Dreaming About Next Year

The agricultural school dean was interviewing a freshman. “Why have you chosen this career?” he asked.

“I dream of making a million dollars in farming, like my father,” replied the freshman.

The dean was impressed. “Your father made a million dollars in farming?”

“No,” the student said. “But he always dreamed of it.”

All right. That was corny. But at least this student has a dream, even if it is only a dream about money. 

I especially like the story of a man who was discussing with his wife a trip he wanted to take to Alaska. He told her he’d always dreamed of such an adventure. He wanted to travel deep into the wilderness. He wanted to rough it. He talked about how exciting it would be to stay in a log cabin without electricity, to hunt caribou and drive a dog team instead of a car.

“If we decided to live there permanently, away from civilization, what would you miss the most?” he asked his wife.

She replied, “You.”

His dream — not hers. A better dream might include her. 

This is a time of year we often examine our dreams and goals. I’ve found a couple of important questions helpful when I consider which dreams to chase and which to leave alone.

First, does my dream have deep meaning? Or put another way, is it significant and important enough to commit my time and energy toward? What will it ultimately mean if I accomplish this thing I think I want? 

The second question is similar. Does my dream spring from the best that is within me? Does it come from a place of love or altruism? Will my life and the lives of those I love be better for it? My best dreams include those I love.

Does my dream have deep meaning and does it spring from the best that is within me? Take the time you need to answer these questions well and you’ll find yourself pursuing something that is truly significant. When that happens, everything can change.  

Now, as you look ahead…what are you dreaming about? 

And so, we pray: Lord, I do have dreams even at my age. They are not about living in Alaska in a powerless log cabin. It might be about living in a cottage in Hawaii. But the dreams I really need to dream about are the one you have for me and my family… ones that involve and uplift others… one that shines your light to all around. Amen.

Grace and Peace

A New Life

The date is June 24, 1859. Suddenly, there he is, atop a hill overlooking the plain of Solferino. The troops of Napoleon III (Louis Napoleon) prepare for battle with the Austrians below, and Henri Dunant has a box-seat view from his place on the hill.

Trumpets blare, muskets crack and cannons boom. The two armies crash into each other, as Henri looks on, transfixed. He sees the dust rising. He hears the screams of the injured. He watches bleeding, maimed men take their last breaths as he stares in horror at the scene below.

Henri doesn’t mean to be there. He is only on a business trip – to speak to Louis Napoleon about a financial transaction between the Swiss and the French. But he arrived late and now finds himself in a position to witness first-hand the atrocities of war.

What Henri sees from his hill, however, pales in comparison with what he is soon to witness. Entering a small town shortly after the fierce encounter, Henri now observes the battle’s refugees. Every building is filled with the mangled, the injured, the dead. Henri, aching with pity, decides to stay in the village three more days to comfort the young soldiers.

He realizes that his life will never be the same again. Driven by a powerful passion to abolish war, Henri Dunant will eventually lose his successful banking career and all his worldly possessions only to die as a virtual unknown in an obscure poorhouse.

But we remember Henri today because the Swiss humanitarian and activist was the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1901). We also remember him because he took his country’s flag, a white cross on a red background, reversed the colors and founded what was to become a worldwide movement – the Red Cross.

Act One of Henri Dunant’s life closed June 24, 1859. Act Two opened immediately and played the remainder of his 81 years.

Many people’s lives can be divided into Act One and Act Two. The first performance ends when one decides to ultimately follow a new direction or passion. Henri’s old life, driven by financial success, prestige and power, no longer satisfied. A new Henri Dunant emerged in Act Two; one who was motivated by love, compassion and an overriding commitment to abolish the horrors of war.

For many people like Henri, Act Two begins with a defining moment – it may be an experience, an important insight or perhaps even a rite of passage, such as a birthday. However it comes about, Act Two begins when the “old self” is laid to rest and a new self is born. At its best, this new self is one governed by different priorities and a renewed passion to live differently. 

Act One might be closing in your life. If so, are you ready for Act Two? Something exciting may be about to begin.

And so, we pray: Lord, we thank you for allowing us… encouraging us to begin a new life… an act II, if you will, where we allow you to change us from an “I” to a “We”. Lead us into the journey of the second part of our lives… where we live for others. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Live Out Your Love

Captain Chaplain Kevin Stamps
My great nephew

Imagine four Army chaplains during an icy storm at sea; four men in uniform holding hands as they gaze over the rail of their sinking vessel. They are watching lifeboats pulling away from their reeling ship, the U.S. transport Dorchester. The story of these chaplains is a remarkable account of love and sacrifice. 
The scene takes place February 3, 1943, off the southern tip of Greenland. The winter night covers the ship like a blanket. Most of the 909 aboard ship are asleep below the decks. 

Suddenly the Dorchester jerks and shudders. A German torpedo has smashed through her starboard side! In a raging torrent, the sea spurts through the gaping wound. The Dorchester has been dealt a mortal blow. She is sinking. 

An order is given to abandon ship. Aboard the dying vessel, men – many of them injured – search frantically for life jackets. Some stand in shock, not knowing how to react to the catastrophe.

Amidst the chaos stand four pillars of strength, four Army chaplains: George L. Fox, Methodist; Alexander Goode, Jewish; Clark V. Poling, Reformed; and John P. Washington, Roman Catholic. They calm the panic-stricken, help the confused search for life jackets and aid the soldiers into the lifeboats swinging out from the tilting deck.  

When no more jackets can be found, each chaplain takes off his own and straps it onto a soldier who has none. The lifeboats pull slowly away from the doomed vessel. Only 299 will finally survive this night. 

As the Dorchester slides beneath the icy water, some can see the four chaplains, hand in hand, praying to the God of them all. The chaplains’ different theological opinions did not seem to matter much on a sinking ship. All that mattered was that, at a time of crisis, they lived their love. Yet even for us, every day in lesser ways, I suspect that’s all that ever matters.

And so, we pray: Lord, I am not sure how I, a pastor, would have reacted or responded in such a situation. I pray that I would have your Spirit so alive in me that I would respond as these chaplains did… living out their love for you and all your children above themselves. Put your seal upon my life and live in me. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Greatness Lives Among Us

Greatness is too often defined by an unusual act of courage or a life of extraordinary merit or virtue. But glimpses of greatness can be seen all around us, and especially in those who genuinely care for others.

Father Albert Braun was such a man. After his ordination, he requested to live amongst some of the poorest of the world’s poor. He was sent to the Mescalero Apache reservation in south central New Mexico. Father Braun learned to love the Apache. And as he lived with them, he learned from them and they learned from him. They became family.

He stayed many years on the reservation but left it twice to serve as a chaplain during both World Wars. He almost died in World War II when his Allied forces tried to defend the Philippine Islands from attack. Many of his comrades died during the fighting and Father Braun risked his own life to comfort the wounded and give the dying Last Rites. He was forced to march with no food and little water. Along the way, many more of the men died. And in the prisoner of war camps, more lives yet were lost to disease, cruel physical treatment and malnutrition.

Father Braun had learned much from the Apache about surviving off the land. When he went out on work detail, he found fruit and edible vegetables that he smuggled back into the camp to help supplement the men’s diets. Once he acquired the vaccine for diphtheria that he also secreted into camp, but it wasn’t enough. They drew lots to determine who would get the medicine. Though afflicted himself, he gave his portion to a young soldier. Before long, he suffered simultaneously from diphtheria, malaria, dysentery and beriberi.

He barely survived the war. Later, he asked to be returned to New Mexico to live once again with the Apache. When he knew that his own death was near, Father Braun requested to be buried on the reservation, surrounded by his Apache “family.”

Today, at the church of St. Joseph, one can see portraits of the Apache’s greatest chiefs and warriors. There is a portrait of Geronimo, one of Cochise, a picture of Victorio and a portrait of Father Albert Braun, who came to live among them as a true friend.

Father Braun showed a certain greatness, not by any one heroic deed, but by the sum total of a life of caring. I believe we can catch glimpses of greatness in the lives of anybody who genuinely cares.

And so, we pray: Lord, I believe you send those Father Braun’s across our paths to help us catch a glimpse of what it really means to live a life of love, sacrifice and greatness. Keep them coming, ’cause we are stubborn and not quick to hear, see or understand. Help us to be your people of courage who live out greatness, not for us, to uplift your people in every situation of need and want. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Ebenezer Scrooge

A Buddhist monk strode into a Zen pizza parlor and said, “Make me one with everything.” The proprietor appreciated the Zen humor and, when the monk paid with $20 bill, the guy pocketed it.  

“Hey,” asked the monk, “where’s my change?” 

“Change,” replied the owner inscrutably, “must come from within.”

And it’s true: we can wait for things to change or we can change ourselves. One way rarely works while the other rarely fails.

I have a friend who used to teach literature to high school students. He once told me how maligned the name of Ebenezer Scrooge has become. “Dickens never meant for Scrooge to be a villain,” he once said, speaking of Charles Dickens’ classic “Christmas Carol.” Yes, Scrooge was a miser and disliked by pretty much everybody. But my friend reminds me that the story doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end with Scrooge dying a miserable and lonely death. The point of the story is that Scrooge WAKES UP. After the restless night of ghost visitations, he wakes up and decides that things truly can be different. He can choose to be compassionate, generous and happy. He understands that he can behave toward others in a different way. He can look at things differently. His miserable past does not need to determine his future. His life story illustrates the words of George Elliot: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” 

“To this day,” my friend says, “the name of Scrooge is synonymous with somebody stingy and selfish when it should be just the opposite. Scrooge woke up and made different decisions. He lived the rest of his life a model of generosity and joy and goodwill toward all. Nobody ever “kept Christmas,” Dickens tells us, like Ebenezer Scrooge.

I regularly remind myself that it is not too late to be what I might have been. And I’m learning that anything can happen…when I wake up and make different decisions.

And so, we pray: Lord, we all have our days when we are the before Ebenezer with family, friends, everyone. Help us become the after Ebenezer where love has its way… giving, compassion… where we are woke. Help us to know it is never too late too late to be what we might have been. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Love Cures All

Almost a century ago, two young medical school graduates, along with their doctor father, tried an important experiment. They built a small sanitarium on a farm outside Topeka, Kansas. This was a time when the “rest cure” was in vogue as a treatment for psychiatric disorders as well as for a few physical ailments. Oftentimes patients were sent to impersonal institutions where they might remain their entire lives.  

The doctors were Charles Menninger and his sons Karl and William. The Menningers had a different idea. Their sanitarium would not be impersonal. They were determined to create a loving, family atmosphere among their patients and staff. Their vision was to grow a community of doctors, nurses and support staff that would cooperate to heal patients; a place where a patient’s mental health would be as important as her physical health.

To this end, nurses were given special training and were told, “Let each person know how much you value them. Shower these people with love.” Rather than being sent to a place where they were warehoused for life, many of the patients received more love and kindness at the Menninger Sanitarium than they had ever experienced before. 

The treatment worked – spectacularly. The experiment was a resounding success and the Menninger’s revolutionary approach to healing and their radical (for that daytime) methods became world famous. 

Karl Menninger later wrote numerous books and became a leading figure in American psychiatry. “Love cures people,” Menninger wrote, “both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.” His work demonstrated just how true that statement is.

Essayist Hamilton Wright Mabie said, “Blessed is the season which engages the whole world in a conspiracy of love.” I’m attracted to that phrase… conspiracy of love. For many people around the world, Christmas is such a season. This time of year is an annual celebration where folks agree to put aside destructive differences and toxic behavior and allow love to take center stage. When that happens, it can be a beautiful thing. And even more beautiful if the season can truly engage the whole world in such a conspiracy.

I would like to be part of the plot. And not only for a season. If enough of us join together, the movement will become an irresistible and unstoppable force for good.

Spiritual writer Emmett Fox put it like this:

There is no difficulty that enough love will not conquer. 
No disease that enough love will not heal.
No door that enough love will not open.
No gulf that enough love will not bridge.
No wall that enough love will not throw down.
No sin that enough love will not redeem.

What could happen if you let each person in your life know how much you value them? What might happen if you were to, as Menninger says, shower everyone with love? And not just friends and family, though they may need to hear it from you. But everyone? Especially those hardest to love?

Does it sound unrealistic? Maybe it is. But remember, love cures people. And it can cure a world.

The only real question is, will we join the conspiracy?

And so, we pray: Lord, help me to be all in your conspiracy of love… let me be a part of your healing love for me and for others. Amen.

Grace and Peace

The Strange Power of Love

Sometimes fact is more mysterious than fiction. I clipped a newspaper article several years ago which tells a story that is strange… and beautiful. 

Stan heard in church about a Denver, Colorado family facing a rather bleak Christmas holiday. Medical bills robbed them of any extras; they would not even have a tree. Stan’s pastor asked him if he would cut a Christmas tree for them.

So Stan and his son Jay headed up into the Colorado Rockies in the family pickup. However, the truck skidded off the icy road and hit a boulder that shattered the windshield. Jay was showered by glass slivers and suffered from shock and crash trauma. Stan was uninjured, though somewhat shaken.

Cars sped past that day — maybe 200 of them. Only two stopped to help. A gentle, dark-haired woman took the boy into her car to comfort him while her husband and another man helped Stan move his truck off the road. Then this kind couple drove father and son to Stan’s home and quietly left without identifying themselves.

Stan was discouraged that he was unable to cut a tree for the family that his church was trying to help. But later in the month, the pastor asked if Stan might deliver a food basket to the same unfortunate family. He found the house, but he could hardly find his speech when the door opened. For standing there before him was the same couple who had stopped to help him on the mountain road when so many others had passed him by.

There is a strange power in love. Some folks may call it an amazing coincidence. Others might say it was divine providence. But I choose to think that love has its own power, and that sometimes these kinds of mysteries are better left unanalyzed. Let them remain mysteries. And enjoy the wonder of it all. For whenever we choose to be kind, we just might be surprised by joy.

And so, we pray: Lord help us be the avenues of the strange power of your love where ever and whenever it is needed. Guide our hearts and our hands that we may accomplish the joy you will in us and those around us. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Peace On Earth

In the midst of a world at war, Eleanor Roosevelt captured the mood at Christmas 1942. “How completely the character of Christmas has changed this year,” she wrote in her newspaper column. “I could no more say to you a ‘Merry Christmas’ without feeling a catch in my throat than I could fly to the moon!”

In September 1945, U. S. Navy chief radioman Walter G. Germann wrote his son from a ship anchored in Tokyo Bay to tell him that the formal surrender of Japan would soon be signed. “When you get a little older you may think war to be a great adventure — take it from me, it’s the most horrible thing ever done…I’ll be home this Christmas…” Home. To a world at peace.

In 1955 a thirteen-year-old Japanese girl died of “the atom bomb disease” — radiation-induced leukemia. Sadako Sasaki was one of many who suffered the after-effects of those bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Japanese myth has it that cranes live for a thousand years, and anyone who folds 1000 paper cranes will have a wish granted. So during her illness, Sadako folded paper cranes, and with each crane she wished that she would recover from her illness. She managed 644 cranes before she left this life behind.

Sadako’s classmates folded the remaining 356 cranes so that she could be buried with a thousand paper cranes. Friends collected money from children all over Japan to erect a monument to Sadako in Hiroshima’s Peace Park. The inscription reads:

This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace on earth.

Each year people place paper cranes at the base of the statue to recall the tragedy of war and to celebrate humanity’s undying hope for peace. In some places around the world, people fold paper cranes each holiday season to use as decorations and as a symbol of their deep desire for lasting peace.

I, too, have a deep desire for a day when war will become a relic of the past. I yearn for a day when we join hearts in union with one another, while beating swords into plowshares…and folding paper into cranes. 

Peace on earth. The generation to accomplish it will truly be the greatest generation ever.

And so, we pray: Lord, we are tired of war… people losing their lives for political reasons. I understand WWII had to be fought or the world would have gone completely evil… but all the others are so unnecessary and so wasteful of human life. Help us, O Lord, to work for peace among all your children… that there may truly be PEACE ON EARTH. Amen.

Grace and Peace

What Do We Do With Our Scars?

Po Bronson, in his book Why Do I Love These People? (Random House, 2005), tells a true story about a scarred and stately elm tree. The tree was planted in the first half of the 20th Century on a farm near Beulah, Michigan. It grew to be magnificent. Today the elm spans some 60 feet across its lush, green crown. Its trunk measures about 12 feet in circumference. And a vivid scar encircles the tree.

In the 1950s the family that owned the farm kept a bull chained to the elm. The bull paced round and round the tree. The heavy iron chain scraped a trench in the bark about three feet off the ground. The trench deepened over the years threatening to kill the tree. But though damaged so severely, the tree strangely did not die.

After some years the family sold the farm and took their bull. They cut the chain, leaving the loop embedded in the trunk and one link hanging down. The elm continued to grow and bark slowly covered parts of the rusting chain that strangled it. The deep gash around the trunk became an ugly scar.

Then one year agricultural catastrophe struck Michigan — in the form of Dutch Elm Disease. A path of death spread across vast areas of countryside. Most elm trees in the vicinity of the farm became infected and died. But that one noble elm remained untouched. 

Amazingly, it had survived two hardships. It was not killed by the bull’s chain years earlier, and this time it out-lasted the deadly fungus. Year after year it thrived. Nobody could understand why it was still standing in a vast area where most every other elm tree was gone.

Plant pathologists from Michigan State University came out to study the tree. They looked closely at the chain necklace buried deep in the scar. These experts reported that the chain itself actually saved the elm’s life. They reasoned that the tree absorbed so much iron from the chain left to rust around its trunk that it became immune to the fungus. What certainly could have killed the tree actually made it stronger and more resilient. 

As Ernest Hemingway said, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” The same chain that severely wounded the tree saved its life in the end.

The story of this tree reminds me that the very things that have hurt me, physically as well as emotionally, have also helped me more than I may ever know. Many of them left scars – some of the scars are visible and some not. But these days I am learning to accept my scars – even to celebrate them. 

Why not? My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds. That in itself is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present. 

Yes, I have scars. I have decided to look on them as things of beauty. And I will celebrate them.

And so, we pray: Lord, you know the my scars inside and out… the ones I talk about and the ones I deal with on the inside. It is hard to see them as beauty… but each one has taught me something which has made me a better listener and pastor… and person. Thank you for walking with me through the Vally of the shadows… and staying with me all the way. Amen.

Grace and Peace

Ubuntu Now

Where is true peace to be found? Archbishop Desmond Tutu might say it can be found in the African concept of “ubuntu.”

He says, “Ubuntu is a concept that we have in our Bantu languages at home. Ubuntu is the essence of being a person. It means that we are people through other people. We cannot be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence, we are made for family. When you have ubuntu, you embrace others. You are generous, compassionate.”

He also says that if the world had more ubuntu, there would be no war. The powerful would help the weak. That is where peace is to be found.

A story from World War II shines a spotlight on ubuntu. In 1942, the American consul ordered citizens home from the Persian Gulf, for fear they might get caught in the spreading conflict. Travel was difficult, and some civilians secured passage on the troop ship Mauritania. Passengers included thousands of Allied soldiers, 500 German prisoners of war and 25 civilian women and children.

The ship traveled slowly and cautiously, constantly in danger from hostile submarines patrolling the ocean depths. It was Christmas Eve and they had traveled for a full two months. They had only made it as far as the coastal waters of New Zealand and all on board were homesick, anxious and frightened. 

Someone came up with the idea of asking the captain for permission to sing Christmas carols for the German prisoners, who were surely as homesick and lonely as the passengers. Permission was granted and a small choral group made its way to the quarters where the unsuspecting prisoners were held. They decided to sing “Silent Night” first, as it was written in Germany by Joseph Mohr and was equally well known by the prisoners.

Within seconds of beginning the carol, a deafening clatter shook the floor. Hundreds of German soldiers sprang up and crowded the tiny windows in order to better see and hear the choristers. Tears streamed unashamedly down their faces. At that moment, everyone on both sides of the wall experienced the universal truth – that at the core of our being, all people everywhere are one. They experienced ubuntu. Hope and love broke down the barriers between warring nations and, for that moment at least, all were one family.

We are meant to be one. And only after we realize that amazing truth can we find what we need – true peace. 

And so, we pray: Lord, we have been alone for far too long… trying to make it through the world as an individual. There has been hatred, wars, injustice… and many things that separate the peoples of the world. Help us to finally see and understand that we are born for relationships to all your children in this world… “Ubuntu.” Amen.

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