Saturday, May 30, 2020

Some people will listen.

The world began to change because some people listened.

It was just 50 days after the first Easter, some 2020 years ago today, that the Christian Church was born. It cried out from an upper room in Jerusalem, a womb impregnated by God's spirit. Modern believers celebrate that moment as Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost is Greek for Shavuot, the Jewish spring harvest festival, 50 days after Passover. It drew throngs to the historic Temple.

As Jesus' mother watched, 11 of his followers climbed down from their hiding space and into the buzzing city streets. Biblical accounts of that day tell us the crowds included Jewish pilgrims from all around the known world. Yet, regardless of their native languages, they understood the words of Jesus' friends. Some thought these first Christians were drunk on new wine and were just babbling. But scripture says they were on fire with the word of the Messiah. The Christ.

It was a transformational message of peace. Truth. Forgiveness. Mercy. Love of the Creator. Gratitude. Humility. Love of everyone, both Jews and Gentiles. Equality and the Golden Rule: Loving neighbors as ourselves. Jesus called it The Way.

In the crush of Pentecost in ancient Jerusalem, the world began to change because some people listened.

Others refused. They rejected this new perspective. Some even stoned early Christians. Yet, one persecutor changed and became an unstoppable Christian zealot. Saul, called Paul, took this word of The Way to the Gentiles, as he zig-zagged the Mediterranean Sea preaching the good news.

And the world began to change because some people listened.

This Pentecost 2020, we are praying someone listen in America's streets and to the ends of the earth. People cry out for truth and justice and mercy and equality. They protest serial trauma and tragedy; the loss of too many lives at the hands of some police who have lost perspective. Or sanity and self control.

Amidst the shameful rioting and looting are countless peaceful, justified protesters speaking a language anyone can understand. Arms raised in the air. Fingers locked behind heads. Hands held together prayerfully. The images of angry demonstrations flickered across my screen as the cable news director switched to fiery outbursts in cities around the United States.

One shot burned bright and is seared into my memory, as if by divine purpose. A young white woman, palms pressed together and her head slightly, humbly bowed. Namaste. The international gesture of hospitality. Welcome. Peace. Her recipient was an urban police officer, equipped with riot gear, wearing a helmet. It was as if she had slipped a daisy in the barrel of his weapon. Her tranquil protest said, "Please listen."

When NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, took a knee during the national anthem before games, it was a silent, nonviolent protest against racial bias, police brutality and injustice. Some listened. A few other athletes joined this son of a white mother and black father. Other fans criticized him and walked out. The league soon banned the gesture. Some leaders mocked him and even questioned whether these protesting players should be allowed to remain in America. Kaepernick refused to relent. It cost him his football career. Our failure to listen to him has cost us precious lives and the soul of our nation.

The image of this man in a football uniform kneeling for justice has proved profoundly ironic. It has become an iconic and prophetic symbol of the latest civil rights movement. Because it was the knee of a Minneapolis police officer on the neck of an unarmed black suspect that led to his unjust death. The arrested, George Floyd, begged the officer for mercy, while he lay face down on the pavement. "I can't breathe," he implored.

As he breathed on his disciples in that upper room, Jesus said, "Receive the Holy Spirit."  It was the night after his resurrection, when he found his friends huddled in fear. He had been savagely crucified just three days before. And yet these ordinary men and women would soon find the courage to change themselves and then the world.

Today, on our knees, we pray for that same fiery passion. To listen to the truth of the gospel. To live in a new, loving way. So the world continues to change.

Saturday, May 23, 2020


"Run for the forest!" the priest shouted from the pulpit. 

Nothing more need be said. The congregation of farming villagers raced for the exits. The Nazis were coming. It was a Sunday Mass service in Eastern Poland during World War II. The pastor had just learned of impending retribution. My 91-year-old mother recently shared this story from her childhood. Whenever the Polish underground succeeded in an ambush, their occupiers would make the nearby civilian community pay a deadly price. In great numbers that significantly exceeded the military casualties.

No place was safe. Not even church. My mother and father and their families endured the diabolical trauma of war, attempting to live in fleeting moments between the battles and brutality. Nazi troops frequently counted the occupied and looked for the missing and the hiding by stabbing pitchforks into haystacks.

This week, I was reminded of that horrifying, historic episode in a house of worship -- as I scrolled through comments on social media from 21st century believers. They shared a mixture of emotions about returning to church services amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

"I can't wait!" one woman said.  She was anticipating services this weekend after staying home on Sundays for two months. 

Another shared her pain and anxiety about her child who was afflicted with a disease. He hadn't been able to attend Mass for a year because he was vulnerable to attack by infection. His plight began long before the pandemic and it would continue long after. But he had found peace in uniting with God in his heart. 

On Facebook, one compassionate believer expressed her confidence, while consoling others who were at risk due to health complications and afraid to go to church. 

For hundreds of years, early Christians in Rome buried their dead in underground caves and caverns beneath the city. Jews also interred their dead there. In these catacombs, believers were safe from religious persecution to visit family graves and paint murals depicting their spiritual beliefs. These days, those who are forced to worship  from the safety of their homes are not unlike those who gathered in secret to meet in hidden catacombs. Or perhaps they're like the Jewish nation after the Babylonians destroyed King Solomon's great temple. Later Roman conquerers toppled a second temple that King Herod had renovated. The Holy of Holies was desecrated.

Yet, faith lived on in homes and hearts across the globe. And it was passed on to hundreds of generations through thousands of years, wars and plagues. 

Pope Francis has described the Internet as a miracle. During the current pandemic, he offered prayers from the Vatican before a vast empty outdoor space, normally jammed with faithful pilgrims. The electronic Web connects us in spiritual gatherings spanning the world. My wife and I have virtually joined Masses in Chicago, Boston Toronto and Detroit as we prayed this Easter season at our dining table on Sunday mornings. A practice that helps us realize we are part of a global church community; the body of a universal Christ made of billions of cells and parts. Each one a single human life united in a spiritual communion of compassion. We all celebrate and suffer together in a love that we pray transforms us by the grace of God. So, we are one with a stranger in the third world, as well as the nurse who races from the chapel in a U.S. hospital to care for her terrified patient. Or we gather with families at gravesides mourning those lost, who we cannot touch with our hands but can embrace with our hearts. Because we aspire to love everyone as our Creator does. Whether they live thousands of miles away among refugees traumatized by war -- or just around the corner in the lap of luxury. 

As St. Paul said: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God ..." (Romans 8:35, 38-39).

Shalom. Salaam. Peace be with you. 

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Loving the Lepers in Our Lives

If you're troubled and anxious about being isolated by Covid-19, imagine living the life of a leper. 

In Jesus' time, the unclean were strictly forbidden to mingle with the healthy. Fear of the contagion was justified and intense. Then, leprosy was incurable. Unchecked, the gruesome disease mutilates skin, damages nerves and causes blindness. Hebrew faithful believed it was the curse of sin -- a punishment. They carefully avoided the afflicted outcasts. If they did interact with lepers, they risked their own health, lifestyle and ability to worship at the temple.

In fact, there was a Chamber of Lepers at the great Temple in Jerusalem, within the Court of Women. This is where the priests practiced their version of dermatology, determining if Israelites were clean enough to return to the congregation. Doctors actually learned remedies from the priests who evaluated a variety of skin ailments. 

This is why Jesus said, "Go show yourselves to the priests," when he cured ten lepers who pleaded for mercy and healing. (Luke 17:14) Christian Scripture says they discovered they were cleansed as they made their way to the priests. One of them returned, glorifying God with gratitude to the rabbi who had bothered to listen and offer compassion. It was healing.

There are many lonely people in our lives. People who are easy to overlook because they are older and passé; out of line with our politics; out of step due to disability; divorced and wounded; they work difficult jobs on strange shifts; they aren't wired for social interaction; they are boring or make us feel uncomfortable. They become unclean and unappealing in our modern communities. We have nothing material to gain by associating with them. In fact, we lose our valuable time and perhaps some social status by bringing them into our circles and cliques.

But this is what heaven calls us to do. To heal the forgotten. The ten lepers shouted, "Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!" (Luke 17:13) Today, during this pandemic, the silence is screaming at us to pick up the phone and talk to that long-lost friend, or relative, or that person from church, or school or even our childhood. 

And it is us who will be healed. Because when I reach out to touch the untouchable, I'm reminded of how unappealing I have been in my life. How afflicted, damaged and scarred. And how generous others have been to me, when I needed them most. 

What a way to cure the isolating curse we feel from the coronavirus. 

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Lost art

As a kid in Detroit, I filled my sunny spring and summer days playing baseball. But when it was really windy, flying kites became an annual fad that would last a couple weeks.

Our next door neighbors, the Flowers, had a beautiful daughter much older than I, but no son. And Mr. Weldon Flowers would occasionally borrow me from my parents. He'd invite me to join him and his wife, Mary, on their porch to enjoy a salty snack and a Coke. Two things we rarely had at our house. When I got my dignity handed to me by a neighbor kid, Mr. Flowers taught me boxing basics. He'd been a Golden Glover as a boy. 

Then one brilliantly sunny day, my occasional mentor spotted me flying a kite and had a trick to share. Mr. Flowers tore off the corner of a newspaper ad and punched a hole in it. He then took the stick that held my kite string and stuck it through the hole in the paper. Suddenly, the wind snagged the raggedy newsprint and it began to slide up the line. Hundreds of feet into the air. 

"You're sending your kite a letter," Mr. Flowers explained. It was a magical childhood moment. The kite jogged back and forth in the wind, its fabric tail twisting and turning. At ten years old, I was young enough to still pretend the kite or someone gliding in the sky would read the airborne note. 

Penning letters is a lost art today. Or typing them for that matter. Sure, we send emails and texts with emoji's but we rarely receive a letter from friends or family. My sister, Barbara, would frequently send letters to my big brother, John, when he attended the U.S. Naval Academy. My mom would often bake him dozens of scrumptious cookies and pack them in shirt boxes to ship to our midshipman, and my sister would enclose a letter on the latest family events. He would write her colorful notes back. I enjoyed listening as she read them aloud. This was the 1960's, so long distance calls were a big deal. Those lengthy letters from home or Annapolis kept us connected. 

Personal messages in the written word are powerful and lasting. Consider the memory magic filmmaker Ken Burns achieved in his documentary, "The Civil War." Simply reading letters from 19th Century soldiers and lovers transported millions back in time and breathed life into those long gone. 

A significant portion of Christian scripture is letters from Jesus' disciples to early believers scattered around the Mediterranean Sea. Many of them impassioned notes like this: "Above all, let your love for one another be intense, because love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8)

Or this on love from Paul to his followers in Corinth, "It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails." (1 Corinthians 13:7-8)

Timeless and beautiful.

In 2020, when we are isolated in our homes and separated from each other by the the icy presence of global pandemic, we are given the gift of time. Time free from the pull of outside distractions. Time to recover the lost art of writing letters and sharing our thoughts and feelings across miles or around the corner. 

Or sky high in prayer like a message sailing up to a dancing kite. 

Happy Mother's Day.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Living a memorial

There were only a few at the graveside. Just the very closest friends and family. Services were minimal, due to the circumstances. No time for the usual mourning, eulogy, ritual and closure. 

All four Christian evangelists describe the burial of Jesus this way. Michelangelo captured its profound sorrow and simplicity in the Pieta, with mother Mary cradling the dead and battered Christ. 

During the coronavirus pandemic, this is how thousands are burying their loved ones. Only they can't touch the deceased. Most can't witness the dying's last breaths or say goodbye from the bedside.  In fact, even those who currently succumb to causes other than COVID-19 are denied traditional wakes, funerals and internment services. For example, cancer claimed my favorite uncle in March. Following the graveside service in New Jersey, his family was told only a priest and one witness would be permitted at future burials. 

Three other families I know did lose loved ones to the virus. Now, they wait for a safe time in the coming months to gather and hold memorials. 

During this Easter season of 2020, there are many compelling lessons to learn from the death and resurrection of Jesus. One is this. The best way to honor and remember those we love is to live their best values. Embody the virtues they possessed, so they walk on with us and through us. 

Also, at his Last Supper, Jesus provided a memorial in the breaking of bread and wine to share for spiritual nourishment. Imagine remembering all those who have gone before us, even once a week while we share a meal. 

"Do this in memory of me," said Jesus. And he lives. 

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Easter isn't over.

Do you miss your weekly worship services? 

I'm sure your local pancake house, bakery, bagel or donut shop does. No crowds of happy and hungry folks seeking to keep the joy going when they leave their spiritual gatherings. And there are so many more who show up on Easter morning to share breakfast tables and good feelings. 

For Christians, Easter is not just a day; it's genuinely a season that lasts far longer than Christmastime. Forty days of celebrating until Pentacost Sunday align with the ancient Jewish festival by the same name  or Feast of 50 Days after Passover. 

Forty days after the first Easter, the church of Jesus Christ was born. And some people began to dramatically change the way they lived. In fact, besides the beautiful music, one of my favorite parts of Easter is reading about the early church, just after Jesus departed this world. His command was to "love one another." And so they did.

"All who believed were together and had all things in common;
they would sell their property and possessions
and divide them among all according to each one’s need.
Every day they devoted themselves
to meeting together in the temple area
and to breaking bread in their homes.
They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart,
praising God and enjoying favor with all the people." 

(Acts of the Apostles 2:44-47)

Imagine living in a community like that, where everyone shares everything. In fact, the early church was so tight, its members lived communal lives. 

Now imagine my joy when I read this on a street pole in my Chicago neighborhood:

"Need Help? Want to help? Logan Square Mutual Aid is here for you. This pandemic has hit us all hard. We are your neighbors reaching out to help.
If you need: food, prescriptions pickup, caregiving, medical supplies, or help and community in general we are here to give it.

"If you can give: Your time, your expertise, your resources, your voice, we would love to have you help out."

I had to call the number at the bottom of the flyer. The voicemail recording welcomed me in English and Spanish, inviting a phone number and my specific  needs. If you visit the Web site you can experience the love:

"In the midst of a global pandemic and recession, the best and most effective thing we can do—apart from social distancing—is to be there for each other". That's the essence of Logan Square Mutual Aid.

Today, so many are looking for answers. For hope in the face of confusion and lives lost. And they feel helpless with no where to go.

COVID-19 has closed temples, mosques, synagogues and churches worldwide. Believers are cut off from each other. Unable to gather to celebrate Easter and its promise of salvation and new life. A life based on unconditional, universal love. 

Yet in Logan Square, Chicago, the spirit of the first Christians is alive and well and experiencing a resurrection. 

Sunday, April 19, 2020

A cool cup of water.

He lined up his shot and dribbled left. Thud! The kick sailed past my right side as I leaned the other way. Goal!

It only lasted a few minutes but we played a fun cat 'n' mouse game with a bright green soccer ball. Two-out-of three goals or saves won this shooter versus goalie match on the edge of Holstein Park, Chicago's northwest side. Andre was the lad's name who had created a goal with two orange cones along a high cyclone fence. It was actually the right field homer barrier of the baseball diamond. Our chance meeting yesterday occurred in the sprawling outfield where maybe a dozen or so folks frolicked in the sun Saturday afternoon. It was a merciful moment of light in the darkness of a viral pandemic that meant we wouldn't get close enough to shake hands or high-five. I had to cross in front of Andre's homemade net and soccer shooting practice to chase after our 4-year-old granddaughter.  Andre was about 12 and I a grey-bearded 63. We were two total strangers. But for a moment, I felt like a young dad again, challenging a much younger child to a quick contest. Coincidentally, our older son and his wife looked on as did our two preschool granddaughters and their grandma, smiling behind her mask.

I did manage to make one save and Andre kicked the third shot wide. We considered it a tie. As we wrapped up, I told him my name and he said, "I'm Andre. You're a good goalie!" He was very generous. That was it. We'd probably never recognize each other if we passed on the street, since we got no closer than say 25 feet apart. It was safe, physical distancing and yet the game was fun and we made a connection. Thanks to Andre sharing himself and his sport, my day shined a little brighter.

As we walked home soaking up sun, we savored the moments with beloved family at a safe distance. Others passed doing the same. People nodded and smiled behind homemade masks. Some courteously stepped out of the way to allow us to pass. At one point, we stopped to take in a two-story painted mural of a gigantic fluffy puppy. It towered at least 30 feet above our excited grandkids. The real pooch barked in the fenced yard. His owner tamed him so she could explain how she now uses the painting in her Zoom conferences with kids. She's an elementary school teacher and loves telling her story.

Jesus said, "whoever gives one of these only a cool cup of water ... will surely not lose his reward." (Matthew 10:42) He was encouraging followers to welcome and comfort those building the kingdom of God. And these days, we're parched by fear, unknown danger, and uncertain futures. A smile from behind a mask, a friendly gesture, an extra step to ensure the safety of another is a long quenching drink from the well of humanity and unconditional love.

I was so grateful to gulp down the day. Peace.