The edge pieces of our lives

Puzzle1

Roddy glared at me with suspicion and defiance. He didn’t want me looking after him. Honestly, I didn’t want to be around him, either.

I was helping an inner-city church with its summer youth program. More than 40 kids from the neighborhood were playing games, reading books, and getting ready for lunch. I asked one of the program coordinators how I could help.

She motioned toward Roddy and said: You can look after him. He’s acting up today. He needs attention.

Sure, I said. And I soon regretted it.

I introduced myself to Roddy. He’s about 6 years old, African-American, from a poor family in the neighborhood. I’m a 60-year-old white guy from another place. We couldn’t be more different.

He knew I was going to try to ride herd on him – others had done it before. He’d have none of that. Roddy turned his back and walked away.

He went to a reading group in a corner of the room and started interrupting, glancing at me to gauge my reaction. The volunteer leading the group told Roddy he was welcome to stay and participate, but he couldn’t bother others. His response was to interrupt more.

I watched and wondered: What do I do now?

How in heaven’s name could the two of us connect?

Start with the edge pieces

I went over to Roddy and asked what likes to do. He mentioned puzzles. I got one, dumped it on a table, and started sorting out the pieces. Roddy came over and started helping. He didn’t understand the concept of using corner pieces and edge pieces – the ones with a flat side – to form the framework.

Roddy caught on quickly. He enjoyed the one-on-one attention. We started talking about our families, our favorite foods, our favorite sports.

The defiant eyes softened. He smiled. He was like a different kid.

When the puzzle was complete, he turned it upside-down and said: Let’s do it again! And again. We must have reassembled it a half-dozen times before lunch.

After we’d shared tacos and nachos, Roddy and the rest of the kids went home. As I drove home, I couldn’t get him out of my mind. He seemed so starved for attention and affirmation. The defiant, angry look in his eyes worried me.

How will Roddy’s life turn out?

Also, I wondered whether our time together would make any difference whatsoever in his jumbled life. He has so many influences tugging at him. Maybe he’d already forgotten about our time together and moved on.

Who knows?

I have no answers. I believe that showing kindness and love is worthwhile, in and of itself. If Roddy got nothing more than an enjoyable hour of doing puzzles followed by lunch, it was all good.

I also know that many people have intersected my life for brief moments and left a lasting impression, far more than they’ll ever know.

Grace works that way

There was the black man who drove my alcoholic father home one Christmas eve, showing me how compassion crosses color lines and other barriers. Then there’s the Greek woman who helped me find my way when I was helplessly lost at a train station in Athens, reminding me of what it means to feel kindness from a stranger.

Grace works that way. People come into our lives unexpectedly and show us things we need to see. Those people and those moments become edge pieces for us, if we let them.

It’s good to remind ourselves of that, especially now when we’re so divided and disconnected that we can’t even see the picture we’re meant to form. We’ve forgotten that each of us is a piece of something bigger than ourselves.

As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it:

“God is giving us one to another like a puzzle actually. Individually we have such snaggled edges, such unique contours, but that shouldn’t keep us away from others since those rough parts are meant to be fitted together. … After all, the odd, jagged parts of ourselves are what connects us to each other and to God.”

As Roddy builds his life, maybe I’ll be one of the edge pieces that frames things. Maybe our time together helps him see a different picture from what others will show him.

Or maybe not. In any case, it was worth the try. We all need our edge pieces. Better yet, we need to try to be edge pieces.

Grace in aisle three

Food

We found the aisle with lentils — aisle three, as it turned out — and surveyed the many choices. Which type would a Muslim most likely use to break the Ramadan fast?

Clayton and I didn’t know. We’re not Muslim. We’d never done this kind of shopping before.

Clayton is the interfaith liaison for our church, which has a close relationship with the local Islamic center. Last fall, we partnered with them on a winter clothing drive for refugee families settling in the area.

Now the Islamic center was having a food drive for needy families, many of them refugees. Clayton mentioned the food drive at the end of our church service last Sunday, and people grabbed donation envelopes and stuffed cash into them.

In the blink of an eye, we collected $200. Now, we just had to buy the food. We found a halal market near the mosque and went with a general list of things that we found online – lentils, flour, dates, cooking oil and so forth.

But which ones? Which types? How much? We didn’t know. After a few moments of indecision, we went to the checkout register and asked the manager for help.

We told the man what we were doing. He smiled. He dropped everything he was doing and threw himself into the project. He went to the back of the store and pulled out a box of cooking oil, which would be easier for us to carry. He rounded up bags of flour and packages of lentils.

Yeah. Amazing grace.

While other customers waited patiently, the manager filled several carts with food items worth more than the $200 we’d given him. And then he helped us push the carts to the car for loading.

On the way, he paused, took out his wallet, grabbed a $50 bill and handed it to us.

“This is a personal donation for your church,” he said.

Standing there in the parking lot, all of us blinked back tears.

Yeah. Amazing grace.

There are so many loud and shrill voices in various religions today, ones filled with fear and self-righteousness and arrogance and judgement and hatred -– the very things that faith tells us to avoid. Those voices try to divide us and diminish us. They twist religion into the opposite of what it’s meant to be, hoping to advance their personal agendas.

And then, there are all those other people – most people, I like to believe. The ones who actually get it. The ones filled with a spirit that makes them try as best they can to love one another as equally beautiful and beloved children of God.

They understand that every act of love, no matter how small, is an encounter with the God who makes all people beloved and all things blessed. Such moments are holy and sacred, transforming and inspiring.

Like the one just now in the parking lot.

With our boxes and bags of food loaded in the trunk, we headed to the nearby mosque. Just a week earlier, the mosque had been picketed by an anti-Muslim group toting signs that were hateful and hurtful.

The Muslims responded by setting up a table and offering the protesters food and drink. Here’s a photo, courtesy of The Journal-News of Hamilton.

Table

When our church heard about the protests, we prayed for the Islamic community and emailed the imam a note of support and admiration for their act of kindness. The imam wrote back, suggesting we get together for lunch sometime soon.

“Thank you so much for your appreciated prayers and support!” the imam wrote. “Please continue to spread the message of kindness, respect, loving thy neighbor, and harmony.”

This week, refugees will break their Ramadan fast with lentils and dates donated by a local church. On Sunday, the donation basket at our church will include a $50 bill from a Muslim store manager who spreads the message of kindness, respect, harmony and love.

Another shared, sacred moment for everyone. Blessed by a few more tears, no doubt.

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.

The cold woman on the street corner

Sign

The woman on the street corner held a cardboard sign asking for money. Her face was weather-beaten after hours of being buffeted by the harsh winter wind. Her knit mittens had holes that left her fingertips exposed.

I felt an urge to help. All I had was a $10 bill. I lowered the car window and handed it to her.

Her eyes flushed with gratitude. She said “Thank you, God bless you!” and grabbed my hand and squeezed. And then she did something that has stuck with me.

The woman kneeled, looked up, made the sign of the cross and mouthed the words “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” She had prayed for someone to help. Without realizing it, I was the answer to her prayer.

Lesson learned.

That’s how the whole prayer thing works, isn’t it? We pray for something, and our answer usually comes in the form of another person’s help. And if we truly believe this whole prayer thing, we must make ourselves available to be the answer to others’ needs.

As Pope Francis puts it, we pray for the hungry and then we feed them. That’s how prayer works.

I know that homelessness is a complicated issue. Some people have mental illness or addictions. Some have just been knocked down by life and need a hand getting up – or, at least, a meal for now. Some have lost all hope and resigned themselves to living on the streets, and they’re hungry.

They need their daily bread, and those of us who have enough are the ones who can share it with them.

That’s how it works

Francis addressed this recently in a magazine interview. He said giving to a person in need is “always right,” and it’s only the start. Francis has spent his life among the poor, and he says we should spend a little time getting to know the person on the street. Look into their eyes. Touch their hand. Give them affirmation of their human dignity.

Remind them that they are loved and lovable children of God.

There’s nothing surprising about Francis’ remarks. He tries to live in the spirit of a Jewish rabbi who said we should be compassionate the way God is compassionate, giving to all who ask, and sharing without judgment or condition.

Which is the opposite of what we hear so often.

A while back, Fox News personality John Stossel dressed as a homeless person and collected donations for an hour. He got $11. And then he shamed those who gave to him.

Stossel put one of the kind people on camera and asked why he responded with compassion. The man said: You looked pretty needy. Stossel portrayed him as a fool, someone who had been duped by the dishonest cable TV person.

He shamed those who gave to him

Stossel then suggested that most homeless people really aren’t needy, but are dishonest like him and should be ignored. And he said we can’t really trust charities, either.

You don’t know how your gift will be used, so don’t give it.

Really?!?! I found his comments abhorrent and sanctimonious.

Let’s be honest: Each of us wastes the greatest and most precious gifts we receive from the Creator. We do it all the time, and then we wish for more.

We waste the gift of time on things that don’t really matter. We waste our money on stuff we don’t really need — all of us. Worst of all, we waste our daily opportunities to grow and bring more love and healing into the world.

And then what happens? God gives us more!

I mean, that’s totally crazy, right? Thank God for that!

The story of the prodigal son takes direct aim on Stossel’s attitude. The younger son totally wastes all that he’s given, yet when he comes home the father neither judges nor punishes him but instead gives him more. The wasteful son gets a huge party. The older son objects: You’re being played for a generous, compassionate fool! This younger son is dishonest. You can’t trust him.

Thank God for that

But none of that matters to the father. The older son doesn’t understand the father’s nature, which is portrayed as God’s nature.

It’s a nature we’re called to live in, too. We’re meant to be kind and generous and compassionate to all, even if the one asking for our help is a dishonest cable TV person wearing a phony beard.

Especially then.

We do it because that’s how God treats you and me every day. We keep wasting, and we keep getting more. More to be shared with everyone.

Nothing but crackers and ketchup

Meatloaf

You know those days when you’re feeling on top of things? You’ve finally gotten a good night’s sleep. The sun is out. You have lots of energy. The inspiration flows. Life just feels so good.

Yeah, those days are pretty cool. And then there are those many other days, like the one I had last Sunday.

I was leading the discussion at our youth group. I decided to talk about discrimination. I brought a photo of women in babushkas so I could tell how I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood where people were very much alike – dressed alike, ate alike, worshiped alike, danced alike – but were fixated on their differences and pushed each other away in many subtle and overt ways.

I also had pictures of signs that were posted in public places throughout our country’s history. Signs saying that black people aren’t wanted here. Or Irish people. Or Catholics. Or women. Or Muslims. Or gays. Or Jews. Or Mexicans. Or refugees. Or … It’s pretty endless, actually. And eye-opening.

All was well with the lesson plan, until I woke up Sunday morning with horrible allergy symptoms. Headache. No voice. Distracted brain. Watery eyes. Misery in every cell of my body. I just wanted to go back to sleep. Let someone else take the kids.

A writer friend of mine has a way of describing those moments and those days. He says in his Boston accent, “I got nothin’ right now.”

Yep. Nothin’. I know that one. On most days, the needle on my inspiration gauge points decidedly more toward nothin’ than overflowing. And it’s easy to think that because I don’t feel on top of the world, I have nothing to give to the world. I just want to pull back the covers and sleep through it.

Can you relate?

Another friend and I were discussing this by email sometime back. She mentioned that we’re all “just bumbling along on our path, doing the best we can with what we have to work with.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I feel like I’m trying to make a meatloaf out of a few crumbled up crackers, water, and a splash of ketchup. And some days, I feel like I have fresh ground beef and onions and a good loaf pan and everything I need to make a pretty good one. And the trick, it seems, is to live in both times with as much self-acceptance and gratitude as I can and trust no matter what the outcome, it’s all good.”

All good. Even when we’ve got nothing but crackers.

Nadia Bolz-Weber describes how she organized a big event at her church and only 26 people showed up, the smallest crowd of the year. She felt like all of her hard work had amounting to nothin’. She was fuming and feeling sorry for herself. And in her self-absorption, she failed to recognize how many people were helped that day, though not in the ways she anticipated.

She had missed it. She forgot that God makes incredible things out of what we consider nothingness – a universe, a sky full of fireflies, you and me.

“I mean, let’s face it,” she writes, “’nothing’ is God’s favorite material to work with. Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as nothing, insignificant and worthless, and says, ‘Ha! Now that I can do something with.’”

Yep. We’ve all experienced how amazing things often come out of what we consider nothing and nowhere. The problem is that we get so full of ourselves that we miss it. For instance, I assume that because my head is on allergy overload that the kids’ program will be a disaster. Because, you see, it’s all about me.

(Since my voice was so scratchy on Sunday, I let them do most of the talking. And it was way better that way. The conversation started with: Why do you think people push others away? “Fear,” they suggested. Why are we afraid of them? “Because we don’t know them.” How do we stop being afraid? “By getting to know them.” Yes. That. And off they went.)

I forget that I’ve still got a lot to give. Even if it’s one kind word spoken between nasal-drip sniffles. Or a half-formed idea from a foggy mind. Or an imperfect gesture from a good heart.

I slip into the arrogance of assuming that I’m the only one involved in this process. There are always many others who have a hand in the recipe. I get caught up in thinking that I need to do it all, and do it all perfectly, or it won’t amount to anything. I don’t leave room for others to add their unique ingredients.

I make the mistake of thinking that because all I have to offer today is the crackers, it’s not enough. Sometimes crackers is enough. In fact, it might be the only thing missing.

Cell phones and dead spots

Tomb

Do you remember that commercial for a cell phone carrier that involved a man walking a few steps and then stopping and asking: Can you hear me now? The idea was that there are dead spots around us and we need to locate and fix them.

In a sense, the commercial is also parable. If we’re honest, each of us has dead spots, too. And like the fellow walking around the countryside looking for better connections, we need to locate our dead spots and let some life back into them.

We all could use a little more life, if you know what I mean.

Sometimes life itself feels pretty bleak. Divorce numbs us. A spouse or a child or a parent dies and it’s as though Life and Love have left our souls and taken up residence somewhere over the rainbow. Toxic chemicals go to work at killing the cancer cells, and our bodies feel like a battleground and a tomb.

Then there are the small, daily dead spots that we all develop. The places inside of us that we wall off out of fear and anxiety. We won’t let people in or take the risk of letting our true selves out. Instead of connecting with others, we find a dark space and roll a rock in front of the entrance for protection.

And parts of us begin to decay and die.

We see this happening in our politics right now, don’t we? All the harrumphing about building walls and pushing others away because we’re afraid of them and we don’t like them. We long to hide inside a heavily-armed fortress, one that’s more of a tomb than a home.

A collective dead spot.

We all have dead spots. We carve them a bit deeper every time we make a choice driven by fear and despair and hatred. We settle into our dead spaces and get comfortable. Nothing can hurt me now, right? We even become so accustomed to the stench of decay that we ignore what the smell is trying to tell us.

Something is dying. Parts of us are dying.

But here’s the fantastic thing: We’re never trapped inside our tombs. Even when we’ve rolled a heavy stone across the entrance, there’s always Someone relentlessly pushing the stone away and inviting us to step out of the putrid air and come alive again.

Death-and-resurrection is our daily experience.

The Giver of Life loves us enough to let us choose. And often, we choose darkness and dead spots. We let our fears seal us off from each other and from love. But the Giver also loves us too much to let us stay in those deathly places.

Instead, Someone is relentlessly rolling away our stones and inviting us to step outside, feel the sunlight, hear the music, and take the risk of joining in the great party. We’re encouraged to dance with those whom we fear, to love those whom we dislike, to heal those decayed parts of ourselves.

To be resurrected.

It’s OK that we’re still broken in many ways. We might be covered with dried blood and sweat. Unsteady and unsure. Doubting and wondering. But all we need to do is take that first shaky step out of the darkness and head toward the music and the bright party lights.

It’s OK if we’re not in a party mood. We don’t have to feel festive. We can sit in a corner and keep to ourselves for a while as the music plays and people dance around us. We might even notice Someone sitting next to us who is eager to hold our hand and hear our story.

Eventually, we recognize that we’re hungry and there’s all of this amazing food and drink available to us. And who knows, maybe we even get a little energy back and we feel like dancing with another grimy soul who has just left their own tomb. We summon the courage to extend a hand to someone whom we once feared, acknowledging that we’re all suitable dance partners at this party.

Once dead, but now alive again.