Lost in a department store … and life

lost and found

One of my earliest memories involves being lost. I was about 4 years old in a department store with my mom. While I looked at items on a shelf, a group of shoppers came between me and mom.

I couldn’t see her, and I was terrified. I was afraid she’d left me. As I recall, I called out to her.

Mom stepped around the person who was blocking my view and came toward me. It’s OK, she said – I’d never leave you! I was watching you out of the corner of my eye the whole time.

Getting lost is such a universal fear. We dream about getting lost – at school, on campus, at home, at work, in an airport. Those dreams tap into that vulnerable, helpless feeling we experience many times in life.

For instance, we go off to school for the first time and we feel a little lost.

The teenage years – they’re all about feeling lost! We’re creating a separate identity from our parents, but we don’t know yet what that is.

Relationships – even the very best ones – challenge us in ways that make us feel lost at times.

We’re young and trying to choose a path in life and it’s a bit overwhelming, and we feel lost.

A helpless, vulnerable feeling

Parenting is a graduate course in feeling lost. Often, we have no clue what to do next.

We lose a job or have a relationship end or have some health issue, and we feel lost.

We leave the confining theological bubble in which we were raised and start looking for another faith community, but the process is unsettling, and we feel lost.

We put our heart and soul into some project that we’re passionate about and it turns out different than what we wanted, and we feel disappointed and lost.

We’re aging and we see where this is all headed, and we feel lost.

Our parent dies, and we feel totally lost on many levels.

We fall into habits that we know won’t provide the satisfaction and fulfillment we need, and we feel lost.

Getting lost is a common thread in not only our lives but also our faith traditions. Story after story tells of individuals and entire groups getting lost geographically and spiritually.

But our faith traditions also reassure us that in those times of feeling lost, we really aren’t.

God is a passionate finder, a non-stop seeker, determined to be there with us when we feel lost. As the story of the lost son goes, God is scanning the horizon nonstop to catch sight of us, run to us, wrap us in a hug and throw a crazy party that reminds us we’re always rooted in love.

Lost, and now found.

A passionate finder

When I covered the summer Olympic games in Athens in 2004, I wanted to see the Acropolis on my day off. I got a map of the public train system and planned my trip.

I boarded the train a couple blocks from the media village and counted the stops before I had to transfer to the line that would take me to the Acropolis. When I reached the transfer station, I had a problem.

It was a big, bustling station with train platforms all around. I had no idea which one I needed – everything was in Greek. I stood looking at the map in my hands, which was no help.

That “lost” feeling returned.

A middle-aged Greek woman saw my predicament and approached me. She said something I didn’t understand, but I could tell she was trying to help. I pointed to the Acropolis stop on the train map.

“Ah!” she said, smiling. She put her hand on the back of my elbow and gently guided me through the busy station. She walked me up a flight of stairs to an elevated train platform and pointed to the line that would get me where I needed to go.

I said, “Thank you so much!” She said something back, smiled, and went on her way.

I was lost, and now — with her guiding hand — I was found.

Anne Lamott says she doesn’t at all understand the mystery of grace, other than that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it finds us.

Grace is that hand on the back of our elbow guiding us through our current confusion. It gets us where we need to go, even when we don’t know where that is exactly.

It’s also a reminder that when we feel lost and afraid, God is right there, looking out for us and watching us out of the corner of Her eye the whole time.

Every breath we share

BREATH

An oxygen mask helped Wilma Jean take her final breaths in a nursing home room that was festooned with reminders of her life’s passions.

On the wall to her right was a framed photo of her husband of 59 years, smiling gloriously as he crouched to plant a vegetable garden. Small, round photos of her seven children and five grandchildren decorated an adjacent wall.

Wilma Jean’s family held her hand and shared stories of her life. Like all of us, she had discouraging and frustrating times that turned out quite the opposite of what she intended.

What stood out, though, was how her family’s stories were more about something else. They recounted how she spent her life breathing life into everyone and everything around her.

We’re tempted to measure our lives by the number of years between our first breath and our last, but that completely misses the point. What matters – what makes a difference – is what we choose to do with the countless ones in-between.

There’s much more to this breathing thing.

The familiar creation story depicts God exhaling a breath of life into our lungs, sharing so intimately with each of us this divine, animating force that changes forms but never ends.

Breathing life into one another

The story also reminds us that God breathed life not only into us, but into all that’s around us. Plants inhale the carbon dioxide that we exhale, process it, and breathe out oxygen that we then inhale.

This sacred breathing cycle — all breathing together — sustains life.

And here’s the good stuff: From our first gulp of air we not only have the ability to breathe life into our atmosphere, but into each other as well. We can do what God does on a smaller scale, if we so choose, breathing life into others in ways big and small.

At Wilma Jean’s funeral, family members described how she shopped for Christmas gifts year-round so that everyone would have a big, personalized pile when the day came. She wanted everyone to know that they matter.

At an advanced age, she learned to work a computer so she could make individualized cards, another way of reminding everyone how they’re special and loved.

She literally birthed a family-community and breathed life into it continuously with a love that still abides and animates. With every breath they take, she continues to breathe through them, with them and in them.

This circle of life persists, uninterrupted and undiminished.

So, what about us? One of the defining questions for each of our lives is how we use our sacred, God-given breath.

Use each breath wisely and generously

Some people use it primarily on themselves, essentially wasting their breath. Others use it to belittle, bully and harm, wielding it like a storm wind that batters everyone and everything around them. They undermine relationship, family and community.

And then there are those who try their best to breathe life into the world. They become co-creators with God, building families and communities that endure.

None of us does this life-breathing thing perfectly, but that’s OK. What matters is our intention and commitment. There are many ways to do it.

We breathe a little more life into our world every time we plant a vegetable, care for an injured creature, or show a moment’s kindness to another person.

We breathe life into our world when we get involved in a movement to protect nature and nurture people, or when we defend those who are being mistreated or marginalized.

We breath life into our world when we’re committed to the hard work of creating and sustaining families, faith communities and societies.

A good starting point is to ask the One who gave us our first breath to show us how to use all the others wisely and generously, all the way to the time of our last one and beyond.

Let us breathe.

Our beautiful, indivisible home

Earthrise

As Apollo 8 hurtled around the moon on one of its 10 orbits, the astronauts peered through a tiny window and were overwhelmed by something no human had ever seen.

There was Earth, 240,000 miles away — an indescribably beautiful sphere adorned in stunning blue and white and brown hues, sparkling against the inky backdrop of space.

Astronaut William Anders grabbed a camera and snapped one of the most iconic photos in human history, the one shown above that’s now simply known as “Earthrise.”

From their perch in space back in 1968, the three-man crew – Anders, Frank Borman and James Lovell Jr. – beheld a planet that’s both incredible and indivisible. As Borman later put it, “Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don’t show from that distance.”

Many astronauts describe how seeing Earth from space transformed them profoundly. It was a deeply religious experience in the truest sense of the word.

Freed from gravity’s grasp, they also were freed from the delusions that weigh us down here on Earth and distort our vision of our world and each other.

No lines in sight

They had risen above the nationalistic lines, the theological lines, the economic lines and social lines that we invent to keep us apart. They were free to glimpse the planet as it really is.

They marveled at its fragility and magnificence. They recognized our shared home as one unparceled thing.

Edgar Mitchell, who would later become the sixth person to walk on the moon, put it this way: “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.”

Few humans get to circle the globe, but we all have access to the astronauts’ vantage point. We can share their transformative experience on a different scale.

I remember how on my first plane flight, I looked down from my small window and realized I couldn’t identify locations from 30,000 feet. Which state was that below? Which country? What lake was that?

I was struck by how there were no dividing lines on the Earth – they exist only on our hand-drawn maps, in our heads and, to the extent that we permit, within our hearts.

Once we grasp this reality, our outlook changes. We take a deeper interest in nurturing nature, which provides everything on our planet with life and beauty.

We build relationships with those who are different from us in some superficial way — different language, different culture, different religion – and bridge our societies’ artificial divides.

We’re free to do this. Our line-drawing pencils also have fully functioning erasers.

We’re not doomed to repeat this pattern of fighting endlessly over imaginary lines. We don’t have to remain in destructive patterns of carving up the planet and building walls between one another.

We can take a Higher perspective and recognize what’s within plain sight: We’re one family sharing an indivisible home.

An even bigger leap

International Space Station astronaut Karen Nyberg noted that if every person could fly around the world just once, our view of ourselves and our world would change significantly and we’d interact very differently.

Space Shuttle astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz recounted how many astronauts return from space with a feeling that they’re citizens of an entire planet, not just one small corner of it.

Fifty years ago this month, a human being took one small step that was such a giant leap for all of us. It’s long past time that we take an even bigger and more necessary leap.

Step beyond our artificial lines. See our world as the Creator made it – a breathtaking place zooming through the sacredness of space. All aboard share one mutual home.

No lines anywhere in sight.

Measuring sticks for relationship

measuring sticks2

Is she Slovak? After my first date, that’s the question I got from some of my relatives. It wasn’t surprising.

One set of my grandparents immigrated from Czechoslovakia, bringing their customs, traditions and religion to the new world as a source of comfort. To preserve it, immigrants wanted their Slovak kids to marry other Slovak kids and have Slovak babies who would eat pierogi and dance to polkas.

Other relatives reacted much differently to the news I’d been on a date. They’d say, “This girl, what is she like? What do you like about her? Does she make you smile?”

Right away, I learned there were two very different ways to measure relationship. One judges it foremost through cultural norms, while the other sees it primarily through the lens of love.

Unfortunately, the first way has been the most popular.

Throughout history, we’ve used relationship as a means of division, a way of keeping people apart. We’ve decided that these people can’t be with those people. We’ve drawn lines between people we consider acceptable – basically, people like us — and those who are different in some way and thus unacceptable.

It’s a tale as old as time.

Throughout history, people have been told they mustn’t have relationship outside their national, ethnic, social or religious circle. Marriage has been about something other than love primarily.

Relationship holds everything together

For instance, black people and white people in the South couldn’t have any relationship whatsoever when I was growing up — they couldn’t even drink from the same water fountain. States had laws preventing marriage of an interracial couple, even if they loved one another. The same went for gay people until a few years ago.

You’d think that religion, which is meant to bring us together in love, would help erase those lines. Sadly, it’s often been misused to draw them and enforce them.

Jesus lived in a culture full of such lines, and he paid them no attention whatsoever. He ate with people he was told to avoid, healed those he was told to shun, and loved people he was told he must never love in any way.

And he said everyone must do the same.

When the religious line-enforcers complained, he reminded them that love alone fulfills what God wishes from us. To live in God’s spirit means we’re trying to have loving relationship with everyone, including those whom we label our enemies.

He reminded them that this has always been the core of true faith.

The creation stories describe how relationship is part of God’s very nature – and ours, too. We’re made from the earth, and thus in intimate relationship with it. We’re made from each other as well, and thus intimately connected to each other.

The authors of the creation stories had no concept of how the universe works, but science tells us they got the main point right.

We are made of the same stuff as everything else at our elemental and atomic level. A trinity of particles – proton, neutron, electron – clings together in cohesive relationship, forming all that God has created.

All humans are made of the same stuff, too, sharing the same DNA. We’re carbon-based copies of one another, created for intimate relationship with each other.

Relationship holds everything together. As Richard Rohr puts it, “God is love, which means relationship itself.”

Every loving relationship is sacred and blessed

In loving relationship, we make the other’s needs as important as our own. We give them room and encouragement to continuously grow, and we encourage our differences and our diversity.

We lower our protective walls and let the other inside, even though we know that they’ll inevitably hurt us — and we’ll hurt them, too, and forgiveness and healing will be required.

We ask the other person to kindly and patiently challenge us to grow, as we kindly and patiently challenge them as well.

We invite the other into a never-ending conversation in which we share not only the parts of ourselves that make us proud, but also the ones that cause us shame and disappointment.

We pay attention to how we’re treating the rest of nature that holds us in a web of mutuality.

Yes, loving relationship is hard work, but it’s the most necessary work in our lives. It’s where the good stuff happens. It’s how we experience God and ourselves.

Whenever love is present in a relationship, God is present in that relationship, too, and that relationship is holy and sacred and blessed and sanctified.

Loving relationship takes us to a place we can’t go alone – directly and deeply into the heart of God, who is love. Nothing else can.

Waiting to be recognized

Hidden Pictures2

When I was a boy and my parents took me for a doctor or dentist visit, I’d spend my time in the waiting room reading Highlights for Children magazine. The Hidden Pictures page was my favorite.

You might be familiar with it. There’s a drawing with small objects cleverly concealed within the picture. The challenge is to spot them. Some are obvious. Many blend in so well that they’re hard to recognize.

I’d turn the page sideways and upside-down to get a different perspective, free my focus and locate the comb or the toothbrush or the trained seal that was hidden in plain sight.

Finally, I’d see it and be astonished at how many times I’d looked directly at it without recognizing it. How could I have missed it?

The Hidden Picture page became a life lesson for me, reminding me that just because I don’t recognize something right away doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I need to be attentive.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-dayness of life and fail to recognize all the really good stuff all around me. I shuffle along, putting one foot in front of the other – handle this problem, move onto the next – and I forget to stop, look around and be amazed.

We have to look

Life throws so much at us that it’s easy to lose our focus on what really matters. Our self-immersion produces tunnel vision.

Our eyes pass right over so many moments of grace.

One of religion’s main jobs is to help us see important things that escape our notice. Unfortunately, our actual practice of religion ends up being short-sighted much of the time.

Religion gets co-opted by those who try to limit where and how we can look for God. They tell us to look for the hidden comb, but not the trained seal – keep your eyes away from the trained seal, for God’s sake!

They commit the great sin of trying to prevent us from recognizing the divine presence in everyone and everything. By contrast, religion – the real deal – is about learning to see what’s right in front of our eyes.

We all live with doubt and confusion. We’re looking for something, but we can’t seem to find it even though we have a sense it’s right there.

Often, we fixate on one thing to the exclusion of all else. We’re so intent on finding the canoe that our eyes pass right over the comb and the toothbrush and the needle.

When we obsess on one thing – like, ourselves – we miss out on all the other things that are right there.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can always find what we need, if we look. Seek, and you will find, as the saying goes.

Right in front of us

If we look for good in the overall picture, we’ll find an endless supply of it. If we look for pain and misery, there’s plenty of that, too.

Sometimes we get frustrated at our inability to find something, and we decide there’s no hidden ice cream cone, contrary to what the instructions say. In reality, it’s right there.

Or we fear that being attentive to something in our life is going to challenge us to change, so we pretend not to see it and we turn the page. We all do that, countless times.

Again, the choice is ours.

Even though we never see the entire picture, we can — with a determined, sacred squint – recognize how all our lines intersect. We begin to see our important place in our small portion of the drawing.

That’s how spiritual growth works. With practice, we become better at recognizing things which previously escaped our notice.

In new ways and different forms, we experience the Creator who’s present in every nook and cranny of our daily lives — just like the toothbrush and the canoe and the comb.

Always right there, in front of our eyes, waiting to be recognized.

Little Joey and the blue sidewalk chalk

chalk be kind2

The toddler grabbed a stick of blue sidewalk chalk and licked it. His grimace showed that his taste buds worked perfectly.

I cleaned Joey’s lips with my handkerchief and told him chalk isn’t for eating – none of which he understood, of course. Words are a mystery at his age.

I guided his hand downward to the church sidewalk and showed him how the chalk can make pretty blue lines on the ground. Joey was unimpressed. He had a better idea.

Holding the stick of chalk aloft like a scepter, he scampered down the sidewalk, as though he was royalty and this was his kingdom. Then, he stumbled. The scepter flew from his hand.

The chalk rolled beneath an artsy, metal bench next to the sidewalk. Joey spotted the chalk and ducked his head beneath the bench’s sharply angled edge as he went to retrieve it.

Oh, no!

Joey and his family were at the church as part of an interfaith program that helps struggling families. Volunteers provided dinner. Afterward, we took the kids outside for playtime while the parents relaxed for a little while.

Little Joey got my attention, and not just because we share a name. He looks similar to me in my baby pictures – same hopelessly thin, curly hair, eerily similar facial features.

I felt like I was looking at one of my baby pictures.

And now, when Joey stood up, that curly-haired head would encounter the unforgiving edge of the bench. Scalp would meet metal. Screams and tears would follow. Maybe some blood, too, and perhaps Joey’s first trip to the emergency room for stitches.

Oh no!

I dashed toward the bench. As Joey reached for the chalk, I stretched my right hand protectively over the top of his head and guided him safely away from the edge.

Joey gave me a quizzical look, wondering why I’d just done that. Then he held his blue scepter aloft and toddled away, murmuring something happy.

In a moment of grace, his noggin had been saved – for tonight, anyway.

Joey will grow up with no recollection of that moment or that night. He won’t recall how awful the chalk tasted or how a stranger’s hand found his head at an opportune moment.

As I watched him ramble away, I wondered how many times in my life somebody had done the same for me, helping me while I was oblivious.

So many people have entered my life at different moments and given me what I needed – protection, encouragement, a hug, direction, friendship, love, stitches, casts, words of healing. I couldn’t have gotten this far without all of them.

Grace, embodied.

I think of grace as the hand that finds our head when we’re about to bash it against a hard edge. Grace also guides us and teaches us — no, you can’t eat chalk.

Of course, grace isn’t a bubble wrap. Life isn’t a Hallmark movie. We get hurt, things don’t work out. But grace is there in those moments, too, ready to sweep us up, wipe our tears, heal our hurts, stitch our wounds, and remind us that we’re always loved and never alone.

And then we toddle away toward our next adventure, flirting with some other sharp edge.

Grace is that mysterious Presence that helps us go where we need and get what we need, even when we don’t know where we’re headed or what we really need.

Even when we try to reject it.

Grace is never optional

 

Our American ethos of rugged individualism is essentially a rejection of grace. We’re told to be self-sufficient and earn all we have. We’re lectured about taking responsibility for our own heads and, if we bump them, we shouldn’t go crying to anyone — it’s your own fault, leave me alone.

It’s the opposite of grace, which is completely unmerited and essentially needed. Grace is always a collective effort. Grace is never optional for any of us.

We may convince ourselves that we’ve retrieved the chalk without anyone’s help. We can toddle away without recognizing the hand that not only gave us the chalk but also saved us from the sharp edge.

Thankfully, grace keeps reaching toward us.

 

Sausage, polkas and damned heretics

pierogis and sausage

I grew up in a Cleveland neighborhood known as Slavic Village. Immigrants from diverse parts of Europe moved to the city and formed their own communities. Each had its own churches and bakeries and restaurants and taverns.

The Italians lived in Murray Hill. The Germans were on the west side. Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Croatian, Hispanic – each had their own neighborhoods.

The various immigrant groups had much in common. Their languages were often similar. They dressed alike – babushkas were universal. They ate similar foods – each had their own kinds of sausages, and many loved pierogies. They danced to polkas and other ethnic music that sounded so similar.

They had another thing in common: disdain for the other groups. They brought long-standing prejudices with them from the old country.

Growing up in this immigrant culture, I learned that each group had slurs and characterizations for the other groups. Italians were mobsters. Polish people were stupid. The Irish were drunks. Germans were this, Russians were that.

This group was shiftless and lazy. That group was untrustworthy and dangerous – they’ll fleece you or hurt you, so stay away from them.

They shared a collective disdain for Jewish people and black people. Catholics had slurs for those “damned heretic” Protestants, and Protestants had their own slurs. I remember being caught off-guard the first time a Protestant referred to me as a “cod snapper.”

Jews and black people? They needed to keep in their place. And women, too.

They’re not like us

Of course, the immigrants knew that members of their own ethnic/religious group were dishonest or lazy, but those people were viewed as individual failures rather than a reflection on the entire group. They were the exception.

However, when someone from a different group did something wrong, it confirmed their prejudice against that other group.

See! What did I tell you? Those (fill in the blank) are all that way!

They favored an open immigration policy, of course, but they thought there should be fewer of those people coming into the country because, well, they’ll make the whole country go to hell.

For me, it was eye-opening. As a second generation of an immigrant family, I didn’t have those long-standing mistrusts wired into me. In fact, it all seemed so silly. Bizarre, even. To me, these people were far more alike than different.

While each ethnic group was proud of its distinctive foods, my generation liked culinary diversity and enjoyed trying other cultures’ dishes. To us, it was all food — and delicious food at that!

Same with the music. There are different types of polkas, and different ethnic groups thought their music style was better than others. We enjoyed different types of polkas – and Motown and the Beatles, too, which didn’t go over well with some of our grandparents.

To us, it was all music.

As the immigrants died off, their cultures began to blend and mix in succeeding generations. The stark boundaries they drew between themselves and others softened.

But boundary-drawing hasn’t gone away.

We’ve seen a resurgence. I guess prejudice and hatred merely find new forms, new lines to draw in each new generation.

We hear people saying Hispanics are all dangerous gang members and drug dealers who must be kept out of our society — after all, you know how those people are, they’re not like us.

We saw the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, encouraged by some of our nation’s political and social leaders. Jewish people and black people remain prime targets for old hatreds.

It’s all the same

There’s talk about how gay people are this, Muslims are that. Millennials are selfish and undependable, women can’t be trusted to lead or make decisions about their lives. People from other religious upbringings are great sinners to be avoided and shunned.

People like us mustn’t have any dealings with them, you know.

I heard those things so often in my youth, and I hear them again today. And my reaction is the same: Why can’t we see how crazy this all is? Why do we consider our diversity as a threat rather than an opportunity?

We don’t have to eat only one kind of sausage. We don’t have to dance to only one style of polka. We don’t have to speak only one language. We don’t have to stay in the bubble of our own upbringing.

We’re all God’s children. Our diversity is a precious gift. We can enjoy one another, learn from one another, share each other’s traditions and ways.

We can enjoy kielbasa or mettwurst or a vegan sausage. We can dance to polkas or rock ‘n’ roll or rap.

It’s all food. It’s all music. We’re all people.