Sharing the playhouse

Playhouse

My sister had a playhouse in her backyard when her two boys were young. It became a busy place when she hosted a garage sale. Children accompanying their browsing parents would see the playhouse and immediately head for it.

At one point, I saw five children playing together. They were different ages, different sexes, different races. They came from different backgrounds and likely had different religious upbringings. Yet there they were, playing together like one family.

When they looked at each other, they saw a playmate.

In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela notes that children have an innate openness that tends to get closed off as they spend more time in the world.

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” Mandela wrote. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

They saw a playmate

I thought about those five children in the playhouse this weekend when I saw those horrific images of young white men marching for hatred in Charlottesville. They’ve been taught that the playhouse is theirs alone, and only people who have the same skin color belong inside.

By contrast, those five diverse children in the playhouse hadn’t yet absorbed the deep mistrust, the sense of superiority and the scent of hate that’s in our society. They were still able to play together.

When we’re that age, we still see life through fresh eyes. We look beyond the surface and sense the magic. We’re filled with wonder at the small things and the enormous things — a lightning bug blinking, the Big Dipper shining.

As a child, we’re keenly aware that we don’t have all the answers or the whole truth. Instead, we try to learn about people and about life, which is why we ask a lot of questions.

We know our real limitations – small hands have trouble opening a big jar – and we embrace our dependence upon others. We’re not reluctant to ask for help, or to help someone else.

We play with whomever walks into our yard.

As we get older, we lose many of those childlike qualities. We think we have all the answers, so we stop asking questions and getting to know those who are different from us.

Entering God’s playhouse

We lose our ability to marvel at things big and small. We lose our sense of the sacredness in everything and everyone. We pull away from others. We reject our innate interdependence. We fight over who owns what and who gets to be in charge. We make rules for who should be allowed to play and how they can play.

We try to make the playhouse all our own. We condemn, evict and excommunicate anyone who won’t abide by our rules.

Many passages in our religious texts remind us of the need to be childlike. In one favorite scene, Jesus tells a crowd of self-important, judgmental adults that they need to become more like the child they once were.

If we want to enter God’s playhouse, we must do it with a childlike spirit and leave our mistrust and our sense of superiority at the door. We must accept everyone else as an equally beloved playmate.

We must share and trust. We must care for one another. We must see ourselves as a guest inside the God’s space, where the only rule is to love and get along. We must be willing to adapt and learn new ways of playing.

Each of us has to decide if we’re going to enter the house and make new playmates, or if we’re going to stand outside and sulk because people who are different from us are being invited inside, too.

The door is open. The choice is ours. The playhouse of God is on the other side.

Missiles, Syrians and Samaritans

Compassionate

When I started as a hospice volunteer, one of my first coordinators was a woman named Leslie. She assigns patients to volunteers who visit once a week, providing company to people who are at a tender time in life.

Leslie is one of the most compassionate people I know. Her kindness rubs off.

When Leslie started working as a hospice volunteer, she was given the chance to visit a man who was openly racist; Leslie is African-American. She agreed to look in on someone who might not welcome her.

A dying man needed companionship. She could provide it. So, she went.

The man was cold to her at first. She allowed him to decide whether she should visit again. He said that would be fine, so she returned. Persistently.

Week after week, she visited and showed kindness to the man, who slowly warmed to her. They grew into close friends during his final weeks. Leslie’s compassion changed the man’s heart.

That’s what compassion does. First, it changes our hearts. Then it compels us to do something to help another.

Compassion changes everything.

We saw an example of compassion trying to do its transformation thing last week. Donald Trump saw images of children killed by gas in Syria, and his heart apparently was moved.

“No child of God should ever suffer such a horror,” Trump said.

For years, he had insisted that suffering people in Syria and millions of refugees should be ignored – they’re not our problem. And yet, there he was, saying he’d been touched by those images of dying children. He could be indifferent no longer. He recognized these Muslim children as beloved children of God. He had to do something.

Compassion changes us

Of course, we can and we must debate his response. Creating missile craters in the ground in a show of power-and-might does nothing to help the millions of others who are facing horrors that none of God’s children should face. Refugees still face bans.

And we are left with some questions: Will our compassion be only momentary and severely limited? Does our response to the suffering of God’s children amount to making craters in a field?

There are many other children of God dying not from gas but from bombs and bullets and building collapses and disease and malnutrition — the many horrific things that are manifestations of war. Will we do something life-affirming and help them escape their horror?

Or will we slip back into fear and orthodoxy and dogma that wall off our compassion? Will we insist that it’s too dangerous to help and it might cost us some money as well, so we’ll move on?

Go and do the same

A Jewish rabbi from the Middle East takes aim on that attitude in one of his most famous and challenging lessons. He tells the story of a man who is robbed on a dangerous road and left for dead. Two religiously observant people see him and decide not to stop at this dangerous spot that has already been a target for robbers. Instead, they move on.

Along comes a dreaded Samaritan who is moved by compassion. The Samaritan not only puts himself on the line by stopping, but cleans this total stranger’s wounds – now that’s nasty and uncomfortable! – and then takes him to an inn and writes a blank check to cover whatever it costs to get him well.

We know how the story ends: Go and do the same. You can’t save everyone, but you can save this one. So, do it. Let compassion be your guide.

If our policy discussions start with a recognition that everyone is an equally beloved child of God and must be cared for in that way, then we’ll make more compassionate choices as we go down the dangerous road. They may not be the safest choices or the most comfortable choices or the least-expensive choices, but they’ll be the most God-like choices.

We’ll stop to help the one in need, whether it’s a left-for-dead traveler or a racist hospice patient or a terrified refugee family. We’ll be compassionate, as God is compassionate.

Filling our bags

trick

Let me take a moment to tell you about my excellent Halloween night.

As 6 o’clock came – the official bewitching hour in my town – the sun was sliding toward the horizon, turning the bottoms of the wispy clouds a gentle pink. It was so warm that trick-or-treaters could avoid wearing jackets.

I set up a chair at the end of my driveway and a small table with my jack-o-lantern and a bowl of candy. I could see the first group of kids making their way down the street, dashing door to door. Their excited, young voices filled the autumn-scented air.

I love Halloween!

A year ago, I missed the chance to give out candy because I was out of town covering a football game. It felt so good to be enjoying All Hallow’s Eve again.

As I waited for the group to reach my house, I watched the sky turn colors and saw a jet fly overhead. Whenever I see a plane, I get a bit distracted. I’m amazed by how those heavy tubes of metal can fly.

I get amazed by us, too.

Remarkable stuff in every way

We do some amazing things, we humans. Consider airplanes, for example. We dig up rocks, melt them down, do some fancy math about air and drag, design wings that fit the formula, and shape melted metal into specific forms. And then, we get inside of them and we fly.

Remarkable stuff, in every way. And so is what happens on Halloween night.

I live in a racially diverse neighborhood. There were black kids and white kids in the same group working their way down my side of the street. Parents and grandparents walked with them, having friendly conversation. Neighbors and strangers, sharing and enjoying each other’s company.

That’s us at our best. Celebrating our sacred humanity.

Sure, it’s amazing when we make planes that fly above the clouds, and rockets that take us to the moon, and drugs that kill diseases, and buildings so tall that they seem to scrape the sky. But we’re at our most amazing when we’re walking together and sharing our humanity.

As I was thinking about all of those things, a couple with a 2-year-old girl dressed in a frog costume approached my house. The girl’s eyes were wide, her gait uncertain. She looked like she was just trying to take it all in. Her parents said it was her first time trick-or-treating.

Anyone who asks, receives

I handed the girl a small bar of chocolate. Her mom told her to say thank you. She muttered “thank you” while inspecting the candy bar. I’m guessing she was trying to wrap her head around this unexpected generosity of a stranger to someone dressed as an amphibian.

Isn’t it wonderful to watch generations pass down this tradition of unconditional giving and unmerited receiving? It renews us and reminds us of our common bond, how each of us is both receiver and giver – not just on Oct. 31, but every day.

The coolest part of Halloween – besides the costumes and the decorations and the pumpkin patches and the corn mazes – is how we celebrate giving with no strings attached. We share with anyone who shows up at our doorstep. Anyone who asks, receives. No one is judged as more deserving or less worthy. Nobody wonders whether the kids have earned their treats.

Everything is freely given. Everyone is accepted and welcomed, regardless whether they’re a cute 2-year-old frog or a teenager with fake blood dripping from a corner of the mouth.

You look great. Here’s a treat. Enjoy.

A bit of grace inside each wrapper

We just give. And along with each small treat, we put a little bit of ourselves into the transaction – a smile, a kind word about the costume, a simple hello to the parents and grandparents.

Us, at our best. Giving the greatest gift that any of us can give – a bit of grace inside each wrapper.

In my experience, people enjoy the giving part so much because they remember the times they’ve been on the receiving end. They know what it’s like to be the young child getting a piece of candy.

Also, they’ve known times throughout their lives when they were running low on joy, love and hope. Maybe food and other things, too. Their bag was pretty much empty. And someone came along and filled it again.

That goes for all of us.

Each day begins with the best gifts simply plopped into our bags – another breath, another heartbeat, another day freely and joyfully given. Then for the rest of the day, it’s our turn to give generously and joyfully. And to receive thankfully and joyfully.

To try to fill everyone’s bag until it’s overflowing.

A truthful 12-year-old

Gun

(Note: I wrote this exactly one year ago. In the past year, the only thing that has changed is the body count. We need to do better.)

I filled my foam plate with fruit, yogurt and a bagel from the hotel’s complementary breakfast, and then found an open table in the corner. I wanted to be far away from the big-screen television on the wall that was tuned to an annoying cable news station.

I was getting ready for another day covering the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. Several families with Little Leaguers were staying at the hotel. This was the morning that a television reporter and videographer were shot in Virginia, so that was the big story on the big TV.

Another shooting. Really? I just couldn’t deal with it emotionally. I tried to tune it out mentally while I spread cream cheese on my bagel with the flimsy plastic knife.

Instead, five boys got my attention.

They sat at the next table. They’d finished their breakfast and were acting their age – around 12 years old. Laughing, teasing, playing with their plastic forks and spoons.

When the cable news station went back to the shooting and said there was video, the boys looked up and got quiet. (The station didn’t show the actual shooting, thank God.) Their playfulness was replaced with silence. They looked appalled. Or scared.

“That’s crazy!” one of them said.

They watched until the station switched to a commercial. Then they switched back to being playful 12-year-olds, quickly moving beyond the moment.

Just like us adults, no?

How many times have we watched some shooting somewhere – a school, a theater, a workplace, a military base, a church – and felt shock and disbelief? We feel bad, post something on social media, say a prayer and move on.

I remember seeing the video of the shooting at the church in Charleston for the first time when I got home from work on June 17. I couldn’t sleep that night. I wondered how this could keep happening.

So when the latest shots were fired in Virginia, I was numb. If it’s going to just keep happening – new day, new place, new victims – then why even pay attention? Why become emotionally invested again?

I was tired of my heart hurting. Like those 12-year-old boys, I had to turn away. I’d lost my outrage that these massacres happen again and again, and we fail to do anything to prevent the next one.

And that’s when I realized I’d become part of the problem.

Instead of turning away, I needed to be like the boy who saw with eyes fully open and said: “This is crazy!” And then to say that this has to change. I have to do something about this craziness.

Why don’t we do something?

It’s daunting, I know. Our society is so saturated with violence, from our entertainment to our news. Weapons are seen as solutions. Even some churches give away guns to lure new congregants – certainly more attractive than reading passages about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek.

Our outrage has been co-opted, too.

We’ll get worked up over someone who says their rights are being compromised because they have to bake a wedding cake or issue a marriage license. But when a twisted individual takes away all of someone’s rights with one pull of the trigger, we shrug and say that’s just the way of the world.

And if we start to question too much, we hear: Don’t ask what we could do differently. Now is not the time to talk about it. Blame the shooter alone. We can’t save everyone from gun violence, so don’t save anyone. Let’s get back to talking about that person who doesn’t want to bake the cake or issue the license.

Really, how crazy is that?

And until we say it out loud, we’re part of the problem. You and me.

There was a time when drunken driving was an accepted part of our culture. Comedians joked about tipsy drivers. People insisted that they had a right to drink and a right to drive and everyone else should just leave them alone. But a courageous group of mothers who’d lost their children decided it was crazy that thousands were being killed by drunk drivers each year. They met a lot of resistance, but they wouldn’t relent. They insisted that we as a society needed to change our attitudes and our culture and our laws.

We have. Many people are alive today – perhaps you and me and those five 12-year-old boys at the hotel — because a drunken-driving accident was prevented. Because we finally did something.

Change begins when we say: “This is crazy and it has to changeAnd I have to contribute my part to making it change.”

Passionate people make a difference. Indifferent people perpetuate the status quo and enable it to continue. Nothing changes until we do.

 

Whose crayons are they?

crayons

I was sitting in a restaurant booth waiting for my food to arrive. A couple and their two small boys were seated across from me. The boys were about 5 and 3, I’d guess. The restaurant provides a bowl of crayons and drawings to occupy children until their food arrives. My attention was drawn to how the two boys went about coloring so differently.

The younger boy took a crayon from the bowl, used it, put it back, and swapped it out for a different color. By contrast, the older boy would use a crayon and lay it beside him on the table, keeping it handy for when he’d need it again. Then he would take another crayon, use it, put it beside him.

Soon the older brother had a big stash of crayons next to him and few were left in the bowl. The younger brother noticed and complained, “Hey, I need those!” The older brother put his arm around his stash protectively and said, “These are MY crayons!”

If you’re a parent, you’ve lived through this many times and you know what happens next. The mother intervened and told the older son: “Put those crayons back in the bowl! Those are not YOUR crayons. They were given to you to share.”

Yep. We have to share.

Sharing is challenging for all of us, isn’t it? We tend to build our stash and think it’s all ours. In the process, we lose sight of what underlies our life and our faith: Everything that we have and all that we are is given to us by God in order to share.

Instead, we worry about not having enough and build and defend our stashes. The truth is, we have so much! More than we need. We’re reminded when we have to move and we go through our closets and basements and marvel at how much we have. We wonder why we’ve held onto it when we could have shared with someone in need.

Or we’re walking down the street, worrying about how we’ll pay the bills, and we see a homeless person asking for help. We’re reminded: I have SO MUCH and this person has nothing. So what do we do? Stop, offer some money, a few kind words, a handshake.

We need to share.

Sharing doesn’t apply only to our stuff. In a sense, there’s something even more important to share – ourselves. Each of us has God’s DNA woven into us: The ability to love, to be kind, to heal, to laugh, to encourage, to forgive, to create. Each of us has a unique set of talents and abilities and life experiences. We have SO MUCH good stuff inside each of us, and we need to share it.

I think our challenge on this one might be in recognizing just how much we are and how much people need us. We can make a difference – in ways big and small – in so many lives.

And then there’s our time. We need to share that, too. Time is our fundamental gift, in a sense. The universe has been bumping along for a very long time without you or me being part of it. And it’s done quite well without us. You and me, we didn’t have to be part of human history. Ever. But at this point in time, God decided that creation was incomplete without us. We were given time. What do we do with it? How do we share it?

Understand, none of this is meant to cause anyone guilt. That’s not God’s way. Instead of being shamed, we’re offered an opportunity to love and to be loved. We’ve all had moments when we’ve shared – our money, our self, our time – and recognized how deeply it touched someone. In those moments, we feel good because we’ve had an experience of God, who is love.

Those moments remind us of who God is: An overly generous parent who gives us more and more of all this amazing stuff around us and inside of us each day.

Those moments also remind us of who we are, too: God’s equally beloved children, sitting side-by-side at God’s table, sharing an overflowing cup of God’s crayons.