Who’s atop our pedestals?

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We drove through a small town on our way to a nature area for a picnic and a hike in southern Ohio. The town is quaint with old storefronts dotting the public square.

In the middle of the square is a cannon, part of a large war monument that lists the names of town members who died in various wars. It’s a nice gesture to remember their sacrifices.

What struck me, though, was how there were no other remembrances of anything else involved with the town. How odd, I thought.

There was no mention of the town’s founder. Nothing honoring the teacher who started the first school that taught children about their world. No tribute to the town’s first doctor who made house calls in the middle of the night.

Nothing honoring the wise and compassionate leaders who developed the town and got it through times of division, showing everyone that there are ways to settle differences other than conflict.

I’m not picking on this one town. Most places – large and small – are the same way, if you think about it. There are war memorials and monuments to warriors in rural and urban communities.

Sporting events have morphed into tributes to the military, with fans applauding those who serve.

Meanwhile, we give comparatively scant attention to those who teach us, heal us, help us to grow in wisdom. We don’t invite doctors and nurses to stand on dugouts between innings for applause. We don’t invite teachers and social workers to stand at midfield for tributes.

We don’t hold ticker-tape parades for scientists and researchers who develop treatments that save our lives and our environment. We don’t create memorials to those who feed the poor and help the needy and work for peace.

No, our pedestals are mostly reserved for those who conduct war. So is our national budget; our society spends as much on the military as the next seven countries combined.

There’s nothing wrong with remembering the sacrifices of military people. When theirs are the only sacrifices we honor, however, we’re doing something other than showing appreciation to them.

We’re glorifying conflict and worshiping war.

My dad was a paratrooper in the Korean war. He was wounded and returned with his emotional scars. Neither he nor any of the other veterans in my family circle spoke of the atrocities they saw.

None of them glorified war.

Noble and courageous acts occur during war, but war itself is the ultimate human failure – God’s children killing God’s children — and must never be portrayed as anything else, certainly not with pedestals.

During our response to the pandemic, we’ve started paying more attention to people who have been overlooked by comparison.

We’re seeing the brave medical workers sacrificing to save lives and how we have failed to give them the support they need. We’re appreciating teachers much more after two months of home schooling.

We’re seeing how ordinary people treating others with compassion and care. We see regular folks doing courageous and noble acts to keep others safe.

We see so many people who belong on pedestals. We need to think about which ones we choose to put there, and why.

(Photo courtesy of Szilas @commons.wikimedia.org)

Healing a broken system

heal atomicity creative commons

Americans read about foreign hospitals overwhelmed by the coronavirus and mistakenly thought those horror stories could never happen here because our health care system is so good.

We spend more per capita on health care than any other developed nation, which provided a sense of security that was badly misplaced.

The virus has exposed a broken system. Our faith compels us to try to heal it.

The heart of religion is about healing our individual and collective brokenness and repairing ruptured relationships with God and one another. We must be healed, and we also must be healers, both individually and collectively.

The accounts of Jesus’ life describe him as a gifted healer who offered healing to everyone free of charge. He could have leveraged his abilities, but he chose not to.

He never monetized healing. Instead, he offered it like grace to anyone who desired it. He sent his followers to heal collectively in the same unbrokered way.

We’re meant to do so as well. As N.T. Wright puts it, “Healing is far too important and central to the stories about Jesus for those who wish to follow him today to ignore it.”

We can’t pretend about our health care system anymore. Long before the pandemic, we knew it was broken.

Millions can’t afford it. Those with health coverage face crippling debt for something as common as cancer. Premiums and deductibles soar. The cost of drugs jumps exponentially.

We saw with the opioid epidemic how a profit-motivated system inflicts suffering and death on society by pushing drugs that enrich the bottom line.

The coronavirus stripped away any remaining illusions about our system.

A doctor in a New York City emergency room wrote last month about her experiences as the virus raged. Dr. Helen Ouyang described for The New York Times Magazine how the system was ill-prepared for a pandemic that the medical profession had long predicted.

She described patients crammed into the ER, lying in their own waste while dying unattended because of depleted medical staffs.

Doctors and nurses were among the sick and dying because of inadequate protective equipment, a situation Dr. Ouyang described as far worse than in any of the “third-world” countries she visited on relief missions.

Applauding health care workers every evening or posting grateful memes isn’t enough. We have the resources we need to fix the system. What’s missing is our resolve.

Profit will always be part of the system, but we can’t allow it to be the engine driving it. Providing healing at an affordable cost for all God’s children must be the overriding intent.

There are many ways to do this. We need wide-ranging discussions to plot the best path and then enact changes, knowing we’ll get pushback from those making enormous profits off the current, broken system.

When healing is turned into a high-priced commodity available only to those who can afford it, we get a sick society. What we need now is healing. And people committed to being healers.

(Photo courtesy of atomicity @creativecommons.org)

Tomorrow: Monuments to war

 

 

 

 

Faith in our broken society

values burrows.nichole28 CC

The pandemic has shown us that we need to change not only our individual lives but our collective ones as well. There’s a lot in our society that’s deeply broken and needs fixed.

Our spending priorities are askew. Our health system is a mess. Our leadership is lacking. Our decisions favor some lives and render others expendable.

In times like these, prophetic voices challenge systems and shape discussions. We need to be those voices.

We can’t hide inside places of worship. We must get involved in what’s happening outside our doors.

Faith and values apply not only to our personal lives, but to our collective lives as well. If they don’t, our faith is only half-hearted and our values null and void.

Our religious tradition urges us to love God with all our hearts in all areas of our lives, not just the convenient parts. We’re to love our neighbors – all of them, in all situations – the same way we love ourselves.

Real faith is an all-or-nothing proposition.

Throughout history, many religiously observant people have endorsed superficial faith. Some Christians peddle the notion that Jesus’ values — love, compassion, forgiveness, healing, inclusion, caring for the needy, promoting peace — should apply to personal lives but can be excluded from our collective choices.

They say our society should be run by conflicting values – wealth, greed, privilege, self-interest, domination.

The same mentality created slavery and Jim Crow. White Christians insisted that their oppressive systems were exempt from Jesus’ commands to treat everyone as an equally beloved child of God.

We can’t limit faith to a few areas of our lives. We can’t ignore what’s being done by the various social systems that need our support or our inattention to continue.

That’s the real test of faith.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “A religion true to its nature must also be concerned about man’s social conditions. … Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”

One form of religion mustn’t gain privilege or supremacy; rather, faith compels us to ground our collective decisions in the loving values that are the foundation of all true religion.

Our conversations about the many challenges confronting us must begin by acknowledging our shared responsibility to care for all God’s children and all God’s creation in all circumstances.

It’s all-or-nothing.

We’ll sometimes disagree about how best to accomplish goals, but we must always be in accord on the underlying intention for all we do. Love alone must be our motivation.

If we choose a different starting point for our collective decisions, then we’ve not only lost our way but any semblance of faith as well.

(Photo illustration courtesy of burrows.nichole28 @creativecommons.org)

Tomorrow: Healers in a broken system

 

 

Dead end of denial

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We explored the illusion of control in yesterday’s reflection, how we all go to great lengths to convince ourselves that we’re in charge when, clearly, we’re not. Much denial is involved.

Illusion and denial go hand-in-hand.

We’re all mired in forms of denial, which doesn’t make us bad, only human. The challenge is to recognize it and decide how to move beyond it.

It’s a powerful drug, this denial. It anesthetizes us from the results of our self-destructive choices, both individually and collectively. It allows us to avoid the hard work of taking stock and making changes.

When I was growing up, I got a powerful lesson in how our lives improve immensely when we’ve got the courage to emerge from denial.

My dad was a wounded veteran from the Korean war. He brought demons back from the battlefield and tried to drown them in alcohol. All it did was make everything worse for everyone.

After a few difficult years, he recognized how his drinking was a problem and courageously resolved to change. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous and transformed his life, finding healing ways to deal with his demons.

Transformation starts with facing the things we’ve worked so hard to avoid or explain away. Or, to put it another way, it begins with taking the plank out of our own eye.

Spirituality is about recognizing the denial that prevents us from changing, healing and growing in love.

There were people in Jesus’ religious culture who liked to ostracize and throw stones. He tried to get them to see that they should stop judging others and instead see what needed to change inside themselves.

They were so deep in denial that they didn’t hear anything he said. Judging others’ behavior gave them a pass from looking at their own.

Religion can easily devolve into systems of blame and denial. Horrific things are done by people invoking God’s name and insisting that others deserve the horrible things done to them.

Injustices proliferate because people are in denial that anything’s wrong, that they play any role in the injustice, or that anything can be done to make a situation better.

Things aren’t so bad, people will say. And besides, other groups of people have it bad too, so there’s no point in talking about any of it. Let’s just change the subject.

Denial is a dead end. Real faith forces us to take another path.

Thankfully, God is always trying to resurrect us from the tomb of denial. God wants us to be transformed into more honest and more loving versions of ourselves.

Remove our planks, drop our stones, and love instead.

(photo courtesy of creativecommons.org)

 

The illusion of control

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One of my acquaintances hated flying. He’d rather make a long drive than buckle into an airplane seat, even though he knew it was far more dangerous statistically to get on the road.

So, I was shocked when he informed me one day that he was taking flying lessons. What made his fear recede?

He said he felt safe so long as his inexperienced hands were the ones on the controls even though he wasn’t sure what he was doing.

It reminded me how we’re all addicted to the illusion of control when, in fact, we aren’t in control of very much of the big stuff.

For example, we don’t decide when or where we’re born. We don’t choose our families. We don’t decide whether we will die.

And, contrary to what we imagine, we have limited control over the course of our lives. Look at how one virus has upended so much of it.

I wonder if our unease during this time is realizing we’re not all that much in control. Perhaps part of the pushback against social restrictions is an attempt to feel more in control, even though we know it will make things worse.

We see our craving for control spill into religion. The Garden of Eden parable teaches us that things go to hell when we pretend we’re in control and can do whatever we like.

Instead, we see how some religions snatch a few scripture verses, ignore the rest, establish a code of conduct – what to do, who to shun – and insist God has to welcome us at the pearly gates if we abide by the rules.

And if we don’t, God will be forced to reject us because God doesn’t have a choice in the matter, we say.

When I was growing up in the ‘60s, Catholics taught that Protestants were going to hell because they didn’t recognize the pope. Protestants taught that Catholics were going to hell for the opposite reason.

This notion that we can control God’s decisions is the height of hubris and folly, the Garden of Eden all over again.

We forget that God gave up control – gave us free will – because there’s something more important. Love is what God is about, not control.

Loving relationship involves creating space where we can reveal ourselves and be known and affirmed, free of judgment or manipulation.

Entering the divine relationship involves giving up our illusions of control – control of God, control of others. When we acknowledge our dependence upon God and our mutuality with others, we discover who we are.

We’re not the pilot. We don’t decide the destination or the flight’s duration. We’re not in control.

Instead, we’re all equal passengers. There’s no first-class section — everyone is privileged here. Our role is to care for all other passengers on the divine journey.

Who needs a haircut?

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While sheltering at home, folks have shared funny memes imaging how we’ll look when we’re able to get our hair cut and styled again.

Isn’t it telling that we’re so conditioned to think about our looks, even during a pandemic?

In many cultures, appearances receive overriding importance, especially for women. Images set the bar for what we’re supposed to look like if we want to be accepted.

Of course, those images that are enhanced and manipulated. Nobody actually looks that way in real life, not even the models and actors.

In 2006, I covered a baseball game at Great American Ball Park attended by Tom Hanks, Ron Howard and Dennis Miller. They were doing a ballpark tour for Hanks’ birthday. They agreed to chat with reporters.

The first thing that got my attention when we met was how without makeup, they looked liked everyone else. They had age spots and bald spots and wrinkles and unruly hair.

Just like me.

Perhaps our time away from hair stylists can remind us that we worry too much about our appearances and those of others. Consider it a home-schooling lesson in how we mistakenly associate looks with value.

We tend to look positively on people who wear expensive clothes, drive exotic cars, live in big houses, and have immaculate skin, teeth and hair. Appearances sway our judgments.

The same works in reverse. When we see someone who doesn’t meet those standards, we might think less of them. And of ourselves as well.

It’s subliminal and insidious, and it pulls us away from the truth about ourselves: we’re all beloved children of God, just as we are. We lose sight of that when we judge by any other standard.

I help an inner-city church with its summer program for children from families struggling to make ends meet. The church serves breakfast and lunch – for some of the kids, the best meals they’ll get that day – and has activities in-between.

Each day starts with the kids gathering in the church itself for a message from the pastor, who reminds them they are beautiful and loved, just as they are. And nothing can ever change that.

These kids hear a different message every time they watch television or see an ad online. They’re told in subtle ways that they don’t measure up because they don’t meet the standard in front of their eyes.

They need to be reminded many times every day that those advertising images aren’t real and the messages they hear are wrong. They need to be told again and again that love and value aren’t dependent upon fancy clothes or expensive makeup.

Clothes are only clothes. Wrinkles are only wrinkles. Hair is only hair. None of them has anything to do with our innate value.

Remember that the next time you look in the mirror and fixate on a wrinkle, a bald spot or an out-of-place curl. That person you see? Beautiful, just as you are.

And so is everyone else. No matter how they look. No matter how long and unruly their hair.

(photo courtesy of pexels.com)

Tomorrow: The lie of control

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living in liminal spaces

searching gfdnova1 at creative commons

I watched my parents drive away in the station wagon after dropping me off at college the first time, and I knew every part of my life was about to change.

Instead of living in my house with my family, I was sharing a small cinderblock dorm room with a roommate I’d never met. I shared a bathroom with the dorm wing and ate in a cafeteria.

Those first few weeks, I carried a map to find my way to the next class – I had nightmares for decades about being loss on campus!

It was a deeply unsettling transition, something that Richard Rohr refers to as a liminal space – a time and place where we’re challenged to think and act in new ways.

Moving into liminal space is never comfortable, but it’s essential if we’re to grow. The only way we move toward God and each other is by stepping outside our comfort zones.

The alternative is to stagnate and never know what it means to truly live.

We’re all in a liminal space now with the pandemic. A virus has challenged so many of our assumptions about ourselves – what we need, what really matters – and about our society as well.

What’s so unsettling is that we’re moving away from patterns of thinking and acting that provided a sense of comfort and predictability. When we can anticipate what comes next, we feel more in control.

In a sense, we’ve lost our security blanket. And we say: Now what?

Liminal times invite us to look beyond our limiting patterns. We have to leave our bubbles in order to see what’s outside of them.

This is especially true in spirituality. We’re raised in traditions that are sometimes very limited and confining. Over time, we feel ourselves outgrowing the small theological boxes, but it’s disconcerting because it’s all we know.

How do we replace them? What do we replace them with? Can we grow outside a bubble while still being friends with others inside it? The answers aren’t apparent right away.

It takes great courage to step outside our confines and become a seeker, but that’s what it takes. I love the line in the gospels reminding us that if we seek, we will find, but we must leave the safety of certitude and go look for God’s presence in unfamiliar places.

We will find – that’s the promise – but first we have to seek, even though that part of the equation is always unsettling.

As Rohr says, “It’s no surprise then that we generally avoid liminal space. Much of the work of authentic spirituality and human development is to get people into liminal space and to keep them there long enough that they can learn something essential and new.”

The longer we spend in liminal space, the more acclimated we become. We relax into it a little more. We feel ourselves growing in important ways that bring us more peace and joy, and we want to keep growing. We’re glad to have moved away from our old ways.

Let us use our liminal time well. May we let it teach us what we need to know. May it show us how we need to grow.

May we move closer to the re-creative God who wants to make all things new and better, including us. The God who invites us into those liminal spaces and reminds us that She’s there with us the whole time, so there’s no reason to be afraid.

(Photo courtesy of gfdnova1 @creativecommons.org)