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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God, guns, pottery and porn

Barn I enjoy looking at old newspapers and magazines. Especially the advertisements.

If you read publications from a couple generations ago, you might be surprised to see lots of people smoking in the ads. You won’t see black people in the ads. You’ll also see many ads aimed at women in their role as homemaker.

Got to make sure you get that laundry clean, ladies. Got to keep that husband happy. And here’s the product to help you do it!

Those ads tell you a lot about what society was like back then. The same is true now, isn’t it?

There’s a lot of talk about how we’re a This National or a That Nation, people with certain values. I think that if you want to see what we actually value – who we really are collectively – you need to look at the ads.

Specifically, take a drive along the interstate and pay attention to the billboards – what’s emphasized, how it’s presented. The interstates are some of the busiest places in our land. The perfect spot to appeal to what we really value.

That’s us. Right there along the side of the road.

Guns. Fireworks. Outlet malls. Porn. Pottery. More guns. More fireworks. An occasional church. Hotel after hotel. Restaurant after restaurant.

All right down the road. At the best price. Get off at the next exit, turn right and go half a mile. Invest your hard-earned money. You want it. You need it.

And it’s not just billboards. There are semi-trailers painted with messages, barns turned into advertising displays. All selling something.

I paid attention on a recent trip from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh. One thing surprised me: The many pottery ads and outlets. Not that I have anything against pottery – I love to watch a potter work the spinning wheel — but so many?

I guess there must be a demand for pottery. After all, there wouldn’t be all those signs if there wasn’t a market for it. Advertising is expensive. Businesses invest when they anticipate a big return.

Of course, it’s not just businesses trying to pull our eyes off the highway. There’s other messages, too.

Along Interstate 71 in southwestern Ohio, there’s a barn roof painted with a giant Confederate flag. The symbol of a time when some people insisted they had a right to own and mistreat other people.

A little farther north, there’s a giant sign at the edge of a cornfield. One side of the sign says, “Hell Is Real.” The other side has a simplistic rendering of the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not do this or that. Thou shalt not kill.

Up the road, yet another billboard hawking yet more guns.

A few churches have billboards, too. There’s one promoting a biker church. (I’m hoping that the pastor is the Rev. Harley Davidson. Now that would be perfect, no?)

Nowadays, it seems that pretty much everything gets turned into a billboard and a commodity, something that can be bought, sold or bartered.

Want to be popular? Buy this. Want to get ahead? Buy that. Want to be saved? Go here.

A few years ago, there was a different type of billboard along the interstate. It wasn’t selling anything. All it said was: “Love One Another.”

You don’t see many billboards like that one. I wish there were more.

It would be interesting to visit the future and see what folks make of us. To watch the anthropologists and historians and college students research our society and analyze what drives it.

They’ll pay attention not so much to what we say we value – a nation of this or that – but what we actually do. How we live. What we’re selling and promoting.

There won’t be any shortage of research material. There’s those billboards. Everywhere. Telling us to get off at the next exit. Turn right. Go half a mile …

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Looking out the front window … together

Window  If I look out my living room window, I don’t have much of a view. I can see the front porch, some of the street, the house across the way. The problem: A big evergreen tree in the front yard blocks most of the view.

If I move to the family room and look out, I see much more – the evergreen tree is no longer in the way. I get a better idea of what’s on the rest of my street.

My view changes and expands.

The back window faces a pretty park. Upstairs, I can look out and see all the way down the street. The basement windows give me a ground-level view of my world, with grass, bugs and flowers. Stuff I couldn’t see from a higher floor.

To get to know what’s outside my house, I have to look through all of the windows, not just one. Each window offers a limited and different view of my world.

Just like each of us.

In a sense, each of us is a window into the world.

Our personalities, our experiences, our inspirations, our talents – each provides a different vantage point into life. Each of us sees only a little bit of it. Our window is very, very small.

What’s it like to be a black person in our society? A poor person? A homeless person? A woman? A teen-ager? A gay person? A Muslim? An atheist? A parent of a special-needs child? A child growing up in a slum? A person suffering from cancer or some other illness?

I don’t know. I have to ask.

The only way I find out is by sitting down and listening. Inviting someone to tell me about their experiences. Encouraging them to share their life story and their feelings with me.

Seeing things through their eyes.

Isn’t that what compassion is all about?

Compassion involves a willingness to set aside ourselves and our assumptions – stepping away from our window – so we can enter into someone else’s world and experience it with them to some degree.

It’s about really listening, which is one of love’s deepest expressions. It’s about trying to understand someone else. Trying to see what they see. Helping them make sense of it. Feeling what they feel.

In order to be compassionate, we have to be willing to see something new, to look at things from a whole new perspective.

Judgment is the opposite of compassion. To judge is to say that we’ve already seen everything there is to see, that we know everything there is to know. We believe that our little window is the only worthwhile vantage point. And it’s never smudged or streaky or broken.

Basically, we’re afraid to look at the world from another vantage point because we’re afraid that we’ll see something different and it will challenge our assumptions about how things are.

And then, we’ll have to do the hard work of changing and growing.

There’s a human tendency – let’s face it, we all have it – to become dogmatic about things. We insist that things have to be done a certain way. Everyone should conform to my outlook.

When we slip into that mindset, we miss out. We’re choosing to pull back the curtains on every window in our house except one. and to live in the darkness.

We suffer as a result. We miss out on an incredible view.

Inviting someone to look out our window takes great humility and courage. Some people will look out our window and grow uneasy because they’re seeing something different, something unexpected.

Others will flat-out refuse to look with us. Instead, they’ll insist that we have to leave our window and go look through theirs alone. Their view is the only one that matters.

Too bad.

But there are others who are eager to visit our window, lean in close to us, and allow us to show them what we see. They’ll train their eyes on the things we point out – what fascinates us, what confuses us, what challenges us.

And if we ask, they’ll help us to see some of the things right in front of us that we’ve failed to recognize. They’ll try to do it with great love and kindness and patience.

After we’ve spent a good, long time looking together, they’ll invite us over to their window. To look out with them for as long as we like. To see some different things. To expand our view.

To love the view together.

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A day at the lake …

Lake_Milton_Ohio Do you have a place that’s special to you? Perhaps a place from your childhood where you felt safe and happy? A place where something important happened?

My place is Lake Milton.

It’s an odd-shaped lake near Youngstown, Ohio, roughly a 90-minute drive from my home in Cleveland. As a child, that commute in the loaded-down family station wagon felt like a trip to another world.

In some ways, it was.

I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland. The immigrants who settled there built narrow, wood-framed houses that were very close together. The driveways between them were just wide enough to fit a car.

Nobody had air conditioning, so windows were open during the summer. You could hear the neighbors arguing, smell what they were cooking. The closeness made you feel connected, for better or worse.

And that’s part of why the lake was special.

My father’s sponsor in AA owned a cottage by the lake. We rented it for a week every summer. The backyard was so spacious — enough to play baseball. Jarts, too. (No, we didn’t impale each other. Well, maybe that one time …)

We spent much of the day swimming – some of us would, anyway. Me, I’ve never been much of a swimmer. But the inner-tube races were fun.

And those sun-splashed days were followed by unforgettable nights.

At dusk, fireflies would rise from the ground — dozens, hundreds, thousands of blinking little bugs. Fireworks? This was better.

At least once per stay, my father would fire up the red Coleman lantern – it made a hissing sound I still remember — and take us night fishing. We’d strap the lantern down on the middle seat of the aluminum boat and head out.

We’d reach the middle of the lake, turn off the motor and drop some lines in the water. We never caught anything, but that didn’t matter. We were out in the middle of this darkness that was unlike anything I’d experienced.

When you looked up, you saw so many stars that it took your breath away. There were more stars in the sky than fireflies in the backyard. And even though the dark was normally frightening, in those moments it felt magnificent.

I realized how it’s possible to feel so small and yet so big at the same time. How you can feel grateful to be part of something so grand.

I understood what Louis Armstrong meant when he sang of bright blessed days and dark sacred nights.

The cottage had paneling that gave off a distinctive wood smell. Even now, when I go into a store that carries lumber, I can get a whiff of that smell and feel like I’m back at the lake.

Actually, I haven’t been to the lake in oh, maybe 40 years. I grew up and moved off. Some of my siblings have gone back and provided discouraging scouting reports. Developers have bought up lots. Expensive houses occupy the fields where the fireflies would take flight.

I’ve been back to the lake many times in my dreams, but not in person. I don’t really want to see how it has changed. I’d rather preserve the memory.

I added a new memory of the lake a couple of weeks ago.

On my way home from my daughter’s graduation in Pittsburgh, I wound up taking a detour (that’s guy-speak for getting lost) and drove past Youngstown. I saw a road sign for the Lake Milton exit.

Moments later, I was on a bridge driving over the lake. It looked so … small. I glanced to my right in the direction where the cottage and the dock would be located. I couldn’t pick them out, of course.

No matter. I’d rather preserve it the way it is in my mind.

I got to thinking about how lucky I was to have a place like that. A place that taught me about the magic of life.

Once you’ve seen the magic – felt the magic – you can recognize it in other places, in other people, in other settings, in every stage of your life.

How it makes you feel so small and yet so important, all at the same time.

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