Thursday, July 21, 2016

5 Questions To Ask Each Day

Amidst the cacophony of noise in the world it has often become hard to hear the gentle voice of grace in our days. It can become too easy in this culture to get lost in all of the loudness and the chaos. We begin to look at others as problems and not people (a prime example of this is whenever I am stuck in the bumper-to-bumper morning traffic as I commute into the city).  Certainly I have begun working on changing this in me by praying that I can see them not as impediments to my having a good day but the opportunity to see each one as made in the image of God and to take the time to pray for them.

It's amazing how much the world may not change but I do when I take the time to stop focusing on the negative but focus on the goodness of God. In such moments I am attempting to feel what the Hebrew language calls shalem. Shalem means: complete, safe, at peace, whole and it's related to the word for peace shalom.  Instead of magnifying my frustration and irritation, but magnify a sense of gratitude gives me a sense of shalom and shalem.  

As Annie Dillard wrote, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." How am I spending mine?

Ecclesiastes tells us that our time here is but hevel. Many have mistranslated this as "vanity" when the more correct translation would be "vapor." This changes the verse's meaning significantly. "All is ephemeral." So during this brief, vapor of time we have, how do we spend it? How do we use our lives to help impact the lives of others, even if it's just to say a kind word or smile?

Our time is short, but so much can happen in a brief span of time.  Consider the next 60 seconds.

What will happen in that blip that most of us won't register?

In the next 60 seconds:

250 babies will be born.

150 people will die. (Not a thought we like to have).

Your heart will pump 83 gallons of blood.

6 million chemical reactions will take place inside every single cell in your body.

The universe will expand 2766.4 miles.

The sung will fling 60 million tons of matter into space.

1,800 stars will explode.

A hummingbird can flap its wings 4,000 times.

All of that is amazing and magnify that around the world and throughout the universe that we aren't even aware of most of the time. Add to that the great longing in the world. In Jesus we see that God was not interested in abstract ideals but in the dirt and soil reality of the Word taking on flesh. Christ came to this world as one of us and showed through his life and the Eucharist that the divine was rooted in the daily. In his book The Supper of the Lamb, Robert Farrar Capon writes, "Man's real work is to look at the things of this world and to love them for what they are. That is, after all, what God does and man was not made in God's image for nothing." The more I begin to grasp this, the more it transforms not only me but my interaction with those around me. That's why, throughout the day, I've begun to ask myself 5 questions to help me focus on what is really important:

1. Do I comfort more than I seek comforts?

2. Do I choose compassion over comparison?

3. Am I attentive or do I seek attention?

4. Am I judgmental or joyful?

5. Do I express my grumblings more than my gratitude?

How I answer those questions in my actions and my words can have a huge impact wherever I am without my realizing that it does. We do not know how we can affect another person's life, a stranger's life, by simply choosing patience and kindness in how we react and reach out to others. Christ understood that to impact and change others required him to have an intimacy with them. He was present in their lives. He was about relationship because that's what led to restoration and redemption. Jesus believed in a shalom that was more than the absence of conflict but the kind that brings wholeness: that causes people to dwell in harmony with God, with others and with the land itself. 

Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry, best known for writing The Little Prince, once said, "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." Do I cause others to long for the "endless immensity" that is the love of God by their seeing me do so in my daily life? Does my attitude and my actions speak of this divine love before I even open my mouth?  

I pray that I do.

I pray that I walk in radical compassion. That I love bravely and without conditions.

I pray that I strive not to impress but to make a positive impact in someone's life who most needs it. 

I pray that God can help work through me by his Spirit so that I can answer an exultant, "YES!" to each of my 5 questions each day.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

My Prayer For Today

Draw me to your heart, O Lord.

Move me towards that which moves you. May my life be one of prayer and praise; a song to you in suffering and in joy. May the words and melodies of my days be according to your movements.

Lead me from confusion to contemplation; from doubt to acceptance; from insecurity to assurance. May I move past thought to action; from love to love to love.

May I be vulnerable to your word and your will. Cut deep within me and break me open. Let my days be sacramental, sacrificial and soaring like your Spirit in the heavens. May I be abandoned before you and to you. May I love you, three-personed God with all of my being: body, mind and spirit.

Help me to serve you and to serve others.

Help me to be slow to speak and long to listen. Let me not snap to judgment but be quick to actions rooted in love. Fill me with an uncontainable love that spills over and pours out of me onto those around me.

May my wants and complaints be replaced by gratitude and awe.

May I see all of creation as consecrated and not as commonplace. Help me to continually look at others and see them as you see them: as dear, as beloved. In this broken, hurting and chaotic world let me step up and, through your Spirit, be one who strives towards Tikkun olam (repairing the world or construction of eternity).  Help me to pray and work that it would be "on earth as it is in heaven."

Throughout my day, may I walk in humility, gentleness, meekness, and godly wisdom. Let my actions and attitude speak of your grace and compassion. May others see you in me and through me, in my words and my actions. If someone needs to hear a kind word, may I utter them from my lips.

Remove all pride. May I not be filled with jealousy or selfish ambition. In all that I do and say and am be steadfast in you, resting only in you.  I pray that my doubt is replaced with direction, my questions with trust even when I don't and cannot understand. As you have shown mercy to me, let me do likewise to others.  Let all that I say and do honor you today. May I surrender wholly and completely to your will.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Conventions & Kingdoms

It's that time again in the United States when political conventions are upon us. As we watch both candidates promoting their platforms and selling their idea of the direction the country needs to take. It will be a big dog and pony show with lots of spectacle. What Christians need to keep in mind with both are that neither will be the Sermon on the Mount. 

Last week I finished reading 2nd Kings. As I came to the end of the book, I couldn't help but wonder what sort of reception either candidate would get if they were like King Josiah and stood before their people, opened up a Bible and addressed everyone watching with, "I made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all of my heart and all of my soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book?" 

What reaction would the political pundits have?

What would be the response on social media?

How would even Christians respond to a platform that starts off with, "Blessed are the poor in spirit?"


We want greatness! We want a leader who promises wealth and success and security. Jesus offered none of those things. While many strive to be in the seats of power, Jesus sought to dine in the houses of the powerless and to be a servant. While people battle to rise up the ladder of privilege and authority, Jesus understand the true power of downward mobility. His kingdom was not what the world or the religious figures of his day wanted. It's not what many who claim to follow him now want. 

We want the white horse with the sword brandished high and gleaming. Not the entry on the back of an ass' foal. That's not humbling that's humiliating. 

Jesus was not a political figure but his actions had political ramifications and upended the structure of power that our world aspires to. He was a threat to their order. He still is.

You don't hear politicians stating, "Blessed are the merciful . . ." Isn't mercy weakness?  We must show authority and strength to our enemies. What? Pray for our enemies? Only a madman or a fool would say such things. In his book God's Politics: Why The Right Gets It Wrong And The Left Doesn't Get It, Jim Wallis writes, "Christ instructs us to love our enemies, which does not mean a submission to their hostile agendas or domination, but does mean treating them as human beings created in the image of God and respecting their human rights as adversaries and even as prisoners." 

Yet if we want real restoration in our country then we must have true humility. "If my people, who are called in my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and heal their land" (2nd Chronicles 7:14). 

If only our public servants really did have a servant's heart then how much more would they accomplish in our capitals?

If only they saw their serving in the light of Philippians 2:3, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves." 

Jesus would not get the nomination of either party just as he angered the Essenes and Zealots of his day. He does not conform to our image of a leader or ruler is. That's why he never took on the politically charged titles of "Messiah" or "Son of God" because he understood how those were perceived and would not even allow them their false expectations. It's why he would not take the bait of any of Satan's temptations of wealth and power and earthly glory. It's why he told Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world." And it's not. It's also why Christ called for us to pray "on earth as it is in heaven." He is about redemption, not only of our souls but of our planet. He is for restoration of his people to God and of creation to its Creator. He came into this world to both heal and transcend it.

Jesus is not interested in creating borders or nations. He is not building walls but in tearing the existing walls down. Which is why he has called us to "love thy neighbor" (And who is our neighbor? Everyone!) and "to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us." Neither sentiment would poll well.

But Jesus doesn't care about polls, he cares about people. 

Jesus is not interested in what pleases man, but what pleases his Father.

He is not here to enact the "will of the people" but the "will of the Father."

Jesus is not interested in the establishment but in establishing his holy and righteous reign in the hearts and lives of godly men and women.

His platform is sacramental and sacrificial. Is it any wonder then that he was met with such fierce resistance? And still is?

Too often we view our faith not through the kingdom but through our country, the American dream, and our political beliefs. But we must remember that Jesus is not this:

Jesus is not American. He is not liberal or conservative; Republican or Democrat or Green or Independent. He does not toe a party line. None can hold claim to him, not even for their own political gain. 

Nor did Jesus run on the stance "Make Israel great again!" 

He was not concerned with the political status of any nation, but how that nation stood in relation to God. When he saw his land in those terms, he wept. He is not about creating an empire like Rome's. He did not want to be in a palace or, even in our White House. "Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head." And that's who we are supposed to follow? A homeless man? 

I love how Rich Mullins put it in one of his last songs, "Cause the world can't stand what it can't own / And it can't own You 'cause You did not have a home." That makes people mighty uncomfortable. That's not capitalism (although true freedom can't be bought and sold in the free market). That's not the American dream.

What most people don't understand, though, is as Dr. Cornel West wrote, "To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely - to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet to keep on stepping because the something that sustains you no empire can give you and no empire can take away." Christ is offering something greater than an empire or nation. In response to the Pharisees inquiring about when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus told them, "My kingdom is not of this world. For behold, the kingdom of God is within you." He is not promoting a Jewish nation, a Roman nation or an American nation. For him, deliverance comes with repentance, not through military liberation. Not something many today want to hear.

So as we approach these conventions, we need to stop focusing so much on candidates who will fail us, will not keep their promises and are motivated by self-interest. Our faith is not in earthly principalities, rulers and authorities. Instead we must focus on the One who, as Colossians 1:16 reminds us, "For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earthy, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him."

Yet as we prayerfully consider those who are running in our elections, we need to look past the soundbites and the coverage. We must look through the lens of Christ. How do they line up? While none will completely, I also don't believe that we are called to vote for what we consider the lesser of two evils. We cannot simply vote for one candidate merely because we will not vote for the other.

Are we the wise man who's building his house on the rock or the sand when we cast our ballots?

If Jesus were to stand before either party at their convention and he had spoken those same words he spoke in the Sermon on the Mount, would they be like those who heard him? Would they, too, be "amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law"? Or would they scoff? Would they jeer? Would they boo?

How would we respond to his incendiary ideas?

How are we responding having read those very words?

Do we live them or dismiss them? Would we roll our eyes and say, "That's not practical." Jesus is not concerned with the practical but with the intentional with the transformational. Like Annie Dillard said, "The dedicated life is the life worth living. You must give with your whole heart." Christ did and, as his followers, so should we.

Only when we honestly try to live out the Sermon on the Mount and attempt to bring about "on earth as it is in heaven" will we slowly begin to see that its not just "One nation under God" but a whole world that we are working for. As Gandhi once said, "If Christians were like Christ, all of India would have believed." As followers of Christ, we are not called first and foremost to be Americans, Democrats or Republicans, Conservatives or Liberals. No, we are called to be a city on a hill and the light of the world. We are called to Christ-likeness. 

So instead of chanting political slogans during this highly charged season in our country, we should, instead, repeat with our words and our lives, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done."

Friday, July 15, 2016

Cruelty, Chaos Or Compassion?

There is a fragility to life that we are seeing with more clarity these days: where celebration can quickly turn to mourning. As we turn on our televisions and are greeted more and more with news that makes our hearts heavy and our eyes fill with tears. There is so much senseless suffering and hurting that make many ask, "God, where are you? How can these types of things happen? How can a loving God allow it?"

Eighty-four people dead in another terrorist attack. The frequency is coming so much more quickly and in places we would never expect them to.

Is there anywhere that's safe?

Will I see my family and loved ones whenever they leave the house to go out somewhere?

In the blink of an eye, a normal day is turned upside down and we are left with sorrow and uncertainty. We find ourselves asking, "Is there anywhere that's safe? Where are we secure?"

It begins to stir up anxieties and fears. These events can also tug at the prejudices and suspicions we have of different groups or religions. We can find ourselves thinking of them as the "other" and distancing ourselves from them. As soon as we do, it becomes easier to demonize them. Certainly we see this in our own political atmosphere where all one has to do is mention the name "Trump" or "Clinton" to hear the vitriol and anger in people. We are a fractured people, unsettled by our times, longing for the safety of a time that is only found in nostalgia and re-imagined memory. History, like memory, is never the solid ground we think it to be. It is much more of an unstable flux filled with peril, restlessness, and doubt.

Often society appears to be about to burst at the seams.

Yet, as Christians, how should we respond in the midst of chaos?

2 Timothy 1:7 reminds us, "For God has not given us a spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind."  Our certainty does not rest in our circumstances but in our Creator. It is He who gives us this power that is based not in anxiousness but in love, peace and grace. It is because our trust is in Him and not our political leaders or our countries that we can choose not to react in hatred and fear, but in Christ-like compassion. It is a choice.

All of our decisions are ultimately based in one of two reactions: fear or love. When we make a choice out of fear, it is because we are spiritually insecure. Insecurity makes us distrust and look with suspicion on those who are not like us: whether that be in religious or political beliefs, sexuality, race, or a myriad of reasons that someone else or another group is not the same and are therefore diminished. Yet we are not called to see anyone through the lens of prejudices or fear, but to see them as Jesus sees them. He always went to the "other," the marginalized, the victimized, the forgotten, neglected, hurting, ostracized, poor, or discriminated.


Because he understood that in his kingdom there is no "other."

As Thomas Merton once wrote, "The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another."

This means we have to take a good look at ourselves, at the darkness in our own hearts and ask, "Who do I view as an other? Who do I, even secretly, discriminate against or judge harshly?"

The more these tragic events occur, the more I see Christians, like myself, needing to step up in a compassionate and courageous way. I love what Frederick Buechner said, "Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else's skin. It's the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too."

Are we, as Christians, offering others that peace and joy?

Are we extending our hands in compassion to those we would normally prefer to not associate with?

We should approach all in life with a sense of faith and hope. Colossians 3:12 tells us, "Put on then,as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience . . ."

How much of a difference would we see in ourselves if we did?

How much of a difference would we see in our families?

In our churches? In our neighborhoods? In our communities?

In our states, our country, and ultimately the world if we truly moved in a constant attitude of compassion, kindness, and humility?

What would happen if our theology truly became our daily biography?

If we lived out a theology of love, mercy, gentleness, grace, and long-suffering? If we offered others dignity, respect and a sense of worth? If we gave value to their lives by listening and caring? If we reached beyond our own preconceived ideas and perceptions to embrace that they are beloved by God?

Right now, I find myself moved again to tear filled prayer. Prayer for those who are hurting and mourning. Psalm 34:18 reminds us, "The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit." We need to be a part of that healing process.

We must be healing in the midst of the hurting and the violence. We must not be the friends of Job, but simply be there for those who are weeping and just be with them. Just listen. Just embrace and cry with them.

As Christians, we need to no longer see someone as less. We must recognize in them the very image of our Creator. We must see that they have hopes and dreams for themselves and their families. Albert Schweitzer said, "Until he extends the circle of compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace."

Today, we all need to go out into the world that we inhabit and strive to walk in generosity, patience, and compassion to those around us. We don't know what hurting they are suffering. We don't know their stories. We may be unaware of the tragedies that have befallen them. All we need to know is that we can offer them a smile, a kind word, or, perhaps, our patience. Wherever we are, we need to be aware that we may be their only image of Jesus that day. Even if we never say a word to someone, are we showing them the love and light of Christ in us?

We need to ask ourselves, "Do others need our judgment or our compassion?" Which would we choose to have shown to ourselves?

So remember, as you are busy about your day today:

Be mindful.
Be kind.
Be compassionate.
Be connected.
Be Christ-like.

We may not change the world, but we might just change someone else's day.

"Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32).

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Cava's First Book Signing

It's no surprise to anyone who's ever read this blog that I love reading. My house is filled with books. As far back as I can remember, I have loved books and reading. Something I have enjoyed doing over the years is going to hear my favorite authors reading from their latest book and then signing them after wards. My shelves are filled with books signed by writers like Toni Morrison, Reynolds Price, Annie Dillard and Kazuo Ishiguro among others. So when the opportunity to take Cava to see one of his favorite writers, Robert Beatty, and get his latest book Serafina and the Twisted Staff signed. I was thrilled to drive him to Barnes and Noble. 

We bought the first in the series, Serafina and the Black Cloak, at one of the Scholastic book sales at his school. I knew how much Cava loved this book while I was reading it to him because he would ask, "What's going to happen next?" (a question every writer wants their reader to ask) and then, "Will you read the next chapter to me?" 

The books we read during childhood have the hugest impacts in our lives. These books can help shape and define us in a way that no other books can. We invest more of ourselves in those books than any we will read after then. I know this because the books I read as a kid (Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, Charlotte's Web) still have a strong place in my heart and imagination even after all these years, which is why I am happy when I get to share them with my own kids. Having spent most of his formative years in orphanages, Cava missed out on a lot of books that most of us take for granted growing up, so when he latches onto a book or book series it does my Papa heart proud.

For those who are unfamiliar with this New York Times bestseller, it is set in one of my favorite cities, Asheville, at the Biltmore Estate. I loved how Beatty interwove his mystery thriller with historical figures, like George Vanderbilt, with his fictional ones, such as the main character. Both Cava and I were asking each other about what we thought was going to happen next and I loved how it kept us both guessing and asking more questions and talking about what we'd read. All of those are qualities of a great book. When we'd finished, we couldn't wait until it's sequel, Serafina and the Twisted Staff came out.

The Barnes and Noble where the book signing was held was packed with people. I was afraid that Cava, not one who deals well with crowds or waiting, would not be able to handle it but would feel overwhelmed and want to leave.  We got our wristbands as soon as we walked in the door and were told that we would be in group eight. Each group had thirty people in it. There would be thirty groups total. I knew we were going to be there awhile. The event didn't start until six pm and we had gotten there shortly after five and had not eaten dinner. Still, Cava was excited by the opportunity to meet a real author and one who'd written a book he loved.

Before the event even started, Cava spotted the author and darted over to introduce himself to him. that boy is not shy. He just couldn't wait to tell him how much he liked his book.

When he came back over to me, Cava was beaming his big Cava smile. "I shook a real author's hand! It was so awesome!"  

Mr. Beatty was introduced and he told everyone about his latest work and showed the trailer for Serafina and the Twisted Staff. Then he asked if anyone had a question for him. Cava's hand shot up. "Will they be making Serafina into a movie?" This was a question he had asked me all throughout our reading the book and he hoped that the answer would be, "Yes." While there are some producers that have shown interest, there is not a film in the works to Cava's dismay. "Disney published the book," he told me, "so they should make a movie of it!" "I think Mr. Beatty would agree with you," I replied.

Since we had not eaten dinner before we got there, Cava was relieved that they had some free snacks (cookies, brownies, and small squares of pizza) and either tea or water to drink. He was disappointed that he couldn't get one of each type of cookie, brownie and pizza but could only get one cookie, one brownie and one tiny square of pizza. Of course when he was quickly done with his, I gave him mine.

Since we had plenty of time to wait, I let him browse the bookstore. He was content since he can be worse than me about doing this and he was continually showing me something new that he wanted to get and tried to persuade me to buy him along with the copy of Serafina and the Twisted Staff, but to no avail. 

The event was only supposed to last from six pm until nine pm, but our group was called shortly before nine (and we were only in the eighth out of thirty, mind you) so I knew that wasn't going to happen. We got in our line of thirty and Cava kept telling me, "I'm sooo excited! I'm soooo excited!" I was glad that he was after having patiently waited for so long, which is not what he's best at (I guess it helped to be waiting in a bookshop). I was happy to see him this way and, if I had gotten to meet one of my favorite childhood authors (such as Madeleine L'Engle) when I was a kid, I would've been the same way.

Robert Beatty was personable and talked with Cava as he was signing his book. He started off with, "I remember you from our talk earlier. Thank you for being so patient." I informed him that this was such a big deal for Cava to meet one of his favorite authors and, like a trooper, waited.

 As he asked Cava how he liked the first book and a little about himself, it came out that Cava was from Ukraine.

Upon hearing this, Mr. Beatty reached into his leather courier's bag and pulled out a special Serafina pin, like the one he wore on his jacket, and a Serafina notebook. "You can write your own story in this," he said as he showed it to Cava. 

This super charged Cava's imagination and the whole ride home he was asking me how old you had to be to become an author, and how he wanted to write books and have them made into movies, and how he was going to write a story about a boy who gets lost in the forest and is befriended by talking animals (like owls and falcons and hawks). He told me the name of his main character would be George. "I can't believe he was so nice," he said of Robert Beatty, "he signed my book and gave me that pin and that notebook and talked to me." This clearly made a big impression on a young boy who is still unsure of his own worth. I am grateful that Mr. Beatty was so generous with his time and got to to know a little about each of his readers as he signed their books. I'm sure he was exhausted and his hand was cramped by the time he was done.

When we got home, I opened up Cava's copy of the book to see what the author had inscribed to him. The inscription read:

To Cava,

Stay bold!
It was so good to meet you!
Robert Beatty

"Stay bold!" is a line from the book the characters tell each other whenever they feel discouraged and think about giving up. It's an apt line for Cava in his own life. 

The official website for the books and its author can be found at:

The official book trailer for Serafina and the Black Cloak:

The official book trailer for Serafina and the Twisted Staff:

Monday, July 11, 2016

Creating Compassionate Kids In A Chaotic World

While I have had discussions on the issues of race, racism, injustice, poverty and the marginalization of people because of their race or sex or sexuality or nationality with Benjamin, it's been more of a challenge to have those types of talks with Cava. Coming from Ukraine, many of the issues of of race are completely foreign to him since he didn't grow up with other ethnicities. Since Cava is my alarm clock in the morning, he not only wakes me up so that I can fix him breakfast, but he also watches the news with me as I prepare his breakfast. Because of this, he has noticed what has been happening in our country and he doesn't understand and he has begun to ask me questions about what he's seeing.

It is heartbreaking and when I talk to him about it, Cava is baffled and asks, "Why would anybody choose to be mean?" Having come from a place that was often filled with cruelty and injustice, he is tender-hearted toward the hurting of others. There is a kindness and a light that the system he grew up in could not extinguish. This is one of the things I love most about him. So, as his father, I encourage such compassion in both him and Benjamin.

In Greek, the word for compassion is splagxnizomai, which means to be "moved to one's bowels." This is a graphic image but those who lived during the time of the New Testament believed the bowels were the root of all love and pity. This is a compassion that comes from deep within us and physically moves us to action. I cannot help but think of Jesus as he's written of in Matthew 9:36, "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." Christ saw their suffering (not just physical but spiritual as well) and was full of compassion for them. This is a portrait of his Heavenly Father who's described in Psalm 86:15 as being "a God of compassion, and gracious, long-suffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth." Along with compassion, in that verse is the Hebrew word hesed which is translated into English as "kindness" or "loving-kindness" or "mercy." This compassion moves beyond pity, beyond fear.

For there to be peace in the world, there must first be peace within us so that we can work from that place to facilitate love and compassion, patience and tolerance. To reach this place of peace takes humility and patience, not only with ourselves but with others. When we see human suffering, we cannot turn away from it but must view those suffering not as strangers or foreigners, but as fellow human beings in need of our compassion. As one of my heroes, the late Elie Wiesel said, "In the face of suffering, one has no right to turn away, not to see." No, it is not easy to look into the face of suffering but to do so is to look into the very face of Christ. Compassion was at the very heart and ministry of Christ. As his followers, we are to be and do likewise. But do we?

Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote, "When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion - it's message becomes meaningless."

It's important that our churches practise acts of compassion, to be people of compassion, and that our children are a part of this process. We cannot speak of compassion from the pulpit if we are not putting words to action in the world around us. If we don't, our words are hollow and devoid or meaning. They are only "a ringing gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Corinthians 13:1). And our children will be the first to spot the hypocrisy of this. No, we must as 1 John 3:18 tells us, ". . .let us not love in word or talk but in deed and truth."

Needless to say, love and compassion begins at home. This means we have to model compassion to our kids and to those in our community around us. To raise compassionate kids means we have to be compassionate adults. Kids learn by watching, so while we must talk to them about how we should respond to those who are in need, we should also be doing what we are telling them to do. This means we need to volunteer and, if the child is old enough, to have them volunteer with us. This can mean volunteering at a nursing home or a homeless shelter, reaching out to an elderly neighbor (mowing their yard, doing chores for them, taking them to the grocery store), being part of a canned-food drive, or have the whole family take part in a charity walk, or putting together their own shoe boxes for Operation Christmas Child. These are all ways we can teach compassion for the vulnerable and powerless.

Talk to them. Whenever news stories come on about violence or suffering or cruelty, use that as an opportunity to both speak and listen to them talk about subject matters such as racism, discrimination, inequality, and, even, about bullying. Such news stories are teachable moments and allow us to get closer to our own kids, to help share our values and develop them in our children. One way we do this is in our daily lives is in our shopping. We make sure to teach them about fair trade and what that means and why we choose to buy or not buy an item, such  as chocolate, because of that.

For our family, we start with Jesus teaching the Sermon on the Mount and "Blessed are the peacemakers" It is so important to our faith that Jesus explicitly states that those who do "will be called the children of God." Why? Because when we make peace with those in our families, our communities, our nation and our world, we are exemplifying the kingdom of heaven. When Jesus taught us to pray, "On earth as it is in heaven," he meant we are to strive for that in the here and now.

When talking about being compassionate peace-makers, we must tell them that this is not always easy or admired or liked. Often it can make you unpopular. Compassion often takes courage.Of course it helps if they choose friends who are like-minded, caring and striving towards kindness. That they are the ones reaching out to those who are left out; to be a friend to the unfriended.

We must teach them is the understanding that showing compassion to others is not always easy. It means going to the places that we normally shy away from: places where people are weak, vulnerable, broken and lonely. To do this is to remove distance from those we might normally keep ourselves from coming into contact with. to be compassionate is to be connected. To have true compassion, one must create relationship. We see this time and time again in the life and ministry of Jesus. That is our example and our guide. He shows us that it is not enough to see someone suffering but to recognize that we are not separate from that suffering. Compassion works to transform that suffering no matter what the outcome.

It is a matter of teaching them that there are no "us" or "them." As Mother Teresa said, "If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other." Compassion leads to community and when we become a part of our community around us (our actual community and not just that of Facebook) we stop seeing people in terms of groups but in terms of personal stories. They have names and lives. We begin to see the world through more than just our limited perspective (whether that be our race, gender, religious  beliefs, or socio-economic level).  This can also be true to how they view those with disabilities and to see their worth. When we do this, we no longer demonize but humanize people we might normally dismiss or write off.

In this day and age it is far too easy to become cynical. The media is full of cynicism and people are filled with opinions and criticisms that they are willing to spew out online. There is very little space given to dialogue or taking the time to stop and consider another person's point-of-view. A good way to do this is to read about those who have practiced compassion such as Saint Francis of Assisi, Sojourner Truth, Anne Frank, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Nelson Mandela. When we take the time to do this, we begin to see the intrinsic value of everyone and that we all desire to be heard and understood.

One of the best ways to show compassion to another person is to just listen to them. To be present, offering them our undivided attention, without us wanting to interject ourselves. Focusing on them. I'll admit, this is something I need to practise more, even with my own family.  Simone Weil understood this when she wrote, "Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity." So few of us truly offer anyone our full attention, especially in an age of quick texts where many don't even offer fully formed words or thoughts. Certainly I see this with my teenager who will text me a one-word response such as "k" instead of "okay." That's why, on many evenings, I go for walks with Benjamin. It's an opportunity for him to talk to me about whatever he wants and I just listen or, when he asks me questions, we have discussions on subjects that range from my childhood, politics, social justice, and matters of faith. These walks allow me the opportunity to know what is on my son's heart and mind. But how often do we offer others that chance? 

Love is giving of ourselves, our time. This is the basis for compassion: being fully present.

Compassion changes us - literally. Neuroscientists who have studied how performing acts of compassion can literally change one's brain. It enhances neural integration (meaning it connects all areas of the brain). It can not only make us more mindful and present in our daily lives, but that when we do these acts, our brains emit powerful gamma waves. This helps stimulate the brain to be smarter, more creative, and have more vitality. They also found that compassion helps strengthen our immune systems. Being compassionate is good for our health and well-being.  It makes us more empathetic and have stronger relationships. Why then would I not want to teach my boys compassion?

In this day and age, it is important to me that I teach my boys that between the path of cynicism and compassion, they should always choose compassion. That they should always choose compassion over condemnation towards another. That all are deserving of compassion, including themselves. How much will they be transformed if they truly practise this?

And then how much will the world around them be?

In this age where so many people are filled with such anger they are ready to snap, how much more do we need people of compassion to love and model that love to a world that so desperately needs it. Can we afford not to be more compassionate?

How much more when we act in this manner is bringing about "on earth as it is in heaven?" How much of heaven are we offering the world with every act of care and nurture? With every act of comfort and support? When we embrace instead of judge? When we act out of grace and gratitude, love and mercy, kindness and compassion?

How can we not when we, ourselves, have experienced the mercy and goodness of God?

May we all, daily, perform even the smallest acts of compassion towards one another. Each morning, I need to wake up and ask myself and my sons: What will yours be today?

Friday, July 8, 2016

Race & Racism, The Prophets, & The Church

Every time I turn on the news these days my heart breaks. Oh how it breaks for our racially divided country. This morning, I found myself in tears over what has been happening (the shooting of Dallas police officers, the shooting of Alton Sterling and of Philando Castile). All of this was too much and I cried out like the Psalmist, "How long? How long to sing this song?"

Like the prophet Amos, I long for the day when justice will "roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream." This is a time of lament and mourning that must lead to change and the Church must be part of that. We must do more than offer prayer vigils after these kind of tragedies have happened. The Church must be one of the vehicles for social change; after all, if Christ identified himself with the marginalized, with the poor, with those who face daily injustice, then why aren't we?

Christ's Church must be the ones to step up in this racially divided society and love as Christ loved. We must be willing to have honest and open discussions on race, racism, and poverty. These subjects can no longer be taboo from our pulpits and our Sunday school classrooms. We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to the injustice of a judicial system that is clearly on the side of the wealthy and the white. Both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile would not be dead if they had been white.

One only has to look at how an upper-class, white Standford student (Brock Turner) was only given a sentence of 6 months for rape to know this would not have been the case if he'd been African American (Corey Batey was sentenced to 15 years). We cannot deny that we do live in a society of white privilege. We cannot vote for anyone who would divide us further and fuel racial fears because it will ultimately lead to more outbreaks of violence and hatred.

I can't help but think of what Pastor Tony Merida tweeted, "On a plane pondering what I should say to my 11 year old black son when I get home & how I should prepare him for this world. #grieving."

Like many who have adopted children of another ethnicity, Merida is faced with teaching his child about the harsh realities of race relations in this country. How many other adoptive parents face that hard discussion?

In 1970, on a stage in New York City, James Baldwin and Margaret Mead had a discussion on race, identity and immigration. During this public conversation, Baldwin said, "The police in this country make no distinction between a Black Panther or a black lawyer or my brother or me. The cops aren't going to ask my name before they pull the trigger. I'm part of this society and I'm in exactly the same situation as anybody else - any other black person - in it. If I don't know that, then I'm fairly self-deluded . . ."

It's sad to think that we have not made more progress, that his words still ring true over 30 years later. That we see this time and time again all over this country. 

Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, wrote the book America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege and the Bridge to New America. In discussing his latest work, Wallis said:

Our original sin of racism is still the chief contradiction of the American
life - and of the gospel in our country. When privilege and punishment are
the result of skin color, our stated values and culturally captive religion are
revealed as our greatest hypocrisies. And the marginalization of people of 
color in our society, including millions of children who remain our poorest
in the world's richest nation, would still make the biblical prophets scream.

What would Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos or Ezekiel say about what is happening in our country today? 

What would Jesus say, not only to our culture, but to his Bride? He wept over Jerusalem, but do we weep for our own country? Christ was about community and connection to others. He went out of his way to love someone who was unloved by the religious leaders and by his own culture. Jesus embraced the Samaritans, those who were on the lowest rung of the social ladder, who were at the far edges of marginalized in his day. But do we? 

As Christians, we are his hands and feet, but do we go where he would go and love those whom he would love if he were here now among us?  Do we go to the poorer areas of our cities and towns? Are we the ones who, like the good Samaritan, help the man in the ditch or do we move to the other side of the road? Are we moving away from those who we would rather pretend to not see?  Do we respond to those in the "Black Lives Matter" movement with, "Yes, yes you do matter. You are beloved of God, made in His image, and you do matter and we will stand with you"? We must stand up and with our very lives show that all their lives do matter. 

Do we mentor young African American men who need father figures because their fathers aren't there to do so?

Do we go to the poorer schools to tend the grounds, paint the walls, to clean up, and to help those students who are falling further and further behind?

Wherever there are Christians, there should not be substandard housing. There should not be substandard schools. We must realize that what these protesters want is what all of us want: a good education, a job, and a family. They want their kids to have the same opportunities as white kids. To live in a society that is faced with such fundamental and social contradictions as ours does is immoral. We must make solving the problems of poverty and race a priority within our churches. We muse be leaders in the call for social justice just does as the prophets of God have always been. Just as Jesus was. 

Like Isaiah, we must call out:

Woe to those who enact unjust statutes,
who write oppressive decrees,
Depriving the needy of judgment,
robbing my people's poor of justice,
Making widows their plunder,
and orphans their prey! (10:1-2).

We must be a light in a darkened world. We must offer hope to the hopeless - and not just of a future salvation. We must be a voice for the voiceless. We must offer our power to the powerless. We must denounce those in power who would take advantage of the poor and marginalized. We must identify ourselves with them in their struggle. As Ezekiel did, we must call out those who oppress and be the ones who gives our bread to the hungry. We must speak up for those who fall further and further down the social ladders and call out those who would widen that gap. We must put a stop to those who, in their striving for material wealth, would do so at the cost of the poor, who take advantage of their plight. 

As Christians, for us to not do so is to mock our Maker.

We must work to end all social and racial inequity in our country. We must sow love where others would sow hate. We must offer mercy, compassion, grace, and love. We must not hold an allegiance to any system that would perpetrate inequality but only to that of the kingdom of God where all men are truly equal and the same in the eyes of a loving Creator. The prophets understood this. Why don't we?

We must speak up. We must act. We must work towards the day when, "The tyrant shall be no more . . .all those alert to do evil shall be cut off - those who . . . deny justice to the one who is right" (Isaiah 29:20-21). We must be, as Isaiah calls for us to be, "repairers of the breach."

Right now, we must go to the hurting and embrace them and love them. We must mourn and lament with them. We must weep with those who weep. We must share in their loss, their grief and then we must, as Proverbs tells us, "Open our mouths, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy."