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It was another sweltering New Jersey day, and the pizza guy was feeling it.  You could see as he schlepped the pizza up to my front door that he was too through with his job today.  But then, his mood brightened.

“Do you need change?”  he asked, handing me the pizza.  “Nah, you keep it.”  Suddenly he was in a much better frame of mind.  “Thank you very much, ma’am!  Have a wonderful day!”

Two issues came up from this two-minute transaction.

Like most people, I always tip the delivery guy.  I know they rely on that money.  But don’t they know it’s presumptuous to ask if the customer needs change back?  That’s like saying, “How much of a tip are you giving me?”  This may just be my own hang-up about decorum, but it’s also a matter of grace.

Is it just the zeitgeist here in New Jersey, or are people in general becoming less gracious in their dealings with others?

Grace has been such an important concept in my own life.  The pizza guy’s unintentional infraction reminded me of something – an important prayer was answered for me, just this morning, and it took me over an hour to remember to extend my thanks to God.  I realized that grace can’t be bought with a fresh hot pizza; for that matter, I’m not sure it can even be taught.

The second thing is, if it’s that simple to go from a bad mood to a good one, how do we bottle it?  Five dollars.  It just took that small amount of cash in his hand for the pizza guy to perk up.  What mental mood shifter can we use to get from Point A (as in, angry or annoyed) to Point B (maybe, better?)

For me, anytime I start to dwell on the negative, I always bring it back to prayer. In short order, even on a hot Jersey day, things start to cool down.  And no tip required.

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It’s the land of tall tales and hero stories, a place where we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and reach for the American dream. So why do so many of us prefer to wallow in our misery? Why do ordinary conversations turn into one-upmanship of the gloomy variety? Feeling sick? Well, I have a chronic illness and a dead-end job. Really? I can go you one better — I’m sick, embattled, and the world is out to get me!

Maybe it’s in our roots. The Pilgrims schlepped over here on the Mayflower because they were being persecuted for their faith. First thing they did? Persecute others for their faith. The list of victims grew. After awhile, it became a culture. Everyone knows a person (sadly, usually a woman) who uses her endless list of misfortunes to gain pity, caring, even a sad simulacrum of love. Why? Why would anyone want to be important for being harried, put-upon, miserable?

Maybe they don’t think they can do any better. Perhaps their low self-esteem keeps them from believing they can do great things. Or, maybe, the victim role works. Their plight is so desperate, others can’t help but admire them: “Look at that plucky little lady! Look at how she suffers, yet bears it all somehow!”

Yes, there are those who are truly burdened, but they generally aren’t the ones moaning about it. They’re the ones doing something about it. It’s time to give up voluntary martyrdom. We’re better than this, America.

What do you pray for when you find yourself drained by particular people in your life?

Could be a co-worker droning on about the pile of work on her desk. Maybe it’s a neighbor, telling you how ungrateful her children are and how much of a cad her husband is.

Do you ask for patience to enable you to listen as they enumerate every problem in their lives? Or do you ask God to put distance between them and you instead? After all, they suck the life-blood out of you like some vampire, trolling your soul.

I guess the crux of the matter really is: how much time should you give to others who exert a negative influence? My own answer is to adjust my attitude so that I can continue to be kind to people who are having a hard time in life, but also to adjust my approach so that I don’t end up as everyone’s perpetual caretaker.

You may have a half hour to vent, and then – well, I’ve got you in my prayers. Of course, if you’re exceptionally negative and combative, we’ll need to eventually part company. I’ll still keep you in my prayers, but to keep you in my life would be counter-productive. I know there’s truth to the old cliché, “You can’t draw from an empty well.” So here’s a cup of water for you. To go.

Thank You, Lord,
for the many blessings
You rain down
on me and mine.

Thank You
for the food we eat,
the clothes we wear,
and the beds
we sleep in each night.

Thank You most of all
for the behind the scenes blessings
that keep us safe,
that bring us joy,
that shape our lives,
even though we never know
that these special gifts
have been given to us
each and every day.

Amen

I’m not even sure what my son was whining about that particular evening. Everything and nothing. In truth, he was probably over tired because he’d just started swim team with both its swim practice and dry land training. But we’d also been picking at each other a lot – my husband giving my son grief, me giving him an earful in turn and so on. We simply were not appreciating each other or a whole lot of anything else.

“We’re going to start something new tonight.” I got them both to sit down at the kitchen table, but the looks they gave me were wary. You know – the kind of look that says, what on earth is she up to? “We are each going to name five things that we are thankful for.”

My husband, looking relieved, was immediately on board. My son? Not so much. When his turn came around he stated that he was thankful for one cat. Then another cat. Then the last cat. And thank you to Mom for letting me eat. And then something about his Dad (I don’t remember what but my husband laughingly points out that I came directly after the cats while he was last). Fortunately, this funk didn’t last and my son is now with the program.

For my part, I’m learning a lot. I’ve learned that although they don’t say it often, they are grateful when I make a meal and run errands for them. This is also a great way to find out about what concerns them. Thanks that he made friends on the swim team tells me that, no matter how self-assured he acted, my son was worried, at least a little bit, about being the new kid in the pool. My husband’s thanks give me some insight into what is going on at work and what his hopes are for our family.

This may not seem like a big deal, but we aren’t together 24/7, and they are typical males. The things that they worry about the most are seldom topics of conversation. Giving thanks as a family has given me some insight into matters to them.

What does this have to do with prayer and faith? When I pray for someone, I don’t like to make assumptions. I can’t pray for a solution if I don’t know there is a problem. Now that I know what is going on with the two men in my life, I can hold these things up in prayer.

–SueBE

At church last Saturday night, our pastor did a strange thing. Instead of giving his regular sermon, he asked us to turn to our neighbors and answer this question: Why do you believe?

The answers were profound, ranging from “it just feels right” to “Jesus loves us so much, it’s the least we can do to love him back” (this last, from an 11-year-old altar server). So what did I say? “I believe because if I didn’t, I would die.”

Literally? Maybe. I tend to think there’s not much point to life without faith and hope. But, then again, maybe not. I just don’t see how I would get through the days, weeks, months, years. Even if someone managed to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is no God and religion is akin to a fairy tale, I would still choose to believe. It’s as much a part of me as breath and pulse. My faith is who I am. I could never not believe.

Just as I feel strongly that doing good in this world is important outside of faith or religious belief, just because it’s the logical response to living in a social world, I see faith as an ingredient as necessary to life as oxygen and food. Some folks manage without it, and God bless them. Perhaps they’re stronger than I am. Perhaps they’re not contemplative, or they just don’t care.

So…how about you? Why do you believe?

Dear Lord,
Help me find You
in the midst
of my busy day,
when I don’t have time,
when I’m too tired,
when I’m just feeling weary.

Give me the strength
to lift my eyes
from what consumes me –
hours at the keyboard,
my lengthy commute,
and yet another meeting.

Help me
to see You,
to hear You,
to reach toward You,
and, in doing these things,
to strengthen myself.

Amen

This  has been one of those weeks – not a bad week, but a week that simply does not go as planned. What I hadn’t counted on was a sick kid who, because of said sickness, missed swim practice Tuesday through Thursday and pretty well tied us both to the house.

But  as his Momma, I can tell you this – he will be at swim practice Friday.

We  let him take Thursday off because he was still coughing.  He’d also had a low low low fever on Wednesday.  Sounds reasonable, yes?

Then at 10 am I asked him to help me water plants out front.   That’s when I had my epiphany.

When we were outside watering (general advice: never ever give a slightly bored 12 year-old boy a hose), he looked across the street at a friend’s house.  “When we’re done with this,” he said, “I’m going to go see if he can do something, you know, since I’m feeling so much better.”

“Whoa! You were too sick to swim but you’re okay to play?”

Not backing down, he nodded but avoided eye contact.  That’s also about the time he “accidently” got me with the hose.  Fortunately, I don’t distract all that easily.

“You know the rules.  Too sick is too sick.  Back inside with you.”

What does this have to do with faith?  Let’s just say that my epiphany was multifaceted.  I realized that he probably could have gone to swim practice.  But there was also some insight regarding my own recent attitude.

Lately, I’ve been a bit soul sick, feverishly full of the “poor me’s.”  I’ve used it as an excuse not to walk and walking is some of my best quiet time, good listening time.  And I haven’t been praying as consistently as usual.  Or reading my devotionals.  Or the Bible. I was even considering skipping choir rehearsal tonight.   I’ve read two novels and watched four movies but I didn’t have time for the rest.

Why? Because I just haven’t felt up to it.

But in the midst of delivering the above mini-lecture about “the rules,” I flashed on an image.  God the Father (tall, really tall) standing with arms crossed and one foot tap tap tapping to get my attention.

I know the rules.  And I know what truly helps center me.  Choir.  My quiet time with Him.  And my reading.  And I also realize that its time to behave like I know what’s good for me, because really?

I do.

–SueBE

I am:

Proud of my confusion.
It makes me a better person.
It forces me to think things through
before I run them by God.

Blessed by my doubts.
They make me widen my world
and not just circle the wagons
immersed in my own little dogma.

Grateful for fits of rage.
It reminds me there are things to stand against
and things worth fighting for.

Pleased to be saddled with the burden of choices.
It means I’m creating my own life,
eyes open, head up, hands clasped, soul first.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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