Chocolates and ashes, love and dust

Ash valentines

An older man walked into a local candy store last month and said he wanted a box of chocolates for his wife. He told the store owner which ones she favors – the dark chocolates — and the box was soon filled and wrapped with a red ribbon.

What was the occasion?

The man noticed that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincide this year. He knows how much his wife loves chocolate. He also knows that she gives them up for Lent every year.

He didn’t want her to miss one of her joys. By getting her chocolates early, she could enjoy her treat and give it up for Lent, too.

The man found a creative way to honor the spirit of a day that points us in two directions that aren’t as opposite as we might think.

No better pairing

On the surface, this year’s confluence of chocolates and ashes seems to produce an odd couple. But it’s fitting to have one day of celebrating love in all its forms while also recognizing our mortality.

Love and dust? There’s no better pairing.

The ashes remind us that this phase of life is limited. We all lose sight of how much each day is a precious gift. We fail to see the many possibilities for gratitude, celebration and love that are present each day.

The hearts remind us that love creates us, animates us and sustains us through every one of our limited days. Love gives us this day and all its glorious possibilities. Love is for everyone whose lives we can touch in some way, even strangers a half a world away.

Together, they remind us that we’ve got to decide how we’ll use today. Will we bring more division, pain and indifference into our world? Or will we choose to do all that we can to make the world more as God would have it?

Lent sharpens our focus on what matters. It challenges us to get re-grounded and find creative ways to bring healing and love to others, especially the marginalized and the needy and the victims of abuse.

Lent prompts us to examine what’s getting in the way of giving and receiving love in our lives. It calls out the insecurities and fears that form walls. It challenges our prejudices.

Daily chances to make a difference

Above all, it forces us to see injustice and do something about it; to recognize those who are hurting and find a way to help them heal; to reach out to the outcast and the refugee and invite them to be with us.

We mustn’t waste the daily chances that God provides to make a difference.

Ultimately, Lent encourages us to forge a trail of love through our daily dustiness and to transform our ashy selves with creative acts of compassion. It reminds us that we are physical beings for now — formed in the elements of stardust — but we’ll always be animated by a breath of life and love that wants to guide us.

So, let’s heed the Valentine/Ash reminder. And let’s pray for the faith and the courage to live each day boldly, kindly, and joyfully right up to the day when we exchange our heartbeat for a deeper place in God’s heart, which is love.

Twelve kind jurors


We filed into the courtroom and sat before the judge. I was part of the pool of prospective jurors for a trial – my latest stint of jury duty.

The bailiff seated 12 of us in the jury box to begin the selection process. I and the others sat in the benches, waiting to see if we were needed.

The judge told us that we were chosen for a murder trial. There would be graphic autopsy photos and video of a nasty fight that led to the shooting. If any of us felt we weren’t up for that, we would be excused and assigned to a different trial.

Hearing his words made me swallow hard. One prospective juror asked to be excused. The rest of us felt like leaving, too, but decided to stay. Someone had to do this duty.

I ended up as the first alternate juror. The trial lasted more than a week. The 14 of us – 12 jurors and two alternates – listened to hours of testimony and saw evidence from DNA and gunshot residue testing.

We wrestled with how we held a person’s fate in our hands. It was intense and emotional. Also, inspiring.

We were as diverse a group and you’ll find when we reported for duty in mid-January, a group of strangers with a wide range in age, race, ethnic background and religion.

As different as could be

We live in different neighborhoods. We’ve had very different life experiences. There were single people and married people on the jury, parents and grandparents. There were people who love Cincinnati-style chili and those who despise it.

How do I know all this? We told each other.

Jurors aren’t allowed to discuss a case until deliberations begin, so the one topic we all had in common was off-limits for the week of testimony. Instead, we talked about each other during the many pauses in the trial.

We learned about each other’s medical conditions. We knew who had a sick kid. We shared our life stories. When we reconvened each morning, we’d ask how that sick child did overnight. Or how the commute went. Whether there was any news about that job prospect.

People brought muffins to share for breakfast. They offered a ride home to those who had arrived by bus on a cold day. They encouraged each other with a smile or a small joke during a break from the trial’s grim images.

We became like family. There was so much kindness in that jury room.

It made me think of one of my favorite passages from Paul, the one that’s used at a lot of weddings. He writes that love matters more than anything, and he describes its defining traits in beautiful and poetic language.

He says first that love is patient, which makes sense – there can be no love without patience. We must be patient with others and with ourselves as we grow and learn.

Then he says love is kind. Kindness is love embodied — in a word, a touch, an act, a moment of attention. Where kindness is present, so is love. If kindness is absent, there is no love, either.

It’s tempting to look at our society, read the headlines, hear the harsh words and conclude that kindness is a thing of the past. So many other things dominate the headlines – conflict, division, greed, self-interest.

It’s in our divine DNA

Before we reach any such conclusion, we should stop, look and listen to the many everyday expressions of kindness all around us. It’s everywhere — even if it’s not the top story on the news – and it’s central to who we are.

It’s in our divine DNA. It’s the glue that holds us together, the healing touch for whatever ails or divides us.

For two weeks, I saw many small moments of kindness pull together a group of strangers. I was reminded that despite our surface differences, we’re all the same — people who just need a smile, a word of encouragement, a little love as they get through the day.

Our society and our world are in turbulent times – aren’t they always? Kindness is the way out of the darkness. It can bring us together and heal us, if we let it.

In a world where we can be anything, let’s remember to be kind.

The risk of living authentically


Several of my friends commemorated the anniversary of the Challenger disaster by recalling what they were doing when they heard of the shuttle’s explosion 32 years ago this month. I remember it well.

And not just because of what happened to the shuttle.

I first saw that awful image of the Y-shape smoke on a small television set outside my counselor’s office. It reinforced what Jenny and I had just talked about for 45 minutes.

We’d talked about living authentically. And the rewards — and the risks — involved.

Jenny specializes in working with adult children of alcoholics. That’s me. When I reached adulthood — well, as much as any of us does — I realized that some things weren’t working for me. Something was missing from my life.

Me. I was missing.

Jenny helped me connect the dots. She helped me to see that the coping strategies I’d used as a child to deal with a challenging situation were getting in the way of living.

I was missing

As a child, I’d learned not to talk about the craziness going on around me. And especially not to talk to anyone outside the family about it — their lives are so perfect and they’ll think you’re so weird, which will make it all worse.

Instead, put up walls. Protect yourself from being disappointed by not expecting or hoping for much. Don’t get in situations where you could get hurt. Try to love from a safe distance.

And dream about the day when someone will ride in and save you from all of this. Everything will be great. God will wave a divine magic wand or someone in shining armor will show up and save you.

Or, maybe not.

During my talks with Jenny, I learned that every one of us has a lot of room to grow and a lot of stuff to sort out and move past. Each of us struggles with our own stuff in our own ways.

It’s our human challenge. As we embrace the struggle and grow, we become more comfortable with the process. We start figuring things out a bit more.

And we become more authentic.

Being authentic doesn’t mean being the loudest voice or insisting that we have all the answers and that other people should live our way. That’s not being authentic; that’s being an ass.

Love is risky

It doesn’t mean that we’ll ever fully understand ourselves or why we do some of the things we do. Instead, we decide to be guided less often by the selfish, insecure and scared parts inside each of us.

Being authentic means trying our best to love, because we’re at our most authentic when we love.

It means tapping into the kind, compassionate, creative parts and letting them guide our decisions a bit more as we go along. It means doing what makes us feel the most genuine and the most alive.

It also means working to put ourselves a little more fully into our relationships. It’s about taking the risk of actually loving, which is always fulfilling and unsettling and messy and wonderful and awkward and challenging.

And this is where it gets risky.

To love is to risk. The deeper and more authentic the love, the bigger the risk. We take a chance whenever we let our love and our passion take us places.

We do so knowing that things will sometimes blow up in our faces. We‘re going to get hurt, maybe very deeply. We do it anyway.

Which brings us to the Challenger.

Taking the risk

Teacher Christa McAuliffe was on the Challenger. She could have stayed in the safety of her classroom instead of risking outer space. She followed her passion.

After the disaster, President Reagan said that McAuliffe and the astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

So have we.

By living authentically, we take the risk and accept the challenge to reconstitute our lives when things inevitably fall apart. We put ourselves back on the launch pad — still hurting and healing — and head boldly and authentically toward a new place.

A place where we touch the face of God. And where God oh-so-tenderly touches us back.

The life within these walls

Snow globe house

The furniture was arranged in place. Boxes were stacked in each room, ready for unpacking. I plopped onto the couch to rest a few minutes before plunging into the next phase of moving in.

I looked around at the bare, unfamiliar walls and wondered: What’s happened within these walls? How have many people have experienced life within this space?

Moving is so stressful and unsettling. You trade a familiar place for a different one that doesn’t yet feel like home. It looks different, smells different, sounds different, feels different.

And you wonder: What has happened within this space? What stories could it tell?

In my case, moving in had already made me a little familiar with the new place. As I walked up the stairs to the bedrooms for the first time, I noticed that a couple of the steps creak.

I wondered: How many times had some parent walked up these stairs holding a finally-asleep child, only to have that creaky stair awaken them? How many times had children tried to sneak down these stairs on Christmas morning, and they still remember the creak that awakened their parents?

How many lives were conceived within these walls? Had someone died here? How many times had someone laid in bed awake with worry, staring at this bedroom ceiling?

How many birthday candles were blown out during parties in the hardwood-floored dining room? How many special holiday meals were prepared in this kitchen, spreading a wonderful aroma through the entire house?

Sacred spaces where life unfolds

We tend to think of spaces as belonging to us, but they never really do. We share them with all those who came before us, those who live with us now, and those who will move in when we’re gone.

I think of them as sacred places, spaces where life unfolds in all its glory and challenges. These spaces remind us how our lives intersect, overlap and intertwine.

We occupy the same spaces as many others. They remind us of our commonality and our web of mutuality. Our lives are always interconnected on the deepest levels.

I think about it especially when I enter an old church and wonder what people have experienced here – baptisms, weddings, funerals. People congregated within these walls for some of the most profound moments of their lives.

Older houses make me feel that way, too.

I moved into my current house – built in the 1930s – a little more than two years ago. I rent from a couple who moved to this country 17 years ago and raised their daughter within its walls.

Before I spent my first night – an unsettling night in an unfamiliar space with its own creaks _ I did something to make it my own. I got my bottle of water from the lake where I swam as a child – my “holy” water — and sprinkled a few drops in each room.

Those drops baptized me into this space. I was now part of the lives of all who came before me and lived within these walls.

Interconnected on a deep level

A few months ago, the home owners visited to have me sign a lease extension. They brought their daughter, who is in junior high and was eager to revisit the place where she was raised.

She had a huge smile as she scurried to the basement and showed me the room that was her private play area as a young girl. Her parents took me to one of the bedrooms and pointed to the corner where they kept their daughter’s crib.

We stood there silently and smiled.

As they were ready to leave, their daughter walked past the refrigerator and noticed that I’d kept a “Hello Kitty” sticker she’d purposely left behind when they moved out. She told me how she acquired the sticker and why it was meaningful to her.

I told her she could take it home. She said no – she wanted Kitty to stay in this house.

I totally understood.

Every time I walk past the refrigerator, Kitty reminds me that I’m a temporary inhabitant of a sacred space, as are we all. Even when we leave, we always leave part of ourselves behind.

And there’s something very cool and connecting about all of it.

A ride home on Christmas eve

pierogi ornament 2

I was 6 years old. It was Christmas eve. The traditional Slovak dinner was prepared — mushroom soup and pierogies. My mom, my younger brother and I were waiting for my dad to get home so we could eat.

The waiting part was no surprise.

My dad served as a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded during a mission. The experience changed him. He brought home some demons.

The demons emerged during the holidays. My dad would get off work at a marketplace in downtown Cleveland and head across the street to a tavern with his co-workers. They would have a holiday drink and go home; my dad would stay and drink. Maybe he was trying to drown those demons.

Meanwhile, we were home waiting. And getting hungry.

Mom decided we’d eat without him. After supper, my brother and I got into our new pajamas. We always got new ones for Christmas, the kind with footies and cool designs like race cars or superheroes.

Snug in our sleepwear, we sat on the couch and waited some more. It was getting late. My mom was anxious, afraid that something bad had happened.

A surprise visitor


Finally, headlights illuminated the driveway. We looked out the front window. We could see a car, and we could tell it wasn’t my dad’s car. We could see two silhouettes in the front seat — a driver and a slumped-over passenger.

The slumped-over passenger? My dad, no doubt. Someone had given him a ride home. Not the first time.

The driver helped my dad to the front door. When my mom opened the door, we saw both figures in the light and got a huge surprise.

The man who drove my father home? A black man.

Understand this: We lived in an ethnic neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. There were no black people in my neighborhood. Many people in my neighborhood wouldn’t welcome a black person to their door. This was the 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing. There was a lot of racial tension in cities like Cleveland.

This black man had great courage coming to my house, not knowing how he would be received.

After they got my dad inside, my mom invited the man to stay and eat – her way of saying thanks. He accepted. I remember sitting at the kitchen table with him. I’m guessing it was the only time in his life that he had pierogies and mushroom soup.

He saw he could help, so he did

Years later, I asked my mom about that night. The man told her that he knew my dad, saw him at the bar, realized he was in no condition to drive, and decided to get him home safely.

The man could have found any number of legitimate reasons to avoid getting involved. It was Christmas eve. He’d be putting someone drunk into his car, risking a mess. He didn’t know my family and whether we would welcome his gesture or even appreciate it. Besides, my dad would probably just get drunk again and be in the same predicament, so what’s the point?

Why bother with him?

Instead of walking away, the man thought about how my dad could get behind the wheel and kill himself, and maybe kill someone else, too. The man could do something about it, so he did.

He changed everything about my life – more than any of us can ever know.

Months later, my dad recognized that his drinking was a problem. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and courageously transformed his life. My family had many good times together over the years, times we might not have received if not for that courageous man on Christmas eve.

One act changes everything

And who knows how many other families were affected that night? Many people were on the road. How many other lives and other families did the man save?

I never saw that man again. I think about him every Christmas, though. I’m thankful for what he did.

Every Christmas eve, I pray for the man who had the kindness to drive my dad home and change my life and my family in unknowable ways. And I pray for the courage to be a little more like him every day.

Maybe you could, too.

Hearing God in a female voice

Female voice

Many courageous women are challenging powerful men who abused them. Those female voices have started a national conversation and brought about significant changes already.

It’s fitting that we’re focused on those voices as Advent begins. It’s a season for all of us to honor, encourage and hear the many female voices that challenge us, teach us, love us, and bring us into a deeper experience of God, if we let them.

Throughout history, female voices have been ignored, marginalized, and muted by those who think that only males should be heard. By contrast, the Jesus story places women front-and-center, right from the start.


All by herself

In Luke’s telling of the tale, a woman decides all by herself – a subversive thing, then or now – whether the Jesus story will even happen. Mary’s let-it-be gets everything started.
A courageous, hesitant, female voice brings God more fully into the world.
Mary’s role is shocking in a time and a place when only men made important decisions and women were treated more like property than persons. That’s only the beginning of this theologically radical and socially subversive story.
Luke’s version has Mary visiting her relative Elizabeth — two strong women — and talking about God’s passion for justice in ways that her son would later repeat, which is no surprise. After all, who teaches Jesus and molds him? His mom.
Jesus first learns about God through a female voice.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus is so persistent about ignoring and violating the rules in his society and his religion that try to limit the role of women. He constantly interacts with women in ways the religious and social leaders find scandalous.
There’s the famous story of Jesus visiting two sisters and one of them chooses to sit with him and discuss religion – a man’s realm – instead of joining her sister Martha in preparing the meal, as a woman was required. Jesus encourages Mary to do what she values.

Men will learn from the women

The story culminates in a crucifixion, and it’s the women who show courage and love while the men run and hide. Peter denies knowing Jesus to save his hide. The women? They risk their lives to be with Jesus up to his last breath.
And as the story goes, it’s the women who have the courage to go to the tomb. While the men are still hiding in fear, the women experience the still-alive Jesus. He tells them to tell the men about what they’ve experienced — the men will learn from the women.
Predictably, the men don’t believe the women and dismiss their accounts. They run to the tomb to see for themselves.
The same thing happens in every generation. Men choose to ignore the voices of women who have experienced things they know nothing about.
Today, many faith communities bar women from going to the pulpit and telling about their experiences. Women’s voices are marginalized and ignored, just like 2,000 years ago.


Our society considers a female voice less believable and less important than a male voice. When it comes to sexual abuse, for instance, a man’s shifting denial is believed over the word of so many courageous and prophetic women saying #MeToo.
It’s long past a time for change.
Let’s use this Advent – the season that starts with one woman’s courageous voice – to pay closer attention to all the female voices in our world. Let’s honor them and hear God still speaking to all of us through them.
May we let those voices teach us their truths, especially the truths that we’re reluctant to hear. May we allow their courageous and persistent “let it be” change each of us and our world all over again.

A mom’s reminder: You’re never lost

Outstretched arms

One of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories involves getting separated from my mom in a department store. She was looking at items, and I got bored and wandered down to a display at the end of the aisle that caught my attention.

After a little while, I looked back and didn’t recognize my mom in the crowd of people. I thought she’d left without me.

I got frantic. I remember suddenly feeling so alone and frightened in this big place with all these strangers. What will I do?

I started to cry.

In a flash, my mom heard me and came toward me with arms outstretched. Don’t be afraid, she said, wrapping me in a hug. I’m right here. Everything’s OK.

There have been many throughout my life that I’ve had that same feeling of being alone or lost in a big, scary world. It’s like being in the department store all over again.

At this time of year, many religious faiths reassure us that we’re never alone. They remind us to listen for that voice saying: I’m right here. Always.

It’s all OK

For example, Advent is a time of remembering that God is with us. Our attention is focused on incarnation – God living through us, with us and in us at this very moment to bring love, justice and healing to each other and our world.

God is right here. Everything is going to be OK.

For me, that’s perhaps the most challenging part of faith, trusting that our Parent is with us and caring for us in every moment.

It’s easy to feel that presence at some times: when you feel loved deeply by someone; when things in your life seem to be turning around; when you’re standing on a beach or looking up at the moon and stars and you feel so wonderfully small and yet so deeply grateful to be part of something so amazing.

Those transcendent moments remind us we’re not alone.

It’s the many difficult moments that distract us and sidetrack us. Life is full of challenging and often painful transitions. We lose a loved one. A job or a relationship ends. We wake up with a lump somewhere in our body. Someone whom we love deeply is struggling with some great challenge.

How often does it feel like you’ve been plunged into a whole new universe and you don’t know what to do? Nothing has prepared you for this. Everything has been turned upside-down and inside-out.

Those worrisome moments can swallow us up. Advent – the time of Emanuel, which means God with us – reminds us that we have loving company, outstretched arms that will get us through everything.

Never loses sight of us

We’re never lost or alone, even when we’re struggling to make sense of the latest unexpected twist in our lives. As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: “We want to go to God for answers, but sometimes what we get is God’s presence.”

The Creator of love and life is present in every tear of joy, and in every tear of pain. In every breath of relief, and in every breath of fear. In every moment of clarity, and in every moment of confusion.

We’ve been done a great disservice by those who portray God as an aloof and distant being who will seek us out only if we accept some somebody’s theological terms-and-conditions, including all the fine print regulating what you can and can’t do.

That’s definitely not the message.

The message is that we have a parent who reminds us we’re never really lost, but always found. A parent who wants nothing more than to wrap us in a divine hug and throw a wild party in celebration, no matter how prodigal or self-righteous we get.

Whenever we wander down the aisle and get frightened, God opens those divine arms and says: Don’t be afraid. I’m right here with you. Always.

Even when you lose sight of me, I never lose sight of you.