Grams’ lesson in persistent love

Grams

My grandmother’s name is Ann, but we’ve always called her Grams – just Grams. Her birthday is today, so it’s made me think about her again. And smile again.

Grams has made me smile a lot over the years, often by finding humor in something when I couldn’t see it by myself. She’s taught me a lot over the years, too, like how to appreciate a really good cup of coffee (that’s one of her mugs above) and how to make pierogi from scratch so that that don’t fall apart when you cook them.

She was independent and feisty and lively, even when the arthritis in her legs slowed her. And she understood the importance of persistence, especially when it came to love.

Her husband died of cancer when her three daughters were young. Friends and relatives told her to find another husband to support her – that’s what women did back then. Uh-uh, not Grams. She found a babysitter and went to work at a business where women weren’t exactly welcomed. She didn’t care what they thought – she had a family to support!

She did it her way, raising her daughters and building a family that grew with each wedding and each birth.

Persistent about life and love

When I was young, my family had some tough years. I remember many times when Grams would recognize my worry, pull me tight and reassure me: “Don’t worry, Joey. It’s going to be all right.” She meant it, and so I believed her. She turned out to be right.

She liked to say that life is too short, so don’t shortchange yourself. Don’t waste it. Keep at it. Don’t let anyone mistreat you. Be generous. Help others. And when you care about someone, make sure they know it.

Be persistent about life and love.

And boy, she was persistent, all right. When I was in college and would visit home for a weekend, Grams always called to see how I was doing. She’d invite me over for a cup of coffee. Sadly, I was a busy young person and often turned her down because of other plans with friends. She said that was OK. She never sounded disappointed. She just seemed glad that we had talked.

How cool is that?

Grams was persistent, but not insistent. She taught me that important distinction. Love never insists, it just offers.

Thankfully, I got many more chances to spend time with Grams. We’d get together for holidays or just to hobnob about old times. We’d go to her apartment and make batches of pierogi for Christmas.

No matter what you were doing together, she made you know that she was happy to see you. Without even trying, she reminded you that you were loved.

She had her peculiarities, of course, and that was part of the charm of being Grams. Her apartment was filled with tacky knickknacks from various places she’d visited. She wore wigs over her thinning hair and would keep them arranged on Styrofoam heads. She kept a votive candle burning on her bedroom dresser in front of a small likeness of Jesus. The candle rested on a tray with an image from John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

I miss those things.

Love offers but never insists

Grams died in her apartment from a heart attack years ago. As I was driving home from her funeral, I thought about how incredibly blessed I’ve been to have her in my life. And in the years since, there have been lots of little reminders that she’s still there.

Grams occasionally shows up in dreams – mine and other family members’ — with some guidance. For instance, my sister was taking a nap one afternoon because she’d been up all night with sick kids, and Grams showed up in the dream and told her to go pay attention to our mom. My sister knew not to discount a dream with Grams, so she called my brother and they got to my mom’s apartment just as she was having a stroke. It saved her life.

Pretty freaky, huh?

I’ve share that story with many people, and they’re shared their own stories about dearly departed friends and family showing up in dreams and in other ways, reminding us that they’re still dear but not so departed. We don’t understand how it all works, exactly, but we know there’s something there, something beyond our comprehension.

And none of it is really surprising. After all, persistent love would never let a little thing like death get in the way.

Grace in aisle three

Food

We found the aisle with lentils — aisle three, as it turned out — and surveyed the many choices. Which type would a Muslim most likely use to break the Ramadan fast?

Clayton and I didn’t know. We’re not Muslim. We’d never done this kind of shopping before.

Clayton is the interfaith liaison for our church, which has a close relationship with the local Islamic center. Last fall, we partnered with them on a winter clothing drive for refugee families settling in the area.

Now the Islamic center was having a food drive for needy families, many of them refugees. Clayton mentioned the food drive at the end of our church service last Sunday, and people grabbed donation envelopes and stuffed cash into them.

In the blink of an eye, we collected $200. Now, we just had to buy the food. We found a halal market near the mosque and went with a general list of things that we found online – lentils, flour, dates, cooking oil and so forth.

But which ones? Which types? How much? We didn’t know. After a few moments of indecision, we went to the checkout register and asked the manager for help.

We told the man what we were doing. He smiled. He dropped everything he was doing and threw himself into the project. He went to the back of the store and pulled out a box of cooking oil, which would be easier for us to carry. He rounded up bags of flour and packages of lentils.

Yeah. Amazing grace.

While other customers waited patiently, the manager filled several carts with food items worth more than the $200 we’d given him. And then he helped us push the carts to the car for loading.

On the way, he paused, took out his wallet, grabbed a $50 bill and handed it to us.

“This is a personal donation for your church,” he said.

Standing there in the parking lot, all of us blinked back tears.

Yeah. Amazing grace.

There are so many loud and shrill voices in various religions today, ones filled with fear and self-righteousness and arrogance and judgement and hatred -– the very things that faith tells us to avoid. Those voices try to divide us and diminish us. They twist religion into the opposite of what it’s meant to be, hoping to advance their personal agendas.

And then, there are all those other people – most people, I like to believe. The ones who actually get it. The ones filled with a spirit that makes them try as best they can to love one another as equally beautiful and beloved children of God.

They understand that every act of love, no matter how small, is an encounter with the God who makes all people beloved and all things blessed. Such moments are holy and sacred, transforming and inspiring.

Like the one just now in the parking lot.

With our boxes and bags of food loaded in the trunk, we headed to the nearby mosque. Just a week earlier, the mosque had been picketed by an anti-Muslim group toting signs that were hateful and hurtful.

The Muslims responded by setting up a table and offering the protesters food and drink. Here’s a photo, courtesy of The Journal-News of Hamilton.

Table

When our church heard about the protests, we prayed for the Islamic community and emailed the imam a note of support and admiration for their act of kindness. The imam wrote back, suggesting we get together for lunch sometime soon.

“Thank you so much for your appreciated prayers and support!” the imam wrote. “Please continue to spread the message of kindness, respect, loving thy neighbor, and harmony.”

This week, refugees will break their Ramadan fast with lentils and dates donated by a local church. On Sunday, the donation basket at our church will include a $50 bill from a Muslim store manager who spreads the message of kindness, respect, harmony and love.

Another shared, sacred moment for everyone. Blessed by a few more tears, no doubt.

Is she Slovak? A tale as old as time …

Walls3

I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood, the grandchild of Slovak immigrants. When I started dating, I got asked a question: “Is she Slovak?”

That sounds odd, but it makes sense. Immigrants cherished their cultures and traditions. Their food, their language, their polkas – all were a source of comfort in the new world.

They wanted their traditions to persist and thrive, so they thought it important for Slovaks to stay with Slovaks. And Italians with Italians. And Hungarians with Hungarians. And the Polish with the Polish.

And so on, with so on.

Other relatives had very different question when they heard I was dating. They’d ask: “Do you like her?”

Such different approaches to relationship within one family!

It’s a tale as old as time: Is relationship about love primarily, or about something else? The two approaches have been in a constant tug throughout human history.

Although we enjoy fairy tales about love overcoming great obstacles, in reality the other viewpoint has carried the day most often. In real life, lowly Cinderella isn’t invited to dance with a prince. And Beauty can’t love the Beast.

This month highlights that tug again: Is relationship primarily about love or something else?

Beauty isn’t allowed to love the Beast

Fifty years ago this month, the Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriage. Two years ago this month, the court ruled for marriage equality.

We saw that clash of ideas clearly defined in the marriage equality ruling. The majority opinion by Justice Kennedy noted that marriage is an enduring bond that brings people into a deeper intimacy and spirituality.

As part of the dissent, Justice Scalia ridiculed the talk of intimacy and spirituality. He wrote that freedom doesn’t encompass spirituality, and that intimacy is “abridged rather than expanded by marriage.”

Well, what a romantic, huh? In his view, love is more of a prison. And the other dissenting justices argued that law takes precedence over love.

It’s understandable why there would be such a backlash against putting love first in relationship. It shakes things up.

For most of human history, love hasn’t been the essential element in the relationship equation. Women have been treated more as property than persons, unable even to choose their spouse. Royalty couldn’t marry a commoner. Interfaith marriages were opposed by religions. People of different races or ethnic backgrounds met resistance. Gay and transgender people were barred.

Relationships were seen as a way to keep people in their assigned places. Everything else was secondary.

What’s love got to do with it? Well, actually: Love has everything to do with it! Or at least it should.

Love is the starting point for every meaningful human endeavor, the heart of anything truly spiritual and God-filled. Without it, our lives and our relationships become empty voids.

What’s love got to do with it?

As Paul puts it in the familiar passage from Corinthians that’s used at many marriages: We can be the most religious, most amazing, most advanced human being ever but if love isn’t the basis of all that we do, then none of it means anything.

Our lack of love doesn’t diminish our faith and actions; it renders them totally meaningless. And that goes especially for relationship.

Of course, Paul got his ideas from a rabbi who was warned by religious leaders to avoid having relationships with certain kinds people — Samaritans, Romans, Gentiles, tax collectors, fishermen, women, lepers, the poor, the needy, the sick, and on and on. Jesus’ response was to seek out those very people for loving, healing relationship.

He said that love and love alone fulfills the law, not anything else. And his followers must live by the same guideline. Their love must transcend and topple all barriers and limitations.

His love-first approach wasn’t popular then or now. Let’s face it: It’s more comfortable and convenient to make relationship about something else. And we all have a problem with love and relationship. Our fears, our insecurities and our self-doubt get in the way. Our selfishness and our egos get confronted and directly challenged.

Who really wants that???

But here’s the flip side: Loving relationships take us to places that we can’t go by ourselves. Here’s where I strongly disagree with Justice Scalia: Loving relationships aren’t prisons. Rather, love alone frees us from the prison of our insecurities and our fear and our shame and our self-absorption.

Only love can do that

And this goes not only for our most intimate relationships, but for all of them. It includes every encounter with another person at home, at work, in our faith community, on the street, on social media.

So this is a fitting time to recommit ourselves to making love the starting point and the reason for all our relationships. Let’s ask ourselves the question: What’s the loving thing to do right now? And then let’s try our best to do it.

Let’s make love the measure of all that we do. Love and love alone.

A chameleon’s journey

Chameleon

Once upon a time, a young chameleon lived in a lush, green forest. The chameleon was amazed by how its skin could change colors, a way of adapting to the temperature or displaying its mood.

Also, the changing colors had a secondary benefit, helping it blend in with its surroundings.

The chameleon loved to climb high into the trees and look out at the rest of the world. It could see a blue river, a brown field, an outcropping of red-tinged rocks. The chameleon longed to leave the forest and visit those places, to experience more of the world.

But the chameleon’s elders warned: “Don’t even think it! You must live your entire life here in these trees. Your skin cannot change enough to help you adapt to those other environments. If you leave the forest, your color will give you away. Bad things will happen. It’s too dangerous! Stay where it’s green.”

The chameleon listened to their wisdom, but longed for something more – it wanted a life bigger than a tree branch. One day, it found the courage to take the risk.

So, it set off. As it left the forest’s greenery, the chameleon felt afraid. It wondered how much its skin would be able to change and adapt to the new landscapes and environments. It wondered if those warnings were accurate.

All very good

An amazing and unexpected thing happened. The chameleon found that its skin was able to change in unexpected ways, adapting to all sorts of new surroundings. Nobody had told the chameleon that would happen!

The chameleon realized that it had been taught things that simply weren’t true. Green isn’t the only good color for chameleons. Forests aren’t the only safe places. They can change into many colors and prosper in many different hues.

And it’s all very good.

The chameleon went on a long journey and experienced the world’s incredible diversity. Along the way, it encountered other chameleons that could change into yet different colors from its own.

But these others believed that their colors were the only ones possible or desirable. The chameleon would respond by describing its experience of how color is almost infinitely changeable and chameleons are incredibly adaptable.

The others refused to believe it.

“That’s not how we are made,” the other chameleons would say.

No matter how much the chameleon tried to convince them, they were set in their ways and in their beliefs. They would stay where they were and experience none of the greater world. They would not meet any other chameleons.

Missing the miracle

In fact, some argued that if other chameleons could change into colors other than their own, they wouldn’t be proper chameleons. They would be considered unnatural and should be shunned.

This made the chameleon very sad. It realized the others would spend their precious lives missing out on all the beauty and diversity around them.

Also, they would never understand what makes chameleons so unique and amazing. They would never fully realize how chameleons can come in all sorts of colors.

They would never know the miracle of how much they can change.

More courageous than war

Lottery

During the early ‘70s, there was a must-see show for anyone with a son of legal age. The Vietnam war draft lottery was conducted on television.

By the time I approached draft age, the war had reached its tipping point but more soldiers were still needed. So men in suits would load capsules containing the days of the year into a large, clear drum. They’d spin it and pull out a date. If your birthday was the next one chosen, you were next in line to be inducted.

That’s how the draft order was determined: A bingo version of Russian roulette. And the privileged were given opt-out provisions, including college deferments and assignments to branches of the military away from combat.

The poor were sent to fight on behalf of the privileged. Those who had the least were forced to make the biggest sacrifice.

My dad was a wounded Korean war veteran and would watch the draft show with me. He stunned me one time by saying, totally out of the blue, that he’d support me if I chose to protest the war. He had no stomach for what dishonest politicians were doing with the war, how so many human lives were being wasted on both sides.

Also, he didn’t want his son to experience the horrors that he’d experienced, the ones that left him fighting his own demons for the rest of his life.

We forget about that part – the unthinkable, unspeakable things that happen during war and leave everyone associated with it wounded in some ways. Things so awful that those who survive them never speak of them. The cost that is never fully paid.

Never courageous or heroic

We honor the victims of our many wars, but we should never honor war itself. Courageous and heroic things happen during war, but war itself is never courageous or heroic. And that’s an important distinction we need to remember.

War is always the ultimate human failure — politically, religiously, morally, culturally, collectively, individually. It’s the final step in a long sequence of fearful attitudes, ugly words and selfish choices. War doesn’t just happen — we bring it on through our many choices over time.

And when our many selfish and inhumane decisions have intensified the fear and hatred, we head off to war thinking that killing will solve everything. But it never does. One war begets the next.

Ultimately, war is a repudiation of our shared humanity, a rejection of our greatest gift. The creator gives us life and the responsibility to nurture it – all of life, all of the time. War is our way of telling the creator: We refuse.

War is always a choice, never an inevitability.

So is peace. It’s always an option, but it never just happens. We have to co-create it.

Always a choice

It starts with actually listening to those whom we consider an enemy. Getting to know them. Giving them the same respect and value that we give ourselves. Recognizing our shared humanity.

Waging peace means finding creative ways to bridge our differences. It means putting our hubris and our selfishness aside and instead paying attention to how our attitudes and our words and our choices affect others – other people, other cultures, other nations.

Waging peace means saying emphatically and repeatedly: We can do better than this. We must do better. The horror of war must never be considered an inevitable outcome — it never is.

So while we honor and support those like my father who sacrificed so much in the horrific conditions of war, we must also honor and support those who are trying to wage peace.

Waging peace takes a lot of courage and a lot of sacrifice. But it’s the peacemakers who are called blessed, not the war makers. Making peace is the most noble and heroic and blessed thing that we can do.

Far more heroic than war.

I was here …

Curt and Gloria

It was 80 degrees last week when I visited my hometown of Cleveland, perfect for some beach time. Lake Erie is still very cold, and few people ventured into the water. Most sat in the sand and enjoyed feeling the warm breeze on their skin and the sunshine on their face.

The long, cold, lonely winter was gone.

Ah!!!

Next to the public beach is a shaded park area. It’s framed by huge stones that were set in place long ago to prevent erosion. You can walk along the stones, sit on them, and enjoy the view. Many of the stones are covered with carvings by visitors, some from generations ago.

The inscription in the photo above was made on one of the large stones. It made me stop and wonder a few things.

Gloria and Curt: Who are they? How did they meet? What inspired one of them to carve this proclamation of love? Was this rock their special spot? How long did it take to carve this reminder?

How did their story turn out? Did they stay together? Break up? Get married and have kids? Do they come back to this rock now and then and think back on that time when they chiseled their love for everyone to see?

What’s their story?

So many questions! And one observation: Isn’t it interesting that we humans want so dearly to be remembered? How we go to such great lengths to leave a reminder?

Don’t we all want to say in some permanent way: I was here?

In my experience, there’s a little bit of Gloria and Curt in all of us. I’m not good at carving, but I’ve made a small thumbprint at the edge of fresh-poured concrete. (Shhh! Don’t tell anyone!) I’ve built a sand castle and left it behind as my mark on the beach.

A selfie is essentially the same thing. When we take a picture of ourselves in a place and then share it on social media, we’re saying, “Look at me! I’ve been to this place! And now everybody knows it.”

I was here.

Whether it’s our footprints on a beach or our inscription on a rock or our selfie on social media, we enjoy leaving our personal imprint. Each of us does it in our own way, and not just with chisel and hammer.

And not just on places.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we leave our imprint on the many people we touch. We do it through the ways we interact with them, the examples we set for them, the causes that we champion that affect them.

We all leave marks

Those marks may be hidden deep inside someone, but they mean so much more than anything we set in sand or stone. I remember the small acts that so many people have done for me throughout my life – wisdom imparted, kindness shown – that stuck with me and inspired me and helped to shape me into the person I am.

The hurtful moments leave a mark, too.

Each of us leaves a lasting mark on our world, for better or worse. Each of us has a legacy that endures long beyond our years. And we get to decide our legacy.

We decide what we’ll etch into the lives of others.

One of my favorite verses from the Hebrew scriptures is the one that has our divine parent reminding each of us: “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” It tells each of us that we are loved so deeply, so unconditionally, and so permanently that we are literally carved into the hands of the One who created us and who sustains us.

We are part of Them.

We are here

And it’s not just our name that’s carved on those hands, nor is it just our initials framed by a heart and stamped with a date. No, it’s us – all of us, just as we are. We can’t ever be forgotten, we can’t ever be rejected, we can’t ever be rubbed off

Nothing can erase you or me.

We are here. Always.

Of course, there’s a flip side to it: We must allow others to engrave themselves within our hearts as well. And that part is often painful and unsettling and downright scary.

Love means making ourselves vulnerable enough to allow others inside. Even when they’re etching with shaky hands. Even if they draw with crooked lines. Especially then.

We have to make space for them inside of us and invite them to say in their own way: I am here.

I’m right here …

Umbrella

There’s no good day for a funeral, but this one was especially bad. An hours-long downpour had swamped the streets. I wondered how many people would be able to get to the church for Emily’s family.

Her father had died suddenly – one of those moments that suck the life out of you and turn your world upside-down. Her family needed support. And now, rain was coming down in buckets, resulting in road closings.

I arrived at the church and was heartened to see a full parking lot. People scurried inside with umbrellas as shields, determined to comfort Emily and her family.

I’m right here for you, they wanted to say. And nothing was going to stop them.

Inside the church was a long line of people waiting give their love to the family. A friend from my church was with me.

When we reached Emily, I hugged her, held her tightly for a few seconds, and reminded her that we’re all here for her and will help her get through it. She said thanks and blinked back a tear.

My friend then hugged her, held her tightly for a few seconds, and said something humorous. Emily laughed out loud – which was exactly what she needed in that emotional moment.

She got the message: I’m right here for you, in the hug and the reassurance and yes, also in the laugh that you need to get through it. I’m right here.

Where have we heard this before?

I’m right here

The heart of Jesus’ message is that God is always right here, working through us, with us and in us to bring love, compassion and healing into the world.

God isn’t the old, white guy with grim face who lives somewhere in the sky and must be begged for what we need. No. Instead, God is right here, living in us, with us and through us. And when we lose sight of God, that’s where we need to look.

Seek, and you will find. But you have to look in the right place.

Often, I lose sight. My most-asked question for God is: Where are you? I have trouble recognizing God in situations.

While my pot of coffee is brewing in the morning, I get on my news apps and catch up on the world’s happenings. Often, there’s so much craziness that I say to God: Where are you in all of this?

It’s easy to lose the sense of God’s presence during the ordinariness of each day: the avalanche of emails, the challenges of dealing with different personalities, the setbacks and the time wasted getting simple things accomplished.

Where are you in all of that?

Then there are the big moments. Someone dies. A job ends. A child struggles. A medical test comes back positive. A parent seems to be slipping away. A relationship is ruptured.

Where are you?

Through us, with us, in us

It’s comforting to me that Jesus – this person who deeply experienced God’s presence — felt the same way. There’s the passage in two of the gospels where he’s dying and says to God: I feel like you’ve abandoned me. Where are you right now?

And at that moment, there are people who have risked their lives to be with him until the end. He gets his answer in their love and their courage.

I’m right here with you. You are never alone.

When we lose sight of God’s presence, it’s good to remember where to look. We find God right here in the people who parent us, who mentor us, who love us, who nurture us, who challenge us.

Sure, those people do all those things imperfectly, but that’s OK. Imperfection never diminishes the divine presence. The answer is still the same.

I’m right here, giving you what you need. Always.

I’m right here in the warm hand that holds yours when you feel alone, in the arms that enfold you when you need a hug, in the voice that reminds you of your purpose and your calling when you feel confused.

Always

I’m right here in the people trying to make peace amid all the conflict, in the people trying to heal all the hurt, in the people serving the least while those with the most try to get more.

I’m right here in those who treat everyone as an equally beloved and beautiful child of God, reminding them of their infinite worth.

I’m right here. Always.

When we recognize God that way, we see ourselves differently, too. We understand that every encounter is a chance for us to bring God’s loving, compassionate, and healing presence into the world a little more fully.

When someone feels they’ve lost sight of God, they encounter us and come away saying: Oh, there you are!