Do we ever really know someone?

Last Sunday morning our congregation held a memorial service for one of our congregational “characters” who died last Christmas Eve.

She was known as “the can lady” because every time she came to the congregation, she hunched over her cart which was filled with cans to donate to our fundraiser.

She was deaf…gruff…cantankerous…stubborn (she refused to let anyone give her a ride anywhere and walked all over town in all kinds of weather, hunched over her cart)…but she considered our congregation her home church.

We didn’t know much about her. We knew she was a hoarder because we helped move her after she had been evicted. We knew she had been homeless. We knew that when she married a few years ago, it was in many ways a marriage of convenience for both her and her husband–but that it also brought joy to her. We didn’t know if she had any other family. We knew that our congregation meant something to her and that she wanted to give in return. We knew that we missed her when she had to move into the nursing home.

At the service, there were folks who shared from the nursing home she had had to move into as well as the community center she had gone to as often as she could…and we found out more about her because each group knew something a little bit different about her.

We learned where she had been born…where she moved with her family…why she ended up in our part of the country. We discovered she had gone through four years of college (although we don’t know where or what she studied for sure). We learned she had worked at one point as a CNA–and that she had gone on disability about 35 years ago with extremely severe scoliosis. She had had back surgery for something else and it never took, so she was living with constant pain. We learned that because of her evictions, she was not eligible for subsidized housing, so she had to pay rent from her disability income. Her income was only about $1200 a month and rent and utilities left her only about $350 to live on. One month she lost even that, and so then she carried it in quarters–figuring no one would steal that bag of quarters because it was too heavy! But that also explained why she wanted so much of the extra food we were able to provide to those who needed help, courtesy of a local grocery.

But we also learned that when you were able to connect with her–which took time and perseverance–you were a friend forever. We learned that there were things that really tickled her…and that occasionally she would just let go and laugh in joy. We learned that she loved going to devotions and Bible study…

And so by the time the service ended, we realized how much she had touched others…and how much we had been touched. We learned something important as well…we never really completely know someone else…and grace is important!

 

“Miracle at Midnight”

We watched “Miracle at Midnight” on Disney+ last night…and I had trouble sleeping.

Told basically through the eyes of one family, it’s the story of the rescue of the Danish Jews in 1943 after plans were made for mass arrests and deportations beginning at midnight on the start of Rosh Hashana. It’s an incredible story–and resulted in the survival of 99% of the Danish Jews.

It’s a Disney movie…so while there is violence that is an integral part of the story, the violence was not what kept me awake.

No, what kept my mind stirred up were questions of how I would have reacted. Would I have had the courage this family (and the many other families) did? To have risked the lives of my loved ones in order to shelter someone I didn’t know?

I hope so.

In some cases they were friends…neighbors…business associates…teachers. But in many cases, they were strangers–taken in because that was the right thing to do.

They weren’t demonized as faceless “others.” It didn’t matter that they believed or worshiped differently. They were part of the community.

Those who took the Jews in and hid them until they could be moved to safety did so because they believed in living out their faith. They took to heart the words in their sacred scriptures (Matthew 25:35-36):

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.

Could I have done the same? Can I?

 

The worth of all persons…

One of the Enduring Principles of my faith tradition is expressed this way: Worth of All Persons. These points help expand on its meaning…

  • God views all people as having inestimable and equal worth.
  • God wants all people to experience wholeness of body, mind, spirit, and relationships.
  • We seek to uphold and restore the worth of all people individually and in community, challenging unjust systems that diminish human worth.
  • We join with Jesus Christ in bringing good news to the poor, sick, captive, and oppressed.

That sounds easy, doesn’t it? Easy to say…but maybe not as easy to live out.

If I truly believe that all persons are of worth, that includes

  • People I disagree with politically.
  • People who are of a different culture or religion.
  • People who have hurt me.
  • People I am afraid of.
  • People of a different color.
  • People I love.

It means ALL.

That also means

  • I cannot support separating children from their parents with no plans on how to reunite them–simply because their families are seeking a safe place and a hopeful future.
  • The homeless person I see on the corner is deserving of my willingness to make eye contact with them…and to put aside my judgmental attitude.
  • I need to support help and shelter for the mentally ill and those unable to take care of themselves.
  • I am called to uphold in prayer even those I have major disagreements with.
  • When I see injustice, I need to call people and policies to accountability–even if that is uncomfortable or unpopular.
  • I need to learn more about other cultures, countries’ histories, and faith traditions in order to understand today’s world.

If I truly believe that, it will change how I interact with others…with how I live…with policies I support. And I have to decide to make that a priority in my life.

But if I am truly going to follow the One whose name I claim, I cannot do anything else.

What are you thankful for?

In the United States, we are preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving. For many of us, the story we grew up on–the story of the shared feast between the Native Americans and the English colonists–has turned out to not be accurate. (Here’s a Native American perspective…one of several I found.)

However, the concept of expressing thankfulness and gratefulness is still a valid one–especially today.

So…what are you thankful for?

I’m thankful for family–biological family, but also “chosen” family…those who have become close through a variety of connections.

I’m thankful for the experiences I have had of sharing with individuals in and from different cultures and religious traditions. They have caused me to reflect on the wonderful diversity in our world–and how much that diversity has enriched us. They have also reminded me of how much we don’t know!

I’m thankful for books! They provide magic carpets to places I could not otherwise visit. They help me learn new information. They provide escape when I need it…and challenge when I am ready for it.

I’m thankful for music. It feeds my soul…and sometimes allows me to pray when I do not have the words to do so.

I’m thankful for pets who give unconditional love.

I’m thankful for those I agree with…and those I don’t. Those who support and affirm me help give me confidence–and those I disagree with challenge me to really think about what I believe and help me articulate it more clearly. They even sometimes cause me to change my mind or…at the least…look for those places where we can find common ground.

I am thankful to have a home to live in and enough food to eat. I realize how blessed I am to not have to worry daily whether I will have enough…or whether I (or family members) will be victims of violence.

I am thankful for those who have walked with me on my spiritual journey. Some have been members of my own faith tradition…others have shared from their perspectives. I have learned much from each of them–including how difficult it is for us finite human beings to understand the Divine Infinity. And I have been thankful for those who have walked with me through the dark nights of the soul, offering me care and hope, even when I didn’t see it.

Most of all I’m thankful for life, even with its various health problems and challenges. Each day brings new hope…new opportunities…new lessons…new visions.

What are you thankful for this year?

Hope is the thing with feathers…

This is one of my favorite of Emily Dickinson’s poems, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Sometimes recently it’s been difficult to have hope. I turn on the news…and hear yet more lies…more insults and name-calling…more negating the humanity of those who are “other”…and it is deadening to the soul.

I find myself wondering what I can do. I am only one person–a not very significant person in the political world–and so what power do I have? But then I am reminded of the comment attributed to Margaret Mead that a small group of committed citizens is the only thing that can change the world…and I know there are others out there who feel the same way I do. We just need to find each other and work together…

In her poem, Dickinson didn’t say that hope would just be around when the going was easy. It sings sweetest in the storms–and I believe we are in the middle of tremendous storms in the world right now.

So hope keeps showing up.

It shows up when I am reminded of Anne Frank’s belief in the innate goodness of people…a belief that in some ways seems naïve, given what happened to Anne and her family. But it’s the only way to keep going.

It shows up when I am reminded of comments like this from Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormenter, never the tormented.”

It shows up when I remember Mother Teresa saying “If you judge people, you have no time to love them”…and a saying attributed to her: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

And most of all, hope shows up to remind me of what Jesus said in Matthew 25…that when we give a cup of water…visit the sick and prisoner…clothe the naked…welcome the stranger…we are doing it to him.

So…I am one person. But I will continue to do what I can…and bring hope to those who wonder if there is any reason for hope.

Yes, we are in a storm–but the bird of hope still sings as long as there are those of us who are listening to our souls.

For the children

I am a follower of the one who is called the Christ. He was someone who love and spent time with the marginalized…the outcast…those who were considered “less than”…and that included children.

One of his strongest statements about children was this (as stated in Luke 17:1-2):

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (NRSV)

“He said to his disciples, “Hard trials and temptations are bound to come, but too bad for whoever brings them on! Better to wear a millstone necklace and take a swim in the deep blue sea than give even one of these dear little ones a hard time!” (The Message)

I’ve been thinking about that the last few days…and have been reminded of a question often asked: “Is it good for the children?”

As we look around ourselves today, are our actions good for the children? Not just the children in our own homes…our own communities…our own nation…but all the children in the world.

What kind of environment are we leaving them? One in which they can breathe? in which they can delight in the diversity of creation? in which they can be safe? Or are we destroying the world around them?

What lessons are we teaching them? To cherish each other and to see each other as brother and sister? or to be afraid of someone who looks, speaks, loves, or worships differently from them?

Are we teaching them the importance of peacemaking and conflict resolution? Or are we teaching them that “might makes right”? that hatred is the strongest force in the world? that their lives are less important than vengeance…or oil?

We’re not going to be perfect. But we have the power to do better…and we must. Otherwise there will be no world for our children to inherit.

…a little child shall lead them.

This is a phrase from the description in the book of Isaiah about the peaceable kingdom…a place where

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

There are other places in the Bible where it talks about our need to have a child-like faith. Not a childish faith, but a child-like one.

As I’ve been watching the news recently, I’ve found myself pondering what it means to have that child-like faith.

Children tend to believe they can do anything. The words we adults use often encourage that belief.

  • If you want to do it badly enough, you can.
  • You can be (or do) anything you want.
  • Whether you think you can’t or think you can, you’re right.

And so for them, nothing is impossible.

We adults are often jaded. We are tired from the struggle. We see that life is not as simple…not as black and white…as we thought when we were younger. And so we often find that some things are impossible.

But we need the energy and “impossible” faith of youth. They are the ones who force us to face our fears…who challenge us to make our world better. They don’t take “no” for an answer…and because they don’t, we discover that the “impossible” things really are possible.

Who are some of these children who have challenged us?

  • Joan of Arc – led an army to free her country during the Hundred Years War. She was just 19 when she was killed.
  • Sophie Scholl fought against the Nazi regime and was killed when she was 22.
  • Anne Frank – kept a diary while in hiding from the Gestapo that has become a haunting memoir of both the evil around but also a faith in the goodness of people. She died in a concentration camp when she was 16.
  • Ruby Bridges – was the first African-American child to enter a segregated elementary school when she was 6.
  • Hector Pieterson – fought against apartheid in South Africa and was killed when he was 13.
  • Iqbal Masih – escaped from forced child labor in Pakistan and fought against child labor and for the right of children to receive an education. He was killed when he was 12.
  • James Chaney (21),  Andrew Goodman (20), and Michael Schwerner (24) – three civil rights workers who were killed as they were helping African-Americans to register to vote
  • Malala Yousafzai – defied the Taliban to campaign for the right for girls to be educated. She was shot in the head when she was 15 but survived and has become an advocate for human rights.
  • Greta Thunberg – has become a global leader for environmental issues, leading protests against global warming at age 16.

We need their passion…their energy…their hope for a better future.