Friday, August 28, 2009
My niece started working for a youth outreach program in Honduras in 2007. She works with young people living on the streets. The work takes her not only into the streets, but into their homes, schools, rehab programs, prisons. In a recent article she writes about the young people who some have declared a "lost cause." At the end of the article she asks, "no matter how horrific the crime or how corrupt the system, can we afford to believe that there is such a thing as a 'lost cause?'"
I think back to my own experience working with young people in Manhattan in the 60's. We thought we knew the kids and their situations well enough, we could tell you which ones would "make it," and which ones wouldn't. Some seemed so lost in the cycles of poverty, racism and militarism that they would surely die in the rice paddies of Vietnam, at Attica or Rikers Island.
I'm sure there were those who wrote me off as a "lost cause" in my middle class, midwestern community, where I struggled through adolescence. But fortunately for me, there was one teacher in my high school who was not willing to write me off. He saw a gift in me for public speaking I didn't know I had. He nurtured my gift. He gave me the kind of individual attention and encouragement I needed from an adult. And as many of my friends sank lower and lower into self destructive behaviors, this new challenge and rewarding experience of public speaking replaced my acceptance of myself as a "lost cause." It resulted in a first place finish in a national oratory contest. The words of Amazing Grace resonate with me. "I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see."
I've wondered over the years how history might have changed, had some teacher taken Lee Harvey Oswald under his wing, recognizing a gift and nurturing it to fruition. And I continue to have the utmost respect for the tireless (and often tired) teachers and street workers and Boys and Girls Club staff, who work so hard to help the lost get found, who help young people find themselves.
Every day, in so many ways, these dedicated and compassionate people teach us a "lost cause" is not an option. This is nonviolence at its most fundamental, face to face, person to person; seeing and nurturing the divine spark in even the darkest and most violent places.
Friday, August 21, 2009
Some years ago, as a guest rabbi at a Jewish summer camp, I spent time on a Shabbat afternoon with a group of sixteen year old counselors-in-training. They were a crusty, cynical bunch who were not happy about spending what they thought should be free time with some rabbi. Acknowledging their sense of having been done wrong, I promised not to keep them too long. We talked a bit about being counselors and what they would do if faced with a group like them, about the importance of being positive and enthusiastic. I then reached into my pocket and took out a folding magnifying glass on a cord, placing it around my neck. My mother (of blessed memory), an awe-inspired person, almost always carried a magnifying glass around her neck, turning this simple optical instrument into what has come to be for me a ritual object.
Sitting in a circle under some trees on that Shabbat afternoon, I held up the magnifying glass. Their interest piqued, the kids couldn’t tell what it was until I opened it. I then reached into a bag and took out a bunch of magnifying glasses, sending them off in pairs to examine under the glass the little worlds that are all around us. As I walked among them, bent over flowers, down on all fours to look at a spider’s web, noses pressed into the trunk of a tree to examine its bark, over and over again I heard the purest of blessings, “wow!,” “cool!,” “look at that!”. Cynicism had been transformed into amazement.
A sense of awe allows us to feel a sense of place and belonging in the universe, that we are a part of the intricate web of Creation. In our very ability to feel amazement we come to know that our own unique being is at the same time an integral part of something greater than ourselves. Self-knowledge and knowledge of the world begin in the same knowing, in the same seeing. A modern Chassidic teacher, the Slonimer Rebbe, known by the title of his major work, “Paths of Peace,” points out that in Hebrew the letters of yirah/awe are the letters of r’iyah/seeing.
The Torah portion called Re’eh/See begins with the words See! I am setting before you today blessing and curse (Deut. 11:26). The present tense is meant to teach us that every day we can choose to live the way of blessing or of curse, to walk a path of good or ill in the world. Another Chassidic teacher, this one of the nineteenth century, known as the Gerer Rebbe, draws a parallel between the renewal of Creation each day and our own choosing to do good in the world: Every day the Holy One renews the work of Creation and gives to us a new opportunity to choose. Awe and moral behavior are intertwined. Experiencing awe before the beauty of Creation, how can we cause harm to any facet of Creation? So the urgency in the word, Re’eh/See! In God’s renewal of Creation each day is a plea, See My world and don’t destroy!
Shabbat is called a remembrance of Creation, a day to pause and look at the world around us, to truly see, and in the process to transform cynicism into amazement that does not allow for destruction.
Rabbi Victor Reinstein
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
There's a little book titled "Like Grains of Wheat" that jumped off the shelf into my hands this morning. Written by Margaret Swedish and Lee Miller in 1989, it chronicles the lives of martyrs in the struggle for human rights in Central America. Benjamin Linder is one of the martyrs remembered in its pages.
When I saw his story, I remembered Linder's name. Having been to Nicaragua twice with Witness for Peace, and having witnessed up close the death and destruction visited on the innocent by the U.S. supported contras, names of martyrs made an impression on me. But as I read the material, I soon realized I had forgotten his story. It bears repeating.
Benjamin graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1983 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Because of his concern and work for peace, especially in Central America, he felt he had limited work options. He didn't want to work for corporate defense contractors but preferred using his skills in making a positive social contribution. In late 1983, this conviction led him to begin work with the Nicaraguan Energy Institute, helping build small scale hydroelectric projects to bring electricity to isolated rural communities.
He lived with the people of El Cua. Theirs was the first village electrified by his projects. The villagers celebrated all night the first time the lights went on. Linder also helped people celebrate in other ways. He was an accomplished clown, juggled and rode a unicycle. He taught the children all these skills.
On April 28, 1987, Ben and other workers were ambushed by contras as they were working on a project. Ben was wounded by shrapnel from a grenade and then shot in the head at close range. Two Nicaraguan project workers, Pablo Rosales and Sergio Fernandez, were killed as well. Since Ben had expressed a wish to be buried in Nicaragua, he was. The thousands who walked in his funeral procession included several clowns and jugglers.
The title of this little book of remembrances, "Grains of Wheat," comes from the Gospel of John, 12:24. "... unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest."
Sunday, August 16, 2009
Tisha B’Av, the ninth day in the month of Av, has ended. We have come through the day of fasting, of mourning and lament that seems impenetrable, blocking the way of summer’s unfolding. At the end of three weeks characterized by Prophetic readings of warning and reproach, we have come through the time that is called by its mood, the beyn ham’tzarim/between the straits. Caught in the swirl of memory that brings tragedy into focus, images suspended in tearful emulsion, cries echoing in the haunting melody of liturgical chant. And then it is over. We have emerged, not unscathed but whole, encouraged, exhorted to go on, wiser, if but for a time, in the knowledge of resilience. Words of comfort are whispered now, seeds of hope carried on wings of song.
Tisha B’Av recalls tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people. In its dynamics of moving from despair to repair, the day also offers powerful metaphor for all people. It is about the world itself and every person. The central tragedy, starting point of exile and alienation from God and land, self and each other, is the destruction of the temples in Jerusalem. For the rabbis, the Holy Temple that stood on God’s holy mountain represented the entire world. Its destruction was a portent of Creation undone, the world itself in ruins. The root cause of destruction, punishment that comes as natural consequence, was sinat chinam/wanton hatred of one for another. The holy house that was the world in microcosm could not stand for the shattered state of its human foundation.
The world itself is the Temple, its foundation threatened still and again by people divided from each other. In memory there is warning and the possibility of redemption, if we listen. Every person is the world in microcosm, each one a holy sanctuary. So many temples destroyed. The words of the rabbis echo among the ruins, “Whoever destroys a single person, it is as though having destroyed an entire world.” And within every person are all the dynamics of history, each of us with our own days of mourning for pain and loss and dreams denied. We wander at times, yet emerging from the exile of despair.
Planted in the “weeper’s field” where mourners stopped to eulogize is a seed of hope. The Messiah is to be born on Tisha B’Av. In the midst of sorrow we look ahead. So the psalmist sings, “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.” Drawing on the holy Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl teaches, “every person needs to nurture that aspect of the Messiah that inheres within their own soul.” In our own renewal, the world is renewed. The Messiah is born within each of us on Tisha B’Av, redemption stirring even on those days in our own lives that are as Tisha B’Av.
On the evening of Tisha B’Av, the Book of Lamentations is chanted in the synagogue, rising from its own grief and ours to a crescendo of hope, return us to You, God, and we will return; renew our days as of old. The journey to renewal begins. The Shabbat immediately following Tisha B’Av, always the week of Torah portion V’etchanan is called Shabbos Nachamu/Shabbat of Comfort. From the root chanan, “to supplicate, to beseech,” V’etchanan marks the first Shabbat in a seven week period of comfort that brings us home to Rosh Hashannah, the new year, season of return and renewal. Beginning with Shabbos Nachamu, on the Shabbos of each of the seven weeks we chant from the prophet Isaiah. As though words of supplication from God to us, seeking, searching, reaching, there is a welling up of hope, becoming a steady stream of living waters to comfort and soothe, to encourage. The first words of the reading for Shabbos Nachamu (Isaiah 40:1) are addressed to each of us, nachamu, nachamu ami/comfort, comfort My people…. Receivers of comfort, we are also to be givers of comfort. The Messiah is born on Tisha B’Av. Hope is born within each of us, watered with tears, tendrils of comfort bravely rising toward the sunlit path of healing and repair.
Rabbi Victor Reinstein
Thursday, August 13, 2009
One of the most difficult situations I've been in as a clergy person, is consulting with family members as a terminally ill loved one awaits a decision about a medical procedure. Unless there is a living will, or the person has clearly communicated their wishes and expectations, the family decision can be both agonizing and conflictive. Even when the wishes of the ill person are known, the decision can be difficult. As we always hold out hope for miracles for our loved ones, and since we generally want to hold onto them as long as possible, the pressure to do everything imaginable to extend life is enormous. Furthermore, the medical system often encourages our anxiety. Expensive technology and advances in surgical and other techniques beg to be used, even with end of life patients who might prefer to avoid them. Without a patient advocate to say "no," most hospitals will use every option at their disposal to extend care and life, especially if one has the means of paying for it. After all, their business is extending life and they are a business.
On one occasion where I was present, the person who was ill had asked not to be resuscitated. He had it in writing. Nevertheless, when his vitals failed, at the insistence of a frightened family member, he was resuscitated! He lived another four or five months, in misery, in nursing care miles from his home, where his elderly wife found it hard to visit.
On another occasion, a 91 year old woman had asked that there be no medical intervention of any kind in her dying process. She wanted to die in her assisted living apartment. Her family agreed. But unknowing staff at the facility sent her to the hospital at the first sign of a medical problem. It was only with the intervention of hospice that she was returned to her home, where she died happily, in peace and with dignity.
We do violence to our seniors when we don't respect their wishes about their life and death. We do violence to them with our pokes and prods, our tests and treatments, our hauling them here and there, when all they want is some peace and quiet in the presence of those who love them.
In my own experience, both my mother and my father took control of their dying experience, with the consent of family members. My father died at home. My mother died at home. One had the aid of visiting nurses, the other of hospice. Both successfully resisted interventions medical personnel wanted, but they didn't. Both embraced death as a part of life. My mother made it seem like she was going to a grand party, where she would see again all those appearing to her from the other world in the last day before she died.
In the midst of all the shouting and ranting that some call a "health care reform" debate in the U.S., and especially as we confront the distortion of "death panels," one thing seems certain. We would be better off as a people were we to recognize the natural human processes of living and dying. We should (even if Medicare doesn't pay for it) be making decisions with loved ones about wishes for the end of life. And we might work harder to keep from doing violence to those who are dying.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
America the Beautiful! There is more to the beauty of the land then giant visas of the Grand Canyon, or majestic mountains. How about our own roadways? Yes, they can be beautiful. Look closely and you can see native grasses, wild flowers, numerous wildlife, such as the occasional deer, skunk, or raccoon; pheasants, rabbits, juncos in the winter, meadowlarks in the spring, and numerous other birds and animals. Who has been lucky enough to have to stop in the middle of the road to let a flock of pheasant chicks scurry into the roadside grass, or to allow a row of 2-day old baby ducks following their mother across the road to water on the other side? Roadsides provide cover for nests and homes for both bird and animal, hay for domestic use, and access to fences, utility lines, etc.
But what is that I see in the ditches—can it be? Yes, it’s trash. Pop and beer cans, cartons of all sizes, McDonalds wrappers, household garbage, old rags, someone lost their shoe(?), miscellaneous car parts, and the list goes on. Well, guess what? That’s littering—against the law here in South Dakota and subject to a $105 fine if caught plus a substantial burning charge if it’s a cigarette being tossed out the window. If a person is recognized, a license plate number turned in, or something in the garbage that can be traced to the owner, a complaint can be filed with the state’s attorney through the local law enforcement office.
While the state highway department cannot estimate the cost of litter removal, it has to impact the budget. The policing of it, the wages of maintenance people dealing with removal, the bags, the landfill charges, plus administration costs are a drain on their bank accounts. Coffers that are filled by state and local taxes and fees that all of us pay.
Here is how to help keep our public and private lands attractive and useful. Number one—don’t litter! How simple is that. (Hint: A 12-pack pop carton, opened at the end, standing upright makes a great disposable, compact wastebasket in a vehicle.) For cleanup, the state has an Adopt a Highway program where individuals or groups can maintain a portion of a road on a volunteer basis. Contact the nearest state transportation highway office for an application. They ask for trash pickup at least twice a year on a minimum two-mile stretch of road, and they will provide bags, remove filled bags, and install signs naming the group/individual responsible for the cleanup. The county has a similar program. On an individual basis, many of us walk along secondary roads, so we can carry a plastic grocery or garbage bag and pick up “stuff” along the ditches. Cans can be sold at a recycling center; other trash can be thrown in a container and taken to the landfill for a very small, if any, extra expense, or if a person has a driveway garbage pickup service, it will be absorbed in the normal utility charge. State or county maintenance workers will pick up large items. Hunters can pick up spent shells and slip them in a pocket until at home. Hikers and campers can leave no trace of their visit to the environment.
On the positive side, visitors and travelers note that South Dakota is a very clean state in comparison to some other states. A person from Texas visiting South Dakota for the first time, positively gushed about how well maintained, clean and nice our roadways are compared to Texas byways, at least the area where he was from. That makes me proud of my state, and of the people who keep it that way. We do not want or need a venue of trash, and we can all do our part to respect and protect our land to keep South Dakota admirable and all of America beautiful.
Sunday, August 2, 2009
The wedding nearly undid all of us. Too many details. Too much stuff. As the hour approached the management of stuff got in the way of the flow of Spirit as energies and time became more and more involved with where to put food, what to do with gifts, where to seat guests, what to do with the plans for an outdoor ceremony. The skies opened up with hailstones and horizontal rain, booming thunder and heaven to earth lightening bolts right at the time the bride should have been walking down a makeshift aisle in the middle of a mountain meadow. Gowns, shoes, flowers, hotel reservations (subsequently not used but requiring payment anyway), rented arbor, tents, chairs (also unused due to the storm), and OH, the left-overs! Food fatigue took its toll and so much was simply discarded as guests departed the three-day event carrying as much as could be pressed upon them. A sacred time devolved into the management of stuff that filled the space available. A violent violation of Spirit – a trespass upon the soul of a sacred moment.
On arriving back home, I soothed myself and found some “course correction” with some thoughts from The Sabbath by Abraham Heschel: “Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space. As a result, we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face. Time to us is a sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives. Shrinking, therefore, from facing time, we escape for shelter to the things of space. The intentions we are unable to carry out we deposit in things of space; possessions become symbols of our repressions, jubilees of frustrations. But things of space are not fireproof; they only add fuel to the flames. The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.”
A full week post event, I am still reeling with the excess of it all and how it strained relationships and took precedence over what should have been a sacred and joyous celebration of the inauguration of a new family. It seems to me now that the embrace of excess, in whatever form it takes, is a violence against the soul. It creates anxiety where joy should live. It creates sorrow when it fails to bring desired results. It crowds out the possibility of the mystical in favor of the concrete.
Curiously, when the event was least under control during a storm of epic proportions, the chaos of excess began to come into order as the cosmos itself dictated a simplification of all things. The wedding venue shifted to a spacious living room. The guests shifted the furniture out of the way. We all stood around the bride and groom and gasped as a perfect rainbow formed over the distant mountains, gently demanding our attention to the sacred moment at hand. The Holy that resides in Time had the last word.