Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Just Because

A parishioner recently lent me an anthology of sacred prose and poetry titled God Makes the Rivers to Flow.  It is a lovely collection of poems and prayers drawn from a wide array of religious and spiritual traditions.  One prayer that caught my eye was penned by St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Spanish founder of the Society of Jesus--better known as the Jesuits.

St. Ignatius is especially well-known for a series of devotions he developed based on the scriptures, designed to help one move along his or her spiritual journey, called the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius' discipline is built on using one's imagination to enter into the Biblical story.

Here's a part of the prayer that caught my eye:
 
Oh, my God, I want to love you,
Not that I might gain heaven
Nor escape eternal hell
But, Lord, to love you just because
you are my God.
 
 
As I pondered that prayer I realized that's how it is with all of us.  We want to be loved not because of what we can do for the other, but rather, just because.  Just because we are who we are.  That, in the end, is the purest expression of love--is it not?  To love another, just because.
 
(The photo is an icon of St. Ignatius of Loyola)

Monday, July 6, 2015

The NEW Modern Family

All six of my grandchildren have been with us over the 4th of July weekend.  All six!  They range in age from seven to fourteen and are all very unique human beings.  While I consider each and everyone of them my grandson or granddaughter, I realized at some point this weekend that not one of them is biologically tied to me.  None of them carry my DNA.  Which may be to their advantage!  But each of them came into my life in other ways.  Through stepchildren, through adoption . . . but not one in the traditional fashion.

I've been thinking about that a lot.  My wife Linda and I have a friend who refers to us as "the New Modern Family"--referencing the popular television show.  I suppose she calls us that because in our mix are folks of varying racial backgrounds, religious backgrounds and sexual orientations.  But she is, I suppose, right.  Our  family is representative of many, many families in the world. 
Yet we still cling to the mom, dad, and two biological kids model as the ideal.

So is there an "ideal family'?  I don't think so.  I think family configurations are as varied as people--and each comes with its own strengths and weaknesses.  Each comes with its own blessings, and its own challenges.  And sometimes, those are the same--what appears to be a challenge, is a blessing in disguise.  And what looks for all the world like a blessing, proves to be the ultimate challenge!

Whatever the case, I am most grateful for my family.  And all six of my grandchildren.  We're having a good time together--and when they go home, Linda and I will take a very long nap.  A VERY long nap!

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Work of Loving

Last week's Supreme Court decision concerning marriage equality is welcomed and celebrated by many.  Various polls indicate a majority of Americans support the concept.  It is now the law of the land in all fifty states.  But that doesn't mean the work is over.  Clearly, there are also large numbers of Americans who are opposed to same-sex marriage.  And, as we have seen in other civil rights struggles, a change in laws--whether legislatively imposed or judicially--is not the same as a change in attitudes and behaviours.

So what can we learn from the past?  First, things take time.  Many have commented on the fact that this change has taken far less time than many other changes in societal rules.  To think it will be implemented free of issues, to think that overnight people's understandings will change, would be very na├»ve.  That will not be the case, most assuredly.

Second, I think we must continue to recognize that the best way to convince someone of any such change is in and through personal experience.  One of the reasons a majority of folks support marriage equality is that they realized they have family and friends who are gay or lesbian.  And they want for them the same considerations as the heterosexuals in their circle.  If people experience same sex marriages there will be a better chance they will accept them in general.

All across the internet and beyond, one sees the phrase, "Love Wins" in reference to the Court's decision.  And I suppose, judicial decisions are always about winners and losers.  But Love isn't really about winning.  It is about accepting the other, caring for the other, doing right by the other.  And the work of loving--like love itself--never ends.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Changing Symbols, Changing Hearts

Earlier today I signed a petition urging the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House in South Carolina.  Apparently hundreds of thousands of other folks have done the same.  And  there is little question in my mind that such action needs to happen.  The flag symbolizes a movement that sought to undo our nation based on a desire to perpetuate slavery.  Period.  Keeping it aloft only antagonizes at this point.  It needs to come down.  Yes, put it on display in museums as a reminder of the past--but it has no place on a governmental institution.

All that said, however, signing that petition is low-hanging fruit.  Anybody can sign a petition.  The biggest risk in doing so is receiving unsolicited e-mails and social media posts that ultimately can be stopped with a keystroke or two.  And while the petition  may help push South Carolina's legislators into doing the right thing, ultimately, it is a distraction.  Not that it is unimportant, symbols are very important.  As a pastor I deal in symbolism all the time.  But to really make lasting changes we need to do far more than merely eliminate or change the symbols around us.  What we really need to do is change our hearts and minds.

Let's be clear.  The attack on Emanuel AME Church in Charleston was racially motivated.  It was a hate crime.  Let's not get distracted from that reality.  Let's not lose sight of the fact that it is far from the first such attack in the history of the Black church.  Time and again, innocents have died and buildings have been burned.  Not because somebody was mentally ill.  Rather, because somebody was filled with hatred.

The folks at Mother Emanuel know that better than I ever will, I suspect.  But they also know that the only way to combat hate is with love and forgiveness, and their witness has been amazing!  Mind you, forgiveness does not mean saying, "What you did was OK."  It doesn't mean saying, "Don't worry about it!"  Rather, forgiveness means letting go of one's need for revenge. Don't misunderstand, that doesn't mean there are no consequences to be paid by the perpetrator.  There are.

The question now, however, is what are we going to do besides signing a petition.  How are we as individuals, as religious congregations and as a nation, going to bring about real change in the way we think and feel about race?  Yes, we need, in some cases, to clean up our language, and stop sharing racist jokes. Yes, we need to take down the flags.  But we also need to take a deep, long look at the ways we systemically and institutionally perpetuate racism.  And more than that, we need to look deep in our hearts and, with the help of God, root out all that prevents us from living lives of love and forgiveness.  And what better symbol of that than the steeple of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston?

(Photo: The steeple of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, taken by Rebecca Travis)

Monday, June 15, 2015

A Word about Dress Codes

It may have been 1968 or 1969.  I don't remember for sure.  I was in high school at that time, and our local school board was considering instituting a stricter dress code.  In particular, they wanted to ban jeans.  They already had certain requirements in terms of things like shorts (they weren't allowed) and skirt lengths for the girls (no more than a certain number of inches above the knee, as I remember).  But now they wanted to add jeans to the proscribed list.  And we students were not happy about it.

Most folks--just like in the adult world--just groused about it.  But some of us decided to take on the school board and attend their open session.  It we would a show of solidarity around the issue.  We didn't really consider if any one would actually address the board during the public comment period, but that night, rather on the spur of the moment, I did.  I went to the mike, voiced my concern, and then used an analogy to explain my position.  "Diamonds in the rough," I said, "are still diamonds.   Clothes don't make the man or the woman or the boy or the girl.  What determines how a student acts, thinks, works, is deeper than clothing."  My fellow students applauded--I don't remember how the board reacted--I was too nervous to look at their faces!  I guess I didn't make that much of an impression though--for in the end, they banned jeans.

I've been thinking about that as I've followed with interest the case of  Caroline Boland, a young woman here in Lee County who was initially stripped of her office as Historian for the District Chapter of the National Honor Society because she wore a dress that violated the dress code.  She is, obviously, an excellent student, as well as an accomplished athlete (she plays basketball)--and this was her first "offense"--somewhat unwitting, it appears.  Whatever the case, the Superintendent of Schools finally overturned the decision. 

That's good, but still . . . . should it even have been an issue?  As an adult, I have a bit more patience with the idea of dress codes than I did as a high school student, but still, my position remains basically the same.  What really matters is what's on the inside, not the clothes one wears.  And  seems to be just the kind of student that we want to--need to--applaud and hold up as a role model for others.  This kid's a real gem--a diamond--let's let her sparkle!

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Home Runs, Dance Steps and the Issue of Gender

This past weekend my wife Linda and I attended our niece's four-hour dance recital.  Yes, you read that right--four hours worth of student dancers!
  Some as young as two or three, others in their twenties and thirties.  Mostly children, though, with a few adults thrown in for good measure.

All told, there were sixty-three different numbers.  They ranged in style from classical ballet to hip-hop--so the accompanying music ranged from Tchaikovsky to . . . . well, your guess is as good as mine.  Maybe better!

Some dancers were part of one or two numbers, while others showed up multiple times.  Some of the older dancers, not the adults, the older kids, had solos.  Most did not.  Some of the choreography was actually quite original, and three or four numbers verged on stunning.  One in particular, based loosely on the themes in the holocaust novel The Boy in Striped Pajamas, was very moving.  And very surprising.  One does not usually think of such a serious piece being part of a kids' dance recital. 

Most of the performers--some sixty or so in total--were girls and young women.  As one would expect.  But about eight or nine of them were boys.  I must say, I have the same kind of respect for boys who take dance lessons as I do for girls who play Little League baseball.  And even more than that, I have a real; appreciation for their parents.  Not all moms and dads are supportive of their children when they want to take up an activity that crosses traditional gender expectations! 

As I watched the various news reports this weekend and considered the journey Bruce, now Caitlyn, Jenner has undertaken, I couldn't help but think of those dance recital boys.  When, I wonder, will we get over our preconceived ideas about gender?  Clearly, it still matters--gender that is.  But how, and why?  What does it mean to be male?  What does it mean to be female?  Have we moved beyond biology?  So many questions! 

I guess, for me, it comes down to this:  what does it mean to be human?  Ultimately, that is the real question.  And how do we nurture girls and boys, gay, straight, bisexual or transgendered, as they grow into adulthood?  Letting them dance if they want to, letting them slide into home plate if that's their desire, and supporting them in their efforts, like the hundreds of family members who filled the auditorium at the dance recital--it's not all of it, but it certainly is a start!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

So Many Books . . . So Little Time: A Reader's Lament

Maybe you have the same problem I have.  Too many books, too little time!  My good wife is constantly wondering why I take books out of the library on a regular basis when I already have several piles waiting to be read at home and at the office.  (Truth be told, I am a regular patron of two libraries, and a card holder at two more!)

My stack at home is largely fiction.  Novels I have been given (or occasionally have purchased for myself) waiting for the mood to strike.  Which doesn't mean I don't read much fiction.  I do.  Lots of it.  Most of those books checked out from the Sanibel Library or the Lakes Regional Library in Fort Myers are novels.  I have three of them at home right now.  Sara Gruen's latest, At Water's Edge, Jodi Picoult's most recent volume, Leaving Time and a real gem that I've almost finished, Marilynne Robinson's Lila.  (Robinson is such a fine writer!)

Here at work I have three stacks.  The books are mostly ones that have been given to me.  Some have been written by parishioners or their offspring.  I've got one by Robert Dornberg that I keep intending to get to called A Nation of Sheep.  He's a lovely fellow, and a thoughtful human being.  I may not agree with some of what he has to say, but I suspect it will be very well thought out.  I've got one by the son of parishioners, Dan Maurer, called Far Away.  Dan's a good writer--I've read one of his other books.  I keep stalling though on this one as it's about human trafficking.  I suspect it will be tough sledding.

The stacks also include a variety of things I want to read for professional reasons.  Parker Palmer's healing the Heart of Democracy, for instance.  I've dipped into it a bit, and as usual, Palmer is extremely trenchant.  "When we hold our suffering in a way that opens us to greater compassion," he writes at one point, "heartbreak becomes a source of healing, deepening out empathy . . . ."  (22) 
Good stuff!  But wait, there's more!  Aging Well, by George Vaillant, The (Un)common Good by Jim Wallis, and the list goes on!

And then there is the stack for my upcoming sabbatical.  Books related to my work on the abolition movement.  I'll be focusing especially on John Quincy Adams and his role in the anti-slavery movement, so Harlow Unger's biography of Adams is on the pile.  But so is Frederick Douglas' autobiography. 

One of the greatest pleasures in life, for me, is reading.  In fact, I can't imagine life without books.  And maybe that's why I have so many stacked up waiting to be read.  Maybe subconsciously I believe that as long as I've got at least one more book to read, I'll live to see another day.  Instead of the fountain of youth, I've got a bookcase of youth.