No going back

moving-forward

With all that’s happened in 2016 – especially during the last two months — a lot of people are ready to say good riddance and let’s move on to a new year. One that hopefully won’t be so sad and discouraging.

We’re ready for change.

Well, kind of. Well, not really.

Isn’t it interesting how we have this love-hate relationship with change? We crave change in some aspects of our lives, and we do everything we can to block it in other areas.

None of us is totally comfortable with change, which is kind of surprising in a way, seeing as how it’s one of defining human and divine qualities. Change is deeply within us and all around us, who we are and what we’re about.

Our lives begin when two cells meet, create something new and spark a lifelong process of change. Even now, countless cells in our bodies are dying and being replaced by new ones. At our deepest level, we are constantly changing.

All around us and within us

We grow and develop mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And our lives play out in a world that’s also immersed in nonstop change. Life is born and dies and is born again, seasons come and go, our planet zooms through space without pausing for an instant.

Nothing stands still. Ever.

Each of us is a little vessel of change.

Given how change is woven into our very fiber, you might think that we would be a little bit better at accepting and handling it. We all know people who hate change of any sort, and others who crave change and get quickly bored with repetition. I’m guessing that most of us are somewhere closer to the middle of the continuum.

We like new gadgets and changes that make parts of our lives easier. We also have routines that are designed to create a comfort zone and limit change.

Many people resist change when it comes to how they act and think. That’s a tough one for all of us. Change always starts with open-minded questions: Why am I doing this? Can I do it differently and better? What am I missing? How are others doing it? What can I learn from all of this?

Such questions make us uncomfortable. We’re tempted to keep doing things the same way – our way – and pretend there’s no other way. Our minds become closed doors that keep everything in place and rule out any growth.

No going back

We might even fantasize about going back to sometime in the past – the “good old days” – when people who thought like me enjoyed more prominence and never had their ideas questioned. A time when we weren’t challenged to adapt to all the change that is the nature of life.

Of course, those olden times didn’t really exist the way we imagine them. Change has always been a constant. We really can’t freeze ourselves in time.

And the really sad part is that when we try to stay stuck in the past, we become an acorn that’s never planted. Our hard, impenetrable shell prevents us from becoming what we’re meant to evolve into.

We never grow.

Sadly, much of what passes for religion has become this way – heads in the past, resistant to change, devoid of the growth that is the signature of Life. So many “religious” people have abandoned a core trait of spirituality: Openness to a Creator who makes all things new every day and wants to transform each of us a little bit more each day.

Too bad. They’re missing out on what life and love are all about. But they always have the chance to change, if they wish. That’s the great part of change – it’s always there to be celebrated and lived, even if we’ve wasted a lot of time trying to resist its all-inclusive embrace.

A New Year’s wish

So, in the coming year, may you experience many amazing changes.

May you have some new insights each day. May you grow into someone even more beautiful than you already are. Maybe your thoughts and your attitudes and your spirit be touched and transformed by Love.

May you be planted anew in some ways and sprout from the warm ground and reach up to the beautiful sky. May you be watered by all the change around you. May you bloom for all to see.

May you become wiser, more loving, more at peace.

May you change the world for the better.

A ride home on Christmas eve

Pierogi

I was 6 years old. It was Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was ready on the stove — 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. Dad was late again.

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

Those demons seemed to emerge during the holidays. My dad would get off work from the butcher shop and head across the street to a bar. His co-workers would have a holiday drink and go home. My dad would stay and drink, trying to drown those demons.

On this Christmas eve, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

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

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

A surprise visitor

Finally, headlights lit up the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but 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. Someone had given him a ride home from the bar. Not the first time.

The driver got out, went around the car and helped my dad get to the front door. My mom opened the door. We 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. I’d never seen a black person 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.

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

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to have something to eat. He graciously accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him and my mom and my brother. I’m guessing it was the first and only time he had pierogies and mushroom soup.

He saw he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom what had happened that night. The black man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized that he was in no condition to drive, and decided to give him a ride home.

He could have found any number of reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car — always a risk of 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.

Why bother with him?

There are so many ways he could have justified keeping a distance. But he didn’t. Instead, he thought about how my dad could end up killing himself after getting behind the wheel, and maybe killing someone else, too.

He could do something about it, so he did.

And he changed everything about my life – more than any of us will ever know.

A year later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. My family had many good times with him over the years, times we might not have gotten if not for that courageous black man.

One act changes everything

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? There were a lot of people on the road. How many other lives did the man save with his brave decision to give my dad a ride?

I never saw that man again. I think about him every Christmas eve, though. He could still be alive. I’m thankful for what he did for me and for many others that night with his compassionate act. It changed so much – more than any of us can know.

I’m also reminded that each of us changes so much with each act of kindness, more than any of us will ever know.

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

Maybe you could, too.

The subversive manger scene

manger-scene

Growing up Catholic, I was fond of seeing the manger scenes that populated my home, my church, and my neighborhood each December. I loved the serene figures and the cuddly animals and the strange visitors.

Still do.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become better at noticing not only the feel-good side of the manger, but the radical side, too. And that part gives me pause. We all have a long way to grow into making the Christmas story our own.

The manger is not only a reminder that God is with us, but a challenge to live in a way that brings God more fully and radically into our world.

The Christmas story is a subversive story. It erases those lines we draw between ourselves and others, and it turns our values and our ways of thinking upside-down.

A subversive story

For starters, the story begins with an angel sent not to a man, but to a woman to get her approval to make the story happen. It’s Mary who gets to decide – all by herself – whether the Jesus story will unfold. Her “let it be” makes everything possible.

And women are in leading roles as the story goes forward, too, which is a stark contrast to much of the religion and tradition of that time –and our time, too. It’s Mary who nudges her son out of the nest at the wedding feast and gets his public ministry started.

And the story portrays Jesus repeatedly and unapologetically stepping over the gender lines that existed in his time and in ours, in his religion and in ours, too. The story of Martha and Mary – where a different Mary sits at his feet, a place reserved for men, and Jesus encourages it – erases the lines that we draw even today.

It’s just the start of the subversive message.

The Christmas story also warns us never to think that our theology or our religion or our country is the only one that matters. The magi show up – visitors from different lands, different cultures, different religions – and are welcomed and given an equal place in the subversive story.

Think your religion or your race or your nation is the only one that should be front-and-center? Think again.

Turns our values inside-out

Perhaps the most radical line that gets erased is the one between rich and poor, important and lowly. The manger reminds us of a baby born in the humblest setting to poor parents from a backwater community. He’s not born in a castle or surrounded by royalty and privilege. He’s important not because of what he has or where he lives, but because of how he brings love and healing and reconciliation into the world.

Same with us.

One of the most shocking moments in our political season came last May when the man who is now president-elect declared during a speech in Bismark that “you have to be wealthy in order to be great, I’m sorry to say it.” What was equally shocking was the lack of pushback by self-styled religious people.

Let’s face it: We worship the rich and powerful.

The manger says otherwise.

The Christmas story is a direct assault upon how we perceive importance. It challenges the notion – then and now – that the powerful and wealthy deserve their privilege, and we should all strive to be like them. And the poor and the homeless and the refugees don’t matter – they’re slackers anyway.

Maybe that’s why in the Christmas story, the actual king wants Jesus dead. This baby will spend his life challenging the king’s values system. Woe to the rich. Blessed are the poor. The first are last, and the last are first. The ones whom we consider the least are the greatest, and the ones who consider themselves great are actually the least-useful in bringing God’s unconditional love and compassion and healing into the world.

This Christmas story is meant to turn our world inside-out. And so are we.

Hear the angels’ unsettling song

So when we see the manger, does it jolt us a bit? It should. It’s meant to, this sight of poor refugee parents and a humbly-born baby surrounded by dirty shepherds and visitors from other religions and races and cultures.

The manger shows us a world far different than our own, one that we’re being summoned to help create with unconditional love and inclusion.

So, what about it? Do we hear the angels’ unsettling song? Do we accept their invitation to come to the manger and take our place in its revolutionary story?

Are we committed to erasing lines and spreading the message of peace on earth and goodwill to everyone equally?

Just letting it be …

let-it-be4

There’s an interesting back story to the song “Let It Be.” Paul McCartney wrote it while the Beatles were in the process of pulling apart – his “hour of darkness.” And his lyrics work on a couple of levels.

McCartney’s mother was named Mary and died when he was 14. She came to him in a dream during his difficult time, and that helped him get through it. The song is personal that way.

The lyrics also work on another level, borrowing from the story in Luke about the young woman named Mary who is visited by an angel. The story ends with her “Let it be,” the song’s title and chorus.

Wonderful words, great story. But to me, it’s Mary’s initial reaction in the story that sticks in my brain. When the angel greets her by saying that God thinks she’s just fabulous, Mary recoils. Her response is basically: “Wait, what? Favored? Fabulous? Me? No, no, no. You’ve got the wrong person. That’s not me!”

Can we all identify? She has heard voices her whole life – the ones that we also hear – telling her she’s certainly not favored and she definitely doesn’t measure up. You know those voices.

Wait, what? Favored? Me?

The ones that tell us we’re not smart enough, not pretty enough, not handsome enough, not educated enough, not thin enough, not accomplished enough, not social enough, not funny enough, not fill-in-the-blank enough. The voices that take up residence in our heads.

Mary hears the voices, too. She’s not yet married, which means she’s most likely still a teenager. She hears all the voices that the teenage years bring us — you know the ones. Enough said.

There’s more. She’s a Jew living in the Roman world, one that treats Jews as inferior and worthless. A woman, she’s treated more as property than as a person in her own culture and religion. Plus, she’s growing up in Nazareth, a backwater place looked down upon by pretty much everyone.

Yep, those voices.

So, of course she recoils when she hears that God thinks she’s really great. She has a “Mary moment,” a time when insecurities and fears get in the way of seeing ourselves as we really are. We all have them.

Our own Mary moments

And I submit that the great miracle in the story isn’t that a young Jewish woman becomes pregnant, but how God reaches through her insecurities and fears and shows her that she’s capable of great things, regardless of what anybody else thinks.

Her sense of herself is transformed, and she’s now able to say “let it be,” even though her knees are a bit shaky and her voice a little weak.

God works the same miracle on each of us, coming to us in moments big and small and reminding us of who we are and what we can do. Sometimes the message comes from a persistent voice that we hear inside; sometimes it comes through someone else’s words. Either way, we’re told:

“Hi! It’s Me! You need to hear something. You know those voices you hear every day, the ones that want to keep you small? Ignore them as best you can. Instead, try to pay attention to my voice, the one that wants to make you big. Those other voices don’t really know you, but I do. I made you. I recognize how amazing and lovable you are.

“And I have some excellent ideas for you, some things that only you can do to help others and make the world better. You get to decide, though – free will and all. You can say yes, or you can say no. However, I am going to be persistent about it – just a warning!

“I know you”

“Maybe you’re afraid at first and you need more time to think about it. That’s OK, I totally understand. Maybe you’ll turn me down at first and have a change of heart after a while. I’m cool with that, too.

“But know this: If you choose to say yes, incredible things are going to happen. You want a miracle? You’ll get one. Not only will you help others, but you’ll be transformed in many ways, too. You’ll end up growing and going in directions you never considered, doing things you thought were beyond your reach, finding yourself fulfilled in ways you never imagined.

“I know that all of this is unsettling. But remember that you’re never alone in any of this. I’m always right here with you. I’ve got your back. Always. And I’ve got your hand. Always.

“So what do you say? Should we ‘Let it be’ together? I promise it’s going to be amazing, just like you.”

Holding each other

ernest-asher

The last few weeks have worn me down a bit. You, too? So much is happening in our society right now. So many strong and conflicting opinions. So many harsh exchanges on social media each day.

So many words. So much division.

I’ve added my share of words to the discussion. After a while, those words, both written and read, start to feel inadequate somehow. It seems like they get lost in the torrent of words back-and-forth. They don’t seem to change anything or anyone.

I’ve grown weary of all the words.

So, what to do now?

A couple of Sundays ago, my church had one of our pancake breakfast services. It featured a lot of music – traditional and contemporary, all different styles – centered on the theme of togetherness and hopefulness and perseverance. We had readings from the Bible and from a speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. that reminded us we must not give up. We must fight the fight, run the race, keep the faith.

The music was uplifting, the words were soothing. And there was an image that reminded me of what needs to happen beyond the music and the words.

Hold each other for a little while

On the other side of the room, Ernest was holding Asher. Asher is a few months old and is a regular at our Sunday services. He gets cuddled by various people – until it’s time to change his diaper, of course. Then it’s back to mom.

This time, he wound up with Ernest. He quickly relaxed into those strong arms and slept. Ernest held him tight, reminding him that he was secure and loved.

And that, I thought, is what we need to do.

We need to hold each other for a little while.

Conservative and liberal. Republican and Democrat. Independent and Tea Party. Christian and Muslim. Jew and Hindu. Black and white. Gay and straight. Male and female. Fundamentalist and progressive. Citizen and immigrant. Old and young. Strong and stumbling. Hurting and healing. Fearful and brave.

We just need to hold each other for a little while.

We need to remind each other that we’re all the same in the ways that matter. We’re all afraid, all trying to figure things out, all making mistakes and wrong judgments. We all have our prejudices and our blind spots and our room to grow.

Our words will soften

And maybe if we just hold each other for a little while, we’ll be reminded of it. Our words will soften. We’ll have a chance to move beyond the acrimonious gridlock and begin working together again to transform the world with our love.

Hold each other, just as Someone Else is holding all of us, too.

This doesn’t mean that we put our words away. It’s good and important to express our support for those who are targeted and threatened and marginalized; it’s better yet to seek them out and hold them for a moment by showing them kindness.

What the heck, give the stranger a hug!

It’s especially important to hold those who see things differently. The whole love-the-person-who-thinks-of-you-as-an-enemy thing comes into play. We hold them by treating them with respect in our discussions, choosing our words carefully, and using them kindly.

Perhaps our kindness will be pushed aside. No matter. The important thing is that we offer, and then keep offering. Keep treating others with respect and compassion and love.

Keep holding the world, even when it fears our hug.

Firmly yet kindly

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we abdicate our responsibility to advocate for those who are being treated unjustly. We never stop insisting that everyone must be treated as an equally beloved child of God in all ways. We work with God and put ourselves on the line for this work every day.

But we’re mindful of how we do it.

The next time somebody says something smarmy to us, we don’t respond with equal smarminess. Instead, we reply respectfully.

The next time somebody says something outrageous and unacceptable, we take a moment to hold them in our heart before responding. We recognize them as a flawed and struggling human being, just like us, trying to make sense of things. And then we respond, firmly and respectfully.

We have enough disagreement and not enough hugs going around. And the only way to bridge those disagreements, to lower the walls that we’ve built between ourselves, is to hold each other for a little while.

Let love to hold us and heal us.

Perfect circles, imperfect people

rings

One of the great challenges of talking about something in public is figuring out what you would like to say. It forces you to think about a subject on many levels and find words that fit your experience and your insight. It’s never easy.

I’ve spent a lot of time the last few months thinking about relationship.

The pastor of my UCC church and his partner, the music director, are retiring at the end of this month. Mike and Vince have been married for 25 years in the deepest sense of the word, but not the legal sense. The marriage equality ruling by the Supreme Court last year gave them the opportunity to remedy that part.

I got to marry them on Sunday at the end of our service – the first time I’ve married anyone.

When Mike and Vince asked me to do the honor, my reaction was two-fold. First, I was deeply touched — they could have asked any number of others. I think I teared up a bit and thanked them and said yes, of course I would.

I don’t marry just anybody

And then I told them of my second reaction: We would have to have some meetings between now and then. I’m not going to go marrying just anybody, after all. I need to know they’re a good fit for one another.

Those words made them a little uneasy, until I laughed and told them I was joking about the meeting part.

As I mentioned at the service on Sunday, we already know that they’re a good fit. Mike pointed out that the marriage service was just a formality, and that’s true. But the more I thought about it, the more I recognized that every wedding ceremony is a formality in a sense. It doesn’t create anything new, per se. Rather, it recognizes and blesses what’s already there, what everybody knows has been there for a long time.

We know what’s there.

In Vince’s case, we all know that he’s given so much of himself to all of us in so many ways. He’s given us his time, his talent, his love. And he’s given us his beautiful, beautiful music, which has touched our hearts and our souls and lives in our hearts and our souls as does he.

With Mike, it’s the same thing. He’s given so much of himself to all of us in so many ways. He’s given us his time, his talent, his love. And he’s given us his beautiful, beautiful words which live in our hearts and souls as does he.

Given to each other first

And we recognize that the reason why they’ve been able to give so much of themselves to us is because they’ve first given those things to each other. That’s what relationship is about.

Love never exists in a vacuum. It takes a village to grow love between people. Love never is confined to just two. The love they give each other makes them grow into more loving people who have more love to give away. Love always gives itself away. And couples need the love of others to help the two of them grow as well.

We all give love and get love from so many people. Love is a perfect circle of imperfect people, trying their best to love how they can on any given day.

Rings are wonderful symbols of that process. Like God’s love, a ring has no starting point and no ending point. We wear it every day. It encircles us and enfolds us in all we do.

We did it together

So after Mike and Vince exchanged rings, we did what we always do in our amazing little church – we did this marriage thing together. And it went like this:

  • By the power vested in all of us by the United Church of Christ, which believes in love always …
  • By the power vested in all of us by the state of Ohio, which charged me $15 to get a license to do this …
  • By the power vested in all of us by the Supreme Court of the United States of America … And we all knew there were many times when Mike and Vince thought they’d never get to hear those words pronounced over them, so it was repeated – by the power vested in all of us by the Supreme Court of the United States of America, hashtag love wins …
  • And by the grace and love of God who is love, we pronounce, proclaim, recognize, bless and celebrate all that they are, all that they have been, and all that they shall be.

And we wished them many, many, many more years of this perfect pairing of music and words, heart and soul, all bound together by love. By their love for each other, our love for them, and God’s love for all of us.

Amen. And woo hoo.

Keeping the faith

circle-of-hands

So now we know what we must do.

Sometimes it takes a stunning event to jolt us out of our complacency and realize that so many conflicting values are in play in our world, including our own backyard. And people can be easily swayed one way or another.

There are daily choices for each of us to make. Which will be our overriding values today? Power, or compassion? Hatred, or love? Greed, or gratitude? Selfishness, or service? Life, or fear?

We all vacillate between values. Our nation’s founders vacillated – they didn’t live up to their own beautiful words about how all people are created equal. They owned slaves and excluded women. Our nation has struggled to live up to those beautiful words since its founding, with spirit-filled people coming along in each age to challenge us to live them more deeply and inclusively.

A new day

It’s a never-ending process. And it’s never smooth or easy. Some values may carry the day, but that is only for one day. And now, that day is yesterday. Today is a new day, another chance to choose and champion those greater values.

We know what we must do.

We must be willing to put ourselves on the line and work with one another to make those greater values our greater good. We need to have courage and commitment and audacious hope.

We must be committed to making the world a place where everyone is seen and treated as an equally beloved child of God.

We need to be ready to bleed sacrificially to bring love and compassion and healing and peace to a world so wounded and fearful that it would build walls and let fear diminish us and divide us.

We know what we must do

We must stand against those who want our world to be a place where people are judged based upon the color of their skin or the lineage of their ancestry or the way that they love.

We must stand against those who see women as property or playthings that can be dominated and grabbed and violated.

We must stand against those who believe that religion is a tool of exclusion and condemnation.

We must stand against those who believe that bullying and violence are our only solutions.

We must stand against those who want fear of one another – instead of love for one another — to be our defining trait.

We know what we must do.

Give ourselves to the struggle

On the day before he was assassinated, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told a gathering at a church in Memphis that “the world is all messed up, the nation is sick, trouble is in the land, confusion all around. … But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working …

“We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. … Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make American what it ought to be.”

We know what we must do.

Although wounded and disappointed, we must not give up. We must give ourselves sacrificially to the struggle.

We must awake each morning renewed, ready to put our hands back on the moral arc of the universe and tug on it so that it bends a little bit more toward justice. And we must remember to feel for that set of hands on top of ours, the hands of Someone who is pulling along with us always.

Fight the fight. Run the race. Keep the faith.

That’s what we must do.