A hug and a party

Hand holding sun

If you’re familiar with my blog, you know about Jean, one of the people I’ve gotten to know through my work as a hospice volunteer. I’ve written about her a few times.

Jean’s always been one my favorites. She grew up in Maine, swooned over a 6-foot-4 Navy man – love at first sight – got married and raised two children. She loved the Kennedys and asked me to read her books about JFK – her eyesight wasn’t so good anymore.

Her eyes and her heart were failing, but Jean’s mind was sharp. And her kindness was always intact. I’d knock on her door, walk into her nursing home room, and she’d smile and invite me – in her Northeastern accent – to sit down and catch her up on things.

“Give me the good stuff,” she’d say. “I want details!”

Jean was in her 90s. On her birthday, she’d say: “I never thought I’d live this long.” When I turned 60 and had trouble wrapping my head around that number, she started calling me “Mr. Chicken,” as in a spring chicken.

I liked that a lot. I enjoyed walking into her room and hearing her say, “Oh, it’s Mr. Chicken!”

During one of our many rambling conversations, Jean turned very serious and asked me something totally out of the blue: Do I believe in hell?

How do you answer that question? I went with honesty.

No, Jean, I don’t believe in hell — not the way it’s portrayed, anyway. I don’t believe in the Santa Claus version – God’s watching like a peeping Tom, ready to punish us with a lump of everlasting coal if we eat a hot dog on Friday or break some other rule concocted by religious leaders.

No loving parent would do that

I told Jean that I don’t believe in any of that. No loving parent would ever torture their child. And besides, all that hellish stuff we hear isn’t even Biblical. It’s totally un-Jesus-y. He told us that God is a loving parent who wants nothing other than to give us a big hug and an amazing party.

Jean said she didn’t believe in that version of hell, either. As a parent, she didn’t see how any loving parent could ever hurt their child.

So, why was hell on her mind?

Jean came from a strict church background and was taught that if you’re gay, you’re doomed to hell. Her daughter is gay and had recently married her longtime partner. Jean loved them both very deeply. They’re a good match, and it’s obvious that there’s much love between them. Jean was glad her daughter had someone who loved her and made her happy.

So, what’s the issue?

Given her “religious” upbringing, Jean was unsure how God would feel about it. She didn’t think God would hurt her child, but she wasn’t sure. She was losing sleep over it.

Ugh!!! I hate to see people tormented and tortured by all this twisted, warped theology of divine hate and retribution. You want my definition of hell? It’s people spreading that crappy theology.

I asked Jean if she thinks that God is love, and she said yes. I asked if she thinks that God loves her daughter as much as she does, and Jean said even more than she ever could.

So, do you think God blesses their relationship, too? Jean smiled and nodded. It was settled. She decided it was “silly” to even doubt God’s love.

And we never spoke of hell again.

We spoke of other things, of course. We talked about JFK’s affairs. We talked about getting snowed in by Nor’easters in Maine. One time, we got into another “religious” topic – how did people in Jesus’ time trim their fingernails?

We never spoke of hell again

She said it was a “silly” question, but she wanted to know. So, we Googled it on my phone, right there in her room, and got a suitable answer. (If you want to know, you’ll have to Google it for yourself.)

Jean died last month. I was on vacation. I didn’t get to tell her goodbye. At first, that bothered me. Then I realized I was being silly, to use Jean’s word.

An improper sendoff? The God of unending life and unlimited love would never permit such a thing. No goodbye was necessary. Someday there will be a reunion of me and Jean. And I have an idea of how it will go.

She’ll give Mr. Chicken a hug and invite me to join the amazing party. And she’ll want to catch up on things – all the good stuff, you know. In detail, of course. She’ll want all the details.

Sharing the playhouse

Playhouse

My sister had a playhouse in her backyard when her two boys were young. It became a busy place when she hosted a garage sale. Children accompanying their browsing parents would see the playhouse and immediately head for it.

At one point, I saw five children playing together. They were different ages, different sexes, different races. They came from different backgrounds and likely had different religious upbringings. Yet there they were, playing together like one family.

When they looked at each other, they saw a playmate.

In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela notes that children have an innate openness that tends to get closed off as they spend more time in the world.

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” Mandela wrote. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

They saw a playmate

I thought about those five children in the playhouse this weekend when I saw those horrific images of young white men marching for hatred in Charlottesville. They’ve been taught that the playhouse is theirs alone, and only people who have the same skin color belong inside.

By contrast, those five diverse children in the playhouse hadn’t yet absorbed the deep mistrust, the sense of superiority and the scent of hate that’s in our society. They were still able to play together.

When we’re that age, we still see life through fresh eyes. We look beyond the surface and sense the magic. We’re filled with wonder at the small things and the enormous things — a lightning bug blinking, the Big Dipper shining.

As a child, we’re keenly aware that we don’t have all the answers or the whole truth. Instead, we try to learn about people and about life, which is why we ask a lot of questions.

We know our real limitations – small hands have trouble opening a big jar – and we embrace our dependence upon others. We’re not reluctant to ask for help, or to help someone else.

We play with whomever walks into our yard.

As we get older, we lose many of those childlike qualities. We think we have all the answers, so we stop asking questions and getting to know those who are different from us.

Entering God’s playhouse

We lose our ability to marvel at things big and small. We lose our sense of the sacredness in everything and everyone. We pull away from others. We reject our innate interdependence. We fight over who owns what and who gets to be in charge. We make rules for who should be allowed to play and how they can play.

We try to make the playhouse all our own. We condemn, evict and excommunicate anyone who won’t abide by our rules.

Many passages in our religious texts remind us of the need to be childlike. In one favorite scene, Jesus tells a crowd of self-important, judgmental adults that they need to become more like the child they once were.

If we want to enter God’s playhouse, we must do it with a childlike spirit and leave our mistrust and our sense of superiority at the door. We must accept everyone else as an equally beloved playmate.

We must share and trust. We must care for one another. We must see ourselves as a guest inside the God’s space, where the only rule is to love and get along. We must be willing to adapt and learn new ways of playing.

Each of us has to decide if we’re going to enter the house and make new playmates, or if we’re going to stand outside and sulk because people who are different from us are being invited inside, too.

The door is open. The choice is ours. The playhouse of God is on the other side.

I’m right here …

Umbrella

There’s no good day for a funeral, but this one was especially bad. An hours-long downpour had swamped the streets. I wondered how many people would be able to get to the church for Emily’s family.

Her father had died suddenly – one of those moments that suck the life out of you and turn your world upside-down. Her family needed support. And now, rain was coming down in buckets, resulting in road closings.

I arrived at the church and was heartened to see a full parking lot. People scurried inside with umbrellas as shields, determined to comfort Emily and her family.

I’m right here for you, they wanted to say. And nothing was going to stop them.

Inside the church was a long line of people waiting give their love to the family. A friend from my church was with me.

When we reached Emily, I hugged her, held her tightly for a few seconds, and reminded her that we’re all here for her and will help her get through it. She said thanks and blinked back a tear.

My friend then hugged her, held her tightly for a few seconds, and said something humorous. Emily laughed out loud – which was exactly what she needed in that emotional moment.

She got the message: I’m right here for you, in the hug and the reassurance and yes, also in the laugh that you need to get through it. I’m right here.

Where have we heard this before?

I’m right here

The heart of Jesus’ message is that God is always right here, working through us, with us and in us to bring love, compassion and healing into the world.

God isn’t the old, white guy with grim face who lives somewhere in the sky and must be begged for what we need. No. Instead, God is right here, living in us, with us and through us. And when we lose sight of God, that’s where we need to look.

Seek, and you will find. But you have to look in the right place.

Often, I lose sight. My most-asked question for God is: Where are you? I have trouble recognizing God in situations.

While my pot of coffee is brewing in the morning, I get on my news apps and catch up on the world’s happenings. Often, there’s so much craziness that I say to God: Where are you in all of this?

It’s easy to lose the sense of God’s presence during the ordinariness of each day: the avalanche of emails, the challenges of dealing with different personalities, the setbacks and the time wasted getting simple things accomplished.

Where are you in all of that?

Then there are the big moments. Someone dies. A job ends. A child struggles. A medical test comes back positive. A parent seems to be slipping away. A relationship is ruptured.

Where are you?

Through us, with us, in us

It’s comforting to me that Jesus – this person who deeply experienced God’s presence — felt the same way. There’s the passage in two of the gospels where he’s dying and says to God: I feel like you’ve abandoned me. Where are you right now?

And at that moment, there are people who have risked their lives to be with him until the end. He gets his answer in their love and their courage.

I’m right here with you. You are never alone.

When we lose sight of God’s presence, it’s good to remember where to look. We find God right here in the people who parent us, who mentor us, who love us, who nurture us, who challenge us.

Sure, those people do all those things imperfectly, but that’s OK. Imperfection never diminishes the divine presence. The answer is still the same.

I’m right here, giving you what you need. Always.

I’m right here in the warm hand that holds yours when you feel alone, in the arms that enfold you when you need a hug, in the voice that reminds you of your purpose and your calling when you feel confused.

Always

I’m right here in the people trying to make peace amid all the conflict, in the people trying to heal all the hurt, in the people serving the least while those with the most try to get more.

I’m right here in those who treat everyone as an equally beloved and beautiful child of God, reminding them of their infinite worth.

I’m right here. Always.

When we recognize God that way, we see ourselves differently, too. We understand that every encounter is a chance for us to bring God’s loving, compassionate, and healing presence into the world a little more fully.

When someone feels they’ve lost sight of God, they encounter us and come away saying: Oh, there you are!

Away from the abyss

church1

I came across the picture above on the internet. Something about it resonated with me, the way people were falling out of the church and into an abyss.

I held onto the picture, planning to write about how we need to be careful of where we worship because some places lead us not to a higher plane of love and compassion but into the abyss of hatred and self-righteousness.

I worked up an indignation over how so many “Christians” reject anyone who experiences God outside of their tiny theological boxes. How they want legal consent to hatefully shun others in Jesus’ name. How they insist we should turn away refugees – let them die over there, it’s too dangerous to save them over here.

And I just want to say: WTF? What’s That Faith?

A couple of things I saw while driving around recently also got under my skin. First, I came upon a pickup truck toting a trailer that berated everyone on the road who didn’t share their beliefs. On the truck bed was a videoboard playing gruesome scenes of crucifixion. You also notice a U.S. flag, an Israeli flag and a POW flag. Whatever.

church2

A week later, I pulled up behind an SUV with this bumper sticker:

church3

Jesus loves me more? Really??? What in God’s name is going on here? I totally get it why so many people call themselves spiritual but not religious these days.

Oh, and I haven’t even started on the white, evangelical “values voters” who decided to become disciples of someone who has lived an entire lifetime mocking and repudiating their values. The ones who heard him say that he’s the only one who can save them, and they were like: We’re good with that!

Out with the old savior, in with the new.

As you can tell, I’d worked myself into a nice, judgmental mood for an into-the-abyss blog.

And then, I had a come-to-Jesus moment.

A man who is friends with someone in my UCC church contacted me. He said he wanted to talk about God. We met at a Starbucks. He comes from a deeply fundamentalist background. I sensed that he was anxious.

WTF? What’s That Faith?

He started quoting scriptures about judgment and punishment, and I just wanted to get up and leave. But then it occurred to me why he was doing what he was doing. He’s terrified that his friend is going to hell because she belongs to a church that believes God actually loves us.

Fear. I sensed a deep fear in his tone.

He kept going, hoping that if he repeated his Bible verses enough times, he might convert me and then God might accept me and not eternally torture me. He was worried about me, too.

I was touched. And I felt so sad for this kind, caring, anxious man.

It reminded me of something Nadia Bolz-Weber said during her reflection on the parable of the prodigal son – you know, the story of how no matter what we do wrong, we get love and hugs and a party in the end.

Nadia tells how an 82-year-old woman posted a heartbreaking message on her public Facebook page saying that she was afraid of dying because she thought God was angry at her and was going to torture her.

This poor woman’s “religion” had made her terrified of God.

“She’d been so condemned by the bogus reward-and-punishment system of false religion that at the end of her life rather than her faith being a source of comfort for her, it was a source of torment for her,” Nadia says.

How horrible!

I felt the same way sitting in Starbucks across the table from a good man who has been taught that the most God-like people in his life weren’t good enough for God because they didn’t attend his church. He’d been told that God hates most everything about all of us but will grudgingly accept those who get baptized into his denomination. All the others — we get eternally waterboarded.

Can you imagine the anxiety it produced in him? Poor man! I felt so sorry for him.

This poor man!

In that moment, all my indignation – OK, some of my indignation – melted. I saw not a self-righteous person but, instead, a victim who’d been beaten up by his “religion” and left bleeding by the side of the spiritual road.

He didn’t need theological debate. Instead, he needed someone to offer compassion and reassurance and love and healing and peace and hope – all the things that his religion was denying him.

In other words, he needed what religion is supposed to do. It’s supposed to lead us upward to a higher place, directing us to love. Away from the abyss.

I really hope he finds his way up and out. He deserves that grace. As do we all.

___

A link to Nadia’s reflection: http://wp.production.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/files/2016/03/2016-03-06_NBW_HFASS_Podcast_64kbps.mp3

The Parthenon, Skittles, and a Greek woman

candy-bowl

I covered the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. On my day off, I wanted to visit the Parthenon, which took some logistical planning with the public transit system. I don’t know Greek, so I had to study the train map to figure out a travel plan.

What I didn’t plan for, however, was getting to the train station where I needed to transfer lines and then realizing that all the signs were in Greek – duh! I had no idea where to go. I looked at my map and then at the signs and then back at my map, trying to discern which train platform I needed.

I was totally at a loss. And apparently, it showed.

A woman noticed my confusion. She smiled and said something in Greek that I didn’t understand. She didn’t understand my response in English. I pointed to the Acropolis on my train map. She nodded, took me by the arm and walked me all the way across the station to the platform that I needed to catch the correct train. And then she smiled again and walked away.

How very cool, huh? She took the risk of reaching out to a stranger – one from a world away – and helped me get what I needed at that moment.

I thought about the Greek woman the other day when the son of a presidential candidate compared refugees to Skittles. His point was that we should fear those whom we don’t know. We shouldn’t take the risk of helping them because we could get hurt.

Love always involves risk

He’s not the only one saying it. A lot of people fear those who are different from them. They’re afraid to love them because love always, always, always involves taking a risk. Instead, they feel safer cowering behind walls and weapons.

Walled off from others. Walled off from love. Walled off from life itself. Merely existing instead of truly living.

To me, the really sad part is that we hear this talk from many supposedly religious people who really have no excuse for thinking that way. To be led by the spirit of love means that when we see fear and pain and need around us, we head toward it and enter into it freely, risking ourselves to bring hope and healing into the world.

Moving toward instead of running away

That’s the job description. Look it up.

You take the risk of putting yourself into those moments and those lives. You put your hand in the jar even though you don’t know what you’ll pull out. And yes, you do it knowing there will be a price to be paid somewhere along the line.

But you also know that there’s an even greater cost for refusing to stop and help the needy person by the side of the road. When we walk right past, we lose a little bit of what makes us all precious and human and sacred.

Giving in to fear takes us to many dark, ugly places. It’s the incubator for hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia, religious conflict, political wars, and the many other evils in the world. All of them are rooted in a fear of those who are different from us.

The alternative? Label fear for what it is – a vampire that sucks life and love out of us and our world. Recognize that those monsters beneath our beds are ones that we’ve created in our fearful minds. Once we stop fearing them, they vanish.

Fear sucks the life and love out of us and our world

It’s not easy, of course. Fear is always tugging at us, trying to hold us back from truly living and loving — not only loving others, but ourselves, too. In those moments, we have to take a breath and act like the cowardly lion who, though still trembling, marches into the witch’s castle to save someone who needs us.

Even if that person is very different from us.

Leadership? It means showing courage when others insist we need to run and hide. Leaders show us how to move beyond our fears and live more fully.

Love? It means bringing light to the world’s dark and scary corners, healing to people who are hurting, and hope to those who feel despair creeping close.

It means reminding people about all of the miraculous and grace-filled moments that are all around us every day. It means recognizing the beauty and the goodness in our world – those millions of acts of unexpected kindness that take our breath away.

It means noticing the stranger who is lost, feeling compassion, taking their arm and leading them to the proper place. Helping them get whatever it is that they need in that moment.

The many firsts and daily I-dos

balloons

A couple in our church hosted an anniversary party at their home last month. Everybody brought food and drink to celebrate relationships and give couples a chance to renew their vows if they wished.

It’s a tricky thing.

These kinds of gatherings can leave single and divorced people with mixed feelings. How do you balance both? I had to try to find a way because I was giving the reflection about love.

Eventually it occurred to me: Love is never limited to a couple. It never grows in a vacuum. It involves all of the people in our lives who love us and help us grow. Love is always a group project.

And so we went with it.

We talked about the little, everyday moments that build upon each other and form our relationships. If you’re a couple, you certainly know those moments. You’ve had so many of them.

For instance, the first time you met. Did you look at the other person and think, “Hmm, who is this person?” Or did you barely notice them?

Do you remember your first date? Were you nervous? Was it wonderful? A disaster? A little of both?

How about the first time that you held hands, how they just felt like they were a perfect fit.

The first time you stayed up deep into the night talking without realizing it was so late. You just had so much to say to each other.

How about the first time you snuggled in each other’s arms and thought: There’s no place I’d rather be than right here, right now, with this person.

Or the first time you thought: This person is really remarkable. And more than a little weird, too.

The first time you had an argument over something ridiculously silly and it went on for, oh, two days because neither one of you wanted to lose the silly argument.

Do you remember the first time you thought that this relationship isn’t going to work out because you are so different in some ways. And then the first time you realized that this relationship is actually the answer to so many prayers.

How about the first time that you realized that you wanted this person to be a part of your life going forward, and that feeling scared you because you’d never felt that way before.

What about the first time you said: I do.

I’m not taking about the wedding I-dos. I’m talking about the daily I-dos, the ones you’ve been saying to each other right from the start:

You seem like an interesting person. Do you want to get some coffee sometime? I do.

That coffee thing went well. Do you think you’d like to go on an actual date? I do.

Do you want to see that new movie that just came out? I do. (Even though I hate those kinds of movies.)

I’ve had a horrible day. Do you think you could make some time for me tonight? Of course I do.

I’ve had a wonderful day. Do you want to celebrate with me? Absolutely, I do.

Do you realize that when I’m with you, I like the person that I am? That you bring out the best in me? Yeah, I do. And you do the same for me.

Do you realize that annoying little habit of yours really drives me up the wall? Yes, I do. But do you also realize that I’m working hard to try to do it less?

Do you know that I love you? I do. And I love you back.

Do you want to keep doing this remarkable thing we have together for as long as we can? I do.

And then come the vows, which get renewed every day in many ways. You say “I do” to cherishing this person. You appreciate the joy and laughter they bring into your day, as well as the challenges and struggles. You try to love each other as deeply as you can, in as many ways as you can, for as long as you can. You look forward to the many “firsts” yet to come. And you are thankful that so many people want to be part of that adventure with you, every step of the way.

And those many other people in your life say “I do” to you, too. It’s a group project.

After we did the the I dos at the party, we thanked the Creator of life and love for the many people who help us become better lovers – lovers of each other and lovers of life. We asked for the grace and the courage to continue saying “I do” to each other.

And then we went outside and released 36 helium-filled balloons into the gray sky, adding a little color and love to the world. We did it all together.

A grandmother’s persistent love

Grams

My grandmother’s name is Ann, but we’ve always called her Grams – just Grams. Her birthday is this month, so it’s made me think about her again. And smile again.

Grams has made me smile a lot over the years, often by finding humor in something when I couldn’t see it by myself. She’s taught me a lot over the years, too, like how to appreciate a really good cup of coffee and how to make pierogis from scratch so that that don’t fall apart when you cook them.

She was independent and feisty and lively, even when the arthritis in her legs slowed her. And she understood the importance of persistence, especially when it came to love.

Her husband died of cancer when her three daughters were young. Friends and relatives told her to find another husband to support her – that’s what women did back then. Uh-uh, not Grams. She found a babysitter and went to work for a company where women weren’t exactly welcomed. 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 had some tough years. I remember many times when Grams would recognize my worry, 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. Don’t let anyone push you around. Be generous. Help others. And when you care about someone, make sure they know it.

Be persistent about life and love.

And boy, she was persistent, all right. When I was in 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 other plans. 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.

Thankfully, I got many more chances to spend time with Grams. We’d get together for holidays or just to hobnob about old times. We’d go to her apartment and make batches of potato and cabbage pierogis for Christmas.

No matter what you were doing together, she made you know that she was happy to see you. Without even trying, she reminded you that you were loved.

She had her peculiarities, of course, and that was part of the charm of being Grams. Her apartment was filled with tacky knickknacks from various places she’d visited. She wore wigs over her thinning hair and would keep them arranged on Styrofoam heads. She kept a votive candle burning on her bedroom dresser in front of a small likeness of Jesus. The candle rested on a tray with an image from John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

I miss those things.

Grams died in her apartment from an apparent heart attack years ago. As I was driving home from her funeral, I thought about how blessed I’ve been to have her in my life. And in the years since, there have been lots of little reminders that she’s still there in some ways.

Grams occasionally shows up in dreams – mine and other family members’ — with some guidance. My sister was taking a nap one afternoon because she’d been up all night with 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?

I’ve share that story with many people, and they’re shared their own stories with me about dearly departed friends and family showing up in dreams and in other ways, reminding us that they’re still dear but not so departed. We don’t understand how it all works, exactly, but we know there’s something there, something beyond our comprehension.

And none of it is really surprising. After all, persistent love would never let a little thing like death get in the way.