Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Prayer for Boston City Council

Opening Prayer for Boston City Council Meeting, April 13, 2011

Holy One of Being, Compassionate One Who dwells in the city upon the highest hill, as You look down upon the teeming metropolis of humanity seeing so much strife and sorrow, see also the good and the beautiful, hearing the laughter amid the tears.

At a time when our souls seem worn down, when meanness of spirit threatens to divide us one from another, clouding the vision and the way, plant in our hearts the seeds of courage and compassion, opening our eyes to see what is wrong that we might act to make it right.

Of homes foreclosed upon, dreams turned to dust, hearts needing to be opened to feel the pain of others, there must be a better way than turning people out upon the streets. And on these streets we walk along, how to look into their eyes and Yours, people sleeping on heating ducts before grand buildings of commerce and state, sleeping in parks and under bridges, in shelters if they’re lucky, even children and families without a place to call their own?

Of agencies valiantly striving beneath the staggering load of so many needs of so many people who are hurting in body and soul, the orphan, the widow, the stranger whom You have taught us to help and to love, we are all one, the old and the young, the able and infirm, may we together insure the funds to sustain, even higher taxes if a single life to save. Guide us to the wherewithal to insure summer jobs for young people at risk, and things so basic as cell phones and walkie-talkies and training for youth workers on the streets and in the schools.

A few decibels beneath the sound of the bombs and bullets that tear Your world apart, do you hear the sound of urban gunfire, God, and cry along with us; and do You see the bodies of all the young people strewn upon side walks, fallen in the alleyways and playgrounds, upon the basketball courts, in neighborhood stores, and even on their own front porches and stoops, their parents’ shrieks of horror unable to prevent the carnage, do You see what we see and wonder why, oh why, dear God?

Give us the courage and the will to stem the lethal tide, to change the culture of violence that fills the land, to say no to those who think that guns represent what freedom means and the right to own them the measure of what it is to be an American, the “know-nothings” who hide behind the second amendment untouched by the blood that flows in our streets.

Holy One of Being, Source of courage and compassion, open our eyes to see what is wrong and give us the vision, the will and the way to look beyond and see and pursue the beauty of what might be. Of those who sit on this good council, magnify the vision and the purpose they each bring to this place and to their work, for which we honor them, each one to share the wisdom gleaned from her or his own unique experience of life. Bless them in their deliberations, civil and decent, argument only for the sake of Heaven. Give them the courage and compassion to put human needs before all else in matters of budget and finance, and remind them and us that it is not theirs alone to do, that the task is all of ours.

As rain and sunshine dance in the springtime, a day for one and then the other, each one needed to make the flowers bloom, hand in hand each one of us is also needed to reveal the beauty and the promise of our city’s diversity. At this season of renewal, of Passover and Easter and all the ways of celebration among us, help us God to renew the vision of people in harmony with each other and the earth, that beyond strife and sorrow, the good and the beautiful shall blossom in our city, our country and our world.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Thursday, April 21, 2011

We Can't Say No

We had a birthday party for a friend the other evening. Several of us took her out for dinner and then came to our home for dessert. There was good conversation and lots of laughs until we started talking about the crisis we're witnessing in education. In short, schools in our community, like schools all over the U.S., are taking enormous hits. Short sighted decision makers cut money from education budgets rather than tax those who have the wealth.

This conversation led to a question about the performance of the President of our University. I mentioned that most of what I had seen was positive, but I took exception to his decision to take a position on the Board of Monsanto, where he receives more compensation than he does as the President of the University. Then I made some disparaging comments about Monsanto, increasingly infamous around the world for their aggressive, environmentally destructive and unethical practices.

One of our friends took exception to my comments. He said Monsanto had done great things in advancing agriculture. And as we began to engage the disagreement, with some agreement on various points along the way; his contention came down to "we can't say no." Two of the friends assured me, if there was new knowledge to gain, new ways something might be done, new technologies to develop, new profits to pursue, someone would do it. I was pretty much told to get used to it, to accept it; that's just the way it is.

It reminded me of testifying in the controversy surrounding initial experiments with recombinant DNA. I was one of a few persons who raised questions about the wisdom of using e coli in such experiments, since it was a permanent resident of the human gut. The scientists who wanted to do the experimentation, already developing companies that could profit from the research, assured everyone of the safety and value of the work. I've seen the same "can do" attitude so often in the engineering community. It's always present with nuclear power apologists.

I look to our wisdom traditions for some of the reservoir of insight our forebears have left us. In the Hebrew scriptures, we have the mother of all living and the dust man reaching for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In the Garden of Eden story, it's their downfall. They just can't say no.

It does seem to be a perpetual human problem. We rejoice when an addict is finally able to say no, and turns from drugs and self destructive behavior to contributing to the lives of others. But we have trouble saying no to science, or technology, or those who think they can find this secret or that secret, solve this problem or that problem; but, of course, they admit, there are risks. As the head of Duke Energy said to an interviewer, of course we'll go ahead with our plans to build a new nuclear power plant after the Japanese experience. There are risks in everything. Just crossing the street you take a risk.

Personally, I think there's an enormous difference between my taking a risk crossing the street, and the "Duke" risking the lives and well being of millions, especially without their agreement.

As the evening drew to a close, there was a consensus in our small birthday group, that when you added greed to the pursuit of knowledge and its application, you were in jeopardy.

Perhaps we need to find ways to encourage some self discipline in those who are addicted to profit. It seems they are the ones brandishing the grasping hand; the one that would send all of us out of the Garden, never to return.

Carl Kline

Monsanto Poster from Greenpeace

Friday, April 15, 2011

Violence Fatigue

The current term for the weariness so many of us feel relative to the unremitting and devastating disasters to which we are exposed from day to day is “compassion fatigue.” As I contemplate the human cry from so many corners of the earth and feel the draw on my spiritual energies, I do, indeed, feel a sense of tiredness that does not go away with a good night’s rest. Just under the joys and satisfactions of each day’s unfolding there is a layer of sadness for the state of the world.

A few weeks ago, I attended my 11 year-old granddaughter’s final hockey game of the season. The teams are co-ed. The size of the kids ranges from “squirt” to almost adult height. I love watching my granddaughter on the ice - recalling her first attempts at skating – using a milk crate on the ice in front of her for balance when she was barely old enough to walk. Now, at 5’5”, she is the tallest on her team and a skilled player. The game was fast moving and exciting - - enjoyable. That is, until the first time I saw her get slammed by a member of the opposing team. At first, I justified it by telling myself that a certain amount of roughness is part of the game of hockey. But then a second, and a third, and a fourth “slam” against her by the same young man (also the tallest on his team) seemed excessive and I began to wonder what the referees were getting paid for. There seemed to be an unwarranted amount of aggression being acted out on the ice. The next day my granddaughter was diagnosed with a concussion - and was medically eliminated from the play-offs. Even children’s games are not what they used to be.

As I have reflected on my own responses to watching the aggression on the ice I have been in awe of how primitive my own emotions are when my grandchild is threatened. My inner desire to get out on the ice and show that young man a thing or two was a little alarming. Fortunately the viewing stands are well fortified against just such behavior on the part of excited parents and grandparents!

The news of disastrous events in Japan followed so quickly in the news cycle by the rebellion in Libya - - the political crises throughout that part of the world - - the accompanying grief and violence, depending on the location and circumstances - - all are overwhelming and tend to dull the senses after awhile. It took me awhile to make the association between the violence that both precipitates and accompanies revolution, the natural violence that accompanies dramatic changes in the structure of the planet, the violence that erupts in a kids’ ice hockey game – and a grandmother’s violent inner response to an attack on a loved one. I am ready to call it “violence fatigue.”

As I find myself feeling irritable and weary at the slightest intimation of discord or disharmony or disrespect, I realize how much energy it requires to attend to my own inner violence and to continue to summon up a compassionate, nonviolent response in my daily encounters with people who demonstrate their very short “fuses.”

I find myself more than ready to enter into Shabbat this evening – to find that elusive peace that comes with “getting off the train” for 24 hours – to remember that in the midst of and underneath everything there is an order that guides toward peace and harmony and a gentler, more respectful way of being - - 24 hours of honoring creation and letting it rest as well. 24 hours to regain balance, to recover, to restore my spirit, to rest, to let “violence fatigue” be replaced with energy for life once more.

Vicki Hanjian

Sunday, April 10, 2011

That Despair Not Overwhelm

Twice recently, at two different meetings, an overwhelming sea of despair threatened to rise up within me. As against the tsunami that wreaked such havoc upon Japan, bodies strewn upon the seashore of life’s beginning, how safe the human soul from that tidal wave of despair that would numb and render us speechless? At a meeting of an interfaith clergy group, the focus had been neighborhood violence, meeting with a city street worker, hearing of guns and gangs, of revenge and grief and glimmers of hope, and the cycle starting all over again. As the meeting ended, one person asked for a moment to speak of support for subsidized housing, and then a moment more for another to speak of foreclosures and the economy, and then, connections made, a word about the fired Hyatt workers, and immigration, and budget cuts. An hour later, still around the table in the rectory of a Catholic church in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, from which too many young people have been buried, we looked at our watches and at each other, stupefied. Realizing what had happened, pouring out needs, what about Japan, the Middle East, North Africa, as though in the saying would emerge ways of response. In the end there was silence, and that would be our prayer, despair not to overwhelm, faith deep enough to hold back the tide.

A day later and the list had become longer. At a meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, a time for “good and welfare” before the meeting began, to go around and hear from each one. “Life is good,” I said, “but for the pain that is all around.” Silence hovered among us unbidden, of awkward recognition, the sea rising again. The radiation danger in Japan was greater than assumed, itself, of course, to be assumed. A context now of heightened sensitivity for issues that tear at the Jewish soul, news just heard of the bus stop bombing in Jerusalem, sickness churning yet for the slaughter in Itamar. I could not even say in that moment of sharing midst the silence, of what else I struggled with among our own, of hatred and vilification, the loyalty questioned of those who question and litmus tests proposed if one would have a place at the Jewish communal table.

When despair threatens to overwhelm in the face of life’s tragedies, and words fail before the enormity of what has been and of all there is to do, response begins from within a place of silence. In the Torah portion of the week, the portion called Sh’mini (Leviticus 9-11), Aaron faces the worst tragedy a parent can imagine. His two sons, Nadav and Avihu, are struck dead before him, a day of celebration turned suddenly to a day of mourning. Failing to grasp what was needed in the moment of his brother’s grief, Moses sought to justify and explain. Dignity and resolve are offered in response, va’yidom Aharon/and Aharon was silent. Nothing more needed to be said than was said in Aaron’s silence.

Elie Wiesel speaks of three kinds of silence: the silence of indifference, a screaming silence, and a creative silence. Of the latter silence he says, “you must be responsible not only for the words, but for the white space between the words.” In the very heart of the Torah, there is silence. Not a silence of acquiescence or despair, but the silence of renewal and resolve from which the way of response emerges.

In the face of everything that threatens to overwhelm, we cannot respond to everything at once. Each finding their own focus, called to give of her or his strengths, together we respond to all that tears at our hearts and at the fabric of human connection. From the dignity of creative silence, so too the words will emerge from each of us in response to those who would deny the way of peace and of our responsibility one for another. Let us take a day for envisioning the world as it might be, in the quiet space of the Sabbath, in the quiet space within ourselves. And may our faith be renewed that through us God’s vision of wholeness shall yet be fulfilled.

Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Listen to the Lambs

I love music.

For me, depending on the state of my soul in a given moment, music can be therapy, can be celebration, or balm, or ground, or catalyst, or bridge, or agitator of my spirit, or pure expression of my heart.

Hearing music, I'm more susceptible to inner change than perhaps at any other time: the simple shift of a chord from minor to major at the end of a forlorn chant can be life-transforming. Making music, I feel more like I belong in this world than perhaps at any other time. The music simply takes me away, and by taking me away, it brings me home.

This past Sunday I had the privilege of visiting Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, having been asked to speak at the First United Methodist Church. Packing my bags and heading to the airport, I was physically tired and emotionally spent. I wasn't sure I could gather myself to be fully present to the people I was about to meet and effectively communicate with them.

I needn't have worried.

This church had a choir of maybe thirty voices. Just before I was to speak, that choir stood up and sang "Listen to the Lambs," an arrangement by R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943, pictured left) of an old African-American spiritual. Such music! Such voices! Such power and depth, such tenderness and mercy. From the moment that choir intoned its first note, I was lost, and in losing myself, I found a world.

Dett was Canadian, a descendant of runaway slaves who had escaped North to freedom and then founded the town in which he would be born. He arranged "Listen to the Lambs" (published in 1914) in the early years of the Great Migration, when millions of southern blacks were moving north, away from the brutal violence and enforced poverty of Jim Crow. In "Listen to the Lambs" you can hear their suffering, loss and grief; you can also hear their consolation, trust and hope. The laments, the longings--so particular, yet so universally and utterly human.

As the choir sang, I closed my eyes to listen. And suddenly there were faces everywhere. Faces of homeless men and women I had known while living voluntarily on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, a dozen years ago--those about whom I had come to Michigan to speak. Faces, too, of the workers now demonstrating across this country for their rights and for their dignity. Faces of the victims of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan. Faces of young people agitating for freedom at the risk of their lives across the Middle East and North Africa. Faces of refugees of war, everywhere. And faces of people I love, whom I want to love better.... So many, many faces.

I hid my face in my hands and wept. Nobody could hear me--the choir was in everybody's ears--but I wept so hard that my body was shaking, and the elderly couple sitting in the pew behind me, whom I had met during the passing of the peace, laid gentle hands on my shoulders, letting me know, I suppose, that I wasn't alone.

It doesn't matter what happened next. It doesn't matter what I stood up and said, or tried to say, once that choir was done with its anthem. It doesn't matter what effect I had, or didn't have, on the people who heard me speak.

What does matter is this: Because of the music, I saw the faces of the world. And because of the music, I saw them not through the lens of a camera, or of political calculations, or even of ethical imperatives. I saw them through the eye of the heart. When we behold our fellow human beings--our fellow creatures--this very planet--through the eye of the heart, there can be only healing. Violence is no longer possible. Neither is indifference, which is just violence of another sort.

What faces do you need to see?

I invite you to prepare yourself to see them. When you're ready, play this recording of "Listen to the Lambs," sung in 1955 by the Tuskegee Institute Choir. It's the best recording of Dett's arrangement I can find on the Internet. Turn up the volume on your computer. Let the music enter you, and bring you home.

(Note: If for some reason you can't see the viewer below, click here to visit YouTube and listen to the music.)