Daily Appreciations

What if we noticed the small things in our lives that lift our spirits and make us smile? What if we didn’t allow those moments to slip us by, but instead took time to pause, appreciate, and give thanks. I wonder if we would become more aware of the blessings in our lives.

Here are some small things that brighten my days:  

Our local creamery. Not only can I get fresh milk (and chocolate milk!), yogurt, and meat, but it tickles me that there is a drive-through. I haven’t used it personally, but I have vivid memories of being a young mother with three little ones. The thought of having to unbuckle car seats, search for kicked-off shoes, and zipping up coats even one more time was enough to make me skip an errand or two. I love that tired parents, busy teenagers, and any weary traveler can just pull up to the window and fill their order. Every time I see the sign, it makes me smile.  So I pause. Appreciate. And give thanks.

A warm pool on a cold day. There is something a bit decadent about enjoying the warm air and refreshing water inside while gazing at the wintery scene outside. I love to swim and am grateful for the beautiful pool that is close enough for me to enjoy several times each week. I try not to take it for granted, so I pause. Appreciate. And give thanks.

Fruit-flavored water. This little treat is available whenever I go swimming. Yes, it’s a small pleasure, but how lovely to have fresh-tasting, cool water prepared for my refreshment. Before I drink, I pause. Appreciate. And give thanks.

Pretty candles. Short winter days call for additional light. And how much better it is when those lights sparkle and cast a beautiful glow. This candle is from the very special wedding I attended, so they offer an additional meaning. When I light a candle, it causes me to slow down and gives me the chance to pause so I can appreciate its uplifting light. And I give thanks.

Warm boots. “Walking in a winter wonderland” only sounds like fun in a song. The reality is usually cold legs and icy toes. When my thoughtful husband gave me these boots for Christmas, I knew that cold mornings would be transformed for me. When I I slip them on, I pause and appreciate their warmth and comfort.  And I give thanks.  

Cup of tea. Just the process of preparing tea can calm me down. Heat the water, choose the flavor, pour the water, wait as it steeps, and then pour and enjoy.  Ahhh… it is an invitation to pause and appreciate. And then to give thanks.

            Each day provides opportunities to bask, even briefly, in appreciation and to offer thanks. It’s easy to overlook simple pleasures as we rush from one moment to the next. Instead, let’s pause long enough to notice. Let’s take a moment to appreciate. And then let us give thanks.

A very special wedding

Sarah and Jordan were married on Saturday. It was a celebration of love, of course, but not just the romantic love between two people. This wedding celebrated the hopes, dreams, prayers, and hard work of countless people who made this special day possible.

Both Sarah and Jordan have Down Syndrome. Over the years they have confronted obstacles, setbacks, doubters, folks unable to recognize their worth, and some people who were just plain mean. It isn’t easy being “other” in our society. But they also had parents, family, and friends who believed in them and who consistently wanted the very best for them. Their wedding was a celebration of the power of love to transform lives.

Their wedding celebrated the tenacity of love. At this wedding we honored the hardworking love that gets up with dogged determination after every disappointment and challenge. We celebrated the parents who dared to dream that this day would someday come and whose fierce determination refused to give up on their beloved children. Parenting is never for the faint of heart; parenting a child with special needs demands an additional amount of fortitude. This wedding recognized that.

It also rejoiced in the strength of family and friends who formed a safe community where the unique gifts of Sarah and Jordan could be lifted up. It was also a tribute to all the dedicated teachers, coaches, trainers, and aides and assistants who worked on behalf of Sarah and Jordan and countless others so that they can live the very best life they can.

Sarah and Jordan’s wedding reminded us that the world is a better place when people choose to love one another. We are made richer by their example of their love, acceptance, and devotion. The joy and tender care they share with one another offers hope to a world that is too often callous and indifferent.

Over the years, many people informed Sarah and Jordan that their capabilities were limited and their future was dim. Thank God they had the wisdom to block out the negative voices and ignore the naysayers. This wedding celebrated God’s unlimited vision of each one of us. It was a reminder that we are all more capable, more amazing, and more filled with possibility than any of us realize. It was invitation to look beyond the obvious with a willingness to be surprised by what is actually possible.

Sarah and Jordan got married and it was a memorable occasion. That day showed us all what joy looks like. May God bless them on their journey and may we all be inspired to share and show love as boldly as they do.

What do you need?

                Our church celebrates Christmas Eve twice – once at 5:00 p.m. and again at 11:00 p.m.  Some ministers resist having two services but I enjoy both because they offer two very different, but entirely accurate versions of Christmas. The early service is crowded, noisy, and exuberant. The sanctuary walls are almost vibrating with energy as over-excited and over-sugared children try to hold it together so they can stay off the “naughty” list. This service represents “joy” to me.

             The late service is entirely different. Quiet, candle-lit, and hushed, our sanctuary glows with Christmas peace. Beautiful music soothes harried seekers who yearn to hear the Good News of a God who wants to be found. This service whispers “hope” to me.

 Although it was way past my bedtime, I shared the following reflection on Christmas Eve before we celebrated communion.

I hope you get everything you want for Christmas. And even more – I hope you get something that you need. That really is the question for Christmas, isn’t it – what do you need? It’s a good question to ask because if we know we need something, we will be ready to receive it.

We might even go looking for it.

Think about that very first Christmas. Who received something?

The shepherds did.  They heard the invitation – they heard angels singing, they heard the announcement of this miraculous birth. And they said to each other – I want that. I need that.  In beautiful Bible language, it sounds like this: “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” But what they were saying was, “This is something I need. Here is something I lack. So I will go, I will seek, I will look until I find it. They knew what they needed so they could receive what God was offering.

It was the same for the wise men. They saw the star in the sky. It must have called to them, spoken to their spirit.  It must have awakened a need in them because they followed it across miles and miles. They journeyed a long way to find that young child. Because they knew that they needed what he had to offer.

I’m willing to bet that other people heard the angels’ song.  It wasn’t just the shepherds. And I’m sure that other people saw that star in the sky. But those people didn’t go looking. They aren’t part of the story.

Maybe they stayed home that night because they weren’t able to say that they had an empty spot in their hearts that could only be filled by a baby lying in a manger.

It’s a pretty vulnerable thing to say. To say – I am lacking something. I need something more.

Who knows what the shepherds were looking for?  Maybe it was

  • Love
  • Forgiveness
  • Courage
  • Strength
  • Reassurane

They needed something – and they needed it enough that they were willing to leave everything familiar behind. They wanted and needed something more. And they dared to believe that it was being offered to them.

That is the Good News of Christmas. This gift is being offered to you.

And we can either convince ourselves that we are “just fine” and we don’t need anyone or anything. Or we can take a look at ourselves and realize that we need what God is offering.

There is a saying that you can’t really celebrate Christmas unless you know that you are poor. We’re not talking about money here. We’re talking about what we need, deep inside of us. It’s about being able to say – I need God’s gifts. Sometimes we think we don’t need help. Or we think that we are beyond help. Beyond forgiveness. Beyond love. Beyond repair

We convince ourselves that we are unforgivable or unlovable. Or it’s just too late.

Christmas tells us that isn’t true. Christmas tells us that God wants to give, is waiting to give, is eager to give. Christmas tells us about God who seeks us out in order to be able to give us what we need. Christmas tells us about a God who puts stars in the sky so we will be able to find God. And who sends messengers so we will hear the Good News

Christmas is about the original gift-giver.

Christmas is about God who loves us. The one who knows what we need, even before we say. The one who is waiting for us to say – yes, please. I want this gift. I want the love, the forgiveness, the new life, the hope you are offering.

My reflection was inspired by this quote by Oscar Romero

 “No one can celebrate a genuine Christmas without being truly poor. The self-sufficient, the proud, those who, because they have everything, look down on others, those who have no need even of God – for them there will be no Christmas. Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf will have that someone. That someone is God. Emmanuel, god-with-us. Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.

Oscar Romero (Archbishop of San Salvador)

Creator of the Stars of Night

Advent getting you down?

Can’t listen to another Christmas song?

Too much to do and not enough time?

Do you need some inspiration for the final stretch before Christmas?

Look up.

Or, if it’s too cold for star-gazing, click here.  NASA has compiled a beauty Advent calendar of photographs taken by the Hubble telescope. Each day a breath-taking new photo of a distant galaxy or star formation is revealed. These photos offer a glimpse of worlds far beyond the one we know.

            Our Advent worship services start with the song “Creator of the Stars of Night” which begins,

Creator of the stars of night,
your people’s everlasting light,
O Christ, great friend to each and all,
we beg you, hear us when we call.

The haunting tune invites us to consider God’s eternal creativity and far-reaching love and power. A miracle of Christmas is that the creator of all we see – and beyond – chooses to come to mere Earth-bound mortals like us.

As healer from the heavens forth
you came in earth’s despairing hour,
appearing in a mother’s womb,
all dispossessed of wealth and power.

Viewing the magnificent drama of far-flung galaxies may offer some perspective on our lives. These photos may not minimize our problems, but they offer a reminder of the enormity of the God who loves us.

You grieved for human sin and woe,
the anguish of our wayward race —
and death itself for us you braved
to give us life by loving grace.

We can gaze at these creations of light and color and be amazed that this creative God reaches out to each one of us with comfort, strength and hope.

O Christ, who suffered all our pain,
receive your people who adore
your holy name and, in your joy,
bind us in friendship evermore.

The gift of Light is given so we may share it with others. As we approach Christmas may we look for that light that shines in the darkness and remember that even the darkest moments cannot overcome it (John 1).  

Make us bright bearers of your light
In word and deed, and for your sake,
that creatures all might live in peace
and mercy all the world remake.

Look at the night sky.

Look at the pictures.

Soak in the wonder, the splendor of it all.

And then go out into the world and share some of that Light.

(Lyrics adapted by the Rev. Mary Luti)

Never complain about birthdays

 I turned 60 last week.  I was surprised by my reluctance to celebrate this milestone. Usually I anticipate birthdays with a glee not quite becoming of someone over the age of 10.  I have always found great joy in the day of my birth, a result no doubt of childhood memories of the world’s best birthday parties. They were not lavish but there my mother and I chose a theme (Winnie the Pooh or Hawaiian Islands or hippie fest – it was the 60’s, after all) and there were games, friends, cake and ice cream. It was a real celebration.

But this year I felt more hesitant.That feeling diminished somewhat when I visited the nursing home the day before my birthday.  After carefully winding my way through wheelchairs and walkers to address the group gathered for worship,I announced my final day in my 50’s.  A collective sigh rippled through the group as they wistfully reminisced, “Sixty.I remember 60.  So marvelous to be so young.”It was a good to hear their perspective.

Those very senior citizens are right, of course. Despite our society’s love affair with youth and all things new, I realize that getting older is a gift not everyone receives. After more than three decades of ministry, I have too memories of too many tragic funerals.Grieving families miss their cherished loved ones – babies, teenagers, young adults – who died too young. Complaints about gray hair and aching joints,those telltale signs of aging, fall on deaf ears. These families have an empty place at the table and in their hearts.  

So I rejected the temptation to whine (or lie) about my age. I know it’s a privilege to be alive, to be here,to love and be loved. I spent my day having lunch with my parents which seemed very fitting since they were there with me and for me since the very beginning.I was delightfully surprised to be joined by one of my brothers and my sister-in-law.  We celebrated with balloons; there was cake and ice cream, laughter and memories.

The evening offered a meal with my husband and daughter, followed by a movie at home. My sons called to wish me well.  It was a quiet day of celebration filled with family and love.

 May it remind me to give thanks for each new day. And may I be inspired to make the most of each one.

Learning from other traditions

My husband was raised Jewish and celebrated his bar mitzvah when he was 14. Although he no longer attends weekly services, the holidays of his youth still echo in his heart. Therefore, in our home, amidst all the Advent candles and early Christmas preparations, we also celebrate Hanukkah.

This was a learning curve for me.When we were first married, I was eager to learn my beloved’s traditions. We started out by buying children’s books to enhance my education about the basics of this beautiful celebration. Just weeks after our wedding, we went to a Hanukkah festival at a nearby synagogue and purchased our first menorah together. Twenty-seven years later, we continue to share the stories and traditions with our adult children.

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On each of the eight nights, we light candles and recall the ancient miracle of a meager amount of oil that continued to burn brightly as it reflected the faith of the believers. We ponder the significance of God overcoming terrifying circumstances and the ability of a small group of dedicated people to stand up for their beliefs. We celebrate God’s faithfulness and take hope from the growing light shining in the darkness.

We enjoy latkes with applesauce and cherish a bit of family time as we spin the dreidel and play games.  Hanukkah is not the most important Jewish holiday, but its light-hearted joy offers vital reminders about standing up against evil and trusting in God.  

It turns out, of course, that it doesn’t have to be my tradition in order to have something to teach me. It doesn’t have to be my heritage in order to reveal more about the God I love.  While celebrating a holiday that is not my own, I have experienced what a wise (Jewish) professor of mine identified as “holy appreciation.” That is, I have the ability to appreciate the holy practices of others and when I do, I can learn about values that we both share.

We are not all meant to be alike.We are not called to all worship the same way. We can, however, learn with and from one another. And then everyone will be stronger.

For though my faith is not yours and your faith is not mind, if we

each are free to light our own flame, together we can banish some

of the darkness in the world.

  • Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Do-it-yourself Advent

Long before Thanksgiving Day, it was Christmas in all the stores. My husband shopped in vain for harvest-colored candles and autumn napkins for our Thanksgiving celebration. That unfortunate holiday of gratitude had been relegated to a meager shelf in the corner of the store. In every aisle, as far as the eye could see, the displays proudly proclaimed CHRISTMAS.

But wait. It isn’t Christmas yet. It is Advent, a season that is all about waiting. Advent is about transition and change. It is about waiting for what will be, but is not yet. Advent is a very human, unsettled season when things have not yet fallen into place. You have probably experienced Advent without ever naming it. If you have

  • Anxiously searched for a job
  • Moved
  • Cared for a sick loved one
  • Prayed for someone in recovery
  • Or even (like Mary) been pregnant

then you know about Advent. Advent invites us to remember God’s promise to be with us exactly when God is needed most.

Like Thanksgiving, Advent is also not being sold in any store. Fortunately, Advent is easily celebrated in the comfort of our own homes. Think of it as a gift to yourself in this busy season; Advent can offer an antidote to the frenetic pace of endless Christmas. We can pause, light a candle, and reflect on God’s hope and presence.

I would like to encourage you to rest your weary spirit this Advent season by creating your own Advent ritual. You don’t even need a traditional “wreath.” Any five candles will do. Size, shape, and color don’t matter. Electric candles are fine. Arrange them any way you like – in a wreath, a square, vertically – it’s up to you.

I went to our local Goodwill store to find ways to create my Advent display. Everything pictured here cost $10.

Advent begins on December 2nd. On that first Sunday of Advent, light one candle and reflect on how even the smallest light can entirely change the reality of darkness. During the week, find opportunities to light that candle again. Whether you celebrate Advent as you eat your breakfast cereal or just before you go to bed doesn’t matter. What is important is intentionally making time to pause and remember that God promises to be “Emmanuel,” which means “always with us.”

During the first week of Advent, you are invited to

LIGHT a candle. Consider how you can be a messenger of hope.

READ Scripture: Isaiah 9: 2-7, Luke 1: 5-25, Matthew 1: 18-26.  Don’t have a Bible?  You can read any Scripture here.

PRAY for those who need hope today.

LISTEN  to a favorite Advent or Christmas song (and try to sit down while you do this; don’t multi-task. Cherish a few moments and fill your spirit with beauty).

I wish you the hope and joy of Advent.