Sunday, June 28, 2020

Healing words

"Don't give up!" 

Those were life saving words for a man from Cincinnati who was dying alone in a hospital. His family couldn't visit him because he had Covid-19. The nurses who cared for him were his source of hope and strength. And one was so compassionate and inspiring he had to thank her. But her mask and shield had concealed her identity. When he recovered, the man searched until he found the nurse and thanked her for her healing words and her relentless support. He believed what she said and refused to give up. 

When I saw this news story this weekend, it reminded me of a Gospel scene. A Roman centurion approaches Jesus searching for a cure. His servant is on his deathbed and the Roman knows that Jesus is a miracle worker. In fact, he's so confident in the rabbi's curative powers he said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed." And Jesus was blown away by the man's faith in him. Especially since he wasn't a Jew. 

Anyone who has had a whiff of death or suffered brutal pain and illness understands the incalculable value of a great doctor. In fact, if you've requested a second opinion and your physician is proven right, you have felt powerful peace of mind. 

People fighting terminal illness trust their physicians to predict life expectancy and prescribe experimental trials. And for surgical patients, nurses irrigate and dress open wounds while pressing doctors to adjust therapies. 

We take them at their healing words. The laying on of hands is comforting. But the merciful messages lift hearts and ignite the spirit to fight and live.

During this global pandemic, so many are risking their lives to save others. Physicians; nurses; pharmacists; radiologists; emergency medical technicians; respiratory therapists, certified nursing assistants, lab technologists, phlebotomists; housekeepers; medical supply specialists, and on and on. 

In honor of their profound sacrifice and acts of mercy, the least we can do is to do what they ask: keep our distance, wear our masks and wash our hands. In turn, those steps may just save one or more of these unselfish healers.

By the way, Jesus sent the centurion home with the promise that his request for healing would be met. When the Roman solider arrived at his servant's side, he found him well. He had recovered at the hour that Jesus said the word. 

The centurion believed what the divine physician said. 


Saturday, June 20, 2020

Remembering Lessons from Dad

Like me, my Dad was flawed. But he was also principled. 

The Nazi invasion of Poland deprived him and my Mom of their formal educations, although they both earned degrees from UHK -- the University of Hard Knocks. Their experience provided powerful perspective throughout my childhood, especially during the turbulence of the 1960's. 

Once I reached school age, I sat next to Dad for meals at the kitchen table in our modest Detroit bungalow. We usually ate dinner about 4:35 p.m. Supper was served ten minutes after Dad arrived home from his UAW factory job at GM Hydramatic, Ypsilanti, Michigan. Just time enough for him to change clothes and clean up. He'd begin by setting his work boots outside the back door to dry. They were damp with hydraulic fluid. In the summer, if I ran home at dinner time and saw those boots, I knew I'd better hustle. 

Dad ate fast. He started work at 7:30 a.m. The plant broke for lunch at 11:30 a.m., so his appetite was raging by dinner. He had only a 26-minute lunch break, which included a five-minute walk from his work station to the restroom and back. The plant was huge. Foremen road bikes around the place. Dad wolfed his lunch and the habit carried over to dinner. I emulated him and struggle to shake the behavior to this day. But I also picked up some good things. 

Between bites, Dad would share stories from his day. Sometimes it would be a joke, if it was family-friendly or he could clean it up. Other times we'd hear about some new technology. Once, Dad was assigned to work a new, state-of-the art grinding machine to test a pilot manufacturing operation. The GM engineer nervously paced while Dad did his thing. Hearing Dad's broken English, the engineer snapped at the foreman, "This guy speaks broken English. Why did you assign him to this new operation?" Smirking, Dad's boss snapped back, "He's not going to talk to the machine, he's going to run it." Dad was very good at his job. 

Occasionally, the topic was injustice. Every time a worker in his department retired, the boss would pass the hat. Back in the day, the standard donation was two bucks a guy. Enough to buy a cake and send the coworker home with a wad of dough for a dinner celebration with his missus or her mister. But one day, no one pitched in. The retiree was an African-American. Dad was embarrassed and angry. He took his two bucks over to the guy, apologized and congratulated him on his retirement. There were times Dad shared some of my Mom's homemade cake with the gentleman. The retiree was grateful someone showed him compassion. 

Dad understood his black colleague's feeling of rejection. Although he spoke with a Polish accent, my father was a U.S. citizen. He was born in Dunkirk, New York in 1920 while his expatriate family worked U.S. jobs. My grandparents were earning a living while Poland battled invasions from Austria and Russia between two world wars. When Poland regained independence in 1920, the Stepien family returned to its farm in Europe. Likewise, my mother's parents labored in France and also returned to their Polish family farm. 

A quarter century later, after World War II, Dad decided to make the United States his home. But he was forced to leave his wife behind in Poland. Mom was pregnant with my older brother. Dad spent all he had to get to America. He lived with his older sister and her husband while welding radiators for the Hudson car company in Detroit and saving all he could. It would take well more than a year for him to squirrel away enough to bring my Mom and my newborn brother to the U.S.

One day at lunch break, glass filled his cup as Dad poured coffee from his thermos bottle. He wondered how it had broken. Loathe to spend the savings, he bought another glass-lined thermos. Next day, same problem. He found his thermos broken in his locker. Dad knew someone was pranking him. And the prankster was squandering hard-earned money Dad desperately needed to reunite his young family. 

The next day at lunchtime, Dad slowly pulled his smock over his head. Peering through an opening in the fabric he spied a guy at his locker who dropped the thermos and put it back on the shelf. The guy enjoyed bullying immigrants. Now Dad had learned a few lessons about what constitutes a fair fight in America. First, you never hit a guy with glasses. So, Dad pretended to have something in his eye as he approached the bespectacled culprit. When the guy leaned in with a sly grin, Dad snatched the glasses off his face before he began to teach him a lesson. 

That day, Dad was fired for fighting. The next day, he stood in a long line to apply for job at General Motors. He was hired and worked at a couple GM locations for 32 years. 

So years later, when fellow workers rejected a man because of the color of his skin, Dad remembered the sting of hatred. And it moved him to show compassion. He dealt with each person as an individual. It's a lesson I try to remember. 

Happy Father's Day.  

Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Storm Whisperer

Do you ever feel like God has fallen asleep on you?

If you're not a believer, you may be snickering at my question. Thinking I'm naive or delusional. For those of us who understand the universe as a creation with a higher power — we see God's hand at work every day. But during these times of disease, death, distrust and dystopia, it's easy to miss the divine.

This week, while reading my daily scripture, I was lifted by this passage about the Hebrew prophet, Elijah: "There was a strong and violent wind rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD — but the LORD was not in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake — but the LORD was not in the earthquake; after the earthquake, fire — but the LORD was not in the fire; after the fire, a light silent sound." (1 Kings 19:11-12)

God was in the quiet sound. Not the noise. The shouting, the crying and the fear. The explosive combustion and turmoil. The source of all life speaks in a whisper. But that whisper is calling through the storm and the sunrise. But we have to listen.

There's a parallel story in Christian scripture. Jesus is aboard a fishing boat with his disciples when a storm swells on the Sea of Galilee. He was sleeping in the stern while his fishermen friends panicked. They woke him saying, "Teacher, do you not care we are perishing." (Mark 4:38) Jesus awoke and spoke to the wind and sea. "Quiet. Be still," he commanded. (Mark 4:39) And nature obeyed. Turning to his disciples, he asked them why they were so afraid. Why no faith? They were awed.  

Like you, I have sailed through many storms in my life, and too often, forgotten to thank God for calming the waves. Of course, when all is well, it's easy to overlook the source of the warm breezes. St. Paul said, "Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1)

With a grateful heart, I'm listening for that whisper. I hope you hear it, too.  

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Justice on the Street.

A week before George Floyd died gasping for breath under a Minneapolis cop's knee, people around the world celebrated the 100th birthday of an iconic, nonviolent peacemaker. The late pope, John Paul II, now a Catholic saint, is remembered for his anti-war stances. For example: "Humanity should question itself, once more, about the absurd and always unfair phenomenon of war, on whose stage of death and pain only remain standing the negotiating table that could and should have prevented it," he said. 

The Polish World War II survivor was an ally and force of nature in his nation's nonviolent Solidarity movement. Without firing a single shot, the trade union of shipbuilding workers provided the willpower for their minds to overcome the muscle of an oppressive, dominant government. In 1989, they finally broke the Soviet, communist stranglehold on Poland, after a 43-year struggle. The Polish pope was intensely committed to nonviolence. He said: "Only in peace and through peace can respect for human dignity and its inalienable rights be guaranteed. There is no true peace without fairness, truth, justice and solidarity."

The signature Polish Solidarnosz graphic is unforgettable. Contemporary red lettering pulsed with the transformational power of peace as the world watched and Russia quivered. Art reflecting life as it evolves. Personal expression has helped fuel vital change throughout history -- whether a hand-stitched flag with stars and stripes, a block-letter sign shouting, "I AM A MAN" or a symbolic physical act, like a sit-in, taking a knee or a two-finger gesture of peace.

Walking Chicago's streets tonight, my wife, Ellen, and I passed working artists and their projects giving voice to a new movement. Many works appeared on wood panels that protected store windows from opportunists. One large mural memorialized Trayvon Martin and called for readers to "Say his name." A masked painter, "Joey D" is a commercial artist who felt the urge to speak out for social change. He permitted photographs from behind, preferring to remain anonymous, letting his work speak for him. Joey said he had the business owner's permission to work all day on his street art. It's message: "Love. Unity. Change." As he brushed the finishing touches on colorful cartoon characters, he shared that art has always been his therapy. At one point, Joey teared up as he talked about his kids growing up surrounded by a viral pandemic and racial tension. Joey's 8-year-old son will celebrate his birthday tomorrow. Today his father expressed fear for the world and wondered if these might be end times. 

Joey is searching for the same answers to the question that all men and women have asked in the face of injustice. What will it take for truth to triumph? 

In his own way, Jesus used a type of street art to respond. One day, a group of religious leaders challenged him to uphold their biblical law. They had caught a woman in the very act of adultery. Preparing to stone her to death, they paused to test the outspoken rabbi. "Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?" they asked. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger in the temple area. He said nothing but they insisted he answer. So the radical rabbi stood up and suggested the one without sin throw the first stone. Jesus bent down again and continued using his finger to trace on the ground. One by one, the accusers left. 

You probably know the rest of the story. When the crowd dispersed, Jesus stopped  his writing, stood up and showed the adulteress compassion. With no one to condemn her, He said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." (John 8:11)

Joey the artist nodded. He was pleased to hear the timeless answer to the timeless question: What will it take for truth to triumph? It takes people like you and me to have the courage to speak up for fairness whenever we see injustice. And do so with peace in solidarity.  

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.