A Shared Umbrella


The insistent ring of the alarm. Heavy eyes, still swollen partially shut with sleep. Awareness that it is Tuesday, and I must wake up. The slow methodical movements of my body on autopilot knowing what has to be done to go from sleepy-eyed to one of the many productive people rushing through mass transit to make this machinery called the ‘economy’ work.

All of this for what? For a paycheck? For retirement? For a new dress? For a re-built transmission on our car? For an electric bill? For kids college? There are days when it feels so trite. So nothing.

To add to these bleak thoughts, it’s been raining. Hard. Not short showers where the sun blinks through as though crying a little and then bursts forth into smiles; rather it’s downpours where the bottom of your jeans get wet, your purse is soggy and water seeps through your shoes. It smells like rain and all the trash of the city is mashed together under foot.

Umbrellas are everywhere and instead of people bumping into people, it is umbrella on umbrella, small spokes getting caught in other small spokes. Most have their own umbrellas, but occasionally you will see people sharing, heads bent together to ensure maximum coverage. While those of us who are alone are walking quickly, impatient with the raindrops and downpours that stymie our progress, those who are sharing are often laughing or talking intensely.

Along with the sharing of umbrellas comes the inevitable sharing of life.

Several years ago, while still in high school, my son Micah did a project for a video contest. His skill and technique have improved ten-fold, but I still loved this, one of the first projects he did for competition.

Called “A Shared Umbrella” it tells with few words and many actions the story of a teenage girl, defeated and done with life. At her window, high in an apartment building she looks out at a bleak city scene of rain and sorrow. Pills are poured out in her hand, she’s ready to end her struggle, her struggle with life and with pain.

She looks out the window and sees two strangers – one dressed in a suit and tie, a business man off to work; the other dressed in old clothes, clearly without money. They are both waiting for the same bus. The business man waits with an umbrella, the poorer has none. And then in an unexpected act of humility and kindness the business man walks over and holds out his umbrella, sharing it with a stranger, offering a shield against the rain pouring down. They stand together until finally the bus comes carrying both off to their respective lives.

Just this simple act is enough to give the girl hope. If an umbrella can be shared among unlikely people, then life may be worth living. It is a small act of redemption in her bleak world.

I love his piece. I love the images, I love the graphics, and I love the story.

Offering protection and hope through sharing an umbrella is seemingly so simple; why do I make it so hard? Especially today, when nothing feels redemptive, least of all sharing an umbrella.

Today as I walk in the rain, I am acutely aware of my humanity and frailty; ashamed of my blah spirit and my feelings that none of this makes any difference; aware too of the humanity of all around me.  And with that awareness, tired as I am, I want to offer hope; I want to share my umbrella.

But first – can I have some sun?

Good News on a Good Friday

 —For those who Celebrate Good Friday and for those who don’t!
Newly arrived humans lived simply and they related to God personally. He would show up at their house in the evenings and hang out with them. I imagine they talked about their days, the wonders of the created world, how they really felt about things. Eventually though the humans made an unfortunate choice. They chose to ignore some basic boundaries God had set. They chose independence and self. They chose to disrespect God. They chose their own way.

Everything changed that day. Where there had been intimacy, openness and sweet vulnerability now there was shame and suspicion. Difficulty and opposition and relational competition were all born from those misinformed choices the humans made. Evil and selfishness and sin all entered the world that day. I guess it goes without saying, but relating to God was no longer a walk in the park either. God gave them over to what they seemed to want—their own way.

God set up an elaborate reward system and sticker chart based on an even more complicated plan of laws. If the humans wanted to reconnect with God they’d have to work at it now. And the laws were elaborate and complex. There were ceremonial laws that told the humans how to worship. Civil laws outlined how humans should live each day and moral laws dictated the goodness and badness of everything. The whole point of the system was really to highlight that the humans couldn’t do it. There was no possible way for them to obey every single law. There was even a law saying that if they couldn’t obey all of the rules then they were guilty of breaking every one!

God let that system go on for quite a long time.

One summer when I was a college student I worked as a nanny for two children, Jamie and Kristen, a six year old boy and a four year old girl. At the beginning of the summer, the mother, who was a librarian at the local public library, asked me to help train her son. It seemed he had taken a class on sexual abuse. The parents and teachers assumed it would provide language to children if they were ever in that situation. An unintended consequence was that it provided little Jamie with an entire arsenal of body part language to use to horrify and provoke. He had taken to calling people shocking things!

I tried all kinds of ways to motivate Jamie to curb that kind of talk. He was in time out. He wasn’t allowed to watch TV. I tried everything in my amateur discipline tool box. Finally, I set up a sticker chart. If Jamie could go for five days without calling me the vulgar name of choice I would take him to Dairy Queen for ice cream. Jamie loved ice cream. I had found a currency that communicated. Day one was a success. Jamie got a sticker! Day two went well. Jamie got another sticker. Day three and day four meant two more stickers. He was doing so well. On day five after lunch I was loading the dishwasher when Jamie came running through the kitchen. As I bent over to add another plate, Jamie came dramatically toward me almost in slow motion, he kicked me in the behind and burst out with the word he had kept so carefully under wraps all week. “Penis head,” he yelled, and kept running. I was so shocked and so disappointed. I had been looking forward to ice cream too.

I found Jamie in his room crying. He already knew the gig was up. He knew he had blown it. Angry tears rushed from his face. Jamie was mad at himself for not being able to do it and he was mad at me for setting up the dumb sticker chart that highlighted his failure. All the chart had successfully shown was that Jamie was incapable of earning the ice cream.

The same was true for the rules and law system God set up. It served to demonstrate that people cannot, on their own, keep the system satisfied. The laws highlighted their failure to keep them. And really that was God’s whole point. Humans wanted to do it on their own, the choices they made at the beginning proved that, and yet they couldn’t. If Shalom was ever to be reestablished in their relationship with God, if they were ever to be at peace again, God would have to step in.

And that’s where Jesus shows up.

A couple of months ago I was on an airplane. My seat mate asked me why I was going to Thailand. I told her I was a spiritual director and I had been invited by a group that were meeting for retreat to offer soul care. She wanted to know what that was. I told her that I firmly believe that Jesus wants a relationship with each of us. I think he’s involved in our stories. He’s lurking. The spiritual director comes along side with curiosity and helps identify where Jesus might be and what he might be up to. It intrigued her.

I really do believe it. Jesus is present in your story. He’s calling you deeper. He doesn’t care where you come from, what passport you carry. He’s inviting people from every religious or irreligious background: Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Atheists, Agnostics to relate to him with honest hearts. Your previous religious experience doesn’t disqualify you in anyway. Rather he longs to breath a whole new way of thinking about relating to God into your soul.

Jesus isn’t like any other spiritual experience you may or may not have had. He cuts through the rules and the crap, the expectations and the ways you’ve always done things and he says, Look, See. I’m doing a whole new thing here. And there’s no point system or reward card in place. You don’t have to do this, subjugate yourself in that way, accumulate this, check that off, maintain these five things in order to score points with Jesus. He eliminated all of that. All you really have to do is come with an honest heart. There are no awkward silences. He has already initiated a friendship with you. He’s already started the conversation. Just respond. Just admit that you’re clueless to do it on your own. Just admit that other systems seem to bog you down.

Ask him to make himself known.

And then be prepared to be spiritually transformed.




Worth More Than Many Pigeons


It was only a pigeon. In the animal kingdom, pigeons are low on the hierarchy. But it was alive, and it was trapped inside the subway. I could hardly bear it. The pigeon was wandering around toward the entrance, where masses of people rush in to catch their trains during the busiest part of the morning. This bird was totally lost, pecking at the ground and clearly trapped. And there was nothing I could do to help. I tried cajoling “here little pigeon! here’s the way out!” And then my train came.

The last thing I saw out the window was that pigeon, trying to find a way out.

I felt hot tears form in my eyes, and the unspoken “why” was on my lips. Why pigeons trapped? Why refugees pouring over the border from a country. Over 23,000, my brother and sister-in-law tell me. Why? Why? Why? Why this broken world? I could hardly stand it.

Making my way to my office was no better as I stepped over more fractured pieces of our world. Homeless in alcoves, trash, mean-spirited people — sometimes it feels too much to bear.

I’ve been reading through the gospel of Matthew for my gospel readings. And there in Matthew 10 are the verses that shout out at me, begging me to trust, urging me to be faithful. 

“Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.”*

But the ‘whys’ continue. Aren’t these refugees more valuable than sparrows? Are these refugees like the pigeon, trapped, low on the hierarchy of priorities in a world busy with other things?

The worst thing about this is feeling helpless in the face of so much need. My money is a clichéd drop in the bucket, and even as I feel for this situation right now, in an hour my mind and heart will be on something else — such is the fickle nature of my emotions.

But at the office it gets worse. Nine people, murdered while worshipping at a church, in Charleston, South Carolina. A 21-year-old suspect is now in custody. It was a vicious, heinous hate crime. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go,” he is reported to have said. Are not these men and women more precious than sparrows? I feel sick with the horror of it.

A quote in the New Yorker deeply saddens me

“We periodically mourn the deaths of a group of Americans who die at the hands of another armed American. We periodically witness racial injustices that inspire anger in the streets. And sometimes we witness both. This is, quite simply, how we now live.”* 

Where do I go with this?

Again, there is the Word calling me to truth, begging me to trust, showing me that despite all this, there are still 10,000 reasons to bless the Lord. And so I call to mind the Lord’s great mercies, and beg for more. 

“Yet this I call to mind, because of the Lord’s great mercies, we are not consumed, Great is Your Faithfulness.”**

*Matthew 10:29-31

**Lamentations 3:21-22

Readers: Today begins the month of Ramadan for Muslims across the world. There are several posts on Communicating Across Boundaries that may be of interest to you, but may I urge you to head to Deb Mills site and take a look at her excellent post: Ramadan-Much More than Fasting – A quick guide for the sake of your friends & co-workers.

*Church Shooting in Charleston, South Carolina

But for Scars

But for Scars

“God will not look you over for medals, degrees or diplomas but for scars.” Elbert Hubbard

Tonight I am invited to a special ceremony to celebrate a group dedicated to improving the health of Asian women. There will be food and a presentation, some entertainment and some awards.

I am one of the recipients of those awards. I am receiving a service award for helping to “advance and improve” Asian women’s health.

To say I am not worthy is not false modesty – for in comparison to most of the people who will be attending my role has been small, my part minimal. I have primarily worked with my friend Chien-Chi who is a force to be reckoned with.

But it makes me think about awards – because our society loves them, and so do I. I’ve received few in my lifetime. I am fairly average but the few I have received have been meaningful. A cheer leading trophy in 9th grade when I was a complete misfit, coming from a small school in Pakistan to a public school in New England; a work award soon after I came back to the United States; and the one I will receive tonight. All of them came at times when I was vulnerable and least expected any tribute, any award.

As much as I love awards – they don’t take you very far. Oh they can in earth time – they can help get you speaking gigs, book deals, obtain tenured positions, raises, prestige. But in other time? Other time doesn’t speak the language of awards.

Other time speaks the language of the scarred.

Because scars mean there was once an open wound. Scars mean we went through the grueling, sometimes agonizing process of healing  – far more work than any medal, any diploma, any award, any other achievement. The fact that the scars are not open wounds is because of the hand of God, the healing by One far bigger and greater than the wounds that cause scars. They are not open because of the hands and feet of those who walked alongside helping to heal the wounds. They are medals of honor disguised as scars.

But for scars we would walk with open wounds. But for scars we would ride on our own merits, our own laurels, our own pride. But for scars we would not realize the need for transformation – the need for a Gospel.

So I’ll accept the award with joy (for who doesn’t love an award) ever aware of the scars I carry and the grace I’ve received.