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.

Archie and me

Archie

I became well-versed in slurs during my childhood. I learned them in my neighborhood, in my church, in my extended family. I heard many different types of people demeaned with many different words.

I grew up in an ethnic area of Cleveland. Each immigrant group had its own neighborhood, its own tavern, its own bakery, its own church, and its own groups that it disliked because of past history.

Italians? They’re all in the mob. The Irish are drunks. The Poles are dumb. Blacks are uncivilized. Women are dim and emotional. Protestants are hell-bound. Jews are money grubbers.

On and on it went. There were demeaning terms for pretty much every group, including my group. And the mention of other groups could bring out the worst in some people.

That’s why Archie Bunker was one of my favorite television characters. I knew him. Also, I knew many people like his daughter and his son-in-law who regularly called him out for his prejudices. For instance, my dad would challenge my grandfather for using the n-word yet again.

The show came on TV at a time when another idea was taking root in America: People should be considered by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin or any other superficial difference.

For a time, the slurs and the ugly jokes receded, although many people still felt comfortable telling them when they were around people like them. They’d complain that the country had become so “politically correct” that their slurs and jokes no longer drew nods and laughs, but criticism.

And they wished things would go back to the way they were. Back to the days when we openly judged people on the basis of the color of their skin or the country of their origin or the sex chromosome they inherited. And people would nod and laugh and agree.

Like Archie, they thought: Those were the days.

Well, those days are making a comeback in some ways, aren’t they?

A presidential candidate gets applause for saying a Mexican can’t be an impartial judge, or Muslims are dangerous, or immigrants are criminals, or women should be judged on their physical appearance. Or when he says that only rich people like him can be great.

And it’s not confined to politics. Religion is providing its own blast from the past: I’m going to heaven, but you’re not because you’re a sinner and I don’t want to have anything to do with you because I’m afraid it might jeopardize me. So go away.

My childhood, revisited.

Fearing those who are different from us seems to be our default setting as humans. It’s true for me. I’m more comfortable in groups of people who are more like me in some ways. People who think like me and have similar life experiences.

Yeah, there’s that little bit of Archie in me, too. It’s just a human trait, I suppose, woven throughout our history and religious texts. And so is this: The moral and spiritual imperative to push past our innate fears and learn to love each other and appreciate our differences.

Jesus loudly advocated for it, which got him into a hell of a lot of trouble. He reached out to the rejected groups of his times and welcomed them. He was constantly criticized for inviting the wrong people – the ones who were the objects of the slurs and the nasty jokes – to eat and socialize with him.

In fact, he made those people the heroes of his stories. It’s the dreaded, good-for-nothing Samaritan who is the model of behavior, not the religiously observant people.

Is it any wonder that people wanted to push him off a cliff?

So, what about us? Perhaps we start with never allowing anyone to be slurred or bullied or made the butt of jokes, even if there’s a price to be paid in standing up for them.

But it requires something more.

Perhaps the next time we encounter one of them people – as Archie would say – we could invite them for coffee or lunch. Instead of talking about our differences, we could share stories about what keeps us up at night, what breaks our hearts, what makes us feel alive, what we’d most like to change about ourselves.

And maybe along the way we’ll have a few laughs and change how we feel about each another a little bit. In doing so, we might actually get somewhere.

Somewhere beyond the days that were great only for those slinging the slurs.