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When Life Goes Klunk

“I do not know just why He came to love me so. He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.”

I did a dog funeral yesterday. I’m a priest who loves and rescues dogs. And I am loved and rescued by those same dogs. So it’s not likely to be my last dog funeral. The dog’s name was Klunk. He was one of 200 dogs rescued by my local Humane Society during the Louisiana floods in 2016. He was only six months old at the time and was adopted immediately. But six months later Klunk was returned because he started fighting with other dogs. Unfortunately, fighting with other dogs would become a recurring theme for Klunk, as well as getting adopted and then getting returned. But the staff and volunteers of the Humane Society fell in love with him. They recognized that he had some behavior issues, and after one particular fight, he was given a “potentially aggressive permit” by Animal Control, but they never gave up on him. It seemed as though they would do anything and everything for Klunk. They took him to a mega-adoption event in Florida, where Klunk was the only dog among 27 dogs who did not get adopted. Then they went the extra mile and stepped up to pay for training for Klunk. When Klunk returned after another adoption didn’t work out, he got sick. But the staff nursed him back to health. Indeed, they loved him unconditionally. Eventually they thought they had found a perfect foster-based rescue out-of-state that included training. He had been doing well. But then Klunk got in a fight, and was immediately euthanized. The staff and volunteers who loved Klunk were completely devastated.

Klunk’s funeral was at noon yesterday in the blazing Louisiana sun with no shade. Those oppressive conditions didn’t stop those who loved him from coming to be there for him and with him one last time. He would be the first dog buried at a new pet cemetery the Humane Society is creating nearby. Virtually the entire staff and a host of volunteers showed up. It was obvious that Klunk meant a great deal to many. There were a lot of broken hearts and shattered spirits gathered together in that place. We read three passages from scripture including Psalm 104 which speaks of God’s love for all God’s critters: “In wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your creatures. When you open your hand, they are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.” We also read Romans 8, a passage that reminds us that nothing can separate us from God’s love – not any of life’s greatest challenges, not fights with other dogs, and not even death. And finally, we read Jesus’ observation from the Gospel of Matthew, that when a small sparrow falls to the ground, God knows about it. And God cares about it. Because God loves every creature, even the smallest and the most challenging among us, God’s heart breaks when we are hurt or when we hurt others. I asked those gathered to share favorite memories and stories about Klunk and the emotion in their voices spoke of their deep affection for him. And then I quoted the old hymn “He Looked Beyond My Fault.” It seemed to express the sorrowful yet sacrificial sentiment that I was feeling as I came to know Klunk’s story: “Amazing grace shall always be my song of praise. For it was grace that brought my liberty. I do not know just why He came to love me so. He looked beyond my fault and saw my need. How marvelous the grace that caught my falling soul. God looked beyond my fault and saw my need.”

I had trouble getting the words out. I was moved so much by their love for Klunk. As one employee told me: “Behind all of Klunk’s challenges, we saw the sweet boy that he was.” I believe that the way they loved Klunk – to the very end – is the way that God loves each of us. We are given so many chances by God. God sees beyond our faults and knows our deepest needs. God sees our spirits, our potential, our beauty and our goodness. God will go the extra mile and will give everything so that we might be saved from our most dismal deeds. God will do anything and everything so that we might live more fully into his desires for each of us. An indestructible love like that seems rare in this world. But I witnessed it yesterday. And I experience it every time I fall in my own life. God shows up to rescue me. God never gives up on me. Thank you Klunk ,and thank you to all who loved Klunk, for reminding us just how amazing grace can be.

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I am Thirsty

I am Thirsty: A Meditation on Good Friday

There is a profound spiritual image that motivates me in my quest to quench the deepest of desires. Jesus, on the cross, just before he uttered his final words, “It is finished,” said something no one expected, and most of us still have no clue what to make of or what he meant. He said, “I am thirsty.” I am thirsty. What did he mean, in this most solemn, serious and sacrificial moment? I imagine that, like all expressions of truth in this life, there is more than one meaning. On one level, here was a dying man attempting to catch his breath, in deepest pain – he desperately needed something to drink. He was given a sponge dipped in inferior wine and maybe that helped him in some way – maybe it refreshed him and eased a bit of his pain. I hope so. Perhaps Jesus was simply reminding us of his humanity and his human needs. But was that all he meant? I don’t think so. I think Jesus in that moment in that expression was using a powerful image to describe his deepest longing and desire – a longing that offers a kind of life for which we can eventually look back and say, “By the grace of God and the help of my loved ones, somehow, I did it. Mission accomplished.” Indeed, it is finished. Although I may die – at least I know that I have fully lived. Like St. Irenaeus observed in a truth by which I try to live my life: “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.” Jesus thirsted for real authentic life – for communion, for connection, for relationship – for love. For God. For you. For me. Jesus thirsted for that which cannot be bottled or brewed or shaken or stirred, reminding us that there is a kind of thirst that cannot be quenched by anything other than the most powerful spirit, something more potent than any beverage on earth. May we thirst for the kind of life that he lived. May we thirst for the deepest connection with our God and with each other. May we thirst for the love that would sacrifice everything to break down every barrier and redeem every human being, bringing them fully alive in Christ’s love.

From an Introduction to my book, The Beer Drinker’s Guide to God

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How High Can You Count?

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Guess Who’s Got a Crush on You?

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OBARKTUARY FOR NAWILIWILI “WILI” NELSON

OBARKTUARY FOR NAWILIWILI “WILI” NELSON

February 14, 2006 (or 2005 but it had to be Valentine’s Day)—May 7th, 2018 (New Orleans 300th Birthday, henceforth known as the Big Cheesy, a reference to Wili’s favorite food)

Nawiliwili “Wili” Nelson was born on “The Garden Island,” the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Early on, he was found to be allergic to all vegetation and not fond of the ocean. He found it quite hilarious that he would be born on “The Garden Island,” given his allergies to gardens and fear of water. Not much is known about his first year other than that he emerged from his mother’s womb singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and asking, “Are you gonna eat that?” His favorite television show as a puppy was Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. He particularly loved the songs “You Are My Friend: You Are Special”, and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It is conjectured that he was raised to be a hunting dog, but he refused to hunt, hurt, corner, or inflict harm on any other living being, especially his animal friends. Thus, he was given his dishonorable discharge from his original family and was celebrated as a hero by all the pigs on Kauai. To honor his pig friends, he attempted to eat like one for the rest of his life.

His first recorded public appearance simply notes that the Kauai Humane Society found him wandering happily by the side of the road. It is thought that he was humming “On the Road Again” by an alternative country-western singer with pig tails whom he greatly resembled, and who resided in his dad’s home state of Texas. He was taken to the Kauai Humane Society where, because of his extraordinarily happy affect and perceived intelligence, he was kept long past the time when most animals are prematurely executed. Because of his white paws, he was named “Bugsy” and labeled an “Airedale Terrier.” Later, it would be revealed that, on the island of Kauai, any dog with facial hair was known as “Airedale.” There, all the members of ZZ Top would be considered Airedales, and Jesus is thought to be the “King of Terriers.”

His dad met him in July of 2006 while showing his good veterinary friend from Texas the Kauai Humane Society (known by all the animals on Kauai as a five-paw resort). The veterinary friend who examined Mr. “Bugsy” was also the veterinarian to Sam Houston, the acclaimed author of the howlingly hilarious book, The Gospel According to Sam. She proclaimed him not only physically healthy but also psychologically sound. “If he’s suffered any hardship or abuse, he sure doesn’t show it.” His soon-to-be -human was also impressed that he entertained himself for a long period of time with nothing more than a plastic bottle.

Wili’s dad moved to Kauai from Texas on February 14, 2006 to become a church pawstor (well, technically a Peskypalian priest). When he met “Bugsy,” it was love at first sight. He returned the next day and took him home to be his son. Struggling to come up with a dog’s name that would combine his Texas roots and his new Hawaiian home, he recalled that the harbor where the ships enter on Kauai is named the Nawiliwili Harbor. Furthermore, his dad had already discovered a favorite dive bar nearby—the Nawiliwili Tavern (it just so happened that the Tavern was owned by a pawrishioner, so the priest got a clergy discount). Combining his Texas roots and his new Hawaii home, he named this special critter “Nawiliwili Nelson!”

Wili was beloved on the island of Kauai, appearing in a number of Christmas ads for St. Michael and All Angels Episcopaw Church, sporting reindeer antlers and the engaging grin for which he became known throughout the world. He was also featured on several radio interviews inviting the community to celebrate St. Francis Day at his dad’s church. His favorite church services included the Animal Blessing as well any service followed by a wiener roast, chili cook-off, luau, or parish potluck. His early church antics are immortalized in print in the book written by his human: The Beer Drinker’s Guide to God. In a chapter titled “My Wili” one can read more about his early childhood development and his unanticipated visit to the second-grade classroom of the nearby Wilcox School. While some local citizens were not impressed with Wili’s appearance, he won “Outstanding Eyebrows on Island” a record-setting nine years in a row! Not to mention that he was voted “Mr. Congeniality” at every event he attended.

In September of 2015, Wili and his brother Sinbad moved with their dad to the charming town of Covington, Louisiana, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. They flew over the Pacifistic Ocean in a special area for VIP passengers called “Cargo.” His dad was very nervous on the flight and kept sending chocolate-covered macadoodia nuts to the pilots with a note that said “Love, Wili”.  Wili never met a stranger—he quickly became friends with everyone in his neighborhood, dogs and humans alike. In Louisiana, Wili became well-known as a stuffed-alligator wrestling champion. In November of 2016, he went with his dad to New Orleans where he liked to go for walks at Palmer Park, watch the St. Charles streetcar go by, and eat at Dat Dog. One night, Wili stopped eating and moving, and was taken to a 24-hour veterinarian where he was diagnosed with a serious cancer. Two weeks later, the nice sturgeon removed a tubular from Wili’s bottom, plus a couple of limp nodes. He had to wear a very posh Elizabethan collar around his neck and was pronounced “terminal”—he was given as few as three months to live. It was during this period that he demanded to be known as Sir Williamwilliam Nelson.

Not knowing how long Wili would live, during the summer of 2017, Wili and his dad set off on a “Last Howlelujah Tour” to enjoy each other’s company, meet new friends, share Wili’s story, eat some barbecue, and raise money for animal friends. Wili’s dad reminded people on the Howlelujah Tour that the most important thing in life is not our careers, hobbies, material wealth, or even educations—it’s our relationships that matter the most—with our partners, parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, friends, and pets. Wili reminded everyone how important it is to take time out of your schedule to celebrate your relationships and to sniff as many behinds as you can!  On the Howlelujah Tour, Wili and his dad traveled over 5,000 miles from New Orleans to Las Vegas and back. They met many wonderful people along the way in towns like Covington, Houston, Tomball, Bryan-College Station, Austin, Salado, Corsicana, Dallas, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Lubbock, Cloudcroft, Alamogordo, Albuquerque, Flagstaff, Sedona, and finally, Las Vegas. Wili raised more than $14,000 for animal welfare organizations, and was featured in newspapers, magazines and on television. When he returned to Louisiana, he was greeted with “Welcome Home Wili” events at Christ Episcopal Church, Covington as well as a local bookstore, and later, he hosted the Annual Howloween Benefit for the St. Tammany Humane Society.

Wili would like to thank all the wonderful vetercanarians who have cared for him so well over the years, including Dr. Joanne Seki Woltman and Dr. Ranaella Steinberg on Kauai, Dr. Katie Maher in Covington, Doctors Elizabeth and David Kergosien and all the staff at Medvet, and Dr. Ashley Geoghegan and everyone at VetNaturally. In lieu of bones, everyone is encouraged to sniff your loved ones today, and send a donation to your favorite animal welfare organization, especially those Wili supported on his Last Howlelujah Tour, plus the Kauai Humane Society, and the St. Tammany Humane Society. Stay tuned for a possible Celebration of Wili’s life event, featuring barbecue and beer, and perhaps a new forthcoming book on the Last Howlelujah Tour. This obarktuary was edited for spillings and punkshashon by Wili—psssst—my dad is not a very good writer, so there was a lot to correct! Thank DOG there is WhyFI on the Rainbow Bridge!

 

 

 

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DO YOU COME IN NEED OR IN JUDGMENT? OR WHAT MR ROGERS LEARNED FROM A REALLY BAD SERMON

“God loves you just the way you are.”   Fred Rogers

Mr. Rogers had a disciplined morning routine. He would arise at 5:00 a.m. every day.  He would engage in private devotions – reading scripture, pondering spiritual writings such as those by his favorite, Henri Nouwen,  and offering prayer for a host of neighbors in need –  neighbors near and far. Then he would go for a swim.  One morning, after his swim, he came across a group of people arguing about salvation. I can say this about salvation – if you are arguing about it, you most likely do not understand it at all. One man in the group was particularly frustrated that the others would not acknowledge that his way of understanding salvation was the only way.  He knew Fred Rogers was a devout believer, an ordained Presbyterian minister, so he stopped him and exclaimed, “Fred, tell these people there is only one way to be saved!”  Fred Rogers paused, looked at each person individually, and said: “God loves you just the way you are.”

That is so Mr. Rogers of Mr. Rogers!  Was there ever a less judgmental person who walked among us in recent history? How did he get to be that way – so open, kind, affirming, and receptive?  As it turns out, there was an occasion in his life when he was quite judgmental. That moment of being less than merciful, accepting and tolerant was one that changed his life forever. In her lovely book The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers, Amy Hollingsworth tells the story of a time when Fred Rogers was in seminary. In order to craft his homiletical skills, he would often visit churches to observe how quality preachers delivered their sermons.  One Sunday, he and some friends visited a well-known church in New England. As it turned out, there happened to be a guest preacher that Sunday. At first, hearing about the aged substitute orator made no difference – Fred had heard outstanding guest preachers many times before.

However, this man was less than outstanding. In fact, he was downright dreadful, in Fred’s mind. He failed to observe the most basic  homiletical rules and preaching commandments. Virtually everything he said went against everything Fred had learned about preaching in seminary.  Internally, Fred was incredulous that any preacher or any sermon could be that bad. When it finally ended, after what seemed like an eternity of torment, Fred turned to his friend beside him so they could commiserate over the pitiful pulpit effort they had endured. But before he could open his mouth with a barbed criticism, he noticed tears streaming down the cheeks of his friend. She turned to him and whispered, “He said exactly what I needed to hear.”

Fred pondered her reaction for a long time. Eventually, he came to understand that the chasm between their reactions had little to do with the sermon, and everything to do with each of their attitudes. He had come in judgment. But she had come in need. And because she recognized her need and was open enough to hear an inspired word, the Holy Spirit was able to translate sincerity into truth.  Her posture of receptivity made all the difference.

It always does. If we come to any sermon, any song, any opportunity, any relationship, any life experience in judgment, we have actually judged ourselves, and our own salvation suffers. But if we come in need, acknowledging how far short each of us falls, and how God can use any person and any moment to gift us with grace – we are likely to receive just what we need.

We live in an age where we are so quick to pass judgement on virtually everything. We cannot fathom any response to any word that we might not agree with or fully understand that is not an immediate refutation. What a difference it would make if we approached such moments in need rather than in judgment. We might hear exactly what we need to hear.  We might be changed in ways previously unimagined. And grace would abound more and more – in our minds, hearts, and world.

Do you come in need? Or in judgment?

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THE LADY WHO LIKED TO PAY TAXES or WHY I WOULD NEVER NAME MY DOG THRASYMACHUS

“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” -Benjamin Franklin

“Taxation is the price which civilized communities pay for the opportunity of remaining civilized.” -Albert Bushnell Hart

“When there is an income tax, the just man will pay more and the unjust man less on the same amount of income.” -Plato

It happened one beautiful summer afternoon in one of those really nice Chicago suburban cities, so far north of Wrigley Field that you suspect the locals of cheering for the Brewers more than the Cubs. I was still in college, quite curious about the world, open to new ideas, eager to learn, much more likely to change my mind than, unfortunately, I am now. I was with 30 choir members from my small Christian college in Abilene, Texas, on a tour of the Midwest. The choir’s bass section, of which I was a member, was particularly strong, as I recall. Our lodging was limited to whichever families in hosting churches wanted to keep a couple of college kids overnight. If you were lucky, the families had pool tables in their basements, and looked the other way when you violated college prohibitions against drinking, dancing, and sneaking in your favorite soprano after hours (who happened to be your girlfriend).

One afternoon, I remember driving through that particularly lovely northern Illinois town on our way to meet our hosts. It was one of those towns that seemed like most anyone would want to call it home. It had that look about it—like the citizens really cared about their town and went to great lengths to make it livable. I was still emerging from a rather parochial perspective, a “smaller-than-life” Texas mentality that anything beyond the Sabine, Red, or Rio Grande Rivers must be geographically challenged, if not vastly inferior to more familiar places I had known. The hosts and I sat in their living room, gazing out upon a beautiful, but not particularly affluent neighborhood. We talked about music, movies, literature, sports, education, religion, and politics. I admitted to the lady of the house that I was impressed with her town. “It’s the best,” she told me. “It’s safe, clean, maintained, well-run, and the schools are excellent. We pay our teachers well and my children received an extraordinary public education that prepared them not just for college, but for life.” But then came an addition to the equation I am not sure I had ever heard. “Of course, our taxes are very high,” she shared, “and I gladly pay them. I want the very best for my children, my family, and my neighbors. It’s worth every penny.”

That lesson that some might frame as “getting what you’re willing to pay for” is one I would come to understand much more deeply over decades as a minister. I might put it this way: The generous life IS the abundant life. That, if you are willing to invest, to go all in—whether it’s with a faith community, a school district, a family, a social cause, a charitable organization, a local government or a small town—you, and those you love, will reap the benefits. Resources make a difference. I once heard a minister put it this way: “Our church has all the money it needs to do ministry well and make a profound difference in this world—unfortunately, it’s still in your pockets!”  Even if such giving is required, as in a tax bill, such gifts do have their own rewards. Paying a “fair share” is perhaps the least we can do.

While I realize that some have already stopped reading and will dismiss me as a “pro-tax liberal,” they’d be wrong to label me as such. I’m politically moderate and economically prudent.  Fiscally, I’m mostly conservative. I believe in hard work, personal responsibility, wise spending that does not exceed one’s means, and budgeting for the future. I’ve had a savings account since I was 3 years old. I started mowing lawns at age 12, worked in a hardware store every afternoon during high school, worked several jobs during college and graduate school, and paid my own cash for my first car when I was a senior in high school.  I’ve contributed to my retirement every month and contributed at least ten percent of my income to charity since reaching adulthood. But, in addition to those values, I value my community. I value my country. I value the world. I want to be a good citizen, to do the right thing, and help contribute to the needs of all people. I don’t view paying taxes to create important programs that benefit others in any less positive light as I view my monthly tithe to my church.

In Plato’s Republic, there is a character by the name of Thrasymachus. I’m sure he has some good qualities and is not all bad. And I’ll bet you know people just like him. In fact, you may be a lot like him. He is basically on a mission to look out for number one. He argues that self-serving interests are not so immoral, after all. He even suggests that justice (that weighty word used often in the scriptures of my religious tradition) is really a philosophy that benefits the one in power, and that such a view is not a bad thing. Thrasymachus is one of those people who would always vote “NO” on any tax increase or renewal, even if it benefits the good of the whole. His whole good is himself. End of story. The character of Socrates, who would have been a Chicago Cubs fan had he lived in our time, makes a strong case that Thrasymachus’ attitude is one the world does not need. In fact, Socrates argues effectively that working for the common good is ultimately working in our own interest. Doing the right thing is its own reward. And it makes life better for everyone.

Considering the common good, rather than simply what impacts me and my personal finances, is not a particularly popular position these days. But popularity is often inversely proportional to morality. Here in my home parish in Louisiana, where using the word “tax” is considered probable cause for arrest, or at least expulsion from the state, you might be surprised who is looking out for the common good. Here locally, the Republican Party has endorsed a tax renewal that, any way you slice it, is going to benefit our community as a whole. It will help fund all sorts of public safety, social justice and social service initiatives. The local Democratic Party, which often gets my vote, has opposed it.  This interesting development just goes to show that no one party has a corner on obstructionism or on the powerful and mostly unhelpful word “NO.”  The truth is that sometimes Republicans do the right thing. Sometimes Democrats do the right thing. And Americans?  Well, it is my prayer that we will always strive to do the right thing, regardless of party affiliation, or personal cost. My vote is not given just to the candidate or issue that might be most beneficial to me personally.  My vote is given in the name of the whole. I don’t always succeed, but I always try to see the common good.

So, in the end, I am not afraid of paying taxes. It’s a privilege. I know that I am blessed to live in such a wonderful country and awesome community. I want my country, my state, my parish, and my town to get even better. And I’m willing to pay for it. And by the way, Benjamin Franklin, I’m not afraid of death either! Obviously, I wrote this article.                                                                                          –Fr. William Miller

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ALL IN!

ALL IN!

“But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord!”    -Joshua 24:15

I know something about loyalty. I understand the concept of unwavering support through thick and thin. I know what commitment means over the long term and how costly it can be when we really mean it. You see, I’m a Houston Astros fan. We go way back, perhaps even back to 1888 when the Houston Buffaloes minor league team was formed. The most visionary early Rector of Trinity Church, the congregation I served in Houston from 1999-2006, was the Revered Robert E. Lee Craig, from Jackson Mississippi. Craig insisted the church literally move from a hidden dead-in street back in the early 1900s to “face the world more prominently.” He believed the church should be the most important thing, the most important community and cause in a city; therefore, it should be located somewhere folks would notice it, so that the faith community members would be reminded of its significance every time they worshiped. He knew it was a costly proposition, but it would be worth it. The congregation believed in his vision, and the church building was literally loaded onto a wagon and pulled by a team of mules to its present-day location, right on Main Street in the heart of the city of Houston. The Reverend Craig was a staunch Houston Buffaloes fan. He attended the games as often as he could, and I’ll bet the Buffaloes even made it into his sermons! I don’t know if he lived long enough to see the legendary Dizzy Dean pitch the Buffs all the way to a Texas League pennant in 1931, but if he did, I know he was cheering loudly!

My older brother still owns, and proudly displays, the only Houston Buffs pennant I have ever seen. As a young boy, he would take the bus to Buffs Stadium, and later take a different bus to Colt Stadium to watch the Colt 45s play.  Colt Stadium was a temporary home until the Astrodome opened in 1965; it was then that the team was renamed the Astros, paying homage to the NASA space center in Houston. I remember my first visit to the dome when I was five years old: I was in awe at the “8th Wonder of the World.” And I cheered for the Astros from my very first game! There were more losing seasons and “down years” than I can even remember, but I never wavered in my loyalty and in my support. I was at Turner Field in Atlanta, driving all night from Houston, on October 11th, 2004, when the Astros finally won a playoff series, beating the Braves 12-3 after Roy Oswalt pitched a gem. I was in St. Louis the next year when the Astros finally beat the Cardinals and went to the World Series. I was at the longest World Series game ever played on October 23rd, 2005, when the Chicago White Sox beat the Astros in the 14th inning on a home run by former Astro Geoff Blum. The game lasted 5 hours and 41 minutes. Not once did I consider leaving early. This year, I plan to be at games 6 and 7 in Los Angeles. It will cost me a fortune, but not as much as what I’ve spent to keep my dog, Wili, alive. When you love someone or something, and are committed to it, loyal forever, it really doesn’t matter what it costs.

The same is true of faith. Faith that really matters means loyalty and commitment, though thick and thin. There will be losing seasons and down times. There will be years when the stadium seems empty, and people change their allegiances. Even in faith communities you will sometimes be frustrated by management decisions and tempted to quit supporting your team. But in the end, being a true fan, as being a true person of faith, makes all the difference. Just ask a Cubs fan and all those who hung in there for a century! Last year, I celebrated as the Cubs won the World Series. I hope to celebrate this World Series as well, but this time with an Astros victory. But what happens if they lose?  In the words of the old spiritual, “Done Made My Vow!”  I’m a Houston Astros fan to the very end.

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BLANKET STATEMENT

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Give and it will be given to you.”    Jesus Christ

“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”     Mr. Rogers

“I had to tell 300 people that we were out of blankets. If you could have seen the look in their eyes…” My friend, Paige Pecore, texted me these sobering words as those displaced by the Hurricane Harvey floods in Houston began streaming into an overflowing makeshift shelter at the Convention Center. She and her husband, Doug, like so many Houstonians, were volunteering. Many of the folks showing up had nothing but the wet clothes on their backs. Although I had already donated to Episcopal Relief and Development and to the Red Cross, knowing that these organizations do good work, I found myself asking, “What can I do?”  If you find yourself asking that question in a crisis, know that you are likely not far from the heart of God.

Those desperately-needed blankets immediately became a powerful symbol guiding my own response to the devastation. A blanket is a tangible expression of concern; something that can provide warmth, protection, and even a small sense of security for folks who have lost everything.  Even though my church and a local construction company were already meeting behind-the-scenes to begin to coordinate a more massive and sustained relief effort, the blankets became my focus. My initial plan was to raid the local stores, rent a truck, and meet my friend, Doug, halfway. The roads were closed. Then I contacted a friend who has a plane. The airports were closed. Then I went online to see if the god of commerce, amazon.com, could help. Only a moron would even begin to imagine that if I ordered blankets on Amazon, they’d deliver them the next day to the Convention Center.  Apparently, fools like me are born more often than you think!  I even contacted the Cajun Navy, with visions of sailing down the I-10, stirring a pot of gumbo while sipping an Abita Amber, entering downtown Houston through Buffalo Bayou, then hoisting the blankets overboard and into the shelter. The Cajun Navy guy wished me well, and told me to contact the Cajun Submarine fleet, headed by Commander Al E. Gator. I’m still searching the swamp! Undeterred, I pressed on.

Then, a miracle happened. My friend and fellow priest, Scott Painter, who lives in the heart of Houston, happened to maneuver flooded streets and arrive at Costco just as it miraculously reopened. He texted photos of my blanket options and asked “How many do you want?” I ordered 100, sent him a check for $2,000, and bright and early the next morning, he delivered them to the new shelter opening at NRG Stadium, where 10,000 people were expected by the end of the day!  Take that, Admiral Gator!

In the grand scheme of relief efforts, in a swampy region spread out over a vast territory with 6 million inhabitants, 100 blankets delivered to one shelter probably won’t make much of a difference. But for the 100 people at the shelter who end up with one, it might make some difference. And you and I can each make some difference. Together, we can make a big difference.

In every crisis, you will discover that there will be folks who will sit back and do nothing, thinking their efforts won’t make much difference. Worse, there will be others who will expend precious energy criticizing others.  Dear humans: NEWSFLASH! In a crisis–criticism and condemnation, second-guessing and judging–not helpful in the least. In fact, they can discourage those who are actually doing good to keep doing good. If you have enough time and energy to second-guess elected officials because of their decisions, criticize public figures because you are not satisfied with their efforts, or castigate the work of relief organizations because of their imperfections, you are part of the problem and not part of the solution. Piling on wet blankets of negativity will not help one single person whose life has been disrupted by a flood.

I have a good friend who is a single mom with two kids. They live simply in an apartment. She works for the Red Cross and she is passionately committed to her work and to improving every day. She works overtime every week, with pay that is not competitive.  During many crises she is away from her own children late into the night as she provides comfort and support for others. I watched in disbelief as she posted ways to help during Hurricane Harvey on social media, only to be barraged by insults and complaints. One man, who looks like he hasn’t missed too many meals, posted photos of chicken nuggets that he claimed were Red Cross meals during a recent flood. Turned out, snacks are provided as soon as possible, even before the Red Cross caterers arrive. I watched my friend expend her valuable and positive energy addressing very patiently and thoughtfully Mr. Nugget’s criticisms. How much more helpful it would have been had my friend been able to focus on what really matters – helping people.  And just think if Mr. Nugget had used his energy to get trained as a volunteer, or to purchase food or blankets. Or if he’d just shut up. The world would be a much better place.

Jesus said it best: Do not judge or condemn. Do not criticize or second-guess. Now is definitely not the time.  Give and it will always be given back to you. Look for the helpers. Be one, too. It’s our only hope.

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DEAR AMERICA: WHERE HAVE ALL OUR LEADERS GONE?

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”                              John Quincy Adams

Last night I was inducted into a local organization here in my Louisiana parish called Leadership St. Tammany.  If you had told me three years ago when I was living on the island of Kauai—wearing flip flops and shorts every day (shirt optional), hiking mountains, perfecting my mai tai recipe and paddle-boarding pristine rivers fed by waterfalls tucked into lush green mountains—that I would soon be signing up for such duty, I would have asked you to get your mental health checked. Even after moving to this quaint but lively southern town of Covington, just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans (a.k.a. Mecca for a music lover like me, and don’t get me started on the food, lest I drool on my blog), I was highly resistant. My dogs, writing, passion for the New Orleans Saints and Houston Astros, beer-tasting adventures, travel, musical collaborations, speaking engagements, and my church/school/retirement center all keep me very busy. My first thought when someone approached me about participating in this organization was: “No can do, I’m too busy.”  But then God spoke to me and said, “Have you asked out that Brazilian girl yet?”  Wait—perhaps that was not God speaking. On second thought, God said, “What if everyone is too busy to make a positive difference in their local communities and beyond? Then where would we be as a community, nation, and world?” God always has the best questions.  “We’d be in big trouble,” I answered, mostly to myself. This response brings me to the present state of affairs in my beloved country, the United States of America, and why I said “Yes.”

My fellow citizens, we can do better than what we’re doing now.  We need leaders who can and will lead. We need people, as John Quincy Adams noted in the quote I found on my program last night, whose actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more. What we do not need are those whose actions cut people off from their potential or seek to exclude them from full participation in society. We do not need those who engage in hateful rhetoric, polemical diatribes, and partisan put-downs. We do not need those who think that opposition to a particular policy is in itself a particular policy. We do not need those who stand on the sidelines and condemn those who are actually in the arena trying to make a difference, as imperfect as their efforts might be. And we definitely do not need immature bullies, whose denigrating assaults on decency and our fellow Americans are not part of the solution, but part of the problem.

We need Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. We need evangelical Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, and Humanists. We need conservatives, moderates, and liberals. We need everybody, coming together in constructive collaboration, finding common ground and ways through, toward solutions that are grounded in the core values that have always made our nation great—justice, inclusion, empowerment, respect, compassion, and tolerance. We need people willing to build up rather than tear down, to say “Yes” much more often than they say “No.”

All citizens share the responsibility for creating such a country.  We are called to listen with respect to those with whom we disagree. We are called to speak up when we see any group disrespected, or any policy advocated which seeks to deny basic rights to our fellow citizens. We are called to recommit to getting involved, to connect with those who seek to find non-partisan agendas that seek the betterment of our nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

As I looked around the room last night, I saw lots of folks who are quite different from me, and from each other.  My roommate for our upcoming retreat is a conservative Republican who is running for state representative. I’m actually a political moderate, despite a few of my friends telling me I’m to the left of Karl Marx; I like to remind them that I’m still not to the left of Jesus!  I am certain that I will learn a lot from my roommate and from all my new friends. My prayer is that we can find common ground and real solutions that will improve the lives of all our citizens. It won’t be easy. Many of the issues we face are challenging and complex, but I’m willing to learn more, dream more, become more, and do more. Are you?

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