Near, dear, and not-so-departed

Day of the dead18

All Saints’ Day. All Souls’ Day. All Hallows’ Eve. The Day of the Dead. Our various celebrations this week remind us of a truth that is at the core of so many of our religious and cultural traditions.

Death can’t separate us from love. Those who love us are with us always. They’re near, dear, and not-so-departed. They remain an intimate and important part of our daily journey of becoming more loving people and building a more just society together.

We’re reminded that death isn’t about destruction; it’s a moment of holy transformation that takes us even deeper into life. We trade our heartbeat for a deeper place in the heart of God who is love, a heart that remains active and involved in our world.

Those who die remain part of our lives, available for more love, inspiration and relationship. That’s been the message all along.

Wrapped snugly around us

The gospels share a story of Jesus receiving a visit from two dead people – Moses and Elijah – to talk about his ministry. There are other accounts of dead people contacting the living. The resurrection stories remind us that death can’t break our connection to Jesus’ embodied spirit of love – he is with us always.

Over the centuries, the church has recognized and celebrated the “communion of saints” – we’re still in intimate union with those who have died. Some traditions encourage seeking their wisdom and guidance.

Various faiths and cultures throughout human history have drawn us to this truth in their own ways. Even our pop culture recognizes it. Star Wars and Harry Potter depict family and friends remaining active in our lives, giving us their presence and direction. Paul McCartney wrote a song about his departed mother – Mary – coming to him in a dream with words of wisdom.

Many people have their own stories of a loved one appearing in a dream or some other form at important times in their lives, bringing comfort or guidance. It’s universal across generations, religions and cultures.

There’s something there, even though we can’t wrap our limited brains and our limited experiences around it. We think in three-dimensional ways, but there are other dimensions at work. Faith encourages us to recognize the spiritual dimension which is intimately bound with all.

Or, to put it another way: Creation is all one thing, like a giant blanket. There are many threads on the blanket, all woven tightly together. When someone dies, they move from one thread to an adjacent one, but they’re still wrapped snugly around us, and not just in some metaphorical way,

Their paths and ours continue to overlap. We still travel together.

This can be a great comfort when we ache for their touch and experience the pain of missing their voice, their laugh, their reassurance that we are loved and never alone. We can quiet our minds and go deeper inside our hearts and hear them again.

We still travel together

It’s also a reassurance in our daily struggle to bring love and justice more deeply into our world. Our spiritual ancestors who struggled before us – who dedicated their lives to equality for all God’s children – are still participating in the struggle with us. Death doesn’t end our involvement in the movement; it merely transforms it.

We can take reassurance and courage from knowing that those loving and prophetic people still march with us, work with us, guide us and lead us. And when each of us moves on, we will remain part of the struggle, too.

As Paul puts it, there is nothing that can separate us from God’s powerful love, not even death itself. I’d say the same thing about those who love deeply. Nothing can separate us from their love, either.

Certainly nothing as small as death.

A bit of grace inside each wrapper

tricktreat

A young girl who was dressed in a frog costume toddled toward my house. Her eyes were wide, her gait uncertain. Her parents said it was her first time trick-or-treating.

I smiled, told her I liked her costume, and plopped a gift into her bag. She looked down at the snack-sized candy bar and then back up at me, unsure how to respond. Her parents told her to say “thank you.” She did. And off she toddled, trying to wrap her brain around this unusual night.

This isn’t how things normally work in our world.

People don’t usually dress as frogs. And people don’t usually smile at every stranger who comes their way and give them something with no strings attached.

The coolest part of Halloween – besides the costumes and the decorations and the pumpkins – is how we set aside a night to celebrate unconditional sharing.

We give to all who ask of us. Everyone who asks, receives. Nobody is turned away. We don’t judge whether someone is more deserving or less worthy. No one asks a child what they’ve done to earn their treat – well, I hope not, anyway!

A reminder of grace

Everything is freely given – no fine print, no hidden agenda. Everyone is accepted and welcomed, regardless whether they’re a young child in a frog outfit or a teenager who has outgrown costumes but still likes to get treats.

This is us at our best. This is what we are called to be all the time.

It’s too bad that we don’t operate this way more often. Instead, we waste so much energy creating standards of worthiness and judging who meets them and who falls short. We reward those who meet our arbitrary measures and deny those whom we deem unfit.

I know one person who doesn’t celebrate Halloween because they think that handing out candy teaches young people they can get something for nothing. They see it as a bad life lesson.

I see it as a reminder of grace.

Grace can’t be earned or owned, only accepted and shared. Our next breath, our next heartbeat, our next moment of love is handed to us with absolutely no merit on our part. They’re just plopped right into our bag.

How do we react? We look at the gifts, and then we turn toward the Giver and we say, “Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” And then we go and do the same.

The universe has bumped along for billions of years without you and me, and it’s done quite well without us, to be honest. And then, we got this unearned moment of grace, We were invited to join the party — along with everyone else — and enjoy all that it entails.

Filling each other’s bags

Yes, each of us is a divine charity case. And yes, there’s part of us that hates that. We’d rather live with the illusion that we merit and deserve all we have. We prefer the delusion that we’re self-sufficient and we somehow earned what we’ve actually been handed.

Grace reminds us otherwise.

I remember the times I’ve been the one wearing a costume and opening the trick-or-treat bag on someone’s doorstep. I recall bundling up against the October chill in Cleveland and going door-to-door to experience the kindness of strangers.

I can still feel those warm moments of giving and receiving.

I also remember the many times in my life when I was running low on important things – hope, joy, love, money, you name it – and someone came along and filled my bag again. Often, it was a stranger.

That’s how this works. We give and receive, enclosing a bit of grace inside each wrapper.

Every day begins with more gifts plopped into our bags — another breath, another heartbeat, more possibilities and opportunities to give and receive love. Then for the rest of the day, it’s our turn to give generously and joyfully. And to receive thankfully and appreciatively.

To fill each other’s bags until they’re overflowing.

On the square: Lives written with the same words

Market Square

Market Square in downtown Pittsburgh was vibrant on the autumn afternoon that Gloria and I visited. Folks got a cup of coffee or a sandwich from one of the surrounding shops, sat at a table and enjoyed the company of strangers on a delightful day.

Some read books. Some listened to music. Some talked. One couple chased their young boy around. People made eye contact and smiled. Everyone was in their own space yet sharing this space.

I couldn’t help but wonder about each person’s story.

For instance, there was an older couple sitting nearby, holding hands and sharing one cigarette. How did they meet? What tough times have they overcome? What is it about each other that makes them smile?

Oh, and why only one cigarette?

Each one’s story

On the other side of the square, a couple doted on their young boy, encouraging him to run and watch the pigeons fly away. Will this moment become a fond memory for all of them? How many times have they been to the square already, enjoying the miracle of watching a child grow step by step?

Soon, a group of high school boys walked briskly through the square on their way home. Two boys in front were teasing one of the others. A boy in the back of the pack hung back a few steps and looked unhappy. Had he been teased? Does he get teased often for being different? Did he have that teenage feeling of wondering if you’ll ever fit in?

From the other direction came a student from the nearby college. She walked briskly and appeared troubled. Was she away from home for the first time and feeling homesick? Missing someone who had always been there for her? Wondering how she was going to get through the semester?

A family of Middle Eastern descent found an open table. They spoke in their native language. How have they been treated lately in their adopted country? What do they tell the children about our times? Do they live in fear?

A young man set up shop on a corner of the square, offering to draw portraits for $10. He was an extrovert, happily welcoming anyone who walked by. How did he learn to draw? Who are the most unforgettable people he’s met in this place?

As I looked around, I wondered how many of the people on the square had overcome cancer or some horrific health problem. Which ones were grieving the recent loss of a loved one. Which ones just got good news – a clear scan result, a promotion, a pregnancy test that came back positive – that had them feeling more alive than ever.

Each of us was in our own little world and also sharing our world with everyone else. Places like Market Square reminds us of our innate connectedness.

The same words

We give into our tendency to fixate on superficial differences, and we create opposing categories — young or old, male or female, gay or straight, single or married, black or white, Democrat or Republican, this religion or that one, this sports team or another one, and on and on. We draw many lines between ourselves and others.

As we do so, we overlook how we’re so much alike at our core. We’re all made from the same ingredients. We’re all doing our best to try to navigate through life at any given moment, in our own unique and yet universal way.

Our stories differ in their details but not in their genre. All our stories fit on the same shelf marked “human,” tucked snugly next to each other, cover to cover. When we listen to others’ stories, we’re reminded of our similar experiences and familiar feelings.

In swapping stories, we recognize that our lives are written with the same words.

As the shadows grew longer in the late-afternoon sun, the older couple got up – still holding hands – and walked away, taking turns sharing drags off that one cigarette.

They were walking each other home. Like all of us.

A headlight and a voice

headlight3

In the ‘60s, I attended a church that had very little to say about my world. I heard sermons about heaven, but hardly a word from the pulpit about what was happening on Earth.

And a lot was happening.

The Civil Rights Movement was forcing us to have a challenging conversation about equality. So was the women’s rights movement. With cities shrouded in fog and a river catching fire, the environmental movement questioned what we’re doing to God’s creation.

The “sexual revolution” asked whether intimacy is about more than propagating the species. The Vietnam war raised so many troubling questions about the use of power and military might.

With church so hesitant to wade into the subjects of the day, my generation began drifting away and looking for other places that were engaged in discussions about how we treat one another and our planet.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was challenging church to get its act together, get engaged and stop ignoring what was happening right outside its doors.

King told his congregation at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery that “any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.” And the people in the pews who knew oppression first-hand said amen.

Dry-as-dust religion

As the Civil Rights Movement grew and many white churches either ignored or encouraged the deep injustices in our society, King challenged them directly. He lamented that the church was so often a “weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.”

“But the judgment of God is upon the Church as never before,” he wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. “If today’s Church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th Century.

“Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the Church has turned into outright disgust.”

He was prophetic. Millions of people – especially young people – have turned away in disgust at what they’ve seen and heard in organized religion. And who can blame them?

I’m disgusted by much of what’s going on, too. Sexual predators protected and applauded. Women marginalized. Racism ignored and encouraged. Gay and transgender people condemned. People of other faiths attacked. Mulligans granted for unacceptable conduct in exchange for political favor.

But I also know from experience that so many people today yearn for real faith communities — and they do exist.

People want places where they can gather and be transformed by God-filled words about loving each other, healing the broken, caring for the poor and the stranger, and nurturing creation.

They want places where they can raise important questions without being dismissed as lacking faith. They want places where people help one another heal by entering each other’s pain and guiding them through it, not just reciting a prayer for them.

They want places that speak to their world and get engaged in those many important conversations that started in the ‘50s and ‘60s and continue today.

MLK mentioned how “so often, the Church in our struggle has been a tail light rather than a headlight. The Church has so often been an echo rather than a voice.”

Hope and possibility

Many people want faith communities that are prophetic rather than merely partisan. They want a voice reminding everyone that we are all equally beloved children of God and must be treated that way in all respects.

And especially now, people want places that remind them of the reasons for hope.

Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo movement, says, “Christianity is, really, when you take away all the pomp and circumstance, it’s about hope and possibility.”

People need to be shown hope and possibility. They need to be reminded that God always gets the last word, even now. It’s always been that way.

Pharaoh thought he could enslave the Jewish people forever. He was wrong. God had other ideas.

Caesar and his religious minions thought they could kill Jesus, bury his spirit and end his kingdom-of-God-on-earth movement. They were wrong. God had other ideas.

A white man thought he could fire a shot toward a balcony of the Lorraine Motel and kill Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, end his movement and erase his words. He was wrong. God had other ideas.

The political, social and religious leaders of our day who promote division, supremacy and discrimination think they have the power to prevail. They’re wrong, too.

God has other ideas.

So, let’s go work together with God on those other ideas. Let’s be a headlight that shows people a different way. Let’s be a voice that leads people in a different direction.

You still have the power. Use it.

RosaParksBus

Discouraged? Outraged? Some of both? Did the voices of powerful white men mocking, marginalizing and attacking a courageous woman make you sick and despondent?

Do you feel powerless against the deeply entrenched male privilege that’s on display?

Don’t give into that feeling. You have the power to change the world — more than enough. Just look at how much it’s changing even now.

One of the truest lessons of our greatest stories – including the gospels – is that just because your power doesn’t work this time, that doesn’t mean it’s not still there and capable of changing the world the next time.

When I visited the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis earlier this year, I was deeply touched and inspired by how one woman’s brave decision changed everything.

One woman makes a difference

Many times, Rosa Parks had obeyed the man’s directive to move to the back of the bus, feeling powerless against a system of white supremacy. But one time – this time – she said no. Shaking inside with fear, she stood up to the powerful white man driving the bus.

He won this round.  She was arrested. Her powerful “no” didn’t change the world that day, or the next. But over days and years, it transformed her society in ways she never imagined.

One woman has made a difference, and she will again. That’s not just our history, but our faith.

One account of the Jesus story begins with a fearful young woman deciding all by herself whether the story would even happen. She lived in a male-dominated society. Men reserved all important decisions for themselves. Women were treated more as property than persons in significant ways, just like today.

But the angel chooses to visit not a man, but this young woman whose courageous decision will embody God’s love and justice more fully in the world. The powerful will be knocked from their thrones, the lowly will be exalted and the hungry will be fed.

Let it be, she says.

Let us do the same.

Along the road, remember that you are never alone. Many people are committed to the proposition that we are all God’s children and must be treated that way in all respects.

The times are changing

And never forget that God is working with us too, which means that we shall overcome some day. God is always on the side of the oppressed, never on the side of the oppressor.

God himself stands with every man who tells his story of church abuse, never with the church leaders who mock and dismiss him.

God herself stands with every woman who tells her story of abuse by powerful men, never with the abusers who mock and deride her.

God supports those trying to get at the truth, never those who are trying to ignore the truth and keep their privilege in place.

Look at how far God has brought us already.

Rosa Parks never imagined we’d have a black president a half-century after she said “no” to the white driver on the bus.

Church leaders never expected that those whom they abused in private would boldly march into their temples and overturn the tables of power, making sure they don’t sweep the truth under the sanctuary carpet yet again.

Powerful men from Hollywood to Washington never thought they would have to pay any price whatsoever for their abusive behavior. But some already have. More will in days to come.

The times, they are changing. The moral arc is bending. God is making all things new.

No going backward

The angry voices and the disgusting mockery by powerful men are an unmistakable sign. They sense their white, male privilege is beginning to slip from their grasp. Their world is changing – they recognize it, they feel threatened by it.

And there’s no going back. They can slow the change, but they can’t stop it.

So, push on. Don’t despair. Don’t let one day’s events distract from the bigger picture. Big changes never happen quickly or easily.

You still have your power to change the world. Keep using it. Change is already here.

When God’s inside the hashtag

# Me Too

When the “Me Too” movement began, one of my long-time friends shared the hashtag on her social media page. She’d never mentioned her experience. I sent her a supportive note.

When we next met, she told me about her initial reluctance to go public for many reasons. Ultimately, she was swayed by the courage of other women. She hoped her hashtag would make a difference somehow.

So many women and men are speaking up about the sexual abuse they’ve encountered, knowing there will be a push-back in many cases – powerful men will dismiss them, church leaders will vilify them, people with agendas will attack them on social media.

Their courage is slowly changing how our society views sexual abuse and those who survive such abuse. The powerful are being held accountable – some, at least. A public conversation has started. New standards are being fashioned. Those who speak up are feeling empowered, getting justice and protecting others from abuse.

#MeToo is healing, holy work. God is inside every hashtag.

There’s another side to the story, of course. Powerful men – religious men, political men, corporate men – have dug in and resisted the divine quest for justice and healing.

And that puts each of us in position to decide where we stand, especially when people masquerading as religious leaders try to preserve the status quo.

Healing, holy work

We’ve seen it in the Catholic church. Those who were abused came forward and were essentially abused again by clergy who discounted and even shamed them. Working with God, they’ve finally brought the clergy to a moment of accountability and their church to a moment of reckoning.

The next step is to challenge the church’s broken, insular leadership structure that enabled and supported the abuse, even as clergy try to preserve it. God is working with the abuse survivors to bring about a reformation and a transformation.

In the past two weeks, we’ve seen the spectacle of Evangelical leaders insisting that a woman’s word about attempted rape doesn’t even matter – as though it doesn’t matter to God.

Many Evangelical leaders insist we should ignore a courageous woman’s “Me Too.” Franklin Graham said in an interview with Christian Broadcasting Network that Christine Blasey Ford’s account of fighting off rape doesn’t amount to sexual assault and isn’t relevant to any discussion.

It’s the good-old-boys’ line of defense: Shush the woman, support the man, sweep another horrific story of abuse beneath the sanctuary carpet to join the mountain of dirt already there. Pretend it didn’t happen. Move on.

A rejection of God herself

It’s that attitude which must be challenged and changed. Sexual abuse will continue so long as it gets the wink and nod of religious and social and political leaders.

That attitude must be called out for what it is: a rejection of God herself.

It’s a rejection of God who always sides with the oppressed and never with the oppressor, sexual or otherwise.

It’s a rejection of God who wants to get at the truth in every situation and never settles for silence or lies in the face of wrongdoing.

It’s a rejection of God who partners with women and men to challenge the male domination that has justified and enabled such evil things throughout human history.

It’s a rejection of God who always holds the hand of a survivor as they tell their story and never sides with those who try to sweep their story under the carpet.

It’s a rejection of God who says in solidarity: #MeToo.

Separating a firefly from its light

Firefly3

It’s a magical experience watching fireflies rise from the ground at dusk and blink their way high into the trees, performing their light show against the night sky.

When I learned the science behind how the bugs make their light – a process called bioluminescence — it didn’t make them any less magical to me. Rather, my new insights made me appreciate them more.

Understanding the science behind our daily miracles doesn’t make them any less miraculous. It should do the opposite.

This goes for not only blinking bugs but all of creation, including ourselves. Learning about how things work should broaden our appreciation and inspire more awe about the deep sacredness of everything.

Our growing knowledge also should inspire us to find better ways to care for the environment and for each other.

Unfortunately, many people have tried to separate science and the sacred over the centuries. They’ve constructed an imaginary wall between religious belief and scientific method, when in fact the two are meant to work together and lead us forward.

Much of the responsibility for this problem falls upon self-described religious people. Over the centuries, they deemed science a threat rather than an aid.

Meant to work together

They rejected the truth that the universe is billions of years old, the Earth is round, and the sun – not our planet – is the center of the solar system. They insisted people got sick not because of germs and unsanitary practices, but because they were being punished by God.

Science’s discoveries upended those ideas and opened ways for new ones. Religion tried to close the door and cling to old, inaccurate ways of thinking. Religion lost its way.

Science has lost its way as well. In response to the antagonism of religious leaders, many scientists pushed faith away entirely, declaring that it has nothing to say to their pursuit of understanding.

Ironically, science has fallen into the same trap, allowing itself to be twisted and misused by the rich, the powerful and the self-interested. Often, science has cast its lot with those who seek bigger profits at the expense of all else.

Scientists signed on with tobacco companies that would bury any findings about the danger of their products and prevent researchers from speaking out and saving lives. Oil companies use scientists to advance their interests, regardless how the planet is affected.

Science sold its soul to the highest bidder, just as religion sold its soul for a place at the table of power. We need to reform both of them.

Needing each other

Real faith will challenge scientists to work for the good of all people and all creation. Real science will guide our faith into a deeper understanding of creation and ways to serve one another.

We need faith and science unshackled from those who pervert and misuse them. We need an active curiosity about creation and meaningful encounters with the Creator.

Science and religion are complementary, two sides of one thing. Science seeks to understand how creation works. Religion tries to provide an experience of how the creator works.

Both are limited by human understanding – we’ll never fully grasp the universe or the One who made it. In their inexact ways, science and religion are meant to lead the way in bringing us new, helpful insights.

Science without religion? Religion without science? Neither way works. That’s like thinking we can have creation without a creator, God without love, or a firefly without bioluminescent light.

They always go together. We try to separate them at our peril.