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The Holiday is THANKSgiving Rev. Susan Sparks – Madison Ave. Baptist Church

It’s hard for me to believe that New York City (where I now live) is part of the same country as North Carolina (where I was born). Everything is different: food, clothing, the pace at which people walk, and the accents. Oh, the accents.

I don’t mean any disrespect, but New York accents are just wrong—meaning they fall in the wrong place.

For example, in the south the object one holds over one’s head in a rainstorm is pronounced, “UM-brella.” New Yorkers talk about some foreign object called an “um-BREL-la.”

The southern word for the flat screen on your wall that allows you to binge on Netflix is “TEE-vee.” New Yorkers use some alien multi-syllable conglomeration of “television.”

Some may see this to be a meaningless linguistic tussle. However, when you consider the word describing this week’s national holiday, you realize that there is more at stake than you may think.

Unlike New Yorkers who say, “ThanksGIVING,” Southerners call this holiday “THANKS-giving.” Why? Because that’s what the holiday is about! THANKS. Not giving.

The thanks must come first because you can’t truly give FROM the heart, unless you have gratitude IN your heart. It’s as 2 Corinthians 9:7 says, “God loves a cheerful giver.”

This is an important lesson as we begin this holiday season. While loving, joyful giving should be the focus of the coming weeks, giving usually turns into an exhausting act of duty. Like the conviction that you have to make two potato dishes—sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes—for the holiday dinner. Or the belief that you must fight the Black Friday crowds to get a generic scarf and mitten set for a great aunt twice-removed because she sent you a Whitman’s Sampler.

This is not joyful giving. This is giving cause you gotta. And this type of giving rarely produces anything heartfelt. What it does produce is heartburn. It also generates stress, resentment, and the worse of all things: the martyr syndrome.

To break from this pattern, we must put the emphasis on the “THANKS”—in the word for the holiday and in our lives. And the best way to do that is to ask yourself the following question:

What is good in my life?

When you focus on what you have, even if it’s the tiniest of things, you begin to feel gratitude. And when you have gratitude, everything changes: your mood lightens, your heart opens, and your mind starts to alter its perspective. Eventually, you see past the angst and realize that you are surrounded by blessings—blessings that you want to share.

So, what is good in your life?

Maybe you woke up feel physically stronger than usual. If so, find someone who needs physical help crossing the street or carrying groceries.

Perhaps, you have a plant blooming in your house. Take a photo and send it to someone whose heart is not blooming.

Is your blessing putting on a warm coat this morning? Find a way to share something warm, like a cup of coffee, with someone who needs it.

Or maybe you are one of the lucky people with the biggest of blessings: a job. (And please understand, I didn’t say a job you love. I mean a J-O-B with a C-H-E-C-K.) If that’s your blessing, then remember those who don’t have a job this holiday. Volunteer to serve a meal or be like the anonymous donor who recently paid off holiday layaway accounts at a Walmart.

In the week to come, as you make your multiple potato dishes, and shop in the Black Friday chaos, raise thanks for what is good in your life, then share that blessing with joy. Give with a grateful, not grudging heart. Put the emphasis where it belongs. And remember, as we do in the South, that the holiday is pronounced THANKSgiving!

Have a lovely holiday everyone!

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A Heart of Pyrex – Rev. Susan Sparks – Madison Avenue Baptist Church NYC

I am the world’s most dangerous person in the kitchen. If something can be dropped, cracked, or knocked down, I will do it. No exceptions. That is why I am a big believer in Pyrex — the almost indestructible glassware made by Corning. Used in everything from cookware to the Hale Telescope, the glass is created through a melting process which requires exceptionally high temperatures over long periods of time. The end product is extremely durable, able to take extreme temperature swings and is virtually unbreakable.

While it’s a familiar concept in manufacturing, the idea of making something stronger by exposing it to extreme heat is also familiar in life. It’s like the old saying “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”

We all have to face challenges – fires in life. The question is how to face those fires and come out stronger? Said another way, how do you forge a heart of Pyrex?

One quick and easy solution is found in the Genesis story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. There Jacob is attacked by a “man” (or more probably an angel or the divine in human form). Rather than giving up, Jacob holds on and does something audacious. He looks the figure in the face and says “I won’t let go until you give me a blessing!” The nerve! Yet what happens? God gives him that blessing: a new name “Israel” (translated: “God prevails”). Instead of letting this struggle defeat him, Jacob turns it into a blessing; something that made him stronger for the days ahead.

What do you wrestle with in your life? What fires or “high temperatures” do you face? What could you learn from that moment? What does it have to teach? What would happen if you took hold of that issue, looked it in the eye and said, “I won’t let go until you give me a blessing?”

Do you face a job loss? Perhaps you would receive a blessing of faith.

Are you facing a medical crisis? Maybe you would receive a blessing of courage.

Relationship problems? Perhaps you would receive a blessing of humility.

Even something as minor as waiting on a cross-town bus that is late — asking for a blessing might bring you a lesson in patience.

In the end, we’re all just trying to be better people; to strive to be more like our creator. And perhaps God is offering us a little help. It’s like C. S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers in our pleasures, but shouts in our pain.”

There’s an old myth in metalworking that says a silversmith knows when the metal is fully refined when he can see his reflection in it. Perhaps, God is doing the same; refining us through fire not only to make us stronger, but so that we reflect our creator’s image.

Consider the possibility that each hardship in life comes bearing a divine blessing. Ask for that blessing. Look for the lesson. Face the fires of life and come out stronger. Use them to forge yourself a heart like Pyrex glass.

Prayer to Live with Grace By: Rabbi Rami Shapiro

May we discover through pain and torment,
the strength to live with grace and humor.

May we discover through doubt and anguish,
the strength to live with dignity and holiness.

May we discover through suffering and fear,
the strength to move toward healing.

May it come to pass that we be restored to health and to vigor.

May Life grant us wellness of body, spirit, and mind.

And if this cannot be so, may we find in this transformation and passage moments of meaning, opportunities for love
and the deep and gracious calm that comes when we allow ourselves to

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First Comes Respect

Congratulations to Oli Marmol for his elevation to manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals are to be congratulated as well. According to Jeff Hartsell’s article in the Charleston Post and Courier, all of Marmol’s former coaches at the College of Charleston attribute his meteoric rise in the major leagues in part to his ability to communicate well with everyone.

Of course Marmol knows the ends and outs of baseball. He is a master of his craft. If he were ignorant of the game, the best communication skills in the world would not help him. John Pawlowski, the head coach at the College of Charleston when Marmol played, said “I think the thing that’s going to help him is that he is a great communicator. He’s the guy you want in your corner.” During his introductory interview Marmol answered questions both in English and Spanish.

Hartsell’s article points out that during that interview Marmol acknowledged the contributions that his coaches at the C of C had made to his success. None of us accomplish anything on our own.

Good communication skills are important in whatever capacity we find ourselves. We have seen so many missteps on the local and national scene recently. Good communication starts with developing respect for every person we encounter. Marmol developed a special handshake for all of his teammates at the College of Charleston. Listening is the most essential skill to develop. We do not listen to those we do not respect. In his interview Marmol exhibited both respect and gratitude. He is on his way. I hope he has fantastic success at St. Louis. I hope we all learn something from him.

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Beamer and Rayburn, “Listening Is Key.”

When I was teaching speech classes at Furman University, football players lined the back rows of my tiered classroom because they thought it would be an easy course. Never take a course from a newly minted instructor. It is the only time in my entire life that a coach invited me to lunch.  Now it seems that those football players might have had a glimpse into the future.

In the last two weeks both the newly minted head coach at the University of South Carolina and Hunter Rayburn, the center at Clemson, have listed communication as the major factor in whether their teams win or lose. “Getting the communication down is the key,” Rayburn said. If those Furman players who lined the back rows had paid attention they might be head coaches or NFL players today.

This is not new. Way back when Jesus was the head coach he said, “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” Unfortunately he had no more success with that than I did. Good sales men and women will tell you, “If you listen to your customer, he or she will tell you what she or he wants. If you want to make a sale, listen.”

Active listening is hard work. It seems deceptively simple. All you have to do is sit there with your mouth closed. Right? Wrong. Just because you are not talking doesn’t mean that you are listening. You must tune in to what is being said. Open your eyes and look at the speaker. Stop thinking of clever things to say when the other person stops talking. Pay attention to your emotional triggers.

After delivering the same sermon twenty-three weeks in a row, the preacher was asked when he was going to preach a new sermon. He answered, “There is no indication that anyone has heard this one yet.”

Listening is the hardest of the communication skills to master. It is the least taught and the most important. Take this test. Turn off your phone. Listen to your significant other or friend for two minutes without interrupting or thinking of a clever response and see what happens. If you truly listen, you’ll be a hero.

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