Who’s Got Your Back?

Author Jack Canfield said, “Human beings are not designed to go through life alone. No one has to bear the burden of tough times all by themselves.”

A television nature program captured an image of this idea well. It was an episode about a baby bear.

The cub was one of two babies born to a mother black bear, but his sibling died in childbirth. Not too long afterward, Mama Bear also died. The little cub was left alone to fend in the world.

But he was fortunate. He soon came across a huge male black bear who took a liking to the little guy. By the end of the day the adoption papers were signed and the little cub had a new friend and father. 

Papa Bear showed the cub how to forage for berries. He taught him which plants he could eat and which to leave alone. He showed him how to fish. Papa Bear taught the cub all the things a bear needs to know to get along in the world.

The two were inseparable…until the day they separated. The little cub found himself all alone when a hungry mountain lion crept up. The two locked eyes and terror ran through the bear’s heart. So he did the only he knew to do, the thing Papa Bear had taught…he rose up on his hind legs, showed teeth and claws, looked his enemy right in the eye and roared a fierce roar. Well, it wasn’t really a roar at all, but a tiny squeak. 

The camera panned back to the mountain lion who must have been amused at the little guy, and was surely preparing to enjoy a tasty lunch. The audience expected the lion to pounce any second. But something strange happened. A look of fear crossed the cougar’s face, he slowly backed off a few steps and then turned and bounded away.

The camera panned back to the frightened cub and now the audience could see what the little bear could not. Behind the cub, but not too far back, stood Papa Bear – up on his hind legs, all teeth and claws, with a deadly gleam in his eye. He didn’t growl, but then he didn’t have to. The lion got the message.

I love the image of the powerful black bear, ready to go to battle for a vulnerable cub. And that is an image I always want to keep in mind. No matter how helpless, frightened or vulnerable we feel, there is a strong and mighty force just behind us. That force is made up of people who watch out for us. Family and friends, children and colleagues and even strangers. There are more people behind you and me, ready to step in when needed, than we may ever know. 

We don’t have to go through this world all alone. And sometimes we will need extra help. We may need people to pull us through, to watch our backs or just to stand by.

Who’s got your back? Will you let them help?

Grace and Peace
Steve

The Gift of Life

I once clipped a strange story from the newspaper. It was about a man named Jose Estrada who drove to a popular trail where he like to jog. While Estrada was running, another jogger on the same trail collapsed and died of a heart attack. The man’s body was taken to a nearby hospital where authorities found a car key in his pocket, but no identification. 

Assuming they would be able to find the name of the deceased man in his automobile registration papers, they brought the key back to a parking lot near the jogging trail. They figured that if they tried the key in various locked doors of cars parked by the trail, they might eventually find his car and learn who he was. So they experimented until they were able to open the doors of one of the vehicles. 

Now, here’s where the story gets strange. The key opened the door of Estrada’s pickup truck. They examined Estrada’s registration papers and notified his wife of her husband’s untimely death. They asked her to come to the hospital and identify his body.

And here is where the story gets stranger still. Mrs. Estrada saw the body on the table with a tube snaking from his mouth, his eyes taped shut and wearing jogging clothing much like her husband wore. In her distraught condition she assumed the body belonged to Jose and signed the death certificate.
    
Meanwhile, Jose Estrada finished running, drove back home and promptly learned from a friend, who was more than stunned to encounter him in the flesh, that he was supposed to be dead. He immediately sped to the hospital and strode, as big as life, into the waiting room. His startled wife fell into his arms laughing and crying. The only thing she managed to spurt out was, “Jose, if you ever die on me again, I’ll kill you myself.” After all, he was dead and then he was alive… he was lost and then he was found. All in a single day. 

Eventually, the poor deceased man was properly identified and his family contacted. For this man’s family, as well as for Estrada’s wife, I wonder what thoughts first surfaced when they received news of the untimely death. Did they try to recall their last moments with him? Did they try to remember if they told him they loved him that morning? Was there an argument? Were there regrets?

How fragile life can be. I suspect that, if life came in a package, it would arrive in a box labeled, “Fragile: Handle with Care.” It is delicate and can be damaged in a moment. And I also suspect that, if life came in a package, it would arrive as a gift. It is undeserved and priceless. Which of us earned it and who could ever afford it?

My challenge is to remember that life is fragile. And it is an awesome gift. But what I want to remember most of all is that the people in my life, these beautiful gifts, are also fragile. And they, especially, need to be handled with care.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Much Obliged, Lord

Like most parents, we sought to teach our son to say “thank you” frequently and hoped that giving thanks might become a life habit. After all, silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone. But I think that what we hoped to teach him was not simply to say thanks, but to feel it. I believe that thankful people are happy people.

The late Dr. Fulton Oursler used to tell of an old woman who took care of him when he was a child — a woman who not only expressed her thanks, but felt it. Anna was a former American slave who, after emancipation, was hired by the family for many years.

He remembered her sitting at the kitchen table, her hands folded and her eyes gazing upward as she prayed, “Much obliged, Lord, for my vittles.” He asked her what vittles were and she replied that they were food and drink. He told her that she would get food and drink whether or not she gave thanks, and Anna said, “Yes, we’ll get our vittles, but it makes ‘em taste better when we’re thankful.”

She told him that an old preacher taught her, as a little girl, to always look for things to be grateful for. So, as soon as she awoke each morning, she asked herself, “What is the first thing I can be grateful for today?” Sometimes the smell of early-morning coffee perking in the kitchen found its way to her room. On those mornings, the aroma prompted her to say, “Much obliged, Lord, for the coffee. And much obliged, too, for the smell of it!”

Young Fulton grew up and left home. One day he received a message that Anna was dying. He returned home and found her in bed with her hands folded over her white sheets, just as he had seen them folded in prayer over her white apron at the kitchen table so many times before. 

He wondered what she could give thanks for at a time like this. As if reading his mind, she opened her eyes and gazed at the loving faces around her bed. Then, shutting her eyes again, she said quietly, “Much obliged, Lord, for such fine friends.”

Oursler was deeply influenced by Anna’s uncanny ability to always find some reason to be “much obliged.” This wise woman taught him a secret that many people have never learned: she taught him how to be happy.

And so, we pray: Lord, as Anna said so faithfully and deeply felt… help us to be much obliged for all you have given us… especially your love and grace. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Heading Home

I once clipped a funny story from Reader’s Digest submitted by Joanne Mitchell. She wrote, “My brother adopted a snake named Slinky, whose most disagreeable trait was eating live mice. Once I was pressed into going to the pet store to buy Slinky’s dinner. The worst part of this wasn’t choosing the juiciest-looking creatures or turning down the clerk who wanted to sell me vitamins to ensure their longevity. The hardest part was carrying the poor things out in a box bearing the words ‘Thank you for giving me a home.’”

That’s a little hard to take. Dinner with Slinky cannot be a mouse’s idea of going home.Another woman tells of a time when she was at home with her children and the telephone rang. In going to answer it, she tripped on a rug, reached out for something to hold on to and grabbed the telephone table. It crashed to the floor and jarred the receiver from the cradle. The table fell on top of the family dog, which leaped up barking and howling. The mother’s three-year-old son, startled by this noise, broke into loud screams. The woman mumbled some colorful words and finally managed to pick up the receiver and lift it to her ear. Before she could answer, she heard her husband’s voice over the phone say, “Nobody’s said hello yet, but I’m positive I have the right number.”

Now that sounds all-too-typical – from peace to pandemonium in about two seconds. Any of us who have raised children or even any of us who WERE children probably get it.Families today come in all different shapes and sizes. And when peace turns into pandemonium, one may long to get away from it all, at least for a while. But the fact is, we each are born into families and we seem to have an irresistible urge to start new ones. At a deep level I believe we know that the family is just about the most important and probably the most enduring institution ever created. Regardless of what a family looks like, whether or not children are present, home is a place where our souls can finally connect with the soul of another; a place where we can, and should, feel safe, cared for and even special.

In 1688 Johannes Hofer, a Swiss medical student, coined a word to describe an illness whose symptoms include insomnia, anorexia, palpitations, stupor, and, above all, a persistent thinking of home. The word he coined was “nostalgia.” There is a yearning within the human heart to return to that place where we were secure, loved and made to feel important.Songwriter Paul Simon picks up the feeling when he sings that “every stranger’s face I see reminds me that I long to be homeward bound…” 

If we can’t be homeward bound, can we make “home” out of where we are? Home may be as much a state of being as a place. We talk about feeling at home when we feel at peace or when we feel comforted. “I am at home in this place,” we might say. It’s a state of well-being and solace.If home is as much about attitude as it is about latitude, then we never need feel too far from home. That’s good to know, especially during those times when we find our thoughts homeward bound. Can you make the place you are a space of peace? Can you find comfort in your surroundings and warmth in the company of friends? If so, even if you’re not at the place you live, you will be at home.

If you cannot make it home for whatever reason, take the time to be at home wherever you are and be thankful for the home you have been given. Amen

Grace and Peace
Steve

Trying to find the Right Words

Have you ever noticed how hard it can be to find the right words? This past week as I stood at the bedside of a special friend who had suffered a very severe heart attack. He was only 59 years old. As I gathered the family for prayer… I don’t know why, but I started the prayer with the words: “Lord, we are all at a lost for words.” It wasn’t intentional. It was just what I was feeling at that moment… there were no words.

It was once said that Al Smith, former governor of New York, was making his first inspection of Sing Sing prison. The warden asked him if he might say a few words to the prisoners. 

The governor began, “My fellow citizens.” But he suddenly felt confused about whether the inmates may have forfeited their citizenship. So he took a second stab at it: “My fellow convicts.” There was a roar of laughter and now he became flustered. He gallantly tried a third time: “Well, anyhow, I’m glad to see so many of you here.” There is no record of what he said after that.

I have frequently struggled to find the right words. And there are times I am certain the right words do not even exist. Like when I’m trying to say something hopeful or comforting in a particularly frightening situation.

More than once I have been called to a hospital emergency room or to be with a family surrounding the bed of a dying relative. And more than once I’ve been at a loss for words. What is the right thing to say at a time like that? What can I say that doesn’t sound hollow or trite or like I’m just not in touch with the feelings of others who are hurting? 

A lot of us really don’t know what to say at these times. And too often the professionals who work daily with people on the ragged edge of hope have become so desensitized they have lost any ability to comfort.

A wise obstetrician at a university teaching hospital once made a comment about comforting those who suffer. Someone asked the doctor what advice he offered his students, future doctors and nurses, when caring for mothers who gave birth to stillborn infants.

The doctor paused for a moment in thought. Then he said this: “I tell them that they need two eyes. One eye is not enough; they need two eyes. With one eye they have to check the I.V. And with the other eye they have to weep. That’s what I tell them,” he said. “I tell them that they need two eyes.”

That may be some of the wisest advice I’ve ever heard. We may not always need to figure out what to say; we really only need two eyes. In Emily Dickinson’s words, “Saying nothing… sometimes says the most.” And this from a poet whose life was all about finding exactly the right words.

I agree with the doctor – empathy goes a long way. And somehow finding the ability to feel, even for a few moments, what another is feeling may speak more loudly than the best words I can choose. It speaks to the fact that I care; I understand. It says that I am willing to share their pain so they do not feel so alone. It says I want to be fully present with them and to walk alongside of them, difficult as it may be. My presence is something they can draw real strength and hope from.

Come to think of it, maybe Dickinson did get it right: saying nothing… sometimes says the most. And saying nothing at all may be saying just the right words.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Zeke, my friend, Rest In Peace in the Father’s arms.

The Angel with a Broken Wing

I know a woman who gave each person in her family a golden angel lapel pin one Christmas. “Wear it on your collar or shoulder,” she said, “to remind you that your guardian angel is always looking over your shoulder.”

Her brother noticed his pin had a broken wing. He held up the damaged angel and quipped: “It figures. My guardian angel is missing a wing. How can she watch out for me? She can’t even take care of herself!”

But I think the value of his pin wasn’t that it was a symbol of a guardian angel, but that the angel’s wing was broken. For at that time, he had been diagnosed with cancer. In some ways, he, himself, was like an angel with a damaged wing. He was wounded and diseased. He felt broken.

I wonder if we all don’t feel that way a little, even if we have never been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. At times, we all hurt. We experience losses. Sometimes loneliness feels disabling. Like that angel, we are each broken in some way, even if our damage is interior and invisible to others.

But there is a secret that angels with broken wings know: they realize they are still able to fly…by embracing each other. And broken humans, too, do best when hanging on to one another. They can go through unimaginably difficult times when they go it together. 

Two years after that Christmas, the man left this life behind while his family grieved. They felt most acutely that singular pain of loss and loneliness reserved for mourning loved ones. Remembering his angel with the damaged wing, they decided they would travel their path of grief by embracing each other, physically as much as emotionally. Perhaps by hanging on to one another, they reasoned, they could allow their own broken wings to heal. 

I watched them at the funeral – and afterward – embracing. And holding on. I knew then that somehow they would be all right and that someday each would fly again.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Forgiveness is The Mark

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt. 5:23-24). 

While delivering his “Farewell Sermon,” a retiring pastor recited those two verses from the Sermon on the Mount. Then, after a long pause, he said, In my preaching ministry of almost fifty years, I have made it a point to use this text in a sermon at least once a year. And not once have I seen or heard of a person leaving the Church to “first be reconciled to his or her brother or sister” as Jesus commands. It’s almost as though we think God made a grave mistake when He identified “forgiveness” as the essence of His Rule over us. 

Jesus said to His disciples: “… whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mk. 11:25-26). Did God make a mistake here? 

Jesus said to His disciples: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Mt. 5:44-45). Did God make a mistake here? 

The bottom line for all of us is, do we want to position ourselves under the Rule of God, or do we want to come under our own rule? Are we ready to accept as King the Crucified Christ whose only reply from the Cross was “Father, forgive them,” or are we prepared to crucify Him? 

We know, of course, that Christ was crucified between two thieves. “One of the criminals,” Luke tells us, “railed at Him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds, but this Man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into Your Kingdom.’ And Jesus replied, 

‘Truly I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise'” (Lk. 23:39-43). 

Copernicus, the great mathematician of antiquity, revolutionized the thoughts of humanity about the Universe. When he lay dying, his book, which had just been printed, “The Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies,” was put in his arms. At that moment, this man of superior intellect saw himself not as an eminent scholar or a great astronomer, but only as a lowly sinner. And on his grave at Frombork, one can read these words: “I do not seek a kindness equal to that given Paul, nor do I ask the Grace granted Peter. But that forgiveness which Thou didst grant the robber — that I earnestly desire.” 

Christ, our King earnestly desires that we forgive one another — even our enemies, so that we may fulfill the necessary precondition for entry into His Kingdom of Love! For a thousand years, and after that, to the end of the world, may the inscription commemorating our lives reflect His desire. It comes down to a matter of trust. Christ, our King, is asking us to trust Him when He tells us that to become the uniquely beautiful, fulfilled persons He wants us to become, we must learn to forgive and to forgive, unconditionally. 

For Christians, forgiveness is the indelible mark that is inscribed on our souls for a thousand-thousand years, and after that, to the end of the world! 

So, we pray: O Lord, forgive us as we forgive others… Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

It Only Takes a Minute

He almost killed somebody, but one minute changed his life. The beautiful story comes from Sherman Rogers’ book, Foremen: Leaders or Drivers? In his true-life story, Rogers illustrates the importance of effective relationships.

During his college years, Rogers spent a summer in an Idaho logging camp. When the superintendent had to leave for a few days, he put Rogers in charge. 

“What if the men refuse to follow my orders?” Rogers asked. He thought of Tony, an immigrant worker who grumbled and growled all day, giving the other men a hard time. 

“Fire them,” the superintendent said. Then, as if reading Rogers’ mind, he added, “I suppose you think you are going to fire Tony if you get the chance. I’d feel badly about that. I have been logging for 40 years. Tony is the most reliable worker I’ve ever had. I know he is a grouch and that he hates everybody and everything. But he comes in first and leaves last. There has not been an accident for eight years on the hill where he works.”

Rogers took over the next day. He went to Tony and spoke to him. “Tony, do you know I’m in charge here today?” Tony grunted. “I was going to fire you the first time we tangled, but I want you to know I’m not,” he told Tony, adding what the superintendent had said. 

When he finished, Tony dropped the shovelful of sand he had held and tears streamed down his face. “Why he no tell me dat eight years ago?”

That day Tony worked harder than ever before – and he smiled! He later said to Rogers, “I told Maria you first foreman in deese country who ever say, ‘Good work, Tony,’ and it make Maria feel like Christmas.”

Rogers went back to school after that summer. Twelve years later he met Tony again. He was superintendent for railroad construction for one of the largest logging companies in the West. Rogers asked him how he came to California and happened to have such success. 

Tony replied, “If it not be for the one minute you talk to me back in Idaho, I keel somebody someday. One minute, she change my whole life.” 

Effective managers know the importance of taking a moment to point out what a worker is doing well. But what a difference a minute of affirmation can make in any relationship! 

One minute. Have you got one minute to thank someone? A minute to tell someone what you sincerely like or appreciate about her? A minute to elaborate on something he did well? One minute. It can make a difference for a lifetime.

And so, we pray: Lord, we have so many moments but fail to realize how precious and life-changing that moment can be for us and for others. Help us to us our moments to thank, affirm, appreciate or recognize someone for the special people they are. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

The Strings that Bind Us Together

Listen to how a simple ball of yarn became a web of love for one classroom of high school students.

Their teacher seated the students in a circle on the carpeted floor. One member of the group was instructed to toss a ball of yarn to someone across the circle, holding tightly to one end. The recipient took hold of the string and listened as the one who tossed it shared something that she especially liked about him. Keeping hold of the string, he then tossed the ball across the circle to someone else and affirmed something positive about her. The ball of yarn was tossed across and around the circle until everyone had both heard and shared encouragement…and thus the yarn became a woven web of love and good feelings….

Before they went their separate ways, the teacher took scissors and snipped through the web. Each person took a piece of yarn away as a remembrance of the special words they heard. Surprisingly, many of them wore cherished pieces of yarn around their wrists for days and weeks afterward.

Every year now, students ask their teacher to end the term with the Web of Love. It has become an annual tradition in their high school. Which goes to show how much encouragement means to most people.

Why wait? We can find opportunities to affirm others throughout the day. Few people grow weary of hearing sincere appreciation and praise. And each time you give it you help to create an invisible web of love that can last a lifetime.

And so, we pray: Lord, we all need to sit in that circle of love that you have created… allowing us to affirm others and be affirmed for who we are and what we do… how we live our lives every day. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Opportunities to Learn

If you’re like most of us, failure is not your best friend. But I have come to like the attitude one man has. “I don’t say I have strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “I say I have strengths and lesser strengths.” That’s me! Some strengths… but a great many of them are lesser strengths.

One of my lesser strengths may be in the area of art. But when my three-year-old son asked me to draw a picture of a horse on his chalkboard, I agreed anyway. And it wasn’t too bad. Well, it wasn’t great, I must admit. It may have looked a little more like a dog than a horse. But it was definitely a horse-looking animal of some sort and my young son seemed satisfied.  

I left the picture on the chalkboard. The next day one of his friends stopped by to play. He spotted the drawing and asked, “Who drew the horse?” 

I called down the hall, “I did!” I actually felt just a little bit proud. After all, he immediately recognized it as a horse.

There was a moment of silence as a look of confusion swept her face. Then he asked, “Did you draw it when you were a baby?”

Everyone’s an art critic.

My son’s friend just couldn’t square such a childish line drawing with somebody my age. Sure, I’d starve as an artist, but I don’t have to excel as one. I have other strengths, other skills, other abilities. And I can enjoy good art while I spend time doing whatever it is I am meant to do. 

I have come to appreciate Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s perspective. He said, “Give what you have. To some it may be better than you dare to think.” I don’t need to beat myself up over all the things I do miserably. I am still learning to make peace with those things. What others call weaknesses I now call lesser strengths and look at them as nothing more than opportunities to learn.

In the meantime, I’ll give what I can and trust that will be enough.

And so, we pray: Lord, I know I have some strengths but soooooo many lesser strengths and therefore soooooo many opportunities to learn about you, your children in all places and myself. Help me to learn that which allows me to be a better channel of your love and grace. Amen

Grace and Peace
Steve

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