Thursday, June 25, 2015

An Opportunity for Deepening Relationship

In the wake of the Charleston shootings, interfaith and interracial gatherings have been held all over the country. Here in the Chicago area, the Leader’s Network, a group of pastors from the westside of  Chicago hosted a “Call to Unity.”

The “Call to Unity” was held at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in K-Town, near Washington and Kostner--part of the North Lawndale community on the west side of Chicago. As I parked five minutes before it was scheduled to begin, I was uncertain what to expect. I had invited my congregation, but because it was Father’s Day, I didn’t know if anyone would join me.

I discovered eight members of my congregation were there, including two board members. I also saw my friend Rabbi Max Weiss with members of his synagogue. And our colleague Rev. Sally Iberg as well as members of other Oak Park churches and I was immediately filled with gratitude that so many people from Oak Park showed up. 

As I approached Dr. Marshall Hatch, the senior pastor of the host church, he warmly greeted me and thanked me for coming--and then he asked if I would speak. I accepted the invitation. It turned out that Rabbi Weiss and Rev. Iberg also were speaking. 

After Dr. Hatch called us clergy up, Rev. Cy Fields of New Landmark Baptist Church offered an opening prayer. He said “You know it has to be something of great magnitude to bring us out here today, on a day that we celebrate fathers.”

He went on: “It is a time for people of faith to rise up and not allow hate to drown out the power of love. So we come together in unity. As much as we’re sad about what happened in Charleston, South Carolina, it is my prayer that out of it will come a resolve for all of us who worship God, to use this as an opportunity to spread love throughout the land, so that we can live as a community of brotherhood,”

Seven clergy then spoke, and every one of us shared powerfully, and when Rev. Iberg spoke, saying “We cannot have peace without justice” everyone roared, and as she named the reality that people of color face significantly different experience from others, the assembly jumped to their feet, as she shouted what needs to expressed to the wider public....

A group of Muslims showed up and their leader said, “We need to come together at times like this. Hatred and violence is what we need to collectively denounce and affirm our common humanity.” 

And now, the question is: How shall we seize this opportunity? How shall we move forward and capitalize on the relationships we made on this day? 

It begins with deepening these relationships by meeting one-to-one, learning what common commitments we share, discerning a meaningful objective that is realistic if we bring together people to persuade those in power to make the change we’re seeking. 

Already the Confederate flag is coming down in South Carolina government property. But there is so much more we need to do to resist the racism that lurks in our midst. There is education, sharing of stories, and cultivating greater understanding. 

This is a significant moment. 

Black Lives Matter. How can the experience of so many people of color in this country be shared so that the wide majority who are people of compassion can ensure that we promote compassion, equity, and justice in our communities?

I’m grateful many people are talking about this. I look forward to living into these questions with many of you!

Love with Courage,


Saturday, June 20, 2015

Grieving Incomprehensible Violence and the Reality of Hate

The last two days I have struggled with the horrifying massacre at Emanuel American Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. The more I learn about that historic church and the beautiful people who were killed, the deeper I grieve. 

I am struck by how Rev. Clementa Pinckney described his public service, which began when he was 23 and elected to the South Carolina House of Representative and by 27 he was a state senator: “I see my public life as a extension of my ministry,” he told the Post and Courier. “I believe in a progressive, holistic ministry where you are mentally, politically and socio-economically involved. Faith is not just getting you to heaven.”

Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, mother of 4 and frequent preacher at Emanuel, was 47 when she was among those shot and killed. I am especially taken by the letter the Middleton family put out acknowledging her death. 

The very thing many of us fight against—a deeply masked and far reaching culture of violence in our society—has devastated our family. This past Wednesday night during bible study and prayer service, a gunman filled with a racist heart entered the historical Mother Emanuel AME Church of Charleston, South Carolina and opened fire on the 12 persons gathered there. Only three people survived the attack.
Our loved one, Rev. Depayne Middleton, was among those killed. Ever since her death was confirmed, our family has been met with unspeakable pain and grief. Our hearts are troubled, but our faith remains steadfast, trusting and believing in God’s power to mend our broken hearts.
At this time of grave personal loss, we ask you for two things. First, please keep our family and our church community at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. in your prayers. Next, please move away from the sidelines and unite together- regardless of your faith or religious practice- to seek an end to hatred and violence.
What happened to our family is part of a larger attack on Black and Brown bodies. To impact change, we must recognize the connection between racism, hate crimes and racialized policing. While the focus for this specific attack was on African Americans, we all have a responsibility to seek not only justice for the victims, but an end to racial injustice.
We should put our faith to action, making a conscious decision to be more than empty drums that have long lost their melodies. In South Carolina the Confederate flag – an unequivocal symbol of hate – remains on statehouse grounds. We must demand the flag be removed immediately – we cannot let icons of racism fly free within our society.
We call on all people, public officials, faith leaders and Americans from all walks of life to help address the festering sores of racism as it spurs an unforgiving culture of violence. This is a big task but may become more manageable if we work together and if all people see the attack in Charleston as an attack on their own families and loved ones.

If you are in the Chicago area, I invite you to join me this Sunday at 2pm for an interfaith call to unity to acknowledge our grief and shared resistance to hate.
At the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, 4301 West Washington Blvd. 

Here's what has been shared about the gathering:
When: SUNDAY, JUNE 21, 2015 AT 2pm 
HOST: The Leaders Network, Chicago Council of Religious Leaders, American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago

This is a good opportunity to come together with other people of compassion and people of faith.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Pope Just Might Save the Planet

I’m not only thrilled, my hope is renewed. Today is a historic day. 

Who’d have thunk it would be the leader of the Holy Roman Catholic Church to forcefully and so persuasively call for leaders in the developed world to drastically reduce the amount of carbon that we human beings consume. And Pope Francis is clear why this must happen: the poorest in the world are the most effected by global warming.

Today the Pope issued a powerful letter called Laudato Si. He calls on the people of the world and particularly Catholics to help save the planet from environmental destruction--and make this the great urgent focus in the 21st century. And now we people of compassion and people of varied faith--and even no faith--have an ever more clear opportunity to join a collective effort to support this extraordinary and so needed vision.

Here is the appeal, followed by detailed challenges that we face. From today's Encyclical from Pope Francis:
The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. Here I want to recognize, encourage and thank all those striving in countless ways to guarantee the protection of the home which we share. Particular appreciation is owed to those who tirelessly seek to resolve the tragic effects of environmental degradation on the lives of the world’s poorest. Young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.
I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. The worldwide ecological movement has already made considerable progress and led to the establishment of numerous organizations committed to raising awareness of these challenges. Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of a more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions. We require a new and universal solidarity. As the bishops of Southern Africa have stated: “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation”. All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents.

Pope Francis has just invited the members of his church to surpass many religions when it comes to facing reality honestly. For millennia, Catholics have affirmed that the locus of religious authority is in the pope, the priests, and church teaching. But Pope Francis is adding on to this in a critical way. He is willing to look at evidence as scripture. He has just publicly jumped into what my friend Michael Dowd calls the “Evidential Reformation.” 

Pope Francis respects science and is willing to prioritize evidence--scientific facts that come from observing reality, measuring it, and validating it. He is willing to accept the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is occurring and that global warming is caused by human agency. 

All sorts of people in our midst already have been convinced of this; however, so many of us have been unable to see a way out of the mess that our unchecked consumption has gotten us. Pope Francis has articulated a powerful call that we must overcome our selfishness and contribute to a better future for the people of this earth. This will require new ways of looking at the world, new lifestyle choices, and a new worldview of living respectfully with the earth.

There’s a challenging implication: we have a global economic system that cannot continue indefinitely. Many people have been saying this, but no one with the following and platform as Pope Francis.  

The more people of faith who recognize that science doesn’t only make for a higher quality of life but that science doesn’t have to clash with religion, the more likely we human beings and particularly we Americans will change our ways and stop contributing to global warming. 

The more we people of faith respond to reality with a respect for science rather than hold to fantastic notions of divinity that fly in the face of science, then younger people and thoughtful people will return to religion--not the old religion that smacks of hypocrisy and otherworldliness, but authentic religion that is relevant to the greatest challenges we face today.

I have long believed that when we human beings listen to one another and get real about what is really happening within, among, and beyond us, then we can address any challenge. When religious people deny scientific fact it dooms us to not only poor understanding of our wider world but it puts our future in danger.

One problem is that there is such strong evidence that even if we stopped using all carbon today, the process of the warming of the earth shall continue. The question is not whether we will curtail global warming but to what degree will we contribute to its acceleration. The Pope, familiar with the suffering of the poor, recognizes the urgency of this issue in alleviating the suffering of the most vulnerable among us. 

One of the great environmentalist thinkers of the past several decades is Thomas Berry. He calls himself, not a theologian, but a geo-logian. He sums up our present predicament in 3 sentences. 
  • In the 20th century and early 21st century, the glory of the human is becoming the desolation of the earth. 
  • The desolation of the earth is becoming the great shame of the human.
  • Therefore all programs, policies, activities, institutions must henceforth be judged primarily by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore, or foster a mutually enhancing human-earth relationship.
Pope Francis calls us to work together to recognize that we can live in respectful relationship with the earth and be in right relationship with God. 

I so appreciate Michael Dowd’s recognition that:

Religion is undergoing a massive shift in perspective. It is a shift at least as wrenching as the Copernican revolution, which required humanity to bid farewell to an Earth-centered understanding of our place in the cosmos. The religious revolution on the horizon today might well be called the “Evidential Reformation.” We humbly shift away from a human-centric, ethnocentric, and shortsighted view of what is important. At the same time, we expand our very identities to encompass the immense journey of life made known by the full range of sciences. In so doing, we all become elders of a sort, instinctively willing to do whatever it takes to pass on a world of health and opportunities no lesser than the one into which we were born.

At the heart of this theological and spiritual transformation is a profound shift in where we find our best guidance regarding two fundamental orientations: How things are (that is, What is real?) and Which things matter (that is, What is important?). The shift thus centers on both

The good news—the really good news--is that tens of millions of us around the world, secular and religious alike, agree that living in right relationship with reality in the 21st century requires us to value collectively discerned scientific, historic, and cross-cultural insights. The more we move in this direction together, the less our inherited scriptures will continue to divide us, and the more we can work together for the vision Pope Francis shared today. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Unlocking What's Within -- both us and our society

Early summer is a great time to adjust our routines so that we make space to discern what is really going on--in us and in our community. This morning I got on my bicycle for a pre-breakfast ride. It was the first non-commute ride this year. As I rode, the phrase emerged: so much is locked up inside. Inside me. Inside others. 

I’m sitting with this metaphor of unwittingly becoming locked down. It is so easy to go through our days and suppress pain and push away anger. Stuffing our negative feelings is most natural, but doing so can lead us to hide away a lot of what is genuine within that we lock down what’s inside. 

There is so much within us that is often hidden away: wisdom, love and longing, hopes and dreams. I know what it’s like to feel estranged from these, and I often hear others lament a lack of purpose, but it doesn’t have to be this way. The question is whether we shall make the small changes required to have more access to what is going on in us--and then can attend to what is going on in the world.

As I rode, tears welled up because recent stress has me locked down, and getting some exercise opened me up. I woke up to the reality there are a lot of people I’m connected to, there’s plenty of wisdom to access within, and all I need to do is show up honestly to both myself and others.

Funny how we can feel so estranged from ourselves and then tweak our routine and we suddenly have access to what we really value. One routine we can adjust is having honest conversations with others. And another is reflecting on where our food comes from. 

I recently talked with Jose Oliva, the co-chair for the Food Chain Workers Alliance campaign that has had great success in the Los Angeles area in raising standards for the food sold in public schools. Now they are organizing here in the Chicago area to get an ordinance passed that raises the quality of food sold and distributed to public schools and other institutions. 

Over the last few decades a lot of thoughtful people have brought our attention to where food comes from, how it is produced, the benefits of organic, the economic costs to mass production, the need for more local farming and urban gardening. But one thing that has long been overlooked has been the needs of the hands that feed us. 

There are 20 million people in the food industry in this country, many of whom are not making enough to feed their own families. It is so ironic that this country exploits food workers such they cannot make it without food stamps. A third of all food workers currently face wage theft, but many don’t protest for fear of losing their job--or being deported if they are undocumented. 

The campaign here in Chicago is to get an ordinance to oblige companies who sell, distribute, and serve food to children in the public schools must meet certain standards for the food and the treatment and compensation of their workers. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee has contributed to the printing of a comic book that conveys the challenges and the opportunities for today. Take a look here!

The next time you sit down to a nice meal, consider who has made it possible for you to enjoy it. If enough of us organize to call for higher ethical standards in the food industry, our buying power and our political power will call food corporations to do the right thing. 

Four and a half years ago, the Immokalee workers organized a campaign to increase wages for tomato pickers. The focus wasn’t on the growers but the corporations that bought the tomatoes. “A Penny More a Pound” was the rallying cry. Not very much, but it makes it possible for the workers to have livable wages rather than poverty wages. First Taco Bell, then McDonalds and many large corporations have complied. Except for Wendy’s.

What will be the campaign that brings food harvesters, preparers, and servers the wages they need to raise their families without being in dire poverty? 

Just as we as individuals get locked down, estranged from ourselves, so our society fails to recognize what is going on. For too long the needs of workers have shoved out of public awareness. This will change as good share together.

We often talk about changing our habits or routines when January 1st rolls around. But sometimes the winter is when we are most isolated. The summer offers an ideal time to add some exercise or get together with someone we value but haven’t seen for awhile. To sit down to meals and commit to the ethical development of our food.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Breaking Silence Around Mental Illness

I wore a hat in worship for the first time this past Sunday, May 31. It wasn’t the first time I’ve worn this hat in a professional capacity--two weeks earlier on Saturday night, I served as an emcee for the annual fundraiser for Metro Suburban NAMI, that’s our local chapter of the National Association for Mental Illness. I decided it was time to come out as a member of MyHAT, the Mental Health Awareness Team of Unity Temple. It was a fun evening to support the important mission of NAMI: building better lives for people in our community affected by mental illness. 

At Unity Temple, I didn’t wear my hat for the duration of the sermon, for I took it off in recognition of those who struggle with mental illness. Truly, I take my hat off to all those who know this struggle personally or of a loved one and yet find the courage to share with others and break the stigma and silence. 

Every time silence is broken around the stigma of mental illness, it is an opportunity for someone suffering in isolation to learn that they are not alone. And it reminds everyone that people with depression and other mental illness are always in our midst, most often without anyone else knowing, unless they self-identify. Similarly, when caregivers share their stories, it helps others feeling helpless how to help someone they love struggling with mental illness. I’m grateful to the leaders of our Mental Health Awareness Team that are committed to making Unity Temple a welcoming place for those who struggle with mental illness and their care providers. And we at MyHAT have the vision to create a community of acceptance and understanding, particularly regarding mental illness.

Every time I say the phrase “mental illness,” it sounds a little discordant to my ears. Something in me resists. It sounds loaded, as if its politically incorrect. But there isn’t any other phrase that acknowledges that a large segment of our population loses the capacity to respond to life’s challenges in a healthy way. Mental health isn’t simply feeling good and it certainly isn’t about avoiding pain, sorrow, or anger. It is instead being able to experience the wide range of emotional experience while retaining the ability to maintain fulfilling relationships, adapt to change, and cope with adversity. 

Mental health and physical health are not the same thing. They often are confused. And mental illness is far, far more common than most people realize. NAMI reports that 1 in 5 Americans currently struggle with some kind of mental illness, with anxiety disorders being the most common. That’s 20% or 44 million of us Americans. 

Kimberly Knake, the executive director of our local NAMI chapter, reminds me that mental illness does not discriminate. It can happen at any time, to anyone regardless of income level, race, or where you live. She also brought to my attention that one half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14 and three-quarters by the age of 24. Thus the importance of bringing awareness to both young people and their parents, so that those who are in need can get the help and not struggle in isolation or without diagnosis. 

Nearly three months ago, I agreed to dedicate a sermon in May to Mental Health Awareness Month. While I have known theoretically how important the work of MyHAT and NAMI are, it has become both more personal and clear to me why we must do so. A month ago, I got a call from one of my parishioners who had just discovered that her husband, who had long struggled with depression but was really good at hiding it, had killed himself. I spent that evening with her and her teenage children. Nearly two dozen of her friends and family showed up and just sat in shock and sought to console one another. 

Some of the people who took this thoughtful man’s death the hardest were his co-workers, in part because they were the least privy to his struggle with mental illness. At the memorial service, his co-worker who spoke called him “more than a mentor” and commented that he had made a tremendous difference in the lives and careers of dozens of people he supervised. He had other circles of friends: neighbors, musicians, parents raising children the same age as his own, all of whom were torn up about his death. So many knew him as generous, fun, with a wicked sense of humor. He was loved. And yet he struggled.

There is no question that our culture encourages people who struggle with depression to hide, to keep up a cheerful face to cover over what’s going on inside. Look at what we post on Facebook. We want everyone to see us as whole, engaged, happy people. Yet 20% of us struggle with mental illness--20% of us have such terrible feelings gnawing at us that impairs our capacity to maintain fulfilling relationships, adapt to change, and cope with adversity. And in our popular culture, who wants to admit that? 

If we are committed to being people of compassion, an essential part of this is attending to our inner lives--including the inner lives of people who struggle mightily. Communities of faith have a profound opportunity to be countercultural and provide safe spaces for people to share honestly and break the stigma and silence of mental illness. Our faith communities are places we can practice being loving people, learning what it means to be in relationship with people as they are, not what we want them to be. 

It is time for us as a wider to community to stop unwittingly distancing ourselves from people who struggle with mental illness, when it makes a real difference when the reality of mental illness is communicated thoughtfully. Kimberly Knake tells me of students who have reported giving up plans to take their lives when they NAMI has worked in the high schools. If the stigma and cultural silence wasn’t so acute, maybe, or perhaps likely many people wouldn’t suffer so much and several people would still be alive. Any suicide serves as a wake up call to the fact that our culture pushes so many people with depression to hide. 

My parishioner is not the only well-educated, married, church-going parent who has taken his life in our community. In the last 6 and a half months, two other beloved Oak Park residents also took their lives. A beloved school board member was 48, the same age as my parishioner, when he killed himself last February. And in late November a 50-year old active Catholic woman did so as well with three teenagers still living at home. 

I’ve come to learn that often suicide clusters are of teenagers in the same community. There’s a current cluster in North Carolina, and three years ago there was one here in the Chicago area in Lake Forest where three teenage boys all separately jumped in front of a train over a two month period. Here in Oak Park, right now, do we have a cluster of parents of teenagers?

What’s more, the incidence of suicide among middle-aged, married, church-going, parents living in upper-middle class neighborhoods is much, much lower than the national rate. And that is the demographic here. Yet clearly we in our community are not immune. Mental illness does not discriminate.

Our community struggles with mental health. Every community struggles with mental health. While my community prides itself on being open and accepting and affirming of all kinds of people, the stigma of mental illness contributes to the shame and secrecy and isolation of people--and the stigma contributes to the kind of suffering that exacerbates mental illness and even suicide. 

Suicide is more common than homicide. Here is a statistic that I can hardly believe: 65% of all gun deaths in the United States are suicides, and guns are used in 50% of suicides. That means for every person shot and killed in this country as a homicide, there are two other people who kill themselves with a gun. And two other people who use a different method. For all the money we spend on trying to prevent homicide, we should also consider how we can prevent suicide. And suicide is especially rampant among certain demographics like veterans. There is a military report that concludes that in 2012, an average of 22 United States veterans killed themselves each day. 

What can we do as members of our community? What creates a community of greater acceptance and understanding? First, the open acknowledgment that mental illness is very common and a willingness to break the silence to help lift the stigma. Second is how we live out our lives as individuals, committed to kindness, taking the opportunity to listen to others, to loving those close to us, affirming our commitment. Third, to support the work of community organizations like NAMI and creating mental health awareness and action teams within faith communities. And lastly seeking to discuss and understand about our inner lives and understanding how common mental illness is and how this can be especially challenging to some who struggle with mental illness.

When I sat down with my parishioner’s family to plan the memorial service, I appreciated their readiness that the service be honest, honest about his struggles as well as honest about the myriad of emotions that inevitably come forth in the wake of suicide, and while this beloved man never wanted to hurt anyone, especially his family, his final act left those who loved him deeply, deeply hurt. 

It is also important to emphasize that this lovely man was a human being like us, with his joys and successes and his hidden struggles and defeats. Here at Unity Temple, we believe that what defines a life ultimately is love shared--not one single act but the many, many moments of connection, of support, of becoming real. However, the reality of his untimely tragic death calls us to address the hidden suffering of people who struggle with mental illness and remain isolated.

As a member of the Mental Health Awareness Team, I put on a hat to lift up the important work for us to do in our community. And a big part of what we can do is lift up the question, what does it mean to live a good life? For when we get real and become aware just how much suffering there is among people with mental illness and the caregivers who want to help them, then it becomes clear the good life is about kindness. It is about sharing hope, creating spaces to listen, really listen. The good life is about creating a community of acceptance and understanding, finding ever more ways of embodying love, and having our lives be enriched by learning how to really love. 

Wherever you live, may you connect with others to help cultivate the beloved community. This is the essence of learning how to love with courage.