My Thanksgiving post

Because of my exploration of gratitude, I’ve been paying special attention this Thanksgiving.  I am watching closely to see what people are thankful for.  Oh, Facebook, you make it so easy to do non-scientific research.  I notice that when people post what they are thankful for, it is always first and foremost, family and friends.  Second, people thank God (or the Universe or whatever they believe allows them to have these entities they are grateful for) for their home, their jobs, the relative safety of living in this country.  They thank for overcoming an illness or being sustained through one.  They thank those in the armed forces, police, first responders.  They thank for their pets.  For good food.  For nice weather.

Some that were unique and interesting:  

Thankful that an older relative saved old photos to look at now

Thankful for dinners without electronics

Thankful for coworkers to brave difficult work alongside

Thankful I’m not making Thanksgiving dinner

Thankful for a black Friday shopping partner

Thankful for a mom who can be counted on

Thankful for the ability to pay it forward

We are wired to be thankful.   It comes spilling out of us when prompted. Gratitude is the right response to this wonderful life.  Even if we don’t feel like our life is wonderful right now, or if this has been a really hard year, as it has for some of us, it’s possible to see beyond the cloudy, dark moment caused by pain, loss or fear.  The world is abundant!  Hope is just beyond that dark cloud.  And sometimes dark clouds bring rain and rain makes things grow, and that rain from that dark cloud prompts what will eventually be a needed harvest.  Harvest requires rain.  The thunder and lightning that come with it must be withstood by the hope of that harvest.

God has blessed us with such freedom, such hope, such opportunity.  Especially in suburban, rural or fancy urban American areas where most of my peeps live.

Yesterday, I spent the first half of my day at Light of Life Rescue Mission where I work.  We have a number of different programs and services, and one is to serve meals to those in need.  We serve breakfast and dinner 365 days a year.  On Thanksgiving Day we serve over 1,000 meals to hungry people.  This is the seventh year I have done this, and it is a miracle every year.  It is many miracles every year.  It is miraculous to me that people care so much to help that our volunteer spots (Over 100) are full by early October.  It’s a great problem to have to have to turn away so many willing hearts.  It’s a miracle that so many people who are in need can experience a warm, lovingly prepared meal, served by gentle hands, surrounded by kind spirits, offering up God’s love to any takers.

I watch the faces of those who come for a meal.  I carefully make eye contact and say “Happy Thanksgiving.”  The responses vary.  “Thank you.”  Quiet, nervous, maybe a bit ashamed.  “Same to you!”  Hearty, booming, possibly intoxicated.  “Happy Thanksgiving to you as well.”  Humble, Appreciative.  No response.  A nod.  A high five.  A hug.  A shy smile.  It’s no chore to me to do my part to provide this food (mostly I manage the people who do the real work, and just make sure everything is as it should be, like a surveillance plane, way up in the sky, noticing all that is well and the small things that need adjusting.)  It’s no chore to help a young mother find a winter coat for her little daughter.  It’s my great joy, in fact.  I actually have to step away, at times, to not be greedy, and allow others the joy of helping.  I step back and I watch a nervous volunteer carefully check tags, looking for a 5T size coat.  I watch two men calmly decide who the really cool leather jacket fits better.  Strangers until that coat.  One holds the other’s belongings as they try it on for size.  Jovial.  Laughing.  Knowing there are plenty of coats for all.  I bow my head grateful that we don’t have scarcity today.  Food for all.  Coats for all.  One only need a bit of patience to wait in line for a short while.  A man and  woman sit down on the ground and find comfort in each other.  They can’t stay there, because they are in everyone’s way, but the sweetness and the miracle of their claiming that grassy spot for a few moments to rest and feel safe and calm, surrounded by the love and care of so many people who want to reach out, to bless, to give, to love.

The news cameras and the reporters with their pens and microphones come to see.  They come to share the story.  The story of blessing and gratitude.  They don’t know, but they bring glory to my God as they share this work on their tv stations and their newspapers.  We don’t have to say it.  We know who does all of this and what great things He is up to.  Craig Wolfley, former Steeler and current broadcaster, and my friend, stood up to share in the chapel that the real miracle is that for all of us, the one in 100,000 NFL player, the lady next to him with stage 4 colon cancer, the drunk fellow in the back row, the ex-con by the door, the suburban stay at home mom spooning gravy, the lumber jack looking guy answering the phone at the front desk, the Hispanic family who doesn’t speak English but followed the trail of blessings to our doorstep – Jesus came for us all.  To scoop us all up from our messed up ways.  He knows it all.  He forgives it all.  All that we are ashamed of.  In Him, we have eternal life, and we begin an epic adventure of faith.  Faith that allows people like me to have astounding hope that crushes all fear.

As I wrap up my challenge of writing down 1,000 blessings I’ve been bestowed with, I wonder how I lived before.  Not noticing.  Not making note.  Not thanking as a practice.

I’m thankful to write this.  I’m thankful anyone would read this.  That it would bless anyone in any way.  It’s what I have to give.  My observations organized into ideas and then words.  I hope you like it.  I hope it matters to you.  I hope it is a blessing to you and that it might somehow make it’s tiny way into your long list of things you’re grateful for.

The best book I've read in a long time

I know I’ve mentioned this book before.  But here is a full review.

Tim Keller, in this hefty, somewhat scholarly book, thick with Scripture references, personal stories and C.S. Lewis-level logical arguments, discusses how our culture tells us that adversity, suffering and struggle are bad – they are something to get past so we can get on with real life. Suffering, such as dealing with cancer (or job loss, infidelity, serious injury, loss of a loved one) is a life disruption, a snag, an interruption from our regularly scheduled programming. But, as Dr. Keller poses, what about the biblical view?  It says this is IMPORTANT.  It’s allowed by God, by design.  It’s not retaliation for that time you missed church or lied about being stuck in traffic or even that time you stole, cheated or deeply betrayed a close friend.  The justice for all of the dumb stuff you do was satisfied, paid in full on the cross.  So, while it’s possible that your suffering may be a direct consequence of sin, ignore the temptation of yourself and others to ponder whether you “deserve” the suffering or not.  It’s irrelevant.  Additionally, depending on how you approach it, this suffering you’re experiencing can be used by you and God to galvanize your faith, to deepen your intimacy with God, to strengthen your relationships and bless you with greater wisdom, compassion and patience. 

Put another way, whatever suffering you’re going through, it’s not an accident, it’s not punishment and it’s not to be squandered.

Here is an excerpt that really challenged and encouraged me:

“If you believe in Jesus and you rest in Him, then suffering will relate to your character like fire relates to gold. Do you want to know who you are—your strengths and weaknesses? Do you want to be a compassionate person who skillfully helps people who are hurting? Do you want to have such a profound trust in God that you are fortified against the disappointments of life? Do you want simply to be wise about how life goes?

Those are four crucial things to have—but none of them are readily achievable without suffering. There is no way to know who you really are until you are tested. There is no way to really empathize and sympathize with other suffering people unless you have suffered yourself. There is no way to really learn how to trust in God until you are drowning.”

One of the most challenging aspects of this book is how Dr. Keller boldly confronts the reader with this question:  Are you in this (the Christian faith) to truly serve God, or are you in it to see how you can get God to serve you?  Oof.  That’s a rough question. Our response to suffering gives us the answer.  If we kick and scream and whine and cry and demand to be released from the suffering, we’re not approaching it with a trusting attitude toward God.  We’re basically saying “Well, I was ok with this until physical pain came up on me.”  Or “Hey, I was willing to go along until you let that man break my heart.”  If we really believe that this God loves us enough to send his son to the cross to save us from all of our terrible decisions, moral failures and selfish choices, then how can we not trust Him to be with us in the midst of of the suffering?

This book is for people who are experiencing serious suffering, or people who want to be prepared for when it comes their way.  Dr. Keller has published a gift here – a guide to having a Biblical, Christ-centered response when your world comes crashing down.  If you want to take your faith-journey to the next level, read it.

Peace that Transcends All Understanding

When you have cancer or are facing any number of frightening, threatening, tragic or devastating circumstances, it shakes you.  Why?  

Probably because we have some pretty well defined notions of what life is supposed to be like.  We should be healthy.  No one we love should die before they are 90 and then, only peacefully in their sleep.  No one young or good or talented should become ill or injured.  We should not ever be fired.  We should not experience unrequited love.  We should not get fat.  Our beloved goldfish should not go the way of the city water system.  (Well, maybe most of us have come to terms that goldfish have expiration dates.)
But seriously.  We have this idea that if we follow some rules like:
Don’t kill anyone
Don’t steal anything
Don’t cheat
Don’t move someone’s parking space saving chair in Pittsburgh
Don’t say mean things about Aunt Millie even though she is SO awful
…and maybe a few more regarding sex, drugs and listening to Nickleback, we deserve a pain free, tragedy free life.  Where does this garbage come from?  I mean, it’s just simply not true.  Look around you.  I bet you know someone nice and sweet and good who has cancer.  (What? Me? Awwww…thanks.). 
So…if you believe that stuff, I’m asking you to really think about how that belief system holds up.  I don’t think it does for two reasons.  
The first is, umm, reality.  Tragedy befalls the righteous and the wicked just about equally, from where I’m sitting.  Sometimes as a direct consequence of someone’s poor choices and sometimes for reasons we can’t see and must wrestle with.  But there isn’t a naughty and nice list, where the nice escape the tough stuff.
Secondly, The Bible tells us that’s not really how it works.  Look at Job.  And Paul.  They went through crazy scary, bad stuff.  And God loved them an extra special lot.  Think about that.  God allows terrible troubles to fall upon His beloved children.  Weird, huh?
I’ve discussed at length this topic in previous blog entries.  Basically my perspective is that what we tend to experience as “bad” (while it may be terribly painful and not how God originally intended…blame Adam and Eve) God can and will ultimately work it out for our good.  And the point I want to make here is about peace.  I am learning that it is possible to be so confident in God’s loving sovereign nature that one can become virtually unshakable.  Peace that surpasses or transcends all understanding.
I’m not there yet, but I’m growing fast.  I am seeing a new way of looking at difficult circumstances.  Instead of panic, I think “hmm, I wonder what God is up to, here.”  And I watch and I wait and I look eagerly for His hand, for Him moving.
Of course, I still want to take the reins and control this crappy cancer situation like I do with everything else.  I’m quite tempted to say “ok, so the cancer is gone, never to be heard from again and let’s get back to reading books by David Sedaris and worrying about chipped nail polish and if my jeans fit.”  But as tempted as I am to stand up and insist that God turn this wagon around and head for The Gap’s denim sale…the path ahead is the one He chose for me.  It’s terrifying, yes.  But it’s also alluring.  And exciting.  It’s an adventure.  I’m in.  

Round 3

As I head into round 3 of chemo, I am kind of amazed.  If you told me that one day I would have cancer, and the evening before a chemo treatment I’d be sitting calmly in front of my Christmas tree, listening to holiday tunes, savoring some homemade applesauce and feeling pretty content, I would have laughed.  I mean, this is one of your worst nightmares, right?  I have advanced stage, aggressive cancer.  It’s no joke.  

But a Scripture passage comes to mind.  The one where Paul says he has learned the secret to being content in all circumstances.  This guy was beaten within an inch of his life on multiple occasions and shipwrecked a few times.  And the one in the Old Testament where the three men are thrown into the fire by the king – they didn’t know whether God would save them or not…but they trusted Him anyway. David writes of walking through the valley of the shadow of death but not being afraid.  
What does this reveal? That spiritual maturity, or a deep connectedness with God allows us courage and contentedness in the face of unsettling, scary, upsetting circumstances.  I’ve got a long way to go.  But I’m beginning to see how it’s possible, by God’s grace.  
Please pray for me.  I need it.  And you need it (your prayers for me will bless YOU.  Connecting with God right now is the best way you can spend the next two minutes.  Promise.) But know that I am confident in God. I am floored by His grace.  By His mercy.  He certainly likes to keep things interesting.  
I’m going to do my part – let them put the poison in me and not be a baby about it. God is going to do His part – be right there with me no matter how sucky it gets.  And you can do your part – pray for me, ditch those mom jeans and maybe send over some non-Gmo vegetarian lasagna or something.