Oldest Dance Step

In the Bible there is a dance step known as the ‘not me shuffle’.  The dance goes like this: God calls us to step out in faith.  Our response? ‘Are you kidding me?’

Moses was called by God to speak a word of challenge to the Pharaoh: ‘Let my people go!’  Moses responds: ‘You can’t mean me!  I stutter.  I can’t string two sentences together.  How about sending my brother Aaron?’

Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet to his own nation.  He knew that prophets get their butt kicked.  Jeremiah responds: ‘I’m just a boy. Surely you want someone with more experience.’

Sarah said she was to old. Mary said she was to young.

How about you?  Ever felt that God was calling/nudging/prodding you to move in a new direction or speak a word of truth?

Often I revert to the ‘not me shuffle’:  “I’m not smart enough, faithful enough, brave enough, good enough, ______.”

Richard Bach captures our reluctance well: ‘Argue for your limitations long enough and sure enough, they are yours.’

In contrast, God argues for our potential.  God sees strength where we see weakness.  It seems that God enjoys bringing out the extraordinary in that which seems ordinary, even wounded and broken.  We are invited to dance not away from but with our Creator.

photo of dancing feet

When I was fifteen years old, I sensed that God was calling me to be a pastor.  Me?  I knew I didn’t measure up to what I thought a pastor should be … notably serious guys in suits who spoke in oddly stilted language of ‘thee and thou’.  That wasn’t me.

Yet, I couldn’t shake the idea that God was calling me.  Imagine.

In college I pushed the boundaries, asked lots of questions and explored other faiths.  The call however remained…as if God were saying, ‘I choose you’.

Between my junior and senior year of college I had a conversion experience, a reaffirmation that the call I sensed at fifteen was still at work.  Forty plus years later I still sense God’s holy nudge.

With all my limitations that great mystery we call God continues to speak into my life and guide my path.  Sometimes  it is only in looking back that I can see I’ve been accompanied with every step.

The invitation of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that we are invited to see ourselves and others through God’s eyes.  Full of wisdom, beauty and strength.  We are called to stop arguing for our limitations.

What might God be calling/nudging you to do, to become?

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Antidote: Peace of Wild Things

Peace of Wild Things

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. ~ Wendell Berry

photo Ipswich River

Last week feeling overwhelmed by the darkness of political discourse and the horrific images of yet another act of gun violence in our nation, I retreated  to the river.

The Ipswich is a gem just 15 minutes from my house.  With a few friends we slipped from one world into another.  Unplugged via canoe and kayak we moved with the water.

Soon we fell silent as we opened ourselves to the mystery and beauty of nature. Our companions?  The whistle of a hawk, the prehistoric screech of the Great Blue Heron and the slap of a beaver tail…letting us know that we were approaching their home.

We paddled slowly allowing the busyness and tension of life to slip away, at least for a time.   As the poet writes, ‘we came into the presence of still water, the peace of wild things’.  And indeed, for those moments, we rested in the grace of the world and were free.

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In Praise of Moose

This past week I walked a portion of the Long Trail in Vermont.  For five days I backpacked with my cousin Tom from Lincoln Gap to the base of Camels Hump.

Nine years ago I took up backpacking in the mountains of my then home in Oregon.  For several years I packed with friends in the Eagle Cap Wilderness along the Idaho/Oregon border.  We climbed and camped at the 12,000 foot level.  I thought I knew what tough packing was like.

But the Long Trail is different.  The tallest peaks I climbed were in the 4000′ foot category.  But instead of the gradual switchbacks of a broad Oregon mountain this trail is essentially vertical.  Climbers scramble over glacial boulders and a twisted labyrinth of roots and stone.  Going down is no easier than up.

Photo of Tom on Long Trail

On the Long Trail you have to be mindful lest you fall. The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn would likely praise the Long Trail. He’s all about being present to where you are:  ‘When you walk know you are walking’.

The Long Trail heightens your senses.  On one of the few relatively flat stretches I entered a mix of forest and wetlands.  Scattered along the trail were perfect piles of moose droppings.

Moose droppings or the colloquial ‘moose shit’ are perfectly round balls of one inch in diameter heaped in impressive piles along the trail.   Walking my senses were on alert looking for a moose in the flesh.

photo of moose crap

I didn’t see a moose.  Only the tell-tale sign that I was in the land of moose.  I know this  because I was not simply passing through.   I was fully present to my surroundings, my antenna was up my senses on alert.

Like the good Buddha Baptist that I am, I knew where I was.  I was on the Long Trail.  I was walking through the home of moose.

The Long Trail is not for the faint of heart.  It focuses ones attention.  It makes you feel fully alive.  The trail reminds you of where and who you are.

Be distracted at your own peril.

 

 

 

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Some Lives Matter More

Some lives matter more.  So it would seem.

This past week two black men, in Louisiana and in Minnesota were killed by white police officers in images gone viral.  In reaction five police officers in Dallas who were simply doing their job were killed by a black sniper.  These and other high-profile race related killings and riots across the nation has stripped white folk like me of the illusion that we live in a color blind society.

We are beginning to understand what our black and brown sisters and brothers have always known.  America is a fragmented society that allows for the subjugation of people of color.  In the era of a black President how can this be?

Look no further than the prison industrial complex.  The prison system is lucrative.  Both private and public entities run our jails and prisons.  Tens of thousands are employed to control the population, contractors are hired to build and maintain these facilities, vendors sell millions of dollars of products.

photo of jail

This industry is built on the backs of people of color. Let’s look at the facts:  From 1926 – 1970’s the U.S prison population was static per 100,000 people.  However in the 1970’s a dramatic change took place.  A war on drugs was announced.  Why this war was declared is fodder for another article. In truth drug use hadn’t increased dramatically.  But it helped politicians to get elected under the banner of ‘tough on crime’.

‘Three strikes and your out’ laws were passed taking discretion out of the hands of judges.  People received harsh sentences for non violent crimes.  Most were people of color.

It began with President Nixon, accelerated with President Reagan and a record number of  prisons built under President Clinton.  Over these last 40 years the prison population has risen 500%.  58% of these prisoners are people of color.  The vast majority of prisoners of color are in jail because of non violent drug related offenses.

Let’s be clear prisons are not corrective they are repressive.  Prisons with few exceptions are intended to break and control the spirit of those incarcerated.  They are punitive, dehumanizing places.

Each year approx. 650,000 prisoners are released to their home community.  78% within a few years will return to prison thus ensuring that the prison industrial complex continues to make money.   Why?  The difficulty in finding jobs.  The fracture of families while apart. The lack of resources to help people reintegrate into their communities.  With few if any options prisoners reoffend. The impact on young black and brown lives and upon their families and communities is heart breaking.

White folk don’t generally understand this.  We think justice is fair.  We think the police are our friends. When we hear the phase ‘Black Lives Matter’, we shake our heads…perplexed and perhaps offended.   We say, ‘All Lives Matter’.

But people of color understand that in America, ‘some lives matter more than others’, particularly ‘white lives’.

The current tension between police and communities of color is a result of this systemic tension.  It is not the police officer who creates this disparity.  He or she is often an honorable person working within an unjust two tiered  justice system.

This system is in place because the majority of white folk like me are ignorant or indifferent to our corrupt justice system.

Where is the hope?  I believe this time of heightened racial tension can be the catalyst for a serious, prolonged, substantive, soul-searching conversation as a nation on the impact of racism in our society.

I find it hopeful that many of the young people gathering for Black Lives Matter events are people from all races.  They are calling all of us, particularly white Americans to live into the dream of Dr. King ‘that one day my children and your children will be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin’.

photo of black lives matter

To make that dream come true we must first acknowledge that in America some lives matter more than others.  Only until we recognize this disturbing truth can we truly become ‘one nation under God with liberty and justice for all’.

Note:  For white readers who want to join me in being reeducated on matters of race, I recommend reading: ‘The New Jim Crow’ by Michelle Alexander; ‘Between the World and Me’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Hang out with people who are different than you.  Ask questions and listen.

 

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Foolish Wisdom

I serve a church in the downtown section of a small city.  City leaders are working hard to spiff up the downtown.  A retro theater from the 1930’s has been refurbished, restaurants are opening and artists are moving in.

In short the community is being rediscovered as a place to live and relax.  Just a few blocks from the ocean we are attractive to tourists.  We are fostering community development that is sustainable, that attracts a critical mass of people who will spend money.

In the midst of this carefully crafted image is a neighbor I’ll call Bryce.   He’s a character that defies expectations.  Bryce is a street person who lives in alleys, in the woods and occasionally on a friends couch.  His belongings are kept in a shopping cart.  This in itself isn’t unusual.  Cities large and small have neighbors who struggle due to economics or mental health issues or addiction or a combination.  Such neighbors are familiar.  Easy to look and walk past.

Homeless neighbor

But Bryce is different. He refuses to blend into the background.  Bryce wrestles with a variety of mental health issues.  On occasion his behavior is belligerent.  But those times are the exception.

What makes Bryce stand out is his love of beauty. With an inability to differentiate boundaries he is apt to commandeer a flat of flowers and plant them  in front of the Fire Station.

It’s not uncommon to see mini parks emerge at traffic roundabouts  festooned with American flags, trinkets, tinsel and flowers.   All Bryce’s work.

Where he gets his treasurers is anyone’s guess.  A police officer with a smile told me of Bryce walking into the station with freshly baked cookies.  He offered the cookies with words of thanks to the officers for treating him with such kindness.  Later it was discovered that the cookies had been taken from a local bakery when a worker had turned his back.

This is Bryce.  A neighbor who functions on a different frequency. A neighbor who often amuses and confounds those he crosses paths with.  It’s hard to be too angry with such a person.  But not impossible.  One lady I met was furious at the mess he made by throwing bread to the birds in the local park.

Some consider Bryce to be a fool.  People avoid him or make fun of him.  Yet fools have a purpose. The fool serves as a mirror to our own character, the person we strive to be.

Jesus often took on the role of the fool, the poor, oppressed, unlovely, unlovable.  He said: ‘Whoever shows compassion and kindness to one such as these, shows kindness to  me.  For these fools, these broken ones, these deemed untouchable…these are my family.’ (paraphrase of Matthew 25: 31-46).

Bryce is a gift.  A frustrating gift on occasion but a gift nonetheless. He invites us to bring beauty into places we wouldn’t think of.  He invites us to question our own carefully constructed boundaries.  He offers us the choice to include or exclude.

Bryce in his irrepressible way says: ‘I belong.  I too have a place in this community’.

Bryce knows my name.  He always greets me with a smile.  And sometimes with a warm cookie or fresh flowers…which have come from God knows where.

 

 

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Love To Our Gay Sisters and Brothers in Orlando

Another mass shooting in America.  This time in a gay night club in Orlando, Florida.  50 dead.  53 wounded.  The largest mass shooting in our nations history.  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/13/us/orlando-nightclub-shooting.html

The pattern is familiar.  A young man, age 29.  Disconnected from family.  Drawn to violence to legitimize himself and to vent his rage at the expense of others.

With easy access to an assault weapon he walks into a crowded club and mows innocent people down.  HIs weapon of choice?  An AR-15 style assault rifle and handgun.  A rifle whose only purpose is to inflict as much carnage as quickly as possible.

photo of grief

I’ve already written  many articles calling for common sense gun laws. If this doesn’t wake us up what will? I’ve asked the same question before….after Sandy Hook, after Roseville, Oregon, after drive by shootings in Chicago…

We live in an incendiary culture that legitimizes us and them thinking.  This political season in particular seeks to separate groups one from the other.   The Republican nominee for president boasts of building walls, mass deportation of undocumented neighbors and barring people simply because of their religion.

Easy access to assault weapons and bombastic political announcements have one thing in common.  Each depends upon fear to survive.

The billion dollar weapon industry in the USA is contingent upon ginning up fear.  Fear of the other.  Fear of being out of control.  Fear of being attacked by those who make us uncomfortable and who we don’t know.

Mr. Trump’s entire candidacy is built on fear.  Fear of Mexicans, fear of Muslims, fear of Syrians, fear of strong women, fear of people who don’t think and act like us.

Details are still coming in as to what inspired this young man (a U.S citizen) to do what he did.   Prior to the killing he called 911 and said he was allied with ISIS.  That he chose a gay night club to kill and maim is not a surprise and reflects a homophobic strain that continues to do its work in our nation and around the world.

What can we do?  I suggest we do an act of spiritual jujitsu, where we meet the hatred and violence of our attacker with forgiveness and love.

My comment may sound bazaar and hapless.  Some would say: ‘We must meet violence with violence.  We must show strength not weakness.’

The fear mongers would have us hoard weapons and build walls.  But what has this ever solved?

Two thousand years ago a prophet named Jesus, wept over Jerusalem and said: ‘If now, even now, you knew the things that make for peace.’

What makes for peace? Forgiveness, bridge building, selfless service, tolerance, respect, advocacy for the oppressed and forgotten (including alienated angry young men).

Jesus also said, ‘put away your sword’.  Not a stretch to think he’d include assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in his admonishment.

Here’s another idea.  In this polarized political season, let’s hold each other accountable.  Let’s make a pact that we will disagree with as much civility as we can muster.

Tonight I’ll stand with my neighbors in our city park.  We will light candles and offer prayers for the people of Orlando.  I’ll pray too for the tortured soul of the assailant.  On June 25th I’ll march with my church in the Gay Pride Parade in Salem, MA.  http://northshorepride.org/participate/march

Such symbolic acts may seem insignificant in the midst of the fear and pain of our time.  Yet I hold onto the hope that love will ultimately have the final word.  I can’t do otherwise.

How about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Muhammad Ali, Conscience of America

Muhammad Ali died this week.  He is remembered as a boxing legend.  More than that he is remembered around the world as a man of conscience.

Born Cassius Clay in segregated Louisville, Kentucky, he refused to abide by the rules of segregation and Jim Crow.  He refused to be quiet and go along to get along.

As a boxer he showed himself to be an athlete who fought with his own brand of theater and skill.  He stretched the comfort zone of a society that liked to keep ‘black folk in their place’.  Rather, he stated  recklessly, ‘I am the greatest’!  He inspired a generation of young blacks and in equal measure unsettled many whites.

Later, he changed his name of Muhammad Ali and embraced the Nation of Islam.

The backdrop for Ali’s emergence as a public figure was the fight for Civil Rights,  the Black Power movement and the Vietnam War.  In this volatile setting Ali emerged as a voice of conscience demanding to be treated with dignity.   He refused to be quiet and complicit in the face of injustice.

Ali rose to international prominence when he refused to be drafted to fight in the war in Vietnam.

He said:  “Who is the descendant of the slave masters to order a descendant of the slaves to fight other people in their own country?”

He paid a price.  He was stripped of his standing as Heavyweight Champion.  For three years at the height of his career  he was barred from boxing.  Yet his defiance in the face of racism and injustice inspired millions of oppressed people in the United States and around the world.

photo of Muhammad Ali

Even when Parkinson disease slurred his words and bowed his body, he remained a symbol for dignity and justice.

Over time society tried to domesticate Muhammad Ali, to make him yet another celebrity in popular culture.  But Ali refused to be domesticated.  For the rest of his life he spoke truth to power.

Ali’s witness reminds me of the recent book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘Between the World and Me’.  We hear the words of a black father to his twelve your old son.   Telling him about how to survive in racist America.

For me the book was a slap upside the head.  Coates confronts me with the racism in America and within me.  As a white man I discover I have much work to do.

Such has been the work of Muhammad Ali all these years.  He’s refused to go along with the majority white culture.  He’s refused to be complicit with those in power.  He’s challenged the health of our minds and hearts.

Ali is lionized as a great boxer.  More than that, he was a great man.

 

 

 

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