Deeds, not Words

deeds2

In Charles Schultz’s comic strip Peanuts, Linus and Charlie Brown are depicted as being all bundled up with caps and coats on a snowy, wintry day. They spot Snoopy shivering in the cold. Desiring to comfort him, they walk over to him.

Linus speaks first, “Be of good cheer, Snoopy.”

Charlie Brown adds, “Yes, be of good cheer.”

Then they turn and walk away. Snoopy is left still shivering. A large question mark appears over Snoopy’s puzzled expression as he watches Linus and Charlie Brown walk away.

Love is intended to carry us beyond words to deeds.

For many of us, it is easier to love from a distance rather than “up close and personal” because it is not as complicated or as involved.

Sometimes it is easier to see the forest rather than the trees.

Sometimes it is easier to write a check to a relief agency than to love or take care of our neighbor next door.

Sometimes it is easier to say a prayer for the person far away than to reach out physically to someone in the same predicament locally.

Real caring occurs on a one-on-one basis and must be more than simply giving it lip-service.

Our caring for one another might occur through a counseling appointment,

a hospital call,

a nursing home visit,

a twenty-minute meeting on the parking lot with a friend,

or a brief encounter in an aisle at the grocery store with someone who simply needs for us to listen.

It might occur by phoning an estranged acquaintance,

delivering cookies to a shut-in,

spending time with someone who is lonely,

helping an elderly neighbor with shopping or yard work,

or reading to someone who is blind or incapacitated.

When we do some love, we are to be there for each other.

There are many lives that we can touch and befriend. There are countless people who are hurting, unhappy, and unloved in our communities and they long to see love presented in deeds, not just in words. The work that we do on a one-on-one basis in sharing love has a great and immediate impact.

Charles “Chuck” Swindoll, in his book, Improving Your Serve illustrates this point. Swindoll writes: “Early one chilly morning an American soldier was making his way back to the barracks in London. As he turned the corner in his jeep, he spotted a little lad with his nose pressed to the window of a pastry shop. Inside, the cook was kneading dough for a fresh batch of pastries. The hungry boy stared in silence, watching every move. The soldier pulled his jeep to the curb, stopped, left his vehicle and walked quietly over to where the little fellow was standing. Through the steamed window he could see the mouthwatering morsels as they were being pulled from the oven, piping hot. The soldier’s heart went out to the nameless child as he stood beside him.

“Son, would you like some of those?”

The boy was startled.

“Oh, yes sir, I would,” said the lad.

The soldier stepped inside and bought a dozen, put them in a bag, and walked back to where the lad was standing in the foggy and damp cold of the London morning. He smiled, held out the bag, and simply said, “Here you are.”  As he turned to walk away, he felt a tug on his coat. He looked down at the boy and heard the child ask quietly, “Mister, are you God?”

We are not told what the soldier’s reply was to the lad that day, but whatever his response, he embodied what Father Jerome Cummings had in mind when he wrote: “Love is shown in your deeds, not in your words.”

 

 

A Time to Hate

head in sand

“Silence in the face of evil is evil itself…Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

How many times have we heard that the problem with the world today is that we have forgotten how to love? It was over forty years ago that Hal David and Burt Bacharach wrote What The World Needs Now Is Love, a song that contains the lines: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love./It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of . . .

So the problem is not particularly new.

While I admire the sentiments of the song, I believe the problem is not that we have forgotten how to love, but that we have forgotten how to hate – righteous, clean, disinterested hate. Hate is a strong and provocative word and I neither invoke it lightly nor frivolously. I suspect that at first blush my belief may sound shocking, controversial, and even dangerous, but please bear with me and let me explain what I mean.

Evil currently stalks the world in many forms; and moral people, afraid of being poisoned by hate, have become indifferent to evil. We have forgotten how to hate and what to hate. Forgetting how to hate can be just as damaging as forgetting how to love. I realize that, immersed as we are in a culture that exhorts us to “turn the other cheek,” such a statement can sound quite absurd. We need to remember the wisdom found in the Talmud: “Those who are kind to the cruel will end up being cruel to the kind.”

There is a hatred from which we instinctively recoil. In so many of its manifestations, hatred is ugly, vicious and destructive. It does fully as much harm to the subject as it does to the object. It is pitiful to think of people going down to the grave, nursing animosities that affect body, mind and spirit.

But are there not evils that should be hated – evils that should arouse in us both loathing and abhorrence? How can we look on war or racism or slums or prostitution or economic exploitation or murders in our cities with anything other than detestation? There is a hatred that is clean, disinterested and free from malice, what the writer of Psalm 139 calls a “perfect hatred.

As he worked in the slums of London’s East End, Salvation Army General Bramwell Booth expressed that “perfect hatred” when he said: “My God, how I detest the enemy that has wrought this havoc.” Without such selfless and righteous indignation, evil goes unchecked and flourishes.

When one thinks of the great reformers, almost all of them without exception were passionate in their righteous indignation. That passion is indispensable to moral leadership. Think of those who have led the way in societal change:

  • think of Amos, the Hebrew prophet, thundering against the oppression of the poor;
  • think of Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk, assailing the evils of the Roman Catholic Church’s indulgence system;
  • think of Dorothea Dix, the Roman Catholic social activist, dedicating her life to improving the care of the mentally ill;
  • think of the Grimke sisters – Sarah and Angelina – the first white female abolitionists, crusading not only for the abolition of slavery, but also against the racism and sexism of mid-nineteenth century America;
  • think of Rosa Parks, the woman whom the United States Congress called “The Mother of the Modern Civil Rights Movement,” refusing to obey bus driver James Blake’s order that she give up her seat on his bus. This action of civil disobedience started the Montgomery Bus Boycott and launched Martin Luther King, Jr. into national prominence; and lest we forget,
  • think of Jesus of Nazareth, the itinerant story-telling Jewish rabbi, taking a whip in his hands and driving out of the temple the moneychangers and those who sold oxen, sheep and pigeons – all of whom had made the temple “a den of thieves.”

Disinterested hatred has had a part in all beneficial reforms. Such hatred is not incongruous with love. Indeed, dare we describe as either loving or good anyone who is incapable of hating wrongdoing? Can we not say that hatred of evil is not only permissible, but also mandatory?

But I know that such a statement is difficult, for obviously there is a problem here. How can one hate and at the same time love? How can one be angry and at the same time just? How can one rise up in righteous indignation against some flagrant iniquity and at the same time preserve a loving spirit? To those questions, I would argue that hatred is a valid emotion – an appropriate response – when directed at the truly evil: at those who have gone far beyond the pale of human decency by committing acts that threaten the basic fabric of civilized living. I am particularly thinking of:

  • the individuals who, for no apparent reason, lined up four teenagers in Newark, New Jersey, made them kneel against a wall, and then shot them in the head, execution-style; or
  • the terrorists who flew airplanes into New York skyscrapers or the suicide bombers who planned to blow transatlantic commercial aircraft out of the sky, killing appalling numbers of people; or
  • the white supremacists who dragged a black man three miles while tied to the back of a car; or
  • the three terrorists who coordinated nail bombings in Belgium: two at the Brussels Airport in Zaventem, and one at the Maalbeek metro station in Brussels. In these attacks, thirty-two victims and three perpetrators were killed, and over three hundred people were injured; or
  • the extremists who attacked Istanbul’s airport and killed forty-seven people and wounded over two hundred; or
  • the three suicide bombers who struck near the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, followed by suicide bombings and mass shootings at cafés, restaurants and a music venue in central Paris, killing 130 people; or
  • the attackers in the deadly assault on a bakery/cafe in Bangladesh, killing at least twenty hostages, ending a nearly eleven-hour siege; or
  • the Syrian dictator who is responsible for at least 250,000 deaths, twelve million more homeless, cities and historical treasures in ruins, the economy devastated, and no end in sight; or
  • the twenty-nine-year-old American security guard, who killed forty-nine people and wounded fifty-three others in a terrorist attack – also considered a hate crime – inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida; or most recently,
  • the radicalized sniper who killed five Dallas police officers in the deadliest incident for law enforcement in the United States since 9/11 and the Kansas City, Missouri man who went on a shooting rampage that left two police officers, a sheriff’s deputy dead, and three others wounded in Baton Rouge.

Such people are irretrievably wicked. Such people are not just utterly irresponsible; they are deeply immoral and profoundly amoral. Therefore, not to hate such evil persons is itself evil and constitutes a passive form of complicity. We are obligated to despise and to resist such wickedness at all costs.

I know that the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that the true object of proper hatred is the sin, not the sinner, whose life must be respected and whose repentance effected. But does this teaching apply to impenitent and hardened monsters who pay no heed to correction? For us to extend forgiveness and compassion to them in the name of religion is just insidious.

What is needed so badly in our time is a clean, disinterested hatred of evil. When one thinks of the wrongs that cry out to be set right, the apathy of the average person is really astonishing. Shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr began his dauntless fight for civil rights in the South, it shocked him that more support did not come from Christians, and in particular, from Christian clergy. In his book, Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King wrote: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. Our generation will have to repent not only for the acts and words of the children of darkness, but also for the fears and apathy of the children of light.”

What is the reason for such a timid, culpable, and criminal silence; for such a lack of righteous indignation; for such an absence of vigorous, passionate, and horrified protest; and for such a shortage of sharp, intelligent, and constructive criticism? Why are we so prone to sit back and to do nothing, content to tolerate existing wrongs and to take the line of least resistance?

I must admit that I do not have all the answers to those questions, but I do believe that when there is no passion, no white hot fervor, no ardent love of the right, and no burning hatred of wrong, we have become morally and spiritually flabby. In such a time, we need to be reminded that when the First Dynasty of ancient Egypt was falling into ruins, someone was brave enough to inscribe the following words on the side of a tomb: “No one was angry enough to speak out.” Those words are reminiscent of Dante Alighieri famous line: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”

The lesson in all this should be clear: our moral flabbiness will not be averted unless there is an end to timid silence; unless there is a rebirth of moral conviction; and unless there is sharp, unsparing, intelligent criticism of irresponsibility and immorality. In a time when basic principles are treated with contempt, we need prophetic voices to confront real issues, arouse moral and social concerns, and bring to the surface all that is the deepest and best in each of us.

Robert F. Kennedy was one of those prophetic voices. During his 1968 presidential campaign, Kennedy was fond of quoting a daring line from George Bernard Shaw’s 1921 play, Back to Methuselah. Quoting Shaw, Kennedy said: “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’”

If we dare to dream of a world freed from inequity, oppression, war and exploitation, and if we hope for a world characterized by justice, freedom, peace and respect, then the question remains for us to answer: Why not? Why not, indeed!

“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven . . . A time to love and a time to hate.”  – Ecclesiastes 3:1, 8

 

 

 

 

 

A Four-Letter Word

four-letter3When I was teaching an English 101 course at a local college, one of the exercises I went through with the class was the use of language. I would ask the class: “Who can give me a four-letter word that ends in “k” and means “intercourse?” There would be a hushed silence as well as some nervous snickering. No one wanted to answer the question, yet all thought they knew the answer. “Come on,” I would urge the class, “surely, you know the word.” After what must have seemed a lifetime, I would break the silence and say, “Alright, if you won’t say the word, I will. The word is – (I would allow a very long pregnant pause here) – the word is ‘talk.’” (What? You were thinking of that other word? Shame on you.) There was an almost audible sigh of relief that filled the classroom. What a tremendous build-up for such an equally enormous let-down!

I apologize in advance for the four-letter words toward the end of the following story. I would have deleted them, but the story would not be the same without them as you will see.

Joe and Mary were just married and went on their honeymoon. When they returned home, the bride immediately called her mother.

“Well,” said her mother, “how was the honeymoon?”

“Oh mama,” the new bride replied, “the honeymoon was wonderful! So romantic…” Suddenly she burst out crying. “But, mama, as soon as we returned, Joe started using the most horrible language – things I’d never heard before! I mean all these awful four-letter words! You’ve got to take me home!! PLEASE MAMA!”

“Mary, Mary,” her mother said, “calm down!  You need to stay with your husband and work this out. Now, tell me, what could be so awful? WHAT four-letter words?”

“Please don’t make me tell you, mama,” wept the daughter. “I’m so embarrassed, they’re just too awful! JUST COME GET ME, PLEASE!”

“Oh, my darling daughter, you must tell me what has you so upset. Tell your mother these horrible four-letter words.”

Sobbing, the young bride said, “Oh, Mama….he used words like: DUST and WASH and IRON and COOK…”

“I’ll pick you up in twenty minutes,” said Mary’s mother.

There are many four-letter words in our language and we may laugh at that old joke, but there is another four-letter word that needs to be added to the above list. That word is LOVE.

To mention the word “love” is to immediately conjure up a whole gamut of emotions and I do not want to be misunderstood as to what I am talking about here. I am not talking about erotic sexual desire. I hate to disappoint anyone reading this, but if that is what you think this post is about, you will need to look elsewhere. No. What I am talking about is what Joseph Campbell meant when he said: “I think of compassion [love] as the fundamental religious experience and, unless that is there, you have nothing.”

I believe that the most important dimension of love is something that one does. In my lexicon, love is a verb, not a noun. Only action can sow the seeds to reap the harvest of love. One does not have to be a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu to do some love. One does not have to be a theistic person at all to practice love. Humans of all sorts and conditions have the capacity to do some love. To demonstrate love and compassion is what marks each and every one of us as truly human.

It is what Albert Camus, the French existentialist and author had in mind when he penned these words: “If someone here told me to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine would be blank. On the last page, I should write: ‘I recognize one duty, and that is to love.’”

In addition to Camus’ weighty words, I believe that one of the most moving statements concerning a person’s humanity is spoken by the ghost of Jacob Marley, Ebenezer Scrooge’s former business partner in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Jacob Marley has been dead for seven years to the day when his ghost appears to Scrooge on that fateful Christmas Eve in the story. In that encounter, Scrooge, trembling with fear, says to the ghost: “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob.” Upon which Marley’s ghost cries out in anguish: “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

These words stand as an eloquent expression of our human responsibility to one another, suggesting that it is our inner thoughts and feelings, our motives, and our priorities that contribute to making our lives either empty or full. What we are in our whole being is so much grander than anything we can measure by surface values. Former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi put forth this idea so succinctly when she wrote: “Where there is love, there is life.” It is as simple as that. Gandhi is suggesting that the “comprehensive ocean,” of which Marley’s ghost speaks, implies that there are vast spiritual resources that each one of us has, whether we recognize them or not. From this perspective, our routine activities in and of themselves are but a “drop of water” compared to our total “business” of being caring and compassionate human beings.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “If you want the world to look different the next time you go outside, do some love.”

What a challenge that is for each one of us!

Expect the Unexpected!

christmas giving2No political commentary this week. And no tirade against fundamentalist pastors who show no compassion. Not this week. No lamenting of the present state of affairs in either politics or religion or historical comprehension or theological knowledge. No, none of that this week. Rather, I am taking my lead from Pope Francis this week who said in a recent sermon: “Enough gloom, try joy ahead of Christmas.”

So, instead of writing about some of the darker sides of our human condition, let me share this more joyful post.


December is a beautiful time of the year. The celebrations for Christmas are in full swing. Of course, they have been in that mode since Labor Day in September!

The symbols, some sacred, some quite secular, mingle in the market place: Bethlehem and the North Pole, the Angel Gabriel and Santa Claus, the Heavenly Host and grandma being run over by a reindeer, crèche scenes and chestnuts roasting by an open fire, shepherds in the fields and Christmas trees.

In the Northern Hemisphere, December is also the time when light hurls back the darkness of the winter solstice, an astronomical phenomenon that marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year.

December is also the time when Bill O’Reilly heads into the trenches for his annual battle against the “War on Christmas.” For years now, the Fox News host has been scrambling to save Christmas from a slew of threats – real and unreal – and, I am afraid that 2014 will be no exception.

The shopping malls, the Internet, the television, the radio, the magazines, and the newspapers are all proclaiming what every child already knows to be a fact: Christmas is coming! Many children will ask – if they have not already asked – “Is it Christmas yet”?

Speaking of children, during the Christmas Eve Service one year, a child was heard to innocently warble this very distinctive, but utterly unauthorized version of the Christmas hymn O Come All Ye Faithful. She sang: “Sing choirs of angels . . . sing and expect raisins!”

Expect raisins? No, I don’t think so! The child’s words were unexpected! The child’s meter may have been correct, but her thought certainly missed the mark.

With children, one should be prepared to expect the unexpected. Often, in their innocence, children just “cut to the chase,” say what is so obvious to them, and in the process, often leave us speechless.

Here are just a few of the classic cases in point:

A kindergarten pupil told his teacher that he had found a cat, but it was dead.

“How do you know that the cat was dead?” she asked her pupil.

“Because I pissed in its ear and it didn’t move,” answered the child innocently.

“You did WHAT?” the teacher exclaimed in surprise.

“You know,” explained the boy, “I leaned over and went ‘Pssst!’ and it didn’t move.”

As I said, expect the unexpected from children.

Or how about this one?

After a long day, the house had finally settled down. The children were in bed and the exhausted mother and father sat down to enjoy a few well-earned minutes of relaxation. But no sooner had they started to relax when their seven-year old daughter called from her room: “Daddy, can I have a glass of water?”

Familiar with this delaying tactic, the father called back: “No, it’s time to sleep.”

After a few minutes, the child cried out again: “Daddy, can I please have a glass of water?”

The exasperated father replied: “No, it’s time to sleep! If you ask me again, I’m coming up there to punish you!”

There was a long pause, and then the child called out: “Daddy, when you come up to punish me, would you please bring me a glass of water?”

Again, expect the unexpected from children.

Or this classic?

The little boy was doing his math homework. He said to himself, “Two plus five, that son of a bitch is seven. Three plus six, that son of a bitch is nine.”

His mother heard what he was saying and gasped, “What are you doing?”

The little boy answered, “I’m doing my math homework, Mom.”

“And is this how your teacher taught you to do it?” the mother asked.

“Yes,” he answered.

Infuriated, the mother asked the teacher the next day, “What are you teaching my son in math?”

The teacher replied, “Right now, we are learning addition.”

The mother asked, “And are you also teaching them to say two plus two, that son of a bitch is four?”

After the teacher stopped laughing, she answered, “What I taught them was, two plus two, THE SUM OF WHICH, is four.”

Children!

Finally, perhaps you recall this story.

The five year-old boy came home one day and asked his mother: “Mommy, where did I come from?”

Well, mommy was not really ready for this question, but she did the best she could, and told him that she and daddy loved each other very much and how it was out of that love that they made their little son. She then asked him if that answered his question. The five year-old replied: “Yes, I guess so, but, you see, there is this new kid who just moved in up the street and he told me that he came from Chicago. I just wanted to know where I came from.”

Ah, out of the mouths of babes, as one of the Psalms has it! Yes, children say and do the most unexpected things.

On a more serious note, consider what happened to this mother and her child.  The mother in this story realized that after all the bills were paid, there would not be much left for her and her four children to use to spend on each other for Christmas presents. Nevertheless, she took her children to a shopping mall and gave them each a twenty dollar bill and told them that was all they had to spend on each other. The children did not seem to care. They all went off thinking of inexpensive and creative ways that they could spend their five dollars per person. The mother gave instructions to meet back in an hour.

The hour went by quickly and soon everyone gathered. Everyone was excited and they were all hiding their bags so that no one could see. The youngest daughter’s bag was the smallest. But the mother did not think too much about it until they all entered the car and the youngest dropped her bag. The bag fell open and candy bars fell out. The youngest daughter turned red, hurriedly picked up the candy bars and shoved them back in her bag.

The mother was furious. She knew her youngest daughter was a little irresponsible and had a sweet tooth, but to go and spend all the Christmas money on herself was unthinkable. The mother stewed on this situation the whole way home. All the children rushed into the house to wrap their presents. The mother followed the youngest daughter into her room, closed the door and started telling her how disappointed she was in her for spending all of her money on candy bars.

The girl started to cry. And then she said, “But I didn’t. These aren’t for me. These are the presents for you and the others.”

Then the mother asked, “But what happened to the rest of the money?”

The little girl explained that she had been shopping and could not find anything that she liked for anyone else. While she was shopping, she saw a tree covered with angels. So she went to see what it was all about and found an angel with the name of a little girl on it who needed a pair of gloves, a coloring book and crayons. She thought about all the things that she and her family had and decided to buy those things for that little girl. When she was finished, all she had left was enough to buy everyone in the family a candy bar.

As Art Linkletter used to be fond of saying, “Kids say the darnedest things!” To put his words another way: Children say and do the most unexpected things.

This mother learned a valuable lesson that day. She had made significant assumptions and unquestionable expectations about her daughter’s maturity and instead, she unexpectedly found her daughter’s actions to be remarkable  expressions of caring, of compassion and of love. And, come to think of it, such demonstrations are truly in the spirit of the one whose birthday we celebrate at this “most wonderful time of the year.”

And so, with Tiny Tim in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, I say, “A Merry Christmas to us all; God bless us, every one!”
Christmas giving

More Mrs. Leonards, Please!

bird

I have never met a person whose greatest need was anything other than real, unconditional love. You can find it in a simple act of kindness toward someone who needs help. There is no mistaking love. You feel it in your heart. It is the common fiber of life, the flame that heals our soul, energizes our spirit and supplies passion to our lives. It is our connection to God and to each other.
-Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Swiss-born psychiatrist and author.

When Eliza Doolittle launches into her musical tirade against Freddy Eynsford-Hill in Alan Jay Lerner’s and Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady, the audience is treated to one of the great moments in the musical theater. Eliza sings of her irritation with Freddy, her new suitor, in the following lyrics:
Words! Words! Words!
I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?
Eliza follows her tirade with a plea to be shown Freddy’s feelings via actions instead of just his talking about how he feels about her. “Show me,” sings Eliza. Her song is a great song and a show-stopper, but consider for a moment about how crucial words have been in our lives. Many will recall that old adage from our childhood days: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words [or names] will never hurt me.” Whoever coined that phrase was never bullied. That saying might have been thought to be a useful thing to teach children who were being bullied, but the problem is that the expression is not true.

Words do matter. Words do have power. Words do hurt. Words are forceful tools and have a profound effect on each of us. Words of praise can make us feel cheerful and words of love can fill us with compassionate sentiments. Words of unkind criticism can make us feel depressed and words of harsh anger can make us feel despondent. Mean-spirited words have more power to damage one’s soul than any stick or stone. Some comedians have made careers out of insulting people. In the full glare of stage lights, they say what most other people only think or at best say only in whispers. Such insulting words demonstrate the dark side of language – the power of words to wound. Such words tear down a person.

How damaging it is for a child to be told that she will never amount to anything. Similarly, how disparaging it is for an employee to be told that he is expendable. At one time or another, all of us have been hurt by words that cut us like a knife and as a result we have either lived up to or down to the expectations of such words.

The incalculable influence of words is movingly presented by Mary Ann Bird, who first shared her moving story in her memoir entitled The Whisper Test.

Mary Ann Bird grew up knowing that she was “different,” and she hated being “different.” Mary Ann was “different” because she was born with a cleft palate, a disfigured face, a crooked nose, lopsided teeth, and deafness in one ear. When she started to attend school, her classmates constantly teased her and made it clear to her how she looked to them: a little girl with misshapen features and somewhat garbled speech. She could not even blow up a balloon without holding her nose, and when she bent to drink from a water fountain, the water spilled out of her nose.

When her schoolmates asked, “What happened to your lip?” Mary Ann would tell them that she had fallen as a baby and cut it on a piece of glass. Somehow it seemed more acceptable to have suffered an accident than to have been born with her disfigured physical appearance. By the age of seven, Mary Ann was convinced that no one outside of her own family could ever love her or even like her.

It was then that Mary Ann entered Mrs. Leonard’s second grade class and Mary Ann’s life was to change forever.

Mrs. Leonard was round and pretty and fragrant, with chubby arms and shiny brown hair and warm dark eyes that smiled even on the rare occasions when her mouth did not. Everyone adored Mrs. Leonard. But no one came to love Mrs. Leonard more than did Mary Ann Bird. And for a very special reason, as we shall see.

The time came for the school’s annual “whisper tests.” Mary Ann was barely able to hear anything out of one ear, and was not about to reveal yet another problem that would single her out further as being “different.” And so she cheated.

She had learned to watch the other children and raised her hand when they did during group testing. The “whisper test” however, required a different kind of deception: Each child would go to the door of the classroom, turn sideways, cover one ear with a hand, and the teacher would whisper something from her desk, which the child would then repeat. Then the same thing was done for the other ear. Mary Ann discovered in kindergarten that no one checked to see how tightly the untested ear was being covered, so she merely pretended to block her ear.

As usual, Mary Ann was last, but all through the testing, she wondered what Mrs. Leonard would whisper to her. She knew from previous years that Mrs. Leonard whispered such things as “The sky is blue” or “Do you have new shoes?”

Mary Ann’s turn finally came. She turned her almost deaf ear to Mrs. Leonard, plugging up the other solidly with her hand, and then gently backed her hand off enough to be able to hear. She waited and then heard the words from Mrs. Leonard’s mouth – seven words that forever transformed Mary Ann Bird’s life. Mrs. Leonard whispered softly, “I wish you were my little girl.” That seemingly small encounter changed Mary Ann’s life forever. Words do matter! A small act of kindness can make a significant difference! Sometimes all it takes is seven little softly-whispered words!

Physically, nothing really changed for Mary Ann Bird. She still had her cleft palate, her disfigured face, her crooked nose, her lopsided teeth, and her deafness in one ear. She was still the object of her classmates’ painful ridicule. But everything changed inside for Mary Ann Bird. She began to see that her classmates’ judgments were neither the only words about her nor the final words. She started to understand herself as loved and lovable and dared to envision a future not constrained by her circumstances, but a future that could transcend them.

And so the little girl who thought of herself as a reject and a loser, as someone outside, as unacceptable, found out that someone wanted her, and it changed her life. It should not surprise you to learn that when Mary Ann Bird grew up she became a teacher, following in the footsteps of the person who had set her free.

If love has a face what will it look like? We can make a fairly accurate educated guess as to how Mary Ann Bird would answer that question – love will look like Mrs. Leonard whispering those seven life-changing words. Mrs. Leonard may have been short and plump, but Mrs. Leonard was beautiful. Her radiant personality spoke of an acceptance and of a realization that the inner qualities of a person are what really matter.

That encounter with love, given form and substance for that moment in Mrs. Leonard, that encounter with love and compassion, altered how Mary Ann Bird saw herself and how she saw the world. I can only guess, but in my heart-of-hearts, I suspect that Mrs. Leonard’s less than perfect physique only increased her compassion toward the imperfections of others. The world has all the beauty queens it needs. We sure could use a lot more Mrs. Leonards!

Love Is a Verb, Not a Noun

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How wonderful it is that no one need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”
-Anne Frank, from her wartime diary The Diary of a Young Girl

Back in the 1960s when folk masses were in vogue, William Flanders wrote a folk hymn entitled Love Is A Verb. I recalled Flanders’ song when I started writing this post because I thought what the song said was pertinent to what I wanted to say in this post. Here are the relevant words of Flanders’ folk hymn:
Don’t count on love to come flying in your window.
Don’t count on love to mysteriously appear,
Born from above as an answer to your troubles,
Filling your heart with intentions most sincere.

Love isn’t there, some possession bought or found.
Love is no thing, nothing good to have around.
Yet people, at times, can be loving in their actions.
Love is a verb, not a noun.

Love as a noun may be kind and may be patient,
But love as a noun always tends to be unreal.
When love becomes loving, then real things start to happen,
And love is received as a fact, not an ideal.

Love is a verb, not a noun. Love is not a thing; love is what one does. Love is action.

What an interesting and profound thought!

To mention the word “love” is to immediately conjure up a whole gamut of emotions and I do not want to be misunderstood as to what kind of love that I am talking about here.

To begin with, when I say “love” I am not talking about erotic sexual desire. I hate to disappoint anyone reading this, but if that is what you think this post is about, you will need to look elsewhere. I can recall very early in my professional life preaching a sermon at an institution for “delinquent girls” (whatever that means). I was young and very much an inexperienced preacher. I used as my text that day the thirteenth chapter of Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the same passage that Bill Flanders used in his folk hymn quoted earlier, a passage that speaks about love – not eros (intimate love), but agapē (selfless love). Well, these “delinquent girls” were all in their late teens and early twenties and probably with raging hormones and love meant only one thing to them – passionate sexual craving. Of course, that was not what I was talking about, but that was what they heard and I should have known better than to use a text such as I did. But as I said, I was young and inexperienced. At any rate, as I looked out on my “flock” that day, some of the girls on the front row were winking at me and making some suggestive gestures with their hands. That day I learned not only to choose my preaching texts more carefully and appropriately, but also to define my terms sufficiently and adequately. So, let us understand one another right from the beginning. This post is not a sex manual. The post is not about sex at all. It is about love. Love and sex are NOT the same thing. Love is an action. Sex, on the other hand, is a biological event. Do not get me wrong. I do not mean to sound so clinical about this. I am all in favor of sex and sexual desire, and the “biological event” is a wonderful experience; it just is not the subject of this post. Someone else will have to write that post.

No. What I am talking about when I say “love” is the kind of love that is dispassionate, self-giving, detached, and is usually given without any thought of return from the person or persons to whom it is given. I have a friend who displays this kind of love. For purposes of illustration, I have changed his name to protect the guilty. My friend is “Charlie” and he goes to church every Sunday. At worship, Charlie disagrees with much, if not most, of what he hears preached from the pulpit. He stands with the congregation for the creed, but does not say those ancient words because he just does not believe in the concepts contained in the historic creedal statements of the church. It is important for Hank to maintain his intellectual integrity – and he does. At the prayers, Charlie’s mind wanders because he cannot conceive of an intervening God who answers people’s petitions. Furthermore, Charlie has a big problem with an intervening God who could/would permit the extermination of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis, or the God who would/could stand idly by while at least ten thousand children are killed in a war in Syria. Where was the loving God of the Bible and of traditional Christianity in those situations, he wails! Hank has yet to hear a satisfactory answer to that probing question.

I asked Charlie one day why he went to church on Sunday if it all was so meaningless and repugnant to him. His answer was that going to church is meaningful to his wife and he loves his wife. He does it for her, not for him. And then he added, almost parenthetically: “And besides, there are some people there that I like, and the food at the fellowship hour is pretty damn good.”

If anything, Charlie is honest. But that is not the reason that I write of my friend Charlie. I write of Charlie because this man volunteers three times a week at a local hospice and sits at the bedside of persons dying of all kinds of cancer. It is a difficult task, one that most people cannot do, and one that can only have a singular kind of an ending – death. Knowing that Charlie is not motivated by any religious impulse, I asked him why he volunteers to do such an arduous undertaking. He answered me: “I do it because I have been so blessed in my life. I have a fantastic wife and three wonderful children. I have just about everything that a person could ever want. Doing this volunteering is my way of giving back some of the good that has come my way.” In other words, for Charlie “love is a verb.” He does it voluntarily and the world that Charlie knows is a better place because of Charlie and what he does. It is people like Charlie who selflessly demonstrate the human capacity to love.

I believe that the most important dimension of love is to see “love as a verb,” to see that love is action. Only action can sow the seeds to reap the harvest of love. One does not have to be a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu to do some love. One does not have to be a theistic person at all to practice love. Humans of all sorts and conditions have the capacity to make love a verb.

I like what Albert Camus wrote when he penned these words: “If someone here told me to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine would be blank. On the last page, I should write: ‘I recognize one duty, and that is to love.’”

I may be wrong, but if we really want the world to look differently the next time we step outside, we need to make love a verb, not a noun and do some love.

That is a challenge that is for each one of us!
human family

SOMETHING There Is. . .

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“We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”
-Isaac Newton, English physicist, mathematician and theologian

In North of Boston, his second collection of poetry, Robert Frost includes a poem entitled, “Mending Wall.” The poem conveys the story of two neighbors who meet and converse over a traditional New England stone wall that needs springtime repair. It is, however, obvious that this portrayal is a metaphor for the relationship between two people. The wall is the manifestation of the emotional barricade that separates them. The poem begins with these words:
SOMETHING there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun.

The interesting thing about walls is that they block sight. They restrict relationship between the two sides. Even in Frost’s poem in which one of the characters twice proclaims, “Good fences make good neighbors,” the gist of the poem is one of careful consideration about the usefulness of walls or fences.

Clearly, although the wall has kept the property lines clear and the wildlife at bay, the narrator of the poem finds something innately disturbing about walls. Walls are inherently exclusive, as opposed to inclusive. They force boundaries rather than allowing for open relationships. Walls demarcate lines of power and dominion, hierarchical inequality, and privileges of membership. They hide, separate, alienate and, ultimately, prevent us from dealing with one another face to face, in real and personal ways.

Once one begins to question the wall and the dividing wall begins to fall, what does one do with the rubble? Does one act as those people portrayed in the film The Pianist, in which Polish Jews – abused, oppressed and excluded people during World War Two by the Nazis – are required to take down a wall that was built and haul off the rubble until it was decided to use the rubble to build another wall? The message should be clear to each of us. Obviously, each of us must work with others to remove the rubble once and for all and to build something beautiful out of that ugly rubble.

As was realized in the case of the destruction of the Berlin Wall, “wanting” a wall down and “taking” such a structure down are two different things. Taking a wall down requires serious commitment and hard work – the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” kind of hard work – to invoke Winston Churchill’s famous phrase. Taking a wall down requires us not only to question the usefulness of a wall, but also to recognize that sometimes what we have revered as infallible, irreversible and necessary may have become a source of destruction, discrimination or dissolution. And that “infallible” source of exclusion may even include scripture, canon law and commandments. What we must recognize is that the overriding value – the fence-leveling value, wall-toppling value – comes from the conviction that people come first – not scripture, not the canons, not the Ten Commandments, not the dividing walls – but people.

The Reverend Canon Eugene Taylor Sutton, (now the fourteenth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland) in his baccalaureate address to the seniors at Hope College, told the following story that illustrates this point. It seems that a young man applied for a position in his local school system. He wanted to teach, and felt that he could make a positive difference in young peoples’ lives. He wanted to give something back to the city system that prepared him well enough to make it through the tough college from which he had just graduated. Receiving his application, the receptionist looked it over to see if everything was completed, and then noticed that he missed an important section of the form.
“I notice here at the top that you didn’t check one of the boxes under ‘Race,’” she pointed out to him.
His light skin normally would have moved her to check the appropriate box for him, but there was something about his dreadlocked hair and thick lips that threw her off.
“I see that you wrote ‘Human’”
“Yeah, I know,” he answered. “I wrote it down.”
“No, you see,” she insisted, “you need to check something here: White, Black, Latino, Pacific/Asian, Native American; or you can write in a race if you like.”
“I did,” he answered. “It’s human. The race is human.”

The answer that the Right Reverend Larry Earl Maze, formerly the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas, gave to his people when asked why he signed a controversial document regarding human sexuality is apropos here. His response was this: “When faced with the decision of to exclude or to include, I will always choose the way of inclusion…”

Later in his poem, Frost has the line: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/ That wants it down.” For some, the “Something” of which Frost wrote is what African-American poet Maya Angelou may have had in mind when she penned: “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” That is to say, our better natures beckon us to come together as members of the human race to work together to build a common dwelling place – to build a place of inclusion, a place that has no dividing walls. Yes, SOMETHING THERE IS that doesn’t love a wall. . .”
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