Be the Thanks

 One of my favorite websites and organizations is “Cool People Care: Saving the World, Five Minutes at a Time.”  (www.coolpeoplecare.org) Cool People Care truly live out what they say by daily offering ways that all of us can become agents of change in a matter of minutes.  As they say on their website, “CoolPeopleCare exists to show you how to change the world in whatever time you have. One minute? Five minutes? An entire day? Whatever you have, we’ll help you spend it wisely.”

Today’s post from Cool People, of course, focuses on Thanksgiving and suggests that it’s possible to be thankful not just today but the entire year.  They recommend that we can simply start by listing in five minutes all of the things we’re thankful for and then “when time’s up, keep going. In fact, do this activity once a month. If people appear on your list, call or write and thank them. Share your list with others and challenge the world to appreciate life, and never take too much for granted.”  http://www.coolpeoplecare.org/article/2006/11/23/be-thankful/

A few minutes before getting out of bed this morning, Elizabeth and I took five minutes to cuddle up and share the things in our life that we’re thankful for.

I took an additional five minutes, on the suggestion of Cool People Care, to write them down again for this blog post. I actually stopped after 5 minutes because I’m helping Elizabeth make cornbread dressing (another food and activity with my wife that makes me thankful 🙂

I’m also going to make an effort to spend 5 minutes or more every month to write a “thankful” list. I’ll keep you posted on how it works out.

Here’s what I’m thankful for today and in this month of November:

* my wife Elizabeth

* Jack

* Harper and Dylan

* Our families

* Our friends

* The congregation at Colesville & Rockville Presbyterian Churches

* Both church’s youth

* Laura and Fred Holbrook and Massanetta Springs Conference Center in Harrisonburg, VA

* Montreat Conference Center in Montreat, NC

* Ed Williams, a good friend and mentor from my college days as a journalism student at Auburn University

* Good health

* Laughter

* Coffee

* A warm fire

* A good book

* An animal that lies at your feet or on your chest

* Naps

* Snow during the holidays

* white cheese dip from a Mexican restaurant

That’s all for now. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

A Squawky Thanksgiving

Elizabeth and I are in Cleveland, OH visiting Elizabeth’s dad Rick; his wife Deidre;  their dogs Watson, a chocolate lab, and Sherlock, a yellow lab; their orange spotted cat Boudreaux; and the newest addition–a baby kitten named Squawky. He’s the cutest ugly cat you’ve ever seen.

He’s a tiny, scrawny guy with black fur, big pointy ears, pink paw pads and a spot of white around his mouth that makes him look like a clown or a cross-dresser.  And Squawky’s left eyebrow has a curl on the end where he singed it on a flame from the fireplace.  The little pipsqueak earned the name Squawky because his meows sound like bird squawks. 

His original name was Lope, short for Interloper. Deidre discovered him sitting in a highway median a few weeks ago and brought the scared and homeless kitten home with her.  Being a kitten, Lope/Squawky unnerved the other animals. Sherlock, who is the biggest dog to ever be scared of anything smaller than him, stopped eating for a couple of days.

They’re all getting along pretty well now, and it’s pretty funny to see Squawky play with one of the dogs’ tails while they’re laying in front of the fireplace.

Squawky is a sweet kitten as are all of Rick and Deidre’s animals. Squawky has taken a special liking to Elizabeth, and often crawls up to rest under her chin. 

The past two days have been very relaxing and fun. We’ve mostly been eating, sleeping and talking while lying lazily in the den. Recently Elizabeth has gotten us all hooked on these challenging word puzzles on NPR’s Weekend Edition Puzzle (www.npr.org/puzzle)

This is the fourth Thanksgiving we’ve spent at Elizabeth’s dad’s house since Elizabeth and I began dating in 2002.  It’s been a nice tradition and I hope it doesn’t end anytime soon.  Rick is fighting merckle cell cancer and there is a fear that this might be the last or one of the last Thanksgivings with my father-in-law.  Although it’s all on our minds in one form or another no one is saying it out loud.  Don’t really need to name the obvious.

And what’s the point in focusing on the negative or what may or may not occur. Just have to take things one day at a time, enjoy life in the moment. That’s been Rick’s attitude about his situation. His strength and courage is inspiring and I pray that he will win his battle. At 57, there’s too much left for him to do. http://middleagedsoutherner.blogspot.com/

Despite being tired from the daily radiation treatments he receives, Rick is in pretty good spirits. His humor and wisdom is sharp as always and I enjoy trading interesting facts, telling goofy and sometimes lurid jokes, and discussing movies, books and sports.

It’s also been good to get to know Deidre more and more. She’s a wonderful person and a great cook. Very competitive when it comes to word games and puzzles. She kicked my butt playing the Scrabblesque board game UpWords.

There is much to be thankful for in this holiday week with Elizabeth and her family. I hope my eyes, heart, mind and soul will be open to every bit that God fills it with.

Abundance of the Heart

During a recent Youth Council meeting, one of the youth shared for an opening devotional a Native American story known as “The Two Wolves.”  The story goes:

An elderly Cherokee Native American was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me, it is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One wolf is evil–he is fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, competition, superiority and ego. The other is good–he is joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. This same fight is goign on inside you and every other person too.”

The grandchildren thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?” The old Cherokee simply replied: “The one you feed.”

After reading the story, the youth asked the Council the following reflection questions:

*What is the moral of the story?

* How do we struggle to win this fight between the two wolves? What in life tempts the evil wolf?

* How can we as Christians help other people win the battle between the wolves?

The other youth on the Council said we all have the potential for doing good or evil and that our choices in life determine which wolf will get fed more than the other. They said everyone struggles with the decision to fill themselves up with anger or love; arrogance or humility; lies or honesty; resentment or compassion. When a friend starts rumors about you; when the boss says an unkind word to you; when a co-worker gets a promotion you deserved; when a motorist cuts you off in traffic; when a family member is dishonest, we have to decide which wolf gets fed in that moment. It’s all that simple and all that hard, isn’t it?

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples: “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit…The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

And the apostle Paul, remembering Jesus’ teachings about choosing good over evil, says in his letter to the Romans: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.”

Being careful to do what is right, to not repay anyone evil for evil is hard. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished bad luck on people who made me angry or were unkind to me or were ignorant of people suffering or who were just plain annoying.

I actually gloat to myself sometimes when celebrities like Britney Spears lose their kids in court and find themselves in a mess. “She got what she deserved, crazy bald party chick dropping her kids when she gets out of cars…sheesh!” And there, in those few fleeting seconds of gloating or being irritated by someone on TV or who I encounter in daily life, I’ve fed that evil wolf a big pound of arrogance, resentment, superiority and ego. Out the abundance of my evil-filled heart the mouth spews unsavory remarks.

The good news is that God in Christ has given us the free and amazing gift of grace. Each hour, each moment, and each day is a new opportunity to make a different choice–to bear good fruit instead of bad, to speak from a heart filled abundantly with love and to feed the good wolf inside us. And of course, it helps to have a pack of good wolves around us.

When the Saints

On Tuesday, I was perusing iTunes (Apple’s online music store) when I came across the free downloadable song of the week–an appropriate and timely release called When The Saints by Sara Groves. Inspired by the beloved hymn “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Groves, a contemporary Christian folk-pop artist, offers her own reflections on those who have gone before us in faith:

Lord I have a heavy burden of all I’ve seen and know
It’s more than I can handle
But your word is burning like a fire shut up in my bones and I can’t let it go

And when I’m weary and overwrought
with so many battles left unfought
I think of Paul and Silas in the prison yard
I hear their song of freedom rising to the stars
And when the Saints go marching in
I want to be one of them

Lord it’s all that I can’t carry and cannot leave behind
It all can overwhelm me
but I think of all who’ve gone before them and lived the faithful life, their courage compels me

And when I’m weary and overwrought
with so many battles left unfought
I think of Paul and Silas in the prison yard
I hear their song of freedom rising to the stars

I see the shepherd Moses in the Pharaohs court
I hear his call for freedom for the people of the Lord

And when the Saints go marching in
I want to be one of them
And when the Saints go marching in
I want to be one of them

I see the long quiet walk along the Underground Railroad
I see the slave awakening to the value of her soul
I see the young missionary at the angry spear
I see his family returning with no trace of fear
I see the long hard shadows of Calcutta nights
I see the sisters standing by the dying mans side
I see the young girl huddled on the brothel floor
I see the man with a passion come and kicking down that door
I see the man of sorrow and his long troubled road
I see the world on his shoulders and my easy load

And when the Saints go marching in
I want to be one of them
And when the Saints go marching in
I want to be one of them
I want to be one of them
I want to be one of them
I want to be one of them

This soul-stirring song gives the listener a beautiful glimpse into the life of discipleship, of those in the faith who in service to Christ, have lived for the oppressed, the sick, the stranger, prisoner, the hungry, and the abused. The song gives the listener hope that God’s love, justice and mercy is working in the world and that God is inviting us to be a part of that work.

The song’s varied images of the faithful who have gone before us also point to a religious concept (defined by the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church) as “the universal call to holiness.” Therese J. Borchard, a columnist for Beliefnet.com, explains in her column:

The universal call to holiness in an invitation to be ourselves. It’s also an invitation to remember the sacramentality of everyday life and to realize the great goal that God has set for us: sanctity. It is what the saints came to realize, sometimes in an instant, sometimes over the course of many years, whether they were born in first-century Palestine, thirteenth-century France, or twentieth-century America…Whether they worked alongside the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, with the plague victims in Rome, or with the gentiles of Asia Minor. The call to sanctity is an invitation to friendship with God. It is a call that transformed the lives of the saints into gifts to the One who loved them into being. The invitation to holiness is a lifelong call to draw closer to God, who wants nothing more than to encounter us as the people we are and the saints we are meant to be.”

I am struck by a reference in both the song and Borchard’s quote about those who work with the poor in Calcutta. My mind immediately turns to the discipleship of the late Mother Teresa, who is fondly remembered by friends and the people she helped as the “Saint of Calcutta.”  In August, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, the director of the Mother Teresa Center, published a book on Mother Teresa’s private writings Come Be My Light which revealed that this woman of great compassion and inspiration–during much of her ministry–often doubted the presence of Christ in her life and even her own worthiness as a person of faith. She wrote in one letter to a spiritual confidant:

Jesus has a very special love for you. But as for me–the silence and the emptiness is so great–that I look and do not see, –listen and do not hear.”  And in another letter she says, “If I ever become a Saint–I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven–to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”

Mother Teresa’s words are jarring and don’t reflect the life of a woman whom many people (Christians and non-Christians alike) knew from news reports, books, speeches and personal interaction as one who served with great strength and intensity and without a notion of doubt about her own faith or calling.  And yet we can take hope in the words of a woman who in the midst of her own faith crisis still persevered to take care of the “least of these” among us. Never once did she stop serving the poor in Calcutta nor did she stop sharing the good news of God’s love with others.

Although Mother Teresa felt alone at times, she never was truly alone.  The nuns and volunteers she worked side by side with in Calcutta as well as her spiritual confidents, her superiors living thousands of miles away were with her, and those in faith who had gone before. And it was through others that the presence of the triune God was known in the brokenness of Calcutta.  It was that holy presence that helped her carry on the work she was meant to do.

It is that holy presence that helps us hear the call to be disciples, to live and serve together as the loving and compassionate children of God that we were created to be.  This call to live out our faith and serve others with the gifts God has given us, is known in the Reformed tradition as a call to be a part of the royal priesthood of believers, to come (regardless of who we are and how many times we get things wrong) “a living stone…chosen and precious in God’s sight…to be built into a spiritual house…to offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ.” (I Peter 2:4-5)

We are surrounded in this life and in this church at Colesville with many saints, those here on earth and those who have gone before us into eternal living, who remind us what it means to live out Christ’s teachings of love and mercy in the world. May we see the presence of the triune God in them–the youth, the elder, the deacon, the Sunday School teacher, the musician, the pastor, the mother, the father, the friend, the grandparents, the child, the sick, the lonely, and the visitor. May we see through the saints in our lives, God’s presence in our own and God’s call of us to live out our lives as saints for others.

Lord it’s all that I can’t carryand cannot leave behind

it all can overwhelm me but I think of all who’ve gone before them and lived the faithful life, their courage compels me.

And when the Saints go marching in, I want to be one of them. And when the Saints go marching in, I want to be one of them

Thanks be to God that we are all made to be one of them.

Amen

When giving the prayer of dedication during the offertory on Sunday mornings, I often say someting like, “Dear God, bless these gifts, these offerings to your service and to helping those in need. Bless the gifts you have given us and show us how to use them to serve others, in Jesus’ name. Amen.” And almost every time I close the prayer with “Amen” an adult shouts a solemn “Amen” back.

But this past Sunday was different. As soon as I closed the prayer with an “Amen,” a little boy in the back of the sanctuary instantly shouted back a loud and enthusiastic “Amen!” It was a precious thing to hear. Many congregants and I laughed and smiled immediately at the sound of that joyful “Amen.”

I’ve said and heard “Amen” many times in my life. But never has “Amen” deeply struck a heartfelt chord with me until that little boy shouted the word.  It was said with such delight and conviction that I truly felt that God’s promises (to feed the hungry, restore sight to the blind, heal the lame and free the prisoner) would be fulfilled in this world. In that one moment, I understood the exhiliration of what it means to be a child of God and to know God’s presence in my life.

One could argue that the little boy was merely repeating what I had said and wasn’t capable of knowing the meaning of the word he shouted. Maybe not.  But the power and grace of God was in that word and delightful shout of praise all the same.

How can one hear a child cheerfully shout “Amen!” and not know that God’s steadfast faithfullness and unconditional love is working in the world, transforming us into proclaimers of the good news which brings light into the darkest places of the world? How can one hear that boy’s “Amen!” and not know that our God, in the words of Hebrews 12:29, is a consuming fire that burns in our hearts, igniting us with the passion to be a part of something much, much greater than us? How can one hear that excited “Amen!” and not know that we are called to a part of a kingdom where all are freed, all are loved, all are accepted? How can one hear “Amen!” uttered with such fortitude and not know that God is good all the time and all the time God is good?

One can’t. At least this one can’t. It is so. It is so. So be it. So be it. Amen. Amen.