God Walks Into a Bar…

bar3

As I’ve shared before, my writers’ group often creates something around a unique topic, theme or word. This month, the challenge was to write a “Post Fourth of July” piece about “Freedom” — i.e., no fireworks. Here’s mine. 

GOD WALKS INTO A BAR…

Just so we’re clear: I am God.

Yes, that God. Well, the only God, if you want to be technical, although at one time many years ago there were several other so-called “gods” who got a lot of attention from various prophets and spiritual leaders of all kinds, but trust Me on this, there is only one, and I AM…Who AM.

Ha! You see what I did there? No pronouns, no gender. That tends to throw you a bit, but it is what it is, and I am what I AM. Anyway, I am introducing myself right from the start so that there’s no question, no doubt, and worst of all, no nit-picking from the literary types who may be reading this as to why the narrator in this story knows what everyone is thinking.

Which is kind of a neat twist, since so many of My Creation have dared to think that they knew what I was thinking. Ha! My thoughts are so much bigger than your ability to comprehend. It’s really kind of silly for you to even try. I kept telling you that for a long time and some of you got it, but then you got into the Faith business and you had to have something to sell to the masses. I get it, really, I do. I don’t like it…but that’s for another conversation.

Sorry! I got sidetracked there a bit. Fair warning, I sometimes do that. I don’t talk directly to My Creation very often, no matter what those Fundamentalists think. It’s too hard. I can’t ever get a word in edgewise…so when I do have a chance to talk, I sometimes overshare…

So, as you may have heard, I like to visit My Creation every now and then just to check things out, chat a bit, hear what you have to say. You’d think social media would have made that easier, since everyone can share their every thought about everything all the time. About that, I’ll just say this: just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. And contrary to popular belief, social media is not Satan’s handiwork. Not because he couldn’t. He’s very clever. I know from first-hand experience. Rather, he’s just not that evil. I mean, come on…to create something that feeds humanity’s most base, arrogant, self-centered instincts and make it as close as a few easy clicks on a computer with no awareness much less regard for the possible consequences? Only Man would do that. Still, Old Goat Face sure appreciates it. And yes, he does have accounts on all the biggies: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Of course, Snapchat is his favorite.

Darn it, I got sidetracked again. See what I mean?

So, to the point: I stopped at a local bar recently and sat down next to a patron. It doesn’t really matter who it was. You’re all the same to Me. Besides, this is just a random sampling, not a scientific process (and yes, I love science. Who do you think invented science? Although Satan had a hoof, er, I mean, a hand in trigonometry…)

But, for the sake of this story, let’s just say it was an English-speaking American male, and I spoke to him as a Christian, since that’s the faith system he was most familiar with. Really though, it could be any faith and any religion. Frankly, they’re all the same, and they all end with Me, no matter what you call Me, or how you try to talk to Me. I’ve never understood why My Creation has never understood that. It’s not a great mystery. I mean, I understand, of course! There’s political power in division that unity simply doesn’t offer. What I mean is, I don’t understand why you don’t understand. That kind of power creates more trouble than it’s worth. But again, I digress…

Anyway, I introduced myself. And, My Creation doubted Me. No surprise. All that chitter-chatter about faith and trust usually goes right out the door when someone sits down next to you claiming to be Me. It happens a lot, actually. Suffice it to say, I knew what was coming.

“So, you’re God, eh?” he said. He peered at the mirror behind the bar. He was trying to see if My reflection was there next to his own between the bottles of hard liquor. It was.

“Hey, cut that out! I’m not a vampire,” I said, startling him. His eyes snapped sheepishly back to mine, embarrassed at having been caught.

“Ok, well if you’re God, then prove it.”

“Oh, that’s not a good start,” I said. “Didn’t you pay any attention in Sunday School? The Egyptians and the Red Sea? The ten commandments and the golden calf? Forty years walking in circles in the desert? The ending of ‘Lost’? Testing Me usually doesn’t end well.”

“OK, let’s just say you’re God.”

“I AM.”

“Then what’s your name?”

“I just told you. I AM. I knew what you were thinking and answered your question before you could even ask it. Because I’m you know, I’m God.

“Fine, Mister I AM.”

“Not Mister.”

“Missus? You mean, like Mother Nature?”

“Nope, not Missus either. Just, I AM.”

Uncertainty clouded his eyes, but he still played along. I have to say I appreciate honest pragmatism in My Creation. It helps weed out the real weirdos. People who believe everything will believe anything. Always dangerous.

“Ok, well then, can I buy you a drink?” he offered.

“Certainly.”

“Really? I thought drinking was a sin.”

“Not at all. What you do after you drink is sometimes sinful but drinking itself is fine. I want My Creation to enjoy the life I’ve given you – in moderation, of course! I love a good drink every now and again. Especially at weddings.”

“Great. What’ll it be?”

I looked him square in the eye. “Truthfully, I like all fermented beverages, but wine is my favorite. Are you sure you’ve heard about Me?”

He ordered a glass of a decent Merlot for Me, and another swill beer for himself. Yes, it is true, some beers and wines are better than others, and this was one of the cheapest and thinnest around. The kind you drink to get drunk, rather than to enjoy My handiwork. Ugh! But he was buying so what could I say?

He wound up to ask another question. “Now, please don’t get angry. I don’t want any floods. I left my ark at home!”

“Good one!” Honestly, it was not a particularly clever retort, but I try to ease My Creation’s heart in many ways. Laughter is one of the best. In cases like this a little white lie doesn’t hurt anything.

“I don’t mean to test you or make you mad, but if you’re God, like you say…” – he leaned over his drink and nudged Me in the ribs with his elbow and winked – “…then what was the greatest thing you ever gave us?”

“What is the greatest thing I ever gave My Creation. Not was. Is. The greatest thing I ever gave you is the gift that keeps on giving, as you like to say.”

“Ah! Mister Tricky with the Words!”

“To answer your question, the greatest gift I ever gave My Creation is…”

“Wait, I know this one: Your son, Jesus.”

“Yes.”

“Ha! Score one for the doubting human!” He nodded his triumph.

“And no.”

“What?” His eyes spun with puzzlement. Or maybe it was the booze.

“You see, Jesus was indeed my son, and he did indeed embody my love and grace better than any of you, but you’re all my children, same as he was. You all have the exact same abilities, the same skills, the same resources as he did. The only difference was, he listened better.”

I paused to let that golden nugget settle in his mental prospecting pan.

“No, my greatest gift to all of you was something simpler, yet infinitely more difficult: Freedom.”

“Come again?”

“Freedom. Free will. The ability to choose. To determine what you will do. How you will treat others. Who you will love. Where and when – and even if – you will come home to Me. It’s what puts you atop the rest of My Creation.”

I sipped my wine, letting it roll around my tongue. Delicious! Grapes are truly one of My most inspired inventions.

“Well, that and opposable thumbs,” I added. Another sip, swirl and swallow.

“And I’d also throw self-awareness in there, though most of you are so self-absorbed that it’s impossible to be aware of anything, most especially yourselves.”

He downed his beer and placed the empty mug on the bar. He paused. “Huh…that’s pretty deep.”

“Well, I am God. ‘Deep’ is kind of my thing.”

“Ok, supposing you are actually who you say you are…”

“I AM.”

“Right, right, that again. Supposing you are who you say you am…er, I mean, who you are…oh man, now you’ve got me all twisted up!” He took a deep breath, then tried again. “What I am trying to say is, I suppose then we’ve really fucked things up – oops, forgive my language!”

“Don’t worry about it! Remember, I invented all words, not just The Word.” Not a bad pun, if I do say so myself – and I’ve made a lot of them through the millennia. I offered a toothy grin.

“Hardy har, har…very funny.”

His brain struggled to gather itself. I’d really put a lot on his mental plate, and it showed, but that’s not my fault. Very few of you use more than a fraction of the intellect I gave you.

“So, you’re saying we’re responsible for just about every bad thing in our lives because of the choices we make?”

“Just about.”

“War?”

“Yep.”

“Starvation?”

“Uh-huh.”

“The Holocaust.”

“That was a bad one.”

“Trump?”

“You even have to ask?”

“What about pain and disease?”

“Most of those are just a part of life. Your body is a glorious machine. All machines break. But yes, sometimes they break sooner or more often because of how you treat them.”

His mouth hung agape. I gently pushed his chin up until his lips met. Finally, he spoke. “If you’re the parent of everyone as you say, then you must be pretty mad at us.”

“I have to be honest, you know, being God and all. It’s been pretty disappointing.”

The weight of a thousand simultaneous guilty thoughts dragged his gaze down to his hands.

“But there have been a few encouraging exceptions. Joan of Arc, Ghandi, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, that little girl who stood up to the Taliban even after they shot her in the head.”

He smiled, relieved.

“And I have to say, Ringo Starr.”

“Ringo? Ringo is your favorite Beatle?”

“Without question. I love his whole ‘Peace and Love’ thing. Comes straight from his heart. He really seems to get it.”

“Wow! So, then, why in the world would you stick with us? Why haven’t you – what’s the word? Smite? – Why didn’t you smite us all a long time ago?”

“For the same reason your parents didn’t ‘smite’ you when they learned that you crashed the car when you went on a joy ride with your girlfriend while they were gone on vacation.”

His brow crinkled.

“How did you know about…”

I stared at him as hard as I could.

“Oh, that’s right…God.”

“And the answer is, because I know I raised you better, and I have faith that you will eventually do the right thing. Which, by the way, is my favorite Spike Lee movie.”

A hesitant smile peeked from his eyes. “Really? After everything we’ve done?”

“Of course. I know in my heart that you’ll get there eventually. Listen: there’s a lot of hooey in your holy books. But you know the part about me making you in my image?”

He nodded.

“That part is absolutely true. And listen, the fact of the matter is, I’ve made mistakes myself.”

“Really?” He laughed a little. “God has made mistakes?”

“Of course. Have you seen the platypus? I could never quite get that one right. The point is, I believe in you, even if you don’t believe in Me.”

Clearly my message hit him like a ton of bricks. Or he’d finally had too much to drink. Either way, he shook his head. Confusion skittered across his brain like water bugs on a pond. He didn’t speak for several minutes, not knowing what quite to say. Finally, he broke the silence.

“Hey, do you want another glass of wine?”

“That’s very kind. Thank you.”

As he waved at the bartender, I reached over to the water bottle sitting at the edge of the bar. I held my hand over the top and…well, you know. He turned back, looked at the bottle, then my glass, then at Me.

“Really?” he said. “You couldn’t just wait for me to order you another glass?”

“Well I could have, but why waste good water?” I smiled.

I poured a glass of the most magnificent Cabernet Sauvignon. Deep purple. Lush, dark berry flavors. Bold and complex finish, not too heavy on the palette.

Dare I say, it was heavenly.

 

 

 

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Close Enough

49758-Jesus-crucifixion-1200x627-thinkstock.1200w.tnSo, what’s so “good” about Good Friday?

It’s one of the most common, confusing, frustrating and foundational questions in Christianity.

After all, this is the day when the man called Jesus died as an enemy of the Roman state. A common criminal. A political agitator and potential adversary. 

Though not unexpected — Jesus himself predicted his coming death — his crucifixion was nonetheless terrifying and heartbreaking to his followers.

More than that, it was embarrassing.

After all, some of them had invested years of their lives in this man. They knew him as a powerful leader. A brilliant, if somewhat radical teacher. Possibly, a king and savior, even. They’d seen him leading a world-changing political, religious and social movement (perhaps with one or two of them maybe sitting at his side and wielding some of his authority.)

Yet, now, they could only see his brutalized body hanging from a bloody cross. 

What had happened? What had gone wrong?

History tells one story.

Faith tells another. 

Faith shows us that the movement did indeed happen. And the world did change.

For out of Jesus’ horrible death came eternal life.

A mere moment in time redefined Time itself.

And the angry screams of hatred became the soothing whispers of love.

We just have to be brave enough to listen, closely, with both ears and hearts. 

And hear.

Happy Easter.

CLOSE ENOUGH

Yes, Lord, I hear you

calling me to the foot of your cross

I love you, I want to carry your burden

but I see your pain–

The salty tears in your eyes

The rancid smell of your dying

The sticky blood knotting thorns and hair

The slivers buried deep in your palms

The shame of your broken nakedness

–And I am a sparrow in a storm

Yes, my child, I know your fear

It bows my back and stills my spirit

Yet, where else but at the foot of my cross

Can you be close enough–

To feel the soulless metal that stole my life

To see the gnarled wood through my wounds

 to kneel in the dirt,

moist with my sweat and tears and blood

–To know, truly, finally what I did for you?

Where else, but here, at the heel of my suffering

Are you close enough for me to touch and hold you,

And whisper, so softly that only your heart will hear,

“I love you.”

I Feel You

empathy

You know that meme that says, “I am silently correcting your grammar?”

I’m that guy.

I’m not just talking about spelling or punctuation or usage. (Although I grit my teeth whenever I see someone misuse “Too, To and Two.” How in God’s green earth can someone not know the difference between those words and still be allowed to operate a motor vehicle?)

Rather, I am talking about choosing the right words and, most of all, accepting responsibility for what is said.

The power and weight and consequence of words is immense, especially in today’s world of social media when so many say so much that, ultimately means so little.

Words seem to have lost their inherent value, spewed aimlessly, reduced to so much acidic vomit, their truth twisted cynically into sour, burned pretzels of misinformation and deception.

These thoughts came to mind at a conference I recently attended about understanding poverty.

In that context I realized that we often confuse and therefore misuse “Sympathy” and “Empathy.”

First, to be clear, though their meanings overlap, they are not directly synonymous.

Empathy means acknowledging the validity of another’s experience. Without judgement. Without criticism.

Sympathy, on the other hand is the act of feeling badly for someone because of some unfortunate life circumstance. It sometimes smacks of (or at least can open the door to) judgement, criticism and pity.

For example, I feel badly that one of my brothers is suffering the residual effects of a vicious divorce. My heart hurts for him (though I have to say there’s a lot of karma behind what he’s going through.)

That may seem a subtle line in the linguistic sand. It’s not – neither in theory nor application.

It is literally the difference between saying “I feel for you,” and “I feel you.”

Sadly, like so many other aspects of our capitalistic, “I-Me-Mine” American society in which we think first (and sometimes only) of how something will impact us personally, we tend to favor sympathy over empathy.

Sympathy (without empathy) requires less of us — physically, emotionally or even financially.

Sympathy (without empathy) lets us stand off to the side and do nothing more than cluck our tongues, pitying someone for their hard knocks.

It allows us to feel superior.

However, Empathy demands more emotional maturity, philosophical flexibility and intellectual impartiality.

It is harder, and perhaps more dangerous to say, “I may not agree with your lifestyle/position/choice/perspective. I cannot understand it because it’s not my reality. But it is authentic for you. So, I respect it.”

Empathy forces us to recognize, acknowledge and understand that my life is not everyone’s life. And that others – just like me – didn’t and don’t always get to choose the circumstances of their life.

Most especially, empathy insists that we say (and this is the hardest part): “I want to help however I can, human being to human being.”  No judgement, no criticism.

So, for example, I am not poor (or African American, or female, or homosexual, or grieving the loss of a family member, etc.) Therefore, I cannot possibly understand what it means, or has meant, or will mean to be any of those things.

But I am willing and able – indeed, I am charged as a fellow life traveler – to trust that someone else’s experience, circumstances, challenges and obstacles are very much real.

They define us.

They define how the world sees and interacts with us – and potentially how we see and interact with the world around us in response.

I may not get “It” – whatever “It” is for someone else. But I don’t have to, in order to do the right thing.

A very good friend of mine notes that I write a lot about social justice issues.

She’s right.

Yet this isn’t about social justice per se. In a perverse way, making this concern that “big” makes it too big. Doing that somehow elevates empathy to a gilded place, making it harder to get at and therefore easier to ignore.

Rather, this is about something much simpler: basic human decency (speaking of important and misunderstood words…)

When it comes to understanding others different than us – no matter the difference — basic human decency dictates we should step down from our pedestal and help someone else step up.

Try to simply understand.

Open our minds and hearts.

Stretch out a helping hand as far as possible.

And remember that how we are different isn’t nearly as important as how we are the same.

 

The First Two Million Kisses

Riley thanksgiving 2018

Our oldest daughter Emma, all 4 feet, 9 inches of her is a New Mom.

She gives my wife and me detailed directions like the sun rising, every time we watch our eight-month-old granddaughter Riley:

Feed her at this time, bathe her at that time, play with those toys, use this to wipe her, sing to her to get her to eat, mix this food with that one, mush the bananas clockwise but not after 3 p.m., etc.

She always ends with, “Send me pictures and give her lots of kisses.”

Mostly, we accept and play along with this routine because we remember what it was like being new parents some 25 years ago. Worried about every little thing. Afraid that your brand-new baby is going to shatter into a gatrillion pieces in the evil grips of the first strong breeze. Terrified that every tiny birthmark is a harbinger of some awful childhood malady.

Which is exactly the point. We’ve been there, done that. As I have told Emma several times, tongue only partly in cheek, “Please note that you and your sister are still here and you’re both doing relatively OK.”

Still, whenever Emma issues her Maternal Mandate, I often respond with a favorite joke:

“I normally charge for that,” I say, “but since I like you so much, I’ll give you the Family Discount.”

Our kids, familiar with the gag, now just roll their eyes and ask how much discount they get. Ten percent? Twenty?

Truth be told, it is amusing to us as new grandparents because we (like all new parents) were the same way.

Now though, we have the unique pleasure of knowing full well what’s coming.

The bumps and bruises. The tears. The laughter. The exhilaration of that first flight on the playground swing. The thrill of learning to read. Showing off the new song she learned to play on the piano. “Teaching” Nana and Papa how to do her homework the “right way.” Sharing a newly-learned bit of knowledge.

And later, (no matter what my son-in-law says about her joining a convent) the excitement of her first kiss. The starry-eyed end of her first date. And maybe if we’re all very lucky, her first dance with her soulmate at her wedding.

It’s also heartening to know that our daughter and son-in-law are such caring parents that they wrap their child in blankets of protective love – even with two of the people who love her most in all the world.

Frankly, this grand-parenting this is just about the most awesome job we’ve ever had. My wife recently said, completely sincere, “I don’t know what I did before this.”

I reminded her about the 33 years of our life together, Pre-Grandchild.

She stared at me like I’d spoken ancient Aramaic.

In any case, we have fallen deeply in love with an eight-month-old girl baby for whom all of life is an adventure still unfolding, so full that we can’t even begin to imagine what tomorrow might bring.

So, we don’t even try.

We just thank God for this Now. For every smile that makes the room sparkle. Every joy-filled laugh. Every heart-breaking tear. Every endearing touch from her chubby little hands.

This newfound love, this extension and affirmation of our own parenting is so fulfilling that its value exceeds any “fee” I could charge.

Well, not the kisses. No discounts for those for anyone.

However, for Riley, the first two million are free.