Alert & On Guard

Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly….Be alert at all times. — Luke 21:34, 36a

Read: Luke 21:25-36 (Yes, this is the same reading as yesterday, but it bears re-reading.)

Ponder:

“Sometimes it seems as though we spend our lives waiting. Daydreaming about an upcoming vacation, worrying over a medical test, preparing for the birth of grandchild-our days are filled with anticipation and anxiety over what the future holds. As Christians, we too spend our lives waiting. But we are waiting for something much bigger than a trip, bigger even than retirement or a wedding: We are waiting for the return of Jesus in glory. Advent heightens this sense of waiting, because it marks not only our anticipation of Jesus’ final coming, but also our remembrance of his arrival into our world more than 2,000 years ago.”  — Anonymous

Reflect:

What lies heavy on your mind and heart today? What worries are you harboring and nurturing? What needs to be let go so that God can infuse your very being with expectation, hope, and joy?

If you find yourself hurrying through this season with too much to do and not enough hours in the day, do something quite counter-intuitive: sit still and do nothing. Simply be. The to-do list will still be there, and maybe some of it will turn out to not be worth doing anyway. Maybe some of it doesn’t even matter in the grand scheme of the cosmos.

Be alert. Be ready. Watch for those “God-sightings” in your home, during your worship and time with friends, and even waiting in the check-out lane at the grocery. An encounter with the Divine might be just around the corner or down the next aisle. Look for God in the ordinary and extraordinary. Trust me…God is already there.

Thanks-living:

Consider calling up a friend to go for coffee or tea. Make a date with your spouse, partner, or significant other. Make special time to spend  one-on-one with your child or children. Write your parents a letter. Attend an extra worship service or Advent event in your community of faith. Find one thing to do that requires your complete presence and attention. Put those to-do lists aside and experience some joy and anticipation.

What I Did:

Last night my spouse and I were invited to have dinner with friends. Sure there is more work to be done in this season than we have hours for, but we gladly accepted their invitation, and what fun we had! Not only did Liz prepare an amazing meal, but we had conversation, laughter, and a rousing game of “Words with Friends” that we’ll savor for days to come. Thank you, Liz and Tom, for giving us the invitation and permission to simply “be” for an evening and enjoy the gift of friends and fun. Truly the love, grace, and spirit of our Lord was with us all.

Photos by paralog and Minette Layne. Thanks!

Signs

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.  — Luke 21:25-26

Read: Luke 21:25-36

Ponder:

“Advent: the time to listen for footsteps – you can’t hear footsteps when you’re running yourself.” — Bill McKibben

Reflect:

A quick glance at global news headlines can be a terrifying thing. Headlines announce war, murder, destruction, natural disaster, hunger, poverty, and abuses of all kinds in a macabre parade of words and images. It’s enough to put one into flight mode–at least metaphorically.

One way some folks cope with this onslaught of devastation is to ignore it by running to other activities, passions, and pleasures. The problems seem so big, so bad, and so complicated that it’s easier to ignore them. Thank about it: after the horror of 9/11 we were encouraged to shop, to get on with life as usual and keep the economic machine running smoothly.

Luke’s gospel tells us something completely different. Instead of fleeing, falling, and fearing, we are to “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (21:28b). We are to look and listen for the footsteps of God’s redemption in our world.

The season of Advent provides the space and opportunity to slow down, give our “running shoes” a rest, and listen in prayer, worship, and daily life for the signs of divine action in the world. The signs are there. They are hopeful. And  they are very, very real! Dear friends, look for these signs of real life abundant and overflowing with mercy, love, and grace. Be still and encounter God.

Thanks-living:

Take a “news fast” today. Avoid encountering news on television, radio, and website. Instead, play some music that inspires you. Take a walk outside if weather permits. Bake some bread or sweets and fill your home with the fragrance of love’s creative action. Share your baked goods with family and friends. Choose an inspiring film to watch–or a comedy if you’re in need of a laugh. Most importantly, light a candle and pray for the wisdom to work for peace and watch for God-signs in the world. Blessings on your day.

Like Dave Brubeck? Remember him this week by listening to “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Check out David Anderson’s article about Brubeck, who died December 5 at the age of 92, here.

Photo by kt Ann. Thanks!

The Open Door

All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. — Psalm 25:10

Read: Psalm 25-6-10

Ponder:

“A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes… and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent. ” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Reflect:

During the frenzied pace of these December days, remember that God’s love for you is steadfast. The Hebrew word in this psalm is chesed, and its meaning is so much deeper than our English translations convey. Chesed is a concept rooted in covenant language, in the understanding that God will not let God’s people go. That is good news for all of us, especially in a the world that seems to chew folks up and spit them out.

We are created to be in relationship with God,and the hole at the center of our being that we so often try to fill with all manner of stuff and nonsense can only be satisfied when we trust and dwell in God’s chesed. The psalmist understands this need, this spiritual thirst that can only be slaked when we align our wills, our hearts, and our actions with God’s intent for us.

It’s a funny thing how we humans lock ourselves in prisons of our own frivolous construction, putting up barriers between the One who loves us beyond measure. Even as we desire God, we push against the bonds of this great love. Even though we build the cell, lock the door, and throw away the key of freedom, we are still dependent upon the mercy and chesed of the LORD.

The season of Advent reminds us that God is coming again to set us free. In the birth of Jesus we recall and experience how intimately we are loved by the Creator. God cares so much about every fiber of our being and each molecule of creation that the WORD put on flesh and lived with us. God comes again to open the door to our hearts.

That’s not the end. The good news doesn’t stop there. God writes on our heart, placing deep within us the teachings and instructions that lead to abundant life. The LORD again and again shatters barriers and breaks down walls.

Don’t let the frenzy of this season lock the doors of your heart and fog the windows of your soul. God’s steadfast love is here to wrap you in love,  mercy, beauty and light–a veritable patchwork of grace. Breathe in. Open your eyes and hold out your hands. God is near. The door is open.

Thanks-Living:

Today take a few minutes to sit quietly and think about anything that threatens to separate you from living fully in the LORD’s chesed. Are you too frazzled, too busy, too stressed to be attentive to your covenant relationship with God? Resolve during this Advent time of preparation to remove one barrier so that the manger of your heart is ready to receive God again at Christmas.

Photo by jgurbisz. Thanks!

Thankful I’ll be Home on Black Friday

Disclaimer: I begrudge no one the experience of shopping on Black Friday. If that’s your thing or your holiday tradition, go for it. To each his or her own.

I, however, won’t be engaging in any retail recreation or therapy on the day after Thanksgiving for several reasons that range from ethics and justice to simplicity and supporting local businesses. I’m thankful to be able to opt out of the consumer hamster wheel and choose a different way to spend the day. Here are my reasons.

1. Because we keep Christmas giving simple, there is no need to rush out and save a few cents (which is generally what it amounts to once the value of my time and fossil fuel is figured in). I don’t take pleasure in shopping, so there is particular incentive to hold this day sacrosanct for consumer activities. I would much rather stay home and read, write, play games, or watch a movie.

2. I find myself resenting the retail world’s ever-increasing competition to be the first, the earliest, and the most sensational. You can now shop Black Friday deals before the day even officially arrives. I find it equally annoying that the Halloween candy was competing for space with Christmas decorations before the little witches and goblins had a chance to don their costumes.

3. It’s pretty tough to balance giving thanks for abundant blessings one day and then obsessing over wants before the sun rises on a new morning. Whatever happened to being content? Or even simply letting your food settle before thinking about what to consume next? We in North America are incredibly blessed. Why not savor those blessings a little longer?

4. When I do shop, I prefer to do so locally, supporting independent businesses whenever possible. I also like to give gifts that are consumable, practical, or revolve around time and experiences. We make our own jellies and other canned goods to give. Other good options are handmade soaps, candles, plants, and wearable art. Best of all are gifts of time: concert passes, a certificate for dinner and a movie, or a coffee shop gift certificate. My favorite gift last year was a $5 stainless steel serving spoon. Hey, it gets used almost every day, and I get to tell the gifter repeatedly how much I like it!

5. Finally, I’m just stubborn enough and of an un-consumer mindset to resent being told what’s a great deal and what I simply can’t live without. Now that we don’t have television we get to opt out of a lot of the warm, snuggly holiday advertisements. Bah! Humbug! (Note: I direct that last Dickens-esque comment only to the commercial consumption machine and its minions–not to any holiday celebration.)

So, what alternatives exist to falling into the Black Friday black hole?

1. Just don’t do it. Plan a day of leftovers, lounging, sports, hunting, or hiking (if the weather allows). Spend time with family and friends. Give your children or grandchildren an entire day of your time. Take a little time to write letters, Skype, or phone the ones you love who live far from home.

2. Gather a group of friends and family members for a crafting day, bake-a-thon, or craft gift exchange. Make gifts together or barter and exchange for handmade gifts to give. You’ll have a blast, save money, and support one another’s artistic endeavors.

3. Declare a do-nothing pampering day. Take a long bubble bath. Eat fair-trade organic chocolate. Drink good fair trade coffee or tea. Stay in your pajamas all day long. Read that book you’ve been putting off. Give your spouse or significant other a massage. Do whatever brings you bliss. Remember that self-care is important, too. Hey, at least you won’t risk being mowed down in the quest for a limited edition Furby or the latest i-whatever!

4. Give of yourself. Volunteer at your local soup kitchen. Host a coat, glove, and hat drive. Collect non-perishables for the local food bank. Be creative and some way to give to others rather than to consume.

If you must shop on this most unholy of retail days, consider these alternatives:

4. Hit up the local Goodwill, Salvation Army, or consignment shops. See what perfectly wonderful treasures you might find for friends and family who support your un-consumer predilections and who find joy in preventing new additions to the consumer stream.

5. Shop locally. Go to your local farmer’s market, boutiques, or art galleries and support your local economy. Pay particular attention to selecting fairly traded, sustainable, and locally made items. Buy consumables if possible. Refuse to set foot in any big box or chain store for at least this one day.

6. If you simply must shop the major consumer retailers, consider carefully planning only what you need to purchase and make those purchases online. My super-bargainista friend Melissa tells me you can get almost anything at Black Friday prices that way. She would know because she is amazing at finding excellent deals. A major part of the reason she shops like this is to give to those in need and support local charities.

Finally, remember that there are very few real bargains. Somebody pays somewhere along the consumer chain. It may be that underpaid factory worker in China, or it may be the planet from the fossil fuel emissions expended to tote said “bargain” halfway around the world. It may be the big box store employee who gets just enough hours to prevent him or her from qualifying for benefits, or it may be you who supports government subsidies for these workers through your taxes. It might even be the person who receives the gift and finds out that corners were cut in the quality of the item to accommodate the supposed bargain price.

When you must consume, do your best to consumer justly, minimally, wisely, and thoughtfully. Make your precious resources count as best you can. Waste not, want not, and love your neighbor as yourself.

What ideas do you have for countering the Black Friday consumption monster?

Photos by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com, KayOne73. glindsay65, bradley j, and Breibeest. Thanks!

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!

A Simple Step Toward Good Health

If you have good health, give thanks! If your health is compromised, don’t despair. Give thanks that you can likely do something to improve it. You don’t need to spend a lot of money, you don’t need expensive equipment, and you don’t even need to join a fitness club.

Dr. Mike Evans believes there is a simple and inexpensive answer to vastly improving health and well-being. Check out his animated health lesson that challenges all of us to give just 30 minutes a day to the one thing that can do the most for our health. The answer is simple: GET MOVING! Just 30 minutes of walking a day–or some similar physical activity–can make a big difference in your overall physical and emotional health, your longevity, and your pocketbook.

Are you willing to trade 30 minutes a day to live longer, have a more positive outlook on life, and avoid chronic health problems such as obesity, arthritis, high blood pressure, depression, and high cholesterol? Look at it this way. Becoming a better steward of your time, talent, and resources begins with taking good care of your body. After all, it’s hard to help others if you aren’t willing to help yourself.

And if you think you’re too old, or too unhealthy, or too busy, well think again. My 84-year-old mother walks almost every day. My cousin’s spouse was extremely overweight, and he started walking, then running, and finally competing in triathlons. He’s lost the excess weight, added years to his life expectancy, and looks fit and healthy. You can do it, too.

If you need a little faith nudge, remember what Paul said about our bodies in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. Even Jesus pointed out in his greatest commandment that loving others begins with loving ourselves (Mark 12:30-31). Faithful discipleship involves faithful self-care.

Research tells us it takes 21 days to create a habit. Why not challenge yourself to creating the daily habit of physical exercise? Better yet, enlist a friend or family member to join you and hold you accountable. You are worth it, my friend. So get out there and take a simple step toward good health and better stewardship of self. Oh, but first watch the video; if you have any doubts, it will surely dispel them.

Here’s to your health and to the stewardship of all aspects of life!

Photo by puuikibeach used under Creative Commons License. Thanks!

Be Real! Be You!

What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet this is often just what we also fear more than anything else . . . . Little by little we come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. — Frederick Buechner

It’s called being vulnerable, transparent, and real. Like Frederick Buechner says, it’s what we really want, to be accepted for who we are. Unfortunately, fear all too often prevents us from embracing our true self–with all of our gifts, talents, failures, achievements, and imperfections.

Western culture and advertising are good at telling us what we don’t have and what we need to make us feel better about ourselves, look more attractive, be more financially secure, attract the person of our dreams, have an amazing body, and be wittier and more appealing. The idea is to cause us to want and to feel like our wants and desires are really our needs.

We are bombarded by somewhere between 500 and 3,000 advertising and marketing messages each day, all of which appeal to our need for acceptance, love, and personal betterment. No wonder we edit ourselves for public viewing! I don’t know about you, but I’m no super model; in fact, my youngest daughter wants to submit me as a candidate for “What Not to Wear.” Now Google and other sites on the Web are tailoring advertising specifically to my searches and browsing history. Oh, brother!

Thankfully, I have reached an age and stage where I really like the real me more than the edited versions of my younger years. What I’ve discovered by trial and error is that most of the time when you accept who you are and start feeling comfortable in your own skin, not only will others be more likely to accept you, but they’ll also feel more comfortable letting you meet their own authentic self.

You, dear friend, were uniquely created, and there is no one exactly like you. You were created for a purpose, you have a reason to exist and much to give to the world. If you haven’t stopped editing your innermost self, please consider doing so now.

Only when you let your real self shine through can you achieve what you are called to do and be who you are designed to be. Drop the masks, quit the posturing, ignore the ads, forget the perfection you will never achieve, and let your beautiful soul shine through.

Live, my friend. Live life in your own wonderful skin. Learn, laugh, love, give, share, and be real. Be you and believe that you are here for a purpose. Don’t settle for anything less than the real you. Give thanks for who you really are.

You are Gold!

Percy Williams of Canada on the shoulders of his teammates after winning a gold medal in the men’s 100 meters race at the VIIIth Summer Olympic Games

We don’t have television anymore, but I’ve been following the Olympic games via the BBC and other online sources. It’s wonderful to see athletes from around the world who have invested everything they have to get to the games and compete for the gold. The faces of the gold medal winners are a sight to behold.

The only problem is that only one person in each event comes home with a gold medal. Somehow the second place silver just doesn’t have the luster in the eyes of the world’s onlookers. The silver and bronze medalists worked hard, too. They gave the competition their all. And what about the athlete who came in last place? Didn’t he or she give it the best effort? Just to earn a spot on an Olympic team is a herculean feat.

Fortunately for us, in God’s economy we are all gold medal material. The Creator of the universe looked at creation and proclaimed all of it good–very good. When the Creator looks at you and me, those divine eyes of love see the very best in each one of us. God sees our potential not our failings. God looks at us with eyes of love because God doesn’t make mistakes or junk.

What you and I may see as broken and damaged in our own lives or the lives of others, God sees as redeemed and reclaimed. We are constantly recycled and re-purposed to be the best we can be. We are works in progress, and we are golden. We are precious in God’s sight.

So, dear friend, you deserve a gold medal from God. You may feel damaged, and the world may have told you that you are “less than” or “not good enough,” but that is not the end of the story. God says otherwise. Isn’t it time we started telling ourselves and others this truth?

Doesn’t the single mother who works as long and hard as any elite athlete to keep her children clothed and fed deserve God’s gold medal? What about the teacher who works long hours in a tough school district for peanuts and precious little praise? Doesn’t he deserve God’s gold? How about that teenager who keeps pressing on despite the taunts and torture of his or her peers? Or the pensioner on a limited income who still finds myriad ways to serve and give?

If we can look at one another the way God sees us, then maybe we can make this world a better place. There are no losers in the divine economy–only gold. Own it, live it, and share it! Now that’s something for which we can all give thanks.

Photo by Library Archives used under Creative Commons License. Thanks!

How to Begin a Thankful Day

You open your eyes to the new day. Maybe you’re still tired from yesterday and didn’t get enough sleep last night. You might be excited for an event or opportunity that will come your way in the next few hours. Perhaps you wish you could pull the covers over your head and avoid another day of drudgery on the job.

Wait! You have a choice. From the moment you first open your eyes you can choose to have a thankful day or an ordinary day. There’s no set formula to ensure a day of thanks-living, but I can offer you some tried and true methods that work for me.

  1. Let the first thought that runs through your head or lands on your lips be a word of thanks that you are alive and have the opportunity to live another day on this earth. A simple “Thank you for life” will do nicely, but feel free to take more time and elaborate on the reasons you are thankful.
  2. Begin your day gently with some stretching or yoga and prayer or meditation. Take time to let your body wake up and feel the thankfulness.
  3. Drink a glass of water. Give thanks that you have ready access to clean, fresh drinking water.
  4. If you enjoy tea or coffee, take the time to savor one cup–if possible with a loved one or friend. Share at least one thing with each other for which you are grateful.
  5. Eat a simple, healthy breakfast. Try some oatmeal and fruit, whole grain bread and cheese, yogurt, eggs, and/or nuts depending on your style of eating. Fueling your body properly is critical. Avoid choking down food while commuting, and resist the urge to fill up with fast but unhealthy food at the drive-thru. Both your body and bank account will thank you.
  6. Plan to tell one person why you are thankful for them today. Of course, you can choose to tell more people what you appreciate about them or their actions. The more you give thanks and express gratitude, the more thankful and gracious you will become.
  7. Choose to look for the good in every person, place, thing, or event. The easiest thing is to look at the inconveniences and problems; remember, however, that every problem presents another opportunity, and every negative has a positive spin if you look hard enough for it.

If you’re breathing and can move, you have much for which to be thankful. If you have food to eat, work to do, and people you love, you are indeed blessed. Count your blessings and start each day with thanks. It makes all the difference.

Photo by Kansas Poetry used under Creative Commons License. Thanks!

Vacation Time

Last week I took a mini-vacation, and it was wonderful. It was supposed to involve a trip to see my spouse’s family, but conflicting work schedules made it necessary for me to stay behind. Because we could not go to New England with the rest of the family, my two girls and I determined that we would take the single day neither one of them was scheduled to work and go to the beach. Yes, that’s right. We got up very early, drove four and a half hours to spend seven hours at the shore, and then drove right back home. It ended up being a fine adventure and gloriously good time.

Our lovely mini trip cost less than a night’s stay in a budget beach motel, and we enjoyed a full day of fun, quality time together, and relaxation (I took a two hour nap and read while they walked the boardwalk). I am so thankful my youngest daughter insisted we take this whirlwind girl trip getaway. Just a few hours of ocean air, salt water, surf, and sun helped melt away accumulated stress.

Maybe it has something to do with the American work ethic, or perhaps it is my Germanic heritage, but whatever the root cause, I have a difficult time taking vacation. I am lucky; I have a job that provides generous paid time off. Not all Americans have that luxury. In fact, about one in four Americans has no paid vacation time or holidays as a  job benefit. Even so, I still have a hard time breaking away.

And yet, God commanded us to take Sabbath time., designating the first day of every week as time to reorient oneself to a right relationship with God, and to take sufficient time to rest and recharge. If God considers Sabbath time so important, why do I have such a difficult time taking the vacation time I am granted? Why are many Americans working themselves into illness and poor health? Why is paid vacation and holiday time a “benefit” offered to the lucky workers and not all working Americans?

In case you think I’m odd, read this article posted on Salon’s website. You might also wish to review this policy brief, entitled “No-vacation nation USA– a comparison of leave and holiday in OECD countries,” by Rebecca Ray and John Schmitt that is referenced in the article. Produced for the European Trade Union Institute for Research, Education and Health and Safety, the report provides a comparison of paid leave and holiday time for 21 wealthy countries (16 European countries, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the United States). After reading the entries for the other countries describing the various governmental policies for how paid leave and vacation time is guaranteed to workers, here is the statement for the United States: “United States law offers no statutory paid leave. The only exceptions are for government contractors and subcontractors covered under the Davis-Bacon Act (18).”

Here’s another telling excerpt from the report’s introduction (p. 2):

In the absence of government standards in the United States, almost one in four workers there has no paid leave and no paid public holidays at all. According to U.S. government survey data, the average worker in the U.S. private sector receives only about nine days of paid leave and about six paid public holidays per year, substantially less than the minimum legal standard set in the rest of world’s rich economies excluding Japan (which guarantees only 10 paid-leave days and requires no paid public holidays).

You can access the entire report here.

We are conditioned to think that vacation and holiday time may lead to lower productivity and sloth, even though credible research says otherwise.  If you do have paid vacation time and holidays as part of your work package, be thankful–and take it. Your body, your mind, your family, and your spirit will thank you.