On Gratitude

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It is more than being thankful as our mothers taught us.  Henri Nouwen says it well: “Gratitude is not a simple emotion or an obvious attitude.” Read the entire quote on today’s Daily Dig from Plough Publishing: http://www.plough.com/en/subscriptions/daily-dig/even/october/daily-dig-for-october-29

I have only begun to appreciate the riches of maintaining a grateful stance.  As Nouwen says, it is a difficult discipline, but it is one of the most rewarding spiritual practices of my life so far.

In a recent class on spirituality, our teacher recommended exploring the practice of gratitude.  I raised my hand eagerly to give a small testimony about the benefits if this discipline.  I was surprised by suddenly tearing up and my voice quivering as I said, “It will change your life.”  At that moment I realized just how much it has transformed me.

If you want to begin this practice, you can start by identifying things and people and events for which you are grateful.  Most days we can find something good, if only to have clean water to drink or a bed to sleep in.  It is a start, and it can be fun.  Challenge yourself to find five gifts every day.

If your first attempts are about obvious pleasures and benefits, that is all right.  You are practicing.  But don’t stop there.

Go deeper.  Look for the ways that hardships are drawing you closer to God.  Give thanks for some good you had in the past but do not enjoy in the present.  Search for the child inside someone who seems only bitter.  Contemplate the engineers and artists and farmers who enabled you to drive a smooth road, sing a favorite song, eat a hearty meal.  Spend time gazing at the cross, opening yourself to all of the gifts that it has to offer you.

After the habit has taken root, you can go deeper still.  Open yourself to whatever God wants to show you.  Trust that goodness will emerge, and you will see it.  As you view the world around you with gift-seeking eyes, there will be moments when you feel a connection with all that is.  These are holy moments, each one a unique, unhurried connection with the Divine.  They are not achieved, only given.

It begins with giving thanks.

You and Francis Give Me Hope

If you love autumn and want to enjoy the loveliness of blazing colors, to settle into the coziness of coming in from the chill of the outdoors, feel content with life, then don’t open your Facebook account.  If your feed is like mine, it is filled with some version of fear, despair, or anger.  All three probably appear in the same post from one friend after another sharing a blog or news article about the presidential candidates.  Face to face conversations carefully refer to the situation as unbelievable.  We don’t agree with people who plan to vote for the other major party nominee, but we do agree on one thing: this is crazy.

Every four years in recent times, the frenzied political rants become shrill and ugly in the last month before the election.  We all agree that it has reached new heights—or depths—this time around.  But something is consistent with other election years: we find hope in one candidate’s platform, but fear catastrophe if the other one is voted into office.

And what we usually find a year or two later is that it is neither as bad (the other side won) nor as great (my choice won) as anticipated.  Sure, we can make a case for great advances or terrible outcomes from each president’s term in office.  But so far, at least we still have the freedom to talk about it, and to vote, and to conduct our lives in relative freedom.

But that is scant reason for hope.  Instead my primary source of hope is in our sovereign God.  Wait, don’t stop reading at this point.  This is more than a sermon about God’s power and faithfulness.  I’d like to pinpoint specific reasons for hope that are functions of my belief in God.

I find hope in the reactions to the political candidates.  Every person who points to Donald Trump’s attitude toward women and immigrants and Muslims, or Hillary Clinton’s actions as Secretary of State regarding emails or Ben Gazi, and says “That’s wrong!” is displaying an ethic that is functioning properly.  Revulsion itself is an indication that we cannot stomach abuse, deceit, or greed.  And we shouldn’t.

That gives me hope.

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Most people I know understand that something is out of whack.  This indicates that the imageo dei in each person is alive and well.  God has implanted the divine within each of us, so that we automatically have a sense of right and wrong.  The question that arises for me, then, is this.  What are we going to do about it?

I admit, that question threatens me with despair.  How can we raise up leaders who will have more integrity?  How can anybody survive the process of getting enough backing and becoming their party’s nominee without being tough and yes, ruthless?  As I looked at the potential candidates before the primaries, I automatically ruled out people whom I would love to see as my president, because they didn’t have the political chops (read: ambition and ruthlessness) to make it to the top of the heap.

Is this all there is? we wonder.

My hope was renewed in an unexpected way a couple of weeks ago.  Somebody reminded me, in a context having nothing to do with politics, that the Roman Catholic church is now headed by Pope Francis.  This man is from a part of the world that might be considered an embarrassment to the conference of cardinals.  (Catholics, please forgive me if I use the wrong nomenclature here!  No offense intended.)  Latin American Catholicism looks different from the version at the Vatican.  And Francis is a Jesuit!  He is not supposed to aspire to fame and leadership.  He is even a controversial figure, having been exiled by a superior for his rigid policies and harshness as a leader.

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I know Pope Francis isn’t perfect.  But he is a servant.  He is indeed a follower of Jesus, humble, open to God, apparently ready to break with the traditions of the church if necessary in the process of manifesting God’s kingdom on earth.  Sounds like Jesus to me. Maybe his exile is exactly what he needed to get to that point.

Though I am an outsider to the Church of Rome, the election of this pope seems like a miracle.

And if that can happen, the United States is not lost.  God cares about us.  And if I read the Scriptures properly, it is when we are broken and despairing that we are ready to go to God for help.  God always responds with hope and healing when we are ready to admit that these are what we need.

We are responding to the political situation with the realization that our country—that we—are broken. And so we are ready to turn to God who will help us see what is right and fair and good for all of us.

Let’s do that.  Let’s pray first, last, and always.  But then let’s be ready to do what God asks each of us to do, individually and together.  Not in a self-righteous, we-have-all-the-answers kind of way.  Not with a chip on our shoulders or expecting opposition at every corner.  Not demanding that “returning to God” has to include school prayer or this policy or that one, or all is lost.  Let’s trust God to show us how to lead with compassion, how to listen to one another without condemning one another.  Let’s teach our children that the way of Jesus is truly the way to a society where every person matters and no one is denied care and respect.

To paraphrase Psalm 121, “I lift up my eyes to the political ads.  Where does my help come from?  It does not come from the best or the worst of our leaders.  My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth.”

 

 

Just as Grandma Would Do

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.”  (2 Timothy 1:5)

 Her name was Cora.  She was a Midwestern preacher’s wife in the early twentieth century.  She raised five children with stern discipline and a strong faith.  Yet she also performed her myriad household duties with a song in her heart and on her lips.  Hymns both expressed her faith and gave her more of it when she needed it.

Transients–called “hobos” back then—had a secret code that marked the property of folks who could be relied on for a handout.  Cora’s house was marked, and the children saw her give out sandwiches, even when her own larder was scant.  They always had enough.

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Hobo Code: “Good for a handout”

Cora’s children grew to have deep faith and generosity themselves.  There were five ministers among her children and in-laws.  The youngest daughter became a nurse, an unusual vocation in a family of clergy, but nevertheless a life of compassionate care for the elderly.  The second oldest was among those who married a preacher, just like her mother.

Her name was Joy.  She was one of Cora’s daughters, and she was also a Midwestern preacher’s wife.  Joy and John talked about serving in foreign missions before they were married.  But then his father was killed in a farming accident, prompting a dishonorable discharge from the army so that John could tend to the matters back home.  There was only one sister, so John and Joy resolved to remain stateside, close to his mother.

Over the next eleven years, six children were born to this couple.  Household chores were easier than they had been for Cora, but it was still a busy life.  John was never paid more than the minimum required by his classis.  But gardening, creativity, and faith kept them afloat and enjoying life.

Joy inherited her mother’s generosity and faith that God would provide in the wake of her servanthood.  In fact, it became her habit in each new situation to find the person most in need of help.  If she couldn’t serve overseas, she knew there were still plenty of people to serve with the love of Christ.  In their last call—a long one, lasting 21 years—she befriended one of the many Laotian families that migrated to Iowa after the Viet Nam war.  The single mother had three young children whom she had courageously escorted away from her home country.

Joy enlisted her daughter to help teach them English.  She helped them understand the many aspects of American life.  The little ones grew to trust and love her, and ended up calling her “Grandma”  for the rest of her life.  I do not know whether she gave them money.  I’m sure there were discussions about that between my parents.

Yes, Joy was my mother, and Cora was my grandmother.  I was the daughter who helped teach Mom’s friends how to speak English.  I can trace the compassionate trait from generation to generation.

After Mom and Dad retired, they moved to a new community.  They hosted exchange students from the college and missionaries from Brazil when they were on furlough.  Mom hosted Child Evangelism Fellowship Bible Clubs for children in their home.

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When she had to move from a duplex to an apartment for the sake of her health, Joy began to befriend the single mothers in her building.  Her pastor told us that once she gave a large check to her church, asking them to use it for the welfare of those families in her building.  He knew she could ill afford the gift, and secretly informed a few members who made sure Mom had enough to live on, offering assistance as needed.

In her last years, Joy made decisions about her housing based on how it would affect her personal mission budget.  We had to coax her into obtaining the best housing for the money, reminding her that she also could receive God’s blessings for her own sake.  Still, she rarely indulged herself by buying new clothes or other “unnecessary” items.  She lived very simply, and gave generously.  I suppose she had lived on a tight budget all her life, and it was not hard to live this way.

Joy passed from time to eternity recently.  She left behind six children who all have faith in Jesus.  She left a legacy of compassion and generosity.  By her example, we, too look for the people who need our help.  I am a member of the Luke Society because of my mother, and her mother.  I suppose I am fulfilling my mother’s dreams when I travel to Africa to support our faithful director.

When my family gathered to reminisce about her, my daughter revealed that the legacy lives on:  “When I struggle whether to help someone, I think to myself, ‘What would Grandma do about this?’  And I usually end up giving just as Grandma would do.”