We need more builders

building

What happens when you build something with a young child? You stack the blocks as high as you can, and they can’t wait to swipe their little hand and knock it down. And then you start the process again.

We seem to have an affinity for building and destroying. And as we outgrow childhood, we tend to go in one direction or the other. We become more of a builder, or we turn into more of a destroyer at heart.

Some of us make our lives’ work about building things – families, neighborhoods, faith communities, nations, relationships, systems that promote justice. Others put a lot of their energy into tearing down people and tearing apart whatever doesn’t suit them.

We become a builder or a destroyer

It seems we’re at a moment in time when the destroyers have louder voices in our world. They’ve taken to their podiums, pulpits and bullhorns to spread division, mistrust, fear and anger – the main tools for destruction from within.

They’re not trying to improve anything. They’re marauders who create chaos that gives them the cover to plunder. They want to knock everything down and rule over the rubble. They get their thrills from toppling what others have built, but have no interest in building something of their own.

One of the destroyers’ biggest cheerleaders is Steve Bannon. He’s been outspoken about his intention to unleash destruction. As he put it during an interview with The Daily Beast in 2013, he wants “to bring everything crashing down.” He’s even trying to topple his own political party and the White House he helped assemble.

It’s conflict, chaos and destruction 24/7, and a lot of people are cheering the damage. That’s what destroyers do – they attack nonstop. They’re temperamentally incapable of anything else.

Destroyers lack the patience, persistence and open-mindedness that’s required to build anything of value. Their egos leave no room for the compromise that is required to create. They have no interest in doing the hard work required to improve upon what exists.

We’ve seen this so clearly in the health care debate. Many people want to level the health care system. They have no interest in doing the challenging work of studying many alternatives, building a consensus over time, and enacting a plan that would benefit the most people.

Instead, they throw out half-formed ideas and try to get something – anything – passed into law as quickly as they can so that they are free to move on and wipe away something else. They ignore warnings that the way they’re going about it will hurt a lot of people.

That’s not how you build a stable society.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was a builder. He sacrificed for his dream of a nation that lives up to its founding ideal and treats everyone as created equal. He rejected calls for violence and hatred. He helped to build a coalition that overcame racial, political, social, religious and ideological differences and moved society forward.

That’s what builders do.

An assassin thought he could destroy the dream with a bullet, but he was mistaken. Builders continue bending the moral arc and improving the world a little more each day, even as destroyers seek to topple the gains and make everyone start from scratch.

That’s what builders do

MLK drew inspiration from a rabbi who also was known for building. Jesus worked to build the kingdom of God, a place where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, and everyone is treated as an equally beloved child of God. Religious and political leaders thought they could destroy him and his kingdom, bury them in a tomb and be done with them. They were wrong.

The building goes on. And each of us needs to be part of the never-ending construction project.

The only requirements: commitment and persistence. And love, a lot of love. Every word, every interaction with another person must build up with love.

Builders also need resolve that they’ll avoid getting sucked into the acrimony that destroy people and movements from within. We can’t play into the marauders’ hands. It’s difficult to resist getting pulled into their drama, but we must.

The destroyers have found their voices and their followers. It feels like our society is tottering. We need more of those other voices now to stabilize us. We’ve been through times like this in our history, and we know how it works. We can always build and rebuild.

We need more builders. Someone like you.

What’s your recurring bad dream?

Fears

Gloria and I were eating at a cafe by the side of the trail, enjoying a warm September evening after a bike ride. Our server was a young man named Phillip, a recent college graduate who is adjusting to his new phase in life — and new nightmares, too.

“I’ve started dreaming that I’m headed to class, but I don’t know which class or where it is,” he said. “I’m lost.”

We laughed with him and reassured him that’s a universal dream that stubbornly refuses to go away long after you’ve left school. It spans generations and haunts our sleep.

And not just school dreams.

A minister friend recently posted on Facebook that one of his recurring dreams for many years had him standing in front of a congregation with no sermon prepared. When I started as a sports writer, I’d dream that I was covering a game which just ended, and I didn’t know what had happened so I had no idea what to write.

It’s funny how so many of those dreams involve being lost or unprepared.

I’ve had other types of bad dreams.

When I was a boy, I’d dream that something was chasing me and I couldn’t run – my legs wouldn’t move. Or I’d dream about falling from a great height. When I got older and started flying as part of my job, I’d dream that I was on a jet coming in too low for landing, darting between narrow buildings.

The scary things that chased me never caught me, the plane never crashed, but the dreams left me unsettled when I woke up.

Our subconscious fears don’t stay locked away at night. They find the key to the cell door and escape. We get visited by ghosts of things that we regret from the past, fear in the present and worry about in the future.

Universal fears come out at night

Sometimes, we think that we’re the only one with bad dreams, especially when we wake up in the middle of the night and feel alone. Others on the block are having the same toss-and-turn moments as well.

It’s universal. You just have to raise the subject of bad dreams to find that out.

I’m glad Phillips had the courage to share his frightening dreams. One of the best ways to deal with them is to talk about them, bring them into the light of day, confront them and laugh at them.

That’s one way to break their subconscious grip on us. The alternative is to let those below-the-surface fears run our lives.

I wonder if we’ve become so divided and alienated lately because we’ve stoked those fears and let them direct our decisions. Our fears become driving forces in our politics, religion and society.

The fear of being lost, overlooked, alone, threatened, vulnerable, hurt, helpless – the plot twists for our bad dreams _ can settle into our waking hours, too, if we let it. We’re the ones who make our bad dreams come true.

By contrast, if we acknowledge our fear and talk about it, it loses some of its power over us. We begin to make decisions based upon hope and goodness rather than our nightmare scenarios.

A few days after our trail-side chat with Phillip, I drove past a local college campus. A group of students crossed at the corner. One backpack-toting student looked very young – a freshman, I assumed – and seemed to be very uneasy over something.

I thought about my first few weeks on campus – far from home, living with someone you don’t know, every part of your life turned upside-down. You’re challenged in ways you never imagined.

Keeping fear where it belongs

You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Unfamiliar things are all around. And those fears begin to form in your subconscious like a sludge that sticks and stays and gums thing up.

That young man will start having those lost-on-campus dreams soon, if he hasn’t already. If he shares them, he’ll realize he’s not alone. Others are here to reassure him and help him live beyond it.

That’s how we keep fear where it belongs – only in our dreams.

The edge pieces of our lives

Puzzle1

Roddy glared at me with suspicion and defiance. He didn’t want me looking after him. Honestly, I didn’t want to be around him, either.

I was helping an inner-city church with its summer youth program. More than 40 kids from the neighborhood were playing games, reading books, and getting ready for lunch. I asked one of the program coordinators how I could help.

She motioned toward Roddy and said: You can look after him. He’s acting up today. He needs attention.

Sure, I said. And I soon regretted it.

I introduced myself to Roddy. He’s about 6 years old, African-American, from a poor family in the neighborhood. I’m a 60-year-old white guy from another place. We couldn’t be more different.

He knew I was going to try to ride herd on him – others had done it before. He’d have none of that. Roddy turned his back and walked away.

He went to a reading group in a corner of the room and started interrupting, glancing at me to gauge my reaction. The volunteer leading the group told Roddy he was welcome to stay and participate, but he couldn’t bother others. His response was to interrupt more.

I watched and wondered: What do I do now?

How in heaven’s name could the two of us connect?

Start with the edge pieces

I went over to Roddy and asked what likes to do. He mentioned puzzles. I got one, dumped it on a table, and started sorting out the pieces. Roddy came over and started helping. He didn’t understand the concept of using corner pieces and edge pieces – the ones with a flat side – to form the framework.

Roddy caught on quickly. He enjoyed the one-on-one attention. We started talking about our families, our favorite foods, our favorite sports.

The defiant eyes softened. He smiled. He was like a different kid.

When the puzzle was complete, he turned it upside-down and said: Let’s do it again! And again. We must have reassembled it a half-dozen times before lunch.

After we’d shared tacos and nachos, Roddy and the rest of the kids went home. As I drove home, I couldn’t get him out of my mind. He seemed so starved for attention and affirmation. The defiant, angry look in his eyes worried me.

How will Roddy’s life turn out?

Also, I wondered whether our time together would make any difference whatsoever in his jumbled life. He has so many influences tugging at him. Maybe he’d already forgotten about our time together and moved on.

Who knows?

I have no answers. I believe that showing kindness and love is worthwhile, in and of itself. If Roddy got nothing more than an enjoyable hour of doing puzzles followed by lunch, it was all good.

I also know that many people have intersected my life for brief moments and left a lasting impression, far more than they’ll ever know.

Grace works that way

There was the black man who drove my alcoholic father home one Christmas eve, showing me how compassion crosses color lines and other barriers. Then there’s the Greek woman who helped me find my way when I was helplessly lost at a train station in Athens, reminding me of what it means to feel kindness from a stranger.

Grace works that way. People come into our lives unexpectedly and show us things we need to see. Those people and those moments become edge pieces for us, if we let them.

It’s good to remind ourselves of that, especially now when we’re so divided and disconnected that we can’t even see the picture we’re meant to form. We’ve forgotten that each of us is a piece of something bigger than ourselves.

As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it:

“God is giving us one to another like a puzzle actually. Individually we have such snaggled edges, such unique contours, but that shouldn’t keep us away from others since those rough parts are meant to be fitted together. … After all, the odd, jagged parts of ourselves are what connects us to each other and to God.”

As Roddy builds his life, maybe I’ll be one of the edge pieces that frames things. Maybe our time together helps him see a different picture from what others will show him.

Or maybe not. In any case, it was worth the try. We all need our edge pieces. Better yet, we need to try to be edge pieces.

Where are the monuments to peacemakers?

Mr. Rogers

The conversation about how we handle war monuments has been wonderfully diverse, interesting, and informative. It’s also raised a different type of question.

Why do we have so many monuments to war in the first place?

Where are the monuments to the peacemakers and the community builders who have shown us the way and pulled us together? Why do we have so many statues of generals in such prominent places, and so few remembering the many healers, teachers, and leaders among us?

Why are we so enamored of war?

I drove through a small town in southern Ohio this spring and was struck by their downtown square. The town is a quaint place. Old storefronts dot the square. In the center is a cannon — a war monument and a plaque with the names of residents who have died in wars.

And that’s all.

Enamored of war

I was left wondering: Why isn’t there a statue of the person who founded the town? Or something dedicated to the person who started the first school so children could learn about their world?

Perhaps the town could erect a statue of the town’s first doctor, the one who made house calls for sick children in the middle of the night and who delivered many of the early settlers into the world. Or maybe a reminder of a wise and compassionate leader who got the town through a time of division and showed everyone that there are ways to settle differences other than conflict.

It would be nice to see more tributes to those who remind us that we can get along if we really try. Sure, there are a few reminders of peacemakers in various places, but they’re far outnumbered by those dedicated to fighting. We’re far more interested in monuments to those who have waged and have been killed in wars.

Why is that?

This isn’t confined to small towns, of course. Great cities have even bigger and more expensive monuments to wars. Streets are named for leaders of war. Those who fought in wars are honored in various ways. There are parades for warriors, but not for peacemakers.

What about those who work to save lives by preventing conflict and war?

More than the opposite of war

There’s a statue of Mr. Rogers along the river in downtown Pittsburgh, right across from where Fort Pitt stood. I’m struck by the proximity — one place recalls war, the other remembers a spokesman for peace and love.

“Peace means far more than the opposite of war,” Fred Rogers once said.

And he’s right. Peace is a willingness to do the hard work to change attitudes and show people that we can get along.

A starting point is recognizing the truth that war is never noble or courageous. Noble and courageous acts occur during war, but war itself is always the ultimate human failure and must never be portrayed as anything else. War is the expression of our worst impulses — killing and maiming one another while destroying the many good things we’ve built together.

Put peacemakers on pedastals

War monuments ought to reflect that innate truth. We must never glorify war. Monuments must never romanticize it or make it seem like a desirable solution — it never is.

We must never put war on a pedestal.

So long as we worship war, we’ll never have peace. Peace can never come at the end of a sword or a cannon or a rifle or a rocket launcher. That kind of “peace” is illusory and temporary.

And perhaps part of changing that cycle is paying attention to what we honor with our monuments, the ones that define us and direct us.

We should make more of an effort to honor the people who work for peace and build communities. If we’re going to erect statues, let them honor those who bring us inspiration, healing, and wisdom. Let’s recognize those who show us how to wage peace in everyday ways.

Let’s put them on our pedestals instead.

Lining up spectacularly

Eclipse photo

Did you pay attention to the eclipse? I enjoyed how people put aside their differences for one day, looked up through protective glasses, and felt a collective sense of awe. I enjoyed all the eclipse photos shared on social media.

For a brief time, the moon and the sun and the Earth lined up spectacularly and we paid attention and went: Wow! Look at that!

And then, after a few minutes, the moon moved into a different alignment, the eclipse ended, and things went back to the usual.

The sun and the moon are no longer big news. I didn’t even pay attention to the moon again until yesterday evening when I spotted it just above the horizon, partially eclipsed by the shadow of earth. It was a different kind of eclipse, but one that’s so familiar that we don’t even look for it or feel a sense of wonder at seeing it.

When things become “ordinary” to us, they’re often out of mind, out of sight.

It’s a parable, isn’t it?

It’s much easier to pay attention when things line up in a spectacular way for a short time. Then when things soon go back to “normal,” we turn our attention to something else and stop seeing the miracle all around us.

Everyday moments of miracle

We overlook the reality that the sun and the moon are still amazing and still right there, just not in the same alignment. The moon is circling the Earth, and we’re circling the sun together, and we’re all zooming through space at a mind-blowing speed along with trillions of other celestial bodies.

It’s all there doing the same thing, just in a different path. It’s all a miracle, even when we don’t recognize it as such.

And the same goes for grace.

Grace is always moving around us and within us, pulling on us and directing us with its divinely gravitational powers. But we forget to notice it working in its “ordinary” ways to produce extraordinary things.

We all know those moments when grace gets our attention and it’s easy to say: Wow, God really is working here! Someone comes into our life at just the right time, or something falls into place in an unexpected way that we’d never imagined.

It’s easy to feel God’s presence when everything seems to be lined up in a grace-filled way.

Squint and recognize it

Then there are those common, everyday moments when we have a difficult time seeing grace in the ordinariness and the messiness of life. Things seem to be zooming along without any discernible pattern — discernible to us, anyway.

It’s easy to lose track of grace when we’re going through a difficult time – we lose someone, we can’t find a job, we get sick, a relationship ends, a loved one is struggling, we feel lost and lonely. It’s easy to forget about grace at work when we’ve settled into our daily slog.

Just like the sun and the moon, grace is right there doing its thing. Grace isn’t missing; we’re just less attentive to it.

Grace invites us to pay attention not only to the dramatic eclipses, but also to the everyday moments of miracle. Grace is spectacularly at work in our lives, even when it’s not in our line of sight or it’s lined up differently than we’d hoped.

It’s still right there. We just need to squint and recognize it.

A hug and a party

Hand holding sun

If you’re familiar with my blog, you know about Jean, one of the people I’ve gotten to know through my work as a hospice volunteer. I’ve written about her a few times.

Jean’s always been one my favorites. She grew up in Maine, swooned over a 6-foot-4 Navy man – love at first sight – got married and raised two children. She loved the Kennedys and asked me to read her books about JFK – her eyesight wasn’t so good anymore.

Her eyes and her heart were failing, but Jean’s mind was sharp. And her kindness was always intact. I’d knock on her door, walk into her nursing home room, and she’d smile and invite me – in her Northeastern accent – to sit down and catch her up on things.

“Give me the good stuff,” she’d say. “I want details!”

Jean was in her 90s. On her birthday, she’d say: “I never thought I’d live this long.” When I turned 60 and had trouble wrapping my head around that number, she started calling me “Mr. Chicken,” as in a spring chicken.

I liked that a lot. I enjoyed walking into her room and hearing her say, “Oh, it’s Mr. Chicken!”

During one of our many rambling conversations, Jean turned very serious and asked me something totally out of the blue: Do I believe in hell?

How do you answer that question? I went with honesty.

No, Jean, I don’t believe in hell — not the way it’s portrayed, anyway. I don’t believe in the Santa Claus version – God’s watching like a peeping Tom, ready to punish us with a lump of everlasting coal if we eat a hot dog on Friday or break some other rule concocted by religious leaders.

No loving parent would do that

I told Jean that I don’t believe in any of that. No loving parent would ever torture their child. And besides, all that hellish stuff we hear isn’t even Biblical. It’s totally un-Jesus-y. He told us that God is a loving parent who wants nothing other than to give us a big hug and an amazing party.

Jean said she didn’t believe in that version of hell, either. As a parent, she didn’t see how any loving parent could ever hurt their child.

So, why was hell on her mind?

Jean came from a strict church background and was taught that if you’re gay, you’re doomed to hell. Her daughter is gay and had recently married her longtime partner. Jean loved them both very deeply. They’re a good match, and it’s obvious that there’s much love between them. Jean was glad her daughter had someone who loved her and made her happy.

So, what’s the issue?

Given her “religious” upbringing, Jean was unsure how God would feel about it. She didn’t think God would hurt her child, but she wasn’t sure. She was losing sleep over it.

Ugh!!! I hate to see people tormented and tortured by all this twisted, warped theology of divine hate and retribution. You want my definition of hell? It’s people spreading that crappy theology.

I asked Jean if she thinks that God is love, and she said yes. I asked if she thinks that God loves her daughter as much as she does, and Jean said even more than she ever could.

So, do you think God blesses their relationship, too? Jean smiled and nodded. It was settled. She decided it was “silly” to even doubt God’s love.

And we never spoke of hell again.

We spoke of other things, of course. We talked about JFK’s affairs. We talked about getting snowed in by Nor’easters in Maine. One time, we got into another “religious” topic – how did people in Jesus’ time trim their fingernails?

We never spoke of hell again

She said it was a “silly” question, but she wanted to know. So, we Googled it on my phone, right there in her room, and got a suitable answer. (If you want to know, you’ll have to Google it for yourself.)

Jean died last month. I was on vacation. I didn’t get to tell her goodbye. At first, that bothered me. Then I realized I was being silly, to use Jean’s word.

An improper sendoff? The God of unending life and unlimited love would never permit such a thing. No goodbye was necessary. Someday there will be a reunion of me and Jean. And I have an idea of how it will go.

She’ll give Mr. Chicken a hug and invite me to join the amazing party. And she’ll want to catch up on things – all the good stuff, you know. In detail, of course. She’ll want all the details.

What’s the message about hate?

A blank sign in front of Ardmore Baptist church. Photo Pete Bannan

At a local rally against racism, speakers encouraged us to contact government leaders and urge them to speak out unequivocally against the hate parading in our streets.

What about our pastors? Shouldn’t we be asking them to do the same? And if they’re not, shouldn’t we be asking them why?

This applies whether you’re a churchgoer or not. The pulpit is a powerful platform that can be used to promote love or hate or indifference. It’s a huge part of this entire discussion.

If you attend a church, pay close attention to what’s being said and how it’s said. If you don’t participate in a faith community, pay attention to the message coming from various clergy, especially those who have a big pulpit because of their ties to the White House.

What are they telling everyone?

One of the many jarring aspects of the Civil Rights movement is how so many white churches endorsed and encouraged hatred. Some clergy condemned the marches for equality, while others tacitly supported white supremacists by refusing to talk about what was happening in the streets just outside their doors.

Some church leaders were segregationists who used cherry-picked Bible verses to try to justify their racism. Others were sympathetic to the Civil Rights movement, but afraid to speak out because they might be ostracized.

Silent behind stained glass

Also, they knew they could become targets of the racists who lynched civil rights leaders and bombed not only black churches but the homes of black clergy. They could be next. They might end up having to carry that cross, too, and they were reluctant to do so.

Some white church leaders settled for addressing hate in muted terms that wouldn’t offend the white supremacists sitting in their pews. In fact, the pastors’ refusal to criticize racism directly was seen as an endorsement from God.

Of course, not all white clergy and churches cowered. A great many had the courage of their faith to stand up and lock arms in the fight for equality. They were willing to pay the price for preaching the gospel that everyone must be treated as an equally beloved child of God.

Many are doing so as well today, but many others are not.

One of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s most famous works is his Letter from Birmingham Jail, which was prompted by public opposition from eight white clergymen. The Rev. King was discouraged by the way so many white church leaders refused to join the movement for love and justice.

“I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies,” he wrote. “Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders. All too often many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”

So, what about your faith community?

Has your pastor addressed the events of Charlottesville directly? Did they say that the racism and white supremacy are evil and contrary to everything that Jesus taught and lived?

Pulling a Pilate

Or did they reference the events with a brief, generalized prayer for the nation and move on? Did they talk about Charlottesville as some other place, implying that racism doesn’t need to be addressed right here as well?

Did your pastor pull a Pilate and try to wash their hands of the responsibility for addressing this deep sinfulness in our society? Or did they address it head-on?

Jesus’ God-filled life and teachings are direct, unequivocal, challenging and unpopular, both then and now. He didn’t hesitate to speak up for love and speak out against injustice, even when it cost him many followers.

What about your pastor? Are they speaking up against hate? If they are, make sure that you thank them for their prophetic courage.

If they’re not, this is the perfect time to ask them why.