Maybe It’s Not So Complicated

This is a picture of one of my dogs taken a few days ago during the extraordinary snowstorms that came to the Pacific Northwest. Admittedly, our storms were not comparable to those that have repeatedly hit the eastern portion of the United States in recent years, but for us, with our ill-equipped municipalities and our never-ending hills, the snow accumulations were traumatic.

For some of us.

Then there is my dog. To him, it was the funnest event in his recent memory. You could read it on his face: “Got my ball. Got my snow. This must be heaven.”

Maybe life really could be that simple, if we would only let it be.

           

Gratitude for What Has Been Taken Away

This morning I read a reflection by Henri J.M. Nouwen, the widely read priest and author noted for his work with the poor and disabled. Entitled The Spiritual Work of Gratitude, the reflection ended with this prayer: Lord, cultivate within me a spirit of gratitude for all you’ve given and all you’ve taken away. Blessed be your name, Lord. Amen.

Now, it’s easy to generate gratitude for blessings given, for people and events and things in our lives that we see as positives, but the second part about having a spirit of gratitude for all God has taken away from us – that’s asking for something else entirely. That’s probably why the prayer is for the cultivation of that spirit, because it doesn’t grow within us naturally. Nor is it necessarily natural to consider that important parts of our lives that have slipped away from us might have been “taken away.”

What would it mean to live in gratitude for all that has been taken away from us?

We can be grateful that what was so precious to us was, at least for some period of time, ours. We can be grateful for what we learned from the experience of having that promise/person/position/thing that we loved, and put our focus there rather than on the pain of the loss. We can be grateful for the implied possibility, that if we had it once, we can surely have it again. But beyond that, what would it mean to be grateful for what has been taken away?

If our perception is that the loss was the work of the Lord, the choice of the Lord, and if we at the same time believe that the Lord is good, then we become candidates for grace. Because then we will be living in faith. And faith is always cause for, always leads to, gratitude.

           

Happy Miracle of Hanukkah

It’s December 2nd. Tonight at sundown the Jewish festival of Hanukkah begins.

Historically the celebration is about the dedication of the second Temple at Jerusalem some 2200 years ago. Spiritually it’s about an approach to life that need not be restricted to those of the Jewish faith.

The story is that the Maccabees wanted to put together an eight-day celebration, lighting a candle each day, but when they looked at their supply of oil for the candle, they discovered that they had oil enough to light the candle only once. They could have allowed this perceived insufficiency to stop the entire festival, on the practical grounds of “we simply don’t have what we need for what we want to do.” Instead, they saw in their minds and hearts the eight-day festival they wanted to do, then they went ahead and used the oil they had to light the candle. The miracle was that the next day, when they looked at their supply, holding their vision in mind, there was again enough oil to light the candle. The same miracle happened again the next day, and the day after . . .

You and I have the same connection the Maccabees did to a Power greater than we are, to a Presence that is gracious by nature. The way to welcome the miracle of Hanukkah into your life is to hold a vision in your mind and heart, then take the first step and do what you can do, even though you do not have at the moment everything you will need to complete the entire project. Taking the step you can take opens the way to the step you can’t yet see. May you be blessed this Hanukkah season.

           

The Other Serenity Prayer

My niece recently posted on Facebook something called “The Other Serenity Prayer.” Most of us know by heart the standard Serenity Prayer, which goes: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Anyone who was active in the various support groups that came alive in the 1970s and ’80s knew that standard prayer well, because it was how we ended every “codependency” support meeting in those days.

The Other Serenity Prayer goes like this:  “God, grant me the serenity to stop beating myself up for not doing things perfectly, the courage to forgive myself because I’m working on doing better, and the wisdom to know that you already love me just the way I am.” This version of the prayer is attributed to Unknown.

The Bible gives ample support for the idea that God loves us as we are, because of His plans for our lives. Here are just a few of the hundreds of verses that follow this theme. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” [2 Corinthians 5:17] “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” [Ephesians 2:10] “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.” [John 1:12] “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” [2 Timothy 1:7]

Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life journey, faith can make you whole.

           

The Bluest Skies

My friend Mary reminded me of that old song that includes the line that the bluest skies you’ll ever see are in Seattle. These October days show clearly why someone might have that thought. It is rare for Seattle to have such a string of beautiful, clear, vivid days like we have been having.

In such a stretch as this, it is easy to forget the unending days of rain, the relentless gray that once made Seattle the suicide capital of the nation, and the storms of winter that are escalating in recent years with more ice and snow than the locals (not to mention the thousands of new folks) know quite how to deal with, considering the seven hills on which Seattle was built.

It is easy to give thanks on days like this, when we feel blessed by the warm sun and the gorgeousness of the changing colors of autumn.

But the days will return when we simply have to know that the blue skies are up there somewhere, when we have to have faith that warm days will be with us again, when we will give thanks even though there appears to be less reason to do so. And the reason we will do that is because the Bible is clear:  “… in every situation [no matter what the circumstances] be thankful and continually give thanks to God; for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (AMP).

           

Read It Again

Part of the joy of re-reading a book you loved in the past is getting to notice elements of writing craft that you cannot see the first time through.

For example, in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, there is early-on (Chapter 6) a very short scene in which the main character is being badgered by a reporter. His friend and protector “went through the door low and fast. The momentum of his drive slammed the intruder into a wall…” We as readers are told that this incident is “literally nightmarish” for our lead, but we have no idea why, nor do we know we’ve just had a bit of foreshadowing. That gift awaits us only if we revisit those early pages after reading the whole book.

In our age, many of us find it hard enough to finish a good book the first time through, let alone to tackle a second reading. But the second reading is where we find meanings impossible to see without the repeated exposure.

The same is true of Bible study. So much is there, waiting for us to find it, but we are best served by repeated readings. Our patient study and revisiting of Scripture grant us insights and blessings we rarely are able to see the first time through.

           

Praising and Giving

I’ve been thinking about the connection between praising and giving. There must be a strong, direct connection because congregations all over the nation, if not the planet, routinely close the “giving” portion of the worship service with the Doxology: “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow.”

It seems to me that the relationship might look like a chain of links. The first link would be praise—the starting place of all things good. We praise God, from Whom all blessings flow. Those blessings give us the power, ability, and inclination to be givers ourselves. That’s the second link: us in the role of givers.

The third link is composed of all those individuals, causes, church functions, etc., who are the recipients or beneficiaries of our giving. Every gift has the potential of reaching an ever-widening circle in its impact.

I believe that something mystical happens in the second and third links. That is, the Presence of God is there.

The benefits received in the third link are cause for new praise, the fourth link, as people give thanks for the good that has come into their lives.

Praise is the beginning and end of every circumstance of giving.

 

           

An Answer to Spiritual Darkness

Several months ago, a friend and I read and discussed Jacqueline Winspear’s Pardonable Lies, third in the Maisie Dobbs novel series. Maisie is a survivor of World War I in which she served as a nurse providing aid and relief to the most seriously wounded soldiers in France. Ten years later, she makes her living as a psychologist and investigator. But she is not without her own psychological challenges and areas of spiritual darkness.

When those challenges become disruptive, Maisie is wise enough to take those matters to her spiritual guide, a man named Dr. Basil Khan, who had taught her early-on that “seeing was not necessarily something we did with the eyes; there was a depth of vision to be gained from stillness.”

That practice of stillness gets Maisie through most of what comes to her in her daily life, but there are still times of serious challenge. Khan’s counsel to Maisie is: “. . . when a mountain appears on the journey, we try to go to the left, then to the right; we try to find the easy way to navigate our way back to the easier path. But the mountain is there to be crossed. It is on that pilgrimage, as we climb higher, that we are forced to shed the layers upon layers we have carried for so long. Then we find that our load is lighter and we have come to know something of ourselves in the perilous climb.”

           

How Is Lent Going for You?

We’re now a couple of weeks into Lent, which started with Ash Wednesday, February 14. Did you “give something up”? If you made that commitment, how is it going for you? Maybe you are fasting from a particular food or a certain behavior. Maybe you are keeping a commitment to focus on your spirituality every day. Or maybe you’re beginning to think of other ways you might honor this season.

If you still have a longing to participate in the religious tradition of fasting during this 40-day period before Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, you might consider the following suggestions from Pope Francis:

  • Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
  • Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
  • Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
  • Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
  • Fast from worries and trust in God.
  • Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
  • Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
  • Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.
  • Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
  • Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
  • Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

(source: http://kingscourtparish.ie/2017/02/a-thought-from-pope-francis-for-lent/)

My favorite thing to give up for Lent is resentment. It really does make a difference. God be with you.

           

Keep Your Church Alive

A friend recently lent me a fascinating and reader-friendly book entitled Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom S. Rainer. Without her recommendation, I would never have picked up this book because the title clearly emphasizes churches that die out. She advised focusing on the subtitle, which, of course, is the opposite emphasis—how to prevent the dieout.

This 2014 book, by the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, grew out of a desire to understand why so many churches that were once vibrant congregations have in recent years seriously declined and ultimately closed their doors and sold off their properties.

Whether your church is seeing a decline in its numbers of worshippers as the Sundays go by, or is still in the upswing of its church life cycle, this is a book that offers valuable insight into what keeps a church alive. Even though the choir and music ministers are still working hard and serving up beautiful music, even though the pastor still works hard on his/her sermon each week, there may be shifts occurring that don’t bode well for the future.

Rainer writes: “The decline is in the vibrant ministries that once existed. The decline is in the prayer lives of the members who remain. The decline is in the outward focus of the church. The decline is in the connection with the community. The decline is in the hopes and dreams of those who remain.”

That’s a lot of decline, but the problem is that each shift may be subtle and quite easy to overlook, even when it’s building on previous overlooked changes.

“More than any one item,” writes Rainer, “these dying churches focused on their own needs instead of others. They looked inwardly instead of outwardly. Their highest priorities were the way they’ve always done it, and that which made them the most comfortable.”

Two fundamentals of critical importance are meaningful prayer (both individual and corporate), and actively caring for the surrounding community. No matter whether the church is on the upswing or the downswing, these two fundamentals make all the difference in whether the church is Christ-centered, likely to remain strong, and able to continue long-term to provide a healthy place of worship.