On Not Believing Impossible Things and How Religion Doesn’t Help

“Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” (Lewis Carroll, _Alice Adventure’s in Wonderland_)

To believe in “impossible things” is quite human, I think. There is a sense of hopefulness, a kind of counter-balance to our fear instincts, that lives strong in our brain chemistry.

But even within the realm of believing in “impossible things” there are some categories. Like, it’s one thing to believe that there is a Divine Being in the universe, and quite another thing to believe that someone gravely ill with little medical probability to recover will, somehow, do so.

The first, a belief in a Divine Being, is a kind of life-assent to some sort of higher power’s existence. The second is trusting that a miracle (which, by definition, means it doesn’t happen except so rarely it can barely be documented and is taken out of statistical probabilities) will happen.

The first kind of belief is existential.

The second kind of belief is banking on the improbable at best, and impossible when it comes right down to it.

Religion has played fast and loose with these kinds of ideas over the years. As recently as last year the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod reaffirmed the Doctrine of Creation which pushes the idea that, due to the Genesis account, the world was created in six, literal, days.

The President of the denomination, Matthew Harrison, wrote in defense of the affirmation, concluding that he is compelled to believe in the doctrine of creation because, in his words, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior. And I hear in the words of Jesus that He himself believes the creation accounts are historical. (See MATT. 19:3–9.) I hear in the words of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, the voice of my Savior. And both He and the Scriptures bear witness to their absolute inerrancy and infallibility.” (The Lutheran Witness, January 3rd, 2018)

Not only do I find his position theologically lazy, but I find it utterly senseless! As in, it makes absolutely no rational sense. And I get that his big thing is that faith trumps rationality in all things, but that position is dangerous when it comes to matters of science and life and death.

This is but one example of denominations who still hold and teach this “impossible belief” that flies in the face of so many branches of science and so many years of dedicated scholarly inquiry that I can’t even name all the branches, lest I leave any out.

Add to this the idea that there was a world-wide flood and Noah’s ark somehow preserved creation, that there were giants like Goliath in the ancient world, and that Joshua’s horns fell the walls of Jericho…I mean, you can name six impossible things before getting through the first chapter of Genesis if we’re talking literally.

I remember being in a Bible study once and explaining to the class that the particular book we were reading was an example of “Biblical story,” a tale meant to teach the lesson. It contained many truths, but did not actually, factually happen. And I remember a few souls in there widening their eyes in disbelief at my statement. Their dismay was palpable.

The story was an impossible tale, by the way. A great tale, a truthful tale, but not a factual tale. And were it to be read outside of the religious context, it’d clearly be identified in that way.

One person raised their hand, “But,” they said, “if God can do anything, then I’ll just believe it happened, OK?”

“One can certainly take that approach,” I said, “but it opens up the doors for a lot of problems if you do. Because we live in a world of norms, by and large. And if we give God the big ‘anything is possible’ card, then we might start to disregard the norms that govern our world and society, norms like science, witness, and historical precedence.”

I don’t know if that was the right answer. I don’t know that there is one.

But I bring this all up because we are certainly, as a people and as a society, moving away from a culture of fact and truth and increasingly becoming a culture that “believes impossible things” because they’re convenient.

Like, it’s convenient to believe that mask-wearing is all about control and this pandemic virus is a hoax and, if God can do anything, then we don’t need to fear it because God can protect us.

It’s convenient because it let’s you live in a world where you don’t have to take responsibility for the safety of others, let alone yourself, because you can live in your delusion without question.

But it’s also very dangerous.

And I worry, in the deep parts of my heart, that religion that pushes a literal Noah’s ark has enabled this type of thinking.

Blind optimism has allowed people to believe that, contrary to every authority, the 2020 vote was rigged and stolen. Authority is not held in esteem anymore, but rather is subject to desires and wishes, it seems.

I worry that blind optimism pushed by so much religion, with the “pie in the sky” escapism, has laid the neural irrigation ditches for this kind of thinking to be possible.

What culpability does religion have in the impossible thinking going on in our world today?

I’m not sure, but I’m wrestling with it.

Because while I do believe it is possible to have a critically-thinking faith, I also know (from experience) that it’s more difficult. The easy way out, in many ways, is to not think about it at all and take religious texts, doctrines, and dogmas as gospel truth (pun intended).

The critic of that statement would claim that it’s harder because so much of the texts, doctrines, and dogmas fly in the face of scientific discoveries, sociological progress, and philosophical thought.

“Exactly,” is my response. “So why believe it?”

It’s believed because it’s convenient to do so, and immediately beneficial: you don’t have to wrestle out the truth because it’s given to you.

But our world is not one to give gifts like that. Truth has never been served on a silver platter, but rather wrestled out, verified, re-verified, put to the test, and eventually come out on top.

A religious system that encourages wrestling is sorely needed in this world today, but I fear it may be too late. As the pockets of society that embrace science and those that reject it retreat to their different corners, we’re forced to look at the wasteland gap in-between us all and wonder how the ways we’ve taught faith, spoken about “truth,” and pushed impossible beliefs has led to this in America.

You Are a Family

painting by Sheli Paez: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/family-sheli-paez.html

“Well, if we decide to start a family, then we’ll talk about it…”

I hear this sometimes from couples preparing to get married.  I understand what they’re saying.  Our culture doesn’t really have a good grasp on how to adequately use words to describe life situations.

Usually when they say that, I gently stop them and say, “I want to be very clear with you about what I think is going on here.  The minute that you two say ‘I do,’ you’ve created a family.”

In fact, in just deciding to be together, despite the fact that the State doesn’t recognize it legally, I’d argue that by that decision alone, they’ve created a “family.”

You don’t have to have children to have a family.

You don’t have to have dogs or cats or rabbits to have a family (I am not a fan of “fur-baby”).

You two: you are a family.

When you decide where you go on vacation, you make a family decision.

When you decide how to spend your money, where to eat out, and how you’ll schedule your bedtime routine (yes…adults have bedtime routines), you’re talking about family decisions.

When we talk about “family planning,” we’re not talking about starting a family, we’re talking about adding to a family.

This notion, many times rooted in a long-forgotten-but-always-present past of needing kids to “work the farm” or “carry on the family name” needs to go the way of the dodo in these days.

It’s time.

It’s time to get rid of this stereotypical idea that family = “have kids.”

I saw Kevin Nealon at a comedy club in Denver a few years ago.  He was hilarious.  He spoke about being an “older father,” as his son is 6 and he’s, well, much much older than 20.

But he backtracked and talked about his divorce with his first wife.  When he was going through it people would say, “Oh man, that’s terrible.  You don’t have any kids, do you?  No?  Good.  That’d make it worse…”

To which he quipped, “That’s kind of like asking someone who got their legs blown off, ‘Were you wearing nice shoes?  Oh, good…that’d make it worse…'”

We somehow have cheapened “families” to mean “people with kids.”

You don’t need kids to be a family.

In fact, I’d say you can be a family of one, even.  Our family has had more than one member join by decision or circumstance.  “Uncles” and “aunts” and “grandparents” of all kinds.  And not in some sort of honorific way, but in a real, tangible way.

And listen, there is certainly no religious reason, at least not any Christian reason, to have kids.  Let’s just say that we’ve already fulfilled, as a species, the idea of “be fruitful and multiply.”  

In fact, we may have over done it a bit.  

Louder for the folks in the back: don’t let religion pressure you into having children.

There are legal reasons that the State doesn’t recognize just any-old-relationship as “family.”  That’s not what I’m talking about here…although, it appears from the headlines that some of that notion, even, may soon be back under attack.

There are many good reasons to decide not to have children.

There are many heartbreaking reasons some people can’t have children.

There are many good reasons to decide not to partner with someone, legally or otherwise.

And there are many reasons people aren’t partner at all (or anymore)!

All of the above does not negate the reality that “family” doesn’t mean “with kids.”

Families come in all sorts of constructions. They always have (despite what historical convention tells you), and they always will. And we need a society that not only catches up to this reality, but rhetoric that acknowledges it, too.

You are a family, Beloved.

 

 

 

Life on Mute

“I never want to Zoom again,” a colleague said to me the other day.

Zoom. Teams. Go To Meeting.

Pick any medium you like. The general consensus after six months of a pandemic is that online meetings are about as annoying these days as in person meetings were before the plague. Except, for a number of physiological and psychological reasons, virtual meetings somehow feel more taxing…as if we ever thought that could be possible.

And, as a parent, Zoom School is…well…a practice in education and patience across all sides of the screen.

Virtual meetings are here to stay, I think.

Like healthcare, once people are given something (like the opportunity to work from home), gathering them back into the office on the regular will be more difficult.

I suspect the same will be true for the religious practices of the world, too, for better and for worse.

I heard a pastor say the other day that they had a small regathering of the faithful, and that the people who showed (around 20 or so) were “simply giddy” to be back in person. And I’m sure they were!

But what about the folks who didn’t show?

My hunch is that many people will go to their congregations through St. Youtube of the Screens with more regularity.

I don’t say that with any sort of judgment or even sadness. I’m just saying it…it’s how things have been forced to move, and it’ll be hard to go back. New metrics and ways of measuring ministry will have to be formed to account for this kind of virtual participation, especially as it appears that in-person gatherings on a large scale will not be possible for some time. And even when it becomes possible, church is not very embodied when we can’t touch one another, touch the sacraments, and sing.

It’s just not.

One of the peculiar things that the pandemic has forced everyone to experience, in one way or another, is the pesky problem of the “mute button.”

Oh, the dreaded mute!

Nothing is more annoying than a person beginning a long speech or a response, only to realize they were on mute. The frustrated participants waiting for their words say with alternating humor and exhaustion, “You’re on mute…you’re on mute…”

The mute button is instructive for us, though, and I think we should take this opportunity to think about it a bit. Let’s not let this crisis go to waste!

What voices in our world regularly operate on mute?

BIPOC? LGBTQIA+? Native American? Women, especially women trying to climb a corporate ladder?

What about children? Those for whom English is a second language? Religious minorities? People who don’t practice any religion? The very elderly?

The difference is that these voices have been “muted by the host” throughout history because it has been thought that their commentary wasn’t germane to the conversation. Or, more to the point, whether it was germane or not, it wasn’t wanted.

In fact, many of these populations have also had their cameras disabled, made largely invisible in large conversations. Or we shove them into breakout-rooms of their own so that we can largely ignore their input.

And now there are fears that other sections of humanity, who have often been the hosts of these large-scale life meetings throughout the world are being put on mute: white men, the cis-gendered, and in the United States, Christians. These fears largely stem from the realization that, well, other people would like to host meetings once in a while and have been prevented from doing just that and even barred from doing just that and, like any good host, dominating voices sometimes do need to be put on mute so others can be heard!

Our political and cultural schisms at the moment are all about the mute button, Beloved.

The problem, of course, is that for all intents and purposes, all of history, all of life, has been one big Zoom meeting, even though we haven’t had language for it until just recently.

Virtual meetings are designed to mirror the way culture has designed our common life: some are muted, some are hosts. You get engaged in them and you soon realize how undemocratic they are…and, by extension, how undemocratic most of life is.

Oh, sure…we talk a good democratic game, but the functions embedded in virtual meetings are too familiar to not see the similarities.

Some are on camera, some are kept from being seen.

If you have a question, use the “chat function,” and we’ll see if we get to it…

Maybe this is why Zoom is so exhausting: it’s just our normal operating procedure without any pretense, mirrors, or charades.

But in this moment, we actually have an opportunity.

We have an opportunity to un-mute some of the voices history has long muted.

It’s happening on the streets, but now it can happen in our virtual meetings, too.

Now it can happen in our virtual church services, too.

Now the audience is captive, Beloved, and elevating those voices so that they have a chance to speak is one of the ways this crisis can steer us toward progress rather than stall us all.

Who is on mute in our world?

In your virtual gatherings, who is perpetually on mute and who forgets to put themselves on mute? How can we use this opportunity to shift the power dynamics in such a way that we come out of this plague having heard new things, seen new faces, and gained new understanding, even from the (dis)comfort of our own homes?

When we speak out about the muted voices of the world, some will get uncomfortable. Some will not like the suggestion that they mute themselves so others can be heard over the noise of history they’re adding, consciously or unconsciously, to the conversation.

But seize the opportunity nonetheless.

Because for too long some voices have been on mute in this world, and now is a time they can be heard, by God.

Kanye’s Mental Illness Does Not Disqualify Him from the Presidency

First: I’m not going to vote for Kanye West for President of the United States.

He’s sexist. He’s vain. He’s got no real plans for, well, anything. He’s a bigot.

I’m not going to vote for him.

But it’s not because he has a mental illness.

If Kanye is elected President, he will not be the first President to have mental illness.

In 2019 it was reported that almost half of American adults experience mental illness in their lifetime. Some mental illness is profound and requires life-long treatment. Some mental illness is episodic, and requires intermittent treatment. Some mental illness is triggered by environment mixed with brain chemistry, and some by brain chemistry alone.

Mental illness is personal, but not unique. It’s individual, and yet experienced by so many in our communities.

Mental illness is not something to be ashamed of, either. Lord knows I’ve buried too many people who were too sick and yet too afraid to seek treatment because, well, what would people think?

I think people want to help…but don’t understand it. And are afraid of it.

Mental health is physical health, Beloved. We wouldn’t shame someone who lost an arm or a leg in the journey of life, right? And if we did, well, shame on you. You don’t get to be enlightened by my company.

But if we wouldn’t shame someone who had a physical illness or disability, why would we shame someone who is struggling with a brain chemistry that is so mysterious, so difficult to understand, and yet so pervasive?

I get it: Kanye is easy to dislike. He’s brash, loud, ill-tempered, vain, and often ill-informed.

I dislike most of what comes out of his mouth that isn’t on a CD and auto-tuned (he’s not a great singer, can we agree on that?!).

He’s also damn brilliant, a husband, a son, grieving his mother, and trying to figure out how to reconcile all of the above (and more! I don’t even know the man).

He’s living with mental illness.

But he’s not “crazy.” He’s not “nuts.”

He’s a jerk, but that has nothing to do with his illness.

The stigma. The shame. The hurt. The heartache. The exhilaration. The high. The deep descent into the pit. The rebound. The confidence. The braggadocio. The productivity. The creativity. The insomnia…

And that, Beloved, is one week in a rough patch for many of our spouses, friends, children, parents…and maybe, you.

He’s dealing with what many deal with, he’s just doing it on a stage that’s 100x brighter and 1000x more public than you and I act on.

He’s not nuts, he’s a human living with an illness. And he’s very human in public, which most of us don’t have to be…a luxury for us.

And he doesn’t need our pity. And he doesn’t need our snickering. And, yes, we can take him seriously as he is, but seriously with wide eyes that see the whole story, not the story of the moment.

Mental illness is never just about the moment, but about the whole story, Beloved.

And we must absolutely stop this chatter about his many “isms” being attributed to his mental illness. People who don’t deal with mental illness are prejudice. People who don’t live with mental illness are misogynistic and are assholes and are idiots and are all sorts of things.

Mental illness does not make someone a bigot or prejudice or any of that nonsense.

Unrelated. I’ll say it louder for you in the back: UNRELATED.

My point is: don’t vote for Kanye West if you don’t think he’ll make a good President of the United States. But don’t cross him off your ballots because he’s living with mental illness.

We’ve elected plenty of Presidents who live with, wrestle with (or don’t), and thrive with mental illnesses of all sorts. We have! Statistically it’s certainly more than probable, I’d put money on it.

Look, I pray none of you ever get to peek inside my brain. You’d be amazed and scared of what you find there. I’m sure the same could be said if I were to take a gander in yours.

Mental illness isn’t something to be ashamed of, just like having any illness isn’t something to be ashamed of. He didn’t ask for this. Lord, who asks for this?

He’s just trying to live with it. And yes, it’s very public. And yes, it can be alarming. And yes, it can even be amusing to the untrained ear and eye.

But it’s not amusing, it’s an illness, Beloved.

Don’t vote for him because he’s an asshole. Don’t vote for him because he’s prejudice, because he’s misogynistic, or because he’s…whatever your reason.

But it shouldn’t be about the illness.

Mental illness is just that: an illness.

And it doesn’t disqualify him from anything: not the Presidency, not life and the pursuit of happiness, not dignity, not brilliance, and certainly not respect or love.

Down from Their Thrones

statuesGod has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. -Luke 1:52

It was quite the grilling.  Unexpectedly tense.

I was interviewing to be the pastor, and the interviewers were clearly conflicted, not the least bit over me.  In the weeks prior I had taken my Confirmation students to see the movie Selma as part of our curriculum.  There were questions and concern from some of them, though not all of them.

Would I be doing that with their Confirmation students?

“It’s quite possible,” I said, honestly.  “It would depend on what is needful in the moment.”

And then one of them had some pictures printed out, of me at a march in the streets of Chicago over police violence.  Would I be doing that, there?

“It’s possible,” I answered, trying to be honest.

“And Confederate Monuments,” one asked, “would you advocate for vandalizing them?”

I was stunned.  To me this was an odd line of questioning, but was illustrative of the times I guess. Would I, as a pastor, advocate for the destruction of public monuments?

The newspaper headlines today mirror the headlines back in those days, except ten-fold.  I eventually took that call, and about two years into my service there a student at a local university, one who had grown up at the church, contacted me.  She had been involved in the toppling of a Confederate monument on campus, “Silent Sam” as he was known.

I was proud.  She wanted to write up a reflection about it for the congregation to see.

And that’s when my pride turned to hesitancy. I remembered that interview, the conflicting viewpoints in the room, the tepid response to my honest answers from a few of them.  Would this be too much?

That student had, after all, been raised in that community, taught in those classrooms, and had come to learn such acts of holy resistance through the scriptures.  But would it be too much?

We never ran the article.  It’s one of my big regrets.

Because, had I listened to the scriptures, had I heard the voice of another young woman, Mary, in the early chapters of Luke, I would have seen the inevitability of the current situation.  “God will cast the mighty down from their thrones,” she sings out.  And these monuments, mighty in size, looming over the public lands entrusted to the people, and looming over the psyche of those on the margins in silent intimidation, they are not just mighty in size, they’re mighty in force.  And while they may appear to be innocuous reminders of a long-gone past, we don’t have to search too hard to find evidence that oppression is not a thing of the past, but a very present reality, and these monuments were erected to ensure that present stays ever-present, in stone and marble and iron.

When I was asked by that member of the interviewers if I would advocate for the toppling of such statues, I hedged my bets and, after a moment of thought necessary to collect myself after such a blind-sided question, I said, “No…those are public property.  But I can see why someone would topple them.”

Because, well, where should we erect a statue of the person who lawfully murdered your grandmother?

I was nervous about saying yes, being too radical.

It is a hard thing to discern when revolution is holy.  It is not easy, and it can be messy.

But we have voices along the way to guide us, like young Mary, and Amos and Micah before her.  Like Jesus himself, who toppled the statues of Mammon in the temple of his day, and continues to knock over the idols I erect for myself of money, work, and prestige.

I know that there are questions about when enough is enough to this toppling.  Must all of our statues who led checkered lives in regards to slavery and oppression be demolished?  Washington and Jefferson, too?  Woodrow Wilson was a known racist.  His portrait as well?

I have come to the conclusion that I’m not the one to answer that question or set those boundaries, as I’m part of the offending party, ally though I try to be.  Instead we need to sit at the feet not of these statues, but of those who cry out in pain and anger at their very presence, to listen and really learn for once.

Literally, for once.

Because we’ve been here before, Beloved.  And I’m hoping that this time will not be like those other times, when it all died down and we once again turned our back on the cries of our sisters and brothers when they told the world how hard it is for them to breathe.

I’ve changed my mind, by the way.

If I were to be asked today if I’d advocate for Confederate monuments to be torn down, I think I’d reply, “It’s a good first step. As soon as possible.”

The Looming Philanthropic Storm

hurricane_florencejpgThere’s a hurricane out there.  It’s name is Michael.

Michael, as it turns out, is the most popular name of a Millennial, at over 1.1 million children graced with that name in the 20-year span that encompasses the Millennial Generation.

But, should Michael not suit your fancy, the hurricane could have also been named Jessica, the most popular feminine name at over 750,000 persons having that namesake born between 1982-2004.

Regardless, it’s looming out there…and all of us in the philanthropic world, from church leaders to non-profit workers, know it, but we rarely speak about it.

What am I talking about?

The ability to amass wealth.  Or, more correctly, the inability to amass wealthy by Millennials.

And it’s not their fault.

Philanthropies survive off of the expendable wealth of donors.  I know you know this, but it’s important to repeat because if you’re not in the world of non-profit budgets, like pastors and non-profit workers are, you don’t often think about it, especially that one, necessary, all-important word: expendable.

Think about this: in 1972, roughly when many of our parents graduated from college, the average price for a home was $27,000.  When I graduated from college the average price of a home was $195,500.

“Yes,” you say, “but Tim, you didn’t count for inflation and adjusted value and…”

OK.  In 1972 that $27,000 was roughly equal to about $118,000 in today’s spending power.  The math is not that hard, and I’m not great at math.

How would I make up that extra $70,000 to purchase a house out of school, like many of my parent’s generation did?

Well, it certainly didn’t come from work.  At least, not for your average Jane or Joe.

The greatest increase in wealth, unsurprisingly, is reserved for the top 1%, and for the last four decades this has remained steadily the case.  What hasn’t remained steady is the rate.  In the last four decades income for the top 1% has grown by over 200%, compared to a growth rate of just 46% for the bottom 90%.

And that middle section between the 1% and the 90%?

That’s the so-called “Middle Class,” slowly shrinking as the top blows through the roof, and the economy continues to drop more into that lower (and overwhelmingly larger) bracket.

Also consider that most families need two cars because they have double incomes now.  But those double incomes?  They don’t have near as much buying power as a double income family of the Boomer Generation.  From 1960-present day, our purchasing power has, as this Pew Research article notes, “barely budged,” even as our checks have gotten larger.

What’s this mean?

It means that our (including myself here because I’m technically on the lower-end of the Millennial landscape) ability to amass meaningful wealth is dismal compared to the previous three generations.  And despite the chance that we might become heirs to some of that, there is another problem to contend with: we’re living longer.

And that long life-span means savings must be used for sustaining the living, not gifting toward charities.  And that makes sense, right?  Can’t fault people for that, right?

Certainly not.  But it’s all a recipe for a calamitous future for non-profits and organizations who live off of the generosity of others.  Because while indicators point to Millennials being much more generous than previous generations, we frankly have less we’re able to give.

And I have to imagine that some of that generosity comes from the stark realization that, well, we’re just not going to be able to amass the wealth our grandparents and parents had/have, and so we might as well give more away.

Now, it is true that we’re more choosy about where our gifts go; we want to see a tangible difference in the lives of whatever we give toward, whether it be humans, animals, or the planet.  But that’s also part of this whole dilemma, because Millennials are not willing to prop up institutions that have, heretofore, not been able to make good on their promises of better life quality, security, and wholeness…which means that the little wealth we do have, we spread deep and narrow, excluding many historic non-profits from contention (for better and worse).

The non-profit sector has exploded, rising by about 10% in the last 10 years alone. When you compare that to the modest 2-3% growth in the for-profit sector, you’ll see the issue. Rising competition in a sea of shrinking assets means, well, a hurricane of chaos in the not-so-distant future.

So, what can we do?

Well, I think we can be innovative.  Cottage industries attached to non-profits are not a bad idea.  These industries take some of the burden off of pure fundraising, and provide some stability…if the industry is done well and moderately successful.

We can also imagine a situation where large institutions, like the church, take a hard look at sustainability and make the decisions necessary to tackle the problem rather than just wait until the hurricane hits.  Darwinism looks like cannibalism when it hits the church…and I think it’s largely true across non-profits that serve a similar population.

And on the political front, we can vote for meaningful change.  Increased wages for common workers.  We can lobby to make industry changes, getting rid of the notion that everyone must have a Master’s degree to be qualified for work that, in years past, barely needed an Associate’s Degree.  Wonderful teachers and nurses were sent into their fields with Associate’s in year’s past, staving off crippling debt and providing real good to those they served.

And what is with everyone having to have an MBA these days?

Want to talk about an unsustainable rise in cost?  Look at college and higher education.  Yet another reason why my generation has no wealth: we’re paying it back to institutions we needed to attend to be ensured jobs that paid us enough to make good money which we now cannot save!

This Sisyphean cycle is not only unsustainable for the individual, but it will eventually cripple institutions set up for doing good.

You know, it’s funny, I was having a conversation one time with a doctor, an M.D.  Not a friend, just an acquaintance.  They paid over half a million in student loans by the end of their training, and at 50 years old, had just paid it off, mostly because of their generous salary.

But we were talking and they noted that the CEO of the Red Cross made six figures, and “how terrible for the head of a non-profit to make so much.”

I said, “That non-profit is not only huge, but does a huge amount of good in the world.  It takes a skilled leader to head up that kind of organization.  Look at the CEO of Amazon and the billions (at the time) he makes.  You think he’s more deserving than the CEO of an international aid organization that does so much good?”

“Yes,” the doctor said, taking a sip, “because he earned it and that’s not a non-profit.”

I downed my drink and walked away.  I can’t understand that kind of logic, a kind that buys into the false narrative of meritocracy.

But unfortunately, despite the generosity we see from this generation, a meritocracy may be all we’re left with as non-profits fall victim to a poorer and poorer population…which will require more non-profits to fill in the gaps, but funded by who and how?

Organizations that are making a difference, doing real good now, are facing down a hurricane just off-shore.  It’s slow moving…but picking up speed.

But there’s no evacuation route, and nowhere to hide.

So, what will we do about it?

 

 

Hugs and Hand Grenades

download“Do you need a hug?” my five year old asked as I sat on the couch staring at the TV.

He must have seen it on my face.  The President had just finished his Rose Garden address and, as if watching a split screen of dual realities, before the final words of his horrifying speech the pops of smoke grenades and screams of tear gas victims rang out.

Holding shields and charging the peaceful protest, the public park was cleared to make way for the President.

He was going for a stroll.

Having been sequestered in a bunker last night (welcome to our world, Mr. President), he now wanted to show strength…he feared being seen as weak.

And flanked by the Attorney General and his security advisors, he walked.

To where?

An empty church left vacant by both the pandemic that still plagues our land and the fire that raged last night in its basement, mirroring the rage in so many hearts at the reality that the plague of racism still has no vaccine.

I mean, that’s the truth, right?  We’ll get a vaccine for Covid-19.  But to extinguish racism and white supremacy we need a collective heart transplant, and unfortunately elective surgery is still not happening in many places…

Well, and most aren’t electing to have such a transplant, anyway.

On a friend’s social media feed she posted that we need to teach our white babies not to shoot or harm black and brown babies.  Immediately the feed was pounced on by well-meaning but fragile folks who reminded her that “no one should shoot or harm anyone” and “that’s what we need to teach.”

Ok. But we need to start with our white babies…because, well, read the headlines.

Read history.

And so he walked from the Rose Garden after a speech that could be generously described as taken from the papers of an aspiring dictator, and strolled to stand in front of a vacant church.

And there he held aloft a Bible which was, I kid you not, upside-down. At least, upside-down for him, making it not only unreadable for him, but also no more than a prop of some sort.  It was backward for everyone…but both backward and upside down for him.

And just stood there.

Backward and, for him, upside-down.

I mean, I’m not one to think that symbolism is everything; it was obviously a mistake.  Who holds up a book backward?  What reader reads a book upside-down?

But, who knows? Maybe the book just refused to cooperate.

The scriptures have been known to do that.  Too often they don’t cooperate with what I want them to do and say, either, in the end.

It’s like the book was an unwilling participant.

Wait, no. As someone well-versed in the stories of that bound volume, let me be clearer: it was an unwilling participant.

Because the scriptures are always unwilling to participate in oppression.

When the military is used against civilians, it should be in order to protect their Constitutional rights.  Historically, that’s what it has been used for.

Eisenhower did this in Arkansas over school integration.

Kennedy did the same in Alabama.

And sure, in times of riot the Guard has been mobilized in an effort to control the situation.  Notably this happened after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in the 60’s, and the military came to Chicago, Washington, and Baltimore as outrage spilled out of the homes and onto the streets…understandably so.

But even in those cases the military at least gave the appearance of using force to quell a situation that was bubbling over (and again I say that the bubbling over was UNDERSTANDABLE).

But today the military was used against peacefully protesting civilians so that the President could take a walk to a vacant church and get his picture holding up a backwards Bible.

So, yes Alistair, I need a hug for multiple reasons.

Because today the rights of those people were hijacked.

Because today the military was forced to do something that, arguably, is unconstitutional.

Because today the scriptures that I have dedicated my life to studying were used in a publicity stunt.

Because today a church building, a sanctuary, was used to provide the backdrop for someone who has made it part of their political platform to deny sanctuary to immigrants.

Today Christianity was once again used as a prop in the ongoing narrative of white supremacy and oppression in the United States.  It, along with our current pandemic, is a plague upon the land. What is it with this penchant for prop-holding that politicians do with our scriptures and creeds, turning them upside-down for their own political agendas?

So yeah, I could use a hug.

In the battle between hugs and hand grenades, I still contend that hugs will overcome.

But today was not that day…so bring on the hugs, because we’ve had enough of the political, and literal, hand grenades for June 2020.

Already.

 

On Anger Getting the Best of Me (An Apology) and Keeping it Compassionate

67784A few days ago I let anger get the best of me.  It’s not pretty when that happens, especially publicly.

It was on a social media post, something I never encourage and usually try to discourage…but anger got the best of me.

In a season of great frustration: pandemic, politics, the politicization of a pandemic…well, there are tons of reasons.  No excuses, mind you.  Just plenty of reasons.

It felt bad. In the clear light of the morning, I took down the whole post and exchange.  I had to.  None of us were at our best in that moment.

Part of what kills me about the current state of politics is the seeming disconnect between what our vote, our support for a candidate, seems to say about us…and it’s something I struggle with.

Because the candidate I will vote for (and Lord, I pray he has a good, solid, exciting running mate) has an accusation of sexual assault against him, which he denies.  And he recently made a careless remark about race (which, while not racist, was certainly careless…and for which he apologized for).  And, while I don’t expect anyone to be perfect, I mean…c’mon.

The more laughable/sad part of it all is the supposed outrage by the other side that he’d say something like that, but their deafening silence when their candidate has done far worse.

But I don’t like “whataboutisms,” and there’s no excuse for the above.

In a normal voting year, I would not be voting for him.  This is frustrating for me.

But I don’t see this as a normal voting year.  Because the current occupant of the White House not only has an accusation of sexual misconduct against him, but has 24 such accusations.  And this all comes after a weekend where he (once again) re-Tweeted posts calling another politician a “skank,” fat-shaming another female politician, and disparaging mental-illness.

On top of that he has continually made racist or misogynistic remarks, not to mention supporting policies that continue to keep the marginalized on the margins (low unemployment numbers for African Americans are empty when the jobs are not living-wage jobs…that’s all gone now, anyway).  Did you forget the “Muslim ban?”  Did you forget how he remarked on Hillary Clinton’s backside?  Or his disparaging comments about the appearance of Carly Fiorina?  Have you forgotten how he made fun of a physically disabled reporter in front of thousands who cheered?

Do you laugh at that kind of thing?  If you do, I don’t want to know…

On top of that, we’re nearing 100,000 dead in this pandemic, and will soon surpass our dead from World War I, and the delayed response from this administration still does not have anyone taking any sort of blame.

And on top of that, I see a politician continually manipulating my religion for his benefit…even though he doesn’t even practice my religion, though he claims to.

And on top of that he has cruelly suggested putting alligators in a moat across the Southern border, or “shooting to maim” people who cross the border, or even punishing women who have an abortion somehow…it almost seems like cruelty is the point.

And on top of all of that, he hasn’t even adhered to the fiscal responsibility the party he leads has repeatedly championed, unmasking that responsibility for the clanging gong that it is: a political ploy without conviction.

But what frustrates me the most, and what made me the most angry the other night, is that I’m having a difficult time divorcing a vote for him from the support of his rhetoric, his racism, his fat-shaming, his misogyny, his bald-face lying, his inability to accept responsibility (that “The Buck Stops Here” sign Truman championed found its way to the trash), and his constant politicization of everything (do you even wear a mask?).

For me it’s a spiritual issue.  In our spirits, how can we support with our vote, with our rally, a candidate who exemplifies our basest inclinations?

I’m having a hard time not seeing the people who vote for him as racist and misogynistic and absolutely OK with being lied to and manipulated.

It’s just true.  And it makes me angry.

It makes me angry that I’m having a hard time divorcing him from those who vote for him.  It makes me angry, and makes me afraid: are his supporters like him? Deep down inside, do they think those things?

And, if I’m honest, it makes me angry that now I will cast a vote for someone who has been accused of sexual assault, too, because he is the lesser of two evils (unless he chooses an awesome running mate, which could turn a sad vote into a glad vote).

That anger got the best of me the other night…and I regret that.

I’m sorry for that.

Instead of just letting it hang out there, I thought it might be good to give you a glimpse into what’s going on behind the scenes in my heart and mind.  I think it might be important to put out there that I’m not sure how to divorce the candidate’s rhetoric from the voter’s vote, you know?

Like, if my friends and family members who vote for the current President are as racist and misogynistic and willing to laugh at Tweets and comments that tear people down…well, I don’t want to know that about them, you know?

It makes me angry to think that they’re someone who would do that, because frankly, I don’t want my kids around that.  Hell, I don’t want to be around that.

That’s not what my family is about.

And maybe you feel stuck, too, right?  Maybe you feel like you’re stuck between two bad choices, and Trump is the least-bad of the choices.  I can understand that feeling, I have the mirror of it, and would welcome that conversation.

But the gleeful support?  The cheering and goading on of the terribleness? The re-posting of the heartlessness?

Some people say that he’s “raw and real.”  Mike Rowe feels raw and real to me.  Hell, Joe Biden feels raw and real to me.

Our current president feels “rude and manipulative” to me.

Are you rude and manipulative?

Do you laugh at racist jokes?

Do you allow your children to pick on other children?  Then why would you allow, with your vote, your president to do that to other people?

This is where I’m coming up short, and it makes me frustrated.  It feels like a vote for him is a vote of support for the racism he espouses (would you ever call a White Nationalist a “good person?”), and for the misogyny he exudes, and for the heartless proposals he’s put forward…and I don’t want to think of you as blatantly racist, sexist, and heartless.

I don’t want to…but I’m having a hard time not doing that because, well, we’ve seen four years of it, and you want to sign on for four more?

Maybe the damage is done…

But, I have to say that, I feel like I’m being manipulated in all of this, too.  Clear-eyed, I see it now.  The mantra “Keep them angry” has been running through my head.  It’s a mantra that an operative used to describe the tactics of our day that push out the vote by the Right, but it certainly could be applied to the Left, too.

And anger always gets the best of us.

There’s certainly a ton of reasons to be angry, and good ones, too.  But I’m deciding to go in a different direction.

I’m deciding, today, to “Keep it compassionate.”  Compassion for the people being demonized, demoralized, and degraded will spur my vote this year.

Compassion even for those folks who might vote for the other side, because I have a desire to break the anger-spell driving the divisive politics of our day.

By the way, I don’t see compassion as weak.  In fact, I think it’s about the strongest thing you can be because, well, it’s easier to give into the anger, honestly.

I’m still frustrated that I don’t have a better ticket to vote for (Yet!  That running mate could do it!), but I won’t let the anger get the best of me…or, at least I’ll try not to.

But I do want to ask, absolutely without a shred of rhetorical questioning: how do you separate the vote from horribleness?  How do you separate the vote from the cruelty?  Is a vote for a candidate a vote for their words, beliefs, and ideas, too?

I know it’s not always a vote for their actions…we all make mistakes.  But what if there’s not only no remorse, but indeed a doubling-down?

I don’t know what to do with that, because a vote for that feels like rubber stamping, or even agreement with, those ideas.

And we can’t just say “it’s about the policies,” because as I point out above, the policies seem to be laced with that vitriol, too.

But even in this case, then, I’m going to go with compassion.  The kind of compassion that says, “God, they know not what they do.”

I’m still angry at the injustice…but that’s on all sides. No one is not guilty of that.

But when I enter the booth this year, I’ll be “Keeping it compassionate.”

Attending to the Little Deaths

IrishWake_iStock_48838408I was running today, listening to a podcast where they were discussing one of my favorite Buddhist authors, Pema Chodron, and her book When Things Fall Apart.  It is not an exaggeration to say that Chodron’s book has changed my life, and saved many parts of me over and over again.

As the discussion unfolded using the book as a map, the host and guest noted that Chodron’s notion of the Buddhist maras, or “evils,” includes the “fear of death.”  And the guest went on to say, “And that doesn’t just mean the big death. That’s also all the other little deaths.”

And I stopped running.

I stopped running, put my hands on my knees and sighed a big sigh. I just decided to be for a brief moment, huffing and puffing, sweat cascading down my face.  I took a second to honor a little death right then and there: the death of my routine.

Yes, you might think it’s a small thing, but I hadn’t honored it yet.  I have deluded myself, using the drugs of “one day” and “soon” to shove my grief aside, but I have to come to grips with the fact that my routine, the one I knew, is dead.  I have been afraid to honor it because, well, that would mean I’d have to admit it is really dead.

It is.

And for me this is no small thing.  I live and die by the calendar and the clock. For as flexible as my schedule is, I make it inflexible purposefully because I need fences to organize my life.  It’s ironic, really: I don’t like fences when it comes to my thoughts, beliefs, or ideas, but I need them when it comes to my daily rituals.

We must have roots somewhere if we want to grow, right?

And it got me to thinking that all around us, in our homes, in our workplaces (or lack thereof), in our civic engagements (or lack thereof), in our patterns and practices, there are a thousand little deaths at this moment, and so many of us are just “waiting it out.”

But, Beloved, this is a Wake, not a pause.  This is a Wake.

The Wake, especially in my Irish heritage, was where you sat up all night with the body of the deceased, usually laid out on your kitchen table, and you drank, and played cards, and made a ruckus, trying to rouse the dead person from their prone position just in case they might still be alive.  Everyone likes a party, right?  And so if they were “mostly dead” and not “fully dead,” they’d rise to join.

They’d wake.

Well, in March we thought maybe our routines were just “mostly dead.”  But now, in May…well, my friends…it’s time to start organizing the funeral.

We need to honor these little deaths.  We need to stop pretending that things can go back to the way they were.  I mean, even if we wanted them to, and I’m not sure we really do because, let’s be very honest: the system wasn’t working very well for many, right?

But even if we wanted them to, they can’t.  We’ve seen too much.

We’ve seen how quickly the elderly have become expendable.  We’ve seen how fragile our “robust economy” actually was.  We’ve seen how grocery store clerks belong in the same sentence as fire fighters, nurses, and doctors, and we’ve noticed how glaringly other so-called “important professions” are missing from the term “essential worker.”  We’ve seen how our political system and our politicians, with some notable exceptions, will politicize a pandemic.

We’re not waiting out this virus, Beloved.  It’s killing things.  People, yes, but also our illusions, and we have the choice to numb ourselves with platitudes, or we can do the hard thing and no longer shelter our lives from the pain it is causing.

We must honor the little deaths, even if we do so in little ways.

It is freeing for me to say, with such frequency, “I don’t know.”  I say it all the time with my kids now.  My partner and I say it to one another regularly, especially when we talk about things happening in the summer months and next fall.

I don’t know when we’ll get to go to grandma and grandpa’s house again.  I don’t know if we’ll be at our nephew’s graduation party.  I don’t know when we’ll resume swimming lessons.  I don’t know if we’ll keep our jobs.

I just don’t know.

One of the little deaths I’m having to grieve now in this Wake is the death of so much certainty I thought I had, so many plans we had already made.  Like my ancestors at an Irish wake, I raise a glass to that certainty saying, “Cheers.  You had a nice run, old pal.”

Because it’s gone, and in many ways that’s both OK and so not OK, but either way it’s just damn true.

We must attend to the little deaths, Beloved.  We must free ourselves to grieve, to tell stories of what was, and be present in the waiting for what will be.

Justice is on Trial

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The cross Arbery’s mother set up. Photo credit: Richard Fausset/The New York Times

“What have you done?!” the Lord asked. “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10)

That question, “What have you done?” cuts both ways in America. It always has, if we’re honest.

If you think for one damn minute we live in a post-racial society in the (dis)United States, explain to me why we still see Confederate flags at Reopen Michigan rallies.

Explain to me how a man in a KKK hood in California shops for produce in compliance to the face mask ordinance.

Explain to me how this pandemic has, in its very spread, cut itself along racial lines…doesn’t that make you scratch your head?  Doesn’t that make your heart hurt?  Doesn’t that objectively indicate that there is disparity in our system, forcing the spread of disease in communities of color?

Explain to me how a man can go jogging in a neighborhood of moss-hung trees and modest ranch houses and, just because of the color of his skin, is stopped and accosted by white residents armed with weapons.

No, not just accosted…hunted.  They saw him running and, like seeing an animal they wanted to get, grabbed their guns, hopped in their pick-up, and gave chase.

And if you think this is an isolated incident, need I say the name Trayvon Martin?

Need I say the name Alton Sterling?

Sandra Bland?

We may have outlawed lynching, but it took two months to get an arrest in Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, with the prosecutor originally advising that no charges be brought because the murderers acted “in self defense.”

Apparently being black in a predominantly white neighborhood is threatening.

Actually, the above statement is exactly correct in my personal experience.

Not too long ago someone visiting my house looked out our window and, seeing a person of color in the cul-de-sac casually said, “Someone’s in the wrong neighborhood…”

The person is our neighbor. I mean, literally they are our neighbor, but this person who shows up weekly in a house of worship should also understand that word in a different way.  Did not Jesus say “love your neighbor” and, when pressed on the issue, gave a wide-sweeping definition of that word that undoubtedly included those who don’t look like you?

Let’s face it: most Christians have deified their prejudices, their political policies, and their bankrupt morality, not God.

The question, “What have you done?” weighs on me though.  Because when that person made that casual remark in my home I just said, as casually, “Oh, that’s Mr. X. They live in that house,” pointing down the road.

What I should have said was, “Yes. Apparently you are in the wrong neighborhood if you think we talk like that.  Apparently you are in the wrong neighborhood if you think this family puts up with that.  This isn’t the house, or the neighborhood, for that.”

Combating racism starts at the level of the heart, the head, and the mouth.  So many white people gather at Arbery’s grave not to cheer a miscarriage of justice, nor to protest it, but rather just to go home shaking their heads, preferring guilt to responsibility.

Be responsible.  We are responsible, in all the ways that word can be used, for this mess.

Justice is on trial, Beloved.

And for Christians, this issue needs to be personal.  Not only because our past is complicit in the problem, but even more so because we claim (emphasis on that word) to worship a God who fell victim to a miscarriage of justice.

The story of Jesus is one of a loving God going walking in the wrong neighborhood, a neighborhood that preferred violence to peace, preferred division over unity, preferred vengeance over service.

So, the question I’m asking myself, and I’m asking you: what have you done?!