Crazy like Eli …

   There was a television series a few years ago called “Eli Stone.” It’s the story of a rising star at a San Francisco law firm that represents the powerful and privileged. Eli wears expensive suits, drives a sports car and is engaged to the boss’s daughter. In his words, he worships the holy trinity of Armani, accessories and ambition. He’s the all-American success story, headed down the fast track.
Until that day when he hears the music.
   He thinks he hears and sees George Michael singing “I’ve Got To Have Faith” in the office lobby. Turns out it’s not really the British pop star, but a vision. The visions become more frequent. Eli gets a brain scan that detects an aneurysm. That explains the visions, but not the messages that Eli starts finding in them — clues about how he can help others. A spiritually inclined adviser suggests that perhaps God is reaching out to him through the visions.
  Eli begins to pay closer attention to the visions and starts to follow them. He now defends those who are being victimized by the powerful interests that his law firm represents. He begins to think about himself less and about others more. He helps those whose lives are at a breaking point. His new way of life is fulfilling. Like the song lyric, he starts to have faith in a higher power who has made him a partner.
   And then, the legal writ hits the fan.
Eli experiences a backlash. The law firm’s rich and powerful clients get upset. Eli’s boss banishes him to a makeshift office in the lobby. His fiancee ends their engagement. Co-workers and friends shun him and deem him crazy — who in their right mind would jeopardize their social status by helping those people?
   The rejection wears on Eli. He begins to long for the “normal” life he had before the visions began. He has surgery to have the aneurysm removed. The visions cease. Eli’s life goes back to the way it was, which is what he had hoped. Things are all back to normal.
   Well, not all.
  Eli finds that he’s very unhappy living his old life. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? He sees a psychologist who turns out to be an emissary from God and suggests that he’s lost something important.
   “I think you’re missing having a sense of the divine in your everyday life,” she says. “I think you’re less happy now than when your life was occasionally upended by the fantastic. I think that grace fulfilled you in a way you didn’t even know you needed.
   “And the only thing crazy about you is the fact that you don’t seem to realize that.”
Eventually, he does. Eli asks for the aneurysm back. The visions return, and so does his sense of the divine. This time, he’s prepared for the cost involved. He understands that while there’s a price to be paid for living with the visions, there’s a far greater price — too great a price — to be paid for living without them.
What do you think about Eli’s story? Do parts of it resonate with you? In what ways have you been pushed away when you tried to follow your visions? What happened when you challenged the status quo? Have you had that feeling that something’s missing?
Let me offer you a closing wish or blessing:

May you have a sense of the divine in your everyday life.
May your life be occasionally upended by the fantastic.
May grace fulfill you in ways you never imagined.
May you follow the visions that Someone sends you each day.

Our imaginary lines

   My first airplane flight was exciting. I got a window seat so I could see everything below. As the jet climbed toward its cruising altitude, I looked down and tried to identify everything. I quickly realized it was impossible. What town is that? What river is that? Which state are we over now? I couldn’t tell.
   It struck me that I was so accustomed to thinking of the world like a map, with all those dashed and dotted lines separating things — dividing one state from another, one county from another, one town from whatever surrounded it. But those lines don’t really exist. They’re all imaginary. The hills, the rivers, the towns, the woods — they are all part of one indivisible thing.
   Just like us.
   Think of all the ways in which we draw imaginary lines between ourselves and others. We see our needs as separate from others’ needs, our family as distinct from other families, our country as independent from other countries, our religion as better than other religions. We draw make-believe lines between ourselves and those who are different from us in any way. And then we live as though those lines are real, even though they’re not.
   We imagine ourselves as being on the “right” side of our made-up lines. We get angry if anyone refuses to respect those lines or — heaven forbid — if they challenge and try to erase our lines. And we bristle when others draw their own lines and decide we are on the “wrong” side of them.
   Isn’t this at the heart of so many of our problems? Our make-believe lines encourage conflict, greed, injustice, discrimination, hatred, selfishness, self-righteousness, indifference — all the ills that infect our world. We spend a lot of time and energy trying to gerrymander God’s creation to benefit ourselves at the expense of others. We think we can redistrict God’s indivisible world to suit our individual purposes.
   And we lose sight of the underlying truth: The lines don’t really exist.
   Religion ought to help us with this, but sadly ends up showing more interest in drawing lines than in eradicating them. That’s not how it was intended. Jesus was a Spirit-filled eraser who refused to respect the artificial lines that people drew in his day. To him, there was no such thing as an outcast, regardless of where those lines were drawn. He rejected the artificial lines dividing the first from the last. He stepped over the lines and ignored them so consistently and so passionately that he ended up getting killed for it, executed on two intersecting lines.
   His spirit inspired Paul, who used the analogy of different body parts that are interdependent and interconnected — no lines lines of division. He wrote eloquently about how the artificial lines of his time — the ones dividing men and women, Jews and others — had been erased. He insisted that in God’s eyes, there are no such distinctions.
   In our time, John Lennon wrote a powerful song imagining a world in which we have eliminated the fictitious lines between ourselves and others, between our religion and other religions, between our country and other countries, between what we have and what others need. He challenged us to see the world as it really is — undivided. Many dismissed the song as unreal, then went back to living by their unreal lines.
   So, there is the challenge. Are we willing to stop pretending that our lines are real? Can we recognize that we are all part of one family — different but never divided? Can we start healing and uniting instead of judging and dividing?
   Realistically, lines will always be part of our maps. But there’s never any place for them in our hearts. God doesn’t recognize any boundaries that we invent to separate us from others in any way.
   Nor should we.

Did you hear the one about …

A minister, a priest, a rabbi and a duck walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, “Is this some kind of joke?”

Yes, it is. And it comes with a question: Is humor divine?

We associate certain characteristics with God — love, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, healing, creativity, inclusion. What about humor?

Doctors tell us that laughter is good for us in many ways. It’s certainly good for our souls. Sometimes when we feel we’re falling apart, a good laugh pulls us together and heals us. A funny observation can make us take a step back and see the big picture and grin.

And maybe this gets to the heart of how we experience God. Do we prefer to turn God into a grim-faced, distant deity who revels in judgment and punishment? Or do we allow ourselves to experience the God who is so caught up in loving and creating that the only appropriate response is a deep, joyous laugh?

So, what do you think about humor? Is it an experience of God? Is a belly laugh blessed? Is a snort sacred? Is a guffaw God-like? Is laughter a form of liturgy? (Is alliteration annoying?)

One final question: Have you heard God’s favorite knock-knock joke?

God: Knock-knock.
Us: Who’s there?
God:I AM! Always!

Some thoughts about humor from others …

   “There is hope for the future because God has a sense of humor and we are funny to God.” — Bill Cosby

   “Is comedy stronger than tragedy? The (religious) imagination says tragedy doesn’t have the final word.” — the Rev. Andrew Greeley

   “Genuine laughter is true eloquence and more effective than speech.” — Gandhi

   “A man can laugh while he suffers.” — Elie Wiesel

   “I think the scariest person in the world is the person with no sense of humor.” — Michael J. Fox

   “Bruce, you have the divine spark. You have the gift for bringing joy and laughter to the world. I know — I created you.” — God to Bruce in “Bruce Almighty”

… and a chance for a few groans …

Three boys are bragging about their fathers. The first boy says, “My dad writes a poem and they give him $50 for it.” The second boy says, “That’s nothing. My dad writes a song and they give him $100 for it.” The third boy says, “I’ve got you both beat. My dad writes a sermon and it takes eight people to collect all the money.”

A dog went into a restaurant, sat down and asked for a menu. He said to the server: “What are you staring at?” The server replied, “Just surprised to see a dog in here asking for a menu. Don’t see that very often.” The dog said, “At these prices, I’m not surprised.”

I needed some time off work and decided to act crazy. I hung upside down from the ceiling and when the boss asked me what I was doing, I said, “I’m a light bulb.” “You’re going crazy,” the boss said. “Take a few days off.” As I started out the door, my co-workers got up and followed. “Where are you going?” the boss said. They replied, “We can’t work in the dark.”

Three men were discussing how they wanted to be remembered at their funerals. The first man said, “At my funeral, I hope the minister looks down at the casket and says, ‘He was a good man.'”
The second man said, “I hope the minister looks down at the casket and says, ‘He tried to love the people in his life.'”
The third man thought for a moment and said, “I hope the minister looks down at my casket and says, ‘Wait! He’s still moving!'”

The angel says to God, “Look, I know that you’re all-knowing, but for the knock-knock joke to work, you HAVE to say, ‘Who’s there?'”

The water receded and Noah told the animals to go forth and multiply. He was cleaning out the ark when he saw a couple of snakes still aboard. He said, “Didn’t I tell you to go forth and multiply?” The snakes replied, “We can’t multiply. We’re adders.”

Hope you have a good weekend — no joking!


Letting go …

HandsLast week, I drove to my son’s apartment to help him move out after completing his undergraduate work at college. On the way home, I stopped in front of his freshman dorm and spent a few minutes looking at the window where he spent that first year away from home.

   I remembered sitting there four years earlier after dropping him off for the first time, looking at that same window and wondering what was going to happen to him. Feeling like I was abandoning him, even though I knew that wasn’t the case at all. Maybe, it was more a feeling of losing a part of myself.

   Such powerful feelings! And I felt them again when I dropped my daughter off at a different college two years later.

   Those feelings have been refreshed the last few weeks. Friends have posted about their tough moments when they took their children to preschool and left them for the first time, or took them to first grade, or to their freshman year in high school, dropped them off for that first year of college, drove them to the airport so they could start their career in the service.

   So hard when you walk away! Those moments bring a tear to our eyes and send a shiver through our souls, don’t they?

  Have you experienced this? What did you feel when you dropped them off? A discomforting sense of change in your life? Maybe a feeling of helplessness? A disappointment that you wouldn’t be there with them as they have new experiences, some good and some frightening?

   Part of it, perhaps, is that we realize they are no longer so much in our hands as in the hands of someone else. And that scares us.

   We drop them off, and they’re in the hands of others who can inspire them and care for them _ if they so choose. Will they choose to care as deeply for them as we do? Will they listen to them and dote on them and pay attention to them the way we’ve done all these years? Will they love and care for them as if they are their own children?

   As I asked those questions, the questions turned back on me.

   I realized that there are other parents hoping that I will love and care for their children just as much as they do. There are so many moments every day when someone else’s child is in my hands. Do I recognize this? Do I choose to see them and love them that way?

   In reality, our hands are never empty, even when it feels like we’re letting go of someone so special to us. As we open our hands, we find them filled with so many others _ others’ children, others’ parents, others’ brothers and sisters. And we have to choose.

   Will we treat them with the same love and care that we give to our own children? Will we treat everyone as family?

   Always, we have so many others in our hands. And that’s a joy and a challenge. Our hands are never empty, and we are never on our own.

   We’re always in the hands of Someone else. Someone who is always encouraging us to open our hands and let others in.

Giving words their power

Words   We’ve spent the last few days recalling the anniversary of the March on Washington and listening again to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. talk so powerfully about his dream of a land that is full of love and free of hatred. Stirring words. Inspiring words. Spirit-infused words. We’re also reminded that they’re only words until they produce action. 
   It’s one thing to be inspired when we hear something, another thing to respond to the inspiration and to do something.
   Powerful words play a big role in our lives, challenging us and  leading us. God is love. Love one another. Be compassionate. Love your enemies. Whatsoever you do to the least. Your brother‘s keeper. An instrument of your peace. Give to all. The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Blessed are the poor. All men are created equal. The common good. Government of, by and for the people. I have a dream. Be the change. Make justice a reality for all God‘s children.
   Those and so many other words inspire us to raise our lives and our world to new heights. But they remain words until we commit ourselves to live them. Then they acquire real power.
   Change starts with the moment we invite the Spirit that inspires and infuses those powerful words to get inside of us.
   The civil rights leaders had a lot of experience with this. They encountered many people who liked the words, but weren’t willing to act upon them or sacrifice for them. The words produced a temporary, good feeling, but left no lasting mark.
   When the Rev. King was in a jail in Birmingham, Ala., he wrote about this reluctance to live the words. He hoped that white churches would join the movement to ensure that every person is treated as an equal child of God. Instead, many of them resisted. And, as he put it, “all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”
   They wouldn’t let the words reach their souls.
   The Rev. King greatly admired Gandhi and emulated his way of nonviolent protest. During his campaign in India, Gandhi told a gathering of students that they had “reached almost the end of our resources in speech-making, and it is not enough that our ears are feasted, but it is necessary that our hearts have got to be touched and … our hands and feet have got to be moved.”
   Inspiration is wonderful. Action is what‘s needed.
   Which brings each of us back to that moment of decision. When we hear the powerful words, do we nod and feel inspired for a moment, only to go back to doing what we’ve done all along? Or do we let the words get inside of us and change us so that we can bring change to the world?
   Do we empower those powerful words?


What a wonderful world

One day this summer, I finished jogging at dusk and stood in the backyard for a little while, cooling down and enjoying the evening. Our backyard faces a park. I could see magical lightning bugs rising from the ground and taking flight, blinking as they went. A breeze cooled me and made the leaves of the nearby trees rustle. Hundreds _ thousands? _ of crickets and other insects began to fill the night with their song. A family of bats darted overhead. Soon, countless stars became visible against the darkening sky, little beacons that have given us inspiration, direction and a sense of place in our universe from our very beginning.

Everything felt so saturated with Life! What a wonderful world, huh?

Some folks refer to such moments as transcendent moments, times when we escape the everydayness of our lives and experience the overwhelming magic and miracle that is all around us and within us. We allow ourselves to get caught up in God’s handiwork. We sense our place in a creation that is so amazing. And we feel grateful to be part of it.

Those moments aren’t confined to nature. An inspiring story, a special song, a painting that touches us, the look in another’s eye that resonates _ all are moments of this amazing grace.

Sometimes, I’ll go days and weeks without looking up at the stars _ too bad, huh? Those God-soaked moments are always there for us. We just need to recognize them and choose to experience them.

What provides those special moments for you? Where are your sacred places? What do they make you experience and feel?

Some others’ thoughts:

“I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.” — Anne Lamott

“The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God.” — Anne Frank

“I have watched the sun rise and set on the ocean, many oceans, across many seasons. I’ve watched the water by starlight, marveling at the fluorescent green breakers at midnight. Watched it in the heat of the day. Listened to its crashing roar that I love so much. … It reminds me of the power of God’s creation, and nobody has to explain it to me.” — Amy Grant, “Mosaic”

“And if you would know God, be not therefore a solver of riddles.
Rather, look about you and you shall see him playing with your children
And look into space, you shall see him walking in the cloud,
Outstretching his arms in the lightning and descending in the rain.
You shall see him smiling in the flowers, then rising and waving his hands in the trees.” — Kahlil Gibran, “The Prophet”

“When I admire the wonders of a sunset or the beauty of the moon, my soul expands in the worship of the creator.” — Gandhi

“I see skies of blue, clouds of white
Bright blessed days, dark sacred nights
And I think to myself: What a wonderful world!” — Louis Armstrong


Always a possibility for joy

There‘s a television show on Monday nights called “Castle.” It’s about a mystery writer named Richard Castle who helps New York City homicide detective Kate Beckett solve tough cases. Beckett became a police officer in part because her mother, a community activist, was murdered and the case was never solved.

In one episode, Castle notices that Beckett keeps a stick figure in the top drawer of her desk at the precinct. And it’s very odd-looking. The sticks that form the limbs don’t match. The head looks like one of those football-shaped coin purses. All of it appears to be held together by dried, gnarly seaweed and twine.

Castle wants to know the story behind the stick figure. Beckett tells how on the day of her mother’s funeral, her father noticed she was very sad and took her to Coney Island. They walked along the beach in their funeral clothes for a long time, and it became a special time for both of them. At one point, they gathered items that had washed up on the beach and made the stick figure.

So, why does she keep it in her desk drawer?

“He’s a reminder,” Beckett says, “that even on the worst days, there is a possibility for joy.”

I love Beckett’s stick figure. It reminds me that joy isn’t so much a feeling as it is an attitude or an outlook. And, ultimately, a choice. In a sense, we make our joy, just like Beckett and her father made the stick figure.

Joy can touch any moment, if we choose to allow it.

If we define joy as that soaring feeling we get when things go exactly the way we wished they would, we won’t have much joyfulness in our lives. Those moments are few and fleeting.

Joy is different. It involves stepping outside the moment and seeing the big picture. Recognizing grace working all around us, in us and through us. Being thankful for our place in an amazing creation. Reminding ourselves that we’re loved unconditionally and endlessly just as we are.

And loving back.

Love is the twine that holds the stick man together. By loving others, we create joy for them and for us. And because we can always choose to love, there is always a possibility for joy.

Have you had some of those Beckett moments when someone helped bring joy out of your pain? Can joy and pain co-exist? What helps you create joy in your life?

What do you think?
Stick figure