Winter here in the Upper Peninsula means finding creative ways to exercise.  Walking outside on the icy pavement while being assaulted by the north wind off Lake Michigan, isn’t terribly enticing.  Snowshoeing, snowboarding and skiing are for those who embrace winter while other hardy souls tackle the snow with their fat tire bikes. My winter exercise sometimes involves swimming laps at our local YMCA or doing some sort of exercise DVD in the comfort of my living room, thus minimizing the risk of broken bones.
 
I love summer and fall when kayaking opportunities are only a few blocks away (we live close to a bay that comes in from Lake Michigan); or I can take off on my bike and be on a country road in 10 minutes. Also, I can walk out my door and do the lakeside/park/beach island path with no more preparation than putting on the right shoes.
I have a friend who teaches an exercise class at our local community center.  I decided to give it a try. After consulting with my friend regarding the schedule and necessary supplies, I dug around in the basement to dig out an old exercise mat and headed out the door.
I walked into the gym, looked around and was surprised. It was a room of strangers, unusual for life in a small community.  A few faces looked vaguely familiar but there wasn’t anyone I recognized enough to attach a name.  I felt a bit awkward, kind of like the first day of class when you don’t yet know the “rules” or the customs.
Nevertheless, I am a pretty bold person and at my age I have overcome a lot of those insecurities that come with not knowing the “landscape”.  I found a spot on the gym floor where I could see the instructor’s movements.
At this point, other than the instructor, no one had spoken to me.  However, as I staked out my spot and placed my mat I became aware of someone trying to get my attention.  I turned to look at the woman behind me, ready to make conversation.  Instead, she asked me to move a bit since she couldn’t see the instructor. Hmm.  That was not an unreasonable request and she was very polite about it. But somehow that brief interaction left me feeling even more on the “outside”.
 
Admittedly, I felt a bit unsettled. It truly was a small thing but that class suddenly did not feel very welcoming.  I proceeded to struggle with movements foreign to me, trying to catch on to a new routine.  I was not at all sure I wanted to come back. Mind you, no one was openly rude to me so it all seemed so trivial.
I’m a pretty determined person so I decided I did not want to be discouraged that easily.  Off I went to class the next week for another try. This time was SO different; I ran into a couple of women I knew.  Alice and I got into a wonderful conversation before class started and another Alice greeted me very warmly at the end of the class.  Yet another woman (not an “Alice”!) encouraged me to “hang in there” and come back.
That experience was a powerful lesson to me, a strong reminder to be encouraging and welcoming, to be hospitable reaching out to others. I realized I could make a huge difference in the life of another person by just offering a smile, a kind word and an open heart.
Shouldn’t we apply that same principle to our church culture?  Think back on the first Sunday you walked into a new church. What if it was your very first time in a church and you had no idea what you were supposed to do, how you were supposed to act.  As a result of my experience at that exercise class, I have a new resolve. Wherever I am, but especially on Sunday mornings, I intend to watch for that unfamiliar face, to be sensitive to the one standing alone looking confused.
I love the book of Proverbs with its tidbits of wisdom. Proverbs 16:24 says: “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” 
It takes such little effort to offer kindness to others as we travel this journey we call life.  In this world where there is so much darkness and confusion, we have opportunity to bring sweetnessand healing to anyone who crosses our paths.  May you and I be agents of change as we seek to uplift those around us.