Thursday, December 31, 2015

Transforming Love Sometimes Comes from Talking with Strangers

Fifteen years ago today, I met the woman who would become my life partner in a most unexpected place. I had just arrived in Mexico City the previous day to travel with a dear friend and colleague, Howard. On December 31st, 2000, we visited Teotihuacan, the pyramids just north of Mexico City.

After touring the pyramid of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramid of the Sun, we decided to ascend the Pyramid of the Moon. A little more than half-way up, as we reached a large flat area, two women asked us to take a photo of them together. As we handed back their cameras, one of them said, “Let’s make a funny picture.” Howard said, “Okay, why don’t you make as if you’re throwing Alan off the temple.”

After taking a couple funny pictures, we laughed and talked briefly. We learned Angelica from Mexico City was giving a tour to her best friend Bea from Switzerland. 

We then left. Later, we ran into the two women again in another part of the ruins. When we asked about finding a bus, they suggested they drive us back to Mexico City. 

As we walked, Angelica asked me about my work. I didn’t want to say “minister” because that’s so often a conversation-stopper. So I said rather quietly, “Ummmm, I lead a church.” She exclaimed, “Oh, you’re a priest!” I tried to explain the difference, but clearly they felt safe with us, two gringoes who are pastors in churches! 

“From here, we’re going to visit the Basilica,” Angelica said, “Because you are like priests, why don’t you join us?” 

We loved seeing the bustle of people and activity, the relic of Lady Guadalupe, hearing the stories about the vision , and learning about the customs. When we went up to the church at the top of the hill where the relic had originally been housed, we were told the church was now closed. Angelica replied that she had two American priests with her. The attendants replied, “Oh, please, come in!” 

This day of laughter and exploration wasn't quite over. Angelica acknowledged that a great way of learning about culture is to see how people live--and that she has had the opportunity to be in the homes of others. We were so comfortable with one another, she invited us to visit her home 

Her parents didn’t blink that she brought two gringoes into their home. They served us "Ponche," a  traditional Mexican holiday beverage made by boiling native fruits. The house was decorated for the holidays. The pots were full of their traditional holiday foods to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

I got Angelica’s email address just before we descended to the metro station. Nine days later, after Howard and I traveled to Oaxaca and Xalapa to visit a friend from seminary, I invited Angie to come with her friend to join us for dinner. Because her friend was no longer visiting, she turned tp her sister, Beatriz, and said, “These guys are inviting us to Cafe Tacuba. They are like priests but they’re fun!” 

Angelica and Beatriz joined us for dinner during which we laughed and laughed and laughed.

This day was a fabulous story in and of itself. 

Two years later we were married on a beach in a small town north of Acapulco. Howard officiated at the service. Bea was a maid of honor. In addition to our families, several friends and colleagues joined us from all over the world. 

Today Angelica and I have two children, Marco and Erica. Each year we give thanks for the serendipity, grace, and laughter that brought us together. 

Two days ago, we returned to the very spot we met, this time with our children. When I said, "This is the exact place where your mom and I met fifteen years ago," a man responded, "Wow! You've made my day, my vacation, my year." Others who heard this exclamation gathered around and asked us to tell our story.

You never know what might happen if you  open to simple, genuine connection when talking to someone unknown to you. Kindness and sharing joy transforms all culture.

We are still laughing together with a prayer that 2016 will bring love and peace and joy from unexpected encounters, gestures of kindness, and a willingness to explore and be touched by who we encounter wherever we are.

Happy New Year!

Love with Courage,


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

In Search of a Can of Beans

In the congregation I serve, stories abound about what Greg Risberg gave to others in the form of his humor, his hugs, and his thoughtful and generous attention. 

Just over a year ago, Greg passed away. He was 67 years old and one of the most kind-hearted, genuine people I’ve known. Greg was an author (Touch: A Personal Workbook and 52 Bright Ideas to Bring More Humor, Hugs and Hope into Your Life) and motivational speaker, who, over the past 30 years, brought his ‘Humor with a Message’ programs to more than half a million people across the country as well as in Canada, England and Australia. 

After Greg died, his wife Madeleine shared with me the story the first time he came to her home for dinner. Filled with first-date jitters, he wanted to do things properly and wasn’t sure what he should bring. So, he arrives, knocks on the back door, and walks in holding a can of beans.  When Madeleine asked him why he was bringing the can of beans, he replied: “Because I just didn’t feel like I could come over empty-handed.” 

That was the beginning of a relationship between two beautiful people, who really understood that the best gift they have to give one another and others is not material presents, but their open and honest presence. 

Our culture tells us that we should always bring something with us, that wrapped up, shiny things are important in making people feel good -- and in making us feel good about ourselves.  It’s always a thoughtful gesture to offer a gift of some sort, but there’s something far more profound and sustaining than anything we can carry in our hands. This is the gift of our presence. 

Twenty years ago my Christmas traditions changed irrevocably when my grandmother Carlson suffered from a stroke that not only paralyzed an entire side of her body, but also rendered her unable to swallow. As a Swedish gourmet and proud housekeeper who grew up in Iowa, Grandma Carlson did the holidays up. She not only prepared Christmas dinner, but also led the tree trimming and decorating. When I came home for the Holidays after her stroke, it was painful to see her in such anguish. Then on one visit when it was just me, I brought our church’s hymnal [Singing the Living Tradition], with the idea of sharing some readings and hymns, particularly the Christmas carols. Once I began singing, my grandmother calmed down and seemed more peaceful. It was extraordinary. For over 30 minutes, she didn’t sigh or complain or say a thing, she just listened. Sometimes we are present with those we love in silence or song rather than gifts or conversation, and that is okay.

Fourteen years ago, my cousin Bruce in Boone, Iowa was hanging Christmas lights when he fell off the ladder, an accident that left him quadriplegic. Bruce had served in the Army. He had jumped out of airplanes over 50 times. And then, in one split second, a freak accident changed his whole life, as well as the lives of his wife and three children (ages 10, 7, and 6 months). 

When I moved to Oak Park in 2003, I visited Bruce and his mom Rosalie for Thanksgiving. It was hard. I didn’t know what to say. But even in our inadequacy, our presence is enough. 

This past Thanksgiving, I returned to Boone as I have several times over the years. On this trip, we talked and laughed and went to the local Methodist church for dinner where they served 400 meals (that’s 32 turkeys!) During the trip, my four-year-old daughter climbed up onto Bruce’s lap and hung out there.  She loves standing on his wheelchair between his feet or sometimes right on his feet.  The joy I saw in both of their eyes was dearly precious.

Our Holiday traditions naturally evolve or change abruptly. But what is most important is that we develop traditions that provide quality time with others, where we can give of ourselves  -- and, that most precious gift -- our attention. And, we need to open our own hearts to receive that gift when it comes to us. 

In the spirit of Greg Risberg, “The time we spend with others is precious,” he says.  “And one of the most important ways we have to affirm our relationships is paying attention to what others need to talk about without letting our own concerns get in the way.”

….. A true gift from a generous friend.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Giving thanks with awareness of our collective original sins

Thanksgiving has always been a wonderful break to gather with family and friends, but also a time to clarify what specifically is worthy of celebrating.

I give thanks for the values this nation's founders sought--the freedom for each American to live out his or her most cherished ideals, the opportunity to speak our conscience without fear of reprisal, the separation of church and state, and the protection from individuals and organizations who threaten to violate our basic freedoms. 

But the story of how our nation has lived out these values is deeply checkered. Beginning with the displacement and exploitation of native peoples that has occurred for generations--our Thanksgiving story is a myth that glosses over the treatment of Native Americans.

But that’s not the only original sin of our nation. The institution of slavery that was protected in this nation’s original documents has contributed to a history of racial tension that still has yet to be resolved. 

Throughout our history, the nation’s leaders have failed to live up to the sacred ideals of our nation from the very beginning. Since then, leaders have seen fit to treat some of our people as ‘less’ than others, often favoring people who look and act like those in power and limiting the rights of populations who don’t. Examples include Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants exploited for their labor, Japanese citizens rounded up into concentration camps during WWII, Mexicans forced to show documentation of citizenship, and now Muslims being targeted by some politicians as potential terrorists.

During this Thanksgiving week, our region is haunted by the legacy of racism, inequality and injustice. Here in Chicago, we must come to terms with a cover-up of the murder of a 17-year-old black boy by a white Chicago police officer. 
The last two nights, hundreds of protesters marched through the streets chanting "16 shots" responding to the release of a video showing Laquan McDonald being gunned down; many of the shots fired after he fell to the ground.
When the City of Chicago first became aware of this video, they offered $5 million to Laquan’s family with the stipulation that the family would not seek to make the video public. This happened before the family had even filed a lawsuit. 

The leaders of Chicago and Cook County are struggling to deal honestly with the shooting of a teen. They knew what happened was unacceptable, yet remained silent, while the trigger-happy officer faced no charges--until a court ordered the video released.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez declared that the video would not be released until a federal investigation was concluded. But now that the video has been released, Alvarez has suddenly filed charges against the police officer. Why not months ago? Why the cover-up? 

The Chicago Reporter just released an article that raises ever more questions.

This week, I give thanks to be able to celebrate with loved ones. I also give thanks to be a part of a community of clergy and concerned citizens that are willing to organize against injustice, that are prepared to ask challenging questions, that are committed to working together to seek fairness for all people, including transparency in the methods of investigating police conduct – and misconduct.

That’s the kind of America I want my children to live in, an America that is committed to becoming an ever more perfect union.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Let Us Offer Refuge

The past few days have been a time of anguish and incomprehension. On Friday I was in a state of shock taking in the overwhelming brutality of the the attacks in Paris. My heart goes out to the many, many families whose loved ones were killed or seriously injured. 

The morning after the Paris attacks, I didn't want to rush out and do anything. But I had committed to attend a training sponsored by RefugeeOne about what is involved in supporting refugees who come to the United States. And so I pushed myself there. 

It gave me solace to be with 170 other people of faith representing 50 congregations, who are committed to helping refugees seeking a new life in America. We were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Unitarian Universalist. We could express our shared grief--and our shared commitment to recognize the humanity of so many people who are pushed out of their homes by similar brutality.

The refugees that RefugeeOne resettles in the Chicago, many of whom are Muslims, have fled their homelands where so many of their friends, neighbors, and often even relatives have been killed. They leave because staying is untenable. 

But as we have witnessed over and over, when refugees seek a better life, there are tremendous perils on the journey. Many have died needlessly. Many are detained in refugee camps and wait and wait and wait. Sometimes for decades. 

When those who finally reach the United States, their hope is to create safe, productive lives. However, what awaits them is an extensive vetting process that narrows the vast numbers of those who need help into a mere trickle. 

Although many individuals soon become contributing members of society, many more face overwhelming struggles because they don’t have the skills to offer because they are poor or they have spent much of their lives detained by political or military events over which they have had no control. 

Over 50 million refugees worldwide are currently seeking asylum and a chance at a new life. They come from brutally violent places all over the world. Syria has been in the news, but the number of Syrians coming to our country is very, very low. There are many refugees coming from Iraq, from Africa--especially Congo and Somalia, and out of Myanmar (formerly Burma) and other south Asian countries. 

The numbers that reach the United States is very low, and I pray President Obama will provide resources to support these people who know profound sorrow and suffering. And we can locally. Between the church teams, volunteers and the good social services already in place on the northside of Chicago, RefugeeOne and other resettlement agencies are making a tremendous difference in the lives of these desperate people.

When a refugee family arrives, they have literally nothing. RefugeeOne provides the structure for congregations to offer direct support that helps assimilate refugees into our community. It begins with showing up at the airport to welcome the family to Chicago. Volunteers make weekly visits to provide comfort and support. There are fund drives for clothing and household goods. Mentors help refugees learn a new language.  There are classes and social services to teach families how to live in a big city, how to navigate the many demands of modern life, and how to survive in this country that is so unfamiliar to them. 

Some congregation members offer to sponsor a family. The cost to provide housing and furniture is about $8,000 a year. I am deeply thankful that my congregation will host at least one family and I am hopeful that we can host two or three more by spring.

In the process of supporting a refugee family, I am confident that we will become the ones whose hearts are opened, whose lives are enriched. 

Actively and sincerely caring for people who know profound sorrow and suffering is at the heart of all spiritual teachings. Taking action to help the thousands of frightened, hopeful and incredibly brave human beings who seek refuge in this country is how we express the moral teachings that make up the best of all religions. 

It is natural to experience fear in the wake of the attacks on Paris, in Lebanon, and wherever violence erupts, including in the city of Chicago. In my congregation, we read the names of those killed by violence in the city of Chicago. At times it is demoralizing. But if read the names of people killed by violence in wider circles, we'd be paralyzed. Fortunately there is another way.

Fear spreads when we remain isolated from others. Fear threatens to become our society's plague. Fortunately there is another way: love through courage.

Love emerges when we come face to face with others, when we help others, when we show up in the worst of times despite so many doubts--to help those most gravely in need.

Love enlarges us. Love moves us through our fear. The greater our love as a wider community, the less fear will isolate us and destroy us. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Celebrating All Souls and The Day of the Dead

Above my son’s bed hangs a photograph of him with his beloved Mexican grandfather gazing at him with kind eyes.  The picture helps Marco remember his abuelito, who died four years ago.  

Another cherished object in our home is a colorful round rug made for Marco by Joan Van Note, who died recently at 92. Joan was one of the most attentive, hospitable and engaging members of the congregation I serve. Yesterday we held a memorial service to celebrate her life and mourn her death.

Today is All Souls Day, a holy day that embodies the memorial service we held yesterday. All Souls Day and El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) remind us that we are part of a broad matrix of relationships, and this celebration is for the purpose of recognizing all souls, not just our own loved ones.  

When asked about his religion, William Ellery Channing, the minister whose vision inspired Unitarianism, said:  “I am a living member of the great family of All Souls.” 

The photograph and the rug are tangible mementos of people my family have loved and lost. We’ve told Marco that his grandfather is both nowhere and everywhere at the same time.  “You can think of abuelito and Joan in the glow of the stars and the blaze of the sun, for their love is now a part of the warmth and light that make all life possible.” 

When we die, we lose our physical location in the world but our love, our honesty, our integrity and courage, our acts of kindness and compassion  -- all ripple forth, and, like our grandfathers and grandmothers, our dear friends and companions that pass, they become a part of the breath of the ancestors that intermingles with everything. 

Too often our culture encourages us to forget those who have come before us, leaving us with the mistaken belief that we are the architects of the many blessings we enjoy. The truth is that we sit under trees we did not plant, we use resources we did not create, we build on foundations we did not lay, and we enjoy customs woven from centuries of family traditions.

My son Marco is in the second grade religious education class at the church I serve. The students have been talking about All Souls Day and the Day of the Dead, each child recounting a loss they have experienced – a pet, a grandparent, a friend. Together the children remembered the good things about these loved ones, even though it can feel frightening and sad to understand that they are gone physically from their lives.

This sharing is at the heart of El Dia de los Muertos and extends throughout the year. I love this part of my children’s Mexican heritage. I am hopeful Erica and Marco will know their grandfather through our stories and mementos, better than I knew my grandfather who died when I was five years old. Since discovering this aspect of Mexican culture, I have sought stories of those whose love shape my life and shaped my parents’ and grandparents'  lives

Are we not each a member of the great family of All Souls?  If we consider our location amidst humanity, not only in the present moment, but in the generations to come, it is good to recognize whose love has sustained us and whose love we take forward. 

Friday, October 9, 2015

Discovering Love As a Source of Power

As I’ve sought to understand how ‘radical love’ can heal both individuals and nations, my guide has been Martin Luther King. King’s spiritual teacher was Jesus Christ, whose simple yet profound message of “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the premise underlying all of Christianity. How does the teachings of Jesus apply to institutions, systems, and nation states?

King began wrestling with this question in his teens. He suffered a crisis of faith as he contemplated the gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty.  He sought to understand how Jesus's teachings address the wider problems of the world, but as he read some of the greatest thinkers on this issue, he wondered if the source of his faith provided the foundation to conquer this soul-crushing divide.  

As he studied Karl Marx, he came to understand, in King’s words, “Capitalism is always in danger of inspiring people to be more concerned about making a living than making a life. We are prone to judge success by the index of our salaries or the size of our automobiles, rather than by the quality of our service or relationship to humanity.” But King felt the implementation of Marx's ideas would lead to a totalitarian state.

King also studied Friedrich Nietzsche and his attack on the whole of Hebraic-Christian morality with its virtues of piety and humility, its otherworldliness, and its attitude toward suffering as the glorification of weakness and passivity. Nietzsche challenged King with how his faith could address the greatest social issues of our times. 

King discovered a compelling answer when he attended a lecture given by Mordecai Johnson, the president of Howard University. Johnson had just returned from India where he was inspired by the life and teachings of Mahatma Gandhi.  After the lecture, King threw himself into reading Gandhi and became deeply fascinated by his campaign of nonviolent resistance, particularly the Salt March to the Sea and his numerous fasts. 

King was particularly inspired by the concept of Satyagraha where, in Sanskrit, satya means “truth” or “love” and agraha means “force.” This concept of Satyagraha -- truth-force or love-force – completely changed King’s perspective. Prior to reading Gandhi, King had just about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationships. “The ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophy and the ‘love your enemies’ philosophy were only valid, I felt, when individuals were in conflict with other individuals,” he writes. “When racial groups and nations were in conflict, a more realistic approach seemed necessary.” 

“But after reading Gandhi,” King continues,  “I saw how utterly mistaken I was. Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.” 

Satyagraha  -- truthful, forceful, radical love --  for Gandhi, was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. King embraced this philosophy and used it in his landmark civil rights work.

I will in time explore further the evolution of King’s commitment to nonviolent resistance and more about Gandhi, but here I want to focus on the basic invitation that exists for each and every one of us. No matter how destructive the breach between wealth and poverty becomes, no matter how horrifically people treat one another, no matter how challenging life becomes for us, there always exists an invitation to individual and collective transformation, a call to radical love. 

For each of us, this call looks different and it changes over time. For some, this call is about caring for an ailing relative or friend; for others, it is becoming a mentor to economically challenged children; for others, it is providing legal aid to the incarcerated or indigent, or creating paths to resettle refugee families. The list goes on and on. There are many opportunities of service that are worthy of us and our commitments, and radical love in our individual lives leads us to give of ourselves for the sake of others in ever more meaningful ways.

But for some of us, the call is to address the broader systems of power that keep individuals chained to their limited beliefs and passive behavior. The call is to take action against the source of the wrongs that exist in our society.

I turn to King for learning how to rise to the challenge of addressing the injustice of an entire system, in which most people who benefit from this system fail to see how others are not benefitting – others who are, in fact, suffering.

I end with a reading from King’s essay “Stride Toward Freedom” that I take from The Radical King, edited by Cornel West:

Nonviolent resistance avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would content that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of he world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Using Controversy to Generate Compassion and Commitment

Black Lives Matter is the motto for a movement created by American citizens in response to recent, highly publicized incidents of racial violence and injustice throughout our country. The motto symbolizes the concern for racial justice and equality.

Several Chicago area Unitarian Universalist congregations display Black Lives Matter signage, including the Unitarian Church of Evanston, the Third Unitarian Church of Chicago and the Beverly Unitarian Church.  The Beverly church has a large electronic sign in front of its castle-like building. It is highly visible. 

When Beverly Unitarian displayed Black Lives Matter on their sign, it generated enormous controversy, including venomous responses to a photo of the sign posted on Facebook that went viral. Comments were cruel and obscene, even including threats of violence. The Beverly Church board was so shocked by these bully tactics; they elected to change their sign to “Life Matters, Risk Loving Everyone.” 

This decision also went viral, especially among activists on the left who felt the church demonstrated weakness by capitulating. Calling the new decision “racist” and “deeply hurtful,” those who objected charged the church with failing to understand that “Controversy is necessary in the journey of justice-making.”

I applaud Beverly Unitarian for having the courage to engage in public witness in a community that struggles with racial integration. The community is bordered by two poor black neighborhoods, one middle class black neighborhood and two middle-to-upper middle class white neighborhoods. 

Even more challenging, Beverly is home to a huge number of Chicago police officers and firefighters, many of whom are part of the congregation. The vitriolic comments that poured onto the church accused the congregation of being anti-police and stoking violence against police. This was so upsetting that the board felt the need to clarify their position.

Racial tensions are entrenched here, muddied and inflamed by political leaders and media pundits to whom prejudice and hate speak have become normalized chatter.  One example is Fox News’ focus on the Republican presidential candidates that are framing the phrase Black Lives Matter as anti-police and calling those who support the cause anti-American.  (In truth, the movement is about being anti-abuse.) 

I was approached by a fellow Unitarian Universalist to sign on to an open letter designed to publicly shame our fellow Beverly congregation into restoring Black Lives Matter to their sign. I refused to sign this letter and I sent my refusal to local colleagues and others who received the request.

This is a learning moment for Unitarian Universalists, other progressive congregations, and all of us who want to participate in the work of correcting the sins of racism. There’s no question that generating controversy is good and natural in the work of culture change and justice making. When a congregation stands together for a value held sacred, it deepens the community’s capacity to embody a specific value and integrate it into the wider society.  But how do we respond to controversy? More importantly, how do we use it to generate understanding, compassion…. and change? 

This is delicate and challenging proposition.  The issue at hand isn't simply the sign, it is so much more--the institutional racism that pervades our culture and how human beings are profoundly diminished and destroyed by this racism. That's what we need to address. And we need to look at how we are engaging our justice work--are we clinging to our opinions, rabidly promoting them and demonizing those who choose a different way? We Unitarian Universalists tend to be opinionated people with a very high opinion of our opinions!  We can forget that strength comes in deepening in relationship with others--and this includes our capacity to listen to others, to hear multiple perspectives, and--here's what's most challenging--to love even those with whom we strongly disagree.

My guide is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his understanding of radical love. Radical love doesn’t call us to be perfect. Radical love calls us to be rigorously honest with ourselves, willing to be critical of ourselves, and to discern the life-affirming basis on which we can stand collectively as witness to the world. Radical love calls us to be active and resist behavior and systems that are unjust.

Rev. Jennifer Nordstrom, my colleague at Third Unitarian, puts it eloquently: “The work of racial justice is long-haul, deep-commitment work. Though we are all hurt by racism, people of color’s lives are threatened by it while white supremacy ensures that white people have more power in society to deal with their
feelings than people of color do.”

I am inspired that Beverly UU Church is on board to do this work. Their minister, Rev. Karen Mooney, tells me they will be using this moment to engage with their ecumenical neighbors and educate each other. “We are working to create spaces where we can hear each others stories, work together, laugh, and be vulnerable,” she says. “The work that I see before us it to make visible the systems of power and privilege that we all live within.”

While I encourage all congregations to show solidarity with the movement for racial justice and display Black Lives Matter in front of our congregations, I joyfully affirm the sign in front of Beverly Unitarian Universalist that now displays United against hate and fear. Stand with us against racism.

Friday, September 11, 2015

9/11: From Catastrophe to Renewal

Fourteen years ago, I didn’t own a television. I learned of the horrific events of that day as I turned on NPR during my morning routine. 

I was so horrified by what I was hearing I rushed outside and found others similarly traumatized. Neighbors I had never talked to previously now were sharing of our shared incomprehension: How could people hijack four planes and seek to maximize death and destruction, aiming at the heart of American commerce and government? 

In the following days, I read an enormous amount about the people killed, the perpetrators, and ways we could respond as people of compassion, people of faith, and as a nation. This was my coping mechanism.

At that time I was serving the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Woodinville, Washington, located at the northeast corner of the Seattle metro area. I had never previously experienced such a profound sense of solidarity with my fellow Americans. 

But I also struggled with the frequent jingoist calls for “God Bless America.” 

I struggled with the rhetoric declaring us as God’s specifically ordained nation, especially as our nation’s leaders prepared for war with a nation that had no connection to the September 11 attacks.

“You are either with us or against us.” 

The moral certitude of our leaders was quickly eroding that wondrous sense of solidarity that I experienced immediately after the attacks of September 11. 

It was true that Saddam Hussein had a long list of bad deeds. But going to war with a nation that had not attacked ours seemed ludicrous. It was a response that could potentially destabilize an entire region. 

I began to find solidarity among those who were similarly shocked and horrified by the prospect of invading Iraq. 

For the first time in the history of the suburb of Woodinville, protests gathered--and not just a single protest, but twice weekly protests. 

Similar protests in similar communities started to occur all across the nation. The staggering numbers of Americans willing to set aside their daily routine to declare opposition to an immoral war was inspiring. How could our nation’s leaders ignore the most widespread protests in American history? 

The local paper published my letter opposing an invasion of Iraq, to which I received hate mail accusing me of being anti-American. The bully tactics in my own community were astonishing. When the efforts of so many thoughtful, concerned citizens were ignored at the national level and often vilified at the local level, I began to lose faith in what it means to be an American.

Instead of raising an American flag in worship, I raised a flag with a picture of the earth on it--and shared with my congregation why. 

I believe people of faith should have as our ultimate concern all people, all nations, the world as a whole. 

However disappointed we may be in how our country responded fourteen years ago, we must get truly real with what is going on today, grieve our tremendous pain and loss, and find our way to compassionate attention. 

I am horrified by the barbarity unleashed over the past fourteen years. If the leaders of Al Queda sought to catalyze a growing movement of violence and terror, then they were wildly successful. 

Prior to September 11th, suicide bombers existed but were rare in their attacks. Now we hear of attacks almost every day--as well as young people lured from their homes. 

Prior to September 11, there was hardly any destruction of cultural sites, and now vast troves and significant monuments of human culture are gone. Grisly executions of innocents were previously unimaginable. 

It is tempting to long for the pre-September 11 days, but we need to make sense of these memories and the changing world we live in. 

What does it mean to love with courage in the post-September 11 era?

As I pray on this question, I return to these words: hospitality, honesty, and renewal.

Hospitality emerges when we welcome others and their perspectives into our hearts, our homes, our communities. 

Honesty is key. We cannot grow or respond with compassionate attention unless we are honest about our struggles, honest about what is happening in the world, and honest about how we struggle and fail to live up to our ideals.

Renewal is also a crucial step. Coming to terms with chaos and brutality in the world is overwhelming. We need to gather with others for the sake of renewing our spirits and discerning how to move forward

My congregation sings this hymn; it is a hymn of hospitality, honesty and renewal:

This Is My Song (set to the tune of Finlandia by Sibelius) 

This is my song, O God of all the nations, 
A song of Peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my sacred shrine.
But other hearts in other lands are beating,
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh hear my song, oh God of all the nations,
A song of Peace for their land and for mine.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Narrow Ridge

When does it make sense to do something dangerous?

Recently, I was hiking with my family in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, well north of Seattle on the west side of the Cascade MountainsI was excited to ascend Table Mountain with them. 

The trail begins as a gravel path that winds up and through interesting rock formations on its way to a broad flat area that gives the mountain its name. Locals take visitors on this hike because it offers both breathtaking beauty and the exhilaration of hiking through significant altitude gain. However, this path can be frightening for those who have only viewed mountains through the windshield. The guidebook specifically warns that there are no rails along the rocky mountainside, but that the trails are wide enough for two people to walk side by side.

We had hiked over half of the trail, when two women descending saw us and said, “Have you been up here before? We don’t know if we’d take children up here.” Heeding this warning, I walked ahead alone to the top. Because I felt comfortable I returned to my family and took my four-year-old in hand. Angie took our seven-year-old, and we began the most strenuous part of the trail.  The kids were safely tucked on the mountainside as we walked along the edge.  Once we reached the “table" top, the kids played in the snowdrifts and meadow, while we enjoyed the magnificent views.

After trekking back down, we reached the trailhead and parking lot, where we spotted a sign we had not seen before: “This trail is not recommended for young children.” If we had seen this warning earlier, we wouldn’t have gone up.

Was I foolish for taking my kids up this perilous mountain? 

When my family forged ahead on the hike up those steep trails, never would I have thought that I would stumble upon a significant metaphor for life.

For my children, I wonder if this journey engendered an understanding of  “The narrow ridge.” an experience Hasidic Rabbi Martin Buber describes as living our ordinary lives with anticipation. It is an inner orientation to navigate our lives by accepting our vulnerability as we commit to living as vibrant, engaged human beings. When living on “the narrow ridge,” we don’t always take the safe or convenient route; we are instead open to where life and love are calling us. 

Howard Thurman notes, in The Inward Journey, that for some, there can be no security in life apart from being surrounded by clear landmarks and well-worn paths. “The one great fear,” he says, “is the fear of change; the one great dread is the dread of strangeness.”

There is strength in cultivating routines and rituals. But there is risk in developing patterns that prevent us from honest encounter with what is going on in, among, or beyond us. When we seek to live behind a sure and continuous windbreak, our days come and go without a sense of endurance. We risk dying while we are alive.

I agree with Martin Buber that life is at its best when lived “on the narrow ridge.” We live with anticipation. While we recognize the need for routines and addressing the demands of everyday life, the meaning of our lives is not limited to the daily grind. There is always the possibility of unexpected joy, of an encounter that broadens our horizons, of an opportunity to act in relationship with one another.

The more we fearlessly climb onto the narrow ridge, the more we encourage and support others to do so. And when we see another willing to navigate life on the narrow ridge, it provides us inspiration to follow.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Awakening to Enduring Racism

An exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry features a display of patterns found in nature: spirals, fractals, the golden mean, and Voronoi motifs. After seeing this visit, I began seeing similar designs everywhere. How was it that I hadn’t really noticed them until they were pointed out to me?

The same goes for racial bias happening throughout our culture. Until Michelle Alexander published The New Jim Crow (Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 2010/2012), I wasn’t aware how racial bias permeates every step of the criminal justice system. Until Bryan Stevenson wrote Just Mercy (A Story of Justice and Redemption, 2014), I didn’t realize how innocent people end up on death row, all because of profound racism. 

Until Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about the systematic exploitation of blacks migrating to Chicago ("The Case for Reparations" in The Atlantic, June 2014), I had no inkling how so many black families couldn’t raise the financial capital to build homes and businesses, and were cheated out of ‘The American Dream,’ only to be thrown together in massive housing projects. The ironically painful story of how Chicago became segregated becomes so much more clear--and ugly. 

Until acquaintances of mine in the Community Renewal Society shared with me the horrors of being charged with ten- to fifteen-year prison sentences for getting caught with drugs as young adults, while the same drugs were tolerated at predominantly white colleges, the essential truth of racism still seemed theoretical. But these are people I know and respect. Hearing their personal stories vividly illustrates the victimization caused by racism.

Until hearing these accounts, along with stories such as those Coates shares in Between the World and Me, as well as from other readings, from observation, and from listening to the personal struggles of people I know and love, I didn’t understand just how far so many black people must go to avoid confrontation with the police. 

Until the murder of unarmed black people by over-aggressive police officers, until the videos of Sandra Bland being arrested in Texas, Eric Garner being suffocated in New York City, and Walter Scott being gunned down from the back in South Carolina, only to have the police officer put a Taser gun next to his bleeding body and claim self-defense in his report, until these egregious behaviors were caught on film, I, as a white person, was blinded by ignorance.

And now that I am aware -- just like becoming aware of the shapes and designs in the Voronoi exhibit at the Chicago Museum -- I recognize the pattern of racism much more often. And so are others.

It is in the midst of this cultural awakening, this cultural grappling and heaving, that I believe the most critical civil rights work of our time is being done, particularly here in Chicago with “Black Lives Matter.”

As a pastor of a vibrant and socially active Oak Park congregation, I invariably want to provide pastoral and prophetic leadership for my people and the region. But more than that, I want to contribute to the emerging movement that truly declares that Black Lives Matter. I seek to participate in and cultivate networks of thoughtful, committed people here in the Chicagoland western corridor to foster compassion, equity, and justice in human relations.

The next step for me is sitting down with other pastors on the west side of Chicago and the corridor that includes Oak Park and the communities to our west, both individually and in networks. I am grateful for the Community Renewal Society and The Leaders Network that prioritize the voices of those most vulnerable among us. I want to discover other networks of people of compassion and people of faith in our region calling for justice. 

There is great need for people like you and me to gather in solidarity with others seeking to make real change. As opportunities emerge to bring people of all colors together in order to examine and work for racial justice, I will enthusiastically share such collective calls to action!