How About an Apology?

Listen to this letter of apology:

Dear Dog,
I am so sorry about you being sent to the dog pound for the broken lamp which you did not break; the fish you did not spill; and the carpet that you did not wet; or the wall that you did not dirty with red paint…
   Things here at the house are calmer now, and just to show you that I have no hard feelings towards you, I am sending you a picture, so you will always remember me.

Best regards, The Cat”

The Old French root of the word “repent” is “repentir,” which actually means to be sorry. The cat may have said he was sorry, but there is no sorrow here. 

It reminds of me of the story of a woman with fourteen children, ages one through fourteen, who decided to sue her husband for divorce on grounds of desertion. “When did he desert you?” the judge asked. “Thirteen years ago,” she replied. “He left 13 years ago? Where did all the children come from?” The woman looked sheepish. “He kept coming back to say he was sorry.”

Again, no sorrow here, for if he’d been truly sorry, he’d have stayed. Sincere repentance always leads to change.

We need to learn how to make a GOOD APOLOGY — one that is sincere and honest. One that gets the job done. Offering a good apology is not something many people do well. But we can learn. 

It is well said that a good apology has three parts: I am sorry; it is my fault; what can I do to make it right?

I am sorry. Three short words that, when they are heart-felt, can be most difficult to say. But when uttered, they can change lives.

It is my fault. No excuses. No blame. Psychologist Carl Jung insightfully said, “The only person I cannot help is one who blames others.” When we accept fault we have the power to do something about it. When we pass the blame, we are helpless to keep it from happening again.

What can I do to make it right? Unless we change something, nothing changes. A good apology is followed by action. Otherwise, it is only words. 

If you are going to apologize, apologize well. Never ruin your apology with an excuse and back it up with action. 

Learning how to make a good apology is too important to neglect. It’s part of maintaining whole and healthy relationships. And it’s something we can practice today.

And so, we Pray: Lord, I do need to make some apologies for things that have happened with relationships. Help me to make them sincere, real and heart-felt. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Give Me Hope and Courage

Many years ago I found a short story about Mahatma Gandhi that I have gone back to several times. It has given me hope and courage. Even if you are not one to pray, I think you will discover that it is useful.

We remember Gandhi as a leader in India’s struggle for independence. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that he brought the British Empire to its knees without firing a shot. He was a small man of great courage. His non-violent resistance was fraught with danger and the cause eventually claimed his life.

Gandhi once spoke about the source of his courage. He related a story about an incident that occurred in South Africa. There was a law directed expressly against Indians in South Africa that he had gone there to oppose. His ship was met by a hostile mob that had come with the announced intention of lynching him. Gandhi was advised to stay on board for his own physical safety. But he went ashore nevertheless.

When later asked why he made such a dangerous decision, he explained, “I was stoned and kicked and beaten a good deal; but I had not prayed for safety, but for the courage to face the mob, and that courage came and did not fail me.”

I believe he went after the right thing.

Like you, I know what it is to be afraid. I’m afraid of accidental injury, dismemberment or death. I’ve been afraid of a pending medical diagnosis. There must be a million different faces to the fears of life. Like this morning I am having a colonoscopy. Boy, I look forward to this… especially since they have found polyps several times before. I don’t like the prep, the procedure, the trying to wake up, or what the outcome may be.

I’m tempted at these times to hope for, and pray for, a way to avoid the danger ahead. I want to be safe, secure and healthy. But none of us is always safe, secure or healthy. So, like Gandhi, I think the best prayer is for courage to face whatever life may bring. And I am convinced that the courage will come and not fail me.

And so, we pray: Lord, we all are facing something we don’t see coming or are afraid may be in the cards for us. I pray for us all to have the courage to face whatever life brings us… for courage will never fail us. You, O Lord, are in the courage. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

PS. Today’s Colonoscopy was canceled until I have another echo. May happen after the first of the year

Dancing in the Rain

 “The pharmacist just insulted me,” a woman sobbed to her irate husband. He snatched the phone from her hand.

“I’m sorry to upset her,” the pharmacist said, “but put yourself in my shoes. First, my alarm didn’t go off and I overslept. I rushed out and locked both my house and car keys inside and had to break a window to get them. On the way to the pharmacy I got a speeding ticket. When I finally arrived late, there was a long line and the phone was ringing. I bent over to pick up a roll of nickels, I cracked my head on a drawer and fell backward, shattering the perfume case. Meanwhile, the phone was still ringing. I picked up and your wife asked me how to use a rectal thermometer. I swear, all I did was tell her.” 

Have you ever had a day like that? One man likes to say, “My life is filled with mountaintop experiences. One day, I’m on top of the mountain. The next day the mountain is on top of me.” Those kinds of mountaintop experiences are hard to take.

There will always be times when the mountain is on top. Or, in the words of Charles Tindley, times “when the storms of life are raging.” When that is the case, what do you do? One wise sage gives us a clue: 

“Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” 

I wager we all have spent too much time just waiting for one kind of storm or another to pass. “When things change…” “When everything settles down…” “When it gets easier…” “When…” Well, you get the idea.

A few years ago, someone stole a friend of my wife’s purse. That was a storm they didn’t see coming. For days she was hassled with replacing lost credit cards and identification. And though it wasn’t a crisis, it was still an aggravation.

As she went about the process of trying to protect her identity from theft and replacing the contents of her purse, I recalled the words of author Matthew Henry, an 18th Century English clergyman. Henry, too, was robbed. Yet he approached his problem differently than I. Unbelievably, his predominant feeling was not anger, but gratitude. What he said was, “I give thanks that I have never been robbed before; that although he took my wallet, he did not take my life; that although he took everything, it was not much; and finally, that it was I who was robbed and not I who robbed.”

No self pity there. He was robbed and came away feeling gratitude for his life. Here was a man who learned something I had not yet figured out – to dance in the rain. 

I’ve found that, over the years, there is plenty of rain, and much of my life and yours has been about waiting for the storms of life to pass. So next time it rains, we need to start dancing. 

And so, we pray: Lord, you know all too well that there have been many storms in my life… most of which did not cause me to dance… but to start my own pity party. Help me to use those times like my mother taught me… use your illness… your downtimes as an opportunity to help someone else. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Write That Letter

When William Stidger taught at Boston University, he once reflected upon the great number of un-thanked people in his life. Those who had helped nurture him, inspire him or who cared enough about him to leave a lasting impression.

One was a schoolteacher he’d not heard of in many years. But he remembered that she had gone out of her way to put a love of verse in him, and Will had loved poetry all his life. He wrote a letter of thanks to her. 

The reply he received, written in the feeble scrawl of the aged, began, “My dear Willie.” He was delighted. Now over 50, bald and a professor, he didn’t think there was a person left in the world who would call him “Willie.” Here is that letter:

“My dear Willie, 
I cannot tell you how much your note meant to me. I am in my eighties, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely and, like the last leaf of autumn, lingering behind. You will be interested to know that I taught school for 50 years and yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received. It came on a blue-cold morning and it cheered me as nothing has in many years.” 

Not prone to cry easily, Bill wept over that note. She was one of the great un-thanked people from Bill’s past. You know them. We all do. The teacher who made a difference. That coach we’ll never forget. The music instructor or Sunday school worker who helped us to believe in ourselves. That scout leader who cared. 

We all remember people who shaped our lives in various ways. People whose influence changed us. Bill Stidger found a way to show his appreciation – he wrote them letters. 

Who are some of the un-thanked people from your past? It may not be too late to say, “Thanks.”

And so, we pray: Lord, I have had so many people lift me up, propel me onward, inspire me to be more than I ever thought I could be. Help me to thank all those people who made a difference in my life. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Earth’s Crammed With Heaven

I ran across this story told by a first time Girl Scout leader about a camp out with her new troop. She related this story:

I stumbled out the door of a mountain cabin where I was spending the weekend working with youth and their families at a rustic resort center. I had a 6:30 AM appointment to keep and squinted from the early autumn sun peeking over pine-blanketed mountaintops.

I was started by a voice behind me. “Today is a miracle!” I turned to find one of the teenagers following behind.

“How?” I asked her. It looked like it might be pleasantly warm later in the day. Otherwise, fairly ordinary. The word “miracle” seemed like an overstatement. Anyway, I wasn’t sure if I could handle much excitement this early in the morning.

“Think about it,” she smiled. “The sun rose, didn’t it?”

“Yeah.” I found it easy to hide any enthusiasm. It seemed to rise on every other morning without my getting involved.

“That’s a miracle! It is miraculous that the earth turns as it does. At night, the sun goes down and in the morning it rises. It just happens!”

I pretty much already had this figured out. I rubbed sleep from my eyes. I was also busy thinking about how to get a cup of coffee.

“And look at the mountains! Covered with trees and grass, they look so beautiful. And there,” she pointed, “a valley. It’s incredible.”

Was she always this perky? And shouldn’t there be a rule against perkiness this early in the morning? Especially before coffee?

“Did you notice the wildflowers?” she continued. “It all smells so fresh and clean and so good.” She took a deep breath and I thought I might have caught a sparkle in her eyes. Though it may have also been a trick of the light. “All of nature receives water and sunlight and everything it needs. Things grow and blossom – it really is lovely.” 

Now I started to worry. I thought I was actually coming around. Well, a little bit, anyway. Is perkiness contagious? I felt something stirring inside. Up until then I thought this was just an ordinary morning in the mountains. I didn’t know what spell she was secretly weaving, but she had a point. It really was beautiful, even if there was nothing magic about it.  

Then, with a smile that gave her pronouncement a note of finality, she said, “And best of all, it will happen again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next!” Then she sighed. “See? It’s a miracle morning.”

In her poem “Aurora Leigh,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:

    Earth’s crammed with heaven,
    And every common bush afire with God:
    But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
    The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries…

Along the early morning path, my friend had removed her shoes. For her, earth was “crammed with heaven” and “every bush afire.” It wasn’t just perkiness; she had eyes to see what I had completely missed. I was, as Browning might say, sitting around plucking blackberries. 

I haven’t seen that young woman for many years. She’s grown up now. Maybe she has a family of her own. She’s no doubt seen a good measure of heartache and trouble – who hasn’t? But I would be surprised if she isn’t basically a happy and contented person. Why? Because she discovered a valuable secret about happiness – she learned to find wonder in commonplace things and to feel gratitude for the ordinary. And life is nothing if not filled with the commonplace and ordinary. 

After all, if a single morning can hold so much wonder for her, then a lifetime of mornings, not to mention evenings and everything in between, should keep her going through whatever life throws her way.

And so, we pray: Lord, wow do we ever miss the miracle before us each and every day. Help us to take our shoes off and see you in everything and everyone. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Becoming a Happier Person

A man lay in a hospital bed worried about whether he would live or die. He called his pastor to come pray for him. He told her that if he got well, he’d donate $20,000 to the church.

The pastor prayed and the man eventually DID get well and returned home. But no check came to the church. The pastor paid him a visit.

“I see you’re doing quite well now,” she observed. “I was just wondering about the promise you made.”

“What promise?” he asked.

“You said you’d give $20,000 to the church if you recovered.”

“I did?” he exclaimed. “That goes to show you just how sick I really was!”

It is easy to give thanks — or to show it — when we feel grateful. But gratitude is not a feeling we can manufacture. Nor are we born feeling especially grateful.

Children don’t express much thanks by nature. Conveying appreciation is something we learn. And, here’s the good news, we have a lifetime to get better at it.

We teach our children to say thanks and, in time, they develop stronger feelings of gratitude. My son could talk before he was weaned from diapers, but one thing he never said was, “Thank you for changing my dirty diapers, Mom/Dad. I know that is a messy job. I appreciate all you and Mom are doing for me.” Too bad. Sometimes we deserved a BIG thank you.

Once he became car sick during a road trip, and I think he should have written a long thank-you letter to us for cleaning it up. Even though his mother and I spent almost a half hour scrubbing the carpet in a convenience store parking lot at seven degrees below hell… he never did said, “Gosh, guys, you’re the greatest parents ever! I am SO lucky to be part of this family.”

But that’s all right. Naturally, we wouldn’t expect small children to thank their parents for being parents. And for most people, feelings of gratitude come with empathy as we mature. The more we express thanks, the more gratitude we feel. The more gratitude we feel, the more we express thanks. It’s circular, and it leads to a happier life. But, I must add, my son is a very happy – thankful person – seen by the way he lives his life everyday. And that is a beautiful way to say thank you to everyone who has touched his life.

And that’s the point. People who are generally happier got that way, at least in part, through gratitude.  

Here are three simple steps to help anybody live more thankfully and to respond more authentically.

First, recognize WHEN a thankful response is appropriate. We take for granted too many of the things that we should be giving thanks for.

Second, spend a moment reflecting on how another’s thoughtfulness makes you feel. Be intentional about this.

Then third, from a sincere feeling of gratitude, give thanks. Say it. Write it. It doesn’t matter. But when you do, you will discover a side benefit – you are becoming a happier person.

And so, we pray: Lord, I always need to be a happier person… most every day. Help me to be grateful for all of my life. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Did You Get That Word Right?

I heard a funny story of an ancient monastery charged with copying old books and scrolls for the faith.

One day, Father Florian, who headed the work of the scriptorium, was asked by a new monk: “Does not the copying by hand of other copies allow for chances of error? How do we know we are not copying the mistakes of someone else? Are they ever checked against the originals?”

“A very good point,” Father Florian agreed. “I will take one of the latest books down to the vault and compare it to the original.”

After a day had passed and the priest had not returned, the monks began to worry. When they went to the vault, they found him weeping over an ancient manuscript.

“What is the problem, Father?” asked one of the monks.

“A mistake,” he sobbed. “The word was supposed to be ‘celebrate!’”

We can be assured that “celibate” was never confused with “celebrate,” but “celebrate” is a word we may need to hear more often. 

Is there plenty of celebration in your life? How about your spiritual life? Is it an exercise in following rules and practices? Or does it look more like a joyous celebration?

Not that we can be, or ought to be, happy all the time. Life isn’t like that. There is, after all, a time for laughter and a time for tears. And besides, there is much growth in pain. But “celebrate” is one of those great words that resides at the heart of a vibrant life. For the truth is…the more we celebrate, the more we find to celebrate. And the more we find to celebrate, the more fully we live.

So, as William Arthur Ward exhorts:

“Celebrate your life joyfully; 
Celebrate yourself humbly;
Celebrate your blessings gratefully.”

When it comes to full and abundant living, the monk got it right. The word is “CELEBRATE.”

And so, we pray: Lord help me to celebrate that I may fully live. Amen

Grace and Peace
Steve

Having a Good Vision

Did you know that the English word “thanks” comes from the same root word as “think”? And they not only share a similar background, they are related in another way. It seems the more we think, the more we thank. One woman illustrated how thinking and thanking are related in a visit to the eye doctor.

She complained to her ophthalmologist that, as she grew older, her eyesight was getting worse. He examined her eyes and could not be encouraging about the future of her eyesight. But to his surprise, she did not seem to be upset. She told him all she was grateful for: her deceased husband; her children and their families; her friends; the many years she has enjoyed upon this earth; her vast library of memories. She had done a great deal of thinking about these things. “My eyesight is getting worse,” she summarized, “but I’m not going to fret over that.”

Her doctor later made this observation: “Her eyesight is poor, but her vision is better than most people.” She clearly saw what many never see — all the good in her life. And she was content.

When we take time to think, and make time to thank, we see more clearly.

It sounds like a good way to improve your vision.

And so, we pray: Lord, my vision is really bad at times simply because I don’t take the time to see all the good in my life… all the way through. Help me to see more clearly. Amen

Grace and Peace
Steve

How Happy Are We?

Do you remember the story of the two men who were walking through a pasture and spotted an enraged bull? They instantly darted toward the nearest fence. The storming bull followed in hot pursuit and it was soon apparent they wouldn’t make it in time. Terrified, one shouted to the other, “Can you pray, John? We’re not going to make it!”
John answered, “I don’t know how to pray.”

“You have to!” panted his companion. “The bull is catching up to us.”

“All right,” agreed John, Then he prayed the only prayer he knew, one he had heard his father pray often at the dinner table: ‘O Lord, for what we are about to receive, make us truly thankful.'”

Not a bad prayer, actually, at least in other circumstances. And not a bad attitude about life. But even as important as being truly thankful, it is necessary to act truly thankful.

Italian actor, director, singer-songwriter and poet Roberto Benigni believes in the importance of acting thankful. Benigni won the 1998 Academy Award for best actor for his performance in the film “Life Is Beautiful.” In his joy at receiving the honor, he actually danced over the tops of chairs and leaped up on stage, applauding the audience. The effusive Benigni believes that it’s a sign of mediocrity when one demonstrates gratitude with moderation. And he is anything but moderate when showing gratitude.

How are you at showing your gratitude? Most of us are not as demonstrative as Benigni, but acting truly thankful can actually help us feel more grateful. 

William Arthur Ward said, “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” Who would wrap a present and not give it? And once the present is given, how do you feel? The truth is…the more we express our gratitude, the happier we are. For it isn’t happiness that makes us grateful, but gratitude that makes us happy. 

How happy do you want to be?

And so, we pray: Lord help me to be truly happy by being truly thankful. Amen.

Grace and Peace
Steve

Mean as a Rattlesnake – War Stories

For many soldiers, the war didn’t end when World War II was declared over. There was still the imagery of what they had seen and what they had done to stay alive.

They had had to survive in a foreign land while their families had had to wait and pray for their return.

A date in a history book might define a time for a country’s surrender or victory, but the battles continued for some like Earl Gonzales.

The war changed Gonzales, like most young men his age. He left to fight at just 17, and when he returned, he found himself struggling to come to grips with what he had seen.

Gonzales served in the Army, assigned to the 935th Field Artillery Battalion. He spent the war pummeling the Nazis with artillery shells. That’s what he was about to do in May 1945 when the war ended suddenly. His unit had a full volley of shells ready to fire when they were interrupted by a frantic officer.

“Hold your fire! The war is over!” the officer shouted.

The unit erupted in joy. Several days later, he took a joy ride on a discarded German motorcycle.

 “It was beautiful,” Gonzales said. “It had camouflage and a sidecar. I used to have a Harley, so I knew how to ride. I said to my buddy, Charlie, ‘Get in that sidecar, and let’s take a ride.’ “

The pair zoomed off on a German highway traveling up to 190 km per hour, Gonzales said. That was, until they rounded a turn to see what appeared to be an endless column of soldiers marching in their direction. The soldiers were Germans, and they were armed to the teeth.

“You couldn’t see the end of it, there were so many of them,” he said. “It scared the hell out of me. I turned that motorcycle and shot back to our company to tell the captain.”

What Gonzales didn’t know was the column of soldiers was coming to surrender. He spent the remainder of his time in Europe guarding prisoners, including a German officer who demanded Gonzales carry his suitcase like a valet.

“I kicked his suitcase and told him if he didn’t get off that truck, I was going to blow his head off,” Gonzales said.

The end of the war was perhaps the most difficult time in his life. He returned to his native Southern California, living with his parents for a time but never far away from what he saw.

“I was nervous and mean as a rattlesnake,” he said. “I didn’t trust anybody. I didn’t want to be around anybody. I carried a pistol that I took off a dead German private everywhere I went.”

Gonzales had become so paranoid he couldn’t stand to have people walking behind him on the street. When he went to a restaurant, he couldn’t sit with his back to the door. He assaulted a man who simply asked him for a cigarette and a light.

“I said, ‘You want me to give you a cigarette and you want me to light it for you? Do you want me to kick you in the chest to get your lungs going, too?’ ” Gonzales said. “Then, I just whipped up on the guy.”

He also became a drunk, consuming up to a fifth of whiskey a day. If not for the well-timed words of his father, his life might have taken a different course.

“I got up one morning and reached under the bed and pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey,” Gonzales said. “Just about then, my dad peeked into my room and saw me getting ready to take a swig from that bottle.”

His father’s words were simple and cut him deep.

“He said: ‘Son, you see what you’re doing there. That’s the first steps to becoming an alcoholic.’ He walked out and shut the door. I went over to the sink and poured that bottle out and didn’t take another drink.”

Gonzales, now 91, eventually settled down and opened several businesses in Southern California. He married and had two children.

When Gonzales’ wife, Christine, was diagnosed with breast cancer, the family moved to Oklahoma to be closer to her family. She died at 39, and Earl never remarried.

He ran an upholstery business in Oklahoma City and still lives in the same home he moved into with his wife more than 45 years ago.

“I don’t think anyone ever got over what they saw over there,” he said. “But I eventually settled down and made a life for myself.”

I realize that we are all wounded in some way by the happenings of war. I really don’t think human beings were ever meant to participate in the horrors of war… what we experience… what we see, smell, and feel… what we do and have done to us… well, it just has a way of getting into our psyche and I am not sure it ever gets out. It may get better. We may learn how to cope… but it is always there… the wounds of war continue to bleed.

I salute all my brothers and sisters who served… those who are still fighting the battles from over there – every day over here. I pay special honor to those buddies who gave their all in the battles of war. Your courage and sacrifice will always be remembered.

Semper Fi
Steve

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