No, thank YOU for the lessons in love


In the past year since the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality, many of my gay friends have thanked me for being a straight ally. At first, I didn’t know quite how to respond.

I’d say something along the lines of: “You’re welcome, of course! You matter to me. You’re so worth it. I’m just glad I could help in some way.” Somehow, though, that answer seemed inadequate.

Or I might have followed up with: “It’s just sad that it took so long and involved so much pain to get to this point. I’m sorry for that.” Which is better, but still lacking. Something more needed to be said.

One day, it occurred to me. I needed to say more than just “you’re welcome.” I also needed to say something back to them:

Thank you.

First, thank you for inviting me to be your friend. Thank you for the love and encouragement you’ve given me over the years. It means far more than you know.

Thank you for showing me what it means to love someone when there’s a great cost involved. When simply holding someone’s hand in public could have enormous repercussions, and you do it anyway. Thank you for that courageous example.

Thank you for reminding me that it’s important to be myself and to celebrate who I am, even when I’m not exactly sure who I am. Especially when some others would like me to be something that I’m not.

Thank you for showing me what it means to live in a way that’s true to yourself.

Thank you for teaching me what it means to live courageously and to love courageously. And to recognize God at work in all of it.

Thank you for showing me how to keep trying, even when justice seems so absent and distant. Especially when justice is absent and distant.

Thank you for giving me an example of what it means to be graceful in the face of hatred and discrimination. I will never forget that.

Thank you for showing me what it means to respond to hatred with love, time and time again. Orlando is just the latest example.

And thank you for being a visible reminder that love wins. Always does. Sometimes, it just takes a little time.

Thank you.


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A grandmother’s persistent love


My grandmother’s name is Ann, but we’ve always called her Grams – just Grams. Her birthday is this month, so it’s made me think about her again. And smile again.

Grams has made me smile a lot over the years, often by finding humor in something when I couldn’t see it by myself. She’s taught me a lot over the years, too, like how to appreciate a really good cup of coffee and how to make pierogis from scratch so that that don’t fall apart when you cook them.

She was independent and feisty and lively, even when the arthritis in her legs slowed her. And she understood the importance of persistence, especially when it came to love.

Her husband died of cancer when her three daughters were young. Friends and relatives told her to find another husband to support her – that’s what women did back then. Uh-uh, not Grams. She found a babysitter and went to work for a company where women weren’t exactly welcomed. She didn’t care what they thought – she had a family to support!

She did it her way, raising her daughters and building a family that grew with each wedding and each birth.

When I was young, my family had some tough years. I remember many times when Grams would recognize my worry, pull me tight and reassure me: “Don’t worry, Joey. It’s going to be all right.” She meant it, and so I believed her. She turned out to be right.

She liked to say that life is too short, so don’t shortchange yourself. Don’t waste it. Keep at it. Don’t let anyone push you around. Be generous. Help others. And when you care about someone, make sure they know it.

Be persistent about life and love.

And boy, she was persistent, all right. When I was in college and would visit home for a weekend, Grams always called to see how I was doing. She’d invite me over for a cup of coffee. Sadly, I was a busy young person and often turned her down because of other plans. She said that was OK. She never sounded disappointed. She just seemed glad that we had talked.

How cool is that?

Grams was persistent, but not insistent. She taught me that important distinction. Love never insists, it just offers.

Thankfully, I got many more chances to spend time with Grams. We’d get together for holidays or just to hobnob about old times. We’d go to her apartment and make batches of potato and cabbage pierogis for Christmas.

No matter what you were doing together, she made you know that she was happy to see you. Without even trying, she reminded you that you were loved.

She had her peculiarities, of course, and that was part of the charm of being Grams. Her apartment was filled with tacky knickknacks from various places she’d visited. She wore wigs over her thinning hair and would keep them arranged on Styrofoam heads. She kept a votive candle burning on her bedroom dresser in front of a small likeness of Jesus. The candle rested on a tray with an image from John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

I miss those things.

Grams died in her apartment from an apparent heart attack years ago. As I was driving home from her funeral, I thought about how blessed I’ve been to have her in my life. And in the years since, there have been lots of little reminders that she’s still there in some ways.

Grams occasionally shows up in dreams – mine and other family members’ — with some guidance. My sister was taking a nap one afternoon because she’d been up all night with sick kids, and Grams showed up in the dream and told her to go pay attention to our mom. My sister knew not to discount a dream with Grams, so she called my brother and they got to my mom’s apartment just as she was having a stroke. It saved her life.

Pretty freaky, huh?

I’ve share that story with many people, and they’re shared their own stories with me about dearly departed friends and family showing up in dreams and in other ways, reminding us that they’re still dear but not so departed. We don’t understand how it all works, exactly, but we know there’s something there, something beyond our comprehension.

And none of it is really surprising. After all, persistent love would never let a little thing like death get in the way.


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Bullet holes and the radical welcome

Radical Welcome

The night started with a radical welcome and ended with 90 seconds of horror.

Every Wednesday night at 6 p.m. in Charleston, S.C., one of the oldest historically black churches in the country opens its doors to whoever wants to join them for a Bible study in the church basement.

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church traces its roots to the days when black people were unloaded from slave ships nearby and sold as property. The church has been attacked many times by people who didn’t want black people treated as equally beloved children of God. Church members have been arrested, beaten and executed. A crowd of angry white people burned the original church to the ground in 1822.

And yet, this church that’s been so often hurt and abused by outsiders has continued to open its doors to outsiders every week. They invite everyone to come and join them, even people who don’t like them.

People like Dylann Roof, a young white man who walked through the front doors last June 17, joined an hour-long Bible study, and shot nine church members dead in 90 seconds. He killed people who were doing the most Christian thing – welcoming him, just as he was, into the very center of their church.

He accepted their radical welcome and responded with hatred. The very same kind of hatred that led Omar Mateen to walk into a gay nightclub in Orlando last weekend and kill 49 people. His unthinkable act left us all wounded and numb and confused.

Once again, we’re angry and wondering why we as a people have allowed our hatred and our violence to become the defining traits of our nation. We wonder how many more times someone’s spouse or parent or child is going to be slaughtered before we acknowledge that that the status quo is unacceptable and it must change now.

After a while, we grow weary from the body count. The gun lobby and bought-off politicians refuse to even talk about the carnage. It’s easy to slip into despair and anger, to wonder what we must do next.

And then we look to Charleston on a Wednesday night and see the doors flung wide open.

Something incredible happened there after the murders. Family members publicly forgave the killer. People filled the church the following Sunday — some sitting on the very spot where blood had to be cleaned from the tile floor – and proclaimed their commitment to compassion and forgiveness.

And the next Wednesday night, they did what they’d always done on Wednesday night. They held a Bible study. They welcomed anyone who was interested. This time, news reports say about 150 people of different races, different faiths, different backgrounds sat together in the same room where nine people had died and committed themselves to the Spirit of radical welcome.

The very place that had been filled with such darkness seven days earlier was filled with warmth and life and love. The topic of discussion that day: The Power of Love.


And then there’s the reaction to the Orlando shooting. Many people have revved up the hateful talk that influenced both Roof and Mateen. They insist that some people are just too dangerous to be around, too evil to accept. They must be dealt with severely.

Build walls to ease our fears, they say. Bar entry to anyone who comes from a certain country or a certain background. Lock the doors to those whom we dislike.

Contrast that to what’s going on at Emanuel. To remember the shootings a year ago, they’re asking people to participate in a day of kindness. Next Tuesday, they want each of us to do something kind for someone and tell them about it on the church’s website. They’re calling it: Acts of Amazing Grace Day.

They take seriously the stories of a Jewish rabbi from long ago, and they try to live the way he lived. They accept everyone, because that’s what he did, even when he was harshly criticized for it.

They live the Spirit of radical welcome.

This welcome thing: It’s not a popular notion, then or now. It’s part of what got the rabbi killed. It’s what got the Emanuel church burned down and bloodied up. The truth is, this radical welcome stuff is challenging and upsetting and dangerous. It’s much easier and safer to hide behind walls. It takes great courage and great love to open ourselves to others, but it’s the only way out of the deep darkness we’ve chosen.

Then and now, great love is the only thing that can overcome. It overcomes by showing a different way – a way that cleans up the blood and opens the doors wide again.

And changes everything, bringing life into a place of death and grace into a world that needs so much of it.

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The bolts of hatred


One of my roommates in college was gay. He confided in me about his sexual preference, knowing I’d respect his confidence. Back then, gay people were openly ridiculed and rejected and attacked.

I wish I could say this was no longer true, but obviously I can’t. We’ve come a long way, but what happened in Orlando and the reaction to it provide harsh reminders of how people hate those who are different from them in some way.

Still so much hatred.

I’m the associate minister at an open and affirming UCC church. We accept everyone just as they are. I’ve heard many stories about how members of my church family have been treated horrifically by their families, by their former “Christian” churches, and by co-workers because of their sexual orientation.

Their openness touches me. Their courage inspires me. Their stories remind me how I enjoy a sort of “straight” privilege. Nobody has ever threatened me because I was holding a girl’s hand, or refused to rent me an apartment because I was dating a woman. Nobody has ever refused to bake me a cake because I’m straight.

I have never had to worry that my sexual identity was going to get me killed.

One thing about the reaction to Orlando troubles me greatly. People who have said so many hateful and harmful things about LBGT people are now trying to distance themselves from what happened. They’re trying to frame it as merely another instance of extremism by different people from a different country and a different religion.

Nothing could be further from the truth here.

So many self-styled “Christians” have done so many hateful and hurtful things to the LGBT community. It’s tiring to have to remind people of the way so many “Christian” parents have disowned their children simply for being gay, or how many “Christian” churches have invited gay people through their front doors only to attack them from the pulpit, or how many “Christian” evangelists have blamed all of the country’s ills on gay people being treated as equally beloved children of God.

Sorry. No matter where we are in the spectrum of things, none of us can take ourselves completely off the hook for what happened in Orlando. We all contribute our part. None of these horrible things happens in a vacuum.

We’re the ones who create the hot bed in which hatred grows and spreads and eventually strikes out. Or we encourage it with a shrug and indifference. Or we speak out for love and justice, which can pull hatred up by the roots for a while. And we keep at it, responding to hatred with love over and over.

This is on each of us. Are we going to encourage it, hide from it, or push back against it?

And those who like to think they’re totally different from the person who pulled the trigger in Orlando need to remember that our attitudes matter just as much as our actions. Jesus said as much all the time. We’ve seen it play out so many times.

One year ago this week, a young white man walked into an historically black church in Charleston, S.C., participated in a Bible study, and killed nine of the African-American church members. The white man had gotten swept up in the deep current of racial hatred in our country, a current created by the words and attitudes of others.

What we say and how we treat others affects everyone and everything around us. That’s one of the basic tenets of religion – love one another, treat others the way you want to be treated. Do it because how you live has such a big impact on everyone else.

What we say and how we say it create the atmosphere in which we live. Just as each exhaled breath puts something into the air, so does each word.

Hateful attitudes are like an electrical charge that gets sent into the atmosphere. The charge grows and solidifies and forms a lightning bolt that hits some target and causes great harm and destruction.

These bolts never come out of the blue. They come out of us.

So does love. The only way to dissipate hatred is by giving all people the same unconditional and unlimited love that God has for each of us. As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

None of these horrific acts is isolated from us. They happen in a world that we fill each day with either a little more love or a little more hate or a little more indifference. Each of us must chose.

Hatred or love? Violence or peace? Holy wars or holiness? Being silent or speaking up? Loving everyone or no one at all?

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Robbing us, jab by jab


All of the stories about Muhammad Ali this past week reminded me of the only boxing match I’ve covered in my job as a sports writer. Former champion Earnie Shavers tried to make a comeback in 1987. He fought somebody who was equally out of shape in a small college gym in Cincinnati.

The other boxer went down easily and quickly, but that’s not what I remember the most. One of the undercard bouts featured two young men so eager to win. I’m guessing that they both envisioned themselves becoming the next Ali, piling up the knockouts on their way to fame and fortune.

I got totally engrossed in their high-energy bout. And then repulsed by it.

One boxer got punched in the face so hard that his bloodied mouth guard flew out of the ring and landed on the media table next to me. One of the boxer’s assistants retrieved it. I noticed that the head-turning punch also had sprayed drops of the boxer’s sweat and blood on my notebook and my shirt.


Isn’t it interesting how we can be mesmerized by something and repulsed by it at the same time? Especially violence. We can have such conflicted feelings about violence.

I’m thinking of how Ali refused to fight in a war, yet had no qualms about so much violence in the ring. He promoted peace, yet inflicted and absorbed brain damage as part of his profession.

I’m not saying this to judge him, but to point out the contradictions that we all have when it comes to violence. I sure feel them.

I saw Ali in person one time, when he was honored at Great American Ball Park before Major League Baseball’s Civil Rights Game in 2009. A golf cart wheeled him onto the field. He was so fragile that he needed help to stand up and walk. The blows in the ring had robbed him of his voice, the one he’d used so forcefully for human rights.

I remember feeling so many things — admiration, sadness, pain, and a little revulsion over how this human being had become a shell of what he once was. The greatest was now so feeble.

In those moments, the price of our attraction to violence is revealed.

We can get caught up in a boxing match without recognizing that we’re watching two people use their great gifts – their strength, their stamina, their coordination – to rob each other of their great gifts, jab by jab.

We cheer football players’ cringe-worthy hits, the ones that turn parts of their brains into cortical mush. When we see the players a few years later, hobbled and forgetful, we want to turn away.

We’re drawn to slow-motion replays of car-race crashes, even though we know somebody’s body has been broken and they’ll never be quite the same.

Our conflicted relationship with violence transcends sports. We glorify war with emotional tributes to its victims while trying not to notice the war-broken people living on our street corners.

What about those moments when we see some injustice and wish that the person responsible would get a taste of their own medicine? It’s not enough just to right a wrong, we also want some vengeance. I really don’t care for the part of me that privately roots for those who inflict pain to feel a little pain of their own.

So, what do we do with this?

Perhaps we can start by acknowledging that we’ve got a complicated relationship with violence. Maybe it’s good to remind ourselves that every act of violence – whether physical, verbal, or spiritual — does more than just leave a mark. It damages us in some irreversible ways. Not only does the object of the violence get damaged, but the one inflicting it as well. Not only the two individuals involved, but their community as a whole.

Each harmful act, every hurtful word strikes at a precious part of us. The symptoms may not show up until much later, when our bodies give out, our societies break down, or our next wars break out. But great damage is done.

Violence always comes with a tremendous cost. It turns us into shells of what we could have been as people and as communities. It leaves us broken and feeble.

Blow by blow, it robs us of ourselves.



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Archie and me


I became well-versed in slurs during my childhood. I learned them in my neighborhood, in my church, in my extended family. I heard many different types of people demeaned with many different words.

I grew up in an ethnic area of Cleveland. Each immigrant group had its own neighborhood, its own tavern, its own bakery, its own church, and its own groups that it disliked because of past history.

Italians? They’re all in the mob. The Irish are drunks. The Poles are dumb. Blacks are uncivilized. Women are dim and emotional. Protestants are hell-bound. Jews are money grubbers.

On and on it went. There were demeaning terms for pretty much every group, including my group. And the mention of other groups could bring out the worst in some people.

That’s why Archie Bunker was one of my favorite television characters. I knew him. Also, I knew many people like his daughter and his son-in-law who regularly called him out for his prejudices. For instance, my dad would challenge my grandfather for using the n-word yet again.

The show came on TV at a time when another idea was taking root in America: People should be considered by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin or any other superficial difference.

For a time, the slurs and the ugly jokes receded, although many people still felt comfortable telling them when they were around people like them. They’d complain that the country had become so “politically correct” that their slurs and jokes no longer drew nods and laughs, but criticism.

And they wished things would go back to the way they were. Back to the days when we openly judged people on the basis of the color of their skin or the country of their origin or the sex chromosome they inherited. And people would nod and laugh and agree.

Like Archie, they thought: Those were the days.

Well, those days are making a comeback in some ways, aren’t they?

A presidential candidate gets applause for saying a Mexican can’t be an impartial judge, or Muslims are dangerous, or immigrants are criminals, or women should be judged on their physical appearance. Or when he says that only rich people like him can be great.

And it’s not confined to politics. Religion is providing its own blast from the past: I’m going to heaven, but you’re not because you’re a sinner and I don’t want to have anything to do with you because I’m afraid it might jeopardize me. So go away.

My childhood, revisited.

Fearing those who are different from us seems to be our default setting as humans. It’s true for me. I’m more comfortable in groups of people who are more like me in some ways. People who think like me and have similar life experiences.

Yeah, there’s that little bit of Archie in me, too. It’s just a human trait, I suppose, woven throughout our history and religious texts. And so is this: The moral and spiritual imperative to push past our innate fears and learn to love each other and appreciate our differences.

Jesus loudly advocated for it, which got him into a hell of a lot of trouble. He reached out to the rejected groups of his times and welcomed them. He was constantly criticized for inviting the wrong people – the ones who were the objects of the slurs and the nasty jokes – to eat and socialize with him.

In fact, he made those people the heroes of his stories. It’s the dreaded, good-for-nothing Samaritan who is the model of behavior, not the religiously observant people.

Is it any wonder that people wanted to push him off a cliff?

So, what about us? Perhaps we start with never allowing anyone to be slurred or bullied or made the butt of jokes, even if there’s a price to be paid in standing up for them.

But it requires something more.

Perhaps the next time we encounter one of them people – as Archie would say – we could invite them for coffee or lunch. Instead of talking about our differences, we could share stories about what keeps us up at night, what breaks our hearts, what makes us feel alive, what we’d most like to change about ourselves.

And maybe along the way we’ll have a few laughs and change how we feel about each another a little bit. In doing so, we might actually get somewhere.

Somewhere beyond the days that were great only for those slinging the slurs.

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Creepy statues and bleeding hearts

Bleeding heart

Are you familiar with the image of the sacred heart? Maybe you’ve seen a depiction in some church’s stained glass or in a sculpture somewhere. When I was in Catholic grade school, we had a statue of the sacred heart in the corner of our classroom.

I have to tell you: It was a little disturbing.

The image shows Jesus pointing to his heart, which is protruding from his chest. The heart is surrounded by thorns. The heart is bleeding. There’s also fire coming out of the top of it.

Kind of a creepy image, no?

The point of the inelegant image was to remind us that Jesus’ heart bleeds with love for us because he shares God’s heart, which bleeds with unconditional and unlimited love for all of creation. Also, that we, too, must have bleeding hearts since we are God’s children. It’s genetic.

Only when a heart is capable of bleeding profusely can it love greatly.

There are devotions to the sacred heart (you can Google it), prayers asking for some undeserved favor or blessing. Something granted purely out of love. Something that can’t be merited in any way.

The most important word here: undeserved.

The bleeding heart image goes back to the 1600s (I Googled it) and has been common not only among Catholics, but in some Anglican and Lutheran churches, too. There are churches named for the Sacred Heart. People wore sacred heart medals to remind them of the importance of having a bleeding heart.

How all of that has changed, huh?

Many people still aspire to live with a bleeding heart. They help people in many ways all around the world. They work for organizations that try to make people’s lives better. They stand up for those who are oppressed and face discrimination. They offer help and healing to those in pain. They bring love into the world, often at a great price to themselves.

On the other hand, others have turned “bleeding heart” into a pejorative term. They insist we should look after ourselves and no one else. They think that they deserve everything they have – every heartbeat, every breath, even life itself. They’ve somehow earned it through their own efforts.

Love is out. Self-determination is in. It’s foolish to bleed for those who are struggling. Let them bleed all by themselves.

Along this line of thinking, the rich deserve all of the privilege that they have and the poor deserve all of their misery. If we do help the needy, it’s only after they’ve passed some test we’ve concocted to make sure they’re worthy of our assistance. Don’t get too close to them or help them too much, though – you don’t want them becoming dependent upon God’s grace through us.

Even religion has undergone a significant change on this subject. Fundamentalism and the “prosperity gospel” teach that we’re in charge of our lives and our fates. We get on the fast-track to heaven by picking the right theology. We earn our prosperity by living the right way, sort of how lab rats get rewarded for choosing the right button in an experiment.

We don’t need unmerited grace and blessings because we’ve made the right choices all by ourselves. And we certainly don’t want to be conduits of grace or undeserved blessings to others.

Really? What’s happened to us?

To stay with the religion theme: So many people have become just like the older son in the story of the prodigal son. They get their noses bent out of shape when the deadbeat brother returns home and the generous father immediately accepts him back, lavishes him with love and throws a wild party for him.

As it turns out, the older son is just as wasteful as the younger son. Both reject the indiscriminate love from their father’s bleeding heart.

So, where do we go from here?

Maybe a starting point would be to recognize our dependence upon God and upon each other for life and love – all of which are freely given, never earned in any way. And to make a renewed effort to make our hearts available to bleed, too.

Also, let’s reclaim the term as a positive. When someone calls us a bleeding heart, perhaps we can smile and say: “Thank you! That’s the best thing you could have said to me – I’m living in a way that reflects the divine heart beating inside of me.

“It’s genetic, you know.”

And then, let our hearts bleed for them, too. Whether they recognize it or not, they need love just like everyone else. Love that’s freely given and totally unearned.

A love that bleeds for them.


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