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.

A headlight and a voice

headlight3

In the ‘60s, I attended a church that had very little to say about my world. I heard sermons about heaven, but hardly a word from the pulpit about what was happening on Earth.

And a lot was happening.

The Civil Rights Movement was forcing us to have a challenging conversation about equality. So was the women’s rights movement. With cities shrouded in fog and a river catching fire, the environmental movement questioned what we’re doing to God’s creation.

The “sexual revolution” asked whether intimacy is about more than propagating the species. The Vietnam war raised so many troubling questions about the use of power and military might.

With church so hesitant to wade into the subjects of the day, my generation began drifting away and looking for other places that were engaged in discussions about how we treat one another and our planet.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was challenging church to get its act together, get engaged and stop ignoring what was happening right outside its doors.

King told his congregation at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery that “any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.” And the people in the pews who knew oppression first-hand said amen.

Dry-as-dust religion

As the Civil Rights Movement grew and many white churches either ignored or encouraged the deep injustices in our society, King challenged them directly. He lamented that the church was so often a “weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.”

“But the judgment of God is upon the Church as never before,” he wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. “If today’s Church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the 20th Century.

“Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the Church has turned into outright disgust.”

He was prophetic. Millions of people – especially young people – have turned away in disgust at what they’ve seen and heard in organized religion. And who can blame them?

I’m disgusted by much of what’s going on, too. Sexual predators protected and applauded. Women marginalized. Racism ignored and encouraged. Gay and transgender people condemned. People of other faiths attacked. Mulligans granted for unacceptable conduct in exchange for political favor.

But I also know from experience that so many people today yearn for real faith communities — and they do exist.

People want places where they can gather and be transformed by God-filled words about loving each other, healing the broken, caring for the poor and the stranger, and nurturing creation.

They want places where they can raise important questions without being dismissed as lacking faith. They want places where people help one another heal by entering each other’s pain and guiding them through it, not just reciting a prayer for them.

They want places that speak to their world and get engaged in those many important conversations that started in the ‘50s and ‘60s and continue today.

MLK mentioned how “so often, the Church in our struggle has been a tail light rather than a headlight. The Church has so often been an echo rather than a voice.”

Hope and possibility

Many people want faith communities that are prophetic rather than merely partisan. They want a voice reminding everyone that we are all equally beloved children of God and must be treated that way in all respects.

And especially now, people want places that remind them of the reasons for hope.

Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo movement, says, “Christianity is, really, when you take away all the pomp and circumstance, it’s about hope and possibility.”

People need to be shown hope and possibility. They need to be reminded that God always gets the last word, even now. It’s always been that way.

Pharaoh thought he could enslave the Jewish people forever. He was wrong. God had other ideas.

Caesar and his religious minions thought they could kill Jesus, bury his spirit and end his kingdom-of-God-on-earth movement. They were wrong. God had other ideas.

A white man thought he could fire a shot toward a balcony of the Lorraine Motel and kill Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, end his movement and erase his words. He was wrong. God had other ideas.

The political, social and religious leaders of our day who promote division, supremacy and discrimination think they have the power to prevail. They’re wrong, too.

God has other ideas.

So, let’s go work together with God on those other ideas. Let’s be a headlight that shows people a different way. Let’s be a voice that leads people in a different direction.

Separating a firefly from its light

Firefly3

It’s a magical experience watching fireflies rise from the ground at dusk and blink their way high into the trees, performing their light show against the night sky.

When I learned the science behind how the bugs make their light – a process called bioluminescence — it didn’t make them any less magical to me. Rather, my new insights made me appreciate them more.

Understanding the science behind our daily miracles doesn’t make them any less miraculous. It should do the opposite.

This goes for not only blinking bugs but all of creation, including ourselves. Learning about how things work should broaden our appreciation and inspire more awe about the deep sacredness of everything.

Our growing knowledge also should inspire us to find better ways to care for the environment and for each other.

Unfortunately, many people have tried to separate science and the sacred over the centuries. They’ve constructed an imaginary wall between religious belief and scientific method, when in fact the two are meant to work together and lead us forward.

Much of the responsibility for this problem falls upon self-described religious people. Over the centuries, they deemed science a threat rather than an aid.

Meant to work together

They rejected the truth that the universe is billions of years old, the Earth is round, and the sun – not our planet – is the center of the solar system. They insisted people got sick not because of germs and unsanitary practices, but because they were being punished by God.

Science’s discoveries upended those ideas and opened ways for new ones. Religion tried to close the door and cling to old, inaccurate ways of thinking. Religion lost its way.

Science has lost its way as well. In response to the antagonism of religious leaders, many scientists pushed faith away entirely, declaring that it has nothing to say to their pursuit of understanding.

Ironically, science has fallen into the same trap, allowing itself to be twisted and misused by the rich, the powerful and the self-interested. Often, science has cast its lot with those who seek bigger profits at the expense of all else.

Scientists signed on with tobacco companies that would bury any findings about the danger of their products and prevent researchers from speaking out and saving lives. Oil companies use scientists to advance their interests, regardless how the planet is affected.

Science sold its soul to the highest bidder, just as religion sold its soul for a place at the table of power. We need to reform both of them.

Needing each other

Real faith will challenge scientists to work for the good of all people and all creation. Real science will guide our faith into a deeper understanding of creation and ways to serve one another.

We need faith and science unshackled from those who pervert and misuse them. We need an active curiosity about creation and meaningful encounters with the Creator.

Science and religion are complementary, two sides of one thing. Science seeks to understand how creation works. Religion tries to provide an experience of how the creator works.

Both are limited by human understanding – we’ll never fully grasp the universe or the One who made it. In their inexact ways, science and religion are meant to lead the way in bringing us new, helpful insights.

Science without religion? Religion without science? Neither way works. That’s like thinking we can have creation without a creator, God without love, or a firefly without bioluminescent light.

They always go together. We try to separate them at our peril.

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.

Grams’ lesson in persistent love

Grams Hawaii

I was dusting off my annual tribute-to-Grams blog last night when, out of the blue, one of my siblings shared this photo of her on a trip to Hawaii long ago. The image and the coincidence made me smile. These things happen with Grams. She’s persistently present, even now.

We call her Grams, though her name is Ann. Her birthday is today, so everyone in the family will think of her, raise a coffee cup or glass in her honor, and smile. She’s always had a way of making us smile.

She’s made us smile simply by being her funny, feisty, life-loving self, and that’s such a great gift – showing others what it means to have the courage to be.

She’s taught us many important things, too, such as how to appreciate a really good cup of coffee and how to make pierogi from scratch in such a way that they won’t fall apart when you cook them.

And persistence – she’s taught us about persistence.

The courage to be

Her husband died of cancer when they had three young daughters. She had many tough choices to make. Friends and relatives told her to find another husband to support her – that’s what women did back then.

Uh-uh, not Grams. Instead, she found a babysitter and went to work at a business where women weren’t exactly welcomed.

She heard the men’s comments but she didn’t care what they thought – she had a family to support! She did it her way, raising her daughters and building a family that grew with each wedding and each birth.

When I was young, my family went through difficult years. There were moments when Grams would pull me tight and reassure me: “Don’t worry, Joey. It’s going to be all right.” She meant it, and so I believed her. She turned out to be right.

She liked to say that life is too short, so don’t shortchange yourself. Don’t waste it. Keep at it. Treat everyone the way you want to be treated. And when you care about someone, make sure they know it.

Be persistent about life and love.

And she was persistent, all right! When I was away at college and would visit home for a weekend, Grams always called to see how I was doing. She’d invite me over for a cup of coffee. Sadly, I was a busy young person and often turned her down because of plans with friends. She said that was OK. She never sounded disappointed. She just seemed glad that we had talked.

How cool is that?

Grams was persistent, but not insistent. She taught me that important distinction. Love never insists, it just offers, again and again.

Thankfully, I got many more chances to spend time with Grams. We’d get together to celebrate special occasions or just hobnob about old times. No matter what we were doing, she made us know that she was happy to see us. Without even saying it, she reminded us that we were loved.

Grams died in her apartment from a heart attack years ago. As I was driving home from her funeral, I thought about how incredibly blessed I’ve been to have her in my life. And in the years since, there have been many not-so-subtle reminders that she’s still an important part of it.

Persistent presence

Grams occasionally shows up in dreams – mine and other family members’ — with needed guidance. For instance, my sister was taking a nap one afternoon because she’d been up all night with her two sick kids, and Grams showed up in the dream and told her to go pay attention to our mom. My sister knew not to discount a dream with Grams, so she called my brother and they got to my mom’s apartment just as she was having a stroke. It saved her life.

Pretty freaky, huh? But not surprising at all. Not if you know Grams.

Many people have shared similar stories about loved ones showing up in unexpected ways, providing reminders that they’re still dear and not so departed. We don’t understand how it all works exactly, but we know there’s something to it that’s beyond our comprehension.

There’s a line in one of Paul’s letters that describes God’s love as so powerful that nothing can separate us from it, not even death. That’s how love works – it recognizes no barriers or boundaries. I also believe that we can never be separated from the people in our lives who love us so powerfully.

Persistent love would never let a small thing like death get in its way.

Sharing the hot chocolate

hot-chocolate hands

A packet of hot cocoa mix rests on the shelf above my computer, reminding me daily of a lesson my mom taught.

At age 73, she had a stroke that paralyzed her right side. She’d been confined to a wheelchair for many years because of multiple sclerosis. Now she would be in a nursing home for the final 10 months of this phase in her life.

Mom loved to give gifts, even when she was limited in her ability to get around and do things. Living in a retirement apartment, she took a ceramics class and learned how to make seasonal gifts for everyone in the family.

The stroke left her very limited. She still found a way to give.

She started ordering a packet of hot chocolate with every meal, which was quite a surprise to us. She never drank hot chocolate; her two main food groups were bakery and coffee.

She didn’t intend to drink the hot chocolate. Instead, she collected the packets and gave them to my sister to pass along to her two young boys. The hot chocolate became her gift to her grandsons.

Flat on her back, she reminded us it’s always possible to find ways to give. Sometimes, you just need to get a little creative.

With her act of giving, she also taught us that there really is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The nursing home staff learned what she was doing and started bringing extra packets.

Do the math: At least 3 packets a day, 7 days a week, 4 weeks a month, going on for months … We’re talking hundreds of packets of hot chocolate!

Soon, my sister’s food cupboard was overflowing with hot chocolate. Nobody could drink that much! She began farming it out to my brothers and me, and we shared it with others, too.

I kept that one packet. It reminds me daily of the importance of finding ways to give.

hot-chocolate4

We all have so much to share — our time, our energy, our humor, our love, our compassion, our many individual talents. All can be shared in so many ways with so many people, even if we have to get a little creative.

The idea is to keep looking for ways to give, even if the best we can come up with is something the size of a packet.

I’m grateful not only for all that my mom taught me and her ongoing presence in my life, but also for all the other people who have mothered me and taught me so much.

May we live those lessons and share them.

 

Leaving a mark on the worn counter

Arcade restaurant

The blue, tan and pink-trimmed booths hearken to the 1950s, when The Arcade Restaurant in downtown Memphis was renovated after a fire. It’s a cool place because of the history – a Greek immigrant opened the restaurant in 1919, and it’s undergone many renovations over the generations.

There’s a booth by the back door that Elvis favorited – he could slip in and out unobtrusively. A plaque marks the spot. There are black-and-white photos spanning generations.

What caught my eye were the marks on the serving counter.

In front of each stool was a rub mark along the edge of the counter. For generations, people have walked in off the street, sat on a stool, rested their forearms on the counter, and unknowingly rubbed off a little of its laminate.

Every person left a bit of their DNA behind and took a bit of the counter with them. Each one contributed to the mark.

Arcade counter

In our society, we try to keep things nice-looking and new. When a counter gets a bit worn, we replace it. Not the counter at The Arcade, though.

It’s a reminder of how our lives intersect.

I looked at the worn spots and wondered: Who made these marks? Who sat here?

How many children sat on these stools with their parents and shared their first meal at a restaurant, a moment they’ll remember and retell for the rest of their lives?

Or maybe on that stool sat a black person who’d been turned away from lunch counters their entire life, now proudly ordering a cup of coffee that had the sweet taste of equality?

Perhaps the white person sitting next to that proud black person was unhappy over all of this and huffily moved to a different spot or different restaurant.

Maybe those marks in the counter were fashioned by someone on their way home from the hospital after receiving devasting news about a relative. Or maybe by a new parent still feeling that Adrenalin rush on their way home from visiting their son or daughter in the maternity ward.

Maybe all the above.

The marks were worn into the counter by someone who just got a job, and someone who just lost a job. Someone who recently got married, and someone who recently got divorced.

A newcomer to the city feeling homesick as they thought about a similar diner in their old neighborhood. A visitor like me taking it all in with fresh eyes.

So many lives intersected at those places on the counter top.

Rubbing off on each other

I was reminded of that when we paid our check and headed out the door. A few blocks to the west is the Mississippi River, a wide expanse that has deposited many visitors to the restaurant’s doorstep over the century.

Beal Street is only a few blocks away, a place where different musical styles intersected and overlapped and gave birth to many more. So is Sun Studio, where musical pioneers – including Elvis – cut their first record.

The Lorraine Motel is blocks away, too, the place where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated 50 years ago on the balcony outside room 306. So is the church where he gave his final speech on the night before he death, speaking so powerfully about how we need to keep moving toward the promised land.

So much history, so many lives, all intersecting and rubbing against one another – and rubbing off on each other, too.

We tend to forget that last part, how we all influence and are influenced by so many others. How we’re never in our own space alone – we share the places of those who have come before us.

The reminder is right in front of us on the counter.