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.

Choose your dream

Lorraine Motel

A section of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis recalls the lunch counter protests. An old video shows young black people sitting at a counter, being denied service.

A crowd of white people has formed to watch. Young white men begin pushing the protesters. One flings a bottle of sugar on them. Others drag protesters off their stools and begin beating them.

Some white people in the crowd laugh and cheer. Others just watch – it’s difficult to make out their expressions from the grainy images. You can’t tell if they’re horrified or supportive.

In any case, none of them intervenes.

As I watched the video, I wondered: If my white face was in that crowd, how would I have reacted? Would I have intervened? Or would I have just watched and felt bad for the protesters?

Honestly, I probably would have just watched. I would have been too intimidated to speak up in a crowd. And that’s both my problem and my challenge.

I don’t have to play “what-if” and wonder what I might have done then; the challenge is how I react today.

Which dream am I living?

The National Civil Rights Museum is part of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King Jr. sacrificed his life for his dream 50 years ago tomorrow. The many videos and displays remind us that people were forced to choose sides in the civil rights struggle.

Some chose to push back against injustice. Others tried to protect the status quo. Many thought they could just be spectators, watching without getting involved.

That’s not possible, then or now.

King was deeply disappointed with the many white moderates who refused to choose. His Letter from Birmingham Jail was directed to white clergy who wanted him to abandon the march for justice.

King notes that some white moderates agreed with the dream but weren’t willing to embrace it or sacrifice for it. He considered them the “great stumbling block” in to the quest for equality – more than even the overt racists.

The dream is participatory. By refusing to get involved, they were siding with the KKK and the other racists who wanted to block the dream from becoming more real.

King spoke so often and so eloquently about his dream, which is based upon Jesus’ vision of the kingdom. Like Jesus, he worked to make the world more of a place where the needy are cared for, the suffering are healed, and everyone is treated as an equally beloved and beautiful child of God in all respects.

It’s never been a widely popular dream.

Merely watching isn’t an option

Many people dream of a world where people like them enjoy privilege. Those who are different from them — different color, different religion, different nationality, different sex, different sexual preference – are relegated to second-class status. They work hard to preserve a system that favors the rich and the powerful and the privileged.

Each of us must choose which of the dreams will animate our lives. This is no time for standing back and watching.

Moderation isn’t an option.

MLK’s dream endures, but it becomes rooted in our world only to the extent that we are willing to work for it and sacrifice for it – to carry a cross for it.

We’re the ones entrusted with making sure that people are considered not by the color of their skin or any other superficial measure, but by their character and heart.

We’re the ones who are given the sacred work of making sure our divine diversity is respected and encouraged.

We’re the ones who must build a table where all God’s children can sit together and eat in a spirit of mutual acceptance and love.

We’re the ones

Our society has come a long way since King’s assassination on the hotel balcony. There’s much work to be done. Those who have a different dream are out there right now advocating for it – white supremacists speaking up, the KKK and neo-Nazis marching boldly, leaders lauding them as very fine people.

What do we say? Which dream do we choose? How will we sacrifice for it?

Merely watching isn’t an acceptable option.

All the young prophets

MLK women's march3

Watching the huge crowds of people marching worldwide Saturday reminded me of the 1960s, when there were demonstrations for civil rights, women’s rights, an end to a war, the environment, and many other causes.

We’ve come a long way as a society. A lot of progress awaits. In every instance, change arrives in the same way.

It starts with courageous and prophetic people who insist that the status quo is no longer acceptable. We see it in the spirit-filled young people challenging our acceptance of the ongoing slaughter in our society.

Several lines in scripture remind us: “I send you prophets.” We hear that promise fulfilled in the thousands of young voices calling on us to repent of our failure and transform our society.

We’re also reminded that prophets gather a following, but they’re not popular with most people in their societies. They get treated badly by those determined to keep things just as they are.

And when the movement begins to gain traction and it appears that change is occurring – it’s going to be more than just a march or a speech – those invested in the status quo will fight back ruthlessly to protect their privilege and profits.

I send you prophets

But finally, things reach a tipping point. Significant change occurs, and then we stagnate. We find ourselves at a crossroad again. New prophets emerge to lead the next part of the movement.

That’s how the process works. We’ve seen it play out many times and in many ways during the last half-century alone. What’s required now is persistence and faithfulness.

The moral arc is long, but it keeps bending so long as we keep tugging.

We saw this when a young woman in Montgomery, Alabama decided she wasn’t moving to the back of the bus any more – enough was enough. Her courageous determination sparked the Civil Rights Movement, a long struggle that has made much progress but remains a work in progress. The Promised Land hasn’t yet been reached.

We’ve seen generations of courageous women say it’s long past time that they’re treated as equals in society – more than a servant or sex object. We’ve come a long way, with a long way yet to go. The #MeToo movement is just beginning to transform the world in ways no one thought possible even a few months ago.

In a comparatively short time, there’s been great progress in making sure gay people and transgender people are treated as equals.

Bending the arc

We’ve changed how we think about physically and mentally challenged people, finally recognizing them as fully and wonderfully human in every way.

People are working to help the needy, the immigrant, and the refugee receive the respect and the care they deserve as children of God, even as others argue they’re dangerous and lazy and should be ignored.

We’ve seen mothers who lost their children to drunk drivers change an entire culture’s outlook and save many lives despite great opposition from those who wanted things to remain the same.

Movements take time. They have an ebb and flow – two steps forward, one step back. People lose interest or get distracted. Others get tired of struggling. Some insist that a little progress is enough and the movement should stop.

There can be no stopping. When it feels like we’ve hit a wall, we need to remember it’s only temporary so long as we maintain our resolve to keep going.

There will be times when it feels like all the hard work and all the progress have been crushed and buried in a cold, dark tomb covered by a giant rock that no one can roll away.

Let this week remind us that those who are co-workers with God never get buried for long. Someone always rolls the rock away. Love always rises and re-emerges, as strong and as determined as ever.

Let us rise with it, too.

Chocolates and ashes, love and dust

Ash valentines

An older man walked into a local candy store last month and said he wanted a box of chocolates for his wife. He told the store owner which ones she favors – the dark chocolates — and the box was soon filled and wrapped with a red ribbon.

What was the occasion?

The man noticed that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincide this year. He knows how much his wife loves chocolate. He also knows that she gives them up for Lent every year.

He didn’t want her to miss one of her joys. By getting her chocolates early, she could enjoy her treat and give it up for Lent, too.

The man found a creative way to honor the spirit of a day that points us in two directions that aren’t as opposite as we might think.

No better pairing

On the surface, this year’s confluence of chocolates and ashes seems to produce an odd couple. But it’s fitting to have one day of celebrating love in all its forms while also recognizing our mortality.

Love and dust? There’s no better pairing.

The ashes remind us that this phase of life is limited. We all lose sight of how much each day is a precious gift. We fail to see the many possibilities for gratitude, celebration and love that are present each day.

The hearts remind us that love creates us, animates us and sustains us through every one of our limited days. Love gives us this day and all its glorious possibilities. Love is for everyone whose lives we can touch in some way, even strangers a half a world away.

Together, they remind us that we’ve got to decide how we’ll use today. Will we bring more division, pain and indifference into our world? Or will we choose to do all that we can to make the world more as God would have it?

Lent sharpens our focus on what matters. It challenges us to get re-grounded and find creative ways to bring healing and love to others, especially the marginalized and the needy and the victims of abuse.

Lent prompts us to examine what’s getting in the way of giving and receiving love in our lives. It calls out the insecurities and fears that form walls. It challenges our prejudices.

Daily chances to make a difference

Above all, it forces us to see injustice and do something about it; to recognize those who are hurting and find a way to help them heal; to reach out to the outcast and the refugee and invite them to be with us.

We mustn’t waste the daily chances that God provides to make a difference.

Ultimately, Lent encourages us to forge a trail of love through our daily dustiness and to transform our ashy selves with creative acts of compassion. It reminds us that we are physical beings for now — formed in the elements of stardust — but we’ll always be animated by a breath of life and love that wants to guide us.

So, let’s heed the Valentine/Ash reminder. And let’s pray for the faith and the courage to live each day boldly, kindly, and joyfully right up to the day when we exchange our heartbeat for a deeper place in God’s heart, which is love.