The risk of being authentic

CHALLENGER EXPLOSION

Some of my friends are recalling what they did at the time of the Challenger disaster — 33 years ago today. I remember it well, and not only because of what happened to the shuttle.

I first saw that horrifying image of Y-shape smoke on a small television screen outside my counselor’s office. It reinforced what Jenny and I had just discussed for 45 minutes.

We’d talked about living authentically, and how there are great rewards – and big risks – when we summon the courage to leave our safe, familiar places.

Jenny specializes in working with adult children of alcoholics. That’s me. When I reached adulthood — well, as much as anyone does — I realized some things weren’t working. Something was missing from my life.

Me. I was missing.

Jenny helped me connect the dots. She helped me to see that the coping strategies I’d used as a child to deal with a challenging situation were getting in the way of living a fuller life.

Me. I was missing.

As a child, I learned not to talk about the craziness engulfing me. And especially not to talk to anyone outside the family about it — their lives were so perfect, it seemed, and they’d think I was so weird, which would make it all worse.

Instead, I put up walls and protected myself from being disappointed. I learned not to expect much. I avoided situations where I could get hurt. I tried to love in limited measure from a safe distance, which never works.

And I dreamed about the day when someone would ride in and save me from all of this. God would wave a divine magic wand, or someone in shining armor would show up and rescue me.

Or, maybe not.

During my talks with Jenny, I learned that each of us has our human baggage to sort out. As we embrace the challenge, we grow and become more comfortable with the process. We figure things out a bit better, we see them from a little clearer perspective.

And slowly, we become more authentic.

Being authentic doesn’t mean being the loudest voice or insisting that we have all the answers and that other people should live our way. That’s not being authentic; that’s being an ass.

It doesn’t mean that we’ll ever fully understand ourselves or why we do some of the things we do. Instead, it’s about choosing to be guided less often by the insecure and scared parts inside each of us.

Being authentic means trying our best to love. We’re at our best and our most authentic when we love.

It means tapping into the kind, compassionate, creative parts and letting them guide our decisions a bit more often. It means choosing to put ourselves into makes us feel the most genuine and the most alive.

It also means learning how to put ourselves a little more fully into our many relationships. It’s about taking the risk of actually loving, which is fulfilling and unsettling and messy and wonderful and confusing and challenging.

To love is to risk. We take a chance whenever we let our love and our passion take us places that we can’t go by ourselves.

To love is to risk

 

We do so knowing that things will sometimes end badly. We‘re going to get hurt, maybe very deeply. We do it anyway. That’s the price of love and authenticity.

Which brings us to the Challenger.

Teacher Christa McAuliffe was on the Challenger. She could have stayed in the safety of her classroom instead of risking outer space. But she was passionate about making this trip, and she followed her passion.

After the disaster, President Reagan said that McAuliffe and the astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

So have we.

By living authentically, we take a risk and accept the challenge of reconstituting our lives when something inevitably fall apart. We put ourselves back on the launch pad, so to speak — still hurting and healing — and we head authentically toward a new place.

A place where we touch the face of God. And where God oh-so-tenderly touches us back.

MLK and dry-as-dust religion

mlk women's march4

Martin Luther King, Jr., sought not only to change society, but to reform religion as well. From the start, he challenged people of faith to recognize the demands of their faith and live them courageously.

He challenges us today.

He reminds us that we can’t call ourselves people of faith if we lack interest in how people are being treated. We can’t be indifferent to the suffering of others and claim that we’re living by the admonition to love one another.

King understood that people of faith are not only obligated to transform their societies through the power of love, they’re in a unique position to do so.

As a young pastor in Montgomery — in the heart of Klan country — MLK noted that so many churches were talking about heaven but ignoring the injustices right outside their doors. He said any religion that’s not concerned with how God’s children are being treated is “a dry-as-dust religion.”

The Civil Rights Movement got its flashpoint when Sunday school teacher Rosa Parks decided faith impelled her to resist an unjust transportation system. Black church leaders used the moment to push for equality for all God’s children.

Many white churches resisted. Years later, when he was imprisoned for a march in Birmingham, MLK wrote his famous letter pushing back against white clergy urging him to be silent and go away.

King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that any church which fails to bring God’s values to bear on conditions in our world “will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning” for contemporary times.

Irrelevant social clubs

King observes how young people in particular were drifting away, their disappointment turning into disgust for what was being passed off as church in so many instances.

He was prophetic.

A half-century later, millions have left churches that feel dry as dust, searching instead for authentic faith communities. They seek the places that are rooted in love and follow the historical summons to care for the needy, welcome the stranger, embrace the refugee, heal the sick, and challenge systems that harm God’s children.

They’ve given up on churches that are fixated on sex and indifferent to injustice. They want nothing to do with places that are invested in liturgy but lacking in love.

Breathe new life into dust

Love is the foundation of all living religion, and it isn’t a feeling or an ideal. It’s a commitment to treat others as ourselves and stand with those who are marginalized.

When we’re animated by such faith, we follow wherever it leads us, even when the path is unpopular, unsettling, uncharted and unsafe.

If our lives aren’t enlivened by such love, then they’re dry as dust. MLK reminds us that when we refuse to stand up for what is right, our lives have essentially ended. If our lives stand for nothing more than self-interest, it’s as though we’re not even here.

This summons to people of faith extends to us today.

Love — the real thing — can breathe new life into any life, society or religion that has become dry as dust. Love and love alone has the power to resurrect.

“With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
— from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Aug. 28, 1963

The power of our words

mlk spotlight

Martin Luther King, Jr., understood the power of words.

He spoke so beautifully and prophetically about his dream of a world in which everyone is treated as an equally beloved child of God. He challenged society to live up to its founding words of equality, liberty and justice for all.

His enduring words reengage us, reorient us and reenergize us in the daily struggle to decide our values and live up to them.

Words matter because they always take on flesh in some form.

Words have the power to inspire us, touch us, and transform us for better or worse, depending upon which words we choose to allow inside of us. They can bring us more peace, love and justice, or they can increase our levels of division, fear and hatred.

In the last few months, we’ve been reminded how easy it is to get sucked into the pool of hateful words.

A man immersed in racist words shot people in a Kentucky grocery store. A man immersed in fearful words sent bombs to people labeled as threats. A man immersed in anti-Semitic words killed people in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Words can inject poison into our veins, or they can be a healing antidote. They can bring illuminating hope, or they can appeal to our darkest instincts.

Words have power

MLK showed us how to change societies in nonviolent ways using nonviolent language. He reminded us that love involves recognizing each person as a child of God and respecting their human dignity, even if they don’t do the same for us.

We can’t return a slur or insult with one of our own. We can’t demean anyone or support those who demean others.

Our aim is never to harm any person, but to challenge their way of thinking and to defend those whom they are hurting. We must disagree and resist without being hateful.

This weekend is a fitting time to remember three important things about words:

First, it’s so very tempting to respond to incendiary, angry words with incendiary and angry language of our own. But when we do that, we’re giving power to the hateful words. We can’t go down that path.

Second, we can harm people with our silence as well as our words. Refusing to stand up against injustice – swallowing our words in the face of something that’s wrong – makes us complicit in the injustice.

Last, we must hold not only ourselves but also our leaders accountable for their words.

Silence can harm too

Religious, political and social leaders all have a “bully pulpit.” Their words are amplified throughout our society and will either elevate it or debase it. Leaders shape attitudes and inspire actions with their spoken and typed words.

When anyone in a leadership role uses language that marginalizes, demonizes or demeans, we must push back strongly, withhold our support, and hold them accountable.

This weekend reminds us how words can lead us forward or hold us back. They can promote goodness or spread darkness. They can inspire a dream or encourage destruction.

The enduring challenge is to choose our words carefully, speak them prophetically and live them courageously.

Grief, joy and a mom’s ceramic reindeer

Rudolph

My mom had multiple sclerosis and was limited to a wheelchair for her last 15 years. When she couldn’t navigate the house anymore, she moved into a retirement apartment and made new friends.

The apartment offered social activities, including a pottery class. My mom joined and made gifts for family and friends. Each Christmas, we’d receive new ornaments and holiday figures.

She made the Rudolph figure above. She was particularly proud of it. She kept it and placed it next to the small tree in her living room each year. When she died, I inherited it. Every Christmas since, I’ve place it next to my tree.

Holding the figure – the same one she held so tightly and painted so carefully – helps me feel connected to her. I sense her continued presence in my life.

It wasn’t always this way.

The first few Christmases after she died were difficult. Hanging her ceramic ornaments on the tree and setting Rudolph next to it made me miss her even more. It was akin to yanking the bandage off a wound that’s just starting to heal.

I felt I’d not only lost her, but Christmas, too.

Several family members and close friends are experiencing that same feeling this holiday season. They’ve lost someone or some important relationship. Entering a new year feels like closing a door behind them.

Those first years are so difficult! The pain can overpower. Joy seems elusive. There’s an overriding sense that things will never be the same, never as good.

All the talk of good cheer can get swallowed in that black hole.

As I gained distance from my mom’s death, the pain slowly subsided and made room for something else. Pain has been replaced by presence.

Pain replaced by presence

Whenever I look at the reindeer figure now, I think of all the holidays when she was in some sort of pain and yet made Christmas special for us. And now we live in her spirit and do the same for each other.

She’s still here in all of this. The circle is unbroken.

Whenever I hold the reindeer figure, I think of how she held it and put so much of herself into it. How she carefully painted the brown eyes, the long lashes and the red nose, trying so hard to get them just right.

And then she looked at it and smiled, the same way I smile when I look at it now. She put herself into that figure the same way she put herself into her family – so much careful work, so much love, so much attention to detail.

Those things never go away. They form a bond can’t be broken.

That is, after all, the Christmas message: Love is strongest of all, always stronger than hate or fear or the thing we call death. Nothing can separate us from powerful love.

Which brings us to joy.

Joy is mentioned a lot during the holiday season – joy to the world — and yet it seems so distant and alien and elusive when we’re feeling grief and emptiness. But joy and sadness aren’t mutually exclusive; they co-exist. They’re partners, in a sense.

As I’ve gotten older and experienced loss, I’ve realized that joy isn’t a feeling. It’s more of a mindset or a lifestyle grounded in the recognition that life and love endure, even when they change forms.

Joy is a close relative of gratitude and appreciation. It encourages us to step back, realize we’re still in good hands, and smile through our watery eyes.

One more thing about joy: It’s not personal, but collective. We create and share joy together.

Love is strongest of all

Joy involves helping each other through our pain. We sit with each other, hold hands, remind each other that we’re never alone. We don’t tell each other to cheer up or smile or be joyful; we simply give each other our presence.

That’s joy at work.

One of my favorite descriptions of this work comes from Francis of Assisi, who reminds us so beautifully and poetically that when we encounter hatred in someone’s heart, we bring love that can transform it.

Where there is doubt, we bring faith. Despair, hope. Darkness, light.

And where there is sadness, joy.

Not a joy that minimizes or ignores the sadness, but a joy that sits down next to it and listens to it. A joy that’s strong enough to help us through those moments and transform them.

A joy that’s expressed through something as simple as holding a hand. Or holding a ceramic reindeer.

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.