The life within these walls

Snow globe house

The furniture was arranged in place. Boxes were stacked in each room, ready for unpacking. I plopped onto the couch to rest a few minutes before plunging into the next phase of moving in.

I looked around at the bare, unfamiliar walls and wondered: What’s happened within these walls? How have many people have experienced life within this space?

Moving is so stressful and unsettling. You trade a familiar place for a different one that doesn’t yet feel like home. It looks different, smells different, sounds different, feels different.

And you wonder: What has happened within this space? What stories could it tell?

In my case, moving in had already made me a little familiar with the new place. As I walked up the stairs to the bedrooms for the first time, I noticed that a couple of the steps creak.

I wondered: How many times had some parent walked up these stairs holding a finally-asleep child, only to have that creaky stair awaken them? How many times had children tried to sneak down these stairs on Christmas morning, and they still remember the creak that awakened their parents?

How many lives were conceived within these walls? Had someone died here? How many times had someone laid in bed awake with worry, staring at this bedroom ceiling?

How many birthday candles were blown out during parties in the hardwood-floored dining room? How many special holiday meals were prepared in this kitchen, spreading a wonderful aroma through the entire house?

Sacred spaces where life unfolds

We tend to think of spaces as belonging to us, but they never really do. We share them with all those who came before us, those who live with us now, and those who will move in when we’re gone.

I think of them as sacred places, spaces where life unfolds in all its glory and challenges. These spaces remind us how our lives intersect, overlap and intertwine.

We occupy the same spaces as many others. They remind us of our commonality and our web of mutuality. Our lives are always interconnected on the deepest levels.

I think about it especially when I enter an old church and wonder what people have experienced here – baptisms, weddings, funerals. People congregated within these walls for some of the most profound moments of their lives.

Older houses make me feel that way, too.

I moved into my current house – built in the 1930s – a little more than two years ago. I rent from a couple who moved to this country 17 years ago and raised their daughter within its walls.

Before I spent my first night – an unsettling night in an unfamiliar space with its own creaks _ I did something to make it my own. I got my bottle of water from the lake where I swam as a child – my “holy” water — and sprinkled a few drops in each room.

Those drops baptized me into this space. I was now part of the lives of all who came before me and lived within these walls.

Interconnected on a deep level

A few months ago, the home owners visited to have me sign a lease extension. They brought their daughter, who is in junior high and was eager to revisit the place where she was raised.

She had a huge smile as she scurried to the basement and showed me the room that was her private play area as a young girl. Her parents took me to one of the bedrooms and pointed to the corner where they kept their daughter’s crib.

We stood there silently and smiled.

As they were ready to leave, their daughter walked past the refrigerator and noticed that I’d kept a “Hello Kitty” sticker she’d purposely left behind when they moved out. She told me how she acquired the sticker and why it was meaningful to her.

I told her she could take it home. She said no – she wanted Kitty to stay in this house.

I totally understood.

Every time I walk past the refrigerator, Kitty reminds me that I’m a temporary inhabitant of a sacred space, as are we all. Even when we leave, we always leave part of ourselves behind.

And there’s something very cool and connecting about all of it.

A ride home on Christmas eve

pierogi ornament 2

I was 6 years old. It was Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home so we could eat.

The waiting part was no surprise.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought home some demons.

The demons emerged during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with his co-workers. They would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We always got new ones for Christmas, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited some more. It was getting late. My mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

 

Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, and we could tell it wasn’t my dad’s car. We could see two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad, no doubt. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad to the front door. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home? A black man.

Understand this: We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people in my neighborhood. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was a lot of racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This black man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it was the only time in his life that he had pierogies and mushroom soup.

He saw he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

The man could have found any number of legitimate reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe kill someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

One act changes everything

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

I never saw that man again. I think about him every Christmas, though. I’m thankful for what he did.

Every Christmas eve, I pray for the man who had the kindness to drive my dad home and change my life and my family in unknowable ways. And I pray for the courage to be a little more like him every day.

Maybe you could, too.

The light in our longest night

sunrise-over-horizon3
The longest night of the year is upon us in the northern hemisphere, and I can’t wait. Not because I like darkness; rather, I’m encouraged by the turning point. We’ll start getting a little more light each day. Imperceptibly and inevitably, we’re headed in a brighter direction.

 

It’s a good reminder in this season. One of the most beautiful passages from Jewish and Christian scriptures reminds us that people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

And the light is never extinguished. It lives on through us, with us and in us.

It doesn’t feel that way in times like today. We feel a deep darkness in our world and in our society right now that we can almost taste, touch and smell. This darkness invades our souls like a damp, long, December night, bringing a chill all the way inside.

But it’s not forever. There always comes a turning point. It’s been that way throughout human history. Dark ages are followed by times of illumination and growth, both in our personal and our collective lives.

Always a turning point

I’ve experienced this darkness-to-light cycle many times. I grew up in the 1960s, a dark time when our society was divided over war, civil rights, women’s rights, religious posturing.

We had prophets, assassinations and convulsions. We wondered if everything was being reduced to rubble. Eventually, we emerged from the darkness and we grew, led by people who lighted the way. The moral arc of the universe bent a little more toward love and justice.

Now we’re back in a dark time. Massacres stain our streets, our schools, our malls, our parks, our nightclubs. Neo-Nazis and white supremacists march arm-in-arm with supporters who call them very fine people. Religious leaders urge congregants to remove their values and get in bed with politicians who do evil things to children and women.

The powerful and wealthy have descended like a plague of locusts, gorging themselves on everything. They leave little behind when they move off to some other area of our society, displaying no sense of responsibility or remorse for what they’ve done.

We feel the chill in our souls. We taste the darkness all around us.

It’s important to remember: It’s only temporary. The light is still there – dimmed but never extinguished, ready to warm and lead us all over again, if we let it.

Christians are preparing to celebrate a life that was a light in the great darkness. His compassion and healing warmed damp souls and helped people recognize how much they were embraced by a love that can change their lives and their world as well.

His message: Take this light and make it your own. You are the light of the world. You’re the candle, you’re the wick. Go and be the light. Don’t hide under a container, keeping the light to yourself.

Light the way through your daily kindness and love.

Be the light

Unlike our seasons, which are naturally regulated, our human cycles of light-and-darkness last as long as we allow. We decide whether to bring a little more light into each day by how we live, love and heal.

People of the light are those who bridge divisions, diffuse conflicts, shine a bright hope into the darkness that is never completely dispelled but can be overcome. They persist in pushing back against the forces of darkness.

In our own ways, each of us can be the bright star in the dark sky that provides others a way to navigate. We can be the rising sun that disperses the darkness for another day. We can be the fireplace that brightens the room and warms the souls of all who gather with us.

In this time of great darkness, we need to be the greater light.

Hearing God in a female voice

Female voice

Many courageous women are challenging powerful men who abused them. Those female voices have started a national conversation and brought about significant changes already.

It’s fitting that we’re focused on those voices as Advent begins. It’s a season for all of us to honor, encourage and hear the many female voices that challenge us, teach us, love us, and bring us into a deeper experience of God, if we let them.

Throughout history, female voices have been ignored, marginalized, and muted by those who think that only males should be heard. By contrast, the Jesus story places women front-and-center, right from the start.

 

All by herself

In Luke’s telling of the tale, a woman decides all by herself – a subversive thing, then or now – whether the Jesus story will even happen. Mary’s let-it-be gets everything started.
 
A courageous, hesitant, female voice brings God more fully into the world.
 
Mary’s role is shocking in a time and a place when only men made important decisions and women were treated more like property than persons. That’s only the beginning of this theologically radical and socially subversive story.
 
Luke’s version has Mary visiting her relative Elizabeth — two strong women — and talking about God’s passion for justice in ways that her son would later repeat, which is no surprise. After all, who teaches Jesus and molds him? His mom.
Jesus first learns about God through a female voice.
 
Perhaps that’s why Jesus is so persistent about ignoring and violating the rules in his society and his religion that try to limit the role of women. He constantly interacts with women in ways the religious and social leaders find scandalous.
 
There’s the famous story of Jesus visiting two sisters and one of them chooses to sit with him and discuss religion – a man’s realm – instead of joining her sister Martha in preparing the meal, as a woman was required. Jesus encourages Mary to do what she values.

Men will learn from the women

The story culminates in a crucifixion, and it’s the women who show courage and love while the men run and hide. Peter denies knowing Jesus to save his hide. The women? They risk their lives to be with Jesus up to his last breath.
 
And as the story goes, it’s the women who have the courage to go to the tomb. While the men are still hiding in fear, the women experience the still-alive Jesus. He tells them to tell the men about what they’ve experienced — the men will learn from the women.
 
Predictably, the men don’t believe the women and dismiss their accounts. They run to the tomb to see for themselves.
 
The same thing happens in every generation. Men choose to ignore the voices of women who have experienced things they know nothing about.
 
Today, many faith communities bar women from going to the pulpit and telling about their experiences. Women’s voices are marginalized and ignored, just like 2,000 years ago.
 

#MeToo

Our society considers a female voice less believable and less important than a male voice. When it comes to sexual abuse, for instance, a man’s shifting denial is believed over the word of so many courageous and prophetic women saying #MeToo.
 
It’s long past a time for change.
 
Let’s use this Advent – the season that starts with one woman’s courageous voice – to pay closer attention to all the female voices in our world. Let’s honor them and hear God still speaking to all of us through them.
 
May we let those voices teach us their truths, especially the truths that we’re reluctant to hear. May we allow their courageous and persistent “let it be” change each of us and our world all over again.

A mom’s reminder: You’re never lost

Outstretched arms

One of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories involves getting separated from my mom in a department store. She was looking at items, and I got bored and wandered down to a display at the end of the aisle that caught my attention.

After a little while, I looked back and didn’t recognize my mom in the crowd of people. I thought she’d left without me.

I got frantic. I remember suddenly feeling so alone and frightened in this big place with all these strangers. What will I do?

I started to cry.

In a flash, my mom heard me and came toward me with arms outstretched. Don’t be afraid, she said, wrapping me in a hug. I’m right here. Everything’s OK.

There have been many throughout my life that I’ve had that same feeling of being alone or lost in a big, scary world. It’s like being in the department store all over again.

At this time of year, many religious faiths reassure us that we’re never alone. They remind us to listen for that voice saying: I’m right here. Always.

It’s all OK

For example, Advent is a time of remembering that God is with us. Our attention is focused on incarnation – God living through us, with us and in us at this very moment to bring love, justice and healing to each other and our world.

God is right here. Everything is going to be OK.

For me, that’s perhaps the most challenging part of faith, trusting that our Parent is with us and caring for us in every moment.

It’s easy to feel that presence at some times: when you feel loved deeply by someone; when things in your life seem to be turning around; when you’re standing on a beach or looking up at the moon and stars and you feel so wonderfully small and yet so deeply grateful to be part of something so amazing.

Those transcendent moments remind us we’re not alone.

It’s the many difficult moments that distract us and sidetrack us. Life is full of challenging and often painful transitions. We lose a loved one. A job or a relationship ends. We wake up with a lump somewhere in our body. Someone whom we love deeply is struggling with some great challenge.

How often does it feel like you’ve been plunged into a whole new universe and you don’t know what to do? Nothing has prepared you for this. Everything has been turned upside-down and inside-out.

Those worrisome moments can swallow us up. Advent – the time of Emanuel, which means God with us – reminds us that we have loving company, outstretched arms that will get us through everything.

Never loses sight of us

We’re never lost or alone, even when we’re struggling to make sense of the latest unexpected twist in our lives. As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: “We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.”

The Creator of love and life is present in every tear of joy, and in every tear of pain. In every breath of relief, and in every breath of fear. In every moment of clarity, and in every moment of confusion.

We’ve been done a great disservice by those who portray God as an aloof and distant being who will seek us out only if we accept some somebody’s theological terms-and-conditions, including all the fine print regulating what you can and can’t do.

That’s definitely not the message.

The message is that we have a parent who reminds us we’re never really lost, but always found. A parent who wants nothing more than to wrap us in a divine hug and throw a wild party in celebration, no matter how prodigal or self-righteous we get.

Whenever we wander down the aisle and get frightened, God opens those divine arms and says: Don’t be afraid. I’m right here with you. Always.

Even when you lose sight of me, I never lose sight of you.

Skipping the “thank you” part

No thanks

I stopped in a grocery store on the day after Halloween and noticed the scene above: pumpkins getting replaced by Christmas decorations. Inside the store, the ghosts and goblins were migrating to clearance tables, replaced by all things green and red.

Yep. We’d done it again. We’d skipped right over the thank-you part.

Our consumer-driven society is so caught up in buying stuff and padding profits that we no longer see the need to observe even one day of thankfulness. That goes for our consumer-driven, Americanized form of religion, too.

We’ve reduced Thanksgiving to another shopping opportunity. We’ve turned Christmas into a buying spree that begins with those July sales and reappears a few months later.

The message: Forget peace on earth, just go and buy. A Jewish child was born 2,000 years go to increase current-day profit margins. And the only thing objectionable is when the store clerk fails to wish you “Merry Christmas” as they hand you the receipt — now, that’s something you need to protest!

No wonder we have lost our sense of thankfulness.

We’re divine charity cases

When everything becomes a transaction, there’s no need for thanksgiving. Our American mindset replaces prophets with profits and makes gratitude obsolete.

We tell ourselves that we deserve everything we have, and we need to go get more. We prefer self-reliance over unmerited grace. We think that we earn divine favor by believing certain things and doing things the “right” way.

It’s all a transaction – I do this, I get that – which means there’s no reason to say thank you. After all, I’m merely getting what’s coming to me, what I’ve earned through my own effort.

We avoid the truth that each of us is a divine charity case. All that we have, all that we are, was freely given to us – we didn’t earn any of it. And that bothers us.

It bothers me. I’d much rather be the one giving than the one receiving. I feel good when I help someone. When someone helps me, I’m tempted to feel somehow diminished, as though I couldn’t do it by myself.

That’s our Americanized values system talking. Go pull yourself up. If you need help in any way, you’re a failure.

Even our religion and our prayers have been Americanized and corrupted. We pray a thank-you that we have a roof over our heads and a good meal on our table, unlike the many others who do not. Thank you that I am not one of those people living on the margins of society – how horrible that must be! Thank you that I am not like them.

Ugh!

Challenges our Americanized values

We need the gratitude that brings us humility and reconnects us with each other and with the One who made all of us. Gratitude erases our illusions about winners and losers. It directly challenges our judgments about who is deserving and who is undeserving. It reminds us of our total dependence on our Creator for everything.

It opens our hearts and our hands.

Gratitude brings us back to the central truth that every breath and every heartbeat — all that we are – is freely given with no merit involved whatsoever. And everything is given to us so that we can share in the same spirit of gratitude and love.

Thankfulness reduces our reward-and-punishment notions to noise and nonsense. It opens our clasped hands to receive and to give more freely. It leads us to be more like the person begging on the street corner than the one eating the lavish meal in the fine house.

Thankfulness directly challenges our Americanized values.

If we were more grateful, we wouldn’t be so divided. Our squabbling would yield to a shared appreciation. Judgment would give way to embrace. Fear and anger would be replaced by love and joy.

Let’s reclaim thankfulness amid the bombardment of holiday sales and commercials. May gratitude soften our hearts and open our hands. May we live in a thankful spirit that brings life, love, healing and hope into the world.

May we say thanks by giving in overly generous and totally scandalous ways — the same way our Creator gives to each of us each day. And may we allow ourselves to receive from others the same way.

Time to say: Enough!

Enough2

Last Saturday, I stopped in traffic behind a car that displayed gun decals and a bumper sticker that depicted the “Hello Kitty” character with a bullet hole. The bumper sticker said: “Goodbye Kitty!”

I was appalled! How many children in other cars would see the sick caricature? How twisted is our society when people consider that funny?

The next day, a man with a gun and a grudge walked into a church in Texas and committed our latest massacre. The sickness in our society confronts us again, mere weeks after the massacre in Las Vegas.

Another day of darkness.

Honestly, I’d rather write about anything except another shooting, but we can’t ignore it. The massacres will keep multiplying and the body counts will continue rising until we do something to change it.

It’s time for each of us to say: Enough!

Things that matter

Say it firmly, prophetically and persistently. No more of the #prayers cop-out. Our silence, our fear and our indifference have helped create a culture in which there’s another worst-such-shooting every few weeks.

Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us that our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Individually and collectively, we must say: Enough!

We need to be a light in the great darkness that has overtaken our land. We must challenge our culture’s worship of weapons, violence and war.

How do we do it? Here are a few suggestions.

— We resolve that we will never again be silent. Silence enables the sickness to grow and makes us complicit in the evil.

— We reject the notion that nothing can be done. The onslaught of guns, bullets and murders isn’t inevitable. Our society is the only one where these things happen on such a scale.

Instruments of peace

— We remind ourselves what courage can accomplish. In the last few weeks alone, many brave women have pushed back against the notion that sexual abuse is ingrained in our culture, so they might as well stay silent and accept it. Their courageous words have already started making a difference.

— We push back against those who say the bloodshed has nothing to do with the guns. They blame “evil” or “human nature” or “mental illness” to distract us. Such dishonesty must never go unchallenged.

— We educate ourselves about the many aspects of the problem and the possible responses. We can’t have a productive conversation about solutions if we’re not knowledgeable.

— We talk to those who disagree with us, bringing an open mind and a respectful heart to those discussions. That’s how we forge common ground and make progress.

— We respectfully but firmly challenge those who insist the only appropriate response is more weapons and more violence. No, we don’t need more “good” people buying more guns and shooting more “bad” people. Enough!

Let’s not forget that it goes beyond guns. It includes challenging violence in all forms – bullying, shaming, verbal attacks, abuse of any sort. None of it should be considered acceptable, under any circumstance.

Enough!

There’s one more thing we must do. We must resolve that we will not support any person or any organization that considers these massacres acceptable. Our endorsements and our votes must reflect our determination to stop the carnage.

The world needs prophets, Jesus says, while in the next breath reminding us that they’re never popular. They do get results, however. They stir things up. They get a backlash from those who benefit from the status quo and want to preserve it.

Peacemakers and prophets have the courage to stand up and advocate for a different way. They change the world. It’s on you and me to do it, prophetically and persistently. It’s time to become instruments of God’s peace and heal our sick society.

Enough!