Just blink

Firefly2

Fewer fireflies are taking flight these days. In early June, hundreds would rise slowly from the ground at dusk in my neighborhood and start blinking. Now, there’s not so many of them. Their days among us are starting to run out. It makes me sad.

Fireflies are one of my favorite things in life. Have been for as long as I can remember.

Everyone has their stories of chasing them, clasping them loosely in their hand, then depositing them in a jar to watch them do their magic up-close. I remember summers at a cottage near Youngstown, Ohio where the darkness was so deep and rich and the flash of those bugs so magnificent. They’d rise into the trees and turn them into a Christmas display with their nonstop blinking. We’d temporarily capture them, marvel at them, and then let them go.

Don’t believe in magic? Spend a little time watching fireflies do their thing.

What’s always amazed me was how they produce such beautiful light from their little bug bodies. When I got older and learned the science behind the blinking bugs, they became even more magical.

It was cool to learn about their incredibly complicated lighting-up process, called bioluminescence. How the bugs’ little bodies combine oxygen with calcium, adenosine triphosphate (yes, I’m cutting and pasting now!) and a chemical called luciferin to produce an enzyme that’s luminescent. And they do this without producing any heat whatsoever.

Don’t you wish you could do that?

So, that’s how they blink. But why do they blink? To communicate information, apparently, including their intentions to make baby fireflies. Their blinking patterns attract each other. So yes, the blinking you see is fireflies making sure we will have more fireflies next year. And the next year and the next. The blinking will never end.

Pretty miraculous stuff, all in all. I think fireflies are among the creator’s best work.

Last week, it was especially comforting and encouraging to watch the magical bugs take flight. All of the shootings and bombings and hatred in our world made it feel like a very dark place. And I was reminded that it’s only when the world starts to become really dark that the fireflies recognize that it’s time to come out of hiding and light it up.

A good lesson for you and me, no?

There are a lot of bugs that don’t light up. They do nothing to push back the darkness. And then there are others that transform it by doing what comes naturally to them.

Same with people, too.

We don’t need a search light to counterbalance darkness. No powerful flashlight, no enormous bonfire. Most of us have all that we need right inside of us. We have to recognize it and then have the courage to use it — to blink our blink – and put a little light into our darkening world.

And that, too, is pretty magical.

Just blink.

 

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Would you like me to take your picture?

FamilyCleveland

We were at the back of the line, waiting our turn to take a family photo in one of Cleveland’s parks. The city’s name is spelled out in a display that overlooks the lakefront and downtown. It’s perfectly placed to make a postcard-worthy keepsake.

Most of the fun came from watching each family take its turn and seeing everyone interact. There were Clevelanders and out-of-towners, people of different ethnic backgrounds, total strangers waiting patiently for their turn to do something fun.

First, they took turns doing something kind. A family would get ready to pose, and the family behind them would offer to snap the photo for them so everyone could be included. A total stranger would show another total stranger how to focus their camera phone and then hand it over.

Smile. Snap. Snap. Snap. Wait! One more just in case! Smile and snap while the kind stranger takes one final shot.

And then, it was the next family’s turn to share in the group photo project. Total strangers took each other’s photos, ones that would be posted on social media and maybe framed and hung on the wall back home next to the graduation and wedding and travel photos.

How utterly cool is that?

When my family was done posing and saying cheese, I asked the family behind us if they’d like me to do the honors. A woman who appeared to be the mother didn’t respond. It was as if she didn’t understand what I’d just said.

Turns out, she didn’t.

The family was Hispanic. She spoke very broken English. After a moment, she recognized what was going on, smiled and very politely said no thank you. As her family got ready to pose, she recognized how the stranger-turned-friendly-photographer thing worked, and she allowed the family behind them to take their picture.

Smile. Snap, snap, snap. Wait, one more! Snap. And then they did the same.

People speaking different languages figured out a common language. Different worlds, same world. Different families, one family.

Again, how utterly cool is that?

The photo session came at the end of a tough week for all of us. More black people killed by police. Police officers gunned down by a man filled with hatred. And on the other side of the world, countless people getting blown up by others filled with hatred.

There are times when hatred seems to overwhelm us. Darkness seeps inside of us for a while. We’re tempted to think that the whole world is a dark place.

But it’s not. It’s always followed by a sunny, breezy, hopeful day of smiling photos.

The truth is, there’s far more love and life in the world than there is hatred and death. Kindness is our human default setting – for most of us, anyway. If we pay attention, we see countless acts of kindness all around us every day.

#LoveWins isn’t just a slogan. It’s us. We doubt, we struggle, we reach the end of our rope. And then we pull back and we let love do its healing, resetting thing. We find a place deep inside of us – a familiar place where humanity and divinity intersect – and we start again.

Snap. Wait, one more. Smile again!

Honestly, given how many of us there are and how much we endure each day, it’s a wonder that there’s not more ugliness in the world. And yes, it’s true that there are some people who, for whatever reason, seem to be missing the divine DNA of kindness. Maybe they’ve been hurt so deeply that it’s scarred over. Maybe they’ve simply made the choice to hate because it’s less challenging than love.

Who knows?

Here’s what we know: Most people strive to get along. We recognize that we’re all the same in the ways that matter. We care about each other. We speak the same language even when we don’t know the same words.

And we consider it a wonderful thing to hold a stranger’s phone in our hands and do something for them that they will cherish. Something that reminds us of what we’re all about.

With each touch of the screen, we take our collective family portrait.  Snap! Wait, one more!

OK, here’s your phone back. Oh, you’re most definitely welcome. After all, someone else just did the same for me. And the picture is perfect.

In every way.

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The liberty to love

Circle of hands

We’re going to hear a lot about our independence this weekend, which is good. It’s also good to take some time to appreciate our interdependence as well. Those two things are closely intertwined, just like all of us. Neither one can exist apart from the other.

Everything that we do, everything that we have, all that we are bears the fingerprints of countless others from around the world who have brought us to this moment and sustain us in it.

We tend to overlook that fact. I know I do. I prefer to think of myself as independent. It’s certainly “safer” to go that way than to make myself vulnerable and acknowledge my dependence upon so many others for so much. I prefer to feel like I’m in control of my life when, in fact, that’s only half of the truth.

I think we all dread those times when we feel dependent, when we’re sick or struggling and need some sort of assistance. We’d rather do it ourselves. We prefer to feel like we’re living independently, even though that is never the case.

If we think about our day for even a few seconds, we’re reminded of just how much we depend upon others for pretty much everything.

We woke up this morning in a bed that someone else made. We showered in water that someone else delivered to our homes, which someone else also built. We dressed in clothes that are the work of others’ hands. We ate a meal that someone else grew, harvested, shipped, inspected and prepared. We got into our car or boarded a bus that others engineered, built, and tested for safety. We rode along roads that others designed and maintained … And on and on.

In every moment of every day, we are affected by the lives of so many others from around the planet. Others who live in different countries and follow different religions and different social norms.

We’re also intertwined with our planet. That breath we are taking right now is possible because of all the plants making oxygen. Our food and our water are provided by the earth. And on and on.

Everyone and everything is interconnected. The creator made it so.

Recognizing our connectedness is at the heart of our religious traditions. 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 requires connection. It’s lived and expressed within the context of relationship to someone and something other than ourselves. It’s always plural.

Compassion, love, forgiveness, kindness, creativity, healing — all of the divine qualities within us draw us deeper into our interdependence. By embracing it, we embrace the one who wants us to be as one.

The more we try to imagine ourselves as independent of others — other people, other countries, other religions — the less we are able to love and to live together peacefully. We know from experience how self-interest subverts any society, any government, any religion. We stop thinking about the common good — about the we — and we ignore our deep, divine need for each other.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us beautifully how “all life is interrelated.”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

As we celebrate our independence together, it’s fitting that we also remember the blessing of our interdependence. We can be thankful that we have the freedom to care for each other, the liberty to love one other.

 

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No, thank YOU for the lessons in love

Rainbow

In the past year since the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality, many of my gay friends have thanked me for being a straight ally. At first, I didn’t know quite how to respond.

I’d say something along the lines of: “You’re welcome, of course! You matter to me. You’re so worth it. I’m just glad I could help in some way.” Somehow, though, that answer seemed inadequate.

Or I might have followed up with: “It’s just sad that it took so long and involved so much pain to get to this point. I’m sorry for that.” Which is better, but still lacking. Something more needed to be said.

One day, it occurred to me. I needed to say more than just “you’re welcome.” I also needed to say something back to them:

Thank you.

First, thank you for inviting me to be your friend. Thank you for the love and encouragement you’ve given me over the years. It means far more than you know.

Thank you for showing me what it means to love someone when there’s a great cost involved. When simply holding someone’s hand in public could have enormous repercussions, and you do it anyway. Thank you for that courageous 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 showing me what it means to live in a way that’s true to yourself.

Thank you for teaching me what it means to live courageously and to love courageously. And to recognize 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.

Thank you for showing me what it means to respond to hatred with love, time and time again. Orlando is just the latest example.

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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A grandmother’s persistent love

Grams

My grandmother’s name is Ann, but we’ve always called her Grams – just Grams. Her birthday is this month, so it’s made me think about her again. And smile again.

Grams has made me smile a lot over the years, often by finding humor in something when I couldn’t see it by myself. She’s taught me a lot over the years, too, like how to appreciate a really good cup of coffee and how to make pierogis from scratch so that that don’t fall apart when you cook them.

She was independent and feisty and lively, even when the arthritis in her legs slowed her. And she understood the importance of persistence, especially when it came to love.

Her husband died of cancer when her three daughters were young. Friends and relatives told her to find another husband to support her – that’s what women did back then. Uh-uh, not Grams. She found a babysitter and went to work for a company where women weren’t exactly welcomed. She didn’t care what they thought – she had a family to support!

She did it her way, raising her daughters and building a family that grew with each wedding and each birth.

When I was young, my family had some tough years. I remember many times when Grams would recognize my worry, pull me tight and reassure me: “Don’t worry, Joey. It’s going to be all right.” She meant it, and so I believed her. She turned out to be right.

She liked to say that life is too short, so don’t shortchange yourself. Don’t waste it. Keep at it. Don’t let anyone push you around. Be generous. Help others. And when you care about someone, make sure they know it.

Be persistent about life and love.

And boy, she was persistent, all right. When I was in college and would visit home for a weekend, Grams always called to see how I was doing. She’d invite me over for a cup of coffee. Sadly, I was a busy young person and often turned her down because of other plans. She said that was OK. She never sounded disappointed. She just seemed glad that we had talked.

How cool is that?

Grams was persistent, but not insistent. She taught me that important distinction. Love never insists, it just offers.

Thankfully, I got many more chances to spend time with Grams. We’d get together for holidays or just to hobnob about old times. We’d go to her apartment and make batches of potato and cabbage pierogis for Christmas.

No matter what you were doing together, she made you know that she was happy to see you. Without even trying, she reminded you that you were loved.

She had her peculiarities, of course, and that was part of the charm of being Grams. Her apartment was filled with tacky knickknacks from various places she’d visited. She wore wigs over her thinning hair and would keep them arranged on Styrofoam heads. She kept a votive candle burning on her bedroom dresser in front of a small likeness of Jesus. The candle rested on a tray with an image from John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

I miss those things.

Grams died in her apartment from an apparent heart attack years ago. As I was driving home from her funeral, I thought about how blessed I’ve been to have her in my life. And in the years since, there have been lots of little reminders that she’s still there in some ways.

Grams occasionally shows up in dreams – mine and other family members’ — with some guidance. My sister was taking a nap one afternoon because she’d been up all night with sick kids, and Grams showed up in the dream and told her to go pay attention to our mom. My sister knew not to discount a dream with Grams, so she called my brother and they got to my mom’s apartment just as she was having a stroke. It saved her life.

Pretty freaky, huh?

I’ve share that story with many people, and they’re shared their own stories with me about dearly departed friends and family showing up in dreams and in other ways, reminding us that they’re still dear but not so departed. We don’t understand how it all works, exactly, but we know there’s something there, something beyond our comprehension.

And none of it is really surprising. After all, persistent love would never let a little thing like death get in the way.

 

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Bullet holes and the radical welcome

Radical Welcome

The night started with a radical welcome and ended with 90 seconds of horror.

Every Wednesday night at 6 p.m. in Charleston, S.C., one of the oldest historically black churches in the country opens its doors to whoever wants to join them for a Bible study in the church basement.

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church traces its roots to the days when black people were unloaded from slave ships nearby and sold as property. The church has been attacked many times by people who didn’t want black people treated as equally beloved children of God. Church members have been arrested, beaten and executed. A crowd of angry white people burned the original church to the ground in 1822.

And yet, this church that’s been so often hurt and abused by outsiders has continued to open its doors to outsiders every week. They invite everyone to come and join them, even people who don’t like them.

People like Dylann Roof, a young white man who walked through the front doors last June 17, joined an hour-long Bible study, and shot nine church members dead in 90 seconds. He killed people who were doing the most Christian thing – welcoming him, just as he was, into the very center of their church.

He accepted their radical welcome and responded with hatred. The very same kind of hatred that led Omar Mateen to walk into a gay nightclub in Orlando last weekend and kill 49 people. His unthinkable act left us all wounded and numb and confused.

Once again, we’re angry and wondering why we as a people have allowed our hatred and our violence to become the defining traits of our nation. We wonder how many more times someone’s spouse or parent or child is going to be slaughtered before we acknowledge that that the status quo is unacceptable and it must change now.

After a while, we grow weary from the body count. The gun lobby and bought-off politicians refuse to even talk about the carnage. It’s easy to slip into despair and anger, to wonder what we must do next.

And then we look to Charleston on a Wednesday night and see the doors flung wide open.

Something incredible happened there after the murders. Family members publicly forgave the killer. People filled the church the following Sunday — some sitting on the very spot where blood had to be cleaned from the tile floor – and proclaimed their commitment to compassion and forgiveness.

And the next Wednesday night, they did what they’d always done on Wednesday night. They held a Bible study. They welcomed anyone who was interested. This time, news reports say about 150 people of different races, different faiths, different backgrounds sat together in the same room where nine people had died and committed themselves to the Spirit of radical welcome.

The very place that had been filled with such darkness seven days earlier was filled with warmth and life and love. The topic of discussion that day: The Power of Love.

Really.

And then there’s the reaction to the Orlando shooting. Many people have revved up the hateful talk that influenced both Roof and Mateen. They insist that some people are just too dangerous to be around, too evil to accept. They must be dealt with severely.

Build walls to ease our fears, they say. Bar entry to anyone who comes from a certain country or a certain background. Lock the doors to those whom we dislike.

Contrast that to what’s going on at Emanuel. To remember the shootings a year ago, they’re asking people to participate in a day of kindness. Next Tuesday, they want each of us to do something kind for someone and tell them about it on the church’s website. They’re calling it: Acts of Amazing Grace Day.

http://www.emanuelamechurch.org/acts-of-grace/index.html

They take seriously the stories of a Jewish rabbi from long ago, and they try to live the way he lived. They accept everyone, because that’s what he did, even when he was harshly criticized for it.

They live the Spirit of radical welcome.

This welcome thing: It’s not a popular notion, then or now. It’s part of what got the rabbi killed. It’s what got the Emanuel church burned down and bloodied up. The truth is, this radical welcome stuff is challenging and upsetting and dangerous. It’s much easier and safer to hide behind walls. It takes great courage and great love to open ourselves to others, but it’s the only way out of the deep darkness we’ve chosen.

Then and now, great love is the only thing that can overcome. It overcomes by showing a different way – a way that cleans up the blood and opens the doors wide again.

And changes everything, bringing life into a place of death and grace into a world that needs so much of it.

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The bolts of hatred

Bolt

One of my roommates in college was gay. He confided in me about his sexual preference, knowing I’d respect his confidence. Back then, gay people were openly ridiculed and rejected and attacked.

I wish I could say this was no longer true, but obviously I can’t. We’ve come a long way, but what happened in Orlando and the reaction to it provide harsh reminders of how people hate those who are different from them in some way.

Still so much hatred.

I’m the associate minister at an open and affirming UCC church. We accept everyone just as they are. I’ve heard many stories about how members of my church family have been treated horrifically by their families, by their former “Christian” churches, and by co-workers because of their sexual orientation.

Their openness touches me. Their courage inspires me. Their stories remind me how I enjoy a sort of “straight” privilege. Nobody has ever threatened me because I was holding a girl’s hand, or refused to rent me an apartment because I was dating a woman. Nobody has ever refused to bake me a cake because I’m straight.

I have never had to worry that my sexual identity was going to get me killed.

One thing about the reaction to Orlando troubles me greatly. People who have said so many hateful and harmful things about LBGT people are now trying to distance themselves from what happened. They’re trying to frame it as merely another instance of extremism by different people from a different country and a different religion.

Nothing could be further from the truth here.

So many self-styled “Christians” have done so many hateful and hurtful things to the LGBT community. It’s tiring to have to remind people of the way so many “Christian” parents have disowned their children simply for being gay, or how many “Christian” churches have invited gay people through their front doors only to attack them from the pulpit, or how many “Christian” evangelists have blamed all of the country’s ills on gay people being treated as equally beloved children of God.

Sorry. No matter where we are in the spectrum of things, none of us can take ourselves completely off the hook for what happened in Orlando. We all contribute our part. None of these horrible things happens in a vacuum.

We’re the ones who create the hot bed in which hatred grows and spreads and eventually strikes out. Or we encourage it with a shrug and indifference. Or we speak out for love and justice, which can pull hatred up by the roots for a while. And we keep at it, responding to hatred with love over and over.

This is on each of us. Are we going to encourage it, hide from it, or push back against it?

And those who like to think they’re totally different from the person who pulled the trigger in Orlando need to remember that our attitudes matter just as much as our actions. Jesus said as much all the time. We’ve seen it play out so many times.

One year ago this week, a young white man walked into an historically black church in Charleston, S.C., participated in a Bible study, and killed nine of the African-American church members. The white man had gotten swept up in the deep current of racial hatred in our country, a current created by the words and attitudes of others.

What we say and how we treat others affects everyone and everything around us. That’s one of the basic tenets of religion – love one another, treat others the way you want to be treated. Do it because how you live has such a big impact on everyone else.

What we say and how we say it create the atmosphere in which we live. Just as each exhaled breath puts something into the air, so does each word.

Hateful attitudes are like an electrical charge that gets sent into the atmosphere. The charge grows and solidifies and forms a lightning bolt that hits some target and causes great harm and destruction.

These bolts never come out of the blue. They come out of us.

So does love. The only way to dissipate hatred is by giving all people the same unconditional and unlimited love that God has for each of us. As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

None of these horrific acts is isolated from us. They happen in a world that we fill each day with either a little more love or a little more hate or a little more indifference. Each of us must chose.

Hatred or love? Violence or peace? Holy wars or holiness? Being silent or speaking up? Loving everyone or no one at all?

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