To wear some hair

Fur   Max the cat loves to curl alongside people and rest his forehead against their leg. Makes him feel safe and loved, I suppose. Every time he does it, he shares a little bit of himself.

There’s always some of Max left behind.

Anyone who has a pet knows the experience, especially now that it’s shedding season. You can’t walk past your pet without some of their hair being drawn to you as though you’re magnetized.

Every interaction leaves a little bit of them stuck to you.

We humans do that with each other, too.

If you think about it, a little bit of us rubs off on everyone we meet. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we leave a part of ourselves in every encounter.

In a sense, we share our hair, too.

(Which explains why I seem to have less and less of it on the back of my head. I’m not losing my hair; I’m just sharing myself generously. Yeah, that‘s it!)

The whole hair-sharing thing is pretty cool, actually. Every stray strand of our pets’ hair contains their DNA, their molecular blueprint. Who they are, embedded in each hair.

And when their hair gets embedded on us, we’re attached to them in another way. We not only hold them in our hearts, we wear them on our sleeves. And our pants. And our jackets. And our …

The same goes for us.

Every interaction involves sharing a bit of ourselves. Some of us rubs off with every word, every smile, every frown, every tear. When we’re kind to someone, it affects them. When we’re nasty, it affects them, too.

How we treat others tends to stick with them, even if it’s only for a little while. Every stranger that we come across ends up carrying a little bit of us away with them.

I’ve seen it happen.

I’ve seen an impatient shopper approach a kind check-out lady who smiles at them, says hello, compliments their choice of gifts, talks to them about their day. In a moment, the shopper’s mood changes. Instead of frowning, they’re smiling and having a nice conversation.

You want to know what grace looks? Well, there you go.

The check-out lady not only rang up their purchases, she also put a little bit of herself into the transaction, too. And it affected the other person.

Our kindness rubs off and sticks. So does the other stuff — the ways we treat others when we’re in a self-obsessed mood, when we’re negative and judgmental.

Even our indifference rubs off. When we ignore people who reach out to us or walk past someone without acknowledging them, we tell them they’re not worth our time or attention. And that also leaves a mark.

Our most intense hair-sharing moments involve our most intimate relationships. Often, the fur really flies.

So, too, does love.

Love leaves us covered in pieces of others. It’s a messy and amazing thing. Everyone who truly loves winds up covered with bits of others that rub off on them.

And they don’t seem to mind. In fact, they learn to like having parts of others attached to them. They feel naked if they don’t have strands of hair here, there and everywhere.

Maybe that’s one definition of love: Pulling others close enough and holding them tightly enough that we wind up covered in their hair. And they in ours.

Now, that’s not a popular idea these days, especially in our culture of individuality. We’re told to keep a safe distance from others. Don‘t let anyone get close enough to rub off on you, especially someone who needs you. Tell them to keep their hair to themselves.

Don‘t tread on me. Or shed on me.

We’ve become very good at avoiding others’ hair. And at using one of those sticky roller things to quickly whisk away any stray hairs that might somehow find their way onto us.

We stay very neat. And very alone.

Which is a real shame, because we miss out on so much of the really good stuff of life.

When someone entrusts a strand of themselves to us, we have a part of them with us always. Every moment, every day. Even when there’s a distance between us, they’re still on us and in us.

And that strand will cling tightly to us for as long as we choose to leave it there.

A piece of them and their love going with us everywhere.

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Lauren Hill and the morning fog

lauren   This photo has become especially meaningful for me. I snapped it on the morning of Oct. 23 as I was leaving the gym at Mount St. Joseph University after interviewing Lauren Hill. The sun’s rays were starting to dissolve a thick fog that had obscured the gorgeous sunrise.

When I saw the sun burning off the fog, I thought: That’s what Lauren is doing.

You probably know her story by now. Lauren was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor during her senior year in high school. She asked God for a little guidance on what she should do with her final year of life.

Ask, and you will receive. She wanted direction. She got it.

Lauren decided to attend Mount St. Joseph’s as planned and to play basketball, even though she had only months to live. The goal was to play in a game and score a basket. As it turned out, she played in four and made five baskets — 10 perfect points.

She also worked through a foundation to raise money for cancer research, hoping doctors will find a cure for other young people after she’s gone.

Yeah, I know: Spending your precious, limited time helping others instead of worrying about yourself. What a concept.

But most of all, she showed what it means to value every day as the ultimate gift that it is. To live, rather than merely exist. She tried to shine a little light into the fog of our lives.

And let’s face it: We’re all fog-bound.

It’s so easy to live on autopilot. Just get through the day. Do what’s expected. Meet our obligations. Keep up with the pack. Follow what other people think. Keep our heads down. Trudge on.

And the fog deepens.

Soon, we’ve stopped seeing things. Things that are important. Things that really matter.

We stop noticing the people who love us. The colorful sunrises and sunsets. The miracle that is all around us and within us. We become afraid to take risks. We don’t give much thought to what we’re really doing with each day.

That’s where Lauren came in. She wanted to show us what it’s like to recognize each day as a great blessing, a precious gift, an enormous opportunity.

We’ve been given the gift of another day. What will we do with it? How will we celebrate it? How will we enjoy it? How will we use it to help someone else? How will we touch and change the world in some small but significant way today?

How much are we willing to love? To love others and to love life?

We ask the questions and listen for the answers inside of us. And then try — really try — to live the answers with passion as best we can, on any given day.

We find the courage to invite people into our lives, pull them close, hug them tightly, and give them our hearts. And we do it even though we know from experience that as part of the exchange, our hearts will get broken at some point.

And — this one’s important — we learn to be thankful to the Giver of Life for the next heartbeat, the next breath, the next tear, the next smile, the next amazing sunrise and sunset, the next moment of pain and joy and inspiration.

Lauren acknowledged that she didn’t start living quite so passionately until she got her diagnosis. It’s far easier to appreciate each day when you’ve got an inoperable lump growing somewhere in your body and the doctors have given you an expiration date.

But we don’t need a lump to get a little better at it day by day. All it takes is some effort and a decision to move out of the fog and into that glorious light.

To understand a little bit better that, as Lauren put it, “Life is precious. Every moment you get with someone is a moment that’s blessed, really blessed.”

Too blessed to get lost in the fog.

The fog returns every day. That’s just the way it is. And the sun returns every day, too. It strips away the fog and reveals things to us. Things that have been there all along.

Just hidden in the haze.

(Note: Lauren Hill died on April 10. Her memorial was held at Xavier University’s basketball arena, the site of her first game. Her casket was placed at the spot where she made her first layup five months earlier. Thousands of people gave her a standing ovation as the casket was wheeled away.)

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Grace bats last

FullSizeRender (11)   A bunch of us writers were in Florida covering spring training a few years ago. Our sports editor took us out to dinner. During the conversation, she asked if we ever found ourselves pulling for a favorite player to do well — say, in the ninth inning of a dramatic comeback.

The response was unequivocal and unanimous.

No! Never! Not in the ninth inning!

By the bottom of the ninth, the story is written. Ready to be sent out as soon as the game ends. A lot of hard work has gone into those sentences.

The home team had eight entire innings to take the lead. Sorry. They had their chances. Now they should just lose quietly.

Don’t mess up my story!

For the most part, sports writers hate dramatic comebacks. You have to hit the “delete” key on a lot of hard work. And then you frantically rewrite on deadline, which is the toughest type of writing.

Some time later, though — and this may not come until you’re driving home at 3 a.m. — you let your brain throttle back from hyper drive and say: Wow, that was pretty cool. Even though it drove my typing fingers crazy.

One of the best things about sports is that there’s always a chance for something grand at the end. Something that can take your prose away — and your breath away — in one unexpected moment.

Maybe that’s why fans — OK, and yeah, even sports writers — revel in those incredible finishes. They remind us of the sweetly unpredictable nature of our lives.

And how in each of our lives, as Anne Lamott puts it: “Grace bats last.”

It’s true. I’ve seen that ninth-inning comeback play out many times.

I’ve seen people who have done self-destructive things for years finally come to a moment of clarity and decide to take that first step in change.

I’ve seen people with cold, hard hearts suddenly soften, long after everyone thought it could ever happen. Maybe it took the appearance of a lump somewhere, but it happened.

I’ve seen people who have made many very bad choices suddenly realize they’re going in the wrong direction and take a U-turn.

I’ve seen people reconcile and forgive when it seemed like there were insurmountable barriers between them. I’ve seen joy return to lives that were gutted by despair. I’ve seen love replace hatred, and acceptance replace rejection.

Those moments remind me of the times when the self-destructive home team appears headed for another loss. The story is written and ready to be sent out. Fans are giving up and heading for the exits.

And then, the truly remarkable happens.

A strikeout-prone player draws a walk. An 0-for-4 player lines a single to center. Another hit follows. And then a home run.

And before you know it, the home team is deliriously piled up at home plate and incredulous fans are hugging each other in the aisles.

Every time we convince ourselves that the final draft of our story is written, this thing called grace comes along and forces us to do a total rewrite.

Something happens that takes our words away. And our breath away. Something we never saw coming.

That’s grace. Batting last.

It’s always a mistake to think that our writing is finished. Grace looks over our shoulder and says: Nice work, but don’t get too attached to it.

There’s going to be a different outcome. One graceful moment, one perfect swing, is going to change everything.

Not even death is a final out. It’s more like the first pitch in the next game, one that’s also played on grace‘s home field. Which means that even then — especially then — grace gets the final say.

So don’t hit the “send” button on that story just yet. Stop typing, sit back and watch something purely divine unfold.

Something that will leave a lump in your throat.

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Digging us out

Shovels   During the winter of 1978, I worked part-time at the United Press International bureau in Cleveland. My main job was to send out school closing advisories to radio and television stations when it stormed.

We had several blizzards that winter, which meant plenty of work for me. Also, some scary commutes.

One night on my way home, I was driving down a side street when I got stuck in a pile left by a snowplow. The car wheels spun and spun, digging deeper.

There were no cell phones back then. Nobody was out on the street. I was stranded.

A terrible feeling, isn’t it?

My brain was spinning as frantically as the tires when a shadowy figure approached the car. A young man had been digging out his driveway. He heard my wheels spinning. He brought his shovel to dig me out, too.

A few swipes of his shovel and my tires had traction. I was on my way. And so very thankful for the kindness of a stranger.

Not the first time that someone had dug me out. Not the last, either.

Throughout my life, many people have help to resurrect me from my various predicaments.

We can think of resurrection in terms of the Easter stories, as something experienced a long time ago. I think that’s too limiting. In reality, resurrection happens to everybody in some ways every day. It’s all around us, within us, throughout our lives.

It’s who we are.

We all get resurrected many times. New life and new possibilities appear, especially when we think we’re beyond their reach. Even when we’ve reached those moments of despair.

We all get stuck in deathly, dark places. We make very bad choices driven by our neediness and our fearfulness. Often, others make bad choices that pull them down and drag us down with them in some ways. The normal stuff of life can take our breath away.

We start to feel like this time, we’re in too deep.

All the while, God is working endlessly to dig us out, dust us off, and love us back to life.

We all have times when we’re frightened by love. We push it away rather than taking the risk of embracing it and seeing where it takes us and how it changes us. And when we’re done pushing it away, we find ourselves in a very empty, dark, lonely place.

And God surprises us by somehow reaching into our dark space and refilling it with light and love and life.

Our obsession with control and perfection can become as confining as a coffin. Our addictions — and let’s be honest, we all have them in some ways — can take us to truly deep and dark places. We feel like we’re buried 6 feet beneath the surface of hope.

Nope. That’s when we hear the sound of someone digging frantically toward us.

Digging. Always digging.

But God never digs alone. It’s our job to do much of the difficult work of digging out from our messes. And once we’re free, to help others dig out, too.

This resurrection thing is a group project.

There will always be people in our lives who love us and who are willing to get their hands — and their reputations — all dirty and grimy in order to uncover the best in us.

They see the beauty beneath our smudges. They themselves have been dug out many times, so they know how it goes. And they don’t mind at all if some of our dirt rubs off on them. In their eyes, we’re never too dirty for them to hug.

They know from experience that it’s never too dark or too late or too hopeless. Someone is always digging, trying to make a headway into our hearts.

A divine reclamation project.

As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: “God simply keeps reaching down into the dirt of humanity and resurrecting us from the graves we dig for ourselves through our violence, our lies, our selfishness, our arrogance, and our addictions.

“And God keeps loving us back to life over and over.”

We may emerge with grubby hair and dirty fingernails, but we’re alive once more. With new possibilities, new hope, and another invitation to embrace the great gift of life and all that it entails.

Risen again.

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Look what’s dressed in Sunday best

Cake   There’s a display at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati that highlights the arguments made to justify slavery. Religion was a great rallying point.

From pulpits to statehouses, many people tried to invoke God to defend slavery. Some insisted that slavery was actually good for the slaves because it introduced them to Christianity.

Really.

They said there was a “Christianizing” effect on people who were kidnapped from their families, beaten and raped, placed in manacles, shipped overseas in ungodly conditions, sold as property, and treated as a possession rather than as God’s beloved child.

What is Christian about any of that?

The answer: Nothing.

The ongoing debate over “religious rights” is a reminder that nothing gets twisted and perverted more than family, country and religion when people want to try to justify awful things. It’s universal.

And what’s striking is that some of these laws actually demean religion. They declare that ‘’religion’’ is whatever any person happens to think it should be at any given moment, no matter how ugly or harmful it is.

Many of us respectfully differ. Religion is much, much more than that.

Religion isn’t about glorifying and encouraging our worst tendencies. It’s not about promoting selfishness and fear and hatred. True, many people misuse religion that way, but that’s when it stops being religion and starts becoming something else.

Instead, religion is a journey away from those things, away from the dark parts that are in each of us to a place where we’re more capable of love. It’s about growing closer to the one who loves all of us.

It’s the process of becoming a person who is more peaceful, humble, hopeful, joyful, compassionate and accepting. Of becoming a world that is less hateful and judgmental and fearful and selfish and indifferent.

It’s about getting along with one another and loving one another as God’s family. (Isn’t that the essence of faith and religion?)

Contrary to what many people have said, slavery wasn’t about religion. Prohibiting women from voting wasn’t about religion, either. Neither was turning black people away from food counters or making them move to the back of the bus.

And on and on.

Treating someone as less than an equally beloved child of God is never about religion. It’s always about something else, regardless how it’s dressed up and presented.

You can dress up hatred and fear in Sunday best, but it’s still hatred and fear.

The alternative?

Give our Sunday best to someone who needs clothes. If they’re hungry or thirsty, bring them something to eat and drink. Make sure they have a safe place to sleep. If they’re somehow imprisoned, stop by again and check on them.

And if they need a cake, bake one for them. Without judgment or condition.

Do it purely out of love.

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Subversive little crumbs

Bread   I stood at the bread shelf in the neighborhood grocery store, trying to decide which loaf I should buy. Tough decision. I looked at all the types of bread and went back-and-forth many times.

Which one would be best for communion? I didn’t know. I’d never had to make this choice.

Our pastor was at a conference for the weekend. I was presiding over the Sunday service for the first time. Before he left, we went over the details of all that had to be prepared.

He reminded me that I needed to buy the bread for communion.

Uh, I hadn’t thought about that. Where do you get it?

“Kroger’s will do just fine.”

So there I was in Kroger‘s, looking over the loaves, wondering which one looked the most, well, communion-y. Maybe that pretty, round Tuscan loaf. Wait, maybe the nice Jewish rye over there. My wry sense of humor kicked in. Jesus would smile over that, right? Being Jewish and all.

No, better not …

I finally picked an Italian loaf. Mainly because it was big and it looked pretty and it was on sale. I  put it in my basket and headed for the self-checkout line.

When I scanned the loaf, the automated voice asked: “Do you have any coupons?” No, no communion coupons. Not today.

I swiped my credit card and was reminded that my purchase would earn me a few cents off my next gasoline purchase. How’s that for transubstantiation — bread transformed into bonus points?

As I left the store, it occurred to me that it really didn’t matter which loaf I had picked. Like so many of our daily decisions, it’s more about what we do with whatever we choose.

In this case, it wasn’t about the type of bread, but about the meaning we would attach to it. How it would be used and shared.

There’s a story that says Jesus’ followers recognized him by the way he broke bread. They didn’t see him in the bread itself, but in the radical things he did with the bread.

Yes, radical things.

He broke it and gave it to whoever wanted some. And he did it with a kind, sweet touch. He transformed an ordinary loaf into something extraordinary: A moment of unqualified love for whoever needed love at that moment.

He invited those who were treated as outsiders to join the meal as VIPs. He welcomed all who were hungry. He wanted nothing more than to share something with them: a little bit of his time, a bite of food, a laugh, a hug, a little tenderness, a few moments of healing.

He put a piece of himself into every piece of bread.

And a lot of people didn’t like it. Not then, not now.

In his day, meals were a reflection of the social order. The self-important sat in the favored spots and received the best food — kind of like today. They looked down upon everyone else, deeming them lazy or unworthy. Someone who should be ignored instead of loved.

That’s not how he saw it.

He shared the loaf equally and unconditionally. He challenged the notion that some of us deserve the bread more than others or have earned it in some way. He adamantly opposed those who ignored the needy and judged others as unworthy.

No wonder the self-important wanted to get rid of him.

In a sense, his bread crumbs got him killed. And that initially was quite a shock to his followers. Eventually, they realized that he wasn’t really gone. After all, real love never goes away. It’s always right here, being shared in many forms every day — a heart-felt hug, a welcoming smile, a kind word, a joyous laugh, a shared loaf of bread.

Love insists that we keep breaking bread.

So his followers got a loaf and broke it and shared it, covering themselves with crumbs all over again. Wonderful, subversive, loving crumbs.

Before communion on Sunday, I shared the story about my trip to Kroger’s to pick out a loaf and how I had such a difficult time deciding. One person suggested that next time, I should get sourdough.

OK. The next time, sourdough it is. It’s a delicious bread with a solid crust that makes for lots of crumbs when it’s divided.

Lots of little, loving, subversive crumbs.

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Frozen diamonds and funerals

Diamond   I’d walked down the middle aisle of that old, Gothic church so many times for so many occasions — first communion, confirmation, stations of the cross during Lent. Also, for the many, many funerals I served as an altar boy over the years.

This time, I was trailing my father’s casket down that aisle as notes from the pipe organ reverberated through the cavernous church.

It felt surreal.

My dad died at the age of 53, done in by a heart attack brought on by a lifetime of heavy smoking. The unexpected death was shocking enough, but what really threw me were the feelings that processed with me down the aisle.

It was like I’d gone through the buffet line and loaded up on things that seem not to go together — pickles and cottage cheese, sadness and relief, pizza and anchovies, love and resentment.

Also, guilt that I didn’t feel more sadness. If I’d been sadder, it would have meant I’d missed him more.

Mostly, I was relieved that he was finally free of the demons that seemed to chase him much of his life, the ones that my mom said were stowed away when he returned from serving in the Korean war.

How do you digest that mixed plate?

Over the years, I realized I’m not alone on this one. Many people have told me about their very conflicted feelings over the death of someone who seemed to struggle so hard to live and to love.

How do we make peace with it?

For me, it came down to finally and fully accepting that my dad was human, just like me and everyone else. And that we all have our issues, some bigger than others.

In essence, that we‘re all diamonds encrusted in ice.

I look at it this way now: Each of us is a gem formed by the tender squeeze of divine hands, capable of brilliantly reflecting the creator’s love, compassion, laughter, kindness, and joy.

But there’s a catch. In order for us to shine, light has to be able to reach us and penetrate our carved, smooth surfaces. To travel all the way inside of us — to that shimmering center — and then reflect back out again.

We need light to shine.

And it often has a hard time finding its way in.

Our fears, our insecurities, our selfishness, our stored-up hurts, our neediness — many things build up in layers and harden around us. They form a rough, icy exterior that prevents anyone from seeing the diamond inside.

Some of us have thicker ice than others, but we‘re all frozen in many ways. And we tend to go through freeze-thaw cycles. There are moments when you can see someone really sparkle, others when all you feel from them is a chill.

I like to think that when we die, a shockwave of divine love strips away the ice and leaves only the diamond. Finally, the light can get into every nook, making us as shiny as any star.

Want to know what a person looks like in death? Look up into the night sky. They’ve never shined so brightly.

Good for them!

What about us?

We don’t have to wait until we die to start the melting process. We can thaw right now.

Love is the great de-icer. And it’s very versatile.

It melts from the inside. Each time we love, it radiates outward and loosens that icy grip.

Love also melts from the outside. It does its stuff every time we allow ourselves to be loved by a person who recognizes the diamond hidden beneath the ice and is willing to risk frostbite to help free it.

Little by little, the ice melts away. We become better able to reflect a light that’s always there, always looking for the tiniest little crack to make its way through the ice and get inside of us.

Drip by drip, we become the shiny little selves we’re meant to be.

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