Thursday, March 23, 2017

Stranger than Me

When I was a kid I was frequently reminded to beware of strangers, not to talk to strangers, and to never under any circumstances get in a car with strangers. Even in a friendly, small town in the Midwest, parents thought it best to be vigilant, warning their children to be wary of those unfamiliar faces who might mean us harm. I'm guessing most of my fellow Baby Boomers were given similar instructions.

But times, they are a changing. Sociologists tell us that Millennials are far more likely to engage a stranger online or in person. Last year they got in the car with a stranger (Uber) five million times. Young adults are also much more likely to trust the reviews of other anonymous consumers over the brand advertisements and official endorsements of various products.

Dozens of dating sites encourage singles to connect with strangers with the faint hope of finding the ideal companion or mate. What are essentially "blind dates" are becoming the common scenario for meeting someone. Boomers like me were rarely so bold.

And now with the advent of Airbnb, people are flocking to the homes of strangers and welcoming strangers into their spare bedrooms. Who is that guy sleeping under our own roof? Who knows?

Millennials, it seems, are not afraid of strangers, they are more accepting of others, and willing to give people unknown to them the benefit of the doubt. But some of us older folks just can't go there. It seems too risky, too dangerous, or at least too uncomfortable. It's hard to reprogram our basic operating procedures, to delete our inbred fear and insecurity, and rewire ourselves for greater openness, friendliness, and trust.

But maybe it's worth a try. Connecting with a stranger is not just a good idea in our diverse world. It's a Gospel idea. The greater openness of our Millennials is not far from our calling as followers of Jesus. Let their example be a good first step for all of us toward greater compassion and service. Jesus reminds us that we will ultimately be judged not by how many strangers we avoided, but how many we welcomed.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father . . . For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me.'" (Matt. 25:34-36)

So, my fellow Boomers, let's swallow our pride and learn from our kids. Better yet, let's take a tip from Jesus, counting every stranger a part of the family, a child of God.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Next Step

This morning I attended the Next Step Breakfast of our mission partner, Samaritan Ministry of Greater Washington. The strategy of this ministry is to come alongside homeless and disadvantaged people so that, step by step, they can make progress toward healthier, more secure and productive lives. I am always moved to hear the stories of those who have rebuilt their lives through this combination of encouragement and support, challenge and accountability. Not all at once, of course, but step by step.

So it is with life. It's all about steps. Whatever our tax bracket or social status, whatever challenges or problems we face, whatever destructive habits or addictions we struggle to manage, whatever broken relationships and opportunities we have lost, whatever wreckage we have left behind us, the way forward is always the same - steps.

It seems so simple, doesn't it? Take a step, just a step in the right direction. Every wise mentor, counselor, pastor or priest knows the truth of it. That's all it takes. Steps.

There may be battles too big for us. Problems may seem insurmountable, obstacles immovable, consequences inescapable. Doors are locked and no one hears our pounding. The phone never rings and the letter never comes. Waiting turns to inertia and spirals towards hopelessness. The scenery never changes.

What can we do? The road is just too hard, the mountain too high, the river too wide.

Some do nothing, of course, while others sit around complaining about the gross unfairness of life. They bitch and moan about all those who have conspired to bring them down or keep them down. Playing the victim, they are certain life would be beautiful if they had just been given a fair shake. Life would be different, if only . . . .

Those who make it in life, those who overcome, those who find their way through and get where they're going, are those who learn the secret of steps, one step at a time, one foot in front of the other. Not leaps and bounds. Even baby steps can move us in the right direction.

The good folks of Samaritan Ministry have learned another vital secret about life. Steps are easier to take when we are walking side by side, hand in hand. Partners in the struggle, companions on the journey make all the difference. We can step boldly forward for we are not alone. Someone cares. Someone walks this path with me. Someone steadies me when I struggle. Someone catches me when I fall.

Steps. This is the path to progress, the hope of a future decidedly different from our past. Step by step, step by step together.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Never to Be Afraid

An encouraging word for Monday morning from Brennan Manning's The Ragamuffin Gospel:

Charles Foucauld, the founder of the Little Brothers of Jesus, wrote a single sentence that's had a profound impact on my life. He said, "The one thing we owe absolutely to God is never to be afraid of anything." Never to be afraid of anything, even death, which, after all, is but that final breakthrough into the open, waiting, outstretched arms of Abba.

"There is no need to be afraid, little flock," Jesus said, "for it has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom." (Luke 12:32) . . . I long for you to let go of worry and allow yourself to trust God completely. It's one thing to know your Father loves you and quite another to experience it.

I wonder if fear is not our main obstacle to prayer. When we enter into the presence of God and start to sense the huge reservoir of fear inside us, we want to run away into the many distractions, which our busy world offers so abundantly. But we shouldn't be afraid of our fears. We can confront them, give words to them and lead them into the presence of the One who says, "Be not afraid. It is I." - Henri J. M. Nouwen

Monday, January 23, 2017

"Tramps Like Us . . ."

Just finished Bruce Springsteen's book, Born to Run. What a great book. No wonder his music makes such a powerful connection with so many of us. At the end of his story, Springsteen offers these words to sum up his own sense of calling and purpose. I can certainly identify with his words, maybe we all can.

I have fought my whole life, studied, played, worked, because I wanted to hear and know the whole story, my story, our story, and understand as much of it as I could. I wanted to understand in order to free myself of its most damaging influences, its malevolent forces, to celebrate and honor its beauty, its power, and to be able to tell it well to my friends, my family, and to you. I don't know if I've done that, and the devil is always just a day away, but I know this was my young promise to myself, to you. This, I pursued as my service. This, I presented as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick. Hoping it would rock your very soul and then pass on, its spirit rendered, to be read, heard, sung and altered by you and your blood, that it might strengthen and help make sense of your story. Go tell it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Reflection on MLK's "I Have a Dream" Speech

(Marymount University Interfaith Service: Martin Luther King, Jr. Through the Eyes of Faith)

It is my privilege and honor to participate in this service of remembrance today. My thanks to Father Tom and Dr. Shank for allowing me this opportunity, and thank you, students, faculty, and friends for your presence here.

Each time I hear those words I am moved and inspired. "I have a dream," Dr. King spoke, and still his dream lives on.

Are you a dreamer?

In the biblical world, dream were real. Dreams represented the realm of the divine and the demonic. Dreams had meaning, often carried messages, and sometimes foretold the future. In ancient times, people went to temples or holy places to sleep there, in order to have a dream which would show them the decision to make. This is strangely comforting to me, since we still have those who fall asleep in church. I used to be offended, but now I know they are just looking for a word from God.

Those who study these things say that we are all dreamers. We dream as part of our normal sleep cycle, but only occasionally do we remember the dream - an especially vivid scene, a dream that moves us emotionally, or of course, the terrifying nightmare. When I was in college I had a few supreme pizza at midnight dreams that were just plain weird.

They tell us that our dreams are unique and personal and non-transferable. You and I will not have the same exact dream tonight.

But God's dreams are different. The dreams that God gives to us are unique and personal, but they can be transferred, they can be shared. God-given dreams can become just as vivid in another person as they were in the person who first had the dream.

In fact, God's dreams are contagious, they spread like a fever. God's dreams grip the heart and mind of everyone who comes in contact with them. It is a happy and healthy contagion, not to be isolated or quarantined, but to be shared freely, openly, persistently - God's dreams. So it is that Dr. King's dream lives today. His God-given dream has become our dream.

Such dreams can set the course for our lives. When we dream God's dreams, it will rivet our attention, it will become our driving passion, the magnetic compass that points the way. And when we dream God's dream, we will pay any price, make any sacrifice, go any distance, face any darkness, to see God's dream fulfilled in our world, in our time.

Our dreams determine who we are and who we become. The book of Proverbs reminds us, "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." (Prov. 23:7 KJV) This is perhaps life's strangest secret. We tend to become what we think about. Our dreams define us, shape us, and mold us. Our dreams become the steering currents of our lives. Dreams help us claim the future, our future.

Novelist Tom Clancy gave the 1991 commencement address at Johns Hopkins University. Here are some abstracts from those remarks:

"I will now give you your last lesson in metaphysics. Nothing is as real as a dream. The world can change around you, but your dream will not. Your life may change, but your dream doesn't have to. Responsibilities need not erase it. Duties need not obscure it. Your spouse and children need not get in its way, because the dream is within you. No one can take your dream away . . . The only way that your dream can die is if you kill it yourself."

Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before a country plagued by violence and bigotry and shared his noble dream of a truly color blind culture. He led the long, hard march for civil rights and human dignity, until an assassin's bullet cut his life short.

I was just eight years old on that April evening in 1968, but I remember sitting with my family watching the news of his murder and the riots that followed and thinking how dark and frightening this world of ours must be. Dr. King, like all of the world's great dreamers, paid a great price for standing against racism and injustice.

If you would dream God's dream you had better count the cost, for it will no doubt exact a toll from you as well. This sightless, heartless world is not often kind to its dreamers.

Never settle for less than God's dream for your life. Too many settle for such pitiful, little dreams, so shallow and selfish. Meager dreams of projecting an image, stockpiling stuff, gaining power and privilege, achieving celebrity status. Such dreams lead to empty, meaningless lives, revolving around ourselves in a selfish delusion of our exaggerated importance. Those are dreams that bring no fulfillment or satisfaction, dreams that make no difference and no advancement in the human condition. Worthless dreams.

Dare to dream God's dream, as Dr. King dreamed that we might become a compassionate and welcoming people embracing the full kaleidoscope of humanity.

The Hopi Native American tribe has a fascinating custom and belief. They speak of the "dream catcher," a symbolic net hung in the doorways of their homes. Into this net fly their dreams, their hopes and aspirations.

The Hopi believe that unrealistic or unworthy dreams, unattainable visions, pass through the net. Only those true and noble dreams, those hopes that can be fulfilled, remain inside.

Those dreams remain a part of them and keep them focused on their path. Once the dream has been attained, they add a feather to their dream catcher.

Do you see the truth for us? You and I are dream catchers. It's up to us to catch a worthy dream and make it our own, to claim that God-given dream for our generation, and to lay down our lives to bring it to pass.

An unknown poet said it like this:

"Dreams are they, but they are God's dreams. 
Shall we decry them or scorn them? 
Dreams are they to become man's dreams! 
Can we say 'nay' as they claim us? 
Dreams are they all, but shall we despise them - God's dreams?"

So, I ask you once more. Are you a dreamer? God's promise says, "And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions." (Joel 2:28)

Today we remember a noble dream. Now it is time to dream again.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Frosty Birthday

As we get older, birthdays lose their luster, don't they? I turned 57 yesterday, too old for Snapchat, too young for Life Alert, somewhere in those middle years. My mom says, "Middle-aged? Are you planning to be 114 some day?" Thanks, Mom. Anyway, I am grateful for all the blessings of life, especially the wonderful people that I have known along the way.

When our son Sam was just a little guy, his favorite Christmas movie was "Frosty the Snowman," or as he called it simply, "Man!" I guess everyone knows the story, but do you remember Frosty's first words after he puts on the magician's magic hat? He comes to life with a big "Happy Birthday!" to himself. And each time he dons the hat, the friendly snowman begins his life all over again with another "Happy Birthday!"

Maybe old Frosty is on to something. I'm not much for hats, but what would it be like to start each new year or week or day with that same exuberant joy? We tend to blow out the candles on our birthday cake and grudgingly give in to our next not so magic number, clicking off the years one by one. But Frosty says whenever you wake up and find yourself alive, it's a whole new ballgame. With each sunrise we are born into a world not quite like yesterday, yet brimming with potential, ripe with possibilities. A new creation. Everyday is our birthday. Celebrate yours today.

"You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands." (Isaiah 55:12)

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

"No Christian at All"

Sharing a story and thought this morning from Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel:

Several years ago in a large city in the far West, rumors spread that a certain Catholic woman was having visions of Jesus. The reports reached the archbishop. He decided to check her out. There is always a fine line between the authentic mystic and the lunatic fringe.

"Is it true, ma'am, that you have visions of Jesus?" asked the cleric.

"Yes," the woman replied simply.

"Well, the next time you have a vision, I want you to ask Jesus to tell you the sins that I confessed in my last confession."

The woman was stunned. "Did I hear you right, bishop? You actually want me to ask Jesus to tell me the sins of your past?"

"Exactly. Please call me if anything happens."

Ten days later the woman notified her spiritual leader of a recent apparition. "Please come," she said.

Within the hour the archbishop arrived. He trusted eye-to-eye contact. "You just told me on the telephone that you actually had a vision of Jesus. Did you do what I asked?"

"Yes, bishop, I asked Jesus to tell me the sins you confessed in your last confession."

The bishop leaned forward with anticipation. His eyes narrowed.

"What did Jesus say?"

She took his hand and gazed deep into his eyes. "Bishop," she said, "these are his exact words: 'I can't remember.'"

Christianity happens when men and women accept with unwavering trust that their sins have not only been forgiven but forgotten. . . . Thus, my friend archbishop Joe Reia says, "A sad Christian is a phony Christian, and a guilty Christian is no Christian at all."

Monday, December 19, 2016

Losing the Star

(Arlington Optimist Christmas Breakfast, December 14, 2016)

When I was a kid, I sold Christmas cards door to door to earn some money after lawn mowing season ended. I still like to look at the cards. There are all kinds, of course. Some with Santa or the reindeer, or furry little animals or cardinals or bells or candles. Some have a manger scene, a nativity of some sort. But the clear winners in my book are the Wise Men, those saddle-sore Magi, astride their camels and always, following that beautiful radiant star.

Comedian and sometimes theologian Dave Barry tells their story like this: We know from the Bible that the Wise Men showed up in Bethlehem and gave the Baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Now, gold is always a nice gift, but frankincense and myrrh - at least according to my dictionary - are gum resins. Who gives gum resins to a baby?

The answer is: men. The Wise Men, being men, didn't even START shopping for gifts until the last minute, when most of the stores in the greater Bethlehem area were closed for Christmas Eve. The only place still open was Big Stu's House of Myrrh. So the Wise Men showed up at the manger, handed their baby gifts to Mary, and headed for the eggnog. Mary looked at the gifts - which were not wrapped, nor were they accompanied by cards - rolled her eyes, tossed the gum resins to the goats (which ate them) and said: "Next Christmas,, we are going to have some gift-giving RULES." But the Wise Men didn't hear her, because by then they were over by the crib trying to teach the Baby Jesus to pull their finger. That's Dave Barry's take on it.

You can probably guess what might have happened if it had been three wise women instead of three wise men. They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts.

So, who were these wise guys anyway? These Magi nearly slipped in and out of history without being noticed and probably would have, had it not been for the little Prince they came to see. We know almost nothing about them. Legend counts them as three Wise Men, though the Gospel does not specify their number. Three gifts are listed and so it was assumed there must have been three worshipers. Eventually they were promoted to royalty and given names - Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar.

In 1158 three bodies were discovered in the Church of St. Eustorgio in Milan, and local politicians conspired to identify them as those of the three Magi. A few years later Emperor Barbarossa captured the city and took the remains to Germany where they were laid to rest in the Cologne Cathedral. Soon "The Shrine of the Three Kings" became famous. Visitors to the cathedral are still shown the tombs of these men who were among the first to welcome Christ to earth, though now the guides generally wink when they tell the story.

But there is something else about these mysterious gentlemen, a detail in their story that I had never noticed before. Apparently, these wise men saw the star when they began their journey. The star inspired them, a sign they somehow recognized, and they started on their way west toward Palestine. But somewhere along the way they lost the star. It wasn't constant, because they had to stop and get directions from King Herod before heading on toward Bethlehem. And then it says that when they set out from there, the star appeared before them and led them to the Christ Child. "And when they saw the star again, they were overjoyed."

Let me suggest that these noble stargazers have something significant to teach us this Christmas.

Life is like a journey, isn't it? We are all travelers in this world, looking for answers, for what satisfies, what matters, searching for what has lasting significance, ultimate meaning, supreme worth. Like the Magi we are on a long journey, we are all passengers, pilgrims, pioneers. You and I are seekers, sojourners, stargazers ourselves.

We begin our journey with such high hopes and noble dreams. We spot a bright star and go after it, so excited and enthusiastic. We can't wait to get where we are going, to reach our goals and fulfill our destiny. And then, somewhere along the way, we may lose the star. We find ourselves struggling to navigate, groping in the darkness, trying to find our way.

It might be a career setback, a broken relationship, a financial loss, the death of a loved one, or our own health crisis. It's a sudden, unexpected eclipse and you find yourself staring into the darkness. You've lost the star.

Sometimes we have to reroute. Sometimes in life we may find ourselves where we never dreamed we would be. Nothing looks familiar or friendly. This wasn't part of the plan. This place wasn't on our itinerary. Unexpected detours in life get us off track. We may have to make a course correction, reroute, recalculate.

A few years ago, Suzanne and I were driving back to Missouri, heading into St. Louis on I-64. I noticed a shiny new bridge over the Mississippi had opened, but my GPS had not heard the news. So, when I exited for the new bridge, my GPS showed my car going off the road, heading cross country straight toward the big river. "Recalculating! Recalculating!" As we cruised across that brand new bridge, my GPS showed the little blue car plunging into the Mississippi. Again, "Recalculating! Recalculating!" But amazingly enough, we came out on the other side and when the new highway merged with the old one, we were back on track.

There are times we do need to reroute, recalculate, we know that's true. But there are also situations where we need to hold fast, have faith, and keep going.

Other times we may have to start over, to begin again. Have you ever found yourself right back where you started? You never intended for it to happen, but it did. Wasted time, squandered opportunities.

Several years ago I was on a flight from Houston on my way to Ukraine to teach at the seminary there. I had routed my flight through London with a long layover so that I could go see our son who was finishing his college work at Oxford. We took off about ten o'clock for an overnight flight. I woke up about 2:30 and the nice British lady next to me said, "While you were sleeping, there was a volcano, and the turned the plane around." I laughed and said, "You know, that's the kind of thing that would happen to me." She pointed to the screen indicating our flight path and our little plane had made a U-turn and was headed back the way we came. They flew us all the way back to Houston. So after a nine hour flight we walked back into the same airport which I soon noticed will make passengers pretty testy. We dubbed it "The All-Night Flight to Nowhere."

Have you ever been on that flight? Maybe you had your itinerary all planned, but somehow, for some reason beyond your control, you got turned around. You find yourself right back where you started. It's time to begin again.

Who knows? Maybe we chose the wrong star to begin with. There are so many artificial lights, so much reflected, refracted light, at times it's hard to recognize the real thing, the star that is real and true, the star we can follow, the star that leads to where we long to be.

It's no easy thing, to navigate through life, to follow a star, but we can learn, we can do it. And in the darkest times, when thick clouds cover the night sky or a heavy fog descends, find your faith. It's your faith that will keep you going when you lose your star. It's faith that guides our feet when we have no light for the path ahead.

When I was a boy, my friend Bruce and I would watch scary movies together. This experience was intensified because Bruce's parents were funeral directors. We watched horror movies in the basement of the funeral home - Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Vincent Price, sometimes we watched Dark Shadows. Scary stuff for little guys like us.

What made it even more terrifying for me was walking home in the dark after the movies. It was only 10-12 blocks, but it seemed like miles to me. I imagined werewolves behind every tree, vampires in the shadows, Frankenstein lurching out of the darkness. So here's what I did. I would run between the streetlights. I felt safe in the light so I could stop to catch my breath, and then I would take off again, running from streetlight to streetlight, all the way home.

Not a bad approach to life, I guess. When you can't find your star in the darkness, keep moving ahead, follow every little flicker of faith until the sky clears and you can see your way again.

Those old Magi would tell us today if they could. It was worth it at the end of the journey, when they finally arrived, when they knelt before the newborn King. It was worth every long, weary day and every pitch black night, worth every minute and every mile, every step of their epic search.

Whatever darkness or difficulty or discouragement you face during this Christmas season. Keep going. Keep the faith. Somewhere out there in the darkness, your star still shines.