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Empowerment Self care

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

(This piece was featured as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church as well as a nationally syndicated column.)

 

Thanks to a back injury last week, I spent an inordinate amount of time stretched out on my living room floor. If you’ve ever hurt your back, you know how this goes. At first, it’s not so bad. You have quiet time to read and catch up on your work. Then you move to what I like to call the trashy stage, when you’ve finished your work, and you start binging on things like “The View,” “Dr. Phil” and tacky Hollywood magazines. (By the way, did you hear that Brad and Jen are back together?)

Eventually, the time comes when even Hollywood gossip is not enough. That’s when it gets ugly, because then you have nothing to do but lie there surveying the nooks and crannies of your house that you wouldn’t ordinarily see.

My line of sight was directly under my couch. Much to my embarrassment, I saw, hiding in the shadows, a collection of coins and pens, one sock, several dust balls the size of a ferret, an old Verizon bill, and a small yellow cube, which turned out to be a wayward cheese appetizer from a cocktail party we gave back in December.

I had no idea all that mess was under there. I guess I’d never looked.

In retrospect, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to look at your house — even your life — with a view from the floor. It may not reveal the carefully crafted image that you prefer or want others to see, but it can show you the raw truth of how life really is.

If you took an honest look at your life with a view from the floor, what would you see? What things have you brushed aside or hidden away?

Maybe it is as simple as the stuff in your inbox that you keep shifting to the bottom because you don’t want to deal with it. Or perhaps it is a deeper issue such as conflicts in a relationship you don’t want to face, a financial problem you are trying to hide, or an addiction, illness or other aspects of yourself from which you’re running.

Our tendency to brush aside or hide away things holds true on a larger scale too. Every day in our “global house,” we sweep issues under the couch because no one wants to face the view from the floor. Consider the genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar (that no one wants to acknowledge), global warming (that no one wants to claim) or the deep-seated racism and discrimination in our country (that no one wants to admit, let alone take responsibility for).

There is a sad irony in of all this because like a wayward cheese appetizer, if left hidden, these things can easily degenerate and get messy. These are the things that need light, not shadows. These are the things that need to be brought out in the open, not swept under the couch. These are the things that need a housekeeper who cares.

Fortunately, we have one: God. The Psalmist tell us that God knows all about what lurks under our emotional couches: “O Lord you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely” (Psalms 139).

God sees with piercing clarity those troubled areas in our hearts, in our families, and in our world and still loves us unconditionally: “Even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Psalms 139). If God is willing to look upon these hidden places with love, acceptance, even forgiveness, why shouldn’t we?

Last week, we lost Aretha Franklin, one of the world’s great creative artists. Of all her songs, my favorite was “Respect.” Aretha was right on so many levels — life really does come down to those seven letters: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. We should respect our gift of life enough to claim who we are, deep down, in our hidden nooks and crannies. We should respect the lives of others enough to acknowledge their pain and suffering. We should respect our world enough to shine a light on injustice so that all can see.

What things in your life are hidden away that need to be seen?
What painful issues have been ignored that need to be discussed?
What parts of yourself do you need to “R-E-S-P-E-C-T?” enough to bring out into the light and heal?

Whatever it is, it’s OK. God already knows about it. And miraculously, we’re still unconditionally loved.

Gratitude Self care

Justifying Mac and Cheese Hot Dogs

This piece was featured as a nationally syndicated column for GateHouse Media. Here it is, for example, in the Providence, RI paper.

Think about the last time you went shopping. When you got to the checkout counter, how many of the items in your cart did you actually need? Not all of them, I bet.

I, too, am guilty of buying items that aren’t exactly necessary. The last time I was at our cabin in Wisconsin, I visited a local butcher whose shop is known for its beautiful meat and creative flavorings. Intending only to purchase hamburger meat for our cookout, I was waylaid by a sign near the checkout counter that for me was like Odysseus’ sirens calling from the rocks (of the freezer section): “Mac and Cheese Hotdogs! A gooey favorite stuffed inside a premium wiener. Pasta and cheddar may ooze out while grilling.”

Four words rang in my head: Can’t. Live. Without. It.

Were these outrageous hotdogs absolutely necessary for my health and wellbeing?

Yes.

Okay, no. But clearly, the line between what I truly needed and what I simply wanted had become blurred.

Honestly, what do we really need beyond food, water, clothing, and shelter? And please understand that by food, water, clothing, and shelter, I don’t mean truffles, Perrier, Prada, and a McMansion. You can also live well with Ruffles, Pepsi, Payless, and a motorhome.

Some of you may argue, “I’ve worked hard. I deserve more than just the necessities for survival, because as Luke 10:7 says, ‘The laborer deserves his wages.’”

As my grandfather used to say, “true ‘nuf.” But that mentality can also become a vicious cycle. We reward ourselves with things beyond what we actually need to the point that we can no longer tell the difference between necessities and luxuries. Soon we lose track of what is enough, which causes us to overwork, overload, and overstress. And then we find ourselves in direct conflict with another Bible verse, one of The Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath Day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). We can’t truly rest if we are constantly worried that we don’t have enough.

One way to break that cycle is to acknowledge what we have. Periodically, I like to pause and go through a list of five categories to remind myself of my blessings: health, means, love, beauty, and calling.

Health includes physical health and safety. Asking questions such as “Did I wake up this morning?” can help us focus on our most basic blessings with laser precision.

Means is the ability to provide for yourself. Can I afford to buy groceries (including a ridiculous luxury like mac and cheese hotdogs)? Can I pay my rent? Acknowledging the blessing of having the means to pay for what you need transforms the mundane task of writing checks into a sacred ritual.

Love is the blessing of family, friendship, and community. Do I have people around me who love me, honor me, and treat me with respect? Acknowledging love is also about reminding ourselves of the unconditional spiritual love that we all receive. As God says to us in Isaiah 43:1, “I have called you by name; you are mine.”

Beauty is anything that feeds the soul. Maybe you have a garden, or perhaps you have a Harley Davidson that you love. I have both in Wisconsin, but neither in New York City, so I give thanks for the wee plants in my apartment window and the tiny plastic model of a Harley Davidson Sportster on my desk.

Your calling is the reason you get up in the morning—a connection to something bigger than yourself. It could be your job or caring for your family or a loved one. Even if you are retired from your job and living alone, you still have a purpose. Your calling may be greeting the lonely person at the grocery store who is ignored by everyone else. Or it may be showing kindness to a telemarketer (unlike the rest of America). You matter, and for that, you should give thanks.

Will I give up my mac and cheese hotdogs? Maybe. Maybe not. What I will do is celebrate what they represent: the health that enables me to stand at the Weber and grill them, the means to buy them, the love of the family members who eat them, the beauty of the tiny pieces of pasta and cheese that ooze out, and the simple purpose of feeding body and soul. Most of all, I will try, before I even take a bite, to raise up a prayer of thanks and acknowledge that it is enough.

 

 

Justice Uncategorized

Separate But Equal is Alive and Well

Such an honor to be mentioned in this powerful article by my friend Mitch Carnell on the Southern Baptist Church’s refusal to ordain women.

Still.

In 2018.

Here is an excerpt:

“Growing up Southern Baptist, my experience with women pastors is limited, but I have been blessed by hearing some of the best: Linda McKinnish Bridges, Amy Butler, Molly Marshall, Joan Brown Campbell, Cynthia Campbell, Julie Pennington-Russell, Susan Sparks and Martha Brown Taylor, to name only a few.

Not only have I been blessed by hearing these women, I have gained so much insight from them.

I regularly listen to and read Sparks, pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.

She places God in the center of our every action and has a sense of humor and such an awareness of God’s presence in the ordinary that you are compelled to listen and take notice.

. . .

How can you say that God rejects the work of these ambassadors of hope because they dare preach to men?

. . .

All of these women were gifted by God with talents far greater than the ones given to me. I think God brought me into contact with them because they had been given a message I was intended to hear.

I ask myself, “Where would I be in my spiritual journey if these women were not a part of my life?”

Complementarianism belongs on the ash heap of history along with separate but equal.”

AMEN Mitch!

Please take time to read the entire article linked above. It offers a powerful argument supporting women in ministry.

Mitch Carnell is a member of First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina. He is the author of “Our Father: Discovering Family.” His writings can also be found at MitchCarnell.com.

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Empowerment Risk and Reinvention

The Power of Words

Last Sunday I was honored to receive the John Haber Award for the Arts from the University of North Carolina. I was the twentieth recipient. The first recipient, comedian Lewis Black, was in attendance to give the award. Below is an excerpt from my ceremony comments. I hope you enjoy them.

While I got a great education at UNC, I can’t remember specific classes or professors . . . except one: rhetoric. Yeah, yeah, I know what you are thinking: “Wow, now THAT sounds interesting.” But the fact is it wasn’t just interesting—it changed my life.

I entered the course my first semester of sophomore year in 1985. Our teacher, a vibrant, charismatic young Associate Professor named Robbie Cox, taught us—a bunch of privileged white southern kids—the basic principles of argument and persuasion. Somewhere in the middle of the semester, he introduced an unexpected source. He asked us to read the text of Dr. Martin Luther King’s, “I Have a Dream” speech. Most of us had heard clips of it (the speech had been given twenty years prior), but never actually read it.

We spent the next several weeks analyzing his masterpiece. We examined how Dr. King anticipated and debunked opposing arguments, how he used logic, statistics, data and emotion to reach the broadest possible audience, and how he carefully crafted and layered his arguments so as to lead to only one conclusion. We also studied his use of tools like alliteration (“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation”) and repetition (“Let freedom ring,” and “I have a dream today”) to engage and persuade his listeners.

Finally, the day came when our professor showed us the film of the full speech. We watched the grainy black and white images of Dr. King mesmerizing the massive crowd gathered on the Washington Mall, and of listeners wiping away tears. We heard his powerful ringing voice delivering the words we had studied so carefully. When the film was done, Dr. Cox stopped the projector, pointed at the frozen image of the crowds on the Mall, and said, “that—that my friends, is the power of words.”

I left class that day knowing my calling: Like Dr. King, I wanted to learn to wield the power of words (written and spoken) to change the trajectory of people’s thoughts and opinions, to lift people up, to bring hope.

I’ve spent the last thirty years doing just that. I’ve studied words through a law degree, a Master of Divinity, and years of comedy training. But while I’m still learning, the goal remains the same: to use words to bring hope and joy where there may be none.

And please understand, this is not just my calling, it’s our calling. It’s a calling that we can all claim . . . because words—our words—can change the world.

Hope Laughter

Don’t Postpone Joy!

I write this early Monday morning in front of a roaring fire in Vermont reflecting on the beautiful weekend I just spent wallowing in joy. Friday night I enjoyed a Sabbath sermon by my dear friend Rabbi Bob Alper entitled, “Don’t Postpone Joy.” Saturday evening Bob and I performed a comedy show for a packed house at Israel Congregation of Manchester which raised over $20K for the Puerto Rican Relief Fund. And Sunday, I preached a lighter take on the Easter message entitled, “The King Lives: A Study of Jesus and Elvis.”

I love my job.

Why am I sharing this? Because I believe this weekend (and Bob’s sermon) offer us all an important lesson: “Don’t Postpone Joy!” Oh, we try not to, but life gets in the way with stress, and work demands, and difficult people. But time is ticking. Days pass that we can never get back. While we may think we have time, none of us know what tomorrow brings. None of us have the luxury to put off anything. Especially JOY!

Here are three quick ways we can avoid postponing joy framed in an acronym that spells, “N-O-W.”

N – NEVER ignore an opportunity to smile (or laugh, or sing!) It’s the most important healing tool we have. No matter what your circumstances, opt for the smile and watch the transformation of all those around you. As Louis Armstrong sang:

“When you smilin’, when you smilin’
The whole world smiles with you.
Yes, when you laughin’ oh when you laughin’
The sun comes shinin’ through.”

O-Observe. Many times, we opt for anger or resentment over joy. But if we would observe the situation a little closer, we may choose differently. The next time someone says something that makes you mad, ask yourself: “was it out of malice or ignorance?” If malice, then walk away (and protect your joy). If simple ignorance, then laugh at the mistake, correct them if necessary, and go on your way. Either way, you choose joy.

W-Wallow in gratitude. No matter where you find yourself in life, there are things for which we should be grateful—even if it’s just opening our eyes in the morning. Focus on the things that are good in your life. Think about the things that bring you joy. That’s all that matters. Everything else is rubbish.

This week, remember “N-O-W!”

Remember DON’T POSTPONE JOY!

And most of all, let us remember these words from the Talmud that Bob shared in his sermon: “When we are called in front of our maker, we will each be held responsible for all the opportunities for joy we ignored.”

If you are looking for a great read with heart-warming stories to help you stay in a place of joy, please check out Rabbi Bob Alper’s book, “Thanks I Needed That!” It’s truly a work of the heart.