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.


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.