A raccoon stuck in a jar

Raccoon I sat on the back porch last night, drinking a glass of red wine while enjoying the crickets and katydids. What a relaxing night … until a sound next door got my attention.

A small raccoon climbed atop the neighbors’ garbage cans and was trying to pry them open. I walked over to shoo it away and saw that its head was trapped inside a plastic jar. It was going to slowly die of starvation or dehydration.

How awful.

I’m not fond of raccoons. They can be aggressive and carry rabies. But this little one needed help. I reached toward it and tried to grab the jar so it could pull its head free. Instead, the raccoon freaked out, scurried away and hid under the neighbors’ ramp.

Now what?

A few years ago, my daughter gave me personalized cat wrangling gloves after I was bitten twice by a three-legged cat; I went and got those to protect my hands. Also, I grabbed a flashlight and a blanket. When the raccoon emerged, I would throw the blanket over it, then grab the jar with a gloved hand and hold on until it wriggled its head free.

My ingenious plan worked like most of my ingenious plans — which is to say, not at all.

The raccoon hid for more than half an hour. I started to feel ridiculous. I was tired. The mosquitoes were biting me. Forget about rabies — I’m going to get West Nile. I just wanted to go to bed.

Maybe a little prayer would help? After all, the creator of life would support this rescue mission, right?

So I said: Uh, as you can see, I could use a little help right here. How about if you coax the raccoon out so I can free it? And soon, please. I’m getting bit by these mosquitoes of yours. Thank you very much.

A response popped into my head: Yeah, nice going! I’m proud of you for trying to help the raccoon. One problem: That whole free will thing? It applies to raccoons, too. I can’t force it to come out. You’re just going to have to be patient and hang in there. I’m with you, though!

I hate that answer. I get it a lot.

It was well past midnight when the raccoon finally emerged and took off for the backyard. I threw the blanket and missed. I chased after it with the flashlight, hoping the cops wouldn’t show up.

Why am I running through my neighbors’ yards after midnight, officer? I’m helping a raccoon. No, I can’t show you the raccoon. Yeah, you’re right, this all sounds a bit weird. I get one phone call, right?

It didn’t matter. I couldn’t find the raccoon. It had probably run off and was going to die horribly despite my best efforts. Isn’t life like that so often? We try to do something good but come up empty? We wonder if it was worth the effort?

Wait! There it is!

The raccoon had jumped on top of other neighbors’ garbage cans (they just love garbage cans, apparently) and was sitting there, its head still stuck inside the jar. I walked slowly toward it and tossed the blanket again, and missed again.

But this time, the critter fell behind the garbage can and was trapped. I reached down, grabbed the jar and pulled — it didn’t budge!  The raccoon yanked its head away from my hand.

One more time.

I put my gloved right hand on the raccoon’s back and pushed down so that it couldn’t squirm. I grabbed the jar with my left hand, tilted the animal’s head back, and gave a strong pull.

Pop! It was free!

Free to run away. Free to eat again. Free to live. Free to bite me and give me rabies.

I pulled back. The young raccoon looked at me for a few seconds, kind of dazed. Then it ran into the safety of the darkness.

As I held the jar (that’s it in the photo above), I felt … Tired. Relieved. Happy that all the waiting wasn’t for nothing. Sure, I knew that the little raccoon might run out into the street and get killed later that same night. Or get into the neighbors’ garbage, get its head stuck in another jar and starve anyway.

But this was a momentary victory.

Don’t you love those momentary victories?

Your latest cancer scan comes back negative. You make it another hour without a cigarette or a drink. Your kid finally manages to put their dirty laundry in the basket — without an argument, no less. Your parent takes a bite of food after being sick for several days. You manage to pull the jar off a reluctant raccoon’s head.

Momentary victories. Life is full of them. Life is about them.

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Look! It’s a miracle!

Crutches Every summer, my parents would pack us kids into the red station wagon (yes, bright red) and take us on a pilgrimage. We’d visit a couple of shrines in northwest Ohio – pray in the church, eat in the cafeteria, buy holy water in the gift shop.

It was a Catholic thing.

I mostly remember the desserts in the cafeteria and the discarded crutches in the shrines. One of the shrines had a designated place to pray for healing, and people who hobbled up and evidently got their wish would walk away and leave their crutches behind.

Reminders of miracles.

That’s how I was taught to think of miracles: Something that defies the laws of nature. Something extraordinary. God waves the divine magic wand and something disappears – the limp in your walk, the cancer in your brain, the dysfunction in your family.

Ask for the magic, and you shall receive it.

Well, maybe sometimes. Or, maybe not at all.

Most often, it was the not-at-all. And that was quite disturbing. Why did God choose to wave away other people’s problems but not mine? Maybe the problem was with me. Maybe I didn’t pray hard enough. Live well enough. Believe deeply enough.

Isn’t that still a prevalent view of miracles? Pray for one and if you don’t get it, it’s because you’re lacking somehow. That’s why your dad didn’t quit drinking, why your kids are still doing self-destructive things, why your broken-down car won’t start one more time, why the cancer is still ravaging your brain.

Pray harder. Pray better.

After a while, I started thinking: That way of looking at miracles makes God out to be a real ogre. Maybe that viewpoint is all wrong. Maybe miracles don’t work that way. Maybe they’re something else.

Some people label those questioning moments as a crisis of faith. I prefer to think of them as moments when faith gets real. I stopped praying for tuh-duh! miracles. When I have a problem now, I don’t ask God to wave the wand and make it go away, but to help me get through it.

And to recognize that no matter what I’m going through at any given moment, life is always a grand miracle.

Miracles aren’t things outside the norm. Miracles are the norm.

There was a television show a few years back called “Joan of Arcadia.” Joan is a teenager visited by God in the form of a hot young guy. He tries to convince her that he’s God, and she wants proof. So she says: If you’re God, show me a miracle. He stops and tells her to look at a tree right in front of them.

“OK, how about that?” God says.

“That’s a tree,” Joan says, dismissively.

God’s response: “Let’s see you make one.”

Joan hadn’t thought of it that way. What about us?

We think that cancer unexpectedly vanishing from our brains is a miracle. The truth is, our brains are a miracle. And so is cancer. And the immune system that tries to fight it. And the people who help us get through those terrible treatments _ yeah, all a miracle.

The dog that licks your face. The cat that purrs on your lap. The child that grabs the leg of your pants and demands attention. The friend who texts to find out how you’re doing. The stranger who smiles at you on the street. The one who cuts you off as you drive down the highway.

Miracles. All received without asking.

Sunrise. Sunset. Summer. Winter. Birth. Death. Laughter. Disappointment. Joy. Pain. A hug. A snub.

And love. Especially love. Love is an open-ended miracle.

And us. Each of us, too. Just as we are.

Do you remember the scene from “Bruce Almighty” where Bruce gets his divine powers and plays around with them, parting his bowl of soup like the story of the Red Sea? Morgan Freeman as God uses that moment to teach Bruce how miracles really work.

“Parting a soup is not a miracle, Bruce,” God says, “it’s a magic trick. Now, a single mom who works two full-time jobs and still finds the time to pick up her kid at soccer practice? That’s a miracle. A teenager that says ‘no’ to drugs and ‘yes’ to an education? That’s a miracle.

“You want to see a miracle, son? Be the miracle.”

As I see it now, a miracle isn’t about God suspending the laws of nature to grant a personal favor. It’s more about us recognizing that we’re already part of a miracle. And that we’re invited to embrace it, celebrate it, and participate in it.

The miracle is that we’re here, that any and all of this exists.

And if we need to use crutches to get along, that’s fine. We don’t need to pray for the crutches to go away.

There’s a miracle in the limp.

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That revolutionary ‘We’

We hands   Before we pack up the red, white and blue bunting for another year, let’s take a few moments to think about the word that was at the heart of the weekend.

No, not patriotism. Or independence. Or liberty. Or even freedom.

Let’s talk about: We.

You know: The first word in the constitution. The one that puts everything that follows it inside a framework of a collective effort and combined responsibility.

We the people. All of us. Together. Part of something bigger than any one of us individually.

Yeah, that word.

Have you noticed that we don’t discuss that idea very much? I wonder why. A lot of Fourth of July posts went on lavishly about individual rights and personal freedom. And yes, those are important. But they’re only part of the equation, and they’re not even the starting point.

It starts not with me, but with we. A pronoun that’s radical and revolutionary.

Actually, the whole first sentence – known as the preamble — makes no mention of anything individual. It references union, common defense, general welfare. It recognizes that we’re not only independent, but interdependent as well.

Singular, and plural, too.

And it’s not an original concept. Even though the constitution makes no mention of God – the founders did that on purpose — the opening word goes to the heart of actual religion.

It’s about seeing ourselves as part of something bigger than ourselves. About our commitment to be part of the whole.

The creation stories locate us within a diverse web of life. They put us in relationship with each other and with everything that’s in the world – it’s never good to think of ourselves as being alone.

One touchstone prayer refers to God as our parent, not just my parent. And it asks our creator to give us our daily bread. To forgive us. Lead us. Deliver us. There’s not a single mention of “me” or “my” or “I” in the prayer.

And it concludes with a collective amen, an affirmation that we’re all in this together.

It can’t be any other way.

Actual religion has love at its heart, and love by definition always involves relationship. It’s lived and expressed within the context of a commitment to someone and something other than ourselves.

It’s always plural.

It recognizes that others’ needs are just as important as mine, and I need to try to help them meet them. It sees everyone else as equally important. It challenges us to replace self-centeredness with love, compassion, healing and forgiveness.

It’s not easy, of course. And right now, it’s not popular. I’m guessing it never has been.

If you spend even a little time with cable TV or social media, you’ll hear lots of emphatic talk about “I” and “my” and “me” and “mine.” My rights. My freedom. My guns. My religion. Stand my ground. Don’t tread on me. Don’t tax me. Don’t require anything of me.

Leave me alone. Leave me out of it.

You? You’re on your own, too. Unless you do something that’s different from how I prefer to do it. Then I’ll insist that you have to do it my way. And if you don’t, it’s a violation of my rights.

Don’t we hear that a lot lately in our society? Haven’t we lost our sense of kinship to the world, our interrelatedness to one another?

What’s happened to us?

Finding a healthy balance between our independence and interdependence — the “me” and the “we” — is one of our greatest and most important challenges as humans. We have to keep the two in a healthy, creative tension. And it’s not easy. It involves respectful and open-minded discussion. It requires sacrifice, compromise, accommodation and compassion.

And yes, it means respecting and safeguarding our independence as people. A healthy relationship involves independent people freely choosing to love each other and to sacrifice for each other. Helping the other grow into the best version of themselves as we do the same.

When one person in a relationship ignores the other’s needs or insists on getting things their way, the relationship crumbles. Each person must be respected for who they are.

It takes a lot of effort, this being singular and plural at the same time. But it’s our calling to struggle with it and to work at it daily.

Such a radical idea. Such a revolutionary idea. For all of us.

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Thanks for the lessons in love

Rainbow I called a friend on Friday morning. She hadn’t yet heard the news that the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality. Now she and her partner – who had already been married in our church – can get legally married in Ohio as well.

She let the news soak in for a few seconds. Finally, she expressed her happiness. And gratitude.

“Thank you for being an ally,” she said. “It means a lot.”

Several other gay friends said the same thing to me over the weekend. How they appreciated their straight friends supporting them and fighting with them to get to this point.

I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond other than, “Of course. You’re welcome. You’re worth it.”

That response seemed so … inadequate. Too Hallmark-ish. But I wasn’t sure what else to say exactly.

It finally came to me as I was driving to church this morning. What I needed to say was: Thank you.

Thank you.

First, thank you for inviting me to be your friend. Thank you for the love you’ve given me.

Thank you for showing me what it means to love someone else when there’s a cost involved. Thank you for that example.

Thank you for reminding me that it’s important to be myself and to celebrate who I am. Even when I’m not exactly sure who I am. Especially when some others would like me to be something that I’m not.

Thank you for teaching me what it means to live courageously and to love courageously. And to see God at work in all of it.

Thank you for showing me how to keep trying, even when justice seems so absent and distant. Especially when justice is absent and distant.

Thank you for giving me an example of what it means to be graceful in the face of hatred and discrimination. I will never forget that.

And thank you for being a visible reminder that love wins. Always does. Sometimes, it just takes a little time.

Thank you.

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Long days for fixing what’s broken

June 17th When I was around 5 or 6 years old, I asked for a tow truck called “Big Bruiser” for Christmas. My parents looked everywhere, but every store had sold out of it. Instead, they got me what they figured was the next best thing: A two-story repair garage.

It became my favorite toy.

The garage was made entirely of metal – yeah, back in the day before everything was plasticized. There were metal cars and a metal tow truck and a repair shop on the bottom floor. When the cars were fixed, you turned a crank to make the elevator work, transporting them to the upper floor for storage.

And there was a pretend office with a calendar on the wall that said June 17. For a number of reasons, that date – 617 — has stuck with me. I use the three numbers in my email address.

I spent a lot of time playing with the metal repair shop. My dad hadn’t yet joined AA, so it became a refuge at times. My own little world where nobody fought and everything broken could get fixed.

Plus, June 17 coincided with the start of summer vacation. The days were long and brimming with possibilities and promise and hope.

Over the years, I’ve turned it into a personal holiday. One of the best days of the year.

This year was so different.

I covered a baseball game that had a long rain delay and then went interminably for 13 innings. It ended with a player from the home team hitting a grand slam at 1:20 a.m.

As the game went along and I kept rewriting and rewriting, I noticed a surge of stories about a shooting at a church in Charleston. Some people might be dead. Nine were dead, in fact. It was an historic black church. The shooter was a young white man, still on the lam.

I finished doing postgame interviews and updating the baseball stories at about 2:30 a.m. When I got home, I wanted to see the images from Charleston. They were so disturbing. My heart hurt. In the middle of the dark night, the images were a reminder that there is so much hatred and brokenness in the world.

From now on, that’s something I’ll remember about June 17th as well. The time it was a stormy day followed by a deep and unsettling darkness.

I’ll also remember what came next.

One week later, there was an interfaith service at a synagogue in Cincinnati. It started at 8 p.m., the same time that the Bible study had begun at the church in Charleston.

People from different backgrounds and religious traditions filled the synagogue. A Muslim, a Buddhist, rabbis and ministers spoke of love and diversity and the need for justice. They quoted their scriptures in the original languages, a reminder that God says the same thing to us in many voices.

Love, in your own way.

Show the world what it means to love one another. Work together to make the world a more peaceful place, a more just place. Embrace the struggle to change hearts.

Be committed and work together. Otherwise, nothing is going to change.

And never forget that a divine someone is working with you and in you and through you. All of you. In different ways.

The service concluded with people of different colors and religions clasping hands tightly and letting those powerful words touch them and inspire them once again.

It was well after 9 o’clock when I left the synagogue, but some sunlight stubbornly lingered in the sky. I was reminded that the days are indeed long, brimming with possibilities and promise and hope.

And that broken things can get fixed. Brokenness can be healed, if we choose to work at it.

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Thank God for weeds …

Daffodils  I attended an awards luncheon at a country club recently. As you would imagine, the grounds are beautifully landscaped – trimmed grass, meticulous flower beds, carefully placed rocks that add to the rustic look.

As I reached the parking lot, I saw what you see in this photo. There, right there, three renegade dandelions had wormed their way into a place where they weren’t wanted. A trinity of bright yellow blooms poked up from a patch of purple.

My immediate reaction? Weeds had invaded the flower bed. They probably won’t be there for long — the groundskeepers are sure to come along and pluck them out by the roots and make the flower bed all pretty again.

I saw the bright yellow dandelions and instinctively labeled them as unwanted weeds.

How interesting.

I drove away thinking about how I’ve been conditioned to think of some pretty things as desirable and other pretty things as unwanted. There are flowers, and then there are weeds. We like flowers and we cultivate them. We dislike weeds and try to get rid of them.

Flowers. Weeds.

A friend of mine who is a biologist tells me that there is no biological difference whatsoever between a flower and a weed. They’re exactly the same. We put artificial labels on them based upon what we prefer. But those labels have nothing to do with what they actually are.

Isn’t it like us? And not only when it comes to flowers.

We decide that our religion is a divine flower, yours is an evil weed that must be pulled up by its roots. We say that our homeland is a beautiful bloom, yours is an undesirable intrusion on the planet.

My race, my nationality, my ethnic background, my sexual preference, my family, my profession … all beautiful flowers. My state, my hometown, my school, my sports teams … flowers. Yours? Well, get out the weed sprayer.

We spend a lot of time trying to exclude and even eliminate what we label as weeds.

We surround our desired plants with mulch to try to keep the weeds away. We might use some chemical spray that has the unfortunate side effect of killing off what we think of as a nearby flower, too.

So a few beautiful flowers will die along with the weeds? And the ground that we spray will be uninhabitable for anything? Small price to pay for eliminating the weeds. Start spraying.

Racism, sexism, nationalism, homophobia – all the various –isms and –phobias are essentially offshoots of this idea. We decide that those like me are prettier and more desirable than those like you.

You? You’re just a weed.

And we put a lot of effort into the rooting-out process. We root out of our boardrooms and our churches and our governments and our organizations and our hearts. When we get caught with dirt beneath our fingernails, we insist there’s no weeding going on.

But here’s the thing: The weeds always come right back. Uncooperatively. Defiantly. Gloriously.

There’s an interesting story in the gospels that applies to all of us humans, no matter what religion we may or may not follow. As the story goes, the kingdom of God – a place where all are embraced and loved and treated as equally beloved children of the same loving creator — is compared to a fast-spreading weed.

Yeah, God’s spirit is like a weed.

It pops up here, there and everywhere. Comes back even when we think we’ve rooted it out and redefined it away. Blooms in the middle of our personal flower beds. In our self-formed desserts, too.

Challenges our narrow and self-serving views of what is beautiful and what is not, of who is acceptable and who is not.

Reminds us that just because we put a label on someone, that doesn’t change them. Instead, it changes us. Makes us less loving and accepting. Limits us and takes us to dark places, like the one in the mind of the 21-year-old who walked into a church in Charleston last week.

The weed and the flower? Imaginary labels for identical things.

Thank God we have weeds growing in our gardens and our flower beds and our yards and in our hearts, telling us with each splash of sacred color that we’ve got it all wrong.

Challenging us to look at that photo from the country club and see yellow flowers growing beside purple flowers.

Aren’t they all so lovely?


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Packing hate and risking love

Church I was wrapping up a Father’s Day blog. A short piece about how parenting amounts to a plunge into the unknown, with things constantly changing and challenging us amateur dads and moms.

Also, how we’re all, in a sense, parents to each other’s kids. The way we treat them affects them and leaves an impact, for better or worse.

I was nearly finished with the blog when I heard the news about Charleston.

And I can’t shake it.

Nine people gunned down in a church while discussing the gospel of love. Killed by a 21-year-old man who dived into the toxic tide of fear and hatred that washes through our society every day.

He took nine lives and, in a sense, his own.

And your heart just hurts.

It hurts for the families of the church members. For the family of the 21-year-old man. For our society.

So much sickness. Such deep pain.

In the aftermath, we’ve watched the families grieve and forgive. We’ve heard people talk about the need for love and healing. And we’ve been reminded that we live in a twisted society.

Some people insist this wasn’t a crime of hate but of illness, as though the two are exclusive. We’ve heard the same things that we’ve heard after each of our many massacres, the ones at churches and schools and theaters and shopping malls and offices and military bases.

It goes something like this:

Now is not the time to talk about it. It was just an isolated incident, one act by one sick person. Nothing’s wrong with our society. No change is needed.

Sure, our society is saturated with violence and weapons, from our movie screens to our street corners. But we’re not responsible for it. Nothing should be done to try to change it. Change will only make things worse.

If anything, what we need is more weapons. Have pastors carry guns. Then it will be safe to stand at the pulpit and read those passages about laying down our weapons and loving our enemies and doing good to those who want to hurt us.

Yeah, that gospel.

It’s understandable, though, isn’t it? Our world can be scary. You see what happened in Charleston and hear all the ugly comments, and it overwhelms you and makes you want to crawl into some hole somewhere.

And then you realize: That’s the problem.

The sickness in our society is driven by the way we pull away from one another. How we decide that we only have to care about ourselves and our immediate families. The way we insist that we’ll only serve those like us – same race, ethnic background, sexual orientation, religion, political views.

Everyone else gets minimized and pushed away. We arm ourselves to protect our shrinking little space. We live like moles, wary of predators.

In guns we trust. In fear we live.

And the darkness deepens.

On the day that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot in Memphis, Bobby Kennedy stood on a flatbed truck in a poor neighborhood of Indianapolis and broke the news to the crowd.

“In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy chose to follow King’s example. He spent the last months of his life advocating love, compassion, forgiveness and justice. He, too, paid the price for doing so.

And maybe that’s at the heart of all of this. We have to decide whether we want to continue living in fear and darkness, or whether we are willing to take the risk and pay the price for redeeming the world with love.

Love always involves a cost, willingly paid.

Love challenges our fears and hatreds, especially the ones inside ourselves. Love never accepts indifference. Love makes us willing to talk and listen and change.

Love shows us that we’re far more alike than different. Love reminds us that we are all equally beloved children of the same loving Parent.

Love isn’t sissy stuff. It takes great courage.

We’ve just seen what it looks like.

How it invites a young man from a different race to enter and join the discussion, even though he may be packing hate as he walks through the front doors.

There’s a risk involved, but love is offered anyway. A radical, revolutionary love.

A love so audacious that it has the power to overcome and change.

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