Enduring Truths for Recent Grads

Graduate [2]

Several years ago I wrote an article  for my newspaper column with some advice for recent grads.  It has become one of the most popular pieces I ever wrote. I received dozens of emails thanking me for writing it.    Therefore, I decided to  republish it annually around graduation time.  I hope some of you might find it useful.  You can view the original article in The Tribune-Democrat news at this link:  http://goo.gl/LtN72

For those who are graduating high school this year and beginning the long transition into adulthood, I’d like to offer you a gift. Here are five enduring truths I have learned. They will help you through life’s journey.

Choices

“If you decide to just go with the flow, you’ll end up where the flow goes, which is usually downhill, often leading to a big pile of sludge and a life of unhappiness. You’ll end up doing what everyone else is doing.” ― Sean Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens

 Life will deal you an endless string of choices along the way.  Some will be trivial, like deciding what to wear today.  Others will be weighty and their outcomes will affect you forever.  Weighty decisions should always be preceded by much thought and soul searching.  This includes decisions about who you date or marry, what you put into your body, bringing children into the world, what you do for a living, how much debt you incur and who you associate with.

All of these decisions will have a lasting effect on your life. Therefore, make them slowly and deliberately. Often you’ll discover that the right choice is not the easiest one.  A habit of making poor choices will, as the Sean Covey quote suggests, drag your life downhill.

I was recently contacted by a young man who had just received a bad conduct discharge from the Navy.  He asked me how the discharge would impact his future employability.  His mistake was choosing to drive a car while intoxicated and hitting a pedestrian. Fortunately, the victim wasn’t seriously injured. Had it been otherwise, the young sailor would probably be in prison.  It was my sad responsibility to inform him that with some employers the discharge would be a black mark for life. Choices matter!

 Learning

“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.”    ―Vernon Saunders Law, former professional baseball pitcher and Cy Young Award winner

Some of you will go on to college or technical school.  Others will enter the workforce.  Even if your formal education is over, don’t quit learning. Make learning a lifelong adventure.  I did my undergraduate work at the University of Kentucky.  The school offers a fellowship program for individuals aged 65 and older to attend classes tuition free. Every year numerous senior citizens walk the stage to receive degrees ranging from Associate of Arts to Doctor of Philosophy.  It’s never too late to learn.

Even if you don’t choose to continue formal learning, make it point to learn from life. Observe others; note their successes and failures; then learn from their experiences.  More importantly, learn from your own mistakes.

Some of the greatest lessons I’ve learned, particularly those while serving in uniform, were the result of having made a terrible mistake.  This sort of lesson sticks, like the first time you grab the handle of a hot iron skillet with your bare hand.  The key to learning from mistakes is owning them.  Admit your mistakes and then move on, having learned something from the experience.  Don’t let, “It wasn’t my fault,” be part of your vocabulary.

 Work

“A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.”  ―Colin Powell, retired U.S. Army four-star general and former U.S. Secretary of State

Work isn’t always fun. If it were, they’d call it play.  Work can be downright unpleasant, but it’s an essential element of life! Along the way you’re going to have jobs you won’t like. Note what you don’t like and make it a point to improve yourself, so you’ll never again have to work at such a job.

Accepting a job means submitting to the authority of those placed over you.  Learn to work within this system.   You’ll inevitably have bosses you don’t like.  Learn to respect the position, if not the individual.

Fairness

“Life is not fair; get used to it.” ―Bill Gates, founder and former CEO, Microsoft Corporation

You will hear much discussion about fairness in this life. It’s all hot air.  Life isn’t fair.  Some good people die young, while some bad people live a long life.   Disease sometimes strikes arbitrarily, for no apparent reason.  Some people prosper while others suffer failure. A death or accident can change your life forever.

There is randomness to life that can’t be avoided.  Don’t expect kindness to be returned with kindness.  Don’t expect generosity to be returned with generosity.  The best choice is to be fair and kind to others and learn to accept what they return to you.

A wise man named Harry Browne ran for president of the United States on the Libertarian Party ticket. On Christmas day in 1966, Browne wrote his young daughter a letter aptly titled, “A Gift for My Daughter.”  I encourage every graduating senior to read it and digest it. In the letter, he explains to his daughter that, “Nobody owes you anything.”  Understanding what Browne meant can truly bless you. You can find it at:  www.harrybrowne.org/articles/GiftDaughter.htm.

Faith

“A faith is a necessity to a man. Woe to him who believes in nothing.”  ―Victor Hugo

I once had a senior Army officer tell me he preferred to work with men who possessed spiritual values, regardless of their religion.  He explained that having faith in a power higher than one’s self was an indicator of how one will perform under pressure; in this instance, the pressure meant combat.

Too many people place their faith in all the wrong places.  It might be in wealth, celebrity, good looks, talent, or even government.  Whatever the case, misplaced faith leads to disappointment after disappointment.

To avoid these disappointments, put your faith in God alone.  You, your loved ones and your friends will all inevitably let you down, but God will never fail you.

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Hurry up and slow down!

Slow Down

Be still, and know that I am God.  —Psalm 46:10a (ESV)

We live in a world of high-speed escape artists.  Everywhere one looks, people are rushing to and fro to get the next thing on their long list done. When they grow weary, many turn to adrenalin-pumping extremes to “relax.” There is extreme biking, extreme running (Parkour), building- and rock-climbing without safety equipment (free-climbing), half-pipe skiing and snowboarding, and base jumping, which is free fall parachuting from cliffs or high structures.

We watch extreme television entertainment, like American Ninja Warrior and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting.  If sports is not your thing, there are extreme game shows with names like Wipeout, where contestants crash and burn on crazy obstacle courses, and Fear Factor where contestants, among other feats, eat large volumes of worms and bugs.

Many escape reality through physical addictions, turning to drugs, alcohol or sex to remove them from reality. Others simply unplug from their daily grind, spending long periods of the day disconnected from the world. Video games are one way of escaping reality. The most extreme “unplugging” involves new virtual reality technology.  With this technology, one can don a pair of goggles and be instantly transported to a new 3-D “world.”  Anything goes on these virtual playgrounds, including extreme sports, extreme violence and extreme sexual fantasies.

For some, cell phone addiction provides a different kind of virtual reality.  Have you spoken with someone who constantly looks down at their phone? It’s like they don’t have time for you. It’s annoying, not to mention downright rude.  Or perhaps you’ve observed a family seated in a restaurant waiting for their orders to arrive—everyone is heads down playing with their phone instead of interacting with other family members.  In 2014, Charit Taneja wrote in “The Psychology of Excessive Cellular Phone Use” that:

Cell phones enable behavioral problems and disorders, particularly in adolescents. This fact has become more and more evident in communications media, inspiring new pathologies, such as “Nomophobia” (No-Mobile-Phobia), “FOMO” (Fear Of Missing Out) – the fear of being without a cell phone, disconnected or off the Internet, “Textaphrenia” and “Ringxiety” – the false sensation of having received a text message or call that leads to constantly checking the device, and “Textiety” – the anxiety of receiving and responding immediately to text messages. 

Some people escape auditory reality. In the fitness center where I exercise, about half of the people wear headphones or ear buds while using an exercise bike, treadmill, elliptical machine, stair-stepper or other exercise device. I assume most listen to music, hoping it will carry away them to another, less painful place as they push their bodies to the physical limit.  While such auditory isolation might reduce the agony of a heavy workout, it hinders socializing with others and can even be dangerous. At certain times of the year here in South Dakota it’s a good idea to keep one’s ears peeled for the sound of a tornado warning siren.   

A frantic pace combined with isolation can lead to perilous situations. Anyone who lives in a big city has seen drivers who dangerously weave in and out of traffic, desperately trying to get ahead a couple of car lengths while putting their own and other people’s safety at risk. Many of these drivers have so much on their “to do” lists that feel a need to constantly rush. Others live in their own private worlds where it’s all about satisfying their own needs, with no regard for the needs and safety of those around them.

 Far too often, erratic driving results in road rage.  According to analysis by performed by Trace, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to expanding coverage of guns in the United States, instances of road rage where someone in a car brandished a gun or fired a gun at another driver or passenger more than doubled over the a three-year period, increasing from 247 in 2014 to a high of 620 in 2016.

The high-speed, escape mentality is tearing away the very fabric of our society. We’re becoming a bunch of one-armed jugglers with our eyes and ears covered. It’s easy to get caught up in the race and lose sight of what really matters in life.  Christians aren’t immune to this.  It’s easy to become distracted and let the day slip by without a thought of God.  I think Islam gets it right on one point—stopping to pray five times per day.  Christians would do well to adopt a similar practice. 1 Thessalonians: 5 encourages us to “pray without ceasing.” (ESV)

Psalm 46:10a (ESV) says, “Be still and know that I am God.” God wants us to slow down and focus on him in the midst of our daily hustle.  It’s during times of stillness that we can, if just for a moment, look God in the face and begin to gain a deeper understanding of Him. In Mark 4:39, Jesus is with his disciples in a small boat when a great storm occurs.  The terrified disciples appeal to Jesus to do something to save them.  He utters the simple command, “Peace! Be still.” Immediately the weather becomes calm.

This beautiful story is about much more than Jesus calming the weather.  It is about Jesus giving up a sense of Peace in Him that helps us through the storms that occur in our daily lives. In 1 Kings: 19 (ESV), God speaks to Elijah in “a low whisper.” My advice to you—slow down, be still, unplug, hear God’s whisper, and discover His peace. 

 “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” —Philippians 4:4-7 (ESV)

 

 

 

Bluegrass in my Blood

Pine Mountain Kentucky

Pine Mountain, Kentucky

I was born in the small town of Harlan, deep in the Appalachian Mountains of southeastern Kentucky. Southeastern Kentucky has close ties to parts of western West Virginia, southwestern Virginia; western North Carolina; and eastern Tennessee.  The entire region has a distinct culture that includes its own spoken dialect, cuisine and music. The mountains, culture and good people living there get in your blood and they’re impossible to forget, no matter how long or far one roams.  The regional music, widely known as Bluegrass, traces its roots back to Ireland, Scotland and England.

I find the music particularly enjoyable.  Bluegrass is notable for its combination of stringed instruments—specifically the banjo, mandolin and fiddle. Acoustic guitar and upright bass are common as well.  The music is also notable for many singers who care more about belting out the lyrics than staying in tune.  My affinity for Bluegrass music is something my wife tolerates, but doesn’t quite understand.  I’m particularly fond of the Bluegrass Gospel subgenre.  I grew up hearing it at home, at church and places all around our home.

Gospel Bluegrass tells the story of Jesus Christ as only mountain people can tell it.   If you’re not familiar with this music, it’s only fitting that I introduce you to it with a piece by Bill Monroe, who is commonly recognized as the “Father of Bluegrass.”  Since this is Holy Week, a good place to begin exploring is:

Were you there (when they crucified my Lord), performed by Bill Monroe.  It describes the feelings that many of the onlookers at Jesus’ crucifixion must have felt.

https://youtu.be/5EHP5Nj2BdE

Power in the Blood, performed by Dolly Parton.  It’s impossible to discuss Bluegrass music without the name of Dolly Parton coming up.  Dolly is a Tennessee girl whose voice is perfectly suited for the genre.  Her song of redemption discusses the power of Jesus’ blood to wash away our sins. “There’s power in the blood of the Lamb.”

https://youtu.be/B1CV-HtsMvc

I’m ready to go, performed by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. Ricky Skaggs, a Kentucky native, is a multi-talented musician with a Bluegrass legacy dating back to the days of Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs.  Skaggs’ group Kentucky Thunder has a powerful, fast-paced style.  The group’s rendition of I’m ready to go is about salvation through Jesus Christ.  I promise it’ll get stuck in our head. “Jesus came in and saved my soul from sin, Hallelujah I’m ready to go.”

 https://youtu.be/pjrJKnVmQwQ

The darkest hour is just before dawn, performed by Emmylou Harris. Alabama native Emmylou Harris has proven herself in a variety of genres, including folk, rock, country and Bluegrass.  She slows down the tempo with a Ralph Stanley salvation song. “Lay down your soul, let Jesus in.”

https://youtu.be/_r0FtxqR9Pc

One can’t listen to Gospel Bluegrass without hearing a song about eternal life in heaven that’s promised to Christ’s believers.  Here are two examples.  The Stanley brothers slow it down with their rendition of Angel Band.   Alison Kraus and Gillian Welch pick it up with I’ll Fly Away.

Angel Band, performed by the Stanley Brothers. “Bear me away on your white wings to my immortal home.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIHFxIQfSxc

I’ll fly away, performed by Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch. “Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away, to a home on God’s celestial shore.”

https://youtu.be/sdRdqp4N3Jw?list=PL3BDAEBE555FB3CBF

Go Rest High on that Mountain, performed by Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, and Alison Krauss. No discussion of Gospel Bluegrass music is complete without Vince Gill’s epic Go Rest High on That Mountain, a song he penned in response to the death of country music singer Keith Whitley. Gill, an Oklahoma boy, is a talented songwriter, singer and guitarist whose work spans Bluegrass, country and rock.  His Bluegrass skills come out in this performance. “Go to heaven a shoutin’ love for the Father and the Son.”

https://youtu.be/NwFiWCUkk4M

So there you go—my guided tour through some of my favorite Bluegrass music that just happens to be Gospel.  If you’re having trouble deciding how to introduce someone to the Gospel message of Jesus Christ, just head to YouTube, Spotify or one of your favorite streaming services and play them some Gospel Bluegrass music.  “Hallelujah, I’m ready to go!”

Living by the Calendar

Calendar.jpg

The here-and-now is no mere filling of time, but a filling of time with God.         

I work in the tech industry on a virtual business team.  We have people located across the country from Virginia to Hawaii and many places in between.  The team is run by the calendar.  It’s difficult scheduling conference calls with a team spread across five time zones, so we have to schedule carefully and stick closely to the schedule.

Personally, I would be pretty lost without the Microsoft Outlook calendar on my laptop. Between my work, volunteering, doctor appointments, shuttling grand kids around, birthday reminders, weddings, funerals and the like I simply couldn’t keep track of where to be when without a calendar.

While most adults in the Western World are familiar with calendars, there is one calendar that’s terribly overlooked in many circles.  I’m speaking about the Christian liturgical calendar.  The liturgical year (or Church year) is a continuous cycle of Christian seasons that include various feast days that mark celebrations of the Church.  The liturgical year also has a set list of readings for every day of the year.  Observing the liturgical calendar is highly enriching, providing a continuous commemoration of key events in the life of Christ and the church.  Sadly, many Christian denominations hardly recognize the liturgical calendar at all. 

According to the website The Voice, “The Christian calendar is organized around two major centers of Sacred Time: Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany; and Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, concluding at Pentecost. The rest of the year following Pentecost is known as Ordinary Time, from the word “ordinal,” which simply means counted time (First Sunday after Pentecost, etc.)  (http://www.crivoice.org/chyear.html).

liturgical-calendar.jpg

Let’s take a short tour of the Church liturgical year.  It begins with Advent, which occurs in December.  Advent commemorates Israel’s wait for the birth of the Messiah, which was promised in prophecy.  For modern Christians, it is symbolic of our waiting for Christ to “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” as many Christians frequently recite in the words of the Nicene Creed.

Advent is followed by Christmas on December 25, and Epiphany in January.  Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, Israel’s promised Messiah and God’s only begotten son–the savior of the world.   It is followed by Epiphany, which is translated “appearance.”  Epiphany commemorates the visit by the Magi (or three wise men) to baby Jesus, when they reveal that Jesus is the Messiah and bring him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Gold represents the kingship of Jesus.  Frankincense, which is sweet incense, represents His earthly priesthood.  Myrrh, a sweet spice used in preparing bodies for burial, represents Jesus’ coming crucifixion and death on the cross for the forgiveness of the sins of the world. The later part of January and the month of February are ordinary time on the liturgical calendar.

Lent, Easter and Pentecost follow the ordinary time in February. Lent is the period of 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, commemorating Christ’s final journey to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified. It is a period of penitence and alms giving for the church.  On Ash Wednesday, many Christians have their foreheads marked with ashes in the sign of the cross.  

Palm Sunday occurs the Sunday before Easter.  It commemorates Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem and his final journey to the cross. He rode into the city on a donkey while the crowds shouted “Hosanna,” which is translated “save us,” and they laid palm leaves in his path. Modern day Christians often celebrate Palm Sunday by waving palm leaves during a processional at the beginning of their church service.  Palm leaves from the Palm Sunday service are burned and the ashes collected to be used during Ash Wednesday of the following year.

At the end of Lent comes a period of three days called the Paschal Triduum, which begins on Maundy Thursday, proceeds through Good Friday, and ends with a liturgy on the evening of Easter Sunday.  These all fall inside Holy Week, the week ending with Easter.  

Maundy Thursday marks the night before Christ’s crucifixion, when he celebrates the Last Supper with his disciples, giving us the gift of the Holy Eucharist.  Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins and his burial.  Easter celebrates Christ’s glorious resurrection and his victory over sin and death.  Christ taught his disciples for 40 days following the resurrection, then he miraculously allowed them to see his Ascension into heaven, which occurred before their eyes; meanwhile, angels promised the disciples that just as they saw him ascend into heaven, they will also him descend back to the Earth to reign in glory forever.

Following the Ascension comes Pentecost. Pentecost commemorates God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to his disciples and marks the beginning of the Church.  Following the season of Pentecost, the months of June through November are ordinary time on the liturgical calendar.  At the end of November, on the Sunday before Advent begins, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, a day reminding Christians that they owe their first allegiance to Christ, not earthly powers or rulers.

So there you have it.  Observing the Church liturgical calendar is a beautiful way of celebrating Christ’s birth, crucifixion, resurrection and the establishment of Christ’s Church on Earth.  If your personal tradition doesn’t observe the liturgical calendar, consider adopting it to add a new level of richness to your worship.  In doing so you you’ll find inspiration and hope.

 

 

 

Caring for the Temple of the Holy Spirit

OverweightAaaaggh!

I spent over 24 years of my adult life as an officer in the US Army.  To say that I was in good physical condition would be a gross understatement. I served a tour of duty in the 75th Ranger Regiment, one of the Army’s elite organizations. I was a paratrooper, jumping out of perfectly good airplanes and floating to Earth under a silk canopy.  I also served in the 10th Mountain Division, one of the Army’s toughest and most respected divisions.  Since 2001, the 10th Mountain has been the most deployed division in the US Army.  The Army encourages, even demands, good physical fitness of its soldiers. 

Fitness is in my DNA. I feel out of sorts if I can’t exercise three to four days per week.  Nevertheless, I find myself in a fitness conundrum today.  When I retired from the Army in 2001, I was a fit 205 pounds, well within the limits for my muscular, six-foot frame. Today I find myself about 30 pounds heavier; the extra weight can be attributed to a combination of age, indiscipline, and total knee replacement surgery, which I underwent about 11 months ago; the latter totally wrecked my physical fitness routine.  I’m still in recovery!

I’m not happy with my current weight.  Until a couple of weeks ago, I viewed my condition as purely a physical fitness challenge—a need to get back into shape to reverse the changes that have taken place since my surgery.  However, I recently experienced a healthy change of attitude. 

I credit the change to my dear friend Cliff, who also struggles with his weight.  He recently introduced me to a book called Every Body Matters, by Gary Thomas. As the book cover explains, it is about “Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul.”

Having personally struggled with his weight, Thomas uses scripture to demonstrate that, for Christians, physical health is as important as spiritual health. Thomas demonstrates that physical fitness, rather than being something that make us more attractive to others, makes us more useful to God. I recommend his book to anyone who has struggled with physical fitness or being overweight. Thomas offers a Holy Spirit-led approach to developing a physical being that is of maximum use to God.

Thomas cites these words of St. Paul:  (All Bible citations were taken from the ESV.)

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God?  You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20

…I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:27

…let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. 2 Corinthians 7:1

Many Bible commentators interpret bodily sins to mean sexual sins.  While Thomas would agree with this, he goes on to discuss the need for developing discipline in what we put into our bodies (i.e. food).  As I previously noted, he frames the discussion in terms of disciplining our bodies, not to make us attractive to others, but to glorify God (…you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. 1 Corinthians 6:20)

I highly recommend Every Body Matters to all Christians who struggle with their weight. I promise it will change your perspective on being overweight and motivate you to do something about it.  It has led my wife and me to challenge each other.  During the upcoming season of Lent (Feb 14 – Mar 29), we will embark upon a 40-day regimen of time-restricted eating. 

In a nutshell, this means we’ll eat normally for 6 hours each day, while fasting the remaining 18 hours. By most accounts, this eating pattern is easy to adjust to and usually results in remarkable weight loss for those having the discipline to stick with it.  We’re not looking for a new diet or fad, but a lifestyle change. Wish us luck!  At some point in the future, I’ll share our experience.

Protecting your health is the same as protecting the vehicle with which God wants to change the world.  —Gary Thomas

 

Everyone Needs a Savior

Jesus on Cross

Watching the evening news these days can be seriously disturbing.  It seems like every day there’s a new name or two on the list of politicians, Hollywood celebrities and officers of large corporations accused of sexual misbehavior of one type or another.  It sometimes seems like it will never end.

It’s easy to become angry at these individuals—to wag an accusatory finger in their direction. If the truth be told, however, few of us would survive intact after having our lives laid bare before the court of public opinion. Virtually everyone has something in their past or present that they wouldn’t want exposed to public scrutiny, or even to a spouse or other loved one.

While some of us escape public scrutiny of our lives, it’s a sobering thought to know that everything we do is seen by God. 

We are only what we are in the dark; all the rest is reputation. What God looks at is what we are in the dark—the imaginations of our minds; the thoughts of our heart; the habits of our bodies; these are the things that mark us in God’s sight. Oswald Chambers

The Apostle Paul tells us, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23, ESV).  This begs the question, “Then who can be saved?”  It’s important to understand Romans 3:23 in context, because it answers this worried question.  Taken in context, we see:

… there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forth as propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith.   Romans 3:22b-25a

An act of propitiation is a redeeming sacrifice that atones for sin.  In the Bible, this term always refers to an act of God, not a sacrifice offered by man to God. 

In a just a few days we will celebrate the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ.  While we are taking joy in the celebration of the Lord’s birth, we must not forget that he was born for only one purpose—to redeem us from our sins and return us to a natural relationship with God. This return to the natural order as God originally planned it was made possible by Christ’s death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. This redemption cannot be earned.  It is offered as a free gift to all that place their faith in Jesus as savior.  Through Him we are made blameless before God.

Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy,  to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.  Jude 1:24-25

May God bless and keep us all during the coming Christmas season and New Year!

Give Thanks to God

Thanksgiving Turkey.jpg

May love and laughter light your days, and warm your heart and home.

May good and faithful friends be yours, wherever you may roam.

May peace and plenty bless your world with joy that long endures.

May all life’s passing seasons bring the best to you and yours!

                                                                             An Irish Blessing

Father Desmond O’Donnell, a Roman Catholic Priest in Northern Ireland, recently told the Belfast Telegraph newspaper that Christians should abandon the word “Christmas,” noting that the name has been “hijacked by Santa and reindeer” and commercialized to the point that it is virtually meaningless.  “We’ve lost Christmas, just like we lost Easter, and should abandon the word completely,” O’Donnell said.  

Just go to a mall today and see what he means.  You’ll find Christmas on display everywhere, even though we’ve yet to celebrate Thanksgiving. Check your mailbox today and you’re apt to find a pile of Christmas sale catalogs and flyers.  The Christmas theme is clear—buy, buy, buy!

Sadly, we can say the same thing about losing Thanksgiving.   What was originally a day set aside for Americans to thank God for our many blessings is now often referred to as “Turkey Day,” a time to overeat, over indulge in alcohol, and watch football on television. Indeed, a number of Thanksgiving Day football matches across the country are referred to as the “Turkey Bowl.” Thanksgiving has become irreversibly connected with Black Friday, the day Christmas buyers literally battle one another in malls and big box stores to get super bargain prices on anything and everything.  Some stores have even resorted to open at midnight on Thanksgiving to maximize the Black Friday “spend fest.”    

For many Americans, it might appear that there isn’t too much to be thankful for.  We see reports of multiple mass shootings; police officers are gunned down in our streets; there are dozens of reports of sexual misconduct by politicians and Hollywood celebrities; natural disasters hammer the land; and we have a government run by two feckless political parties that seemingly can’t even agree on when to hold the next meeting.  Sometimes it seems as if our whole system, our entire way of life, could be swept away in an instant (and it can, but that’s the Book of Revelation, which I won’t go into today).

So what does America have to be thankful for?  The answer is truly simple, although not necessarily obvious.  What a pity more Americans don’t travel abroad to Third World countries and countries with oppressive regimes like Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea.  In such places it takes very little time to recognize how truly blessed we are.  I was blessed that my military career allowed me to see so much of the world. It changed me forever.

America isn’t perfect, but it is great enough that many people around the globe dream of coming here.  If you take time to thank God this coming Thursday, thank Him for these simple blessings:

  • We can go to the faucet and fill a glass with clear, clean water. In Somalia I watched people drink water drawn straight from the muddy Jubba River, where it was not uncommon to see the carcass of a hippopotamus or other large animal floating down the river. Diarrheic disease kills Somalis and other Third World citizens by the score.
  • Our country is relatively free of deadly infectious diseases like plague, cholera, and malaria that devastate many other countries.
  • We light our homes with the flip of a switch. Following the long civil war in the Former Yugoslavia, I was deployed to Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Most of the city was without electricity when I arrived, and much of it was still without when I returned home 13 months later.
  • We are well-fed compared with much of the world. Even many people living below the poverty level in America are better fed than people in some Third World countries.
  • One can travel freely in America. Oppressive regimes around the world control movement of the population. They use checkpoints with armed officials to prevent unrestricted movement about the country.
  • Americans can speak freely without fear of reprisal by the government. Sure, sometimes there are bad consequences for speaking freely, such as libel suites, but we aren’t silenced by the government.
  • While there is a problem with homelessness in America, most of us have a roof over our heads nevertheless. In Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia I saw thousands of people who had been violently forced from their homes or had their homes destroyed by war.
  • We have the freedom to worship God in the way we choose. While many Christians grumble about losing religious freedom (and some rightfully so), we enjoy more religious liberty than most of the world.

Truly America has its problems, but our country is blessed in many ways.  Despite its faults, it is still a place where many oppressed people dream of coming to.  Take time to pause and thank God for blessing America. May he continue to do so in the coming year!

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.*

*Lyrics from “Simple Gifts,” a traditional Quaker Tune