we came for a reason–to help–and the diocese had a couple of twenty-somethings who showed us what to do. Kiel was the teacher; he’d already worked for six months. Mike was the other one, just a few months in. Talk about positive role models. After this stint of volunteering, Kiel was off to seminary and Mike to the Peace Corps.

The work started slowly Monday—we had just arrived from home state Connecticut, and everyone was getting to know each other and settle in. We came from six different churches, about half from the city, half suburb. We were black, white, Latino, mixed up. It was a fine group. Pretty soon we were all goofing around and making too much noise and waking up late. Aside from a bit of adult yelling, adolescent roughhousing and one broken window (the other one was already broken when we got there!), we managed to get where we needed to go.

The great thing about these short term mission trips is that they are an immersion in an experience that can’t help but open your eyes to some things you need to see. The main thing is the people you meet. People whose lives are hard and who need our help. People whose faith in God teaches us what really counts. People who show us Christ in action. New Orleans is full of abandoned houses and people waiting for help. But it is also full of new life and old beautiful homes and a funky sort of jazz, jubilee and we’ll-get-through-anything sort of spirit. Times are hard, but they are not hopeless.

By Thursday we were old hands. The place was sheetrocked and taped and about done. It was time to feast. Mr. G had been out back all day, cooking. We gathered around a makeshift table, grabbed some paper plates and waited. The pastor carved up a golden fried turkey while Mr. G finished cooking another one. A huge mess of boiled crawfish smelled incredible. We got a lesson in how to eat them: take off their head and the end of the tail, strip off the shell and it’s that morsel of spicy, salty meat that pops into your mouth. We said grace. Mr. G was visibly moved when he thanked us for our work.

We dug in and ate. And it was good.

Rev. Matthew Calkins is the coauthor of SpeakEasy: Mary Lou’s Rules for Engaging Conversation. Your neighborhood churches may offer similar mission trips.

Spending Money is Not a Sin

Greeting the New Year With A Discussion of Values

The start of a new year is a good time to consider values you hold dear. Are they still working for you? Maybe you don’t even know what your values are, but the decisions you make are usually based on values. Even if you make a decision because “someone made you do it,” or rather, due to peer pressure, that reflects a value you attach to looking good in front of other people, or earning approval, or something like that.

At this time of year, people may be upset about all the money they spent over the holidays. Except for someone I’ll call Bob. Bob spends very little over the holidays because he values saving a buck above all else. Really? Is that what life is all about? Bob seems to treasure dollar-saving coupons more than his loved ones. Who cares if his wife hasn’t had a night out in months; dinner at home is much cheaper! Who cares if the dishwasher is broken; do without and save some money! It appears that Bob thinks spending money is a sin.

I actually understand this because I used to feel the same. In my 20s, I decided not to attend my best friend’s wedding because I thought it would be irresponsible to spend so much money on the airfare. Oh my gosh, what kind of values does that reflect? Now I realize that my friend is way more important than money. Today, I’d be there for her no matter what.

The fact is that I have always placed a high value on travel, of exploring new places. Yet, in my young adult years, I used to suppress my love of travel, thinking it was self-serving and possibly “wrong” because of the money required. But if you look at the ultimate role model of worthy values—Jesus—you would see that going places offers the opportunity to spread peace to the ends of the earth. Jesus clearly traveled! Granted, he went by foot or boat, but the point is that travel, if anything, is a value that has been blessed by our Lord (Mark 16:15).

Incidentally, Jesus also approved of a woman pouring expensive perfume on his head, to the surprise of many people around him who thought it was wasteful (Mark 14). Jesus valued relationships more than resources.

Yes, being financially responsible is important, but back to Bob who won’t get the damn dishwasher fixed, others are inconvenienced and left feeling unimportant because he doesn’t want to spend a dime. He actually has plenty of money, but due to warped values, he thinks he shouldn’t spend it.

The particular value that I’ll be reassessing for myself this year is one I’ve been trying to shed for a decade: the value I place in perfectly ordering my day. I’m kind of odd in this area, I suppose, but I seriously grieve, even suffer, over wasted time. My peace-of-mind is often disturbed because I’ve spent all morning writing this article, for example, when I really should be doing something else. I scold myself, complain to my husband, and drink too much coffee to work faster and make up for lost time.

Come to think of it, being overly precious with my time may not be that different than over-valuing money. And who’s to say when spent money and time is really “wasted”? Maybe I’ve learned something by taking too long on a project that goes nowhere. Only God really knows what’s actually going on in any situation; there are too many variables beyond our limited perspective for us to fully understand.

Which leads me to the value I want to hold in highest regard moving forward: the value of trusting God with my life, which includes trusting Him for my imperfect past and use of time. God does not require perfection. Jesus’s friends were crazy imperfect! But God does want us to invite Him into our lives and trust Him even when we make mistakes. If I trust Him with mistakes I’ve made in the past so they stop making me cringe, maybe I’ll be freer and more clear-headed in the future with the choices I make, knowing that I’m not going to rack myself over the coals if I do something like—horror of horrors—mismanage my time.

So the new year provides an opportunity to look at what is really important. If you have a value that is interfering with something that is more valuable, like caring for family and friends, make a willful decision to reshuffle those values. For me, I’m going to elevate the values of keeping my peace-of-mind, complaining less, and trusting God even in my imperfections. As for travel, that value can stay right where it is—close to the top.

Quotes of comfort

I opened A Rumor of Angels to process the tragedy in San Bernardino and decided to share some quotes from the beginning of the book. They’re only words and won’t do anything to end acts of terrorism, but it’s all I have for now (especially since my laryngitis won’t even let me so much as whisper!).  Dragonfly_gail-johnston

“Duration is not a test of true or false. The day of the dragon-fly or the night of the Saturnid moth is not invalid simply because that phase in its life cycle is brief. Validity need have no relation to time, to duration, to continuity.”
—Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift From The Sea

“The advantage of living is not measured by length, but by use; some men have lived long, and lived little; attend to it while you are in it.”
—Michel Eyquem De Montaigne

“Hope means to keep living
amid desperation
and to keep humming
in the darkness.”
—Henri J.M. Nouwen, With Open Hands

“‘And yet.’ Those are my two favorite words, applicable to every situation, be it happy or bleak. The sun is rising? And yet it will set. A night of anguish? And yet it, too, will pass. The important thing is to shun resignation, to refuse to wallow in sterile fatalism.”
—Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs

“It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”
—Eleanor Roosevelt

“Now is not the time to think of what you do not have.
Think of what you can do with what there is.”
—Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in he night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”
—Crowfoot, Canadian Indian, dying words

“There is not enough darkness in all the world to put out the light of one small candle. In moments of discouragement, defeat or even despair, there are always certain things to cling to. Little things usually: remembered laughter, the face of a sleeping child, a tree in the wind—in fact, any reminder of something deeply felt or dearly loved. No man is so poor as not to have many of these small candles. When they are lighted, darkness goes away and a touch of wonder remains.”
—Arthur Gordon, A Touch of Wonder

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
—John 1:5

A Rumor of Angels Review

A Rumor of Angels: Quotations for Living, Dying & Letting GoI just want to share the wonderful review I received for A Rumor of Angels: Quotations for Living, Dying & Letting Go. I’m copying it from the reviews on where I recently started selling my books.

“I’m a new Hospice Aide in Home Care. It’s my passion and I’m very excited to enter this field. A Rumor of Angels will live in my work bag for years to come. It’s a great tool for caregivers, aides, nurses or anyone in healthcare. For those quiet moments, I plan to read my favorite poems/quotes out of this book to my patients and their loved ones. It’s simple to read and understand, yet I’m amazed at how well the quotes and stories flow within the chapters. The quotes are SO fitting, meaningful and motivational for both the living and dying. For the low price, I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality. This book isn’t limited to those dying or healthcare workers. It’s for anyone who loves reading inspiring quotes.” —Kendall Morales

Thank you, Kendall, you’ve really encouraged me!

A rose is still a rose in heaven


A-rose_5x7_lightquotes-lowresI’m grieving the loss of two people who died yesterday, way before their time. I’m grieving for the family of the one we knew. This family is so supportive, loving, talented, kind. May they not blame themselves. May all of us in this community know how to be and what not to say. I’m waiting for the right time to show up.

I had coffee today with Sally, a friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years. We found each other on LinkedIn and all of a sudden wanted to resume our relationship. She showed me a card I had given her when her mother passed. It’s of a rose I had scribbled on a napkin for A Rumor Of Angels with a quote from a 7-year-old girl who said, “A rose will still be a rose in heaven, it will just smell ten times sweeter.” Sally had kept the card all these years, tacked it up in her office so she saw it every day. That encouraged me. My greatest desire is to be used by God and encourage others to draw near to Him. Especially when there’s no words to explain things.

Grieving for South Korea

South Korea Ferry AccidentI am still grieving over the ferry tragedy in South Korea. If I have learned anything from coauthoring A Rumor of Angels: Quotations for Living, Dying & Letting Go, it’s that the people there, surely the parents, may grieve for a very long time or have spurts of intense grief at unexpected times for years to come.

I try to turn my grief (modest as it is, in comparison to those who have lost loved ones) into prayer. My prayer today is that there are no more suicides from survivor’s guilt. May those who live help others to live. If one person finds joy again, he or she will encourage another to do so. I pray that those who are gone are in a better place with God and that those who are still alive will accept there is a reason why.

It does not dishonor the dead to carry on, to accept where we are and make the most of it. “Bloom where you are planted,” the expression goes. In time, may you bloom again, dear South Korea! Have courage. Unimaginable accidents aside, we know you are truly a courageous people.

Relating to roses

Roses created for humansI used to care less about roses. They were too formal, too corny and cliché. That was before I knew better. Now I am renting a house surrounded by roses of all kinds and colors. Being in the East Bay of California, roses have three long blooming seasons. They are bare for only a few winter months. But even then, their twisted branches are appealing, full of character and Twisted branches of rosebushpotential for bearing another round of roses. This is a bush right outside our kitchen window; its rapid transformation to full bloom has been fascinating to watch.

I do not believe roses are just a happening of nature for the purpose of appealing to and repelling something else in nature. Do you know that their thorns do nothing to deter creatures in the natural world? The thorns seem to be there for the purpose of analogy and storytelling. The rose is a gift, especially to us humans, and to receive it as such is to enjoy its beauty all the more. The neighborhood deer, greedily chomping on baby buds, doesn’t care about its beauty, and the itty bitty insects certainly don’t see the whole picture, but we do…and it’s gorgeous.

The rose’s fragrance, color, incredible design, and even its thorns are here for us to muse over, delight in, and use in creative ways, even to the point of cliché. I’m not a scientist, but as a designer, I can say that the design of this plant, whether it burst into being or evolved over time, begs for the acknowledgement of a Master Artist who is giving and—not to overuse the word— beautiful. In celebration of this Easter weekend, lets fully receive the gifts that surround us. Look into the face of a rose—or other thing of beauty—and take it in. Know it’s intended for you. And don’t forget to say thank you.

Gravity and what is prayer?

scene from Gravity movie

I’m happy to have seen “Gravity” just a few days before the Academy Awards. If I could cast a vote for it, I would. Here, I would like to call attention to one little line in the movie. The one where our main character says, “I would pray…but nobody ever taught me how.”

For a long time it has bothered me that screenwriters, directors, and other powers that lie behind the big screen give us catastrophic situations with no “Help me God” in the midst of them. Anyone who has had a brush with death knows an honest portrayal of such situations would often include a call for help from a higher power.

I have come to understand this missing ingredient in movies in this way: a simple bowing of the head is a powerful thing. If a character prays, even if he is in the background, all eyes would go to him and the trajectory of the movie would be thrown off. But maybe there’s another reason. Possibly nobody ever taught the movie people themselves how to pray and they just don’t know what to do with it.

Which brings me to Gravity. What a precious scene. Sandra Bullock has never played a more beautiful part. I dare say that in her humble admission that she would pray if she knew how, God is rushing in. (I won’t mention the fun, mystical experience that happens next in case you haven’t seen the movie yet.)

Prayer is just a word for communicating with God. It is basically an invitation for God’s presence and direction in your life. Sometimes it involves talking or thinking in sentences. Sometimes it’s turning to Him in silence, then waiting to see if an inspired thought comes to mind. (Contrary to rumors, God is encouraging, not condemning.) If you like writing like I do, you can try writing your prayers. Think of Anne Frank’s honest, vulnerable letters to “Dear Diary” but address them to an attentive God instead.

C.S. Lewis said, “If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth—only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.” But even then, in the end, if you are tethering from an air hose in outer space, you can pray. I just taught you how.

What is a father?

I am not exactly the best person to answer this question, but in light of the points made in my previous post regarding the main character of Inside Llewyn Davis, I’d like to offer a few thoughts.

Being a father is a financial obligation, of course. A father should see that his children are cared for in terms of their basic needs. It’s wonderful when the man can take care of the mother’s financial needs too, but she often works herself and sometimes makes a bigger portion of the money needed to support the family. Does this make a man less a father? No, but it does mean that he can’t rest on his laurels and consider his job done. This may be a good thing, because being a father is an obligation of caring which is demonstrated in a variety of ways.

GrandfatherMy grandfather was a large man with a bigger heart. Every morning he would ask if we had slept well and try to engage us in a little conversation. In the evening, he would ask if we had enough to eat and if we needed anything before going to bed. As he watched us grow (he had 14 grandkids), he tended to our individual strengths and habits. I was studious, often reading at his house, so he would bring me water and remind me that mental activity needed hydration. When I showed interest in the restaurant business, he took an afternoon off work to drive me around town and share his perspective on various eating establishments and what contributed to their success.

These may be little things, but they reveal a man who paid attention to his family and tended to it. Incidentally, I never heard my grandfather raise his voice. His presence was already big; he didn’t need to. He had our respect because we knew he cared and we were frequently surprised by how much he understood about us. He was paying attention.

Now I realize it’s easy to romanticize a grandfather. I’m sure he made mistakes in his day, but in an age when men are often excused from certain parenting duties because they don’t “multitask” well or because their wives are becoming so financially competent, I think of him as a fine example of a father who pays attention to the needs of his family, does his best to see that they are met, and doesn’t avoid the unpleasant issues. (I could add to this picture my husband’s spiritual leadership, as well as positive aspects of my own father’s parenting, but that will have to be another post.)

When I think of fathering in today’s world, I get angry at the media that portrays kids being terribly rude to their parents, dads in particular. After my daughter, as a young teen, watched certain sitcoms, there was a noticeable decline in her attitude, making the job of parenting much harder. I mention this to say that there are outside forces that threaten to tear up any family in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, which reminds me of another adjective a father should have to his name: protective. It is right for a father to protect his children from unhealthy influences when it is in his power to do so; he is not the bad guy for enacting rules and restrictions. While we are in a phase of permissive parenting, I am not necessarily advocating going back to the belt strap, but something in between: discipline that is firm (not negative and demeaning), that includes teaching, that matches the offense, and that is even creative. More importantly, I am proposing that disciplining be thought of in terms of protecting: protecting a kid from harming himself or others. Thinking in this way may clarify some of the confusion that perpetually surrounds the topic of discipline (and I offer the concept to anyone who wants to run with it).

In summary, this is my charge: a father is not someone who is distant or aloof; he doesn’t play ignorant and excuse himself from problems that are uncomfortable, but rather, he pays attention and stands at the ready to care for and protect his family as needed.

In preparation for holiday parties and family get-togethers, I’m sharing an excerpt from the book Speak Easy: Mary Lou’s Rules for Engaging Conversation by Matthew Calkins and Mary Lou Walker. Cupola Press published this book in 2010, but it’s a timeless piece and especially applicable this time of year.

Don’t Steal The Subject

“The true spirit of conversation consists in building on another man’s observation, not overturning it.”
—Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton

How often has this happened to you? You are in a party conversation, telling the story of your trip somewhere—say, camping along the Colorado River. Someone jumps in and says that he and his family camped there once too, and then he proceeds to steal the subject and tell the story of his vacation. Sometimes this is even done with a sense of implied superiority: “Oh, yes, I know that campground—but did you get a chance to explore the canyon downstream? If you had been there for another day, as we were, you might have had the opportunity.” Of course, you are internally seething, thinking—I wish your raft had overturned and you had a good soaking on that extra day!

Later we will talk about how to counter this kind of theft and smug one-upmanship with wit and raillery, but for now just think how frequently this happens. And admit that you do it, too! We all do. When we hear a story that triggers an association in our lives—whether people or places—we long to share it. Often we stop listening and politely wait for our turn—which may never come! Sometimes we rudely interrupt the current story and steal the subject. Of course, this is wrong—but so hard to resist. It happens with equal, or perhaps greater frequency, in political or other topical conversations. One idea or opinion or piece of news and gossip triggers thoughts of another, each person elbows in, and off it goes.

What to do? Go back to the previous paragraph. Note the observation that when an association is triggered we often stop paying full attention to the person talking and begin waiting for our turn to speak. There is a huge difference between listening and waiting to speak. Try and stay with listening and set the corollary incident aside for later (if it gets lost, it is not that important). Then, instead of stealing the subject, dig deeper. Ask questions. What was the funniest thing that happened on the trip? Was there a moment of beauty so awesome that you were moved outside of your self? Has this experience changed you? Provocative questions make for good conversation. People will be flattered by the attention but, even better, the conversation may take an interesting turn. It might move beyond recounting incidents and opinions to reflection or laughter (both of which are good).

President Barack Obama once said something that struck me in this regard when he was a student at Columbia University. The young Mr. Obama said, “Everyone appreciates a kind word and a thoughtful response.”

How true. Everyone appreciates being listened to and not interrupted. And no one, it is fair to say, is fond of having their story hijacked. Learn some manners. Wait your turn. Don’t steal the subject.

For more conversation tips, the book is available at most online stores and at Cupola Press.

Art up close and personal


I love zooming in on art. Going way back, before the computer, the xerox machine was my super cool tool. As a graphic designer and illustrator, I would use it to enlarge my own little sketches, various scraps of paper, or small found objects that could be squashed relatively flat on the glass. The copier would only enlarge up to 147%, if I remember correctly, so I would enlarge the enlargements and enlarge them some more. Every step yielded something more interesting.

The closeup above is part of an illustration by Masako Dunn for the new children’s book I published, A Gift for Little Tree by Colleen Marquez. When you zoom into art like this, you get a different kind of beauty and energy than when you are looking at the whole piece. You see richer textures and colors and wild, expressive strokes. You see areas of painting that you thought were precise, but, on such close inspection, are actually quite messy.

Getting close to people brings similar results. Working on this children’s book over the past year, the author and I—good friends to begin with—got up close and personal with each other, revealing more of ourselves than we probably wanted to, as we negotiated and navigated through the fits and starts of birthing a book. But what is friendship if it’s just reserved for pleasantries and never tested?

I like the expression, “To know me is to love me.” What I think this expression means is that your love for a person deepens as your knowledge of them deepens. At least if you are open to the love. If you get close to someone and decide you don’t like the wild, sometimes messy areas that you are sure to discover, then you’ll take a step back. That’s okay, it’s your choice, it’s good to have personal boundaries, you don’t want to spread yourself too thin, and so on and so forth. On the other hand, if you choose to zoom in and stay awhile, people and art get a lot more interesting.

Managing stress with axioms

ElephantMy mother used to say: “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.” I like the Russian proverb better: “Don’t make an elephant out of a fly,” although I didn’t know there were elephants in Russia. They drink Vodka, according to a BBC News story. Another popular saying is “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Richard Carlson used the line for his bestselling book, adding five brilliant words to the title: “And it’s all small stuff.”

Is this true; is it all small stuff? Not really. What the Philippines are presently going through is not small stuff, but it’s generally true in our day-to-day lives.

My bigger question for this post is: Does it help to keep these sayings in mind? If you were to hang this plaque I designed with the cute elephant in your home, for example, would it help you calm down if you were overreacting to something? I hope so because the piece is for sale in my new Etsy store and I’m hoping it will help people “roll with the punches,” another great expression.

For me, what mostly scales down my anxieties is the combination of two things: being outside and praying, which reminds me of two more quotes. The first is: “It’s impossible to walk in the woods and be in a bad mood at the same time” I totally agree with this statement found on The other is “Why worry when you can pray?”—a phrase adapted from Philippians 4:6 and turned into a peppy song. If I could find a good quote that communicates the stabilizing effect of nature and prayer together, I’d display it everywhere around my home and office, because—even with my good strategies—I tend to panic and overact as much as the next guy.

There’s something else to mention. When I need to calm down, I ask myself an important question about the stressful situation at hand. I ask: “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” Sometimes the answer is not too bad and I realize I can deal with it. Other times, the answer is nasty. For example, what’s the worst thing that could happen if I don’t start making money? I could end up sleeping between sheets of plastic and newspaper under a bridge somewhere! But then, I reason, even then, if the worst thing happened, with God’s help, I can still deal with it.

Once I engage my faith in such a way, it (my faith) gets stronger, and I relax. Asking yourself the worst-case-scenario question and employing your faith for the answer, is like coming out of a strenuous workout at the gym: you feel stronger; you are stronger. What’s more, you feel calm, you are breathing deeply, and you’re in much better shape for facing that elephant—or fly, whatever the case may be.