Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Reason for Grief, A Reason for Hope

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,

These opening words to Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities capture my feelings as I read and watch the news from Baltimore.

I woke up this morning to the front page news of riots last night in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray shooting and funeral. The news became more personal because my daughter works at Johns Hopkins University on the northern edge of Baltimore, and the school was closed in response to the violence. I have talked with friends and it seems like the events in Baltimore are more of the same: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Brandon Tate Brown, Tamir Rice and now Freddie Gray. Young Black men killed in confrontations with police.

A couple weeks ago in a course on social justice that I teach to first and second year college students, we read about the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1992 and the riots that followed. None of those 18-20 year old students were alive at that time, and yet the issues were the same that arose  in Ferguson and are at issue in Baltimore: poverty, racial injustice, police brutality, frustration, anger and rioting. Then I thought of 24 years earlier in 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and riots that erupted in cities across the country, and again the issues were the same.

As a nation we think we are making progress and for a time we do. Funding for schools is increased, job training is provided, and neighborhoods improve but then as a nation we lose our edge, our vigilance and our concern, and again the forces of inequity and injustice take over. Many scholars have indicated that the inequities we experience today have their roots in the economic and criminal justice policies adopted in the early 1980’s reducing taxes on the rich and corporations, decreasing the services and programs for the poor and targeting drug and criminal enforcement policies in low income communities of color. And so is it any wonder that every 20 years or so, people explode.

I am reminded of the questions raised by Langston Hughes in his classic poem , “A Dream Deferred:”

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

At the same time I see this injustice, I am encouraged by the Black Lives Matter movement and other such groups of young people and young adults who have come together to call attention to a whole range of injustices in wages, school funding, police behavior, the right to unionize and so much more. I am encouraged that these groups have allied themselves with more seasoned groups to work 
together for common goals. I have tried to impress upon my students that they are living in historic times, that a social movement is emerging such as not been seen since the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and `1960’s, a movement comprise of young and old, of rich and poor, of all races and ethnicities, of gay and straight, of documented and undocumented – all committed to a democracy that works for all and not the privileged few. It’s a movement fueled by anger and frustration, informed by complex social analysis, and facilitated by social media. Moreover, in my view it’s a movement that will not fade or go away but is growing, expanding, and in some places like Philadelphia is becoming a force that politicians and corporate leaders need to listen to. I suspect that is happening elsewhere as well.

So while I grieve the fact that another Black man has died an unnecessary death at the hands of police authorities, and it baffles me how law enforcement personnel don’t seem to be getting the message that these sorts of incidents will no longer go unnoticed, and I am saddened by the looting and violence that has occurred, I see a reason for hope. In a poem to former priest, Nicaraguan leader, and poet Ernesto Cardenal, Robert McAfee Brown wrote:

You have shown us
that beauty also dwells
in misery’s environs
and by its presence here
can work huge transformations

You have shown us
that there is nothing more beautiful
than a human face
on fire with the love of justice*

I pray that like Ernesto Cardenal, the tragic death of Freddie Gray and so many others can give us faces on fire with a thirst and love for justice that will not be quenched until transformation comes.

* poem by Robert McAfee Brown "To Ernesto: Poet/Revolutionary in Liberation Theology: an Introductory Guide

Pictures from Google Images

Friday, April 10, 2015

Some Thoughts from Ann Lamott

Many people have found the writings of Ann Lamott to be insightful, humorous, irreverent yet inspiring. This past month has been extremely stressful for me, and recently a friend sent me this Ann Lamott reflection on the eve of her 61st birthday. As one who will be 61 for a few more months I found these words remarkably relevant. However, I suspect that one could find them helpful at 21, 31, 91 or any age. So let me share these words from Ann Lamott's Facebook page. I find them all helpful at this time, but especially #2 and #4. Enjoy.

I am going to be 61 years old in 48 hours. Wow. I thought I was only forty-seven, but looking over the paperwork, I see that I was born in 1954. My inside self does not have an age, although can't help mentioning as an aside that it might have been useful had I not followed the Skin Care rules of the sixties, ie to get as much sun as possible, while slathered in baby oil. (My sober friend Paul O said, at eighty, that he felt like a young man who had something wrong with him.). Anyway, I thought I might take the opportunity to write down every single thing I know, as of today.

1. All truth is a paradox. Life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift; and it is impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It has been a very bad match for those of us who were born extremely sensitive. It is so hard and weird that we wonder if we are being punked. And it filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together.

2. Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.

3. There is almost nothing outside of you that will help in any kind of last way, unless you are waiting for an organ. You can't buy, achieve, or date it. This is the most horrible truth.

4. Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared, even the people who seem to have it more or less together. They are much more like you than you would believe. So try not to compare your insides to their outsides. Also, you can't save, fix or rescue any of them, or get any of them sober. But radical self-care is quantum, and radiates out into the atmosphere, like a little fresh air. It is a huge gift to the world. When people respond by saying, "Well, isn't she full of herself," smile obliquely, like Mona Lisa, and make both of you a nice cup of tea.

5. Chocolate with 70% cacao is not actually a food. It's best use is as bait in snake traps.
6. Writing: shitty first drafts. Butt in chair. Just do it. You own everything that happened to you. You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart--your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things, in your voice. That is really all you have to offer us, and it's why you were born.

7. Publication and temporary creative successes are something you have to recover from. They kill as many people as not. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine. The most degraded and sometimes nearly-evil men I have known were all writers who'd had bestsellers. Yet, it is also a miracle to get your work published (see #1.). Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, will fill the Swiss cheesey holes. It won't, it can't. But writing can. So can singing.
8. Families; hard, hard, hard, no matter how cherished and astonishing they may also be. (See #1 again.) At family gatherings where you suddenly feel homicidal or suicidal, remember that in half of all cases, it's a miracle that this annoying person even lived. Earth is Forgiveness School. You might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can do this work in comfortable pants. When Blake said that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love, he knew that your family would be an intimate part of this, even as you want to run screaming for your cute little life. But that you are up to it. You can do it, Cinderellie. You will be amazed.

9. Food; try to do a little better.

10. Grace: Spiritual WD-40. Water wings. The mystery of grace is that God loves Dick Cheney and me exactly as much as He or She loves your grandchild. Go figure. The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and our world. To summon grace, say, "Help!" And then buckle up. Grace won't look like Casper the Friendly Ghost; but the phone will ring, or the mail will come, and then against all odds, you will get your sense of humor about yourself back. Laughter really is carbonated holiness, even if you are sick of me saying it.

11. God; Goodnesss, Love energy, the Divine, a loving animating intelligence, the Cosmic Muffin. You will worship and serve something, so like St. Bob said, you gotta choose. You can play on our side, or Bill Maher's and Franklin Graham's. Emerson said that the happiest person on earth is the one who learns from nature the lessons of worship. So go outside a lot, and look up. My pastor says you can trap bees on the floor of a Mason jar without a lid, because they don't look up. If they did, they could fly to freedom.

11. Faith: Paul Tillich said the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. If I could say one thing to our little Tea Party friends, it would be this. Fundamentalism, in all its forms, is 90% of the reason the world is so terrifying. 3% is the existence of snakes. The love of our incredible dogs and cats is the closest most of us will come, on this side of eternity, to knowing the direct love of God; although cats can be so bitter, which is not the god part: the crazy Love is. Also, "Figure it out" is not a good slogan.
12. Jesus; Jesus would have even loved horrible, mealy-mouth self-obsessed you, as if you were the only person on earth. But He would hope that you would perhaps pull yourself together just the tiniest, tiniest bit--maybe have a little something to eat, and a nap.

13. Exercise: If you want to have a good life after you have grown a little less young, you must walk almost every day. There is no way around this. If you are in a wheelchair, you must do chair exercises. Every single doctor on earth will tell you this, so don't go by what I say.

14. Death; wow. So f-ing hard to bear, when the few people you cannot live without die. You will never get over these losses, and are not supposed to. We Christians like to think death is a major change of address, but in any case, the person will live fully again in your heart, at some point, and make you smile at the MOST inappropriate times. But their absence will also be a lifelong nightmare of homesickness for you. All truth is a paradox. Grief, friends, time and tears will heal you. Tears will bathe and baptize and hydrate you and the ground on which you walk. The first thing God says to Moses is, "Take off your shoes." We are on holy ground. Hard to believe, but the truest thing I know.

I think that's it, everything I know. I wish I had shoe-horned in what E.L. Doctorow said about writing: "It's like driving at night with the headlights on. You can only see a little aways ahead of you, but you can make the whole journey that way." I love that, because it's teue about everything we try. I wish I had slipped in what Ram Das said, that when all is said and done, we're just all walking each other home. Oh, well, another time. God bless you all good.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

A Holy Day – A Day to Remember and Recommit

Today on this Holy Saturday, the day between the death of Jesus on a rough Roman cross and the glorious celebration of his rising from death to new Life and Hope, we also remember the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. The night before he had risen from his sick bed fighting his own frustration and depression at the struggle in the movement for civil rights and economic justice to deliver his final sermon. He went to a church called Mason Temple in midst of a wind and rain storm where a filled-to-overflowing crowd awaited his message. In that sermon he called people to act in solidarity with the sanitation workers who were protesting their deplorable working conditions. He reminded people of the struggles that led to thehard fought victories that had been waged and won in cities throughout the South. Then, he ended by calling to mind the image of Moses who saw the Promised Land to which he had been leading people but which he did not enter saying

“…I’ve been to the mountaintop….And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land ….”

Dr. King did not see his vision fulfilled as he was killed the next day while joking with friends on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel. He did not reach the Promised Land, nor have we. While we did not necessarily need to be reminded of it, recent events in Ferguson, Philadelphia, New York and elsewhere, and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement have made clear that we have not yet arrived. We are still striving, praying, and pushing toward that vision.

Thus, it seems wholly appropriate that the anniversary of his death would fall this year on Holy Saturday, a day set between the reality of suffering and the fulfillment of hope. It is wholly appropriate that his death would fall on the first full day of Passover, that event which marks the beginning of the Hebrew people’s journey to the Promised Land to which Dr. King alluded. It seems wholly appropriate that today thousands will march in Philadelphia (and I suspect elsewhere) for economic justice, to advocate that the minimum wage be raised to $15 per hour. It is wholly appropriate for this is a holy day, a day set apart for remembering and recommitting to the journey where Dr. King’s vision, and the dream of millions that racial and economic justice can be achieved.