Body count in the culture war

And the body count mounts in our culture wars.

The godsend of a vaccine took our nation from 4,000 Covid deaths daily in January to under 100 in July. It’s back above 1,000 again and climbing fast as the virus races unchecked through the unvaccinated.

Consider: 1,000 precious lives lost every day because people have been convinced their lives are nothing more than fodder in someone’s culture war.

I used to wonder how in heaven’s name Jim Jones got his “Christian” cult members to feed poison to their children – their children! — and then drink it themselves, leaving 918 dead. Or how “religious” leaders convinced devotees to blow up their bodies and end the sacred lives of those around them, too.

Now we know. We watch it in our society day after day.

Political, social, religious, and media figures declare a culture war and rouse their constituents, congregations and viewers to engage in a fight to the death – their own death. They see their followers’ lives as nothing more than collateral damage.

And for what purpose? So the warmongers can amass yet more power, influence and money. They lust for better ratings, more votes, fuller collection plates, and more sway over their masses.

Treating precious lives as collateral damage

The “religious” war mongers trouble me the most. Preaching that “true believers” won’t get sick spreads death and misery among the people they’re supposed to love and nurture.

The various warmongers have one thing in common. They know people will react strongly if they’re made to feel they’re under attack from someone or something, and whether it’s true doesn’t matter. Truth is always the first casualty of war, including culture wars.

Of course, they never actually enjoin the battle themselves. Other people wind up on ventilators, not them. They’re vaccinated and out of harm’s way, with access to treatments their followers can’t get. They want to benefit from the war, not die in it.

And so we see people drink the poison and pledge allegiance to a lethal denial:

  • Denial that vaccines work.
  • Denial that life matters — their lives and the lives of everyone around them.
  • Denial that the doctors and nurses who have already saved their lives countless times are trying to do it again.
  • Denial that we have responsibility to love one another.

And the body count mounts.

I’m out of words for it, but one theological term comes to mind: evil.

Evil us using our free will to harm ourselves and others by making choices that devalue life. It’s rejecting the gift of life-saving medicine. It’s demonizing medical professionals who put their lives on the line daily to keep God’s breath stirring inside Covid-ravaged lungs.

Faith redeems and reconciles cultures through love

Remember that Jesus emphatically rejected the culture war mentality. He invited everyone – especially those who were targets of the culture warriors — to join his movement of truth and love and healing. Put down those swords.

Real faith is counter-cultural that way. It seeks not to incite wars within cultures but to redeem and reconcile cultures through love. It counters lies with the truth that we’re all God’s children and have a responsibility to love and look out for one another.

We know the warmongers won’t call a truce. The pandemic has been a goldmine for them, and they have no intention of stopping even as the bodies pile up. They’ll fight over medicine, masks, vaccines — anything they can conscript into their war — for as long as long as they can.

It’s up to everyone else to reject the poison and stop turning sacred life into collateral damage. More than 1,000 lives are being snuffed out each day in our society alone – more every day than died in Jim Jones’ mass suicide.

No more. No more drinking from the cup of poison. No more sharing lies that produce Covid-scarred lungs incapable of embracing God’s breath. No more devaluing life in the name of winning someone’s ungodly war.

(Image courtesy of Ben.Harper @CreativeCommons.org)

Newborns, faith and sacrificial love

When our son was born, a nurse checked his health, washed him, wrapped him in a blanket, and put a little stocking cap on his head to keep him warm. Then, she handed him to us.

In that moment, I felt an overpowering sense of love unlike anything I’d experienced. I knew in that moment I would give my life for this child I’d just met.

Two years later when our daughter was born, I felt the same overwhelming love again. I would make any necessary sacrifice for her, including my life.

Those moments taught me powerfully about sacrificial love.

Our faith reminds us that God has that same love for us, and we need to have such love for one another, readily sacrificing to meet others’ needs. It’s the core of the gospel – the good news – and one of the most challenging parts.

And, perhaps, the most rejected part as well.

Loving others in a sacrificial way

Jesus’ unequivocal message is we’re meant to love others in a sacrificial way, including the stranger, the person who is different, even the ones we consider our enemies. It’s a difficult challenge. We all struggle with this.

Too often, we miss opportunities to love sacrificially because we’re counting the cost, fearing repercussions, or doing a cost analysis of whether what we sacrifice is worth whatever return we can envision.

We forget that God’s love works without an accounting system. We receive grace with a lavish generosity that we might consider extravagant and wasteful. And we’re invited to love the same way.

We’re all aware that over the centuries, many Christians have rejected the call to live in sacrificial love. Instead, they sought to carve out privilege and comfort for themselves by forcing others to conform to their beliefs and lifestyles.

Today, there’s an Americanized version of Christianity that rejects sacrificial love. Instead, it preaches that everyone else should sacrifice and conform to whatever makes these Christians happy – saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” for instance.

This version of Christianity demands “religious liberty” to discriminate against anyone who believes differently. However, no one is allowed to discriminate against Christians or inconvenience them in any way.

It also promotes an unholy individualism that absolves Christians from making even simple accommodations to care for their neighbors, such as wearing a mask during a pandemic to save others’ health and lives.

Christianity without a cross, religion without love

Some Christian leaders promote a theology that says Jesus sacrificed for them, so they are absolved from having to make sacrifices for others.

It’s Christianity without a cross, religion without love for all God’s children. And it’s no surprise that many spiritual people have fled this version of religion.

Jesus lived, preached, and encouraged us to sacrifice our lives each day in many ways. He reminded us that whoever holds tightly to their life — refusing to sacrifice — will lose out on life, but whoever chooses sacrifice as their way of life shall live deeply and abundantly.

Real faith involves a daily commitment to sacrifice our ego, our self-interest, our time, our resources, our privilege, our comfort, our closed-mindedness, our indifference, our self-absorbed theologies so we can love more extravagantly. It involves serving all God’s children without exception.

Daily, we’re presented with the choice of living in a spirit of entitlement or in a Spirit of sacrificial love that draws us closer to the God who cradles us like newborns and reminds us we are worthy of any sacrifice.

And so is everyone else.

(Photo courtesy of Jason Pratt @creativecommons.org)

Healing a broken system

heal atomicity creative commons

Americans read about foreign hospitals overwhelmed by the coronavirus and mistakenly thought those horror stories could never happen here because our health care system is so good.

We spend more per capita on health care than any other developed nation, which provided a sense of security that was badly misplaced.

The virus has exposed a broken system. Our faith compels us to try to heal it.

The heart of religion is about healing our individual and collective brokenness and repairing ruptured relationships with God and one another. We must be healed, and we also must be healers, both individually and collectively.

The accounts of Jesus’ life describe him as a gifted healer who offered healing to everyone free of charge. He could have leveraged his abilities, but he chose not to.

He never monetized healing. Instead, he offered it like grace to anyone who desired it. He sent his followers to heal collectively in the same unbrokered way.

We’re meant to do so as well. As N.T. Wright puts it, “Healing is far too important and central to the stories about Jesus for those who wish to follow him today to ignore it.”

We can’t pretend about our health care system anymore. Long before the pandemic, we knew it was broken.

Millions can’t afford it. Those with health coverage face crippling debt for something as common as cancer. Premiums and deductibles soar. The cost of drugs jumps exponentially.

We saw with the opioid epidemic how a profit-motivated system inflicts suffering and death on society by pushing drugs that enrich the bottom line.

The coronavirus stripped away any remaining illusions about our system.

A doctor in a New York City emergency room wrote last month about her experiences as the virus raged. Dr. Helen Ouyang described for The New York Times Magazine how the system was ill-prepared for a pandemic that the medical profession had long predicted.

She described patients crammed into the ER, lying in their own waste while dying unattended because of depleted medical staffs.

Doctors and nurses were among the sick and dying because of inadequate protective equipment, a situation Dr. Ouyang described as far worse than in any of the “third-world” countries she visited on relief missions.

Applauding health care workers every evening or posting grateful memes isn’t enough. We have the resources we need to fix the system. What’s missing is our resolve.

Profit will always be part of the system, but we can’t allow it to be the engine driving it. Providing healing at an affordable cost for all God’s children must be the overriding intent.

There are many ways to do this. We need wide-ranging discussions to plot the best path and then enact changes, knowing we’ll get pushback from those making enormous profits off the current, broken system.

When healing is turned into a high-priced commodity available only to those who can afford it, we get a sick society. What we need now is healing. And people committed to being healers.

(Photo courtesy of atomicity @creativecommons.org)

Tomorrow: Monuments to war

 

 

 

 

Every breath we share

BREATH

An oxygen mask helped Wilma Jean take her final breaths in a nursing home room that was festooned with reminders of her life’s passions.

On the wall to her right was a framed photo of her husband of 59 years, smiling gloriously as he crouched to plant a vegetable garden. Small, round photos of her seven children and five grandchildren decorated an adjacent wall.

Wilma Jean’s family held her hand and shared stories of her life. Like all of us, she had discouraging and frustrating times that turned out quite the opposite of what she intended.

What stood out, though, was how her family’s stories were more about something else. They recounted how she spent her life breathing life into everyone and everything around her.

We’re tempted to measure our lives by the number of years between our first breath and our last, but that completely misses the point. What matters – what makes a difference – is what we choose to do with the countless ones in-between.

There’s much more to this breathing thing.

The familiar creation story depicts God exhaling a breath of life into our lungs, sharing so intimately with each of us this divine, animating force that changes forms but never ends.

Breathing life into one another

The story also reminds us that God breathed life not only into us, but into all that’s around us. Plants inhale the carbon dioxide that we exhale, process it, and breathe out oxygen that we then inhale.

This sacred breathing cycle — all breathing together — sustains life.

And here’s the good stuff: From our first gulp of air we not only have the ability to breathe life into our atmosphere, but into each other as well. We can do what God does on a smaller scale, if we so choose, breathing life into others in ways big and small.

At Wilma Jean’s funeral, family members described how she shopped for Christmas gifts year-round so that everyone would have a big, personalized pile when the day came. She wanted everyone to know that they matter.

At an advanced age, she learned to work a computer so she could make individualized cards, another way of reminding everyone how they’re special and loved.

She literally birthed a family-community and breathed life into it continuously with a love that still abides and animates. With every breath they take, she continues to breathe through them, with them and in them.

This circle of life persists, uninterrupted and undiminished.

So, what about us? One of the defining questions for each of our lives is how we use our sacred, God-given breath.

Use each breath wisely and generously

Some people use it primarily on themselves, essentially wasting their breath. Others use it to belittle, bully and harm, wielding it like a storm wind that batters everyone and everything around them. They undermine relationship, family and community.

And then there are those who try their best to breathe life into the world. They become co-creators with God, building families and communities that endure.

None of us does this life-breathing thing perfectly, but that’s OK. What matters is our intention and commitment. There are many ways to do it.

We breathe a little more life into our world every time we plant a vegetable, care for an injured creature, or show a moment’s kindness to another person.

We breathe life into our world when we get involved in a movement to protect nature and nurture people, or when we defend those who are being mistreated or marginalized.

We breath life into our world when we’re committed to the hard work of creating and sustaining families, faith communities and societies.

A good starting point is to ask the One who gave us our first breath to show us how to use all the others wisely and generously, all the way to the time of our last one and beyond.

Let us breathe.

Sharing the hot chocolate

hot-chocolate hands

A packet of hot cocoa mix rests on the shelf above my computer, reminding me daily of a lesson my mom taught.

At age 73, she had a stroke that paralyzed her right side. She’d been confined to a wheelchair for many years because of multiple sclerosis. Now she would be in a nursing home for the final 10 months of this phase in her life.

Mom loved to give gifts, even when she was limited in her ability to get around and do things. Living in a retirement apartment, she took a ceramics class and learned how to make seasonal gifts for everyone in the family.

The stroke left her very limited. She still found a way to give.

She started ordering a packet of hot chocolate with every meal, which was quite a surprise to us. She never drank hot chocolate; her two main food groups were bakery and coffee.

She didn’t intend to drink the hot chocolate. Instead, she collected the packets and gave them to my sister to pass along to her two young boys. The hot chocolate became her gift to her grandsons.

Flat on her back, she reminded us it’s always possible to find ways to give. Sometimes, you just need to get a little creative.

With her act of giving, she also taught us that there really is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The nursing home staff learned what she was doing and started bringing extra packets.

Do the math: At least 3 packets a day, 7 days a week, 4 weeks a month, going on for months … We’re talking hundreds of packets of hot chocolate!

Soon, my sister’s food cupboard was overflowing with hot chocolate. Nobody could drink that much! She began farming it out to my brothers and me, and we shared it with others, too.

I kept that one packet. It reminds me daily of the importance of finding ways to give.

hot-chocolate4

We all have so much to share — our time, our energy, our humor, our love, our compassion, our many individual talents. All can be shared in so many ways with so many people, even if we have to get a little creative.

The idea is to keep looking for ways to give, even if the best we can come up with is something the size of a packet.

I’m grateful not only for all that my mom taught me and her ongoing presence in my life, but also for all the other people who have mothered me and taught me so much.

May we live those lessons and share them.

 

Saints, souls and interwoven threads

woven

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

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

My sister then called my brother, told her that Grams had showed up in a dream with a message to check on mom. So they did.

Mom hadn’t answered the calls because she was beginning to have a stroke. If they hadn’t arrived when they did, she likely would have died alone there on the couch.

How do you explain that?

Many people have shared similar stories with me. They, too, have had unusual dreams or intuitive moments where they felt nudged to do something. Often, someone who had died was providing the nudge.

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 centuries and taken various forms. Different religions have different ways of honoring those who have died.

The celebrations 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 or our hearts.

We’re part of what some call the communion of saints — lives interwoven and inseparable. They’re still dear, and not-so-departed.

Creation is like a giant blanket. When we die, we move from one thread to another, but all the threads are 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 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 continue to teach 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 are such blessings in our lives, those who teach us how to live and to laugh and to love. Remind us that they are always with us, instructing us and loving us and guiding us in their own ways — that part never changes.

Help us also 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 the source of unlimited love and unending life.

Amen.

Hashtags and prayers are only the beginning

Bullet

The achingly-familiar reaction started before we knew all that had happened. Posts on social media encouraged us to pray for Las Vegas. Tweets sent #prayers to the victims and their families.

It’s all so unacceptably familiar.

Columbine. Aurora. Fort Hood. Sandy Hook. Virginia Tech. San Bernardino. Orlando. Las Vegas. What place will be next?

We see the horrifying images that remind us of the horrifying images from the countless other shootings — different place, different massacre, same sick feeling. We dust off our “Pray for the people of (fill in the blank)” and hashtag a prayer their way.

And then we do nothing to prevent it from happening again. Which means we’re really not praying at all.

It’s not enough to mourn the victims of gun violence, say a prayer, and move on. That’s not how prayer works. Prayer always involves an openness to be God’s answer in changing the status quo.

Prayer always involves change

What are we going to do about it? Will we work to change our society’s embrace of guns and violence? Or will we do nothing and simply wait for the next, even worse massacre?

This is on you and me.

The words of a prayer are only a starting point. Those words can be empty, or they can become the most powerful thing in the world. It depends upon whether we’re willing to become the answer.

Prayer always involves change — change in us and in our world. It always involves taking a risk, which is why prayer is such radical stuff at its core.

Prayer is more than a request; it’s a commitment. If we’re not willing to engage ourselves and our world in a challenge to do better, then we’re the ones falling down on the job.  Saying a prayer and moving on is never sufficient.

Prayer is powerful and personal and always involves a response on our part.

That’s how prayer works

We pray for the person who is hungry, and then we feed them. We pray for the person who is bleeding by the side of the road, and then we help them. We work to change our systems so that we have fewer people hungry and fewer people bleeding in our streets and in our schools and in our churches and in our nightclubs and in our music festivals.

Look, we have a pretty good idea of what God is waiting on us to do. What parent wants their children murdering each other daily? It’s up to us to change it.

We don’t do that by accepting violence and clinging to our weapons. Nor do we do it by defending the status quo. Or by being indifferent. Or by throwing up our hands and saying the problem is too big.

And it sure doesn’t mean waiting for God to wave some magic wand to make it all go away. That’s not the way it works. We created the problem; God has already given us all that we need to fix it.

You’ve prayed for peace and healing? Good! Now start working for it.

This is on you and me.

Instruments of change

Yes, advocating for peace is exasperating and makes us vulnerable, but that’s how it works. We have to be patient and persistent. Love is patient and persistent. We have to have the audacity to respond to hatred and fear with an unflinching love that heals and shows a different way.

All of those prayers in the past two days? We’ve already received our answer: God wants to use us as instruments of change.

We make the guns. We glorify the violence. We accept the status quo. It’s on us to fix this. God is with us and has given us all that we need. The rest is up to you and me.

Time to get off our butts and do it. Time to get off our hashtags and start praying for real.

A hug and a party

Hand holding sun

If you’re familiar with my blog, you know about Jean, one of the people I’ve gotten to know through my work as a hospice volunteer. I’ve written about her a few times.

Jean’s always been one my favorites. She grew up in Maine, swooned over a 6-foot-4 Navy man – love at first sight – got married and raised two children. She loved the Kennedys and asked me to read her books about JFK – her eyesight wasn’t so good anymore.

Her eyes and her heart were failing, but Jean’s mind was sharp. And her kindness was always intact. I’d knock on her door, walk into her nursing home room, and she’d smile and invite me – in her Northeastern accent – to sit down and catch her up on things.

“Give me the good stuff,” she’d say. “I want details!”

Jean was in her 90s. On her birthday, she’d say: “I never thought I’d live this long.” When I turned 60 and had trouble wrapping my head around that number, she started calling me “Mr. Chicken,” as in a spring chicken.

I liked that a lot. I enjoyed walking into her room and hearing her say, “Oh, it’s Mr. Chicken!”

During one of our many rambling conversations, Jean turned very serious and asked me something totally out of the blue: Do I believe in hell?

How do you answer that question? I went with honesty.

No, Jean, I don’t believe in hell — not the way it’s portrayed, anyway. I don’t believe in the Santa Claus version – God’s watching like a peeping Tom, ready to punish us with a lump of everlasting coal if we eat a hot dog on Friday or break some other rule concocted by religious leaders.

No loving parent would do that

I told Jean that I don’t believe in any of that. No loving parent would ever torture their child. And besides, all that hellish stuff we hear isn’t even Biblical. It’s totally un-Jesus-y. He told us that God is a loving parent who wants nothing other than to give us a big hug and an amazing party.

Jean said she didn’t believe in that version of hell, either. As a parent, she didn’t see how any loving parent could ever hurt their child.

So, why was hell on her mind?

Jean came from a strict church background and was taught that if you’re gay, you’re doomed to hell. Her daughter is gay and had recently married her longtime partner. Jean loved them both very deeply. They’re a good match, and it’s obvious that there’s much love between them. Jean was glad her daughter had someone who loved her and made her happy.

So, what’s the issue?

Given her “religious” upbringing, Jean was unsure how God would feel about it. She didn’t think God would hurt her child, but she wasn’t sure. She was losing sleep over it.

Ugh!!! I hate to see people tormented and tortured by all this twisted, warped theology of divine hate and retribution. You want my definition of hell? It’s people spreading that crappy theology.

I asked Jean if she thinks that God is love, and she said yes. I asked if she thinks that God loves her daughter as much as she does, and Jean said even more than she ever could.

So, do you think God blesses their relationship, too? Jean smiled and nodded. It was settled. She decided it was “silly” to even doubt God’s love.

And we never spoke of hell again.

We spoke of other things, of course. We talked about JFK’s affairs. We talked about getting snowed in by Nor’easters in Maine. One time, we got into another “religious” topic – how did people in Jesus’ time trim their fingernails?

We never spoke of hell again

She said it was a “silly” question, but she wanted to know. So, we Googled it on my phone, right there in her room, and got a suitable answer. (If you want to know, you’ll have to Google it for yourself.)

Jean died last month. I was on vacation. I didn’t get to tell her goodbye. At first, that bothered me. Then I realized I was being silly, to use Jean’s word.

An improper sendoff? The God of unending life and unlimited love would never permit such a thing. No goodbye was necessary. Someday there will be a reunion of me and Jean. And I have an idea of how it will go.

She’ll give Mr. Chicken a hug and invite me to join the amazing party. And she’ll want to catch up on things – all the good stuff, you know. In detail, of course. She’ll want all the details.

Stitches, hot chocolate, and lessons from a mom

hot-chocolate

Many churches use the same readings each Sunday as a sign of unity. The one chosen for Mother’s Day is unintentionally perfect. It’s from John, the part where Jesus is praying for his dear friends at the last supper.

What does he pray for them to be? Great preachers? Saintly saints? Perfect people? Nope. He prays that they will be one – one with each other, one with God.

Sounds like something my mother used to say, although she used different words for it.

Mom didn’t want anyone thinking of her as a saint, though that’s just a matter of definition. She did her best to love four kids and teach us lessons that would get us through life, which is pretty saintly in my book.

One lesson: Life is difficult at times, and you just have to get through it by leaning on Got and those who love you. That approach got her through a lot.

It got her through raising four kids and making another trip to the emergency room for stitches because one of us had done something stupid yet again. It got her through my dad’s drinking – thank God for AA. It got her through the multiple sclerosis that started crippling her legs in her 40s. It got her through her stroke at age 73 and her nine months in a nursing home before her death.

It got me through all of that and more.

Another lesson from mom is that we need to always be kind and looking for ways to give to others. She drove that lesson home during her nine months in the nursing home.

The stroke paralyzed her right side, yet she still found creative ways to give. She ordered a packet of hot chocolate with every meal even though she didn’t drink it – coffee was her thing. Instead, she gave the hot chocolate packets to my sister as a gift from grandma to her two young boys.

That’s really sweet, isn’t it? Also, very generous. Do the math. Three packets of hot chocolate a day, seven days a week, nine months in the nursing home – that’s a lot of hot chocolate. It quickly overran my sister’s food pantry. She farmed it out to the rest of us.

When my mom died, I gave the eulogy and told the pallbearers that if the casket felt a lot heavier on one side, it was because we gave some of the hot chocolate back. (Just kidding!)

The following December, a lady who cut my mom’s hair had two kids who were participating in an outdoor nativity scene at their school. It was cold and they asked for donations of hot chocolate. Perfect! Mom would approve.

There’s another lesson from mom that ties in with the assigned reading for Sunday. In the gospel passage, Jesus prays that his dear friends would live as one. Mom taught us the same thing, though she put it a different way. Her words were: Knock it off!

She said that a lot – more than she wanted. She’d say it when my brothers and I were poking each other in the back seat of the car. She’d say it when we’d pass the food around the table and one of us would fill our plate to overflowing before others got their portion. She’d say it when we acted like we mattered more than someone else. When we developed an attitude of privilege. When we refused to share.

Knock. It. Off. Act like you are part of this family!

Interestingly, we hear Jesus saying something like that, too. Remember the stories of when he’d come upon the disciples and they’d be arguing over who was the most important in God’s kingdom? And Jesus would say: That’s not how it works. There is no greater or least. Knock it off!

And where do you suppose he learned that from? From his mom, of course. Mary taught him about love and getting along and being family. It’s from her that he learned about our divine Mom.

A Mom who gives us grace and love so generously each day that it overflows our pantries and needs to be shared. A Mom who wants nothing more than to snatch us up in her arms, cuddle us, giggle with us, run her fingers through our hair, hum us a song, and reassure us that everything is going to be OK because she is with us.

A Mom who says that if you know just one thing about me, know this: I love you, just as you are. Always have, always will. And I’m always here for you. Trust me on that.

And now, go play with your brothers and sisters. All of them. Make sure everyone is treated as an equal. Have fun. And take care of each other.

Be as one. Because that’s what we are.

Peanuts, macaroni salad, and a eulogy

Mac

I’ve got a small scar on the back of the pinkie knuckle on my left hand. It’s been there since I was about 4 years old.

At that time, my parents both worked at the West Side Market in Cleveland, so my grandmother – a.k.a. Grams – watched me during the day at her house. One day, my aunt Jean visited and brought a can of peanuts and offered me some.

Safety lids hadn’t been invented yet.  You had to use a key-like implement attached to the can to peel off a strip of metal and free the lid. That would leave a sharp edge by the opening — people often cut themselves on it. (I don’t know how any of us survived those days!)

As Jean opened the can and held it toward me, I reached up with my left hand and – SLASH! – cut a flap of skin off the back of the knuckle. It hung there as I cried. Jean is a very kind, sensitive person, and I think she was more upset than me. Grams came out of the house and did what Grams does – she comforted me and Jean, got a bandage and put the flap of skin back in place. It healed nicely, but left a small, narrow scar.

That scar has been with me every moment since that day. It was there on that scary first day of kindergarten, and on the proud day of graduation. It was there the first time I held hands with a girl – yes, awkward moment – and the first time I held both of my children in my hands – truly divine and holy moments. The scar was there when I held a notebook and interviewed Desmond Tutu and Dr. Seuss. In a sense, it’s been a reminder of Jean and my whole family and that they’re always with me. I’m never alone.

And the scar was there yesterday, when I gave the eulogy at Jean’s funeral in Cleveland.

I held up my hand and pointed to the scar and told everyone that although they may not have a scar like that one, Jean has left deep imprints on each of us with her gentleness, her kindness, her hopefulness, her love of life and laughter. And that’s true for all of us – the ones whom we love always shape us and leave imprints on our hearts, beautiful and holy marks that never go away.

And neither do they.

One of my favorite theological constructs is that we’re all part of a “communion of saints.” In other words, we’re all in this together, even with those who have moved on. We tend to think that whatever comes next – call it heaven or whatever you wish – is somewhere way over there, while we’re way over here. But that’s not really the case. There’s only here. And us. We’re all still seated at the table enjoying a communion meal in some ways.

Or, in Jean’s case, a meal with macaroni salad.

Her family asked me to include a mention of how in her final weeks, Jean wanted to make sure some important things got passed along, including her recipe for the macaroni salad that she made for every family get-together. She recited it from memory while lying in her hospital bed, and her recollection went like this: Macaroni. Celery. Hellmann’s salad dressing. Celery. Chopped egg. Celery. A little pickle relish. Celery. Celery. Celery. She kept coming back to the celery. It made everybody laugh.

It’s good to laugh at such times. It helps us get through them. They’re so damn hard. We miss the one we love. As one of my cousins put it: It just really sucks.

Yeah, it does.

In those moments, maybe it’s a little comforting to remember that they’re really still with us – the whole communion of saints thing. Creation is all one thing, like a giant blanket with many threads. Someone may have passed on to an adjoining thread, but we’re still pulled tightly together. Even now, they’re wrapped securely, snugly around us, and we around them.

And we know this because we know the Weaver of Life. One who is so passionate about us, about life, about holding tightly to one another in unconditional love. One who insists that life will always endure – theirs and ours – and love will always prevail.

Love always wins. Over everything, including what we call death.

So maybe when we’re missing someone, we could take our fingertips and trace the imprint they have left on us – on our hands, in our hearts. Be reminded that they are still with us.

And maybe celebrate our never-ending life and love with them once again by making some macaroni salad and having a meal. But make sure not to skimp on the celery, for heaven’s sake.