An Attitude of Gratitude

This past Christmas, my wife and I received a card from a dear friend expressing thanks for support we had offered during a difficult time.

The card featured the title Gratitude and in it, our friend described how he was grateful for the friendship we’ve had the pleasure of sharing over the last few years.

It was not long after that I heard a program on the radio detailing the significance of gratitude and the challenge of giving thanks.

It made me think of a time when I was about 14 years old and wasn’t very happy – or thankful – for a significant Christmas gift my parents gave me.

Gratitude 1Wanting a Nintendo video game system that year, I had made my desires known to my parents for quite some time.

I made sure I behaved exceptionally well in the months leading up to Christmas, so as to earn my parents’ attention and convince them during their gift purchasing process.

When it came time to distribute the presents, my family huddled around the Christmas tree for my Dad to do his customary routine of passing out gifts to each of us.

NintendoI had noticed a large box under the tree, wrapped and containing my name on a tag, and so I had a strong suspicion I’d be getting the Nintendo I had been wanting.

 

Waiting until the last of the gifts, my Dad decided to finally call my name for that big box.

After ripping off the wrapping paper, my facial expression quickly turned from a look of awe and excitement to one of confusion and anger.

The gift? New hockey pants.

Sure, I loved hockey and had played in organized leagues much of my life. And yes, I likely could have used new pants, although the used pair I had been given a few years before were working fine, thank you very much.

Unhappy GiftBut I really wanted that Nintendo and was both mad and terribly disappointed I didn’t get it.

What a perfect example of how in society, we so often receive gifts and instead of being grateful, we complain about them and ask for something different.

How often do we act in this way when God gives us gifts?

Perhaps we want some nice weather during the summer in order to enjoy the beach, but then we grumble about how it’s too humid.

Maybe we pray long and hard to meet a person and fall in love, and then devote so much attention to that person’s faults.

How about a teenager blessed with beautiful freckles sprinkled on her face regretting her appearance because the person featured on the magazine covers has “perfect” skin?

What of the kid who won’t accept the clothes or cell phone his parents buy him as a birthday or school graduation gift since they aren’t the latest brand name standard?

If we are to always look past God’s blessings and offerings to us, we will surely never be able to fully appreciate them.

While it may seem farfetched due to social temptations and messages from popular culture, goodness can be lived when we focus on what we have from God instead of yearning for something bigger or brighter.

Gratitude 2So rather than griping about what God doesn’t give us, perhaps we can stand to concentrate more on what He does provide. (Psalm 107:8-9)

In demonstrating a little more thanks to the One who loves us, we might just be able to better apply – and reap the benefits of – all of those many gifts God bestows upon us. (Jeremiah 30:19)

Once we’ve learned how to live with such an attitude of gratitude, the game of life can be played that much more easily.

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Will you be my Valentine?

With the month of February now upon us, we can look forward to different events and celebrations marking the road to spring.

We began yesterday with Groundhog Day, which often seems to brighten or dampen the spirits of many, depending on what side of the fence you sit when it comes to the winter season.

Certainly, February marks Black History Month and commemorates the many invaluable accomplishments of African-Americans throughout history, while also providing an important reminder of the work still needed to be done in order to achieve equality for all in society.

This year, February includes the Winter Olympics, showcasing the various talents of athletes from around the world.

And, in a little less than two weeks, we’ll begin the Lenten season and our spiritual journey to Easter by marking our foreheads with ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Oddly enough, Ash Wednesday this year falls on February 14, a date known by so many for a completely different reason.

Valentines Day Card 1Yes, Valentine’s Day – a day to celebrate your love with that special someone.

It’s a day for chocolate and roses, kisses and fancy dinner dates.

Back when I was in elementary school, I used to get so excited around Valentine’s Day.

On that day, students would bring a box of little cards to school and pass them to their classmates, inviting them to be their special valentine or thanking them for being such good friends.

The cards were of a particular theme – usually a popular cartoon character or superhero – and seemed to always have some catchy slogan or message like a train chugging on a track, saying “I choo-choo choose you!”

Valentines Day Card 3Indeed, Valentine’s Day would show us how loved and appreciated we were, and all the kids in the class would beam with joy at the number of cards they received that day.

But as enthusiastic as I was about Valentine’s Day, I remember also feeling very sad or disappointed, as I would often come home at the end of the school day without that special card from that girl for whom I had a crush, despite my sending her a thoughtful valentine.

I wonder if God can relate to these experiences and emotions when it comes to the spirit of Valentine’s Day.

Valentines Day Card 2Whether it be a sunshine or singing birds, acts of generosity from friends or community members, the gift of laughter or talents bestowed upon us, these and so many other examples illustrate how God gives us Valentine’s Day cards aplenty and seeks to speak with us daily, revealing His unconditional love for all of His creation.

In return, though, do we prepare a Valentine’s Day card for Him?

Do we tell God how much He is loved and appreciated?

Or, instead, do we avoid and ignore the Lord, leaving Him empty-handed when it comes time for Valentine’s Day cards to be distributed?

How many of us focus on other people or experiences, rather than devoting time and attention to God, who simply longs to lavish His love upon us and call us His children? (1 John 3:1)

But despite our sins, dismissal or even rejection of God, let us remember the Lord remains steadfast and faithful with His unconditional love.

Unlike those girls of my elementary school years on Valentine’s Day, God never breaks our heart.

Nehemiah Biblical QuoteQuite the contrary, He mends it by forgiving with mercy and understanding with compassion. He is slow to anger and graciously showers His blessings on His people. (Nehemiah 9:17)

So may this Valentine’s Day offer us an opportunity to fully embrace the love of God, while also gifting Him with our valentines, in order that we may show our gratitude to Him for everything in our lives.

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Taking a Spiritual Journey

Last week, I took a quick trip down to the Baltimore area to spend time with some of my cousins.

We are very close and always have a blast together, but due to geography, we rarely get to see each other.

So, with a pretty open weekend and my wife’s blessing, I hopped on a plane Saturday morning and flew home Sunday in time to get a decent night’s sleep before school resumed the next morning.

Passport 1Crossing the border both ways, I knew I had to bring my passport. A tiny souvenir of my trip, my passport received stamps from the American and Canadian border agents, signifying yet another journey in my life.

When I think back, my passport has now been marked with stamps from several other countries besides Canada and the United States, namely Aruba, Chile, England, France, Greece, Italy and Mexico.

As my passport stampings symbolize travels over the course of my life, it is interesting to note how in many religions, there are similar markers representing one’s spiritual voyage.

As a teacher of a high school World Religions course, we study in my classes such milestones as the naming and welcoming of a child (aqiqah) in Islam, a bar- and bat- mitzvah in Judaism, the sacred thread ceremony (upanayana) in Hinduism and the becoming of a monk in Buddhism.

It’s no different in Christianity, as various denominations have their own rituals signaling rites of passage for their members from birth to death.

For instance, just like the seven countries I have visited outside of North America, the Roman Catholic Church has seven sacraments to present the distinct steps of one’s faithfulness to God and practice of belief.

Sacraments 1In addition to Baptism, Reconciliation (confession), Holy Eucharist and Confirmation, Roman Catholics may also celebrate the sacraments of Marriage, Holy Orders (priesthood) and Anointing of the Sick.

Similar to the collection of countries in a continent, these seven sacraments can be grouped as rites of initiation (Baptism, Holy Eucharist and Confirmation), healing (Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick) and service (Marriage and Holy Orders).

Sacraments 2And just as a passport can afford someone great opportunity for travel, the sacraments can offer a person a fuller experience of God’s blessings and presence.

But, just as a passport is only good if it is kept updated, the sacraments can only bring us to holiness if they are practiced regularly.

Much like a passport, we are called to live a faith of renewal and to be active in living out our beliefs, and that includes traditions and rituals.

For example, while we are baptized once (typically as a baby), we renew our baptismal identity each time we attend Mass, receiving a blessing when we dip our finger or hand into holy water upon entry into the church. Furthermore, how we carry ourselves each day of the week following a Sunday service should also reflect our baptismal identity.

Making our first confession of sins at a young age of approximately seven years old, we will surely commit sins well past that stage in our lives. Thus, reconciling with God and receiving His forgiveness through the sacrament of penance at least a few times each year can ensure absolution of our faults and a regular reminder of God’s grace and unconditional love for us.

As I remind my students when we discuss the sacraments, Holy Eucharist received as kids is intended to be our “First Communion” and not our last. Therefore, by honoring the Sabbath and attending church service regularly (ideally weekly), we are offered a chance to be fully and frequently united with our Lord Jesus Christ.

When it comes to Confirmation, I can remember being confirmed at the age of 13, while in Grade 7. I believe I was old enough to appreciate with relative maturity the significance of the sacrament. Today, I am challenged and called to display that appreciation by continuing my practice of faith in attending Mass weekly, reciting the Apostles’ Creed and living out my beliefs in God through actions each and every day.

While my wife Catherine and I married nearly five years ago, I know I am tasked with carrying out our sacramental and matrimonial vows daily for the rest of our life. This can come in many forms, including regular reminders of how much I love her – both through words and deeds. My remaining loyal to her, supporting her wishes and dreams, providing for her needs and those of our children, and honoring her by my living each day – these are all ways I can embody the meaning of the sacrament of marriage.

Sacraments 3Certainly, the remaining two sacraments will not necessarily apply to everyone in the Roman Catholic faith, much like each milestone may not take place for everyone in any given denomination or religion.

Just the same, a sincere display within the sacraments can help express one’s true devotion in his or her relationship with God.

Regardless, much like a passport must be renewed in order to always be effective, it is important to stay current in our faith through the sacraments, allowing us to enjoy the fullest experience possible with God in our lives.

Passport 2Doing this, then, we can not only enjoy great spiritual travels here on earth, but also stamp ourselves a trip to eternal salvation in Heaven.

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Making Time for God

With a new year having just begun, many of us have made resolutions to help transition into 2018.

Some are driven to lose weight, either by dieting or through increased exercise.

Others may resolve to break a bad habit, such as smoking or procrastination.

Resolutions 1Still others may decide to scale back on their multitasking or aim to say no to an overwhelming number of commitments, striving for a healthier balance in life.

With each day passing, before we know it, the calendar pages will have flipped and we’ll see in a few months where we’re at with respect to our personal objectives.

Yes, hard to believe, the months of a year can pass by quickly.

In our household, we have a calendar on the wall in our kitchen, used to identify and organize all the many commitments involving our family.

Family Calendar 1Covering swimming lessons, birthday parties, doctor appointments, family dinners at my in-laws’ house, outings with my wife, catch-up nights with friends, out-of-town visitors coming to stay with us or a bunch of other items, it seems our calendar always seems to fill up faster than you can blink.

Indeed, the days get busy, the weeks turn crazy and the months pass along.

But in all of the hectic living many of us may go through, are we setting aside enough time?

Absolutely, we should set aside time for others – our spouse, our kids, our parents and siblings, our circle of poker mates or book club members, colleagues and everyone else.

Surely we need to set aside time for ourselves, too – a good book, a bubble bath soak in the tub, a workout, a coffee date with a friend, or anything else we need.

But what about God – will we make enough time for Him in 2018?

Life will always be busy, but are we resolving this year to include God in our days, weeks and months?

Let’s start with the obvious – there is the Sabbath Day to honor and visit God in His house.

For some more than others, attending a church service can be challenging or difficult for various reasons, but that is a perfect opportunity to involve God more in our lives this year.

Listening to Scriptural readings, taking part in communal prayer, participating in various traditions and meeting new people – all of this could be quite beneficial.

But let’s not forget a week has seven days and not just one.

Outside of attending a Mass or worship celebration for about an hour each week, where will God be the rest of the time for us?

Resolutions God 3This new year offers a chance to invite God into our homes through morning and bedtime prayers – whether we live alone, with our spouse, with children or friends.

Each meal we eat, we will have an opportunity to experience God’s presence and thank Him for His many blessings through even a tiny but reverent sharing of grace.

But prayer is not the only way we can feel and honor God this coming year.

Anytime we open the door for someone, or dust the snow off a person’s windshield in a parking lot this winter, or donate items to a local charity instead of seeking profit through a personal online sale – these are just some ways we can make time for God in 2018, whether that is daily, weekly or monthly.

A former student of mine once made a very clever project for her semester-end evaluation, creating a month-long calendar with all of the dates filled in.

Calendar 1On each of the calendar boxes was a sticky note indicating some sort of event or reminder. While this may seem normal and unimpressive, interestingly, the student tied everything back to the Lord.

There was a highlight for St. Valentine’s Day and a reminder to tell her family, friends and boyfriend she loved and appreciated them unconditionally.

The Sundays were circled for church and volunteer work at a local community center, encouraging underprivileged youth so they could be hopeful in their lives despite unfortunate circumstances.

She had identified the importance of studying for some upcoming tests, in order to excel and attain her fullest potential, helping her realize her post-secondary school goals and God’s vocations for her.

There was a note for her grounding, displaying accountability for breaking house rules and disrespecting her parents.

Other items marked included time set aside each night for Bible reading, as well as a road trip with friends – with a reminder to make prudent decisions while away from home, so as to continue living a chaste lifestyle.

As you can possibly relate, this student’s calendar was filled with many activities and commitments.

Yet, she reinforced the point that God can be included at the center of all of them, allowing our days, weeks and months to be filled with joy and prosperity.

Resolutions God 1So whatever the outcome of our resolutions, may all of us this year resolve to invite and include God in our lives every step of the way.

Doing so can certainly help us ensure that 2018 is, indeed, a happy new year.

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Out With the Bad, In With the Good

Earlier this week, my family got hit by the flu bug.

You might know the type – vicious vomiting, unsettled stomach, chills and hot spells and other bodily activity uncomfortable even to write about in this blog.

Flu Bug 1Predictably, once one person in the household got it, the destructive beast made its way to the other members of our home.

Thankfully, the flu worked its evil ways but left our family with enough time to recover right before Christmas can be celebrated. Now, we can gather with our relatives and still rejoice in this blessed season, enjoying full health while knowing we are not at risk of infecting anyone.

That’s the silver lining about enduring such a horrendous bout of sickness. Whether it be a virus, food poisoning or any other bug that ravages your system, once it’s gone, you feel so reinvigorated.

The return of a full appetite, a sense of humor, some pep in your step so you can exercise once again – whatever it is, it’s so nice to have. The bad goes out, the good comes in.

God reveals this message, too, through various stages of history in the Bible, reminding us of His love and presence all throughout periods of difficulty.

Whatever the example, He teaches us to stay the course on His path, assuring us we will find greener pastures in our lives. (Psalm 23:1-6)

I was reminded of this recently while reading to our sons the story of Noah’s Ark.

Noah Ark 4I recalled how the world was filled with such sin that God decided to destroy the evil and build His beautiful creation back up again. (Genesis 6-9)

That rebirth and renewal of the world is one example of how God always makes good outcomes of bad happenings, so long as we are open to receiving them.

It’s at this time of year we turn our attention to another instance of God conquering evil.

The birth of Jesus ushers in a new life for all of us to appreciate, empowering us to change our negative ways while inspiring us to return to the perfect form we received at the time of our creation.

New LifeThrough Christ, we see God’s presence always – even in suffering – and we are motivated to recognize how, with Jesus, we can overcome even the darkest of days in order to feel abundant brightness. (Hebrews 2:10)

As He taught during His time on earth, Jesus offers us the way, the truth and the life we require to escape from our struggles or confusion.

Devoting our life to Him can help us feel such rejuvenation, gaining the strength needed to face all of our troubles head-on and put them behind us.

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Is There Room in Your Heart?

As the Christmas holidays approach, many people are growing more excited about their vacation plans.

For weeks if not months, those travelling may have their flight arrangements already secured or their road trips marked with routine food stops.

No doubt, they have contacted family or friends, various hotels or bed & breakfast places to see what rooms are available.

As we journey through the Advent season in preparation for Christmas, we can be reminded of the travels Mary and Joseph took from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Now, keep in mind they travelled by donkey and were not surrounded by the developed highway routes we enjoy today, filled with gas stations, fast food restaurants and convenience stores.

Tired, hungry – and, oh yes, pregnant – Mary and Joseph sought a place where they could rest and prepare for the birth of their child.

No Vacancy Sign 2Turned aside by others, an innkeeper offered them a lowly stable, where the Savior would be born in a manger, surrounded by animals and hay.

Say what we will about the accommodations, that innkeeper made room for Jesus when others declined and closed their doors.

Hearing the Nativity story these next few weeks, we will be challenged to reflect on whether we make room for Jesus in our lives and, if so, how much room.

Is God given our entire heart and included in all of our daily thoughts, words and deeds?

Is He invited in only when we need Him, serving as a safety instrument in time of desperation?

Do we call on the Lord when it’s convenient for us and serve Him only out of obligation or for appearance’s sake, or do we genuinely wish and choose to have God reflected in as much of our lives as possible?

This message struck me head-on the other day while driving to school in the morning. Listening to a song titled Make Room by the group Casting Crowns, I heard powerful lyrics:

Is there room in your heart for God to write His story?

You can come as you are, but it may set you apart when you make room in your heart and trade your dreams for His glory.

The song also describes how Jesus came to save a world so cold and hollow, wanting to free us of all of our sorrows.

Sponge 4If courageous enough, we can reflect on how these messages impact us personally.

While Jesus was born outside with limited shelter, do we envelop Him with our heart each day or mostly cast Him aside?

Jesus gives us His unconditional love, but in return, do we give Him our life unconditionally?

It was this exact point that was discussed during a recent Alpha for Youth session at my high school.

We were looking at a picture of a swimming pool and the people in the photo, comparing the situation to society’s various relationships with God.

Alpha Swimming PoolIf we are to consider the pool to be God, what role of the individuals applies to us?

Are we diving head-first into His loving and healing waters, or just dipping a toe in, reluctant and wanting to enter slowly?

Are we swimming laps comfortably and confidently with God present in our every stroke, or are we on the pool deck, more preoccupied with other matters such as our work or personal appearance?

Are we experiencing a feeling of drowning in our life and reaching out for God to rescue us, or are we exiting the pool, toweling off and leaving Him?

Certainly, there is so much to consider as we approach the blessed birth of Jesus Christ. Yet, as we celebrate the coming of Emmanuel and ready ourselves for another year with His peace available to us, what are we choosing as our Christmas wish?

Remembering how God entered the world as an innocent babe wishing to save, let us be reminded of how – just like hotel rates when trying to book a room the week before Christmas – the cost of a life without God is simply too great.

Is there room in our heart for God to bless us and write His story?

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Forgetting the Joneses

Keeping up with the Joneses.

Keeping up with Joneses 6It’s an expression people use to indicate comparing oneself to another person or group of people, as in a family being envious of neighbors – the Jones – and their possessions.

Yet, it stretches far beyond a family looking next door and desiring a swimming pool in their back yard in order to be as popular as the folks beside them.

In today’s world, so many of us fall prey to this temptation of constantly comparing ourselves in some way to someone that we may or may not know.

Keeping up with Joneses 5It could be their facial appearance or body type, their clothing or car, their social popularity, athletic ability or intelligence. We could pine for their house, their job or their friendship circle, their spouse or significant other.

Whatever it may be, we in society often look at others and can find ourselves wondering, “Why can’t that be me?”

It was this observation a student pointed out in a recent assignment analyzing Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. (Luke 15:11-32)

In the story, Jesus tells of a son who renounces his father and heritage, demanding his inheritance and later squandering it on immoral behavior.

While the parable teaches the meaning of unconditional love and the value of forgiveness – as shown by the father welcoming the contrite son upon his return – there is also a secondary angle focused on the other son, jealous of his brother’s celebrated arrival. (Luke 15:29-30)

Jesus warns against the evil vice of envy in this lesson and on several other occasions, including his parable of the laborers in the vineyard. (Matthew 20:1-16)

In that teaching, our Lord reminds us to be grateful for our gifts, living humbly without focusing too much on others around us.

While such a task was difficult for many in biblical times – even for St. Peter (John 21:20-22) – the jealousy demonstrated in these stories speaks to the feeling many of us can have in our lives today.

Keeping up with Joneses 3Think about it. How often have you looked at someone else and wished you were them or had something they had? I know I’m guilty of this.

I know, also, that I’ve wrestled with this lack of satisfaction for quite some time, dating back to my middle years of elementary school.

Whether it was another boy’s hockey or basketball talents, their video game system, or their cute looks or funny jokes that attracted all the girls’ attention, I always seemed to compare myself to others.

This struggle with insecurity has continued off and on since then.

Whether it is my skinny body type no matter my exercise or eating, my high school and university grades, my teaching credentials and accomplishments, or my housing situation, I’ve never truly been able to keep from judging myself against another person.

Heck, I’m even envious of my friends who have successful writing careers.

All of this is foolish on my part, of course, as I’ve got much to celebrate without having to look at the proverbial green grass on the other side.

Keeping up with Joneses 2I’m blessed to have a darling wife who loves me for who I am and with whom I have three wonderful children who light up my life.

My family lives in a comfortable townhouse that meets all of our needs and allows us to enjoy a lifestyle offering many privileges and experiences.

I am a high school Religious Education teacher who holds great passion for my vocation, relishing the daily challenge of striving to invigorate the faith life of teenagers.

I have a strong network of close friends who support me no matter what and from whom I learn so very much.

As for my writing, as budding as it may be, well, let’s just say I’m entrusting that to the Lord, asking Him to guide my steps and open doors if they are meant to be opened.

Keeping up with Joneses 1The more I fall into the trap of longing for what others have instead of appreciating what’s mine, the more I lose sight of the goodness I already savor.

Sure, any one of us could easily think our life would be better off with someone else’s wardrobe or popularity, their electronics, bank account or job.

However, if we consider what we have and look at that as a collection of blessings from God, we can humbly realize we have so much to be thankful for and therefore live a life of gratitude instead of regret.

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