Do that small thing

“Thanks. That’s the nicest thing that’s happened to me today.” The woman in the “12 items or less” line smiled briefly at me as I took her grocery basket to tuck away on the pile. I wondered what kind of day she must be having when such casual gesture was a highlight.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? We never know what kind of day another person is having and we might never realize how even the smallest kindness can transform a moment. So – go ahead and do that small thing.

We live in a noisy world filled with video clips of grand gestures and dramatic moments. We can view elaborately staged proposals (even “promposals”), heart-rending reunions, and over-the-top surprises. It might make our everyday actions – a welcoming smile or a door held open or a steadying hand – seem unimportant in comparison. But don’t believe that. Go ahead and do that small thing.

We live in a world with crushing needs. I wish I could go to Pittsburgh and put my arm around the grieving mother whose teenage son was shot. I wish I could travel to Texas and comfort crying children separated from their parents. I wish I could help that homeless person I saw in New York, instead of just stepping over him on the sidewalk. I can’t do those things.

But we can endeavor to do what we can. As a first step, ignore that doubting voice of cynicism that mocks small gestures of kindness or caring as futile when compared to the world of anger and hurt. Make that call, send that email, smile at the cashier, greet a stranger, do that volunteer work.  Whatever it is – go ahead and do that small thing.

As the Rev. John Wesley wisely said,

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

Go ahead and do that small thing. All those “small things” add up. And they may make a world of difference.

Stones with stories

I spend more time in cemeteries than the average person.  Call it an occupational hazard. In all sorts of weather, I have found myself graveside, offering prayers as this bit of earth is consecrated as a final resting place.

People often shudder when I mention my frequent visits to graveyards.  They wonder, “Isn’t it depressing?” as they confess their avoidance of cemeteries. Perhaps it is a ministerial oddity, but I find burying grounds fascinating and often, strangely, comforting. The stones inscribed with names and dates hint at stories of lives gone by. Some are forgotten, others are treasured memories, but all were children of God, beloved and cherished. And now entrusted into God’s eternal care. It is humbling to remember that all lives – those rich, famous, and powerful and those poor, broken, and lonely – will end.  Death is that great equalizer that each of us encounters.

It is said that Protestant reformer Martin Luther kept (1483-1546) kept a human skull on his desk as a reminder of his own mortality and the brevity of human life. Thankfully no skull lingers in my church office but the view from my desk offers a lovely glimpse of our village graveyard. It reminds me of how fleeting life can be and how precious every moment is. It brings to mind the many gatherings I have officiated in cemeteries over the years.

Sometimes those gatherings are filled profound, almost crippling, sadness as we mourn a life cut short by disease or accident. Sometimes we are bombarded with painfully poignant regrets as we say, “I wish it could have been different.” Yearning that circumstances could have been different as we mourn someone overcome by addiction or unable to ask for help or not able to receive forgiveness from self or others.

Sometimes the people huddled by the dirt mound and silent stones experience a sense of relief or rich gratitude that a life well-lived has peacefully come to end, offering a well-deserved rest.

While I am at the cemetery, often before the service begins, I wander between the rows of stones, reading the inscriptions. They hint at lives gone before, some tragically short, others decades long. Most are unknown to me, which makes me wonder about the feelings and experiences, hopes and dreams of those who lie beneath.

So many stones. So many stories.

Rather than being depressing, I find silent stones inspiring. They inspire me to keep things in perspective and to let go of trivial grievances. They inspire to try to make a difference now, today, while I can. And they inspire me to cherish my loved ones and give thanks for the blessings we enjoy.

Those silent stones speak volumes, if I am willing to listen.

Celebrating Confirmation

This Sunday we will celebrate the confirmation of eleven of our teenagers.  Most of these fourteen and fifteen year-olds – “confirmands,” as they have been known for more than a year – were baptized when they were infants.  Their parents took vows on their behalf and promised they would model a faith of forgiveness, love and justice. Now these teenagers wish to “confirm” their faith for themselves.

Although we recognize that they are still very young and have much to learn in life, the church considers them mature enough to declare their own belief.  Among other promises, they will vow

  • “By the grace of God to follow in the way of our Savior”
  • “To resist oppression and evil and to show love and justice, according to the grace given to you.”

Every time vows are taken in church – whether it is for baptism, confirmation, or a wedding – people make promises that they will only gradually understand. A young couple who vows to love one another in “sickness and in health” may not understand the overwhelming nature of that promise for many years to come.

We do not expect our confirmands (much to their relief) to “know it all,” to have a comprehensive understanding of the Bible or to be unquestioning in their faith. We make that clear when they answer what I consider to the most important question, “Do you promise, according to the grace given to you, to grow in the Christian faith.” They will give the hopeful, affirmative reply, “I promise, with the help of God.” They are promising to grow, ask questions, and continue to learn.

It’s a big promise.

What I love about their vows is the presence, over and over again, of words like “grace” and “the help of God.” The church is reminding them they are not alone. God never simply pushes us out of the nest or into our future with a hearty, “Good luck with that!” Instead, God promises to journey with us, supplying us with much-needed support and help.

There is an understanding, even an expectation, that we will make mistakes. Our confirmands – like many of us – more questions than answers, more doubt than faith, more uncertainty than conviction.

But they want to be on this journey of faith. They want to find out more. They want to discover who God is and the impact their faith can have. They want to make a difference in this world that needs the love, hospitality, and welcome of a forgiving and renewing God.

This is not the beginning of their faith journey; rather it is one step along an evolving path.  We will surround them with our prayers and be reminded that all of us need to continue to search for God in our everyday lives.



Why suffering?

The hospice volunteers wanted to hear my “biblical perspective” on suffering and pain. These compassionate caregivers, who spent hours each week with critically ill patients, were taking some time to wrestle with questions repeatedly posed to them.

“They want to know why this is happening.”

“She asked if God is mad at her.”

“He wants to know what he did that was so wrong to make him so sick.”

“Why is God doing this?”

As a local pastor I was invited to provide insight and maybe encouragement to these every-day angels who are on the front lines, bravely going into people’s homes to offer care and a listening ear. It’s hard work, that kind of caring. The patients tormented these well-meaning Nightingales with bewildered and sometimes angry questions. What could they possible say in reply?

What, indeed? If life were fair, only bad people would experience illness while the good ones would somehow be rewarded.  That certainly doesn’t seem to happen. How do we respond to arbitrary suffering when we often want to shake up fist at the universe or shrug our shoulders in despair?

What would you say?

I didn’t fool myself into thinking I could provide any “answers.” The mystery of grief and illness has tormented humankind ever since the Garden of Eden. But that gave me an inspiration.

“Let’s look at Genesis, chapter 1,” I suggested.  You’ve heard the story – in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

When God lovingly, carefully, deliberately crafted humankind , God looked at those fragile, marvelous creatures, made in the image of God. “Very good,” God said.

Right from the beginning, there was a special relationship there.  God chose us, right from the start. When God looks at us, God sees

  • Someone very good.
  • Someone who is loved and lovable.
  • Someone filled with God’s Spirit.
  • Someone who is created and creative, filled with endless possibilities.

I don’t know why bad things happen to anyone.  But I do know this – God doesn’t send sickness or earthquakes or Zika viruses or droughts or car crashes to punish people.

Sometimes we harm ourselves.

Sometimes stuff just happens.

What God does promise is to be there when we need God most.  Sometimes God shows up looking just like a hospice volunteer, ready to hold a hand, wipe a tear, and with a reminder that we are precious in God’s sight.


Responding in a moment’s notice

The deer appeared out of nowhere. The driver two cars ahead of me slammed on her brakes but not before the deer skidded across her hood, swung up and over the roof of her car, and crashed down on the road, where it limped into the woods. And just like that, life had changed and the day was not the one that she had been expecting.

The car in front of me car stopped and the driver jumped out, ready to help and share her concern.  I wish I could say I responded with such enthusiasm.

As two pick-up trucks roared by, eager to continue barreling down the country road, I considered my options. I have to admit I hesitated. I could see no one was hurt.  A Good Samaritan was already on the scene to provide assistance. And honestly, I wanted to get home, tired after a long day of meetings, and yearning for a cup of tea before the evening’s activities unfolded.

A bit grudgingly, I pulled over.

And I’m glad I did. The driver who hit the deer was understandably shaken up.  Neither she nor the woman who had stopped were familiar with the area, so I was able to offer ideas about how to get help and describe just which corner of the woods was our current location.

Surprisingly (for our remote area), a kind, efficient and reassuring police officer arrived to offer assistance.  After a quick hug followed by well wishes, I was on my way.

But the incident left me wondering:

  • What if I went through life with this attitude – where can I help?
  • What difference, large or small, can I make?
  • Who might need a helping hand or reassuring word today?
  • What simple act of kindness might touch someone’s life?

We don’t always get to prepare our response. We don’t get to rehearse our attitudes. All of a sudden someone may need our help.  How will we respond?

Often it turns out that no special tools or skills are necessary.  Just showing up – just being there – we can make all the difference.

Henri Nouwen’s wisdom offers words to live by:

“Did I offer peace today?
Did I bring a smile to someone’s face?
Did I say words of healing?
Did I let go of my anger and resentment?
Did I forgive?
Did I love?
These are the real questions.
I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now
will bear many fruits, here in this world and the life to come.”

helpings hands2

The opportunity to share compassion may come without warning – and we are asked to respond in a moment’s notice.



Summer, Sabbath, and other gifts from God

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”
~ Anne Lamott

Ahhh…summertime!  Long, relaxing days filled with sunshine, swimming, barbeques, and leisurely strolls.  Or – does your reality look somewhat different?  A date on the calendar – June 21st, marking the summer solstice – doesn’t mean that our worries have disappeared or that we will instantly experience a carefree life.

Do you feel weary?  Or perhaps a tad overwhelmed?  You are in good company; the American Psychological Association  describes the stress levels experienced by most Americans as a public health crisis. More than 44% of those surveyed reported moderate to severe stress. That strain can lead to coping behaviors like overeating, binge drinking, and interrupting sleep patterns. It is not a pretty picture.

To do list     How did we get here?

God directs, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” Exodus 20:8.

Getting rest and turning to God for renewal is not a suggestion – it is a commandment, yet it is one that we break more than any other.  I wonder if we think some commandments are optional or if we assign them degrees of importance.  No, I won’t murder anyone.  But take a Sabbath rest?  Maybe another time…

Jesus beckons, “Come unto me all who are weary and heavy burdened and I will give you rest” Matthew 11:28.

We all received the invitation.  Why are we not RSVP’ing? Have we pinned a virtual “save the date” on our refrigerators, sure that we’ll get back to God at some point?

God doesn’t ask us to work ourselves into exhaustion. God doesn’t require that we go it alone, steadfastly relying solely on our own strength and abilities. In fact, God is continually offering comfort, strength, and support.

What would Sabbath look like to you?  For me, a symbol of Sabbath is having time for a second cup of tea. I’m a big tea drinker. Usually I only have time for one hurried cup as I perch on my chair, reading the newspaper (yes, I still do that), as I eat my yogurt and prepare to rush off to work. My mornings are a study in multi-tasking – doing the dishes while I wait for the water to boil, feeding the cats as the tea steeps, tucking away dishes as I assemble my breakfast. It is not what one might call relaxed.

Having enough time for two cups of tea means that my pace has slowed down enough to really enjoy it.  Slurping tea out of a travel mug balanced precariously in my car while bouncing along the back roads of Woodstock does not count.

Sabbath doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t even all have to happen on one particular day.  Sabbath can be

  • having the time to notice the array of flowers that are blooming right now
  • indulging in a good book
  • listening to birds twittering in the trees
  • taking time to write in my journal
  • taking time to pray about the joys and concerns in my life

Sabbath means slowing down and unplugging. Perhaps having a blank slate.

to-do-list blank

Sabbath is opening our hearts, minds, and spirits to God.

Sabbath is saying “yes” to God’s invitation to renewal.

During these summer days, how will you feed your spirit?

How will you enjoy some Sabbath renewal?

Another cup of tea?  Why yes, I’d love one.


It could have been me

Whenever tragedy hits the news I wonder – could that have happened to me?

Last summer in Connecticut a man was struck by lightning when he took shelter in a beach pavilion.  He thought he would be safe; he didn’t realize a roof alone wouldn’t protect him. I’m not sure I would have known that either.  I might have done the same thing.  That could have been me.

That thought crossed my mind when the little boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo.  Many people accused the mother of being neglectful or unfit.  But I remember too well what it was like trying to keep track of our three children under the age of four. Although I would jokingly say that their guardian angels worked overtime, there were many close calls and many occasions when events could have turned tragic.

There was the time at Sesame Place, a wonderful theme park outside of Philadelphia. One moment we were enjoying the antics of Elmo; in the next breath, my 3-year-old daughter disappeared. I frantically looked between the legs of strangers, under bushes, and behind rides.  She was nowhere to be found. We ran to the “Lost Child” center and there she was – grinning and laughing at the sight of her mother escalating from fear to anger to joy in a second’s time. Kids move fast. They slip away. They don’t think about consequences. When I heard about the boy at the zoo, I thought – that could have been me.

Or the toddler who was attacked by the alligator at Disney World.  Would I have known that “no swimming” meant not even wading up to a toddler’s knees? Would I have realized that danger lurked at the “happiest place on earth?” Would I have resisted a squirmy, perhaps fussy two-year-old on a hot, humid night or would I have said, “yes, let’s cool off our toes in this lovely lake?”  That could have been me.

Could me 2

I am that mother

  • Who put a Band-Aid on her daughter’s elbow, not realizing that her arm was broken.
  • Who allowed her son to careen down a hill on his bike, not imagining that he would plow down his siblings like a bowling ball barreling down the alley.
  • Who didn’t listen to her son the 15th time he reported seeing a bear while camping at a national park. “Just go and play so I can get supper together,” was my reply when, just like Peter and the Wolf, that time would lead to an almost too-close encounter.

Or what about my own antics from my distant youth?

  • Sleeping on a roof top in Athens, Greece?
  • Selling my blood in Italy to earn money for an unplanned boat ride?
  • Accepting a ride from a stranger to chase after friends on a late night in a strange place?

Those incidents (and many more) could have ended badly. There could have been a news story detailing an accident or abduction or assault. That could have been me.

We are so quick to judge when we hear tragic news stories.  Instead of jumping on the condemnation express, perhaps we could listen with grace-filled ears and then wonder – could that have been me? Haven’t there been times when it was only sheer luck and not superior knowledge or skill that kept me safe that day?

It’s more than just placing ourselves in another’s shoes. It’s realizing that on this very human journey, we make mistakes. Events occur that we didn’t plan or anticipate. Accidents happen. Our judgment is not always flawless. And in a moment, lives can change forever.

It could have been me.  This time, it wasn’t. So let me hold in prayer those who are suffering today.