What does it matter?

February 2015 - Glendale, Ohio

I admit it. West Wing is my TV comfort fare. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched the series. But it never gets old. Even better with dark chocolate and a little whiskey.
In one episode, Toby Ziegler, White House Communications Director, is called to the National Mall (the land between the Lincoln Memorial and the U.S. Capitol), because his business card is found in the coat of a homeless man who has died of exposure from extreme cold. The explanation is simple. Toby had given his coat to Goodwill.
But the experience affects Toby deeply. From a tattoo he had seen on the man’s arm, he knew the man to be a veteran. Back in his office he calls Veteran Affairs, with hope of figuring out the man’s story, or at least finding his next of kin. There is no luck. Mandy (White House Media Consultant) walks into Toby’s office while he is on another long hold.
“What’s going on?”
“A homeless Korean war veteran died from exposure last night on the Mall. I don’t know if his family has been contacted. I don’t know what kind of burial…” He trails off, clearly frustrated.
“How do you know him?” Mandy asks.
“I don’t.”
“Then what does it matter?”

This almost made my heart stop.

Here’s the deal: there is nothing small about compassion. There is nothing small about making a difference in the life of one human being.
The motto for the Winter Special Olympics (held this week in Austria), “You can’t be a bystander. Choose to include.”

But sometimes, we need an experience, like Toby, to rock our world. Or, to invite us to hit the reset button. You know, back to what makes us human.
I think I needed it this week.

When the world feels small and dark and frightful, it is not surprising we choose to protect our hearts. We do not easily give it away. This happens when we live from the notion that we carry only so much emotional capital – you know, that precious commodity which allows us to pay attention, to focus, to contribute, to care, to forgive, to set free. So it goes without saying that conservation is called for. And it becomes our default. There is no need to spend empathy on just anybody. We need to pick and choose. To be blunt, “there are those who deserve care, and those who don’t.”

I know we don’t want to live closed, but even so, “we get stuck in our ways,” I heard someone say this week. Fair enough. Regardless, we lose track of the values that sustain us.
There is nothing small about compassion. It is the thread of life woven through each day.
In the story of Theseus and the Minotaur (tale from ancient Greece), after Theseus has slain the beast in the center of the underground labyrinth, he guides himself back to the surface by a length of thread given him by Ariadne, the king’s daughter, retracing his steps through the dark maze of tunnels.
Where is that thread for you?
Where are those sanctuaries—the people or places—that help us remember who we are, and those parts of our hearts that have not yet been buried or lost? Where (and how) do we give ourselves the permission to hang on to that thread (which is another way of saying we believe it is there)–and embrace the fullness of life in this present moment?

It was one of those very large family reunions, where you likely don’t recognize half the people, and spend a good deal of your time trying to avoid the pugnacious uncle whose name you’ve tried to forget. In the midst of the festivities and beehive of activity, a five-year-old boy wanders and mingles. Sitting alone on a bench is one of the clan’s matriarchs, a 90-year-old woman. The boy didn’t know this woman, so walked right up close and stared into her deeply lined, wrinkled face and cloudy blue eyes. After some time he asked, “If you’re so old how come you’re not dead?”
She laughed, and replied, “Well, young man, you’ll have to believe me that I’ve thought about it. Many times. But every time I get ready to just go in to my room and lie down and die, somebody asks for a sandwich. And I get up and go make it for them. After awhile you realize that there are a lot of hungry people and many sandwiches to be made. I guess with making sandwiches I just haven’t had time to die.”

I love this story. Makes me smile every time. And gives me hope. And if you change the verb, it applies to any one of us. “Ready to… quit or give up or give in or fold or break.” Even if we don’t wish it.
Living with uncertainty lately, I know that the journey we dance is a fragile existence. But the problem is not our brokenness. The problem is that surrendering or concession can become our narrative, and determines the storyline of our days. For whatever reason, we cannot hear a greater truth.
There is nothing small about compassion. There is nothing small about making a difference in the life of one human being. As humans—in the image of God—we touch, love, give, receive and redeem…

It’s time to rethink our notion about the scarcity of compassion.
So you’ll forgive my preaching enthusiasm here… Or as one preacher said during a sermon, “I’m not preaching now, this story is true!”

False notions always limit us. Don’t forget that.
But here’s the good news. That which you can give, already exists inside. You see; this is about spilling light.

This is not just an invitation to what we must do, or about accolades, or status. This is an affirmation of what is already alive and well within us. We have the capacity to be places of shelter and hope and inclusion and healing.
Our dignity or value is not tied to the way we look or how we dress. Or the size of our wallet or the digits of our zip code. Not by how we are judged by mankind, because our own souls are imbued with the power to work miracles to change water into wine, the meek into the mighty, to change base metal into pure gold. (Thank you Congressman John Lewis)

In his book Finding God in Unexpected Places, Philip Yancey talks about a South African woman named Joanna, who began a prison ministry that radically transformed one of her country’s most violent prisons. When Yancey asked her how she did it, she said, “Well, of course, Philip, God was already present in the prison. I just had to make him visible.”

Whatever it is, the light of compassion brings people out of hiding, out of unease and out of fear. The light that invites courage and renewal and resilience. And that, well, that is light worth spilling. And it is the light of Grace. Or in the case of our 90-year-old matriarch, it is the light to remind us that there are always sandwiches to be made.

This week I’ve been gorging myself on books from people who remind me of my better angels. People who help me push the reset button. God’s Hotel, by Victoria Sweet, about Laguna Honda, a lower-tech but human-paced hospital where slow medicine is practiced. David Brook’s, The Road to Character, about the difference between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues, whose motto will be charity, love and redemption. The Book of Joy, the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. Mercy is this one fun, about a one week meeting between these dear friends, where they remind us, “no dark fate determines the future. We do. Each day and each moment, we are able to create and re-create our lives and the very quality of human life on our planet. This is the power we wield.”

Friday was St. Paddy’s Day. I was home, so pub hopping on Vashon. A pint or two-ish, great Irish music, Irish dancing (thank you Helen), and sing-a-longs with some of our favorite Island musicians. And today, all day in the garden under a washed blue and sun filled sky.

Quote for the week…

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.
Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi – 13th century   


The heart is right to cry,
when even the smallest drop of light,
is taken away,
When even the smallest drop of love,
goes cold.
We may kick and stamp our feet,
and scream in protest,
Once a day,
in the morning,
the donkeys and I
will speak in the silent language,
we look into each others eyes,
and they say to me,
“Hey, friend,” we see you
know the joy and wonder of
our existence,
this will free you from
the earthly thing, from
the sorrows and worries
of people.”
Jon Katz

You were born to be loved
You weren’t born to be abandoned
You weren’t born to be forsaken
You were born to be loved
You weren’t born to be mistreated
And you weren’t born to be misguided
You were born to be loved
You weren’t born to be a slave
You weren’t born to be disgraced
You were born to be loved
Hmm hmm, you were born to be loved
You weren’t born to be abused
You weren’t born to lose
You were born to be loved
You weren’t born to suffer
And you weren’t born for nothing
You were born to be loved
Lucinda Williams


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