Finding a Way to Talk About These Hard Things

 

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On Monday, our family celebrated the Fourth of July in part by watching the movie, "Free State of Jones".  The movie is based on a fascinating true story about a poor Mississippi farmer, Newt Knight, who worked as a medic for the Confederate Army.  In 1862, he deserted, disgusted by the news that men who own more than 10 slaves are exempted from military service.  He eventually found safety with a group of escaped slaves, and attracted other deserters as well.  In time, the group took control of Jones County, Mississippi and seceded from the Confederacy.  

The story doesn't end with the end of the Civil War but continues 15 years into Reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.  This makes the movie less coherent and significantly more disturbing to watch.  By the time we left the theater, I felt like the movie lasted much longer than 139 minutes.  It wasn't a great movie, but I was glad I saw it.  I won't soon forget what I learned or what I felt.  I'm very glad movies like this one are getting made with big-name actors and shown in major movie theaters.  More honest movies about the history of race in our country can only help us have more honest conversations.

The shootings that followed this week reminded me that the violence and malice so vividly illustrated in the movie are not over and done with.  President Obama put it beautifully in his remarks on Thursday:

To be concerned about these issues is not political correctness, it’s just being American and wanting to live up to our best and highest ideals.  And it’s to recognize the reality that we’ve got some tough history and we haven’t gotten through all of that history yet. And we don’t expect that in my lifetime maybe not in my children’s lifetimes that all the vestiges of that past will have been cured, will have been solved.

Today, as we try to recover from the trauma of this week's shootings of civilians and policemen, everyone seems to be saying, "We've got to find a way to talk about this."  But how do we possibly do that?

Falcon Heights, Minnesota and Baton Rouge, Louisiana are very, very different places.  I am sure that the police departments for these two cities are very different as well--different cultures, different kinds of training, different personnel, different leadership.  But the fact that police officers from both departments were involved with very similar situations helps me to remember that there is systemic racism in the mix here.  And the racist comments made by the disturbed man who shot the policemen in Dallas makes it clear that it isn't only white people or police who are shaped by systemic racism.

Systemic problems--systemic evil--is particularly hard to talk about, in public or private conversations.  We find it much easier to talk about why individual people have biased views or act in biased ways.  We can even imagine how particular leaders can cultivate bias within their organizations.  But what about a bias that is cultivated and perpetuated by our culture as a whole, that seeps into every organization and every interaction?  How can we begin to get a hold of that?

It seems to me that we often need a "third thing"--a cultural artifact of some kind--to get the conversation started and to keep it going.  Movies. Television shows. Magazine articles.  Or even books.

Each year, the Maryland Humanities selects a book for a state-wide book club called "One Maryland One Book". This year, they chose a Young Adult novel called "All American Boys" by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.  The book is about an encounter between a white police officer and a young African-American man that ends in violence.  The chapters alternate between the voice of the Black kid who was assaulted and a White kid who is friends with the policeman.  It isn't high literature, but it does a solid job portraying different points of view.  In the end, the book makes it clear that police brutality is unacceptable, but it doesn't make any one person or group the villain.  

Public libraries and school libraries all over the state will be promoting this book in September and October.  The authors will be speaking at the Baltimore Book Festival and at several events for high school kids.  Our congregation, in partnership with Columbia Town Center, is planning an neighborhood book discussion.  It seems like an excellent opportunity to do some of what everyone knows we need to do--talk about our history and begin the hard work of building a better future.


Dance Like Someone Is Watching

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You’ve got to sing like you don’t need the money
Love like you’ll never get hurt
You’ve got to dance like nobody’s watchin’
It’s gotta come from the heart if you want it to work.
-"From the Heart" by Susanna Clark and Richard Leigh, performed by Kathy Mattea
This past Sunday was a Big Day for me and my Little Sister, Desirae.  It was Dance Recital Day--a first for both of us.  
I first met Desirae when she was in fourth grade.  She was a part of a "lunch bunch" for girls that is led as a volunteer for A-OK Mentoring-Tutoring.  We developed our own board game that year called "The Hollywood Game" that involved traveling from humble beginnings to stardom in Hollywood.  My contribution to the game were "Interview Cards".  I told the girls that famous people can expect to be interviewed by reporters and talk show hosts, so it was a good idea to practice giving engaging answers to personal questions.  I wrote dozens of questions on index cards and when the girls landed on a square marked "Interview", the person to her left got to take a card and read a question.  It was a great way for me to get to know the girls and for them to get to know each other.
One of my questions was, "Name one thing you would do if you were really, really brave."  I remember Desirae's answer to that question when she was nine years old.  She got a dreamy look in her eyes and said quietly, "I think I would get on a stage and dance in front of people."  I took note.
Dance lessons were not going to happen for Desirae without a scholarship, something that is surprisingly hard to come by considering the number of dance studios in this affluent community.  I figured that we were going to have to be content with YouTube lessons until we sold some cookies to my neighbor as part of our bake sale last fall.  Making small talk with Desirae, he asked what she liked to do.  "Dance," she told him.  
She said it quietly, looking down at the ground, but to her great credit, she did tell him.  Turns out, he has a connection to a dance studio.  So he made a few calls and starting in January, Desirae was enrolled in Hip Hop 1, turning her dreams into reality.  I got to watch through a little window as she become more confident each week, blossoming under her teacher Lexci's praise for her obvious ability.
As the year-end recital approached, Lexci shouted to the girls as they danced, encouraging them to be bolder and stronger with their movements.  "Come on, show it to me!  I don't believe you!"  Desirae had every step down.  She nailed the Baby Freeze every time.  But she stared at the floor in front of her as she danced.  As a result, she looked tentative and a little scared.  I found myself wondering if a recital is really necessary.  Maybe it just generated anxiety and got in the way of actually learning to dance.
On our way to the dress rehearsal last Tuesday, Desirae told me all about a movie she had watched over the weekend.  It was hard to follow the plot, but it seemed to have to do with an ice skater who was having trouble completing a jump successfully in a competition.  The turning point (as far as I could tell) came when the skater received the advice to imagine that no one was watching her perform.  "Does that seem like advice that might help you too?" I asked Desirae.  "Yeah...I think so," she said.  
That night, she looked up a lot more.  And every time she looked up, she busted out smiling.  "Lexci says we should look like we have attitude," she told me on the way home.  "But I kept smiling!  I couldn't help it!  I was having so much fun!"
And then came the recital.  Approximately two and a half hours into the show (!), Desirae's class came on stage.  When the lights came up, Rihanna starting singing, "Work, work, work, work, work."  And there she was, right in the middle, head up, dancing as everyone watched.
I've been thinking about this ever since.  Rosa's former violin teacher used to say that most people take about a 20% hit when they perform, so we need to be 120% prepared if we want to avoid making mistakes when we play in public.  That advice was based on real experience, but it also begged the question for me.  If our highest artistic achievements happen when no one is watching or listening, why perform?  Isn't there something strange about a practice that we can only fully enter into when we pretend that it isn't really happening?  When we "dance like nobody's watching"?
But watching Desirae dance, I could see that the stage, the lights, and most of all the audience were essential to what happened that day.  She needed to override her self-consciousness to get out there and dance with her head up.  But when she did, she made a connection with the other people in the room.  Dancing wasn't just a dream she kept to herself.  Dancing created a relationship between her and a world of people she didn't know, but who were delighted to she what she can do.  That relationship is essential to growing up, to having a public life, to being a contributing part of the wider world.
So dance like nobody's watching, if that's what it takes to get you dancing.  But I hope that eventually you'll let someone else see you.  And then, dance like people are watching and see what difference it makes.

It Takes a Village to Hit High C

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A group of us were sitting around tables at church this past Tuesday, putting together a fundraising mailing for Help End Homelessness, HC Inc.  This is the kind of task that I basically need to be with a group if I'm going to do it.  If we divided up the letters and each took our pile home, they would sit on my desk for weeks.  So on Tuesday, we divided up the letters and right then and there wrote notes to the people we know, folded up the letters and sealed the envelopes.  It was surprisingly painless--and it gave me a chance to talk with some of my favorite people.

Randy was still buzzing with excitement from playing two shows with the Columbia Orchestra over the weekend.  The program included Mahler's Second, the "Resurrection Symphony".  Randy told us, "On Saturday night, I hit a high C on the trombone!  I hadn't been able to do that as I practiced the music on my own, but with the help of the whole brass section, I nailed it!".  He was discussing this experience with another brass player after the concert who assured him that many people have had a similar experience (note:  I tried to fact-check this on the web but came up empty).  

There is "something about playing with a group" that enables music to happen. Now, I know from personal experience that ensemble playing cannot make up for an individual's lack of skill or lack of practice.  In fact, an player who is off pitch or off rhythm can pull a whole group down.  But music is one of the many experiences in life where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  

I'm fascinated by the experience of community--and the connections between experiences of community and our spiritual life and understanding.  Maybe I'm making up for the first two or maybe three decades of my life when I put a high value on individual achievement, standing up against the crowd and finding your own unique voice.  I still value those things, but more and more I recognize that my greatest personal achievements were only possible because I was part of a community.  My list of things that were possible because I was part of an ensemble includes:

  • Becoming a foster parent
  • Raising three kids of my own
  • Growing my relationship with God
  • Becoming a decent preacher
  • Becoming less of an idiot than I used to be

In each case, I improved not because I took a class or read a book or had a mentor.  I grew as a person because I was around people who (1) believed in me and loved me and (2) were serious about learning and growing in their own lives.

This past Wednesday night, I got together with four other women for pizza and beer on the patio of Union Jack's.  I doubt anyone who saw us there that night would have called what we were doing "spiritual".  But that group of women (and two others who were sorely missed Wednesday night) have agreed to travel together this year, "bearing witness" to each other's lives.  We are honest with each other.  We give each other room to tell the truth.  We refuse to give advice--no lecturing or fixing allowed.  When something sad happens to one of us, we cry together.  And when something great happens, we all celebrate.  Week after week, we hit the relational equivalent of high C.  What a gift.


Republicans, as a Progressive Christian, I Share Your Pain

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook a screen shot of comments about atheists made by people who call themselves Christians.  Some suggested that we should "kill them all and let them see for themselves that there is a God".  My friend who shared the screen shot noted, "This is why I became an agnostic. This, apparently, is the 'love' Christians speak of. Why should I believe in your god when you can't even follow your own tenets?"

This isn't, of course, the only time I have read or heard things like this.  On a fairly regular basis, I hear someone complain about a heinous act someone committed or bigoted comment someone made and I brace myself for the comment that often follows:  "And he/she calls himself/herself a Christian!"  As a Christian pastor, I find it nearly impossible not to feel implicated by these comments.  I am not only identified personally with my religion--my professional role suggests to many people that I am a representative of the religion as a whole.

For years, whenever I was confronted with the stupid things some Christians say or do, I felt the need to explain that people who do such things aren't really Christian.  Jesus Christ, the founder of our religion, told people to "love one another as I have loved you", and modeled a compassionate, forgiving, boundary-crossing love in all he said and did.  I would quickly add that I am a Christian who, like Jesus, sees every person alive as God's beloved child, deserving of respect and love.

In other words, I defended my identity as a Christian by denying that anyone who disagreed with me could be a sincere disciple of Jesus Christ.

But a few years ago, I had a realization.  The Christians who make exclusionary, hateful statements genuinely believe that theirs is the true expression of the Christian faith.  They have Bible quotes and interpretations and entire theological systems to back them up.  I may not agree with their interpretation, but I can't deny that they are Christians.  

So maybe that means I'm not a Christian?  I've considered this possibility.  I went through a phase of calling myself "a follower of Jesus" instead.  But then I got mad.  Why should I let someone else take charge of that identity?  Why should they be the ones to define Christianity to the rest of the world?

But if I'm a Christian AND those judgmental jerks are Christians too, I had to admit we had something in common.  They read the same scriptures as me, they come to the communion table just as I do.  I decided I needed to find a way to express more than contempt with people who disagree with me.  I have to find a way to engage with them.  Our common identity as Christians is not a mistake--it is a challenge and an opportunity.

For months, I've heard Republicans disavow Donald Trump.  He's not a "real" Republican.  He's "hijacking" the party.  This isn't the party I know and love.  This isn't my father's party.  I recognize that line of thinking.  If I could only explain to people what Republicans are really about, they would come to their senses and dump Trump.  But that strategy hasn't worked.  Registered Republicans in 28 states have selected Trump to represent their party in the general election.

So now, Republicans who don't like Trump, who don't agree with his positions, have to make a decision.  They could decide to stop calling themselves Republicans.  I imagine some will do this--they'll become "Independent" or they'll join a third party like the Libertarians.  But I hope that most Republicans--including the elected leaders of Howard County and the state of Maryland--will make a different decision.  I hope they will say loud and clear, "I am a Republican--and I don't agree with Donald Trump because I'm a Republican."  Go on to say what that identity means to you.  Engage Trump supporters as a fellow Republican and make a case against allowing him to define the party--in this election and in the decades to come.


The More People Who Vote the Better

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My daughter, Rosa, is currently running for President of the Student Government Association at Oakland Mills High School (and if any OMHS students are reading this blog, you should definitely vote for her!)  Voting started today and runs through Friday.  When I asked Rosa last night how her campaign is going, she told me, "Well, I've got a bunch of posters up around the school.  But you know Mom, now I've got to work on GOTV."

If you grow up in a political family like ours, you know that a huge part of any campaign is the work it takes to Get Out The Vote.  People may like you, agree with you and want you to win, but if they don't actually make the effort to cast a vote for you, you won't win.  So Rosa is spending her week trying to get everyone she knows at her high school (and a lot of people she doesn't know) to walk over to the media center during their lunch hour and cast a vote for her.  

With any luck at all, her opponent is doing the same thing.  The point of an election, after all, is not just to select the candidate who is the best representative of the interests and concerns of the voters.  Elections are tools to increase civic engagement.  By asking people to make a decision between candidates, we give them a reason to investigate what the candidates stand for and to consider whether or not they agree.  

In other words, I vote because I care about my community.  And voting makes me care about my community more.

Which brings me to another election.  My neighborhood, like every neighborhood in Columbia, has a Village Board that consists of seven members who are up for election each year.  This year, there are seven people running for seven seats.  The Oakland Mills representative to the Columbia Council is also uncontested.  In order for the election to be valid, 10% of the eligible voters must participate--and if that number is not reached in the first election, there will automatically be a second election.  What this means, of course, is that even though the election is uncontested, the candidates have to Get Out The Vote.

This takes work.  And it is work that the current Board members and Village staff would prefer not to do.  So, this year there are also two amendments to the Oakland Mills by-laws on the ballot which would enable the neighborhood association to cancel the election if it is uncontested.  The election newsletter than accompanied our ballot explained that currently eight out of ten of the Columbia villages cancel uncontested elections.  

I think this is a really bad idea.  I think it is great to ask people to vote--it reminds them that they are part of a community and that they have a voice.  I also think it is great to require candidates to ask people to vote--it reminds them that they are part of a community and gets them to talk to people and maybe even to listen a bit.  

And what's more--if you cancel uncontested elections, then there is an incentive for there to be uncontested elections.  The current board, which would be inconvenienced by an election, will encourage people not to run unless someone leaves, in which case they will try to fill that vacancy with a single new candidate.  I don't think it is good to create a system with those kinds of incentives.

So I urge my fellow Oakland Mills residents NOT to vote for these referenda.  What's more, this has me thinking about upcoming state and national elections.  What if 50% of eligible voters needed to vote for the election to be valid?  Wouldn't that be interesting??


Your Grandmother Lois and Your Mother Eunice and Now You

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When I was ordained 21 years ago, I put a verse from Second Timothy on the front cover of the Order of Service.  It read, "I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you."  My own mother is named Elaine and my grandmothers were Lillian and Marian, but I would like to think that I share something with the recipient of that ancient letter.  I would like to think that some portion of my faith is an inheritance from the women who came before me, my biological and non-biological mothers and grandmothers.

A couple of weeks ago, right in the midst of the flurry of activity that precedes Easter in our congregation, I received word from an old friend in Massachusetts, Beckie Hunter, that Lois MacDonald had passed away at the age of 87.  Lois was a member of a Wednesday morning women's Bible study that I held just about every week for seven years at the First Congregational Church of Somerville, Massachusetts, the first church I served after I was ordained.  There were a lot of older folks in that congregation, and to be honest, I started the Bible study so that I wouldn't have to call on each of these women individually all the time.  But I ended up really loving the community we created together.  

There were a lot of characters in the group.  Many of them had families, children and grandchildren, but all but two were widows by the time I knew them.  There were also a number of women who had never married.  For all of them, the church was their primary community and source of support.  They visited each other in the hospital, brought each other meals and sent each other cards for all sorts of occasions.  

Lois was one of the single ladies in the group.  She had a beau at one point, but he died in World War II, and she would sometimes make cracks about all the competition there was for the men who survived the war.  Her father died when she was a young woman so then it fell to Lois to care for her aging mother.  She did so for years while working as a librarian.  By the time I arrived at First Church Somerville, Lois had become the primary caretaker of another single church lady.  Doris Edgar was about 20 years older than her, a kind of adopted mother.  Doris had such a forceful personality that it took me a while to get to know Lois as her own person.  She was a helper, someone who looked for ways to be of service to people around her.

When Lois realized that a young woman in our congregation was taking the bus to church each Sunday, she offered to drive out of her way to pick Beckie up, even though it meant coming to church early so that Beckie could go to choir practice.  This went on for several years.  Sometimes, they went to lunch after church and during one of those lunches, Lois asked Beckie if she would be her "Power of Attorney" and her "Health Care Proxy".  I asked Beckie this week why she had agreed, and she wrote, "I said yes because I worked for a law firm in HR and had some idea what needed to be done, and it seemed like a “some day” sort of thing, and because Lois was so good to me, and there was no one else.  I’m a helping person too."

Well, "some day" came earlier than either Lois or Beckie expected.  Lois broke her hip when she was 75 and was never able to live independently again.  Beckie sold Lois' car, broke up her household, took over her finances and began making medical decisions.  And they weren't easy decisions.  Risky surgery at one point.  And at the end, it was Beckie who signed a "do not resuscitate" order and sat at Lois' bedside as she died.  There was no one else.

Beckie was not related to Lois--a fact that she had to awkwardly explain on countless occasions over the past 13 years.  But then again, she was.  She was part of Lois' church family, a relationship that can be hard to explain.  There is friendship in the mix, of course, but there is also something deeper, a kind of faith that is expressed not in words but in deeds.  

This kind of caregiving has fallen almost exclusively to women.  It is women's work and, I think, an expression of faith that has not been given the recognition it is due.  

Next week, the Revised Common Lectionary directs churches to read a story from the Acts of the Apostles (9:36-43).  It describes a miracle performed by the Apostle Peter--he brings a woman who had died back to life.  But the part that strikes me about that story every time I read it is the description of the woman who is named Tabitha (in Aramaic) or Dorcas (in Greek).  "She was devoted to good works and acts of charity," we're told.  After she has died, she is surrounded by widows who show Peter "tunics and other clothing" that Dorcas had made.  

The Bible, like most ancient texts, primarily describes the experiences of men.  So when stories like this one from Acts appear, I have a sense of peeking through a door at another world, one that is inhabited by women, one where women's experience shapes how faith is practiced and understood.  If we pay attention, we come away valuing not just Peter's miraculous touch but also the community of women who cared for each other, clothed each other, and held out hope for each other. 

What a blessing it would be if some of that sincere faith, the faith of our grandmothers and mothers, continued to live in each of us.

 

 


Follow-up: How Are Religious Leaders Speaking Out About This Election?

My previous post generated some interesting conversation--some of which is reflected in the comments section below.  Let's keep those comments coming!  I also received a number of comments on Facebook (also great--but visible to a more limited group so comments on the blog are extra great).  And quite a few friends and colleagues sent personal emails with comments, links and resources.  

Here are some highlights of what I've been hearing this week:

First of all, a number of friends pointed out that some very prominent religious leaders have already come out in support of Donald Trump.  Back in September 2015, a group of 40 pastors (all of them associated with the so-called "prosperity gospel") made headlines when they met with Trump in New York and prayed for his blessing and protection during the campaign. Some of these leaders have gone on to campaign for Trump as "private individuals".  

In November, Trump invited a group of African-American evangelical pastors to meet with him at Trump Tower but then blamed the Black Lives Matter movement for pressuring these pastors not to endorse his candidacy.  In advance of the meeting, more than 100 African American Christian leaders signed an open letter published in Ebony Magazine challenging those who agreed to meet with Trump to reconsider.  The letter is powerful and I recommend reading it.

In late January, Jerry Falwell endorsed Trump as a "private individual" after having invited Trump to speak at Liberty University, a tax-exempt organization that of course does not endorse candidates.  More recently, both Franklin Graham (who publicly endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012) and Joel Osteen have had to make public statements clarifying that they have not endorsed Trump despite all the positive things they've said about him in the past.  Other Christian leaders, most notably Pope Francis, have been openly critical of Trump's candidacy.  I guess he can say what he wants because no one is going to revoke the Catholic Church's tax exempt status.

But by and large, religious leaders have stayed away from criticizing Trump.  Progressive groups such as MoveOn.org have issued a joint letter this week calling for protests against Trump and a massive voter registration campaign.  They called on "people of faith" to join their campaign, but no faith groups signed the letter.

That statement echoed the work of a group of individuals--many of them artists and actors--who have been collecting signatures to a statement against Trump published on www.stophatedumptrump.com.  And while there are a few people who could be identified as faith leaders (Anne Lamott, Reza Aslan, Cornell West and Sister Joan Chittister), none of them lead congregations and all signed as individuals.

So it is worth noting that on Wednesday of this week (March 16th) the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church issued a "Word to the Church" for Holy Week.  The statement read, in part:

In a country still living under the shadow of the lynching tree, we are troubled by the violent forces being released by this season’s political rhetoric. Americans are turning against their neighbors, particularly those on the margins of society. They seek to secure their own safety and security at the expense of others. There is legitimate reason to fear where this rhetoric and the actions arising from it might take us.

In this moment, we resemble God’s children wandering in the wilderness. We, like they, are struggling to find our way. They turned from following God and worshiped a golden calf constructed from their own wealth. The current rhetoric is leading us to construct a modern false idol out of power and privilege. We reject the idolatrous notion that we can ensure the safety of some by sacrificing the hopes of others. No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, we must respect the dignity of every human being and we must seek the common good above all else.

We call for prayer for our country that a spirit of reconciliation will prevail and we will not betray our true selves.

It is a strong statement--until it gets to the end.  If we are really acting in a way that is equivalent to the Israelites who built and worshiped a golden calf, is a call for prayer really an adequate response?  The Bishop say they have rejected idolatry--shouldn't they call on their congregations to do the same?  If we "must respect the dignity of every human being" I think some specific actions in response to those who degrade the dignity of others is called for.

But then again, our community has been praying for peace for five weeks and look what's happened.  We're feeling called to do more, to respond not only with prayer but with action.  When you take prayer seriously, it tends to open you up to God's call to love, not just in word or speech, but in truth and action.

 


How Can a Non-Partisan Community Advocate for Peace?

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Like every other leader of a tax-exempt, religious congregation in this country, I am professionally non-partisan. This means that I have agreed not to use my job as an opportunity to advocate either for a particular candidate or party or against any particular candidate or party. This has never gotten in the way of doing what I think is right--until now.

Being non-partisan does not mean that I am required to be apolitical. That’s a good thing because I am very interested in politics and try to stay engaged in both local and national issues and campaigns. I live in a household where political issues are one of our main topics of conversation and I grew up in a family where the same was true.

I do also identify with a particular political party (my Jewish husband and I sometimes joke that the reason we have been able to find so much common ground is that the primary doctrine of both of our families of origin was the Democratic Party platform). But I have never believed that a particular candidate perfectly represents my values and beliefs, so it hasn’t been hard for me to talk about issues without advocating for or against candidates. Until now.

Our congregation does not shy away from talking about political issues. A few years ago, we worked to create a statement expressing our intentions for these conversations. We began by saying: “As a community, we do not pretend that Christian discipleship is an apolitical activity. Instead, we actively seek to develop political views and actions that are informed by our faith.” I’m pretty proud of that statement.

Our community is theologically pretty liberal and we’re located in a city that is predominantly Democratic so there are a lot of Obama bumper stickers in our parking lot on Sunday. But there are all sorts of other folks in the community—people who strongly identify as Republican, people who float around and people who proclaim their selves “Independent”. So in our statement about political conversation in our community, we wrote: “We recognize that we will come to a variety of conclusions about how our faith directs us to speak and act politically.  Not all of us endorse the same policies or candidates or share a political identity and we will do our best to avoid statements that assume political consensus.”

Our commitment to honor political differences and to refrain from endorsing any candidate or party is hugely important to me for a number of reasons. Differences of opinion make any community more interesting. More importantly, there are too few places in our country where people with political differences can talk with each other in thoughtful and respectful ways. And finally, I think a Christian community should stay far away from proclaiming that any particular human being is going to be our savior—we already have someone to fill that role in our lives.

But here’s the problem.

For the last five weeks, our congregation has been focusing on the roots causes of conflict and ways to wage peace. This focus came out of conversations at the end of last year related to mass shootings in our country and the growing threat of terrorism worldwide. We were exhausted by the stories of violence that had dominated the news all year. We decided that we needed to shift our attention to peace—praying for it, celebrating it and finding ways to promote it in our lives, our families, our community and the world.

This focus began in our Outreach Committee (the group that figures out where to direct the thousands of dollars KC give to non-profit organizations each year) and has now spread throughout the congregation. A number of people have pledged to pray for peace daily throughout the Lenten season. We’ve been gathering to pray together three times a week with peace as our central intention. We’ve been talking about peace in worship and in our small groups. It feels like our hearts are united around our shared yearning for peace.

But at the same time that we’ve been lifting up peace in our prayers and conversations, there is a candidate for president of the United States who has increasingly been advocating violence, including violence between his supporters and those who disagree with him. Our focus on peace had nothing to do with this candidate initially—but now, every time we talk about opposing violence, it seems like we’re talking about Donald Trump in particular.

We finally discussed this issue explicitly on Monday night at the last class in our Lenten study of the book, “The Anatomy of Peace”. There were people all various political persuasions in the discussion and every single person agreed that Donald Trump was inciting violence in our country.

“This community has always taken action about the things that we care about,” Wendy said to the rest of the group. “We don’t just talk about things. We can’t just talk about peace—we have to take action.” Everyone in the room agreed.

But what can we do? We fantasized on Monday night about a group of Democrats and Republicans, people from various religious traditions, coming together to pray for peace on Capital Hill. We imagined massive peaceful protests led by people from both parties that proclaim that we can talk together about political differences without insulting, bullying, disparaging or beating each other.

But the fact of the matter is, there is no such movement in this country. Those who protest against Trump often are also advocating for one of his political rivals. And Republicans who are disgusted by Trump have been pretty reticent to call him out and organize against him. In an election year, there is no “neutral ground” from which to speak out against a candidate. Everything is politicized.

So I’m really struggling. I know I am called to speak out against violence—violent behavior and the us-against-them ideology that supports violence. I can—and will—do this as a private citizen. But we’re also yearning to take some action as a congregation. What can we do?




Just Watching Her Blossom

Imgres

This is a hectic time of year for those of us who love high school musicals--and I know I'm not alone.  I think every high school in Howard County puts on a spring musical and all of the performances are scheduled during three weekends in March.  I saw two shows last weekend and have three more planned for this weekend including "Shrek" at Oakland Mills High School (my daughter Rosa is playing in the pit orchestra).  I love these shows because I love musicals but also because I love watching people put their heart and soul into something.  Watch a high school musical and you'll see all sorts of kids in big and little parts push past their self-consciousness and give the show everything they've got.  The whole-heartedness of a performance moves me even when the singing and acting is less than perfect.

Last weekend, I got some additional inspiration from a conversation I had with an older couple I ended up sitting next to.  We greeted each other and compared notes about who we knew in the show.  "Do you have a family member in the show?" I asked.  "Sort of..." was their response.  There was a story there, and when I expressed interest, they were quick to share it.

Five or six years earlier, they had befriended a young girl in their neighborhood who was the only child of a single mom with some health challenges.  The friendship began because the girl was interested in patting their dog.  At first they just chatted when they saw her when they were out with the dog, but soon the girl was coming to their door asking if she could take the dog for a walk after school.  Things evolved from there--invitations to dinner from the girl and her mother, offers to help with a vexing math problem, and eventually, offers to help with transportation to some activities when the girls' mom was working.  The friendship continued even after the older couple sold their home and moved out of the neighborhood.  They showed me with delight that the girl had even thanked them for their support in her bio in the show's program.

I was really impressed with this "adopted grandparent" relationship because I know what a huge difference supportive adults can make in the lives of children, teenagers in particular.  The couple was very humble about their contribution.  "We used to be so much more active in the community," the man said.  "But now we're really limited by our age."  I protested that their relationship with their "adopted granddaughter" was a real gift to the community.  "Oh, that's easy," the man laughed.  "We already knew how to be a grandparent," he said.  "It was just a matter of watching her blossom."

I thought of this conversation today as I attended a training called "Working With Youth Experiencing Poverty:  What Do I Need to Know?" sponsored by the Mediation and Conflict Resolution Center at Howard Community College.  The training featured articles and videos that referenced a lot of research about the ways in which poverty affects children.  There has been a huge amount of research done on this topic and the conclusions are pretty upsetting.  Poverty affects more than a kids ability to access all the little "extras" that enrich the lives of wealthier kids.  Studies have shown that poverty affects a kid's brain development, their ability to concentrate, their ability to make positive social bonds and a hundred other things.

But my main take-away from the class was that one of the most important tools we have to improve the lives of children in poverty is hope.  It is essential that teachers, counselors and other adults in a child's life believe that the child can overcome the challenges they face and have a positive future.  If the adults around a kid believe that, they will interact with the kid in such a way that the kid begins to believe that too.  And if a kid has hope for their future, there is a much greater chance that they will achieve their dreams.

I was very touched by that.  Sometimes I pay too much attention to the complexity of the problems.  I forget that even complex problems can be affected by actions or attitudes that are really quite simple.  Friendship.  Hope.  Songs.  Just being there to celebrate when someone blossoms.


This Is Sooooo Old


Imgres

Last Sunday evening, I had some friends over. We drank wine and played “Fishbowl”, a multi-round party game that is version of charades. I enjoyed myself, of course, but one of the best parts of the evening was that we barely discussed Donald Trump at all. My daughter went so far as to create a sign for our front door that said in red letters, “Trump Free Zone”. I was tempted just to leave it there—but I took it down lest it become a conversation starter.

I’ve been struggling to write on this blog over the past couple of weeks, in part because we’re in the middle of Lent at church and there’s a lot going on. But the main thing that’s getting in the way of me writing is Donald Trump’s campaign for president. I feel like he is sucking all the oxygen out of the room. It’s not that I’m politically neutral—on my best days, I’d call myself a progressive activist. But there is so much being said on line about Trump already and I don’t have anything much to add.

But it also feels hard to change the subject.

Happily, my birthday was last Wednesday and my husband served up a huge surprise that has given me something to talk about every time I need to change the subject. Dan took me to see “Hamilton”, the Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton that is now sold out for the next year or so (he bought the tickets back in September and kept them a secret). What a gift! The show exceeded my high expectations and the performers were simply outstanding.

It wasn’t really an escape from the political conversations that have been weighing on me, but it helped me to re-frame them. On some topics, the show takes a stand. It unabashedly celebrates the contributions immigrants have made to our country from the very beginning. But when it comes to other issues, the show lifts up a tension between positions or viewpoints and allows it to stay tense.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the show’s creator and star, talked about these debates (portrayed as rap battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson) in an interview he recorded for “The New Yorker Radio Hour”. He said that he found it “heartening” when he realized that many of the points of disagreement between the Founding Fathers are still being debated today.

“The beefs between Hamilton and Jefferson are the beefs we’re always going to have,” Miranda told the interviewer. “We’re always going to push for too much government power and then we’re going to push back against it. We’re always going to go too far in helping other countries and then we’re going go, now we need to take care of things at home…. We’re always going to be fighting about these things—and that gives me comfort.”

And when the interviewer asked Miranda about the vitriolic anti-immigrant rhetoric that has been such a feature of the Republican primary, he replied, “It’s soooo oooold.” His understanding of history has made him less alarmist, I guess. He’s heard it before (and worse) from the political predecessors of our current candidates. Anti-immigrant sentiment is “part of our politics”.

Does that understanding mean we just kind of shrug this stuff off? Does it mean we shouldn’t offer another perspective, a counter-narrative to the one that says immigrants bring this country down? Miranda’s show makes his response clear—he has something to say, and he says it loudly. But it does mean that this isn’t the apocalypse. It means that we have tools to respond, people who have responded before us. Panic is paralyzing. History can be discouraging—or it can become creative fodder, empowering us to respond to everyone who has ever dismissed or degraded anyone.