Do we make a difference?

If you’re like me, sometimes you wonder if anything we do ever makes a difference in anyone else’s life. This–I think–is especially true when we think about our church connections. Do we really touch people’s lives? In my best moments, I think we do…but still, sometimes I wonder.

This morning I checked my Facebook page just before heading out to a church activity–a meeting where we would be ordaining someone to a special ministerial office and where we would be talking about specific ways to be disciples. I wasn’t expecting anything particularly profound–just thought I’d see what my friends were up to.

Well…

I headed out to that meeting with tears in my eyes! A friend (and former coworker of mine) is in charge of one of the daily worship activities for our church worldwide–the Daily Prayer for Peace. It’s held 365 days a year, regardless of the weather, and regardless of how many people attend. Sometimes there aren’t very many. But the worship outline is also posted online for others who may wish to join in prayer at a time appropriate for where they live. Kristopher shared this story this morning:

In November of last year I arrived at my Temple office to discover a letter upon my desk. It had been mailed to me from a man who was living in a prison cell – a man who, because of his committed crimes, was counting down the days and nights on death row. In his letter he informed me that he had heard about the Daily Prayer for Peace ministry offered by the Community of Christ, and asked me if I prayed for ‘people like him’; people who had made mistakes and who had caused others pain. The letter went on to describe the hopes and fears, the regrets and the realizations this man had experienced during his life behind bars.

Not sure how and if I should respond – feeling inadequate and at a loss for words, I decided to send this man a hand-written , return letter, offering acknowledgements that seemed generic and disingenuous, coming from my spiritually green mind. – But, to my surprise, two weeks later, an otherwise usual Tuesday morning found me opening yet another letter from the same penitentiary. This time the letter included words of thanks and insights into the interests and hobbies that had kept this man going over the many years in his jail-cell abode. As it turned out, music was at the forefront of this man’s passions and through the decades, he had read quite a lot about instrumental music – particularly guitar.

Although he admittedly was no master, he told me that in his designated recreational time, he had become familiar with a few basic chords; G, D, and a minor – so, to my surprise, I did something that caught me off guard. Perhaps it was the Spirit prompting, perhaps I felt guilty – but, for Christmas, I decided to purchase and send this man a copy of the musician’s edition of Community of Christ Sings. I sent the books wrapped in holiday paper and included a brief message explaining this new church hymnal, and pointing out that the chords were included for most of the hymns – I encouraged him to use these books as resources to continue his guitar studies.

Over a month went by and I had heard nothing from the prison or the man, but then, in February, I received another letter and, to my surprise, this letter was composed in a tone so full of joy and hope. It was difficult deciphering the markings of a hand that was apparently full of excitement. Correspondence continued over the next several weeks – ambitions were shared, questions were asked, and an unlikely relationship was formed.

Two weeks ago I received another letter, this one containing a single question and an admission. The letter read simply: ‘Mr. Taylor, do bad people ever get to join the good people again on the right journey? My favorite is number 550 but I’ve messed up too much to be a pilgrim. Please pray.’

I served the Prayer for Peace service today as the musician and afterward was asked twice why I did not play the hymn that was posted on the Prayer for Peace webpage.  This past week I was informed that my inadvertent pen-pal had finally awoken to his last day and was executed for his past crimes. I learned this information as I checked my email just this morning and, in the midst of fighting back a slew of completely unexpected tears, I made a decision – I chose to play hymn number 550, We are Pilgrims On A Journey – for those gathered in the Temple, for myself, and for my friend. I am not a very smart man and I certainly have my days where I just can’t keep my mouth shut and my thoughts to myself – but I do know this much: Loving is difficult – accepting those we cannot fully understand seems impossible – but if we seek God, we are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to that love, and acceptance, and peace – in our being aware and responding, we are able to experience Christ; glimpse that divine purpose, if even for a moment. I am glad I chose not to keep my mouth shut, and I am grateful to God for connecting me to this man – for blessing me with ‘people like him’ – I am thankful that, for five months, I was able to fellowship with another Pilgrim on this Journey.

One of the songs we sang as we began our worship experience this morning was hymn number 550. I’ve sung it before and like the words–but this morning, I had a different perspective with that song. I had a face to put with it–not a face I could describe, because I don’t know the name of Kristopher’s pen-pal…but a face that represented my brothers and sisters who are pilgrims with me…who may have made wrong choices, but who are still God’s children and who ask us to walk together, being Christ to each other.

We are pilgrims on a journey,
here together on the road;
we are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load.

Will you let me be your servant,
let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I might have the grace to
let you be my servant too.

I will hold the Christ-light for you
in the nighttime of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping,
when you laugh I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joy and sorrow
till we’ve seen this journey through.

Words: Richard Gillard, alt.
copyright 1977 Universal Music-Brentwood Benson Publishing

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Blast from the past

When my parents died, I was left with the residue that my brothers didn’t want to take to their homes. Much of it has been packed away in boxes until I had time to go through it. I’m not sure when that would have been, but my aunt’s death this last week provided a poke to get to it.

There have been lots of pictures to go through! Many of them are labeled, but unfortunately some are not. I’ve been able to recognize some faces, but others are simply lost in time.

I’ve been busy scanning them and using my photo editing program to make some of them better. And I’ve been sorting them into stacks depending on who is in them…some will go over to the church archives for them to do what they want to with them, because they deal with my dad’s life as a full-time minister. Some will go to my brothers or other relatives…and there are many that have gone into the wastebasket because they are simply scenes of trips my parents took–pictures that have faded badly sometimes.

But as I’ve gone through these pictures, I’ve found some pictures of family I’d never seen before, family that were only names. I’ve seen the relationship develop between my parents…have relived memories of my younger life…have seen pictures of friends I hadn’t though about for years.

What a blessing it’s been to revisit family history! And how great it’s been to be able to edit some of the pictures so that they can be seen better–many of them are still damaged or not perfect in some way, but they’re so much better than they were.

A blast from the past…and it covers history in so many ways–from very early 20th century through family courtships into travels into a divided Germany into life in England through significant church history…what a wonderful trip!

Pam 7-John 1 mo-Don 5-Nuneaton-Nov 1954

Thinking about mortality

There have certainly been a lot of thought-provoking events in my life this last week or so!

Yesterday, my aunt (my dad’s sister) had an accident at her home. She lived in a basement apartment at her daughter’s. Her stove was not working, so she was going upstairs to bake her birthday cake (for her 94th birthday today) in her daughter’s oven–and tripped or fell or something and fell down the basement steps. Fortunately one of her great-grandsons was there who had just completed his firefighter emergency training, and he was able to keep her calm until the ambulance arrived. Had he not been there, it would have been at least an hour before she would have been found. She was talking and laughing a bit–telling the medics where she was injured and where the pain was, so we thought that despite the severity of the injuries, she would be in the hospital for a while and then eventually would come home.

However, this morning, her body apparently had decided the injuries were too severe. The doctor said that even a 20-year-old in good health would have had a difficult time recovering–gash in her head, broken vertebrae in her neck, fractured ribs, broken pelvis. She was on life support until the family decided what to do–and this afternoon they took her off life support. That is what she would have wanted.

Aunt D may have been 94, but you wouldn’t have known it from the way she acted. She still drove, did ceramics, took the “old people!” (many of them younger than her) to church, spearheaded funeral dinners at her church…did pretty much everything she wanted to.

We laughingly called her the Energizer Bunny and joked that she would keep going until she just dropped…and she did.

Aunt D’s life was not easy–a single mother of two girls at a time when that was really difficult…a later-in-life marriage to a man who was good in many ways, but who also fought demons of alcoholism…

And yet…

She taught us so many lessons. Joy in life, regardless! She always found a way to have fun…she loved children…she loved playing games…. Perseverance! When life knocks you down, get up and start again… Caring! She didn’t always take care of her own health, but she took care of everyone else…

And now we’re down to only one member of that generation left–and in many ways we’ve already lost her to dementia.

You know that eventually you are going to become “the older generation”…but it’s still unsettling. It’s especially unsettling when the death occurs this unexpectedly and this rapidly. We’ve lost a lot of other family members, but with all but one other, we’ve seen the death coming and have had time to prepare. Somehow, it seemed like Aunt D was going to go on forever!

But nothing in life does. So I think the best lesson Aunt D taught was to live each day to its fullest. Enjoy it…appreciate what God has given you every day…go on like the Energizer Bunny as long as you can and don’t worry about when life will end. It will…but you don’t need to end it by just walking through the motions of each day.

Thanks, Aunt D…and rest in peace!

To turn the other cheek

According to news stories, Fred Phelps, long-time leader of the Westboro Baptist Church, is near death. There are unconfirmed reports that he was kicked out of the church last fall…and reports by some of his estranged children that they are not being allowed to tell him good-bye.

Most people have probably heard of Fred Phelps and his organization. They have made a career out of hate…picketing funerals of fallen soldiers and gay individuals as well as picketing anyone else who doesn’t agree with their interpretation of the Bible. My faith denomination has had occasional pickets from the group at our legislative events, and I saw them recently when we went to an evening with Bill Cosby.

It has been tragic to see little children in the group–5 or 6 years old–holding up signs with words that I know they don’t understand…and to realize the hate they are being taught. Some who were taught that way have been able to break away and follow a different path. But there are others who are even more defiant and sure that what they are doing is correct.

It would be so easy to say that Phelps deserves whatever he gets–whether it’s in this life or the life to come…that he deserves being kicked out of the organization he founded…that he will end up in a place none of us wants to go.

But if we do that, then he wins. Hate returned by hate only gives birth to more hate and distrust.

Those of us who are Christians can remember that Jesus called on his disciples to turn the other cheek…to do something significantly counter-cultural. For those who are of other faith traditions, we can still all unite in some version of what Christians call the “Golden Rule”–to treat others as we ourselves want to be treated.

I can’t imagine any of us who would want ourselves or our families to be picketed with the hateful signs…and so, can we find it in ourselves to be counter-cultural? I have not been directly and personally impacted by this group–but they have still touched me…when I think of how hurtful it would have been to see those signs at our grandson’s funeral (a Marine who died on his 21st birthday)…or when I consider the hate directed toward my brother, my husband, my cousin–because they have different sexual orientations.

And yet…I cannot hate Fred Phelps and those who follow him. I pity them. I cannot imagine what life must be like for those who see only hate…who seem to find little joy in life.

That doesn’t mean that I think they should be allowed to do anything they like. There have to be laws to protect those who are vulnerable. But there is a difference between providing those protections and answering back with “an eye for an eye”–that only lead a society where people continue to hurt each other until all are blind.

Can turning the other cheek make a difference? I don’t know…but it has to be a better answer than giving hatred back.

Living lies?

Sometimes I don’t post for a while, but then something comes along that triggers thoughts–maybe several inter-related things–and you get more frequent posts. That’s the way life is!

I just finished reading another book that made me wonder how many of us are living lies. The book is Philomena and yes, it’s about the same situation that the movie is about. It’s a tragic story in so many ways, and yet also a powerful story of the bonds of love.

But because of the life situation–and because of some situations in my own family life–I got to wondering…just how many of us are living lies?

Some of the lies we live may seem to be fairly innocuous…but they still impact our self-images. Am I pretty enough? Am I talented enough? Am I good enough? Am I religious enough? I’m not sure what we’re asking ourselves always–good/talented/pretty/religious enough for what? But we can usually live pretty decent lives with those lies, although I sometimes wonder just how much more fulfilling our lives might be if we weren’t worried about how we present ourselves to others…if we could be true to who we are.

But other lies are much more devastating–both to individuals and to families.

I remember when my youngest brother called to tell me he was gay. I didn’t understand then the depths of his fears that he might lose his family. He was–and still is–my brother…the younger sibling who (with our other brother) tormented me when we were growing up (and vice versa). He was–and still is–the gifted individual I had known all my life. But he had been living a lie for many, many years…until he could not take it any longer. He had to be who he truly was–or die.

And then–after 40 years of marriage–the man that I thought I knew told me he had also been living a lie. He loved me and had been true to me–and we have stayed married–but he could no longer deny to himself or to me that he also found men attractive. He had been lying to himself since he was a teenager–and it had created walls and barriers that were difficult to dismantle.

What if we were willing to let each other be who we truly are? What if we didn’t worry so much about the “picture-perfect” ways we presented ourselves to each other…but more about our relationships with each other and with God? What if we were willing to admit that there is much we don’t understand about life…and that’s okay? What if we were willing to truly listen to each other–how much more could we learn?

Lies are never simple. Once you tell one, you find yourself telling more to support the first one. You build a complete edifice–and because it’s built on a shaky foundation, you have to build walls so that nothing (hopefully) can send it tottering. But those walls don’t just provide safety for yourself, like you think they will. Instead they isolate you–and when that isolation becomes too much to bear, the resulting explosion can be devastating.

So just why do we continue to live lies? because we’re afraid of each other? What a sad commentary that is. It’s time to start changing that…one life at a time, beginning with ourselves.

How do we live righteously?

Those of you who know me–or who have explored my blog–know that I love to read. Reading provides me with varying (and new) perspectives…fills in gaps…makes me think. I enjoy sharing books that have challenged me with my “Book(s) of the Month” posts, and some of those books are what has precipitated this post.

Three books got me to thinking this month. Two of them are fiction, the other a history (or, as it is described, a “biography”) of another book. What they all have in common is that they all deal with religion in some form. One of them, Beyond the Sacred Page by Jack Cavanaugh, is a novel about the challenges faced under Henry VIII as Tyndale’s followers were seeking to translate the Bible into English and share it with anyone who could read. That was considered heresy, and those found with copies of the forbidden book were likely to be burned at the stake. The “biography” by Alan Jacobs from the same time period deals with the history of The Book of Common Prayer–a book intended to unite the church with one form of worship after the fractures caused by Henry’s break with Rome. It never really accomplished that purpose, since it was caught up in church/state political battles. The third book, Havoc, in Its Third Year by Ronan Bennett, is a parable set about 100 years after the other two–a time when there were hatreds and fears between Royalists and Parliamentarians and Catholics and Protestants in England.

All three of them deal with individuals and societies who were seeking to live God’s will as they understood it…yet the two novels also have frightening parallels to our world today. They–and we–desire to live righteously, and to have others live according to their understanding…but in their societies there was no room for differing perspectives, no room for error, no room for sin…for being human.

So what does this have to do with the question I posed in the title? For me, everything.

What does it mean to live righteously? and how do we go about it? For some, it seems to be mean that everyone must live according to my understanding of what the Bible says, of what God asks (demands?) of us…with no room for differing understandings. Unfortunately I have heard some preach from this perspective–in effect saying that if I don’t worship or understand God the same way they do, then I’m wrong…in error…and, in effect, damned.

My response to this question is diametrically opposed to that rigidity–whether it is from a Christian perspective or any other. Perhaps part of that comes from the variety of religious traditions in my own family–Christianity, Judaism, Wiccan. But I think–I hope!–that my willingness to allow others the same freedom to experience God as I want for myself comes from my reading of the Bible. I have read the Scriptures several times in several translations…and what challenges me the most is an exchange between Jesus and a questioner who wants Jesus to tell him how to live righteously. Rather than giving him a list of “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not” commandments, Jesus gave a simple response:

  1. Love God with all your being
  2. Love you neighbor as you love yourself

Everything else–everything else–according to Jesus hangs on these two commandments.

That passage of Scripture has shaped me. Have I always lived according to it? No, unfortunately not. But it has become my “go to” scripture when I wonder if what I am doing is a good representation of the One I follow. It has allowed me to give others room to experience God…allowed God to work with others as God chooses to.

So perhaps the answer for me is simply this: I live righteously by doing what I believe God calls me to do…sharing in ways that still gives other their freedom to choose…and by being willing to admit that I don’t have all the answers……..and that perhaps by being open to how others experience God, I just might learn more about living righteously myself!

Are we our brothers’ keepers?

I heard a sad story on the news tonight. A woman’s mummified body was found in the back seat of her car in the garage…6 years after she died! Her bills had been on automatic payment, and it was only after the money ran out and the warnings were ignored that the bank foreclosed and her body was found.

I’m sure there has to be more to the story yet to come out, but the thing I find the most sad is that it took 6 years for someone to realize that she was dead–and it wasn’t any family members or neighbors. It was a bank worker, making arrangements to have some repairs done to get the house ready for sale.

The news story says that she traveled a lot–apparently at times to Germany–and that she kept to herself. Neighbors didn’t worry about her absence because she would be home for a few days and then gone, and there were long stretches when no one saw her.

But 6 years?

How can we live so close to someone and not realize that something is wrong for 6 years? Have we become so used to taking care of just ourselves and our own families and not becoming involved that we can shrug it off when we don’t see someone by assuming that they’re on a business or personal trip?

There’s a very old African saying that it takes a village to raise a child. But it also takes a village of caring people to make a community. That community might be a neighborhood…it might be a city…or a church. There are many types of community, and they’re not necessarily geographically close. But communities are made up of people who are aware of each other…who know each others’ needs…who check in when they haven’t seen someone for a while.

There are individuals who, for various reasons, may not feel part of a community…and perhaps this woman was one of them.

But that doesn’t mean that others have to ignore them. We can be community without being intrusive to each other.

No one should ever die alone and without being missed for 6 years. We can do better than that.