The Bike Ride

I’ve begun riding my bike again.

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What started out as a “let’s try it” challenge has become a bit of a necessity. We are down to one automobile at Sweeneys on the Creek, and with the church located a little more than a mile away, I’ve taken to biking there for work. It’s been nice to expand the riding to cover other short errands: grocery shopping, short deliveries. I even biked to a meeting a few miles away in a more corporate environment.

Yesterday was Friday, which is a typical self-care day for pastors. Many refer to it as their Sabbath day, and I try to do that as well.  In the biblical context, Sabbath is derived from the Hebrew shabbath, or “day of rest.” What’s important, at least to me, in the Sabbath experience, is that the self-care includes intentional time with God. In that way, I can be a better pastor, wife, mother, daughter and friend for those who need me.

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So I’ve begun riding my bike again.

And yesterday, I realized that Friday rides can be different than other days of the week.

Most days of the week, I ride the bike as a means of transportation to arrive at a destination. So I’m on a bit of a timetable. Yesterday, I had a package to mail, so I hopped on the bike and pedaled to the Post Office. The US Post Office isn’t far from the house, and the package wasn’t heavy, so I arrived there about 15 minutes into the ride. After dropping the bulky envelope in the mailbox, I maneuvered the bike to ride back home, but a quiet nudge stopped me.

In my experience, that nudge is called the Holy Spirit. Today, the Spirit asked, “What’s your hurry? It’s Friday, your Sabbath.” I looked around, and I saw many opportunities to expand my riding experience. So I pedaled on, away from the road that led to our house.

I saw young children playing outside, parents nearby, encouraging them, while watching for safety. I saw beautifully landscaped yards lined with colorful flowers, college flags flapping in the breeze with pride, and creative “WELCOME” signs that invited neighbors to sit by the fire pit on what will certainly be cooler nights soon. As I rode through the areas, I offered a quiet, “Thank you, God.”

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I rode past familiar street signs – turned onto Chadwick Drive, remembering friends who have moved to McKinney. I prayed, “Thanks for the memories, and don’t be a stranger, kids.” I gave a quick nod as I passed Teakwood Drive, thinking of the fellow co-worker who was raised on that street by a loving mother, father, and brothers.

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I slowed down and turned onto Magnolia Drive, thinking of two families. The first has moved within a stones throw of our house, and I see them often around the neighborhood. The other moved to be closer to family, after the husband and father lost his battle with cancer. I mouthed a speechless, “God be with you,” and rode away.

I stopped on the bridge and listened to what little water was moving in the creek, thinking of the farmers and ranchers who rely on that water to grow crops. Thinking what a difficult time they must have when the rain doesn’t arrive. I spent a moment in gratitude for all they do, to keep us fed, then I headed home. I had been on my ride for about an hour.

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What a gift. What a precious gift, to have time to intentionally thank God for the beauty in our world. As I pulled into our driveway, I realized that my Sabbath time had been more intentional on this day. I listened to the little voice saying, “Don’t be in such a hurry. Not every bike ride has a destination as the purpose.” And that led me to open my eyes to all of the community around us, that which I can miss if I’m only riding to a destination.

How much we miss when we pedal to one point, then return by the same route. I’m grateful for the lesson on this, my day of rest.

So I’ll be riding my bike more often. Stop me for a chat if you have time.

Holy Envy – reflections on the book

Holy Envy

Barbara Brown Taylor refers to herself as a writer, speaker, and spiritual contrarian. She’s also an ordained Episcopalian priest whose daily vocation is professor of Religious Studies at Piedmont College in North Carolina.

In Holy Envy, Taylor’s fourteenth book, we are treated to another memoir of a sliver of Taylor’s life. The question she answers for herself in this one:

How does one teach mostly Christian conservative undergraduate students a required “Religious 101” curriculum? Taylor writes about her life in the classroom – and in synagogues, temples, and sanctuaries. As she conducts classroom lectures and organizes field trips to other religious sites, she brings the action alive with student questions, commentary, and experiences.

What is it that Christianity and other religions have in common? How is our worldview restricted, and how can we expand that view to better understand and experience other religions? As Taylor reminds us: It’s “safer to read about religion in a textbook, but being present in the services, ceremonies, and holy places is how we really risk” vulnerability to understand those who do not hold the same faith as we do.

At the Hindu temple, Taylor shares thoughts about similarities in reincarnation and resurrection. That is, that each has a similar pattern; there is no new life without destruction or death. Students observe a prayer ritual, challenging their core beliefs about Jesus as the only way to know God.

At the Buddhist darmha-hall, students are exposed to bright orange robes and bowing motions that show respect to the monk teacher. When the monk begins the lesson, one student reveals, “This is just about life.” Back in the classroom, the students are challenged to experience singing bowls, which Buddhists believe speak to different energy levels in our bodies (known as chakras). Is this music of the Buddhists, the singing bowls and chants, similar to hymns sung in our worship services? Taylor challenges the students to find such similarities.

And that’s when she finds the words to describe the admiration of many of the practices encountered in the studies and trips of other religions: Holy Envy.

“Buddhist meditation is not the same as Christian centering prayer, but my envy of the discipline required by the former increases my desire to put more effort into the latter. A Muslim goes to Mecca for different reasons than I go to Bethlehem or Canterbury, but my envy of the Hajj causes me to wonder why I make my pilgrimages alone.”

Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindi. Do all have spiritual or other practices which prompt our Holy Envy? How do we grow spiritually, ourselves, as we learn more about those other religions? Perhaps the author states it best herself, when speaking of embracing religious diversity:

“This is how far my holy envy has brought me: from fearing that Jesus will be mad at me for smelling other people’s roses to trusting that Jesus is the Way to embrace all ways.”

Perhaps there’s something to this “Holy Envy.” What might you find, if you, too, join in the conversation?

The Muppet Movie is 40.

Steve pointed out this NPR read to me this morning. We both smiled, as he forwarded it to me and to Shannon (we were sure it would make her smile, too).

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I didn’t have time to read it right away, but thoughts came to mind about writing a blog about it. Something in the line of my “Listening for God on Broadway” or “Listening for God in the Movies” themes.

And to be honest, didn’t you start humming “Rainbow Connection,” hearing banjos and Kermit’s nasally voice?

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When I eventually read the article, I thought it was brilliant. Click HERE if you want to read (or listen) to it.  So many memories came flooding back, and yes, I continued to smile. I even joined Steve in some laughter.

I think that’s part of the point of the movie. Keep smiling. Keep laughing. Keep living. As the first line of Rainbow Connection asks: “Why are there so many songs about rainbows, and what’s on the other side?”

Indeed.

Why are we waiting for “the other side?” Why do we find it so hard to really live, each and every day?  We talk about that a lot in theology. The Kingdom of God is a “here and not yet” discussion to me. Yes, there is the promise of eternal life, and the promise of something so much better than where we are now.

But that doesn’t mean we are just sitting around, waiting for that day or time or season. My faith in God – in that promise – helps me to live a better life, here and now, because I have faith that the promise has been, is, and will always be fulfilled. And part of that is not just living for myself, but living for others, helping in whatever way lifts them out of their struggles. Living, to me, means knowing joy and pain, and knowing that God is in the midst of each, and of everything in between those two extremes.

It’s because of my faith that I can respond to God’s call to act now, with confidence and without fear. As we hear Kermit sing:

“Have you been fast asleep?
And have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name.
Is this the sweet sound that calls
The young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same.
I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it
It’s something that i’m supposed to be

Someday, we’ll find it,

The Rainbow Connection

The lovers, the dreamers, and me.”

That, my friends, is God calling your name. And God is calling, asking that you be all you are supposed to be, as children of Light. As you celebrate The Muppet Movie turning 40, remember the important lesson found in the last lines of the movie:

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Don’t be afraid to live your life,  to hear and respond to God calling you to do something new.  Someday, you’ll find it: The Rainbow Connection.

 

Note: Images may be subject to copyright. The Muppet Movie and Kermit the Frog are trademarks of The Muppets Studio, LLC, owned by The Disney Company. Music and lyrics to The Rainbow Connection were  written by Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher,

The Call

If you have been reading my blog for awhile, you probably know that I seek wisdom from a number of sources.  I wrote a blog on that awhile back, titled “What’s Black and White and Red All Over?”  Since I’ve joined the staff at Christ United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas, I’ve learned that I had better be aware of recent columns in the New York Times written by David Brooks.  Our senior pastor reads just about everything Brooks writes, including the books, and it’s good to be prepared for the discussion.

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We take turns sharing devotionals in our Wednesday morning staff meetings, and I was called on to share in the last month or so.  Coincidentally, Brooks had just published a column the day before, which I read, about distinguishing between vocation and a career.  Brooks wrote in the context of Leadership in America, the current election, and the choices we have when we cast our vote.  You can read the article here;  please stick with me, though, because I’m not talking politics (not today, anyway).

As I read this column, I reflected on how the same concepts apply to each of us, as we strive to find joy in the work that we do.  Let’s break down some of what Brooks shared, in this new context (pushing Brooks’ context of politics to the side for another day):

A career is something you choose; a vocation is something you are called to.

 Maybe this resonated with me because of an interview I had participated in recently.  As you might know, I am seeking ordination in the United Methodist Church, and on that day, I spent one hour answering questions in front of my district’s Board of Ordained Ministry – questions about my theology, doctrine, sacraments, etc.  The first question we are asked is, “Tell us about your call.”  We proceed to share how God called us to ordained ministry, and how we embrace that call.

The same holds true for everyone – because we are all called to a vocation and to ministry, just in different ways.  Some are called to be teachers, or first responders, or a full time parent.   Some are called to build houses, or buildings, or household appliances.  When you find the joy of that call in your life, it is undeniable.  This is what Brooks means – a vocation brings joy to your life; a career brings a job…  And a call is so, so much more than a job.

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A vocation involves promises to some ideal, it reveals itself in a sense of enjoyment as you undertake its tasks and it can’t be easily quit when setbacks and humiliations occur.

You know you have found your calling when you feel joy, even when there are challenges.  Trust me, even in ministry, there are times when I struggle to keep my head above water.  But when I am a part of something – a program, a conversation, a bible study – where someone is so obviously transformed, even for a moment….that’s a sense of overwhelming joy.  Kind of like the scene from “The Incredibles”:

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The careerist mentality frequently makes [us] timid, driven more by fear of failure than by any positive ideal.  This timidity results in fear which plays out as self preservation, or the ambition of self over others.

Brooks also quotes the poet David Whyte:  “Work, like marriage, is a place you can lose yourself more easily perhaps than finding yourself….losing all sense of our own voice, our own contributions and conversation.”

When we find that vocation or calling, and more importantly, when we respond to it – we find ourselves helping others and striving to lift up (yes, to love) others in need.  Even better – we find when we help others find joy, our own joy is increased.  When we love each other as Christ loves us, our fear and anxiety decrease, and we truly live into our calling – a calling so big, and so vast, that we find ourselves using our imagination – our voices – our hearts – to life others up to a better life.

Here’s the challenge: don’t be afraid to listen for the call, and to respond to it.  As we read in 1 John 4:18:

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Don’t stop seeking your true vocation, your call, for it will bring you unlimited joy, and with that, you will bring unlimited joy to others.

 

 

Ado Annie was Right: “All ‘Er Nuthin'” Doesn’t Work.

Rogers & Hammerstein opened their first collaborative Broadway musical, “Oklahoma!” in March, 1943.  Based on a 1931 play (Green Grow the Lilacs), the show incorporated lively musical numbers, lyrics, and ensemble dances to capture the imaginations of the audience members; the stage version also earned many awards for both the original and revival productions. A movie version was released in 1955, starring Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae.

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Set in the early 1900’s in the Oklahoma territory, two love stories unfold among the feuding groups of farmers and cowboys.  Laurie and Curly (Jones and MacRae) are the classic and primary couple.  The other couple – Ado Annie and Will Parker – are the ones I’d like to talk about today.  Will Parker makes himself out to be a new fangled cowboy, set for the bright lights/big Kansas City.  Ado Annie, his ‘gal’ and not one to wait around, stays home, and her flirtatious tendencies drive Will crazy.  Back and forth they go, Will going where he pleases, and Annie never saying no to a visit from a cute beau (that’s one of her famous songs: “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No”).

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Now, I happen to know a thing or two about this musical.  When I was in the 5th grade, my family moved to Culpeper, Virginia, and the choir, led by Debra Greeley (who later became my church choir director at Culpeper United Methodist Church), performed the musical.  I even remember Lisa Nygaard (Lyons), as Ado Annie, singing the famous lines.  [Lisa has since released three CD’s of original music in the Celtic tradition….take a listen!]

For some reason this week, one of the songs – All Er Nuthin’ – got stuck in my head.  The gist of the song is that Will expects Ado Annie to be and act in a certain way.  “If you can’t give me all, give me nuthin; and nuthin’s what you’ll get from me!”  Ado Annie responds, appropriately, I think, by pointing out that “All Er Nuthin'” doesn’t work well in a relationship.  “With you it’s all er nuthin; all for you and nuthin for me…..”  Annie and Will had to learn to work together to make the relationship work.  And they did.

Maybe the reason the song came to mind is because of the “all er nuthin” approach I hear from many people in disagreements these days.  The late 17th century French moralist Joseph Joubert is credited with this quote: “The aim of a(n argument or) discussion should not be victory, but progress.”  In all of this public discourse taking place on social media and in the news, are we even trying to reach agreement anymore?  I realize the word ‘progress’ brings shivers to the spines of some, but seriously – should we be living in an “all er nuthin” world?  How to we even start to address this?

Here’s how I sort it out:

I try to listen.

 I try to listen not to reply, but to understand. (Covey)

I try to listen as the first duty of love. (Tillich)

I don’t want to be short on ears and long on mouth. (John Wayne)

And I want to listen to the one who is mentioned when God’s voice comes through the cloud, saying,”This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (MT 17:5b)

With Christ, life was not an ‘all er nuthin’ approach to be right, and to advance a cause immediately.   In story after story, we read of how Christ entered situations with a heart toward listening, a servant’s heart that time and again teaches us to listen to the poor, the widowed, the orphaned and the sick.  Christ shows us how to be patient, to listen to understand a need, and to reply with love.

In the 6th chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells us this:

27 But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

I say that to do good, we must listen; if we don’t, we might fall prey to the ‘all er nuthin’ mentality.  Yet even when we don’t listen – even when we shoot off our arrogant mouths, assuming that we have all of the facts, assuming we personally know what is best in every situation – even then, God loves us.  Even then, when we realize our mistake, God waits willingly for us to find our way back to him.

That’s how it is with grace – always ‘all’ and never ‘nuthin’.

Now that, my friends, makes for a great story.

In all things, Love.

 

 

 

 

The Color Craze

The story begins on a holiday.  I’m fairly certain the holiday was Thanksgiving, and the reason should become clear later in the story.  Get in a good reading position; this is a long one but a great story.

We were together with Steve’s sister and her family for the holiday weekend.  Our daughter, Shannon, was the oldest of the bunch, around 9 at the time; then came Cameron, about 5; and Jack, still a chubby cheeked lad of 2.

As many parents do, we had prepared well to keep the kids occupied for the weekend.  Aside from just general play, and movies, I had found a brand new box of crayons at the discount store.  You know the ones – the 128 jumbo box, sectioned off in smaller cartons of 8, waxy smell drifting upward as we tear off the top, each crayola perfectly crafted, yet to be used.

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This particular box that I found was special.  On the outside, the box advertised a ‘NAME THE CRAYON CONTEST.’  Inside the larger box, one sleeve of the crayons was a white box.  The concept was to name the colors in this sleeve, send in your innovative creations, and receive the honor of having ‘named’ one or more crayola crayons.  Brilliant move.

Now, I know that recently the coloring craze has been touted as a stress reliever for adults as well as educational and creative play for children (a discovery that I am completely in favor of, by the way).  But that research hadn’t been completed at the time of this story.  Which is why it was a bit curious that the person most excited about the contest was not our daughter, Shannon (who probably kept crayola in business), but her Uncle Tim.

Since the time our nephew, Cameron, could draw, Tim had been fascinated with coloring, and joined him at every opportunity.  We weren’t too surprised that Tim jumped down on the floor with the kids, eager to name the crayons.  Pulling out the first one – green – he turned the crayon on its edge, scribbling the color with flair onto a white piece of paper, Tim declared with confidence:  “Bent Grass Green.”  We were hooked.

He selected the orange one next.  Tim, along with Steve and I, were graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, and we were certain he’d have the perfect name for the orange hue.  Again, a scribble on the page, and another confident declaration:  “Sunset Orange.”  Amazing.

Finally, Tim pulled out the next crayon, which was a darker shade of purple.  We all stared at it, with serious trepidation.  Here’s why I’m sure the holiday was Thanksgiving:  because Texas and Texas A&M had just played a sports game (I’m assuming football), and A&M had won, with more than a few questionable calls during the game going against our beloved Longhorns.  Tim stared at the tip of the crayon; he drew a straight line – no flourishes for this one – and declared, with all the passion he could muster:  “Cheaters Maroon.”

Our family loves that story, and we reference it often.  It’s one of those inside, legacy stories that will live on in the Sweeney and Host households.  Our family passion for coloring hasn’t waned one bit since that time; I can’t seem to part with any of the bits and pieces in our crafts closet.

Earlier this month, I read something new, by author and artist Ingrid Sundberg (www.ingridsundberg.com)

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She’s created a Color Thesaurus so that she can name every shade of every color.  How brilliant is that?  Having reviewed the chart, I’d say she has hit the mark with almost each one (although she could use some of Tim’s creative adjectives for emphasis).  I’m amazed at how she’s able to see a distinct difference between, say – ‘ballet slipper’ and ‘lemonade.’  Some people just have a great eye for details like that.

Here’s something I know:  God knows those kind of details.  God, the creator, who made each of us distinct, and who knows each of us by name.  We read from the prophet Isaiah, in chapter 40:26

Lift your eyes and look to the heavens;
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one,
and calls them each by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength,
not one of them is missing.

The same God who created the starry host, created us….with great detail.  As we continue in the Lenten season, I urge you to stop and contemplate what God created in you….what is the Holy Spirit calling you to become?  More importantly, how will you act upon it?

See, unlike the crayon naming, this isn’t a contest.  This is, first and foremost, between you and God.  God already knows who you are, what you’ve done, and what you can become.  And God is waiting, more than patiently, for you to accept him.  What’s stopping you?

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Note to the keenly observant:  Tim didn’t win the contest, although we believe he could have.  Turns out the package that I purchased from the discount store were ‘out of date.’  The contest had wrapped up about three years prior.  But someday…….

God Blesses and Prayers

When our kids were younger, we had a nighttime routine for bedtime.  After baths, after brushing teeth, after the bedtime story and that last drink of water, we prayed.  We prayed the same basic prayer every night, and we called it “God Blesses and Prayers:”

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“God, thank you for a beautiful day.  Thank you for [insert good things that happened today.]  God Bless Mommy and Daddy, Shannon and Jack and Ash-a-lee, Grandmas and Grandpas, Aunt and Uncles and Cousins, all our friends, people who are happy, and those who need help.  We love you, God.  Amen.”

Such a simple prayer that reminded all of us, each day, to thank God, remember those who are close to us, and to help others in whatever way we could, and especially through prayer.  But is prayer enough?  Some say yes, some say no.  And, to be inclusive, some say prayer just doesn’t make a difference.  I’m one that says yes, prayer helps.

Recently, some in the national spotlight have taken heat for offering ‘thoughts and prayers’ for the families and victims of the San Bernardino shootings.  Perhaps we’ve all just had enough – too much violence, too much fear, too much inaction to help those who need it most.   Some seem to be saying that prayer is not enough – they want action; they want progress; they want an end to this insane run of violence.

I, too, want change, and action, and an end to violence.

But I also don’t think I’m going to get that without prayer.  Why?  Because when I pray, I listen; and when I pray, I wait for God to respond.  And when God responds, we are called to act, sometimes courageously, to make a change where change is needed.

Mother Teresa understood the power of prayer.  She helped us understand the purpose of prayer when she told us:

prayer changes us

And so, we pray.  We pray thanks for all that is right in our lives.  We pray for the right words to comfort a friend who is grieving the loss of a family member during this holiday season.  We pray for the soldiers, and the first responders, who put their lives in danger every day and night, so that we are safe.  We pray for our fears, and for others’ fears as they face difficult medical problems.  We pray for wisdom to enter into discussions to help solve problems that seem to grow larger every day.

And we pray that each of us listens closely for God’s call, and that each of us has the courage to act on that call, wherever it might lead.

When we do, we’re doing a lot more than ‘offering thoughts and prayers.’   We are changing things for the better.  And in doing so, we make “God Blesses and Prayers” an action, not just a phrase.

 

Am I a 10?

Wait, that sounds a bit too much like the loaded question, “Honey, does this outfit make me look too big?”  Hint to honey:  respond ‘no’ under all circumstances.

Perhaps clarification is in order.

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I have a friend who insists that accuracy is important.  And he’s right, especially as it relates to financial analysis, the context in which he was speaking.  In that particular case, ‘perfection’ is important; but even then, inaccuracies are measured in material terms.  Are the errors material to the statement?  If not, probably ok to pass on correction.

Another example, same friend.  This one has to do with those pesky annual evaluations from our friendly human resource department.  You know the ones – rank, on a scale of 1 to 10, a number of attributes on which a person is ‘graded.’  My friend’s outlook on these forms is insightful:  Should we expect that everyone should strive for a 10, on every attribute, every time?   The answer, it might not surprise you, is ‘yes and no.’

See, we are not ‘practically perfect in every way’ Mary Poppins.  And, if you believe as I do, only one human who ever walked this earth was perfect.  So what do we do with this expectation of perfection?  Let’s look at it in three points:

  1.  We shouldn’t try to be a 10 in all categories in all circumstances, at least that’s my friend’s motto.   He is right – especially if we are working as a team.  See, one person might be an 8 in analysis, but a 2 in creativity;  another might be an 8 in creativity, but a 2 in administration.  The question I’ve learned to ask is this:  In which categories am I most likely to move my 8 to a 10?  Is it likely that if I consistently score a 2 that I should expect to raise it to a 10, or even an 8?  Probably not.  So it appears we should be focusing on two things:  finding the strength of each person, and making sure those strengths are appropriately additive to the team results.
  2. Finding our strengths.  Outside of those fun (and often predictable) social media quizzes, how do we know?  Some of us know by instinct; others don’t realize until someone points out the gift.   In a biblical setting, these strengths are referred to as ‘spiritual gifts,’ and once identified to us by the Holy Spirit, we gravitate toward those gifts with a passion.  In            1 Corinthians, 12:4-11, Paul writes about these gifts using the Greek word for ‘charisma,’ or that of which someone is graced.  See what he does there?  We are ‘graced’ with ‘gifts.’
  3. OK, I think I know my gift – what now?  Funny thing – Paul continues to answer the question for us.  In 12:12-31, Paul creates an image that we are all parts of a body, with Christ as the head.  More importantly, each part of the body relies on the other parts.  It matters not what your individual function is; what matters is that together, we make up the body.  Together, we create Christ on earth, to be each other’s strength.  Together, we strive for a 10.

And how exactly do we do that, you ask?  1 Corinthians 13:  The gift of love.  When we act in love – the love taught by Christ – we score a 10.  1 Cor 13:8 tells us that love never ends – all of those other gifts:  prophecy, tongues, teaching, knowledge:  all of these are only part of a whole and will eventually end.  But when we love – when we love and act on that love as Christ calls us to love – that is the perfection for which we strive.

So maybe we should think about changing the answer to “Honey, does this outfit make me look big?”  Consider, instead, the answer: “It doesn’t matter, honey.  I love you even where you aren’t a 10.”

Lessons from the Candy Jar

Outside my church office, on a desk where volunteers gather during the week, there sits a candy jar.  The church staff takes turns keeping it filled, so that visitors and volunteers who meet with us can share a tasty treat on their way out the door.

candy jar

Over the last year, I’ve noticed a few things about the candy jar, and I’d like to share these observations with you now:

  1. Left over candy isn’t very welcoming. After Halloween last year, I brought in my left over candy that didn’t get claimed by the neighborhood kids.  I couldn’t understand it – the sour bites looked good from the outside.  It wasn’t until I tried one myself that I learned the sourness was just awful.  I mean, really awful.  Our guests deserved better.

This lesson can be applied to other areas of life, too.  Our classes, our business presentations, our families:  everything works better when we give out thoughtful attention.  In other words, if we aren’t prepared for class on Sunday mornings, are we asking our class members to eat left over candy?

  1. People have favorites, but they are often pleasantly surprised with variety. I’ll admit it:  I love Almond Joy bites.   They remind me of summer months, visiting my grandmother in Arkansas, and walking to the convenience store with my sisters, quarter in hand, to buy an Almond Joy.   There was nothing about that smooth taste I didn’t like:  the coconut, the dark chocolate, the almonds.  Given a choice, I’d choose Almond Joy candy bars every time.  But every once in a while, Almond Joy was out of stock, and I had to choose something else.  That was when I learned that variety can be a good thing.

Sometimes we get in that habit with our Sunday class planning.  We know what our classes like, and we don’t want to change.  How many times have I heard that comment!?  But maybe – just maybe – the class members want a change.  Maybe, with a little creativity and planning, we can mix things up and put those York Peppermint Patties in the candy jar.  When we put YPP in the jar, our guests are pleasantly surprised and remember that life is about a lot more than just Almond Joy, day after day.  Those York Peppermint Patties are devoured before the end of the day on Sundays!

Maybe your class really likes Adam Hamilton DVD’s.  But perhaps a short 4 week devotional on a particular theme is in order.  Maybe your class likes studying the books of the Bible in detail; but perhaps setting aside time to see film versions of those books can bring a new perspective.  Give your class variety in class programming.  Email me at cathy@cumc.com if you want help with that.

  1. Not everyone can eat peanuts. I am not sure the science of it all, but all of these peanut allergies have really exploded in the last 20 years or so.  As a result, we need to be aware that not everyone likes peanuts, and in some cases, peanuts are life threatening.

That brings an interesting perspective to how we select the candy.  Likewise, we should be aware of ‘peanut allergies’ in our classes.   Are there individuals who are going through a difficult time, and need our prayer and attention on days other than Sunday mornings?  Did someone inadvertently ‘serve someone a peanut’ not realizing there was an allergy?

The point here is in the solutions:  we won’t know if there is a peanut allergy in the room if we don’t allow time for everyone to speak.  We won’t know if there is a peanut allergy if the only time we are together is one hour a day on Sunday morning.  It’s only when a person is comfortable in a relationship, when a bond of trust has been formed, when we spend time with people, and when we listen, that we truly understand the reason that someone doesn’t eat peanuts.  More importantly – when we listen and understand – we might even show compassion the next time we select the candy, and offer an alternative for those with a peanut aversion.

  1. Many people (myself included) feel a need to sneak a treat. “I shouldn’t, but I will.”   “This is something I need today.”  Or, even better, the silent, unspoken word, as the lid barely clangs against the glass jar upon opening and closing.  Maybe no one will notice.  That candy jar has heard it all – spoken and unspoken, the guilt and the excitement, the disappointment that the last of the ‘good stuff’ has been taken.

I can’t help but think that what we yearn for in the candy jar can always be delivered in a talk with God.  “I need you today.”  “I’m not going to talk, but I just need to listen.”  “These are my favorites.”    I’m not in any way distracting you from sharing the candy in the jar; I just want to remind you that, like the love and grace God offers, the jar is there unconditionally.  We love you, and God loves you.  Take the candy – like, God’s love, it’s there for you, any time you need it.

I Wasn’t Supposed to be There….Right?

A few months ago, a friend in St. Louis asked me to contribute books to a new children’s library in the St. Louis area.

books from my childhood susy morris flicker

The Sweeney’s managed to pull together two full boxes to contribute.  I loaded the boxes in my car, where they stayed for two months.

This last week, we drove to St. Louis for a wedding.  My friend Tom wasn’t supposed to be in town.  He was supposed to be at a conference in Squaw Valley, but scheduling conflicts caused a last minute cancellation.  I arranged to meet Tom for coffee on Friday morning, to deliver the books personally.

Thursday night, we stayed on the Illinois side of the river.  Tom had arranged for us to meet on the west side of St. Louis, so on Friday morning, I notified Google of the destination address, and let the phone navigate my way there.  Heading into St. Louis on IH64, however, there is a lot of construction.  Google decided to route me a different way – up St. Clair Avenue, which would lead me right into East St. Louis, or at least to the edge.

East St. Louis – in 2007, it had the highest crime rate in the United States.  The city still struggles with high crime, and I knew I needed to get back on the highway before I put myself in danger.

Because I wasn’t supposed to be on that road.  I wasn’t supposed to be delivering books to my friend Tom.  He wasn’t even supposed to be in St. Louis.

But I stayed on St. Clair Avenue for awhile.  I saw the burned houses, the blight, the vacant stores and the vacant streets.

abandoned home in St Louis ken fager flickr

I heard the silence.  I felt the pain.  But I got off the road and back onto the highway as quickly as I could.

After coffee, I decided to drive back the same way I came.  This time I noticed more:  boarded up windows, rusty metal buildings, and a man pushing a shopping cart with all of his possessions.

I asked, ‘God, I’m not supposed to be here.  What are you asking me to do?”

On Friday afternoon, we moved closer to St. Louis.  We were going to stay in the hotel with other wedding guests, but at the last minute, we decided to rent a nicely renovated townhouse that was made available for us.  We checked with local sources – the area was “in transition,” but considered safe.

934 Rutger St Louis

But God wasn’t finished with me yet.  God had a place for me to be.  God wanted me to see something.

As I drove down the street to the townhouse, I realized that we would share sidewalks for a few days with Peter & Paul Community Services.  PPCS provides housing and support services to the homeless.  During our stay, on some incredibly hot days, we encountered volunteers handing out bottled water to those who needed it.   Across the alley from us, there sat a building that housed the Society of Friends (Quakers), who are known for their community outreach to the needy.

We shared sidewalks and parks with people who lived in housing sponsored by the St. Louis Housing Authority.

And across the street, behind the house, we had perfect access to Saint Vincent de Paul Parish, a Catholic parish whose members serve hot meals to the hungry one week each month.  Every day of the week, volunteers at Saint Vincent de Paul’s Parish provide sandwiches and fruit to the hungry at lunchtime.

church of saint vincent de paul

We walked the streets, smiling back at our new neighbors.  We greeted the children, playing on the swings.

I wasn’t supposed to be there.  But where else would I be?

This is, after all, where Christ is found.  Christ is found with the poor, and with the orphan, and with the widow and with the sick.

Highway construction caused Google to push me onto St. Clair Avenue and near East St. Louis.  But I believe God, not Google, was my navigator in the LaSalle Park area of town….God showed me where I was supposed to be that weekend.  Now I am charged with being the hands of Christ in my own city.

Tell me, God, where am I supposed to be back home?

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Photo credit:  “Books from my Childhood,” Susy Morris, Flickr; “Abandoned Home,” Ken Fager, Flickr; “Little Red Church,” stlouisreview.com.  All other pictures original to Cathy Sweeney.