Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The World We Live In

Grief is a natural  feeling. But processing grief, the way we move through and beyond it it, is both cultural and very, very, individual. It can and indeed must be learned, both in families and in community. For many humans, “community” is a word for religion or faith.

Two things happened this week that reminded me of this.

One, I read a story about Prince Harry who, at a charity event, suddenly acknowledged that he has never “talked about” his mother Diana’s death. At thirty years old, this seems shocking, I suppose, to some. Not to me! My own mother died tragically (in her sleep, with no known cause) when I was five, and we never discussed it again.

Upon reflection, as an adult, it became more and more clear to me that there were so many ways in which the stoic refusal to allow space for grief and all that accompanies it has crippled me emotionally. Even at sixty, it’s hard for me sometimes to feel the full extent of sadness when something ends. I stay with bargaining, or anger, way, way too long.

I’m lucky though. I’ve had so many teachers, both living spiritual guides, mentors, peers, and writers, poets, musicians and preachers, who have led me into the depths of my own losses and then helped me see that while I may never “overcome” them… I could come to terms with them. Learning to “come to terms” with life, which is loaded with losses, big and small, became the core of my pastoral ministry. I think it enabled me to help others in the way I’ve been helped.

Dreams are beautiful teachers. They provide a gentle and palatable way for us to “let go.” Sometimes, I don’t even like those words: let go. They sound so final. I don’t think grief is that way. Our losses reside within us, like headstones in a cemetery we visit from time to time. Many things can take us there: a song, a certain food, a voice, a silhouette on the street. We may find we return joyfully with bouquets, or are dragged through some mire and mist to face again some wrenching loss.

Until I began to learn this, I was living a half-life. Maybe that is what Harry feels has been the source of some of his behaviors and antics. Time will tell.  For me, the inability to grieve is what primarily leads to addiction.

This is one of the great paradoxes of life.

Of course, I’m not revealing any secret that hasn’t been told before, by all the teachers and masters of Time. But it remains: if you are unable to be completely and utterly bereft, lost and sad, and to come to terms with all that is lost as we live and age, we are also unable to experience joy, delight, and true ecstasy.

Two, the “Bernie or Bust” folks. As the DNC continues, they will not come to terms with what is already done, even though Bernie himself has beseeched them to do so, has promised them the movement will continue, and has asked them to at the very least refrain from their loud “boos” at every mention of Clinton’s name.

I voted for Sanders. I think it’s true that the DNC worked against him. How many and how dastardly the things they did to “undermine” him remain to be seen.

But here’s the point. Life is incredibly unfair. Had Sanders won, all but a few of his initiatives would have been stalled or stopped dead. A time of grief and loss was bound to come for these people. Still, what has started is the beginning of an entirely new way of doing politics!  

We are seeing naked grief played out on a national stage. We’re seeing people who seem to have no ability to process and come to terms with grief, expressing anger, rage crying, yelling, rather than using the convention to work toward the change they say they want.

I need to say this: Grief in America is not handled well. White, Protestant America has almost no ritual or mechanism for moving people from the depths of grief to the peace of living with loss.

There are exceptions. In the Black community, and particularly the Black church, there are ways to process grief. From the steady trail of visitors at the home to the turnout at the Funeral and viewing, and the celebration/”homegoing” after, there are tears, physical contact, expressions of adoration, opportunities for truth-telling, story-telling, reassurance from Pastor/Priest, rituals, and much laughter.

So.. joy. Joy, and gratitude. The two go hand in hand. When I heard Michele Obama say the words that have been repeated again and again since Monday night about all of her and her family’s detractors, When they go low, we go high, I heard two meanings. Not only have the Obamas unfailingly gone “high” in their demeanor and their public presentation, but its pretty clear they go high in terms of faith as well. I know plenty of folks blame President Obama for civilian deaths caused by drone attacks, and question his ethics, but I see him as a person of faith, placed in a nearly-impossible situation. History will be the judge of his decisions, finally.

Last night, when the Mothers of the Movement spoke at the DNC, the radio commentators noted that they opened with gratitude, praise for God, and words of hope and even elation. Sandra Bland’s mother spoke first. She celebrated the fact that she could be there, to testify about her daughter. None of this surprised me. I frequently attend a mostly-Black AME Zion church. Joy, laughter, praise and ecstacy mingle with tears, grief and deep mourning.

I don’t want to stereotype people of color either. But it would be hard to live in this country and argue that the dominant (white, Eurocentric) culture has the capacity to both grieve and yet hold hope, a capacity that allows for wholeness and for fullness of life.

It should not go without notice that Bernie or Bust people are overwhelmingly white. (They are also largely millennials, which I have other thoughts about, but not today.)

When Bernie Sanders told his followers, this is the world we live in... he didn't mean give up. But if any of them had done the work of white privilege, the deep work of listening, study, and contemplation, they would understand that the loss and grief and disappointment they face is faced by Black (and Brown, and Native, and Asian) Americans daily, who learn to come to terms with it, and keep hope, find faith somewhere, and stay on the journey.
White privilege is all that comes to mind when I hear them petulantly say they’ll vote for Trump.


After what he’s said about Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, Black Lives matter, “my” African American, women, after what his VP nominee has said/done toward GLBTQ folks and about choice? Then your privilege and your petulance is unacceptable. It’s time we had a national conversation: 
about grief.

Maybe we should invite Prince Harry to the DNC.

Monday, July 18, 2016

From Sea to Shining Sea: Freedom, Obedience & A World in Chaos

We all came here as candidates for the slaughter of the innocents... James Baldwin

Bridge over the Bosphorus, Istanbul (Europe to R, Asia to L)

What is obedience?

Since I am not employed at present, I have some extra time to contemplate. I try to imagine serving a congregation at this moment, and trying to bring together the elements that trouble our hearts and minds.In one week's time, the world has been alarmed by so much: Nice... Baton Rouge... Turkey... and our ever-growing unease about our own political future. We need a spiritual place to rest.

I will start with Turkey. Turkey, and the alleged “coup.” It is there I begin, because I know a few things that others may not. I had a beautiful, unbidden and serendipitous opportunity to travel there for a two week tour in 2008. I went with other clergy from Kentucky, and with one official from the University of KY. Our entire tour was funded by a group, the local members of which we’d come to know well, called “Rumi Forum.” These young men, students at UK, had frequently visited our Sunday services, invited us to Eid celebrations and a fabulous annual Banquet, and started Interfaith dialogue with Muslims, Jews, and Christians as well as non-believers in the community and at UK.

 Clearly, they were progressive, even liberal Muslims.

Still, before we accepted this largesse, some of us felt compelled to “investigate” the organization behind the trip. Who on earth would pay for people to go to Turkey, no strings attached? But all we could discover was that Fatullah Gulen, a cleric who led the Gulen movement, and whose followers also started the Rumi Forum, was living in the US, and strove to maintain and encourage the spirit of openness and interfaith cooperation that had mostly flourished under the era of Attaturk and the secular state. They saw Turkey as a key to peace in the Middle East, if it could remain progressive.

As you can imagine (or maybe not!) Turkey is an astoundingly beautiful land, with historical sites from Christianity as well as Islam and even Judaism. We visited all three, and met with craftspeople, newspapers ( Zaman, the Gulen paper now banished by Erdoğan,) and drank lots of tea and consumed so many platters of baklava that I began to dread another piece.  That's a lot!The people were warm, open, smiling generous of heart and hand.

At the Palace Dolmabache

So, you can imagine my alarm and anxiety at hearing that Gulen is being blamed, along with his followers, for the coup. I fear for my friends, their families, for Gulen himself, and for the hope of freedom and democracy in Turkey. Please… take a moment and pray for Turkey.

And if you feel inspired, spend a moment, and read, beyond the mainstream media, about Gulen, the Rumi Forum, and what Gulen is being accused of doing in Turkey, compared with what is actually known about him.  I could be wrong.. but what I see happening is a massive, world-altering potential situation in Turkey, that most people know nothing about, and for that matter don't care about either. In fact, they are lots more excited about catching Pokemon critters! 

I do not know everything about Fetullah Gulen and his followers; much is secretive. But I do know that the President of Turkey, Erdoğan, has by today, detained 50,000 people, and has over the past several years brought less freedom, less liberty, and less openness to the people of Turkey

One of the places I visited was Ephesus. Here it was that Paul brought the message of “the church” to the people. He preached and taught those who had been pagans, worshippers of the Goddess Diana.

I wish I’d spent more time reading Ephesians before I traveled to Ephesus. It would have helped me understand why the Christian ministers found its sites so significant. The Letter to the Ephesians sets out a lot of Paul’s rhetoric, starting with predestination, election, and prevenient grace, then moves quickly into a description of the posture of Christians toward God as understood by Paul (or whoever wrote the letter in his name.) Wives, submit to your husbands; Children, submit to your parents; and Slaves, obey your masters. In my mind, Paul was a creepy prude who came along and trampled out the pagan traditions that, were they still alive, might have sustained our earth.

Because re-reading it, I remembered why it, and most of the letters of Paul made me furious as a seminary student (which is the last time many UU ministers studied the scriptures in detail.) I was looking at the parts of his edicts that have been taken literally by those who would use them to justify slavery; to justify strict and unyielding parenting; to justify authoritative, even abusive marriages.

Ephesus, men washing before Muslim prayer

It’s good to look back on the pictures of Ephesus and to think about the freedom that was represented by that trip, and by the outreach of the Rumi Forum. That dream is not dead. It’s good to look at Ephesians and set aside the passages that are clearly time bound. Some words of wisdom remain: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. Do not give the devil a foothold. (4:26-27) Get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. (5:31)

These words don’t grate. But they do point to another aspect of  orthodox Christianity that is troubling. So much of the interpretation of Christ’s teachings has been about meekness and obedience. It's been about passivity. And it's led to a citizenry that have no idea what to do with rage.


At my meditation group this week, our teacher read a lovely message sent by Pema Chodron on her 80th birthday, in which she spoke of the issues of racism and police killings. A woman there said, well, if people wouldn't keep agitating, to which Joe, our teacher, gently chided, Jesus was the biggest agitator of all. He didn't get executed for hugging children and petting sheep.

I cannot imagine being a person of color today (or any time in history) and not having a backlog of rage so vast it would be all-consuming. I have rage as a woman in this society. I am well aware that my repressed anger does not, could not touch that of an African American, a Latino/a, an Asian, an Arab. Hence, when I hear of the killings of police officers this week, I am sorry, I am sad, but I am not surprised.

Where can rage go?

The answer to the conundrum can be found in Ephesians as well.

Woven into some of the text are encouragements to truth (Each of you must put off false hood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all of one body. 4:25) and (speaking the truth in Love 4:15) as well as  exhortations to “standing” against forces of repression, forces that Paul calls the “devil’s schemes..” and the “day of evil…” but which I heard preached with a different shade of meaning in an AME Zion church not long ago.

Clearly the woman pastor there was calling upon her people, not just her congregation, but African American people and all oppressed people to hear these words of Paul as a calling, an exhortation, a command from God, to use the “Armor of God” as a shield from the racism they faced daily, in small, petty, micro-aggressions, as well as in protest against the tsunami of hatred and racist screeds that are symbolized by Trump, his supporters, the resurgence of the Confederate flag, and the refusal to indict, or if indicted, to find guilty, any police officers who murder unarmed black men and 

My memory stammers, but my soul is a witness... James Baldwin

Son of a preacher, Baldwin had to go into exile as an artist to be free as a Black man in twentieth century America. His home in France was close to Nice, the scene of yet another attempt to destroy freedom and joy. 

I have seen scripture used to bully, to oppress, to deny humanity, and to kill. I've also seen it liberate.

postcard: a Black eunuch at Topkapi Palace 1912...

From Dallas to Ephesus. From Baton Rouge to Nice. One question recurs. For me, it is not the question, how will we prevent more violence?.... because that always leads back to more enforcement, more militarism, and more “obedience.” For me, the question is how can we maximize the freedom and creative capacity of each individual?

What if we took these words, not as a command to fight the temptations of the "Devil," but a command to stand up against the evils that are happening right before us, here, now, daily? Racism, injustice, ageism, ableism, and the economic disempowerment of 99% of the population.

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our[b] struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these,[c] take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,[d] 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
(Ephesians 6:10)

Not a question easily answered, and probably not one that many people outside the church will ever wish to consider. But perhaps it’s an argument for the survival of religion, or something like it.

We are History, and what goes around, comes around. (James Baldwin)

So may it be.
Mediterranean Sea, Antalya

*Baldwin quotes are from The Evidence of Things Not Seen, prelude.

Sunday, July 10, 2016



So, the name of the shooter was Micah.

Micah was one of the Hebrew Testament prophets who warned against the greed and avarice of the leaders of the day, and who defended the poor and disenfranchised against the rich and powerful. The book of Micah both laments and prophesies coming doom, as well as predicts an era of peace under the leadership of a monarch in the Davidic line… (which Christians later understood to be Jesus Christ.)

Now, I haven’t heard anyone else make this connection, so I’m sure I’m going out on a theological limb here.

Let’s get one thing straight. I do not believe in a God who would engineer the killing of police officers by the hand of someone with a conveniently Biblical name to make a point. God, for me, is just not that detail-oriented.

However, I’m a Jungian, and I think the synchronicity here, and very possibly the sheer coincidence, is fascinating. And maybe I’m just being an English major/theologian who can’t resist a great extended metaphor.

But, unlike some of my colleagues, who wish they did not have to preach this Sunday, I would love to be with the people of God. Because anti-racism has been my calling since I entered ministry more than twenty years ago, this time in particular has become a time of passionate involvement for me, informed not only by my faith, but by all of my humanity: parent, child, woman, friend, student, writer, wanderer, and preacher.

Micah starts out with a rebuke to those who worship “false gods.” If I were preaching about that today, I’d have a lot to say, but let me start with Chapter 2:

Woe to those who plan iniquity
to those who plot evil on their beds
At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it.
…They defraud a man of his home, a fellowman of his inheritance.
Therefore, the Lord says, I am planning disaster against this people
from which you cannot save yourselves.

There is more… lots more. Grab a Bible, and read Micah. It’s short. But essentially (leaving aside the ranting and railing against ‘pagans’) the prophets were full of these exhortations. Micah, in just a few pages, moves rapidly though the threats, channeling God, to the promise (almost identical to that made in Isaiah:

Come. Let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways so that we may walk in his paths…
(People of many nations) will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nor will they train for war anymore.

It is quite clear to me that Micah, the prophet, spoke wisdom that applies today. When leaders neglect the poor, the disenfranchised, those who have no voice, no agency, and do so for decades, for centuries, then what we are seeing now is what is wrought.

What surprises me is why this is news.

Why are we shocked?

These extrajudicial killings have gone on and will go on until policing is radically reformed. For me, policing should be abolished, along with prisons, but I realize that is a radical position that will cloud this argument. Having militarized, uniformed, guards patrolling our city streets, stopping and accosting citizens for what has been shown, again and again, to be without cause, and then refusing to use tactics to de-escalate, unless the citizens are white, can no longer be tolerated. African Americans have tolerated and bent to it for decades because they had no choice if they wanted to live.  So, white people who chant “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” and refuse to listen to the cries of injustice no matter who issues them…you expect people of color to what? Be quiet and go back into submissiveness?

That won’t happen. And there is one reason it will not happen.

God is on the side of the oppressed. Christ is on the side of the oppressed.

James Cone, eminent Liberation theologian, writes: “The gospel is found wherever poor people struggle for justice, fighting for their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree)
“The Gospel of Liberation is bad news to all oppressors because they have defined their ‘freedom’ in terms of slavery of others.”

And more than that.  Christ is Black. The cross is Blackness. Micah is advocating for people of Color.
James Cone: “The coming of Christ means a denial of what we thought we were. It means destroying the white devil in us. Reconciliation to God means that white people are prepared to deny themselves (whiteness)Take up the cross(blackness) and follow Christ (the Black ghetto.)

I daresay any number of white churches, most if not all, will honor those police officers who died last week. That’s understandable. My question: have they raised up the Black Lives and black bodies in the same way? The sad and ironic thing about the killings wrought by this present day Micah and his prophecy is that of all police departments, Dallas was one that was trying to “reform.” The officers had decided not to wear riot gear, which would have protected them. That’s tragic. Each one killed was not responsible for his death.

But the system is corrupt. Almost everyone understands, but will not acknowledge, the code of secrecy and silence kept by officers. It’s the circling of wagons and the denial and defensiveness against any suggestion of wrong doing that underlies the rage that simply boiled over in someone like Micah. Their tragic and lamentable deaths were wrought by more than that one person.

In Chapter One, besides ‘pagans,’ Micah goes on about ‘prostitutes.’ It’s synchronous again, because I’d not read that when I dreamed last night about police officers. I was in a tower and trying to get out. I kept trying to go up or down winding stairs and saw others going into a room, which I gradually became aware was a place that cops went to meet prostitutes who were kept there. I tried to break through a secret “door” in the wall, but each break uncovered more stone walls. I went into the lobby but saw many cops lounging around, all in street clothes. Of course, since I am Jungian, I have to understand this dream as one that is more about myself than about the police.  I have to ask where I am policing myself, why am I trapped in this tower, what is being prostituted and why? Details to follow. But today I can’t help touching upon the surface, more literal meaning, not that I think cops are holding prostitutes in towers, (although I was told the frequenting of them and silencing around it is routine and well known in Atlantic City) but that I see actual police as somehow selling out or keeping me from being free. Is there something about this race/police issue that I can’t break through to? That I am trapped/imprisoned about? It was clear to me that I would not be kept amongst the prostitutes. I was too old. And yet… I couldn’t escape. There was no way out.

And, this: Micah was trained by our military. We made him a sniper. We, who have allowed, since 9/11, endless wars and militarization, and horrible (I have experienced this first hand with Veterans in my congregations) after care and mental illness care for Vets, and with the militarization of police departments in turn, a Micah to even be out there. No place to turn with his rage.  No real help for his deep, deep distress. He, too, is a victim. And killed, by a militarized, robotic, bomb. I will not name him a monster.

As James Cone said, The truth about injustice always sounds outrageous.

Finally, I turned, this weekend, to another James: James Baldwin. “Jimmy,” as he was known to his many friends and colleagues, wrote so eloquently and poignantly of the state of being black in America, a state he could see with eyes that pierced through the illusions we mostly live by. He suffered for the truths he told, and ultimately left this country. He went to a beautiful, country estate in France, not far from Nice, where he could be what he could never be in America, a free, Black man.

I’ll let his words be the benediction:
In the private chambers of the soul, the guilty party is identified, and the accusing finger there is not legend, but consequence, not fantasy, but the truth. People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.

What life will you lead? In the final analysis, you may have more freedom than you imagine.