A peace as real as you and me

peace-in-person-picture

Peace was big when I was growing up in the ‘60s. People exchanged two-finger peace signs and wore peace jewelry. They told each other “peace out.” They held peace-ins. They sang about peace and chanted for people to give it a chance. There were songs and poems about what the world would be like if we all lived peacefully.

What did people want? Peace. When did they want it? Now.

Decades later, it all seems rather dated, kind of like bell-bottoms and psychedelic art. Today, the people who want peace seem to be far outnumbered by those who prefer confrontation and conflict. Fear is fanned and hatred is stirred. Peace can feel like an illusion or a hallucination.

But it’s not. Peace is as real in the world as you and me.

It’s true that the world isn’t living as one, as John Lennon imagined. Not yet, anyway. And not ever, most likely. As long as humans are around, there’s going to be discord and disagreement. There’s going to be war and bloodshed.

And there’s going to be a lot of peace, too. Just look around. Recognize the daily acts of kindness, the way people reach out to each other. There is peace in the world, just not enough of it.

It’s the International Day of Peace today, which is a good time to remind ourselves that peace on earth is already a reality and still a dream. Peace comes into our families and our communities and our lives only to the extent that we’re willing to value it and expand it.

With that in mind, let’s consider three important points that some of our greatest peacemakers have tried to teach us:

— Working for peace doesn’t mean avoiding tension. Rather, it’s about immersing ourselves in a creative tension that transforms the world. In a peaceful world, people still argue and disagree, but they do it respectfully. They don’t let emotions like anger and fear decide how they will act. They don’t purposely hurt each other. To be a peacemaker means to embrace tension and use it constructively and lovingly. It means engaging others in a way that will ultimately bring us closer together instead of dividing us further.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

— Peace is fundamentally linked with justice. Injustice is at the root of our problems as humans. When people aren’t being treated as equally beloved children of God and are denied equal opportunities for the things we all want, then division and anger grow. If we want peace, we have to want justice.

Again, as the Rev. King put it, “It must be remembered that genuine peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.”

Or, in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “There is no peace because there is no justice. … God’s Shalom, peace, involves inevitably righteousness, justice, wholeness, fullness of life, participation in decision-making, goodness, laughter, joy, compassion, sharing and reconciliation. … When there is injustice, invariably peace becomes a casualty.”

— We can’t just wish or pray for peace, we have to create it. Peacemakers aren’t starry-eyed dreamers, but clear-eyed realists. They see the toll that war and violence and injustice take on the world. They don’t ignore it or accept it as inevitable – they know better than that. Instead, they try to transform it with the power of love.

It takes a lot of faith and hope and courage. It takes the kind of spirit that the Rev. King described in his acceptance speech at Oslo, Norway, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964:

“I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life which surrounds him.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.

“I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow.

“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.

“I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men can build up.

“I still believe that we shall overcome. This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of tomorrow.”

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Gonna fly now

birdhand

A storm blew the cap off the chimney. Before it could be replaced, a bird managed to tumble inside and get stuck above the flue. I could hear it frantically flapping in the confining, dark space. Its wings were useless – birds aren’t helicopters. The bird had no way out.

You know that feeling too, right?

Most of us feel that way from time to time, I suspect. Our hands, our legs, our brains, our hearts, our intuition, our creativity, our talent, our courage, our self-confidence, our best intentions, our funniest jokes – none of that seems capable of getting us out of a dark place.

I opened the flue to give the frightened bird an escape route. After several minutes, it squeezed through the flue and landed on the floor. It saw light coming through a window and began flying toward what it thought was freedom.

Smack! It went beak-first into the glass. Then, like a cartoon animal, it slid down the wall and landed on the ground, stunned and dazed. I scooped it up and cradled it between my hands, holding its wings tightly so it wouldn’t try to escape and hurt itself again.

I could tell that the bird was really frightened. Its heart was beating so fast that I couldn’t keep count. And no wonder. It had escaped a dark place and spread its wings toward the comforting light, only to slam headlong into something that it couldn’t even see.

Now, the bird was totally helpless. Its life was in someone else’s hands.

The bird’s brain had no way of knowing that I was there not to hurt, but to help. I wanted to save it. I rubbed my finger over its head, trying to soothe it as I carried it to the front door and then outside. I put it down inside a flower box, went inside and watched from the window that it had flown into.

The bird didn’t move for quite a while. Then it seemed to regain its senses. The bird stood up, stretches its wings, and then took to the sky, flying toward a stand of trees that offered shelter and safety.

The bird had no idea of what just happened. It couldn’t even begin to comprehend that it had been saved by a pair of hands that enfolded it, protected it, and carried it where it needed to go.

Fast-forward to now. Birds don’t live all that long in the wild, so this one is probably dead. It’s in Someone else’s hands now.

I’m reminded of that from time to time – often in those soaring moments, and also in those other ones we all experience. The times when we feel helpless, stuck in a dark place, afraid and confused. All of our personal powers aren’t enough. We don’t know what to do next except uselessly flap our wings and let our hearts beat so fast that we can’t count.

And all we can do is trust that there are hands holding us.

Some people don’t believe in the hands. Or they do believe, but it’s hard to trust in them – I’m well-practiced at that one! I’m more of a do-it-myself person, always sharing my brilliant ideas with the One who seems more interested in giving me a hand than in taking my advice.

Just trust. That’s hard. And often, I’m so absorbed in whatever it is that’s making my heart beat so crazy fast that I can’t even feel the hands.

In my experience, we feel those hands in the times when we use our own. When we wrap our hands around someone else — even if they’re too afraid to recognize what we’re doing for them – we connect with the hands of  Someone wrapped around us, too.

Because in a sense, they’re the same hands, doing the same thing. Lovingly helping someone get to a place where they can fly again.

bird-in-hand

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The many firsts and daily I-dos

balloons

A couple in our church hosted an anniversary party at their home last month. Everybody brought food and drink to celebrate relationships and give couples a chance to renew their vows if they wished.

It’s a tricky thing.

These kinds of gatherings can leave single and divorced people with mixed feelings. How do you balance both? I had to try to find a way because I was giving the reflection about love.

Eventually it occurred to me: Love is never limited to a couple. It never grows in a vacuum. It involves all of the people in our lives who love us and help us grow. Love is always a group project.

And so we went with it.

We talked about the little, everyday moments that build upon each other and form our relationships. If you’re a couple, you certainly know those moments. You’ve had so many of them.

For instance, the first time you met. Did you look at the other person and think, “Hmm, who is this person?” Or did you barely notice them?

Do you remember your first date? Were you nervous? Was it wonderful? A disaster? A little of both?

How about the first time that you held hands, how they just felt like they were a perfect fit.

The first time you stayed up deep into the night talking without realizing it was so late. You just had so much to say to each other.

How about the first time you snuggled in each other’s arms and thought: There’s no place I’d rather be than right here, right now, with this person.

Or the first time you thought: This person is really remarkable. And more than a little weird, too.

The first time you had an argument over something ridiculously silly and it went on for, oh, two days because neither one of you wanted to lose the silly argument.

Do you remember the first time you thought that this relationship isn’t going to work out because you are so different in some ways. And then the first time you realized that this relationship is actually the answer to so many prayers.

How about the first time that you realized that you wanted this person to be a part of your life going forward, and that feeling scared you because you’d never felt that way before.

What about the first time you said: I do.

I’m not taking about the wedding I-dos. I’m talking about the daily I-dos, the ones you’ve been saying to each other right from the start:

You seem like an interesting person. Do you want to get some coffee sometime? I do.

That coffee thing went well. Do you think you’d like to go on an actual date? I do.

Do you want to see that new movie that just came out? I do. (Even though I hate those kinds of movies.)

I’ve had a horrible day. Do you think you could make some time for me tonight? Of course I do.

I’ve had a wonderful day. Do you want to celebrate with me? Absolutely, I do.

Do you realize that when I’m with you, I like the person that I am? That you bring out the best in me? Yeah, I do. And you do the same for me.

Do you realize that annoying little habit of yours really drives me up the wall? Yes, I do. But do you also realize that I’m working hard to try to do it less?

Do you know that I love you? I do. And I love you back.

Do you want to keep doing this remarkable thing we have together for as long as we can? I do.

And then come the vows, which get renewed every day in many ways. You say “I do” to cherishing this person. You appreciate the joy and laughter they bring into your day, as well as the challenges and struggles. You try to love each other as deeply as you can, in as many ways as you can, for as long as you can. You look forward to the many “firsts” yet to come. And you are thankful that so many people want to be part of that adventure with you, every step of the way.

And those many other people in your life say “I do” to you, too. It’s a group project.

After we did the the I dos at the party, we thanked the Creator of life and love for the many people who help us become better lovers – lovers of each other and lovers of life. We asked for the grace and the courage to continue saying “I do” to each other.

And then we went outside and released 36 helium-filled balloons into the gray sky, adding a little color and love to the world. We did it all together.

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And the young girl said: Don’t give up

Jogging

My jogging shirt and shorts were sweat-soaked and clinging. I probably could have stopped and wrung out my wristband. In fact, stopping was what I had in mind as I made my way up the short hill on my evening jog a few nights ago.

It was hot and extremely humid. My legs were pretty well spent. There was so much water in the air that each breath felt a bit like inhaling the whole ocean. And I still had a mile to go before I was back home.

Yeah, I think I’ll stop when I get to the top of the hill and just rest a while before I start up again.

Just then, I noticed three children approaching me on the sidewalk. Two boys, one girl. About 10 years old or so. African-American. They probably lived in the apartment complex right there, one where you don’t live if your family is well-off.

“Hey, how you guys doing?” I said.

“Gooooooooood,” they replied as a group, in the long “oooooo” sound that kids will make when you ask them that question. And then one of the boys asked a question back.

“How you doing?”

Normally I might say “gooood” right back, but at that moment I had to be honest.

“I’m strugglin’!” I said.

They moved aside to share the sidewalk with me. I thanked them. After I’d passed them, I heard one of the boys say to me, “You blazin’!”

I know that the expression has several connotations, but I took it to mean that he thought I was going fast. That made me laugh.

“I’m tryin’!!!!” I said.

And then I heard the girl’s voice call after me.

“Don’t give up!” she said.

Don’t give up. Wow! This young girl tells the plodding 60-year-old guy not to give up. All I could do was smile, turn back over my shoulder and say, “Thank you!!!”

You know those times when someone totally unexpected _ in this case, a group of children _ gives you a lift with their kindness and encouragement? Don’t those moments make you feel good?

We all need encouragement, and I have to admit that I struggle with that in some ways. Often, when I encounter someone who’s struggling with something, I’m not sure what to say. As a writer, I try to find the right word, and words are often so slippery.

Plus, it’s hard to know what to say to someone who is facing something that’s not part of my experience. For instance, feeling trapped inside the cages of racism, sexism, homophobia. Facing ostracism because of your religion or your sexual identity or your ethnic background. Being constantly judged by your looks. Fighting endlessly for your special needs child so they can get the opportunities they deserve.

I hear the daily frustration of those who are still – STILL, can you believe it! – having to push back against hatred and discrimination and indifference. They’re worn out and discouraged. They feel like they’re getting nowhere. They wonder why they should keep trying.

Me? I haven’t had to walk in their shoes; I’ve had the privilege of doing my daily jogs in cushy, comfortable ones.

And then, I meet three children on a sidewalk and they remind me of something important: Encouragement matters, no matter how it’s expressed or who it’s coming from. Sometimes, the few words of a stranger can be as powerful as any spoken by a friend.

A simple hug, a kind word – those make a difference. So does reminding someone that they matter and that their life matters. And yes, it’s important to acknowledge how frustrating it is at times. Then, it’s equally important to remind them that the arc is long, but their hands are bending it.

So keep blazing. Keep blazing those trails in our families and our neighborhoods and our schools and our religions and our cultures and our countries and our various circles of friends, including those on social media. Keep doing it even when we’re out of breath and our legs feel like they’re giving out and our energy needle is getting awfully friendly with the empty mark.

Do it even when we feel like we’re getting nowhere — especially when we feel like we’re getting nowhere.

And if we need to stop for a moment and catch our breath and wring a little sweat from our wristband, that’s cool. Everybody needs to take a step back from time to time and catch their breath before putting one foot in front of the other again.

Remember the young girl’s three powerful words. The ones that helped me make it all the way home without stopping on one hot night. And probably will many more nights, too — more than that girl will ever know.

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A truthful 12-year-old

Gun

(Note: I wrote this exactly one year ago. In the past year, the only thing that has changed is the body count. We need to do better.)

I filled my foam plate with fruit, yogurt and a bagel from the hotel’s complementary breakfast, and then found an open table in the corner. I wanted to be far away from the big-screen television on the wall that was tuned to an annoying cable news station.

I was getting ready for another day covering the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. Several families with Little Leaguers were staying at the hotel. This was the morning that a television reporter and videographer were shot in Virginia, so that was the big story on the big TV.

Another shooting. Really? I just couldn’t deal with it emotionally. I tried to tune it out mentally while I spread cream cheese on my bagel with the flimsy plastic knife.

Instead, five boys got my attention.

They sat at the next table. They’d finished their breakfast and were acting their age – around 12 years old. Laughing, teasing, playing with their plastic forks and spoons.

When the cable news station went back to the shooting and said there was video, the boys looked up and got quiet. (The station didn’t show the actual shooting, thank God.) Their playfulness was replaced with silence. They looked appalled. Or scared.

“That’s crazy!” one of them said.

They watched until the station switched to a commercial. Then they switched back to being playful 12-year-olds, quickly moving beyond the moment.

Just like us adults, no?

How many times have we watched some shooting somewhere – a school, a theater, a workplace, a military base, a church – and felt shock and disbelief? We feel bad, post something on social media, say a prayer and move on.

I remember seeing the video of the shooting at the church in Charleston for the first time when I got home from work on June 17. I couldn’t sleep that night. I wondered how this could keep happening.

So when the latest shots were fired in Virginia, I was numb. If it’s going to just keep happening – new day, new place, new victims – then why even pay attention? Why become emotionally invested again?

I was tired of my heart hurting. Like those 12-year-old boys, I had to turn away. I’d lost my outrage that these massacres happen again and again, and we fail to do anything to prevent the next one.

And that’s when I realized I’d become part of the problem.

Instead of turning away, I needed to be like the boy who saw with eyes fully open and said: “This is crazy!” And then to say that this has to change. I have to do something about this craziness.

Why don’t we do something?

It’s daunting, I know. Our society is so saturated with violence, from our entertainment to our news. Weapons are seen as solutions. Even some churches give away guns to lure new congregants – certainly more attractive than reading passages about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek.

Our outrage has been co-opted, too.

We’ll get worked up over someone who says their rights are being compromised because they have to bake a wedding cake or issue a marriage license. But when a twisted individual takes away all of someone’s rights with one pull of the trigger, we shrug and say that’s just the way of the world.

And if we start to question too much, we hear: Don’t ask what we could do differently. Now is not the time to talk about it. Blame the shooter alone. We can’t save everyone from gun violence, so don’t save anyone. Let’s get back to talking about that person who doesn’t want to bake the cake or issue the license.

Really, how crazy is that?

And until we say it out loud, we’re part of the problem. You and me.

There was a time when drunken driving was an accepted part of our culture. Comedians joked about tipsy drivers. People insisted that they had a right to drink and a right to drive and everyone else should just leave them alone. But a courageous group of mothers who’d lost their children decided it was crazy that thousands were being killed by drunk drivers each year. They met a lot of resistance, but they wouldn’t relent. They insisted that we as a society needed to change our attitudes and our culture and our laws.

We have. Many people are alive today – perhaps you and me and those five 12-year-old boys at the hotel — because a drunken-driving accident was prevented. Because we finally did something.

Change begins when we say: “This is crazy and it has to changeAnd I have to contribute my part to making it change.”

Passionate people make a difference. Indifferent people perpetuate the status quo and enable it to continue. Nothing changes until we do.

 

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Washing underwear at the Olympics

Underwear

I’ve had the opportunity to cover four summer Olympics during my career as a writer. I went to Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens. I witnessed amazing things, met many wonderful people, had unforgettable experiences.

Of course, I have favorite stories from each place. Like the time several of us found a restaurant in Barcelona that was far off the beaten path, and our helpful server tried to bridge the language difference by describing their specialty – squid with tentacles attached – as “fish with feet.” Or the wonderful afternoon spent sipping a glass of wine at Sydney harbor. Or that incredible feeling of touching history when you touch the stone on a Greek temple. Or the way the marathon runners whooshed past me and made me realize how they run so far, so fast.

Great stuff. But maybe my favorite memory from all of those Olympics involves doing the laundry.

Yes, the laundry.

Most Olympic games feature secured villages for athletes and the media. There are sleeping quarters – sometimes small apartment buildings, sometimes dorm-like structures, other times rented trailers – and areas for eating and shopping. Also, a place to do your laundry.

You get to take your two luggage items along, and you have to leave plenty of space for souvenirs on the return trip. Basically, you have enough clothes for a week and a half. At some point during your three-week stay, you toss all of your dirty clothes in a bag and head for the laundromat in the media village.

Members of the media spend long days covering the games, so it’s not uncommon to see the laundry facility full at midnight when the work day is finally done. No matter which country you’re visiting, it’s all the same process. You buy your little box of detergent, toss your clothes in a washing machine, then sit down and strike up conversation with someone while everything gets suds.

It’s not uncommon to hear a half-dozen different languages being spoken in the laundromat. People from all over the world – different cultures, different religions, different ethnic backgrounds – load a washer with their dirty underwear, fill the coin slots, pour in the detergent and pass the time socializing.

English is such a common language that it was easy to strike up a conversation with anybody, which is great — I enjoy getting to meet people from different cultures. We’d ask each other how their day went and share our cross-cultural horror stories – how the laptop locked up in the middle of writing a story, how an editor slashed at our beautiful prose (yes, that writer-and-editor thing is universal), how it was so hot at the various venues and there was no time for lunch because things were so busy.

And we’d get around to the personal stuff, too. Back before social media, people would carry photos of their families with them. We’d show each other our pictures, point to our kids and tell their names and ages. We’d talk about the last time we got to see them, what they were doing, what grade they were entering. How they were taking their first steps or getting ready to graduate.

Always, there would be a smile. Often, a tear as well. In those moments, you were no longer strangers at all. You were sharing tears and feelings.

Those moments in the laundromats reminded me of how we’re all alike. We may look a bit different or speak a different language or eat different foods, but inside we all want the same things: To love and be loved, to have a safe and peaceful world for our families, to get along with one another.

And clean underwear. We all want clean underwear.

It’s good to remind ourselves of this underlying truth of our human family. We hear so many fearful voices in our world nowadays saying we can’t trust those who are different from us. They insist that we can’t let people from other countries get close to us because we don’t know who they are. Instead, they want to build walls and patrol borders and practice exclusion.

I have a better idea. Let’s pack up our dirty clothes and all meet at the nearest laundromat. Let’s load our clothes in the washer, empty the little boxes of detergent, and then sit down and share pictures of our families while our underwear goes around-and-around in the sudsy water.

And for a few minutes, we can tell our stories and realize they’re not really all that different, when you come right down to it. They all bring a smile. And a few tears, too.

 

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Whose crayons are they?

crayons

I was sitting in a restaurant booth waiting for my food to arrive. A couple and their two small boys were seated across from me. The boys were about 5 and 3, I’d guess. The restaurant provides a bowl of crayons and drawings to occupy children until their food arrives. My attention was drawn to how the two boys went about coloring so differently.

The younger boy took a crayon from the bowl, used it, put it back, and swapped it out for a different color. By contrast, the older boy would use a crayon and lay it beside him on the table, keeping it handy for when he’d need it again. Then he would take another crayon, use it, put it beside him.

Soon the older brother had a big stash of crayons next to him and few were left in the bowl. The younger brother noticed and complained, “Hey, I need those!” The older brother put his arm around his stash protectively and said, “These are MY crayons!”

If you’re a parent, you’ve lived through this many times and you know what happens next. The mother intervened and told the older son: “Put those crayons back in the bowl! Those are not YOUR crayons. They were given to you to share.”

Yep. We have to share.

Sharing is challenging for all of us, isn’t it? We tend to build our stash and think it’s all ours. In the process, we lose sight of what underlies our life and our faith: Everything that we have and all that we are is given to us by God in order to share.

Instead, we worry about not having enough and build and defend our stashes. The truth is, we have so much! More than we need. We’re reminded when we have to move and we go through our closets and basements and marvel at how much we have. We wonder why we’ve held onto it when we could have shared with someone in need.

Or we’re walking down the street, worrying about how we’ll pay the bills, and we see a homeless person asking for help. We’re reminded: I have SO MUCH and this person has nothing. So what do we do? Stop, offer some money, a few kind words, a handshake.

We need to share.

Sharing doesn’t apply only to our stuff. In a sense, there’s something even more important to share – ourselves. Each of us has God’s DNA woven into us: The ability to love, to be kind, to heal, to laugh, to encourage, to forgive, to create. Each of us has a unique set of talents and abilities and life experiences. We have SO MUCH good stuff inside each of us, and we need to share it.

I think our challenge on this one might be in recognizing just how much we are and how much people need us. We can make a difference – in ways big and small – in so many lives.

And then there’s our time. We need to share that, too. Time is our fundamental gift, in a sense. The universe has been bumping along for a very long time without you or me being part of it. And it’s done quite well without us. You and me, we didn’t have to be part of human history. Ever. But at this point in time, God decided that creation was incomplete without us. We were given time. What do we do with it? How do we share it?

Understand, none of this is meant to cause anyone guilt. That’s not God’s way. Instead of being shamed, we’re offered an opportunity to love and to be loved. We’ve all had moments when we’ve shared – our money, our self, our time – and recognized how deeply it touched someone. In those moments, we feel good because we’ve had an experience of God, who is love.

Those moments remind us of who God is: An overly generous parent who gives us more and more of all this amazing stuff around us and inside of us each day.

Those moments also remind us of who we are, too: God’s equally beloved children, sitting side-by-side at God’s table, sharing an overflowing cup of God’s crayons.

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