Adventures in Thanks-Living

Living the gift of life one breath at a time

Archive for the month “October, 2012”

Not-So-Retail Therapy

Most folks who know me well are aware that I do not take much pleasure in shopping–especially the kind of retail shopping that involves plunking down major cash outlays for transitory and often cheaply made consumer goods. In short, I just about have to be dragged to a shopping mall.

That said, I can understand how shopping can be classed as “retail therapy.” There’s the thrill finding that seemingly perfect item to fill a need, or more likely, a want in a person’s life. I’ve been there and done that and have come to find the outcome severely lacking.

Now I practice “not-so-retail” therapy. Let me explain. As a member of The Compact, I avoid buying new items that contribute to an ever-growing waste stream and violate principles of justice and equity that I hold important.

My latest “not-so-retail” therapy sessions involved Goodwill, Staples, and Dollar Tree. Here’s the story.

I’ve been looking for a basic black wool winter coat since moving back north of the Mason/Dixon line (great match for clergy clothes), so I stopped in at my local Goodwill to check out what might be available. Sure enough I found a gorgeous classic style from a New York custom tailor for $12. Awesome! Then I found a pair of black Ann Taylor dress pants that fit perfectly for $4. Nice! Finally, I found a name brand long mock turtle sweater/dress that is perfect for tights or skinny jeans and boots for $3. Score! To make it even better, the nice lady at the cash register took an additional $2 off  the price of the pants because they were missing a button. Wow!

So for $17 I got three wonderful articles of clothing that are useful, in great condition, and didn’t put anything new into the consumer stream. Plus, these items helped me to get closer to my black/white and shots of bright color basic wardrobe that I’ve been aiming for as clothes wear out. My deal is that when three things come in three things go out, so three summer shirts went bye-bye.

A few days later, after considerable research (assisted by my more tech-savvy spouse), I headed over to Staples armed with a 20% off coupon to purchase a new projector for the congregation I serve. I came out with a fine model that has everything we need along with a set of nice speakers (40% off) for a total ticket of considerably under $500. Being a good steward of the congregation’s money is important. Could I have found one used? Possibly. In this case, I decided to make the purchase new to balance value, need, and time constraints.

Finally, the lure of The Dollar Tree next to Staples was too much to resist, and $13 and change later I emerged with 10 cans of Muir Glen organic diced tomatoes, two jars of an upstate New York regional pasta sauce (great ingredient list), and a box of organic peanut butter chip granola bars. I couldn’t have been happier had you set me loose in Macy’s the day after Thanksgiving with a $1000 gift card.

You probably understand the search for a good value on the projector, but you may be shaking your head and wondering how I can get so excited about dollar store diced tomatoes and secondhand clothing. It is, after all, counter to everything our culture tries to sell us about what it means to be a consumer. That’s the point. I no longer need to be told, sold, or “guilted” into consuming beyond my needs.

As part of a culture that takes way more than its share of the world’s resources, I feel a responsibility to weigh each purchase carefully. I prefer to buy local or regional brands (often dumped at dollar or outlet stores) to avoid supporting agri-giants. I buy used clothing whenever possible and try to avoid big box stores in favor of locally owned businesses.

It’s a constant effort to be an un-consumer in a consumer culture, and I fail miserably from time to time. But I believe it is the effort and thought that count. If all of us would simply begin to weigh our purchases more carefully in terms of justice, environmental impact, and impact on the local economy and our neighbors, I think we’d see a huge difference. At least that’s my hope, prayer, and dream. In the meantime, I’m content to engage in not-so-retail therapy whenever I must consume. Sure is a lot easier on the bank account, too!

How about you? What are your tips for being a more thoughtful consumer? Do you engage in no-so-retail therapy, too?

Photos by sylar_major,  informiorium, TAKA@P.P.R.S., and TownePost Network. Thanks!

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The Power of Words

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. Ephesians 4:29

As someone who writes and speaks vocationally, I am well acquainted with the power of words and the dangers of tongue and pen. This awareness also guides me to weigh words carefully,  seeking to do no harm and whenever possible to lift up and offer hope. How I craft what I write and how I proclaim the good news in preaching and teaching is of great importance. I am also painfully aware that I fall pitifully short of communication perfection and have snarky, insensitive moments just like all human beings. But I do try to be judicious and sensitive to others’ views and thoughts.

So that’s why I’ve been particularly appalled by conservative commentator Ann Coulter’s recent toxic tweet and verbal vomit. If you’ve been blessed not to hear about it and want to know what I’m talking about click here. The comment is repugnant on several levels. First, it is a gross misuse of the word and an insult to the many courageous individuals who live meaningful lives and accomplish great things in spite of intellectual disabilities. Secondly, it shows a lack of respect for the office of president regardless of the opinion of the officeholder. And finally, it is simply in extremely poor taste. Peddling ignorance and fomenting hate is a pathetic way to try to get any point across.

Ms. Coulter is a bright, attractive, and generally articulate woman. She didn’t get to her current place in media land by being a slacker. That said, comments like this one strip her of all dignity, authority, and well, frankly, good manners. To make it even worse, apparently she doesn’t care, and that is sad because she is in a place to make a positive difference with her voice and to use her celebrity for good rather than as blatant self-aggrandizing commentary.

I wish Ms. Coulter no ill will and hope she is somehow brought to a place of humility and growth so that her gifts and talents can be used to build up and edify rather than to destroy and spread venom like some malcontent teenage “mean girl.” I suspect, however, that she does not care what I think, and that’s o.k., too. We are blessed with great freedom, including freedom of choice and voice.

Ms. Coulter, if you care at all how to choose and use words well, then please take to heart what John Franklin Stephens wrote in his open letter to you (click here). Mr. Stephens writes with clarity, compassion, and style–and he has overcome significant odds to develop his gifts and strong voice. We can all take a lesson from him.

Oh, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to remember the words of that old Sunday school song (and yes, I’m updating the language to be inclusive):

O be careful little mouth what you say

O be careful little mouth what you say

The Creator’s up above

And is looking down in love

So, be careful little mouth what you say

The pen and the mouth are powerful tools. May we all use them to the best of our ability and for the good and edification of all our sisters and brothers. What we say and write does matter. I am so thankful for the many people in positions of authority and power who do use their words for good.

I’ll give the last words to the first century orator and apostle Paul, who wrote to a young leader by the name of Titus:

Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. (Titus 3:1-2)

Photos by Alicia VargasGage Skidmore, Yoko, and The World of Special Olympics. Thanks!

You Gonna Serve Somebody

You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed

You’re gonna have to serve somebody

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

                                                              — Bob Dylan

So I guess the question posed by a host of folks ranging from Bob Dylan in his classic song to Jesus of Nazareth in scripture is this: just who are you going to serve? I’ve been thinking about this question often this week while pondering, praying over, and writing this week’s sermon (based on Mark’s gospel, 10:35-45).

The sons of Zebedee, James and John, are jockeying for power and position in what they assume will be the earthly rule of their rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, the anointed one; in short, the one who will kick Herod’s behind and send the Romans packing. They have the חֻצְפָּה (or chutzpah, as we know it) ask for seats on either side of the throne.

What they don’t realize is that the reign of God and the Way of Jesus looks nothing like the traditional notions of power and glory. Notice that when Jesus asks them if they can drink from his cup, they respond like eager puppies that don’t take time to sniff for hemlock or sour milk. And even after they answer in the affirmative, Jesus tells them it’s not his call to dole out the prime real estate.

This little exchange ruffles the ego feathers of the other disciples. Clearly they don’t have Paul Harvey to give them “the rest of the story” or the record of scripture to fill them in. What they do have is Jesus, in the flesh, living with them and constantly trying to teach them. If you want to be great, Jesus says, you have to serve.

Not much has changed in 2000 plus years. We humans still have to serve somebody. Even Bob Dylan had that right. The question is who–or what–will you serve? Who–or what–will you put first in life?

If you intend to put Jesus (and thus, God) first, then you must be a servant to all. Funny how that kind of resonates with the great commandment in Luke 10:27 to love God with every fiber of your being and your neighbor as yourself.

Of course, I guess if it was easy to follow the Way of Jesus, everybody would be doing it and church pews would be full, and no one would be hungry or lacking the basics to live. No, it isn’t easy. That’s why people serve fame, fortune, consumer culture, alcohol, drugs, sex, power, and any other number of gods.

It is impossible to serve all and follow Jesus under our own steam and of our own volition. Do-it-yourself faith is simply not an option. The only way we are able to drink from the same cup as Jesus (aka the cup of suffering) is to rely fully and faithfully on Him. By faith through grace alone can we then walk through this world with open eyes, hearts, minds, and hands. Only by grace can we serve all and serve God.

So, who you gonna serve? I continue to echo the answer of Joshua and countless other faithful folk who have said: “but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15b).

Photos by JuditK and F3LONY. Thanks!

Thankful for Access to Healthcare

Me before first chemo session. I shaved my head and donated the hair to Locks of Love rather than watch it fall out. I figured someone ought to have use of it!

Several events of this week have made me aware of just how thankful I am to have access to healthcare. I am extremely fortunate. My spouse and I serve as pastors to congregations that are part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). One of the biggest expenses in the benefits category to our congregations is our family healthcare policy–and it is a wonderful policy. Our denomination also places a strong emphasis on wellness and preventative medicine, offering us both incentives and resources to attend to our health as an act of stewardship and faithful discipleship.

One of the reasons I am so thankful to have insurance is because I am a breast cancer survivor. I was diagnosed in June of 2004, and underwent surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation between late summer and Easter 2005. The diagnosis came just one week after my girls and I had moved to Rushville, New York, to begin internship. What could have been a nightmare turned out to be a formative experience and a lesson in blessings, the goodness of God, and the importance of community.

My internship supervisor, the congregations of St. John and St. Paul Lutheran, the UMC in Rushville (in whose parsonage we lived), my extended family, dear friends and neighbors, seminary professors and staff, and an amazing team of physicians, technicians, and caregivers surrounded me with more love, prayers, and care than I could have ever imagined. I would never wish a cancer journey on anyone else, but I can say that the blessings and gifts in the experience far outweighed the difficulties.

Here’s the important thing about my experience. Had it not been for a free mammogram and basic student health insurance, I might have waited too long due to financial insecurity and the rigors of grad school and single parenting. My cancer was aggressive and moved extremely quickly, breaking out of the breast into my lymph system. St. John and St. Paul worked together and threw a chicken barbeque benefit with help from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans that raised enough money to keep us from bankruptcy, and the hospital and cancer center helped me find a study, subsidies, and grant funds to help offset what student insurance would not cover. Even so, I am still paying down student loans that were necessary to take, especially considering the cancer slowed my graduation by an extra year. Still, I maintain that I am one of the lucky ones. I am alive and healthy. Every day is a gift.

Because of the cancer, however, other insurance would have been difficult to get. I was able to move directly from student insurance to ELCA insurance, but when I went on leave from call to assist my parents in 2009, I was not able to find insurance that I could afford, so I had to stay on the ELCA plan and pay the premiums out of pocket. I was lucky to have that option, but the year and a half I was on leave was financially devastating–even though I worked three jobs (a contract family and youth ministry position at my home congregation, adjunct teaching at two colleges, and freelance writing). It was a tough time, but again, the gifts of being able to be close to my parents outweighed the sadness of leaving a call, a community, and friends I loved and the tenuous financial situation of living hand to mouth.

I’ve been reminded of the gift of healthcare this week as I’ve seen and heard about others struggling with serious health issues. Two family members were hospitalized. Both have insurance, thanks to Medicare. Were it not for insurance, all of these folks would be in horrible situations.

My own 24-year-old daughter would not have affordable healthcare were she not able to remain on our family policy (thank you, President Obama). She currently works for a non-profit ministry as a mental health worker, and they offer no group coverage, only a minimal plan brokered through a local insurance agent that has a high deductible and minimal benefits. This was a shock to her after returning from working in Korea as a teacher–where national healthcare is good and provided at a minimal cost.

Today I read Nicholas Kristof’s essay in the New York Times about his friend, Scott, who is without healthcare–a Harvard educated, intelligent, thoughtful man, who simply took a chance on not purchasing a private plan and ended up with stage four cancer. Click here, please, to read the story for yourself. It reminded me again why I am grateful to have health insurance and ready access to fine healthcare.

June 6, 2010–Six years a cancer survivor and just married, with daughter the younger, my mother, and Mr. Husband. Daughter the elder attended the wedding via Skype. Every day is a gift!

If you do not have insurance, please look into how you might get some; don’t play roulette with your life. If you cannot afford it, pursue every avenue to find subsidized insurance. We can all inform ourselves about the issue, seeking facts behind the polarizing rhetoric, and write to our elected officials urging them to continue to pursue a way to provide care for all citizens. Finally, if you do have insurance, be sure to give thanks for it. It could save both your physical and financial health some day.

P.S.: To all the many people who walked with me through the wilderness of cancer, thank you again. You will always be held close in my heart, and I am grateful for each and every one of you.

Three Simple Steps to a Better Day

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Want to make your day a better one? Any day can be at least a little better with a simple mind shift. All it takes is applying three simple, tried and true actions consistently throughout any 24 hour stretch of time.

Even the dreariest of days can be transformed by this simple shift in thinking and response. And it’s how you begin the day that sets the tone for the hours and events to follow. In short, the day you will lead is largely controlled by your attitude and approach to it.

Almost 2,000 years ago a Jew and Roman citizen named Saul of Tarsus (renamed Paul after he became a follower of The Way of Jesus), wrote to fellow believers in Thessaloniki and suggested three simple practices that are still applicable today: rejoice, pray, and give thanks. If practiced faithfully and lavishly, these practices will help make any day a good day–or at least improve a bad one significantly.

Before you get out of bed, offer a prayer of thanks and rejoice that you are alive, breathing, and gifted with another day of life. Continue this practice throughout the day–not just offering thanks around meals and before bedtime. Remember that everything, absolutely every good thing in your life is a gift from the One who spoke the cosmos into being.

Take time to marvel at the gifts of nature. Give thanks for the produce at the farmers market. Give thanks for clean water and the conveniences of electricity, phone service, and wireless communication. Rejoice in the company of family and friends. Pray for the needs of others often during that day. If a driver cuts you off in traffic, pray that his or her needs are met and that all is well. If you hear the sirens calling your local volunteer firefighters and emergency personnel, offer a prayer of safety and well-being on their behalf.

Finally, as you fall into bed at the end of the day, give thanks for the gifts of the day, thanks that you were able to meet any challenges, again pray for the needs of others and yourself, and trust that a good night’s holy rest will be yours.

Practice these three simple steps on a regular and frequent basis, and I guarantee your life will be changed for the better, and your outlook will improve. Come on…what do you have to lose?

Photos by david c. stone and hotflashes. Thanks!

Home

Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition. – James Baldwin

When you think “home” what comes to mind? Is it the house where you grew up? Or is it a gathering around a communal table, maybe Thanksgiving or another national or religious holiday, where family members come home to be together, to feast, and to share? Does home stir up good memories, or are thoughts of home painful or ambivalent?

For me home is more a state of mind and condition being rather than a specific physical locale. Perhaps that comes from a childhood where my father’s career necessitated a move every few years, or maybe it stems in part from my own vocation as a pastor, where my faith teaches me to imagine home as more far reaching than even the vastness of the night sky.

For me, home is found wherever the ones I love have gathered. Home is where my community of faith meets. Home is the places where grace blankets the brokenness of this human journey. Home is where people lay down their differences and share a meal, however humble, and converse with the intent of breaking down barriers and building bridges. Home, for me, is what it means to be human. I can be equally at home in the church parsonage where my family currently resides, in the home of a relative or friend, or in a house of faith where all are welcomed. I am at home by a campfire on a crisp autumn night or walking at the water’s edge on at the shore. I am at home in the garden, the forest, the prairie, or anywhere that creation is cared for and cherished.

So with that broad and permeable definition of home, what is not home? A place that is not home is where there are limits placed on who is welcome. Home is not where any of God’s children are exploited or where the market calls for us to buy and consume and amass material goods in a pale attempt to fill a homeless void. Home is not where hatred resides, or where one is made to feel less-than or not-good-enough or an abomination. Home is not where doors and minds are closed.

Instead, home is where there is always an extra place at the table, a cup of cool, clear water, and shelter from the elements. Home is where love, peace, grace, and hope combine to create the heart’s daily bread–enough for all.

Photos by Fabio Bruna, qmnonic, and just a prairie boy. Thanks!

The Gift of Connection & Community

No man (sic) is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. — John Donne, from Meditation XVII

Jacobean poet John Donne’s powerful words still ring true today, although humankind still strives for distinction and personal space. However, for the one who practices the art of “thanks-living,”the joy and the meaning of life are found in the connections forged among us. The meaning of life is expressed in community and communion rather than the glories of individualism and singular achievement.

“I did this” or “I made that” the human mind is apt to proclaim. The truth is that nothing is completely original, and we all build upon the lives, creativity, and experiences of others. We, too, will leave a legacy for good or ill upon which our successors must build.

Yes, that’s correct–“we.” Because we do not live in isolation. Even Thoreau in his Walden woods cabin could not completely separate the individual and his efforts from the joys and delights of a shared creation. The same sun and moon and stars that shone on Walden Pond still shine on all of us today. The same life-giving rain and nurturing soil belongs to all creation, not to you or me alone. Nothing can truly be held only by the individual, despite our illusions to the contrary.

We may build fences and wall and fortresses, but they will crumble and fall eventually. Robert Frost knew this when he wrote the poem “Mending Wall,” and said “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out,/And to whom I was like to give offence./Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…”

We are created to be our best in various constructs of community. We form family units, schools, churches, clubs, cooperatives, and any number of other groups that gather around shared purpose and goals. Together we are stronger than the isolation of our individual parts. When we break down walls and remove barriers, amazing things happen. Life and love flourish if given the most minute of opportunities.

One small example is our backyard garden. In all probability two new raised beds would have remained a dream without the joyous self-giving of our friend and neighbor, Debbie. She brought her tools, knowledge, energy, and laughter to the effort. She generously brought alpine strawberries, Egyptian walking onions, and black-eyed Susans to be planted. Other neighbors and friends, Ida, Audrey, and Creta gave their extra tomato and onion plants so that we now have an abundance to share with others.

Our little backyard garden, still very much a work in progress, is not something that we can claim as “ours.” It is the gift and product of community, the fruit of connection, and a harvest of true blessings.

Questions to Ponder

What strands of connection and community are you weaving into your life?

Who gives to you and to whom do you give?

What harvest of blessings might you celebrate during this season?

Photos by Linda N and steppnout. Thanks!

The Paradox of Giving

Click the link below to visit GYA Today and see Paul Mark Sutherland’s lovely and meaningful graphic reminder of one of the many truths about giving and generosity. Thank you!

via The Paradox of Giving.

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