Follow the footprints

  ImageThe first winter storm of the season blew through this weekend. Aside from chipping ice and shoveling snow, I got to do something I really enjoy: Jog in the snow.
   There’s something magical about it.
   I love going out after dark when it’s quiet, setting out on a snow-covered path. The snow compresses with each step in a pleasing crunch. The street lights make the snow glisten. Each breath leaves a misty mark in the air.
   While I prefer a warm summer night, there’s much beauty in winter’s cold.
   One of my favorite things about running in the snow is getting out early to make the first footprints. It’s sort of like Neil Armstrong putting his imprint in the soft lunar soil. It’s fun to see your footprints as the first ones there.
   On this night, an unusual thing happened. Even though it had been a pretty good storm, I wasn’t the first one to get out in it. Someone else had already been along the same street. And they were a runner, too — you could tell from the long stride and the elongated scrape marks by the heels.
   Another runner had beat me to it!
   I made sure not to step on their imprints, not wanting to blur the marks that another had left. Instead, I ran alongside them, adding my footprints next to theirs. Someone else had been out enjoying a snowy jog, just like me. Who knows? They might still be going.
   I followed my usual three-mile route and turned right, expecting to diverge from the other set of footprints. Instead, they turned along with me. Another right and then another — the other runner had taken the same route!
   Eventually, the other footprints got closer together, the sign that the runner was slowing. The footprints turned off toward a house that I had passed many times over the years without realizing another snow-loving runner lived there.
   I never knew someone else was going my way. I wasn‘t the only one who followed what I thought was my path.
   A lesson there, no?
   Sometimes we feel like we’re the only one on a certain path, the only one experiencing what we are experiencing. But that’s never true.
   Sometimes we get a little full of ourselves and think we’re breaking new ground, doing wonderful new things all by ourselves. All we have to do is look down and see the footprints of the countless others who brought us to this moment and share the path with us.
   In those other times when we feel alone in the dark and cold, all we need to do is look down and be reminded that we have many traveling companions who are going down the same path with us. Going our way.
   We’re never alone.
   It’s good to see the footprints of all those who go before us and go with us each day. It’s good to look at the path and be reminded.
   And then add out footprints next to theirs.


What are we waiting for?

Image   It’s the Advent season for many people, a time that uses many images of waiting. Waiting for Emmanuel to come. Waiting for God to intervene. Waiting for dawn to arrive. Waiting for something different to happen. One common image is the pregnant woman waiting to give birth, which ties into the nativity story.   
   We all spend a lot of our lives waiting for various things. Maybe the question is: What are we waiting for? And when does the waiting end?   
   So much of our religion — Christian and others, too — has become about waiting. Waiting for heaven. Waiting for God to respond to a prayer and to change something. Waiting for God to right the wrongs. Waiting for God to set things straight. Waiting for the world to change. Waiting and waiting and waiting.   
   What if we‘ve got it backward? What if someone is waiting on us?   
   Many of us commemorate the birth of Jesus, a Jewish rabbi who was passionate about the here and now. Give food and drink to whoever is hungry and thirsty today. Go and visit those who are imprisoned at this moment. Stop and help the person bleeding by the side of the road right now. Instead of waiting a day for the Sabbath to end, heal the wounded person right now. And do all this no matter what it costs you.
   Don’t wait. Do it now.   
   In his book “The Power of Parable,” John Dominic Crossan points out that Jesus was all about what we do in the moment: “You have been waiting for God, he said, while God has been waiting for you. No wonder nothing is happening. You want God’s intervention, he said, while God wants your collaboration. God’s kingdom is here, but only insofar as you accept it, enter it, live it, and thereby establish it.”   
   God is waiting for us. God is at work right now. Are we ready to join in?   
   One image that’s common to so many religions is that of a feast that draws many people together. Many of us have just celebrated Thanksgiving by sharing a large meal with people who are important to us. We got up early, prepared the turkey and put it in the oven, then waited for it to get done. But our waiting was very busy.    
   We had to peel and cook the potatoes, prepare the vegetables, clean the house, set the table and get ready for our guests. We didn‘t just sit there and wait for the turkey to get done. If we did that, we wouldn’t have much of a feast at all.   
   There’s so much to be done right now — needy people to be helped, hurting people to be healed, conflicts to be calmed, societies to be changed, hatred to be transformed into love.
   What are we waiting for?   
   If all we do is sit and wait on God, we’re like people trapped in a perpetual state of Advent. We never do what God is all about. We never put ourselves in the moment.   
   We never get to our own Christmas morning. 


Is love all we really need?

ImageThe Beatles first performed “All You Need Is Love” in 1967 as part of an “Our World” global television link, the first of its kind. The song was perfect for the occasion and became a hit. It’s got a catchy lyric and the chorus makes for an interesting debate even today.
   Is it true that all we really need is love?
   Many of us don’t feel that way. Many of us have a lot of other things filling our lists of what we need: self-sufficiency, independence, money, privilege, career advancement, our particular country, our particular religion, our immediate family.
   Many religions don’t see it that way, either. They dote on theological constructs and codes of conduct for their followers. They devise lists of who is in God’s favor and who is not. The do-and-don’t list tends to focus on sex and reproduction. They rarely say much about love and its infinite ramifications.
   They love their rules instead.
   The purpose of rules is to regulate behavior. Rules establish minimums and set limits — how often you must do something, what you can’t do no matter what, what consequences will follow for failing to observe a rule.
   Love works in a totally different way. Love has no minimums and no limits. It doesn’t confine itself to any areas. It challenges the assumptions and the motivations behind all of our behaviors. Love leaves no part of our lives untouched. It doesn’t recognize any superficial standards. It challenges the prevailing rules.
   Truth is, we can follow our various codes of conduct while still clinging to our prejudices, our selfishness, our indifference, our judgmental approach to others. Love never lets us off so easy.
   Maybe that’s why we prefer rules to love.
   And that brings us back to the song, which if we think about it is not really all that original. The message has been around for a long, long time.
   There’s a well-known composition attributed to John — the apostle, not the Beatle _ that says everyone who loves will know God intimately and live in God‘s spirit. On the flip side, the person who doesn’t love won’t know anything about God, because God is love. 
   In one of his most famous compositions, Paul — the evangelist, not the Beatle — wrote that even the most religiously observant person is getting nowhere if they lack love. They can speak like an angel and make the ultimate sacrifice, but it amounts to nothing if love is missing. 
   John and Paul were inspired by a Jewish rabbi who was passionate about love. One day he was asked what he considered the most important commandment, the biggest rule of all. What is the one overriding thing that God would have us do?
   He responded that there are actually two things we must do: We must love. And we must love.
   Love, love, love. He said it many different times, in as many different ways as he could.
   The message was that if we have love, then we have what matters. If we’re letting love direct our lives, then we’re on the right path. If love isn’t guiding our lives, then nothing else really matters — not our theologies, not our traditions, not our religious observances. All of those will be empty expressions of empty hearts.
   So, is love all we need? I suppose John, Paul and the Beatles would say: “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.”
   What would you say?


Removing our hats … and changing everything

   Desmond Tutu tells a story of when he was nine or 10 years old and he stood with his mother outside a building where she worked as a cook. This was 1940s apartheid South Africa, where black people were considered inferior in all respects. A lanky, white Anglican priest named Trevor Huddleston walked by in a long cassock, saw his mother and doffed his hat to her.
   The white man would have been expected to ignore the black woman, who amounted to nothing in her society. With one simple gesture, he went out of his way to tell her that her society had it all wrong and that she was equally valued and loved.
   That moment made a profound impression upon Tutu, who wrote about it in his book, “Made For Goodness.”
   What seem like very small, ordinary acts often have immense and lasting impacts. And every interaction that we have — even with a stranger on the street — can leave some sort of mark, either helpful or hurtful.
   All of us get many such moments each day. We have countless chances to show kindness, indifference or worse.  
   We wait in line with others who carry their own burdens. We encounter a homeless person who is asking for some help. We get into an elevator with someone who is having a bad day. We hear a neighbor tell of some discouraging problem. We learn of someone else in need. How do we respond?
   Any moment can become a moment infused with grace, if we choose to put ourselves into it and make it so.
   I remember a day last summer when a reporter showed up from South Korea to write about a countryman playing baseball for the Reds. The reporter’s English was limited, so he stood quietly in the back of manager Dusty Baker’s office during a session with reporters. Dusty sensed the visitor’s hesitance, asked if he was doing a story about the South Korean player, then graciously talked about him at length, pausing occasionally to let the reporter catch up as he scribbled down the quotes. The reporter said a heart-felt “Thank you!” and was beaming as he left the office, touched by that act of kindness from a stranger a half-world away.
   Recently, I heard the story of a young woman who is studying for the ministry and wound up sitting in a waiting room with a mother and her young daughter. Jordan has several tattoos commemorating meaningful moments in her life. The mother wouldn’t let her young daughter sit next to Jordan, telling her within earshot that tattoos are bad. She had judged Jordan not by the content of her character, but by the color on her skin. Jordan smiled at the girl all the while. The girl smiled back and seemed to enjoy her company. The little girl’s memory of that moment will likely involve how the friendly lady with the tattoos treated her so nicely.
   One small moment. One lasting encounter.
   A clergyman removes his hat in apartheid South Africa and inspires a future archbishop and civil rights leader. A pope embraces a man covered with tumors in Rome and inspires the world to be kinder. A 42-hear-old seamstress declines to move to the back of the bus in racially segregated Birmingham and inspires others to stand up for equality.
   Small, ordinary actions conducted with kindness and courage can change the lives of individuals and the directions of societies.
   So perhaps the opportunity and the challenge for each of us is: Do we lower our heads and walk past those moments, trying to avoid them? Or do we recognize and embrace those moments, doff our hats and change everything?


Thanksgiving? Bah, humbug

  Image Instead of using pilgrims or praying hands as symbols of Thanksgiving, perhaps we should just drop the pretense and go with Scrooge. In the first place, it would recognize that our Christmas shopping binge has now swallowed up several months and other holidays, including the one that was intended for thankfulness. Also, Scrooge may best represent our values.
   Dickens’ miserly character paid his employee as little as possible, forced him to work as much as possible, allowed him hardly any time with his family over the holiday, and couldn’t care less about how the low wages affected the rest of his family. To him, employee Bob Cratchit was nothing more than a drain on his bottom line. And the holidays? A hindrance to making more money.
   Sound familiar?
   What really strikes me about Dickens’ character is that he‘s not only miserly but miserable. There‘s no gratitude in his heart, no joy in his soul. And those two go together, don‘t they?
   Think of the most thankful people you‘ve known. Aren‘t they also among the most joyful you‘ve know? Thankfulness is a spirit, and they have chosen to live in it.
   They recognize that they are blessed. They understand that each day is a great gift. They’re touched by the many acts of compassion all around them. They’re grateful for the countless people who nurture them, help them and love them each day. They appreciate our sacred interdependence. They look for ways to help others. They share generously and gladly.
   Not Scrooge. He thinks he doesn’t need anyone. Nor does he care much about anybody else. He’s convinced he has earned all that he has, all by himself. His pile of money? He built it. As a result, there’s no reason to show gratitude to anyone else.
   Be thankful? Bah, humbug.
   Could that be one of the reasons we’ve turned Thanksgiving into just another shopping day? No point in taking an entire day to immerse ourselves in gratitude when we can be ringing up the sales. Besides, gratitude isn’t accepted as legal tender at the cash register. It can’t buy any things or add to anyone’s profits.
   In many ways, we share Scrooge’s values.
   Thankfully, the story doesn’t end there. Scrooge gets three unexpected visitors who show him what his life has become and where it is headed. He asks for another chance and gets it. As soon as he awakes, he is thankful and joyful. The story says he shares so freely and joyfully and generously that he becomes the symbol of the holiday. He spends the rest of his life in a spirit of thankfulness.
   May we become more like that Scrooge.
   May we be thankful, every one.




MLK on what JFK’s slaying says about us

  Image The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. always reminded us that we’re not isolated individuals. Each of us belongs to a society that is shaped by our many individual and collective choices. If we respond to hatred and violence with hatred and violence, we bring more of both into our world. When we accept injustice, we encourage it to flourish. He championed love as the way to bring equality, brotherhood and justice into our world.
   Here’s some of what he had to say shortly after John F. Kennedy was killed by a gunman’s bullet in 1963. Two months earlier, he‘d eulogized four young black girls killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., as they attended Sunday school.
   Five years later, he would be killed by a gunman’s bullet as well.

   “Our nation should do a great deal of soul-searching as a result of President Kennedy’s assassination. The shot that came from the fifth-story building cannot be easily dismissed as the isolated act of a madman. …
   “Our late president was assassinated by a morally inclement climate. It is a climate filled with the heavy torrents of false accusation, jostling winds of hatred, and raging storms of violence.
   “It is a climate where men cannot disagree without being disagreeable, and where they express dissent through violence and murder. …
   “So in a sense we are all participants in that horrible act that tarnished the image of our nation. By our silence, by our willingness to compromise principle, by our constant attempt to cure the cancer of racial injustice with the Vaseline of gradualism, by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is the one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.
   “So President Kennedy has something important to say to each of us in his death. He has something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents the stale bread of racism and the spoiled meat of hatred. He has something to say to every clergyman who observed racial evils and remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. …
   “He says to all of us that this virus of hate that has seeped into the veins of our nation, if unchecked, will lead inevitably to our moral and spiritual doom.”

   From “The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” edited by Clayborne Carson




Sharing the crayons

Image  A few years ago, I was in a family restaurant that provides bowls of crayons and drawings for children to color while they wait for their food. Across the aisle was a couple with two young boys. While the parents looked at their menus and decided what to order, the boys went to work on their pictures.

The younger boy took a crayon and used it on his picture, then put it back in the bowl and swapped it for a different color.

The older one went about it differently. When he was done with a crayon, he would set it beside him. Soon, he had built up a stash of crayons, some of which his brother needed for his own drawing. The younger brother complained, and the mother intervened.

“You have to share,” she told the older son.

The boy shielded the crayons with his arm and said loudly, “No! These are MY crayons!”

Is there a parent who hasn’t had to remind their children that they’re not the only ones who matter? That everything doesn’t belong to you? That just because you have something in your hands it doesn’t make its yours?

“They’re NOT your crayons,” the mother said sharply. “They’re meant for you to share with your brother.”

That moment has stuck with me as a modern-day parable about owning and sharing. I thought about it the other day when I saw a bumper sticker on the back of a minivan that said: “Don’t Share My Wealth, Share My Work Ethic!”

There’s a suggestion that we earn and deserve everything we have. Like the older brother in the restaurant, those who have a longer reach or put more effort into hoarding the crayons think they are entitled to their stash. The younger brother is simply out of luck — and crayons. And it’s his own fault. He should have worked harder at grabbing the crayons. He really needs to learn how to hoard. And show more initiative.

We all need to be reminded: They’re not our crayons. They were given to us to share.

All that we have is freely given to us — life, love, our world, our very existence. None of it is earned. Each breath is a divine gift, each heartbeat a moment of grace, each day another opportunity provided by One who shares without limits and wants us to do the same.

We’re invited and challenged to share not only all that we have, but all that we are. To share not only our stuff, but ourselves.

In one of the most challenging gospel stories, a rich man who has spent his life building up a stash of things asks what God would like him to do. Jesus says that he should share everything he has accumulated with those who are in need. Sadly, the rich man can’t bring himself to do it. He refuses to share — not his things, not himself.

Those crayons? He’s convinced they all belong to him. He walks away indignantly.

And he’s wrong. They’re not our crayons. They’re God’s crayons. We have to share them with everyone.