Monday, June 29, 2015

America and a Promised Land For All The People: Almost, Not Yet

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison
us, do we not die?”      
--“The Merchant of Venice”, Shakespeare

Strange days in our nation.

New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow may have best described the intense swirl of conflicting feelings and emotions millions of Americans experienced in the past two weeks.  He writes: “[It]…was a bit surreal. As America was celebrating the victory of marriage equality at the Supreme Court, it was also mourning [nine] black people in South Carolina murdered by a white supremacist.” These are awe-filled and awful days.  One day our nation takes a historic step towards full inclusion.  Another day, in bloodshed and heartbreak, we remember how far we still have to go. 

Millions of our fellow Americans empowered with the legal right to marry: to love and to make families. Millions of our fellow Americans still targeted for hatred and bias and violence.  The “other” welcomed in. The “other” cut down.  It makes me weep and laugh, celebrate and grieve, proud to be an American and ashamed to be an American. In July 4th’s shadow, these events remind us that we have come a long way in 239 years, but my goodness: we’ve yet got such a long, long way to go too.

When oh when will we as a people see the full dignity and worth of all the people? All the people? All of our neighbors and friends, every last one? All of the men and women and children with whom share this home, the United States of America?  Some argue that through the rule of law we’ll finally get to the promised land and they point to the Supreme Court’s ruling as proof of this power. Others say we are already there. Look: we have an African-American President.  Look: folks of different sexual orientations are very out and visible in our culture and country. 

True and yet….

Laws are not enough. The human heart cannot be changed through a legislative act or court decision. Authentic inclusion cannot be mandated or forced. We can post rainbow flags all we want on Facebook or Twitter but such public posturing risks little or nothing. The only truth which finally redeems is our shared humanity and our ability to embrace this reality. That we all bleed if we are pricked.  We all weep when a loved one dies.  We all aspire to love another special person and be loved in return and live in peace.  Until we recognize this flesh and blood connection to the person we may still label as “the other”, nothing will change.

As Atticus Finch says to his daughter Scout, in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “…if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."  Until we who are white have the courage to face how hard life is for so many people of color in our land, things won’t change.  Until we who are straight have the moral imagination to understand what it is like to have your essence as a child of God called “sinful” and “unnatural”, nothing will change.  Until we who are privileged by virtue of the class we are born into or the zip code we call home, until we confront the pain of poverty and being poor, nothing will change. 

Finally, we are all human, all children of God, all. 

Before we are a color, or a gender, or an orientation, or a class, or a race, or a religion, or a nationality, we are all human.  Get that and the world can change, absolutely.  Miss that and the world will continue on as it is.  Two thousand years ago a wise teacher was asked to name the most important of God’s laws. His answer was simple: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Such ancient wisdom seems so simple.  If I want to be treated with equality and justice, I’ll do the same to others.  If I want to be accepted for who I am, I must accept others for the person God made them to be.  If I don’t want to be judged, labeled, or stereotyped, I need to stop doing that to my neighbor.

Strange days. 

Amazing and incredible days filled with joy.  Sad and tragic days filled with loss.  America: we’ve come a long way.  America: we’ve still got miles to go to reach our promised land.


Sunday, June 21, 2015

After Charleston: Somehow America Must Still Keep the Faith

"I want to say to you this morning, my friends, that somewhere along the way you should discover something that's so dear, so precious to you, that is so eternally worthful, that you will never give it up....great faith that grips you so much that you will never give it up. Somehow you go on and say 'I know that the God that I worship is able to deliver me, but if not, I'm going on anyhow...'"
--Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.

They keep on going on, anyhow. They keep the faith.

Let that be the news this week.  Let this be at least some piece of good news, a direct challenge to all the bad news, awful news, unfathomable news, such incredibly sad news.

Last Sunday morning, less than four days after nine members of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were gunned down in a bible study, murdered in cold blood by a hateful white supremacist gunman; just eighty six hours after the sacredness of their sanctuary and church was violated by evil violence, hundreds of Emmanuel's members, friends and supporters all went to church. Returned to their church. Turned and returned to God. Leaned into, and leaned upon God's everlasting arms and hopes. Reassembled their community and reaffirmed their historic faith.  

Even after losing their pastor and their shepherd, still those Emmanuel folks did the one thing, the only thing, in a way, that they could do.  As Interim Pastor Neville Goff declared from the pulpit of "Mother Emmanuel" as the church is known in AME circles, "A lot of people expected us to do something strange and to break out in a riot. Well, they just don't know us. We are people of faith."

Faith, and so they keep on going on, anyhow.

Even before Emmanuel's Sunday worship service, relatives of the nine victims: in faith they spoke words of forgiveness to the accused shooter. Forgiveness and mercy!  Said victim Ethel Lance's daughter: "I will never be able to hold her again, but I forgive you...You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people but God forgives you, and I forgive you." Felicia Sanders, mother of victim Tywanza Sanders and a survivor of the shooting said, "Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. May God have mercy on you."

They keep on going on, forgiving somehow, in faith.

As a child of God, a white American, a pastor, and a fellow person of faith I am in awe of these faith-filled responses. Would I, if so hurt and wounded, respond with such grace or might I instead just lash out? Give myself over to cynicism and despair? Let the headlines roll on by until the next mass shooting or act of domestic terror and then go back to my largely privileged and protected life?  We've been through this cultural script far too many times before. As a nation I fear we are numbed to it all now: to violence, racism, bias, and our wild west gun culture.

What then can we do? Must we do? Have faith.  FAITH.

Stand with the people of Emmanuel and like minded and like hearted folks everywhere.  To keep the faith and keep on going on. To keep on keeping on. To keep on demanding that we live up to our highest ideals: liberty and justice and mercy for all, all, no one left out.  Finally it is all about faith.  Faith in God whose heart breaks whenever a child of God dies unnecessarily.  Faith in an America whose dream of brother and sisterhood has to come true one day. Faith.
This faith does not deny the pain and heartbreak of the killings.  Does not ignore the collective sorrow of families and neighborhoods, a city shattered by the loss of nine souls, here one moment, gone the next.  "I'm going to Bible Study.  I'll be home later. Love you!" Such rock solid faith to carry on does not turn us away from the injustice of it all.  The anger. The fear.

Instead an unbreakable faith directly challenges the truth of intolerance still so deeply embedded in America's collective social DNA. Faith declares racism is always wrong and always against God's hope for the world. Faith refuses to break even while being bent. It refuses to meet violence with violence, even as some politicians line up to call for the execution of the accused gunmen. Faith declares that even in the shadow of so many African-Americans suffering as a result of our nation's original sin, still our faith to work for better days must not be moved or bowed or broken or destroyed. 

We must keep on going on in faith. There is no other way. There is no other choice, save a continuing downward spiral into even more death and more rage and more bad news.  Do we as a country and a people have the faith of our witnesses at Emmanuel AME, faith enough to go on?  To pray and work for peace.  To be in relationship with folks the world deems as "the other".  To recognize, in the words of Reverend King, that, "I cannot be who I ought to be if you are not who you out to be.”

In faith, the folks of Emmanuel keep on going.  In faith we must too.  God help us all.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Open the Windows and Open Your World

“See the curtains hanging in the window, In the evening on a Friday night,
Little light is shining through the window, Lets me know everything's alright
Summer breeze, makes me feel fine….”          --Seals and Croft

Windows open or windows shut tight?   

I face this conundrum in late spring and early summer: when to shut the sashes and secure the locks and then wrestle my bulky, noisy, creaky, ancient window air conditioner into place. When to say “UNCLE!” to the hot days of summer and surrender. When to hermetically seal up the house and for the most part not crack open the windows again until after Labor Day.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy the artificial cool: the sweet sensation of walking into a chilled room after wading through waves of sticky humidity. The relief of a chilled night’s sleep after sweating and schlepping all day.  The hum of the machine putting me to sleep.  I certainly get that some folks—the old, the ill, poor souls whose job it is to work under a hot sun—they deserve to chill out. In many places air conditioning isn’t a luxury. It’s a given, non-negotiable. There’s New England heat and then there’s Texas hot!

But me? I need my open windows.

I need to hear the train whistle blow late at night, stirring restlessness and comfort in me. To wake up to bird song in the morning, cardinals and finches and mourning doves heralding a new day.  I need to hear the pitter patter then the torrential tumult of a thunderstorm. To hear the laughter of kids playing catch, the whap of the ball in a baseball mitt.  I need to hear the whir of a lawn mower and then smell the perfume of freshly cut grass.  To be serenaded by the warble of the ice cream truck as it lumbers down the road on a sultry August afternoon.  When the window is down and the AC is cranked up I’m deaf to this symphony.

Open windows do mean there will be noises we can do without: the numbing buzz of leaf blowers, the whine of sirens in the distance, the whir of traffic and horns blowing on the street, the cheers of late night revelers partying it up one block over.  When we choose to keep the windows open we invite the whole world in, God’s Creation writ large, all of it: the good, the bad, the soothing and the cacophonous.

But that’s a risk I’m willing to take.  I can’t imagine summer without seasonal sounds.  It would be much too muted, quiet, muffled and certainly boring.  Only three months ago our windows were shut tight. Remember? The singular sound then was the metallic scrape of snowplows.  The soundtrack of summer is not supposed to be dominated by the industrial hum of an air conditioner. Instead it’s a top 40 song blasting from a passing car, the splash of water from a backyard pool, the sizzle of meat on the grill and peepers peeping at dusk.    

I confess that on some wicked hot day in the weeks ahead, I’ll finally break down and chill out, turn my AC on. I’ll seal up all the air cracks and then pull within my little igloo of icy air.  I’ll awaken each morning well rested but chilled, as if I’ve slept in a refrigerator crisper drawer all night long.

Until then I’m keeping the windows open for a summer breeze. After all, it’s almost summer! You just have to listen.


Monday, June 8, 2015

Paranoia: Are "They" Out to Get Us? Depends on Whom You Ask.

"There's something inherently American about paranoia….we dream up theories whose inevitable result is the chaotic disruption of our comfortable, orderly life-usually with dastardly consequences. I think we get a perverse thrill that comes from it.”  --Anonymous Internet post

Have you heard?

The United States military is set to invade Texas on July 15th in a “training operation” that Uncle Sam is innocuously labels “Jade Helm 15”. Thousands of troops will fan out across seven American states this summer for a month long “simulated” war game. But the truth? I wonder. Maybe this “exercise” is not about playing war but is instead about waging war against the citizens of a sovereign American state in a secret plot to take over the Lone Star state.  True?

Depends on whom you ask.  Depends on if you’re paranoid, I guess.

Some Texas government officials and citizens are absolutely convinced that the federal government is up to something nefarious. When U.S. Army officials recently visited the Texas town of Bastrop, where parts of the exercise will take place, they were met by a hostile crowd, folks holding signs: “No Gestapo in Bastrapo” and “Keep America Free”.  As reported in the Boston Globe, “Rumors stoked on the Internet and conservative talk radio spread fears that the troops and Humvees that will roll through Bastrop this summer are part of a plot by the Obama administration to declare martial law in Texas.” 

Not to be “out paranoided” by his constituents, Texas Governor Greg Abbot ordered the Texas National Guard to “monitor” the troops so that “Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights, and civil liberties will not be infringed.” Members of the Texas congressional delegation demanded answers from the Pentagon.  The irony is that Texas is more pro-military and pro-army than a place like our own Massachusetts. Only two other states boast more active military service men and women and Fort Hood, one of the largest military bases in the world, is just 100 miles from Bastrop. 

But when you are paranoid—about the government, about “the man”, about “they”, about “the powers” you perceive as being perpetually out to get you and your loved ones: facts don’t matter much.  Reassurances don’t make a difference. Instead it’s all about perception and fear. It’s about having a basic worldview which sees life as an essentially bad place, one filled with enemies and dark forces forever conspiring to do you in. 

I’ll admit when I first heard this story I was tempted as a stereotypical northeastern, big city, small car driving, latte drinking writer to dismiss such paranoia as crazy, fringe, or wacky.  But the truth is we live in an increasingly paranoid nation. One where 18 percent of Americans still believe that President Obama is not a Christian but actually a secret Muslim.  A close friend of mine can no longer talk with her highly educated co-worker because he spends his time trying to convince her that the Boston Marathon Bombing and 9/11 were plots carried out by the U.S. government.

Paranoia is not new to the American psyche.  In the 1800’s paranoid Protestants from my faith did all they could to stop Catholic immigrants from coming to our shores, labeling them “Papists” seeking world domination through the Pope.  In the 1920’s the Ku Klux Klan railed against Jews and people of color as the real threat.  McCarthyism in the 1950’s demonized communists and imagined them hiding under every bed.  Since 9/11 paranoia has ramped up and now most finds its fears in Islam.

At its core paranoia sees all of life as a threat, both real and potential.  Paranoia sees a new neighbor not as a friend to be made but a stranger to be feared.  Paranoia makes us just about the most heavily armed nation on earth even while violent crime in America is at an all time low. Paranoia sees any form of government action as intrusive. Paranoia is a civic cancer which destroys a peoples’ ability to sanely govern itself.  Paranoia always looks for the worst and inevitably finds just that.

So when I hear about tales like the one unfolding in Texas, I’m not mad or mocking. I’m sad. Sad for paranoid people who are basically afraid of life. Sad for a country split along ideological, cultural, racial and religious lines, and all because we too easily see the “other”, not as a fellow citizen and child of God, but instead as someone to be wary about.  To worry about.

What am I paranoid about? Paranoia. That’s the real threat to our increasingly frayed civic fabric.  When I look out at the world I choose to see the good, the noble, and the well meaning.  When I consider the government, I see most folks just trying their best to make our country great. When I worship the God of my choice, I see a Creator who made Creation and all that is within it and then said, “It is very good.”

Paranoia—maybe this is the force that is really out to get us.


Monday, June 1, 2015

Sports in America: Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio?

“Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you…”
--“Mrs. Robinson”, by Paul Simon

OK: so McCoy Stadium in nearby Pawtucket, Rhode Island, home to the Red Sox minor league affiliate Paw Sox? It’s not the most sophisticated nor slick nor comfortable of places to see a professional baseball game. As a lifelong baseball fan, I’ve visited fifteen of the thirty major league parks and lots of minor league venues too and I’d call McCoy “endearingly scruffy”, like the team which calls it home.

The mascots are Paw and Sox (get it?), a pair of over sized polar bears, kind of a weird choice given the team’s locale in a hardscrabble landlocked blue collar New England city.  No icebergs in sight. The stadium is a u-shaped painted concrete edifice and sits in a working class neighborhood dotted with small homes and industrial parks. Purchase the wrong seat for a night game and chances are the sun will be right in your eyes until dusk.  The team, like its location, is made up of folks striving for better things, hoping to one day make it to “the big leagues”, to move on up.  But the hot dogs are delicious and the game on the field is always fun and so every year at least once I return to McCoy.  That pilgrimage reminds me why I so love sports as a part of my life and America’s life too.

The game is a shared experience and so I sit with old friends in the stands and we swap arcane baseball statistics and stories as the game slowly unfolds before us and a bag of peanuts is passed back and forth. We’ve got no other place to go or be and we watch and relax and cheer together on a muggy May night.  The stands are peopled with families and college students, senior citizens and kids at their first game, because the tickets here are cheap and affordable, the parking and the food too. McCoy is a storied place. In 1981 it hosted the longest game in professional baseball history: 33 innings, eleven hours and twenty three minutes to be precise. 

McCoy embodies the historic mythology of sports in America.  This seventy three year old stadium represents in a way why millions of us fans still love the game, any game.  The ideal is that on the field, between the lines, players play for the fun and for the joy of play. The myth is that every one plays by the rules and that the outcome is true and just, because the competition is always fair. The hope is that for a few dollars anyone can be a fan, buy a ticket, bring their kids or a date and enjoy time away from the pressures of life.  The faith is that while everything else in the world changes, the game does not, it cannot. We trust it somehow and then pass our love for it from generation to generation. 

But myths sometimes crumble and falter and even fail. 

There’s a very good chance McCoy Stadium will be empty in just a few years, maybe even a victim of the wrecking ball. For in the United States, especially in our professional sports, one truth these days always, always, trumps mythology.  It’s money.  Ownership of the Paw Sox recently changed hands and so now the team belongs to a syndicate of deep pocketed business men who dream of taking the team big time, They are ready to leave McCoy for a brand new state of the art $85 million dollar park in downtown Providence, just south on Route 95.  Though these new investors speak of keeping the Paw Sox legacy untouched, fans know that this is the real myth, as in untrue.  Instead picture a mini Fenway Park, with TV screens everywhere and overpriced food and expensive parking and gaudy video scoreboards. 

We get the picture.  Final score: Money 1, Myth O.  Game over? It is getting harder and harder to be a sports fan in America, a lover of the game, all games. It is tough to believe in the myth of sports anymore. 

Iconic heroes crumble to the ground and stay mum, silent, in the face of being charged with cheating and being labeled a cheater.  Are you ever going to say it ain’t so Tom?  Admission prices skyrocket, putting the pleasure of a game out of reach for the many, like folks from Pawtucket, whose hearts will break if and when McCoy goes away. Fans are now overfed, overstuffed, and overwhelmed by sports media.  Once sports in America was a playful diversion, entertainment for the masses, and fun. Now it’s all major business, even in the minor leagues.

So here’s a civic prayer.  Can I have back my myth, please!?  Can I hang on to McCoy Stadium with all its graceful informality, its low key commitment to a game and nothing more? Can I once again cheer for stars who have humility and heart and not just hubris?

Can I just be a fan?   

If you really love baseball and love a game, then take a road trip south this spring or summer and go see the Paw Sox at McCoy Stadium. I guarantee that you will have a great time.  No: there isn’t valet parking or gourmet food or limos pulling up to the players’ entrance.  Not yet at least.

But there is a game.  A game.  That’s one myth I refuse to let go of.   Play ball.