Lost in a department store … and life

lost and found

One of my earliest memories involves being lost. I was about 4 years old in a department store with my mom. While I looked at items on a shelf, a group of shoppers came between me and mom.

I couldn’t see her, and I was terrified. I was afraid she’d left me. As I recall, I called out to her.

Mom stepped around the person who was blocking my view and came toward me. It’s OK, she said – I’d never leave you! I was watching you out of the corner of my eye the whole time.

Getting lost is such a universal fear. We dream about getting lost – at school, on campus, at home, at work, in an airport. Those dreams tap into that vulnerable, helpless feeling we experience many times in life.

For instance, we go off to school for the first time and we feel a little lost.

The teenage years – they’re all about feeling lost! We’re creating a separate identity from our parents, but we don’t know yet what that is.

Relationships – even the very best ones – challenge us in ways that make us feel lost at times.

We’re young and trying to choose a path in life and it’s a bit overwhelming, and we feel lost.

A helpless, vulnerable feeling

Parenting is a graduate course in feeling lost. Often, we have no clue what to do next.

We lose a job or have a relationship end or have some health issue, and we feel lost.

We leave the confining theological bubble in which we were raised and start looking for another faith community, but the process is unsettling, and we feel lost.

We put our heart and soul into some project that we’re passionate about and it turns out different than what we wanted, and we feel disappointed and lost.

We’re aging and we see where this is all headed, and we feel lost.

Our parent dies, and we feel totally lost on many levels.

We fall into habits that we know won’t provide the satisfaction and fulfillment we need, and we feel lost.

Getting lost is a common thread in not only our lives but also our faith traditions. Story after story tells of individuals and entire groups getting lost geographically and spiritually.

But our faith traditions also reassure us that in those times of feeling lost, we really aren’t.

God is a passionate finder, a non-stop seeker, determined to be there with us when we feel lost. As the story of the lost son goes, God is scanning the horizon nonstop to catch sight of us, run to us, wrap us in a hug and throw a crazy party that reminds us we’re always rooted in love.

Lost, and now found.

A passionate finder

When I covered the summer Olympic games in Athens in 2004, I wanted to see the Acropolis on my day off. I got a map of the public train system and planned my trip.

I boarded the train a couple blocks from the media village and counted the stops before I had to transfer to the line that would take me to the Acropolis. When I reached the transfer station, I had a problem.

It was a big, bustling station with train platforms all around. I had no idea which one I needed – everything was in Greek. I stood looking at the map in my hands, which was no help.

That “lost” feeling returned.

A middle-aged Greek woman saw my predicament and approached me. She said something I didn’t understand, but I could tell she was trying to help. I pointed to the Acropolis stop on the train map.

“Ah!” she said, smiling. She put her hand on the back of my elbow and gently guided me through the busy station. She walked me up a flight of stairs to an elevated train platform and pointed to the line that would get me where I needed to go.

I said, “Thank you so much!” She said something back, smiled, and went on her way.

I was lost, and now — with her guiding hand — I was found.

Anne Lamott says she doesn’t at all understand the mystery of grace, other than that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it finds us.

Grace is that hand on the back of our elbow guiding us through our current confusion. It gets us where we need to go, even when we don’t know where that is exactly.

It’s also a reminder that when we feel lost and afraid, God is right there, looking out for us and watching us out of the corner of Her eye the whole time.

Every breath we share

BREATH

An oxygen mask helped Wilma Jean take her final breaths in a nursing home room that was festooned with reminders of her life’s passions.

On the wall to her right was a framed photo of her husband of 59 years, smiling gloriously as he crouched to plant a vegetable garden. Small, round photos of her seven children and five grandchildren decorated an adjacent wall.

Wilma Jean’s family held her hand and shared stories of her life. Like all of us, she had discouraging and frustrating times that turned out quite the opposite of what she intended.

What stood out, though, was how her family’s stories were more about something else. They recounted how she spent her life breathing life into everyone and everything around her.

We’re tempted to measure our lives by the number of years between our first breath and our last, but that completely misses the point. What matters – what makes a difference – is what we choose to do with the countless ones in-between.

There’s much more to this breathing thing.

The familiar creation story depicts God exhaling a breath of life into our lungs, sharing so intimately with each of us this divine, animating force that changes forms but never ends.

Breathing life into one another

The story also reminds us that God breathed life not only into us, but into all that’s around us. Plants inhale the carbon dioxide that we exhale, process it, and breathe out oxygen that we then inhale.

This sacred breathing cycle — all breathing together — sustains life.

And here’s the good stuff: From our first gulp of air we not only have the ability to breathe life into our atmosphere, but into each other as well. We can do what God does on a smaller scale, if we so choose, breathing life into others in ways big and small.

At Wilma Jean’s funeral, family members described how she shopped for Christmas gifts year-round so that everyone would have a big, personalized pile when the day came. She wanted everyone to know that they matter.

At an advanced age, she learned to work a computer so she could make individualized cards, another way of reminding everyone how they’re special and loved.

She literally birthed a family-community and breathed life into it continuously with a love that still abides and animates. With every breath they take, she continues to breathe through them, with them and in them.

This circle of life persists, uninterrupted and undiminished.

So, what about us? One of the defining questions for each of our lives is how we use our sacred, God-given breath.

Use each breath wisely and generously

Some people use it primarily on themselves, essentially wasting their breath. Others use it to belittle, bully and harm, wielding it like a storm wind that batters everyone and everything around them. They undermine relationship, family and community.

And then there are those who try their best to breathe life into the world. They become co-creators with God, building families and communities that endure.

None of us does this life-breathing thing perfectly, but that’s OK. What matters is our intention and commitment. There are many ways to do it.

We breathe a little more life into our world every time we plant a vegetable, care for an injured creature, or show a moment’s kindness to another person.

We breathe life into our world when we get involved in a movement to protect nature and nurture people, or when we defend those who are being mistreated or marginalized.

We breath life into our world when we’re committed to the hard work of creating and sustaining families, faith communities and societies.

A good starting point is to ask the One who gave us our first breath to show us how to use all the others wisely and generously, all the way to the time of our last one and beyond.

Let us breathe.

Our beautiful, indivisible home

Earthrise

As Apollo 8 hurtled around the moon on one of its 10 orbits, the astronauts peered through a tiny window and were overwhelmed by something no human had ever seen.

There was Earth, 240,000 miles away — an indescribably beautiful sphere adorned in stunning blue and white and brown hues, sparkling against the inky backdrop of space.

Astronaut William Anders grabbed a camera and snapped one of the most iconic photos in human history, the one shown above that’s now simply known as “Earthrise.”

From their perch in space back in 1968, the three-man crew – Anders, Frank Borman and James Lovell Jr. – beheld a planet that’s both incredible and indivisible. As Borman later put it, “Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don’t show from that distance.”

Many astronauts describe how seeing Earth from space transformed them profoundly. It was a deeply religious experience in the truest sense of the word.

Freed from gravity’s grasp, they also were freed from the delusions that weigh us down here on Earth and distort our vision of our world and each other.

No lines in sight

They had risen above the nationalistic lines, the theological lines, the economic lines and social lines that we invent to keep us apart. They were free to glimpse the planet as it really is.

They marveled at its fragility and magnificence. They recognized our shared home as one unparceled thing.

Edgar Mitchell, who would later become the sixth person to walk on the moon, put it this way: “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.”

Few humans get to circle the globe, but we all have access to the astronauts’ vantage point. We can share their transformative experience on a different scale.

I remember how on my first plane flight, I looked down from my small window and realized I couldn’t identify locations from 30,000 feet. Which state was that below? Which country? What lake was that?

I was struck by how there were no dividing lines on the Earth – they exist only on our hand-drawn maps, in our heads and, to the extent that we permit, within our hearts.

Once we grasp this reality, our outlook changes. We take a deeper interest in nurturing nature, which provides everything on our planet with life and beauty.

We build relationships with those who are different from us in some superficial way — different language, different culture, different religion – and bridge our societies’ artificial divides.

We’re free to do this. Our line-drawing pencils also have fully functioning erasers.

We’re not doomed to repeat this pattern of fighting endlessly over imaginary lines. We don’t have to remain in destructive patterns of carving up the planet and building walls between one another.

We can take a Higher perspective and recognize what’s within plain sight: We’re one family sharing an indivisible home.

An even bigger leap

International Space Station astronaut Karen Nyberg noted that if every person could fly around the world just once, our view of ourselves and our world would change significantly and we’d interact very differently.

Space Shuttle astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz recounted how many astronauts return from space with a feeling that they’re citizens of an entire planet, not just one small corner of it.

Fifty years ago this month, a human being took one small step that was such a giant leap for all of us. It’s long past time that we take an even bigger and more necessary leap.

Step beyond our artificial lines. See our world as the Creator made it – a breathtaking place zooming through the sacredness of space. All aboard share one mutual home.

No lines anywhere in sight.

Measuring sticks for relationship

measuring sticks2

Is she Slovak? After my first date, that’s the question I got from some of my relatives. It wasn’t surprising.

One set of my grandparents immigrated from Czechoslovakia, bringing their customs, traditions and religion to the new world as a source of comfort. To preserve it, immigrants wanted their Slovak kids to marry other Slovak kids and have Slovak babies who would eat pierogi and dance to polkas.

Other relatives reacted much differently to the news I’d been on a date. They’d say, “This girl, what is she like? What do you like about her? Does she make you smile?”

Right away, I learned there were two very different ways to measure relationship. One judges it foremost through cultural norms, while the other sees it primarily through the lens of love.

Unfortunately, the first way has been the most popular.

Throughout history, we’ve used relationship as a means of division, a way of keeping people apart. We’ve decided that these people can’t be with those people. We’ve drawn lines between people we consider acceptable – basically, people like us — and those who are different in some way and thus unacceptable.

It’s a tale as old as time.

Throughout history, people have been told they mustn’t have relationship outside their national, ethnic, social or religious circle. Marriage has been about something other than love primarily.

Relationship holds everything together

For instance, black people and white people in the South couldn’t have any relationship whatsoever when I was growing up — they couldn’t even drink from the same water fountain. States had laws preventing marriage of an interracial couple, even if they loved one another. The same went for gay people until a few years ago.

You’d think that religion, which is meant to bring us together in love, would help erase those lines. Sadly, it’s often been misused to draw them and enforce them.

Jesus lived in a culture full of such lines, and he paid them no attention whatsoever. He ate with people he was told to avoid, healed those he was told to shun, and loved people he was told he must never love in any way.

And he said everyone must do the same.

When the religious line-enforcers complained, he reminded them that love alone fulfills what God wishes from us. To live in God’s spirit means we’re trying to have loving relationship with everyone, including those whom we label our enemies.

He reminded them that this has always been the core of true faith.

The creation stories describe how relationship is part of God’s very nature – and ours, too. We’re made from the earth, and thus in intimate relationship with it. We’re made from each other as well, and thus intimately connected to each other.

The authors of the creation stories had no concept of how the universe works, but science tells us they got the main point right.

We are made of the same stuff as everything else at our elemental and atomic level. A trinity of particles – proton, neutron, electron – clings together in cohesive relationship, forming all that God has created.

All humans are made of the same stuff, too, sharing the same DNA. We’re carbon-based copies of one another, created for intimate relationship with each other.

Relationship holds everything together. As Richard Rohr puts it, “God is love, which means relationship itself.”

Every loving relationship is sacred and blessed

In loving relationship, we make the other’s needs as important as our own. We give them room and encouragement to continuously grow, and we encourage our differences and our diversity.

We lower our protective walls and let the other inside, even though we know that they’ll inevitably hurt us — and we’ll hurt them, too, and forgiveness and healing will be required.

We ask the other person to kindly and patiently challenge us to grow, as we kindly and patiently challenge them as well.

We invite the other into a never-ending conversation in which we share not only the parts of ourselves that make us proud, but also the ones that cause us shame and disappointment.

We pay attention to how we’re treating the rest of nature that holds us in a web of mutuality.

Yes, loving relationship is hard work, but it’s the most necessary work in our lives. It’s where the good stuff happens. It’s how we experience God and ourselves.

Whenever love is present in a relationship, God is present in that relationship, too, and that relationship is holy and sacred and blessed and sanctified.

Loving relationship takes us to a place we can’t go alone – directly and deeply into the heart of God, who is love. Nothing else can.

Waiting to be recognized

Hidden Pictures2

When I was a boy and my parents took me for a doctor or dentist visit, I’d spend my time in the waiting room reading Highlights for Children magazine. The Hidden Pictures page was my favorite.

You might be familiar with it. There’s a drawing with small objects cleverly concealed within the picture. The challenge is to spot them. Some are obvious. Many blend in so well that they’re hard to recognize.

I’d turn the page sideways and upside-down to get a different perspective, free my focus and locate the comb or the toothbrush or the trained seal that was hidden in plain sight.

Finally, I’d see it and be astonished at how many times I’d looked directly at it without recognizing it. How could I have missed it?

The Hidden Picture page became a life lesson for me, reminding me that just because I don’t recognize something right away doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I need to be attentive.

It’s easy to get bogged down in the day-to-dayness of life and fail to recognize all the really good stuff all around me. I shuffle along, putting one foot in front of the other – handle this problem, move onto the next – and I forget to stop, look around and be amazed.

We have to look

Life throws so much at us that it’s easy to lose our focus on what really matters. Our self-immersion produces tunnel vision.

Our eyes pass right over so many moments of grace.

One of religion’s main jobs is to help us see important things that escape our notice. Unfortunately, our actual practice of religion ends up being short-sighted much of the time.

Religion gets co-opted by those who try to limit where and how we can look for God. They tell us to look for the hidden comb, but not the trained seal – keep your eyes away from the trained seal, for God’s sake!

They commit the great sin of trying to prevent us from recognizing the divine presence in everyone and everything. By contrast, religion – the real deal – is about learning to see what’s right in front of our eyes.

We all live with doubt and confusion. We’re looking for something, but we can’t seem to find it even though we have a sense it’s right there.

Often, we fixate on one thing to the exclusion of all else. We’re so intent on finding the canoe that our eyes pass right over the comb and the toothbrush and the needle.

When we obsess on one thing – like, ourselves – we miss out on all the other things that are right there.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can always find what we need, if we look. Seek, and you will find, as the saying goes.

Right in front of us

If we look for good in the overall picture, we’ll find an endless supply of it. If we look for pain and misery, there’s plenty of that, too.

Sometimes we get frustrated at our inability to find something, and we decide there’s no hidden ice cream cone, contrary to what the instructions say. In reality, it’s right there.

Or we fear that being attentive to something in our life is going to challenge us to change, so we pretend not to see it and we turn the page. We all do that, countless times.

Again, the choice is ours.

Even though we never see the entire picture, we can — with a determined, sacred squint – recognize how all our lines intersect. We begin to see our important place in our small portion of the drawing.

That’s how spiritual growth works. With practice, we become better at recognizing things which previously escaped our notice.

In new ways and different forms, we experience the Creator who’s present in every nook and cranny of our daily lives — just like the toothbrush and the canoe and the comb.

Always right there, in front of our eyes, waiting to be recognized.

Overflowing packets of hot chocolate

hot-chocolate hands

While sipping my first cup of black coffee this morning, I thought about my mom and the many other people in my life who have mothered me. I wouldn’t be the person I am without their grace-filled places in my life.

Each of us has so many people who arrive in our lives at the right time and give us what we need at that moment. They show us what it means to love and share. Often, we don’t recognize all of this until much later.

Through their love and their daily example, they become our fixed points in the sky that help us navigate life’s questions and challenges. They nurture us and help us to grow in the ways we need.

Our many moms teach us what it means to be a real, imperfect, passionate, loving person. Even when we tune them out, they keep teaching until the important lessons sink in.

Their lessons often come in small ways that stick with us and shape who we are. For instance, something as small and ordinary as a packet of hot chocolate.

One of my mom’s many lasting lessons – ones she continues teaching me even though she’s moved into the next phase of life – is the necessity of giving even when we have limited resources or abilities.

It’s important to give generously of ourselves. And sometimes, we’ve got to get a little creative.

Always something to give

My family didn’t have a lot of money. No matter. Mom would walk to the Woolworth’s, buy packages of wool, and crochet scarves for us while sitting on the couch watching the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour on television.

Later, when she developed Multiple Sclerosis and moved into an apartment building that could accommodate her wheelchair, she enrolled in a pottery class and made ornaments and figurines that became treasured gifts because they were the work of her hands.

Even in the final 10 months of her life when a severe stroke paralyzed one side of her body and left her confined to a nursing home, she devised a way to give.

Mom started ordering packets of hot chocolate with each meal, which seemed odd at first. She didn’t like hot chocolate – her two main food groups at that point in life were bakery and coffee.

She’d tell the nursing home staff to leave the packets of hot chocolate on her night stand. When my sister visited daily, mom told her to take the packets and give them to her two young boys.

The hot chocolate became her gift to her grandsons. Flat on her back, she reminded us it’s still possible to give.

With the hot chocolate, 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 three packets a day, seven days a week, four weeks a month, going on for months … We’re talking hundreds of packets of hot chocolate!

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

I’ve kept one packet. It rests on the shelf above my computer and re-teaches me her lesson about sharing every day:

hot-chocolate4

We all have so much to share — our time, our energy, our humor, our love, our compassion, our individual talents, our daily cocoa. We’re never lacking in something to give; we just need to pay attention and get a little creative at times.

And ultimately, her lesson is that I and we can be mother figures to many people throughout our lives. No matter our age or our perceived limitations, we always can give people something that will touch their lives profoundly.

Even if all we have to give is a packet of hot chocolate.

Rachel Held Evans and overturned tables

Rachel Held Evans2

If you’re unfamiliar with Rachel Held Evans, you might wonder why there’s been such an outpouring over her death last week.

Rachel wrote beautifully, powerfully and vulnerably about her faith and her struggle to live it. Through her blogs and her books, she became a leading figure in the evangelical world and the progressive Christianity movement.

She caused quite a kerfuffle within evangelical circles. Essentially, Rachel went into the temple of her faith and overturned the tables – not to make a mess, but to create a space for the Spirit to return, reform and renew.

That’s what all prophets and reformers do – create space for something needed and new.

She loved her religious tradition and wouldn’t stay silent as others perverted it into a system of exclusion, marginalization and us-versus-them animosity. She spoke with kindness, wittiness and a wisdom that grew from her openness to ask important questions and seek truer answers.

‘This is my voice’

Many readers found an oasis in her words. Many evangelical leaders bristled not only at her words, but at the fact they were coming from one of their own who had the audacity to focus on things they preferred to hide or blithely explain away.

Also, they had a problem with truth presented from a woman’s perspective.

“I often hear from evangelical leaders, ‘Oh we’re really eager to have more female leaders,’” Rachel said. “I want to say, ‘This is my voice. This is what it sounds like.’”

She explored the fault lines in the Americanized version of Christianity: sexism, racism, patriarchy, nationalism, abortion, sexual abuse, how we treat our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Also, she openly explored her own biases and shortcomings.

What seemed to bother some religious leaders the most was that Rachel did it with an authority that they themselves lacked. Her authority derived from her willingness to first look inside herself and see what needed to be overturned there before trying to help others do the same.

She spoke with the authority of someone who had tasted what it’s like to be on the wrong side of us-versus-them religiosity. In her compassionate words, they heard God’s voice.

She spent most of her adult years trying to give people who are marginalized by religion a place to come and know the One who is at the heart of all true religion.

That’s why there’s been such an outpouring. Rachel made a difference.

May we continue Rachel’s work and share in her courage to overturn tables, especially the ones inside our churches, our religions, our nations and our own hearts.

Safe, loving spaces

 

And, like her, may we continue building true communities of faith. Places where people can come together and openly explore the big questions of life. Places where they feel safe and welcomed in a world where that’s not always so. Places where they are reminded how much they are loved just as they are.

Places like the one Rachel described in her book “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church” about her own faith journey:

“I told them we’re tired of the culture wars, tired of Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power. Millennials want to be known by what we’re for, I said, not just what we’re against. We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith.

“Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. We want to talk about the tough stuff — biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice — but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind, without wearing a mask.”