On the road to a better place

The last step in our mending process is choosing a new destination. Once we’ve identified our current location, we pick the place we want to go, map a route and head out.

We must envision a better place – and describe it for others – before we can get there together. We need to develop a path forward and extend a hand for others to accompany us.

That’s how societies heal and move forward again.

So, what’s our vision for our society? How is it different from the vision of those who want to keep us divided, angry, fearful, miserable and at each other’s throats?

Moving toward a different place begins with showing people what it looks like. It involves sharing our vision and our dream for how we can live together in ways that benefit all people of goodwill.

Jesus talked about the kingdom of God more than anything. He described it, modeled it, lived it and enacted it through his words and his choices.

He reached out to those who were on the receiving end of someone’s cultural, religious or political war and invited them into this alternate and already-present kingdom that operates on love rather than violence and respects everyone as an equal child of God.

He described it as a place quite opposite of how his society operated – the last are first, the greatest are the least, the hurting are freely offered healing, those who are struggling take precedence.

He invited everyone into a different way of living. That’s our intent, too.

Offering the world a very different image

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., followed this pattern. He offered a different vision – a new destination – for a racially divided society. He offered his dream of a world where all God’s children were treated as equals. He advocated and enacted it as best he could while inviting others to join the holy and creative work.

How we go about it matters greatly.

We must resist the temptation to respond to violence – physical or verbal — with our own. We can’t allow those promoting war to suck us into their anger and hostility and fear.

We’re not here to join in their mutual destruction; we’re here to transform.

This doesn’t mean we allow others to spew hatred unchecked or harm others without a response. The question is in what form we respond.

Trading insult for insult gets us nowhere – eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth stuff. Instead, we challenge purveyors of war with a vision of peace built upon nonviolent work for justice and equality for all God’s children.

We’re not going to change the opinions of those consumed by a war mentality, but we can reach the many people who are listening to our conversations and, like us, looking for a better world.

Most of all, we begin this re-creative act by living and enacting our vision through our daily lives, making it real in our interactions with others. Slowly and inexorably, the movement grows and the healing occurs.

That’s the journey. And it’s already begun.

(“Praying Hands” image courtesy of josephleenovak @creativecommons.org)

We need one another

One Lisa Fotios at Pexels

What do you miss during social distancing?

I miss hugs. Concerts. Attending church. Sharing a birthday cake. Being there in person to feel someone’s joy or pain or struggle.

I miss Singo, a sing-along version of bingo. During Singo, nobody cares about political labels, age groups or religious affiliation. Everyone sings familiar lyrics together, and strangers get up and dance with one another.

Everyone just enjoys each other’s company.

All those activities are on hold as we try to contain the spread of a virus that leaves death and battered bodies in its wake. When the time comes that we can safely be social again, I hope we’ll do it with a renewed appreciation for each other.

I hope the pandemic has taught us how much we need one another.

We needed that lesson. We’ve become so divided that we’ve forgotten we’re intimately bound to one another.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, we’re all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” Mother Teresa said that “if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.”

How did we forget that? How did we lose the pleasure and peace of each other’s loving company?

Perhaps a confluence of factors is responsible for fraying our common fabric.

Our culture worships individuality, the myth of the self-made man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps without anyone’s assistance at all. It’s all about me and my rights.

The Americanized version of Christianity promotes this self-centeredness, too. The prosperity gospel preaches self-absorption. Pad your personal accounts – financial as well as spiritual – while telling those bleeding by the side of the road to work harder.

We’ve got political, social and religious leaders trying to sell us the bitter pill of division as well. They want us to quarantine within political, social and theological bubbles, pushing away everyone who is different.

They frame it as us-against-them and promote nonstop political, cultural and religious wars against anyone not inside our bubble.

No! They’re selling a lie. The last three months have reminded us how much we need to stop the fighting and start reconnecting with one another.

Those connections are what we miss.

God made us as social beings. We’re hard-wired to be together and have relationship with God, with all God’s children, and with all God’s creation. Those artificial divisions deprive us of what we need most.

Hopefully that’s the pandemic’s lesson for when the time comes that we can safely come together again as extended human family.

We need one another.

(photo by Lisa Fotios @pexels.com)




Faith in our broken society

values burrows.nichole28 CC

The pandemic has shown us that we need to change not only our individual lives but our collective ones as well. There’s a lot in our society that’s deeply broken and needs fixed.

Our spending priorities are askew. Our health system is a mess. Our leadership is lacking. Our decisions favor some lives and render others expendable.

In times like these, prophetic voices challenge systems and shape discussions. We need to be those voices.

We can’t hide inside places of worship. We must get involved in what’s happening outside our doors.

Faith and values apply not only to our personal lives, but to our collective lives as well. If they don’t, our faith is only half-hearted and our values null and void.

Our religious tradition urges us to love God with all our hearts in all areas of our lives, not just the convenient parts. We’re to love our neighbors – all of them, in all situations – the same way we love ourselves.

Real faith is an all-or-nothing proposition.

Throughout history, many religiously observant people have endorsed superficial faith. Some Christians peddle the notion that Jesus’ values — love, compassion, forgiveness, healing, inclusion, caring for the needy, promoting peace — should apply to personal lives but can be excluded from our collective choices.

They say our society should be run by conflicting values – wealth, greed, privilege, self-interest, domination.

The same mentality created slavery and Jim Crow. White Christians insisted that their oppressive systems were exempt from Jesus’ commands to treat everyone as an equally beloved child of God.

We can’t limit faith to a few areas of our lives. We can’t ignore what’s being done by the various social systems that need our support or our inattention to continue.

That’s the real test of faith.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions. … Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”

One form of religion mustn’t gain privilege or supremacy; rather, faith compels us to ground our collective decisions in the loving values that are the foundation of all true religion.

Our conversations about the many challenges confronting us must begin by acknowledging our shared responsibility to care for all God’s children and all God’s creation in all circumstances.

It’s all-or-nothing.

We’ll sometimes disagree about how best to accomplish goals, but we must always be in accord on the underlying intention for all we do. Love alone must be our motivation.

If we choose a different starting point for our collective decisions, then we’ve not only lost our way but any semblance of faith as well.

(Photo illustration courtesy of burrows.nichole28 @creativecommons.org)

Tomorrow: Healers in a broken system



No going back

Personal Transformation

Several of my friends were cured of cancer. They describe how every part of their lives was turned inside-out during treatment. They asked God to help them through it. They longed for everything to return to normal.

Once healed, their lives were never the same. The experience changed them significantly. What once seemed so important was now unsatisfying. They experienced life differently.

When they realized there was no going back to how things were before cancer, they went through depression and grieved the loss of their former lives. Some of them got angry at God.

Eventually, they made peace with their circumstances and set about transforming their lives into something new and better – more real, more alive, more Spirit-filled.

Although not thankful for the illness, they recognized that it interrupted their lives in needed ways. They felt more peace and joy. Their relationships – including with God – grew richer and deeper and more satisfying.

I’ve thought about those friends as we navigate the coronavirus pandemic. In many ways, our lives also have been turned inside-out. We yearn for things to go back to how they were a few months ago.

They can’t. Nor should they.

The interruptions provide a chance to examine at our lives and make needed changes. This applies not only to our individual lives, but to our faith communities and our societies as well.

The pandemic can teach us necessary lessons and become an impetus for changes that make us better.

Our challenge is to take a clear-eyed look at how our lives need to be refocused, how our faith communities need to adapt, and how the systems and values of our society must be significantly reformed.

For the next week, we’ll consider some of those areas to spark thoughts that lead us to transformation.

We can’t go back to the way things were three months ago – it’s not possible. Nor should we try.

Instead, we can embrace this opportunity to grow into people and societies that do a better job of caring for ourselves and all God’s children. We have an opportunity to grow closer to one another and to God, who yearns for us to experience the gift of life and the joy of love more deeply.

Let us make the journey together.

Tomorrow: Learning from our restlessness

(Image “Personal Transformation” courtesy of GroggyFroggy @creativecommons.org)

Choosing our leaders wisely

boat leading pexels

What makes for a good leader?

It’s an opportune time to think about leadership as we respond to the pandemic and its effects. We’ll be leaning on leaders as we get through the challenges and rebuild.

Leaders at various levels – political, social, religious – have shown contrasting  styles and characteristics. They have different ways and different motivations.

What qualities do we want in them? What types of leaders should we choose going forward?

Effective leaders share important characteristics:

1. They’re in it for others, not themselves. Some people move into leadership to bolster their ego, increase their power, enrich their holdings. They make leadership about what they want instead of what others need. By contrast, servant-leaders focus on the common good. They empower and encourage. They put others’ needs ahead of their own. They accomplish a lot because they don’t need credit or acclaim.

2. They lean on experts and people who offer wise counsel. Every leader faces challenges outside their realm of experience. Effective ones take advice. They study how previous leaders dealt with similar challenges and learn from their successes and mistakes.

3. They learn from their own mistakes. Every leader makes them; good ones recognize them, take responsibility for them, and adjust course. Leaders who refuse to see their mistakes repeat them endlessly, to everyone’s detriment.

4. They understand truthfulness matters. When people sense leaders aren’t being honest, they lose credibility, which makes matters worse.

5. They try to lead everyone, not only their supporters. The best leaders at all levels work tirelessly to bridge gaps and build consensus. They understand that a house divided against itself cannot stand.

6. They can calm, inspire and focus people during hard times. They don’t have to be the most loquacious; sincerity and honesty go a long way. So do compassion and humility.

I’m sure you can identify other important qualities for leadership as well. Our challenge is to get a clear vision of what we want from our leaders and choose ones who embody those qualities.

We need to look at ourselves as well.

Each of us is a leader – in our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, faith communities, circle of friends, social media groups. We need to embody the qualities we think are important for leaders.

As Matthew Fox puts it: “The times do not allow anyone the luxury of waiting around for others to lead.”

The leadership we choose, and the leadership we provide, will go a long way in deciding what we become.

(photo courtesy of Miguel Á. Padriñán @pexels.com)

Tending the garden

hand with leaf

We wrap up our visit to the garden of Eden by noting the most neglected part of the story, which comes very early. We’re placed in this beautiful garden and given an important role in God’s ongoing act of creation.

As the text says, it’s our responsibility to “cultivate and care for it.”

God could have done all the cultivating, of course. But God enlists us as full partners in nurturing her precious creation.

God provides parental guidelines to help us do our part properly. We’re told that we’re free to enjoy the garden and share its fruits, but not all of them.

We don’t have a blank check to do anything we want. There are limits.

It’s not our garden, after all. We’re beloved guests extended a divine invitation to enjoy it, take what we truly need from it, and roll up our sleeves and care for it.

This is one of several powerful and poetic stories early in scriptures that tell us we’re made from the same stuff as everyone and everything else, and we must live accordingly. We’ll all interconnected. What affects one part of creation affects all of it.

When we lose sight of this truth, we go off the rails.

When we think we’re God and can do whatever we wish, everything breaks down at the fundamental level. We withdraw from each other and from God. We damage our relationships. We destroy the garden we were meant to tend.

We fight over land and water and air, which should never be divvied up possessively. We hoard things that were meant to be shared.

We monetize beaches and forests and other natural resources for personal gain. We ignore the destruction caused by our policies.

Instead of protecting God’s creation, we desecrate it for profit.

The Eden story is a cautionary tale from centuries ago that applies to us today. It’s a reminder that we have a role to play, but it’s not the role of God.

It’s not our garden. We’re only the gardeners. And God’s counting on you and me together to do a good job.

(photo courtesy of Daria Shevtsova)

A couple of songs that remind us that we’re living in God’s world:




Sausage, polkas and damned heretics

pierogis and sausage

I grew up in a Cleveland neighborhood known as Slavic Village. Immigrants from diverse parts of Europe moved to the city and formed their own communities. Each had its own churches and bakeries and restaurants and taverns.

The Italians lived in Murray Hill. The Germans were on the west side. Polish, Hungarian, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Croatian, Hispanic – each had their own neighborhoods.

The various immigrant groups had much in common. Their languages were often similar. They dressed alike – babushkas were universal. They ate similar foods – each had their own kinds of sausages, and many loved pierogies. They danced to polkas and other ethnic music that sounded so similar.

They had another thing in common: disdain for the other groups. They brought long-standing prejudices with them from the old country.

Growing up in this immigrant culture, I learned that each group had slurs and characterizations for the other groups. Italians were mobsters. Polish people were stupid. The Irish were drunks. Germans were this, Russians were that.

This group was shiftless and lazy. That group was untrustworthy and dangerous – they’ll fleece you or hurt you, so stay away from them.

They shared a collective disdain for Jewish people and black people. Catholics had slurs for those “damned heretic” Protestants, and Protestants had their own slurs. I remember being caught off-guard the first time a Protestant referred to me as a “cod snapper.”

Jews and black people? They needed to keep in their place. And women, too.

They’re not like us

Of course, the immigrants knew that members of their own ethnic/religious group were dishonest or lazy, but those people were viewed as individual failures rather than a reflection on the entire group. They were the exception.

However, when someone from a different group did something wrong, it confirmed their prejudice against that other group.

See! What did I tell you? Those (fill in the blank) are all that way!

They favored an open immigration policy, of course, but they thought there should be fewer of those people coming into the country because, well, they’ll make the whole country go to hell.

For me, it was eye-opening. As a second generation of an immigrant family, I didn’t have those long-standing mistrusts wired into me. In fact, it all seemed so silly. Bizarre, even. To me, these people were far more alike than different.

While each ethnic group was proud of its distinctive foods, my generation liked culinary diversity and enjoyed trying other cultures’ dishes. To us, it was all food — and delicious food at that!

Same with the music. There are different types of polkas, and different ethnic groups thought their music style was better than others. We enjoyed different types of polkas – and Motown and the Beatles, too, which didn’t go over well with some of our grandparents.

To us, it was all music.

As the immigrants died off, their cultures began to blend and mix in succeeding generations. The stark boundaries they drew between themselves and others softened.

But boundary-drawing hasn’t gone away.

We’ve seen a resurgence. I guess prejudice and hatred merely find new forms, new lines to draw in each new generation.

We hear people saying Hispanics are all dangerous gang members and drug dealers who must be kept out of our society — after all, you know how those people are, they’re not like us.

We saw the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, encouraged by some of our nation’s political and social leaders. Jewish people and black people remain prime targets for old hatreds.

It’s all the same

There’s talk about how gay people are this, Muslims are that. Millennials are selfish and undependable, women can’t be trusted to lead or make decisions about their lives. People from other religious upbringings are great sinners to be avoided and shunned.

People like us mustn’t have any dealings with them, you know.

I heard those things so often in my youth, and I hear them again today. And my reaction is the same: Why can’t we see how crazy this all is? Why do we consider our diversity as a threat rather than an opportunity?

We don’t have to eat only one kind of sausage. We don’t have to dance to only one style of polka. We don’t have to speak only one language. We don’t have to stay in the bubble of our own upbringing.

We’re all God’s children. Our diversity is a precious gift. We can enjoy one another, learn from one another, share each other’s traditions and ways.

We can enjoy kielbasa or mettwurst or a vegan sausage. We can dance to polkas or rock ‘n’ roll or rap.

It’s all food. It’s all music. We’re all people.

Rachel Held Evans and overturned tables

Rachel Held Evans2

If you’re unfamiliar with Rachel Held Evans, you might wonder why there’s been such an outpouring over her death last week.

Rachel wrote beautifully, powerfully and vulnerably about her faith and her struggle to live it. Through her blogs and her books, she became a leading figure in the evangelical world and the progressive Christianity movement.

She caused quite a kerfuffle within evangelical circles. Essentially, Rachel went into the temple of her faith and overturned the tables – not to make a mess, but to create a space for the Spirit to return, reform and renew.

That’s what all prophets and reformers do – create space for something needed and new.

She loved her religious tradition and wouldn’t stay silent as others perverted it into a system of exclusion, marginalization and us-versus-them animosity. She spoke with kindness, wittiness and a wisdom that grew from her openness to ask important questions and seek truer answers.

‘This is my voice’

Many readers found an oasis in her words. Many evangelical leaders bristled not only at her words, but at the fact they were coming from one of their own who had the audacity to focus on things they preferred to hide or blithely explain away.

Also, they had a problem with truth presented from a woman’s perspective.

“I often hear from evangelical leaders, ‘Oh we’re really eager to have more female leaders,’” Rachel said. “I want to say, ‘This is my voice. This is what it sounds like.’”

She explored the fault lines in the Americanized version of Christianity: sexism, racism, patriarchy, nationalism, abortion, sexual abuse, how we treat our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Also, she openly explored her own biases and shortcomings.

What seemed to bother some religious leaders the most was that Rachel did it with an authority that they themselves lacked. Her authority derived from her willingness to first look inside herself and see what needed to be overturned there before trying to help others do the same.

She spoke with the authority of someone who had tasted what it’s like to be on the wrong side of us-versus-them religiosity. In her compassionate words, they heard God’s voice.

She spent most of her adult years trying to give people who are marginalized by religion a place to come and know the One who is at the heart of all true religion.

That’s why there’s been such an outpouring. Rachel made a difference.

May we continue Rachel’s work and share in her courage to overturn tables, especially the ones inside our churches, our religions, our nations and our own hearts.

Safe, loving spaces


And, like her, may we continue building true communities of faith. Places where people can come together and openly explore the big questions of life. Places where they feel safe and welcomed in a world where that’s not always so. Places where they are reminded how much they are loved just as they are.

Places like the one Rachel described in her book “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church” about her own faith journey:

“I told them we’re tired of the culture wars, tired of Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power. Millennials want to be known by what we’re for, I said, not just what we’re against. We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith.

“Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. We want to talk about the tough stuff — biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice — but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind, without wearing a mask.”

A drink from a different cup

Cup of poison

Next to me sat a minister wearing a collar. In front of me were two men wearing yarmulkes. On the other side of the mosque were women in various head coverings. A nun sat among them.

Everyone in the mosque was in stocking feet, seated on folding chairs or simply reclining on the carpeted floor.

An organizer invited everyone to share the name of their place of worship. Dozens of churches, mosques, synagogues and temples were represented at this gathering prompted by the massacre at mosques in New Zealand this month.

We were reminded that religion – the real deal – is about standing up for peace, compassion and healing. It’s about choosing love over hatred in our individual and collective interactions each day.

The man who killed Muslims in New Zealand is the latest example of what happens when we drink from the cup of hatred. Important parts of us die off. A man whose compassion, decency, and sense of humanity were killed by this poison committed a great evil.

Poison that divides

The various hate-filled men who have violated sacred spaces – an historic black church in Charleston, a synagogue in Pittsburgh, mosques in New Zealand, and many others — all drank the same poison that is readily available these days:

The poison that exalts nationalism and supremacy and privilege.

The poison that advocates war and weapons as solutions.

The poison that stokes fear of anyone who is different.

The poison that builds walls against those who have a different skin color, different religion, different ethnic origin, different nationality, different sexuality, different political viewpoint.

The poison that aims to divide God’s children and turn one against another.

The struggle against hatred has gone on as long as humans have been around, and it will continue after each of us is gone from the planet. But this is our time – our moment — to offer an antidote to the poison in its various forms today.

I’ve been inspired by the many interfaith gatherings in the last couple weeks. People joined hands in offering the world a healing dose of love, compassion and peace -– the shared values of all actual religion.

They renewed their commitment to transform poisoned hearts and divided communities with a love that is undeterred and undiminished.

They offered the world a drink from a different cup.

They prayed for the victims and the perpetrators while recognizing that their thoughts and prayers were only a starting point. Words are never a finish line. Action must follow.

At the gathering I attended, we were reminded that this action must start inside each of us. We need to guard our own hearts against the poison. It’s easy for words of hatred to seep inside and influence us.

Offering an antidote

Next, we have to challenge our leaders – those who have outsize influence — to denounce these acts as expressions of evil. But the denunciations can’t end there; all leaders must emphatically and fully reject the ideologies that produce these acts.

Acts of hatred don’t come out of the blue. They’re shaped by the poisonous words in our world. Any leader who contributes to the poison or who refuses to condemn hateful ideologies is aiding and abetting and promoting the inevitable results.

Finally, we must respond in some way to the poisonous words we encounter in our daily interactions. We mustn’t allow them to pass without offering alternate words – a reminder that everyone is an equally beloved and beautiful child of God and must be treated as such.

It’s not about enforcing political correctness; it’s about offering an antidote to counteract the poison.

As the imam prayed on behalf of everyone in the mosque that day: May we work together so that goodwill dominates, love prevails, and hope spreads through our communities.

There will always be hatred in the world. We’re obligated to make sure there’s always more love.

We offer a drink from a different cup.

Here and there and everywhere …


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.