Spaceships, snow globes and balls of rubber bands

Rubberband ball  I was sitting at a table by myself, having lunch and reading the latest Nadia Bolz-Weber book. Three women seated at the next table were talking about a one of their mutual acquaintances. I couldn’t avoid overhearing the conversation– they were rather animated.

Apparently, their acquaintance was having some difficulty. The three of them analyzed her problems, her motivations and her choices. It was clear to them why their friend did what she’d done, what motivated her choices, and how she needed to change.

You know that conversation, right? We all participate in it. We analyze other people. We analyze ourselves. But it’s never as black-and-white and simple as we wish.

Life is complicated and confusing. People are complicated and confusing. I’m complicated and confusing, especially to myself.

Why does any of us do what we do? What’s driving our decisions? What does any of it mean?

Much of the time, I’m not really sure. My different emotions and intentions are often rolled together like one of those balls of rubber bands. So many different and distinct strands wrapped so tightly that you have a difficult time separating them.

Sometimes, your head feels like a snow globe. The little white flakes are swirling around so fast that you can’t make anything out. Snow globes are beautiful if you’re looking at them from the outside; if you’re inside the swirling chaos, it’s a whiteout.

Even in our best moments, we’re always a mix of things. Am I really trying to help this other person get what they need in the way they need it? Or is this more about me? Am I helping them or manipulating them? Is it selfishness or selflessness driving my decisions? Love or fear?

Usually, it’s a little of both. With many other things tossed in, too.

And  what is the other person feeling? What do they really need? If they’re like me, they’re probably not all that sure, either.

It’s complicated.

Trying to make sense of it can be maddening and exhausting. The chaos in our heads can wear us out. We just want the swirling flakes to settle down for a while so we can see what they’re hiding.

Some people try not to think about all the confusion and complexity. They try to avoid it by taking a black-and-white approach. Do a few things a certain way and don’t worry about anything or anybody else. Above all, don’t question anything. Treat life and people as though they’re simple math problems that can be added up and explained in neat philosophical or psychological or theological columns.

In my experience, things rarely add up. And they’re never, ever neat.

Us and life: They’re complicated.

I remember watching a documentary about Apollo 13, the moon mission that went awry because one small thing on the spaceship malfunctioned and threw everything into a tizzy. Instead of landing on the moon, the goal became just to get back home alive.

The astronauts talked about how complicated the spaceships were. They had to be that way in order to do what was necessary to transport them to another world. And things always went surprisingly wrong, even on the most successful missions. For instance, Neil Armstrong had to repeatedly override a warning system as he landed the lunar module, moving ahead despite a malfunction.

In a sense, we’re all like that, aren’t we? So complicated and prone to malfunctions. Something is always going wrong. A warning bell is always sounding in our heads. And we’re just trying to make a safe landing while our hearts are racing.

So, what does it mean?

Maybe the lesson is to appreciate our amazing and beautiful and confounding complexity. And to remember to be kind and gentle and patient with others who, like us, are just trying to make sense of things and figure them out a little bit. Just like us, they might be in one of those snow globe whiteouts.

Also, to be even more kind and gentle and patient with ourselves, which is often harder to do. Instead of getting frustrated with our daily confusion and divine complexity, to learn to appreciate and value it and even love it. Because after all, Love itself is complicated and confounding.

And to remember that a ball of rubber bands can roll a long way down the road. A snow globe can be incredibly beautiful when everything is frantically swirling. And a space ship can visit other worlds, even if a warning bell keeps sounding because something else has gone wrong.

If we weren’t so complicated, we couldn’t do all the amazing and beautiful things that we do. In that sense, complexity is a great gift. So is confusion.

And as it turns out, some of our best and most beautiful moments happen when we have no idea what we’re doing.

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Getting #@%&!*d off at God

Angry  My friend Jan was telling me she had to wait a long time for the attendants to get her out of bed that morning. Hours later, she was frustrated and still fuming.

Jan is one of the ladies I visit in a nursing homes as a hospice volunteer. She’s in her 90s and has a better memory than me most days. Her legs aren’t what they used to be, so she needs help getting out of bed and into her wheelchair in the morning.

On this morning, the attendants were either very busy or simply dilly-dallying. Jan really needed to get up and use the bathroom. The long wait was excruciating.

Did she complain?

“No, I couldn’t do that,” Jan said emphatically. “They might get upset with me and ignore me every morning. Then what would I do? Better to just hold my tongue.”

How many times have you wanted to complain about something but you held your tongue because you feared there would be repercussions? Instead of telling someone to go jump in the lake, you simply seethed inside? Isn’t that frustrating?

Speaking of which, have you ever told God that you’re #@%&!*d off?

And, why not? If we’re going to take God seriously, that means venting when things get under our skin, doesn’t it?

Not a week goes by when I don’t look up and some point and say: “Really?!? Is this the best you can do? Are you even paying attention here?” Or I get confused and frustrated, so I say a favorite prayer: “What the …. ”

OK, I’ve never been confused with Pope Francis.

The thing is, though, that it helps me feel better for a moment and collect myself. And I find that whenever I talk to the divine – even if what I’m saying ends with ?!? – I feel a connection. And if I’m not allowed to put all of my emotions into the conversation, complete with exclamation points and question marks, then it’s not much of a relationship, is it?

I know that we’ve been raised to think of God in more reverent and deferential terms. We don’t dare challenge the Almighty because, well, there’s that whole smiting thing. Better to treat God like one of Jan’s caregivers at the nursing home. Don’t give no lip. Just let it be.

But if we’re going to take God seriously, then shouldn’t we be treating God the way we treat those we love?

Let’s face it: Those we love the most are usually the ones who get under our skin the most. If we’re never upset with someone or hurt or challenged by them, then they probably don’t matter to us all that much.

Relationship involves putting ourselves into it and making ourselves vulnerable. And that sets us up for a lot of things. When we take someone seriously, we’re going to get frustrated and irritated and disappointed with them many times for many reasons. And them with us.

For doing something stupid. For being selfish. For being too needy. For not meeting our expectations. For not doing things our way. For ignoring us. For challenging us. For getting too close. For pushing away. For saying too much. For not saying enough. For falling off the pedestal that we hoisted them upon.

And on and on and on. The list is endless for each of us.

We’re human. It happens. And it’s a sign that relationship is happening, too. Real relationship, not the superficial, happily-ever-after stuff. And anger is a part of it.

But when there’s love, anger never writes the ending. We work through it and get to the point where we understand and apologize and forgive and laugh together. And the anger evaporates and leaves behind another deep, rich deposit of life-giving love.

So, what about us and God?

If we take God seriously, then shouldn’t we get upset with God? Treat God as though she/he is as real to us as the people we love the most? Isn’t God big enough to handle a little of our frustration?

We experience God through love, yes. But maybe through our indignation as well.

And here’s the really good part: No matter how much we lash out, the divine response is always unconditional love. A love that accepts and understands and soothes. A love that sweeps up our angry, frustrated, complaining selves and pulls us close for a hug. And reminds us again that we’re really adorable when we’re mad. And it’s all going to be OK. Really.

A love that challenges us and prods us to grow, knowing our response often will be to grumble and complain. A love that keeps reaching out to us, knowing our response will sometimes be to shrink back and mutter something colorful.

A love that’s OK with all of it because it wants only one thing: To be taken seriously, damnit.

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Fitting the ocean into a cup

Cup How often do you try to find the right word and it just won’t come to mind? You weigh this and that one, but it’s not the perfect fit. It doesn’t express exactly what you’re trying to say, what you’re feeling and thinking.

Or let’s say the right word comes to mind, but the person who hears it takes it the opposite of how you meant it. And you have to say: “No, no, that’s not what I mean.” And you start doing the word-search thing in your brain again.

You’re reminded that words are so slippery and squishy and imprecise and so damn frustrating. All words — from those in our texts and emails to those in our sacred scriptures – are inexact expressions of incomplete thoughts. Always.

In a sense, a word is like a cup. You can dip a cup into the ocean and fill it with salt water, but you can’t fit the entire ocean into that cup. It’s too small and limited.

It’s the same with words. Words can never contain anything completely – any thought, any experience, any feeling. It’s just not possible.

And this matters more than I can put into words.

We’re tempted to treat words as though they can somehow be infallible. In fact, they’re never that way. This applies to everything we write or say, and it’s important to remember.

Words simply don’t work that way.

I’m reminded of it every time I write something and get responses. Some of them have totally misconstrued the intended message. And I’m tempted to say: Wait, whose blog did you just read?

Part of it is that each of us attaches slightly different meanings to words. For example, if you grew up in a family that was reasonably loving and sane, hearing the word “family” will spark a favorable emotional reaction. If your family was over-the-top dysfunctional, that same word will make you shudder on some levels.

Same word, very different reactions.

Also, words resist our best efforts to pin them down to exact meanings. That’s why legal contracts have so many of them. And theologies, too. Big, unusual words with lots of syllables. We think that by multiplying our words and making them unwieldy, we can make them more precise. But we still end up fighting over them and what they mean.

And here’s the real kicker: Even we’ve come up with some measure of agreement over what a word means, it all changes. Words evolve. Just like a child growing from newborn to toddler to teenager, words go through phases and significant changes.

I’m reminded of how words evolve every Christmas when I hear Andy Williams sing about gay happy meetings. Or when the “Flintstones” theme plays and says we’ll have a gay old time. Or when someone tells me something is “cool” and they’re not talking about temperature. Or they say “bad” to mean “good.”

Words aren’t static. Their meanings change.

And we’re not even going to get into that whole translation thing. No languages match perfectly. When we take an imprecise word from one language and pair it with an imprecise word from another language, important meanings get lost. And when we take a passage from long ago and strip it from its cultural context, the words can become essentially useless. Or dangerous.

So, what’s the point to all of this? Perhaps that we have to respect words for what they are, including their immense limitations. When we do that, then words really can work for us.

Because even though words are limited, they’re also some of the most powerful things we have. They can inspire or hurt, help or hinder. They can spark love or hate, give us hope or dampen it. They can engage us and challenge us and sooth us. They can connect us or separate us.

We need to give words their proper due – no less, no more.

To use another analogy, a word is like a car. You can’t get into a car and drive to a star – the car’s limitations won’t allow it. But you can get behind the wheel, drive up one of those winding mountain roads, reach the peak and look up.

And as you do, you’re thankful that the car has just taken you to a place where you can see more brilliant stars than you’ve ever seen before. You’re still far away from them, but a little bit closer.

Close enough to make you smile, wipe away a tear and say: Wow! This is amazing. I’m glad the car could get me here.

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Getting scraped out and lit up

Pumpkins I love turning pumpkins into Jack-o’-lanterns. I love going to the greenhouse down the street and picking out just the right pumpkin — it has to be symmetrically round and have some of the stem left. Even better if the stem is a bit twisted.

The fun part is deciding how it will look. I get an erasable marker and draw the triangles for eyes and the jagged mouth, then cut them out with a serrated knife. I love putting the candle in the scraped-out pumpkin, turning off the room lights and striking the match.

I love seeing the Jack-o’-lantern come alive and glow for the first time. What fun!

The only part I don’t enjoy is scooping out the sticky, stringy goo and scraping the inside lining clean. Something about the scraping part bothers me. Maybe it’s because I feel that way inside sometimes.

Often, I’ve felt like a scraped-out pumpkin.

There are those times when it feels like something or someone has taken a sharp edge to the lining of our soul. There’s an empty, dark space at our core. And our insides start to ooze, just like the inside of the pumpkin after it’s been cleaned out.

We ooze pain. We ooze self-doubt. We ooze sadness. Uncertainty. Fear. Insecurity. Clinginess. Depression. We ooze all sorts of things.

Can you identify?

There are those common, everyday, oozing aches that are part of being human. Our insecurities get in the way of giving and receiving love for the one-zillionth time. We get hurt. We feel alone. We lose sight of what makes each of us so marvelous and amazing in our own way.

And we ooze.

Also, there are other times that hollow us out in more significant ways. An illness strikes. A relationship ends. A job goes away. A family struggles. Someone dies. And on and on and on. Those times can really leave us feeling empty and dark inside.

A lot of people have tried to make sense of why life is so full of pain. I don‘t know about you, but I find the many explanations inadequate.

Truth is, we don’t really know why pain is such a part of life. It just is. But we do know from experience how it works and where it leads.

We also know from experience that when we get hollowed out, we’re left with an open space and a decision: Do we leave the space empty? Or do we fill the void with a candle and light it?

Do we stay dark, or do we choose to glow?

Now, this sounds very Hallmarkish, I know. But I also know that it happens to be true — painfully and terribly true. The most beautiful that I know — the ones who really glow — have been through some of the most unimaginable things.

And no, they didn’t choose any of it or want any of it to happen. Far from it. But they got through it and they healed. With the help of others who have also been scraped out, they learned how to stop oozing.

And in time, they learned how to glow. And they’re willing to help others do the same.

The hollowing out process creates an unexpected opening, a sacred space. We’re transformed in significant ways. And there is no going back. Once our goop has been scooped, it can’t be reattached. The hollowing-out process leads us to a new place.

And to a decision.

That dark, open space at our center — what will we do with it? Will we leave it that way? Or will we choose to do something else?

We can choose to place a big candle in our center, light it and glow.

Sometimes, we have to sit in our darkness for a while before we have the energy and courage to reach for the matchbook. But that’s OK. It’s part of a process.

It’s OK if our hand is still trembling as we strike the match. There are others offering a hand to steady ours as we light our candle.

And they take a step back to see how we glow, and they smile and say: Wow! I know that was rough, but I really love how you look now.

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Stop the bus, I want to get off

Bus Not a day goes by when I don’t say: Stop the bus, I want to get off. I can’t do this. I’ve had it. It’s not worth it.

You know what I mean?

You’ve been right there, too. Telling the bus driver that this is your stop. You need to get away from these other people on the bus. Why? Well, just look at them!

Everybody on this bus is a little crazy. Some of them are more like: Craaaazy. And if I’m being really honest: Yeah, I’m a little crazy too. Sometimes more than a little. And I don’t really like where we’re all headed.

Let me off here, please.

You know what I’m talking about?

You get up in the morning in a good mood. Pour the first cup of coffee, settle into the stuffed chair, grab your cell phone and check your news app. More bombs. More bullets. More hatred. More religious craaaaziness. Another massacre on a college campus. Someone is refusing to serve someone else because they have different beliefs.

Are you awake now?

You go on social media. There’s a lot of good stuff there. A lot of other stuff, too. Stuff that makes you want to turn around and go back to bed. But you don’t. Instead, you put the phone down, clear your mind and thank the Creator-in-Chief for another day and ask for a little guidance on how to use it to make a difference.

You think about the people in your life and how you can love them today. You resolve to go out and touch other people’s lives, remind them that they’re beautiful and loved. You want to spread a little kindness, provide a little healing.

And then you shower and dress and go out into the world and the real fun begins. Someone cuts you off on the interstate. There’s a traffic jam and you’re running late. There’s no place left to park in the cheap lot.

As the day goes along, you’re reminded that it’s so difficult to live in a way that brings a little compassion and love and healing to the world. You’re reminded that everyone else seems to be just as insecure and confused and neurotic as you are. And it’s exasperating and infuriating.

Stop the bus, please.

It’s easy to feel discouraged, and maybe even a little guilty. Others seem to be making the effort. They seem to be committed to riding the bus to the end of the line. Me? I’m a reluctant passenger much of the time.

But that’s OK.

Many of us were raised in a religious setting that emphasized faithfulness. Of course, faithfulness is a squishy term. Even the most committed among us have those moments.

As one of the stories goes, Jesus had a stop-the-bus moment the night before he was killed, asking for the cup to pass him by. He wanted off right then and there. And his dear friends? They jumped off the bus and ran away from it as fast as they could. And when their leader was confronted, he said he knew nothing about any bus. Never seen the bus or been on the bus. Three times, no less.

Everybody gets off the bus now and then. And runs away from it screaming.

A better question: Why do we get back on it again?

Simple answer: It’s the only place where we’re ever really fulfilled. It’s the place we’re meant to be, and we’re reminded of it every time we leave it.

You get frustrated with everything around you, and then you see the smile on the face of a child and you think: This is pretty cool. You see someone who needs help and you try to help them and you realize: This is who I am. This is what I am about.

Yeah, this.

You realize that each act of kindness – given and received — brings a sense of the divine into your everyday life. You recognize that you’re much happier when your life is occasionally upended by the fantastic. And you appreciate that grace is fulfilling you in ways you never even knew you needed.

So you get back on the bus.

The bus driver? She welcomes you with a smile. And reminds you that you’ll always have a seat on this bus. In fact, she’s saved your seat for you, knowing you’d eventually want it back. Now, just enjoy the journey. And try to take care of the other passengers too, OK?

Even if they, like you, are a little bit crazy.

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Finding buried treasure everywhere

Buried treasure I’ve always enjoyed pirate stories, especially the ones that involve a quest to find buried treasure. The search for something magnificent that’s right there, just out of sight. And if you know where to look for it and have the commitment to dig for it, you will find it.

When I was growing up in Cleveland, my friends and I sometimes played “buried treasure” games in our yards. We couldn’t actually dig up the grass to bury something – the parents would be so angry – so we had to hide a little trinket somewhere in the bushes or the garden and then draw a map and let others try to find it. It was great fun.

Don’t you love the romance of buried treasure?

It’s an idea that’s found in cultures throughout history. People fantasize about finding a treasure that will change everything. I wonder if lotteries are appealing because they play off that idea of gaining unexpected riches. The “National Treasure” movies are so much fun with their encrypted maps and hidden secrets.

Even our various religious texts include passages about hidden treasures. There’s one in the gospels where God’s realm is compared to a treasure, and the person who recognizes it sells everything to buy the field where it’s buried in order to claim it as their own.

It’s a powerful image, and so much more. The truth is, each of us does this buried-treasure thing every day. One of our defining challenges is to recognize the treasure that is all around us and inside of us.

It works on different levels.

First, there’s the personal level. We’re challenged to open up and let others look beyond our gritty, messy exterior and see the pretty, shiny stuff inside. And also to invite others to open up for us so we can see the treasure inside of them, too.

And oh, it’s not easy, is it? Sometimes we end up with a big, long “Arrghhhhhh ….” We open up to let someone see inside, and they close us off. Or they get uneasy and backpedal. Others sneak a peek, but only because they feel obligated. And then they change the conversation, ignoring what they just saw.

You’ve probably had that experience. The other person is too afraid to look inside the parts that you have just opened. They’d rather keep them buried.

Thankfully, there are other people who see us as a treasure. You can tell they’re genuine about it. You know it in the way that they look at you, touch you, listen to you, treat you. You know it by the way they smile the moment they see you.

You feel it especially during those times when you get confused and scared and needy and a just a teensy bit crazy. They don’t pull back or run away. They still smile at the thought of you, which makes you comfortable sharing your confusion, fright, neediness and craziness with them.

You may lose sight of your value and worth, but they never do. They’re always there encouraging you to open up and shine.

Thank God for those people.

This whole treasure thing works on a much grander level, too. In fact, that’s where the realm-of-God thing really comes into play. It’s about recognizing every person as a divinely minted treasure and treating them that way.

That’s why we try to help whoever is thirsty or hungry or needy in some way, whether physically or emotionally. And we do it not out of obligation or an effort to earn divine brownie points, but because we recognize everyone’s inherent worth.

We don’t care whether someone is in a tough spot because they’ve made a bad decision or screwed something up. That doesn’t matter; they matter. We respond instinctively out of love.

And we do it immediately, the same way the man who found the buried treasure dropped everything and ran off to buy the field before someone else could claim it. Or the way the good Samaritan responded when he found someone bleeding by the roadside.

That’s what you do when you recognize a treasure – the treasure that’s you and me. Buried and unearthed. Dirt-covered and yet sparkling. Enriching us beyond whatever it costs to acquire.

All we have to do is dig a little bit.

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A shooting and a truthful 12-year-old

Bullet 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 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, 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 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 adamantly defend someone who thinks their rights are being compromised because they have to bake a wedding cake or issue a marriage license. But when a twisted individual with unfettered access to guns takes away all of someone’s rights with one pull of the trigger, we’re not concerned.

Just the way it is. Don’t ask what we could do differently. Now is not the time to talk about it. Hey, I didn’t pull the trigger, so leave me out of this. We can’t save everyone from gun violence, so don’t save anyone. Let’s get back to talking about that person who has 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: “It’s crazy how we’re treating each other, how we’re treating animals, how we’re treating the environment. And I must do something about it in my own way.”

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

This one’s on you and me.

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