Category Archives: Gratitude

Sermon: Giving Thanks for a Cat in a Shark Suit

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Edina, Minnesota
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
“Sermon on the Amount,” October 13, 2013

Then one of [the lepers], when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. (Luke 17:15-16)

Back at the beginning of August, an unusual video was posted on YouTube. It was titled “Cat Wearing a Shark Costume Cleans the Kitchen on a Roomba.”

A Roomba, for those of you who don’t know, is a robotic vacuum cleaner that’s been around for a little more than a decade. It’s round and relatively flat, like a frisbee, and just big enough for a cat to sit on and take a ride. The cat in this video is wearing a shark suit and remains completely calm atop the Roomba, which goes back and forth across an ordinary looking kitchen floor. When it reaches a wall, the Roomba bounces back, spins around, and continues its journey. In this case, it does all of that while a cat-in-a-shark-suit spins around too. In the background, a woman is shucking ears of corn at the kitchen sink, paying no attention this odd spectacle that we, the viewers, simply can’t stop watching.

If it sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. It’s ridiculously funny, and the video went viral. As of this morning, it had been watched on YouTube a total of 5,835,874 times. I’ll admit that the video caught my attention. I’ve watched it more than a few times.

What also caught my attention was an article about it on the Forbes website. The author, Forbes contributer Tim Worstall, is a Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London. Continue reading

The Simple Joy of Counting Ducks

I call this photograph “Counting Ducks” because that is, in fact, the simple joy and fleeting moment that it captured. Life itself is complex, but recognizing it as a gift isn’t. So I hope that you will also delight in that fleeting moment by looking at this photograph and by praying these words from The Book of Common Prayer:

We give you thanks, most gracious God, for the beauty of earth and sky and sea; for the richness of mountains, plains, and rivers; for the songs of birds and the loveliness of flowers. We praise you for these good gifts, and pray that we may safeguard them for our posterity. Grant that we may continue to grow in our grateful enjoyment of your abundant creation, to the honor and glory of your Name, now and for ever. Amen.

Sermon: “Taste and see that the Lord is good . . .”

St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Edina, Minnesota
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 14, August 12, 2012

“Taste and see that the Lord is good . . .” (Psalm 34:8, BCP)

The psalms, both said and sung, are a treasured part of common prayer and worship in the Anglican tradition. Yet most Christians, including most Episcopalians, neglect these heartfelt words that have so much to say about the life of faith — a life of faith not as we wish it to be but as it really is. Aside from the 23rd Psalm and a few phrases here and there, these words are too often forgotten.

We sang one of those phrases a few minutes ago from Psalm 34: “Taste and see that the Lord is good . . .”[1] However, it’s not language that’s merely poetic or sentimental. That summary of life with God is more than a lovely turn of phrase, and that’s what I want us to think about together this morning.

There are different kinds of psalms in the Bible. There are psalms of lament, for example, in which a real person in the midst of a real problem cries out to God. Those who say or sing these prayers usually promise to praise the name of Lord if they’re delivered from their distress. Now you might never have prayed like that, staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night. But there’s a 100% chance that the person sitting next to you has. I’ll let you think about that for a moment. It’s true, we’ve all been there.

Psalm 34 is not a lament. It’s a psalm of thanksgiving. It’s that prayer that you promised to pray after going through hell and living to tell the story:

I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me out of all my terror.[2]

That’s the testimony of the psalmist, his witness to the mighty acts of God that, as one commentator puts it, “enlarges the circle of those who revere the Lord.”[3] I love that image of the expansion of the boundaries of faith through the telling of the story, a story with God at the center of it. We all have those kinds of stories — stories that aren’t meant to be kept to ourselves.

Psalm 34 goes beyond a piety that’s merely private or a faith that remains only in the personal realm. The person who prays this psalm tells others of what the Lord has done for her. She does more than that, however. Her beautiful words of praise and her testimony to the people around her are transformed into a concrete act of love. Continue reading

Holy Saturday: One Photograph and Many Memories

"Preparing God's Acre for the Moravian Easter Sunrise Service, 1974"
Courtesy of the Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Collection

More than a year ago, I was looking through random photographs from Forsyth County, North Carolina, and found this one. Immediately I thought that it nicely captured a moment in time that represents so much of my childhood. Taken in 1974, it shows a family cleaning a headstone and decorating a grave in God’s Acre – the term for a cemetery in the Moravian Church – to prepare for Easter Day.

I figured out that the photograph of these three individuals, representing three generations, was taken on Good Friday. And I imagined that the headstone – plain, flat, square, and marble like the rest, symbolizing equality before God – probably marked the grave of the older woman’s husband (which was true).

Two days later these three individuals would surely return with the rest of their family to attend the Moravian Easter Sunrise Service. There they would join the members of their congregation and process to the sound of brass bands playing antiphonal chorales from the church to God’s Acre, where they would joyfully proclaim their resurrection faith. I could see and hear all of it in my mind.

I learned, serendipitously, that I actually know the man in the photograph. He is the Rt. Rev. Graham Rights, who once sent me a handwritten note that I still have somewhere because of the encouragement that it gave to me as a young person.

Bishop Rights’ son, the younger brother of the girl in the photograph, is the same age as I am. We attended junior high school together and could do pretty good imitations during those years of televangelists from the 1980s. Now he’s an ordained minister in the Moravian Church like his father and his grandfather.

As I wait in the silence of this holy Sabbath, when the body of Jesus rested in the tomb, I’m grateful for these memories of a childhood that nurtured my faith.

It’s a Boy! Another Promoted to Big Brother!

Three years ago, my father died on the eve of Palm Sunday. I’ve reflected on that experience previously here and here. The days before the beginning of this year’s Holy Week, however, brought with them a very different kind of experience for my wife and me – the birth of a baby. This is our second child and second son, who will turn one week old tomorrow. Needless to say, throughout Holy Week, I’ll be thinking a lot about birth, death, and the lives that are given to us as a gift between those events. Here’s a prayer and  a couple of photos from day one:

God our creator, we thank you for the gift of this child, entrusted to our care. May we be patient and understanding, ready to guide and to forgive, so that through our love he may come to know your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

All Things Come from You, O Lord

This past summer, our family participated in a community supported agriculture program (CSA) through Driftless Organics in Southwestern Wisconsin. We picked up a box each week in Minneapolis that was packed with seasonal produce and that had been delivered straight from the farm. My wife loved the challenge of trying to figure out how to use this bounty, some of which is described in her blog, The Contessa-Curessa Project.

Box from Driftless OrganicsTaking time to understand where our food comes from and what goes into making the wonderful things we enjoy at the dinner table makes a person more grateful, I think, for these gifts that come from God and that we share with our family and friends. This notion has taken root, quite literally, at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Bethesda, Maryland, as reported in this short video by PBS’s Religion & Ethics News Weekly. In the midst of the economic recession, they’ve been inspired to rejoice in God’s creation and to share their harvest with those in need.

Have the circumstances of the past year caused you to rejoice in something and to share it with others? If not, perhaps today is a good day to start making those kinds of investments – in food, in friendships, in a generosity of the heart that embraces the people and the world around you. If you’re interested in this subject, you might enjoy listening to The Ethics of Eating, Krista Tippet’s Speaking of Faith interview with Barbara Kingsolver, a novelist and author of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. I’ll let Kingsolver have the last word:

When we changed our thinking and started every meal with the question, ‘What do we have? What’s in season? What do we have plenty of?’ – it became, really, a long exercise in gratitude.