There was once a plumber who just finished a very difficult and long day. He lost a few clients, one died, a check bounced, and one of his employees quit and took all the tools that were purchased for him a year earlier. On top of that, a flat tire caused him more stress as did the amount of crazed drivers who thought they were on the Indy 500. One of his co-workers needed a ride home and asked him to please drop him off at his house and he would walk from there. While they were driving, the frustrated plumber just steamed in silence, without saying a word trying to make sense of this very crazy day. When they arrived, he invited his young co-worker to come on in and meet his wife and two children and stay for dinner, if he didn’t have any other plans. As they were walking inside, the plumber casually walked over to a medium-sized tree in the front yard and almost ritually began to wipe his hands on its sprawling, bright-green leaves as if he was removing grease or oil or dirt. As the plumber waled through the door, something remarkable was taking place right before the young man’s eyes, there was an amazing transformation. The plumber began to glow and began to beam as he hugged his children and a long embrace for his wife followed by a loving, tender kiss. After a delightful dinner, the plumber and his young associate walked outside and the they said their good-byes. But before the apprentice got to the sidewalk, he passed that tree and remembered the little ritual that had taken place maybe an hour before. So he asked, “Hey, Sir, as we were coming inside for dinner, I saw you do something with this tree and you changed quite a bit. What was that all about?”
The plumber replied: “Oh yeah, that’s my ‘Problem Tree.’ My job can be pretty stressful like it was today and I know I can’t do much about that but I also know that I shouldn’t bring any of those problems back home with me. So, at the end of every day, I pass by my ‘Problem Tree’ and wipe my heart clean and hang all my problems out for the night and pick ’em up again in the morning!”
“Well, Sir,” asked the young man, “does it work?”
The plumber replied, “You know it’s kind of strange. In the morning when I leave for work, I pass by my ‘Problem Tree’ to pick up those worries and stress monsters, and you know, on some mornings, it seems as if there aren’t as many as there were before. I guess they just crawled away during the night, or maybe someone came by and just picked them off!”
On his way home, that young man touched every single tree branch he passed. I wonder what happened the next day or whatever happened to him. Is that you?
“There are far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” (C.S.Lewis)
It was many years ago, but it seemed as if it all transpired last week. Her funeral was scheduled for the last day of May and by that morning he had nothing left emotionally. The last bit of energy behind the forces to smile, to relieve and comfort members of his family and his mom’s closest friends had basically evaporated. He couldn’t even drive to her funeral; thank God for his 17-year old daughter acting as the chauffeur, who perhaps should have relied on Google Maps instead of her childhood memories of the streets.
To add to the pressure and the crushing loss of one’s own mother, there was literally a stack of regulations and prerequisites that he had to follow word-for-word, letter-by-letter. He was supposed to deliver a simple eulogy, but it seemed as if he was opening a liquor store next to a hospital! Needless to say, and for many reasons too many to mention here, he had to watch everything he did and say to make sure no one was ruffled or peeved. The clock was literally ticking. He was alone with the priest in the sacristy, pacing, over-thinking and worrying about how it would all turn out. He was waiting, wondering and, yes even apprehensive about who might be taking notes, preparing a scathing report for the press and if there would be any body at his mother’s funeral at all. Since the restrictions also applied to her obituary, he wasn’t totally sure who knew about her funeral, much less that she had even died.
Minutes before the funeral was to begin, his 30-year old son just in from the airport, walked into the sacristy as if he belonged there, which in many ways he did. Standing tall like the man he was, this son whom he helped mold into a man, turned to his father with a message. Although his words were inquisitive and casual, asking about the funeral director, where should the pallbearers be, what happens next, etc., his eyes communicated something much more. The mourning dad felt a slight grin dawning on his face knowing that the somewhat lengthy explanation of his son’s appearance was his own way of getting to his beloved father in order to stand next to him during one of the most difficult moments of his life. Before he left, he leaned over and whispered, “You’re going to do great. The Church is packed! I love you.” And humbly with all the meekness that anyone could muster, let us say that he was right, it was great and healing and wonderful.
Later that night, when all had quieted down and that proud but sad father was preparing for sleep, as all the events, sounds, smells and faces of that day, as that of a painting, that was that day began to replay in his mind, it hit him; today had been the Feast of the Visitation. It was when Mary, with child, visited her cousin Elizabeth, also with child, to share with her the great news of the birth of Jesus Christ and to stay with her to comfort her to prepare her for a life that was about to change dramatically for both of them. Well, that day, he had his own visitation. And it did prepare, and it did comfort, and it did heal. He prayed to Jesus that he would never forget that visit. He still hasn’t and I doubt he ever will.
“Human stories are practically about one thing, really, aren’t they? Death. The inevitability of death . . . There is no such thing as a natural death. Nothing that very happens to man is natural, since his presence calls the whole world into question.” ~J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.
The story I am about to share with you is actually the work of a short fiction story written back in 1964 by Roy Popkin. It was first published in 1965 in the Reader’s Digest and has been reproduced in many forms and titles and languages for the last 50 years. Even though the specifics of the original story and the actual events that led to its inspiration may never truly be known, I personally know of more than a handful of people who have worked and ministered in hospital settings that recognize the substance and the real meaning behind what we are about to enter.
So I Stayed
“A nurse took the tired, anxious serviceman to the bedside. ‘Your son is here,’ she said to the old man. She had to repeat the words several times before the patient’s eyes opened. Heavily sedated because of the pain of his heart attack, he dimly saw the young uniformed Marine standing outside the oxygen tent. He reached out his hand. The Marine wrapped his toughened fingers around the old man’s limp ones, squeezing a message of love and encouragement.
“The nurse brought a chair so that the Marine could sit beside the bed. All through the night the young Marine sat there in the poorly lighted ward, holding the old man’s hand and offering him words of love and strength. Occasionally, the nurse suggested that the Marine move away and rest awhile. He refused. Whenever the nurse came into the ward, the Marine was oblivious of her and of the night noises of the hospital – the clanking of the oxygen tank, the laughter of the night staff members exchanging greetings, the cries and moans of the other patients. Now and then she heard him say a few gentle words. The dying man said nothing, only held tightly to his son all through the night.
“Along towards dawn, the old man died. The Marine released the now lifeless hand he had been holding and went to tell the nurse. While she did what she had to do, he waited. Finally, she returned. She started to offer words of sympathy, but the Marine interrupted her. ‘Who was that man?’ he asked. The nurse was startled, ‘He was your father,’ she answered. ‘No, he wasn’t,’ the Marine replied. ‘I never saw him before in my life.’
“‘Then why didn’t you say something when I took you to him?’
“‘I knew right away there had been a mistake, but I also knew he needed his son, and his son just wasn’t here. When I realized that he was too sick to tell whether or not I was his son, knowing how much he needed me, I stayed. I came here tonight to find a Mr. William Grey. His son was killed in Iraq today, and I was sent to inform him. What was this gentleman’s name?’ The nurse with tears in her eyes answered, ‘Mr. William Grey…'”
This story, though a work of fiction, has a very real message. God can use what we see as “mistakes” to put us where we need to be. So the next time it seems like things are going wrong, pause and take a good look around. Look for the opportunity that God has put in front of you to impact someone’s life.
Do you realize that you are placed on this earth for a specific reason and purpose? Every day becomes an opportunity to strive and realize that reality, especially when things look dark and bleak. If I have a purpose in life, and I do, then that which is happening around me today is either a part of that reality and movement and I should stay focused, or it is keeping me from my purpose and direction and therefore I should move on.
The most unhappy people in the world have made it their life’s mission to make as many people around them as miserable as they are with every ounce of strength they can muster. Surely, this can’t be news to you. Remember, only wounded people wound people. Your best stories will come from your struggles. The seeds of your successes are in your failures. Your praises will be birthed from your pains. Keep standing. Seasons change. I have never seen a storm that lasts forever.
Let’s hear from Mark Twain before we go. “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
I ask God to help each and every one of us continue to uncover and discover our purpose in this great adventure we call life. Remember,
you just may be the difference between life and death for someone today, or tomorrow.
When I was a little boy, I had some serious allergies. At first, I didn’t understand why crazy things were happening to me like swellings or wild itching or even rashes that covered my entire body when I ate a particular food or got near a certain fabric or even when one year my father brought home a live Christmas tree. That’s when my parents purchased what was probably the first aluminum, do it yourself, allergy-free Christmas tree. You know, I really liked that one! Later I was told that I should probably stay away from bees and wasps, which, by the way, always seemed to gravitate toward me. I was never afraid of the dark -or spiders -or even snakes, but I did develop a serious respect for those winged fiends especially after one afternoon when one stung me close to my neck and they had to pack me in ice. They tell me that I was laughing throughout the ordeal but it wasn’t funny, notably after my parents told me that I almost died. Among the other allergens they discovered was dog hair which obviously meant that I couldn’t have a canine pet like so many of my friends. I tried fish but, well, that’s another story for another time. Again, for some reason, dogs used to follow me around in the neighborhood and loved to jump in my lap and there I went, sneezing and wheezing all over again. “Oh, well,” I thought, “maybe I should ask for a ‘Pet Rock’?” Remember those? Trust me, not the same.
After high school and the somewhat turbulent and restless teenage seasons, I went off to college and graduate school. It was then, years later, studying in a different country, in a different world with all kinds of exciting cultural experiences, including foods, I realized something wonderful had happened. No more allergies! I must have outgrown them, or something like that. Well, I finally got a dog. It was great. And throughout the years, like many of you, I have had several. But of all the companions that God blessed me in His goodness to me, were two beautiful, hilarious, mischievous and loving Labradors. To say that they were spoiled would be a feat of remarkable restraint. I took them everywhere I could, going on daily long walks, fashioning special sleeping blankets, foods, and of course my family and friends loved them, too.
One very hot summer afternoon, it was that time of the year to take them in to the Vet’s. Although they never liked that place, I always made it worth their while, knowing full-well that one day, it would be a sad visit. But nevertheless, we made an adventure out of it. On the way back, I had to stop for gas and pulled up to a station near my home. This was back in the day when you had to go inside to pay before the attendants would even release the pumps. Right away, I noticed what I surmised was a homeless man with a dog. I remember that it was a brown and white, medium-sized spaniel. Of course I stopped. And even to this day, I am glad I did. That man asked me if I could get him some food from inside the little station market. After explaining that although I did not have any cash on me, I would be glad to place any items on my credit card with which I was paying for the gas. “I’ll be right back,” I said. But he sunk his head, looked at his little companion and continued, “Do you think you can get something for my buddy, here? He hasn’t had anything for a couple of days.” My heart melted. “Sure! Let me see what they’ve got in there.” I remember buying the man a couple of hot dogs that would at least be some hot food, and some other things that could last a few days. When I went looking for any dog food, which many places like that actually carry, they were all out. But they did have cat food, which to me seemed to be at least as nutritious for the dog, so I picked up a few packages or cans of that. After paying for everything and writing down the address of where I knew there was a food kitchen downtown, I went outside. That man ate his food so fast that I thought he might choke. As he washed it down with some cold milk, I can picture in my mind how some of it just spilled over onto his neck and chest as if he just couldn’t put it down fast enough. His dog practically did the same thing. There was nothing left of the cat food as his little creature just cleaned out every atom and particle that was there. The man said thank you, his little buddy extended his paw and we said our good-byes.
I returned to my vehicle with my ‘king and queen,’ and watched the man and his buddy walk off, worrying for the safety of the animal with no leash and fearing the inevitable. And I just waited until I could see them no more. For some reason, I just started to tear up, both of my companions becoming unusually quiet. I called out to God: “Lord, it’s not fair. These two labs have everything including a home, lots of friends and a great life. Who knows what will happen to that man and his dog. It’s just not fair…” And then, something wonderful happened. I believed I could hear the Lord speak to me. It was a calm but strong voice that made perfect sense: “Your dogs are blessed because they have you … just like you are blessed because you have Me.” I don’t have any dogs today and maybe and hopefully that will change sometime in the future. But I never forgot my Labs or the way God used them to bring a remarkable amount of joy to my heart. In fact, I’m smiling right now as I’m writing this. I’ll never forget that hot, balmy afternoon in front of the gas station when the Lord got my attention and let me know how much I mean to Him. I pray I never forget.
People don’t change. Their priorities do. I had a very good friend, let’s call him, Michael. He was an outstanding chiropractor, a great father and husband, remarkable son and brother, and a deep believer in Christ; also a highly-respected fifth-degree black-belt. To say the least, he was an amazing man.
I realize I have been using the past tense in speaking about Michael and there is a reason for that. About ten years ago, with little warning, he suffered a massive heart attack as he slept on his couch after watching late night news. It was his birthday. Hundreds gathered for the funeral, which was a mixture of deep hope and yet an unspoken sadness that defied words. The night before the burial, a beautiful wake was conducted by Michael’s brother who is a priest. His words were perfect and soothing, the piano music enchanting and comforting. After the Scripture readings and the priest’s reflection, there was an open invitation for anyone to come forward and render testimony about Michael and his impact upon their lives. As you can imagine, there were many who did just that. One after the other offered beautiful accounts describing encounters they had experienced with the deceased. But one man, in particular, stood out among the many. His story I don’t think I will ever forget.
He seemed to be in his late 40s, sad for the occasion but clearly a man who had been through quite a lot in his life. As he walked up to the altar to the pulpit to speak, I saw how he passed Michael’s coffin and with a gesture of pure faith, whispered something to him and with a simple, peaceful smile on his face, began to speak. He told us about a very dark time in his life when, because of his demons and addictions, had lost everything and was on the verge of taking his own life in a lonely hotel room. He had just finished writing his epitaph and letter of remorse to anyone who might find it later. It would have been a cruel end to a lost life had it not been for that one phone call. He let the phone buzz away, then stop, then there he was again, calling. It was Michael. “Hey, man!” he told us was his opening line. “We’re having a karate competition over here, and, I haven’t seen you for a while, so why don’t you just get over here? We can go out afterwards for waffles at the Pancake House. I’m starving!” Needless to say, his plans to cut short his life were thwarted by the friendly insistence of his karate-brother, Michael. He made it down to the competition, ran into many old friends who expressed concern for him since he seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth, and cheered and laughed and felt “alive” again. Later, as promised, the two went out to eat. While they waited for their order, he would go on to explain to Michael that his phone-call literally saved his life, that he had reached the end of his rope and just couldn’t go on any more. “I don’t know how to ever repay you for this, Michael.”
True to form, Michael surprised the lights out of him. “Show me your wallet” he asked. The man at the pulpit that evening truly had us all enthralled about where he could be going with all this. Michael took the man’s wallet, opened it up, and from one of the folds there, pulled out three items: a credit card, a holy card with the image of St. Michael the Archangel, and a picture of his family, in that specific order. “Here’s your problem, Buddy! Your Priorities. You got them all turned around. Here, let me show you.” And with that, Michael re-shuffled the man’s wallet, placing the holy card first, then the family photo, then the credit card and said, “See, you put God first, then your family, then money; after that, things should start looking up.” And they did.
If it is important to you, you will find a way. If not, you will find an excuse. “It’s not so much how busy you are, but why you are busy. The bee is praised. The mosquito is swatted.” ~Mary O’Connor
“Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it.” ~Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor (161-180 AD)
“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”(Luke 12:34)
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33)
Alone without a tree and nothing to open Christmas morning. Now, don’t get me wrong here, this is not your very own personal invitation to my New Year’s Pity Party. Hardly. I am the most blessed man I know, and I mean that sincerely. People who know me often tell me that I am the strongest, most patient and courageous person they know, and believe me, that’s nice. While I strive to live up to that daily, some days and years are better than others; which brings me to this past Christmas.
Sometime after Thanksgiving, I could tell it was going to be a struggle. The last 18 months or so had been delivering slow growing pressures seemingly from every direction. There was disappointing news at least every month, issues with no apparent resolution in sight and just a mounting challenge to get up every morning to face the same thing, all over again and again. I decided to spend the weeks before Christmas to move out of myself and find all the opportunities to give and share and be joyful with others, no matter where I would find them; especially those who clearly had a much harder time with life than I was having, and even leave carrots and celery for this little wild rabbit visiting my backyard patio from time to time. And you know, it all worked. The height of all this reached Christmas Eve where I spent awesome quality time with family and dear old friends practically all day culminating with Christmas Eve Mass followed by a sumptuous dinner. What a blessing! I went to bed like a 5-year old child, full and happy with a large grin on my face. It was good.
Then came Christmas Day morning. Uh oh! I wasn’t ready for it, and can’t explain why. Because of space and other things, I decided not to have a tree but still decorated festively, not certainly not sparing filling nearly every empty corner or shelf space available. Thus, waking up to go straight to the Christmas tree did not happen. And although there were a handful of cards, email messages and texts, and some nice bottles of wine, this was the first year where there was nothing to open on Christmas morning. Before allowing myself to wallow in self-pity, I quickly returned as many emails, text messages and phone calls as I could and by noon it was time to deliver a couple of turkey dinners to home-bound people, then get back in time to prepare a luscious Christmas dinner for a couple of good friends. I went to bed exhausted.
For the next couple of days, every time I walked back into my home after a full day at work, I caught myself thinking about this past Christmas and how silly and selfish it was for me to frame the experience in terms of the absence of a tree and brightly wrapped gifts. I kept trying to think of all those who certainly had much less than I do. I wanted to remember those in hospitals and prisons. I continued to recall the great outreach and memories that had been made. But, I’m sorry to report, there was still that nagging and irritating emptiness that was simply not going away. I begged Jesus to help me and then resigned to simply accept all this as part of life and then, as soon as possible, to start packing away the decorations and try to move forward. I am good at that I thought. On the fourth day of Christmas, it all finally made sense; it was about five in the morning and I was wide awake; tried to go back to sleep but it was futile. There were a number of powerful dreams that made for a bit of interesting interpretations and a lot on my plate for the upcoming day so I decided to make a fresh cup of coffee and sit outside and drink it with Jesus and watch the sunrise. The first thing I noticed was that my little rabbit didn’t make it to the porch for his carrot and celery salad and hoped that he was still alive somewhere. It was then that I saw something moving by the only tree in my back yard. It was that silly rabbit, caught in between some plastic netting and the fence unable to break free. While I carefully walked over on this rescue mission, I knew I could very well scare it to death so I knew I had to be quick. Taking some kitchen shears from inside, it was a simple maneuver to snip the upper part of the plastic cords with one clean cut—which worked and the little guy took off, well, like a jackrabbit!
Merry Christmas, Bugs! I called out. Freedom for Christmas, what a gift! It was then, in the last few moments of darkness as the sun began to peak over the horizon, that I could see in my mind’s eye, the little Baby Jesus opening his arms to me. It was as if He was saying to me “this is what you open on Christmas, not paper wrapped boxes.” So you see, there was a Christmas tree for me this Christmas and there was a gift for me to open. It just took me some time to find them.
When was the last time you looked in the mirror? What did you see? Did you see how much the Father has loved us? The Good News is that “His love is so great that we are called God’s children — and so, in fact, we are.” (GNT 1 John 3:1)
Beloved child, as a Christian, you are no stranger to God. Though you may sometimes feel alone, you are not. Take comfort in the promise that God is everywhere, that He keeps watch over you and that He is always ready to listen when you want to talk with him. It doesn’t matter how young or old you are, you are still a beloved child of the Almighty creator. And the privileges don’t stop there. Having been adopted into the family, you have the same rights as Jesus. “My dear friends, we are now God’s children, but it is not yet clear what we shall become. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he really is. Everyone who has this hope in Christ keeps himself pure, just as Christ is pure. Let no one deceive you, my children! Whoever does what is right is righteous, just as Christ is righteous.” (GNT 1 John 3:2,3,7)
You are special to God and have been given words of encouragement to help you through your daily challenges. Here are a few of those words. (1) Count your blessings, name them one by one. (2) Spread your gift of love for all have been given the love of God. (3) Lift your heart and mind to your Heavenly Father and He will sustain you. (4) Be not discouraged, for Jesus, your brother has redeemed you by His blood. (5) Be true to God and to yourself.
David the King and Psalmist prayed, “I call to you, Lord; help me now! Listen to me when I call to you. Receive my prayer as incense, my uplifted hands as an evening sacrifice. I keep trusting in you, my Sovereign Lord. I seek your protection; don’t let me die!” (GNT Psalm 141:1-2,8)
There is a true story of a little boy whose sister needed a blood transfusion. The Doctor explained that she had the same disease the boy had recovered from two years earlier. Her only chance of recovery was a transfusion from someone who had previously conquered the disease. Since the two children had the same rare blood type, the boy was ideal donor.
“Would you give your blood to Mary?” the doctor asked.
Johnny hesitated. His lower lip started to tremble. Then he smiled and said, “Sure, for my sister.”
Soon the two children were wheeled into the hospital room. Mary, pale and thin, Johnny, robust and healthy. Neither spoke, but when their eyes met, Johnny grinned.
As the nurse inserted the needle into his arm, Johnny’s smile faded. He watched the blood flow through the tube.
With the ordeal almost over, Johnny’s voice, slightly shaky, broke the silence.
“Doctor, when do I die?”
Only then did the doctor realize why Johnny had hesitated, why his lip had trembled when he agreed to donate his blood. He thought that he had to give ALL his blood to his sister thus giving up his life. But in that very brief moment, he had made the one great decision that would forever change his life.
One day, a young father wanted his son to understand the true impact of making right choices, of obeying and doing what’s right. His idea was unique: every time his son made a bad choice or a wrong decision, he gave him a hammer and one gray nail to go out to their backyard and pound it into the wooden fence. At first, it seemed like a game for the youngster, as he was excited in a playful way to have to go out and nail these objects into the fence. It was fun, of course, until he had to go out when it was raining or cold or in the darkness of the night. But still, it continued. Every time the little boy got in trouble, talked back to either of his parents, or caused a disappointing note to accompany him from his teachers, there he went out to the back. However, every time he made a solid, great decision, making his parents and himself proud of his accomplishments, he was instructed to go out to the fence and carefully remove any one of those nails.
This family ritual continued until the boy was now a strapping, handsome young man all of 21 ready for the world and a bright future ahead. By this time, it had been months even years since he ever went outside to either pound or extract any more nails in the back fence. The night before he was to leave for a new life in another city far away, his father called him outside late one afternoon as the sun began to set. His young man of a son knew what was coming as he saw a few tears begin to drop from his dad’s face. There were no more nails in the fence. They both idly stared at the fence from left to right with powerful memories flooding both of their souls as the light of the sun began to escape.
“Son,” the father continued, “You’ve done well. I am ready to let you go forward. But just look at all the holes in our fence. It will never be the same. When you choose a wrong path, speak a hateful word, give in to a selfish act that hurts another, or violate trust that has been faithfully placed in you, they leave a scar just like these holes. You will find forgiveness, but please think before you act knowing that there will always be consequences.” “If you can remember this moment and this fence, I can rest assured that I’ve done all I could to raise you as good a man as possible.” Now the sun had set and only the light of the back porch and a pale soft glow from a full moon gently bathed the two men and an old fence. Time seemed to stand still. No words were needed.
William Arthur Ward (1921-1994) was an American writer and one of this country’s most quoted inspirational writers with more than 100 articles, poems and meditations written and published in such magazines as the Reader’s Digest. He once wrote a piece based on a Chinese proverb that said, “If you keep a green limb in your heart, the singing bird will come.” The obvious application that he was asserting is that there are certain pre-set attitudes (limbs, branches) in one’s heart that are conducive to a happy life and outlook. Let’s take a look at his idea of these spiritual tree branches that can invite goodness and peace into our earthly existence.
Enthusiasm is not only contagious, it is attractive. Where there is enthusiasm there is always excitement and where there is positive excitement, there is more joy in the job, sparkle in the eye and more zest in living. “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson) You and I can practice enthusiasm by being excited about life, doing things wholeheartedly, being inspired by simple things, putting love and joy into what we do, smiling and laughing and having a great sense of humor, and having a positive spirit. As the great Vince Lombardi stated, “If you aren’t fired-up with enthusiasm, you will be fired with enthusiasm.”
Kindness is actually putting the words of Jesus into action when He said, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31) Others have defined it as a behavior marked by principled characteristics, a pleasant frame of mind, and concern for others. It is known as a virtue, and highly esteemed as a value in many cultures and religions. Mark Twain perhaps said it most appropriately when he wrote, “Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
Generosity has been defined by some dictionaries as sounding very close to our previous selection with some nuance: the quality of being kind, understanding, and not selfish: the quality of being generous; especially with a willingness to give money and other valuable things to others. The famous artist, Pablo Picasso, had a very interesting take on the matter when he said that “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” The word has its origins from a deep root meaning, “excellence” which could explain why being generous truly catapults a dreary, selfish existence to something wonderful. The word’s opposites also speak volumes, as in stingy and petty. Makes you wonder what they’re going to write on our gravestones, doesn’t it?
Humor: It has been said that if we learn to laugh at ourselves we will always be amused. Do you think that’s accurate? There has got to be something remarkably healthy about being able to laugh at our own silly mistakes, foibles and other wise human fumbles. I think a good sense of humor can help us look at the world more realistically, improve our relationships and help us resist from taking ourselves too seriously. William Ward had this to say: “A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps, as you walk the tightrope of life,” while one of my heroes, Groucho Marx, was attributed with this gem: “I never forget a face but in your case I’ll be glad to make an exception.”
Gratitude is simply a disposition of always giving thanks, for everything and anything. When you and I are thankful for our lives, good days and bad days, for our talents and for all the people around us, our lives literally “sing with joy.” When we decide to begin and end our day with the decision that we are going to thank God and those around us, several awesome things happen: 1. We live in the present moment, 2. we block toxic and negative emotions, 3. we are better able to counteract the effects of stress, and 4. we experience a kind of solidarity (connected-ness) with others and a healthy dose of self-compassion, that is, the ability to love ourselves as God does. I think that is why some have called gratitude the “miracle disposition.”
If you can dream it, you can achieve it. The incredibly imaginative EPCOT Center in Orlando, Florida opened some 16 years after its principle architect and dreamer, Walt Disney died. It had been a concept still in development by the masterful Disney who envisioned it to be a “real city that would never cease to be a blueprint of the future.” Even though there were many who said that, first, they didn’t understand what he was talking about, and second, there was no way they could put all that together in one place, Walt never lost sight of his vision. You see, nuts-and-bolts procedures didn’t faze him. He was a student of the philosophy of beauty, cutting-edge technology and entrepreneurial enterprise. He was a man who had the mind of an architect and the soul of a time-traveller. Whatever idea or conceptual rendering he couldn’t crack open himself, he immediately flung over to his elite “Imagineers” (Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development, Inc.). “Walt Disney had one foot in the past, because he loved nostalgia, and one foot in the future, because he loved new technology,” said Marty Sklar, who joined Disney’s marketing and publicity team in the 1950s. Several sources have documented an incident that reportedly occurred at the Grand Opening of EPCOT Center on Friday, October 1 in 1982. Apparently, one of the speakers of that day lamented, if just for a short time in these or similar words, that “It is a shame that Walt Disney didn’t live long enough to see this day and this magnificent place!” However poignant and meaningful that phrase may have been, the next speaker rose to the podium and the occasion and countered brilliantly with, “He did see it, that’s why it’s here!”
“The most worth-while thing is to try to put happiness into the lives of others.” -Robert Baden-Powell
A man built a prosperous business through much hard work and was certainly an honest man. As he got older, he began to be concerned about the future of his business mainly because he had no children of his own, no close relatives, but in fact three distant cousins who were actually in charge of different parts of the business. After much prayer and consideration, he decided to all a meeting with all of them. He told them he had a problem and needed a solution. He also took a huge gamble. They nervously gathered in his spacious office, a little intimidated but mostly curious. After they sat, down exchanged polite pleasantries and finished their cups of coffee, the wise man stated that, “There is a problem that I have and I want you to find the solution. The one who indeed brings me the best remedy will be the next CEO of this great company.” Then, very unceremoniously, he handed each of those young men an envelope with the exact some of money, $2000 to be exact. They continued to be baffled, scratching their heads and looking sheepishly at one another. And then the challenge was put forth. “I want you to find something that will fill this spacious office of mine; spend no more or less than what you have been given and be back here in my office no later than sunset. Now go!”
It was certainly a long day for each of the three prospective future CEOs. They all went their separate ways trying with all their might and intellectual acumen to fulfill this lofty challenge. On the one hand, it seemed such an easy task to accomplish, and yet, on the other, overwhelmingly puzzling given the magnitude of the reward offered. Finally, the hour arrived and all three returned to the high and lofty office of the company. There the wise old man sat, behind his desk, scribbling aimless words on the leather-clad pad in front of him. Each made their presentation. The first man brought in four to five huge sacks of packing peanuts and packing filler that almost in fact filled the large office when they were opened and spread across the marble floor. They were removed to make room for the next attempt. The second man brought in literally hundreds of helium-filled balloons which he immediately released into the large office. And, once again, they nearly filled the entire space assigned. Then, after all the balloons were whisked away along with several dozen packing peanuts still left a strewn, the third candidate stood silent and seemingly upset. The silence became awkward and nervousness crept into that space.
“So, what do you have to say for yourself?” the boss called out. This outstanding young man carefully moved to turn out all the lights in the office and then said, “Sir, I did the best I could possibly achieve, but as I went searching throughout this big city I ran into a family whose house burned down last night and gave them half of what you gave me. Then there was a school with not enough funds to keep the cafeteria open and functioning so, I gave them the majority of the other half and with the little bit I had left, I purchased this candle and matches.”
Then he lit the candle and the soft shining light filled every corner of the office. The wise entrepreneur with the experience of many decades rose from his desk, recognized immediately the wisdom of this third applicant and welcomed him as the new CEO of a great and long-lasting company.
“I believe that God put us in this jolly world to be happy and enjoy life. Happiness doesn’t come from being rich, nor merely from being successful in your career, nor by self-indulgence. One step towards happiness is to make yourself healthy and strong while you are a boy, so that you can be useful and so can enjoy life when you are a man. Nature study will show you how full of beautiful and wonderful things God has made the world for you to enjoy. Be contented with what you have got and make the best of it. Look on the bright side of things instead of the gloomy one. But the real way to get happiness is by giving out happiness to other people. Try and leave this world a little better than you found it and when your turn comes to die, you can die happy in feeling that at any rate you have not wasted your time but have done your best.” -Robert Baden-Powell
I can still remember an outstandingly moving story that I heard at a retreat that made so much sense to me at the time that I allowed it to make an impact on my life so I would not forget it.
The story took place in a small, rural town somewhere in the Midwest. There was a horrible house fire and all the members of the family escaped with their lives, but just barely. The ten-year old son was alive, but suffered severe burn injuries over 75% of his body. To say the least, the pain was pretty unbearable, especially for a youngster who literally saw most of life go up in smoke. Since there were no hospitals close by that could truly administer the help and recovery that he needed, he had to be flown about two states away to a hospital specializing in burn victim treatment. Once again, a horrible change for this little guy, overnight. After about three weeks or so, the young boy simply had enough. He became despondent and nearly lifeless, refusing to eat, play or even interact with others on his floor. However, that soon was about to turn around the following week, by a teacher from the local school district who came to the hospital. Since he was going to be there for quite some time, the doctors believed he should begin in-house tutoring so he would not fall too far behind in his fourth grade studies. When she arrived, immediately realizing how much pain he was in, she began English lessons including vocabulary words, spelling exercises, grammar and that “good stuff.” She continued for the next three days and on the fourth day, a nurse stopped her in the hallway before she went into his room.
“What in the world have you done to that boy?” she asked. “What do you mean?” came the tutor’s reply, “I’m only trying to help him…”
“No, no, you don’t understand,” continued the nurse, “He is a changed little boy who has made a complete turn around and it looks like he wants to live!”
Everyone involved with the life of this young man came to realize what had happened. He had indeed given up all hope until the tutor arrived. When it occurred to him that there must have been a good reason to send him a tutor. “Nobody would not send someone to work with me on nouns and verbs and spelling if I was actually dying, right?,” he would exclaim later. I guess what we are saying here is that you never know the entire impact we potentially make on another person’s life. Yet, every single day, those opportunities to love, share and comfort are present. If we ever doubt or wonder about why we are here on this planet, perhaps it would be good to sit back and wait and seize upon those moments that make an eternal difference. We are definitely a part of something much larger than ourselves.
About five or six years ago, I accompanied our Youth Group to a homeless shelter around this time of the year to bring food, sing Christmas carols and spend some time playing games and just be present to those who might not otherwise have any kind of Christmas. I remember thinking how good it is for these teenagers who are so immersed in such a self-centered and ego-driven world to see what others are experiencing and what they themselves take for granted too often. It was good for all of us. I remember some of the kids were a little frightened of the folks coming in for a hot meal, which, by the way, those young people had all helped prepare earlier that one Saturday morning which is cold and wet and most inviting to remain in a warm bed…but there they were. As our time went on, I could see everyone actually becoming more and more comfortable, starting to address one another by first names while more and more laughter began to fill the shelter area. The songs and games went extremely well and who’d have thought that we had all spent more than three hours together. As the afternoon progressed, the temperatures dropped substantially and the rain slowly moistened the ground beneath our feet as I began to catch a few saying good-bye to their new-found friends, knowing that they may never ever see them again. A few of them were crying and I knew that was a good sign and a hopeful sign for not only a powerfully different Christmas but also, perhaps, a changed perspective on life. As we began to pick up empty boxes and wrapping paper and make our way back to the vans, an elderly woman sitting alone at one of the tables motioned for me to come closer. “Yes, ma’am,” I said, “what can I do for you?”
“Do you have one of those cell phones, honey?,” she politely asked.
“Yes, ma’am, I do.”
And with that, she pulled out a small plastic bag which I assumed at that moment contained most—if not all—of her belongings and fumbled for a short while to locate then give to me a small piece of paper with a phone number on it. “Sir, could you please do me a favor? You see my son and I were travelling and we had some problems with the car so he left me here at this place where I could get some food every day and a warm place to go. He told me to call him and he would come for me but I don’t have a phone. Would you please call him for me and tell him that I’m ready to go now? It’s already been two months…” For a second, I thought time had stopped. It was as if for a couple of seconds I couldn’t move or say a single word. I knew exactly what had happened to her and I was sure that number wouldn’t work. “Of course, ma’am, I certainly will call for you and everything’s going to be fine,” although deep in my heart I wasn’t even sure if I believed that.
“Merry Christmas, honey,” she said with a sweet, tender smile, her eyes gazing off into the distance. “Merry Christmas, to you, too. God bless you!,” I said, fighting back a few tears. As soon as I returned to my vehicle, I tried the number and as I suspected, it went nowhere. Not a working number. Not even a working area code. (!) A couple of days before Christmas, I returned to the shelter and spoke with the workers and they told she was fine, just looking out the window all day, waiting for her “ride.” I waved but I don’t think she recognized or remembered me.
That particular year, we had a nasty freeze right after Christmas which left quite a few homes without heat. I’m sure I probably got busy with all my life’s demands and forgot about the shelter for a while but after it cleared up a bit, I did think about that woman and called down to the shelter to see if they needed blankets or fire wood or anything. They told me that the cold spell affected the older residents dramatically and that poor woman died in her sleep on New Year’s Eve. Her own son never took her call, but the Son of God sure did. Every call to Heaven is always answered.
One of my favorite Christmas stories is the short story by O’Henry entitled “The Gift of the Magi.”
You may remember it. It is about a young, very poor, couple who lived in New York City during the turn of the century. They were clearly very much in love and both wanted so deeply to give the most wonderful gift to one another, but, as it was, they had no money. Each of them had only one material possession that had any real monetary value; the young man had a valuable pocket watch and his young bride had beautiful long hair. Both worked hard to pay the bills and put food on the table. Both were very tired from the long hours at work but it was their love for each other that kept them vigilant through the hard times and still very thankful especially at Christmas, the first one as a married couple. Each of them began to think during the weeks prior to the Yuletide of the best gift they could give to each other on this beautiful and meaningful occasion. She kept thinking how beautiful a gold chain would look attached to his watch and he thought how exquisite porcelain combs would enhance the finery of her hair. Finally, the day arrived. You can imagine the surprise on their faces when on Christmas morning he discovered that she had cut her hair and sold it to buy a chain for his watch and he had sold his watch to buy combs for her hair! The point of the story is, of course, that what is given is not nearly as important as why we give. We may think that whatever gifts we have to give to the Christ Child are useless and insignificant. The important thing, however, is our inward sincerity in wanting to give ourselves to Him.
And before we head off for the day, here’s how O’Henry concluded his brilliant piece. It’s worthy of a warm Christmas Spirit. “The Magi, as you know, were wise men, wonderfully wise men, who brought gifts to the newborn Christ-child. They were the first to give Christmas gifts. Being wise, their gifts were doubtless wise ones. And here I have told you the story of two children who were not wise. Each sold the most valuable thing he owned in order to buy a gift for the other. But let me speak a last word to the wise of these days of all who give gifts; these two were the most wise. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the most wise. Everywhere they are the wise ones. They are the Magi.”
“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” ~St. Teresa of Calcutta
Several years ago I visited a man in a nursing home. Life was difficult for him and he constantly complained because he had no visitors and felt lonely and neglected. He seemed to have every right to complain as he did, considering the circumstances under which he lived. I went to see him just before Christmas. There were Christmas cards on his wall and a poinsettia plant on the table and he told me that the night before carolers from a local church came by and sang Christmas carols for him. I asked him how he was doing and he said, “At Christmas time I am somebody.” A “nobody” is a “somebody” at Christmas. All of the things that surround the birth of Jesus are for you – hope, joy, peace, and love. In your ordinariness, right where you are, God comes to you. At Christmas time you are somebody.
“Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for.” ~Dag Hammarskjold
A few days ago, I received an email from one of my co-workers. Where her picture could have been posted, there was a cute, cartoonish little Panda Bear, a character, I suspect, from a recent, popular animated film. Even the emoticon at the end of the message had a panda face signing off for her. It gave me reason to pause for a while and reflect as I remembered a time when every Thanksgiving morning, our parish priest loved to use this image as we gathered for the one spiritual Banquet in Church, getting ready for the meal that was waiting to meet our appetites, whether at our own homes or at the place we would go for the earthly, historical “Meal of all Meals.” That day for many years, always began with the legendary Chinese story of the Panda. He would even bring a small stuffed bear to the pulpit to illustrate what I believed was always a powerful lesson about giving thanks that had very little to do with overeating, exhausting cooking and imposed cleaning duties concluding with a rivalrous, raucous football game.
In that perennial sermon every November, we heard about the Tibetan legend of the panda and how they received their distinctive and unusual black and white markings. The legend relates that many, many years ago, when these bears lived in the Himalayas, they were completely white in color. They must have resembled polar bears more than any other creature at that time and they were very playful. They lived, as it were, in a type of wintery-Eden of seemingly pure innocence and peace. They were also friends with a certain shepherdess who would watch over the flocks and fields and seemed to be a type of protective yet, maternal figure for the cubs. And just like in the Garden of Eden, there was present in this snowy playground, mortal danger always lurking nearby. It was the angry leopard, ravenous and envious of the sweet laughter and love of these child-like and guiltless souls. Late one afternoon, as the sun began to drop behind the majestic snow-capped mountains, the shepherdess began to herd all the bears home after a long day when she spotted a cub playing near the brush covering the base of the mountain. Suddenly, without warning, the leopard seized upon his wicked moment, leapt out in front of his young prey with only one deadly intention. The shepherdess ran with all her might toward them both and threw herself in front of the cub and, after a mighty struggle, remained lifeless and silent upon the earth which stood hard as iron. She was simply no match for the vicious claws and fangs of the evil predator and its barbarous intentions and died protecting innocence upon the frozen ground. The horrific sounds of the battle mixed with the cries of the panda cub echoed throughout the valley and brought the remaining den of bears quickly to the scene. They arrived utterly stunned in disbelief at the sight of such carnage and butchery, the pristine snow-covered ground now drenched in layers of bright red casualty.
The next day they gathered for the funeral of the brave girl who risked everything to save one of their own. With broken hearts and tear-soaked faces they approached the place of burial where, as was their custom, they would gather and throw black ashes upon the neatly shrouded body as it was made ready for its final resting ground. But it was too much for them. One after the other, they could not contain their cries of pain and anguish. With ashes still in their paws, they wiped their eyes, held each other tightly, arm upon arm, and then held their ears shut so as to block the sounds of their grieving pain while they sat miserably in the remaining heaps of the dark, cold cinders. The once ivory-white fur of these pandas was now blackened like the night as their guardian and friend was laid to rest.
To this day, it is said, that those markings have remained to remind all of nature and all of humanity of that certain bravery and love until death, and to say, “Thank You.”
The set of Scriptures we have for today are simply breathtaking and inspiring; critically necessary for us who are trying to “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) in the Lord Jesus without losing hope in the face of all the challenges we face.
Let’s start with the First Reading which is taken from the last book of the Bible, Revelation. I can’t think of another sacred book more controversial than this one; also known as the “Apocalypse.” This fascinating and mysterious text, ever since it was written, has been the topic of countless theories, teachings, movements, books, commentaries, and more recently, films and multi-media television series, episodes and documentaries. Unfortunately, most of them have strayed from the Theological and Scriptural meaning of the intent of the Apostle John and have clearly done much more harm than good. Because of these wild theories, it seems as if every 10 years or so, people have been trying to predict the end of the world every time a certain number lines up in a particular order or because of the discovery of some ingenious mathematical equation that spells horrible and imminent destruction. Remember the Year 2000 scare? Or do you recall the December 21, 2012 prediction based on some data from an ancient calendar chiseled on some huge stone that would run out of days on that date? People, just get a new rock!
G. K. Chesterton was so right when he wrote, “Though St. John saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as his own commentators.” St. John is clearly speaking to all Christians, all over the world, and all over time. “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.” His great and marvelous vision for us, however, was also shaped by the immense suffering inflicted upon the early Church by the great persecutions by the Roman Empire. The Apostle himself was exiled to the island of Pathos from where he actually wrote the book of Revelation. It was that same political and military power that was complicit in the death of Jesus, who many thought would be the kind of leader that would overthrow these invaders and give His people a power beyond all imagining. But the real force and strength bestowed on all who would follow the Lord in every age is that, “Beloved, we are God’s children now.” (Second Reading) And even though “what we shall be has not yet been revealed,” it most certainly will be revealed in the glorious Resurrection of those who die believing in Christ. “They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.”
This is all beautifully brought together with the proclamation of St. Matthew’s Gospel. As God’s children now and joyfully anticipating our own resurrection, we reasonably ask, “what do we do and how do we act?” Just as Moses in the Old Testament came down the mountain with the Law in the form of the Ten Commandments, Jesus walked up the mountain and fulfilled what the great Law-giver started and mapped out the way to survive “the time of great distress” for each and everyone of us. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, the meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted and insulted. The Beatitudes create the blueprint of living a beautiful, Christian life. These eight blessings are at the heart of Jesus’ preaching and respond to the natural desire that we all have for true and lasting happiness. This is how we become saints! “Be not afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ! Do not be afraid to become the saints of the new millennium! ~Saint John Paul the Great. The Beatitudes also proclaim the blessings and rewards that have already been secured for those who love Jesus. Just imagine, there’s a place in Heaven for you and it has your name on it. So once again, happy Feast Day everyone.
“If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire.” ~Saint Catherine of Siena
“The greatest art in the world is the art of storytelling.” ~Cecil B. DeMille
I love stories, always have. Since childhood, I still remember most accounts of everything from our generational family lore to things like what it means when it’s raining and the sun is still out. Before the written word in human history, there was storytelling; narratives that were used to pass on events, provide a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation, and instilling moral values.
In his book “Teacher Man,” Pulitzer Prize-winner, Frank McCourt reflects on his 30 years as a teacher in New York City high schools. He used a variety of techniques in his English and creative writing classes, but one that seemed to surface again and again was the power of a compelling story to capture attention and encourage learning. This prized method of instruction was used by the greatest teacher of all – the Lord Jesus Christ. The scholarly religious leader, Nicodemus said to Jesus, “We know that You are a teacher come from God.” (John 3:2) Yet when Jesus addressed the crowds that followed Him, He didn’t use notes or recite memorized lines of the great truths of the Law. Rather, He spoke in very basic terms, using the story to carry and communicate the greatest and simplest truths as if all of humanity were sitting together around the earthly campfire waiting for the eternal dawn. This is one such story; several sources place it and similar tales among the works of Confucius, King Solomon, Persian medieval poets, and even the English poet, Edward Fitzgerald. Abraham Lincoln employed a version of the story in a speech in 1859, shortly before his election as President.
Once in a land not too far way, but not very close, either, was a wise king who loved his people very much. He knew their struggles and he remained intent on not just protecting them from the dangers of the world but also on instructing them concerning the mystery of life as he saw it. He noticed how preoccupied they become, working about many things, losing peace and perspective which in turn fueled resentments, animosities and growing general unrest. On day he announced a contest. “My people! I give you an adventure of deep meaning and great consequence. I will honor generously the one person in the kingdom who finds and brings to me the only item among us that, ‘can make a sad man happy and a happy man sad.’ I will give you three months to search after which time, we will all gather to witness the most magnificent discovery!”
The entire populace began to search, young and old, craftsmen and artists, mothers and teachers, from those considered most wise to the ones who thought as most clever. All searched. Many thought it must be buried somewhere. Some believed it must be a kind of fruit or plant. Few wondered if such a thing could even exist. Then the day finally came and all gathered as their king had promised. But first, there was a huge banquet where all at their fill. There was music and dancing, and much laughter. People began to share their experiences of their search for this mysterious prize. One-by-one, people came forward with their best efforts but none proved to be suitable or successful. And when all thought it could not be found, the jeweler of the kingdom, an elderly man who had seen his share of both beautiful moments and tragedy throughout his long life, slowly made his way to the kind in front for all to see; he held a ring in his hand. The old man approached the king and whispered something in his ear. The king listened intently while the people remained stone silent and staring. The king took the ring from the jeweler, read the inscription within it, embraced the wise old man and then turned to the kingdom and shouted, “My people, this day will be marked with celebration for generations to come! Tell your children and your grandchildren, let the story of this day be remembered in every season, with every planting and with each harvest! What can possibly make a sad man happy and a happy man sad?” Then, placing the ring on his finger, he revealed the words that were inscribed upon it, “This Too Shall Pass.” And so it does.
“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:17,18)
One Sunday morning in a small town, a preacher named George Thomas, came to the Church carrying a an old bird cage and set it on the pulpit. Eyebrows were raised and, as if in response, the preacher began to speak. I was walking home through town yesterday when I saw a young boy swinging this old bird cage. On the bottom of the cage were little wild birds, shivering with cold and fright. I stopped the lad and asked, “What you got there, son?” “Just some old birds,” came the reply.
“What are you gonna do with them?” I asked. “Take ’em home and have fun with ’em,” he answered. “I’m gonna tease ’em and pull out their feathers to make ’em fight. I’m gonna have a real good time.”
“But you’ll get tired of those birds sooner or later. What will you do?”
“Oh, I got some cats,” said the little boy. “They like birds. I’ll take ’em to them.”
George was silent for a moment. “How much do you want for those birds, son?”
“Huh?? Why, you don’t want them birds, mister. They’re just plain old field birds. They don’t sing. They ain’t even pretty!”
“How much?” George asked again. The boy sized up the preacher as if he were crazy and said, “Ten Dollars?”
Then George reached into his pocket and took out a ten dollar bill. He placed it in the boy’s hand. In a flash, the boy was gone. George picked up the cage and gently carried it to the end of the alley where there was a tree and a grassy spot. Setting the cage down, he opened the door, and by softly tapping the bars persuaded the birds out, setting them free. Well, that explained the empty bird cage on the pulpit, and then George began to tell this story.
One day Satan and Jesus were having a conversation. Satan had just come from the Garden of Eden, and he was gloating and boasting. “Yes, sir, I just caught the world full of people down there. Set me a trap, used bait I knew they couldn’t resist. Got ’em all!”
“What are you going to do with them?” Jesus asked. Satan replied, “Oh, I’m gonna have fun! I’m gonna teach them how to marry and divorce each other, how to hate and abuse each other, how to drink and smoke and curse. I’m gonna teach them how to invent guns and bombs and kill each other. I’m really gonna have fun!”
And what will you do when you get done with them?” Jesus asked. “Oh, I’ll kill ’em,” Satan glared proudly.
“How much do you want for them?” Jesus asked. “Oh, you don’t want those people. They ain’t no good. Why, you’ll take them and they’ll just hate you. They’ll spit on you, curse you and kill you. You don’t want those people!!”
“How much?” He asked again. Satan looked at Jesus and sneered, “All your blood, tears and your life.” Jesus said, “Done!” Then He paid the price.
“Each man is the architect of his own fate.” (Appius Claudius, Roman Statesman, 300 B.C.) There once was a brilliant architect who envisioned a world beyond shape and dimensions, efficient and inspiring places of business and homes that all could afford and live and reach their destiny and ultimate calling. With the soul of a poet and the mind of a genius, he continued to set forth design after design, project after project that continued to amaze and stir the imagination of young and old alike. But what was more profound about this man was his humility. Although he clearly towered over the competition in his field, he never gloated and boasted about his gift or his remarkable accomplishments. And because of this noble demeanor, he had the respect of so many, except one. Years earlier, the architect’s father was working as a contractor and had sacrificed years of long and hard hours to put his son through college and architectural graduate studies. Right after his son’s graduation, he fell ill stricken with lung cancer and was forced to quit working. He had a partner in his construction business, a mediocre man at best with the work ethic of a lotus-eater and the temperament of a Shakespearean character inflicted with “the green sickness” of envy. Because he could no longer work, he felt sorry for his hapless partner and kindly asked his artist-builder son to hire him. Having watched his dad laboring all these years for his education, the young architect could hardly deny the request and brought him on board. Perhaps, he thought, the man would change and see himself as an integral part of the firm’s success and reputation which would indeed spread throughout the country. It has been said that envy is one of the most potent causes of unhappiness. Not only is an envious person rendered unhappy by their own envy, but that person also wishes to inflict misfortune on others. Such was the case of this poor, afflicted contractor.
As years went by, the reputation and esteem for the architect grew and grew as did the anger and envy of his cunning contractor who was increasingly angry over the renowned success and adulation bursting right in front of him. He never believed that he rightly received the credit he deserved, the applause and compliments of builders and artists, the regard and notability of all, and was slowly yet powerfully driven by a dark force within him which sadly advanced with each celebrated project. Then one day, the architect announced: “I am going to design the most beautiful home in the world! People from all over will come and see its beauty, its comfort, its welcome for families to grow and cherish life – it will be my masterpiece.” The building began with much excitement and anticipation. But, his contractor and foreman, had other devious plans. “Let us use cheap materials, let us build this house with inferior product and intention – it will look magnificent, but after a few years, it will crumble into the ground. We will pocket the money and leave this dreamer and all his adoring fans behind in the ruins.”
The day of unveiling finally arrived. People came from all over, young and old, rich and poor, to see the gift of idea and inspiration from the mind and heart of this celebrated architect; all the time being, his contractor looking on with a strange look of disgust mixed with an almost sinister delight. By this time, what was once petty and unfortunate, became evil and criminal; his heart had completely darkened under the weight of such hellish hatred. No one was prepared for what happened next. Before the public would be ushered into this marvel of design, the architect spoke to all from his heart. “Many years ago, my father sacrificed for me so I could achieve my dreams for my family, my friends and for the world. Beside him those many years, was my contractor who began to work for me when my father could no longer lift even a hammer. I wish my dad could be here today to witness this moment. In his memory and to his honor, I want to publicly give this brand new home to my contractor!” With that, he handed him the keys to the house he had just built.
It is true that how we live influences the quality of our lives; our lives will be better if we do what is right, and our lives will be worse if we insist on doing what is wrong. (Proverbs 13:15). “For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” (Matthew 7:2)
For what it’s worth, I know what you’re going through. I have lived long enough to recognize that look, those tears and the face of rejection; they are like old, familiar friends. I know what it’s like to be important for a while and then to be replaced, taken for granted, put on the shelf, placed on the back burner and even forgotten. I have lived long enough to know that the exclusive friendships are the ones that die and only those that are inclusive and shared with others are the ones that survive. It’s like the difference between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee; the Dead Sea is perfectly named for it has no tributaries, no viable links to others, all closed in on itself, unshared and therefore – dead. While the Sea of Galilee, fed partly by underground springs, has the Jordan River as its main source which flows through it from north to south, and continues to thrive and produce and provide for others, teeming with beauty precisely because it remains open to the life that surrounds it.
So, for what it’s worth, I know this pain, this old familiar feeling of being thrown out like a pair of old shoes which at one point were so close and so important only to have somehow lose value, worth and yes, even usefulness. I have also lived long enough to know that sometimes this pain is good especially if it helps us recognize who our real friends are, the people who’ve always been there, those who have never lost faith in us, the ones who perhaps have silently been hoping and waiting for those welcoming invitations to special moments, making new memories, or maybe even a surprise message that says how important they really are. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the old adage is true; you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, or, maybe until something tragic happens to remind you that often the best treasures that you really have are the ones right beneath your feet. They are still to be discovered unlike the pretty rainbows that we sometimes chase and pursue until they disappear as we move closer to them.
If this pain helps us see better with sober eyes and un-infatuated hearts, then we will readily find the One who is there surrounded by the ones who complete the great landscape of our life. As I said earlier, I have a lived long enough to know and believe with great certainty that there are only three types of people who walk into our lives. They are there for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Only time, tears, experience, and wisdom can tell the difference. Jesus died in order to teach this critical lesson. Love, above all, always involves sacrifice and dying to one’s self. Is that hard? Absolutely, but always remember that we follow a Man who found His way out of a grave. Learn this now while you’re still breathing. It’s better than a Degree. Trust me. I know.
Kent Nerburn is a noted writer, speaker and all around gifted man who has allowed his rich life to shape everything he does and says. I hope one day I can go and listen to him, maybe even share a cup of coffee. He says that the most formative experience of his childhood was accompanying his father while working for the Red Cross as ‘first-responder’ to many natural and unnatural disasters in Minnesota. Clearly, many life lessons were learned from those nutritive moments.
Earlier in his remarkable life, Kent drove a taxi for a living. He would write later that the main reason he wanted that work was so that he wouldn’t have a boss. He would also admit that those months in the cab turned out to be a real ministry. You see, he mostly drove the night shift and he christened his cab a moving confessional because of his passengers who would board, sit in a dark and safe place and, on more than regular occasion, opened their souls and emptied their lives upon the canvas of the heart of this fledgling author – disguised as a taxi driver – in a way that truly amazed, stunned and moved him. And then there was that call at 2:30 am from dispatch downtown one night in August. His first thought was that this was going to be either a few drunk partiers who may or may not have enough to pay him, or someone whose life had just fallen apart, or maybe a shift worker dragging himself to the factory downtown. Tonight, however, would be very different. Newborn wrote the following.
“When I arrived at 2:30 am, the building was dark except for a single light in a ground floor window. Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a minute, and then drive away. But I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door. This passenger might be someone who needs my assistance, I reasoned to myself. So I walked to the door and knocked. ‘Just a minute’, answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor. After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 90s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940s movie. By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets.. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.
‘Would you carry my bag out to the car?’ she said. I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness. ‘It’s nothing’, I told her. ‘I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated’. ‘Oh, you’re such a good boy,’ she said. When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, and then asked, ‘Could you drive through downtown?’ ‘It’s not the shortest way,’ I answered quickly. ‘Oh, I don’t mind,’ she said. ‘I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.’ I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. ‘I don’t have any family left,’ she continued. ‘The doctor says I don’t have very long.’ I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. ‘What route would you like me to take?’ I asked. For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she’d ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.
As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, ‘I’m tired. Let’s go now.’ We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her. I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair. ‘How much do I owe you?’ she asked, reaching into her purse. ‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘You have to make a living,’ she answered. ‘There are other passengers,’ I responded. Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly. ‘You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,’ she said. ‘Thank you.’ I squeezed her hand, and then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life. I didn’t pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly lost in thought. For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away? On a quick review, I don’t think that I have done anything more important in my life.”
Every time I have rushed through my day, trying to accomplish as many of the details that I frenetically scribbled upon my phone the night before, it is always the same result at the end of the day: tired, exhausted and wondering where the day went. I truly believe that if we take just a little more time realizing who are the most important people in our lives and mix that with the thought of those who are the most neglected people in my world, I believe we will have discovered something quite remarkable. The mixture, I think, will create a miracle.
“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same.” (Flavia Weedn)
A mouse looked through the crack in the wall to see the farmer and his wife opening a package. “What food might this contain?” He was devastated to discover it was a mousetrap. Retreating to the farmyard, the mouse proclaimed the warning, “There is a mousetrap in the house! There’s a mousetrap in the house!” The chicken clucked and scratched, raised her head and said, “Mr. Mouse, I can tell this is a grave concern to you, but it is of no consequence to me. I cannot be bothered by it.” The mouse turned to the pig and told him, “There is a mousetrap in the house.” The pig sympathized but said, “I am very sorry Mr. Mouse, but there is nothing I can do about it except pray; be assured that you are in my prayers.” The mouse turned to the cow, who said, “Wow, Mr. Mouse, I’m sorry for you, but it’s no skin off my nose.”
The mouse returned to the house, head down and dejected, to face the farmer’s mousetrap alone. That very night a sound was heard throughout the house like the sound of a mousetrap catching its prey. The farmer’s wife rushed to see what was caught. In the darkness she did not see that it was a venomous snake whose tail the trap had caught. The snake bit the farmer’s wife. The farmer rushed her to the hospital and she returned home with a fever. Now everyone knows you treat a fever with fresh chicken soup, so the farmer took his hatchet to the farmyard for the soup’s main ingredient. But his wife’s sickness continued, so friends and neighbors came to sit with her around the clock. To feed them, the farmer butchered the pig. The farmer’s wife did not get well. She died; many people came for her funeral, so the farmer had the cow slaughtered to provide enough meat for all of them.
The next time you hear that someone is facing a problem and think that it doesn’t concern you, remember that when one of us is threatened, we are all at risk. We are all involved in this journey called life. We must keep an eye out for one another and be willing to make that extra effort to encourage one another.
Time Magazine ran a front-cover story that, as magazine covers go, simultaneously raised eyebrows and objections: “Why Mom Liked You Best: The Science of Favoritism.” I read the article this week and found myself, as the eldest born, not only of my parents but of all of my cousins and generation, to agree with most of it, was saddened after I was finished. The author, Jeffrey Kluger starts the article by stating that, “There’s a sweetness in the lies parents tell their kids, which is a very good thing, since they tell a lot of them.”
I wasn’t sure I really wanted to agree with that although, painfully, I knew he was probably right. Perhaps there exists in every person a character flaw which is basically and biologically narcissistic, but if that is true, it seems that we need to look at how this affects all of our relationships, not just the parental ones. After putting the article down, I sensed a deeper sadness that literally forced me to remain silent for a long while. Then I remembered something that happened over 20 years ago. A close friend of mine returned from a funeral and although most are sad, there was something deeply and doubly tragic about this one. I still remember how the story unraveled before me. Twenty-five years earlier, a daughter was born to a young, hard-working couple. There was much excitement as could be expected over a first-born and on that first day of the new arrival, there was concern. The child was born with Down Syndrome and in every way, a child of God. The entire family rallied behind the young couple with support and encouragement and although her father tried as he could, there was disappointment in his walk and talk.
Three years later, another child was on the way and this time there was more excitement laced with anxiety and worry. Would she be OK? Would it be the same as before? The day arrived and it was apparent from the first moment this child would indeed be different. As the years progressed this second daughter showed as much vibrancy and extroverted talent as her older sister showed kindness and gentle love, as most children exhibit who have Down Syndrome. The difference between these two sisters grew exponentially as did their ages. While the younger sibling would dance and sing and compete in every possible venue, something else was happening. Their father wanted to say that he had no favorite, that he loved both his daughters equally, however, it simply wasn’t the case. He cheered and raved every time his younger star brought home a trophy or a ribbon, cutting every newspaper clipping and picture he could find, filling scrapbooks and memorabilia shelves to their absolute limit. All this, while his older child looked on, sometimes with a tear about to surface before she would quickly wipe it away. Still, he would maintain that he loved both of his daughters the same.
At the seeming top of the meteoric climb of this rising younger daughter, horrible news showed its ugly head. The doctors discovered that she had breast cancer and this for a woman only 22 years old. They tried everything, from radiation to chemotherapy to the available experimental drugs at the time, finally attempting the more nature-inspired homeopathic cures. Nothing. The bright light that surrounded her began to dim and slowly it went out. She died weighing only 87 lbs and barely able to walk or speak. The funeral was in January in one of our country’s northern states on a merciless, biting cold morning with rain and darkness, the sun painfully absent. This father was consumed with grief, totally inconsolable. At a relative’s house, the family gathered once again to provide support and encouragement only this time there would be no cheering, no doting, no beaming smiles—just tears. They left him to sulk in the enclosed patio, surrounded by plants and ferns protected from the winter’s deadly touch. There he was, crying uncontrollably alone with his pain and loss. It was then that his oldest daughter spotted him and slowly made her way over to him. She sat next to him placing her arm around him gently patting him ever so gently. He appeared, at first, not to notice her, that is until she spoke these hauntingly painful yet innocently crafted words, “Don’t Cry, Daddy . . . I’ll be your daughter now.”
For some, there will be days and nights waiting for invitations, friendly calls, even surprise visits from close souls, and yet there are others who never experience a dull moment or an empty day planner. Be that as it may, how about you and I look around our worlds and see if we are playing favorites? Do we forget the ones who have truly loved us and wanted the best for us? Do we seem to chase the fanfare of popularity and personal reward of seeing what this one or that one can do for me? Have you noticed how often it takes a tragedy to open our eyes? I know we’ve all heard it said that we don’t know what we’ve got ’til it’s gone, but does it really have to be like that? Stop for a moment today, any moment, any place. Just think about where you are right now, this very second. You see, God determines who walks into your life and it’s up to you to decide who you let walk away, who you let stay, and who you refuse to let go. Listen and do what He tells you to do.
When I was in college, I remember reading about an incident that apparently transpired between Frederick II, the king of Prussia in the 1700’s and a prisoner. This beloved monarch truly wished to be present to all in his kingdom, even to those who were incarcerated. It was reported that when he went to a specific prison in Berlin, he went cell by cell greeting each of the occupants. Everyone who saw their king had the same reactionary speech, “Please, Your Highness, free me from this place for I am innocent and do not belong here!” You and I can only imagine how old this was getting, over and over again, the echo of entitlement filling the dark and musty hallways; that is, until the last prisoner. The king noticed a very neat and tidy cell at the end of his state visit. There, in the corner of this dingy enclosure, was a small, middle-aged man washing what appeared to be a few articles of clothing in a bucket. Of course King Frederick was intrigued.
“You, there!,” he bellowed.
“Yes, yes, Your Majesty,” answered the startled inmate.
“Why are you here?”
The prisoner looked down and said, “I am here because of robbery, Sire.”
“And are you guilty, man?!”
“Yes, Sire,” the prisoner continued, “I am guilty and deserve to be here” as his head humbly sank downward. To the surprise of all gathered there, King Frederick reportedly shouted, “Guards! Remove this prisoner and let him go free. It is certainly not right for this guilty wretch to corrupt all the innocent people in here!”
You and I are on this road of life and encounter all kinds of disappointments and discouragements. We even have to put up with those who do not appreciate us or understand how we struggle in life, sometimes in quiet desperation. None of us can really say that we are totally innocent and do not belong here, to the point that we are so self-righteous and judgmental of others around us, fellow travelers all. Life is too short to lose precious moments or opportunities to express the truth about ourselves even in the most unexpected of moments. No one is suggesting to ignore bad and harmful behavior, especially when it is lashed out against one of us. But, I do recommend healthy doses of self-awareness, self- knowledge and self-love, the good kind, every day. Whatever is true about you is never going to hurt you. Running away from it, certainly will. Everything is going to be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, then it’s not the end.
What could a carrot, an egg, and a coffee bean have in common? These three items have been used by a mother to teach her young daughter an important life’s lesson. You might be amazed at the impact this lesson could have on your lifestyle. Are you struggling with adversity and heartaches? Maybe there is a solution to be found in this story.
There once was a young woman who went to her mother and started telling her about how hard her life is and how hard things were for her. She was tired of fighting and not knowing how she was going to make it. She was ready to give up. It seemed as though the problems never stopped. As soon as one problem was solved, another one arose. How could she continue? She needed advice.
The young woman’s mother took her to the kitchen and filled three pots with water and placed each one on the stove and then lit a high fire under each pot. When the pots of water came to a boil, her mother took a carrot and placed it into the first pot of boiling water. She then took an egg and placed it in the second pot. In the third pot of boiling water she placed ground coffee beans. Without saying a word, her mother let them sit and boil. About twenty minutes later, her mother turned off the burners and fished out the carrot and placed it on a plate. She continued by removing the egg and placing it on a plate. Then she ladled the coffee out and placed it in a cup. Turning to her daughter, she asked, “Tell me, what do you see?” The daughter touched the carrot and commented that it was soft. The mother then asked her daughter to take the egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, the daughter observed that the egg was hard-boiled. Finally, the mother asked her daughter to sip the coffee from the cup. There was a big smile on her daughter’s face as she tasted the rich aroma. “What does it mean, mother?” asked the daughter.
The mother explained that each of the objects had faced the same adversity: boiling water. Yet each object had reacted differently. The carrot went in strong, hard, and unrelenting. But, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softenend and became weak. The fragile liquid interior of the egg had been protected by its thin outer shell, yet after sitting in the boiling water, the interior had hardened. However, the ground coffee beans were quite different. Sort of unique, since after sitting in the boiling water, they had an effect on the surrounding water. “Which are you?” the mother asked her daughter.
When trouble comes your way and you are in “hot water,” how do you respond? When adversity knocks on your door … what is your reaction?
Are you a carrot, an egg, or a coffee bean?
Are you the carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity wilts and becomes soft and loses its strength?
Are you the egg that starts with a malleable heart, but hardens with the heat around it? Did you have a fluid spirit, but after a tragedy, a financial hardship or some other trials, becomes hardened and stiff? Does your shell look the same but the inside is filled with bitterness?
Are you like the coffee bean that actually changes its surroundings? The bean actually changes the very circumstance that causes the pain. When the water gets hot, the bean releases the fragrance and flavor. The bean changed the water even at 212 degrees Fahrenheit and that hot water brought out the original intent of the coffee bean. It was meant to provide flavor, aroma and be pleasing to the senses around it.
If you are like the coffee bean, then you get better and change the situation around you when things are at their worst. When the hour is the darkest and trials are their greatest, do you elevate yourself to another level? When the world around you seems to be closing in and darkness surrounds you, do you still reach out and help others?
When trouble is in your way and you can’t tell night from day, be like the coffee bean. Reach out to Jesus and He will give you strength to leave a fragrance around you.
“I have told you this so that you will have peace by being united to me. The world will make you suffer. But be brave! I have defeated the world!” (John 16:33 GNT) “Leave all your worries with Him, because He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7 GNT) “Leave your troubles with the LORD, and he will defend you; he never lets honest people be defeated.” (Psalm 55:22 GNT)
How do you handle diversity? Are you a carrot, an egg, or a coffee bean?
With all the various temptations for the mind to stray from the path of righteousness, can anyone ever be holy in what they do? The Good News is that the word of God tells us how to be holy. We are to have our minds ready for action, to keep alert and set our hope completely on the blessing which will be given to us when Jesus Christ is revealed. Peter calls all to be obedient to God, and do not allow your lives to be shaped by those desires you had when you were still ignorant. Instead, be holy in all that you do, just as God who called you is holy. The scripture says tells us to be holy because our Heavenly Father is holy. All human beings are like grass, and all their glory is like wild flowers. The grass withers, and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord remains forever. This is the Good News that was proclaimed to you.
We know that we were born sinners and only by the sacrifice of God’s Son, Jesus, can we be cleansed from our sin. “Through him you believe in God, who raised him from death and gave him glory; and so your faith and hope are fixed on God. By your obedience to the truth you have purified yourselves and have come to have a sincere love for other believers, love one another earnestly with all your heart. For through the living and eternal word of God you have been born again as the children of a parent who is immortal, not mortal.” (1 Peter 1:13-25 GNT)
“The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything I need. He lets me rest in fields of green grass and leads me to quiet pools of fresh water. He gives me new strength. He guides me in the right paths, as he has promised. Even if I go through the deepest darkness, I will not be afraid, Lord, for you are with me. Your shepherd’s rod and staff protect me. You prepare a banquet for me, where all my enemies can see me; you welcome me as an honored guest and fill my cup to the brim. I know that your goodness and love will be with me all my life; and your house will be my home as long as I live.” (Psalm 23 GNT)
Today, this new day, I am a successful student. Overnight my mind and body have produced thousands of new cells to give me the greatest advantages possible. I am born anew, revitalized, and full of energy. I am rare and valuable; unique in all the universe. I am nature’s greatest miracle in action. I have unlimited potential. I believe in my abilities, attitudes, and goals. I am worthy of greatness because I am the most important person in my world.
Today, I push myself to new limits. I use my skills and knowledge every day. I begin the day with a success and end it with a success. My goals are being reached every day and I seek them eagerly. I act positively and happily, fully accepting myself and others. I live to the fullest by experiencing life without limits. I embrace life. I approach each class, each book, and each assignment with enthusiasm, happiness and joy. I thirst for knowledge. I look forward to reading and believing this creed each and every day.
I am a positive and successful student. I know each step I must take to continue to be that way. I am clear on my goals and see myself reaching them. I now realize my infinite potential, thus, my burden lightens. I smile and laugh. I have become the greatest student in the world.