Self-Giving or Giving Thanks?

So, what are your favorite thanksgiving memories? When I was growing up, we always had to go to the Hales’ Farm for this auspicious occasion and experience a circus-like atmosphere.  I always marveled at my aunt’s ever-changing hair color (orange was my personal favorite), and the incessant use of cigarettes which caused a plume of smoke to waffle throughout the house.  My grandmother would always express her passive delight that she had to make three different kinds of dressings, one with oysters, one without oysters, and one without celery to satisfy our foodie needs. And like clockwork, my grandfather would chime in with his dismay at the yearly, rising cost of a gallon of oysters.  Then, my older cousin would usually detail his high school exploits bordering on some sort of juvenile delinquent behavior.  Welcome to the Hales Family Thanksgiving! I know that each of us has our own thanksgiving stories and memories. But when it comes right down to it, what is the real significance of the holiday?  Has it become just another day off where we gorge ourselves, fight with family, watch football and prepare for Black Friday shopping, or do we truly see this as an opportunity to be thankful for all of God’s blessings in our lives? As soon as I learned how to write, my parents would have me sit down and pen a thank you note whenever someone did something nice for me.  I’m not sure how much of that happens today, but they were teaching me how to respond positively to someone’s generosity.  And in Holy Scripture we see others sharing their thanks to the living Savior.  In Psalm 107:8-9 the psalmist says, “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the children of man.  For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.”  In I Thessalonians 5:16-18 Paul writes, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” In a world where we are so preoccupied with self-giving, it is easy to take things for granted, isn’t it?  Years ago, my wife and I were visiting family up north when we had the opportunity to stay in a beautiful, winter home.  But as the cold winds blew and the snow piled up, we realized that the home had limited heat, and there were no means to clear the drive.  We just expected that these things would happen when they didn’t.  In life we have so many expectations on how things should be, that we sometimes forget to give thanks for the things that are continually provided by God without fail. Whether it’s the air we breathe, the clothes on our backs, the food in our mouths, the places to live, the employment to pay bills, or the transportation to get us where we need, these are all blessings.  And the greatest blessing of all was Jesus, who was willing to sacrifice his life, so we could experience total forgiveness and life forever in his name. Outside of it being the right thing to do, ultimately, isn’t it more gratifying to be thankful for the kindnesses that others have shown us, rather than only self-focusing on our own needs? Earlier this week I found myself in the automobile repair shop getting the car inspected.  Everything was fine except needing some new windshield wiper blades.  Feeling extremely happy that there was nothing majorly wrong with my vehicle, I went to the cashier to pay the bill.  Then I received the word that someone I knew had paid the invoice in full!  Out of pride I tried to prevent this generosity from happening, but the person wouldn’t allow it.  And I cannot tell you how grateful and humble I am for this act of love. Knowing that we should be upmost grateful concerning these worldly acts of goodwill, maybe they will compel us to be so thankful for everything that God has and continues to do for all of humanity. Isn’t that what Thanksgiving is truly about?


Civility- Why Not Give It A Try?

I’ll never know how he remained calm and de-escalated the situation, but he did.  Many years ago, I was visiting one of my church members at his place of business.  As the store was about to close on a Saturday afternoon, a disgruntled patron walked in, and began to yell at the owner.  He furiously attacked and hurled expletives.  I happened to be in the back room, and the customer had no idea of my presence.  But as the barrage of vile flowed from this guy’s mouth, I couldn’t help but focus on my friend’s reaction.  Most would have lashed back at the uncontrolled man and put him “in his place.”  This escalation could have ratcheted up the situation and may have led to a more difficult result.  But thankfully, that was not the church member’s response.  Instead, in a soothing, humor laced tone, he literally brought a peaceful spirit into the altercation, as the angry customer became tranquil in his demeanor.  My friend brought civility to an uncivilized episode. Lately, it seems that incivility is ruling the day in our society.  If someone does not like you’re driving, they may respond with an unkind gesture.  If someone does not like a retail service, they may scream at the poor cashier.  Even at the highest level of government, political figures sometimes blatantly lie, and pummel their opponents.  These days, if you don’t readily agree with someone’s way of thinking or ideology, they want to metaphorically “run you over with a bus.”  How very, very sad. The word civility means “formal politeness and courtesy in behavior and speech.”  So why is this not readily practiced in many corners?  Maybe people want to control.  Maybe people want to be right.  Maybe people aren’t tolerant of other opinions and views.  Maybe people get frustrated and instead of dealing with their emotions and anger in healthful ways, it comes out in an inappropriate manner.  Holy Scripture speaks on how we should treat and interact with one another.  God’s Word is calling us to love your neighbor as yourself.  Its compelling us to serve others, as Christ himself has provided us the example of service.  We’re warned not to be haughty, arrogant or prideful, but to have humility and be humble.  When it comes right down to it, every human being was made in the image of God.  Shouldn’t we treat each other accordingly? Isn’t it ok to be tolerant of others?  Isn’t it ok to agree to disagree on heartfelt issues?  Isn’t it ok to respect another, rather than instantly judging them on their appearance, clothing, way of living or agendas?  Isn’t it ok to work for peace, rather than jumping instantly to anger? Not long ago I was handed a pamphlet from the Rotary International Organization.  It was entitled, “The Four Way Test for Conflict Transformation.”  This process is based upon asking four questions- 24 words.  The questions included: “Is it True?”  “Is it fair to all concerned?”  “Will it build Goodwill and Better Friendships?”  “Will it be Beneficial to all concerned?”  Imagine, actively working to bridge gaps, heal wounds and deal with conflict in a constructive manner. Believe me, I’m not trying to live in denial by having a Pollyanna, Doris Day kind of attitude.  I realize that there are great differences of opinion on a multitude of political and social issues.  My thoughts have to do with being civil and respectful in our discourse and debates with one another.  When we allow ourselves to lose self-control in our interactions, it defeats the purpose. Growing up, my parents incessantly drilled into me that you treat others with kindness and respect.  They clearly taught that no one is better than another, so I better treat people well.  I hope that our present climate will one day change, where the first reaction of an individual is not to initially lambast another for being polarized, but to be open enough to freely discuss and share.  Instead of thinking that I will be civil once the other party begins to act accordingly, it can’t wait any longer.  It must start with us. Civility- Why not give it a try?


I’m Entitled. Yeah, Right.

When I was a child I incessantly asked my father for an allowance. I thought I deserved one for going to school, doing things around the house and being a decent kid. I think he had enough of my pleas as this is how he responded to my inquiries. He said, “Do you have a roof over your head? Do you have clothes on your back? Do you have food in our mouth?” That is your allowance! At first, I didn’t appreciate his answer as a few of my other friends were receiving some “cash on the side.” But as I got older his reasoning made so much sense. Why should I receive something extra for things I was supposed to be doing in the first place? Why did I think that I should be entitled to even more, especially since I wasn’t doing anything extra ordinary?

The word entitlement means “having a right, expecting special treatment.” I know it’s easy to blame the younger generations for being spoiled and entitled, but is it any different when an older person demands privileges because of age or believes that they have the right to express whatever rolls off their tongues? An entitlement attitude is centered solely on self. The sense that “it’s all about me,” “and I deserve whatever I want.” If left unchecked this proclivity to entitlement can cause control issues, isolationism, loneliness, and anger.

Another opposite of entitlement is need. Rather than thinking that we always deserve, there must be an understanding that we can’t do everything ourselves. I realize that self-reliant individuals don’t want to admit that assistance is sometimes essential, but that’s exactly the case. Whether we need help in our relationships, help with education/training, help with our health or help with loved ones, the need is there. In a spiritual way our greatest need includes the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of life forever. And that has been provided through God’s grace in the shed blood of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

One extremely cold night, as I was driving down an ice-covered road in rural Upstate New York, I literally couldn’t tell the edge of the road from the snow filled ditch. Not exactly knowing where I was driving, I got stuck in the ditch.

Since these were the days before cell phones I decided to start walking to the closest house with a poll light. But just before I started out I saw other lights slowly coming down Rock Road. As the vehicle inched closer I couldn’t believe my eyes.

It was my neighbor Aaron with his tractor. He was plowing drive ways and just happened to come upon me in my time of need. He kindly pulled me out as I slowly made my way home. Yes, there are needs that we ourselves cannot fix, but we have a God who promises to give us strength and assistance to deal with these challenges.

In a world where some think that they should always get a trophy or are entitled and deserving of certain things, all it does is to weaken resolve, respect, and responsibility. Instead of demanding entitlement, may we humble ourselves in service and need. Let us be grateful for the thing that we certainly don’t deserve be we still freely receive. God’s never-ending love in Jesus!

Humanity was not created by the living God to focus on self. We were literally created in God’s image to serve, and to have a relationship with the one who can help and save us. In the Gospel of Mark 10:45 Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus the “King of Kings” and the “Lord of Lords” didn’t expect others to serve him, but he was willing to sacrificially give his own life to serve the world. Instead of our self-focus, can you imagine what our community would look like if we took the time to connect with our neighbors, show kindness/generosity to the needy, and intentionally encourage others who are down? We were fearfully and wonderfully made to serve, not to be self-absorbed.


An “Aging” Opportunity

Every eight seconds.  Today in America someone is turning sixty-five years of age every eight seconds.  This equals into more than 10,000 people daily as this trend will continue over the next 30+ years.  By 2030, one out of every five Virginians will be at that age threshold.  A majority of people moving into Culpeper today are fifty or better.   Our community was just recognized as a fast-growing retirement area.  The “age wave” is coming ashore, but what does this really mean? Some may believe that aging is bad, as it means we’re getting older, sicker, and less productive in our living.  While there are certainly both physical and psychological changes which occur in the aging process, there are also a plethora of benefits to becoming older.  The opportunity of time.  The opportunity to try new things.  The opportunity of learning. The opportunity of becoming politically active. The opportunity of forging new relationships.  The opportunity to work.  And the opportunity to serve.  While every person ages differently, becoming mature does not prevent us from living life to the fullest.  And that’s exactly God’s view. In Holy Scripture we read how God promises to take care of and use us for his purposes as we become older.  In Isaiah 46:4 it is written, “even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you.  I have made, I will bear; I will carry and will save.”  The concept that the Lord using us to share his “Good News” to future generations is seen as the psalmist cries out in Psalm 72:18, “So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to another generation, your power to all those to come.”    And in II Samuel we’re told about an aged man named Barzillai.  Barzillai served King David as David’s son, Absalom, was trying to wrestle the kingdom away from his father.   Are you interested in learning more about God’s plan for us as we grow older?  I have just written a free bible study called “Scriptural Retirement-Serving and Sharing Jesus.” It can be downloaded on the Internet at Culpeper is a great place to age!  Outside of the recreational, educational, cultural and medical infrastructure that is available there are other resources that will also assist us as we get older.  Do we need help with Medicaid/Medicare?  Do we desire access to transportation?  Do we seek Meals on Wheels or other nutrition programs? Do we have an urgency for other senior services?  Please call 540-825-3100.  This is the one-stop phone number to the Community Services Board-The Area Agency on Aging.  Do you suspect any kind of elder abuse or concerned about an older neighbor?  Please call 540-727-0372.  This will connect you to the Culpeper Human Services-Adult Protective Services.  Are you interested in networking with other senior providers or would like to plan activities like the Senior Prom, the Aging Expo and other events?  Please call Aging Together at 540-829-6405.  Do you wish to be a part of a weekly senior group that meets at the Culpeper County Library on Wednesday’s from 10am-2:00pm?  Consider joining The Silver Citizens Club sponsored by the Culpeper County Parks and Recreation.  For more information call 540-727-3412.  Many churches in the area also provide programs and ministry to older adults. Realizing that many of our older residents desire to keep living in their homes if there were supports available, members of the faith, governmental, social service and business community have come together to form a task force group called, “Culpeper Livable Aging Community” (C.L.A.C). The purpose of this group is to look for ways to help people to “age in place.”  For more information, please call 540-270-1026.  Aging is alive and well in Culpeper, Virginia!  But as a community we’re not looking at getting older as just the final stage of a person’s life.  We see it as a wonderful opportunity to grow, experience, learn and serve.  The process of aging cannot be altered or stopped.   However, in our mature years, we can certainly live life to the fullest and make a positive impact upon the generations to come.


A Freedom Which Will Never Disappoint Us

Where is your favorite place in Culpeper?  Someone posed that question to me not long ago and I had to do some thinking.  Yes, I enjoy the Cedar Mountain Battlefield because I love Civil War History.  Yes, I enjoy the Culpeper County Public Library.  I’ve lived many places in my life and we have one of the finest libraries around.   Maybe your list might include a variety of restaurants, breweries, parks, specific places or special landmarks.  But for me, when it comes right down to it, my favorite place is the Culpeper National Cemetery. A cemetery?  Some may wonder why, and here is my response.  Every time I set foot on these hallowed grounds with the finely manicured grass and rows of white stones, I always feel that I am surrounded by freedom.  Beginning with the War Between the States through present day conflicts, heroic men and women who sacrificed for this nation and its freedoms are laid to rest in this reverent place.  Through the years I’ve had the upmost privilege of being a part of Memorial Day/Veteran Day Services at the Cemetery.  And on numerous occasions too many to count, I’ve had the distinct honor of presiding over services for veterans and spouses from Virginia and all over the nation.  The blanket of freedom is indeed alive in that place. On July 4, 1776, two hundred and forty-two years ago, our nation declared its independence realizing that freedom directly comes from God.  And there are several references to this freedom in Holy Scripture.  John 8:34-36 reminds us that we are freed from the power of sin as Jesus says, “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.  The slave does not remain in the house forever, the son remains forever.  So if the Son (Jesus) sets you free, you will be free indeed!  In II Corinthians 3:17 it says wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  Through the Spirit of the living God we are provided with a free gift of faith in Christ.  Galatians 5:13 helps us to understand that we are free not to just focus on ourselves but to serve others as it is written, “For you we’re called to freedom, brothers.  Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”  And in I Peter 2:16 we are compelled to; “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.” What constitutes “living as a free person?”  It means taking personal responsibility for our country, family, faith, actions and work.  It means loving and serving our neighbors.  It’s means clearly understanding that life doesn’t just revolve around ourselves, but responding to the hurting and heartsick. I once met a woman who personifies these characteristics in a powerful way.  This individual was married as a teenager, and quickly had five children.  After her last child was born her husband literally left her for another woman. But instead of soliciting pity and acting out in anger and bitterness, she went to work to support her family.  This woman of faith never gave up, as she literally raised those children on her own.  Eventually, she met a very loving man whom she married, and enjoyed forty years of living.  Simply, I have never known a more generous, compassionate, loving and giving person in my life.  Instead of choosing to be a victim, she clung to Jesus, and chose to live her freedom in raising an awesome family and intentionally reaching out to others and their needs. Whether we realize it or not, we are a free people.  And our liberty comes directly from God.  The God who unselfishly sacrificed his only Son to provide us freedom from darkness/death, and the God who has continually lifted up others to ensure this liberty for generations to come.   Knowing what we’ve been given, let us be compelled and motivated to “live as people who are free.”  A freedom which will never disappoint us.


Thankfulness, Not Complaints

I was a teen working in my local, hometown, IGA (Independent Grocers Association) store.  My responsibilities were mainly to bag groceries, stock shelves, and radiate a caring attitude of customer service.  I also occasionally ran the cash register.  One day as I was running the register, a mature man came forward with his items.  He continually told me that he deserved a 10% discount because of his age, and that he possessed several coupons to reduce the cost of his purchases.  Before I started checking out groceries, my manager/owner specifically relayed to me that I needed to subtract all coupons before adding any discounts.  This is what the boss said, so that’s what I did. Unfortunately, the shopper was not very pleased at all.  He yelled.  He complained.  He berated me in front of the other customers and staff.  I felt humiliated.  Even at a young age I realized that this behavior was wrong and extremely unhealthy.  Complaining does not build up, but it tears down.  Unfortunately, there is not one of us who hasn’t inappropriately “lashed out” at another. Whether it’s the telemarketers who incessantly call us at the most inconvenient times, the food servers who we deem to be slow in service and attentiveness, a relentless family member or acquaintance who annoys us, or the insurance companies who refuse to pay our claims, we sometimes lose it.  Out of frustration and a lack of feeling cared for, impatience can easily set into our hearts, as grumbling rolls off our tongues. Please don’t get me wrong.  There are legitimate reasons why we need to “speak out.”  When an injustice needs to be confronted, corruption revealed, or another human being freed from abuse, voices and actions are essential.  But just wanting to have our own ways, desiring control, and taking out a “pound of flesh” on another is wrong, and far from God-like. Holy Scripture has a lot to say about complaining.  In Numbers 11:1-3 we’re told that the Hebrews were complaining about their misfortunes, and God acted decisively against their complaining.   James 5:9 tells us, “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.”  And in Ephesians 4:29 it is written, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Instead of our first response being that of complaining, how about a response of thankfulness?  Being grateful for every blessing that comes from God.  Being thankful for others and the services which they provide. In I Thessalonians 5: 16-18 it says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” I once ministered to an extremely thankful person.  She had spent her life being a rural mail carrier, and this individual did more than just deliver the mail.  She actually checked upon, and had relationships with her aging clients.  This woman had a servant’s heart.   Eventually, as her eye sight was deteriorating, she was forced to retire.  But there were no complaints.  This believer in Jesus read her beloved books, and continually reached out to others.  I was utterly amazed at her gratefulness, especially when someone did the smallest thing for her.  As I memorialize her, I sometimes wonder if her thankful attitude stemmed from her simply serving and loving others?  As it is written in II Corinthians 9:11-12, “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.  For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God. “ I know.  Sometimes it’s just too easy to complain, get it off our chests, desiring to feel that something could be changed or accomplished.  But have we ever truly felt how the other person feels at the end of our wrath?  My dad used to always share with me that old antidote, “you win more bees with honey then you do with vinegar.”  When we chose to complain rather than be thankful, I think it says so much more about us rather than the person receiving our unkindness.”


Church: Freedom, Not Control

The tears would flow each time the automobile drove down the long lane from the farm house. The woman sitting on the passenger’s side felt humiliated and beaten as she had to spend time with her overbearing mother-in-law. From the beginning of the marriage when the mother of the groom told the gathered guests that her son was marrying beneath himself, she systematically tried to control the lives of her family. She tried to control their jobs. She tried to control their parenting. She tried to control the grandchildren. Her forceful actions caused resentment, and at the time of her own husband’s death, not one wanted her to live with them. Her controlling ways had alienated those that she was supposed to love and nurture. Control. Some believe it’s their mandate. Some believe they’re called to bring order. Some believe they’re the ones to get things done. But if we’re going around telling others what to do, trying to impose our own wills while not allowing others to express them own selves, then exerting power over another becomes a big, unhealthy problem. So why? Why do people feel the compulsion to control others and situations? Is there a lack of self-esteem? Do individuals feel out of control in their past or present lives? Is there a sense of worry that things won’t get done? Or is there a god-like complex? Incessant control is neither helpful or productive. In James 1:19 it says, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Control and oppression are not of God!

Even though us humans like to be “puppet masters,” that’s not the Lord’s plan for our lives. God first freed us from the control of sin by sending Jesus to be our Savior. In Romans 6:6-7 it is written, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” Secondly, because we’ve been freed, we can love and serve other’s in Christ’s name. Galatians 5:13 says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” There will always be those who blatantly or covertly try to control others and events. But that darkness does not represent God. The Lord has ultimately freed us through the shed blood of Jesus himself so we can focus less on self, but more on others. And one of the ways we can do this is through encouragement. In I Thessalonians 5:11 it is written, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” And in Hebrews 10:24-25 it says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as it is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”


There are various ways that we can offer this encouragement Maybe it’s through a kind word or an offer of support. Maybe it’s to recognize the talents in another or to be present in times of hurt and sadness. Maybe it’s through a call, email, text or instant message, or taking the time and praying for others. Encouragement is a powerful tool that has long lasting effects. I remember a time when I first started at the seminary, and was having a hard time adjusting. Out of the blue came a phone call from my Uncle Gary who encouraged me in my studies and call. Later, he sent me a prayer that meant a great deal to him in his own life. His encouragement lifted me, and set me on a positive course. Control is indeed fleeting, but freedom is forever. May Jesus break the strongholds of control in our lives, as we bask in his freedom to love and serve others.