The Simple Salve: Reflections on 2 Kings 5:1-14


Welcome to the first in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in the coming weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We will post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall, and will follow up with questions to consider either in the post itself or on the following Friday.

Our first guest post is by Rev. Jeremy Troxler, reflecting on 2 Kings 5:1-14.

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Commander Naaman was a four-star Syrian general who bore gleaming epaulets on each shoulder and a constellation of polished medals upon his chest. A revered war hero, he was the kind of stern, stoic, no-nonsense chief who made fellow soldiers wear the uniform with pride, and who emanated the aura of command. When ol’ “Stormin’ Naaman” told you to jump, you didn’t ask, “How high?” You asked, “When do you want me to come back down, sir?”

General Naaman, however, had finally come up against one enemy he could not outflank or outmaneuver, one adversary who refused to obey his orders. Leprosy.

General Naaman’s skin disease began as red spots on his arms, as if it were a child’s case of chicken pox. Before too long, the spots got bigger. They turned white and scaly, marching over the whole of his body. His hair began to fall out. His fingernails and toenails loosened.

He knew what would come next: the joints of his fingers and toes would begin to rot and fall off piece by piece. Eventually his leprosy would eat away at his face until the commanding visage that once had garnered so much respect would inspire only the most profound pity.

And then General Naaman would die.

The old soldier was, literally, falling apart. Had he the power, he would have court-martialed his own body for insubordination. Yet his body refused to salute.

Naaman’s cavalry arrives (so to speak) in the form of nameless servants, people with no rank or power. First is a servant girl, a young teenager kidnapped from the land of Israel who still could have mercy on her enemies. “If only master Naaman could visit the prophet in Israel,” she tells her mistress.

In his utter desperation, Naaman grabs hold of the servant girl’s comment the way the parents of a desperately ill child might try anything – anywhere – that could save their little one, no matter how unlikely the cure. Severe sickness is the great simplifier. Only one thing matters: being well again.

Soon General Naaman is on the move with a wagon train as long as a winding river, and with more silver and gold than Fort Knox. (Apparently doctors’ bills were just as expensive in Ancient Israel as they are today.) On this visit, however, Naaman comes not as conqueror, but as one conquered. He finds himself standing outside the home of Elisha the prophet as a supplicant, a patient in the waiting room.

Elisha adds insult to illness by refusing even to come out of his abode to meet the powerful Syrian general. Instead, another nameless servant bears the prophet’s prescription: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”


General Naaman is outraged. Has he really traveled hundreds of miles just so some foreign prophet could say what sounds a lot like, “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning?”

Does this prophet know WHO NAAMAN IS? Naaman had expected Elisha to offer some obscure herbal cure, to introduce him to the latest experimental treatment, to perform an elaborate ritual of healing. Instead, Elisha says, “Go wash.”

Can the salve really be that simple?

I get sick again. I want a wonder drug or prophet/physician to fix me so that I can get back to work. My doctor tells me: “Try to eat right. Try to get some exercise. Try to rest. Then maybe you won’t get sick at all.”

Can the salve really be that simple?

8474829966_4df2cd7b13The United Methodist Book of Worship encourages us to supplement our medical care by sharing in services of healing. I am struck, not by the elaborate ritual of these services, but by their simplicity. The church remembers the promises of Scripture. The church lays hands on the sick person and expresses its love. The church prays for the sick and anoints them with oil as a symbol of God’s care. That’s it: no miracle potions or religious amulets or incantations, just basic Christian practices.

Can the salve really be that simple?

The nameless servants say to Naaman: “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said was a simple thing, ‘Wash and be clean?’”

The severity of his sickness strips Naaman of the last vestige of his pride. Willing now to take orders from a foreign prophet and a nameless servant, Naaman removes the epaulets, the ribbons, and even the aura of command. Naked, humbled, he washes himself in the muddy waters of his enemies. Suddenly, his scaly sackcloth skin is made as soft at the skin on a newborn baby’s cheek. The leprous leader laughs. He is clean.

The salve really was that simple.

Scripture doesn’t tell us General Naaman’s story to encourage us to visit healing springs or bathe in muddy rivers. Sometimes, however, the salves for our sicknesses are surprisingly simple. Sometimes God sends servants to us whose words point us in the direction of health, if only we would listen. And sometimes a sickness of the body can heal the spirit by stripping away our illusions of command and control. 

074710_troxler_jeremy_hirezJeremy Troxler is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. Since 2007 he has served as the director of the Thriving Rural Communities initiative at Duke Divinity School. He begins a new appointment at Spruce Pine UMC, in Spruce Pine, NC, in July 2013.


Top photo by flickr user Tony Frates, lower image by flickr user John, both used with permission via Creative Commons.

 These reflections first appeared in the collection, “Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health,” produced by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative in summer 2010.

What is God’s Dream for Me?: A Pastor Creates a Personal Rule of Life


Sacred RhythmsIn her book entitled Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton includes a chapter about how to develop a personal rule of life. Barton explains that a rule of life seeks to answer the question: How do I want to live so I can be who I want to be? The following entry is provided by Rev. Dianne Lawhorn, a Spirited Life pastor from Cohort Two. She recently crafted a personal rule of life for herself and wanted to share her perspective.

I was given an assignment recently to create a “simple, sane, rule of life.”  As I looked over the instructions for this assignment, I saw words that resounded with my soul like “arranging our lives around our heart’s deepest desire . . .  patterns most conducive to leading full & joyful lives . . . getting a bodily sense of where we might be called to live most vibrantly.”

This is something that I have been considering for quite some time now.  I am convinced that the rhythm that our culture advocates is not good for our minds, bodies, or spirits.  It’s an endless hamster’s wheel of activity, responsibility, and availability that is anything but life-giving.  I think that Jesus desperately wants more for us and from us than this.  I believe Jesus wants new life for us and this life requires a new pattern for living; a new rhythm that incorporates work and rest, and one that results in wholeness.

This lesson has been a difficult one for me to learn, being a person who has pursued activity, productivity, and most of all, work, my whole life.  I feel that Jesus speaks tenderly to me in this saying, “Oh, dear one- your heart is so good, but this is not what I wanted for you, or what your calling requires of you. I want more for you than this- I want you to be well, healthy, and whole.  Then, what you’ll have to offer will be so much better than anything you can produce on your own.” 


This message has inspired me to look towards finding a better way to do life and ministry.  It has reminded me that what I need most is a new rhythm.  This draws my mind to what God’s dream for me in this might be.  This has not yet been revealed, but I believe in time, it will.  For now, my job is to create the kind of life that will allow me to be receptive to discerning whatever this dream might be.  My first step is to create a balanced rhythm, where work, rest, and play flow together in harmony.  This is the piece of the dream that is my work to do on this particular day.  The rest will come; it will be revealed in time. 

How I envision this rhythm is like a dance, to a Trinitarian beat, that is full of intentionality, but expressed with the kind of holy ease that I have been longing for.  So, the rule that I have created is a dance of things that I believe Christ wants for me like silence, solitude, and stillness.  I offer this to Christ and pray that the Spirit will lead my every step in the dance; that this rule will become my guideline for abundant living, thanks be to God.

– Rev. Dianne Lawhorn, M. Div.

compiled by Angela MacDonald

Summer Dreams

“To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle…”
~Walt Whitman


June 21st, the longest day of the year.  And the first official day of summer!  Summer–with all it’s glorious, sticky, fire-fly, thunderstorm, up-late days that seem to stretch luxuriously in front of us from this June vantage point.  Of course, they don’t, and just when I think the North Carolina heat is going to make me lose my mind, the days dim, the temperatures dip, and we ease into the next season.  But for now, summer’s glory unfurls before us, and I’ll admit to feeling hopeful on this day.  So,  in honor of this longest day, I’m going to make some summer vows.

This summer I will:

  • swim three times a week
  • take my daughter mini-golfing for the first time
  • go on a beach getaway with my husband
  • explore the trails along the Eno river with my dog
  • buy as much food from the farmer’s market as I can
  • plant more flowers than I know what to do with
  • make some beautiful arrangements to give to friends with all those said flowers
  • go to multiple outdoor concerts (I’ve already gone to one!)
  • re-learn how to hula hoop
  • eat salad fresh from my own garden
  • have friends over and make s’mores in the back yard
  • exercise more, and focus on building strength
  • read a novel
  • host a cookout for my church small group

That seems like a pretty good start, anyway.  My, is summer ever going to be FULL of goodness and fun!  But fun aside, there is something about a new season that speaks to me.  Sure, you can look at it as just another turn of the calendar–inevitable and unremarkable–but for me it reminds me that I get to begin anew.  I am not determined solely by my past choices, good or bad.  As Christians, we get to begin again in Christ at any moment, but I am someone who sometimes needs external reminders of that truth.  So the start of a new season reminds me that God’s mercies are new EVERY morning!


What do you need to be reminded of on this first day of summer?  

What hopes do you have for this next season of your life?

–Caren Swanson

(Top image by flickr user dbnunly, lower image by flick user FreeWine, with text added by Caren Swanson.  Both images used with permission via Creative Commons)

The Secret Pain of Pastors


Through our research with Spirited Life, we discovered a particularly surprising finding: pastors show high rates of job satisfaction, along with high levels of job stress. While there are a few theories behind such a contrast, pastors admit their love of the Church does come with a unique combination of stressors. For example, most pastors devote well over forty hours each week to sermon-writing, hospital visits, and committee work, yet they continue to hear from church members that they “only work on Sunday mornings”. This misunderstanding of the nature of pastoral work is one of many consistent issues faced by clergy.

secret_pain_small_216226948In the article entitled “The Secret Pain of Pastors”, Pastor Philip Wagner names and explores six common problems that clergy face. Those problems are listed below and include quotations offered anonymously from various Spirited Life pastors.

1. Criticism. With so many structural changes within denominations, pastors are often assigned fault for a church’s lack of growth, sermon length, service length, and lack of interest in community outreach, among other complaints. We have heard from many of the pastors in Spirited Life how criticism can come in many forms, either directly or indirectly, including withheld offerings.  The sense that pastors should be perfect often feeds into this tension.

2. Rejection. Pastors face rejection based on race, gender, age, ideas, etc. Wagner explains that “one of the most difficult conditions to achieve is to have a tough skin and a soft heart.” Although the rejection can oftentimes feel very personal, Wagner encourages pastors to “love people, hold them lightly, and don’t take it personally.”

3. Betrayal. Pastors learn to trust their church members, but they also experience violations of that trust, sometimes in the form of “telling the pastor’s personal issues to others,” according to Wagner.

4. Loneliness. One SL pastor has said that many clergy are warned to expect feelings of loneliness. “Clergy are told in seminary that their District Superintendent is neither their pastor nor their friend. This leaves clergy with no one to cover their back so to speak. Who can clergy turn to for support?” For more on this theme, check out Wellness Advocate Tommy Grimm’s blog post about the isolation experienced in ordination.

5. Weariness.SL pastor has described feeling weary from dissatisfied parishioners: “When members become dissatisfied with clergy or antagonistic, they choose to withhold their offerings because they believe it will punish the clergy.”

6. Frustrations & Disappointments. One SL pastor has said, “If you bring in 10 new members, but you have 11 members die (no control on that!) then clergy are deemed inefficient because of a negative growth rate.”

Below are some suggestions of how pastors can counter some of this secret pain they face:

  • Remember the Call. Think back to your first hint that you were Called to ministry. Was it a ‘Damascus moment’ or a ‘Slow Glow’? Remember the first time someone called you Pastor. Too often, pastors deal with emotionally draining situations; reflecting on your Call may bring back a renewed perspective on why you entered ministry.
  • Steal away and pray. Take your Sabbath!
  • Kate Rugani reminds us in her article that ‘Self-care is not self-ish’.
  • Remember that you are NOT alone. You are not the first member of clergy to face any of these challenges. Seek counsel of clergy outside of your denomination. If you are a pastor in the Spirited Life program, this is an area where your wellness advocate can provide a listening ear while also helping you find ways other support resources.
  • Laugh! While Spirited Life researches improvements for a pastor’s mental and physical health, WebMD maintains that laughter is one of the most reliable of medicines.  Here’s something to get you started:

–Angela MacDonald

(Quotations shared with permission from current SL participants; video clip from YouTube)

Be Opened


Don’t miss the news about the winner of this week’s giveaway on Monday’s post, and check in with us next Monday for another fun giveaway!

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Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.  -Mark 7

5568630893_f507c93bac_bSometimes I come across something—a poem or a prayer or a piece of artwork—and it just sort of undoes me. I just had that sort of moment, and I’m struggling to wrestle something big and glorious and TRUE into this space here, because I’m excited to share it with you.

This morning a co-worker sent me a link to this sermon delivered yesterday by Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber at the Festival of Homiletics that took place this week in Nashville. In his email my coworker wrote, “I thought about it as a blog post, but I’m not sure what I’d pull out or what I could add to it. The whole thing is terrific.” And that’s just it. What more can you say when faced with words of truth that knock you clean off your feet? But I’m going to try, because I’m stubborn like that.

What Nadia is getting at in her sermon is the ways in which we all tend to look for the most “broken” person in our midst, and get all holy, praying for God to heal THAT person over there. She examines the otherwise-unnamed “They” in the passage above, and how “They” begged Jesus to heal their friend.

Hey Jesus – we, the people who are just fine brought you the broken guy so you can fix him… I can’t help feeling like it would have been more realistic if all of the THEYs who brought the deaf man to Jesus would have also sought healing for themselves… But that’s not how we operate, see. We tend to let the obviously broken people carry all the brokenness for us. 

The scripture doesn’t tell us what the deaf man himself wanted, but it does tell us particularly that Jesus took the man aside “in private, away from the crowd.” And what Nadia points out is that the words Jesus uses to effect healing in the deaf man is not “be healed” but “be opened.”

We so often think healing is about identifying what’s wrong and then having that thing cured, but I wonder if spiritual healing has more to do with being opened than it does with being cured.

Because, let’s be honest, it’s usually easier to not change and it’s painful to be open and healing can hurt. Like a frostbite patient … when the blood comes back into the extremities it’s incredibly painful.  It can actually be more comfortable to allow parts of ourselves to die than to feel them have new life. Because sometimes healing feels more like death and resurrection than it feels like getting a warm cookie and glass of milk.

4830635905_a95577a3cd_bRev. Nadia had me at “be opened.” Part of my own story is that I lost my father to cancer earlier this year, after months of dear and faithful friends praying for his healing. Now, cancer is an evil disease, truly, and praying for healing is a good thing to do, but for my dad, he wasn’t healed—at least not from the cancer—which caused a lot of pain for those who were faithfully praying for healing. But you know what he was?—he was opened. He was fully opened to the love and presence of God, in a way that I’ve never seen him, even after six decades of good and faithful Jesus-following. And that was truly a miracle that I got to witness.

Beyond my own story, though, is the reminder that this sermon was explicitly crafted for and delivered to PASTORS. It’s important, I think, not to miss this point, because it’s those of us who spend our lives working for the care and healing of others who often miss how deeply in need of healing WE are. So I invite you to click on this link, invest the six minutes that it takes to read this piece thoughtfully, and prayerfully consider what Jesus is saying to you today. I am praying with you, for the healing of us all.

Be opened to what Jesus is saying to you.

Be opened to the idea that your value isn’t in working 60 hours a week for people who might not even be paying attention.

Be opened to knowing that your own brokenness doesn’t need to be hidden behind someone else’s brokenness.

Be opened to the idea that you are stronger than you think.

Be opened to the idea that you aren’t as strong as you think.

Be opened to the fact that you may not ever get what you want and that you will actually be ok anyway.

Be opened to this whole Gospel of Jesus Christ thing actually, actually, actually being real. And actually being FOR YOU.

Because maybe that’s what healing really is.

Since the radical reign of God that Jesus ushers in destroys the systems of designated sick people and designated well people so that all that is left is a single category of people – children of God. 

–Caren Swanson

Top image by flickr user Vincent_AF, lower image by flickr user Jenny Downing, both used with permission via Creative Commons

Collected tears


photo-001I have been struggling all week with today’s blog post. Monday’s post went up in the early afternoon, before the tragedy in Boston, and the post scheduled for Wednesday was on the topic of reconciliation, which felt appropriate to post, but here I am, at nearly 2 on Friday afternoon, and I still don’t have anything that seems right to share for today.

The truth is, this Boston thing has shaken me. Partly because I’m from New England, and Boston is “my city.” Partly because I have numerous friends who live there, and many who were involved with the marathon in some degree or another. Partly because I have loved ones who are runners and have run or are working toward running the Boston Marathon. Partly because it was such a beautiful, perfect day, and in some naive part of me, beauty and evil just don’t mix.

Monday found me home in New Hampshire for a long weekend visiting my mom and my sister and her family after the recent arrival of my niece. I literally spent the day cradling the tiny body of my 13-day-old niece and chasing after my two young nephews, and the news of the attack sent a shudder through my body. What kind of world are we raising our children in? was my first frantic thought. What will I tell my 8-year-old when she asks me why everyone is talking about Boston?  

The only answer I can give is that this is a broken world, marred by sin, by that line between good and evil, which runs through the heart of every one of us**. This world is one in which too many people live every day “in the valley of the shadow of death,” rocked by violence and destruction, wrecked by poverty and lack. And yet this is the world that that God “so loved… that he sent his only begotten Son.”  This is the world where people ran toward the bomb explosion on Monday’s sunny afternoon, in the hope of saving others. This is the world where I get to jump on a plane and fly a thousand miles away to spend days snuggling a sweet newborn.  This is that very same world.

And even though Boston is in lock-down today, leaving that beautiful, vibrant city a ghost town, and even though West, Texas, was nearly blown off the map by a terrible explosion two days ago, God does not leave us alone to muddle through all of this. God sees our tears, counts them, even. And the Holy Spirit works mysteriously, even through such things as the lectionary, whose assigned Psalm for this Sunday is that old favorite, and source of so much comfort in times of trial: the 23rd. For all of this, and so much more, I am grateful.


Caren Swanson

Top image by Caren Swanson. Lower image created by Caren Swanson, with the original photo by flickr user 55Laney69 used with permission via Creative Commons.

** “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” 
― Aleksandr SolzhenitsynThe Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

Being yourself in ministry


After The Christian Century ran a story on the state of clergy health late last year, the magazine published several thoughtful letters it received in response to the article.  These responses appeared only in the print version and not online, so I’m reprinting one below for us all to consider.

What questions does it raise for you?

Amy Frykholm’s article “Fit for Ministry” (Oct. 31) reminded me of the conversations I sometimes have during pastoral visits, when the person I’m visiting mentions in an offhand way an issue of real importance just as I’m getting up to leave.  Frykholm spends most of her article talking about Spirited Life, a program that helps United Methodist clergy in North Carolina take steps toward healthy eating and wellness.  In the article’s last paragraph, researcher Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell is quoted as saying that what is really needed for congregations to change the way they think about their clergy: “I would want them to think about the pastor as a whole person.”

This comment is more than a suggestion for future study.  Proeschold-Bell has discovered the real challenge to clergy health — the inability of many clergy to feel like they can be themselves in the context of their role as pastor.

I read the article after leading a week-long session for young clergy.  We talked about the gifts and the costs of “showing up” as ourselves in the context of ministry.  Among the costs that these young pastors identified: “Spiteful people will take what they learn about me and use it against me”; “People will judge me and lose respect for me”; and “I will no longer be able to protect myself from people who want to undermine me.”  In short, these pastors do not feel safe in their congregations.  No amount of weight loss or exercise or talks with a wellness advocate will address this issue.  What is needed is honest support for clergy from their denominations and from their congregations.

Heather Kirk-Davidoff
Columbia, Md.

— Kate Rugani

Image courtesy of torbakhopper via Flicker/Creative Commons


Music for the soul


2290444953-1Like the needle on my record player (yes, I still listen to records — I inherited a great collection of 60’s and 70’s LPs from my parents!) sometimes I get stuck in a groove, and I need a little nudge to get me going again.

This morning I had just such a nudge.

My music-savvy brother-in-law alerted me to the fact that the music of Josh Garrels, one of his favorite artists, is being given away for free on the website Noisetrade.  I’m unfamiliar with his music, but people have compared him to other artists I enjoy, like Iron & Wine and Ray LaMontagne, and I’ve heard that he brings a refreshingly Christian perspective to his songwriting that adds depth and substance to his funky tunes. A reviewer for Christianity Today (who gave his newest album 5 stars) called him a “freak-folk singer-songwriter.” I have no idea what that means, but it sounds awesome!

I figure you can’t go wrong with free music, though you can make a donation for it if you’d like. All of the donations he collects this week  benefit the work of World Relief in Congo. Here’s a note from the website:

From March 14 to March 28, all 5 of Josh Garrels’ most current albums will be available for free, exclusively on Noisetrade. This free catalog of music is given as a gift, but 100% of the tips received for any and all of the 5 albums will be given to World Relief and their courageous work in Congo. Congo is currently the most unstable, violent, and impoverished country in the world, with thousands displaced due to warring factions and a majority of the women suffering from gender based violence. Please consider leaving a tip, and in so doing, becoming a partner in the work for restoration in Congo. Thanks.

To learn more about the crisis in Congo visit the World Relief website.

This felt like such a gift to me on this rainy and gray Durham morning — sometimes music is the perfect balm for a weary soul.  If you are moved by music, check out this great opportunity to nourish your soul and to contribute to good work being done in the world at the same time.

–Caren Swanson

I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for Him


…Guest post by wellness advocate Lisa MacKenzie…

When I was a girl back in the 1960’s, spring was my favorite time of year.  My grandmother would pore over seed catalogs, begin spring-cleaning, and take me for walks in the woods to look for signs of spring.  Many weekend mornings we would walk to the Susquehanna River to fish, watch, and wait.  As my grandmother sat quietly on a log looking at the water, looking upward, and looking at me, I wasn’t sure what we were waiting for, but I knew that whatever it was it was important.  She would sigh, and I knew to be quiet. Like kindred spirits, she and I knew when to be still and when to talk to each other. I loved her.

As I grew, my grandmother became more fragile and my walks became solitary, but I found joy in running home to tell her that I had found the first lady slippers in the woods.  She would say, “It’s a new beginning, and you saw it my girl–you saw it.”  I didn’t know what she meant, but I loved her, and I knew it was important.

My grandmother and I hardly ever went to church, but on Good Friday when I was 15, we went to the little Episcopal Church in town where lots of people I knew attended.  It was raining and the church was damp and cold; we sang a sad song, Were You There When They Crucified My Lord, and my grandmother cried.  We held each other’s hands, and I had a sense of what we were waiting for.  We walked home in the rain.

Years later, I remember these times together: we were watching for Love and waiting for a new beginning.  Now I know that you don’t have to wait for God’s Love, but sometimes you have to wait for yourself to understand that there’s nothing more important.

–Lisa MacKenzie

Images from flickr users Frank G Heron (top) and lars hammar (below), both via creative commons.

The dance


Every thought you think creates a biochemical equivalent in your body.  And that is why writing down things you appreciate is good medicine.  And so is truly owning how bad something feels.  That too moves energy and changes chemistry.
Health isn’t about denying your sadness or grief. Instead it’s a dance of feeling, releasing, appreciating.
How are you doing with this dance?

–Dr. Christiane Northrup

Dr. Christiane Northrup is one of my favorite proponents of holistic health and wellness, and when I came across this quote, it rang true to me.  While it is good to focus on the positive gifts in our lives, sometimes we need to sit with the hard things too.  I know that I need to be reminded of this dance today.

— Caren Swanson