26 August 2013

Branches of Love

I hope you all had a great week. My week was full and nonstop, but a really good one. After attending Asdvadzadzin services last Sunday, it just kind of left me pumped up!  We had just gotten back from our vacation in Oregon in time for Sunday's Service, and the following day was our homeless outreach to Skid Row.  I wanted to share about that outreach today, and just talk about the idea that Fr. Vazken spoke about in his sermon last week.  Tying into the vine, which is Christ.

So just a little background for those of you who don't know about our homeless outreach.  We started visting Skid Row 6 years ago.  Skid Row is the area in downtown Los Angeles, that has large homeless populations on the streets.  The poorest of the poor.  Some who are fortunate, have a tent to sleep in, others have a flattened box to lay on, and still others have nothing at all.  When we go out to visit our homeless brothers and sisters, we take two large thermoses of hot water, many cases of Cup o' Noodles, water bottles, wrapped snacks, used, donated clothing, and always after The Feast of the Assumption, we take blessed grapes.

This small gesture, of taking grapes to the homeless, is very well received and appreciated. Food and clothing are always appreciated by those that have very little.  But sharing a blessing is different.  And I don't know who it's more special to: the deliverer of the blessing or the recipient.

 First off, receiving any kind of fresh fruit is a treat.  Those that live on the street are used to eating the leftovers of others.  Finding food in the trash, or if lucky, receiving the doggy bag of someone walking by.  So here's what happens.  We drive around the streets finding encampments of people and pull the cars over and serve them.  When we pulled out the grapes and offered them, their eyes lit up.  I didn't tell all of them that these grapes were special, but to those that questioned our new menu item, I would tell them.  "These grapes are blessed.  And we brought them for you to receive the blessing as well."   When I talked about the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, some of their eyes would soften as if remembering something in their teaching from long ago.  Others knew.  One young man was very moved.  He told me, "I am going to eat these grapes and receive God's blessing.  Thank you so much."  And he turned to his friends and told them "If you don't want your grapes, you can't throw them away...give them to me...they've been blessed.  In church."

The blessing of being able to reach out to the homeless is one that I so appreciate.  As much as I have a soft spot for the homeless, and my heart hurts for them, I am spoiled.  I complain about my job.  I complain that I can't get a grip on the housework.  I can be wasteful in my ways.  I focus on stuff that is so trivial sometimes.  Stupid stuff, like, for example, maybe my pillow cases don't match my sheets, y'know?  Does that really matter when my brother doesn't even have a pillow, let alone a sheet, a blanket..or a bed.  So you see what I'm saying? It's humbling.  And being able to share God's love with them helps me, helps all of those that participate on our crew, to put things into perspective.

It's a privilege to serve.  Once we load up the cars for our outreach, we gather in a circle on the lawn of the church for a prayer.  We thank God for the opportunity to be his hands and to reach out.  We ask for protection and  that He help us not to judge.  And that He allow us to bring His light and love to those in need.  Last Monday we fed and clothed about 160 people.  And that helps the rest of the week seem a bit lighter.

And then on Thursday, when I listened to this week's episode of the Next Step with Father Vazken and his conversation with Linda Zadoian about the Feast of the Assumption...and grape blessing, it made sense about why this week felt so different.  I was at church last Sunday, and I felt that magic they were talking about...and it did carry forward thoughout the week.  We were still riding on the wave of that day and its lesson.   I think that's the beauty of these special days...that they are supposed to carry us with their meaning so that we can live the message not just that one day but for the remaining 364 days of the year.  

So I started thinking of ways that we can reach out to others...and be tied to the vine.  It's not only about feeding the homeless.  Maybe that's just not your thing.  But there are other ways to extend the love.  We can show others the love within us...the love that God has empowered us with.  When we are loving and compassionate, we understand that we all belong to one another.

We can be kind to one another.  And to ourselves.  If we view everyone, including ourselves, as gifts of life that God has created, we can see in one another the possibilities for greatness and change in the world.  By encouraging one another, being kind and nurturing, we can increase that potential to make the world a kinder and more loving place.  And sometimes it's easy to be kind to others, but not to ourselves.  How many of us are hard on ourselves?  How many of us are forgiving of ourselves and our failures.  Let's say we're walking down a flight of stairs and we trip.  Should we then throw ourselves down the whole flight because we messed up and didn't do things perfectly?  No, right?  So then in life, why are we so easy to toss in the towel when we make a mistake...or have a set back?  See what I'm saying?

We can show, every day, that we are instruments of God's love and peace by living that love and peace.  Be loving.  Make peace with those that have wronged us (or that we've wronged).  As for forgiveness, don't be a party to negativity or gossip.

We can extend the hand of friendship to those we don't know...or those that need a friend.  Don't be shy.  What about that new guy you see at church who is just standing there at coffee hour.  Be welcoming.  You know, one of the neatest men at our church, Baron Sarkis, is part of our church family because we took the time to say hello.   He went to two Armenian churches before ours and  he said no one even said good morning.   After watching Fr. Vazken on television, he decided to try our church.  And he is now part of the family. Why?  Because he felt welcome.  He's 76.  His family lives in another state. He is here all alone, and we are now his family.   He tells us that we extended friendship to him.  Just a smile and a hello is all it takes sometime.

And finally, I read a beautiful article today that I wanted to share with it you, and it's about this very thing...spreading the love and how a group of women made a difference in so many lives and how the lesson of sharing that love spread to others.

The Business 9 Women Kept A Secret For Three Decades

--by Lori Weiss, syndicated from huffingtonpost.com, Jun 29, 2012
Somewhere in West Tennessee, not far from Graceland, nine women -- or "The 9 Nanas," as they prefer to be called -- gather in the darkness of night. At 4am they begin their daily routine -- a ritual that no one, not even their husbands, knew about for 30 years. They have one mission and one mission only: to create happiness. And it all begins with baked goods.
“One of us starts sifting the flour and another washing the eggs,” explained Nana Mary Ellen, the appointed spokesperson for their secret society. “And someone else makes sure the pans are all ready. We switch off, depending on what we feel like doing that day.
“But you make sure to say Nana Pearl is in charge, because she’s the oldest!” she added with a wink and a smile.
Over the next three hours, The 9 Nanas (who all consider themselves sisters, despite what some of their birth certificates say) will whip up hundreds of pound cakes, as part of a grand scheme to help those in need. And then, before anyone gets as much as a glimpse of them, they’ll disappear back into their daily lives. The only hint that may remain is the heavenly scent of vanilla, lemon and lime, lingering in the air.
Even the UPS driver, who picks up hundreds of packages at a time, has no clue what these women, who range in age from 54 to 72, are doing. He’s just happy to get a hug and a bag filled with special treats. What he doesn’t know is that he’s part of their master plan. A plan that began 35 years ago -- when the “sisters” got together for their weekly card game -- something their husbands referred to as “Broads and Bridge.”
“Pearl says it was all her idea,” Mary Ellen teased, “but as I remember it, we were sitting around reminiscing about MaMaw and PaPaw and all the different ways they would lend a hand in the community.” MaMaw and PaPaw are the grandparents who raised four of the women, Mary Ellen included, when their mother passed away; and they took in Pearl as their own, when her parents needed some help.
“MaMaw Ruth would read in the paper that someone had died,” Mary Ellen remembered, “and she’d send off one of her special pound cakes. She didn’t have to know the family. She just wanted to put a little smile on their faces. And we started thinking about what we could do to make a difference like that. What if we had a million dollars? How would we spend it?
So the ladies began brainstorming.
“One of the sisters suggested that we should all start doing our own laundry and put the money we saved to good use. I admit, I protested at first. There’s just something about laundering that I don’t like. But I was outnumbered! So among the nine of us, we’d put aside about $400 a month and our husbands never noticed a thing. Their shirts looked just fine.”
And then the women started listening. They’d eavesdrop -- all with good intentions, of course -- at the local beauty shop or when they were picking up groceries. And when they heard about a widow or a single mom who needed a little help, they’d step in and anonymously pay a utility bill or buy some new clothes for the children.
“We wanted to help as much as we could,” Mary Ellen said, “without taking away from our own families, so we became coupon clippers. And we’d use green stamps. Remember those? We’d use green stamps and we’d make sure to go to Goldsmith’s department store on Wednesdays. Every week they’d have a big sale and you could spend $100 and walk away with $700 worth of merchandise.”
The Nanas would find out where the person lived and send a package with a note that simply said, “Somebody loves you” -- and they’d be sure to include one of MaMaw Ruth’s special pound cakes.
The more people they helped, the bolder they became.
“We gave new meaning to the term drive-by,” Mary Ellen said with delight. “We’d drive through low-income neighborhoods and look for homes that had fans in the window. That told us that the people who lived there didn’t have air-conditioning. Or we’d see that there were no lights on at night, which meant there was a good chance their utilities had been turned off. Then we’d return before the sun came up, like cat burglars, and drop off a little care package.”
For three decades, the ladies’ good deeds went undetected -- that is, until five years ago, when Mary Ellen’s husband, whom she lovingly calls “Southern Charmer,” started noticing extra mileage on the car and large amounts of cash being withdrawn from their savings account.
“He brought out bank statements and they were highlighted!” Mary Ellen said, recalling the horror she felt. “I tried to explain that I had bought some things, but he had this look on his face that I’d never seen before -- and I realized what he must have been thinking. I called the sisters and said, 'You all need to get over here right away.'”
So 30 years into their secret mission, the 9 Nanas and their husbands gathered in Mary Ellen’s living room and the sisters came clean. They told the husbands about the laundry and the eavesdropping -- even the drive-bys. And that’s where their story gets even better -- because the husbands offered to help.
“They were amazed that we were doing this and even more amazed that they never knew. We can keep a good secret! All but three of them are retired now, so sometimes they come with us on our drive-bys. In our area, all you need is an address to pay someone’s utility bill, so we keep the men busy jotting down numbers.”
It wasn’t long before the couples decided it was also time to tell their grown children. And that’s when happiness began to happen in an even bigger way. The children encouraged their mothers to start selling MaMaw Ruth’s pound cakes online, so they could raise money to help even more people. And it wasn’t long before they were receiving more than 100 orders in a day.
“The first time we saw those orders roll in, we were jumping up and down,” Mary Ellen said with a laugh. “We were so excited that we did a ring-around-the-rosie! Then we called all the children and said, 'What do we do next?'"
That’s when the 9 Nanas moved their covert baking operation out of their homes and into the commercial kitchen of a restaurant owned by one of their sons, where they can sneak in before sunrise and sneak out before the staff comes in. They even hired a “happiness coordinator” (whose code name is “Sunny,” of course). Her identity needs to be a secret, too, so she can help out with the eavesdropping.
“We swore her to secrecy -- her parents think she works in marketing. And, really, if you think about it, she is doing public relations and spends a lot of time looking for people to help at the supermarket!”
These days, The 9 Nanas are able to take on even bigger projects, given their online success. Recently they donated more than $5,000 of pillows and linens and personal care products to a shelter for survivors of domestic violence. And this August, they’ll celebrate their second consecutive “Happiness Happens Month” by sending tokens of their appreciation to one person in every state who has made a difference in their own community.
And that million dollars they once wished for? They’re almost there. In the last 35 years, the 9 Nanas have contributed nearly $900,000 of happiness to their local community.
But that doesn’t mean they’re too busy to continue doing the little things that make life a bit happier. Sometimes they just pull out the phone book and send off pound cakes to complete strangers. And if the Nanas spot someone at the grocery store who appears to need a little help, it’s not unusual for them to start filling a stranger’s cart.
“Not everyone is as lucky as we were to have MaMaw and PaPaw to take care of them, to fix all those things that are wrong.
“So this is our way of giving back,” Mary Ellen said. “We want people to know that someone out there cares enough to do something. We want to make sure that happiness happens.”

So there you have it!  The blessings that we receive from loving and sharing are contagious to those on the receiving end of that love.  Let's pray that God continues to allow us to be the branches and that we remain tied to Christ, the living vine, and that He  fill us with His light and love so that we can shine for others and produce the sweet fruit that is His unconditional love for all of  humanity.

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