It’s not about deserving, it’s about …

Wonder Woman

My favorite scene in the movie “Wonder Woman” is near the end when she has her revelation. She recognizes that each person is a mix of ugliness and beauty — always have been, always will be.

Now that she sees us as we really are, Ares suggest that Wonder Woman should simply ignore us humans because we’re flawed and don’t “deserve” her care.

“It’s not about ‘deserve,’” she responds firmly. “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”

I thought about that line when I read a Washington Post story recently. The headline caught my eye: “Christians are more than twice as likely to blame a person’s poverty on lack of effort.”

Sadly, I wasn’t surprised. We’ve heard that a lot lately. Many self-styled Christians have become expert at justifying why they totally ignore Jesus’ life and his teachings.

I believe in love

They recognize that Jesus commands us to be passionate about the poor – that’s unavoidable. But they try to create a way around the command by suggesting that poor people aren’t really poor, they’re simply lazy, so we can ignore them.

They believe that poor people don’t deserve our compassion.

Or they suggest that Jesus’ passion for the needy is a personal mandate that doesn’t apply to anything we do collectively. So, it’s OK to exclude Jesus’ values from our politics, our government, our economy, our business, our society, and yes, even our religion.

Instead, we confine Jesus’ message to such a small part of our lives that it’s effectively neutered. We live by opposite values – self-importance, money, power, privilege. And we call it Christian.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying this to judge, but to challenge an attitude that’s in you and me. We all are tempted to think that we “deserve” what we have and they “deserve” their plight. Jesus challenges that attitude directly and unreservedly.

Instead of deciding that a person is bleeding by the side of the road because they made a bad choice, we put all judgment aside and stop and do everything we can to help.

It’s not about who’s made better choices. It’s about what we can do to help someone else.

Jesus reminds us repeatedly: That’s what you need to work on. Take the plank out of your own eye – it’s a barrier to love. Stop thinking that you can play God – you’re not. Stop judging who is “worthy” and who isn’t.

Instead, just love.

Love never judges whether someone deserves our compassion. It responds the way the father treats the returning prodigal son – he’s deemed totally worthy of a hug and a party no matter what bad choices he’s made.

We need to be like the father.

Just love

When we see a hungry person, we feed them and spend time with them. We visit someone in prison without judging why they are there; rather, we sit and listen and learn about them.

And those moments of unreserved giving change us. We begin to see things differently. We understand that our judgments were wrong. We become more loving.

We gain a deeper appreciation of the message that we must wash the feet of everyone – yes, including the ones who would make horrible decisions and betray or deny us. They need our love, too.

Everyone deserves our love, especially those whom the “religious” people deem unworthy — tax collectors, Samaritans, lepers, the homeless, the beggars, the sick, the mentally ill, the despairing.

Love them because that’s what grace is about. None of us deserves grace to any degree, but all of us receive it in abundance every day, no questions asked.

Let’s choose to believe in love.

A mom’s packet of hot chocolate

hot-chocolate4

Many churches use the same readings each Sunday as a sign of unity. The one chosen for Mother’s Day is unintentionally perfect. It’s from John, the part where Jesus is praying for his dear friends at the last supper.

What does he pray for them to be? Great preachers? Saintly saints? Perfect people? Nope. He prays that they will be one – one with each other, one with God.

Sounds like something my mother used to say, although she used different words for it.

Mom didn’t want anyone thinking of her as a saint, though that’s just a matter of definition. She did her best to love four kids and teach us lessons that would get us through life, which is pretty saintly in my book.

One lesson: Life is difficult at times, and you just have to get through it by leaning on God and those who love you. That approach got her through a lot.

It got her through raising four kids and making another trip to the emergency room for stitches because one of us had done something stupid yet again. It got her through my dad’s drinking – thank God for AA. It got her through the multiple sclerosis that started crippling her legs in her 40s. It got her through her stroke at age 73 and her nine months in a nursing home before her death.

It got me through all of that and more.

Another lesson from mom is that we need to always be kind and looking for ways to give to others. She drove that lesson home during her nine months in the nursing home.

There’s always something to give

The stroke paralyzed her right side, yet she still found creative ways to give. She ordered a packet of hot chocolate with every meal even though she didn’t drink it – coffee was her thing. Instead, she gave the hot chocolate packets to my sister as a gift from grandma to her two young boys.

That’s really sweet, isn’t it? Also, very generous. Do the math. Three packets of hot chocolate a day, seven days a week, nine months in the nursing home – that’s a lot of hot chocolate. It quickly overran my sister’s food pantry. She farmed it out to the rest of us.

When my mom died, I gave the eulogy and told the pallbearers that if the casket felt a lot heavier on one side, it was because we gave some of the hot chocolate back. (Just kidding!)

I’ve kept one packet – the one pictured above. It rests on a shelf above my computer and reminds me every day that I need to find ways to give of myself to others.

There’s another lesson from mom that ties in with the assigned reading for Sunday. In the gospel passage, Jesus prays that his dear friends would live as one. Mom taught us the same thing, though she put it a different way. Her expression was: Knock it off!

Treat everyone like family

She said that a lot – more than she wanted. She’d say it when my brothers and I were poking each other in the back seat of the car. She’d say it when we’d pass the food around the table and one of us would fill our plate to overflowing before others got their portion. She’d say it when we acted like we mattered more than someone else. When we developed an attitude of privilege. When we refused to share.

Knock. It. Off. Act like you are part of this family!

Interestingly, we hear Jesus saying something like that, too. Remember the stories of when he’d come upon the disciples and they’d be arguing over who was the most important in God’s kingdom? And Jesus would say: That’s not how it works. There is no greater or least. Knock it off!

And where do you suppose he learned that from? From his mom, of course. Mary taught him about love and getting along and being family. It’s from her that he learned about our divine Mom.

A love that overflows

A Mom who gives us grace and love so generously each day that it overflows our pantries and needs to be shared. A Mom who wants nothing more than to snatch us up in her arms, make us giggle, run her fingers through our hair, hum us a song, and reassure us that everything is going to be OK because she is with us.

A Mom who says that if you know just one thing about me, know this: I love you, just as you are. Always have, always will. And I’m always here for you. Trust me on that.

And now, go play with your brothers and sisters. All of them. Make sure everyone is treated as an equal. Have fun. And take care of each other.

Be as one. Because that’s what we are.

The cold woman on the street corner

Sign

The woman on the street corner held a cardboard sign asking for money. Her face was weather-beaten after hours of being buffeted by the harsh winter wind. Her knit mittens had holes that left her fingertips exposed.

I felt an urge to help. All I had was a $10 bill. I lowered the car window and handed it to her.

Her eyes flushed with gratitude. She said “Thank you, God bless you!” and grabbed my hand and squeezed. And then she did something that has stuck with me.

The woman kneeled, looked up, made the sign of the cross and mouthed the words “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” She had prayed for someone to help. Without realizing it, I was the answer to her prayer.

Lesson learned.

That’s how the whole prayer thing works, isn’t it? We pray for something, and our answer usually comes in the form of another person’s help. And if we truly believe this whole prayer thing, we must make ourselves available to be the answer to others’ needs.

As Pope Francis puts it, we pray for the hungry and then we feed them. That’s how prayer works.

I know that homelessness is a complicated issue. Some people have mental illness or addictions. Some have just been knocked down by life and need a hand getting up – or, at least, a meal for now. Some have lost all hope and resigned themselves to living on the streets, and they’re hungry.

They need their daily bread, and those of us who have enough are the ones who can share it with them.

That’s how it works

Francis addressed this recently in a magazine interview. He said giving to a person in need is “always right,” and it’s only the start. Francis has spent his life among the poor, and he says we should spend a little time getting to know the person on the street. Look into their eyes. Touch their hand. Give them affirmation of their human dignity.

Remind them that they are loved and lovable children of God.

There’s nothing surprising about Francis’ remarks. He tries to live in the spirit of a Jewish rabbi who said we should be compassionate the way God is compassionate, giving to all who ask, and sharing without judgment or condition.

Which is the opposite of what we hear so often.

A while back, Fox News personality John Stossel dressed as a homeless person and collected donations for an hour. He got $11. And then he shamed those who gave to him.

Stossel put one of the kind people on camera and asked why he responded with compassion. The man said: You looked pretty needy. Stossel portrayed him as a fool, someone who had been duped by the dishonest cable TV person.

He shamed those who gave to him

Stossel then suggested that most homeless people really aren’t needy, but are dishonest like him and should be ignored. And he said we can’t really trust charities, either.

You don’t know how your gift will be used, so don’t give it.

Really?!?! I found his comments abhorrent and sanctimonious.

Let’s be honest: Each of us wastes the greatest and most precious gifts we receive from the Creator. We do it all the time, and then we wish for more.

We waste the gift of time on things that don’t really matter. We waste our money on stuff we don’t really need — all of us. Worst of all, we waste our daily opportunities to grow and bring more love and healing into the world.

And then what happens? God gives us more!

I mean, that’s totally crazy, right? Thank God for that!

The story of the prodigal son takes direct aim on Stossel’s attitude. The younger son totally wastes all that he’s given, yet when he comes home the father neither judges nor punishes him but instead gives him more. The wasteful son gets a huge party. The older son objects: You’re being played for a generous, compassionate fool! This younger son is dishonest. You can’t trust him.

Thank God for that

But none of that matters to the father. The older son doesn’t understand the father’s nature, which is portrayed as God’s nature.

It’s a nature we’re called to live in, too. We’re meant to be kind and generous and compassionate to all, even if the one asking for our help is a dishonest cable TV person wearing a phony beard.

Especially then.

We do it because that’s how God treats you and me every day. We keep wasting, and we keep getting more. More to be shared with everyone.

Filling our bags

trick

Let me take a moment to tell you about my excellent Halloween night.

As 6 o’clock came – the official bewitching hour in my town – the sun was sliding toward the horizon, turning the bottoms of the wispy clouds a gentle pink. It was so warm that trick-or-treaters could avoid wearing jackets.

I set up a chair at the end of my driveway and a small table with my jack-o-lantern and a bowl of candy. I could see the first group of kids making their way down the street, dashing door to door. Their excited, young voices filled the autumn-scented air.

I love Halloween!

A year ago, I missed the chance to give out candy because I was out of town covering a football game. It felt so good to be enjoying All Hallow’s Eve again.

As I waited for the group to reach my house, I watched the sky turn colors and saw a jet fly overhead. Whenever I see a plane, I get a bit distracted. I’m amazed by how those heavy tubes of metal can fly.

I get amazed by us, too.

Remarkable stuff in every way

We do some amazing things, we humans. Consider airplanes, for example. We dig up rocks, melt them down, do some fancy math about air and drag, design wings that fit the formula, and shape melted metal into specific forms. And then, we get inside of them and we fly.

Remarkable stuff, in every way. And so is what happens on Halloween night.

I live in a racially diverse neighborhood. There were black kids and white kids in the same group working their way down my side of the street. Parents and grandparents walked with them, having friendly conversation. Neighbors and strangers, sharing and enjoying each other’s company.

That’s us at our best. Celebrating our sacred humanity.

Sure, it’s amazing when we make planes that fly above the clouds, and rockets that take us to the moon, and drugs that kill diseases, and buildings so tall that they seem to scrape the sky. But we’re at our most amazing when we’re walking together and sharing our humanity.

As I was thinking about all of those things, a couple with a 2-year-old girl dressed in a frog costume approached my house. The girl’s eyes were wide, her gait uncertain. She looked like she was just trying to take it all in. Her parents said it was her first time trick-or-treating.

Anyone who asks, receives

I handed the girl a small bar of chocolate. Her mom told her to say thank you. She muttered “thank you” while inspecting the candy bar. I’m guessing she was trying to wrap her head around this unexpected generosity of a stranger to someone dressed as an amphibian.

Isn’t it wonderful to watch generations pass down this tradition of unconditional giving and unmerited receiving? It renews us and reminds us of our common bond, how each of us is both receiver and giver – not just on Oct. 31, but every day.

The coolest part of Halloween – besides the costumes and the decorations and the pumpkin patches and the corn mazes – is how we celebrate giving with no strings attached. We share with anyone who shows up at our doorstep. Anyone who asks, receives. No one is judged as more deserving or less worthy. Nobody wonders whether the kids have earned their treats.

Everything is freely given. Everyone is accepted and welcomed, regardless whether they’re a cute 2-year-old frog or a teenager with fake blood dripping from a corner of the mouth.

You look great. Here’s a treat. Enjoy.

A bit of grace inside each wrapper

We just give. And along with each small treat, we put a little bit of ourselves into the transaction – a smile, a kind word about the costume, a simple hello to the parents and grandparents.

Us, at our best. Giving the greatest gift that any of us can give – a bit of grace inside each wrapper.

In my experience, people enjoy the giving part so much because they remember the times they’ve been on the receiving end. They know what it’s like to be the young child getting a piece of candy.

Also, they’ve known times throughout their lives when they were running low on joy, love and hope. Maybe food and other things, too. Their bag was pretty much empty. And someone came along and filled it again.

That goes for all of us.

Each day begins with the best gifts simply plopped into our bags – another breath, another heartbeat, another day freely and joyfully given. Then for the rest of the day, it’s our turn to give generously and joyfully. And to receive thankfully and joyfully.

To try to fill everyone’s bag until it’s overflowing.

Nothing but crackers and ketchup

Meatloaf

You know those days when you’re feeling on top of things? You’ve finally gotten a good night’s sleep. The sun is out. You have lots of energy. The inspiration flows. Life just feels so good.

Yeah, those days are pretty cool. And then there are those many other days, like the one I had last Sunday.

I was leading the discussion at our youth group. I decided to talk about discrimination. I brought a photo of women in babushkas so I could tell how I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood where people were very much alike – dressed alike, ate alike, worshiped alike, danced alike – but were fixated on their differences and pushed each other away in many subtle and overt ways.

I also had pictures of signs that were posted in public places throughout our country’s history. Signs saying that black people aren’t wanted here. Or Irish people. Or Catholics. Or women. Or Muslims. Or gays. Or Jews. Or Mexicans. Or refugees. Or … It’s pretty endless, actually. And eye-opening.

All was well with the lesson plan, until I woke up Sunday morning with horrible allergy symptoms. Headache. No voice. Distracted brain. Watery eyes. Misery in every cell of my body. I just wanted to go back to sleep. Let someone else take the kids.

A writer friend of mine has a way of describing those moments and those days. He says in his Boston accent, “I got nothin’ right now.”

Yep. Nothin’. I know that one. On most days, the needle on my inspiration gauge points decidedly more toward nothin’ than overflowing. And it’s easy to think that because I don’t feel on top of the world, I have nothing to give to the world. I just want to pull back the covers and sleep through it.

Can you relate?

Another friend and I were discussing this by email sometime back. She mentioned that we’re all “just bumbling along on our path, doing the best we can with what we have to work with.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I feel like I’m trying to make a meatloaf out of a few crumbled up crackers, water, and a splash of ketchup. And some days, I feel like I have fresh ground beef and onions and a good loaf pan and everything I need to make a pretty good one. And the trick, it seems, is to live in both times with as much self-acceptance and gratitude as I can and trust no matter what the outcome, it’s all good.”

All good. Even when we’ve got nothing but crackers.

Nadia Bolz-Weber describes how she organized a big event at her church and only 26 people showed up, the smallest crowd of the year. She felt like all of her hard work had amounting to nothin’. She was fuming and feeling sorry for herself. And in her self-absorption, she failed to recognize how many people were helped that day, though not in the ways she anticipated.

She had missed it. She forgot that God makes incredible things out of what we consider nothingness – a universe, a sky full of fireflies, you and me.

“I mean, let’s face it,” she writes, “’nothing’ is God’s favorite material to work with. Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as nothing, insignificant and worthless, and says, ‘Ha! Now that I can do something with.’”

Yep. We’ve all experienced how amazing things often come out of what we consider nothing and nowhere. The problem is that we get so full of ourselves that we miss it. For instance, I assume that because my head is on allergy overload that the kids’ program will be a disaster. Because, you see, it’s all about me.

(Since my voice was so scratchy on Sunday, I let them do most of the talking. And it was way better that way. The conversation started with: Why do you think people push others away? “Fear,” they suggested. Why are we afraid of them? “Because we don’t know them.” How do we stop being afraid? “By getting to know them.” Yes. That. And off they went.)

I forget that I’ve still got a lot to give. Even if it’s one kind word spoken between nasal-drip sniffles. Or a half-formed idea from a foggy mind. Or an imperfect gesture from a good heart.

I slip into the arrogance of assuming that I’m the only one involved in this process. There are always many others who have a hand in the recipe. I get caught up in thinking that I need to do it all, and do it all perfectly, or it won’t amount to anything. I don’t leave room for others to add their unique ingredients.

I make the mistake of thinking that because all I have to offer today is the crackers, it’s not enough. Sometimes crackers is enough. In fact, it might be the only thing missing.

Stitches, hot chocolate, and lessons from a mom

hot-chocolate

Many churches use the same readings each Sunday as a sign of unity. The one chosen for Mother’s Day is unintentionally perfect. It’s from John, the part where Jesus is praying for his dear friends at the last supper.

What does he pray for them to be? Great preachers? Saintly saints? Perfect people? Nope. He prays that they will be one – one with each other, one with God.

Sounds like something my mother used to say, although she used different words for it.

Mom didn’t want anyone thinking of her as a saint, though that’s just a matter of definition. She did her best to love four kids and teach us lessons that would get us through life, which is pretty saintly in my book.

One lesson: Life is difficult at times, and you just have to get through it by leaning on Got and those who love you. That approach got her through a lot.

It got her through raising four kids and making another trip to the emergency room for stitches because one of us had done something stupid yet again. It got her through my dad’s drinking – thank God for AA. It got her through the multiple sclerosis that started crippling her legs in her 40s. It got her through her stroke at age 73 and her nine months in a nursing home before her death.

It got me through all of that and more.

Another lesson from mom is that we need to always be kind and looking for ways to give to others. She drove that lesson home during her nine months in the nursing home.

The stroke paralyzed her right side, yet she still found creative ways to give. She ordered a packet of hot chocolate with every meal even though she didn’t drink it – coffee was her thing. Instead, she gave the hot chocolate packets to my sister as a gift from grandma to her two young boys.

That’s really sweet, isn’t it? Also, very generous. Do the math. Three packets of hot chocolate a day, seven days a week, nine months in the nursing home – that’s a lot of hot chocolate. It quickly overran my sister’s food pantry. She farmed it out to the rest of us.

When my mom died, I gave the eulogy and told the pallbearers that if the casket felt a lot heavier on one side, it was because we gave some of the hot chocolate back. (Just kidding!)

The following December, a lady who cut my mom’s hair had two kids who were participating in an outdoor nativity scene at their school. It was cold and they asked for donations of hot chocolate. Perfect! Mom would approve.

There’s another lesson from mom that ties in with the assigned reading for Sunday. In the gospel passage, Jesus prays that his dear friends would live as one. Mom taught us the same thing, though she put it a different way. Her words were: Knock it off!

She said that a lot – more than she wanted. She’d say it when my brothers and I were poking each other in the back seat of the car. She’d say it when we’d pass the food around the table and one of us would fill our plate to overflowing before others got their portion. She’d say it when we acted like we mattered more than someone else. When we developed an attitude of privilege. When we refused to share.

Knock. It. Off. Act like you are part of this family!

Interestingly, we hear Jesus saying something like that, too. Remember the stories of when he’d come upon the disciples and they’d be arguing over who was the most important in God’s kingdom? And Jesus would say: That’s not how it works. There is no greater or least. Knock it off!

And where do you suppose he learned that from? From his mom, of course. Mary taught him about love and getting along and being family. It’s from her that he learned about our divine Mom.

A Mom who gives us grace and love so generously each day that it overflows our pantries and needs to be shared. A Mom who wants nothing more than to snatch us up in her arms, cuddle us, giggle with us, run her fingers through our hair, hum us a song, and reassure us that everything is going to be OK because she is with us.

A Mom who says that if you know just one thing about me, know this: I love you, just as you are. Always have, always will. And I’m always here for you. Trust me on that.

And now, go play with your brothers and sisters. All of them. Make sure everyone is treated as an equal. Have fun. And take care of each other.

Be as one. Because that’s what we are.