Max and the fifth home

All Max the cat wanted was a home.

He didn’t have one that day many years ago when my daughter discovered him curled up in the corner of a park near our house, frozen with fear and overheating on a scorching summer afternoon.

Max was a house cat – he’d been neutered. But now, he was separated from home. Nobody knows why. Maybe his owners abandoned him. Perhaps Max – who was very inquisitive – boarded someone’s truck unseen and was transported away from his home.

How he got there didn’t matter anymore. Now, he had a second home.

Not that it was all easy for him. There were other cats in the house, one of which didn’t get along with him. Seven years ago, he was outside and got attacked, apparently by a much larger animal.

When I found Max that day, he was bleeding from the mouth and torn up inside. He nearly didn’t make it. The vets recommended giving him one more day and if there was no progress, it would be time to euthanize him.

On the day of decision, Max stood for the first time, took some wobbly steps and ate food. Down to his final hours, he clung to life and began to heal.

Sometimes, the final word is a purr.

“All he wanted was a home”

When I was divorced five years ago, Max came with me to his third home and was my companion. I’d arrive home from work and he was there to welcome me and demand attention.

He made sure I never came home to an empty house.

At night, he would jump on the bed and put his paw on my wrist as he curled in for sleep, wanting to feel that flesh-to-flesh connection. It was soothing.

When I moved a year ago, Max came along to his fourth home. He was content so long as he got a little tuna each day and a lot of attention.

After he nearly died in that attack years ago, Max’s need for attention and affection increased and could become annoying. He wanted to be petted nonstop. There were times I’d push him away or tell him to go away because it was too much.

Today, I miss the annoyance.

Max quickly went downhill over the weekend. He was 14 years old. Renal failure. It happens. Only one humane option left.

“Paw to wrist, heart to heart”

The vet gave him a sedative as he lay on my lap. I cradled Max’s head with my hand, reassured him everything was going to be OK, told him I loved him, and promised we would remain connected always.

He reached out his paw and touched my right forearm, maintaining our connection with his final breaths.

Gloria and I brought him home and buried him in the warm and welcoming shadow of his fourth home, even as he takes up residence in his fifth.

I believe the Creator of Life would never abandon a beloved creature or push them away. No, the God of Love cherishes and wants connections with us and among us: paw to wrist, hand to hand, heart to heart.

And home. God provides a loving home to all, no matter which number it is – first, second or fifth.

Welcome home, Max.

Choosing our leaders wisely

boat leading pexels

What makes for a good leader?

It’s an opportune time to think about leadership as we respond to the pandemic and its effects. We’ll be leaning on leaders as we get through the challenges and rebuild.

Leaders at various levels – political, social, religious – have shown contrasting  styles and characteristics. They have different ways and different motivations.

What qualities do we want in them? What types of leaders should we choose going forward?

Effective leaders share important characteristics:

1. They’re in it for others, not themselves. Some people move into leadership to bolster their ego, increase their power, enrich their holdings. They make leadership about what they want instead of what others need. By contrast, servant-leaders focus on the common good. They empower and encourage. They put others’ needs ahead of their own. They accomplish a lot because they don’t need credit or acclaim.

2. They lean on experts and people who offer wise counsel. Every leader faces challenges outside their realm of experience. Effective ones take advice. They study how previous leaders dealt with similar challenges and learn from their successes and mistakes.

3. They learn from their own mistakes. Every leader makes them; good ones recognize them, take responsibility for them, and adjust course. Leaders who refuse to see their mistakes repeat them endlessly, to everyone’s detriment.

4. They understand truthfulness matters. When people sense leaders aren’t being honest, they lose credibility, which makes matters worse.

5. They try to lead everyone, not only their supporters. The best leaders at all levels work tirelessly to bridge gaps and build consensus. They understand that a house divided against itself cannot stand.

6. They can calm, inspire and focus people during hard times. They don’t have to be the most loquacious; sincerity and honesty go a long way. So do compassion and humility.

I’m sure you can identify other important qualities for leadership as well. Our challenge is to get a clear vision of what we want from our leaders and choose ones who embody those qualities.

We need to look at ourselves as well.

Each of us is a leader – in our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, faith communities, circle of friends, social media groups. We need to embody the qualities we think are important for leaders.

As Matthew Fox puts it: “The times do not allow anyone the luxury of waiting around for others to lead.”

The leadership we choose, and the leadership we provide, will go a long way in deciding what we become.

(photo courtesy of Miguel Á. Padriñán @pexels.com)

A ride home on Christmas eve

pierogi ornament 2

I was 6 years old on that Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home from work so we could eat.

The waiting was no surprise.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought demons home from the battlefield.

The demons tended to emerge during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with co-workers. The co-workers would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We got new PJs for Christmas every year, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited some more. It was getting late. Mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but it wasn’t my dad’s car. There were two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad walk up the driveway. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home was black.

We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people there. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was much racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This black man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it’s the only time in his life that he had pierogi and mushroom soup.

He saw he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

The man could have found any number of legitimate reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, confronted his demons, and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

One act changes everything

I never saw the man again. I’m thankful for what he did and for what he taught me. He showed me how race and other differences need not divide us. Love knows no boundaries.

He might be alive today, totally unaware of how his kindness that long-ago night is still remembered and treasured. Every Christmas eve, I pray for him and for the courage to be a little more like him.

Maybe you could, too.

Lost in a department store … and life

lost and found

One of my earliest memories involves being lost. I was about 4 years old in a department store with my mom. While I looked at items on a shelf, a group of shoppers came between me and mom.

I couldn’t see her, and I was terrified. I was afraid she’d left me. As I recall, I called out to her.

Mom stepped around the person who was blocking my view and came toward me. It’s OK, she said – I’d never leave you! I was watching you out of the corner of my eye the whole time.

Getting lost is such a universal fear. We dream about getting lost – at school, on campus, at home, at work, in an airport. Those dreams tap into that vulnerable, helpless feeling we experience many times in life.

For instance, we go off to school for the first time and we feel a little lost.

The teenage years – they’re all about feeling lost! We’re creating a separate identity from our parents, but we don’t know yet what that is.

Relationships – even the very best ones – challenge us in ways that make us feel lost at times.

We’re young and trying to choose a path in life and it’s a bit overwhelming, and we feel lost.

A helpless, vulnerable feeling

Parenting is a graduate course in feeling lost. Often, we have no clue what to do next.

We lose a job or have a relationship end or have some health issue, and we feel lost.

We leave the confining theological bubble in which we were raised and start looking for another faith community, but the process is unsettling, and we feel lost.

We put our heart and soul into some project that we’re passionate about and it turns out different than what we wanted, and we feel disappointed and lost.

We’re aging and we see where this is all headed, and we feel lost.

Our parent dies, and we feel totally lost on many levels.

We fall into habits that we know won’t provide the satisfaction and fulfillment we need, and we feel lost.

Getting lost is a common thread in not only our lives but also our faith traditions. Story after story tells of individuals and entire groups getting lost geographically and spiritually.

But our faith traditions also reassure us that in those times of feeling lost, we really aren’t.

God is a passionate finder, a non-stop seeker, determined to be there with us when we feel lost. As the story of the lost son goes, God is scanning the horizon nonstop to catch sight of us, run to us, wrap us in a hug and throw a crazy party that reminds us we’re always rooted in love.

Lost, and now found.

A passionate finder

When I covered the summer Olympic games in Athens in 2004, I wanted to see the Acropolis on my day off. I got a map of the public train system and planned my trip.

I boarded the train a couple blocks from the media village and counted the stops before I had to transfer to the line that would take me to the Acropolis. When I reached the transfer station, I had a problem.

It was a big, bustling station with train platforms all around. I had no idea which one I needed – everything was in Greek. I stood looking at the map in my hands, which was no help.

That “lost” feeling returned.

A middle-aged Greek woman saw my predicament and approached me. She said something I didn’t understand, but I could tell she was trying to help. I pointed to the Acropolis stop on the train map.

“Ah!” she said, smiling. She put her hand on the back of my elbow and gently guided me through the busy station. She walked me up a flight of stairs to an elevated train platform and pointed to the line that would get me where I needed to go.

I said, “Thank you so much!” She said something back, smiled, and went on her way.

I was lost, and now — with her guiding hand — I was found.

Anne Lamott says she doesn’t at all understand the mystery of grace, other than that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it finds us.

Grace is that hand on the back of our elbow guiding us through our current confusion. It gets us where we need to go, even when we don’t know where that is exactly.

It’s also a reminder that when we feel lost and afraid, God is right there, looking out for us and watching us out of the corner of Her eye the whole time.

Every breath we share

BREATH

An oxygen mask helped Wilma Jean take her final breaths in a nursing home room that was festooned with reminders of her life’s passions.

On the wall to her right was a framed photo of her husband of 59 years, smiling gloriously as he crouched to plant a vegetable garden. Small, round photos of her seven children and five grandchildren decorated an adjacent wall.

Wilma Jean’s family held her hand and shared stories of her life. Like all of us, she had discouraging and frustrating times that turned out quite the opposite of what she intended.

What stood out, though, was how her family’s stories were more about something else. They recounted how she spent her life breathing life into everyone and everything around her.

We’re tempted to measure our lives by the number of years between our first breath and our last, but that completely misses the point. What matters – what makes a difference – is what we choose to do with the countless ones in-between.

There’s much more to this breathing thing.

The familiar creation story depicts God exhaling a breath of life into our lungs, sharing so intimately with each of us this divine, animating force that changes forms but never ends.

Breathing life into one another

The story also reminds us that God breathed life not only into us, but into all that’s around us. Plants inhale the carbon dioxide that we exhale, process it, and breathe out oxygen that we then inhale.

This sacred breathing cycle — all breathing together — sustains life.

And here’s the good stuff: From our first gulp of air we not only have the ability to breathe life into our atmosphere, but into each other as well. We can do what God does on a smaller scale, if we so choose, breathing life into others in ways big and small.

At Wilma Jean’s funeral, family members described how she shopped for Christmas gifts year-round so that everyone would have a big, personalized pile when the day came. She wanted everyone to know that they matter.

At an advanced age, she learned to work a computer so she could make individualized cards, another way of reminding everyone how they’re special and loved.

She literally birthed a family-community and breathed life into it continuously with a love that still abides and animates. With every breath they take, she continues to breathe through them, with them and in them.

This circle of life persists, uninterrupted and undiminished.

So, what about us? One of the defining questions for each of our lives is how we use our sacred, God-given breath.

Use each breath wisely and generously

Some people use it primarily on themselves, essentially wasting their breath. Others use it to belittle, bully and harm, wielding it like a storm wind that batters everyone and everything around them. They undermine relationship, family and community.

And then there are those who try their best to breathe life into the world. They become co-creators with God, building families and communities that endure.

None of us does this life-breathing thing perfectly, but that’s OK. What matters is our intention and commitment. There are many ways to do it.

We breathe a little more life into our world every time we plant a vegetable, care for an injured creature, or show a moment’s kindness to another person.

We breathe life into our world when we get involved in a movement to protect nature and nurture people, or when we defend those who are being mistreated or marginalized.

We breath life into our world when we’re committed to the hard work of creating and sustaining families, faith communities and societies.

A good starting point is to ask the One who gave us our first breath to show us how to use all the others wisely and generously, all the way to the time of our last one and beyond.

Let us breathe.

Our beautiful, indivisible home

Earthrise

As Apollo 8 hurtled around the moon on one of its 10 orbits, the astronauts peered through a tiny window and were overwhelmed by something no human had ever seen.

There was Earth, 240,000 miles away — an indescribably beautiful sphere adorned in stunning blue and white and brown hues, sparkling against the inky backdrop of space.

Astronaut William Anders grabbed a camera and snapped one of the most iconic photos in human history, the one shown above that’s now simply known as “Earthrise.”

From their perch in space back in 1968, the three-man crew – Anders, Frank Borman and James Lovell Jr. – beheld a planet that’s both incredible and indivisible. As Borman later put it, “Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don’t show from that distance.”

Many astronauts describe how seeing Earth from space transformed them profoundly. It was a deeply religious experience in the truest sense of the word.

Freed from gravity’s grasp, they also were freed from the delusions that weigh us down here on Earth and distort our vision of our world and each other.

No lines in sight

They had risen above the nationalistic lines, the theological lines, the economic lines and social lines that we invent to keep us apart. They were free to glimpse the planet as it really is.

They marveled at its fragility and magnificence. They recognized our shared home as one unparceled thing.

Edgar Mitchell, who would later become the sixth person to walk on the moon, put it this way: “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.”

Few humans get to circle the globe, but we all have access to the astronauts’ vantage point. We can share their transformative experience on a different scale.

I remember how on my first plane flight, I looked down from my small window and realized I couldn’t identify locations from 30,000 feet. Which state was that below? Which country? What lake was that?

I was struck by how there were no dividing lines on the Earth – they exist only on our hand-drawn maps, in our heads and, to the extent that we permit, within our hearts.

Once we grasp this reality, our outlook changes. We take a deeper interest in nurturing nature, which provides everything on our planet with life and beauty.

We build relationships with those who are different from us in some superficial way — different language, different culture, different religion – and bridge our societies’ artificial divides.

We’re free to do this. Our line-drawing pencils also have fully functioning erasers.

We’re not doomed to repeat this pattern of fighting endlessly over imaginary lines. We don’t have to remain in destructive patterns of carving up the planet and building walls between one another.

We can take a Higher perspective and recognize what’s within plain sight: We’re one family sharing an indivisible home.

An even bigger leap

International Space Station astronaut Karen Nyberg noted that if every person could fly around the world just once, our view of ourselves and our world would change significantly and we’d interact very differently.

Space Shuttle astronaut Franklin Chang Diaz recounted how many astronauts return from space with a feeling that they’re citizens of an entire planet, not just one small corner of it.

Fifty years ago this month, a human being took one small step that was such a giant leap for all of us. It’s long past time that we take an even bigger and more necessary leap.

Step beyond our artificial lines. See our world as the Creator made it – a breathtaking place zooming through the sacredness of space. All aboard share one mutual home.

No lines anywhere in sight.

Overflowing packets of hot chocolate

hot-chocolate hands

While sipping my first cup of black coffee this morning, I thought about my mom and the many other people in my life who have mothered me. I wouldn’t be the person I am without their grace-filled places in my life.

Each of us has so many people who arrive in our lives at the right time and give us what we need at that moment. They show us what it means to love and share. Often, we don’t recognize all of this until much later.

Through their love and their daily example, they become our fixed points in the sky that help us navigate life’s questions and challenges. They nurture us and help us to grow in the ways we need.

Our many moms teach us what it means to be a real, imperfect, passionate, loving person. Even when we tune them out, they keep teaching until the important lessons sink in.

Their lessons often come in small ways that stick with us and shape who we are. For instance, something as small and ordinary as a packet of hot chocolate.

One of my mom’s many lasting lessons – ones she continues teaching me even though she’s moved into the next phase of life – is the necessity of giving even when we have limited resources or abilities.

It’s important to give generously of ourselves. And sometimes, we’ve got to get a little creative.

Always something to give

My family didn’t have a lot of money. No matter. Mom would walk to the Woolworth’s, buy packages of wool, and crochet scarves for us while sitting on the couch watching the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour on television.

Later, when she developed Multiple Sclerosis and moved into an apartment building that could accommodate her wheelchair, she enrolled in a pottery class and made ornaments and figurines that became treasured gifts because they were the work of her hands.

Even in the final 10 months of her life when a severe stroke paralyzed one side of her body and left her confined to a nursing home, she devised a way to give.

Mom started ordering packets of hot chocolate with each meal, which seemed odd at first. She didn’t like hot chocolate – her two main food groups at that point in life were bakery and coffee.

She’d tell the nursing home staff to leave the packets of hot chocolate on her night stand. When my sister visited daily, mom told her to take the packets and give them to her two young boys.

The hot chocolate became her gift to her grandsons. Flat on her back, she reminded us it’s still possible to give.

With the hot chocolate, 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 three packets a day, seven days a week, four weeks a month, going on for months … We’re talking hundreds of packets of hot chocolate!

Soon, my sister’s food cupboard was overflowing. Nobody could drink that much! She began farming it out to my brothers and me, and we shared it with others, too.

I’ve kept one packet. It rests on the shelf above my computer and re-teaches me her lesson about sharing every day:

hot-chocolate4

We all have so much to share — our time, our energy, our humor, our love, our compassion, our individual talents, our daily cocoa. We’re never lacking in something to give; we just need to pay attention and get a little creative at times.

And ultimately, her lesson is that I and we can be mother figures to many people throughout our lives. No matter our age or our perceived limitations, we always can give people something that will touch their lives profoundly.

Even if all we have to give is a packet of hot chocolate.

Rachel Held Evans and overturned tables

Rachel Held Evans2

If you’re unfamiliar with Rachel Held Evans, you might wonder why there’s been such an outpouring over her death last week.

Rachel wrote beautifully, powerfully and vulnerably about her faith and her struggle to live it. Through her blogs and her books, she became a leading figure in the evangelical world and the progressive Christianity movement.

She caused quite a kerfuffle within evangelical circles. Essentially, Rachel went into the temple of her faith and overturned the tables – not to make a mess, but to create a space for the Spirit to return, reform and renew.

That’s what all prophets and reformers do – create space for something needed and new.

She loved her religious tradition and wouldn’t stay silent as others perverted it into a system of exclusion, marginalization and us-versus-them animosity. She spoke with kindness, wittiness and a wisdom that grew from her openness to ask important questions and seek truer answers.

‘This is my voice’

Many readers found an oasis in her words. Many evangelical leaders bristled not only at her words, but at the fact they were coming from one of their own who had the audacity to focus on things they preferred to hide or blithely explain away.

Also, they had a problem with truth presented from a woman’s perspective.

“I often hear from evangelical leaders, ‘Oh we’re really eager to have more female leaders,’” Rachel said. “I want to say, ‘This is my voice. This is what it sounds like.’”

She explored the fault lines in the Americanized version of Christianity: sexism, racism, patriarchy, nationalism, abortion, sexual abuse, how we treat our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Also, she openly explored her own biases and shortcomings.

What seemed to bother some religious leaders the most was that Rachel did it with an authority that they themselves lacked. Her authority derived from her willingness to first look inside herself and see what needed to be overturned there before trying to help others do the same.

She spoke with the authority of someone who had tasted what it’s like to be on the wrong side of us-versus-them religiosity. In her compassionate words, they heard God’s voice.

She spent most of her adult years trying to give people who are marginalized by religion a place to come and know the One who is at the heart of all true religion.

That’s why there’s been such an outpouring. Rachel made a difference.

May we continue Rachel’s work and share in her courage to overturn tables, especially the ones inside our churches, our religions, our nations and our own hearts.

Safe, loving spaces

 

And, like her, may we continue building true communities of faith. Places where people can come together and openly explore the big questions of life. Places where they feel safe and welcomed in a world where that’s not always so. Places where they are reminded how much they are loved just as they are.

Places like the one Rachel described in her book “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church” about her own faith journey:

“I told them we’re tired of the culture wars, tired of Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power. Millennials want to be known by what we’re for, I said, not just what we’re against. We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith.

“Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. We want to talk about the tough stuff — biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice — but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind, without wearing a mask.”

Everything starts at home

home plate

(Note: This is adapted from something I wrote for my sister’s wedding in 2000. Joanne worked for the Cleveland Indians. Chris worked for the Chicago Cubs before moving to Cleveland. They have two amazing kids.)

home plate2

On the sixth day, God decided to create women and men. And to give them some helpers.

So God rounded up the angels, who were in the middle of a baseball game spread across the cosmos, and told them of the grand plan. They were intrigued by the idea of having humans as part of creation.

“What will they be like?” the angels asked. “What will they do?”

God thought for a moment and said, “Well, they’ll be like me and you in some very important ways, different in some other ways. What will they do? They’ll start out very small and vulnerable, but they’ll grow up very fast. They’ll learn to love. They’ll form relationships, create families.”

The angels had more questions. Such as: What will relationship and family be about?

“They’ll be a way of coming together,” God said, trying to find a useful analogy, “kind of like forming a baseball team. You cheer for each other, help each other, encourage each other. You console each other on the bad days and celebrate the good ones together You’re there for each other.”

The angels listened intently as God continued explaining, pausing occasionally to find the right words.

“Sometimes you have to sacrifice in baseball so the other person can advance,” God said. “It’s the same with relationships and family.

“It takes patience to play baseball well. You can’t just swing at bad pitches. Family and relationships take a lot of patience, too, overlooking the bad and waiting for the good.

“You get dirty sometimes. You get discouraged and have your bad days, but you force yourself to keep going — just like in baseball.”

One angel asked: How long will relationships last?

“Like in baseball, there’s no set limits,” God said. “Each will be unique. Some will last longer than others. Some will work out better than others. It’ll just be very, very good that they try.”

Another angel asked: “What about bloopers? Will there be bloopers in relationships?”

“Of course!” God said. “That’s why a sense of humor is so important. When you wind up butting heads while running after the ball, the only thing you can do is pick yourself up and laugh.”

God paused for a second.

“One more thing,” God said. “In baseball, everything starts at home. It’s the same with family and relationship. Two or more people will become home for each other, a fixed point for everything else.”

The angels could identify.

“Good!” God said. “Well then, let’s get on with it. Your job will be to help them, to be their guardians. And who knows? You might inspire them enough that they name one of their baseball teams after you.”

And so it came to pass. God created women and men and decided that they were very, very good indeed. And God loved each of them very, very much.

Then, on the seventh day, God rested. After all, it had been a busy week.

And besides, God was scheduled to pitch the next day.

home plate2