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.

Filling our bags

trick

Let me take a moment to tell you about my excellent Halloween night.

As 6 o’clock came – the official bewitching hour in my town – the sun was sliding toward the horizon, turning the bottoms of the wispy clouds a gentle pink. It was so warm that trick-or-treaters could avoid wearing jackets.

I set up a chair at the end of my driveway and a small table with my jack-o-lantern and a bowl of candy. I could see the first group of kids making their way down the street, dashing door to door. Their excited, young voices filled the autumn-scented air.

I love Halloween!

A year ago, I missed the chance to give out candy because I was out of town covering a football game. It felt so good to be enjoying All Hallow’s Eve again.

As I waited for the group to reach my house, I watched the sky turn colors and saw a jet fly overhead. Whenever I see a plane, I get a bit distracted. I’m amazed by how those heavy tubes of metal can fly.

I get amazed by us, too.

Remarkable stuff in every way

We do some amazing things, we humans. Consider airplanes, for example. We dig up rocks, melt them down, do some fancy math about air and drag, design wings that fit the formula, and shape melted metal into specific forms. And then, we get inside of them and we fly.

Remarkable stuff, in every way. And so is what happens on Halloween night.

I live in a racially diverse neighborhood. There were black kids and white kids in the same group working their way down my side of the street. Parents and grandparents walked with them, having friendly conversation. Neighbors and strangers, sharing and enjoying each other’s company.

That’s us at our best. Celebrating our sacred humanity.

Sure, it’s amazing when we make planes that fly above the clouds, and rockets that take us to the moon, and drugs that kill diseases, and buildings so tall that they seem to scrape the sky. But we’re at our most amazing when we’re walking together and sharing our humanity.

As I was thinking about all of those things, a couple with a 2-year-old girl dressed in a frog costume approached my house. The girl’s eyes were wide, her gait uncertain. She looked like she was just trying to take it all in. Her parents said it was her first time trick-or-treating.

Anyone who asks, receives

I handed the girl a small bar of chocolate. Her mom told her to say thank you. She muttered “thank you” while inspecting the candy bar. I’m guessing she was trying to wrap her head around this unexpected generosity of a stranger to someone dressed as an amphibian.

Isn’t it wonderful to watch generations pass down this tradition of unconditional giving and unmerited receiving? It renews us and reminds us of our common bond, how each of us is both receiver and giver – not just on Oct. 31, but every day.

The coolest part of Halloween – besides the costumes and the decorations and the pumpkin patches and the corn mazes – is how we celebrate giving with no strings attached. We share with anyone who shows up at our doorstep. Anyone who asks, receives. No one is judged as more deserving or less worthy. Nobody wonders whether the kids have earned their treats.

Everything is freely given. Everyone is accepted and welcomed, regardless whether they’re a cute 2-year-old frog or a teenager with fake blood dripping from a corner of the mouth.

You look great. Here’s a treat. Enjoy.

A bit of grace inside each wrapper

We just give. And along with each small treat, we put a little bit of ourselves into the transaction – a smile, a kind word about the costume, a simple hello to the parents and grandparents.

Us, at our best. Giving the greatest gift that any of us can give – a bit of grace inside each wrapper.

In my experience, people enjoy the giving part so much because they remember the times they’ve been on the receiving end. They know what it’s like to be the young child getting a piece of candy.

Also, they’ve known times throughout their lives when they were running low on joy, love and hope. Maybe food and other things, too. Their bag was pretty much empty. And someone came along and filled it again.

That goes for all of us.

Each day begins with the best gifts simply plopped into our bags – another breath, another heartbeat, another day freely and joyfully given. Then for the rest of the day, it’s our turn to give generously and joyfully. And to receive thankfully and joyfully.

To try to fill everyone’s bag until it’s overflowing.

Flying the flag

cubs-windians

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

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

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

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

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

We’re all about hope

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

As humans, we’re all about hope.

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

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

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

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

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

Hope is about today, not someday

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

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

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

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

Savoring each day’s small victories

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

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

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

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

It’s so toxic.

Instead, we need to live in hope.

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

Same for us.

Flying the flag

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

Flying that flag every day.

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

baby-with-mom

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

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

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

Stumbling, yet still standing.

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

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

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

The tumor squeezes, and she squeezes back

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

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

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

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

There was more.

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

A sacred struggle lived with great love

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

A sacred struggle lived with great love.

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

And worth it. Oh so worth it.