The Word of God

Opportunity Everywhere

young woman side of boy in hospital bed

This story took place in a small, rural town somewhere in the Midwest, where there was a horrible house fire and all the members of the family barely escaped with their lives. The ten-year old son was alive, but suffered severe burn injuries over seventy-five percent of his body. The pain was unbearable, especially for a youngster who literally saw most of life go up in smoke. Since there were no hospitals close by that could administer the help and recovery that he needed, he was flown to a hospital specializing in burn victim treatment which was about two states away. Once again, this was a horrible overnight change for the young boy. After three weeks or so, the young boy simply had enough. He became despondent and nearly lifeless, refused to eat, play or even interact with others on his floor. However, the following week that was changed by a teacher from the local school district who went to the hospital. Since he was going to be there for quite some time, the doctors believed he should begin in-house tutoring in order not to fall too far behind in his fourth grade studies. When she arrived, she realized the amount of pain he was in, and thus began English lessons, including vocabulary words, spelling exercises, and grammar. She continued for the following 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?” the tutor replied, “I’m only trying to help him…”

“No, no, you don’t understand,” continued the nurse, “He is a changed little boy who 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, until it occurred to him that there must have been a good reason to send him a tutor. “Nobody would send someone to work with me on nouns and verbs and spelling if I was actually dying, right?,” he exclaimed later.

We 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, wait and seize upon those moments that make an eternal difference. We are definitely a part of something much larger than ourselves.

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If You Can Dream It

aerial view of EPCOT center FL

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 they didn’t understand what he was talking about, and that there was no way they could put all that together in one place, Walt never lost sight of his vision. Nuts-and-bolts procedures didn’t faze him for 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!”

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Green Limbs and Singing Birds

singing yellow warbler on branch

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. His idea of these spiritual tree branches that can invite goodness and peace into our earthly existence are as follows.

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)  We 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.

Humor: It has been said that if we learn to laugh at ourselves we will always be amused. 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 said that “A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps, as you walk the tightrope of life.”

Gratitude is simply a disposition of always giving thanks, for everything and anything. When we 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 can 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. (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. Some have called gratitude the “miracle disposition.”

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Nails and Consequences

hand holding nail and hammering it

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.

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God Wants Your Attention

man walking with dog into sunset

There was a little boy named Steven, who had serious allergies. At first, he didn’t understand why crazy things were happening to him. Swellings, wild itching or rashes covered his entire body when he ate a particular food or got near a certain fabric, or one year a live Christmas tree.  Later Steven was told to stay away from bees and wasps, which, always seemed to gravitate toward him. He was never afraid of the dark -or spiders -or even snakes, but he did develop a serious respect for those winged fiends. Especially one particular afternoon when one stung Steven close to his neck and they had to pack him in ice. His parents told him that he almost died from that. Among the other allergens they discovered was dog hair, which obviously meant that Steven couldn’t have a canine pet like so many of his friends. Neighborhood dogs followed him around and jumped in his lap, and poor Steven would start sneezing and wheezing all over again.

After high school, Steven went off to college and graduate school. It was then, years later, while studying in a different country, with various kinds of exciting cultural experiences, including foods, he realized something wonderful had happened. No more allergies! He must have outgrown them, or something like that. Well, Steven finally got a dog. It was great, and throughout the years, he had several. But of all the companions that God blessed him with, there were two beautiful, hilarious, mischievous and loving Labradors. To say that they were spoiled would be a feat of remarkable restraint. Steven took them everywhere he could, daily long walks, provided special sleeping blankets, foods, and of course his family and friends loved them, also.

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, Steven always made it worth their while, knowing full-well that one day, it would be a sad visit. But nevertheless, they made an adventure out of it. On the way back, Steven had to stop for gas and pulled up to a station near his 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, he noticed what seemed to be a homeless man with a brown and white, medium-sized spaniel. He stopped, and the man asked him if he could get him some food from inside the little station market. “I’ll be right back,” Steven 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.” Steven’s heart melted. “Sure! Let me see what they’ve got in there,” replied Steven. He bought 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 he went looking for dog food, they were all out. But they did have cat food, which seemed to be at least as nutritious for the dog, so he picked up a few packages and cans of that. After paying for everything and writing down the address of where there was a food kitchen downtown, Steven went outside. That man ate his food so fast that it seemed he might choke on it. His dog practically did the same thing. There was nothing left of the cat food as his little creature cleaned out every atom and particle that was there. The man said thank you, his little buddy extended his paw and they all said their good-byes.

Steven returned to his vehicle with his ‘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. Steven waited until he could see them no more. For some reason, he started to tear up, both of his companions became unusually quiet. He 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. Steven believed he could hear the Lord speaking to him. 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.” Steven never forgot the way God used the Labs to bring a remarkable amount of joy to his heart, and how the Lord got his attention to let him know how much, not only he, but we all mean to Him.

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Life in the Sandbox

boy playing in sandbox

A story told during a sermon at church involved a little boy and his father. The scene was the backyard of their home where the young lad had a sandbox that looked like a small beach enclosure with toys and lots and lots of area to play. While his father looked on from the back kitchen window, his son was playing the way most children play, unfettered and very innocently with the imagination and creativity that usually accompanies this age. All seemed to be going very well until the child found a rather large rock in the mix of sand, that may have found its way in when it had been delivered to their backyard. With a small, red plastic shovel that was part of his toy collection, he tried to move the large stone from the sand box, pushing and shoving, huffing and puffing as he did so. Well, as you can imagine, the little shovel was no match for the rock and it snapped in two pieces causing the boy to cry out loud as if perhaps he had done something wrong or maybe out of sheer disappointment in his own attempt to tackle his problem in the sand box. Immediately, his father came out to the yard to tend to his son, picking him up, dusting him off and sitting at the edge of the enclosure with his pride and joy on his lap, he asked, “Son, what happened?” The boy tried to explain through his tears what had happened and how sorry he was. “Why didn’t you use all your strength?,” came the next question. “I did, I did, Daddy, I did use all my strength!” “No you didn’t, Son. You didn’t ask me!” And with that, with one large grab with his own massive hand, he pulled that stone out of the box and hurled it into a nearby pile of other rocks.

Our Heavenly Father is much like the father in that story. Always there, waiting for us to ask for mercy, forgiveness, love, understanding and all the many things that we need to keep moving on our journey back to Him. Our God is also full of compassion, never wishing to punish all for the sins of a few and even wanting and expecting that all sinners be converted and live. “When I called you answered me; you built up strength within me.”  (Psalm 138:3) The Psalmist reminds us that our Lord has always been there for us and never has or will abandon us and even further, has sent us His Son Jesus the Christ to remove the guilt and pain of sin so that we may in fact call out to Him without worry of rejection. We are assured of the new life that has been won through and by His Blood.

The most famous prayer of all time is the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father.” It contains seven different and remarkably beautiful petitions that asks to depend on our Heavenly Father to answer all our needs. Jesus also encourages us to pray with persistence and diligence because of the immense love that our God has for us. When we pray like this, our lives are changed for the better, forever. Is there a big stone in our sand box?

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His Great Decision

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.

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God’s Children

girl looking in mirror face painting on cheek

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)

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A Real Thief

three crosses on a hill

After years of wandering aimlessly throughout his life, Clint Dennis realized that something deeply important was missing. He decided to attend church, and as he entered the church for the first time he noticed people putting on long robes. They were also tying ropes around their waist and wrapping headdresses around their heads. “Come be a part of the mob,” a stranger told him. It was Palm Sunday and the church was reenacting the crucifixion. He would be part of the crowd that shouted “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Hesitantly he agreed. Then another stranger hurried up to him stating that the man who was supposed to play one of the thieves on the cross didn’t show up, and asked Clint if he would take his place. Again Clint agreed and was shown to the cross where he would look on as Jesus died. Just then, something about Clint’s manner caught a member’s eye. He slowly approached Clint and asked, “Have you ever asked Jesus to forgive your sins?”  “No,” Clint replied softly, “but that’s why I came here.” Then, gently and beautifully beneath the cross, they prayed, and Clint asked Jesus to come into his heart. He finally denied hell and stole heaven.

He is much like the most famous thief who has an amazing place in history. We refer to him as the good thief, while some refer to him as St. Dismas. At the top of Calvary he was the one person who saw the truth of Jesus’ message even as Christ faced His own death for our salvation. Those around him were grieving, shocked, taunting, or disinterested in the crucifixion, but the thief stole the show. He saw his opportunity, to rob hell of his soul and to repent of his past heinous crimes. For this he would be remembered for all time. The robber, like every sinner on the verge of repentance, understood that he himself deserved to die, that his own crucifixion was his own doing. However, when he looked about him in those final minutes of his life here on earth, he did not just see another criminal but the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. This is what led him to shout with whatever air he had left in his lungs, “Remember me!” Recognizing the truth about humanity, about ourselves, he had stolen the greatest prize at the very last moment to have a life with Jesus.

As we hang on our own cross of life, let us remember the lesson of this man who denied hell and stole heaven.

My Crucified Jesus, wash me with your most precious blood. Look upon me as the good thief, who hung on the cross next to You at Calvary. A sinner, paying for his crimes, but recognizes your divinity and begs for mercy and forgiveness and asks: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Dear Lord, look upon me like the good thief. And I should be so blessed, so fortunate, so full of Peace. Amen.

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Two Most Important Days

hospital bed note on it says going home

“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.

“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.

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The Visit

single red rose on piano keys

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.

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Called to be Holy

sunset over grassy hill and wildflowers

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)

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The Heart of the Matter

hands holding red heart image

Having spent seventy-seven wonderful years on this planet, my amazing aunt died peacefully in her sleep earlier this month. Although she carried a number of painful medical conditions and her memory was beginning to fade, it was still a brutal reminder of how fragile and delicate life truly is. This experience was also compounded with the death of her sister, my mother, less than two months earlier. My aunt’s life was filled with a series of fundamentally linked episodes which I only recognized after she died. Isn’t that always the case? I’ve broken those episodes down into four types of hearts.

Broken Heart
Over 50 years ago, my aunt was engaged to be married to a student navy pilot, who was assigned to a local naval air station. My only memory from what little my own mother told us, was that his name was Philip and that he was killed in one of the training missions. My aunt never dated again and obviously never married. She gave her heart to this man and walked away from the events of a young woman with a broken heart. Only once do I remember asking about him and she quickly changed the subject. I got the message.

Open Heart
A few years later, the world witnessed the very first open heart surgery which impressed her to begin her career in cardiac nursing. Thus she did and became quite proficient. I remember seeing several awards and commendations on her desk as a little boy and thought she must be very smart. Later in her life, I was able to sit next to other student nurses watching an open heart surgery from an above, glass-enclosed operating suite. What an experience!

Heart of Jazz
During a shortage of nurses in New Orleans in the early seventies my aunt responded almost immediately. I remember that there was deep concern from my elders about her safety but she kept telling them that she had to go and fulfill her dreams and off she went.

Sacred Heart
I remember many wonderful visits to New Orleans, especially during my college years. As if it was just last week, I remember standing twenty hours in line to see the first ever public exhibition of the treasures of King Tut. She was adamant about pointing out that the Ancient Egyptians held tightly to a belief in a resurrection after death and that life was indeed a journey of which death was not the final stop. Amazing. After college and well into my professional life, I kept going back to Louisiana and realized what a devotion she had of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and how she kept reminding me of how much He suffered for each and every one of us. Her faith was not reduced to a Hallmark card either. In 2000, my mother and I took my cousin, their grand nephew, to visit my aunt in New Orleans. I vividly remember a particular incident in the Chapel of one of the Convents. My little cousin had a form of Turrets Syndrome which manifested itself as constant blinking of the eyes. It was close to his twelfth birthday, and during our visit to that grand city, my aunt asked him what he would ask for in such a significant moment. He told her that he really wanted to stop this blinking as it was bothersome. She calmly escorted him into one of the chapels and remained there with him for about forty-five minutes. My cousin’s mother recalled how he called her that night very excited about praying for a miracle. Since then, there were no other signs or symptoms of anything neurologically astray with him and I believe I know why.

“Life is not a Hallmark Card, nice, neat and predictable. I don’t want a card life; I want one that is real,” she would often say to us, and I believe she led that kind of life that underscored her belief and life ethic. If we put all this together, it makes perfect sense why we all came to believe that she enjoyed a very special birthday, The Feast of St. Valentine, the fourteenth day of the second month of every year until she went home. It makes sense now that I look back on it all. It makes perfect sense that she would have been born on a National Heart Day when love, for good or for ill, is highlighted by many. I know for many of us, it will always be remembered for an additionally warm and comforting reason. My aunt taught me many significant lessons that I pray I will never forget. She said that the two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you discover why. The two most important moments of your life are now, and the hour of death. Amen.

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Outliving My Father

boy hugging father playing outside

Today, I have outlived my father by one day. What happens tomorrow is all in God’s hands, to whom I have given thanks and praise, and to whom I have lifted my Dad’s soul to Jesus, all throughout this time leading up to this occasion especially with the awesome celebration of the Mass. This whole experience has been a kind of epiphany for me even as the eventual appearance of the numbers “60” on the birthday cake loom in the not-so-distant future.

My father, you could say, was a little attached to the past especially as he immersed himself among the memories of the care-less, free-spirited days of high school football, fast cars, beautiful women, including my mother, and a world just recently ravaged by the threat of the Nazi take-over of the planet, friends he knew that died in Korea, and the prospects of choosing to raise a family, live on his own, and finding a path which could pay for all of it. Unfortunately at times, for me, anyway, he had many friends and associates who helped him enjoy and justify the nostalgic hold on the ticking seconds of life just as his sons were growing older, his wife expanding her professional horizons, and his body gradually weakening although you could have never suspected it. Even at fifty plus years old, with a handsome touch of grey hair, hardly a hint of a belly, and any number of aching muscles clamoring for the quick and over-generous application of Absorbine, Jr., he could still outrun, out climb, and outperform all of the younger firemen at his station which he daily reminded all of them at the drop of a bright red helmet.The last time I saw him alive was in his garage office, a small brown desk that had survived two hurricanes and a couple of frantic moves from his childhood home, to the first house he ever shared with his wife, to the new home he thought they could never afford and finally to the last residence he would occupy. Things were good between us at that point, in fact, they were more than good. Each time we saw each other, even that last evening in the garage, he would hold me tight, mess up my hair a little, then quickly restore it, then insist that I take something for the trip home, be it a sandwich or fruit, or something he thought I might need for my car or kitchen. That last night together, as I was walking to my Chevy Blazer, he reached out to me and started to choke up over his words. “Don’t worry, Dad,” I remember saying to him, “I know you love me.”

Twenty-four years later I buried my Mom, and now I can say that another passage has been complete in my life and I am grateful. Grateful to them both,  I am ever-so-thankful to my Sweet Jesus who has never left my side no matter how dark it has been, or rather how dark it appeared to be. Therefore, I’d like to share with you what I have learned going forward. (1) The fear of death is more dreaded than death itself. Fear is the enemy and we cannot negotiate with it. I choose to live in freedom. The only failure is losing God and that’s not going to happen. (2) Because I choose to envision the sheer magnitude of my dreams and blessings, I can appreciate and accept the intensity of my life’s battles. As long as there is breath in my body, I will never give up. (3) Problems are messages. I realize now that until I fully receive and grasp the messages, they are poised to repeat themselves.
I know very well how valuable time is and how wonderful it is when it is spent doing good things and spending it with great people. Thank you, Daddy. I know you did all you could for all of us and truly believe that you are at peace now, hopefully close with Mom. I sure do miss you.
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To Free or Not to Free?

inside view old prison cell

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.

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Your Taxi is Waiting

elderly woman sitting on suitcase waiting

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)

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That Familiar Ring

man's hand holding gold wedding ring-band

“The greatest art in the world is the art of storytelling.” ~Cecil B. DeMille

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.

“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)

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.

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Carrying the Cross of Powerlessness

woman talking on smart phone sitting on park bench

We don’t often receive desperate pleas in our office for help except when it comes to frantic questions about the number of English or Spanish Bibles that someone quite nervously is wondering why they haven’t arrived and who might have stolen them and why they are not there as we promised, etc. However, all that changed last week. Have you ever heard the premise that God places us right where He wants us, at the right time, for the right reason? Well, if not, I intend to make a believer of you today.

It had been a good day with a mix of obvious blessings and typical discouraging occurrences that are part of one’s daily life. While I was not watching the clock, I knew it was getting close to that time for me to get into my car, drive home and maybe even drive a few golf balls down the fairway along the way. That is about the moment the call came which was to plunge me into the dusking hours, too late for working on my swing, too early to get some dinner but right on the money to learn something valuable.

“Do you have a few minutes, sir?”
“Sure. Go ahead. Let me pull your file.”
“Well, it’s not about that.”
“Well, then, what is it about?”
“They lied about me.”

Goodness. I don’t mean to be melodramatic here, but it was as if my heart stopped for a second, not out of fright or panic, but out of one of those moments where in a single nanosecond your whole body tenses a bit as if to compress the last twenty-five years of your life into a single moment to realize that you know exactly what someone is talking about. And then you listen. The scenario was all too familiar. In order to get what they wanted, someone lied to the boss and placed my caller into an unfavorably unflattering and even suspicious light. To make matters worse, as if that were possible at this point, the alleged perjurer was a relative of the CEO, and I mean, close relation and thus it was becoming complicated and emotionally draining for my unexpected visitor who felt as if she had no power to confront the culprit and thought that the only path open to her was to accept the bad light cast upon her, cooperate with whatever request was being made and then begin counting the days before she was to look for another job. She was, however, overwhelmingly tempted to take this matter into her own hands, defend herself to the boss, complain bitterly about the shameless behavior of that man, and wreak havoc on the other employees, half of which were egging her on while the remaining were begging her not to make trouble. She was caught in what many would have described as a no-win situation, but I immediately disagreed with that assessment.

For the next hour or so, we both arrived at some wonderful and effective alternatives to unjust things that happen to us every day. We may not be powerless after all. The following is our list.

Calm Down
The appearance of powerlessness almost always creates a ripe breeding ground for anger. We can’t do anything about a certain situation so we turn to the only things we have control over which are our emotions. Anger is a volatile and perhaps the most destructive of all the vices. Unbridled, it can destroy us.

Discover Your Own Real Motivations
Why do we want justice? Is it really revenge? Justice is a virtue; revenge is perversion of justice.

Consider the Source
Who lied about us? Who has besmirched our reputation? Whenever we hear praise or harsh criticism, we must first consider its source. What someone says about us is never more important than the one who said it.

Weigh Carefully the Consequences
This is where prudence rallies into our discussion. Will I bring more attention to myself and my own emotional spasm?

Remember Jesus waited three days after His brutal murder to set things straight. Waiting and watching are deep spiritual exercises that separate us from the beasts of this world. My Italian friends put it best when they say, “Let God handle the need for revenge. He is much better at it.”

The sun had long said goodbye when it was time for me to do the same to our sentimental and heart-hurt friend who by this time was hardly any of those things. It was, all in all, a very good afternoon and a worthy conclusion to a complicated yet fruitful week. I did none of what I had planned to do, never made it to any of my destinations, yet did everything I was supposed to do, and was exactly where I was supposed to be. A few days later, a simple card arrived to my office. I knew who sent it and I knew she was in a much better place on her journey. The message on it was so profound that I posted it on my refrigerator to see it often, and now I share it with you.

When you pray, God listens. When you listen, God talks. When you believe, God works.

I am reminded of the scripture in the book of Romans, Chapter 4, verses 20-25.

“Brothers and sisters: Abraham did not doubt God’s promise in unbelief; rather, he was empowered by faith and gave glory to God and was fully convinced that what God had promised he was also able to do. That is why it was credited to him as righteousness. But it was not for him alone that it was written that it was credited to him; it was also for us, to whom it will be credited, who believe in the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over for our transgressions and was raised for our justification.”

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In Case Of Emergency

Christmas is coming and the geese aren’t the only ones getting fat. Even as Thanksgiving is still a few days away, my family and I have already begun exchanging food preparation ideas, old and new recipes, special prayers to invoke before we dive in, and of course, the names of those who are going to clean up everything once we have done our significant damage. To that end, I am always looking for books and materials at estate and garage sales, libraries and yes, even half-priced booksellers for older books that chronicle how exciting, fun and memorable these family days used to be and how they can be again if we set our minds to it. This year, I found a gem entitled, It’s a Wonderful Christmas: The Best of the Holidays 1940-1965,” which has provided so many neat concepts that I am sure it will provide suggestions for the next couple of years. But it also contained a remarkable surprise. On the back cover there was an envelope taped securely and clearly marked, “Open Only in Case of Emergency.” I don’t know about you but my curiosity was eating me alive and after I realized that I would never know the previous owner or the circumstances surrounding this strange note with cryptic instructions, I decided to declare the moment an emergency and opened the envelope. I thought there may be some money in there. No, but there was something much more valuable. Here is the text intact:

“I don’t know if you will have to open this next week, next year or even 20 years from now. I am not even sure if you will be the one who finally reads this. But if you are reading this, it means that something terrible or monumental has happened. I am thinking that it may be because someone you love very much has died, or something involving your health or the health of a loved one, or your work, career or some tragic disappointment or unforeseen catastrophe has occurred that has brought you to think if only for a minute that your life is somehow over. It may mean that I have died because it couldn’t have been you that went to Heaven since you’re reading this! (example of disarming humor. Hope it worked.)

Whatever the reason, I want you to remember a few things:

1. This too shall Pass. During the first 20 years of your life of which I was a primary witness, this proved to be true over and over again. I truly believe it will be again.

2. Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. We both know what we’ve both have been through the worst years of your life. By now you should be so strong that you could bench press an F-350.

3. When much is given a man, much is expected. Expect great things from yourself, from those whom you have assembled around you, and most importantly from Jesus. He has never left you. Never will. Especially now.

4. If you’ve hit rock bottom, remember this: IT IS ROCK. It is solid, firm and you can and will rebuild part of your life or your entire life. You have done this before and you can do this again.

5. Even and especially if the news today is about a terminal illness, you still must recover from the impact, ask to be anointed and Prepare either for a different kind of life here or the much better one promised to you.

Okay, Son, that’s it. I have lifted you to Jesus ahead of time for this particular moment, so wherever I am today, my prayers are already here with you. This life has been an amazing journey and we have been richly blessed. I can’t wait to see you again.”

I was stunned. My thoughts mingled with my imagination to try to figure this out. Obviously, it was from a father to his son. But why did he not receive it? Why was this book discarded? Did the two have a fight? Did the son die before his father? After a couple of weeks it occurred to me that at least one of the reasons that this letter was in my hands was so that I could share it with you and attempt to fathom its meaning as it applies to our life.

I immediately prayed for both father and son wherever they would be today. Then I wrote a similar letter to the ones closest to me and placed them in Bibles with similar instructions and thanked God for having found this treasure. In one dictionary, the definition of an emergency was rendered as a sudden, urgent, usually unexpected occurrence or occasion requiring immediate action. Well, obviously it was an emergency and action was taken. I wonder how many emergencies we miss every day?

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The Legend of the Panda

Panda bear on bamboo

A Tibetan legend of the panda states 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.”

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The Perfect Gift

Magi with gifts nativity

A short Christmas story by O’Henry entitled “The Gift of the Magi” 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. 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.

O’Henry concluded his brilliant piece that is 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.”

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Definitely A Different Christmas

wild rabbit in grass

This past week, I was 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 comment 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 eighteen 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. I especially thought of those who clearly had a much harder time with life than I was having, and even deduced to 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 Mass followed by a sumptuous dinner. What a blessing! I went to bed like a five-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 constraints, I decided not to have a tree but still decorated festively, not sparing any empty corner or shelf space available. Thus, the childhood ritual of waking up and going 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. I 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, sit outside, 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 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 like, 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.” 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.

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The Problem Tree

house with trees rolling green grass

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)

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The Challenge of Life

closeup of burning candle in dark

A man built a prosperous business through much hard work and honesty. As he got older, he became concerned about the future of his business mainly because he had no children of his own, no close relatives, except for three distant cousins who were already in charge of various aspects of the business. After much prayer and consideration, he called a meeting with all of them, and told them he needed a solution to a problem. 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,“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 $2000 inside it. They continued to be baffled, scratching their heads and looking sheepishly at one another. The challenge was then 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, and 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 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 literally brought in hundreds of helium-filled balloons which he immediately released into the large office. Once again, they nearly filled the entire space assigned. After all the balloons were whisked away, 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.

“The most worth-while thing is to try to put happiness into the lives of others. 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)

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Nobody Makes the Journey Alone

hiker helping another up a hill

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.

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Are you a Carrot, an Egg or a Coffee Bean?

girl with cup of coffee

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?

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Truth is More Precious

down syndrome girl looking at flower closeup

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.

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Freedom’s Price

empty bird cage

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.

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man holding open wallet

People don’t change. Their priorities do. There was a man named Michael, who was an outstanding chiropractor, a great father and husband, remarkable son and brother, a deep believer in Christ and a highly-respected fifth-degree black-belt. To say the least, he was an amazing man. One night, with little warning, he suffered a massive heart attack as he slept on his couch after watching the late night news. Hundreds gathered for the funeral, which was a mixture of deep hope and an unspoken sadness that defied words. The night before the burial, a beautiful wake was conducted by Michael’s brother who was 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. One after another offered beautiful accounts describing encounters they had experienced with the deceased.

One man, in particular, stood out among the many. He seemed to be in his late forties, 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, 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 spoke about a very dark time in his life when, because of his demons and addictions, he lost everything and was on the verge of taking his own life in a lonely hotel room. He had 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 it buzzed again. It was Michael. “Hey, man!” was Michael’s 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 went on explaining to Michael that his phone call literally saved his life, that he had reached the end of his rope and 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 had all the attendees enthralled about where he was 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, and placed 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)

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The House You Build

two men looking at design plans

“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)

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Pave the Yellow Brick Road

Gold brick road on grass with sun and blue sky

Procrastination is a true human trait and proof of the existence of God with the promise of His most wonderful heaven. It clearly exhibits the hope and confidence in a better tomorrow and thereby, by extension, the rationale to put off today what can be done later. But in the meantime, before we reach heaven, I don’t think it’s such a good idea. What do I mean by that? Consider the following.

In a short period of time, a good friend of mine has lost three significant women in his life, all of which has made for a wall of grief to emerge. In addition to this clover of tears, he is, you could say, in-between jobs, and clearly repulsed by the full-time, in-between, low-paying, dignity-robbing employment that currently occupies his time while barely paying the bills. And he feels so alone. What makes this difficult is that he is one of those kind of people who tends to be accommodating, serving, and the one who is always there for others. It is not always as rewarding as it seems. You don’t need a degree in social media technology or nuclear physics to realize that the person I have described is not only an endangered species but also a walking target, standing around with a large sign in bright letters, “Hurt Me!” While you try to be there for everyone else, when you are at your most vulnerable, everyone is busy. And rightly so.

The solution is easy, really. Either he keeps the sign on his back, wallows in misery, and tries to wangle a few extra dollars per hour, or, he can remove and disassemble this ill-advised mantra and start something new. Even though he’s pushing sixty, I still believe there’s room for re-invention and a new road for my friend. Perhaps grief causes groaning that can open avenues to growth if the individual chooses to go in that direction. Therefore, I encouraged him to make a careful inspection of his life to date. This will involve manifesting a list of the things he likes in his life and the aspects he does not. He must invite the Lord Jesus to walk with this very “personal memory lane” before doing anything or hurting anyone. But it must be done and soon. But how does one re-invent anything? Is there really such a word? Yes, there is. It means to invent again without knowing that the invention already exists; to remake or make over, as in a different form; and to bring back, revive. Now let’s look at each part of the definition.

To invent again. The art of re-invention has already been fifty-two percent accomplished in most of us. We are who we are and the best description of life around us can be found in the little phrase, “it is what it is.” Before moving forward, I must realize this, that adversity and problems do not create character and strength, they reveal them. When you crush an olive, you get olive oil. When your crush a grape you get fine wine. When you crush a noble human being, the result is a holy life ready for anything and waiting upon the Lord. True enough, right? So why can’t we just stop there and go on our merry way? Because we will undoubtedly end up where we left off, like some revision of Groundhog Day where every twenty minutes or so, the plot starts all over again. Although we have been assured that the re-invented hope of our true self already exists, we must move forward.

To remake or make over. Something has to change. It has to look, feel and sound different. Although the essential items of life remain intact, there has to be solid, tangible changes that even if no one else can see, he knows he can.  Then all the change and attitude shifts can take hold.

To bring back, revive. I love the word, revival. You can almost see life being poured back into an empty canvass, scenario and most especially a heart-broken warrior and sojourner who simply will not stop until he wins. Stop with all the activity that drains energy and life. Cease listening to negative and judgmental rhetoric. Enough with enabling. Right. Now life starts pouring in like a sweet forest waterfall.

Well, my friend has made his lists, phone calls, resumes, and looks like he is ready to turn the page today. Most importantly, and to my great relief and joy, he has invited the Lord to be right with him because He is truly “my light and my salvation.” And I am truly excited about his prospects and liken him a little like those four wonderful and mythical characters from The Wizard of Oz.  I think what I like most about this classic American every man story is what actually happens throughout their journey. Unlike what the four seekers hoped for and expected, the Wizard does not tap them on the head with some wizardly wand and turn them into something they aren’t. No, his job is simply to reassure the foursome that they are not lacking anything, and he helps them recognize their own true talents and abilities. The Wizard’s job is to enable the seekers to see themselves more clearly by reminding them how smart, talented, and courageous they already are. Ours is the power of belief, the power of affirming what we really want, the power of claiming our heart’s desire according to the merciful will of our Heavenly Father, a far more comforting image than a crafty traveling salesman behind a curtain. Could this famous Wizard be an archetypal figure for Jesus?

My friend is doing very well these days, at least since the last time we spoke. His story mingled with that of Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tinman, and the Lion is the story of all who want to be happy and find fulfillment in our own lives. It is the battle, search and exciting journey to uncover and truly discover our true self. To develop our own intellect, heart, and courage and find our way to our true home, and to help others do the same. I can certainly live with that.

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essential oil bath salts aromatherapy items

Without a doubt, I have been richly blessed with friends who love to eat. In addition to our shared pastime and life-giving, life-sustaining hobby, my friends represent a number of different cultures to which they have remained faithful and attached. One evening a couple of weeks ago, we decided on an Italian-Indian night and made a veritable feast of the evening. What a night, and what a weight-gaining evening!

Obviously, there were many wonderful garlic and curry combinations that I couldn’t begin to pronounce much less list at this moment. Needless to say, the next day, I knew that I must return to the local gym to attempt, however feebly, to stave off the potential damage to my waist and calorie quota for the week and board the closest cardio stepping/walking/climbing apparatus in sight. My timing was stellar as I entered the local athletic facility and found my favorite torture machine readily available sandwiched (pardon the food comparison) between two others who, like me, were clearly not in the running as America’s Top Models or who had ever missed a meal. Immediately I climbed aboard and began the arduous entrance into athletic performance and much sweating, trying desperately to avoid all the strange noises or groans and mumbles as one tries to act twenty years less their actual age. I am not sure how many of our readers actually have an exercise code of behavior for the gym or are even aware of any such etiquette compilation, but I do not usually speak to people around me unless the occasion calls for it and on this particular day, I think it did. After about twenty minutes of pretty intense perspiration, I could tell something was different but was not exactly sure what it was. My fellow panter to the left then made it clear what I suspected. We caught each other’s glances quickly and then he innocently asked, “Are they having a pizza party here today? Sure smells good!” Realizing exactly what he meant and pretending to agree with his assessment, I turned toward the main entrance and sheepishly said, “Yeah, I think it’s someone’s birthday!”

By now, I believe you all know what happened: the rich seasonings of garlic and curry, among others, slowly and methodically seeped into my blood stream and eventually found their way to and through my sweat glands giving off an amazing aroma that must have suggested that yet another banquet was on the way. And for a second, maybe there was indeed a kind of enriching encounter about to begin that is played and replayed all day of our lives. Consider this Scripture passage as quite pertinent for our expanded time to consider who we are and where we are going:  “So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.” (Ephesians 5:2) Think about this for a second. Even before we leave the comfort of our homes, we begin to emit something, an aroma perhaps. This aroma could be in the form of an attitude, an aura or a general climate or attitude that just is very obvious especially to those who know and love us and even to those who do not. The minute we walk through the door, we bring something to the room, the conversation and to those we encounter. Imagine that we have just received horribly bad or discouraging news. Don’t you think people around us will notice? What if it is just one of those bright days full of clarity and hope? The same is true. People notice. We radiate. We give off a distinct aroma. And the more wonderful and mystical aspect to all this, is the fact we make the choice of which aroma or fragrance we wish to influence our surroundings.

Let’s take this one more step further: what if our aroma was actually a person? Could we say that we actually radiate and bring forth the spirit and life of another to our day? Absolutely, and you know where this is going: the Eucharist. When we say “yes” the Paschal Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, we truly are empowered with the ability to emit and radiate the real person of Christ to everyone, even to ourselves. Could this be the beginning of a brand new way to live life? Today I want to experience Christ in my life and show Him to everyone as if I was introducing someone very close to me to everyone in my life who is near and dear to me. Imagine how different things would be if everyone had that same goal!

Perhaps a great step in that direction would be to consider this wonderful “aromatherpeutic” prayer composed by Blessed John Henry Newman (1801-1890). Pray it slowly now and see what happens. Devour its message, and order from this spiritual menu so that your aroma will surprise, comfort and heal your world. Nothing is impossible with God.

“Dear Jesus, help me to spread your fragrance wherever I go. Flood my soul with your spirit and life. Penetrate and possess my whole being so utterly, that my life may only be a radiance of yours. Shine through me, and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel your presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me, but only Jesus! Stay with me and then I shall begin to shine as you shine, so to shine as to be a light to others. The light, O Jesus, will be all from you; none of it will be mine. It will be you, shining on others through me. Let me thus praise you the way you love best, by shining on those around me. Let me preach you without preaching, not by words but by my example, by the catching force of the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears to you. AMEN.”

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The Nicodemus Factor

Jesus sitting with Nicodemus at night

You know, it’s funny. This morning I received two strangely coincidental texts: one said that they could no longer speak to me for an indefinite amount of time, while the other was, “write the next post.” While I was stunned and hurt by the former, I knew I had to get started on the latter and so here it is. This post could be called the “Tale of Two Friends, “How to Deal with Remarkable Disappointment,” or “The Nicodemus Factor,” all of which should be made perfectly clear after about five minutes or so. Whichever the case, I’m not sure how to begin other than to say that my hunch is that there are many more people who have experienced what we are about to describe than first suspected, especially after having spoken with a few close friends before sitting down and pounding this out. For the sake of immense and hopeful clarity, the scenario is as follows: You are pacing through life at a nice clip and you think everything is going as well as expected when all of sudden your world falls apart. This could and does happen on several fronts, the first and perhaps most common is death, especially of someone who had the flexible challenge of keeping everyone together. I have seen this many times in not-so-successfully grieving families. Then there is the situation when someone gets fired from a company or workplace that may have taken on the semblance of an extended family or close community. Run-ins with the law, embarrassing divorces and horribly thriving gossip mongering tactics also create the scenario whereby, from one moment to the next, a human being becomes invisible. The phrase, “I don’t know you anymore” certainly comes to mind and with it, a previously undiscovered amount of pain and disappointment emerges. I guess we could also answer in the affirmative as to how this happens, but what about the “why?” And then of course, the “what now?” Let’s start with the how and what we shall call “The Nicodemus Factor.”

Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin assembly who is particularly known for visiting Jesus at night. He couldn’t risk being seen with the Lord during the day because, well, he couldn’t be caught dead speaking with the “rabble-rouser.” Part of him really wanted to know and learn and actually spend time with someone he deeply admired but the pressure of public and private opinions came at too high a price that it was better to be covered safely by the dead of night than to be associated with such a man in bright sunlight. Time was to eventually change all this and bring both men in each other’s company in a most dramatic and memorable way. But what about all those friendships that we enter and leave with numbing regularity?

Here is where we might call, “The Tale of Two Friends,” or even better, a tale of two different kinds of friendships. I think that we live life quite unforgettably too often and perhaps over-depend on people in our lives for moral support, a few laughs here and there, and a shoulder to cry on. We better re-examine that quickly. The painful truth is that should we ever find ourselves in a precarious and dangerous position, not to mention an unpopular one and find that the people we most thought would be there, just might not be. The more I share these thoughts with others the more surprised I am. The more I discover how many “fair weather,” undependable, and fickle people we actually keep around us. Why should this hurt so much? I ask myself “why do I hurt so much?”

I believe it is because we all want and purposefully work for a happy, fulfilling life and we want and need good people in them to make this vision complete. I know I do. For me and those who will still talk to me, it is a genuine hunger and desire for God’s Kingdom which requires the right angle of perspectives to yield the right questions, then hopefully, the right answers. These are the results and conclusions that bring us peace to live in harmony with not just the world we can see, but truly in the mystical Kingdom of divine insights which has been purchased for us at such a high price. What does this mean in the here and now?

Expect rejection from the most unobvious and surprising of places. Jesus faced it and showed us how to sail right through it. He kept loving and serving. Don’t start licking silly, small wounds like these because this quickly becomes a habit and the wounds get bigger. Then we will really have problems. Express your disappointments to the ones you believe you can trust right here and right now. I am blessed with at least one voice in my life who has a knack of quickly summarizing key concepts in a small phrase and then puts music to it. Sound crazy? It is. The last approach is my favorite. Celebrate the people you love. Tell them how much they mean to you and recommit yourself to work hard at mending fences, asking forgiveness and praising God for the ones He has given you. You should also thank Him for the ones He exposed to you as unfriends, if that is actually a term today. I think it is.

In the end, you might discover, as Jesus did, that with all the thousands of people he taught and healed and fed, there was only a short-list, handful of folks left to help him die. Oh yes, and Nicodemus was one of them. Scripture reports that he was one of the ones who actually help take the body of Jesus off the cross. Not too concerned about who sees you there, were you Nicodemus? And that’s the solid point here. Love and friendship are such powerful gifts that there will no doubt be a cleansing and filtering at least a couple of times along the way. One of mine came this morning. Thank you, Jesus. Tonight, I will be reaching out to those who I hope are still there and I will praise God for them all. And remember, life isn’t quite over yet. You never know who might show up.

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Death, A Meal Best Served Live

Like any and most American families, in the given span of ten years or so you notice at least two things: you see less people at family gatherings and then you see more people at those same wonderful moments. The reason is simple. People die, people get married, and people are born. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? Well there’s a lot more to it. At a recent and quaint gathering of my cousins and me, all of whom have entered the 50+ Club, we spoke directly about this very observation and came up with an amazing idea. We decided that we’re going to create a generational cookbook of the best dishes new and old accompanied with stories and pictures that will bring all this to life. It sounds exciting especially to me who loves to eat. Everyone from each of the existing generations will contribute recipes, photos and lore which must all be shared while preparing and serving these dishes even for gatherings outside the family circle. And why not? Share the wealth! All this might sound like a lot of work producing an exponential amount of fun and family ties, but more importantly it’s absolutely necessary to understand death. By now you should be asking how does a cookbook help you understand death? Well, what stops when you die? Among many other things, you stop eating. But you don’t stop living. Because everyone who has lived and died is still alive, somewhere. And don’t we bring those people close to us again and again as we remember them?

Does this sound scary? Well it shouldn’t because all this brings us to a “trifecta” of annual and memory-making gems beginning with Halloween and concluding with Day of the Dead which in turn evolves into our social and spiritual cue to start our engines to enter the world of Thanksgiving and Christmas. When you get right down to it, it is all pretty exciting and marvelous in a way. Who doesn’t like to eat? But, on the other hand, who likes to say goodbye to loved ones who leave us in death? Whole new answers, right? Well, let’s take a look at this more carefully as we start by resurfacing our notion of the trifecta. We will continue with the assumption that all this life and death stuff, painful as it is for many of us to behold, less talk about it, is always a mystery that finds amazing expression when human beings express themselves with burning and sometimes inexplicable longing lodged deep within the human heart. We will speak here about the relationship between or among, Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, otherwise known as Day of the Dead. They all are fundamentally linked and inseparable and have been at least since the seventh century. To be clear, we are going to have to start from the middle and work our way from there because this is the best way to approach this mystery.

Halloween, October 31

The night before on the Eve of All Hallows, similarly marks those who ascended to celestial heights but from a very different and evolving perspective. I don’t seem to grow weary of telling and re-telling my friends and newly arrived family members about how exciting Halloween was for me as a child. My costume? Why, Yogi Bear, of course!! “I’m smarter than the average bear!” Either I’ve lost you on that reference or you’re sitting there with a huge grin on your face. I know I am. Halloween like so many of our holidays were engineered precisely for children. Whether it was birthdays, St. Valentine’s Day, Christmas or today’s enormous expression of color and calories, we either enjoyed the day and loved the pageantry of it all, or we lived through our own children and innocent ones and still kept happiness alive if only in some small way. Everything great and good begins small and unassuming like the mustard seed. And like the famous woman with a few measures of flour, it all needs our constant attention. It is just like our faith which must lead us and sustain us into adulthood. Especially into adulthood. This is where we learn that the most frightening things in our lives are often not wearing costumes or doling out candy, but are true monsters, large and little, that can rob of us of happiness, if we allow. And among those fear-mongering creatures lurks the face of death, the quintessential “trick.” Jesus loved children and especially all the children still inside each and every one of us. Go on, smile on Halloween. Say a prayer and ask the Lord for all the treats that He has promised especially eternal life and for protection against the wicked tricks that lie in wait.

All Saints Day, November 1

Colorful burning candles during All Saints Day at the cemetery

All Saints Day in the Church’s calendar celebrates all those who have made it into heaven. In many ways we could say that this is our day, a day of hope and encouragement where we chance a glimpse of a glorified existence after the earthly battles of stress and worries and disappointment have all passed, laced with so many great and awesome momentous chapters that helped keep our focus on heaven such as the birth of children, outstanding resolutions and breathtaking surprises. It is on this day as well as on others that we hear 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 multimedia 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 ten 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! To concentrate on the cataclysmic end of the world on All Saints Day or December 31, or some other arbitrary day that was arrived with some clever mathematician wand of expertise is to lose sight of all these days. Today is about our life today, how we live it and where we all hope to go with all the ones we have ever loved with all our hearts and souls. 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 lawgiver 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! 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 us and it has our name on it.

Day of The Dead November 2

Traditional Mexican Day of the Dead altar with sugar skulls and candles

Here is the final installment of our trifecta and no doubt the most difficult. It is the most challenging because we must at all costs avoid the extremes that many take with this episode. Either we under-state the effect that death has on us, thinking out of sight, out of mind, or we overdo it placing way too much attention on the dark, gloomy almost fatalistic view that although someone wonderful has died, everything has died including ourselves. All Souls Day is the moment when Jesus is literally taking our minds and hearts and gently walking with us to face our deepest and darkest fear, that of death itself, in very much the same way He did. In wonderfully typical Old Testament dramatic delivery, the Prophet Ezekiel begins the healing hope of this victory over death: “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them.” But for a time, a seemingly endless amount of time for some, there is a veil of sadness which must be faced and we do that with our prayers for the dead, visits to the cemetery, private and public Altars of Remembrance with pictures and yes, more predominantly lately, with feasts and festivals that celebrate with food and party the most frightening aspect of life itself. Sounds very much alive, doesn’t it?

Strange and wonderful we human beings, wouldn’t you say? What have we learned from our trifecta of days and dramatic moments? It looks like the three days of Halloween, All Saints and All Souls we have uncovered a pattern. What do we do with life?

  1. We get together
  2. We cook and eat together
  3. We remember together
  4. We laugh and cry together
  5. We repeat the cycle.

In the final analysis, Halloween, All Saints and Day of the Dead have everything to do with the living, family, eternity and memory. And when you think about it all those things have to do with the way each of us comes into this world, experiences love and acceptance and what truly brings us hope against all odds. And while we’re still on this planet, rituals and practices and yes, food not only nourish us but also bring us together for many significant moments that can never be repeated. Everyone who lives knows we’re going to die. Everyone who loves knows that we’re going to get hurt. And everyone who says goodbye knows we’re going to say hello again. So what we do in our own fashion as human beings is face whatever frightens us, symbolized at times with masks and crazy costumes, think and pray with all the holy ones whom we know have made it into heaven and then recall with unreserved and completely understandable and proportionate sadness all who have gone before us marked with sign of faith. This we do at times with smiles on our faces and yet tears in our eyes, to confront whatever scares us so we can keep going until there’s no more death, no more suffering and no more hunger. And that is why, my friends, death is a meal best served live because it simply has no more power over us.

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Christmas And The Homeless Baby

swaddled baby in mother's arms with father looking

My recently acquired membership in the sixty-plus club comes with some surprising benefits among my family and friends. It is definitely true that time seems to travel much faster as once remembered and good memories seem closer while bad ones appear further and further away. Other benefits include an apparent increase of loving patience from those who have recently joined the forty-plus club, more enjoyment of peace and quiet, and because the body has also fallen captive of this time change, this same peace and quiet both seem easier to find. Such was the moment a few weeks ago as I was sipping my coffee and thanking God while simultaneously begging Him for much more help and understanding with a number of impending issues ahead. An indifferent cold wind outside painted the perfect backdrop to be still and stay warm, acutely and highly useful in contributing to the main task of preparing mental notes of what had to get done, what could wait and tracking down those other nagging chores and concerns that escaped the grasp of my memory.

Out of the blue, as if to break in with a flashing news alert, I received a call from my nephew spiced with a tone of fear and restlessness of which I was not accustomed to hearing from him. “Please,” said he, “I’ve got to see you. I have news. I have sad news. I must tell you in person.” Without a doubt, this was truly the best way to get someone’s attention. Unquestionably it worked that morning and soon I found myself driving anxiously to my home to discover the painful yet unrevealed news. While in my car, with my imaginations in overdrive, I thought about the last fifteen years or so since I have watched my nephew grow into a man. It seemed like just yesterday that he was in middle school. Where had the years gone? How did I miss all the in-between growing spurts and pains? Well, I was about to have a front seat to a dramatic turn of events that has since helped shape how I will approach Christmas this year with those closest to me.

“I lost my home,” he staggered through hushed sounds of tears and shallow breaths. “You lost your what?” I followed. I wasn’t sure I heard right. Did he say he lost his comb? Wait, that wouldn’t make any sense so I just sat down to listen more carefully. Seeing as I am not well versed in these financial matters, let us agree to state here for the sake of time and interest, that because of a series of missteps and inaction, he did in fact lose the home he had been dreaming of buying and settling down and now within one excruciating week that dream was about to be boxed into cardboard containers and carried away with the sobering knowledge that anything he would leave behind would be sold, given away or just trashed. Not a pretty sight, for sure. What further surprised me was how much weight he placed in my opinion of him and how I was going to think of him going forth. “Nothing has changed between us,” I said while trying to wrap my mind around all that was transpiring before me. “Now you’ve got to keep moving and find a new home.”

A new home? Those few simple words started to echo curiously in my mind as if I had said something remarkably deep and resilient. Then I looked at my watch. It was less than a month away from Christmas and the whole idea of moving and finding a home made perfect sense. It was the real-life experience of Jesus in the first few minutes of post-birth life on this planet with parents who were probably as forlorn and worried as my nephew. In those few moments of the most difficult unfolding truth for a thirty-year-old to hear, we both realized a sobering, troublesome truth that he was homeless. Maybe not for long, certainly not forever, but right then and there, he was homeless and all of a sudden I felt incredibly helpless and sad, perhaps yet another throwback of emotions finding their roots in the first Christmas.

Jesus was a homeless baby. Not surprisingly, we do not normally have the opportunity to think about this revealing truth inundated as we are every year with all the wonderfully crafted and awe-inspiring Christmas cards, memes, photoshopped pictures and our very nice and serene Nativity Scenes popping up all around us. Yet, the first Christmas, if we think about it in quiet reflection, was hardly full of silent nights and warm cheer, but rather and more accurately painful and even empty, certainly not our modern idea of a merry Christmas. This gut-wrenching aspect of these days are not without great merit and can actually deepen our care and awareness about the reality of this time and actually create in us a spirit that makes life around us so much better and more beautifully significant.

This is not an attempt to guilt people into an over-gushing of temporary charitable acts that start and end in one day. That is self-absorbed guilt-relief and unsustainable. This aspect of homelessness has to be something much deeper and much more significant. You and I are, in essence, homeless because our final home is in heaven and everywhere we live today, no matter what city or state, home or apartment, cave or tent, is, by definition, temporary. If this is true, then how could it shape Christmas and the brave new year we are all about to enter into? Here are a few thoughts:

If we truly understand this Christmas mystery, wrapped not-so-tenderly in stark homelessness, then I believe it will truly change the way we treat each other. Instead of over-reacting when someone offers us a cross word or an ugly, condescending look, remembering that we are all trying to find our way home with varying degrees of success might take the edge off the ferociousness that sometimes characterizes human interaction, especially during this highly overrated buying season to get all the right gifts for all the right people with not enough money to go around or enough time to accomplish it all.

It will also reveal a new way to understand anger and harried frustration, both inside of each of us and the seemingly endless display from others around us. Everyone has lost something. Everyone is afraid of something. And yes, everyone misses someone. Gone unchecked, these subtle realities of being human can create exasperated resentment and pathetic posturing that creates more of the same in other family members and co-workers. Knowing that the first Christmas was about a homeless baby struggling for the basic human needs of food, water and shelter, could very well usher in a new sense of patience and love and certainly forgiveness beginning with a most sincere sense of gratitude of what we do have rather than focusing on what we do not. We would then be invited to approach every life situation from now on with the poignant thought, “How can I make things better?”

Finally, the plight of Jesus and Mary and Joseph could also remind us about our perceived value of possessions. Imagine what they were able to carry. Can you see a bag of toys and the latest electronic-cyber gadgets strapped over the donkey carrying the holy family to and from the manger moment? Hardly. We all know and accept that there is a readily and perennially explosive amount of attention placed on buying and purchasing and getting and receiving gifts around this time. Things. Things. Things. It would not be a hard stretch to remember that this homeless baby would grow up into an awesome human being, the quintessential man, who would then remind us that although the world teaches us to love things and use people, His message would be the opposite, even sealing it with his own final selfless act on the cross.

In a few short weeks, Christmas will be upon us and the comfort and joy that is potentially ours will be waiting once again when we gather around the God-made-Man who was not only born homeless but who also died homeless. Whether you belong to the twenty-plus, thirty-plus, forty-plus clubs or beyond, it’s time to make a brand new memory and relive a timeless one. It is the time to remember to thank God that we have a home waiting for us with all those we miss and remember with great fondness and perhaps even with sad longing. The time has come once again to make room in our souls for the one who was homeless and yet gave each of us an eternal home.

Don’t you want a real Christmas rather than a silly, expensive and self-indulgent one? I know I do. I will try very hard to convince my nephew that he has been given a unique and wonderful chance to experience a phenomenal Christmas that will not only shape the rest of his new year, but recalibrate and reformat the rest of his life.

That’s my hope and I’m sticking with it.

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Life’s Bouquet Of Love

bouquets of red tulips

“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; For Love is strong as Death, longing is fierce as Sheol. Its arrows are arrows of fire, flames of the divine.” Song of Songs 8:6

After a very long and tedious day at work, a man slowly but surely made his way back home when he took the opportunity to rest by the side of the road. An elderly woman equally slowly passed by the place where he had stopped arduously pushing a cart full of flowers. The compelling aroma of her blossoms was remarkably perfuming the air with sweet tenderness that it truly seemed to take away the weariness in his bones and to lighten his spirits. He had never experienced such wonder from any collection of flowers even from his own garden.

“I wonder how much are these exquisite flowers,” he asked the friendly woman.

“They are yours for the taking, my brother,” she replied. “Your thanks is quite enough.”

So the man filled his arms with these beautiful flowers and hurried joyfully home. He and his wife and his children rejoiced with him over the remarkable flowers, for they, too, discovered that the sight of them was a delight and the smell of them refreshed the soul.

So as not to lose his treasure, the man planted the blossoms in a small plot of land behind his house. Sunlight and water kept them amazingly beautiful, still performing their marvelous, miraculous effect on all who encountered them. When children came to play in the yard, the man cautioned them against carelessness and wild play lest they trample the flowers and damage them. However, even with all the hustle and bustle of life passing through like heady gusts of winds, these wonderful flowers remained hardy and strong so long as there was enough sun and moisture to nourish them. Nowhere else could the man or his wife or children find such remarkable solace from weariness, such comfort in sadness, such spiritual nourishment as those remarkable flowers provided. Here was a treasure beyond value.

As the family and the surrounding neighborhoods grew, more children came to play in the garden and the number of visitors increased while the man became even more concerned over his remarkable flowers. He was determined to protect them, and so he built a huge greenhouse around them. In time, because of his numerous children, he would allow them entrance to the small sanctuary only sparingly and with the utmost care.

However this effort to protect this great gift seemed to begin to backfire. Problems and needless tension began to emerge. The man began to “weaponize” the gift of the lovely floral miracles of love in order to control and keep a mere semblance of peace. If the children caused their father stress or anguish, he would refuse them access to the flowers. If the neighbors were too loud or unruly in his own estimation or if they even appeared to be ungrateful for all that they had seen and appreciated, he kept them away from their beauty. Eventually he set up a large number of rules and regulations as to who may enter the greenhouse, how they must enter, and what they must do while they spent time in there. All the while, he continued to see that his treasure received enough sunlight and water so that the flowers continued to perform their wondrous outcome on the shrinking amount of folks who were allowed to view them.

As grandchildren began to appear and fame spread about these magnificent flowers, the man felt even greater need to safeguard his treasure. Access to the flowers was open to all members of his family and visitors who seemed friendly enough, but not without certain precautions. Requirements were to be met and standards upheld. Offices were established to judge worthiness and to determine accessibility. It became necessary to have lawyers to defend and judges to weigh and guards to safeguard and caretakers to upkeep, and on and on and on.

However the inevitable occurred after all this smothering of the miracle. Everyone who had ever seen and experienced such a gift eventually saw less and less of the flowers and some even simply forgot about them and their marvelous power to transform and shine light into the soul. Eventually, people thought it was just a myth, a magnificent story, even a legend. But those who dared to dream and believe in the power of transformation and complete change from the inside out, began their own intrepid search for the flower lady, and to everyone’s amazement, there she was, still out there, still giving away her amazing flowers. Love was indeed real and had not died.

The meteoric celebration within a 24-hour period of frantic rushing and purchasing of flowers in commemoration of St. Valentine will no doubt bring different meanings and connotation to every person you will meet during this time. At the center of it all, however, is the same element with which we opened our reflection. Is love a myth? Is it really possible? Is it dead? All gifts are freely given but none so precious as the gift of love. We can, and many do, cling to the gift that has been given to us and never share or pass on the goodness that has been shown to us. We can either slowly but systematically destroy the possibility of a love-filled life by allowing ourselves to be possessed by our possessions and threatened by the illusion of loneliness, or we can learn how to embrace all that is good in our lives, especially the gift of love, starting for God then others and then ourselves, with a habitually relaxed grasp striving to share with others what has made our lives so blessed and worth living.

The lesson is as simple as it it is timeless. Love is not static but alive and always in need of sharing and surrounded by a heart of gratitude otherwise it will be lost. We must admit at the same time that it is very easy to find ourselves caught off guard and distracted by forces of selfishness and egoism and thereby lose right perspective, constricting ourselves and others with rigid rules made by well-meaning caretakers. One thing is clear: love is stronger than death and as long as we long to be loving, giving, forgiving and prayerful people the way we long for air, we will find all that we have been destined to find in this short but amazing life.

“Deep waters cannot quench love, nor rivers sweep it away. Were one to offer all the wealth of his house for love, he would be utterly despised.” Song of Songs 8:7

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Ashes-to-Ashes, Love-to-Love

burning logs in fire

In this amazing life we sometimes live unforgetfully, there can be found, close to the surface of our comings and goings, unique and altogether lovely gifts in the form of archetypal moments. These are recurrent symbols, motifs and patterns nestled carefully within soul-enriching experiences that actually mold us and fashion even as we struggle or celebrate through them. These are replete in literature, art, and mythology and a list of the most famous could easily start right here, right now. However, today we make yet another bold claim: in everyone’s life, there is an archetypal Ash Wednesday and a Good Friday, perhaps several days like these, that is to say, there are those days of going without, emptiness, distance, silence and the pain of separation through death or some other terrible loss. They rarely fall on the day assigned for any given year, but make no mistake, they are always there, placed strategically on our life’s calendar and appearing at the least expected moment, often with all rage and fury of a mid-western tornado leaving nothing but emotional darkness and mental debris in its wake. What do you do when you find yourself face-to-face with all the worst possible scenarios that you would have ever imagined appearing all at once and then challenged to the degree you would never have expected, to follow your own advice, your own counsel and to live what you have told so many others to do in the face of remarkable despair and trial?

You keep walking and wondering and asking God how all this happened so quickly. And while you face microcosmic episodes of death, separation and rejection every day, you also find new and amazing opportunities to learn, to cope and to reveal something remarkable about God, the world, love and yourself. And you don’t ever stop because you know if you do, the villains of self-pity and rage will swallow you whole.

These moments will face every human being at one time or another. The goal is to find the greatest amount of emotional and spiritual maturity throughout it all before we get too old not to care enough about anything. This is precisely why the Season of Lent is such a powerful series of days and nights that can and will determine our experience of Easter, the rest of the year but truly, my friends, the rest of our lives—and beyond. Notice the words that accompany the distribution of ashes: “Remember! You are dust and unto dust you shall return.” We might add, for the sake of our present reflection before you today, the following : “Remember! You were made for love and unto love you must return!” Thus we will return to the amazing, remarkable, and incredible plethora of uses for ashes. Let us compare the natural use of ashes in nature and home care with the spiritual value that ashes may have on our spiritual lives if we truly allow them to take root and substance. Prepare for a journey like no other that has the potential of reaping eternal fruit!

In the natural world, a few logs of firewood can produce as much as fifty pounds of ashes—a formidable heap of soot but also a great source for mineral-rich dust that has practical and supernatural purposes. Here are some of the most noteworthy:

  1. De-skunk pets and neutralize evil.  In those areas of the world where humans and skunks must share space, it is helpful to know that just a handful of ashes rubbed on your dog’s or cat’s coat neutralizes the lingering odor of a most unfortunate encounter with Pepé Le Pew. This Lent, let us name at least one very unhealthy and destructive habit or attachment that is nagging our peace of mind and spiritual aroma. Everyone can. As we move forward in this great season, claim victory over that persistent sin remembering that we are made for love and not for selfishness. When we pray, remember to call out the name of Jesus in our lifted words to heaven.
  1. Block garden pests and tireless temptations.  Amazingly, firewood ashes evenly spread in garden beds actually repel slugs, snails and a variety of nasty garden pests.  Fasting from sugar or meat or alcohol have the real ability to strengthen our resolve against the temptations that bring us down and cause us to doubt God. Declare Lent as a time for real renewal and never give up the fight to resist what we know is wrong, unhealthy and unholy. Victory belongs to the most persevering.
  1. Melt ice and cold hearts.  In many parts of the world, wood ashes are thrown over walkways and sidewalks to add traction and de-ice the surface without hurting soil or concrete underneath. The human heart cannot survive without a healthy mixture of justice and mercy, integrity and compassion. Just because you look down on someone does not mean that somehow, even magically, they are going to get up and surprise you. Practicing real and daily compassion makes our faith in Jesus very real because that is how He treats each one of us with divine and endless mercy. An attitude of compassion is a little thing that makes a huge difference.
  1. Control pond algae and unhealthy attitudes.  As little as one tablespoon of dried ashes in a medium-sized pond adds enough potassium to strengthen other aquatic plants that compete with algae, slowing its growth allowing for the moral floral and decorative life to flourish. Grudges, unforgiveness, hateful judgmental attitudes can easily creep into the soul especially if we have opened ourselves to the harsh words and actions of others close around us. This Lent, make a serious and honest inventory of what is in your heart as often as you can, remembering that an unreflective life is not worth living. If you find something unhealthy, expose it to Jesus the Light of the World in your prayers and thoughts and make slow but serious changes to move forward. More prayer, more power.
  1. Enliven tomatoes and spiritual fruit.  For the benefit of most calcium-loving plants, experienced gardeners place about a quarter cup of ashes right in the hole before placing saplings or seeds in the ground. This can actually increase the size and tastiness of the fruit by twenty percent according to some estimates. In the forty days of Lenten Journey, make every effort to spend just a little more time with God every day, which has the potential of making all the difference in the world. You make time for everyone and everything that is important to you in this life. Make time for God and keep your special appointment with the one who has never forgotten you. Like a rudder on a ship, this small, seemingly insignificant detail can position the difference between merely surviving to thriving.
  1. Shine silver and the soul.  A paste of ash and water makes a surprisingly nontoxic metal polisher that makes the best pieces of the cabinet glimmer and shine. A real and honest intention to keep our Lenten promises with the hope of becoming more and more like Christ will allow us to shine before even the more skeptical in our world. Every night before going to bed during these forty days of transformation, reflect on what you have done with what was presented to you. Celebrate when it was great and re-commit for another day should it be His most holy will for you.

In everyone’s life there are days that feel just like Christmas and as gloriously, personally triumphant as Easter and just like the other two famous archetypal dates, these bright moments actually come much more often, although, while we are in the midst of fasting and grieving, it does not always feel that way. The truth for all of us today, however, is simple. It is precisely how we handle going without, self-denial, painful self-awareness and courageous wishes to change internally that determines how we experience and employ feasting, friendship and life to its very fullest, the way God intended for us to live it.

I can’t believe that I would want it any other way.

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The Best, The Rest And The Greatest Easter

It must be more than twenty-five years ago now and I still remember that wonderful coffee cup given to me for Easter one year. I recall it vividly for two distinct reasons: the first is functional because the ceramic cup actually came with a lid to keep the fresh coffee hot for those of us who forget to take constant sips of the brew and are left with the insipid taste of semi-cold coffee. But the second reason was much more deep and meaningful. I can still see the cup in my mind’s eye. It had a painting of a beach scene with the simple words, “I do my best and give the rest to God.”

So where is that cup now? Oh well, it has a very sad but perhaps significant end that might help shine some light on our character as Easter people. Allow me to explain.

Not too long ago, I was leading my life at what most would call a frenetic pace. Although by any accounts there was much achieved and accomplished, but the toll on calm days and peaceful nights was evident. And you know, I can still recall that fateful morning when I was rushing to get from Point A to Point X in twelve minutes when I grabbed my favorite mug, my keys and whatever papers I was supposed to have for whatever important, critical meeting looming and made for my car. Because I was literally juggling all these things with one fell swoop I did what many of our readers might have been guilty of at least one or two times in their lives: I placed the coffee on top of my car to get it in a split second but unfortunately for the mug that split second never came and I drove off with the cup atop my vehicle.

Either I am a very steady driver or the streets around my office were pretty smooth because I actually traveled quite a distance before I realized that I had forgotten something. In the middle of traffic on a very busy street at a busy time of the day, I braked a little too suddenly only to see my windshield dripping with cold coffee and the infamous mug rolling down the back of the trunk onto the street where I could still hear a subtle but unmistakable crash of a ceramic mug hitting the pavement. I could see the broken pieces through my rear view mirror as I moved along with the flow of traffic. By the time I was able to drive to the next intersection and turn around, there was only what appeared to be ceramic powder from all the pummeling that the pieces endured. Later that afternoon, running yet another frenetic errand, I passed by the same spot and saw there was  nothing left, not even a clue.

As I write this Easter reflection it becomes almost surreal to realize that this short but significant episode occurred over twenty years ago. Easily to say, there have been literally hundreds of coffee cups nestled in my hand with everything from happy panting dogs to cartoon figures to pithy comments about the state of life, love and all things in between, but I never forgot that one obliterated mug. I wonder why?

While the obvious reason of unforgetability (is that even a word?) lies in plain sight, the more deep and meaningful reason lies in wait. I am elated to report that leaving my coffee atop my car or anything else for that matter has never repeated itself. That would certainly be the first fruit of the experience: Lesson learned. Just the sheer image of fellow drivers all around me laughing uncontrollably and getting their phones ready to capture the moment so it can go viral is just enough to keep me from making that mistake again. We will see.

The second lesson is so much more precious and one that I pray I will never forget even if I revert to leaving things on top of my car. To discover this wonderful lesson we don’t have to go too much further than to remember what that annihilated mug actually said: “I do my best and leave the rest to God.” What does that really mean and how can we factor that message into our souls to make this the greatest Easter ever?

We can start with the very life of Jesus and the events that immediately preceded his arrest, his death on the cross and His most stupendous gift to us by rising from the dead. I believe that God truly expects us to do all we can do in any given situation so that then and only then will He accomplish what we cannot. When Jesus performed the pre-Easter miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead, He commanded those around Him, “Take the stone away!” (John 11:39) One of the obvious conclusions that we could make today is that the Lord really did not need their help to bring about this awesome moment. If the Lord had wanted, his old friend Lazarus could have as easily walked right through the huge stone itself adding to the marvel of the miracle. But you see, the people there, like us, could not have raised this man from death but they could roll the stone away which is precisely what they did. Then Jesus did the rest.

The application is simply brilliant: God is not always going to do everything for us when we can do it for ourselves. Remember what God said to Moses when he was going through a difficult time with the Israelites who would not listen to him:

“So the Lord asked him, ‘What are you holding?’” “A walking stick, ‘he answered.’” Then the Lord asked Moses to throw it on the ground and immediately it turned into a snake. It was this amazing moment that won the approval of the Israelites “that the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” had indeed appeared to Moses. (Exodus 4: 1-5)

This very enlightening point is re-echoed in the New Testament as well in the Gospel of Matthew: “Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks will receive, and anyone who seeks will find, and the door will be opened to those who knock.” (7:7-8)

In other words, we do what we can do, understandably our best effort, then leave the rest of the situation to the Lord who will then decide what to do next. And here are the real Easter challenging questions: Do we do our best? Do we leave the rest? Do we leave that portion to God or something else? And do we trust Him enough to do the rest?

Well, if it is any consolation, and believe me, it is, look what He did with the body of His Son, Jesus: Resurrection from the dead! It looks like God allows us to do what we can do and when we surrender our wills to that truth, He does the rest.

After so many cups of coffee since that rushed morning over twenty years ago, there has never been another mug that made such a lasting impression. I believe that if we embrace the mystery that was etched upon that cup, about the Lord and His great universal love for us, this could be the greatest Easter we have ever experienced.

Remember this the next time you have a cup of coffee.

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Ears – A Mother’s Day Tribute

young boy covering both ears with hands

Like any young couple in the 80s, Jimmy and Deborah struggled with great difficulty to start and raise a family and maintain their love for each other as expectantly as they could. This was compounded with increasing difficulty as they were considered a military family moving every two years from place to place. But soon, all that would change when a promising business opportunity opened up for the young couple and they decided to settle down in Albany, New York. Things were moving right along quite well for them and then the news over which they were waiting so patiently finally arrived. They were expecting their first child!

The excitement of this new life within their family was almost too overwhelming as they received much support and encouragement from all their family across the U.S. and their new-found life-long friends in the Albany area. This effusion of joy, however, was to be met with immediate horror, then sadness, then remarkable resilience, as they witnessed something terribly wrong with the birth of their first born son, Jeremy. Something was terribly wrong with their baby even though all the internal organs and expected mental and intellectual standards were met. It was then that the family and friends of the newborn were introduced to a bizarre condition known as anotia. Anotia is a rare birth defect where the external ear is completely missing. While Jimmy and Deborah breathed a huge sigh of relief knowing that all little Jeremy’s vital organs were in perfect order, and that there would be no learning or other physical impairment to his future, they both knew instinctively that he would have a tough time socially with other children and the not-so-subtle stares he would receive in whatever life he pursued. And they were absolutely correct.

During little Jeremy’s early life, his parents, for that matter, his entire extended family tried the very best they could to protect him and build confidence in himself devoid of his appearance. They cleverly looked for all kinds of activities, especially sports that would involve moments that would not involve a whole lot of interaction and socialization and found that amazingly he was quite adept at swimming and running. Still the inevitable would not be avoided and his first day of school provided the most expected of all reactions to his appearance.

“They called me a freak!” he wailed out to his mother who was waiting for such a reaction. “I never want to go back to school, ever!” he continued. And even though he seemed inconsolable, his wise mother knew differently.

“You’re not a freak, Jeremy. You’re mine.” This became her go-to mantra for the next twenty years or so. It was a phrase which he never forgot and often repeated deep within his soul. It helped him sail through and face the rest of elementary and junior high school bullies and insensitive morons who could or would never fully understand the impact of harsh words layered upon someone so wonderful and lovable inside, even though there were no outer ears to complete the expectations of most, if not all, of a full facial composition.

His father was also a most profound and steady support to his loving son. He continued to help develop his swimming and running skills and found that Jeremy had a natural proclivity for these sports which was evidenced by the number of ribbons and trophies he was amassing from these two athletic competitions. Still, there were those painful moments of exclusion and mockery and it may or may not have impeded Jeremy’s desire to ask girls out on dates or just develop his social life. For that he just plunged deeper and deeper into his studies and his cross-country running skills, both of which grew remarkably in depth and accomplishment. Midway through his junior year in high school, however, he received two amazing bits of news.

First, it looked as if he was going to be valedictorian of his highly-competitive school and with that honorary and well-deserved distinction, he was going to have his own basic and personal choice of any university in the nation. Second, a distant cousin made the bold and stunning declaration that before Jeremy would step out on his own, he would actually donate his own outer ears to his relative to ensure a much better and smooth sail into his future destinations. What a spectacular pair of overwhelmingly great events to happen so close to each other and to such a deserving young man.

But before we get ahead of ourselves here, life, as we all know, has a strange way of surprising us even when it has just surprised us. The news of Jeremy’s special condition spread quickly after the announcement of his first place spot on the list of graduates all the way to Washington, DC where he was offered a fast-track and full scholarship to a top diplomatic and political science university to prepare his way for a career to serve his country in one of the many embassies around the world. The second installment of surprise was not as joyful, at first. You see, the cousin of young Jeremy at the last minute backed out of his offer citing fear and the great unknown as to the aftermath of the surgery. While the scholarship news filled everyone with hope, the second was painful to hear. However, there must have been an angel constantly hovering over Jeremy because within a week of the disappointing news came yet another offer of an astounding donation of outer ears, this time, moreover from an anonymous source. The only condition that was placed before the family was that Jeremy would never know the donor.

It did not take the family that long to decide to accept this kind offer and after much consultation with doctors and surgeons, the procedure was to take place during the Christmas break of Jeremy’s Senior year, and with that announcement, the flood of prayers and well-wishes flowed in like a tsunami. What seemed like an impossible dream was about to show itself as the greatest gift and moment not only for Jeremy but for all those who knew him and loved him very much. Over the years, Jeremy had become a loving, compassionate and trusted friend to everyone, his personality and character sculpted, as it were, over the years of carrying this strange deformity. People were desperately waiting for the news of the surgery and of course to see Jeremy with his “new” look and their time would come close to New Year’s Day when Jeremy walked out with his new appendages. Tears and laughter and more tears were not in short supply that day and the rest of his impressive Senior Year, including his inspiring Valedictory address which immediately became historic and deeply embedded in the memories of both family and friends.

After all this, not much else can truly compare with the dramatic unfolding of these events. People all around the family, as is the normal case, began to move on with their lives as Jeremy was accepted to his prize university and then continued to excel both professionally and spiritually. He met the woman of his dreams and they married as soon as his new post in Paris was announced. They began to talk about starting a family, and, with the normal hesitation and worry if history would repeat itself with the condition that had earlier plagued Jeremy, both of their sons, born within three years of each other, entered this world both wonderfully and healthy.

Over the course of raising their growing family, receiving a baby girl a few years later, Jeremy and his wife began to talk about settling down back in the U.S. after considering consulting work either for the Pentagon or the State Department. They had just decided on making those professional moves for themselves and their family, when sad news appeared on their doorstep in the form of news that never seems to be properly expected nor welcomed. Jeremy’s dad called to announce that his mother had died. While she was not ailing from any known ailment, she went rather quickly in her sleep. Jeremy began the immediate preparations to fly home with all his family to attend her funeral.

As expected with any unexpected travel, there were delays after delays and Jeremy and his young family arrived very late the night before the Funeral Mass long after the Wake Service had been completed. Since the family was very well known and loved, and there were so many who came to pay their respects, the Rosary was held in the Church and the body was to remain overnight. As soon as his father picked them up at the airport, he drove them straight to the parish where the priest met them at the front door close to midnight. While Jeremy’s wife stayed in the car to watch over their sleeping children, he and his dad made their way with the pastor into the nave and slowly approached the coffin.

As their solemn footsteps echoed through the empty, slightly darkened church, Jeremy could still hear his mother’s voice that had made that lasting impression into his soul, “You’re not a freak, Jeremy. You’re mine.” Slowly the casket was opened and Jeremy cried instinctively with deep loving tears rolling down his cheeks as he gazed downward to the serene face of his mother’s body lying so peacefully in repose.

“Jeremy?” his dad whispered to his son.

“Yes, dad. What is it?” came the subtle reply.

“Jeremy, your mother loved you very much and would do anything for you. I want you never to forget that, Son.” And with that, Jeremy’s dad reached gingerly and tenderly into the casket and slowly moved away his mother’s hair revealing that she had no outer ears. She had been the anonymous donor.

“She made me promise,” continued his dad, “never to tell you until this sad day. She said she hoped it would help carry you through this difficult moment.”

And it did

“A Mother’s love is something that no one can explain. It is made of deep devotion and of sacrifice and pain. It is endless and unselfish and enduring come what may. For nothing can destroy it or take that love away.” ~Helen Steiner Rice

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Foul Balls And A Father’s Love

baseball batter swing at game

In a most dramatic example of how baseball imitates life, there was an emotional and heart-stopping scene at Minute Maid Park during the Cubs-Astros game last Thursday (5/29) during the last inning. Albert Almora Jr. of the Cubs hit a hard line-drive foul into the stands that hit a young child. He was extremely and visibly affected and shaken by the accident and had to be consoled by security personnel right on the field. According to the latest reports available, the young child was awake, responsive and taken to a local hospital for precautionary reasons and is expected to be fine with an amazingly unique baseball memory afforded to few.

“Right now I’m just praying and I’m speechless,” he told the Associated Press. “I’m at loss of words. Being a father, two boys… but God willing I’ll be able to have a relationship with this little girl for the rest of my life. But just prayers right now and that’s all I really can control. It really puts life in perspective.” To watch this great athlete crumble before audiences everywhere spoke volumes of his deep paternal compassion and care. He inadvertently hurt a child and as a father of two, he felt the pain perhaps even more severely.

There is something quite telling in this remarkable slice of life that was witnessed by tens of thousands of people, mostly baseball fans. As we move into yet another month of this, what-seemed-so recently as the “brand new year,” it really has become a call to sit back for a second, take stock in life and consider what is really important and why.

You will no doubt hear that June is the month of Dads and Grads and perhaps that is partly our cue to ask a very important question. What does this amazing occurrence at the stadium in Houston reveal to us about what a father does, acts or feels? Here are a few ideas:

He heals.

“Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” (Matthew 15:22-28)

A father attempts to stay deeply connected to compassion, always acting what is within his power to do, approaching life with all his heart.

He loves.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the laws and the prophets.”  (Matthew 22:35-40)

A father shows mercy no matter what the circumstances and extends forgiveness without limits, loving the other as his own expression of his love for God.

He prays.

“But when you pray, go into your inner room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)

A father prays alone, persistently, with others and simply especially when life deals a hard knock of sorts.

He focuses on his treasure in heaven.

“And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’” (Luke 12:15)

A father detaches himself from possessions, believes that God has blessed him abundantly and seeks to act justly in all things with all people, especially his own family.

He seeks God’s will.

“So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.’” (John 8:27-29)

A father relies on the example of Jesus, maintains a sense of urgency by seeking to always be in the state of grace, focus daily on God’s will, and sees all his responsibilities as acts of love by looking upon his own sacrifice as gain for others.

He sees children as precious.

“The children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray,. The disciples rebuked the people; but Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’ And he laid his hands upon them.”  (Matthew 19:13-15)

A father protects children while welcoming them into a safe and loving world while at the same time seeking to have the innocent heart of a child.

He lives with humility.

“And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them,’ If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.’” (Mark 9:33-35)

A father lives in God’s mercy and not on his own merit, presumes the lowest place of consideration and sacrifice his ego for the greater good, especially for his family and neighbors.

That my friends, in a very friendly nutshell, is our reflection for and about fathers today. And to think that it surfaced out of a baseball foul ball in a tight game watched by hundreds of thousands of people, especially the remarkable and memorable foul ball. Baseball does in fact imitate life in several ways and we will close with these interesting comparisons:

In the game of baseball, there is no time limit or “sudden death” overtime. Everyone knows that there is an end to the game, but never exactly when. Just like life. In this great game, players get several chances to win and succeed. During nine innings you should get four at bats, and you get four balls and three strikes and whole bunch of foul balls. As in life, we often have many more failures than successes. But in baseball, like life, it’s those failures that make us better and stronger to be a better competitor the next day. In the game of life and baseball, you and I are sometimes asked to make sacrifices for the good of the team.

Fatherhood is amazing, isn’t? Whether it’s foul ball or a home run, just staying in the game is more than half the victory.

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

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A Midsummer Night’s Narrative

What is it about the month of August that sets it apart from the other months of our lives? I guess you could say that every month has its own character and shades of emotion like individual children that came from the same family. But, August is now upon us and it may be calling us to something deeper and most challenging as we begin to see the end of 2019 not too far in sight.

First, let us take a look at the name of this summer month: “August” comes from the Latin word “augustus” meaning “consecrated” or “venerable.” This rendering is very close to the word, “augur” which refers to a person or a thing which is considered as “consecrated by augury, that is, an omen” or “auspicious.” In 8 BC the Roman Senate honored Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor, by changing the name of their month “Sextilis” to “Augustus.” In the English language, this name became August and then began to refer to someone with imperial qualities.

What makes a person “regal?” Is it the way they walk, or talk. Is it their  mannerism or comportment. Maybe it is the way they handle life and the way they address problems over which they may or not have ultimate control or say so? Here are two very different examples for this August discussion:

A very good friend of mine was forced out of his home because of a whimsical decision on the part of a stereotypical landowner who part-times as Time Magazine’s Vindictive Man of the Year, every year, apparently. In the last three weeks of this month initially named for a Roman Emperor, my friend showed remarkable clarity, insight and most especially, forgiveness. He keeps telling me that there is a very good God watching everything and everyone and he has no doubt that everything is going to work out the way it is supposed to. Amazing. If this had been me or the majority of the people I know, things would look a whole lot differently, I can assure you. I am simply overwhelmed with the ease my evicted friend has just taken everything in stride, planned the move out of his home and serenely looking at all the options he has, moving out and forward with his life. He has become a noble man in my estimation and I am so glad to be called on as his trusted friend.

This weekend I, along with many who love him, will help him pack and move to a temporary location until something more permanent arises. Something tells me it is going to be a celebration of an August life that wakes up every morning with a growing sense of gratitude for life’s little hills and valleys and is committed to turn every moment of disappointment, disillusion and death into a fighting chance to live.

Here is our second August example, which in comparison is quite different but in essence not really:

It seems that one day a terrible fire broke out in a huge woodlands area and within hours the entire forest was suddenly engulfed by this unforgiving and menacing wild fire. Understandably frightened, all the animals fled their homes and ran out of the forest. As they came to the edge of a stream they stopped to watch the fire and were feeling very discouraged and powerless. They were all bemoaning the destruction of their homes. Every one of them thought there was nothing they could do about the fire, except for one little hummingbird.

This particular hummingbird decided it would do something. It swooped into the stream and picked up a few drops of water and went into the forest and put them on the fire. Then it went back to the stream and did it again, and it kept going back, again and again and again. All the other animals watched in disbelief; some tried to discourage the hummingbird with comments like, “Don’t bother, it is too much, you are too little, your wings will burn, your beak is too tiny, it’s only a drop, you can’t put out this fire.”

As the animals stood around disparaging and criticizing the hummingbird’s efforts, there appeared a hopeless and forlorn scene. It was pathetic by any measure. Then one of the animals shouted out and challenged the hummingbird in a mocking voice, “What do you think you are doing?” And the hummingbird, without wasting time or losing a beat, looked back and said, “I am doing what I can.” And so he was in such an august fashion.

Perhaps the month of August is calling each of us to take new stock of our lives and make deep and significant decisions to do something that will impact the rest of the year and the rest of our lives. If we were to interpret the meaning of this month that will somehow determine or set the stage for things to come, we have even a greater motivation to review and reflect on life itself and make positive, albeit even small changes to make the rest of the year the best of the year. One could argue then that every month has that invigorating character but we are preoccupied by the very name of this month —August! It by its own nature makes for a very different existence that delivers on the promise of the name. Start and end your days with silence, hold your head high, forgive as often as you can and laugh whenever possible. And don’t delay, It’ll be September before you know it.

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