Living in the dustbin

ashes2

I hate dusting. The process seems so useless because dust immediately returns. Why is there so much dust? What’s in that stuff anyway?

 

I did some research and got disturbing answers, including enlarged photos of dust mites that can’t be unseen. I also got a surprise. Turns out that much of that dust in my house is … me.

 

Our bodies shed skin cells as new ones take their place. Each of us is like the Pig-Pen character in “Peanuts,” leaving dustiness wherever we go. We tend to think that someday we’ll turn into a pile of dust, but the process is already in motion.

 

There’s a lot of us in the dust.

 

Some people are celebrating Ash Wednesday today, a necessary reminder that this phase of life is short and precious and must be fully appreciated. Ashes symbolize how our bodies will return fully to their elemental state someday.

 

But the turn-to-dust process has already begun, and so has the rebirthing part. We’re already dust, and we’re already reborn. The process is hard-wired into everyone and everything.

 

It’s how it all works.

 

A poetic story in Scripture reminds that we’re formed from the dust of earth and thus bound intimately to all creation. Science takes it one step further, detailing how in our elemental form we’re made of the same stuff as everything in the universe.

 

Yes, we’re both earth dust and star dust. And everything follows a path of endless transformation, which is a very cool thing even if we sometimes wish it were otherwise.

 

Earth dust and star dust

Death is a necessary ingredient in the process. Without it, nothing new could appear. New life is created out of the space created when something else is let go.

 

All things are continuously made new, including us.

 

Faith itself is about daily transformation, shedding old ways and replacing them with new. As the saying goes, old wineskins must be discarded. If we cling to the old, we’ll watch it turn to dust in our hands.

 

As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it, “Almost always when I experience God, it comes in the form of some kind of death and resurrection. … It’s about spiritual physics. Something has to die for something new to live.”

 

When we recognize the spiritual physics at work — the intimacy between death and rebirth — we worry a little less about future burial and focus more on nurturing the life being reborn within us and around us.

 

All things new

Spirituality is about embracing the daily transformation. “Dying to self” involves gradually letting go of selfishness, fear, prejudice, judgment, insecurity, ego – anything that prevents us from loving more deeply and inclusively.

 

Our spiritual exfoliation creates room for compassion and empathy and joy and hope and healing. We become more invested in transforming ourselves and our world.

 

This process also works on our collective level. We see it unfolding in our society right now.

 

A culture that has for so long reserved power and privilege for a certain caste — white, wealthy, male, straight, Christian — is being shed, bit by bit, to create space for something new. Some church people are trying to provide life support, but it’s futile. To borrow an expression from Martin Luther King, Jr., such religion is dry as dust and ready for burial.

 

Leave the dead to bury the dead. God is working among the living. Put our focus there. Pay attention to the new life poking up from the ashes. Nurture it, celebrate it and grow it.

 

And feel free to skip the dusting chore if you wish. Consider it a sign of respect. After all, that dust gathered on our shelves and tabletops is you and me.

 

Well, OK, maybe dust once in a while. Those enlarged photos of dust mites are really disgusting.

Here and there and everywhere …

Sam-I-Am3

My editor asked if I was free to attend a media availability promoting a good cause. The featured speaker would be available for interviews beforehand.

“Would you like to interview Dr. Seuss?” the editor said.

Wait, what? Dr. Seuss? Are you kidding me? Yes!!!!

Theodor Geisel has been an integral part of my life since I learned to read. “Green Eggs and Ham” was one of the first books assigned in my school. I remember standing and reading passages aloud in class. I loved the rhyming verses and silly drawings.

That Sam-I-Am took me by the hand and led me into a new world.

So, I was excited to meet Geisel. And nervous. I mean, what do you ask Dr. Seuss? Where you do even begin?

I arrived early at the hotel ballroom for the event, hoping to get some one-on-one time. I spied Geisel standing in a corner of the room talking to someone.

I was star-struck.

I hesitantly walked over, introduced myself and shook his hand. I was immediately struck anew by his shyness. I’d read that he was rather private by nature. I could tell he was uncomfortable with attention.

I blurted something about how it was a thrill to meet him and how “Green Eggs and Ham” was my first book and … well, I babbled too long and shook his hand entirely too eagerly.

I’m guessing it was the trazillionth time that he’d heard the same thing. His response was gracious and grateful, which I found charming.

And that’s pretty much all I remember about meeting Dr. Seuss.  The rest of the session was unremarkable, which is itself a remarkable thing.

You couldn’t tell from Geisel’s demeanor that he was anyone important. You got no glimpse of whatever amazing Jing Tinglers and Flu Floopers and Who Hoovers and Gar Ginkers were darting through his brain.

Just another person — that’s Who he was.

Herding a cat into a hat

In retrospect, it wasn’t surprising. Writers are most comfortable sitting solitary at a keyboard, trying to lasso a few of the slippery ideas racing through their brains and confine them to words. It’s a harrowing process that’s often futile, much like herding a cat into a hat.

The process ends when the writer wearies of the wrestling and shares their unsatisfying sentences as a personal-and-imperfect gift to the rest of the world.

It’s never really about the writer; it’s more about their gift.

Dr. Seuss’ gift taught me more than just an appreciation for words well-used. He also taught life lessons off that plate of green eggs and ham.

Sam-I-Am warned me against pushing away what seems different and unfamiliar – I need to get beyond the surface. He taught me about the danger of judging anything or anyone based upon color or size or shape or anything else.

The overriding message I gleaned: Don’t live in a bubble. Don’t shrink life down to some small theological, political, cultural or personal set of assumptions.

Life is so much bigger and more amazing than our prejudices.

Instead, take the chance of really getting to know something – or someone – who seems different in some superficial way. Acquaint ourselves with our wonderful diversity and be open to adjusting our worldview with each new experience.

Oh, and one more thing: Don’t be indifferent.

A whole awful lot

Geisel died in 1991 – today, March 2 is his birthday – but that important message gets passed to each generation that turns the pages afresh. As one line from “The Lorax” puts it: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

When we open our eyes and our hearts to see people and things in a different way – that’s when change big and small happens within us and all around us.

It can happen on a boat, with a goat. In a box, with a fox. In the rain, on a train. It can happen here and there and everywhere.

And it will happen, so long as you and I care, a whole awful lot.

MLK and dry-as-dust religion

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Martin Luther King, Jr., sought not only to change society, but to reform religion as well. From the start, he challenged people of faith to recognize the demands of their faith and live them courageously.

He challenges us today.

He reminds us that we can’t call ourselves people of faith if we lack interest in how people are being treated. We can’t be indifferent to the suffering of others and claim that we’re living by the admonition to love one another.

King understood that people of faith are not only obligated to transform their societies through the power of love, they’re in a unique position to do so.

As a young pastor in Montgomery — in the heart of Klan country — MLK noted that so many churches were talking about heaven but ignoring the injustices right outside their doors. He said any religion that’s not concerned with how God’s children are being treated is “a dry-as-dust religion.”

The Civil Rights Movement got its flashpoint when Sunday school teacher Rosa Parks decided faith impelled her to resist an unjust transportation system. Black church leaders used the moment to push for equality for all God’s children.

Many white churches resisted. Years later, when he was imprisoned for a march in Birmingham, MLK wrote his famous letter pushing back against white clergy urging him to be silent and go away.

King wrote in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that any church which fails to bring God’s values to bear on conditions in our world “will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning” for contemporary times.

Irrelevant social clubs

King observes how young people in particular were drifting away, their disappointment turning into disgust for what was being passed off as church in so many instances.

He was prophetic.

A half-century later, millions have left churches that feel dry as dust, searching instead for authentic faith communities. They seek the places that are rooted in love and follow the historical summons to care for the needy, welcome the stranger, embrace the refugee, heal the sick, and challenge systems that harm God’s children.

They’ve given up on churches that are fixated on sex and indifferent to injustice. They want nothing to do with places that are invested in liturgy but lacking in love.

Breathe new life into dust

Love is the foundation of all living religion, and it isn’t a feeling or an ideal. It’s a commitment to treat others as ourselves and stand with those who are marginalized.

When we’re animated by such faith, we follow wherever it leads us, even when the path is unpopular, unsettling, uncharted and unsafe.

If our lives aren’t enlivened by such love, then they’re dry as dust. MLK reminds us that when we refuse to stand up for what is right, our lives have essentially ended. If our lives stand for nothing more than self-interest, it’s as though we’re not even here.

This summons to people of faith extends to us today.

Love — the real thing — can breathe new life into any life, society or religion that has become dry as dust. Love and love alone has the power to resurrect.

“With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
— from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Aug. 28, 1963

The power of our words

mlk spotlight

Martin Luther King, Jr., understood the power of words.

He spoke so beautifully and prophetically about his dream of a world in which everyone is treated as an equally beloved child of God. He challenged society to live up to its founding words of equality, liberty and justice for all.

His enduring words reengage us, reorient us and reenergize us in the daily struggle to decide our values and live up to them.

Words matter because they always take on flesh in some form.

Words have the power to inspire us, touch us, and transform us for better or worse, depending upon which words we choose to allow inside of us. They can bring us more peace, love and justice, or they can increase our levels of division, fear and hatred.

In the last few months, we’ve been reminded how easy it is to get sucked into the pool of hateful words.

A man immersed in racist words shot people in a Kentucky grocery store. A man immersed in fearful words sent bombs to people labeled as threats. A man immersed in anti-Semitic words killed people in a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Words can inject poison into our veins, or they can be a healing antidote. They can bring illuminating hope, or they can appeal to our darkest instincts.

Words have power

MLK showed us how to change societies in nonviolent ways using nonviolent language. He reminded us that love involves recognizing each person as a child of God and respecting their human dignity, even if they don’t do the same for us.

We can’t return a slur or insult with one of our own. We can’t demean anyone or support those who demean others.

Our aim is never to harm any person, but to challenge their way of thinking and to defend those whom they are hurting. We must disagree and resist without being hateful.

This weekend is a fitting time to remember three important things about words:

First, it’s so very tempting to respond to incendiary, angry words with incendiary and angry language of our own. But when we do that, we’re giving power to the hateful words. We can’t go down that path.

Second, we can harm people with our silence as well as our words. Refusing to stand up against injustice – swallowing our words in the face of something that’s wrong – makes us complicit in the injustice.

Last, we must hold not only ourselves but also our leaders accountable for their words.

Silence can harm too

Religious, political and social leaders all have a “bully pulpit.” Their words are amplified throughout our society and will either elevate it or debase it. Leaders shape attitudes and inspire actions with their spoken and typed words.

When anyone in a leadership role uses language that marginalizes, demonizes or demeans, we must push back strongly, withhold our support, and hold them accountable.

This weekend reminds us how words can lead us forward or hold us back. They can promote goodness or spread darkness. They can inspire a dream or encourage destruction.

The enduring challenge is to choose our words carefully, speak them prophetically and live them courageously.

Grief, joy and a mom’s ceramic reindeer

Rudolph

My mom had multiple sclerosis and was limited to a wheelchair for her last 15 years. When she couldn’t navigate the house anymore, she moved into a retirement apartment and made new friends.

The apartment offered social activities, including a pottery class. My mom joined and made gifts for family and friends. Each Christmas, we’d receive new ornaments and holiday figures.

She made the Rudolph figure above. She was particularly proud of it. She kept it and placed it next to the small tree in her living room each year. When she died, I inherited it. Every Christmas since, I’ve place it next to my tree.

Holding the figure – the same one she held so tightly and painted so carefully – helps me feel connected to her. I sense her continued presence in my life.

It wasn’t always this way.

The first few Christmases after she died were difficult. Hanging her ceramic ornaments on the tree and setting Rudolph next to it made me miss her even more. It was akin to yanking the bandage off a wound that’s just starting to heal.

I felt I’d not only lost her, but Christmas, too.

Several family members and close friends are experiencing that same feeling this holiday season. They’ve lost someone or some important relationship. Entering a new year feels like closing a door behind them.

Those first years are so difficult! The pain can overpower. Joy seems elusive. There’s an overriding sense that things will never be the same, never as good.

All the talk of good cheer can get swallowed in that black hole.

As I gained distance from my mom’s death, the pain slowly subsided and made room for something else. Pain has been replaced by presence.

Pain replaced by presence

Whenever I look at the reindeer figure now, I think of all the holidays when she was in some sort of pain and yet made Christmas special for us. And now we live in her spirit and do the same for each other.

She’s still here in all of this. The circle is unbroken.

Whenever I hold the reindeer figure, I think of how she held it and put so much of herself into it. How she carefully painted the brown eyes, the long lashes and the red nose, trying so hard to get them just right.

And then she looked at it and smiled, the same way I smile when I look at it now. She put herself into that figure the same way she put herself into her family – so much careful work, so much love, so much attention to detail.

Those things never go away. They form a bond can’t be broken.

That is, after all, the Christmas message: Love is strongest of all, always stronger than hate or fear or the thing we call death. Nothing can separate us from powerful love.

Which brings us to joy.

Joy is mentioned a lot during the holiday season – joy to the world — and yet it seems so distant and alien and elusive when we’re feeling grief and emptiness. But joy and sadness aren’t mutually exclusive; they co-exist. They’re partners, in a sense.

As I’ve gotten older and experienced loss, I’ve realized that joy isn’t a feeling. It’s more of a mindset or a lifestyle grounded in the recognition that life and love endure, even when they change forms.

Joy is a close relative of gratitude and appreciation. It encourages us to step back, realize we’re still in good hands, and smile through our watery eyes.

One more thing about joy: It’s not personal, but collective. We create and share joy together.

Love is strongest of all

Joy involves helping each other through our pain. We sit with each other, hold hands, remind each other that we’re never alone. We don’t tell each other to cheer up or smile or be joyful; we simply give each other our presence.

That’s joy at work.

One of my favorite descriptions of this work comes from Francis of Assisi, who reminds us so beautifully and poetically that when we encounter hatred in someone’s heart, we bring love that can transform it.

Where there is doubt, we bring faith. Despair, hope. Darkness, light.

And where there is sadness, joy.

Not a joy that minimizes or ignores the sadness, but a joy that sits down next to it and listens to it. A joy that’s strong enough to help us through those moments and transform them.

A joy that’s expressed through something as simple as holding a hand. Or holding a ceramic reindeer.

Near, dear, and not-so-departed

Day of the dead18

All Saints’ Day. All Souls’ Day. All Hallows’ Eve. The Day of the Dead. Our various celebrations this week remind us of a truth that is at the core of so many of our religious and cultural traditions.

Death can’t separate us from love. Those who love us are with us always. They’re near, dear, and not-so-departed. They remain an intimate and important part of our daily journey of becoming more loving people and building a more just society together.

We’re reminded that death isn’t about destruction; it’s a moment of holy transformation that takes us even deeper into life. We trade our heartbeat for a deeper place in the heart of God who is love, a heart that remains active and involved in our world.

Those who die remain part of our lives, available for more love, inspiration and relationship. That’s been the message all along.

Wrapped snugly around us

The gospels share a story of Jesus receiving a visit from two dead people – Moses and Elijah – to talk about his ministry. There are other accounts of dead people contacting the living. The resurrection stories remind us that death can’t break our connection to Jesus’ embodied spirit of love – he is with us always.

Over the centuries, the church has recognized and celebrated the “communion of saints” – we’re still in intimate union with those who have died. Some traditions encourage seeking their wisdom and guidance.

Various faiths and cultures throughout human history have drawn us to this truth in their own ways. Even our pop culture recognizes it. Star Wars and Harry Potter depict family and friends remaining active in our lives, giving us their presence and direction. Paul McCartney wrote a song about his departed mother – Mary – coming to him in a dream with words of wisdom.

Many people have their own stories of a loved one appearing in a dream or some other form at important times in their lives, bringing comfort or guidance. It’s universal across generations, religions and cultures.

There’s something there, even though we can’t wrap our limited brains and our limited experiences around it. We think in three-dimensional ways, but there are other dimensions at work. Faith encourages us to recognize the spiritual dimension which is intimately bound with all.

Or, to put it another way: Creation is all one thing, like a giant blanket. There are many threads on the blanket, all woven tightly together. When someone dies, they move from one thread to an adjacent one, but they’re still wrapped snugly around us, and not just in some metaphorical way,

Their paths and ours continue to overlap. We still travel together.

This can be a great comfort when we ache for their touch and experience the pain of missing their voice, their laugh, their reassurance that we are loved and never alone. We can quiet our minds and go deeper inside our hearts and hear them again.

We still travel together

It’s also a reassurance in our daily struggle to bring love and justice more deeply into our world. Our spiritual ancestors who struggled before us – who dedicated their lives to equality for all God’s children – are still participating in the struggle with us. Death doesn’t end our involvement in the movement; it merely transforms it.

We can take reassurance and courage from knowing that those loving and prophetic people still march with us, work with us, guide us and lead us. And when each of us moves on, we will remain part of the struggle, too.

As Paul puts it, there is nothing that can separate us from God’s powerful love, not even death itself. I’d say the same thing about those who love deeply. Nothing can separate us from their love, either.

Certainly nothing as small as death.

On the square: Lives written with the same words

Market Square

Market Square in downtown Pittsburgh was vibrant on the autumn afternoon that Gloria and I visited. Folks got a cup of coffee or a sandwich from one of the surrounding shops, sat at a table and enjoyed the company of strangers on a delightful day.

Some read books. Some listened to music. Some talked. One couple chased their young boy around. People made eye contact and smiled. Everyone was in their own space yet sharing this space.

I couldn’t help but wonder about each person’s story.

For instance, there was an older couple sitting nearby, holding hands and sharing one cigarette. How did they meet? What tough times have they overcome? What is it about each other that makes them smile?

Oh, and why only one cigarette?

Each one’s story

On the other side of the square, a couple doted on their young boy, encouraging him to run and watch the pigeons fly away. Will this moment become a fond memory for all of them? How many times have they been to the square already, enjoying the miracle of watching a child grow step by step?

Soon, a group of high school boys walked briskly through the square on their way home. Two boys in front were teasing one of the others. A boy in the back of the pack hung back a few steps and looked unhappy. Had he been teased? Does he get teased often for being different? Did he have that teenage feeling of wondering if you’ll ever fit in?

From the other direction came a student from the nearby college. She walked briskly and appeared troubled. Was she away from home for the first time and feeling homesick? Missing someone who had always been there for her? Wondering how she was going to get through the semester?

A family of Middle Eastern descent found an open table. They spoke in their native language. How have they been treated lately in their adopted country? What do they tell the children about our times? Do they live in fear?

A young man set up shop on a corner of the square, offering to draw portraits for $10. He was an extrovert, happily welcoming anyone who walked by. How did he learn to draw? Who are the most unforgettable people he’s met in this place?

As I looked around, I wondered how many of the people on the square had overcome cancer or some horrific health problem. Which ones were grieving the recent loss of a loved one. Which ones just got good news – a clear scan result, a promotion, a pregnancy test that came back positive – that had them feeling more alive than ever.

Each of us was in our own little world and also sharing our world with everyone else. Places like Market Square reminds us of our innate connectedness.

The same words

We give into our tendency to fixate on superficial differences, and we create opposing categories — young or old, male or female, gay or straight, single or married, black or white, Democrat or Republican, this religion or that one, this sports team or another one, and on and on. We draw many lines between ourselves and others.

As we do so, we overlook how we’re so much alike at our core. We’re all made from the same ingredients. We’re all doing our best to try to navigate through life at any given moment, in our own unique and yet universal way.

Our stories differ in their details but not in their genre. All our stories fit on the same shelf marked “human,” tucked snugly next to each other, cover to cover. When we listen to others’ stories, we’re reminded of our similar experiences and familiar feelings.

In swapping stories, we recognize that our lives are written with the same words.

As the shadows grew longer in the late-afternoon sun, the older couple got up – still holding hands – and walked away, taking turns sharing drags off that one cigarette.

They were walking each other home. Like all of us.