Friday, August 11, 2017

The Uninhabitable Earth

There's a new apocalyptic article on climate change that deserves a reading by all those concerned about the future. Written by David Wallace-Wells, it's called "The Uninhabitable Earth" and first published in New York Magazine. You don't have to believe it all but I wish you would read it all. it's important we consider the way different elements of life on this planet interact with each other in a warming world.

Whereas most articles focus on one dimension of the problem, Wallace-Wells explores them all. So we read about the continuing rise of sea levels with the melting of ice in the arctic. Some consciousness of how Miami and Bangladesh may disappear in the next 50 to 80 years begins to register. We can't ignore the residents of those small island nations already forced to relocate because of encroaching oceans and we can't hide our heads in the sand but must think about the melting permafrost and huge potential methane releases. And as I read the article, I was aware an enormous iceberg has just broken off the Larsen ice shelf in Antarctica, a trillion ton, 2,400 square mile block of ice.

The article raises anew the threat of food scarcity. We're reminded that 20 million will likely die in Africa this year because of the severity of drought and famine in several countries. This, as I read in the local paper, that the forecast for crops in drought stricken South Dakota is down this year; winter wheat down 56%; spring wheat down 32%; oats down 30%. Warming the earth means declining productivity and nothing grows without adequate water.

There is a recognition in the article of how the oceans are being impacted. We're not just talking about ocean acidification, as if that weren't enough. Dead zones are becoming more common, like off the coast of Namibia and the western coasts of North and South America.  We're also watching as the coral reefs bleach and die. The makers of the film "Chasing Ice" have just released a new film, "Chasing Coral." Both films deserve the widest possible distribution as they give us the visual evidence of what we've been hearing.

There's substantial evidence in the article that we face, in this century; a sun that cooks us (literally, heat deaths); new plagues (think Zika and things like anthrax and bubonic plague, presently buried in Alaskan and Siberian ice); unbreathable air (think increasing ozone, CO2, wildfire smoke, fossil fuel releases in the atmosphere); perpetual war (think many more refugees driven by hunger and unlivable situations); economic collapse (think rural economy with limited agriculture; think flights grounded by extreme heat).

I can't do the article justice in a column. You have to read it for yourself. The important thing is the author is taking a far more holistic approach to the subject. You begin to recognize how the Creation works together for good or for ill. But it's all related. As we say in my church, there's an "Integrity to Creation." And if you mess with one part of it there are effects all over the place.

My own denomination, the United Church of Christ, voted at the recent General Synod a resolution on climate change. As a church, we have always believed in the goodness of God's Creation and our call to be good stewards of it. The recent resolution calls on all of our members to recognize the urgency of healing the climate of the earth, and invites all to exercise moral leadership in that healing, both in private life and in the public square.

In our understanding, we don't gain salvation by believing. And we don't get there alone. Christian faith is about proclaiming and manifesting God's realm right here on earth, right where we are. And that includes treating our home with the honor and respect God's good Creation deserves.

Indigenous people have been trying to tell us for ages that we're connected. You can't kill all the buffalo without changing the nature of the plains. You can't dam up the rivers and expect the salmon to spawn. You can't pump toxic wastes into the earth without poisoning underground water supplies. You can't put carcinogens in the environment and expect humans and animals to be cancer free. You can't continue to burn fossil fuels and expect the global temperature to remain stable.

And the best of our religious traditions teach us the same lessons. Understand what it means to over-reach and don't do it. Appreciate and give thanks for what you've been given. Keep it simple. Watch the ego. Limit your needs so they don't become greeds. Give more than you take. Care about others, especially those who come after you. Love your neighbor. The earth is the Lords, not ours to wreck!

Carl Kline

Friday, August 4, 2017

Our Agenda is Justice 

 David Phillips Hansen

       Our agenda is justice. When the political, economic, and spiritual life of the nation moves toward justice there is joy in the land and the whole body politic is healthier. But today we are confronted by a system of growing inequality and naked injustice. Wealth and power are increasing concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people and corporations. Oppression and exploitation act with impunity. There is work to be done.
        At the moment the future is unclear. Will we become a kleptocracy, as many fear, or a democracy? Will we have a government of the wealthy, for the wealthy, by the wealthy? Or, will we be able to defend, preserve and protect a government of the people, for the people, by the people? The answer to these questions may come sooner than we expect. Government and legislative leaders across the land are telling us that children do not need quality public education, health care is not a right but a privilege, and national parks and monuments are not a treasure to preserve but an economic resource to exploit. We are being asked to believe that people are expendable and the earth is a commodity. 
        But in town hall meetings, congregational gatherings and union halls people are standing up and fighting back. Movements like Black Lives Matter and Resist have taken to the streets and to capital steps. People's courage and commitment is breathtaking. Each of these struggles is necessary. Each is important. What is missing is adequate theological analysis. Our theology is not as helpful as it could be. We need a more adequate understanding of our history. We still want to believe that the United States is "the land of the free and the home of the brave." We want to sing, "My country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty. . . .Long may our land be bright with freedom's holy light."
       We have yet to grapple with the darker side of our nation's history. We cherish the words of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic] are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." These are powerful words that cause emperors to quake and empires to crumble. But we have forgotten that this same document, the Declaration of Independence, labels American Indians "merciless savages," and it goes on to say that their "known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions." We want to forget that many of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence also bought and sold human beings in the slave market. 
        We have not yet come to terms with this side of our history. We have forgotten that there were 70 to 80 million Indigenous Peoples in the Americas when Columbus "discovered" America in 1492. Native People lived here for 20,000 years or more before the dawn of the European Age of Discovery and Domination. We have not yet come to terms with what historian Charles Mann describes as the largest deforestation project in the history of the world, which happened as Euro-Americans moved from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River. 
          Only recently have we, white people, been willing to acknowledge that Indian boarding schools were by design what historian David Wallace Adams calls, "education for extinction."   The motto of these schools was "Kill the Indian, save the man." Today some Native Peoples call Indian reservations "extermination centers." Extermination centers in the heart of the land of the free and the home of the brave. We have not yet come to terms with this side of our history. 
        The United States today is a house divided. We have two histories that are met in a single document, the Declaration of Independence. One side extols our virtues, the other side reveals our shame. We have yet to come to terms with the fact that the United States is and was from the beginning a settler nation. White people suffer from what Navajo scholar Mark Charles calls "white trauma." White people are shamed by our history of Indian genocide, Black slavery and ecocide. Because we cannot accept responsibility for our history, we project the myth of American exceptionalism. We tell ourselves that the United States is the last best hope for freedom. We extol the virtues of rugged individualism and the free market. Because we deny the truth about our history, we justify colonial wars in distant lands, and label movements like Black Lives Matter and Resist as terrorist organizations. 
        Because white people suffer historical trauma, we gave tacit assent to then FBI Director James Comey when he formed an Interagency Terrorism Task Force to investigate and interrogate water protectors, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies who tried to block the North Dakota Access Pipeline. It is not by accident that 480 people were arrested there. Indigenous People were protecting their water and defending the land guaranteed to them by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851. In that treaty the U.S. government promised the Indians that the land would be theirs as long as the sun rises in the east and the rivers flow. The Fort Laramie Treaty is one of 370 treaties ratified by the United States Senate. It is noteworthy that the United States has unilaterally violated every one of these treaties. Yet, it was the Native Peoples and their allies who were sprayed with mace, attacked by dogs, shot with rubber bullets, locked in cages, and arrested. What we witnessed at Standing Rock is the increasing militarization of law enforcement and the criminalization of dissent.
          We are a nation divided. Lincoln warned long ago that a house divided cannot stand. But there is a balm in Gilead to heal our sin sick soul. Jesus promised that if we tell the truth, the truth will set us free. The prophet Isaiah told us, "beautiful upon the mountain of care are the feet of those who bring good news to the captive." President Obama said that if we love our country we have a responsibility to change it. Dr. King reminded us that "the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for the right." 
          When we "pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America," let us remember that those words were written by Edward Bellamy in 1890. He was a Baptist preacher and a Christian socialist. He wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in the Gilded Age in the hopes that it would spark a moral vision and reign in rampant materialism and excessive individualism. Katherine Lee Bates penned, "My country tis of thee sweet land of liberty," in 1893. She was a lesbian and a Christian socialist. 
         There is a balm in Gilead to heal our sin sick soul. In March of this year the Jesuits returned 525 acres to the Lakota Sioux Tribe on the Rose Bud Reservation. More recently Andover Newton Theological Seminary reached out to 396 Indigenous tribes and nations with an offer to return stolen items that are housed in its museum. These may seem like small steps but they are important steps. Returning stolen property is an act of justice. It is a sign of hope. It is a healing balm.
         It is a sign of hope when people and institutions withdraw funds from banks and financial institutions that seek to profit from pain and injustice. To date more than $5 million has been withdrawn from banks and financial institutions as part of a global effort to defund DAPL. It is a movement that must continue and spread. Energy companies are building pipelines in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Florida. In all these places Native Americans are protesting these developments as violations of treaty agreements.
         We must connect the fight for interracial justice to the fight for economic justice. We cannot have one without the other. Institutions like the Native American Bank are investing in economic development in indigenous communities. In many states there is renewed interest in public banking and co-operatives. There is growing consensus among economists that the present neoliberal economic system will not last another 40 or 50 years at most. If we want to create a more transparent and democratic economy the time to act is now.
         Saint Augustine said long ago that God has given us a world in which there is enough to meet everyone's need, but not enough to satisfy one person's greed. Yet, greed has become the basis for global economic growth. The World Council of Churches reports that every day private financiers exchange $1.5 trillion worth of currency. Less than five percent of that vast sum goes to the creation of actual goods and services.
            A rising economic tide does not lift all the boats. It does not end poverty. It exacerbates poverty. The gap between the rich and the poor is as great as the chasm that separated Dives and Lazarus in the parable of Jesus found in Gospel of Luke. It is the power of the wealthy and the weakness of the poor that perpetuates poverty. But there is a balm in Gilead to heal our sin sick soul. The World Council of Churches has produced important study documents we need to use in our churches. The WCC has identified global capitalism as an idolatry. Market Fundamentalism is a misguided faith in the sanctity of private property and power of the so-called "free market." It is a system that privatizes wealth and imposes the burden of cost on the public, while at the same time stealing vital and necessary resources and reserves from the public purse.  
           To help us better understand what is happening the World Council of Churches proposes that in addition to talking about the poverty line, we also need to talk about the "greed line." When one person's annual income is measured in terms of millions and billions of dollars, when most of a person's income comes from favorable tax codes, royalties and rents, dividends and deferred payments, when those in the front office are earning on average 471 dollars for every dollar paid to the person on the shop floor, we need to talk openly about the connection between greed and poverty. 
             As a justice-seeking, justice-loving people let us counter the Gospel of Prosperity for the few with a Gospel of Good News for all. The measure of the economy is not the GDP, or the S & P, or the DOW. The true measure of healthy economy is the well-being of the people. We need an economic measuring stick that values access to health care, decent housing, safe communities, good schools, and jobs that pay a living wage. 
              As a justice-seeking, justice-loving people we need to cherish this good earth. A Native American scholar told me that the difference between white  people and Indians is that white people think the earth belongs to them, Indians think they belong to the earth. Caring for the earth is what makes and keeps us grounded. Our watchwords for the future are cooperation and balance, not competition. We can learn to respect boundaries without making them barriers. Faith communities can be, must be, pioneers in creating a civil society.
           In Clarence Jordan's Cotton Patch Bible,  in the Sermon on the Mount the words of Jesus are unmistakable and clear: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice; for they will be given plenty to chew on." My friends, God has given us plenty to chew on.
           Dr. William Barber challenges us with these words: "It is time to dig a little deeper, work a little harder, organize a little better." In the words of Isaiah, "Those who wait on the Lord shall mount up on eagle's wings. " We shall run and not grow weary. We shall walk and not faint. With heads held high we shall sing, "My country 'tis of thee sweet land of liberty."

Friday, July 28, 2017

Entering the Garden
Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

I received a simple gift as I prayed the morning prayers. Simple in the way of the old Shaker hymn, “Tis a Gift to be Simple,” needing simplicity within our selves, quiet amidst the clatter and clutter in order to perceive and receive the simple gifts that come to us on wings of serendipity. It is not always, perhaps even only rarely, that response to prayer happens in the very moment of our praying. Perhaps it is simply a matter of our eyes opening and in the prayerful calm of the moment perceiving what we might otherwise have missed. In truth, I didn’t realize at first the beauty of what I had witnessed, nor its meaning. At first, it seemed a distraction, a motion beyond the window of the little prayer room. A small blur of color caught my attention, causing me to look up from words on the page.

Drawing my talis/prayer shawl around me, I stared out the window, at first seeing a woman with a baby stroller. She was looking away from the stroller toward the front garden, as though waiting, ever so patiently, a smile on her face. Only then did I notice the very little girl at the edge of the garden. She could not have been more than two to three years old. A very little girl with short dark hair, a simple blue dress, a smock it seemed, standing there by herself at the edge of the garden, the woman, I assume her mother, standing respectfully back. It seemed to be a moment of decision for the little one, a little decision that must have seemed so big to her, whether to walk past the great big rock by which she stood and enter the garden and be among the flowers.

I watched the drama play out, a baby step forward, one foot extended and then brought back. And then a determined step, crossing the threshold of the garden, passing the great big rock and entering among the flowers. I moved a bit closer to the window, careful not to be seen or to distract. I could see the smile that formed on the mother’s face, and the smile that became the entire face of the little girl. I could feel the smile upon my own face, a smile-become-prayer, become amen to all the words both said and unsaid. Three smiles offered to God, the smile of a little girl, the smile of two adults unknown to each other, each one smiling as sunshine upon the most beautiful flower in the garden.

As mother and daughter continued on their way, I watched for a moment, then returning to my place, what more to say? Looking up, I said “thank you, so beautiful.” As prayer became conversation, as it is meant to be in deepest essence, so I suggested to the Holy One that we might both hold on to that image, that we both might find reason to smile in looking back on that moment amidst all that is not so simple or beautiful in this world. What I really wanted to say then, what tugged at me so deeply, was, “please protect her and all the little ones who are taking their first steps into the world, who are just starting out along the path of life, protect them, please, keep them safe that they might find their way to a flowering garden, a garden of peace that is for us to create.”

I thought of the weekly Torah portion, Parashat Sh’lach L’cha, “Send forth...” (Numbers 13:1-15:41). Moses is told to send forth scouts to scout out the land, one scout from each tribe. A tantalizing phrase, sh’lach l’cha can also mean, “send to yourself….” So the first of the Chassidic writers, disciple of the Holy Ba’al Shem Tov, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoy, teaches that the words said to Moses are meant to be for each of us, search out yourself/latur et atzm’cha. It is not about the outer landscape, but about the inner terrain.

So it was the lesson of a mother and her daughter, the wisdom of patience, a sunshine smile to nurture growth. The garden was outer terrain, but only in finding the courage within could the little girl journey forth into the world, and so for us. As we stand and smile with delight at little ones taking first steps, they are waiting for us, wanting to know that the way ahead is safe and if we will make it so. For children all along the way of growing into who they are, they wait for us to create of this world a garden of peace, as it was at the beginning and is meant to be. Allowing distractions to become prayer, essence revealed, may we have the courage of a little girl to step beyond barriers and enter the garden.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Summer Excursion           

 It has become a kind of summer ritual - getting on the fast ferry with my grandkids and leaving “The Rock” for a few hours on a mid-July day to go shopping on the mainland.  We join the masses who are leaving behind their vacation respite on the island and we head for “America.”    The ritual has changed little over the last few years.  It usually manages to fall on the hottest, sunniest, most humid day in July.  We enjoy the cool breeze as the ferry speeds toward its destination.  And then, suddenly, we are disembarking into sizzling heat and humidity again.  
            First stop - Friendly’s!  and a cool Fribble!   Years ago, there were giggles about blowing bubbles in the milkshake with a straw.   Now the conversation turns to the number of calories in each menu offering, the size of the portions and whether or not it is possible to make a healthy choice here for a mid-morning snack. 
            Next stop - Staples! and a quick run through to see what is needed in anticipation of the beginning of the school year.  Here the seductive items used to be the biggest boxes of crayons or markers, the Pink Pony pencil boxes and blank note books.  Now the electronics section is the big draw - - and there are many comments about the high prices.
            On to Walmart!  The inexpensive DVDs used to be the big draw -and there was always a challenging bit of time in the toy section. Now the conversation runs toward  the shabby quality of much of the merchandise and how do people live on the wages they earn  making so much stuff that has so little value.
            No trip off island is complete without stops at TJMAXX and The Christmas Tree Shoppe.  By the end of our shopping tour, we’re all tired and feeling overwhelmed by all the lures of consumption.  The kids compare what life is like on the island - trying to live “normal” lives in the presence of so much excess and unthinking wealth.
            As I ponder the expedition on the return trip to the island, I realize that these annual excursions have, indeed, been an educational process for both me and my grandkids.  Whereas the political and economical commentary used to come from me as we made our way through the massive offerings on sale, now the grandkids are pondering the questions of why there is SO much.  They are reading labels and beginning to understand that there are exploited human beings hidden in the shadows of the low prices.  They are beginning to blanch at the price of a small Fribble that has virtually no nutritional value.  Little by little their adolescent dreaminess is awakening to questions about our values and about how we spend our money and about what happens when we are not consciously aware of how we participate in the injustice of poverty and inadequate wages and the ability to afford nutritious food that is not fried!
            Meanwhile, back in Washington, political minds seek ways to cut supplemental nutritional assistance programs for people who already cannot afford to put food on the table for their families.  Saving money by getting the poor off of medical assistance programs seems to be the way to go.  Cutting health care for poor pregnant women will make a huge difference in the money Washington has to give to the more deserving wealthy folks at the top.
            It is a good day for listening to the voice of the prophet Amos echoing down through the ages:  Thus says the Lord:  For three transgressions and for four, I will not revoke the  punishment: they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes - they trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and push the afflicted out of the way.... (Amos 2:6-7).
            But all is not hopeless.  There are a few courageous voices of resistance.  Somewhere in Washington the prophet still speaks.  May we pray that the prophetic voice will get louder with each passing day.

Vicky Hanjian

Friday, July 14, 2017

Music & Terror

I came home tired from church a few weeks ago. I thought I might take a nap. The television was on to the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. This was the second concert, "One Love Manchester," not the first one where so many were killed and injured by the terror attack. 

Ariana had decided she had to do something positive to redeem that horrible experience. So she recruited musicians from all over to join her in a return concert that would emphasize love over hate. She wanted to respond to terror with the antidote, fearlessness and love. The artists filed onto the stage one after the other to speak some words  of healing and share some music to soothe or stimulate the soul. Even Justin Bieber did himself proud.

Fifty thousand young people were present. Instead of staying in the safety of their homes, they were concert bound again. Many held signs saying "for our angels," for those who lost their lives in the earlier attack.  They were sending those souls to heaven with music, not revenge. It was obvious these young people would not be cowed by the terror rained on their friends and neighbors just short days earlier. It was a festival of fearlessness. For me, it was church again, writ large.

In the meantime, governments and the media used the Manchester bombing as one more occasion for spreading fear and violence. You would think they would know by now that terror thrives on fear? You would think they would know by now that violence breeds violence that breeds more violence? It's a vicious circle. And occasionally we get a glimpse of those who will break the cycle of fear and violence, with their bodies and with music. I saw it at "One Love Manchester." God bless Ariana Grande! God bless them all!

A couple of days after the concert I was on a plane to Mexico. There I met with some thirty people from all over the country. Two were former gang leaders. Some were academics. A few were students. One was an artist; one a lawyer; one a banker. We ranged in age from 21 to 75. We spent nine days together studying and learning nonviolence as a way of life, courtesy of Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus and so many others. I dare say everyone left convinced we don't have to answer violence with violence. There is another way. But in a world where we are usually given just two choices, fight or flight, the alternatives are usually buried or quickly dismissed.

Take the burial and dismissing of important, positive events in the Islamic world. You won't find reporting of these responses to terror on the front (or last) page of the paper. 

On May 27 in Pakistan, Islamic religious scholars issued a unanimous decree that suicide attacks and armed insurgency against a state to impose Islamic rule was forbidden in Islam. The religious edict condemned terrorism and extremism and declared suicide attackers and their supporters as traitors.

After the killings in Manchester, local Muslim leaders walked to St. Ann's Square, a place of remembrance for those who died and laid flowers at the site. They shared remarks, condemning ISIS as an affront to Islam and humanity. They spoke about how Islam rejects suicide bombings. They thanked those who aided the victims and called for unity and strength in the face of terror. Other religious leadership from Christian and Jewish communities joined them.

After attacks on Coptic Christian churches in Egypt, Muslims started a fund raising campaign to help the victims and their families. One cited the Koran, "Repel evil with that which is better." It's the same thing Martin Luther King said in an essay he wrote on "How a Christian Overcomes Evil." King said you don't push evil out. You crowd it out with something better.

I do believe most young people would rather be listening to or making music than putting on a suicide belt. There is so much beauty all around us. Are they seeing it? Couldn't we do better in crowding out the ugly with beauty? Couldn't we do better crowding out fear with fearlessness? Couldn't we crowd out the violence with the alternatives of a Gandhi or a Jesus? Couldn't we crowd out the hate with love? 

Couldn't we learn from those fifty thousand young people, crowding out fear and filling our lives with music?
Carl Kline

Friday, July 7, 2017

“They Flew Away, that’s what Birds Do”
Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

I worried about them during the night when I awoke to the sound of a hard rain falling. So too, my first thought upon waking in the morning was also about them. I hurried downstairs to check on them after the rains. In the damp morning air, surrounded by the scent of the rhododendrons, I felt panic when I realized they weren’t there. I looked in the bush among the pink flowers and green leaves. I looked on the branches of the trees that ring the yard. They were not there, not upon the garage roof either. I thought perhaps they had taken shelter in the yellow birdhouse hanging from the eaves of the garage, but no, it was empty. I felt sad and lonely, missing our visitors who had been with us such a short time, hoping that nothing untoward had happened, not wanting to think about it. I thought of the neighbor’s cat that visits the yard, thinking I should have done something more to protect them. I called to Mieke, asking her to come out, to stand with me where we had stood through the week and beheld with awe the simple miracle of love and creation, of perseverance and purpose. “They’re gone,” I said. With warm reassurance, Mieke answered, “they flew away, that’s what birds do.”

They were a family of robins that had built such a beautiful nest in the rhododendron bush next to the garage. It looked like a perfectly formed bowl, a basket so skillfully woven. We had watched through the week as the mother bird flew out into the yard to forage, returning quickly with food for the young one whose head we could see peeking up from just below the rim of the nest. It is hard to imagine that the little one could mature so quickly to have already been able to fly away. I thought about all the work that had gone into making the nest. There seemed to be lessons to be learned in the willingness of these little creatures to leave it all behind. I thought about the give and take of nest making and of the depth of attachment that most of us have to the things of this world. I wondered if they just assumed that they would make another in whatever place they came to next. Perhaps leaving a nest once built is part of the give and take of being a bird. I wondered if other birds make use of a nest left behind, if a new feathered-family would dwell where others had dwelled before, raising their young where others had nurtured little ones before. I felt grateful for the generosity of our robins, a gift simply to behold the intricate beauty of the nest left behind.

I thought of the Mishkan, the desert sanctuary made to be portable that our ancestors carried with them on the desert journey. Taking in the Torah/Teaching of the birds, I reflected on the difference, one holy dwelling to be left behind when life’s journeys resumed, and another to be taken along until arriving at the next stopping place. The Mishkan is a as a nest as well, a place in which the Sh’chinah as God’s mothering presence might alight, a spirit-nest woven of love, a place in which our souls can rest and be nourished, then to travel on. That’s what people do, they journey on to the next stage in life, taking what we can with us, what we have learned, and, hopefully, leaving behind a trace of beauty simply woven that tells of our having been.

In the Torah portion, Parashat B’ha’alotcha (Numbers 8:1-12:16), we are told of the day on which the Dwelling Place was raised up, all of its parts woven together, a vessel in which spirit might dwell. The raising up of the Mishkan is expressed in the passive, and without a subject, without a name. We are not told that Moses raised up the Dwelling Place, but simply, uv’yom hakim et ha’mishkan/on a day that the Mishkan was raised up. There is no definite article, simply on a day, any day, a day unbound by time. Whenever we create a dwelling place of love and caring, we raise up a Mishkan, a sacred nest, whether it be in a moment of not so random connection, strangers exchanging a smile, a helping hand offered, a song for justice and good offered into the wind and among the people, guests invited to the Sabbath table. Sometimes we take the dwelling with us, and sometimes we leave it behind, the sweet song of little birds to remind, it is okay, whichever way is right in that time and place, and then to another. Transience and uncertainty are part of life, the way of our journeys. Just after the timeless call to raise up the Mishkan, we are told that according to the word of God did the children of Israel journey, and according to the word of God did they camp (Numbers 9:18). It is the uncertainty of life, never knowing, even though we think we do, when change will come, when we journey and when we camp. Nor do we know in the grand weave of life when our very soul will take wing and make its way home, because that’s what souls do.

Would that we could know as the little birds know, “they flew away, that’s what birds do.” As I stood there in the mist of the morning, looking at the empty nest, touched by Mieke’s reassuring wisdom, I thought of an old folk-song that Pete Seeger, of blessed memory, sang, a song called “Little Birdie:”

 Little birdie, little birdie, what makes you fly so high?
 It’s because I am a true little birdie,
And I do not fear to die….

Little birdie, little birdie,
Come sing to me a song.
I’ve a short while to be here,
And a long time to be gone.

In the time we have, in all the places we go, may we weave a nest of love and let it be our raising up of the Mishkan, a sanctuary for God and people, and until they fly away to take their teaching elsewhere, for all the little birds as well.

Friday, June 30, 2017

What kind of people are we?

        I was struck by a story that I saw on the MSNBC program The Last Word. on June 23, 2017.  In this program the host, Ari Melber, interviewed Karen Clay and her son, Mike Phillips. Michael suffers from Spinal Muscular Atrophy. He lives at home, in Florida, with his mother. Over the last 30 years Michael's disease has progressed and his care and treatment has become more complicated. Medicaid has made it possible for him stay at home and for Karen to remain his primary care giver. This situation will change dramatically and drastically if the Republican plan becomes law.
      The focus of the interview was what will happen to Michael if the Republican health care bill is enacted. Karen explained that there is no facility in Florida that can care for Michael. He would have to be moved out of state and institutionalized. His level of care would deteriorate and the cost for his care would increase--a lot. The family would be uprooted. 
     As I listened to the interview I could not help but think of a passage in the Gospel according to Matthew. In the twenty-fifth chapter Jesus is reported to say to the disciples, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (25: 40, NIV).
     We tend to interpret the words from Matthew 25 in the context of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37). Remember that parable begins with a legal scholar asking Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, meaning not just a life after death, but life in the here and now. It is an existential question. What do I need to do in the here and now to have a life with God? Jesus answers this question with the story of a man beaten and robbed and left to die in a ditch at the side of the Jericho road. One religious person sees him lying in the ditch and passes by on the other side of the road, and then a second person comes along and he too goes to the opposite side of the road. But when the Samaritan comes he sees the man in the ditch and goes to him, binds his wounds and takes him to the inn and tells the inn keeper to take care of him, promising to compensate the inn keeper for any expenses that he incurs as a result of his care for this person. Jesus then asks the question, “Who was the neighbor to this man?” The answer, of course, is the Samaritan.  The parable concludes with Jesus instructing the person who asked the question, and by extension us, “Go and do likewise” (10: 37, NIV).
     With the parable of the Good Samaritan in mind, when we read the words in Matthew 25, it is natural that we should think that we are called to feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, welcome the stranger, visit those who are in prison and so on. Dr. King famously said that day will come when we have to build a new road so that travelers will not be left in the ditches. Understandably we want to be the people who build that new road, but until then we will follow the pattern set by the Good Samaritan.
     We want to do our best to be faithful to the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. We want to live by the Golden Rule and do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Wendell Berry says: "Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you." It's common sense. But it is more than common sense. We are bleeding hearts. Karl Marx who once said that religion is the opiate of the masses also said: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless world." Many religious scholars and preachers have told us that compassion and empathy are the core of our faith and the keys to understanding the gospel. And we believe that.  This is why Michael and Karen's story is so powerful.
     But then, when I remembered the passage in Matthew 25: 40, I had to ask myself: What about the guy in the ditch? What about the people who live on the margins of society and in the economic shadows? What about the people who are victims of injustice. What about people who live in daily fear of police violence? What about "those people" who are, the words of Jesus, "the least of these?" What about them? 
      Reverend Deenabandhu Manchala,  now with the World Council of Churches, helps us interpret these words of Jesus when he talks about "Mission at and from the margins." As he explains, those of us in the West tend to think that our mission flows from a position of power, privilege, and possession. Our mission is to help
those who are less fortunate than we are. Thus, when I was a child my church had a program called SOS, which stood for "Share our Surplus." Then we had another offering called "Neighbors in Need," that was to help the less fortunate. These were ministries enabled by power, privilege, and possession.
     Remember the story of Joseph and his brothers. His brothers sold him into slavery. Over a period of time and after many trials Joseph worked his way to a position of responsibility in the government of Egypt. He became the Secretary of Agriculture. When famine came upon the people of Israel, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to beg for food that they could take home to a desperate people. This may be the very first story about an international relief mission in biblical history. Joseph famously does not reveal his true identity to his brothers until the very end of the story. Then, after he has given them food to take home, he reveals his true identity in a dramatic moment and he says to his brothers, “You intended to harm me. But God intended it for good" (Gen. 5: 20, NIV). 
      From the surplus of Egypt, Joseph was able to help his brothers and save his family. A well-known business consultant has famously said that we must do well before we can do good. Joseph was only able to help his brothers because he had done well. We have learned over the years to think of mission in this way. We have to do well before we can do good. But what does that say about the “least of these.” Are they among us simply to be the object of our mission? Are we the instruments of God’s mercy, and the least of these the object of God’s mercy? Is that the message of the Bible?
     During the MSNBC interview, Michael Phillips was intubated and lying flat on a table. But Michael was very aware of his situation and his surroundings. He participated in the interview. He was very articulate, eloquent in fact. If you had not see him lying in front of you flat on the table and unable to move you would not have known his condition. But there he was. After listening to Michael's story and to the words of his mother, Aril Melber, the host, was close to tears as he asked, "What kind of nation are we?" What kind of people are we? What have we become that we are debating the need for access to adequate, affordable health care?
      What did Jesus mean when he said, "As you do unto the least of these brothers, you do unto me." We tend to focus on the first part of the sentence--doing unto the least of these. But the second part of the sentence is equally important, "you do unto me." Jesus is identifying himself with the least of these—the people who are marginalized, the people who are sinned against, people who are the most vulnerable, people who are the victims of injustice.
     The mission of the church is not limited to charity, sharing our surplus or whatever else we want to call it. The mission of the church is to expose injustice. The mission of the church is to expose the hardness of heart that would make Michael’s health care a subject of national debate in a nation that prides itself on being the richest country in the history of the world.

 What kind of people are we? What kind of nation have we become?

      Following the way of Jesus is about making life changing choices. There are lots of Michael’s in this world and there will be many more to come. We can say that his situation is unfortunate and we are truly sorry for that, but we can’t help everyone who is in need. That’s one option. A second option is to say we will do our best to do what we can for “the least of these,” recognizing our own limited resources and the myriad responsibilities that we each have. Random acts of kindness are much better than random and not so random acts of cruelty. Something is lot better than nothing. A half a loaf is more than no loaf. But there is a third option. As you do to the least of these you do to me. God stands in solidarity with the hungry, the poor, the prisoner, the stranger, the unwelcome and the unwanted, the outcasts and yes, “the least of these” because it is here that community is formed. Here on the margins character is tested and shaped and formed. Here is where we answer the question: What kind of people are we?
      From a faith perspective government is not the “art of compromise.” The purpose of government is the pursuit of the common good.  And, the measure of the economy is the well-being of the people.

What kind of people are we? We are about to find out.

David Phillips Hansen