Who in Your Life Needs a Blessing?

I was at the service counter at Trader Joe’s when, out of the blue, one of the staff handed me a bouquet of white roses saying it was a “Pay it forward.” That unexpected gift was a blessing. The giver had no idea how such a simple gift would touch me. I had been missing a dear friend who died months earlier. The gift came as a sign that God, knowing my loss, had found a way to comfort me.

The gift of Blessing another is something that the church I am a part of will be starting next week. Wrapped around a study called, “Surprise the World,” every person will be encouraged to choose three people each week to bless in some way. I suspect there are as many ways to bless as there are people who need a blessing. To the troubled co-worker having a rough day with the boss, a word of encouragement can lift a spirit. Reaching out to an overwhelmed parent of a special needs child with a meal for the family – can give a much needed break. Sending a note of support to a person going through a divorce, to just let that person know that you care, can heal a broken spirit. Taking time to listen to a friend, offers encouragement in the simple act of allowing a person to be heard. Taking a lonely person out for a meal recognizes that person’s value and worth.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book  An Altar in the World says,  “To pronounce a blessing on something is to see it from the divine perspective. To pronounce a blessing is to participate in God’s own initiative. To pronounce a blessing is to share God’s own audacity.”

Look around your world today – who in your life needs a blessing? And what is it that he or she needs?



Love Draws the Circle Wide

Westboro Baptist Church planned some picketing in my community today. If you have somehow missed Westboro’s hate-filled speech, consider yourself fortunate. Fred Phelps, who started the church, found fame when he and his people started to picket the funerals of soldiers around the country. They held up signs with hate messages aimed at people who were gay or lesbian, using derogatory terms.   The targeting of soldiers was a warped logic which tied the war against terror to what the Westboro people believe, is the country’s willingness to have gay and lesbian members in the armed services. In their arrogance, they cheered the deaths of those who gave their lives for our nation.    Choosing to intrude on the heartbreak of  parents, spouse and children, they  brought their hateful agenda  and picketed funerals.  Westboro’s goal in Minnesota today, was to protest decisions by the University of Minnesota Hospital as well as a local high school related to transgender youth.

What has always stunned me about the Westboro Baptist church are actions which are antithetical to Christian Love and compassion. As a pastor I find it hard to reconcile the Jesus of the gospels with the arrogance and self-righteous attitude of the Westboro church.  I found myself  praying that our young people were protected from the hate speech and that the Westboro people had changed hearts. Ironically, at the very end of his life, Fred Phelps was excommunicated from the church he founded, because he came to see the world more compassionately than his followers. He pushed for reconciliation with two of his granddaughters who had been shunned by the church. The church he grew became even narrower in their ability to love and accept people than he had been. There was no longer room for Fred Phelps in his own church.

Edward Markham’s poem, “Outwitted”  is a favorite of mine, for its insistence that God loves all of the world’s people and wants us to do the same.

“He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!”

God is the one that keeps drawing us into the larger circle. God pulls us from the isolation of judgmentalism, arrogance and self-righteousness into the greater truths of love, compassion, mercy, kindness, gentleness and humility.

I’ve heard no news coverage of Westboro Baptist Church today. The community made a decision not to confront or encourage a counter-protest in the places Westboro chose to picket, so the group would be denied the publicity they wanted. I don’t know if they came and picketed or not. I do know that the community decided to work together and silence their message of hate, by simply ignoring it. It was a teachable moment to remember that the greatest commandment,  after loving God with all our heart, minds’ soul and strength,  is to love our neighbor as ourself.

Love Like a Magic Penny

Hobson's Resort - Lake Jefferson, Cleveland Minnesota

Hobson’s Resort – Lake Jefferson, Cleveland Minnesota

My parents got a slide projector when I was around seven years old. The slide projector was a wonder. My parents loved the large screen pictures which would come out on winter nights, as we traced our lives through summers, birthdays, Christmases and two trips to Florida. But none of those slides were ever made into a picture that could be put into a photo album, given to a grandparent or hung on a wall. The last picture I have of myself is of my birthday party just before I started second grade.

With today’s technology, this would be an easy fix. That became impossible on Easter Sunday the year I graduated from high school. Our home burned. The only pictures which escaped were a few I had kept in an album in my room. Our slides were gone and most everything else in our home except our bedrooms. In the end, the only pictures I have of my early childhood came from the pictures which were given away. Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles realized how much those photos would mean to my parents. They gifted them back.

I discovered the year of the fire, how quickly possessions can disappear. Love remains. Like our lost pictures, only what was given away is something I possess today.

Malvina Reynolds wrote a song about giving love away. Her message was that people who love are the ones who receive love back. “Love,” she said, “is like a magic penny.” The lyrics go like this:

“Love is something if you give it away,
Give it away, give it away.
Love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.

It’s just like a magic penny,
Hold it tight and you won’t have any.
Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many
They’ll roll all over the floor.

For love is something if you give it away,
You end up having more.”

The less we give of ourselves to the world, the less we receive back. What we hang on tightly to, we are most likely to lose. The more love we give away, the more we are surprised by love coming back.

Some Quotes

Do not keep the alabaster box of your friendship sealed up until your friends are dead. Fill their lives with sweetness. Speak approving, cheering words while their ears can hear them, and while their hearts can be thrilled and made happier. The kind of things you mean to say when they are gone, say before they go.
by George W. Childs

Go out into the world today and love the people you meet. Let your presence light new light in the hearts of people.

_Mother Teresa

Life’s most urgent question is: what are you doing for others?
by Martin Luther King, Jr.

Finding Unity – Can We Listen to our Neighbor’s Story?

Every four years the United Methodist Church holds a General Conference with delegates from around the world. Because we are a global church, concerns which one part of the church sees as vital and needing immediate action, the other part resists. With viewpoints and ideologies entrenched, progress on resolving differences became impossible this year. A rule that would have set aside time for people to simply have table discussion around controversial issues was voted down. Eventually, a day or so later, our bishops called a halt to proceedings and set aside a two-hour period of prayer instead of doing battle over divisive legislation.

In many ways the arguments have mirrored the division in the US. One group is so certain they have the truth, they are unwilling to listen and even begin to understand the other. Neither is willing to view the issues from the other’s world view. We have been so convinced of our truth, we have no room to hear of another’s experience, even of God. We have stopped talking to each other, instead we talk about each other.

A wise woman once told of asking God to help her cope with a difficult person in her life. In a vision she was given to see that person’s soul as made of a beautiful crystal. When she began to look at the person, not as her great enemy, but through the lens God had given her to see him, the bitterness she had harbored fell away. Seeing the people we vehemently disagree with and have said harsh words about, through the eyes of God’s love can change a heart. I think that is why the writer of scripture told us “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. ” I John 4:20-21

The great issues of our day, both within Christianity and the world, will not be resolved by one group of people shouting at the other. We will not find common ground with others, until we allow ourselves to hear the stories of our neighbors. Only when we understand the painful realities of those we oppose, will we be able to look for solutions that meet the universal need for acceptance, love and compassion. I am by nature an optimist. I believe in the world of possibilities. I’m convinced that God is working in our world and in our lives, moving the mountains of resentment and perhaps greatest of all – distrust. I know this, because God continues to work in my life, urging me to listen and to hear the stories of my neighbors . . . Then to open my heart, just a little wider.

Will We Live Out Our Heritage as People of Faith or Will We Succumb to fear?

In a scene reminiscent of World War II, when nations around the world refused refuge to Jewish people fleeing the death camps of Hitler, today we are preparing to abandon another group of refugees. Fear can paralyze. It can keep us from honoring our commitments to people in need. Since the Paris attacks, fear has swept around this country and Europe. Fear of the stranger and fear of the refugee. Some in Congress are already preparing legislation to prevent any more refugees from Syria coming to our borders.

The scripture says, “Perfect love casts out all fear.” (I John 4:18) I once mixed the wording of the verse up when I was putting together a sermon. Instead of “Perfect love casts out fear,” I wrote, “Perfect fear casts out love.” This is the paradox of love and fear. When we allow fear to rule our hearts, it is difficult to love our neighbor. Fear pushes love away. It sets a barrier between “us and them.” Instead of concern over another’s well being, we are fearful that reaching out will be a danger to ourselves and our families.

In the Biblical drama the people of Israel seek refuge in foreign lands as desperate situations arrive. Abraham and Sarah move when famine breaks out. The Israelites will seek refuge in Egypt as another famine threatens their lives. Mary and Joseph, under threat, will take that same journey when they are warned of impending death for the infant Jesus. So it is that Jesus begins his life as a displaced person seeking political sanctuary from the vicious regime of Herod.

We are placed in this time of history and called to live out our faith in action. It would be easier to site security and let someone else deal with the refugees. History records the trauma of decisions made to the Jewish population before and during World War II. It is the same kind of mentality which caused us to imprison people of German descent during World War I and Japanese decent in World War II. We look back with regret on our fears as we sort through the lessons of history.

Today we stand on the cusp of another decision. Will we live out our heritage as people of faith or will we succumb to fear?

God Knows Our Name

A few weeks before my father entered a long term care facility, he had reached into his billfold and handed me two five-dollar bills. Then he had said, “I wish I could do more.” I was struggling financially at the time, but was taken completely by surprise at the unexpected gesture of love and concern. My father was dealing with an entirely different issue. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease six years earlier, the illness had not only affected his body, but also his mind. Ten days later I would hardly recognize him as the disease ravaged his body. It was one of the last lucid conversations I had with him. I have treasured it ever since. Whenever I try to tell someone the story, tears will spring to my eyes.

Knowing that someone cares about you can have a profound impact on a life. We do best in life, when we are surrounded by loving care. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah saying, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” Isaiah 43:1 (NRSV)

The wonder of it all is that God not only knows our name, but claims us. Our own lives can be completely messed up. People who should care about us may be in so much distress they cannot see our need. I’ve heard too many painful stories of family stresses, parents who can’t connect to their children and spouses who have forgotten how to love. I’ve left counseling sessions bewildered by the strange way we treat people who are closest and dearest to us. I have been appalled at the lack of compassion or concern by family members when a heartache has occurred. I’ve heard stories that break my heart when I cannot comprehend how a parent can be so indifferent.

The scripture tells us that even when those who ought to be expected to care for us fail, God will never stop loving us.“Though my father and my mother forsake me, the Lord will take me into his care.” Psalm 27:10 (REV) God is one who is always near, who always cares and to whom we can always turn.