Give Thanks in All Circumstances

Gratitude for the Donut and the HoleIt’s easy to be grateful for blessings—the good stuff of life. Most of us are grateful for family and friends, for food and shelter, for talents and work, for opportunities and health, when these are present in our lives.

The challenge of Thanksgiving, and of gratitude as a year-round spiritual practice, is to be grateful for the hard times, the valleys, the shadows, the failures, and the difficulties. In The First Principle and Foundation of his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola challenges us with these words:

We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or a short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God. Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening his life in me.

This is the challenge of our spiritual journey—to become our True Self in God. Can I be grateful for the hurts, failings, and difficulties I encounter because each has something to teach me? Can I detach enough from a present experience of misery to search and seek how God will use this hardship to shape, heal, teach, mold, and mature me, as God draws me more deeply into love?

In the Children’s Message at church last Sunday, the leader* (complete with donut-decorated leggings!) talked about donuts. Donuts have holes, she said, but at Thanksgiving, we want to be grateful for the donut, rather than complaining about what’s missing in the hole. One girl raised her hand and shared, “I know the reason why donuts have holes in the middle! It's because they cook better that way.” Aha! The hot oil can cook from the inside out as well as the outside in.

What a great image for our relationship with God! When we turn to God as we experience the holes in our lives, God can reach us more deeply from the inside out as well as from the outside in. The recent uncomfortable move from my past home in St. Louis to my new home in Frisco, Texas has been God’s invitation to me. I have left a life I loved to respond to God’s steady, unrelenting nudge into an uncertain future. I slid off the donut into the hole. Gratitude, even laced with loss, resistance and anxiety, becomes an act of faith that helps me move forward toward who God calls me to be. Today, we closed on our new house (pictured)—part of a beautiful new donut in the making!

In 1 Thessalonians 5, we are encouraged to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” No matter where we are in life, God can use what’s happening to make us more than we are right now. This Thanksgiving, you may be on the donut, full of good things, giving thanks from the outside in. Or you may be in the hole, needing God’s presence and love to enter the struggle and to touch you from the inside out. Either way, may you let gratitude deepen your life in God, trusting that She will use all of these experiences to bring you more closely to your True Self.

*With thanks to Emily Mackey Melton Harris for the great Children's Time at Legacy Presbyterian Church!

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Grief has a Life of its Own

Grief has a Life of its OwnGrief has a life of its own. It can overcome us without warning, even years after the death of someone we deeply love. This happened to me just last week.

Dan and I were headed to the movies on his day off last Friday. He found the theater and plotted out the directions to a nearby mall. Unknowingly, we parked on the opposite side of the complex from the cinema and had to walk through the entire mall to get to the theatre on the other side. It wasn’t until we walked by the Chico’s store that I remembered my two sisters and I had shopped there with our mom over New Year’s weekend of 2012. We spent a lot of time in that Chico’s and Mom bought a jacket with a bright blue and green floral pattern. Less than two weeks later, Mom, who already had advanced liver disease, contracted a MRSA (antibiotic-resistant) sepsis infection and died after nine days in the hospital.

Grief also seems to flow in intensity—one family member is calm while another is falling apart; later the same day, the roles can be reversed. Less than a month after our New Year’s shopping trip, my sisters and I were back in the Chico’s store. That day my sisters, especially my younger sister, Julie, was calm, and I was falling apart. The clerk at the counter kindly asked why we decided to return the jacket. While I stood there with tears streaming down my face, Julie was able to explain that our mother had died before she had a chance to wear it. My older sister, Pam, held me tight while I bawled and Julie completed the transaction.

It will be six years in January since my mom died, so my grief is not new, but it is persistent. I was just going to the movies on the first date I’ve had with my husband, Dan, in four months (he started his new call at Legacy Presbyterian Church in Frisco, Texas in mid-July, and I just moved here last week). And there I was, overcome with sadness, weeping through the mall while Dan listened to this story I somehow never told him. In my mind, I was still standing at that counter crying, returning an unworn jacket. Grief came as a fresh reminder of all the other missed opportunities robbed by death.

Mom would have been over the moon about our move to Frisco—only forty minutes away from where she and my dad lived in Bedford. Now I am here, but she is not. All I can do is feel and release the pain, open myself to the comfort offered from someone else who loves me, and lean into Mom's love, which is still real and present through Christ.

We were a few minutes late to the movie, but we went anyway. I think Mom would have approved since she loved a good Agatha Christie novel; Murder on the Orient Express served as both an affirmation and a distraction.

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Small Steps to Big Self-Care

Small Steps to Big Self care

After surviving what feels like months of hard work, a thousand things to do in too little time, and the anxieties and sadness of separation, I have arrived at my Dad's house in Texas. Marcie, our dog, and I will be staying here until we can move into our new house in Frisco the Monday after Thanksgiving.

I am simply exhausted. I am physically worn out from packing, cleaning, loading, moving, and driving eleven hours to get here. I’m spiritually depleted, having led or assisted with nine funerals in the past six weeks. I’m emotionally drained after saying goodbye to St. Louis, treasured friends acquired over nineteen years, great colleagues and a wonderful congregation, and most of all, to my two children who remain behind in Missouri--Jacob, a personal trainer in St. Louis, and Leah, a freshman at Truman State.

What fills your cup when you are totally depleted? Better yet, what small rituals do you perform daily to prevent becoming completely tapped out when life is crammed full of essential tasks and other stressors are piling on? These past two months, I have re-learned the importance of small habits of self-care. Here are some things that have helped me recently:

• Asking for and accepting offers of help, and being specific about what kind of help I could use, when my habitual knee-jerk response most often is “no, thanks, I'm fine;"
• Resting, even if just for twenty minutes, with a healing meditation googled on YouTube;
• Replenishing my spirit with a daily devotion received via email from Fr. Richard Rohr (sign up here);
• Not worrying too much about stress-eating the Halloween candy;
• Taking time to say goodbye and letting people know what they've meant to me;
• Seeing my spiritual director regularly;
• Conversing with and fully attending to friends, if only for ten minutes, refilling my cup;
• Helping others and showing gratitude, even in small ways, like buying lunch for our movers;
• Taking a walk and breathing deeply when there wasn't time for the YMCA;
• Asking our neighbors for a prayer of blessing as Dan and I said goodbye to our house and drove off;
• Singing favorite tunes at the top of our lungs during the long drive;

. . . and then finally today, giving myself permission to lie on the couch, doing as little as possible!

All of this brings to mind a book I read several years ago, One Minute for Yourself by Spencer Johnson. Finding small ways to take care of ourselves daily enables us to manage and reduce stress, to care for others without becoming depleted, and to experience more meaning and joy in daily life, even during difficult times. It's a short read; I may have to revisit it.

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Truth, Pain, and Freedom in Christ

Truth Pain and Freedom in ChristA sermon preached at Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Florissant, Missouri, for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, October 29, 2017, on John 8:31-36 and Romans 3:19-28. This is my farewell sermon before moving from St. Louis to Frisco, Texas.

We’ve all heard that “the truth hurts.” If you google this phrase, you will find hundreds of "the truth hurts" pages on Pinterest.

You will know the truth and the truth will make you free. Jesus's words, yes—but he doesn’t mention that the truth will hurt. He seems to skip the part about pain being involved in those moments between "knowing the truth" and "being free."

Our unwillingness to feel the pain of facing our truths is one of the biggest reasons that we are not set free in so many ways. Jesus is not talking about propositional truth—statements and doctrines of fact that we simply accept—but rather he is talking about the truth of who we are, the truth of who God is, the truth of our relationship with God in Christ Jesus, and the truth of how we live out that relationship in this world.

Psychologists write entire books about what they call defense mechanisms—all the ways in which we can try to avoid the pain encountered when confronting the truth of who we are:

• We repress what disturbs us. 
• We project what we don’t like about ourselves onto others, and then criticize them.
• We rationalize our errors. 
• We regress into childish behaviors and thought patterns. (We can look forward to this dynamic as the holiday season approaches, when the whole family gets together and we feel like we’re eight years old again!)

And let's not forget denial, the way we just reject a reality in front of us until we’re ready to deal with the pain that comes with facing it. (When someone I love seems stuck in denial, I like to sidle up to them, smile, and say, “You know ‘denial’ is not just a river in Egypt!”)

While in seminary, I dated a fellow student. We looked like such a good match on the surface, and I knew my parents would approve, so gosh darnit, I would make this relationship work! To this day, he’s still a great guy and he's become a great pastor. But the truth was, our personalities, needs, and ways of expressing ourselves back then were not all that compatible. I didn’t want to deal with the pain of that truth. I didn’t want to experience the pain of being alone. I certainly didn't want to feel the pain of admitting that, no matter how many ways I had tried, I couldn’t be my true self in that relationship. The truth hurt, and so for nearly two years, I repressed, rationalized, and denied my way into trying harder, over and over again.

While learning about the 12-Step program, I visited an open Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The speaker that day was talking about Step 1, and I'll never forget his message. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and our lives had become unmanageable,” he said. He went on to explain that the problem is that we think that just by trying harder, we can kick addiction or end a painful situation. But no matter how much we try, we fail and repeat the cycle—over and over again. Talk about pain. Maybe the pain of facing truth isn’t so bad after all. “The truth is,” he continued, “Step 1 happens not when we try harder, but when we admit that we cannot do this on our own at all!” Now, that’s a painful truth: We really are powerless, and left to our own devices, our lives are a mess. But the moment we accept this is also the very moment when we are ready to receive help from God. That’s when freedom happens!

And that’s what happened to me, in this relationship that I was trying so hard to make work. When I admitted that on my own I couldn’t fix or change it, that I needed God’s help, I was finally facing the truth—a truth that unleashed all of the pain of a broken relationship, the pain of being alone, the pain of knowing my own limitations.

It was the end of December and very cold in Chicago. We talked and cried late into the night because, well, the truth hurts. He would have been unwise to drive back to his parents’ house that night, so we pumped up the air mattress. We weren’t married, so when there were no alternative sleeping arrangements, we had gotten into the habit of trading off who got the bed and who slept on the air mattress. That night, it was my turn on the air mattress. As it turned out, the air mattress had a new leak. As I slept, all the air seeped out and I ended up on the cold hardwood floor. It sounds horrible, I know, but it turned out to be the best night of sleep I’d had in months—the truth had set me free! I was enveloped in the forgiveness and love of Jesus, and I was finally trusting him with my whole life, whether or not I remained alone. The pain of realizing that I couldn’t make my life work by myself was momentary, while the relationship with Jesus would last for my lifetime.

We see this pattern throughout Scripture and in the lives of the saints, who sought to be faithful to the truth of who they were and the truth of who God is in Jesus Christ.

When Jesus appeared to the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road, Paul had to experience the pain of confronting the revelation of who he was: a man who was persecuting and killing early Christians. He endured blindness and confusion, deep sorrow and regret. But the truth of God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ freed Paul from that pain, and it freed him from his former life as a Pharisee. Paul was set free by a relationship with Jesus that lasted a lifetime; the pain of facing who he had been before accepting his truth was only momentary by comparison. Paul experienced being justified by grace as a gift, and we still hear about his freedom today, two millenia later, as it is written in his letter to the Romans.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther grappled with the pain of his own sin and of the truth that he could not by his own work or merit—no matter how hard he tried—make himself right before God. Would the Reformation have happened if Luther had repressed, denied, rationalized, even projected the pain of his sin on someone else, rather than experiencing it and discovering in the process forgiveness without price and grace without merit? The pain of his sin was only momentary. Luther was set free by a relationship with Jesus that lasted a lifetime, even through excommunication and a threat to his life.

This evening, we will come together, Roman Catholics and Lutherans, at the Basilica to commemorate the Reformation and the truth of the Gospel that both Luther and Paul preached: We are saved, not by trying harder, but by confessing that alone we can’t do it at all. Telling this truth about who we are can be painful. The law convicts us and makes us aware of our brokenness and sin, but because grace opens up a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ, that pain doesn’t last.

So now here I am, at another moment of embracing both the pain and the truth of who I am. I have resisted moving and the pain of saying goodbye for as long as I could—two years, at least! Yet the moving truck comes on Thursday. It’s time to say farewell to a city, my home, my church, my ministry, and to so many people I love. I do not have a call. I do not have a clue what God has in mind for me in Texas. Maybe I’ll be a little tempted to grab Texas by the longhorns, to try hard to make something happen. But I've learned that God calls us all to ministries and endeavors, expecting us to step forward in faith, even though we cannot see the ending or even the way.

Our future is held in the same place it has always been—in our abiding relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “If you continue in my Word, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” This Word is the Bible, yes, but the Word is also Jesus himself, the Word made flesh.

Trust in the truth of who you are in relationship with Jesus Christ—that you are freed from your own sin and limitations, enveloped by God’s grace to love and serve with your whole heart. Wherever you are trying harder, but resisting the pain of change—that’s the very place where Jesus Christ is calling you to greater freedom and to put your trust in him.

So be willing to experience the pain of change—of trying ever-new ways to connect with Millennials—and to proclaim Christ in our ever-changing post-modern era.

Pastors and programs come and go, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever! Jesus sets us free for a relationship with Him that lasts for not only a lifetime, but for eternity. That’s freedom, indeed!

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