Skipping the “thank you” part

No thanks

I stopped in a grocery store on the day after Halloween and noticed the scene above: pumpkins getting replaced by Christmas decorations. Inside the store, the ghosts and goblins were migrating to clearance tables, replaced by all things green and red.

Yep. We’d done it again. We’d skipped right over the thank-you part.

Our consumer-driven society is so caught up in buying stuff and padding profits that we no longer see the need to observe even one day of thankfulness. That goes for our consumer-driven, Americanized form of religion, too.

We’ve reduced Thanksgiving to another shopping opportunity. We’ve turned Christmas into a buying spree that begins with those July sales and reappears a few months later.

The message: Forget peace on earth, just go and buy. A Jewish child was born 2,000 years go to increase current-day profit margins. And the only thing objectionable is when the store clerk fails to wish you “Merry Christmas” as they hand you the receipt — now, that’s something you need to protest!

No wonder we have lost our sense of thankfulness.

We’re divine charity cases

When everything becomes a transaction, there’s no need for thanksgiving. Our American mindset replaces prophets with profits and makes gratitude obsolete.

We tell ourselves that we deserve everything we have, and we need to go get more. We prefer self-reliance over unmerited grace. We think that we earn divine favor by believing certain things and doing things the “right” way.

It’s all a transaction – I do this, I get that – which means there’s no reason to say thank you. After all, I’m merely getting what’s coming to me, what I’ve earned through my own effort.

We avoid the truth that each of us is a divine charity case. All that we have, all that we are, was freely given to us – we didn’t earn any of it. And that bothers us.

It bothers me. I’d much rather be the one giving than the one receiving. I feel good when I help someone. When someone helps me, I’m tempted to feel somehow diminished, as though I couldn’t do it by myself.

That’s our Americanized values system talking. Go pull yourself up. If you need help in any way, you’re a failure.

Even our religion and our prayers have been Americanized and corrupted. We pray a thank-you that we have a roof over our heads and a good meal on our table, unlike the many others who do not. Thank you that I am not one of those people living on the margins of society – how horrible that must be! Thank you that I am not like them.

Ugh!

Challenges our Americanized values

We need the gratitude that brings us humility and reconnects us with each other and with the One who made all of us. Gratitude erases our illusions about winners and losers. It directly challenges our judgments about who is deserving and who is undeserving. It reminds us of our total dependence on our Creator for everything.

It opens our hearts and our hands.

Gratitude brings us back to the central truth that every breath and every heartbeat — all that we are – is freely given with no merit involved whatsoever. And everything is given to us so that we can share in the same spirit of gratitude and love.

Thankfulness reduces our reward-and-punishment notions to noise and nonsense. It opens our clasped hands to receive and to give more freely. It leads us to be more like the person begging on the street corner than the one eating the lavish meal in the fine house.

Thankfulness directly challenges our Americanized values.

If we were more grateful, we wouldn’t be so divided. Our squabbling would yield to a shared appreciation. Judgment would give way to embrace. Fear and anger would be replaced by love and joy.

Let’s reclaim thankfulness amid the bombardment of holiday sales and commercials. May gratitude soften our hearts and open our hands. May we live in a thankful spirit that brings life, love, healing and hope into the world.

May we say thanks by giving in overly generous and totally scandalous ways — the same way our Creator gives to each of us each day. And may we allow ourselves to receive from others the same way.

The edge pieces of our lives

Puzzle1

Roddy glared at me with suspicion and defiance. He didn’t want me looking after him. Honestly, I didn’t want to be around him, either.

I was helping an inner-city church with its summer youth program. More than 40 kids from the neighborhood were playing games, reading books, and getting ready for lunch. I asked one of the program coordinators how I could help.

She motioned toward Roddy and said: You can look after him. He’s acting up today. He needs attention.

Sure, I said. And I soon regretted it.

I introduced myself to Roddy. He’s about 6 years old, African-American, from a poor family in the neighborhood. I’m a 60-year-old white guy from another place. We couldn’t be more different.

He knew I was going to try to ride herd on him – others had done it before. He’d have none of that. Roddy turned his back and walked away.

He went to a reading group in a corner of the room and started interrupting, glancing at me to gauge my reaction. The volunteer leading the group told Roddy he was welcome to stay and participate, but he couldn’t bother others. His response was to interrupt more.

I watched and wondered: What do I do now?

How in heaven’s name could the two of us connect?

Start with the edge pieces

I went over to Roddy and asked what likes to do. He mentioned puzzles. I got one, dumped it on a table, and started sorting out the pieces. Roddy came over and started helping. He didn’t understand the concept of using corner pieces and edge pieces – the ones with a flat side – to form the framework.

Roddy caught on quickly. He enjoyed the one-on-one attention. We started talking about our families, our favorite foods, our favorite sports.

The defiant eyes softened. He smiled. He was like a different kid.

When the puzzle was complete, he turned it upside-down and said: Let’s do it again! And again. We must have reassembled it a half-dozen times before lunch.

After we’d shared tacos and nachos, Roddy and the rest of the kids went home. As I drove home, I couldn’t get him out of my mind. He seemed so starved for attention and affirmation. The defiant, angry look in his eyes worried me.

How will Roddy’s life turn out?

Also, I wondered whether our time together would make any difference whatsoever in his jumbled life. He has so many influences tugging at him. Maybe he’d already forgotten about our time together and moved on.

Who knows?

I have no answers. I believe that showing kindness and love is worthwhile, in and of itself. If Roddy got nothing more than an enjoyable hour of doing puzzles followed by lunch, it was all good.

I also know that many people have intersected my life for brief moments and left a lasting impression, far more than they’ll ever know.

Grace works that way

There was the black man who drove my alcoholic father home one Christmas eve, showing me how compassion crosses color lines and other barriers. Then there’s the Greek woman who helped me find my way when I was helplessly lost at a train station in Athens, reminding me of what it means to feel kindness from a stranger.

Grace works that way. People come into our lives unexpectedly and show us things we need to see. Those people and those moments become edge pieces for us, if we let them.

It’s good to remind ourselves of that, especially now when we’re so divided and disconnected that we can’t even see the picture we’re meant to form. We’ve forgotten that each of us is a piece of something bigger than ourselves.

As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it:

“God is giving us one to another like a puzzle actually. Individually we have such snaggled edges, such unique contours, but that shouldn’t keep us away from others since those rough parts are meant to be fitted together. … After all, the odd, jagged parts of ourselves are what connects us to each other and to God.”

As Roddy builds his life, maybe I’ll be one of the edge pieces that frames things. Maybe our time together helps him see a different picture from what others will show him.

Or maybe not. In any case, it was worth the try. We all need our edge pieces. Better yet, we need to try to be edge pieces.

Lining up spectacularly

Eclipse photo

Did you pay attention to the eclipse? I enjoyed how people put aside their differences for one day, looked up through protective glasses, and felt a collective sense of awe. I enjoyed all the eclipse photos shared on social media.

For a brief time, the moon and the sun and the Earth lined up spectacularly and we paid attention and went: Wow! Look at that!

And then, after a few minutes, the moon moved into a different alignment, the eclipse ended, and things went back to the usual.

The sun and the moon are no longer big news. I didn’t even pay attention to the moon again until yesterday evening when I spotted it just above the horizon, partially eclipsed by the shadow of earth. It was a different kind of eclipse, but one that’s so familiar that we don’t even look for it or feel a sense of wonder at seeing it.

When things become “ordinary” to us, they’re often out of mind, out of sight.

It’s a parable, isn’t it?

It’s much easier to pay attention when things line up in a spectacular way for a short time. Then when things soon go back to “normal,” we turn our attention to something else and stop seeing the miracle all around us.

Everyday moments of miracle

We overlook the reality that the sun and the moon are still amazing and still right there, just not in the same alignment. The moon is circling the Earth, and we’re circling the sun together, and we’re all zooming through space at a mind-blowing speed along with trillions of other celestial bodies.

It’s all there doing the same thing, just in a different path. It’s all a miracle, even when we don’t recognize it as such.

And the same goes for grace.

Grace is always moving around us and within us, pulling on us and directing us with its divinely gravitational powers. But we forget to notice it working in its “ordinary” ways to produce extraordinary things.

We all know those moments when grace gets our attention and it’s easy to say: Wow, God really is working here! Someone comes into our life at just the right time, or something falls into place in an unexpected way that we’d never imagined.

It’s easy to feel God’s presence when everything seems to be lined up in a grace-filled way.

Squint and recognize it

Then there are those common, everyday moments when we have a difficult time seeing grace in the ordinariness and the messiness of life. Things seem to be zooming along without any discernible pattern — discernible to us, anyway.

It’s easy to lose track of grace when we’re going through a difficult time – we lose someone, we can’t find a job, we get sick, a relationship ends, a loved one is struggling, we feel lost and lonely. It’s easy to forget about grace at work when we’ve settled into our daily slog.

Just like the sun and the moon, grace is right there doing its thing. Grace isn’t missing; we’re just less attentive to it.

Grace invites us to pay attention not only to the dramatic eclipses, but also to the everyday moments of miracle. Grace is spectacularly at work in our lives, even when it’s not in our line of sight or it’s lined up differently than we’d hoped.

It’s still right there. We just need to squint and recognize it.

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.

Grace in aisle three

Food

We found the aisle with lentils — aisle three, as it turned out — and surveyed the many choices. Which type would a Muslim most likely use to break the Ramadan fast?

Clayton and I didn’t know. We’re not Muslim. We’d never done this kind of shopping before.

Clayton is the interfaith liaison for our church, which has a close relationship with the local Islamic center. Last fall, we partnered with them on a winter clothing drive for refugee families settling in the area.

Now the Islamic center was having a food drive for needy families, many of them refugees. Clayton mentioned the food drive at the end of our church service last Sunday, and people grabbed donation envelopes and stuffed cash into them.

In the blink of an eye, we collected $200. Now, we just had to buy the food. We found a halal market near the mosque and went with a general list of things that we found online – lentils, flour, dates, cooking oil and so forth.

But which ones? Which types? How much? We didn’t know. After a few moments of indecision, we went to the checkout register and asked the manager for help.

We told the man what we were doing. He smiled. He dropped everything he was doing and threw himself into the project. He went to the back of the store and pulled out a box of cooking oil, which would be easier for us to carry. He rounded up bags of flour and packages of lentils.

Yeah. Amazing grace.

While other customers waited patiently, the manager filled several carts with food items worth more than the $200 we’d given him. And then he helped us push the carts to the car for loading.

On the way, he paused, took out his wallet, grabbed a $50 bill and handed it to us.

“This is a personal donation for your church,” he said.

Standing there in the parking lot, all of us blinked back tears.

Yeah. Amazing grace.

There are so many loud and shrill voices in various religions today, ones filled with fear and self-righteousness and arrogance and judgement and hatred -– the very things that faith tells us to avoid. Those voices try to divide us and diminish us. They twist religion into the opposite of what it’s meant to be, hoping to advance their personal agendas.

And then, there are all those other people – most people, I like to believe. The ones who actually get it. The ones filled with a spirit that makes them try as best they can to love one another as equally beautiful and beloved children of God.

They understand that every act of love, no matter how small, is an encounter with the God who makes all people beloved and all things blessed. Such moments are holy and sacred, transforming and inspiring.

Like the one just now in the parking lot.

With our boxes and bags of food loaded in the trunk, we headed to the nearby mosque. Just a week earlier, the mosque had been picketed by an anti-Muslim group toting signs that were hateful and hurtful.

The Muslims responded by setting up a table and offering the protesters food and drink. Here’s a photo, courtesy of The Journal-News of Hamilton.

Table

When our church heard about the protests, we prayed for the Islamic community and emailed the imam a note of support and admiration for their act of kindness. The imam wrote back, suggesting we get together for lunch sometime soon.

“Thank you so much for your appreciated prayers and support!” the imam wrote. “Please continue to spread the message of kindness, respect, loving thy neighbor, and harmony.”

This week, refugees will break their Ramadan fast with lentils and dates donated by a local church. On Sunday, the donation basket at our church will include a $50 bill from a Muslim store manager who spreads the message of kindness, respect, harmony and love.

Another shared, sacred moment for everyone. Blessed by a few more tears, no doubt.

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.

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.