Newborns, faith and sacrificial love

When our son was born, a nurse checked his health, washed him, wrapped him in a blanket, and put a little stocking cap on his head to keep him warm. Then, she handed him to us.

In that moment, I felt an overpowering sense of love unlike anything I’d experienced. I knew in that moment I would give my life for this child I’d just met.

Two years later when our daughter was born, I felt the same overwhelming love again. I would make any necessary sacrifice for her, including my life.

Those moments taught me powerfully about sacrificial love.

Our faith reminds us that God has that same love for us, and we need to have such love for one another, readily sacrificing to meet others’ needs. It’s the core of the gospel – the good news – and one of the most challenging parts.

And, perhaps, the most rejected part as well.

Loving others in a sacrificial way

Jesus’ unequivocal message is we’re meant to love others in a sacrificial way, including the stranger, the person who is different, even the ones we consider our enemies. It’s a difficult challenge. We all struggle with this.

Too often, we miss opportunities to love sacrificially because we’re counting the cost, fearing repercussions, or doing a cost analysis of whether what we sacrifice is worth whatever return we can envision.

We forget that God’s love works without an accounting system. We receive grace with a lavish generosity that we might consider extravagant and wasteful. And we’re invited to love the same way.

We’re all aware that over the centuries, many Christians have rejected the call to live in sacrificial love. Instead, they sought to carve out privilege and comfort for themselves by forcing others to conform to their beliefs and lifestyles.

Today, there’s an Americanized version of Christianity that rejects sacrificial love. Instead, it preaches that everyone else should sacrifice and conform to whatever makes these Christians happy – saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” for instance.

This version of Christianity demands “religious liberty” to discriminate against anyone who believes differently. However, no one is allowed to discriminate against Christians or inconvenience them in any way.

It also promotes an unholy individualism that absolves Christians from making even simple accommodations to care for their neighbors, such as wearing a mask during a pandemic to save others’ health and lives.

Christianity without a cross, religion without love

Some Christian leaders promote a theology that says Jesus sacrificed for them, so they are absolved from having to make sacrifices for others.

It’s Christianity without a cross, religion without love for all God’s children. And it’s no surprise that many spiritual people have fled this version of religion.

Jesus lived, preached, and encouraged us to sacrifice our lives each day in many ways. He reminded us that whoever holds tightly to their life — refusing to sacrifice — will lose out on life, but whoever chooses sacrifice as their way of life shall live deeply and abundantly.

Real faith involves a daily commitment to sacrifice our ego, our self-interest, our time, our resources, our privilege, our comfort, our closed-mindedness, our indifference, our self-absorbed theologies so we can love more extravagantly. It involves serving all God’s children without exception.

Daily, we’re presented with the choice of living in a spirit of entitlement or in a Spirit of sacrificial love that draws us closer to the God who cradles us like newborns and reminds us we are worthy of any sacrifice.

And so is everyone else.

(Photo courtesy of Jason Pratt @creativecommons.org)

We need one another

One Lisa Fotios at Pexels

What do you miss during social distancing?

I miss hugs. Concerts. Attending church. Sharing a birthday cake. Being there in person to feel someone’s joy or pain or struggle.

I miss Singo, a sing-along version of bingo. During Singo, nobody cares about political labels, age groups or religious affiliation. Everyone sings familiar lyrics together, and strangers get up and dance with one another.

Everyone just enjoys each other’s company.

All those activities are on hold as we try to contain the spread of a virus that leaves death and battered bodies in its wake. When the time comes that we can safely be social again, I hope we’ll do it with a renewed appreciation for each other.

I hope the pandemic has taught us how much we need one another.

We needed that lesson. We’ve become so divided that we’ve forgotten we’re intimately bound to one another.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, we’re all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Mother Teresa said that “if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.”

How did we forget that? How did we lose the pleasure and peace of each other’s loving company?

Perhaps a confluence of factors is responsible for fraying our common fabric.

Our culture worships individuality, the myth of the self-made man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps without anyone’s assistance at all. It’s all about me and my rights.

The Americanized version of Christianity promotes this self-centeredness, too. The prosperity gospel preaches self-absorption. Pad your personal accounts – financial as well as spiritual – while telling those bleeding by the side of the road to work harder.

We’ve got political, social and religious leaders trying to sell us the bitter pill of division as well. They want us to quarantine within political, social and theological bubbles, pushing away everyone who is different.

They frame it as us-against-them and promote nonstop political, cultural and religious wars against anyone not inside our bubble.

No! They’re selling a lie. The last three months have reminded us how much we need to stop the fighting and start reconnecting with one another.

Those connections are what we miss.

God made us as social beings. We’re hard-wired to be together and have relationship with God, with all God’s children, and with all God’s creation. Those artificial divisions deprive us of what we need most.

Hopefully that’s the pandemic’s lesson for when the time comes that we can safely come together again as extended human family.

We need one another.

(photo by Lisa Fotios @pexels.com)

 

 

 

Healing a broken system

heal atomicity creative commons

Americans read about foreign hospitals overwhelmed by the coronavirus and mistakenly thought those horror stories could never happen here because our health care system is so good.

We spend more per capita on health care than any other developed nation, which provided a sense of security that was badly misplaced.

The virus has exposed a broken system. Our faith compels us to try to heal it.

The heart of religion is about healing our individual and collective brokenness and repairing ruptured relationships with God and one another. We must be healed, and we also must be healers, both individually and collectively.

The accounts of Jesus’ life describe him as a gifted healer who offered healing to everyone free of charge. He could have leveraged his abilities, but he chose not to.

He never monetized healing. Instead, he offered it like grace to anyone who desired it. He sent his followers to heal collectively in the same unbrokered way.

We’re meant to do so as well. As N.T. Wright puts it, “Healing is far too important and central to the stories about Jesus for those who wish to follow him today to ignore it.”

We can’t pretend about our health care system anymore. Long before the pandemic, we knew it was broken.

Millions can’t afford it. Those with health coverage face crippling debt for something as common as cancer. Premiums and deductibles soar. The cost of drugs jumps exponentially.

We saw with the opioid epidemic how a profit-motivated system inflicts suffering and death on society by pushing drugs that enrich the bottom line.

The coronavirus stripped away any remaining illusions about our system.

A doctor in a New York City emergency room wrote last month about her experiences as the virus raged. Dr. Helen Ouyang described for The New York Times Magazine how the system was ill-prepared for a pandemic that the medical profession had long predicted.

She described patients crammed into the ER, lying in their own waste while dying unattended because of depleted medical staffs.

Doctors and nurses were among the sick and dying because of inadequate protective equipment, a situation Dr. Ouyang described as far worse than in any of the “third-world” countries she visited on relief missions.

Applauding health care workers every evening or posting grateful memes isn’t enough. We have the resources we need to fix the system. What’s missing is our resolve.

Profit will always be part of the system, but we can’t allow it to be the engine driving it. Providing healing at an affordable cost for all God’s children must be the overriding intent.

There are many ways to do this. We need wide-ranging discussions to plot the best path and then enact changes, knowing we’ll get pushback from those making enormous profits off the current, broken system.

When healing is turned into a high-priced commodity available only to those who can afford it, we get a sick society. What we need now is healing. And people committed to being healers.

(Photo courtesy of atomicity @creativecommons.org)

Tomorrow: Monuments to war

 

 

 

 

Faith in our broken society

values burrows.nichole28 CC

The pandemic has shown us that we need to change not only our individual lives but our collective ones as well. There’s a lot in our society that’s deeply broken and needs fixed.

Our spending priorities are askew. Our health system is a mess. Our leadership is lacking. Our decisions favor some lives and render others expendable.

In times like these, prophetic voices challenge systems and shape discussions. We need to be those voices.

We can’t hide inside places of worship. We must get involved in what’s happening outside our doors.

Faith and values apply not only to our personal lives, but to our collective lives as well. If they don’t, our faith is only half-hearted and our values null and void.

Our religious tradition urges us to love God with all our hearts in all areas of our lives, not just the convenient parts. We’re to love our neighbors – all of them, in all situations – the same way we love ourselves.

Real faith is an all-or-nothing proposition.

Throughout history, many religiously observant people have endorsed superficial faith. Some Christians peddle the notion that Jesus’ values — love, compassion, forgiveness, healing, inclusion, caring for the needy, promoting peace — should apply to personal lives but can be excluded from our collective choices.

They say our society should be run by conflicting values – wealth, greed, privilege, self-interest, domination.

The same mentality created slavery and Jim Crow. White Christians insisted that their oppressive systems were exempt from Jesus’ commands to treat everyone as an equally beloved child of God.

We can’t limit faith to a few areas of our lives. We can’t ignore what’s being done by the various social systems that need our support or our inattention to continue.

That’s the real test of faith.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions. … Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”

One form of religion mustn’t gain privilege or supremacy; rather, faith compels us to ground our collective decisions in the loving values that are the foundation of all true religion.

Our conversations about the many challenges confronting us must begin by acknowledging our shared responsibility to care for all God’s children and all God’s creation in all circumstances.

It’s all-or-nothing.

We’ll sometimes disagree about how best to accomplish goals, but we must always be in accord on the underlying intention for all we do. Love alone must be our motivation.

If we choose a different starting point for our collective decisions, then we’ve not only lost our way but any semblance of faith as well.

(Photo illustration courtesy of burrows.nichole28 @creativecommons.org)

Tomorrow: Healers in a broken system

 

 

The illusion of control

wing2

One of my acquaintances hated flying. He’d rather make a long drive than buckle into an airplane seat, even though he knew it was far more dangerous statistically to get on the road.

So, I was shocked when he informed me one day that he was taking flying lessons. What made his fear recede?

He said he felt safe so long as his inexperienced hands were the ones on the controls even though he wasn’t sure what he was doing.

It reminded me how we’re all addicted to the illusion of control when, in fact, we aren’t in control of very much of the big stuff.

For example, we don’t decide when or where we’re born. We don’t choose our families. We don’t decide whether we will die.

And, contrary to what we imagine, we have limited control over the course of our lives. Look at how one virus has upended so much of it.

I wonder if our unease during this time is realizing we’re not all that much in control. Perhaps part of the pushback against social restrictions is an attempt to feel more in control, even though we know it will make things worse.

We see our craving for control spill into religion. The Garden of Eden parable teaches us that things go to hell when we pretend we’re in control and can do whatever we like.

Instead, we see how some religions snatch a few scripture verses, ignore the rest, establish a code of conduct – what to do, who to shun – and insist God has to welcome us at the pearly gates if we abide by the rules.

And if we don’t, God will be forced to reject us because God doesn’t have a choice in the matter, we say.

When I was growing up in the ‘60s, Catholics taught that Protestants were going to hell because they didn’t recognize the pope. Protestants taught that Catholics were going to hell for the opposite reason.

This notion that we can control God’s decisions is the height of hubris and folly, the Garden of Eden all over again.

We forget that God gave up control – gave us free will – because there’s something more important. Love is what God is about, not control.

Loving relationship involves creating space where we can reveal ourselves and be known and affirmed, free of judgment or manipulation.

Entering the divine relationship involves giving up our illusions of control – control of God, control of others. When we acknowledge our dependence upon God and our mutuality with others, we discover who we are.

We’re not the pilot. We don’t decide the destination or the flight’s duration. We’re not in control.

Instead, we’re all equal passengers. There’s no first-class section — everyone is privileged here. Our role is to care for all other passengers on the divine journey.

Who needs a haircut?

hair with sunglasses

While sheltering at home, folks have shared funny memes imaging how we’ll look when we’re able to get our hair cut and styled again.

Isn’t it telling that we’re so conditioned to think about our looks, even during a pandemic?

In many cultures, appearances receive overriding importance, especially for women. Images set the bar for what we’re supposed to look like if we want to be accepted.

Of course, those images that are enhanced and manipulated. Nobody actually looks that way in real life, not even the models and actors.

In 2006, I covered a baseball game at Great American Ball Park attended by Tom Hanks, Ron Howard and Dennis Miller. They were doing a ballpark tour for Hanks’ birthday. They agreed to chat with reporters.

The first thing that got my attention when we met was how without makeup, they looked liked everyone else. They had age spots and bald spots and wrinkles and unruly hair.

Just like me.

Perhaps our time away from hair stylists can remind us that we worry too much about our appearances and those of others. Consider it a home-schooling lesson in how we mistakenly associate looks with value.

We tend to look positively on people who wear expensive clothes, drive exotic cars, live in big houses, and have immaculate skin, teeth and hair. Appearances sway our judgments.

The same works in reverse. When we see someone who doesn’t meet those standards, we might think less of them. And of ourselves as well.

It’s subliminal and insidious, and it pulls us away from the truth about ourselves: we’re all beloved children of God, just as we are. We lose sight of that when we judge by any other standard.

I help an inner-city church with its summer program for children from families struggling to make ends meet. The church serves breakfast and lunch – for some of the kids, the best meals they’ll get that day – and has activities in-between.

Each day starts with the kids gathering in the church itself for a message from the pastor, who reminds them they are beautiful and loved, just as they are. And nothing can ever change that.

These kids hear a different message every time they watch television or see an ad online. They’re told in subtle ways that they don’t measure up because they don’t meet the standard in front of their eyes.

They need to be reminded many times every day that those advertising images aren’t real and the messages they hear are wrong. They need to be told again and again that love and value aren’t dependent upon fancy clothes or expensive makeup.

Clothes are only clothes. Wrinkles are only wrinkles. Hair is only hair. None of them has anything to do with our innate value.

Remember that the next time you look in the mirror and fixate on a wrinkle, a bald spot or an out-of-place curl. That person you see? Beautiful, just as you are.

And so is everyone else. No matter how they look. No matter how long and unruly their hair.

(photo courtesy of pexels.com)

Tomorrow: The lie of control

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living in liminal spaces

searching gfdnova1 at creative commons

I watched my parents drive away in the station wagon after dropping me off at college the first time, and I knew every part of my life was about to change.

Instead of living in my house with my family, I was sharing a small cinderblock dorm room with a roommate I’d never met. I shared a bathroom with the dorm wing and ate in a cafeteria.

Those first few weeks, I carried a map to find my way to the next class – I had nightmares for decades about being loss on campus!

It was a deeply unsettling transition, something that Richard Rohr refers to as a liminal space – a time and place where we’re challenged to think and act in new ways.

Moving into liminal space is never comfortable, but it’s essential if we’re to grow. The only way we move toward God and each other is by stepping outside our comfort zones.

The alternative is to stagnate and never know what it means to truly live.

We’re all in a liminal space now with the pandemic. A virus has challenged so many of our assumptions about ourselves – what we need, what really matters – and about our society as well.

What’s so unsettling is that we’re moving away from patterns of thinking and acting that provided a sense of comfort and predictability. When we can anticipate what comes next, we feel more in control.

In a sense, we’ve lost our security blanket. And we say: Now what?

Liminal times invite us to look beyond our limiting patterns. We have to leave our bubbles in order to see what’s outside of them.

This is especially true in spirituality. We’re raised in traditions that are sometimes very limited and confining. Over time, we feel ourselves outgrowing the small theological boxes, but it’s disconcerting because it’s all we know.

How do we replace them? What do we replace them with? Can we grow outside a bubble while still being friends with others inside it? The answers aren’t apparent right away.

It takes great courage to step outside our confines and become a seeker, but that’s what it takes. I love the line in the gospels reminding us that if we seek, we will find, but we must leave the safety of certitude and go look for God’s presence in unfamiliar places.

We will find – that’s the promise – but first we have to seek, even though that part of the equation is always unsettling.

As Rohr says, “It’s no surprise then that we generally avoid liminal space. Much of the work of authentic spirituality and human development is to get people into liminal space and to keep them there long enough that they can learn something essential and new.”

The longer we spend in liminal space, the more acclimated we become. We relax into it a little more. We feel ourselves growing in important ways that bring us more peace and joy, and we want to keep growing. We’re glad to have moved away from our old ways.

Let us use our liminal time well. May we let it teach us what we need to know. May it show us how we need to grow.

May we move closer to the re-creative God who wants to make all things new and better, including us. The God who invites us into those liminal spaces and reminds us that She’s there with us the whole time, so there’s no reason to be afraid.

(Photo courtesy of gfdnova1 @creativecommons.org)

 

Lessons of restlessness

restless thibaud saintin CC

Restlessness can be a good teacher.

We all feel restless at various times in our lives — I’m feeling that way now, and I’m sure I’m not alone. With the pandemic, many of our routines are gone. Favorite diversions are no longer available.

We’re used to being on the daily treadmill and now the machine is unplugged, and we don’t know what to do next. Every day feels the same. Our usual coping mechanisms are unavailable.

Restlessness abounds. And it has some important things it wishes to teach us.

Normally, we try to avoid the lessons by anesthetizing it with alcohol or other substances. We seek temporary good feelings that are never as deep or enduring as we want.

We buy something, or we watch something, or we start some project hoping it will bring the missing sense of satisfaction. It never provides more than temporary relief.

And then the feeling returns to remind us that something important is missing from our life right now.

Augustine had the famous line about how our souls are restless until they rest in our God of love. We must let that love transform us, heal us and animate us.

Only then do we get the peace and purpose we crave. Only then is our restlessness replaced by an energizing connectedness.

These challenging weeks provide a chance to take a closer look and see what needs to be stripped away to create space for what we really want.

We can see what sidetracks us from where we need to go. We can take inventory of the ways we fall into the trap of merely killing time or relieving boredom instead of living deeply.

We can identify things we substitute for love and fulfillment.

The pandemic has temporarily stripped away our diversions and temporary fixes, creating room to grow – if we choose. May our restlessness point us toward what we really desire.

As Richard Rohr puts it, “If there is no living water flowing through us, then we must pray for the desire for it to flow! Once the desire for something more is stirred and recognized, it is just a matter of time.

“Nothing less will ever totally satisfy us again.”

(Photo courtesy of Thibaud Saintin @creativecommons.org)

 

No going back

Personal Transformation

Several of my friends were cured of cancer. They describe how every part of their lives was turned inside-out during treatment. They asked God to help them through it. They longed for everything to return to normal.

Once healed, their lives were never the same. The experience changed them significantly. What once seemed so important was now unsatisfying. They experienced life differently.

When they realized there was no going back to how things were before cancer, they went through depression and grieved the loss of their former lives. Some of them got angry at God.

Eventually, they made peace with their circumstances and set about transforming their lives into something new and better – more real, more alive, more Spirit-filled.

Although not thankful for the illness, they recognized that it interrupted their lives in needed ways. They felt more peace and joy. Their relationships – including with God – grew richer and deeper and more satisfying.

I’ve thought about those friends as we navigate the coronavirus pandemic. In many ways, our lives also have been turned inside-out. We yearn for things to go back to how they were a few months ago.

They can’t. Nor should they.

The interruptions provide a chance to examine at our lives and make needed changes. This applies not only to our individual lives, but to our faith communities and our societies as well.

The pandemic can teach us necessary lessons and become an impetus for changes that make us better.

Our challenge is to take a clear-eyed look at how our lives need to be refocused, how our faith communities need to adapt, and how the systems and values of our society must be significantly reformed.

For the next week, we’ll consider some of those areas to spark thoughts that lead us to transformation.

We can’t go back to the way things were three months ago – it’s not possible. Nor should we try.

Instead, we can embrace this opportunity to grow into people and societies that do a better job of caring for ourselves and all God’s children. We have an opportunity to grow closer to one another and to God, who yearns for us to experience the gift of life and the joy of love more deeply.

Let us make the journey together.

Tomorrow: Learning from our restlessness

(Image “Personal Transformation” courtesy of GroggyFroggy @creativecommons.org)

Burning rivers and God’s garden

Cuyahoga pollution

The Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, blazing for two hours and focusing attention on my hometown. That moment became a flashpoint in the environmental movement.

Since the 1800s, industries had set up along the river and used it as a dumping ground for hazardous waste. The river turned orange and caught fire more than a dozen times. Many other polluted rivers in the Midwest caught fire as well.

Burning rivers weren’t the only issue. Steel mills released chemicals into the air that stung the eyes and left an acrid taste in mouths – I remember it well.

And it wasn’t just a Midwest problem. Cities around the world were trapped in a brown, deadly haze of smog. Rural areas had groundwater contaminated by dumped chemicals.

We’d made a mess of the world.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a good time to remember our connection to each other and all creation and to recommit ourselves to doing the job God has given us.

What is that job? Our faith traditions are clear. We’re tasked with caring for all creation and each other.

Genesis reminds us that diversity and relationship are expressions of the divine nature itself.

One parabolic story reminds that we’re created from the same stuff as the earth and each other, so we must never think of ourselves as separate from anyone or anything else.

Creation is seamless.

The Eden story depicts God putting humans in the garden and giving us the responsibility “to cultivate and care for it.” The garden isn’t ours; we’re just the gardeners.

As the story also reminds us, when we refuse to accept our role and we instead act as though we own everything, we commit the foundational sin and everything goes to hell.

The story of Noah’s ark reminds us that we’re responsible for caring for the animals, which are part of God’s all-inclusive covenant that endures today.

Fast-forward to Jesus, who clearly loved creation. He went into nature to hear God’s voice. His stories compared God’s kingdom to seeds and plants. He marveled at the flowers and birds.

We experience God through creation, so long as we recognize its innate holiness and treat it with the required reverence.

Sadly, we’ve often done the opposite. Self-absorption leads us to monetize everything. People are treated as commodities to be manipulated for gain or sold as slaves. The earth is parceled and plundered and used up, then discarded.

Everything becomes disposable, including the garden we’re meant to tend and the animals we’re meant to protect and the people we’re meant to love.

No! Those who hear God’s invitation to be gardeners must respond.

After the Cuyahoga caught fire in 1969, people responded. The EPA was formed a year later with strong bipartisan support, and laws were passed to provide clean air and water.

Some people want to turn our rivers orange again, make the air brown, and pollute the ground with toxic substances. They’re willfully ignorant of global warming’s damage.

Our faith requires us to act. This month, we not only celebrate creation, we also recommit ourselves to working with God to nurture it and protect it from further harm. It’s our assigned job.

As Pete Seeger puts it: “God’s counting on me. God’s counting on you.”

(photo from Cleveland Museum of Natural History)