It’s National Redemption Time

en.wikipedia.com
en.wikipedia.com

Would the United States be better off if mothers were guaranteed paid maternity leave of five months? Or better if workers had at least a month of paid vacation every year? Or if workers had more say in the policies and operations of the companies for which they work? Or maybe if school lunches were actually not only nutritious but also sophisticated and tasty?  How about no death penalty? How about prisons that are not designed to punish so much as to simply deny freedom of movement and association to convicted criminals for a fixed amount of time and to help them during that time to build new lives when they are released?

These and other provocative questions are raised in Michael Moore’s new film, “Where to Invade Next.” The film is a sort of political travelogue around Europe, with a side trip to Tunisia, exposing policies and practices in those places that Moore posits would be good ideas for the United States of America. He even claims most of the good ideas originated in the United States, raising the question of why we are not using them now.

This is a spiritual question for me (although probably Michael Moore would not use that language). Or as others might say, it is a matter of values.

Part of the answer, as I see it, is revealed in a segment of the film where Moore contrasts the dogged insistence of Germans to learn from the horrors of their past–to expose the national involvement in the Holocaust, to remind each other in very public ways of how they rejected humanistic ideals and accepted, even celebrated, ugliness and monstrosity. Germany does not stop telling the stories of victims and its complicity in the evil.

face2faceafrica com
face2faceafrica com

Moore draws a sharp contrast between that behavior and the denial that pervades U.S. culture and politics around our racist, white supremacist past and our national white-privileged present. Moore shares graphic pictures and videos of police beating black suspects and inmates today and their counterparts in harsh pictures of lynching in the past. Have we made any progress?

Well, yes, of course, laws are more fair, and the equality promised by the Declaration of Independence and the constitution and fought over during the Civil War is closer to realization than it was one hundred years ago. But legislatures still pass laws whose effect, and I think intent, is to reduce voting by proportionally disadvantaged portions of the citizenry, and we are locking up Black men at an alarming rate (and we can’t blame this on higher rates of drug use in the Black community than among those who call ourselves white, because the reverse is true). As Michelle Alexander has written, this “incarceration while black” is the new Jim Crow.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander amazon.com
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
amazon.com

To be sure, the countries Moore visited (‘invaded,” he says, in an attempt to connect our militarism with our lack of social progress, a subject for another blog) are not perfect. They have problems, too. But they are doing things to improve the life of their citizens, and they are doing this through the social contract, through the governments they institute, as our framers instituted our nation “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

As I read these soaring words, these noble objectives, I hear the stark, deeply disturbing, contrast with the political rhetoric awash among us today.  The framers approached the national question, “Who are we called to be?” with hope, with generous spirits, with an awareness of divine providence and abundance. Too many of our leaders, and would-be leaders, today approach the same question with stinginess, with an underlying mentality of scarcity, with deep fear expressed in angry words of division and derision toward those who disagree.

Our national soul is at stake in this election season. We need to find it and claim it, really claim it for the first time since the early days of the new nation and perhaps the Civil War.

The fundamental question remains, will we, as Dr. King said in 1963 and as Lincoln said 100 years earlier in different words with similar import, will “this nation . . . rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed . . . . ?”  

boston.com
boston.com

Or will we continue to stumble over the ugliness of our past, denying the roots of our present-day tragedies, pretending that murder and mayhem, poverty and power-less-ness among whole segments of our people are simply the fault of a few bad actors and some weak, lazy individuals and even groups of people out to take advantage of kindness, care, and just treatment under law?

It’s confession time, my fellow Americans, my fellow “we are white” Americans. Black activists, artists, and others keep giving us yet another chance to clean up our act, keep marching and protesting and educating, and still too many of us look away. And the politicians who never even mention “race,” let alone racism, white privilege or white supremacy, are lying to us. They may be lies of omission not commission, but at some point not speaking a hard truth means you are complicit in the ongoing power of that truth.

Denial of a real problem is dangerous to your mental health. That is just as true for our nation as for individuals.

ejvictorsofa.tk
ejvictorsofa.tk

We need to go into analysis, as a nation, to name, face, hold up, and root out our demons. Michael Moore has given us a mirror to look into, a way to ask some questions of ourselves and our leaders. As a first step, I urge you to see the film.

And if you have not yet begun a conversation about our national disease in your family, at your workplace, your spiritual home, your neighborhood, or not yet participated in such a conversation, I urge you to start (or continue) that conversation now.

It’s redemption time, folks, and each of us has a role to play.

Happy Lent!

Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent. As such, it is usually seen as a very solemn day, a day of judgment, a day of accepting ashes as a metaphor for life. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, from dust you come and to dust you shall return. . . .”

ash Wednesday dust filled hands stmarkscatholicchurch com
stmarkscatholicchurch.com

This is very dry, one could start coughing for the dryness in the throat.

But what if we thought of this time as rich and deep, a time for exploring real stuff, soul stuff, heart stuff. What if we gave up something really real for Lent, not just television or chocolate or drinking wine or going to the movies, but something really important? What if doing so created some real happiness in our lives?

Fear is a choice patriciapattypat blogspot com
patriciapattypat.blogspot.com

What if we gave up fear for Lent? Every time I feel fear, I will take it out and look at it and say, “Okay, I have to careful but I don’t have to avoid doing important things, things I want to do, out of fear of how someone else will react or judge me.”

Or gossip? Every time I am tempted to talk about someone else’s foibles or stupidity, I will remember to look in the mirror and see my own. Then, I have a better chance of being whole and humble and pleasant to be around.

stingy-fist  pastorburden com
pastorburden.com

What if we gave up stinginess for Lent? Whenever a homeless or street person asks me for help, I will give them something. I can carry change or dollar bills deliberately, maybe protein bars, too (not a substitute for financial help but a statement about being fed) in preparation for the opportunity to give away some  of what God has given me. Giving creates happiness for the recipient and the giver.

What if we gave up shallow political talk for Lent? This one may be for me. I say I am really tired of “horse race journalism,” the tendency of most our media to report not on substance and issues and positions on important public questions but on who is ahead and who has the most money and who has the momentum or who just committed the latest gaffe. But I can’t seem to stop reading it–it is like gossip in that it becomes addictive. Life would be better if I ignored it entirely–I could really have some fun every day if I gave up shallowness.

I think you get the idea. Go deep for Lent, and seek out a new way of being that can bring contentment and even joy.

And it might be good to remember these words from Isaiah, who knew a thing or two about living a soulful life.

Do you think God
    wants you to give up eating
and to act as humble
    as a bent-over bush?
Or to dress in sackcloth
    and sit in ashes?
Is this really what God wants
    on a day of worship?

I’ll tell you
what it really means
    to worship God.
Remove the chains of prisoners
    who are chained unjustly.
Free those who are abused!
Share your food with everyone
    who is hungry;
share your home
    with the poor and homeless.
Give clothes to those in need;
don’t turn away your relatives.

Then your light will shine
like the dawning sun,
and you
    will quickly be healed.
Your honesty[b] will protect you
    as you advance,
and the glory of God
    will defend you from behind.
When you beg God for help,
    God will answer, “Here I am!”

Isaiah 58:5-9 Contemporary English Version adapted

And if Isaiah’s words seem heavy to you, if you think they are just one more thing to do, one more obligation, remember this: liberating others helps to liberate us, too. And that can feel really good–not to mention that you don’t have to wear ugly clothes and sour expressions.

This is a time for self-change, a time to clear the decks for new life that is coming. Yes, I mean Easter and Pentecost and Passover and Spring and the movement of God in the world.

new life 2But do you not know that new life is always coming? God is always on the move in the world, in you, in me, through you, through me, in and through everyone.

So, have a holy Lent, but don’t let it be hard and ugly and an uphill battle. Go joyously into it, know that God already has gifts for you and that as you give up something that lightens your load you will be able to receive what new gift God has for you.

Drop that thing you are carrying that is not feeding you and open your hands and arms to receive the bounty of God.

And have a Happy Lent!

Taking the Plunge

[This continues the meditations from December 9, December 10, and December 12, 2014, and January 9 and January 21, 2015. reflecting on moments during a Vision Quest in September 2014 at Lower Cathedral Lake in Yosemite National Park. If you want to receive the full gift of this one, I suggest you read the earlier ones. Clicking on the date will take you there. But you can, I think and hope, enjoy this post without reading the others.]

2014-09-10 17.44.31It was one year ago today–September 11, 2014–when I took the plunge. Literally. I waded a short way into Lower Cathedral Lake, naked, and as I felt the bottom drop down, I dove in.

Shock! The coldest water I have ever felt. I lived in Maine for several years, and went swimming in very cold small spring-fed lakes and in the Atlantic Ocean, but this water was cold, C-O-L-D! Actually, beyond mere cold.

I think I lost consciousness for a moment or two. I felt myself sink. I am not a good, or strong, swimmer. I panicked. But I had enough sense to turn around and begin to paddle furiously. After what seemed like eternity but probably was well less than a minute, I felt the bottom. Relief.

Naked Man Underwater 007-largeI stood up. There was applause on shore. “You made it,” shouted a friendly voice. “You discovered just how cold it is!” I nodded and waved, not able to find my voice as I clambered through the water to shore (later I thanked God those day hikers stayed long enough to be sure I got out).

I remembered that I came to the water to swim naked, to stand up naked going in and going out, in response to awareness of body shame. In this moment, I was so cold, I only knew I wanted to expose myself fully to the sun (I had not thought to pack a towel for the Quest, so air drying was it). Forget shame. Get warm, be “skyclad” as the Wiccans say, and feel the sun.

dive naked everything looks bigger underwaterToday, I still fight the shame. Parts of my body are not the way I want them. I wish I could say the plunge into Lower Cathedral Lake cured me. It did not.

But it set me on a journey that continues today. I am making friends with my body. [Note, it is a peculiarity of English, I think, that we can write about our own body as if it is somehow an entity apart from ourselves.]  I am exercising much more, and I am letting myself be visibly naked in the locker room at the gym sometimes. I can even admire myself sometimes.

And the plunge into the icy water? Today, I understand it as being about more than overcoming shame.

It is a metaphor, perhaps more than a metaphor, for living.

naked art Spencer TunickIt is good to dive in sometimes. Perhaps often. Don’t hang back. Dive in. Splash around. Make waves–even if sometimes they are due to panic.

It may not be good to get in over your head regularly, but on occasion it can be very instructive (like embarking on a Vision, or Soul, Quest when you have never gone wilderness backpacking or camping). How else will you have the satisfaction of righting yourself, or learning something new, or receive the gift of being rescued?

As to bodies, we are each one. Together, we make a larger body and/or bodies. Every body is different. And beautiful, each in their own way.

On this anniversary, I honor mine. I hope you honor yours.

“And the Writing Keeps Crying Out”

[This continues the meditations from December 9, 10, and 12, 2014, and January 9. 2015. reflecting on moments during a Vision Quest in September 2014 at Lower Cathedral Lake in Yosemite National Park.]

2014-09-10 13.42.34As Thursday’s sun continued to warm me and the rocks on which I sat, I knew the moment was coming for me to walk naked into the frigid mountain lake waters (see December 10, 2014).

But before this exposure–pushing aside my shame by showing my body to whomever was at the shore, and daring the icy waters my fellow Quester told me about two days before–I felt the need to meditate and write more. I wear only my Radical Faerie/RFD pansy t-shirt for inspiration (left).

I fin2014-09-11 14.59.41d a spot where I can sit away from the public path (only a few day trippers come through, but still after a time of being alone each one feels like an intrusion, even though of course they have as much right to be here as I do) but where I also can see the lake and the pines and the great bowl of rock around me . . . and as soon as I am settled, I say to myself, sort of out loud but mostly inside myself, “I am afraid.”

It is not being alone here–some of my fellow Questers are, I think, within shouting distance, at least if I really yelled–or even my hunger which is beginning to nudge me around the edges, but as soon as I say it, I know it is because something is rising up in me, something what will create big change in my life.

It is what I came for, I suppose, to connect with this “something” that has been getting under my skin for a couple of years, and longer, maybe for most of my adult life, something about my life that needs to change. I write down that fear, and also some of the good things I am learning–how to reconnect with trees (December 12, 2014)  and how to observe creatures in nature (January 9, 2015). In some ways, I realize what I am learning is how to pay attention to the wild, the natural, as a source of wisdom (something our culture actively discourages) . . . .

. . . and I say, again, I am afraid there is more . . . and then it happens. The more comes.

In that moment, out of my control, I say out loud–and I write exactly at the same moment in my journal. . . “and the writing keeps crying out.”

The writing keeps crying out journalThe writing keeps crying out.

I did not say this and then write it down, or write it and then say it out loud. This was a simultaneous action of speaking and writing, as if my voice was moving my pen, or perhaps my pen was moving my voice. Either way, my voice hung in the air for just a moment or two, and I burst into sobs, I wail, I cry out big loud cries of agony and joy all mixed together. I try to stifle the noise, and then I know I must be even louder, this is decades of denial that needs to come out.  I breathe, it feels as if I am taking in big gulps of truth which then send me into tears. I exhale. I drink. I breathe. I cry. I sit.

I cry more, and I write. And cry. Some long neglected part of me has come home, I think, or more accurately, I have come home to it.

I reflect on how out of balance my life has become. I have lost my earth connection, I say. I don’t dig in the soil, I don’t run the soil through my fingers like natural rosary beads, seeking its truth. And I admit I am afraid to write from my soul, afraid I will be found out as a fraud by others.

2014-09-10 17.44.31It felt good to write a poem back in Richmond to bring to give to my fellow Quest pilgrims. I then wonder what it would be like to spend an entire day writing, and then another day, and another, a rhythm of writing, digging, reading, playing, walking, resting, writing. Is that my vision, I ask.

I ponder, and write a poem (still needs work!) about the Cathedral Peak behind me, and reflect about the smoke that blows from fires not that far away (what are we doing to the earth?).

And I write of how the question of whether to stop my pastoring and organizing and turn to writing, perhaps in conjunction with some teaching, is not exactly a new one for me. I wonder if I made the wrong choice when I left pastoring MCC Richmond and took up leading People of Faith for Equality in Virginia (POFEV). Did I hear God wrong?

I pause. I seek some peace. I breathe.

I realize all I know right now is that “the writing keeps crying out.”

Enough, for now. Time to go into the water!

More on that later.

Paying Attention: Learning from the Ducks

[This continues the meditations from December 9, 10, and 12, 2014, reflecting on moments during a Vision Quest in September 2014 at Lower Cathedral Lake in Yosemite National Park.]

What can I learn from ducks?

It is now Thursday, on this several day sojourn in the wilderness, what I now call my Soul Quest. It will become a momentous day for me, but here I am going to focus on just one piece of the gift of paying attention.

The sun rises, I pray to the four directions as Tomas, our shaman, has taught us, and I seek a spot to sit. It is not easy; the rocks are hard and still cold in the early morning. I feel a little wobbly, having had no food since Tuesday evening.

2014-09-10 17.44.31But the day is bright and my tree friends are looking grand. As does the lake. Oh, right, the lake. I am committed to going in to its frigid waters later in the day, naked as a newborn babe (and with probably as much sense, I say to myself).

But for now, I sit and look around. I seek to clear my mind and just experience the stillness that underlies the wind and the sun and the birds flying and squirrels busily moving about. After a while, I walk to the lake, not yet ready to take the plunge but wanting a preparatory look, and to dip my hand in and filter some water for drinking.

As I approach the lake, I see ducks, five of them, swimming slowly and sometimes just sitting in the water. I find a perch and watch them for what feels a long time. I am enthralled by the pattern of their group dynamics. Four of the ducks congregate, one stays apart. At first, I think that the separate one is being shunned by the group. But then I note something else; they are connected, and he is the leader. He moves a little and they move a little. I mean a little, it is subtle but clear. In my mind, I begin to call him LD (Lead Duck).

Then one of the four moves out, a little away from the group and LD.  After that ones stays put a little while, LD begins to move ahead in the same direction the other one was moving, and they all follow LD. It is an interesting dance of leader and follower, what I interpret as their being two leaders, one who is clearly part of the group–like a lieutenant or Vice-Lead Duck–and whose consent is required for Lead Duck to move out, followed by the others. This causes me to want to reflect on this in terms of being a leader.

The day is warming fast. I remove some clothing, and find a rock on which to sit and make notes in my journal.

mallard duckWhat I notice in this movement of the ducks is that they cannot be led unless they are willing to follow. It is a lesson I still need to learn. I am always moving to somewhere or something, but not always very concerned about whether anyone is actually following. I just expect people to follow. I certainly have not been very conscious of gathering people before attempting to lead them.

As I write in my journal, I note that not a lot of people are following my lead in People of Faith for Equality in Virginia. We are not building a substantial network. I wonder if perhaps it is because I don’t know how to gather them together and help us move together. I think of my ten-year pastorate, and realize that may have been true there as well.

Watching these ducks reminds me that leadership, like much of life in communities and families, is a dance. It takes partners, because it is not a solo.

I conclude that LD is a very wise duck indeed. Whether I can learn what he and the others teach is another question. But they have shown me wisdom today. As I have been told, wilderness can teach us much. I am grateful to be here.