Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Escape the Spirit Draining Noise of Modern Life

"...I realized that I spent a considerable amount of time banging around with a brain full of chatter...[so] there was no time to notice the neighbors had moved out, the wind was sneaking in from the north, the sun was shifting on its axis, and tonight the moon would look like the milky residue floating inside an enormous cereal bowl. I wondered when I had become a person who noticed so little.”              --Dee Williams

A CVS parking lot on a recent Sunday night is the last place I expected to encounter a pair of middle aged pony-tailed street musicians, strumming on their guitars. It was a muggy Indian summer evening with a day-glow yellow crescent moon perched in the sky as backdrop. The buskers were playing a languid blues riff and so I stopped. And then I listened. And then I breathed in and I breathed out. And then the weirdest thing happened.

The chatter stopped. The chatter of modern life, of a busy life, a stressed out life, of always being plugged in, on.  The chatter of self doubt and questioning and worry too. I heard the music and I saw that beautiful moon and I felt the warm air and I actually noticed the world all around me, for the first time all day, maybe all week.

No more chatter. Wow.

We all are immersed in this noise, so much so that we may not even notice it anymore.  Chatter in our brains and spirits working overtime, sometimes, it seems, all the time, from the hour we awaken at dawn until the moment we turn out the light and even then the chatter does not always cease.  "What did I forget to do today?  What do I have to do tomorrow?"  Make the kids lunches and load the dishwasher and catch the train and gotta get going, get moving, get cracking. Chatter: on the radio in the car, sports radio blabbing, new radio blaring, talk radio yelling. Chatter: from ear buds we rarely take out. Chatter from a TV that's rarely off, reports of so much news, so much bad news, so many blowhard politicians and self-important pundits demanding our attention. Chatter: not just aural but visual too: a never ending Facebook feed and text messages that "beep" and "ding". "HEED ME! NOW!"  There's internal chatter too: the nagging voice that tries to convince us, in spite of our best efforts, we are just not good enough or doing enough nor do we have enough nor are we just "enough".

So enough with the chatter. ENOUGH! Stop.

Thank God for those pharmacy troubadours and a sweet sliver of moon and late September balmy temps for they actually calmed my chatter. That serendipitous oasis reminded me how so many of us are addicted to chatter, how acclimated we've become to all the static, and the cacophony. So much technological trivia; such obsessive neediness to stay connected, afraid that we might miss out. The conversation in our heads is as old as life itself: all the secret fears and worries we harbor about ourselves, our loved ones, and our world. Those little demons poke at us, don't want to shut up.

The hard truth is that no one--no external power, no miraculous power--can mute this chatter for us or do the work of serenity and sacred attention. That task is ours' alone.  The world has and will always spin right along, tempting us to grab the next shiny bauble or jump into the next conversation or respond to the next distraction.  Life forever has just one more thing to do too.  As you are reading this essay, chances are very good you are already thinking about what's next. Right?

The gift of faith in a higher power greater than ourselves, is that such spirituality, at its best, always calls us back to the quiet, to silence, and to rest from all the chatter, if just for a bit.  This lack of chatter is not a luxury or something to do after we've accomplished everything else. To get to this spiritual center is essential for our humanity and our sanity. To get to the center is a divine reboot, a way to refresh our hearts and then remember that life is good.  That we are good. That there may be nothing more beautiful than a cooing baby or a tender kiss or stars at night or a hot cup of coffee.

But for such clarity to happen, the chatter has to stop.

That happened for me in a CVS parking lot. Who'd have thought that?  And you?  Where will you know sanctuary from the chatter?  Look for it.  Find it.  Then stay there, even if only just for awhile.


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.