Strudel, a soft drink and a beautiful song


The dust-up over the Coke commercial from the Super Bowl — the one that features “America the Beautiful” sung in different languages — has made me think about growing up in Cleveland.

The city is home to many ethnic groups. I lived in a neighborhood near what today is called Slavic Village. Back then, it consisted largely of immigrants and their children and grandchildren. They brought their foods, their customs and their yearning for freedom with them.

Each neighborhood had its own church, its own family-owned restaurant and bakery, its own family-run tavern. The houses were built tightly together and didn’t have air conditioning back then, so on the walk home from church each Sunday you could hear polkas playing on the radios and identity foods by familiar smells emanating from wide-open kitchen windows.

The neighborhoods were living definitions of the “melting pot” we read about in our history classes. And the pot contained so many different foods. Each ethnic group had its own sausage, ranging from Polish kielbasa to Italian sausage to mettwurst and bratwurst and kishke and so on. There were pierogies and chicken paprikash and potato pancakes and fried cabbage with noodles. And we won’t even get started on the many amazing desserts.

After Vatican II loosened restrictions on the Catholic mass, you could go to a different neighborhood and hear it in a different language. Over at St. Stanislaus, there was a mass in Polish. One neighborhood over, you could worship in a different language. Nobody thought anything of it — doesn’t God understand all languages?

Church wasn’t the only place where a different language was spoken. Some immigrants learned just enough English to get by, but would speak their accustomed language much of the time. It was fun to learn words from the different languages — especially ones your parents didn’t want you to know — while growing up.

If anyone had told these immigrant families they had to give up their customs in order to become more American, their response — in their own language — would be something along the lines of: Wait, what? That’s not America.

To them, great diversity was a sign of great freedom. And they celebrated it every time they said something in their familiar language or ate their favorite sausage.

Of course, they were far from perfect at this accept-our-differences thing. One ethnic group might dislike another or make jokes about another. You could find racism and sexism in all the neighborhoods. They didn’t always practice what they preached.

And maybe that’s where the Coke commercial touches on a point. We say we appreciate freedom, but we don’t always. We talk about liberty and justice for all, when sometimes what we really mean is for all those who are willing to change and become just like us.

And maybe that’s the question: Do we see great diversity as a sign of great freedom? Do we try to impose uniformity, or do we work to make sure freedom applies uniformly to all?

Something to consider over a slice of apple strudel.

Winging it


   Flying to Arizona for spring training today reminded me of a couple of airplane stories. My most memorable one involves a small jet, a large Marine and a lesson about judging.

   A few years ago, I was sitting in the waiting area by the gate for my flight to Sarasota, Fla. The jet was small — two narrow seats on each side of the aisle — and the flight would be two hours long. I glanced at the other passengers in the waiting area, trying to decide which one I didn’t want sitting next to me — have you ever played that game? The choice was easy.

   There was a man in his 20s sitting in a nearby seat. He had bulging muscles and wide shoulders, which would probably intrude on my space if he sat next to me. Plus, he had a couple of rather unusual tattoos. And he didn’t appear to be very friendly.

   Just like that, I judged him and decided he would be my first choice for sitting somewhere else.

   Naturally, he wound up being the one sitting next to me.

   He seemed rather nervous when he sat down. Said hello, not much more. As the plane taxied toward the runway, he leaned back and closed his eyes. I wondered if he was sick.

   He stayed that way throughout our takeoff. The eyes remained closed, the hands were clenched.

   Was he just afraid of flying?

   Finally, he opened his eyes and seemed to relax.

   “You OK?” I asked.

   The man became apologetic. It was the first time he’d been on a plane since he got back from Iraq. Takeoffs and landings were still tough on him.

   He went on to explain that military planes tended to make abrupt descents and ascents in Baghdad so that they’re tougher targets to shoot down. Those takeoffs and landings also tend to mess with the passengers’ stomachs. That’s why our takeoff had made him anxious — he got that feeling back again.

   Wow! Can you even imagine?

   For the next two hours, we got to know each other. He told me about his tour of duty that had just ended. He was on his way to Florida to see his fiancee. He was a sports fan, so I told him some of my stories and he seemed to enjoy them.

   The two hours passed quickly. Finally, the landing gear was locked in place, the engines slowed, and the plane cleared the fence that surrounds the airport. We were seconds away from landing.

   Suddenly, the pilot gunned the engines and lifted the plane’s nose. The man next to me buried his forehead in the back of the seat in front of him and closed his eyes. I patted his leg a couple of times for reassurance.

   The pilot told us we were in no danger. There was a wind-shear warning for the runway. He decided to be safe and circle the airport one time. Soon, we were on the ground. I shook hands with the young man, told him I was glad to get to know him, and wished him luck.

   I don’t know what became of him. But I’m glad he sat next to me.

Sometimes, the final say is a purr

Image   Max the cat is curled on my lap. Purring. It’s a wonderful moment, one I wasn’t sure would happen again.
   Two weeks ago, Max was attacked. I went out to get the mail shortly after sunset and heard a pained yowl from the side of the porch. Max was lying in a bank of snow, head down and eyes closed. There was blood in the snow. Ice was frozen to the hair on his belly. There were human footprints around him. Either someone had pelted him with snowballs, or a loose dog had attacked him and someone had tried to pull the dog away.
   Either way, Max was in trouble.
   The vets sewed him up — he had eight tears in his abdominal wall, results of the struggle. He also had the cat equivalent of a concussion. He was bruised and in bad shape. He might not make it through.
   The hands of many caring people kept him alive and helped him get through it. The next two weeks would remind me that there are so many healers in the world.
   We all bring pain into the world in some ways. We all get beat up from time to time. It’s inevitable. That’s just how life works. And in those moments when we’re bleeding, we learn what it means to be a healer.
   There are so many people who make themselves available to us for healing. They might be in a healing profession, or they might just have the healing touch. When they see someone bleeding by the side of the road, they don’t just walk past. They stop, bandage their wounds and carry them to a safer place. They comfort them and encourage them.
   They become incubators where healing begins.
   Healers seem to understand that while pain and death are inevitabilities, they’re not finalities. Life always transcends both. It carries us through those moments and beyond them.
   Healers know instinctively that life always has the final say.
   Max is healing very nicely. The staples have been removed from his belly, leaving a surgical scar that will be a permanent reminder of something that happened to him. He’s starting to jump up on chairs again, eager to curl up on an unclaimed lap.
   Which also is a good reminder that healing is a two-way endeavor. It always comes back to the sender and reminds them of the miracle. In some ways, it always brings the healer a bit of healing, too.
   Sometimes, it just curls up on your lap and purrs. 


Breaking out

Image   Have you ever watched a chick break out of its shell?
   My first experience with hatching was at the poultry barn at the Indiana State Fair. The building is the temporary home for hundreds of chickens, ducks, geese and pigeons each summer. And they make quite a ruckus. There’s a constant din of crowing and honking and cooing and whatever other adjectives you care to apply. Colorful feathers drift through the air.
   As you walk through the front door, there’s a protected case for baby birds that have just hatched. And there’s an incubator full of eggs that are slowly being pecked and pushed apart by the little ones inside.
   If you have some time, you can stand and watch a miracle unfold, peck by peck.
   It takes hours for the chick to work its way out of the shell, sometimes an entire day. A 4-H volunteer sits by the incubator and records each chick’s progress during the exhausting escape from the shell into the greater world.
   The chick has spent its entire life in the darkness of its protective shell. The nourishment of the yolk is all used up. The chick no longer fits comfortably inside the oval confine. It has no clue what lies outside the shell, but it knows instinctively that it has to break out or it will slowly die.
   Is that a good analogy for what we experience in our lives? Do we often find ourselves breaking out of shells?
   Take religion, for example.
   Many of us are born into some sort of religion. Maybe our particular religion is big enough that it gives us encouragement and space to grow. Hooray! Or maybe our particular religion turns out to be very confining — limited to only those who see things a certain way — and it becomes like a hardened shell, something that leaves us living in a small, dark space. Eventually we realize that God isn’t confined to our shell, but lives outside of it. And we start to peck away.
   Religion isn’t the only such area. We all have hatching moments at various times in our lives, in various parts of our lives. You can probably think of many such instances in your own.
   And it’s not just things that come from outside of us. We build many individual shells. Ideas and beliefs easily harden into a shell of certainty and leave us in a small, dark space. We all have prejudices and fears that act like shells, keeping us apart from others.
   One thing about shells: When we seek security inside them, we begin to die a little bit in some ways. Our spirits wither, our hearts harden, our lives are lived in self-imposed darkness.
   And we feel an instinctive need to break out.
   Not that it’s easy. Shells are very thin and delicate if you’re applying pressure from the outside, but very strong and unyielding if you’re on the inside trying to break out. They’re tough things to crack.
   And the process can be scary. We don’t know what’s outside the egg — something we can’t possibly comprehend or predict. We’re tempted to stop pecking and piece our shell back together and stay there. Then we realize that’s not an option and go on.
   When a chick finally spills out of its shell, it’s haggard and exhausted. It rests for a while, trying to recover and take it all in. Soon, it gets up and starts learning to walk. It joins the other birds. Some day, it will fly.
   One time, I asked the 4-H egg monitor whether she was tempted to help the chick by cracking the shell and letting it out. She said that the struggle is an important part of the breaking-out process. It makes the chick strong enough to deal with what comes next.
   Without the struggle, the chick wouldn’t survive outside the shell. The struggle makes the chick strong, keeps it alive and gets it ready to fly one day. The struggle brings the chick into a fuller experience of life.
   Some refer to this as the mysterious process of life.
   Others might call it grace.


MLK has a dream … what’s yours?

 Image  You’ve heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Maybe you didn’t know that the most powerful parts were delivered off the cuff.
   “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.“ tells how he finished the speech on the morning of the March on Washington in 1963. He was up until 4 a.m. refining it. If you closely watch the video of the speech, you see him read from the script at the outset.
   It’s a beautiful and inspiring speech. But roughly halfway through, the Rev. King was inspired to say something else, something that wasn‘t written on the paper in front of him.
   As he put it, “This thing came to me.“ He had used the phrase “I have a dream” in a speech in Cobo Hall, Detroit and at other places. He decided to use it again as he stood in front of the statue of Lincoln and looked out over the massive crowd.
   “I used the phrase, and at that point I just turned aside from the manuscript altogether and didn’t come back to it,“ he said.
   It became the most powerful and memorable part of the speech. You can see him looking out at the crowd the entire time, pausing on occasion to try to find the right word. It’s amazing to watch the speech knowing that he was essentially writing it as he went along.
   I imagine it came to him naturally not only because he was a great orator, but because it truly was his dream. He was speaking directly from his heart. He’d thought about this dream often. He was committed to making it real, even if others would have to carry on the struggle long after he was gone:
   “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character …
   “I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers …”
   That was his dream. What is our dream?
   Do we even have a dream? Are we just trying to drift through life dreamlessly? Are our dreams only about ourselves? Do we dream of something more? For instance, do we dream only about raising our own children without dreaming about the world in which we are raising them or how other children are being treated?
   Do our dreams go beyond our narrow self-interest and expand to include all God’s children?
   Whatever we dream tends to become our road map. Our dreams direct us, either outwardly toward a greater good or inwardly toward a narrow existence.
   In a sense, the Rev. King leaves each of us with a challenge: How do we complete the sentence?
   “I have a dream that one day …”


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.