Living in This World, Politics, Privilege, The Inner Landscape

Ferocious Humility

I note that the Left is, as we have come to expect, engaged in self-destructive internal wrangling, complete with name-calling and finger-pointing. We are not “on message” because that is not part of our DNA. We disparage the people who offer support to each other on the Right; their lockstep smacks of collusion.

Some voices say that we cannot afford to be so hard on each other in a time when there are forces we must resist, but I would amend that.

We cannot afford to forget each other in a time when there are forces we must resist. We must remember that there are life experiences and points of view different from our own, open conversation instead of assuming it will arise, invite relationship instead of taking it for granted.

The responsibility to act – to remember, to open, to invite – always lies with those of us who benefit from privilege, whether it derives from our race, our level of education, our economic advantage, our orientation, our gender identity, our ability, or our religious identification.

ferocious-humilityWhere can you open a conversation? It’s harder when, admittedly, we’re not all the same. We need to take the time to listen more closely, to ask and answer questions that may seem obvious but (maybe) are not, to be humble rather than defensive when we get things wrong, to commit to inviting new relationships, to be ferocious in our commitment to the greater good.

We all need to cultivate ferocious humility. 



How the Sausage Gets Made

aaron burrNo one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in
The room where it happens.

~Aaron Burr, in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton

I’ve known plenty of people in politics. My dad was in politics. Politicians, like most human beings, exist on a spectrum from noble to well-meaning to pragmatic to misguided to selfish to downright evil. Whatever their moral character, politicians do work behind the scenes to accomplish their goals. The Constitutional Convention was closed to the public with no minutes taken exactly in order to give the delegates freedom to debate and change their minds.*

It’s not different for pastors. There are things we do behind the scenes, in private, most of us adhering to the highest ethics, I hope, and yet we are blamed and called out for not being where someone else wants us to be, not revealing what someone wishes we would say, not making the pivot exactly when someone demands our loyalty.

Students of history will know that in politics it has always been hard to get the true story, that the press has always been manipulated for the sake of ideology and also for the sake of commerce, that politicians have phrased things carefully in order to avoid revealing truth without actually being caught in lies. What we didn’t have in the past was a digital “paper” trail. The potential for embarrassment is huge now, and while I deplore the idea of one candidate encouraging foreign hackers to look into the other presidential candidate’s deleted emails, I also deplore the careful answers used by the other candidate.

We’re at a bizarre crossroads. Some people think it’s okay to say anything, while others continue to abide by more traditional rules of public discourse. One could probably afford to risk a little more vulnerability, while the other really could use an injection of temperance. We might be able to understand her defensive posture, given the history of lies told about her. We might even be able to understand his aggressive nature, because in the story he tells himself, that stance works and has been working.

Meanwhile advisers on a bus try to figure how to spin things and still make their gal a winner, and meanwhile the other guy is sitting on his plane grinning widely and eating fried chicken for his dinner.**

The most telling piece of the Democratic convention for me was the film about Dorothy Rodham, who sent 4-year-old Hillary back out into the fray to figure out how to deal with bullies by herself. Imagine a life informed by that moment, and then add to it the influence of a mis-attributed but supposedly Wesleyan principle of doing all the good you can, and you have a formula for figuring out how to get done what you believe needs to be done, however you can get it done, for as long as it takes to get it done.

History may tell us, someday, what really happened, whether the emails were really a national security scandal, or a case of privileged arrogance, or (my guess) the result of a person with important things to do creating her own workaround to match the reality of today’s communication demands, rightly or wrongly. History will also likely consider whether the other guy got into it mostly to prove that he could win it by being outrageous, and then couldn’t get off the track he laid out for himself. And for us.

I don’t want to be cynical. The politician who raised me lived out a careful balance of working toward compromise where beneficial for the whole and staking out his principles where meeting in the middle would compromise his integrity. There is nothing simple about governing that way. It requires intelligence, patience, nuance and bone-deep righteousness. I really hope that’s what she has, because under the circumstances, I’m with her.

*Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton (The Penguin Press, 2004), p.228.
**A one word quote from “Hamilton” probably doesn’t count as a quote, but if the soundtrack is burned on your brain as it is on mine, I’ll bet you heard it that way.

Living in This World, Political Theology, Politics

Feel the Burn

The grown-ups at my house don’t watch a lot of TV outside of baseball season, but this being a presidential election year, I have been drawn into watching some cable news coverage. I’m undecided most days; my spouse is not (sorry, I won’t tell you more); our voting age children #FeeltheBern.

When I turn on the foolishly big television intended to make us feel like we’re sitting at the ballpark, and I punch in the channel for the latest debate, press conference or expert analysis, I often find myself watching and listening to distressing behavior at what feels like an unsafe distance. It’s up too close, the red-faced hostility, the fallacious allegations, and the self-aggrandizing claims.

I wonder what the world is coming to, how we will avoid destroying ourselves, and things that matter to us. I feel some mixture of frustration, apathy, and despair. I exercise my privilege, therefore, to press the mute button, or I change the channel to see what’s on HGTV, or I turn the darn thing off and go to bed.

Daddy, Tommy and me – Monumental Methodist Church, 1966

It’s the truth that I grew up starry-eyed about politics because the politician I knew best was my daddy. We practiced our own civic religion; our polling place was at the Methodist church where he learned about faith. I remember vividly walking there from our house and going into the booth with him before I was old enough to read the names on the ballot. I associate goodness with the sound of that lever being pulled to register his vote and open the curtain that revealed us again to the world. Everything about his speech was thoughtful, careful, strong, but gentle.

I wonder how I would have felt if I had been in the Temple courtyard that day Jesus came in and started turning over the tables, knocking over the cages and freeing the birds intended for sacrifice, shouting that his Father’s house had been turned into a den of thieves? Did he not raise his voice? Did he not cause a disturbance? Did he not protest the way things were?

How do we discern the difference between righteous indignation and attention-seeking tirades?

We ask ourselves, what is the underlying intention of the person raising his or her voice? What is the agenda of the person causing the disturbance? What is the desire of the person protesting the status quo?

If we’re people of faith, we ask ourselves, do these loud voice do more than invoke God? Do they align with the values Jesus lived and died to teach us? And, perhaps even more importantly, do they express our Resurrection hope?

I’m not looking for a savior among political candidates, nor do I think that only certain varieties of church-going Christians can express that hope. I am looking for an affirmation of what matters to me, which will allow me to be faithful as I mark a ballot. I hope I’ll feel that burn.

America, Family History, Politics, Privilege, Racism

A Culture of Remembrance – Take Down the Flag

I grew up in a house in which hung a print of “The Last Meeting of Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson Before the Battle of Chancellorsville” (engraved by Frederick Halpin, after Everett Julio), that classic emblem of the Lost Cause. This was common then in my neighborhood in Old Town Portsmouth, Virginia. My father, a Civil War buff who would tell me about the battles as we drove around Virginia, never indicated that the cause was just, but honored both men as soldiers, tacticians, human beings, Virginians. Yet in his political life he angered people including his own political party, to the point of death threats, by his political stands against the institutionally-protected racism of Massive Resistance.

I’m not sure how to reconcile these things.

I still have the print, no longer hanging anywhere, but I don’t quite know what to do with it. I don’t want to send it out into the world, nor do I want to destroy it, simply because it reminds me of my dad. Let me be clear; he was a soft-spoken intellectual, not a gun-toting guy with a truck bearing Confederate flag decals. I told you, in his time, he was considered radical in his politics. Well, radical for Virginia.

Yet, we have this heritage, this culture of remembrance of the men who gave their gifts to what was in every way the wrong side of a terrible war, evil as war always tends to be and doubly evil in pitting, as I learned in school, brother against brother, and even brother against sister in the case of the Jackson family, and ultimately evil in the lies people told themselves and the world about the reasons, praising chivalry and states’ rights, denying that the profit to be found in owning other people and considering them to be less than human drove the cause so rightly lost.

Lee and Jackson on a plate
Lee and Jackson on a plate

Somewhere among my books is a large pictorial biography of General Lee, awarded to me for outstanding work in Social Studies in the 5th grade at an Episcopal girls’ school, St. Agnes, in Alexandria, Virginia. It was presented by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. What about the stack of Lenox commemorative dinner plates sold in the 1970s to fundraise for the restoration of the White House of the Confederacy? I never saw them used, never knew they existed until after my parents were dead. I can picture him writing a check for the sake of historical preservation.

Is it defensible because we should not forget?

Can we remember without glorifying?

What to do with these things?

As a child, I remember sitting on the rug, playing with a figure of Lee seated on his horse, Traveller. That at least is long gone.

I am not the only one who doesn’t know what to do with all the things that carry the taint of revolution and racism. I don’t want to get rid of them and thereby circulate them.

I do know what *not* to do with them, not to celebrate them, not to display them in our homes or our cars or our public monuments, not to imbue them with some holy power.  

Please, South Carolina, take down the flag.

NaBloPoMo, Politics

I Voted (NaBloPoMo)

The last time I voted in Portland, we were voting on marriage equality. We were also voting for a President, a Senator and a Congressman, as well as on other ballot issues. My polling place was the Fellowship Hall and Gym at Woodfords Congregational UCC, my home church before and during seminary. I shook hands with relatives of candidates in the parking lot, then lined up to go inside, where I saw friends voting ahead of me, chatted up the people in line around me, recognized the poll workers, and generally felt delighted to be participating in the democratic process with my neighbors.

I did not have to show ID.

I filled out 2 card stock ballots (elections and ballot issues) with one of those special black markers, and had the pleasure of inserting my ballots into a machine for counting.

It may sound funny, but I always made sure to fill in those lines very carefully while I stood behind the little curtain.

Here in Pennsylvania, kathrynzj and I went to vote at St. Peter Lutheran Church, because we haven’t updated our driver’s licenses yet. There were very few people voting. The ladies at the L-Z table were nice; one had her knitting, which I really wanted to ask about, but you know, elections are serious, and these people don’t know me. I signed in opposite an image of my voter registration card, with an image of my signature.

I can’t tell you how much I don’t like that.

They gave me a white card (blank) to hand to the extremely old man operating the touch screen machine. He made a joke about my Vera Bradley purse and where I got it, but it wasn’t actually about it being Vera Bradley. It was just a lame joke. He lingered in case I needed help using the machine. I stared him down, blankly. He finally moved off.

“Danger, Will Robinson!!!”

I pushed the screen to get started and looked at the voting screen. It gave me a choice of voting a straight party ticket, for either party. One of the candidates of my party was not someone I could in good conscience vote for, and another election had no Democrat, so in the end I only voted in the Governor’s race. Then I pressed the red “Vote” button above the screen. The machine went all “Danger, Will Robinson!!!” I confirmed my desire to pass over some of the categories. Considering there are about 11 Democrats in our precinct, the lack of candidates should not surprise me.

On the way out, we did see a familiar face, which made the whole thing seem more like real life to me.

Next time around, we will vote across the street, at kathrynzj’s church, where I assume I will know more people, but they will still need to have me sign the book in order to vote. And no matter how many familiar faces I see, it will take a long time before it feels like Portland, where I lived long enough to start meeting people for the second time.

Disaster, Forgiveness, Mothering, Politics

On my ball cap

imageLast week, while the world focused on Boston, I drove to another part of Massachusetts with my high school Senior daughter. At our destination, we celebrated her college choice with a trip to the bookstore to purchase flag swag for the whole family. I came away with a ball cap clearly identifying me as a “Smith College Mom.”

Meanwhile, two other ball caps drove the search for the Boston Marathon bombers. The white cap, in particular, stood out in photos. In a scene out of the movies, the FBI and other authorities gathered in a hotel to scour thousands of images and videos from private surveillance cameras, professional and amateur photographers, and the offerings of ordinary people much like me who can’t stop snapping pictures with their phones. In this time-stamped world, some picture would surely show enough to make a case. Some image would reveal the perpetrator’s identity.

My identity is multi-fold. I am a Christian pastor (UCC flavor), a writer, a wife and mother, a Bernese Mountain Dog obsessive, a knitter of mostly socks, a Virginian by birth, an adoptee, a recovering Southern Baptist, a coffee drinker, a lesbian latecomer, a lover of books and music, a Volvo owner, a registered Democrat and a soon to be Smith College mom. Observing me on last week’s trip to Northampton might have provided insight into a few of these things. I drove the Volvo. I bought the ball cap. I shopped at WEBS, America’s Yarn Store. I pretty much chased down a woman walking a Bernese puppy.

If you asked my new neighbors in Pennsylvania about me, they might be able to get as far as the Volvo.

Since last week, we’ve heard stories from classmates and neighbors, car repair clients, guys at the gym. We’ve seen school pictures and boxing profiles and heard about a scene made at the mosque. In Cambridge, people proud of their diverse community cannot understand. They include everyone. There is so much variation of language and culture, religion and national origin. How could this happen?

We don’t know all the pieces. I left some off my list: raisin hater, New York GIANTS fan, trained Interim Minister, short, grey-haired, brown-eyed. On a hot dog, I like all the condiments. My ears are pierced, but it took more than one try.

Do you have a better picture of me now?

When I heard the news on Patriot’s Day – there’s another thing, for 25 years I lived in the only other state that celebrates it – when I heard the news, I first thought, “Please, whoever did this, let them not be Muslim.

Please, O God. Let it be someone else. Their perceived otherness is too easy, too reflexive and accustomed. Let it be a man whose wife left him for a marathoner, or a faux-Baptist or a white supremacist. We could identify with them instead of running the risk of condemning a whole religion. We could question our culpability, our resentments and prejudices and past injuries, all the things that can influence human behavior toward darkness.

For a short time, I felt close to the situation. I listened to the Thursday night press conference on NPR, in my Volvo, driving home from Smith. When I heard photos would be released, that they would be pictures of two young men, I wondered for a long, hard minute what it would be like to see my son in such a picture.

I have a son in Boston, age 22, studying at New England Conservatory. (There is no ball cap for a conservatory mom.) He was on the Orange Line with his clarinets, A and B-flat, when the bombs exploded. When he arrived at school, getting off the T at Mass Ave, he heard the news. His cellphone didn’t work, so we messaged on Facebook.

A few days later, for a long, hard minute, I pictured my son’s face. I had a heart for some other mother.

imageSoon we heard words associated with that mother’s family: Chechnya, Dagestan, places I’ve heard of but needed Google Earth to locate for sure. I hear Chechyn and remember a rebellion against the Soviet Union. I hear Chechnya and think violence. Despite my sympathy for people formed by countries where violence is so daily it is hardly news — imagine that — despite my sympathy for their suffering,I feel immediately free to take a big step back. Her cap says Marathon Bomber Mom. Not mine.

This change, this freedom, comes at a primal level, the one where I considered my own child’s safety last Friday morning, texting him before 6 a.m. to say the T was not running, learning he was already halfway to the station, breathing deeply again when he returned to his apartment. I would do anything to protect him, just as Dzhokhar and Tamerlan’s mother is trying to do in a press conference from Dagestan today.

In my higher mind, I continue to wish the bombers were not young Muslim men. I think about how it feels to have your name mispronounced, an experience familiar to me. I listen to Robin Young’s nephew talk on “Here and Now” about his high school friend from Cambridge Rindge and Latin; I see the picture of the two boys dressed up for prom. I reflect on the desire to celebrate his capture, certainly understandable and especially in Watertown, and the celebration of law enforcement. I feel relief that the tone of the local conversation is less about Islam than one might expect. I note the uniquely local ritual acts, Neil Diamond’s appearance at Fenway Park and the Red Sox in their uniforms proudly and simply reading Boston.

imageI wonder if either of the brothers ever wore a Red Sox cap?

I ponder the very small differences between first century Jews and Samaritans, and how from those small differences grew an abiding hatred. Jesus told a story about a Samaritan, encouraging his listeners to look beyond the identifying marks that bias us to the actual hearts of people.

It’s hard to make ourselves want to look into the hearts of young men who set their backpack bombs down next to children. I can’t pierce that darkness. It’s so easy to condemn reflexively. People I know to be intelligent and thoughtful Christians murmur about Islam, “I don’t like the attitude toward women.” “Isn’t there something … violent … there?”

But wait! Isn’t there something violent about many practitioners of *our* faith? Aren’t their people wearing our team colors who also oppress women? I don’t like to be identified with them anymore than imams in Boston want to be identified with the Tsarnaev brothers.

After a week of listening to news and commentary, here’s what I know about the young man in the white cap. He is 19, and in the hospital. He is in terrible, terrible trouble for committing a horrific act while automated cameras unwittingly made a record of it. His identity will forever be Murderer, Terrorist, Bomber.

I admit, I find it hard to pray for the young man in the white cap and his mother. I’m interested in the psycho-social mysteries that beg for solving. Deservedly disgruntled immigrants? They wouldn’t be the first. Displaced persons who never found a sense of home? Sleeper agents? Pursuing these theories keeps me at a distance, and that dark distance of perceived differences breaks the world in pieces.

I find it hard to pray for him, for his dark heart. If he knew what he was doing — how could he not know what he was doing? Yet the hope of forgiveness extends to him, by God’s grace.

My heart is pierced, but it took more than one try. God can pierce our darkness. Forgiven. It would look pretty smug on a ball cap, but it’s assured for all who open their hearts to God. That’s my hard-won prayer for Dzhokhar, that someday he will wear a different cap. I have a picture of it in my head, a white cap with red letters, a sign of the hope and grace we all need, an identity God grants to every one of us.

(Also posted at There is Power in the Blog.)

Advent, Church Life, Politics

What Are We Waiting For?

From Cartoons for the Classroom

We do a lot of waiting at this time of year: in traffic, in lines to pay for purchases, at the Post Office mailing packages, to hear whether we will plunge off the fiscal cliff. We wait with anxiety, wondering how things can possibly come out right.

We also possibly spend a lot of time waiting to be faked out. After several months of watching the news avidly, I’ve mostly turned it off. I know what’s going to happen. No Republican will want to be the one who drove the family car of the United States over the fiscal cliff. No Democrat will want to be remembered that way either. They will reach an agreement, I predict, and it will be ugly and ungracious. I refuse to let them drive me off the anxiety cliff in the process, in service of a conspiracy — one I hope is unplanned, but who knows? — a conspiracy to keep us turning on the TV and buying the newspaper. What next? What next?

More of the same, I fear.

I grew up in a political family, wearing my father’s campaign buttons. (You can read more about him on Wikipedia.) Here’s a thing he understood and passed along to me: people have to work together to accomplish anything good for anyone. They may not agree on the specifics, but somewhere in the magnificent middle, they can figure out what’s best and what will work. When he had a problem with someone, he didn’t go on the news and say that person was a liar or a cheat or an idiot. He looked for another way around the disagreement.

In recent years, we’ve seen absolute brutality in national politics, with people publicly imputing the worst possible motives to their opponents. It’s a direct ticket to the edge of every kind of cliff, where a crowd gathers, waiting to see who will be pushed off first.

It’s as if we can no longer afford to give “the other side” the benefit of the doubt.

We’re seeing this in the hearings about Benghazi. One side assumes the worst about the other, and everyone is happy to go on TV and say so.

So what happens when we’ve been listening to discussions of inhumane tone, and then we need to have a conversation at church? I’ve watched it happen in churches I serve. In the United Church of Christ, my denomination, we have a designation for churches who declare their welcome to LGBT people. To become Open and Affirming, a church needs to have a study process first. I’ve seen it happen that a church can’t get to the process because the loudest voice “wins” by shutting down a conversation about talking about becoming Open and Affirming. Yes, I built in the apparent redundancy on purpose. The loudest voice shut down the possibility of talking about talking about doing the process.

We don’t know how to disagree without getting into a fight, because that’s all we see portrayed before us. We shut down to avoid the conflict. We tell ourselves there will be a better time later, sometime in the future.

What are we waiting for?

How long, O Lord, how long?

I want to tell you I’ve been willing to show courage and take on tough issues, but I’m not good at it. I get wound up. My heart beats uncomfortably hard and fast. It’s one thing to disagree where there is trust and love. It’s another thing to do it in the face of hostility. How sad is it that the place I’m afraid to face disagreement is the church, a place where we expect to have love and trust?

We end up waiting things out, clinging to the edges of community where the like-minded people also situate themselves. It’s true for most of us, at either end of the spectrum.

Somewhere in the middle is a place, maybe, where that same most of us, maybe, can muddle through the differences of belief and understanding together. I don’t mean doing it the way the politicians will to avoid the famous cliff; I’m not speaking of expediency followed by diatribes. Making our way to that muddled middle requires tuning out the extreme voices, the ones spewing anger as a weapon. In politics, turn them off. Don’t vote for them. Easy enough. On the internet, on your blog, on mine, ignore the comments.

But in church it’s harder. The same voice that was loudest, closing off discussion, may be the voice of the person who needs you to visit a dying mother in the hospital. The same voice that was loudest, raising the blood pressure of everyone else in the room, may be the voice of the person who works all day to cook a meal for the hungry. That same voice that was the loudest, making you wonder if you might lose your job if the conversation didn’t stop right there, may be the voice of the person saying “Thanks be to God” when you offer the bread and the cup.

You can’t change that channel.

You can only change yourself.

(Yes, that means me, too.)

I’ve been waiting for it to be easy, but I can’t wait anymore. In the muddled middle, I’m trying to practice saying what I believe matter-of-factly, kindly and openly. I’m trying not to be apologetic or aggressive. I’m trying not to wait anymore and speak the words God is calling out of me, the words God is calling me to say.

I’m trying to trust God in the middle of it.

What are you waiting for?

(Cross-posted at Political Theology.)