More courageous than war

Lottery

During the early ‘70s, there was a must-see show for anyone with a son of legal age. The Vietnam war draft lottery was conducted on television, providing surreal moments.

By the time I approached draft age, the war had reached its tipping point but more soldiers were still needed. So men in suits would load capsules containing the days of the year into a large, clear drum. They’d spin it and pull out a date. If your birthday was the next one chosen, you were next in line to be inducted.

That’s how the draft order was determined. A bingo version of Russian roulette. And the privileged were given opt-out provisions, including college deferments and assignments to branches of the military away from combat.

My dad was a wounded Korean war veteran and would watch the draft show with me. He stunned me one time by saying, totally out of the blue, that he’d support me if I chose to protest the war. He had no stomach for what the politicians were doing with the war, how many lives were being wasted.

Also, he didn’t want his son to experience the horrors that he’d experienced, the ones that left him fighting his own demons for the rest of his life.

We forget about that part – the unthinkable, unspeakable things that happen during war and leave everyone associated with it wounded in some ways. Things so awful that those who survive them never speak of them.

We honor the victims of our many wars, but we should never honor war itself. Courageous and heroic things happen during war, but war itself is never courageous or heroic. And that’s an important distinction.

War is always the ultimate human failure — politically, religiously, morally, culturally, collectively, individually. It’s the final step in a long sequence of fearful attitudes, ugly words and selfish choices.

We head off to war when we think that anyone who is different from us must be dangerous to us. When we talk about building bigger walls and more bombs because those people can’t be trusted.

Ultimately, war is a repudiation of our shared humanity, a rejection of our greatest gift. The creator gives us life and the responsibility to nurture it – all of life, all of the time. War is our way of telling the creator: We refuse.

War is always a choice, never an inevitability.

So is peace. It’s always an option, but it never just happens. We have to co-create it.

It starts with actually listening to those whom we consider an enemy. Getting to know them. Giving them the same respect and value that we give ourselves.

Waging peace means finding creative ways to bridge our differences. It involves paying attention to how our attitudes and our words and our choices affect others – other people, other cultures, other nations.

Waging peace means saying emphatically and repeatedly: We can do better than this. We must do better. The horror of war must never be considered an inevitable outcome.

Waging peace takes a lot of courage and a lot of sacrifice. It’s the most noble and heroic thing that we can do.

Far more heroic than war.

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Nothing but crackers and ketchup

Meatloaf

You know those days when you’re feeling on top of things? You’ve finally gotten a good night’s sleep. The sun is out. You have lots of energy. The inspiration flows. Life just feels so good.

Yeah, those days are pretty cool. And then there are those many other days, like the one I had last Sunday.

I was leading the discussion at our youth group. I decided to talk about discrimination. I brought a photo of women in babushkas so I could tell how I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood where people were very much alike – dressed alike, ate alike, worshiped alike, danced alike – but were fixated on their differences and pushed each other away in many subtle and overt ways.

I also had pictures of signs that were posted in public places throughout our country’s history. Signs saying that black people aren’t wanted here. Or Irish people. Or Catholics. Or women. Or Muslims. Or gays. Or Jews. Or Mexicans. Or refugees. Or … It’s pretty endless, actually. And eye-opening.

All was well with the lesson plan, until I woke up Sunday morning with horrible allergy symptoms. Headache. No voice. Distracted brain. Watery eyes. Misery in every cell of my body. I just wanted to go back to sleep. Let someone else take the kids.

A writer friend of mine has a way of describing those moments and those days. He says in his Boston accent, “I got nothin’ right now.”

Yep. Nothin’. I know that one. On most days, the needle on my inspiration gauge points decidedly more toward nothin’ than overflowing. And it’s easy to think that because I don’t feel on top of the world, I have nothing to give to the world. I just want to pull back the covers and sleep through it.

Can you relate?

Another friend and I were discussing this by email sometime back. She mentioned that we’re all “just bumbling along on our path, doing the best we can with what we have to work with.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I feel like I’m trying to make a meatloaf out of a few crumbled up crackers, water, and a splash of ketchup. And some days, I feel like I have fresh ground beef and onions and a good loaf pan and everything I need to make a pretty good one. And the trick, it seems, is to live in both times with as much self-acceptance and gratitude as I can and trust no matter what the outcome, it’s all good.”

All good. Even when we’ve got nothing but crackers.

Nadia Bolz-Weber describes how she organized a big event at her church and only 26 people showed up, the smallest crowd of the year. She felt like all of her hard work had amounting to nothin’. She was fuming and feeling sorry for herself. And in her self-absorption, she failed to recognize how many people were helped that day, though not in the ways she anticipated.

She had missed it. She forgot that God makes incredible things out of what we consider nothingness – a universe, a sky full of fireflies, you and me.

“I mean, let’s face it,” she writes, “’nothing’ is God’s favorite material to work with. Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as nothing, insignificant and worthless, and says, ‘Ha! Now that I can do something with.’”

Yep. We’ve all experienced how amazing things often come out of what we consider nothing and nowhere. The problem is that we get so full of ourselves that we miss it. For instance, I assume that because my head is on allergy overload that the kids’ program will be a disaster. Because, you see, it’s all about me.

(Since my voice was so scratchy on Sunday, I let them do most of the talking. And it was way better that way. The conversation started with: Why do you think people push others away? “Fear,” they suggested. Why are we afraid of them? “Because we don’t know them.” How do we stop being afraid? “By getting to know them.” Yes. That. And off they went.)

I forget that I’ve still got a lot to give. Even if it’s one kind word spoken between nasal-drip sniffles. Or a half-formed idea from a foggy mind. Or an imperfect gesture from a good heart.

I slip into the arrogance of assuming that I’m the only one involved in this process. There are always many others who have a hand in the recipe. I get caught up in thinking that I need to do it all, and do it all perfectly, or it won’t amount to anything. I don’t leave room for others to add their unique ingredients.

I make the mistake of thinking that because all I have to offer today is the crackers, it’s not enough. Sometimes crackers is enough. In fact, it might be the only thing missing.

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Who would Jesus pee with?

Urinals

When my kids were in high school, their girls’ volleyball team made it to the district finals of the state tournament. I went to watch the match and used the men’s restroom beforehand.

As I stood at the urinal, I noticed someone wearing a girl’s skirt move into the urinal next to mine. The school is co-ed. The skirt was worn by a young man on the football team. The conversation went like this:

Me: Hey, nice skirt.

Him: Thanks. The football team is wearing them to show support for the girls.

Me: Great idea. Very clever.

Him: Yeah, we liked it. Thanks.

I peed, he peed, and off we went. It was a funny moment. Of course, in North Carolina and some other places, it probably wouldn’t be funny at all. Who knows? There would likely be some big dust-up over a person in a skirt using a urinal.

And isn’t that so sad? And more than a little creepy? Why are so many politicians and religious leaders so obsessed with where people pee and what’s in their pants?

And since religion inevitably gets dragged into it, let’s ask a pertinent question: Who would Jesus pee with?

First things first. Why are folks so caught up in others’ sexuality?

Historians point out that religions and politicians have always spent a lot of time trying to legislate sexuality and push away the people that made them uncomfortable. I’ve seen that in my lifetime. Jim Crow laws were still in place when I was growing up. White people didn’t want black people peeing next to them. Or drinking from the same water fountain. Or eating at the same lunch counter. Or sleeping in the same hotel. Or marrying white people.

Black people made them uncomfortable, so they tried to legislate to keep them away.

And so it goes today. People who are uncomfortable with gay people or transgender people are trying to legislate to keep them away. And just like the defenders of Jim Crow, they’re using their “religious beliefs” to support their arguments.

So, let’s get to that bigger question: Who would Jesus pee with?

The gospels provide short, thumbnail descriptions of what Jesus is passionate about: Feeding the hungry, healing the broken, sheltering the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, sharing everything with those in need. Trying to love everyone unconditionally. Being compassionate and accepting. The gospels go on and on about this.

Peeing? Not a word. So he probably wasn’t much concerned about it. In fact, he chose to surround himself with friends who were the religious, cultural and sexual outcasts of his society — the ones that others wanted nothing to do with. He ate with them, laughed with them, lived with them. And, undoubtedly, he would have peed with them.

Why wouldn’t he?

And how different is all of that from how we’re acting? Instead of growing in wisdom and age and grace, we’re more like junior high kids caught up in hormonal drama. Instead of being concerned about what’s in people’s hearts and in their stomachs, we’re fixated on what’s in their pants.

Doesn’t it creep you out, this fixation with people’s private parts and private lives? How religious leaders have turned Doubting Thomas into Peeping Tom?

And nobody buys the rationale that it’s about protecting children. There are no issues of transgender people hurting children. However, there have been many cases of politicians and religious leaders doing horrific things to children. And what about the homeless children in our country and the refugee children worldwide who desperately need our help right now?

Instead, we’re fixating on who’s peeing where.

So, let’s ask the question again: Who would Jesus pee with?

Even though there’s no mention of how he peed in the gospels, there’s lots of stories about how he did other things. As the stories go, when a crowd gathered to spend time with him, he would make sure that everyone had some fishes and loaves to eat, regardless of their age or religion or sexuality or anything else. In fact, sharing the bread with everyone – especially the marginalized and the outcasts — became his signature act.

He healed anyone who asked for healing, loved anyone who needed his love, and invited everyone to do the same. In one story, he washes the feet of everyone – including those who are about to betray and deny him – and says they must go and do the same to everyone else.

Serve everybody. Unconditionally. No questions asked.

So I suppose Jesus would pee next to the young man wearing a skirt to support a volleyball team. And next to the transgender person. And next to the self-righteous religious person. And while doing so, he would maybe strike up a conversation and say some kind words to them, show them a little love.

Who would he pee with? You know the answer to that.

And then he would tell us to go and do the same.

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Stitches, hot chocolate, and lessons from a mom

hot-chocolate

Many churches use the same readings each Sunday as a sign of unity. The one chosen for Mother’s Day is unintentionally perfect. It’s from John, the part where Jesus is praying for his dear friends at the last supper.

What does he pray for them to be? Great preachers? Saintly saints? Perfect people? Nope. He prays that they will be one – one with each other, one with God.

Sounds like something my mother used to say, although she used different words for it.

Mom didn’t want anyone thinking of her as a saint, though that’s just a matter of definition. She did her best to love four kids and teach us lessons that would get us through life, which is pretty saintly in my book.

One lesson: Life is difficult at times, and you just have to get through it by leaning on Got and those who love you. That approach got her through a lot.

It got her through raising four kids and making another trip to the emergency room for stitches because one of us had done something stupid yet again. It got her through my dad’s drinking – thank God for AA. It got her through the multiple sclerosis that started crippling her legs in her 40s. It got her through her stroke at age 73 and her nine months in a nursing home before her death.

It got me through all of that and more.

Another lesson from mom is that we need to always be kind and looking for ways to give to others. She drove that lesson home during her nine months in the nursing home.

The stroke paralyzed her right side, yet she still found creative ways to give. She ordered a packet of hot chocolate with every meal even though she didn’t drink it – coffee was her thing. Instead, she gave the hot chocolate packets to my sister as a gift from grandma to her two young boys.

That’s really sweet, isn’t it? Also, very generous. Do the math. Three packets of hot chocolate a day, seven days a week, nine months in the nursing home – that’s a lot of hot chocolate. It quickly overran my sister’s food pantry. She farmed it out to the rest of us.

When my mom died, I gave the eulogy and told the pallbearers that if the casket felt a lot heavier on one side, it was because we gave some of the hot chocolate back. (Just kidding!)

The following December, a lady who cut my mom’s hair had two kids who were participating in an outdoor nativity scene at their school. It was cold and they asked for donations of hot chocolate. Perfect! Mom would approve.

There’s another lesson from mom that ties in with the assigned reading for Sunday. In the gospel passage, Jesus prays that his dear friends would live as one. Mom taught us the same thing, though she put it a different way. Her words were: Knock it off!

She said that a lot – more than she wanted. She’d say it when my brothers and I were poking each other in the back seat of the car. She’d say it when we’d pass the food around the table and one of us would fill our plate to overflowing before others got their portion. She’d say it when we acted like we mattered more than someone else. When we developed an attitude of privilege. When we refused to share.

Knock. It. Off. Act like you are part of this family!

Interestingly, we hear Jesus saying something like that, too. Remember the stories of when he’d come upon the disciples and they’d be arguing over who was the most important in God’s kingdom? And Jesus would say: That’s not how it works. There is no greater or least. Knock it off!

And where do you suppose he learned that from? From his mom, of course. Mary taught him about love and getting along and being family. It’s from her that he learned about our divine Mom.

A Mom who gives us grace and love so generously each day that it overflows our pantries and needs to be shared. A Mom who wants nothing more than to snatch us up in her arms, cuddle us, giggle with us, run her fingers through our hair, hum us a song, and reassure us that everything is going to be OK because she is with us.

A Mom who says that if you know just one thing about me, know this: I love you, just as you are. Always have, always will. And I’m always here for you. Trust me on that.

And now, go play with your brothers and sisters. All of them. Make sure everyone is treated as an equal. Have fun. And take care of each other.

Be as one. Because that’s what we are.

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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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