Wait a while

Hose

One of my favorite summer activities as a youngster was setting up for our church festival. We lived down the street from our Catholic church – Our Lady of Lourdes — and got paid to do the grunt work.

The pastor was a kind man known as Father John. He’d directed many festivals and knew the process. He was wise about many things, including the importance of patience.

He was always slowing down us youngsters.

For instance, we wanted to drag the tables and chairs out of the creepy, cobweb-filled church basement and set them up in the food court as fast possible, checking that nasty job off our to-do list. Father John knew better.

He’d tell us: “Wait a while.”

As we toted the dirty tables from the church basement, he’d have us unfold them and set them on their sides. He’d get a hose and spray them clean, reminding us that nobody wants to sit at a dirty table.

He’d also spray us a time or two, which was part of the fun on a hot June afternoon.

Only when the tables and chairs were clean and dry were they ready to be moved to their proper place. Father John was right about this, of course. He knew that in our rush to move onto the next thing, we’d be creating problems down the line.

Just slow down. Do what needs to be done now, and do it well – even if you end up wet and dirty in the process.

Wait a while.

No fast-forward button

That three-word expression has stuck in my head all these years. It’s taught me not only about setting up chairs and tables for an event, but also about getting through many difficult challenges in life.

Sometimes, you just have to wait a while.

I’ve had so many times when I wished I could hit a fast-forward button. I’d think about something exciting that’s just over the horizon – summer vacation, graduation, a new job, a fun trip, starting a family – and I’d spend a lot of time daydreaming about it and looking forward to it.

And in the process of fixating on days to come, I’d miss all the good stuff in the current one.

I think that fast-forward feeling is particularly true for all of us in the tough times. We lose a parent or a spouse or a child, and we wish the pain would go away instead of scraping our insides day after day. We lose a job or a relationship or a role, and we want to move onto the next thing right away.

Something happens that bruises our self-confidence or our self-worth, and we wish the wound would heal overnight.

Grieving and healing work in their own time, in their own way, for each of us. It’s no fun being in those moments, but the only way to grow through them is to accept them while without slipping into despair.

Yes, this moment really sucks. But it’s not the end. Be a little patient.

Wait a while.

Many faith communities recently observed a wait-a-while day, the one between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It recalls the day after a group of followers saw their leader publicly humiliated and executed as an insurgent.

Their response? They ran and hid behind locked doors. They felt totally crushed. Their lives had just crashed and burned — or so it seemed. All their aspirations of transforming the world with their message of love-one-another felt so foolish.

It’s time to get real, give up and move on. Go back to fishing or doing whatever.

But wait a while. The story isn’t finished. You’ll see, soon enough.

The story isn’t finished

None of our stories is ever finished. The author of life never gives up on life, or on the love that infuses all of it and each of us. We go through many times when it feels as though we’ve been crushed. All our hopes and aspirations seem buried, and a big old stone has been rolled in front of the tomb.

We need to hold fast a little longer, and to listen as we do. We’ll hear the sound of the immovable stone somehow getting rolled away. Soon, the morning sunlight is peeking into the cold, dead space inside of us, infusing us with life again.

It takes time. It never happens in an instant or an hour or a day. There’s no fast-forward button to healing and growth – and it’s probably best. If there was, we’d wind up zooming past life itself.

So, hold on. Wait a while. Your story isn’t finished.

In many ways, it’s starting all over again.

On the eighth day …

Sunset now

There’s a misconception that creation is a done deal, some grand project that God polished off in six figurative days. And then, with nothing left to do, God called it a day and got some rest.

Nothing is further from the truth.

The seventh day was followed by the eighth day of creation. And the second week. And month. And year.

And now.

Creation is an ongoing act, and God isn’t going it alone. That divine creativity is woven into our DNA. We’re active participants, chosen to be co-creators for our little chunk of the universe.

It’s good to remind ourselves of that responsibility this weekend and to spend some time thinking about what we’re doing to the world that God entrusted into our care.

Are we taking seriously the job that is ours individually and collectively? Are we treating all of creation as something sacred, or are we acting as though God’s handiwork doesn’t matter?

Many people don’t give it much thought. Some think that we should do whatever we wish to our world because we have “dominion” over it, which is a total misreading of our role.

The divine directive

Giving us dominion gives us direct responsibility to care and protect. That’s the point driven home from the beginning – we’re expected to conserve our world and nurture it.

Some of the most poetic and beautiful writing about creation is found in the Hebrew scriptures. The creation stories aren’t meant to be science or history or journalism; none of those things was around when Genesis was written. Rather, the stories are more parables meant to remind us of our connections to everything, including the creator.

The first story reminds us that our creator loves diversity – it’s a reflection of the divine spirit. God doesn’t just make one type of anything, but many variations of everything, including us.

We need to be attentive to respecting, fostering, celebrating and encouraging our great diversity.

The second creation story presents us with the wonderful image of humans beings being made from a scoop of earth. We’re not separate from the earth but derive from it, which makes us one with it. To desecrate the earth is to desecrate ourselves as well.

The second creation story also reminds us that we’re joined intimately not only to the earth, but to each other. We’re joined at the ribs, so to speak, and we are animated by the same divine breath.

The stories remind us that all of creation is interwoven, and we’re given responsibility to nurture it. We are caretakers for creation, and caregivers for one another. To trash either the earth or another person is the ultimate profanity.

Never about us alone

This point gets driven home even more directly in another familiar tale later in Genesis. Noah is instructed to care not only for his human family, but all the animals on the ark. The lives of the animals matter as much as his own.

And when the floods recede, God makes a covenant not only with humans – again, it’s never about us alone — but with the animals as well. We’re all in a covenantal relationship, everyone and everything all together.

That covenant remains intact today.

We’re still on the ark called Earth, entrusted with caring for all of creation as extensions of God’s creative hands and loving heart.

So this weekend, let’s remember our responsibility and renew our commitment to one another and to all of creation. Let’s never think of God’s beautiful world – something very good that was entrusted to all of us together – as something we have a right to abuse or desecrate.

Caring for all of creation isn’t optional. It’s a divine directive.

And let’s remember, too, that the earth’s bounty is for all. Nobody has a monopoly or a claim on any part of it. It’s a gift given freely for all to share. We need to treat it as such.

It’s the eighth day. What kind of world are we creating?

The great resistance

stardust3

We all resist things, which isn’t necessarily bad. We resist things that are harmful to us. We also resist things that are good for us as well. We resist things that grate on us and things that challenge us.

Our list of “Things To Be Resisted” varies by the person and is subject to change over time. But there is one thing that I think we all resist pretty much all the time.

We resist love, every single one of us. And that’s no news flash. Let’s be honest: Love scares the hell out of us.

Love – the real thing – turns us inside-out and upside-down. It scratches parts of us we’d rather leave untouched. It nudges us to change and grow, and that’s not easy.

Love challenges our fears and insecurities and self-doubts. It scales the walls of our ideologies and our theologies and our philosophies, trying to pull us out of those safe little boxes we’ve built.

Above all, love challenges us to be who we are meant to be.

Yikes!

All of us experience love’s powerfully transforming touch at various times. We have indelible moments that stir something inside of us in a new way.

Love touches and scares us

For example, the first time you held your newborn child and were overwhelmed by that sense of limitless love. Or the moment when you finally fessed up about something horrible you’d done and the person totally forgave you without even a moment’s judgment.

Moments like those make us feel deeply alive and loved. And they scare us by tearing openings into our tough outer skin, the one that’s scarred from a lifetime of hurt and embarrassment and shame.

Love leaves cracks that allow all kinds of new stuff to enter. Love makes us open and vulnerable, and that’s terrifying.

It’s no wonder we most often take the “safe” approach. We build mini-fortresses around our hearts. We erect religious and social and emotional walls. We hide inside superficial relationships. We insist that we don’t really need any more love than what we already have – we’re doing just fine inside our little space, thank you.

Best to avoid it

We understand that love is like that wooden horse in some ways. If we let it inside, it’ll unleash a force that will be out of our control and change everything. We can’t have that.

So, we try out best to avoid it.

As part of the process, we choose independence as our guiding virtue. Avoidance becomes a lifestyle. We judge others and decide they don’t deserve our love. We deem compassion and forgiveness as signs of weakness.

It’s especially sad that much of our “religion” gets twisted into resisting Divine love instead of embracing it. We concoct elaborate reward-and-punishment systems built on the idea that people exactly like me are acceptable and everyone else should be rejected.

Or we decide that we must make arm’s-length deals with an uncompassionate creator who is incapable of love and forgiveness. Instead, love and forgiveness are turned into bargaining chips in a cosmic business deal – you do this, I give you that. And that’s the deal. No substitutions.

Of course, love and forgiveness never come with fine print or strings attached. We can never earn them through our effort, or lose them because of our shortcomings.

Love persists

Love isn’t a commodity. Forgiveness isn’t a purchase. Both are freely and unconditionally given to all. Everyone is deserving.

I wonder if our reward-and-punishment systems are so historically popular because the idea that we’re all loved scares the hell out of us. It totally upsets how we think about ourselves and how we treat others.

But here’s the good part: No matter how many ways we try to pull away from Love, it never pulls away from us. Love never gives up on us.

Love persists.

Our actions have no effect whatsoever upon Love, whether it’s our attempts to tame it through reward-and-punishment systems, or our attempts to subvert it through power and wealth and domination, or simply our innate human reluctance to let it get deeply inside of us and transform us.

Nothing we do changes Love in any way.

Even when we try to crush it and kill it and bury it out of our fear, Love always rises again, as strong and as beautiful as ever, determined to go on transforming us and our world.  Like it or not.

The truly good news is that our resistance is ultimately futile. And thank God for that.

The towel and the water bowl

Washing feet3

Imagine that you’re a server in a restaurant. You look at one of your assigned tables, you see that someone has been seated, and you shudder. It’s the person or the group that you least want to serve.

You recoil at having to be kind and smile at them. You’re tempted to try to beg off serving their table.

Who would that be for you? Who’s at the top of your do-not-serve list?

Maybe it’s someone who tests your patience with their abrasive personality. Or maybe it’s a person who knows how to push your buttons. Maybe it’s someone who talks about you behind your back, or someone who blames everything on you.

Some of us might not feel so comfortable about serving the young person with dyed hair and tattooed arms. Or the older person who is hard of hearing. Or the couple with the cranky kids. Or the person with special needs. Or the poor person in dirty and tattered clothes.

Maybe it’s someone wearing a button supporting a cause or candidate other than your own. Or maybe it’s a person wearing the garb of a different religion or culture that makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s someone from a different race or sexual orientation and you have preconceived ideas.

Or maybe it’s just someone who is known as a poor tipper and won’t reward your service.

None of that matters. You’re a server, and it’s your job to serve them kindly and respectfully.

Aren’t we all meant to be servers?

Do-not-serve lists

That’s one of the lessons a Jewish rabbi demonstrated 2,000 years ago at his final meal with his closest friends. According to various accounts, he did two impressionable things. The most-remembered part is how he told his friends that he would be with them whenever they shared bread and wine, continuing his passion for enacting God’s love through meals open to everyone.

According to one of the accounts, he did something else that was eye-opening and disturbing. The story by John mentions nothing of bread and wine, but makes foot washing the focus of their final meal together.

And it didn’t go over well, then or now.

Back in the day, washing dirty feet was as ordinary a gesture as washing hands today. People washed their own feet most of the time. When someone had a slave or servant, they would order them to wash the feet of prominent guests as a courtesy.

The servant was the lowliest person in the room. They didn’t decide whose feet they would clean. Even if they detested the person, they had to wash their feet respectfully.

And that’s what makes the gesture so radical. Jesus’ final message – the thing he wants his followers to remember – is the act of grabbing the towel and water and serving everyone, whether you want to or not.

Just wash.

As you would expect, there were strong objections to this difficult teaching. The leader of the group says: No way! Jesus tells him he doesn’t have a choice: If you’re going to be a follower, you must serve everyone this way.

That final example is consistent with the rabbi’s life. He offered healing and reconciliation freely to everyone, regularly dined with those considered to be the worst of people, and repeatedly erased the lines people draw between themselves and others.

Many people have objected to his radical inclusion and his unqualified love, then and now.

Yes, it’s very challenging when he gets all Jesus-y and insists that we need to love everyone, including our enemies, and to serve everyone, especially those whom we can’t stand and those most in need of our help.

Just wash

Let’s be honest: We resist. We make excuses. Some self-described “Christians” even create do-not-serve lists, avoiding those whom they consider unworthy of their service.

Of course, if Jesus had lived by that standard, he wouldn’t have washed any feet that night – certainly not those of the betrayer or the denier or the rest of his friends who were about to abandon him when he needed them most.

In God’s kingdom, everyone serves and everyone is served equally, no exceptions.

Even the betrayer. Even the denier. Even the abandoner. Even the person who lives differently and believes differently. Even the person we simply can’t stand. Even the ones we consider unworthy.

Even you and me.

We’re to be servants at heart, summoned to pour God’s love on everyone. And the water and the towel are waiting for us.

Missiles, Syrians and Samaritans

Compassionate

When I started as a hospice volunteer, one of my first coordinators was a woman named Leslie. She assigns patients to volunteers who visit once a week, providing company to people who are at a tender time in life.

Leslie is one of the most compassionate people I know. Her kindness rubs off.

When Leslie started working as a hospice volunteer, she was given the chance to visit a man who was openly racist; Leslie is African-American. She agreed to look in on someone who might not welcome her.

A dying man needed companionship. She could provide it. So, she went.

The man was cold to her at first. She allowed him to decide whether she should visit again. He said that would be fine, so she returned. Persistently.

Week after week, she visited and showed kindness to the man, who slowly warmed to her. They grew into close friends during his final weeks. Leslie’s compassion changed the man’s heart.

That’s what compassion does. First, it changes our hearts. Then it compels us to do something to help another.

Compassion changes everything.

We saw an example of compassion trying to do its transformation thing last week. Donald Trump saw images of children killed by gas in Syria, and his heart apparently was moved.

“No child of God should ever suffer such a horror,” Trump said.

For years, he had insisted that suffering people in Syria and millions of refugees should be ignored – they’re not our problem. And yet, there he was, saying he’d been touched by those images of dying children. He could be indifferent no longer. He recognized these Muslim children as beloved children of God. He had to do something.

Compassion changes us

Of course, we can and we must debate his response. Creating missile craters in the ground in a show of power-and-might does nothing to help the millions of others who are facing horrors that none of God’s children should face. Refugees still face bans.

And we are left with some questions: Will our compassion be only momentary and severely limited? Does our response to the suffering of God’s children amount to making craters in a field?

There are many other children of God dying not from gas but from bombs and bullets and building collapses and disease and malnutrition — the many horrific things that are manifestations of war. Will we do something life-affirming and help them escape their horror?

Or will we slip back into fear and orthodoxy and dogma that wall off our compassion? Will we insist that it’s too dangerous to help and it might cost us some money as well, so we’ll move on?

Go and do the same

A Jewish rabbi from the Middle East takes aim on that attitude in one of his most famous and challenging lessons. He tells the story of a man who is robbed on a dangerous road and left for dead. Two religiously observant people see him and decide not to stop at this dangerous spot that has already been a target for robbers. Instead, they move on.

Along comes a dreaded Samaritan who is moved by compassion. The Samaritan not only puts himself on the line by stopping, but cleans this total stranger’s wounds – now that’s nasty and uncomfortable! – and then takes him to an inn and writes a blank check to cover whatever it costs to get him well.

We know how the story ends: Go and do the same. You can’t save everyone, but you can save this one. So, do it. Let compassion be your guide.

If our policy discussions start with a recognition that everyone is an equally beloved child of God and must be cared for in that way, then we’ll make more compassionate choices as we go down the dangerous road. They may not be the safest choices or the most comfortable choices or the least-expensive choices, but they’ll be the most God-like choices.

We’ll stop to help the one in need, whether it’s a left-for-dead traveler or a racist hospice patient or a terrified refugee family. We’ll be compassionate, as God is compassionate.

The cold woman on the street corner

Sign

The woman on the street corner held a cardboard sign asking for money. Her face was weather-beaten after hours of being buffeted by the harsh winter wind. Her knit mittens had holes that left her fingertips exposed.

I felt an urge to help. All I had was a $10 bill. I lowered the car window and handed it to her.

Her eyes flushed with gratitude. She said “Thank you, God bless you!” and grabbed my hand and squeezed. And then she did something that has stuck with me.

The woman kneeled, looked up, made the sign of the cross and mouthed the words “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” She had prayed for someone to help. Without realizing it, I was the answer to her prayer.

Lesson learned.

That’s how the whole prayer thing works, isn’t it? We pray for something, and our answer usually comes in the form of another person’s help. And if we truly believe this whole prayer thing, we must make ourselves available to be the answer to others’ needs.

As Pope Francis puts it, we pray for the hungry and then we feed them. That’s how prayer works.

I know that homelessness is a complicated issue. Some people have mental illness or addictions. Some have just been knocked down by life and need a hand getting up – or, at least, a meal for now. Some have lost all hope and resigned themselves to living on the streets, and they’re hungry.

They need their daily bread, and those of us who have enough are the ones who can share it with them.

That’s how it works

Francis addressed this recently in a magazine interview. He said giving to a person in need is “always right,” and it’s only the start. Francis has spent his life among the poor, and he says we should spend a little time getting to know the person on the street. Look into their eyes. Touch their hand. Give them affirmation of their human dignity.

Remind them that they are loved and lovable children of God.

There’s nothing surprising about Francis’ remarks. He tries to live in the spirit of a Jewish rabbi who said we should be compassionate the way God is compassionate, giving to all who ask, and sharing without judgment or condition.

Which is the opposite of what we hear so often.

A while back, Fox News personality John Stossel dressed as a homeless person and collected donations for an hour. He got $11. And then he shamed those who gave to him.

Stossel put one of the kind people on camera and asked why he responded with compassion. The man said: You looked pretty needy. Stossel portrayed him as a fool, someone who had been duped by the dishonest cable TV person.

He shamed those who gave to him

Stossel then suggested that most homeless people really aren’t needy, but are dishonest like him and should be ignored. And he said we can’t really trust charities, either.

You don’t know how your gift will be used, so don’t give it.

Really?!?! I found his comments abhorrent and sanctimonious.

Let’s be honest: Each of us wastes the greatest and most precious gifts we receive from the Creator. We do it all the time, and then we wish for more.

We waste the gift of time on things that don’t really matter. We waste our money on stuff we don’t really need — all of us. Worst of all, we waste our daily opportunities to grow and bring more love and healing into the world.

And then what happens? God gives us more!

I mean, that’s totally crazy, right? Thank God for that!

The story of the prodigal son takes direct aim on Stossel’s attitude. The younger son totally wastes all that he’s given, yet when he comes home the father neither judges nor punishes him but instead gives him more. The wasteful son gets a huge party. The older son objects: You’re being played for a generous, compassionate fool! This younger son is dishonest. You can’t trust him.

Thank God for that

But none of that matters to the father. The older son doesn’t understand the father’s nature, which is portrayed as God’s nature.

It’s a nature we’re called to live in, too. We’re meant to be kind and generous and compassionate to all, even if the one asking for our help is a dishonest cable TV person wearing a phony beard.

Especially then.

We do it because that’s how God treats you and me every day. We keep wasting, and we keep getting more. More to be shared with everyone.

Trying to make hate look pretty

love-hate

I was reading a story about the rise of hate groups, and a quote jumped out at me. The Columbus Dispatch interviewed the leader of a Ku Klux Klan organization about its plans to expand.

Near the end of the story, Amanda Lee defended her group’s actions as something other than hate.

“We don’t hate anybody,” she says in the story. “God says you can’t get into heaven with hate in your heart.”

Wait, what?

How can a group that reveres its history of lynching, bombing and terror contend that it’s not driven by hate? How can anyone think that there’s no hate involved in demeaning and hurting people who are different from you?

If that’s not hate, then what is?

Wait, what?

We’ve heard a lot of similar lines in the last few years from people trying to redefine hate into something more acceptable:

“I don’t hate black people. I just think they’re not as good as white people. And they should stop complaining about how they’re being treated. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate gay and transgender people. I just think they’re horrible sinners – unlike me – and I should be free to discriminate against them in any way I wish. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate Muslims. I just think they’re all dangerous and they should be prevented from practicing their religion in my country. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate women. I just think they should be submissive and accept that they’re not equal to men. And they should be quiet when someone says it’s OK to grab them by the crotch. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate refugees. I just don’t trust any of them – not even the starving babies – and I don’t want them near me. They make me uncomfortable. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate poor people. I just wish they’d get off the street corners so I wouldn’t have to see them. I think they’re all lazy and undeserving of help. But that’s not hate.”

There are many variations on the “I don’t hate (fill in the blank) people” theme. I suppose much of it involves people trying to justify their prejudices rather than confront them. Or maybe they’re trying to dress up their ugly ideas so they can gain a following.

Fill in the blank

But I also get a sense that some people who make these statements might actually believe what they’re saying. They think that because they don’t feel all angry and hateful and vicious toward others, then it’s not really hate that’s involved.

We need to talk about this.

Love and hate aren’t about emotions. They’re about attitudes and our actions. Love and hate aren’t about how we feel toward someone, but about how we treat them – what we do or don’t do to them.

To love someone means to treat them as we would want to be treated, regardless of how we feel. When we’re told to love our enemies, it doesn’t mean we feel warm-and-fuzzy about them; it means we respect their inherent human dignity.

Love recognizes that everyone is an equally beloved child of God and must be treated as such by our words and actions. Love values everyone’s dignity and worth as equal to my own.

By contrast, hate rejects another person’s equal value and worth. It sees those who are different from me as less than me in some ways. It creates the conditions for people to be abused and mistreated.

Hate is about attitudes and actions, not emotions.

Choose love instead

One of the most jarring parts of Viktor Frankl’s description of his time in a Nazi extermination camp was how people did such savage things with so little emotion. Hate becomes truly dangerous when human empathy is stripped away.

Let’s also remember that hate has an evil twin – indifference. Hate is given approval to do horrific things when people shrug and say, “Not my problem.”

And let’s not forget that hate and love exist within each of us. That’s what it means to be human. Spirituality involves an ongoing examination of our attitudes and actions to see whether they convey love, hate or indifference, and then choosing to do the most loving thing as best we can.

We need to challenge those who try to dress up hate and misrepresent it as something other than what it is. To do anything less is to give cover to hate and allow it to clothe us in its robes.

Choose to put on love instead.