Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Creation Is Wild: We Pay A Price In Forgetting This Truth

 “There is a patience of the wild – dogged, tireless, persistent as life itself.”
--Jack London, "The Call of the Wild"

In the end, the wild in this world still wins sometimes. 

Mixed within Thanksgiving 2018 week news reports of how to cook a turkey just right or about Black Friday deals on flat screen TVs or heartwarming stories describing folks traveling thousands of miles to get home, there was an odd story. A tragic story. A wild story. The story of John Allen Chau.

Chau, a twenty six year old from Washington state, an apparently fervent Christian singularly devoted to spreading his faith to the wild places and wild peoples of this world, died in that effort on November 16th.  A month before he had traveled to the wildest of places, North Sentinel Island, an isolated spit of land in the middle of the Indian Ocean, hundreds of miles off the coat of India.  There live a Sentilese tribe of 50 to 100 people, who have intentionally isolated themselves from the rest of the world for thousands of years. The Indian government considers the island off limits to all outsiders and tries to protect it.  But Chau was not to be stopped from his "mission". 

For four weeks Chau repeatedly tried to land on the island, at one point (according to his diary) yelling to the inhabitants from his kayak in the waters offshore: “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you!”  He was attacked by spears thrown by the islanders, had his Bible pierced by a razor sharp arrow, and was repelled by the tribe, who wanted nothing more than to be left alone. Left in the wild. Left to themselves. Yet still Chau insisted, persisted and so the inevitable happened. Chau finally landed on the island and was killed, his body buried under the sands of that wild and mysterious place. Efforts to retrieve his remains have thus far failed.

As a Christian, the same faith as Chau's, what most strikes me about his death is what a waste of a life it is, what a product his demise is of naive arrogance found in the human idea that we can somehow tame all that is wild. Control all that which is ultimately out of our control.  Presume we "civilized" folks know best how other "wild" fellow human beings are supposed to live. Chau foolishly, tragically died, a victim of the wild.

Yes, the wild still has much power in our world in spite of what we humans might believe or imagine. Chau's death shows this truth. Yet in 2018 it is so easy to assume that the wild no longer has reign in Creation. 

Our world is more connected and interconnected than ever before, billions of us able to communicate with each other through one tap on a smart phone screen. Diseases that once ravaged this world in wild and frightening ways--smallpox, polio, malaria--have been eradicated through the work of modern science.  Travel has shrunk our world to hours spent on a jet plane, one day in Boston, the next in Senegal or Mongolia or Madagascar. 

The world has been tamed but so too this world is still untamed, a very, very wild place. Witness the California wildfires that ravage the coast and burn in spite of all we humans try to do to stop them. Witness climate change, born from the arrogance of humans who presume we can tame wild mother earth, recklessly use all of her resources and then not somehow pay the price for our avarice. Witness our shared lives, the countries we call home, the systems of global organization that seemingly unite our fractured global community. 

All it takes is a handful of wild leaders to destabilize world order.  So now the United States is singlehandedly beginning to dismantle the community of western nations created post World War II in the cause of peace. The forces of Brexit in Great Britain insist upon divorce from the European community even though such an action is likely to wreck the British economy. Wild despots reemerge as bullies on the world stage, like Putin in Russia.

The world is still a wild place. A very wild place. Even our God is forever wild, a God we too often insist upon taming through rigid orthodoxy, narrow religious belief, and the arrogant notion that our little tribe possesses God's truth, all others need not apply.

We as Christians, as a species and as children of God would be wise to remember this truth, the wildness in the very DNA of God and the stuff of Creation. To respect the wild places and wild peoples and wild nature. To have a bit of healthy and fear and true humility when it comes to how we engage and encounter the wild in this life.

Because sometimes, even in this twenty first century, the wild still wins.



Thursday, November 22, 2018

Deep Thanksgiving Begins In This One Miraculous Moment

"It goes so fast. We don't have time to look at one another. I didn't realize. All that was going on in life and we never noticed....Do any human beings realize life while they live it? Every...every minute?"           
 --Emily, from "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder

Last summer I undertook an unusual spiritual practice. I tried my best to pay attention, pay deep attention, to singular and sacred moments in time. Moments that came. Moments I lived. Moments I loved. Moments that ended, gone forever.

While training for my yearly Pan Mass Challenge, a long distance August charity bike ride for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, I took one photo of my bike every single time I went out for a ride. One snapshot for each journey, from early May until late August. One image of my bicycle posed in front of a landmark that embodied each journey, every single trip. At summer's end I had a photo service organize those thirty moments into a poster, to remind me what a great and fun and hard and adventurous and blessed time I had riding through my life in the summer of 2018. What a gift from God that time was, each and every minute, every second.

I wanted to realize that time somehow. To be awake and alive to it. To really remember it. To be grateful to God for it, and to say "Thank you!"

There's a photo of my bike on the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, snapped on a lovely spring morning ride with my 12 year old Goddaughter BJ. An image of my cycle leaning against an ancient player piano someone left by the side of the road in Natick on a hot July day.  On the scorching August Friday when I rode all the way to Rhode Island and back, there's a picture of my bicycle leaning against a road sign: "Entering Woonsocket". That was an epic trip! A snapshot of me at the end of the PMC shows me holding my bike high over my head in joy, a ride marked by driving rain the final 48 miles. Then one final photo, my bike leaning against a wooden fence, with the blue and white surf of Nantucket Sound in the background.

I wish I could say I was just as attentive to the rest of my life, to the more mundane and typical and routine moments too. Days like so many other days: when I arise in the morning and drink my coffee and go to work and write sermons and visit folks and eat meals and watch TV and then go to bed. Because even in the midst of those seemingly everyday days, a beautiful and miraculous life is still unfolding, if I 'd only realize it. If I'd only see, really see: the smile of my co-worker Jose who greets me each weekday morning with grace and care. Nature all around me: a bright yellow sunrise, gorgeous colorful leaves on the trees, or an unexpected November snowstorm blanketing the world.  How about hot coffee, smoky and delicious? Or the people who love me, the folks I love?   

I need to pay attention more to my one life. We need to pay attention more to this life, appreciate it, never take it for granted, especially as mortals, we who live lives that will not go on forever, that instead have an expiration date. So maybe the spiritual question for life is this clear and simple: are we paying attention to the divine and God given moments we live, we are given?  Really, really enjoy days and hours and minutes and seconds, being fully within that time. Time that comes. Time that goes, never to return. 

Here's a Thanksgiving Day challenge. When you sit down at your table, take a moment and look around, really look into, the faces of those gathered together and then dare to thank God or thank the universe for gifting you with that exact minute and those exact people. Savor the rich food: the smells, the tastes, the memories these evoke of holidays past.  Because this one day will be unlike any day that has ever happened before or will ever happen again.  Your precious son or daughter will grow up and go off to college. Your sometimes annoying cousin will one day not be able to make it back east for a visit. Even if the turkey is dry or the rolls are burnt or a political squabble breaks out, what a gift this time will be, all of it, every single tick of the clock. 

If only we would pay attention. Then we humans might actually realize life while we live it. Every...every moment.  Happy Thanksgiving.






Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Don't Give Up On Our Unkind World Yet: Instead Be Kind.

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
--The Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist Leader

True story. Last weekend my Aunt found herself in need of a little human kindness.  She'd driven into Boston to visit my Mom, her sister, who'd had surgery, but in Carol's rush into the city and then into the parking garage and then out of her car and then up to the room, somehow she'd lost her keys. She searched the room, the hallway, the elevator, the shuttle bus that had taken her to the hospital. No luck.

"Can I help you?" a man in green scrubs asked, as she looked through the elevator again.  On the edge of tears, she explained her dilemma. Downtown. Alone. Stranded. This person could have easily walked on by, gotten to where ever he was on his way to. Seen someone in distress but kept going.  But instead he said, "Let's look again." Then he walked with her down the stairs and into the cold dark garage, searching right along with her and then finally back to her car, where they discovered those keys, right there in the ignition where they'd been the whole time.

"Thank you!" she said, so grateful for his help. Seeing his attire Carol asked if he worked at the hospital. "I'm a surgeon," he answered. He was on his way home after a long day of operations from dawn 'til dusk. And then they parted: two human beings, connected by circumstance and now bound forever by one simple act of human kindness. One soul assisting another soul in need.  One stranger daring to ask another stranger: "Can I help?" 

If we were able to have a bird's eye view of the hospital on that chilly Friday night, we'd no doubt have witnessed a hundred, maybe even a thousand such acts of simple human kindness. A taxi driver helping a limping man outside the emergency room.  A gentle nurse taking the blood pressure of a scared little boy, soothing his fears with quiet words of reassurance.  A flower delivery person evoking a mile wide smile in a cancer patient.  The security guard who gave a car battery jump to help a couple from Oklahoma, in town to visit their daughter who was in a terrible car accident.

Each in their own way making this world a little kinder, a little softer, a little better, and a little more loving.  Each anonymous.  Each making a conscious choice to be the light in a world we too often might imagine is only shadow filled. Each having that rare gift of empathy, the ability to put ourselves in another person's shoes and then in that imagining, responding with compassion.

It's tempting these days to see this world through the lens of cynicism, even despair, when it comes to the hope for simple human kindness. Our President regularly insults, demeans, bullies and verbally bludgeons anyone whom he perceives as an opponent and the crowd cheers for more.  Our nation has been rocked by acts of cruelty and violence perpetrated by sick souls who worship at the altar of hate.  Our press doesn't help: it almost gleefully reports upon such meanness of spirit and actions, 24/7, always looking for the next thing to shock us with and to drive up ratings.

But here's one truth I am absolutely sure of: there is much more kindness than cruelty in this world. There are many, many more folks willing to stop and to help than to walk on by in apathy. Most folks are, at their core, decent people, who try their best each day to be good neighbors and good citizens and good people.  We need to remember this, to have faith and then dare to believe that in the long arc of human history, kindness always wins. Always.   

That deep truth will not sell many newspapers. It will not appeal to the preachers who want to condemn this world in fear and anger or the politicians who exploit human cruelty for their own personal power. Kindness might be written off as weakness by the strong or as corny by the annoyingly ironic. Don't listen to those voices. Don't give in. Don't give up. 

Instead look for human kindness. Ask for kindness from others. Teach kindness in your religion and to your family and community, then live it, and take it out into your daily life. Kindness will always make your one life "great" in the truest sense. Kindness is a gift from God and a loving universe but it only works when we put it to work.

Someone this day needs your kindness. You can do it. Be kind.



Thursday, November 8, 2018

America's Epidemic of Violence and Hate: God Grant Us the Courage to Do SOMETHING

"No human race is superior; no religious faith is inferior. All collective judgments are wrong. Only racists make them."   --Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, author of "Night"

"Are you...are you okay? Can I do anything?"

That was the only response I could think to offer my friend, a kind and funny and talented person who sings with me in my community choir. I asked because he's Jewish. Because just a week before, the most violent act of anti-Semitism in United States history happened:11 people killed at a massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue, all of them shot, and why? Because they were Jewish.

"Are you...are you okay? Can I do anything?"

I could have just as easily asked the same question of my African-American friends too, in light of the murder of two people of color at a Jeffersontown, Kentucky grocery store late last month. The killer in that tragedy first went to a predominantly black church to presumably murder folks in that house of worship, but finding it locked, he drove to a nearby Kroger's and opened fire.  Two folks cut down while shopping and why? Because they were African-American.

"Are you...are you okay? Can I do anything?"

I might ask those questions of my women friends after the killing of two female yoga students at a studio in Tallahassee, Florida last week. The man who wielded the gun in that crime had a long history of hating women, of posting misogynistic videos on YouTube, who as a college student was arrested twice on charges of violence against women.  Two people murdered and why?  Because they were women.  

What can I do? What can we do to fight such sick and evil hatred? To name and confront the sins of racism, of religious intolerance, of deadly sexism?  To stand with and for all in our world who are threatened with injury or death or hatred because of the God they worship, the color of their skin or their gender?

As Americans, as humans, as people of faith, we have to ask these questions. Have to move beyond the lazy and specious responses too many offer when such hate crimes happen.  The killer was just crazy, mentally ill, yeah...that's why he did it.  It was random, an anomaly. Such acts of terrorism are so rare they are a fluke somehow.  That's not really who America is, who we are, right? It's easy for me to offer such platitudes, me. Who never has to fear going out in public because of my race or religion or gender. Me: who's never been stared at in suspicion or fear or sick lust because of who I am. 

Can we do anything? Will we do anything?

Or will we just let these tragedies quickly fade away in the insane news cycle that is America in 2018? Just wait a couple of days. Something worse will happen. We live in times when it feels as if we are so overwhelmed by so many stories about so many vicious acts of human hatred that we become numb to it all.

That's no excuse for apathy. We must do something: as individuals, a nation and as children of God. Because here's the hard truth: until neighbors truly love all their neighbors; until we refuse to tolerate as "the norm" the -isms that separate us one from another; until we call out "leaders" who by their indifference and bullying ways fan the flames of bias, we are all a part of the problem.  All of us. By choosing to do nothing we allow the status quo of hate to continue.

Will we do anything? Or will we not?

As concentration camp survivor and German Pastor Martin Niemoller warned the world in 1933, "First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—        because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me."