God Bless the Animals!

On Sunday September 16th, I officiated a blessing of the animals ceremony at Penn's Angel's Beagle Rescue 7th annual barbeque. There were more than 30 assorted beagles and a good time was had by all!

The blessing of the animals is a custom that is held in honor and remberance of St Francis of Assisi whose feast day is Oct 4th. He is well know for his love of animals and is the patron saint of animals and the environment! In his writing The Canticle of creatures he declares "all praise to you O Lord for all these brother and sister creatures!" Kevin E Markin, a Franciscan monk writes "I believe that every creature is important and the love that we give and receive from a pet can draw us more deeply into the larger circle of life and into the wonder of our common relationship to our Creator"

The bond between person and their pet is like no other relationship because communication is at its most basic and characterized by unconditional love! We know that pets can be therapeutic and many nursing homes have resident cats and/or dogs! My hospice uses therapy dogs to visit and draw out patients! Owning a pet can reduce ones blood pressure and boost the immune system. But the bottom line is that pets bring us comfort and make us happy!

The custom of blessing the animals began in the middle ages and is offered these days in many Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches and a smattering of protestant churches! One of the most well known services is an annual blessing that takes place at the Episcopal Cathedral St John the Divine in NYC! Elephants, camels along with dogs, cats and fish process down the center aisle to the altar where they receive their blessing!

The blessing of most of the beagles on Sunday was appropriate, for many of them had been rescued from abusive and terrible situations by Penny's Angels and now were surrounded by love and attention. The blessing offered was with a hand on the dog's head and the words "May you blessed in the name of God and may you and your family enjoy life together for many years!"

Pentecost

In life we want to cling to someone we love and depend on, we just can't bear the thought of that person leaving us. When Jesus told his Apostles that he was leaving them, they plunged into gloom. He said to them, "It is for your own good that I go away, because unless I go, the Spirit will not come to you; but if I go I will send him to you." (John 14-24 & 25)

It must have been very hard for the Apostles to see how the Lord"s going away could be for their good, yet no one showed more respect for people than Jesus. He did not dominate them, but served them. He gave all people a chance to grow in faith and shine. Had he always remained with them in his physical presence, they would have never come to age themselves. So Jesus sent them his Holy Spirit. He handed his entire world to them an gave them a mission of spreading the good news of the Gospel. What the Spirit did was bring his love awakened energies in them, that they didn't know were there, so they were able to do things they didn't think they were capable of. After Pentecost their hearts were on fire and there was a wind at their backs!

We too need the Holy Spirit so that we can become fearless witnesses for Christ and the Gospel. On Pentecost Day, the Apostles spoke a new language which was the reversed of "Babel". We too need to speak this language. What is this new language? It is the language of peace rather than war; it is the language of cooperation rather than competition; it is the language of forgiveness rather than vengeance; it is the language of hope rather than despair; it is the language of tolerance rather than bigotry; it is the language of friendship rather than hostility; it is the language of unity rather than division; it is the language of love rather than hate. Through the gift of the coming of the Holy Spirit, people of different languages learned to protest one faith to the praise & glory of God. That is the real miracle of Pentecost, and it is a miracle which praise God, still happens.

Home Sweet Home

In the beloved and most popular Psalm 23 we read at the conclusion "only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come."

All of us want to have a dwelling place when we can live and have reference and roots and call "sweet home".

Probably no word better summarizes the suffering of our times than the word "homeless". It reveals one of our deepest and most painful conditions. The conditions of not having a sense of belonging, of not having a place to call our own, where we can feel safe, cared for, protected, and loved.

The first and most obvious quality of a home is acceptance and intimacy. When we say "I wish I were home", we express a longing for that intimate place that offers as people suffer much from conflict at home, even though much emotional suffering finds it's roots at home, and even though "broken homes" are increasingly blamed for crimes and unrest in society. The word "home" continues to carry with it a hope, a warm love, and remains one of the most evocative symbols for possible happiness. Our songs tell us this, "There's no place like home for the holidays".

In terms of relationships, we need to have friends that being with them means that we're at "home".

Our faith even calls us to experience life as "going home" and even death as "coming home at last". Yes to echo Psalm 23, "only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for years to come."

Virginia Tech

Cho Seung-Hui was somebody's son. He had grandparents and other relatives. As a child, he played with toys and explored his neighborhood. As a teen, he probably had caught the eye of a girl or two and surely dreamed about love more than once. The tragedy of 9/11 unfolded as he took his first steps into adulthood, and perhaps he was terrified that day like so many of us. A resident alien in the Land of Opportunity, he entered a fine university with expectations of achievement and success.

Cho Seung-Hui killed 33 people last week. He injured many others. He has been described as a loner. He will, however, forever be part of this group of 33. Unable to find membership with others in life, he now finds it in death. His aloneness has created aloneness for others. I think about the fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, friends and families of the victims - their grief incalculable, their loss irreversible. They now have to deal with being alone. Hopefully, they won't become loners.

We were never meant to be alone. We were made for community. It's a sad commentary that we can be alone even in the midst of a multitude, like a university campus. Relationships, friendships, and family are too precious to be ignored because of busyness, preoccupation, or ambition. Communion is too important to be neglected because of a careless word, a thoughtless action, or a selfish choice. Love is costly and must not be postponed. The consequences are just too terrible.

Evil can only be overcome by goodness. If someone had treasured Cho Seung-Hui, enjoyed him, forgiven him, and loved him, maybe we wouldn't be facing this nightmare. We can learn one thing from the Virginia Tech massacre: treasure those around you today. Tolerate their idiosyncrasies, delight in their uniquenesses, listen to their stories, share in their pain. The most noble thing we can do is build relationships of love. And maybe, just maybe, we can prevent the kind of aloneness that devastates our society.

The Four Tasks of Grief

I am a hospice chaplain and I deal daily with death, dying and grief. As we grow older, grief becomes an area that we visit more frequently. No one can escape confronting the feelings associated with grief and there is no one way to go through the process of grief! But we can generalize and affirm that it is a "process" which is made up of four tasks that everyone must negotiate to successfully negotiate the grief process. J. William Worden identified these four tasks after a long study of the grief process! The "normal" grief process lasts 1-2 years and this is influenced by many factors including the nature of our relationship with the deceased and our history of dealing with grief! The death of a child or a sudden death presents different challenges but the four tasks are the same!

The first task is to accept the reality of the loss. This means you intellectually and emotionally work through the tendency to deny the loss and accept the fact that your loved one died! The early feelings of shock give us a sense of unreality but after a few days, weeks, or months the reality of the loss hits us.

The second task is to experience the pain of loss. This means you cannot intellectualize your feelings but you must experience the pain of sadness, despair, anger, guilt, shock and any other feeling that arises! Crying is a normal response! Ones faith does not give an exemption from experiencing the pain of loss but it does provide us with perspective and the comfort of a loving God and the hope of life after death!

The third task of grief is to adjust to an environment without the deceased.

The loss of a close loved one turns our world upside down and we come to understand that our lives have been changed forever. We must learn to live our lives in a new way!

The fourth task is to emotionally relocate the deceased and moving on with life. This is last task that means you begin to redirect your emotional energy from the deceased to the living!

May all those who mourn this day find hope and comfort as they traverse the landscape of grief.

Where Does the Time Go?

You might have asked that question yourself with bewilderment and even frustration. Our days are packed with activities and we find ourselves wishing for more time to do even more. Not enough time to do all the things we want to do. We feel shortchanged.

Simplify? Cut something out of the schedule? Slow down? We give it a thought (not too long though - not enough time to linger over the questions.) Then, we go back to the grind. We have developed a habit at doing what doesn't really work (health wise, relations wise). And we keep at it, perhaps out of the unconscious fear of having to re-define ourselves (what we want, our values, our meaning in life). After all we may find order, consistency, predictability and emotional security in being busy.

Our busy-ness is a strategy to meet profound needs. Are we linking self-worth and self-esteem to being busy? Are we looking for acceptance ("If I'm not busy, am I lazy?") and belonging ("If everybody is busy and I am not, what's wrong with me?") by being busy? Are my relations to myself (physical/mental health, personal growth and spiritual development) and to others (companionship, closeness, warmth) being served by me being that busy? While some needs are being met, others may go partially or totally unmet. And I and others (especially those closest to me) may suffer in the log run. Although we may not be able to meet all our needs at the same time, are some needs being met at the expense of other needs? Are all needs being held as equally important?

Slowing down is utterly countercultural. Yet, it may afford us the opportunity for important self awareness and growth. Clarity about ourselves and our needs will be the immediate result. Another enjoyable consequence will be better control of our time.

Christians around the world are invited during the Season of Lent to consider strengthening their faith through the evangelical disciplines of prayer, fasting, and alms giving. The slowing down involved with the practice of the evangelical disciplines will inspire us to reconnect with the divine purpose for our life on this planet, and at the same time give us ample breath to enjoy ourselves and our life with others.

Crop Walk

Every Thursday, a small group of kids meet in the basement of the First United Methodist Church to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the homeless people served by Sister Jean’s Kitchen in Atlantic City. Sister Jean is really something. She had me in tears last week when I delivered the sandwiches to her, as she strongly related how great the need is for help in feeding “her” people. Seven hundred meals a day, five days a week she serves. But there is nothing for them on the weekends – except peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, to go. I left there firmly resolved to do more.

This small group of kids is totally dedicated to making these sandwiches every week. It is something that they can do. Our ten loaves of sandwiches is but a drop in the bucket, though, compared to the need. That does not, however, mean that we should not bother to do what we do. On Thursdays, my dream would be to open the church for people from all over town to come and just make PB and J’s all day. They are needed on Fridays down at SJ’s K, so the homeless folk of AC can have food in their pockets to tide them over the weekend until the kitchen opens again on Monday morning.

The poor, the hungry, and the homeless are the invisible in such an affluent community as ours. We must make ourselves see the need and respond to it in whatever ways we can. The Hammonton Area Ministerium (a group of local ministers working together), is responding by sponsoring a walk for hunger in the month of October. Called “The Crop Walk,” it will be held on October 15 at 2pm, and will be starting from St. Martin’s. We are all able to walk or to sponsor a walker. You can get involved through your local church, or by calling the Hammonton Presbyterian Church to register: 561-0168. A good part of the funds raised from this walk stay in the community to fight hunger here. The more we raise, the more we keep.

Maybe your company could match what is raised, or maybe you could sponsor an entire church to walk. Bless you. We want and need your help. Maybe, though, you are just an individual who sees and cares and wants to help in whatever way you can – like the kids on Thursdays in the church basement. Don’t stay away. Let’s all work together and see what can be done!

See you on October 15!

Can Walking Help World Hunger?

Have you ever wondered what good your simple actions, say walking, can do in the great scheme of things? Can you imagine a simple person taking on the huge problem of World Hunger and poverty? When you put together a group of simple people, great things can happen.

We want to do something about hunger and poverty, and our local CROP WALK is one way to help. The Christian gospel calls followers to love their neighbors as they love themselves -- to be good neighbors to one another. And Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” One way for us here in the Hammonton area to show love for our neighbors and model positive change in the world -- changes vital to the health and well being of families in need both here and around the world -- is to CROP WALK.

On October 15 at 2 o’ clock in the afternoon, the Hammonton CROP WALK will raise funds to change the world in real and measurable ways: Digging wells to bring clean water to villages; providing seeds, tools, and simple irrigation techniques; helping families and communities rebuild from disasters like the tsunami, the earthquake in Pakistan, and the Gulf Coast hurricanes.

CROP WALK funds will benefit the overall work and ministry of Church World Service – working in some 80 countries to help those in need help themselves through refugee assistance, self-help development programs, advocacy, and disaster relief. And, it’s important to note that 25 percent of what we raise will help local food pantries in their important work here in the Hammonton area.

So please mark your calendars and come CROP WALK with us! Together – with your family, group, or congregation -- we can walk to change the world, one step at a time. If you cannot walk with us you can still be part of our project by sponsoring a walker.

For more information or to register, please contact Pastor Ken Albert at 609-561-6019, or visit www.cropwalk.org.

Thank you on behalf of the needy and the Hammonton Ministerium.

Art Saves Our Soul

It all started when I married an artist. My family wasn’t particularly devoted to the arts, although my dad is an incredible craftsman, and in the last twenty years has become a stained glass artist in his own right. So, when I looked outside, I used to see a blue sky, brown earth and green trees. Imagine my shock when my wife, early in our marriage, told me that the sky has greens in it, dirt has blues and trees have pinks. We both had eyes, but she saw things I didn’t.

When we would walk along a forest path, she would point out sounds, textures and smells I never knew existed. She introduced me to the world of birdwatching. I now can distinguish between the sound of a red-bellied woodpecker and the beautiful flute-like call of an oriole. I am able to associate those pleasant feelings I had as a child playing in wild fields, to specific sounds and smells of birds and flowers and bugs and herbs. I was blind, but now I see.

When our eyes are opened to beauty, it transforms us. We are enlightened and softened. Life takes on more meaning and we begin to escape from stifling ignorance. That is why art is important. “The love of art guards us from returning to the lumpish masses of clay from which we were taken…Observing and enjoying art gives deeper meaning to our love of God and God’s creation, humanity. Art thus leads us toward God,” says Franky Schaeffer. I couldn’t agree more.

In our church we are committed to art. We teach it to our children and promote it to our adults. Everyone is an artist is some way. God, the Master Artist, has made us marvelously diverse and unique and put in each of us a magical spark of creativity. It might come out in poetry, painting, sculpting, computing, decorating, singing or gardening, and 1,001 other ways. We honor Him when we create beauty, and in a way it saves our own souls.

Wrong Doesn't Equal Bad

I tilted the paper cup as far as I could to get the last drops of the Earl Grey tea. Monday mornings I spend time reading, reflecting and praying at a local bakery café. One thing I like about this café, besides the free Wi-Fi, is that they serve hot tea that is not stale (bags are kept in airtight jars), comes in several flavors, and refills are free. All you have to do is politely ask the person behind the counter for some more hot water and a new freshly brewed cup of tea is yours for the making. Granted, it’s not as easy as walking up to a replicator, like Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek fame, tersely commanding, “Tea, Earl Grey, hot,” but usually it is painless. Except today.

The first mistake I made was to ask the girl behind the counter, “May I have a little more hot water?” I don’t know why I said, “little more.” I guess I was subconsciously trying to not be a bother. Well, she took me literally and gave me about an eighth of a cup of hot water. I then smiled and laughed and said, “I mean a whole cup.” She reluctantly filled the cup and handed it to me, gazing at me for my next move. As I reached for the airtight jar she snapped, “You need to pay for another bag.” Baffled, I respectfully stated that I thought there were free refills, pointing to the sign above our heads. Flustered, she mumbled something and quickly walked away.

Standing there, with the other patrons’ laser eyes focused on me, I hesitated. Am I allowed to have another tea bag? Am I stealing if I take a bag? I’ll pay for it, but she’s gone now. What do I do? Scanning the room for someone who looked like a manager, I walked to the back of the store and asked a group of three official looking employees if I was allowed to get another tea bag. The manager, a smartly dressed woman in her mid 20s, apologized to me and confirmed that, yes, there are free refills as the sign states. Relieved, more because I wasn’t an ignorant, greedy customer, than for the 95 cents I saved, I proceeded to get a bag and make my “Tea, Earl Grey, hot.” I couldn’t help but feel a kind of shame, like I was a pushy customer, but mostly I felt bad for the girl who scolded me. Was she in trouble now?

All this got me thinking about a message I gave a few months back entitled, “Wrong Does Not Equal Bad.” Most of our learning is done by trial and error. We are often more wrong, than right. That’s just the way it is. We aren’t born with perfect knowledge. We learn by the braille method. It’s called experience. God has made us this way and it’s good, although it doesn’t always feel good.

Being wrong doesn’t mean you’re bad. It means you are in error, nothing more. You lack experience. Welcome to humanity. It’s only the insecure that need to be right all the time. Imagine how it would have been if that girl would have simply said to me, “Oh, you’re right. I’m sorry,” or, “Oh, I’m not sure. Let me ask my manager.” We both would have walked away feeling good.

Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He knew that we will often be wrong, which doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re bad.   

Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People?

I am a hospice chaplain and a question frequently asked is “why do bad things happen to good people?” It is one of the fundamental questions of faith. When tragedy, illness, or difficult circumstances strikes, the question “why me?” is inevitable. The world stage presents many situations for us to ponder the “why question.” Tsunamis killing hundreds of thousands unsuspecting innocent folk, brutal genocide killing off generations, constant wars being fought and the innocent being caught in the crossfire inevitably lead to the why question. Evil clearly has a firm foothold in the world and bad things happen to good people. Why? Another way to address the question is to ask where is God in the unfolding of tragedy, illness, and evil?

As a person of faith I turn to my scriptures and find clues to answer the question. The Judeo Christian tradition reminds us that humans we were given free will and must accept responsibility for some of life’s missteps! The psalmist reminds us that the “rain falls on the just and unjust!” and no one is exempt from the showers of life! Further the 23rd psalm affirms that God watches over us as a shepherd watches over his sheep and promises to walk with us through the good times and bad!

The book of Job in the Hebrew scriptures addresses this question. Job was a righteous man who worshiped God when calamity struck and he lost his family, his farm, and his health! The book chronicles Jobs attempts to answer the “why?” question and make sense out of his suffering. He engages in conversations with three friends exploring the possible reasons why. The book ends with Job making peace with the question as he experienced the presence of God alongside his suffering!

Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book in 1981 entitled “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People” and chronicles his own attempt to understand innocent suffering after the death of his 14 year old handicapped son. He offered a moving and articulate approach to the “why” question. Kushner says “I wrote the book out of my own need… and for all those people who wanted to go on believing, but whose anger at God made it hard for them to hold on to their faith.”

Ultimately I believe that this question “why do bad things happen to good people is one we each must answer for ourselves. We must find a way to make sense of the world and God in the face of tragedy, suffering and evil. We must talk, read, pray, and explore the depths of our faith and relationship with God to come to some understanding or resolution to the problem of innocent suffering!

 

 

Competition

We've been teaching the boys in our church about competition and good sportsmanship. They all love sports and play enthusiastically whenever they get a chance. Their desire to win, however, can sometimes overshadow the importance of kindness. Good sportsmanship seems to be out of fashion these days and so there are not many examples of excellent athletes who demonstrate it to point to. Asked to define what good sportsmanship is, many people can only give a vague answer.

Good sportsmanship isn't about wanting to lose or not keeping score. That's silly. Good sportsmanship is fundamentally about one thing – who you are really competing against (yourself). What trips people up is the idea that in order to be somebody they have to be better than others. The problem with that is that there will always be someone better than you. Even Olympic gold medalists, who sometimes win only by hundredths of a second, can often be defeated on another day. It isn't about being better than others, it's about being the most you can be.

When competing against others, we need to see them as helpers. They help us by challenging us to improve. In a real sense, they are serving us and we are serving them. If they win, we can be happy that we played a part in their growth. If we win, we can rejoice in our improvement. Competition can be good if it's used as a way to improve ourselves rather than to prove ourselves to others. Improve – good, prove – bad.

We're all different, wonderful, and unique. Constantly comparing ourselves to others is a waste of time and energy, and more importantly, it's destructive to our relationships. If I have a need to compare myself to you, I'll either be insecure because you're better than me in some way, or haughty because I am better than you in another way. This is a ridiculous game we need not play. Let us rest in our uniqueness and enjoy each other's differences.

Sincere Support

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

—Psalm 46:1

Each of us at some time or other has encountered difficulties in our lives. The support and understanding given to us or withheld from us by others at such times might determine how we respond to and survive that crisis.

Having worked at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital for the past eight years has heightened my understanding of and desire to be an advocate for those facing mental health issues in their lives… as a client or the related family or friend.

Public awareness of such issues aids in dispelling stigmas and unjust discrimination that incorrectly define mental illness. Caring communities—(i.e. those of families, friends, religious/spiritual groups, neighborhoods, addiction services, etc.)—enhance the lives of those affected by mental health concerns through the love and support offered to those fraught with a variety of concerns.

Today because of various methods addressing the need for ongoing research, advocacy clusters, and yes—even the power of prayer as has now been verified through studies as being helpful in measurable ways—people in distress are receiving more help than ever that might possibly change their lives.

Mental illness is indeed a disease for which help is available. The goal of each person hospitalized with mental illness and those ministering to him or her is for that person to receive treatment that will enable her or him to be reintegrated into a caring community to resume life outside an institutional setting.

We must challenge stereotypes which restrain those in the throes of mental health struggles. Something as simple as a smiling face, a kind note, a word of praise, acknowledgement of the courage of people facing mental health issues, or just making others aware of the needs in this area of life can work wonders for the self-esteem, hope, and futures of those in courageously confronting mental illness.

Won’t you take time to learn more about mental health so that more caring communities might be developed so that those in need might receive the proper assistance and love?

The following is a list of resources that might prove helpful in your effort to offer a helping hand if only through becoming more educated:

www.nami.org website for the National Alliance on Mental Illness

1-800-950-NAMI (6264) NAMI’s toll-free number

1-888-999-6264 NAMI’s toll-free HelpLine

1-800-950-NAMI Centro de Accion Multicultural

info@nami.org NAMI’s e-mail

 

1-800-382-6717 New Jersey Division of Mental Health Services

609-777-0674 Central Region Office

973-977-4397 Northern Region Office

609-567-7352 Southern Region Office

 

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Ancora is a part of the NJ Department of Human Services, Division of Mental Health

Services. Rev. Marilyn Pote Hutton is Supervisor Chaplaincy Services at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital. She has served in this capacity since April 28, 2004, when her supervisor, Rev. Joanne Martindale, was deployed to serve as an officer and chaplain in Iraq. Rev. Pote Hutton can be reached at 1-609-561-1700, Ext. 7527.

 

Bowling Lessons

I was looking forward to Friday night. Our Church was planning a fun time of bowling together. Even though I rarely ever bowled, it would be a nice relaxing evening after a week of busyness and responsibilities. So when we got to the bowling alley, I eagerly awaited for the tranquil feelings to kick in as I put on those loose fitting bowling shoes. “This is just what I need to wash away all that stress from the week,” I thought to myself. Unfortunately, it was not going to happen.

I immediately began rifling through all the bowling balls looking for the perfect one. I couldn’t remember, however, what weight I should choose. I didn’t want to choose a ball that was too light and broadcast to the world that I was a 98 pound weakling, yet I didn’t want one that was too heavy so as to ruin my form. I finally decided that a 14 pound ball was respectful enough and I could use it without pulling a muscle. The attendant had typed in all our names in the scoring machine and I was up first. My much anticipated night of relaxation was about to end.

It started off fairly well. A couple spares, several high scores, I was doing OK. Not great, but acceptable. The first game ended and I was in second place among our group of three amateurs. But then it was all downhill. I don’t know if my arm was tired or that I’m just a bad player, but the second game was a disaster. Gutter balls, no spares, really low numbers. I was feeling stressed. “Why can’t I do better,” I fretted. I looked over at the alley where my 11 year old twins were playing with their friends. It was all high fives, dancing and jubilation. I looked up at the highly visible scoring screen over my alley. There my name was in big bold letters with the embarrassingly low score for all the world to see. “Why did I come here tonight,” I asked myself.

Sitting there, I began to look around at my kids and friends enjoying themselves. The smiles, slaps on the back, and squeals of triumph shook me out of my stressful pity party. This is why I had come. Not to win or compete, but to love and enjoy my friends and family. Our society puts too much emphasis on success and achievement and not on the things that matter most, our relationships. Did I have a fun and relaxing time that night? I was with my friends and family, and that was a real pleasure.

Hunger Awareness Dinner

A sacred place… that was what my families kitchen table served. A sacred place where my family gathered around the dinner table to eat whatever miracle my mother could perform with hamburger. This was the time and opportunity as a busy family to check in with each other. We would talk about our days, laugh about silly things that had happened, argue about the latest political issue, and most of all, be a family. I don’t think I learned as much at school as I did at the dinner table. It was a time, each day when we were united as a family, even during times we might not have liked each other much. It was a sacred hour. Unfortunately with busy work, school, extra curricular and even church activities, the common meal family is not a common event.

Some of Jesus’ greatest teachings occurred around a dinner table. Although tables were shaped differently, they served the same purpose. They were gathering place for people to eat, to share and to commune with one another. It was around the table that Jesus Christ gathered his disciples, washed their feet, and prepared those dearest to him for his death. The Christian church continues to serves as the place where we gather to celebrate our unity through sharing the Lord’s Supper.

But the table is significant not just for meals in our society. It is the common place where we gather to work, to talk and even to play. Consider all the events that happen around a table. It serves as a place of nourishment and comfort and also a place of work and challenge. Think of the significant events that have around the table that meetings are held that include negotiations, settlements, and compromises that have been achieved around tables.

On March 11th, from 4:00 to 7:00 PM, the Presbyterian Church at Hammonton would like to invite our community to gather around the table with us for our Hunger Awareness Dinner. A common problem in our country is not starvation but many families experience food insecurity. They do not know where their next meal will come from. The Deacons of the Presbyterian Church are preparing a meal and seeking to set the stage for our community to come together, enjoy each others company and gain a greater understanding of the work that is being done to combat hunger in our community and world. Our pray is that around the table, while enjoying good food and company, we can confront the issue of hunger and food insecurity in our community and world. Won’t you join us?

 

A Good Death

“Death and taxes are the only two sure things in life!” Death is something we will all have to deal with and ultimately experience. Can we experience a good death?

In my work as a hospice chaplain, I deal with death and dying every day. Often folks wonder how I can deal with such a difficult matter day in and day out. “It must be terribly depressing” they comment. But the reality of my work is that it is a great blessing for me as I am involved in people’s lives at such intimate and intense moments. I have had many wonderful opportunities to be with patients and families who experience a “good death.” Now some may take issue with the notion of a good death arguing that death is always sad and depressing. But I maintain that there are times when death is welcomed and greeted as a friend! When someone has lived a long life, is at peace with themselves, their family and the world, has a strong faith, is at home surrounded by family and friends and is pain free, death is most often welcomed. I have had the privilege of being with many of our patients, some in their 90s and 100s, who with clarity of mind, look forward to death as a blessing releasing them from their failing bodies and ushering them into the next life. While there is sadness for the loss and separation from their loved one. most families consider a loss under these circumstances as a good death!

Of course there are many deaths that are unwelcomed, difficult and painful. The death of a child or young person, a suffering demise or a sudden death of a healthy thriving adult is always tragic. These deaths are heartbreaking and grieving is a long term and painful process.

How can we plan for a good death? First, we must think ahead and fill out a living will making known our desires about life support and end of life treatment. It is also wise to appoint a health care proxy in the event we are unable to make decisions. Second, when possible make ones funeral desires known and when feasible do a prepaid arrangement. Third, nurture your faith, life and relationship with God because ultimately your faith will provide you with an anchor through the storms of life! Fourth, live one day at a time and tell those whom you love. A good death is possible with forethought, faith and love. May it be so!                     

Fear

Fear is the biggest tyrant we ever face. Fear keeps us from loving ourselves and loving others. Living lives of quiet desperation, we are terrified that we won’t measure up. We cannot admit to any weakness or let anyone know about our needs. We must be self-sufficient and have it all together. Being perfect, however, means we will not grow. So fear stunts our growth.

We are afraid of losing our money, prestige and security. We don’t want to be vulnerable. The world is a harsh place. We must stay on top. Therefore, we close our eyes to the needs of others and keep a safe distance from those who might drain our resources. So fear quenches our compassion.

We fear change. We love the status quo and the familiar. We work hard to make our world comfortable and predictable. As a result, we are paranoid of those who are different. We exclude and judge, we ignore and abuse. So fear kills our love.

But God says, “Fear not! I have overcome. You are loved. You are special. You are Mine.” The tyrant wants to crush our humanity. God breathes life and we become a living soul.

Jean Vanier said it best, “To be human is to accept ourselves just as we are, with our own history, and to accept others as they are. To be human means to accept history as it is and to work, without fear, towards greater openness, greater understanding, and a greater love of others. To be human is not to be crushed by reality, or to be angry about it or to try to hammer it into what we think it is or should be, but to commit ourselves as individuals, and as a species, to an evolution that will be for the good of all.”

Know God’s love and become truly human.

Signs For Us

As you drive west on the Atlantic City Expressway you come upon three signs which read “Stay Alert,” “Stay Awake,” “Stay Alive.” Those words are reasonable and prophetic. They are reasonable because they are words of caution compelling us to obey the driving laws and the laws of nature in order to protect ourselves and others. They are prophetic because to disobey the laws can lead to a horrible catastrophe.

In this Christmas season those same words have real relevance for us. They are a clarion call to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Messiah. How do we do that? Perhaps the words of Jesus give us an inkling. He said, “Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” If you really want to understand Christmas, look to the little children. The weeks leading up to Christmas for them just seem like an eternity. They’ve made their lists. They’ve visited Santa and in their simplicity they asked for the things they desire in the sure and certain hope that Santa will meet their dreams. They are alert, awake, fully alive and anxious. And Santa will grant their dreams.

As grown ups we are deluged in this season by the commercialism of the time. The sending of Christmas cards, the purchase of “the right” gifts, the preparation of the dinners and Christmas parties, the planning of visits, these and so many other things can divert us from preparing for the birth of Jesus. It is only if we stay alert and stay awake like little children that the birth of the Messiah will come alive for us.

Remember, it was not those in Bethlehem caught up in revelry who were invited to the crib. It was the simple, humble shepherds awake in the fields who were called by the angels to witness the birth of the Savior. We, too, are called. Now it is our turn to come and worship the Lord with that same simple, humble faith and, like the shepherds, to glorify and praise God.

It is the hope and prayer of the members of the Hammonton Ministerium that this Christmas will be a day of joy, remembrance, hope and faith for you and your loved ones.

Christmas Idols

 Christmas music is on the air. Christmas decorations are already out in some communities. Mail boxes are inundated with advertisements to buy stuff and give “joy” away. Undoubtedly, there is gratification in giving and getting the perfect gift. Yet, how long will that feeling last? Is it true joy? How much of our “being” are we compromising (maybe silencing?) when we emphasize our “having”? Is “stuff” going to suit our hunger for meaning? Things, even beautiful and useful things, will never bring us healing and wholeness. And yet in our greed (or is it desperation?) we silently worship the next “essential” gadget. We secretly hope that the new acquisition will numb our pains or delay our anxieties. But idols do not have hearts and leave us empty handed.

The Holiday Season comes to us with its deafening chaos. Maybe we want that chaos to distract us from our many personal and collective unanswered questions. Maybe our stories are too messy to untangle. Maybe we struggle to find meaning and lasting hope to our individual and social quest. Who are we as a people affected by 9/11, Katrina, the war in Iraq, corporate greed, corruption and dishonesty? Who are we scarred by illnesses, deaths, broken relationships, divorces, bankruptcies, homelessness and hunger? Who are we as we sit more or less comfortably at the Eid ul-Fitr, the braking of the Ramadan fast, or at Thanksgiving Tables, or gather around a Nativity Scene, celebrate Kwanza, or light the Hanukkiyah candelabra? How many of us will suffer emotional turmoil this Holiday Season? How many will struggle for sheer survival?

Broken hearts and longing souls seek after a more meaningful life, more satisfying personal connections, and inner healing. In my experience, this happens when we stop, and give ourselves permission to “take our time.” Time to give ourselves the gift of silence, -of centering ourselves in the presence of God-, and time to give the gift of empathic listening to others –of “being” in another person‘s presence without moralistic judgments that imply wrongness or badness, blameful thinking, all too quick labeling. By giving to another person that gift, we will receive an incredible gift ourselves: we will discover our common humanity.

This Holiday Season let us give ourselves (and those around us) the gift of time to reconnect, then even the “stuff” we are able to give away will have a different flavor and new meaning.

Lives That Touch Ours

On any clear day in Hammonton you have only to look at the skies above our city to see a phenomenon which has become quite familiar - contrails left by high flying jet aircraft. Some contrails last but a short time and dissipate. Others remain for hours leaving long white trails. As time passes all of these contrails driven by high altitude winds broaden. Some remain as individual trails. Others merge and become one. Still others cross other contrails and leave a woven mosaic across the blue sky. In time all dissolve but the sun and the blue skies remain continuing to radiate beauty to all. For without the sun and the sky the contrails would have no visible existence.

In our lifetime just like contrails people come into our lives. Like the contrails that fade, there are people whom we meet, perhaps even share moments with, but people who leave within a short time, are forgotten and pass into history. Then there are people who not only come into our lives but merge with us and share their lives with ours – our parents, grandparents, spouses, children, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins, and best friends. Like contrails they shine with a brightness that gives meaning and strength to our lives. Like contrails, with the passage of time they broaden their effect in our lives and motivate us to greater things. Their love for us and ours for them grows stronger with each passing day. Still others like coworkers, neighbors and friends crissscross our lives constantly adding texture, beauty and delight that give us such great happiness and joy.

But just as the bright sun and blue skies make contrails visible, so does the radiance of God’s love make those who touch our lives become apparent. For all of those who touch our lives in anyway are truly God’s gift to us. They give meaning to our lives whether it’s in their sharing with us or in their motivating us to higher things. Thanksgiving Day should occur every day for us as we take the opportunity to thank our Heavenly Father for those He has sent into our lives. As they have touched us and brought us to the deeper realization of what life is all about, so we, too, touch their lives and the lives of others. We are God’s gift to hem as they are to us. Together let’s praise God and thank Him for His unbounded love, care and concern for all of us by sending us the living gifts of relatives and friends who form contrails in our lives.