A drink from a different cup

Cup of poison

Next to me sat a minister wearing a collar. In front of me were two men wearing yarmulkes. On the other side of the mosque were women in various head coverings. A nun sat among them.

Everyone in the mosque was in stocking feet, seated on folding chairs or simply reclining on the carpeted floor.

An organizer invited everyone to share the name of their place of worship. Dozens of churches, mosques, synagogues and temples were represented at this gathering prompted by the massacre at mosques in New Zealand this month.

We were reminded that religion – the real deal – is about standing up for peace, compassion and healing. It’s about choosing love over hatred in our individual and collective interactions each day.

The man who killed Muslims in New Zealand is the latest example of what happens when we drink from the cup of hatred. Important parts of us die off. A man whose compassion, decency, and sense of humanity were killed by this poison committed a great evil.

Poison that divides

The various hate-filled men who have violated sacred spaces – an historic black church in Charleston, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, mosques in New Zealand, and many others — all drank the same poison that is readily available these days:

The poison that exalts nationalism and supremacy and privilege.

The poison that advocates war and weapons as solutions.

The poison that stokes fear of anyone who is different.

The poison that builds walls against those who have a different skin color, different religion, different ethnic origin, different nationality, different sexuality, different political viewpoint.

The poison that aims to divide God’s children and turn one against another.

The struggle against hatred has gone on as long as humans have been around, and it will continue after each of us is gone from the planet. But this is our time – our moment — to offer an antidote to the poison in its various forms today.

I’ve been inspired by the many interfaith gatherings in the last couple weeks. People joined hands in offering the world a healing dose of love, compassion and peace -– the shared values of all actual religion.

They renewed their commitment to transform poisoned hearts and divided communities with a love that is undeterred and undiminished.

They offered the world a drink from a different cup.

They prayed for the victims and the perpetrators while recognizing that their thoughts and prayers were only a starting point. Words are never a finish line. Action must follow.

At the gathering I attended, we were reminded that this action must start inside each of us. We need to guard our own hearts against the poison. It’s easy for words of hatred to seep inside and influence us.

Offering an antidote

Next, we have to challenge our leaders – those who have outsize influence — to denounce these acts as expressions of evil. But the denunciations can’t end there; all leaders must emphatically and fully reject the ideologies that produce these acts.

Acts of hatred don’t come out of the blue. They’re shaped by the poisonous words in our world. Any leader who contributes to the poison or who refuses to condemn hateful ideologies is aiding and abetting and promoting the inevitable results.

Finally, we must respond in some way to the poisonous words we encounter in our daily interactions. We mustn’t allow them to pass without offering alternate words – a reminder that everyone is an equally beloved and beautiful child of God and must be treated as such.

It’s not about enforcing political correctness; it’s about offering an antidote to counteract the poison.

As the imam prayed on behalf of everyone in the mosque that day: May we work together so that goodwill dominates, love prevails, and hope spreads through our communities.

There will always be hatred in the world. We’re obligated to make sure there’s always more love.

We offer a drink from a different cup.

Living in the dustbin

ashes2

I hate dusting. The process seems so useless because dust immediately returns. Why is there so much dust? What’s in that stuff anyway?

 

I did some research and got disturbing answers, including enlarged photos of dust mites that can’t be unseen. I also got a surprise. Turns out that much of that dust in my house is … me.

 

Our bodies shed skin cells as new ones take their place. Each of us is like the Pig-Pen character in “Peanuts,” leaving dustiness wherever we go. We tend to think that someday we’ll turn into a pile of dust, but the process is already in motion.

 

There’s a lot of us in the dust.

 

Some people are celebrating Ash Wednesday today, a necessary reminder that this phase of life is short and precious and must be fully appreciated. Ashes symbolize how our bodies will return fully to their elemental state someday.

 

But the turn-to-dust process has already begun, and so has the rebirthing part. We’re already dust, and we’re already reborn. The process is hard-wired into everyone and everything.

 

It’s how it all works.

 

A poetic story in Scripture reminds that we’re formed from the dust of earth and thus bound intimately to all creation. Science takes it one step further, detailing how in our elemental form we’re made of the same stuff as everything in the universe.

 

Yes, we’re both earth dust and star dust. And everything follows a path of endless transformation, which is a very cool thing even if we sometimes wish it were otherwise.

 

Earth dust and star dust

Death is a necessary ingredient in the process. Without it, nothing new could appear. New life is created out of the space created when something else is let go.

 

All things are continuously made new, including us.

 

Faith itself is about daily transformation, shedding old ways and replacing them with new. As the saying goes, old wineskins must be discarded. If we cling to the old, we’ll watch it turn to dust in our hands.

 

As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it, “Almost always when I experience God, it comes in the form of some kind of death and resurrection. … It’s about spiritual physics. Something has to die for something new to live.”

 

When we recognize the spiritual physics at work — the intimacy between death and rebirth — we worry a little less about future burial and focus more on nurturing the life being reborn within us and around us.

 

All things new

Spirituality is about embracing the daily transformation. “Dying to self” involves gradually letting go of selfishness, fear, prejudice, judgment, insecurity, ego – anything that prevents us from loving more deeply and inclusively.

 

Our spiritual exfoliation creates room for compassion and empathy and joy and hope and healing. We become more invested in transforming ourselves and our world.

 

This process also works on our collective level. We see it unfolding in our society right now.

 

A culture that has for so long reserved power and privilege for a certain caste — white, wealthy, male, straight, Christian — is being shed, bit by bit, to create space for something new. Some church people are trying to provide life support, but it’s futile. To borrow an expression from Martin Luther King, Jr., such religion is dry as dust and ready for burial.

 

Leave the dead to bury the dead. God is working among the living. Put our focus there. Pay attention to the new life poking up from the ashes. Nurture it, celebrate it and grow it.

 

And feel free to skip the dusting chore if you wish. Consider it a sign of respect. After all, that dust gathered on our shelves and tabletops is you and me.

 

Well, OK, maybe dust once in a while. Those enlarged photos of dust mites are really disgusting.

Here and there and everywhere …

Sam-I-Am3

My editor asked if I was free to attend a media availability promoting a good cause. The featured speaker would be available for interviews beforehand.

“Would you like to interview Dr. Seuss?” the editor said.

Wait, what? Dr. Seuss? Are you kidding me? Yes!!!!

Theodor Geisel has been an integral part of my life since I learned to read. “Green Eggs and Ham” was one of the first books assigned in my school. I remember standing and reading passages aloud in class. I loved the rhyming verses and silly drawings.

That Sam-I-Am took me by the hand and led me into a new world.

So, I was excited to meet Geisel. And nervous. I mean, what do you ask Dr. Seuss? Where you do even begin?

I arrived early at the hotel ballroom for the event, hoping to get some one-on-one time. I spied Geisel standing in a corner of the room talking to someone.

I was star-struck.

I hesitantly walked over, introduced myself and shook his hand. I was immediately struck anew by his shyness. I’d read that he was rather private by nature. I could tell he was uncomfortable with attention.

I blurted something about how it was a thrill to meet him and how “Green Eggs and Ham” was my first book and … well, I babbled too long and shook his hand entirely too eagerly.

I’m guessing it was the trazillionth time that he’d heard the same thing. His response was gracious and grateful, which I found charming.

And that’s pretty much all I remember about meeting Dr. Seuss.  The rest of the session was unremarkable, which is itself a remarkable thing.

You couldn’t tell from Geisel’s demeanor that he was anyone important. You got no glimpse of whatever amazing Jing Tinglers and Flu Floopers and Who Hoovers and Gar Ginkers were darting through his brain.

Just another person — that’s Who he was.

Herding a cat into a hat

In retrospect, it wasn’t surprising. Writers are most comfortable sitting solitary at a keyboard, trying to lasso a few of the slippery ideas racing through their brains and confine them to words. It’s a harrowing process that’s often futile, much like herding a cat into a hat.

The process ends when the writer wearies of the wrestling and shares their unsatisfying sentences as a personal-and-imperfect gift to the rest of the world.

It’s never really about the writer; it’s more about their gift.

Dr. Seuss’ gift taught me more than just an appreciation for words well-used. He also taught life lessons off that plate of green eggs and ham.

Sam-I-Am warned me against pushing away what seems different and unfamiliar – I need to get beyond the surface. He taught me about the danger of judging anything or anyone based upon color or size or shape or anything else.

The overriding message I gleaned: Don’t live in a bubble. Don’t shrink life down to some small theological, political, cultural or personal set of assumptions.

Life is so much bigger and more amazing than our prejudices.

Instead, take the chance of really getting to know something – or someone – who seems different in some superficial way. Acquaint ourselves with our wonderful diversity and be open to adjusting our worldview with each new experience.

Oh, and one more thing: Don’t be indifferent.

A whole awful lot

Geisel died in 1991 – today, March 2 is his birthday – but that important message gets passed to each generation that turns the pages afresh. As one line from “The Lorax” puts it: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

When we open our eyes and our hearts to see people and things in a different way – that’s when change big and small happens within us and all around us.

It can happen on a boat, with a goat. In a box, with a fox. In the rain, on a train. It can happen here and there and everywhere.

And it will happen, so long as you and I care, a whole awful lot.

The risk of being authentic

CHALLENGER EXPLOSION

Some of my friends are recalling what they did at the time of the Challenger disaster — 33 years ago today. I remember it well, and not only because of what happened to the shuttle.

I first saw that horrifying image of Y-shape smoke on a small television screen outside my counselor’s office. It reinforced what Jenny and I had just discussed for 45 minutes.

We’d talked about living authentically, and how there are great rewards – and big risks – when we summon the courage to leave our safe, familiar places.

Jenny specializes in working with adult children of alcoholics. That’s me. When I reached adulthood — well, as much as anyone does — I realized some things weren’t working. Something was missing from my life.

Me. I was missing.

Jenny helped me connect the dots. She helped me to see that the coping strategies I’d used as a child to deal with a challenging situation were getting in the way of living a fuller life.

Me. I was missing.

As a child, I learned not to talk about the craziness engulfing me. And especially not to talk to anyone outside the family about it — their lives were so perfect, it seemed, and they’d think I was so weird, which would make it all worse.

Instead, I put up walls and protected myself from being disappointed. I learned not to expect much. I avoided situations where I could get hurt. I tried to love in limited measure from a safe distance, which never works.

And I dreamed about the day when someone would ride in and save me from all of this. God would wave a divine magic wand, or someone in shining armor would show up and rescue me.

Or, maybe not.

During my talks with Jenny, I learned that each of us has our human baggage to sort out. As we embrace the challenge, we grow and become more comfortable with the process. We figure things out a bit better, we see them from a little clearer perspective.

And slowly, we become more authentic.

Being authentic doesn’t mean being the loudest voice or insisting that we have all the answers and that other people should live our way. That’s not being authentic; that’s being an ass.

It doesn’t mean that we’ll ever fully understand ourselves or why we do some of the things we do. Instead, it’s about choosing to be guided less often by the insecure and scared parts inside each of us.

Being authentic means trying our best to love. We’re at our best and our most authentic when we love.

It means tapping into the kind, compassionate, creative parts and letting them guide our decisions a bit more often. It means choosing to put ourselves into makes us feel the most genuine and the most alive.

It also means learning how to put ourselves a little more fully into our many relationships. It’s about taking the risk of actually loving, which is fulfilling and unsettling and messy and wonderful and confusing and challenging.

To love is to risk. We take a chance whenever we let our love and our passion take us places that we can’t go by ourselves.

To love is to risk

 

We do so knowing that things will sometimes end badly. We‘re going to get hurt, maybe very deeply. We do it anyway. That’s the price of love and authenticity.

Which brings us to the Challenger.

Teacher Christa McAuliffe was on the Challenger. She could have stayed in the safety of her classroom instead of risking outer space. But she was passionate about making this trip, and she followed her passion.

After the disaster, President Reagan said that McAuliffe and the astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

So have we.

By living authentically, we take a risk and accept the challenge of reconstituting our lives when something inevitably fall apart. We put ourselves back on the launch pad, so to speak — still hurting and healing — and we head authentically toward a new place.

A place where we touch the face of God. And where God oh-so-tenderly touches us back.

MLK and dry-as-dust religion

mlk women's march4

Martin Luther King, Jr., sought not only to change society, but to reform religion as well. From the start, he challenged people of faith to recognize the demands of their faith and live them courageously.

He challenges us today.

He reminds us that we can’t call ourselves people of faith if we lack interest in how people are being treated. We can’t be indifferent to the suffering of others and claim that we’re living by the admonition to love one another.

King understood that people of faith are not only obligated to transform their societies through the power of love, they’re in a unique position to do so.

As a young pastor in Montgomery — in the heart of Klan country — MLK noted that so many churches were talking about heaven but ignoring the injustices right outside their doors. He said any religion that’s not concerned with how God’s children are being treated is “a dry-as-dust religion.”

The Civil Rights Movement got its flashpoint when Sunday school teacher Rosa Parks decided faith impelled her to resist an unjust transportation system. Black church leaders used the moment to push for equality for all God’s children.

Many white churches resisted. Years later, when he was imprisoned for a march in Birmingham, MLK wrote his famous letter pushing back against white clergy urging him to be silent and go away.

King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that any church which fails to bring God’s values to bear on conditions in our world “will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning” for contemporary times.

Irrelevant social clubs

King observes how young people in particular were drifting away, their disappointment turning into disgust for what was being passed off as church in so many instances.

He was prophetic.

A half-century later, millions have left churches that feel dry as dust, searching instead for authentic faith communities. They seek the places that are rooted in love and follow the historical summons to care for the needy, welcome the stranger, embrace the refugee, heal the sick, and challenge systems that harm God’s children.

They’ve given up on churches that are fixated on sex and indifferent to injustice. They want nothing to do with places that are invested in liturgy but lacking in love.

Breathe new life into dust

Love is the foundation of all living religion, and it isn’t a feeling or an ideal. It’s a commitment to treat others as ourselves and stand with those who are marginalized.

When we’re animated by such faith, we follow wherever it leads us, even when the path is unpopular, unsettling, uncharted and unsafe.

If our lives aren’t enlivened by such love, then they’re dry as dust. MLK reminds us that when we refuse to stand up for what is right, our lives have essentially ended. If our lives stand for nothing more than self-interest, it’s as though we’re not even here.

This summons to people of faith extends to us today.

Love — the real thing — can breathe new life into any life, society or religion that has become dry as dust. Love and love alone has the power to resurrect.

“With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
— from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Aug. 28, 1963

The power of our words

mlk spotlight

Martin Luther King, Jr., understood the power of words.

He spoke so beautifully and prophetically about his dream of a world in which everyone is treated as an equally beloved child of God. He challenged society to live up to its founding words of equality, liberty and justice for all.

His enduring words reengage us, reorient us and reenergize us in the daily struggle to decide our values and live up to them.

Words matter because they always take on flesh in some form.

Words have the power to inspire us, touch us, and transform us for better or worse, depending upon which words we choose to allow inside of us. They can bring us more peace, love and justice, or they can increase our levels of division, fear and hatred.

In the last few months, we’ve been reminded how easy it is to get sucked into the pool of hateful words.

A man immersed in racist words shot people in a Kentucky grocery store. A man immersed in fearful words sent bombs to people labeled as threats. A man immersed in anti-Semitic words killed people in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Words can inject poison into our veins, or they can be a healing antidote. They can bring illuminating hope, or they can appeal to our darkest instincts.

Words have power

MLK showed us how to change societies in nonviolent ways using nonviolent language. He reminded us that love involves recognizing each person as a child of God and respecting their human dignity, even if they don’t do the same for us.

We can’t return a slur or insult with one of our own. We can’t demean anyone or support those who demean others.

Our aim is never to harm any person, but to challenge their way of thinking and to defend those whom they are hurting. We must disagree and resist without being hateful.

This weekend is a fitting time to remember three important things about words:

First, it’s so very tempting to respond to incendiary, angry words with incendiary and angry language of our own. But when we do that, we’re giving power to the hateful words. We can’t go down that path.

Second, we can harm people with our silence as well as our words. Refusing to stand up against injustice – swallowing our words in the face of something that’s wrong – makes us complicit in the injustice.

Last, we must hold not only ourselves but also our leaders accountable for their words.

Silence can harm too

Religious, political and social leaders all have a “bully pulpit.” Their words are amplified throughout our society and will either elevate it or debase it. Leaders shape attitudes and inspire actions with their spoken and typed words.

When anyone in a leadership role uses language that marginalizes, demonizes or demeans, we must push back strongly, withhold our support, and hold them accountable.

This weekend reminds us how words can lead us forward or hold us back. They can promote goodness or spread darkness. They can inspire a dream or encourage destruction.

The enduring challenge is to choose our words carefully, speak them prophetically and live them courageously.

Grief, joy and a mom’s ceramic reindeer

Rudolph

My mom had multiple sclerosis and was limited to a wheelchair for her last 15 years. When she couldn’t navigate the house anymore, she moved into a retirement apartment and made new friends.

The apartment offered social activities, including a pottery class. My mom joined and made gifts for family and friends. Each Christmas, we’d receive new ornaments and holiday figures.

She made the Rudolph figure above. She was particularly proud of it. She kept it and placed it next to the small tree in her living room each year. When she died, I inherited it. Every Christmas since, I’ve place it next to my tree.

Holding the figure – the same one she held so tightly and painted so carefully – helps me feel connected to her. I sense her continued presence in my life.

It wasn’t always this way.

The first few Christmases after she died were difficult. Hanging her ceramic ornaments on the tree and setting Rudolph next to it made me miss her even more. It was akin to yanking the bandage off a wound that’s just starting to heal.

I felt I’d not only lost her, but Christmas, too.

Several family members and close friends are experiencing that same feeling this holiday season. They’ve lost someone or some important relationship. Entering a new year feels like closing a door behind them.

Those first years are so difficult! The pain can overpower. Joy seems elusive. There’s an overriding sense that things will never be the same, never as good.

All the talk of good cheer can get swallowed in that black hole.

As I gained distance from my mom’s death, the pain slowly subsided and made room for something else. Pain has been replaced by presence.

Pain replaced by presence

Whenever I look at the reindeer figure now, I think of all the holidays when she was in some sort of pain and yet made Christmas special for us. And now we live in her spirit and do the same for each other.

She’s still here in all of this. The circle is unbroken.

Whenever I hold the reindeer figure, I think of how she held it and put so much of herself into it. How she carefully painted the brown eyes, the long lashes and the red nose, trying so hard to get them just right.

And then she looked at it and smiled, the same way I smile when I look at it now. She put herself into that figure the same way she put herself into her family – so much careful work, so much love, so much attention to detail.

Those things never go away. They form a bond can’t be broken.

That is, after all, the Christmas message: Love is strongest of all, always stronger than hate or fear or the thing we call death. Nothing can separate us from powerful love.

Which brings us to joy.

Joy is mentioned a lot during the holiday season – joy to the world — and yet it seems so distant and alien and elusive when we’re feeling grief and emptiness. But joy and sadness aren’t mutually exclusive; they co-exist. They’re partners, in a sense.

As I’ve gotten older and experienced loss, I’ve realized that joy isn’t a feeling. It’s more of a mindset or a lifestyle grounded in the recognition that life and love endure, even when they change forms.

Joy is a close relative of gratitude and appreciation. It encourages us to step back, realize we’re still in good hands, and smile through our watery eyes.

One more thing about joy: It’s not personal, but collective. We create and share joy together.

Love is strongest of all

Joy involves helping each other through our pain. We sit with each other, hold hands, remind each other that we’re never alone. We don’t tell each other to cheer up or smile or be joyful; we simply give each other our presence.

That’s joy at work.

One of my favorite descriptions of this work comes from Francis of Assisi, who reminds us so beautifully and poetically that when we encounter hatred in someone’s heart, we bring love that can transform it.

Where there is doubt, we bring faith. Despair, hope. Darkness, light.

And where there is sadness, joy.

Not a joy that minimizes or ignores the sadness, but a joy that sits down next to it and listens to it. A joy that’s strong enough to help us through those moments and transform them.

A joy that’s expressed through something as simple as holding a hand. Or holding a ceramic reindeer.