Category Archives: spirituality
Some places are just not intended for human comfort.
Take, for example, the concrete pad behind the building where I work. Two heat pumps and a garbage can occupy the space, which is surrounded by a waist-high concrete wall. There are no picnic tables or chairs to indicate this is a place to hang out. Nor is there any cover from the elements, which means both the sun and the rain beat down on its surface.
And yet, for the past few weeks, it’s been someone’s sleeping quarters and safe space. As I was leaving out the back door for a meeting last week, I noticed “Mark” (not his real name) sprawled out on the concrete pad in the hot sun reading children’s books.
The books were donated to my organization to distribute free to anyone who walks through our office doors.
I asked “Mark” how he was doing, and he grunted at me. I continued to my car without bothering him because, well, the grunt meant he probably didn’t want to be bothered.
“Mark” is a thirty something year-old man with schizophrenia who has been coming to our office for years.
Sometimes he is taking his medications. Sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes he has a place to live. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he wants to talk. Sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes, the system helps him. But most of the time, it fails him miserably.
He spends much of his time moping around town with his head hanging low and his pants hanging even lower. The police know him. He’s been arrested and even done jail time for trespassing. Many of our social service and mental health facilities know him. Even the people at the hospital know him.
One time, when he was desperate to get the demons out of his head and a safe place to stay, he actually called an ambulance to come get him at our office. That didn’t work out very well. He’s even been committed and spent a few days in a psychiatric facility. That didn’t work out very well either as he landed right back where he was before.
“Mark” isn’t capable of living on his own, but there are no facilities in our community for someone like him. From what I understand, he is an unwelcome guest at the rescue mission. He’s been robbed and taken advantage of by people who are more streetwise than he is. And much of the time, he stinks. Literally.
And yet my co-workers treat him with the same respect they treat our donors. They listen to him – even when he doesn’t make sense. They let him use the phone – even though we are fairly certain there is not anyone else on the call. And, on the occasions they’ve convinced him to take a shower in the upstairs bathroom and he’s thrown his wet, stinky clothes away, they’ve taken them out of the garbage and washed and folded them.
They don’t do any of this because it’s in their job descriptions. They do it because it’s the right thing to do. They do it because that’s what loving thy neighbor is about: loving all of our neighbors – not just the ones who smell good or with whom we agree.
I was thinking about this last week when “Mark’ grunted at me from the hot, concrete pad and I slipped into my air-conditioned car. When the radio came on, I heard the news about the Supreme Court decision in favor of the baker who refused to make a cake for a gay wedding. I’m not a lawyer or a Constitutional expert, but I disagreed with the ruling on a personal level. I also wondered how baking a cake could even became a political and legal issue in a nation where so many people define themselves as “Christians.”
But the again, I also wondered how, in a “Christian” nation, Mark’s safe place is a concrete pad behind a social service agency.
Christians are supposed to be followers of Christ – that’s where the name came from, right? And wasn’t Jesus all about breaking norms by socializing with the ostracized and caring for people who others disregarded? He never pretended it would be easy or pleasant. But he did teach us that no person is more important than any other person.
When I got back to the office after my meeting that day, Mark was gone. His belongings were out of sight, and there was no indication he’d ever been there or that he would soon be back
But I knew he would be.
Because the fact that the concrete pad behind my office is his safe place isn’t by chance. It’s because the people inside the building have created that safe place by accepting him just as he is.
You know, kind of like Jesus taught us,
I finally saw The Book of Mormon on Broadway last week.
I say finally because I’d heard the music so much (thanks to my theater kid daughter) that I already knew most of the lyrics by heart when I took my seat in the Eugene O’Neill theater on 49th Street.
I enjoyed it so much my daughter actually had to hush me when I automatically began singing along with the actors.
But my positive reviews haven’t been appreciated by everyone.
One person told me “I’m all for free speech, but that play pokes fun at religion. If they can make fun of Mormons, then other religions will follow.” My internal reaction was “so what?”
Her distaste for the musical was one of the reasons I loved it so much. The show points out how people can be so invested in promoting their version of religion that it takes priority over actually helping people. It calls out individuals who abide by dogma in hopes of being rewarded. It demonstrates how being so focused on your own agenda can make you blind to reality. And it points out how religion can be a way to avoid critical thinking.
I know some people find both my words and the musical offensive.
I don’t care.
Having faith and asking questions aren’t any more mutually exclusive than evangelizing while respecting different religions and beliefs. My experience with Christianity demonstrates that some of the closest followers of Christ’s teachings are people who never go to church, and some very hateful people go faithfully every Sunday.
Religion should never focus on ensuring that everyone believes what you believe. Instead, it should be about putting faith into action by treating everyone we meet with dignity and respect.
And, because of that, here’s what I think churches should never do:
- Promote an us and them mentality. Whether it’s Christians versus Muslims, the haves “helping” the have-nots, or the old timers feeling more entitled to more control than newcomers, focusing on differences rather than commonalities is never helpful. If every church member spent one hour with someone with whom they thought they had nothing in common and focused on similarities rather than differences, the world would immediately become a better place. And if we focused on doing things with others rather than for others, it would be even better.
- Try to be a social service organization. Charity is wonderful, but attempting to run a social services program can often do more harm than good. Instead, raise funds, volunteers, and resources for community programs that have the experience and capacity to meet the community’s greatest needs. This doesn’t mean compassion isn’t needed or that help should never be provided. But some churches have actually made a family’s situation worst by providing them with the wrong resources.
- Set unreasonable expectations. When I was in graduate school, a professor told our class that studies indicate some mental illnesses are actually tied to being raised in a dogmatic religion. That’s because expectations don’t match reality, and guilt is used as a tool for conformity. If people want to feel accepted, they can be very good at pretending, but the cognitive dissonance can create even greater problems.
- Proclaim your religion is the only real religion. You should use your faith to be the best person you can be – and that should speak more loudly than anything else.
During the second act of The Book of Mormon, Elder Price sings a song about his beliefs. The song garners a great deal of laughter from the audience, which leads me to the last thing that churches should never do: discourage self-expression. Music and laughter almost always bring people together, and bringing people together should be one of primary missions of any church.
Since I started working for Catholic Charities West Virginia, people are always asking what I think about Pope Francis. I don’t mind them asking. In fact, I appreciate the opportunity to share my opinion about the Pope: I think he’s fantastic.
As a meeting was wrapping up on Saturday, I was once again asked about my job and about the Pope.
“My job and Pope Francis are both awesome,” I said.
“Did you see the cover of The New Yorker where he is making a snow angel?” one woman asked.
“That’s perfect,” I replied. “I think his messages are right on target.”
“Yes, but will he be able to change church doctrine?” another woman asked.
I didn’t have a reply to that because I didn’t think her question was relevant. I may have spent most of my adult life being an advocate for social change, but Pope Francis puts everything in perspective: keep it simple by caring about other people more than anything else. That message speaks to all people no matter what their faith or whether they agree or disagree with any parts of Catholic Doctrine.
In a world when many of us spend too much time and energy worrying about what kind of car we drive, whether our children’s achievements are sufficient, how high our tax bill or health insurance premium will be or whether we will have enough money for retirement, Pope Francis reminds us what’s really important: using our time on earth wisely by making it a better place for our fellow humans.
That’s pretty much it.
The reason I am such a fan of Pope Francis is that he rises above the issues of doctrine and politics. His message really is simple:
- Care about other people-all other people regardless of race or religion or nationality or sexual orientation.
- Help meet the needs of other people, whether those needs are physical or spiritual.
- Don’t judge other people. Period.
That’s pretty much it.
And yes, I am fully aware that life in the real world can get complicated. But when it does get complicated, that’s when we most need the reminder to “keep it simple.”
I’m pretty sure that’s a message a guy who was born in Bethlehem about 2000 years ago also shared.
Here’s hoping the world starts listening.
I’m always going.
I work. I ride my bike. I walk the dog. I write. I volunteer. I parent.
But every once in a while, a perfect moment takes my breath away, and I’m incapable of doing anything but simply standing in awe.
Those are the moments when I realize how limited my control really is, and I recognize that humans are only capable of doing so much.
Sometimes these moments are beautiful, and sometimes they are scary. But they are always amazing.
I’m fortunate to witness such miracles on a regular basis, and on occasion, I’m even lucky enough to capture them in a photograph.
And that always makes me smile.
Day 5: The Perfect Photo at the Perfect Moment
Day 4: Jumping in Puddles
Day 3: The Ride Downhill after the Struggle Uphill
Day 2: Old Photographs
Day 1: The Martians on Sesame Street
That was news to me, but in this era when people can post anything on the internet and pretend it’s the truth, I have forever been labeled godless.
In reality, that doesn’t actually mean that I don’t believe in God. It just means I don’t share the narrow-minded, judgmental views belonging to some people who call themselves Christians.
Because I support gay marriage, believe in comprehensive sex education, will always fight for separation of church and state and don’t believe that Christianity is the only legitimate religion, to them, I am godless.
This isn’t the first time someone has questioned my faith.
When I was a teen, I often attended youth group activities with a friend at a fundamentalist church. Upon arrival, my friend always got the attention of boys while I always watched from the sideline. One evening, I just couldn’t deal with the situation, and the youth pastor picked up on my petulance and jealousy. He asked me to come to his office, and I agreed because I thought he was going to provide some words of wisdom and solace.
Instead he interrogated me about my religious beliefs.
“Are you saved?” he asked me.
“I go to a Methodist Church,” I said, thinking he would understand that most Methodist weren’t real big on going up to the altar, getting on their knees and proclaiming they were “born again.”
He didn’t like my answer.
“Well then, you aren’t a real Christian,” he said.
Even at fifteen, I knew he was full of it. But, in order to escape his small office, I promised I would think about his advice.
I never talked to him again, which probably wasn’t real Christian of me. Instead, it was actually rather godless, because the God I know is loving and forgiving. I wasn’t being either.
There are times, like this week, when I’m still not.
I question people who wrap themselves in Christianity and proclaim that the way they live their lives is the way everyone else must live theirs. I swear when those same people call me a hypocrite for saying I believe in diversity but don’t believe in exposing kids to the lies they want to perpetuate. And I have a hard time loving and forgiving people who are more intent on justifying their own beliefs rather than caring for others.
I was too angry to truly exemplify God’s love and ability to forgive, so maybe people were justified in calling me godless.
But I’m pretty sure God understands and forgives me.
One of the worst things about having children is being forced to think about the ideas that are constantly bouncing around in their heads.
The other day my daughter said something I simply haven’t been able to shake.
‘Mom,” she said, “I’m worried about the future. What if teleportation actually becomes a reality?”
“Why is that a problem?” I asked.
“In order for teleportation to work, your body gets broken into tiny little pieces that have to be re-assembled perfectly again.” she explained. “If a lot of people are being teleported at the same time, what will prevent the pieces from getting all mixed up?” She sighed, “I don’t want pieces of me mixed up with pieces of someone else!”
Initially, I had visions of my mid-section being swapped with Jennifer Anniston’s. While I’d be delighted, I’m sure Jennifer would be horrified. My daughter interrupted those daydreams. “What if pieces are left behind?”
That was a good question from an almost 11-year old, and it’s come to haunt me over the past week: a week when I know too many people who have lost someone they care about deeply. A week when, for whatever reason, people who should be in the prime of their life are suddenly gone. A week when the power of medicine failed to make all the pieces of a person’s body work correctly. A week when so much has been lost, and yet so much has been left behind.
And some people leave many, many pieces of themselves behind. Those pieces aren’t intended to be re-assembled but to be shared.
I believe that every laugh, every kind thought and every good deed is a tiny piece of our soul that we give away forever with no expectation that it should remain part of us. These are the pieces that shine in our eyes when we smile and that warm our hearts when we hug. These are the pieces we send with our children each time they walk out the door and the pieces we lose when we share a secret.
These are pieces that do get mixed up with the tiny little pieces of others. And then, other people continue to pass them on all mixed up with their own tiny pieces. These are the pieces we collect when we need to paint a picture or compose a song or write a beautiful story. And they are the pieces we collect so we know how to love and embrace all that is beautiful in the world.
I understand why my daughter is worried about her tiny little pieces. I just hope I have collected enough tiny little pieces from others that I have plenty to share with her. And I hope she, in turn, is collecting tiny little pieces that can also pass on.