Redwood cones and subversive smallness

redwood cone2

The redwood’s immense size grabs your attention – it’s like no other tree. When you notice one of its cones on the ground, you’re struck by its size, too.

The cones are barely an inch long. From such a small, scruffy container grows the biggest of trees, stretching their limbs 300 feet into the heavens.

Shouldn’t something so stunning emerge from something equally impressive? Shouldn’t the immense tree’s starting point be supersized as well?

Nope. The tiny cone reminds us: That’s not how life works. That’s not how God works.

We are so enamored with big things – big trees, big moments, big events – that we overlook a universal truth: Everything and everyone is infinitely tiny at the core. And it’s there that everything important happens.

Life’s defining trait is smallness.

Infinitely small lines

The universe is comprised of molecules held together by divine glue. Everyone and everything exists at an atomic level. We humans begin as two cells that unite and grow into a collection of many more microscopic cells.

The blueprint of life is drawn with infinitely small lines.

Our lives follow that pattern, too. Many small, seemingly insignificant moments connect and build upon each other, forming something much larger.

We choose what we do with each moment, and our choices matter. We make things better or worse.  Small acts of kindness and courage can multiply and change so much.

Each of those acts is good and worthwhile in and of itself – it brings a little more love into the world. But some of those small acts will bring changes in ways we never envisioned.

For instance, Rosa Parks never imagined that her one small act – refusing to change a bus seat – would spark a movement that would dramatically change her entire society. She just thought she was doing the right thing in the moment.

Most “big” things in human history happen this way. They’re the accumulation of many small acts and decisions that reach a tipping point.

Everything starts at the cellular level in our world, our societies and ourselves. That’s how the moral arc of the universe bends – not with one great pull, but with millions of tiny tugs that redirect it over time.

And we never know which of our small acts will have the biggest impact, just as the redwood never knows which of its countless cones will produce the next amazing tree.

Subversively small

Each redwood produces millions of seeds during its lifetime, spreading them throughout the forest and beyond. Most won’t take root, but enough will produce new trees to keep the forest growing and changing.

Same with us.

We never know which of our small acts will take root in someone. We never know which of our simple daily gestures will change something in a profound way.

So, we do as much as we can. Like the redwoods, we spread our love and compassion all around.

That’s how God works. As author Samir Selmanovic puts it, “God is subversively small.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu witnessed God at work during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He watched big change come from small acts by ordinary people.

His advice: “Do your little bit of good where you are. It’s those little bits of good, put together, that overwhelm the world.”

The tiniest places and the humblest hearts are divine workshops. That’s how God gets things done – accomplishing grand things, little by little.

Redwoods, street corners and sacred spaces

Cathedral Grove.jpg

Last week, Gloria and I hiked Muir Woods, a forest of redwoods nestled in a quiet valley north of downtown San Francisco. The giant trees – some have lived for more than a thousand years — stretch 250 feet into the sky.

One of the most famous stands of redwoods is known as Cathedral Grove, a space so breathtaking that you can’t help but sense the Creator’s presence.

A sign asks visitors to “enter quietly.” Most people talk in subdued voice and walk through the area with a sense of reverence, treating it as a sacred place.

We know instinctively when we’re standing on holy ground.

A day later, we visited Golden Gate Park and ate lunch at a Mediterranean restaurant in the busy city. We encountered people of all ages, races, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations and religious affiliations.

We heard more than a half-dozen languages spoken. We watched people zoom past on bicycles, skateboards and scooters – it reminded me of a scene from a Dr. Seuss book. People exchanged smiles and kind words as they waited on a street corner for the light to change.

The same spirit that blew through the sacred woods was blowing through this place as well. This, too, is a holy place.

Not everyone sees it this way, of course. Our society is sharply divided over how we view the world and each other.

Sacred places

Take the redwoods, for instance. Some people walk among them, feel God’s presence, and intuitively understand our responsibility to be caretakers of creation. Others look at the redwoods and see nothing more than a chance for financial gain.

Cut them down, pave paradise, put up a parking lot and charge exorbitant hourly rates. Who needs trees when you can make money?

Likewise, some people are awestruck by the gorgeous and divine diversity within humanity – different faces, different voices, different customs. Others are frightened by differences and want to create a more homogeneous society in which people look how they look, talk how they talk, and believe how they believe.

Yet others see the diversity among us as a means of dividing and exploiting us. They know from experience that they can gain influence and control when we’re busy walling ourselves off from one another.

A people divided is easily exploited.

We hear this debate conducted daily. It’s easy to get caught up in it and make the mistake of failing to see what’s right in front of us — right there in the redwood grove and also right there on the street corner, reminding us of who we are.

Divided and exploited

As we sat at the Mediterranean restaurant, we watched people approach the corner and pause, waiting for the light to change. During the brief delay, others would join them and form a crowd. For a minute, each person became part of a diverse group that was more beautiful than them alone.

The traffic light would change and the group would cross the street safely together. Everyone then headed off in their own direction, off to the next thing they needed to do in their daily life.

Off to join yet another group, and then another _ even as we follow our own course, none of us ever travels alone.

Our lives always intersect with so many others and depend upon one another. We’re animated and united by the same Spirit that blows through those giant redwoods, none of which lives by themselves, either.

We occupy this holy space together – God’s cathedral. Everyone has a place within it. Everything is sacred.

The appropriate response? Deep reverence, determined love and an outstretched hand.

Leaving a mark on the worn counter

Arcade restaurant

The blue, tan and pink-trimmed booths hearken to the 1950s, when The Arcade Restaurant in downtown Memphis was renovated after a fire. It’s a cool place because of the history – a Greek immigrant opened the restaurant in 1919, and it’s undergone many renovations over the generations.

There’s a booth by the back door that Elvis favorited – he could slip in and out unobtrusively. A plaque marks the spot. There are black-and-white photos spanning generations.

What caught my eye were the marks on the serving counter.

In front of each stool was a rub mark along the edge of the counter. For generations, people have walked in off the street, sat on a stool, rested their forearms on the counter, and unknowingly rubbed off a little of its laminate.

Every person left a bit of their DNA behind and took a bit of the counter with them. Each one contributed to the mark.

Arcade counter

In our society, we try to keep things nice-looking and new. When a counter gets a bit worn, we replace it. Not the counter at The Arcade, though.

It’s a reminder of how our lives intersect.

I looked at the worn spots and wondered: Who made these marks? Who sat here?

How many children sat on these stools with their parents and shared their first meal at a restaurant, a moment they’ll remember and retell for the rest of their lives?

Or maybe on that stool sat a black person who’d been turned away from lunch counters their entire life, now proudly ordering a cup of coffee that had the sweet taste of equality?

Perhaps the white person sitting next to that proud black person was unhappy over all of this and huffily moved to a different spot or different restaurant.

Maybe those marks in the counter were fashioned by someone on their way home from the hospital after receiving devasting news about a relative. Or maybe by a new parent still feeling that Adrenalin rush on their way home from visiting their son or daughter in the maternity ward.

Maybe all the above.

The marks were worn into the counter by someone who just got a job, and someone who just lost a job. Someone who recently got married, and someone who recently got divorced.

A newcomer to the city feeling homesick as they thought about a similar diner in their old neighborhood. A visitor like me taking it all in with fresh eyes.

So many lives intersected at those places on the counter top.

Rubbing off on each other

I was reminded of that when we paid our check and headed out the door. A few blocks to the west is the Mississippi River, a wide expanse that has deposited many visitors to the restaurant’s doorstep over the century.

Beal Street is only a few blocks away, a place where different musical styles intersected and overlapped and gave birth to many more. So is Sun Studio, where musical pioneers – including Elvis – cut their first record.

The Lorraine Motel is blocks away, too, the place where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated 50 years ago on the balcony outside room 306. So is the church where he gave his final speech on the night before he death, speaking so powerfully about how we need to keep moving toward the promised land.

So much history, so many lives, all intersecting and rubbing against one another – and rubbing off on each other, too.

We tend to forget that last part, how we all influence and are influenced by so many others. How we’re never in our own space alone – we share the places of those who have come before us.

The reminder is right in front of us on the counter.

Choose your dream

Lorraine Motel

A section of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis recalls the lunch counter protests. An old video shows young black people sitting at a counter, being denied service.

A crowd of white people has formed to watch. Young white men begin pushing the protesters. One flings a bottle of sugar on them. Others drag protesters off their stools and begin beating them.

Some white people in the crowd laugh and cheer. Others just watch – it’s difficult to make out their expressions from the grainy images. You can’t tell if they’re horrified or supportive.

In any case, none of them intervenes.

As I watched the video, I wondered: If my white face was in that crowd, how would I have reacted? Would I have intervened? Or would I have just watched and felt bad for the protesters?

Honestly, I probably would have just watched. I would have been too intimidated to speak up in a crowd. And that’s both my problem and my challenge.

I don’t have to play “what-if” and wonder what I might have done then; the challenge is how I react today.

Which dream am I living?

The National Civil Rights Museum is part of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. sacrificed his life for his dream 50 years ago tomorrow. The many videos and displays remind us that people were forced to choose sides in the civil rights struggle.

Some chose to push back against injustice. Others tried to protect the status quo. Many thought they could just be spectators, watching without getting involved.

That’s not possible, then or now.

King was deeply disappointed with the many white moderates who refused to choose. His Letter from Birmingham Jail was directed to white clergy who wanted him to abandon the march for justice.

King notes that some white moderates agreed with the dream but weren’t willing to embrace it or sacrifice for it. He considered them the “great stumbling block” in to the quest for equality – more than even the overt racists.

The dream is participatory. By refusing to get involved, they were siding with the KKK and the other racists who wanted to block the dream from becoming more real.

King spoke so often and so eloquently about his dream, which is based upon Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. Like Jesus, he worked to make the world more of a place where the needy are cared for, the suffering are healed, and everyone is treated as an equally beloved and beautiful child of God in all respects.

It’s never been a widely popular dream.

Merely watching isn’t an option

Many people dream of a world where people like them enjoy privilege. Those who are different from them — different color, different religion, different nationality, different sex, different sexual preference – are relegated to second-class status. They work hard to preserve a system that favors the rich and the powerful and the privileged.

Each of us must choose which of the dreams will animate our lives. This is no time for standing back and watching.

Moderation isn’t an option.

MLK’s dream endures, but it becomes rooted in our world only to the extent that we are willing to work for it and sacrifice for it – to carry a cross for it.

We’re the ones entrusted with making sure that people are considered not by the color of their skin or any other superficial measure, but by their character and heart.

We’re the ones who are given the sacred work of making sure our divine diversity is respected and encouraged.

We’re the ones who must build a table where all God’s children can sit together and eat in a spirit of mutual acceptance and love.

We’re the ones

Our society has come a long way since King’s assassination on the hotel balcony. There’s much work to be done. Those who have a different dream are out there right now advocating for it – white supremacists speaking up, the KKK and neo-Nazis marching boldly, leaders lauding them as very fine people.

What do we say? Which dream do we choose? How will we sacrifice for it?

Merely watching isn’t an acceptable option.

All the young prophets

MLK women's march3

Watching the huge crowds of people marching worldwide Saturday reminded me of the 1960s, when there were demonstrations for civil rights, women’s rights, an end to a war, the environment, and many other causes.

We’ve come a long way as a society. A lot of progress awaits. In every instance, change arrives in the same way.

It starts with courageous and prophetic people who insist that the status quo is no longer acceptable. We see it in the spirit-filled young people challenging our acceptance of the ongoing slaughter in our society.

Several lines in scripture remind us: “I send you prophets.” We hear that promise fulfilled in the thousands of young voices calling on us to repent of our failure and transform our society.

We’re also reminded that prophets gather a following, but they’re not popular with most people in their societies. They get treated badly by those determined to keep things just as they are.

And when the movement begins to gain traction and it appears that change is occurring – it’s going to be more than just a march or a speech – those invested in the status quo will fight back ruthlessly to protect their privilege and profits.

I send you prophets

But finally, things reach a tipping point. Significant change occurs, and then we stagnate. We find ourselves at a crossroad again. New prophets emerge to lead the next part of the movement.

That’s how the process works. We’ve seen it play out many times and in many ways during the last half-century alone. What’s required now is persistence and faithfulness.

The moral arc is long, but it keeps bending so long as we keep tugging.

We saw this when a young woman in Montgomery, Alabama decided she wasn’t moving to the back of the bus any more – enough was enough. Her courageous determination sparked the Civil Rights Movement, a long struggle that has made much progress but remains a work in progress. The Promised Land hasn’t yet been reached.

We’ve seen generations of courageous women say it’s long past time that they’re treated as equals in society – more than a servant or sex object. We’ve come a long way, with a long way yet to go. The #MeToo movement is just beginning to transform the world in ways no one thought possible even a few months ago.

In a comparatively short time, there’s been great progress in making sure gay people and transgender people are treated as equals.

Bending the arc

We’ve changed how we think about physically and mentally challenged people, finally recognizing them as fully and wonderfully human in every way.

People are working to help the needy, the immigrant, and the refugee receive the respect and the care they deserve as children of God, even as others argue they’re dangerous and lazy and should be ignored.

We’ve seen mothers who lost their children to drunk drivers change an entire culture’s outlook and save many lives despite great opposition from those who wanted things to remain the same.

Movements take time. They have an ebb and flow – two steps forward, one step back. People lose interest or get distracted. Others get tired of struggling. Some insist that a little progress is enough and the movement should stop.

There can be no stopping. When it feels like we’ve hit a wall, we need to remember it’s only temporary so long as we maintain our resolve to keep going.

There will be times when it feels like all the hard work and all the progress have been crushed and buried in a cold, dark tomb covered by a giant rock that no one can roll away.

Let this week remind us that those who are co-workers with God never get buried for long. Someone always rolls the rock away. Love always rises and re-emerges, as strong and as determined as ever.

Let us rise with it, too.

Chocolates and ashes, love and dust

Ash valentines

An older man walked into a local candy store last month and said he wanted a box of chocolates for his wife. He told the store owner which ones she favors – the dark chocolates — and the box was soon filled and wrapped with a red ribbon.

What was the occasion?

The man noticed that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincide this year. He knows how much his wife loves chocolate. He also knows that she gives them up for Lent every year.

He didn’t want her to miss one of her joys. By getting her chocolates early, she could enjoy her treat and give it up for Lent, too.

The man found a creative way to honor the spirit of a day that points us in two directions that aren’t as opposite as we might think.

No better pairing

On the surface, this year’s confluence of chocolates and ashes seems to produce an odd couple. But it’s fitting to have one day of celebrating love in all its forms while also recognizing our mortality.

Love and dust? There’s no better pairing.

The ashes remind us that this phase of life is limited. We all lose sight of how much each day is a precious gift. We fail to see the many possibilities for gratitude, celebration and love that are present each day.

The hearts remind us that love creates us, animates us and sustains us through every one of our limited days. Love gives us this day and all its glorious possibilities. Love is for everyone whose lives we can touch in some way, even strangers a half a world away.

Together, they remind us that we’ve got to decide how we’ll use today. Will we bring more division, pain and indifference into our world? Or will we choose to do all that we can to make the world more as God would have it?

Lent sharpens our focus on what matters. It challenges us to get re-grounded and find creative ways to bring healing and love to others, especially the marginalized and the needy and the victims of abuse.

Lent prompts us to examine what’s getting in the way of giving and receiving love in our lives. It calls out the insecurities and fears that form walls. It challenges our prejudices.

Daily chances to make a difference

Above all, it forces us to see injustice and do something about it; to recognize those who are hurting and find a way to help them heal; to reach out to the outcast and the refugee and invite them to be with us.

We mustn’t waste the daily chances that God provides to make a difference.

Ultimately, Lent encourages us to forge a trail of love through our daily dustiness and to transform our ashy selves with creative acts of compassion. It reminds us that we are physical beings for now — formed in the elements of stardust — but we’ll always be animated by a breath of life and love that wants to guide us.

So, let’s heed the Valentine/Ash reminder. And let’s pray for the faith and the courage to live each day boldly, kindly, and joyfully right up to the day when we exchange our heartbeat for a deeper place in God’s heart, which is love.

Twelve kind jurors

jurors

We filed into the courtroom and sat before the judge. I was part of the pool of prospective jurors for a trial – my latest stint of jury duty.

The bailiff seated 12 of us in the jury box to begin the selection process. I and the others sat in the benches, waiting to see if we were needed.

The judge told us that we were chosen for a murder trial. There would be graphic autopsy photos and video of a nasty fight that led to the shooting. If any of us felt we weren’t up for that, we would be excused and assigned to a different trial.

Hearing his words made me swallow hard. One prospective juror asked to be excused. The rest of us felt like leaving, too, but decided to stay. Someone had to do this duty.

I ended up as the first alternate juror. The trial lasted more than a week. The 14 of us – 12 jurors and two alternates – listened to hours of testimony and saw evidence from DNA and gunshot residue testing.

We wrestled with how we held a person’s fate in our hands. It was intense and emotional. Also, inspiring.

We were as diverse a group and you’ll find when we reported for duty in mid-January, a group of strangers with a wide range in age, race, ethnic background and religion.

As different as could be

We live in different neighborhoods. We’ve had very different life experiences. There were single people and married people on the jury, parents and grandparents. There were people who love Cincinnati-style chili and those who despise it.

How do I know all this? We told each other.

Jurors aren’t allowed to discuss a case until deliberations begin, so the one topic we all had in common was off-limits for the week of testimony. Instead, we talked about each other during the many pauses in the trial.

We learned about each other’s medical conditions. We knew who had a sick kid. We shared our life stories. When we reconvened each morning, we’d ask how that sick child did overnight. Or how the commute went. Whether there was any news about that job prospect.

People brought muffins to share for breakfast. They offered a ride home to those who had arrived by bus on a cold day. They encouraged each other with a smile or a small joke during a break from the trial’s grim images.

We became like family. There was so much kindness in that jury room.

It made me think of one of my favorite passages from Paul, the one that’s used at a lot of weddings. He writes that love matters more than anything, and he describes its defining traits in beautiful and poetic language.

He says first that love is patient, which makes sense – there can be no love without patience. We must be patient with others and with ourselves as we grow and learn.

Then he says love is kind. Kindness is love embodied — in a word, a touch, an act, a moment of attention. Where kindness is present, so is love. If kindness is absent, there is no love, either.

It’s tempting to look at our society, read the headlines, hear the harsh words and conclude that kindness is a thing of the past. So many other things dominate the headlines – conflict, division, greed, self-interest.

It’s in our divine DNA

Before we reach any such conclusion, we should stop, look and listen to the many everyday expressions of kindness all around us. It’s everywhere — even if it’s not the top story on the news – and it’s central to who we are.

It’s in our divine DNA. It’s the glue that holds us together, the healing touch for whatever ails or divides us.

For two weeks, I saw many small moments of kindness pull together a group of strangers. I was reminded that despite our surface differences, we’re all the same — people who just need a smile, a word of encouragement, a little love as they get through the day.

Our society and our world are in turbulent times – aren’t they always? Kindness is the way out of the darkness. It can bring us together and heal us, if we let it.

In a world where we can be anything, let’s remember to be kind.