This year is about to end. It seems to have flown by so quickly! As I get older, the months appear to lose time on me…the days between New Years' feel like they get shorter. Once again, another year is ending…and a new one will soon be dawning.
I reflect on all that this year has given me. As with any year, there has been a mixture of sorrow and joy. Days of great sadness and loss, as well as days of great pleasure and happiness. 2014 has been a year of changes for me - new beginnings, new friends, new experiences. But, through all of the seasons of life that have come my way this year, I can say without question that one thing has been constant. One thought has carried me through the sad days and the happy days: God is always good. Even in the moments when His goodness seemed distant or His love a bit removed, He has always proved that such thoughts are only my faulty perception. He is always good. I am always loved! Loved by the Sovereign God Himself because He chose to offer me life and hope. There is always a glimpse of Grace, even in the hardest times. There is always a reason to be thankful and to live - because of the One who makes it all possible.
I have learned the gift of true friendship: that it's not about the closeness between you in terms of miles but the closeness between you in heart. That the path from your heart to your friend's is never far…even if you live half a world away from one another! The important things in life like faith and family can bind you together in amazing ways no matter how long you've journeyed alongside each other.
Most of all, I've learned that a life can be made beautiful when God opens the heart to Grace. When someone is willing to let Him have the broken pieces of their heart, He will turn those shattered remnants into a beautiful whole, an example to others of the healing He brings. He was born to raise me to new life, to give me the opportunity to thank, to love, to see Him for Who He is! Every year is another chance for me to see His gifts, His creation, His evidences of love in new and fresh ways. When I am looking, waiting in expectancy, for His next offering of Grace, the days hold new meaning. The weeks hold excitement and hope. The year is something to look forward to…because of Who is planning it out. There is always good in store. Somehow, I think God must smile to think of the beautiful things He is just waiting to reveal to me in the coming year. And I smile too. I smile because He is good. And I am loved. And the year ahead will, I know, drive these truths even deeper into the core of my heart.
For many years, news correspondent Barbara Walters has done a special year-end program called "The Ten Most Fascinating People," which highlights interesting individuals from that particular year. Athletes, politicians, religious leaders, actors, and actresses all make their appearances on her special show. It is always a matter of great interest to many to see who she will choose to profile each time.
During the year, I began to think about some of the people I have known and heard about who were fascinating to me but for reasons different than Barbara Walters' choices. In this blog post, I will highlight some of the courageous and inspirational people whose stories have especially touched me during the year. It is my way of honoring and recognizing the brave and good-hearted among us who help to make this world a better place. As 2014 has come to a close, I want to introduce my Inspiration Awards.
Without further ado, here are my winners:
Most Inspirational Service Member Award
Marine Cpl. William "Kyle" Carpenter is my Most Inspirational Service Member for obvious reasons. In November of 2010, while guarding a roof top in Afghanistan, Kyle and another Marine suddenly started taking enemy fire. When a hand grenade was thrown their direction, he jumped on top of it and took the blow, thus shielding his fellow warrior from the brunt of the blast. Miraculously, both Marines survived the incident, although with series injuries. This past summer, Kyle was invited to the White House where he was presented with the our nation's highest award for military valor: the Medal of Honor. Since then, he has used his platform and newly-found national attention to draw awareness to veterans' issues and to share his remarkable story of faith and courage with others. Always lighting up a room with his wonderful smile and sense of humor, Kyle embraces the second chance at life that God has given him and desires to live it to the fullest. He is now in his second year of college at the University of South Carolina. For his bravery and, more importantly, his character and class, Kyle is more than deserving of being the first recipient of the Most Inspirational Service Member Award. God bless you, Kyle, and thank you for your service to our country.
My choice for the Courage Award was very easy: my friend, Katie Elliot. Katie has been bravely fighting a long battle with cancer for the past few years. Just a teenager, she has had a hard road to travel but has met her health challenges with grace and dignity that is way beyond her years. Her positive attitude, faith in God, and beautiful smile have inspired many people along the way, even drawing the attention and support of Seattle Seahawks' quarterback, Russell Wilson, who visited her on one of his weekly trips to the cancer ward of Seattle Children's Hospital. Katie has endured the countless hours of treatment, numerous surgeries, and flights from Alaska to Seattle with great strength and courage. For this reason, she is my first recipient of the Courage Award. We all love you, Katie! Keep flashing that wonderful smile, and keep living each day to its fullest. Thank you for inspiring so many people.
Ernie Casper has only recently become a friend of mine, but he was the clear choice for my Perseverance Award. Eight years ago, Ernie - a young husband and father of two - suffered a debilitating stroke that took away his ability to walk, talk, and really do anything for himself. Through years of therapy and, most importantly, God's healing touch, Ernie has now regained his speech and is actually physically in better shape than he ever was before the stroke. He has become an avid runner and martial arts athlete as well as a painter and photographer. He has told me that he never dreamed he would ever do any of these things, let alone after a stroke. Ernie is one of the happiest and most outgoing people I know, exuding joy and humor to anyone who knows him. He has persevered through his health challenges and embraces life and all it has to offer. More than that, Ernie is a devout Christian who believes that God has made him a better person as a result of all he has gone through. For his beautiful spirit and courageous attitude, Ernie is my 2014 recipient of the Perseverance Award. Thank you, Ernie for bringing so much hope and joy to the world. I am blessed to know you.
Sportsman of the Year Award
I first heard about a young quarterback named Derek Carr about a year ago. While playing for Fresno State University, Derek had set 27 college football records and was in his senior season when I began to watch his games. The more I learned about this young man, the more I liked him. Just before his senior season, Derek's wife had given birth to a little son they named Dallas. Dallas, however, had to overcome some major health issues at birth and almost died along the way. God miraculously pulled little Dallas through, and he is now a healthy one-year-old. Earlier this spring, Derek was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and became their starting quarterback at the start of this season - his rookie year. Over the last several months, I have been blessed to get to know Derek personally and continue to be impressed with his character and leadership skills. After losing only one game his senior season, Derek has only won three games since entering the NFL. But, in victory or defeat, he has shown a maturity and steadiness that is way beyond his twenty-three years. In a sport that has recently been plagued by scandal and crime, he has become an example to many of what a true man of character should be. He has continued to stand on the firm foundation of his faith in God and love of family, which has given him perspective during this difficult season. Because of this, Derek Carr is my 2014 Sportsman of the Year. Thank you, Derek, for putting God first in all you do and for showing such character in the face of adversity. It is my honor to name you my first recipient of this award.
Team of the Year Award
This award was a tie, so there are two Team of the Year awards being given out this year:
The San Francisco Giants are not receiving this award because they are my favorite MLB team but because of the way they baffled many in winning this year's World Series title - their third in five years! Mid-summer, with their division status dropping and their win percentage going down, many thought the Giants' chances of getting to the post season were all but over. To the surprise of most, they rallied just enough to get themselves a wild card spot and a chance to make the playoffs. As they seemingly found another level of play that was missing earlier in the year, their team spirit, selfless play, and commitment to one another became evident to all who were watching their miraculous run to another championship. This team never ceases to amaze me the way that they stick together through adversity, praise each other when a fellow teammate does something well and, most importantly, put their families and their faith above everything. The strong character of their players and the culture of success they have built together is a wonderful example. In an age where selfishness plagues most sports, the Giants are re-defining what it means to be a close team - a team dedicated to the success of everyone involved, not just themselves. Thank you, Giants, for setting the bar high - on the field and in life.
The Chinooks are my second recipient of this award. This summer, I had the opportunity to observe first-hand what it looks like when a team comes together and plays for a higher purpose than just a sport. These college players from around the country began their season hardly knowing one another and ended up as best friends. The beginning of the season wasn't easy for them - they lost most of their first few games - but they stuck together and kept believing that things would turn around. They ended on a good note, winning nine of their last eleven games. Most importantly, these players were a wonderful example on the field of good character and selfless play, continuing to distinguish themselves as the "good guys." By putting faith in God at the center of their aspirations, these players built a solid reputation in the community and the Alaska Baseball League. I loved watching you play, Chinooks, and am proud to call myself one of your fans! Keep making a difference in the world through your baseball playing and your example to those around you!
I appreciate both of these teams and how they displayed the right way to play the game - in sports and in life. It is my pleasure to present the Giants and the Chinooks with my 2014 Team of the Year Award!
Singer of the Year
Jason Gray. I just can't say enough about this amazing singer's faith and the inspiration he has been to so many people, including me. Just over a year ago, I was introduced to the beautiful voice and music of this guy from Minnesota and was even more touched by the story behind his moving lyrics. Jason has overcome childhood abuse and a subsequent speech impediment and has embraced the opportunity to share a message of hope to a hurting world: God is always good - even in the midst of the pain of life - and we are always loved. No matter what we go through, hope is always a reality because of the One who offers it to us. Especially for those who are walking a dark road, Jason's music soothes and comforts the soul. I am pleased to award him with the 2014 Singer of the Year Award. Thank you, Jason, for allowing God to use you and redeem the painful chapters of your life so that you can give life to others.
Movie of the Year
I first went to see this movie last spring and was blown away by its courageous message. It is the story of a young man who dares to stand up to the false teaching of his college professor and who refuses to believe that there isn't a God. It is a wonderful inspiration to anybody who watches it and is a reminder of the importance of taking a stand for what you believe. For this reason, I select "God's Not Dead" as my 2014 Movie of the Year.
Book of the Year
After seeing this incredible story on a national TV show, a relative of mine first told me about this woman. When I saw her book on the shelves of a local bookstore, I knew I had to get it. I wasn't prepared, however, to be so profoundly moved by what I read in those pages. It wasn't a hard decision for me to know what book I would choose for my 2014 Book of the Year. Thank you, Antoinette Tuff, for sharing your story and inspiring so many people because of it!
Song of the Year
Jason Gray's song "Laugh Out Loud" came to be a sort of personal anthem for me this year. In the various seasons of my life, I kept coming back to the life-giving words of this catchy little song. It always reminded me to be thankful for what matters in life and to laugh and smile…even when life makes it hard to do so. God will always take your hand and give you the grace to go "whistling through the dark" when you give the pieces of your broken heart over to Him. Thanks, Jason, for penning what, in my estimation, is the 2014 Song of the Year!
I hope you enjoyed my 2014 Inspiration Awards. I can't wait to begin choosing the 2015 nominees and winners and announcing them to you at the end of next year! It is my prayer that the example of these amazing people will inspire all of us to live better lives.
My mom and I were doing a Greek word-root search online, looking for the original meaning of the words "grace" and "joy." As we clicked on links and typed in Bible verses, it dawned on me that life is a perpetual quest for grace-infused joy. Every person that calls this earth home is on a personal search for meaning - for original intent. Like us looking for words. Hidden in every soul is a deep yearning to know our created purpose - ultimately, to know the Creator. To know Him.
So each word kept leading back to Him - chara (joy) meaning "grace recognized;" charis (grace) meaning "favor." It all is coming clear to me now: I receive life-giving joy when I recognize and acknowledge God's favor. Apart from Him, my happiness and joy is fake and artificial. Without Him, trying to find that original meaning is like typing a Chinese word into the Greek search and hoping for an accurate result. It leaves us coming up empty - it leads us to a false reality. We still seek that purpose but have no way of finding it. We have only ourselves to look to.
As I applied this chara-joy, this "grace recognized," to the living truth found in God's Word, it gave a new light to scripture: when the wise men were rejoicing "with exceeding great joy" (Matt. 2:10) upon finding the dwelling place of the Son of God, they were not merely happy that the Star had gotten them there, that they made the long journey safely. No, they were recognizing God's favor, His grace on both their own lives and the lives of those whom this Messiah-King would deliver! This gives a whole new twist on the story!
And here it is that I find what this search is all about: it is about mankind longing for a Savior, aching to be told that they belong, they they are loved and accepted…that they have been chosen and called. Until we have been effectually found by the One who is searching for us, our lives have no direction and, consequently, no joy. We have no grace to recognize, no favor to appreciate. Therefore, life becomes no miracle - no discovery of endless hope. It is mere survival. Dark-roaming in perpetuity.
Oh how thankful I am to have been captured by this amazing grace! That I even have such a favor to acknowledge is a miracle in itself! If I can only remember to keep my eyes open for his demonstrations of such grace - then, I will have joy. Then I will have reason to be happy - not for my sake, but for His. Because isn't this grace-love completed when I return back to Him what is given? To be thankful in an otherwise thankless world? Chara-joy. "Grace recognized." Favor. Life.
" This night a battle has been waged and won for you. Love had to get you. The Love that has been coming for you since the beginning - He slays dragons for you. This is the truest love story of history, and it's His Story, and it's for you. All the other fairy-tale stories only echo your yearning for this truest, realest one - this one that has its beginning before the beginning of time. This night, you on this visited planet, your rescue is here. You can breathe. Your God extends now on straw. He lays Himself down in your mire. He unfolds Himself in the stench you want to hide, in that mess that is your impossible, in the mucked straw you don't want anyone to know. Rejected at the inn, holy God comes in small to where you feel rejected and small. God is with you now. Wherever you are - in a soundless cry or hidden brokenness or in your ache - God always wants to be with you. You are not ever left alone in this. We are never left alone in this; God is with us. This is Love you can't comprehend. You can only feel and touch this kind. There, in the place where you feel rejected, you can be touched by God."
I first saw this movie while traveling a couple of years ago. The story of an elderly man who goes out of his way to bring the spirit of Christmas to others is truly touching. It should make us all want to slow down and take more time to bring the holiday cheer and love to those around us. For this reason, "Christmas Angel" has become one of my Christmas movie favorites!
Several years ago, I wrote this poem in honor of those who spend Christmas away from loved ones due to military deployment. Even though the miles separate them from us, they are still celebrating Christmas in their hearts with us.
To all the brave service members who will be coming home to spend the holidays with loved ones, we welcome you back and thank you for your sacrifices and your service! To those who will spend it away from family and friends, stay safe and may God bless you. Merry Christmas to you from across the miles!
This song expresses the meaningful blessings of Christmas - the little things like candles burning and visits with old friends - that make this season special. May they be yours today and throughout this holiday time of year.
I listen and reflect as the pastor's message unfolds. He speaks of stables and shepherds, of angels announcing the arrival of the Messiah, of the good news of peace and great joy coming to a lost and despairing world.
As I read the Christmas story once again, it all becomes clear: God enters the places no one wants to go and chooses those whom the world deems lowly as the recipients of His peace and love. He was born in a stable - the last place anyone would choose for a baby to be born, certainly not the birthplace for the King of Kings. His arrival was told to a group of outcast, dirty shepherds - not the first people most in society would think of to be told the glorious news of the Savior's coming. God is not afraid of the humble and unlikely places. He often goes there of His own volition and brings His good news to the unloveable. I look back at my own life and count the many times when He has entered, somewhat unannounced, and brought hope and light into my dark and dirty places. Those areas of my soul where few would choose to come. Those places where even I have hesitated to enter. There have been moments when I have thought, "This pain is too deep; this shame is too great for Him to forgive. Why would he want to come into the hidden hurt, to step in and embrace my darkness as His own?" Those stable places, those tucked away and outcast caverns of the human heart, these are the ones He comes to. Sometimes He arrives a bit unwelcome. But He comes. He comes because He wants to. He comes because this is what his lowly birth was meant for: to identify with "the least of these." Many years later, He would pray,"I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children." (Luke 10:21). He would then say to His followers,"…Many prophets and kings have wanted to see what you see but did not see it…" (Luke 10:24).
At the time of His birth, the world had no room for Him. The inn was full. So, also, were the hardened hearts of those He was born to save. Little did Bethlehem know that night that the Sovereign Lord was in its midst! Shepherds heard the great news. They tried to wake up the town and share the glad tidings…but none took heed and came to see Him. Only "the least of these" accepted the message and took it to heart. The humble are the ones to whom the kingdom is entrusted.
Truly, those who will discover His Christmas miracle will find it in the least likely of all places. The humble places. Go to the stable or the fields where stinking sheep abide, and there, His news of good will is found. There, in the dark and cold places, He comes in peace.
"Night has fallen; the clear, bright stars are sparkling in the cold air; noisy, strident voices rise to my car from the city, voices of the revelers of this world who celebrate with merry-making…Around me in their rooms my companions are asleep, and I am still wakeful, thinking of the mystery of Bethlehem. Come, come, Jesus, I await you…Jesus, I am here waiting for your coming. Wicked men have driven you out, and the wind is like ice. I am a poor man, but I will warm you as well as I can. At least be pleased that I wish to welcome you warmly, to love and sacrifice myself for you."
"The birth of the child into the darkness of the world made possible not just a new way of understanding life but a new way of living it."
So said Frederick Beuchner, and I concur wholeheartedly. The arrival of the Messiah into our world not only brought a reign of peace upon the world such as had never occurred before in history but, perhaps more importantly, brought into existence a plan of eternal hope without which mankind would have been lost forever. By Christ coming to earth, our fallen race was granted redemption.
The first time I watched this movie was when some friends invited me over to see it at their house. My year had been anything but full of hope and health - my dad had been fighting a life-threatening condition and had only recently gotten out of the hospital, and some dear friends were deployed that holiday season with the military. My emotions were all over the place, and I needed some inspiration and Christmas hope in the worst way. Then, I saw "The Christmas Card" - a lovely story of how a small act of kindness, a Christmas card, brought a young soldier to a small town in California, where his life was changed forever. Having written many Christmas cards to deployed service members over the years, I can say that the story told in this movie is exactly like real life: a small thank-you to our military members goes a long way…sometimes further than we ever expect or dream!
" The Light never comes how you expect it. It comes as the unlikely and unexpected - straight into Bethlehem unlikely and the feed trough hopeless, and Christmas whispers there is always hope. It doesn't matter how dark the dark is; a light can still dawn. It doesn't matter if the world whispers, 'There's not a hint that help will come from elsewhere,' telling us that nothing will ever improve, get better, or change. God favors the darkest places so you can see His light the brightest. And once the light of Christ shatters your dark, shadows forever flee your shadowlands. There's no going back and living in the dark; you live in the impenetrable, safe Light of light, and Christmas never ends for you…True, you cannot light Christmas - because it's Christmas that lights you."
Come, Emmanuel, and free our captive hearts that mourn. Bring us Your wisdom, and show us the path of truth so that we may walk in Your ways.
"O Come thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And Death's dark shadows put to flight."
You are the Desire of Nations. Come, and bind us to Yourself. Fill the earth with Your peace, and give us hope. Thus may we rejoice in this the season of Your redeeming. The season of Your choosing. The season of Your holy birth.
"Miracles always begin understated. They begin, and the earth doesn't shake and trumpets don't sound. Miracles begin with the plainsong of a promise - and sometimes not even fully believed. This is always the best place for miracles: God meets us right where we don't believe. When our believing runs out, God's loving runs on…The miracle always is that God is gracious, that grace carries us and breathes life into the dead and impossible places, that grace - a thousand graces - explodes the doubting silence in our hearts."
I'm getting excited for Christmas!! Snow-covered rooftops and beautiful lights add a lovely atmosphere to the most meaningful holiday of the year. The day we all love is almost here. As the following song says,"Christmas is coming! Will you be there?"
This beautiful story of how a Marine surprised his family for Christmas will bring a smile to your face and a tear to your eye. This is my Christmas moment of the week for obvious reasons! God bless all those who serve and defend our country!
"This is the message of Christmas. The message of Christmas is not that we can make peace. Or that we can make love, make light, make gifts, or make this world save itself. The message of Christmas is that this world's a mess and we can never save ourselves and we need a Messiah. For unto us a Child is born. "
For this week's Christmas movie recommendation, I suggest "The Christmas Hope." It is a beautiful story of people who learn to overcome their own pain and step into the pain of others. Through the miracle of Christmas, they are able to come together and encourage one another to love and live again in spite of the tragedy of their past. It is absolutely wonderful and full of hope and a good ending. Here is the trailer for it:
This past weekend, snow fell for the first time. It had been much-anticipated and longed for. For many weeks, the cold and frosty earth had waited for its winter coat. And I had waited for it, too. The trees that had no leaves, the ground that was life-less looking and frozen hard - it all seemed so bare, so lacking in beauty. But then, the white flakes came gently falling down and covered everything in sight and turned a drab outdoors into a winter wonderland.
As I watched it come softly down, I thought of how much more its Creator had been anticipated, too: hundreds of years had humanity clung to the promise of a Messiah-King who would deliver them. They pictured a mighty conqueror arriving in splendor and royal glory. But how surprised they were when He came softly, quietly into the fallen world. Born in a stable, His arrival was announced to the humblest of society - shepherds who had the royal news revealed to them by the heavenly host of angels. In the lowliest of places, the King of Kings made His entrance, thus identifying Himself with the shamed, the outcast, the downtrodden. Most were not aware of His coming even though they had looked for Him for centuries. Christ comes much the same way into the human heart: tenderly and quietly identifying with the weakness and shame that it carries deep inside. He chooses to reveal Himself to those whose souls are open to welcome Him, no matter how lowly they may be.
This Christmas season, as is the case throughout history, many seek Him. But He will only be seen by those who know where to look for Him, in the least expected. Long-awaited, much-anticipated, He has come and, through His arrival, changed the eternal destiny of mankind. But we shall only discover the true meaning of His birth when we realize that His ultimate victory came not as an earthly conquerer like many thought but as the One who clothes our bare and cold hearts in His purity - the dark sins of our past being forever covered like the snow upon the hard, frozen ground.
The flakes continue to gently fall. So, too, does His grace and love continue to fall on the lost souls of those He purposed to redeem.
December has begun! With it comes a countdown of sorts - a deep anticipation of all things Christmas, of all things hopeful and full of light. With it comes a uniting of hearts in peaceful celebration all over the world. I love Christmas. Not just for the beautiful decorations and the lovely music but for the One who is remembered by it - the One who humbled Himself and came to our broken earth to accomplish a redemptive plan that still lives today. All through this month, I will be sharing here my thoughts and favorite things about Christmas. I can hardly wait to give you a glimpse into my favorite Christmas memories and traditions, and I hope that you will share yours with me, too.
To start things off, here is one of my favorite Christmas carols, "Angels We Have Heard On High" as performed by one of my favorite groups, The Piano Guys.
This song summarizes my journey of the soul - a journey to discovering grace and many ways in which He loves. As I counted my blessings this Thanksgiving season, I realized that the little things in my life - a star-studded sky, the majestic mountains in the distance - they all stand out a little more because of the One who formed them. Because of the One who loves me!
As we near Thanksgiving, it is weighing on my mind - the question: do we really know how to be thankful? Ever since our first parents dared to think that God plus something else equals complete satisfaction, human beings have been struggling to be thankful. This dilemma robs us so often of our joy, of our ability to see the beauty of life in the little things. To see the beauty of God.
For my sake, and the sake of others, I am grateful that God is all about second chances. He gives us another day, another opportunity to be forgiven, to open up to His grace, to experience a new way of life. We don't have to stay the way we've always been, thanks to the undeserved favor and grace of God. As He enables me to do so, I am learning to make every day a day of thanksgiving.
I sit in church and listen as the pastor speaks. My eyes fall on the page of ancient words in front of me. Worn with use, my Bible lies open on my lap and I read,
" I will praise the name of God with a song,
and will magnify him with thanksgiving."
The previous verses drip with hopelessness and sorrow and yet the praise, the sacrifice of thanksgiving, is present. The verse below it says that this hard-thanks is more pleasing to God than anything. I run my fingers across the page, and it hits me: It is the thanklessness that kills. It is the ingratitude that destroys. The minute I allow the murmuring, the complaining, to begin, that is when it turns wrong. I step out of the Grace-life. I begin to live the lie first spoken by Eve - "He is not enough."
The world is filled with evidences of His love. It moves to the rhythm of His amazing grace. Everywhere I look, it speaks of Him. And yet, I still under-appreciate. At times, I refuse to see it for what it is: His gift.
According to many, this is the season of thanksgiving. To me, however, it is a way of life. I need the thankfulness every single day. Because thankfulness brings joy. Thankfulness brings hope. Thankfulness allows me to see and appreciate the grace moments. These are the times when I see God.
I look out the window of the church. Sunshine is breaking through the morning fog. So, too, in my soul, the Light is chasing away the darkness. The gratitude is bringing me closer to Grace. Closer to God. Not just for a season but for a lifetime.
In listening to this song, I was reminded of the importance of counting our blessings…not just seasonally but year-round! It's the little things - what I call "grace moments" - that keep us in a continual state of thankfulness, even in the hard times of life.
Today, as I try to do everyday, I make the choice to notice His gifts. To count the ways He loves me. To enjoy His presence through the many blessings I have been given. And so the list begins:
For the gift of God Himself - that He would want me for His own and choose to love me! That He would give me a new opportunity every day to thank and acknowledge Him in all of life!
For the gift of friendship - that life affords us the pleasure of walking its road with the company of others whom we come to love and appreciate. That there are fellow travelers on the journey who encourage, love, comfort, and bless us along the way.
For the gift of family - how many people in the world have no one to call their family! And yet I have family all over the world - relatives and close friends alike - who grace me with their care and support every day!
For the beauty of the world and the place I live in…
And so the blessings continue. The list goes on. What are your blessings? What are your "thousand little things?" Count the ways!
" A few years ago, I decided to try to live this giving thanks as I believe Jesus did each day, regardless of His circumstances. And what I found was that in giving thanks for each moment and savoring it as bread from His hand, I'd find sustenance and the grace of God Himself in it…I found myself on a transformative journey that affected every area of my life - including all the broken places. God began to show me the graces, the love gifts, that were right before me, waiting to be noticed, waiting to be received. This easily overlooked stuff, the small - and especially the hard - became for the me the life-giving stream of joy in Him. Even when I am sometimes impatient or unwilling, when I face conflict or heartache, I've begun to accept that even the impossible is a possible opportunity to thank God, to experience the goodness and grace of the Giver of all."
Several years ago, when I first heard this song, I didn't feel as though life had given me much to be grateful for. My father had been battling a series of health issues that nearly took his life; a friend of mine had died while serving in Iraq; another friend had almost been killed in a car accident; my step-grandfather had finally passed away after a slow decline. The losses were adding up too fast. I couldn't seem to get beyond the thought that God wasn't being fair. He didn't care.
I remember being in the car one day when I listened to these words:
"Some days, we forget to look around us;
Some days, we can't see the joy that surrounds us;
So caught up inside ourselves, we take when we should give."
It was a wake-up call for me. And I could feel the tears start to flow. I could feel my heart softening. I had been blind to His many gifts that were right in front of me. I had turned a cold shoulder to His love. It suddenly occurred to me that life isn't meant to be fair. And it isn't fair. But, in the midst of it, He is always good. And I am always loved. This song introduced me to the possibility that "there's so much to be thankful for," even in the hard times of life.
It began as a simple conversation between two cadets at the the United States Naval Academy. One spring day in 2001, Brendan Looney walked out to football practice and stopped by to compliment another cadet on his guitar playing. After exchanging greetings and a laugh as to whose NFL team was better, they introduced themselves to one another, and an inseparable bond was born. Brendan and Travis were destined to become friends. They knew it. And they loved it.
For the rest of their college years and beyond, the two of them shared everything with each other: a desire to serve, a sense of duty, a daring courage, and a willingness to sacrifice for what was right. Both chose different paths to accomplish this - Travis went into the Marines and became an officer; Brendan went into the Navy and become one of their elite: a Navy SEAL. Both would serve harrowing deployments in the Middle East and would support one another through their best and worst moments. Even more, they would eventually bring their families together because of their bond. As playful bets on sports teams and care-free bike rides together (as they once shared at Annapolis) turned into conversations about war, as miles now separated the two friends who were once rarely seen apart, they still maintained a friendship that grew deeper with time.
Several years after their first meeting, Brendan was still in SEAL training; Travis was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq. Travis' emails kept family members and close friends, like Brendan, updated on his latest military efforts over there. April 29, 2007 brought a taxing mission for Travis and his fellow Marines. It was a mission that, at the end of the day, would claim the life of one of the Corps' finest - 1LT. Travis Manion. As Travis' family grieved his death, Brendan did the same…right along with them. Brendan's girlfriend, Amy, who had also known Travis, attended the memorial service in place of Brendan, who was still training with the SEALS. Travis was buried in Pennsylvania near his hometown. To honor his life and service, the family, and Brendan, ran the Marine Corps Marathon and also were honored to enjoy a special visit with then-President George W. Bush. The bond between Travis and Brendan still existed…
Nearly three years later, just days after marrying Amy, Brendan would deploy to Afghanistan for six months. Now on his second tour since Travis' death, Brendan felt as though he was completing what Travis never got to finish. Every time he looked at the bracelet on his wrist that read,
1LT. Travis Manion, USMC
Spartan, Hero, Leader
KIA Iraqi Freedom, 29 APR. '07
he knew what he was doing…who he was doing it for. Now considered a close part of the Manion family, he kept them updated on his efforts, just as Travis once did for him.
September 21, 2010 dawned like any other day. But it soon turned tragic: LT. Brendan Looney, along with three other sailors, was killed in a helicopter crash in the mountains of Afghanistan. They were just a few weeks prior to coming home. Travis' family mourned once again…this time with the Looneys. The two friends were bonded in life and now death, for both sacrificed the same way. Both died doing their duty.
When the Manions learned that Brendan was to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, it seemed fitting that the two friends should rest together. Travis' remains were dug up and re-buried next to his friend Brendan. In their absence, both families have continued to bond and have sustained a connection which "Lion" and "Loon-Dog," as they were known.
This amazing story, as chronicled in the book Brothers Forever by Tom Sileo and Tom Manion, got me thinking about the gift of friendship. How often we fail to acknowledge the special people in our lives who have shared the journey with us. Not the ones who merely pass through. Rather the loyal friends who share our sorrows as their own, who rejoice in our successes as if they were theirs'. Who become a part of us…and we a part of them. Brendan and Travis' deep love for one another and their shared ideals is a model for each of us. To not just be the type of friend who is there in prosperity or, worse yet, is too busy to stop and listen deeply. No…may we be as committed as these fine young men were: to God, to family, to country, and to each other. And may we be blessed enough to be given our own Brendan or Travis who will walk with us to the very end.
" As we continue to see so many of our men and women in the armed services come to terms with post-traumatic stress...doctors and counselors are learning that the very trait that often serves them well on the battlefield - their ability to overlook their own pain, trauma, and terror and focus on their responsibilities - also becomes a debilitating barrier to their healing and restoration once the battle is over and they have returned home to their families. The first step is often simply acknowledging that the horrors they have witnessed were indeed…unfathomable and inhumane. The atrocities witnessed and injuries - to body, mind, and soul - must be respected by attempting to give voice to their ineffable impact. Speaking about what happened tends to open the doorway and allow grief to wash through. Frequently, we are so afraid of the memories, the painful, immeasurable weight of our burdens, that we try to lock and bar the door of our souls to such grief. It feels like the grief will drown us, smother us, choke us with its unspeakable immensity. But in fact grief can be like an antiseptic that cleanses and purifies the contamination that has infiltrated the depths of our hearts."
In today's post, we continue my analysis of veterans' affairs. Here now is part 2:
I so clearly remember the day I learned a valuable lesson regarding how to relate to those returning home from war, and I will always remember the Navy Corpsman who taught it to me. For several months, I had corresponded with this young Navy medic who was serving with the Marines in Iraq. I had sent him a package, along with a letter saying thanks for all he was endeavoring to accomplish there. I had said he was a hero, and I meant it. To a fifteen-year-old like me, people who did things such as he did deserved some respect! Weeks later, I received a letter back from him. He said thank-you for the package and said he appreciated everything in it. But the rest of his letter addressed my "hero" comment. In it he said,
"…As for calling us heroes, well thank you, but we're not.
A saying comes to mind from Ulysses S. Grant: 'we men
are lions; we men are treacherous things.' That is the best
way to put it…Doing what we do doesn't make us heroes,
although we all want to be.We do it more because of hate
or anger caused by the loss of a friend or just a Marine."
At the time, I didn't understand what he meant. Like most civilians, I would've tried to convince him otherwise. But, in time, I began to realize that, to the average soldier or Marine, the real "heroes" are the ones who gave their lives. Most service members will tell you that they just "did their job." To them, it is a very uncomfortable thing to be called "heroes." "For what?" they say,"Doing what we volunteered to do? Doing what was asked of us? Leave the praise to those who gave all. They are the true heroes." I have heard this time and time again and have come to believe it myself. I respect the bravery and courage of service members, but I rarely use the word "hero" anymore. I save that title for the ones who, like my friend Michael, sacrificed their lives. It's been nearly ten years since that Navy medic wrote to me. I would later learn that he penned those words just hours after losing several of his Marines buddies in an IED explosion. Once I heard that, it all made sense to me: soldiers and Marines, who, like him, endure the horrors of war, feel more like monsters than heroes when they return. They have done unforgettable things that terrify them. The have seen their buddies injured or killed in front of their eyes. They don't know who they have become. It takes time for them to work through their feelings and to appreciate their own service. Calling them "heroes" only adds to the chaos of their mixed emotions. While well-meaning, it can hinder the healing process. If we are to communicate to them that we understand, we must strike a balance between showing our appreciation and recognizing their courage.
Yet another failing on our part in regards to how to help those returning from combat is our quickness to label them. As the clinical and medical world has delved deeper into the issues surrounding post-trauma, these issues have become a major focal point for those returning home from combat. Soldiers now feel like they must be super-human in order to avoid PTSD's presumed inevitability. Any remote sign of anger, grief, loneliness, etc. is deemed an automatic indication of the "disorder." Soldiers have expressed to me their frustration that, the moment they get back, they're being treated as "broken people," as a "problem needing to be fixed." There is no longer any room for transition. It's almost assumed that you will end up with this "disorder." Poor you.
A friend of mine, who has endured several deployments, once shared with me that almost as soon as their boots touch U.S. soil, the service members are given papers to fill out so they can be tested for (and usually diagnosed with) PTSD. He told me,
"How do they expect someone who was just on the front lines a few hours before to
now be 'normal' when they get home? Of course they will diagnose you because
you haven't even begun to transition home yet…We know what they're
going to say, and it's only going to make us feel worse. Let's give it some time
and see where [we] are at in a few weeks or months. Then we can evaluate
While I do believe that PTSD is a legitimate issue and that some people will need medical intervention to help them in their struggle, I have also long felt that many who are "diagnosed" with it do not really have a disorder at all. The dictionary describes someone with a disorder as being "deranged, or mentally incapable of functionality." Most of the guys I've known who supposedly have this "disorder" would not qualify under this description. Labeling someone with a disorder means that there is something physically wrong with them, that there is cause for them not to be normal. It often indicates hopelessness, a sense that one will not improve. I do not feel that this is the correct approach in most situations for the hurting and have sought to offer a different solution.
Over the years, I have talked with soldiers who have successfully transitioned home, and most have said to me that the one thing which aided them the most was authentic, interpersonal communication - a sense of togetherness and genuine understanding from friends and family, not often found in the counseling offices of therapists and doctors. While there is sometimes a role for professionals to play in the healing process, I've had Marines and soldiers tell me that they feel as though they are not being fully heard in these situations or treated as a human being with real needs. They are just a number, another appointment on the calendar. Many suspect this is partly due to the fact that not all counselors or therapists who study PTSD have ever experienced combat or gone through the transition themselves. I can't say I have either and yet, by communicating to them that I genuinely care, that I don't consider them a victim, and that I believe that they can come out of their despair and lead a fulfilling life, I have seen amazing results. By reinforcing good changes in their life as they move forward, by not being discouraged by the set-backs along the way and maintaining an attitude of hope and recovery, these soldiers respond in positive ways. Some have even said to me that I am the first person they have ever met who gave them a reason to believe they could overcome their feelings of hopelessness and despair. One soldier once looked me in the eyes and said, "…You are the first person in six years who has made any sense of what I went through."
Part of why I think this is true is because I am open to alternatives not found within the medical community. It bothers me to think that, perhaps, we have lost our common sense along the way. Because we know so much in terms of modern medicine, it is becoming harder for us to simply listen, to feel with our heart, to give validation to other things. Music therapy, animal therapy, outdoor experiences, sports, and other methods may be of far greater benefit to someone than counseling and medications alone. I remember reading a story about a young Army captain who struggled greatly upon his return home. For months, he had been trying to make sense of what he had gone through yet continually came up empty. Then one day, while attending a church service, he heard the pastor say the following:
" If you are in a dungeon of darkness, in a place of despair,
understand that a picture comes from a negative. There's
a darkroom first. There's a negative that develops. From
a negative comes a picture…You can't live your whole
life trying to escape your situation…You're going through
dungeons and dark places of despair. Your battles are in
your mind. You're asking God, 'What is wrong with me?'
Nothing is wrong with you. You're in the darkroom.
You're about to be made into a picture!"
(from Two Wars by Nate Self p. 323)
The soldier went on to say that he felt like the pastor was describing him perfectly. He added,
"I knew that I had been living in a darkroom, but I had only
begun to see that God could use me as a picture to others.
I walked out of that church with a broken heart…but believing
what [the pastor] had said." (ibid)
This brings me to my final observation regarding the needs of our service members. We need to be aware of spiritual emptiness and then attempt to promote a healing of the soul in addition to the mind and body. As is the case with many of us who go through a traumatic situation, soldiers returning from war are left to find answers to their experiences, solutions to the questions which have resulted from the atrocities of combat. For those who possess a strong foundation of faith prior to their wartime experience, these tend to fare better because they have something to hold on to. For them, there is a God to explain what has happened. For those who do not have this, however, the road to healing is even harder. Sometimes there are things in life that, humanly-speaking, are unexplainable. They don't add up. Only God can bring understanding at such a point. For this reason, I believe that the spiritual has to be a central part in the healing process. It certainly has worked for many veterans that I know. As our culture tends to discount this fact, I think it is no surprise that so many feel so lost and hopeless. For them, there is no God of comfort to turn to. He is nonexistent. Only their own strength can save them and, eventually, that fails. If someone is to truly take steps on the road toward healing, they must come to know the only One who can make sense of their emptiness. Better yet…the only One who can fill it and replace it with a "joy unspeakable" and "life abundant." Because, after all, there are times when only God can understand the groanings of the heart.
In conclusion, we must realize that, for those who leave the battlefield, the war is far from being over - it is really just the beginning of another war - a war at home that no one else can entirely see or comprehend. For them, the echoes are still there. While they may seem alive on the outside, often something has died on the inside. They are still making their way home, even though they may have been back for some time. It is essential that we surround them with unconditional love and support and promote an environment where they have permission to grieve and to heal. It is also crucial that we do not heap false expectations on them but simply meet them emotionally where they are, making sure that they have many opportunities at their disposal with which to positively handle the pain. Most importantly, we must give them the room to transition, while being with them every step of the way. Each of them has given so much on our behalf. It's up to us to learn what they really need and then to be there to provide it for them.
Here are some helpful links regarding services being provided for our troops and their families: