Thank you for the lessons in love

Pride flags

A group of 20-somethings lined the curb for the final stretch of my city’s Pride Parade route last weekend. They cheered everyone in the parade and high-fived them.

One young woman in a “Gay Pride” shirt added something. She told each of us: “Thank you!”

I’ve heard that so many times over the years. Many dear friends and strangers alike have said thanks for being an ally and joining in the struggle for equality.

At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond. I’d say something like, “Of course! You’re welcome.” And I knew that my response was totally inadequate.

Or I’d say that I look forward to the day when we no longer need parades of any sort because everyone is treated as an equally beloved and beautiful child of God. But that response also felt inadequate.

In time, I realized what I really wanted and needed to say when someone thanked me. I wanted to say: You’re welcome. And thank you, too.

Thank you!

First, thank you for choosing to be my friend and loving me. That means more than I can even put into words.

And thank you for the many lessons in love that you’ve taught me over the years.

Thank you for teaching me what it means to live courageously and to love courageously, and to recognize God’s presence in all of it.

Thank you for giving me an example of what it means to be graceful in the face of hatred and discrimination. I will never forget that.

Thank you for showing me what it means to respond to hatred with love, time and time again.

Thank you for showing me how to be persistent, even when justice seems so absent and distant – especially when justice is absent and distant.

Love wins. Always does. Always will.

Thank you for reminding me that it’s important to be myself and to celebrate who I am, even when I’m not exactly sure who I am; especially when some others would like me to be something that I’m not.

Thank you for teaching me what it means to live in a way that’s true to myself and my faith.

Thank you for showing me what it means to love when there’s a cost involved, when you know that simply holding someone’s hand could have repercussions and you do it anyway.

And most of all, thank you for being a visible reminder that love wins. Always does. Always will. Sometimes, it just takes a little time.

For all of that, I say: Thank you! And I love you.

And the young girl said: Don’t give up

Jogging

My jogging shirt and shorts were sweat-soaked and clinging. I probably could have stopped and wrung out my wristband. In fact, stopping was what I had in mind as I made my way up the short hill on my evening jog a few nights ago.

It was hot and extremely humid. My legs were pretty well spent. There was so much water in the air that each breath felt a bit like inhaling the whole ocean. And I still had a mile to go before I was back home.

Yeah, I think I’ll stop when I get to the top of the hill and just rest a while before I start up again.

Just then, I noticed three children approaching me on the sidewalk. Two boys, one girl. About 10 years old or so. African-American. They probably lived in the apartment complex right there, one where you don’t live if your family is well-off.

“Hey, how you guys doing?” I said.

“Gooooooooood,” they replied as a group, in the long “oooooo” sound that kids will make when you ask them that question. And then one of the boys asked a question back.

“How you doing?”

Normally I might say “gooood” right back, but at that moment I had to be honest.

“I’m strugglin’!” I said.

They moved aside to share the sidewalk with me. I thanked them. After I’d passed them, I heard one of the boys say to me, “You blazin’!”

I know that the expression has several connotations, but I took it to mean that he thought I was going fast. That made me laugh.

“I’m tryin’!!!!” I said.

And then I heard the girl’s voice call after me.

“Don’t give up!” she said.

Don’t give up. Wow! This young girl tells the plodding 60-year-old guy not to give up. All I could do was smile, turn back over my shoulder and say, “Thank you!!!”

You know those times when someone totally unexpected _ in this case, a group of children _ gives you a lift with their kindness and encouragement? Don’t those moments make you feel good?

We all need encouragement, and I have to admit that I struggle with that in some ways. Often, when I encounter someone who’s struggling with something, I’m not sure what to say. As a writer, I try to find the right word, and words are often so slippery.

Plus, it’s hard to know what to say to someone who is facing something that’s not part of my experience. For instance, feeling trapped inside the cages of racism, sexism, homophobia. Facing ostracism because of your religion or your sexual identity or your ethnic background. Being constantly judged by your looks. Fighting endlessly for your special needs child so they can get the opportunities they deserve.

I hear the daily frustration of those who are still – STILL, can you believe it! – having to push back against hatred and discrimination and indifference. They’re worn out and discouraged. They feel like they’re getting nowhere. They wonder why they should keep trying.

Me? I haven’t had to walk in their shoes; I’ve had the privilege of doing my daily jogs in cushy, comfortable ones.

And then, I meet three children on a sidewalk and they remind me of something important: Encouragement matters, no matter how it’s expressed or who it’s coming from. Sometimes, the few words of a stranger can be as powerful as any spoken by a friend.

A simple hug, a kind word – those make a difference. So does reminding someone that they matter and that their life matters. And yes, it’s important to acknowledge how frustrating it is at times. Then, it’s equally important to remind them that the arc is long, but their hands are bending it.

So keep blazing. Keep blazing those trails in our families and our neighborhoods and our schools and our religions and our cultures and our countries and our various circles of friends, including those on social media. Keep doing it even when we’re out of breath and our legs feel like they’re giving out and our energy needle is getting awfully friendly with the empty mark.

Do it even when we feel like we’re getting nowhere — especially when we feel like we’re getting nowhere.

And if we need to stop for a moment and catch our breath and wring a little sweat from our wristband, that’s cool. Everybody needs to take a step back from time to time and catch their breath before putting one foot in front of the other again.

Remember the young girl’s three powerful words. The ones that helped me make it all the way home without stopping on one hot night. And probably will many more nights, too — more than that girl will ever know.

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.