I have no idea what our pastor said that caused my daughter a moment of panic in church last Sunday, but he obviously said something that triggered her concern. She looked stricken then leaned over and whispered, “When, exactly, does Lent start?”
I pointed to an announcement in the bulletin about Ash Wednesday services, and she breathed a sigh of relief. That afternoon, she asked me what she should give up for Lent. I told her that was a personal choice.
Days later, she announced she was giving up playing the game Flappy Bird. I must have sighed because she asked, “What’s wrong with that? I like Flappy Bird.”
She may like Flappy Bird, but I don’t think she’s making any great sacrifice by giving it up. She downloaded it on my phone, not hers. In other words, she only plays the game when her phone battery is running low and she is looking for something to do when we are out running errands.
My daughter’s decision reminds me of a student who lived in my dorm during college. I’d always considered the young woman superficial. My assessment of her proved right when she announced that for Lent she was “giving up eating junk food after getting drunk.”
She was missing the point of Lent, and I think my daughter might be too. She can certainly spout the reasons Christians give up something during Lent, but I’m not sure she has fully embraced the concept of spiritual growth.
Sometimes, I wonder if I have either.
That’s why I’m not giving anything up this year. Instead, I’m taking on something, and I already know it’s going to be much harder than giving up caffeine or chocolate.
I know it’s going to be challenging because I’ve been practicing. At least, I’ve been trying to practice, and I’ve been failing miserably.
I’m taking on praying daily for people I don’t like or who have hurt me. And the purpose of those prayers isn’t about my relationship with these individuals or my hopes that they will change their behavior. My prayers are simple: that they find peace and happiness. My emotions aren’t as simple. Letting go of anger is difficult and embracing forgiveness is tough.
As Lent begins this week, I hope I find the strength for both.
“God is always talking to people in the Bible, but what exactly does God’s voice sound like?” asked one girl.
“God is an old man with a white beard, so he probably has a voice like an old man,” said a boy.
I couldn’t help but interrupt. “God isn’t a person,”” I said. “That’s hard for us to understand. Maybe instead of worrying about what God looks or sounds like, maybe we should think about what God wants us to hear.”
“But that’s just it,” said the girl. “God doesn’t talk to us like He talks to people in the Bible.”
I tried changing tactics. “Well, if He did talk to you, what do you think He would say?”
The students had no problem answering that question,
“Help each other.”
“Do your chores.”
“Respect your parents.”
“Do the right thing.”
“And how do you know what the right thing is?” I asked.
One student said, “My parents tell me” and another said, “Teachers have rules.” And one little girl got an indescribable look on her face and spoke with almost deliberate slowness.
“I have a little voice in my head,” she said. “It kind of sounds like my own voice when it speaks to me. Some people call it a conscience, but maybe that’s God talking to me in a voice that won’t scare me.”
Her answer made me smile. But then, when kids provide answers beyond what they are told to say, I always smile.
Day 188: Watching Young Minds at Work
Day 187: Funny Phone Calls Day 186: Healthy Lungs Day 185: Reality Checks Day 184: Coincidence Day 183: Lame Attempts to Go Retro Day 182: Learning From Our Mistakes Day 181: Goofy Childhood Memories Day 180: A soak in a bathtub Day 179: Optimism Day 178: The Year’s Top Baby Names Day 177: Reading on a Rainy Day Day 176: “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey Day 175: Watching the Torch Pass Day 174: Converse Tennis Shoes Day 173: Family Acceptance Day 172: Christmas Day 171: The Mr. Grinch Song Day 170: Positive People Day 169: Watching Movies From my Childhood With My Kids Day 168: Jealous Pets Day 167: Family Christmas Recipes Day 166: Church BellsDay 165: School Holiday 164: Unexpected Grace Day 163: Letting Go of Things We Can’t Control Day 162: Anticipating a good story Day 161: Hope Day 160: When Dogs Try to Avoid Embarrassment Day 159: Surprises in the Mail Day 158: Kids who aren’t superficial Day 157: A Garage on Winter Days Day 156: Real Christmas Trees Day 155: Being a Parent Day 154: Selfless People Day 153: Nelson Mandela Day 152: Memorable Road Trips Day 151: Great Neighbors Day 150: Oscar Wilde’s quote about being yourself Day 149: Love Letters Day 148: The first day of Advent Day 147: The Breakfast Club Day 146: Marriage and Shared Anniversaries 145: JFK’s quote about gratitude Day 144: Watching My Dog Play Day 143: Having my Family’s Basic Needs Met Day 142: When Our Children Become Role Models Day 141: Random Acts of Kindness Day 140; People Watching Day 139: Sharing Interests with My Children Day 138: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Best Advice Day 137: Weird Human Behavior about Garbage Day 136: Postcards from Heaven Day 135: Mickey Mouse Day 134: Generous Souls Day 133: I’m Moving On Day 132: A Family That is Really Family Day 131: A Personal Motto Day 130: Mork and Mindy Day 129: The Bears’ House Day 128: Veterans Day 127: Doppelgangers Day 126: Letting Life Unfold as It Should Day 125: The Constantly Changing Sky Day 124: When History Repeats Itself Day 123: The Love Scene in The Sound of Music Day 122: Helen Keller Day 121: The Welcome Back Kotter Theme Song Day 120: Sheldon Cooper Day 119: Having Permission to Make Mistakes Day 118: A Diverse Group of Friends Day 117: Family Traditions Day 116: The Haunting Season Day 115; Life Experience Day 114: Changes Day 113: The Wooly Bear Caterpillar Day 112: The National Anthem Day 111: Parents Who Care Day 110: Good Friends Day 109: My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss Day 108: A.A. Milne QuotesDay 107: Spending Time Wisely Day 106: Parades Day 105: The Peanuts Gang Dancing Day 104: Sharing a Secret Language Day 103: The Electric Company Day 102: Doing the Right Thing Day 101: When Siblings Agree Day 100: Being Optimistic Day 99: Trying Something New Day 98: The Sound of Children on a Playground Day97: Good Advice Day 96: Red and white peppermint candy Day 95: The Soundtrack from the Movie Shrek Day 94: Accepting Change Day 93: True Love Day 92: Camera Phones Day 91: Bicycle Brakes Day 90: HeroesDay 89: The Cricket in Times Square Day 88: The Grand Canyon Day 87: Unanswered Prayers Day 86: Apples Fresh from the Orchard Day 85: Being Human Day 84: Captain Underpants Day 83: The Diary of Anne Frank Day 82: In Cold Blood Day 81: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry Day 80: The Outsiders Day 79: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Day 78: The First Amendment Day77: People Who Touch Our Lives Day 76: The Rewards of Parenting Day 75: Improvements Day 74: Family Traditions Day 73: Learning From Our Mistakes Day 72: Live Music Day 71: Sleeping In Day 70: Grover Day 69: A Good Hair Day Day 68: A Sense of Community Day 67: Kindness Day 66: Living in a Place You Love Day 65: Gifts from the Heart Day 64: The Arrival of Fall Day 63: To Kill a Mockingbird Day 62: Green LightsDay 61: My Canine Friends Day 60: Differences Day 59: A New Box of Crayons Day 58: Bookworms Day 57: Being Oblivious Day 56: Three-day Weekends Day 55: A Cat Purring Day 54: Being a Unique Individual Day 53: Children’s Artwork Day 52: Lefties Day 51: The Neighborhood Deer Day 50: Campfires Day 49: Childhood Crushes Day 48: The Words “Miss You” Day 47: Birthday Stories Day 46: Nature’s Hold on Us Day 45: Play-Doh Day 44: First Day of School Pictures Day 43: Calvin and Hobbes Day 42: Appreciative Readers Day 41: Marilyn Monroe’s Best Quote Day 40: Being Silly Day 39: Being Happy Exactly Where You Are Day 38: Proud Grandparents Day 37: Chocolate Chip Cookies Day 36: Challenging Experiences that Make Great Stories Day 35: You Can’t Always Get What You Want Day 34: Accepting the Fog Day 33: I See the Moon Day 32: The Stonehenge Scene from This is Spinal Tap Day 31: Perspective Day 30: Unlikely Friendships Day 29: Good Samaritans Day 28: Am I a Man or Am I a Muppet? Day 27: Shadows Day 26: Bike Riding on Country Roads Day 25: When Harry Met Sally Day 24: Hibiscus Day 23: The Ice Cream Truck Day 22: The Wonderful World of Disney Day 21: Puppy love Day 20 Personal Theme Songs Day 19: Summer Clouds Day 18: Bartholomew Cubbin’s VictoryDay 17: A Royal Birth Day 16: Creative Kids Day 15: The Scent of Honeysuckle Day 14: Clip of Kevin Kline Exploring His MasculinityDay 13: Random Text Messages from My Daughter Day 12: Round Bales of HayDay 11: Water Fountains for Dogs Day 10: The Rainier Beer Motorcycle Commercial Day 9: Four-Leaf Clovers Day 8: Great Teachers We Still RememberDay 7: Finding the missing sock Day 6: Children’s books that teach life-long lessonsDay 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
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’ve been thinking about angels lately.
I’m not referring to generous, charitable and kind people who make the world a better place.
I’m referring to guardian angels.
I don’t remember giving much thought to guardian angels before I had children. But when my son was a toddler, he got so sick I had to take him to the emergency room. The doctors ran tests, couldn’t determine what was wrong, prescribed medication anyway and sent us home.
My husband was out of town, and my daughter wasn’t yet born.
Needless to say, I was feeling a bit alone as I cuddled my son. But then he stirred and looked up toward the ceiling.
“Mommy,” he said, “that’s a really pretty butterfly.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but after that, he slowly began to improve. Later, I told a friend what happened, and she simply shrugged and said, “He probably saw an angel.”
Just like I will always wonder about other circumstances when heartache or disaster were narrowly avoided by some unexpected intervention.
Two weeks ago, I was driving home from work when I heard a familiar ding and a light came on indicating my Jeep was low on gas.
I ignored it. I had kids to run to activities, and I was sure that I had sufficient gas to make it until morning. I knew the light was just a warning. After all, I’d been driving for more than 30 years and had never run out of gas.
As the saying goes, there’s a first time for everything.
Because my children attend school out of district, they don’t have the option of riding a bus. The north-south interstate between our house and the school complex is a truck route with lots of congestion and dangerous driving.
And that was before construction began.
For over a year now, the stretch of the interstate between us and the schools has been limited to exceedingly narrow lanes with only Jersey walls on both sides. There’s been no place to get off the road if needed. Even though the speed limit has been lowered to 55, most people still go 70. This summer, there were so many accidents, including several fatal ones, that the interstate seemed to be shut down on an almost a daily basis. The recent presence of police patrols has slightly improved the situation, but the road is still scary.
So, when my Jeep stuttered to a stop in the middle of one of the two open northbound lanes in the construction zone, I knew my decision to delay filling up the gas tank had been a fatal one.
My daughter and her BFF thought the situation was funny and started calling people. My son told me not to panic. I turned on my emergency blinkers, called 911 and looked in the rear-view mirror as semi trucks and cars barreled down the interstate straight at us.
All I could do was pray.
Then a miracle happened.
Even though the interstate was busy and I was stranded where there was absolutely no place to get off the road, no one hit us. All the vehicles behind me managed to swerve into the other lane. Just as I got off the phone with the 911 dispatcher, a tow truck slowed behind me, pulled around then parked in front of my Jeep. The driver got out and motioned me to roll down my window.
“Ma’am,” he said, “You can’t stop your car in the middle of the interstate. It’s dangerous.”
I’ve always thought of myself as a fairly intelligent person who only occasionally makes stupid mistakes (like driving kids around on an empty gas tank), but I never thought I actually look stupid.
“Yeah, I know, ” I said. “I ran out of gas.” I have to admit that didn’t make me sound any more intelligent.
“Get out of the car, and I’ll tow you,” he replied.
There were four of us in the Jeep. On a busy interstate. During rush hour. With no shoulder. And we couldn’t all fit in the cab of his tow truck.
I was trying to tell the kids to jump over the jersey wall into the construction area when another car pulled up behind me then stopped.
My neighbor, who had overheard my entire 911 call because his daughter had been on the phone with his wife, had come to rescue us. He took the kids to school and me to the gas station. There, the tow truck driver unloaded the Jeep and waited to determine if an empty gas tank had been the problem.
When I asked how much I owed or if he needed my information, he said, “You don’t owe me anything” and walked away.
I was speechless.
I wasn’t sure if I could thank luck or a guardian angel.
I’m leaning toward a guardian angel.
In a world when life sometimes comes at us with such intensity that we make mistakes and get off track, guardian angels somehow ensure that we don’t completely run off the road. And in a world when we often try so hard to ensure our lives go in the direction we want, guardian angels often steer us to where we are actually supposed to be.
There are times in my life where there is no explanation as to why things go right when they shouldn’t have and why things seem to be going wrong when I’ve done everything to ensure success.
And maybe there are times when guardian angels drive tow trucks.
If popular culture is to be believed, all of our questions will ultimately be answered when we die.
I may be a bit impatient, but I’m not ready to find out if that’s true. I’m not even all that eager to have all my questions answered.
For the moment, I’m quite content to muddle along and think that wondering is the essence of living.
And wonder I do.
I know there are people who believe there is a master plan or that we just have to trust fate. But, in reality, there are more seven billion people on earth. If even one percent of those people are similar to me, they are constantly doing something random and unplanned that could change everything.
There are just no easy answers about how the universe works.
I first learned that during a summer in the late 1970’s.
My family was spending our summer vacation exploring Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding area.
Knowing my parents, the trip was well-planned. But even the best planning doesn’t take into account when little girls have to go to the bathroom.
My dad grumbled as he pulled our Oldsmobile 98 sedan into a parking spot at a visitors’ information center. As my mother and I headed to the women’s room, we paid little attention to the car with Michigan license place that nosed in next to us.
But my dad was paying attention.
Which is why he chose to watch a slide presentation about some geological event that had occurred at some point in history at our current location. I have no recollection of what the event was or when it occurred. All I know is that when my mom and I sought out my dad and brother, they were watching the presentation.
Or they were at least pretending to watch.
My dad was sitting in a metal folding chair wearing a foolish grin and pointing to the people in front of him.
Those people were my great-uncle Vilas and his new girlfriend, Betty.
Uncle Vilas, who was from the Detroit Michigan area, had visited us once in Oregon, but I really didn’t remember him. My parents didn’t even know he had a girlfriend, even though his wife had passed away years before.
After the slide show ended, my mom tapped him on the shoulder. When he recognized her, he was initially shocked then broke into a wide grin. We spent time in that visitors’ center catching up. Then we went our separate ways.
That was the last time we saw my Uncle Vilas. He died a few years later in 1986, but my family always talked about the coincidence.
Then, just a few weeks ago, I was asked to judge a Boys and Girls Club state scholarship competition, and the national coordinator was from Adrian Michigan, where my mother was born. As we talked about the coincidence, I discovered that her parents had graduated from high school where and when my Uncle Vilas was principal.
My immediate reaction was “it’s a small world.” But sometimes, that’s just hard to believe,
I began to a do a little more family research and discovered that Uncle Vilas, like my son, played a brass instrument in a band. I also discovered that he, like I have, spent his career in service to others rather than in the business world.
I’m still not sure if that means anything more than he seems to pop into my life at the most unexpected moments.
But I’m willing to wait for the answer.
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.
I’m walking a tightrope in my life. The tightrope may not be physically dangerous, but it’s dangerous none the less. And the only thing that prevents me from making that one deadly misstep is the realization that letting go requires perfect timing. Otherwise, the results can be unpleasant at best and horrific at worst.
The tightrope I’m talking about is one of convention – – of not calling people out when they speak with authority that their religious beliefs make them more moral than or superior to people of a different faith.
As I write this, I’m pretty sure my balance is getting very, very shaky. But that’s nothing new for me.
In fact, I came very close to stepping off that tight rope the other day. A meeting was wrapping up when the conversation turned toward politics. That led to a discussion about the nation’s morals and values. Or rather, the values and morals of the American public.
I was already standing up and collecting my things when the woman who had been sitting quietly next to me during the entire meeting stood up and proclaimed, “I’m a Christian. It’s so sad that so many people in our country aren’t.”
It took all of my willpower not to turn to her and say, “So, what you’re saying is because I’m Jewish, I don’t have any morals or values?”
(For the record, I’m not Jewish. I’m Lutheran. And faith plays a very important role in my life. I just don’t think that my version of faith is the only one God smiles upon.)
Instead of confronting the woman, I said nothing. But her comment bothered me –mostly because I’ve been hearing different versions of it for years. People are holding Christianity up as though it were membership card to a club that scorns non-members. It’s almost as though their club is actively recruiting new members while holding its nose up at those who choose to join a different club instead.
To me, this behavior is in direct opposition to what Jesus taught. He preached acceptance and love of everyone. Period. And I’m pretty sure his message was primarily about how we treat each other rather than what we call ourselves.
I say this because I have friends of a different faith, or even of no faith, who behave more like Christ than a lot of people who call themselves “Christians.” They help without judgement. They give without expectations. They accept without an agenda. Most importantly, they simply care about other people.
I recognize there are people of non-Christian faiths who have committed horrible acts in the name of their religion. But, if you look at history, a lot of Christians have done the same.
At the same time, there are many, many, many more people who have committed acts of compassion in the name of religion – all types of religion.
Faith is a beautiful gift. But giving to others – regardless of faith – is also a beautiful gift.
As my friend Holly so eloquently stated, “If a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jew and an atheist all working together on a Habitat for Humanity House, what’s the end result? The house gets built and a family that didn’t have its own home now has one.”
To me, that’s the value that America needs: the value of appreciating our differences while working together to care for everyone – the poor in resources and the poor in spirit. It’s a value of judging less and caring more.
What America doesn’t need are people proclaiming that there is only one religion with the right values and/or that only Christians are moral.
So, there you go.
If I haven’t fallen off my tightrope by now, I’m pretty sure there’s someone who wants or is willing to push me.
But, just so you know, I’m going to get right back up.