Chocolates and ashes, love and dust

Ash valentines

An older man walked into a local candy store last month and said he wanted a box of chocolates for his wife. He told the store owner which ones she favors – the dark chocolates — and the box was soon filled and wrapped with a red ribbon.

What was the occasion?

The man noticed that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincide this year. He knows how much his wife loves chocolate. He also knows that she gives them up for Lent every year.

He didn’t want her to miss one of her joys. By getting her chocolates early, she could enjoy her treat and give it up for Lent, too.

The man found a creative way to honor the spirit of a day that points us in two directions that aren’t as opposite as we might think.

No better pairing

On the surface, this year’s confluence of chocolates and ashes seems to produce an odd couple. But it’s fitting to have one day of celebrating love in all its forms while also recognizing our mortality.

Love and dust? There’s no better pairing.

The ashes remind us that this phase of life is limited. We all lose sight of how much each day is a precious gift. We fail to see the many possibilities for gratitude, celebration and love that are present each day.

The hearts remind us that love creates us, animates us and sustains us through every one of our limited days. Love gives us this day and all its glorious possibilities. Love is for everyone whose lives we can touch in some way, even strangers a half a world away.

Together, they remind us that we’ve got to decide how we’ll use today. Will we bring more division, pain and indifference into our world? Or will we choose to do all that we can to make the world more as God would have it?

Lent sharpens our focus on what matters. It challenges us to get re-grounded and find creative ways to bring healing and love to others, especially the marginalized and the needy and the victims of abuse.

Lent prompts us to examine what’s getting in the way of giving and receiving love in our lives. It calls out the insecurities and fears that form walls. It challenges our prejudices.

Daily chances to make a difference

Above all, it forces us to see injustice and do something about it; to recognize those who are hurting and find a way to help them heal; to reach out to the outcast and the refugee and invite them to be with us.

We mustn’t waste the daily chances that God provides to make a difference.

Ultimately, Lent encourages us to forge a trail of love through our daily dustiness and to transform our ashy selves with creative acts of compassion. It reminds us that we are physical beings for now — formed in the elements of stardust — but we’ll always be animated by a breath of life and love that wants to guide us.

So, let’s heed the Valentine/Ash reminder. And let’s pray for the faith and the courage to live each day boldly, kindly, and joyfully right up to the day when we exchange our heartbeat for a deeper place in God’s heart, which is love.

Twelve kind jurors


We filed into the courtroom and sat before the judge. I was part of the pool of prospective jurors for a trial – my latest stint of jury duty.

The bailiff seated 12 of us in the jury box to begin the selection process. I and the others sat in the benches, waiting to see if we were needed.

The judge told us that we were chosen for a murder trial. There would be graphic autopsy photos and video of a nasty fight that led to the shooting. If any of us felt we weren’t up for that, we would be excused and assigned to a different trial.

Hearing his words made me swallow hard. One prospective juror asked to be excused. The rest of us felt like leaving, too, but decided to stay. Someone had to do this duty.

I ended up as the first alternate juror. The trial lasted more than a week. The 14 of us – 12 jurors and two alternates – listened to hours of testimony and saw evidence from DNA and gunshot residue testing.

We wrestled with how we held a person’s fate in our hands. It was intense and emotional. Also, inspiring.

We were as diverse a group and you’ll find when we reported for duty in mid-January, a group of strangers with a wide range in age, race, ethnic background and religion.

As different as could be

We live in different neighborhoods. We’ve had very different life experiences. There were single people and married people on the jury, parents and grandparents. There were people who love Cincinnati-style chili and those who despise it.

How do I know all this? We told each other.

Jurors aren’t allowed to discuss a case until deliberations begin, so the one topic we all had in common was off-limits for the week of testimony. Instead, we talked about each other during the many pauses in the trial.

We learned about each other’s medical conditions. We knew who had a sick kid. We shared our life stories. When we reconvened each morning, we’d ask how that sick child did overnight. Or how the commute went. Whether there was any news about that job prospect.

People brought muffins to share for breakfast. They offered a ride home to those who had arrived by bus on a cold day. They encouraged each other with a smile or a small joke during a break from the trial’s grim images.

We became like family. There was so much kindness in that jury room.

It made me think of one of my favorite passages from Paul, the one that’s used at a lot of weddings. He writes that love matters more than anything, and he describes its defining traits in beautiful and poetic language.

He says first that love is patient, which makes sense – there can be no love without patience. We must be patient with others and with ourselves as we grow and learn.

Then he says love is kind. Kindness is love embodied — in a word, a touch, an act, a moment of attention. Where kindness is present, so is love. If kindness is absent, there is no love, either.

It’s tempting to look at our society, read the headlines, hear the harsh words and conclude that kindness is a thing of the past. So many other things dominate the headlines – conflict, division, greed, self-interest.

It’s in our divine DNA

Before we reach any such conclusion, we should stop, look and listen to the many everyday expressions of kindness all around us. It’s everywhere — even if it’s not the top story on the news – and it’s central to who we are.

It’s in our divine DNA. It’s the glue that holds us together, the healing touch for whatever ails or divides us.

For two weeks, I saw many small moments of kindness pull together a group of strangers. I was reminded that despite our surface differences, we’re all the same — people who just need a smile, a word of encouragement, a little love as they get through the day.

Our society and our world are in turbulent times – aren’t they always? Kindness is the way out of the darkness. It can bring us together and heal us, if we let it.

In a world where we can be anything, let’s remember to be kind.

Grace in aisle three


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.


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 ride home on Christmas eve


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

The waiting part was no surprise. Dad was late again.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. My mom said the experience changed him. He brought some demons home with him.

Those demons seemed to emerge during the holidays. My dad would get off work from the butcher shop and head across the street to a bar. His co-workers would have a holiday drink and go home. My dad would stay and drink, trying to drown those demons.

On this Christmas eve, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

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

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited. My mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor

Finally, headlights lit up the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, but it wasn’t my dad’s car. We could see 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 from the bar. Not the first time.

The driver got out, went around the car and helped my dad get to the front door. My mom opened the door. We got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home? A black man.

Understand this: We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. I’d never seen a black person in my neighborhood. 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 a lot of racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

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

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to have something to eat. He graciously accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him and my mom and my brother. I’m guessing it was the first and only time he had pierogies and mushroom soup.

He saw he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom what had happened that night. The black man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized that he was in no condition to drive, and decided to give him a ride home.

He could have found any number of reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car — always a risk of 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.

Why bother with him?

There are so many ways he could have justified keeping a distance. But he didn’t. Instead, he thought about how my dad could end up killing himself after getting behind the wheel, and maybe killing someone else, too.

He could do something about it, so he did.

And he changed everything about my life – more than any of us will ever know.

A year later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. My family had many good times with him over the years, times we might not have gotten if not for that courageous black man.

One act changes everything

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? There were a lot of people on the road. How many other lives did the man save with his brave decision to give my dad a ride?

I never saw that man again. I think about him every Christmas eve, though. He could still be alive. I’m thankful for what he did for me and for many others that night with his compassionate act. It changed so much – more than any of us can know.

I’m also reminded that each of us changes so much with each act of kindness, more than any of us will ever know.

Every Christmas eve, I pray for the man who had the kindness to drive my dad home and change my life in unknowable ways. And I pray for the courage to be more like him.

Maybe you could, too.