Thankful Little Boy: Letting Gratitude Live

Thankful Little Boy: Letting Gratitude Live

The small voice spoke from the silence of the back seat.

“I am thankful for Mike.”

“I’m sorry, Honey. What did you say?”

“I’m thankful for Mike. He told me how to get the cars on.”

“Which cars?”

“The new ones. For my Anki Overdrive. I didn’t know how to get them on right and he told me today at lower lot. I’m so thankful for him.”

“Oh. Oh yes, that was certainly nice of him. So, you’re thankful for him, and his friendship.”

“Yes.”

End of discussion.

I looked in the rear view mirror to see my little boy smiling to himself.

My son received a car and track system from Santa at Christmas, and got a couple new components for his eighth birthday this past weekend. I didn’t know he had any questions about how these supplementary pieces would work, because he never had questions before. But with kids, sometimes things are hidden from you.

In any case, he has a friend. A friend who helped him. Gave him a few directions while they stood in line, waiting for their parents to pick them up from school.

And my young son is vocalizing his gratitude about that friendship.

Letting his gratitude LIVE in his heart, and not be a fleeting moment of forgotten, “Thanks.”

Wonderful.

Why do we – as adults – make so little of gratitude?

And find it so hard to verbalize it?

Or allow ourselves to get hung up….

On what others might think if we just said the words, “Your kindness means so much to me”?

Or on the timing of such a remark?

Or on the “appropriateness” of it?

Why do we let the moments that touch us – go?

Isn’t life lived in the tiny, every day moments?

Shouldn’t we be most grateful when they are undeniably beautiful?

“We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the ordinary, small (and yet really not small) gifts.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community

A New Use for Holiday Cards

A New Use for Holiday Cards

Let me ask you: What did you do with all of the Christmas, holiday, or New Year’s cards you received back in December and January?

If you’re like me, you held onto them for weeks, believing that one cold winter day you would sit down with a big mug of tea and re-read them, save the extra-special ones, and maybe even call or write those super-human individuals who had taken extra time to pen novellas of their lives in the past year. (Those people always impress me; I can barely get my cards mailed by Dec. 22nd, much less tell everyone what we did in the previous 12 months!)

Or maybe you even had grandiose plans of crafting with the cards you received – making a collage or ornaments out of them. Yes – one ambitious year perhaps you even admired all those sweet faces of your friends’ kids and planned to photograph each card, saving them to your hard drive or the cloud! (I actually did this. Precisely ONE time.)

But in all likelihood – you did none of that. You eventually let out a big sigh of co-mingled regret and relief, and recycled the colorful stash, secretly hoping that no one would ever ask you to recall the cards’ contents.

By now, the cards my family received would usually have been appreciated and tossed. But not this year.

This year, we are trying something new: we are making the cards a part of Lent.

In our home, we “say grace” before meals. It’s a good habit – one that’s meant to remind us from Whom we receive our nourishment.

Typically, we say the traditional Catholic blessing:

“Bless us, O Lord,
and these Thy gifts,
which we are about to receive,
from Thy bounty,
through Christ Our Lord,
Amen.”

It covers all the most important points and when said with genuine heartfelt devotion, offers the gratitude that’s due.

There is danger in repetition, however. After awhile, it can be tempting to ignore the words – to just go through the motions of saying them without concentrating on their meaning.

One way to recharge a mealtime prayer with its intended significance is to change it up a bit – not by re-wording it necessarily, but by adding to it.

So at every meal this Lent, we are taking a couple Christmas cards from our stack and praying for the families that sent them. Our prayers are not fancy or flowery, just straightforward expressions from the heart that the One who sees and knows all will grant our friends the virtues and strengths they need most.

If you wonder what that looks like, here’s what I said last night after the basic blessing:

“Heavenly Father, we thank you for our dear friends Pete and Amy and their children Brendan, Zach, and Ellie. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen them but we know they are in Your loving hands. Please watch over them and bring them closer to one another in 2018. We pray too for Uncle Bill and Clara. May you bless their new marriage and new home in California. Amen.”

Sharing these cards every night has given my husband and I opportunities tell our kids a bit more about old friends – people with whom we ‘swap’ Christmas cards but rarely see – people we knew long before the kids came along. It’s a side benefit I wouldn’t have considered before starting this Lenten effort.

Remembering people and holding them up….

We can start anytime.

Flip through your phone’s address book, glance over your Facebook friends, make a list of names.

Fold your hands and lift up a friend. Today.

You Don’t Need a Valentine to Be One

You Don’t Need a Valentine to Be One

Valentine’s Day is upon us. The celebration of the heart.

Three years ago, my daughter and her friend made Valentines for our whole neighborhood.

No. I’m not kidding.

(If you aren’t familiar with it, feel free to read the story above by clicking the purple words and then come back.)

I was astounded by the girls’ actions, and I’ve never forgotten watching them spread light in a dark world.

I was in awe of their enthusiasm. I was enamored with their openness.

They reminded me of a simple lesson: Don’t ignore a generous impulse.

Even if you are not a Jesus-believer, you probably know this verse, a favorite of mine:

“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)

Notice, there are no caveats in that command. (i.e. Only love those who love you, who live with you, who look like you, who are convenient to love, etc.)

If you’re really going to do it right, love demands a lot.

Walking in faith, you learn from experience that loving well isn’t something you do by yourself.

Knowing True Love is being in relationship. With Someone. The One.

He – the Spirit – makes it possible for us to really love others, because we alone do it so very, very poorly.

We think that Valentine’s Day is all about romantic love. And for most people, it is. But I would argue that it can be so, so much more. Because the world needs LOVE — in all its biggest and most brilliant, and smallest and very humblest forms.

I was thinking along these lines when I gave a short presentation to a group of 20 women a year ago. I told them the story of my daughter and her friend, and I explained the following:

“Don’t ignore a generous impulse. We all know that our world is beautiful, but broken. Lately, when we read the news, it may seem particularly dark and ugly. But the light isn’t far off. It lives within each of us. And we see it when we give it away….While many people told the girls how much they had appreciated the Valentines, the real gift the girls received was the joy they’d given themselves.”

Following the promptings of the Spirit will in all likelihood move us beyond our comfort zones. But how is God ever supposed to share ALL THE LOVE He has to GIVE if WE don’t step out and SHARE IT with OUR very own hands?

After speaking, I gave out 20 very basic valentines that I’d put together myself, and I invited the group to think about the people in their lives. Friends. Colleagues. Neighbors. Acquaintances.

I asked:

“Do you know a woman who was just diagnosed with a devastating illness?
Do you know someone going through a divorce?
Have a coworker who has a troubled child?
Have an elderly neighbor who lives alone?
Is there someone in your circle who is bearing a heavy, heavy burden?
Is there someone you can just tell feels hopeless?
Is there someone who seems fearful?
Is there anyone you haven’t thanked for a kindness you’ve been shown?

Valentine’s Day is about love, and we can make it about so much more than romance and friendship between elementary school classmates. Let’s use it as an opportunity to reach out and say, “I see you, I value you, and I care about you.”

We wrote those Valentines to the people we felt might need a bit of True Love, and gave them away.

Maybe tomorrow, you could buy or make a simple note, and then extend your heart and the Spirit to someone in your circle who might appreciate a little something sweet.

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. (Hebrews 4:7)

We WANTED It – Parting Thoughts on Philly’s Super Bowl Win

We WANTED It – Parting Thoughts on Philly’s Super Bowl Win
Photo by Fredy Martinez on Unsplash

So we won the Super Bowl.

Philadelphia triumphed.

And people were congratulating me this week.

As if I had anything to do with it!?!!

Well, I suppose if you count the prayers, hand-wringing, fist-punches, screams, and vaulting I did from our couch during the game, then maybe I did.

My explosive reactions were almost as entertaining for my family as both teams’ impressive plays and the better-than-usual commercials.

It began with the first Eagles touchdown.

I leapt off the couch, clapping and yelling at the top of my lungs….

And sensed that the room was strangely quiet.

I looked down to see four faces staring back at me in amazement.

My husband chuckled.

“What?” I said, “They scored! THEY SCORED!!”

I started high-fiving everyone with both hands as my daughter asked, laughing, “Mom?!!? What’s happening to you?”

Admittedly, the display was out of (current) character for me.

“I’m sorry. The cheerleader in me just came out.”

Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how deeply I empathized with everyone watching back home in the City of Brotherly Love.

I hadn’t realized that….I truly felt what was so simply and perfectly expressed on an Eagles billboard I’d seen on the highway in PA the day before.

WE WANT IT.

It was time for the city to have the Vince Lombardi Trophy, and WE WANTED IT – BAD.

When the the game ended with Brady’s last throw meeting a mayhem of players in the end zone, my husband yelled, “That’s it!! That’s it!!” and we all screamed and cried, reveling in victory. The little celebratory scene in our family room was re-enacted millions of times over hundreds of square miles.

And yesterday was – literally – the Eagles’ day in the sun. I wasn’t there in the throng of a million loyal fans, but I poured over my family’s and friends’ photos of the city’s parade, exulting in what one friend called “the enormity of this thing.”

Indeed. The enormity of the thing.

Have you ever wanted something SO BADLY and wished for it SO LONG that when you finally get it you’re somewhat flabbergasted?

The excitement is just….well, mind-blowingly fun. You feel like a kid on Christmas morning. There’s almost no other way to describe it. You want it to last and last.

It’s too bad that every day life can’t bring the elation of this week, but if it did we couldn’t appreciate the joys of heaven.

Meantime, we rest in this…

Something we know for sure….

God loves Philadelphia. (wink wink)

And I’m fairly certain there will be Super Bowl wins for everyone in the great beyond.

A Small Tribute to Philadelphia: My (Other) Hometown

A Small Tribute to Philadelphia: My (Other) Hometown
Me. Ready for Sunday’s game. Do you know who to cheer for?

Two nights ago our 7-year old son asked the question of the moment.

“Dad,” he said, “Who do you think will win the Super Bowl?”

My husband made eye contact with him.

“The Eagles.”

“Why?” the boy asked. I knew he was looking for an answer about strategy or tactics; our little guy is into that sort of thing.

My husband narrowed his eyes.

“It is the will of God.”

There was a pause.

Then – raucous laughter from our son, along with the rest of us.

My husband smirked and went back to eating his soup.

That exchange?

Something about it strikes me as…

Oh. So. Philadelphia.

Do we really believe it is the will of God for the Eagles to win?

Not exactly.

But will they?

Darn right.

In our home, we are loyal to Philadelphia.

It’s a family tradition.

Philadelphia is often misunderstood. Some people just don’t get the mix of wry, sardonic humor and subtle faith. They call it brusque and cold, but however you see it, the city and its people are the genuine article, a place unto itself. And it’s a place I love, because it loved me first.

I spent my high school years in the suburbs of Philly, having moved there from Florida, and upon my arrival I wasn’t sure what I’d find. Blessedly, I was warmly welcomed by my peers, and that was important for me at a time when life didn’t feel so stable.

You find that when you’re “inside” Philadelphia – when you enter its homes, schools, and neighborhoods long enough to take your coat off and hang around for awhile. There might not be many newcomers, but a newcomer can be accepted. You can read a little about that here – where I also briefly talk about Philly’s famous food – the cheese steak.

Philly also gave me my partner for life – my husband of almost 20 years – as well as his entire loving family, and many friends who are close enough to be family too.

And so, without getting mushy and listing each person individually (a very long list), I’ll just say this: I cheer for the Eagles because I am loyal to MY Philadelphia – all of the people in and around that particular city who have shared with me the formative experiences that over many decades have created the life I cherish today.

How about you? Where do your loyalties lie and WHY?

I’m willing to bet that if you have an allegiance, it’s to a person, or people, or a place, that nurtured you and gave you hope. And that’s a good reason to continue to be faithful.

So consider Who you ally yourself with. And choose well.

Oh – and on Sunday – choose VERY well. Fly Eagles Fly!

Are You Still Living in Middle School? The Pressure’s Off.

Are You Still Living in Middle School? The Pressure’s Off.

My middle-school daughter stood at the podium, reading into the microphone. Just her – in front of 800 fellow students.

‘Slow down, honey. Oh, slow down.’

That’s what I was thinking as I watched her this morning. She shared her own thoughts printed on an index card, about why she loves her school. She was breezing through them so quickly I was afraid she couldn’t be understood, and worried that her dad wouldn’t be able to hear her clearly on the video I was trying to make with my phone.

She was nervous.

Terrified, actually.

Unusually so.

And she had told me she would be.

“You’ll be fine,” I tried to reassure her, “You’ve done this before.”

She’s often been selected to read at church, and she’s enthusiastically volunteered to dance in the end-of the-year talent show.

But now she’s 12.

And middle school is different. Isn’t it?

Sometimes I think we enter middle school….and we never leave it.

There is a constant pressure to change from who we naturally are into something else.

Something cooler and better.

Think about it: The world is bent on convincing you that you are not doing enough to make yourself feel great, look perfect, be organized, love effortlessly, and live carefree. We, as a society, are literally paying billions every month in an attempt to buy this mythical life for ourselves.

Even in my work – writing – there is pressure to do more, and be more, than I am. In the so-called “blogosphere,” bloggers ‘should’ publish all the time, grow an audience, and create products.

The fact is, I may not be doing enough for you, friend. Every time I publish a post, I can see whether someone has “subscribed” or “unsubscribed,” and the latter gives me pause.

I want to encourage.

I want to share stories that make people smile.

I want to write words that count.

I want to do something that matters.

Don’t we all?

To do this – to live in a way that MATTERS – requires slowing down, and listening with every breath to the One voice that guides me toward my true purpose, which is to serve others out of a deep gratitude to the One who gave me life.

I am in a place of reflection about this blog, friends. I’m wondering how I can better serve you as my readers.

Please take a moment when you have some free time to write me an email at gretchen@gretchenmatthews.com and share your thoughts with me. I welcome them.

In what areas of your life do you need encouragement? What do you need to hear more of? Less of?

And bear in mind the words of Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (ESV)

Slow down. Embrace yourself. You are loved.

Lighten Up!

Lighten Up!
Photo by Park Troopers on Unsplash

Do you need to lighten up?

I do.

And I’m not talking about weight here.

I’m talking about attitude.

This is a recurrent theme in my life.

I try hard.

A LOT.

To get things right.

And sometimes I overdo it.

I lose perspective.

I miss what’s really important.

Recently I was remembering one particular time when my earnestness billowed up comically.
When my husband and I were awaiting the birth of our first child, I took seriously the advice that I interview pediatricians. I was convinced the doctor-patient relationship may prove significant in the years ahead.

And so, one very cold, windy December day about a month before my son arrived, I rolled my round self through the doors of a doctor’s office.

I was a vision, to be sure. Breathless from having climbed two flights of stairs, my shoulder-length blond hair was whipped around my head, and I struggled to free myself from my coat – a cherry-red, ankle-length woolen shroud that had once been my mother’s. Back in Philadelphia circa 1988 it had been striking, chic, and regal. On me – 8 months pregnant in 2002 – minus Mom’s 3-inch heels, manicured nails, and expertly coiffed hair – it was somewhat less fantastic. I resembled a squat strawberry past its peak.

Looks aside, I was on a mission.

I had my notes and my questions ready.

I was going to make sure my baby would have the best provider I could find.

When the doctor entered the room, I was slightly surprised that he was no more than 5 years older than me. But no matter. I proceeded through my questions about diet, weekly and monthly visits, developmental expectations, office hours, etc. and he answered dutifully, thoroughly, and patiently until I finally thought, “Good grief. He’s the professional. And I’m exhausted.”

Having crossed just about everything off my list, I looked up at him and asked, ”How am I doing?”

He smiled.

“Fine,” he said. “There are really just a few things we want to make sure all new parents know about.”

“Ok,” I said.

“First, is that we believe in immunizations.”

I felt my eyebrows shoot up and my body start to tremble.

“Umm…” he stammered, “There is a debate right now. And for some people this is an issue.”

I covered my mouth and then burst out laughing.

“Hahaha! I know! I know! Oh gosh! I’m so sorry! I was so uptight about this. About meeting you… I…I…forgot to ask about the most basic, essential things! You don’t have to convince me of this. I’m fine with immunizations.”

He looked relieved.

“Oh. Ok, great!”

I nodded.

“Another thing,” he continued, “Do you have a car seat?”

I laughed harder.

“For real!?! Yes!”

“Make sure it’s installed properly. Seriously. Do that and you’re golden. Everything else we’ll take as it comes.”

I beamed at him.

I deeply appreciated that doctor that day, and every day we’ve visited him since, because he has consistently focused on the NOW. Today’s right thing.

So here’s the rub…

Do you catastrophize?

Do you envision all the ways the future could go wrong before the next hour has even happened?

If so, lighten up.

Our biggest burdens are often the ones we put on ourselves. So toss your heaviest loads aside, look UP for guidance, and trust that you have – and will be given – the appropriate wisdom and strength required to handle whatever comes next.

All the kings of the earth sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart.

(2 Chronicles 9:23)

The Cardinal Sign

The Cardinal Sign

Today I feel wistful. And thankful.

Thankful for what I took to be a ‘sort’ of sign.

Now please understand – I’m not a person who looks for signs.

I lean on the One who tells me to trust in Him, not in the ways of this earth. And so I’m not searching around for material things, wondering if they hold some cosmic meaning for me.

But every once in awhile, life seems to line up in way that speaks to me of comfort and peace beyond my understanding, and the only correct response can be, “Thank you. Thank you for this moment of grace.”

Today would have been my paternal grandparents’ 76th wedding anniversary.

If you’ve been a reader of my blog for some time, you’ll remember that my family celebrated their 75th anniversary with them last year (in 2017). My grandparents were in good health and in great, great spirits. However, they both passed into eternal life within weeks of the magnificent event, and the rest of us are left to contemplate how blessed we were to have this amazing couple with us for as long as we did.

All grieving families go through a mourning process that includes shock and sadness. It’s been an up and down year for each of us, but overall, it has brought us closer together. And joy has been a part of these long months, too, as we welcomed our family’s newest member – my sister’s first child, my beautiful nephew.

My heart held fast to these memories as I clasped Grandma’s gold cross around my neck for the first time this morning. My aunt just gave it to me on Saturday during our first visit together since some sad days last February.

As I held onto the necklace I was thinking about God’s words, “And behold, I am with you always,” (Matthew 28:20).

I stepped over to the mirror to take a look and just then a cardinal appeared to my right in the bush outside my window.

The brightest, fattest, reddest, cardinal.

It has been said these birds are the spirit sign of a loved one you’ve lost.

And so I wondered…

I was transfixed, rooted to the spot, as it sat there swaying on the branch, its wings, head, and breast glinting in the sunlight.

It stayed long enough for me to hear my mind compete: “I will not move until it does.”

And then…finally…it cocked its head and took flight.

I firmly believe there is an unseen reality and One God who is with us always.

He lives to show us He loves us. He lives to show us His love.

$250 for Christmas Joy!?!??

$250 for Christmas Joy!?!??
Photo by Mike Arney on Unsplash

On the radio yesterday, a DJ reported survey results. People said they would pay $250 to find Christmas joy – the kind they knew when they were kids. (Apparently, most people surveyed would also be willing to fork over $145 to have someone else wrap their gifts.) Now, I know many people hate gift-wrapping, but $250 for Christmas joy!?!?? Craziness.

I once knew a Jewish man who had tremendous Christmas spirit. When his three sons were very young, they had a devout faith in Santa Claus. They knew all about Santa’s generosity and good cheer, so naturally, they wondered if he would stop at their home come Christmas Eve.

To honor their own holiday traditions – while also sharing the spirit of the season – the man and his wife hatched plan. On Christmas Eve, the family did a little art project, and then the joyful father climbed out a window and onto his roof. As the little boys stood watching in their pajamas, their dad placed a decorated poster next to the chimney. It said:

Dear Santa,

Just a reminder: We are Jewish. You don’t need to stop here tonight. We wish you a VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

Love, The Jacobs Family

Friends, this is the Christmas spirit. And it cost virtually nothing but time and love.

It demonstrates the largest Truth of season: It is NOT about us.

It IS about caring for others and spreading joy because we see that we ourselves have been loved.

But maybe you don’t feel joyful. Maybe you think you have nothing to celebrate because you’ve had a rough year or you’re not with the people you think make your holidays complete.

If that’s the case, try these three steps – now or starting tomorrow – to reignite your Christmas or holiday mojo.

1) Close your eyes and begin a mental gratitude statement. If you believe in a higher power – talk to that power. If not, imagine all of the people closest to your heart standing in front of you.

Express thanks for as many things as you can think of, starting with the immediate and going from there. “Thank you for the fact that I’m breathing. Thank you for my beating heart. Thank you for my hands and feet and brain and muscles and my capacity to feel the ground beneath me.”

Move out into your surroundings, the people in your life, counting each thing consciously and with the understanding that even the trials you face are building character in you. Be grateful for this. Be thankful for what you have learned. Don’t stop your list until you simply cannot go on anymore.

2) Get out of your head. Think of a holiday song you enjoy and sing it out loud. Whisper if you must, but verbalize the cheerfulness you’re starting to feel.

3) Decide that you will give every person you meet today a free gift: your smile. Look each one in the eye – especially the annoying, angry, impatient, or rude ones – and smile, with good intentions. Imagine the individual as he or she might have looked as a child. See each person’s vulnerability and humanness. Pray or simply ponder the following over them: Grant this person peace and comfort.

Why do I recommend these steps?

Because gratitude, hope, and generous actions yield joy.

And true Hope is not wishful thinking, but instead it is the firm expectation that something good will occur based on a pattern of goodness that is now present and has come before.

Hope is open to everyone.

Joy can be yours.

I pray you will find both – free and overflowing – this holiday season.

Adoption: What a Gift!

Adoption: What a Gift!

I was overjoyed to learn this weekend that a friend of mine and her husband were able to finalize the adoption of their daughter on Friday. The photo says it all – one child smiling ear to ear, surrounded by two loving parents and a large extended family who have embraced her with a forever welcome.

This isn’t the only adoption story I’ve heard this year. Other friends have adopted children internationally, or are waiting to do so. And every time I hear about this complete and unconditional acceptance of a child into a family – whether it’s happening now or occurred long ago – I have the same recurrent thought.

Adopting a child is one of the most generous and least selfish decisions a person can make.

Today it occurred to me: Jesus was adopted too.

Yes, he was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, but he had an earthly father who took Jesus in as his own, regardless of what it would cost him.

Think about it: Joseph’s decision contradicted every ‘reason.’

The child was not biologically his. Choosing to love a woman who had conceived under circumstances the world would fail to understand would threaten his reputation and of course, require every resource he had.

Yet he heard God’s calling on his life and obeyed.

It wasn’t easy.

His decision to raise the Son as his own meant that while he gave everything a parent could, his child still suffered a humiliating death.

It was an ending no parent would want.

At least on the face of it.

But then – Joseph’s sacrifices were transformed through the Son’s ultimate success.

The child would return his father’s goodness – more times over than Joseph (or we) could ever count – and for all eternity, by adopting us.

Through His mercy and infinite Love, the Lord counts us as His own.

That’s the amazing gift of adoption we celebrate this Christmas.

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. (Romans 8:14, NIV)