Simple Gifts

This blog is home to nearly 700 posts.  Occasionally I re-blog a post that has meaning for our current lives and may not have been read by newer followers.  This piece was originally posted on November 24, 2o14.

I was in the process of sending an on-line card to some friends for Thanksgiving Day when I ran across the song Simple Gifts. This lilting melody always charms me and creates a longing for simpler living, simpler relationships, and a simpler intimacy with God.  I know little about the song, so I decided to do some research.  Simple Gifts is a Shaker song which gained wide popularity when the tune was incorporated by Aaron Copeland in his score for Martha Graham’s ballet Appalachian Spring first performed in 1944.  This use may have given rise to the mistaken belief that Simple Gifts was originally a Celtic song.

Actually the music and original lyrics were written by  Joseph Brackett (1797–1882) in shaker dance1848. Brackett, a lifelong resident of Maine, first joined the Shakers at Gorham, Maine when his father’s farm helped to form the nucleus of a new Shaker settlement. Another mistaken belief is that it is a Shaker hymn. It was actually written as a religious dance song for use in their worship. The words –“To turn, turn will be our delight” and “Till by turning, turning” — do not only reference a Christian theological concept, but they were also dance instructions!

Here are Joseph Brackett’s original words

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right

This year, I am especially moved by the words “Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.”  As I get older I realize more and more “where I ought to be.”  What a gift God can give us if we listen and follow through the years! We can learn not only who we are as individuals but also who we are as collaborators with God in his plans for us.  And, as the song says, when we find ourselves in that “place just right” we also find ourselves in a “valley of love and delight.”   This is something for which to be truly thankful!

Throughout the years, alternate verses have been written to Brackett’s original tune. During this season of Thanksgiving, I find them thought-provoking and moving as well.  I can imagine every verse as part of a lovely blessing at a Thanksgiving dinner table.

Additional or alternative verses:

‘Tis the gift to be loved and that love to return,
‘Tis the gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn,
And when we expect of others what we try to live each day,
Then we’ll all live together and we’ll all learn to say,

‘Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be,
‘Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of “me”,
And when we hear what others really think and really feel,
Then we’ll all live together with a love that is real.[

Another set of alternative verses:

The Earth is our mother and the fullness thereof,
Her streets, her slums, as well as stars above.
Salvation is here where we laugh, where we cry,
Where we seek and love, where we live and die.

By fear and by hate we will no more be bound.
In love and in light we will find our new birth
And in peace and freedom, redeem the Earth.

Yet another alternative verse:

‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be fair,
‘Tis a gift to wake and breathe the morning air.
And each day we walk on the path that we choose,
‘Tis a gift we pray we never shall lose.

No matter what country or continent you live in, I wish you the simple gift of being thankful in whatever circumstance you find yourself!

Posted in Living as Apprentices | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Living the Serenity Prayer – Courage

The Serenity Prayer has a long and mysterious history. The first three lines were made popular by Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 -1971), as part of a 1834 lecture. The modern prayer is several lines longer.In 1941 the prayer was noticed and later adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous. Over the past 60 years the prayer has gone far beyond AA boundaries. It is especially instructive for anyone longing to be an apprentice of Jesus. For the next eight Sundays, (November 6 – December 24), this blog will feature one phrase or cluster of phrases from this beautiful prayer. I hope this series will create motivation and direction in the new year.  

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can,”

In the first post on the Serenity Prayer, we asked God to help us accept what we cannot change. Now this second clause reminds us that there are things we can and should influence and change  – and that it will take courage to do so.  I believe that the Holy Spirit aids us in becoming in tune with things we are called to change, as well as giving us the courage to change them.


First, the Spirit helps us change our behavior and our attitudes by making us aware of our prideful moments, our eagerness to be in control, our temptation to fudge the truth, our fears and anxieties, our prejudices, and so on. Richard Rohr points out in Breathing Under Water, Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, “You cannot heal what you do not acknowledge.” It takes courage to face ourselves, but once we see our un-Christlike behavior, we are poised to choose to change it.

In his book The Serenity Prayer, Trevor Hudson suggest the following steps to see ourselves more clearly:

  • Take time to be quiet on a regular basis and ask God to search our hearts.
  • Reflect on our instant reactions to others, especially those that are hurtful.
  • Look for what we criticize in others in ourselves.
  • Recognize contradictions between our public and private selves.
  • Ask someone who knows us well for “feed back about how they experience us.”


Second, the Spirit calls us to act or speak when change is needed. This call  to be a change – agent will usually be an encouragement to use our particular gifts or talents. For example, one of my favorite change-agents in the New Testament is  a man whose nickname was  Barnabas, “Son of Encouragement.” Barnabas played the principal role in encouraging the disciples to accept a much-feared Paul into their group.  

“Back in Jerusalem he [Paul] tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him. They didn’t trust him one bit. Then Barnabas took him under his wing. He introduced him to the apostles and stood up for him, told them how Saul had seen and spoken to the Master on the Damascus Road and how in Damascus itself he had laid his life on the line with his bold preaching in Jesus’ name. After that he was accepted as one of them, going in and out of Jerusalem with no questions asked, uninhibited as he preached in the Master’s name” (Acts 9: 16-30; MSG).

His gift of encouragement made supporting Paul the perfect role for Barnabas.  However, he was certainly empowered by the Holy Spirit to step out of his comfort zone and stand before the angry and fearful disciples to speak winsomely about Paul’s life-changing experience with Jesus. Imagine the fate of Christianity had Barnabas chosen not to act and the disciples refused to allow Paul to join them in their mission to turn the world upside down!

We can change our behavior and our attitudes. And we can influence our society. At this time in the history of civilization, it is crucial that we are willing to become the best people we can be, strong and faithful apprentices of Jesus, so that we can make our world the best place it can be. God calls us to nothing less.

Posted in The Serenity Prayer | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Changing Seasons

I live in the mid-west area of the United States, a place where we experience all the  seasons. I can’t imagine living where the leaves don’t turn red and gold  or snowflakes don’t  drift into fluffy piles – even if the alternative is year-long flowers.

Even so when I decided that a cold but sunny Thursday in early November was the day I would clean up and pack away my “garden in the sky,” I dreaded it. My husband and I daily rejoice in the colorful plants rimming our balcony. Many of them are still blooming.  But I knew the end of blossoms and the beginning of dry, dead leaves and stems was near.  I pulled out all  the plants and put them in big trash bags.  I emptied the soil into different trash bags, planning to mix it with new soil in the spring. I brought all the pots into the house, cleaned them and packed then in yet another garbage bag to take down to the garage. 

And somewhere during the process, I felt a familiar excitement – even comfort.  After all my 75 years of living, it is still true! The seasons  still change without any human pushing a button. The cycle of planting, blooming, and dying is ongoing. The late-autumn anti- cipation of the beauty of a snowfall and the yearning for green grass and blooming flowers still exists. 

Since most of my experiences in the natural world become metaphors for how I relate to God in the spiritual world (everything is sacred, after all), I began thinking of the cycles of human life and how they call for a response from all of us. 

The first response, I think, is to recognize that we experience changing cycles in our lives that are not unlike the change of the seasons. We are infants, seeking, even demanding, care and love. We are joyful and expressive children. We are social and  risk-taking adolescent. We are young adults fulfilling our dreams of family and careers. We are middle-aged adults bent down over our responsibilities and fighting off cynicism about the ways of the world. We are aging “seniors,” coping with changes that demand “letting go” and sometimes lay us low physically and mentally.

A second response, as our seasons change, is to understand that we, like the natural world, need to adapt, perhaps mourn, and still anticipate the season coming next. The earthly yearning for that “next season” is fulfilled as we live through spring, summer, fall, and winter. The spiritual yearning is fulfilled when we cross-over  from God’s earthly kingdom into the eternal kingdom – still anticipating  a season of life with God forever.

Posted in Living as Apprentices | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Living the Serenity Prayer: Acceptance

The Serenity Prayer has a long and rather mysterious history. The first three lines were made popular by  Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 -1971), as part of a 1934 lecture. The modern prayer is several lines longer. In 1941, the prayer was noticed and later adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous. Over the past 60 years the prayer has gone far beyond AA boundaries. It is especially instructive for anyone longing to be an apprentice of Jesus. For the next eight Sundays, (November 6 – December 24), this blog will feature one phrase or cluster of phrases from this beautiful prayer.  I hope this series will create motivation and direction in the new year.  

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.

The first and foundational statement of the Serenity Prayer goes against the grain for each of us:

  • We don’t like being told that we don’t have the power to change what we don’t like.  That smacks of powerlessness.  And if there is anything a human being longs for it is the power to be in control.  But here is the truth of the prayer:  I can’t change anything but my attitudes and behavior; I can influence others, but I can’t change them.
  • The word accept is a passive term.  One dictionary definition of accept is to assent to the reality of a situation.  We prefer to drive the situation, not assent to it.
  • The prayer credits God as the source of our serenity. If we have to ask God to grant it, that means that we can’t create it for ourselves.
  • We all long for serenity – although we may not recognize that the lack of it is what is making us miserable. When we complain about our lives, we usually are bemoaning our busyness, the agitated state of our minds,  the emptiness we feel as we grapple with life.

So . . . how do we deal with a statement that seems to promise a tranquil and  calm life but requires us to give up control of that life?

First, of all we need to face (as opposed to deny) the reality that much of our emotional energy is tied up in trying to change the past. The hurts and struggles and mistakes and pain of the past are real, but they cannot be amended after the fact. To wish that our parents had treated us better, that we hadn’t flunked out of college, that our selfishness had not driven love out of our life, that we hadn’t chosen chasing our career over spending time with our children, that our best friend hadn’t betrayed us is exhausting . . . and useless. In order to heal and to accept serenity, we need to assent to the reality of our past, learn from our mistakes, and move on. 

Second, we need to face that we cannot change other people. This desire is at the root of most failed relationships. It takes many forms.  We are judgmental . . . and mean.  We are judgmental . . . and smothering.  We are judgmental, but believe that our help could truly be beneficial  . . . but the other person won’t cooperate. All of our attempts to enable another person to be different will fail because we can’t fix another; we can only fix ourselves.  What we can do is choose to assent to the reality that we can’t make someone else be different.  

Then we need to accept that the peace and serenity we are looking for comes from God.  That empty hole in our life is a God-shaped hole.  The only thing we can do to fill it is to surrender control of our lives to God and accept that the serenity we are looking for comes when we assent to the reality of the fact that we cannot change what is not ours to change.




Posted in Living as Apprentices | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

From My Reading

“For many of us the problem is that we simply do not believe Jesus when he tells us that in the Kingdom greatness is found in servanthood. We may feel that the idea of being a servant is all right so long as we can do it on our own terms and provided that it is generally known that we are not really servants but merely assuming the role. But Jesus calls us to a social revolution. We are to exercise the power of the Holy Spirit without claiming positions of status and rank. We exhibit power as the servant people of God. We have power without a kingdom! In our day and age may God teach us under the power of the Holy Spirit how we are to wash one another’s feet” (Richard Foster, quoted in the Renovare Weekly Digest, June  16, 2017).

◊   ◊   ◊   ◊   ◊  ◊ 

“I’m told that Søren Kierkegaard once said, ‘Faith is walking as far as you can in the light and taking one step more.’ All of us find ourselves in places where we ponder whether and how to take that one step more.  Sharing our stories gives us courage to do so” (Wesley Granberg-Michaelson in Unexpected Destinations, An Evangelical Pilgrimage to World Christianity).

◊   ◊   ◊   ◊   ◊  ◊ 

“While the Ten Commandments are about creating social order (a good thing), the eight Beatitudes of Jesus are all about incorporating what seems like disorder, a very different level of consciousness. With the Beatitudes, there is no social or ego payoff for the false self. Obeying the Commandments can appeal to our egotistic consciousness and our need to be “right” or better than others” (Richard Rohr in Daily Meditation for June 22, 2017).

◊   ◊   ◊   ◊   ◊  ◊ 


Politics without principle.

Wealth without work.

Commerce without reality.

Pleasure without conscience.

Education without character.

Science without humanity.

Worship without sacrifice.

◊   ◊   ◊   ◊   ◊  ◊ 

“Every day technology embeds deeper into our lives.  With that dependent relationship comes risk as we are reminded every time a cashier asks, “Do you have a chip?” Conversations on the ethics of cyber-violence need to keep pace with technology. If Christians don’t advance ethical conversations and moral solutions, then responsibility for these decisions will be left in the hands of others” (Jazmine T. Steele in Sojourner magazine, August, 2o17).

Posted in Quotes | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Going Deeper – Compassion for All (Psalm 116: 5-6; I Peter 3:8)

In Eat this Book, Eugene El Shaddi bannersPeterson teaches us to chew on a passage of scripture, digest it, and then put it to use in practical ways. Our Christian fathers and mothers called this process Lectio Divina. In this passage we are reminded of God’s mindset towards the world – and our responsibility to adopt that same mindset.  

PSALM 116: 5-6 (CEB)  and I Peter 3: 8 (NIV)

The Lord is merciful and righteous;
    our God is compassionate.
The Lord protects simple folk;
    he saves me whenever I am brought down.


. . . be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.


These two scripture passages hi-light how God looks at us and how we must look at others: through the eyes of compassion.  The entire arc of the Biblical narrative is the story of God’s compassion for God’s creation. God is a just God, yes. But God’s response to the pain of God’s people is compassion. 

In the Gospels, Jesus treats everyone he meets (sick people, mentally disturbed people, sinful people, servants, his sometimes arrogant, bumbling and traitorous disciples) with compassion. He describes God’s character through the story of a father whose son has squandered his inheritance. When the son finally returns, desperately hoping that he can serve as a servant in his father’s house, his father welcomes him with compassion and forgiveness. In a real encounter, Jesus looks upon a rich man, who couldn’t give up his treasures to follow him, with eyes of compassion – even as the young man walks away.

We are made in the image of God. We are called (and able) to demonstrate the same compassion for others that God shows us. We are called to be ready to show each other kindness and  to desire their good.  

Writing about the Sermon on the Mount, Dallas Willard points out that there are some people that we might think do not deserve our compassion:  “the physically repulsive … the bald, the fat, and the old … the flunk-outs and drop-outs and burned outs. The broke and the broken. The drug heads and the divorced. The HIV-positive and herpes-ridden. The brain-damaged, the incurable ill. The barren and the pregnant too-many-times or the wrong time. The over-employed, the under-employed, the unemployed. The unemploy- able. The swindled, the shoved aside, the replaced… .” (The Divine Conspiracy, pp. 123-124). If we are honest, we know that we subconsciously judge some people as unworthy of our compassion.  How can we become able to  see others through God’s eyes? How can we become compassionate toward people we think don’t deserve our compassion?


♥  Richard Foster suggests that we ask ourselves: “How can I make the kingdom of God available to individuals who are humanly hopeless? Then as you go about your days, learn to take time to point out the natural beauty of every human being” (Renovare Weekly Digest for October 16, 2017). And then show them a heart of compassion.

♥  Peter tells us that we should be ready to set ourselves aside and make others the focus of our attention. We are to lift up one another, “to disappear in our efforts to support each other” ( Compassion and humility enable us to do this, if we choose to do so. Lift some one up by your compassion this week.

♥ Often it is easier to look with compassion on others than it is to look at ourselves with compassion. When you are tempted to put yourself down, look through God’s com- passionate eyes at yourself.  When you struggle to believe in your own value, imagine the smile of Jesus on your life.


“Mother Teresa’s message was, ‘Calcutta is everywhere, if we only have eyes to see.’ Pray that God would help us see our own Calcutta: the pain, poverty, loneliness, and ostracizing that happens all over. Each of us encounters situations that demand both prayer and activism. Pray that God would give us the eyes to see the pain of our neighborhoods” (Shane Claiborne in Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation for July 2, 2017)

Posted in Going Deeper with God | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“Careless in the Care of God”

The day was warm and sunny when my husband and I set out for our favorite lakeside park. By the time we arrived, grey clouds flooded the sky and the wind whipped up the waves. As we wandered along the walkway beside the lake, I heard the chatter of seagulls. Suddenly a dozen or more flew over our head toward the lake and the aerial acrobatics began. I have shared the park with seagulls dozens of time and usually shooed them away.  This time, however, I joined their adventure.

The wind was strong but “variable.” For several minutes, I watched one determined seagull fly, then float, then lose the wind and fall toward the lake. He always recovered and tried again.  He was pushed back repeatedly.  Finally he found the perfect spot in the wind and flew in dazzling circles before he landed on the water to rest.  Other birds seemed to be racing each other to some unknown treasure in the water. The bravest gulls hovered over the water, their frantically fluttering wings holding them steady in the wind. (I couldn’t help but think what a miracle of engineering birds really are. It takes a fixed wing airplane and a helicopter to accomplish what birds can do in seconds.)  A few of the gulls played tag in the air. And the most content just floated on the waves saving their energy and enjoying the view.

I was reminded of the time that Jesus compared our lives to the life of the birds:  “There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds” (Matthew 6: 26; MSG). 

Sometimes our lives of blue skies and sunshine quickly and inexplicably change to gray clouds and furious winds. I had a week like that recently. Financial setbacks, medical issues, silly inconveniences, and the messiness and cruelty of American politics threw me off-balance.  Some days I pushed against the wind. Some days I hovered ceaselessly over the problems. Some days I raced in circles looking for solutions.

Finally, I decided to rest in the waves, saving my energy and enjoying the view.  I learned from the birds that I can live free and unfettered, “careless in the care of God.”

Posted in Living as Apprentices | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Lesson from Carrots

This blog now hosts nearly 700 posts. Periodically I recycle past posts that newer followers of the blog may not have read. The following post was originally published on August 24, 2014.

Gardeners know that root vegetables thrive in cold weather.  However, did you know that root vegetables, like carrots, have to endure the stress of severalcarrots 2 intense freezes to create the best taste. In fact, Chef Dan Barber reports, the carrot converts its starches to sugars during those hard freezes because it doesn’t want ice crystallization which would cause the death of the carrot.  So in the end when we bite into the carrot harvested in cold weather, we taste its sweetness, “but what the plant is telling [us] is that it [didn’t] want to die.”

Barber’s point in his interview on On Being was that we need to grow food where it ecologically is best suited if we want it to taste its very best.  My point in sharing this is that once again the natural world gives us a parable for our spiritual journey.

We try to avoid pain and suffering (emotional as well as physical) at all costs. But in the same way that an unstressed carrot doesn’t taste the way a carrot at its best should taste, a person who plays life so safe that he or she avoids all risk of pain can be pretty bland. Scripture is full of stories of men and women who risked and suffered and became heroic figures because of it, Jesus being the best example.

The saving grace of our hurts and wounds is that God makes use of those intense events in us in the same way the “lowly” carrot does. If we are willing to allow God to work in our suffering, our woundedness can be converted into sweetness and winsomeness of character. Our healing will engage others in ways that could never happen if we were not first wounded.

If we don’t allow God to work in our suffering, we will become as cold as ice and die spiritually and emotionally and sometimes even physically. Meanness and stinginess will be what we display. And God, the one who suffered for us, will not be glorified.

Posted in Living as Apprentices | Tagged , , | Leave a comment