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.

The nest that’s never empty

momma marlon

A mourning dove built a nest in front of the press box at Great American Ball Park a few summers ago. We watched daily as the bird – dubbed Marlon after one of the players – raised two babies in front of us.

Marlon and the babies took flight during a long Reds’ road trip. When we returned to the press box for the next home game, we saw the empty nest and felt sad.

Something about an empty nest touches us. A place that was so full of life and sound is now vacant and quiet.

One thing about nests: They haven’t completely fulfilled their purpose until they’re empty.

Another thing about nests: They’re never actually empty.

Our modern culture has redefined nesting to very limited terms. When children grow and go out into the world, we call the parents empty-nesters. We think of family as a small thing – only those who share a house.

Family is so much more. A nest is so much bigger.

People once understood our interconnectedness. It takes a village to raise children and build communities where life and healing and love are the shared values.

In the deepest sense, your children are my children, just as mine are yours. We experience this in so many ways that it ought to be obvious.

Many people parent us

For example, I have a friend whose son loves basketball and neglected his studies in grade school, despite his parent’s admonitions. When the son went to high school and made the freshman basketball team, his grades went up appreciably.

The father was delighted and asked the son what had inspired him to study harder. The son said his coach told them that while basketball was fun, studies mattered more. It sunk in.

You can imagine the father’s reaction! He had mixed feelings. On one hand, he was delighted that the message finally got through. On the other, he wondered why the son had ignored it for so long until some other adult conveyed it.

All of us block out our parents to some degree as we’re growing up – it’s part of the process. That’s why it’s important for all of us to share the parenting role. Each of us has many adults who come into our lives and teach us what we need to know.

Each of us has the ability – and the responsibility — to influence and nurture the children of the world.

That was the core of Mister Rogers’ message. He recognized every child as his own, and he responded to each one with the same compassion that he accorded his two sons.

This Presbyterian minister spent his life reminding each of us that we’re a beautiful and beloved child of God — just as we are – and we deserve to be loved that way by everyone, especially when we’re in a difficult time.

He touched children’s lives through television and left a deep and lasting impact. The stories are touching — I highly recommend the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

Every child is mine

We saw the same spirit at work in the cave rescue in Thailand. Brave divers did extraordinarily dangerous things to save 12 trapped boys and their coach – one sacrificed his life for them.

The rescuers put themselves at risk for children they’d never met. They responded out of a heart that regarded these children as their own.

Sadly, we’ve seen a very different response in many people to the terrified children separated from parents at the border. So many people have said: These aren’t my children, their parents are to blame, they deserve the horrible things happening to them.

Our hearts are lifeless – and our faith meaningless – if we can’t identify with such a child or such a parent and feel compassion. We’re lost if we don’t recognize that each child in the world is ours, too, regardless of their circumstances.

We need to be remind ourselves that our family extends way beyond our front door. Every child is ours. The nest is big and brimming with life. There are many mouths to feed and lessons for all of us to teach.

Serving without exception

ServeOthers

Self-described Christians are refusing to serve gay couples. The president’s spokeswoman was denied service by a restaurant owner with deeply held beliefs.

Our society is fraying. The refuse-to-serve mentality is spreading, leading us to a dark place.

As Gandhi taught, an eye for an eye and soon the whole world is blind.

We don’t have to continue down this road blindly. We can light another way. But if we want to be that light, we can’t reject, shun or demean anyone.

Instead, We must love, serve and respect everyone. Each of us has many such opportunities each day.

Last weekend, my church participated in the local Pride Parade. As we waited for the march to begin, a man walked through the crowd carrying a sign that said, “Jesus Is Coming.” He told us we were horrific sinners doomed to burn in hell.

We had to decide how to respond. Do we ignore him? Argue with him? We chose to offer kindness. We smiled, said hello and offered him a bottle of water. He was free to turn it down, but he graciously accepted it.

We didn’t attack his views but respectfully explained ours – Jesus is already here, calling us to love everyone. We wished the man a blessed day as he went on his way.

Serving others doesn’t mean endorsing their beliefs; it’s recognizing and respecting them as a child of God. To refuse service is to deny the image of God within each of us.

There are many ways to advocate for our beliefs. Demeaning others is not one of them.

Faith is service

Many self-described Christians argue that living their values means shunning those who believe differently. It’s a dishonest claim. If love is your core value, then every act of kindness and service is an expression of faith, not a rejection of it.

Sacrificial service is the heart of God’s value system. It’s the only way out of our current darkness.

What’s happening today isn’t new. Sadly, it’s been the norm in our society. Over the centuries, many Christians have refused to love and serve black people and Native American people and many others – including other Christians — whom they deemed inferior.

In Jesus’ time and place, many religious people also shunned those who lived and believed differently, insisting that any interaction with them amounted to participating in their impurity and their sin.

Jesus took direct aim on that attitude.

He befriended the marginalized and the shunned, pushing back hard against the religious people who objected. He ate with those whom others labeled great sinners.

To Jesus, a lack of love was the only sin. He understood that simply telling someone to change means nothing; we must be a source of the unconditional love that makes change possible.

And when the religious leaders objected to all of this, he told them to worry more about the plank in their own eye — take a good look at yourself and drop that stone from your hand.

Lack of love is the only sin

Instead, be like the Samaritan in the parable, the shunned person who gets it right because he loves and serves. Don’t be like the religious people who walk past with their noses in the air.

Be a source of love.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us, hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. That’s the rule we must apply.

We need to remember that shunning doesn’t help anyone grow or change. Only love can do that.

Refusing service doesn’t fulfill our faith. Only love can do that.

We can’t vanquish darkness by bringing more darkness into the world. Only love can do that.

That is the way, the truth and the light that can lead us to a better place.

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.