The late Neal Maxwell (a university administrator and spiritual motivator) wrote: “We should certainly count our blessings, but we should also make our blessings count.” Jesus said as much more than once: “What do ye more than others?” “Take up your cross and follow me.” “This is my commandment, that you love one another.” As the old adage puts it: “Thanksgiving is an action word.”
In the New Testament book of James (who some scholars think was the brother of Jesus), we read the words: “Every good and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Good gifts we can imagine: good friends, good food, good health, good weather... But “perfect” gifts? What on earth is that about?
The first chapter of the first book in the Bible tells the story of Creation. The author wrote a lovely narrative about his ideas of an all-powerful God who decided to make a world, to fill it with every kind of living thing, and finally to populate it with creatures designed in the image of the Divine. Step by step, after each new thing is added (water, earth, shrubs and trees, birds of the air, fish of the sea, beasts of the field, and human beings) God says, “It is good.”
I write this just after having learned of the death of Antoine “Fats” Domino. I guess I thought he would live forever. Sadly, at least in this mortal realm, no one ever does.
You know the cliché, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks"? It's not true. We old dogs can be taught, and sometimes the lessons are surprising.
Do you ever wonder how phrases we use all the time originated? According to my friend, Helen Kennedy, some have fairly interesting histories. She shared a list of such stories with me, two or three of which I’ll share with you in this blog.
“We know that God is here with us and here for us, and God will help us put things back together again.” Those were the words shared with me by a friend who lived through the back-to-back hurricanes on St. Thomas Island. You’ve seen the photos of the Caribbean islands and Puerto Rico and Mexico and Florida and Texas. I spend my life working with words, and I cannot find the words to adequately describe the devastation we have witnessed in those areas over the last few weeks.
In one of the Psalms of Lament in Hebrew Scripture, we read the words:
O God, the heathen have come into thy inheritance;
they have defiled thy holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
They have given the bodies of thy servants
to the birds of the air for food,
the flesh of thy saints to the beasts of the earth.
They have poured out their blood like water …
How long, O Lord? - Psalm 79:1-3, 5
The psalmist’s words accurately describes our feelings as we are shocked, stunned, and saddened by yet another senseless and indefensible act of gun violence. As I write this, the death toll in Las Vegas is over 50 and expected to rise, and the number of those injured is in excess of 400. There is no rationale or justification for what took place there. The victims were innocent people, unknown to the gunman, who were simply enjoying a musical concert when a madman opened fire from a window 32 stories above the crowd.
“How long, O Lord?,” asked the psalmist. Today we ask that same question with similar fears and tears. How long until a culture of love and kindness begins to make more sense than a culture of anger and aggression? How long until governmental leaders make the reasonable decision that only police and military personnel need rapid fire automatic weapons, thus those guns can be prohibited for sale to the public without in any way jeopardizing 2nd Amendment rights? How long until a violent society realizes that violence is not the answer? How long until we begin to pay attention to the fact that what we feed to our children (e.g., violent video games) are seeds that may grow into actions when those children are older? How long until we realize that human life is sacred and whatever we do to another, we do to Christ himself? (Check out Matthew 25 when Jesus taught precisely that.) How long until we practice civility on social media, and thus help de-escalate the vitriol that has become our norm? How long until the madness ends and we stop worshiping violence and begin worshiping God? How long until each of us in our own personal ways decides to contribute to making the world kinder and safer?
Today we pray for the victims in Las Vegas, that those who were killed may enter into eternal life in an Eternal Kingdom where there are no weapons and there is no death. We pray for their families. We pray for those who were injured that they may fully recover, both physically and emotionally. Tomorrow, we keep praying – that our God of Love will reveal to us that there is a better way than what we have descended to. It is the way of One called the “Prince of Peace.” And only by following Him can we find our path out of the shadows of misery and into the Light of Life.
On Sunday, September 17, I shared with our Marble family that I will be retiring from here sometime next spring. The years have passed so quickly, and every minute here has been a blessing and a privilege for Page and me. Now, I find myself imagining what life might be like post-Marble. A good deal of that, obviously, will depend on how I choose to construct it.
This is my third blog while on a train en route from Venice to Naples. My trilogy is written. It’s amazing how prolific one becomes simply by adding an unlimited intake of carbs in a short period of time.
This is my second “train blog” on the journey from Venice to Naples. If I can do one more before we arrive, I’ll have a trilogy.
As I sit on a train from Venice to Naples preparing for a return flight home to NYC, I am reflecting on things I have witnessed. Perhaps I should be reflecting on the amount of pasta I have eaten, but why depress myself after such an enjoyable trip?
I write this brief note from Texas, where I have been for three days. Though I am not in the area seriously impacted by Hurricane Harvey, I am around numerous people who had to be evacuated. I have spent time with folks whose homes may or may not be standing when they return, and with other folks whose family members are still in Houston and who are terrified about their well-being. I am hearing continual stories and testimonials from people who are on the ground. The devastation is inexpressible. There are areas that have received as much as 50 inches of rain in a period of four days. Some of those areas ordinarily receive 36 inches of rainfall in an entire year. As well prepared as any city may have been, nothing prepares a place for a storm of this magnitude.
In the midst of it all, however, I have been inspired by the accounts of so many Good Samaritans who have pooled their efforts to assist people in need. It is encouraging to see people lay aside all the differences that we spend so much time reflecting upon - differences of age, economics, orientation, color, politics, nation of origin, etc. - to unite in the effort to simply help other people in need. I heard a man from Houston say this morning: "The worst of times brings out the best in people." Once again, that appears to be true.
At Marble, we have always been a safe place for people amid the storms of life, a place of healing when confronted with human hurts. You will be given an opportunity to maintain that legacy by contributing monies to our church that assist the people in desperate need in Southeast Texas. As with our Easter Offering, every penny you contribute will go directly to those who need it most. I encourage you to keep the people of Texas in your prayers and to do whatever you can to minister to them in this time of devastation. Behind the storm clouds, the sun of God's love still shines. May it shine on those folks through us.
To donate via our website please go here, (then log in, create an account or simply choose Quick Give) and select Hurricane Harvey Relief from the drop down menu. (Please note: in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, we have now added further selections to our drop down menu for victims of both disasters, as well as our partner church, St. Thomas Reformed Church in the Caribbean). You may also mail a check to Marble Collegiate Church, Attn: Hurricane Harvey Relief, 1 West 29th St, New York, NY 10001.
A few years ago, Colin Tipping wrote a book entitled Radical Self-Forgiveness. Many people, maybe most, would be wise to reflect on that title. Too many exist every day bearing weighty burdens of guilt which preclude the possibility of finding joy in life.
The New Testament teaches: “By Grace are you saved through faith, and this is not your own doing. It is the gift of God....” God chooses to release us from guilt. The only purpose guilt serves is educational. It teaches us what not to do or leave undone in the future. Aside from that, it is a denial of God’s gift of Grace.
Learn the lessons you need to learn from yesterday. Then turn it loose and step forward into the beautiful tomorrows God desires for you, a future liberated from guilt.
The psalmist wrote: “O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; for God’s steadfast love endures forever.” When I was growing up, my parents taught me the importance of using the words “Please” and “Thank you.” Occasionally, when I am feeling particularly self-reflective, I think about my prayer life and come to an embarrassing realization: When I pray to God, I say “Please” a lot more than I say “Thank You.” It’s natural to ask God, our Parent, for what we need and even for what we desire. But it is selfish to do only that, failing to thank God for all the blessings we receive (and often take for granted) every single day.
In your summer prayer life, why not remember what your parents told you growing up? Make a special effort to offer God as much thanks as you do requests. And be specific about the blessings you’ve been given. “Count your many blessings, name them one-by-one.” Please and Thank You!
An acquaintance who is a confessed “religious skeptic” asked me in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy, “So, what are you positive thinkers going to say about this?” It was a fair question. I had two responses for him, which I will share with you.
Dick Halverson sometimes uses the phrase; “Wherever you are, God has put you there.” He doesn’t mean God has put you in bad situations. He means, rather, in locales. Put another way, God has a job for you to do wherever you are. In your city. In your neighborhood. In your office. In your school. In your apartment building. In your church. Your presence is not a random act. There is a purpose to your existence and to your being in the place where you exist.
Jesus said to his disciples: “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth.” Anywhere and everywhere we have opportunities to be about His business: to witness, to encourage, to give, to serve, to love. So, as the old adage puts it, “Bloom where you’re planted.” Wherever you are, God has a purpose for your life in that place.
"Then what?" I have a friend who says the entirety of personal ethics can be summed up in those two words. "If I do this thing... If I make this decision... If I speak this word... If I enter into this relationship... If I follow this course, then what?" What effect will it have on others? What ethical trajectory will be set into motion?
St. Paul wrote an interesting word to first-century believers: "Imitate me," he said. Not "Do what I say," but "Do what I do." He felt comfortable enough with his own personal behavior that he could recommend it to others. That, it seems, is at least one reasonable goal of establishing a moral structure for one's life. So, before making decisions that have long-term consequences, ask yourself the question: "Then what?"
"Laughter does good, like a medicine," the book of Proverbs advises. Medical science has confirmed that idea, alerting us that laughter releases endorphins which are Nature's feel-good drugs. And the more endorphins that are released, the healthier our bodies become.
We are always ill-advised to ignore or deny the harsh realities of the world in which we live. By so doing, we sacrifice our opportunity to be healers of humanity's hurts. But by the same token, we are also ill-advised to see every silver lining as simply the parameters of a dark cloud or every glass as half empty. Much of life, even amid the pains and problems, is fun. And much of what occurs around us is funny. Cultivating a sense of humor is a holy endeavor, which makes us healthier in body and in spirit. So, look for the humor in your world today. Be diligent in finding it, and allow yourself the room to laugh. It will make you a stronger person, which will enable you to make the world a stronger place.
"Let the children come unto me," said Jesus, "for to such as these belongs the Kingdom of God." As we age, it is too easy to forget that the essence of God's nature (according to what Jesus said) is revealed in children.
In children we see unbridled enthusiasm, an openness to other people without categories or prejudice, a curiosity that gives birth to learning, the medicinal presence of laughter, and the sense that people are good and life is an adventure. Growing old is not so much about the turning of pages on the calendar as it is about losing those qualities which children possess.
Take some time for self-examination, asking what has become of the child within you and what you need to do to rediscover that person so that you can become whole.
Dr. Michael B. Brown
Marble's Senior Minister, Dr. Michael Brown's dynamic leadership inspires many with his message of simple faith, using humor and anecdotes to describe a philosophy of life assured to bring meaning, joy, and hope to those who practice it.
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