Wrestling with Angels on Good Friday

I just read this article

about a surgeon in training

losing a patient

and I thought of you.

It may seem like an odd thing to send

on Good Friday

to someone aspiring to work in medicine

still very excited about learning all the things about healing

that knowledge and training and skill

make possible.

 

I was such a person once.

And that excitement I had

as a pre-med student is still with me, although

my pursuits ended up leading me into a different profession.

 

I spent the day yesterday with a member of the congregation

who is dying of AIDS related causes.

He’s a wonderful young man, younger than me.  We talked

a number of times over the last couple years

his struggle with feeling rejected by people

how it challenged his need to be accepted and loved

and how he worked so hard to keep from getting lost

and allowing feelings of hurt and resentment to close his too-tender heart.

 

It’s not the first time I’ve visited people who I knew were going to die.

It happens more often than I’d like

(certainly more often than the people I visit would like).

And yet, it is far and away

the most powerful and rewarding part of my job

and the thing I am most grateful

I get to do

because I walk away

each time seeing new things about loss

and not lose sight

that I am larger

and more powerful

than my fear would have me believe.

 

What I learned when I was considering a career in medicine

Was that part of the pursuit

involved wrestling with angels

that promised impossible things

like the fantasy that becoming a doctor

somehow grant us

more control over life – and death – then we can really manage

or even have a right to

 

You have the kind of heart

I hope the surgeon or the pastor or the cafeteria lady has

when, years from now, they appear

by my hospital bed and do with me

what they trained to do.

 

Whatever it is that you end up choosing

to use your life learning

(I hope you end up considering a wide variety of things)

you will see the signs

asking you to STOP

or YIELD

or MERGE as fear crosses

and you will consider

compromising

or shrinking back

from the things you were truly meant to do.

 

This work of keeping my heart open

in the face of struggle and loss

has been hard,

and it never seems to end.  But

 

 

it is joyful,

and privileged work

each and every awe-ful time I feel called

to the bedside doing

what I trained my whole life to do

which is good, because

when things are that hard and

the control we’d like is so carefully rationed,

we need all the angels we can get.

Commonwealth of Virginia’s Ban on Same Sex Marriage is UNCONSTITUTIONAL

Friends, we have had a spell of bad weather which threatened our coming together.  As sometimes happens, we have had to hunker down, wait it out – remain scattered and separate – until such a time we could gather and affirm that we more together than we are apart.

 

Sometimes such conditions that keep us separate, though difficult, are inevitable hurdles.  And they are endurable as long as we know such conditions will end.

 

Today, as the sun shines, we know we are in a brighter place as we stand together.

 

And today, we stand together all over Virginia:  We stand together in

 

Henrico

Richmond

Chesapeake

Newport News

Virginia Beach

Williamsburg

James County

Alexandria

Fairfax

Albemarle County

Montgomery County

Staunton County

Augusta County

 

… we stand together.

 

Our gathering is blessed.  We are blessed by the chance to be together.  Young and Old.  Rich and Poor.  Black and White and people of all shapes, sizes and abilities.  We gather together as individuals and as families.  And our gathering, today, is blessed… blessed by one another, by God, and even by law.  We are blessed.

 

But today, we gather to stand with those who are not so blessed by the law.  Today we stand with them as they ask for and wait for such a blessing.

 

I want to tell you the story of such people.

 

I want to tell you the story about Timothy Bostic – a Professor of English at Old Dominion – and Tony London – a former US Navy officer – who have committed their lives in love since 1989 and as partners sharing a home for twenty years.  For a good number of those years they wished to marry one another.  They wished to have their vows of love and commitment ‘blessed’ by this commonwealth.  On July 1, this past year, they filed for a marriage license from Norfolk Co. Courthouse.  They were denied.

 

How long will they have to wait.  Not long.

 

I have been privileged to know and learn about the meaning of commitment and the art of marriage from many same sex couples.  After working for years in California to win the right of same sex couples to legally marry, I was there in 2008 when Proposition 8 was declared unconstitutional.  And when I came here, I announced to the Board of Directors that I would not sign a marriage license for any couple that asked me until the state allowed me to sign marriage licenses for every couple that asked me.

 

How long will I have to wait to offer that blessing?  Not long.

 

I want to tell you about Carole Schall – a Professor of Education at VCU – and Mary Townley – who works training the disabled for employment.  They’ve been in love since 1985 and have shared home and family for over 30 years.  For many of those years they wished to marry and have their love ‘blessed by the laws of the land.’  Finally, when California became the 2nd state to license same sex marriage, they went there and were legally wed.  They wanted to have their marriage blessed in the commonwealth of Virginia.  They were denied.

 

Why were they denied.  Because shortly after Massachusetts began blessing same sex marriages in 2004, Virginia’s fear and prejudice kicked in.  That same year they passed the “Affirmation of Marriage Act” which said:
A civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement between persons of the same sex purporting to bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage is prohibited. Any such civil union, partnership contract or other arrangement entered into by persons of the same sex in another state or jurisdiction shall be void in all respects in Virginia and any contractual rights created thereby shall be void and unenforceable.

 

This was followed up in 2006 when Voters of Virginia ratified an amendment to the constitution which read:

 

That only a union between one man and one woman may be a marriage valid in or recognized by this Commonwealth.

 

Sometimes, friends, we encounter a spell of bad weather which threatens our coming together.  Sometimes we have to hunker down.  Wait it out.  Keep our heads up as we look forward to the day when the blessing we know is ours can be recognized by those blinded by the bad weather of their own prejudice.

 

“Why?” you might ask, would it so important to have the state offer their blessing when friends, family and God have already given theirs?

 

In 1998 Ms. Townley gave birth to the couple’s daughter.  During the birth, she encountered complications at VCU’s medical center which left her unable to speak.  Ms. Schall was denied access to see her partner of 13 years and denied any information about her condition because she was not recognized as her partner under Virginia state law.

 

Since the birth, Ms. Schall has wanted to adopt her daughter.  The state of Virginia prohibits adoption except to couples who are legally married.

 

In April, 2012, when Ms. Schall and Ms. Townley sough to renew their daughter’s passport – a process that requests the consent of both parents – Ms. Schall wrote her name on the form and a civil servant at a United States Post Office in Virginia told Ms. Schall, “You’re nobody, you don’t matter.”

 

Ms. Townley and Ms. Schall cannot obtain a birth certificate or marriage license for their daughter which lists both of them as parents.

 

Ms. Schall cannot have her daughter covered on insurance.  Put her daughter in her will.  Even legally pick her up from school or write a note of excused absence.

 

These examples are just the beginning of the more than 1100 federal and state rights, benefits and protections not extended to same sex couples under the law… simply because their union is not so ‘blessed’.

 

How long will they have to wait for their blessing.  Not long.

 

In July of this past year, Timothy Bostic and Tony London as well as Carole Schall and Mary Townley filed an amici brief stating that Virginia’s laws deny them equal protection and liberties guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.

 

The defendants were Gov. Bob McDonnell, and then Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli as well as Norfolk Circuit Court Clerk George E. Schaefer.

 

But just a few weeks ago, Ms. Michele McQuigg – County Clerk here at Prince William County Circuit Court was named “Intervenor-Defendant”.

 

And last night U.S. District Judge Arenda Wright Allen issued her ruling on the case.  I want to read you part of what was written in her decision:

 

 

 

 

 

The government’s involvement in defining marriage, and in attaching benefits that accompany the institution, must withstand constitutional scrutiny.  Laws that fail that scrutiny must fall despite the depth and legitimacy of the laws’ heritage.

 

Ultimately, this is consistent with our nation’s traditions of freedom. “The history of Our Constitution … is the story of the extension of constitutional rights and protections to people once ignored or excluded.”  Our nation’s uneven but dogged journey toward truer and more meaningful freedoms for our citizens has brought us continually to a deeper understanding of the first three words in our Constitution: “We The people.”

 

“We the People” have become a broader, more diverse family than once imagined.  Justice has often been forged from fires of indignities and prejudices suffered.  Our triumphs that celebrate the freedom of choice are hallowed.  We have arrived upon another moment in history when ‘We the People’ becomes more inclusive, and our freedom more perfect.

 

Almost one hundred and fifty four years ago, as Abraham Lincoln approached the cataclysmic rending ofour nation over a struggle for other freedoms, a rending that would take his life and the lives of hundreds of thousands of others, he wrote these words: “can not have failed to strike you that these men ask for just. . . the same thing—fairness, and fairness only.  This, so far as in my power, they, and all others, shall have.”

 

The men and women, and the children too, whose voices join in noble harmony with

Plaintiffs today, also ask for fairness, and fairness only. This, so far as it is in this Court’s power, they and all others shall have.

 

THEREFORE

The Court finds Virginia’s Constitutional Art. I, 15-A, and any other Virginia law that ban same-sex marriage or prohibit Virginia’s recognition of lawful same-sex Marriages from other jurisdictions UNCONSTITUTIONAL!!

 

 

How long will we have to wait for love to be blessed for all people in this state?  Not long.

 

Friends, we are following the moral arc of the universe which is bending toward justice.

 

We are following the 18 other states that already offer their blessing of marriage equality.  We are following countries all over the globe –

The Netherlands,

Belgium

Spain,

Norway

Canada

South Africa

New Zealand   and others

 

… countries who affirm that freedom and love and justice are the hallmarks of enlightened governance.

 

How long will we have to wait to be blessed by such enlightened leaders?  Not long.

 

In the days to come, as the important conversations occur, and you are called to add the weight of your conscience to tip the scales of enlightenment toward justice, remember that the risks you take now will be the conviction with which you will one day be able to tell your children and grandchildren an important story.  A story that says when the world was divided and freedom and justice was being suppressed and LOVE was on trial, you were there – standing on the side of Love.

 

May our blessing be the legacy for which we become known.  So that when the vows of matrimony are spoken in this commonwealth and the final pronouncement made – the gender behind the promises will not invoke protest or prejudice.  It will simply be that “We the People” will say together:  Amen.

 

Strange Fruit

“Strange Fruit”

Bull Run Unitarian Universalists

Rev. Greg Ward

January 19, 2014

This weekend is something of a high holy day in many UU Churches.  Martin Luther King, Jr. studied closely the writings of Unitarian Henry David Thoreau, and himself considered becoming Unitarian while at Boston College but chose not.  He didn’t feel he could summon a cohesive momentum in our movement.  But his example of action in the face of injustice is a frequent reference for us when we talk about doing justice as one of the primary pillars of a religious life.

 

King was a central voice in the civil rights movement.  He marched so that a vision of dignity could someday feel like a rightful expectation for people of color.  And he did so knowing the painful reality of what it was to be black in an unenlightened America.

 

Even after slavery was outlawed in the 1860s, people of color were still enslaved by fear. From 1882-1968 – when King was assassinated – 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States.  3,446 were black men, women and children.  Many of the whites were lynched for harboring or helping blacks escape… or for being anti lynching in general.

 

But King’s dream went beyond advocacy of one race.  He was an advocate of the beloved community.  A world in which we are judged ‘not by the color of our sking but by the content of our character.’

 

So much changed in the world from the ideals he gave voice to.  And yet, Trayvon Martin, Fruitvale Station and radical redistricting in North Carolina reminds us that the work continues.  Ours to carry on.  Martin Luther King Jr. only helped us get to the mountaintop.  We still have a ways to go to reach the promised land.

 

Come, let us worship together.

 

REFLECTION

‘Strange Fruit,’ the subject of today’s service is a phrase well known in the black community.  It was a book made into a play and an opera by Lillian Daniel.  It is the subject of hundreds of paintings.  But all those works were inspired by a song – one we will hear in moment by Noelle Stanley.  The song was inspired by a poem.  And that poem was inspired by a picture.

 

The picture is famous.  So famous, it became a postcard which, when it appeared in town, terrorized people of color everywhere.  It is a very disturbing picture.  It shows the public hanging of two young black men.  But one of the most notable – and disturbing – parts of the picture are the expressions of the people watching.  I’m going to show the picture for a few seconds.  You may find it too painful or difficult to look at.  But clearly the people in the picture did not.  I will show it for the next few seconds if you want to look away.

best 1

Just a word about showing this picture and the offering the chance to look away.  My choice to show this picture – in church – was not without great deliberation.  It is to validate a reality burned into the consciousness of every person of color who has lived in the midst of fear and prejudice.  It is to recognize and honor the reality from which few black people can afford to look away… because they know it is never too far from them… never too far from possible.  Our opportunities– as white people – to look away, to not have to recognize or live with these painful images – is a privilege.  It is what anti-oppression leaders often call, ‘white privilege.’

 

This is not about blame.  And it is not about guilt.  It is simply to recognize what IS and what has been in America.  And the different perceptions of that reality that come from looking at it from different points of view.

 

 

SERMON 

It is a tangled web
that ties together

the pain

and the promise

of the beloved community we looking away seek

 

Put your ear

to the constant clamor of violence

and you will hear

a soft plea for MERCY.

Look close enough

and all these illusions of separateness

begin to fade.

The neat categories

‘black and white’

‘us’ and ‘them’

‘those inside God’s grace, and those out’

begin to break down.
Remove all the fear

and it’s suddenly possible to imagine how

we could all stand up

and ‘get it together’

for one great collective cause.

Someday, it may be possible

for a great mosaic of hope to emerge
from the shards of spite and malice

militant apathy will
become the catalyst
for the empathy
that softens hardened hearts

and heals a tired

and tender world.

Someday courage and vision

will not hesitate to take the stand

whenever inherent worth is put on trial.

Until that day we will watch

people trade in

commodities of fear

and few will notice

cynicism replace prayer

the glass drop below half full

or the moment when doubt becomes our daily bread

 

<><><>

 

these stories I tell this morning

-        Are all our story    -

They have been told

-        and retold   -

the world over

Each time there is hope for

people to finally hear

the flat notes

as the angel sings

MERCY,

and begin to ask themselves

what will become of us?

and wonder aloud

if we’ve come too far to turn it around?

 

<><><>

 

Remember, last year,

how the city of Boston was placed in lockdown
while the city

– and the nation –

held its breath

and searched for the culprit(s)
who stole

our collective sense of security.

 

Two bombs exploded
at the finish line
of the Boston Marathon.
Crude devices
spewing scrap metal
like hate
unleashed on an unsuspecting crowd.

Martin Richard – an eight year old boy was killed.
As was Lu Lingzi – a foreign exchange student
and Krystle Campbell – a young restaurant worker.

The media reported
hundreds in critical condition.
The suspects

they said

were foreign born and ferociously armed.
Explosive debates
over legislation on guns
and immigration
erupted anew.

 

We learned that the suspects

were brothers
– both born in a country
nine out of ten Americans
could not find on a map

-        or in our hearts –

both born

with given names

too hard to pronounce
unless we’d sat together

and broken bread
like families.

 

The media responded to the violence

with violence

calling for justice

like a vigilante mob
throwing details of differences

trolling for prejudice

like chum for sharks
while the world held its breath
waiting for justice
to be put back in place.

 

We, who are human,

were not built
to hold such tragedy.

So much fear

gets into our DNA

passed on to the people we love

as dinner-table prejudice.

How does innocence

have a conversation

with evil?

How can an angry mob

be curious about the plight

of the weak and the vulnerable?

How can we learn to stand in line

pass along – from hand to hand in a row

bread and medicine

to the victims of violence

after the levies holding back our fear

are breached?

 

<><><>

 

One August day
in 1930
another version of the story

Two young men

-        Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith –

were hung from a tree
before the thousand or so citizens

who gathered to watch

in the Marion, Indiana town square.

Three young black men

were arrested
after Claude Deeter

-        a white factory worker –

was murdered
and his female companion
announced she’d been raped.

 

There was no trial.

On the evening of their arrest

a small mob gathered

and broke into the jail
where the boys were being held.
They brought sledgehammers and crowbars
to break down the walls of justice,
No one among the crowd

thought to ask
on which side of those walls
they stood
when they picked up their tools

And on which side they stood

When they set them down.

They pulled the three
from their cells
demanding that justice be done.
And everyone knew what that meant.

Word got out.

So when hundreds of families showed up

in the town square

they brought even their young
because they were led to believe
the justice which had gone missing

was about to be restored

and that was something

they wanted

their children to see.

 

After the first two boys were hung
They made sure to pose
for the local photographer, Lawrence Beitler,
who took the pictures

they all felt certain

would show the future
what justice looked like.

 

<><><>

 

I have known people who scorn the church
having patched so many holes in their pants
from years kneeling
in pews too hard
for their soft hearts to find rest.
They say their goodness was talked out of them

by stories of being raised
in the garden of an angry and vengeful God.

 

But I say.
it is we who get up

-        every morning –

and write the new covenant
since our lease in the garden was revoked.
We are in charge
of rebuilding paradise into the promised land.
We hire the exterminators
who walk the grounds
trapping and ridding
paradise

of all the serpents and spiders
that live in our imagination.

 

<><><>

 

Having power over life and death

is a holy thing.
But standing on holy ground
is hard on the feet

which explains the shuffling of the crowd.

In that shuffling

hardly anyone noticed

when James Cameron

-        the third boy arrested    –

and brought to the town square

slipped away

during the commotion of picture taking

and self commendations.

 

But vengeance

once fed

develops quite an appetite.

‘Cameron!’ called one low voice.
And then another.

A chant followed.
‘We want Cameron! We want Cameron!
with the glee of a home crowd

summoning a favorite football star
to the field.

 

The face of the town’s sheriff
was nervous and covered in sweat
as he turned to the mob leader.
‘Go on. Get the hell out of here.
You already hung two of ‘em
… that ought to satisfy ya.’

But reason takes no root

In the dry hard pan of apathy and anger.

So, when Cameron came into view,
the crowd got louder

pushing him back in place

under the tree

already holding his two friends.

He carried the look of a drowning man
swallowed by a sea of fear
not only his own.
He scoured the faces of the people he passed
searching for any sign of mercy.
But he saw none.

“They got a rope,” Mr. Cameron remembered
“… and they put it around my neck.
Then they began to push me under the tree…”

His reflections, offered in hindsight

are recorded as history
because Cameron did not die that day.
But he does reveal

what great power turned

the rabid crowd from its prey.

 

James Cameron lived

not because of his own pleas

nor those of the sheriff

But from the cries

of a lone – unidentified – man

who stood up on the hood of his car
parked on a street

off to the side of the town square

and called out for the people to stop.
“Mercy!” he cried.

 

Some say he turned the lemming crowd

away from the moral cliff.
Some say he

single-handedly

saved a life
from being strangled by blind vengeance.
We seem to like theories that
one man
one action
one perfect moment
can do anything
and turn everything around.
I like to think
it was more than that.

Because I know real transformation

takes more than that.

 

<><><>

 

In a tangled web

there are two ways to be a spider:
you can work
to address the real pest population,
reduce the numbers
of cockroaches, mosquitoes and aphids
that carry disease toward our children,
and make the garden untenable for creation.

Or, you can harbor fangs
and carry venom
build sticky webs
trap prey,
eat baby birds
devour your own species
maybe even your mate.

Either way, you are simply a spider –
true to everything you were born to be
carrying within you
the power to spin a web
and capture prey.

But also weaving the strands

that communicate the struggle
of something innocent

caught in the web

years ago

still struggling in our soul.

 

<><><>

 

Abel Meeropol was a teacher and a poet.

He wrote a poem

about the pain he felt
after seeing the postcard
made from the photograph taken that day
Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith
were hung from the tree.

 

Abel Meeropol was A Jew in the Bronx
a thousand miles away
but he had enough distance to see
that his whole world
was woven into the same
racial,
social,
cultural,
religious web.
And like the strands from which
the two boys hung
he knew that he too
would be regarded as prey
to the spider whose hunger
cannot swallow reason

and is blind to mercy.

Some trees, bear ‘Strange Fruit’

Meeropol mused as he saw the photo.

He noticed in the picture

how the crowd displayed

cavalier expressions

where he expected looks of horror.

From this he began to understand

how the world

could compartmentalize people

if it is run by people

who compartmentalize their feelings.

And loyalty.

 

Trees of prejudice

grow from seeds of love

fertilized by fear.

He wrote the poem

under a pen name
because the reality of anti-Semitism
made it clear that such trees
stand at the center of almost every garden.

 

<><><>

 

Abel’s namesake,
from the bible

was born outside the garden.
He was led by his brother, Cain
into the field and ‘killed.’
‘Sacrificed’ is the word
some preachers use to describe the slaying.
But ‘sacrifice’ has a dignity to it
which makes it inaccurate.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?”
was the question asked

by Cain.

 

It might also have been the question

on the lips

of everyone in the Marion Center square that day

as they lit the match

that burns in our conscience.

But only the voice of God
shouting from the hood of His car
had the power
to call back the spider.

 

<><><>

 

When police caught up to the suspects
who planted the bombs in Boston,
the news described a standoff.
Both sides heavily armed.
The shootout lasted for hours.
It ended when one brother
was fatally shot
and run over by the other brother
as he raced from the scene of the crime.

Police caught up with the surviving outlaw
the next day
hiding in a small boat
hoping, perhaps, to sail somewhere
not quite so crazy.
Hoping, perhaps, to live in a world
a little less wrapped in fear.

But there he was

anchored in the one world

he was born into.

“I’m glad they caught him,”
said someone who worked in the trauma ward
that treated the 260 people injured in the explosions.
“I’m glad he’s alive.”
said a police officer who helped find the suspect.

Now everyone could now breathe a sigh of relief

and get on to the question

of whether to pursue the death penalty.

 

<><><>

 

Abel Meeropol published his poem

-        in the New York Teacher journal

And the Marxist publication

“The New Masses”    –

He used the pseudo name, Lewis Allen

taking his pen name from the first names
of his two sons
Lewis and Allen
both arriving stillborn
both understanding what it’s like
when you aren’t given a chance.

 

It’s possible Meeropol knew
the tragedy of Billie Holiday’s life
when he showed her the poem
at that club in New York city
where he went to hear her sing.

It’s possible he was aware
of how she was overpowered
and raped by a man
when she was twelve
and how she turned to prostitution
at fourteen.

It’s possible he recognized
that there was no one who came
with sledgehammers and crowbars
to break her out
of the prison sentence she served every day.

It’s possible he knew
how many drinks
and drugs
and other distractions
she needed to salve
the shape of emptiness
in the center of her soul.

Or perhaps he only recognized
the voice of an angel
who could sing the word of God –
over our heads.

The kind of angel

willing to stand up

-        in a basement bar –

-        or on the hood of a car –

and call a callous world
to its senses.

 

Whatever the reason
Strange Fruit became Holiday’s
signature song
reaching number sixteen
on the popular charts.
When it was released
Time Magazine denounced the song
as a ‘prime piece of musical propaganda’
for the NAACP.

 

Though he managed to write a few songs for
Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee

due to his ties with the Communist Party,

Meeropol stopped getting work
as a writer during the 1950s

during the red scare of McCarthyism.

Perhaps that gave him the time – and maybe the reason –
to adopt two boys –
the orphaned sons
of Ethyl Julius Rosenburg
- the ones convicted of treason and espionage

trading national secrets
during the race

to build the world’s first atomic weapon.

The case swept the country
into hysteria
and the Rosenburgs were declared ‘guilty’
and executed.
Nobel Prize winning playwright Jean-Paul Sarte
described the case as
“A legal lynching which smears with blood
a whole nation.”

The two boys were lost in the madness.

“From the time of their parents’ arrests,
and even after the execution,
the Rosenburg boys
were passed from one home to another
- first one grandmother looked after them,
then another,
then friends.
For a brief spell, they were even sent to a shelter.
The paranoia of the McCarthy era
was such that many people
- even family members –
were terrified of being connected
with the Rosenberg children,
and many people who might have cared for them
were too afraid to do so.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?”
has always been a question
of timid and tender conviction.

 

<><><>

 

Billie Holiday introduced “Strange Fruit”
to Greenwich Village’s Cafe Society
in 1939.
It always came at the very end of her set.
Each time she sang

It sounded like

the voice of an angel
singing about the work of the devil.
The waiters in the Sheridan Square basement club
would suspend service so the room was quiet.
Holiday was illuminated
by a small pin light on her face,
which went dark at the song’s end.
There were no curtain calls.
No encores.

 

<><><>

 

Abel Meeropol is dead.
As is his namesake from the bible
As are Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.
Billie Holiday is dead.
As are Ethyl and Julius Rosenburg.
Martin Richard,
Lu Lingzi and Krystle Campell
are dead.
Guilty of standing to close to the bomb

Which detonated at the Boston Marathon
last year.

Tamerlan Tsamaev
who built the bombs
is dead,
which some will argue is a good thing.
Some might conclude that his brother

Dzhokhar
is as good as dead.
Just like the media that covered the story
and the empathy that got lost in the madness

and the justice we hoped to find

It is when we notice
that angels sing in basements
and spiders run the world
that it begins to feel like
we are all descendants of Cain.

 

There were many left in critical condition

after the violence in Boston.
They numbered in the hundreds
at Mass General.
They number in the billions
around the globe.
Whether any of them come back to life

depends on how many people stop

and stand up for what we need to be

when they hear the angels song.

 

<><><>

 

People change.
Hearts change.
Minds change all the time.
Our culture changes
sometimes too slowly

to keep our hearts from breaking

But broken hearts

are the only thing

that help us hear the angel’s song

and change the course of history.

When enough people listen

to the angels sing of brokenness

a tilting world will turn

into its leanings toward good.

What other explanation is there

for Time Magazine – in 1999

naming ‘Strange Fruit’
‘the song of the century’?

 

Over our heads

there is trouble in the air.

But there is also music

and singing.

Listen

and you will hear

Angels sequestered in basements…

Singing on the hoods of cars…

And you will know:

there must be a God somewhere.

 

<><><>

 

The morning after the Boston Marathon tragedy,
my alarm went off.
These days the alarms
on cell phones are rather sophisticated.
I have mine programmed to play
a Dave Matthews song.
As I listened,
it occurred to me
that if God were at the Boston Marathon
She would have been on a side street
standing on the hood of Her car.
And as the people ran by
I think this is what she might have sung.

 

Mercy
by Dave Matthews

Don’t give up
I know you can see
All the world and the mess that were making
Can’t give up
And hope God will intercede
Come on back
Imagine that we could get it together

 

Stand up for what we need to be
‘cause crime won’t save or feed a hungry child
can’t lay down and hope miracles will intercede
lift up your eyes
lift up your heart

 

Singing, Mercy! What will become of us?
Have we come too far to turn it around?
Can we carry on just a little bit longer
and all try to give of what we need?
(Dave Matthews, 2012)

 

 

An Open Letter to Bill O’Reilly about the “War on Christmas”

“The War on Christmas”

Rev. Greg Ward

Bull Run Unitarian Universalists

December 8th, 2013

REFLECTION

   War is an awful thing.

   I won’t share pictures of cities destroyed or lives lost to make my point.  Nor talk of how much money goes to weapons instead of food or medicine or education for the poor.  And I doubt if any reminders are necessary about the collateral damage war has on our spiritual aptitude.   Anytime our minds make ideological enemies, it becomes harder to build bridges of faith or trust.

   War is an awful thing.  Anyone who’s been in one knows.  And anyone who has served and survived – knows that hearing a declaration of war uttered is among the most mind-spinning and heart-stopping pronouncements in any language.

   So brace yourselves… for I have it on good authority from the ‘fair and balanced’ people of FOX news that our nation has declared war on Christmas.

   The reasoning behind the pronouncement was not immediately clear, at first.  But, lucky for me, FOX commentator, Bill O’Reilly was able to help clarify.

   “Over the years,” he said on last week’s evening program, “we’ve taken on the role of protecting the federal holiday of Christmas.”  He went on to explain that since the Supreme Court struck down the legality of things like reciting the Lord’s Prayer in public schools or erecting a crèche on the city hall lawn, other businesses have followed suit refusing to say, ‘Merry Christmas,’ but using ‘Happy Holidays’ in their advertising instead.  He expressed disdain with Macy’s Dept. store for displaying signs promising Santa’s help with your ‘holiday’ wish list.  This slight, he says, is tantamount to war on Christmas.

   The fact, that Hannukkah concluded on Dec. 5th this year – prompted O’Reilly to ask Macy’s – on TV – in his out-loud voice – “which holiday is Santa Celebrating?’  Insinuating that with Hannukkah over, there was nothing left but Christmas.

   Even without pointing out Winter Solstice, or Kwanzaa, or New Years, or Epiphany, it seems O’Reilly forgot Dec. 6 – the day after Hannukkah – is St. Nicholas Day – the day commemorating 3rd century Bishop Nicholas of Turkey – remembered in Europe as Sinter Klaus – who delivered gifts to orphans and widows and the poor.

   It seems that when war looms, the clear headed and clear hearted become rare.  And all attempts at sharing light and love and hope are threatened.   So what can be said in response that really could save Christmas and keep our holidays happy?

 

SERMON

Bill O’Reilly

FOX News

400 Capitol St NW #550 Washington, DC   20001

 

Dear Mr. O’Reilly,

 

   You got my attention on your recent program when you – and other FOX news personalities – announced that war had been declared on Christmas.  Being a pastor of a church, as well as a pretty big fan of Christmas – I wanted to share some of my thoughts.

   I understand the pain that comes whenever we discover something pure, hopeful and holy threatened by a callous and unthinking force.  That pain is present when good and faithful people face forces of greed or stand in the way of power’s pursuit of more power – and eventually domination.  I know how it hurts to see tried and true allies of goodness renounce loyalties and join the opposition.

   It is important at such times that we honor our instincts and hold tight to what is holy.  Indeed, many great stories from history and religion lift up this obligation.

   I’m thinking of one which describes the plight of the people in Jerusalem just after it was conquered by Alexander the Great.  The Jews living there became civilians of an occupied territory, ruled by a foreign king.  Since Jerusalem was a distant outpost, not particularly important to its rulers, the Jews living there found that they could live and worship as they pleased – as long as they paid their taxes.

   But then came Hellenization – the powerful influence of Greek culture which swept through the entire region.  Greeks were innovators, advanced in philosophy, mathematics, rhetoric and art.  Their ideas began to influence and change the Jewish community.  Some practices and loyalty to the general principles began to be questioned.  Jewish authorities worried about the future and the purity of their religion.

   Into this time came a new ruler by the name of Antiochus IV.  Antiochus did not understand nor particularly care for the Jews.  He insisted they practice Hellenistic customs like everyone else in the kingdom.  He took control of the main Jewish temple, smashed all their religious symbols and sacred oils and converted the whole thing to Greek pagan worship.

   Jewish authorities lived with the anxiety of extinction – knowing that if people failed to carry on the customs, the faith would die and their people would be assimilated.

   It was in this context of anxiety that a rebel Jewish leader, Mattathias Macabee, killed an apostate Jew for taking part in a pagan sacrifice in the temple.   Then, he killed the attending royal officer.  Things escalated.  A bloody battle took place and years of guerilla warfare followed.

   Three long years later, Mattathias’ son, Judas Macabee, led a sneak attack that overtook the temple.  A small band of Jews rededicated it by recovering a single vial of sacred oil – which was only supposed to be enough for one day – but it lasted for eight – until more oil could be consecrated.

   Mr. O’Reilly, this is the miracle of Hanukkah – the story for which Jews remember the holiday each year.  It is a story, not unlike the one you describe: where you’re faith and traditions are under fire by self-serving and oppressive forces.

<><><><>

   I also have a personal story of living under the seductive influence of an invading culture.  I was born in the early 60s, just as television was assuming its place of prominence in American life.  With TV, came the power of advertising.  And it seemed no aspect of life became more of a target for advertisers than the celebration of Christmas – especially in regards to the ritual of gift-giving.

   I was five years old when it first occurred to me that Christmas gift-giving was not a one-way gesture, but an act of reciprocity.  Ways of exchanging love.  This epiphany was made clear by my kindergarten teacher who helped me – and all my classmates – make Christmas presents for our parents.

   We made clay handprints… which all seemed fine, until I started watching the TV commercials –none of which, even once, promoted clay handprints.  They were all touting more elaborate gifts like jewelry, cars or bigger and better TVs.  Still I wrapped my gift and placed it under the tree.

   Everything was well and good until we started unwrapping presents.  And one of the first presents my mom opened was from my older brother, Doug.  Doug was one year older than me.  He had gotten her a clay handprint the year before when he was in Kindergarten.  But this year, he upgraded, significantly.  I watched as he handed my mom a big, heavy present.  My mom unwrapped it and was speechless when she realized my brother had gotten her a whole gallon of perfume.  A whole gallon!!!  Nothing says ‘love’ like a gallon of perfume!  I felt so outdone and embarrassed, I hid my present to my mom which she didn’t find until we cleaned up all the Christmas decorations a week later.

   That event, Mr. O’Reilly, made quite an impression on me.  For years I carried the threat of being outdone at Christmas.  And apparently I wasn’t the only one.  Because, I noticed, for years in my family it was predictable that more than one of us would, in our wild desperation to satisfy expectations, wind up getting one of those presents with absolutely no cultural, relational or intrinsic value.  Something that only sells during the waning hours of Christmas eve.  Something like a battery operated plaque with a life-sized open mouthed bass singing, “We wish you a merry Christmas.”

   More than once I vowed not to buy the fish, remembering how it always left me with the emotional and spiritual equivalent of indigestion.  But, every year I would see the commercials of extravagant presents where the husband’s face lights up when he opens the little box from his wife discovering, inside, the keys to a new Lexus which sits with a big red bow in the driveway.

   I know part of the problem, Mr. O’Reilly, was that I never got the Lexus.  I always got the signing fish.  For years I struggled with the hope it would be different.  But it never was.  And it wasn’t that I was confused about what kind of people I hung out with at the holidays.  It was clear to me that we were fish people, through and through.  But it made me wish we were something else.

   It may be, Mr. O’Reilly, that you never wished to be part of something other than what you already were.  But there are a lot of people in this world who have known that struggle.

   Like comedian Lewis Black who talked about the seductive influence that Christmas had on him.  He said:

   ”I have no religion now because I was raised Jewish. And when I was very young, on the first night of Hanukkah, my parents gave me a top to play with. They called it a dreidel. I knew it was a top.  I showed my top to my friends next door and they showed me the pony they just got for Christmas. And I looked at the top – and I looked at the pony – and I remember the moment I realized I wasn’t gonna be Jewish for very long.”

   What Mr. Black describes was not simply personal experience.  His experience echoes the struggles of many Jewish people to stand against successive waves of cultural temptation – first with Hellenization, and then the seductive influence of Christmas.  Do you remember how when the image of Santa really began to sweep into prominence in this country, many Jewish immigrants, eager to adapt to American culture created Hannukah Herman?  And the Hannukkah bush?  And to compete with the giant Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza, Jews in Tel Aviv created the world’s largest menorah – more than 60 feet tall weighing 17 metric tons.   It was 600 square meters and was lit by a rabbi lifted up by crane.

   But it’s important to understand that it was never ‘Christmas’ that Jewish families wanted.  It was the spectacle.  The lights.  The festivity.  The unbridled shopping spree that Christmas was becoming.

  It wasn’t so much a matter of Jews succumbing to the tenants or truths of Christmas as it was becoming mesmerized by the spectacle of Christmas wrapped in a seductive layer of corporate commercialism.  What seems to have occurred regarding Christmas over the last few generations in this country is akin to the holy family becoming grafted to a Christmas cash register – like the people in Star Trek encountering the Borg.  What has emerged from this inter-species marriage seems like a good impulse toward love corrupted by dominant agenda to spend money, reducing a message of hope into a call for assimilation.  “You will shop.  Resistance is futile.  Fa la la la la, la la la la.  Now buy that singing fish!”

   Christmas is not being threatened by the dominant culture, Mr. O’Reilly.  Christmas HAS BECOME the dominant culture.  And until you find a way to reclaim the once good and true spirit at the heart of the original message you will continue spout the doctrine of commercialism which has grafted itself to your soul.

   The struggle that you – and Christmas – have succumbed to is one still being resisted by all who endeavor to remain true to the underlying, simple message their faith has to offer.

   Rabbi Jeff Salkin, a colleague of mine in Atlanta, offered some great insight about this struggle.

   ”The Christmas season,” he says, “is an extremely seductive season for Jews.  While it is delightful to be able to enjoy the festive nature of this season.  Hanukkah reminds us that there are times when we must stand apart from the majority religious culture.”

   “The real miracle of Hannukkah,” Rabbi Salkin continues, “is not that a small army of Jewish loyalists were able to defeat the most powerful army in the world. The real miracle of Hanukkah is that Judaism was able to stand up to the tempting culture of its time.”

   You seem to have lost that battle, Mr. O’Reilly.  And in losing sight of your original faith, you seem set on a course of trying to assimilate others into giving up theirs.  I’m not sure what promise convinced you to give up a message of light, hope and love for one of arrogance, greed and hate.  But I take heart in knowing there remain good Christians – and non-Christians alike – who have remained true to the message at the heart of Christmas.  Whole towns of them.

   This year marks the twenty year anniversary of evidence to that fact.  In Billings, Montana when a brick was thrown through 5-year-old Isaac Schnitzer’s bedroom window, he woke up covered in shards of glass. The reason? A menorah was stenciled on the front window as part of the family’s Hanukkah celebration.

   Billings, Montana is considered a “homeland” for the Aryan Nation, Klan members, and other white supremacists. Hundreds of hate crimes occur every year.  Many against Jews – desecration of Jewish cemeteries, threatening phone calls to Jewish citizens, swastikas painted on the homes of Jewish families…

   When Isaac’s mother, Tammie Schnitzer asked the police how she could best protect her family from harm, the advice she got was to remove the symbols.  She was shocked.  ‘How would she explain this to her son?’ she wondered.

   When she heard, neighbor Margaret McDonald, was deeply touched by the question. She tried to imagine explaining to her children that they couldn’t have a Christmas tree in the window or a wreath on the door because it wasn’t safe. She remembered what happened when Hitler ordered the king of Denmark to force Danish Jews to wear the Star of David so that Nazi forces could round them up. No Jews were rounded up because the king – and a great number of Danes – chose to wear the yellow stars themselves. The Nazis lost the ability to find their “enemies.”

   So Ms. McDonald phoned her pastor at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, and asked what he thought of having Sunday school children make paper cut-out menorahs for their own windows.  He got on the phone with colleagues and soon menorahs appeared in the windows of hundreds of Christian homes. Asked about the danger of this action, police chief Wayne Inman told callers, “I think there’s actually a greater risk in not doing it.”

   Five days after the brick was thrown at the Schnitzer home, the Billings Gazette published a full-page drawing of a menorah, along with a general invitation for people to place it in their windows. By the end of the week nearly ten thousand homes had them displayed

   A sporting goods store got involved, advertising on a large billboard the words: “Not in our town!  No hate. No violence. Peace on earth.”  Someone shot at it.  People of other faiths – and no faith at all – took turns holding vigils outside the synagogue during Sabbath services.  Then, bricks and bullets turned on the windows at Central Catholic High school, where an electric marquee read “Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish Friends.”  Windows were broken at a United Methodist Church because of its menorah display. Car and house windows of six non-Jewish families were shattered.  Some with notes that read, “Jew lover”.

   Eventually the violence waned.   But not the love.  People continued in their efforts to support one another against hate crimes even after the holidays had passed.  During Passover the following spring, 250 Christians joined their Jewish brothers and sisters in a traditional Seder meal – celebrating the new friendships which had formed.

   To this day in Billings, Montana, people still put up their menorahs to reaffirm their commitment to peace and religious tolerance. The light they kindled that first year – the light which maybe should have only burned brightly for that one year has continued to burn for the last twenty.  People began living the true message of their holidays instead of the hype.  They banded together.  They rekindled hope.

<><><><>

   The same is possible for you, Mr. O’Reilly.

   I have learned a lot as I have faced the influences of a dominant culture.  I’ve know the temptation to sell out my faith and buy into the myth that hope and happiness are actually for sale.  I have worked hard to understand all the love that is passed on in a clay handprint – the courage it takes to give yourself away like that and the faith it takes to believe others will understand those gestures are holy.

   I know the people I hang out with at the holidays – and all year round – are fish people through and through.  We never get the Lexus with the bow.  But I think we’d agree there is no place a Lexus could take us that has half the love we feel when we turn on that open mouthed bass and sing together, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

   The same is possible for you, Mr. O’Reilly.  I don’t know what dominant influence swept over you and stole your heart.  But if you search your soul, I know you will find a light.  You may worry it is only enough to burn for one day, but surround yourself with good and faithful people and you might understand the miracle of it being enough.

   Happy Holidays, Mr. O’Reilly.

   Oh… and one more thing… Please do not invoke the word ‘war’ when talking about Christmas.  You are not a veteran.  You have not earned the right.  And you cheapen the sacrifices made for that word when you attach it to your frivolous cause.

 

Sincerely,

Rev. Greg Ward

Manassas, VA

 

Copyright, 2013

A Unitarian Universalist Spooneristic Pamphlet

I’m going to sell you the tory of roo teligion.  But you have to cisten larefully or it won’t sake

                   (tell you the story)  (true religion)                     (listen carefully)

mense.  I’ll rell you tight array that you have to whip your flurds.  If you don’t whip your (make sense)    (tell you right away)                (flip your words)                      (flip your

flurds it won’t sake mense.

words)         (make sense)

After I sell you this tory, you should know the difference between mood ginisters

         (tell you this story)                                                                (good ministers)

and mad binisters.   Because their sot the name.  Sake mense so far?  Good.

       (bad ministers)                        (not the same)          (make sense)

The thing you have to know about roo teligion and mood ginistry is that they both

                                                     (true religion)    (good ministry)   

leach tuv.  When all is dead and son, if a church doesn’t leach tuv,

(teach love)                (said and done)                             (teach love)

it isn’t roo teligion or mood ginistry.

(true religion)           (good ministry)

Voncursely, mad binistry doesn’t always bother leaching tuv.  They are boo tizzy

(Conversely)  (bad ministry)                             (teaching love)                (too busy)  

worrying about such things as snandling hakes.  With all the wobblems in the purled,

 (handling snakes)                      (problems in the world)

can you imagine mad binisters spending time snandling hakes.  It’s bun-aleveable!

                         (bad ministers)                       (handling snakes)        (unbelievable) 

Apparently, these mad binisters think that hake snandling will soregive your fins.

                           (bad ministers)               (snake handling)     (forgive your sins)

Because if your fins aren’t soregiven you’ll hind up in well.

                          (sins aren’t foregiven)       (wind up in hell)

Another thing that mad binisters are known for is teaking in spungs.

(bad ministers)                          (speaking in tongues)

Members of the congregation will spontaneously haze their rands and jok tibberish.

(raise their hands)     (talk jibberish)

They profess to be communicating with the spoley hear-it.

                                                                        (holy spirit)

But that’s another thing I find bun-avleveable.

                                               (unbelieveable)

That’s one of the reasons I became Univarian Unitersalist.

                                                            (Unitarian Universalist)  

I wanted a chuvley lurch where no one hinds up in well.

                 (lovely church)                    (winds up in hell)  

Even if all your fins aren’t soregiven.  We don’t have mad binisters

                          (sins aren’t foregiven)                      (bad ministers)   

who teak in spungs.  Although our ministers may occasionally wist their turds.

       (speak in tongues)                                                              (twist their words)    

But there is no teaking in spongs.  We believe all seaple are paved.   

                         (speaking in tongues)                  (people are saved)   

And that everyone has dirth and wignity.

                                     (worth and dignity)

So, if you’re looking for a chuvley lurch where your fins are always soregiven

                                        (lovely church)                   (sins are always forgiven)

and where everyone is treated with dirth and wignity, go Univarian Unitersalist

                                                       (worth and dignity)    (Unitarian Universalist)                   

and become part of roo teligion.

                               (true religion)

‘The rich start the wars, the poor fight them’

In 1918, Eugene Debs was arrested under the Espionage Act of 1917 (designed to target many under socialist sympathies).  He had upset a bureaucracy dedicated to protecting the upper end of a domestic class war and fighting for their interests in an international World War.  What caught the attention of government officials was a particular speech that Debs delivered a few months before.  In his speech, he said:

 

“The rich start the wars, the poor fight them.”
After a short trial, on September 18, 1918, Eugene Debs was convicted.  He was sentenced to 10 years in an Atlanta Federal Prison.  When he was allowed to make a statement to the court, he said the excerpt I include below.

 

Today is Eugene Debs birthday.  After you read his speech, make sure you vote.

 

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

 

I listened to all that was said in this court in support and justification of this prosecution, but my mind remains unchanged. I look upon the Espionage Law as a despotic enactment in flagrant conflict with democratic principles and with the spirit of free institutions…

 

Your Honor, I have stated in this court that I am opposed to the social system in which we live; that I believe in a fundamental change—but if possible by peaceable and orderly means…

 

Standing here this morning, I recall my boyhood. At fourteen I went to work in a railroad shop; at sixteen I was firing a freight engine on a railroad. I remember all the hardships and privations of that earlier day, and from that time until now my heart has been with the working class. I could have been in Congress long ago. I have preferred to go to prison…

 

I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories; of the men in the mines and on the railroads. I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased and their little lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian civilization money is still so much more important than the flesh and blood of childhood. In very truth gold is god today and rules with pitiless sway in the affairs of men.

 

In this country—the most favored beneath the bending skies—we have vast areas of the richest and most fertile soil, material resources in inexhaustible abundance, the most marvelous productive machinery on earth, and millions of eager workers ready to apply their labor to that machinery to produce in abundance for every man, woman, and child—and if there are still vast numbers of our people who are the victims of poverty and whose lives are an unceasing struggle all the way from youth to old age, until at last death comes to their rescue and lulls these hapless victims to dreamless sleep, it is not the fault of the Almighty: it cannot be charged to nature, but it is due entirely to the outgrown social system in which we live that ought to be abolished not only in the interest of the toiling masses but in the higher interest of all humanity…

 

I believe, Your Honor, in common with all Socialists, that this nation ought to own and control its own industries. I believe, as all Socialists do, that all things that are jointly needed and used ought to be jointly owned—that industry, the basis of our social life, instead of being the private property of a few and operated for their enrichment, ought to be the common property of all, democratically administered in the interest of all…

 

I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.

 

This order of things cannot always endure. I have registered my protest against it. I recognize the feebleness of my effort, but, fortunately, I am not alone. There are multiplied thousands of others who, like myself, have come to realize that before we may truly enjoy the blessings of civilized life, we must reorganize society upon a mutual and cooperative basis; and to this end we have organized a great economic and political movement that spreads over the face of all the earth.

 

There are today upwards of sixty millions of Socialists, loyal, devoted adherents to this cause, regardless of nationality, race, creed, color, or sex. They are all making common cause. They are spreading with tireless energy the propaganda of the new social order. They are waiting, watching, and working hopefully through all the hours of the day and the night. They are still in a minority. But they have learned how to be patient and to bide their time. The feel—they know, indeed—that the time is coming, in spite of all opposition, all persecution, when this emancipating gospel will spread among all the peoples, and when this minority will become the triumphant majority and, sweeping into power, inaugurate the greates social and economic change in history.

 

In that day we shall have the universal commonwealth—the harmonious cooperation of every nation with every other nation on earth…

 

Your Honor, I ask no mercy and I plead for no immunity. I realize that finally the right must prevail. I never so clearly comprehended as now the great struggle between the powers of greed and exploitation on the one hand and upon the other the rising hosts of industrial freedom and social justice.

 

I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own.

When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the southern cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches, the southern cross begins to bend, the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of time upon the dial of the universe, and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the lookout knows that the midnight is passing and that relief and rest are close at hand. Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.

 

The Paradoxical Commandments

The Paradoxical Commandments

By Kent M. Keith

 

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

 

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

 

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

 

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

 

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

 

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

 

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

 

 

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

 

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

 

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway

 

 

One of the interesting, ironic aspects of these modern ten commandments, is the story of their authorship.  Most people these days come across these on the internet.  And a good deal of the time they are attributed to Mother Theresa.  Sometimes Robert Schuller.  A copy of these commandments were found on the wall in the Children’s home in Calcutta when Mother Theresa died.  Schuller used them in some sermons and writings.  But they actually come from a Harvard sophomore back in 1968.  His comments were given in the midst of an upswing of the countercultural revolution.   His ideas are both important to the ‘orthodox’ and ‘establishment.’  But equally valuable to the revolutionary disestablishment.

 

In the era of disillusionment that we experience today, I regard the ideas here as gospel.

 

 

 

Poem for All Souls Day

I grew up the middle child

of divorced parents

a family held together more by tenacity and verve

than any old fashion values

more infused with a refusal to become broken

than aspirations to become beloved

 

I was raised in a Los Angeles suburb

which underwent a botched values transplant.

I watched the button-down Rockwell world of the 50s

on modern, state-of-the-art 13 inch black and white TVs

where Wally and the Cleavers

eventually gave way to guns and rose colored glasses.

 

The factory which once manufactured children

from snips and snails, sugar and spice

was sold

when the new management changed suppliers

to cut soaring costs.

 

Every child since 1972

is made from scraps of innocence

and recycled hope.

These days, it is almost impossible to find one

rolling down the line

untainted by trauma or despair

or, who still possesses

the forward evolutionary lean

of a planet tilting its axis toward the ancient promise

that some day we could all become one

among billions

of communally minded mystics

 

What if

we started anew

considering events

like Watergate, Watts and Waco

Nuremburg, New Orleans and Newtown

as pretext

for the fundamental choice

between walking out our door

every morning

armed with hope

instead of hurt?

 

I believe there are enough people

Still not willing

To give up.

Who don’t have to lose their memory

To retain their sanity.

 

Indeed, no one now living today

can look back on their life

without having wiped off the fingerprints

of tragedy or disappointment.

Hurt and the impulse for hostility

are in our box of recipes as well as our journal.

But aren’t those few slender strands of DNA

that differentiate us from the warring animals of the jungle

just the most beneficent sections

of a very complex code

recalling for us the risks we took

when we dared to choose

compassion instead of contempt?

Cooperation instead of competition?

And aren’t those only

the millions of minute distinctions

that make us most human?

 

None of us can rewind this great, collective story

we are all part of.

We are actors with bit parts and aspirations of stardom

not directors who move the stars to suit the scene.

Everything before us is simply the outcome

of millions of lines already spoken

many of them responding to the hurt

instead of the hope in our lives.

And even if we could

erase all the pain,

edit out the disillusion and despair,

would we not also lose all the necessary practice

To forego this stunned and stunted outlook

for a more starry gaze?

There is no better time

To begin writing over old hurts

With a new code of hope.

From Top to Bottom

There are times in life when we find ourselves stuck.  Times when the place we find ourselves is a temporary respite at best.  We see no way ‘forward’ and there’s no way to retrace our steps back.  These are times where we realize that some new way must break forth – either from around us or from within us.  At such times we cannot see the door that life will open for us and feel lost.  These are times when it becomes clear that the breaking of our assumptions or expectations or habits is sometimes not only a good way to go but, without realizing, it’s exactly the way set out to find in the first place.

Pressing our bodies tightly against the brick wall of an unknown building on the University of Virginia last week was one of these times.

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Liz and I were exploring Charlottesville, VA last week having taken a day to tour Monticello and learn about the fascinating and complex life of Thomas Jefferson.  We learned that, besides his pursuits as President of the US and Governor of Virginia, Jefferson was passionate about horticulture, astronomy, education and architecture.  We wanted to go see the University of Virigina – and particularly, the rotunda at the center which he designed.

It was raining lightly when we started out for the half mile walk, up the hill, toward the campus.  We set out with pleasant enough moods and an umbrella for a leisurely, even romantic morning of discovery.  But as we got a little more than half way, the rain went (and our moods) went from easy to urgent.  Before we reached the top, it began to pour.  And just as we turned the corner – when the church and the rotunda came into view – the wind lifted and the rain shifted from horizontal to a sideways trajectory.

We stepped over a bright yellow umbrella discarded on the sidewalk with all its little spokes broken.  It seemed an ominous sight, as was the whistle of the wind now taunted our own feeble umbrella which had given up on its promise to keep us dry.

Seeing the Rotunda and the church were too far away, we made a dash for the brick building ahead of us.  Seeing the front was an additional 50 feet, we made a dash to the portico on the side.  The awning offered little shelter from the sweeping rain so we pressed ourselves flat against the wall where we avoided all but the mist and the splatter.

We stood there, humbled and helpless.  “What do we do now?” Liz asked.  “Nothing we can do, I guess.  Except wait,” I responded.  So we did.  And watched the sheets of water continue to fall.

It was then that a head popped out of one of the two unmarked doors set into the brick wall of that portico.

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“Are you trapped?” asked a well-dressed middle-aged blond woman with wire-framed glasses, smiling.  “Yes,” we both said at once.  “We were on our way to the rotunda when it started to pour and we just ran for it.  We don’t even know where we are.”  “This is the administration building,” she smiled.  ”I’m Teresa Sullivan.  I’m the president of the University.”  We must have looked stunned.  “Please come in.  You can dry off in our lobby.”

This is how love and compassion flow from top to bottom.  When those in the upper echelons of influence are able to see through layers of complexity and power to see the tenderness and vulnerability of those caught in the winds and rains of these tumultuous times.  When I got home, I googled Ms. Sullivan and discovered she recently won an award for leadership.  I wasn’t surprised.  This is what leadership is: the ability of those at the top to see through stormy conditions and remember our true purpose… an aim for those at every station to understand why they left in the first place, what they set out to find and how to get there.

May this be a model for all of us on the path.

To the Glory of Life.

Carrying Stones

Before the journey, I was told to bring a rock.

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I was told it was part of the pilgrimage.  That there is a place – indeed many places along the camino – to place it.

“Why?” I asked.

“Why would I carry a rock?” I wondered.  “Why carry something that had no purpose?”  Especially when I was told to carefully consider every single ounce that went into my pack?  When everything I’d read told me how important it was to lighten my load for the six hundred mile journey?”

Although I stumbled across many responses, none made much sense to me.  The reasons I heard  for carrying rocks seemed sentimental or superstitious.  I did hear the enigmatic zen reply: “The purpose of the stone you bring will become clear when you get to the place it belongs,” but that simply deflected off my fortress of skepticism.

So, I didn’t pack a stone.  Only my essential gear – not all of which proved essential.  And such items quickly found the place they belonged in trash cans along the trail.  But I did take my mother’s ashes which seemed exceptional enough to rise above all my rules of strict pragmatism.

I was told to bring a rock, and I resisted.  The resistance I carried came, I believe, from an accumulation of things I have been told over the course of my life that turned out, in the end, not to be true.  Sentimental or superstitious things, that suspected that others carried out of worry and fear.

I was told to bring a rock.  But when my plane landed and my pilgrimage began, I had none.

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I probably wouldn’t have thought any more about it if it weren’t for the mounds of rocks that I begin to see were prominently placed on markers and signs along the trail.  These weren’t rocks that were naturally part of the Spanish hillsides.  These were rocks that, in many cases, were geologically different than everything around them.  They were obviously carried and set down – often stacked one atop another – in conspicuous fashion.

I’d heard that the Camino was an ancient pilgrimage dating back to the early pagans.  That when the Christian church came to power, they sent people on it to work off their sins. Those who believed the journey would absolve them, carried rocks as a form of penance.  My skepticism grew.

But I heard that in the earliest days of the Camino, pagans understood stones as capable of absorbing and holding our worries.  Our losses and our sorrows.  That we could pick up a rock and transfer our disappointments, regrets, hurts and despair into by doing the work of reflection, that is, sifting out the wisdom which is the blessing from the worry which is the burden.

I chose not to start my journey with a rock.   But somewhere around half way point – the 300 mile mark – just after Liz had to go back to work and I was on my own, I asked myself a very humbling question: “What did I carry instead of all these rocks I was seeing?  What did I pour my worries and sorrow into.  By this time, the arduousness of the road had me answering more honestly than usual.

A lot of my sorrow and worry and pain, I poured into Liz.  A lot of rigidity and overwhelm got poured into my family and friends.  Efforts to appear competent got poured into work.  A lot of the skepticism and vigilance got poured into life in general.   These things – to ‘ward-off’ disappointment (pun intended) – are not light things to carry – and I’d been carrying them for a lot longer than this 600 mile journey.

It was at this time I picked up a rock.  And from then on, in the times I routinely found myself becoming pensive – where I would ruminate and cogitate and worry – I held onto my rock.

The highest part of the journey – atop the Leónese Mountains – about two weeks before we arrived in Santiago – is where pilgrims come across the Cruce de Ferro (Iron Cross).  It is a mound of rocks surrounding a large pole extending far into the sky.  Atop the pole is an iron cross.   The rocks around the cross have names or words or prayers written on them.  Some have string tied around them or other symbols of significance.  They were brought by people who’d carried worries or prayers to this point from all over the world.  To get to the pole, you have to climb up ten feet of these worries.

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When I arrived there I realized my fears and worries had a place where they were understood.  Where they were recognized and known and where they were at home.  I could almost feel my own rock jump out of my pocket.  It was like they said, “The purpose of the stone you bring will become clear when you get to the place it belongs,”  I set it down and thanked all my sorrows and worry for trying so hard to protect me.  I also poured out some of my mother’s ashes – a mixture of sand and small pebbles – and realized that, for years, my mother had carried a lot of my sorrows.  And I thanked her for trying to protect me.

They say that the position of Cruce de Ferro is important.  From the Leónese Mountains, you can practically see Santiago in the distance.  And you are supposed to approach and enter Santiago with joy in your heart.  Hard to do when you carry so much worry and fear.

The road to Santiago – to wherever we are headed – is lined with sorrows.  It is also lined with superstition and sentimentality.  Look to the side and you will see how rocks hold all these things in place and allow you the lightness necessary to be a bearer of gratitude and joy.