On the same shelf

Same shelf

Young voices fill the old United Church of Christ building. More than 40 children energetically and noisily move about the basement room that serves as a cafeteria.

It’s another morning at the inner-city church’s summer youth program.

Kids from neighboring families come to the church each morning. Church members and college-age volunteers from AmeriCorps VISTA play with the children, teach them, and remind them that they are loved for who they are.

Then, everyone eats lunch together.

The church’s small kitchen brims with packages of food and all manner of pots, pans and utensils. Shelf space is limited. As you can see from the photo above, the communion cups are stored with the food offered that day.

Food and faith on the same shelf.

That powerful image sticks with me and reminds me that there are two types of religion.

Through us, with us, in us

One type is self-centered and future-oriented. You follow a code of conduct to get some reward when you die. Many Christian churches teach that you don’t get to meet Jesus until you die, and then only if you’ve behaved like a “good Christian.”

And the code-of-conduct for being a “good Christian” varies significantly among denominations and is constantly changing. What was deemed unacceptable yesterday is tolerated today. It’ll change yet again.

Often, these codes of conduct ignore or contradict Jesus’ passionate teachings about how we must treat each other and care for one another, especially for those who are needy, lowly and hurting.

That’s one approach.

Many other faith communities are committed to living the message of incarnation — God feeding, healing and transforming the world through us.

People of incarnation recognize God’s presence through us, with us and in us. They try their best to embody the love, grace, forgiveness, peace and healing that the world so desperately needs.

Through love and love alone

People of incarnation recognize that the kingdom of God isn’t some reward that you get when you die, but a place you can enter now. Your heart is the door. Everyone is invited to enter and enact God’s kingdom through love and love alone.

That part never changes.

The inner-city UCC church has a picture that sums it up. Across the street from the church is its food pantry. There’s a drawing on the wall that shows a line of people waiting to get into such a food pantry.

Waiting in the middle of the line is Jesus.

Churches of incarnation take Jesus seriously when he says he’s right here with us, especially in the poor and the needy. Faith is about recognizing and responding to that presence.

So they respond by feeding the hungry as close family, listening to the troubled and offering help, providing a hug and a moment of hope to someone who’s feeling despair.

Hope, a plate of food, and an experience of God. All coming from the same shelf.

Just blink

Firefly2

Fewer fireflies are taking flight these days. In early June, hundreds would rise slowly from the ground at dusk in my neighborhood and start blinking. Now, there’s not so many of them. Their days among us are starting to run out. It makes me sad.

Fireflies are one of my favorite things in life. Have been for as long as I can remember.

Everyone has their stories of chasing them, clasping them loosely in their hand, then depositing them in a jar to watch them do their magic up-close. I remember summers at a cottage near Youngstown, Ohio where the darkness was so deep and rich and the flash of those bugs so magnificent. They’d rise into the trees and turn them into a Christmas display with their nonstop blinking. We’d temporarily capture them, marvel at them, and then let them go.

Don’t believe in magic? Spend a little time watching fireflies do their thing.

What’s always amazed me was how they produce such beautiful light from their little bug bodies. When I got older and learned the science behind the blinking bugs, they became even more magical.

It was cool to learn about their incredibly complicated lighting-up process, called bioluminescence. How the bugs’ little bodies combine oxygen with calcium, adenosine triphosphate (yes, I’m cutting and pasting now!) and a chemical called luciferin to produce an enzyme that’s luminescent. And they do this without producing any heat whatsoever.

Don’t you wish you could do that?

So, that’s how they blink. But why do they blink? To communicate information, apparently, including their intentions to make baby fireflies. Their blinking patterns attract each other. So yes, the blinking you see is fireflies making sure we will have more fireflies next year. And the next year and the next. The blinking will never end.

Pretty miraculous stuff, all in all. I think fireflies are among the creator’s best work.

Last week, it was especially comforting and encouraging to watch the magical bugs take flight. All of the shootings and bombings and hatred in our world made it feel like a very dark place. And I was reminded that it’s only when the world starts to become really dark that the fireflies recognize that it’s time to come out of hiding and light it up.

A good lesson for you and me, no?

There are a lot of bugs that don’t light up. They do nothing to push back the darkness. And then there are others that transform it by doing what comes naturally to them.

Same with people, too.

We don’t need a search light to counterbalance darkness. No powerful flashlight, no enormous bonfire. Most of us have all that we need right inside of us. We have to recognize it and then have the courage to use it — to blink our blink – and put a little light into our darkening world.

And that, too, is pretty magical.

Just blink.