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.

Is she Slovak? A tale as old as time …

Walls3

I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood, the grandchild of Slovak immigrants. When I started dating, I got asked a question: “Is she Slovak?”

That sounds odd, but it makes sense. Immigrants cherished their cultures and traditions. Their food, their language, their polkas – all were a source of comfort in the new world.

They wanted their traditions to persist and thrive, so they thought it important for Slovaks to stay with Slovaks. And Italians with Italians. And Hungarians with Hungarians. And the Polish with the Polish.

And so on, with so on.

Other relatives had very different question when they heard I was dating. They’d ask: “Do you like her?”

Such different approaches to relationship within one family!

It’s a tale as old as time: Is relationship about love primarily, or about something else? The two approaches have been in a constant tug throughout human history.

Although we enjoy fairy tales about love overcoming great obstacles, in reality the other viewpoint has carried the day most often. In real life, lowly Cinderella isn’t invited to dance with a prince. And Beauty can’t love the Beast.

This month highlights that tug again: Is relationship primarily about love or something else?

Beauty isn’t allowed to love the Beast

Fifty years ago this month, the Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriage. Two years ago this month, the court ruled for marriage equality.

We saw that clash of ideas clearly defined in the marriage equality ruling. The majority opinion by Justice Kennedy noted that marriage is an enduring bond that brings people into a deeper intimacy and spirituality.

As part of the dissent, Justice Scalia ridiculed the talk of intimacy and spirituality. He wrote that freedom doesn’t encompass spirituality, and that intimacy is “abridged rather than expanded by marriage.”

Well, what a romantic, huh? In his view, love is more of a prison. And the other dissenting justices argued that law takes precedence over love.

It’s understandable why there would be such a backlash against putting love first in relationship. It shakes things up.

For most of human history, love hasn’t been the essential element in the relationship equation. Women have been treated more as property than persons, unable even to choose their spouse. Royalty couldn’t marry a commoner. Interfaith marriages were opposed by religions. People of different races or ethnic backgrounds met resistance. Gay and transgender people were barred.

Relationships were seen as a way to keep people in their assigned places. Everything else was secondary.

What’s love got to do with it? Well, actually: Love has everything to do with it! Or at least it should.

Love is the starting point for every meaningful human endeavor, the heart of anything truly spiritual and God-filled. Without it, our lives and our relationships become empty voids.

What’s love got to do with it?

As Paul puts it in the familiar passage from Corinthians that’s used at many marriages: We can be the most religious, most amazing, most advanced human being ever but if love isn’t the basis of all that we do, then none of it means anything.

Our lack of love doesn’t diminish our faith and actions; it renders them totally meaningless. And that goes especially for relationship.

Of course, Paul got his ideas from a rabbi who was warned by religious leaders to avoid having relationships with certain kinds people — Samaritans, Romans, Gentiles, tax collectors, fishermen, women, lepers, the poor, the needy, the sick, and on and on. Jesus’ response was to seek out those very people for loving, healing relationship.

He said that love and love alone fulfills the law, not anything else. And his followers must live by the same guideline. Their love must transcend and topple all barriers and limitations.

His love-first approach wasn’t popular then or now. Let’s face it: It’s more comfortable and convenient to make relationship about something else. And we all have a problem with love and relationship. Our fears, our insecurities and our self-doubt get in the way. Our selfishness and our egos get confronted and directly challenged.

Who really wants that???

But here’s the flip side: Loving relationships take us to places that we can’t go by ourselves. Here’s where I strongly disagree with Justice Scalia: Loving relationships aren’t prisons. Rather, love alone frees us from the prison of our insecurities and our fear and our shame and our self-absorption.

Only love can do that

And this goes not only for our most intimate relationships, but for all of them. It includes every encounter with another person at home, at work, in our faith community, on the street, on social media.

So this is a fitting time to recommit ourselves to making love the starting point and the reason for all our relationships. Let’s ask ourselves the question: What’s the loving thing to do right now? And then let’s try our best to do it.

Let’s make love the measure of all that we do. Love and love alone.

A chameleon’s journey

Chameleon

Once upon a time, a young chameleon lived in a lush, green forest. The chameleon was amazed by how its skin could change colors, a way of adapting to the temperature or displaying its mood.

Also, the changing colors had a secondary benefit, helping it blend in with its surroundings.

The chameleon loved to climb high into the trees and look out at the rest of the world. It could see a blue river, a brown field, an outcropping of red-tinged rocks. The chameleon longed to leave the forest and visit those places, to experience more of the world.

But the chameleon’s elders warned: “Don’t even think it! You must live your entire life here in these trees. Your skin cannot change enough to help you adapt to those other environments. If you leave the forest, your color will give you away. Bad things will happen. It’s too dangerous! Stay where it’s green.”

The chameleon listened to their wisdom, but longed for something more – it wanted a life bigger than a tree branch. One day, it found the courage to take the risk.

So, it set off. As it left the forest’s greenery, the chameleon felt afraid. It wondered how much its skin would be able to change and adapt to the new landscapes and environments. It wondered if those warnings were accurate.

All very good

An amazing and unexpected thing happened. The chameleon found that its skin was able to change in unexpected ways, adapting to all sorts of new surroundings. Nobody had told the chameleon that would happen!

The chameleon realized that it had been taught things that simply weren’t true. Green isn’t the only good color for chameleons. Forests aren’t the only safe places. They can change into many colors and prosper in many different hues.

And it’s all very good.

The chameleon went on a long journey and experienced the world’s incredible diversity. Along the way, it encountered other chameleons that could change into yet different colors from its own.

But these others believed that their colors were the only ones possible or desirable. The chameleon would respond by describing its experience of how color is almost infinitely changeable and chameleons are incredibly adaptable.

The others refused to believe it.

“That’s not how we are made,” the other chameleons would say.

No matter how much the chameleon tried to convince them, they were set in their ways and in their beliefs. They would stay where they were and experience none of the greater world. They would not meet any other chameleons.

Missing the miracle

In fact, some argued that if other chameleons could change into colors other than their own, they wouldn’t be proper chameleons. They would be considered unnatural and should be shunned.

This made the chameleon very sad. It realized the others would spend their precious lives missing out on all the beauty and diversity around them.

Also, they would never understand what makes chameleons so unique and amazing. They would never fully realize how chameleons can come in all sorts of colors.

They would never know the miracle of how much they can change.

No going back

moving-forward

With all that’s happened in 2016 – especially during the last two months — a lot of people are ready to say good riddance and let’s move on to a new year. One that hopefully won’t be so sad and discouraging.

We’re ready for change.

Well, kind of. Well, not really.

Isn’t it interesting how we have this love-hate relationship with change? We crave change in some aspects of our lives, and we do everything we can to block it in other areas.

None of us is totally comfortable with change, which is kind of surprising in a way, seeing as how it’s one of defining human and divine qualities. Change is deeply within us and all around us, who we are and what we’re about.

Our lives begin when two cells meet, create something new and spark a lifelong process of change. Even now, countless cells in our bodies are dying and being replaced by new ones. At our deepest level, we are constantly changing.

All around us and within us

We grow and develop mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And our lives play out in a world that’s also immersed in nonstop change. Life is born and dies and is born again, seasons come and go, our planet zooms through space without pausing for an instant.

Nothing stands still. Ever.

Each of us is a little vessel of change.

Given how change is woven into our very fiber, you might think that we would be a little bit better at accepting and handling it. We all know people who hate change of any sort, and others who crave change and get quickly bored with repetition. I’m guessing that most of us are somewhere closer to the middle of the continuum.

We like new gadgets and changes that make parts of our lives easier. We also have routines that are designed to create a comfort zone and limit change.

Many people resist change when it comes to how they act and think. That’s a tough one for all of us. Change always starts with open-minded questions: Why am I doing this? Can I do it differently and better? What am I missing? How are others doing it? What can I learn from all of this?

Such questions make us uncomfortable. We’re tempted to keep doing things the same way – our way – and pretend there’s no other way. Our minds become closed doors that keep everything in place and rule out any growth.

No going back

We might even fantasize about going back to sometime in the past – the “good old days” – when people who thought like me enjoyed more prominence and never had their ideas questioned. A time when we weren’t challenged to adapt to all the change that is the nature of life.

Of course, those olden times didn’t really exist the way we imagine them. Change has always been a constant. We really can’t freeze ourselves in time.

And the really sad part is that when we try to stay stuck in the past, we become an acorn that’s never planted. Our hard, impenetrable shell prevents us from becoming what we’re meant to evolve into.

We never grow.

Sadly, much of what passes for religion has become this way – heads in the past, resistant to change, devoid of the growth that is the signature of Life. So many “religious” people have abandoned a core trait of spirituality: Openness to a Creator who makes all things new every day and wants to transform each of us a little bit more each day.

Too bad. They’re missing out on what life and love are all about. But they always have the chance to change, if they wish. That’s the great part of change – it’s always there to be celebrated and lived, even if we’ve wasted a lot of time trying to resist its all-inclusive embrace.

A New Year’s wish

So, in the coming year, may you experience many amazing changes.

May you have some new insights each day. May you grow into someone even more beautiful than you already are. Maybe your thoughts and your attitudes and your spirit be touched and transformed by Love.

May you be planted anew in some ways and sprout from the warm ground and reach up to the beautiful sky. May you be watered by all the change around you. May you bloom for all to see.

May you become wiser, more loving, more at peace.

May you change the world for the better.

The subversive manger scene

manger-scene

Growing up Catholic, I was fond of seeing the manger scenes that populated my home, my church, and my neighborhood each December. I loved the serene figures and the cuddly animals and the strange visitors.

Still do.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become better at noticing not only the feel-good side of the manger, but the radical side, too. And that part gives me pause. We all have a long way to grow into making the Christmas story our own.

The manger is not only a reminder that God is with us, but a challenge to live in a way that brings God more fully and radically into our world.

The Christmas story is a subversive story. It erases those lines we draw between ourselves and others, and it turns our values and our ways of thinking upside-down.

A subversive story

For starters, the story begins with an angel sent not to a man, but to a woman to get her approval to make the story happen. It’s Mary who gets to decide – all by herself – whether the Jesus story will unfold. Her “let it be” makes everything possible.

And women are in leading roles as the story goes forward, too, which is a stark contrast to much of the religion and tradition of that time –and our time, too. It’s Mary who nudges her son out of the nest at the wedding feast and gets his public ministry started.

And the story portrays Jesus repeatedly and unapologetically stepping over the gender lines that existed in his time and in ours, in his religion and in ours, too. The story of Martha and Mary – where a different Mary sits at his feet, a place reserved for men, and Jesus encourages it – erases the lines that we draw even today.

It’s just the start of the subversive message.

The Christmas story also warns us never to think that our theology or our religion or our country is the only one that matters. The magi show up – visitors from different lands, different cultures, different religions – and are welcomed and given an equal place in the subversive story.

Think your religion or your race or your nation is the only one that should be front-and-center? Think again.

Turns our values inside-out

Perhaps the most radical line that gets erased is the one between rich and poor, important and lowly. The manger reminds us of a baby born in the humblest setting to poor parents from a backwater community. He’s not born in a castle or surrounded by royalty and privilege. He’s important not because of what he has or where he lives, but because of how he brings love and healing and reconciliation into the world.

Same with us.

One of the most shocking moments in our political season came last May when the man who is now president-elect declared during a speech in Bismark that “you have to be wealthy in order to be great, I’m sorry to say it.” What was equally shocking was the lack of pushback by self-styled religious people.

Let’s face it: We worship the rich and powerful.

The manger says otherwise.

The Christmas story is a direct assault upon how we perceive importance. It challenges the notion – then and now – that the powerful and wealthy deserve their privilege, and we should all strive to be like them. And the poor and the homeless and the refugees don’t matter – they’re slackers anyway.

Maybe that’s why in the Christmas story, the actual king wants Jesus dead. This baby will spend his life challenging the king’s values system. Woe to the rich. Blessed are the poor. The first are last, and the last are first. The ones whom we consider the least are the greatest, and the ones who consider themselves great are actually the least-useful in bringing God’s unconditional love and compassion and healing into the world.

This Christmas story is meant to turn our world inside-out. And so are we.

Hear the angels’ unsettling song

So when we see the manger, does it jolt us a bit? It should. It’s meant to, this sight of poor refugee parents and a humbly-born baby surrounded by dirty shepherds and visitors from other religions and races and cultures.

The manger shows us a world far different than our own, one that we’re being summoned to help create with unconditional love and inclusion.

So, what about it? Do we hear the angels’ unsettling song? Do we accept their invitation to come to the manger and take our place in its revolutionary story?

Are we committed to erasing lines and spreading the message of peace on earth and goodwill to everyone equally?

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.

Come out, come out, wherever we are

Locked door 3

Several years ago, I was waiting to board a plane when a group of men from Afghanistan entered the gate area. They were dressed in traditional garb; some spoke a little English. Two American guides explained that they were engineers on a tour of U.S. companies as part of a professional program.

The seat next to me was open. I motioned to one of the engineers that he was welcomed to sit. He joined me and we made small talk — not a whole lot, given the language barrier. I asked if he had a big family. He said yes, adding that his wife and two of his children had been killed by a bomb blast on a street.

Can you even imagine?

He asked about my family. I told him I had two teenagers.

“Ah,” he said, his face lighting up. “Teenagers!!!”

He knew. Parenting teenagers is a universal experience.

When it was time to board, he shook my hand warmly and repeatedly, wishing me a safe trip. And off we went, thankful for this encounter with someone from half a world away. For a chance to be reminded that we’re not all that different.

I came away thinking: We need more of this.

And why are we so utterly terrified of it?

I’m sometimes overwhelmed by how people are so afraid of anyone who’s different from them – different religion, different country, different sex, different age group, different sexual orientation, different political party. We pull away from them and look down on them.

We’re so afraid of making contact and realizing we’re all the same in the ways that matter. We don’t even see what our fear of each other is doing to our world and to ourselves.

Refugees? Keep ‘em over there. Mexicans? Keep ‘em out. Immigrants? Send ‘em back. Muslims? Keep an eye on ‘em. Women and minorities? Keep ‘em in their place. Poor people? Keep telling ‘em to get jobs. Gay people? Keep ‘em away from me. The person bleeding by the side of the road just like in the parable? Keep walking right past ‘em, just like in the parable.

Whatever you do, don’t stop and make eye contact. Don’t actually sit and talk. Don’t give them a chance to tell you about themselves and their lives. Don’t open up to them in any way. Instead, live behind locked doors and closed minds because, well, you feel safer that way.

No love is given or received. We even lose our understanding of what it means to love one another.

We’re so afraid of each other that we give up on the idea of getting along and instead build more bombs and buy more guns. We devise “religious liberty” exceptions to laws – you don’t have to bake a cake for anyone that makes you uncomfortable.

We’re afraid of getting close to others whom we deem inadequate – unlike our perfect selves. We worry that if we get to know them, we might realize we’re more like them than not. And then our whole self-righteous world will be turned upside-down.

We’ve become like Jesus’ hiding-in-the-closet followers.

You know how the story goes. After Jesus’ execution, his friends are so terrified that they hide in a room behind a locked door. The only ones allowed in are those who believe like them, those who are part of the club. And, as the story goes, Jesus barges through their locked door and tells it like it is.

He says: Stop being so darn afraid!

You simply cannot stay in your little room – physically and theologically — and hide from people who believe differently and live differently. You have to leave this place and go out and meet them, talk to them, listen to them, serve them, take care of them, meet their needs, and love them unconditionally. Even if it means you get hurt in the process.

And in the process, you and they are going to be changed. Grace and salvation and transformation will take place, right there inside of you and them.

Are we willing to do it?

Will we sit and listen to a refugee mother talk about her family’s horrific life in her war-torn country, and realize we’re no longer afraid of her? Will we talk to the gay couple that needs a cake and hear their love story, and feel a bond because it reminds us of our own love story? Will we look into the eyes with the homeless person begging just outside our car window and see another human being in pain, and suddenly feel an urge to help them?

Will we make ourselves divinely vulnerable?

In that moment, we reach beyond our fear. We’re finally freed by love. No longer hiding in a tiny room behind a locked door.

That. We all need more of that.