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