Tuesday, October 30, 2007

We Shall Turn it Upside Down

I don't know; it just strikes me as odd. As reported by the Des Moines Register, a group of religious folk gathered on Sunday at a historic African-American church here in Des Moines to pray and rally against "a Polk County judge's decision that Iowa law improperly prohibits same-sex couples from marrying," and to encourage the Iowa Supreme Court to overturn the decision. In fact, it wasn't simply "a group." It was a BIG group -- 1200 according to the story. "This is more than a political battle," said the host pastor. "This is a spiritual battle."

That's fine. And while I can agree that the question does, indeed, have precious and powerful spiritual implications, my understanding of those implications leads me to an opposite conviction. Again, that's fine. In this country we are entitled to differing views.

What strikes me as odd, however, is the thought of this large and animated gathering, assembled in an African-American church of all places, singing and swaying and holding hands, according to the story, while singing the classic civil rights anthem, We Shall Overcome. I'm not making this up: employing a core piece of civil rights iconography to denounce the civil rights of a minority. Bizarre. Next, Hamas militants will be singing We're Marching to Zion while planning insurgent attacks on Jerusalem, or an Iraqi terrorist stealing Patrick Henry's famous "Give me liberty or give me death" just before detonating an explosive beside an American Humvee. It is an Orwellian -- or is it an Alice in Wonderland -- twist that feels wrenchingly, offensively absurd.

Please. Speak your mind. Sing if you want. Hold hands and sway if you must, but don't bastardize We Shall Overcome -- an anthem of visionary, inclusive and liberating hope -- by wielding it as an instrument of walling constraint. Go find your own anthem for that.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Politics of Collective Responsibility

It's Iowa, and so it is not unusual for me to say that I have thus far met five presidential candidates. As one of those candidates joked, "Iowans like to kick the tires and look under the hood" of candidates. Whether it's because we like to, or simply because we can, first-hand contact is relatively easy. Moreso, meaningful interaction with these candidates for the "highest office in the land" is within reach. Two of the candidates have stood in our church building (the lawyers would want me to insert loudly here that outside, non-partisan groups -- and not our church-- were the hosts for these gatherings, and that all candidates from both parties received invitations) and responded not only to questions from the audience but also to their follow-ups when the answers seemed, hmmm, less than focused. As another of those candidates observed, it is "politics as it was meant to be."

This past Friday, during one of those forums, the candidate was seemingly caught off guard when an audience member mentioned that everyone wants to know what we can expect from the candidate; what she wanted to know was what that candidate expected from us -- the American People? He hemmed, he hawed. He finally confessed that he hadn't thought much about that, but that it was a very good question.

In that simple exchange, it seemed to me, was spotlighted the core of the unhealthiness that has come to characterize American public life. I don't really want to give the politicians a free pass, here, but those of us who frequent the voting booth need to recover the truth that we have not fulfilled our civic obligation once we have scratched a mark beside a name. I continue to be a citizen long after the votes are counted, with a vested interest in public life. I don't have permission to crawl back into my cave until the next election. In the same way that I can't expect my spouse to read my mind, I cannot assume that my political representatives simply intuit my priorities and values.

A wise teacher once told me, "If you want to know something, ask; if you want someone else to know something, tell them."

Ask. Tell. Even if it is easier to vote and then complain. Our system isn't designed for the many of us to simply "consume" what we elect folks to "produce." We elect representatives to accomplish what is only possible as long as we continue the relationship. Opportunity, coupled with responsibility.

Or, as the old folk song puts it, "This land is your land, this land is my land." Our land. Together.

Friday, October 19, 2007

When Giving is Receiving

Lori tells me that nobody wants to read about stewardship -- about the thorny responsibility for traveling wisely and mindfully around our circle of influence. I suppose she is right. It sounds so sober; so, well, emptying and "adult." We are used to having our attentions grabbed by sexier, more scintillating intrigues. We prefer flights of possibility over the moorings of responsibility.

But perhaps those two aren't that far apart. Reading yesterday I came across a word that was new to me. Ubuntu. A South African term, the word can be loosely translated "People are people through other people."

Desmond Tutu once said of it,

“ A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

It recalls to me John Donne's conviction that "No man is an island, entire of itself..." Who we are, and what we become is all tied up, in other words, with who we connect with and what we take care of. Precious, irreplaceably unique individuals who are, nonetheless, inextricably parts of a larger whole. Which is to make more concrete and immediate the insight we have always been taught: that when we "do unto others as we would have done to ourselves" we are, in fact, actually doing it. It is the full-circle of our influence, at once sacrificial and self-enhancing.

One of my teachers, Ernesto Cortes, taught me, “Everyone is born a human; we need relationships to become a person. Personhood is only constructed through our relationships, our affiliations, our conflicts.”

People are people through other people. Ubuntu. Community. Stewardship. Our giving is the measure of our becoming. Responsibility. Possibility. It makes the idea of signing a pledge card this Sunday the least of my worries -- and my opportunities.

Let the offering be given and received.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

This One Wild Precious Life

It's not unusual to run out of paper. The printer only holds so many sheets, so it happens from time to time that, finishing up a re-edited sermon early Sunday morning, I plug the laptop into the printer, refresh my cup of coffee, grab the pages from the output tray and scurry on my way, only to discover later that the paper supply was shorter than the manuscript.

I think about that as I visit a dear friend in hospice, watching as each day finds her weaker; wondering if this day will be her last; if this page drawn through the printer of her experience will exhaust her supply, knowing that no matter how many days are ultimately counted it won't feel, to her, like her manuscript was complete.

I think about that -- as a 51-year-0ld man who still thinks of himself as "young", who still catches himself thinking and behaving as though the bulk of his time is ahead. It's possible that I could live beyond that centennial threshold, but given my thirst for coffee, attraction to desserts, and enjoyment of leisure, the odds are not in my favor. Regardless, the point remains the same: many or few, one doesn't know how many sheets are in the printer. This one showing -- this day in progress -- is the only one I am sure of, and even it could get crumpled along the way. Of what, then, will it consist?

This isn't a novel question, nor is the implied answer head-turning wisdom. Philosophers from the Buddha to Tim McGraw have encouraged people to "live like you were dying." Which, of course, all of us are. It's just that I am prone to forget -- embarrassingly and naively soon after I walk out of that hospice room. But one of these days I will step into the pulpit with a manuscript missing its final page -- or two. One of these days I'll step into eternity with a life finished, but incomplete. What will the evidence be of my stewardship?

What, then, is printing on this sheet of day?

For starters, poetry, and Mary Oliver's version of the question:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
---"The Summer Day"

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Building Community One Chorus at a Time

The setting is spartan but scenic -- a nature lodge with a large, open room, on the banks of a small lake. The setting sun tints the western sky through the bank of windows lakeside. Inside, busy hands set up tables, chairs, speakers and stands, snacks and centerpieces. And instruments -- from rhythm instruments on the tables to guitars and keyboards up front. And flutes, of course, and a fiddle and a bass and a banjo and accordion. We were there to sing -- because as the invitation suggested, it was too much fun last year when convened such an occasion to celebrate my birthday to do only once. I'm not sure I would go so far as to suggest there was something magical about the event, but there was something more than fun about it. and so while we can have fun in any number of ways, we were interested in that "something more."

People filter in -- from the three somewhat different circus rings of our life. There are church friends and neighbor friends and, well, friends who are simply friends. Those within each circle know each other, of course, and there is some overlap. But there are also those, like Rose, who only know us and few, if any, others. There is a willingness, but also a strangeness.

But never mind all that. The music soon begins -- a couple hours worth of three-chord roots music with which even the non-musical have little difficulty singing along. From O Mary Don't You Weep to Erie Canal to Buffalo Gals to This Land is Your Land; from Swing Low to O When the Saints to I'll Fly Away; from Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road to Peaceful Easy Feeling to Country Roads; from Today to If I Had a Hammer and We Shall Overcome and even a Polka or two thrown in for fun, we sang and sang and shook our tambourines. We laughed, we paraded, we sang at the top of our lungs without regard for who could hear. And it wasn't long before the various rings of acquaintance melded into one.

We had become a part of each other -- which is something music has the power almost intrinsically to do. By evening's end, we knew each other -- had shared with each other an intimacy -- whether or not we knew each other's name. There was, in the room, a resident kindness and grace; a corporate and palpable smile.

Perhaps part of the problem in the world is that we don't sing enough together. Maybe if the Security Council at the U.N. distributed rhythm instruments when they gathered and someone brought along a guitar the world would be a kinder place. Maybe if, instead of a "Green Zone" in Baghdad the army set up a jam session zone.

It's a silly idea, I know. But it was fun to see just what a little turn of When the Saints Go Marching In could bring out of a bunch of relative strangers one autumn evening last week:

...community; one chorus at a time.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Ten Years of Blessing Grace

In the sermon yesterday I lamented what has become for me consistent experience with weddings -- when three-dimensional symbols and rituals are flattened into two-dimensional, obligatory "acts" to check off the list. Unity candles often fit that description, becoming mere ceremonial drama, empty of any philosophical -- let alone theological -- importance. Even the wedding ring is too often simply a gift of jewelry rather than the constant reminder, in the thick as well as the thin of married life, of a love that is willed and not merely felt; of promises made and publicly – even divinely – attested.

In the sermon I confessed that "as a pastor I have come to have something of a love/hate relationship with weddings. Don't get me wrong; I'm in favor of them. But I loathe officiating at those whose motions are perfunctory; whose actions are ceremonial; and whose values are principally aesthetic – where the most important questions are 'Is the aisle runner straight?' and 'Do the flowers match the bridesmaids' dresses' and 'Does the gown appropriately highlight the bride's tattoo?' You know: the really important stuff."

I like to believe, of course, that I am different. Now two weeks past the 10th anniversary of my own wedding, how have we done?

Pretty well, thank you. To be sure, we don't always see eye to eye. Admittedly, the sight of the gold band around my finger doesn't always recall to my consciousness that moment in front of the evergreen tree when we looked into each other's eyes and made breathtaking promises. But it happens more often than not. Having planned an outdoor wedding, we had the sense to forgo the unity candle. But the third dimension of that familiar ritual -- the understanding that in marriage two individuals co-create a third living reality that requires care and nurture and constant attention -- we have pretty well embodied. That's not to say that this "third flame" doesn't get hungry every now and then, but from my vantage point it has never become malnourished. We talk. We listen. We pay careful and caring attention. We laugh. We refuse to let our aggravations talk louder than our affections and appreciations.

In our wedding ceremony, my Dad, the officiant, observed in light of 1 Corinthians 13 that "we can't always be patient and kind, but when we are, God is there." By that measure, it's no wonder that life in the company of my blessed bride these ten years has literally been divine.

Patience, kindness, passion and romance; forgiveness, tenacity, imagination and prayer. Those, and constantly blessing grace.

We have, it seems to me, created something precious together. There was, to say it another way, evening and morning: the 10th year. And behold, it has been very good.