What Ramadan Taught Me About Spiritual Purification

What Ramadan Taught Me About Spiritual Purification

Katie Steed

ramadan

The more I learn about Islam, the more I admire the dedication and strength of its believers, especially during the month of Ramadan.

Ramadan is observed during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and lasts between 29 and 30 days. It is a month of intense daily fasting, prayer, and introspection, with the ultimate goal of growing closer to God through physical and spiritual purification.

As I read more about Ramadan, I found myself deeply drawn to the idea of spiritual purification. My faith in God has suffered over the past year after going through some difficult times, and I’ve been struggling to re-center my beliefs. Inspired by Ramadan and as time allowed, I decided to take two weeks to highly focus on my own spiritual purification. I am unable to fast from food and drink because of some medication I am taking, so I tried to “fast” from other things that play a big part in my life, like taking time off from social media and turning off my cell phone.

The first couple of days were quite difficult, as I kept getting caught up in my day-to-day routines and forgetting about my goal. When I’d remember to turn off my phone in the evenings to do some pondering, I found myself distracted by what I might be missing and wondering if anyone was trying to get in touch with me. I had to remind myself that spiritual health is more important than the latest photo on Instagram. My “fast” got easier every day and I was surprised at how much simpler it was to focus on my goal when I avoided those things, as I would imagine going without food gets easier and helps maintain the focus on mind (and spirit) over matter.

For the first week, I decided to get to the root of the breakdown in my faith, and that meant digging into issues that I had been purposely avoiding. Taking time to full-on face my spiritual weaknesses was painful. Admitting and accepting personal weaknesses is never a fun thing, but is necessary to progress and become stronger. I finished the week with a better sense of self, both good and bad, and a list of things I wanted to improve.

During the second week, I focused on my faith and relationship with God. Again, the beginning of the week was rough as I faced my doubts in God and some frustration I had been harboring. However, as the week went on I found myself looking forward to my quiet evenings of pondering and prayer. I was reminded of what I believe and why I value those beliefs. I can’t say that my faith is completely healed or that I have no more pain or doubts, but I am more aware and less afraid of my weaknesses, and my faith in God is in a much better place.

Ramadan ends with a three-day celebration called Eid al-Fitr (the Feast of Fast-Breaking). It includes special prayers, meals with friends and family, and gifts. I think this is such a beautiful way to end what, I would imagine, can be an extremely trying month. After only my small two-week attempt I felt like celebrating, as my soul and faith felt refreshed, lighter, and stronger. Thanks to what I learned about Ramadan, I have an improved awareness of my spiritual health and a greater commitment to keeping it steady.

Katie Steed is a graphic designer who also loves to write. In her spare time she’s either biking, reading, or traveling.

7 Tips to Make Prayer More Meaningful

7 Tips to Make Prayer More Meaningful

By Camille Ward, FaithCounts.com Contributor

7-ways-prayer
Do you ever realize, getting into bed, that you can’t remember what you prayed for two seconds ago? This happens to me with an unfortunate frequency. I want my prayers to be both regular and meaningful, but I struggle to figure out what works for me. I don’t want my only earnest prayers to be in times of hardship. As time has gone on, however, I’ve picked up a few tips to help me make my prayers more meaningful.

  1. Pray out loud: I don’t usually remember to pray out loud, but it makes a big difference when I do. Studies show that talking out loud often helps people focus and remember what they were thinking about. If it helps me learn, why can’t the same principle help me pray? I have discovered that when I pray vocally, my prayers are more focused, and I feel like I’m talking to God directly.
  2. Sit comfortably: As a teenager, I started praying cross-legged to spare my bad knees. It made a huge difference in my prayers. Maybe that’s blasphemous, but I hope not, because it really helps me focus. When I kneel to pray my body is ready to jump up like a runner at the starting block; I want to move on to the next thing on my schedule. By sitting down in a more permanent position I tell my body that I’m in for a good conversation—no need to hurry. I imagine I am talking to God the way I would talk to a friend who is right there in front of me. Sitting comfortably lets me feel closer to God, have deeper conversations with Him, and take the time to really ponder as I wait for his answers.
  3. Make a list: When each day seems busier than the one before, it is easy to forget what we wanted to pray about. You might say a quick prayer in the car, but forget about it when you pray that evening. Keeping a sticky note for prayers (or an electronic equivalent) can help you remember what happened that day and what you want to discuss with God.
  4. Pray for those you love: Sometimes I choose a person to pray for specifically. This not only gives my prayer more direction, but it helps me love that person better and know how I can help them. If you aren’t sure who to pray for, ask God. He knows far better who is in need of your love and attention.
  5. Pray for those you need to love: Some people are harder to love than others. I know God loves all His children, but that doesn’t mean all of them make it easy. I frequently pray for my eight-year-olds from Sunday school by name. Not only do they benefit from the extra prayers, but I have an opportunity to learn more about them and to love them more—even when some of them drive me up the wall. These prayers make me a better teacher, but they have also made me a loving one.
  6. Give thanks: God has blessed us with far more than we can name. It doesn’t hurt us or Him to show that we notice His hand in our life. By showing gratitude we can nurture a more positive attitude while improving our relationship with God.
  7. Find a quiet space: When I was a freshman in college, my roommate liked to spend her evenings blasting rock music. These circumstances made it difficult for me to pray, let alone receive inspiration. I was too uncomfortable to ask her to turn it down temporarily, let alone pray in front of her. My solution: the furnace room. Every night I sat on a bucket in the furnace room and poured out my heart to God. The situation may have been a bit odd, but I found the peace and privacy I needed to connect with Him.

What helps one person pray may not help another. If you are struggling to make your prayers more meaningful, keep trying. Even better, ask God what you need to do to have that relationship with Him. He is there. When you ask, He will answer.

Camille Ward is a student of English Education at BYU. She loves to spend time with her family and is not to be trusted in bookstores or bakeries.

What a Cadet Learned About Faith

What a Cadet Learned About Faith

cadet2I am a contracted US Army ROTC Cadet, which means that I am in training to one day trade in the black dot of the Cadet’s rank for the gold bar of the 2nd Lieutenant’s. This past spring, I stepped off of a bus and onto the hot, dusty ground of a major Army camp built on rolling hills and ringed by mountains. It was hot, there wasn’t any cloud cover to speak of, the terrain was rough, and our area of operation was vast: perfect for a land navigation (orienteering) course, which is where this story starts.

Since the Army is the primary land force of the military, its Soldiers should to be able to, you know, get around on land. Since we can’t always depend on GPS, everyone needs to have a basic knowledge of how to work with a map, a compass and a protractor. I was partnered with a less-experienced Cadet, and we were tasked with finding a handful of coordinate points, which were marked by metal poles with dog tags hanging from them, scattered among perhaps a couple hundred other points.

We consulted our map, developed a route plan, and off we went, carrying our map, compass, protractor, water, tactical vests and 50-pound rucksacks. We were having trouble finding our first point, and my partner was tired, so I left all the gear with her while I ran to inspect a metal pole some 200 meters away that we thought might be it. It was still the wrong one, so we decided to backtrack to our last known point. After we had shouldered our rucksacks and left the area, I asked my partner for the compass so we could check our bearing, and I heard five little words that nobody ever wants to hear:

“I thought you had it.”

I didn’t. Regular military folks often call those in ROTC “cadidiots,” which definitely applied here. We had failed to attach our compass to our tactical vests as we were trained to do which, In Army circles, is called “dummy-cording,” because it’s intended to prevent dummies like us from losing their compasses. Now, instead of looking for a two-and-a-half foot pole, we were looking for a small, green compass in a sweeping field of similarly-colored tall grass. After a fruitless search, we headed back to the starting point and told one of our leaders what had happened. He told us that if we didn’t find our compass, the Army would charge us hundreds of dollars, so we’d better give it our best shot. He gave us another compass, telling us that we should use it to get back to where we lost it.
 As a man of faith, I was praying silently in my head throughout all this. I knew that God wasn’t just going to drop the compass out of the sky and into my hand, so we had to go back over our map and our route in order to have any shot of finding the thing.

For some reason, I wasn’t overly worried, but I probably should have been: We were looking for a 5 cm x 7.5 cm green object in the middle of a huge, greenish field: the proverbial needle-in-a-haystack. We navigated back to the area where we had lost the compass, which took some time, but we found our lost compass after a careful search. We didn’t have enough time to find all of the rest of the points, but neither of us cared. We’d found the most difficult point in the whole course, and we no longer owed Uncle Sam 200 bucks.

I thanked God over and over again for His help, because I knew that things wouldn’t have worked out the way they did without him. It’s true, we used our knowledge of land navigation to make up for our previous carelessness, but I am thoroughly convinced that without combining it with faith we would have failed miserably. Along similar lines, I hope to strengthen both my faith and my land navigation skills in the future, because they certainly went hand-in-hand that day.

What Zambia taught me about Faith in God’s Timing

What Zambia taught me about Faith in God’s Timing

Open the Flood Gates of Heaven, and Let it Rain
Faith in God’s Timing

By Shannon Hoffmann, Faith Counts Contributor

zambia.jpg

A recent humanitarian trip to the developing, third-world country of Zambia was a lesson for me on faith. Faith is not about our timing, but it is trusting God’s timing for the blessings we hope to receive. I was reminded of this over and over again on this trip.

We have so much here in the United States, and there are others with so little. Even some of us who don’t seem to have a lot here are materially wealthy in comparison to what they have there, but of course we can be rich in blessings without material wealth.

My visit was close to the end of the rainy season there, and things were still lush and green. However, rivers were already drying up at that point. What do you say to someone when you know the gardens and fields they planted will surely perish soon from the lack of rain?

I knew it wouldn’t be long before the vegetables they counted on to feed their families and to sell for income weren’t going to grow—and that it would be a problem throughout the country. They would all be affected in some way in this situation.

Photo courtesy of Shannon Hoffmann

Photo courtesy of Shannon Hoffmann

Nshima, a food that looks much like a pile of mashed potatoes but is actually a dish made from maize flour (white cornmeal) and water, was already a big part of their diets–but would it be the mainstay at that point? There are actually probably many people there who rely nearly solely on it. It’s a humble existence there.

As I walked into a modest home that sits on the property associated with an orphanage, I noticed something written on the door frame. “Open the floods gates of heaven and let it rain.” I couldn’t stop thinking about this. This was a request to God, to send the rain so that gardens and fields could produce—so people wouldn’t go hungry. The owner of this home looks to God in faith and trusts Him.

Photo courtesy of Shannon Hoffmann

Photo courtesy of Shannon Hoffmann

The people there are hopeful, and they believe in God and his timing. That’s not always easy. What if the crops fail before God opens up the flood gates and lets it rain? What if the rain does come, so fiercely that it washes the crops away? There’s a chance either way that they lose. They were already in drought conditions when I was there, before the rivers all dried up. They reminded me how important it is to do my level best so God can help the rest of the way.

They live in this dire situation. Were they crying and sitting around forlorn and worried? The answer is no. They were taking care of children, singing, spending time as sisters and brothers of a tribe, and leaving it up to God to bless them as he would. I had to take note.

Photo courtesy of Shannon Hoffmann

Photo courtesy of Shannon Hoffmann

I’m sure they have bad days, because we do as people in general. But my experience upon arriving at a certain village, in the back of an old Army truck, was one of a welcoming and giving spirit felt. They may not have a lot of material things to share, but they give love freely to all who enter their village. God would take care of the rest as they did their best and did all they could do. They were actively engaged in living every day no matter what.

One can’t do this without a good amount of faith that all will be well—that God has your back.

The country of Zambia is a self-proclaimed Christian nation, and they aren’t afraid to show their faith. There you’ll find business names such as “God is Able Barber Shop; Abundant Blessings Enterprises and School,” and you’ll see words of faith labeling taxis as well. They are in partnership with God, and will wait patiently for his timing to send blessings.

The people of Zambia are such a good reminder to me that we are in good hands with God, and that his timing is the right timing. I see his blessings in my life, daily. I know he doesn’t forget about me, or any of us. He knows our hearts, and he knows when we are ready to receive. That’s a beautiful, comforting thing to me.

This is Why I Pray

This is Why I Pray

C. S. Lewis once called our world “the kingdom of noise.” Messages flood our world. They inundate us. We’re told daily how to act and feel, what to eat and drink, how to be happy. The messages are often contradictory and can send us into a tailspin of indecision and worry.

But there’s a way to sort through myriad of messages hurled from every direction. The way is prayer—heartfelt, meaningful, tender prayer.

Transcript
Every day, I’m bombarded by messages. How to think, what to buy, how to dress, what to do. The messages are often convoluted, contradictory, brash. In this labyrinth of ideas, where can I turn for direction? How do I sort it all out? That’s why I pray. Powerful, peaceful, personal. Prayer.

How I Kept My Faith When I Lost My Job

How I Kept My Faith When I Lost My Job

By Steve Wunderli, FaithCounts.com Contributor

lost job2

A confession: I didn’t really keep my faith, but I did regain it.

The first thing you do when you lose your job is go through emotional stages similar to grief: denial, anger, blame, and finally acceptance. Somewhere in there is self-pity, depression, deflection of responsibility, and loss of faith. It’s a rough road, especially after all the sacrifices it took to get through college, all the late nights and all-nighters working your way up the corporate ladder, not to mention feeling like you had sufficient faith to get you through anything in life.

The next thing you do is look at everyone around you who is working and say to yourself: “I could do that. I could drive a dump truck, or be a bank teller or a school teacher or run a cash register . . .” It must be this primal survival skill of casting the net really wide.

Then once the panic settles down, you can find a realistic path. My advice is to discover: (1) what you are passionate about; (2) what your skills are; and (3) where the opportunities are. I found that when you get out of that space, you just get frustrated. Zeroing in did a lot for my self-confidence. But it wasn’t easy.

I had to learn to have faith in myself: my experience, my skills, my education, and especially my ability to adapt. This is really just having a spiritual sense of yourself and who God wants you to be. That’s the final dimension of faith: Asking Him what He wants you to do. Once you humble yourself to that point, then all the work you do to logically find a job starts to work. Unexpected doors open up, people call you.

I worked like crazy to try get a startup off the ground. I did consulting to make the house payments and I put all home and car repairs on hold. It all fell apart. More stuff broke at home, and the startup never got started. That’s when I asked: “OK, what should I be doing?” That takes humility. Something that does not come easy to me.

Change started to happen—bits of work came in. Nothing permanent, but checks came in here and there and we were making it, barely. And I was enjoying the work. I just needed more of it.

We went through our savings. Sold off things we didn’t need. Cut back on every category in our budget. I worked twice as hard for half the money. But with every little success I added to my portfolio of work. My faith increased. I prayed for more work.
What came was a request for me to volunteer at an inner-city school tutoring third graders in reading. Not exactly the answer I was looking for. But I did it. I was too afraid of what might happen if I didn’t respond to urgings that could be coming from God. Reluctantly I set off to spend an hour a week of my precious time helping with comprehension and word recognition when I could be looking for work. But here’s the thing: I was energized by it. Seeing these kids improve, having someone believe in them, even love them, made all the difference.

Then it struck me one day. That’s all I am, a child in this world trying as hard as I can to learn . . . and God is my mentor. My mindset changed from resentment to gratitude. It was as if God was offering the same words of encouragement to me as I was offering to these kids “Just keep trying, you’re doing great.”

Small miracles began to happen. Even without a permanent job, I was able to reduce our house payment. It took a lot of work and faith, but things began to improve, slowly… like moving up one grade level at a time . More work came in. My new portfolio was multiplying. The kids I was mentoring were progressing, and so was I. My prayers went from “bless me…” to “bless these kids…”
It sounds simple, but I truly believe that when you spend some part of your regular life completely focused on somebody else’s success, you also find your own.

When I finally did get a regular contract, with benefits and a sense of stability, I made one stipulation: Wednesday afternoons were non-negotiable. That time is reserved for building faith—and others.

Celebrating the Faith of Mothers: Anna’s Journey

Celebrating the Faith of Mothers: Anna’s Journey


​This weekend as you celebrate Mother’s Day, consider how your mom has helped inspire your faith.

Video created by Kolby Beck, Josh Beck and Devin Loveland
Music by Elijah Bossenbroek

Devin Loveland: The video is based on a story from my family history. The faith my ancestors have had in the past has strengthened my faith, especially this particular story. My faith and resilience are deepened when I remember stories like this. Faith is about hope for the future, and it is strengthened by stories from our past.

“Got a Decision to Make? Exercise Your Faith”

“Got a Decision to Make? Exercise Your Faith”

By Coke Newell, FaithCounts.com Contributor

decision to make
Two years ago my youngest daughter was trying to choose a university. She was clear on her course of study, and had been admitted to both her top schools of choice. But since both were great choices, she couldn’t decide which to attend.

I had a business trip to the city in which one of her “finalist” universities was located, so I invited her to come along and visit the school while I was in meetings. She spent hours that day talking to professors and visiting facilities, and when we got back together that evening, she told me, “I loved it.”

Believing it only fair that she measure both schools on equal footing, however, my wife and I encouraged her, at our expense, to visit the second school as well. After a similar day visiting the faculty and facilities of that second school, she called us on the phone. With both experiences fresh in her mind, she told us with a touch of awe in her voice how this second program was in fact “the program of her dreams”—perfect in every way. So imagine our surprise when she told us that now she wasn’t sure which school to pick.

American religious leader Thomas S. Monson has said, “The door of history turns on small hinges, and so do people’s lives. The choices we make determine our destiny.”

While some decisions—wheat flakes or rice puffs? red shoes or white?—will have only marginal impact on either our day or our future, others can change the course of our lives. Such decisions are the ones with which we could really use some help, even divine help, should such be available to us.

Hundreds of millions of people testify that such help has in fact been their experience—oftentimes receiving light, direction, knowledge and clarity far beyond their normal capacity of reasoning or discernment.

But certain mini-steps precede being able to make the large leaps required in the “exercise” of our faith:

  1. Breathe deep and ponder: Is this a matter you could resolve clearly if you just took an afternoon to study it out? Have you dealt successfully with something similar before?
  2. Balance and Alignment: How does it ‘stand up’ to things you already know to be right? Or wrong?
  3. Focus: Sometimes there is no wrong answer—just a good answer and a better answer. See if you can zero in on the precise details and thus find clarity.
  4. Stretching: Can you “play it forward” and see where a given decision leads? If / then reasoning and probability projection is a common technique in high-level decision making.
  5. Reaching: Reach out to others of wisdom or experience you have already come to trust, and seek their input.
  6. Get in the zone, then get out of the way: Commit time to prayer or meditation as befits your beliefs, and don’t be lukewarm about it. American philosopher and author Henry David Thoreau wrote that “Humility, like darkness, reveals the heavenly lights.” We must truly open ourselves to potential answers that come from beyond our limited experience.
  7. Finally, use a ‘heart monitor’: “In meditation, go deep in the heart,” states the Tao Te Ching. The Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament instructs: “when thou prayest, enter into thy closet,” which latter term in the original Aramaic may be better rendered “secret chamber” of one’s soul.

Many authors oriented toward faith have noted that “Revelation is scattered” throughout our world of personal, private tutoring by a God who cares. What emerges as the cumulative wisdom of the above exercise faithfully performed may be trusted as your best answer.

As for my daughter, the accumulated power of both her previous experience and her present efforts led to a clarity that simply wasn’t there before the exercise. After studying it out, talking with many, pondering deeply and projecting forward where each would take her, she went deep in her heart, and then to her knees. And the answer came.

Stillness Is the Language of the Soul

Stillness Is the Language of the Soul

By Breanna Olaveson, FaithCounts.com Contributor

stillness

Language is a powerful tool. If you visit a foreign country, a basic understanding of the language will make your experience so much better. If you are caring for a small child, an understanding of the child’s babbling will make life much easier. If you’re texting an acronym-using teenager, you’ll need to know what the acronyms mean in order to understand what they’re actually saying.

You could say the language of modern life is noise. Many people today believe that the busier a person’s day, the more notifications come to a person’s phone, the more information a person processes or the more money a person makes, the better off that person is. Noise is an indicator of something happening. Noise is the language of our world.

It’s also overrated. Rumi, a noted 13th-century Persian poet and theologian, once said, “Silence is the language of God; all else is poor translation.” Stillness is the language of the soul.

Though it may be difficult to schedule, a moment of silence each day can help us re-evaluate our lives, process our emotions, eliminate stress and reconnect with our faith. In the quiet, our minds can focus on things that matter most. We can consider our beliefs, our fears and how authentically we are living what we believe.

But silence doesn’t need to be lengthy to be effective. A brief silence during a conversation can work wonders. When we are angry, a brief pause before we speak can prevent future regret. When someone asks a difficult question, allowing a brief silence can help you formulate your thoughts. When you’re listening to someone, letting silence remain when they finish might encourage him or her to say something more. When you want to communicate with God, turn off the noise and be still.

These habits take time. But for now, we can shut off the TV. We can pause the music. We can create stillness in our minds — and then listen.

Breanna is the author of one book, the mother of two daughters, and a frequent contributor to several faith-based magazines and blogs. She blogs about her faith, her family, and her favorite things at www.breannaolaveson.com.

The Best Workout for Overall Wellness

The Best Workout for Overall Wellness

We care for our bodies. We walk instead of drive, take the stairs, eat leafy green vegetables, drink imported spring water. But our spirits need just as much nourishment.

Take the health of your spirit to heart. Set bitterness aside. Seek peace. Meditate. Dream. Forgive. Pray.

You take care of your body. Take care for your spirit too.

 

Transcript:
There’s more to health than physical health—and powerful muscles and a strong heart—because there’s more to being human. Emotional health, interpersonal health, mental health, spiritual health.

Spiritual health means finding peace and harmony in our lives. It means discovering deeper meaning in our existence. It means to have a sense of right and wrong and to act accordingly, to believe, to practice forgiveness and compassion, to care.

You take care of your body. Take care of your spirit too.

4 Ways to Grow Your Faith

4 Ways to Grow Your Faith

By Maddie Wiley, FaithCounts.com Contributor

grow faith

The spring months are the perfect time to reflect on the process of renewal and regrowth, and it can be a great opportunity to work on growing your faith and becoming the person you want to be! Whether you started to forget about your faith resolutions you may have made in January or you are just now ready to focus on your faith, here are four ways you can grow your faith like the spring flowers that are growing right now.

1. Grow through service

Serving others is a great way to stretch your faith and to watch miracles occur. Spend some time each day looking for service opportunities, whether they are big or small. Watching the joy of others as they are served can also bring you peace and happiness.

2. Let meditation be the water your faith needs to become strong

Find a quiet place in your world and sit down for a few minutes. Think about all the blessings in your life and ponder what you can do to improve the world around you. By spending some time disconnected from the distractions of technology and media every day, you will be able to see your world more clearly and you can better understand what you need to do to improve.

3. Get outside and enjoy watching spring bloom

The flowers and the trees are reborn each spring, similar to the chance you have to regrow your faith every day. Go on a nearby hike and do some yoga when you reach the summit. Or spend some time in a field filled with fresh flowers. Your faith will grow while you reflect on the beauty and miracles that you see around you.

4. As your faith becomes stronger, share it with others

Your faith can grow as you watch the faith of others grow. Share your feelings on a certain faith topic with a friend and explain how your life has been impacted by believing. The spring season is the perfect opportunity to live your faith and accept the faith of others.

“Your faith will grow not by chance, but by choice.” Neil L. Andersen

Exercise and Faith – A Lifetime Commitment

Exercise and Faith – A Lifetime Commitment

faith-exercise

Photo Credit: Ashley Barker/Offset.com

I love to exercise every day, whether it’s a walk outside or practicing yoga in a studio. In the process of making exercise a daily decision, I remembered the story of a lady who attended a class on “Commitment.” She sat in the front row with bon-bons in each hand. The instructor asked what she was committed to and she responded, “I am committed to losing weight.” The instructor looked directly at her and replied, “No, you’re not. You’re committed to the emotional comfort that food brings you.” I was struck by the candid response from the instructor and realized there was no lack of commitment, but rather a lack of direction – for her commitment.

I asked myself where my commitment was directed. I had to have faith in myself to get up and get out, because I simply cannot reap the rewards of someone else’s work out. I live in Utah, where extremes in temperature include cold, snowy winters and hot, dry summers. The landscape is truly unique with deep and sharp canyons, majestic mountains, high and low valleys, red rock, and delicate wildflowers.

I can always plan on the winter season visiting, and this past November was no exception. However, it was the first time I tried walking outside in winter weather. It has been breathtaking, and sometimes takes my breath away, because it’s so cold. There have been plenty of days when I could have stayed inside and found every excuse not to exercise, but I had to decide where I wanted to direct my commitment – “Daily exercise” or “Every reason not to exercise.” Directing my commitment to “Daily exercise” helped me embrace winter as a truly beautiful season. I never thought I would enjoy walking in winter weather, but I am awed by the gentle snow flurries, and the calculated movements of deer as they glide gracefully across a mountain side or when they walk right in front of me.

If I would have directed my commitment to “Every reason not to exercise,” I would have missed some of the most powerful nights; nights when the earth is crusted with ice and snow, and the clouds in the sky part, revealing perfect stars in perfect constellations and I have to stop, look up, and acknowledge a power greater than myself.

This acknowledgement requires pondering the direction of my commitment to faith, either, “Faith in a power greater than myself” or “Every reason to doubt.” Directing my commitment to “Faith in a power greater than myself,” has been rewarded every day, and every time I am outside – whether it’s a walk through a path of tulips in the spring, a stargazing night in the dead of winter, a hike on a mountain trail during the heat of summer, or a stroll through a canyon to behold the palette of colorful and vibrant leaves – I can look up at the sky and know a great and loving power, bigger than me, is watching over each of us, every day.

How a Fake Cheeseburger Saved My Life

How a Fake Cheeseburger Saved My Life

By Laurie Campbell, FaithCounts.com Contributor

nate-cheeseburger

My son went missing when he was two years old. His body didn’t go anywhere, but the rest of him did. He disappeared into the mysterious, heart wrenching world of regressive autism. Up until he was 18 months old, our son, Nate, had developed as a typical, happy, bouncing baby boy. He began walking and talking, laughing and engaging with others using his mostly toothless smile and his bright, shining eyes.

But at 18 months, his eyes began to lose their light. He stopped talking. He stopped smiling. He stopped responding to his name. Then, he stopped responding to anyone else in the world around him as he spun off into his own orbit.

Because I had trauma from my own childhood, the trauma of seemingly losing a child to regressive autism sent me into a Post Traumatic Stress tailspin. I knew we had to do something to help. But what?

By the grace of God, a friend of ours had a son with autism, too, and was being helped by Erik Lovaas, an expert in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis). Although that is the preferred treatment now, it was still controversial back in 2002. It was expensive, and we couldn’t get any funding. So, against the instincts of a mother who feels the need to spend as much time with a two year old as possible, we agreed to have our son have treatment for 40 hours a week.

He would scream and cry for hours during the monthly consultations as his tutoring sessions were adjusted. Then he’d scream and cry during much of the daily tutoring. Then he’d just scream and cry. His torture became mine.

He remained non-verbal yet multi-vocal for more than a year after that. During that time, the only thing he responded to positively was VeggieTales, the cartoon vegetables who teach Bible stories and principles through skits and music. Nate loved them and would spin in circles and dance excitedly on his toes whenever we put in one of the videos. He was obsessed with them, in fact. One day I walked out into the living room to find that he’d written out “VeggieTales” in Lincoln Logs. The next day, he spelled it out in pencils. The day after that, rocks. And so began his first form of communication since his initial disappearance.

One of the VeggieTales characters sings a cheeseburger song and dances about with a cheeseburger on his head. One day after getting Nate a kid’s meal, he took out the cheeseburger and put it on his head and wouldn’t take it off. No amount of coaxing would convince him otherwise. When I took it from him, he screamed until he finally found it in the trash, put it back together (if that’s what you can call it), and put it back on his head.

If you have never been around a child with autism, you may not know just how relentless, stubborn and impossible it can be to coax them into “desirable behaviors.”

So, the cheeseburger remained on Nate’s head until I bought a “fresh one.” I tried a fake cheeseburger, but he wouldn’t go for it. Then I tried several different fake ones. He wouldn’t go for those, either. And, as if any type of shopping or public errands weren’t already difficult enough, whenever I took him to a public place, he insisted on keeping the cheeseburger on his head or else he’d scream the entire time.

I quickly learned that people would rather have you walking around with a kid who has a cheeseburger on his head than a kid screaming bloody murder. Either way, you receive some accusing glares, but the cheeseburger seemed to evoke the lesser of two evils.

Then, God stepped in—through His mercy, grace, and a saleswoman at a barbecue store. Embarrassed as usual, I explained to her why my son was walking around the store with a cheeseburger on his head. She said, “Well, we have a fake cheeseburger. How about that?”

“Oh, no thank you,” I replied. “I’ve tried several of them. He just won’t go for it.”

“But we have a very realistic one. He might like it.” She walked over to one of the barbecues and picked up the most realistic looking fake cheeseburger I’d ever seen (and I had become quite the fake cheeseburger connoisseur). Nate took one look at it, dropped the old cheeseburger, and proudly put his new crown upon his head.

I was flabbergasted, and relieved beyond expression. I asked her how much it cost. She said they didn’t actually sell them, but she’d take care of it. I knew she meant she’d pay for another one. When she insisted I take it for free, I started to cry. And cry. And couldn’t stop.

That might have been the first time I’d been able to cry since first learning of our son’s plight. I truly felt God was watching out for me that day. I felt his hand in my life, as it reached through the frozen, miserable state of PTSD that had left it so difficult for me to feel anything.

All thanks to a stranger’s act of charity and the perfect fake cheeseburger.

When was the last time you prayed?

When was the last time you prayed?

Prayer. A silent plea in your heart while you drive to work. A noisy congregation singing praises toward heaven. A family kneeling together to petition God for the life of a loved one. Prayer can take many forms, but the purpose is the same. To connect for a moment in our busy lives with a higher power. To express gratitude, and to ask for divine help.

Nearly 30 years ago on May 16, 1986, in small-town Cokeville, Wyoming, former town marshal David Young and his wife Doris entered the doors of the Cokeville Elementary School, took control of the school and held the students and teachers hostage. The children and adults were corralled into a single classroom as Young threatened to ignite a bomb that was attached to his wrist. After two and a half hours of a standoff, Doris inadvertently set the bomb off. David Young shot his wife, then himself, but miraculously none of the children or adults in that room were killed.

Many of the stories from that day include accounts of prayer and angelic visits. Following are the words of two survivors of the Cokeville Elementary School bombing:

Lori Conger

When my class arrived at the first grade classroom that afternoon, nearly the entire school was already there. Immediately I felt something was not right. A quick glance around the room confirmed that we were in serious trouble. I know I didn’t fully understand exactly how precarious our situation was, or the details that were involved, but my first instinct was to pray for help. I prayed we would be OK. I prayed we would see our families again. I prayed for peace and for direction. I prayed and prayed. Every time fear would begin to overwhelm me, I would pray some more.

I was 11 years old at the time and had been taught how to pray from the time I could speak. There are many details of that day I cannot recall, but I do remember feeling peace and knowing we were not alone. I do remember putting my faith in God that He would somehow get us out of this impossible situation. This experience confirmed my belief and knowledge in the power of prayer, and I have never forgotten it. I came to know when we send our pleas to heaven, a real being hears them and mercifully answers them–not always in the way we envision or hope, but always for what is best.

Whoever we are, or whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, I believe we don’t have to look very hard to see God’s fingerprint in our lives and realize the miracles He has provided for us. Yes, life is hard at times–for everyone–but that doesn’t mean God has withdrawn Himself from our lives or that He is not still providing miracles. We just have to look for them.

Test that concept. Pray consistently and see what happens. Even record your experiences. God is real and He always keeps his promises. The problem we often have is that we forget that our vision of the future is extremely limited. We think we know what is best for us and others we love. We think we have the answers. The truth is, only God really knows what the future holds and what is ultimately best for us, and often it is different than what we think.

say-a-prayer

HJ Esterholdt

I think that day gave me the strength to know that no matter what comes at me I will be able to rely on my belief system and get through it.

I always believed in the power of prayer. Certainly when you overcome insurmountable odds like we did it makes the message that much stronger, but since I already believed, it was confirmation of my beliefs in a higher power. That day taught me that when you’re in your darkest moments, prayer and faith will be the light that guides you. Now more than ever I believe in miracles as I realize exactly what we were up against that day.

Certainly every prayer can’t be answered, but if you don’t have any faith your chances of your prayers being heard are even less.

Pray with Your Food

Pray with Your Food

Faith has many flavors, and many foods play roles in spiritual traditions or have religious origins. Here’s a taste of what’s on the menu

While you polish off the last of Thanksgiving leftovers and as the holiday fruit cakes start to stack, consider this: food and faith have long gone together like peas and carrots, like biscuits and gravy, like Cheetos and Mountain Dew (don’t judge).

Faith has many flavors, and many foods play roles in spiritual traditions or have religious origins. Here’s a taste of what’s on the menu.

In the Arms of the Pretzel

Lore has it Italian monks first fashioned these baked beauties to resemble arms folded in prayer, then doled them out to children as pretiola—little rewards for faithfulness. A simple recipe of flour and water made the pretzel fitting fare for Lent, when Christians were forbidden eggs and dairy products.

Waves of Butter Flow Like Gazelles

Lamps lit with ghee—clarified butter—in Hindu temples and homes are thought to purify the atmosphere. A caramel aroma wafts from the sacred substance, used historically in homa—fire sacrifices. An ancient hymn from the Rigveda sings its buttery praises.

This is the secret name of Butter:
“Tongue of the gods,” “navel of immortality.”
We will proclaim the name of Butter;
We will sustain it in this sacrifice by bowing low.
These waves of Butter flow like gazelles before the hunter…
Streams of Butter caress the burning wood.

The Incredible Symbolic Egg

Next we crack into the egg, savory sphere and symbol of rebirth that early Christians dyed red to resemble Christ’s blood. The breaking of the shell calls to mind the breaking open of the tomb after the Resurrection.

The egg has a place at the table in Jewish worship, too: served on the seder plate at Passover, it symbolizes sacrifices offered anciently at the temple in Jerusalem.

“Lord, let the grace of your blessing come upon these eggs, that they be healthful food for your faithful who eat them in thanksgiving for the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

(The Roman Ritual, 1610)

Shintofu

You’re not the only one to appreciate good ‘fu, guy in the fleece vest. In Japan, abura-age (made from tofu) is said to be a favorite offering of Inari, kami of foxes and divine spirit to whom a third of the country’s Shinto shrines are dedicated.

Oh, Honey

Hungry yet? Nosh on this: apple slices dipped in honey represent hopes for a sweet new year during the Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah.

“May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors,
that you renew us for a good and sweet year.”

(The Apples and Honey Prayer)

Shine Bright Like a Pomegranate

Also on the table for Rosh Hashanah is that other red delicious, the pomegranate. Its cache of juicy jewels reflects hope for a fruitful future.

“May our merits increase as the seeds of a pomegranate.”

(The Pomegranate Prayer)

Which Brings Us Up to Date

“A house without dates has no food,” said the Islamic prophet Muhammad, who ended fasts by eating a trio of the wrinkly fruits, thought to have purifying qualities. The tradition carries over today to Iftar, the Ramadan dinner where people end fasting together by downing three dates.