Monday, June 25, 2018

At The Border Between Compassion and Hard Hearts: What Will It Be America?

"Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."     
 --Matthew 25:40

The "least of these". 

That's the haunting biblical phrase I cannot get out of my heart after watching with horror and sadness the continued suffering of thousands of refugees, migrants and innocent children at our southern border. Forget for a moment the question of what is right or wrong when it comes to "illegal immigrants" or "refugees" seeking a better life here in the United States. That stubborn argument has been ongoing for a generation and no solution or compromise seems in sight. Forget for a moment the fact that by attempting to enter the U.S. these folks are breaking the law. No one on the left or right can dispute that fact. Forget the red hot rhetoric of political debate, the screaming headlines and dramatic press conferences and talking heads shouting at full volume at one another.

Just consider this. 

These are real people, children of God like you and me. They are poor with little or no protection. They are exhausted and frightened and hungry after their perilous trek northward. The overwhelming number of them keep coming because they are trying to escape terrible economic and social conditions in their home countries. We can get frustrated about this disaster and its chronic intractability.  But they are here, knocking at our door. Asking for help. How have we responded as a people?

Too often with mercilessness, with backs turned, with anger and judgment.   

Even though we know these downtrodden folks are the "least of these".  Least, as in lacking almost any power. Least, as in being at the mercy of our government.  Least, as in having almost no one to watch out for them, to care for them, to advocate for them. Least, the poorest of the poor, the lowest folks on the global totem pole. Those who are invisible in this world. The ones most often left behind.   

What has most shocked me about this humanitarian crisis is the fact that our government and many of our citizens too: we find it so easy to treat these suffering human souls as less than human. As objects. As annoying problems to be swept away, locked up, packed up and sent back to where they came from.  "Not our problem," we protest.  "Hard enough to take care of our own," we rationalize.  "They will overrun us!" xenophobic leaders warn and the flames of fear are stoked and the door is closed so tight, slammed shut. "Just go away!" I imagine many are thinking, hoping.   

But one truth will not go away. These are the "least of these" that we are talking about. Refugees asking for refuge because they are in danger. Is it not our moral responsibility as a nation to treat them with kindness, justice, and compassion?  And the many who claim the high moral ground of belief in God: are we not obligated to turn those beliefs into actual loving behavior? Does not a decent civilized society always take care of these the least among us? 

And not just refugees but the impoverished and the sick also. And the widowed and widower. And the orphan.  And the child in danger. And the hungry and the homeless.  And the exploited and addicted and disabled and war torn. The very old. The very young. Mahatma Gandhi once said that the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. 

Using this simple criteria, America is not measuring up. Simple human decency seems to be in such short supply these days.  Decency and character from those who lead us.  Decency in our civil discourse, how we talk to each other, talk about others. Decency in agreeing to disagree and not just vilifying and dismissing those who disagree with us, a sin liberals and conservatives are both guilty of. 

Caught in the crossfire are the least of these, the ones whom God reminds us are actually members of the human family. Of our family. They are our flesh and blood and the hopes they have for their sons and daughters are just as legitimate as the dreams we have for our own kids.

America stands at the border of compassion and hard heartedness. The least of these need our help. Which way will we turn? God help us choose the right way.


Sunday, June 17, 2018

Intentional Cruelty Now Becomes Government Policy

"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child
A long way from home, a long way from home"
--African-American spiritual, 1870

I was seven years old, recovering from very serious ear surgery.  After a visit to the doctor, as we drove home in my Grandmother's car, the bandages used to staunch the bleeding in my ear came loose and suddenly I began to bleed uncontrollably. As my Mom cradled me in the backseat, my Grandmother sped to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, where I was wheeled into a treatment room to wait for a doctor.  All around me were bright lights and beeping machines. I was covered with blood and so afraid, but the worst was this. Hospital policy dictated that my Mom could not come into the room. Could not hold my hand, or soothe me, or tell me it would be alright. I could even hear her protesting voice just outside the closed door. 

Never before, never since, have I ever felt so separate, so separated from my parents, the ones charged in my childhood world to care for me. To never leave my side.  To be physically present through the best and the worst.  That's what a kid is supposed to be able trust in, maybe more so than any other promise in their little life.

That Mom and Dad won't go, no matter what.

Unless you are an immigrant from the south, showing up at the border, pleading for mercy. Because right now it is the stated policy of the United States government to forcibly take teens and children away from their immigrant parents. To house them in makeshift facilities. To separate them from Mom, from Dad.  Under Presidents Obama and Bush, both hard line opponents of illegal immigration, this was not the policy. It could have been, legally, but both chose to not carry out "zero tolerance", the name given to this program by the current administration.

So now cruelty is a tool of our government's immigration policy. The intentional affliction of suffering visited upon children, CHILDREN, is the unmerciful way to supposedly stem the flow of illegal immigrants.  According to scores of reports from both the left and the right in the media, some 2,000 children have been separated from their parents in the last six weeks, by the Department of Homeland Security.

But wait--it gets worse.  Attempting to justify these actions, the top law enforcement official in the U.S., Attorney General Jeff Sessions, tried to rationalize it by citing scripture, in a speech to law enforcement officials in Indiana. He said it was our Godly duty to enforce the law, I suppose even an unjust law. But he did seem to skip over the most relevant passages for this discussion, the truth that throughout the Bible people of faith are commanded by God to care for the refugees and strangers among us. To treat them as human beings and fellow children of God, with dignity. Makes me wonder if a few pages were missing from Sessions' Bible.

As Isaiah 10 warns, "Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless." That's kind of direct. No wiggle room there.  But as so often happens when we humans use the Bible as a fig leaf to hide that which is ultimately immoral, this effort is unmasked for the lie that it is.  Or as the preacher William Sloane Coffin once said, "Too many Christians use the Bible as a drunk does a lamppost: for support rather than for illumination."

The condemnation of this new policy has been universal and comes from across the religious spectrum: Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, Main Street Protestants, Jews and Muslims, even by usually ardent administration acolytes, like the Reverend Franklin Graham. Not one legitimate faith group has come out in support of Uncle Sam. 

So imagine this if you dare: life as a motherless child.  Imagine surviving a dangerous journey of hundreds, even thousands of miles with your parents, only to be snatched out of their loving arms when you arrive. Imagine such inhumane actions being promoted under the flag of our nation.

We should all be ashamed.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Most Important Question: Ask and You Just May Save the Life of a Despairing Soul

"Did you really want to die?"
"No one commits suicide because they want to die."
"Then why do they do it?"
"Because they want to stop the pain.”
  --Tiffanie DeBartolo, "How to Kill a Rock Star"

I've never been in so much emotional pain that I wanted to take my own life. Thank God.  But I wonder: if I ever did get to that desperate point, would the folks in my life who love me have the courage to actually ask me, out loud, directly, if I was thinking about hurting myself? Committing suicide?

I know that's a jarring, scary possibility to ponder. To know a friend or family member or co-worker. To be worried that they may actually be contemplating killing themselves. Should I say something? What can I do? What if I'm wrong? What if I'm right?

As a helping professional for almost thirty years, I've been in the middle of far too many such situations.  I've seen the terrible aftermath of suicide: the devastated family, the unanswered questions, the raw and ragged heartache of loving someone who faced into so much inner pain, that they finally decided they had no option but to die by their own hands, to leave this life. 

So awful. So sad. So heartbreaking.

Suicide has been in the headlines and on our national consciousness these past weeks.  Two high profile celebrities and cultural bright lights committed suicide: author and chef Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade. So too the Centers for Disease Control released a report on suicide in the United States with sobering statistics. Since 1999, the national suicide rate has increased by 25 percent. In 2016, 45,000 Americans committed suicide; most took their own lives using a firearm. Suicide is now the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. Men account for three quarters of all suicides.  In Massachusetts the suicide rate increased by 35 percent in the last twenty years.

Beyond the numbers, of course, are the people.  Our aging parents, our beautiful sons and daughters, the person we share a pew with at church, the neighbor next door.  Folks so caught up in the downward spiral of emotional anguish, mental illness and deep despair, that these tortured souls see no way out, no relief from the pain but death.

The danger is that we, their relatives, their friends: we might think we are powerless to prevent such tragedies.  But we are not.  First look for warning signs. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, these include: if a person talks about killing themselves, feeling hopeless, having no reason to live, being a burden to others, feeling trapped or facing unbearable pain. Behaviors can signal risk: increased use of alcohol or drugs, withdrawing from activities, sleeping too much or too little, or isolating from family and friends. A person's moods are red flags too: depression, anxiety, irritability, or humiliation and shame.

If we are worried for someone, then comes what may be the toughest, but perhaps the best thing we can do for them.  Ask.  Just ask. Say directly to them: "Are you thinking about hurting yourself? Are you thinking about taking your own life?"  And if that answer is "yes" then connecting them with health care professionals and resources to get them the help they need. 

Yes it will feel awkward. Yes it might be the hardest discussion you've ever had.  Yes you may be wrong and risk embarrassment or even angering another. But: what if you are correct in your feelings?  What if your one loving and caring outreach actually saves a life? 

Think about that.

So if you are worried about someone you love, if you have suspicions something is wrong, if you think suicide may be on someone's heart or mind: ask. Talk to them honestly and forthrightly. It just might be the most important conversation you will ever have. 





Monday, June 4, 2018

If I'd Known Then What I Know Now: A Letter of Hope to Graduates

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it.
            --from the 1967 film, "The Graduate"

Do you remember who spoke at your high school or college graduation? On that day, perhaps long ago, when you as a grad sat in a hard backed chair on a sun drenched football field or in a cavernous college field house or on ancient wooden pews in a church? Do you remember what advice was given to you? The pithy wisdom. Seemingly profound directions for life. How about the guidance a well meaning parent or relative offered?    

Admit it: you were probably having a hard time listening then.

Because you were nervous and excited at the scary and wonderful prospect of finally being on your own, fully responsible for your one God-given life.  You didn't listen fully because you were sad about leaving a group of friends or the comforts of home. You were worried because you'd yet to find a job. You just wanted the formal rituals to end so you could party! You were ready to toss your mortar cap into the air and then get on with things.

I know I was distracted on the day I picked up my diploma from the University of Massachusetts thirty five springs ago. I felt as if all the ways I had identified myself up until that point in my 22 years--student, dependent child, dreamer--these were being stripped away. Now it was up to me to figure out who I wanted to be and what the quality of my one life would be, as well. How I would choose to live as I made my way into the big unknown world.

Looking back I do know what I wish someone had said to me. 

"John: this life is not all about 'you'. Make your life about something bigger than self alone. Devote part of your life to a cause or a passion or an ideal or an eternal belief that makes the lives of others and this world better."     

I don't know if I would have heeded that advice. But I do know that I have been happiest in my one life of nearly six decades now, when I have given myself fully over to something other than "me".  To a faith in God.  To a cause for the good.  To service for others who are struggling.  To being a loving and caring adult in the life of a child: as Godfather and Uncle and teacher and friend.

I wish someone had warned me that if a person lives a self-focused, self-centered, self-indulgent life, makes one's self the center of the universe, that's a pretty lonely way to live. I wish someone had challenged me to see physical pleasure, indulging my outsized  appetites, as okay in the short term but ultimately fleeting, even shallow in the long run. 

I wish someone had taught me that it is not about, "Who dies with the most toys wins."  The most joyful moments I've known have never been about money or things or stuff. It's always been about relationships: who I love, who loves me. I wish someone had talked to me about being humble, that to do so doesn't mean thinking less of yourself but thinking less about yourself. 

The gift of being young and just beginning life's journey is that you get to figure it all out as you go along.  So perhaps this idea of my present self giving my past self advice is a bit fantastical.  But still: I do wish someone had shared with me one simple insight I've come to understand through the rough and tumble and beautiful and broken process of growing up.

A life lived for self alone is finally, not much of a life. A life lived for others is the best and the most blessed life of all.

God bless the class of 2018.