Author Archives: AP

40th day of Lent. Life is About More Than Curtains.

You are forgiven. Free. Jesus has taken everything you could throw at him. Your worst rants. Your fiercest moments of hate. He doesn’t say, “Is that all you’ve got?” He doesn’t say, “C’mon, you can do better than that!” He says, “I forgive, you. Even if there is more, I forgive you. Even if you insist there has to be more because I really don’t understand how bitter, frustrated, hateful, and flawed you are: I forgive you. Even if you’re not convinced of my love, of my forgiveness, they’re still yours.”

“I know there’s a bit of crazy in you, I do. Just the other day you were welcoming me, the way the people welcomed me into Jerusalem. We were talking, and I was loving it, because there is nothing better than being with you. Then something happened. What was it? I’m kidding. Of course I remember. That happened and you forgot that I was with you. You felt like you were alone. You believed that no one understood you. You became angry. I remember that kind of anger, that darkness. I know you know the story. The same people who welcomed me, crucified me. It’s ok. You were scared, just like they were. I understand, and I’ve already forgiven you. I’ve already forgotten what it was. You don’t have to hold on to what happened. You don’t.”

“I know you see everything you aren’t. I know what it’s like to do that. Do you know what I see? All that you could be. All that you are when you love someone freely and openly. All that you are when you love someone because they exist. When you’re loving that way you’re not attached to anything they’ve ever done that is good or bad in their lives. You don’t have amnesia, of course. But the good and the bad are simply moments that happened. The love you have for them has its own completeness. The one you are loving becomes enough the way they are. That’s what loving you is like, for me, all of the time. You are enough, as you are.”

“A number of years ago some friends of mine made a funny movie. There’s a great moment in it where a king is trying to impress upon his son his future inheritance. I’m sure you know this film. It was very popular. Anyway, in the scene I’m thinking of a father is standing at a window and says to his son: “One day, lad, all this will be yours!” And the son says, “What the curtains?” You said it with me! Ha! I thought you knew it. I love that film. Do you remember what he says next? Not many do. He says, “No, not the curtains, lad. All that you can see! Stretched out over the hills and valleys of this land!” All that you can see. Isn’t that marvelous? Those writers were spot on. You are glorious. So magnificent. You really are. Here’s what I’ve been trying to say. Life is about more than curtains. Come. Take and eat, that I might dwell in you. Find me in the people you share your life with. Be my body. Be me, in your corner of the world.”


39th day of Lent. Good Friday Breaks Our Hearts Open

What is it about Jesus’ crucifixion that is different from any other crucifixion? It’s not what physically happened to him. The bulk of what Jesus experienced in being crucified is what everyone crucified experienced. Some like to fetishize that violence, and make the crucifixion about the violence itself. Yet beyond being an example of a dehumanizing execution, there isn’t anything about it that was extraordinary.

There’s Jesus’ innocence, but is that really unique? In the U.S. we’ve learned a lot during the last two or three decades about the reality that we kill people who are innocent more often than we like to admit. That’s something as true of prisoners on death row, as it is of people declared non-combatant victims of a drone strike, or an errant smart missile.

What was different then? I think if we focus on the violence of Jesus’ death, the reason to do so is to face the darkness we’re caught up in. If the purpose of the how is anything, it is to show us what we do. How far the impact of Original Sin reaches. I’m thinking of posts I saw on Facebook today, lauding a speech Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel gave expressing grave concerns about the announced framework for an Iranian nuclear arms control deal. People were supporting Netanyahu’s conviction, and strength. Reading the text, I didn’t see strength, I saw a lot of fear mongering. Our propensity towards violence includes that. We scapegoat the other side, and believe that we are right. And because we are right, if we have to be violent, our violent response is justified.

What makes Jesus’ death different isn’t how he died. It is that when he died he forgave us. That forgiveness is what changes everything. We are forgiven. Because we are forgiven, we can forgive. James Alison has wonderful phrasing here:

“Now, this is vital for us: it means that in this picture “sin”, rather than being a block that has to be dealt with, is discovered in its being forgiven. The definition of sin becomes: that which can be forgiven.”

How often do you beat yourself up because you aren’t the way you want to be. Because you make the wrong choices, about love, about work, with family, and your friendships. You keep trying to be different, think differently, act in another way so that you can somehow overcome this monolith of inadequacy by which you define yourself. And just like that Alison is saying, this monolith that you have built. It’s your block. It’s not God’s block. It’s yours. You know Jesus’s perspective. If you’re a church going Christian, heck, if you’ve watched a single movie about Jesus’ life you know he says: “Father forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”

What does forgiveness look like? Alison says,

“It’s not, “I need to sort out this moral problem you have.” It’s, “Unless I come towards you, and enable you undergo a breaking of heart, you’re going to live in too small a universe, you’re not going to enjoy yourselves and be free.”

God doesn’t think the way we do. We want her to. We keep trying to impose our sensibilities on God. You are already being forgiven. God is not looking at you like a parent sometimes does before saying “Billy, tell your sister you’re sorry, and this time make it sound like you mean it!” This is what atonement is. God forgives. That experience breaks our hearts open, so that like Seuss’ Grinch they can grow three sizes, or more, and we can fully embrace life and all it holds.

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38th day of Lent. Holy Thursday.

Tonight did something I’ve only done a handful of times in the last six years. I sat as a member of the community in my church. I didn’t cantor. I didn’t sing with the choir. I was simply present as a participating member. Sweets nudged me during the opening hymn and said, “Dad, do you have to sing so loud?” I wondered for a moment, “Am I singing too loudly?” I thought of the time when a choir member approached me after Mass and invited me to sing with them. “I could hear you,” she said. “You have a nice voice.” Sweets was probably right. I adjusted. Slightly. I love to sing, and she knows that. That’s why there are rules. Later in the service, she caught me keeping the beat with my index finger, and grabbed it. “Daaaad” she said softly. I smiled. I miss those moments.

When Sweets was small I’d always make sure that I have a notebook with me. At church I’d give it her to draw pictures in, or if the homily wasn’t interesting, use to play a game of hangman with her. Do I owe someone an apology? I think God understood. Besides my answers were always part of a verse from one of the day’s readings. As Sweets has grown I don’t have that same use for a notebook. And since I don’t sit in a pew during the service, the only way we might play hangman is with our cell phones. It’s not going to happen.

One of the things I noticed tonight is it wasn’t just nice to sit with my daughter during the liturgy. It was nice to be with everyone else that was there also. At one point Sweets leaned over to tell me that she noticed our mailman was present. I’d never seen him out of uniform. I saw bunches of people I knew. Among them, two children of one friend had their feet washed. The mother-in-law of another friend did as well. Every time I see her I wonder if I’ll ever remember her name. I saw the brother-in-law of a friend, and the mother of another. I’ve watched two of the altar servers grow from boys to young men. After the service I made a point of saying hello to the organist, who chatted with Sweets for a few minutes. In the sacristy, I stood with my hand on the shoulder of our deacon, because he’s a lovely guy, and I was happy to see him. There’s something nice about finding home in your church.

The weekly liturgy usually ends with the words similar to, “The Mass has ended, go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” Tonight we ended in silence, or tried to. I wanted to talk to everyone. A number of other folks did too. I didn’t hear anyone being quieted, and I’m sure some of the talking had to do with giving folks information about the pilgrimage bus rides to seven other local churches. The community who’d shouted “Crucify him!” on Sunday, having eaten the flesh of the one we’d cast out, was united. This is the wonder of the Eucharist. I thought of the way Sebastian Moore ponders in The Contagion of Jesus, whether the Church made a mistake in emphasizing the word “is” in “This is my body” (p.52). Doing that drew the focus towards what was happening on the altar, and encouraged related theories which attempted to harness a mystery that is a liturgical action. The Eucharist is Jesus, our victim, coming into our midst and saying “I know you thought you had to do that to me. You don’t have to do it to anyone. I forgive you. I give my life to you. Now take it and go. Trust each other. Love each other. Be with each other. You are going to do far greater things than I ever did.”


37th day of Lent. God, the Divine Drano, pt 2.

I love that image of God as the divine Drano, pouring over us crystals of love so our hearts and souls can run clear. It isn’t pretty, but it has a certain clarity. So where we started is the ancient rite of Atonement wasn’t about appeasing God as part of a sort of wrath-prevention movement. Instead it was about God as Love coming to us so that we could experience the fullness of creation. If that’s the case, how did we get to a place where a lot of Christians respond with a “yes” to the question Tony Jones asks in his new book: Did God Kill Jesus?

The way most of us understand the story, Alison says, goes like this:

“God was angry with humanity; Jesus says, “Here am I”; God needed to loose a lightning rod, so Jesus said, “You can loose it on me”, substituting himself for us. Boom: lightning rod here: sacrifice: God happy. “Got my blood-lust out of the way!””

That rendering is a little sassy, but I think you recognize the rendering. Tony Jones points out that looking at the atonement through this lens in our culture, makes sense:

“And the Payment view of the atonement . . . is popular now because it accords with our modern sensibilities. We live in the most litigious society in the history of humankind, so it makes sense to us to think that when a crime has been committed, a person must “pay their debt to society.” That sense of justice appeals to us. But that’s not how God works. That’s us imposing our ideas of justice on God.”

What’s also lost, Alison reminds us, is the purpose of the original rite of Atonement. Here he draws a line from the rite’s original purpose, to Jesus. Don’t worry about understanding each phrase or sentence. If you can see the connection, globally, for my purposes here, that’s all you need to do.

“Creation is not finished until Jesus dies (shouting tetelestai — it is accomplished), thus opening the whole of creation, which consequently begins fully, in a completely new way, in the garden on the first day of the week. This means, and here is the central point: we understand creation starting from and through Jesus. God’s graciousness which brings what is not into existence from nothing is exactly the same thing as Jesus’ death-less self-giving out of love which enables him to break the human culture of death, and is a self-giving which is entirely fixed on bringing into being a radiantly living and exuberant culture. It is not as though creation were a different act, something which happened alongside the salvation worked by Jesus, but rather that the salvation which Jesus was working was, at the same time, the fulfillment of creation. This was the power and the authority in Jesus’ works and words and signs. Through him the Creator was bringing his work to completion. The act of creation was revealed for what it really is: the bringing to existence and the making possible of a human living together which does not know death; and Jesus was in on this from the beginning. Such is our world that God could only be properly perceived as Creator by means of the overcoming of death. (p. 54-55)

I’m not going to put a bow on that quote. It does a lot on its own. Good night.


36th day of Lent. God, the Divine Drano.

Today was a hard day. I was acutely aware of all the things in my life that I wish were different from the way they are. I have lists of things that I’m working on, and that I struggle with. Mostly that’s work that happens alone, the way it does for everyone. The weight of some of it is suffocating. I can stay there for hours, too. It’s not fun. At one point late in the day I noticed there were large swathes of blue sky above me. I’d been outside, and I hadn’t noticed. I missed the sunset, too. I know there was one. They happen every day. Catching a sunset can redeem a day.

I’ve spent parts of the last few days looking for flowers. I haven’t seen any. The shoots of the crocuses my neighbor plants around several trees have started to show, but only barely. It’s not enough. I need to be surrounded by the colors of Spring, to stand underneath any one of a number of magnolia’s and breathe in their fragrant scent. After this long winter, I’m ready for Spring, and ready for what I know it will do with me.

I want to talk about the reconciliation of God and humankind through Jesus Christ, what Christians call the Atonement. I don’t intend to look at the different theories of atonement, about which there are many books. No. I want to introduce the sense of Jesus as the scapegoat who liberates us from the need for any other scapegoats. Is that two posts, or three? I’m not sure. We’ll see what happens. If I’m lucky I’ll pass along a thought or two that are helpful. As for tonight? Here’s something to chew on.

James Alison in a marvelous essay about atonement, is quick to point out that before there were theories of atonement, it was a liturgy.

“Now that doesn’t sound like too much of a contrast in our world because we tend to have an impoverished notion of liturgy. And we do not realise how much our dwelling in theory complicates our lives. That in fact having atonement as a theory means that it is an idea that can be grasped – and once it is grasped, one has got it – whereas a liturgy is something that happens at you.”

The contrast Alison offers is similar to the experience–and you’ve had this I’m sure–that it’s easier to work out in our heads all the reasons why someone is angry with us, than it is to ask them directly what is going on. When we do–or at least when I do–their responses are typically very different from the tidy theories that existed in my head. Alison, in his book Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice wants us to put ourselves in the shoes of the Hebrews of the First Temple–which the rite of Atonement dates back to–so that we can get past the “theories” about atonement that we already have in our heads:

“Given our modern imagination of such things, it might have seemed as though the purpose of the Temple was a place into which certain rather specially dressed people went in order to sacrifice to God, who dwelt mysteriously and invisible at the center of it all. Nevertheless that would have been a mistake. . . . The whole point of the Temple was that it was a microcosm of creation, because it was not a god who was being worshipped, but God the Creator. So the Holy of Holies [at the heart of the Temple] was taken to be the place of God “outside” of creation, and so outside of space, of matter. This was a “space” that was beyond place, prior to the foundation of the world, forever.”

The key point there is that our sense of the sacrifices at the Temple were a price that was being paid to God, owes more to our understanding of Aztec sacrifice than what’s in the Bible. The flow of that is backwards, that way of thinking says we’re trying to stop God. The rite of Atonement wasn’t a way of appeasing God, it was the opposite. It illustrated, if you will, the movement of God towards us.

“The key idea was that God. YHWH, would come into materiality, vesting himself in the flesh of the High Priest . . . who will become YHWH for the day, [and] come through the veil from the Holy Place, out into the court of the Temple and offer sacrifice on the Altar of Sacrifice–YHWH coming out of heaven towards us, as it were. And the purpose of this rite will be the happy occasion in which the Creator restores creation.”

In this way the idea of what’s happening is bigger than individual sins. People get stuck their sin. I did that tonight. Instead, the rite of Atonement is about God pulling us out of the muck, so that we can appreciate the wonder that surrounds us all of the time, if we would only notice it. Alison has a nice turn of phrase saying it’s “as though God were a divine Drano, coming in to clean out the sluice system from within and getting it all to flow open and out again.” The ancient rite isn’t fundamentally about sin, it is about God coming to us and unleashing our experience of the full potential of creation.

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35th day of Lent. Attempting Clarity.

I thought I’d go back to the beginning of my last post, and try to do a better job of spelling out what I was trying to do there. Since I start these late at night–for example, I’m beginning this one a few minutes after midnight–the late hour in a way limits my ability to polish these. With polish comes clarity. That said, since it’s after midnight, this might not be much clearer. Caveats. There are always caveats.

Anyway I started by juxtaposing a sampling of hot button issues which I purposely tried to present in the way someone who believed whatever side they did, would recognize. The examples are limited, yes. There are rarely only two sides to any issue. Still, one of the things that keeps us from being able to have civic dialogue in the U.S. is that we reduce too many issues to two views. We’re very black and white, very either-or that way. It limits our ability to hold an opposite view to our own with any regard. Recently in conversation, a friend of mine told me that she’s taken to staying silent, rather than hear another friend say a version of “how can you believe that?” Hearing her say that I thought of  Carol Gilligan, and a quote that I think is from her book In a Different Voice, where she said: “The hardest times for me were not when people challenged what I said, but when I felt my voice was not heard.” There’s no greater treasure than a person’s voice. We’re shutting each other down. Shutting each other out, and in what might be a greater sin, we demonize those who hold views opposite our own.

Why do we do that? As I said a few weeks ago, I like the anthropology of René Girard and his ideas about Mimetic Rivalry. Girard, says that desire is mimetic. People want what they see others as already having. The whole idea of the need to “keep up with the Joneses” points to this. You’re driving a seven year old car in great shape, and that you’re perfectly happy with. One day you see your neighbor has purchased a new car. What happens next? You start wondering if you should get one too. Before your neighbor made their purchase, you had no need. Suddenly you do. That’s what he means.

At a social level this rivalry can get so heated that it leads to violence. Of course, your new found desire for a new car that you may not be able to afford may not lead to more than an argument with your spouse, or your boss about your pay. Then again, there are bunches of ways the story of Cain and Abel can play out in our society. To avoid social violence, Girard says, societies developed the “scapegoat” mechanism as a relief valve. That’s why you see in many early religions that an innocent victim is chosen, and after the sin of the community is assigned to them, and they’re sacrificed. It’s under the guise of appeasing the gods/God, but what’s really happening is that the pressure towards violence is released.

Since Liberals scapegoat Conservatives, and Conservatives scapegoat Liberals–that’s how badly things have degenerated–it’s almost impossible to recognize that a person who holds a view different or opposite from our own has come to hold it as true through a process that is as genuine, honest, and legitimate as the way we’ve come to hold true what we do. We can’t get there. At the same time, there is common ground.

Here’s when I made the leap that’s hard to do because we’re entrenched the way we are. While we may not be able to see a view opposite our own has having value–that’s where the phrase “morally equivalent” comes in–this week in Christian circles we’re all, Conservatives, Liberals, Green, Libertarian, Black, White, rich and poor Christians are celebrating the murder of Jesus in the celebration of Easter.

For Christian theologians–and regular folk like myself–what makes Easter transforming, is that Jesus becomes the scapegoat of everyone. That’s where shouting “Crucify him” as we read the Passion is an act that can help us get in touch with the way we we’re still scapegoating people, and cultures different than our own. That’s a hard thing to grasp. You might say, I’m not doing that. I can’t see that. It’s at this point that I think invoking Matthew 25 is appropriate:

41 Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ 44 Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ 45 He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’

Anyway. It’s one. I’m running on fumes. I hope that’s a little clearer. Tomorrow if I’m lucky I’ll dive a little deeper with the idea of Jesus as the scapegoat who forgives us. It’s a very different way of thinking about atonement. It’s a way–despite the way the passage I just mentioned reads–without an angry God.


34th day of Lent. God Can Only Be Reached When Our Hearts Are Broken.

What’s the issue, or attitude that pushes your buttons most? Is it abortion, and the inability of folks to see that it’s a baby’s life that’s lost, or that a woman has the right to choose? Is it poverty, and the callousness of the 1%, or the laziness of the 47% who just want handouts? Is it the sanctity of marriage being at risk, or the desire of LGBTQ couples to honor the sanctity of marriage? Is it the way “Black Lives Matter” helps us see that the Civil Rights movement needs to continue, or that saying “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t respect the struggles all other races endure?

Lent is about taking a chunk of time, and doing the work required to change your mind. To change an aspect of the way you live your life, or to change a behavior that you’ve lived into that you can see is wrong, or not true to your values. To do that, perhaps especially when it involves regret, you have to be willing to come face to face with your own darkness. Part of the the gift of doing that, James Alison says, is that it encourages us–since we’re people who struggle to be the people we want to be–to realize we’re “morally equivalent” to the people who are on the other side of our hot button issues. This is especially true because we’re all, Liberal, Conservative, Progressive, and Libertarian Christians about to come together to celebrate a murder. We don’t call it that of course, but that’s what it is. A murder.

What follows are a series of quotes from a sermon James Alison gave on April 10, 2006 at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, in Atlanta, Georgia. In the homily they all follow each other, except for the last one which comes at the end. The reading of the Passion that folks in many churches will do on Palm Sunday is pretty powerful. If you read this post before you go to church (or read Mark’s Passion MK 14:1-15:47), you might find the perspective it offers helpful as you hear the Gospel proclaimed. The breaks between them can function to separate Alison’s thoughts a bit. If on the other hand you read this after having heard the Gospel proclaimed, the breaks might be helpful as you reflect on what you heard earlier in the day. In either case, I encourage you to place yourself in the story, using your imagination and see what it does with you. Where is your attention drawn? What are you feeling, experiencing as you read?

“[W]e’ll be asked, as the days go by, to adopt various parts in that re-enactment of a murder. Crowds shouting, “Crucify him”. Crowds saying, “Give us Barabbas”. Different voices of participation in a murder. And we do this, not so as to recite some sacred text, but so that we may be inspired by the spirit of mourning to look around and see the other murders we participate in, to look at the other parts of the world where people are killing each other in the name of God, and saying, “Yes, actually that’s our story”. Another Shiite mosque blown up. “Funny how those religious people murder each other”. And what we’re celebrating is our moral equivalence with that, what it’s like to be people undergoing a murder that’s taking us by surprise.”


“In the story, which we’ll be dwelling in, there are normally three or four positions. One position is the crowd. I don’t know whether any of you were at Palm Sunday services yesterday. In the Catholic lectionary it was Mark’s passion that was read. The interesting thing about Mark’s passion is the sense of how speedy it all is. What a muddle. What chaos. The getting excited about someone coming in. The chanting at him, the words of the great high priest, the muddle, the confusion, the murder, the lynching, the way in which crowds whip each other up and whip each other down with enthusiasms, and how it ends up in a murder. And how it’s everybody’s fault and nobody’s fault. There’s something delightfully chaotic and fast-paced about Mark’s text. We have the luxury now of dwelling in some of that slightly more slowly. Because there are other voices. There’s the crowd which is normally our voice. And it’s the crowd that we are coming to learn how not to be.”


“Then there are the voices of the disciples. And they half get it and half don’t get it. They are half sticking by Jesus, and they are half running away. And another voice of course we hear in the text is the disciples’ retrospective vision. What they got afterwards that they hadn’t got at the time. And of course that’s what most of our Gospel texts are. It’s the “Oh, so that was what it was about” of the apostolic group.”


“But then there’s the fourth and most profound and important voice, which is the one we’ll be straining hardest to listen to, which is the voice of Our Lord, the One who is undergoing this. Speaking very gently and very quietly, not “shouting or crying in the streets” as it says in the Prophet Isaiah, not bullying people, but moving towards occupying a place that only He can occupy, a quiet but deliberate voice. Our surgeon. Our anaesthetist. The one who enables us to have an open heart, to live with our scandal. . . .”


“A word about “the Jews” because they’ll appear frequently enough during this week for it to be worth getting something right here. The word, literally “Judeans”, should not, by any of us, be read as referring to the people whom we now call the Jewish people. We’re talking probably about what would have been something rather like people who now call themselves Christians, since we’re in to moral equivalence. In other words, what had previously been rather a broad term was taken over by a group who wanted it to mean something rather narrower and tighter and more excellent. You know what I mean in that use of the word Christian. Well, the Hebrew people had quite a multifarious belonging and forms of belonging. And one of the groups, the people who had come back from Babylon with quite a strong religious line, was known by others as the Judeans. They were very keen on Moses and the Law and a particular interpretation of ways of belonging. This is by no means the same as the Jewish people. This is, if you like, much more of a cultural and religious group within the Jewish people. And they were clearly interested in Jesus. They were half tempted by him, hence the Chief Priests’ concern. They’re going to be with us, they’re part of the crowd, they’re part of us: – people who want a system of goodness; for whom Jesus is not going to give a system of goodness, but open up heaven. So let’s sit with these people, with these groups, over the next few days, allowing us, allowing ourselves to be approached by one who is about to be murdered. Allowing ourselves to be approached as murderers, not being scandalised. That’s the route Our Lord is taking us, gently, quietly, establishing justice, moving to the space of being the victim, without creating enormous waves of scandal, trying to allow us access to God, who can only be reached when our hearts are broken, and we look at our sisters and brothers as people equally involved, and therefore equally able to be called into new life. That’s our task for Holy Week.”


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33rd day of Lent. Why I’m Grateful I’m Not the Only One Paying Attention.

I did some shopping today at my local Trader Joe’s. I went in to pick up a couple of items. Odds and ends that I buy at there, as much because it’s a place where I know I’m likely to run into a friend and neighbor, as for the food itself. When I say “run into” I mean what I’m saying. Last week, moments after I spotted a friend, we collided. No one was harmed in the process. My friend was momentarily startled, until he saw me, at which point what happened made perfect sense.

I found the items I was looking for and made my way to one of the registers. What I saw there took me by surprise. The shopper in front of me was a mom with two elementary school-aged children, who looked to be about eight and ten. The kids weren’t standing with their mom. No. They were standing with the employee–who I’ll call Val–who was checking them out. Except, Val wasn’t checking them out. The kids were doing the much of that work. I watched as the younger boy handed his sister a bunch of banana’s. Val hit a button on the register and turned to the girl saying, “See the number on the banana’s? It’s 4011. Enter that number here.” “Can’t I scan them?” she’s asked. “We have to count them. Enter that number. Ok. How many are there?” “Six” the girl said. “Ok. That’s what you’re going to put in next.”

For me, there were multiple areas of wonder here. There were kids standing in Val’s space. This wasn’t a toddler seated in the buggy, these were kids who could easily get in the way. And yet the way Val integrated the kids into the process, it was as if it was something she does every day. I didn’t catch even the slightest hint that the children were distracting or bothering Val with their presence. She was fully present, and engaged in the reality she was experiencing. What’s more, it didn’t for a moment feel as if they were slowing down the line. I was witnessing some of the best customer service I’d ever seen.

I stepped out of line and caught the attention of one of the managers. “I have to tell you. What’s happening at the register over there”–and I described Val–“is what Starbucks calls Legendary Service. Your employee is involving her customers kids, is smiling, and isn’t missing a beat. She’s outstanding.” “Isn’t she?” The manager said. “The service she gives is consistently great. She’s someone I want new employees to learn from. Would you mind if I told her what you said?” “Please do.” We chatted for a few moments longer and then I got back in line, but at another register closer to where I was now standing. On my way out I noticed that Val had just finished checking out another customer. I could thank her myself. “Excuse me,” I said. “I just wanted to say, I watched the way you embraced your other customer and her kids. You were fantastic. The top of the bar for excellent customer service is about here.” I held my hand at my eye level. “What you were doing is way up here.” I reached my hand up as high as I could. The customer she’d just finished ringing up, smiled and nodded in agreement. “Thank you” Val said.

Leaving the store, I found myself behind an elderly woman slowly pushing her cart towards the exit. I saw no need to rush her, and walked patiently behind her. At a certain point, another woman pushed past me, and walked around the woman’s cart. She looked back at the woman, and asked her, “would it help if I pulled the cart for you?” “Oh yes,” she said. “Thank you.” As we passed through the outer door, she again asked, “If you want, I can walk you to your car?” “No thanks. A friend is waiting for me, but thank you.” The other woman smiled and left.

There are moments you catch other’s in. There are moments you seize. There are moments you miss completely. I’d just done all three. I let the miss with the elderly woman bother me for a short moment. I realized there isn’t any way I could have known that she needed help. My mother walks slowly. When I’m with my mom, I’m used to adjusting my pace. Still, what happened is a reminder that I only notice what I see, and what I see is only part of the picture. That’s why I’m grateful I’m not the only one paying attention.


31st and 32nd days of Lent. The Movement Continues.

Wednesday afternoon I listened to Jeanne Theoharis, Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York speak about her book, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. I wrote a post and was editing it when I deleted three paragraphs by accident. In my rush to undo my error I undid my ability to recover what I’d deleted. Sometimes things happen that you can’t undo. I was frustrated when it happened, but more of me was tired. Still, remembering that my Lenten commitment is to end my days with a post, I pressed on. My body let me know pretty quickly that there was not going to be any re-write. I protested. My body doubled-down. I fell asleep sitting in my chair, relented when I awoke, and headed to bed.

A day after listening to Theoharis talk about her book, how is it reverberating? What about it is still with me? I know that yesterday, after ninety minutes, I remained engaged. Today I read the kindle sample pages and was happy to see her style is easy to read. I logged in at my local library and found twenty-six copies of her book available. I reserved one. I’d already listened to this interview with Tavis Smiley. I looked for others, and found several. The one I particularly enjoyed, and which you can watch as a video podcast if you like, is her interview with Amy Goodman.  I suppose you can say that a compelling life, led to a compelling book, which compelled me to learn more.

What else? One of the fundamental points Theoharis makes is that the story about Rosa Parks that we’ve over-learned, and by that I mean the version that says that on Dec 1, 1955 the reason she broke a segregation law by refusing to give her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man who’d just boarded is she was tired after a long day of work and just wanted to get home. Or that it was an accident, or it happened by chance. Any version of what happened that even faintly hints that way, is myth.

The day she was arrested for not giving up her seat, she’d already been an activist for more than a decade. She knew that in the year prior, three other women were arrested for refusing to give up their seats, and that nothing had changed. That summer she’d spent time at Highlander Folk School, an education center for activism in Monteagle, Tennessee. Just five days before she kept her seat she attended a mass meeting hosted by Martin Luther King, Jr. and featuring T. R. M. Howard, a black civil rights leader from Mississippi. Emmett Till’s murder was that summer, and his killers acquitted in their trial. That’s what brought Howard to Montgomery. All of these events, combined with the rest of her life experience is what led to her decision to keep her seat. Her decision is something she’d lived into.

Who are you? What sort of person do you want to become? Are your actions aligned with your values? Like it or not, you’re living into something. People, live into everything.

At the end of her lecture I asked Dr. Theoharis what Rosa Parks might have said about Ferguson, Eric Garner, and the related “Black Lives Matter” campaign. I expected her to flesh out one of the themes in her book, the importance of perseverance, and not giving up. Instead, she said “I think she’d say it was exciting.” I was stunned. Instead of evaluating those events, or talking about her book, Theoharis shared the perspective of a woman who would see the thread that ties the events of the last year, to those she grew up living through, long before she gave up her seat. To my chagrin, I realized that in not seeing it myself, I’d accepted a chunk of the myth that surrounds Rosa Parks. My blindness is such that I could not see the connection between these events, and the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s. That’s when I understood the obvious; the Civil Rights movement isn’t over. It continues.



30th day of Lent. Being Open With Your Heart.

Some times I think the most important lesson I’ve learned as a parent comes down to two words: “Walk away.” During conflicts when hormones (theirs), and emotions (everyone’s) are flooding the landscape, it’s almost magic. You’re Harry Potter and expelliarmus-ing yourself out of the room, so that you can deal with whatever is happening when everyone is in a calmer place.

If there’s a corollary, it’s being vulnerable. For a chunk of time when children are small, what you say as a parent defines reality. Even if your child pushes back, appealing to your own authority is enough. We say things like “Because I’m your dad, that’s why” because they work. As our kids begin to get a sense that we’re not infallible we appeal to higher authorities and say things like, “Your teacher said,” or we invoke everyone from the Principal of our kid’s school, to the President of the United States, and God. Then comes the time when those appeals aren’t enough. This story is about what can happen when you get to the end of your rope, and suggests a way through when you do.

“Three times I tried to get my son Matthew not to steal comic books! This is the truth! I’m not sure why, but my son started this comic book collection. And when he couldn’t get them fast enough by buying them, well, he then began stealing them. I tried three different efforts to get Matthew to stop stealing comic books. Matthew! My dear son! My hungry son! Who collects whatever he collects … in the thousands! I tried my best to change him. Three times I used the old law; three times I was the fool.

The first time I found out that Matthew was stealing he had stolen from a public library. So I figured: shame the kid! I called up the librarian and said, “Look, I’m bringing the kid back, and he’s going to return the comic books which he stole from you. Would you please kind of — chastise him?” I thought that the Lord would look down upon Matthew and that he would feel very uncomfortable when the librarian chastised him. So Matthew came in, put the comics in front of her, and said his piece. And she said, “Matthew, Matthew.” (She was very good. She’s an excellent librarian!) “Do you know what you have done,” she said, steel-eyeing him. “You’ll never do that again, right?”

The second time I caught him stealing comic books, I tried a different tact. I used the Word of God, the seventh commandment. I didn’t know if he knew it well enough, so I shook my head and sighed a whole lot, and repeated all the commandments for him. And then for good measure I burned all of his comic books … one at a time. I thought that this disciplinary action was sure to change Matthew. “He’ll never steal comic books again,” I thought. “Look at this conflagration, doesn’t it remind you of hell?”

The third time Matthew stole comic books was while I was teaching at Seminex in St. Louis. While we were staying there, Matthew went around the corner and stole some comic books from a store. Well, that seemed more desperate then ever to me, because I was teaching the Word of God, and my son was stealing comic books!

So this is what I finally decided to do. I took Matthew into my study, and I spanked him. I laid him over my knees, as you do. I decided I should feel what he felt and use my bare hands right on Matthew’s bottom. I told him why I was doing it: that in this position he really left me no other choice. I had to spank him.

The first swat that came down on his bottom came hard. And when it did, I felt his entire body stiffen. And I don’t know why, People, but it was that stiffening that pierced me to the heart. It was that stiffening that made me breakdown on the inside. And I think I gave him maybe four or five good, solid swacks on his butt after that. ‘Cause he was so stiff. He was a board. My son was a board on my knees. And as soon as I was done, I left the room. I went out to where our piano is … in the hall, and I burst into tears. And blessed Thanne, my wife, she came over to comfort me, with her arms around me. Well, I cried at the thing I had done, and then I went back into the room.

Now, this is fortuitous, because I tell you the truth: A number of months later, while the family was driving in the car: out of nowhere, Matthew says to me, “Dad, do you know why I stopped stealing comic books?” (And he had stopped!) I said, “Yea, I finally spanked you.” He said, “What!” And he looked at me. He said, “No…. It’s because you cried….”” ~ Walter Wangerin, Jr., The Manger is Empty pp116-132. h/t Paul J. Nuechterlein

Sometimes the best way to encourage a change of heart, is being open with yours.