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Best Practices for Teaching Online Coursework: 15 Suggestions, or What to Do When You Suddenly Find Yourself Teaching Online

An extended family member, who is also in academe, brought it to my attention that many in our field are thinking of the future state of the college classroom. It was only a matter of time before those of us who work in higher education would need to consider alternative methods of teaching. Measures to halt the spread of COVID-19 may begin to impact our learning communities, requiring more virtual classrooms to “pop” up. Just today, both Princeton and Columbia announced intentions to cancel in-person classes while we pass through the storm. Unfortunately, many very good, knowledgeable instructors have little, if any, experience teaching online. My intention with this post is to share a list of best practices that I adhere to while teaching online courses. These are my standards, and though they overlap with those prescribed by my institution, this list should not be considered as their official stance.

I hold a Ph.D. in American studies and a good portion of my dissertation focuses on the ways digital culture is a harbinger for broader social beliefs. Additionally, I found myself needing to adjust my work schedule after the birth of my son while also keeping my foot in the proverbial professional door. So, I decided to teach online courses. I have several years of online-only teaching experience and one of those courses focuses on the convergence of science, technology, and society. Not only do I spend a lot of time improving my teaching for the sake of getting better at my job, digital communication is a topic close to my academic heart.

If you find yourself thrust into a new way of teaching, I hope that my thoughts bring some guidance and solace. While it is a different challenge to master, requiring distinct skill sets to shine, the core of our teaching remains the same. The first thing to note – that will shape nearly all of the points below – is to remember that, like you, students may feel plunged into a new way of being, producing unease and hesitation. I know what this looks like. Not every student who registers for an online course wants to be there. Sometimes it is required because of a life change, or they feel pushed into the class by a well-meaning advisor, or – like what happened to me one semester – an entire class of students who registered for an in-person course find themselves switched to an online format as the result of a last-minute instructor adjustment. But a lot of students do appreciate the online platform and proficiency as a helpful guide is crucial to their success.

[Keep in mind that this list covers what to do the entire semester, not if the institution makes a switch to online coursework half way through the semester. Take what you need here.]

1. Communication is key. Be in touch with them early and often. More communication is always better than too little – but try not to spam their inboxes. I always contact my students several weeks before the semester begins, providing them with the syllabus and general schedule for the semester. This will assist them in forming their own work balance. Be good-natured and friendly in your emails. Try not to be “cold.” Emotions are more difficult to convey through email because of several factors, not the least being the emotional state of the recipient. If the student is already nervous about the course, then a terse email will not help in the least. That said, maintain professionalism on your end, even if they do not. Most emails I receive are formed like a text message, which I find highly inappropriate, but my response with a salutation, body, and concluding statement usually helps to lay a foundation for communication expectations.

2. Give time frames for your availability. Set a schedule for yourself and relay the important parts of it to them. Will you maintain virtual office hours? Are you absolutely unavailable on Thursdays? When will you respond to email? I tell my students that I am unavailable between the hours of 10:00 PM and 7:00 AM and typically grade their work on Mondays and Tuesdays. This helps them understand that I am a real person with a life outside of work, but it also shows them that I am committed to serving as their teacher this semester.

3. Be clear with instructions, but do not write a tome. As instructors, we all have different syllabi styles. Some include pages of information while others condense everything to one lonely sheet (I am amazed at your skill, by the way.) Online coursework requires that the students work on their own time and try to figure out the information, usually, by themselves. One needs to find the balance between “not enough” and “too much” information – which, unfortunately, is different from course to course. I like to include guides for each assignment and use hyperlinks to connect pages and drop boxes. One thing you will learn, to your irritation but probably not surprise, is that some students just flat-out will not read the instructions – or will read very little. You will receive emails asking questions about information you posted in several places. I refer you back to #1. Be patient. There may be an honest to god reason the student did not see something, which will give you insights to whether there is a technical difficulty or discernment into the learning personality of the student.

4. Honor the learning abilities of your students. Make sure your course site is accessible. (This is so important!!) Your institution should have a person on staff to help with this. Not only should you adapt to students with documented learning differences, but consider the general learning variations that are just built into our personalities. In a moment, I will discuss utilizing different digital technologies, but it is important to note here. Not every assignment needs to be submitted in writing. Not every assessment needs to be an exam or a term paper. If you are able to be flexible, give the students a choice between submitting something in writing or as a video answer. Each semester, I am always delightfully surprised at the students who hit their stride when they realize how they like to communicate and they use it. You can see their confidence soar. Additionally, just because the student is a millennial or a “digital native” does not mean they are proficient in working with software. There is often a learning curve for about 75% of the students at the beginning of the semester.

5. Establish a regular, logical routine for the course. Will your course run Monday-Sunday? Friday-Thursday? I recommend setting up the course as a series of modules, which makes a lot of sense for the online format, but when you have the week start/end is up to you. Consider when you are able to grade assignments, when you want to engage with the students, and when students may engage with the course. I prefer to grade on Mondays and Tuesdays, so I establish a Sunday night due date each week. Do things the same every week. Try not to “make things interesting” by changing the format half way through the semester, or several times over the weeks, this will only result in mass confusion. I like to require the same kind of assignment each week (discussion board, weekly response) and then allow for a creative project or assignment here and there. Students find comfort in knowing what is expected of them.

6. Utilize technologies available to you. Use video conferencing, video creating applications, discussion boards, etc. Do not try to “recreate” the classroom. Activities that work in the classroom may not transfer well to the online format, but that does not mean that you cannot try through creative means. I love Zoom and use it for group debates. Students may get nervous at first, but the tools available to online coursework are typically user-friendly. If we can figure out how to do it, they can. Use these methods in your communication with students, too. You can send a video as a response to a question, instead of a written response. I find this is very helpful. Students also like seeing your face from time to time. I begin each week with a “Monday Announcement Video” that gives reminders, answers questions, and covers the work they will face that week. Students appreciate that the instructor is “live” with them and does not put the course on autopilot.

7. Use images, videos, and graphics. No one likes to look at a boring page with just…words on it.

8. Give students work load expectations up front. My institution has guidelines on how many hours a student should work each week for an online course. I relay this to my students. They know at the beginning of the semester that they should work about 10-12 hours a week to be successful in my course. This information helps them to establish their routine and hopefully understand the work load.

9. Do not be tempted to increase the work load simply because it is an online course. Online courses are harder by nature of the platform. It is important to remember that the online course is also a lesson in life- and time- management, paired with learning the subject you teach. This will be challenging to your students.

10. That said, use discussion boards to your advantage. Rely heavily on this, if you can. Students end up loving it. Engage with them several times a week. Most students know how to communicate online through social media, and as long as you establish guidelines for professionalism and to convey your expectations (how many posts a week, length, etc.), they will approach discussions in the same manner and with energy. But you have to be the one to set the tone. If you engage, they will engage.

11. Make students create content for the class. Information does not always need to come from you. As long as you maintain “quality control,” students will really enjoy being at the helm. There are many creative ways to do this.

12. Avoid exams, unless necessary. If you must schedule an exam, make it open book/open note with citations and increase the challenging aspects of the exam. Students will use their books/notes anyway.

13. Provide information and resources on how to research ONLINE. A lot of students will jump to the Google Machine first, when we have very wonderful libraries with beautiful online databases. Provide a review on how to use these sites. Talk to your librarian(s) about creating videos or content to share with your class.

14. Teach a lesson in trusted sources. We live in an era of misinformation and fake news. Also, see #13.

15. Give them opportunities to provide feedback. The best instructors take the “temperature” of the group regularly, but it occurs less formally and almost without trying: in conversation before and after class, by assessing the “look” of students as they walk in the door or sit in their chairs, or in discussion. Online coursework does not have the benefit of these more intuitive measures, so providing polls and surveys for student response is imperative. Some of the most consequential changes I made to syllabi happened because of student feedback.

An important take-away from this list is that an instructor should still create meaningful relationships with students. I work for a small liberal arts institution where the professor-student relationship is highly valued and it is crucial that I cultivate this in the online classroom. Be patient with them. As mentioned, online coursework can create the jitters in normally confident students who live in a world of YouTube stars and the Instagram famous. Making videos may not be a “natural” feeling. The shy student feels put on the spot and the outgoing student feels isolated. But it does not have to be this way! From my experience, nearly every semester, students walk away from my class with a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.

If institutions need to make an adjustment to the typical routine of the classroom, these are some suggestions to take into consideration. It is not an exhaustive list, but it does contain what I feel are some of the most important practices. Aside from the COVIN-19 crisis, there may be instances where we are asked to adjust our teaching skill set. Hopefully, this post will help set you on your way.

Photo by Logan Lambert on Unsplash; Person standing on car looking up at the night sky

Looking Up as a Radical Act of Belief

If a person is lucky, she receives a gift that is not only creative and thoughtful, but is life-altering. You know the kind I mean: the book that stops you in your tracks and changes your worldview, the pair of socks that causes you to rethink your relationship to footwear, the mug that brings a smile to your face every morning. Even the simplest of presents can make big adjustments to the way we live our lives. Those are the best kind of offerings. 

This year, my dear husband gave me a telescope. I wanted one since I was a child, but had no plans to purchase anytime soon. I was so moved by his gesture of love, because it was based on an understanding of who I am and some of my deepest desires. 

I want to see the celestial bodies. (I named my daughter Luna, for goodness sake!) 

As soon as it started to sink in that this beautiful (Celestron!) telescope was really mine, I realized that this was a life-changing gift. Not just a hobby, but a door to looking at the world – the universe – differently. 

This is the starting point for what I am about to tell you. 

Last night I finished one of the books in the stack – H.A. Rey’s The Stars: A New Way to See Them (1952/2016) – which is a beautiful introduction to astronomy for average folk. The mere mortals who do not spend days up to their eyeballs in physics calculations can pick up texts like this one to get a sense of what we see in the heavens. Taking the time to learn about constellations and the basic nature of celestial bodies is not only a rewarding experience, enriching the moments when we glance up at the sky at night, but it allows us to step away from ourselves for a bit. This is not only enjoyable, I believe this is necessary in order to be a good human. 

We are the stuff of stars, anyway. Even beyond this fact, taking a moment to look up (away from the cell phone, our fashion choices, our “very important” jobs, political ideologies, religious beliefs)  gives the funny sensation of letting go. In some ways, we are forced to do so when we realize the real position earthlings hold in the universe. Even if you believe that humans are the absolute center of everything (anthropocentrism) or are a neo-Ptolemist (earth at center of the universe,) it is still impossible to deny the bigness of it all – and that we are so very, very small.

It is sublime, in the truest sense of the word. 

Consider this:

  • A light-year is the distance light travels in a year (pretty well named.) That is, 186,000 miles a second, 11 million miles a minute, and 6 million million miles a year. 
  • It takes light 8 1/2 minutes to travel from the sun to the Earth. (91.413 million miles)
  • Our nearest star is Alpha Centauri and it takes 4 1/2 years for its light to reach us. 
  • The Milky Way Galaxy is 100,000 light years across. 
  • The Andromeda Galaxy (a “close” neighbor of ours) is 2.7 million light years away. 

At this point, it is pretty incomprehensible. These numbers become nearly meaningless to us, except in symbolic form – as numbers. Rey helps us by putting things in “human scale,” using human objects to attempt some understanding. He uses this illustration: if we shrink earth’s orbit to the size of a dime, our close star neighbor (in our galaxy) Sirius would be a grain of sand, three miles away. On this same scale, the stars in our galaxy would be like one grain of sand in every cubic mile.⁠1 The sky can seem jam-packed with stars, but there is a lot of so-called empty space out there. However, when we consider the sheer number of galaxies that exist, it becomes clear that though the distances are vast beyond comprehension, they are not few. 

Those galaxies do not come in skimpy numbers, either: the Hubble space telescope in orbit around the earth shows us that in a patch of sky that is black to the naked eye, within an area smaller than the size of the head of a pin held at arm’s length, there are more than 10,000 galaxies. There are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, each containing billions of suns; some of them accompanied by smaller galaxies as though by satellites, forming clusters; clusters separated from each other by millions of light-years of space empty beyond imagination. If you stop to think it through it may well take your breath away.⁠2

And it does. 

Throughout my education, I studied and wrote about the concept of the sublime, but never have I come across the actual feeling with such intensity as when I think about the universe. I attempted to express these feelings to my husband, but in the sublime’s true form, no words seemed sufficient. They still do not. I began to feel like nothing mattered – but that sounds too nihilistic. Everything we do and strive for here on earth just seems so insignificant compared to what is Out There. 

I do not feel defeated, though. I feel connected. What I can “see” makes me feel small – because I am! We are so small and we get sucked into tiny narratives, letting them overcome our emotions and mental space. Does any of that matter? Sure it does – to an extent. We live in this world and our activities affect others. Certainly, the stories we live matter. But when was the last time we looked up and out of our lives? The answer to looking “up” is usually expressed in religious terms. My answer is, in a way, no different. However, the human imagination needs to release itself from the shackles of traditional religion. The religion answer is too small. 

Simply by looking up and out, we recognize the bigness of everything around us. It is enough to take us away from ourselves for a moment and question our purpose. By questioning, then, we can get to a place outside of the religious prison we made for ourselves and consider the “everything else” that exists. This can lead to a radical act of belief in a God that lives beyond a human structure of religious organization.

We can also get a sense of our simultaneous importance and unimportance. Humans hold both positions, equally. The majesty of the universe inspires us to care for our planet and each other with more consideration and love. Understanding the humble position of humanity allows us to ease up on the pride and selfishness we cling to so strongly. 

Not everyone needs to take up astronomy as a hobby and procure a big fancy telescope, but taking time to look up – even to get a sense of what the moon looks like, locating the Big Dipper (it leads you to the North Star!), and the colors in the sky – will take you away from the “me” narrative we get locked into. Without warning, it will free you.

1 H.A. Rey, The Stars: A New Way to See them. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008): 141-42.

2 Rey, 145.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

On Finding God Outside of the Church This Holiday Season

In America, a common quip around the holidays is, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” The assumption is that the primary focus of the [Christian] holiday should be belief, not consumerism. Though a bright one-liner, like other Chrisitan-isms, it falls flat and without meaning to most ears. It actually contains a lot of meaning, but none of the intended. Something about it does not sit right with me. It seethes with judgement, not love. It covers the sense of pride that some Christians carry with them – the holier than thou pride that is ancient as story itself. Jesus is, of course, the narrative at the core of Christmas celebration, but people created alternative figures to bear the message of love: Santa Claus, Ebenezer Scrooge, The Grinch, and Frosty the Snowman, to name only a few. Jesus is absolutely central to Christmas, but the church’s inability to fully bear the message of hope and love is rooted in human pride. It is an unsuccessful attempt at fooling the masses into believing that truth is found only within their walls. 

I suppose the answer can be found in the reasons society celebrates Christmas: religious tradition and memory, fellowship, celebration, hope, and the joy found in giving and receiving. The secular version of the Christmas celebration does not bear the sole blame for distraction away from the Birth narrative. The church – in its broad, multilayered form (evangelical to main line to orthodox) – also took its focus off the “reason for the [life] season.” Instead of guiding, the church establishes leadership and barricades personal worship, setting up requirements and neglecting the very real mystical experiences people have. Now, it is imperative that I qualify this statement by noting that certainly not all churches and church leaders do this. In fact, I know several  who deeply desire to reveal this truth to the people. But church buildings are filled with people who prefer activities, social gatherings, feel-good sermons and scenarios, over an encouragement to discover a private, intimate, and unfettered path to things unseen. Groups form over similar religious aesthetic desires, building denominational worship. Raise your hands like this, some say. Engage in this particular posture, others say. Pray like me, assert those who need validation for their own actions. 

Heaven forbid someone (the many, actually) leave church because the answers to their very real desire to experience the mysterious and ethereal – the bigger-than-human God – are denied, shamed, or feared. I worry that some never even get to this point, as their desires for a deeper God experience are ignored. “Fall in line…(any line.)” 

Jesus is the reason for the season, but the church as an organization forgot. This idea is not new. Voices have been sounding the alarm for years. Why are churches shrinking? It is not because the congregations do not plan enough activities. It is not because church-goers do not smile enough. It is not even because the wrong music is played on Sunday, the pastor is not engaging, or that the service is held at the wrong time. It is, simply, that the mystical, mysterious, personal Jesus is not welcome. The Jesus who was born by amniotic fluid, grew on breastmilk, enjoyed the dirty skinned knees of boyhood, discovered a supernatural relationship with the God who called him “Son,” who dedicated his adult years to showing people the way to live, died in blood and flesh, but continues to live through us today – this Jesus is deemed too much. This Jesus, who revealed that it requires nothing but the ability to set aside our Self in order to truly love and be with God, is not offering enough creative ideas to get people back into the church. 

God works outside of the church when the church no longer watches and waits. God does not need the church. Liturgy, music, and structure does not bring us to God. God is here, already. The barrier is removed, but we must be willing to see that this is the case. We create our own barriers to the mystical God by distrusting the ethereal, but we put trust in organizations run by the people. 

There are those who left the church (or never attended), not because the church needs to change it’s club-structure, but because the church organization does not point to the truth. The Holy Spirit moves in anyone and everyone at the appropriate time. When church leadership acknowledges their role as ones who can point to God, not as the door into God, then people will feel the strength and confidence in the divine Relationship that always meant to exist. 

Jesus’s birth revealed the hope that this Relationship is possible, and without barrier. Anything that creates obstacle is not worth our time. The spirit and hope of Jesus is found in many different parts of the holiday season, and not always by religious name. 

What is the answer? Is this an anti-church stance? Certainly not! The important thing is that Church is recognized as a state of the soul, not a collection of events and a building. God never intended to have church usurp the relationship that existed from the beginning and is beautifully described through metaphor in Genesis. Churches can be partnerships that encourage individuals to deepen this relationship, and church leaders can guide and mentor – but they are never “the way in.”

Nothing is holier than the space an individual carves out in their own life for God – in whatever form it takes. The myriad of personalities that exists among us also lives in God (we are made in God’s image!)

What is this season about? Where is our Hope? It lies in the fact that God desires such closeness with us, that he built up Jesus to show us the way to love and the way to love God. Nothing should keep us from that. Not even holiday catchphrases that scold. 

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

God and The Perfectionists

We are a perfectionist generation. Just glance at any social media site and you will find instructions on how to attain perfection (physical, intellectual, professional, social, cultural) and quick criticism of those who fail at perfection (celebrities, politicians, business people, and average Janes/Joes.) You will also find swarms of people pushing back on this attempt at perfection, claiming to be anti-perfectionists – though it is still the idea of “perfection” that inspires the response. The Internet allows us to seek out concepts that support perfection in many forms, whether real or fake, and this information seeps into our psyche to lay a foundation for a definition of “perfect.” Again, even for the sake of avoiding it. No one is free from this bombardment. It just is. Awareness of this fact is imperative because perfection begins to define aspects of humanity that might seem impenetrable; for example: God. We, a perfectionist generation, have placed “God” in the perfectionist’s box, thus changing who God is, completely. 

As a result, we barely know him. 

One of the countless consequences of this error is that very many people recoil at the smell of falsehood. 

Of course, the language of perfection is in scripture. I am not here to argue its existence. What I do propose, though, is that humanity has placed its own definition of perfection in place of God’s definition of perfection. 

This is going to require you, me, us to let go of so-called rational thinking for a moment and try to “have ears that hear” and “eyes that see.”  This is no easy feat. I hope to challenge you to think differently about why we do and think and act in certain ways, think about where these beliefs arise from, and to consider how much it is worth to stay in the same stagnant place. 

Or is it time to move into the promises that were made to us? 

After being delivered from Saul, David sang, “This God – his way is perfect; the promise of the Lord proves true; he is a shield for all who take refuge in him.” (2 Samuel 22:31) and later, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Psalm 19:7.) 

Jesus, in explaining that we must love even our enemies, states matter-of-factly, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48.) 

Paul recounts a story about a personal struggle and writes, “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9.) 

The author of 1 John shows us that God literally is love and that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18.)

So there is much in the Bible about perfection. It is a part of Christian language. Perfection is something that we are “supposed to” strive for. But what, really, is perfection? The authors listed above give us the description of perfection that we should abide by: wholeness and love. Oh boy. That does not really make understanding any easier, does it? Wholeness and love are entirely elusive and abstract concepts that we can only try to strive for in our humanity. Selfishness, loathing, divisiveness, jealousy, arrogance, resentment, and other difficult emotions/actions get in the way of a full realization of this goal. Because it is so difficult, we just flat-out change the definition of perfection to reflect more attainable characteristics: regular church attendance, volunteer work, financial success, physical attributes, etc. With a warped understanding of perfection, it is no wonder we misconceive and transform God into something different than what God actually is. 

God is not ruled by the “perfect” that we place on him. 

Someone I deeply trust told me that, since we are made in God’s image, this means that all aspects of humanity exist in God. Think about that for a minute. This idea can do one of two things (at the very least) for you: 1. make you sigh with relief and give you permission to love yourself more, or 2. inspire a bit of anxiety over the fact that God may not be “perfect.” Well, at least, by the human definition of perfection. 

Are we able to love a God that may not be … perfect? 

How many times in scripture does God need to “fix” something he created? What about the book of Job? What about human suffering? Climate change? Etc.? Does he have control, at all? Why isn’t he doing anything about…? 

I do not have an answer today, but an adjustment in how we think about God is being asked of us. If you believe that we are to be in relationship with a holy God, then it is time to consider under what conditions we are asked to be in this relationship. We have come to expect unconditional love – the truest, most pure form of love from the One who is Love – yet, we do not always believe that we are to return the same. At the slightest hint of “imperfection,” human hearts scatter. Do not get me wrong, I think God is worthy of our worship and is perfect – just not by the definition of “perfect” that we use for each other and for ourselves.

As we hold our own requirements for perfection in the face of God, we only blind ourselves to the truth. It is time to put them down. 


Since you made it this far, I have a few questions to pose: 

What would it mean to believe in a God that is not ruled by the standards of this world? 

What would it mean to let go of tradition? 

What would it mean, for you, to be in relationship with a heavenly Father that is all-loving and worthy, but is different than the God you imagined? 


Photo by KEEM IBARRA on Unsplash

Photo by KEEM IBARRA on Unsplash




Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

The Beacon: Thoughts on Loss and Love

I miss my mother so much lately. The world seems altered since she died seven months ago. Each relationship has a different color. Every street in our town is changed. Places once visited are built with memories I cannot shake (do not want to shake.) I feel the impressions of her body holding mine as I rock my infant daughter. I can embrace my mother in my mind’s eye and perceive the shape of her shoulders, the texture of her hair, and the softness of her skin. At times I even smell my mother in rooms, random and diverse. 

It is only recently that I allowed myself to glance at her face in photographs again. Her shining smile caused too much anguish. Now, I sit at my desk with two small images close by: the first, her high school senior photograph and, the second, of my mother standing among sunflowers. The reminders are multilayered. Not only do I need to remember that she is not here (I often forget), I remember her capacity to love. Some of the harshest moments of missing her are when the love I came to expect is no longer provided by the one who gave it so quickly. 

The pain of loss is both dull and sharp. I hear it does not ever really go away. I am fine with this and am willing to talk about her with anyone who wishes to, but that openness is also a gift I give to the listener. Not everyone deserves the emotional real estate. 

The easiest moments of connection are the ones I have with my very young children. Do not worry – I am not unloading an emotional burden on my little ones for them to carry. Rather, my three year old son comes to me, love in his heart, wanting to talk about “Grandma” as if she were still here. He does not pity me. He does not stand awkwardly asking if I am O.K. He tells me what he loves about her and I tell him what I love about her. Then, we are together in love. This is what Jesus means by, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” We remember how much we loved and are lifted up. My infant daughter, of course, does not hold the ability to have these conversations, not least for the fact that she was born the same day my mother died. But in this little one exists something very special: an open heart. When I cradle my daughter and think of all the times my mother did the same for me – impressions of that experience heavy in the moment – our hearts “talk.” Anyone who is sensitive to the ways of the spirit knows what I mean here. It is the unseen action of love and mingling of the Holy Spirit. It requires letting go of hurt, wrongs suffered, anger, and the like. There is so much healing in these simple actions. 

Healing, though, does not mean avoiding the experience of pain, loss, or mourning. This kind of open healing paves the way for transformation through love. Through it we know when we are holding on to anger or despair or hurt because there is no movement into openness. It cannot be “made up” or invented. It cannot be forced or faked. It requires us to walk into that place of mourning, not to relish in grief, but “to be comforted.” 

Like a ship searching for a beacon at sea, an open heart searches for real love, altering course when hard-heartedness is found and moving toward truth. The reason I feel grief at the absence of love is not because my mother was the total embodiment of it (she was not perfect, nor am I), but that grief can only be healed when it comes in contact with actual, real-deal, original Love.

This is the goal. As it seems, my mother’s death pointed me toward the healing that my spirit so desperately needs. While I miss her, deeply, to reject this call would be to deny the power of the life she lived here on earth. 

Baby with storybook

The Ugly Duckling: Becoming Who We Are Meant to Be (a short entry)

The Ugly Duckling is not about beauty. It is not about overcoming the “awkward stage.” It is not about emerging as a physically attractive being after years of torment. It is about discovering one’s identity in a world that asks for conformity.

In the story, the baby swan is not readily accepted by the community he is born into because they do not recognize him. The way he looks, how he finds his voice, or the way he moves makes them very confused. The swan seems incapable of adding value to the established system, but this is not without first trying to find a place in it – both the swan and the other animals attempt to “locate” him in the community.

It took moving through seasons and watching the other animals find their roles for the swan to stumble upon his place. Other swans saw in him what he did not see and they opened the door for him to see his true self. What is implied, though, is that these swans still live in community with the other animals the swan encountered before. They are part of an ecosystem.

For some of us, it takes years to find our place and our people. It feels like we have not matured or are just simply “stuck.” In fact, over time we do mature and grow and become the individuals we are meant to be – but it is not easily recognizable. It takes another “swan” to reveal it in us.

One might think that “The Ugly Duckling” title is a misnomer. That it should be called “The Swan That Realizes He is Beautiful Once He Is Finally Told By Someone Who Knows Something About It.” But “The Ugly Duckling” draws our attention to the point of divergence from truth – the name given by others to try to identify something unfamiliar. They mistakenly think the bird is a duck – thus, place a qualifier on it (in case anyone wonders what the heck is “wrong” with the bird.) The title reminds us of the many errors our communities can make when they try to find a place for people. When none is found, hands are raised in exasperation, “I just do not understand that person!”

All the while, the swan evolves through the seasons. Notably, right before the moment of recognition, the swan must go through winter – the time of passiveness, sleep, or dormancy. Perceived barrenness.

The work happens, though. With the arrival of spring, the swan meets other magnificent creatures who identify him as one like themselves. Take note that this is the only moment in the story that the swan looks to another animal in admiration. Before, the swan simply desired to be included in community. Then, emerging from winter and probably exhausted from his loneliness, the swan is nearly intimidated by the other swans. This confusion represents what happens to us as we mature: we see qualities in others that move us to appreciation and respect, not realizing that we also have the potential for these qualities to shine in us. There is a reason we are drawn to them.

As I read this children’s story to my daughter today, I realized it has much to offer us – years and years after Hans Christian Anderson wrote it down. The struggle for identity and place is the struggle of humanity. Perhaps you are “the ugly duckling” today. Or maybe you are the excited swan who sees a new, recognizable friend in the crowd. The lesson is to see yourself and to see other people. Lift each other up, as we want to be lifted up. Know that, even if we grew up around the blind, we are always on our way to becoming who we are meant to be.

Hand reaching out in the darkness, Photo by Cherry Laithang on Unsplash

The Action of Belief, The Rejection of Fear

“Do not be afraid any longer, only believe.” Mark 5:36

This is the line Jesus gives the synagogue official Jairus to tell him to relax in the midst of horrific tragedy – the serious illness of the man’s young daughter. At the opening of the story, Jarius comes to Jesus during a large gathering by the seashore to compel him to come to see the girl. You can almost sense the anxiety and commotion around the official’s arrival. Jesus stands at the seashore with the water lapping behind him, the sun brightly shining and reflecting off of the water. Even in the heat of the day, people continue to gather and increase the size of the crowd – some standing, some sitting – all silent, trying to hear the voice of the Teacher. A man comes running and begins to press through the people, stepping over children, pushing passed men and women; his eyes fixed on the man at the shore. “Teacher! Teacher!” he cries and breathless, falls at Jesus’s feet, arms stretched along the ground. “My little daughter is at the point of death; please come and lay Your hands on her, so that she will get well and live.” Looking down, Jesus is filled with compassion for this man and his family. A decision is made to leave the lesson for another time and the bewildered crowd follows the two men into the town. The people continue to press in on Jesus, hungry for his words and wanting to know more about this mysterious man they heard about. The confusion grows as the crowd gets louder, calling to Jesus. 

Full stop. Someone touches Jesus’s clothes, a discussion ensues among the disciples, and Jesus must address the newly healed woman. The crowd still presses around, curious about the miracle that occurred. Jairus stands near Jesus, baffled and dazed by his anguish and anxiety. “Your daughter has died,” people from his house say to him, “Why trouble the Teacher anymore?” At this point, maybe Jairus drops his head, hot tears filling his eyes, and his hands stretching out to Jesus, again. Jairus’s whole body becomes limp with grief. 

I imagine the chaos that surrounds Jairus as he receives this sad news: the crowd straining and grumbling and muttering, the healed woman crying out in astonishment and joy, the disciples discussing among themselves about the change of plans for the day. Does he stand in defeat? Anger? Shock? “I trusted you!” he might say. “Why trouble the Teacher anymore?” they whisper in his year. The noticeable sarcasm plants the seed of doubt. (Is this really the man they say Jesus is? Where is the miracle here? Why did Jesus chose the woman instead of the girl? He’s too late. He did not care enough. This is not fair!) 

Then, turning to look at only Jairus, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid any longer, only believe.”

The official was clutched by fear. Fear is physical and debilitating. Jesus asks him to make a turn that is not only the opposite action from fear, but in many ways is a less “active” behavior than fear. Belief also requires a whole body effort, but is more like a pause than the aggressive experience of fear. 

In the midst of chaos, Jesus says, “Pause.” Breathe. Only believe. Only wait. Only watch. 

In the context of this story, belief is the more difficult action. It requires patience and control over the fear that can consume us, mind and body. 

What areas do I have in my life that are controlled by fear? Are there so many that I do not realize that the fear is there? Fear can turn into indifference because it opens the door to doubt. Doubt causes us to take wrong action or walk away from our Truth. Fears can arise from the benign (“Should I eat this cookie? What if I gain weight?!”) to the brutal (“How can I live without my loved one?”) Fear makes us try to take control over the situation or give up completely (also a form of control.) 

Making the decision to believe is brave, but how to do it can be puzzling. Belief in itself is a contentious idea in the postmodern world because it is often criticized for being “unintellectual,” misguided, or absurd. In Jairus’s story there is instruction for how to believe as Jesus wants us to believe. Belief rises from hope. The sick woman who touches Jesus’s cloak is also functioning through belief – example number two in this story. Reach out. Take a chance. Ask the Teacher to come with you. Reject fear. 

Reject fear.
That is belief. 

Living without fear gives room for hope. Hope guides us into a life full of love ([Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things…For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.” 1 Cor. 13: 8, 12-13) Remember the actions Jairus takes: first he comes to find Jesus, setting aside the fear of rejection; then he walks with Jesus back to his home, each step an act of belief; finally, standing in the midst of chaos and while doubters whisper statements of fear in his hear, Jairus and Jesus stand face to face. Pause. Wait. Watch. Believe. 


Then, Jesus raises the girl from the dead. 

The Transformative Power of Parenting with Presence

One beautiful aspect of parenting is that it requires us to think about things we avoided for many years. It places front and center topics that could be blissfully dodged. That is, without a small, wide-eyed face looking back at us, asking about the ways of the world. If you are lucky enough to hold the trust of a child, as parent or not, resulting in somewhat difficult inquiries directed your way, there is an opportunity for illumination and enlightenment… for you.

In America, there is a myriad of methods to tackle child-rearing, brought to us by a sturdy publishing industry – providing big promises and innovative techniques, promoting the instinctive, but also convincing readers of their need for professional expertise. Birth and parenting books line my shelves (though, admittedly, on a somewhat smaller scale, in comparison to some.) Unless one has a very strong inner compass – or is notably stubborn in their perspective – the amount of information provided to caregivers is immensely overwhelming. How do we know what is right? Which expert holds to golden key to a perfect parent-child relationship? Of course, this is impossible to answer. Most often, we respond with the generic “whatever works best.” (A completely unhelpful statement and usually a waste of breath.)

This is because we really do not know what to do about the parent-child relationship. I am not a therapist and am not peddling a particular methodology, but I have a suggestion that might shift the perspective and approach to this consequential relationship.

Essentially, what arises out of parent-child interaction can be transformative for both individuals.

No, I do not mean, “Parenting will change your life!” Of course, Captain Obvious, the routine will change, priorities will shift, and hard-earned money will be spent on other things besides Sunday brunch at the cute farm-to-table bistro around the corner or a splurge at J. Crew. Clearly, you will see friends less and most of your television schedule will revolve around what time Daniel Tiger airs on PBS. Did you catch the latest Solange album drop? No?? Let me present you with the Laurie Berkner Band – the U2 of toddler tunes.

What I am talking about is a deep, spiritually metamorphic alteration that caring for a child can stimulate – but only if the adult is willing to step into it.

A few nights ago, my nearly three-year-old son popped The Question. I was not ready for it in the least, but it turned out to be the moment when I realized this transformative experience is real, dynamic, and can bring our lives into spiritual awakening/union with the Divine at any given moment.

“Mommy, where is God?”

We were finishing our nightly routine. Books were read. The bunny-lovie was in hand and he was snuggled under the sheets. The lights were off and we were sitting together in a dark room. I was just about to leave to find my own reprieve after a long day (feeling verypregnant at nine months!) I was tired. He was tired. We prayed our little poem to God and he asked, “Mommy, where is God?”

The few seconds between his question and my answer found me tossing through a whirlwind of possible scenarios. Since this was the first time he asked the question, I wanted to answer “correctly.” Though he is small, I did not want to sow a seed of misrepresentation for the God that I know. It is my desire that he sees the freedom of searching for and exploring all aspects of Divine Love.

What I said to my child is less important than what I am trying to emphasize here: that adults should open to these small moments as instigators for profound self-development. What if I answered him with a stock assertion often given to children when we believe them to be too young to grasp big concepts? What if I rushed away to read the book on my bedside table I waited for all day? He would certainly get an answer, but I would miss this opportune moment filled with mysterious love.

I settled with short statements and small words that essentially told him that I believed God is everywhere – inside us and outside us, God is in everything. God is here because God is in the love that we feel and give to others – even ourselves. Honestly, my biggest fear at this moment was that I would totally freak him out and that he would not want to go to sleep – afraid that some unknown being that he could not see was lurking in his room. Instead, he quietly said back to me, “God is here,” snuggled his bunny and rolled over to go to sleep.

It was one of the easiest “go to sleep” moments we had in weeks in this house.

As I closed the door to his room and started to reflect over what happened, the profound realization of this miraculous exchange washed over me. The significance of my words to him were twofold: first, that I felt like I explained God well enough, at this time, to my child and second, that God really waseverywhere – and very much in that exchange between mother and son.

When we say, “God is love,” we are giving a description of who we believe God to be. However, because of the abstract and basically confusing examples of what human love is compared to Divine Love, the words end up packaged in watered-down catch phrases. In this moment, God was revealed through the communication between mother and child: the vulnerability of the child’s question, the parental pause and patience to stay, the revelation of truth, and peace that settled in the space between us.

I was transformed.

Opening to these bits of time is not easy. Parenting is hard. We get tired, emotional, stressed, and sometimes feel like we are carrying the burdens of the world on our shoulders. However, it is exactly because of this that we need to live with hearts open. God is offering sustenance. We can experience reprieve. The burdens are not only ours to hold. We may not catch every single opportunity (we are human), but we can make the decision to live unguarded – to the benefit of our children and our own hearts.


How to Use Quiet to Your Advantage

Step into the depths with me. Find the calm waters under the torrent that rushes through the mind. It is a journey of miles and miles, facing the spate of beliefs and feelings and verdicts that mark the boundaries of our lives. Jump in with me each and every day.

Crush the barriers of our own making created by desires for affirmation. Stop the desperate search for certification – finding self-importance in the tangible.

We say to God, “I did this. Now, show yourself.”

That is not how it works.

Step – dive – crash into the depths. Find space in the scuttle, the hurdles, the bustle and the hustle. Make time for pause like your life depends on it.

The veil no longer exists. It was destroyed. It is now a barrier of our own making, as we ask for signs and wonders – testing for evidence.

We want the proof of purchase to manifest in specific ways based on the pages of a book. Constructed on language that, by its very nature, is only a symbol for the true meaning of a thing. T-R-E-E is not a tree. The word “tree” is a symbol for an idea of trees, often the one that we conjure most quickly in our minds. Why should we base ideas about God within the limits of human language?

Give me something that feels good. Make me invigorated. Make me dance. Make me happy. This is proof of purchase – evidence that we bought into the lifestyle.

When this does not happen, we call it “suffering” – a word loaded with meaning that allows us to simultaneously hide behind it, theologically connect to broad systems of belief, and spark sympathy in others.

Both joy and suffering can be symbols of the way belief works, but if we are not careful, they morph into impervious dogma and, again, proof of purchase – flawed signs and symbols for a greater experience.

None of this actually describes the expansive Love that we seek from the sincerest part of our being – in the places that are hidden from reason. Where can we find it?

In the silence.

I cannot trust my mind, but I trust the Depths. The stillness. The quiet. It is only here that reason can be shut out. We move away from constructed logic.

There is a dependency on logic that, I argue, keeps us away from essential truths that can only be known without language (signs and symbols.) It is transformative in the sense that it happens from the deep inside, out – and most subtly. To really experience the connection of our humanness to Divine Love – God – we must touch the calm waters under the torrent.

I must look in the stillness. Here You are in the Quiet.

Let go of the requirements, the need to know, the desire to prove or see proof. Settle into the space that exists beyond the apparatus we made to structure our lives. It is possible– for anyone.

Quiet can be intimidating. We are used to waiting for the next thing. I invite you to attempt a dive, even in the face of fear. There is nothing – nothing– that requires your attention as much as finding a way to unearth this expansiveness in your life. Discover the open way to God.


Here’s how:

  1. Identify the moment in your day when you have the least distraction. Set the alarm 15 minutes earlier. Decide to check email after lunch break. Or, turn off the television 30 minutes earlier at night.
  2. Locate the physical space where you have the least distraction. The space should be clean, comfortable, and away from the center of your home (if you live with others.) If you have kids, let them know you will be available to them after this short period of time. Or, if they are very small, find the space/time when they are asleep.
  3. Sit. Sit in a chair. Sit on a cushion. Sit on the floor. Find a way to be comfortable, but do not fall asleep. This is key! The purpose is to experience quiet and when we fall asleep (often a sign of lack of sleep) we miss this encounter.
  4. Set a timer. Use a clock, the timer on your smartphone, or an app meant for this purpose. (Insight Timer is a great – and free – one to consider.) Begin with 2 or 5 minutes, eventually extending it to 10 or 15… even 20 minutes of quiet.*
  5. “Do” something with your brain. Listen to the sound of your breath. Feel your breath flowing in and out of your body. Recite a mantra (“love,” “maranatha,” or any meaningful phrase can work.) Listen to and focus on the sounds around you. Feel the sensations around your body (temperature of the air, feeling of your clothing, etc.)
  6. Make it a regular part of your day. It is one thing to decide to form a habit, but often the process can feel daunting. If you apply #1 and #2, you will find it easier to find space in most of your days and it will become a regular part of life. In time, you will yearn for these quiet moments and you will see how they sustain you.
  7. Be O.K. with imperfection. Go into it with no expectations, but trust that with each moment that you spend away from the perceived urgency of the things calling for attention, you will be pulled deeper and deeper into that space where heart connects with truth.


*Do not use guided meditations during this moment of silence. You could use a guided script to help you get into a mindset of calm, but sit in quiet afterward. Sometimes we can become reliant on the support from someone else – a guide, in this case – but the purpose is to settle into your own stillness.


Best wishes to you on your journey!




Home as Sacred Space: Why and How to Do It

Homes are important. Even if you feel that you spend most of your time at work or school, home is the place where we should be able to wind down and be ourselves. It is where we eat, sleep, and love. Home is where we experience our emotions and thoughts away from the public eye. However, it is easy to take this miniature landscape for granted – using it as a waiting place before going on to the next thing. Or perhaps home is an overwhelming space, full of anxiety, quarrels, or coldness? There is a way to transform that space into your own sacred ground, even if that space includes only your personal area.

What I suggest below does not speak to interpersonal relationships, how to communicate with your family or housemates, or even how to decorate your space. Rather, these are practical and simple measures that will set a foundation – an environment, actually – to cultivate peace.

It is not my intention to give “rules” of housekeeping. Creating a sacred space does not depend on the color of the walls, what kind of embellishments fill the house, or how often one has company. All of these things are an individual’s prerogative. Certainly, there are people who will insist on particulars regarding these details, but I believe they are less important than the few points I list below. Think of them as the wide outer circle that encompasses the variety that can make a home, supporting the decisions made by the people who live in it.

Before moving on, it is important to define the word “sacred” and to discuss the reason for its use in this context. Sacred space can come with loads of meaning – good and not so good, depending on an individual’s experience with religion and spirituality. Here, I use “sacred” not to define a specific tradition, but to refer to the peaceful and revered space within the walls of a home. People who do not have a permanent “home” talk about the kind of stability that having one creates in a person’s life. Living in a space of one’s own creates a sense of individuality, but also community, since the person living in a home experiences pride in being a part of larger social structure. These are some of the most common refrains of those living in shelters. It is also one of the things to most easily take for granted. Comparison and desire run rampant among those who have permanent homes.

When talking about a sacred home, the most useful definition is to “regard with great respect and reverence.” This is why: wherever you live is your home, regardless who owns the property, if it is a rental, or how many people live in that space. There is a common adage that goes something like, “You are responsible for your own life [happiness, health, etc.]” Even if the suggestions below only apply partially to your current living situation, they are still doable to some extent.

All of the points I make are practiced in my own home, so are offered with the knowledge that they truly work. Each are elements that we had to transition to over time and we certainly did not always live this way. However, we have a home that I truly feel is sacredand it is my deep desire to share this realization with you.


1. Make a decision to leave shoes at the door.

This may be difficult for some. It is much more convenient to keep shoes on throughout the day and while walking in and out of the house. But let me give you some reasons to reconsider. On a practical level, the home stays cleaner and there is less wear and tear on the carpets, rugs, and floors. Additionally, regardless of how “clean” the shoes look, footwear contains toxins (like gasoline and other chemicals) that we cannot see.


Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

If these chemicals had color, I’m sure we would never want them where we live! Even beyond the “clean” factor, taking shoes off before walking through the home is the number one rule to a sacred space. Cultures around the world remove shoes before entering homes for this very reason. Have you ever attended a religious building where the custom is to take off shoes when entering sacred areas? When we remove the surfaces from which we gather debris and chemicals, it exhibits respect and honor for the space we enter. This is step one for creating a sacred space.

*If it is not practical to establish this the guideline for your entire home, consider it for particular parts of the house – the bedroom or living room are perfect places to begin.


2. Hold regular periods of quiet by turning off the television, radio, and digital devices.

No, this does not need to be a 24-7 decision, but it is a common idea that we are overstimulated in this modern era. Certainly, television, music, and other digital entertainment has a valuable place in life. What is important, though, is to acknowledge our need for quiet – something that can be a little scary if one is not used to it.


Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

So, instead of waking up and turning on the television, or keeping it on throughout the day, or connecting through digital devices the whole evening after school or work, perhaps designate a time when the house would be free of extra “noise.” Quiet gives us a chance to hear and see and be with each other. Quiet gives us opportunities to be with ourselves. Quiet also lets us dial it back a bit to refresh – and this does not even require a one-hour yoga session or that bubble bath that you wished to take for weeks! It is easy self-care for the senses.


3. Bring life into the home.


Photo by Cassidy Phillips on Unsplash

No matter how strong or weak your green thumb, there is a plant for you. By bringing life to our living spaces in the form of houseplants, we connect ourselves to nature even in the depths of winter (or heat of summer when everything is dry and brown!) Studies show that the human brain and body respond keenly to imagesof nature, let alone actual, physical nature. By taking home something green we can stimulate a sense of wellbeing. Also, taking care of something that is alive can be a sacred act in itself, requiring patience, love, and dedication.




4. Designate an area in your home that is specifically used for contemplation, prayer, meditation, or sitting quietly without distraction.


Photo by Brina Blum on Unsplash

This is incredibly important for finalizing the home as sacred, especially for children. No matter the personality, it is imperative to have space that one can go to for contemplative activities. So many of us grow into adulthood without learning to enjoy time without distraction. We even need breaks from regular interaction with others. Children, in particular, crave moments to themselves. Adults and children alike can learn to meditate, pray, or to steal away from the commotion of the world. The space does not need to be large. Simply a corner with a cushion, bean bag, or chair would do. Contemplative coloring is currently popular with people of all ages. A small table and chair would do the trick. The “rule” of the space would be simple: have respect for the person, whatever the age, who decides to use that space by leaving them alone! The Quiet Space can be the center of the sacred home and whatever positive energy and renewal is cultivated there will extend out through the rest of the building.


Hopefully some of these suggestions peak your interest. I encourage you to try one at a time to see if they work for you. Alter them as needed for your family personality and home life. Blessings to you as you cultivate your sacred space.