Hashtags and prayers are only the beginning

Bullet

The achingly-familiar reaction started before we knew all that had happened. Posts on social media encouraged us to pray for Las Vegas. Tweets sent #prayers to the victims and their families.

It’s all so unacceptably familiar.

Columbine. Aurora. Fort Hood. Sandy Hook. Virginia Tech. San Bernardino. Orlando. Las Vegas. What place will be next?

We see the horrifying images that remind us of the horrifying images from the countless other shootings — different place, different massacre, same sick feeling. We dust off our “Pray for the people of (fill in the blank)” and hashtag a prayer their way.

And then we do nothing to prevent it from happening again. Which means we’re really not praying at all.

It’s not enough to mourn the victims of gun violence, say a prayer, and move on. That’s not how prayer works. Prayer always involves an openness to be God’s answer in changing the status quo.

Prayer always involves change

What are we going to do about it? Will we work to change our society’s embrace of guns and violence? Or will we do nothing and simply wait for the next, even worse massacre?

This is on you and me.

The words of a prayer are only a starting point. Those words can be empty, or they can become the most powerful thing in the world. It depends upon whether we’re willing to become the answer.

Prayer always involves change — change in us and in our world. It always involves taking a risk, which is why prayer is such radical stuff at its core.

Prayer is more than a request; it’s a commitment. If we’re not willing to engage ourselves and our world in a challenge to do better, then we’re the ones falling down on the job.  Saying a prayer and moving on is never sufficient.

Prayer is powerful and personal and always involves a response on our part.

That’s how prayer works

We pray for the person who is hungry, and then we feed them. We pray for the person who is bleeding by the side of the road, and then we help them. We work to change our systems so that we have fewer people hungry and fewer people bleeding in our streets and in our schools and in our churches and in our nightclubs and in our music festivals.

Look, we have a pretty good idea of what God is waiting on us to do. What parent wants their children murdering each other daily? It’s up to us to change it.

We don’t do that by accepting violence and clinging to our weapons. Nor do we do it by defending the status quo. Or by being indifferent. Or by throwing up our hands and saying the problem is too big.

And it sure doesn’t mean waiting for God to wave some magic wand to make it all go away. That’s not the way it works. We created the problem; God has already given us all that we need to fix it.

You’ve prayed for peace and healing? Good! Now start working for it.

This is on you and me.

Instruments of change

Yes, advocating for peace is exasperating and makes us vulnerable, but that’s how it works. We have to be patient and persistent. Love is patient and persistent. We have to have the audacity to respond to hatred and fear with an unflinching love that heals and shows a different way.

All of those prayers in the past two days? We’ve already received our answer: God wants to use us as instruments of change.

We make the guns. We glorify the violence. We accept the status quo. It’s on us to fix this. God is with us and has given us all that we need. The rest is up to you and me.

Time to get off our butts and do it. Time to get off our hashtags and start praying for real.

What’s your recurring bad dream?

Fears

Gloria and I were eating at a cafe by the side of the trail, enjoying a warm September evening after a bike ride. Our server was a young man named Phillip, a recent college graduate who is adjusting to his new phase in life — and new nightmares, too.

“I’ve started dreaming that I’m headed to class, but I don’t know which class or where it is,” he said. “I’m lost.”

We laughed with him and reassured him that’s a universal dream that stubbornly refuses to go away long after you’ve left school. It spans generations and haunts our sleep.

And not just school dreams.

A minister friend recently posted on Facebook that one of his recurring dreams for many years had him standing in front of a congregation with no sermon prepared. When I started as a sports writer, I’d dream that I was covering a game which just ended, and I didn’t know what had happened so I had no idea what to write.

It’s funny how so many of those dreams involve being lost or unprepared.

I’ve had other types of bad dreams.

When I was a boy, I’d dream that something was chasing me and I couldn’t run – my legs wouldn’t move. Or I’d dream about falling from a great height. When I got older and started flying as part of my job, I’d dream that I was on a jet coming in too low for landing, darting between narrow buildings.

The scary things that chased me never caught me, the plane never crashed, but the dreams left me unsettled when I woke up.

Our subconscious fears don’t stay locked away at night. They find the key to the cell door and escape. We get visited by ghosts of things that we regret from the past, fear in the present and worry about in the future.

Universal fears come out at night

Sometimes, we think that we’re the only one with bad dreams, especially when we wake up in the middle of the night and feel alone. Others on the block are having the same toss-and-turn moments as well.

It’s universal. You just have to raise the subject of bad dreams to find that out.

I’m glad Phillips had the courage to share his frightening dreams. One of the best ways to deal with them is to talk about them, bring them into the light of day, confront them and laugh at them.

That’s one way to break their subconscious grip on us. The alternative is to let those below-the-surface fears run our lives.

I wonder if we’ve become so divided and alienated lately because we’ve stoked those fears and let them direct our decisions. Our fears become driving forces in our politics, religion and society.

The fear of being lost, overlooked, alone, threatened, vulnerable, hurt, helpless – the plot twists for our bad dreams _ can settle into our waking hours, too, if we let it. We’re the ones who make our bad dreams come true.

By contrast, if we acknowledge our fear and talk about it, it loses some of its power over us. We begin to make decisions based upon hope and goodness rather than our nightmare scenarios.

A few days after our trail-side chat with Phillip, I drove past a local college campus. A group of students crossed at the corner. One backpack-toting student looked very young – a freshman, I assumed – and seemed to be very uneasy over something.

I thought about my first few weeks on campus – far from home, living with someone you don’t know, every part of your life turned upside-down. You’re challenged in ways you never imagined.

Keeping fear where it belongs

You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Unfamiliar things are all around. And those fears begin to form in your subconscious like a sludge that sticks and stays and gums thing up.

That young man will start having those lost-on-campus dreams soon, if he hasn’t already. If he shares them, he’ll realize he’s not alone. Others are here to reassure him and help him live beyond it.

That’s how we keep fear where it belongs – only in our dreams.

Moments of awe and wonder

Lake Erie sunset

As the sun slid slowly toward the horizon, the clouds above and the lake below sparkled in brilliant, changing colors. I was back home in Cleveland for a few days this week and went to the beach to watch a sunset.

It had been a long time since I experienced one of my favorite things.

There’s something about standing on a beach at sunset that makes me feel both very small and very important at the same time. Being connected to the sky, the water and the earth gives me a sense of belonging and gratitude.

Others walked along the beach and splashed in the waves as the sunset performed its magic. I stood there and watched with a sense of wonder and awe.

All I could think was: Wow!!! Just wow!

When the sun slipped below the horizon and the sky’s colors started dimming into shades of gray, I turned and headed away. And I asked myself why I don’t do this more often.

The sun rises and sets every day in such spectacular ways. Why don’t I pay more attention?

Caught up in wonder

I’m bad at math, but by my calculation I’ve been given the gift of 22,570 sunsets and sunrises in my lifetime. Think of that – more than 22,000! Yet, how many of them have I actually noticed?

Very few, to be honest. I get so busy and caught up in the everydayness of life that I don’t remember to stop what I’m doing, look up and go: Wow!

And I’m the one missing out.

Deeply spiritual people remind us that those moments of awe and wonder bring us an experience of the Creator as well as the amazing creation. Such moments are drenched in holiness. They’re always right with us and available to us; we just need to notice them and allow ourselves to be swept away by them.

Why don’t we do it more often?

One of my favorite quotes from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is a reminder that such moments are at the core of what it means to be truly alive.

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement … get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted,” the rabbi wrote. “Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible. Never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

And those moments aren’t just individual experiences, either.

Such sacred moments

A few years ago, I was walking along Siesta Key in Florida as the sun was setting and transforming the color of everything around it. Perhaps a couple hundred people were enjoying the beach sunset with me.

Some of them were jogging. Others walked along listening to their music. Each of us was in our own little world, caught up in our own thoughts, doing our own thing.

People ahead of me stopped in place and started pointing toward the gulf. I stopped and looked as well. A pod of dolphins was playing in the sunset-tinged waves, splashing about in a way that made you smile.

Soon, most of the people on the beach had stopped to watch and talk to one another and marvel. It was a true “awe” moment that made you go: Wow! Look at that!

This diverse group of people – different ages, different backgrounds, different religions, different political outlooks – stood on the beach together and shared a collective moment of wonder. Strangers smiled at one another and talked to each other.

Our sense of awe overcame our differences and brought us together. It was a sacred moment in every sense.

We need more of those moments, don’t we?

Our collective awe

There’s so much frustration and division in our societies. It’s easy to feel like nothing can bring us back together and help us remove the walls and artificial divides we’ve spent so much time and so much energy erecting.

Maybe one way to do it is to get our heads out of the busyness of our daily lives and make ourselves aware of the wonder all around us. Allow ourselves to get caught up in the bright blessed days and dark sacred nights, as Louis Armstrong described them.

As we do, we’ll get the attention of the person next to us – the one who might feel so alienated from us – and simply say: Wow! Look at that! Aren’t we blessed to be able to experience this together?

Our shared sense of awe can humble us and reconnect us.

Away from the abyss

church1

I came across the picture above on the internet. Something about it resonated with me, the way people were falling out of the church and into an abyss.

I held onto the picture, planning to write about how we need to be careful of where we worship because some places lead us not to a higher plane of love and compassion but into the abyss of hatred and self-righteousness.

I worked up an indignation over how so many “Christians” reject anyone who experiences God outside of their tiny theological boxes. How they want legal consent to hatefully shun others in Jesus’ name. How they insist we should turn away refugees – let them die over there, it’s too dangerous to save them over here.

And I just want to say: WTF? What’s That Faith?

A couple of things I saw while driving around recently also got under my skin. First, I came upon a pickup truck toting a trailer that berated everyone on the road who didn’t share their beliefs. On the truck bed was a videoboard playing gruesome scenes of crucifixion. You also notice a U.S. flag, an Israeli flag and a POW flag. Whatever.

church2

A week later, I pulled up behind an SUV with this bumper sticker:

church3

Jesus loves me more? Really??? What in God’s name is going on here? I totally get it why so many people call themselves spiritual but not religious these days.

Oh, and I haven’t even started on the white, evangelical “values voters” who decided to become disciples of someone who has lived an entire lifetime mocking and repudiating their values. The ones who heard him say that he’s the only one who can save them, and they were like: We’re good with that!

Out with the old savior, in with the new.

As you can tell, I’d worked myself into a nice, judgmental mood for an into-the-abyss blog.

And then, I had a come-to-Jesus moment.

A man who is friends with someone in my UCC church contacted me. He said he wanted to talk about God. We met at a Starbucks. He comes from a deeply fundamentalist background. I sensed that he was anxious.

WTF? What’s That Faith?

He started quoting scriptures about judgment and punishment, and I just wanted to get up and leave. But then it occurred to me why he was doing what he was doing. He’s terrified that his friend is going to hell because she belongs to a church that believes God actually loves us.

Fear. I sensed a deep fear in his tone.

He kept going, hoping that if he repeated his Bible verses enough times, he might convert me and then God might accept me and not eternally torture me. He was worried about me, too.

I was touched. And I felt so sad for this kind, caring, anxious man.

It reminded me of something Nadia Bolz-Weber said during her reflection on the parable of the prodigal son – you know, the story of how no matter what we do wrong, we get love and hugs and a party in the end.

Nadia tells how an 82-year-old woman posted a heartbreaking message on her public Facebook page saying that she was afraid of dying because she thought God was angry at her and was going to torture her.

This poor woman’s “religion” had made her terrified of God.

“She’d been so condemned by the bogus reward-and-punishment system of false religion that at the end of her life rather than her faith being a source of comfort for her, it was a source of torment for her,” Nadia says.

How horrible!

I felt the same way sitting in Starbucks across the table from a good man who has been taught that the most God-like people in his life weren’t good enough for God because they didn’t attend his church. He’d been told that God hates most everything about all of us but will grudgingly accept those who get baptized into his denomination. All the others — we get eternally waterboarded.

Can you imagine the anxiety it produced in him? Poor man! I felt so sorry for him.

This poor man!

In that moment, all my indignation – OK, some of my indignation – melted. I saw not a self-righteous person but, instead, a victim who’d been beaten up by his “religion” and left bleeding by the side of the spiritual road.

He didn’t need theological debate. Instead, he needed someone to offer compassion and reassurance and love and healing and peace and hope – all the things that his religion was denying him.

In other words, he needed what religion is supposed to do. It’s supposed to lead us upward to a higher place, directing us to love. Away from the abyss.

I really hope he finds his way up and out. He deserves that grace. As do we all.

___

A link to Nadia’s reflection: http://wp.production.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/files/2016/03/2016-03-06_NBW_HFASS_Podcast_64kbps.mp3

Holding each other

ernest-asher

The last few weeks have worn me down a bit. You, too? So much is happening in our society right now. So many strong and conflicting opinions. So many harsh exchanges on social media each day.

So many words. So much division.

I’ve added my share of words to the discussion. After a while, those words, both written and read, start to feel inadequate somehow. It seems like they get lost in the torrent of words back-and-forth. They don’t seem to change anything or anyone.

I’ve grown weary of all the words.

So, what to do now?

A couple of Sundays ago, my church had one of our pancake breakfast services. It featured a lot of music – traditional and contemporary, all different styles – centered on the theme of togetherness and hopefulness and perseverance. We had readings from the Bible and from a speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. that reminded us we must not give up. We must fight the fight, run the race, keep the faith.

The music was uplifting, the words were soothing. And there was an image that reminded me of what needs to happen beyond the music and the words.

Hold each other for a little while

On the other side of the room, Ernest was holding Asher. Asher is a few months old and is a regular at our Sunday services. He gets cuddled by various people – until it’s time to change his diaper, of course. Then it’s back to mom.

This time, he wound up with Ernest. He quickly relaxed into those strong arms and slept. Ernest held him tight, reminding him that he was secure and loved.

And that, I thought, is what we need to do.

We need to hold each other for a little while.

Conservative and liberal. Republican and Democrat. Independent and Tea Party. Christian and Muslim. Jew and Hindu. Black and white. Gay and straight. Male and female. Fundamentalist and progressive. Citizen and immigrant. Old and young. Strong and stumbling. Hurting and healing. Fearful and brave.

We just need to hold each other for a little while.

We need to remind each other that we’re all the same in the ways that matter. We’re all afraid, all trying to figure things out, all making mistakes and wrong judgments. We all have our prejudices and our blind spots and our room to grow.

Our words will soften

And maybe if we just hold each other for a little while, we’ll be reminded of it. Our words will soften. We’ll have a chance to move beyond the acrimonious gridlock and begin working together again to transform the world with our love.

Hold each other, just as Someone Else is holding all of us, too.

This doesn’t mean that we put our words away. It’s good and important to express our support for those who are targeted and threatened and marginalized; it’s better yet to seek them out and hold them for a moment by showing them kindness.

What the heck, give the stranger a hug!

It’s especially important to hold those who see things differently. The whole love-the-person-who-thinks-of-you-as-an-enemy thing comes into play. We hold them by treating them with respect in our discussions, choosing our words carefully, and using them kindly.

Perhaps our kindness will be pushed aside. No matter. The important thing is that we offer, and then keep offering. Keep treating others with respect and compassion and love.

Keep holding the world, even when it fears our hug.

Firmly yet kindly

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we abdicate our responsibility to advocate for those who are being treated unjustly. We never stop insisting that everyone must be treated as an equally beloved child of God in all ways. We work with God and put ourselves on the line for this work every day.

But we’re mindful of how we do it.

The next time somebody says something smarmy to us, we don’t respond with equal smarminess. Instead, we reply respectfully.

The next time somebody says something outrageous and unacceptable, we take a moment to hold them in our heart before responding. We recognize them as a flawed and struggling human being, just like us, trying to make sense of things. And then we respond, firmly and respectfully.

We have enough disagreement and not enough hugs going around. And the only way to bridge those disagreements, to lower the walls that we’ve built between ourselves, is to hold each other for a little while.

Let love to hold us and heal us.

Standing up to our friends

potter-friends

I’m fascinated by what’s happening in one of our major political parties. So many lifelong members are breaking with the party and saying they can’t support its candidate.

What intrigues me is this: Why did they wait so long to speak out? If they’d spoken up during the primaries, perhaps they could have changed the outcome and wound up with a different nominee.

So, what held them back? Why wait until it was too late to make a difference? Perhaps it’s because they’ve been raised to believe that good party members don’t challenge their own party.

There’s something here for all of us to consider, regardless of how we vote or worship or work or raise families.

We all know from experience how speaking up and taking an unpopular stance with our inner circles – our friends, our family, our political party, our business, our religion, our country – is extremely unnerving and risky. Also, extremely necessary.

Challenging our own circles

It’s easy to challenge those who are in another circle – just look at the food fights on social media. There’s no real cost to challenging someone who is in a different circle from us. But it becomes a whole different thing when we do it with those closest to us.

For one thing, we take the risk of getting pushed out of our circle. And that is truly frightening, as it should be. Some people will say we’re sounding like one of them and they’ll start treating us that way. We could lose friends, affiliations and part of our identity.

Ouch!

It’s so much easier just to keep our concerns private and go with the crowd, even when we’re convinced it’s heading off a cliff in some ways. And maybe that’s part of why the world goes off its axis so often. We don’t have enough people courageous enough to try to bring about change from within.

In one of my favorite “Harry Potter” scenes, Neville Longbottom challenges Harry and Ron and Hermione to stop sneaking out of the castle and getting Gryffindor in trouble. At the end of the episode, Professor Dumbledore awards Gryffindor extra points – and the house cup – because of Neville’s actions.

“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies,” Dumbledore says, “but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.”

It takes great courage

Amen, right? My courage has failed me many, many times when it comes to challenging friends. And yet, I’ve come to appreciate how vital it is.

Every human undertaking gets off track regularly, simply because humans are involved and it’s part of our nature to get sidetracked. And it takes courageous people from within the circle to get things back on track by speaking up.

That’s what keeps us healthy in our relationships, our families, our endeavors.

A recent example is the pedophile scandal in the Catholic church. One of the most shocking things to me was how many members of the clergy at all levels knew what was going on but didn’t speak up and stop it.

Why didn’t these good people stand up? Because other church leaders would have been upset with them and punished them. And because they’d been told that “good” church members don’t challenge their church leaders in any way. They just zip their lips and obey.

Told to pipe down and go along

I’m not picking on Catholics here. There are scandals in all human endeavors, and there’s always people who knew there was something wrong but heeded the warnings to pipe down and go along.

We need people on the inside who have the courage to challenge us, regardless of the consequences. Some people will consider them traitors. Or whistleblowers. Or prophets. And as the saying goes, a prophet is honored everywhere except in their own town and among their own family.

Is it any wonder why we’re all more inclined to nod and go along than raise our hands and ask pointed questions? It involves great risk.

And we haven’t even gotten to the really risky part.

Opening ourselves to challenges, too

If we raise questions about what’s going on in our circle, we also open ourselves to questions about what’s going on inside each of us. And that’s healthy and holy and good.

We’re forced us to think about what we really value, what’s really important, and whether we are committed to our values enough to stand up for them, even within our own circles.

We encourage others to challenge us, too. We start a conversation that could change everything, including us.

And that takes great courage.

The Parthenon, Skittles, and a Greek woman

candy-bowl

I covered the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. On my day off, I wanted to visit the Parthenon, which took some logistical planning with the public transit system. I don’t know Greek, so I had to study the train map to figure out a travel plan.

What I didn’t plan for, however, was getting to the train station where I needed to transfer lines and then realizing that all the signs were in Greek – duh! I had no idea where to go. I looked at my map and then at the signs and then back at my map, trying to discern which train platform I needed.

I was totally at a loss. And apparently, it showed.

A woman noticed my confusion. She smiled and said something in Greek that I didn’t understand. She didn’t understand my response in English. I pointed to the Acropolis on my train map. She nodded, took me by the arm and walked me all the way across the station to the platform that I needed to catch the correct train. And then she smiled again and walked away.

How very cool, huh? She took the risk of reaching out to a stranger – one from a world away – and helped me get what I needed at that moment.

I thought about the Greek woman the other day when the son of a presidential candidate compared refugees to Skittles. His point was that we should fear those whom we don’t know. We shouldn’t take the risk of helping them because we could get hurt.

Love always involves risk

He’s not the only one saying it. A lot of people fear those who are different from them. They’re afraid to love them because love always, always, always involves taking a risk. Instead, they feel safer cowering behind walls and weapons.

Walled off from others. Walled off from love. Walled off from life itself. Merely existing instead of truly living.

To me, the really sad part is that we hear this talk from many supposedly religious people who really have no excuse for thinking that way. To be led by the spirit of love means that when we see fear and pain and need around us, we head toward it and enter into it freely, risking ourselves to bring hope and healing into the world.

Moving toward instead of running away

That’s the job description. Look it up.

You take the risk of putting yourself into those moments and those lives. You put your hand in the jar even though you don’t know what you’ll pull out. And yes, you do it knowing there will be a price to be paid somewhere along the line.

But you also know that there’s an even greater cost for refusing to stop and help the needy person by the side of the road. When we walk right past, we lose a little bit of what makes us all precious and human and sacred.

Giving in to fear takes us to many dark, ugly places. It’s the incubator for hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia, religious conflict, political wars, and the many other evils in the world. All of them are rooted in a fear of those who are different from us.

The alternative? Label fear for what it is – a vampire that sucks life and love out of us and our world. Recognize that those monsters beneath our beds are ones that we’ve created in our fearful minds. Once we stop fearing them, they vanish.

Fear sucks the life and love out of us and our world

It’s not easy, of course. Fear is always tugging at us, trying to hold us back from truly living and loving — not only loving others, but ourselves, too. In those moments, we have to take a breath and act like the cowardly lion who, though still trembling, marches into the witch’s castle to save someone who needs us.

Even if that person is very different from us.

Leadership? It means showing courage when others insist we need to run and hide. Leaders show us how to move beyond our fears and live more fully.

Love? It means bringing light to the world’s dark and scary corners, healing to people who are hurting, and hope to those who feel despair creeping close.

It means reminding people about all of the miraculous and grace-filled moments that are all around us every day. It means recognizing the beauty and the goodness in our world – those millions of acts of unexpected kindness that take our breath away.

It means noticing the stranger who is lost, feeling compassion, taking their arm and leading them to the proper place. Helping them get whatever it is that they need in that moment.