Subversive little crumbs

Bread   I stood at the bread shelf in the neighborhood grocery store, trying to decide which loaf I should buy. Tough decision. I looked at all the types of bread and went back-and-forth many times.

Which one would be best for communion? I didn’t know. I’d never had to make this choice.

Our pastor was at a conference for the weekend. I was presiding over the Sunday service for the first time. Before he left, we went over the details of all that had to be prepared.

He reminded me that I needed to buy the bread for communion.

Uh, I hadn’t thought about that. Where do you get it?

“Kroger’s will do just fine.”

So there I was in Kroger‘s, looking over the loaves, wondering which one looked the most, well, communion-y. Maybe that pretty, round Tuscan loaf. Wait, maybe the nice Jewish rye over there. My wry sense of humor kicked in. Jesus would smile over that, right? Being Jewish and all.

No, better not …

I finally picked an Italian loaf. Mainly because it was big and it looked pretty and it was on sale. I  put it in my basket and headed for the self-checkout line.

When I scanned the loaf, the automated voice asked: “Do you have any coupons?” No, no communion coupons. Not today.

I swiped my credit card and was reminded that my purchase would earn me a few cents off my next gasoline purchase. How’s that for transubstantiation — bread transformed into bonus points?

As I left the store, it occurred to me that it really didn’t matter which loaf I had picked. Like so many of our daily decisions, it’s more about what we do with whatever we choose.

In this case, it wasn’t about the type of bread, but about the meaning we would attach to it. How it would be used and shared.

There’s a story that says Jesus’ followers recognized him by the way he broke bread. They didn’t see him in the bread itself, but in the radical things he did with the bread.

Yes, radical things.

He broke it and gave it to whoever wanted some. And he did it with a kind, sweet touch. He transformed an ordinary loaf into something extraordinary: A moment of unqualified love for whoever needed love at that moment.

He invited those who were treated as outsiders to join the meal as VIPs. He welcomed all who were hungry. He wanted nothing more than to share something with them: a little bit of his time, a bite of food, a laugh, a hug, a little tenderness, a few moments of healing.

He put a piece of himself into every piece of bread.

And a lot of people didn’t like it. Not then, not now.

In his day, meals were a reflection of the social order. The self-important sat in the favored spots and received the best food — kind of like today. They looked down upon everyone else, deeming them lazy or unworthy. Someone who should be ignored instead of loved.

That’s not how he saw it.

He shared the loaf equally and unconditionally. He challenged the notion that some of us deserve the bread more than others or have earned it in some way. He adamantly opposed those who ignored the needy and judged others as unworthy.

No wonder the self-important wanted to get rid of him.

In a sense, his bread crumbs got him killed. And that initially was quite a shock to his followers. Eventually, they realized that he wasn’t really gone. After all, real love never goes away. It’s always right here, being shared in many forms every day — a heart-felt hug, a welcoming smile, a kind word, a joyous laugh, a shared loaf of bread.

Love insists that we keep breaking bread.

So his followers got a loaf and broke it and shared it, covering themselves with crumbs all over again. Wonderful, subversive, loving crumbs.

Before communion on Sunday, I shared the story about my trip to Kroger’s to pick out a loaf and how I had such a difficult time deciding. One person suggested that next time, I should get sourdough.

OK. The next time, sourdough it is. It’s a delicious bread with a solid crust that makes for lots of crumbs when it’s divided.

Lots of little, loving, subversive crumbs.

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Frozen diamonds and funerals

Diamond   I’d walked down the middle aisle of that old, Gothic church so many times for so many occasions — first communion, confirmation, stations of the cross during Lent. Also, for the many, many funerals I served as an altar boy over the years.

This time, I was trailing my father’s casket down that aisle as notes from the pipe organ reverberated through the cavernous church.

It felt surreal.

My dad died at the age of 53, done in by a heart attack brought on by a lifetime of heavy smoking. The unexpected death was shocking enough, but what really threw me were the feelings that processed with me down the aisle.

It was like I’d gone through the buffet line and loaded up on things that seem not to go together — pickles and cottage cheese, sadness and relief, pizza and anchovies, love and resentment.

Also, guilt that I didn’t feel more sadness. If I’d been sadder, it would have meant I’d missed him more.

Mostly, I was relieved that he was finally free of the demons that seemed to chase him much of his life, the ones that my mom said were stowed away when he returned from serving in the Korean war.

How do you digest that mixed plate?

Over the years, I realized I’m not alone on this one. Many people have told me about their very conflicted feelings over the death of someone who seemed to struggle so hard to live and to love.

How do we make peace with it?

For me, it came down to finally and fully accepting that my dad was human, just like me and everyone else. And that we all have our issues, some bigger than others.

In essence, that we‘re all diamonds encrusted in ice.

I look at it this way now: Each of us is a gem formed by the tender squeeze of divine hands, capable of brilliantly reflecting the creator’s love, compassion, laughter, kindness, and joy.

But there’s a catch. In order for us to shine, light has to be able to reach us and penetrate our carved, smooth surfaces. To travel all the way inside of us — to that shimmering center — and then reflect back out again.

We need light to shine.

And it often has a hard time finding its way in.

Our fears, our insecurities, our selfishness, our stored-up hurts, our neediness — many things build up in layers and harden around us. They form a rough, icy exterior that prevents anyone from seeing the diamond inside.

Some of us have thicker ice than others, but we‘re all frozen in many ways. And we tend to go through freeze-thaw cycles. There are moments when you can see someone really sparkle, others when all you feel from them is a chill.

I like to think that when we die, a shockwave of divine love strips away the ice and leaves only the diamond. Finally, the light can get into every nook, making us as shiny as any star.

Want to know what a person looks like in death? Look up into the night sky. They’ve never shined so brightly.

Good for them!

What about us?

We don’t have to wait until we die to start the melting process. We can thaw right now.

Love is the great de-icer. And it’s very versatile.

It melts from the inside. Each time we love, it radiates outward and loosens that icy grip.

Love also melts from the outside. It does its stuff every time we allow ourselves to be loved by a person who recognizes the diamond hidden beneath the ice and is willing to risk frostbite to help free it.

Little by little, the ice melts away. We become better able to reflect a light that’s always there, always looking for the tiniest little crack to make its way through the ice and get inside of us.

Drip by drip, we become the shiny little selves we’re meant to be.

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Playgrounds and pulpits and that’s-what-she-said

Play   Well, it was a wonderful weekend. The time change provided an extra hour of sunlight in the evening, which pleases nocturnal types like me.

Temperatures finally crept above freezing and started thawing the Midwest-sized ice cube that February left behind. Even better, when the snow was reduced to puddles, little green plants could be seen poking out of the defrosted dirt.

Also over the weekend, I got to preside over communion at our church for the first time in my role as associate minister.

Wait, have I left that part out until now? The being-a-minister part?

Yeah, I have. And there‘s a reason why I‘ve essentially been hiding in the vestry closet. I’ve wondered how people outside my wonderful little church would react to it.

Some weeks ago, I mentioned to another sports writer that I‘m now a card-carrying minister. He responded, “Does it mean we can’t make that’s-what-she-said jokes anymore?”

Yes, go ahead. I love a good that’s-what-she-said joke.

But that’s what I mean by the reaction. You’re not sure what to expect. Some will say it’s perfect. Others get uncomfortable and pull away or start looking at you differently.

Here’s the thing: I totally get it. I’ve done the same thing and felt the same way.

There are so many inspiring, passionate, compassionate people leading churches, synagogues and temples. Trying to help people recognize the divine around them and within them. Encouraging love and healing and joy.

And then there are the others, the ones who burn Korans, picket funerals, refuse to bake a cake for someone who is gay, and shake down their congregations for donations to buy new rotary blades for their helicopters. (I’m not kidding about the helicopter blades. True story. Google it.).

It’s no wonder that many people see a collar and start eyeing the nearest exit.

Also, there’s that whole pedestal thing. A lot of people like to put church leaders on them. Me? I don’t like heights. They make me very nervous.

I’m no saintly anything. Like everyone, I have a stew of selfishness and insecurity and doubt in the pit of my stomach much of the time. OK, all of the time.

Truthfully, I don’t have any big answers for the big questions, other than that maybe we should really, really try to love ourselves and as many other people as we can, as deeply as we can, as often as we can.

And when we don’t know exactly what that means in any given circumstance, maybe we should ask for a little help and then listen. We’ll eventually get an answer, though it may not be the one that we wanted.

That’s just how it goes.

As I struggled to wrap my head around this minister thing, it occurred to me that I’ve had one job that prepared me for it in some ways. One summer when I was in college, I worked as a playground director for the city of Cleveland.

I was assigned to a working-class neighborhood on the city’s east side. I organized games, led kids in weekly crafts projects such as building a birdhouse, and basically looked after them. I tried to keep their playground free of broken glass or anything (or anyone) that could harm them.

In a sense, being a minister is like being a playground leader.

You remind others that it’s a great day, and it absolutely must be appreciated and celebrated in some way. You try — within your limited role as a human — to make a safe place for people to gather and just be themselves. You make sure that everyone is invited — no one excluded from full participation for any reason.

When someone falls and skins their knee, you wipe the tears, put a little germ killer on the scrape, and cover it with a bandage to start the healing.

You offer a bottle of water to whoever is thirsty. If they’re hungry, you remind them that they have snacks in their backpacks. And that they should share whatever they have with whoever doesn‘t have anything.

When they’re scared, you reassure them that their loving parent is always close by. You can just dial them up and they’ll be right there before you can count to one, ready to scoop them up and give them a hug that makes everything all better.

If they’re bothered by something and need to talk, you offer to be their ear. And you offer them your shoulder if they need it. And maybe a reassuring kiss on the top of the head, too.

You also join in the many games. Especially the fun parts where everyone says: “We all fall down!” And then you all fall down together and get right back up together.

That’s kind of what the job entails, when you get right down to it. It’s not about enforcing rules. It’s about getting caught up in a spirit that leads us to laugh and love and play together gracefully. And to care for one another. All of us. All the time.

Why?

Because as far as I can tell, that’s what She says.

    (Note: Below is a photo of one of my most precious keepsakes. It’s from that summer on the playground. One day, I was demonstrating how to build a birdhouse and cracked the roof in half while hammering the final nail. The kids saved a piece of the roof and inscribed it to me as a gift. They called me coach and printed their names on the back. Isn’t that cool? I wonder where they are now and how their lives have gone. I hope they are OK. And loved.)

Birdhouse2

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Having birthdays and feeling something-ish

Candle   A local college basketball team honored its seniors before the final home game last weekend. Players and parents walked onto the floor to receive a gift.

Another writer sitting next to me looked at the families on the court and said, “Wow. I’m now older than some of the players’ parents. How did this happen?”

Yeah, how?

Several friends and family members have had birthdays recently. One friend celebrated her daughter turning 6 months old and noted: “She’s gotten so big, so fast!“

Then there’s Janet, the lady in the nursing home. Janet (not her real name because of privacy laws) recently turned 90-something-ish (can’t give her exact age because of privacy laws). She told me: “I never thought I’d be this old!“

Janet then asked my age, which is 50-something-ish (privacy laws, wink wink). When I told her, she said, “Oh, you’re so young! You’re just getting started!” And she meant it.

You have to love Janet.

Isn’t it interesting how this aging thing is so subtle and goes on without our notice most days? Then one of those numbers jumps off the calendar and gets our attention.

And we say: What? When did this happen?

I really enjoy my birthdays because I get to hear from friends and I feel a little extra special for a day. Otherwise, my date of birth is mostly just a number I write on forms.

Long ago, I gave up the counting part. Sometimes when people ask my age, I have to stop and think.

It was different growing up. I was excited to turn 16 because I could drive. Turning 18 meant I had more privileges, and also had to register for the draft for the Vietnam war. Twenty-one meant I was a full-fledged adult — well, in the legal sense. I’m still trying to become an adult in many ways.

The only birthday that really threw me was when I turned 30. I grew up hearing that my generation shouldn’t trust anyone over that age. Turning 30 meant becoming, well, one of them. No longer the youngest generation.

The night before my 30th birthday, I got home from work late, poured myself a birthday beer, plopped down on my lumpy St. Vincent de Paul couch, and watched the hands on my mantle clock work their way to the top of the dial.

At midnight, the clocked chimed 12 times and stopped. Silence. And I remember thinking: Huh! I don’t feel any different. Nothing’s really changed. Just a number.

Mostly, it’s been that way for me since.

There was one little speed bump, when I turned 53. My dad died of a heart attack at that age. His lifelong chain smoking had irreparably damaged his heart and lungs.

Even though he was so very young, there’s something odd about turning the age that a parent died.

Occasionally, I get a sense of growing older, accompanied by a moment of sufficient panic. Anything can bring it on: noticing another age spot, hearing that a friend has cancer, getting another letter from the AARP hunting me down to join.

In those times, I feel a bit like Dorothy in the witch’s castle, watching the sands in the hourglass slip down oh-so-quickly while the flying monkeys hover outside the door. I get an urge to run off and go do a bunch of things on my bucket list all at once.

Maybe jump out of a plane while making a painting and landing in time to watch the opening day parade. (The trick there would be to stick the landing without tearing the canvas or getting run over by one of the floats.)

Then I take a deep breath and remind myself to relax and just enjoy the ride, however long it lasts.

A few months ago, I came up with an idea. I decided that as I sipped my nice glass of red wine each night, I should think about my day and thank the Giver of Days for all that happened in it.

Perhaps the prayer would go something like this:

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Today was great. Well, except for the crazy parts. OK, even the crazy parts. I’m grateful for all of it. Can we do it again? A little less craziness would be appreciated, but either way is OK. One more time? Thanks again.

The problem is that I have trouble actually remembering to say the prayer. Many days, I’m just tired or distracted, and I forget. I hope that God understands it’s not a lack of appreciation, but mere forgetfulness.

After all, I am 50-something-ish. And I think God would appreciate that part, what with being infinite-something-ish. Who knows? Maybe God has forgotten a few things along the way, too.

And probably has a stack of AARP letters so tall that it could serve as a stairway to heaven.

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Sorting socks and getting aboard the spaceship

CHALLENGER EXPLOSION   Several of my friends commemorated the anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster by posting what they were doing when they heard about the explosion. I remember it very well.

And not just because of what happened to the shuttle.

I first saw that awful image of the Y-shape smoke on a small television set outside my counselor’s office. It reinforced what Jenny and I had just talked about for 45 minutes.

We’d talked about living authentically. And the rewards — and risks — involved.

Jenny specializes in working with adult children of alcoholics. That’s me. When I reached adulthood — well, as much as any of us does — I realized that some things weren’t working for me. Something was missing from my life.

Me. I was missing.

Jenny helped me connect the dots. She helped me to see that the coping strategies I’d used as a child to deal with a crazy situation were getting in the way of living.

As a child, I’d learned not to talk about the craziness going on around me. And especially not to talk to anyone outside the family about it — their lives are so perfect and they’ll think you’re so weird, which will make it all worse.

Instead, put up walls. Protect yourself from being disappointed by not expecting or hoping for much. Don’t get in situations where you could get hurt. Try to love from a safe distance. Just get through life.

And dream about the day when someone will ride in and save you from all of this. Everything will be great. God will wave a divine magic wand or someone in shining armor will ride in and save you.

Or, maybe not.

Jenny taught me that we all have stuff that we have to figure out and grow through, little by little. Each of us struggles with our own stuff in our own ways for our entire life. It‘s a never-ending deal.

Our human challenge.

It’s as though life gives each of us a basket of unmatched socks and assigns us to pair them up. And as soon as all of the socks are matched, we get another basket of socks to try to mate up.

The more we do it, the better we get at it. We start figuring things out a bit more.

And we become a little more authentic.

Being authentic doesn’t mean being the loudest voice or insisting that we have all the answers and that other people should live our way. That’s not being authentic; that’s being an ass.

It doesn’t mean that we’ll ever fully understand ourselves or why we do the things we do sometimes. But we try not to let our decisions be guided quite so much by the selfish, insecure and scared parts inside each of us.

Being authentic means trying our best to love. Because we’re at our most authentic when we love.

It means tapping into the kind, compassionate, creative parts and letting them guide our decisions a bit more as we go along. It means doing what makes us feel the most genuine and the most alive.

It also means working at putting all of ourselves into our relationships. It means making the effort and taking the risk of actually loving, which is always fulfilling and unsettling and messy and wonderful and awkward and challenging.

And this is where it gets risky.

To love is to risk. The deeper and more authentic the love, the bigger the risk. We take a chance whenever we let our love and our passion take us places.

We do so knowing that things will sometimes blow up in our faces. We‘re going to get hurt, maybe very deeply. We do it anyway.

Which brings us back to the Challenger.

Teacher Christa McAuliffe was on the Challenger. She could have stayed in the safety of her classroom instead of risking outer space. She followed her passion.

After the disaster, President Reagan said that McAuliffe and the astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

So have we.

By living authentically, we take the risk and accept the challenge to reconstitute our spaceship after things inevitably fall apart. We put ourselves back on the launch pad — still hurting and healing — and head boldly and authentically toward a new place.

A place where we touch the face of God. And where God oh-so-tenderly touches us back.

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Finding the missing boob

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????   The nursing home was quiet, which is typical for a late Sunday afternoon. I walked to the end of the hall where Grace lives in a room decorated with clown figurines that make her smile.

I knocked at the doorway and announced myself. Grace was awake in bed, but upset about something.

“Oh, Joe! Come in! Can you do me a favor? I’ve lost something and could use your help finding it.”

Grace (not her actual name; I have to change it because of privacy laws) once had bright red hair that fit her personality. The red is gone now; her hair turned a pretty, cottony white after chemotherapy.

And today, something else was missing.

“I can’t find my left boob,” she said. “Would you be a dear and look around for it?”

Well, that’s the first time I’ve ever been asked that question!

Grace developed breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. She wears prosthetics when she goes out. Her daughter had taken her to a family luncheon. Back at the nursing home, Grace had misplaced one of her prosthetics.

I got on my knees and looked around. There it was, under the bed. It was much heavier than I imagined. When I handed it to her, she laughed and said it’s good to have all of your parts.

Isn’t that the truth?

Grace is one of several ladies whom I visit as a hospice volunteer. I know it’s cliché to say that I get more out of it than I give, but nothing is truer in this case.

I have the privilege of getting to know funny, caring, life-giving people who work in nursing homes. And I get to spend time once a week with people like Grace.

And Janet.

Janet (again, not her actual name) is in her 90s. She grew up in New England. Her tall-and-handsome Navy husband died many years ago. She has a photo of them together on her window sill.

When I ask how she’s doing, Janet will usually say in her Northeastern accent, “Oh, I’m OK. You try to make the best of what you’ve got. Though sometimes it’s hard.“

She enjoys talking, especially about the real stuff in life: Being a parent, getting older, having your body fall apart. We talk about God and New England winters and the Kennedys and whatever else is on her mind on any given day.

Janet is losing her eyesight and isn’t able to read, which was one of the loves in her life. So I read to her each week. I’ll bring some story or book that I think she’ll enjoy. Or she’ll ask for something on a specific topic.

When I left her last Sunday, Janet had a request for next week’s reading.

“Could you maybe find something about death? Or heaven?” she said. “I’ve been thinking about those lately.”

Well, OK. Death or heaven. I’ll see what I can do.

I looked on my bookshelves, but found nothing about death that might interest Janet. I don’t spend much time thinking about death or reading about it. Doesn’t really interest me, if you know what I mean.

I’m a lot more interested in hearing about people’s experience of life. Especially the times when they felt like they’d lost themselves — or parts of themselves — and somehow managed to find them again. Sometimes, with a little help.

Heaven? I imagine that’s what it’s like.

I prefer to think of heaven — or whatever you want to call whatever it is that comes next — as a place where God knocks on our door, enters with kind eyes and a sweet smile, and asks what we’re missing. And then kneels and looks around to find all of our missing parts.

The parts that have been there all along, just out of our sight or out of our reach. The ones that somehow got kicked under the bed at some point in our lives.

Lost, but now are found. All of us.

Completed by love.

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Max the cat and healing hands

Max1   Max the cat has made it through one more year. One bonus year, in a way. At this time last winter, he was down to his final day.

He’d gone outside to get a little fresh air one afternoon and didn’t show up again on the back porch. Instead, I found him yelping in pain by the side of the front porch. He was caked in snow, bloodied, unable to move.

Max was bleeding from the mouth. He had a concussion. His abdomen was torn up inside. Either a dog had attacked him or somebody had pelted him with snowballs. Blood and footprints marked the snow around him.

The vets stitched him back together. For most of a week, he couldn’t even lift his head. Finally, the vets suggested we give him one more day to come around. If there was no progress, then it was probably hopeless.

On the day of decision, Max stood up and took a few unsteady steps. He had turned the corner.

With the help of many loving hands, he had made it through.

A year later, Max is perfectly fine. He jumps, runs, plays chase games with the other cats. One noticeable change: He loves to curl up next to someone. Maybe it makes him feel secure. Or reminds him that he’s being cared for.

He’ll curl up, stretch out a paw to touch your leg, take a deep breath and purr before slipping gently into a contented sleep.

A furry, laptop reminder that life is so precious.

We’re all a little bit like Max. We all get beat up in some ways. We bleed a little bit every day, whether it’s from the annoying paper cuts that life inflicts regularly or the occasional infections in our spirits.

And there are other times when confusion and doubt and borderline despair fester in our souls, causing a pain that throbs and keeps us awake at night.

Thank God for healing hands.

Healing and being healed are the ointment-coated fabric of life. We’re always doing some of each. The two go hand-in-hand.

To channel St. Francis: It is in healing others that we are healed, too.

Each of us has a precious, few people who come into our lives, love us deeply and want to touch us, especially the parts of us that are hurting.

They massage life into our wounds with their gentle hands, their kind eyes and their understanding hearts. They encourage us to take another deep breath, knowing it will make us a little bit better.

They make their soft shoulders available to our aching heads, their kind words available to our troubled souls.

Their love works its way inside of us like spiritual liniment, warming our aching parts and easing our pain. Their love helps us become whole again.

They have the healing touch.

The trick is to open ourselves to their touch rather than keeping our wounds to ourselves. It’s easy to get caught up in our pain and try to hold it inside, where it will infect and corrode us. It can suck the life out of us.

Healers understand that while pain and death are inevitabilities, they’re not finalities. Life transcends both. There’s always a possibility of healing in some ways, even on that last day, in that final breath.

Sometimes, healing begins with someone who loves us pointing out that we’ve got something hurtful in one of our many blind spots. In a sense, they pour germ-killer over the wound, which stings initially but gets the healing started.

They give us a kick-start on using our own healing powers. They remind us that even when it feels like we’re down to our final day, life isn’t finished.

It never is.

Healing is one of life’s greatest miracles. It insists that there will be more, damn it. That life always gets the final say over pain and death.

Sometimes, the final say is a contended purr.

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