Monday, December 29, 2014

Back to the Future: How Would You Re-Do 2014?

"Wait a minute, Doc. Are you telling me that you built a time machine... out of a DeLorean?"          
 --Marty McFly, from "Back to the Future"

So here's my New Year's 2015 fantasy: I want to travel back in time to exactly one year ago, to the close of 2014, and talk to my past self. Give "me" some advice. I want to pull a Marty McFly and jump back into time. If God or the universe or fate gave me a 2014 "do-over" I readily confess I'd do things differently. I think most of us would too. In reviewing the last 365 days, we all remember moments when we wish we'd made another choice. Taken an alternate route on life's journey, a left rather than a right. Answered "no" rather than "yes" or "yes" when "no" was the right response.  Had the chance again to say "I love you" because we didn't have the guts or the smarts or the courage to do so.   

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

The season of New Year's is a rare time in life when humans can intentionally look back and look ahead. Resolve to change our lives going forward. Face how we lived the past 52 weeks. So if you had the gift of being strapped into a time traveling Delorean, and visiting your past self for a spiritual pep talk, what might you say? How would you re-do 2014?

Me? I'd absolutely tell myself to worry a less. A LOT LESS! To instead trust that God and life so much of the time works out, that most human anxiety is a complete waste of time, an empty exercise in creating overwhelmingly negative outcomes that rarely if ever come true. That so often when we worry, it is about people and situations over which we have little or no control. I so regret how much precious time I wasted in 2014, mired in my worry. Fearing what others were thinking. Brooding about this possible scenario, that doomsday event! Sleepless nights. Distracted days. And guess what?  Almost always, whatever I was angsting about did not happen.  And all those hours I spent in worry: all gone, never to return. 

Memo to self: next year, worry less and trust God more.

I'd also tell my past self to spend less time online in the cyber world, and more time off line, in the real world.  In 2014, too often I was guilty of mindlessly looking at my phone or surfing the net or watching YouTube videos or scrolling through Facebook or waiting for a text. When I was bored, or waiting or unable to just "be", I inevitably reached for my techno-addiction.  Found myself in a crowd or at a gathering or in a public space surrounded by like minded cyber zombies. Heads tilted down. Fingers swiping across a screen. Eyes intently focused upon the "latest" on Twitter or Snapchat or Instagram. Meanwhile, real life connections-- face to face and heart to heart and voice to voice--seem rarer and rarer. How many thousands of minutes did I lose last year to life in the virtual world? Days, weeks perhaps.

Memo to self: next year, live more in the real world, live less in the cyber world.

Lastly, I'd tell my past self to talk less and listen more. To pontificate and judge others less, and instead be more curious in life, especially about folks and ideas and lifestyles I may see as "different" than me.  It's been a tumultuous 2014, filled with so many conflicts, fears and anger, grounded in a "them" versus "us" narrative.  Humanity split wide open. Wars in the Ukraine and Israel/Palestine and throughout the Middle East. Cruel, so-called "religious" people using their ideas of God to condemn, to oppress, to kill, even the innocent. Racial divisions and mistrust. 

Too often I've waded into these complicated affairs with my opinion which I also insist on sharing with anyone who will listen. My prayer for me and the rest of humankind in the year to come is that we'd open our mouths less and open our ears more. That we'd have the wisdom to think before we speak. That not every single opinion needs to be posted or blogged or proffered. That God-inspired humility, not hubris, is what our world really needs.

Memo to self: talk less and listen more.  Practice curiosity and humility.

We may not be able to time travel and give our past selves advice about how to live a better life, repeat 2014. But this week we've been given the gift of 365 new days, a whole new year, another God given chance to try again. 

Memo to self: how will you live in 2015? What did 2014 teach you? You don't need a Delorean to answer those questions.

Happy New Year.      

Thursday, December 25, 2014

December Quiet: May We All Find Some At Years' End

 "But after the tempest. . . .There came a day as still as heaven"   --Alfred Lord Tennyson

Have you found your “December quiet” yet?

From the 25th on it is amazing just how much of our world and the folks therein completely shut down during the days in between the 25th and the 1st.  It is so quiet, so still, so slow.  Stores are finally closed, or at least back to sane hours. No more sales. No more stuff.  The roads are empty. God willing we’ve all gotten to where we need to be.  Most of us have precious time off from work and school.  If we are wise the cell phone is set aside, silenced.  Maybe even the computer screen is blank, reminding us of life outside of the cyber world. Normal day to day schedules are suspended. This week is for family visits and faith and present giving and holiday celebrating, sleeping in, eating a lot, chilling out.  The quality and the nature of this time are different, even sacred.


Can you “hear” it, just for a little while, even one day? The hush of a house of worship after the final hymn has been sung and all is illuminated in candlelight.  The world after a snowfall, with the muffled crunch of footfalls on the snow, the muted cracks of branches bowing down under the weight of all that white stuff.  The snap and pop of a log in the fire.  The sound of a page being turned in that new book you received as a gift.  The silence of children finally falling asleep after a crazy day of holiday over stimulation.

Silent night.

We always need this glimpse of heaven on earth, no matter what the time of year, or what has come before, what lies ahead.  Our annual societal pause could not come at a better time. So many of us rush through the 12th month of the year, from stores to parties to work to celebrations to concerts to games and then finally, blessedly, to the end of another 365 days.  I know I need a rest.  To just stop moving.  To sit. Think. Laugh. Breathe.  Visit. Love.  Pause.


The earth knows this. On the 21st in our northern hemisphere the light waned to its dimmest of the year. It is dark and cold.  Makes me just want to shut it all off for a time, to turn it down, to tone it down, to just be quiet and still.  At its best this what faith in God offers.  Holy days, Sabbath, set aside time to just be, to open our hearts to the safe place and sanctuary that the gentle creator of the universe offers.  Our ancient ancestors certainly understood this truth.  In his book, “To Dance with God”, Gertrud Mueller Nelson writes of these final days of the year: “….[ancient] peoples who lived far north and who suffered the archetypal loss of life and light with the disappearance of the sun had a way of wooing back life and hope….as the days grew shorter and colder and the sun threatened to abandon the earth….Their solution was to bring all ordinary action and daily routine to a halt. They gave in to the nature of winter, came away from their fields and put away their tools. They removed the wheels from their carts and wagons, festooned them with greens and lights and brought them indoors to hang in their halls…. a sign of a different time, a time to stop and turn inward.”

Can we learn from our ancestral example?  Put our work away.  Switch off our brains. Leave the briefcase in the car. Stash the schoolbooks in the backpack.  Tear up the "to-do" lists.  Forget housework and homework.  Nature has stopped.  We should too.


These final days of 2014 are ours’ for the taking if and when we realize that this week is the time to be still and to be silent. For much too soon we will crank it all up again.  But for now, may God grant all of us a little space to just be at peace. As the poet Max Erhman wrote in his poem “Desiderata”, "Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence....And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul."

That’s my prayer for all of us as this year finally draws to a close.      

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Torture: Never, EVER Justified and Not Who We Are as a Nation

Torture (noun) 1. the act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty.                --Random House Dictionary

Last week the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released to the press, the public and the world, a report describing our nation’s use of torture in the war on terror.  The 6,000 page tome describes in excruciating, often stomach turning detail, how American citizens, working on behalf of and with the blessing of the American government, used torture in an effort to gain intelligence from terror suspects. 

The methods were gruesome: water boarding (detainees subjected to near drowning), sleep deprivation, ice water baths, threatening the lives of prisoners and their families, forced feeding, mock executions, and the shackling of prisoners in subhuman conditions. The torture happened in so-called “black prisons”, top secret Central Intelligence Agency run facilities in places like Poland, Lithuania, Romania and Afghanistan.  One hundred and nineteen detainees were held under the program.  Twenty-six of those detainees were later found to be wrongly accused.

The reports’ release set off a firestorm of response. Current and former CIA employees and many in Congress claim these so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” saved Americans lives, even though the report denies that assertion. Some who supported the release of the report (including President Obama) hedged their bets to cover themselves politically, saying that although the torture was wrong, those who undertook it did so with patriotic motives.

As an American, I’m not sure who disappoints and angers me more: those who tortured and must have done so knowing that what they did was just wrong, immoral, and inhuman. Or those who excuse torture as “understandable” in the extraordinary time called post 9/11.  They argue that because America was fighting an enemy unlike any other foe before, because America was attacked on its own soil, because the safety of Americans took precedent over any other ideal, well…things were just done that were “necessary”. 

Thank God that in the midst of this nationwide debate, one person stood up and spoke the truth with courage and moral conviction: Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona.  Himself the victim of torture as a prisoner of war for six year in Vietnam, it is McCain, more than any self serving politician or blowhard pundit, who has the right to speak about torture. Why in the final analysis torture almost never elicits good intelligence, nor does it make for a safer world. And most important, why torture is not what America does.  Torture is not who America is.

On the floor of the Senate, McCain declared: “I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.  We have made our way in this often dangerous and cruel world, not by just strictly pursuing our geopolitical interests, but by exemplifying our political values, and influencing other nations to embrace them. When we fight to defend our security we fight also for an idea, not for a tribe or a twisted interpretation of an ancient religion or for a king, but for an idea that all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights. How much safer the world would be if all nations believed the same. How much more dangerous it can become when we forget it ourselves even momentarily."

It amazes and frightens me what America has been willing to do to “defend” itself since the dark days right after the September 11th attacks. The suspension of many basic civil liberties. Eavesdropping by the government on billions of phone calls and emails and all manner of communication.  Secret courts.  And torture.

Though I was not personally touched by 9/11, I vividly remember how scared all of us were then; how we wondered when the next attack was coming; how just for a little while it felt like we came together as a nation and community. But the problem with fear is that it often makes folks and countries do things that they could never imagine. Act in ways that contradict the most idealistic and basic of political principles. 

Like that America just does not torture those it fights against.  That instead America treats even its enemies, with dignity and humanity, and always under the rule of international and domestic law, and in the sunlight of public knowledge and authority.

I still believe, like McCain, that this American commitment to being humane, to practicing higher ideals than much of the rest of the world: this is what sets the United States apart as a nation. We may not always live up to our self professed and historic values, but try we must. And when we fall short, how wonderful it is that some among us insist that we admit our mistakes to the citizenry and the whole world. 

Torture. Never justifiable. Not what we do. Not who we are. America has to be better than that. So Senator McCain: thanks for reminding us of this truth.

Monday, December 8, 2014

In Praise of Protest and Patriots: Then and Now

Protest (noun) 1. an expression or declaration of objection, disapproval, or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid      
 ---Random House Dictionary

He was the United States’ first famous protester, the very first dissenter in a still to be born nation. Hailing from Framingham, Massachusetts, he joined a group of protesters on a cold and slushy winter day 244 years ago, in downtown Boston, to confront unjust governmental power.  Troops on one side. Dissenters on the other.  Accounts of what happened that March day are sketchy at best.  Icy snowballs may have been thrown.  Those trying to keep the peace certainly felt threatened.  Guns were raised.  Guns were fired.  Five men fell. One man among those martyrs is considered the first casualty of the Revolutionary War and the fight for independence.

If you were paying attention in your grade school history class maybe you can still recall his name: Crispus Attucks.  Victim number one in what came to be remembered as the Boston Massacre.  That Attucks was a person of color, a freeman, a former slave, makes this tale all the more amazing.  If you want to see his grave, make your way to the Granary Burying Ground in downtown Boston, over by the Common.  He is interred beside other notable U.S. protestors: John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Samuel Adams. 

I couldn’t help but think about Attucks last week when thousands of protesters descended on the streets of Boston, to peacefully protest the recent deaths of two unarmed men of color, Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Those dissenters were among hundreds of thousands of Americans who also took to the streets around the country.  They blocked traffic.  Got arrested.  Prayed.  Sang. Chanted.  Organized for action.  Worked for change.

I’m the first to admit that I’m no protester, not one to hold a sign or march or risk arrest in the cause of dissension.  I’d rather use words on a page: that’s my style.  But I have to say how grateful I am to those protesters. For their courage. For their energy. For their conviction. For their willingness to put their bodies on the line in a cause greater than themselves.  For their unwillingness to accept the status quo, and to instead embody the anger and sadness so many Americans are feeling these days.

I’m grateful too for the hundreds of police officers who oversaw, in a way, the protests; who overwhelmingly, with calm and grace and professionalism, protected those protesters’ first amendment rights, who did their best to keep every one safe.  Yes there were shouting matches.  There was disruption to cars on the road, to life as usual.  But for the most part Boston did well in protest, some of which took place not very far from Attucks’ headstone.

There’s something very powerful about that convergence, of history then, history now.  It’s easy to forget that the United States was created out of protest.  Protest is a part of our civic DNA.  Every single major social reformation in our nation was first born in the hearts of those who dared to dissent: to say those in power: “NO!”  Protesters who had and have the determination to speak truth to power and push back against the government, any authority which tyrannizes and threatens individual freedom, the right of every single citizen to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

So I just hope and pray we can all remember this history, in the days and weeks ahead, as our nation wrestles with the most profound of questions: how can the United States get to a place where all of its citizens, regardless of race, enjoy equal treatment under the law?  It’s that basic. It’s that clear.  It’s why so many peacefully protest.

Yes: there will always be the cynics among us who decry protest, who insist upon focusing on the very few who turn violent, who see protest as a nuisance, or acting out, or a threat.  Even “un-American”!

Not me. Instead I’m ever thankful that I live in a land where the people can freely and fully confront the powers that be and then work to make a difference. Protest on behalf of fellow Americans who experience powerlessness and fear.  Give voice to the hope that since all people are created equal in the eyes of God, they therefore deserve all the benefits and protections which accompany this truth.

So…thank you protesters. And thank you Crispus Attucks.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Nothing Will Change Until More Americans Dare to Imagine What Life Is Really Like in Ferguson

“I’m dismayed by how quickly – especially in the Internet age – we all dig trenches…throw ourselves in…and start throwing grenades at the other side.” --Leon H. Wolf,

One second, maybe less. 

That’s how long it took for the very first person to post an unfiltered unequivocal opinion on the Internet about social unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in the moments after a grand jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown.  Then a real “riot” began last Wednesday night, not just one of property destruction, but a riot of words too. Judgment.  Finger pointing.  Condemnation. On social media. On the TV.  In the papers.  Everywhere.

So much righteous anger directed at “those” people.  “Them”: the ones who took to the streets to rail against what they saw as a miscarriage of justice, who experienced another outcome which confirmed their worst fears about the American legal system, embodied in cops on the street and a prosecutor at a late night press conference.

In the blink of an eye, lines were drawn in our nation. Sides taken.  Positions hardened.  “Us” versus “them”.  I’m right. “They” are wrong. I’m good. “They” are bad.  Law and order works for me so what’s “their” problem?  The cop was justified in killing that kid, that thug, that “animal”. “We” didn’t riot when O.J. was acquitted.  The jury decided so the system works.  Just send in the National Guard.    

Grab verbal grenade. Remove pin. Toss. Wait for explosion.

After Ferguson this is what we get in terms of a national dialogue on race, the legal system and life in America for so many people of color.  Too much heat and too little light.  Too much red hot rhetoric and too little thoughtful reflection. Too many images in the press and on the Internet of a tiny minority of looters who selfishly chose to use the verdict as a cover for lawlessness. Too few images of the tens of thousands who marched peacefully in cities across the United States that night and in the days since.

Who wants to see a bunch of clergy led protesters praying in a church?  Who wants to see peaceful neighborhood Moms and Dads or college students non-violently exercising their first amendment rights? Instead let’s get riled up, all hot and bothered about one lone looter running out of Walgreens with a carton of cigarettes.

No: I’m not somehow justifying the violence that tore up Ferguson last Wednesday night. It was and is wrong: no question.  And after reading all I could from the grand jury transcripts it’s not any clearer to me what happened that fateful August day when Michael Brown and Officer Wilson confronted each other on a suburban street. But what’s been lost in all the media coverage and ensuing outrage this week is that Brown’s death, Wilson’s exoneration and the protests are a small part of a much, much bigger story.

For me, here’s the real Ferguson page one story. Until people like me, a person with no reason to mistrust “the system”; a person who has always freely moved through the world with not a worry about discrimination or bias of any kind…until I can truly imagine what life is like in 2014 for so many people of color, what it is like to live in their world: I won’t get it.  I can’t get it.

What’s missing from our national shouting match about Ferguson (there’s been little or no listening) is empathy: the spiritual and rare ability to imagine what another person faces in this life.  To see the world through the eyes of another. To better understand their experience.  Their existence day to day. Their pain. 

Not mere sympathy which feels bad but often stops short.  No: full throated broken hearted empathy: to feel another’s brokenness, anger, frustration, and fear. To put ourselves in the shoes of those who right now are hurting, and feeling so powerless that the only power they see as available to them is to protest.

Can you or I imagine just what it is like to send your 18 year old kid out the door and then the next time you see him is in a morgue, laid out on a slab, shot dead? What does that feel like, regardless of what that young man did or did not do? What’s it like to live in a neighborhood and be afraid to call the police? What’s it like to be a person of color and be stared at or tailed when you walk in a store or drive down a street or stand on the corner with your friends? What’s it like to have to warn your kids to be always extra careful around the police, extra polite, extra anxious, because one wrong or suspicious move and you’ll end up in handcuffs?  What’s it like to live in a down and out neighborhood, with 50 percent unemployment and terrible schools and a dread that there is no way out for you or your loved ones, ever? 

I can’t ever truly imagine what life is like for so many Americans when it comes to race.  But I must try. I must listen more and opine less. Close my mouth and open my ears to hear about what it is like to be “the other”. Because until those of us on this side of the protest barriers imagine what its like to be on the other side of the street, nothing will change. Nothing. Until we can walk in the shoes of fellow Americans who feel like the deck is always stacked against them, Fergusons will just keep happening. The United States will continue to be split along racial and economic lines. The nightmare of racism will not end. 

And what of that long ago dream of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s Jr.? “That my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It will never, ever come true unless people of power and privilege like me, empathize with the people without power, without privilege and, in these post Ferguson days, without hope.

I can’t imagine life in Ferguson today. Can you?  For the sake of our nation I pray somehow, someway, with empathy, we can and we must: imagine that.