Flying the flag


I’m enjoying this World Series match-up – two teams that haven’t won a title in, well, practically forever. It’s perfect.

First to reach the World Series were the Indians, who haven’t won the championship since 1948 – before I was born. They’ve made it to the World Series a few times since, and lost each time. Once, they were within three outs of winning it, and they blew it.

And then there are the Chicago Cubs, whose litany of coming up short goes back for more than a century and defined them as lovable losers. They haven’t won the Series since 1908. They got there a lot in the first half of the last century, and lost each time.

The Cubs, too, have their long history of heartbreak and goat curses, foul balls and excruciating endings.

Next week, one of them will be celebrating a title they thought might never come in their lifetimes. The other will start thinking about next year … or maybe next decade … or century.

We’re all about hope

Either way, it will be about hope finally fulfilled, or hope still striving. Hope will be front-and-center, as it always is.

As humans, we’re all about hope.

Hope is as crucial to us as food and oxygen. When we lose hope, we wither. Parts of us die. Faith, hope and love are woven into our nature; to lose one of them is to lose an important part of who we are.

It’s like a trinity. Or, a double-play combination – shortstop to second base to first. All three are needed.

Faith pulls us outside of our narrow selves into something much grander. Hope energizes and nurtures us. Love fulfills us and unites us. We need all three.

I think there’s a common misconception about hope. We tend to think of it as dependent upon a certain outcome. We hope for that final out, raising that final pennant. But that’s not really what hope is about.

Hope isn’t about what happens someday. It’s about what we do today and why we do it.

Hope is about today, not someday

One of the things that struck me about the Cubs is how they took the time to celebrate each of their 103 victories in the regular season. Their clubhouse pulsated with music and cheers and dance for 10 or 15 minutes after the final out. Their manager, Joe Maddon, called it a key ingredient in their overall accomplishment – taking the time to fully relish each day’s small victory.

Good advice for all of us, no matter our circumstance.

Life is so big and full of so much – smiles and tears, steps and stumbles, confusion and clarity, accomplishment and failure. We can fall into the trap of setting long-term goals and losing sight of the importance of today.

Hope is always about today. It’s about savoring each small victory, absorbing each setback, and moving forward to make our world a little bit better in some way.

Savoring each day’s small victories

Hope embraces all of it and keeps going. It’s never contingent upon a certain outcome.

One of the most telling vignettes of hope comes from Nazi camp survivor Viktor Frankl. He vividly describes the importance of hope in what seemed like a hopeless situation. Those who lost hope quickly died. Others held onto hope as long as they could and tried to help other prisoners in whatever way they could. They made their lives about each moment, each day.

They lived with audacious hope, knowing that their lives might soon end.

Of course, there are those who spend a lot of time trying to extinguish hope. They try to foster a sense of hopelessness so that they can manipulate us. They tell us that they’re the only ones who can save us.

It’s so toxic.

Instead, we need to live in hope.

When this World Series ends, one city will be delirious over a long-awaited achievement. The other will start thinking about next year. Two sides of the coin of hope.

Same for us.

Flying the flag

Maybe we’ll get to hold the trophy or fly the ultimate victory flag someday. Or maybe not. In the end, that part doesn’t really matter all that much. What matters is putting ourselves fully into today: Celebrating the small victories, absorbing the setbacks, and moving on to the next glorious moment.

Flying that flag every day.

Chemo drips, left-handed layups, and a sleeping baby


(Note: It was two years ago tomorrow that I met Lauren Hill for the first time. I showed up for her 5 a.m. basketball practice — yes, 5 a.m. ! — grumbling about having to get up so early. And then I watched this amazing young woman jog up and down the court. She changed my outlook on life in some ways. I wrote this blog about it two years ago. Here is is again in case you missed it. It’s worth thinking about again. — Joe)

My day yesterday started with my usual wake-up routine — sitting in a chair, sipping my first cup of coffee, checking up on Facebook posts — when one of them made me smile.

A long-time friend in Cleveland has endured 250 days of chemotherapy and radiation. He’d just received the results of his latest scan: No trace of cancer anywhere. Yes! Chuck noted that “the collateral damage has been great” from all the chemicals and radiation. He now stumbles around and has trouble typing, both temporary conditions. But he’s cancer-free.

Stumbling, yet still standing.

What a great way to start a day. A friend had a new chance at life.

A few hours later, I wrote a story about Lauren Hill. She’s the freshman basketball player at Mount St. Joseph University who has an inoperable brain tumor. She’s getting ready to play in her first game on Sunday. The tumor has protrusions that squeeze her brain, robbing her gradually of coordination. She’s right-handed, but has to shoot lay-ups with her left hand now because of the cancer. She gets dizzy if she turns her head.

The tumor squeezes, and she squeezes back, holding onto life as tightly as she can. Her life is measured in weeks and days. She’s living them as fully as she can.

The tumor squeezes, and she squeezes back

Loving as much as she can. Making as many left-handed lay-ups as she can.

I finished the story, got ready to head off to a friend’s retirement party, and checked Facebook one more time. Surprise! Another friend had just posted that he, too, received scan results. Mark was diagnosed with colorectal cancer on Nov. 1 last year. The arduous and exhausting treatment program had worked. The cancer is gone.

Mark posted a photo of himself hugging his oncologist as he got the good news.

What a snapshot of life, huh? Beating cancer in two cases, fighting it to the end in the other.

There was more.

Before heading to sleep, I checked my email and read an update from a friend. Her daughter-in-law had gone through a very difficult pregnancy that was a very tough struggle. The baby was born early. All are doing well.

A sacred struggle lived with great love

A life was brought into the world through a sacred struggle, one that starts with our first breath and continues until our last. A struggle that we recognize as an integral part of the greatest gift.

A sacred struggle lived with great love.

Giving birth. Getting chemo drips. Making left-handed lay-ups. Clinging tightly to life even as it sometimes squeezes the life out of us for a little while. Developing a deep appreciation for the challenges and struggles that are exquisite, daunting and divine.

And worth it. Oh so worth it.

Losing our leaves


Autumn got sidetracked on its way to southwest Ohio. In the last few weeks, we’ve topped 80 degrees regularly and enjoyed delicious summer breezes coming through open windows from the moment we awaken.

Until the last few days, the trees have held stubbornly to their greenness, with only an occasional brushstroke of color dabbed about. Few leaves have taken leave from their limbs, although that will soon change.

It’s a gorgeous time of year in the Midwest, one of my favorites. And I feel a bit sad over what’s coming next.

Soon, the tree limbs will be bare, left naked in the winter winds. The cracks in the bark will show like scars on skin. The gravity-defying nests of squirrels and birds will be totally exposed to the elements.

Seeing a stripped-down tree gives me a chill.

Dark, sacred nights

In the summertime, there are few things more glorious than standing beneath a big tree on a warm night and listening to the soothing, rustling sound as the southern wind blows through it. Fireflies rise from the ground and blink their way toward the treetops like flashing holiday lights.

In those moments, life is so warm and so magical and so good. As Louis Armstrong called it, dark sacred nights.

Then along comes autumn. First, a gush of luminescent color. Then, the wind starts tugging and pulling, and all of the beautiful pieces get pulled off.

We all know that feeling, right?

A relationship ends, and a part of you seems to fly away with it. A medical test comes back positive, and all of the color drains out of your life. A parent falls and breaks a hip and needs to move into a nursing home, and you feel cold and exposed. A loved one dies. A child struggles. Another act of brutality jolts the world and tears at your heart.

Or maybe it’s just the normality of living that gets to you a bit. You see another wrinkle, get another ache, lose a little more hair, feel a little more forgetful as you look for the car keys you’re holding in your hand.

What’s happening?

There are times when you feel like you’re losing yourself, bit by bit. Life is tugging at you and disassembling you. You feel vulnerable. Naked. Exposed. Shaken right down to your roots.

You start to wonder who you are.

Losing yourself, piece by piece

You try to hold onto those parts of your life that are getting plucked away, but it does no good. The wind won’t relent. Another piece flies away, floats to the ground, turns brown and gets trampled.

Instead of rustling in the breeze, all you can do creak.

In those moments, people will try to be helpful by telling you that things will get better – spring and summer will return soon enough – but that doesn’t help. You know it’s true, but it’s not what you need.

What you need is an equally dissembled person to keep you company in the wind. To just stand with you for a while, until everything subsides and your twiggy limbs calm down.

Then the resurrection can begin.

And after a while, you start to notice something in your stripped-down state. You see the squirrels and birds still living in the nests that you support, keeping life going within you. They climb and flap and move about as if nothing’s changed.

Instinct tell them it will soon be time to start the circle of life over again.

In that moment, you also remember that the next generation of fireflies is right there with you, too, deposited safely in the shelter of the crevices in your bark and your roots. You’re serving as a womb for their blinky wonder.

The resurrection begins

Eventually, you take a close look at yourself and notice little bumps protruding from the spots where those leaves once attached. New buds are growing imperceptibly but steadily. And, truthfully, you recognize that you’re bigger and stronger entering this next cycle of rebirth.

For now, the only thing to do is open your arms wide and embrace the cold. Look for those signs of unabated life all around you and within you. Think of the fireflies’ blinks and the crickets’ melodies about to return.

Be patient. Embrace the nakedness and get ready to blossom yet again, more beautiful than ever. It won’t be long now.

In fact, if you listen closely, you can practically hear the crickets warming up.

The silence on the bus


Donald Trump’s voice is so jarring in the video as he brags about his sexual misconduct in extremely vulgar terms. There’s another voice that’s jarring, too, the one that laughs at all of the horrific things and encourages them. That other voice disturbs me just as much as Trump’s voice.

So does the silence from the other men on the bus.

You’ve probably seen the video. The presidential candidate essentially describes himself as an out-of-control sexual predator. He says he can’t stop himself from kissing a beautiful woman when he sees her. He says he gropes women because he’s a star and can get away with it.

It’s so dark and twisted that it makes me ill. And with each horrific sentence, that other voice – the one of program host Billy Bush – provides a laugh track and heaps praise.

“Yes, the Donald is good! Oh, my man!” Bush gushes as Trump’s comments get more vulgar.

Finally, when Trump says he gropes women and inflicts whatever he wants on them because he can get away with it, Bush exults, “Whatever you want!!!”

There are other men on the bus, too. We see them get off before Trump and Bush. We can assume they’ve overheard the conversation. Not one of them interrupted and said, “You did what? That’s repulsive!”

Their silence is bothersome and familiar, too.

Nobody said: That’s repulsive!

We’ve all had times when we were in a group and something was said that violated our values, but we didn’t speak up and later wished that we had. Speaking up can be difficult, but it’s the most necessary thing to do.

And this is a good time to remind ourselves.

When we come across the bullies and predators in our world, we can respond with either revulsion or silence. Bullies and predators want to have people around them who encourage their awful words and deeds.

If we won’t applaud them, the bullies and predators want us to at least abstain from criticizing them. That’s why we’ve seen such a pushback against so-called “political correctness” by hate groups.

Some people want to go back to the days when they could openly use racial, sexual, ethnic and religious slurs – all types of hateful language – without consequence. They don’t want to be held responsible for the pain caused by their words and their actions.

Instead, they want everyone to condone them by deciding not to challenge them. And it’s at times like this that people need to stand up and say: No! This is unacceptable!

All of it is unacceptable

It’s unacceptable to suggest that all men act in these lurid and pathological ways. They do not. To try to drag all men down to your level shows how far you’ve lost your way.

It’s unacceptable to write it off as just locker room talk, all fun and games. Sexual abuse isn’t a game. Fortunately, we’ve seen a pushback from professional athletes saying that such language is not acceptable in their locker rooms.

It’s unacceptable to say that other men have done equally horrific things, so it’s OK to do the same horrific things. It’s not OK. You are still horrific.

Bullies and predators are encouraged by our silence

It’s unacceptable to try to shrug the whole thing off as just boys being boys. Instead, we need to describe it for what it is: A man being a monster.

Also, it’s unacceptable to go to the other extreme and say that one man’s attitude and actions can be dismissed as rare. The comments on the video remind us graphically that a rape culture exists. While not everyone is a bully or predator, there are far too many bullies and predators in the world. The only way to stop them from preying upon people is to stand up to them.

We must not encourage them in any way. Nor can we remain silent. Bullies and predators persist because of others’ persistent silence.

Living our values means speaking up

This goes for the bullies and predators in our politics, our families, our communities, our religions, our organizations. We have to stand firm and say that what they’re doing is wrong and must not be tolerated.

That’s not being politically correct; that’s living our values. And if we’re not willing to stand up for what we value, then we don’t really have values.

We live in a society founded on the idea that all people are created equal and must be treated with equal respect. We come from religious backgrounds that recognize we are all equally beloved children of God and must be loved as such. Each of us has a responsibility to defend those whom the bullies and predators want to prey upon.

What the bullies and predators want is our laughter and approval. Or, at the very least, our silent capitulation.

We must give them neither.

Standing up to our friends


I’m fascinated by what’s happening in one of our major political parties. So many lifelong members are breaking with the party and saying they can’t support its candidate.

What intrigues me is this: Why did they wait so long to speak out? If they’d spoken up during the primaries, perhaps they could have changed the outcome and wound up with a different nominee.

So, what held them back? Why wait until it was too late to make a difference? Perhaps it’s because they’ve been raised to believe that good party members don’t challenge their own party.

There’s something here for all of us to consider, regardless of how we vote or worship or work or raise families.

We all know from experience how speaking up and taking an unpopular stance with our inner circles – our friends, our family, our political party, our business, our religion, our country – is extremely unnerving and risky. Also, extremely necessary.

Challenging our own circles

It’s easy to challenge those who are in another circle – just look at the food fights on social media. There’s no real cost to challenging someone who is in a different circle from us. But it becomes a whole different thing when we do it with those closest to us.

For one thing, we take the risk of getting pushed out of our circle. And that is truly frightening, as it should be. Some people will say we’re sounding like one of them and they’ll start treating us that way. We could lose friends, affiliations and part of our identity.


It’s so much easier just to keep our concerns private and go with the crowd, even when we’re convinced it’s heading off a cliff in some ways. And maybe that’s part of why the world goes off its axis so often. We don’t have enough people courageous enough to try to bring about change from within.

In one of my favorite “Harry Potter” scenes, Neville Longbottom challenges Harry and Ron and Hermione to stop sneaking out of the castle and getting Gryffindor in trouble. At the end of the episode, Professor Dumbledore awards Gryffindor extra points – and the house cup – because of Neville’s actions.

“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies,” Dumbledore says, “but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.”

It takes great courage

Amen, right? My courage has failed me many, many times when it comes to challenging friends. And yet, I’ve come to appreciate how vital it is.

Every human undertaking gets off track regularly, simply because humans are involved and it’s part of our nature to get sidetracked. And it takes courageous people from within the circle to get things back on track by speaking up.

That’s what keeps us healthy in our relationships, our families, our endeavors.

A recent example is the pedophile scandal in the Catholic church. One of the most shocking things to me was how many members of the clergy at all levels knew what was going on but didn’t speak up and stop it.

Why didn’t these good people stand up? Because other church leaders would have been upset with them and punished them. And because they’d been told that “good” church members don’t challenge their church leaders in any way. They just zip their lips and obey.

Told to pipe down and go along

I’m not picking on Catholics here. There are scandals in all human endeavors, and there’s always people who knew there was something wrong but heeded the warnings to pipe down and go along.

We need people on the inside who have the courage to challenge us, regardless of the consequences. Some people will consider them traitors. Or whistleblowers. Or prophets. And as the saying goes, a prophet is honored everywhere except in their own town and among their own family.

Is it any wonder why we’re all more inclined to nod and go along than raise our hands and ask pointed questions? It involves great risk.

And we haven’t even gotten to the really risky part.

Opening ourselves to challenges, too

If we raise questions about what’s going on in our circle, we also open ourselves to questions about what’s going on inside each of us. And that’s healthy and holy and good.

We’re forced us to think about what we really value, what’s really important, and whether we are committed to our values enough to stand up for them, even within our own circles.

We encourage others to challenge us, too. We start a conversation that could change everything, including us.

And that takes great courage.

The Parthenon, Skittles, and a Greek woman


I covered the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. On my day off, I wanted to visit the Parthenon, which took some logistical planning with the public transit system. I don’t know Greek, so I had to study the train map to figure out a travel plan.

What I didn’t plan for, however, was getting to the train station where I needed to transfer lines and then realizing that all the signs were in Greek – duh! I had no idea where to go. I looked at my map and then at the signs and then back at my map, trying to discern which train platform I needed.

I was totally at a loss. And apparently, it showed.

A woman noticed my confusion. She smiled and said something in Greek that I didn’t understand. She didn’t understand my response in English. I pointed to the Acropolis on my train map. She nodded, took me by the arm and walked me all the way across the station to the platform that I needed to catch the correct train. And then she smiled again and walked away.

How very cool, huh? She took the risk of reaching out to a stranger – one from a world away – and helped me get what I needed at that moment.

I thought about the Greek woman the other day when the son of a presidential candidate compared refugees to Skittles. His point was that we should fear those whom we don’t know. We shouldn’t take the risk of helping them because we could get hurt.

Love always involves risk

He’s not the only one saying it. A lot of people fear those who are different from them. They’re afraid to love them because love always, always, always involves taking a risk. Instead, they feel safer cowering behind walls and weapons.

Walled off from others. Walled off from love. Walled off from life itself. Merely existing instead of truly living.

To me, the really sad part is that we hear this talk from many supposedly religious people who really have no excuse for thinking that way. To be led by the spirit of love means that when we see fear and pain and need around us, we head toward it and enter into it freely, risking ourselves to bring hope and healing into the world.

Moving toward instead of running away

That’s the job description. Look it up.

You take the risk of putting yourself into those moments and those lives. You put your hand in the jar even though you don’t know what you’ll pull out. And yes, you do it knowing there will be a price to be paid somewhere along the line.

But you also know that there’s an even greater cost for refusing to stop and help the needy person by the side of the road. When we walk right past, we lose a little bit of what makes us all precious and human and sacred.

Giving in to fear takes us to many dark, ugly places. It’s the incubator for hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia, religious conflict, political wars, and the many other evils in the world. All of them are rooted in a fear of those who are different from us.

The alternative? Label fear for what it is – a vampire that sucks life and love out of us and our world. Recognize that those monsters beneath our beds are ones that we’ve created in our fearful minds. Once we stop fearing them, they vanish.

Fear sucks the life and love out of us and our world

It’s not easy, of course. Fear is always tugging at us, trying to hold us back from truly living and loving — not only loving others, but ourselves, too. In those moments, we have to take a breath and act like the cowardly lion who, though still trembling, marches into the witch’s castle to save someone who needs us.

Even if that person is very different from us.

Leadership? It means showing courage when others insist we need to run and hide. Leaders show us how to move beyond our fears and live more fully.

Love? It means bringing light to the world’s dark and scary corners, healing to people who are hurting, and hope to those who feel despair creeping close.

It means reminding people about all of the miraculous and grace-filled moments that are all around us every day. It means recognizing the beauty and the goodness in our world – those millions of acts of unexpected kindness that take our breath away.

It means noticing the stranger who is lost, feeling compassion, taking their arm and leading them to the proper place. Helping them get whatever it is that they need in that moment.

A peace as real as you and me


Peace was big when I was growing up in the ‘60s. People exchanged two-finger peace signs and wore peace jewelry. They told each other “peace out.” They held peace-ins. They sang about peace and chanted for people to give it a chance. There were songs and poems about what the world would be like if we all lived peacefully.

What did people want? Peace. When did they want it? Now.

Decades later, it all seems rather dated, kind of like bell-bottoms and psychedelic art. Today, the people who want peace seem to be far outnumbered by those who prefer confrontation and conflict. Fear is fanned and hatred is stirred. Peace can feel like an illusion or a hallucination.

But it’s not. Peace is as real in the world as you and me.

It’s true that the world isn’t living as one, as John Lennon imagined. Not yet, anyway. And not ever, most likely. As long as humans are around, there’s going to be discord and disagreement. There’s going to be war and bloodshed.

And there’s going to be a lot of peace, too. Just look around. Recognize the daily acts of kindness, the way people reach out to each other. There is peace in the world, just not enough of it.

It’s the International Day of Peace today, which is a good time to remind ourselves that peace on earth is already a reality and still a dream. Peace comes into our families and our communities and our lives only to the extent that we’re willing to value it and expand it.

With that in mind, let’s consider three important points that some of our greatest peacemakers have tried to teach us:

— Working for peace doesn’t mean avoiding tension. Rather, it’s about immersing ourselves in a creative tension that transforms the world. In a peaceful world, people still argue and disagree, but they do it respectfully. They don’t let emotions like anger and fear decide how they will act. They don’t purposely hurt each other. To be a peacemaker means to embrace tension and use it constructively and lovingly. It means engaging others in a way that will ultimately bring us closer together instead of dividing us further.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

— Peace is fundamentally linked with justice. Injustice is at the root of our problems as humans. When people aren’t being treated as equally beloved children of God and are denied equal opportunities for the things we all want, then division and anger grow. If we want peace, we have to want justice.

Again, as the Rev. King put it, “It must be remembered that genuine peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.”

Or, in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “There is no peace because there is no justice. … God’s Shalom, peace, involves inevitably righteousness, justice, wholeness, fullness of life, participation in decision-making, goodness, laughter, joy, compassion, sharing and reconciliation. … When there is injustice, invariably peace becomes a casualty.”

— We can’t just wish or pray for peace, we have to create it. Peacemakers aren’t starry-eyed dreamers, but clear-eyed realists. They see the toll that war and violence and injustice take on the world. They don’t ignore it or accept it as inevitable – they know better than that. Instead, they try to transform it with the power of love.

It takes a lot of faith and hope and courage. It takes the kind of spirit that the Rev. King described in his acceptance speech at Oslo, Norway, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964:

“I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life which surrounds him.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

“I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow.

“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.

“I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men can build up.

“I still believe that we shall overcome. This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of tomorrow.”