Serving without exception

ServeOthers

Self-described Christians are refusing to serve gay couples. The president’s spokeswoman was denied service by a restaurant owner with deeply held beliefs.

Our society is fraying. The refuse-to-serve mentality is spreading, leading us to a dark place.

As Gandhi taught, an eye for an eye and soon the whole world is blind.

We don’t have to continue down this road blindly. We can light another way. But if we want to be that light, we can’t reject, shun or demean anyone.

Instead, We must love, serve and respect everyone. Each of us has many such opportunities each day.

Last weekend, my church participated in the local Pride Parade. As we waited for the march to begin, a man walked through the crowd carrying a sign that said, “Jesus Is Coming.” He told us we were horrific sinners doomed to burn in hell.

We had to decide how to respond. Do we ignore him? Argue with him? We chose to offer kindness. We smiled, said hello and offered him a bottle of water. He was free to turn it down, but he graciously accepted it.

We didn’t attack his views but respectfully explained ours – Jesus is already here, calling us to love everyone. We wished the man a blessed day as he went on his way.

Serving others doesn’t mean endorsing their beliefs; it’s recognizing and respecting them as a child of God. To refuse service is to deny the image of God within each of us.

There are many ways to advocate for our beliefs. Demeaning others is not one of them.

Faith is service

Many self-described Christians argue that living their values means shunning those who believe differently. It’s a dishonest claim. If love is your core value, then every act of kindness and service is an expression of faith, not a rejection of it.

Sacrificial service is the heart of God’s value system. It’s the only way out of our current darkness.

What’s happening today isn’t new. Sadly, it’s been the norm in our society. Over the centuries, many Christians have refused to love and serve black people and Native American people and many others – including other Christians — whom they deemed inferior.

In Jesus’ time and place, many religious people also shunned those who lived and believed differently, insisting that any interaction with them amounted to participating in their impurity and their sin.

Jesus took direct aim on that attitude.

He befriended the marginalized and the shunned, pushing back hard against the religious people who objected. He ate with those whom others labeled great sinners.

To Jesus, a lack of love was the only sin. He understood that simply telling someone to change means nothing; we must be a source of the unconditional love that makes change possible.

And when the religious leaders objected to all of this, he told them to worry more about the plank in their own eye — take a good look at yourself and drop that stone from your hand.

Lack of love is the only sin

Instead, be like the Samaritan in the parable, the shunned person who gets it right because he loves and serves. Don’t be like the religious people who walk past with their noses in the air.

Be a source of love.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us, hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. That’s the rule we must apply.

We need to remember that shunning doesn’t help anyone grow or change. Only love can do that.

Refusing service doesn’t fulfill our faith. Only love can do that.

We can’t vanquish darkness by bringing more darkness into the world. Only love can do that.

That is the way, the truth and the light that can lead us to a better place.

Sharing the hot chocolate

hot-chocolate hands

A packet of hot cocoa mix rests on the shelf above my computer, reminding me daily of a lesson my mom taught.

At age 73, she had a stroke that paralyzed her right side. She’d been confined to a wheelchair for many years because of multiple sclerosis. Now she would be in a nursing home for the final 10 months of this phase in her life.

Mom loved to give gifts, even when she was limited in her ability to get around and do things. Living in a retirement apartment, she took a ceramics class and learned how to make seasonal gifts for everyone in the family.

The stroke left her very limited. She still found a way to give.

She started ordering a packet of hot chocolate with every meal, which was quite a surprise to us. She never drank hot chocolate; her two main food groups were bakery and coffee.

She didn’t intend to drink the hot chocolate. Instead, she collected the packets and gave them to my sister to pass along to her two young boys. The hot chocolate became her gift to her grandsons.

Flat on her back, she reminded us it’s always possible to find ways to give. Sometimes, you just need to get a little creative.

With her act of giving, she also taught us that there really is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The nursing home staff learned what she was doing and started bringing extra packets.

Do the math: At least 3 packets a day, 7 days a week, 4 weeks a month, going on for months … We’re talking hundreds of packets of hot chocolate!

Soon, my sister’s food cupboard was overflowing with hot chocolate. Nobody could drink that much! She began farming it out to my brothers and me, and we shared it with others, too.

I kept that one packet. It reminds me daily of the importance of finding ways to give.

hot-chocolate4

We all have so much to share — our time, our energy, our humor, our love, our compassion, our many individual talents. All can be shared in so many ways with so many people, even if we have to get a little creative.

The idea is to keep looking for ways to give, even if the best we can come up with is something the size of a packet.

I’m grateful not only for all that my mom taught me and her ongoing presence in my life, but also for all the other people who have mothered me and taught me so much.

May we live those lessons and share them.

 

Leaving a mark on the worn counter

Arcade restaurant

The blue, tan and pink-trimmed booths hearken to the 1950s, when The Arcade Restaurant in downtown Memphis was renovated after a fire. It’s a cool place because of the history – a Greek immigrant opened the restaurant in 1919, and it’s undergone many renovations over the generations.

There’s a booth by the back door that Elvis favorited – he could slip in and out unobtrusively. A plaque marks the spot. There are black-and-white photos spanning generations.

What caught my eye were the marks on the serving counter.

In front of each stool was a rub mark along the edge of the counter. For generations, people have walked in off the street, sat on a stool, rested their forearms on the counter, and unknowingly rubbed off a little of its laminate.

Every person left a bit of their DNA behind and took a bit of the counter with them. Each one contributed to the mark.

Arcade counter

In our society, we try to keep things nice-looking and new. When a counter gets a bit worn, we replace it. Not the counter at The Arcade, though.

It’s a reminder of how our lives intersect.

I looked at the worn spots and wondered: Who made these marks? Who sat here?

How many children sat on these stools with their parents and shared their first meal at a restaurant, a moment they’ll remember and retell for the rest of their lives?

Or maybe on that stool sat a black person who’d been turned away from lunch counters their entire life, now proudly ordering a cup of coffee that had the sweet taste of equality?

Perhaps the white person sitting next to that proud black person was unhappy over all of this and huffily moved to a different spot or different restaurant.

Maybe those marks in the counter were fashioned by someone on their way home from the hospital after receiving devasting news about a relative. Or maybe by a new parent still feeling that Adrenalin rush on their way home from visiting their son or daughter in the maternity ward.

Maybe all the above.

The marks were worn into the counter by someone who just got a job, and someone who just lost a job. Someone who recently got married, and someone who recently got divorced.

A newcomer to the city feeling homesick as they thought about a similar diner in their old neighborhood. A visitor like me taking it all in with fresh eyes.

So many lives intersected at those places on the counter top.

Rubbing off on each other

I was reminded of that when we paid our check and headed out the door. A few blocks to the west is the Mississippi River, a wide expanse that has deposited many visitors to the restaurant’s doorstep over the century.

Beal Street is only a few blocks away, a place where different musical styles intersected and overlapped and gave birth to many more. So is Sun Studio, where musical pioneers – including Elvis – cut their first record.

The Lorraine Motel is blocks away, too, the place where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated 50 years ago on the balcony outside room 306. So is the church where he gave his final speech on the night before he death, speaking so powerfully about how we need to keep moving toward the promised land.

So much history, so many lives, all intersecting and rubbing against one another – and rubbing off on each other, too.

We tend to forget that last part, how we all influence and are influenced by so many others. How we’re never in our own space alone – we share the places of those who have come before us.

The reminder is right in front of us on the counter.

Twelve kind jurors

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.

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.

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.

Whose crayons are they?

crayons

I was sitting in a restaurant booth waiting for my food to arrive. A couple and their two small boys were seated across from me. The boys were about 5 and 3, I’d guess. The restaurant provides a bowl of crayons and drawings to occupy children until their food arrives. My attention was drawn to how the two boys went about coloring so differently.

The younger boy took a crayon from the bowl, used it, put it back, and swapped it out for a different color. By contrast, the older boy would use a crayon and lay it beside him on the table, keeping it handy for when he’d need it again. Then he would take another crayon, use it, put it beside him.

Soon the older brother had a big stash of crayons next to him and few were left in the bowl. The younger brother noticed and complained, “Hey, I need those!” The older brother put his arm around his stash protectively and said, “These are MY crayons!”

If you’re a parent, you’ve lived through this many times and you know what happens next. The mother intervened and told the older son: “Put those crayons back in the bowl! Those are not YOUR crayons. They were given to you to share.”

Yep. We have to share.

Sharing is challenging for all of us, isn’t it? We tend to build our stash and think it’s all ours. In the process, we lose sight of what underlies our life and our faith: Everything that we have and all that we are is given to us by God in order to share.

Instead, we worry about not having enough and build and defend our stashes. The truth is, we have so much! More than we need. We’re reminded when we have to move and we go through our closets and basements and marvel at how much we have. We wonder why we’ve held onto it when we could have shared with someone in need.

Or we’re walking down the street, worrying about how we’ll pay the bills, and we see a homeless person asking for help. We’re reminded: I have SO MUCH and this person has nothing. So what do we do? Stop, offer some money, a few kind words, a handshake.

We need to share.

Sharing doesn’t apply only to our stuff. In a sense, there’s something even more important to share – ourselves. Each of us has God’s DNA woven into us: The ability to love, to be kind, to heal, to laugh, to encourage, to forgive, to create. Each of us has a unique set of talents and abilities and life experiences. We have SO MUCH good stuff inside each of us, and we need to share it.

I think our challenge on this one might be in recognizing just how much we are and how much people need us. We can make a difference – in ways big and small – in so many lives.

And then there’s our time. We need to share that, too. Time is our fundamental gift, in a sense. The universe has been bumping along for a very long time without you or me being part of it. And it’s done quite well without us. You and me, we didn’t have to be part of human history. Ever. But at this point in time, God decided that creation was incomplete without us. We were given time. What do we do with it? How do we share it?

Understand, none of this is meant to cause anyone guilt. That’s not God’s way. Instead of being shamed, we’re offered an opportunity to love and to be loved. We’ve all had moments when we’ve shared – our money, our self, our time – and recognized how deeply it touched someone. In those moments, we feel good because we’ve had an experience of God, who is love.

Those moments remind us of who God is: An overly generous parent who gives us more and more of all this amazing stuff around us and inside of us each day.

Those moments also remind us of who we are, too: God’s equally beloved children, sitting side-by-side at God’s table, sharing an overflowing cup of God’s crayons.