A mom’s reminder: You’re never lost

Outstretched arms

One of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories involves getting separated from my mom in a department store. She was looking at items, and I got bored and wandered down to a display at the end of the aisle that caught my attention.

After a little while, I looked back and didn’t recognize my mom in the crowd of people. I thought she’d left without me.

I got frantic. I remember suddenly feeling so alone and frightened in this big place with all these strangers. What will I do?

I started to cry.

In a flash, my mom heard me and came toward me with arms outstretched. Don’t be afraid, she said, wrapping me in a hug. I’m right here. Everything’s OK.

There have been many throughout my life that I’ve had that same feeling of being alone or lost in a big, scary world. It’s like being in the department store all over again.

At this time of year, many religious faiths reassure us that we’re never alone. They remind us to listen for that voice saying: I’m right here. Always.

It’s all OK

For example, Advent is a time of remembering that God is with us. Our attention is focused on incarnation – God living through us, with us and in us at this very moment to bring love, justice and healing to each other and our world.

God is right here. Everything is going to be OK.

For me, that’s perhaps the most challenging part of faith, trusting that our Parent is with us and caring for us in every moment.

It’s easy to feel that presence at some times: when you feel loved deeply by someone; when things in your life seem to be turning around; when you’re standing on a beach or looking up at the moon and stars and you feel so wonderfully small and yet so deeply grateful to be part of something so amazing.

Those transcendent moments remind us we’re not alone.

It’s the many difficult moments that distract us and sidetrack us. Life is full of challenging and often painful transitions. We lose a loved one. A job or a relationship ends. We wake up with a lump somewhere in our body. Someone whom we love deeply is struggling with some great challenge.

How often does it feel like you’ve been plunged into a whole new universe and you don’t know what to do? Nothing has prepared you for this. Everything has been turned upside-down and inside-out.

Those worrisome moments can swallow us up. Advent – the time of Emanuel, which means God with us – reminds us that we have loving company, outstretched arms that will get us through everything.

Never loses sight of us

We’re never lost or alone, even when we’re struggling to make sense of the latest unexpected twist in our lives. As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: “We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.”

The Creator of love and life is present in every tear of joy, and in every tear of pain. In every breath of relief, and in every breath of fear. In every moment of clarity, and in every moment of confusion.

We’ve been done a great disservice by those who portray God as an aloof and distant being who will seek us out only if we accept some somebody’s theological terms-and-conditions, including all the fine print regulating what you can and can’t do.

That’s definitely not the message.

The message is that we have a parent who reminds us we’re never really lost, but always found. A parent who wants nothing more than to wrap us in a divine hug and throw a wild party in celebration, no matter how prodigal or self-righteous we get.

Whenever we wander down the aisle and get frightened, God opens those divine arms and says: Don’t be afraid. I’m right here with you. Always.

Even when you lose sight of me, I never lose sight of you.

Skipping the “thank you” part

No thanks

I stopped in a grocery store on the day after Halloween and noticed the scene above: pumpkins getting replaced by Christmas decorations. Inside the store, the ghosts and goblins were migrating to clearance tables, replaced by all things green and red.

Yep. We’d done it again. We’d skipped right over the thank-you part.

Our consumer-driven society is so caught up in buying stuff and padding profits that we no longer see the need to observe even one day of thankfulness. That goes for our consumer-driven, Americanized form of religion, too.

We’ve reduced Thanksgiving to another shopping opportunity. We’ve turned Christmas into a buying spree that begins with those July sales and reappears a few months later.

The message: Forget peace on earth, just go and buy. A Jewish child was born 2,000 years go to increase current-day profit margins. And the only thing objectionable is when the store clerk fails to wish you “Merry Christmas” as they hand you the receipt — now, that’s something you need to protest!

No wonder we have lost our sense of thankfulness.

We’re divine charity cases

When everything becomes a transaction, there’s no need for thanksgiving. Our American mindset replaces prophets with profits and makes gratitude obsolete.

We tell ourselves that we deserve everything we have, and we need to go get more. We prefer self-reliance over unmerited grace. We think that we earn divine favor by believing certain things and doing things the “right” way.

It’s all a transaction – I do this, I get that – which means there’s no reason to say thank you. After all, I’m merely getting what’s coming to me, what I’ve earned through my own effort.

We avoid the truth that each of us is a divine charity case. All that we have, all that we are, was freely given to us – we didn’t earn any of it. And that bothers us.

It bothers me. I’d much rather be the one giving than the one receiving. I feel good when I help someone. When someone helps me, I’m tempted to feel somehow diminished, as though I couldn’t do it by myself.

That’s our Americanized values system talking. Go pull yourself up. If you need help in any way, you’re a failure.

Even our religion and our prayers have been Americanized and corrupted. We pray a thank-you that we have a roof over our heads and a good meal on our table, unlike the many others who do not. Thank you that I am not one of those people living on the margins of society – how horrible that must be! Thank you that I am not like them.

Ugh!

Challenges our Americanized values

We need the gratitude that brings us humility and reconnects us with each other and with the One who made all of us. Gratitude erases our illusions about winners and losers. It directly challenges our judgments about who is deserving and who is undeserving. It reminds us of our total dependence on our Creator for everything.

It opens our hearts and our hands.

Gratitude brings us back to the central truth that every breath and every heartbeat — all that we are – is freely given with no merit involved whatsoever. And everything is given to us so that we can share in the same spirit of gratitude and love.

Thankfulness reduces our reward-and-punishment notions to noise and nonsense. It opens our clasped hands to receive and to give more freely. It leads us to be more like the person begging on the street corner than the one eating the lavish meal in the fine house.

Thankfulness directly challenges our Americanized values.

If we were more grateful, we wouldn’t be so divided. Our squabbling would yield to a shared appreciation. Judgment would give way to embrace. Fear and anger would be replaced by love and joy.

Let’s reclaim thankfulness amid the bombardment of holiday sales and commercials. May gratitude soften our hearts and open our hands. May we live in a thankful spirit that brings life, love, healing and hope into the world.

May we say thanks by giving in overly generous and totally scandalous ways — the same way our Creator gives to each of us each day. And may we allow ourselves to receive from others the same way.

Time to say: Enough!

Enough2

Last Saturday, I stopped in traffic behind a car that displayed gun decals and a bumper sticker that depicted the “Hello Kitty” character with a bullet hole. The bumper sticker said: “Goodbye Kitty!”

I was appalled! How many children in other cars would see the sick caricature? How twisted is our society when people consider that funny?

The next day, a man with a gun and a grudge walked into a church in Texas and committed our latest massacre. The sickness in our society confronts us again, mere weeks after the massacre in Las Vegas.

Another day of darkness.

Honestly, I’d rather write about anything except another shooting, but we can’t ignore it. The massacres will keep multiplying and the body counts will continue rising until we do something to change it.

It’s time for each of us to say: Enough!

Things that matter

Say it firmly, prophetically and persistently. No more of the #prayers cop-out. Our silence, our fear and our indifference have helped create a culture in which there’s another worst-such-shooting every few weeks.

Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us that our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Individually and collectively, we must say: Enough!

We need to be a light in the great darkness that has overtaken our land. We must challenge our culture’s worship of weapons, violence and war.

How do we do it? Here are a few suggestions.

— We resolve that we will never again be silent. Silence enables the sickness to grow and makes us complicit in the evil.

— We reject the notion that nothing can be done. The onslaught of guns, bullets and murders isn’t inevitable. Our society is the only one where these things happen on such a scale.

Instruments of peace

— We remind ourselves what courage can accomplish. In the last few weeks alone, many brave women have pushed back against the notion that sexual abuse is ingrained in our culture, so they might as well stay silent and accept it. Their courageous words have already started making a difference.

— We push back against those who say the bloodshed has nothing to do with the guns. They blame “evil” or “human nature” or “mental illness” to distract us. Such dishonesty must never go unchallenged.

— We educate ourselves about the many aspects of the problem and the possible responses. We can’t have a productive conversation about solutions if we’re not knowledgeable.

— We talk to those who disagree with us, bringing an open mind and a respectful heart to those discussions. That’s how we forge common ground and make progress.

— We respectfully but firmly challenge those who insist the only appropriate response is more weapons and more violence. No, we don’t need more “good” people buying more guns and shooting more “bad” people. Enough!

Let’s not forget that it goes beyond guns. It includes challenging violence in all forms – bullying, shaming, verbal attacks, abuse of any sort. None of it should be considered acceptable, under any circumstance.

Enough!

There’s one more thing we must do. We must resolve that we will not support any person or any organization that considers these massacres acceptable. Our endorsements and our votes must reflect our determination to stop the carnage.

The world needs prophets, Jesus says, while in the next breath reminding us that they’re never popular. They do get results, however. They stir things up. They get a backlash from those who benefit from the status quo and want to preserve it.

Peacemakers and prophets have the courage to stand up and advocate for a different way. They change the world. It’s on you and me to do it, prophetically and persistently. It’s time to become instruments of God’s peace and heal our sick society.

Enough!

Saints, souls and interwoven threads

woven

My sister was taking a nap after being up all night with her two sick boys. She quickly slipped into a vivid dream. My grandmother, who had died years earlier, showed up in the dream and told her she needed to go help our mom.

The dream had an unusual texture – different than others. My sister woke up, feeling unsettled. She called our mom, who didn’t answer the phone. That was unusual.

My sister called my brother, told her that Grams had showed up in the dream and delivered the message. The two of them went to our mom’s apartment to check on her. She was having a stroke.

If they hadn’t arrived when they did, it’s likely our mom would have died alone there on the couch in her apartment.

How do you explain all that?

I’ve shared the story, and many people have shared stories of similar dreams, ones that feel more like visions nudging them to do something. Often, someone who has died is the message bearer. (If you’ve had such a moment, feel free to share in the comment box below.)

How does all that work? We don’t know, exactly. But those moments remind us that there’s far, far more to life than we recognize or comprehend.

Never alone, not any of us

This past week, many faith communities celebrated All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The celebrations have spanned many centuries and taken various forms. Different religions have different ways of honoring those who have died.

They all come from the same core of faith: Those who die are still with us in ways we can’t fully understand or adequately explain. They’re never apart from our lives and our hearts.

Creation is like a giant blanket. When we die, we move from one thread to another, but all the threads are still woven together. We’re still wrapped tightly around one another, bound indivisibly to each other. Death doesn’t change it.

We’re reminded this week that death is not destruction, but resurrection and transformation. Love and life never end – how could they? We can never lose our bond with those whom we love. They are still leading us and loving us in their own ways.

As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it:

“Apart from those who have fallen in combat, Americans tend to forget our ancestors, and we spend as little time as possible publicly mourning them. But in the church, we do the very odd thing of proclaiming that the dead are still part of us, a part of our lives, and are even an animating presence in the church.”

Live each day boldly, kindly and fully

I like the tradition of taking time this week to recognize and be thankful for the many dear people who are still part of our lives. Also, we renew our commitment to live as they have taught us. We resolve to be more like them – a saint – to the many souls that are part of our lives.

In that spirit, a saints-and-souls prayer:

Thank you, Giver of Life, for all of life. Yes, for all of it: The confusion, the unknowing, the joy, the surprises, the pain, the setbacks, the losses, the love that gets us through what comes next. Thank you so much! Help us to feel gratitude for this holy day, which is the most precious gift that any of us ever receives.

Thank you for those who remain such blessings in our lives, those who have taught us how to live and to laugh and to love with such faith. Remind us that they are always with us, still teaching us and loving us and guiding us in their own ways.

And help us to remember that you are here with us in each sacred moment. We’re never alone, not any of us. Please give us the faith and courage to live each day boldly and kindly and fully, right up to the day when we trade our heartbeat for a deeper place in your heart, which is love.

Amen.

How do you act if you’re wearing this costume?

Jesus costume2

While checking out the spooky things at a Halloween store, I noticed an aisle of religious garb that included the Jesus costume shown above. I took a photo and brought it to church for our weekly youth group discussion.

First, I showed pictures of other costumes and asked the young people how they would act if they were wearing that outfit. What do you do if you’re wearing a zombie costume? You shuffle and groan. A superhero? You stretch your arms and pretend to fly.

Then I showed them the photo of the Jesus outfit and asked: What about this one? How must you act if you’re wearing a Jesus costume? One young man answered immediately.

“You have to love everybody,” he said.

Sometimes, young people get it better than we do as adults.

It’s fitting that we talk about costumes. Jesus talked about them. He warned us to be wary of wolves who dress in sheep outfits. He said many “religious” people with shiny outward appearances are nasty and decaying inside.

He reminded us to see the person inside the costume. Don’t assess by words or outward appearances. See how someone acts. Pay attention to the values they live. Don’t just assume that because a person is wearing a costume, they’re living what it represents.

Look beyond the clothes

So, what about the Jesus costume? How do we act if we’re wearing that one? Well, I think wearing that costume means …

  • We must love everybody. The young person nailed it. Jesus said people will recognize someone as his follower by their love, period. We can’t refuse to love anyone because we consider them a horrible sinner, unlike ourselves. We can’t exclude, judge or cast stones. We must love even the one we consider an enemy. If we’re not doing that, we’re out of costume.
  • We must reach out to everybody. We need to wear the costume in public. Jesus went public with his love. He sought those who were deemed unworthy by the self-righteous people, and he loved them in a way that transformed them and reminded them of their great worth. He said his followers should do the same – we can’t be a light hidden under a basket.
  • Finally, we must be the kind of person who brings healing everybody. Whenever Jesus sent his followers out to represent him, he told them to heal. Wearing the Jesus costume means healing the broken, the needy, the struggling. It means bringing peace into conflict, hope into despair, and love into every aspect of life. We serve and heal everyone, no exceptions.

Jesus’ attitude was that when we do those things – love, reach out, heal – then we’re fulfilling the job description. We’re fitting the costume.

And if we don’t do those things, people recognize that, too. They see that we’re as phony as the thick, black beard in the costume on the store shelf. They can spot #FakeJesus from far away. Many people have given up on religion that doesn’t speak, live or love like Jesus.

Just love. Period.

Finally, we must constantly remind ourselves that the Jesus costume doesn’t come with accessories. We never wear a crown of any sort. We don’t carry a stone to throw at anybody for any reason.

The Bibles we tote, the crosses we wear, the religious posts we make on social media — none of it matters if we’re not living in character.

Jesus’ spirit of love was woven into everything he did. He wore his love on his sleeve, and so must we. It’s part of the costume.

Just love everybody. Period.

We need more builders

building

What happens when you build something with a young child? You stack the blocks as high as you can, and they can’t wait to swipe their little hand and knock it down. And then you start the process again.

We seem to have an affinity for building and destroying. And as we outgrow childhood, we tend to go in one direction or the other. We become more of a builder, or we turn into more of a destroyer at heart.

Some of us make our lives’ work about building things – families, neighborhoods, faith communities, nations, relationships, systems that promote justice. Others put a lot of their energy into tearing down people and tearing apart whatever doesn’t suit them.

We become a builder or a destroyer

It seems we’re at a moment in time when the destroyers have louder voices in our world. They’ve taken to their podiums, pulpits and bullhorns to spread division, mistrust, fear and anger – the main tools for destruction from within.

They’re not trying to improve anything. They’re marauders who create chaos that gives them the cover to plunder. They want to knock everything down and rule over the rubble. They get their thrills from toppling what others have built, but have no interest in building something of their own.

One of the destroyers’ biggest cheerleaders is Steve Bannon. He’s been outspoken about his intention to unleash destruction. As he put it during an interview with The Daily Beast in 2013, he wants “to bring everything crashing down.” He’s even trying to topple his own political party and the White House he helped assemble.

It’s conflict, chaos and destruction 24/7, and a lot of people are cheering the damage. That’s what destroyers do – they attack nonstop. They’re temperamentally incapable of anything else.

Destroyers lack the patience, persistence and open-mindedness that’s required to build anything of value. Their egos leave no room for the compromise that is required to create. They have no interest in doing the hard work required to improve upon what exists.

We’ve seen this so clearly in the health care debate. Many people want to level the health care system. They have no interest in doing the challenging work of studying many alternatives, building a consensus over time, and enacting a plan that would benefit the most people.

Instead, they throw out half-formed ideas and try to get something – anything – passed into law as quickly as they can so that they are free to move on and wipe away something else. They ignore warnings that the way they’re going about it will hurt a lot of people.

That’s not how you build a stable society.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was a builder. He sacrificed for his dream of a nation that lives up to its founding ideal and treats everyone as created equal. He rejected calls for violence and hatred. He helped to build a coalition that overcame racial, political, social, religious and ideological differences and moved society forward.

That’s what builders do.

An assassin thought he could destroy the dream with a bullet, but he was mistaken. Builders continue bending the moral arc and improving the world a little more each day, even as destroyers seek to topple the gains and make everyone start from scratch.

That’s what builders do

MLK drew inspiration from a rabbi who also was known for building. Jesus worked to build the kingdom of God, a place where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and everyone is treated as an equally beloved child of God. Religious and political leaders thought they could destroy him and his kingdom, bury them in a tomb and be done with them. They were wrong.

The building goes on. And each of us needs to be part of the never-ending construction project.

The only requirements: commitment and persistence. And love, a lot of love. Every word, every interaction with another person must build up with love.

Builders also need resolve that they’ll avoid getting sucked into the acrimony that destroy people and movements from within. We can’t play into the marauders’ hands. It’s difficult to resist getting pulled into their drama, but we must.

The destroyers have found their voices and their followers. It feels like our society is tottering. We need more of those other voices now to stabilize us. We’ve been through times like this in our history, and we know how it works. We can always build and rebuild.

We need more builders. Someone like you.

What are you hearing about gun violence?

Gun

How many different messages have you heard about violence since the Las Vegas massacre? In particular, what have you heard from the pulpit about our latest mass murder?

Did the leader of your faith community talk about the deep darkness in our society? Or, did they say nothing? Did you hear prophetic words about how we need to heal and change? Or were the words limited to a generic prayer and nothing more?

There is something terribly wrong in our society. If our religious leaders won’t find words to address it beyond superficial sentiment, then they – and we — are contributing to the sickness. We need to hold them accountable.

We have a divided, violent, gun-soaked society. We can’t seem to disagree without being disagreeable. Our streets and offices and churches and nightclubs and public squares get spattered with more blood every day. More graves are dug every day.

We must talk about all of this. And the pulpit must be an important part of it.

The conversation isn’t just about guns, although that’s certainly a huge part of it. We need to look at the bigger picture of how we’ve made violence our norm, how we endorse and encourage it in so many ways.

We must talk about all this

Our children shoot imaginary people in video games, treating killing as entertainment. We normalize violence through our television shows, our movies, our monuments. We sell guns as the solution – we need more “good people” with greater firepower and better aim.

Forget about God’s everlasting presence; in guns we trust.

We applaud warriors and dismiss peacemakers as out-of-touch dreamers. We conclude that the one with the most bullets and bombs gets their way, so we spend mountains of money making more of them.

We’ve reached the point where we can’t send a loved one to school, to church, to work, to a mall, to a nightclub, to a concert without concern that they could get gunned down by a deranged person with weapons.

Even many “religious” people advocate for “holy” war to eradicate perceived enemies, even though war is always the ultimate blasphemy.

How did we get so lost? How do we find our way?

We need prophets like the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who forced us to confront the ways we glorify guns and violence and thus create a “morally inclement climate” in our culture. He challenged the many religious leaders who refused to speak up.

For too long, a lot of religious leaders have shied away from prophetically challenging their communities. Some have done it, and we applaud them. But many others look the other way when it comes to our culture of violence. Why is that?

They’ll speak out on other issues. They’ll campaign to protect life in some forms. They’ll lobby for religious rights. But they won’t give the same attention to the lives extinguished and the rights erased by one pull of the trigger.

Healing wounds, not wielding weapons

While the pulpit is a good starting point, we all need to be promoting this conversation. We need to say in as many places and as many ways as we can: This must change. We must put away our weapons, stop glamorizing violence, and give up our infatuation with conflict.

If we don’t say it, then our faith is nothing more than noise.

Jesus lived in times that were soaked in violence, weapons and conflict. Romans killed for domination and pleasure. Crucifixion was commonplace. The religiously observant also advocated violence – death by stoning for breaking certain rules.

Jesus told everyone to drop their stones, put away their swords, resist the temptation to treat anyone as an enemy. Those who live in his spirit use their hands to heal wounds, not to wield weapons. We need to hear that message again and again, even though it’s widely unpopular in our violence-addicted culture.

Are you hearing that message in your faith community? If not, this is a good time to ask why not. And to spread the message yourself in every way you can.