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Monday Meditation: A New Look at Psalm 23

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney

At least once a month, I lead a Spirituality in Recovery group focused on Psalm 23, perhaps the most famous of the 150 psalms included in Scripture. This psalm is frequently read aloud at funeral services because of this line: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” When I discuss this psalm with clients, I frame it as an expression of delight in God. The author – believed to be David, the shepherd who became Israel’s second king – gratefully expounds upon the ways that God has demonstrated provision, protection, and compassion for him.

In her book Guide My Feet: Prayers and Meditations on Loving and Working for Children, Marian Wright Edelman includes a version of Psalm 23 that she heard at All Saints Convent in Catonville, Maryland. Entitled “The Nuns’ Twenty-Third Psalm,” this variation on Scripture speaks to our need for provision, protection, and compassion from God in our work at The Next Door.

The Lord is my pace-setter, I shall not rush.
He makes me stop and rest for quiet intervals;
He provides me with images of stillness, which restore my serenity.
He leads me in ways of efficiency through calmness of mind.
And His guidance is peace.
Even though I have a great many things to accomplish each day,
I will not fret, for his presence is here.
His timelessness, his all-importance will keep me in balance.
He prepares refreshment and renewal in the midst of my activity
By anointing my mind with His oils of tranquility.
My cup of joyous energy overflows.
Surely harmony and effectiveness shall be the fruit of my hours for
I shall walk in the place of my Lord and dwell in His House forever.

May you sense the loving presence of the Good Shepherd as you work this week.

Published on February 8, 2021

Monday Meditation: The Beatitudes

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney

When Jesus sat down on a mountainside overlooking the Sea of Galilee to deliver what would come to be known as “The Sermon on the Mount,” I imagine that the women and men and children who gathered around him leaned forward, straining to hear his provocative words. The opening passage of this sermon is called “The Beatitudes” – a list of blessings. Jesus’ litany of those who are blessed is somewhat surprising. For example, how can those who are mourning be considered to be blessed? And yet, upon closer inspection, we can see a pattern in Jesus’ words.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3-10)

The poor in spirit are those who have learned that they must rely on God in all circumstances. Those who mourn depend on God to sustain them as they move forward into a future without the companionship of their dearly departed ones. The meek are not people who are weak; they are those who approach God and others with humility. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness trust God to guide their lives, to direct their paths. Those who are merciful demonstrate Christ-like compassion for others. Those who are pure in heart manifest integrity – there is no differentiation between their public life and their private one. Those who are peacemakers desire to live in harmony with God and others. Those who are persecuted for doing what is right take comfort in knowing that they do not walk alone on the path of righteousness.

Do you see the connection – the thread running through all of the blessings? Jesus does not equate blessing with fame or fortune. Blessing flows from an individual’s intimate relationship with God, from an individual’s dependence on God.

Jesus’ words remind me to look for blessings in unexpected places, in unanticipated ways. May you experience the blessing of God this week

Monday Meditation: “The Hill We Climb”

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney

I can’t get her words out of mind. Last Wednesday, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman burst into the world’s collective consciousness as she recited her poem “The Hill We Climb” on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Gorman began and ended her poem with references to light.

In the opening line of her poem, Gorman poses a timely question:

“When day comes we ask ourselves,

where can we find light in this never-ending shade?”

The word “dark” has been used repeatedly to use to describe the historical period in which we are living. Where can we find light in these dark days?

Amanda Gorman answers her own question in the closing lines of her poem:

“For there is always light,

if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

 

Poet June Jordan would agree with Amanda Gorman. In her “Poem for South African Women,” Jordan declared: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

We are called to be the light. Jesus declared this in his Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

Let your light shine, Jesus said. How do we do this? By remaining connected to One who is the source of all light. The psalmist wrote, “You, Lord, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light.” (Psalm 18:28) We do not have to draw from our own limited resources to be light in the world; instead, we can allow the power of God to flow through us. With God’s help, we can illuminate the darkness. With God’s help, we can be light for women who are searching for a way out of the darkness where they have dwelled for far too long. With God’s help, we can be bearers of the light for one another on those dark days when we can’t see the way forward.

To be light in the world requires courage and connection. May Amanda Gorman’s words be true of us in our work on behalf of women and their families at The Next Door:

“Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true,
Even as we grieved, we grew,
Even as we hurt, we hoped,
Even as we tired, we tried.”

photo from politico.com

Published on January 25, 2021

When I Grow Up

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney   

During the pandemic, my extended family has gathered weekly via Zoom to stay in touch. With participants ranging in age from 7 months to 81 years, these experiences have been memorable and life-giving for us.

One feature of these virtual gatherings is a trivia game, and if a family member has a birthday coming up, then the trivia game focuses on them. One of the standard questions is: “When I was a child, what did I want to be when I grew up?” The answers have been enlightening and hilarious.

When I was a child, I wanted to be a reporter. I started my own newspaper in 6th grade; as I recall, the issues of this short-lived publication focused almost exclusively on the Cincinnati Reds. During junior high school, I considered becoming a meteorologist, primarily because I was a huge fan of Tom Siler the Weather Wizard on Channel 2.

Looking back, I can now see how my desire to become a reporter was rooted in my love of reading and writing, which eventually blossomed into a fondness for researching, teaching, and storytelling. When I responded to God’s prompting in my life to go to seminary, I was confident that writing and teaching would be a part of my calling. Although I was initially surprised while in seminary by my newfound love of preaching, I realize now that it was an outgrowth of my desire to share stories.

As I listen to the stories that the clients share at The Next Door in group settings and in one-on-one sessions, I am aware that none of them dreamed of becoming an addict when they grew up. None of them hoped to become homeless. No one set a goal to spend time in jail. None of them desired to have children and then lose them to state custody.

Even though their lives have not turned out the way they imagined, many of our clients cling to the hope that the future can be different. As they embrace a newfound faith in God or recommit their lives to following the God they first learned about as children, they are optimistic that new dreams are within reach. They sense that their lives are now on an upward trajectory. They are growing spiritually as healing takes place in their bodies, minds, and spirits.

At mid-life, I have been surprised to realize that I still don’t feel like a grown up. I am aware that I still have a lot of growing to do; I still have so much to learn. The faith in Christ that I embraced as a child has been transformed and deepened through the years. Like our clients, I am still growing up spiritually. God has given me new dreams, and I am grateful.

 

A prayer for spiritual growth: “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please God in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to God’s glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:9-14)

Spread the Word

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.’

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.’

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.” (Luke 2:8-20)

The meal was memorable for a myriad of reasons. On the fifth anniversary of my ordination to the gospel ministry, I found myself in a place I had never dreamed I would visit. My traveling companions and I were seated on couches situated around low tables in a Bedouin-style tent decorated with ornate tapestries and rugs. Our table was laden with bowls of hummus, babaghanouj, tzatziki, and tabouli, baskets of freshly baked bread, plates of kebabs. As we feasted, the rabbi and pastor and I shared stories and laughed heartily.

What great joy I experienced during that remarkable meal in Beit Sahour, a village located on the road leading from the Shepherds’ Fields to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Throughout the meal, my gaze was repeatedly drawn to those pastoral fields ringed by mountains. What did those shepherds – who were simply going about their business, dutifully carrying out their nightly work of protecting their flocks – witness on the night of Jesus’ birth?

The angel of the Lord delivered a message to the shepherds that night that remains as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago.

Don’t be afraid.
I bring you good news.
A Savior has been born to you.

The shepherds’ response is noteworthy: Let us go and see for ourselves if this good news is true. After confirming the veracity of the angel’s report, the shepherds did what came naturally: They spread the word about the good news of Christ’s birth. They bore witness to God’s work in the world.

On Christmas Day in 2020 – this unforgettable year – the angel’s ancient message falls fresh on our ears again, offering us renewed hope, speaking peace into our weary souls, infusing our hearts with joy.

Don’t be afraid.
I bring you good news.
A Savior has been born to you.

God is still at work in our world. God continues to redeem us, revive us, restore us. Let us glorify and praise God for all the things we have heard and seen.

Published on December 25, 2020

Monday Meditation: Third Week of Advent

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney

Yesterday morning, I lit the rose-colored candle in our Advent wreath as my husband and I worshiped via Zoom – the candle of joy. The third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday – the Latin word gaudete means “rejoice.” In many churches, these words from Philippians 4:4-6 were sung or read: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

Rejoice! How do we rejoice when 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, yet only 10% of them receive treatment?

Rejoice! How do we rejoice when drug overdoses in the U.S. continue to rise, having tripled over the past two decades?

Rejoice! How do we rejoice when women in our community continue to be abused and trafficked?

Rejoice! How do we rejoice when people of color continue to suffer from the ongoing effects of generations of racism in this country?

Rejoice! How do we rejoice in the midst of a global pandemic as loved ones suffer and die?

Rejoicing is an act of defiance. Rejoicing is way of resisting the temptation to give into hopelessness. Rejoicing takes spiritual discipline.

The writer Alex Haley was known for saying, “Find the good and praise it.” Perhaps we could modify his words and say, “Look for where God is at work and praise God.” We must learn to pay attention – reasons to rejoice remain present in our work and in our world.

We can rejoice because women continue to come to TND seeking treatment for their addictions. We can rejoice because lives are being saved as God works through us. We can rejoice because women are safe in our care.

Despite the challenges of 2020, we can rejoice as we light the rose candle. Kate Bowler observes, “Though it seems that joy is in short supply and despair reigns supreme, this candle suggests that there is something more for which you were made. It is the oxygen that makes it possible for you to keep going.”

Restore to me the joy of my salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” Psalm 51:12

Published on December 14, 2020

Monday Meditation: The Second Sunday of Advent

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney

As I child, I remember learning the song “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”

Let there be peace on earth,
and let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth,
the peace that was meant to be.
With God as our Father,
brothers all are we.
Let me walk with my brother
in perfect harmony.

Let peace begin with me;
Let this be the moment now.
With ev’ry step I take
let this be my solemn vow:
To take each moment
and live each moment
in peace eternally.
Let there be peace on earth,
and let it begin with me.

 

As I child, I wasn’t bothered by the exclusively masculine pronouns in the song; today I would much prefer the use of the inclusive word “siblings” instead of brothers. But the sentiments behind the lyrics still ring true.

History of the Hymn

This popular folk song was composed in 1955 by Jill Jackson-Miller and her husband Sy Miller. Jill was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1913 and was adopted as a child by the Jackson family. As a young woman, she moved to Hollywood and launched her acting career. At the age of 31, she attempted suicide after her first marriage failed. Five years later, she married Sy, and they collaborated to create this song, with Jill penning the lyrics and Sy composing the melody.

Jill’s reflections about the inspiration for this song are poignant: “When I attempted suicide and I didn’t succeed I knew for the first time unconditional love—which God is. You are totally loved, totally accepted, just the way you are. In that moment I was not allowed to die, and something happened to me, which is very difficult to explain. I had an eternal moment of truth, in which I knew I was loved, and I knew I was here for a purpose.”

Life Application

When the peace of God takes root in a person’s life, transformation ensues. As individual lives are changed, families can be changed, communities can be changed, the world can be changed. Over the course of the past year, I have heard dozens of clients offer testimonies similar to Jill’s: After a near-death experience, they have come to believe that God must have a purpose for their lives. They are grasping for God’s love like never before, clinging to the belief that they are loved and worthy.

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me. Shalom is the Hebrew word that is translated as peace, and shalom means far more than the absence of conflict. To experience shalom is to be at peace internally and to live in harmony externally. Shalom means wholeness of body, mind, and spirit. Our Jewish friends both say hello and goodbye to one another using the salutation “Shalom!” – a wish for peace in their comings and their goings. How lovely.

We are called to peacemaking work at The Next Door, but we must have first-hand experience with peace ourselves in order to faithfully model it for our clients. So let us strive to walk in harmony with one another. Let us solemnly vow to take each moment and live each moment in peace eternally. Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with us.

Shalom, friends.

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:8)

Resources: https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-let-there-be-peace-on-earth

Published on December 7, 2020

How Food Feeds the Mind

– Written by Rebekah Miller, RDN, LDN at HBC Nutrition

The Gut-Brain Connection

Food not only nourishes the body, it feeds the mind. Glucose from the foods we eat acts as energy to keep the brain active and engaged. Fat from our diet helps to build the brain, which itself is 60% fat. Anyone who has experienced butterflies in the stomach knows that emotions and feelings experienced in the brain are also felt in the stomach. Ever get irritated or upset when you’re hungry? That gut-brain connection works both ways, with the brain sending signals to the digestive system and the digestive system sending signals back to the brain. Using the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), the GI tract and brain speak to each other through a nerve network that links emotion and cognition in the brain with the function of the gut. In fact, there are as many nerves in the gut as there are in the spinal cord.

The Main Character

How, then, can we use this connection to influence our mind and emotions? Are there foods that support healthy cognition and emotional regulation?  Indeed there are, but there is one more character heavily involved in the story of food and its role in the brain.  The GI tract is filled with nerves, but it is also filled with microbes.  These tiny bacteria reside throughout the digestive tract, even in the acidic environment of the stomach.  Each bacteria performs its own essential work.  Microbiota help create vitamin K, protect the lining of the intestine, improve food absorption and, most importantly, activate neural pathways between the gut and brain.

Microbes in the stomach are also responsible for regulating serotonin, a popular hormone known to stabilize mood, regulate sleep, inhibit pain, and aid in digestion. In fact, 95% of the serotonin produced in the body is produced in the GI tract.  While the science behind how exactly the serotonin from the gut can impact the serotonin in the brain is somewhat complicated, the basic principle is that a healthy microbiome in the gut improves the brain’s cognition and mood.  Changes to microbiota affect both gut and brain serotonin levels.

What Can We Do?

What can we do to help our microbe friends?  How do we increase the number of beneficial microbes in our digestive tract? How do we keep the ones we already have? Increasing the number of microbes can be done in two ways:

Eating Fermented or Cultured Foods

Eating foods like yogurt, miso, tempeh, and fermented vegetables like kimchi or sauerkraut, or drinking fermented drinks like kefir or kombucha on a regular basis helps build a powerful plethora of beneficial bacteria. Just be sure to buy these foods with active cultures in the refrigerated section of the store. Anything canned and shelf-stable no longer has many active bacteria.

Taking a Probiotic Supplement.

There has been research that suggests that food is a better carrier than supplements, but either way works. If supplements are a more preferred route, one study suggests that the ingested bacteria survive best when taken during a meal that contains some fat content, or up to 30 minutes before or after the meal.

Probiotics increase the number of bacteria. Prebiotics feed the bacteria already present.  Prebiotics are found in foods that contain fiber. Bacteria in the gut love to eat the parts of plants that are harder for our system to break down. Common prebiotic rich foods that can increase the health of your bacteria include: almonds, asparagus, bananas, garlic, kiwi, oats and whole wheats. Fiber is not only a good food for bacteria, but it also helps to regulate blood sugar and promote regular bowel movements. Remember! When increasing fiber in your diet, always do it slowly over a span of weeks, and be sure to increase the amount of water you drink as you increase fiber.

Other Ways to Promote Healthy Gut Flora

Stay active and manage your stress. Stress decreases the amount of bacteria in your gut and limits blood flow to the intestines, making digestion less effective.

Limit the amount of foods with refined sugars or too little fiber. Sugar encourages the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut. Too much harmful bacteria leaves little space for the beneficial ones to thrive.

Alcohol, too, can kill bacteria. Choosing recovery is a great step toward a healthy gut and brain!

Although we can’t see them, these little bacteria friends help us thrive.  They are one tool in our tool chest of ways to maintain a healthy mind and happy mood.

What will you do to feed your own microbiota?

Published on November 19, 2020

Not Just Another Statistic

– Written by Jane Saffles-Granville, LMSW, Treatment Therapist

As a therapist in alcohol and drug treatment, one of the first things I ask my clients in our initial therapy sessions is a simple question: “Why did you come to treatment?” It has a handful of common answers. “For my children,” “I want to learn how to be sober,” or “I need coping skills.” One of the responses that has always given me pause is “I don’t want to be another statistic.”

When my clients say that, I hear not just “I don’t want to die,” but also “I don’t want to be forgotten.” The statistics of overdose death are harrowing. Most see the headlines, shake their heads, and go about their day. It can be hard to truly internalize the sheer number of deaths, the amount of loss, the number of grieving loved ones left behind.

For the past few months, it has felt like so many more people are dying. COVID has taken so many lives, and I think the full scope of its toll cannot be fully understood until you also look at so-called “deaths of desperation”—drug overdoses and suicide.

I have this seen firsthand in the past few months in a way I haven’t in my near decade of work in social services. The truth is, I’ve been navigating my own grief for too many clients of mine who have died. Women who had been in my outpatient group just days before, and women who had graduated residential treatment years ago, and many more in between. Women I saw cradle their pregnant bellies and cradle their infant children. Women who shared their own grief for loved ones who died of overdoses. Women who cheered on their peers for leaving an abuser, just as they had once done. Women who fought so hard for a way out of a system that was stacked against them. Women who made me laugh and exasperated me at the same time. Women who gave me hope. Women who were so vitally alive when they were sober, it was hard to imagine them in their addiction then and even harder now to imagine them gone.

I don’t know what led to their relapses. I don’t know what their last days were like, or how long they had been sober after the last time I saw them. It can be so easy to focus on the death by overdose, and see it as failure. But when I reflect on this feeling, a line from the poem “Failing and Flying” echoes in my head: “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.” When we hear about the mythological Icarus, it is a cautionary tale of hubris and preventable tragedy; but what of the miraculous flight that happened first? His wax and feather wings did not last indefinitely, and yet he did fly. Isn’t that true for people who die from addiction? We struggle to look past the death to see the successes before it, the love before it, the life before it.

And so, I believe “I don’t want to be another statistic” has another meaning: “If my addiction kills me, I don’t want my memory to be reduced to my cause of death.” Sadly, some of those women who told me this have since lost their battle with addiction. They became what they feared: a statistic, one of the many lives lost this year. Overdose is a lonely and tragic way to die, stealing the futures of too many worthy people. On National Overdose Awareness Day, it is our job now to remember their lives, not just their deaths; their names and not just the numbers. They cannot, and will not, merely be a statistic.

Published on August 31, 2020

Monday Meditation: Tending the Soil

– Written by Rev. Tambi Swiney

Are you familiar with Jesus’ parable of the sower?

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matthew 13:3-9)

At first, Jesus’ disciples did not understand the message of his story, so they requested clarification. Jesus explained that the seed represents the message of God’s liberating kingdom, and the soil is the recipient of the message. Sometimes God’s good news cannot take root because the hearer simply cannot comprehend the message. Sometimes the message is initially received eagerly, but the good news fails to take root when trouble arises. Sometimes the recipient hears and understands the message, but the distractions of life choke out the hope of God’s word, resulting in no lasting spiritual fruit. When the good news of God’s kingdom is sown in the life of someone who hears the word, understands the word, and metabolizes the word, then the fertile soil of this life yields a great spiritual harvest.

Perhaps this parable has another layer of meaning that is relevant to our work at The Next Door. Some clients come to us unable to comprehend the good news that healing is possible. Others arrive with eagerness, but as soon as frustrations arise, they give up and walk out. Still others understand that they don’t have to remain in bondage to addiction, and they know that mental illness can be treated. They earn their certificates and return home, but when the distractions of life become unmanageable, they return to old habits and relapse.

But there are success stories – thousands of them – women who hear and understand and metabolize the good news that healing is possible. With our help, they have learned to tend the soil of their lives. They have gained tools that help them to remove the obstacles that hinder recovery and growth, tools that help them to extract the thorns that have choked out the abundant life that God offers them. By the grace of God and with our help, their lives are bearing much fruit.

Let us keep tending the soil of our clients’ lives. Although it may initially appear that our labors are in vain when a client chooses to leave without completing the program, let us trust that incremental change is happening in the soil of their lives. Perhaps one rock was removed, one thorn was extracted. Perhaps one lesson was learned, one glimmer of hope was transmitted.

As we tend to the soil of our clients’ lives, let us also tend to our own gardens. How will you nurture your soil/soul today?

Published on August 24, 2020