Jumping Outside of the Box

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay 

There is a widespread feeling that as a nation, as a people, we need to make some profound changes, but we don’t know how to escape the box that we live in.  Some people have put forth ideas that at first feel radical and later come to feel necessary, but don’t really know how to get there, while others feel stifled and stuck but also threatened by all the changes being proposed.  Lately we’ve had a leader who has taken a sledge hammer to our way of life and our cherished values, but that has only destroyed what was good without bringing anything good to take its place. I think that secretly we want to expand our boundaries and explore new possibilities, but without “leaving home.”

So if we are living in a box (even a box with smashed walls) how do we get beyond it? How do we jump (to use a different metaphor) out of the frying pan without landing in the fire? How do we effect change in a way that will be life-giving?

Today I’m offering some thoughts I’ve long held and once preached about that I think might be helpful. If you like you can hear it here, in an audio of that sermon: 

Caged or Flying Free?

Why do we find it so hard to respect the freedom of others to be different: to hold different values, want different things, live different lives?

I have a budgie (aka parakeet) named Joey. Got him as a baby and he’s now about 3 years old. He lives in a flight cage – a very large cage for a very small bird – and he’s in love with the bird in the little mirror that hangs near his perch, to whom he chatters and sings gaily every day. He also chatters and sings to me, flies around the cage, nibbles on his treats, stretches his wings in flight and echoes my favorite words to him: “Hello!” and “pretty bird,” “whoa!,” and something I swear sounds like a wolf whistle. He peeks around his mirrored bird-friend to watch me in the kitchen and we play peekaboo. He perches on my hand or my fingers, lets me rub his tummy and his back and lifts his wing for a scratch underneath. So I think all in all he’s a happy bird. But he won’t leave his cage.

I have tried to get him to come out, but he refuses, and when I begin to move my hand toward the cage door with him perched on it he flies off and retreats to the other end of the cage.  I gather him in my hand to bring him out, which he resists, though when he’s tired he lets me. Then I  hold him gently to my chest, talk to him, and try to get him to perch on my shoulder, but he flies right back into his cage the moment I loosen my hold. Sometimes he flies around the room, down the hall, and ends up landing on the carpet somewhere in my bedroom, but I can tell he isn’t happy and really just wants to get away from me so he can get back to his cage.

I just want him to fly because I feel that a bird needs to fly free. But he will have none of it; it doesn’t make him happy.

He’s had some hard landings, especially when he was young before he figured out how to find the perches I’d put around the room for him.  I imagine those hard landings made him want to stay “at home” where he’s comfortable. But I want him to have the joy and the exercise of flying free. So I keep trying to help him get comfortable outside of the cage.

This little daily “dance” with Joey about being in or out of the cage, flying from perch to perch vs. flying free, strikes me as akin to a familiar human dilemma, one I’ve lived with in my own life.  I wonder how much it might remind you of something in your life.  What seems like a cage to me is safe space for him. I hate being caged and want him to be free, but it isn’t what he’s ready for or wants. 

Here’s the thing: he reminds me of me. My mother has told me innumerable times that every pet I’ve ever had has “taken after” me. (I actually can see that.) I’m a lifelong introvert, independent, and not that comfortable stretching my wings and flying out of my comfort zone. By nature I’m not a risk-taker, and I’m peaceful in my own space, in my own company. I was an anomaly in my family growing up. They didn’t understand my introversion, how socializing is exhausting to me, and how I need time alone, so I was always pressured to go places and do things I didn’t want to do. They thought I needed what they needed, that there was something wrong with the way I lived: too solitary.  My sister especially used to do to me what I do to Joey now: try to get me out of my space and flying free.  It was all well-intentioned, but stressful for me.

My relationship with my beautiful, perky little bird and my memories from childhood raise a consideration worth pondering. It’s important to learn to discern where the boundary lies between being caged and limited because we are afraid or unsure, and being free and glad to fly freely.  

Equally important, from the other side: to understand where the boundary lies between pressing for what I want for someone else, and allowing them to define their life in their own way.  I need to learn to let Joey live on his own terms, not to force him to fly beyond where he’s willing and ready to go.  Encouragement can be good. Pressure and insistence isn’t.

“…the only hope one can have is an act of mercy…”

This thought comes from the following passage written by an author I trust and admire, Anthony Bloom (1914 – 2003), a monk and the Metropolitan bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church. As a bishop he became well known as a pastor, preacher, spiritual director and writer on prayer and the Christian life.

“In a world of competition,
in a world of predatory animals,
in a world of cruelty and heartlessness,
the only hope one can have is an act of mercy,
an act of compassion,
a completely unexpected act
which is rooted neither in duty nor in natural relationships,
which will suspend the action of the cruel, violent,
heartless world in which we live.”
(Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray)

These words both trouble and comfort me. They trouble me because of the unvarnished, painful truth with which they speak of our “predatory” world. They comfort me because in the midst of all the undeniable pain and cruelty there are countless acts of mercy being proffered every day by unknown, unsung, humble heroes of kindness, an army of the divine if you will, instruments of a generous and merciful God. At least, that’s how I see it. I want to be one of that army, an instrument of hope in the world, if I can.

In Memoriam

for those who gave their lives, that the nation might live

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President Lincoln delivered the 272 word Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 on the battlefield near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I offer his words today as a fitting tribute to all who have given their lives in service to our nation.

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

http://rmc.library.cornell.edu/gettysburg/good_cause/transcript.htm

The Soul of Our Nation

If the word “soul” speaks of what is deepest and truest within us, what is our national soul at its core?

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I’m one of those who see the political landscape as a fight for the soul of our nation. I’ve been praying for our democracy for more than two years now, and at last I’m seeing some hopeful signs that we might actually awake from this nightmare, survive Trump and Trump-ism, and begin to repair the damage done. But the battle isn’t over yet by any means.

I’ve been thinking about the phrase that has been circulating through the democratic (small d) populace: “We’re better than this.”  I like to think so.  Certainly our aspirations as Americans are an ideal that gives credence to those words.  But as I think back over our history I see that we have not (at least not always, nor often enough) been better than this. For instance, every wave of new immigrants has been met by vilification and discrimination (and often violence), until gradually they assimilated and a new wave came in. The worst that we have been — building prosperity through the enslavement and abuse of kidnapped peoples – remains a lingering legacy and an indelible stain on our character.  That legacy remains as the shadowed underbelly of our life today.

In light of all that, I believe that the right thing to be saying at this time of crisis in our nation’s history is not “we’re better than this,” but “We can do better. We can become better.” 

What marks us uniquely as Americans is the very fact of our aspirations. All the foreigners whom I’ve heard or read, in reflecting on our character from beyond our borders, have singled out as a core aspect of our culture that we always aspire to be better. And we have moved (perhaps not steadily, but slowly over the long haul) to achieve a better character. We still have a long way to go. 

It took a bloody, terrible war to move us beyond slavery, which still leaves a lingering scent of sin in our life. Prejudice still rises up to vilify and harass those who look, worship, or behave differently than “we” do. And somehow, a significant swathe of our electorate (not a majority, but enough; too many by far) have recently voted against our best heritage and aspirations. Too many have been willing to see our democratic institutions attacked, have abandoned their principles and remained willfully ignorant in pursuit of – what?! Money? Power? Revenge for perceived inequities? The election of Trump and the blind eye and fawning support many now turn toward his worst behavior and decisions have created a fresh, deep stain that reveals underlying flaws in our national character.

We can do better than this. But we need to recover the will and the courage to fight for it.  And we need a spiritual cleansing.

What is the soul of our nation? Is it what Trump embodies? Really?!  God can endow us with soul, but we will stain or shape it according to our free will and our decisions. Whatever our soul is or will become is up to us.

On this coming Memorial Day in America, I hope we’ll endeavor to become the best that we can be, honoring the sacrifices of our heroic dead by cherishing and preserving the freedoms and the possibilities for good that they have preserved for us.

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Beautiful Words

Words are powerful things. They can shape us in ways we don’t begin to understand.

From childhood I’ve always loved words, for the sheer sound of them. I’d savor them on my tongue and in my mind, sometimes without even knowing their meaning. I was hungry to learn their meanings but sometimes I simply guessed at it from the way a word sounded to me. Needless to say, I was eager to learn new ones to add to my repertoire. One of my favorite words, for instance, was sycamore before I ever met a sycamore tree.

But there have been a very few words that have had an especially deep resonance for me.  The first one broke open inside me when I was in the third grade. I remember it vividly. I loved riding my bike and on this day I was riding home after school. It was summer, one of those special summer days when the sun is hot on your skin and at the same time the air is cool and soothing. As I turned into our driveway, I stopped midway, stood for a minute hearing the sounds of the family inside drifting out through the open windows, the faint clinking of dishes being set out for supper, muted voices talking. I felt the hot sun and cool breeze simultaneously on my skin. And suddenly a deep, piercing feeling swept through me as silent words rose inside expressing something I didn’t know I felt: these words, “I want to go home.”

The word “HOME” swept through me with an intense feeling of longing, a deep yearning for something I didn’t have but hungered for. I didn’t know where that sentence came from or what that word meant but I knew it wasn’t this home, this little brick ranch house where we lived and from which the homely sounds were coming.  For decades after that, as I grew up and the places where I lived changed, the words would rise up in me at unexpected times, and the one word that was the heart of that simple sentence, the one beautiful word, haunted me ever after: HOME. 

The second word that came to be special to me began to sound inside me when I was a bit older. It was “INTEGRITY.”  It didn’t hit me with explosive force as my first beautiful word had done, but it kept coming up to me and did exert a kind of pull. I didn’t really understand what it meant, but I knew I wanted it and that I didn’t have it. Not then. This word didn’t fill me with the deep yearning that was expressed in “home,” but it did call to me, and as I pondered it, trying to understand what it meant, it took on the shape of a desire. It became a value I wanted to live out in my life, and it set me on a course to understand better what it means to live with integrity.

I don’t need to say much here about the third beautiful word that has shaped and profoundly impacted my life, except that it overwhelms and completes all other beautiful words. It’s the name “JESUS.”

Words are powerful things. They can shape us in ways we don’t begin to understand. They can call us onto new paths or down dark alleys. They can lock us in prisons or open wide our doors. The French theologian-philosopher Blaise Pascal, said “Cold words freeze people, and hot words scorch them, and bitter words make them bitter, and wrathful words make them wrathful.” All that is true. But beautiful words give life. They give goodness and hope, they awaken holy desires, shed light on the path, give comfort and, sometimes, sheer joy.

What are your beautiful words? Savor them. Let them pull you forward.  I have since come to understand better what my beautiful words have meant in my life, though I don’t claim to have fully comprehended them yet. There is always more to learn, for which I thank God.

Playing Hide and Seek

woman s face behind the leaf close up photo
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When I was a child one of our favorite games to play was “Hide and Seek.”  I remember the rush of looking for a hiding place, the thrill of having people trying to find me while I hunkered down somewhere, wanting to be so cleverly hidden that I would “win” the game when they failed to find me. But I also wanted to be found in the end. The game would become bad if the seekers gave up, stopped calling and left me there, forgotten and lonely in my hiddenness.

I think it’s not uncommon for many of us to play this “game” unconsciously in adulthood. We get caught up in the tension between, on the one hand, wanting to be found, to be known, to be discovered and drawn out of our isolation, and on the other hand fearing to be too well known, exposed and vulnerable. So we draw boundaries around ourselves and remain hidden behind them. We want people to know us and our unique human story, but we don’t want them to know too much. We’d rather hide the parts of ourselves that we don’t like and can’t accept, the parts of our story that make us feel ashamed or vulnerable.

I know that this is one of my inner conflicts. I’ve played hide and seek my whole life. I’ve lived behind a wall, wanting someone to want to know me, yet feeling fiercely protective of my privacy. The thing I hate most is when people come crashing through my personal boundaries demanding to know more than I want to give. That alone can kill a relationship for me. Yet I have sometimes wanted someone to “crash the gates.” It’s a tug of war I’ve never been able to resolve. At least not fully, not yet.

Being a preacher, and now a writer, has brought this inner tug of war to the table because whatever I write (whether a blog, fiction, sermons, or even a prayer), I inevitably expose myself at some level. In my sermons I always felt like the words I ended up speaking were preaching to me as much as to the congregation. In my blog posts things that have rolled around inside me get clarified in a way I can’t miss.  Even in the stories I write some of my own experiences and feelings color what ends up on the page.

That’s why writing has sometimes been a challenge. It isn’t that I can’t find the words. Words just pour out of me. But they also reveal so much. The only words worth writing are those that express something true, truly believed, and truly felt. Anything less is inauthentic and produces a sense of disquiet in me; I can’t let them stand uncorrected. But once spoken or published, my truth is out there for others to react to, and that’s all a bit scary. Nevertheless, here I am, gradually giving myself away through my words.

So how does one overcome such ingrained, passionate attachment to self-protection? I believe it’s when we finally are able (i.e., free enough) to reach out beyond our fears to claim a full, honest life over a crippled one. I’m still working on it.