Peanuts, macaroni salad, and a eulogy

Mac

I’ve got a small scar on the back of the pinkie knuckle on my left hand. It’s been there since I was about 4 years old.

At that time, my parents both worked at the West Side Market in Cleveland, so my grandmother – a.k.a. Grams – watched me during the day at her house. One day, my aunt Jean visited and brought a can of peanuts and offered me some.

Safety lids hadn’t been invented yet.  You had to use a key-like implement attached to the can to peel off a strip of metal and free the lid. That would leave a sharp edge by the opening — people often cut themselves on it. (I don’t know how any of us survived those days!)

As Jean opened the can and held it toward me, I reached up with my left hand and – SLASH! – cut a flap of skin off the back of the knuckle. It hung there as I cried. Jean is a very kind, sensitive person, and I think she was more upset than me. Grams came out of the house and did what Grams does – she comforted me and Jean, got a bandage and put the flap of skin back in place. It healed nicely, but left a small, narrow scar.

That scar has been with me every moment since that day. It was there on that scary first day of kindergarten, and on the proud day of graduation. It was there the first time I held hands with a girl – yes, awkward moment – and the first time I held both of my children in my hands – truly divine and holy moments. The scar was there when I held a notebook and interviewed Desmond Tutu and Dr. Seuss. In a sense, it’s been a reminder of Jean and my whole family and that they’re always with me. I’m never alone.

And the scar was there yesterday, when I gave the eulogy at Jean’s funeral in Cleveland.

I held up my hand and pointed to the scar and told everyone that although they may not have a scar like that one, Jean has left deep imprints on each of us with her gentleness, her kindness, her hopefulness, her love of life and laughter. And that’s true for all of us – the ones whom we love always shape us and leave imprints on our hearts, beautiful and holy marks that never go away.

And neither do they.

One of my favorite theological constructs is that we’re all part of a “communion of saints.” In other words, we’re all in this together, even with those who have moved on. We tend to think that whatever comes next – call it heaven or whatever you wish – is somewhere way over there, while we’re way over here. But that’s not really the case. There’s only here. And us. We’re all still seated at the table enjoying a communion meal in some ways.

Or, in Jean’s case, a meal with macaroni salad.

Her family asked me to include a mention of how in her final weeks, Jean wanted to make sure some important things got passed along, including her recipe for the macaroni salad that she made for every family get-together. She recited it from memory while lying in her hospital bed, and her recollection went like this: Macaroni. Celery. Hellmann’s salad dressing. Celery. Chopped egg. Celery. A little pickle relish. Celery. Celery. Celery. She kept coming back to the celery. It made everybody laugh.

It’s good to laugh at such times. It helps us get through them. They’re so damn hard. We miss the one we love. As one of my cousins put it: It just really sucks.

Yeah, it does.

In those moments, maybe it’s a little comforting to remember that they’re really still with us – the whole communion of saints thing. Creation is all one thing, like a giant blanket with many threads. Someone may have passed on to an adjoining thread, but we’re still pulled tightly together. Even now, they’re wrapped tightly, securely, snugly around us, and we around them.

And we know this because we know the Weaver of Life. One who is so passionate about us, about life, about holding tightly to one another in unconditional love. One who insists that life will always endure – theirs and ours – and love will always prevail.

Love always wins. Over everything, including what we call death.

So maybe when we’re missing someone, we could take our fingertips and trace the imprint they have left on us – on our hands, in our hearts. Be reminded that they are still with us.

And maybe celebrate our never-ending life and love with them once again by making some macaroni salad and having a meal. But make sure not to skimp on the celery, for heaven’s sake.

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The courage to suck

Suck

I suck at giving directions. At least, that’s what I’m told.

During a recent trip, I was sitting in the passenger’s seat trying to navigate the driver through a shortcut, and I kept getting engrossed in the conversation. I’d be in the middle of telling a story and suddenly blurt: “Wait, we need to turn here!” Which forced the driver to apply the brakes rather quickly – think whiplash — and make a sharp turn.

Sorry!

After this happened a couple of times, the driver turned toward me and said: “You know, you’re good at a lot of things, but you really suck at giving directions.”

I can’t argue that point. Giving directions is on the list of things I don’t do very well. And it’s a rather lengthy list. I suck at swimming. I suck at dancing. I suck at small talk. As much as I like to pretend otherwise, I often suck at things. I suspect we all do. That’s just how it is to be human.

And maybe that doesn’t suck as much as we think.

I was reminded of the whole sucking concept during spring training when the manager of the Chicago Cubs designed a shirt to raise money for his foundation. The manager wears thick-rimmed glasses. The logo has his frames with the inscription: Try Not To Suck. (That’s it at the top.)

The Cubs know a lot about sucking, seeing as how they haven’t won a World Series since 1908. Back then, the word “suck” had a totally different connotation. In our time, it’s come to define doing something badly, being horrible at something. And who wants that?

But there is a flip side. No matter what we do, we’re going to suck at it for a while. That’s how we learn and get better. There’s no getting around it.

We all suck at times.

Life is about learning from our experiences, especially the ones in which we really sucked. We have to learn as we go, and that involves making a lot of mistakes.

And those sucky moments become starting points for amazing things.

An artist friend recently mentioned on his Facebook page how it’s easy to become filled with self-doubt and worry that your next drawing will suck. He encouraged other artists to push through that moment, to go ahead and draw something that’s not very good and then step back and see where it points you. You’ll find a few features in the drawing that are really good, the starting point for something beautiful in the next version.

Writing is the same way. Every first draft sucks — every single one! But it’s a starting point, a place to set your feet and wrestle with the ideas and the words until you can form them into something that makes a little more sense and somewhat conveys what you’re trying to say. And if you don’t have the courage to write a sucky first draft – and a sucky second one and third one — you never get anywhere.

It takes great courage to suck.

And here’s an interesting thought: Maybe it’s part of some divine process.

One of the creation stories portrays God as beginning with a big bang of light and darkness swirling and intermingling and differentiating _ the first steps in our cosmic dance of life and love. And God keeps going, making this and that and stepping back and saying, “Hmmm, something’s missing. It needs something more.” And God tweaks it a little bit more each day and recreates everything, including us.

But instead of saying that creation is lacking at each step _ it sucks somehow – God sees is much differently. From the divine perspective, it’s all good, just as it is at this moment – very good, in fact. Even when it’s incomplete and needs more work. Even when something important is missing.

Perhaps it’s good to keep this in mind as we go along. It’s all part of the creative process, the human process, the divine process. Maybe we’ll become less afraid of making mistakes and getting it wrong. It’s all very good. Maybe we’ll pull back on judging others when they do something that sucks, remembering that we’ve all been there.

Maybe we should pray for the courage to suck – to suck frequently and grandly, to suck proudly and boldly and creatively. To remember that instead of beating ourselves up or throwing our hands up because of a flawed effort, we need to look closely and recognize what’s beautiful and use that as the starting point for the next step.

And then get back to work on that drawing. And that rough draft. And that relationship. And those directions …

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Come out, come out, wherever we are

Locked door 3

Several years ago, I was waiting to board a plane when a group of men from Afghanistan entered the gate area. They were dressed in traditional garb; some spoke a little English. Two American guides explained that they were engineers on a tour of U.S. companies as part of a professional program.

The seat next to me was open. I motioned to one of the engineers that he was welcomed to sit. He joined me and we made small talk — not a whole lot, given the language barrier. I asked if he had a big family. He said yes, adding that his wife and two of his children had been killed by a bomb blast on a street.

Can you even imagine?

He asked about my family. I told him I had two teenagers.

“Ah,” he said, his face lighting up. “Teenagers!!!”

He knew. Parenting teenagers is a universal experience.

When it was time to board, he shook my hand warmly and repeatedly, wishing me a safe trip. And off we went, thankful for this encounter with someone from half a world away. For a chance to be reminded that we’re not all that different.

I came away thinking: We need more of this.

And why are we so utterly terrified of it?

I’m sometimes overwhelmed by how people are so afraid of anyone who’s different from them – different religion, different country, different sex, different age group, different sexual orientation, different political party. We pull away from them and look down on them.

We’re so afraid of making contact and realizing we’re all the same in the ways that matter. We don’t even see what our fear of each other is doing to our world and to ourselves.

Refugees? Keep ‘em over there. Mexicans? Keep ‘em out. Immigrants? Send ‘em back. Muslims? Keep an eye on ‘em. Women and minorities? Keep ‘em in their place. Poor people? Keep telling ‘em to get jobs. Gay people? Keep ‘em away from me. The person bleeding by the side of the road just like in the parable? Keep walking right past ‘em, just like in the parable.

Whatever you do, don’t stop and make eye contact. Don’t actually sit and talk. Don’t give them a chance to tell you about themselves and their lives. Don’t open up to them in any way. Instead, live behind locked doors and closed minds because, well, you feel safer that way.

No love is given or received. We even lose our understanding of what it means to love one another.

We’re so afraid of each other that we give up on the idea of getting along and instead build more bombs and buy more guns. We devise “religious liberty” exceptions to laws – you don’t have to bake a cake for anyone that makes you uncomfortable.

We’re afraid of getting close to others whom we deem inadequate – unlike our perfect selves. We worry that if we get to know them, we might realize we’re more like them than not. And then our whole self-righteous world will be turned upside-down.

We’ve become like Jesus’ hiding-in-the-closet followers.

You know how the story goes. After Jesus’ execution, his friends are so terrified that they hide in a room behind a locked door. The only ones allowed in are those who believe like them, those who are part of the club. And, as the story goes, Jesus barges through their locked door and tells it like it is.

He says: Stop being so darn afraid!

You simply cannot stay in your little room – physically and theologically — and hide from people who believe differently and live differently. You have to leave this place and go out and meet them, talk to them, listen to them, serve them, take care of them, meet their needs, and love them unconditionally. Even if it means you get hurt in the process.

And in the process, you and they are going to be changed. Grace and salvation and transformation will take place, right there inside of you and them.

Are we willing to do it?

Will we sit and listen to a refugee mother talk about her family’s horrific life in her war-torn country, and realize we’re no longer afraid of her? Will we talk to the gay couple that needs a cake and hear their love story, and feel a bond because it reminds us of our own love story? Will we look into the eyes with the homeless person begging just outside our car window and see another human being in pain, and suddenly feel an urge to help them?

Will we make ourselves divinely vulnerable?

In that moment, we reach beyond our fear. We’re finally freed by love. No longer hiding in a tiny room behind a locked door.

That. We all need more of that.

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Cell phones and dead spots

Tomb

Do you remember that commercial for a cell phone carrier that involved a man walking a few steps and then stopping and asking: Can you hear me now? The idea was that there are dead spots around us and we need to locate and fix them.

In a sense, the commercial is also parable. If we’re honest, each of us has dead spots, too. And like the fellow walking around the countryside looking for better connections, we need to locate our dead spots and let some life back into them.

We all could use a little more life, if you know what I mean.

Sometimes life itself feels pretty bleak. Divorce numbs us. A spouse or a child or a parent dies and it’s as though Life and Love have left our souls and taken up residence somewhere over the rainbow. Toxic chemicals go to work at killing the cancer cells, and our bodies feel like a battleground and a tomb.

Then there are the small, daily dead spots that we all develop. The places inside of us that we wall off out of fear and anxiety. We won’t let people in or take the risk of letting our true selves out. Instead of connecting with others, we find a dark space and roll a rock in front of the entrance for protection.

And parts of us begin to decay and die.

We see this happening in our politics right now, don’t we? All the harrumphing about building walls and pushing others away because we’re afraid of them and we don’t like them. We long to hide inside a heavily-armed fortress, one that’s more of a tomb than a home.

A collective dead spot.

We all have dead spots. We carve them a bit deeper every time we make a choice driven by fear and despair and hatred. We settle into our dead spaces and get comfortable. Nothing can hurt me now, right? We even become so accustomed to the stench of decay that we ignore what the smell is trying to tell us.

Something is dying. Parts of us are dying.

But here’s the fantastic thing: We’re never trapped inside our tombs. Even when we’ve rolled a heavy stone across the entrance, there’s always Someone relentlessly pushing the stone away and inviting us to step out of the putrid air and come alive again.

Death-and-resurrection is our daily experience.

The Giver of Life loves us enough to let us choose. And often, we choose darkness and dead spots. We let our fears seal us off from each other and from love. But the Giver also loves us too much to let us stay in those deathly places.

Instead, Someone is relentlessly rolling away our stones and inviting us to step outside, feel the sunlight, hear the music, and take the risk of joining in the great party. We’re encouraged to dance with those whom we fear, to love those whom we dislike, to heal those decayed parts of ourselves.

To be resurrected.

It’s OK that we’re still broken in many ways. We might be covered with dried blood and sweat. Unsteady and unsure. Doubting and wondering. But all we need to do is take that first shaky step out of the darkness and head toward the music and the bright party lights.

It’s OK if we’re not in a party mood. We don’t have to feel festive. We can sit in a corner and keep to ourselves for a while as the music plays and people dance around us. We might even notice Someone sitting next to us who is eager to hold our hand and hear our story.

Eventually, we recognize that we’re hungry and there’s all of this amazing food and drink available to us. And who knows, maybe we even get a little energy back and we feel like dancing with another grimy soul who has just left their own tomb. We summon the courage to extend a hand to someone whom we once feared, acknowledging that we’re all suitable dance partners at this party.

Once dead, but now alive again.

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Saying ‘yes’ to the candy cane

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Let me tell you the story of James.

James was a 40-something cook. A hit-and-run driver flattened him while he was riding his bicycle home from work. His left leg had to be reassembled with rods, a plate and screws. His employer didn’t offer health insurance, so all of that hardware and subsequent surgeries wiped him out financially.

Prescription drugs took the edge off the pain, until the drugs ran out along with the money. James wound up living on the streets, sharing needles to get some relief.

A lump appeared one day. He had no money so he avoided going to a doctor. The lump grew so big that he had no choice. It was cancer. It had spread throughout his body.

Too late. He had a couple months to live.

James was taken to an old, depressing nursing home. I visited him as a hospice volunteer. The first time we met, James was sitting in a wheelchair in the common area. When I introduced myself, he seemed disinterested.

There was a feral quality to him – distrustful of people after surviving on the streets for so long.

Over time, he opened up a little bit. We didn’t have much in common, so our conversations were superficial – the coffee was cold today, his leg was hurting more. He seemed to appreciate having someone to listen.

Soon it was December, and James’ health was fading. During one of my visits, he was sitting at a table in the common area with a few Hershey’s kisses and one candy cane that he received during their Christmas party. He picked up his candy cane and offered it to me.

“Would you like this?” he said.

In that moment, I thought: James doesn’t have much in life. It’s his only candy cane. This is his last Christmas.

“No thanks, James,” I said. “You enjoy it. It’s yours.”

Immediately, his blue eyes showed disappointment. I should have changed my mind and accepted it. I didn’t. I never got another chance. James died a few weeks later.

I wish for a do-over on the candy cane.

James comes to mind whenever I hear anyone characterize poor people as lazy moochers with nothing to give. How do we know they have nothing to give unless we get close enough to find out?

James tried to give, and I turned him down. He tried to share what little he had, and I said no. Why is that?

I wonder if we distance ourselves from the needy, the immigrant, the refugee because they provide an uncomfortable reminder of how fragile life can be. All it takes is one hit-and-run moment and we’re just like James, scrambling to somehow make it through. We’re one tumor away from lying in a nursing home bed next to him, waiting for someone to come and help us get to the bathroom.

Yes, James had his painkillers – legal and illegal – but don’t we all? Our painkiller of choice might be drugs or booze. Or superficial relationships. Or money. Or praise. Or self-righteousness. Or clinging to the illusion of self-reliance. Or judging those who are going through something we can’t even imagine. We each have our addictions.

Many compassionate people see those like James and try to make their lives a bit better. They share what they have – food, drink, shelter, a visit to someone who is confined in a jail cell or a nursing home bed. And it feels good and divine to do all of that good stuff.

But as James taught me, there’s one more unnerving step to be taken. We have to become vulnerable enough to receive what the other person wants to give to us, too. We have to spend time with them and listen to them and get to know them.

And recognize the immense value of who they are and what they offer us. A gospel story tells of a poor widow who gave more than anyone else because her two coins were all that she had. Sometimes the least gesture represents the greatest generosity.

Like a candy cane.

I understand now that it’s arrogant to think someone who is struggling has nothing important to offer me. The problem isn’t with them, but with me. If I can’t accept their generosity, then maybe I’m the one who is truly needy.

To borrow from Francis, it’s in giving that we receive, that’s true. But it’s also true that in receiving, we give as well. And in that divine intersection between giving and receiving, we all get what we need most in life.

Love. We need generous love.

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Three visits with T

Hospital

I’d just cracked open the crusty top of the pot pie with my spoon when the hospice volunteer coordinator slid a piece of paper across the restaurant table toward me. She did it almost apologetically.

“I know you’re pretty full up with the people you’re visiting,” she said, “but when I saw this one, I thought of you.”

Many of you know I’m a hospice volunteer. I visit several patients each week, just sit down and chat about stuff. I do it primarily for me – it’s who I am, how I’m wired, and I suspect that I get a hell of a lot more out of it than the people whom I visit. They share some of the most poignant and difficult and joyful moments with me. And their final days.

How lucky am I? Very.

But as with all things, there’s a limit. Only so many people that you can see in your spare time. The coordinator knows this. But there was something about this one …

I picked up the medical info form and read it. T (I can’t use his full name because of privacy laws) is in his 80s. He’s a chaplain and did a lot of volunteer work in his retirement. He and his wife had things they wanted to do together, family to visit, places to explore. Nothing was holding them back. He was still in great shape – still lifted weights regularly.

That was the first thing I noticed when, two days later, I went inside his nursing home room and looked down at him asleep in bed. He’s in much better shape than me. Except for that tumor in his brain. T started having headaches last December. He went for a scan. The tumor showed up. They operated. It cost him much of his vision. The tumor spread.

Now, two months later, he was dying. And instead of planning for their fun years together, his wife was planning his funeral.

Holy crap.

I visited T and his wife three times before he died last week. Each time, his wife asked me if I’d say a prayer. I’m never quite sure of what to say at such times – who is, right? So I held her hand as she put her other hand on T’s shaved head, and we just said thank you to the Giver of Life for giving us this time with T.

And then I’d head out the door, look up and say a different prayer: “Really? What the hell kind of railroad are you running here?”

In those times, I try to step back and see the big picture and get reassurance. But part of me still wants to throw up my hands and ask: What’s this all about? It gets you to wondering about life, God, what comes next. And the answers seem as clear as the mud-soaked water flowing down the Ohio River right now.

There are times when I go to bed and all of the things I’ve conveniently used to distract myself – social media, socializing, reading, jogging – are out of the way. The troubling questions start to speak up. It’s tough to fall asleep, or to get back to sleep when you wake up at 3 a.m. to pee. I remind myself that I just have to trust, but on those nights trust and faith seem to go only so far.

And then comes morning.

There’s a gorgeous sunrise. The sky goes from infinite black to soothing blue. A half-dozen cardinals perch on the bird feeder in my backyard. The couple across the street plays with their granddaughter in the front yard, laughing the whole time. And I’m reminded of how enormous and amazing all of this us – you, me, life, creation, love, joy, birth, even death – and I sense a divine presence in all of it. And even in my screwy, uncertain life, too.

As Louis Armstrong put it: Bright blessed days, dark sacred nights.

And today, I wish for a do-over. That prayer for T? I might make it something more like:

Thank you, Giver of Life, for all this life. For all of it: The confusion, the disappointment, the joy, the gut-wrenching surprise on a brain scan, the love that gets us through what comes next. Thank you so much! Help us to take it all in as best we can and feel gratitude for this holy day, the most precious thing that any of us ever receives.

Thank you for T and the blessing he was in all of our lives, even those of us who only met him three times as he slept. Even now, he continues to bless us.

And help us to help each other get through this. Remind us that you’re right here with us in each sacred moment. We’re never alone, not any of us. And please give us the faith and the courage to live each day boldly and kindly and fully, right up to the day when we trade our heartbeat for a deeper place in your heart which is love.

 

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Campaigning like Jesus

Flags

I can’t watch the political debates for long without feeling sick. So much animosity and ego and bullying and attacking and negativity; so little thoughtful discussion and kindness. The toxic words seep inside my skin and into my emotions. I have to get away from it.

What really annoys me is when they start using their “religion” as a justification for all of the ugliness being spewed. When they start trying to one-up the other and convince voters that they, themselves, are true believers who rank right up there on Jesus’ most-favored list so we should vote for them.

Reality check: If Jesus had a most-favored list, the ones who put themselves at the top would actually be at the bottom. The whole last-are-first, first-are-last thing.

All of this got me to thinking about how our political process – the way we elect our leaders – is so opposed to the values we claim to cherish. What would the various political campaigns look like if they actually conformed to Jesus’ values? If the candidates and the commentators treated everyone the way Jesus treated people?

If that were the case, all of the negativity and nastiness and ego-run-amok would be replaced by:

Kindness. How much kindness do we hear during the debates? Or on those political attack ads that overrun television and radio? How often do we hear kind, tender words coming from politicians? Jesus said the litmus test for knowing who is actually following his way of living comes down to love. People will know that someone is his follower by their love. And Paul connects the dots a bit for those who don’t get it when he writes about what love is, and mentions way up high – second on the list, actually – that love is kind. Always kind. In every circumstance.

Respect. Love means respecting differences of opinion. Treating each other with the dignity they deserve as an equally beloved child of God. Honoring our diversity and recognizing that just because someone sees something a different way, it doesn’t make them evil or bad, just different. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other leaders of the civil rights movement recognized this in everything they did. They refused to respond to violence – physical or verbal – with more violence because they respected others as their brother and sister. They didn’t want to hurt them; they wanted to challenge their thinking. And they did it with love.

Evolving ideas. We’d take the next step and not only be open to different ideas, but encourage them. That’s how you learn and grow as individuals and as societies. When we really listen to someone else’s point of view – put ourselves in their place, see it from the prism of their experiences – that’s when we begin to grow and change. Remember, Jesus had to grow in wisdom and age and grace. He went around having thoughtful and respectful and kind conversations with anyone who was interested. So must we.

Humility. Nobody has a corner on the truth, so we should stop acting like it. Put the bombast away. Get the egos in check. Halt the shrill words. Recognize that our world and our problems are complicated, and nobody has all the answers. And what might be a good answer today could be lacking tomorrow because of how the world changes. We need to be open to acknowledging the times when something that we championed hasn’t worked out as expected. We need to be able to say that we were wrong about this, so let’s try to find the best path forward and adapt as we go.

Focus on the needy. Jesus talked about having compassion for the needy more than anything. He called it the hallmark of God’s kingdom. Let’s talk about the needy, too. What can we do to help? What policies work better? What can we do as individuals to help others? Let’s have that conversation. Let’s judge our personal well-being and our society’s health on how much of ourselves we invest in getting food and drink and shelter to whoever needs it, healing those who are hurting, and making sure that everyone is treated as an equally beloved child of God.

More doing than debating. Instead of candidates merely claiming they’re Christian, they would start acting like it on the campaign trail. Scrap some of the endless debates and rallies. Follow Pope Francis’ example and go out and meet the needy at every campaign stop. Don’t just rub shoulders with the rich – share everything that you are with the poor. Work at a soup kitchen. Tutor an underprivileged child for an hour. Visit someone in jail. Take a homeless person to lunch and listen to their life story, then try to connect them with housing and a job. Actually live those words about loving one another.

I’m sure you can add your own examples of how our political campaigning would be far different if it actually followed Jesus’ values and example.

So, what do we do about it? Honestly, there’s probably not much we can do to change the candidates or the advisers who are telling them that being nasty will get them elected.

But we can change us.

It starts with refusing to get caught up in all the ugliness. Making sure that we are committed to those values when we delve into political discussions on social media, in our families, at our work places, at our churches and synagogues and temples and mosques. Remembering to be kind and respectful and open-minded and loving, even when others are not.

In that way, it changes us. And that’s how bigger change begins, too.

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