Thankfulness in December

In this month of December I am thankful for:

* My amazing wife Elizabeth who is 14 weeks pregnant and a baby who is on the way

* Being able to hear the baby’s heartbeat and seeing a cute tiny hand waving around on the sonogram last week.

* The beautiful, colorful picture mosaic of a cross that a youth made for me. The youth stayed up several hours to draw and color the picture. I posted it on my door so that I see it every day and am reminded of the love it represents and the love from which it comes from.

* The notes and drawings the youth leave on the small dry erase board that hangs on my door. One youth recently drew Pac-Man eating the Mr. Bill claymation figure from Saturday Night Live. 🙂

* Dylan the cat who attacks your socks thinking they’re another animal; and Harper who plays fetch with her toys just as good as any dog.

* Being able to gaze sleepily at the snow covering the ground outside and no longer having to drive in it.

* Friends who leave you awesome messages and drawings on Facebook about your expectant child.

* Friends who love you enough to tell you when to step back and take a breath.

* The freedom that came to Gillian Gibson, the British teacher, who had been jailed in Sudan for allowing her class of 6 and 7-year-olds name a Teddy bear Mohammed.

* My father-in-law had his last day of radiation and is feeling hopeful that he will beat his cancer.

* A fun weekend to celebrate my good friend John Weicher’s 30th Birthday in Media, PA.

* Christmas cards from friends, family and church members

* Advent–a time of preperation for the loving and grace-filled mystery of God that dwells among us as a baby in a lowly manger.

* Christmas–a time of giving in the name of God who in Christ gives us the freedom to shine as lights in the darkness

We are Family–my pregnant wife, two cats and me

As I write today’s post from a 15-year-old dirt-stained orange-kaki-ish Lazy-boy recliner, Harper the cat is lying on my chest and nibbling on the drawstrings of my grey hooded sweatshirt while Harper’s brother Dylan is resting peacefully atop two blankets on the couch. And Elizabeth, who is 3 months pregnant, is sitting in her office at Rockville Presbyterian writing a sermon for Sunday on Mary’s Magnifcat from the Gospel of Luke. 

And I’m basking in the wonder of this family that I’m a part of these days. It is a blessing to have such an amazing wife and two sweet, fun adorable cats…and a baby on the way!  On Friday, Elizabeth and I went to the doctor’s office for a sonogram and we heard for the first time the baby’s heart beat. Incredible! Thump, thump, thump, thump. And in addition to seeing the head and a couple of legs, we saw (in great detail) this tiny hand with five cubby fingers waving around. As a good friend of mine would say, “It blows your mind!”  Both Elizabeth and child are healthy and the process is moving along as it should.  In 4-6 weeks we should be able to find out the baby’s sex, which is exciting.  Both Elizabeth and I rooting for a little for a boy although in the end, we’ll be happy whether it’s a boy or a girl. The most important thing to us is that the baby is healthy and Elizabeth doesn’t have any complications before, during or after birth.

While the concept of bringing a life into this world is thrilling and exciting, it’s also scary. I know people who have lost babies at different stages during a pregnancy and I’ve even ministered one couple who lost what was a healthy baby in the 9th month simply because the baby turned and got himself wrapped in the umbellical cord. Some couples, though it’s rare, have successful births and then a shortime later, lose their infant to SIDS.  I know I shouldn’t dwell too much on what could go wrong but it’s hard not to be somewhat aware of the possibility. 

I pray that God will keep me more centered in the wonder of this miracle of life that is a baby. I pray that God will not allow me to drift into the dark places of worry and fear. I pray that God will be with all three of us (and the cats too…a baby is going to be a huge adjustment for them) over these next 9 months and beyond.  I pray that God will fill the time with love, faith, strength, hope, peace and grace no matter what happens.

Feeding the Hungry

Twice a month I flip immediately to the final column in the latest edition of Newsweek to read my favorite columnist Anna Quindlen. She doesn’t disappoint with her recent offering about the current shortage of food for the poor.

 

Here’s an excerpt:

The poor could be forgiven for feeling somewhat poorer nowadays. The share of the nation’s income going to the top 1 percent of its citizens is at its highest level since 1928, just before the big boom went bust. But poverty is not a subject that’s been discussed much by the current administration, who were wild to bring freedom to the Iraqis but not bread to the South Bronx. “Hunger is hard for us as a nation to admit,” says Clyde Kuemmerle, who oversees the volunteers at Holy Apostles. “That makes it hard to talk about and impossible to run on.

At Holy Apostles (in New York) the issue is measured in mouthfuls. Pasta, collard greens, bread, cling peaches. But in this anniversary year the storage shelves are less full, the pipeline less predictable. The worst emergency food shortage in years is plaguing charities from Maine to California, even while the number of those who need help grows. The director of City Harvest in New York, Jilly Stephens, has told her staff they have to find another million pounds of food over the next few months to make up the shortfall. “Half as many pantry bags” is the mantra heard now that the city receives half the amount of emergency food than it once did from the Feds. In Los Angeles 24 million pounds of food in 2002 became 15 million in 2006; in Oregon 13 million pounds dwindled to six. It’s a cockamamie new math that denies the reality of hunger amid affluence.

There are many reasons why. An agriculture bill that would have increased aid and the food-stamp allotment has been knocking around Congress, where no one ever goes hungry. Donations from a federal program that buys excess crops from farmers and gives them to food banks has shrunk alarmingly. Even the environment and corporate efficiency have contributed to empty pantries: more farmers are producing corn for ethanol, and more companies have conquered quality control, cutting down on those irregular cans and battered boxes that once went to the needy.”

Quindlen writes further about the thousands of people who are fed lunch at the Church of the Holy Apostles in New York City:

This place is a blessing, and an outrage. “We call these people our guests,” says the rector. “They are the children of God.” That’s real God talk. The political arena has been lousy with the talk-show variety in recent years: worrying about whether children could pray in school instead of whether they’d eaten before they got there, obsessing about the beginning of life instead of the end of poverty, concerned with private behavior instead of public generosity.

There’s a miracle in which an enormous crowd comes to hear Jesus and he feeds them all by turning a bit of bread and fish into enough to serve the multitudes. The truth is that America is so rich that political leaders could actually produce some variant of that miracle if they had the will. And, I suppose, if they thought there were votes in it. Enough with the pious sanctimony about gay marriage and abortion. If elected officials want to bring God talk into public life, let it be the bedrock stuff, about charity and mercy and the least of our brethren. Instead of the performance art of the presidential debate, the candidates should come to Holy Apostles and do what good people, people of faith, do there every day—feed the hungry, comfort the weary, soothe the afflicted. And wipe down the tables after each seating. “

The question is, what do we do to hold politicians and government leaders accountable for the lack of food and care given to the least of these in this country?

To start with, we can simply write letters (weekly) and make phone calls (daily or weekly) to those in power demanding that more be done to feed the hungry and poor.  And we can encourage others to do the same. If every neighborhood in ever city or even every church in every city started letter-writing and phone calling campaigns that flooded politician’s offices with their concerns, it would be impossible for change to not occur.

And secondly, we could be better informed about who we’re voting for and stop voting for those (Democrat and Republican) who are more interested in their own pork barrell projects.  The politicians have the wealth and the power to make things better for the poor. As the people who elect the politicians to serve all people we have to demand that they do their jobs so that no one person is left unfed and uncared for.

We also have to demand more from corporiations and advertising and media which fuel this great lie that “more is better,” that standing in line in the rain and snow at 4 a.m. in front of Macy’s on Black Friday to get that discounted leather jacket actually brings fullfillment in life.

And we have to encourage others (even demand from family and friends) to change their way of living that makes the economic gap wider, the greed factor greater and hate & oppression stronger.  Of course, before we demand this of others, we have to demand it of ourselves. 

We have to not only serve the poor by providing food, shelter and care but also by cutting back drastically on our own selfless consumeristic needs. In essence, we have live out the faith we profess and believe.

How we specifically live out our faith is up to each individual, a commitment they have to make between themselves and God. All I know is that it’s got to happen soon or everything inside of us may be devoured by our own greed.  And that may be more starvation than the world can stomach.

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.