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. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Thirty-Five Years and Counting


June 1st I will celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of my ordination to the  Christian ministry.   It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of my father's ordination.  He was already serving student parishes when I was born.  For all of my almost sixty-two years I have been a part of this institution, so I am hardly an objective observer.  But I am an experienced one.  I have been a preacher's kid, a lay person in  the pews and a pastor in the pulpit.  I've seen the local church from most all angles, and while it is far from perfect, indeed at times very flawed, it is also an institution which has the capability of being an enormous force for the good in our world today, even as it has been in the past.

My PhD studies focused on church history, in particular, American Church History.  I asked my seminary president what he thought I should major in for my doctorate, New testament Studies, Church History or Theology.  He asked me how I was with languages.  I said, "It's not my favorite part of being a student."  "Well," he said, "if you go into any of those fields you'll need at least two languages, but except for American Church History, you'll need three or four languages."  I opted for American Church History!

In my course work and writing my dissertation, I was reminded over and over again of the many ways we have failed as an institution, how all too often we have been on the wrong side of history.  While the church led the charge in the abolition movement, much of the church vigorously defended slavery for decades.  While some in the church were part of the women's movement, patriarchy was often the rule rather than the exception.  It still is in parts of the church.  While there were and are compassionate folks in the church who have helped address the AIDS pandemic, some in the church have seen it as a punishment for persons living in ways of which they did not approve.  You get my point. 

But all that said--and there is much more that could be said--I remain firmly committed to the church, for I believe that it is an institution that has the capacity to being open to the stirring of God's Spirit.  I believe that it can be (and often is) a source of healing, reconciliation, forgiveness and grace in a world sorely in need of all the healing it can get.

But, as I said, I am far from objective !

Monday, May 18, 2015

Strong . . . or Wrong?

Two years ago, a few weeks after the bombing at the Boston Marathon, I received a package in the mail from my daughter Liz.  She lives in metropolitan Boston, and shares my enthusiasm for the Red Sox.  So I was both surprised and pleased when I opened up the small box and found a cap she had bought for me with the Red Sox "B" logo and underneath it the word "STRONG".

In the weeks and months following that senseless attack, I would occasionally see news articles about how very people who had been impacted by the bombing we living out the Boston Strong motto.  I was especially impressed by the amputees and others who ran in the marathons in 2014 and 2015.  The strength of character demonstrated by such folks truly enhanced the city's reputation.

Then in recent months as Dzohokhor Tsarnaev was tried for his role in the tragedy I once again witnessed various persons showing real spiritual, emotional and psychological strength as they took the stand and testified to what they had seen and experienced on that April day in 2013.  Such testimony always calls for real courage in the face of fear and sorrow.

On the day that Tsarnaev's sentence was to be handed down, I noticed at least one Boston Strong sign among those who waited outside the courthouse.  But, I wondered, what does Boston Strong mean in such a context?  Some have suggested that passing down the death penalty is a show of real strength.  We'll show terrorists we mean business.  But the way I see it, the death penalty is never a symbol of strength.  At best it is a symbol of frustration, at worst, it is a reminder that the human need for revenge can, at times, be overwhelming.

Don't misunderstand, the guilty verdict was clearly the right verdict.  And the jury demonstrated strength in their willingness to sit through testimony that was at times most painful.  I applaud their willingness to serve their community.  And under the circumstances, I can understand their desire to mete out what they perceived to be the most severe penalty for such an atrocious act.  They wanted to be Boston Strong.  But the death penalty isn't strong.  In fact, it is weak, for when it is administered we human beings are giving in to our basest emotions.  Yes, Dzohokhor Tsarnaev should be locked up for life, with no chance of parole.  But putting him to death only reinforces a cycle of violence that leads to more violence.

I will continue to wear my cap.  I will continue to be proud of a city I love dearly.  But each time I wear it I will pause and consider what it really means to be strong.