Skipping the “thank you” part

No thanks

I stopped in a grocery store on the day after Halloween and noticed the scene above: pumpkins getting replaced by Christmas decorations. Inside the store, the ghosts and goblins were migrating to clearance tables, replaced by all things green and red.

Yep. We’d done it again. We’d skipped right over the thank-you part.

Our consumer-driven society is so caught up in buying stuff and padding profits that we no longer see the need to observe even one day of thankfulness. That goes for our consumer-driven, Americanized form of religion, too.

We’ve reduced Thanksgiving to another shopping opportunity. We’ve turned Christmas into a buying spree that begins with those July sales and reappears a few months later.

The message: Forget peace on earth, just go and buy. A Jewish child was born 2,000 years go to increase current-day profit margins. And the only thing objectionable is when the store clerk fails to wish you “Merry Christmas” as they hand you the receipt — now, that’s something you need to protest!

No wonder we have lost our sense of thankfulness.

We’re divine charity cases

When everything becomes a transaction, there’s no need for thanksgiving. Our American mindset replaces prophets with profits and makes gratitude obsolete.

We tell ourselves that we deserve everything we have, and we need to go get more. We prefer self-reliance over unmerited grace. We think that we earn divine favor by believing certain things and doing things the “right” way.

It’s all a transaction – I do this, I get that – which means there’s no reason to say thank you. After all, I’m merely getting what’s coming to me, what I’ve earned through my own effort.

We avoid the truth that each of us is a divine charity case. All that we have, all that we are, was freely given to us – we didn’t earn any of it. And that bothers us.

It bothers me. I’d much rather be the one giving than the one receiving. I feel good when I help someone. When someone helps me, I’m tempted to feel somehow diminished, as though I couldn’t do it by myself.

That’s our Americanized values system talking. Go pull yourself up. If you need help in any way, you’re a failure.

Even our religion and our prayers have been Americanized and corrupted. We pray a thank-you that we have a roof over our heads and a good meal on our table, unlike the many others who do not. Thank you that I am not one of those people living on the margins of society – how horrible that must be! Thank you that I am not like them.

Ugh!

Challenges our Americanized values

We need the gratitude that brings us humility and reconnects us with each other and with the One who made all of us. Gratitude erases our illusions about winners and losers. It directly challenges our judgments about who is deserving and who is undeserving. It reminds us of our total dependence on our Creator for everything.

It opens our hearts and our hands.

Gratitude brings us back to the central truth that every breath and every heartbeat — all that we are – is freely given with no merit involved whatsoever. And everything is given to us so that we can share in the same spirit of gratitude and love.

Thankfulness reduces our reward-and-punishment notions to noise and nonsense. It opens our clasped hands to receive and to give more freely. It leads us to be more like the person begging on the street corner than the one eating the lavish meal in the fine house.

Thankfulness directly challenges our Americanized values.

If we were more grateful, we wouldn’t be so divided. Our squabbling would yield to a shared appreciation. Judgment would give way to embrace. Fear and anger would be replaced by love and joy.

Let’s reclaim thankfulness amid the bombardment of holiday sales and commercials. May gratitude soften our hearts and open our hands. May we live in a thankful spirit that brings life, love, healing and hope into the world.

May we say thanks by giving in overly generous and totally scandalous ways — the same way our Creator gives to each of us each day. And may we allow ourselves to receive from others the same way.

Time to say: Enough!

Enough2

Last Saturday, I stopped in traffic behind a car that displayed gun decals and a bumper sticker that depicted the “Hello Kitty” character with a bullet hole. The bumper sticker said: “Goodbye Kitty!”

I was appalled! How many children in other cars would see the sick caricature? How twisted is our society when people consider that funny?

The next day, a man with a gun and a grudge walked into a church in Texas and committed our latest massacre. The sickness in our society confronts us again, mere weeks after the massacre in Las Vegas.

Another day of darkness.

Honestly, I’d rather write about anything except another shooting, but we can’t ignore it. The massacres will keep multiplying and the body counts will continue rising until we do something to change it.

It’s time for each of us to say: Enough!

Things that matter

Say it firmly, prophetically and persistently. No more of the #prayers cop-out. Our silence, our fear and our indifference have helped create a culture in which there’s another worst-such-shooting every few weeks.

Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us that our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Individually and collectively, we must say: Enough!

We need to be a light in the great darkness that has overtaken our land. We must challenge our culture’s worship of weapons, violence and war.

How do we do it? Here are a few suggestions.

— We resolve that we will never again be silent. Silence enables the sickness to grow and makes us complicit in the evil.

— We reject the notion that nothing can be done. The onslaught of guns, bullets and murders isn’t inevitable. Our society is the only one where these things happen on such a scale.

Instruments of peace

— We remind ourselves what courage can accomplish. In the last few weeks alone, many brave women have pushed back against the notion that sexual abuse is ingrained in our culture, so they might as well stay silent and accept it. Their courageous words have already started making a difference.

— We push back against those who say the bloodshed has nothing to do with the guns. They blame “evil” or “human nature” or “mental illness” to distract us. Such dishonesty must never go unchallenged.

— We educate ourselves about the many aspects of the problem and the possible responses. We can’t have a productive conversation about solutions if we’re not knowledgeable.

— We talk to those who disagree with us, bringing an open mind and a respectful heart to those discussions. That’s how we forge common ground and make progress.

— We respectfully but firmly challenge those who insist the only appropriate response is more weapons and more violence. No, we don’t need more “good” people buying more guns and shooting more “bad” people. Enough!

Let’s not forget that it goes beyond guns. It includes challenging violence in all forms – bullying, shaming, verbal attacks, abuse of any sort. None of it should be considered acceptable, under any circumstance.

Enough!

There’s one more thing we must do. We must resolve that we will not support any person or any organization that considers these massacres acceptable. Our endorsements and our votes must reflect our determination to stop the carnage.

The world needs prophets, Jesus says, while in the next breath reminding us that they’re never popular. They do get results, however. They stir things up. They get a backlash from those who benefit from the status quo and want to preserve it.

Peacemakers and prophets have the courage to stand up and advocate for a different way. They change the world. It’s on you and me to do it, prophetically and persistently. It’s time to become instruments of God’s peace and heal our sick society.

Enough!

Saints, souls and interwoven threads

woven

My sister was taking a nap after being up all night with her two sick boys. She quickly slipped into a vivid dream. My grandmother, who had died years earlier, showed up in the dream and told her she needed to go help our mom.

The dream had an unusual texture – different than others. My sister woke up, feeling unsettled. She called our mom, who didn’t answer the phone. That was unusual.

My sister called my brother, told her that Grams had showed up in the dream and delivered the message. The two of them went to our mom’s apartment to check on her. She was having a stroke.

If they hadn’t arrived when they did, it’s likely our mom would have died alone there on the couch in her apartment.

How do you explain all that?

I’ve shared the story, and many people have shared stories of similar dreams, ones that feel more like visions nudging them to do something. Often, someone who has died is the message bearer. (If you’ve had such a moment, feel free to share in the comment box below.)

How does all that work? We don’t know, exactly. But those moments remind us that there’s far, far more to life than we recognize or comprehend.

Never alone, not any of us

This past week, many faith communities celebrated All Saints Day and All Souls Day. The celebrations have spanned many centuries and taken various forms. Different religions have different ways of honoring those who have died.

They all come from the same core of faith: Those who die are still with us in ways we can’t fully understand or adequately explain. They’re never apart from our lives and our hearts.

Creation is like a giant blanket. When we die, we move from one thread to another, but all the threads are still woven together. We’re still wrapped tightly around one another, bound indivisibly to each other. Death doesn’t change it.

We’re reminded this week that death is not destruction, but resurrection and transformation. Love and life never end – how could they? We can never lose our bond with those whom we love. They are still leading us and loving us in their own ways.

As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it:

“Apart from those who have fallen in combat, Americans tend to forget our ancestors, and we spend as little time as possible publicly mourning them. But in the church, we do the very odd thing of proclaiming that the dead are still part of us, a part of our lives, and are even an animating presence in the church.”

Live each day boldly, kindly and fully

I like the tradition of taking time this week to recognize and be thankful for the many dear people who are still part of our lives. Also, we renew our commitment to live as they have taught us. We resolve to be more like them – a saint – to the many souls that are part of our lives.

In that spirit, a saints-and-souls prayer:

Thank you, Giver of Life, for all of life. Yes, for all of it: The confusion, the unknowing, the joy, the surprises, the pain, the setbacks, the losses, the love that gets us through what comes next. Thank you so much! Help us to feel gratitude for this holy day, which is the most precious gift that any of us ever receives.

Thank you for those who remain such blessings in our lives, those who have taught us how to live and to laugh and to love with such faith. Remind us that they are always with us, still teaching us and loving us and guiding us in their own ways.

And help us to remember that you are here with us in each sacred moment. We’re never alone, not any of us. Please give us the faith and courage to live each day boldly and kindly and fully, right up to the day when we trade our heartbeat for a deeper place in your heart, which is love.

Amen.

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.

On the same shelf

Same shelf

Young voices fill the old United Church of Christ building. More than 40 children energetically and noisily move about the basement room that serves as a cafeteria.

It’s another morning at the inner-city church’s summer youth program.

Kids from neighboring families come to the church each morning. Church members and college-age volunteers from AmeriCorps VISTA play with the children, teach them, and remind them that they are loved for who they are.

Then, everyone eats lunch together.

The church’s small kitchen brims with packages of food and all manner of pots, pans and utensils. Shelf space is limited. As you can see from the photo above, the communion cups are stored with the food offered that day.

Food and faith on the same shelf.

That powerful image sticks with me and reminds me that there are two types of religion.

Through us, with us, in us

One type is self-centered and future-oriented. You follow a code of conduct to get some reward when you die. Many Christian churches teach that you don’t get to meet Jesus until you die, and then only if you’ve behaved like a “good Christian.”

And the code-of-conduct for being a “good Christian” varies significantly among denominations and is constantly changing. What was deemed unacceptable yesterday is tolerated today. It’ll change yet again.

Often, these codes of conduct ignore or contradict Jesus’ passionate teachings about how we must treat each other and care for one another, especially for those who are needy, lowly and hurting.

That’s one approach.

Many other faith communities are committed to living the message of incarnation — God feeding, healing and transforming the world through us.

People of incarnation recognize God’s presence through us, with us and in us. They try their best to embody the love, grace, forgiveness, peace and healing that the world so desperately needs.

Through love and love alone

People of incarnation recognize that the kingdom of God isn’t some reward that you get when you die, but a place you can enter now. Your heart is the door. Everyone is invited to enter and enact God’s kingdom through love and love alone.

That part never changes.

The inner-city UCC church has a picture that sums it up. Across the street from the church is its food pantry. There’s a drawing on the wall that shows a line of people waiting to get into such a food pantry.

Waiting in the middle of the line is Jesus.

Churches of incarnation take Jesus seriously when he says he’s right here with us, especially in the poor and the needy. Faith is about recognizing and responding to that presence.

So they respond by feeding the hungry as close family, listening to the troubled and offering help, providing a hug and a moment of hope to someone who’s feeling despair.

Hope, a plate of food, and an experience of God. All coming from the same shelf.

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.

Gonna fly now

birdhand

A storm blew the cap off the chimney. Before it could be replaced, a bird managed to tumble inside and get stuck above the flue. I could hear it frantically flapping in the confining, dark space. Its wings were useless – birds aren’t helicopters. The bird had no way out.

You know that feeling too, right?

Most of us feel that way from time to time, I suspect. Our hands, our legs, our brains, our hearts, our intuition, our creativity, our talent, our courage, our self-confidence, our best intentions, our funniest jokes – none of that seems capable of getting us out of a dark place.

I opened the flue to give the frightened bird an escape route. After several minutes, it squeezed through the flue and landed on the floor. It saw light coming through a window and began flying toward what it thought was freedom.

Smack! It went beak-first into the glass. Then, like a cartoon animal, it slid down the wall and landed on the ground, stunned and dazed. I scooped it up and cradled it between my hands, holding its wings tightly so it wouldn’t try to escape and hurt itself again.

I could tell that the bird was really frightened. Its heart was beating so fast that I couldn’t keep count. And no wonder. It had escaped a dark place and spread its wings toward the comforting light, only to slam headlong into something that it couldn’t even see.

Now, the bird was totally helpless. Its life was in someone else’s hands.

The bird’s brain had no way of knowing that I was there not to hurt, but to help. I wanted to save it. I rubbed my finger over its head, trying to soothe it as I carried it to the front door and then outside. I put it down inside a flower box, went inside and watched from the window that it had flown into.

The bird didn’t move for quite a while. Then it seemed to regain its senses. The bird stood up, stretches its wings, and then took to the sky, flying toward a stand of trees that offered shelter and safety.

The bird had no idea of what just happened. It couldn’t even begin to comprehend that it had been saved by a pair of hands that enfolded it, protected it, and carried it where it needed to go.

Fast-forward to now. Birds don’t live all that long in the wild, so this one is probably dead. It’s in Someone else’s hands now.

I’m reminded of that from time to time – often in those soaring moments, and also in those other ones we all experience. The times when we feel helpless, stuck in a dark place, afraid and confused. All of our personal powers aren’t enough. We don’t know what to do next except uselessly flap our wings and let our hearts beat so fast that we can’t count.

And all we can do is trust that there are hands holding us.

Some people don’t believe in the hands. Or they do believe, but it’s hard to trust in them – I’m well-practiced at that one! I’m more of a do-it-myself person, always sharing my brilliant ideas with the One who seems more interested in giving me a hand than in taking my advice.

Just trust. That’s hard. And often, I’m so absorbed in whatever it is that’s making my heart beat so crazy fast that I can’t even feel the hands.

In my experience, we feel those hands in the times when we use our own. When we wrap our hands around someone else — even if they’re too afraid to recognize what we’re doing for them – we connect with the hands of  Someone wrapped around us, too.

Because in a sense, they’re the same hands, doing the same thing. Lovingly helping someone get to a place where they can fly again.

bird-in-hand