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.

Grams’ lesson in persistent love

Grams

My grandmother’s name is Ann, but we’ve always called her Grams – just Grams. Her birthday is today, so it’s made me think about her again. And smile again.

Grams has made me smile a lot over the years, often by finding humor in something when I couldn’t see it by myself. She’s taught me a lot over the years, too, like how to appreciate a really good cup of coffee (that’s one of her mugs above) and how to make pierogi from scratch so that that don’t fall apart when you cook them.

She was independent and feisty and lively, even when the arthritis in her legs slowed her. And she understood the importance of persistence, especially when it came to love.

Her husband died of cancer when her three daughters were young. Friends and relatives told her to find another husband to support her – that’s what women did back then. Uh-uh, not Grams. She found a babysitter and went to work at a business where women weren’t exactly welcomed. She didn’t care what they thought – she had a family to support!

She did it her way, raising her daughters and building a family that grew with each wedding and each birth.

Persistent about life and love

When I was young, my family had some tough years. I remember many times when Grams would recognize my worry, pull me tight and reassure me: “Don’t worry, Joey. It’s going to be all right.” She meant it, and so I believed her. She turned out to be right.

She liked to say that life is too short, so don’t shortchange yourself. Don’t waste it. Keep at it. Don’t let anyone mistreat you. Be generous. Help others. And when you care about someone, make sure they know it.

Be persistent about life and love.

And boy, she was persistent, all right. When I was in college and would visit home for a weekend, Grams always called to see how I was doing. She’d invite me over for a cup of coffee. Sadly, I was a busy young person and often turned her down because of other plans with friends. She said that was OK. She never sounded disappointed. She just seemed glad that we had talked.

How cool is that?

Grams was persistent, but not insistent. She taught me that important distinction. Love never insists, it just offers.

Thankfully, I got many more chances to spend time with Grams. We’d get together for holidays or just to hobnob about old times. We’d go to her apartment and make batches of pierogi for Christmas.

No matter what you were doing together, she made you know that she was happy to see you. Without even trying, she reminded you that you were loved.

She had her peculiarities, of course, and that was part of the charm of being Grams. Her apartment was filled with tacky knickknacks from various places she’d visited. She wore wigs over her thinning hair and would keep them arranged on Styrofoam heads. She kept a votive candle burning on her bedroom dresser in front of a small likeness of Jesus. The candle rested on a tray with an image from John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

I miss those things.

Love offers but never insists

Grams died in her apartment from a heart attack years ago. As I was driving home from her funeral, I thought about how incredibly blessed I’ve been to have her in my life. And in the years since, there have been lots of little reminders that she’s still there.

Grams occasionally shows up in dreams – mine and other family members’ — with some guidance. For instance, my sister was taking a nap one afternoon because she’d been up all night with sick kids, and Grams showed up in the dream and told her to go pay attention to our mom. My sister knew not to discount a dream with Grams, so she called my brother and they got to my mom’s apartment just as she was having a stroke. It saved her life.

Pretty freaky, huh?

I’ve share that story with many people, and they’re shared their own stories about dearly departed friends and family showing up in dreams and in other ways, reminding us that they’re still dear but not so departed. We don’t understand how it all works, exactly, but we know there’s something there, something beyond our comprehension.

And none of it is really surprising. After all, persistent love would never let a little thing like death get in the way.

Is she Slovak? A tale as old as time …

Walls3

I grew up in an ethnic neighborhood, the grandchild of Slovak immigrants. When I started dating, I got asked a question: “Is she Slovak?”

That sounds odd, but it makes sense. Immigrants cherished their cultures and traditions. Their food, their language, their polkas – all were a source of comfort in the new world.

They wanted their traditions to persist and thrive, so they thought it important for Slovaks to stay with Slovaks. And Italians with Italians. And Hungarians with Hungarians. And the Polish with the Polish.

And so on, with so on.

Other relatives had very different question when they heard I was dating. They’d ask: “Do you like her?”

Such different approaches to relationship within one family!

It’s a tale as old as time: Is relationship about love primarily, or about something else? The two approaches have been in a constant tug throughout human history.

Although we enjoy fairy tales about love overcoming great obstacles, in reality the other viewpoint has carried the day most often. In real life, lowly Cinderella isn’t invited to dance with a prince. And Beauty can’t love the Beast.

This month highlights that tug again: Is relationship primarily about love or something else?

Beauty isn’t allowed to love the Beast

Fifty years ago this month, the Supreme Court struck down laws against interracial marriage. Two years ago this month, the court ruled for marriage equality.

We saw that clash of ideas clearly defined in the marriage equality ruling. The majority opinion by Justice Kennedy noted that marriage is an enduring bond that brings people into a deeper intimacy and spirituality.

As part of the dissent, Justice Scalia ridiculed the talk of intimacy and spirituality. He wrote that freedom doesn’t encompass spirituality, and that intimacy is “abridged rather than expanded by marriage.”

Well, what a romantic, huh? In his view, love is more of a prison. And the other dissenting justices argued that law takes precedence over love.

It’s understandable why there would be such a backlash against putting love first in relationship. It shakes things up.

For most of human history, love hasn’t been the essential element in the relationship equation. Women have been treated more as property than persons, unable even to choose their spouse. Royalty couldn’t marry a commoner. Interfaith marriages were opposed by religions. People of different races or ethnic backgrounds met resistance. Gay and transgender people were barred.

Relationships were seen as a way to keep people in their assigned places. Everything else was secondary.

What’s love got to do with it? Well, actually: Love has everything to do with it! Or at least it should.

Love is the starting point for every meaningful human endeavor, the heart of anything truly spiritual and God-filled. Without it, our lives and our relationships become empty voids.

What’s love got to do with it?

As Paul puts it in the familiar passage from Corinthians that’s used at many marriages: We can be the most religious, most amazing, most advanced human being ever but if love isn’t the basis of all that we do, then none of it means anything.

Our lack of love doesn’t diminish our faith and actions; it renders them totally meaningless. And that goes especially for relationship.

Of course, Paul got his ideas from a rabbi who was warned by religious leaders to avoid having relationships with certain kinds people — Samaritans, Romans, Gentiles, tax collectors, fishermen, women, lepers, the poor, the needy, the sick, and on and on. Jesus’ response was to seek out those very people for loving, healing relationship.

He said that love and love alone fulfills the law, not anything else. And his followers must live by the same guideline. Their love must transcend and topple all barriers and limitations.

His love-first approach wasn’t popular then or now. Let’s face it: It’s more comfortable and convenient to make relationship about something else. And we all have a problem with love and relationship. Our fears, our insecurities and our self-doubt get in the way. Our selfishness and our egos get confronted and directly challenged.

Who really wants that???

But here’s the flip side: Loving relationships take us to places that we can’t go by ourselves. Here’s where I strongly disagree with Justice Scalia: Loving relationships aren’t prisons. Rather, love alone frees us from the prison of our insecurities and our fear and our shame and our self-absorption.

Only love can do that

And this goes not only for our most intimate relationships, but for all of them. It includes every encounter with another person at home, at work, in our faith community, on the street, on social media.

So this is a fitting time to recommit ourselves to making love the starting point and the reason for all our relationships. Let’s ask ourselves the question: What’s the loving thing to do right now? And then let’s try our best to do it.

Let’s make love the measure of all that we do. Love and love alone.

I was here …

Curt and Gloria

It was 80 degrees last week when I visited my hometown of Cleveland, perfect for some beach time. Lake Erie is still very cold, and few people ventured into the water. Most sat in the sand and enjoyed feeling the warm breeze on their skin and the sunshine on their face.

The long, cold, lonely winter was gone.

Ah!!!

Next to the public beach is a shaded park area. It’s framed by huge stones that were set in place long ago to prevent erosion. You can walk along the stones, sit on them, and enjoy the view. Many of the stones are covered with carvings by visitors, some from generations ago.

The inscription in the photo above was made on one of the large stones. It made me stop and wonder a few things.

Gloria and Curt: Who are they? How did they meet? What inspired one of them to carve this proclamation of love? Was this rock their special spot? How long did it take to carve this reminder?

How did their story turn out? Did they stay together? Break up? Get married and have kids? Do they come back to this rock now and then and think back on that time when they chiseled their love for everyone to see?

What’s their story?

So many questions! And one observation: Isn’t it interesting that we humans want so dearly to be remembered? How we go to such great lengths to leave a reminder?

Don’t we all want to say in some permanent way: I was here?

In my experience, there’s a little bit of Gloria and Curt in all of us. I’m not good at carving, but I’ve made a small thumbprint at the edge of fresh-poured concrete. (Shhh! Don’t tell anyone!) I’ve built a sand castle and left it behind as my mark on the beach.

A selfie is essentially the same thing. When we take a picture of ourselves in a place and then share it on social media, we’re saying, “Look at me! I’ve been to this place! And now everybody knows it.”

I was here.

Whether it’s our footprints on a beach or our inscription on a rock or our selfie on social media, we enjoy leaving our personal imprint. Each of us does it in our own way, and not just with chisel and hammer.

And not just on places.

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we leave our imprint on the many people we touch. We do it through the ways we interact with them, the examples we set for them, the causes that we champion that affect them.

We all leave marks

Those marks may be hidden deep inside someone, but they mean so much more than anything we set in sand or stone. I remember the small acts that so many people have done for me throughout my life – wisdom imparted, kindness shown – that stuck with me and inspired me and helped to shape me into the person I am.

The hurtful moments leave a mark, too.

Each of us leaves a lasting mark on our world, for better or worse. Each of us has a legacy that endures long beyond our years. And we get to decide our legacy.

We decide what we’ll etch into the lives of others.

One of my favorite verses from the Hebrew scriptures is the one that has our divine parent reminding each of us: “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” It tells each of us that we are loved so deeply, so unconditionally, and so permanently that we are literally carved into the hands of the One who created us and who sustains us.

We are part of Them.

We are here

And it’s not just our name that’s carved on those hands, nor is it just our initials framed by a heart and stamped with a date. No, it’s us – all of us, just as we are. We can’t ever be forgotten, we can’t ever be rejected, we can’t ever be rubbed off

Nothing can erase you or me.

We are here. Always.

Of course, there’s a flip side to it: We must allow others to engrave themselves within our hearts as well. And that part is often painful and unsettling and downright scary.

Love means making ourselves vulnerable enough to allow others inside. Even when they’re etching with shaky hands. Even if they draw with crooked lines. Especially then.

We have to make space for them inside of us and invite them to say in their own way: I am here.

Trying to make hate look pretty

love-hate

I was reading a story about the rise of hate groups, and a quote jumped out at me. The Columbus Dispatch interviewed the leader of a Ku Klux Klan organization about its plans to expand.

Near the end of the story, Amanda Lee defended her group’s actions as something other than hate.

“We don’t hate anybody,” she says in the story. “God says you can’t get into heaven with hate in your heart.”

Wait, what?

How can a group that reveres its history of lynching, bombing and terror contend that it’s not driven by hate? How can anyone think that there’s no hate involved in demeaning and hurting people who are different from you?

If that’s not hate, then what is?

Wait, what?

We’ve heard a lot of similar lines in the last few years from people trying to redefine hate into something more acceptable:

“I don’t hate black people. I just think they’re not as good as white people. And they should stop complaining about how they’re being treated. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate gay and transgender people. I just think they’re horrible sinners – unlike me – and I should be free to discriminate against them in any way I wish. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate Muslims. I just think they’re all dangerous and they should be prevented from practicing their religion in my country. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate women. I just think they should be submissive and accept that they’re not equal to men. And they should be quiet when someone says it’s OK to grab them by the crotch. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate refugees. I just don’t trust any of them – not even the starving babies – and I don’t want them near me. They make me uncomfortable. But that’s not hate.

“I don’t hate poor people. I just wish they’d get off the street corners so I wouldn’t have to see them. I think they’re all lazy and undeserving of help. But that’s not hate.”

There are many variations on the “I don’t hate (fill in the blank) people” theme. I suppose much of it involves people trying to justify their prejudices rather than confront them. Or maybe they’re trying to dress up their ugly ideas so they can gain a following.

Fill in the blank

But I also get a sense that some people who make these statements might actually believe what they’re saying. They think that because they don’t feel all angry and hateful and vicious toward others, then it’s not really hate that’s involved.

We need to talk about this.

Love and hate aren’t about emotions. They’re about attitudes and our actions. Love and hate aren’t about how we feel toward someone, but about how we treat them – what we do or don’t do to them.

To love someone means to treat them as we would want to be treated, regardless of how we feel. When we’re told to love our enemies, it doesn’t mean we feel warm-and-fuzzy about them; it means we respect their inherent human dignity.

Love recognizes that everyone is an equally beloved child of God and must be treated as such by our words and actions. Love values everyone’s dignity and worth as equal to my own.

By contrast, hate rejects another person’s equal value and worth. It sees those who are different from me as less than me in some ways. It creates the conditions for people to be abused and mistreated.

Hate is about attitudes and actions, not emotions.

Choose love instead

One of the most jarring parts of Viktor Frankl’s description of his time in a Nazi extermination camp was how people did such savage things with so little emotion. Hate becomes truly dangerous when human empathy is stripped away.

Let’s also remember that hate has an evil twin – indifference. Hate is given approval to do horrific things when people shrug and say, “Not my problem.”

And let’s not forget that hate and love exist within each of us. That’s what it means to be human. Spirituality involves an ongoing examination of our attitudes and actions to see whether they convey love, hate or indifference, and then choosing to do the most loving thing as best we can.

We need to challenge those who try to dress up hate and misrepresent it as something other than what it is. To do anything less is to give cover to hate and allow it to clothe us in its robes.

Choose to put on love instead.

Earth dust and star dust

stardust3

Growing up Catholic meant that Ash Wednesday was a big deal in our school and our church. Personally, I never cared for it all that much.

Part of the reason was that Ash Wednesday marked the start of giving up something until Easter. Usually, it was the start of doing without candy or soft drinks or ice cream. I recall that one year, a family on my street decided they would give up television for Lent, which seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.

The ashes never thrilled me, either. The pastor of my immigrant church in Cleveland loved the ashes and would make a HUGE, messy sign of the cross on everyone’s forehead, turning them into a giant hot-cross bun for the rest of the day. Of course, we weren’t allowed to wipe off the ashes until we got home, so the little black flakes ended up on everything.

(By contrast, the younger associate priest in the parish would just leave a thumb-print mark of ashes on the forehead. We tried to gravitate to his line.)

Ashes on everything

What bothered me most about the day, though, was the message. It was so dark and seemed to be about beating up people simply for coming up short – which, of course, is the total opposite of the original message.

The person who started the movement went around telling people that they are blessed and beloved and beautiful and worth more than they can possibly imagine. He spent his life trying to build up those who were getting beat down by their religious and economic and social and political systems.

And he said that his followers must do the same. Forgive, embrace, include, heal and love everyone.

I totally get why so many people are turned off by Ash Wednesday, the way it has devolved over the centuries. We’re all bleeding in some ways, and the last thing we need is someone lecturing us on how we deserve to bleed. Instead, we need someone to take the time to stop, gently bandage our wounds, end the bleeding and start the healing.

That’s what the ashes represent – a reminder that every day is a precious gift and we mustn’t waste it. Day by day, we need to grow in love and shine more brightly.

The ashes also remind us that that we are intimately bound to everything and everyone, and we must live as such. The creation stories teach us so beautifully and poetically that everything — including you and me – is made from the same stuff.

In our diversity, we’re kindred creations. And it’s all very, very good.

The star that you are

One of the many cool revelations of science is that everything in the universe is built with the same divine tool box. Everything and everyone is made from the same set of elements, the same holy ingredients.

We are more than sacred earth dust. We are sacred star dust, too.

And like the stars, we are made to shine, each in our own way and in our own place. We’re meant to provide light for the world, and we can’t hide from our responsibility. We mustn’t build walls between ourselves and others and cower in the shadow of fear, insecurity and certitude.

Mostly, we need to stop listening to the voices telling us that we don’t matter, we’re not important, we don’t measure up, we’re not good enough or worthy of unconditional love.

That’s what we need to give up – paying attention to those voices.

Instead, be the star that you are. In your way, bring love and compassion and healing into the world as best you can. Let every speck of dust remind you of the Source of your light and your brilliance.

Go and shine.

No going back

moving-forward

With all that’s happened in 2016 – especially during the last two months — a lot of people are ready to say good riddance and let’s move on to a new year. One that hopefully won’t be so sad and discouraging.

We’re ready for change.

Well, kind of. Well, not really.

Isn’t it interesting how we have this love-hate relationship with change? We crave change in some aspects of our lives, and we do everything we can to block it in other areas.

None of us is totally comfortable with change, which is kind of surprising in a way, seeing as how it’s one of defining human and divine qualities. Change is deeply within us and all around us, who we are and what we’re about.

Our lives begin when two cells meet, create something new and spark a lifelong process of change. Even now, countless cells in our bodies are dying and being replaced by new ones. At our deepest level, we are constantly changing.

All around us and within us

We grow and develop mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And our lives play out in a world that’s also immersed in nonstop change. Life is born and dies and is born again, seasons come and go, our planet zooms through space without pausing for an instant.

Nothing stands still. Ever.

Each of us is a little vessel of change.

Given how change is woven into our very fiber, you might think that we would be a little bit better at accepting and handling it. We all know people who hate change of any sort, and others who crave change and get quickly bored with repetition. I’m guessing that most of us are somewhere closer to the middle of the continuum.

We like new gadgets and changes that make parts of our lives easier. We also have routines that are designed to create a comfort zone and limit change.

Many people resist change when it comes to how they act and think. That’s a tough one for all of us. Change always starts with open-minded questions: Why am I doing this? Can I do it differently and better? What am I missing? How are others doing it? What can I learn from all of this?

Such questions make us uncomfortable. We’re tempted to keep doing things the same way – our way – and pretend there’s no other way. Our minds become closed doors that keep everything in place and rule out any growth.

No going back

We might even fantasize about going back to sometime in the past – the “good old days” – when people who thought like me enjoyed more prominence and never had their ideas questioned. A time when we weren’t challenged to adapt to all the change that is the nature of life.

Of course, those olden times didn’t really exist the way we imagine them. Change has always been a constant. We really can’t freeze ourselves in time.

And the really sad part is that when we try to stay stuck in the past, we become an acorn that’s never planted. Our hard, impenetrable shell prevents us from becoming what we’re meant to evolve into.

We never grow.

Sadly, much of what passes for religion has become this way – heads in the past, resistant to change, devoid of the growth that is the signature of Life. So many “religious” people have abandoned a core trait of spirituality: Openness to a Creator who makes all things new every day and wants to transform each of us a little bit more each day.

Too bad. They’re missing out on what life and love are all about. But they always have the chance to change, if they wish. That’s the great part of change – it’s always there to be celebrated and lived, even if we’ve wasted a lot of time trying to resist its all-inclusive embrace.

A New Year’s wish

So, in the coming year, may you experience many amazing changes.

May you have some new insights each day. May you grow into someone even more beautiful than you already are. Maybe your thoughts and your attitudes and your spirit be touched and transformed by Love.

May you be planted anew in some ways and sprout from the warm ground and reach up to the beautiful sky. May you be watered by all the change around you. May you bloom for all to see.

May you become wiser, more loving, more at peace.

May you change the world for the better.