On the same shelf

Same shelf

Young voices fill the old United Church of Christ building. More than 40 children energetically and noisily move about the basement room that serves as a cafeteria.

It’s another morning at the inner-city church’s summer youth program.

Kids from neighboring families come to the church each morning. Church members and college-age volunteers from AmeriCorps VISTA play with the children, teach them, and remind them that they are loved for who they are.

Then, everyone eats lunch together.

The church’s small kitchen brims with packages of food and all manner of pots, pans and utensils. Shelf space is limited. As you can see from the photo above, the communion cups are stored with the food offered that day.

Food and faith on the same shelf.

That powerful image sticks with me and reminds me that there are two types of religion.

Through us, with us, in us

One type is self-centered and future-oriented. You follow a code of conduct to get some reward when you die. Many Christian churches teach that you don’t get to meet Jesus until you die, and then only if you’ve behaved like a “good Christian.”

And the code-of-conduct for being a “good Christian” varies significantly among denominations and is constantly changing. What was deemed unacceptable yesterday is tolerated today. It’ll change yet again.

Often, these codes of conduct ignore or contradict Jesus’ passionate teachings about how we must treat each other and care for one another, especially for those who are needy, lowly and hurting.

That’s one approach.

Many other faith communities are committed to living the message of incarnation — God feeding, healing and transforming the world through us.

People of incarnation recognize God’s presence through us, with us and in us. They try their best to embody the love, grace, forgiveness, peace and healing that the world so desperately needs.

Through love and love alone

People of incarnation recognize that the kingdom of God isn’t some reward that you get when you die, but a place you can enter now. Your heart is the door. Everyone is invited to enter and enact God’s kingdom through love and love alone.

That part never changes.

The inner-city UCC church has a picture that sums it up. Across the street from the church is its food pantry. There’s a drawing on the wall that shows a line of people waiting to get into such a food pantry.

Waiting in the middle of the line is Jesus.

Churches of incarnation take Jesus seriously when he says he’s right here with us, especially in the poor and the needy. Faith is about recognizing and responding to that presence.

So they respond by feeding the hungry as close family, listening to the troubled and offering help, providing a hug and a moment of hope to someone who’s feeling despair.

Hope, a plate of food, and an experience of God. All coming from the same shelf.

Keeping the faith

circle-of-hands

So now we know what we must do.

Sometimes it takes a stunning event to jolt us out of our complacency and realize that so many conflicting values are in play in our world, including our own backyard. And people can be easily swayed one way or another.

There are daily choices for each of us to make. Which will be our overriding values today? Power, or compassion? Hatred, or love? Greed, or gratitude? Selfishness, or service? Life, or fear?

We all vacillate between values. Our nation’s founders vacillated – they didn’t live up to their own beautiful words about how all people are created equal. They owned slaves and excluded women. Our nation has struggled to live up to those beautiful words since its founding, with spirit-filled people coming along in each age to challenge us to live them more deeply and inclusively.

A new day

It’s a never-ending process. And it’s never smooth or easy. Some values may carry the day, but that is only for one day. And now, that day is yesterday. Today is a new day, another chance to choose and champion those greater values.

We know what we must do.

We must be willing to put ourselves on the line and work with one another to make those greater values our greater good. We need to have courage and commitment and audacious hope.

We must be committed to making the world a place where everyone is seen and treated as an equally beloved child of God.

We need to be ready to bleed sacrificially to bring love and compassion and healing and peace to a world so wounded and fearful that it would build walls and let fear diminish us and divide us.

We know what we must do

We must stand against those who want our world to be a place where people are judged based upon the color of their skin or the lineage of their ancestry or the way that they love.

We must stand against those who see women as property or playthings that can be dominated and grabbed and violated.

We must stand against those who believe that religion is a tool of exclusion and condemnation.

We must stand against those who believe that bullying and violence are our only solutions.

We must stand against those who want fear of one another – instead of love for one another — to be our defining trait.

We know what we must do.

Give ourselves to the struggle

On the day before he was assassinated, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. told a gathering at a church in Memphis that “the world is all messed up, the nation is sick, trouble is in the land, confusion all around. … But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working …

“We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. … Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make American what it ought to be.”

We know what we must do.

Although wounded and disappointed, we must not give up. We must give ourselves sacrificially to the struggle.

We must awake each morning renewed, ready to put our hands back on the moral arc of the universe and tug on it so that it bends a little bit more toward justice. And we must remember to feel for that set of hands on top of ours, the hands of Someone who is pulling along with us always.

Fight the fight. Run the race. Keep the faith.

That’s what we must do.

Flying the flag

cubs-windians

I’m enjoying this World Series match-up – two teams that haven’t won a title in, well, practically forever. It’s perfect.

First to reach the World Series were the Indians, who haven’t won the championship since 1948 – before I was born. They’ve made it to the World Series a few times since, and lost each time. Once, they were within three outs of winning it, and they blew it.

And then there are the Chicago Cubs, whose litany of coming up short goes back for more than a century and defined them as lovable losers. They haven’t won the Series since 1908. They got there a lot in the first half of the last century, and lost each time.

The Cubs, too, have their long history of heartbreak and goat curses, foul balls and excruciating endings.

Next week, one of them will be celebrating a title they thought might never come in their lifetimes. The other will start thinking about next year … or maybe next decade … or century.

We’re all about hope

Either way, it will be about hope finally fulfilled, or hope still striving. Hope will be front-and-center, as it always is.

As humans, we’re all about hope.

Hope is as crucial to us as food and oxygen. When we lose hope, we wither. Parts of us die. Faith, hope and love are woven into our nature; to lose one of them is to lose an important part of who we are.

It’s like a trinity. Or, a double-play combination – shortstop to second base to first. All three are needed.

Faith pulls us outside of our narrow selves into something much grander. Hope energizes and nurtures us. Love fulfills us and unites us. We need all three.

I think there’s a common misconception about hope. We tend to think of it as dependent upon a certain outcome. We hope for that final out, raising that final pennant. But that’s not really what hope is about.

Hope isn’t about what happens someday. It’s about what we do today and why we do it.

Hope is about today, not someday

One of the things that struck me about the Cubs is how they took the time to celebrate each of their 103 victories in the regular season. Their clubhouse pulsated with music and cheers and dance for 10 or 15 minutes after the final out. Their manager, Joe Maddon, called it a key ingredient in their overall accomplishment – taking the time to fully relish each day’s small victory.

Good advice for all of us, no matter our circumstance.

Life is so big and full of so much – smiles and tears, steps and stumbles, confusion and clarity, accomplishment and failure. We can fall into the trap of setting long-term goals and losing sight of the importance of today.

Hope is always about today. It’s about savoring each small victory, absorbing each setback, and moving forward to make our world a little bit better in some way.

Savoring each day’s small victories

Hope embraces all of it and keeps going. It’s never contingent upon a certain outcome.

One of the most telling vignettes of hope comes from Nazi camp survivor Viktor Frankl. He vividly describes the importance of hope in what seemed like a hopeless situation. Those who lost hope quickly died. Others held onto hope as long as they could and tried to help other prisoners in whatever way they could. They made their lives about each moment, each day.

They lived with audacious hope, knowing that their lives might soon end.

Of course, there are those who spend a lot of time trying to extinguish hope. They try to foster a sense of hopelessness so that they can manipulate us. They tell us that they’re the only ones who can save us.

It’s so toxic.

Instead, we need to live in hope.

When this World Series ends, one city will be delirious over a long-awaited achievement. The other will start thinking about next year. Two sides of the coin of hope.

Same for us.

Flying the flag

Maybe we’ll get to hold the trophy or fly the ultimate victory flag someday. Or maybe not. In the end, that part doesn’t really matter all that much. What matters is putting ourselves fully into today: Celebrating the small victories, absorbing the setbacks, and moving on to the next glorious moment.

Flying that flag every day.

Chemo drips, left-handed layups, and a sleeping baby

baby-with-mom

(Note: It was two years ago tomorrow that I met Lauren Hill for the first time. I showed up for her 5 a.m. basketball practice — yes, 5 a.m. ! — grumbling about having to get up so early. And then I watched this amazing young woman jog up and down the court. She changed my outlook on life in some ways. I wrote this blog about it two years ago. Here is is again in case you missed it. It’s worth thinking about again. — Joe)

My day yesterday started with my usual wake-up routine — sitting in a chair, sipping my first cup of coffee, checking up on Facebook posts — when one of them made me smile.

A long-time friend in Cleveland has endured 250 days of chemotherapy and radiation. He’d just received the results of his latest scan: No trace of cancer anywhere. Yes! Chuck noted that “the collateral damage has been great” from all the chemicals and radiation. He now stumbles around and has trouble typing, both temporary conditions. But he’s cancer-free.

Stumbling, yet still standing.

What a great way to start a day. A friend had a new chance at life.

A few hours later, I wrote a story about Lauren Hill. She’s the freshman basketball player at Mount St. Joseph University who has an inoperable brain tumor. She’s getting ready to play in her first game on Sunday. The tumor has protrusions that squeeze her brain, robbing her gradually of coordination. She’s right-handed, but has to shoot lay-ups with her left hand now because of the cancer. She gets dizzy if she turns her head.

The tumor squeezes, and she squeezes back, holding onto life as tightly as she can. Her life is measured in weeks and days. She’s living them as fully as she can.

The tumor squeezes, and she squeezes back

Loving as much as she can. Making as many left-handed lay-ups as she can.

I finished the story, got ready to head off to a friend’s retirement party, and checked Facebook one more time. Surprise! Another friend had just posted that he, too, received scan results. Mark was diagnosed with colorectal cancer on Nov. 1 last year. The arduous and exhausting treatment program had worked. The cancer is gone.

Mark posted a photo of himself hugging his oncologist as he got the good news.

What a snapshot of life, huh? Beating cancer in two cases, fighting it to the end in the other.

There was more.

Before heading to sleep, I checked my email and read an update from a friend. Her daughter-in-law had gone through a very difficult pregnancy that was a very tough struggle. The baby was born early. All are doing well.

A sacred struggle lived with great love

A life was brought into the world through a sacred struggle, one that starts with our first breath and continues until our last. A struggle that we recognize as an integral part of the greatest gift.

A sacred struggle lived with great love.

Giving birth. Getting chemo drips. Making left-handed lay-ups. Clinging tightly to life even as it sometimes squeezes the life out of us for a little while. Developing a deep appreciation for the challenges and struggles that are exquisite, daunting and divine.

And worth it. Oh so worth it.

Just blink

Firefly2

Fewer fireflies are taking flight these days. In early June, hundreds would rise slowly from the ground at dusk in my neighborhood and start blinking. Now, there’s not so many of them. Their days among us are starting to run out. It makes me sad.

Fireflies are one of my favorite things in life. Have been for as long as I can remember.

Everyone has their stories of chasing them, clasping them loosely in their hand, then depositing them in a jar to watch them do their magic up-close. I remember summers at a cottage near Youngstown, Ohio where the darkness was so deep and rich and the flash of those bugs so magnificent. They’d rise into the trees and turn them into a Christmas display with their nonstop blinking. We’d temporarily capture them, marvel at them, and then let them go.

Don’t believe in magic? Spend a little time watching fireflies do their thing.

What’s always amazed me was how they produce such beautiful light from their little bug bodies. When I got older and learned the science behind the blinking bugs, they became even more magical.

It was cool to learn about their incredibly complicated lighting-up process, called bioluminescence. How the bugs’ little bodies combine oxygen with calcium, adenosine triphosphate (yes, I’m cutting and pasting now!) and a chemical called luciferin to produce an enzyme that’s luminescent. And they do this without producing any heat whatsoever.

Don’t you wish you could do that?

So, that’s how they blink. But why do they blink? To communicate information, apparently, including their intentions to make baby fireflies. Their blinking patterns attract each other. So yes, the blinking you see is fireflies making sure we will have more fireflies next year. And the next year and the next. The blinking will never end.

Pretty miraculous stuff, all in all. I think fireflies are among the creator’s best work.

Last week, it was especially comforting and encouraging to watch the magical bugs take flight. All of the shootings and bombings and hatred in our world made it feel like a very dark place. And I was reminded that it’s only when the world starts to become really dark that the fireflies recognize that it’s time to come out of hiding and light it up.

A good lesson for you and me, no?

There are a lot of bugs that don’t light up. They do nothing to push back the darkness. And then there are others that transform it by doing what comes naturally to them.

Same with people, too.

We don’t need a search light to counterbalance darkness. No powerful flashlight, no enormous bonfire. Most of us have all that we need right inside of us. We have to recognize it and then have the courage to use it — to blink our blink – and put a little light into our darkening world.

And that, too, is pretty magical.

Just blink.