Adventures in Thanks-Living

Living the gift of life one breath at a time

Archive for the tag “community”

Precious in God’s Eyes

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The death of the Lord’s faithful
    is a costly loss in his eyes. 
–Psalm 116:15 (Common English Bible)

I attended the funeral of one of our retired pastors this weekend and also learned of the death of a dearly beloved former parishioner. In both cases I was reminded of the briefness of our time here on earth in contrast to the vastness of eternity, along with the impact both of these dear saints had in their respective communities. I did not know the retired pastor; I’m relatively new to this area and to my particular call to serve, but the pastor and family did a wonderful job in word, in song, and in presence of painting a vivid picture of this pastor, father, grandfather, husband, friend, and faithful disciple.

By contrast, I had come to know, to appreciate, and to love Virginia. She was one of those dear saints of God with a twinkle in her eye, a prayer in her heart, and a smile and kind words on her lips. Whenever I visited her in the nursing home, I cam away feeling like I was the one who had been ministered to in the short time of our visit. Oh, and she could tell some powerfully good stories–from her childhood, about our parish, and about her contentment in life and love for her family.

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Early on in my ministry in that small central Pennsylvania parish, Virginia took a fall and almost lost her life. Yet this strong woman rallied. She never quiet got back to her pre-fall physical condition, and the anesthesia and severity of the fall fuzzied things ever so slightly for her, but she was not one to complain. Yes, Virginia knew a thing or two about thanksliving, about how to be grateful for life in all circumstances.

“…for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:11b-13 (Common English Bible)

Like Paul wrote to his dear disciples in Philippi, Virginia was strong in her conviction that she would be content with whatever life brought. After it became clear that she would not be able to return home and live independently, she determined to make her room “home in every way.” The staff loved her. She often had half a dozen visitors gathered around her on a Sunday afternoon. And she smiled and made the best of it–even on the rare days when the clouds of physical pain shadowed her face.

One day she told me “I have been trying to remember what my kitchen looks like, and I just can’t any more. I can picture some things, but…” she paused. “I guess it doesn’t matter. This is my home now, and I don’t want my children to feel any guilt about me being here. This is where I need to be.” And how do you answer that as her pastor? There aren’t really any adequate words for that kind of grace-filled living. You just tuck away the lesson and pray you’ll be able to approach life with the same bold resoluteness when it comes your time to “downsize.”

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Virginia also knew more than a few things about love. She taught me some wonderful lessons about the power of the human spirit to adapt, to accept, and to thrive. She was way ahead of her time when it came to issues of inclusion and social justice. Her approach to such issues was always wrapped in love and the sure and certain knowledge that her Lord didn’t come to judge the world but to save it (John 3:16-17) and that love covers pretty much everything. Oh, and with her love for flowers and all things living, she took to heart the words that God created everything and proclaimed it “good.”

Now lest you think I’m painting a grief-tinted overly positive picture of this dear saint, let me put your mind to rest. I also spent time with Virginia when she was in deep pain, when she was afraid, and maybe even once or twice a bit miffed and irritated. She was, just like the rest of us, simultaneously saint and sinner, but nonetheless redeemed and being made righteous with every passing day.

And now she, like so many beloved saints before her, has attained the prize, has taken that one step we all have to take alone, and has crossed into eternity and the vast cosmos that cannot begin to contain the love and mercy of God. She’s on that mountain with a feast spread before her in the presence of God. There is no more crying, no more pain, no more sorrow. She has what we who are still here only grasp at and see dimly by our fragile faith.

Her death–passing from this life to eternity–leaves a hole, a rip in the fabric of all whose lives she touched. Her family, friends, and fellow disciples will mourn, and that includes me. Yet, at the same time, I for one will give fervent thanks for her life and for the lessons she taught simply by being Virginia. Thanks be to God for all the strong women and men who are now part of that great cloud of witnesses. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Photos: Internet Book Archive, Creative Commons

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Giving in Spite of…

Votive Candles

One of the things we so often hear about the church is that people today don’t need it. For a lot of folks what the church seems to offer just isn’t relevant.

Millennials are pretty clear about this. Recently I heard several young adults who fall into this age-descriptive category say things along these lines: “I don’t need the church to be a good person.” “Why should I go hang out in a building and sit, stand, kneel, sit stand, sit, stand” and sing songs that I hate?” “When I went, it seemed like people were just going through the motions.” “I can give and make a difference without doing it through an institution; in fact, I’d rather give directly to a cause.”

For those of us who are engaged in vocational church work, and for Christians who cherish their faith communities and traditional North American way of being Christ’s body, this can be pretty tough to hear. What we value, what we treasure, our traditions and rituals, and our ideas and images of the sacred, just don’t always cut it any more. Our wineskins (to use one of Jesus’ images) are getting pretty old and brittle.

Instead of becoming defensive and trying to shift the blame onto those outside of our circles, why not embrace the reality that a few things may have to give (or perhaps even more than a few!) in order for the body to get moving again? Christ is the same today as yesterday and tomorrow. The old, old ancient story is true. It’s just the packaging and the marketing that are looking raggedy and worn around the edges.

Christ will keep on loving and giving in spite of these facts. Christ will continue to pour himself out in word, in wine and bread, and in the faces of the hungry, the lost, ,and the marginalized. Christ will continue to be present. No matter what we choose to do or not do the gift goes on. This is very good news!

Now about change and relevance; well, we’ll save that for another day. Thanks be to God.

The Year of Living Generously

Happy New Year

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.    Acts 2:46-47

It’s a new year, a new day filled with promise and possibility. What will you do with the minutes, hours, and days ahead? How will you shape and craft the time entrusted to you? How will you use your gifts and talents to make this world a better place?

I’m not talking about resolutions. Those are well and good if you make them, but our culture and human tendencies work against their care and keeping. I’m not even talking about goals. Setting goals is vital to achievement and essential to moving forward in ways that are productive and measurable.

What I hope to do–and I invite you to join me–is to commit to live intentionally and deeply into a fresh way of being for this new year. This year I want to build a life that is deliberately joyful and generous. I’m talking about a deep culture shift that begins on an individual level and ripples outward into community.

Living generously begins one person at a time, BUT…living generously has the power to change the world and to heal and cultivate relationships, one life at a time, one small group at a time, and one community at a time. It starts with you. It starts with me. It starts now.

The Year of Living Generously has two parts. First, I’ll be posting three to four times a week to offer ideas, share experiences, and plan and dream with you. I invite you to comment and share your ideas and experiences, too. Secondly, I invite you to participate in a Lenten discipline called With Glad and Generous Hearts. This 40-day faith-based study is designed with both individuals and groups in mind. It features daily reflections and questions for individual use, as well as a weekly group study. More information about how to participate will be available mid-January.

I hope you’ll consider joining me for the journey and will share this information with your friends and in your communities. Together we can craft a year of living generous lives, marked by prodigal love, and seasoned with gladness and joy.

For today I leave you with this thought:

Divine time is infinite and fluid. Human time is finite and marked by artificial constraints of our own creation. The key to a glad and generous life is to acknowledge our human reality while embracing and living into Divine (or Kairos) time. In doing so we have the potential to maximize our days and hours by living fully each precious moment.

Happy New Year! Blessings on the journey.

First Fruits

So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me. — Deuteronomy 26:10a

This half verse snippet from the Old Testament passage from the Revised Common Lectionary for the First Sunday in Lent is taken from instructions for the proper celebration of the Harvest Festival. The people were to bring the first fruits of their land land labor as an offering to God and as a reminder that all things come from the Creator and ultimately belong to God.

Most of us are no longer farmers. We don’t till the soil unless it’s in our backyard and kitchen gardens. We earn our livelihood in other ways. So how, then, does this instruction apply to 21st century folk? Is it strictly to be passed off as left to the tithe–ten percent of our money? I think not, although I am a believer in giving as generously as possible of one’s financial resources, more than ten percent if possible. Besides, money is a tool; it isn’t “ground” in the sense that this passage is talking about. Money is not good soil, not rich humus, or reclaimed compost. Money is a value exchange, so there must be something more.

That something, I think, is each person, your very self, body and soul. Jesus commands us in the gospels of Matthew (22:37-40), Mark (12:29-31), and Luke (10:27-29) to love the LORD completely and to love our neighbor as ourselves. This completion of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloyhenu Adonai Echad,” reminds us that we belong to God and to one another and our lives should reflect this truth.

So if our body, mind, and soul are the “land” that God has given us, then it follows that we give back to God the very best parts of all that we are and all that we have.

  • We must cultivate and tend to our physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being with diligence, intentionality, and care,
  • We must nourish ourselves with good things–prayer, worship, study, relationships, and generosity (the five basic practices of discipleship), and
  • We must return to the LORD the very best of ourselves.

I think it is this third point that is the most difficult for me, and probably for all of us. It is so easy to take “ownership” of our lives, giving the best of ourselves as we want, not necessarily considering God in the equation. Worse yet, we tend to give God the leftovers–an hour or two on Sunday when we want, whatever funds are left over after we meet our own needs and wants, and whatever service strikes our fancy or the empty spots on our already overbooked schedules.

God reminded the people of Israel to bring their best, their first fruits and say, “The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me” (Deut. 8-10).

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, understood this concept of first fruits that come from God and belong to God when he said, “Let me offer you in sacrifice the service of my thoughts and my tongue, but first give me what I may offer you.”

How might we offer our first fruits this week? What is the best of your time, talent, and treasure that you may offer to God, in the name of Christ, and for the sake of the Gospel? Whatever you discern, remember these words:

Don’t give last, and don’t give God less.

Give to God first, and give your best.

Blessings on your week, on your continued journey into a Simple Lent, and on your generous sharing of your very best!

Photos by Mr. Kris and JustinLowery.com. Thanks!

Laugh! It’s Good for You.

Mirth is God’s medicine. Everybody ought to bathe in it. ~Henry Ward Beecher

(Note: This is the second installment in a series about how to really live life and live it well.)

Want to really live life? If you do, then make sure you laugh on a daily basis. Not only will you feel better and experience life as more positive, you may actually help your health.

A study at the University of Maryland Medical Center, led by Dr. Michael Miller, studied the humor responses of 300 subjects and found that indeed, there may be a real connection between frequent laughter and reduced risk of heart attack. Click here to read more about the study. Miller and his colleagues suggest looking at incorporating laughter into one’s life in the same way one would include a healthy diet and exercise.

What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul. ~Yiddish Proverb

How about combining exercise and laughter into one healthy activity? Check out laughter yoga as a possibility. This practice combines unconditional laughter with yogic breathing (pranayama). It was the brainchild of an Indian physician, Dr. Madan Kataria and has grown to more than 8.000 laughter clubs in 65 countries. Click here and here for more information. Laughter yoga combines exercise, breathing, joy, and community into one healthy and affirming activity. According to the American School of Laughter Yoga, not only will practitioners see health benefits, but work productivity may increase by up to 31% Clearly, research shows we need to infuse our schools, our workplaces, our homes, and our faith communities with more laughter and joy.

Seven days without laughter makes one weak. ~Mort Walker

The photo above is a close-up of the artist Yue Minjun’s wonderful installation “Amazing Laughter” in Vancouver, British Columbia. You can read more about the artist and the sculpture here. Seeing these laughing figures, all of whom bear the artist’s face, makes one want to smile–or laugh. Look for art, for music, for theatre, film, and television that make you laugh, and incorporate some healthy laughter into every day of your life. Commit to trying it for at least 40 days, and keep a record of your progress and experience. I am certain you’ll find yourself stronger, more centered, and possessing a much more positive outlook on life. Go ahead…try it! What do you have to lose?

Now just why did the chicken cross the road? Maybe it was to listen to some fowl jokes.

Photos by Jeff Halllululemonathletica, and Matthew Grapengieser. Thanks!

Life on Loan

Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children. — Native American Proverb

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it… — Psalm 24:1

“You’re not in charge!” Most human beings I know chafe under such an imperative statement. Sure we’re in charge, each one of us, right? Do you remember the Bon Jovi song “It’s my Life” and its siren song to individuality: “It’s my life/It’s now or never/I ain’t gonna live forever/I just wanna live while I’m alive…”? This song has inspired people of all ages and become an anthem to the idea of controlling one’s own life and destiny.

It’s true that we don’t live forever on this earth, and it’s laudable to desire to really live instead of go through the motion, but it is not true that this life is ours to do with as we please. Our life is a loan. We didn’t dictate our birth , and we’re really not completely in charge of our terminus post quem. And what we do while we’re here–every choice and decision–matters and affects the course of our journey.

Our choices and life paths also affect others, an important point to ponder. How we treat our bodies affects how long we may potentially live, how much we will have to invest in health care, and what our quality of life will be. How we treat our economic resources affects our security, the futures of those we love, and even the future of our community and our nation. How we treat our earth may potentially affect everyone. We are, in effect, “borrowing” the earth and all its resources from future generations.

Yes, we live on borrowed time with lives that are merely a loan. Each breath, each day, everything is pure gift, but the gift is shared. Our gift of life is lived out in community for good or for ill. How will you enjoy your gift, steward your loan, and care for what is not yours forever?

Thanks-Living Action:

1. Ask yourself what kind of world you would like to see for your children or your children’s children. If you do not have children of your own, what kind of world would you like to leave as your legacy?

2. How can you be a better steward of your time, talent, and resources?

3. What does it mean to live life as gift?

Finally, ponder these words from a sermon delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Ebenezer Baptist Church:

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. … This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on Earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.”

Photo by Damanhur, Federation of Communities. Thanks!

Service Saturday

Everyone can be great, because anybody can serve. — Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tomorrow is the National Day of Service in the United States of America. President Obama started this tradition before his first inauguration in honor of Dr. King’s legacy of service and desire to help better the lives of others. Activities and community-wide efforts are planned in all fifty states and the District of Columbia.

What do you plan to do? Can you find a way to give back to your community? If there is not an organized activity in your immediate area, don’t let that stop you. Look around. What needs to be done? Can you clean up the sidewalk and street in front of your house? Can you take food to your local food pantry and volunteer to help? How about checking in on that elderly neighbor? Know someone who is recovering from surgery or the flu? How about cooking a double portion and taking them a meal? What non-profit agencies are looking for volunteers? Do local faith communities have needs? A few phone calls should yield plenty of opportunities for you to help.

Don’t let it stop with just one day. Take the pledge to serve all year. Can you imagine how much better and stronger our communities could be if everyone pledged to serve just one hour per week? According to the A. C. Nielsen Co. the average American watches more than four hours of television a day. Surely, one hour per week of service is not too much to give. Plus, giving feels good when you do it. In giving, you also receive–your level of happiness and well-being increases, you make connections with others and with your community, and your sense of purpose is enhanced.

So give a little thanks tomorrow and every week of the year. Give a little of your time, your energy, and your resources to serve others. No matter what our politics, religious beliefs, or economic status, we can all serve. If you don’t live in the U.S., serve wherever you do live. Make your own corner of the world just a little bit brighter. Be a part of something bigger than yourself. Serve others. You’ll be glad you did.

Photo by vastateparkstaff. Thanks!

How Then Shall We Live?

As we come to know the seriousness of the situation, the war, the racism, the poverty in our world, we come to realize that things will not be changed simply by words or demonstrations. Rather, it’s a question of living one’s life in a drastically different way. -Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, is one of my heroes because she not only talked a good talk; she lived a life of love, compassion, and mercy. Her faith was forged through her own trials and pain, a reality that also led her down a path to help others. Day was a truly amazing woman and a faithful witness to the gospel. You can read more of her story here.

When I read the above quote today, I was reminded again that each day we wake to answer the question “how shall I live this day?” Our western culture affords us myriad choices and opportunities. Most all who read this reflection are blessed to have enough to eat, living quarters that are dry, warm, clean, and spacious, more than enough clothes and possessions, and transportation. Yet still many of us wonder about purpose, direction, and meaning.

Do we live for ourselves, or do we live for one another? Are we only here to live for the day (Carpe Diem) and what we can amass, or are we here to live in community and share? Are we entitled to however much we can get, or do we use only what we need and share the rest with those who have need? How then shall we live?

I cannot answer that for anyone but myself. What I am learning in life is that how I answer that question really does matter and that my needs are pretty simple. People matter; stuff does not. Relationships last; possessions come and go. We come into life empty-handed, and we go out the very same way.

How will you live today?

Photos by Jagz Mario and christiantimeless. Thanks!

 

Seeing Sunflowers

The question is not what you look at, but what you see. — Henry David Thoreau

It is August, 2006. Dianne and I are taking our two middle-school-age children to summer camp. Dianne is making good time in her green sedan, deftly navigating a series of uncrowded eastern North Dakota highways. We haven’t known each other long, a few weeks at most, so this Sunday afternoon drive provides plenty of opportunity to move beyond the surface-level chatter that so often marks the early encounters of a developing friendship.

Despite the flow of easy conversation, I am distracted by the fields of ripening sunflowers that we pass along the way. Myriad bright yellow flowers dance with the breeze, exuding happiness, signaling summer, and signifying joy to me. The sight of row upon row of these butter-yellow beauties turning their heavy heads upward toward the sun captivates my imagination. I can’t take my eyes off of them.

To Dianne the sunflowers symbolize something entirely different–the reality that winter will soon return to the prairie with icy blast and frosty roar. I have not yet experienced a North Dakota winter, so Dianne’s association with these lovely golden flowers is a foreign one to me. Winter seems far away; August means humid, sweltering dog days and languorous summer nights to this Southern girl. A daughter of the prairie, Dianne also sees sunflowers in economic terms, as a crop to be monitored and assessed rather than the subject of a tourist’s photo shoot. Yes, of course she appreciates the sunflower’s beauty, but she “sees” something different, something beyond my field of vision on this bucolic August afternoon.

It is January, 2013, and I am sitting in my home office in Pennsylvania. I have just returned from North Dakota. It was not a pleasure trip, although it is always good to visit friends, breathe the prairie air, and revel in the vastness of the land and sky. This time I went to help lay to rest my dear friend Paula, to assist in honoring her life’s work and faith witness, and to mourn with friends and family her sudden and too-early passing. It is winter. It is cold. There are no sunflowers to cheer the spirit. Only snow and sadness cover the stalk-stubbled prairie fields.

I now “see” too keenly what Dianne sees in the sunflowers. The glorious brightness of the blossom is not the ultimate end. Winter comes with its darkness and desolation. Snow casts a funereal pall across the quiet earth. And winter comes also to our lives, as loss and loneliness cover the naked soil of the soul.

Yet winter will yield to spring, and a fresh crop of sunflowers will push their hardy shoots through the fragrant, freshly-turned prairie soil. Yes, the sunflowers will return again–hopeful, bright, trusting. And riotously joyous, always joyous. As the psalmist reminds us, “weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5).

I’m told that North Dakota farmers are planting fewer and fewer fields of sunflowers. Nationwide; the USDA forecasts a drop of about eighteen percent in sunflower acres planted. It’s a crop that must be shared with birds, and there haven’t been as many price insurance options in recent years. Other crops promise better yield and more favorable return, so naturally there may be fewer fields of flowers. Farming, like life, is rife with risk. The only truly certain thing is the present moment, and each moment is a seed of hope ready to be sown.

I will again plant sunflowers this spring in Pennsylvania. In fact, I will plant more than last year’s few token plants. I want to see an abundance of those sturdy stalks balancing massive flowering heads, heavy with seed and promise. Planting and tending them is an act both of defiant joy and of fond remembrance:  defiant joy from “seeing” them not as a harbinger of winter and desolation but rather of creation’s beauty and God’s abundance, and also as a fond remembrance of my Dakota days and some very dear friends.

Reflect:

What do you “see” when you gaze upon a field of sunflowers? What might you need to “see” differently?

Photos by travelmanitoba, DJ Flickr, Daniel Knecht, hulio82, and one sharp eye. Thanks!

No Time for Fear

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. — Isaiah 12:2

Read: Isaiah 12:2-6

Ponder:

“The overcoming of fear—that is what we are proclaiming here. The Bible, the gospel, Christ, the church, the faith—all are one great battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings. Fear is, somehow or other, the archen­emy itself. It crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides, until their resistance and strength are spent and they suddenly break down. Fear secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others, and when in a time of need that person reaches for those ties and clings to them, they break and the individual sinks back into himself or herself, helpless and despairing, while hell rejoices.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer (from a sermon preached in Berlin, second Sunday after Epiphany, January 15, 1933)

Reflect:

Sandy Hook Elementary School, the Fiscal Cliff, the Mayan Calendar, disease, climate change, war–these words and many others conjure up feelings of fear and anxiety in most folks. Fear and anxiety curve us inward on ourselves and prevent us from experiencing fully the life God desires for us.

Now I’m not suggesting one throw wise, prudent behavior to the wind to follow pure impulse. Not at all. Rather, I believe that we simply cannot let fear corner us into inaction, hate, and avoidance. We can’t afford to turn our homes into little fortresses, ignoring our neighbors and opting out of community.

We serve a creative, relational God who both desires an active and full relationship with us and also intends for us to share such relationships with others. It is all too easy to let natural feelings of fear and anxiety that accompany tragedy to drive us apart and to create a wedge between us and God.

Don’t let that happen. Be defiant in the face of evil and loss. Step into the breach, reaching out to others and sharing the love and hope that is found in Christ. The world needs you, yes you, right now wherever you are. In these dark days, choose to reflect the light.

Thanks-Living:

Today consider writing one or more notes of encouragement and support to the schools in Newtown, Connecticut. Be that candle in the dark by showering a few words of love on those whose lives have been marred by this tragedy.

Newtown Public School District

3 Primrose Street

Newtown, CT 06470

 

Sandy Hook Elementary School

12 Dickinson Drive

Sandy Hook, CT 06482

(Photo by anaeastudio. Thanks!)

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