An Attitude of Gratitude

“In ordinary life, we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote these words in his famous book, “Letters and Papers from Prison.” It’s inspiring that that the German theologian, who was hanged in a Nazi concentration camp for his resistance to the Hitler regime, was writing about feeling grateful shortly before his untimely death at the tender age of 39. Maybe your circumstances have also been difficult lately, which unlike Bonhoeffer, can make it very challenging for most of us to have an attitude of gratitude. Whether it’s a chronic health crisis, a broken relationship, the death of a loved one, a prodigal child, a financial or employment dilemma, life’s big and little problems can really get you down.

Down was where John Kralik was when he began to write his 2010 memoir, “365 Thank Yous.” The then 53-year-old attorney was financially struggling, going through a second divorce, forty pounds overweight, and rapidly losing hope that he would ever achieve his career goal of being a judge. I first heard about Kralik’s insightful work through a woman I interviewed who had once lost an adult child to cancer. It just felt like something I needed to read. On the back cover it says, “An inspiring, true story about how a simple old-fashioned act – writing thank you notes – led a hopeless, angry, middle-aged man out of despair and into a wonderful life.” Kralik’s book is more practical than spiritual, yet gratitude has been said to be one of the greatest of virtues. The lawyer certainly convinces his reader that gratitude is indeed a powerful tool, since eventually his life is restored and he even fulfills his dream of becoming a Los Angeles court judge. In 2013, the New York Times best-seller was rereleased under the title, “A Simple Act of Gratitude.” The message of “365 Thank Yous” stays with me, because it is not so much about writing thank you notes, as it is about becoming grateful. Truthfully, I know a lot about thank you notes being raised in a generation where the correct response to a gift was a mandatory card of appreciation. But, I haven’t always known a lot about gratitude.

Rather, I lived much of my life with the cup half-empty mentality, like many Americans concentrating on what I didn’t have.  Not so much desiring material things, rather missing the everyday blessings that are easy to take for granted. Then there are folks who seem to be naturally thankful for everything. “Gratitude is inclusive,” writes the late author Brennan Manning. For example, in his book, “Ruthless Trust” Manning shares about an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, where a man named Tony once said, “If I had to choose among all the diseases that afflict human beings, I would choose mine [alcoholism], because I can do something about it.”

Being grateful for being an alcoholic is one thing, but what about finding gratitude in the midst of heartbreaking loss? Loss like writer Ann Voskamp experienced when as a little girl, she witnessed her 18-month-old baby sister being run over by a delivery truck. As author of the book, “One Thousand Gifts,” Voskamp admits that she spent many years battling depression and anxiety. The wife of a farmer and mother of six finally finds gratitude by conscientiously observing 1,000 simple gifts in her daily life and poetically writing each one down. “Child sobs ebbing, boys humming hymns, laundry flapping, book pages turning, toothless smiles, forgiveness of a sister, and her list goes on and on.

That an alcoholic man and a grieving woman – both find thankfulness – is sobering. I know it’s a terrible pun, but I think Tony would like it. After all, according to Manning at the A.A. meetings that he attended, Tony “introduced himself as a ‘grateful recovering alcoholic.’”

No matter what is going on in our own lives there is still much to be thankful for. Gratitude is a daily decision. Not only an attitude, but a way of life. May we find beauty in the ordinary. Whether it’s a colorful blossom, the green leaves on once barren trees, or the laughter of children playing outside again, may our hearts be filled with thankfulness for the blessings that each new day brings.

For those whose lives are truly in a time of agonizing mourning and unbearable grief, let’s pray that we can somehow bring hope to them. All the while, being grateful that God can use one broken human being like ourselves to comfort another in a season of brokenness that is even greater than our own.

Christina Ryan Claypool is an award-winning freelance journalist and inspirational speaker. Contact her through her Website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.

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The Memory of a Christmas Eve Miracle

Christmas Dining TableIt’s Christmastime again! Everywhere you look there are festively decorated store windows, Christmas commercials about joyful family gatherings, and music that floods us with memories of long ago holidays. Yet for many folks, there is also the longing for yesterday that this season can create. Vacant places at the table where deceased loved ones once sat, or maybe an empty table resulting from a family that’s been broken, or just grown and moved away.

There is also the financial burden for economically struggling individuals not knowing how they will make ends meet, let alone having anything left over for their children’s Christmas list. After all, children don’t understand that their circumstances are not conducive for a visit from Santa.

My late friend Liesl Sondheimer asked me for my help in sharing her own miracle of holiday provision, but for her it was a Hanukkah miracle. To explain, sometimes the two religious celebrations intersect, as they must have that December almost 75 years ago. Liesl was a Jewish Holocaust survivor who lived in Lima, Ohio for six decades. After fleeing from Germany in 1938, the Jewish immigrant began life anew, but most of her extended family perished.

It was a decade ago, when Liesl’s 97-year-old arthritic hands prevented her from writingphoto (13) the inspiring story herself, so I typed it down while she dictated. The small of stature, silver-haired survivor began, “…Although my husband was a physician in Germany, we were forced to flee from our home to seek refuge in the United States because of the rise of the Hitler regime. We recently had arrived in this country from Nazi Germany. At the entrance of the dilapidated apartment building that was to become our home, my two little girls asked, ‘Will we get any Hanukkah gifts this year?’ I had to tell them there was no money for gifts when we were not able to even provide for the most necessary things.

“On Christmas Eve, there was a knock at the door,” Liesl continued. “The janitor handed me packages with clothing and toys for the children, food, and a little Christmas tree. Asking who the kind donors were, the janitor would only tell me some people had overheard our conversation and did not want the children to go without gifts this holiday season. They did not even want us to know their names.

“How blessed it is to give, so much easier than to receive,” concluded the elderly Jewish lady. “My financial circumstances improved and I was able to be able to be on the giving side the rest of my life. However, I will never forget how wonderful it was to receive goods, warmth, love and encouragement while struggling in poverty. It keeps up one’s faith in the goodness of man.”

As I typed the account of the long-ago random act of kindness, it was Liesl’s assertion of her steadfast faith in the “goodness of man,” that has always intrigued me. Especially, since Mrs. Sondheimer’s words echoed that of the 18th century German poet Goethe whom she deeply admired, “Noble be man, merciful and good.”

The compassion of other human beings is something that most of us desperately need to be reminded of right now. With nightly news broadcasting horrific features about the cruelty of individuals involved in terrorist attacks, school shootings, and ongoing racial tension in metropolitan areas, we can forget about all the giving folks trying to make the world a better place.

Christmas Tree 2015Besides, at Christmastime, we frequently witness the very best in people. The countless law enforcement officers making sure local kids have gifts to open; the churchgoers everywhere who collect thousands of shoeboxes filled with little blessings for impoverished children overseas; the service clubs, ministries, and organizations working diligently to fill the gap for parents through local programs or through Angel Tree and Toys for Tots; the Salvation Army volunteer bell ringers grateful for each dollar donated; the school personnel and families secretly giving to those in need among them; and the list goes on and on.

Mrs. Sondheimer refused to allow her once painful circumstances to make her bitter. Rather, she chose to celebrate the memory of a holiday miracle when her family was cared for by strangers. It might help to remember that the reason for the season was never about festively wrapped gifts anyway, but about a baby born in a humble Bethlehem stable offering mankind the gift of God’s love. In closing, Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year to all!

Christina aloneChristina Ryan Claypool is an Amy-award winning journalist and inspirational speaker. Contact her through her Website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com

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Thankful for the Gift of More Time

Martha Farmer 034 Martha Farmer 037 “It wasn’t your time,” the body shop technician said matter-of-factly surveying my husband’s wrecked car. As Nate, whose name was embroidered on his work shirt, began wrapping the totaled vehicle with clear plastic; I dutifully gathered my personal possessions.

Just days before, the black sedan’s pristine finish glistened in the sunshine. Now, what was left of the car was a reminder of how blessed I had been to survive.

“It wasn’t your time,” was the twenty-something auto-technician’s advice on how to conquer the anxiety about driving that my 2008 accident created. I often think of Nate’s simple theology.

His statement reminded me of something German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote in his Letters and Papers from Prison, “We all have our appointed hour of death, and it will always find us wherever we go. And we must be ready for it.”

Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who refused to sit idly by as Adolph Hitler killed millions of Jewish citizens during World War II. Instead the German leader joined a movement to have Hitler assassinated, resulting in his 1943 imprisonment. Bonhoeffer’s own appointed hour of death occurred in 1945, when at only 39 years of age he was hanged at the Flossenburg concentration camp.Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I’m not comparing my situation to the slain scholar’s, because I felt blessed to be alive that afternoon. After all, a few days earlier while driving in heavy four-lane traffic I glanced in my rear view mirror and saw a car rapidly approaching. My frantic mind quickly realized that there was nothing I could do. Suddenly, I heard the sickening sound of crunching metal, and felt the forceful impact that propelled me forward quite a distance.

Miraculously, there was no vehicle directly ahead, nor had I been pushed into an adjoining lane. Momentarily dazed, I gratefully assessed that my injuries were non-life-threatening, although they would require a trip to the hospital. The young man whose vehicle’s front end had connected with my demolished back end assured me that he was ok, too. “We can always get a new car, but we can’t replace precious people,” was a philosophy that I had been taught by my late mother.

Thankfully, I knew my husband agreed with my practical view of totaled automobiles, since I just “happened” to borrow his car that day. Providentially, Larry’s vehicle “was” proven to prevent injuries in crash tests. It lived up to its promise, even though it resembled a folded accordion after the wreck.

photo (2)There were several other remarkable occurrences surrounding the event. When dressing the morning of the accident, my treasured angel pin, a gift from late Jewish Holocaust survivor, Elisabeth Sondheimer, seemed to sparkle warningly as it fell to my bedroom floor. Then before leaving, my normally rushed school administrator spouse stopped uncharacteristically to put his arms around me and say a quick prayer.

I had also placed an antique picture of Jesus standing behind a sailor who is navigating a ship’s wooden wheel behind the driver’s seat that day. The portrait depicts the Jewish carpenter with one hand lovingly resting on the young seamen’s shoulder and the other arm extended, pointing him in the direction he needs to go amidst the turbulent seas.

I had taken the inspirational artwork to give to a colleague who was encountering some rough seas of his own. When cleaning the car out at the body shop, I found the glass and wooden framed picture undamaged just as Nate was sharing his wise advice about it not being my time.Jesus is my Pilot

The borrowed car, the angel pin, my husband’s spontaneous prayer, and the antique picture are all reminders of my own belief that God is always in control, even when life seems randomly chaotic. However, my greatest blessing was the fact that apparently it wasn’t my “appointed hour of death” as Bonhoeffer once wrote. Because someday, death “will find me,” just as it finds us all, since nobody gets out of here alive.

If you disagree with Nate, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and me, perhaps you will like the wisdom in the song lyrics of the former hit, It’s Not My Time by rockers, 3 Doors Down. “My friend, this life we live is not what we have, it’s what we believe. And it’s not my time. I’m not going ….” Hopefully, you and I are not going today. For now, we’ve all been granted the precious opportunity to spend more time with those we love, and to finish our work on this Earth.

Christina Ryan Claypool is an inspirational speaker and Amy Award winning freelance journalist. Contact her through her Website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com.  

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Liesl’s Legacy: A Holocaust Survivor’s Lessons for Life

Liesl celebrated our wedding as if she was the mother of the bride.

Liesl celebrated our wedding as if she was the mother of the bride.

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams,” said Eleanor Roosevelt. The late Elisabeth “Liesl” Sondheimer was deeply inspired by this former first lady who was once her house guest. Yet many of us in northwestern Ohio can readily admit that Mrs. Sondheimer was the one who inspired us.

Liesl has been gone for over four years now, but her life lessons live on. Being a Jewish Holocaust survivor, she had every reason to believe that the world was an ugly place filled with horrific evil. As a young woman she was forced to flee her beloved Germany during Hitler’s regime.

Instead of becoming bitter, she embraced forgiveness. Not the cheap kind of forgiveness that pardons atrocity by denying its existence, but genuine forgiveness which is a gift to yourself. Once, during an interview, I asked her how she could forgive. She gazed at me intently, and simply said, “You must forgive, or Hitler has won.”

Liesl was silver-haired and wrinkled, but still ethereally beautiful, by the time I met her shortly after her 90th birthday in 1997. While interviewing her for a TV feature about the Holocaust, I was honored when the local celebrity asked me to join her for supper. One of my greatest life blessings was that this courageous woman took me under her mentoring wing.

Since Liesl loved adventures, especially ones that involved supporting the arts, music or books; I would occasionally pick her up and whisk her away to an event. It was on these outings that she freely shared her wisdom about life. Once while I was driving her to an art museum, my friend absentmindedly asked, “Did I ever tell you about the time Eleanor Roosevelt stayed at my house?”

“No, I think I would have remembered that,” I jokingly replied.

She then began to share how over five decades ago, she had invited Eleanor Roosevelt to visit northwestern Ohio simply by sending her a letter. Her cause was successful, due to some assistance from an influential friend. This Liesl dissertation was the, “You never know… anything can happen if you try” lesson. I needed this motivational message, because life circumstances had tattered my own faith.

My brokenness was probably one of the reasons that this dear lady reached out to me. Surviving a near fatal suicide attempt, and then being confined in a state mental institution as a teen had left scars on me that only another survivor could see. Therefore, Liesl, who had been educated in social work, gently guided me in understanding the lesson of “Survivor’s Guilt,” that I must go on, and be grateful for surviving.

In explanation, when one triumphs over negative circumstances, it is easy to get stuck in the guilt created by contemplating why others have not been so fortunate. After the Holocaust, the Jewish survivor admitted that this quandary haunted her, too. But she refused to allow this never to-be-answered question about the past, to destroy her future.

Yet to prevent these tragedies from reoccurring, she also believed that it was a survivor’s moral responsibility to speak up on behalf of those still struggling. Even though she forgave, she never forgot the millions of Holocaust victims. Instead she passionately shared her story to warn others about the dangers of prejudice.

On a lighter note, there was also the “Beauty is Ageless” teaching, which I learned vicariously while watching Liesl shop for clothes. She took time to look her best, and never stopped caring about fabric, color, or finding just the right accessory. In 2007, for her 100th birthday, I drove her to a mall in a neighboring state where she enthusiastically tried on countless outfits looking for just the right pieces for her wardrobe.

Although most important was the “Love” lesson that Liesl taught me. When I met school administrator Larry Claypool in 2001, past hurts had left me too afraid to love. When it came to romance, Liesl used to describe me, “As a burnt child, who was afraid of the fire.”

But at heart, Liesl was a hopeless romantic, who challenged my initial fears about dating Larry, by asserting that one must be willing to risk everything to have another opportunity for happiness. The following year, she sat smugly in a church pew dressed smartly in a pale pink suit smiling with satisfaction as Larry and I recited our vows in a candlelight ceremony.

For me, Liesl’s legacy of living courageously includes: the challenge to embrace forgiveness, to speak up against injustice, to support the arts, to reach for your dreams, and to always look your best.

However, I will always be most grateful for Liesl’s “Love” lesson. After all, it was my precious husband’s protective arms that comforted me when we buried my remarkable 101-year-old friend in spring of 2009.

This humble humanitarian shared her messages with civic clubs, women’s groups, universities, and in school classrooms across our community. Her story of surviving seemingly impossible circumstances graced her listeners with the gift of hope everywhere she went.

Today, her lessons live on. You see, those we love never die. They are always in our hearts, shaping our tomorrows with their valuable influence.  

Christina Ryan Claypool is an author and inspirational speaker. Contact her through her Website at www.christinaryanclaypool.com. This column originally appeared in The Lima News.

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