Making a Difference

Fear or Love in America

A couple of weeks ago, I joined activists to gauge a local politician's support for a permanent, year-round, emergency shelter for those who live on the streets. The lukewarm response from our local official centered around the fear that more services attract more homeless, which makes prosperous residents feel unsafe and heightens anxiety that their property values will decline. As I left the meeting, a bit discouraged, I headed up the hill back to my office. I noticed an older man mesmerized by his reflection in a mirror-polished black Porsche. He looked up and told me about how he used to restore old cars back to their original condition. He talked about how much he loved cars and how much joy he felt working on them before his accident and head injury.

His speech and thought patterns were jittery, his appearance disheveled, but nothing could dim his infectious smile. I told him that my grandfather had also restored cars in his retirement years. The man reached out his hand, grabbed mine, looked me in the eye, and said, "God loves you. Jesus loves. And I love you. You have a most wonderful day." He turned around and walked downhill.

Joy filled my heart. This man,  most likely homeless, made a home for me in his heart. I also giggled at this "wink from God".  I thought I was doing some good for those living on the streets, but it was someone living on the streets who did me good and uplifted me. I felt encouraged to continue the uphill climb.

The man I met on the street chose to respond to his hardship by embracing love and exuding it. I know this sounds overly simplistic, but isn't that the same essential choice we face?

We have all been shaken by recent violence. Our national reaction to such savagery typically veers toward fear and anger, which is expressed in vicious rhetoric and action.

These immediate feelings of fear and anger are normal and unavoidable. What we do with these feelings, however, is a choice. What if we chose love?

The kind of love I’m talking about is not primarily an emotion. It’s a decision. It’s an act of will.

True love engages in difficult conversations without knowing the outcome in advance, pauses and reflects on our own biases and privileges that harm others, and builds bridges of understanding with those who make us uncomfortable and those living on the margins.

Love sees a stranger, particularly one whose face surfaces our buried fears and bigotries, and looks deep enough to see the face of God.

This is the version of love that Christ lived. It is not soft.  Love stands up against injustice but does so without becoming spiteful. Love resists violence through tenacious non-violence. Love, acknowledging the heart's fear and anger, chooses to be engaged and courageous rather than create scapegoats and hide behind walls of faux-security.

I don't know the answers to the complex global issues we face. But I do know that, whether it's a grieving world or a solitary man living on the streets, choosing the work of love is our best hope.

Where Are Your Wounds?

"Where are your wounds?" This was the question posed by Rev. Allan Boesak, a South African Dutch Reformed cleric and anti-apartheid activist, at the Parliament of World Religions. He said that at the end of our lives we will meet our Creator, and our Creator will ask, "Where are your wounds?" If we have no wounds, we will be asked, "Why? Was there nothing worth fighting for?"

"Where are my wounds?" That question sticks to me.

I have psychological wounds, some of my own making and some perpetrated by others. One particular wound I am addressing is the storyline that I am responsible for the emotions and reactions of others. Obviously false, yet the storyline tentacles run deep.

I am learning to take responsibility for my own responses and only my own responses, my emotions and only my emotions. When I sense disapproval coming my way, I stay with my own discomfort and hold my ground until the discomfort dissipates. I send oodles of compassion and self-forgiveness to myself, releasing the layers of over-responsiblity.

In spite of my penchant for taking on too much responsibility for others' emotional state, I also wonder if I am taking too little responsibility.

I make donations, click to sign petitions, and repost incisive paragraphs that cut to the heart of injustice.

But where are my wounds?

What am I sacrificing to bend the arc toward justice?

Does one click on my keyboard absolve me of all further responsibility?

I cannot end violence, income inequality, discrimination, and human-caused climate disruption.  But I can let myself feel more of their emotional weight. I can invite others to do the same and hold space for us to feel the heaviness of what we are doing to each other.

To do so feels like grief work, like a hospice, in which we hold a dying vigil for a familiar way of life that is neither just nor sustainable.

We need rituals, ceremonies and other creative outlets to acknowledge and untangle ourselves from the deep tentacles of what is no longer working.

We need to take action. Sometimes that might be "a click" to support an international effort. More often it is something local, where our work can make a small but immediate difference.

I'm becoming clearer about the nature of responsibility.

I am not responsible for other's reactions when I take a stand. I am not even responsible for the results. My job is not to save the world or even one individual.

  • I am responsible for acting in alignment with the truth of my heart as my heart responds to the woundedness I encounter.
  • I am responsible for continuing to grow as a human being, leading with my strengths and owning up to my shadowy shortcomings.
  • I am responsible for taking care of myself, which includes saying "no" to important work that is not mine to do.
  • I am responsible for using my wounds in service of the common good as I collaborate with my Creator to transmute my pain into compassionate action.

Where are your wounds? What is worth fighting for?

We the People

Did you cheer or jeer this week's Supreme Court rulings? Whether you experienced elation or disgust in large part depends on your understanding of a short phrase. The constitution begins with the words, "We the People". Who is included in the term "people"? White, male property owners? Heterosexuals? This week the Supreme Court handed down a mixed bag of progressive and regressive decisions in the attempt to further define what it means to be fully included as "the people". What I find interesting is the stance of those who oppose extending to others the legal protections they already enjoy. They sound like children throwing a temper tantrum because they now have to share their toys. Take for instance Justice Scalia's dissent to the majority opinion that struck down a key provision in the Defense of Marriage Act. He complained:

"It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race...In the majority's telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us. The truth is more complicated. It is hard to admit that one's political opponents are not monsters, especially in a struggle like this one, and the challenge in the end proves more than today's Court can handle."

Actually sir, the truth is uncomplicated. Your politics are monstrous.  Your viewpoint is an enemy of the human race. You fear you might be judged and ostracized just for being who you are? How ironic!

You defend laws that on the surface may seem fair and impartial, but the undeniable effect of which is to discriminate, impoverish, and marginalize. And it is the effect of such laws, not just the veneer of good intent, which must be examined.

With the possible exception of wealthy, white, heterosexual males, who really benefits from the policies espoused by Mr. Scalia and his ilk? Their tired, disingenuous arguments sound reasonable but upon closer inspection are revealed to be clever misdirections obscuring bigotry. For instance: "We are defending the historic understanding of marriage, which is between a man and a woman." Historically, arranged marriages have been the norm in which one family sells their property (the bride) to another. Until very recently, people of different races or religions were not allowed to intermarry. Is this the historical definition of marriage which you hold dear?

Or look at the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act this week. The court essentially said that the Voting Rights Act worked so well that it's now unconstitutional. Really? A close inspection of voting-related issues throughout racially polarized areas reveals Jim Crow is alive and well; he's just wearing more sophisticated clothing. (See Justice Ginsberg's dissent.)

Whether they oppose a level playing field for people of color, the poor, women, immigrants, or the LGBT community, the privileged perceive others' equality as their loss. As special rights are pried from their grasp, they whine: "We are the victims here!"

It's hard to see how Justice Scalia is in any way a victim. But let's play along. Perhaps he and his cabal feel like they are being marginalized. A few years spent in the role of the marginalized may be exactly what they need. Maybe if they experience life as a despised minority, an enemy of the people, a monster...all familiar roles for homosexuals, immigrants, people of color and women in this country...maybe then they will develop some empathy.

"We the People" is an unfulfilled promise. It is the latent, ever-unfolding genius of our constitution. It is the hope that one day "people" will include everyone, a "we" of fully equal human beings before the law, in theory and in practice. It is a vision in which all of us work together for the common good because individual liberty is selfish vanity if not spent for the benefit of all the people. Anything less is not only "unconstitutional" but also monstrous and an enemy of the human race. Mr. Scalia, it's time to share the toys!

Life Isn't Fair

How many times did your parents respond to your complaints by saying, "Life isn't fair!" While annoying, their analysis is proving increasingly true. Our global economic system rewards "the winners" at the top with far more than they deserve while "the losers" (everyone else) suffer. For instance:

  • U.S. CEO's are paid 380 times the amount of the average employee salary. CEO's certainly work hard, most likely harder than most of their employees, but 380 times as much?
  • The richest 300 people in the world have as much wealth as the bottom 3 billion people.
  • While the industrialized nations send $180 billion in foreign aid to poor nations each year, $2 trillion shifts from poor to rich countries each year through tax avoidance, trade agreements that favor multinational conglomerates, and debt service. 
  • 30 multinational U.S. based firms with $160 billion in profits paid $0 in taxes over a recent three year period. 25% of the largest corporations pay no taxes. And we recently learned that Apple Computers paid virtually no tax on $102 billion in profits.

The result is an ever-widening income gap (as graphically depicted in this video) in which the poor become more desperate, the middle class evaporates, the upper class struggles, and those at the very top reap the benefits of everyone else's toil. And it's all perfectly legal, but not perfectly moral.

Sadly, large segments of the Christian Church remain silent on economic justice, turning a deaf ear to the suffering of the nation and the world. Trusting more in the free market than in justice or mercy, much of the church barely resembles its namesake. The words of Jesus in Matthew 25 echo in my ear. In that passage Jesus separates true followers from the fakes based on how they care for the most needy among them. What would Jesus say to many who claim his name today?

I was hungry, and you said it was my own damn fault. I was thirsty because your company polluted my town's river in order to make a quick buck. I was a stranger, and you called me a wetback and paid me slave wages as I worked in unsafe conditions so that you could live in comfort among friends. I was sick, and you chose to start wars instead of providing me with access to healthcare. I was in prison, and you let me suffer in the hands of the prison industrial system, never admitting how your own greed led to my desperation. I tell you the truth, when you treat one of the least of these members of my family with such callousness, you have done the same to me.

A Breath of Fresh Air

This morning I walked our dog Flash around the neighborhood. Turning a corner, I saw ahead of us two elderly smokers having a chat. Under my breath I complained to Flash about the upcoming pollution. I then held my breath while quickly scooting around them. After we passed them, I continued to mutter to Flash about their nasty habit and felt anger at the man and woman for desecrating our pure air with secondhand smoke. While I had seem them before, I didn't know anything about them other than I wished to avoid them on the way back.

On the return trip home, Flash and I encountered the same woman. She had always seemed rather unfriendly before, and I held Flash back to give her a wide berth on the sidewalk. She stopped. She extinguished her cigarette. And then a flurry of words snowed upon us: "What a beautiful dog! What breed is he? What's his name? His curly fur is amazing!" Before I knew it, Flash and I were engaged in conversation with a lovely human being.

As we parted ways, I started to question how certain I could be about my assumptions and expectations. A woman for whom I held a mild repulsion actually made my day. While I still abhor smoking, this person who smokes and whom I assumed to be unfriendly turned out to be delightful. What else might I be wrong about? How might my life be different if I approached each moment with a clean slate (the Bhuddist concept of "beginner's mind")?

On a macro-level, I couldn't help but wonder how the current impasse over the "fiscal cliff" is another example of unquestioned, entrenched assumptions. To be honest, I've seen the Republicans as arrogant, inflexible and dead wrong. Is it possible, however, that I and those of my political persuasion are also arrogant, inflexible, and, at least on some issues, partially or totally dead wrong? Am I adamant in the superiority of my positions, when I should be learning, investigating, conversing, getting involved, advocating with passion...and all with an open heart and mind? Can I be dedicated to my values, yet  willing to grow, evolve, and, yes, be surprised by the humanity of those with whom I disagree?

Today an Airedale and an elderly smoker melted my icy judgments. They taught me that I can oppose smoking and any number of other behaviors without walking around in a cloud of resentment. They invited me to hold my assumptions lightly so that I can pivot freely when the unexpected emerges. They reminded me that the truest way to experience each moment is with a mind and heart held as wide open as possible. And in that moment, I inhaled the deepest breath of pure, fresh air.

Chik-fil-A and the Palins: a Very Unhappy Meal

Today I saw a a photo on Facebook of Sarah and Todd Palin holding Chik-fil-A bags. They were exuberant, smiling ear to ear with Sarah giving her trademark "you betcha" thumbs up. When I saw that this picture received a large number of "likes", I decided to post the following reply on Facebook: I am saddened by the Palins' public and gleeful support of Chik-fil-A's all out effort to deny other taxpaying citizens the opportunity to enjoy the 1,000+ rights they enjoy as husband and wife. It's not asking for a "special right" when someone seeks the same rights you already have. Why would anyone jump for joy over denying someone else the same privileges they have? Bigotry? Let's hope not. It must ultimately stem from deeply held religious beliefs.  That's the most charitable reason I can imagine.

There are a few problems, however, with that explanation. First, marriage is a civil arrangement, not a religious one. Religions issue doctrinal statements, but states issues marriage licenses. That makes marriage a civil right. It's one thing to hold personal religious beliefs about any number of issues. It's quite another to make those beliefs into laws affecting everyone else. Prohibiting others from basic human experiences, like coming together in marriage with all the legal protections and benefits that it affords, is neither civil nor right.

For those who seek to legally prohibit gays and lesbians from getting married because they believe they are upholding the traditional, Biblical view of marriage (e.g., Chik-fil-A's president), I have to ask, which Biblical view of marriage are you thinking of? The view of innumerable churches who until a few decades ago used the Bible to prohibit interracial marriage? The Biblical patriarchs who had multiple wives?

For those who believe that the Bible should be read literally and that our nation's laws should reflect their interpretation, check out Deuteronomy 22:28-29:

"If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl's father 50 shekels of silver. He must marry the girl."

Is that the Biblical view of marriage (updating shekels for dollars, of course) that should be made into law? Why is that passage to be taken any less literally than the Leviticus verse so often used as the proof text that homosexuality is sinful?

And while you're looking through the first five books of the Bible, you'll find more of God's commands about marriage:

  • Marry your brother's widow (Deuteronomy 25)
  • Capital punishment for committing adultery with a neighbor's wife (Leviticus 20)
  • Priests put a curse on a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery (Numbers 5)

You'll have a tough time finding many, if any, passages after Genesis 2 that reflect the so-called traditional view of marriage. Then there are the polygamist kings, including King David, "a man after God's own heart". (1 Samuel 13:14) God says that it was God who gave David his wives (plural). (2 Samuel 12:7,8). One begins to wonder if God is familiar with the "traditional definition" of marriage.

Some Christians say the commands in the "Old Testament" (a.k.a. the Hebrew Scriptures) no longer apply to them since Jesus came. If you hold to this perspective, for the sake of your own integrity, please never again use any passage from the Hebrew Scriptures (including stories about Adam and Eve or Sodom and Gomorrah) to justify legislation restricting the rights of lesbians and gays.

Jesus, while saying nothing about homosexuality, did insist that the only reason a married couple should be allowed to divorce is adultery (Matthew 19). Where is the outcry to repeal and replace the lax, "unbiblical"divorce laws in this country? Where is the picketing of divorce courts? If it's fair game to enforce one's perception of a Bible-based view of marriage on gay people, why is a Bible-based view of marriage (including divorce) not also enforced through law on straight people? Could it be thinly-veiled yet unconscious prejudice? What else would explain why good-hearted Christian folk try to impose their marriage standards on gay people but let their own demographic off the hook?

Hopefully, it's merely a lack of not yet taking the time to fully think through the implications of one's positions. I've certainly failed to do that myself many times and have to keep careful watch over my strongly-held opinions and beliefs, which so easily morph into something unhealthy and lacking any semblance of Christian compassion.

So, before cheering the Palins, please take a moment to consider the genesis of your own thoughts on this issue. While it may seem like an innocuous photo of a married couple holding Chik-fil-A bags, it actually is an attack, (hopefully on account of understandable ignorance) on the identity, relationships, legal equality before the law, and inherent worth of your fellow Americans. That is nothing to celebrate.

That was my posting on Facebook. I know I'm probably "preaching to the choir" by posting this on my blog. But every now and then a preacher needs to hear an "Amen"...or at least get a "like" on Facebook.