Thursday, December 31, 2015

Transforming Love Sometimes Comes from Talking with Strangers

Fifteen years ago today, I met the woman who would become my life partner in a most unexpected place. I had just arrived in Mexico City the previous day to travel with a dear friend and colleague, Howard. On December 31st, 2000, we visited Teotihuacan, the pyramids just north of Mexico City.

After touring the pyramid of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramid of the Sun, we decided to ascend the Pyramid of the Moon. A little more than half-way up, as we reached a large flat area, two women asked us to take a photo of them together. As we handed back their cameras, one of them said, “Let’s make a funny picture.” Howard said, “Okay, why don’t you make as if you’re throwing Alan off the temple.”

After taking a couple funny pictures, we laughed and talked briefly. We learned Angelica from Mexico City was giving a tour to her best friend Bea from Switzerland. 

We then left. Later, we ran into the two women again in another part of the ruins. When we asked about finding a bus, they suggested they drive us back to Mexico City. 

As we walked, Angelica asked me about my work. I didn’t want to say “minister” because that’s so often a conversation-stopper. So I said rather quietly, “Ummmm, I lead a church.” She exclaimed, “Oh, you’re a priest!” I tried to explain the difference, but clearly they felt safe with us, two gringoes who are pastors in churches! 

“From here, we’re going to visit the Basilica,” Angelica said, “Because you are like priests, why don’t you join us?” 

We loved seeing the bustle of people and activity, the relic of Lady Guadalupe, hearing the stories about the vision , and learning about the customs. When we went up to the church at the top of the hill where the relic had originally been housed, we were told the church was now closed. Angelica replied that she had two American priests with her. The attendants replied, “Oh, please, come in!” 

This day of laughter and exploration wasn't quite over. Angelica acknowledged that a great way of learning about culture is to see how people live--and that she has had the opportunity to be in the homes of others. We were so comfortable with one another, she invited us to visit her home 

Her parents didn’t blink that she brought two gringoes into their home. They served us "Ponche," a  traditional Mexican holiday beverage made by boiling native fruits. The house was decorated for the holidays. The pots were full of their traditional holiday foods to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

I got Angelica’s email address just before we descended to the metro station. Nine days later, after Howard and I traveled to Oaxaca and Xalapa to visit a friend from seminary, I invited Angie to come with her friend to join us for dinner. Because her friend was no longer visiting, she turned tp her sister, Beatriz, and said, “These guys are inviting us to Cafe Tacuba. They are like priests but they’re fun!” 

Angelica and Beatriz joined us for dinner during which we laughed and laughed and laughed.

This day was a fabulous story in and of itself. 

Two years later we were married on a beach in a small town north of Acapulco. Howard officiated at the service. Bea was a maid of honor. In addition to our families, several friends and colleagues joined us from all over the world. 

Today Angelica and I have two children, Marco and Erica. Each year we give thanks for the serendipity, grace, and laughter that brought us together. 

Two days ago, we returned to the very spot we met, this time with our children. When I said, "This is the exact place where your mom and I met fifteen years ago," a man responded, "Wow! You've made my day, my vacation, my year." Others who heard this exclamation gathered around and asked us to tell our story.

You never know what might happen if you  open to simple, genuine connection when talking to someone unknown to you. Kindness and sharing joy transforms all culture.

We are still laughing together with a prayer that 2016 will bring love and peace and joy from unexpected encounters, gestures of kindness, and a willingness to explore and be touched by who we encounter wherever we are.

Happy New Year!

Love with Courage,


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

In Search of a Can of Beans

In the congregation I serve, stories abound about what Greg Risberg gave to others in the form of his humor, his hugs, and his thoughtful and generous attention. 

Just over a year ago, Greg passed away. He was 67 years old and one of the most kind-hearted, genuine people I’ve known. Greg was an author (Touch: A Personal Workbook and 52 Bright Ideas to Bring More Humor, Hugs and Hope into Your Life) and motivational speaker, who, over the past 30 years, brought his ‘Humor with a Message’ programs to more than half a million people across the country as well as in Canada, England and Australia. 

After Greg died, his wife Madeleine shared with me the story the first time he came to her home for dinner. Filled with first-date jitters, he wanted to do things properly and wasn’t sure what he should bring. So, he arrives, knocks on the back door, and walks in holding a can of beans.  When Madeleine asked him why he was bringing the can of beans, he replied: “Because I just didn’t feel like I could come over empty-handed.” 

That was the beginning of a relationship between two beautiful people, who really understood that the best gift they have to give one another and others is not material presents, but their open and honest presence. 

Our culture tells us that we should always bring something with us, that wrapped up, shiny things are important in making people feel good -- and in making us feel good about ourselves.  It’s always a thoughtful gesture to offer a gift of some sort, but there’s something far more profound and sustaining than anything we can carry in our hands. This is the gift of our presence. 

Twenty years ago my Christmas traditions changed irrevocably when my grandmother Carlson suffered from a stroke that not only paralyzed an entire side of her body, but also rendered her unable to swallow. As a Swedish gourmet and proud housekeeper who grew up in Iowa, Grandma Carlson did the holidays up. She not only prepared Christmas dinner, but also led the tree trimming and decorating. When I came home for the Holidays after her stroke, it was painful to see her in such anguish. Then on one visit when it was just me, I brought our church’s hymnal [Singing the Living Tradition], with the idea of sharing some readings and hymns, particularly the Christmas carols. Once I began singing, my grandmother calmed down and seemed more peaceful. It was extraordinary. For over 30 minutes, she didn’t sigh or complain or say a thing, she just listened. Sometimes we are present with those we love in silence or song rather than gifts or conversation, and that is okay.

Fourteen years ago, my cousin Bruce in Boone, Iowa was hanging Christmas lights when he fell off the ladder, an accident that left him quadriplegic. Bruce had served in the Army. He had jumped out of airplanes over 50 times. And then, in one split second, a freak accident changed his whole life, as well as the lives of his wife and three children (ages 10, 7, and 6 months). 

When I moved to Oak Park in 2003, I visited Bruce and his mom Rosalie for Thanksgiving. It was hard. I didn’t know what to say. But even in our inadequacy, our presence is enough. 

This past Thanksgiving, I returned to Boone as I have several times over the years. On this trip, we talked and laughed and went to the local Methodist church for dinner where they served 400 meals (that’s 32 turkeys!) During the trip, my four-year-old daughter climbed up onto Bruce’s lap and hung out there.  She loves standing on his wheelchair between his feet or sometimes right on his feet.  The joy I saw in both of their eyes was dearly precious.

Our Holiday traditions naturally evolve or change abruptly. But what is most important is that we develop traditions that provide quality time with others, where we can give of ourselves  -- and, that most precious gift -- our attention. And, we need to open our own hearts to receive that gift when it comes to us. 

In the spirit of Greg Risberg, “The time we spend with others is precious,” he says.  “And one of the most important ways we have to affirm our relationships is paying attention to what others need to talk about without letting our own concerns get in the way.”

….. A true gift from a generous friend.