Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Eleven Million Among Us: Will They Be Welcomed Home or Sent Away?

Higher Law (noun) 1. an ethical or religious principle considered as taking precedence over the laws of society, and to which one may appeal in order to justify disobedience to a constitution or enacted law with which it conflicts.         --Dictionary.com

They are "illegal aliens". They are "undocumented immigrants".  The descriptions we use about these people reflect how we frame this issue, especially since the election. First some facts, taken from a report by the non-partisan Pew Research Center, April 2017. 

Eleven million women, men and children live in the United States without the protections of U.S. citizenship or the law and make up 3.4 percent of the U.S. population. Eight million, 5 percent, work or are seeking work and make up 26 percent of all farm workers and 15 percent of all construction workers. Six states claim 59 percent of this community: California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois. Sixty-six percent of the adults in this group have lived in the United States for a decade or more. Eight-hundred thousand came here as children, through no choice of their own.    

Those are the facts, the numbers, and the statistics, a good starting point to ask: what are we as a nation, citizens and neighbors to do, or not do, about this reality? 

I've been conflicted about this for a long time, for I consider myself a law and order person, a believer in the rule of law. At their best, human laws curb the worst of human behavior, protect our society, and give us a mutually agreed upon social compact to live in peace and safety. At their best, laws ensure a level playing field: we play by the same rules. If someone breaks the law, they should face the consequences and be held accountable. In the case of illegal immigration then, this view would advocate the immediate deportation of every last one of the 11,000,000 people who are here, in violation of the law. 

Facts. Human law.

But this issue is about people too. Flesh and blood people, fellow children of God, most filled with dreams and hopes and ambitions as noble and good as mine. Real people living real lives, among us.  Real friends and neighbors and co-workers and relatives and fellow church goers, who pay their taxes and go to work and just live. Real people: kids who sit in the classroom side by side with our children and then come by for a play date. Real people who take care of our aging parents in the nursing home and play soccer with us on the field. Real people who study at college and harvest our food, who build our homes and drive our school busses, who watch over our children and create beautiful art and music. Real people whose cultures enrich so deeply our American story.

Real people. A higher law.

Like all people of faith, I'm challenged to live not just by human laws, but by God's laws too.  I'm taught there are moral and ethical laws about how I am to treat the "alien". “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong....you shall love him as yourself...."(Leviticus 19:33-34). And, "[For] I was a stranger and you welcomed me." (Matthew 25:34).  (An important caveat: good folks of faith disagree on the immigration issue, as do many citizens. I speak for myself.)

So there's the struggle: tension between human law and divine law, human justice and heavenly mercy, secular logic and humanistic impulses. We each face this internal conflicts at some point and not just about immigration. On many social issues, we have to make choices. Where do we stand? What do we believe about abortion, the death penalty, war, or universal health care, to name but a few?  

To make these choices is among the most difficult and important work we do as humans. There will always be leaders and firebrands on both sides who act as if such choices are easy or simple.  They take a stand to win more votes or whip up a frenzied crowd or get more people to watch their TV show and or just pound the pulpit. Self-righteousness trumps thoughtfulness.  Toughness triumphs over mercy.

Yet to be a person of faith, just to try and be a good person, is tough stuff. It demands a willingness to hear all sides, a commitment to pray and think on it, and always with care. Human law? A higher law? After much discernment, I've made my choice.

What do you think? Have you made your choice about the alien among us, the stranger, the illegal immigrant, the undocumented worker? There are eleven million real people living among us. It's about facts and the law. But it's about people too.

Real people. I hope to God we remember this.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

After The Storms: Can One Person Can Repair the World?

“I always wondered why somebody didn't do something about that; then I realized that I am somebody." --Lilly Tomlin

What can I, as just one person, do?

That’s a natural question to ask in our world and country and communities.  Just days after two devastating hurricanes swept through the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean and Florida, leaving a path of unprecedented destruction in their wake.  Houston after Harvey: 50 inches of rain, 530 square miles flooded (twice the area of Chicago) and 40,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.  The Caribbean: where 95 percent of one island, St. Martin, was almost completely wiped out, stripped bare, right down to the sand.  And then Florida, where at the height of Irma’s howling winds, America’s third most populous state was under a hurricane warning from the Keys in the far south all the way up to Tallahassee in the Pan Handle, making for the largest evacuation in our nation’s history, 5.6 million people on the move, fleeing.  

Statistics like these can rightly cause us as individuals to spiritually and emotionally lock up, shut down, and become overwhelmed by so much human pain and suffering and hurt.  We just can’t take it all in, can’t comprehend the scope and scale of the tragedy.  Too many bad things happening much too fast and in way too short a time. 

We want to help, even need to help, but then we wonder and worry: I’m just one soul.  What can I really do?  How can I hope to assist? What difference will my small efforts make in this one big, ugly, awful outcome?

Here’s one answer: fueled by faith, proved by experience, and founded in hope. You can absolutely make a difference by what you now choose to do, after the storms. Act: refuse to be overwhelmed by the bad news.  Pray: hold those in peril in your heart. Donate: money or fresh water or disposable diapers, whatever is needed. Organize: take a group and travel to the flood and storm lashed places and then swing a hammer and help to rebuild.  For even worse than a natural disaster or a local disaster, someone in need far away or right next door, are human inaction, human complacency and human weariness.  The twin emotions of despair and cynicism can always trick us into thinking that our lives do not matter all that much. That “one” is the loneliest and most powerless number in the world.

What can one child of God do to change the world for the good?  What will you do?

The story is told of a young girl walking along a beach on which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement. She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!” The girl seemed crushed, deflated. But after a few moments, she bent back down, picked up another starfish, and then hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and said, “Well, I made a difference for that one!”

This is how the world is made and remade for the good, after a storm, in how each one of us choose to live and give and love.  We can save one starfish, feed one hungry person, love one orphaned child, house one homeless family and help one hurricane battered soul when we act with mercy and compassion.  Judaism describes this work and belief as “Tikkun Olam”, which translates as, “to repair the world”.  God knows and we know that this fragile and beautiful world is always broken and is always in need of rebuilding and renewal.    

We can’t do everything. But as citizens and neighbors, we can do something.  That clear choice and brave commitment is up to each one of us.  I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and open my wallet and begin to make repairs.  Now that the sun has come back out, it’s clear there is so much to do.

Can we really make a difference?  Yes! Let’s get to work.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

When the Winds Blow and the Water Rises, We're All in the Same Boat

“We’re all in the same boat.”              
--New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu

Déjà vu all over again. 

That's a cliché but one that is so true when it comes to hurricanes and tropical storms and life on the Gulf Coast of the United States. Hurricane Harvey hit Houston last week almost twelve years to the day after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.  Now Hurricane Irma is a potential threat too. And so then and now we all watched on TV and viewed online and read the papers and saw the horrific images.  Folks clinging to each other, wading through the waters, sitting shell shocked and soaked in the boats that ferried them away from their homes, their lives.
It’s hard to capture in words the devastation of a hurricane.

Standing in a place like New Orleans post-Katrina in March of 2006, I felt as if I’d landed on another planet. The church I served had sent me and a group of volunteers to help. Even seven months after the deluge, the level of destruction then was overwhelming.  Upwards of 10,000 ruined cars sat under an elevated interstate highway. House after house in the city sported a muddy brown line on the exterior, demarcating the level to which the floodwaters had risen.  A moldy and sharp smell lingered in the air.
Our group worked with a man to clean out the water logged home where he had raised a family and made a life for twenty years.  His wife and daughters were in Houston, along with tens of thousands of displaced folks. On the surface that homeowner and I could not have been more different from one another. He was African-American, a long haul truck driver, a lifelong resident of Louisiana, with an easy smile that belied the trauma he no doubt felt in returning to see his home for the first time in half a year.  

Me? I was the white Yankee pastor coming in for just one week; coming from a neighborhood where the houses were big and pristine and undamaged, in an old, old New England town, where most of those I served worked in high tech or banking with advanced degrees galore. You could say before Katrina, he and I were traveling in very separate boats in this life.  Chances are we’d never have met and gotten to know each other. 

Then the storm hit.

And so together, as partners, for three days we worked side by side to tear out soggy sheet rock and drag out ruined furniture.  We salvaged the soaked and mud stained remnants of his life: a wedding album, a family Bible, a stuffed animal.  It was heartbreaking and backbreaking work. The day we left we exchanged big bear hugs and shed so many tears. 

Because we were no longer strangers. No: we were now neighbors and friends. Bound for life by the compassionate work of helping when the worst hits. Bound as fellow citizens, Americans and children of God.  All together, in just one boat.

The one boat called life. 

The tragedy, the irony, is that it took and it takes something so calamitous as a hurricane or a tropical storm or a 9/11 to bring us together. To remind us there is so much more that binds us than divides us. How easily and quickly we forget this truth. Natural disasters are a cruel reminder that we are all in just one boat, together. The torrential rains that lashed Texas and Louisiana made no distinction as they soaked the ground and flooded the streets and uprooted hundreds of thousands of people. Every one was swept up in it: all races and cultures, all religions and sexual orientations, the rich and the poor, blue collar and white collar, conservative and liberal. 

And our national response, our commitment to help, is just the same. We are together in this work to rebuild and respond. Donations and volunteers pour in and step up to help: from Trump country and Hillary land, from New York City and Nashville, from Muslims and Christians and Jews, for Gods sake, for human’s sake, from the coasts and the heartland, from all across the United States.  Hurricane Harvey has woken us up again to a reality we seem to forget in this life. 

At a time in our history as a nation, when it feels as if we are so divided, Harvey is a wake up call, a communal summons to action and mercy and generosity. So pray for our neighbors down south. Give to our neighbors in need.  Work to rebuild and build a better world, for every last person in the boat, and not just now but always. Because when the floods come, we all need someone right in that boat with us, by us, and for us: to care and to help.

We’re all in the same boat.




Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Freedom of Speech: Sacred Right, Sacred Responsibility

“To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.” 
 --G.K. Chesterton

I have a legal and God-given right to say, to preach, to take up pen or keyboard and express my opinion, give my thoughts, and share my judgments. What I think or believe or declare: about God, about my government, about my fellow citizens, about any person, idea or issue that piques my interest or pricks my conscience or inspires me to speak out.

That’s free speech. Guaranteed in the Constitution's First Amendment:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech….”

But…is this right always right?
Many years ago I was a young preacher, still so new to the pulpit, always looking for ways to engage the folks in the pews. On the spur of the moment, in the midst of a sermon one Sunday, I made what I thought was a witty joke about the wedding of a couple I’d married the day before, some throwaway lines about how half of the wedding party had been so late for the ceremony.  Ha, ha. In the midst of laughter, I looked up and saw that same couple sitting in a pew. Unbeknownst to me they had decided to come to church before leaving for their honeymoon. They wanted to thank me for my work.

Free speech. Mean speech. 

I’ll always remember the look of hurt and embarrassment on the face of that young bride. She stood and walked out of the church, as I blushed in deep shame at the pain my thoughtless words, my “free speech”, had caused her. How deep my words had cut and wounded another child of God. After the service I found her and apologized profusely and amazingly, graciously, she forgave me. But I will never forget the lesson I learned that morning about free speech,  how I use words to express myself. 

I may have the right to my speech.  But as I speak and write, especially about another, am I careful, care filled, compassionate, and thoughtful? In what I am about to speak or write, will it build up or tear down? Will it make a situation better or worse? Am I using free speech to puff myself up at the expense of another? Do I even intentionally use nasty or hateful speech to demean or stereotype or attack another? In Alcoholics Anonymous there is a wise adage that neatly expresses a simple formula to use before speaking. Ask yourself.  Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said now? Does it need to be said by me? If you can’t answer “yes” to all three questions, stay silent.

This is just one way to ensure that free speech is right, and not merely a right. 

Doesn’t matter if it’s at the dinner table or a protest, on a college campus or at a cocktail party, in the intimacy of a relationship or in comments on Facebook or Twitter.  The gift of free speech is that except for rare exceptions, like shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowed theater or using words to directly threaten another, in the United States we enjoy incredible freedom. We can speak and not fear the heavy hand of government.  Speak and trust that what we say will be protected by the rule of law, especially when that speech is unpopular.  In 2017 we have so many ways to speak, in real and cyber town squares, to say just what we believe, more than ever before in history. 

Yet the challenge of free speech is to use it well and prudently. To see it as a gift from God, a human right so powerful, that with just a few words, the course of a nation or world can be changed for the good.  Think of Martin Luther King or Franklin Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony or Mother Teresa.  Their free speech transformed hate into love, oppression into freedom and despair into hope. With just a few words spoken in kindness, a broken heart can be healed, the young can be encouraged, a prayer can be offered, and a life made better.  This ideal all depends, not just upon our right to free speech, but also in the rightness of our free speech: what and how we choose to speak and to write. 

So this day—what will you do with your words? How will you use your right to free speech?  The decision you make will make a world and a word of difference.



Tuesday, August 22, 2017

After Charlottesville: Remember and Beware the Mob

"No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them."              --Elie Weisel, 1992

Before the angry debate last week about the President’s response; before the violent clashes in Charlottesville a week ago last Saturday and the tragic deaths of an innocent young woman and two police officers; before the inspiring and overwhelmingly peaceful march in Boston, 40,000 strong, and other counter protests around the country, there was this, the one spark of hatred that started it all.

Friday night, August 11th, on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.  Dozens of white men and women, neo-Nazis and white supremacists, many carrying firearms, march in a torch lit procession.  They chant: “blood and soil”, a Nazi era slogan meaning one race (white) and one place (the United States) reserved for them alone.  They chant: “Jews will not replace us” and “You will not replace us.” At evening’s end, “Unite the Right” organizer Jason Kessler, who helped organize the rally, wrote on Twitter, "Incredible moment for white people who've had it up to here & aren't going to take it anymore."

Hard to quote Kessler, to remember the chilling and seemingly otherworldly images of those protestors.  It seems an image more akin to 1930’s Berlin than 2017 America and yet there it is. Here it is, still. White supremacists hatefully, violently, virulently, unashamedly declaring that they are superior to all others.  One religious faith above all others too.  One warped and racist ideology right and true; all others wrong and false.

White supremacy. Religious supremacy. Human supremacy.

It haunts me to even write these words, to face into the truth of such ugly, deadly beliefs and yet as humans we must not turn away from or imagine we can ignore or wish away this side of humanity, humankind’s stubborn and unyielding original sin. Supremacy: the declaration that one group alone stands above and over another.  That one tribe has the right, even a self-proclaimed God-given right, to supplant another, oppress another, hurt another, hate another, even kill another.  

And so what happened in Charlottesville and the whirlwind that ensued: it needs to be remembered and not just swept away in our voracious hyper-fast news cycle or by our collective horror and shame at such human sinfulness.  That’s the temptation now.  To turn away: because it is all too awful to contemplate. Because it indicts us as a nation and world, reminds us that human hatred is still alive and well despite our hope that such beliefs are the stuff of our parents’ and grandparents’ world, certainly not our own.  We want to look away because we imagine ourselves standing in this 21st century, awash in unprecedented technology and global interconnection and interdependency, all so post-modern. How could such things still happen?    

This is how it happens.  This is how it always happens.

A mob gathers in the cover of night, their faces lit by the flames of hatred.  They are bullies and braggarts, skinheads and cowards, racists and terrorists, united by fear and paranoia and bloodlust.  They carry clubs and guns and knives and seek to do harm.  They march. They have always marched, led by the Hitlers of this world. Their power comes, not just from the terror they seek to inspire but also from the unwillingness of the good folks in this world, the ones on the edge of the mob, to confront them.  To name them and their beliefs as evil. 

With no equivocation. No moral equivalency.  No hesitation.

Charlottesville reminds us that for all the great aspirations of humankind—to live in peace, to honor every living soul, to name as good all peoples and faiths and races—we’ve still got a lot of work to do as a species.  The enemies of the common good may hide in the shadows but the allies for justice and mercy must speak up and out from the light and in the light.  Folks of faith too must declare that God abhors racism, and any and all –isms that seek to dehumanize and hate any child of God.

So that’s what happened on August 11th. The mob. Remember? For our, for God’s sake, I for one, hope that we won’t soon forget.


Friday, August 18, 2017

Character Always Trumps Personality. ALWAYS.

“Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character…..”     --Anne Frank

It’s been many years but I still remember the anxiety and excitement of my late teens and early twenties, times when a well meaning relative or friend would buttonhole me at a party, sidle up to me at the family reunion, and then interrogate me. 

So John—what are you going to study in college? What do you want to do for work when you graduate?  What about grad school? What part of the country do you want to live in?  What about marriage and kids? What are you going to do with your life? 

Young adulthood is a gift because the world is laid out before us, as never before or ever again in this life. It’s a blank slate. An open road. And so the adventure begins! Young adulthood is a challenge because now a young man or woman is in ultimate charge of their one life. Responsible for their decisions and choices and then dealing with the consequences. Trying to discern the path, the right path, to follow.

So what are you going to do now?!

A natural inquiry, and yet, maybe it’s not the best question to ask the young people in our lives, as they set out for the future.  This is the time of year for such conversations: in these late summer weeks as young people in our lives and world leave us for college or graduate school, or face graduation next spring, or start a new job or contemplate getting married.  As we help them pack up their suitcases and leave the life they’ve known, perhaps we’d do better to help them think about the person they want to become.  Their inner lives and not merely the outward trappings of a “successful” life.   

I wish someone had asked me then, not an insistent “what?” but instead a curious “who?”—as in, “Just who do you want to become in life?” I wish someone had checked in with me about the state of my spirit and not just my career path or the size of my starting salary.  I wish I had taken more time then to work on shaping my values and ideals and worried much less about things like my major or my roommate or the dorm I’d call home.  I wish that I had worked harder to be more intentional about becoming the person I wanted to be, not just on the outside but on the inside too. 

But no one ever asked me about such things.

Most of the time our higher educational system does a good job of teaching professional skills, giving us the tools we need to make a living.  Our nation produces millions of graduates and craftspeople, folks empowered to do something.  But we also we need help, at all points in life, to learn as well how to make a life too.  How to become a good person. How to be the kind of dependable friend peers trust, look up to.  How to find a calling in life that feeds the soul and not merely fills the bank account. How to become a good citizen, to live a life not just for one’s self alone, but for others too. How to have faith in something beyond yourself. How to be worry less about how we look or are perceived on the social scene or in social media and more focused on who we really are, in real life.

How to have true character.    

For we’re living in weird times, days when outward personality can so often trump inward human character.  Our sons and daughters may know just how to pose for a quick Snapchat, or send out a pithy tweet or carefully curate a picture perfect image on Facebook, all external things. We help them learn how to prepare for that first interview or find a perfect internship but are we helping them as well, to cultivate their character? Create lives of integrity and goodness. Have faith in a power greater than themselves, and know they can depend upon God for strength and comfort and guidance. 

So my hope and prayer for all the young adults now trying to make their way in this world, this generation who very soon will be running the show, is simple.  May we as a world encourage them always to be people of character. To seek not just a job but a calling, some work or passion or interest that brings them joy and makes the world a better place.  To live a life worth living in the deepest sense.

Because the “whats” of life: these come and go and change.  But the “who”—who we want to become: this is what makes and shapes the best life of all.


Monday, August 7, 2017

To Really See the Gift of Life, Try the Bleachers

Bleachers (noun) 1. A cheap bench seat at a sports arena, typically in an outdoor uncovered stand.                        --Google.com

Time was that a seat in the bleachers, the viewing stands farthest from the action at a baseball game—well, the bleachers were always for the masses, folks who couldn’t afford the more expensive seats. College students out for an afternoon in the sun and some cold, cheap beer.  Little league teams ready to cheer on their heroes up close. Last minute fans hoping for any ticket to see the game.  Bleacher seats were often wooden benches. Move too fast and you’d get a splinter in the backside.  Folks in these seats even have a nickname: “bleacher bums”, connoting their once downscale status. 

Now? Bleacher seats at Fenway Park, home of Boston Red Sox, are no longer that cheap. But at $30 a pop for a seat way, way up in the nose-bleed section, 500 feet from home plate: it’s still the best deal in the place.  And as I discovered on a recent balmy and blue sky August evening, when the Sox took on Chicago’s White Sox, the bleachers are also still about as democratic and diverse a place as you can find anywhere.

Sitting directly behind me were four young women, visiting the United States for the very first time, from France. It was their first ever baseball game too. Next to me: three Hoosiers from Gary, Indiana who’d never ventured to either coast. They were stopping by friendly Fenway before going on to Maine for a wedding. With me were four “Minnesota Nice” old friends, Twins fans making a pilgrimage to the oldest major league ball park, circa 1912, still in use in the United States.   

It was a magical night, one I could not plan, one I’ll not soon forget. 

We all stood in respectful silence for the national anthem, hats or hands over hearts, as an oversized flag flapped and snapped in a gentle August breeze.  The Parisians ate their mustard slathered covered hot dogs with gusto, and I did my best to explain the game to them. They enthusiastically watched and asked lots of questions. What better way to learn about America than at a ball game? The Hoosiers shared their impressions of Boston (so much traffic!) and they asked me about the best place to eat lobster down east. My younger mid-western seat mates, BJ and Nathan, nine and twelve years old, screamed with gusto at the BoSox’ first home run. At games’ end our mini-community parted as new friends, grateful for wonderful folks to catch a game with, share stories, and share life, if only for a little while.

And guess what? None of us, not one, wanted to talk about politics or even bothered to look at breaking headlines on our smart phones.  Red state, blue state, “America First”? Who the heck cared about that!? The action on the field was much more interesting and fun.  Any thoughts of our differences faded away amidst the spectacle of baseball, a seemingly eternal game, played on a field of bright green as the city skyline faded into a pink and purple sunset.  My new friends from France even said that Bostonians were actually friendlier than the folks from their home town! Yes. Seriously.  The Red Sox won in a rout and we even made it to the train before it got too overcrowded.

We live in times when it is easier than ever to immerse ourselves in “the news” and “the latest” all the time. Like crack addicts we stay glued to our screens, awaiting the next thing to freak out about. I know I’m guilty of this obsession. And since such reports are most often slanted to the negative, this media saturation can give us a warped view of life.  A view from 30,000 feet that tempts us to see only the bad in the world. To grow cynical or weary or pessimistic about it all.

But if we are wise, we will go local, get down to earth and on the ground and see that much of the time, most of the time, this life is still good.  We just have to look for it and remember. That most folks are kind and welcoming. Strangers are just friends we’ve yet to meet.  Home towns are the places we cherish so much that we want to share these with visitors from far away.  And what really gives us pleasure day to day is not overly complicated either: spending time with the people we love and being open to all the God given gifts each twenty four hours has to offer. But first we have to get in the game and pay attention. 

So that’s my view from the cheap seats, the bleachers.  Perhaps it’s time for you to take in a game soon. I hear that tickets are still available.