Life’s Mazes

The kids from the church youth group were really excited about the corn maze. Me. Not so much. It’s not that the maze was so big and so daunting that it came with a “help if lost” number to call on your cell phone. Those mazes do exist. I’ve heard about them.

The maze we were about to enter was the perfect size. Not too big to get really lost in and not too small in which you miss out on the heart racing challenge of finding your way out.

While a manageable size, I still had a bit of trepidation when I stepped in. Maybe it was my childhood memories of our Saturday drives out of our congested New Jersey neighborhood and into the country to go hiking in which we would pass cornfields and my mother would remark how easy it was for little children to get lost in the endless rows of stalks. I would stare out the window trying to figure out how for that not to happen. I couldn’t. It did seem once you were in the cornfield there would be no way out.

Perhaps, though, my trepidation was due to the fact the sun was quickly setting and darkness was settling in.

“Um, kids!” I shouted as they ran into the maze. “Do you think we have enough time to do this before it gets dark?”

“Sure we do, Pastor Donna!” they laughed. And with that not so blessed assurance, into the maze I went.

I have to admit at first it was kind of fun. The earthy, moldy smell of wet cornstalks in the crisp air of an autumn evening was definitely an improvement from the pungent smell that often came blowing in from the fields freshly sprayed with manure. The rustling of the stalks created an eerie symphony every time the wind blew and the muddy ground squishing below reconnected me to my inner child who used to love playing in the dirt and mud.

“Wait for me!” I yelled to the girls who ran on ahead. While I was beginning to have fun, I definitely didn’t want to do this maze on my own.

A few minutes turned into a few more minutes which then turned into a few more minutes which soon became more than a half hour. In one really sharp turn that was particularly muddy and slippery, I lost sight of the two girls who were my help—and salvation. (Okay. A bit dramatic but my sense of dread was growing.)

I stood by myself and noticed it was awfully quiet. The distant laughter of other kids and the murmuring of families figuring out which way to go, were no more. Was I the only one left in the maze?

The sun only had a bit more life left before turning in for the night. My heart then began to race as I realized something horrible. I had left my cell phone at home! There was nowhere to turn for help. I could start screaming but decided perhaps that was a bit too premature. Save the screaming for later when I really needed to scream for help.

I stood there with this sense of fear and lost-ness overtaking me. I forced myself to start walking, to try to figure out what path I should take, which turn to turn, which loop to loop around and which dead end to avoid.

As I walked I heard myself whispering, “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He leads me…” He leads me. I smiled. Yes, the Lord does indeed lead me. He always has. All of a sudden this maze seemed familiar.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go. Psalm 32:8

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go. Psalm 32:8

How many times in life have I been stuck in a maze before? Not knowing the way ahead? Fearing the darkening skies? Wondering was there a clearing of some sorts? A clearing with an answer or finally a fulfillment to a long-awaited dream?

Yes, I’ve been in a maze like this before. That is, the maze known as life. And with every twist and turn in life I’ve always made a way forward with great trust in the One who was leading. Now that trust wasn’t always there. It was something I had to learn. It was something I had to experience.

It was the end of the fall semester in my first year at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology where I was studying to fulfill my dream of becoming a magazine editor. There on the job board was posted a part-time position at a well-known parenting magazine that would start during the winter break. The time fit perfectly into my schedule and the money was wonderful. I was so excited. If I could only get my foot into the door of a magazine…

The interview was scheduled late in the afternoon, which meant I had to hang around school later than I had wanted to. Again, it was my first semester and I was a commuter student, meaning for the first time in my life I was navigating trains and subways and the crazy and still-scary streets of a menacing maze known as the island of Manhattan.

I knew how to get from the subway stop to the school and back to the subway, which then led to the train, which then led to my home. But to stray off that path onto unknown avenues filled me with apprehension.

I did my best to relax and calm down. I tried to pray but my heart was filled with too many mixed emotions to really concentrate on what I was trying to say to God. I was excited about the prospect of the job while scared about getting lost in the big city’s maze. I reached into my book bag in an effort to try to distract myself with some light reading on the in’s and out’s of media buying. (A class I really didn’t like for numbers didn’t excite me as much as words did.)

As I reached for the textbook, my hand grabbed hold of something else. It was one of those pocket-sized Bibles that I had taken from a group who was standing on the corner of school one day handing them out. I flipped the tiny pages open. There staring back at me were the most beautiful words I had ever read. Even though my prayer to God was to me a failed attempt, God still heard what I was trying to say. God still heard my request to show me the way to go—not just directions to the magazine offices that night, but also the directions to the next step in my life. As I read the words a quiet strength and calm washed over me.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go. Psalm 32:8

That night I entered into Manhattan’s crazy maze with confidence in the One who was leading me. It was only the beginning of a journey of being beautifully led—always.

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He leads me…”

All of a sudden, in the last hurrah of the sun’s light, I saw the shadowy outline of the girls right in front of me, running and laughing and squealing with delight among the cornstalks, not phased at all by the fact that night was here and we were all still seemingly lost in the maze.

“Don’t worry, Pastor Donna! We’ll find the way!” they yelled with confidence.

In the slippery mud, amidst the earthy, moldy smell of wet cornstalks, I ran to catch up with the girls. And I ran without any fear and without any worries.

For the way will be found in all of life’s mazes. Just run with joy. Move forward with a calm strength and peace. Enjoy the twists and turns and endless loops and even the dead ends. For when you trust with all your heart in the One leading you, you know the beautiful truth. We are never lost when we walk with God.

Prayer Pumpkins

I wonder how old the little boy is now? Let’s see. It’s been seven years since we started Pumpkinfest for God, which would mean…(counting the years on my fingers)…which would mean, yikes, it can’t be. He must be in high school now.

The years have gone by but much to my surprise and joy there in the yard of a once little boy was a huge selection of pumpkins, organized neatly by size, sitting in various corners of the yard. I have come to look forward to seeing this festive fall display on the winding country road that led one out of New York state and into Vermont and vice versa. The sight of all these homegrown pumpkins by one little boy was for me the official kick off to fall. I felt the same childlike excitement as I felt with Santa’s arrival at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, which when I was a child ushered in the official start of Christmas. We all know nowadays Christmas comes way before the fall pumpkins. Don’t even get me going with whatever happened to Thanksgiving.


Pumpkins shine forth an inspirational message on All Hallows Eve as a little rural church’s witnesses to the hundreds of trick or treaters.

Should I stop? I really don’t need any pumpkins for I was no longer the pastor of the little white church in which hosted Pumpkinfest for God.

Ah…Pumpkinfest for God. That was one of the many ideas that came to me on my habitual morning run on the treadmill at the gym. It was early on my ministry and the little rural village had the tradition of welcoming hundreds of trick-or-treaters. From the ghoulish to the cutest, children of all ages from surrounding villages came to Salem (not Massachusetts, but New York was the village I served in) for there was the guarantee of plenty of candy to be collected. The first year I was there we did what every other house or business did. We set up a table and made sure we had plenty of candy. The following year, though, I wanted to do more. I wanted our church to have more of a presence. I wanted us in some way to reach all these children—there were indeed hundreds—with some word of hope, some message of the good news, some non-threatening and definitely not in your face message that God is good all the time and Christ’s love is there for all.

There was a church down the block from us serving up hot dogs. That was their tradition. It was a good one for God does indeed feed not just the body but the soul as well. Then there was this trying-to-start-up-non-denominational church up the road who was against Halloween, but used this night in which hundreds of children descended upon the village to hand out religious tracts asking if they knew they were saved. With free hot dogs on one side of our church and religious tracts on the other, how could we be a light of Christ on All Hallows Eve?

Light. Pumpkins. Ever since I was a little girl I have adored jack o’lanterns. I looked forward to the day my parents took us kids pumpkin picking. And when Halloween drew near, we would line the kitchen table with newspaper and have a family pumpkin-carving party, which would end with a mess in the kitchen and all of us standing in the crisp night air admiring our lit creations.

What if we, the church, carved an inspirational message in the pumpkins, lined them up in front of our old historic building, right by the table in which we offered candy, and lit them up for all to see?

Pumpkinfest for God was born! The first year we posted the inspirational message on the bulletin board, one letter on one piece of construction paper, and asked folks to take one letter and carve it into a medium to large pumpkin and bring it back with a candle in it before dusk on the night of the festivities. Strong winds, however, blew that night and candles were being snuffed out. Fretting over this failure only lasted a second as a farmer quickly came to the rescue and showed up with a drill in one hand and white Christmas lights in the other.

Soon the Christmas lights were fed through the pumpkins and, thanks to a very long extension cord, the message illumined the darkening night.

The response was amazing as little children were drawn to the pumpkins. Those who couldn’t read would ask, “Mommy, what does that say?” Moms, who were surprised as to what they were seeing, leaned down to their child and told the good news, “Jesus lights the way.”

Soon Pumpkinfest for God became our church’s beloved tradition with every year a different message being lit up. One year, volunteers bought the pumpkins. Another year a local farm allowed us to glean the pumpkins from their fields. And yet another year, I stopped at this little boy’s home where the festive fall display had always caught my eye.

It was the year I challenged the church to stop thinking in terms of what can we get free from the community. Instead, to start thinking how the church can help local business owners who daily faced the heroic struggle of doing business in an area in which it seemed almost impossible.

So there I was ready to load up my car with 20 pumpkins and then some. Pumpkin by pumpkin I hoisted into the back of my Subaru, and as each was hoisted I lifted a prayer. I prayed for this little boy who grew these pumpkins year after year. I prayed for his family. I prayed for the youth group who was in charge of coming up with the inspirational message and the carving of the pumpkins that year. I prayed for the children who would be coming into our village. I prayed that in some way this message would indeed be the light for someone walking in darkness. I prayed for the little village I served asking God to bless it. Pumpkin by pumpkin a prayer was lifted.

I was ready to go. There was a problem though. No one was home and pumpkin purchases were made on the honor system. A little boy’s chicken scratched note read, “Leave the money in the metal box. Thank you.” The metal box had no lock on it, no slit in which to place the money securely into it. Nothing. I stood there with a crisp $100 bill, way more than what the total came to for the prices of these pumpkins were the best around. I hesitated leaving the money, but I couldn’t wait around. I looked at my watch and knew that soon the little boy would be home from school. So I took the chance. In went the $100 bill among the ones and fives and quarters that were already there. I smiled as I wondered what this little boy’s reaction would be when he saw that much money in his metal box.

It was then I prayed one more pumpkin prayer. It was a prayer of thanks that God had opened the hearts of our congregation to bless this little boy with such a generous gift of gratitude for the work he had done growing pumpkins. I thanked God for providing our church, which faced the same daily struggles as the businesses in the village faced, with means in which to do this wonderful act of generosity. I prayed a pumpkin prayer that day simply thanking God for the beauty of being connected to one another and the joy there is when we realize that connection and we help one another out.

One, two, three…yep, seven years have gone by since Pumpkinfest for God started. The little boy isn’t little anymore, but he is still growing the best pumpkins around. I looked at my watch. He is still in school. I slowed the car down. Should I stop?

I did. Pumpkin prayers were lifted once again. And a little boy who is not so little anymore had yet another surprise waiting for him in his now rusted metal box.

Columbus Day Nostalgia

I woke up feeling nostalgic about Columbus Day. Yes, of all days, Columbus Day, that peculiar holiday (I use the term “holiday” loosely) in which growing up sometimes we kids would have off from school and sometimes we wouldn’t. Sometimes my father would have off from work and sometimes he wouldn’t.

Time off for this day was never consistent and the lack of consistency only added to the ambiguity of what this day meant and how it was to be observed. The only sure thing was that banks and post offices were closed for a day that nowadays is also fraught with questions of political correctness. Columbus wasn’t the first to stumble upon America and what about the indigenous people stumbled upon?

I wonder. Do school children even make paper plate boats representing the three that were part of Columbus’ expedition? Let’s see, there was the Santa Maria and the Nina…what was the name of the third boat?


A view from the porch of the new “old” house where I often drank in God’s beauty every morning.

I woke up this Columbus Day with nostalgia almost on par with that of Christmas. But I wasn’t reminiscing about paper plate boats. My mind tripped five years down memory lane to the crisp autumn morning when much to my surprise I heard the rumbling of a pick up truck coming up the dirt road that led to the house I was living in at the time. It was a colonial reproduction that I wasn’t too happy about all because the floor boards weren’t slanting with age, there were no gaps in the door and the wind couldn’t whistle through the airtight new windows. I had made a mistake in buying this new “old” house for it just didn’t have the charm of old-house problems.

Anyway, that Columbus Day I was out on the porch watching the early morning frost melt off of the tall grass in the field that was just behind the stonewall which separated the properties. I often came outside to drink my coffee but on this particular morning I was taking in something way better than caffeine. I realized I was consuming God’s beauty and I couldn’t get enough of the morning frost, the tall grass, the maple tree in the yard that was on fire with color…and now a surprise day off with my not-yet-husband who jumped out of the pick up truck announcing a very special day in store for me. We were going to look at engagement rings!

I stood on the porch feeling like a little girl on Christmas for I had given up on such a day as this. Too much heartache and too many losses had finally led me to surrender my hopes and dreams to God. In fact, just weeks before this man now standing before me came into my life I had a heart-to-heart talk with God. I realized I was really happy with my life in this rural community and that there was nothing more I wanted than to serve God as a minister. I actually had the audacity to tell God it was okay if He didn’t send me that partner in life I had been lamenting for nine years, to be exact, since the loss of my boyfriend in a jeep accident that began my journey in faith I was now on. As if God needed to be told it was okay.

I was driving home from church when I was having this talk with God. The sun was setting over the fields, casting a warm glow over the cows that were munching away on the grass. In the background was a tree line displaying the most beautiful colors of fall that I have never seen before. The trees looked almost heavenly. That’s when I started crying for the joy I was seeking in my life never left me. Joy was still alive and well in my heart. I realized that night there was no better medicine for the brokenness in life than that of God’s handiwork as seen in nature. For how could my heart be downcast when always surrounded such beauty?

God, I discovered on that isolated country road to seemingly nowhere, is always taking us somewhere. We just need to look beyond ourselves and beyond whatever circumstances in life holds us down. We need to keep our eyes focused on the goodness of God that is always right in front of us just waiting for us to finally recognize it—waiting for us to finally say to all that we have, even when it doesn’t seem enough or not what we had planned out for ourselves, “Thank you, God.”

I was definitely saying, “Thank you, God,” that Columbus Day five years ago as I jumped off the porch of a house complete with stonewalls, fields sparkling with melting morning dew and trees singing the praises of God, and into the arms of a man who wanted to spend his life with me—an accidental country pastor who had had her heart broken one too many times. And in the brilliance of a picture perfect New England fall day I saw something even more brilliant. I saw God resurrecting a prayer long thought to be dead. In the crunching of the leaves, we walked hand-in-hand to the pick up truck and down the dirt road we went. It was the best Columbus Day ever.

Peeling Paint

Should I or shouldn’t I? I mean, really, what’s the worst thing that could happen if I climbed this rickety ladder? Maybe I shouldn’t have asked that question because my mind suddenly started to answer with many a scary scenario.

I could fall. I could seriously hurt myself in the fall. I wouldn’t be able to call for help, as there was no cell signal in this part of Vermont in which our little red house sat sweetly in a valley surrounded by fields and views of the Green Mountains. I would be alone and hurt with no help coming anytime soon as my husband had not yet joined me for our visit to our little homestead. I would be left there on the grass risking the chance of a garter snake slithering upon me.

Eeek. Garter snakes. I don’t like them. My mom and dad recently reported that on one of their visits to our little red house they saw a “huge” one slithering underneath the apple tree. Of course, the snake grew larger as their story continued. Still, I wouldn’t want to risk meeting said snake no matter how small or large it was.

Maybe I would be okay if I climbed this ladder. There was, after all, my bumbling Bernese Mountain dog, Sofie. But as I looked over at her hugging the side of the fence as a sudden wind had picked up and frightened her, I realized she was no Lassie. I was on my own. And so I asked myself again, “Should I or shouldn’t I?”

What’s the worst thing that could happen if I decided to climb this rickety ladder I had just wrangled out of the damp, stone cellar, and set before me on the uneven ground below me, all because I couldn’t live one more minute with what my husband could live with forever?

I just couldn’t live with the strips of paint peeling from the beaten-up-by-too-many-harsh-winters clapboards that sided our home. Something had to be done.

I grabbed hold of the ladder with one hand and hesitantly put my foot onto the first rung. My heart started thumping harder. Up onto the next rung my foot went. Then the next and then the…wait, I had forgotten something. I had forgotten the can of paint and paintbrush. Back down I went and grabbed the necessary items needed for painting, wondering all the while how was I to hold on to dear life…and the ladder…and the paint can and the brush?

As one who loves to take on the challenge of a “can’t be done” project, I fought my fears and went back up the ladder, balancing each step I took with the can and brush in one hand while the other hand grabbed the next rung.

I finally came to the first patch of peeling paint and leaned over to scrape it off. As I leaned I made the mistake of looking down. Our little house didn’t look that tall but from where I was, “down” looked like a very long way to go. Sweat came dripping down my forehead as I whispered: “Hold it together.” “Breathe.” “Don’t think about it.” “I can do this.” I scraped quickly and then threw the paint over the bare spot. My sense of accomplishment was short lived for I realized while one piece of peeling paint was dealt with, there were many more taunting me further up the house.

It was then I had to ask myself the very question my husband asked while trying to persuade me to leave the ladder where he had put it—in the cellar.

Why does the peeling paint bother me so much?

Peeling paint exposes more than weathered clapboards; a lesson of the heart is revealed as well.

Peeling paint exposes more than weathered clapboards; a lesson of the heart is revealed as well.

The most obvious answer was simply because peeling paint was an eyesore and made the house look shabby. What would those passing by think? To which my husband would reply, “No one cares.”

But there was more going on than just what would the neighbors think. In some way the peeling paint was symbolic of everything I was taught you had to fix or cover up in life. Now my parents, who had more of my husband’s “no cares” attitude, didn’t teach me this.

This need to be perfect or have your act together or at least appear to have your act together was instilled in me during my days as an aspiring Manhattan magazine editor. It was there in the city in which Sinatra sang, “if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere,” I saw firsthand how life’s disappointments, hurts, flaws, and even painful scars, were all too easily—and expected to be—painted over with whatever paint you could find. Lonely? Paint over it by working longer and harder. Heartbroken? Paint over it by rushing into a new relationship quickly. Don’t give the brokenness anytime to heal. Dissatisfied with yourself? Paint on a new persona, workout more, buy new clothes, and get a makeover. Do whatever you can to cover up the peeling parts of your life because you don’t want the world to see the weather-beaten clapboards that are hidden underneath in your heart. For it is more than just an eyesore. It is a reminder of our own finitude and vulnerability. And no one wants to be reminded of that. So let there be no peeling paint in life—ever.

Yet here I was with peeling paint and a husband who just didn’t seem bothered by it at all.

His “no one cares” attitude was strengthened by his other observation. “Everyone around here lives with peeling paint,” he said. And they do.

I remember when I first came up north to “God’s Country” as the locals called it, I noticed many a house, many a barn—and even the picturesque white clapboard church I was to pastor—telling the story of how they had withstood yet another season of howling winds, pelting rain and falling snow. I was told with a shrug of the shoulders, “That’s just life around here. Paint will peel. Nothing much you can do about it except live with it.”

There wasn’t an urgent need to cover up what tough seasons had scarred, be it the tough seasons of Mother Nature herself or the tough seasons that barrel down on us in our life—illness, fractured relationships, financial worries, death.

If anything, the peeling paint on display all around me in so many ways provided the space to face finitude and vulnerability without dread or fear or the feeling of failure or hopelessness. The peeling paint was in fact a shared communal experience no one judged, but rather, was understood by all. It was simply a part of life not to be covered up. It was a part of life to accept, embrace and learn to live with. And the learning to live with? Well, that’s when an eyesore miraculously becomes something beautiful and amidst the newly discovered beauty before you is where healing begins.

As I stared at the marred side of my Vermont homestead, I saw the beauty before me and in that beauty I realized something. It was here in a place where paint peels freely, the weathered clapboards of my own heart were accepted and welcomed and loved by a community which knew the truth so many of us try to deny. In life, paint will indeed peel. There really is no need to rush and cover it up.