Trying to make hate look pretty

love-hate

I was reading a story about the rise of hate groups, and a quote jumped out at me. The Columbus Dispatch interviewed the leader of a Ku Klux Klan organization about its plans to expand.

Near the end of the story, Amanda Lee defended her group’s actions as something other than hate.

“We don’t hate anybody,” she says in the story. “God says you can’t get into heaven with hate in your heart.”

Wait, what?

How can a group that reveres its history of lynching, bombing and terror contend that it’s not driven by hate? How can anyone think that there’s no hate involved in demeaning and hurting people who are different from you?

If that’s not hate, then what is?

Wait, what?

We’ve heard a lot of similar lines in the last few years from people trying to redefine hate into something more acceptable:

“I don’t hate black people. I just think they’re not as good as white people. And they should stop complaining about how they’re being treated. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate gay and transgender people. I just think they’re horrible sinners – unlike me – and I should be free to discriminate against them in any way I wish. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate Muslims. I just think they’re all dangerous and they should be prevented from practicing their religion in my country. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate women. I just think they should be submissive and accept that they’re not equal to men. And they should be quiet when someone says it’s OK to grab them by the crotch. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate refugees. I just don’t trust any of them – not even the starving babies – and I don’t want them near me. They make me uncomfortable. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate poor people. I just wish they’d get off the street corners so I wouldn’t have to see them. I think they’re all lazy and undeserving of help. But that’s not hate.”

There are many variations on the “I don’t hate (fill in the blank) people” theme. I suppose much of it involves people trying to justify their prejudices rather than confront them. Or maybe they’re trying to dress up their ugly ideas so they can gain a following.

Fill in the blank

But I also get a sense that some people who make these statements might actually believe what they’re saying. They think that because they don’t feel all angry and hateful and vicious toward others, then it’s not really hate that’s involved.

We need to talk about this.

Love and hate aren’t about emotions. They’re about attitudes and our actions. Love and hate aren’t about how we feel toward someone, but about how we treat them – what we do or don’t do to them.

To love someone means to treat them as we would want to be treated, regardless of how we feel. When we’re told to love our enemies, it doesn’t mean we feel warm-and-fuzzy about them; it means we respect their inherent human dignity.

Love recognizes that everyone is an equally beloved child of God and must be treated as such by our words and actions. Love values everyone’s dignity and worth as equal to my own.

By contrast, hate rejects another person’s equal value and worth. It sees those who are different from me as less than me in some ways. It creates the conditions for people to be abused and mistreated.

Hate is about attitudes and actions, not emotions.

Choose love instead

One of the most jarring parts of Viktor Frankl’s description of his time in a Nazi extermination camp was how people did such savage things with so little emotion. Hate becomes truly dangerous when human empathy is stripped away.

Let’s also remember that hate has an evil twin – indifference. Hate is given approval to do horrific things when people shrug and say, “Not my problem.”

And let’s not forget that hate and love exist within each of us. That’s what it means to be human. Spirituality involves an ongoing examination of our attitudes and actions to see whether they convey love, hate or indifference, and then choosing to do the most loving thing as best we can.

We need to challenge those who try to dress up hate and misrepresent it as something other than what it is. To do anything less is to give cover to hate and allow it to clothe us in its robes.

Choose to put on love instead.

Earth dust and star dust

stardust3

Growing up Catholic meant that Ash Wednesday was a big deal in our school and our church. Personally, I never cared for it all that much.

Part of the reason was that Ash Wednesday marked the start of giving up something until Easter. Usually, it was the start of doing without candy or soft drinks or ice cream. I recall that one year, a family on my street decided they would give up television for Lent, which seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.

The ashes never thrilled me, either. The pastor of my immigrant church in Cleveland loved the ashes and would make a HUGE, messy sign of the cross on everyone’s forehead, turning them into a giant hot-cross bun for the rest of the day. Of course, we weren’t allowed to wipe off the ashes until we got home, so the little black flakes ended up on everything.

(By contrast, the younger associate priest in the parish would just leave a thumb-print mark of ashes on the forehead. We tried to gravitate to his line.)

Ashes on everything

What bothered me most about the day, though, was the message. It was so dark and seemed to be about beating up people simply for coming up short – which, of course, is the total opposite of the original message.

The person who started the movement went around telling people that they are blessed and beloved and beautiful and worth more than they can possibly imagine. He spent his life trying to build up those who were getting beat down by their religious and economic and social and political systems.

And he said that his followers must do the same. Forgive, embrace, include, heal and love everyone.

I totally get why so many people are turned off by Ash Wednesday, the way it has devolved over the centuries. We’re all bleeding in some ways, and the last thing we need is someone lecturing us on how we deserve to bleed. Instead, we need someone to take the time to stop, gently bandage our wounds, end the bleeding and start the healing.

That’s what the ashes represent – a reminder that every day is a precious gift and we mustn’t waste it. Day by day, we need to grow in love and shine more brightly.

The ashes also remind us that that we are intimately bound to everything and everyone, and we must live as such. The creation stories teach us so beautifully and poetically that everything — including you and me – is made from the same stuff.

In our diversity, we’re kindred creations. And it’s all very, very good.

The star that you are

One of the many cool revelations of science is that everything in the universe is built with the same divine tool box. Everything and everyone is made from the same set of elements, the same holy ingredients.

We are more than sacred earth dust. We are sacred star dust, too.

And like the stars, we are made to shine, each in our own way and in our own place. We’re meant to provide light for the world, and we can’t hide from our responsibility. We mustn’t build walls between ourselves and others and cower in the shadow of fear, insecurity and certitude.

Mostly, we need to stop listening to the voices telling us that we don’t matter, we’re not important, we don’t measure up, we’re not good enough or worthy of unconditional love.

That’s what we need to give up – paying attention to those voices.

Instead, be the star that you are. In your way, bring love and compassion and healing into the world as best you can. Let every speck of dust remind you of the Source of your light and your brilliance.

Go and shine.

Away from the abyss

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I came across the picture above on the internet. Something about it resonated with me, the way people were falling out of the church and into an abyss.

I held onto the picture, planning to write about how we need to be careful of where we worship because some places lead us not to a higher plane of love and compassion but into the abyss of hatred and self-righteousness.

I worked up an indignation over how so many “Christians” reject anyone who experiences God outside of their tiny theological boxes. How they want legal consent to hatefully shun others in Jesus’ name. How they insist we should turn away refugees – let them die over there, it’s too dangerous to save them over here.

And I just want to say: WTF? What’s That Faith?

A couple of things I saw while driving around recently also got under my skin. First, I came upon a pickup truck toting a trailer that berated everyone on the road who didn’t share their beliefs. On the truck bed was a videoboard playing gruesome scenes of crucifixion. You also notice a U.S. flag, an Israeli flag and a POW flag. Whatever.

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A week later, I pulled up behind an SUV with this bumper sticker:

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Jesus loves me more? Really??? What in God’s name is going on here? I totally get it why so many people call themselves spiritual but not religious these days.

Oh, and I haven’t even started on the white, evangelical “values voters” who decided to become disciples of someone who has lived an entire lifetime mocking and repudiating their values. The ones who heard him say that he’s the only one who can save them, and they were like: We’re good with that!

Out with the old savior, in with the new.

As you can tell, I’d worked myself into a nice, judgmental mood for an into-the-abyss blog.

And then, I had a come-to-Jesus moment.

A man who is friends with someone in my UCC church contacted me. He said he wanted to talk about God. We met at a Starbucks. He comes from a deeply fundamentalist background. I sensed that he was anxious.

WTF? What’s That Faith?

He started quoting scriptures about judgment and punishment, and I just wanted to get up and leave. But then it occurred to me why he was doing what he was doing. He’s terrified that his friend is going to hell because she belongs to a church that believes God actually loves us.

Fear. I sensed a deep fear in his tone.

He kept going, hoping that if he repeated his Bible verses enough times, he might convert me and then God might accept me and not eternally torture me. He was worried about me, too.

I was touched. And I felt so sad for this kind, caring, anxious man.

It reminded me of something Nadia Bolz-Weber said during her reflection on the parable of the prodigal son – you know, the story of how no matter what we do wrong, we get love and hugs and a party in the end.

Nadia tells how an 82-year-old woman posted a heartbreaking message on her public Facebook page saying that she was afraid of dying because she thought God was angry at her and was going to torture her.

This poor woman’s “religion” had made her terrified of God.

“She’d been so condemned by the bogus reward-and-punishment system of false religion that at the end of her life rather than her faith being a source of comfort for her, it was a source of torment for her,” Nadia says.

How horrible!

I felt the same way sitting in Starbucks across the table from a good man who has been taught that the most God-like people in his life weren’t good enough for God because they didn’t attend his church. He’d been told that God hates most everything about all of us but will grudgingly accept those who get baptized into his denomination. All the others — we get eternally waterboarded.

Can you imagine the anxiety it produced in him? Poor man! I felt so sorry for him.

This poor man!

In that moment, all my indignation – OK, some of my indignation – melted. I saw not a self-righteous person but, instead, a victim who’d been beaten up by his “religion” and left bleeding by the side of the spiritual road.

He didn’t need theological debate. Instead, he needed someone to offer compassion and reassurance and love and healing and peace and hope – all the things that his religion was denying him.

In other words, he needed what religion is supposed to do. It’s supposed to lead us upward to a higher place, directing us to love. Away from the abyss.

I really hope he finds his way up and out. He deserves that grace. As do we all.

___

A link to Nadia’s reflection: http://wp.production.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/files/2016/03/2016-03-06_NBW_HFASS_Podcast_64kbps.mp3

No going back

moving-forward

With all that’s happened in 2016 – especially during the last two months — a lot of people are ready to say good riddance and let’s move on to a new year. One that hopefully won’t be so sad and discouraging.

We’re ready for change.

Well, kind of. Well, not really.

Isn’t it interesting how we have this love-hate relationship with change? We crave change in some aspects of our lives, and we do everything we can to block it in other areas.

None of us is totally comfortable with change, which is kind of surprising in a way, seeing as how it’s one of defining human and divine qualities. Change is deeply within us and all around us, who we are and what we’re about.

Our lives begin when two cells meet, create something new and spark a lifelong process of change. Even now, countless cells in our bodies are dying and being replaced by new ones. At our deepest level, we are constantly changing.

All around us and within us

We grow and develop mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And our lives play out in a world that’s also immersed in nonstop change. Life is born and dies and is born again, seasons come and go, our planet zooms through space without pausing for an instant.

Nothing stands still. Ever.

Each of us is a little vessel of change.

Given how change is woven into our very fiber, you might think that we would be a little bit better at accepting and handling it. We all know people who hate change of any sort, and others who crave change and get quickly bored with repetition. I’m guessing that most of us are somewhere closer to the middle of the continuum.

We like new gadgets and changes that make parts of our lives easier. We also have routines that are designed to create a comfort zone and limit change.

Many people resist change when it comes to how they act and think. That’s a tough one for all of us. Change always starts with open-minded questions: Why am I doing this? Can I do it differently and better? What am I missing? How are others doing it? What can I learn from all of this?

Such questions make us uncomfortable. We’re tempted to keep doing things the same way – our way – and pretend there’s no other way. Our minds become closed doors that keep everything in place and rule out any growth.

No going back

We might even fantasize about going back to sometime in the past – the “good old days” – when people who thought like me enjoyed more prominence and never had their ideas questioned. A time when we weren’t challenged to adapt to all the change that is the nature of life.

Of course, those olden times didn’t really exist the way we imagine them. Change has always been a constant. We really can’t freeze ourselves in time.

And the really sad part is that when we try to stay stuck in the past, we become an acorn that’s never planted. Our hard, impenetrable shell prevents us from becoming what we’re meant to evolve into.

We never grow.

Sadly, much of what passes for religion has become this way – heads in the past, resistant to change, devoid of the growth that is the signature of Life. So many “religious” people have abandoned a core trait of spirituality: Openness to a Creator who makes all things new every day and wants to transform each of us a little bit more each day.

Too bad. They’re missing out on what life and love are all about. But they always have the chance to change, if they wish. That’s the great part of change – it’s always there to be celebrated and lived, even if we’ve wasted a lot of time trying to resist its all-inclusive embrace.

A New Year’s wish

So, in the coming year, may you experience many amazing changes.

May you have some new insights each day. May you grow into someone even more beautiful than you already are. Maybe your thoughts and your attitudes and your spirit be touched and transformed by Love.

May you be planted anew in some ways and sprout from the warm ground and reach up to the beautiful sky. May you be watered by all the change around you. May you bloom for all to see.

May you become wiser, more loving, more at peace.

May you change the world for the better.

A ride home on Christmas eve

Pierogi

I was 6 years old. It was Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was ready on the stove — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home so we could eat.

The waiting part was no surprise. Dad was late again.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. My mom said the experience changed him. He brought some demons home with him.

Those demons seemed to emerge during the holidays. My dad would get off work from the butcher shop and head across the street to a bar. His co-workers would have a holiday drink and go home. My dad would stay and drink, trying to drown those demons.

On this Christmas eve, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

Mom decided we would eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We always got new ones for Christmas, the kind with the footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited. My mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

Finally, headlights lit up the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but it wasn’t my dad’s car. We could see two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad. Someone had given him a ride home from the bar. Not the first time.

The driver got out, went around the car and helped my dad get to the front door. My mom opened the door. We got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home? A black man.

Understand this: We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. I’d never seen a black person in my neighborhood. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was a lot of racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

That black man had great courage to come to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to have something to eat. He graciously accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him and my mom and my brother. I’m guessing it was the first and only time he had pierogies and mushroom soup.

He saw he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom what had happened that night. The black man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized that he was in no condition to drive, and decided to give him a ride home.

He could have found any number of reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car — always a risk of a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament.

Why bother with him?

There are so many ways he could have justified keeping a distance. But he didn’t. Instead, he thought about how my dad could end up killing himself after getting behind the wheel, and maybe killing someone else, too.

He could do something about it, so he did.

And he changed everything about my life – more than any of us will ever know.

A year later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. My family had many good times with him over the years, times we might not have gotten if not for that courageous black man.

One act changes everything

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? There were a lot of people on the road. How many other lives did the man save with his brave decision to give my dad a ride?

I never saw that man again. I think about him every Christmas eve, though. He could still be alive. I’m thankful for what he did for me and for many others that night with his compassionate act. It changed so much – more than any of us can know.

I’m also reminded that each of us changes so much with each act of kindness, more than any of us will ever know.

Every Christmas eve, I pray for the man who had the kindness to drive my dad home and change my life in unknowable ways. And I pray for the courage to be more like him.

Maybe you could, too.

The subversive manger scene

manger-scene

Growing up Catholic, I was fond of seeing the manger scenes that populated my home, my church, and my neighborhood each December. I loved the serene figures and the cuddly animals and the strange visitors.

Still do.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become better at noticing not only the feel-good side of the manger, but the radical side, too. And that part gives me pause. We all have a long way to grow into making the Christmas story our own.

The manger is not only a reminder that God is with us, but a challenge to live in a way that brings God more fully and radically into our world.

The Christmas story is a subversive story. It erases those lines we draw between ourselves and others, and it turns our values and our ways of thinking upside-down.

A subversive story

For starters, the story begins with an angel sent not to a man, but to a woman to get her approval to make the story happen. It’s Mary who gets to decide – all by herself – whether the Jesus story will unfold. Her “let it be” makes everything possible.

And women are in leading roles as the story goes forward, too, which is a stark contrast to much of the religion and tradition of that time –and our time, too. It’s Mary who nudges her son out of the nest at the wedding feast and gets his public ministry started.

And the story portrays Jesus repeatedly and unapologetically stepping over the gender lines that existed in his time and in ours, in his religion and in ours, too. The story of Martha and Mary – where a different Mary sits at his feet, a place reserved for men, and Jesus encourages it – erases the lines that we draw even today.

It’s just the start of the subversive message.

The Christmas story also warns us never to think that our theology or our religion or our country is the only one that matters. The magi show up – visitors from different lands, different cultures, different religions – and are welcomed and given an equal place in the subversive story.

Think your religion or your race or your nation is the only one that should be front-and-center? Think again.

Turns our values inside-out

Perhaps the most radical line that gets erased is the one between rich and poor, important and lowly. The manger reminds us of a baby born in the humblest setting to poor parents from a backwater community. He’s not born in a castle or surrounded by royalty and privilege. He’s important not because of what he has or where he lives, but because of how he brings love and healing and reconciliation into the world.

Same with us.

One of the most shocking moments in our political season came last May when the man who is now president-elect declared during a speech in Bismark that “you have to be wealthy in order to be great, I’m sorry to say it.” What was equally shocking was the lack of pushback by self-styled religious people.

Let’s face it: We worship the rich and powerful.

The manger says otherwise.

The Christmas story is a direct assault upon how we perceive importance. It challenges the notion – then and now – that the powerful and wealthy deserve their privilege, and we should all strive to be like them. And the poor and the homeless and the refugees don’t matter – they’re slackers anyway.

Maybe that’s why in the Christmas story, the actual king wants Jesus dead. This baby will spend his life challenging the king’s values system. Woe to the rich. Blessed are the poor. The first are last, and the last are first. The ones whom we consider the least are the greatest, and the ones who consider themselves great are actually the least-useful in bringing God’s unconditional love and compassion and healing into the world.

This Christmas story is meant to turn our world inside-out. And so are we.

Hear the angels’ unsettling song

So when we see the manger, does it jolt us a bit? It should. It’s meant to, this sight of poor refugee parents and a humbly-born baby surrounded by dirty shepherds and visitors from other religions and races and cultures.

The manger shows us a world far different than our own, one that we’re being summoned to help create with unconditional love and inclusion.

So, what about it? Do we hear the angels’ unsettling song? Do we accept their invitation to come to the manger and take our place in its revolutionary story?

Are we committed to erasing lines and spreading the message of peace on earth and goodwill to everyone equally?

Just letting it be …

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There’s an interesting back story to the song “Let It Be.” Paul McCartney wrote it while the Beatles were in the process of pulling apart – his “hour of darkness.” And his lyrics work on a couple of levels.

McCartney’s mother was named Mary and died when he was 14. She came to him in a dream during his difficult time, and that helped him get through it. The song is personal that way.

The lyrics also work on another level, borrowing from the story in Luke about the young woman named Mary who is visited by an angel. The story ends with her “Let it be,” the song’s title and chorus.

Wonderful words, great story. But to me, it’s Mary’s initial reaction in the story that sticks in my brain. When the angel greets her by saying that God thinks she’s just fabulous, Mary recoils. Her response is basically: “Wait, what? Favored? Fabulous? Me? No, no, no. You’ve got the wrong person. That’s not me!”

Can we all identify? She has heard voices her whole life – the ones that we also hear – telling her she’s certainly not favored and she definitely doesn’t measure up. You know those voices.

Wait, what? Favored? Me?

The ones that tell us we’re not smart enough, not pretty enough, not handsome enough, not educated enough, not thin enough, not accomplished enough, not social enough, not funny enough, not fill-in-the-blank enough. The voices that take up residence in our heads.

Mary hears the voices, too. She’s not yet married, which means she’s most likely still a teenager. She hears all the voices that the teenage years bring us — you know the ones. Enough said.

There’s more. She’s a Jew living in the Roman world, one that treats Jews as inferior and worthless. A woman, she’s treated more as property than as a person in her own culture and religion. Plus, she’s growing up in Nazareth, a backwater place looked down upon by pretty much everyone.

Yep, those voices.

So, of course she recoils when she hears that God thinks she’s really great. She has a “Mary moment,” a time when insecurities and fears get in the way of seeing ourselves as we really are. We all have them.

Our own Mary moments

And I submit that the great miracle in the story isn’t that a young Jewish woman becomes pregnant, but how God reaches through her insecurities and fears and shows her that she’s capable of great things, regardless of what anybody else thinks.

Her sense of herself is transformed, and she’s now able to say “let it be,” even though her knees are a bit shaky and her voice a little weak.

God works the same miracle on each of us, coming to us in moments big and small and reminding us of who we are and what we can do. Sometimes the message comes from a persistent voice that we hear inside; sometimes it comes through someone else’s words. Either way, we’re told:

“Hi! It’s Me! You need to hear something. You know those voices you hear every day, the ones that want to keep you small? Ignore them as best you can. Instead, try to pay attention to my voice, the one that wants to make you big. Those other voices don’t really know you, but I do. I made you. I recognize how amazing and lovable you are.

“And I have some excellent ideas for you, some things that only you can do to help others and make the world better. You get to decide, though – free will and all. You can say yes, or you can say no. However, I am going to be persistent about it – just a warning!

“I know you”

“Maybe you’re afraid at first and you need more time to think about it. That’s OK, I totally understand. Maybe you’ll turn me down at first and have a change of heart after a while. I’m cool with that, too.

“But know this: If you choose to say yes, incredible things are going to happen. You want a miracle? You’ll get one. Not only will you help others, but you’ll be transformed in many ways, too. You’ll end up growing and going in directions you never considered, doing things you thought were beyond your reach, finding yourself fulfilled in ways you never imagined.

“I know that all of this is unsettling. But remember that you’re never alone in any of this. I’m always right here with you. I’ve got your back. Always. And I’ve got your hand. Always.

“So what do you say? Should we ‘Let it be’ together? I promise it’s going to be amazing, just like you.”