Filling our bags …

pumpkin2   For a few years, I had the privilege of participating in a church’s Trunk-or-Treat program for kids in a low-income neighborhood in Cincinnati. Folks bring their cars and vans to the church’s parking lot and decorate them. They hand out candy to the kids, who come dressed in their costumes. There’s food and hot chocolate and books, all for free.

One little boy who attended regularly has no legs, so his mom pushed him around the parking lot in a wheelchair. He was dressed like a ninja and if you asked why, he’d go on and on about how much he loves ninjas and his costume. And how much he loves Halloween.

The kids would make the route around the parking lot a few times with their bags open, getting another piece of candy and a little bit of love at each stop. Everyone enjoyed the giving and the getting.

Maybe that’s what I love most about Halloween.

We celebrate a day of giving with no strings attached to anyone who shows up at our trunk or our doorstep. And we give with a smile and a kind word: “Hey, you make a great ninja!”

Anyone who asks receives. No one is judged as more deserving or less deserving than anyone else. Nobody wonders if the kids have earned their candy. We just give.

And those toting the bags are appreciative, most of them saying thanks right away, although a few bashful ones have to be prodded by parents. The givers and the receivers enjoy this unqualified sharing.

Isn’t this what we are supposed to be about all the time?

The trick, if you will, is to keep giving and receiving after the final piece of candy has been handed out.

We hear stories about those who go to a shop or restaurant and pay forward a cup of coffee or a meal, finding creative ways to give. We watch people stop to give money, a bottle of water and a smile to the homeless person on the street corner. Or maybe they take them to a restaurant to share a meal and get to know them a little bit.

Along with the food, they put a little bit of themselves in the exchange — the greatest gift anyone can give.

If we’re paying attention, we see so many people around us with empty bags.

We also recognize that each of us has an empty bag at so many moments in our lives, those times when we‘re running low on joy, love, hope. And maybe food and other things, too. We open our bags and hope that someone recognizes our emptiness and responds with love.

Each day begins with the greatest gift plopped into each of our bags — another day of life, freely and joyfully given. And then for the rest of the day, it’s our turn to give freely and joyfully, over and over. And to receive thankfully and joyfully, over and over.

To fill each other’s bags until they’re overflowing.

Do you know anyone who sleepwalks?

   ImageHave you ever encountered someone walking in their sleep?
   My first experience came in college. I was up late studying for a midterm and went to the restroom. As I walked through the door, I saw a guy from down the hall standing in the middle of the room with a far-away look in his eyes. I thought he might be sick, or maybe something was wrong. I called his name and he didn’t respond. I touched his arm and he blinked a few times and recognized me. He told me that sometimes he walked in his sleep during stressful times. He asked me to wake him if I ever saw him sleepwalking again.
   I’ve thought about that moment over the years. Aren’t we all sleepwalkers? Don’t we sleepwalk through life much of the time?
   Think of how we live each day. Turn off the alarm. Shower. Eat. Go to work to make money to pay the bills. Go home. Eat again. Pay the bills. Watch television. Go to sleep. Do it all again. Keep shuffling along a course chosen by someone else.
   It’s quite understandable. Life is so big and grand; our routines shrink it down to something small and manageable. But we pay a price. Our lives become so numbingly small. We miss out on so much.
   Of course, we get a lot of encouragement to sleepwalk. We hear voices telling us to put one foot in front of another and continue on our unconscious path. Commercials persuade us that we’ll be happy and fulfilled if only we buy their gizmos and gadgets. Use them as you shuffle along in your life, putting one foot in front of the other. Don’t stop to wonder if there’s more to life than the gizmos.
   We even turn religion into a sleeping pill. Go to our place of worship. Hear words about love and compassion and forgiveness and inclusion and social justice that could inspire us if we actually took them seriously. Don’t think about them too much. Instead, leave our place of worship and go back to living pretty much the way our society dictates. Keep the status quo intact.
   And then, there are those wonderful moments of grace that we all experience, the ones that serve as a wake-up call.
   We look up at the sky on a clear, starry night and begin to marvel at the miracle of it all, how small and humble we are in such a big universe. We see an act of kindness or courage and marvel at the miracle of us. We love someone and it pulls us out of our self-centeredness, challenges us to be so much more than just a me.
   Maybe one of those moments comes when we’re walking down a street and we catch the eye of a homeless person, recognize the pain in their face and wonder what we can do to help. We begin to consider why so many people are pushed into poverty in a society with so much. We begin to pay attention to what’s happening to others.
   Or we have one of those increasingly common days when a disturbed person walks into a school building, an office, a military base, a shopping mall, a movie theater _ anywhere, really _ and another massacre occurs. And we’re snapped out of our sleepiness and we start to wonder: What kind of society accepts this as its norm? How do we change this? How do we change us?
   Those moments shake us and stir us. And when they do, the voices of the status quo try to tell us: Now is not the time to think about these things. Everything is fine. Nothing needs to change. Go back to sleepwalking through your life.
   If we can ignore those voices, we’ll hear another voice, the one of Someone who is gently touching our arm and saying, “Hey, wake up! You‘re walking aimlessly through life. You can be so much more! And it’s not just what you’re missing — your world needs you.
   “Wake up!”


Do we have enough?

   Recently, I learned about an immigrant who started a small business and was successful enough to get a nice house and send his kids to school. He never spent much on himself, except for his one hobby — he liked to go to the race track.       Occasionally, he would hit a jackpot on a long-shot finish. On the way home, he would stop at his church and donate his winnings. The priest would ask if he was sure he wanted to give the money away, and the immigrant would say, “Yes, father. Give it to someone who needs it. I have enough.”
   I have enough.
   We don’t hear that phrase much these days, do we? Certainly not in our culture, which insists that there is never enough of anything. Millionaires insist on bigger bonuses. Wealthy athletes get upset if someone else at their position makes more.     Commercials try to persuade us that we won’t be happy until we buy more of what they’re selling. You have a cell phone? It’s not good enough—you have to have the latest one. Act now and you‘ll get twice as much of our product. Do you want to super-size your order?
   We hear it so often that it’s easy for us to start judging our worth by how much we have in comparison to others. Those with the most are thought to matter the most. We think we can never get enough or have enough. We start to hoard whatever we can get.
   And we never learn to be really thankful. Instead of appreciating all that we’ve been given, we feel that it’s inadequate. We want something else, something more.
   Along the way, we start to lose our ability to differentiate between what’s important and what’s not. We confuse our wants with our needs. We stop appreciating what‘s really valuable in our lives.
   Isn’t it interesting that when a storm flattens a neighborhood, survivors say they haven’t lost anything truly important? They realize they still have what matters—life, love, family, friends, the gift of another day full of grace and possibilities. Then they go on and help one another rebuild their lives.
   Those moments snap us back to reality and remind us of our abundance and our responsibility to share. The person with two coats ought to give one to the person who has none—one coat is enough. Someone with food and water should share with those who are hungry and thirsty. Those who can move about freely should spend time with the lonely person who is confined. And so on.
   Like the thankful immigrant on his way home from the track, we need to recognize that we have more than enough. And to share with those who don’t.



No magic wands …

   MagicAn argument against God goes something like this: How can anyone believe in a creator who is indifferent to war? How can anyone accept a divine parent who ignores their children’s hunger and poverty? How can we embrace a God who is unmoved by the world’s pain?
   Why doesn’t this God of love do something?
   Those are challenging questions, ones that many of us have considered. We assume that our problems mean that God either doesn‘t exist or doesn‘t care about us.
   But what if our assumptions are wrong? What if we’re missing something important here?
   Suppose we ask those questions of God and listen for an answer. Would the divine response be:
   “Yes, of course I care! You know me. How could you think otherwise? I am passionate about making things better. I‘m working on it every moment of every day. I’ve given you everything you need to address the problems — everything! And I’ve made you my partners. Together we are going to fix these things. I’ll do my part, and you need to do yours. Let’s start now!”
   That might not be the answer we want. We might prefer that God take care of it all by God’s self — wave some divine magic wand and make it all go away. We created our problems, let Someone Else fix them. That way, we don’t have to change anything we’re doing.
   And once the wand is waved, we can go right back to making self-destructive choices. All the problems would return. Maybe the solution is for God to take away our ability to choose. But where would that leave us? We’d lose our ability to love, because love is a choice. We’d lose our ability to create, to nurture, to heal, to marvel. We’d lose that divine spirit inside of us, that creator’s spark. We’d be diminished in every way.
   Who would want that?
   Perhaps instead of diminishing us, God wants to challenge and elevate us. Do we hear that voice urging us to become divinely passionate about making peace, healing wounds, sharing all that we have with those who are in need, creating new ways to get along as equally loved children?
   Sure, it sounds daunting — change the world? Really? But it’s actually pretty straight-forward. Our problems are the results of our many individual and collective choices. We can make better choices, more compassionate choices, less selfish choices. And when we do, things start to change.
   God is passionate about this. Are we?
   We’re not talking only about big things. We’re talking about what seem like small choices — to smile kindly at a stranger, to give a few dollars to the person begging by the side of the road, to start to see our enemies as not all that different from us, to want to heal someone’s hurt rather than looking away from it, to go out of our way to welcome someone who is treated as an outcast in our society.
   That’s how it starts, and it goes from there.
   If there is war, it’s because we choose to declare it, not God. If there is poverty, it’s because we choose to tolerate it, not God. If there is pain, it’s because we choose to inflict it, not God.
   Shall we choose more like God?

How do we really feel about diversity?

  Image What would it be like if we were all more alike?
   This isn’t just a philosophical question. In many ways, we live as though we wished others were more like us. We spend time with those who are similar to us and avoid those who seem to be different. We enjoy being around those who share our viewpoint and avoid those who challenge it. We accept the parts of others that make us comfortable and ignore or reject the rest.
   But what about our diversity? Do we embrace it, or do we merely tolerate it?
   Over time, I’ve grown to appreciate the importance of our differentness. I’ve gotten to the point where I think of the incredible diversity — within our universe, within our human family — as one of our greatest blessings.
   I look at it this way:
   If there was no diversity and everyone was just like me, the world would be a very different place. We’d have a lot of stories being written, but they’d all be coming from one point of view so they’d get stale and repetitive. And I’m not sure how any of the stories would get recorded — I have no clue how to make a pen or paper or a printing press. Computers and the internet? Forget it. My brain doesn’t work that way. They wouldn’t exist.
   And that’s not all. Heating? Electricity? Plumbing? Are you kidding? I can barely re-caulk my bathtub without hurting myself. There would be no roads or cars, no airplanes or boats. No buildings, either. You wouldn’t want to step into any structure that I designed or constructed. Definitely not safe.
   If everyone were like me, we’d have no music — sorry, not my gift. No art — love it but don‘t have a talent for it. No doctors to keep us healthy, no medicine to save our lives … and on and on.
   Basically, if everyone was like me, we’d all be sitting in a cave somewhere huddled around a fire — assuming we could start a fire — telling each other the same story over and over.
   Not very appealing, eh?
   Of course, the benefits of our diversity go way beyond our creature comforts. Our thoughts are influenced and shaped by the thoughts of others, even those with whom we disagree. Different points of view challenge and shape our thinking. Relationships challenge us to grow and move outside of ourselves in so many ways, offering us the chance to experience life from another’s very different perspective. Our differences can expand us, if we let them.
   Our experience of God also is grounded in diversity. Each of us experiences God in our own way, through our unique but limited perspective. We also experience and learn about God through each other. One verse says we get to know God through love, and that always involves another person who is in many ways very different from us.
   There’s no getting away from it.
   So much of our religious tradition honors our diversity, even if so many of our religious institutions do not. Genesis describes a creator who loves diversity and thinks that the many, many differences in our world are very, very good. In the story of Noah’s ark, the creator insists on a boat big enough to preserve all of that diversity. There are many stories of Jesus rejecting those who defined God in narrow terms and accepted only those who shared their viewpoints and perspectives. The idea of the trinity emphasizes that there is diversity within the divine.
   Yes, we encounter divinity through our diversity. Although our diversity can be very challenging in some ways, it’s what makes everything possible.
   Do we embrace it and value it and promote it? And if we don’t, aren’t we in a real sense choosing to live in a cave, huddled around a fire, telling each other the same story?

   Some thoughts of others on the topic:

   “We inhabit a universe that is characterized by diversity.” — Desmond Tutu

   “We need to give each other the space to grow, to be ourselves, to exercise our diversity. We need to give each other space so that we may both give and receive such beautiful things as ideas, openness, dignity, joy, healing and inclusion.” — Max de Pree

   “It’s really important to share the idea that being different might feel like a problem at the time, but ultimately diversity is a strength.” — Carson Kressley

   “Isn’t it amazing that we are all made in God’s image, and yet there is so much diversity among his people?” — Desmond Tutu

Let’s edit the Lord’s prayer

prayerAfter reciting what we call the Lord’s prayer one Sunday, I got to thinking about how many times I’d said those words. Thousands? But how many times have I actually thought about what the words mean?

   If we pay attention, it’s a prayer that makes us very uncomfortable. These words of a peasant Jewish rabbi from 2,000 years ago challenge so much about the way we live — all of us, regardless of what religion we follow. If we’re honest, most of us don’t like it and have no intention of living by what it says.

   Which presents a question: Isn’t it a problem if we pray one way and live another? Shouldn’t our prayers reflect how we actually try to live?

   Along that line, perhaps we should rewrite the Lord’s prayer and make it conform to what we really believe. In that spirit, here’s a rough draft of what it might sound like if the Lord‘s prayer was actually our prayer:

My father …

   Not “our” father or parent. That would make us all equal children of God, including those whom we don’t particularly like — those from another religion, race, country, ethnic background, sexual identity, age group, economic status. Calling God “our” father invokes a responsibility to love and care for everyone as an equal brother or sister. We certainly don’t live that way, do we? We prefer to limit God to our narrow world — our religion, our country, our immediate family. God is my parent, but not necessarily yours.

… feared be your name.

   Not revered. That’s what the prayer intends: We revere the God of great compassion and love and social justice by being committed to those divine qualities. Instead, we would rather condemn each other using God as a weapon. We prefer a God who is feared rather than revered.

My kingdom come …

   We’ve heard all about God’s kingdom, and we don‘t really like it. Jesus was very specific and emphatic about it. Love one another. Forgive. Love the person you think of as your enemy. Care for the poor and the vulnerable. Visit those in prison. If you have two coats, give one to a person who has none — don’t wait for some charity to help them. See a needy person by the side of the road? Stop and help. Be a healer. Don’t just talk about peace, work for it. Put away all of your weapons — all of them. See money as the evil it is. Don’t aspire to prestige and privilege — those things drag you down. The first are last, the last are first. Give a drink to everyone who is thirsty, food to everyone who is hungry, and do it without ever judging whether they are worthy because God considers them worthy. This is how God’s kingdom works. Look at our society — do we live that way? So let’s stop pretending we really want God‘s kingdom.

… my will be done on earth, and in heaven, too.

   A follow-up to the previous point. We don’t want things done God’s way. We’d rather that they’re done our way. And if God sees it differently, then God should change and conform to our values.

Make sure that I get everything that’s coming to me …

   Give us this day our daily bread? Really? For starters, we don’t like the “give” part. Sounds too much like charity or welfare or an entitlement program. Makes us sound dependent upon grace. And what about the implication that if one person doesn’t have their daily bread, the rest of us have an obligation to help them get it? That we’re all in this together? Uh-uh. In our world, everyone is on their own. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Work harder. Maybe then you’ll have some bread. And keep your hands off mine. I’ve earned all of it, all by myself.

… and forgive any very, very small and insignificant shortcomings that I may possibly have …

   Shortcomings? Well, I suppose I have some. Not many. If I really believed that I come up short, then I wouldn’t be so judgmental of everyone else’s shortcomings. I’d be more accepting and forgiving. I wouldn’t second-guess their decisions or think that they’re simply not good enough.

… but make sure that everyone else is held totally accountable and pays the full price for their shortcomings.

   Pretty self-explanatory. And pretty much how most of us feel, isn’t it?

And lead me not into temptation …

   Don’t put me in situations that force me to second-guess my certainties. Don’t challenge me to see beyond my self-centeredness.

… but deliver me from everyone else and everything else that I think are evil.

   Basically, anyone who is different from me or anything that challenges me.

For mine is the kingdom, the power and the glory now and — it better be — forever.




   So, what do you think? Doesn’t that conform more closely to what we really believe and how we actually live? Isn’t it more truthful?

   Now, some might object to the thought of rewriting this prayer, reckoning that it amounts to blasphemy. But isn’t blasphemy praying one way and living another? Saying the words with no intention of living them?

Do you hear the music?

 Music   On June 15, 1995, Pete Frampton played at The Filmore, a famous concert venue in San Francisco. The place was packed with fans who knew his music by heart.
   Frampton saved one of his most popular songs — “Baby I Love Your Way” — for late in the show. As he strummed the opening chord on his guitar, the fans cheered, raised their arms and started swaying. By the end of the first verse, they were singing along. Frampton was delighted and held out his right hand, encouraging the crowd to take the role of lead singer. They went along with his encouragement and sang louder. He played his guitar, listened to them sing and smiled.
  Isn’t that like us and God?
  In a sense, life is about hearing the divine song, taking it into our hearts and making it our own. About letting the music inspire us and move us and steady us and change us and lead us. About learning the melody and the lyrics and teaching them to others. About accepting the invitation to step up and lead the song, to make the song our own.
   And what a song! It touches us, inspires us, challenges us, overwhelms us at times, and makes us want to join in. It plays in our heads and in our hearts over and over again, so long as we allow it.
   At times, we all get preoccupied with the other sounds around us and we let them drown out the music. Or, we’ll put our earphones in and decide to listen to our own music. We may decide we don’t want to hear any music and block our ears.
   When we pay attention, we realize that it takes time to fully appreciate the music. The more we listen, the more we hear new notes, find deeper meanings and levels. We find some of the lyrics extremely challenging. Be compassionate? Forgive? Love everyone? Share everything? Take care of those who are needy and struggling? Amid everything, rejoice? Maybe we’re not so keen on those verses.
   Sometimes, we’re like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son, the one who hears the party music playing and becoming indignant because he thinks the music should only play for those like him. If we’re honest, that’s us sometimes.
   On many days, we just don’t feel like singing, period. But that’s perfectly OK. The Songwriter is always playing the music, holding out a hand and inviting us to join in when we‘re ready. The music never ends. Nor does the invitation.
   How could it? In a sense, we’re all music at our core.
   Some theoretical physicists suspect that the smallest particle in our universe — the stuff of which everything is made, including us — consists of vibrating strings of energy, akin to strings on a musical instrument. In other words, the divine song is playing inside each of us on an endless loop.
   God’s music is all around us and within us. It’s part of our essence. All we have to do is listen for it. Hear it. Sing it. Live it.
   What do you think about God‘s music? What is the divine song that you hear? Does each of us hear it and appreciate it a bit differently at different points in our lives? Does loving the song connect us more deeply with the Songwriter?
   Some thoughts that others have about the music …

“Most people live and die with their music still unplayed. They never dare to try.” — Mary Kay Ash

 “In essence, string theory describes space and time, matter and energy, gravity and light, indeed all of God’s creation … as music.” — Roy H. Williams

 “You’re my song, music too magic to end, I’ll play you over and over again.” — Barry Manilow

 “Sing, sing a song, let the world sing along. Sing of love there could be. Sing for you and for me.” — Karen Carpenter

 “Like the north wind whistling down the sky, I’ve got a song, I’ve got a song.” — Jim Croce

 “This land is your land and this land is my land, sure, but the world is run by those that never listen to music anyway.” — Bob Dylan

“Well, I’ve got a hammer and I’ve got a bell and I’ve got a song to sing all over this land. It’s the hammer of justice. It’s the bell of freedom. It’s a song about love between my brothers and my sisters all over this land.” — Peter, Paul and Mary

 “Music can change the world because it can change people.” — Bono

 “There’s nothing you can do that can‘t be done, nothing you can sing that can’t be sung. … It’s easy. All you need is love.“ — The Beatles