Prophets, questions and dreams

Image   One of my favorite scenes from the movie “Gandhi” portrays the Rev. Charlie Andrews standing in the pulpit of his church. The Anglican clergyman has been working with Gandhi to challenge how the people of India are being treated under British rule.
   Andrews looks out at his privileged, all-white congregation and dives into what he knows will be a divisive subject.
   “What Mr. Gandhi has forced us to do is ask questions about ourselves,” he says.
   Many in the congregation get up and leave, some with indignant expressions. They don’t want their beliefs questioned, certainly not in a church. They see no reason to even talk about change.
   Can we identify with that reaction in some ways?
   I think of that image from “Gandhi” as we honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend. The two of them were kindred spirits, prophets from different religions and different countries. They shared the same spirit-filled message and the same nonviolent methods.
   And they met with the same responses.
   Many who heard them were inspired and worked to change the world in some very significant ways. Others opposed them and tried to silence them. Both were assassinated by gunmen. But their message and their spirit endure.
   So do their questions.
   Prophets are always asking questions. Tough questions. Unsettling questions. Questions that they pose to themselves, then try to answer with their lives.
   Questions such as:
   What’s in our hearts? Are we concerned too much about ourselves and too little about others? Do we believe in love? Why do we give in so readily to bitterness and hatred?
   Why do so few have so much, while so many have so little? Aren’t we all diminished by the poverty, discrimination, violence and the many injustices in our world? Why do we glamorize violence and weapons as solutions to our problems?
   Do we really believe that we’re all equally beloved children of God? Do we act that way? Do we walk past the person bleeding by the side of the road without stopping to help? Do we even notice them?
   How long will we accept the status quo? How long until we make justice a reality for all God’s children?
   Prophets are as unpopular as they are indispensable. Their questions generate friction and a lot of creative heat that can be used to reshape our world.
   Perhaps a good way to honor the Rev. King this weekend is to ask the questions all over again. To ask them compassionately and emphatically, just as he did. And then to have the daily courage to try to live our individual and collective answers.
   The challenge is to be prophetic. To change the world a little bit at a time, one act of love at a time.
   To have a dream, too.


Be a light

Image   Light is important to us. Those of us who live in the Midwest are reminded of how much we need it during this time of year. The sun sets very early. On so many days, our sunlight is tinged with gray as it seeps through the clouds.
   Light seems to be in short supply.
   All of the festive holiday Christmas lights have been put away, leaving the darkness unchecked. We recently had religious celebrations that involved lighting candles on our menorahs, on our advent wreaths and our dinner tables. Many people celebrated the birth of a Jewish rabbi who urges everyone to be a light to the world.
   Don’t wait for someone else to bring the light. Be the light.
   It’s a challenge that each of us spends a lifetime answering. Do we make our lives primarily about ourselves? Or do we focus more on making life better for others and changing our world in some important ways?
   Do we deepen the darkness, or do we shine a light into it?
   Be a light.
   Do the little things that help us to shine on, to borrow one of John Lennon’s phrases. Smile at a stranger. Be kind toward whoever you meet. Roll down your car window and offer help to the needy person by the side of the road.
   Or, borrowing from Francis of Assisi: Show those who hate what it’s like to love. Heal injury with pardon. Encourage those who are doubting themselves so that they might have their faith restored. Bring hope to those who are feeling despair, joy to those who are feeling sad.
   To those who feel darkness in their life, bring some light.
   Be a light.
   It can be a daunting challenge at times. But remember that all it takes is one small, fixed light in the sky to give sailors a reference point to navigate the dangerous seas and get safely back to port. One small point of light can make all the difference for someone.
   Be that small point of light.
   Also remember that light doesn’t direct or control anyone, it illuminates the world for them. And that’s enough. The beams from a lighthouse allow the ship’s captain to see the rocky shoreline. Some ships will still run aground, even with the light. Many others will take advantage of the light and avoid getting grounded. And they will be thankful for the light.
   Be a light.
   Also, be mindful that there are many people who hate light. Many people want to sleepwalk through their lives, so light isn’t welcomed. Many others embrace darkness because it provides cover for them to take advantage of others, to satisfy their greed and their lust for privilege and power. They do all they can to extinguish the light so they can keep much of the world plunged into darkness.
   Be a light.
   Often, it’s very unpopular. You might feel like a flickering flame, struggling to survive the heavy breath of those trying to extinguish you. In those times, it takes strength and patience and courage to shine on.
   Find the courage. Be a light.
   One of my favorite passages from Genesis is the poetic story of creation. It imagines a scene where God says “Let there be light,“ and light enters into creation and changes it. This business of creating light and spreading light goes on today. It goes on with you and me.
   The world needs an infusion of light.
   Be a light.


A gift of hot chocolate

 Image  My mom died in a nursing home five years ago this week. She spent the last 10 months of her life there following a severe stroke. Mary was buried next to her mom, Ann, at the top of a gently rising hill in a cemetery during a 13-inch snowfall in Cleveland.
   There was a lot of talk about hot chocolate that day.
   My mom always found ways to give something to others. Multiple sclerosis confined her to a wheelchair, but she still figured out ways to come up with gifts. She took a ceramics class in her apartment building and made Christmas ornaments for family and friends. Some of them hang on our tree even now. A red-nosed reindeer that she made stands in our living room each December.
   After her stroke, she was very limited. One side of her body didn’t work at all. She was bedridden those last 10 months. Still, she found a way to give. When the attendants at her nursing home came around and asked what she wanted for each meal, she ordered a packet of hot chocolate with it.
   You have to know that she didn’t like hot chocolate. Never drank it. But she saw an opportunity to come up with a gift. She saved the packets of hot chocolate and gave them to my sister Joanne, who has two boys. They would get the gift of hot chocolate from her.
   What a remarkable gesture, huh? Even confined to a bed, she found a way to give.
   And to give abundantly.
   Yes, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. My sister’s stash of hot chocolate soon overflowed and overwhelmed her pantry. Do the math: Three packets a day, 30 days a month, 10 months in a nursing home. Nobody can drink that much hot chocolate. Joanne started farming out the packets to the rest of the family. Soon, we all had our own little stash of the packets.
   During her funeral, we joked with the pallbearers that if the casket felt a little heavier on one end, it’s because we gave some of the hot chocolate back. Those who knew about the trove of cocoa got a laugh.
   The following Christmas, a close friend had an idea for the many remaining packets. Kathy had cut my mom’s hair when she came to visit, so the they had a connection. Kathy’s children were in an outdoor nativity scene at their school. The weather had turned cold. The school was looking for a lot of hot chocolate to keep the children and their families warm.
   My sister shipped me the remainder of her stash, and I merged it with mine and gave it away. I kept one pack — that’s a photo of it at the top of this blog. The packet rests on a shelf where I see it every day and am reminded of all that my mom has given to me and all the love and inspiration she continues to send my way.
   It’s also a daily reminder that no matter how limited we may feel or how little we may think we have, we can always find some ways to give. We just have to be a little creative.
   And we can always give a lot. More than we might imagine. So much so that others will receive our gift and have an abundance to share, too.
   There’s always plenty of hot chocolate to go around.


Who am I to judge?

 Image  One of my favorite quotes from 2013 comes from pope Francis. When asked what he would say about a member of the Catholic clergy who is gay, he responded with a question of his own.
   “Who am I to judge?” Francis said.
   A good question for all of us, no?
   Our world is inundated with judgment. Social media can be a swamp of it. Recently, a television celebrity got judgmental toward those who are different from him and got in trouble for it. Many defended his judgmental attitude and words.
   Which raises some important questions for all of us: Is it good to be judgmental? Isn’t life about making judgment calls and living by our values? Aren’t we all judgmental in some ways?
   All of us make judgments every day, decisions about what we think is best to do in the various circumstances of our lives. We might see someone in need and decide to help. We might recognize one of our shortcomings and decide we’ll change. We might run into an unforeseen challenge and try to figure out the best way to respond.
   That’s all well and good.
   Being judgmental is a very different thing.
   We cross a line and become judgmental when we conclude that our decisions are the right ones and that we’re free to criticize anyone who sees anything differently. We reject them for having a different point of view. We might even attribute bad motives to their decisions, even though we‘re clueless about what‘s going on in their heads or in their lives. We decide that we’re better than them in some ways.
   When we’re judgmental, we’re not only pointing a finger at someone else in scorn, we’re also using our other hand to pat ourselves on the back. We’re making ourselves feel good at the expense of someone else.
   Ultimately, being judgmental is more about the person doing the judging than it is about the one being judged. A judgmental attitude pushes others away instead of opening ourselves to a conversation with them that might prompt us to reconsider and change our point of view. We prefer our certainties.
   That’s the thing about a judgmental attitude: It can’t survive outside the darkness of a closed mind.
   What’s the opposite to being judgmental? Alcoholics Anonymous is a great example. Everyone acknowledges they’re in the same boat. There’s no criticism or judgment. People share their stories and learn from each other’s experiences. They draw strength from each other’s love and encouragement. Millions of people have changed their lives and become whole through this approach, gotten renewed hope and fresh starts.
   Shouldn’t our religions be more like that? Shouldn’t we be more like that? Shouldn’t we offer encouragement and grace instead of judgment and rejection? Shouldn‘t we be instruments of healing?
   It’s interesting that Jesus chose to spend his time with those who were on the accusing end of the pointed finger. His closest friends and followers were judged and rejected by those who preferred to cast stones. He said everyone should drop their stones. Don’t judge, because your judgment always turns back on you. Instead, love one another.
   Who are we to judge? A great question to keep asking in 2014.


A Wet Christmas Story

   Image The garage door grumbled and shimmied open in the glow of the headlights. The windshield wipers made a loud squeak as they smeared cold drops of rain across the contoured glass.
   What a depressing sound, he thought.
   He pulled the car into the garage, turned off the headlights and silenced the engine. He stepped out into the damp cold.
   Some Christmas eve, he thought. Couldn’t feel any less like it.
   The garage door rumbled closed behind him as he opened the door to the kitchen and walked in. He flipped on the lights. The burst of brightness hardly changed his mood.
   The house felt so empty.
   He walked through the kitchen and into the family room. Two cats — a long-hair tabby and a calico — were curled up together in an overstuffed chair.
   “Hey Edgar,” he said to the tabby. “Hey Kate.” He walked over and gently stroked the tops of their heads with his fingertips.
   “You’re my company tonight,” he said to the two little balls of purr.
   He removed his damp overcoat and hung it in the closet with an involuntary shiver. He turned toward the mantle, grabbed a box of matches and lit two round, red candles. Soon, the scent of cinnamon started to fill the room.
   His wife loved scented candles. He didn’t at first, but the smells became linked in his mind with winter and Christmas.
   The warm, familiar smell couldn’t take the chill off his soul. He started missing her again.
   ”Damn,” he said.

   Image He was a counselor, so he understood what was going on. That didn’t make it any easier. He knew that the holidays made losses hurt even more. His wife had died several months earlier, and he had started to get over it and move on with life. Christmas brought back the pain with a sharp edge.
   His three children were grown. He’d talked to each of them on the phone this Christmas eve. They were coming over for dinner on Christmas afternoon — he would cook, of course. Each of them had invited him to spend the night at their places, but he wanted to experience this Christmas eve alone. It seemed like the best thing to do.
   Now, he wasn’t so sure.
   He had started driving to the midnight church service — they always went as a family and, later, as a couple with grown children.   Halfway there, the pouring rain made him reconsider, and he felt he should turn around and go home.
   Was he just feeling overwhelmed by missing his wife? Or, was there a purpose to that feeling? He didn’t know. All he knew was that he needed some warm tea.
   He still used a tea kettle. His wife used to tease him about doing things the old-fashioned way instead of using the microwave. Something about the tea kettle’s whistle comforted him.
   He rinsed it, filled it up, then put it on the stove and turned on the fire. He went to see what Edgar and Kate were up to — still sleeping in their chair. He started stroking their heads and taking deep, comforting breaths of the fragrant air. The candles were starting to work their magic.
   He closed his eyes for a moment, thinking back to old times. Times that felt ….
   Was that the doorbell?
   He thought he’d heard it ring. Couldn’t be, though. Who would be out at this time — what time was it? The clock said 12:17 a.m.
   It rang again.

   Image He got up and went to the door. A shiver of fear went through him. He knew the dangers involved in living alone. He opened the inside door with trepidation, looked out and saw the last thing he expected.
   A young woman stood on his porch. Her brown, wavy hair was soaked. So was her denim jacket. Mascara streaked her cheeks. She looked afraid. Alone. Vulnerable.
   Should he open the door? He paused and listened to his instincts.
   “Can I help you?” he said, opening the door.
   “Sorry to bother you,” the young woman said, speaking in that fast-clipped way that people often do when they’re stressed. “But my car has broken down and I’ve forgotten my cell phone and I need to call someone to come and get me and your house was the only one with a light on …”
   He made the next decision with his heart.
   “Of course,” he said. “Come in. You can use the phone.”
   She looked unsure as she walked into the hallway. Almost as unsure as he felt when he first looked out the door.
   “You’re soaked,” he said. “Would you like some warm tea? I’m making some right now.”
   He could see hesitance in her eyes.
   “Thanks, but I just really need to call my boyfriend and he’ll come and get me and it will be OK.”
   “Sure,” he said. “The phone’s in the next room. Help yourself.”
   The tea kettle started to whistle. He went into the kitchen to make himself a cup and give her some privacy. While he was dipping his tea bag into the cup of steamy water, he overheard angry words. The phone got hung up abruptly.
   She walked into the kitchen. Her mascara was getting smudged again, but this time it wasn’t because of the rain.
   “Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate you letting me use the phone.”
   He looked at her for a moment and tried to figure out what was going on.
   “So, do you have a ride?” he said.
   She paused for a few seconds. He thought he saw anger flash in her eyes.
   “No,” she said, finally. “My boyfriend — my former boyfriend — won’t come and get me. I guess I’m going to have to call a tow truck.”
   He wasn’t sure how to react.
   “It’ll be a long wait for a tow truck,” he said. “Christmas eve and all.”
   He looked at her blue eyes and saw a lot of things swirling around. Where to start?

  Image  “Why don’t you join me in some tea and tell me about your night?” he said.
   Hesitantly, she nodded. She followed him to the table, sat down and watched him pour another cup of boiling water. She looked so lost.
   “Don’t you have another friend or relative who can help?” he said.
   Slowly, she started telling her story. How she’d recently moved to town to be with her boyfriend, even though she had no other friends there. How their relationship quickly became a burden. How she’d broken it off that week. How she was still upset that night and had forgotten to take her cell phone with her to work. How the car broke down on her way back to her apartment, and now the only person she knew in town wouldn’t come to help her.
   “What’s your name?” he asked.
   “Emma,” she said. “Yours?”
   “Harold,” he said, “but everyone has always called me Hank. Everyone except my wife.”
   He told her how his wife had died recently. Hearing his story helped snap her out of her own problems. She asked what had happened.
   That’s where the conversation began.
   It went on for more than an hour as they sipped tea and commiserated about life’s difficulties. And its wonders. There were stories and smiles and a few blinked-back tears.
   Finally, she glanced at the clock and told him she was sorry for keeping him up so late.
   “No, no need to be sorry,” he said. “In fact, I’m glad you came to my door. Thank you.”
   “For what?” she said.
   “For helping me get through a rough night. It’s almost like someone sent you here.”
   She smiled.
   “I have that same feeling,” she said.

   Image The two of them sat silent for a few moments, thinking about how they were brought together. Finally, he stood up and reached for a set of keys on a nearby countertop.
   “Well, you’ve still got your transportation problem, and I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you take my car?”
   Those blue eyes widened.
   “That’s crazy,” she said. “I’m a total stranger.”
   He smiled.
   “Really?” he said. “Do you feel like a stranger?”
   She smiled back.
   “No,” she said “I guess not. But why would you give me your car?”
   “I won’t need it tonight,” he said. “And besides, you can bring it back tomorrow and meet my family and join us for dinner. I have a daughter about your age. I think you two might enjoy each other’s company. Who knows, you might even become friends. Would you like that?”
   She smiled broadly for the first time all night.
   “Deal!” she said.
   With that, she got up, took the keys from his hand and headed for the garage. He opened the door and turned on the light, then hit the button that made the garage door rumble to life again.
   She started toward the car, then turned back, leaned forward and gave him a lingering hug.
   “Thank you for everything,” she said. “I’m so glad you were home with your light on.”
   “And thank you,“ he said. “I’m so glad you showed up at my door.“
   With that, she opened the car door, slid in, adjusted the seat, started the engine, flipped on the headlights and slowly backed out of the garage. Once outside, the cold rain started pelting the windshield.
   He could see her silhouette in the night, waving at him. The windshield wipers went into action, smearing cold drops of rain across the glass with a loud squeak.
   What a joyful noise, he thought, as the car pulled away.


Give like God … or more like Santa?

 Image  Have you ever given someone a gift knowing they probably weren’t going to keep it? You had no idea what to give them, so you gave them something — a sweater, let’s say, even though you knew they had more than enough sweaters — along with the receipt so they could return your gift for something else.
   That’s kind of how God gives, isn’t it? No, no, not the sweater part. The part about giving and then letting the other choose what they’ll do with the gift.
   Isn’t that how God gives to us?
   And if we’re to be like God, shouldn’t we be giving the same way?
   This is a challenging question, but one that’s relevant at this season of giving. Do we give with no strings attached? Or do we give with conditions? Do we give only to those we deem worthy?
   Let’s start with the gift.
   A true gift is given with no expectation or requirement. If some requirement is attached, then it’s no longer a gift. It becomes a business deal or a reward or a manipulation.
   A gift is given knowing that it might be wasted, but it’s given anyway. And even when the gift is wasted, it’s given again.
   Giving is an attitude, a spirit. It’s about sharing simply for the joy of it. It’s certainly not limited to money or things. It involves giving our time, our companionship, our care, our concern, our love, our involvement. There’s never any judgment about who is worthy and who is not.
   This is how God gives to us.
   So, how do we give?
   Often, it’s with preconditions. You get a gift so long as I’m confident you will respond to it the way I would like. The gift becomes not-a-gift when it‘s wrapped in expectations.
   Which brings us to Santa Claus.
   As one legend has it, St. Nick recognized three young women in need and gave to them anonymously. He didn’t seek attention or gratitude. He didn’t tell them how to use the gift. He saw that they were in need and gave. That’s all.
   Look at what we’ve done with the St. Nick tradition.
   Our Santa closely watches us to see whether we’re meeting his standards about naughty and nice. If we measure up, we get something we want as a reward. If we don’t, we get punished with a lump of coal, something that burns long and hot. The old man with the long white beard is watching us and judging us, ready to either punish or reward.
   (You could say we’ve twisted our view of God along those same lines, which is a very interesting thought and a whole other conversation.)
   And that brings us back around to grace.
   Grace is about the giving, not about the gift or how it is received. It’s rooted in a recognition that everything we have and everything we are is a gift from someone who loves unconditionally and gives unconditionally. Someone who asks that we try our best to do the same.
   In this very moment, we receive so many gifts. Our next heartbeat. Our next breath. Our new day. Our many possibilities for love and life and joy and healing and growth.
   And even when we waste our gifts — and who doesn‘t? — we receive more freely given gifts, along with the opportunity to learn to appreciate them and to use them better.
   Do we give the same way?




Hanging by a loose thread

Image   I noticed a loose thread in a blanket the other day and was reminded of something my mom always said: Never pull on a loose thread. All that will do is make it worse. It’ll yank on the other threads and create a knot.

Even if you manage to remove the thread without doing too much damage to the fabric, it’ll leave a space that starts the nearby threads working their way loose, too. Soon, the whole thing unravels.

Removing even one thread from the fabric creates big problems.

Isn’t it the same with us?

Each of us is a thread woven into the fabric of our world. We’re looped around each other, pulled tightly to one another, intimately bound to one another. We’re so closely intertwined that we can’t be separated without making it all unravel.

By ourselves, we are a thread. Together, we are a blanket.

The weaver made it so.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it this way in a letter he wrote while imprisoned in a Birmingham jail in 1963: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Everyone and everything is bound together. Everything that we do affects those bound to us. Every exhaled breath changes our environment. Every interaction with another person touches them on some level. Every act of love and compassion affects them. Every moment of selfishness and indifference does, too.

It’s a great thing, this coming together as part of something much, much bigger than any one of us individually. We get to be more than just one solitary thread.

But let’s be honest: It’s not really a popular concept these days.

We hear a lot about individual threads, but very little about the social fabric. We hear: Everyone is on their own. Don’t limit my rights in any way. Don’t ascribe any responsibilities to me. Don’t expect me to contribute to the common good.  Don’t expect me to compromise on anything. I’m the only thread that matters.

We delude ourselves into thinking we’re the entire blanket when, in fact, we’re only one thin thread.

When even a few threads work their way loose and separate, the whole fabric starts to unravel. We see that in our world, don’t we? We’re frayed and coming apart in so many ways.

The well-off pull away from the needy. Nations distance themselves from other nations and pursue only what they perceive as self-interest. Religions push each other away because they want to feel smug and superior. People create distances between themselves out of mistrust and prejudice and insecurity. And there is so much violence — the ultimate expression of pulling apart.

Our blanket has unraveled in so many places. It’s no longer capable of providing warmth in those many places.

In his book “It’s Really All About God — Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian,“ Samir Selmanovic puts it this way: “We want supremacy, but that is not what we really need. What we really need is to learn to be a part of the whole.”

We need to embrace our assigned place as an important part of something much bigger than any of us. We need to help the weaver repair our snags and knit our world back together again.

There’s a lot to be done, but it can be done.

The alternative is to leave us hanging by a loose thread.