Saturday, February 17, 2018

When Left Became Right

"Never give up, for your work will be rewarded.” ~ 2 Chronicles 15:7
Chances are you’ve never heard of Károly Takács.  But he’s a national hero in Hungary; everybody knows his name and his incredible story.
At age 28, Károly was the top pistol shooter in his country.  Having won the major national and international championships, he seemed destined to capture the 1940 Tokyo Olympics’ gold metal.
Just months before the Games, while training with his army squad, a hand grenade exploded in Takács’ shooting hand.  Both his right hand and his Olympic dreams vaporized in milliseconds.
Most people would have quit.  But not Takács.  He was a winner.  Winners recover QUICKLY; simply bouncing back is not enough.  When they experience a setback, they recover immediately so as not lose drive and momentum.
He focused on what he still had – mental toughness and a healthy left hand.  While he couldn’t write a legible sentence with his left hand, he decided to make it the world's best shooting hand.
For months Takács practiced secretly by himself.  Maybe he didn’t want to face those who might have discouraged him from his rekindled goal.  Perhaps he didn’t want the sympathy.
But he had no fear of failure.
A year later Károly resurfaced at a Nat’l Shooting Championship in Hungary.  His colleagues were delighted to see him and appreciated his attending to cheer them on.
He surprised them by announcing that he was there to compete against them – their best shooting hand against his ONLY hand.   He won!
Károly’s Olympic dream would not be fulfilled for 8 years as two consecutive Olympic Games were cancelled due to World War II.  When they resumed in London, Károly represented Hungary in the pistol shooting event.  Imagine being a gold medal favorite, losing your shooting hand in an accident, yet picking yourself up from a shattered mess, and training your left hand to shoot as well (or better).
He WON the 1948 Olympic gold medal and set a new world record in pistol shooting.  Egged on perhaps by his rival, Károly won a 2nd gold medal in the same event at the 1952 Helsinki Games.
When a boxer gets knocked down, they have 10 seconds to get back up.  If (s)he gets up in 11 seconds, they lose.  Remember that next time you get knocked down.
Takács definitely had a right to feel sorry for himself; to stay depressed and ask himself “Why me?”  He had the right to act like a beaten man.
But Takács made the DECISION to find a solution; to pick himself up and to learn to shoot all over again.  Winners always search for a solution.  Losers search for escapes.
Next time you get knocked down, decide to act like a winner.  Get up quickly, take action, and shock the world!
Lord, my energy is sagging, and my motivation is lagging.  I need Your strength and fresh touch to get back on track.  I need your joy to replace all the bone-tired parts of my mind, body, and soul.  Amen

Friday, February 9, 2018

Paw Prints

"Each rising sun brings new hope because of God’s tender mercy." ~ Luke 1:78
During the night a blanket of snow fell across the midwestern plains, as Dori snoozed beneath woolen covers.  She stumbled to life as a warm, wet nose caressed her check, meaning of course, that Rebel need to relieve himself.
Racing to the door, she barely managing to get the puppy out.  As he tip-toed through the frosty landscape with urgent matters, Dori gazed into the white abyss laying silently across her yard.
Under a dove grey sky, the backyard resembled an unfinished painting; much of the canvas still flawlessly white.  Its purity elevated her spirit; a world made fresh as a book of new stories.
Rebel enjoyed everything about this day: the satisfaction of being the first to make an impression in a blanket of freshly lain snow, the subtle crunch underfoot as he frolicked among shafts of sunlight illuminating the winter scene before him.
In a matter of minutes, Dori’s snow (yes, HER snow), was quickly re-decorated; dotted and dimpled with paw prints and yellowed reminders of mother nature’s calls.  Dozens of circles zigzagged across the former glittery wonderland, its radiant beauty now vanished.  Her dreamscape gone forever.
Dori sighed.
But then, something occurred as memories sharpened into focus.  Perhaps those paw prints had meaning she hadn’t recognized.
Each of those ‘blemishes’ might represent mistakes from her own past.  Perhaps an unreturned phone call, maybe an un-mailed birthday card.  A forgotten lunch date, or a promise swept aside.
Bit by bit as she sipped a marsh-mellowed cup of cocoa, the fabric of her life unraveled.  She dug deeper into the past, pushing snow into the far corners of her mind, until she exposed the cold bare earth.  It was a frightening place.
She had to make things right - to become a better person; more positive, less judgmental.  “I must always be there for my friends,” she thought, “and family, neighbors … even strangers.”
The next morning, Dori bravely opened the front door to let her four-legged companion out, bracing herself for another cold blast.  Instead, a picture-perfect sight nearly stole her breath.
Once again, a fresh blanket of snow had fallen.  The tracks were gone, embellished with a new layer of glittering wonder.  The sunlight danced amongst the snowflakes, sending prisms of color shooting into the morning sky.
It was a new day.  A day to start fresh, along with that perfect layer of sparkling snow.  A new chance to be a better person.
We all have blemishes from our past, their yellowed pages long forgotten in our mind’s eye.  But like paw prints littering snow, we can learn from them, and our future will be better, and brighter, like the resplendent beauty that awaits us with each new sunrise.
Today Lord, I wish to lay down the burden of my shortcomings, and seek the courage to begin anew.  Help me understand that I’m not trapped in the past, but freed by Christ to live and grow today.  With gratitude, Amen

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Flying Blind

“We live by faith, not by sight or feelings." ~ 2 Corinthians 5:7
Capt. Virgil Anderson was arrogant.  If he could do half the stuff he thought he could - maybe "confidence" would have been a better word.  It wasn't!
In his mind’s eye, he was superior to other pilots by virtue of his talent.  Twenty-two years of experience had taught him to rely mainly on the feel of the plane and his visual reference, rather than to trust the guidance of his instruments.
On the day he commanded United’s 737, the jetliner had been flying along normally when suddenly it began to experience all sorts of chaos.  It gyrated across the sky, plummeting thousands of feet at a time and turning violently to one side.  Two of the four engines stalled and failed, leaving the plane without the power it needed to maintain level flight.
Anderson responded instinctually, doing his best to right the course of the tumbling aircraft, while hundreds of passengers waited in abject terror, not knowing if they’d live or die.
At the time of the crash, the aircraft was flying about 1,000 feet above sea level in whiteout conditions – where the cloud-filtered sun reflected light from the snow, making it impossible to distinguish ground from air.  Without a visual point of reference, Anderson was easily fooled into thinking the plane was doing the opposite.
It flew into an icy mountainside, killing all aboard.
Investigators later determined that this tragedy had ultimately been the fault of the pilots.  They should have responded according to their flight training and according to the plane’s manual.  Instead, they relied on one fatal flaw - instinct.
Capt. Anderson, an experienced, well-trained pilot, had refused to trust his instruments, relying instead on his flawed assessment of the situation.  Even though he thought he saw the situation clearly, Anderson was in fact flying blind, refusing to heed the information conveyed by his instruments.
It cost him his life and the lives of hundreds of others.
The story offers a spiritual parallel.  When faced with the raging storm of uncertainty, we have a choice: trust our clouded perceptions or trust God’s Word.  We can trust our own feelings, or we can place our faith in the promises He made on Calvary, devotional prayer/Bible studies, and the wise counsel of Christian pastors and mentors.
It’s hard, and sometimes frightening.  But in the fog of life, our feelings will mock our faith and suggest that God has left us.  But His instruments will always reassure us that He’s still there, right beside us.
If you or a loved one is flying in a storm of desperation, remember our own perceptions, as real as they feel, are not reliable.  Fly instead, by the instruments God’s provided us.
Almighty Father, help me to trust my spiritual instruments - to follow Your will for my life and not let my feelings dictate what I do.  Help me set my mind to be a blessing to others and make right choices that honor You.  Amen

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Father Figure

“To God be the glory forever and ever." ~ Philippians 4:20
He grew up the youngest of nine children in a broken home in Boston’s rough Dorchester section. By 13, he’d developed a serious addiction to cocaine among other illegal substances.
At just 14 years old, he dropped out of school, joined a cold-blooded gang, and began making his living on the streets - hustling, stealing, and dealing drugs.   With each passing day, his rebellious, anger-riddled, and destructive lifestyle mounted.
At 15 he faced civil action for his participation in two separate incidents of hurling rocks and racial slurs at African-American children.  He injured two of the students.
His chaotic life finally came to a crashing halt at 16, when he viciously attacked 2 Vietnamese men.  He sucker punched the first blinding him in one eye and beat the second man unconscious while shouting racial insults about 'slant-eyed gooks.'  For these crimes, he was charged with attempted murder, plead guilty to assault, and was sentenced to two years in prison.
He’d finally earned his stripes; locked up with the kind of guys he idolized.  Three of his brothers had already done time; his sister went to prison so many times he’d lost count.
Back on the streets after only 45 days, he quickly returned to peddling drugs.  But in the shadows, he was being watched - not by undercover cops, but by a fearless young priest.  The street punk stood speechless when the Padre got right in his face: ‘‘What the heck are you doing?”
Father Jim Flavin managed to get him off the street and onto a basketball team in the Catholic Church league.
The rest they say “is history!”
When he stood at the podium in 2007 accepting an Oscar for his supporting role in “The Departed,” Mark Wahlberg (aka rapper Marky Mark), fought back tears describing how the charismatic priest rescued him from a criminal trajectory.
‘‘Where we grew up, we mostly looked for the wrong role models in the wrong places.  It took me far too long to realize that the real heroes were there all the time.  Rev. Flavin helped us realize who the real heroes are.  He’s my hero, my mentor, my friend, my brother.  I have the greatest respect and debt to him; he married us and baptized all my children.”
Today Mark Wahlberg enjoys enormous success on both the big and small screens as model, actor and producer.  He’s packed away the demons of old and boasts a growing family, with his Catholic faith acting as a pivotal force in reshaping what had threatened to become a troubled adult life.
He’s never bashful about his faith, “I never would’ve been able to change my life and have the success and love that I have in my world today without my faith.”
“Lord, help me be a good servant, father, husband, son, friend, brother, uncle, neighbor, good leader to those who look up to me and a good follower of those who aim to serve You.“ ~ Mark Wahlberg

Thursday, January 25, 2018

How Great Thou Art

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you." ~ Isaiah 43:2
Jason awoke early for a peaceful walk along the Caribbean coastline.  The ocean had always been his remedy for relieving tension, worry, and anxiety.
Its shore marked a graceful arc in the sand, glittering under the remains of a moonlit sky.  With a soothing sound, the waves rolled in a brief burst of kelp.  Every few meters he discovered a briny treasure, once the habitat for some aquatic creature - footprints they left behind soon erased.
From the sandy shore, he gazed out at the horizon before him.  Waves of a royal blue crept towards him and then ran away, only to repeat the process in a cycle that left a salty mist on his feet.  But beyond those magical waves was something even more breathtaking and spectacular: the rising sun.
Beautiful smudges of coral, lavender, and a fiery orange blended together to create a sight so astounding it swept away all his worries, just like the waves creeping over seashells and stealing them back into its depths.
He inhaled deeply as the sunlight poured over him, allowing his mind to focus on the ocean’s energy.  It cleansed him from head to toe; from the inside out.  Negativity and fear escaped like the outgoing tide.
When he imagined its healing power, he pictured countless others who must feel the same way - surfers, divers, swimmers, and children grinning from ear to ear.  The ocean serves as medicine for so many.
Its power is immeasurable.  We’ve learned to travel over the mighty oceans, to descend to the bottom of them, and to travel through them - but the relentless force of their waves remain untamable.  Rocks are crushed, shorelines are changed, and even the most experienced sailors can be driven aground or sent to their bottoms.  Man’s combined genius and equipment can do little to conquer the oceans.
They’re no problem for God, however.  The One who created the mighty oceans does with them what He wishes.  And when the turbulent seas of adversity are threatening, we need to remember His awesome power.
Sometimes there are obstacles that seem overwhelming to us.  But like the seas, they have no more resistance to God’s power than water in a teacup!
God’s love is like that.  It's refreshing, powerful, and a little terrifying at times.  But all you need to experience His love and healing grace is the desire to walk closely with Him, a willingness to confess your sinfulness, and a sincerity to communicate with Him daily.
“Dear God, Your ocean is so wide and my boat is so small; the winds are so strong - my sail so slight; and the world so fierce and I’m so frail.  Please watch over me, Amen.”                ~ Winfred Ernest Garrison

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Two Apples

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged." ~ Matthew 7:1
Playful and sometimes a bit mischievous, Allis was a handful!  Her dark brown eyes were filled with vitality and self-assurance.  Reddish brown pigtails added to an overall impish appearance.  Snuggles and smiles had long since been traded for tantrums and egocentrism.   Today was one such case in point.
Allis and her Mom (Beth) enjoyed some quiet time in the tall grass beneath a cloudless, azure sky. The scent from pink, creamy apple blossoms permeated their senses; an aroma not missed by the peaceful humming of bees sipping the nectar, gathering pollen.  Nature provides such a wonderful backdrop Beth thought.
Allis spied a magnificent apple tree with emerald green leaves; it’s luscious, red apples waiting to be savored.   “Mommy, can I go pick some,” she pleaded.
“Of course, honey,” Beth replied.  “Just watch out for soft spots and worms, ok?”
Allis nodded and scampered off, anxious to find the perfect fruit.  But only a meter tall, she’d have to rely on those that had recently fallen off swollen limbs.
She picked one up; its skin was firm and smooth.  Without biting, she knew instinctively that on the other side of that rich, red skin was crisp white flesh.
Soon she located an almost identical one and lifted it from the ground to drink in the sweet scent.  Before her teeth broke its delicate skin, she pulled it away from her mouth and stared at it again.
Apple peels were works of art - perfect blends of red and yellow in patterns a human hand could never paint.  Such a natural treat.  They didn't shine since they were absent a wax coating.  Home grown, no chemicals, no trucking between states, just fruit right off the tree.
Pleased with her discoveries, Allis scurried back to her mother with a beautiful prize in each hand.
“My love,” Beth asked eagerly, “did you bring one of those apples for me?”
The girl looked up at her mother grinning briefly before taking a bite from one apple … and then the other.
The smile on Beth’s face froze trying hard to conceal her displeasure.  What had she done wrong in raising such a selfish child?  And how could she ‘unspoil’ her ungrateful kid?
Then Allis handed one of her bitten apples to Beth.  “Here you are Mommy, this is the sweeter one,” she said.
Despite our best efforts, we all judge others.  It might be over small things, like a co-worker who took too long of a lunch break.  Or it might be over bigger issues, such as a person who hurts our feelings.  No matter, it’s always wise to delay judgment, to give others the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to explain themselves.
Father, help us to be mindful that it’s not our place to judge others.  We are no better than they are.  Help us to trust in Your almighty plan and the power of Your love to capture hearts and transform others.  Amen

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Winter's Day

“Truly the sun’s light is sweet; pleasant for the eyes to behold!  ~ Ecclesiastes 11:7
Michigan winters are often defined in various shades of grey.  That is, at least until its Great Lake traps it’s vast waters beneath a solid ice sheet, allowing the sun to shine on occasion.
But despite the dismal, dreary sky, Yulia loved her morning walks along the naked trees lining the Paint Creek Trail.  It allowed time for brisk exercise, prayerful contemplation, and of course, the companionship of her faithful friend Bella.
A frigid, misty rain was falling today.  The air clung like frozen lace on her skin, delicate and cold, like winter waves on shallow sand.  As they trekked through fresh, crisp snow, Bella’s puppy breath rose in visible puffs.  She too loved the outdoors.
Having moved from somewhere much warmer and sunnier, Yulia found it hard to keep her energy or spirits up as she walked along.  The weather forecast said it might be days before they would see the sun again.
Her body craved the sunlight that converts the vitamin D that naturally boosts serotonin levels.  Adequate serotonin directly affects healthier moods - which may explain why she always felt revitalized and happier when spring arrives.
Suddenly Bella barked and ran ahead a few dozen paces.  There she sat patiently waiting for Yulia to join her.  A tiny break in the clouds had appeared and a sunbeam shot through them, shining directly onto Bella’s coat.
Yulia hurried to join Bella, letting the sun’s warmth embrace her like an old friend.  It felt as if God leaned down from Heaven and planted a tender kiss on her forehead.  After weeks without it, she was surprised by the heat in its rays.  No longer did it leach enjoyment from her body, but instead, returned it tenfold.
She let it wash over her, rekindling a fire in her soul; reminding her that the sun always shines behind the clouds.  It was also a cheerful reminder that God’s love is always there even on the darkest of days.
The break in the clouds lasted only a minute more.  But the light Yulia took in from it stayed with her for the rest of the day.
Sometimes we all need a little light to keep us going when the world seems dark.  Sometimes we all need a little reminder of God’s love for us to keep us strong and shining bright.  And sometimes we need to be that light ourselves.
The next time then that this world seems dim and gray - be the light that makes it bright once again.  Share your love, your warmth, and your smile.  Give your goodness, your kindness, and your joy.  Break through the clouds and let God’s light shine through you.
Gracious and loving God, Your rays embrace the earth.  Help us to seek Your brilliance and warmth in good times as well as bad. Help us to always be mindful that You are our sure hope in a world that doesn’t always seem to care.  Amen

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Superheroes

“For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow." ~ James 1:3
Their infant son Louie has a life-threatening illness.  But this story isn’t about him.  His fate lies with the healing touch of a God who loves him deeply.
Nor is it about the medical professionals who take care of these little angels.  They are heroes, of course.
But it’s the parents who are the superheroes.  They use every weapon to fight because their children need them to.  They keep going because if they don’t, who will?
I’ve never actually met little Louie, but when I read the Facebook updates about him, it’s easy to feel the enormous, self-sacrificing love that surrounds him.  I envision bright, encouraging smiles on their faces as they sit by their son’s bed, praying for miracles.
Parents with hearts like stained-glass windows.  Those windows are made of broken glass which when forged back together, are even stronger and more beautiful for having been broken.
Parents who care of seriously ill children don’t have the same luxuries the rest of us have.  Every parent carries similar nagging fears: What if something happens to my child?  Will I be able to give them all the things they need to live a happy, healthy life?  How can I help them realize their full potential?  It comes back to one question: Am I enough?
But parents with healthy children can to put those fears on the back burner.  We don’t often have to look that terrifying monster in the eye and face reality.  But, for Louie’s parents, that’s a luxury they can’t afford.  They hold onto frail little hands and face the monster head on.   Their pain is deep, but their joy runs deeper.  Such selfless courage and boundless faith humbles me.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Louie clings to life - as his own gift to the parents he loves, savoring every moment with his family for their sake, as well as for his own.
For the rest of us who look at these parents and think, “I don’t know how they do it,” know this: It’s not their abilities that are superhuman.  It’s their extraordinary love, the intensity of which pushes them out of bed every morning and forces them to keep going, no matter the odds.
I suspect if I spoke with them face to face, they’d say something like: “Please don't feel sorry for us.  Love us, support us, talk to us and pray for us.  Louie is perfect!  He’s never hurt anyone; he only seeks loves and creates it.  We mourn for a world that sees only flaws.  Suffering helps us all experience joy.  Whatever brings you closer to God is a blessing.”
Father God, please bless Louie’s parents and all who love him.  Shower them with Your comfort and strength to sustain them as they care for this sweet child.  May they trust in You, Lord.  Give them the hope, faith, and skill to help nurse young Louie back to full heath, Amen.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Amazing Gracie

“Out of the fullness of His grace He blesses us all." ~ John 1:16
For first responders, there’s no such thing as a normal day on the job.  From saving families from burning houses to aiding the victims of car crashes, they adapt to whatever the situation.  But it was a cool, fall evening when Darren got the call that would change his life forever.
It came from a woman in distress - severe abdominal pain.  When Darren and the other firefighters arrived on scene, they quickly realized the young woman was in labor.  Though her belly was large, the girl was dreadfully undernourished.
Darren immediately started an IV and placed the mother on oxygen.  As the ambulance prepared to leave, the baby was crowning.  Without much effort, it slid into Darren’s hands.  His heart jumped into his throat as his brain registered the meaning of what had just happened.
Their eyes met as they stared blissfully at each other, alone in space.  Her newborn smile was as sweet as ripe peaches.  Tiny fingers curled around his pinky.  She seemed oddly content despite what must have been such a strange world after life in the womb.
The siren jolted him out of his daydream.  They called for backup and rushed to the hospital with mother and child.
While filling out routine paperwork at the hospital, Darren learned that the homeless mom planned to put the infant up for adoption.  It must have been an answer to their prayers.
They’d been trying (unsuccessfully) for a third child and were considering adoption.  Now it was in God’s hands.  “If it’s meant to be, it’ll be!”
He walked into the woman’s hospital room and introduced himself.  Darren explained that he had two kids, his wife was a school teacher and they wanted more children, but weren’t able to.  After a friendly chat, he swung by the nursery and sent his wife a picture of the sweet little girl.
She jokingly texted back, “Can we keep her?”  Darren knew his wife wasn’t kidding.
The next day, the whole family visited the mother in the hospital.  She was old well beyond her youth and paying the price.  She appeared frail, exhausted, and alone.
The adult conversation went well – but it was Darren’s boys who closed the deal; they absolutely loved her and couldn’t wait to make the beautiful baby girl the newest addition to their family.
Terrified of returning to the streets with a child she could not feed, clothe or care for adequately, the mother readily agreed to the adoption.
The family named their baby girl Grace ; she’d go by Gracie.  They knew the adoption was a gift from God – having placed the fate of their family growing by another in His precious hands.  And He grace-fully delivered on that prayer.
Blessed Lord, thank You for all that you’ve done for us today.  Thank You for the splendor of Your whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the miracle of life, and for the mystery of love.  Amen

Friday, December 29, 2017

Stories for My Back Pocket

“Fight the good fight, finish the race, keep the faith." ~ 2 Timothy 4:7
It was an economic downturn that threw Mateo and his family off track.  Earlier that spring and typically a busy time for construction work, he sat home for weeks without any jobs lined up.  That had never happened in all the years he’d been an independent contractor.  Hard times were coming.
He tried desperately to find steady job with a construction company but by then, no one was hiring. They no longer had the extra income needed to support his wife’s fledgling bookkeeping business.  That went under too.
He filed for bankruptcy, his house was foreclosed on and his car repossessed.  Unemployed for the first time in his life, 42 year-old Mateo had lost everything.
He was broken; shattered really.  His heart beat without purpose; his mind desperate for some reason to live.  Any notion of hope quickly vanished like a desert mirage.
Eventually he landed a job as a night custodian at the local college.  The pay cut bled clear to the proverbial bone and the work triggered little satisfaction.  But the college offered free tuition.  So while his college classmates were in the library studying together at night, Mateo was buffing floors and picking up their trash.
He did schoolwork early in the mornings and after class in the afternoons before he started his 3 to 11 shift.  He rarely saw his wife, who’d gone back to school as well to get a teaching degree.  She worked days, he worked nights.  And when he was home he was studying.
Initially, Mateo took classes just to occupy his mind and keep despair from coagulating in his veins.  After completing the basic coursework, he set his sights on an undergraduate degree.  The thought energized him.  Others noticed a buoyancy in his step that hadn’t been there before.
Nearly a decade after his life unraveled, Mateo graduated with a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering.  As he walked (more like strutted) across the stage to accept his diploma, the crowd exploded in applause for him.
It had taken more than a decade to get his degree.  It took him less than a month to land a dream job (while continuing his custodial chores, of course).  He never lost hope.
Friends, as we ponder our New Year’s Resolution, let’s be honest.  Few of us really want things to be completely different.  We just want life to get better, or easier.  We can handle a tune-up or face-lift, but drastic change?  Medication, yes; surgery, no.
So my resolution for 2018 is to tuck stories like this one into my back pocket, and when I’m upset or feeling down on my luck, I resolve to pull these out and re-read them for inspiration.  Then I’ll look up … and trust the One who holds my future.
Friends - may this new year be a time of deep spiritual growth, a time of welcoming the Lord’s graces and gifts, a time for forgiving freely and unconditionally, a time for growing.  Best Wishes for 2018!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Yuletide Memories

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to all people." ~ Luke 2:4
Christmas – a time of faith, hope, love and great memories.  As I sat quietly listening to our Pastor’s sermon, I closed my eyes and felt my eyes tear up allowing a flood of childhood, Christmas memories to wash over me.  Crying is sometimes how I understand myself best.
We were certainly not a wealthy family.  Yet, we were so rich in all life’s important things.
I remembered getting up on a bitingly cold, December morning and pulling on my oversized winter coat before heading outside with my Dad and brother to chop down a Christmas tree.  We usually picked a tree whose limbs could barely support the ornaments and lights when we decorated it.
Mom was in charge of setting up the ceramic nativity scene she’d hand crafted, with such respect and tenderness.  She’d always kiss the baby Jesus before setting it aside until Christmas Eve.
Mom sang along with the Christmas carols on the radio while she decorated the house.  I remember the peaceful look on her face whenever she sang, "Silent Night."
Christmas Eve dinner featured pastrami on rye with oyster (or potato) soup and freshly baked bread.  Dad placed a note for Santa on our front door so that he wouldn’t skip our empty house while we were at midnight Mass.
The service was a collection of singing, readings (in Latin), and a dual message: to praise God for sending His Son to earth, and to emphasize our responsibility to love one another.  I tried staying awake for the whole mass, but often fell asleep on Mom’s lap.
I remembered the eager anticipation of waiting to open my presents on Christmas morning.  They were few in number and never very expensive, but they always brought great joy to my heart.  I played with them for months and sometimes years to come.
Most of all, though, I remembered the unwavering love in that house.  It made every day feel like Christmas.  It was there in our hugs and smiles, laughter and tears, arguments and agreements, triumphs and tragedies.  Even when we moved from Webster Street, love followed us.  It gave me a hint of the love that God has for us all.  With it we felt like the wealthiest family on earth.
Christmas season is a special time of year.  It’s a time to connect with each member of your family, and create memories and traditions that your family and kids will remember when they’re older. Creating memories as a family also gives your children a secure foundation and understanding of their identity in the family and the importance of Christ’s birth.
May your life be full of loving memories at this Christmas and always.  And may you create new ones every single day.  Have a Blessed Christmas.
“This Christmas may you have … hot drinks by the fire, laughter to cheer you, and those you love near you, and all that your heart may desire.”  Amen  ~ Old Irish Prayer

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Emmanuel

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” ~ Luke 19:10
Sarah was nearing the end of her 6th and final year of teaching.  She’d realized earlier this year that she’d been unhappy with work and cranky towards her pupils.
Students cringed as she graded their work because Sarah could no longer hide the disappointment in her face.  All too often she took derogatory jabs at failing or disruptive kids rather than giving them a new chance every day.  Her tenure was turning her into a dreadful person; her students deserved better.
Even as she pondered her final Christmas in the classroom, she wasn’t sure if teaching had finally worn her down to a bitter shell of the cheerful newbie she’d been once, or if she was just ready to move on.  Even yesterday’s assignment for them to identify the greatest Christmas present ever given, seemed to validate her cynicism.
This morning Sarah gazed at the class as if their faces had become an expanse of nothingness.  Most would describe gifts that were exorbitantly expensive.  Few would suggest gifts that required any deep thought.
She was nearly correct.
Ryan suggested the Black Diamond iPhone covered in gems and an incredible black diamond valued at over $15,300,000.  Sandra offered something less luxurious but equally excessive – the world’s most exclusive dog collar featuring 1,600 diamonds including a 7-carat centerpiece for $3.2 million.
Braden proposed a New Year’s party for 300 friends on the rooftop of a hotel overlooking Time Square at the eye-dropping cost of $1.6 million.  And Itsuki’s idea for Dolce sunglasses at $383,609 would certainly blow a hole in most holiday shopping budgets.
The presentations continued monotonously – expensive cars, extreme vacations, massive big-screen TVs; an alligator backpack ($47,000) and gold shoelaces ($19,000).
But when it came to Mandy’s turn, the shy, thoughtful girl spoke without hesitation.  “The Wise Men brought the unusual gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to Jesus.  But their gifts were not gifts to the Child.  The first Christmas gift was the gift of the child.”
“Christmas in its purest state,” she continued, “is a promise that no earthly thing can satisfy.  The true meaning of Christmas is that Jesus Christ, God himself, came to earth to be born into the human race.  In fact, ‘Emmanuel’ means “God is with us!”
It’s better than anything Nieman Marcus could offer.  It is the only thing that truly keeps on giving: the gift of eternal life.
The room went quiet.  Heads nodded in embarrassed agreement.
Sarah’s eyes lit up; a million new ideas were streaming through her brain.  She’d felt something new, something amazing, something long ago forgotten – inspiration, rejuvenation, pure joy.  She’d received her Christmas gift early and would have to rethink her retirement from teaching.
“Dear God, grant me an abundance of Your wisdom.  Prepare my heart to encourage these young people and give me grace as I help those who aren’t thriving, courage to say what needs to be said, and patience when I’m intolerant.” ~ Sarah

Friday, December 15, 2017

Let It Snow

“God speaks to us through His beautiful creations." ~ John 1:3
Silvery flakes drifted softly, glittering in the bright light of a golden sunrise.   Winter trees shivered in the gentle wind; naked branches adorned with an icy frosting.  For Brianna (5), it marked something very special – the first ‘snow day’.
All bundled up, Mom and daughter loaded their snow tubes, a few extra mittens, and a thermos of hot chocolate into the back seat of the car and headed to the “Best park on the planet to slide!"
Mom grew up in a small town just a few miles from where their family lives now.  Going back there to ride down the hill together had always been her dream.   As a little girl playing with her friends she often declared "Someday I'll bring my kids here!”
The park was covered in a thick ivory blanket.  Statutes peeked from under their new white caps.  Footsteps and paw prints crisscrossed each other around the labyrinth of paths.  The snow had transformed the landscape making it a magical place full of wonder and uncharted mysteries.
For Mom, today seemed extra special.  Brianna was finally old enough to take a few trips down the hill on her own.  Not that this was a dangerous hill, but for the first time Mom was starting to let go.  From the first day we begin to teach our children to be independent, we begin to experience that special pain - the one that tugs at your heart every time they take another step in the direction of adulthood.
As they came to a rolling stop, the two tumbled into the powder laughing.  The cobalt sky above reminded them of God’s creative talents.  Next to where they’d stopped were a few small evergreens laden with snow.
"Look Bri, see how the snow glistens on those branches?” Mom motioned.  “After God sends us snow to play in, He sends sunlight to dance on the snowflakes.  As they melt, the snow turns into tiny water drops.  As they hang there, light shines through them and you can see little rainbows.  It's all a part of His magnificent expression," Mom explained.
"This is way better than Disney World!" Brianna said, "and we don't have to stand in line to see it."
Off in the distance they heard other children playing.  Yet, in that precious moment that this young Mother will one-day recall when she’s feeling abandoned and alone, God put on a light show and life danced across their souls.
Have you taken a minute to stop and watch a snowflake float to the ground?  Or seen a rainbow in a droplet of God's tears?   If you haven't, my good friend, you're missing the greatest show on earth … and it’s all free for an investment of your time.
Almighty Father, You’ve beckoned us to marvel at majestic mountains, enjoy vibrant sunsets, smell fragrant roses, and calm ourselves beside still waters. Thank You for doing all the hard work so we could enjoy these simple pleasures.  Amen

Sunday, December 10, 2017

An Unlikely Pardon

“Forgive us our sins, and help us forgive those who’ve sinned against us." ~ Matthew 6:12
Her son's killer stood on a chair blindfolded, his hands tied behind his back and a hangman’s noose around his neck.  Hundreds crowded outside the prison in a northern Iranian town to watch the mother, Alinejad, exercise her right to kick the chair out from under him to let him hang.
Her only son Abdollah (18) had been stabbed and killed in a street brawl.  He’d known his killer, Balal.  The two had played soccer together.  Years earlier, Alinejad’s youngest son Amir was killed by a motorcycle that Balal was driving.
Under Sharia Law’s concept of an "an eye for an eye," families of murder victims are often given the final word over whether convicted killers live or die – a legal concept that has drawn sharp criticism by international rights groups.  Iran executes more of its own people than any other country except China.
They also have the option to show mercy as an act of charity and a chance to atone for one's sins.  But after dreaming of revenge for 7 long years – she wanted Balal dead.
Seconds away from what would have been his final breath, a weeping Balal begged for his life one last time.  "Please forgive me," he shouted, "if only for my mom and dad."
An angry Alinejad climbed up on the chair and shouted back.  "Did you have mercy on us?  Did you show mercy to my son?" she demanded.  "You have taken happiness away from us.  Why should I have mercy toward you?"  Then she slapped him hard across the face.
Balal's fate then took an unexpected turn.
She forgave the convicted killer.  Immediately she “felt the rage in my heart vanish and the blood begin flowing through my body again.”  Then bursting into tears, she removed the noose from Balal’s neck.  By lawful declaration, he’d been pardoned from the death penalty but would still serve the remainder of his prison sentence.
Some in the crowd applauded.  All appeared shocked.
Balal's own mother reached across the fence separating the crowd from the execution site, and embraced Alinejad before reaching to kiss her feet – a sign of respect and gratitude.
But Alinejad refused and instead gestured for the woman to stand up.  “After all, she was a mother just like me," she recalled.
Weeks later, Alinejad has found a peace lost since her son's death.  "Losing two children is like losing parts of your body.  All these years, I felt like my body was dead.  Now I feel very calm.  I'm at peace; vengeance has left my heart."
Alinejad's decision was widely publicized by the semi-official news agency, hoping to encourage more victims' families to consider choosing mercy over retribution.
Almighty Father, I believe that your son, Jesus Christ died for my sins, was resurrected from the dead, is alive, and hears my prayer. Please become the Lord of my life, to rule and reign in my heart from this day forward.  Amen

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Gentle Giant

“Your own soul is nourished when you radiate kindness." ~ Proverbs 11:17
Henry Ellis was a man of routine.
Each morning, Ellis left the ‘Eddy’ – an inexpensive flop house for the poor with nowhere else to live, and walked six blocks to the Waveland Cafe for breakfast.  He perched himself on his favorite counter stool every day.  The diner’s employees always knew his order - an egg sandwich with a half order of french-fries and 3 Cokes.
To them, he was part of the family.  They knew him by name but mostly referred to him as “Gentle Giant.”  He’d usually make a bit of a mess so they knew to provide extra napkins.  As one of their most beloved customers, they enjoyed his daily visits.  And he loved the camaraderie.
When the old man would describe his life, locals were instantly transported to another place and time.  His voice was slow and he stumbled on his words.  Sometimes he’d be overwhelmed by emotions and would pause to collect himself, recalling memories that’d been buried for decades.
At times he’d appeared excited to weave a tale.  Other times he seemed to be honoring a solemn duty to remember the past.  After speaking for a time he’d often nod off into a little catnap, seemingly exhausted from the energy required recalling bygone days.
"Our paths crossed almost every day,” remarked Carole his favorite waitress.  "He had a great heart.  If there was ever a break in his routine, I’d be sure to ask the rascal what he’d gotten into.  He’d pause, and give some random reason, but mostly it was my way of letting him know that he had a following of people who cared about him."
But his routine was tragically broken when the deadliest Des Moines fire in a decade took the 71-year-old's life.  His absence was instantly noticed.  The Waveland Café staff and other regulars mourned his death, but nothing could fill the seat that remained empty.
But they found a sweet way to remember their “Gentle Giant.”  They set up a makeshift memorial in his honor, leaving a cup of coffee, sugar and extra napkins for him as if they were still serving him.  They also left a note, his photo, and a flower on the counter across from Henry’s stool.  Regulars donated money to cover the funeral expenses of the other fire victims too.
“Although he’d never walk through that door again,” Carole added tearfully, “We wanted everyone to know how much he meant to us and that he’d surely be missed.”
Such a simple gesture … but a powerful message.
Like the ripples radiating from a pebble dropped in a pond, kindness pulses out after each of our actions and has a contagious effect on those around us.  Make somebody smile today, it’s so worth the effort.
Dear God, if I can’t be brilliant, let me be kind.  If I can’t change the world, let me inspire just one other to do so.  If I can’t give away riches, let me be loving.  Amen

Friday, December 1, 2017

Second Chance

"The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love." ~ Psalm 86:15
Karl massaged his throbbing temples, glancing at yet another flash card.  As the figures blurred together, he pressed his forehead onto the card hoping that might stamp it to his memory.  As a 6th grader, he had to find a way to pass the math midterm.
Stifling a yawn, Karl rubbed bleary eyes.  Despite his best effort, this was just not working.  He pushed the chair back and decided to make a little ‘cheat sheet.'
For the week leading up to the exam, Karl studied really hard.  At one point, he almost thought he didn’t need it.  But on the day of the test, he put it in his pocket - just in case.
Faced with a sheet of math problems, Karl started freaking out. In less than an hour his fate would be sealed.  He choked down rising bile and placed the cheat sheet under his desk.
Then he closed his eyes and said the little prayer below.  Almost immediately, Karl felt a calming presence wash over him.  His focus became razor sharp.  Attacking the problems with vengeance, he didn’t even need the silly cheat sheet.
Karl proudly placed his fished work on the teacher’s desk.  In his exuberance however, he completely forgot the paper he’d left on the floor; one that had not gone unnoticed by a glaring teacher.  Busted – for not even using the dumb thing.
Karl felt so embarrassed.  “This couldn’t be happening to me!”  He waited outside the Principal’s office until his teacher arrived after class.  When he saw the disappointment on her face, he wanted to cry.  Only in his silent prayers could he speak to God and beg for mercy.
Karl tried to explain how the cheat sheet had given him the confidence he needed to complete the exam without using it.  Even he thought his account was hard to believe.
But his teacher did believe in second chances.
“For your punishment,” she began, “you’ll create a completely different exam.  It must be at least 100 good, thoughtful questions long.  I’ll choose 25 of them for your make-up exam (imagine the lesson here).  A perfect score on your test will gain no better than a “B.”
“And don’t even ask what will happen if this ever happens again,” the principal added.
Karl learned two lessons that day … the hard way.  His teacher helped him and so did the principal.  No one had ever done that for him besides his parents.  And secondly, intentions are as sinful to God as completing the act itself.  But one of the amazing facets of God's character is His incredible patience with us.
“Dear God, I know there’s probably no prayer that can change a "D" to an "A" but I still need Your help as I take this exam.  Let there be a peace that flows over me when I walk out of the classroom after knowing that I did my best to prepare. Thanks”  ~ Karl