Live a Life

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Viola Davis Image

Viola Davis won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Fences. I love Viola Davis. She is an extremely powerful actress, giving life to what she called “the stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition, people who fell in love and lost.”

But I take exception to one thing she said in her acceptance speech. In an emotionally charged, sometimes even angry oration she said, “I became an artist and thank God I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” I’m sorry Ms. Davis, but I believe you are wrong. Acting is indeed a noble profession, and it is now more than ever much needed to tell the very stories of seemingly ordinary people who have accomplished extraordinary things. But acting is NOT the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.

If you don’t believe me then I suggest you seek out the nearest social worker, health care professional, clergy member, funeral director, teacher, artist, sculptor, author, coach, journalist, soldier, community organizer, hospice worker, and I could go on. Buy them a cup of coffee and ask them about their jobs. Ask them why they do what they do. Listen carefully. You may be surprised to hear their stories.

My point is that A LOT of people in A LOT of different vocations know what it means to celebrate a life well lived. These are people who are in the trenches every single day, week after week, month after month, year after year, who actually serve and lift up the very ones you have the honor of portraying on a stage or screen.

If you’re lucky you are rewarded with a little trophy and get to say some nice words about people who have supported you along the way. And then you are on to your next character portrayal, making a handsome sum in the process. But others don’t have that luxury, nor do they ask for it. After a couple of hours at the local cineplex hoping to be inspired or entertained by your work, they are right back out there in the real world tending to the lives of real people because they do, indeed, know what it means to “live a life.”

As in thousands of Christian churches around the world, at First Lutheran we will observe the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. At this service people will receive ashes on their foreheads with a remembrance that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” It is a stark symbol of human mortality, but also a vivid reminder that during our limited time on this earth we are called to make a difference, to live a life of self sacrifice and service to others, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus even though the road led to a cross. We do it because we know, Ms. Davis, there is value and integrity in every single life.  We were taught this by  the One who gave his life for us.

If you know someone who knows what it means to celebrate life, to live life abundantly, and would like to honor them, kindly write their names in the response box.  And, more importantly, if they are still alive take a moment to share with them how important they are to you.

Hopeful

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Hopeful Image

True story. I read it in the Chicago Tribune and saw it on NBC News. As far as I can tell, neither are fake news outlets. Two men found themselves standing next to each other at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. It was a bit uncomfortable because one was a Jew, a rabbi no less, the other a Muslim. But they had come to the airport for a shared purpose: to peacefully protest the travel ban. While they were rooted in very different religious backgrounds, and had been taught to be suspicious of one another, they had yet one more thing in common. Each carried a child on his shoulders. The Jewish man, a son. The Muslim man, a daughter. And as they stood side by side, their arms brushing unintentionally, they noticed the children above them had struck up a conversation. Apparently the children had no awareness of their religious and cultural differences, and they had not yet been taught to be apprehensive of – or worse, to hate – another human being.

This unlikely encounter led to the Jewish man inviting the Muslim man and his family to his home to celebrate Shabbat. Remarkably, the Muslim family accepted the invitation. They got to know each other better. They asked questions about each other’s faith. They found common ground. They began to build mutual respect. But there was a price. Both men began to receive hateful emails. Friends could not understand why either man would find value in such cross-cultural relationship building, and were advised to stop. Certainly they could not overcome centuries of animosity. Still too much fear, not enough hope.

I am convinced that we are not going to get anywhere as long as we allow fear to determine our behavior and attitudes. And quite frankly, I’m beyond tired of the fear messages that get hurled at me every single day. I refuse to be afraid of whoever the “other du jour” is. It’s just not healthy. I’m making a conscious decision to not be suspicious of others, but rather open to what I might learn. You can call me naive, stupid, idealistic, or even a snowflake. I honestly don’t care because when I take an honest assessment of my own faith tradition it simply does not allow for fear. But it does create a lot of space for hope.

Here’s what Jesus said: “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That’s where I choose to hang my hat. Not once did Jesus ever avoid anyone because he was fearful of them. He traveled through dangerous places, hung out with people that everyone else would have been scared to death of, and never once drew a distinction between races, cultures, genders, or classes.

Instead of fear, Jesus approached people from a position of hope. For healing, forgiveness, a new start, a fresh outlook, reconciliation, justice, and peace. Hope for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom, a time when absolutely nothing will separate us from the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus.

This is a worthy goal, to approach life with hope. And maybe it starts with one person, one family at a time. Like a Jewish family and a Muslim family breaking bread together. What would it mean for you to be more hopeful? And what can each one of us do to spread a message of hope? God knows, we could sure use some.

Impact

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Sheila Gulas, head softball coach at Ashland University, announced her retirement last week, effective at the end of the 2017 season.  My daughter had the honor and privilege of playing for Coach Gulas for four years, a time she described as the most formative period of her life.

In a career that has spanned over thirty years, Gulas’s stats speak for themselves.  When she wins her first game this year it will be number 900 (yes, you read that correctly), and when she notches her seventh victory it will be number 700 at Ashland.  In the world of collegiate athletics that is a very big deal.  Later this year she will be inducted into the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame, a well deserved honor indeed.

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story.  There’s much more to Coach Gulas than win-loss percentages.  Shortly after the announcement of her retirement was made public, social media lit up with emotional tributes to the person who had shaped and fashioned the lives of countless young people (my daughter included).  What I found particularly telling was the relative lack of softball related comments.  Sure, there was mention of athletic success, but the overwhelming majority of the accolades heaped upon a beloved coach focused on her impact beyond the diamond.  Former players described her as a role model, mentor, and inspiration. They attributed Gulas’s tutelage to success in their chosen careers, to becoming solid citizens, and to learning how to work with others who claim differing perspectives.  They thanked her for teaching them how to handle adversity, for bringing out the best in them, and for pushing them beyond their own self-imposed limits.  Those lessons were soon found to be directly applicable in the real world.  Parents also weighed in, thankful that their daughters had the opportunity to play for a coach who genuinely cared about her student athletes, emphasis more on the former than the latter.  It quickly became clear that Coach Gulas provided much more than guidance on the playing field.

This got me thinking about the opportunities we have to make a positive impact on the lives of others.  I think about the number of people we come into contact with every single day.  I think about what we say and how we choose to say it.  I think about our emotional responses.  I think about how we act in the workplace, at home, in the community.  I think about how we use our spare time.  What messages are we sending?  All around us people are watching and listening.

There is no doubt in my mind that we are making an impact. The question is, what kind?  What would people say about us?  What words would they use to describe us?  What have we taught our children, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbors – either intentionally or unknowingly – about the most important things in life?  Things like honesty, respect, decency, and accountability?  Each day is filled with new opportunities to make a positive impact.

Jesus once said, “You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to the whole house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify to your Father in heaven.”  I like to think about Coach Gulas in this way.  Now, how are we thinking about ourselves?

Division

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I went to my barber the other day so she could trim back what little hair I have left on my balding head. I’ve been going to her for a long time and we have gotten to know each other quite well. Our daughters are of a similar age and often our conversation will turn to their exploits. During this particular visit she told me that her daughter was in town for her birthday, but after a contentious conversation over a certain political issue, the daughter decided not to see her mother at all.

Is this what it has come to? Will the unfortunate division that now characterizes the landscape of our country dig its tentacles into our families, and rip them apart as well?        I worry that civil discourse, the ability to listen to one another for the sake of deepening our understanding (rather than judging), and a commitment to respect one another in spite of our differences are all becoming diminishing characteristics in our culture. It seems that we are more concerned about proving a point, or being right, or better, or having the upper hand, regardless of whether it means damaging – or even destroying – a relationship.

An aside (kind of): Everyone knows I swing to the left on most political, social, and theological matters, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear opposing views. It’s been difficult to find respectful conversation lately (apparently for the above mentioned reasons), so I reached out to a long-time friend who sees things differently, and asked if he would help me understand his perspective. That request resulted in an honest, but challenging dialogue that has led – at least for me, and I hope for him – to a deeper appreciation of how each of us views the world. Thanks, D, for your friendship.

Which brings me to the Sermon on the Mount. For my non-church going readers this is where Jesus pretty much lays out his platform, the stuff he thinks is of utmost importance, which is why it takes up three whole chapters in Matthew’s gospel. There’s no bullshitting here. Jesus gets down to business and lays down the cold, hard facts of what it’s going to take if people want to follow him. He flips everything pertaining to the religious establishment and its rules upside down. Nothing about joining the movement is easy, and if you don’t like it you can lump it because discipleship is not for sissies.

Jesus said things like, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” because any poor schmuck can love their friends, but it takes guts to initiate – let alone sustain – a relationship with someone you hate. “Don’t resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well… Give to everyone who begs from you..,” because that old adage about an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth just leaves everyone blind and on a jell0 diet for the rest of their lives. But wait! There’s more:

“Don’t judge, so that you may not be judged. Don’t point out the speck in your neighbor’s eye until you take the log out of your own eye. And don’t waste time storing up earthly treasures,” because no one really has the right to judge anyone, and a healthy self-assessment is always in order before telling someone they need to change their ways, and stuff is just stuff is just stuff and can never satisfy you like being right with God.

I think Jesus said a lot of these things because he noticed that people always seem to be in danger of moving AWAY from one another rather than TOWARD one another. But isn’t that what we’re experiencing right now? I’m afraid that’s not going to work out very well because we all have to inhabit the same planet. Eventually we’re going to bump into one another and somehow we’ll have to find a way to make it work.

So let me suggest that it’s high time for all of us to let go of our hatred, our anger, our disrespect, our rancor, our holier-than-thou attitudes, our desire to always come out on top, our prejudices, our fears, and our arrogance and – for Christ’s sake – start treating each other like human beings created in the image of God, who intended us to live together in community.