Christmas is easy.
Away in the Manger.
Silent Night. Holy night.
Holy Week is hard.
My head understands the events of that take place.
Confrontation in the Temple.
Crowds gathered to hear Jesus speak.
Celebrating the Passover.
But while my head understands, my heart rebels.
I tiptoe towards the edge of the story, but then turn away.
I dare not get too close to the anguish and the betrayal and absolute brutality.
And, that only gets me to Friday.
Who really understands resurrection?
(Even though they have made a TV show about it.)
How do you put words around mystery?
Or, words around an experience which takes your breath away?
Five years ago I had open heart surgery.
I had developed a blood infection that went undiagnosed for a number of months until, eventually, it damaged one of my heart values. It was a long, complicated process both before and after the surgery. Not too long ago I asked my wife if she still thought about that time and the days and weeks we spent in the hospital.
“Every day,” she said.
Seldom a day goes by when I don’t notice the lumps on my chest bone where they cut through it to get to my heart. Or a day when there is not some sort of sensation which causes the muscles in my chest to hurt for a bit.
I am grateful to be alive.
I almost wasn’t.
I am grateful for the skills of doctors and nurses who had the training and skill to do what they did.
15 years ago…
20 years ago…
I am not sure they would have.
I don’t think of miracles as some magical force that somehow changes the laws of nature or undoes the consequences or results of the choices we make. I think miracles have something to do with how we look at and understand our lives. What if miracles have to do with awe and wonder and paying attention? What if miracles have something to do with the realization that there is something more; that Life is something more?
We have a choice about how we will live.
I don’t pay attention to it as much as I would like.
But I pay attention more now than I did five years ago.
Sometimes we make praying and prayers too complicated, don’t we, O God.
Thinking we have to be in the right place or say the right words in order to pray. But it is not like that, is it?
Remind us again, O God…
That each time our heart reaches out to another is a prayer.
Every thank you felt and said is a prayer.
Each time we listen carefully and caringly to another is a prayer.
Every time we gaze at another with love overflowing is a prayer.
Each time we reach out our hands to help another, it is a prayer.
Every time our heart breaks for another it is a prayer.
Each time we are stopped in our tracks by beauty is a prayer.
Every time we look closely at a flower;
Or gaze into the depths of space, is a prayer.
The lesson for us is to turn those moments into a lifetime.
If you don’t recognize the name, Fred Phelps was the founder and the pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church which is the congregation that was and is vehemently anti-gay and repeatedly protested at the funerals of service men and women blaming their deaths (and a number of other tragedies) on our country’s tolerance and acceptance of those who are gay. As reported in one news source, he believed in and preached the hate and judgment of God, and that any who did not think as he did were going to hell.
On one hand, hearing that he was dying, and today that he had died, I am sad. I am sad for all the people he hurt and the hatred he added to our country and world. And, I am sad his life was so full of anger and condemnation and alienation.
You might say he got what he deserved.
Maybe you are right.
But I am still sad anyone goes through life like that.
But, as a result of his venom and hate, some good did emerge.
Individuals, who otherwise might have been silent, stood up against his hate and countered it with a show of compassion and love. When the Westwood Baptist Church would show up or threaten to show up to protest whether a funeral or an event, hundreds of others would also show up to form a protective, non-violent circle around the person or family. To my way of thinking, that circle rather than the preaching of Fred Phelps embodied what I know and name as God.
I don’t know what happens after one dies.
I don’t know about any of us coming before the judgment seat of God to receive approval or disapproval for the choices we have made or how we have lived, and either be rewarded with heaven or condemned to hell. I know I don’t believe in hell other than the hell we make for ourselves and each other here on earth.
In the end, I believe, love wins.
In the end, I believe, LOVE wins.
Even for someone as full of hate as Fred Phelps.
I got up this morning as I usually do.
I put the dog out.
I made coffee.
I got the newspaper from the front walk.
(Yes, newspapers still come that way.)
I let the dog in and gave her food and water.
I sat at the breakfast table and had my first cup of coffee.
All of which is to say
This day began as an ordinary day
Like most of my other days begin.
And the rest of the day shapes up to be a pretty ordinary day as well.
A bit of work to do to be ready for tomorrow.
Several chores to accomplish so I can cross them off my list.
Walking the dog.
All VERY ordinary.
My prayer today is this…
May I recognize how wonderfully special and unique each ordinary day really is.
Two weeks ago I was sitting in a plastic chair around a plastic table in a rural community in Nicaragua. I sat there talking to three high school students – two young men and a young woman – about their dreams for the future. The two young men wanted to be engineers of some type – mechanical or electrical. The young woman wanted to be a doctor. I thought of them again last night as I watched Lupita Nyong’o win the Best Supporting Actress Award at the Oscars for her performance in 12 Years A Slave. Her acceptance speech was one of the best of the evening and concluded with this line: No matter where you are from your dreams are valid. As I listened to her I thought of those three students.
Against incredible odds, dreaming bold dreams for tomorrow.
I do hope dreams come true.
Against overwhelming odds, I hope dreams come true.
Because no matter where you are from, your dreams are valid.
The quote by Anne Lamott probably gives me away.
But, I have to admit I don’t get it.
I take them at their word, but I don’t understand the anger and the angst felt by those who feel their religious liberties are being infringed upon either by the LGBT community demanding acceptance or by the emerge of diverse religious/spiritual voices now finding a place in our country. I do understand that the culture in which I grew up has changed and is no more. And, I do understand that is hard and scary and for those of us in the Church because what we once knew and cherished is no more…at least in the way we remember it.
But, if this is really about faith more than it is about politics and power, isn’t our understanding of God bigger than that? I happen to think God is more inclusive and welcoming and loving than I am and probably ever can or will be. But even if I imagine God in the more traditional sense of my childhood, isn’t that understanding of God also big enough and broad enough to temper our anger and angst and our hurtful rhetoric? If a change in our understanding of marriage goes against our understanding of the intent of God, is our best response to legislate morality or to provide a compelling enough witness though how we both live and speak that space is created for those others who do not think as we do to enter into a conversation with us about what we believe and why we believe it?
Right now, it seems to me, that all we are doing is pushing people away.
They are turning their backs to us rather than turning to talk.
Over lunch today, my wife shared a conversation she had with a person she works with about how a high school teacher, who because of the way he taught, had opened the eyes of her son, who was primarily focused on math and science, to the beauty and complexity of art. “I need to remember to send him a thank you note.” She said. It made me think of my own children and the teachers and individuals who had made a significant difference in their lives. My oldest son’s 5th grade teacher and his 9th grade Social Studies teacher and my youngest son’s 11th grade math teacher. And, the other mentors and friends who, by what they did and the way they lived, modeled for my children what it meant to be thoughtful and engaged and do their part to make a positive difference in the world in which we live.
It made me realize that it often only takes that one person.
One person whose interest or insight or example shape who we are and what we do for years to come. Besides this being true for my children, it has been true in my life as well.
Peter Procopio. Richard Bell. John David Burton.
I am who I am today because of them.
Which leaves me and leads me to this…
How am I going to that one person today?
It is hard to believe, but the craziness around Christmas just got crazier.
A couple days ago, Megyn Kelly, a commentator for Fox News declared that Santa Claus is white. Her comments set off a rapid response from serious to comedic. But, if I take a step back from the craziness of it all, her comments made me stop and think. Apart from the debate about the history of Santa Claus, what does it mean if Santa is always white?
To tell you the truth, until this craziness erupted, I never thought about it.
I never thought about what that meant to me.
And, even more unsettling for me, I never thought about what it might mean to a person of color. Or, a child of color.
What does it mean…
If the great gift giver;
The person who knows if you have been naughty or nice;
Is a person you can NEVER look like or be?
Does it matter?
Until now, it never occurred to me to even ask the question.
And that is the unsettling part.
At some fundamental level I think it does matter.
At least for me.
Because in the largely white, largely Caucasian culture in which I live I need to remember that the world is much larger and much more diverse than the white world in which I live. Maybe it is me who needs to begin to imagine a black Santa or an Asian Santa or an Hispanic Santa as another small step towards seeing and understanding and appreciating the world as it really is.
As God intends it to be.
Each December, when our children were young, we would gather as a family around our dining room table and talk about what organizations we would like to support financially. Our church always came first, but we also always set aside additional money to support causes and programs that were important to us. One year, one of our sons had been studying whales in school and so wanted to give some money to a program that supported whales. Together we decided on the amount. I wrote the check. He addressed the envelope, put on the stamp and put the check in the envelope to be mailed. As they grew older, the causes they chose were most often the ones they were involved in. A small organization in the heart of Appalachia with whom we worked each summer to repair homes. A program that provided food, clothing and a touch of humanity to the homeless who lived in New York City. The organization with whom they worked when they traveled to Central America to build homes. That mid-December conversation became a family ritual with each of us having a voice and all of us making the decisions together.
My two sons are now grown.
Young men each making a difference in his own way.
But, the tradition continues.
This evening, after dinner, my wife and I sat down and had the conversation again. What causes or programs do we want to support? Which organizations are addressing the most pressing needs which we see in our community?
With the decision made, I was left the task of writing the checks. As I did I realized that I should be paying more attention to what I was doing. That with each check I wrote I should be more mindful of the work we were doing some small part to support. The food pantry where more people will line up tomorrow so they have the food to survive and to feed their children. The medical clinic which provides much needed medical services to the most vulnerable in our community. The organization which is doing fabulous work with the immigrant population in our community, not only helping them find their way in this new country and culture, but challenging the rest of us to live up the ideals of our nation.
I realized as I was writing the checks what a privilege it was to do so.
And, that I needed to pay more attention to what I was doing.