A hug and a party

Hand holding sun

If you’re familiar with my blog, you know about Jean, one of the people I’ve gotten to know through my work as a hospice volunteer. I’ve written about her a few times.

Jean’s always been one my favorites. She grew up in Maine, swooned over a 6-foot-4 Navy man – love at first sight – got married and raised two children. She loved the Kennedys and asked me to read her books about JFK – her eyesight wasn’t so good anymore.

Her eyes and her heart were failing, but Jean’s mind was sharp. And her kindness was always intact. I’d knock on her door, walk into her nursing home room, and she’d smile and invite me – in her Northeastern accent – to sit down and catch her up on things.

“Give me the good stuff,” she’d say. “I want details!”

Jean was in her 90s. On her birthday, she’d say: “I never thought I’d live this long.” When I turned 60 and had trouble wrapping my head around that number, she started calling me “Mr. Chicken,” as in a spring chicken.

I liked that a lot. I enjoyed walking into her room and hearing her say, “Oh, it’s Mr. Chicken!”

During one of our many rambling conversations, Jean turned very serious and asked me something totally out of the blue: Do I believe in hell?

How do you answer that question? I went with honesty.

No, Jean, I don’t believe in hell — not the way it’s portrayed, anyway. I don’t believe in the Santa Claus version – God’s watching like a peeping Tom, ready to punish us with a lump of everlasting coal if we eat a hot dog on Friday or break some other rule concocted by religious leaders.

No loving parent would do that

I told Jean that I don’t believe in any of that. No loving parent would ever torture their child. And besides, all that hellish stuff we hear isn’t even Biblical. It’s totally un-Jesus-y. He told us that God is a loving parent who wants nothing other than to give us a big hug and an amazing party.

Jean said she didn’t believe in that version of hell, either. As a parent, she didn’t see how any loving parent could ever hurt their child.

So, why was hell on her mind?

Jean came from a strict church background and was taught that if you’re gay, you’re doomed to hell. Her daughter is gay and had recently married her longtime partner. Jean loved them both very deeply. They’re a good match, and it’s obvious that there’s much love between them. Jean was glad her daughter had someone who loved her and made her happy.

So, what’s the issue?

Given her “religious” upbringing, Jean was unsure how God would feel about it. She didn’t think God would hurt her child, but she wasn’t sure. She was losing sleep over it.

Ugh!!! I hate to see people tormented and tortured by all this twisted, warped theology of divine hate and retribution. You want my definition of hell? It’s people spreading that crappy theology.

I asked Jean if she thinks that God is love, and she said yes. I asked if she thinks that God loves her daughter as much as she does, and Jean said even more than she ever could.

So, do you think God blesses their relationship, too? Jean smiled and nodded. It was settled. She decided it was “silly” to even doubt God’s love.

And we never spoke of hell again.

We spoke of other things, of course. We talked about JFK’s affairs. We talked about getting snowed in by Nor’easters in Maine. One time, we got into another “religious” topic – how did people in Jesus’ time trim their fingernails?

We never spoke of hell again

She said it was a “silly” question, but she wanted to know. So, we Googled it on my phone, right there in her room, and got a suitable answer. (If you want to know, you’ll have to Google it for yourself.)

Jean died last month. I was on vacation. I didn’t get to tell her goodbye. At first, that bothered me. Then I realized I was being silly, to use Jean’s word.

An improper sendoff? The God of unending life and unlimited love would never permit such a thing. No goodbye was necessary. Someday there will be a reunion of me and Jean. And I have an idea of how it will go.

She’ll give Mr. Chicken a hug and invite me to join the amazing party. And she’ll want to catch up on things – all the good stuff, you know. In detail, of course. She’ll want all the details.

What’s the message about hate?

A blank sign in front of Ardmore Baptist church. Photo Pete Bannan

At a local rally against racism, speakers encouraged us to contact government leaders and urge them to speak out unequivocally against the hate parading in our streets.

What about our pastors? Shouldn’t we be asking them to do the same? And if they’re not, shouldn’t we be asking them why?

This applies whether you’re a churchgoer or not. The pulpit is a powerful platform that can be used to promote love or hate or indifference. It’s a huge part of this entire discussion.

If you attend a church, pay close attention to what’s being said and how it’s said. If you don’t participate in a faith community, pay attention to the message coming from various clergy, especially those who have a big pulpit because of their ties to the White House.

What are they telling everyone?

One of the many jarring aspects of the Civil Rights movement is how so many white churches endorsed and encouraged hatred. Some clergy condemned the marches for equality, while others tacitly supported white supremacists by refusing to talk about what was happening in the streets just outside their doors.

Some church leaders were segregationists who used cherry-picked Bible verses to try to justify their racism. Others were sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement, but afraid to speak out because they might be ostracized.

Silent behind stained glass

Also, they knew they could become targets of the racists who lynched civil rights leaders and bombed not only black churches but the homes of black clergy. They could be next. They might end up having to carry that cross, too, and they were reluctant to do so.

Some white church leaders settled for addressing hate in muted terms that wouldn’t offend the white supremacists sitting in their pews. In fact, the pastors’ refusal to criticize racism directly was seen as an endorsement from God.

Of course, not all white clergy and churches cowered. A great many had the courage of their faith to stand up and lock arms in the fight for equality. They were willing to pay the price for preaching the gospel that everyone must be treated as an equally beloved child of God.

Many are doing so as well today, but many others are not.

One of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s most famous works is his Letter from Birmingham Jail, which was prompted by public opposition from eight white clergymen. The Rev. King was discouraged by the way so many white church leaders refused to join the movement for love and justice.

“I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies,” he wrote. “Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders. All too often many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”

So, what about your faith community?

Has your pastor addressed the events of Charlottesville directly? Did they say that the racism and white supremacy are evil and contrary to everything that Jesus taught and lived?

Pulling a Pilate

Or did they reference the events with a brief, generalized prayer for the nation and move on? Did they talk about Charlottesville as some other place, implying that racism doesn’t need to be addressed right here as well?

Did your pastor pull a Pilate and try to wash their hands of the responsibility for addressing this deep sinfulness in our society? Or did they address it head-on?

Jesus’ God-filled life and teachings are direct, unequivocal, challenging and unpopular, both then and now. He didn’t hesitate to speak up for love and speak out against injustice, even when it cost him many followers.

What about your pastor? Are they speaking up against hate? If they are, make sure that you thank them for their prophetic courage.

If they’re not, this is the perfect time to ask them why.

Sharing the playhouse

Playhouse

My sister had a playhouse in her backyard when her two boys were young. It became a busy place when she hosted a garage sale. Children accompanying their browsing parents would see the playhouse and immediately head for it.

At one point, I saw five children playing together. They were different ages, different sexes, different races. They came from different backgrounds and likely had different religious upbringings. Yet there they were, playing together like one family.

When they looked at each other, they saw a playmate.

In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela notes that children have an innate openness that tends to get closed off as they spend more time in the world.

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” Mandela wrote. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

They saw a playmate

I thought about those five children in the playhouse this weekend when I saw those horrific images of young white men marching for hatred in Charlottesville. They’ve been taught that the playhouse is theirs alone, and only people who have the same skin color belong inside.

By contrast, those five diverse children in the playhouse hadn’t yet absorbed the deep mistrust, the sense of superiority and the scent of hate that’s in our society. They were still able to play together.

When we’re that age, we still see life through fresh eyes. We look beyond the surface and sense the magic. We’re filled with wonder at the small things and the enormous things — a lightning bug blinking, the Big Dipper shining.

As a child, we’re keenly aware that we don’t have all the answers or the whole truth. Instead, we try to learn about people and about life, which is why we ask a lot of questions.

We know our real limitations – small hands have trouble opening a big jar – and we embrace our dependence upon others. We’re not reluctant to ask for help, or to help someone else.

We play with whomever walks into our yard.

As we get older, we lose many of those childlike qualities. We think we have all the answers, so we stop asking questions and getting to know those who are different from us.

Entering God’s playhouse

We lose our ability to marvel at things big and small. We lose our sense of the sacredness in everything and everyone. We pull away from others. We reject our innate interdependence. We fight over who owns what and who gets to be in charge. We make rules for who should be allowed to play and how they can play.

We try to make the playhouse all our own. We condemn, evict and excommunicate anyone who won’t abide by our rules.

Many passages in our religious texts remind us of the need to be childlike. In one favorite scene, Jesus tells a crowd of self-important, judgmental adults that they need to become more like the child they once were.

If we want to enter God’s playhouse, we must do it with a childlike spirit and leave our mistrust and our sense of superiority at the door. We must accept everyone else as an equally beloved playmate.

We must share and trust. We must care for one another. We must see ourselves as a guest inside the God’s space, where the only rule is to love and get along. We must be willing to adapt and learn new ways of playing.

Each of us has to decide if we’re going to enter the house and make new playmates, or if we’re going to stand outside and sulk because people who are different from us are being invited inside, too.

The door is open. The choice is ours. The playhouse of God is on the other side.

It’s not about deserving, it’s about …

Wonder Woman

My favorite scene in the movie “Wonder Woman” is near the end when she has her revelation. She recognizes that each person is a mix of ugliness and beauty — always have been, always will be.

Now that she sees us as we really are, Ares suggest that Wonder Woman should simply ignore us humans because we’re flawed and don’t “deserve” her care.

“It’s not about ‘deserve,’” she responds firmly. “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”

I thought about that line when I read a Washington Post story recently. The headline caught my eye: “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort.”

Sadly, I wasn’t surprised. We’ve heard that a lot lately. Many self-styled Christians have become expert at justifying why they totally ignore Jesus’ life and his teachings.

I believe in love

They recognize that Jesus commands us to be passionate about the poor – that’s unavoidable. But they try to create a way around the command by suggesting that poor people aren’t really poor, they’re simply lazy, so we can ignore them.

They believe that poor people don’t deserve our compassion.

Or they suggest that Jesus’ passion for the needy is a personal mandate that doesn’t apply to anything we do collectively. So, it’s OK to exclude Jesus’ values from our politics, our government, our economy, our business, our society, and yes, even our religion.

Instead, we confine Jesus’ message to such a small part of our lives that it’s effectively neutered. We live by opposite values – self-importance, money, power, privilege. And we call it Christian.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying this to judge, but to challenge an attitude that’s in you and me. We all are tempted to think that we “deserve” what we have and they “deserve” their plight. Jesus challenges that attitude directly and unreservedly.

Instead of deciding that a person is bleeding by the side of the road because they made a bad choice, we put all judgment aside and stop and do everything we can to help.

It’s not about who’s made better choices. It’s about what we can do to help someone else.

Jesus reminds us repeatedly: That’s what you need to work on. Take the plank out of your own eye – it’s a barrier to love. Stop thinking that you can play God – you’re not. Stop judging who is “worthy” and who isn’t.

Instead, just love.

Love never judges whether someone deserves our compassion. It responds the way the father treats the returning prodigal son – he’s deemed totally worthy of a hug and a party no matter what bad choices he’s made.

We need to be like the father.

Just love

When we see a hungry person, we feed them and spend time with them. We visit someone in prison without judging why they are there; rather, we sit and listen and learn about them.

And those moments of unreserved giving change us. We begin to see things differently. We understand that our judgments were wrong. We become more loving.

We gain a deeper appreciation of the message that we must wash the feet of everyone – yes, including the ones who would make horrible decisions and betray or deny us. They need our love, too.

Everyone deserves our love, especially those whom the “religious” people deem unworthy — tax collectors, Samaritans, lepers, the homeless, the beggars, the sick, the mentally ill, the despairing.

Love them because that’s what grace is about. None of us deserves grace to any degree, but all of us receive it in abundance every day, no questions asked.

Let’s choose to believe in love.

Pardon? Or forgiveness?

Forgiveness2

The recent discussion of whether President Trump could pardon his family and himself got me thinking about how pardoning and forgiving are two contrary things.

A pardon protects someone from punishment for their behavior. Forgiveness seeks not to protect the one who has fallen short, but to touch them and to change them.

Pardoning erases an outward debt. Forgiveness transforms a person or a world from within.

A pardon moves on from the moment without requiring a price paid or a heart changed by the person involved. Forgiveness seeks to redeem and change the person and the moment.

Forgiveness isn’t about avoiding a punishment; it’s about reconciling and renewing relationships. Forgiveness transforms recrimination into reconciliation, division into unity. It replaces rejection with acceptance and hurt with healing.

A pardon? All that does is keep you out of jail.

Two different things

Forgiveness does what pardon can’t do because it originates in a totally different place. Pardon is rooted in the law and legality; forgiveness springs from the heart and is based on love.

Pardon keeps a record of appropriate punishment and then erases it. Forgiveness doesn’t count or keep track; instead, it offers unrestricted reconnection.

Pardon says you deserve punishment, and you should just be happy you’re not getting what you deserve. Forgiveness says you deserve love, and you are getting what you deserve.

It’s unfortunate that our concepts of pardon and forgiveness – two very different things – have been twisted around. We confuse one with the other, or we think that one substitutes for the other.

For example, we see it in the fundamentalist thread of Christianity. Forgiveness has been replaced by pardon, and legality rules instead of love.

It wasn’t that way in the beginning. Classic Christianity was much different, emphasizing love, compassion, reconciliation and unlimited forgiveness.

As Bible scholar Marcus Borg noted, the theory of “substitutionary sacrifice” didn’t become a main thread in Christianity until 1098. It was based on the feudal system of the time in which a lord couldn’t just forgive a servant who had disobeyed because it would encourage further disobedience.

Instead, a price was demanded to obtain a pardon. The substitutionary sacrifice theory reduced Jesus to a commodity in a business deal – someone dies, you get your pardon.

Essentially, God is depicted as a feudal lord who is incapable of actual forgiveness — if strings are attached, it’s not forgiveness.

Of course, the story of the prodigal son — proposed a thousand years earlier — reminds us of how forgiveness actually looks and acts. The ungrateful son returns home with no remorse – he’s not sorry, he’s hungry – and yet his father runs to him, embraces him, declares him a full son again and throws a lavish party in honor of his return.

Forgiveness has no strings attached

The son is warmly, passionately, happily forgiven. The father lavishes him with love and is ecstatic over their reunion. Why? That’s the nature of love. It seeks only to reconnect and transform.

The father also tries to transform the older son who complains that the wayward son is getting off without any sort of punishment. The father responds to the older son with nothing but love as well.

The parable’s point: No matter what we’ve done, we get forgiveness wrapped tightly around our necks like a hug. And there’s a party awaiting us with great food and drink and music and dancing.

The parable’s other point: Just as the father forgives both sons, we must forgive ourselves and each other the same way.

It means we pay attention to our shortcomings not to beat ourselves up or mete out punishment or earn some pardon; rather, we do it so that we can grow in love and learn how to join the divine party more willingly.

It also means that when we’ve hurt someone, we facilitate forgiveness by going to them and working it out. Those moments transform and heal.

Extending forgiveness is much, much harder than granting a pardon. Forgiveness involves great humility, vulnerability, and a willingness to heal anything that ruptures our relationships and ourselves.

A pardon spares someone from consequences without changing them. Forgiveness saves and redeems everyone involved by transforming them.

A pardon sidesteps love; forgiveness embodies it.

Forgiveness

On the same shelf

Same shelf

Young voices fill the old United Church of Christ building. More than 40 children energetically and noisily move about the basement room that serves as a cafeteria.

It’s another morning at the inner-city church’s summer youth program.

Kids from neighboring families come to the church each morning. Church members and college-age volunteers from AmeriCorps VISTA play with the children, teach them, and remind them that they are loved for who they are.

Then, everyone eats lunch together.

The church’s small kitchen brims with packages of food and all manner of pots, pans and utensils. Shelf space is limited. As you can see from the photo above, the communion cups are stored with the food offered that day.

Food and faith on the same shelf.

That powerful image sticks with me and reminds me that there are two types of religion.

Through us, with us, in us

One type is self-centered and future-oriented. You follow a code of conduct to get some reward when you die. Many Christian churches teach that you don’t get to meet Jesus until you die, and then only if you’ve behaved like a “good Christian.”

And the code-of-conduct for being a “good Christian” varies significantly among denominations and is constantly changing. What was deemed unacceptable yesterday is tolerated today. It’ll change yet again.

Often, these codes of conduct ignore or contradict Jesus’ passionate teachings about how we must treat each other and care for one another, especially for those who are needy, lowly and hurting.

That’s one approach.

Many other faith communities are committed to living the message of incarnation — God feeding, healing and transforming the world through us.

People of incarnation recognize God’s presence through us, with us and in us. They try their best to embody the love, grace, forgiveness, peace and healing that the world so desperately needs.

Through love and love alone

People of incarnation recognize that the kingdom of God isn’t some reward that you get when you die, but a place you can enter now. Your heart is the door. Everyone is invited to enter and enact God’s kingdom through love and love alone.

That part never changes.

The inner-city UCC church has a picture that sums it up. Across the street from the church is its food pantry. There’s a drawing on the wall that shows a line of people waiting to get into such a food pantry.

Waiting in the middle of the line is Jesus.

Churches of incarnation take Jesus seriously when he says he’s right here with us, especially in the poor and the needy. Faith is about recognizing and responding to that presence.

So they respond by feeding the hungry as close family, listening to the troubled and offering help, providing a hug and a moment of hope to someone who’s feeling despair.

Hope, a plate of food, and an experience of God. All coming from the same shelf.

Moments of awe and wonder

Lake Erie sunset

As the sun slid slowly toward the horizon, the clouds above and the lake below sparkled in brilliant, changing colors. I was back home in Cleveland for a few days this week and went to the beach to watch a sunset.

It had been a long time since I experienced one of my favorite things.

There’s something about standing on a beach at sunset that makes me feel both very small and very important at the same time. Being connected to the sky, the water and the earth gives me a sense of belonging and gratitude.

Others walked along the beach and splashed in the waves as the sunset performed its magic. I stood there and watched with a sense of wonder and awe.

All I could think was: Wow!!! Just wow!

When the sun slipped below the horizon and the sky’s colors started dimming into shades of gray, I turned and headed away. And I asked myself why I don’t do this more often.

The sun rises and sets every day in such spectacular ways. Why don’t I pay more attention?

Caught up in wonder

I’m bad at math, but by my calculation I’ve been given the gift of 22,570 sunsets and sunrises in my lifetime. Think of that – more than 22,000! Yet, how many of them have I actually noticed?

Very few, to be honest. I get so busy and caught up in the everydayness of life that I don’t remember to stop what I’m doing, look up and go: Wow!

And I’m the one missing out.

Deeply spiritual people remind us that those moments of awe and wonder bring us an experience of the Creator as well as the amazing creation. Such moments are drenched in holiness. They’re always right with us and available to us; we just need to notice them and allow ourselves to be swept away by them.

Why don’t we do it more often?

One of my favorite quotes from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is a reminder that such moments are at the core of what it means to be truly alive.

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted,” the rabbi wrote. “Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible. Never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

And those moments aren’t just individual experiences, either.

Such sacred moments

A few years ago, I was walking along Siesta Key in Florida as the sun was setting and transforming the color of everything around it. Perhaps a couple hundred people were enjoying the beach sunset with me.

Some of them were jogging. Others walked along listening to their music. Each of us was in our own little world, caught up in our own thoughts, doing our own thing.

People ahead of me stopped in place and started pointing toward the gulf. I stopped and looked as well. A pod of dolphins was playing in the sunset-tinged waves, splashing about in a way that made you smile.

Soon, most of the people on the beach had stopped to watch and talk to one another and marvel. It was a true “awe” moment that made you go: Wow! Look at that!

This diverse group of people – different ages, different backgrounds, different religions, different political outlooks – stood on the beach together and shared a collective moment of wonder. Strangers smiled at one another and talked to each other.

Our sense of awe overcame our differences and brought us together. It was a sacred moment in every sense.

We need more of those moments, don’t we?

Our collective awe

There’s so much frustration and division in our societies. It’s easy to feel like nothing can bring us back together and help us remove the walls and artificial divides we’ve spent so much time and so much energy erecting.

Maybe one way to do it is to get our heads out of the busyness of our daily lives and make ourselves aware of the wonder all around us. Allow ourselves to get caught up in the bright blessed days and dark sacred nights, as Louis Armstrong described them.

As we do, we’ll get the attention of the person next to us – the one who might feel so alienated from us – and simply say: Wow! Look at that! Aren’t we blessed to be able to experience this together?

Our shared sense of awe can humble us and reconnect us.