What’s your recurring bad dream?

Fears

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

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

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

And not just school dreams.

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

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

I’ve had other types of bad dreams.

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

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

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

Universal fears come out at night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping fear where it belongs

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

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

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

Pardon? Or forgiveness?

Forgiveness2

The recent discussion of whether President Trump could pardon his family and himself got me thinking about how pardoning and forgiving are two contrary things.

A pardon protects someone from punishment for their behavior. Forgiveness seeks not to protect the one who has fallen short, but to touch them and to change them.

Pardoning erases an outward debt. Forgiveness transforms a person or a world from within.

A pardon moves on from the moment without requiring a price paid or a heart changed by the person involved. Forgiveness seeks to redeem and change the person and the moment.

Forgiveness isn’t about avoiding a punishment; it’s about reconciling and renewing relationships. Forgiveness transforms recrimination into reconciliation, division into unity. It replaces rejection with acceptance and hurt with healing.

A pardon? All that does is keep you out of jail.

Two different things

Forgiveness does what pardon can’t do because it originates in a totally different place. Pardon is rooted in the law and legality; forgiveness springs from the heart and is based on love.

Pardon keeps a record of appropriate punishment and then erases it. Forgiveness doesn’t count or keep track; instead, it offers unrestricted reconnection.

Pardon says you deserve punishment, and you should just be happy you’re not getting what you deserve. Forgiveness says you deserve love, and you are getting what you deserve.

It’s unfortunate that our concepts of pardon and forgiveness – two very different things – have been twisted around. We confuse one with the other, or we think that one substitutes for the other.

For example, we see it in the fundamentalist thread of Christianity. Forgiveness has been replaced by pardon, and legality rules instead of love.

It wasn’t that way in the beginning. Classic Christianity was much different, emphasizing love, compassion, reconciliation and unlimited forgiveness.

As Bible scholar Marcus Borg noted, the theory of “substitutionary sacrifice” didn’t become a main thread in Christianity until 1098. It was based on the feudal system of the time in which a lord couldn’t just forgive a servant who had disobeyed because it would encourage further disobedience.

Instead, a price was demanded to obtain a pardon. The substitutionary sacrifice theory reduced Jesus to a commodity in a business deal – someone dies, you get your pardon.

Essentially, God is depicted as a feudal lord who is incapable of actual forgiveness — if strings are attached, it’s not forgiveness.

Of course, the story of the prodigal son — proposed a thousand years earlier — reminds us of how forgiveness actually looks and acts. The ungrateful son returns home with no remorse – he’s not sorry, he’s hungry – and yet his father runs to him, embraces him, declares him a full son again and throws a lavish party in honor of his return.

Forgiveness has no strings attached

The son is warmly, passionately, happily forgiven. The father lavishes him with love and is ecstatic over their reunion. Why? That’s the nature of love. It seeks only to reconnect and transform.

The father also tries to transform the older son who complains that the wayward son is getting off without any sort of punishment. The father responds to the older son with nothing but love as well.

The parable’s point: No matter what we’ve done, we get forgiveness wrapped tightly around our necks like a hug. And there’s a party awaiting us with great food and drink and music and dancing.

The parable’s other point: Just as the father forgives both sons, we must forgive ourselves and each other the same way.

It means we pay attention to our shortcomings not to beat ourselves up or mete out punishment or earn some pardon; rather, we do it so that we can grow in love and learn how to join the divine party more willingly.

It also means that when we’ve hurt someone, we facilitate forgiveness by going to them and working it out. Those moments transform and heal.

Extending forgiveness is much, much harder than granting a pardon. Forgiveness involves great humility, vulnerability, and a willingness to heal anything that ruptures our relationships and ourselves.

A pardon spares someone from consequences without changing them. Forgiveness saves and redeems everyone involved by transforming them.

A pardon sidesteps love; forgiveness embodies it.

Forgiveness

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.

Let freedom ring … a little louder

liberty-bell-philadelphia-firstread

Now that we’ve shot off all the fireworks and eaten all the leftover Fourth of July food, let’s get on with the business of bringing a little more liberty to the land.

We tend to think of liberty as a fancy word confined to the parchment of historical documents. We define freedom as an individual right – I’m free to do whatever I want, so long as I don’t hurt anyone else all that much.

That’s not at all the case.

Liberty and freedom aren’t fancy words or individual guarantees. They’re a process that requires everyone’s participation. We can’t have liberty and justice for all until we’re all willing to see the injustice and the lack of liberty all around us, and then commit ourselves to doing something about it.

Liberty is participatory. Freedom is a process. Neither one freely exists – they have to be created out of a determination that everyone must be treated as equally important and equally beloved.

And each of us has a responsibility to get involved.

A network of mutuality

As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it in his letter from a Birmingham jail: “I cannot sit by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

So yes, on this Sixth of July, let’s resolve to make freedom ring a little louder …

Freedom for black citizens to finally be treated as equals in all respects, in a society that has relegated them to the status of property for most of its history.

Freedom for women to finally be treated as equals in all ways, in a society that has relegated them to second-class status throughout its existence.

Freedom for Muslims, Jews, and people of all faiths to practice their faith without intimidation or coercion from those who believe differently.

Freedom for LGBTQ and transgender citizens to be treated as equal citizens in all respects.

Freedom for people with mental or physical challenges to be accepted as equal citizens and given a chance to contribute as they can, without society creating even more barriers and walls for them.

Freedom for hurting people to get the healing that they need without financial barriers erected in their path.

Freedom for needy people to get the assistance that they need without being demeaned, ignored or turned away.

Freedom for all to be treated as equally important and equally beloved children of our Creator, who bestows the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness upon everyone equally.

Let freedom ring

Let freedom ring a little louder …

Freedom from the tyranny of elevating the desires of the few powerful people over the needs of the many people.

Freedom from the tyranny of prizing individual wealth over the common good.

Freedom from the fear and prejudice and anger that imprison each of us in so many ways and shred the social fabric that is necessary for us to live in harmony.

Freedom from the influence of shrill and divisive voices that play on our worries and prejudices and seek to lessen our collective liberty out of fear.

Freedom from the lie that I am the only one who matters and what happens to others is none of my concern — they deserve their fate. This lie enslaves us, corrupts us and is at the core of much of what’s wrong with our society and our world.

Freedom from the violence that is the inherent product of our obsession with weapons and war as ways to solve problems.

Freedom from the falsehood that bullying – in our personal lives or our collective lives — is the way to achieve greatness.

Yes, that freedom – let it ring louder.

Earth dust and star dust

stardust3

Growing up Catholic meant that Ash Wednesday was a big deal in our school and our church. Personally, I never cared for it all that much.

Part of the reason was that Ash Wednesday marked the start of giving up something until Easter. Usually, it was the start of doing without candy or soft drinks or ice cream. I recall that one year, a family on my street decided they would give up television for Lent, which seemed like cruel and unusual punishment.

The ashes never thrilled me, either. The pastor of my immigrant church in Cleveland loved the ashes and would make a HUGE, messy sign of the cross on everyone’s forehead, turning them into a giant hot-cross bun for the rest of the day. Of course, we weren’t allowed to wipe off the ashes until we got home, so the little black flakes ended up on everything.

(By contrast, the younger associate priest in the parish would just leave a thumb-print mark of ashes on the forehead. We tried to gravitate to his line.)

Ashes on everything

What bothered me most about the day, though, was the message. It was so dark and seemed to be about beating up people simply for coming up short – which, of course, is the total opposite of the original message.

The person who started the movement went around telling people that they are blessed and beloved and beautiful and worth more than they can possibly imagine. He spent his life trying to build up those who were getting beat down by their religious and economic and social and political systems.

And he said that his followers must do the same. Forgive, embrace, include, heal and love everyone.

I totally get why so many people are turned off by Ash Wednesday, the way it has devolved over the centuries. We’re all bleeding in some ways, and the last thing we need is someone lecturing us on how we deserve to bleed. Instead, we need someone to take the time to stop, gently bandage our wounds, end the bleeding and start the healing.

That’s what the ashes represent – a reminder that every day is a precious gift and we mustn’t waste it. Day by day, we need to grow in love and shine more brightly.

The ashes also remind us that that we are intimately bound to everything and everyone, and we must live as such. The creation stories teach us so beautifully and poetically that everything — including you and me – is made from the same stuff.

In our diversity, we’re kindred creations. And it’s all very, very good.

The star that you are

One of the many cool revelations of science is that everything in the universe is built with the same divine tool box. Everything and everyone is made from the same set of elements, the same holy ingredients.

We are more than sacred earth dust. We are sacred star dust, too.

And like the stars, we are made to shine, each in our own way and in our own place. We’re meant to provide light for the world, and we can’t hide from our responsibility. We mustn’t build walls between ourselves and others and cower in the shadow of fear, insecurity and certitude.

Mostly, we need to stop listening to the voices telling us that we don’t matter, we’re not important, we don’t measure up, we’re not good enough or worthy of unconditional love.

That’s what we need to give up – paying attention to those voices.

Instead, be the star that you are. In your way, bring love and compassion and healing into the world as best you can. Let every speck of dust remind you of the Source of your light and your brilliance.

Go and shine.

No going back

moving-forward

With all that’s happened in 2016 – especially during the last two months — a lot of people are ready to say good riddance and let’s move on to a new year. One that hopefully won’t be so sad and discouraging.

We’re ready for change.

Well, kind of. Well, not really.

Isn’t it interesting how we have this love-hate relationship with change? We crave change in some aspects of our lives, and we do everything we can to block it in other areas.

None of us is totally comfortable with change, which is kind of surprising in a way, seeing as how it’s one of defining human and divine qualities. Change is deeply within us and all around us, who we are and what we’re about.

Our lives begin when two cells meet, create something new and spark a lifelong process of change. Even now, countless cells in our bodies are dying and being replaced by new ones. At our deepest level, we are constantly changing.

All around us and within us

We grow and develop mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And our lives play out in a world that’s also immersed in nonstop change. Life is born and dies and is born again, seasons come and go, our planet zooms through space without pausing for an instant.

Nothing stands still. Ever.

Each of us is a little vessel of change.

Given how change is woven into our very fiber, you might think that we would be a little bit better at accepting and handling it. We all know people who hate change of any sort, and others who crave change and get quickly bored with repetition. I’m guessing that most of us are somewhere closer to the middle of the continuum.

We like new gadgets and changes that make parts of our lives easier. We also have routines that are designed to create a comfort zone and limit change.

Many people resist change when it comes to how they act and think. That’s a tough one for all of us. Change always starts with open-minded questions: Why am I doing this? Can I do it differently and better? What am I missing? How are others doing it? What can I learn from all of this?

Such questions make us uncomfortable. We’re tempted to keep doing things the same way – our way – and pretend there’s no other way. Our minds become closed doors that keep everything in place and rule out any growth.

No going back

We might even fantasize about going back to sometime in the past – the “good old days” – when people who thought like me enjoyed more prominence and never had their ideas questioned. A time when we weren’t challenged to adapt to all the change that is the nature of life.

Of course, those olden times didn’t really exist the way we imagine them. Change has always been a constant. We really can’t freeze ourselves in time.

And the really sad part is that when we try to stay stuck in the past, we become an acorn that’s never planted. Our hard, impenetrable shell prevents us from becoming what we’re meant to evolve into.

We never grow.

Sadly, much of what passes for religion has become this way – heads in the past, resistant to change, devoid of the growth that is the signature of Life. So many “religious” people have abandoned a core trait of spirituality: Openness to a Creator who makes all things new every day and wants to transform each of us a little bit more each day.

Too bad. They’re missing out on what life and love are all about. But they always have the chance to change, if they wish. That’s the great part of change – it’s always there to be celebrated and lived, even if we’ve wasted a lot of time trying to resist its all-inclusive embrace.

A New Year’s wish

So, in the coming year, may you experience many amazing changes.

May you have some new insights each day. May you grow into someone even more beautiful than you already are. Maybe your thoughts and your attitudes and your spirit be touched and transformed by Love.

May you be planted anew in some ways and sprout from the warm ground and reach up to the beautiful sky. May you be watered by all the change around you. May you bloom for all to see.

May you become wiser, more loving, more at peace.

May you change the world for the better.

Who would Jesus pee with?

Urinals

When my kids were in high school, their girls’ volleyball team made it to the district finals of the state tournament. I went to watch the match and used the men’s restroom beforehand.

As I stood at the urinal, I noticed someone wearing a girl’s skirt move into the urinal next to mine. The school is co-ed. The skirt was worn by a young man on the football team. The conversation went like this:

Me: Hey, nice skirt.

Him: Thanks. The football team is wearing them to show support for the girls.

Me: Great idea. Very clever.

Him: Yeah, we liked it. Thanks.

I peed, he peed, and off we went. It was a funny moment. Of course, in North Carolina and some other places, it probably wouldn’t be funny at all. Who knows? There would likely be some big dust-up over a person in a skirt using a urinal.

And isn’t that so sad? And more than a little creepy? Why are so many politicians and religious leaders so obsessed with where people pee and what’s in their pants?

And since religion inevitably gets dragged into it, let’s ask a pertinent question: Who would Jesus pee with?

First things first. Why are folks so caught up in others’ sexuality?

Historians point out that religions and politicians have always spent a lot of time trying to legislate sexuality and push away the people that made them uncomfortable. I’ve seen that in my lifetime. Jim Crow laws were still in place when I was growing up. White people didn’t want black people peeing next to them. Or drinking from the same water fountain. Or eating at the same lunch counter. Or sleeping in the same hotel. Or marrying white people.

Black people made them uncomfortable, so they tried to legislate to keep them away.

And so it goes today. People who are uncomfortable with gay people or transgender people are trying to legislate to keep them away. And just like the defenders of Jim Crow, they’re using their “religious beliefs” to support their arguments.

So, let’s get to that bigger question: Who would Jesus pee with?

The gospels provide short, thumbnail descriptions of what Jesus is passionate about: Feeding the hungry, healing the broken, sheltering the homeless, visiting the imprisoned, sharing everything with those in need. Trying to love everyone unconditionally. Being compassionate and accepting. The gospels go on and on about this.

Peeing? Not a word. So he probably wasn’t much concerned about it. In fact, he chose to surround himself with friends who were the religious, cultural and sexual outcasts of his society — the ones that others wanted nothing to do with. He ate with them, laughed with them, lived with them. And, undoubtedly, he would have peed with them.

Why wouldn’t he?

And how different is all of that from how we’re acting? Instead of growing in wisdom and age and grace, we’re more like junior high kids caught up in hormonal drama. Instead of being concerned about what’s in people’s hearts and in their stomachs, we’re fixated on what’s in their pants.

Doesn’t it creep you out, this fixation with people’s private parts and private lives? How religious leaders have turned Doubting Thomas into Peeping Tom?

And nobody buys the rationale that it’s about protecting children. There are no issues of transgender people hurting children. However, there have been many cases of politicians and religious leaders doing horrific things to children. And what about the homeless children in our country and the refugee children worldwide who desperately need our help right now?

Instead, we’re fixating on who’s peeing where.

So, let’s ask the question again: Who would Jesus pee with?

Even though there’s no mention of how he peed in the gospels, there’s lots of stories about how he did other things. As the stories go, when a crowd gathered to spend time with him, he would make sure that everyone had some fishes and loaves to eat, regardless of their age or religion or sexuality or anything else. In fact, sharing the bread with everyone – especially the marginalized and the outcasts — became his signature act.

He healed anyone who asked for healing, loved anyone who needed his love, and invited everyone to do the same. In one story, he washes the feet of everyone – including those who are about to betray and deny him – and says they must go and do the same to everyone else.

Serve everybody. Unconditionally. No questions asked.

So I suppose Jesus would pee next to the young man wearing a skirt to support a volleyball team. And next to the transgender person. And next to the self-righteous religious person. And while doing so, he would maybe strike up a conversation and say some kind words to them, show them a little love.

Who would he pee with? You know the answer to that.

And then he would tell us to go and do the same.