A drink from a different cup

Cup of poison

Next to me sat a minister wearing a collar. In front of me were two men wearing yarmulkes. On the other side of the mosque were women in various head coverings. A nun sat among them.

Everyone in the mosque was in stocking feet, seated on folding chairs or simply reclining on the carpeted floor.

An organizer invited everyone to share the name of their place of worship. Dozens of churches, mosques, synagogues and temples were represented at this gathering prompted by the massacre at mosques in New Zealand this month.

We were reminded that religion – the real deal – is about standing up for peace, compassion and healing. It’s about choosing love over hatred in our individual and collective interactions each day.

The man who killed Muslims in New Zealand is the latest example of what happens when we drink from the cup of hatred. Important parts of us die off. A man whose compassion, decency, and sense of humanity were killed by this poison committed a great evil.

Poison that divides

The various hate-filled men who have violated sacred spaces – an historic black church in Charleston, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, mosques in New Zealand, and many others — all drank the same poison that is readily available these days:

The poison that exalts nationalism and supremacy and privilege.

The poison that advocates war and weapons as solutions.

The poison that stokes fear of anyone who is different.

The poison that builds walls against those who have a different skin color, different religion, different ethnic origin, different nationality, different sexuality, different political viewpoint.

The poison that aims to divide God’s children and turn one against another.

The struggle against hatred has gone on as long as humans have been around, and it will continue after each of us is gone from the planet. But this is our time – our moment — to offer an antidote to the poison in its various forms today.

I’ve been inspired by the many interfaith gatherings in the last couple weeks. People joined hands in offering the world a healing dose of love, compassion and peace -– the shared values of all actual religion.

They renewed their commitment to transform poisoned hearts and divided communities with a love that is undeterred and undiminished.

They offered the world a drink from a different cup.

They prayed for the victims and the perpetrators while recognizing that their thoughts and prayers were only a starting point. Words are never a finish line. Action must follow.

At the gathering I attended, we were reminded that this action must start inside each of us. We need to guard our own hearts against the poison. It’s easy for words of hatred to seep inside and influence us.

Offering an antidote

Next, we have to challenge our leaders – those who have outsize influence — to denounce these acts as expressions of evil. But the denunciations can’t end there; all leaders must emphatically and fully reject the ideologies that produce these acts.

Acts of hatred don’t come out of the blue. They’re shaped by the poisonous words in our world. Any leader who contributes to the poison or who refuses to condemn hateful ideologies is aiding and abetting and promoting the inevitable results.

Finally, we must respond in some way to the poisonous words we encounter in our daily interactions. We mustn’t allow them to pass without offering alternate words – a reminder that everyone is an equally beloved and beautiful child of God and must be treated as such.

It’s not about enforcing political correctness; it’s about offering an antidote to counteract the poison.

As the imam prayed on behalf of everyone in the mosque that day: May we work together so that goodwill dominates, love prevails, and hope spreads through our communities.

There will always be hatred in the world. We’re obligated to make sure there’s always more love.

We offer a drink from a different cup.

Living in the dustbin

ashes2

I hate dusting. The process seems so useless because dust immediately returns. Why is there so much dust? What’s in that stuff anyway?

 

I did some research and got disturbing answers, including enlarged photos of dust mites that can’t be unseen. I also got a surprise. Turns out that much of that dust in my house is … me.

 

Our bodies shed skin cells as new ones take their place. Each of us is like the Pig-Pen character in “Peanuts,” leaving dustiness wherever we go. We tend to think that someday we’ll turn into a pile of dust, but the process is already in motion.

 

There’s a lot of us in the dust.

 

Some people are celebrating Ash Wednesday today, a necessary reminder that this phase of life is short and precious and must be fully appreciated. Ashes symbolize how our bodies will return fully to their elemental state someday.

 

But the turn-to-dust process has already begun, and so has the rebirthing part. We’re already dust, and we’re already reborn. The process is hard-wired into everyone and everything.

 

It’s how it all works.

 

A poetic story in Scripture reminds that we’re formed from the dust of earth and thus bound intimately to all creation. Science takes it one step further, detailing how in our elemental form we’re made of the same stuff as everything in the universe.

 

Yes, we’re both earth dust and star dust. And everything follows a path of endless transformation, which is a very cool thing even if we sometimes wish it were otherwise.

 

Earth dust and star dust

Death is a necessary ingredient in the process. Without it, nothing new could appear. New life is created out of the space created when something else is let go.

 

All things are continuously made new, including us.

 

Faith itself is about daily transformation, shedding old ways and replacing them with new. As the saying goes, old wineskins must be discarded. If we cling to the old, we’ll watch it turn to dust in our hands.

 

As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it, “Almost always when I experience God, it comes in the form of some kind of death and resurrection. … It’s about spiritual physics. Something has to die for something new to live.”

 

When we recognize the spiritual physics at work — the intimacy between death and rebirth — we worry a little less about future burial and focus more on nurturing the life being reborn within us and around us.

 

All things new

Spirituality is about embracing the daily transformation. “Dying to self” involves gradually letting go of selfishness, fear, prejudice, judgment, insecurity, ego – anything that prevents us from loving more deeply and inclusively.

 

Our spiritual exfoliation creates room for compassion and empathy and joy and hope and healing. We become more invested in transforming ourselves and our world.

 

This process also works on our collective level. We see it unfolding in our society right now.

 

A culture that has for so long reserved power and privilege for a certain caste — white, wealthy, male, straight, Christian — is being shed, bit by bit, to create space for something new. Some church people are trying to provide life support, but it’s futile. To borrow an expression from Martin Luther King, Jr., such religion is dry as dust and ready for burial.

 

Leave the dead to bury the dead. God is working among the living. Put our focus there. Pay attention to the new life poking up from the ashes. Nurture it, celebrate it and grow it.

 

And feel free to skip the dusting chore if you wish. Consider it a sign of respect. After all, that dust gathered on our shelves and tabletops is you and me.

 

Well, OK, maybe dust once in a while. Those enlarged photos of dust mites are really disgusting.

MLK and dry-as-dust religion

mlk women's march4

Martin Luther King, Jr., sought not only to change society, but to reform religion as well. From the start, he challenged people of faith to recognize the demands of their faith and live them courageously.

He challenges us today.

He reminds us that we can’t call ourselves people of faith if we lack interest in how people are being treated. We can’t be indifferent to the suffering of others and claim that we’re living by the admonition to love one another.

King understood that people of faith are not only obligated to transform their societies through the power of love, they’re in a unique position to do so.

As a young pastor in Montgomery — in the heart of Klan country — MLK noted that so many churches were talking about heaven but ignoring the injustices right outside their doors. He said any religion that’s not concerned with how God’s children are being treated is “a dry-as-dust religion.”

The Civil Rights Movement got its flashpoint when Sunday school teacher Rosa Parks decided faith impelled her to resist an unjust transportation system. Black church leaders used the moment to push for equality for all God’s children.

Many white churches resisted. Years later, when he was imprisoned for a march in Birmingham, MLK wrote his famous letter pushing back against white clergy urging him to be silent and go away.

King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that any church which fails to bring God’s values to bear on conditions in our world “will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning” for contemporary times.

Irrelevant social clubs

King observes how young people in particular were drifting away, their disappointment turning into disgust for what was being passed off as church in so many instances.

He was prophetic.

A half-century later, millions have left churches that feel dry as dust, searching instead for authentic faith communities. They seek the places that are rooted in love and follow the historical summons to care for the needy, welcome the stranger, embrace the refugee, heal the sick, and challenge systems that harm God’s children.

They’ve given up on churches that are fixated on sex and indifferent to injustice. They want nothing to do with places that are invested in liturgy but lacking in love.

Breathe new life into dust

Love is the foundation of all living religion, and it isn’t a feeling or an ideal. It’s a commitment to treat others as ourselves and stand with those who are marginalized.

When we’re animated by such faith, we follow wherever it leads us, even when the path is unpopular, unsettling, uncharted and unsafe.

If our lives aren’t enlivened by such love, then they’re dry as dust. MLK reminds us that when we refuse to stand up for what is right, our lives have essentially ended. If our lives stand for nothing more than self-interest, it’s as though we’re not even here.

This summons to people of faith extends to us today.

Love — the real thing — can breathe new life into any life, society or religion that has become dry as dust. Love and love alone has the power to resurrect.

“With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
— from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Aug. 28, 1963

Grief, joy and a mom’s ceramic reindeer

Rudolph

My mom had multiple sclerosis and was limited to a wheelchair for her last 15 years. When she couldn’t navigate the house anymore, she moved into a retirement apartment and made new friends.

The apartment offered social activities, including a pottery class. My mom joined and made gifts for family and friends. Each Christmas, we’d receive new ornaments and holiday figures.

She made the Rudolph figure above. She was particularly proud of it. She kept it and placed it next to the small tree in her living room each year. When she died, I inherited it. Every Christmas since, I’ve place it next to my tree.

Holding the figure – the same one she held so tightly and painted so carefully – helps me feel connected to her. I sense her continued presence in my life.

It wasn’t always this way.

The first few Christmases after she died were difficult. Hanging her ceramic ornaments on the tree and setting Rudolph next to it made me miss her even more. It was akin to yanking the bandage off a wound that’s just starting to heal.

I felt I’d not only lost her, but Christmas, too.

Several family members and close friends are experiencing that same feeling this holiday season. They’ve lost someone or some important relationship. Entering a new year feels like closing a door behind them.

Those first years are so difficult! The pain can overpower. Joy seems elusive. There’s an overriding sense that things will never be the same, never as good.

All the talk of good cheer can get swallowed in that black hole.

As I gained distance from my mom’s death, the pain slowly subsided and made room for something else. Pain has been replaced by presence.

Pain replaced by presence

Whenever I look at the reindeer figure now, I think of all the holidays when she was in some sort of pain and yet made Christmas special for us. And now we live in her spirit and do the same for each other.

She’s still here in all of this. The circle is unbroken.

Whenever I hold the reindeer figure, I think of how she held it and put so much of herself into it. How she carefully painted the brown eyes, the long lashes and the red nose, trying so hard to get them just right.

And then she looked at it and smiled, the same way I smile when I look at it now. She put herself into that figure the same way she put herself into her family – so much careful work, so much love, so much attention to detail.

Those things never go away. They form a bond can’t be broken.

That is, after all, the Christmas message: Love is strongest of all, always stronger than hate or fear or the thing we call death. Nothing can separate us from powerful love.

Which brings us to joy.

Joy is mentioned a lot during the holiday season – joy to the world — and yet it seems so distant and alien and elusive when we’re feeling grief and emptiness. But joy and sadness aren’t mutually exclusive; they co-exist. They’re partners, in a sense.

As I’ve gotten older and experienced loss, I’ve realized that joy isn’t a feeling. It’s more of a mindset or a lifestyle grounded in the recognition that life and love endure, even when they change forms.

Joy is a close relative of gratitude and appreciation. It encourages us to step back, realize we’re still in good hands, and smile through our watery eyes.

One more thing about joy: It’s not personal, but collective. We create and share joy together.

Love is strongest of all

Joy involves helping each other through our pain. We sit with each other, hold hands, remind each other that we’re never alone. We don’t tell each other to cheer up or smile or be joyful; we simply give each other our presence.

That’s joy at work.

One of my favorite descriptions of this work comes from Francis of Assisi, who reminds us so beautifully and poetically that when we encounter hatred in someone’s heart, we bring love that can transform it.

Where there is doubt, we bring faith. Despair, hope. Darkness, light.

And where there is sadness, joy.

Not a joy that minimizes or ignores the sadness, but a joy that sits down next to it and listens to it. A joy that’s strong enough to help us through those moments and transform them.

A joy that’s expressed through something as simple as holding a hand. Or holding a ceramic reindeer.

On the square: Lives written with the same words

Market Square

Market Square in downtown Pittsburgh was vibrant on the autumn afternoon that Gloria and I visited. Folks got a cup of coffee or a sandwich from one of the surrounding shops, sat at a table and enjoyed the company of strangers on a delightful day.

Some read books. Some listened to music. Some talked. One couple chased their young boy around. People made eye contact and smiled. Everyone was in their own space yet sharing this space.

I couldn’t help but wonder about each person’s story.

For instance, there was an older couple sitting nearby, holding hands and sharing one cigarette. How did they meet? What tough times have they overcome? What is it about each other that makes them smile?

Oh, and why only one cigarette?

Each one’s story

On the other side of the square, a couple doted on their young boy, encouraging him to run and watch the pigeons fly away. Will this moment become a fond memory for all of them? How many times have they been to the square already, enjoying the miracle of watching a child grow step by step?

Soon, a group of high school boys walked briskly through the square on their way home. Two boys in front were teasing one of the others. A boy in the back of the pack hung back a few steps and looked unhappy. Had he been teased? Does he get teased often for being different? Did he have that teenage feeling of wondering if you’ll ever fit in?

From the other direction came a student from the nearby college. She walked briskly and appeared troubled. Was she away from home for the first time and feeling homesick? Missing someone who had always been there for her? Wondering how she was going to get through the semester?

A family of Middle Eastern descent found an open table. They spoke in their native language. How have they been treated lately in their adopted country? What do they tell the children about our times? Do they live in fear?

A young man set up shop on a corner of the square, offering to draw portraits for $10. He was an extrovert, happily welcoming anyone who walked by. How did he learn to draw? Who are the most unforgettable people he’s met in this place?

As I looked around, I wondered how many of the people on the square had overcome cancer or some horrific health problem. Which ones were grieving the recent loss of a loved one. Which ones just got good news – a clear scan result, a promotion, a pregnancy test that came back positive – that had them feeling more alive than ever.

Each of us was in our own little world and also sharing our world with everyone else. Places like Market Square reminds us of our innate connectedness.

The same words

We give into our tendency to fixate on superficial differences, and we create opposing categories — young or old, male or female, gay or straight, single or married, black or white, Democrat or Republican, this religion or that one, this sports team or another one, and on and on. We draw many lines between ourselves and others.

As we do so, we overlook how we’re so much alike at our core. We’re all made from the same ingredients. We’re all doing our best to try to navigate through life at any given moment, in our own unique and yet universal way.

Our stories differ in their details but not in their genre. All our stories fit on the same shelf marked “human,” tucked snugly next to each other, cover to cover. When we listen to others’ stories, we’re reminded of our similar experiences and familiar feelings.

In swapping stories, we recognize that our lives are written with the same words.

As the shadows grew longer in the late-afternoon sun, the older couple got up – still holding hands – and walked away, taking turns sharing drags off that one cigarette.

They were walking each other home. Like all of us.

Serving without exception

ServeOthers

Self-described Christians are refusing to serve gay couples. The president’s spokeswoman was denied service by a restaurant owner with deeply held beliefs.

Our society is fraying. The refuse-to-serve mentality is spreading, leading us to a dark place.

As Gandhi taught, an eye for an eye and soon the whole world is blind.

We don’t have to continue down this road blindly. We can light another way. But if we want to be that light, we can’t reject, shun or demean anyone.

Instead, We must love, serve and respect everyone. Each of us has many such opportunities each day.

Last weekend, my church participated in the local Pride Parade. As we waited for the march to begin, a man walked through the crowd carrying a sign that said, “Jesus Is Coming.” He told us we were horrific sinners doomed to burn in hell.

We had to decide how to respond. Do we ignore him? Argue with him? We chose to offer kindness. We smiled, said hello and offered him a bottle of water. He was free to turn it down, but he graciously accepted it.

We didn’t attack his views but respectfully explained ours – Jesus is already here, calling us to love everyone. We wished the man a blessed day as he went on his way.

Serving others doesn’t mean endorsing their beliefs; it’s recognizing and respecting them as a child of God. To refuse service is to deny the image of God within each of us.

There are many ways to advocate for our beliefs. Demeaning others is not one of them.

Faith is service

Many self-described Christians argue that living their values means shunning those who believe differently. It’s a dishonest claim. If love is your core value, then every act of kindness and service is an expression of faith, not a rejection of it.

Sacrificial service is the heart of God’s value system. It’s the only way out of our current darkness.

What’s happening today isn’t new. Sadly, it’s been the norm in our society. Over the centuries, many Christians have refused to love and serve black people and Native American people and many others – including other Christians — whom they deemed inferior.

In Jesus’ time and place, many religious people also shunned those who lived and believed differently, insisting that any interaction with them amounted to participating in their impurity and their sin.

Jesus took direct aim on that attitude.

He befriended the marginalized and the shunned, pushing back hard against the religious people who objected. He ate with those whom others labeled great sinners.

To Jesus, a lack of love was the only sin. He understood that simply telling someone to change means nothing; we must be a source of the unconditional love that makes change possible.

And when the religious leaders objected to all of this, he told them to worry more about the plank in their own eye — take a good look at yourself and drop that stone from your hand.

Lack of love is the only sin

Instead, be like the Samaritan in the parable, the shunned person who gets it right because he loves and serves. Don’t be like the religious people who walk past with their noses in the air.

Be a source of love.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us, hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. That’s the rule we must apply.

We need to remember that shunning doesn’t help anyone grow or change. Only love can do that.

Refusing service doesn’t fulfill our faith. Only love can do that.

We can’t vanquish darkness by bringing more darkness into the world. Only love can do that.

That is the way, the truth and the light that can lead us to a better place.

Hearing God in a female voice

Female voice

Many courageous women are challenging powerful men who abused them. Those female voices have started a national conversation and brought about significant changes already.

It’s fitting that we’re focused on those voices as Advent begins. It’s a season for all of us to honor, encourage and hear the many female voices that challenge us, teach us, love us, and bring us into a deeper experience of God, if we let them.

Throughout history, female voices have been ignored, marginalized, and muted by those who think that only males should be heard. By contrast, the Jesus story places women front-and-center, right from the start.

 

All by herself

In Luke’s telling of the tale, a woman decides all by herself – a subversive thing, then or now – whether the Jesus story will even happen. Mary’s let-it-be gets everything started.
 
A courageous, hesitant, female voice brings God more fully into the world.
 
Mary’s role is shocking in a time and a place when only men made important decisions and women were treated more like property than persons. That’s only the beginning of this theologically radical and socially subversive story.
 
Luke’s version has Mary visiting her relative Elizabeth — two strong women — and talking about God’s passion for justice in ways that her son would later repeat, which is no surprise. After all, who teaches Jesus and molds him? His mom.
Jesus first learns about God through a female voice.
 
Perhaps that’s why Jesus is so persistent about ignoring and violating the rules in his society and his religion that try to limit the role of women. He constantly interacts with women in ways the religious and social leaders find scandalous.
 
There’s the famous story of Jesus visiting two sisters and one of them chooses to sit with him and discuss religion – a man’s realm – instead of joining her sister Martha in preparing the meal, as a woman was required. Jesus encourages Mary to do what she values.

Men will learn from the women

The story culminates in a crucifixion, and it’s the women who show courage and love while the men run and hide. Peter denies knowing Jesus to save his hide. The women? They risk their lives to be with Jesus up to his last breath.
 
And as the story goes, it’s the women who have the courage to go to the tomb. While the men are still hiding in fear, the women experience the still-alive Jesus. He tells them to tell the men about what they’ve experienced — the men will learn from the women.
 
Predictably, the men don’t believe the women and dismiss their accounts. They run to the tomb to see for themselves.
 
The same thing happens in every generation. Men choose to ignore the voices of women who have experienced things they know nothing about.
 
Today, many faith communities bar women from going to the pulpit and telling about their experiences. Women’s voices are marginalized and ignored, just like 2,000 years ago.
 

#MeToo

Our society considers a female voice less believable and less important than a male voice. When it comes to sexual abuse, for instance, a man’s shifting denial is believed over the word of so many courageous and prophetic women saying #MeToo.
 
It’s long past a time for change.
 
Let’s use this Advent – the season that starts with one woman’s courageous voice – to pay closer attention to all the female voices in our world. Let’s honor them and hear God still speaking to all of us through them.
 
May we let those voices teach us their truths, especially the truths that we’re reluctant to hear. May we allow their courageous and persistent “let it be” change each of us and our world all over again.