Thankful to Be

Recently, I was honored to give the invocation and benediction at a Naturalization Ceremony at the local, federal court house. As part of this honor, I visited with the presiding judge and guest speaker, a naturalized citizen who is an associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Florida.

Even as a boy in India, the professor knew about the United States as a land of opportunity. He lived in a dirty village in a tiny house with no luxuries, such as clean water. He enjoyed reading, though books were scarce. As he described his childhood, he remembered being certain that one day he would come to America, though he didn’t know how. His childhood faith astounded me, much more hopeful than mine at that age, and I had plenty of clean water, a pile of stuffed animals and shelves of books.

Before I delivered the invocation, I stood for a moment at the podium and looked into the eyes of several people, acknowledging the divine expressions of God also looking at me. I spoke the same greeting I say before each church service: “Namaste. The Spirit in me welcomes, honors, embraces and rejoices in the Spirit in you.” After the assistant U.S. attorney made the motion for admission, the court’s deputy clerk administered the oath. Forty-one candidates for citizenship – each with stories of the past and dreams for the future – rose. One, a young Latina mother, gently rocked a carriage as a baby cooed inside. Many people smiled, while others cried openly. I doubted I could imagine their life journeys to reach that day.

A few minutes later, President Obama spoke in a video message and Lee Greenwood began to sing, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” Then, I also cried, blinking away tears, fishing in my handbag for a tissue to dab my eyes. Suddenly, I realized that our stories were connected; many years earlier, three of my four grandparents escaped oppressive regimes and also became U.S. citizens, dreaming of new lives, even before I was a glimmer in my parents’ eyes.

After the ceremony, one of the new citizens thanked me in carefully spoken English for my prayers. I offered my congratulations. She smiled and said, “So thankful. So thankful to be.” I thought she might say more, but she wiped away tears, shook my hand and turned to greet some others.

As I prepare for Thanksgiving and consider the recent news about refugees, immigration and border patrols, I see a tapestry of Thanksgiving stories: mine, my grandparents’, the naturalized citizens’, and those who await a new homeland. As divine children of God, we each desire a safe place to live and be free. Say what we will about the failings of this country we call home, none of us would be here without the grace which opened doors and the courage to step out in faith, each of us so thankful to be, here and free.

Happy Thanksgiving, Blessed Readers, and Namaste.

© 2015 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks. All rights reserved.

Peace is the Way

Several years ago, I bought a bumper sticker which said: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” For days, I couldn’t decide where to place it on my car. After much contemplation, I tacked it on a bulletin board instead, believing I needed the reminder more than other drivers did.

“Peace is the way” seems an even more important reminder when events catapult some of us into believing – however momentarily – that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Because one of life’s greatest paradoxes is that no matter how hard we may work to be peaceful, we cannot get to peace if we aren’t peaceful first. As Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh says, we not only need to say: “Let there be peace on earth and let it being with me.” We also need to say, “Let me begin with peace.”

I believe that this is the same wisdom Jesus the Christ, the Wayshower, taught in the 1st century, when he told the disciples, according to the Gospel Writer called John (14:27): “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

For a moment, imagine the disciples’ reaction, which the John Writer doesn’t include. As they witnessed world events, the increasing power of the Roman government, the hypocrisy in the synagogues, the disparities between the haves and have-nots, the disciples likely wondered what Jesus meant.   Perhaps they spoke among themselves, as many of us have, wondering how they could avoid feeling troubled or afraid, wondering what kind of peace his peace is and how to employ such advice.

Jesus did not give as the world of his time – or ours – gives. Because Jesus lived as a peace activist, not a peace re-activist. He continually invited his followers to overcome their fears and worries. Rather than react to the world around them, he urged them to consider an alternate way of being and living. The peace which he – and numerous other mystics and spiritual masters – taught is primarily a spiritual peace, one which we experience when we align ourselves with God. This peace prevents the world from robbing us of our serenity and our compassion. This is the peace we feel at the depth of our being, the peace which passes all understanding, even when the news is bleak.

The Truth is: Peace isn’t only about what occurs in the world. Peace is also how we choose to live. And the way isn’t only the path we choose to travel. It’s also how we choose to behave, pray for and treat others – especially when we can’t for a million years understand them, or their actions and choices. When we truly understand this, then perhaps we can feel more faithful on our life’s journey, trusting that as we make peace our way, peace unfolds before us, right where we are.

© 2015 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks. All rights reserved.

‘Tis (Not) the Season

Travel with me, Blessed Reader, on a brief shopping excursion. The early November afternoon is an unseasonably warm 85 degrees. Many people are out and about, the usual roadways congested, though not unmanageable. On one of these roadways, an area is fenced off. An edge of fence sports a sign which reads: “Buy Christmas Trees Here.”

At Office Max, the air conditioning runs full blast. I scan the aisle signs and immediately notice several displays for 2016 calendars and planners, though my search for plain writing paper takes some work. Then I hear the strains of Bing Crosby singing, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” I cannot hide my disgust and flee, even as a young salesman asks whether he can help me find something.

In Michaels, the smell of bayberry and spice is so strong I can barely breathe. Aisles overflow with an abundance of Christmas items in gold, silver, red, green and white. Bows, wrapping paper, boxes, wreathes, lights, garland, and glitter cascade from shelves. A man searching for child’s art supplies appears dazed and confused. As I seek writing paper, a young mother with two small children asks a salesclerk where she might find a lit nativity set for her front lawn.

Now, the salesclerk appears confused. She furrows her brow at the mother and me. I realize the mother doesn’t speak English well and tell the clerk that this customer means the manger scene with the animals, angel, wise men, Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus. The mother nods ardently, smiling as I explain. Even if she can’t communicate it, she and I understand one another. The salesclerk calls someone for clarification, which reveals that this Michaels carries no such item. The woman smiles again at me, thanks us both, and leaves with her children. I follow closely behind, as I discover this Michaels doesn’t carry what I seek either.

Then, I take my tote bags and a shopping cart into Trader Joe’s, where I see a large, ornately decorated black board which reads, “The Turkeys are Coming.” I breathe a sigh of relief, appreciating the store’s sense of timing. Along a front wall sits a display of cornbread stuffing mix. An adjacent stand displays Advent calendars. I see it and smile. As a pastor, I preach on Advent, the Season of Preparation which heralds in the 12 days of Christmas, traditionally ending in early January with Epiphany. At the check-out line, the young mother and I recognize each another. She nods and smiles once more as we each pay for our groceries. Neither of us has any Thanksgiving items – yet.

It’s no wonder so many people not only dread the holidays, but also are too weary to enjoy them. The holidays, however we define and celebrate them, often become just one more thing to check off our To-Do lists. So, we hurry through the experience and miss the fun of a slow, deliberate, faithful journey which leads from one season to the next, one delightful holiday season at a time.

© 2015 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks. All rights reserved.

In the Clear

As November in North Central Florida unfolds, I notice on my walks around the pond how many leaves have fallen on the path. I also notice, after the weekly landscape clean-up, how the area has transformed since the lushness of summer. The brush grass where the gray and white cranes rested is short and slightly browned. The shriveled wild berries on the bushes make a yummy feast for some local wildlife. Squirrels that once hid in the underbrush scurry past me, grabbing a few acorns and other morsels which rest nearby. No more humming of frogs or fluttering of tadpoles. The duck family’s grassy knoll is no longer private, and when I see them, they sun themselves, keeping a watchful eye on me and a neighborhood boy with his little red wagon.

Many people devote themselves to spring cleaning and I did also, after living through snow and ice in the Northeast and Michigan. Yet, as crews remove dried moss, frayed palm fronds and shredded pine bark to make room for new growth, I now see why others devote themselves to autumn clearing. As I consider many of my possessions, I find several items I thought I wanted, but no longer need. I realize I seek clear, open space for new growth in my life, too.

In my clearing process, I delivered a bag of clothes and household items to the hospice resale shop. I made three trips to the recycle bins to dump old papers and notes. I shredded old bills, paid long ago; I don’t know why I kept them. I donated four bags of books and CDs to the library for its next sale. I’ve trashed a bunch of old e-mails, the business long ago completed, happily and successfully. Within our church community, many of us cleared our closets and attics, gathering gently used backpacks, duffels, totes, and suitcases for children in foster care so they have an easy way to carry their belongings from place to place. As I continue clearing, I notice the empty spaces in my closet, drawers, bookshelves, and files. Even as nature prepares to go dormant for a while, I sense a newness and freshness which didn’t exist before.

Sometimes, I think we hang onto possessions, believing we’ll need them later, although we rarely do. And perhaps you’ve noticed, Blessed Reader, as I have, that even when I release one item, I find another nearly as useful and sometimes even better than the previous one.

Falling leaves, cleared brush, cloudy skies and darker days sadden some people, although they actually renew my faith. I remember, as autumn continues to unfold, just as it has every year before, how many autumns I’ve seen. I trust that this autumn is flowing into winter; then spring will return. And all we need is flowing for us, too, as we trust in the clear, open spaces.

© 2015 – Rev. Jennifer L. Sacks. All rights reserved.