Adventures in Thanks-Living

Living the gift of life one breath at a time

Warning: Gratitude may be Habit-Forming

Tom Hart, CC

You more likely act yourself into feeling than feel yourself into action. –Jerome Bruner

Scientific research now shows that we are born with great capacity for altruism and thankfulness. Sure, we also have the capacity for selfishness, but watch very young children play. More often than not, you will witness giving, sharing, and compassion. Unfortunately, the myriad messages of our consumer culture conspire to rid us of this basic goodness by creating an insatiable desire for more in each one of us.

Kinder bei McDonald's CC

Immense sums of money are spent on market research, advertising, and wooing of children and teenagers, for where this demographic goes, so goes their parents’ money, time, and attention. Is it any accident that more children recognize Ronald McDonald than Jesus Christ? Christians believe that Jesus offers the ultimate “Happy Meal.” We have, however, neglected to point to this powerful truth and to make it as compelling and welcoming to come to our Lord’s meal as a fast food chain does for us to drive by for a paper sack full of cheap plastic and marginally nutritious food. But happy meals and Holy Eucharist are topics for another day; this post aims to explore the connection between actions and habits.

We are oh so carefully taught to desire what we do not have, to dispose of that which is perfectly good but no longer the newest and best, and to covet the possessions of our neighbors. Our possessions begin to possess us in a mad dash for more cash to buy more stuff and fill the holes in our hearts. We become slaves to our own will (Sound like something from corporate confession in the liturgy?) and cannot free ourselves from the rat race that enslaves us.

Here’s the thing: there is another way. This alternative path is not a new idea; in fact, God has been trying to get folks to understand this for thousands of years. Like anything, however, it has to be carefully taught. We cannot assume that children—and adults—are getting the message by osmosis or by spending one hour a couple of times a month in a worship service.

John Hoey, CC

Put simply, if I want to run a marathon, I can’t just buy the shoes and head for the starting line. It takes baby steps. I must spend months in training, conditioning my body and mind to run the race ahead. A great deal of regular practice and commitment precedes the event. The same can be said for playing an instrument, painting a picture, or building a house. The practice and preparation are foundational to success.

Cultivating gratitude and the will to live thankfully every day comes from doing it, practicing it, and reflecting on it. Thanksliving is a countercultural way of being; it exposes the lies of consumerism, materialism, and quite a few other “-isms” that prevent us from living life fully and joyfully. Thanksliving comes from a deliberate and inextricable combination of doing and being. The more one practices small and simple acts of gratitude, the more one becomes a grateful and joyful person. The more gratitude one practices, the more abundance one sees.

Take this as a warning and a challenge: Gratitude may be habit-forming. Try it. In doing so, you will change your life and this world for the better. Go on—commit to one small act of gratitude each day this week, this month, and then for the rest of this year. I am quite certain you will see a difference…and that difference will be you.

Photo Credits: Tom Hart, Kinder bei McDonalds, and John Hoey, Creative Commons. Thanks!

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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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Why Lights, Plumbing, & HVAC are “Sexy”

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Once upon a time, when commiserating with a colleague about how much more difficult it is to raise funds to support the operating budget instead of designated projects, he looked at me with that all-wise, uber-experienced senior advancement professional gaze and said, “Lights, plumbing, HVAC, and salaries just aren’t sexy.”

“Well, duh. Now what am I supposed to do with that nugget of knowledge?” I remember thinking. Whatever in the world is one to do when faced with meeting a budget, a mission plan, or fund-raising goal that includes the basics of maintaining a structure and paying people do do certain tasks? Sure, there are plenty of academic articles, how-to guides, and collective wisdom gathered about this topic, but not a one of them changes the bottom line: People want to give to things that make a real difference.

In most folks’ reality, paying to keep the lights on, the toilets flushing, and the heating or air-conditioning pumping is just not connected to alleviating starvation, educating children, or sharing the gospel with a hurting world. Plus, if you’re a donor who is motivated by naming opportunities, having your little brass plaque on the new handicap-accessible restroom door or on the side of the enormous heat pump doesn’t carry the same cachet as adorning the new library door or funding a memorial garden.

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Many donors also figure that salaries and benefits are not high priorities. Shouldn’t the regular offering or annual budget be sufficient to cover that? Why do we need to pay so much for those line items anyway? If you think about it, it makes some sense. I want to maximize my hard-earned giving dollars, too. I want them to be used responsibly and ethically and for the good of as many people as possible.

Although I still chafe a bit at connecting the notion of charitable giving with the idea of making it “sexy,” I understand what that fundraising professional was trying to get through my youthful idealistic head. You have to tell the story of why something or someone is worthy of support, and you must make a compelling argument for every last penny. Why does X, Y, or Z really matter?

For me, keeping the lights on, the plumbing in working order, and the staff paid a living wage are “sexy” because without a solid foundation the chances of long-term viability are pretty poor. HVAC may be a bit more negotiable depending on your locale, but the principle is the same. If you take care of the basics, you can do a lot more in the long run with your vision and mission. The unsung heroes and heroines in my mind are the folks who hear the stories, comprehend the need, understand the mission, and give where the need is greatest–even if that means their gift provides insurance for a staff member for one month so that he or she can be productive and effective without worry.

Alex Holyoake, cc

This means the bottom line, folks, is that we have to do an excellent job of making our case and telling our stories. Sloppy work, hastily constructed narratives, and sweeping assumptions won’t cut it. A story must be an irresistible one that draws us in. People want to give and make a difference. People are at the core generous; this I believe. It’s just that there are so many competing messages and claims out there, that we who lead and serve in faith-based and non-profit communities and programs have to find a way to stand out above the din of consumer culture and the busyness of daily life.

Tell your story. Tell it clearly and well. Keep it simple. Make sure you really believe in your cause and in why you’re doing what you are doing. And don’t forget to ask for what you need–even if it’s those precious dollars to fund the basics. Ask with expectation and without apology. If you do this well, and you’re on target, the results may surprise you–”sexy” or better yet, just plain good.

Photo: Julian Povey, donorstibet, and Alex Holyoake, Creative Commons. Thanks!

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.

Today…I am Thankful

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“It feels like the world is coming to an end,” my daughter said. “Planes being shot down, going missing, and all the people being killed in Gaza and Israel.”

Yes, it’s easy to look at the madness of humankind and feel like everything is spinning out of control. It’s simpler to play the blame game, pick sides, and declare triumphantly which side is right and which side is wrong. Ignoring the problems is another option that often seems more palatable than emotional and sensory overlaod combined with caring fatigue.

We crave clear delineations and clean lines drawn in the sands of our existence; muddy waters and gray skies are problematic. But life’s not like that. What’s a body to do?

Practice gratitude.

Keep on the sunny side of life. Look at your glass not only as half full but as overflowing with potential and possibility. Find at least one good thing in each day for which to be thankful. Better yet, keep a list and watch it grow.

Here’s my Thursday Thankfulness List:  Today I am thankful for a beautiful, temperate summer day. I am thankful for an amazing group of colleagues with whom to work and serve. I am thankful for my family near and far. I am thankful for the tomatoes and peppers ripening on the vine. I am thankful for the love and company of our pets.

Get the idea? Just start a list and watch it grow. Be thankful in the midst of pain, suffering, and woe. It’s a beautiful act of defiance, and who knows, maybe waves of gratitude can even drown conflict and greed. It’s worth a try, right?

Knock, knock. Who’s There?

GHOURI ! CC

Me. Yep. I’m still here. I’m still grateful. And I’m still enjoying a life filled with adventures in thanksliving. Like a lot of you, sometimes life gets in the way of our best intentions. For me this has been a season of pure busy-ness. Everything has been up in the air–from our calls to our home to our family being spread all over the place. We’re gradually getting life sorted out and put back into some semblance of order, a little bit more each day. But even amidst the craziness, it’s been good, and there have been small moments of grace and gratitude to celebrate every day.

Funny thing is that if you’re constantly on the look for moments of thankfulness and always turning toward generosity, the world presents you with some pretty amazing moments of grace and light. Whether it’s coffee with a good friend, shedding a tear with some faithful Christians  as they gather to close their congregation, gathering with a fine group of women colleagues in ministry, or spending a quiet night with the one I love–each day brings something to appreciate, to savor, and to treasure. Even the painful moments have their little bits of light and beauty when glimpsed through the proper lens.

Today I’m catching my breath. I’m celebrating Sabbath. I’m watching, waiting, observing the moments and treasuring each precious one. In a few hours the busy, crazy week’s schedule will resume. But for now…

…for now there is rest. And it is good. Blessings to you this day. May you experience at least one shining moment to savor.

Photo: GHOURI !, Creative Commons

Hold Lightly–and then LET GO!

Travel Lightly

Have you ever pondered just how little you really need? I have, and the answer never fails to surprise me. I always need less than I really think I do.

This month I’m participating (lurking mostly) in a Facebook group called “The Month of 100 Things 2014.” The idea behind the group is to support one another in the process of removing 100 things (or more) from one’s life, belongings, and possessions. The convener is one Dawn Rundman–teacher, writer, presenter, and senior editor at Augsburg Fortress Publishers, where she develops resources for children. She’s also a musician, spouse, and mother; in other words, she’s one busy woman.

Even the busiest among us can stand to shed some stuff, and most of us can ditch 100 things without batting so much as one eyelash. The problem is that there’s a lot of fear and insecurity in getting rid of possessions. We start to worry and ask questions: What if I need it? What if it’s valuable? What if those hideous trousers really do come back into fashion? Fretting about the questions allows us to avoid coming to terms with the process that’s really a very healthy one.

The key is to “hold lightly” to our possessions, realizing that we really don’t own anything anyway. Everything simply passes through our hands for our use, enjoyment, and (if we’re doing things right) for the betterment of our world. God created all of it, and we get to use it for a time. It’s all about love, grace, stewardship, and faith.

Last time I checked not even the Pharaohs managed to take their belongings with them to the afterlife, but people keep on trying to hang on for dear life to the detritus of life itself. Divorce proceeding become bitter battles over such seemingly insignificant arguments over who gets to keep the Smurf jelly jar glass collection. Really?

So how does one train oneself to hold lightly in a world that proudly proclaims “he or she who dies with the most toys wins”? It takes practice and effort and the power of supportive community.

The joy of learning to hold lightly is that it makes a person more generous. If you’re willing to share your stuff, you’re well on your way to a glad and generous heart. So here’s a project for this week…

Get rid of three things each day. Just three things. That’s only 21 items for the entire week. Either give or toss each item, but preferably give so that someone else may benefit from the use of an item you no longer need or want. If you find you want to do more look up the 100 Things facebook group and ask to join.

I hope you’ll take the time to share this idea and to comment below about your experience. Want a little motivation to get started? Read Matthew 6:25-34. And then…just LET GO! Three things. Seven days. One week. You can do this! We can do this!

Photo: Alice Popkorn, Creative Commons

Just Breathe…and be Generous

The car hemorrhage

Bye, bye transmission!

Some days it can be tough to live with a spirit of generosity. Things happen. Details derail. Complications come up. What’s that old saying about the best laid plans?

It’s when our carefully laid plans or hopes and dreams are sidetracked that generosity becomes even more difficult. We look inward and focus on what’s wrong or what did not go as planned. Ironically, it’s at these frustrating moments in life when a spirit of generosity can be even more important.

Try this: The next time something inconvenient derails your daily plans, take a deep breath and take stock of your situation. Are you safe? Are you alive (well obviously if you’re doing this exercise)? Was anyone hurt? Will the world as you know it end because of what happened?

Most of the time the answer to all of these questions will put you in a frame of mind to be grateful–or at least help you to reflect on the situation more realistically. So your friend had to cancel lunch; maybe the dog could use an extra walk or you could use some quiet time. Maybe locking your keys in the car really isn’t the end of the world. Even not getting that job you thought you wanted so badly might have a silver lining before you realize it.

So how is this being generous? By being generous with yourself and with the situation, you allow yourself to be present in the moment. You open yourself to the possibility of thankfulness. You become aware of options that could have been oh so much worse.

A few weeks ago, my husband’s transmission blew in the driveway. It looked like a scene from “Garage CSI” complete with an undercarriage “bleed-out.” We had just moved to a new neighborhood and started new jobs. Fortunately, my husband caught one of our new neighbors at home who recommended a good garage and an excellent mechanic.

Getting to know this new mechanic has been a real blessing. He’s done an awesome job–both with putting in a good used transmission and with getting the transmission on our other car back in good order, too. Yes, we ended up spending what for us was a LOT of money. Yet as we look back and reflect on the situation we feel incredibly grateful. If this had happened a few months ago we might not have had the income stream to address it so readily. If the car had blown somewhere else, we might never have met this fine mechanic.We are grateful, and feeling grateful inspires us to be more generous in other ways because we recognize the extent of our blessings.

The flow of generous spirit–from my spouse who didn’t allow the situation to unsettle him, to the neighbor who was willing to help, to the mechanic who did amazing work–that same spirit of goodness and blessing keeps rolling on today and helps us to give thanks every day for our lives, for our blessings, and for the ability we have to make a difference for others by paying these blessings forward.

Ready for chemo in 2004 with a pony tail for Locks of Love

Chemo-bound in ’04 with ponytail for Locks of Love

Sure, not every situation can be solved as easily as a Chrysler van transmission, but even a grave illness or major life loss can be an opportunity to experience the amazing flow of generosity that’s part of life when we let it be. I can honestly look back almost a decade ago and say that my experience with breast cancer has left me with a more generous spirit, a more grateful heart, and joys I could have never imagined at the time of diagnosis.

So, dear friends, when life “gets your goat” and threatens to plan a pity party for you, STOP. Just breathe. Allow the spirit of generosity, of being present in the moment, and the joy of being alive wash over you. You, with the help of friends, neighbors, and the Creator of the Universe, can handle anything–somehow, some way. And looking back in that proverbial “rear view mirror” of experience, I can promise the perspective will probably look a whole lot different than it did in the midst of whatever happened. It may not be perfect (it might really stink), but you will find blessings. In turn, you can be generous with others and make this world a much better place.

Blessings on the new week that lies ahead.

Giving Time

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Time is your most precious gift because you only have a set amount of it. You can make more money, but you can’t make more time. When you give someone your time, you are giving them a portion of your life that you’ll never get back. Your time is your life. That is why the greatest gift you can give someone is your time. — Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life

Rick Warren is spot on when he says time is our most precious gift. Money comes and goes (too often it seems to go!), but time is finite and cannot be regained, reinvented, or recaptured. Time is the Creator’s precious gift to us, so how we choose to spend our time also says something about our understanding of this gift with which we have been entrusted.

Remember those Mastercard commercials that illustrated the priceless nature of spending time on relationships? They ended with “For everything else, there’s Mastercard.” Being generous with time is foundational to cultivating and nurturing relationships. The gift of time is critical to keeping a marriage or partnership strong. Time spent with children is love made visible. Time invested in strengthening one’s faith life and spiritual relationships is of eternal importance.

We have no way of knowing how much time we have left to live on this earth–how long this phase of our eternal journey will last. Therefore, steward time wisely. Give it generously. Treat it with the care it deserves. Do with your time what really matters. Don’t squander and fritter it away on frivolous activities.

Here are seven suggestions for how to be generous with your time:

1. Call someone you love who lives in another town or state. Really listen to them. Don’t have an agenda. Don’t set a time limit. Let that person know how much you care even though you can’t be there in person.

2. Devote an entire evening or day to your partner. Put away the work. Take a digital sabbatical. Talk. Laugh. Love.

3. Have a “date night” with your child. Even if you would really rather not go to Chuck-e-Cheese or play yet one more game of hide-and-go-seek do it. Be there. Be fully present. These are the kinds of things your children will remember more than what was under the Christmas tree from Toys-r-Us.

4. Go to worship regularly. Make this a priority for spending your time. Not only are you giving God your best, you are setting an example for others and walking the walk.

5. Invite friends over for a meal. You don’t have to do anything extravagant; just get together. Try a potluck or progressive dinner.

6. Give time to your favorite charity. Work in the soup kitchen or food pantry. Play with the dogs and cats in the animal shelter. Visit the elderly in your local nursing home. Be a Big Brother or Big Sister. Do something for others.

7. Read a book. It’s a vacation for your mind. Reading isn’t your thing? then do something for yourself other than veg out in front of the television. Go for a hike. Ride horse. Plant flowers. Work out at the gym. You matter, too. If you don’t take care of your physical and emotional health, you won’t be much good at giving time to others.

Thanks for taking time to read this post. This is my gift to you. Time is precious. Thanks for spending some of yours with me. Blessings on the journey!

Photo: kojotomoto, Creative Commons

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.

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