Thursday, September 25, 2014

When Will The Angel Save Us From Destruction: a Rosh Hashanah Reflection

It is the tradition on Rosh Hashanah to hear the chanting of the Torah portion from Genesis which is that terrifying moment when Abraham takes Isaac up the mountain and lays him on an altar to sacrifice him only to have the intervention from an angel of The Lord to stop him from plunging a knife into his only son. I knew this was the reading we'd hear. I've been hearing it every year that I have attended this service with my partner. So, it should be no surprise that when I woke up this morning, I was thinking about this very complex and troubling story.  And I was thinking about this world, the events happening at a global and local level with politics, wars, sports.  A responsive prayer at the beginning of the service summed up my thinking:

When will redemption come?
When we master the violence that fills our world.
When we look upon others as we would have them look upon us.
When we grant to every person the rights we claim for ourselves.

Which brings me back to seeing the story of Abraham and Isaac in light of today's world.  It's not uncommon for the generation that comes before to look at the ones coming up behind them with a bit of disdain and dismissiveness. Even as the older grumbles that the younger is lazy or immature or reckless, they also look to the younger to fix the problems the older generation is currently immersed in creating.  I thought it was rich when I was a senior in prep school that my sociology teacher lectured us about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and that it was up to us, the ones on the cusp of gaining the right to vote, to save the country and the world from this threat.  Outspoken student that I was, I approached her after class and told her that since I had no right, at that time, to vote perhaps it was really up to her generation to not saddle mine with this problem. The older generation posseses the power in the moment and has the knowledge that the younger generation does not. Why wait for the younger generation to come of age and then expect them to fix the mess?

This is where I see the intersection with the story of Abraham and Isaac. The story in Genesis begins with God putting Abraham to the test:

"He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.’Abraham took the wood of the burnt-offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘Father!’ And he said, ‘Here I am, my son.’ He said, ‘The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son.’ So the two of them walked on together."

 Abraham knows what has been asked of him, a terrible and terrifying reality that he's been asked to kill his son. He lays the burden of carrying the wood on Isaac.  Isaac, a simple young man, asks a straight forward question, "If there's going to be a sacrifice, where's the lamb?" And Abraham, rather than giving him the hard truth, gave him an answer to hold off any further questions.  And they kept walking together.  The truth may have been more than Abraham could handle himself. The truth may have been so disturbing that he couldn't say anything more than what he said.  And the truth is, as it will turn out later in the story, that he wasn't lying: God would eventually provide the lamb.  But not before Abraham had bound poor Isaac and stood over him with a knife.  

Abraham represents the older generation or, more accurately, the baby boomers and the Gen-Xers who are holding the positions of authority and are the ones "in charge" of our worldly affairs at the moment. Isaac are those who are coming up behind us from the 20-somethings all the way down to the infants and yet to be born. Like Abraham, we presently face many tests: 
Are we going to get serious about climate change and our dependence on fossil fuels?  
Are we going to think it is acceptable to beat women? 
How about the shooting of unarmed black men and women?  
Will we scream at immigrant children on buses? 
Will we refuse to pay people a living wage?
Will our universities go to the highest bidder?
Or allow gangs of people to gang up on gay people walking at night? 
How long can we stand politicians who refuse to fulfill their duties to lead and hold our government hostage? 
Will we drop bombs on ISIS or start fighting another war? 
Can there ever be peace in the Middle East?  

These are just some of the questions that we Abrahams have before us in the perpetual journey of discerning how to choose life over death.  Our decisions are in our hands in the same way that the knife was in Abraham's.  And we, like Abraham, are standing with these questions, these important questions, that will determine the future and fate of our Isaac generations.  We are holding that knife and there are some who seemingly are ready to make the sacrifice of our future generations while daring to praise God as they do it. There are also some of us who are listening for the voice of the angel to tell us to put the knife down, and find that God is providing, through the voices of scientists and climatologists and peace makers and lovers of justice and men and women of many colors, orientations, creeds, who are saying, "Don't sacrifice the future! Listen!"  We have voices of angels calling to us to take on these difficult and seemingly impossible tasks of doing what is right for our world now, and not slough it off onto the next generation. Because to slough it off may be like plunging the knife into Isaac's chest.

When will redemption come?

When we listen for that voice that says, "This is the way. Walk in it."

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Keep On Marching for Mother Earth

In London, and a few hours later in New York, and at several different times throughout the day today, people took to the streets for the People's Climate March.  There is a summit at the United Nations on Tuesday where world leaders will give one day to address a problem that is plaguing us every day: greenhouse gas emissions and the gradual warming of "this fragile Earth our island home." There isn't likely to be any policy made at this summit, but it is designed to renew momentum for real change and adopting strategies to cut the carbon dioxide, methane, and CFCs that are turning this place into a cosmic convection oven.

There was no organized demonstration in Tallahassee, so I walked down to Cascades Park to take this picture at sunrise, which was roughly the time people would be stepping off for the march in London.  At this hour of the day, when the rest of the city is sleeping off its FSU football hangover, you can hear the birds and you can get into a rhythm of quiet contemplation... until the train shows up.

A perfect metaphor, I think, for this whole issue of climate change.  In the balance hangs the beauty of our planet, the water that sustains us, the trees and plants which help to keep us breathing. But all of that is danger of getting run over by our continued greed and the need for more energy which, right now, means more fossil fuels.  And as the train whistle grew louder, drowning out the sounds of nature, it was a reminder that our man-made needs collide with preseving our Earth.

I have heard several people around here express their despair over the situation with climate change.  One of my friends is a scientist who, after asking a few times for a meeting with the Governor of Florida, finally got one... after the Governor's opponent met with him and other scientists first.  The Governor sat quietly through the meeting with the five professors from campuses in the Sunshine State who were impressing upon Governor Rick Scott to take action now to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases being released, and the very real danger that the rise of ocean waters will result in Florida slowly disappearing. Imagine the tourism slogans then: Come to Miami, the New Atlantis!

During the whole meeting, Scott just sat there with a weak grin plastered on his face.  Apparently, the only question he asked was about job creation. Not about solar energy, or beach erosion; job creation.  And this is when I think I can hear the earth sighing beneath the weight of inaction.

I hope that the world leaders took notice of those who were demonstrating, and finally do begin in earnest to address this issue in time for some action to happen in 2015. The planet is counting on it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Gospel of Jesus and the NFL

Are you ready for some football?

I would say, "Yes," but it seems football wasn't ready for the scrutiny it came under in how it handles players who are out-of-control when they are off-the-field.

This past week, there was the explosion and revulsion over the video from inside the elevator at a hotel where Ray Rice, now formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, decked his then-girlfriend, now wife, Janay, knocking her out cold. Rice was then seen hauling her limp body out of the elevator as if she were a heavy sack of potatoes.  There were reports of at least two other players in the NFL who also beat their significant others. And then the news that Minnesota Vikings star, Adrian Peterson, used a switch to discipline his toddler which left bloody scars on the child.  Ray Rice was fired by the Ravens and indefinitely suspended from the NFL; the other two players were allowed on the field this past Sunday, and Adrian Peterson, while he was benched in Sunday's loss to the Patriots because he was indicted in the child abuse case, will be back on the field this Sunday.

And that's business in the NFL. The Players Association union is appealing Ray Rice's indefinite suspension. My guess is that it will be overturned and he'll be allowed to play for another team.

Meanwhile, Janay Rice was pretty ticked about all the attention and the scrutiny directed at her husband after TMZ released the video from inside the elevator, and ordered everyone to back off. 

One man did not back off. Sportscaster James Brown of CBS took last Thursday's opening game between the Ravens and the Steelers as a "moment of personal privilege" to raise the bar for men in America:

I appreciate Brown's remarks, especially in light of the teaching of Jesus in last Sunday's Gospel about forgiveness coming on the heals of the equally difficult teaching about making peace with the person who has wronged you in some way from the week before. 

In Sunday's Gospel, Jesus is asked how often one must forgive someone who has done wrong. Is it seven times? No, Jesus says. More like seventy-seven times... or as the text might have actually read: 7x7.  The point is that seven, in the Scriptures, is a number of perfection and so your willingness to forgive must be absolute perfection just in the same way that God's forgiveness of us is absolute perfection. The week before, we heard that if you are in a bitter disagreement with another person, go to that person and have a discussion and strive to work things out.  A one-to-one conversation has to be the first step before something between two people becomes a public matter.

How does that fit with what is happening with Ray Rice et. al in the NFL? One could say that Janay is correct: we, the public, have no place in the matters that are between them, and she doesn't want our presence. I can respect that she is feeling exposed to a harsh light because she and her husband are in a harsher light called, "the public eye." And that's the fact. When someone who is a public figure does something criminal, then that public figure can expect that he or she is going to suffer a more intense scrutiny than someone totally unknown to a wider audience.  Is it fair? Probably not. But it is reality. And when someone of the stature of Ray Rice or any other football player knocks the daylights out of his companion, especially female companion, we have moved from that stage of this being just between folks to being between the folks, the team and the public. When somebody famous commits that act of violence that goes viral because the video got posted to social media... then those who were previously willing to look the other way can't' do so without causing more of a furor. His two-game suspension, if it hadn't already felt appallingly trivial, now was unacceptable. Must it hang around his neck forever?  No, not if he goes to counseling and begins getting to the root of why he thinks it's OK to knock out his now-wife. And his wife also needs counseling, clearly. In one of the defenses of Ray Rice's behavior, some people noted, "She hit him first!" And she should not have hit him. Why does she think that's the appropriate way to deal with her emotions? And if she accepts that Ray Rice is within his right to hit her, she's got some issues to work through with a therapist.

Forgiveness of these misdeeds by the NFL, the individual players and others, is always there. But the first move must also be made to acknowledge that a trust has been broken, and a criminal act committed. And there needs to be a rethinking of one's ways. Perhaps this public embarrassment will lead to true repentence and amendment of life for the NFL... and all its associated players.  And perhaps this will bring to light the need for us in this society to rethink our willingness to look away when it comes to domestic violence.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Paving Paradise

Give us all a reverence for the Earth as your own creation, that we may use its resources rightly in the service of others and to your honor and glory.--Prayers of the People, Form IV, BCP, p.388. 

When I first flew into Tallahassee back in the summer of 1990 for my job interview, I struggled to see the city from the sky. There were some lights peeking up through the darkness, but I really couldn't see a city. The next morning, it would become clear to me why I couldn't see Tallahassee from the air at night. It was a green city, packed with parks and trees, trees, and more trees.  I had never seen anything like this before in a state capital.  Concord, NH, is tiny compared to most capitals.  But it is well lit.  And it has concrete.  Same with Jefferson City, MO. And Boston is full of history... and lots of bricks. So, as capitals go, Tallahassee with its canopy roads and towering wooded areas was truly one of a kind.

Which is why the massive clear cutting of a pine forest at the busy intersection of East Park Avenue and Magnolia Drive was so devastating to behold. I was shocked, saddened and depressed to see large piles of what had been stately pines piled up to be hauled off to a lumber yard. And to what end?  The property owners apparently got five million dollars for the sale of this property. The public will now get another strip mall, remarkably called "Magnolia Grove," to go with the Walgreen's, McDonald's and Buffalo wings place. Gee, thanks.
Is Myers Park next?

Some have said it was inevitable.  We are growing after all. And this property is near lots of shopping areas and businesses. Why should we be surprised, then, that it has been torn up to be paved and built up just like so many other parts of the city? 

Because this is Tallahassee.  It isn't Miami or Jacksonville.  Like me, lots of other people moved here in part because the city had so many green spaces.  But these days, there seems to be an eagerness to tear it up to erect a brand new Whatever shopping center.  Meanwhile, there are countless shopping plazas all over Tallahassee that stand dormant, waiting for someone to love them back to life with a grocery store or a retail outlet of some kind. Why are we not making use of these vacant buildings and pre-paved lots? Why are we insisting on ruining the very thing that makes us different from other cities?

Whenever I pray the words from the Book of Common Prayer that opened this post, I have an image of something in the earth and our environment that I feel needs the prayer. I've visualized the Gulf of Mexico, the sea creatures poisoned by various spills and accidents, even our modest compost heap. Now, I will be visualizing what had once been a lush forest of pine trees at the corner of East Park and Magnolia. Don't be surprised if I cry a little.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Gimme Dat True Religion

Oh, boy! It's that collect again...

"Lord of all power and might, author and giver of all good things. Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.  Amen."

Every time I hear the phrase, "increase in us true religion," my blood starts to turn a little bit icy in my veins.  I think of all the times that I have had to listen to or be confronted with Christian prejudice against me because I'm queer.  Recently, I have been stunned listening to people who are otherwise nice, church-going Episcopalians, make all kinds of accusations about Muslims or Jews or Pagans or anyone else who doesn't profess a faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Particularly, the anti-Muslim bias is on the rise, especially with the reports of ISIS beheading people who refuse to convert to Islam.  Suddenly, ISIS becomes the face of Islam for the world.  That should be as alarming as the thought of Westboro Baptist Church becoming the symbol that  represents the face of Christianity.  

ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram.  These groups, for me, do not define Islam.  What they represent is actually something that should chill the blood in the veins of Muslims as well as non-Muslims because they cloak themselves in a religious belief and then commit acts of terror on all those they consider the "other" which quite often includes other Muslims.  Islam, like Christianity, has had its splits and fractures beginning with the major division between the Sunni and the Shiite Muslims over who is the truest descendant from the prophet Mohammad.  It's a chasm that continues to cause problems and tensions in the Islamic world, and it is the major divide that peacemakers such as the Reverend Canon Andrew White, who is vicar of the only Anglican Church in Baghdad, must contend with as they strive to get the many factions of Iraq to talk to one another.  But the groups who commit crimes such as the 9/11 attack on the United States, or kidnapping Nigerian schoolgirls are not representing Sunni or Shiite Muslims.  They are simply terrorists.  

Well, one might say, why don't the Muslim imams and other religious leaders condemn these acts?  They are.  Just because their voices are not heard in our media that often doesn't mean that they aren't condemning them.  And again I point to the Westboro Baptist Church.  Or the late Jerry Falwell.  Or Pat Robertson.  Or the take-your-pick of local churches both Protestant and Catholic with an outspoken cleric who spouts off virulent anti-gay, anti-women, anti-immigrant stuff.  When I was counted among the "unchurched" I used to grumble that church leaders who did not condemn "x" group needed to start speaking up.  Some did.  But a lot did not which only helped to contribute to the feelings among some that Christianity was about "Love Your Neighbor as long as your neighbor is one of us, and not THEM."  Not exactly the message Christ imparted to his followers.

So what then is the "true religion" we should desire to see increase in us?  If it is true Christianity, then we might have to be willing to let go of our protective fence of "us" which defines as not being one of "them."  The example of this kind of being true to Christ is beautifully illustrated in the story of the Good Samaritan. The one who actually fulfilled the greatest commandment of loving God by seeing the one in need and helping him to care and safety is the one who is doing and living as Christ has said we should all do and live.  He didn't check to see if this beaten man was a Samaritan, although he likely would have known that he was not based upon dress or the way he trimmed his beard. But the point is he didn't hesitate to act with compassion and love for a person in need. 

"True religion," for us in this world of multi-faith and no faith, therefore would seem to be to make the effort to strive for a more Christ-like approach to people and to all beings on our planet.  To live and move and have our being rooted in compassion and to make no peace with those who intend to inflict harm and oppression.  "True religion," would ask us to pray for those who are our enemies, and ask that we not drop into the pit of prejudice and hatred, so that we may indeed recognize that we are One with the One.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Who Do We Say Christ Is?

“Who do the people say that the Son of Man is?”

That’s the question Jesus poses to his followers in the Gospel lesson assigned for tomorrow. In the story, the disciples give him all the varied answers that they've heard murmured out in the public square.  Everybody has a label for Jesus. 

Elijah. Jeremiah. John the Baptist.

And then he poses a more difficult question: Who do you say that I am?

Now, it’s personal.  Now, it’s an evaluation of their hearts and minds. Who is this guy to me?

Peter is the one who pipes up: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!”  Jesus congratulates Peter, noting that this spontaneous answer came from a place of deeper wisdom than what the world was revealing about Jesus, showing that his mind had been transformed.  Jesus goes on to promise that Peter is the rock upon which the church will be built and Hades will not prevail against it.  He’s gonna get the keys to the kingdom of Heaven and whatever he binds on Earth will be bound in Heaven and whatever he loosed on Earth will be loosed in Heaven.  High-five, Peter!

Interesting to think, then, that Peter, the rock and foundation upon which the church will be built, is the one who denies Jesus three times at the critical hour.  Even the church, sometimes, can falter and fail.

The church is very much like Peter, really.  Sometimes it can clearly put forth an image of Christ to the world; sometimes it can be so tangled in the weeds of self-interest and self-preservation that I am not sure even Christ would be able to see the light of God in the midst of all that mess. Those are the times when the church is falling short of doing the important work she’s been tasked with to do: preach the Gospel at all times…even when it is bound to make somebody itch.

I have spoken of my friend, the Very Rev. Mike Kinman, before on this blog.  Mike has been praying with his feet in Ferguson, Missouri.  He’s been praying with his Facebook posts, highlighting the scourge of white privilege that has become way too obvious out of this situation (let’s face it: white people don’t get shot down in the middle of the street when they’ve got their hands up in the air.)  He’s been praying with all his heart, and with all his mind and with all his strength.  And he’s been doing it long before there was a shooting that took the life of an unarmed 18-year-old named Michael Brown.  Mike has dared, from his own position of privilege as the dean of Christ Church Cathedral, to turn the mirror on himself and the others in prominent leadership positions within the Episcopal Church and say, “Hmmmm… aren’t we a nice collection of straight white men?!”  Mike has understood, and acknowledges, that this disproportionate representation of one kind of person out of the whole great human creation of God serves to deny other voices, other visions, and, ultimately, a more complete picture of that beautiful creation that reflects Christ. If the church is going to do better and be ready to bring Christ to the world, it needs more leaders that look like God’s multi-colored and multi-gendered human tapestry.  I imagine for Mike, this is a tough self-acknowledgement that when he’s given the chance to hire and promote, it will be on his shoulders to elevate someone who doesn’t look like him. 

We should all be asking ourselves the difficult question, “Who do we say Christ is?”  Do we say that Christ is white?  Is he black?  Is he male?  Is he female?  Is he trans?  Is he straight?  Is he gay? Is he asexual? Is he a citizen? Is he a foreigner? Is he conservative? Is he progressive?

Or do we say that Christ transcends all those labels that we have developed that too often separate and divide?  Are we able to be unified in Christ as many members with our own special gifts which are made greater in our connection because they all represent an element of Christ?

Are we able to see that, in Christ, there is neither St. Louis nor “out-state”; neither black nor white; and that Ferguson is not just about “them,” but really about “us”?

I have said that the only way we can put a stop to the cycle of violence and racism that continues to crop up and fester like a wound that will not heal is if we stop seeing the Michael Brown’s of the world as “their” son, brother, father, uncle, cousin, and recognize that he is “our” son, brother, father, uncle, cousin.  We must accept the responsibility that we are all connected and if one part of the body of Christ is hurting, we must address that.  Sometimes, this will result in conflict.  Often times that conflict seems rooted in the fear that to acknowledge the right of another person or group of people to function fully in perfect love and freedom would somehow take something away from somebody else.  To get away from that thinking requires one to do as St. Paul was saying in his letter to the Romans when he calls on his audience to not be conformed to this world…this world of the I’ve got mine; screw you…and allow the mind to be renewed and transformed to discern God’s will.  That will, inevitably, will lead one to see that perfect love and freedom trumps fear. Always.

Who is Jesus Christ?  The greatest liberator from oppression ever, and the mediator and advocate I turn to in these trying times.  


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Tell the Truth and Bridge These Gaps

I was tired.  I had lots of other things I wanted to do with my Monday afternoon.  But when I got word that the Dream Defenders were organizing a march and protest in memory of Michael Brown, the 18 year-old gunned down in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 2nd, I decided that I needed to go and march with them.  Go and be part of the demonstration of determination that we are not going to accept having a country where unarmed people get shot down in the street.  Be a body for justice and peace in my absolute commitment that we must strive to respect the dignity of every human being.

Most importantly, I wanted to be there to listen in the indaba way of listening; namely, I don't speak and I don't attempt to formulate a response.  Instead, I listen, pay attention, and yield "the floor" to hear what is going on inside the speaker.    

What I heard from some of the young people who spoke was they are fed up.  They see themselves in Michael Brown's shoes because, for them, he is their brother, their son, their uncle.  Maybe not by blood, but by body type and skin color.  And they are frustrated that justice doesn't seem to come in these instances where police officers shoot and kill black men and women.  They are upset with the lack of understanding that Michael Brown's killing is symbolic of things greater, a pervasive problem in this country that never seems to get addressed. They don't want armored tanks rolling through the streets to patrol neighborhoods.  And they want to cry.

So do I.

I join in the frustration with how things were handled in Ferguson, and I recognize that what's happening there is harkening back to decades past in this country that just seem to keep coming back around, with a different focal point and different names of players involved.  But it is still the sin of us vs. them, which sometimes is a race thing, a gender thing, a sexual orientation thing, a religion thing, or a nationality thing... and even sometimes more than just one of those "things."   

When will we drop the divisions?  Perhaps when we all see Michael Brown as our brother, our son, our uncle.  Do white parents worry about their sons in the same ways that black parents do?  Probably not.  They probably don't have to worry that a police officer in pursuit of their son will shoot him six times.  They probably don't even consider that as a possibility.  The goal shouldn't be getting white parents to live with those same fears; the goal should be to move our collective consciousness to a place where NO parent should have to have this fear.

So, how do we do that?  I think it begins with those of us who are white being willing to not only listen and hear what are the complaints of our fellow brothers and sisters of color, but to acknowledge that is within our power to facilitate change to the system.  Changing a system that's been churning and chugging along this way for more than 400 years is not going to happen overnight.  We have to open an honest and frank dialogue about race, and in doing so, I think we need to reject the attempts to label "all white people are like this" or "all black people are like this" and acknowledge that all people are a mixed-up combination of lots of things, and it doesn't help to use a broad brush to characterize one group as being a monolithic community.   I think our police, especially, need to take a step back and assess how they are interacting with the community they are charged to protect and serve. It's a sad day when our police feel they must drive around in armored vehicles.  Is that necessary?  When the Missouri state troopers mixed in with the protestors and talked to the crowds, and even marched along with them, there was a night of calm in Ferguson.  Perhaps the police in every community in this country would do well to have their top brass meet with communities, and again, listen to what they are saying, and make changes to repair the broken trust that seems to exist.

As a former journalist, I think we need to hold our news media accountable for their part.  Language is a powerful tool.  So are the images shown on TV "news."  Being the public's eyewitness is an enormous responsibility, and it must be exercised with care and wisdom.  Don't call people protesting a killing in their neighborhood "a mob."  That leads one to think that they're hooligans.  Don't just show the few that are commiting crimes and repeat those images over and over while not giving equal time and footage, and perhaps more so, to the vast majority who are simply demanding justice in a peaceful protest.  We depend upon journalists to give us an honest, reasoned reflection of the day's events.  Take that charge seriously, please!

I long for a day when we can really be more "we" and not so much "us" vs. "them."  I pray for an end to our divisions.  I pray for us to recognize the needs in our own communities and understand that we are all connected.  I ask for God's grace that I may live and love and work for a more just society.