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“I had to break away from her,” my friend Alice tells me over the phone about someone she once called a friend. Alice isn’t the only one. Lots of folks lately seem to be dealing with toxic people. You know them. We meet them everywhere in the jungle of life. Some are outright predators; others hang back, like vultures, waiting to sink their talons into the weak and weary. The hardest part of dealing with toxic people is that maybe only you see that person for what they truly are. The rest of the gnus keep grazing, blissfully unaware. Yet God commands us to love everyone. It may take time to find a way to love our enemies — difficult things always do — but it also demands of us a certain primal common sense. To wit, the following poem:

This is not a litany of sins.
You have taught me things,
a veritable National Geographic
special. Some creatures,
for whom all touch is enemy,
strike — even if the stroke
is light, a caress.
Some people know pain,
and let it go, others
grow it and sow it,
sweat it from their pores
like tropical frogs or
hold it in their craws
like komodos who will
pursue you, slash you with their claws,
consume you or, in a pinch, lick you,
(a flick of the tongue, breathlessly quick),
let the poison in their maws do its work.
Whichever way they come for you, you die.
How do you love a komodo?
From afar, perhaps, and pityingly.

There’s a commercial making the rounds (for an investment firm, I believe) that asks, “How do you measure success?” The point being, you ought to be saving for your retirement so that you can do bucket list-y things like climb rocks or volunteer teach. But there is a finer point to be discussed: What makes a life successful?

Is it the accumulation of money or things? As nice as things can be, they cannot be taken with you after you shuffle off this mortal coil. (Unless you’re a pharaoh, and even then, tomb robbing can really put a dent in your feline sarcophagi collection.) People talk about “successful businessmen.” I assume they mean a person who has made more than he’s lost. But often that’s not really the case. The “successful businessman” has often accomplished his feats through financial manipulation, the sweat of other people’s brows, or outright chicanery. That doesn’t spell “success” to me. More like “not caught in the act and appropriately punished.”

So what is success? I posit to you that it means being a good person. Specifically, if you were to die tomorrow, could others remember one good deed you did? It’s not as easy as it sounds. Start digging and see what you come up with: “I loved my parents” (except when you didn’t); “I gave to charity” (sometimes, and maybe only for the tax break); “I cared about the environment” (unless you’re that one young woman who hasn’t created any garbage in three years — and you’re an American — you probably flunk this one outright); “I wasn’t actively hurtful to people” (congratulations, you’ve lived up to the minimum requirement for morality). The list, disappointingly, goes on.

I don’t say these things to make you feel bad, Unspecified Reader. I put myself through this test and came up with a review not much to my liking. Most of us have not done one shining, unselfish deed in our whole lives. Mostly we do good because it makes us feel good. But is that enough?

Is it enough to require of ourselves that we more often do right than wrong? Will our lives be summed up on an old-timey scale, balancing the good against the bad? Will it take more than a preponderance of evidence to convict or acquit us in the final scheme of things?

I think we were put on this earth to be our best selves, to live up to our God-given potential not as athletes or businesspeople or celebrities, but as fully functioning, empathetic, loving humans. And whatever we do that does not push us closer to that goal is probably a diversion at best and a trap at worst.

So, I put it to you: Are you a success? Have you done one good thing? Name it.

At the mall, I picked out three pairs of shoes and waited for the salesman to help me. It was a very busy day, and he caught my eye. “I’ll be right with you, ma’am,” he said, breathlessly.

“Don’t break your back,” I said.

He stopped in his tracks, dropping one of his boxes.

“How did you know?” he asked.

“Know what?” I replied.

“That I broke my back. This is my first day back on the job.” He sat down, looking a bit ashen.

I sat down with him. “I honestly don’t know why I said that. But I … I think it means, pace yourself. You’re just finding your feet,” I said, as he laughed at the shoe pun.

We spoke for a few minutes and he went back to work, this time at a slightly slower step. He smiled over his shoulder and nodded good-bye.

I thought about the exchange. It was the first time in my life I had ever used the phrase, “don’t break your back.” If you think about it, it could be taken as sarcasm. I didn’t mean it that way – just that I wasn’t in a hurry.

It was such a small moment, but it made me think. How many times do I want to speak words of encouragement, of praise, of inspiration, and I hold myself back? What if they take it the wrong way? What if they just aren’t in the mood to hear it?

In a previous post, I wrote that I know I don’t have all the answers. What gives me the right to offer advice to anyone else?

It may well be that none of us has all the answers, but together, we can find a way to wend our way down the path of life.

Sometimes God puts words on your heart for a reason. It might be just the small sustenance someone needs to make it over that next hurdle.

Slow down and travel at Godspeed. Speak kindly to a stranger. Say it from the heart and you may end up making someone’s day.

When my niece was just a tiny thing — four, maybe five — we went to Disneyland together. Spotting a cast member (that’s Disney-speak for “employee”) dressed up like Jack Sparrow from “The Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, surrounded by (mostly female) fans, Sami piped up, “Captain Jack has quite the entourage.” Of course we laughed. What child that age says “entourage”? But of course she was right.

The other day, a lady I met at church phoned me about a party she was hosting. “Bring your girlfriends!” she suggested. I found myself conjuring up a fantasy life for myself, one where “me and the girls” went places together (possibly even during the week), drank wine liberally, chatted about the latest twist on our must-see TV shows. This vision lasted all of three seconds. Then I found myself awkwardly explaining that this was not, in fact, my life. Unlike Captain Jack, I do not have “quite the entourage.”

My friends are long-term and loyal. And few. One of them has been my “BFF” since fifth grade. Another has seen me through 30 years of living — I was the first person she called after she had her first child. My sisters-in-law are fully sisters to me. Our closest “couple friends” are, and have always been, my brother and his wife, Jennifer (parents of the aforementioned Sami). I consider Ruth and SueBE, with whom I share this blog, some of dearest friends…and I have never met either in person. The friend I talk to most lives in Indianapolis. I live in Kansas.

I often think it would be nice to have an ebullient, enthusiastic pack of friends who wanted to go out into the world with me and just have fun. But I realize I was not built for such things. I’m a homebody. I prefer books to parties. Like Greta Garbo, I “vant to be alone.” And that’s okay. Having fewer friends doesn’t mean I prize them any less. In fact, I cling to them.

You know who did have “quite the entourage”? Jesus. Mounds of people followed him. But he designated just 12 as apostles. And of the 12, we hear mostly of a chosen few: Peter, John, James, Andrew. Even fewer actually have speaking roles in the Gospels. Mostly, it’s Peter, the lug-head, who says something profound followed immediately by something profoundly stupid. And yet Christ built a church on him.

Jesus accepts us as we are, introvert or extrovert, mystics and simpletons. But what’s beautiful is that we all have the opportunity to be close to him — as close as any human beings can possibly be and more so. Your relationship with him can be deeply intimate. So can mine. With Jesus, there’s no need for an entourage. You’ve got all you need in one person.

Human beings are such touchy-feely creatures. I think that’s why God gave us friends. Certainly, all of my friends have moved my spiritual journey along in wise and wonderful ways. They are, in a word, good people. They are of God. Maybe that’s not the litmus test for everybody’s friendships, but it is for mine. Maybe quality, not quantity, counts in the end. Anyway, I’m grateful. Thanks, friends.

One of the most difficult parts of undertaking a hard task is to continue trying when there are set backs and failures.  Even when we are using our God-given talents, good works can be hard!

A friend is going through a divorce, and I felt for her right away. I’ve been through it, and it’s not easy. I’ve thought about what to say to encourage her, and decided that it wouldn’t help to go into detail about my own saga. It boils down to one thing.

If it didn’t stay, it wasn’t a blessing.

Better days are ahead instead.

A man can leave, taking away the blessing of an intact family.

But my son is a blessing that stayed. My dog (God rest) was a blessing that stayed. My humble/wonderful house is a blessing that stayed. Even my car (despite five recalls, still running – knock wood) is a blessing that stayed.

There’s something else that happens when you go through dark nights of the soul. Once you get to the other side, you really appreciate the good things and kindred spirits that stayed in your life. And you find that those hardships helped you earn your stripes in the boot camp of life.

Peace of mind is a blessing I earned. A positive attitude is a blessing I earned. This unwavering laser focus on what’s beautiful, uplifting, encouraging, magnificent, fantabulous in life. It’s all good. All the time.

I didn’t have it in those tumultuous times during a stormy marriage, or a job that sucked the life out of me, or situations that weren’t good for me.

In days past, I didn’t fully appreciate the simple blessings in life, like a beautiful sunrise. A peaceful home. Food on the table. Restful sleep. Friends you can count on. A cat on the couch.

Take the “no” out of nostalgia and put the “yes” in yesterday. If it brings you down to think of the pain of the past, put it behind you. Let it go. Move forward. Trust that God knows what He’s doing.

There are things that happen in a lifetime, but a good life is built on the good in life.

And no matter that the storms may come. Remind yourself: you don’t live under a dark cloud. You live under the silver lining.

If peace is a place, where is it?
Do you know it when you find it,
like the Northwest Passage
or the Cape of Good Hope?
Can it be detected only in solitude,
or can others come along?
Do you know it only from the absence
of its opposite? Does peace scream
“Here I am!”?
Does it steal upon you in moments,
like a hummingbird buzzing against your palm,
or does it descend in a wash, like rain?
Can you live there?
Has anyone ever known it,
known it like the scar on the heel
of their hand, like a song sung by heart?
Is it blue (a color that isn’t really there),
like calm seas; does it live in winter,
cracking and thawing like birthed icebergs?
Will I ever find it? — Is it just outside
the reach of my hand or
hovering above my head?
Or will I only see it, minutes before I go,
like a mole I always had but never noticed?
Or is it a destination?

nitish-meena-37745The little boy was three-years-old, and, apparently, his job was to examine all the minutiae of life very carefully, like a pint-sized forensic scientist  – gum wrapper on floor, display of succotash by the register, even his own shoelaces. It came as no surprise that he’d meander very slowly, like a sloth on a speed bump, out the door of the grocery store.

We were stacked up behind him and his adoring mother with our carts, our own kids in tow, but we were patient. He looked around, he lingered, he investigated. All the while his mother looked at him adoringly, as if he had invented time itself. “Isn’t he something?” she asked the lady waiting behind her, who nodded graciously.

When you love someone, you find a way to overlook their faults. It never occurred to this young mother that everyone else might not find her toddler’s molasses-slow stride to be endearing. Those things didn’t even register in her mind.

There’s been a lot of discord in the world lately, with those of different viewpoints finding themselves at odds. Sometimes it seems people are acting like petulant children, not hearing anyone else’s voice at all. I’ve been deep in Scripture lately, seeking some solace.

The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride. Ecclesiastes 7:8 NIV

Keeping things in perspective, thinking about compassion and mercy.

You help them stay calm when trouble comes…

Every line of this Psalm gave me peace.

The Lord will not leave his people. He will not leave them without help.

Sometimes you find comfort in passages you’ve read a thousand times. Perhaps if we all read the Good Book and pray together, wherever we are, we’ll remember we’re all family.

Justice will return and bring fairness.  And those who want to do right will be there to see it. Psalm 94:13-15 ERV

How I love our Pope! Did anyone expect such a firebrand? He stands with the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. He stands with our Mother Earth. And this week, he made a pronouncement that’s sure to send conservatives into a lather: He said, essentially, that it is better to be an atheist than a hypocritical Catholic.

What’s a hypocritical Catholic? Let’s speculate. Perhaps it is a person who claims to follow Christ but does not welcome him in the form of immigrants. Perhaps it is a person who vows to respect all life, but doesn’t believe in providing help to those in need or protecting our planet from those who seek to plunder it for profit. Heck, maybe it’s me — I’m far from perfect. Whoever or whatever the hypocritical Catholic is, the Pope’s words are a challenge to us: Put your money where your mouth is. If you talk the talk, you better walk the walk. If you want to truly follow Christ, you better leave your ivory tower or diamond-encrusted cage and get down in the dirt with the least of God’s children.

I know several atheists. They are good people. They do good not because they believe in a theological or religious system, but because doing good makes sense to them. Because they want the world to be a better place. Even the most embittered atheists have to make moral choices. That they would make positive ones, without any spiritual model to back them up, is nothing short of wonderful.

And yet, supposedly Christian and Catholic people make bad choices all the time. I can think of several Catholics in government positions who think cutting health care, Medicare and assistance to the poor is a sound fiscal and moral idea. Sure, our country was founded on the separation of church and state. But if being a Christian Catholic is who you are at your core, it ought to drive everything you do, right?

Jesus was known for calling people out on uncomfortable realities. It seems Pope Francis is walking in his footsteps. That’s a very good thing.

Carry God’s love into the day and you will be carrying fire!chardin

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